My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
House in Committee accordingly.
[The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES in the Chair.]
Clause 89 [Constitution of new parish]:
[Amendments Nos. 204CC to 204CE not moved.]
204CF: Clause 89, page 59, line 12, leave out subsection (7)
The noble Lord said: We start again. Amendment No. 204CF refers to the part of the Bill that is about parish reviews, the constitution of new parishes, existing parishes under review, and so on. The first amendments in the group are fairly minor, but they nevertheless will be of interest to people involved in their local parishes.
Amendment No. 204CF challenges the suggestion in Clause 89 that a review must make recommendations in relation to new styles. Members of the Committee will remember from our debates last week that the new styles will make it possible for a parish council to be called a community council, neighbourhood council or village council instead of a parish council. It is not clear to me why a review that is about the existence of parishes, the areas that they cover, the grouping of parishes and the possible abolition of parishes should make recommendations about the styles. Surely, that should be left to the individual parishes once they are set up to make their own decisions. If we believe in devolution, that is the kind of decision that should rest at parish level; and for all existing parishes it will be taken at parish level. It is not at all clear why a new style should be imposed on a parish by the district council as part of a review.
Amendment No. 204CG is about a parish name change, and Amendment No. 204CH is about whether there should be a parish council. Again, it is not clear why those have to be the subject of recommendations in the parish review, but they clearly may be, and they may be an important part of the parish review. If there are no proposals for new councils as part of that review, and it is simply a matter of boundaries, and if there are no proposals for a parish name change, it is not clear why the review should waste everyone’s time in considering it and possibly stirring up arguments where otherwise they would not exist.
Amendments Nos. 204CQ and 204CR are slightly more substantive. They are about the criteria that a parish review must take into consideration in deciding whether the parish should be divided into wards—in other words, have more than one electoral area—or whether it should be elected as a whole, as many smaller parishes are. At page 62 of the Bill, a number of criteria are set out that must be considered. They relate, for instance, to the number and distribution of local government electors for the parish; whether community links make it desirable that that part of the parish should be separately represented; the size and boundaries of the wards and the number of councillors to be elected; the number of local government electors and likely changes to that; and easily identifiable boundaries and local ties.
In Amendment No. 204CQ, I propose that in each case an additional criterion should be whether the parish is divided into wards for elections to a principal council. In most cases, that would be the district council. Some parishes might be big enough to have two or three district council wards, or perhaps even more, and it is an important criterion in deciding whether the parish should be divided. In the interest of convenience and people understanding the local electoral system, it is sensible that parish wards should, where possible, be based on district council wards. It may be that in some cases the district council ward is big and may form two parish wards. However, that does not alter the principle that it would not be sensible for a parish divided into district council wards to ignore those divisions and to have different wards or to elect at large. That important consideration should be included in the Bill.
Amendment No. 204CS relates to the circumstances in which a district council can ignore the review. I am not sure that this is the right place for this amendment and I probably should have taken out some earlier words. Its purpose is simply to probe the circumstances in which a district council, having conducted a parish review, can ignore it. The implication would be that if a parish review was taking place, the district was going to carry it out. Would the district simply be able to ignore it or make changes in any way that it wanted? Would the district have to give reasons and what would those reasons be?
Amendment No. 204CV, the last in the group, is to probe the statement of intent on how restrictive the Electoral Commission advice on parish reviews, ward boundaries and the number of parish councillors should be. Is it intended that this will be done on some sort of sliding scale, whereby if there were a population of so and so, there would be so many councillors, and so on? Or will there be reasonable flexibility and scope for local choice? For example, a parish with 5,000 electors might want considerably more councillors if it consisted of a number of villages in a far-flung rural area—or even a far-flung rural area without villages—than if it was a compact town. Will there be adequate scope for local choice? How restricted is it intended that the Electoral Commission advice should be? I beg to move
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for the manner in which he has spoken to these amendments and I hope that I can allay his concern that we have moved away from the concept of devolution in this part of the Bill, which we most certainly have not.
This group of amendments deals with a number of points related to community governance reviews. I shall deal with each amendment individually. First, on Amendment No. 204CF, when a principal council makes a reorganisation order under Clause 88, it may also provide for any new parish to have an alternative style. The amendment would prevent principal councils making this recommendation, and the noble Lord set out reasons why he felt it necessary to table the amendment. A community governance review that recommends the creation of a new parish needs to make an initial recommendation as to the style of that parish. This is simply because, until the parish is actually created, there is no parish council or parish meeting to make that decision. That recommendation is very much a technical step in the process of creating the parish and does not take away the autonomy of the parish in deciding its style.
At all other times, after a new parish is created, it will be for the parish council or the parish meeting to decide whether it wishes to adopt a different style. Therefore, once the parish council or parish meeting is created, it will be able to decide to adopt a different style immediately, if it so desires. I hope that the noble Lord will be satisfied with that explanation and that he will feel able to withdraw Amendment No. 204CF.
We believe that Amendments Nos. 204CG and 204CH are simply not required. In relation to Amendment No. 204CG, the Bill currently states that the council must make a recommendation,
“as to whether or not the name of the parish should be changed”.
Amendment No. 204CH relates to the same drafting of the question as to whether an existing parish is to have a parish council. The amendment seeks to change that so that the council “may” make such a recommendation but is not required to do so. We do not believe that these amendments add anything to the Bill. If the council decides that no change to the parish name is required, it will simply make such a recommendation under the Bill. Equally, if the council decides that a parish with a council should retain that council, it will make that recommendation under the Bill. Surely it is preferable that those interested in the review are aware that a decision has been reached on any relevant issue so that they can, for example, retain the existing name rather than not address the issue in the review or the recommendations, as the amendment would allow.
Amendment No. 204CS is a probing amendment, which, again, we do not believe is required. I shall set out how Clause 98 details the steps that a principal council must take to publicise the outcome of any review of community governance that it has conducted. Subsections (1), (2) and (3) require the principal council to notify those who may have an interest or who have already shown an interest in the review or the outcome of the review. The council must also inform such interested parties of how, if at all, it intends to implement its decisions on the review. If the council makes an order implementing the results of its review, it will be required to take other steps. Subsection (4) simply makes it clear that these steps are not required when an order is not made: you do not need to publicise implementation if you are not making a decision to implement. Indeed, it will be impossible for the steps to be followed as they will all be dependent on an order being deposited, being made available for inspection and being sent to other bodies.
In relation to Amendment No. 204CV, it is important that guidance is issued to assist local authorities when conducting community governance reviews. Some authorities do not have recent experience of conducting these reviews. Issuing guidance will ensure that there will be some basic framework within which local authorities can carry out reviews for their area, and a combination of the legislation and guidance will provide that framework.
Obviously, it is more appropriate for the Electoral Commission than the Secretary of State to issue guidance on electoral arrangements. However, it is currently our intention that this guidance will be combined with guidance issued by the Secretary of State on non-electoral matters. I hope that that meets the noble Lord’s concerns about the extent of the Electoral Commission’s role.
Finally, Amendments Nos. 204CQ and 204CR would require principal councils to consider their electoral areas, district wards and county divisions when deciding whether the parish should be divided into wards. If the amendments were accepted and a principal council decided to divide a parish into wards, it would have to have regard to the boundaries of the electoral areas when setting parish ward boundaries. We believe that it is questionable whether the amendment is needed, as we would expect local authorities to have regard to district, ward and county division boundaries. However, we will happily take that away for further consideration. We will look again at Amendments Nos. 204CQ and 204CR and seek the views of the Electoral Commission on them. Therefore, in view of that undertaking, we request that the noble Lord does not press this group of amendments.
I am very grateful for a great deal of what the Minister has said, some of which is very useful clarification. I am grateful for her willingness to look again at Amendments Nos. 204CQ and 204CR, which are about the importance of having regard to the existing electoral boundaries. One can always say that people will do something because it is common sense or because one would expect them to do it, and although various criteria are set out in the Bill, the existing district electoral boundaries seem to me to be of at least equal importance to those in the Bill. That is the argument for putting them in. If they are not in the Bill and there is a debate about which should prevail—as there often is with electoral boundaries—they might be thought to be less important. I am grateful for that and I hope that the Electoral Commission might give some sensible advice.
It is fairly clear that if the district council sets up a parish review, or if one is set up in response to a parish petition, which is the circumstance in which there is more likely to be a conflict, then having carried it out, the district council could simply vote to ignore it and do nothing. Perhaps that matter should be resolved electorally and politically at a local level. However, we must be clear that that is possible and that in some circumstances it will probably happen—most things that are possible eventually happen somewhere or other at some time—and will cause problems. I do not suggest that the Secretary of State should, at this stage, gallop in and resolve the matter because it is probably one for local determination. I am grateful to the Minister and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 89 agreed to.
Clause 90 [Existing parishes under review]:
[Amendments Nos. 204CG and 204CH not moved.]
Clause 90 agreed to.
Clauses 91 to 94 agreed to.
Clause 95 [Duties when undertaking a review]:
204CJ: Clause 95, page 61, line 15, leave out subsection (5)
The noble Lord said: This amendment probes an important matter on parish reviews, which is the provision in Clause 95(5):
“In deciding what recommendations to make”,
in the parish review,
“the principal council must take into account any other arrangements (apart from those relating to parishes and their institutions)—
(a) that have already been made, or
(b) that could be made,
for the purposes of community representation or community engagement in respect of the area under review”.
This was discussed to some extent when we were talking about London. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, suggested that London did not want parishes and did not need them. An argument put forward was that there are lots of other neighbourhood, community and even, occasionally, village organisations which do that job perfectly well.
This is an interesting matter, and I ask the Government what it will mean in practice. I refer to the helpful document that the Minister sent round to us all, the statement of intent on statutory guidance. It suggests that,
“it may be helpful for the guidance to provide some advice on this issue in relation to community governance reviews, particularly where other arrangements already exist (eg; local residents’ associations, community or neighbourhood forums, area committees), or where these bodies could be considered as viable alternatives to parish council/meeting. Such bodies are outside the scope of the Bill provisions but nevertheless could be taken into consideration by principal councils in undertaking community governance reviews”.
I have no objection to that as an overall strategy on parishes. One problem of everything that gets done nowadays is that, in some areas at least, people suffer from consultation and participation overload. As a result, it is not done as effectively as it should be. I could provide some examples, which I will not, from my own backyard. Year after year, people are asked by different people in different organisations about the same things and give the same answers when they actually want some solutions and answers to those things, not more surveys. This is also true if there is a proliferation of organisations trying to compete with each other for participation in the community. It is a sensible thing to be looked at.
I am really asking how top-heavy the statutory guidance will be. Again, it seems that once you have looked at what is on the ground and whether you want new parish councils or not—or whether you ought to abolish them—it ought to be up to people in the area to work out their own arrangements. It does not seem to be in any way suitable for detailed rules and regulations. That will just cause problems. The barrack-room lawyers in the community, and perhaps on the council, will have a field day analysing the statutory guidance and saying yes and all the rest of it. We want an absolutely light touch here—perhaps just a statement of intent that this must be looked at and considered, but certainly no detailed rules, regulations and statutory guidance. I look forward to the Minister’s response to those genuine concerns and beg to move.
My noble friend has raised an extremely important point. What he did not refer to, but which I would like to add in to the mix of questions, is what is meant by community representation and engagement. Some people might say that the whole of London is a community. Others might say that a community is those within walking distance of a particular supermarket. Others might say, “You support Chelsea, I support West Ham: we are in different communities”. There are many types of community. The guidance ought to make it quite clear that what local people think of as their variety of communities, not just one community, is for local consideration. Certainly, guidance should not attempt to define the term in the way drawn attention to by my noble friend.
Again, I thank noble Lords for their contributions. As the Committee will know, we are developing the guidance with a group of stakeholders. They will be taking great notice of this afternoon’s discussion in Committee. As both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness have said, we want this to be as flexible, light and user-friendly as possible, ensuring that we still have the practical outcomes we are looking for. The guidance is being developed and note will be taken of this discussion.
We think it is highly desirable that principal councils should consider the wider picture of community governance in undertaking their reviews. Clause 95(5) makes such considerations a requirement, and Amendment No. 204CJ removes that requirement. If the amendment were to be agreed—I understand that it is probing—it would be to the detriment of the overall schemes that we are now considering for establishing community governance. We wish people everywhere, including in London, to have the chance to argue in favour of parish councils. If those arguments carry the day during a community governance review, they should get the results they desire. However, in some areas, particularly urban areas, there may be good reasons why establishing a parish could be unwise. If in good faith a local authority concludes that it cannot sensibly define areas in which elected parish councils, with all their attendant powers and duties, would reflect the identities and interests of the community and provide effective and convenient community governance, as required in Clause 95(4), it should not create parishes there, and indeed we would not want it to.
On the other hand, we wish to make sure that communities are as cohesive and engaged as possible and that people have as much influence over what happens in their neighbourhood as possible. Many local authorities have introduced innovative mechanisms to achieve that. For example, there are area forums in many places, and many communities have their own initiatives and have established powerful and effective organisations that make a huge contribution to the promotion of well-being in their area. It seems to us that it would be natural and sensible for authorities, when conducting a community governance review, to have overt regard to the arrangements that are already in place, many of which are very good. Indeed, we think they should be required to do so. We see nothing to be gained by the removal of subsection (5) and much to be lost in terms of achieving the best outcomes. Therefore, I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.
I am again grateful, though a little more tentatively than I was on the previous amendment. A lot of issues here seem unresolved. Indeed, the Minister said that people are looking at the guidance at the moment. Can she tell us when it might be ready and whether the guidance relating to parish councils generally or this specifically might be ready, in a draft form at least, before we come back from our summer holidays and renew discussions on Report? It might save the House a lot of time if we could see the guidance first because our concerns might be allayed. Indeed, we might think that things are being done exactly right.
I have one further concern. There may well be organisations or structures within the community that are working well and involve quite a lot of people in a very constructive way. However, even if that is the case, there may well be circumstances where it is worth while taking the further step of going to an elected parish council that is qualitatively different from almost all the other organisations in the community, because it is a democratically elected body that has the status of a local authority and all the rights set out in the statutes. In Pendle, where I live, the experience is that in 1974 five urban districts lost their councils. After a few years, non-statutory neighbourhood councils were set up in each of the five districts. Fairly quickly, they all came to the view, and there was a general view locally, that they wanted to become statutory parish councils, which they have now been for some years. That evolutionary process was part and parcel of the discussions that took place. I wonder whether the noble Baroness can answer my specific question.
I would be happy to. We expect the guidance to be ready by the autumn, so we hope that we are talking about only a number of months. I absolutely agree with the noble Lord’s last point, that the statutory route could well be the route that will be taken despite there being healthy non-statutory activity in that area. That will be very much taken into account when looking at the overall picture of what would work even better than the non-statutory arrangements already in place.
We are coming back in October. I regard October as being in the autumn. Any later than October is winter, certainly where I live. I am mindful of what people have written about autumn and gathering swallows, twittering in the skies and so on. Perhaps people could twitter as quickly as possible and gather their thoughts together. If we can have the guidance before Report on a lot of things in the Bill, it will help the Government a great deal when we get to that stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave withdrawn.
Clause 95 agreed to.
Clause 96 [Recommendations to create parish councils]:
204CK: Clause 96, page 61, line 35, leave out subsection (3)
The noble Lord said: This is a more important and substantive matter. It relates to the interaction of the direct democracy part of parishes, which is the only part of local government where these recommendations exist in a statutory form, and the other processes set out in the Bill.
I am grateful to the Minister for telling me in reply to a Question for Written Answer that there are about 10,000 parishes and that approximately 8,900 have councils and 1,100 have only meetings. That was about the only detail she could give in reply to a fairly detailed Question on the number of parish meetings, the size of parish councils and so on. Interestingly, this information is not kept at central level for this parish level of government. Perhaps that is understandable as people forget about parishes.
I remind your Lordships that parish councils were set up during a brief spell of Liberal government in the middle of the 1890s. They were extremely controversial. I have no doubt that a lot more people attended the discussions that took place in this House then, and that there were some very angry people who thought that having democratically elected parish councils would bring forward all sorts of anarchism, socialist revolution in the countryside and so on. I do not think that has happened with parish councils, but they are, nevertheless, very valuable.
The Local Government Act 1972 sets out that there will be a parish council if there are more than 200 electors. If there are between 150 and 200, there may be a parish council. If there are fewer than 150, there may be a parish council if the parish meeting resolves that it wants one. Obviously we are talking about small rural communities, which nevertheless may be very active and vibrant.
We should remember that there are parish meetings everywhere. Every parish in the country has an annual parish meeting which all electors may attend, even where there is a parish council. That meeting can call a parish poll, which is a referendum in the parish involving local government electors. This inbuilt right to a parish poll is unique in our local government system. Parish meetings and parish polls therefore already exist as part of the system. There are not many parish polls, but people know about them and they are often very significant. The Bill is more flexible on parish councils in that there does not have to be a parish council in a newly created parish. Existing parishes will simply continue as they are, but a newly created or reorganised parish does not have to have a parish council unless there are more than 1,000 electors, and it will not have one if there are fewer than 150. Although the Bill is more flexible in not allowing a parish council, it is considerably less flexible in allowing small parishes to have a parish council. That is one issue behind this group of amendments.
I am trying through the amendments to restore the flexibility which the Government are removing, as well as to explore the relationships between parish meetings and parish polls and the system of creating, changing and abolishing parishes and putting to parish meetings and parish polls the decision—if that is what people want locally—to create a new parish if the area is very small or to abolish a parish.
Amendment No. 204CK would leave out the provision that the review must recommend that the proposed new parish should not have a council if it has 150 electors or fewer. The amendment would mean that such a recommendation could go to the electors in the parish itself. Amendment No. 204CM would mean that if the number proposed was under 150, the council would need the resolution of a parish meeting and confirmation in a parish poll if there were to be a parish council. That does not automatically mean that there would be a parish council; it means that a parish council could be created in very small parishes that might cover quite a large rural area and that might have a vibrant community, but only if a parish meeting says that it wants one and a parish poll votes in favour.
Amendment No. 204CN is about the abolition of parish councils, and would provide that a parish meeting would have to pass a resolution or may hold a poll in order to abolish a parish council. If it held a poll, the decision of that poll would prevail. This is fundamental and only fair. None of this would happen, however, if there was a general view that an existing parish council should be abolished. If, however, there were a dispute and a proposal to abolish the parish council, surely the existing institutions of the parish meeting and the existing institutions of the parish poll should be brought into play. That is a very important provision, because the abolition of a local authority, even if it is only a parish, is not a minor matter.
Amendment No. 204CP would apply the same provisions to changes in groups of parishes, although I do not press for this quite as strongly as I do in relation to abolition. The first half of the amendment would apply the same provisions to a parish meeting and a parish poll coming into play, if that is what people want, in an ungrouped parish where it is proposed to group parishes. The second half—proposed new subsections (5) to (8) of my amendment—would apply to changes in grouping arrangements that could be subject to the same procedure across the group.
The grouping issue is less important or vital here. Surely, the creation of parish councils, whether new small parishes can have one and the abolition of them are matters that should involve the existing statutory institutions of the parish meeting of everyone in the parish. In a small parish, a huge proportion of the people might turn up. A parish meeting vote, a parish poll, is an established and acceptable means of making decisions in rural areas. I beg to move.
If we are talking about devolution, we certainly support the idea put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that there should not be a minimum number of 150. If a small parish wants a parish council, it should be allowed to have one. I doubt whether Dibley has 150 people and, therefore, we would not have the television series, “The Vicar of Dibley”, which probably has done more to popularise parish councils than anything else. I hope that the Government will think again on that matter and will remove the minimum requirement of 150 because it is totally unnecessary.
We may not have a meeting of minds on this. We understand the strength of the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield. However, we come at it from a slightly different view. In order to institute a new concept of devolution, there has to be certainty within that, which is why we would want the principal council to have that final certainty. Perhaps at the end of my remarks, I might have persuaded Members of the Committee of my view.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has tabled Amendments Nos. 204CK, 204CL and 204CM relating to when parish councils with low populations can or cannot be created. The noble Lord has also tabled Amendments Nos. 204CN and 204CP, which insert new clauses after Clause 96. On the creation of parish councils in areas with low populations, Clause 96(3) provides that a review must recommend that parishes with 150 or fewer local government electors should not have a parish council. The effects of these amendments would be to allow small parishes with electorates of 150 or fewer to have a parish council if the parish meeting of the parish resolved to have one, which was confirmed by a parish poll, as the noble Lord has explained.
Amendment No. 204CK would remove Clause 96(3), which prevents the review from recommending that parishes with 150 electors or fewer have a parish council. We have included this provision in this clause to address what we see as the difficulty which sometimes exists in small parishes; in particular, getting sufficient numbers of people to stand for election to the parish council. I should make it clear, however, that this provision would not prevent a group of 150 or fewer electors presenting a community governance petition to a principal council recommending the constitution of a new parish for its area, which would allow for the creation of a parish meeting rather than council.
Where a new parish is created with an electorate of 150 or fewer, the review must recommend that the parish should not have a council. However, I can reassure Members of the Committee—I think that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is completely aware of this anyway—that this provision does not apply to an existing parish of the same size, which already has a parish council. Any existing parish that falls within that category can continue to have a parish council. The Bill does not alter the position under Section 11 of the Local Government Act 1972, whereby the parish meeting of a parish may apply to the principal council for its parish to be grouped with two or more neighbouring parishes under a common parish council.
In summary, we do not believe that Amendments Nos. 204CK, 204CL and 204CM are required. We consider that while the Bill’s provisions do not affect existing parish councils with low populations, they will help in the future to resolve problems that exist with some small parish councils being unable to find sufficient members. We are also resisting Amendments Nos. 204CN and 204CP, which insert new clauses after Clause 96. Our proposals in the Bill are about devolving power from central to local government and communities.
Clause 95 sets out duties for principal councils to undertake community governance reviews. The key elements of that provision and of Clause 98 require principal councils to consult, to take account of representations and to make known the outcomes of their decisions for putting in place any community governance arrangements. The necessary processes and mechanisms set out in Part 4 of the Bill on parishes cover sufficiently the sort of situations for which the noble Lord is trying to provide, whether on proposals for abolition or on proposals for the grouping of parishes.
Just as for any proposal to make changes to create or alter the boundaries of an existing parish, under the Government’s proposals, where a principal authority might wish to consider the abolition of a parish council or the grouping of several parishes, it would still need to meet its statutory obligations. Principal councils would need to consider local opinion, including that of parish councillors and local electors. Any decision taken by the principal council could be legally challenged, and a court would have to be convinced that the decision was justified.
The noble Lord’s amendments would extend the involvement of local electors through parish meetings, giving them a say in determining the outcome of any review through a motion on recommendation made or a poll. In either case the Bill provides for not only local electors to be consulted on any review but anyone else as well, including the local authority, who appears to have an interest in it. Such stakeholders would, of course, include existing parish councils. While the noble Lord’s amendments may be well intentioned, they are unnecessary and would effectively remove the new devolved power from principal council to the parish level—or at least make that less certain.
As I have tried to explain, it is quite appropriate that local electors and stakeholders should be consulted properly about community governance arrangements and that their views be fully taken into account. Ultimately, it is for the principal council to take decisions on these matters and implement them. We do not wish to devolve to principal councils on the one hand while saying on the other hand that the decisions they make cannot be implemented without the support of parish meetings. We need certainty in the devolution process.
We are also keen to encourage contested elections and believe that parish councils in an area with fewer than 150 electors would face difficulties in having contested elections for the minimum of five parish council seats. I therefore ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I sit here baffled—interested, but baffled—at the minutiae that are covered by the term “local government”. The Committee knows well that my experience of local government does not go as deeply as the noble Lord’s into the democracy that we are seeking to cover.
I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is trying to cover every conceivable alternative. It cannot be done, especially when we bear in mind the views and experience of the Electoral Commission. He is trying also to cover in the Bill situations where movement can take place at a reasonable depth in a democracy. I respect the experience brought to this House by the noble Lord and others. I only hope that what the Minister said will encourage him to accept that it is impossible to cover every person in every situation at every convenience.
The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, whom I greatly respect, speaks from his knowledge not only of a large body such as Essex County Council but also of the many smaller groupings within it. The Minister mentioned more than once community interests and intentions, which is what the Bill is about. If every “t” is crossed and every “i” dotted to take care of every conceivable situation, some of which will be contradictory, I fear that we will make people either bored or resentful of the fact that they are being driven and bound by central government. “A balance has to be struck” is a hackneyed phrase, but the Government have achieved it here. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, will understand that and give way on his amendment.
I had thought that it was the Government who were trying to impose what they call certainty and that it was some of us who were trying to maintain existing flexibilities, which are being taken away, and to put decisions on parish governance where they belong—at parish level.
The Minister said that devolution has to have certainty, which sums up a huge amount of what is wrong with the Bill, and not just with this part of it. If you have devolution, you lose certainty.
I am glad that the Minister is as excited as I am. Some fundamental principles are at stake here. At the moment, an electorate of more than 200 people has a parish council. In future, an electorate of between 150 and 1,000 people may or may not get a parish council, according to the whim of the district council or the outcome of the process of a parish review that has to take place. That is not greater certainty, but less. I do not know how many of the 10,000 parishes in this country have fewer than 1,000 electors. My guess is that it is about two-thirds of them; it might be more. A very large number of parishes have fewer than 1,000 electors. In future, there will be no guarantee that they can have a parish council. It can be taken away if there is a parish review. Existing parishes will continue as they are until they have a parish review. If there are changes and new parishes are set up as part of a review, the parish councillors can be taken away. Equally, parishes can be abolished under a parish review.
There is nothing revolutionary about this. There are existing institutions in parishes in England that consist of a parish meeting—usually an annual one, but clearly there could be a special parish meeting to discuss this. There is also the provision for a parish poll. Surely matters such as abolishing a parish in a controversial situation, or saying that a parish will exist and will have 650 electors as the village is quite sizeable but that it will not have a parish council, are matters in which existing institutions of the parish meeting and possibly the parish poll should be brought in. Those institutions exist already.
This could lead in some cases, in a few places, to people being engaged in plotting, to use the word of the noble Lord, Lord Graham. I know of some districts in which there have been only one or two parishes, which have been at loggerheads with the district. The view of the district was that if only it could get rid of the parishes, it would be like other districts—and that would be fine. I fear that in a few places that sort of attitude might prevail. There should be a safeguard—not a safeguard that involves the Government coming from above and saying that that cannot be done, but a democratic safeguard involving people using the existing institutions of parish meetings and polls to say what they think. They might agree with abolition or they might not.
I think that the Government are wrong on this and I hope that they will seriously think again, because I am not proposing a radical change. It is just a sensible one. This is something that we might have to come back to. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendments Nos. 204CL and 204CM not moved.]
Clause 96 agreed to.
[Amendments Nos. 204CN and 204CP not moved.]
Clause 97 [Electoral recommendations: general considerations]:
[Amendments Nos. 204CQ and 204CR not moved.]
Clause 97 agreed to.
Clause 98 [Publicising outcome]:
[Amendment No. 204CS not moved.]
Clause 98 agreed to.
Clause 99 agreed to.
Clause 100 [Orders and regulations under this Chapter]:
204CT: Clause 100, page 64, line 16, leave out “or 90”
The noble Lord said: Clause 101 is headed “Agreements about incidental matters”, which sounds fairly incidental. It says that any public bodies involved in a parish review or reorganisation may make agreements; those agreements are set out in Clause 101. They can be about property, income, rights, liabilities, expenses, financial relations, transfer or retention of property rights and liabilities, the making of payments in connection with that and so on. Do the terms and conditions under which this can take place have to be on a commercial basis, on the basis of valuations agreed by the district auditor, or can it be on the basis of free transfer or anything in between? If new parishes are being set up, as part of the local agreement for what those parishes are going to do, it might be sensible to transfer some functions to them. Some statutory functions—I think that allotments are the classic example—have to be transferred and will automatically become a parish responsibility but there are other examples, such as running a local recreation ground or even a local park. In a small market town, there may even be a small town hall surplus to the district council’s requirements which it might be sensible to transfer to the new parish or town council. My question is whether they can make their own financial arrangements, or will the auditor complain if property is handed over free? If that cannot happen, it will fly in the face of what the Government have been talking about in regard to local groups and neighbourhood groups.
I had almost come to the end of that anyhow. Perhaps I can bank it and when we get to Clause 101 stand part I shall listen with interest to what the Minister has to say.
I am supposed to be speaking to Amendment No. 204CT. The purpose of the amendment is to leave out the reference to Section 90 of the Local Government Act 1972. I see the Minister nodding, so I must be on the right one this time. Amendment No. 204CU, which is grouped with it, refers to the rules—presumably, in this context, the parish council election rules—set under the same Act.
I do not understand why the local election rules, whatever they are called—the town and parish council rules—should be subject to change. Perhaps the Minister can explain this to me. It seems to me that elections are elections and the same rules should apply even if it is a special election to set up a new parish council, which is probably what these clauses refer to.
I turn to Amendment No. 204CT. It is suggested that for casual vacancies the period of office for the chair of the parish council or a parish meeting and for parish councillors can be changed. I do not understand why this provision is necessary. The 1972 Act says that they will serve the outstanding period of the person whom they replaced, which is the normal circumstance. Why might it be different in these circumstances? I beg to move.
I am rather glad that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has finished commenting on the clause stand part debate because as my words mirrored his almost exactly we would not have taken each other any further on that. However, we shall come back with answers to his questions.
Amendments Nos. 204CT and 204CU would prevent a reorganisation order made by a principal council, or regulations made by the Secretary of State to supplement that order, from excluding or modifying provisions made under Section 90 of the Local Government Act 1972 and Section 36 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. I shall set out why we resist the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves.
A reorganisation order provides for community governance arrangements to be put in place in a principal council’s area, or for changes to be made to those arrangements. Section 90 of the Local Government Act 1972 provides for a person who is elected or co-opted as a councillor to fill a casual vacancy to hold office until the date on which the person to whose place they were elected or appointed would have retired. In relation to an existing council where elections are to be held in a year other than a normal parish council year, Clause 100 could be used to cut short or prolong the term of office of a councillor who is filling a casual vacancy. Parliamentary and local government elections must be held in accordance with rules made under Section 36 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. In relation to parish councils, the local elections rules 1983 deal with matters such as casual vacancies. They specify when a by-election is required to be held, how soon after a vacancy has arisen an election must be held and so on. They also deal with matters such as the giving of notice of an election, the nomination of candidates and contested elections.
These provisions therefore ensure that local authorities and the Secretary of State have the full range of powers available to them to enable reorganisation orders effectively to implement new community governance arrangements. This ensures that as smooth a transition as possible may be made following the reorganisation of community governance in an area. Therefore, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendments to Clause 100.
This is an occasion on which I must read what the Minister says in Hansard. I did not understand what she said, but that may well be my fault. If I still do not understand it, I shall write to her and perhaps she can explain it in writing. I do not understand why this provision is required to secure the smooth transition that she talked about. It may be absolutely obvious but I do not understand it. For the moment I—
I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I have a note from officials in the Box which says that the reorganisation order, where it puts in place electoral arrangements, might require changes to dates of elections and terms of office of councillors, so needs to disapply provisions of the 1972 Act. I do not know whether that makes it clearer or less clear.
I think that explains the bit of the Bill which I was not seeking to delete because it seemed to me necessary. It is the casual vacancies bit that I do not understand. However, I may enjoy future discussions on the amendment with the Minister. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendment No. 204CU not moved.]
Clause 100 agreed to.
Clause 101 [Agreements about incidental matters]:
On Question, Whether Clause 101 shall stand part of the Bill?
Clause 101 mirrors equivalent provisions in the Local Government and Rating Act 1997. It provides for any local authority or other public body as defined in Clause 16 affected by a reorganisation order following a community governance review to make agreements about incidental matters. Clause 101(1)(a) states what may in particular be provided for in an agreement,
“any property, income, rights, liabilities and expenses (so far as affected by the order) … any financial relations between the parties to the agreement”.
The clause also provides for a matter in dispute to be referred either to an arbiter agreed by both parties or to the Secretary of State. This clause ensures as smooth a transition as possible following a reorganisation of community governance in the area, and I commend it to the Committee.
When I read this clause, I wrote against it, “belt and braces”, but it is more than that. It is perfectly reasonable to provide mechanisms for the things one does not want to spell out in a Bill, and to my mind most legislation has far too much spelt out in it. But this clause goes further. Having said that parties can make an agreement, which is reasonable enough, it states that if they cannot come to an agreement, there will be arbitration. That takes matters rather a long way, and there is an issue over whether, not having said what those matters are to be, the clause then provides that if the parties cannot agree, they will have whatever is imposed on them because there will be an arbitration mechanism.
I am grateful for that intervention by my noble friend, who occasionally shows why she is a lawyer. However, she may well be making an extremely important point.
The Minister has not answered my basic point, which in a nutshell is this: if a district is involved in a parish review or in setting up a new town, village, neighbourhood or community council, can it effectively endow the new parish-level council with some of its own assets and hand over the running of those assets to the parish council? That is the question behind what I am asking.
I am grateful to the Minister and I look forward to seeing her reply when I get back from holiday.
Clause 101 agreed to.
Clause 102 [Guidance]:
[Amendment No. 204CV not moved.]
Clause 102 agreed to.
Clause 103 agreed to.
Clause 104 [Interpretation]:
[Amendment No. 204D not moved.]
204DA: Clause 104, page 66, line 8, leave out from “England” to “or” in line 9
The noble Lord said: We are concerned that the Bill fails to consider the complexities of three-tier authorities with regard to community governance reviews. The Bill states that unitary authorities and district councils are considered to be principal authorities with powers to undertake community governance reviews that can create and, as we have heard today, abolish parish councils. It is particularly worrying that these so-called principal authorities can initiate community governance reviews, while counties will be merely informed but not actually involved in the process of creating and extending parishes. The amendment seeks to ensure that county councils are also considered principal authorities with exactly the same rights to carry out these reviews as district councils.
The relationship between counties and parishes is generally good—obviously, it varies in different parts of the country; I am very knowledgeable about the Essex experience—with a mutual understanding of each others’ needs existing between the two tiers. In fact, it is generally county council officers who go to parish meetings, not district council officers. I have eight parishes; I go with my officers to meetings and we do most of the talking because the district officers are not there.
It would be remiss not to utilise this knowledge and understanding when creating—and, indeed, abolishing—parish councils. It would be considered unacceptable to make decisions, for example, on planning and transport, without the involvement of all the tiers—county councils, district councils and parish councils. Given the democratic and community-focused role of the parish councils, there needs to be a similar level of inclusivity to determine their existence.
Surely the Minister can visualise the bickering that will occur between the different tiers even if, as the Under-Secretary of State said in the other place, there will be no conflict because county councils will have no governance role and no say in the matter. Does the Minister not understand the influence of county council decisions even on the most local tier of government such as the parish?
Of even greater concern is the fact that if a parish council thought it was being treated unfairly—or, indeed, facing termination—there is no real appeal system. We were reassured in another place that such concerns would not arise as there was always the judicial process. We strongly disagree and argue profusely that this is not an option for parish councils. Very few, if any, parish councils have the resources and time to go through such an expensive and uncertain process.
While we understand the Government’s concerns about the disagreements that might occur if counties were included as principal councils, we would argue that greater conflict would occur if they were not given the same powers to undertake these community reviews. At the moment, Essex has 12 district councils but around 30 communities. The county council wishes to devolve money and the decision-making process to those 30 communities, but if we did not have some say in the matter, the whole process would fall apart.
We support devolution and we hope to see the principle behind this part of the Bill introduced in other areas. However, we wish to see the Government acknowledge the importance of county councils in this part of the Bill. I beg to move.
In an area divided into sub-areas, ultimately someone has to be the boss. As far as reviews are concerned, in the current situation the districts call the shots. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, is proposing that, in addition to districts calling the shots, the county council should also be able to do so.
At the moment, it is the Secretary of State who calls the shots; the Bill proposes that districts should do so in the future. I am proposing that both districts and counties should be involved. At the moment, it is the Secretary of State, not the districts. Some districts do not want to have parish councils—in Essex, we do not have parish councils in some areas because the districts do not want them—and so it is the county council which promotes them.
That means that the amendment would give it to both the district and the county council. That seems prima facie to be a recipe for conflict at the very least and mayhem at the very most. The Committee will know that I have listened very carefully in debates on the Bill, and from my experience in local government I understand that, given the opportunity for mischief, it will occur, because there will always be a conflict. I should have thought that the sensible way out of this is for one or the other to have it, but not both. In fact what has been proposed, in the pursuit of equity or justice, is to allow both to impose their will over the other. Ultimately, I do not think that is a very good recipe.
I take the slight chastisement from the noble Lord that we have a new situation in which the power is being taken away from the centre and is being given to a unit of local government, which is the district. The noble Lord is perfectly entitled to say that the appropriate unit and level is the county council and not the district. I should have thought that if we are really in pursuit of devolving power down as far as possible, the district council is perfectly able and big enough. I understand the resource element and the administrative back-up that is required, but it is worth a try, so I favour the district and not including the county council.
I had not intended to intervene, but I feel rather provoked by the noble Lord, Lord Graham, to point out that there is no question here about anyone imposing their will on anyone. This is about what happens when the parish itself seeks more status and the district council refuses to accept that. It happens far more regularly than perhaps the noble Lord would know from his London perspective. In that situation, the parish council will quite often come to the county council and say, “Can you help us? We want more standing, but we cannot get it because we have a difficult district to deal with”. There are times when the county council, from a bit of a distance, can take a more rational view of the powers of parish councils than the district can. I am rather inclined to support the amendment on the basis that, from the point of view of the parish, which for me is the important perspective, the amendment improves its chances and aids flexibility.
I am grateful to noble Lords for their interventions and for the manner in which the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, moved his amendment and his stout defence of county councils. I once tried to become a member of Oxfordshire County Council, but the good people of Oxfordshire in their wisdom decided that that was not a good idea.
The noble Lord seeks in the amendment to allow county councils to conduct community governance reviews. First, let me make it clear that any system that allowed both a district council and a county council to conduct community governance reviews would simply not work. We have to decide whether it is to be the district or the county council that carries out that function. I assume, so that I can cut out a lot of text, that we are agreed that we are not talking about the possibility of both tiers carrying out governance reviews.
If we are going to improve three-tier working, the reviews should be carried out in that way. In Braintree in Essex, we are doing it with the three tiers working together, to try to make the whole relationship between the three tiers work. If we are not going to do that, we are not going to make this whole thing work.
On my support for parish councils, I got into local government because my father spent something like 40 years on a parish council. That is how it all started and that is why I am here now. I greatly support parish councils, not just county councils. I want to see the whole thing work and we should look at how we can involve the three tiers in creating these governance reviews.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for enlightening me, but this is where we very much disagree with him. If we were to allow the county and the district to undertake a review, we might come to a stage of both councils disagreeing. What if they were to disagree? Let us imagine a situation where the district council wishes to create a parish and makes such a recommendation. However, the county council decides that it does not agree, conducts a community governance review and decides to abolish the parish. This would lead to, if not confusion, a near-anarchic situation over who is responsible, as well as increased costs and, no doubt, legal challenges on which council had the right to decide. I hear what the noble Lord has said—
I want to reiterate what the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said, because, generally, the districts do not create parishes. There are two new parish councils in Essex which the districts refused to create. The county council backed them and gave them money to start up. The district councils have stopped financing any parish councils in most districts in Essex because the district councils say that they cannot afford to. We, the county council, are this year giving every parish council £1,000 for IT equipment. Generally, county councils, not the districts, support the formation of parish councils. I fear that this legislation will lead to fewer parish councils. We have lived with this situation for years and years, as the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said, although she has not done so for as many years as me, because she is much younger. We know the practicalities. What the Government are suggesting in this legislation just will not result in the creation of more parish councils.
I understand that the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, have enormous experience in these matters, and I respect that. They have obviously come across some tetchy situations, to say the least, between parishes and districts. However, it is the Government’s view that when these situations arise, they are very much in the minority. On that basis, we are moving forward with our preferred option of the districts conducting the community governance reviews, rather than the counties. Perhaps if I may move on a little more, I can cover some of the noble Lord’s concerns.
Reviews of parish arrangements are currently conducted by district councils under the Local Government and Rating Act 1997. For more than 30 years, it has been the responsibility of district councils to conduct these reviews. In 2005, we established a technical working group to look at the process within the 1997 Act. That working group, which included the LGA, NALC, the Association of London Government—now London Councils—and the Electoral Commission, considered whether the county councils or the district councils should conduct community governance reviews. As one can see in the Bill, we concluded, after much discussion, that the existing situation should be retained and district councils should continue to fulfil this role. The Government are sure that county councils would be perfectly capable of conducting reviews if the role were passed to them. However, we have heard no completely compelling argument, as yet, as to why the reviews should not be conducted by the districts.
The Bill’s proposals are about devolving power from central government to local government. We have sought the principle of subsidiarity by transferring responsibility to the most local level at which it is practical for a function to be carried out. This means that in most parts of England community governance reviews should be carried out by the appropriate district or unitary council. That tier is the closest to parishes and their parish and town councils. The district or unitary councils work closely with parishes and are thereby aware of those parishes’ needs and aspirations when carrying out reviews.
Historically, parish reviews have been the function of district councils, as my noble friend Lord Graham said. These principal councils have, over many years, built up a bank of experience and expertise in conducting parish reviews in their local areas. Surely, by taking this function away from district councils and giving it to county councils, we would be saying to district councils that we think that it can be done better by another tier of local government. Obviously, the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, believes that, but we are not convinced that there is enough evidence to take away that historic role from district councils.
We are aware that the National Association of Local Councils, NALC, thinks that counties should undertake reviews. It contends that the main reason for its opposition to districts conducting such reviews is that any new community governance arrangements, such as setting up a new parish or a town council, might jeopardise the district council’s role in the provision of services at the local level. NALC contends that by implication, in relation to conducting reviews, whether instigated by petitioners or not, a principal council may start a review with opinions already firmly entrenched in opposition to any new arrangements.
However, we believe that NALC’s concern that districts will undertake reviews and that some of them may already be hostile to new community governance arrangements is somewhat excessive. As the Committee is aware, under the present legislation, the Secretary of State is responsible for taking decisions following reviews by district councils. Very occasionally, we are made aware from review recommendations that there are tensions between district councils and petitioners, but, as I said earlier, we believe such cases to be in the minority.
Under Clause 95, any principal council conducting a review would need to take account of the views of local electors in reaching decisions on community governance. Under Clause 95(3), the principal council must consult any other body, including a local authority, that may have an interest in a review, and the relevant current county council would also have to be consulted. Therefore, the county council’s representation would have to be taken into account by individual principal councils.
In conclusion, until we hear what we believe to be compelling arguments as to why this function should be taken away from county councils, we will not be persuaded that that should happen, so I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
I knew of the NALC situation because, as I suspect is obvious, I work closely with it and with the Essex branch of NALC—the Essex Association of Local Councils. I am committed to creating more parish councils. What NALC says is absolutely true, but the origins of the problem go back to the creation of district councils in 1974. Those created in 1974 were often an amalgamation of lots of small towns. However, having created their own body, district councils are reluctant to give powers back to the small towns. Certainly in Essex and other parts of the country, we find that district councils are resistant to allowing the creation of town councils. In Essex, where we do not have town or parish councils, it is because the districts are resistant to returning to the pre-1974 situation, as they see it, and to the areas that now make up the new district councils.
I assure the Committee that, if it is left to the district councils, there will not be many parish councils. Where agreement has been reached on parish councils, most of the area is already parished. I want to see parish councils in the areas that are not parished, and the county council could do that better than the district councils. Therefore, perhaps if we were to have one principal tier, it should be the county councils. On the other hand, county councils are currently trying to work better with district councils, and we do not want to take a power away from them.
I think that there could be a solution. I am afraid that what the Government propose here is wrong and we will have to look for other ways of proceeding. Obviously, we will pursue this matter further at later stages of the Bill but, for now, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendment No. 204E not moved.]
Clause 104 agreed to.
204F: Before Clause 105, insert the following new Clause—
“CHAPTER A1Transfer of functionsTransfer of functionsThe Secretary of State shall by order provide for the following functions to be transferred from any regional or statutory bodies to relevant local authorities—
(a) housing;(b) planning;(c) transport;(d) learning and skills;(e) economic development.”
The noble Lord said: This is a major amendment. At Second Reading, many noble Lords mentioned that this piece of legislation does not demonstrate the radical devolutionary proposal anticipated in the White Paper. We remain the second most-centralised country in Europe after Malta.
This proposed new clause would seek to ensure that the Government fulfilled their rhetoric by putting in the Bill a truly devolutionary measure. If local authorities are community leaders, surely they should have strategic powers over housing, planning, transport, learning and skills and economic development. Those powers are held by central government and government-controlled quangos which cannot possibly know the local needs of every town, county and shire in England. This clause addresses the concerns expressed by many interested parties, including the LGA. Unfortunately, the noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Lockhart, has had to leave us this afternoon; otherwise he would have spoken in support of the amendment.
It is common sense to realise that place-shaping will occur only when those who are close to their communities, those who know the unique strengths and weaknesses of their areas, and those who are elected by their people are handed proper control of the areas that they govern. In an era of globalisation, we still have one of the most centralised and inflexible states in the world. To compete at a global level, and to ensure prosperity and a better quality of life, we need our economy to be flexible. I am sure that it is because of the over-regulated and overcentralised features of our state that some of our great cities—Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle—are only half as prosperous as their European counterparts.
An analysis carried out by the LGA and the EC demonstrates hard economic evidence that it is at the geographical level of the city, the city region or shire that the economy functions. However, the economy can only function to its potential when local authorities can make their own decisions and implement local solutions to the unique challenges that face their local areas. That will happen when local authorities can make their own judgments; for example, with regard to benefits, welfare-to-work rules and when there is a more devolved framework for skills. That will ensure that there is no skills mismatch between local people and industries that occupy that area, ensuring fuller employment and prosperity.
On housing, the top-down target mechanism will never succeed. The Government should be bolder in enabling councils to deliver their supply of new housing.
All those points are intertwined. Essentially the crux of the matter is that local authorities should have the power to make decisions that will affect the economic development of their unique place. The Bill appears to have ignored the recommendations made by the Lyons report, which would have been key to the devolutionary measures that we seek. Flexibility will come only when powers are localised. I beg to move.
I find myself in the unusual position of supporting the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, but coming at it from the opposite perspective. On these Benches, we have always believed that the regional level of government is absolutely appropriate and correct for some decisions at some times. The question is about when such a size is the appropriate measure. The experience of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, is of Essex, which in a European context is the size of a region in itself. There are other counties and local authority areas which are not big enough. It seems to us on these Benches that, for some decisions, the regional tier of government is absolutely right.
However, there were a number of problems with the way in which the Government attempted its regional agenda. One was certainly that some of the English regions are simply too big. The south east region is enormous, covering an area from Bournemouth to Dover, then up to London and as far as Milton Keynes. It is simply too big to have any sense of coherence. It certainly has no sense of local identity in the way in which the electorate relate to it. That was the first problem.
The second was that the regional agenda never really involved proper devolution from central government down to democratically accountable regions. It was simply that the bureaucracy was moved from Whitehall out to the regions, but there was no sense in which democratically accountable people from those regions had a say in what was going on. From the point of view of those of us on these Benches, that has been the big weakness of the Government’s approach. If we understand what is now proposed, the only part of the regional agenda with any form of democratic accountability—the regional assemblies made up of councillors—is now to be removed. Therefore, all the regional powers will remain, in effect, with quangos or civil servants who just happen to be based in regions rather than in Whitehall. It does not in any sense represent devolution. We on these Benches would certainly support the notion that it is time for a rethink of how regional decisions are made, although coming at it from a rather different perspective from the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield. We accept that local authorities, as currently constituted, are not always the right size of decision-making body for the sorts of decisions we have to make.
This is a good amendment, but I am not going to support it. It is good because it raises issues which are coming to the top of the agenda. Whether one reflects on the fact that things have been done in the past which can be done better in the future—such as what the amendment seeks to do—is a moot point. No doubt the Minister will help us. But there is a mood and a determination in government not merely to create the fabric but to do the job. What we have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, is laudable: democracy needs to play a full part. But, more than having the right committee or powers, the job itself must be done.
When we looked at the Greater London Bill, which is still to come back to the House of Lords, we were trying to ensure that responsibilities in housing, for instance, were strengthened by widening the strategic responsibility. Sadly, when we look at the figures and opportunities, we see that there are some people with powers to do things who do not do them for a variety of reasons. I am always conscious, as is every Member of the House of Lords who has been a Member of the other place, that the greatest misery we see in our constituency surgeries is when people come to us who are living in either poor housing or no housing at all. I am therefore strongly of the belief that the weapons to be used in housing—and transport and economic development, for instance—need to be wielded by a tier of government which is big enough and, bluntly, strong enough, to carry through what is required.
I am of course not competent to lay down what is required in every place. But I certainly think that to take away from the regional or statutory bodies and transfer to relevant—it is interesting what “relevant” means in this context—local authorities is something which needs not to be resisted, but discussed and debated. I look forward to what the Minister has to say. I sense that if we are to complete the jobs that need to be done in housing, planning, transport and economic development, we need as big a weapon and set of resources as possible.
First, I declare an interest as the chairman of the executive board of the North West Regional Assembly, but for how much longer I leave Members to think about. It is interesting that the Conservative Party has suddenly become localist and devolutionary, which I welcome because I have long been so, and have long thought that local authorities could do much more than they already did and could take the powers of others.
However, the amendment is actually too simplistic. In terms of what is being devolved, it is unambitious. What is wrong with health? What is wrong with crime? What is wrong with other functions of government that could be devolved to local authorities? I also think that it is wrong in that there is a kind of tyranny of local boundaries. Where do local boundaries reflect real life? Very few areas have a boundary that is the same as its local economy. Therefore, there needs to be collaboration between authorities if they are to be effective in terms of the devolution—which I agree with—to groups of local authorities of economic development, learning and skills, transport and so on. We must learn to work together.
I am also the leader of the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities. We work well within Greater Manchester, but I cannot say that it uses the boundary of the Manchester city region these days, because it moves out of the boundary areas created in 1972-74. It includes parts of Cheshire and Derbyshire, and other areas outside the current boundaries. We try to work with them, but it is much more difficult working beyond Greater Manchester.
We must learn to have a mixed view of this. Who is going to fund our transport schemes, for example? Central government. They will want to identify what schemes go forward. One of the great achievements of regional assemblies was the Government realising that they did not have enough money to fund all the ambitions of local authorities and developing a process called the regional funding allocation. That said to regions, “Come up with your ideas of where our priorities should be”. When it came in the north-west, we realised that we had funding for about £1.3 billion of projects, but everyone thought that promises had been made by the Department for Transport for some £3 billion. There was clearly going to be some disappointment for those who were not going to get funding.
We came together on a regional basis, and agreed what we felt would make a real difference to our region in improving its economy and environment. Remarkably, we achieved a reasonable settlement, and I think that that happened across the country. There are times when we need to work together as local authorities. We cannot assume that funding can all be handed out to local authorities and expect them to do the job—although, as I say, I am a great devolutionist. We must work together. I am a great exponent of the Government’s idea in the White Paper of multi-area agreements, which can actually achieve some of these objectives. I am in favour of devolution. I welcome the conversion, but this is not it.
We have had an important debate. The unifying theme running through it is that decisions must be taken at the right level in order to be effective. Part of the debate has essentially been on where those right levels are, and what the balance between regional, sub-regional and local is. It is about finding the most effective and democratic way to do things. It has been a lively debate, and I say to my noble friends that I absolutely agree that collaboration between local authorities has progressed quite a lot in recent years, as it needed to. However, I cannot accept the amendment. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Lockhart, is not in his place because I know how passionately he feels about this and that he reflects the view of the Local Government Association.
I agree with a great deal that the noble Lord said, and much of it is reflected in the direction of travel that we are following. I shall give a couple of examples of that. On 28 June, the Statement on machinery of government changes announced a key devolutionary step in relation to skills and education, as funding for education for 16 to 19 year-olds will in future go to schools and colleges via the local authority education budget. In the interaction between regional and local there needs to be mutual influence and respect, and organisations at local level will be consulted by regional and statutory bodies on functions such as RDAs.
Another opportunity was created by Section 2 of the Local Government Act 2000 and is the power of well-being. It is broad and powerful and covers economic, social or environmental powers in relation to that function. I know that Essex County Council has already used it in relation to its highways function of removing abandoned vehicles from the roads. That is an important specific use of the power. There is nothing to stop local authorities up and down the country using the power of well-being to take on functional responsibilities in the way that the noble Lord mentioned.
I think there is general agreement in the Committee that there must be an important role for higher spatial levels. We need to address regional disparities and powerfully to link up regional economies, skills policies and housing policies. They all sit together and cannot be managed locally and competitively. There has to be a strategy and a vision behind the scope of what is needed if we are to get maximum efficiency, value for money and help available to people. We are looking to the regional level to support and join up in order to maximise efficiency and equity.
If noble Lords can be patient for a little longer, I shall say that we are expecting the report of the sub-national economic development and regeneration review very shortly. Highly skilled and committed people have been wrestling for some time with precisely these issues and have been examining the important and complex issue of the different spatial levels and how they best relate to the powers and functions of devolved government. I cannot comment in advance on that, but it has set out the direction of the Government.
Only last week my noble friend spoke to the Sustainable Communities Bill, as did the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford. That originated with the noble Lord’s party and now has cross-party support. Its sets in place a mechanism whereby the Secretary of State will be under a duty to invite proposals from local authorities which they consider would contribute to promoting the sustainability of local communities. It provides for requests for a transfer of functions from one person to another following consultation and agreement. Clause 3 requires proposals to be shortlisted by representatives of local government for the Secretary of State to decide which to implement.
Those sorts of things are quite recent. They are powerful, related and add up to a direction of travel that I am sure the noble Lord would applaud, so if I cannot go as far as he wants today, we have gone quite a long way, and we will go further in meeting the opportunities that he described in his amendment.
I thank the Minister for her answer and the noble Lords, Lord Graham and Lord Smith, and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, who spoke somewhat in support of what I was proposing. The noble Lord, Lord Smith, said that we have to work together with other partners, and I accept that. As the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said, Essex is a big place; we probably do not need to work with other partners as much as some other places. She also spoke about the levels at which decisions are taken. In England we probably need different decision-making processes in different parts of the country, not one blueprint for the whole country, because that does not work as well. For the reasons I gave, we are not doing as well economically as we could, so some decisions should be made locally in some parts that do not need to be made locally in other parts. Governments are prone to have one national scheme, rather than trying to see how each part of the country can be improved in a different way; when they were in power, my own Government were exactly the same.
I did not expect the Minister to accept the amendment. We had a good debate on it and we will wait for the sub-regional review, which I gather is imminent. This debate was today. If that statement comes tomorrow or the next day, let us hope that it gives us some of the goodies that we are anticipating. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 105 [Application of Chapter: responsible local authorities]:
204G: Clause 105, page 67, line 1, leave out from “England” to end of line 2
The noble Lord said: After that aperitif from the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, we are now firmly into Part 5. It is an extremely important part of the Bill. Chapter 1 is about local area agreements and community strategies, which are at the heart of the Government’s claim that this is a devolutionary Bill that will transform the role of local authorities.
Amendment No. 204G is about two-tier areas, but I have to say something briefly about local area agreements in general to put it into context. The Bill will place a duty on lead local authorities, which it calls “responsible local authorities”, to produce a local area agreement, consult and seek the participation of named partners and produce a community strategy, of which they have to take account when they are setting the local area agreement. It places a duty on local authorities and named partners to co-operate with each other to agree named, relevant targets within the local area agreement and to have regard to those targets once the local area agreement has been created. That sums up what a local area agreement is about.
If local area agreements work well they will put local authorities at the heart of the different organisations, partnerships and networks that now create a system of local governance. They put the responsible local authority at the centre of a web—if he were still in his place, the noble Lord, Lord Graham, would call it a web of intrigue for plotting—or a network of organisations and agencies of all kinds. If they work well, they will restore to local authorities the primacy of decision-making and negotiation with other bodies that they deserve as the only democratically elected bodies. The other side is the fear that the system that the Government are setting up will be very centralist because the system of putting together and changing local area agreements will be subject to the approval of the Secretary of State and one fears that there will be a great deal of central control of what is done and how it is done, including the 35 national targets. That is the framework and no doubt the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, will talk about the pilots, particularly the pilot in Wigan which, as a relatively compact urban authority, seems ideally suited to local area agreements.
Amendment No. 204G and Amendment No. 204H, which is grouped with it, are about the status and responsibility of district councils and how they relate to local area agreements in two-tier areas; that is, in shire counties with districts. There is a huge diversity in such places. No two shire counties are the same, and some of them are very different indeed from each other. Some are relatively compact, some have relatively weak districts—particularly those districts which are south-east this and north-east that, and were cobbled together in 1973 and 1974—while others are very widespread. I think of my own Lancashire or of north Yorkshire next door, which is huge. Some places have relatively strong districts which feel they are very much the equal of the counties because in some cases they are based on former county boroughs; others have very strong traditions of local democratic self-government. There is a huge diversity. I do not want anybody to think that I am trying to impose a pattern; I am not. Everything put forward in these amendments is permissive in terms of what could happen. Part of the problem is that catering for variety is not necessarily in the Bill.
Clause 105 refers to responsible local authorities. Clause 106 refers to partner authorities. From looking at the list of these authorities, it is clear that the partner authorities are the constellation of bodies which will surround the responsible, democratically elected local authority in a local agreement. They are local quangos, partnerships, joint authorities, some service delivery agencies and NHS bodies such as the PCT and NHS trusts, foundation trusts and so on, together with a number of national bodies, quangos and agencies, and, indeed, a little bit of the Secretary of State’s activities as they impact on that area.
People in some district councils fear that district councils are lumped together as a partner authority with the other partner authorities; a second status democratically elected authority as opposed to the counties in these areas. Yet district councils are different from all these other bodies precisely because they are democratically elected local authorities and have their own local strategic partnerships. So, within two-tier areas, you have the county level local strategic partnership which in some of the big counties is perhaps not seen as very local, and you have the local strategic partnerships at district level. The interaction of these and the interaction of the different authorities within a local area agreement seems to be something that has not yet been thought out properly.
Amendment No. 204G would make the district council a responsible local authority. Amendment No. 204H sets out an alternative system for a local area agreement in two-tier areas, based on joint responsibility and equality of status between the county and the district. One local authority chief executive in Lancashire is going around saying that currently the districts are simply going to be glorified parish councils. Clearly, that is not acceptable. Amendment No. 204H also sets out that in appropriate places local area agreements could be made for part of the county and not for a whole county, where this is appropriate, where the county council area is really too big, and where the diversity—the different needs in different parts of the county—make that sensible.
I refer to Lancashire, which has 12 districts. It extends from Skelmersdale, which is a Liverpool overspill town, to the edge of the Lake District and Morecambe Bay, from the Fylde Coast, places like St Annes and Thornton and Fleetwood, although not Blackpool itself of course which is a unitary taken out of it—which is slightly absurd for these purposes—and eastwards to the borders of Yorkshire in the Pennines. In the middle you have Preston, but not Blackburn, which is a unitary, and it extends southwards to the northern fringes of greater Manchester, and certainly areas which are part of the greater Manchester economic region.
Under these circumstances, a great deal of diversity is needed. We need a system in which there can be local area agreements for less than the whole county—not necessarily just one district but perhaps a group of districts. It may be that the PCT areas are sensible where there is a county with a number of different PCTs within it. The needs are different, the circumstances are different, the local economies are different and the targets that need to be set down will be different. Under these circumstances, it really needs a degree of diversity and flexibility and an acceptance that the district councils are equal partners and not subsidiary partners.
I have spent some time on this because it is a very important issue. Local area agreements seem to be tailored for fairly compact unitary councils. It is not clear at all that they will work well and not cause huge amounts of bureaucracy and problems in large far-flung counties. There is much confusion and concern, and, if we are going to have local area agreements, the Government have to think very carefully indeed about how they will work in places such as—and assuming that there are no unitary changes—the northern counties of Northumberland, Cumbria, Lancashire, North Yorkshire, Cheshire and many others. I beg to move.
We would find some difficulty in supporting the amendment, although I hear how carefully the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, promoted it.
The trouble with this proposal is that it is extremely bureaucratic. A number of county councils have a substantial number of district councils, and they would have to supervise and oversee a lot of community strategies. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, suggested that his amendment would make this a permissive power. I hope I have not misunderstood him, but in fact there is nothing in the amendment that is permissive at all. It makes it mandatory. We also find that difficult. So on this occasion we will not be able to support it.
The noble Lord is absolutely right that this is an important part of the Bill. I am grateful to him and to the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, for spelling out what is important about local area agreements and what is defective about the amendment. I shall point out other defects.
We are making an extremely important change. It certainly builds on the work that local authorities have done in moving beyond their traditional service delivery in the local area agreements. These new local area agreements will be on a statutory basis for the first time and will go beyond everything that exists at the moment. They will cover everything that a local authority plans to do to improve its area, either in partnership with others—for example, with regard to community safety or economic activity—or indeed on its own. What is proposed will sweep away the current system through which central government, by way of a profusion of area-based funding initiatives, imposed targets and indicators, does business. It really is a very big change—a move towards simplification as a means of reaching agreement on a much smaller set of priorities.
I turn to the spirit of the amendment. I could not agree more with the noble Lord that district councils have a very important character and role to play in this arrangement. They have their own democratic legitimacy, their own service responsibilities, and their distinct local characteristics. They engage in many ways rather better with their local communities than the counties and it is of paramount importance that they play a role in the negotiation and delivery of LAAs.
Obviously, I understand the noble Lord’s concern. He rightly talks about diversity. I am absolutely sympathetic to that. We cannot legislate to do away with diversity, but I suggest that the diversity in the targets, which will be negotiated from the bottom up, will reflect local concerns, local priorities and a way forward that will make the difference in different local areas.
Briefly, we are putting districts on an equal footing with county councils and all other named partners in agreeing targets. That is what will count: agreement on what those targets will actually achieve. First, we specifically committed to a proportion of the national indicator set of 200—no longer 1,200—national targets that will set out the national priorities. Some of those will be set at district or even neighbourhood level, so that a particular district with a particular problem with, say, anti-social behaviour, will be able to set its own specific target.
Secondly, we have also made provision for the county council to be required to consult all named partners, including districts, on the county-wide sustainable community strategy. That is the evidence base that will inform the local targets and pick up on the contrasting priorities, whether deprivation or whatever, of individual districts. We have also strengthened the powers of overview and scrutiny in the Bill by giving councils the power to require partner authorities of the LAA to attend overview and scrutiny committees, and are enhancing the districts’ role in other ways. We will talk about that later. I reinforce the point that district authorities are different from the other partners in the list, but the important thing is that they have absolutely equal status when agreeing targets, which is where they will make the most important and effective contribution. It is also important to say that the existing provisions do not create primacy for upper-tier local authorities. Targets will be agreed in negotiation between upper-tier authorities and the other partners, although we know, for the reasons given by the noble Lord, that they are not the same as the other partners.
Clause 108 introduces the procedural framework for local area agreements between the responsible authority, partner authorities and the Secretary of State. Clause 107 contains the local improvement targets. We want the provision of effective and coherent services, and I am sure that the noble Lord is at one with us on this. We are asking local authorities to look at complex needs and to see which of the 35 targets will be particularly important and relevant for them. That demands a very clear but shared view of priorities across a range of partners from counties and districts. It is absolutely vital that counties and districts agree on core priorities for their local area to avoid overlapping or contradictory targets. The process itself enables that to happen. District representation is absolutely vital. We will certainly set out in statutory guidance to accompany the Bill our view of minimum expectations so that the local districts that might be slightly laggardly will know what we expect them to achieve. We also expect the sector to develop local solutions and to generate their own models of best practice. Some of the beacon awards now look at exemplary practice in two-tier working and ensuring that developing districts play their part.
I am sympathetic to the noble Lord’s amendments, and I hope that I have been able to reassure him about what we want to see and what we expect. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, that the amendments would create a number of very problematic and unnecessary complications for the model, which we want to keep as transparent, effective and simple as possible. The amendments could create gridlock between counties and districts as they fight over targets, and multiple, overlapping and even contradictory agreements in the same county. They would also require the Government to set out in regulations how districts and counties must work together, which we would not want to do in the spirit of the Bill. I hope that that explanation reassures the noble Lord and that he might feel able to withdraw his amendment.
I am not reassured at all, I am afraid, for which I apologise to the Minister. However, the system that will be put into operation in shire counties is already very bureaucratic. It will require a huge amount of negotiation and will take up a large amount of time of a large number of district council officers. Big counties may sometimes seem to have a limitless number of officers to do these things, but districts do not; they are very often quite tightly run and have a relatively small number of staff, for fairly obvious reasons.
In a county the size of Lancashire—I will speak about Lancashire again because it is the county that I know best; it is also one of the biggest and most diverse counties—one size fits all will simply not work across the county. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said that we would have local community strategies all over the place. We are going to have those already. Every district has a local community strategy, and the county will have a community strategy. Simply meshing those together will require a huge amount of time and energy. So they will exist already. The Minister says that there will be equality because there must be agreements. If there must be agreements, there must be agreements, and it does not matter whether they are under my proposed system or the Government’s proposed system for a whole county in these circumstances. If it is an agreement, it is an agreement. If there is no agreement and there is gridlock—to use her word—the districts’ views will not be the ones that prevail when the Minister comes along. The arrangements under the local area agreement scheme that I propose would be permissive. They would have to be discussed and agreed in each county. In some cases, we might well be talking about a whole county, so it would be permissive.
The idea that the same local area agreement and targets can apply to Rossendale, Morecombe, Ormskirk and Nelson is nonsense. If there are going to be different targets, it would be far better for them to be sub-county—or sub-region, as we call east Lancashire, central Lancashire and so on—area agreements, and for them to apply at the level at which they will be relevant and will matter rather than trying to build them all into a county-wide local area agreement.
I am not satisfied at all. The Government need to think a great deal more about how this will work. That is my appeal to them this evening. If we are going to have local area agreements, will the Government look at these areas again? In some of the large counties with large, powerful districts, it will be a nightmare unless it is sorted out. Many people at district level in these places do not think that it is sorted out. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, although we will have to talk about this matter again.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendment No. 204H not moved.]
Clause 105 agreed to.
Clause 106 [Application of Chapter: partner authorities]:
204HA: Clause 106, page 67, line 14, after “other” insert “public sector health”
The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 204HA is grouped with Amendments Nos. 206 and 207 to 209 in the name of my noble friend Lady Scott, who will speak to them, and with Amendments Nos. 205 and 207A. My amendment is probably the least of these. It takes us to the clause that tells us who the partner authorities are; I suspect that the term “partner” will crop up a good deal in this discussion. The amendment is simply probing. It seeks to insert the words “public sector health” into “other establishment or facility”, not because I am particularly making the case for public sector health establishments and facilities—that case might be made at another point—but to understand what the term “other establishment or facility” means in this context. It comes after a reference to a hospital, and it would be helpful to know what the Government have in mind so that we all know who we will be working with. I beg to move.
Amendment No. 205, in this group, is tabled in my name. I agree strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, about the importance of this section of the Bill. Speaking as the leader of Wigan local authority, which has been a pilot LEA, I think that this is a really important mechanism for delivering the place-shaping agenda. I listened with care to the noble Lord’s arguments. We need to be careful that we get the places right. If they are too big, they will not reflect local needs.
Under Clause 106, the Government are trying to maintain a balance between the need to engage with partners that will achieve this place-shaping agenda and a practical concern for having organisations that can have meaningful dialogue together given the large and disparate number there could be. As the leader of a local authority, I am not convinced that we want an endless list of organisations with which we might have to engage, because that can lead to practical problems.
There are no references to educational organisations in this list. I cannot conceive of a single local area agreement that would not involve education, whether it is participation, attainment or skills. Some part of the education agenda will be a key part of a local area agreement, so we have to engage with schools and other partners. I understand the issues that my noble friend has already expressed on schools, which I have tried to cover in a later amendment. Amendment No. 205 simply concerns the post-16 sector where it is separate from FE and sixth-form colleges. I hope that my noble friend understands why local authorities think that this is important.
I will be interested to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, speak to her Amendment No. 207. I am not sure that I share her view that higher education necessarily should be in a local area agreement. It depends on the nature. On the Greater Manchester involvement, we have five universities actively engaged with us in a sub-regional context in developing the economy and the higher skills agenda. I am not sure this is always at a local level. Clearly, there are local issues in a physical sense with higher education, but in a strategic role it is beyond the boundaries of most local authorities.
My noble friend Lord Hanningfield and I have attached our names to Amendments Nos. 206 and 207, but we broadly support this whole group, which would make a much more comprehensive list of partner authorities than is there already. This section already contains welcome legislative recognition of local area agreements, which we have been discussing. These will become the primary mechanism for channelling public funds into areas prioritised by local people. So the synergistic rewards of closer co-operation are also welcome. It is therefore important that the list of partner organisations is sufficiently comprehensive to ensure that local authorities have the flexibility to work with all possible partners in their area.
More specifically, I believe that there are dangers in omitting probation trusts, which the Government are introducing under the Offender Management Bill, from the list of partners. If we truly wish to engage everyone of relevance in improving the social, economic and environmental well-being of an area, we must ensure that strategic partners are not omitted. The probation trust is an excellent example of a partner likely to be accountable for many of the priorities selected by communities.
Extending the list to ensure that a wider variety of partners have a duty to co-operate will significantly enhance the ability of the public sector to deliver local area agreement outcomes that make a significant difference to the communities they serve and will provide a broad rationale for them. I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s response, particularly about probation trusts.
Amendments Nos. 206, 207 and 209 are tabled in this group. Amendments Nos. 206 and 207 originated from the Local Government Association, which has some concerns that the list of partner authorities which can be included in a local area agreement is drawn as widely as possible. I suspect that the Minister will say, “Well you have to stop the list somewhere. You simply cannot keep adding to it”. In general, I would have some sympathy with that reply. However, one of the difficulties is that, when government create a statutory framework and name a lot of people, there is always the danger that if people are not included on the list, their exclusion is either seen as downgrading them or as making it not possible for them to co-operate in the future.
My amendments are probing, providing an opportunity for the Minister to explain how the current list of partners has been drawn up and what a local authority can do if it has a particular target for which it requires the help of someone who is not on the list. From that perspective I can help the noble Lord who asked about higher education. It is not so much the role of higher education as an educational establishment per se. In Ipswich, which I know very well, we are creating a new university the role of which as a driver for economic regeneration on the waterfront is huge, as will be the impact on the demography of the town and so on. From that point of view, co-operation with the university in its broadest sense will be key.
Amendment No. 206 is slightly less probing and more about trying to understand why the probation trusts have not been included. The noble Baroness can help us on that. I added Amendment No. 209, which mentions post offices, as an opportunity to say that I find it quite difficult to understand why the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission merits a place in the Bill and the local post office does not. Whether people are in urban or rural areas, post offices are always important. All the amendments provide a chance for the Minister to explain how the organisations in the Bill have been chosen.
My Amendment No. 207 probes two points. First, this is one of a number of opportunities in this part of the Bill to probe the relationship between the local strategic partnerships and the local area agreement. Again, I am speaking specifically about two-tier areas. For example, Lancashire has 12 local strategic partnerships at district level and one at county level, which must be replicated in many counties. In terms of the local impact of partnership working and co-ordinated investment, district level partnerships have been more important than the county partnership. As I understand it, the county partnership does not even have representation from every district on it and may have minimal representation from the districts in the county, which to some of us is entirely unacceptable and is being argued about, albeit not very successfully. What will be the relationship between the local strategic partnerships and the local area agreement if they are not part of it? If they are part of it, how will the LAA cope with the fact that there are 12 of them scattered around, doing their own thing?
My second point very much relates to east Lancashire. Elevate, the housing market renewal pathfinder in east Lancashire, along with eight others throughout the country, is responsible for a very substantial investment of channelling and government funds. The figure for east Lancashire is somewhere between £40 million and £50 million a year—I should have looked that up, but I did not—which is then channelled through the district councils. That is an important element of public investment in east Lancashire. How, then, does the pathfinder fit into the local area agreement? What is their relationship?
I shall comment briefly on what the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, said about further education colleges. That issue again illustrates the difficulties in large two-tier areas. I have been adding up in my head how many FE colleges there are in Lancashire, and I have counted eight, although there may be more. Bringing in all eight causes organisational bureaucratic difficulties of exactly the kind I was talking about with regard to having an LAA in an area such as Lancashire.
This is an important part of our debate. I hope to go some way to explaining how local area agreements will work. I will be as swift as I can in going through the various options.
The exclusions are defined by a systematic set of principles, which I will come to. I hope it will be clear to noble Lords that it is by no means a random process. The list was compiled in line with a number of important criteria. Those criteria are essentially based on the notion of key partnerships, which are required to deliver the key elements and characteristics of the place. It was never conceived as an endless list. We all know the difficulties of putting any list into legislation.
Apart from the notion of what constituted the key sustainable important partnerships, though, there were other criteria, which would explain some of the exclusions: that the partner was a public body, not a private business; that it would make sense for that body to be involved in strategic negotiations; that in placing the body under these duties we were not imposing an unreasonable burden either on it or on the responsible local authority. When we come to talk about the voluntary sector, we will use that sort of argument. Another criterion is that the body in question had a clear legal identity. Again, when we talk about local strategic partnerships, that will be a factor in that sort of argument.
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, that an organisation’s absence from the list does not mean it is not there to be worked with. There is enormous scope. There is clear instruction to local area agreement makers that they have to move beyond the list to ensure that their targets are sympathetic, comprehensive and robust—all those things.
We have also listened to the debates in another place about composition. We added some more, particularly health bodies. In doing so, we looked at the balance between overcomplicating things, enhancing partnership working and not imposing any unnecessary further bodies. Achieving the balance of what is necessary to achieve what you want without overloading the system is very important.
On her Amendment No. 204HA, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has asked me to define what we meant by “other establishment facility” in relation to NHS trusts and NHS foundation trusts in Clause 106(1)(b). The clause refers to Clause 106(3), which sets out that it is NHS trusts and NHS foundation trusts running such hospitals and other establishments or facilities. It relates to public sector health providers such as GPs and so on. There are other examples I could give. That is how it ties in; it is a comprehensive definition that would pick up what the noble Baroness is concerned about, so her amendment is not necessary.
There are a series of reasons why different parts of the education establishment fall into different categories, either because of the nature of the partnerships they already hold or because of what it would mean to bring a school into a direct relationship, with the potential burden not only on the school but also on the area if, for example, it has 300 schools.
Sixth-form colleges and FE colleges are incredibly important local organisations for education, skills and learning. The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, argues that it would be better to have them in because then skills gaps and lifelong learning could be properly addressed. I have no doubt that he is right to say that they have to be involved in tackling those issues, but most of those colleges already fully recognise the importance of working closely with local authorities, or have a local-authority-nominated member on their governing bodies. Many are active members of the 14-to-19 partnerships within local authority areas. We have made it clear in the FE reform White Paper that the strategic lead for 14 to 19 now lies with local authorities. In the recent changes in the machinery of government we indicated that funding for 14-to-19 learners would be routed through local authorities. We have a network of partnerships that we think will pick up the FE colleges without the need to put them in the Bill. The primary legislation we will need for the new framework for 16-to-19 education will provide an opportunity to determine the breadth of the local authority role and its ability to influence delivery.
We must recognise that FE colleges have been transformed in recent years. One of the complications is that they often draw their students from wide catchment areas. For example, Warwickshire has students attending from across the country, and I hear that Plymouth has 30,000 students from across the country attending its courses. We are not looking at traditional models of FE colleges here, but that will not stop colleges from co-operating on a voluntary basis where appropriate. We hope they will, and we will make it abundantly clear in statutory guidance that we expect them to.
A special set of circumstances govern regional offender managers and probation trusts. The noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Scott, have rightly argued that the list of partner authorities will need to reflect the proposed legislative changes for probation services in the Offender Management Bill. It is essential, I do not have to say, that bodies commissioned to deliver probation services are fully involved in the LAA targets and take account of them. There is possibly nothing more important than community safety, rehabilitation and addressing all the things that we know contribute to anti-social behaviour in local communities. There must be co-ordination; anti-social behaviour cannot be separated out from reoffending and homelessness, for example.
I am pleased to reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that an amendment to the Offender Management Bill passed in Committee in this House on 21 May will achieve that. In purely legislative terms—it has to be a device, because this is where the legal battle will happen—it will add to the list of partner authorities in the Bill the Secretary of State, where exercising her functions for ensuring the provision of probation services. It makes clear that her power to delegate specific functions for specific purposes applies in that case. That means that the duty will rest on the regional offender manager as the representative of the Secretary of State. We cannot name him in the Bill, but he is there. The regional offender manager will delegate that duty to co-operate, which means that the new lead providers—which in most cases will be the probation trust—will be the key partners in that. That will be reinforced by contracts, so that the lead provider will then engage with other partners in the LSP to agree and implement the LAA targets. That is how we have covered the relationship with regional offender management, and it was agreed with the partners, including the LGA.
The same argument I made about FE colleges applies with greater force in universities. Every university has a separate charter. We would need to consider whether we needed to name each and every one of them in the legislation. That is one set of issues. The other set is that they draw their students from well beyond the local catchment area. A better solution would be to ensure that responsible local authorities consulted their local universities and equivalent bodies when drawing up their local area agreements. Again, we will put that into statutory guidance to make clear that that is the expectation.
What might happen if a target in a local area related to crime and disorder and it was known that there was a problem coming from students in the university? How could the local authority ensure that the university co-operated in those circumstances?
It would certainly be in the interests of the university to co-operate and of the local authority to invite it to bring forward what it considered to be disciplinary structures and evidence of how behaviour could be improved. It might be a housing issue, or one relating to student identification. It would be important for the university to bring its experience and range of powers to bear to contribute to that target. That is not too difficult.
I refer the Minister back to probation trusts. I understood her to say that the Offender Management Bill is being amended to take account of the regional offender manager and probation trusts, but that is not effective as far as this Bill is concerned. I do not understand why it would not be more successful to amend it simply by putting into it the probation trusts as organisations that have to be consulted, rather than wait for an amended Offender Management Bill.
As I understand it, it is a purely legislative problem. The Secretary of State has to delegate to the regional offender manager as his representative. We cannot name the regional offender managers in the Bill. The Bill provides for him then to delegate the duty to co-operate. My officials assure me that they have looked at this matter in some detail and that this is the device that works and is practicable, but I am happy to write to the noble Baroness to explain in more detail how it would work if that would help.
I would be grateful if the Minister did that, because, as I understand it, the probation trusts have been set up by the Offender Management Bill and are virtually law. Therefore, even if the Secretary of State devolves power to regional offender managers, I still do not see why the trusts cannot be taken from the Offender Management Bill and be put into this Bill, thereby making the requirement to consult absolutely clear. The trouble about things being in other Bills is that nobody ever remembers them. It is relevant to the list of partners for the local area agreement. We will push to have the probation trusts put in the Bill at a later stage if we cannot do so today.
I shall certainly write to the noble Baroness to explain the legal relationships and the delegation involved.
Housing associations also fall into the category that we are discussing. There is no doubt that they have a role to play in the making of housing policy and related issues. However, they are not public bodies and do not fulfil the criteria. They are either charities, private companies or industrial and provident societies. We have sought to avoid naming organisations of that kind in the Bill. However, they should certainly be involved as voluntary partners in the creation of targets and the delivery of policy. Another problem with including housing associations is that, as we have seen with universities, they often manage properties well outside the area in which they are based. For example, Hyde Housing Association has to partner 54 local authorities. Moreover, the upcoming Cave review of regulation has looked at whether all parts of the domain of social housing should have a statutory duty to co-operate and engage with place-making. A lot is therefore happening in the field of further duties to co-operate. There is no reason why housing associations should not have an important voluntary role.
The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, also mentioned the water utilities. Water utilities, like the Post Office, are private companies. It is not appropriate to place such organisations in the Bill, not least because they have their own regulators. Ofwat is the economic regulator for the water companies; the Environment Agency and the Drinking Water Inspectorate are also involved; and the companies have their own consumer councils. They do not strictly belong in the Bill for that reason.
Local strategic partnerships are a slightly different kettle of fish.
The Minister spoke earlier about the Sustainable Communities Bill. I was discussing rural post offices earlier today. We thought that the Sustainable Communities Bill might provide some way of keeping rural post offices going. That could be part of the LAA. These things need to join up somewhere. I do not know whether the Minister has the answer. She has just said that the Post Office could not necessarily be part of the LAA, but the Sustainable Communities Bill might make it so. These matters need to be thought about and discussed. The other Bill is going through this place at the same time as this one.
My noble friend Lady Morgan is the expert on the Sustainable Communities Bill, so I shall have to take advice from her on that. I repeat that there is nothing in the Bill to preclude any of the non-named partners that we have mentioned from being involved in shaping the place, making the targets and putting their oar in in as many ways as possible. However, I shall look at the Bill’s relationship with the Sustainable Communities Bill.
Local strategic partnerships, like housing market renewal pathfinders, do not have legal status. They are voluntary and it is therefore inappropriate to include them in the Bill. However, I emphasise to the noble Lord that the local strategic partnership is no ordinary partnership. It has a crucial role in helping to articulate, visualise and inform the local area agreement. It has been doing that with the LAAs. It is that body which brings together all the key local partners, voluntary and statutory, to co-ordinate their actions, of which there are some hugely successful examples.
The clauses that we are discussing seek to ensure that responsible local authorities co-operate with all the partners and provision is made for them to consult. The local strategic partnership is crucial in bringing its intelligence, experience and inclusivity to the table.
Those 13 will have been working already with their local area agreements and will be reflecting the diversity of Lancashire, about which we heard a few moments ago. Ways of working will have to be found. I am absolutely sure that they will work together. A district authority may work with a local strategic partnership. It will have very different priorities and problems. Not only will some of the 35 targets within the national indicator set relate to the district, but so also will the local targets, which we have not begun to address. There is no limit on the number of local targets that can be set. Each district could have a different local target if that diversity existed. The arrangements that we are making through the negotiating process must allow for those matters to work through and to be resolved.
I think that I have addressed everything except the housing market renewal pathfinders.
I am sorry to intervene in this way late in this discussion, which has been very helpful and has covered the detail and complexity of a system which must involve the whole community, officials, government and quasi-government bodies if it is to work. It is a wonderful example of trying to spell out in legislation a really good local, co-operative arrangement. I mean that most sincerely. However, I have a difficulty with this. When I come to the first line of Clause 108, I read some words that are just like running into a brick wall from the point of view of handing powers down to local authorities and genuinely allowing them to get on with things and do them on their own. The clause says:
“When the Secretary of State so directs, a responsible local authority must”.
That is just like running into a brick wall. It takes all the voluntariness out of the business. If the Secretary of State directs, the local authority has to. Worse than that, if the Secretary of State does not direct, it does not have to do anything.
The matter is more complicated than that because the Secretary of State has the power to designate individual improvement targets. I must admit that, although my time studying the detail of the Bill has perhaps not been sufficiently great, I have not found what happens to them once they are designated. I have no doubt that the Minister will be able to clear things up for me on that but it is the principle that really worries me. Here we have a part of the Bill headed “Local area agreements” and “Co-operation of English authorities with local partners, etc”, and we put into a clause like that these dreadful words that stop it dead in its tracks.
We shall come on to those elements of debate under later amendments. Let me just reassure the noble Lord about something. One big change that we have made is to put the local area agreement on a statutory footing, because that is what we want to see and think would be most effective. We have lots of support for that. As he says, when,
“the Secretary of State so directs, a responsible local authority must prepare”—
but it is in the process of preparation, which we shall come to tease out in later amendments, that we shall see how democratic that process is and how the designated targets, as well as local improvement targets, will be arrived at and resolved, by an intense and thorough democratic process of negotiation between local authorities and regional offices representing the Secretary of State. It is not a new process, but it brings more within its scope. I hope that we shall have that debate later under the noble Lord’s amendments when we look at that process.
The balance that we are trying to achieve is that for the first time local authorities will determine not 1,200 targets or top-down targets but a number of targets that reflect their local priorities. They also reflect some national priorities, as we need to, but they are essentially reflecting those priorities that determine the character, needs and aspirations of local areas.
To return to housing market renewal pathfinders, they do absolutely essential work in some of the most deprived areas of the country, but they are not legal entities, which is why we have difficulty naming them. They are already included in some of the partnership work of regional development agencies and English Heritage, for example. Therefore, they have their place in some of those umbrella organisations.
I think that I have addressed all the different examples that were raised.
We have been talking about housing. Amendment No. 207, which my noble friend Lord Hanningfield and I support, refers to “a housing association”. I understand what the Minister has said in that housing associations go wider than the boundary that might be covered by the local agreement, but a registered social landlord would not be in that position. It is housing associations or private landlords who work with the local authority, and it is a worry that housing is not in this list anywhere, if the housing association cannot be put in. For all the reasons that we know, particularly over-crowding and homelessness, the targets that it may be necessary to introduce may be very real. It may require the agreement of a local housing association or a local registered social landlord to deal with that. Perhaps if we changed the words “a housing association” to “a registered social landlord”, that would make it easier for the Minister to accept the amendment at a later stage.
I do not think that that will help. We still have the issue of the status of the public body. However, if the noble Baroness will allow me, I shall take the matter away and consider it. The most important thing to bear in mind is that many voluntary organisations, large and small, are not in the Bill, and we shall discuss why that it is later. But there is nothing to preclude them from working together on the local area agreement with the statutory bodies. They will be absolutely welcome.
To pursue the matter of the housing market renewal set-up, I must admit that I do not know what the set-up is in other parts of the country. All I know is that in east Lancashire there is an organisation called Elevate, which is a partnership with a board and all sorts of things, which produces sub-regional plans and investment strategies way beyond the narrow question of housing, housing improvement and housing market renewal. It gets involved in all these other different things. If there is to be a local area agreement in east Lancashire, whether it is part of a county one or an east Lancashire one, it is difficult to see how it can be done without the integral involvement of an organisation that is one of the prime sources of public investment in the area. Rightly or wrongly, it has ambitions to be more than a partnership—and I do not know how it will be integrated into the local area agreement system.
If the local area agreement is to mean anything at all, will it include all the investment that is going in from central government via Elevate in east Lancashire and the other pathfinders in the other parts of the north of England and the Midlands? Will the investment be channelled through county level through the LAA, or will it continue to be channelled direct to Elevate? That is a crucial question for those of us in east Lancashire who think that we have had a 15-year guarantee of continued investment. There are great worries that through the Lancashire local area agreement it will be diluted round the county. That is just one example of the kind of concerns that people have.
I hope I am not repeating myself completely, but housing market renewal pathfinders are non-statutory partnerships. Clearly, any local area target in that area that is involved with improving housing or reducing homelessness will have to involve that major investment through Elevate, which is a hugely successful pathfinder. The point is that a non-statutory partnership is made up of local authorities and other key regional stakeholders, which work together as part of a concerted effort to revitalise some of the most deprived communities but, because they have no separate legal entity, cannot be named in the Bill. Because they also have a role in the regional development agencies in terms of housing spend, as well as English Heritage and place-making, they are at the table in other ways, so the noble Lord should not fear that they will be left out. They will certainly not be left out, but at the moment I cannot tell him what the financial arrangements are about those particular funds. I shall have to write to him about that.
Earlier in the passage of this Bill, the Minister referred to this part of the Bill about local area agreements as being organic. I hear her saying that anybody can join in, but reading the Bill and listening to most of this debate, “organic” is about the last thing that I think they are. In the next group of amendments but one we will come to the brick wall mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith.
Listening to the debate, a point occurs to me which occurred earlier to my noble friend; I think it was why I was a little confused about the health references. The partners are all identified by where they operate from, not by the people to whom they provide services. That is dealt with in my noble friend’s next amendment. To be hung up on some of the definitions, as we have heard described, is distracting us terribly from what this should all be about. Although I recognise that the number of targets is reducing, if we did not have the targets we would not need this very tightly detailed provision. The targets are important because funding follows the targets. I am working myself up to say, “Let’s scrap the lot of this and let the local authorities get on with it”. It comes back so often to the funding. One has to satisfy central government's desperately convoluted ways of setting their own targets for who should qualify for central funding. It always takes us back to financial arrangements—but, as it is 6.50 pm, I will not go there.
There is a huge amount of over-legislation and detail here which is distracting us from the principle and detracting from the principle. There are many trees here and it is sometimes difficult to see the wood. I shall be interested to go back and read the criteria to which the Minister referred at the start of her response. It may enable us to stand back and look at just how this might be approached with less agony. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
204J: Clause 106, page 67, line 15, after “area” insert “or who provides such services to a significant proportion of the persons resident in the area of the responsible authority”
The noble Lord said: My noble friend Lady Hamwee has just trailed this amendment, which is about the relationship between local area agreements and the health service organisations that will take part in the agreements. It addresses the Bill’s provision about the location of the services provided and the fact that that is often quite different from the distribution of those using the services. The issue is sometimes fairly simple, as with local community services, but it can be quite complex for larger hospitals. The pattern is particularly complex in some large conurbations where there is a great deal of overlap. If the men in the ambulance come to get you in the part of the world where I live, the first thing they ask—assuming that you are capable of giving an answer—is, “Burnley or Airedale?”. Burnley is part of the East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust—although, given the recent changes, they will now ask, “Blackburn or Airedale?”. But that is another matter.
Burnley and Blackburn are in east Lancashire and Airedale is over the tops in Yorkshire, in the Aire Valley, and is clearly a different set-up altogether. But traditionally people in our end of the county go to Airedale, and that is particularly true of those parts of the county that used to be in Yorkshire. Pretty well everybody goes to Airedale. So it is a question of the interaction between investment decisions and the provision of services. Presumably those are the key things that will appear in the local area agreements, linked to targets coming out of those and the location of the places that will provide those services. It may not be the organisations—the primary care trusts and NHS trusts—that will be negotiating the local area agreement in a given area.
A further problem is, for example, that Blackburn is not in Lancashire anyway. It is a big black hole in the middle of Lancashire, which makes a nonsense of the whole thing. Presumably the East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust will have to take part in the local area agreements in the whole of Blackburn and its part of Lancashire. That is very complex. It will be interesting to know how the Government see it working in practice. I beg to move.
The noble Lord is arguing that NHS trusts and foundation trusts should be named as partners for all responsible authorities in which they provide services to “a significant proportion” of residents rather than only to the responsible authorities in whose areas they have facilities. The reasoning behind the amendment is that the services provided by the trusts may indeed have catchments that go beyond local authority boundaries, as the noble Lord has explained, and some trusts would not therefore have to co-operate with the responsible local authorities in which they provide services but do not happen to have facilities. In the light of the noble Lord's comments, the debate on the previous amendment and the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that we seem to be over-complicating matters and doing a lot of things of which they do not approve, it is interesting to note that implementation of this amendment would be very complicated indeed. For reasons that I shall explain, it would have serious unintended practical consequences.
When we added NHS trusts and NHS foundation trusts to the list of partner authorities in another place in recognition of the role they play in delivering local priorities well beyond health, we made it clear that we did not wish to place on them or on the responsible local authorities any unnecessary burdens or confusions that might be brought about by the nature of many of the trusts. For that reason, we have required that only the trusts that operate a facility within the boundaries of the authority must be a partner.
We have described this as the Great Ormond Street Hospital problem. Trusts such as Great Ormond Street deliver specialist services across the country at a regional and even national level rather than to one specific local place. We do not wish to place on Great Ormond Street a burdensome requirement to co-operate with all the responsible local authorities in the country. That is just what the amendment would do. I can see that it attempts to limit the number of responsible local authorities with which each trust must co-operate by the notion of “significant proportion”, but that is too ill defined to work in practice. Great Ormond Street delivers specialist children’s services across the country. Clearly children and their families will make up a “significant proportion” of residents in each area who may at some point require Great Ormond Street to provide them with specialist services. So by that definition it would have to co-operate with every responsible local authority.
I support the notion that where the catchment area of a trust clearly goes beyond the boundary of the responsible local authority in which it has facilities, we should encourage—and we will do so in guidance—local decision makers to consider how the neighbouring authority should co-operate with it, a discretion which they enjoy through Clause 108(2)(a)(ii). As I said, we will set that out in guidance. I urge the noble Lord to think about the amendment’s implications. They would be very serious for the large specialist and third-tier hospitals.
I made the Government think a little about the difficulties and that’s okay. I thank the Minister for her reply, because she has been thinking about it. The big specialist hospitals—which are really regional—are one issue, and I think that that is a separate issue. It is not clear that they should be tied into the local area agreement at all. It does not seem relevant that Great Ormond Street is located within a particular London borough because it ought to be part of a wider system.
It has just occurred to me that, next time the ambulance comes to take me away, neither of the hospitals from which I can choose—if it happens, I hope that I am sufficiently able to make that choice—is in Lancashire. Therefore, neither of them will be part of the local area agreement that will involve the two local authorities of Lancashire county council and Pendle borough council in which I reside. The system will be difficult, to put it mildly, because without the co-operation of those two hospitals any health targets, or health-related targets, in the part of Lancashire in which I live will be absolutely meaningless. There are problems. This matter ought to be thought out. It may just require more flexibility on the ground, which I have argued for throughout, and a more local approach. Having made those remarks and listened to the Minister’s interesting comments, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendments Nos. 205 to 207A not moved.]
208: Clause 106, page 68, line 3, leave out sub-paragraph (i) and insert—
“(i) the relevant Secretaries of State as determined from time to time by order of the Secretary of State with responsibility for local government.”
The noble Baroness said: My noble friend and I have added our names also to Amendments Nos. 209ZBA, 210C, 210D, 212EA and 212EB in this group. Amendments Nos. 209BA, 211 and 211C stand in the names of other Members of the Committee.
In the last exchange, I believe that the Minister said that all partners will be equal in local area agreements. This group of amendments enables us to ask whether one partner will be more equal than others or, to put it another way, aka brick wall, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith.
We were prompted to table Amendment No. 208 by the Local Government Association. It asks which Secretary of State will deal with various matters. I am well aware that in law there is a single Secretary of State. That is at least one complication that one does not need to face in having to define them differently in Bills. However, in pointing that out, the Minister in the Commons said that he hoped he had answered the point. I could not see that he had—the point being that the Secretary of State is not required to co-operate in drawing up agreements, although he has the power to approve or reject them. That needs to be explained if the Secretary of State is to be a partner on an equal basis with the others. The Secretary of State should not be interposed at a point somewhere down the line in the sequence of arrangements as a facilitator or a hurdle or, indeed, a block.
Amendment No. 209ZBA draws the Committee’s attention to the requirement in Clause 108 that the local authority in question has to submit the draft local area agreement to the Secretary of State when he so directs. The Secretary of State already has an order-making power under Clause 106. This morning I was rather distressed when I realised that I had not tabled an amendment to take out Clause 106(7). However, it is all part and parcel of the same argument that there is an enormous amount of prescription and that the Secretary of State’s role in the Bill appears not to be as one understood it from the White Paper and other government publications.
Amendments Nos. 210C and 210D seek to leave out subsections (5) and (6) of Clause 108, which concern the Secretary of State’s directions. Therefore, the thrust of the amendments is that he or she should not make those directions. Amendments Nos. 212EA and 212EB seek to leave out similar requirements in Clause 113, which concerns revision proposals for designated targets.
In summary, if the Secretary of State is to be a partner in the way that local authorities and many other organisations are to be partners, what can the Minister tell us which will enable us to read the Bill in a very different way from how I and my noble friends read it at present, applying common sense and an ordinary understanding of language? I beg to move.
My name is added to Amendment No. 208. I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 209BA and 211C.
The recurring theme today revolves around devolution—decoupling central and local government to grant councils the autonomy they need and deserve to deliver efficient and high-quality services for their constituents. It is logical that the LAA should be designed in consultation with all stakeholders—partners, businesses, service users and the general public—and that it should be controlled at the local level, as we discussed. We must get over the negative connotations associated with a postcode lottery, to coin a phrase, and learn to think more intelligently. Establishing local people’s priorities and providing local solutions to local problems is surely a positive concept—a postcode democracy. Too often we have witnessed micromanagement through a plethora of targets and a one-size-fits-all approach to governing at the local level. We have talked about the need for more flexibility as regards different systems across the country. The supposed safety net is surely not the solution; it demands the allocation of resources towards targets that may have little resonance with local people at the expense of delivering what really matters.
These amendments are complementary to others tabled this afternoon and their purpose is simple—to demonstrate faith in local government, facilitate the use of discretion in policy-making and, more importantly, to give credence to the democratic process. The design and refinement of local improvement targets will therefore be absolutely reflective of the wishes of local people.
Earlier this afternoon we discussed the list of partners that should be involved in local area agreements. I fully endorse the LGA’s contention that central government should be involved as a partner. The White Paper continually refers to partnership arrangements and the Government’s absence from the list denotes a dictatorial standpoint—as my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith said—directing, not participating in, the delivery of LAAs. I illustrate this point with a hypothetical example. A local improvement target could be to reduce social disorder and anti-social behaviour in an area. Clearly, the local authority would be inclined to work with the Home Office on such a matter. Indeed, a council battling the impact of climate change on a coastal area would want to engage with Defra as part of its strategy.
The Government have waxed lyrical about the devolution agenda for some time. We have had a short debate today about devolving more. I repeat that the Bill provides an opportunity to legitimise the rhetoric and deliver truly meaningful and valuable reform to a sector crippled by targets and stifled by ring-fenced funding. These amendments are intended to enhance the legislation and, in so doing, enhance the lives of the people we represent.
I intend to withdraw my Amendment No. 211 from this group because it is substantially different in nature from the amendments that have been moved and spoken to. In doing so, I should say that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, about postcode lottery. It is a phrase that is used too often. While we should celebrate local diversity, it is clear that there should be minimum national standards.
I have been involved in a pilot local area agreement and I can assure noble Lords that they work. It seems to me that the worries about Clause 108 are unnecessary. Remembering the process we went through, I see this as a mechanistic proposal; in other words, you do it at this time to suit everyone, and after so many years you do it again. That is the kind of arrangement I imagine will develop. It is not quite what noble Lords seem to think.
I am grateful for my noble friend’s intervention because there is a danger of making a meal of this, if I may so put it. I want to stress how much this is a negotiated process between local authorities and the regional offices representing the Secretary of State. It is interesting to note that my noble friend has degrouped an amendment that would have imposed an extra discipline on the Secretary of State, which would have been too rigid. In fact, several of the amendments seem to seek more discipline while others introduce less rigidity. It is important that I explain to noble Lords how we think this is going to work and how the Secretary of State fits in. The idea that the Secretary of State is a heavy-handed person or office which jumps into the process at some stage and either brings it to a halt or insists on how it is going to be done is not how it is going to happen. I can assure noble Lords of that and I emphasise that that is not the kind of relationship we want to create.
I refer noble Lords to the statement of intent accompanying this part of the Bill, Cooperation of English Authorities with Local Partners. We made it clear in the other place that the new-style LAAs will be a genuine negotiation between central and local government and their partners. We are building on the local government White Paper, and recently we produced a publication called Developing the future arrangements for local area agreements. It states:
“The negotiation will explore the extent to which the local priorities … match central departments’ views on improvement priorities and identify where compromises may be needed from both the locality and central government to strike the right central/local deal around agreed priorities for the local area”.
For the first time we are trying to evolve a set of local priorities that matches national priorities in certain respects—they are often reflected in local situations—and, of course, some local priorities are genuinely local. There may be genuine pockets of worklessness and stubborn deprivation which are not found in the district next door. But there is a set of national priorities, such as improving health and well-being, which resonate and are relevant to every local authority. It is not much more complicated than that. The publication goes on to state:
“The 9 Government Offices will continue to represent Central Government in the negotiations with local authorities and their partners … In doing so the Government Office will draw on its knowledge of local objectives and any tensions that are likely to arise”.
That is what the government offices do; they act as a mediator between central and local government, and they do it well. They are highly experienced, as well as being familiar with and on first name terms with most local authorities. We could have done this in other ways. We could have set out in the Bill that a draft LAA would have to be submitted to the government office at specific points in the run-up to submitting the draft to the Secretary of State. We could have prescribed that it had to be done through a set process of meetings that would have to take place. We could have built in a very prescriptive and rigid system, but we have not done so.
I have in front of me an account of what Suffolk is doing. I shall not read it aloud, but I know that the noble Baroness will be quite interested. The processes Suffolk is working through seek to determine the conditions around partnerships and how central government departments are working together in order to identify in Whitehall the cross-cutting priorities for partnerships, not least what will make up the 200 indicators and how they can be reflected across sub-county targets. We have officers who are active partners in developing the negotiating process for the new-style LAAs, and local government representatives on the Designing New LAAs Project Board. This is a very pragmatic and honourable process, and it is not true to say that Secretaries of State will barge through all this and expect their wishes to prevail. That is to misread the nature of what we are trying to create. This is where and how we are serious about devolution.
The noble Baroness is saying what we want to hear, so why can the Bill not be drafted in such a way as to make us feel comfortable and secure? We have had a massive number of targets, some of them ridiculous. It can take a lot of money and effort just to achieve a small target, one that is totally unnecessary to the relevant authority. We have lost confidence. Why can some of our amendments not be included so as to facilitate what the noble Baroness is saying?
I have not said anything about not accepting or accepting amendments. The noble Lord has asked me to explore the nature of making legislation. In this Bill we are trying to set up a framework to create a discipline so that something will happen and voluntary local area agreements will apply in every local area. The agreements will be able to deliver what local people want, aspire to and need without compromising or reducing flexibility and without creating a superstructure. That is why the Bill is framed in terms of the balance I have described.
Amendment No. 208 is interesting and would have a significant negative consequence. It concerns the definition of “Secretary of State”. Its immediate effect would be to remove Jobcentre Plus and the Highways Agency from the list of named partners. Those bodies do not have a legal status independent of the Secretary of State, which is why they are named in the Bill in terms of the Secretary of State exercising certain functions. The Secretary of State exercising his functions under Section 2 of the Employment and Training Act 1973 is in fact Jobcentre Plus. When he exercises his functions as a highway or traffic authority, he is in fact the Highways Agency. This is a conflation which is represented by the term “Secretary of State”.
I am sure we all agree that we do not want to remove these organisations, because that would not be desirable. In their place would be a power for the Secretary of State with responsibility for local government to add any other Secretary of State to the list of named partners. The outcome would be to require decisions on individual targets that are related in some way to the functions of relevant government departments to be agreed with central government from the outset. But as I have said, it is vital that those priorities are reached by the local partners themselves. It would also be unworkable because central government departments would be bound to have regard to every individual LAA target that related to them and to which they had signed up. Again, that would not make any sense. Lastly, by naming individual Secretaries of State as partnering authorities, we would be positioning individual departments as needing to agree targets unilaterally when doing so on a collective basis. That is the opposite of what noble Lords want.
Instead, as I have explained, we have a shared set of indicators—200 not 1,200, which I know noble Lords will be pleased about—to be agreed collectively on core national priorities on an area-by-area basis, which will reflect how they are to work, and to develop that framework in a collaborative way. I am happy to confirm that important and positive steps are being taken in all these areas. The set of 200 indicators is now being negotiated across Whitehall and will be announced this autumn. We are currently running feasibility testing of the new LAA model in 17 local authority areas by means of negotiation. That is why I quoted the case in Suffolk, which is aiming to simulate the negotiation process that will be conducted for real in the autumn to identify its benefits.
Amendments Nos. 209BA and 209ZBA deal with the arrangements for initiating an LAA. Amendment No. 209BA would allow a draft LAA to be initiated either at the direction of the Secretary of State or by the responsible local authority itself. Amendment No. 209ZBA would leave this entirely to the discretion of the responsible authority. Clause 108 allows an LAA to be initiated only by the Secretary of State. The reason for this, as with many judgments in government and in partnerships, is that there must be a clear and agreed process and a timetable by which LAAs can be negotiated and signed off. We cannot have a situation where there are competing local area agreements for the same area, one initiated by the local authority and one by the Secretary of State; we cannot have a situation where we cannot guarantee across Whitehall that an LAA will be negotiated and to a particular timetable, not least because, without such a guarantee, there is a real danger that the myriad existing performance and reporting arrangements, which we are all now trying to slim down, will spring up again by default.
Clause 108 contains the process of negotiation which we will formally, at the direction of the Secretary of State and as a matter of practice, set out in guidance. We are developing the guidance with the LGA and we will set out the process for negotiation and the timetable for the next round of LAAs. We expect to issue that guidance as soon as possible after the announcement of CSR07, which will, in turn, confirm the approximately 200 national indicators.
Amendments Nos. 210C and 210D are very similar. They also deal with the process for initiating LAAs but seek severely to limit the direction-making power of the Secretary of State. The House has reiterated time and again in legislation the dangers of putting too much power in the hands of the Secretary of State, and we know the nature of such debates. I understand those concerns, but subsections (5) and (6) are proportionate and necessary to make sure that these new and entirely devolutionary LAAs can be made to work.
Amendment No. 210C would mean that, where the Secretary of State issued a direction to an authority to prepare an LAA, he could not set a date by which it had to be submitted. How much would that weaken the direction? The preparation would be open-ended and might never be concluded. Amendment No. 210D would ensure that a direction issued by the Secretary of State to prepare an LAA could not be revoked or varied; but these powers are essential because otherwise a local authority could be tied indefinitely into a set of priorities which might change. If the Secretary of State could not revoke a direction he would not be able to deal with any emergencies which might arise—flooding, for example.
My noble friend has withdrawn his amendments so I will turn to Amendment No. 212EA, which also seeks to diminish the role of the Secretary of State. It reduces the extent to which an LAA can generally be seen as an agreement because a revision proposal would no longer have to be submitted as is provided for in Clause 113(1)(a). It would have a similar impact; it would not allow the Secretary of State to require a revision. Both amendments would compel the Secretary of State, having signed off an LAA, to live with that agreement for three years with no scope to amend. However, let us consider what might happen if a big local employer collapsed or there was an environmental disaster. You would be unable to address the situation through your LAA because there would be no scope for revision. I hope I have made myself clear on that.
Amendment No. 211C deals with the local implications of LAAs. It seeks to ensure that responsible local authorities and partner authorities have more regard to local improvement targets in the LAA in the exercise of their functions over and above the regard that they would pay to other targets. I understand and agree that we want local improvement targets to be taken very seriously by partners, but we have to consider how that would work. I mentioned flooding as an example. It would be inappropriate for the Environment Agency or the fire authorities to be required to have more regard to LAA targets than to dealing with basic emergency situations. One needs to build in flexibility.
I am persuaded that we have the balance right in Clause 110. The duty to have regard will ensure that authorities will have to take account of LAA targets but, if there is good reason for not doing so, they will be able to have them revised.
I hope noble Lords are reassured by this explanation of the negotiation process—I may be being optimistic—and understand where we are coming from and what we have tried to put in place to ensure that this is successful from the local authority’s point of view.
We have been in this situation before. Many people want the responsibility for doing things but ultimately run away from putting their hands up when something goes wrong. We have all been in local government and increasingly there is a tendency to blame the Government—not government at local, district or parish level, but “the Government”. I therefore see nothing wrong in this Government, whom I strongly support, being responsible but firm.
Many people too fondly believe that the general populace is anxious to be involved in local government and local affairs. I live in Loughton, in the middle of the Epping Council area, and the noble Lords, Lord Dixon-Smith and Lord Hanningfield, know that there neither their party nor mine has a look in. That does not mean that the Liberal Democrats have it. The Loughton Ratepayers Association, which, whatever it may be underneath, is an ostensibly non-political organisation, rules the roost politically. I was active in the Enfield area when the merger took place in the 1960s. At that time, Southgate Council, with a 20,000 Conservative majority, did not have a Conservative councillor; the council consisted of councillors representing rent and rate payers’ associations.
Various devices are used by people who run under a false banner. The Government are seeking to change the system and, in so doing, to give genuine opportunities for people to combine their talents and strengths at a community level. That is a good thing, which is why I support the Government.
I am reassured by the Minister’s image of a cuddly Secretary of State, with which she started her explanation. She commented separately on amendments which need to be read together; for example, our proposal for removing the Secretary of State’s right of direction with regard to variation makes sense only if the right of direction for the original is taken out, which is what we were seeking to do.
The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, mentioned that the statement of intent is not part of the Bill and will not be part of the Act. I do not doubt the good faith with which the Minister explained what is in the statement of intent, but we have to respond to what is on the face of the Bill, and that is what lies behind these amendments.
The Minister gathered quite a head of steam in responding to Amendment No. 208 and told me first, secondly and thirdly why she could not accept it. I would point out, fourthly, that it has a spelling mistake in it. For that reason, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendment No. 209 not moved.]