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Overview/Scrutiny Committees

Volume 454: debated on Tuesday 12 December 2006

15. What recent discussions she has had with local authorities on the role of overview and scrutiny committees; and if she will make a statement. (108117)

16. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of overview and scrutiny committees in holding local authorities to account. (108118)

Prior to the local government White Paper, Ministers and officials had extensive discussions, including on overview and scrutiny, with local authorities and others. We are extending councillors’ scrutiny role so that they can more effectively hold to account those who provide public services to their communities.

I am pleased about the importance that my right hon. Friend attaches to scrutiny of matters internal and external to the council. Does she agree that there are many good examples of scrutiny in local authorities, some of which model their role on that of Westminster Select Committees? In other authorities, however, scrutiny is too lowly graded. It is not properly resourced, councillors are not properly trained, and in many cases the officers being scrutinised manage the officers who give advice to the scrutiny committees. Does she accept that there is a role for her Department and the Local Government Association to play together in disseminating examples of good practice and trying to pull the poorest performing authorities up to the levels of the best?

I agree with my hon. Friend. There are some fantastic examples of local councillors coming together and challenging the council and others in their local area, thereby raising the quality of scrutiny and ultimately of local public services. That depends partly on genuine interest from members and partly on the authority’s willingness to respond. Committees that are independently resourced can be very effective in ensuring high-quality scrutiny. We want to work with the LGA to ensure that best practice in our best councils is spread right across the country.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will be interested to know that on some occasions I have given evidence to scrutiny committees of my local authority, particularly on matters such as licensing and use of disorder zones. Just as when we serve on Select Committees we have good back-up from the teams that support us, scrutiny committees must, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) said, have the necessary resources to do their work. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that in the context of the White Paper she will consider how professional resources can be better supported in local government?

I certainly give my hon. Friend that commitment. As we move forward, we want to shift responsibility for target setting and scrutinising proposals from central Government to local government. That will free resources that are currently spent on looking upwards, filling in forms and central bureaucracy, thus allowing local overview and scrutiny decisions to be made at the right level. I hope that the money that will be saved through the complete change of one performance regime can be put into supporting overview and scrutiny committees to do an even better job than they do at the moment.

I bring news from Northamptonshire, where scrutiny is in good heart but under great pressure. It is under particular pressure because of the poor revenue support grants that we have had in the past few years. Given the Secretary of State’s remarks, will she give me encouragement by telling me how much money she intends to give my county to ensure that separate scrutiny support can exist, as she just advised?

I send my greetings to Northamptonshire and I am pleased that it has such excellent overview and scrutiny committees. Of course independent resourcing of scrutiny committees can make committees work better and raise the quality of local decision making. However, I am trying to move away from central prescription to allow local authorities to make the decisions that are right for them. I do not want to replace with one hand what I take away with the other. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with that sentiment.

Will the Secretary of State expand on the effectiveness of overview and scrutiny committees when calling in decisions by bodies such as primary care trusts, if they have to consider decisions such as that made by Devon PCT yesterday to close community hospital beds and reduce the hours for magnetic resonance imaging units without consulting anyone?

Overview and scrutiny committees can be incredibly effective. Indeed, 60 per cent. of executive councillors said that they had a policy decision changed because of overview and scrutiny. I do not know the details of the case that the hon. Gentleman cites, but it would be appropriate for local councillors and people to get involved and use overview and scrutiny committees to review decisions about local hospital reconfiguration or changes, raise the quality of debate, take evidence from different sources and make recommendations. I would expect that to happen in many places throughout the country.

May I inform my right hon. Friend of an example of bad practice by the overview and scrutiny committee in the London borough of Wandsworth? Often, it simply rubber-stamps decisions made behind closed doors. What carrots and/or sticks will the new Bill contain to ensure that boroughs such as Wandsworth follow best rather than bad practice for overview and scrutiny committees?

I completely sympathise with my hon. Friend’s predicament in Wandsworth. Of course, when local councillors are involved in actively scrutinising decisions on behalf of local people, those local people can have their voices heard and ultimately help shape services. In the coming months, we will work with local authorities and others, including my hon. Friend, if he has an interest, to draw up guidance that local authorities can use if they wish to ensure that decisions are made in the best possible way.

Might not the Secretary of State’s time be better spent in reading some of the many reports of overview and scrutiny committees about councils’ No. 1 problem—care of the elderly? The reports were summed up in a letter, which was published in The Guardian last week, from 45 leaders of authorities of all political persuasions. It said that services for the elderly were “teetering on the brink”. That is made worse by Labour cuts to the national health service. Instead of treating local government like her personal Lego set, will the Secretary of State tell hon. Members whether the Government have a plan to deal with the crisis, or is she content to abandon the elderly to the indignity of poor service and neglect?

The hon. Gentleman may like playing with Lego; I do not. I draw his attention to our investment, year in, year out, in local public services. The quality of public services is increasing, as is satisfaction—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) has a privilege in getting to the Dispatch Box and questioning the Secretary of State. He must listen to her reply.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Not only has real-terms funding for local services increased by almost 40 per cent. since 1997, following yearly cuts in investment in public services, but our commitment to social care cannot be questioned either, as we are investing in that as well. Rather than mouthing comments from a sedentary position, the hon. Gentleman should get real, look at the funding that has gone into local government and say whether or not he would match it.