BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 05.05.02


2 out of 3 people failed to vote in the local elections. How can the Government persuade people that local councils are really worth voting for?

JOHN HUMPHRYS: The turnout at the local elections may have been higher than people expected, some people anyway but two out of three people still did not bother to vote. The Government's been experimenting with different ways of trying to get more of us to do so. But, as Iain Watson's film showed, local government now has few real powers. So what's the point of voting if you think your local council has very little effect on your life? I've been talking about that to the Local Government Minister, Nick Raynsford, and I asked him whether he accepted that the turnout at the elections had indeed not been very good. NICK RAYNSFORD: No, it's the case that we've had poor and disappointing levels of turnout for some time, but with all the pundits saying we were going to get a very low turnout this time, I am moderately encouraged by the fact that turnout is rising and I am particularly encouraged that in those areas where we did pilots, particularly of postal voting, there was a very significant improvement in turnout. Now, there's evidence there we need to look at carefully, decisions need to be taken about how we can help people to vote, because I do believe that if we act sensibly and use the experience of these pilots, we can make a difference in the future. HUMPHRYS: But maybe it's not so much how you can help people to vote, it's how you can give them an incentive to vote. People don't want to vote, can't be bothered to vote if they think there's no point in it. And the problem is that local authorities do not have enough power, we have a very centralised system of government in this country, much more so than in most other countries. RAYNSFORD: There are two issues on this. The first is that in our White Paper on local government that we published six months ago, we made it clear we want to increase the scope for local authorities, reduce the red tape and the bureaucracy and reduce some central government controls to give greater freedom, particularly to those high performing local authorities. So, there is an agenda here to extend local government powers. But frankly there is no evidence that it is actually to do with the powers of local government, that as against central government, that turnout is reducing. Afterall in the last General Election, there was a very substantial reduction in the turnout for national government, which according to your thesis has too much power. HUMPHRYS: But if you want to give local authorities more power, the way to do it is to enable them to raise more of the money that they spend. At the moment, it's only twenty per cent, now that is very, very low indeed and if central government controls the purse strings, you can understand local authorities saying 'you know what can we do, we can't raise our own money'. RAYNSFORD: There is an issue here and it's the product of the changes which the Conservative Government made after the fiasco of the Poll Tax, when they dramatically increased the amount of central government funding for local government and reduced in parallel the scope for local authorities to raise their own revenue. Now, we are looking at that... HUMPHRYS:'ve had five years to look at it. To do something about it. RAYNSFORD: We've been doing quite a lot to increase central government funding for local authorities, there's been a twenty per cent real terms increase in funding from government to local government over the last five years and we are now having a revenue, which I shall be heading, over the next few months, looking at the balance of funding between central and local government. But, it's also an issue about how you give local government more powers and more scope to do things and that is the key theme of our White Paper and we are carrying forward a very exciting agenda for devolution and for giving more power over a lot of decisions to local government. HUMPHRYS: Come to that in a moment but stay with the funding for a minute. In France it's fifty per cent as opposed to twenty per cent here, is that the direction that you want to go in, you're prepared to go in? RAYNSFORD: We haven't set any... HUMPHRYS:, but do you believe it ought to be much higher than twenty per cent, that's really what I am asking. RAYNSFORD: We certainly think there is a strong case for looking at the balance between the money that's raised centrally and the money that's raised locally and that is the purpose of the committee which I'll be chairing later on this year. HUMPHRYS: And the other thing is then, what they do, what they're allowed to do with that money. At the moment a very large part of it is ring-fenced, it's gone up from four per cent when you came in to power, to fourteen per cent, gone up more than three times. Now, you've said that you will restrict it, whatever that may mean, but that's not what people want, what many people want is that you give them, you cut it back so that you say to the local authorities, this is your money, you spend it the way you want to spend it. RAYNSFORD: There's a very interesting tension here because not unreasonably government and indeed the electorate, quite often want to see money used for specific purposes and that's ultimately why government over the last few years has been saying in certain cases, money needs to be ring-fenced. But, if you take this too far then you produce a position where there is no scope, real scope for local government to take decisions and to use money the way they feel it will have the best effect. What we are now doing, is trying to move back, away from the position we've got into where there has been this increase in ring-fencing, which we acknowledge, to a position where local government has more freedom to decide what are the priorities and to use their resources to get the results that their electorate feel are important. HUMPHRYS: Sir Jeremy Beecham, as you know, the Labour Chairman of Local Government Association, he says 'there is still no sign of it abating at all'. Indeed, he sees it possibly increasing. I mean why can you not say, we will stop doing it, we absolutely stop doing it, gone up more than three times. RAYNSFORD: As I said John, there are reasons why in certain cases, it's a process... HUMPHRYS: So you're not going to do anything about it then... RAYNSFORD: We are, we are, but we are not going to stop entirely, decisions that in certain cases money must be used for objectives that will improve educational standards, that will improve relations between local authorities and the police and therefore improve the effective policing of communities. These are priorities that the public want to see results... HUMPHRYS: But it's you setting the priorities, that's the trouble. If you believe in local government, you say, you decide, you decide on your priorities, you decide how to spend the money, but what you are saying here this morning is: we think this is good for them. If you believe in local government, you let them decide what's good for them. RAYNSFORD: No, what I'm saying this morning is there has to be a balance and the balance is between national priorities, because the public expect government to act on national priorities, but also real discretion for local government to set local priorities and to make a difference. That is the basis of the agreement that we have reached with local government, it was regarded as one of the most exciting things in our White Paper when we said that we would negotiate with local government on the balance between national and local priorities. That's what we are doing through a whole series of programmes, like local public service agreements and in general, local government welcome this as a move in the right direction. HUMPHRYS: Well, you say that, but Trevor Phillips, who is another Labour man, the Labour Leader in the Greater London Assembly, he says you've got to give us the resources and the powers, if you fail, if we fail in local government, then you've got to let us answer to the people. Isn't that right, isn't that the right way to go? RAYNSFORD: Well we are actually doing that, we are increasing very significantly the funds to local government at twenty per cent increase in real terms over the last five years..... HUMPHRYS: But they can't decide how to spend.... RAYNSFORD: .....and we are reducing the number of restrictions on local government and giving greater freedoms and flexibilities, that was all part of our White Paper which was only published six months ago, which we are now putting into effect, we've already abolished a whole series of restrictive measures and consent regimes requiring local government to get approval from the Secretary of State before they can do things, we've got a whole further series of deregulatory measures in train, it is extending freedom and the scope of local authorities to make a difference. HUMPHRYS: Well, you say that, but some people say in fact you're going in the opposite direction. If we look at regional assemblies which has been one of the great promises that you've made, right from your nineteen-ninety-seven manifesto onwards Tony Blair was absolutely sworn to do it, you said you would give people the chance to vote for them. But why should they bother to vote for them if they can see, as they can now see, that they're going have effectively, they're going to have no powers? RAYNSFORD: Well that's not the case, you'll obviously have to wait until the near future when we will be publishing our Regional Government White Paper. But that White Paper will set out a role for regional assemblies and those areas where people want to have it, it will be permissive. There's no question of imposing this, but where people decide that they would benefit from having an elected regional assembly, they will have the opportunity to do so, and I think you'll see when the White Paper comes out that there is a significant and appropriate range of powers available to those regional assemblies. Let me just highlight one of the difficulties. If they were to be given substantial powers over, for example, education, this would be restricting local government's powers. It isn't our view that you should be taking power away... HUMPHRYS: that case. RAYNSFORD: ...well, there's obvious point, because there are areas where regions can make a difference on the issues that need to be dealt with at a regional level on things like planning, economic development, transportation planning... HUMPHRYS: RAYNSFORD: ...I'm not going to go into the details, what I am going to do is to spell out the principle, which the government very strongly believes in, that we should devolve to a local level responsibility for things that are best handled locally, and at a regional level, allow the regions to make a difference. Now if you were to take education away from local authorities and give it to the regions there would be an outcry that we were doing exactly the opposite - we weren't devolving, we were taking power away. HUMPHRYS: And this is one of the many reasons isn't it, why Tony Blair himself doesn't actually want these assemblies to happen at all. And that's why, in the words of Louise Ellman the Bill is going to create the hurdles that Tony Blair hopes will stop them happening, that's the truth of it, isn't it? This is a particularly political issue, Tony Blair doesn't want anything to do with it. John Prescott does, Tony Blair doesn't, Tony Blair usually wins. RAYNSFORD: No this is not the case at all. We would not be publishing a Regional Government White Paper... HUMPHRYS: ...well you have to... BOTH SPEAKING TOGETHER RAYNSFORD: Well we wouldn't be if the Prime Minister was not in support at all of the policy there would be no White Paper. So we are doing this with the full support of the government, but it will be a powerless (sic) package which will involve devolution of powers from central government, and also powers that are currently discharged by quangos and non-elected bodies and not taking power away from local government to benefit the regional assemblies and I think most people who look at this will understand that's a sensible package. HUMPHRYS: Another area where you've come across serious problems, particularly since Thursday, isn't it, the elections on Thursday with the fringe candidates, that, where you saw a monkey becoming the mayor is your ideas for mayors. Are you going off that idea now, because you were going to compel Birmingham and Bradford, for instance, to hold referendums to decide whether they wanted a mayor, you're not going to do that now apparently are you? RAYNSFORD: Well there's no decision taken about Birmingham and Bradford where we made it clear a couple months ago that we wouldn't take a decision pending consideration of the recommendations from the Electoral Commission who have had some very useful suggestions to make about the way in which referendums are conducted and the role of local authorities during those referendums and we felt it was right to consider those before a decision is reached. HUMPHRYS: You were minded to force them to consider holding a referendum? RAYNSFORD: That was the position we spelt out. But we said we wouldn't take any action until we've considered fully the implications of the Electoral Commission proposals. Now in the meantime of course, there have been a number of mayors elected this last week, and there has also been, there has been very little publicity about it, a further series of referendums, five areas held referendums on Friday, three of them decided they wanted to have elected mayor as the head of their local authority so you will see further mayors elected later on this year as a result of those decisions. HUMPHRYS: But sure, let's be clear about Birmingham and Bradford. You are not backing away from your view that they must hold referendums? RAYNSFORD: There's no decision taken. We've made it clear that this was a matter we would put on hold... HUMPHRYS: ...backing away from it? RAYNSFORD:, we, we've not taken a decision and we will reach a conclusion in good time. HUMPHRYS: There is a worry about directly elected mayors though isn't there? I mean we saw it. As I say, we saw it on Thursday. And it isn't just monkeys being or, people who wear monkey suits being elected, or robocops or anything, it does give the BNP another chance to establish footholds in local authorities. Is that something that bothers you? RAYNSFORD: No, I think this is a bit of spin that has been put on the mayoral elections which is not justified. If you look at the results on Thursday night, the BNP made no impact at all on those areas where there were mayoral elections. The area where they made progress in Burnley, there was no question of a mayor, it was a traditional council election... HUMPHRYS: ...the idea Burnley couldn't they? They could perfectly well do that, get a few people to petition for a mayor in Burnley and then they could enter that race, obviously. RAYNSFORD: Well they could, but the evidence of the overall turnout, the overall level of voting across Burnley as a whole, suggests that there was no, there would be no chance of them winning and it would be important that all the mainstream democratic parties come together to prevent any such outcome. But the suggestion that somehow this is opening the way to the BNP seems to me to be a wholly false analysis. HUMPHRYS: As far as the BNP is concerned there's this new code of conduct for councillors now. Might it mean that BNP councillors could be banned from taking part in council votes on certain issues, where they might be deemed not to be impartial, where they might be deemed to have their own agenda?. RAYNSFORD The code sets out certain very important principles, that all councillors must subscribe to. Those include treating all people, all constituents in an equal and fair way. Now if the BNP candidates, councillors, were to openly and clearly give preference to one particular group of constituents to say that they wouldn't look after the interests of all their constituents whatever their background or their race, then potentially they could be in breach of this code. And that of course would be a very serious matter. HUMPHRYS: And there's no question that of course they do not regard all of their constituents as equal because, some, depending on their colour are more equal than others, so this could be a problem couldn't it. And the worry that some of your own people still .......the Whip has is this could play into the BNP's hands. I mean if they were to be banned from taking part in a particular vote for whatever reason, whether it was on schools or housing or whatever they could present themselves as martyrs. RAYNSFORD: I think the point that Phil makes I wholly subscribe to and it was part of my own analysis eight years ago when tackling the problem of the BNP candidate who was elected in Millwall in London. We knew that we had to address the serious issues, concerns that the people of Millwall had, and there are serious concerns the people in Burnley and elsewhere have about the problems of education, about poverty, about unemployment, poor housing. Those concerns are legitimate concerns which must be addressed and it's right that all serious political parties should be doing that. But there's also a question about probity and integrity in public life and we have this code of conduct for good reasons. We expect councillors to behave in a responsible way and to look after the interests of all their constituents and it would be quite wrong to say that somehow the BNP because they have espoused openly racist views should be exempt from the requirements of that code. HUMPHRYS: It could end up being banned......... it's possible. RAYNSFORD: It is possible but it is entirely up to them as to how they behave. If they behave in a way that discriminates unfairly and unreasonably against any individual people in the area they represent, then that would be their own decision and they will have to answer for it. HUMPHRYS: Nick Raynsford, thanks very much indeed. RAYNSFORD: Thank you. HUMPHRYS: I was talking to Mr Raynsford a little earlier this morning.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.