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Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill

Volume 694: debated on Thursday 19 July 2007

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 (Lord Brabazon of Tara) in the Chair.]

235A: Before Clause 184, insert the following new Clause—

“Persons covered by code

In section 49(6) of the Local Government Act 2000 (c. 22) (principles governing conduct of members of relevant authorities), before paragraph (a), insert—

“(za) regional assemblies,”.”

The noble Baroness said: This amendment relates to regional assemblies and therefore to a certain extent has been overtaken by events, given the announcement about the abolition of regional assemblies. However, I have decided not to withdraw it because it raises what I believe is an important point of principle on which it would be useful to understand the Government’s thinking.

About two years ago, I was slightly alarmed to discover that the so-called stakeholder members of regional assemblies are not covered by the code of conduct for standards of behaviour in the same way as councillors who sit on regional assemblies. The point had arisen in a regional assembly during which there was a debate on house building. A member of the construction industry who was present as a stakeholder member refused to declare an interest. In the ensuing brouhaha, it transpired that someone who wanted to threaten him with the Standards Board was unable to because he was not covered.

I have raised this point several times in your Lordships' House because it seems quite extraordinary that a member of the smallest parish council is subject to the rulings of the Standards Board and the procedures relating to the code of conduct, while someone who is on a regional assembly, putting together regional housing and planning strategies involving tens of thousands of houses, is not subject to that. In parenthesis, I add that I discovered at the same time that regional assemblies are not included in the bodies subject to the Freedom of Information Act. I have not tabled any amendments in that regard, but that goes to show that there appears to be one set of standards that apply to local authorities and their members and quite another for quangos. Given that quangos are now spending more public money than local authorities, I should be interested to know why the Government do not think that codes of conduct and the Standards Board ought to cover quangos, especially regional assemblies. I beg to move.

235ZAA: Before Clause 184, line 4, after “authorities),” insert “—


The noble Lord said: The purpose of my two amendments, which are linked, is to widen the discussion slightly from the specific question of regional assemblies, which may not be with us for much longer, to the general question of partnerships and partnership bodies at all levels. The whole question of declarations of interest in relation to those bodies has got into rather a muddle. The amendments would add to those bodies that are subject to the provision of having to declare an interest,

“a Local Strategic Partnership which has been set up by a local authority and works in partnership with that local authority”,


“any other partnership in which a local authority is a partner and which works in partnership with that local authority to carry out substantial investment or deliver significant services on behalf of that local authority”.

The purpose is obviously to raise the general principle. There are two sides to it and the situation in any locality can get incredibly complicated. Rightly or wrongly, the Government are encouraging what they call partnership working, which means that local authorities are working with other bodies to invest in and deliver services which, in the old days, would have been the responsibility of the local authority itself. In those circumstances, the local authority doing something is no problem. Councillors are councillors and get on with their jobs.

Where partnerships are set up on which the local authority is represented, you have two classes of members on the board: there are the councillors, who are, in the main, appointed by local authorities, although there may be some who sit there for other reasons; and then there is everyone else. They are in two quite different sets of circumstances. That kind of double hatting, as it is known, in some cases leads to two problems.

First, I refer specifically to LSPs, because they are so important. The Minister will tell me again that they are not statutory bodies, have no legal status and exist in some kind of void or limbo. That is not how it seems locally. The LSPs are very important bodies indeed, and the Government and all kinds of government-related quangos divert huge amounts of investment through them. All the single regeneration budget schemes, which still exist in many places, the neighbourhood renewal fund and many more are funded by government money that is channelled through LSPs. So the idea that they are some sort of local advisory body and do nothing very important is absolutely untrue.

Councillors and non-councillors, who represent a whole range of bodies such as voluntary organisations, local colleges and local businesses, sit on LSPs. LSPs—I give this caveat to almost everything—work very differently in different places. In some places, they work hand in glove with the council; in others, including in some quite large cities, they are almost freestanding, independent bodies on which the council is simply represented, perhaps by only one person. It varies a lot. When councillors sit on LSPs, they obviously sit as councillors, and must declare any personal interests that they might have. Yet the other members do not. If someone represents an FE college and matters relating to it arise, it is perfectly reasonable for that interest to be declared but not to be prejudicial because that is why they are there. It should be declared, but it does not have to be at the moment. If, however, the person representing that college has an interest in something else that arises at the LSP—they might be a shareholder in a local firm that is benefiting from an investment project or a member of a community group that is being funded by the LSP—they do not have to declare it. This is illogical. It does not lead to the transparency of decision-making which the whole question of declarations of interest is supposed to create, and it could in some circumstances lead to corrupt practices.

On the other hand, the councillors on the LSP must declare an interest of one sort of another, depending on what it is, when they return to their local authority. Under the new code of conduct, if they are local authority representatives on the LSP, the interest would be non-prejudicial, as I understand it. If they are on the LSP in some other capacity, however, it would not be. Councillors, who are the elected representatives of the community, are therefore being treated differently from and more restrictively than others who are there in other capacities. My amendments therefore seek to probe what some of us think is an anomaly and to ask what might be done about it. I have great interest in what the Minister has to say about this. It is not right at the moment, and the matter really does have to be probed further. I beg to move.

These are two very interesting Opposition amendments. The first would add regional assemblies, and the second would add local strategic partnerships and other partnership bodies to the list of relevant authorities for the purposes of the ethical regime for local government, which would mean that members of these bodies would be subject to the provisions of the code of conduct that members of relevant authorities are required to follow.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for resisting the temptation to take us on an excursion to the future regional assemblies. I will observe the same discipline. There is no doubt in my mind that it is important that members of regional assemblies should follow high standards of conduct and good practice so that they act transparently and accountably. My difficulty is with a blanket extension of the national code of conduct to members of these bodies, as the amendment suggests. That is unnecessary for the following reasons. Regional assemblies are not currently subject to a statutory code of conduct, but two-thirds of members of the assemblies are already covered by a code of conduct as they are members of local authorities. That code applies to them when they act as representatives of their authority on other bodies such as the assemblies. In addition, I understand that the conduct of the remaining third of members who are not representatives of their local authorities are also subject to a code, as the assemblies have adopted their own voluntary codes of conduct that broadly reflect the terms of the model code for local authorities, although not on a statutory basis. I therefore hope that that overlapping system takes care of the noble Baroness’s anxieties.

The noble Lord’s amendments explore a very interesting situation in relation to the LSPs, but it is interesting because of the nature of local authority partnerships as a whole and the interrelationship between the people who sit on those bodies and their respective responsibilities, because they sometimes wear two, three or even four hats. I have to give him the answer that he expected, which in essence is that LSPs are not legal bodies and so cannot be covered by the code in the same way. We cannot place a duty on an LSP for that reason. I dispute the assertion that there is a void. I spoke at some length a couple of days ago about how important the LSPs were, not least as bodies that formulate and articulate the local area agreements. They are incredibly important, but they are very variable. We cannot put such institutions under the code in the same way. Moreover, each public statutory partner to an LSP has its own structure and rules, and carries that code with it. As the noble Lord said, local authority members certainly would. Each organisation must therefore take measures to ensure that its LSP representatives act appropriately.

The list of partner authorities in Clause 106 includes a number of bodies that are already covered by the code of conduct. It also includes persons and members of bodies, such as the chief of police and members of the local probation board, to whom it would be inappropriate to extend the local government code of conduct. However, I do find the noble Lord’s argument about the LSPs very interesting, and, although I cannot promise to do anything, I can promise to think about it and to discuss it and other issues to which it gives rise with the department.

I am very grateful for that response, which is as good as I thought it would be. These amendments were tabled precisely to try to get people and the Government to think about it. On the point about the LSPs, it has come home to me only in the past fortnight while we have discussed this matter in Committee just how much of a legal limbo—I know that the Minister does not like that phrase—LSPs seem to find themselves in. It is absolutely true that they exercise their powers on behalf of their members, particularly the local authorities, but they are, as the Minister said, incredibly important bodies in regeneration and the whole partnership structure in an area that has now grown up. I am coming to the view that people should be thinking very seriously about their status and whether they should be put on a statutory footing. These bodies take decisions involving millions and millions of pounds—more in some areas—of investment. Should they really have this non-legal status? It is quite extraordinary how this has happened. However, that is a different matter and my amendments do not relate to it. I am very grateful that the Minister will think about this during her summer holidays, although I cannot promise her that I will. On that basis, I am quite happy. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 235ZAA, as an amendment to Amendment No. 235A, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 235ZAB, as an amendment to Amendment No. 235A, not moved.]

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her slight encouragement to my noble friend Lord Greaves. My noble friend and I were dealing with the same issue, although one of us at a very local sense and the other regional. In essence, as local authorities work in partnership with a wide variety of bodies, it is becoming increasingly obvious that having one set of processes governing the conduct of the elected members and another set governing the conduct of those who are not is becoming problematic. It seems to me that this can be approached in two ways. One either has a stringent code of conduct which applies to everyone or something approaching the situation described by the Minister for regional assemblies; that is, a voluntary code of conduct which everyone knows and understands. Certainly, from these Benches, that would be our preferred option. Local arrangements arrived at voluntarily by all the partners, and applicable to all the partners, would be a much better way forward. The real issue and the reason that we have tabled these amendments is to bring to the attention of the Government the fact that one set of rules applies to councillors, which contains fairly heavy sanctions, while those same rules do not apply to others. However, we will read carefully what the noble Baroness has said and will wait to hear the Government’s thinking on this. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

235AA: Before Clause 184, insert the following new Clause—

“Members subject to code

In section 49(1) of the Local Government Act 2000 (c. 22) (principles governing conduct of members of relevant authorities) after the word “members” insert the words “(including appointed members)”.”

The noble Baroness said: Previously in Committee, we had lengthy discussions about the new category of parish councillors who are to be appointed rather than elected or co-opted. This amendment simply is to ask the noble Baroness to confirm, so that we have it on record, that councillors who are appointed to parishes will be subject to the code of conduct, as are other categories of councillors. I beg to move.

Amendments Nos. 235AC and 237ZA are to probe the meaning of the model code of conduct and the advice given to councillors in relation to it. When the model code of conduct was first adopted—I think that it was originally in regulations in 2001—it was intended that local authorities could amend or add to it in their own circumstances. It appears that it has now become very much a code of conduct which you have to have and you modify or add to it at your peril.

I have an interesting document, which everyone who has the privilege to be an elected councillor will have received recently, called The Code of Conduct—Guide for Members, issued in May 2007 by the Standards Board for England. The pamphlet explains the new model code for councillors. Page 4 of the introduction, “Adopting the Model Code of Conduct”, says:

“It is also important that the Code of Conduct is adopted in its model form, without amendment. This will give certainty to members and the public as to what standards are expected. It will ensure consistency throughout local authorities, avoiding confusion for members on more than one authority and for the public. It will also minimise the legal risk of your authority adopting additional provisions which are unenforceable”.

We appear to have a situation now where it is not a model code of conduct; it is virtually a statutory code of conduct or an instruction on what councils have to do. If they go beyond this, they do so at their own peril. I believe that this leads to confusion. My amendment probes how far the Standards Board for England is saying, “You adopt this, full stop”, on behalf of the Government and how much it has decided for itself.

It is wonderful that so many noble Lords have joined us for this important discussion on the model code of conduct. I hope that I shall be swift in dealing with this. I can confirm that the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, is correct on the first amendment. As she suggested, this applies in the same way to appointed members.

On the second group of amendments, I am afraid that the noble Lord has wrong-footed me because I did not expect him to come from that direction. One can never predict which direction he will come from. However, I shall say briefly what I intended to say. His amendment removes the remit of the code to include all behaviour in members’ private and official capacity, which is the substance of Clause 104 dealing with the remit of the principles and provisions of the model code. It follows from the judgment in 2006 in the appeal of the Mayor of London, which cast doubt on the ability of the code to cover the conduct of members in their private capacity. I am sure that we will come on to discuss those issues at a later stage. There are some interesting things that I want to say about that.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, raised the rigidity, or inflexibility, of the code. It is a statutory instrument which councils are required to observe. It is not easily extended. That can be done only by negative instrument. I suggest reading Hansard. I will come back to him on this point when we can have a discussion on the issues implied in his questions.

Finally, Amendment No. 238ZAA also was in this group. Authorities which do not adopt a code of conduct, and whose members are subject to the model code of conduct issued by the Secretary of State, are required to include a copy of the model code as part of their constitution. Amendment No. 238ZAA would delete this provision, which would be unfortunate because it would reduce transparency and accountability. That is why we would have difficulty in accepting that amendment.

I am sorry. I was confused with the groupings, largely because I was away yesterday. I deliberately did not speak to Amendment No. 238ZAA because I was advised by my noble friend that it is not in this group.

No, it is not. I shall not keep the House in suspense any longer. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

This may be a good moment to resume the House and I confirm that the Committee will begin again after the lunch adjournment. I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.