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: ..you'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: ..no, but do you believe
it ought to be much higher than twenty per cent, that's really what I am
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: ....in 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...
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
RAYNSFORD: ...no, 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
HUMPHRYS: ...the idea .....in 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.