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Monday, March 05, 2012

Praying for Welsh Local Government

This morning's Western Mail reports on the debate on local government at this weekend's Welsh Liberal Democrat conference, but both the reporter and the Welsh Government spokesperson who responded to it have spectacularly missed the point.

The paper says that we have condemned the Labour Government in the Assembly for not ensuring that councils in Wales will have the same right to hold prayers at meetings as those in England. The spokesperson for the local Government Minister believes that we are not concentrating on the real issues.

They are quoted as saying: “With record unemployment, huge cuts to funding for English local authorities, cuts to vital public services and the abolition of council tax benefit, one really has to wonder if this is the most urgent matter crossing Eric Pickles desk. Carl Sargeant has no problem in councillors gathering before a council meeting to hold prayers, if they choose to do so."

I have no argument with that view. The problem though is that the inability to hold prayers is the symptom of a wider issue and that is the point we were seeking to make.

In England Councils now have a power of general competence. That means that they can do anything that a person can do which is not illegal. Yes, it means that they can hold prayers before a meeting, but more importantly it means that they can exercise a number of other functions more flexibly that enable them to deal with the local economy, get the best value from local services and help the poorest people in our society.

If that is not an urgent matter for Carl Sargeant then I do not know what is. The fact is that Wales has refused to follow England in this matter partly because they do not appear to understand the significance of the power of general competence, but also that when it comes down to it, Ministers do not want to see any diminution of their own power to interfere in local decision making.
Section 111 of the 1972 Local Government Act reads as follows:

"a local authority shall have power to do any thing (whether or not involving the expenditure borrowing or lending of money or the acquisition or disposal of any property or rights) which is calculated to facilitate or is conducive or incidental to the discharge of any of their functions."

That gives councils sweeping powers, powers which we have seen abused recently in Carmarthenshire, for example.

Worrying to hear a Liberal of all people suggesting that this kind of sweeping power is not enough - in most Western democracies such clauses would be considered unconstitutional and too widely drawn.
It isn't enough as it is not a power of general competence. Local accountability and empowerment is a liberal principle so I am not sure what else you would expect me to say.
Surely if there are areas in which local government should be given more powers - housing, the environment, education, etc., then the thing to do is to target those areas and give them defined extra powers.

Some of our existing town hall dictators are already too big for their boots without saying "you can do what you like provided it's legal".

I must also admit that I was shocked to see a party which has a long tradition of secularism standing up for the "right" to say prayers at council meetings.
Are you confusing us with another party? After all the Welsh Liberal Democrats have a strong nonconformist tradition. In this case though we are promoting freedom of choice because that is the essence of Liberalism. We do not believe in restricting people's freedoms. As for town hall dictators. These are elected officials and as such subject to the ballot box. Undermining local democracy because it does not produce the outcome you want is not the action of a democrat or a Liberal. Giving full competence to locally elected politicians whilst making the voting system more representative is.
The prayer issue can be debated endlessly, but what does bother me, Peter, is the naive view you seem to have of councils. Empowering communities sounds very good, but the reality of the system we have means that most of the power in councils is in the hands of a tiny elite, dominated by unelected chief executive officers. If you were talking about a radical overhaul of the system to make it more democratic, transparent and accountable, that would be great. But the reality of what you are proposing would just mean more power to chief executives.
What bothers me is yor apparent lack of faith in democracy. Yes, there are some bad Councils and some bad politicians but that does not mean we scrap the whole democratic system. We reform them.
And if you follow what I am saying I am advocating a major overhaul of Councils and the way they are elected.
Surely you must be aware that the right of councillors to say prayers at meetings is not, and has never been in dispute. The current 'debate' in England concerns a court ruling that means a council cannot put prayers in its formal agenda and thereby making them compulsory for all members. No one has objected to religious councillors getting together and praying ahead of meetings.

What you and Pickles are arguing for is not the 'right' of councils to say prayers but that they should have the power to compel members to say prayers against their will.
I am making no such argument. I dont care if they say prayers or not. In fact I would prefer it if they didnt.

My point is that this issue is not about prayers at all but the issue of general competence so that councils can make a much bigger difference locally.
Like other readers of your blog, I am genuinely interested in the debate about local government. I have found an article you wrote recently criticising the red tape which, you say, is unnecessarily imposed on Welsh councils, although you do not go into specifics. Could you point me and other readers to where you argue for a radical overhaul of local democracy and how councils are elected?


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