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Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill [HL]

Volume 707: debated on Tuesday 3 February 2009

Committee (5th Day)

Good afternoon. I start with the usual reminder that, if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes.

Clause 17: Review of steps

Clause 17 agreed.

Clause 18: Supplementary scheme provision

Amendments 126 to 128 not moved.

Clause 18 agreed.

Clause 19: Powers of appropriate national authority

Amendments 129 and 130 not moved.

Amendment 131

Moved by

131: Clause 19, page 13, line 10, after “may” insert “or may not”

I move this amendment on behalf of my noble friend Lord Greaves, who, due to unforeseen circumstances, is unable to be with us this afternoon. I will send noble Lords’ good wishes.

Amendments 131 and 132 relate to Clause 19. Amendment 132 would delete subsection (7), which says:

“The powers conferred by this section are subject to the requirements of this Chapter”.

I understand that the noble Lord tabled the amendment because he did not understand what that subsection meant. I think—Hansard cannot reflect my italicisation of that word—I know what it means, but it would be good to have the Minister’s explanation.

Amendment 131 would insert “or may not” after “may”. I assume that, if one may do something, one may also not do it, but I hope that the Minister will confirm that that is implicit.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, tabled the Question whether Clause 19 shall stand part, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, and the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, have attached their names, because he was particularly concerned about subsection (6). A theme which ran right through our debates on petitions is the number of people who will be employed, in this case at national or government office level, to monitor how petition schemes go. In this clause, the Secretary of State or the Welsh Ministers may direct a principal authority to make revisions to a scheme.

I do not think that I need repeat the concerns on this side of the Committee about the heavy-handedness of some of the provisions. I beg to move.

I support the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. A theme running throughout this part of the legislation is that there is too much prescription. To a certain extent, that would put people off petitions rather than help. As I said the other day, I hope that the Minister will take this away and think again. The provisions are far too prescriptive—very much teaching grandmother to suck eggs. Please look at this again, for everyone’s benefit. I support the opposition to the Question whether Clause 19 should stand part of the Bill.

I send my good wishes to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I hope that he will dig himself out. I noticed that the road across the Pennines was free today and I must confess that I rejoiced that he would have an easy passage, not realising that he would not be able to get that far. It is very nice to have the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, back with us today.

I shall start where the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, finished. I listened very closely and suspect that, in the course of the next few amendments, we will have an element of the debate about what is prescription and what is enabling and necessary. I shall think seriously about what noble Lords are saying about the degree of detail that we need in the Bill.

I shall just address why Clause 19 is as it is and why it is important. Clause 19(1) provides a power for the appropriate national authority to make orders about what should be in petition schemes and what should not be. This power will be used only for situations in which, despite guidance and directions to individual local authorities, the local authority has signally failed to create a scheme which is accessible in the way we want it to be and effective. Clause 19(3) sets out particular issues that these orders can cover.

I have said before in Committee that the Government intend to exercise the order-making power in Clause 19 to set a maximum threshold for triggering the debate. In order not to be exclusive and not to be impossible to reach, it should not be more than 5 per cent of local residents.

Clause 19(2) provides for guidance to be made to help local authorities to meet the requirements under this chapter, and Clause 19(4) permits the guidance to include a model petition scheme. These clauses describe in general how guidance is designed to support agencies outside this House as a whole, not to be slavishly adhered to but to act as a guide to what, after consultation with local authorities, we believe will work best. If they have a better scheme and a better reason, local authorities can depart from the guidance.

The amendment reflects the noble Lord’s concern, which has run through the Committee, that this provision will be a method to prescribe by the backdoor all the details of how principal local authorities should handle petitions that they receive, but I assure noble Lords that it is not the case. Principal authorities will be free to adapt the model scheme to reflect local circumstances, or not adapt it at all. We will work closely with them, drawing on best practice and communicating with them as much as we can to ensure that we come up with the best possible outcome in communicating with petitioners, and so on. It is a starting point for authorities without formal arrangements in place and will, therefore, act as a practical aid to implementing the duties. It is certainly not intended to tie their hands.

Clause 19(5) underlines that point. It is a “may” construction; the clause says that local authorities,

“may … adopt … the … model petition”.

I hope that that will reassure the noble Lord.

On subsection (6), we are clear that we want local authorities to adopt effective petition schemes that give local people more influence in their areas. Should a principal local authority adopt a scheme that creates rather than lowers barriers to local involvement—although I do not expect that to happen—Clause 19(6) is necessary because it provides a power to direct an individual principal authority to amend its petition scheme. The obvious case would be if an authority set a threshold for stimulating a council meeting that was so high that it would be impossible to reach. In that instance, the appropriate authority could make a targeted intervention, requiring the principal authority to set a lower threshold without the need to exercise the order-making power. We see that power of intervention very much as a backstop, to be used in extremis if at all. However, we are committed to ensuring that standards everywhere can be raised to those of the best.

Amendment 132 seeks to remove subsection (7). The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in his own inimitable words, said, “It is there but I do not understand what it means. Why is it there?”. It is there because it clarifies that no changes to the requirements set out in this chapter may be made through the powers in Clause 19 to issue orders, guidance and directions. Essentially, subsection (7) makes it clear that this is not a Henry VIII provision which would entitle the appropriate national authority to change the primary legislation. It is a necessary safeguard.

With that brief explanation, I hope that noble Lords will be content for Clause 19 to stand part of the Bill.

I cannot resist commenting that if there were less detail in the Bill it would not be necessary to spell out quite so much in this clause. If “guidance”, which should have only its natural meaning, includes a model petition scheme, it ought not to be necessary to say that a local authority may or may not adopt the model because it is only there as part of the guidance. One would not then need to go into powers of intervention.

I understand better the Minister’s point that the Government want to be sure that authorities, in setting up their schemes, which we continue to believe should be of their own design, do not set the threshold at some absurd number—more than 1,000 people or whatever—that would turn it into a petition to which they would need to respond in some way. I continue to feel that the politics of the situation will prompt local authorities, but that is part of the larger debate.

I am grateful for the Minister’s response. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 131 withdrawn.

Amendment 132 not moved.

Clause 19 agreed.

Clause 20: Handling of petitions by other bodies

Amendment 133

Moved by

133: Clause 20, page 13, line 23, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b)

Again, I move this amendment on behalf of my noble friend Lord Greaves. It seeks to remove the application of Clause 20 to parish councils in England and community councils in Wales, which, to all intents and purposes, are the same kind of body, identical in their functions but operating in different ways. My noble friend, rightly, is unhappy that, as the clause is constructed, the Secretary of State can apply a scheme appropriate to the other principal bodies and local authorities listed in the subsection to parish councils, which really do not need national rules. It is a simple amendment, although the Minister may say differently. I beg to move.

The amendment raises an important issue and, again, I want to be as reassuring as possible. Clause 20 lists the categories of authority, besides principal councils, to which some form of petitions duty may be extended. I shall concentrate on parish councils, as the amendment applies to them. The list includes parish councils in England or community councils in Wales, economic prosperity boards established under Clause 84 or a combined authority established under Clause 98, and a range of other types of authority. Clause 21 provides that any extension would be by statutory instrument using the negative resolution procedure.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, wants to remove parish councils in England and community councils in Wales from the list of bodies to which any sort of duty may be extended. As the noble Baroness said, he thinks that national rules are inappropriate, and I suspect that he also thinks that this is a very onerous duty. He and I certainly agree that parish councils are very much at the heart of small communities, and we recognised their role in 2007, when we discussed the Act that permitted the extension of the power of well-being to them.

These are cherished bodies and they deal with the sorts of services that we care about very strongly; for example, allotments, public conveniences and cemeteries. These are the things that make a difference to quality of life, and indeed to death. Therefore, we believe that it is appropriate that these councils should be accountable to local people and that local people should be able to raise any concerns with them and seek improvements. They are nearer the community but they have the same sort of problems that other local authorities face. People are still reluctant to come forward. Very few are aware of the work that these councils do and very few participate in that work. Part of the joint venture across the parties in this Committee is to increase people’s involvement with parish councils and to make local people feel that they have more influence. We think that that comes about through knowing how to address a petition and get a result.

However, I am also fully aware that parish and community councils have very different arrangements and resources from principal local authorities. Therefore, subsection (4) provides that any duty in the Bill which is applied to a body listed in Clause 20 can be modified precisely to take into account the differing natures of those bodies. We know, for example, that many parishes have only a part-time clerk. Any requirements on parish councils will therefore have to take into account their ability to respond, and we are committed to meeting the cost of any new burdens placed on them.

My most important message is that we would not make such an order without first consulting the parish council sector and its representatives. We have already opened discussions to see how parish councils feel. Officials have had discussions with the National Association of Local Councils, which represents parish councils in England and the interests of community and town councils in Wales. I can tell the Committee that it welcomed in principle the prospect of some form of petitions duty being applied to parish councils. However, as I said, it is important that if, with its partnership, we move ahead with such a prospect, we do so only following the fullest possible consultation and agreement about what is being asked and how it might be delivered.

I hope that those assurances address the noble Lord’s concerns and that the Committee will be satisfied.

I hesitate to commit my noble friend but I am sure that he would stress not just the difference between principal local authorities and parishes and community councils but also the differences within the sector—the term used by the noble Baroness. Parish councils in one place are very different from those in another. She mentioned resources. I would be aware not just of financial resources but of the time available. I refer not only to the time spent processing petitions but also to the time that a parish council might wish to devote to a petition. Living in London, I do not have direct experience of how parishes work.

It is not a disgrace that I live in London; it is a great place. However, one has to remember that the proprieties and the way in which parish councillors work in and respond to their communities are very different. Their flexibility must not be reduced. The Minister referred to accountability. One does not challenge the issue of accountability, but I must remind her about the role that elections play in it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 133 withdrawn.

Amendment 133A not moved.

Amendment 134

Moved by

134: Clause 20, page 13, line 36, at end insert—

“( ) Any order made under subsection (2)(a) is subject to the approval of both Houses of Parliament.

( ) Any order made under subsection (2)(b) is subject to the approval of the National Assembly for Wales.”

I tabled Amendment 134 as a response to recommendations in the report produced on the Bill by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. Clause 20 allows the petitions scheme to be extended to bodies other than principal local authorities. The first two bodies on the list are parish councils in England and community councils in Wales. As the Delegated Powers Committee pointed out, they are much smaller than the other bodies listed in that clause and therefore have much more limited resources. Their budget may be only a few thousand pounds, and any new duty or provision must be examined very carefully if it is to be made obligatory for such councils. The need to balance the desirability of extending petition schemes with the other competing responsibilities that parish and community councils face should be carefully considered.

This amendment requires any such order to be subject to the affirmative procedure. I would not be surprised if, in the light of our detailed and exhaustive debates earlier in Committee, the Government did not want to see the issue of petitions raised in Parliament for some time to come. However, we would be ignoring our responsibilities in this House if we were to wave this issue away and say that the appropriate national authority would take such matters into account. If we have learnt anything from these debates—I feel I have learnt a great deal—it is that this issue is not as simple as it might at first appear. If we were to allow the appropriate national authority simply to impose the duties and responsibilities on potentially very small and underresourced authorities, we would be passing on all the difficulties and problems that would arise, as we have discussed. Noble Lords have highlighted bodies that may not be able to unpick the problems themselves. I am quite sure that the appropriate national authority may take all such matters into account, but I believe that Parliament should be wary of allowing orders that would have a disproportionate effect on those subject to them to be made without careful and close consideration. I hope that other noble Lords and the Minister will agree.

I appreciate the way the noble Baroness has addressed this issue. She is right to raise the recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and to invite me to respond to them. Much of what I shall say will reflect what I said in relation to parish councils and the burdens that we recognise petitions might put on them.

This amendment gives effect to the recommendation made by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. It argued that the negative resolution procedure is appropriate for the order-making powers relating to the other bodies listed in Clause 20. In our response, we stated that we understand its concerns and its search for consistency, but there are good reasons to think that the negative resolution procedure would be appropriate. The Government will meet the cost of any new burdens put on parish or community councils, and we would not make such an order without first consulting the representative bodies of those institutions to seek their views about how the duty should be framed so that the diversity of behaviour in the situation, which was pointed out by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, could be met in those cases.

As I said, my officials met the National Association of Local Councils and discussed the prospect of having some form of petition duty, and it has given a positive response so far. If the Secretary of State is minded to draft an order on this issue, the details of any consultation and the responses received would be set out in the Explanatory Memorandum accompanying all statutory instruments. That would give people the confidence of knowing that there had been proper consultation.

Obviously, if the Merits Committee also considered the consultation to be inadequate, or if the memorandum revealed that the responses indicated that the sector did not welcome the imposition of such a duty, and the Government were intent on imposing one, that would be drawn to the attention of the House. However, I expect that any consultation would reveal strong support for the extension of some form of duty by the sector so that it could respond to petitions to parishes or community councils. On the basis that we would proceed with consensus, we think that the affirmative revolution, which is a very serious and heavy power that takes up parliamentary time in this House, would be inappropriate and too heavy. That is why we have replied to the DPRRC’s report in the way that we have. In the scenario that I have outlined, the negative procedure would be sufficient.

Before the noble Baroness replies, I would like to comment on one aspect of this. I would also like to say how glad I am to see her again and how glad I was on Friday night to hear her sounding as though she was well enough to enjoy herself very considerably. I do not know whether that was the case, but it was certainly how it sounded on the radio.

The clause extends to economic prosperity boards. When we come to the part of the Bill that allows for their creation and that of combined authorities, which, as far as we can understand, are economic prosperity boards plus integrated transport authorities, we will discuss their role and whether this is a slide towards taking functions away from local authorities as we know them now, and putting them into the new boards. I see that as part of a central government agenda to create larger authorities. That would certainly be a threat—I know that that is a heavy word, but I use it nevertheless—to the districts. To have what the Minister described as a heavy and significant procedure would be entirely right because it would be part of considering how these boards will function. The Minister will realise that we have the possibility of praying against an order and I suspect that we will keep an eye on that, notwithstanding her assurances about the consultation that would precede any order.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for her kind comments about Friday. I did indeed have fun, not just because of the questions but because my feet were constantly being nuzzled by David Blunkett’s dog throughout the programme, which was an interesting experience.

I thank the Minister for her detailed response, but I would raise two issues. The Minister accepts that the organisations on the list—parish councils and the organisations outlined below—are very different both in the way that they are set up and funded and, more importantly, in the resourcing of their back offices, which would respond to items such as petitions. Therefore, I ask the Minister to take that on board and consider it carefully in terms of those organisations’ resources. She stated that the Government would be able to meet any such bills. I am sure that she is aware of the diversity of funding for parish councils, in the process, amount and commitment, both financial and other, from various local authorities. How would the cost of those extra duties be met by the Government? Would there be any direct funding to parish councils? Would it be given to local authorities? Would there then be a duty on local authorities to ensure that it was passed on? There are still questions which need to be looked at. I would be obliged if the Minister could take them back. We may have to return to them on Report, but it may be possible to clarify some of them before then. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 134 withdrawn.

Clause 20 agreed.

Amendments 135 and 135A not moved.

Clause 21 : Orders

Clause 21 agreed.

Clause 22: Interpretation

Amendments 136 and 137 not moved.

Clause 22 agreed.

Clause 23: Duty of public authorities to secure involvement

Amendment 138

Moved by

138: Clause 23, page 14, leave out lines 39 to 42 and insert “An authority to which this section applies shall involve interested persons in the exercise of its relevant functions by ensuring that they are—”

I must confess to be musing still about the exchange just now between my noble friend Lady Hamwee and the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, and wondering what people reading the official record would make of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, spending a Friday evening being nuzzled by David Blunkett’s dog. I just wonder whether we should let the rumours grow or make it clear that we were talking about a radio programme called “Any Questions?”. I have probably saved her reputation—or maybe I have damaged it.

In moving the amendment, I shall also speak to Amendments 138A to 142. We have reached the chapter on the involvement in functions of public authorities, and Clause 23 in particular. Amendments 138 and 138A probe what the Government’s intentions are. If adopted, they would make this part of the Bill much clearer by having it state that an authority to which it applies shall seek involvement in the way described. I shall listen with interest to what the Minister says about the circumstances under which the duty might be exercised.

Amendment 139 would fall were Amendment 138A to be adopted; otherwise, the amendment would simply replace “representatives” with “persons”, which is a much more involving word with a wider meaning than the rather restricted term “representatives”. The latter would require clarification as to whom the representatives represent and how they would do so.

The next batch of amendments is to subsection (2). They probe the Government’s thinking not so much as to why organisations are included in the provision but why some are not. Amendment 140 refers to the Marine Management Organisation. Amendment 140A redresses what is, in my view as a member of a local authority, the more startling omission; it would include various health bodies: a primary care trust, a strategic health authority, a health service trust and an NHS foundation trust. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s explanation for the omission. It is so obvious that it could not be accidental; there is some deliberate thinking as to why it is not there. I wait with interest to hear what it is.

Amendment 140B recognises what we have debated in the past on this Bill: the enormous importance of partnership and partnership working in local government. It seeks to include all the other partner organisations that may not need to be specifically listed.

Bearing in mind our recent discussion about their importance, Amendment 141 seeks to include in subsection (7) specific reference to parish councils. This is done at the request of the National Association of Local Councils. It has said that it would welcome an express reference, which would be a formal recognition of the positive and creative role that parish councils can play and would enrich their contribution. I support that view and have happily tabled this amendment. I am sure that the Minister will wish to respond accordingly.

Finally, Amendment 142 would add the words,

“and representatives of local government”,

to the list of those whom the Secretary of State must consult. I am sure that the Minister will say—I hope she will—that subsection (3) actually means that of course the Secretary of State will consult representatives of local government, but we would like to have that on the record. I beg to move.

My name is added to that of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in opposing the Question that Clauses 23 and 24 stand part of the Bill. The clauses address a different point, placing a duty on authorities to take steps to involve representatives of interested persons in their relevant functions. However, I feel that I am returning to the old arguments; as with the duty in Clause 1, I agree that these are desirable aims but a duty is not required. I do not need to detain the Committee on this point; I merely flag up these clauses as ones which the Government must reconsider when they look again at Part 1, as I am sure they intend to do.

I see that Amendment 138ZA, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Best, is included in the group. I imagine that he is attending the Economic Affairs Committee, which is where I would have been were I not here, listening to the Chancellor of the Exchequer giving some good explanations—or not. I hope that the Minister can respond to that amendment, even though the noble Lord has not been able to speak to it.

I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for enabling me to speak to Amendment 138ZA, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Best. I cannot understand why so many people are going for a competing attraction when this Committee offers such a compelling experience.

Those of us who went through the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 are still living with the duty to involve. This group of amendments invites me to explain why we are extending the duty to partner authorities, and I hope that I can satisfy the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, on that point. They argue that the clauses should not stand part of the Bill at all and that the duty should be extended to other partners or even to different functions. The debate gives me an opportunity to explain, while picking up some of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, why the lists are as they are.

Let me explain the logic of what we were trying to achieve. The Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 places a duty to involve on best-value authorities, which comes into force from April this year.

I am delighted to say that the response to the duty has been very positive. Local authorities welcome this duty to involve. Many already take that responsibility seriously as part of their normal duties, and they are keen to increase involvement. I hope the Committee will not mind if I quote one example of that and of how the argument has gone forward. There has been a successful engagement in Ipswich with the “You Said, We Did” initiative. It picked up beautifully on a scheme run by a well known commercial organisation that proved that, if they asked, customers got what they asked for. Ipswich has been proactive in encouraging citizens to come forward with their concerns, acting on them and giving feedback on the action taken. The initiative has been tremendously popular, with hundreds of people attending meetings to take part. It has strengthened engagement and led to many improvements in the community. That feedback, which communicates the results of what people have asked for, is a key factor in its success.

In considering how to take matters forward and make the duty to involve a reality, we took the new performance framework that we are introducing as our starting point. It is to the credit of local authorities that local area agreements have developed and have been so well managed and successful so far. I pay particular tribute to Essex, with which I have a communicating, not mentoring, arrangement, as I do with a few other authorities, so that I can see what they are doing. We feel it important that this duty applies to partner organisations, which are under a duty to co-operate with councils to agree local performance targets. This proposal was discussed and agreed with the relevant partner organisations. I hope to pick up that point and reassure the noble Lord, Lord Tope, about that consultation. We subsequently announced in the Communities in Control White Paper our intention to extend the duty to partner organisations.

The list of partner authorities is set out in Clause 23. It is the list that we used in the 2007 Act, with two exceptions. We have added the new Homes and Communities Agency to ensure that principles of involvement apply to it. It is important that we do that because the HCA has a duty to agree local performance targets with the local authority, which is an important step forward. We have also added economic prosperity boards in combined authorities. We will discuss the status and purposes of EPBs later, but I must advise noble Lords that adding them is an oversight, and I shall be moving an amendment to remove them. I am sad to confess to a failure of drafting. We have to take out EPBs, which are established by Part 6, because they are to be best-value authorities and are covered by the duty under the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. There is no reason to duplicate that, and I will take them out of the Bill. I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, is content with that explanation.

The duty to involve is a simple, logical extension of what we put in place in 2007. It is an opportunity for the local community to have its say, to be informed about and to become involved in a wider range of partner services and authorities, which are there to deliver the objective of the LAA, whether it is improved social care for elderly people or dealing with social issues such as teenage pregnancy. I therefore cannot agree that the clause should not stand part.

On the construction of the list itself—and, ironically, as we have to take EPBs out—we looked closely across the different departments to make sure that we were not duplicating what was provided anywhere else. We have not included best-value authorities on the list, for that very reason; nor have we included authorities that have a comparable duty when undertaking their specific functions. The list is in line with the overall agenda for community empowerment and the local performance framework, and it has been agreed with the partner authorities.

As we keeping saying, there must be a balance, and we are keen not to be too prescriptive. This is evidenced by our making it absolutely clear that each of the different authorities needs to determine for itself the appropriate level of involvement in its functions. That will differ depending on the body in question and the functions it performs.

I hope that that will address some of the issues raised by Amendment 138, which asks essentially to involve all interested persons in authorities’ functions. Although I know that the amendment is a hook for a wider explanation, I do not believe that it is appropriate, for the following reasons. If we adopted such a construction, it would be overly burdensome in terms of the resources required, in particular the cost of the involvement and the potential return. It would breach certain legal or Community obligations, such as privacy issues around staffing and litigation procedures. A further reason is that involvement of local representatives is being addressed via another statutory requirement.

We want to keep closely to the duty to involve set out in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. In effect, we are using this Bill to extend the duty but to be non-prescriptive.

Several amendments have, however, sought to extend the scope of the clause. Amendment 138ZA, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Best, would mean explicitly referring to voluntary and community organisations in the reference to,

“interested persons of a particular description”.

I fully agree that those organisations are such vital partners in the community, designing services, delivering them, working with local authorities under commission and so on, that they should be fully involved. However, the amendment is unnecessary as a consequence of the rules of statutory interpretation. “Persons” in this context, applying the Interpretation Act 1978, includes bodies corporate and unincorporate as well as individuals.

I think, however, that the noble Lord would almost certainly have used his amendment to ask me about the compact arrangement between the third sector and government, and whether it could be improved by giving it a statutory framework. I wish to put on the record that the Government are committed to making the compact between the sector and government work, and to improving the way that public bodies and third sector organisations work together. As such, the role of the Commission for the Compact is highly valued.

Sir Bert Massie, who, as we all know, is an extremely powerful advocate for the voluntary sector and the many different interests within it, has recommended that the Commission for the Compact be established as a statutory body, which would enable it to follow good practice for non-departmental public bodies and would help strengthen its role in improving relations between public bodies and third sector organisations. We are very sympathetic to the proposal.

However, there are significant practical obstacles. The Office of the Third Sector has started to develop this proposal across Whitehall. Many departments, not least my own, have close relations with the third sector and want to see it improved and strengthened. These discussions have also involved Compact Voice, which represents the third sector on the compact; the commission itself; and other interested parties, such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and the LGA.

Having looked at the implications of creating a statutory framework for the relationship represented by the compact, it has been very clear that it is not merely a question of an enabling clause; it needs a robust and appropriate structure. Frankly, more work is needed to flesh out the implications of moving the commission from being a private company to a statutory body. Noble Lords will know that, when we have created statutory bodies in this House, we have had to go into great detail to make sure that they are fit for purpose and do their intended job. We are intent on making sure that we do that work, particularly ensuring that the commission has the right powers to support its work. Having spoken to some bodies in the third sector recently, I know that they understand that whatever framework is created needs to be sufficient and predictable. Until that work has been done, the third sector and the Government share the view that we are not yet in a position to introduce new legislation or amendments to set up the commission as a statutory body. I welcome the opportunity that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has created and I know that the noble Lord, Lord Best, and the third sector will be grateful to have that assurance on the record. We will move with all speed to work out what is necessary and we will do that in partnership.

Amendment 139 proposes replacing the word “representatives” with “persons” when referring to who should be involved; it follows on from Amendment 138. It is worth retaining the use of the term “representative” because it is not meant to be unduly restrictive and refer only to formally elected or nominated members of the public. An authority will consider the diverse groups who may be affected by, or interested in, a particular function and engage with those people who are felt to be representative. These groups will be informed, consulted and involved and will vary depending on the type of authority and the level at which they operate, or the policy or service in question. Referring to “persons” could imply communicating with every individual, which, as I said earlier, could create a significant burden.

Amendment 141, also proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, calls for the addition of text so that “interested persons” includes parish councils. That amendment is unnecessary because “person” can include a parish council. The Interpretation Act 1978 states that a person includes a body of persons corporate or unincorporated. That includes third sector groups, businesses and organisations as well as individuals. One of the ironies of legislation is that if we were to refer specifically to a parish council, we may cast doubt on the efficacy of relying on the meaning given to the word “person” in the Interpretation Act 1978. I should also point out that statutory guidance in the duty to involve under Section 138 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 refers specifically to parish councils in its list of who may be covered by the term “local persons”.

We now come to the things that might be added to our list of partner authorities. Amendment 140 proposes adding the Marine Management Organisation being established by the current Marine and Coastal Access Bill—an attraction in another part of the theatre. We are liaising with Defra, the DfT and the DECC—the three sponsoring departments for the MMO—about whether adding this proposed body to the list is a desirable option. We will come back to that and report to noble Lords at a later stage.

Amendment 140A would add NHS bodies to the list. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, invited me to give a clear explanation of why they were not included. NHS bodies are already under a comparable duty to involve in Section 242 of the National Health Service Act 2006. I am delighted to say that the NHS already sees the involvement and engagement of the citizens whom it serves as important and valid ways to improve services and functions and has a number of good examples that demonstrate that. The participatory budgeting scheme in Southampton is an excellent example of involvement.

I am afraid that I must also reject Amendment 142, which would add to the list “representatives of local government”. We do not need to include this group as statutory consultees for guidance to the public authorities listed at subsection (2). Should any guidance be proposed in the future, I can assure the noble Lord that we would have a consultation process, and I hope that local government would come forward and comment as freely as it usually does.

I have spoken at some length because a number of different issues have been raised by the different amendments. The duty to involve has got off to a very positive and constructive start in local government, not only in improving how services are delivered but in increasing influence and ownership. I think that what we intend to do in the Bill is logical, sensible and proportionate. It will make an even greater difference to the way in which people influence what happens and indeed to the quality of the partnership between local authorities and their partner authorities as they deliver the local area agreements.

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for what she herself said was a very full reply to this set of amendments. Much of it I recognised and could agree with; some of it, frankly, I did not really understand and shall need to read and consider more carefully; and some of it just puzzled me—for example, the part about health bodies, which are already under a duty. Local government is also under a duty but that has not excluded it from much of the Bill.

We will study carefully what the Minister has said and reflect on it. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 138 withdrawn.

Amendments 138ZA to 141 not moved.

Clause 23 agreed.

Clause 24: Duty of public authorities to secure involvement: guidance

Amendment 142 not moved.

Clause 24 agreed.

Amendment 143 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.

Amendment 143A

Moved by

143A: After Clause 24, insert the following new Clause—

“Statutory notices framework

(1) The Secretary of State must make regulations setting out a number of procedures that may be used by local authorities and authorities to which section 23 applies (other than the Secretary of State) for the publication of statutory notices.

(2) In devising or revising those procedures, the Secretary of State must take account of—

(a) how public involvement in the decisions or activities of the authorities to which the notices may relate can most effectively be promoted;(b) the desirability of minimising burdens on persons required to publish statutory notices;(c) the requirement for notices to be accessible to disabled people;(d) the desirability of enabling third parties to reuse information contained in statutory notices.(3) Regulations under subsection (1) are to be made by statutory instrument.

(4) The Secretary of State may not make a statutory instrument containing regulations under subsection (1) unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.

(5) “Statutory notice” means a notice—

(a) whose publication is required by any enactment, and(b) which is intended to further public involvement in relation to local authorities and authorities to which section 23 applies (other than the Secretary of State).”

Since I entered the House, we have passed a number of Bills that require decisions to be notified to the public by advertising them in newspapers, local newspapers and gazettes, and various combinations of those. In the past Session alone, the Planning Bill, the Local Transport Bill and the Crossrail Bill all contained such provisions. They have a long history, and hundreds, if not thousands, of these provisions are on the statute book. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, took the matter up on the Local Transport Bill, and the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, tabled an amendment to the Planning Bill. In each case, they wanted to extend the duty to include talking newspapers so that blind people and others who are print-handicapped can engage as other citizens do.

Extending duties to improve the access of these groups to information about legislation is important enough but there is a wider point still here. Primary legislation that requires notices to be published in newspapers does not just result in inaccessibility; it is also rigid, expensive and out of date, and it does not work. Very rarely do we specify this level of detail in primary legislation. In this case, we do it only out of habit or because we think that no better alternative is available, but it is. Technology has moved on and so should we, but we cannot do that if we keep legislating in this way.

The Government have looked at this matter and have come up with some startling information. Tens of thousands of these notices are published each year. If more modern means of communication were used, the savings could be as much as £30 million. More than half of notices are about local planning matters—one area in which people are most active in local democracy. In the modern world, many people expect to be able to go to a website and find the details of planning applications that might affect them—not just council websites but independent websites too. Yet we continue to pass laws that do not encourage that kind of progress. Camden council did a survey to discover how its citizens found out about planning applications. Press notices reached only 1.4 per cent of respondents; they simply do not justify the money spent on them.

There are three things we need to do. We need to stop passing these types of provisions and come up with a more modern system. Over time, we need to go back and update existing law to take advantage of the new system, perhaps starting with the quick win of planning notices. This amendment gives the Government the chance to do that by requiring the Secretary of State to make new regulations for the publication of statutory notices. The regulations should take into account how to promote public involvement in decisions most effectively in a way that minimises the burden on public authorities, is accessible to disabled people and can be used by third parties.

Electronic publication in some standard format should be a basic requirement. Beyond that, the regulations could lay down a simple framework that would leave councils with maximum flexibility plus some more extensive notification requirements to ensure that genuine efforts at consultation take place. The details can be worked out in time, but we need to start the ball rolling. Local authorities want the present system changed. Blind and partially sighted people need it changed. The arrival of the internet age suggests that it is now time to act.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, for raising as powerfully as ever this very important issue. The Government have been looking at the current processes for publication of statutory notices for some time, and I am very sympathetic to the intentions behind the noble Lord’s amendment.

In 2007, the Cabinet Office produced a report entitled Informing the public in a multi media age, which contains recommendations broadly in line with the noble Lord’s amendment. This report recognised that a mandatory requirement for statutory notices to be published in the local press is not necessarily the best way to ensure community involvement in all cases. The Cabinet Office is currently looking at how to move forward with statutory notices in a joined-up way across government. It will be writing to all government departments soon to ask them to review the mandatory requirement in light of policy areas and related legislation. My own department has commissioned an independent report which, among other things, looks into statutory notices in a planning context.

As the noble Lord has already rightly stated, planning notices make up between 50 per cent and 60 per cent of all statutory notices. We are committed to ensuring that local people are not kept in the dark in relation to planning statutory notices. The Killian Pretty review, Planning applications: A faster and more responsive system, made a number of recommendations. Recommendation 11 in the report was clear that, to help improve the effectiveness of community engagement, local authorities should be given greater autonomy and flexibility to determine the best approaches to use in order to notify the public about planning applications, including allowing them to decide whether to use local newspapers or not. This report also recognises that local authorities’ planning authority web pages should be easily readable and understandable, with clearly presented information—for example, being able to resize text or view the page as “text only” for those with visual impairments. The department is considering that very positively.

However, although a large proportion of statutory notices may relate to planning and highways, there are many other kinds of these notices and they will need to be dealt with in different ways to ensure the highest level of community involvement. For instance, a planning statutory notice which was relevant to a small group of residents would need to be treated differently from one relating to a major development or a licensing statutory notice affecting an entire unitary council area.

I am therefore concerned that to try and legislate for all of these may not work in the way intended by the amendment. There would need to be analysis of how it would work in each case, and we might need to amend each piece of legislation separately. Therefore, more preparatory work will need to be completed before we can confidently legislate in this area. There may be other ways of doing so which do not require primary legislation, such as by order under the Electronic Communications Act 2000.

The amendment restricts the framework to notices produced by local authorities or authorities included on the “duty to involve” list; it does not make mention of notices produced by the Secretary of State. The Government would like to investigate further whether notices laid by the Secretary of State should also be included in any change to the rules around statutory notices.

I mentioned that we are looking in depth at these issues and will soon publish our own report outlining how we plan to move forward in this area in relation to planning. I would very much appreciate all noble Lords’ views when the response is published, particularly those of the noble Lord, Lord Low. I shall ensure that a copy of the response when published is sent to the noble Lord in a format suitable to his requirements.

The noble Lord’s amendment raised another interesting point that needs further thought by the Government. It aims to ensure that statutory notices can easily be reused by third parties. We would like to look at that in more detail to see how best it can be encouraged and what its benefits would be.

I reiterate that, while I sympathise greatly with the noble Lord’s amendments, I do not believe that they are the best way to address the issue, given the current review work across government and the need to ensure that it is considered in the broadest context. I hope that my response has gone some way to reassuring the noble Lord that the Government will seriously and carefully consider the process for publishing statutory notices, and look especially at increasing community involvement in decision-making. I appreciate the noble Lord’s raising a very important issue, especially in relation to the Bill’s emphasis on local democracy. However, I hope that, with the reassurance that I have given him, the noble Lord will agree to withdraw his amendment.

The Minister said that he hopes that his response has gone some way to giving me the reassurance for which I was looking. It has gone a considerable way, and I am grateful to him for that positive and thoughtful response. It is clear that the Government are thinking seriously about this issue in a broad, systematic and cross-governmental way. I am grateful to the Minister for offering to send me the report of the review when it is finished. I shall be happy to engage in discussion with the Government at that point and send them my response. On the basis of the Minister’s positive, helpful and thoughtful response, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 143A withdrawn.

Clause 25: Establishment and assistance of bodies representing tenants etc

Amendment 144

Moved by

144: Clause 25, page 16, line 31, after “a” insert “panel within an existing”

I shall speak also to Amendments 145 to 150 inclusive. They are probing amendments and provide us with little more than an opportunity to hear the Government explain in better detail what they are planning. Amendment 144 would prevent the Secretary of State setting up a wholly new body under the clause. How big a body are the Government considering? How many employees will it have? Who will sit on it? Where will they be appointed from? How will they be selected? I simply seek clarity about the Government’s intentions.

Amendments 144 and 145 would create a panel within an existing body which could do the same job as a new body. I am sure that the Minister will explain clearly why that would not be a practical option and why a wholly new body is required, especially in light of subsection (5), which makes it clear that a body need not be limited to the functions in the clause. That suggests that those drafting the Bill saw no problem in allowing a body to have a combination of different functions. Is there no existing body that could be adopted to meet the same objectives as those provided in Clause 25? I am keen to hear the Government’s reasoning.

Amendment 146 is designed to probe what financial assistance the Government think will be necessary, where it will come from and how much it will be. Once the Secretary of State has provided the money, who will spend it? What will it be spent on? Who will account for it, and to whom? I will be grateful if the Minister will explain the meaning of the words “financial assistance” so that we can read the explanation and consider these provisions more carefully with more details to hand.

Amendment 147 probes the powers and judgments of the Secretary of State. Clause 25(1)(c) allows the Secretary of State to give assistance to any body that she thinks could carry out the functions in Clause 25. If another body is capable of carrying out these functions, why do we need a new body? Why can the Secretary of State not use her judgment now to identify a body that has the functions specified in this clause? In any case, what criteria will the Secretary of State apply when identifying such a body?

Amendments 148, 149 and 150 seek clarification of what is meant by “other residential property” that is not social housing. That appears to open the remit of this body to an extraordinary degree. Is that appropriate? Should potentially every residential property in England containing a tenant be subject to this new body? Perhaps they should, but when I read this clause, I thought that this provision was particularly vague and wide-reaching, and I am asking for an explanation.

I have asked a series of short questions about Clause 25, and I am sure the Minister will answer them fully. I am interested to hear his response to these probing amendments and will consider his remarks further once I have read them. However, at the moment, I do not like the lack of clarity in the drafting of this clause, and I am unwilling to let it stand part of the Bill without any comment to that effect.

My Amendment 150A is in this group. It probes some of the points that the noble Baroness has just mentioned. I am perhaps coming from a different point of view in that I am anticipating a wider, rather than narrower, group of people who might have the support, assistance and voice—the term we used during the Housing and Regeneration Act—of this new body. It should be made clear that those people are not a homogenous group and will have different views and interests. Even within social housing, we might be talking about ALMOs, local authorities, housing associations and the private rented sector, which we will come on to in more detail in the next group.

“Social housing” has the meaning given to it by Section 68 of the Housing and Regeneration Act, and that definition includes low-cost home ownership, which I found a little confusing because that is ownership, not tenancy, unless one extends the interpretation to the sort of low-cost home ownership that involves a tenancy as to part. I would be grateful if the Minister will explain how that works. It all boils down to the fact that there are a lot of different interests and a lot of jobs that this new body will have to do.

I turn first to the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi. She raises some very pertinent questions and rightly probes for more clarity. It gives me an opportunity to remind noble Lords that the clause seeks to create a national tenant voice, one of Martin Cave’s recommendations in his review of social housing regulation, Every Tenant Matters. Tenants speaking for themselves has a long and honourable history. There are many tenant representative organisations at local and regional level, but I would like to mention specifically the three national organisations: TAROE—the Tenants and Residents Organisations of England—the National Federation of Tenant Management Organisations, and the Confederation of Co-Operative Housing. All three do commendable work representing their members, and some might have thought it reasonable to have asked one of those bodies to become the National Tenant Voice. The noble Baroness rightly raised that issue.

It is worth making it clear that the National Tenant Voice will not seek to represent tenants individually but, rather, give them—more than 8 million of them—a collective voice. There is therefore no question of the National Tenant Voice replacing these organisations.

Secondly, the National Federation of Tenant Management Organisations and the Confederation of Co-Operative Housing do not seek to represent all social housing tenants and while TAROE does, it is still in development and it would have been unwise and unfair to expect it to take on this role as well.

Thirdly, all three organisations agree the need for a separate National Tenant Voice. They have been active in helping us form it and will be represented on it. They recognise that it will complement, not replace, the work they do.

The amendments would do three things. First, the National Tenant Voice would not be a newly created body; secondly, funding would be restricted to activities relating to social housing tenants and not tenants in the private sector; and, thirdly, any government assistance would be confined to non-financial assistance.

I should like to address each issue to explain why the Government are resisting the amendments. I hope that that clarification will reassure the noble Baroness. First, why should we have a new stand-alone body? I have already explained why an existing tenants’ group would not have been appropriate. Martin Cave suggested that the National Tenant Voice be located within the new National Consumer Council, and we originally concurred with that. However, the project group we convened to advise us on the National Tenant Voice, which includes representatives of the three national tenant organisations, was of the unanimous view that the National Tenant Voice should be established as a new, stand-alone, independent body.

The group was of the view that locating the National Tenant Voice within another body carried two risks: first, that the interests of tenants might become lost in an organisation with other purposes and intentions; secondly—and perhaps far more importantly—the group felt that to have any credibility with tenants, the National Tenant Voice would have to be clearly tenant-led, tenant-dominated and tenant-orientated. The group felt that only a stand-alone body could achieve this.

The project group consulted tenants across the country before putting its advice to us, and tenants supported these proposals. We were happy to take the advice of the group, which continues to support us as we make preparations for establishing the National Tenant Voice. The group is providing advice on the best way to ensure that tenants across the country have a chance to be involved in the National Tenant Voice either as part of an overseeing national council or with a seat on its board. We are looking at a board of around 15 members, at least nine of whom are currently tenants, probably with a full-time staff equivalent of half a dozen. Approximately £1.5 million per annum is in the spending review period. As with any NDPB, it will have financial accountability to the Secretary of State and accountability to Parliament. The recruitment process will be through the Cabinet Office, as per the code of practice.

I now turn to why we do not wish to limit the National Tenant Voice to providing a voice only for tenants of social housing and the issue of limiting financial assistance. The creation of a national tenant voice is part of our wider reform of social housing regulation, as informed by Martin Cave’s review. It is quite right—and it is our wish—that its initial and core focus be on tenants in social housing. The National Tenant Voice will play a role as yet unmet, given that it will be run and dominated by tenants, not people acting on their behalf. It will therefore be able to act as an advocate and provide a voice for millions of tenants, not least enabling a direct dialogue between tenants and government and tenants and the new social housing regulator. It will commission research into issues that affect tenants because, as tenant-led, it will know best what these issues might be. It will also be active in promoting better representation of tenants at regional and local level and helping other tenants engage more effectively with each other and their landlords.

We do not wish the benefits of the National Tenant Voice to be confined to social housing tenants although, I repeat, such tenants must be its core focus. However, the National Tenant Voice will be an independent body and, once it is established, it will be for it to decide whether at some later date it will give advice to tenants in the private sector who face similar issues to their social housing neighbours. This is a decision for the National Tenant Voice and we want the legislation to be flexible enough to permit such a decision. In any event, the clause does not envisage that the National Tenant Voice will represent private sector tenants alone. Where private tenants are represented, the body must also represent tenants of social housing. The amendments seek to rule out that option by preventing any financial support for such activity. We do not believe that to be right. Nor is it practical, as any assistance provided to the National Tenant Voice will inevitably have a financial implication.

Amendment 150A seeks to ensure that activities are not confined solely to matters affecting all tenants but could include activities relating to specific groups. I wholeheartedly agree with the intention but we feel that the amendment is not necessary to achieve this. Subsections (2), (3) and (4), which set out the key functions, are not restricted; in other words, the current wording already permits activities that concern all tenants or just some.

As to the social housing definition including lower-cost home ownership being confusing, yes, it does include lower-cost home ownership but it will also include different tenancies such as shared ownership, equity percentage arrangements, and so on. I hope that the full response I have provided will reassure noble Lords and that they will not press their amendments.

On that last point, will individuals be able to raise tenancy matters, which is part of their persona, through the new organisation, or would they in some way be restricted? I am not trying to exclude them because I can see that they would have interests, but it was only when I was looking at Clause 68 just before coming into the Committee that I realised it is quite an involved situation.

I imagine that most tenants in the first instance would probably go to TAROE to resolve an individual issue but, as long as a tenant is involved, it can be raised at that level.

I thank the Minister for his response. I am going to have a detailed look at Hansard because I am still not clear why a stand-alone body is required. I have heard the points made by the Minister but I am concerned that the reason for TAROE not taking the matter forward is because it is not yet embedded. We could have allowed it time to embed and then given it this further role.

The distinction between social housing tenants and private tenants is not clear. If it is to be the National Tenant Voice, why do these distinctions have to be made at this stage? I thank the Minister for his response. We may well return to this on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 144 withdrawn.

Amendment 144A

Moved by

144A: Clause 25, page 16, line 31, after “body” insert “or bodies”

I apologise for not being present when the earlier amendment in my name was called. The Committee went at a surprising speed, which was most unusual. I regret to say that I was quizzing the Chancellor on the state of the economy at a meeting of the Economic Affairs Committee in the room immediately above.

This group of amendments follows on from the points made about the previous group, including those of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, in concluding her remarks on her amendment. I hope that we can have some further helpful elucidation as a result of the points that I will make. The series of amendments to Clause 25 are intended to provide opportunities for tenants in the private rented sector to be represented in a comparable way to tenants of housing associations and other social landlords under this clause.

I must declare my various interests. First, in a purely voluntary capacity, I chair the Private Rented Sector Forum, which brings together representatives of tenants and landlords. I am also a member of the council of the Ombudsman for Estate Agents, which is a non-profit-making body providing a redress scheme not only in relation to sales agents but to lettings agents and managing agents of privately rented property. I am a joint owner with my wife of a rented property and have responsibilities for other rented properties owned by my wife and my sister, and two of my children are tenants of private landlords. I hope that that satisfies all requirements.

Clause 25 enables the Secretary of State to establish and assist a body that will represent the interests at national level of housing association tenants in England or to support an existing body to provide that representation. It is clear that the intention is to cover tenants of social landlords as spelt out in Clause 26. Although there is provision for that same representative body also to support,

“tenants of other residential property”,

in the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, it seems that this potential extension of the role of a new organisation may be limited to tenants whose position is akin to that of tenants in social housing—tenants of councils, their arm’s-length management organisations and of other landlords whose property is managed by housing associations on a similar basis.

As we have heard, the work is well advanced for the creation of a body to be known as the National Tenant Voice, which will confine itself to representation of tenants from the different parts of the social housing sector. The new body will work closely with the regulator, the Tenant Services Authority created by the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008. When the powers in that Act are used to extend the role of the TSA to cover council tenants, I expect that the National Tenant Voice will see its role enlarged at the same time to embrace those tenants as well. However, while welcoming the progress in lining up a new representative body for this particular group of tenants, my concern is that many of the worst abuses—the most extreme grievances and the most serious complaints—are found in the private rented sector. Indeed, the so-called PRS, which houses many tenants on housing benefit, including homeless families referred by local authorities, contains some of the most vulnerable households in the country.

It is possible that one day the remit of the new tenants’ organisation will be extended to embrace private tenants, but for the immediate years ahead it will be kept busy with its important function of championing the requirements, particularly in negotiations with the TSA and the Government, of social housing tenants. Private sector tenants will, therefore, be left out in the cold, yet it is those tenants, not the social housing tenants, who currently have no recourse to any regulator or any redress/ombudsman scheme.

My amendments would enable the Secretary of State at any time to set up and support a representative body for tenants in the private rented sector. It is probably desirable that such a body should in due course merge with the National Tenant Voice representing social housing tenants so that one consumer organisation can cover all tenants. At present, however, that is a distant prospect. In the mean time, private tenants have a range of issues on which a body representing their interests would have much to say. Over recent years, the private rented sector has expanded, after decades of decline. Not least through the growth of buy-to-let mortgages, new landlords have entered this field. The recent report from Julie Rugg, of York University, for the Department of Communities and Local Government suggests that there are now 1.2 million landlords in this country. There are more tenants in this sector than there are council tenants or tenants of housing associations. As homeowners find it increasingly difficult to sell their properties, more of them are becoming landlords, albeit often reluctantly, while more home-seekers are turning to the rented sector because the credit crunch means that they cannot buy. Julie Rugg’s report and recent reports for the RICS from Bryan Carsberg and Professor Colin Jones recommend new steps to improve the position of tenants in the private rented sector.

At the same time, new problems are arising with schemes for sale and rent-back, where unscrupulous landlords obtain property on terms that are very unfavourable for the occupier. In addition, more private tenants are losing their homes through no fault of their own because their landlords have failed to keep up their mortgage repayments and their properties have been repossessed.

Private tenants have an inferior deal to tenants in social housing, whose position is to be further improved by Clauses 25 and 26. They pay higher rents and have much less security of tenure. It seems strange, therefore, that the Bill enhances the support for social housing tenants, but would not, unless the amendments are accepted, allow the Secretary of State to establish comparable arrangements for private tenants.

The Minister and his successors in office may soon greatly welcome the chance to do more for the growing number of PRS tenants. I hope, therefore, that the amendments will find favour with your Lordships.

I added my name and that of my noble friend Lord Tope to almost all the amendments. I am prompted to speak not only because it is right to support them and that we are heard to do so but because the messages that I have been getting indicate panic outside this room as to the speed at which we are moving—one can never get it right; I have just been asked how far I am prepared to go. Perhaps I should therefore speak at great length and even more slowly than I normally do, so that we keep on track.

I knew that the noble Lord, Lord Best, would cover all the ground very powerfully. He and I are not asking the Government for very much. The amendments do not change rights; they give the group of people to whom he referred—in fact, it is a lot of groups in quite a variety of circumstances—a voice. They enable the power of people coming together to make a point to be felt. I hope that the Government will give us assurances as to the way in which they are looking at this important and, as the noble Lord said, now suddenly expanding sector.

The noble Lord, Lord Best, supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, have raised a very important issue; namely, how we ensure that all tenants, regardless of their landlord, receive a good service. We are well aware that some of the most disadvantaged in our society are the tenants of private landlords. The noble Lord has powerfully highlighted the key issues.

Noble Lords will know that it is precisely because we are conscious of the needs of tenants in the private sector and of the issues raised by the noble Lord that we asked Julie Rugg and David Rhodes, of York University, to undertake a review. Their report sets out some real challenges for the sector and we are still considering the issues that it raises. We shall respond in due course, but one perhaps obvious conclusion of the review was the sheer diversity of the sector, from the very wealthy to the very poor. That was echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. That we should provide a single voice for such a diverse community was not one of the review’s conclusions. However, we share the noble Lord’s concerns about the more vulnerable tenants in the private sector, many of whom face issues similar to those of their neighbours in social housing. That is precisely why we have made provisions in these clauses for National Tenant Voice to undertake activities not only in relation to social housing tenants but that affect those in the private sector. That is where they have a shared concern. Again, I hope that that provides some reassurance to the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, in respect of her previous amendments.

The creation of National Tenant Voice is part of our wider reform of social housing regulation. We must not lose sight of that. Issues of the private sector are a different matter and, although important, need to be addressed separately. What we want is a strong private rented sector that acts professionally and meets the needs of all its customers, not just those with the financial ability to walk away from a poor deal.

In conclusion, I point out a technicality in the first amendment, which would allow the Secretary of State to establish more than one body for fulfilling the functions of National Tenant Voice. This amendment is unnecessary under Section 6 of the Interpretation Act 1976, as the singular includes the plural, and vice versa, unless a contrary intention is apparent.

I hope that the reassurance that we are giving serious thought to the matters raised in the Rugg review and will respond to the review in due course will enable the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment at this stage.

I am very grateful for the support from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, on this and my earlier amendment. I have discovered that you can move amendments on a virtual basis, with friends in the Chamber. I also thank the Minister for his reply, although I wonder whether he could be a tiny bit more specific about when we might expect some response to Julie Rugg’s important report, which will give the Government the opportunity to spell out exactly when they plan to do something more for this sector, which has been the subject of so many reports.

Ideally, as soon as possible. We are hoping that it will be at some time in the spring, on a realistic timescale.

Amendment 144A withdrawn.

Amendments 145 to 150A not moved.

Amendments 151 and 152 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.

Clause 25 agreed.

Clause 26 agreed.

Amendment 152A

Moved by

152A: After Clause 26, insert the following new Clause—

“Local freedoms

(1) The Local Government Act 1972 (c. 70) is amended as follows.

(2) In section 248 (freemen and inhabitants of existing boroughs), after subsection (1) insert—

“(1A) Schedule 28A (amendment of laws relating to freedom of city or town) shall have effect.”

(3) Before Schedule 29 insert—

“SCHEDULE 28AAmendment of laws relating to freedoms of cities and townsIntroductory1 (1) This Schedule makes provision for the laws relating to freedom of a city or town to be amended by, or pursuant to, a resolution of persons admitted to that freedom.

(2) The powers conferred by this Schedule are without prejudice to any other power to amend the law relating to freedom of a city or town.

(3) In this Schedule—

“appropriate national authority” means—(a) the Secretary of State, in relation to a city or town in England;(b) the Welsh Ministers, in relation to a city or town in Wales;“enactment” includes in particular—(a) a royal charter or other instrument made under the royal prerogative;(b) any instrument made under an enactment.Powers to amend law in respect of women and civil partners2 (1) The purposes of this paragraph are—

(a) to provide for a woman to have the right to be admitted to freedom of a city or town in any or all circumstances where a man has that right;(b) to enable a woman admitted to the freedom of a city or town (whether pursuant to this Schedule or otherwise) to use the title “freewoman”; (c) to put a civil partner or surviving civil partner of a person admitted to freedom of a city or town in the same position as a spouse or surviving spouse of such a person.(2) The appropriate national authority may by order amend an Act for any purpose of this paragraph, if the amendment is proposed by a qualifying resolution.

(3) A qualifying resolution may amend—

(a) any enactment other than an Act, or(b) the law established by custom,for any purpose of this paragraph.(4) An amendment may not be made under this paragraph for the purpose specified in sub-paragraph (1)(a) if the effect of the amendment in any case or circumstances would be to deprive a man of the right to be admitted to freedom of a city or town.

(5) A provision of a public general Act may not be amended under this paragraph unless the provision relates only to—

(a) a particular city or town, or(b) a specified group of cities or towns.Power to amend royal charters3 (1) Her Majesty may by Order in Council amend the law relating to rights of admission to freedom of a city or town where—

(a) the law is contained in a royal charter; and(b) the amendment is proposed in a qualifying resolution.(2) It is immaterial for the purposes of sub-paragraph (1) above whether the amendment is one which could be made under paragraph 2(3) above.

(3) An Order in Council under this paragraph is not a statutory instrument for the purposes of the Statutory Instruments Act 1946.

Powers to amend laws established by custom4 (1) A qualifying resolution may amend the law relating to rights of admission to freedom of a city or town where the law is established by custom.

(2) The power in sub-paragraph (1) above does not include power to make an amendment which could be made under paragraph 2(3) above.

Consequential amendments5 (1) The power to make an amendment under paragraph 2(2) above includes power (exercisable in the same way and subject to the same conditions) to make consequential amendments to—

(a) any enactment, or(b) the law established by custom.(2) The power to make an amendment under paragraph 2(3), 3 or 4 above includes power (exercisable in the same way and subject to the same conditions) to make consequential amendments to—

(a) any enactment other than an Act, or(b) the law established by custom.(3) Where an amendment is made under paragraph 2(3), 3 or 4 above, the appropriate national authority may by order make consequential amendments to any Act, if the consequential amendments are proposed by a qualifying resolution.

6 (1) Where by virtue of an amendment under paragraph 2, 3 or 4 above a person has the right of admission to freedom of city or town, the following amendments in particular are to be regarded as consequential for the purposes of this Schedule—

(a) an amendment for the purpose of putting that person in the same position as any other person admitted to that freedom;(b) an amendment for the purpose of putting a person who by marriage, civil partnership, descent, employment or otherwise is or has been related to or associated with that person in the same position as a person correspondingly related to or associated with any other person admitted to that freedom; (c) an amendment for the purpose of putting a person who is or has been related by marriage or civil partnership to a surviving spouse or civil partner or child of that person in the same position as a person correspondingly related to the surviving spouse or civil partner or child of any other person admitted to that freedom.(2) In determining for the purposes of sub-paragraph (1) above whether one relationship corresponds with another, differences of gender are to be ignored.

Qualifying resolutions7 (1) For the purposes of this Schedule, a “qualifying resolution” is a resolution—

(a) in relation to which the requirements of paragraph 8 below are complied with; and(b) which is passed in accordance with paragraph 9 below.8 (1) The requirements of this paragraph in relation to a resolution are as follows.

(2) The resolution must be proposed by three or more eligible persons.

(3) Voting on the resolution is to be by postal ballot.

(4) The proposers must make reasonable endeavours to secure that each eligible person is sent—

(a) a notice of the ballot, and(b) a ballot paper.(5) The notice must state—

(a) the resolution proposed,(b) the purpose of the resolution, and(c) the date on which ballot papers must be returned (the “voting date”).(6) Any notice and ballot paper must be sent at least 28 days before the voting date.

(7) For the purposes of this paragraph, a notice or ballot paper is sent to a person on the day it is posted by first class post to the last known address of that person.

9 (1) A resolution is passed in accordance with this paragraph if—

(a) it is passed by a majority of the eligible persons voting on the resolution,(b) the number of eligible persons voting on the resolution is at least 10% of the number of eligible persons to whom notice is sent under paragraph 8(4) above, and(c) the resolution is notified to the relevant council within six weeks from the voting date.(2) For the purposes of sub-paragraph (1)(c) above, the resolution is notified by delivery of the following documents to the relevant council—

(a) a copy of the resolution;(b) a copy of the notice sent under paragraph 8(4) above;(c) a statement in writing of the names of the eligible persons to whom the notice was sent;(d) a statement in writing of the number of eligible persons who voted on the resolution and of the number who voted in favour of it;(e) all ballot papers returned in accordance with the notice.(3) The relevant council must keep the documents delivered under sub-paragraph (2) above, but need not keep those within paragraphs (b) to (e) of that sub-paragraph if it considers that it is no longer reasonably necessary to do so.

10 In paragraphs 8 and 9 above—

“eligible person” means a person whose name is on the roll of persons admitted to the freedom of the city or town concerned kept under section 248(2) above;“relevant council” means—(a) in relation to a city or town in England—(i) the district council in whose area the city or town is situated, or (ii) if the city or town is not in the area of a district council, the county council in whose area it is situated;(b) in relation to a city or town in Wales, the principal council in whose area the city or town is situated.Order-making powers: supplementary11 (1) A statutory instrument containing an order under this Schedule which contains an amendment to a public general Act is subject to annulment—

(a) by either House of Parliament, in the case of an order made by the Secretary of State;(b) by the National Assembly for Wales, in the case of an order made by the Welsh Ministers.”(4) In section 248—

(a) in subsection (1), after “this section”, in both places, insert “and Schedule 28A”;(b) in subsection (2), for “freemen” substitute “persons admitted to the freedom”;(c) in subsection (3)—(i) for “as a freeman” substitute “to the freedom”;(ii) for “his”, in both places, substitute “the person’s”;(iii) for “freemen” substitute “persons admitted to the freedom”;(d) in subsection (4), in paragraphs (a), (b) and (c), for “freeman” substitute “person admitted to the freedom”.”

I shall also speak to other amendments related to this one. For the benefit of the Committee, and to put the amendments into context, I remind noble Lords that it has taken some time to reach the present position.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mustill, sought to introduce a Private Member’s Bill dealing with this matter some years ago. At that stage, it was known as the “Beverley Bill”, deriving from the town of Beverley and inspired by the fact that its guild of freemen was in some difficulty due to the limits placed on succession. I took over from the noble and learned Lord and, with full support from all Benches in your Lordships' House, my simple Bill to extend hereditary rights to daughters as well as sons was taken up in the Commons by my good friend the Member of Parliament for Newcastle Central, Jim Cousins. Unexpectedly, it was objected to—and, as one shout of “object” kills the Bill, it was lost. I tried twice more and each time it suffered the same fate. It had friends in the Commons, notably the Member of Parliament for Berwick-upon-Tweed, and, importantly, Ministers Phil Woolas and John Healey, who at one stage or another indicated that the Government were sympathetic to the Bill’s objectives and would seek a suitable vehicle for it in future legislation.

The Minister has been kind enough to meet me to discuss this issue in the past. She will know that I laid a similar amendment to the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill last year, as did the noble Lord, Lord Boston, on honorary freedoms. On that occasion, I agreed to withdraw the amendment on the understanding that the Government would seek a more suitable legislative opportunity.

I know that the Government are sympathetic to what I am trying to do. Indeed, following her assurances on the previous occasion, I was very grateful to the Minister for her support in the production of a Private Member’s Bill. However, as is so often the case—certainly in my experience over the years—that was unsuccessful. So when I saw the White Paper Communities in Control: Real People, Real Power in the summer, I was much encouraged, not only by its references to other ways of serving the local community but also by its recognition of traditional roles in local government, such as aldermen. I thought, “This is it. The following Bill will be the suitable legislative opportunity we have been so long promised”. However, it was not to be. There is no recognition in the Bill that local traditions have a part to play in encouraging interest in civic life, and, in particular, I was disappointed that the Government had not taken the opportunity to update one of our most historic traditions.

In essence, all these amendments are about modernising the ancient traditions of freemen. I can do no better than refer to the Journal of the Freemen of England and Wales, which, in a recent issue, stated:

“For the Freedom, this is the most significant piece of legislation proposed since either the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act, which interfered with our rights, or the Local Government Act of 1972, which saved the existence of the Freedom”.

Who are the freemen of England and Wales? The freemen's guilds in our ancient towns and cities exist as trustees and guardians of funds and property for public benefit. They go back to at least medieval times. Unlike honorary freedom, borough freedom is not an honour but a civic duty and responsibility; nor is it purely inherited. In many towns, the terms of admission include residential restrictions, place of birth restrictions, forms of apprenticeship and relationship by marriage. Almost every town has different rules, which are exceedingly difficult to change. These amendments are designed to enable existing guilds of freemen to make the changes outlined in the amendment, if they wish to do so. It is entirely permissive. If no change is sought, then so be it. If change is sought along the lines of the provisions of the amendment, they can be promulgated by using these procedures.

My amendment creates a new schedule to the 1972 Act that sets out the procedure for amending the admission rights to guilds of freemen so that women can inherit the right to be a freeman—in nearly all cases, purely as a result of a resolution of the freemen. If the change requires amendment of an Act, the Secretary of State will need to make an order to bring about that change. The amendment will also make it far easier to alter other admission rules, such as having to be born in a town. It also makes provision to enable a woman to use the title “Freewoman” to reflect the White Paper proposals for aldermen, and, for the sake of consistency, it makes the changes proposed by that White Paper. Clause 2 amends Section 249 of the Local Government Act 1972 so as to enable principal councils to confer the title “Alderwoman”.

Of course, the local authority has a part to play as, although the application for membership is to the Guild of Freemen, the guild is the predecessor of local government or councils in the town or city, therefore the city council is the successor “corporation”. Invariably, the local Guild of Freemen and the local council work together closely for the good of their local populace.

Here I pay tribute to the officials in the department and many others, but especially to the Minister and her predecessors, who have given me great encouragement over the period. I especially want to thank the central body for freemen—the Freemen of England and Wales. It has shown a lively interest in the Bill and has commented, invariably favourably, on its provisions. It has also suggested improvements based on its knowledge of the state of opinion within its organisation. In no way is the Bill proposed by that organisation, but it has responded to invitations to comment and improve from the department and myself over a period, and I know that the Bill will be welcomed. It will allow many disparate strands of guild freedoms to be brought up to date simply and easily, and will avoid great cost and time by petitioning one quarter or another to achieve improvements.

I am glad the opportunity is taken of creating a situation whereby the amendments may be used locally to grant honorary freedoms to those they wish to honour where that right or opportunity does not exist. The noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, whom I see in his place, energetically pursued that opportunity earlier, and I am glad that his interests are met in the revised version of the Bill. Other changes were made on the recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. I believe that the style and drafting used in the new clause is clearer and more reader-friendly.

I want this legislation to bring increased pride and public acknowledgement to many more communities. Local service of one kind or another at present earns individuals honour by having the freedom of the borough conferred. No one was more delighted and happy than I when the London Borough of Enfield did me the great honour of awarding me the borough freedom medal, which I show to the Committee. I am very proud of it.

I know that those who serve their local community in a voluntary capacity—indeed, many of our councillors—do not do so for reward or recognition, but that does not mean that service should not be recognised where appropriate. It is the local authority that must have a role in representing and acting on behalf of the local community in that way, as it can by recognising the service of councillors. But, as I say, only some local authorities can do that at present. This is inequitable and an accident of history. For that reason, the amendment enables all local authorities, from parish councils to county councils, to be able to grant honorary freedoms in recognition of eminent service by amending the relevant provisions in the 1972 Act. For instance, Royston Town Council wished to award the Royal Anglian Regiment the freedom of the town on its return from Iraq, but could not do so under the current restrictive legislation.

In the Bill, new opportunities exist. How about extending that freedom to those who have served us so well in Iraq and Afghanistan, both collectively and individually? Let us show our debt and pride more widely than has been the practice in the past. The Bill could be used for that. I beg to move.

I apologise to the Committee; I have been in another committee and have only just arrived, but am very glad that I am in time to support the noble Lord, Lord Graham. He mentioned Berwick-upon-Tweed; I came into contact with this because I married the Member of Parliament for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who has been very supportive of the noble Lord.

Since I have lived there, I have been a member of the borough council. We work very closely with the freemen in Berwick, which is a large group. I was particularly interested in the noble Lord’s comments about how important they are to the life of a town and how they are part of the community. They certainly are in Berwick-upon-Tweed. They own quite a lot of the land there and have also instigated some very good affordable housing for older people in the borough. Indeed, until we had problems because of disability access to the town hall, the borough council met in the town hall, which is owned by the borough freemen. We are trying to find a way of getting disabled access into this very old building.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, was right that the Bill is about trying to get people more involved and about how local communities work. I can vouch for the fact that borough freemen are very involved in their local community.

It is also important for other parts of what the noble Lord, Lord Graham, said, because local government is being reorganised in Northumberland. The borough council, where we have had the mayoralty and so on, and where we have been able to make honorary members in the borough, will disappear and a town council will be elected. If it can carry on that sort of tradition, people in Berwick will be very pleased. There are several things that people worry about in losing borough status, and some of the things that cannot go to the new unitary authority are very important to local people and how they view their community.

I am very pleased to be able to support what the noble Lord is saying, and I hope that the Government can accept the amendment. It is perfectly in tune with what they are trying to do in local communities—to make people feel that there are different ways in which they can take part in their community. I wish him luck.

I was pleased to hear the noble Lord refer to county councils, because they very rarely or never appoint freeman. The noble Lord may have the freedom of Enfield, but he actually lives in Essex, so if this amendment went through we might be able to confer on him the freedom of Essex.

The problem has just been highlighted. For example, we do not have an Essex regiment now—it is part of the Royal Anglian Regiment. There never has been a south Essex regiment, to which the television hero Sharpe is supposed to belong, but we have had an Essex Regiment. We would like the county council to honour the Essex Regiment for the part that it has played in Afghanistan, from which it has just recently returned. That is the sort of thing that relates to the first part of the Bill, about getting people to understand more about local government. If we can do things like that, it brings local government to the fore as part of our heritage and the things that people do. I very much support the amendment and hope that the Government find ways in which to do this.

It is with great pleasure that I rise to support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. He is a good friend of mine, although I cannot call him my noble friend, because we sit on different Benches. I am particularly grateful to him for the guidance that he has given me on the scope of his amendment.

The noble Lord has advised me that his amendment provides an all-embracing power relating to the creation of honorary freemen. There is one category of honorary freeman with which I am concerned about in particular—those connected with the Cinque Ports. Although his amendment does not mention them specifically, he advised me that it covers them. As it is all embracing, it does not need to refer to them specifically.

At this point, I declare two interests. Many years ago, in another place, I represented a constituency then called Faversham, which included the town of Faversham, an associate Cinque Port. My arms contain part of the arms of the Cinque Ports.

The amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Graham, would restore to the Cinque Ports of Kent and East Sussex a right to create honorary freemen, which existed for centuries. The service to the nation of those towns goes back to the time of the Norman conquest.

I have no doubt whatever that the noble Lord, Lord Graham, was there.

The right to create honorary freemen was ended when the Local Government Act 1972, which came into force in 1974, was passed. Until 1974, all but one of the Cinque port towns were municipal boroughs, which 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.

Many, including 12 of the Cinque Ports, were too small to become local government districts in their own right. The majority became what were called “successor parishes”, which exercised the rights to be called town councils and for their chairmen to be known as “town mayors”. 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”, as they were called. 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 only for those district councils 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 communities.

The Confederation of the Cinque Ports, representing all 14 Cinque port towns, has been pressing the Government to rectify this anomaly and injustice—which is what it is—for several years. The Government have expressed sympathy for this aim and have indicated that if a suitable legislative opportunity arose it would bear those representations in mind. Over the past two years I have pressed these aims, notably in the proceedings on the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, now an Act, but the Government, while remaining sympathetic, did not feel it possible to accept that that Bill was an appropriate vehicle. This Bill provides an appropriate vehicle, with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Graham.

My noble and gallant friend Lord Boyce, the Lord Warden and Admiral of the Cinque Ports, is detained elsewhere in the Palace on parliamentary business, otherwise he would be with us in this room. He is keen for this aim to succeed, as are other of your Lordships with Cinque Ports connections, including the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, who has authorised me to say that she supports these amendments, and my noble friend Lord Imbert. I am grateful for the guidance and advice of the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, her officials and, on earlier proceedings, the Public Bill Office. I am also very grateful to Mr Ian Russell, Registrar and Seneschal of the Cinque Ports, for his considerable help and briefings.

I should indicate at this stage that I support the other two amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Graham, which come at the end of the Marshalled List. I say that now, as it will save me from having to burden the Committee with two more speeches in support. I hope that the amendment will be agreed to by the Committee.

I can honestly say that I have been looking forward to this amendment more than most. I am particularly proud that my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Boston, were able to be here despite the weather so that we could have this debate. My noble friend said that this was the most significant piece of legislation since the 1835 municipal government Act. It is certainly well up there with the great reforms in local government and equality. We always say that politics is the art of the possible, and somehow the possible seems to take years to arrive. However, the persistence of the two noble Lords in this context has been remarkable. Patience, as well as integrity, virtue and vision, are sometimes the key political qualities, and they have exhibited all that as they have tried to put these good changes on the statute book for a long time. I am delighted that we are in a position to accept these amendments.

The Committee should not look so surprised; these amendments are worth accepting. Before I confirm that, I should say that I know that we have had a long journey to get to this point, and we have failed for good reasons—the amendments, the time or the vehicles have not been quite right. However, we have now satisfied all those considerations. I am grateful to my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Boston, for thanking officials; when we started, we recognised that there were some knotty legal problems to untangle. I had visions of us having to go back to medieval statute, especially in relation to the Cinque Ports, and trying to unscramble what William himself might have put in statute. In fact, thanks to the cleverness and hard work of our lawyers, all is now satisfied. I am sure that they will be grateful for having that put on record.

We gave assurances and sponsored a Private Member’s Bill, and I understood the disappointment that followed that. Noble Lords all around the Committee have spoken of the historic and ceremonial traditions that are so much of what makes this country different, that are of such value to us, and that we cherish. Those traditions need to work in a way that is non-discriminatory, and we face not only historic change but something genuinely important when we think of the scope of our equality legislation and the importance that we attach to that value.

I am delighted. I feel I have a vested interest; I shall never be a freewoman, I am sure, but invitation goes out—challenge me to be wrong. The position on the right of succession has been blatantly discriminatory—in many guilds it can be secured only by patrimony—so the provision has the added benefit of helping to ensure that hereditary freemen can continue as part of the active but historic framework of many of our towns and cities. The evidence of the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, about how the quality of life for people in Berwick is changing was a telling example of how contemporary the work of freemen, and now freewomen, will be. I am happy to endorse the changes that recognise the position of women in those traditional governance arrangements.

As for the changes that the noble Lord puts forward to allow all local authorities to recognise eminent services to their area by the granting of the title of honorary freemen—absolutely. If we are to keep traditions, they must be seen to be fair and to move with the times. We agree that all local authorities should enjoy this right. It enables those who govern a place to recognise the contributions made by local people, and I feel that there cannot be too many opportunities to do that by thanking people publicly and recognising their efforts.

Granting honorary freedoms is an important way of recognising service, whether by voluntary groups, residents or people who run tenants’ associations, local youth clubs and the things that make a significant difference to the life of the community. I know that this will be welcomed by local people and local authorities. All district and county councils will be able to confer the title of honorary alderman or, thanks to the noble Lord’s amendments, honorary alderwoman in recognition of service. I am very pleased that we have been able to satisfy the interests of those who work for and value the traditions of the Cinque Ports. I know that many noble Lords will support that. Indeed, I remember the fascinating debates we had on the previous Bill when we discussed what makes the Cinque Ports so special in our national life.

This is the right Bill for anything we can do to promote and support the voluntary engagement of local people. It is about improving engagement, local involvement and the governance of towns, villages and cities. I welcome that in all respects. Therefore, with a glad heart, I propose to accept the noble Lord’s amendments.

I am very grateful for the reception that my amendments have received. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, who speaks with more knowledge about Berwick than many people, but not with more than me, because I come from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Berwick is a landmark and a lovely town with great history. The noble Baroness stressed the continuing value of the guild of freemen in her town, as in many others. Although we are modernising and moving on, it is essential that we retain our tradition and history wherever possible. I was very grateful for her remarks.

The Bill is a trigger, a platform and an opportunity for people who may not have thought of using the device of awarding honorary freedom to individuals and groups in a town. I look forward to a number of people waking up to the fact that it is possible to use these amendments to elevate the status of individuals and groups in the town, so I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield.

The noble Lord, Lord Boston, has been diligent and persistent in ensuring that the interests of the Cinque Ports are borne in mind. When he tells us that there is history going back to William the Conqueror in the area that he represented, one appreciates how jealously we should guard that which has been handed down to us and which we will hand down to others.

The freemen of Newcastle-upon-Tyne are held in high esteem and do great work. Almshouses are provided and the Town Moor, a feature of Newcastle, is owned by the freemen, who jealously guard its rights and make sure that it is not trampled upon. They are proud of it. I am grateful for the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Boston. I was pleased that he mentioned the noble Lord, Lord Imbert, and the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes. They took part in the original debate and brought a cross-party line to it.

I am grateful to the Minister for her advice. She is right to point out the care that has been taken by her officials. This provision has been redrafted more than once to ensure that, as a fresh look is taken at what is intended, if people do not want to do anything, they do not have to, but if they do want to, they have to take account of modernity and other things. I am very grateful for that.

I am also grateful for the Minister’s support for the equality aspect of the amendment. Although it started as a simple idea to give a guild the right for succession to go beyond that of sons and to include daughters, one can quickly see how the concept has grown. We had to make sure that it was not just a ramble but had been looked at and carefully thought about. From the time it started, it has been rewritten more than once in the light of advice and guidance. I am grateful to the Minister and to the Freemen of England and Wales, who have been careful not to say that they are promoters of the Bill, but they fully support what the Bill sets out to do.

Amendment 152A agreed.

Amendment 152B

Moved by

152B: After Clause 26, insert the following new Clause—

“Honorary titles

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

(2) In the head, for “Honorary aldermen and freemen” substitute “Honorary titles”.

(3) In subsection (1) (power of principal councils to confer title of honorary aldermen), after “honorary aldermen” insert “or honorary alderwomen”.

(4) In subsection (2)—

(a) after “honorary aldermen” insert “or honorary alderwoman”;(b) after “as alderman” insert “or alderwoman”;(c) after “as an alderman” insert “or alderwoman”.(5) In subsection (4), after “honorary alderman” insert “or honorary alderwoman”.

(6) After that subsection insert—

“(4A) A principal council 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 on whom they have conferred the title of honorary alderman or honorary alderwoman.”

(7) For subsections (5) to (9) (honorary freeman) there is substituted—

“(5) Subject as follows, a relevant authority may admit to be honorary freemen or honorary freewomen of the place or area for which it is the authority—

(a) persons of distinction, and(b) persons who have, in the opinion of the authority, rendered eminent services to that place or area.(6) In this section “relevant authority” means—

(a) a principal council;(b) a parish or community council;(c) charter trustees in England constituted—(i) under section 246 of the Local Government Act 1972 (c. 70),(ii) by the Charter Trustees Regulations 1996 (SI 1996/263), or(iii) under Part 1 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 (c. 28).(7) The power in subsection (5) above is exercisable by resolution of the relevant authority.

(8) A resolution under subsection (7) above must be passed—

(a) at a meeting of the relevant authority which is specially convened for the purpose and where notice of the object of the meeting has been given; and(b) by not less than two-thirds of the members of the relevant authority (or, in the case of charter trustees, of the trustees) who vote on it.(9) A relevant authority may spend such reasonable sum as it thinks fit for the purpose of presenting an address or a casket containing an address to a person on whom the authority has conferred the title of honorary freeman or honorary freewoman under subsection (5) above.

(10) The admission of a person as honorary freeman or honorary freewoman does not confer on that person any of the rights referred to in section 284(4) above.””

Amendment 152B agreed.

Clause 27: Scrutiny officers

Amendment 153

Moved by

153: Clause 27, page 18, line 29, leave out “must” and insert “may”

This is a probing amendment in regard to scrutiny. It is the first of a series of amendments on the subject. One of the first Bills of the current Labour Government established the executive and scrutiny functions of local authorities. Initially it did not work too well because most of their members had been members of committees and did not like to think that they were not going to be part of the decision-making process and were not keen on scrutiny. That has moved on over a period of years as many new members have arrived and it is accepted that scrutiny plays a major role in what happens in local government. We are now appointing a scrutiny officer and I would like to understand the Government’s thinking on that.

There are two important officers in local government: the monitoring officer and the Section 151 officer. The monitoring officer deals with matters of probity, legal matters and members’ complaints; it is an important role in local government. Our Section 151 officer has an important role because she tells us what she thinks, sets out how viable we are and tells us if we spend too much money. She is giving me a report today about the finances of the county council in preparation for our budget. Here we are appointing a scrutiny officer. I cannot imagine that the Government see the role of a scrutiny officer as being on the same level as these two officers but the Bill seems to rate him almost at that level.

We have had a middle-ranking scrutiny officer ever since the legislation was introduced, but I have found that the strength of scrutiny lies in the members who do the scrutiny rather than the officer. One of our first scrutiny officers was always sending difficult e-mails to the chief executive asking, “Why haven’t you done this? Why haven’t you done that?”. The chief executive deals with administration and members; the scrutiny side is different. Obviously, the monitoring officer and the Section 151 officer work for the chief executive.

Scrutiny is given to how policies are delivered and sometimes it can be critical of the executive and the officers. I therefore see a difficulty with how a scrutiny officer at the same level as the Section 151 officer and the monitoring officer will work with the chief executive. All principal authorities should have a scrutiny officer and most do—again, we are putting into legislation something that mostly happens already—but I cannot understand what the Government mean by putting the scrutiny role almost at the level of the Section 151 and monitoring roles. I do not think it will work. It is a different role; it is not a role supporting members and the legitimacy and probity of the council. Perhaps the Minister can explain the Government’s thinking on this.

My opposition to the clause in its entirety is grouped with these two amendments. I am something of a Pollyanna as regards scrutiny, as I am probably too much of an advocate in relation to what it can achieve. Therefore, it may seem a little odd that I am opposing the clause, but I do so for the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, has explained and perhaps for other reasons too.

I think that it is for local councils to decide how they allocate their resources, and staffing is, of course, a resource, but I believe that scrutiny will generally need more than one officer. I do not think it is possible for an individual, on a given subject, to support the executive in the morning and the scrutiny of the executive’s work in the afternoon, which I believe is what happens too often at the moment.

I can understand that the Government’s intention, through this clause, is to boost the status of scrutiny but the Explanatory Notes say that the impact will mean each authority appointing one officer. If anything, ring-fencing to one officer will reduce the status.

I absolutely agree with the point that has been made. I, too, wrote down “finance officer”, “Section 151 officer” and “monitoring officer”. This post would be entirely different in quality. I also wrote down “children’s services”. I am not sure of the legislative status but I think that authorities have a children’s officer, and this, again, is different.

The Government are right to advocate stronger and more effective scrutiny than some authorities have been able to achieve, but I do not think that this is the way to do it. If, after all, we believe that each local authority should be autonomous in the way that it goes about its business, from these Benches I must consistently oppose central government telling it how to set about that.

I support my noble friend. I know from my own experience that it is important that you have officer support, but she is absolutely right: one officer might be able to do certain things for you but certainly would not be able to provide support on the sorts of things that I feel are needed on a scrutiny committee. I served on one on a district council, where we had a committee system because we were a small authority. I have also had experience of a large county council, although I was not on one.

I understand where the Government are coming from because, frankly, when it was decided to split the executive and the scrutiny, it became clear from all sorts of research that in many areas it did not work terribly well. Many councillors felt that they were disenfranchised and that they could not have a say in what went on. Therefore, it is important—I think that the Government have identified this—that people who sit on scrutiny committees have support so that they can carry out the scrutiny that they are trying to do and so that people can chase up what they want to be scrutinised. I remember one particular time when we were scrutinising what was happening with school transport in Northumberland, which is a big rural authority. The situation was that people had to pay for transport. It was all very complicated and it had become a terrible mess. At the beginning of the term it was a total mess, and trying to get to the bottom of it was very difficult. You could get an officer to a meeting and ask questions, but after that it all went away.

I understand where the Government are coming from, but I still think that it is important for local authorities, as my noble friend said, to sort it out for themselves. We have a very good officer on our small scrutiny committee in Berwick, who has done most of the things that the Explanatory Notes say that officers should do. A lot of work has been done by various bodies assisting local councillors to help them with the scrutiny process. I attended a very good scrutiny conference, in which my noble friend Lady Hamwee was also taking part, with her experience of what had happened at the GLA. A lot of good advice is going out to councillors and people have themselves identified that they need to have proper officer support. It does not need to be in this form. If any of the back office—I shall call them that rather than civil servants—has the opportunity to see what goes on with local councillors in those scrutiny conferences, they will see that many people are taking it up without the need to have it in primary legislation.

It is evident that noble Lords understand what we are trying to do, although there is clearly concern about how we are trying to do it. Perhaps I could clarify some of that. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, got it right.

The noble Lord described how the scrutiny functions had grown in recent years, with the changes in governance, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said that this was about raising status and visibility. I shall respond to both those points in the context of some uneven and patchy practice. I am glad to have support in principle for the value that we want and the visibility of scrutiny.

Clause 27 inserts a new section into the Local Government Act 2000, requiring local authorities to designate one of their officers as the scrutiny officer to support the work of the overview and scrutiny committees. Amendment 153, a probing amendment, seeks to make the designation of the scrutiny officer discretionary. The second amendment requires that it is met within existing budgeted expenditure.

Local authorities have very broad powers in respect of their staffing arrangements; they can already designate an officer to support their overview and scrutiny committee. Amendment 153 therefore adds no practical effect . The purpose of the clause is simply to raise the status, visibility and effectiveness of the overview and scrutiny function to ensure that all local authorities have a chance to rise to the standards of the best. We have based this on substantial evidence; all the studies on the development of overview and scrutiny have shown that officer support is an important condition for effective scrutiny. Our conclusion is that if overview and scrutiny is to be effective, it is crucial that officer resources are in place to provide support and advice to those committees. The evidence suggests that it is not always in place or in place in the most effective way.

We have considered the work of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, whose recent survey sought views from the local government sector on the single element that would do most to improve the overview and scrutiny function. That is what we are trying to achieve. One of the biggest responses was in favour of providing more resources and staff. So there is quite a lot to commend this proposal to place a requirement on lead councils to have a scrutiny officer responsible for supporting the work of the committee to ensure that there are strong arrangements in place to review and drive outcomes.

We have arrived at a point where the local area agreements are about to be refreshed and we know that a lot of work has gone into constructing them. It is clear that overview and scrutiny will be an increasingly important part of the local government landscape.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, asked some very important questions. He is quite right that we are not doing anything new in the sense that what we have in place already came under the Local Government Act 1972. Under Section 151, the local authority is required to have an officer who is responsible for its financial affairs. The Local Government and Housing Act 1989 enhanced the role and created two further statutory officers: the head of paid service, recognising the importance of the senior management functions, and the monitoring officer.

We are following a similar approach in this Bill by creating a statutory officer, which evidence suggests is the critical thing to do. Local authorities can sort it out for themselves; we are making the requirement, because we think that this function ought to be performed, and visibly so, but we are not prescribing the level of the post. We are simply saying that it is for the authority to decide, in recognition of local circumstances, what will suit it best. We are providing funding for this. We are trying to ensure that there is an officer in place, and that everybody knows that that job is to be done, and the support is there.

There will be one statutory scrutiny officer in each local authority, just as there will be one head of paid service and one monitoring officer. Obviously, actual staff and officers are included in support services and we hope that there will be more than one officer employed in undertaking this. We are paying additional money; it will be ring-fenced and authorities can use that additional money for support if they wish.

We are trying to make this a visible and standard part of all local authorities, which it is not at present. We need to achieve a balance between providing a new resource but letting local authorities decide how this is best managed in their local circumstances.

Amendment 154 on funding demonstrates a concern that the provision might have an adverse impact on council resources because of the requirement to make savings elsewhere. As I have said, we are very sympathetic, not just to the wider economic challenges facing councils but to the resource implications of having this in the Bill. I can, again, give the assurance that the costs will be met in full.

I know that Members of the Committee are sympathetic to what we are trying to do. I hope that I have given sufficient reassurance that this will be a matter for local authorities to manage as they see fit under the circumstances. I respect the experience of Members of the Committee and take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield. I would be very happy to talk to him further about how we think this can best work and some of the implications that arise from it.

Before the noble Lord responds, does the Minister appreciate the irony of wishing to increase the status and therefore requiring the designation of an officer but saying that it is up to local authorities what level that officer should be? Above and beyond that, she talks—this is what the clause says—about designating an officer, but at the start of her speech she said that local authorities will have an officer but not necessarily an extra officer. This requires designation of an officer, not the employment of somebody additional. An officer already on the payroll can be designated; that would fulfil the requirement in the Bill but not take anybody any further forward.

I thank the Minister for her answer. I agree with a point made earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that scrutiny should be carried out by a team of officers even if one officer is monitoring the others. Members need support at different levels. Scrutiny has improved because of the extra status members have given to it. In our own council, we have an executive member for scrutiny and she spends a lot of time raising the status of scrutiny within the organisation. It might have been better in this Bill if we had raised the member profile as much as the officer profile.

I was heartened by what the Minister said because I was concerned that the officer would have the same status as a monitoring officer, Section 151 officer or the head of children’s services. That is clearly not how it should be. I am grateful that she said she would talk to me about that because we need to make it quite clear in the Bill. Otherwise, some people might think that the status was the same as that of a Section 151 officer. I am grateful that we will have a conversation about this before we progress the Bill. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 153 withdrawn.

Amendment 154 not moved.

Clause 27 agreed.

Clause 28: Functions of joint overview and scrutiny committees

Amendment 154A

Moved by

154A: Clause 28, page 19, line 21, after “affects” insert “a part of”

I shall also speak to Amendments 154B, 155 and 155A. Amendment 154A speaks for itself. Such is my awe for the drafting abilities of my noble friend Lady Hamwee, I spent many hours trying to understand the legislative purpose of Amendment 154B. I felt sure that there must be some difference that I had not quite grasped between “a part of” and “some of”. Then it was revealed to me that it is blindingly obvious that “some of” should be in a different place in the line. We are not talking about “some of the area” but “some of the inhabitants”. I apologise to the Committee, wherever this went wrong. If these two amendments were accepted, the subsection would read, “affects a part of the area of the group of partner authorities or some of the inhabitants of that area”. I do not suggest for one moment that the drafting error came from my noble friend Lady Hamwee—I find that a conceptual impossibility—but that is what it means. Now that we have had that explanation, the intent and purpose of the amendment is fairly clear.

Amendment 155 stands in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, and the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, as well as my noble friend Lady Hamwee and myself. We added our names to it. It is an amendment suggested by the Local Government Association, which we are happy to support. I assume that the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, will speak to it in a moment. As his name is before mine on the Marshalled List, I will leave him to explain its purpose more fully, but it is intended to provide a general power for any two or more councils to set up joint overview and scrutiny bodies should they wish to do so and extends rather further the provisions of the Bill. It will be a useful amendment in areas which have county and district councils, about which the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, knows far more than I do, having been a member of a London borough council

That brings me to Amendment 155A, which, for my noble friend and I, is the substantial amendment in this group. I need to refer to the debate we have just had on the previous group of amendments. I should say that I have served on a scrutiny committee in a local authority and I have always been on the receiving end of them—as an executive councillor, I am scrutinised, it seems, very frequently. I know, recognise and experience effective scrutiny—and, just occasionally, not very effective scrutiny. I should also say that, with my noble friend Lady Hamwee, I served for eight years on what must be the best resourced scrutiny body in the country, the London Assembly, whose sole purpose is scrutiny. This is not the place to discuss its resourcing, but it is significantly greater, I would think, even than the kingdom of Essex in its scrutiny functions. So some experience is there.

I share and understand the intentions of the Government in this chapter of the Bill. All of us would wish to raise the status and visibility of scrutiny and its effectiveness. However, it is also frustrating to be on the receiving end of a scrutiny committee that is not working very effectively, so it works on both sides. I said right from the start that for scrutiny to be effective the committee must have its own, independent—in the sense that it is not part of the department that is being scrutinised—scrutiny support. That is enormously important.

The proposal to designate a scrutiny officer will not have any effect on that. I would think that most of the authorities to which it applies—because it excludes district councils—will already have scrutiny officers. All that will happen in most, if not all, authorities, I am sure, is that they will designate an existing officer with the title of scrutiny officer, just as has happened everywhere with monitoring officers and Section 151 officers. They are not new posts; they designate existing posts.

The Minister said that additional money was ring-fenced. That is welcome news for those who are going to receive it.

Perhaps I may correct that. I think that it was a mishearing. I am afraid that it is not ring-fenced.

I am sorry if I misheard. It is perhaps better to mishear than to misspeak. Whether it is ring-fenced or not, the additional money will not come to the great number of authorities that are already floor authorities and do not receive any additional money. I have great doubts about the effectiveness of the provision in achieving the aim which we all share.

Amendment 155A, on the other hand, would have considerable effect in raising the status, visibility and effectiveness of scrutiny committees in local authorities. If a local authority’s scrutiny committee or committees had the power to require what we term simply as the “connected authorities”, as described in the Bill, to come before the scrutiny committee, to scrutinise them on behalf of their local community in public and to hold them answerable and accountable, it would do more than any other single measure to raise the status, visibility and effectiveness of scrutiny. It would do far more than designating an existing middle-ranking officer with another bit of a title which means nothing. I urge the Minister to consider carefully the amendment, or at least its purpose, because it would do more to achieve what she and we wish than any designation of middle-ranking officers. I beg to move.

I shall speak briefly to Amendment 155. As the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said, it is in our name also. It is supported by all parties in the Local Government Association. The scope of scrutiny could be widened by it, which I am sure the Government would like to encourage.

I am the leader of a county council and therefore working with districts is very important. Our chief executive is chief executive of one of the districts, therefore joint scrutiny committees between the county council and that district would be very valuable, as would working with any district or group of districts on particular issues. It is not just the county with a district; the joint scrutiny body for a group of councils has established a joint waste disposal arrangement under that legislation. There could be a joint scrutiny body for a group of metropolitan authorities that had agreed a multi-area agreement or a regional scrutiny body that would scrutinise the RDA. All sorts of things could happen that would improve the status of scrutiny, which we all want to support. I hope the Government will accept this amendment and go along with the LGA and the all-party agreement in local government about this issue.

Noble Lords opposite have consistently argued that the Bill should not cover unnecessary things. Things are happening in local government, so why pass legislation? In these clauses, they are in danger of falling into their own trap. These things are happening in local authorities. Where they want to do them, they can. I am leader of the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities and can give two examples of where we collectively work on a scrutiny system. When local authorities were given the ability to scrutinise health, it seemed rather odd to have 10 separate health scrutinies in Greater Manchester as we had a Greater Manchester Health Authority and hospitals—specialist hospitals, in particular—were serving a range of clients across the Greater Manchester area. We therefore set up a single body with a representative from the 10 authorities that has effectively done a number of studies on healthcare in Greater Manchester. Even when the Government reorganised the health service yet again, so that we now have a North West Strategic Health Authority, we felt it important to continue the scrutiny at Greater Manchester level.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, said, Greater Manchester was one of the first authorities to get an MAA. It was clear to us that we needed to strengthen the role of the executive—the leaders of the Greater Manchester authorities—working together, and we needed to create stronger powers of scrutiny for members who were not part of the executive to understand what was going on. We did that at two levels: at the Greater Manchester level where representatives of the 10 authorities come together, and at the level of individual authorities. It can be done, and we should get on and do it.

I am fascinated by the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Tope. He wants to exclude police authorities. Why not the fire authorities and so on? He gave the game away when he talked about the amount of money being spent on scrutiny in the London area. Perhaps if less was spent on scrutiny and more on gritting, the capital would not have come to a halt after a sprinkling of snow.

We have scrutiny, and we invite other members of local authorities to join us. We are talking about a different type of joint overview and scrutiny. That is what the LGA sees, and is why we have tabled this amendment. We need some clarity on that. People can be invited. Perhaps your officials know more about how the legislation stands. This amendment was promoted by the LGA because it needs the new status of joint scrutiny committees.

Scrutiny inevitably depends on how well those being scrutinised accept and respond to it. In Greater Manchester we accept that this is a serious matter—these people can scrutinise what we do and therefore we respond in a proper manner. That is probably even more important than putting it down in legislation because it requires that respect.

This has been a very interesting debate. I am always grateful for the interventions of my noble friend because he speaks not only with a lot of authority but from experience of innovative practice. It was extremely interesting to hear about what is happening in Manchester.

These are important amendments. I take the point that the Local Government Association is behind some of the arguments, but three things are happening in the amendments. In Amendment 155, we have what seems to be a search for greater flexibility and scope in terms of what the joint committees can do. Amendments 154A and 154B have now been helpfully clarified. Amendment154A is about the scope involved. Other amendments look at the definition of “partner authorities”.

Perhaps I may give a bit of history. In 2007, we made provision for setting up joint overview and scrutiny committees as a means of enabling district and county councils to work together so that they could scrutinise local area agreement issues of shared interest, and I think that that was very welcome,. The idea was to reduce the potential for duplication and overlap. Obviously, we all share the same—

Sitting suspended.

I can see from Amendments 154A and 154B that we share the same underlying aim to see more co-operation. That is precisely why we have attempted in subsection (1) to broaden the scope of what these joint overview and scrutiny committees may consider, thereby enabling local authorities to make better use of what is turning out to be a very efficient way of working, as my noble friend Lord Smith put it.

The problem we are addressing in the clause, which is why we want to expand it, is that currently the committees may make reports and recommendations only on matters strictly connected to the particular local area agreement. I can see from Amendments 154A and 154B that noble Lords are concerned about whether the clause restricts the scope of what overview and scrutiny committees may consider. My first job, therefore, is to reinforce what I have said. Clause 28 is there precisely to expand the scope of what joint overview and scrutiny committees may consider to bring them into line with single authority overview and scrutiny committees so that they may consider any matter affecting the area of the group of partners or the inhabitants of the area. That is already provided for in the language of the clause. If a matter affects part of an area, it can also be said to affect the area. So they will not be bound by the limits of the LAA, for example, if green space or the health of the voluntary sector have not been selected as a priority. The joint overview and scrutiny committee, like the single overview and scrutiny committee, will now be able to scrutinise the policy.

I understand the intention behind Amendment 155 and why it seems like a good idea. It is certainly worthy of consideration as it is consistent with what we are trying to do with the MAAs. The key challenge is to consider how practically it could work within the balance of the burdens that would flow from it. My noble friend Lord Smith pointed out that, at the moment, this is perfectly possible because it is happening on an organic and innovative basis. I am sure it is the case that local authorities are proceeding on an informal basis. Any amendment that sought to put any partnership together with any other partnership to form an extended joint overview and scrutiny would have to have a formal footing and would have to be considered in the context of the enhanced powers for overview and scrutiny committees contained in the 2007 Act. We would need a formal structure around that.

We have taken advice on the issue of putting authorities together in any combination in our recent consultation on improving local accountability. We sought local government and stakeholder views on what issues should be considered as part of any new power to establish area scrutiny committees. The view that came back to us, not surprisingly, was that we needed to be balanced in our approach and to bear in mind that joint overview and scrutiny committee membership should not become so large and so unwieldy that it became ineffective and could not do the job it was there to do.

There is also another consideration. We have made substantial changes to overview and scrutiny through the 2007 Act. We have to consider whether any new joint overview and scrutiny committees could accommodate those relatively recent changes. New powers were given to the committees with respect to local partners. We must consider whether it would be appropriate for such powers to be extended across boundary scrutiny arrangements. For these practical arrangements, I think that it is a very positive provision. I am sympathetic to what noble Lords are saying, to the arguments behind their proposals and the need to be able to move across boundaries. The time is not right to accept the recommendation, because of its practical implications.

Amendment 155A would add a list of partners that should be required to provide information to overview and scrutiny committees to the lists set out in new Section 22A of the Local Government Act 2000, which was inserted through the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. We use the definition of partner authorities because the enhanced provisions for overview and scrutiny provided for in that Act are primarily aimed to ensure that there is scrutiny of LAAs. That is important in delivering the priorities of the local area. The requirement to provide information should be placed squarely on the authority and partner authorities entering into the local area agreements, since they are responsible for the services that they supply, including those that they commission.

A number of bodies in Clause 2 are not included in the list of partners that I have described—maintained schools, FE colleges, the Greater London Authority, parish councils and strategic health authorities. However, we have to recognise that overview and scrutiny will work only if its partners also have a capacity to respond effectively. We debated about a lot of that in 2007. In this Bill, we have achieved the right balance of powers and we should not seek to add partners outside those named in Part 5 of the 2007 Act.

In the break, when we were away from the Committee, I may have lost track of some of the other questions asked in the debate. I am very happy to read Hansard carefully tomorrow and respond in writing to anything that I may not have answered.

I thank the Minister very much for the careful and considered response that she has given us. Amendment 155 came from the Local Government Association and, I believe, has all-party support—it certainly has two-party support, which was voiced here today. I was not quite so sure about the third party. The Minister made the point, and I am very grateful to her for agreeing to consider the matter, that what we are discussing may well be happening through good practice, as most of what we have considered in this Bill so far is happening. However, the point made here and by the LGA is that there is no legislative basis for it happening; it is outside the law. I am very grateful to the Minister for agreeing to consider how best it can be achieved. I do not speak for the Local Government Association, but I am sure that it will be more than happy to have those discussions on its proposal.

I hope that we can discuss Amendment 155A further with the Minister. I really do feel, speaking from experience, that the ability to require those various bodies to appear before a local authority’s overview and scrutiny committee, or one of the others, will do far more to enhance the status, visibility and effectiveness of scrutiny in the public mind than designating an officer as a scrutiny officer. The two are not necessarily alternatives; they can of course go together. But I hope the Minister and her colleagues will give serious consideration to how we can achieve that as the next logical step forward in enhancing the role for scrutiny.

Amendment 154A withdrawn.

Amendment 154B not moved.

Clause 28 agreed.

Amendments 155 and 155A not moved.

Clause 29 agreed.

Amendment 156

Moved by

156: After Clause 29, insert the following new Clause—

“Eligibility for membership: politically restricted posts

In section 2 (politically restricted posts the holders of which are disqualified from membership of the local authority) of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 (c. 42), in subsection (2)—

(a) paragraphs (a) and (b) are repealed, and(b) in paragraph (c), the words “not falling within paragraph (a) or (b) above the” are repealed.”

I shall speak also to Amendments 157 and 158. At Second Reading I mentioned that repealing what have become known as the Widdicombe rules would do a great deal to extend involvement, which is what so much of this Bill is about.

These amendments come from the Local Government Information Unit. I understand that the LGIU met the Minister and discussed them before today’s proceedings. I was not at that meeting but the LGIU tells me that the discussions followed from these amendments and the briefing I have.

The amendments, taken together, are a lot of words but a fairly short and simple group of points. The effect would be to repeal the legislation that establishes a salary threshold for politically restricted posts in local authorities. It would repeal the legislation requiring council employees to resign on nomination of a candidate in an election to be a councillor, as distinct from resignation on election, and would reduce to three months the period during which most former councillors are restricted from taking up employment with the council after their period of service comes to an end, retaining the current 12-month period for politically restricted posts and councillors who have been involved in the appointment of senior staff. The Councillors Commission called for the political restrictions based on salary level to be abolished. In response, in the White Paper, the Government indicate that they would abolish this rule while retaining restrictions on the most senior council officers and others in sensitive posts.

The first amendment stems from the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, which requires every local authority to have a list of politically restricted posts, identifying three categories of posts that are deemed to be politically restricted on the basis of one or more defined characteristics. The categories are, first, specified posts, in which the postholders are restricted without a right to appeal for exemption. They include the head of paid service, the statutory chief officers and non-statutory chief officers and deputies, the monitoring officer and chief finance officer, who have featured already this afternoon, as well as officers exercising certain delegated powers and assistants to political groups.

The second category of posts includes those paid at and above a certain level, who have a right to appeal for exemption on the grounds that they do not influence policy or speak on behalf of the authority. Remuneration that includes overtime, performance-related pay and so on, not simply basic salary, at present, taken on a spinal point on the scale, is just under £37,000.

The third category includes sensitive posts. The postholders have a right to appeal for exemption on the grounds that the authorities applied the wrong criteria. Sensitive posts are those that have duty-related criteria, such as giving regular advice to the authority or speaking on behalf of it.

The amendment provides for the removal of the category of posts determined by a salary threshold. This seems to be quite an arbitrary measure and would mean that the content of the post, as distinct from the salary that it carried, would be the determining factor in whether it was politically restricted. At the time of the original legislation following the Widdicombe committee, it was intended that this should apply to senior officers, as it is senior officers who are routinely involved in advising local authority members. It was thought that fewer than 3 per cent of local authority employees would be affected but in reality the number has been much higher.

Under the legislation that we dealt with 18 months ago—the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act, as it now is—postholders can appeal to the local standards committee but, because the restrictions have been in place for so long, it has become implicitly accepted that there is a restriction. I am told that officers rarely apply for an exemption, even though they could. The Local Government Information Unit also understands that there are inconsistencies in the approach taken across the different authorities in England and Wales.

Amendment 157 deals with disqualification. If an employee wishes to stand, he must first resign from his post. However, this loses for the local government sector the skills which employees have gained and which could be used very well in the position of councillor. Having to resign on nomination rather than on election requires an employee to be either very optimistic or very confident about election. I cannot imagine that those of us who were in employment, although not in the employment of a local authority, when we stood for election would have been required to resign before standing. I was not in employment; I was in a partnership, and the only comment that I received when I said that I was going to stand was, “Won’t you be very tired?”, which was spot on. However, it was not suggested that I should give up the job. I should perhaps say that the standards framework would nevertheless continue to apply if there were any issues around that.

Amendment 158 concerns the prohibition on appointment of councillors and ex-councillors to local authority posts under Section 116 of the 1972 Act. This is a prohibition for 12 months. In some local authority areas, the local authority is the largest employer because it employs people such as teachers and social workers. In my view and that of the LGIU, the 12-month restriction is a real handicap and, again, unnecessarily lengthy. The amendment would substitute a three-month period for those who have been in a politically restricted post or directly involved in the appointments process for senior council officers. There is an appreciation that it must not be regarded by local people that an appointment that was made before a councillor retired was in any way influenced by the hope of employment at a later date. I believe that the amendment would adequately meet the concerns which underlay the original legislation but with changes which reflect experience. I beg to move.

I have some sympathy with what the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has proposed. Certainly, the whole thing needs updating, as most things do after a period of time, and this should be looked at. I agree that we should look at the role played by the officer rather than the salary. The salary thing is totally outdated. It debars some people in particular areas and is quite ridiculous. We should be looking at the role of that officer in the local authority, the proximity to advice and such things rather than the salary. I also have a lot of sympathy with the point made about nomination. Clearly, to give up your job and wait to be elected is not fair. It is a question of natural justice.

On the third amendment, I know of councils that have got around the problem by employing someone who has lost their seat as a consultant—although not in Essex. I know that there are ways around the problem, but they would break the real purpose behind the law. I know of local authority members who lost their seats and then became consultants for the local authority in the same year. That might need tightening up to make certain that people do not get around that law. But I have some sympathy because the provision is out of date and needs looking at again.

This group of amendments is significant and I was interested to hear what both noble Lords said. The amendments address what we have come to call the Widdicombe rules. Amendment 156 removes the link between salary and the designation of a local authority post as politically restricted. Essentially, the holder of that post is barred from taking part in certain political activities.

The Widdicombe rules were introduced in the Local Government and Housing Act 1989. Their purpose is to preserve the visible political impartiality of senior local authority employees. This is a policy that we support, but as the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, said, time has moved on and we fully acknowledge that change is required to the link between salary and political restrictions, so I am sympathetic to the intention behind the amendment. Indeed, our 2008 White Paper Communities in Control: Real People, Real Power explained our intention of amending the rule about local authority workers above a certain salary band being barred from being politically active. It means that only the most senior council officers or those considered to be in politically sensitive posts continue to be barred. The noble Lord is right: one should look at the role rather than the salary levels.

The Government are considering a more general review of the Widdicombe rules. We want that to form part of a draft Bill to be published in the spring. Because it raises a large number of contextual issues, that is the better way forward. I hope that noble Lords will bear with us on that. We are taking this matter very seriously. The fact that it is in the White Paper makes that clear and I am pleased to find that there is cross-party support for this particular proposal.

Amendments 157 and 158 are slightly more complex in the sense that they address the relationship between being a local authority officer and a local authority member. I am sure that the Committee will agree that trust in those elected to office is one of the cornerstones of a healthy democracy. As citizens, we need to know that local authorities are working on our behalf in an appropriate matter. That is why those sorts of expectations have been enshrined in codes of conduct and in legislation which has been on the statute book for a very long time. There are, for instance, rules to ensure that local authority members can be sure that the advice they receive from the officers of the authority is unbiased and that officers are protected from a conflict of interest. I am concerned about proceeding with insufficient caution before we dispense with legislation which has worked for more than 30 years.

These changes proposed to the statutory provisions are substantial, and it is important that we take the time and the opportunity to consult local government, stakeholders and the public because of the potential to damage confidence. There may well be merit in the changes but they are significant and we need to approach them seriously and with consultation.

I turn to Amendment 157. It is clear that some local authority employees are prevented from standing for election to any local authority because they occupy politically restricted posts. The amendment is concerned with local authority employees who are not subject to such restrictions but who wish to be elected as members for the authority by which they are employed. At the moment, if a local authority official wished to stand for election as a councillor, he or she would be expected to resign his or her post, and Amendment 157 would remove that expectation.

The amendment poses a valid question about the expectations that we place on local authority officials, but this is a complicated issue. I say that in the knowledge that we are keen to encourage more people to become councillors, but we must also recognise that the rights of individual employees have to be balanced against the requirements of political democracy.

I am afraid that making it acceptable for serving officials to stand for election may well, or may well be seen to, create problems because there is the possibility of a perceived conflict of interest. It would not be unreasonable, for example, for a councillor to question how a person might serve the elected members properly while seeking to take one of their seats. In addition, there is the important question of the impact on confidence in local democracy and confidence in elected representatives. For example, if officials stand for election, that opens them up to allegations of having access to information that other candidates do not have access to, and that might be perceived to be unfair.

Amendment 158 seeks to reduce from 12 to three months the period of time that must elapse between a local authority member leaving office and taking up paid employment as a local authority officer, although a 12-month period is retained in relation to appointment to a politically restricted post or where the member has been involved in the appointment of a politically restricted post.

We agree that there needs to be a period between leaving office and taking up employment as a local authority officer, as such a measure gives confidence to both voters and members that the appointment is made on merit, which is very important, and not as a direct result of any influence that the member may have exerted when in office. What we do not have is an objective basis for determining what that period should be. Over the years, the 12-month period has been seen to be robust and, unless there is compelling evidence that it is proving a serious obstacle or difficulty for those seeking employment as a local authority officer, I am not persuaded of the need to change it.

I hope that, with the assurances that I have given, particularly in respect of the substantive amendment concerning breaking the link between salary and the ability to stand for political office, noble Lords are reassured that we are indeed on the same side.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield. I should have thought about consultancies—a fairly topical issue—but it did not occur to me. I absolutely agree with the Minister that perceptions are important and I would not for a moment want to do anything that damaged the reputations of individuals or local authorities.

The noble Baroness talks about consulting—to which I never object—but we have the White Paper and what led up to it and so I am a little surprised by that. However, if it means that the salary link is dealt with in the draft Bill in a way that has—what would the jargon be?—“buy-in” from all stakeholders, that will of course be a good thing. We are always being told that something is a good idea and that we will deal with it when there is a legislative opportunity. It feels a little odd to be told that a draft Bill rather than the Bill that we have in front of us could perfectly well be the vehicle for the change.

I shall not pursue the detail of the Minister’s response now as it requires further thought. I would not like to be thought to be dismissing the points she made because it is important to get any change in something that has been in place for so long. In parenthesis, that is a change for us too as the Bill seems to seek to change things that happened only five minutes ago. However, it is an understood, if not entirely supported, position at present and deserves proper thought. I am not promising not to return to this matter, but I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 156 withdrawn.

Amendments 157 and 158 not moved.

Clauses 30 and 31 agreed.

Clause 32: Power to appoint auditor

Amendment 158A

Moved by

158A: Clause 32, page 22, line 18, after “section” insert “or section 33”

This amendment is grouped with Amendments 158B, 159ZA, 159ZB, 159ZC, 159ZD and 159ZE, which are all tabled in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Tope, and Amendment 159, which is tabled in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, and the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield. They take us to the chapter on the audit of entities connected with local authorities. My amendments, which I am happy to have grouped together, are relatively minor and of a probing nature. I would not seek to challenge the clauses in principle for a number of reasons, one of which is that they are the legislative encapsulation of recommendations made by the committee chaired by my noble friend Lord Sharman and I am sure that he got it right.

Amendments 158A and 158B relate to Clause 32. Subsection (6) provides that:

“Before making an appointment under this section in relation to an entity the appointing audit authority must consult the entity”.

My amendments provide for that to extend to the appointment of a replacement auditor under Clause 33 and provide for consultation with the local authority.

Amendment 159ZA takes us to the access to information provision in Clause 41. It may look as if I am taking up the cause of wrongdoers, but I am not. It probes the penalty for an offence that may be a lump-sum fine and an additional fine levied on a daily basis for each day on which the offence continues after the offender has been convicted. It is not perfectly drafted—I would be the first to hold my hand up to that—but it does raise issues about the propriety of levying a fine. Given that in this country one is not guilty until found guilty, can there be a prospective conviction?

Under Clause 41(9), the offence is failing to comply with an auditor’s requirement, obstructing the exercise of a power conferred on the auditor. That is not necessarily a black and white situation. The offender, as it were, may be guilty of an offence up to a given point but feel that he could quite reasonably argue that after that point he had a good reason for saying no to an auditor that would not amount to obstruction under subsection (9). Obstruction is quite subjective, I suggest; it is not neatly defined. It is not even clear to me that the obstruction that could give rise to a daily fine would necessarily be the same thing as amounting to an obstruction.

Amendment 159ZB is to Clause 42. Clause 42(4) says that certain things may be decided at a meeting. My amendment would change that to “following” a meeting, simply because, as I understand it, the entity that would have to decide would normally mean the board and the meeting that is the subject of this clause would be one of shareholders. They are not actually the same group of people.

Amendment 159ZC would remove from Clause 44(8) the provision that a Secretary of State must consider it “desirable or necessary” before making regulations. Does any Secretary of State make regulations which he or she thinks may not be desirable or necessary? I do hope not. The same position applies to Welsh Ministers in Clause 44(10).

Finally, Amendment 159ZE is to Clause 47, which deals with the making of regulations. I propose that before the regulations are made the Secretary of State or the Welsh Ministers must consult, as I have set out in the amendment.

I have one amendment in this group on a small but none the less important point. The amendment would simply put in the Bill the requirement to publish any public interest reports made under Clause 39. Subsection (1) says that a report should be made about a “relevant matter” if,

“it would be in the public interest to bring to the attention of the entity, the local authority with which it is connected or the public”.

That provision seems to get close to what I suggest but it is not explicit. There is no requirement to bring a matter to the attention of a local authority and the public.

I see no reason why a report that is in the public interest should not be made available to the public to read. No doubt any such information would be made available under the Freedom of Information Act, but there is no justification for making it necessary for someone to have to consider taking that route. I hope that the Government agree that this is a very minor and uncontroversial measure and that it can be accepted.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, rightly said, this chapter of the Bill enables the recommendations of the noble Lord, Lord Sharman, as set out in his independent report of 2001 on local government audit, to be implemented. This is to provide a public sector-style audit for local authority-controlled entities in the way that there is already a public sector-style audit for central government-controlled entities. Parliament long ago approved an independent external audit for local authorities; that is why there is scope for external audit in the private sector in order to reflect the special accountabilities attached to public funds. Entities controlled by local authorities effectively carry out public functions and spend public money.

The Bill will ensure that in future qualifying entities will continue to have a Companies Act audit but, where the auditor considers it necessary, the auditor will also have the power to conduct a broader audit of the entity’s activities, based on the principles of public audit as recommended by the noble Lord, Lord Sharman, and report in the public interest.

Amendments 158A and 158B concern whether the audit authority, before appointing an auditor or a replacement auditor to an entity connected with a local authority, should consult not only the entity but also the local authority. These amendments seem unnecessary because where the entity is connected to a local authority, the authority can be expected to be represented on the board of the entity. A duty to consult would impose a burden on auditors and would involve cost. We need to be sure that there would be sufficient benefit. Having two separate consultations could be confusing. I agree that the views of the local authority should be known, and I am confident that they can be obtained through consultation with the entity.

Amendment 159ZA arises from concerns about the nature of the continuing offence where the provision is creating a prospective conviction. I can see the logic of the noble Baroness’s argument, but I think her proposed system would not work. At the point of the initial conviction, no one will know how long the offence will continue for or whether there will be any reasonable excuse for any obstruction. Under the Bill’s provisions, there would be no prospective conviction as it would be for the court to decide whether the person had continued to obstruct and what the appropriate level of fine should be, up to a maximum of £20 a day. There are identical wording and equivalent provisions in the Audit Commission Act 1998 and the Public Audit (Wales) Act 2004. I hope that reassures the noble Baroness.

Amendment 159ZB addresses the issue of who in the entity considers the public interest report and takes the decision on whether the report requires the entity to act. The effect of the amendment would be that the decision would be made by the directors after the meeting exercising their general powers of management. The amendment would also have the unfortunate effect of delaying the entity’s decision in relation to the report. Our view is that the decision should be made by the shareholders, not the board, not least because the report might be critical of the board itself. Shareholders should be an integral part of the process for deciding how the entity responds to the public interest report, just as they are in signing off the entity’s statutory audit report. The provisions provide for this.

Amendments 159ZC and 159ZD exclude the requirements for the regulations to be “desirable or necessary” before making regulations prescribing a scale of fees. The noble Baroness makes a valid point in that regulations should be made only if they are desirable or necessary. However, the expectation is that the relevant audit authority will set the scale of fees. The drafting of the provisions sets out the expectation that the Secretary of State or Welsh Ministers will act if necessary or desirable; that is, if there is an exceptional reason to act. Again, if it reassures the Committee, the drafting also provides consistency with existing provisions in the Audit Commission Act 1998 and the Public Audit (Wales) Act 2004.

Amendment 159ZE inserts the requirement that before making regulations defining qualifying entities the Secretary of State and Welsh Ministers must consult relevant entities connected with the local authority in England and Wales respectively. I can assure the Committee that we have every intention of consulting on the content of proposed regulations. However, having a statutory obligation can lead to technical objections that the consultation is flawed in some way. This could be particularly the case here as we could never be sure that we had consulted all relevant entities before making the regulations. That is something we wish to avoid.

The noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, tabled Amendment 159, which places a duty on the auditor to make the public interest report available to the public. I hope I can reassure the noble Baroness in my response. The duty to make the report public lies with the local authority as part of its deliberations at an open meeting of the council. Making information public through for the council meeting arrangements allows the public interest report to be made public alongside the entity’s decisions and any proposed action. A copy of the report also goes to the relevant audit authority. The normal practice of these authorities is to make reports available on their websites and therefore accessible to everyone.

In conclusion, we believe that the provision achieves greater transparency and accountability to citizens and communities for how money is spent by local authority entities. It will strengthen public accountability over what are essentially public funds and public liabilities and obligations that may arise for local authorities. It will also place local authority entities within an appropriate public audit regime alongside local government bodies. In the current financial climate, that must be the right approach. I hope that noble Lords will feel able to withdraw their amendments in view of this explanation and my undertaking that we will consult on the proposed regulations.

That was a spirited defence. I am not sure that it will take us a great deal further if I try to answer each point, so I shall not. However, I hope that it is acknowledged that I am not seeking to exclude the Secretary of State from considering whether something is desirable or necessary. I do not think that I have ever come across a refusal to provide for consultation in a Bill because the consultation might be flawed. In this situation, I can understand the Government’s caution. I suppose that I have at least had put on the record the assurance that the consultation that I seek will take place. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 158A withdrawn.

Amendment 158B not moved.

Clause 32 agreed.

Clauses 33 to 38 agreed.

Clause 39: Public interest reports

Amendment 159 not moved.

Clause 39 agreed.

Clause 40 agreed.

Clause 41: Access to information

Amendment 159ZA not moved.

Clause 41 agreed.

Clause 42: Consideration of report by entity

Amendment 159ZB not moved.

Clause 42 agreed.

Clause 43 agreed.

Clause 44: Fees

Amendments 159ZC and 159ZD not moved.

Clause 44 agreed.

Clauses 45 and 46 agreed.

Clause 47: Regulations

Amendment 159ZE not moved.

Clause 47 agreed.

Clause 48 agreed.

Clause 49: Boundary Committee for England

Amendment 159ZEF

Moved by

159ZEF: Clause 49, page 33, line 7, leave out “except borrow money”

This amendment is part of an extremely long group of mostly government amendments. I have tabled also Amendments 159BA, 159PA, 159PB, 159WA and 159ZZ.

The first of the amendments probes why Clause 49 prohibits the new Boundary Committee for England borrowing money,

“which is calculated to facilitate, or is incidental or conducive to, the exercise of its functions”.

I have no doubt that the Minister will tell me why it should not be able to borrow money. Is it related to sensitivity about public sector borrowing?As a practical matter, the Boundary Committee can run itself, so it might want to borrow to acquire premises, for example. I think that there may be an issue about what borrowing means. Does incurring credit fall within the restriction? That would obviously be a real problem.

My other amendments are to Schedule 1. Amendments 159BA, 159PA and 159PB provide for the Speaker’s Committee to oversee all appointments to the Boundary Committee as it does the appointment of electoral commissioners. The amendments were suggested to me by the Electoral Commission. The Minister will be aware of that and will want to take the opportunity to explain all the thinking behind the design of this schedule. Amendment 159WA provides that a chair who is removed from that office or decides to give it up would remain a member of the committee. It is designed to clarify whether that would be the case.

Amendment 159ZZ relates to the clause on delegation. The schedule provides that:

“The Boundary Committee … may delegate any of its functions to any of its members, employees, committees or sub-committees”.

I am not convinced that the functions under these clauses are appropriate for delegation to an individual, although they may be appropriate for delegation to a sub-committee. The Government have tabled Amendment 160C and they will no doubt explain their slightly tweaked thinking on delegation. I hope that I have covered all my amendments. I beg to move.

I have one amendment in this group which I think is now redundant. I tabled Amendment 160 as a response to the DPRRC recommendation that the Boundary Committee should not be able to delegate its functions, including making electoral change orders. I have now been trumped by the Government’s amendments, so I do not intend to press it.

Before turning to the amendments, I hope that the Committee will find it useful if I provide a brief explanation about why we are introducing the provisions in Part 3 of the Bill. In February 2006, the Committee on Standards in Public Life began a review of the Electoral Commission to ascertain whether its current mandate, governance arrangements and accountability framework remained appropriate. The review took place as a result of the Speaker’s Committee’s request for the equivalent of a financial management and policy review, which usually takes place every five years for non-departmental public bodies. The standards committee’s 11th report, Review of the Electoral Commission, published in January 2007, made 47 recommendations. They were made in the context of the key finding that the Electoral Commission had not successfully performed its core duties as a regulator to ensure integrity and public confidence in the electoral process and in the framework that governs political-party funding and campaign expenditure. The standards committee therefore determined that the Electoral Commission should no longer be responsible for functions that may distract it from its core tasks.

There are two recommendations in relation to Part 3. Recommendation 17 is that the Electoral Commission should no longer have any involvement in electoral boundary matters and that the provision in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to allow the transfer of boundary-setting functions in England, Scotland and Wales to the commission should be repealed. Recommendation 18 is that the Boundary Committee for England should become an independent body in line with local government boundary commissions in the rest of the United Kingdom.

We have sought to base the provisions establishing the new Boundary Committee on the administrative arrangements in place in the Electoral Commission. Most importantly, we have provided for the Boundary Committee to be established as an independent body accountable to Parliament rather than to a government body. Furthermore, the process for the Boundary Committee to make orders that implement new local government electoral arrangements to wards and electoral divisions will continue to be independent of government, but will, in future, be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. I hope that the general overview I have given about why we are taking the Boundary Committee out of the Electoral Commission has been useful.

I now turn to the amendments. Amendment 159ZEF was tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and amends Clause 49(4), which prevents the Boundary Committee borrowing money. I assure the noble Baroness that that is not being done simply for cosmetic reasons. As I have indicated, when establishing the Boundary Committee, we have sought, where possible, to follow the arrangements in place for the Electoral Commission. We have therefore replicated the provision in paragraph 2 of Schedule 1 to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which prevents the Electoral Commission borrowing money. As a general principle, it is right that bodies that are directly accountable to Parliament for their funding should not be able to borrow money. Paragraph 11 of Schedule 1 to the Bill sets out that the funding of the Boundary Committee will be provided directly by Parliament from the Consolidated Fund. The Boundary Committee will present an estimate to the Speaker’s Committee, which must examine it and lay it in the other place, where it will be approved. It would clearly be wrong for Parliament to consider and agree the estimate for the Boundary Committee and for the Boundary Committee then to be able to obtain additional funds through borrowing. If it requires additional funds, it must present its reasons to Parliament, which will determine whether they should be granted.

A number of amendments in this group address appointments to the Boundary Committee. Government Amendments 159A to 159Z and 160A and 160B clarify how the appointment process for the chair of the Boundary Committee will operate. In relation to the appointment of the chair, it has been brought to our attention that the current drafting of Schedule 1 leaves some ambiguity with regard to the role of the Secretary of State. Paragraph 2 of Schedule 1 provides that the chair of the Boundary Committee will be appointed on an address from another place, mirroring the existing arrangements for the appointment of electoral commissioners. As the current chair of the Boundary Committee is an electoral commissioner, we deemed it appropriate that this process should be maintained. For reasons that I will set out when responding to amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, we do not believe there would be any difficulties with the Secretary of State being responsible for the appointment of the chair of the Boundary Committee. However, where possible, we have sought to replicate the existing arrangements.

The other members of the existing Boundary Committee are appointed by the Electoral Commission and, as a result of the separation, we need to identify a mechanism for their appointment. We have therefore chosen to follow the model of appointments by Her Majesty on the recommendation of the Secretary of State. The Government’s amendment clarifies that there is a separation between the processes of appointing the chair and the other members of the committee. The appointment process for the chair will be by open competition and will not be restricted to the current membership of the Boundary Committee. The amendment is therefore necessary to make it clear that the process of appointment of the chair by Her Majesty following an address is the only process required to make the chair a member of the Boundary Committee.

In response to the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in relation to the appointment of the other members of the Boundary Committee, I am aware that concerns have been raised by the Electoral Commission about the role of the Secretary of State. As we are removing the Electoral Commission’s role, we need to find a process for the appointment of the other members of the new Boundary Committee. We agree that it is essential that appointments to the new Boundary Committee are, and are perceived to be, politically impartial, independent and unambiguously made on merit. We believe that the appointment process for members of the Boundary Committee is at least as likely to deliver these aims as a process involving votes in another place. The appointments process will be undertaken, as is always the case, in accordance with the guidance of the public appointments commissioner, who will maintain oversight and audit of the process.

The process that we are introducing will ensure not only that impartiality and independence are maintained but also that knowledge of the local government sector can be brought into the appointments process. In these circumstances, the Secretary of State would make recommendations for appointment on the basis of recommendations from the panel of officials, including an independent person, following a process of advertisement and executive search. We have therefore provided for the Secretary of State to be responsible for the appointment of members in the same way that she is for the appointment of various other public bodies, including the Audit Commission and the Standards Board for England.

Government Ministers are also responsible for appointing members to bodies that are responsible for electoral arrangements. They are responsible for appointments to the parliamentary boundary commissions across the UK, and Scottish and Welsh Ministers appoint members of the local government boundary commissions in those areas. I am sure the Committee will agree that all these bodies operate in a thoroughly independent manner. We have ensured that the Secretary of State has no role in the determination of the Boundary Committee’s work plans and budgets and, most importantly, no role in decisions on local authority electoral arrangements, nor the making of electoral orders.

Paragraph 2(6) of Schedule 1 provides for the chair to request to be relieved of that office. This addresses Amendment 159WA in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. Paragraphs 2(7) and 2(8) provide for the chair to be removed for a number of reasons, including failure to discharge the functions of the office or being convicted of a criminal offence. The effect of the amendment would be that in those circumstances the chair would become an ordinary member of the committee. Clearly, it would not be appropriate for an individual who had been removed from the office of chair to become a member of the committee.

Although there may be circumstances where the chair requests to be relieved of the office but wishes to continue as a member, we do not agree that such provision should be made. If we were to provide for the chair to become a member when he had been relieved at his own request, it would have the effect of artificially increasing the membership of the Boundary Committee by one member. I do not believe that this would be a justifiable use of public funds. Of course, it would be open to any individual concerned to apply for any vacancy on the committee if and when such a vacancy arose.

The second matter addressed by the government amendments in this group responds to the recommendations of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. Government Amendments 159AA to 160C have broadly the same purpose as the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi. However, we have sought to ensure that the principle of restricting the delegation of the Boundary Committee’s order-making power is applied to all such powers.

We agree with the DPRRC that the committee’s function of making electoral change orders under Clause 53 is a power that should be exercised by the full committee and that it would be inappropriate for it to be delegated. We believe that the restriction should also cover all the Boundary Committee’s order-making powers, as well as any powers exercised during the transitional period before the establishment of the new Boundary Committee for England, as set out in Schedule 3.

As we are all seeking to achieve the same goal, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment. I thank the Committee for its patience. I hope that I have convinced noble Lords that their amendments should not be pressed, and that they agree that the government amendments clarify and strengthen the drafting of the Bill. I commend them to the Committee.

I am grateful for that detailed response. On appointments, a Speaker’s Committee has a status which is perhaps not recognised simply by talking about an appointment being an appointment by Parliament. The noble Lord suggested, rightly, that there are quite polarised political positions within the House of Commons. However, I have sought to take the politics out, not add them in.

On the chairmanship, I thought that it would be implicit that the restriction would apply to the ordinary membership of a chair who had been removed because of, for example, a criminal conviction, so that someone who had gone for bad reasons would not be eligible. I am grateful for the explanations and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 159ZEF withdrawn.

Clause 49 agreed.

Schedule 1: Boundary Committee for England

Amendments 159A and 159B

Moved by

159A: Schedule 1, page 83, line 5, leave out from “of” to end of line 6 and insert—

“(a) the chair of the Committee, and(a) at least four and no more than eleven other members (“ordinary members”).”

159B: Schedule 1, page 83, line 7, after first “The” insert “ordinary”

Amendments 159A and 159B agreed.

Amendment 159BA not moved.

Amendments 159C to 159P

Moved by

159C: Schedule 1, page 83, line 9, leave out “a member” and insert “an ordinary member”

159D: Schedule 1, page 83, line 23, after “as” insert “an ordinary”

159E: Schedule 1, page 83, line 25, leave out “a member” and insert “an ordinary member”

159F: Schedule 1, page 83, line 26, after second “the” insert “ordinary”

159G: Schedule 1, page 83, line 28, leave out “A member” and insert “An ordinary member”

159H: Schedule 1, page 83, line 29, after “the” insert “ordinary”

159J: Schedule 1, page 83, line 32, after “the” insert “ordinary”

159K: Schedule 1, page 84, line 1, after first “the” insert “ordinary”

159L: Schedule 1, page 84, line 5, after first “the” insert “ordinary”

159M: Schedule 1, page 84, line 7, after “the” insert “ordinary”

159N: Schedule 1, page 84, line 8, leave out “A member” and insert “An ordinary member”

159P: Schedule 1, page 84, line 10, leave out “A member” and insert “An ordinary member”

Amendments 159C to 159P agreed.

Amendments 159PA and 159PB not moved.

Amendments 159Q to 159W

Moved by

159Q: Schedule 1, page 84, line 22, after “as” insert “an ordinary”

159R: Schedule 1, page 84, line 24, leave out “a member” and insert “an ordinary member”

159S: Schedule 1, page 84, line 26, leave out sub-paragraph (1)

159T: Schedule 1, page 84, line 28, after “chair” insert “of the Boundary Committee for England”

159U: Schedule 1, page 84, line 37, at end insert—

“( ) A person may not be appointed as chair under sub-paragraph (2) if by virtue of paragraph 1(3)(a) to (d) that person may not be appointed as an ordinary member.”

159V: Schedule 1, page 84, leave out line 38 and insert “Subject to the provisions of this paragraph, the chair holds office—”

159W: Schedule 1, page 84, line 41, at end insert—

“( ) The chair ceases to hold office on the occurrence of such an event as is mentioned in any of paragraphs (a) to (e) of paragraph 1(6).”

Amendments 159Q to 159W agreed.

Amendment 159WA not moved.

Amendments 159X to 159Z

Moved by

159X: Schedule 1, page 85, line 25, after second “the” insert “ordinary”

159Y: Schedule 1, page 86, line 20, leave out “a member” and insert “an ordinary member”

159Z: Schedule 1, page 86, line 23, leave out “a member” and insert “an ordinary member”

Amendments 159X to 159Z agreed.

Amendment 159ZZ not moved.

Amendment 159AA

Moved by

159AA: Schedule 1, page 87, line 34, at end insert—

“( ) Sub-paragraph (1) does not apply to any function of making an order by statutory instrument.”

Amendment 159AA agreed.

Amendment 160 not moved.

Amendments 160A and 160B

Moved by

160A: Schedule 1, page 92, line 13, leave out “a member” and insert “an ordinary member”

160B: Schedule 1, page 92, line 23, at end insert—

““ordinary member” is to be construed in accordance with paragraph 1(1)(b).”

Amendments 160A and 160B agreed.

Schedule 1, as amended, agreed.

Schedule 2: Electoral change in England: considerations on review

Amendment 160BA

Moved by

160BA: Schedule 2, page 93, line 1, leave out “possible” and insert “practicable subject to sub-paragraph (b)”

I shall speak also to Amendments 160BB, 160BC and 160BD and to the Questions whether Clause 58 and Schedule 3 shall stand part of the Bill.

The first three amendments address the criteria for selecting the number of councillors. The schedule provides for the need to secure that the ratio of electors to the number of members is as nearly as possible the same in every electoral area of the different councils the subject of the schedule. My amendment would change the word “possible” to “practicable”, subject to the next paragraph.

That is because that paragraph rightly recognises the need to reflect the identities and interests of local communities, of fixing boundaries which are easily identifiable and of not breaking local ties when fixing boundaries. Those are very important points. In representing one’s electors one thinks about representing a community, not a community with an artificial boundary down the middle of it because that makes the numbers neat. I am not suggesting that a community must absolutely be kept as a distinct entity—apart from anything else there would be arguments as to where the boundary of a community is—but the term “possible” reduces too much the criteria set out in paragraph (b) and I would like to see greater recognition. I dare say I am going to be told that this is provided for at the moment in whatever legislation this is replacing, but it is still important.

Amendment 160BD takes us to Schedule 3, which relates to the interim period and provides for a transitional arrangement. This is the subject of my objection to Clause 58 and Schedule 3. Amendment 160BD will enable me, I hope, to ask the Minister what is in the pipeline. The Electoral Commission makes the broader point that the new arrangements commencing before the new committee is established is confusing, counterproductive and inefficient. There will be no statutory relationship between the two bodies. It clearly feels that it can continue. I look forward to the Minister’s explanation of the Government’s thinking. I beg to move.

I have given notice of my intention to oppose Clause 51. I support the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, about practicability rather than trying to keep communities together. We have tabled our amendment because one increasingly sees the suggestion of two-member wards in county government. County government, which covers quite a large area, is being related back to communities. It is referred to in the guidance. I am concerned at there being more encouragement from government for two-member wards. I agree that one chooses wards for the type of authority and the community, but we would not like to see too many more two-member wards in county government.

I shall try to be brief. I shall first address the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in relation to the statutory criteria set out in Schedule 2. Schedule 2 sets out the criteria that the Boundary Committee must have regard to when conducting electoral reviews under Clause 50. It is important to make it clear that the schedule simply re-enacts and consolidates existing criteria in Section 13(5) of the Local Government Act 1992 and Schedule 11 to the Local Government Act 1972. The schedule incorporates a number of drafting changes, but the criteria remain unchanged. The statutory criteria in Schedule 2 are balanced so that one criterion does not take precedence over another. While we sympathise with the noble Baroness’s comments about the importance of community identity in setting electoral arrangements, changing the balance of the statutory criteria should be approached with considerable caution.

We of course agree that considerable importance must be attached to the effective engagement of neighbourhoods, communities and individuals in the provision of local services. However, the wide variety of local circumstances suggests that any criteria need to be broad to allow the new Boundary Committee the flexibility to deliver electoral arrangements that reflect community identity, provide for fair elections and support effective local government and service delivery. The Government therefore believe that we should avoid prescribing a hierarchy of criteria that might rigidly be applied in all circumstances. On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendments to Schedule 2.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, has given notice of his intention to oppose the inclusion of Clause 51 in the Bill. In addition, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, have given notice of their intention to oppose the inclusion of Clause 58 and to amend the related Schedule 3. I hope that I can briefly explain why Clauses 51 and 58 and the Schedule 3 provisions should be in the Bill.

The Bill re-enacts provisions recently enacted under Section 55 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, which inserted two new sections, 14A and 14B, into the Local Government Act 1992. I hope that I can quickly allay the noble Lord’s fear that there is anything new in Clause 51 and explain that it simply re-enacts the provisions introduced by the 2007 Act with some modifications to provide for the Boundary Committee for England to take over the Electoral Commission’s current function.

I would now like to address concerns about Clause 58 and Schedule 3. Clause 58 and Schedule 3 make transitional provision for the existing Boundary Committee to exercise its functions in relation to electoral boundary work without the involvement of the Electoral Commission prior to the establishment of the new Boundary Committee for England. Clause 58 and Schedule 3 will come into force immediately on Royal Assent. If Parliament agrees to the implementation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s recommendation to remove the role of the Electoral Commission from electoral boundary work, we believe that the Electoral Commission’s role should cease at the earliest opportunity.

Schedule 3 therefore modifies the Local Government Act 1992 to provide for an interim period starting on the day on which the Act is passed and ending with the establishment of the new Boundary Committee for England, which we expect to be on 1 April 2010. It has been suggested by the Electoral Commission that leaving the Boundary Committee as a part of the Electoral Commission while the Electoral Commission no longer has a role in electoral review work would be counterproductive and inefficient. My right honourable friend the Minister for Local Government recently met with the new chair of the Electoral Commission and the chair of the Boundary Committee to discuss these arrangements. We have asked the Electoral Commission to provide information on any particular difficulties that it envisages and the level of work that is expected during this period. In our view, the sooner that the Electoral Commission is able to concentrate fully on its core functions in relation to party political finance and electoral administration—the key recommendation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life—the better.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, said that he feared an increase in two-member divisions. The provision would enable any local authority to request single-member divisions. Indeed, West Sussex County Council, which had two-member divisions, requested such a review, which is ongoing. I hope that I have reassured noble Lords. Unless further evidence can be provided by the Electoral Commission of any particular problems that our approach will cause, I hope that noble Lords will agree that Clause 58 and Schedule 3 should stand part of the Bill.

In view of the time, the most popular thing that I could do—although perhaps not popular with the Electoral Commission—is to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 160BA withdrawn.

Amendments 160BB and 160BC not moved.

Schedule 2 agreed.

Clauses 51 to 58 agreed.

Schedule 3: Electoral change in England: interim modifications of the Local Government Act 1992

Amendment 160BD not moved.

Amendment 160C

Moved by

160C: Schedule 3, page 97, line 26, at end insert—

“(10) The power of the Boundary Committee for England under paragraph 12 of Schedule 1 to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (power of delegation) does not apply to any function of the Committee under this section.”

Amendment 160C agreed.

Schedule 3, as amended, agreed.

Clauses 59 to 61 agreed.

Schedule 4 agreed.

Clause 62 agreed.

Committee adjourned at 7.42 pm.