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Independence for Scotland…and local government?

Independence for Scotland…and local government?

🕔05.Sep 2014

As the Local Government Independence Bill comes before the Commons, Chris Game from the University of Birmingham is on his way to the bookies to see just how long the odds are….

I know Scotland’s possible independence is historic.  But, for us Anglos, should a mere referendum so completely eclipse our own Local Government (Independence) Bill, due to get its House of Commons Second Reading this very day?  I mean, local government independence would be a pretty big deal too, wouldn’t it?

It certainly would, but, as with most things, if you really want to know what’s likely to happen, you check the bookies’ odds.  On a Scottish Yes vote you could get 11/4, and 66/1 on UKIP winning the General Election.  On local government independence the giggling bookie would probably let you name your own odds.

That’s not to say, though, that today’s events in Westminster aren’t important.  They are, but you need first to understand the curious ways they do things down there.

The LG(I) Bill, not surprisingly when you hear its content, is not a Government Bill, but a Private Members’ Bill, which limits its prospects for a start.

Moreover, this isn’t a so-called Ballot Bill, introduced by one of the 20 lucky MPs whose names were drawn in the annual backbenchers’ ballot, and whose chosen Bills stand the best chance of eventually becoming law.

Birmingham Yardley MP, John Hemming, has one of those, due for its Second Reading on 17 October.  He came 16th in the June ballot, and his Transparency and Accountability Bill introduces several mainly technical changes in the field of family courts and children’s welfare, one of his specialist interests. Optimist that he is, he will have hopes of it progressing further in the present Parliament.

Graham Allen, Labour MP for Nottingham North and sponsor of the LG(I) Bill, is also an optimist.  His hopes, though, are both less and more ambitious.

He was not one of the lucky 20 and on the Order of Business for what is already a curtailed and untimetabled parliamentary day, his Bill is listed behind four Ballot Bills.

It’s conceivable, therefore, that it won’t even be reached (*see Ed footer note).  But in this case, though disappointing, it would represent at worst only the end of the beginning.  In Allen’s epic constitutional reform agenda, the most immediate objective has already been achieved.

The Bill exists, it’s in the parliamentary machine, and Allen can proceed with his next stage of trying to convince all three main parties to include a pledge in their manifestos to support such a Bill, maybe amended and even diluted, after next May’s election.

It’s maybe not quite as quixotic as it sounds, because Allen isn’t just a Private Member.  He’s also the extremely active Chair of the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, whose major project throughout the present Parliament has been to explore the case for and against the UK having, like virtually every other country in the world, a formally codified constitution.

With, I suppose, a forgivable and topical gesture, this project has been entitled ‘A New Magna Carta?’ and its main product to date – a 400-page report, compiled in collaboration with King’s College, London – was published in July and put out to public consultation.

The committee takes no views on the desirability of codifying the current heap of common law, Acts of Parliament, European treaties and unwritten conventions into a clearer, more balanced and democratic set of constitutional arrangements.  That’s for us to say through the consultation process.

Rather, the report presents three blueprints of how codification could be approached.  Easiest, but probably least worthwhile, would be a Constitutional Code, setting out basic elements of the constitution and the workings of government, which would be approved by Parliament, but would lack any statutory authority and enforceability.

Second, a Constitutional Consolidation Act could bring together all existing constitutional laws, practices and conventions.  Useful again, especially for lawyers, but by definition hardly democratically creative.

Third, and set out in full in the report, would be a completely new written constitution: a document of basic law by which the UK, with or without Scotland, would be governed.

‘Principles of local government’ get just one chapter (No. 35) out of 53, but it is these principles that comprise Graham Allen’s LG(I) Bill.  So, while it’s a genuine Private Members’ Bill, its proposed statutory Local Government Independence Code derives directly from the model written constitution at the heart of his Constitutional Reform Committee’s work.

In severe summary, the Bill’s purpose is to declare local and central government equal to and independent of each other, to separate their finances, to regulate the local-central relationship through a statutory code, and to set out procedures restricting any future parliamentary amendment or repeal of the code.

Many of the Bill’s provisions may sound fairly unremarkable.  Local authorities’ accountability, the code would assert, is to their electorates, not to Whitehall.  Local authorities are autonomous, democratically-elected bodies which independently decide upon, administer and regulate public affairs and deal with all matters of concern within their boundaries that are not the statutory responsibility of another body.

A local authority’s geographical boundary can be altered only by a proposal from the authority itself or from its electorate.

These things would indeed be unremarkable in most countries, with less centrally controlled systems of local government.  In our system, concepts like local and territorial autonomy, operational independence, and ‘all matters of concern’ are enough to seize ministers and civil servants with a collective attack of the vapours.

And that’s before we get near to the real biggie: ‘local government financial integrity’.  Local authorities, the code would declare, shall be financially independent of central government, which may not place any restriction on decisions by local authorities about the exercise of their financial powers.

Each local authority shall receive from central government an agreed and guaranteed share of the annual yield of income tax.

Local authorities may raise additional sources of income in their areas in any way they wish, and with the consent of their electorates as expressed through arrangements determined by the local authority concerned. Central government shall not cap, or otherwise limit, local authorities’ taxation powers.

All that and more is in the first of nine Schedules. It is the most substantive – though possibly not the most radical.

If ministers are in any state to read on, they’ll come to the hurdles facing them or their successors, should they seek to amend or repeal the code: a minimum ‘super-affirmative’ requirement of unanimous approval by each parliamentary House, or by a two-thirds majority of the total membership of each House.

If there is time for a debate on the Bill this afternoon, and were a nominated junior minister required to respond – as happens in an Adjournment debate – I think it’s reasonably predictable how that response might go.

The minister would start by complimenting the Bill’s localist aims – very much in line with those of this Government – and the hard work of Allen and his parliamentary colleagues.

Then would come the rehearsal of the Coalition’s decentralising record: the new community rights in the Localism Act, community budgets, business rates retention, localisation of council tax support and city deals.

Now the patronising but oh-so-reasonable rhetorical questions. Aren’t these practical and genuinely localist policies more immediately useful both to real, hard-working families and to councils themselves than your ultimately rather abstract and long-term theorising about codes and constitutions?

Can the solution to the imbalance of power really be found in a single piece of legislation, especially one for which, as shown only last week in a certain blogpost for something called the Chamberlain Files, there’s little evidence of much public enthusiasm?  We will of course, though, follow your public consultations most closely would continue the minister.

Finally, there would be the helpful warning.  There are a couple of proposals, the minister would advise, that the Honourable Member’s colleagues on all sides of the House will find particularly difficult to accept.

This independence code of yours would overturn two absolutely fundamental constitutional principles: Parliament’s right to determine the country’s level of taxation, and its sovereign right to change or repeal any previous legislation.

To which, were he invited to give one, Graham Allen’s cordial response could surely only be: Yes indeed, Minister.

*Editor’s Note: The Bill didn’t make it to Second Reading today, not least as the Parliamentary focus was on the Bedroom Tax (or at least the Affordable Homes Bill) so it will need to wait for the next available sitting Friday. 

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