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Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill

Volume 695: debated on Monday 15 October 2007

Further consideration of amendments on Report resumed.

Clause 236 [Duty to consult users of health services]:

217A: Clause 236, page 168, line 40, leave out “received by users” and insert “supplied by providers”

The noble Earl said: My Lords, new subsection (1E), on page 168, states:

“The reference in each of subsections (1C)(a) and (1D)(a) to the delivery of services is to their delivery at the point when they are received by users”.

What is this all about? I think it is an attempt to exclude from the scope of any public consultation services that the Government decide they want to procure from private providers. We have seen this situation on a national scale with the introduction of independent treatment centres. ISTCs were imposed on PCTs from the centre, whether they liked it or not. New subsection (1E) is designed to give Ministers a reserve power to introduce services top-down in a similar way in the future. Is that right?

If so, why is there no provision for consultation at a national level for any top-down decisions that Ministers choose to take? National consultation would be no less important in those sorts of circumstances than local consultation about other service issues. I say again, as I did in Committee, that if the spirit of the Bristol inquiry is to be honoured and kept alive, an equivalent form of consultation and involvement at a national level has to be provided. I do not see that anywhere.

Most of us accept that the world of healthcare provision has changed from 10 years ago. Plurality of providers is a concept that is here to stay. Given that, would we not want public involvement in both procurement and changes in procurement in situations where there may be a question of a private provider being brought in or indeed dispensed with? On the contrary, patients and the public need to know about these things and make their contribution, because that is one vital way of ensuring that services are patient-focused. We need to hear from the Minister whether she agrees with that and, if she does, what she proposes to do about it. I beg to move.

My Lords, I have one addition to what the noble Earl has said. He and I are as one in thinking that the intention must be as he stated. On the issue of national representation, the Minister will know about National Voices and that we will have a national user body—or at least we hope we will in the near future. One thing that worries me is that, as the noble Earl outlined, there is no reference anywhere here to any role that such a national body might play. There is a gap where one might expect something about that, and there is plenty of room for suspicion—if no more—in how the Bill is phrased right now. I hope the Minister will be able to reassure us.

My Lords, I hope I can offer some reassurance. I do not accept the noble Earl’s analysis of the question of consultation around a provider. The whole policy remit of the Bill is about providing for consultation around the provision of services. New duties are introduced, for example, for strategic health authorities to consult on their role and the frameworks for which they are responsible. Some of the concerns that the noble Earl has raised in this amendment might legitimately be answered in those clauses if one is looking at the general thrust of policy towards the delivery of services in an area. I do not accept the noble Earl’s analysis, although I accept the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Neuberger, about the importance of developments outside the terms of the Bill, such as the National Voices initiative. Additionally, a level of scrutiny exists over and above the Bill through bodies such as the Health Select Committee, which holds the Government to account. That is equally important.

We do not accept that the change proposed by the amendment makes good sense. Involvement and consultation should be meaningful and have some relevance to patients and the public. The clause provides specifically for consultation to relate to services received by patients and the public, because that is relevant and meaningful to them. I do not want to repeat our discussions in Committee.

The clause relating to services supplied has the effect of requiring involvement and consultation of patients and the public on matters where they would have no ability to judge the effect of any change, except possibly through any preconceptions they might have about a provider. It makes more sense for consultation to be about the services that a patient receives rather than the nature of the provider supplying them. If a change in the nature or name of the provider results in a change to the service, the duty to involve and consult remains. I am happy to put that on the record. We are quite clear that there should be appropriate consultation whenever there is a change to services, and where that change has an impact on the nature of services and the manner in which they are provided.

I am comfortable that the existing provisions are right, in that they ensure that consultation requirements kick in when there is a meaningful impact on the people who use or may use services. I understand the concerns that noble Lords have raised, but the additional measures in the Bill will, I hope, encourage them to withdraw the amendment.

My Lords, that was a helpful and largely reassuring reply. I accept that the insertion in the Bill of provisions relating to strategic health authorities makes a difference in so far as wholesale changes to services are concerned, because they would necessarily have to be dealt with at that level. Nevertheless, I still have an uneasy feeling. I always come back in my mind to health inequalities and marginalised groups in a community, whose voice is less often heard than that of others. To argue that it is all right to switch a service to a different provider because the patient will not notice any difference misses the point that there could be people whom the service is not reaching at all, and that the provider concerned is not the best or most appropriate person to reach them. That concern lay behind my amendment.

My Lords, the point that I am trying to make is that if the patient notices any difference or is concerned that there might be a difference, the consultation duty kicks in. If there is no difference, surely there is no matter.

My Lords, that begs the question of who decides whether there is going to be any difference, and I would have thought that it was for patients’ groups to be afforded that opportunity. But I note what the Minister said. I shall leave it there and reflect carefully on this matter between now and Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

218: Clause 236, page 169, line 6, leave out “consultation” and insert “involvement”

219: Clause 236, page 169, line 8, leave out “consultation” and insert “involvement”

On Question, amendments agreed to.

219ZA: Clause 236, page 169, line 14, at end insert—

“( ) After that section insert—

“242A Strategic Health Authorities: further duty to involve users

(1) The Secretary of State must by regulations require each Strategic Health Authority to make arrangements which secure that health service users are, directly or through representatives, involved (whether by being consulted or provided with information, or in other ways) in prescribed matters.

(2) In this section “health service users” means persons to whom health services are being or may be provided in the area of the Strategic Health Authority.

(3) A Strategic Health Authority must have regard to any guidance given by the Secretary of State as to the discharge of the authority’s duty under regulations under this section.

(4) The guidance mentioned in subsection (3) includes (in particular)—

(a) guidance given by the Secretary of State as to the form to be taken by involvement under the authority’s arrangements, and(b) guidance so given as to when, or how often, such involvement is to be carried out.(5) Any duty of a Strategic Health Authority under regulations under this section is in addition to the authority’s duty under section 242(1B).

242B Directions in cases where Strategic Health Authority arranges involvement

(1) The Secretary of State may make regulations enabling a Strategic Health Authority, in circumstances mentioned in subsection (2), to direct a Primary Care Trust that persons who would otherwise be involved in a particular matter under arrangements made by the Primary Care Trust under section 242 are not to be involved in that matter under those arrangements.

(2) The circumstances referred to in subsection (1) are where the persons concerned are to be involved (whether by the Strategic Health Authority, by the Strategic Health Authority and the Primary Care Trust acting jointly, or otherwise) under arrangements made or to be made by the Strategic Health Authority.

(3) Regulations under this section may include provision—

(a) for the consequences of compliance with a direction, including provision that a Primary Care Trust is not to be taken to have failed to comply with its duty under section 242(1B) by reason of compliance with a direction,(b) enabling a direction to be given where involvement under arrangements made by the Primary Care Trust has already begun, and as to the provision that may be made by the direction in such a case,(c) requiring prescribed information to be provided by a Primary Care Trust to a Strategic Health Authority,(d) requiring prescribed information to be provided by a Strategic Health Authority to a Primary Care Trust,(e) enabling a Strategic Health Authority to direct a Primary Care Trust to act jointly with the Strategic Health Authority in carrying out involvement.””

[Amendments Nos. 219ZAA and 219ZAB, as amendments to Amendment No. 219ZA, not moved.]

On Question, Amendment No. 219ZA agreed to.

Clause 237 [Primary Care Trusts: reports on consultation]:

219ZB: Clause 237, page 169, line 15, at end insert—

“( ) In Chapter 1 of Part 2 of the National Health Service Act 2006 (c. 41) (Strategic Health Authorities), after section 17 insert—

“17A Reports on consultation

(1) Each Strategic Health Authority must, at such times as the Secretary of State may direct, prepare a report—

(a) on the consultation it has carried out, or proposes to carry out, before making commissioning decisions, and(b) on the influence that the results of consultation have on its commissioning decisions.(2) In subsection (1) “commissioning decisions”, in relation to a Strategic Health Authority, means (subject to any directions under subsection (5)(e)) decisions as to the carrying-out of functions exercisable by it for the purpose of securing, by arrangement with any person or body, the provision of services as part of the health service.

(3) Each Strategic Health Authority must also, at such times as the Secretary of State may direct, prepare a report—

(a) on any relevant consultation carried out by the authority, and(b) on the influence that the results of any relevant consultation have had on such matters as may be specified in the direction.(4) In subsection (3) “relevant consultation” means consultation in relation to matters specified by the direction under that subsection.

(5) The Secretary of State may give directions as to—

(a) the periods to be covered by reports under this section;(b) the matters to be dealt with by reports under this section;(c) the form and content of reports under this section;(d) the publication of reports under this section;(e) decisions that are to be treated as being, or that are to be treated as not being, commissioning decisions for the purposes of subsection (1).””

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, government Amendments Nos. 219ZB and 219ZC amend Clause 237, which currently imposes a duty on PCTs to report on their consultation activity in relation to their commissioning decisions. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, proposed in Committee that this duty should be extended to strategic health authorities. We agree that this is an important addition and, because SHAs have responsibility for the commissioning of specialised services on a national basis, although currently that is carried out by NHS London, it is appropriate for the PCT duty to report on consultations to be mirrored for SHAs. However, in view of the important new duty to involve and consult on the strategic plans for an area, which we discussed earlier, we think that the duty to report should also be extended to reporting on other consultations carried out by an SHA and their outcomes.

I am sure that noble Lords will recognise that these amendments are significant. I thank the noble Earl, Lord Howe, again, for identifying these important issues and giving us the opportunity to strengthen the voice of patients and the public in this particular context.

Amendment No. 219ZBA, tabled by the noble Earl, seeks to extend the duty to consult to other commissioners. We think that the amendment is based on the misunderstanding that PCTs will be able to contract out their commissioning function either to the pre-approved list of suppliers published as part of the FESC or that this extension could apply to practice-based commissioners. The point we are trying to make is that we do not expect PCTs to be able to contract out their commissioning function in this way.

This is not the case, PCTs will remain ultimately accountable and responsible for commissioning, both in terms of practice-based commissioning as well as FESC—I shall put that out in full in a moment—which merely provides PCTs with a pre-approved list of suppliers with specialist expertise to support them in carrying out their commissioning function to supplement their own capacity and capability.

The duty is being placed on PCTs because not only do they have responsibility for the vast majority of commissioning decisions, they also hold the vast majority of money in the health service. It is because of these huge responsibilities that this important duty is being imposed—to ensure that PCTs are accountable to local communities in a transparent way. What the amendment seeks to do is rather out of proportion in relation to the PCT duty. While I accept that a small number of services are commissioned by trusts these are certainly exceptions and I do not believe that the duty to report on consultations in relation to those services is proportionate. It is not that the information pertaining to a trust’s consultation in relation to its commissioning activity would be inaccessible to patients and the public. Indeed, a local involvement network could very well request this information from the trust concerned and overview and scrutiny committees could do the same.

I am trying to make it clear that it is essential that PCTs report. I appreciate the amendment’s point about the level of delegation that PCTs might make but they cannot delegate this authority or the responsibility to report. Where LINks or overview and scrutiny committees have concerns, they will have access to information and they will be able to hold the PCT to account. I should clarify that FESC is the framework for procuring external support for commissioners. That is about providing the PCT with support; it is not about allowing it to delegate its duties. I beg to move.

My Lords, the noble Baroness correctly anticipated the points that I would have made in speaking to Amendment No. 219ZBA. Those were precisely the concerns that she outlined. I am reassured by her reply and there is no need for me to speak to the amendment further.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 219ZBA not moved.]

219ZC: Clause 237, page 169, line 21, leave out from “consultation” to “commissioning” in line 22 and insert “carried out, or proposed to be carried out, before the making by the Primary Care Trust of”

On Question, amendment agreed to.

219A: After Clause 238, insert the following new Clause—

“Amendments to Licensing Act 2003

(1) The Licensing Act 2003 is as follows.

(2) In section 9(1) (proceedings of licensing committee) for “committee” in the final place it appears, substitute “authority”.

(3) After section 13(3)(d) (authorised persons, interested parties and responsible authorities) insert—

“(e) a parish council, community council or parish meeting in whose area the premises are situated,(f) a member of a county council, district council, a London borough council or a county borough council for the ward or division in which the premises are situated or whose ward or division is within 1 kilometre of the premises,(g) a member of a parish council or community council for the area in which the premises are situated,(h) the Member of Parliament and (in Wales) the Member of the National Assembly for Wales in whose constituency the premises are situated.”(4) After section 69(3)(d) (authorised persons, interested parties and responsible authorities) insert—

“(e) a parish council, community council or parish meeting in whose area the premises are situated,(f) a member of a county council, district council, a London borough council or a county borough council for the ward or division in which the premises are situated or whose ward or division is within 1 kilometre of the premises,(g) a member of a parish council or community council for the area in which the premises are situated,(h) the Member of Parliament and (in Wales) the Member of the National Assembly for Wales in whose constituency the premises are situated.””

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, we have changed subject and are back to where we were before. This package of measures would improve decision-making in licensing matters under the Licensing Act 2003. In particular, it accommodates the possibility of large unitary authorities and increases the role of parish councils and ward councillors.

Subsection (2) of the new clause would change the rules on membership of licensing sub-committees. As the noble Baroness will know, under Section 6 of the Licensing Act licensing committees must have between 10 and 15 members. Section 9(1) allows the committee to establish sub-committees, each consisting of three members of the committee. The sub-committees are usually responsible for conducting hearings into applications and the present rule requires that considerable work be shared among the 10 to 15 members of the licensing committee. The amendment would allow the sub-committees to be drawn from all members of the authority. It is still a matter for the authority how many councillors it wishes to have sitting in sub-committees. It can maintain the expertise and share the work as it considers appropriate. The amendment would have particular value if countrywide unitary authorities were ever to be formed, because the current 10 to 15 members would have an extraordinarily wide brief under those circumstances.

Subsections (3) and (4) would broaden the categories of interested persons who can make representations on premises licensing and club licence applications. The amendment adds parish and community councils. The original guidance from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport indicated that parish councils did not represent persons who lived in the vicinity of premises. In June 2006, the Government changed the guidance to include parish councils as interested persons, but that view remained controversial. The amendment would put that point beyond doubt.

The next change is undoubtedly an addition. Local councillors are not entitled to make representations on licensing applications by reason of being local councillors. They have been able to make representations only if they live in the vicinity of the premises, when it is normally said that they have an interest. Councillors are prevented from making representations on applications made to their own council. Since part of the role of councillors is to represent residents’ views to their council, that needs to be remedied.

Finally, we come to Members of Parliament and Members of the Welsh Assembly. The Government’s guidance is that local residents and businesses can ask their local MP or Assembly Member to represent them before the council sub-committee. The MP or Assembly Member has no right to make representations on his own behalf unless he lives next door to the pub. The amendment would correct that defect. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am not sure that I am going to satisfy the noble Baroness, given her concerns. However, I will take a few minutes to respond and give the amendment the proper consideration that it deserves. First and foremost, I will put on record the Government’s gratitude to members of licensing committees around the country, who have recently undertaken an enormous task. The Government are indebted to them for the work that they do and we are aware that they have worked under tremendous pressure. I would not want to give any other impression than make full note of that gratitude.

However, the Government resist the changes that Amendment No. 219A would make to the Licensing Act 2003. To understand the effect of the amendment, I need to explain a little about the relevant parts of the 2003 Act, which, after receiving Royal Assent, became fully operational in November 2005.

As the noble Baroness explained, Section 6 of the 2003 Act provides that a licensing authority, normally the local council at district level, must establish a licensing committee consisting of at least 10 but no more than 15 members of the licensing authority. Section 9(1) of the Act then empowers a licensing committee to establish one or more sub-committees consisting of three members of that committee. Accordingly, in combination, these sections allow a maximum of five sub-committees to function simultaneously, if necessary, and require that all sub-committee members are members of the main licensing committee.

As we have heard, the second part of the proposed new clause refers to Sections 13(3) and 69(3) of the 2003 Act, which make certain individuals and bodies interested parties in relation to applications for, and to vary, premises licences and club premises certificates.

Under the Act, an interested party is entitled to make relevant representations to the licensing authority about such applications and to seek reviews of existing licences, which is the important new point. To be “relevant”, the representations must be made within a prescribed time limit, not be frivolous or vexatious, and must relate to the four statutory licensing objectives. As I am sure noble Lords are well aware, those are the prevention of crime and disorder, public safety, the prevention of public nuisance and the protection of children from harm. The current interested parties are a person living in the vicinity of the premises or club premises, a body representing persons who live in that vicinity, a person involved in business in that vicinity and a body representing persons involved in that vicinity.

The purpose of the new clause relating to Sections 13 and 69 would be to add new individuals and bodies to the existing list. The effect of the proposed new clause relating to Section 9(1) of the Licensing Act 2003 would be to permit any member of the licensing authority to sit on a licensing sub-committee, rather than only members of the main licensing committee. It would thus do away with the requirement that all sub-committee members be members of the main committee, leaving open the possibility that the main committee could form a sub-committee whose members did not include any member of the main committee. I am quite proud of that paragraph; there are a lot of “committees” in there. It would be possible to have a sub-committee made up of councillors who are not on the main committee.

I have no doubt that this part of the proposed new clause is intended to be well-meaning and maximise the flexibility available to licensing authorities by allowing any member of the council to participate in a licensing hearing. However, most members of licensing committees receive training to enable them to better understand the complexities and technicalities of some of the arguments presented in licensing matters. Their experience in making decisions as members of the sub-committee enhances that knowledge, leading to the building up of a body of specialised expertise in the authority, whose repository is the licensing committee. That is the policy that the provisions in their unamended form were designed to achieve, and we would not want that to be forgone by amendments that fundamentally changed the relationship between the main committee and its sub-committees.

In addition, we do not think that there is really a need for increased flexibility in sub-committee membership. The most intensive work for licensing committees was during the 2003 Act’s transitional period between February and November 2005. We are grateful for the tremendous work that the committees did then. However, I am glad to say that since November 2005 the workload on those committees has vastly reduced.

Most applications for the grant or variation of a licence do not reach a hearing before licensing sub-committees and are dealt with by officers, which is a step in the right direction. Unlike the old licensing regimes, the Act provides that hearings should only arise where there are disputes and representations have been made by responsible authorities, such as the police, or by interested parties, such as a resident living in the vicinity of the premises or club. Even then, most cases are dealt with by mediation and are resolved without the need for a hearing. The aim of the Act was to reduce the rafts of red tape that led to unnecessary hearings and get a sharper focus on the cases that mattered to the community. The arrangements appear to have worked extremely well since the transitional period was completed in November 2005. The existing flexibility provided by the Act, with the option of five sub-committees capable of sitting simultaneously is, in our view, entirely adequate.

The second part of the proposed new clause would amend Sections 13 and 69 of the Licensing Act 2003. The proposed amendments would expand the list of “interested parties” to include elected individuals and bodies such as parish councils, local authority councillors, MPs and, of course, Members of the Welsh Assembly. While not doubting that those bodies and individuals can play a valuable role in local licensing matters, I believe that the amendments are unnecessary. As the noble Baroness has made clear, parish and town councils are self-evidently bodies that represent those living within the vicinity of a licensed premises and, as such, should already be considered as interested parties. The guidance to licensing authorities issued by the Secretary of State under Section 182 of the 2003 Act clarifies that. I am sorry that the noble Baroness feels that that is controversial, but I hope that making this clear on the record will help.

Local councillors, MPs, Members of the Welsh Assembly or, for that matter, MEPs or Peers, who live in the vicinity of premises applying for a licence can obviously make representations in their own right as interested parties. They can also apply for a review of the licence at any time if problems occur. The guidance to licensing authorities under Section 182 of the Act also makes it clear that, even if they do not live in the vicinity of the premises, councillors, MPs and others can, if asked, make representations on behalf of an interested party, such as a local resident. They can do this if they consider that the fulfilment of their duties as a representative of their area as a whole permits or requires this. They can also act for them as advocates at any subsequent hearing.

In support of councillors’ role as advocates for their local communities, the guidance also refers to the amendment of the code of conduct for local authority members in May 2007, which relaxed the rules relating to members’ prejudicial interests. This means that a member with a prejudicial interest is allowed to attend a meeting to make representations on behalf of a constituent, provided that the public are allowed to attend for the same purpose and the member withdraws from the meeting after making his or her representations.

What members cannot do is make representations or request reviews if they do not live in the vicinity or have not been asked by someone who does to act on their behalf. We believe that this must be the correct approach; such members are representatives of those in the relevant area and should act in that capacity. This amendment would create a capacity to act independently of the residents or businesses of the area, which does not seem appropriate. Furthermore, the licensing authority is a representative body for the area in which the licensed premises are situated. Additional input from other representatives acting on their own account does not seem necessary or desirable.

I hope that the noble Baroness will consider withdrawing her amendment. She has highlighted an extremely important area and I hope that I have put on record the Government’s position with regard to licensing sub-committees.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply and for drawing attention to the amount of work that licensing committees have done. They are probably not as pressed now as they were when the Act first came in. My husband was a member of such a committee and I know how much work he did when dealing with all the licensing applications. The people on those committees will welcome the noble Baroness’s comments on that.

Perhaps I may argue further about enabling the authority as a whole to be, in effect, the main licensing committee. There is nothing to stop 50 or 60 people being members of a committee—receiving training and being the committee. If that were available in legislation and could be adopted if a local authority wanted to, normal rules would apply for the main licensing committee as it stood. The members would have to undergo the same training and they would have to ensure that they were able and qualified to sit on a sub-committee. That would have to be a sine qua non of extending the licensing committee to take in all the members of an authority. I do not totally accept the noble Baroness’s argument, but I can see that she is not likely to shift very much and I shall take that into account.

I recognise that the position of parish councils and communities has changed, but it has happened in a way that people are not totally happy with. However, I accept that the situation is not as it was originally, and I hope that in time the issue will become clearer.

With regard to applying for a review of the other people who can take part, councillors always expect to be able to make representations about anything in their area, regardless of whether the council is running it. In their representative role, they have always expected to be able to take part in licensing legislation and are all rather miffed at not being able to put forward their views, particularly if they happen to know something about a situation that residents’ representatives do not know or have not asked them to put forward. I can see that it is very nice to be asked; equally, it is very nice to be able to contribute.

I shall not push the amendment further. I thank the noble Baroness for her reply and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

219B: After Clause 238, insert the following new Clause—

“Enabling the delegation of benefits administration to local authorities

(1) The Secretary of State may enter into arrangements with a local authority for the discharge of all or any of the specified functions of the Secretary of State by that local authority and within the area of that authority.

(2) The specified functions shall comprise—

(a) the administration of benefits under the Social Security Administration Act 1992 (c. 5) and the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 (c. 4);(b) the administration of payments under the Jobseekers Act 1995 (c. 18);(c) functions under sections 2 and 10 of the Employment and Training Act 1973 (c. 50);(d) powers to direct the use of funds by the Learning and Skills Council under Part 1 of the Learning and Skills Act 2000 (c. 21);(e) the functions of the Secretary of State under section 114 of the Learning and Skills Act 2000; and (f) such other functions of the Secretary of State as the Secretary of State may by order specify.(3) Where a local authority has entered into arrangements under subsection (1) in respect of any function, the powers of the local authority under section 2 of the Local Government Act 2000 (c. 22) shall include the power to discharge that function in accordance with the arrangements, and the local authority shall have the same powers and be subject to the same restrictions in respect of that function as the Secretary of State would have been but for the arrangements.

(4) The exercise of any function in accordance with arrangements entered under this section shall not constitute a breach of section 3(1) or (2) of the Local Government Act 2000.

(5) Arrangements under subsection (1) may include such terms as to commencement, termination, reporting, payment and funding as the Secretary of State and the local authority may set out therein.

(6) Where a local authority discharges a function of the Secretary of State in accordance with arrangements under subsection (1), the local authority may contribute to the cost of discharging that function.

(7) Any arrangements entered under this section do not prevent the Secretary of State from exercising those functions.

(8) References in this section to the discharge of a function include references to the doing of anything which is calculated to facilitate, or is conducive or incidental to the discharge of that function.

(9) Nothing in this section affects the operation of the Local Authorities (Goods and Services) Act 1970 (c. 39).

(10) In this section, local authority shall mean a district council, a county council, a unitary council or a London Borough Council.”

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this amendment is grouped with Amendment No. 222B, which was moved by my noble friend Lord Bruce-Lockhart at the previous stage. I was not going to speak to that amendment until I read it again more carefully and realised that it ran side by side with Amendment No. 219B, and I think that I can deal with both at the same time.

Both amendments would enable a local authority to provide a unified benefits service for the area, and Amendment No. 222B would enable that to be part of the community strategy. The proposed new power would give a specific but discretionary power to the Secretary of State to delegate to individual local authorities the discharge of benefits functions. On the other side, the general power of the local authority under Section 2 of the Local Government Act to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of the authority’s area is clarified to provide that it shall include the power to discharge such delegated functions and that the exercise of such delegated functions would not be a breach of the prohibition in Section 3(1) of that Act.

The powers that might be delegated to a local authority in this way are set out in subsection (2). They include powers over social security benefits, conditions for jobseeker’s allowance, New Deal payments under Section 2 of the Employment and Training Act, powers for the Learning and Skills Council to spend money on training and such other benefits provisions as the Secretary of State may include by order.

The reasoning behind the amendment is that reform of the benefits system is at the heart of the Government’s drive to tackle worklessness and increase personal empowerment. At present, the administration of benefits is divided between the Secretary of State and local authorities, which administer council tax and housing benefits. It is not integrated with the parallel programmes to support disadvantaged and deprived individuals and households.

If local authorities can provide a unified benefits service with a single point of contact which can deal with all the benefits needs of an individual, it would make it much easier for a claimant to secure the full benefits to which they are entitled and would enable the local authority to channel additional support services to that individual or member of a household. Although local authorities would like to have the discretion to vary benefits according to local requirements, the amendment does not seek to do anything like that or to introduce such flexibility, except in so far as a local authority may wish to make its own contribution to the costs of discharging a particular benefits function.

However, local authorities hope that in due course, as the Secretary of State reviews the various benefits regulations, he will feel able to introduce a degree of local flexibility where the benefits are administered by a local authority under such delegation arrangements. Until that occurs, the administering local authority will have to operate the delegated functions strictly within the existing, very limited discretions.

The proposed new power is expressed both as a discretionary power for the Secretary of State to delegate particular functions to individual authorities and as a clarification of the existing power of local authorities to do anything that is calculated to promote the economic, social or environmental well-being of their area. It is therefore not a mandatory provision but at the discretion of the Secretary of State where he is satisfied that a particular authority has the capacity to take on the administration of such benefits and the authority is willing to do that.

The assumption is that the Secretary of State, as part of the delegation arrangements, will transfer appropriate funding not as part of the block grant but as a specific payment agreement in respect of both the administration costs and the direct costs of the benefits themselves. This will enable the Secretary of State to retain control over the overall cost of delegated functions.

The provision makes it clear that it is for the Secretary of State to agree the manner in which particular functions are delegated. The power of the local authority to take on such delegations or functions is expressed as a clarification of the well-being powers in Section 2 of the Local Government Act 2000—the powers given to district councils, unitary councils, London borough councils—as these authorities are currently responsible for the administration of council tax benefit and housing benefit. I beg to move.

My Lords, I speak in support of the spirit of the amendments. I have been a long-time advocate of the fact that local government can do much better many of the local administration tasks currently performed by central Government.

On the first day of Report, the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, evoked French local government as a wonderful model. I am glad to see the Opposition Front Bench putting that into practice, as this is something that happens in French local authorities. The advantages are many-fold. In addition to what the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said about how local authorities can tackle worklessness and deprivation, we know that it is often intergenerational. People are on benefits; and their children and grandchildren get on benefits. We could begin to tackle this in a much more coherent way than is currently done by the agencies. There would be greater public contact with the town hall. People will go there and understand what local government is about. One of the things one notices in France is how people going about their ordinary business have to go regularly to the town hall. We do not want to repeat the number of forms that you have to get in France, but it is quite a good system that involves people.

As the noble Baroness said, local authorities already administer important national benefits, such as housing benefits and council tax benefits. We could avoid much of the duplication; we are collecting the same information twice. We could do it more effectively. The noble Baroness mentioned that we could target people who are missing out on benefits. I am convinced that we could do it more efficiently in the light of the Gershon savings. I noted more targets announced last week by the Chancellor. We need to think about those things which are in one sense radical but could improve the service and achieve efficiency savings.

I know that the Department for Work and Pensions has conducted studies on whether some of the administration could transfer to local authorities. I hope that in response my noble friend can give us encouragement that the Government will seriously consider this.

My Lords, this has been an interesting debate, which I am sorry we are having rather late in the evening. Some interesting issues have been raised. The noble Baroness will not be surprised that I cannot accept her amendment, although the case was presented well—certainly on what my noble friend has just said about the role of local authorities and the focus that we have to put into disadvantaged areas, such as worklessness, in particular. I refer to all the work that we have done through the neighbourhood renewal fund, for example, new deal for communities, and so on. We were making great progress in reducing comparative levels of crime and in education scores, and so on. The most difficult thing to drive down is worklessness. There are a number of important local strategies and some of the work being done by the DWP is very innovative.

We are not turning our face against the amendments for frivolous reasons. There is a lot happening, which I shall address briefly, suggesting that there is a direction of travel, but there is also some tension in the frameworks that we need. Essentially, if the amendments were adopted, Amendment No. 219B would leave it to the discretion of the Secretary of State on whether to devolve these functions to individual local authorities. In contrast, Amendment No. 222B would automatically result in local authorities taking on the same set of functions through a modification of their community strategy.

It is worth looking briefly at the legislative framework in which they operate. My first argument is that it already provides many of the tools they need to secure the well-being of their population. Part I of the Local Government Act 2000 sets out a framework for local authorities, their partners and wider communities to improve economic, social and environmental well-being. In that framework, prior to the 2000 Act, local authorities could only do what legislation expressly permitted them to do. There was little flexibility to do anything discretionary. That was changed by Section 2 of the 2000 Act, which reversed it and gave the power to these authorities to do anything they considered likely to improve or promote social or environmental well-being, subject to express legislative restrictions which I will come back to. The well-being power was a power of first resort.

It is interesting that we are already aware of councils using the power specifically to deal with employment issues. The London Borough of Greenwich, for example, has set up a recruitment company using the well-being power, and Bridgnorth and West Devon district councils have used the power to work with their RDAs, among others, to increase development opportunities. Although they do not have these statutory responsibilities, there is no doubt that, with imagination, they are learning how to apply these tools. Authorities must also have regard to their community strategy when they consider exercising their well-being powers under the 2000 Act. They are subject to certain limitations, as the noble Baroness knows, set out in Section 3(1) and (2) of the 2000 Act including taking actions that are expressly prohibited in legislation and raising money by means of precepts, borrowing or otherwise.

On the specific amendments, if we look only at the role of the local authority in taking forward the employment agenda, we come up against the first problem which is that this goes in the opposite direction of travel to where we are going with partnerships, local area agreements and the revised performance frameworks. All of those are a result of looking at ways of bringing functions together with a smaller number of shared objectives which, in some of these local areas, can particularly address worklessness or skills.

Secondly, I put on the record the fundamental point that we have a national framework and national standards for income benefits, and for good reasons. That obviously goes back to Beveridge and the first post-war National Insurance Act. If we are going to debate overturning national standards, we must do so seriously. It is hardly something we could do late at night in this Bill, but it is a live issue and there is a lot of interest in how you can achieve a balance of powers and responsibilities. Indeed, we have moved in that direction, first, through the Sustainable Communities Bill which provides a means for taking this debate forward. Under that Bill, the Secretary of State would invite proposals from local authorities which they consider would help them promote the sustainability of local communities.

More recent, and even more exciting in a way, is the review of sub-national economic development and regeneration which looked precisely at the right level for different functions to be delivered: national, regional, sub-regional or local. It threw down the challenge to local authorities to come to the Government with proposals for multi-area agreements. They would essentially be sub-regional. You could have some serious innovation there. We know that economic realities do not respect administrative boundaries.

We have also devolved some of these elements, such as the learning and skills funding and functions, and I am sympathetic to the intention behind this. We have already announced that funding for the delivery of Connexions services will pass to all local authorities from April 2008. Subject to consultation and necessary legislation, funding for school sixth forms, sixth form colleges and the contribution of FE colleges to the 14-19 phase will also transfer to local authorities’ ring-fenced education budgets. That is important, because it is very much a local function.

In conclusion, we have provided a great deal of freedom to local authorities in this regard—through the 2000 Act and clauses in this Bill—to introduce statutory LAAs, thereby stripping away some of the centralist elements. We must respect the checks and balances, but that does not mean that we are deaf or blind to innovation. It is a lively debate, and I am grateful to the noble Baroness for enabling us to have it.

My Lords, I was not advocating that we should get away from national standards on benefits as, for example, with housing benefit every local authority administers a national scheme. I am sure that we could handle applications for benefits a lot better, more effectively and more efficiently than the sometimes faceless officers of DWP who people have to demean themselves to. I am glad that my noble friend said that the Government will not be deaf to innovation because if that is the case we will get a bid from Wigan.

My Lords, at half-past nine, I am grateful to have had even a smidgen of an interesting debate, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, for supporting me. I did not really expect the Minister to throw up her hands and say that the Government will take this on board, but it is part of the debate about the Bill, in which we have been looking at bringing greater devolution to local government and making things better for local people. It may not be possible to take this on board in the Bill, but I was glad to hear the Minister say that some thought is being given to at least part of it. Most local authorities are now running one-stop shops where people are able to discuss most aspects of their problems and get help. Most local authorities are labouring with the problems of worklessness, people not in education and people who are not benefiting from jobseeker’s allowance because they are doing training, coming out and then not doing anything. There is a host of problems that can be dealt with if someone is there at a local level to do it. I am on a working party in my local authority to understand why people do not take up benefits. That is of immediate local interest because of council tax benefit and housing benefit. There are rafts of reasons why people are not claiming, but we need to know them because there is a deficit between what can be claimed and what is claimed.

I hope that this debate will continue. I accept that it may not be possible tonight and that this amendment is not appropriate tonight but I hope that as time goes on and local authorities are given more responsibility the reasoning behind it will become more apparent and we may perhaps be able to make some progress on it. I thank the Minister for her reply and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 220 not moved.]

221: After Clause 242, insert the following new Clause—

“Honorary freemen

(1) Section 249 of the Local Government Act 1972 (c. 70) (honorary aldermen and freemen) is amended as follows.

(2) For subsection (5) substitute—

“(5) The council or charter trustees for the areas listed in subsection (5A) may, by a resolution passed by not less than two-thirds of the members of charter trustees voting thereon at a meeting of the council or charter trustees specially convened for the purpose with notice of the object, admit to be honorary freemen of the City, borough, royal borough, parish, community or area (as appropriate) persons of distinction and persons who have, in the opinion of the council or charter trustees, rendered eminent services to the City, borough, royal borough, parish, community or area, but the admission of a person to be an honorary freeman shall not confer on him any such rights as are referred to in section 248(4) above.

(5A) The areas to which subsection (5) applies are—

(a) a London borough;(b) a district having the status of a city, borough or royal borough;(c) any parish or community having by grant under the royal prerogative the status of city;(d) any parish or community entitled by grant under the royal prerogative to be called and styled a royal town;(e) a port, ancient town or corporate limb of the Confederation of the Cinque Ports.”(3) For subsection (6) substitute—

“(6) The council or charter trustees for an area to which this section applies may spend such reasonable sum as they think fit for the purpose of presenting an address or a casket containing an address to a person upon whom they have conferred the title of honorary alderman or admitted to be an honorary freeman of the city, borough, royal borough, parish, community or area.””

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I declare an interest because many years ago I represented Faversham, an associate Cinque Port, in the other place and my arms contain part of the arms of the Cinque Ports.

At Second Reading, I said that I would table an amendment to rectify an anomaly in existence since 1980 that discriminates against some of the very local authorities whose role the Bill seeks, very properly, to enhance for the benefit of their communities. I refer to the Cinque Port towns of Kent and East Sussex. Until 1974, all but one of the 14 towns were municipal boroughs with civic traditions dating back almost 1,000 years. As boroughs, they had the ancient right to confer the freedom of their towns on distinguished national figures and those who had given a lifetime of voluntary service to their communities. The Local Government Act 1972, which came into force in 1974, abolished all the ancient municipal boroughs. Many, including 12 of the Cinque Ports, were too small to become local government districts in their own right. The majority became successor parishes that exercised the rights to be called town councils and for their chairmen to be known as the town major. Some of the larger towns did not meet the Government's criteria to become successor parishes, and from 1974 they were represented by charter trustees. A number of these later became town councils, leaving only Margate and Ramsgate represented by charter trustees.

In the case of the 12 Cinque Ports which were reduced to the status of town councils or charter trustees, the legislation which gave effect to the 1974 reorganisation recognised their long service to the nation by making express provision for the successor town councils and charter trustees to continue to exercise functions as members of the Confederation of the Cinque Ports. However, the 1972 Act stripped all former boroughs of the right to confer the freedom of their towns. It was replaced by a new statutory power for those district councils only with the status of cities, boroughs or royal boroughs to confer the honorary freedom of their areas upon,

“persons of distinction and persons who have rendered eminent services”,

to their community. Although the former boroughs which had been reduced to the status of town councils or charter trustees resented the loss of their power to recognise conspicuous public service, they acknowledged that the new power to admit honorary freemen was confined to a logically coherent class of principal local authorities. However, that changed in 1980 when the Local Government, Planning and Land Act extended the power to admit honorary freemen to parish councils granted the status of cities or royal towns. The Cinque Port towns, whose service to the nation goes back to the time of the Norman Conquest, do not accept—and I do not accept—that they are any less worthy of being able to admit honorary freemen than some smaller and less ancient towns which happen now to have the purely honorary title of city or royal town.

The Confederation of the Cinque Ports, representing all 14 Cinque Port towns, has been pressing the Government to rectify this anomaly and injustice, as it is, for several years. The Government indicated that they will bear its representations in mind should a suitable legislative opportunity arise. This Bill presents just such an opportunity. This small addition would be entirely consistent with the broad principles and objects of the Bill and would put right an anomaly which has caused much resentment and frustration over the past 27 years. The Confederation of the Cinque Ports and others, including all seven Members of another place for the Cinque Port towns and a number of distinguished Members of your Lordships' House, asked the Government to include this provision in the Bill when it was first introduced in another place. The Government said that they were not unsympathetic to the idea, but because of the pressures on the Bill and the number of amendments tabled in another place they felt able to include only provisions which would play a key role in delivering their public service reform agenda.

I hope that the Government can be persuaded that this Bill is an imminently suitable vehicle for the change we seek. The Bill rightly seeks to harness the potential of well run town and parish councils which are rooted firmly in their local communities—in some ways they are more representative of those communities than larger, more remote district and county councils—by extending their powers to promote the well-being of their local areas. The Cinque Port town councils are just such authorities. Most have achieved or are actively working towards formal accreditation as quality parish councils. How fitting it would be if this opportunity were taken to allow them to confer the modest accolade of an honorary freedom on those who have striven over many years to promote the well-being of their fellow citizens?

I am immensely grateful to your Lordships’ Public Bill Office for the invaluable advice and guidance given in drafting the amendment. I am advised, too, that there is no doubt that it is well within the scope of the Bill. The wording of the relevant subsections of Section 249 of the Local Government Act 1972 became rather convoluted with the amendments introduced by the 1980 Act. That effect would have been exacerbated had the Cinque Port towns merely been added to the classes of local authority empowered to admit honorary freemen as contained in those subsections. Instead, the Public Bill Office has advised, and I have readily agreed, that the existing wording could be simplified and improved by including those classes of authority in a separate subsection (5A) to which the Cinque Port towns can easily be added.

I also thank the noble Lords who have indicated support for the proposal, including the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, my noble friend Lord Imbert, and, not least, my noble and gallant friend Lord Boyce, the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. He is very sorry indeed not to be able to be here tonight. I spoke to him earlier today, and he has an inescapable commitment. However, he has authorised me to say that he has spoken to many Cinque Ports people. They are deeply keen to have this power. I would also like to thank the Registrar and Seneschal of the Confederation of the Cinque Ports, Mr Ian Russell, for his tremendous help in briefing me on these matters.

Finally, I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, for her response at Second Reading, when, although unable to accept an amendment on these lines, she confirmed that she was not unsympathetic to the idea. I hope that she will be able to be even more positive tonight. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am delighted to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham. He has most eloquently expressed his views, so I will not attempt to repeat them.

I am a resident of one of the Cinque Ports—Hastings—and I have a particular interest since my political career started there, so many years ago that it was then a county borough, before the great changes brought about by the 1972 Act. I remember then the immense pride that the town and the other towns took in belonging to the Confederation of the Cinque Ports, and it is important that we recognise these historical traditions and do our utmost to ensure that such an attractive, simple proposition as the ability to admit as honorary freemen those who have given distinguished service should be returned.

I hope that the Government will not make too much of a meal of this. It is very easy to find all kinds of reasons why things should not be done. May I hope that the Minister will find ways of bringing this about in this particular Bill? I warmly support the amendment.

My Lords, I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, in his proposed amendment, particularly in so far as it concerns the Cinque Ports and member towns of the Confederation of the Cinque Ports. I, too, must declare an interest. I was born in a Cinque Port, was brought up in one, went to school in one, and my first job was in the town clerk's office of a Cinque Port. I am also proud to have a Cinque Port ship shown on my coat of arms.

Some noble Lords may wonder what all the fuss is about. “After all”, they might say, “In the end, it’s only words”. Why should the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, feel so passionate about what, to the uninitiated, may sound a bit unnecessary? But my noble friend Lord Boston is endeavouring to right a grievous wrong. It may be that the civil servant who drafted Clause 249 of the Local Government Bill 1972—he or she was no doubt legally qualified, like all our civil servants, for whom I have the highest regard; I have been fortunate enough to work with many of them over the years—did so in impeccable English. Unwittingly, however—I cannot believe that even the most careless drafter could have meant to be so destructive—he or she drew a red-pencil line through some of the proudest and bravest times in this country's history.

Trust me, I am a policeman—and this seems to be a job for the police. It is a case of theft, whether deliberate or in ignorance, of certain rights and privileges granted in particular to the Cinque Ports over many hundreds of years for their contribution and devotion to duty in the forefront of the defence of this kingdom. Their provision of ships and the manpower to sail and operate them as fighting units against this country’s enemies, particularly the French and Spanish navies, has long been recognised by a succession of monarchs.

There is evidence of charters to individual ports from the 11th century. By the middle of the 13th century, charters were granted to the five ports, to the two ancient towns of Rye and Winchelsea and to their members collectively. There is even credible speculation of long-lost charters which pre-date the Norman Conquest. But, in my view, the most important was that of Queen Elizabeth 1, in 1563, at the time of threatened invasion by the French and Spanish fleets. Throughout the centuries proud young men of the ancient boroughs and towns have been quick to acknowledge any call to arms, and the Cinque Ports, by granting the most outstanding the honorary freedom of the town, had a way of publicly acknowledging that tradition of duty.

One of the first people after the 1939-45 war to be appointed as a freeman of the Cinque Port borough of New Romney was a local young man, Wing Commander Learoyd, DFC. He was a distinguished World War II pilot whose exploits included involvement with the famous “Dambusters”. I was one of the most recent to be given the honorary freedom of that town, in 2000, but I cannot lay claim to exploits like those of Learoyd and his many Battle of Britain colleagues. It seems that as a result of the Local Government Act 1972, the town council may not have had the legal power to confer that honour on me. Am I the first “illegal” in your Lordships House? Speaking selfishly, perhaps this is all the more reason to correct the current anomaly.

If we fail to accept this amendment to the proposed Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, should we expect in the future some legislative error to commit us to ploughing up the Battle of Britain memorial to those precious few, which stands as a proud symbol of freedom and bravery on the cliffs between Folkestone and the Cinque Port borough of Dover? I strongly urge your Lordships to support the amendment.

My Lords, I would be happy to do so. We have had three fascinating speeches and I have learnt a lot which I did not know before. One of the proudest things that a local authority can do is to honour someone who has been of help, has had a significant position, has been of assistance, or is just such an example that it wishes to honour him or her. It is done sparingly, and it is therefore that much more important. Any local authority worth its name should have the right to do so—if for no other reason than to make the noble Lord legal.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham; it has been a delightful short debate. The Cinque Ports could not have a more distinguished or powerful group of champions and advocates. I am impressed by the personal associations, especially that of the noble Lord, Lord Imbert, who gave us his personal history, and the loyalty which the Cinque Ports command from their residents and supporters. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said, it is a great honour to be able both to receive and award these distinctions. It is a very important part of our history and traditions and we are not in any way diminishing that.

I have some disappointing news, but I can also hold out the prospect of some positive news as I respond to the noble Lord. We have, as he knows, given his amendment serious consideration, but we are unable to include it in the Bill for practical reasons. He referred to the pressures on the Bill and spoke about the direction that it had taken in terms of its major function, the improvement of public services. That is certainly one barrier. A greater barrier, however, is that the issue is not as straightforward as it first appears. Our principal concern is that the power to grant such privileges is usually conferred on a local authority, but some of the Cinque Ports are not local government entities; in particular, Winchelsea is currently not a local government area. It is therefore not clear on whom the power to admit freemen would be conferred. Resolving the question will require serious discussion with a variety of local partners about who is best placed to take on the role of admitting freemen. Any legislative solution will need to include a suitable definition of the ports that are compatible with current local government legislation. We need also to consider whether extending this power to admit freemen has implications as a precedent for other areas.

I am absolutely willing to see whether there are ways around these difficulties. There may well be, such as by conferring powers on charter trustees, as suggested by the noble Lord’s amendment. This will need to be explored further. We also know, for the reasons set out by the noble Lord, Lord Imbert, that the Cinque Ports are the subject of very old legislation and customs. The very age and uncertainty of the legislative framework means that any amendment to rights and privileges is complicated. We need time to consider the issues properly, but that time is not available to us now.

I have every sympathy with the wishes of the confederation. As I said, it is important that we maintain our most ancient and historic local traditions. I regret that the ability to honour eminent citizens has been lost to the historic ports and towns in the confederation, although I understand that Hastings may still confer the honour. The noble Lord will know that I am keen to do whatever I can to help him meet his aims and the aims of the confederation. We have already done some work in the department—which is why we know how much more there is to be done—on how best this might be achieved. My officials will be in touch with the confederation, if they have not done so already, so that as a first step we can get a real understanding of the issues and help prepare for what may be a more suitable legislative opportunity.

I hold out that prospect to the noble Lord. The Government are certainly sympathetic and will be prepared to do some work with the confederation on this. I hope that, for the moment, he will withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, I am very grateful to those who have taken part in this short debate—the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and my noble friend Lord Imbert. I am also grateful to the Minister for what she said. She has indeed been encouraging and sympathetic, even more so in recent days than she was a little while ago. In her response she indicated what sounds to me like a positive way forward. The words she used today about another legislative opportunity which would enable us to pursue these aims, and we hope secure them, sound as though that will not be in the remote and distant future, but sooner than that. She has also been helpful in meeting me with some of her officials during our recent Recess. I am grateful for that. I hope that my noble friends and other supporters of the amendment will agree with me in saying that, with the positive approach indicated by the Minister, we can take that step forward. In those circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

222: After Clause 242, insert the following new Clause—

“Abolition of statutory codes of recommended practice as regards publicity

(1) The Local Government Act 1986 (c. 10) is amended as follows.

(2) Omit section 4 (codes of recommended practice as regards publicity.)”

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment takes forward the debate we had in Committee on the abolition of the current statutory code of practice covering the conduct of each local authority in organising and funding publicity about its work. I speak as president of the Local Government Association, which expresses cross-party support for ending the present arrangements.

In times past, central government felt it necessary to ensure that there was no so-called “propaganda on the rates” with local authorities using council taxpayers’ money to promote their own party political interests. The problem dates back to the hostilities between the then Prime Minister and the then leader of the GLC. Today, I suggest, a quite different relationship exists between central and local government, and the code, a product of mistrust and the urge to centralise, has passed its sell-by date.

As always, attempts at centralised control of local authority practice produced their own unintended consequences. In this case authorities have interpreted the code differently, and many have felt that they must err on the side of caution. They have lost opportunities to refute criticisms on the one hand and to blow their own trumpet on the other, even when such publicity was entirely justified. Legal advice will tend to be risk-averse. Communications chiefs are often cautious with the code hanging over them. Particularly in areas where local politics are very divisive, the code can have a paralysing effect. Yet it is vital that local government at the local level, as the place-shaper and community leader, feels able to speak out openly and powerfully. It is important that the council robustly rebuts ill-informed allegations appearing in the local press or in locally distributed leaflets, as with some BNP misinformation that stirs up ill will and antagonism between communities, and for councils to publicise fully the good work they do. Indeed, promoting the good news that the local authority is doing a vital job for local citizens is a key part of the restoration of faith in the democratic institution of local government itself.

Relationships between central and local government are being changed for the better by the Bill. This amendment provides an opportunity to take forward one modest but valuable devolutionary measure. It allows Ministers to let go and enable the local government family, probably through the good offices of the Local Government Association, to devise a new voluntary code that empowers, rather than inhibits, local authorities.

When we debated this before the Summer Recess the Minister gave a helpful response suggesting that the code should now be reviewed, but the amendment goes a bit further, asking central government to back off altogether, to end the statutory code and to leave this one to the local authorities, collectively and then individually, to handle themselves. I beg to move.

My Lords, we debated the proposal in Committee. I do not have a huge amount to add to what I said then, but we have certainly moved on a little way, not least because of our conversations with the LGA.

Amendment No. 222 would abolish the Secretary of State’s power to issue a code of practice for local authorities about the content, style, distribution and cost of publicity issued by authorities. I still do not consider that to be a desirable outcome, and I am not alone in doing so. Out of about 320 respondents to a consultation which we carried out earlier this year, only 20 people wanted the code to be abolished. However, I recognise the noble Lord’s concern about the content, style and ownership of the code. We aim to consult later this year not only on its content, but also on whether it is necessary for the code to be issued by the department or whether instead any code and its contents could be a matter for local government representative bodies. That would give ownership to the local authorities.

Abolition of the publicity code would not help. It would mean that authorities would be left to themselves to decide what to publish and not to publish. There is an obvious problem of inconsistent treatment and lack of clarity. That is why so many people in local government wanted to keep the code.

However, as I indicated, we are looking at the wider future of the code. We want to explore any suggestions from the local government world and stakeholders on the content of the code and how it might be updated, simplified or clarified; for example, to support members’ advocacy role for their communities. I would be grateful if the noble Lord joined us in that dialogue. We will reach a decision on the ownership, format and content of the code on the basis of the responses to the consultation.

The existing rules require the Secretary of State to consult local authorities before issuing any code. We will consider with local government, including the LGA, with which I have already discussed the matter, what form they would like to see the code take to make sure that the views of the representative bodies are reflected. I have discussed with the LGA the possibility of it and other representative bodies consulting on the future of the publicity code. I hope that we can further consider how to go about framing a new code, because it is the most sensible and effective way of taking the matter forward. I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to contribute his own views during the consultation.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. If the local authorities had been asked whether, in place of a statutory code laid down by central government, a code prepared by local government, put forward perhaps with the Local Government Association at the helm, might exist, they would have been almost unanimous in saying that that alternative would be preferable. They were not asked that question. However, the review that the Minister promised might come to almost the same conclusion. That would be a happy outcome. It is part of the process of central government backing off and local government doing its own thing. I hope that that outcome will come to pass. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Bruce-Lockhart is not in his place today to move Amendments Nos. 222A to 222C; he is not very well. I shall table them again at Third Reading in the hope that he might be able to be here then.

[Amendments Nos. 222A to 222C not moved.]

Clause 248 [Commencement]:

223: Clause 248, page 177, line 11, leave out “and (4)” and insert “to (5)”

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, noble Lords will recall that as a result of the DPRRC recommendation in Committee, the Government tabled amendments to restrict the term “document” used in Part 12 to mean that it must be a document identified by regulations made under Section 21, on accounting practices, of the Local Government Act 2003. One of the current documents identified by such regulations is the CIPFA SORP, which defines proper accounting practices. The amendment has been tabled to ensure that the provision at Section 221(5) comes into force two months after the Bill receives Royal Assent. This brings the commencement of this subsection into line with other relevant commencement provisions relating to Part 12. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 223A not moved.]

Schedule 1 [Structural and boundary change: consequential amendments]:

224: Schedule 1, page 178, line 29, after “words” insert ““and the order of retirement” and”

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 3 [Supplementary vote system: consequential amendments]:

[Amendment No. 225 not moved.]

Schedule 4 [Executives: further amendments]:

226: Schedule 4, page 184, line 13, at end insert—

“(1) Section 2 (constitution of principal councils in England) is amended as follows.

(2) After subsection (2A) insert—

“(2B) In such a case, a reference in this Act to a member of a council is a reference to—

(a) the elected mayor of the council,(b) the chairman of the council, or(c) a councillor of the council.(2C) Where a council mentioned in subsection (1) or (2) above are operating executive arrangements which involve an elected executive, the council shall consist of the members of the elected executive, a chairman and councillors.

(2D) In such a case, a reference in this Act to a member of a council is a reference to—

(a) a member of the elected executive of the council,(b) the chairman of the council, or(c) a councillor of the council.””

On Question, amendment agreed to.

227: Schedule 4, page 184, line 24, leave out from “executive” to end of line 25

228: Schedule 4, page 184, line 29, leave out paragraph (b)

On Question, amendments agreed to.

229: Schedule 4, page 184, line 29, at end insert—

“(1) Section 21 (constitution of principal councils in Wales) is amended as follows.

(2) After subsection (1A) insert—

“(1B) In such a case, a reference in this Act to a member of a council is a reference to—

(a) the elected mayor of the council,(b) the chairman of the council, or(c) a councillor of the council.””

On Question, amendment agreed to.

My Lords, I must advise your Lordships that if Amendment No. 230 is agreed to I shall be unable to call Amendments Nos. 231 to 239.

230: Schedule 4, page 184, line 30, leave out paragraphs 3 to 12

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 231 to 239 not moved.]

240: Schedule 4, page 186, line 5, at end insert—

“Representation of the People Act 1983 (c. 2)The Representation of the People Act 1983 is amended as follows.

In section 24 (returning officers: England and Wales) in subsection (1)(dd) omit “or a mayor and council manager executive”.”

241: Schedule 4, page 187, line 20, leave out “33J(5),”

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Schedule 5 [New arrangements for executives: transitional provision]:

242: Schedule 5, page 190, line 35, after “passed” insert “—

(a) at a meeting which is specially convened for the purpose of deciding the resolution with notice of the object, and(b) ”

243: Schedule 5, page 192, line 31, leave out from “passed” to “such” in line 33 and insert “—

(a) at a meeting which is specially convened for the purpose of deciding the resolution with notice of the object, and(b) on or before 31 December 2008 or”

244: Schedule 5, page 192, line 38, leave out “leader” and insert “manager”

On Question, amendments agreed to.

245: Schedule 5, leave out Schedule 5

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 6 [Parishes: further amendments]:

246: Schedule 6, page 196, line 42, at end insert—

“( ) In subsection (1), after “each parish” insert “council”.”

247: Schedule 6, page 197, line 13, leave out “11” and insert “7 or 10”

248: Schedule 6, page 197, line 36, after ““Part” insert “1 or”

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Schedule 16 [The Valuation Tribunal for England]:

249: Schedule 16, page 237, line 7, leave out “Tribunal business arrangements are” and insert “The President shall make”

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving the amendment I shall speak to amendments up to and including Amendment No. 253. I apologise to the House that there is a certain amount to be raised under this group of amendments and, although I appreciate the time, I do not want to abbreviate my notes too much.

These provisions relate to the Valuation Tribunal Service for England. I should declare an interest, which at the last stage I did not know that I had: the president of the Council of Valuation Tribunal Members, His Honour Judge Ian Morris, is a personal friend. I did not know that he was the president until I got home after the debate in Committee to find a message on my answer phone from him telling me that.

I shall speak to the five amendments individually, but the nub of it is the matter of judicial independence—in other words, that the new structure and the powers of the Valuation Tribunal Service must not compromise judicial matters. When we looked at the provisions in July, the Minister told the Committee that the purpose of the Valuation Tribunal Service is,

“to secure the efficient and independent operation of valuation tribunals in England and to improve customer service”.—[Official Report, 19/7/07; col. 478.]

I am not sure where “independent operation” comes from. One would, of course, expect independence from the Government but “independent” means different things to different people and the concern here is judicial independence.

The statutory functions of providing staff, accommodation and so on to tribunals and giving general advice to members of the public and to tribunal members give rise to concern centring on the advisory function. The Minister explained that the VTS board is appointed under the rules of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. I shall give her a few minutes to think about this. I mentioned it outside the Chamber. I understand that some, if not all, of the concerns could be met if the person to be appointed president had the appropriate qualification and experience to sustain judicial independence and to give advice on law and procedures to members. The qualification required would be similar to that for a recorder or a circuit judge.

In Committee the Minister said that a national president would strengthen judicial independence. I suspect that this would be the case only if that president had judicial qualification and experience. The concern about the need for judicial separation is such that about 10 days ago, 35 of 44 presidents present—that is, presidents of the current local tribunals, of whom there are 54 in total—signed a motion to be debated at a meeting in November, which states:

“That this meeting of Presidents of Valuation Tribunals considers that the proposed President of the new Valuation Tribunal for England must have the legal qualifications, judicial knowledge and experience to provide authoritative legal guidance to the lay members of the Tribunal on a day to day basis and the ability to recognise issues of judicial significance in order to protect their judicial independence”.

I understand that this motion was signed after suggestions to the conference from members of the VTS board that the president of the Valuation Tribunal for England could conform to the existing structure of lay membership. I believe that the level of support, which includes two presidents who have not joined the council, is evidence that the vast majority of presidents are not satisfied that existing arrangements sustain judicial independence.

Before today’s debate I passed to the Minister 15 examples sent to me which suggest that the present VTS board structure does not sustain judicial independence. I shall not read them all out this evening, not least because I know that the Minister will have done so, but I shall mention a selection. For example, despite government decision following consultation on sustaining the judicial independence of valuation tribunals that provision be made so that valuation tribunals or their presidents should be able to meet locally and nationally, without the involvement of the VTS, to discuss and agree judicial matters, the VTS abolished that arrangement and has not provided for an alternative. There has been active obstruction of attempts by valuation tribunals to arrange meetings of their chairmen and/or members. Further, despite government decision that the content of member training should be under judicial control, the VTS abolished the structure recommended but has not agreed a replacement.

Let me give another example. The VTS has published at least two documents as “approved by Presidents” when neither has been so agreed, and I am told that both had judicial significance.

My final example is that the VTS has involved itself in matters that are regarded as being wholly judicial, such as member appraisal. I have also been told that the department has allowed and indeed encouraged the VTS to become involved in matters within the remit of the tribunals and outside the statutory remit of the VTS because of the presence on the board of a majority of Valuation Tribunal members. The then Minister said:

“The constitutional model adopted, of incorporating service members as a majority of the Board has permitted the VTS to engage in those aspects of its agenda that have a bearing on wider judicial matters in full confidence that it is properly informed about judicial and service issues whilst fully respecting the concept of judicial independence”.

I suggest that that comment exemplifies the lack of recognition of what is needed to uphold judicial independence.

Amendment No. 249 deals with appeals. Unless the matters dealt with here are exclusively within the remit of the president, the provision in the Bill does not meet the point. Amendment No. 250 concerns functions relating to an appeal that may be discharged by the clerk or other staff under regulations. The amendment would require the president’s consent, which the Minister said in Committee was unnecessarily bureaucratic. She will have since seen that it was intended to apply to the regulations and not to each individual exercise of the function. I would understand if the Government said that it would be unacceptable for the Secretary of State’s power to be fettered. What I do not understand is that the Minister said that this was unnecessary.

Amendment Nos. 251 and 252 would retain the provision in the 2003 Act that the majority of the board are presidents or chairs of tribunals and the provision on disqualifying members of the tribunal other than the president. Amendment No. 253 is consequential.

This is not an attempt to sabotage the rearrangement of the service. The council of Valuation Tribunal members for England welcomes the concept of a single Valuation Tribunal for England. It agrees that a single president should help to sustain judicial independence, but only if the person appointed has the appropriate judicial background, qualifications and experience. It fears that, despite the selection of the president being in the hands of the Judicial Appointments Commission, there may be an attempt to remove judicial experience from the job specification. It believes that the presence of three other members of the tribunal on the VTS board creates unnecessary conflicts of interest and may well undermine the authority of the new president. The council, in summary, considers that the removal of the provision included the 2003 Act—that there should be a majority of serving Valuation Tribunal members on the board of the VTS—is the most important of the suggested amendments to the Bill.

I repeat that an assurance that the person appointed as president would have the appropriate experience and qualifications to give advice on law and procedures to members, have the stature to represent the tribunal to the outside world and, most important, be able to sustain judicial independence would go some way towards meeting my concerns. I beg to move.

My Lords, let me start where the noble Baroness concluded. I know that the council of VT members welcomes the concept of the single Valuation Tribunal. I do not think for a moment that she is sabotaging this; she is obviously expressing her serious concerns with the process. The most useful thing that I can do is bring her up to date with where we are on the post of the new president of the VTE. DCLG Ministers have recently agreed a draft job specification for the post of the new president of the VTE. It has been passed on to the Judicial Appointments Commission, which will run the recruitment campaign in due course under the Ministry of Justice. Final decisions on the specification will be for it. We have an open mind about whether the appointment should carry a requirement for previous judicial experience. It is perfectly possible that many, if not most, good and well qualified candidates are likely to bring that experience with them, but we do not see that as an absolute requirement that needs to be spelt out in legislation. It is worth bearing in mind that such a requirement would exclude almost all the membership of the current valuation tribunals from the field, since they are volunteer lay members. Putting that on the record may be of some help to the noble Baroness in the context of what she was saying about judicial independence.

I do not have a huge amount to say that is new since Committee. On the amendments to Schedule 16, the VTE will have both express and implied powers. It will have power to determine those appeals which are within its jurisdiction. Consequently, it will have power to do anything that is necessary to fulfil that duty; but there is no need to make express provision for each and every facet of those implied powers in the Bill. The Government believe that it is important for the VTE president to have an express duty for the selection of VTE members who are to deal with any appeal, so that at least one senior member of the VTE is required to deal with an appeal. There is nothing to prevent the president making further procedural arrangements, including through guidance.

In relation to the discharge of VTE functions, I again reassure the noble Baroness that it is not the intention to usurp or obstruct the appellate functions of the tribunal. A power to delegate functions is not new; a similar power already exists in relation to the current valuation tribunals. It is simply about facilitating good administration.

The Government’s view remains that requiring the consent of the president before functions can be discharged by the clerk will be unnecessarily bureaucratic and may even inhibit the purpose behind the power. In most cases, the Government expect the power to be used at the express wish of the president of the VTE, and the Government would consult the president of the VTE before exercising regulation-making powers, so consultation will be built in. There are three amendments to Schedule 17 which are linked and which seek to remove the requirement for the majority of members of the VTS board to be senior members of the VTE.

I have previously set out the reasons for the board composition and why the Government believe that it is important for this to be retained when the VTE is established. It ensures that the board has a good understanding of how tribunals function and the likely impact of any proposals being considered by the board. The president of the VTE would be a member of the VTS board by virtue of office, but to prohibit any other tribunal members from sitting on the board would deny the VTS board the crucial input from those people who are strongly involved in the day-to-day working of the VTE. Importantly, it would go against the views that the members of the valuation tribunals expressed when the founding legislation for the VTS was approved by this House and in the other place.

I hope that in the light of those explanations and what I said about the post of the president of the VTE, the noble Baroness will take some comfort and will be willing to withdraw the amendment.

My Lords, the Minister said that the Government are consulting the Judicial Appointments Commission on the job specification or, possibly, the job description—which is not quite the same as the person specification, which is what I am concerned about. Can she confirm that there is consultation about the person specification—in other words, the qualifications and qualities required—as well as the job description?

Yes, my Lords, we will be continuing the consultation as part and parcel of trying to achieve the right outcome.

My Lords, that being the case, I can, at any rate, be satisfied that the debate on this issue will not end tonight, as that consultation is ongoing. I am grateful to the noble Baroness and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 250 not moved.]

Schedule 17 [Consequential amendments relating to the creation of the Valuation Tribunal for England]:

[Amendments Nos. 251 to 253 not moved.]

Schedule 19 [Repeals]:

254: Schedule 19, page 246, line 36, after “words” insert ““and the order of retirement” and”

255: Schedule 19, page 247, line 36, second column, at beginning insert—

“In section 79(1) the words “, or be qualified to be elected and to be an elected mayor,”.

In section 80(1), in the words before paragraph (a), the words “, and be disqualified for being elected or being an elected mayor,”.

In section 270(4A) the words “or a mayor and council manager executive”.”

256: Schedule 19, page 247, line 43, at end insert—

“Representation of the People Act 1983 (c. 2)

In section 24(1)(dd) the words “or a mayor and council manager executive”.”

257: Schedule 19, page 248, line 5, at end insert—

“The Local Authorities (Executive and Alternative Arrangements) (Modification of Enactments and Other Provisions) (England) Order 2001 (S.I. 2001/2237)

Articles 4 and 5(a).”

On Question, amendments agreed to.

House adjourned at 10.26 pm.