House of Lords
Thursday, 23 June 2011.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Exeter.
Egypt: Religious Minorities
To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will make representations to the Government of Egypt concerning the killing of Christians and the attacks on Christian churches in that country, and on the promotion of the safety of all citizens of religious minority faiths in Egypt.
My Lords, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary raised his concerns about the dangers of extremism and sectarianism in Egypt with the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Field Marshal Tantawi, and with the Egyptian Prime Minister when he visited the country on 1 and 2 May. We will continue to urge the Egyptian Government to create the conditions for pluralist and non-sectarian politics and to establish policies that prevent discrimination against anyone on the basis of their religion.
I thank the Minister for his reply. Is he aware that since the January revolution there have been at least 20 documented attacks against religious minorities, including not only the Coptic Christians but the Sufi community, and that in many cases the security forces refrain from intervening effectively, giving rise to concerns that they might actually be condoning the violence? Will Her Majesty’s Government raise with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces the importance of ensuring that the emerging constitution, legal framework and social structures are guided by the principles of equality of citizenship and equality before the law, consistent with the human rights conventions to which Egypt is a signatory?
I can tell the noble Baroness that we are indeed aware of the ugly situation that she describes. Tensions between Christians and Muslims in Egypt had initially eased during the revolution back in February, but regrettably she is right: there has been an upsurge in sectarian violence, including the worst violent clashes between the two communities in early May, when some 15 people died and over 330 were injured. This is obviously a deplorable situation. As for assisting with the emerging constitution, this country has already committed £1.2 million through the Arab Partnership scheme to support the immediate political transition process. That includes projects to build the capacity of government and civil society in developing anti-discrimination legislation, supporting constitutional reform and establishing links between the UK and the Egyptian judiciaries. In addition, the Supreme Council—the transitional Government—has announced that it will draft a new unified law on the construction of places of worship, which is to be equal for both Copts and Muslims, and a new anti-discrimination law to prevent religious discrimination. We are moving in the right direction, but clearly much more is needed.
If the noble Lord is talking about a rising intolerance against people for their religious beliefs, he is absolutely right. This is an extremely worrying trend, which we should not only resist but work against most actively wherever it occurs.
Will my noble friend confirm that Article 46 of the previous Egyptian constitution guaranteed freedom of belief and freedom of worship and that the penal code provided for up to five years in jail for exploiting,
“religion in order to promote extremist ideologies”?
Will the Government call on the new Egyptian Administration for these constitutional safeguards to be retained, respected and enforced in their new legislation?
That is certainly the theme of our exchanges and dialogues, and those of my right honourable friend, with the leaders of the Supreme Council. As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, the Government are drafting a new law on the construction of places of worship, which is to be equal for both Copts and Muslims, and a new anti-discrimination law. That will, in a sense, reinforce what went before. As my noble friend appreciates, Egypt is in the process of moving out of the constitutional pattern of the past and, therefore, all the positive laws that come from the past will need to be reinforced and redrafted.
My Lords, in light of the comments of my noble friend the Minister that there is an increase of religious intolerance, would not now be the time for the Government to adopt the recommendation from the Conservative Party’s human rights group’s report The Freedom to Believe that the Foreign Office should appoint a special envoy for international freedom, religion and belief?
That was an extremely interesting report, which my honourable and right honourable friends are certainly studying closely. I cannot make precise promises on exactly how the recommendations will be implemented or whether they will reflect the pattern of our policy evolution, but I fully recognise that my noble friend’s support for this document is right and that it is a valuable study.
Can the Minister tell us what advice the 8 June meeting of the FCO human rights panel offered the Foreign Secretary on how the Government might best respond to these recent attacks on religious minorities in Egypt? Will he also say how the Government have responded to any such advice?
My Lords, the answer to the right reverend Prelate’s question is positively and continuously. I know that he appreciates, because he follows these things closely, that we are dealing with a constantly changing situation. We are in constant dialogue through our posts, and indeed through Ministers and officials, with the Supreme Council in Cairo and with Governments in other countries where there are clear discrimination and attacks against religious minorities, including Christian minorities. I think that I have to tell him that the work of the panel and the continuing work of the Foreign Office are moving in the same direction, which is a positive one.
My Lords, in declaring an interest as president of the UK Coptic Association, may I ask the Minister whether he recalls the letter that I sent him on 1 January this year, copied to the Foreign Secretary, detailing the attacks made on services at the Church of the Two Saints in Alexandria, in which some 21 people were killed and 79 injured, even predating the Arab spring? Is it not the case that the campaign of asphyxiation against the ancient churches throughout the whole of the Middle East is something that we need to give much more focus to? We should never miss the opportunity, when pointing the finger at organisations such as the Salafis for fomenting this hatred and violence, to enunciate our support for the creation of a plural society where minorities such as the Copts, who constitute an eighth of Egypt’s population, are properly respected.
I would not disagree with a word of that. I remind your Lordships that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, is second to none in keeping us up to speed with what is happening on this whole front. When he asked me whether I could recall a letter that he wrote on 1 January, I have to be quite frank and say that I recall a mass of letters that have arrived from him almost every day of the week since then. I ask him please to go on writing and reminding us all that this is a very frightening and terrible situation to which we must, both at the governmental and the individual level, give our full attention.
Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission
My Lords, the changes required to establish the new commission are included in the Welfare Reform Bill and we will be able to discuss them during the Lords stages of that Bill. The commission will be established as soon as possible. Until then, the Government’s Independent Reviewer on Social Mobility, Alan Milburn, will incorporate child poverty into his remit. He will then serve as acting chair of the commission until a permanent chair is appointed.
I thank my noble friend the Minister for his reply. Is he aware of the OECD research published last week that shows that the UK is faring badly in international league tables in terms of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds succeeding at school against the odds? Will he give an assurance that the commission will look critically at these sorts of issues to see whether the current measures are sufficient to improve the situation?
Yes, my Lords. The OECD report was another useful wake-up call for us in an area in which we have not been doing as well as we should. That is precisely why we have combined our child poverty and social mobility strategies. We need to make sure not just that there are fiscal transfers to address poverty but also that the life chances of children are improved.
Will the commission be able to look at the loss of the child trust fund, or baby bond? It was a serious mistake by the Government to cut that, because it was one of the best ways of enabling children in very poor families to find a way out of poverty in the long term and of encouraging saving. Can we have a guarantee that the commission will be able to look at a replacement for that?
My Lords, I am sure that noble Lords who saw the recent BBC documentary “Poor Kids” will have been moved by the brutal reality of child poverty in Britain that was portrayed. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government will commit themselves to tackling poverty at the very bottom and not just social mobility? Is he aware of the concerns expressed by charities that the Government’s approach to the commission may undermine its independence and will he meet the End Child Poverty group to discuss this?
My Lords, one of the things that we are doing to expand the measures of accountability is to look precisely at severe poverty, which is a combination of very low incomes and material deprivation. That is an area on which we want to focus. One of the problems with targets is that they encourage Governments to tuck people just above an arbitrary line, which we do not want to do. I am sorry, but I have forgotten the second part of the noble Baroness’s question.
We are not weakening the commission’s independence in any way; we are strengthening it by requiring the commission to hold the Government to account. The fact that we are not insisting that the commission sets the strategy for the Government means that the Government now have that responsibility and the commission can then hold them to account. I shall of course meet the group at any stage; I am sure that it is in my diary anyway.
My Lords, the OECD report, which places the UK 28th out of 35, paints a picture of poverty of aspiration for many of our people, particularly our young people. It suggests, however, that peer mentoring and mentoring of all sorts are a way of improving that position. Will my noble friend ensure that mentoring of all types will be part of the work of the commission that is being established?
My Lords, there needs to be a massive programme to improve both poverty and social mobility. It needs to be done right the way from foundation years, through school years and the transition period, and even to adulthood. The particular programmes that we will see will come out of this general approach. I cannot give any assurances on any particular approach at this stage, although I am personally most sympathetic to the concept of mentoring.
Does the Minister recall Scott Fitzgerald’s remark to Ernest Hemingway many years ago? “The rich are different from us”, Fitzgerald said. “Yes”, Hemingway replied, “they’ve got more money”. There is no mystery about child poverty, is there? What children need if they are not to be impoverished is more money, which means that a policy of cutting public expenditure benefits is not the right way of setting about helping them.
My Lords, regrettably, I was not there when that remark was made. However, I absolutely insist that income transfer is not the way to solve poverty; we need a much more comprehensive approach. Recent research tells us that in-kind support is more effective than income transfers for children in poverty. We are making a sustained, long-term attempt to lift people out of not only poverty of income but poverty of aspiration and poverty of outcomes.
My Lords, will the commission be charged with looking at the impact of the legislation going through this House now, such as the Welfare Reform Bill and the Bill that affects legal aid? Will it specifically look at the life chances of the thousands of children who, we were told by the Evening Standard last night, are going to have to move out of London, their primary schools and their secure environment because of the cap on welfare benefits?
Drugs: Prescribed Drug Addiction and Withdrawal
My Lords, my honourable friend the Minister for Public Health, Anne Milton, has discussed the findings of the reports with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Misuse and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Involuntary Tranquiliser Addiction at a meeting chaired by my noble friend Lord Mancroft on 14 June. She wrote to my noble friend yesterday setting out the collaborative action that she will be taking in the light of that helpful discussion. She will be convening a round table meeting to discuss the key issues.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that information. Does he accept that this is an emergency for the victims of withdrawal from prescribed drugs and their families? Cannot the Government recognise the good practice that is already out there, set up withdrawal clinics and spread the word that no longer are these prescribed drugs but that they are turning into dangerous substances which can cost lives? These people cannot wait for further reports and consultation.
Earl Howe: My Lords, dependence on prescription or over-the-counter-drugs can be every bit as distressing and debilitating as dependence on illegal drugs and clearly has an impact on not only those suffering from dependence but their families and their communities. It is an important issue which we have clearly resolved to address as part of the national drug strategy by focusing on all drugs of dependence, including prescription and over-the-counter medicines. Many NHS and voluntary organisations provide support to people in relation to prescription and over-the-counter medicine use and support is available to people who develop problems in relation to those issues in most local areas. However, it is clear that there is variation in the levels of support provided between local areas and we need to address that problem.
My Lords, how much advice is now being given to GPs over the prescribing of psychoactive substances? In the revisions of the NHS as proposed by the Government, will the pricing bureau which monitors GP prescriptions still have the same levers as it currently has in providing GPs with benchmarking of their prescribing of psychoactive substances?
My Lords, I am not sure that I can answer the latter part of the noble Baroness’s question but GPs are clearly in an important position in this context. They are responsible for identifying patients who need help and for supporting them. I do not think that there is any reliable evidence that doctors are failing to comply with guidelines on the prescribing of benzodiazepines but I am aware that the Royal College of General Practitioners is updating its guidance at the moment. It is working hard to produce that very shortly.
My Lords, given the importance of making visible the number of people who are addicted in this way, when will the Government calculate the true number of people addicted to and withdrawing from legally prescribed drugs? That information could be made available from GP computer records. Does the Minster agree that both the NAC and the NTA reports confuse the number of patients taking legal prescriptions with the number of users of illegal drugs?
I agree with the noble Lord that it would be very nice to have a better handle on the numbers here, but the two reports found that nationally available data do not actually provide a definitive prevalence estimate of dependence on prescription and over-the-counter medicines, much as we would wish otherwise. The reports, not unreasonably, consider the full spectrum of need in relation to the issue of addiction. The key point here is that, while different people might start taking these medicines for different reasons and may present with a different range of needs, no one at all should be excluded from the treatment and support that they require. The reports distinguish between the two groups of patients, not just those who are dependent on prescription and over-the-counter medicines but also those who are dependent on illegal drug use. That enables us to make some useful comparisons.
Following on from the noble Earl’s supplementary question on how to ensure that good practice becomes standard practice, how will that sit with the dismantling of strategic health authorities, PCTs and other levers that might be used to ensure progress? Who or which organisations in the proposed restructuring of the NHS will be able to ensure that patients who have an addiction to prescription drugs receive the support that they desperately need? I agree with the noble Earl that this is an emergency; it is not the first time that we have discussed this on the Floor of the House.
My Lords, the responsibility for commissioning these services in future will lie with local authorities, supported by Public Health England. The noble Baroness will be aware that it is our proposal to ring-fence the public health budget. Local authorities will be informed by the joint strategic needs assessment that they carry out and will work in partnership with local delivery organisations and with local GPs, who, as I have mentioned, will be even better informed than they are at the moment thanks to the Royal College guidance.
My Lords, as this is a UK-wide problem, how do you link with the devolved Administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to make sure that the guidelines that we get here for England are shared with those in the other Administrations?
My noble friend will know, as his question certainly made clear, that health is a devolved matter. However, we work very closely with our counterparts in the devolved Administrations on a basis of mutual information. I am sure that, for example, the Royal College of General Practitioners will wish to make certain that the devolved Administrations are every bit as well informed about their work as we are in the department in London.
My Lords, the Government are funding the training of specialist dyslexia teachers, the development of online study modules for all teachers and the Dyslexia-Specific Learning Difficulty Trust to raise awareness of dyslexia among teachers, parents and other professionals. We are promoting systematic synthetic phonics as the best method of teaching children to read. We intend to introduce a phonics screening check at the end of year 1 to identify pupils, including those with dyslexia, who need extra help with their phonic decoding skills.
I thank my noble friend for that Answer. However, would he agree that, even with the efforts made by the last Government, we are in the situation whereby we have several schools per specialist teacher in the education system? When are we going to have a unit of training in initial teacher training, as there is in Scotland, to identify dyslexics and to allow people to be able to cope with them better in the classroom without having to call in specialists?
As my noble friend will know, in order to achieve qualified teacher status, teachers must meet the standards that require them to be able to teach children with a range of needs, including special educational needs. I agree with my noble friend on the importance of taking measures to help children with dyslexia, and the key to that, although he knows a lot more about this than I do, is early identification. It is our hope that having the phonic screening check in year 1 will enable that to happen, and then support can be put in place. We are increasing the numbers of specialist dyslexic teachers and working with ITT providers to look at ways of ensuring that primary school training teachers get the support that they need to learn how to identify and help dyslexic children.
Does the Minister accept that quite apart from dyslexia, which is difficulty in reading, there are other specific developmental learning defects such as dyspraxia, which is serious clumsiness, and dyscalculia, which is difficulty in calculation, each of which can be fully identified and characterised only by skilled psychological assessment? Having been identified, they can be effectively dealt with in schoolchildren only by highly specialised teaching. Are the Government aware of the needs of these children with defects other than dyslexia?
I accept the noble Lord’s point that there are a range of challenges across the piece. Communication difficulty is another one, and in that case we are putting in place more specialist help through therapists. Working with the Department of Health and others, we need to find ways of early identification and giving as much support as we can to children with those challenges.
Looking at the literacy figures, we know overall that roughly one in five children leaving primary school are not achieving the basic standard expected of them, and those figures are worse for boys and for children on free school meals. With regard to children who do not have English as a first language, there are more challenges, and some schools that have large numbers of those will have to be realistic about the challenges that they face. It is also the case, however, that outstanding schools, which I am lucky enough to visit, are able to put teaching methods in place so that children who do not have English as a first language are able to learn to read fluently and well. The whole thrust of what we are doing is to try to increase the emphasis on moving to systematic synthetic phonics and early identification, and I hope that we will put in place in all schools systems to ensure that all children, including dyslexics from all backgrounds, have the chance to master the skills of reading and writing early, because without those they cannot go on to learn.
My Lords, is not the honest answer to all the questions that the Minister has had today that he does not have the money? Would he care to have a word with his noble friend Lord Sassoon, who is sitting next to him, to see whether he could use some of the reserves that he is using in other areas?
I normally have my discussions with my noble friend Lord Sassoon in a slightly more private setting. I do not accept the basic premise of the noble Lord’s question. Clearly, there is a problem across the board that we do not have as much money as we would like, but the education settlement that we got from my noble friend Lord Sassoon and his friends at the Treasury enabled us to maintain school funding at flat-cash levels, so that is not the main issue for us in this regard. It would always be nice to have more, but that is not the fundamental problem.
My Lords, when most initial teacher training is done in schools, as the Minister of State for Schools appears to wish, how will the Government ensure that all newly trained teachers get proper training on this issue? Do this issue and others not make the case for ensuring higher education institution input into the theoretical side of initial teacher training, especially when 10 per cent of the population are somewhere on the dyslexia spectrum?
I agree with my noble friend about the importance of input from higher education institutions. The Government are not saying that we do not believe that higher education institutions will play an extremely important part in teacher training. We are saying that, alongside that, there should be more opportunities for teachers to learn from other teachers, professionals and practitioners in the school. I very much take the noble Baroness’s point about the important role that higher education institutions play.
My Lords, as the noble Baroness may recall—other noble Lords certainly will—during the passage of the Academies Act 2010 the requirements about special educational needs across the board were applied on an equal basis to academies. Through the funding agreement, we have maintained those. Clearly, lots of the first-wave academies set up by the previous Government were often in areas with the greatest challenges in overcoming illiteracy and helping children with dyslexia. Those academies have generally done an extremely good job in making sure that those children get the support that they need.
Land Registration (Network Access) (Amendment) Rules 2011
Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) (Amendment) (England and Wales) Order 2011
Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 (Commencement No. 3) Order 2011
Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 (Amendment) Order 2011
Charities Act 2006 (Principal Regulators of Exempt Charities) Regulations 2011
Charities Act 2006 (Changes in Exempt Charities) Order 2011
Distribution of Dormant Account Money (Apportionment) Order 2011
International Renewable Energy Agency (Legal Capacities) Order 2011
Gambling Act 2005 (Gaming Machines in Adult Gaming Centres and Bingo Premises) Order 2011
Categories of Gaming Machine (Amendment) Regulations 2011
Communications Act 2003 (Maximum Penalty for Contravention of Information Requirements) Order 2011
Motion to Refer to Grand Committee
Order of Consideration Motion
That it be an instruction to the Grand Committee to which the Education Bill has been committed that they consider the bill in the following order:
Clauses 1 to 4, Schedule 1, Clauses 5 to 11, Schedule 2,Clause 12, Schedule 3, Clause 13, Schedule 4, Clauses 14 to 16, Schedule 5, Clause 17, Schedule 6, Clauses 18 to 21, Schedule 7, Clauses 22 to 24, Schedule 8, Clause 25, Schedule 9, Clauses 26 to 34, Schedule 10, Clauses 35 and 36, Schedule 11, Clauses 37 to 48, Schedule 12, Clauses 49 to 53, Schedule 13, Clauses 54 to 61, Schedule 14, Clauses 62 and 63, Schedule 15, Clauses 64 and 65, Schedule 16, Clause 66, Schedule 17, Clause 67, Schedule 18, Clauses 68 to 79.
Estates of Deceased Persons (Forfeiture Rule and Law of Succession) Bill
European Union Bill
Clause 18 : Status of EU law dependent on continuing statutory basis
Moved By Lord Lea of Crondall
Clause 18, page 13, line 9, at end insert—
“(2) This section does not affect the United Kingdom’s commitments set out in—
(a) the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1986 giving effect to the Single European Act,
(b) the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993 giving effect to the Maastricht Treaty on European Union,
(c) the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1998 giving effect to the Amsterdam Treaty,
(d) the European Communities (Amendment) Act 2002 giving effect to the Nice Treaty, and
(e) the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008 giving effect to the Treaty of Lisbon.
(3) This section does not affect—
(a) the European Communities (Greek Accession) Act 1979,
(b) the European Communities (Spanish and Portuguese Accession) Act 1985,
(c) the European Union (Accessions) Act 1994,
(d) the European Union (Accessions) Act 2003, and
(e) the European Union (Accessions) Act 2006.”
‘I will not detain the House for more than a few minutes. This amendment is an addition to the words now incorporated in the revised Bill at the end of revised Clause 18—those being the words in the amendment moved last week by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. My amendment, which in the words of the Companion is clarificatory, states that all the Acts of Parliament which flow from the famous or infamous EU treaties following on from Rome—Maastricht, Lisbon, et cetera—should set out in a straightforward way the list of the United Kingdom Acts which are the basis on which Parliament here in Westminster has enacted laws to give effect to EU legislation in this country.
One of the reasons for believing that the Government’s intention is to pre-empt any rethink is the feed from the office of the Foreign Secretary, the right honourable William Hague, to the Financial Times last week, which appears to throw down the gauntlet that the Lords should be put in their place and get back in their box. That is surely not the height of courtesy when we have not yet completed Third Reading of the Bill.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who cannot be here today because he has to preside at an awards ceremony in Cambridge, but to whom I spoke yesterday, mentioned at Report that a list approach could additionally be considered. On another aspect, he indicated at col. 804 of Hansard that he could indeed visualise clarificatory amendments at Third Reading. I could not speak to the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, because he is in China.
So far as directly applicable law is concerned—where one of the confusions arises—as adumbrated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, it would be a brave man or woman who would try to encompass that in one declaratory yet legally watertight sentence, and it is now becoming increasingly clear that it does not work. The problem is that Ministers wish to make a political point and officials are trying to make it work technically. Trying to kill two birds with one stone is rarely a good idea. There is, indeed, no simple political point that can be made about UK law which can define this in a few words, for the reasons which the exchange on 15 June between the noble and learned Lords, Lord Mackay of Clashfern and Lord Wallace of Tankerness, amply demonstrated. Assuming that I am correct about the Government’s intentions, it would be ludicrous to go into ping-pong in blinkers—ultimately, no doubt, the Lords would submit to the will of the Commons—when the resulting assertion in the Act would still be clearly erroneous, and in effect admitted to be such by Ministers.
On the Government’s contention so far as directly applicable law is concerned, we have the position as set out on page 2 of the Explanatory Memorandum that all we are looking for is a declaratory sentence. Therefore, I put this amendment forward for consideration. I do not see why it should not be accepted on all sides of the House. I will not press it to a Division but I hope that the issues I have raised will be ventilated this morning and that the amendment will in due course be accepted in the spirit in which I have put it forward. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, for tabling the amendment. It seeks to confirm in statute that Clause 18 does not alter the rights and obligations that the UK has assumed and given effect to in UK law since it became a member state. In particular, the amendment provides that the clause would not affect any existing commitments flowing from subsequent treaty changes and accession treaties. That is the purpose of the noble Lord’s amendment.
As I say, I am grateful to him because it allows me the opportunity, once again, to make crystal clear that this Government strongly believe that it is absolutely essential that we continue to respect the rights and obligations that we have as a member state of the European Union under the treaties to which we have committed ourselves. This is because we recognise the benefits of EU membership. This Bill does not do anything to alter our current active engagement within the existing powers and competences of the EU. I do not want to go into too much repetition of our extensive and very valuable discussions in Committee. As I said then, the coalition Government’s Programme for Government spelt out that the United Kingdom will be,
“a positive participant in the European Union”.
I believe that this Government have, since last May, amply demonstrated an active and activist approach to EU matters. This has been exemplified by this country’s leadership in the European Union’s response, and indeed the global response, to recent events in north Africa and the Middle East, and the continuing turbulence there.
The pragmatic approach that this Government have adopted in their wider EU policy brings home the pragmatism that has been shown at times in your Lordships’ House during the consideration of this legislation. We have come a long way since the Bill came from another place. We have undertaken detailed and considered scrutiny of the Bill and its provisions, as we should and as is our proper role here.
I want to pause briefly during these remarks to thank warmly colleagues on all sides of your Lordships’ House who have taken part in these debates. Our differences have been there, of course, but those aside, your Lordships’ House has engaged in its proper role of detailed scrutiny of what is undeniably a very complex Bill. Members have done so with diligence, and for that I am grateful.
No, we have not. We are discussing the amendment. I hope that that is clear to the noble Lord.
The Bill represents a major step forward in the engagement of Parliament over the future direction of the EU. I know that some noble Lords have argued that giving the British people a greater say over decisions could come at the expense of Parliament. However, the more that one examines that proposition, the more I believe that not to be the case. On the contrary, we are seeking to build an enduring framework on which both Parliament and the people of the country will be given a greater say over the key decisions of the Executive in the European Union. That must be healthy. We are seeking to reflect—
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because it allows me to make an intervention that otherwise I would have tried to make in the form of a speech. He has claimed that there is general acceptance of the provisions for a referendum lock on key constitutional issues. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, with whom I normally agree 100 per cent on European issues, said that the Government had persuaded us all of this. However, I do not agree with the use of referendums. I tend to share the view of the noble Lords, Lord Jopling, Lord Deben and Lord Brittan, and others that we need to be very careful if we are going towards this plebiscitary form of democracy, rather than a representative one. I should, therefore, at least like to place on record my own concern about referendum locks in general.
That is a very clear view from the noble Baroness, who, as a former Minister for Europe, knows about these things. However, I have to say that, in the age in which we live, that is a heroic position. We are now living in the information age of instant communication. Referenda are being used in every country, not at the expense of parliamentary debate and sensible diligence by elected representatives but as a further extension of the consolidation of the people’s trust in the processes of government. They are being used everywhere.
I heard the very eloquent views of the noble Lord, Lord Deben, who is not in his place, that he is against all—
I am grateful to my noble friend. I simply want to make it clear that my support for referenda is limited to major amendments to treaties. It does not apply, as the Minister knows very well, to the list of issues set out in the schedule to the Bill.
That is a perfectly fair and sensible intervention by my noble friend. We would, of course, expect nothing else. It reinforces my point that to be either at the one pole of being against all referenda and plebiscites or at the other of saying let us have a referendum every five minutes is absurd. In between lies the possibility, in a modern parliamentary democracy, of consultation with the people through referenda on major issues where sovereignty is transferred, where competencies are transferred or where powers are surrendered by this Parliament through treaty to a higher Parliament.
My noble friend has intervened to say that only in very limited circumstances does she agree. The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, has said that she does not agree at all. The noble Lord, Lord Deben, says that he does not agree. But somewhere in between is the sensible, practical way forward. We are seeking to reflect in the Bill the unavoidable reality that, in the information age, parliamentary-based democracy has widened, is widening and is bound to widen to embrace consultation on key issues. We can argue and have argued for many weeks on how far popular consultation should be involved, but the basic principle is the reality with which Governments are now developing their methods of government and holding authority almost throughout the whole democratic world.
The noble Lord has talked about the positive contribution that this Government have made as far as the EU is concerned. However, is that not negated by the unwise alliance that the Government have formed with rather dubious characters, and the withdrawal from a more central grouping?
With great respect for the noble Lord, whose experience in European affairs is enormous, that is widening the debate vastly from discussing the amendment before us at Third Reading. The noble Lord is raising all sorts of political issues, on which I am very happy to engage, but this would not be the appropriate process and your Lordships would rightly criticise me for going into those issues. I am pleased that we have seen an acceptance of the principle that there should be a referendum on future treaty changes which transfer power and competence from the UK to the EU. That is a step forward, although I repeat that I fully respect my noble friend’s intervention to the effect that she does not accept that for a vast range of activities.
The noble Lord has been talking at great length about referenda and justifying the use of referenda in the 56 cases listed in this Bill. What is the rationale for going for referenda in all these 56 cases, some on very esoteric grounds, and not having a referendum on the very substantial and dramatic reform of our legislature as proposed by the Government?
We have debated this at length. I have enjoyed some of the noble Lord’s interventions—not all of them—and this one is based on a total fallacy and misunderstanding of the Bill which I have tried to disabuse him of. Clearly I have not succeeded. There is no question of having referenda on 56 different items. As we have debated at enormous length, the items included in Schedule 1 and Clause 6 all relate to a handful of very big, so-called red line issues which the people of this country do not want to be dealt with other than through popular consultation. That is the reality. The 56 story is a wonderful myth. It should be utterly dismissed and I hope that we do not hear anything more about it.
Perhaps I may return to the amendment. Clause 18 would not alter the rights and obligations of the UK by virtue of our membership with the European Union.
I apologise for intervening and shall be very brief. First, I genuinely thank my noble friends Lord Howell and Lord Wallace for being helpful, whenever they could be, in responding to many of the points made at previous stages. However, accepting that a transfer of powers of sovereignty can be used as a technical description of our membership of the European Union, is it not better psychologically for the public to have an expression which represents the reality that, by apparently agreeing to things in the European Council, we increase not only our own national sovereignty but the collective sovereignty of the whole Union? That also applies to our membership of NATO, the UN and other international bodies.
First, I thank my noble friend for those words of thanks—I was going to say “condolence”—for the efforts that we are putting into explaining the Bill. He makes an extremely valuable point: where Britain’s national interests are to be promoted by further involvement under treaties or otherwise in international institutions, that is an important matter on which the Government should certainly seek support through popular consent. The argument that we cannot make progress in any of these areas of international and multinational organisations because the Government somehow fear that the people will not agree is very weak and defeatist. On the contrary, if we are to pursue the national interest in a robust way, I think that the present Government and future Governments will have no fears at all about persuading the people to give popular support and consent to the steps forward.
I thank my noble friend for giving way. Does he agree that over the past 35 years or so member state Parliaments in other member states have been more heavily involved than the United Kingdom, and the Bill offers a way for the member state Parliament in Westminster to get far more closely attuned—providing that we can work more closely with the British people—to the will of the people on further transfers of sovereignty? Does he not also agree that this has been a profoundly important debate because it has widened the discussion from the very narrow perspectives of Brussels to the Government and back again? It has already brought Parliament in far more fully and, from that, we will be able to have occasional referenda, which will bring the British public much more into the picture.
I totally agree with my noble friend. I believe that the Bill is part of a jigsaw of processes to reinforce the relationship between the general public and the entire European Union project in a thoroughly positive way. I hope that I have not sounded too complaining during the passage of the Bill but I hoped for massive support, which I do not think was always forthcoming from your Lordships’ offices, for those who want to see the European Union project greatly reinforced. Let us face it—at the moment, it is confronting some very serious challenges. This is the part of the way forward, although not the only way forward. My noble friend greatly reinforces that central point.
I return to the noble Lord, Lord Lea, who is owed a detailed comment on his excellent amendment. I emphasise once again that Clause 18 does not in any way seek to vary the rights and obligations under EU law to which the UK has given effect in its domestic legal order, principally through the Acts referred to in the amendment. It merely confirms that, for directly effective and directly applicable EU law to have effect in the UK legal order, it must be underpinned by UK statute—an issue that of course we discussed at great length on Report. The House of Lords Constitution Committee, in its very valuable report that has been referred to many times, recognised that the intent of the clauses was to do no more than reflect existing law. Clause 18 does not in any way repeal or amend any existing legislation that the UK has adopted to give effect in our law to commitments assumed under past treaty changes. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Lea, will accept that that is the reality and the basic underpinning ground fact that lies beneath the reasoning for Clause 18 being in the Bill.
Finally, I will touch on the concern that Clause 18 will somehow weaken or dilute our continued support for further enlargement of the European Union. The Government believe that EU enlargement has helped to create stability, security and prosperity in EU-neighbouring countries, in part by spreading and encouraging a firm foundation for democracy, the rule of law and shared values. The Government, like their predecessors, believe that the prospect of European Union membership is the strongest incentive for aspirant countries to implement challenging reforms. In addition, the expansion of the internal market encourages trade between new and old member states, benefiting the whole of the European Union and preparing it for a very challenging future. I hope that I have provided the noble Lord, Lord Lea, with sufficient reassurance on this important point that he rightly raised in your Lordships' House, and welcome the fact that he has already stated that he intends to withdraw the amendment.
I will not make any comments on the amendment of my noble friend Lord Lea, which the Minister dealt with very clearly. We on this side of the House greatly appreciate the courtesy with which the Minister has dealt with the many points that we raised in the long debate on the Bill—as has the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. However, what I failed to hear in the Minister's summing-up was an acknowledgement that the Bill that leaves this House is very different from the Bill that arrived, and that on fundamental points the House has amended it in a way that we hope the other place will take due notice of. We have reduced the compulsory requirement for referenda on 56 issues—I know that this figure is disputed by the Government—to three; we have clarified the sovereignty clause in a way that satisfies former Lord Chancellors; we have introduced a 40 per cent turnout threshold for a referendum to be binding; and we have passed a sunset clause that will require a future Parliament by positive resolution to revive the Bill. These are very significant changes and I hope that on the Government’s side there is an acknowledgement that they must think seriously about the views that were expressed on all sides of the House in a very broad consensus that the Bill is badly flawed.
I did not intervene earlier because I got the impression that this was not only Third Reading but probably fourth, fifth and sixth reading, given the many points that were made that did not appear to relate in any way to Clause 18. I shall be extremely brief in saying that it is correct that the Bill that now goes to the House of Commons is different because we have fully considered it and made changes, and we look forward to a serious and positive response from the other House.
I will make only one further point. If the Bill becomes an Act, I share the view of the Government on one important point; I hope that it will seriously improve the possibility of a better connection between the people and the European Union. That is the primary intention of the Bill and, however much it has changed, it is still very important that we should seek to achieve that.
My Lords, I, too, add my warm thanks to the Ministers for the extremely gracious and thoughtful way in which they have responded to issues in this House. In particular, I thank the Minister for his willingness to spend some time meeting people personally to discuss their particular problems when he is an extremely busy man with a heavy ministerial list, as indeed is his colleague the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. I do not want to detain the House either, beyond thanking them very much and saying one other word following the noble Lord, Lord Williamson.
There are issues in the amendments that this House has passed which would improve the Bill very considerably. I hope that the Ministers will think quite carefully before trying to oppose them completely, because they would bring about a degree of consensus across the House that would be extremely valuable for our future relations with Europe, about which the Minister has already spoken eloquently. We welcome what he has said about that. I hope that the Government will take away from this at least a willingness to consider whether it might not improve the Bill to accept some of these amendments.
My Lords, we are on the edge, between being in order or out of order. Perhaps I might repeat my noble friend’s request that the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, might now care to withdraw his amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, rightly pointed out that we are edging away from Third Reading and into Bill do now pass. I therefore suggest that we allow my noble friend to move the Motion that the Bill do now pass.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I will say for the record that I am taking it from what he has said that we will not have a blinkered or blindfolded ping-pong on the basis of asserting the primacy of the House of Commons. I hope not to be disabused of this but, reflecting on what the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, has just said, I hope that these things will be considered very carefully. We are a mature democracy and there is a lot of mature thinking in this House. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I hope that your Lordships noticed that my noble friends and I withdrew a number of amendments in Committee and forbore to table any on Report or, again, at Third Reading. We did this to reduce by several hours the inordinate time it was taking for this Bill to pass through your Lordships' House, and so, with the leave of the House, I shall speak very briefly now on the Motion that this Bill do now pass.
The first thing I want to do, and it is not much fun, is to recall what I said at the start of my Second Reading speech on 22 March and now to regret that noble Lords in receipt of a forfeitable EU pension, with one honourable exception in the shape of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, did not declare that interest during our debates. As I said at Second Reading, it is not helpful to members of the public or those who read our debates if they are not told of noble Lords’ past experience of the subject under debate or where those noble Lords are coming from. That omission skews the whole tone and understanding of our debates, quite apart from anything else.
Although I and those noble Lords who feel as I do on this subject have received no support on this matter from your Lordships' nomenklatura, in the shape of our Committee for Privileges, I am grateful for the public support which we have now received in the national press: from this country’s leading and most amusing diarist, Mr Quentin Letts, on 26 March in the Daily Mail and from the political editor of the Mail on Sunday, Mr Simon Walters, on 19 June. For those who wish to go into the detail of this unfortunate situation, I again recommend my debate in your Lordships' House on 19 July 2007.
As we now look back over our debates and divisions on this Bill, the situation is even worse than a mere failure to declare such an obvious financial interest in debate. Three amendments were carried against this Bill—
In view of the importance of these matters, would the noble Lord also undertake to the House to work very hard indeed, since he is getting such support from the many owners of these newspapers, particularly the tabloids, who support his campaign against Europe, to ensure that they pay UK direct taxes as quickly as possible?
I am not sure that that intervention is entirely on target. I thought the noble Lord was going to berate us about the Murdoch press, and I do not think that the two newspapers to which I referred belong in the Murdoch stable. I am quite happy to collaborate with the noble Lord on that if he will collaborate with me on getting the BBC to fulfil its duty to explain to the British people how the European Union works.
I think I got as far as saying that three amendments were carried against this Bill which together emasculate it entirely and deny the British people any chance of a meaningful referendum on our relationship with the failing project of European integration, which they do not like.
The point I now want to make about those amendments is that they were largely proposed by noble Lords in receipt of a forfeitable EU pension, most of them undeclared, and they were all carried by the votes of noble Lords who did not declare their interest. I can but suggest that the Privileges Committee revisits this subject before the Bill returns from the Commons and does the obvious thing.
As the Bill now leaves us, there is one other regret that I would like to record. It is that the Government did not respond to a question about the background to this Bill which I put to them twice. The Government’s excuse, no doubt in their mind when they designed the Bill, may be that the Bill should not have allowed us to discuss the EU’s real defects: its common agricultural and fisheries policies, its wasteful and fraudulent use of vast sums of taxpayers’ money and its entirely undemocratic and secret law-making process which now controls so much of our lives. The question I put was this: given that even our political class is beginning to see that the euro was and is designed for disaster—
I think that the noble Lord will find that I have cleared this intervention with the usual channels, and I am sorry if he was not part of it.
I think I was saying that even the political class now realises that the euro has become the disaster—
Is the noble Lord seriously suggesting that the usual channels have agreed that he should say what he has been saying about people in this House who are in receipt of pensions from Europe? Is he seriously suggesting that that has been agreed by the usual channels? If not, will he withdraw it?
If any noble Lord wishes to move that I be no longer heard, I am quite happy to debate that, but in the mean time, I believe I did clear this. It may be that they did not have a meeting. I think I am entirely in order to express regrets about this Bill as it passes towards the House of Commons and to say why.
My Lords, I started my intervention with the leave of the House. If the noble Lord wishes to remove the leave of the House, he is free to do so, and we can debate whether or not I should be heard. I appreciate that noble and Europhile Lords do not wish to hear what I am saying, but unless it is moved against me, I intend to continue saying what I am saying.
So, for the third time, I was hoping that the political class has come to realise what a disaster the euro is. Many of us predicted it. It is a disaster which is being visited on the hapless people of Europe, now particularly Greece, but soon on other countries too.
Why cannot the Government see that the whole project of European integration is equally misguided and dangerous? Surely they must admit that the euro was never an economic project; it was a purely political project that was designed as cement to hold the emerging megastate together. Surely they must admit that that cement is proving to be more explosive than adhesive, so—I have put this question twice to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, during our proceedings—why cannot they lift their eyes just a little further than the euro and see that the project of European integration is fatally flawed and should be abandoned, which would make this Bill irrelevant?
Even the EU’s claims to have secured peace in Europe since 1945 are almost entirely spurious and wholly irrelevant today, so why cannot the Government and our political class see that democracy—
If the noble Lord will hold with me for another few seconds, I think that what I am saying is worth having on the record.
I was asking the Government why they cannot see that democracy is the only reliable guarantor of peace and long-term prosperity, and that the sooner we get back to a Europe of democratic nations, freely trading and collaborating together with all their powers returned to their national Parliaments, the better it will be for all the peoples of Europe and, indeed, of the rest of the world beyond. That is entirely in context with the passage of this Bill as it goes to the House of Commons, and as this is the third time I have asked the noble Lord, Lord Howell, the question, I would be grateful for his reply.
My Lords, I am very strongly advised that the custom of this House is that “the Bill do now pass” is intended to be a formal stage. That is what the Companion clearly says, so while I am always tempted perhaps outside this Chamber to engage with the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, who has just put his grand case against not only the entire Bill but the entire policy and this country’s commitment to be a positive force in Europe, as it has been for the past 1,000 years in many ways, and while I would love to explain to him that his view is defeatist and belongs to the past century and not the present one, I will resist doing so and instead repeat my grateful thanks for the kind compliments that have been paid by my noble friend and others.
Will the noble Lord, Lord Howell, join those of us who think that the contribution that has been made by those on all sides of the House, except the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, has been worth while? Will he also join me in resisting the animadversions that have been made about former commissioners, which are utterly untrue?
I am not going to enter into wider or controversial comments, because this is the stage of the Bill at which those would be inappropriate.
Finally, it is true, as the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, has observed, that your Lordships made some amendments to the Bill that we were unable to support from this side of the House. I have no doubt that the other place will consider those new provisions carefully, but overall the thrust, aims and intentions of this Bill are clear, despite some of the amendments that will obviously water it down. Our differences aside, your Lordships' House has engaged in its proper role of detailed scrutiny of this complex legislation and looked at this Bill with diligence. For that, I am grateful, and I repeat my proposal in the Motion that the Bill do now pass.
Bill passed and returned to the Commons with amendments.
Committee (2nd Day)
Relevant document: 15th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee.
Schedule 2 : New arrangements with respect to governance of English local authorities
34: Schedule 2, page 189, line 27, at beginning insert “Subject to receiving a proposal under sub-paragraph (5),”
My Lords, this group of amendments concerns governance issues, the part of the Bill to which we now move. The amendments deal with some of the regulations which the Bill empowers the Secretary of State to make. I have a vision of a group of civil servants in the subterranean depths of Eland House employed full time in drafting regulations on all manner of things, many of which we will encounter as the Bill progresses through Committee. In the interests of health and safety, if nothing else, of those who are so engaged and of local government, I suggest that the Government look again at the degree to which they are seeking to regulate.
The amendments relate to Schedule 2, page 189, and seek to limit the degree to which regulation will take place other than at the request of local authorities. Amendment 34 suggests that regulations should be made only if asked for by authorities. Amendment 35 would limit significantly the arrangements that the Government seek to make under these proposals and would ensure that any such arrangements are consistent with the principles of localism and the representative democracy which featured so largely in the initial debate on the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I beg to move.
My Lords, it might be helpful if I speak to my Amendment 37, which is in this group and relates to governance arrangements. I apologise for its rather dense language but it imitates the drafting style of the Bill and I was trying to be as accommodating as possible to the Government. The real issue here is about the relations between lower tier and higher tier authorities, and how we achieve localism where things are done to local people by higher tier authorities.
I have a very live example: before leaving for the House this morning, I received an extremely angry e-mail from a person in my ward asking, “Why on earth are you wasting my money moving bus stops on our high street?”. The answer is that I am not doing that. I have had meetings with TfL asking it not to move bus stops. But it is all being done by a higher tier authority within a lower tier authority without any open consultation with the people affected.
There are many other examples of this kind of thing, and I am sure it does not only go on between London boroughs and regional government—it probably goes on between lower tier authorities and county councils and, in some cases, parish councils. Another example would be the one I cited at Second Reading where, after consultation with local people, we proposed revised parking standards in a neighbourhood. Without holding any public consultation, we received a letter from a higher authority saying that the arrangements were not satisfactory and did not accord with its standards, and we were asked to change them.
I do not wish to unpick the constitutional arrangements between lower and higher tier authorities in this country, but I do not think that the Bill is very localist when it comes to London boroughs. Indeed, it strikingly fails to be localist in that respect. What I am really asking for in the amendment, although I do not expect my noble friend to agree to it at first bite nor do I necessarily want to add to the huge bible of regulation that is emerging from this Bill, is recognition of the important principle here. If we believe in localism, at the very least it should be open to the lower tier authority to be able to say to the higher tier authority, “If you are considering planning changes which specifically affect an area”, such as whether to have high-rise buildings in the centre of Twickenham, which happens to be a live issue in my authority, “meetings should be held by the higher tier authority to gauge the opinion of local people”. It might even be that we could ask officers to come and hold public meetings, or indeed have the right to require that that should happen.
At the moment there is no formal ability for a lower tier authority to act on behalf of its local residents to do what we would regard as absolutely normal in terms of explaining to residents what is going on. It is absolutely inconceivable, if we were planning to change the alignment of a high street in a village or small town centre, that that would be done without prior and detailed public consultation with local people. The purpose of the amendment is to give a lower tier authority such as my own, a London borough, but also those outside London, the ability to propose or suggest arrangements to the higher tier authority to ensure that it conducts itself in a proper, localist fashion in respect of matters that affect local people. I urge my noble friend to reflect on the issue being raised here.
My Lords, I have one amendment in the group and I shall speak to the others. I start by saying that we support the amendments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham. They form part of a recurring theme in our discussions on this Bill, which is that while the Government’s proposal is that localism should be more prevalent and that there should be more localism in authorities and among local people, it is being done within a highly prescribed framework and is subject to a large number of orders and regulations from the centre. In other words, it is top-down localism, not genuine localism. There is absolutely no reason at all why this amount of central control and prescription of local authorities should take place. It was not the case when I first became a councillor 40 years ago. We had nothing like this amount of central control when the new authorities were set up in 1973 and elected in 1974. It has crept in over the years from both Conservative and Labour Governments, and we are now getting more of it from the coalition.
There is an obsessive view, which I suspect comes mainly from civil servants at the centre in Whitehall, that local authorities cannot be trusted to get on and do things sensibly unless they are provided with thousands of pages of detailed rules telling them exactly how they should do them. It is inefficient, because it means that people cannot adjust things to what is sensible for their area. A huge amount of time and resources is wasted at the centre in putting all these documents together and getting agreement on them—it even wastes parliamentary time; and time is wasted in monitoring all the rules and regulations, with people having to account for the way in which they do things, and then in changing them all when things are not going right. It is a ridiculous way to carry on.
Surely now is the time, in a Bill called Localism, to call a halt to it. I have not counted the number of new rules and regulations that the Secretary of State may make. We are told that there are 142 sets of regulations and orders in the Bill, including statutory guidance and so on, that about half of them are new and that half simply restate existing provision. We ought not to be putting in most of the new regulations and we ought not to be restating the existing situation; we should be using this Bill to get rid of a large number of them. Some are necessary—nobody says that none is necessary—but the degree is ridiculous.
We agree with Amendments 34 and 35, and Amendment 36 is consequent in a strange sort of way on Amendment 34, so we are pleased to be helpful there. We agree with Amendment 38. In our view, the size of an executive in a council should be entirely up to the council, but if it has to be controlled, any changes made by order should apply only if the allowable size is increased and not reduced. The last time we discussed this, which I suspect was in 2007, under the relevant Bill of that year, we argued this case and met with resistance from the government Front Bench, which at that time was being manned by the Labour Party. Rules such as this are neither Labour, Conservative nor coalition; they are the rules of civil servants who want to keep their detailed central control over local authorities as far as they can possibly can.
I was very interested in the amendment spoken to be the noble Lord, Lord True. The problem that he indentified is widespread. The noble Lord talked about the situation in London, which I do not have direct experience of. I do have direct experience of the situation in Lancashire, which is typical of many two-tier shire counties. They are two-tier for very good reasons: county councils are much bigger and cover a much bigger area, and decisions are often taken a long way from where they are carried out. The degree of public information and consultation which takes place on all sorts of projects is far less than if it were being carried out by the district council. That is partly because decisions are often taken by officials or, if they are taken by councillors, it is not obvious to local people that they are being taken. There are many decisions. In my part of the country, Lancashire, most of the boroughs used to have substantial agency agreements with the county councils to do a lot of the highways work. Most of the local highways work was carried out by the districts. It was carried out in the normal way that district councils carry out their work. Open meetings are held; the local press attends them; they are reported in the local papers; and there are lots of councillors involved who tell people in their wards what is going on. That does not happen on county councils because of the much bigger scale of everything. I am not saying that they do not want to tell people; it is just the way the system works. Three or four years ago, Lancashire County Council decided in its wisdom to take back all these highways powers, and things nowadays are done much less openly and transparently. For people to find out what is being proposed, they have to look at public notices in local newspapers which are in six-point or eight-point type and are not the kind of thing that people tend to read every week.
So things have changed. Lancashire County Council knew that there was a problem and two or three years ago set up what they called Lancashire Locals, which were regular monthly meetings in each borough in the county at which a whole range of county council issues were debated and considered. In some cases, such as traffic regulation orders, those Lancashire Local meetings took the decisions. They consisted of half the local county councillors in each borough and an equivalent number of borough councillors; it is a genuine joint committee. It had decision-making powers, and even on matters where it was not making the decisions, such as building new youth centres, the reports were presented, the local press turned up and a lot of members of the public took part. I pay tribute to the Labour county council, as it was at the time, for introducing that. Unfortunately, when the Conservatives took over Lancashire County Council last year, they closed down the Lancashire Locals and it is now very difficult, even for people like me as a borough councillor who wants to keep in touch with what is happening in my part of the area, to find out what is going on. You can find out, but you have to spend a lot of time trawling websites and obscure agendas and so on. It really is quite difficult.
I am not sure that the wording of Councillor True’s amendment—I give him his higher title of the noble Lord, Lord True—is exactly the way to go but the spirit behind it we very strongly support. Amendment 37A, which is in my name, would give a local authority the power to choose whether, when it appoints its executive, it is done by an ex cathedra announcement by the leader of the council or whether, at the annual meeting of the council, it can do what councils have been doing for the past 10 years in most cases and decide itself who should be on the executive. There are arguments both ways. It should not be a matter for central prescription. Local authorities should simply be allowed to choose the way to do it. Having this variety will not cause the whole structure of local government to collapse. It would simply be one more relaxation of central legislative controls allowing local decisions to be made, which is surely what localism is all about.
My Lords, I have discussed with the Local Government Association and London Councils the central point which my noble friend Lord Greaves has referred to. This is a huge Bill and, as my noble friend has said, it is full of all sorts of prescriptive powers which tell local authorities what to do and how to behave.
I do not think that those who drew up most of the provisions of the Bill have taken on board what is meant by the general power of competence. We discussed this at the previous sitting of the Committee and a number of points were made. Local government bodies find themselves almost powerless to decide what should be excluded from the Bill or be written in far simpler terms to acknowledge that, with the general power of competence, they are perfectly capable of making up their minds as to how they wish to run their affairs.
I am not going to dwell on this subject—I certainly do not wish to take up a great deal of time—but I say to my noble friend that I find it disappointing that the opportunity has not been taken to accompany the general power of competence with a radical relook at how far central government has to prescribe so many detailed rules—either through taking powers by regulations or by spelling them out in the Bill—telling local authorities how to behave. In my discussions with, particularly, London Councils, it has simply said that it would be an entirely different kind of Bill if that were to happen. I have the greatest sympathy with its view that it is impossible to think how one might amend the Bill in order to achieve the inevitable consequence of giving local authorities a general power of competence. It is what the authorities have been clamouring for for a long time—and here it is. But what are the consequences? Whitehall is still going to tell them what to do and how to behave in very great detail. With all the additional regulations to which the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, and my noble friend Lord Greaves have referred, it will get ever more complex in giving directions.
It is very disappointing that we still have this mass of detailed, prescriptive legislation for local authorities which has entirely failed to take account of what is intended to be a genuine new start for them with a general power of competence. I do not think there is anything we can do about it in Parliament. We could say, “Take this Bill away, rewrite it and recognise the general power of competence”, but that option is not open to this House when the Bill has already been through another place.
I hope the Government will recognise that there is a deep sense of dismay. The more one looks at the details in the Bill, the more one has to ask oneself the question: where is the general power of competence? What was the Bill supposed to achieve if it was not to achieve the aim of letting local authorities use their position, their power and their accountability to their own electorates to make their own decisions on a great many matters?
I recognise that there may be cases—my noble friend Lord True made this point—where there is a need to protect one tier against another and where there needs to be some kind of protection for council tax payers and so on. However, as I plough through the Bill, look at the amendments and have meetings with a number of representative bodies, I am dismayed by the thought that we have to deal with a local government Bill—although it is called the Localism Bill—which bears such a close resemblance to everything that Parliament has had to consider before.
I shall not repeat this on every occasion—it would be a waste of the Committee’s time—but I feel quite strongly that a great opportunity has been missed.
My Lords, I associate myself strongly with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. I know from conversations that Ministers are gaining some private amusement from the number of times that local authorities are asking them when guidance will be issued. They are saying that local authorities cannot get hold of the idea of localism—that they will be allowed to do what they want to do and guidance will not be issued. The reason for this is that local government has for years and years become increasingly used to detailed guidance and regulations being issued. It has come to expect it and at times to require it. It will take a little time to adjust to a change of culture—if, indeed, there is one.
When Ministers had the good, original idea for what we now call the Localism Bill, it received a wide general welcome in outline across the board before the Bill was published—I stress, before the Bill was published. The idea of a Bill on the concept of localism—whatever we mean exactly by that, and we have had that debate—which devolved more power and responsibility to local authorities and enabled them to act and do things in the way that best suited them and their local conditions was of course going to be recognised. However, I suspect that as work on the Bill went on in ever more detail the usual risk aversion came into play, and those drafting the Bill looked increasingly at the dreadful fears of “what if” and “supposing that” and came up with a Bill which, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, and others have eloquently said, does anything but set local government free. It both prescribes and allows the Secretary of State to prescribe in extraordinary detail many of the things that local government has grown used to expecting. If we are to break that kind of dependency culture, which much of local government now has, we need a different approach from that contained in or allowed by much of the Bill.
My Lords, I support the amendment of my noble friend Lord True. In doing so, I declare an interest as a district councillor.
I should like to give the Government and the Minister an example. Norfolk County Council, which is the senior authority of my own district authority, tried to impose an incinerator in Norwich but found that it was unable to do so because of the unpopularity that this aroused and the fact that no one would sell it the land. Consequently it secretly bought a plot at Kings Lynn and said that it was going to stick an incinerator in there. My district council held a referendum which overwhelmingly rejected this suggestion. The local press has been continually complaining about it; there are meetings; there is massive objection to it. Despite this overwhelming unpopularity, Norfolk County Council is claiming to the Secretary of State that the proposition has universal local support.
I urge the Minister to consider the amendment of my noble friend Lord True because, plainly, there is often unhappiness—the example which I have given is not unique—about bullying by upper-tier authorities of lower-tier ones.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have taken part in this quite long debate on the amendment, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, on introducing it succinctly.
The Bill seeks to remove the current prescriptive and overly burdensome rules and procedures for local authority governance arrangements. I am not sure that I am quite on line with my noble friends behind me because, for instance, the Bill allows councils greater freedom to determine their governance arrangements. We have been asked to allow a committee system ever since the previous legislation, when it was arbitrarily removed by the previous Government. We accept that local authorities, as practitioners, are experts in the field of governance, and that most proposals for additional governance models will come from them.
Amendment 34, on the Secretary of State’s power in Schedule 2 to make regulations on this issue, fails to understand that ideas for new governance models may also come from other sources—from government, local government representatives or other bodies. There seems to be some sort of idea that everything has been forced on local authorities. We are not forcing them to do anything; they do not have to adopt the arrangements set out in these regulations for a committee system and can carry on as they are. These regulations—with the prospect of other, newer forms of governance; I cannot think what they are at the moment but there might be some—give them the opportunity to carry them out if they wish.
The restated conditions in Amendment 35 would do little if anything more than recast the existing provisions in the language of today, rather than the language of a decade ago. They are arguably less demanding, since the explicit requirement that the new arrangements must be an improvement on what is already there has been removed. However, it is hard to imagine prescribing a new arrangement unless it achieved something more than what was currently on offer. In short, I do not believe that these amendments would make a substantive difference in how the powers in this section might be operated.
Amendment 36 significantly weakens the conditions, apparently allowing new arrangements that did not provide for decision-taking in an efficient, transparent and accountable way. I am sure that no one would wish to see this. Certainly we do not.
Amendment 37, as the noble Lord, Lord True, said, is all about allowing a district council, for example, to make proposals for governance arrangements that would improve the accountability of the county council to the people of that district. I think that he also mentioned London boroughs as part of that. Effective collaboration between tiers, shared services and shared chief executives, which are coming about more and more, might all be effective ways of improving local governance. I am not certain that we need more central regulation to achieve this. I noted exactly what my noble friend Lord Howard said, that in his area that did not seem to operate. On the other hand, it is a mechanism that I would strongly recommend.
Amendment 37A would disempower local authority leaders by allowing authorities to resolve that the full council, rather than the leader, should appoint the members of the executive cabinet. I remember dealing with the previous local government legislation, where this was accepted as rather a good move, so I am not certain why we now want to get rid of it again.
I, too, remember the previous legislation, which brought in this new system. I do not know whether it was accepted as a good move, or by whom, but it was certainly not accepted as a good move by the Liberal Democrat Benches in this House, because we challenged it at the time. The point is that if it is such a good move, surely most authorities will continue to do it that way. But if we are talking about localism, why should they not have the choice?
My Lords, we believe that the leader and cabinet model is a good one. We also believe that the leader should be able to select those whom he wishes to have with him. It is a very close relationship, and it is very important that it works well. We think it right for a leader to be able to appoint his own executive team.
Amendment 38 would prevent the maximum size of an executive being set at a figure lower than 10 members. I accept that current experience with 10 members is about right, but I would not accept that future circumstances will be such that, while it might be right to increase the maximum limit of the size of an executive, it might not be right to have a lower limit. I think that that is what the noble Lord’s amendment suggests. Experience demonstrates that 10 is about the right number, and that a lower number may be too little and a higher number too much. Most of these cabinet systems are working quite well as they are. One might also point out that the more cabinet members you have, the more you have to pay. I hope that that resolves some of the questions.
I thank the Minister for her reply and thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for the support that he gave to some of the amendments. In relation to Amendment 37A, in practice there would be little advantage in going along that route. It would be a foolish leader who endeavoured to appoint an executive without the support of his colleagues. He would not last long in leadership, I suspect. In reality, I do not think that this particular provision is required.
On Amendment 38, however, the Minister rather skates over the implications of the Bill as it presently stands. I cannot see any reason why the determination of the size of the executive should not be entirely at the discretion of the local authority. At the very least, it would be wrong to leave the Secretary of State with power arbitrarily to reduce the size of the executive to, potentially, one or two members. Generally speaking, 10 is about the right figure; in the case of my own authority and that of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, the new administration has actually reduced the number of cabinet members, to use the phrase adopted, from 10 to six. That is legitimate and a matter of decision for the authority. In my submission, it would not be legitimate for the Secretary of State to prescribe that. Given the increasing spread of responsibilities, the partnership arrangements that now exist and the structures that now surround local government, it may well be creating an onerous burden on members of executives if their numbers were to be confined. I hope that the Government look again at this really rather purposeless provision.
The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, raised the question of principle, which it may be as well that we dispose of today. He asks very legitimately where the power of general competence is in all this. I had the pleasure of working with, or perhaps beneath, the noble Lord when he was Secretary of State for the Environment and chaired the Inner City Partnership committee in Newcastle. He was always clearly committed to local government. The problem is not so much around the concept of general competence as that the Bill, or much of it, rests on an assumption—certainly on the part of civil servants, and perhaps of Ministers of all Administrations—of general incompetence in local government and those who serve in it. I fear that that suspicion lies behind many of the manifold provisions in the Bill which purport to increase the degree of regulation that the Secretary of State can impose, if he sees fit. I hope that on reflection, as we go through the Bill, the Minister and her noble friends will think again about the degree to which they are taking upon themselves a burden that is effectively unnecessary. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 34 withdrawn.
Amendments 35 and 36 not moved.
37: Schedule 2, page 190, line 10, at end insert—
“(6A) A lower tier authority may propose to the Secretary of State that the Secretary of State make regulations prescribing arrangements specified in the proposal if the authority considers that, in addition to the conditions in subsection (5), the arrangements would lead to the increased local accountability of the higher tier authority to residents of the lower tier authority’s area and improve the ability of local residents to influence or participate in decisions affecting their locality.
(6B) No proposal under subsection (6A) may involve the duplication or repeating of meetings, but may propose that the higher tier authority, or a body established by that authority, or its responsible officers should meet or publish details of its meetings relating to matters specifically affecting people within the lower authority’s area within the lower tier authority’s area.”
I would like to move the amendment. My point is twofold. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, others and I were grateful for the support that was given in the earlier discussion. I think that it underlined the point that decisions are not localist in the way that, in my submission, they should be. We need not have regulations of the kind that I am suggesting might be considered if the lower-tier authority were simply prepared to decide where a bus stop should be on its high street. If the Government wish in their reflections on the Bill to come forward with proposals to localise those decisions then, in the spirit of what my noble friend Lord Jenkin said, I would welcome that. Since I do not anticipate that, though, I am asking my noble friend to consider, before we get to Report, the relationship between the lower-tier and higher-tier authorities.
The problem with the Bill as it is now framed, as I read it, is that a local authority may make propositions to the Secretary of State about regulations prescribing arrangements concerning its own procedures but not regarding arrangements relating to another authority’s procedures that affect activity in its own area. I may be wrong in reading the Bill in that way; if so, at this or a later stage my noble friend may be able to enlighten me. As I read it, though, this great Localism Bill, the principle of which we all support, does not give lower-tier authorities the opportunity to suggest that their own people be addressed in a more localist manner by higher authorities.
I regret if I have not been succinct in making this point, but I urge my noble friend and those advising her to consider it seriously. Our daily experience—my noble friends Lord Greaves and Lord Howard of Rising have given examples—show that these matters affect people in their daily lives. As our consideration of the Bill continues, I urge my noble friend to think further and to come back on this matter at a later stage.
My Lords, I think that the slight difficulty arose because the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, got up to speak before I had a chance to get in. I apologise for not speaking before he wound up on his amendment.
I come with no practical hands-on experience in local government but I want to reinforce the points that my noble friend is trying to make. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said that there was widespread frustration, as indeed there is, from parish level up to district level and beyond. I hope that the Bill will in some way resolve some of the difficulties that my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding spoke about. We have a great opportunity to try to simplify things and ensure that local communities can act in a manner that is in their own best interests. If we are promoting much more involvement of local communities through the big society, it seems a shame if the Bill is not going to ease some of the situations that different tiers currently find themselves in. I hope that my noble friend will have a chance to reflect on this. If the wording is not right—often it is not exactly what the Government of the day wish—it is the thrust of the amendment that is important. It is trying to ensure that local authorities and local tiers take on that responsibility and do so in the proper, accepted manner. It is also trying to ensure that, where there are disagreements, there should be discussions between the tiers, whichever tiers they happen to be. I commend my noble friend’s amendment.
My Lords, listening to this discussion, I am prompted to remind the House that in 1994 the then Conservative Government established an ad hoc Select Committee of the House of Lords to reveal the relationship between central and local government. I was privileged to be a member of that committee. We took a great deal of evidence at the time from local authorities, government officials and Ministers to review whether the top-down control of local government was in everyone’s interests. The recommendations that we came up with looked closely at the establishment of the cabinet system and the establishment of mayors, and we looked at how local government should not necessarily be thought of, as it was then by central government, to be all the same.
We recommended in our report—it is a long time since I have looked at it—that we should see local government evolving as it was decided by the local community rather than by the centre. I remember that we were struck, when we took evidence from the principal secretaries of the departments, by the fact that they were anxious to see uniformity within local government and not to allow local people to establish different ways of governing as it suited them—indeed, they were anxious to prevent that. That applied to planning, development and local government’s relationship with all sorts of services.
When I first saw the detail of the Localism Bill, I thought that it was another step forward in accepting the recommendations that we had made and that it gave an opportunity to local government to be different and respond to what local people needed rather than to what central government needed. However, I am rather concerned, from the way that this argument is going, that the views expressed in the Bill are not going to provide the freedom that we recommended way back in 1994. Many of those recommendations have now been accepted by central government, but I feel that this might be a step backwards rather than forwards.
I think that I replied earlier because I had not realised that other people were going to take part in this. I hear what is being said by my noble friends Lord True, Lord Howard, Lord Jenkin and now Lord Wade. When we look at the measures in the Bill, I think that most of them will turn out to be liberating for local government. It gives them a general power of competence and greater flexibility in what they can do. On some of the areas that we are legislating about now, we think that it is appropriate that there should be some regulations about how things should be done.
I worry a bit about my noble friend Lord True’s amendment. It asks the Secretary of State to prescribe a route along which the noble Lord and others have been telling us that we should not be going on any other matter, so it does not quite follow. I think that we have discussed across the Chamber before that there are not always good relations between the three tiers of government, particularly if you start with a parish council, but I am not sure that that poor relationship is something that this Government should try to prescribe a route through.
There are many changes taking place in the way in which local government is run. Many new arrangements are having to be made, as I said earlier, about management, about sharing chief executives across councils and districts and about sharing services, all of which ought to make it much easier for local government to avoid the elephant traps that my noble friend is talking about. In the light of the concern that there is, I will reflect on this issue before the next stage. I do not think that I would hold my breath that we will be able to accept my noble friend’s amendments, but I certainly hear the sentiments that have been expressed in the House today.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for the final part of her response. I take some hope and encouragement from that. I hope that she will reflect on the matter; I certainly will. I had no expectation that my amendment was going to be a perfectly framed answer on this subject. However, I earnestly submit that there is a strong localist argument behind this point. I am content to withdraw my modest localising amendment if perhaps at a later stage the Government might return to me with the withdrawal of some of their rather immodest centralising proposals. I thank my noble friend for her response and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 37 withdrawn.
Amendments 37A and 38 not moved.
39: Schedule 2, page 194, leave out lines 10 to 19 and insert—
“(1) A local authority that is operating executive arrangements, an executive of such an authority or a committee or specified member of such an executive may arrange for the discharge of any functions which, under executive arrangements, are the responsibility of the executive by an area committee of that authority.
(2) Arrangements for the discharge of executive functions to an area committee made under this section are without prejudice to any other allocation of functions to such an area committee that the local authority may make.”
My Lords, Amendment 39 is the most important amendment in this group about area committees. It seeks to remove most of the central prescription about area committees and how they should work. I will also speak to Amendments 41 and 42 in my name, and comment on the two Labour amendments in the group when I respond.
A theme is developing in the discussions this afternoon. The Bill merely restates the existing provision in the new Section 9EA of the Local Government Act 2000:
“The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision for or in connection with enabling an executive of a local authority, or a committee or specified member of such an executive, to arrange for the discharge of any functions which, under executive arrangements, are the responsibility of the executive by an area committee of that authority.
(2) Regulations under this section may impose limitations or restrictions on the arrangements which may be made by virtue of the regulations (including limitations or restrictions on the functions which may be the subject of such arrangements)”.
Why is this necessary? Why are local authorities thought to be so stupid that, even though they decide to set up area committees, of which I am a huge fan, they cannot be trusted to do it in a sensible way? Why can they not be trusted to take advantage of best practice in other places? Why can they not be trusted to listen to what people advise, wherever that advice comes from, and do what is most sensible in the circumstances? Why do they have to do it in the way laid down in detail in Whitehall?
I agreed entirely with the Minister when she said in her response to the first group that ideas come from sources other than local authorities. That is absolutely true. Ideas come from all over the place. Good ideas even come from national government and Whitehall. Local authorities can be expected to take account of those, to listen and do what is sensible. Back in 1974 when the new authorities were set up, it was generally thought that the way councils had operated before then was not very efficient and there needed to be changes. The Government set up a committee and the Baines report was produced as a result. It was almost universally accepted by local government throughout the country. It set up policy and resources committees, which were the big new idea of the time, with personnel and finance sub-committees and so on. The idea was that the operation of local authorities would be brought together in a more coherent, co-operative and corporate way, rather than each department of the authority operating in what people would nowadays call its own “silo”. That still happens in some authorities, but it was an attempt to bring it together, just as the idea of executives was an attempt to bring it together.
However, that was not prescribed in regulations. It was published and we all had a copy of it; no doubt some noble Lords still have a copy languishing on their shelf. People adopted it because it was common sense. It was put forward in a sensible, practical way. It was a way forward. Most authorities did not need telling to do it, we just did it because it was sensible. In those days, central government and whichever department it was—the Department of the Environment, or whatever—people trusted local authorities to do sensible things on the basis of evidence published and provided, and to make modifications according to their local circumstances. Why can that not happen now simply in providing area committees?
My Amendments 41 and 42 actually contradict everything that I am saying. I tabled them merely to make a point; I would not wish to pursue them, because I am trying to be far too prescriptive. As a member of an area committee in Colne & District in Pendle, and the first chairman of that area committee when it was set up getting on for two decades ago—the best job I ever did in local government—my only point is that a good area committee consists of all the councillors in their area. That’s what gives it its unique character. Councils have got to accept that some area committees will be controlled by political parties other than that in control of the central council, or none. That is what it is all about: diversity and people on the ground being able to take decisions. Certainly, in our area committee, we take executive decisions. We are also the planning committee for the area and do lots of other things as well. Area committees are wonderful things. However, I would not want to make central prescription about them. I would not want to force councils to have area committees. They may not be appropriate at all in compact urban areas.
Finally, in responding to the first group, in saying that the Government held a view as to the best way forward for executive appointments, the Minister said that they believed it was the best thing to do. I believe all sorts of things. Members of this Committee will believe all sorts of things. The essential point about localism is that you can believe all sorts of things, but you do not impose your beliefs unless they are so fundamental that they have to be followed through. A lot of the things we are talking about now, including how area committees are set up, are not so fundamental that the Government should say that they believe something and everybody therefore has to do it. The Government ought to say “We recommend that this is the best way to do it, but do it how you think best in your area”. I beg to move.
I must inform your Lordships that if Amendment 39 is agreed to I cannot call Amendment 40 by reason of pre-emption.
My Lords, I speak to Amendments 40 and 43 and, in doing so, endorse very much what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has said. This is another example of what Tony Blair might have described as “regulation, regulation, regulation”. It is certainly well over the top. In particular, new Section 9EA(2) of the Local Government Act 2000, which he read out, is as classic a piece of Civil Service gobbledegook as I have seen for some time. I guess that, as I go through the Bill, there would be further examples.
Amendment 40 would delete that clause, and Amendment 43 would deal with the prescription as to the size to be covered by an area committee, limiting it to two-fifths. In principle, I would like to see that matter left entirely to the discretion of local authorities. However, if the Government were not disposed to take that view, my amendment would reduce the size of the committee to something which is less like half the total size of an authority and more like what most of us would regard as a manageable area in which it is possible to reflect the views of local communities and members. If the Government wish to have some guideline on this, I invite the Minister to opt for something lower than the proportion indicated in subsection (5) as it now stands.
My Lords, briefly, I support my noble friend Lord Greaves. He certainly has more experience of rural areas than I do, but I speak from the perspective of what he referred to as a “compact urban area” or, more accurately, a suburban area: a fairly small—in terms of area—London borough. We have six local committees on the council as a whole. There are 43 Liberal Democrat councillors and only 11 Conservative councillors. However, because of the political demography, one of those six local committees is still controlled by a Conservative majority.
Each of those local committees has limited executive powers, which we hope will be extended further, and each operates in quite different ways, partly because of the councillors on them and the way in which they choose to react, and partly, and more particularly, because of the nature of the areas that they represent. All of the councillors for those areas are members of those local committees, to a varying extent, and the local residents in those areas come to those meetings certainly to a far greater extent than they attend meetings of our executive. They take part in those committees and, to varying extents, they feel that they are part of the deliberations.
As a council we have not felt it necessary to prescribe in great detail what each of those local committees shall, or shall not, do or how they will, or will not, behave. They behave sensibly, even the one run by the Conservatives behaves moderately sensibly. We demonstrate, in a very obvious way, the difference between a Conservative-run committee and a Liberal Democrat-run committee. That is what democracy is about; it is what we ought to be doing. As a council, we have not felt the need to prescribe it, nor have we ever thought that we should have prescribed it. I commend to the Government the fact that they too should trust local authorities in this case, as we trust local committees.
My Lords, I commend the reply of the Minister on this group of amendments. I advise her to use that exact wording for every group of amendments that we put forward throughout the rest of the Bill; however, I do not say that very optimistically. There are clearly some discussions to be had.
I would just like to respond to the amendments spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, and particularly to Amendment 43, which I disagree with fundamentally. In a sense, the amendment reflects the diversity and variety of local government and the representation of local government in your Lordships' House and in this Committee. It is a big-city view, a view of big authorities: in a big city, an area committee of 40 per cent would, in almost any conceivable situation, be ridiculous. However, that is not necessarily the case in smaller authorities.
Perhaps I can tell the Committee the position in my own authority in Pendle. We have five area committees and they range from 32 per cent—these figures are based on mid-year population estimates for 2008—down to 10.7 per cent. The 32 per cent is for the town of Nelson, which has an estimated population of 28,745, which, by big-city standards, is not excessive—it might be just two wards or one and a half wards in some big cities. It would be ridiculous to split Nelson because it is a community with a town centre. You walk from the middle of the town centre and you get to the edge of the town and Nelson stops and you are in the countryside and into smaller communities. I believe that the figure of 40 per cent is right. Quite clearly, there needs to be sensible reflection on the basis of local knowledge in a particular area.
The noble Lord knows that I agree with him on that. It should be left to the good sense of local authorities. It is difficult to see a situation in which you would want a system of area committees where one area committee was more than half, but there might be such circumstances. There might be a district authority with a large town that is surrounded by a constellation of smaller communities. That would be the sensible way to do it. I believe that if it is left to sensible local discretion, the areas will be based on the real communities that exist there in the best possible way they can be defined on a sensible working basis.
I thank the Minister for her interesting reply on Amendment 39 and I look forward to discussions on it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 39 withdrawn.
Amendments 40 to 43 not moved.
44: Schedule 2, page 195, line 13, leave out “, in particular,”
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 84DA in the same group, which stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Hamwee. My noble friend would certainly have wished to move this amendment but, unfortunately, she cannot be here. It is suggested to us by the Centre for Public Scrutiny, on whose advisory body she serves, and it follows a theme of today's discussion in Committee. The effect of Amendment 84DA is to remove the right of the Secretary of State to make detailed guidance on scrutiny issues. It would remove the statutory force from existing guidance that the department has produced but, of course, local authorities would still be able to use that existing guidance to get some idea of the legislative intent of Parliament.
The centre believes, and I certainly agree with it very strongly, that the maximum possible discretion should be given to local authorities about how they operate their scrutiny function, with primary legislation providing general enabling powers which are interpreted intelligently by councils, councillors and their officers. Scrutiny is a member-led function and, therefore, it seems inappropriate that Government should provide detailed prescription of its operation. That is the same theme with which we have been dealing all day today and I suspect that we shall continue to do so through much of this Bill.
Where a specific need for guidance is identified, advisory information can be developed by the sector which can incorporate the views of the Government but which would be prepared independently and based on the needs and interests of local authorities and their residents. The justification for omitting this paragraph on guidance is a combination of practical reasons and reasons of principle. I beg to move.
My Lords, I do not wish to prolong proceedings, but I have not had an opportunity to say how much I agree with the general thrust of many of the things that are being said. It may be that, at a later stage, it will be possible, through Amendment 84DA, to leave out a “must” and put in a “may”. Those who advise the Secretary of State, and who have the pleasure of writing all sorts of guidance for local authorities, could continue to do so and we could pay due respect to the importance of that guidance and to guidance that came from other sources. Then perhaps everyone would be delighted and a little localism might reign.
My Lords, we are back again to the same arguments that we had on the previous amendment on area committees. It relies on the regulations. I thank my noble friend Lord True for suggesting a way in which amendments might come. I think we need to look carefully at what has been said. Perhaps I need to review this before the next stage to see whether anything needs to be done about these provisions.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that very helpful response. We are now into the realm of guidance. It seems to me that guidance is a more acceptable face of regulation—or its better looking twin, as it were—but there is a little bit too much of that as well in the Bill. Matters like this can perfectly sensibly be left to individual local authorities and the guidance that other bodies, such as the Local Government Association, would be prepared to offer. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. As we go through the Bill, I think there will be many examples where all sides of the House would wish to see precisely that accommodating attitude reflected so that we do not end up on Report with many detailed amendments which should not be dividing us at all.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for what I interpret as a very positive response. I am sure that we will discuss further how we can best approach this subject and I am sure that the Centre for Public Scrutiny would be pleased to engage in that. As I say, the theme that has run through our discussion today is the necessity to have more control and influence over what local authorities do and the extent to which they should be enabled to have the freedom that the Bill purports to give them. There is a distinction between guidance which has statutory force and disseminating good practice, which good local authorities would be well advised to adopt but should not be required by statute to do so. I hope that when we come to the next stage of the Bill we will be able to reflect that in a more appropriate way. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 44 withdrawn.
45: Schedule 2, page 198, line 6, at end insert “and shall be chaired by a member of the largest opposition group on the authority”
My Lords, this group of amendments relates to scrutiny. In my view, scrutiny is best achieved by a committee system. A committee system is better at delivering good decisions than a scrutiny system which scrutinises those decisions after they have been made. In other words, you scrutinise as you go.
This is a probing amendment. As we do not have a voting system for local government in England based on proportional representation, some councils can have very large majorities held by one party. This may not be reflected in the votes that were cast but is very often reflected in the number of seats that are won. Good scrutiny requires constant challenge. Scrutiny committees are proportional in their overall membership but it would be advantageous for them to be chaired by a member of the authority’s largest opposition party.
Members of your Lordships' House are aware that I am a councillor in Newcastle upon Tyne. In 2004, when my party took control of Newcastle City Council, we altered the system to ensure that the Labour opposition chaired all our scrutiny committees. I am pleased to say that this year, when control of Newcastle reverted—temporarily, at least—to the Labour Party, chairmanship of the scrutiny committees passed to the Liberal Democrat opposition. Public scrutiny and public confidence in the system of local government would be improved if scrutiny committees were chaired by opposition councillors. That does not mean that a scrutiny committee has to be proportional in any regard other than the number of seats held by each party. However, public confidence in the system would be improved if the person constructing the agendas was an elected councillor of a party other than the one that was in control of the council. I beg to move.
My Lords, I understand where the noble Lord is coming from but there are obvious difficulties with the amendment quite apart from whether or not it is tending towards prescription. For example, I recall a not very happy election in 1986 when I was one of three members of my party on our local authority—
It may have been for others. I did not know that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, was there. In those circumstances, had there been a scrutiny system with four scrutiny committees, under this amendment a member of the opposition would have found himself or herself chairing two scrutiny committees. The principle behind the amendment is a good one but in practice it simply would not work. In my humble view, the so-called “cabinet” system that was imposed on us by the previous Administration has tended, as many of us involved in local government know, to create a potential gulf between the executive members and the back-bench members of the governing party and local authorities have had to work against that all the time. It is vital that back-bench members of the governing party have full involvement—often very sceptical involvement—in the operation of the authority. It is desirable that they should also be given the opportunity to take a leading role in challenging the authority and scrutinising it. This is often the case in many authorities that I know and have visited. It would be outrageous for the opposition party to be excluded from chairing scrutiny committees but equally, as well as being impractical in certain circumstances, it would be undesirable to exclude the back-bench members of a governing party from being involved in taking executive decisions and playing a leading role in scrutiny. Therefore, I am afraid that I cannot support my noble friend’s amendment.
My Lords, I begin by paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and his colleagues for changing the system that we operated in Newcastle when they took office in 2004. I will let the noble Lord and your Lordships into the secret that prior to that date I had tried to persuade my colleagues at least to emulate the system in another place of a balance of chairmanship of such committees, but with my usual lack of cogency I failed to persuade them at that time. However, they have now been converted by the noble Lord and his colleagues, so things move on.
I entirely accept what the noble Lord, Lord True, has said about the impracticality of the suggestion behind the amendment. I can give a better justification. The borough of Newham has 60 Labour members and no opposition members at all—or at least no overt opposition members—so clearly the amendment would not work there. The Labour Party advice about scrutiny committees is that the relevant duty should be shared. That is national Labour Party advice and I hope that the same is true of other political parties as well. It would make a great deal of sense.
If I differ from the noble Lord it is because, as has rather often been the case, he has tended to view scrutiny as something retrospective and as a case of holding an executive to account for decisions that it has made or is about to make. That is part of the job but it overlooks the forward programming of an authority and the development of policy. One of the great advantages of properly resourced scrutiny is that it allows members to develop policy free of the operation of the whip, which should not apply in scrutiny.
After 24 years chairing committees and leading a council, I was eventually voluntarily dispatched to my Siberian power station; that is, the arts and recreation committee in Newcastle. I found that being a back-bencher was very different from chairing a meeting. As the chairman of a meeting, you had an agenda and if you were any good at it you knew what you wanted, you had a discussion and you got it through. In Newcastle’s case I would have a pre-meeting with 15 Labour members for an hour. That represents an average of four minutes each. The dialogue was not Socratic in its nature. It was not the highest level of political debate and many members were simply concerned to get through the meeting as quickly as possible. By contrast, scrutiny actually allows people to think. Some people found the transition to be rather difficult, but it is welcome.
The whole thing can be summarised for me by my moment of revelation, which came when, having missed a meeting, I went to a meeting of the arts and recreation committee—a very worthy committee with a big agenda —and I read in a minute that a member had raised the question of birds eating grass seed on the Leazes Park allotment. I thought, “Has it really come to this? This is not really an effective way of running things”. I therefore support in principle the executive scrutiny split, provided that scrutiny is adequately resourced.
Subject to those reservations, I generally support scrutiny. I will refer briefly to Amendment 48 in this group relating to new Section 9FC and the guidance being proffered. New subsection (3) states that in exercising the power to refer matters to a scrutiny committee,
“the member must have regard to any guidance for the time being issued by the Secretary of State”.
The notion that 20,000 councillors are going to consult the bible on scrutiny issued by Eland House before they are able to refer something is, frankly, ridiculous. I anticipate that the Minister will acknowledge that this could be excised from the Bill without damage. I invite her so to indicate.
My Lords, I am sure that we will all forgive the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, for paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Shipley. It was a well deserved tribute. Perhaps I may also help him with the problem he enunciated about the London Borough of Newham. Of course, it would make it very much easier for Newham to implement my noble friend’s proposals were we to have proportional representation in local government. For the past 25 years, the first past the post system in local government has very ill served the Conservative Party; it has, throughout pretty well all those 25 years, been most unjustly served by our current electoral system. None of that was what I intended to say. In fact, I rose to speak to Amendment 46 and 47 in this group. My noble friend Lord Greaves will speak to Amendments 49 and 49C.
Amendment 46 is self-explanatory. Its provisions recognise the reality of a situation that in many authorities it is not a single officer who alone has the scrutiny function. That person will inevitably, in most cases, need other officers in the discharge of those functions. That speaks for itself and my amendment is a better way to reflect reality in most authorities.
Amendment 47 is rather more serious. Its purpose, if we are to have this part of the Bill, is that the scrutiny provisions should apply also to district councils. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Greaves has far greater experience. I have no experience of district councils because I am in an inner London borough. I know of no reason why—albeit with lesser functions—district councils should not be treated in exactly the same way as all other local authorities of whatever type in the country, as far as the scrutiny function is concerned. That is why Amendment 47 seeks to remove from the Bill the new subsection that excludes district councils from these provisions.
My Lords, I speak to Amendments 49 and 49C, and I support the comments of my noble friend Lord Tope about district councils. Whether the prescription on scrutiny should exist is a matter for discussion. If it should, then it should apply to district councils as well as to everyone else.
There is a view across parts of the legislation that was brought in 10 years ago that district councils’ overview and scrutiny functions are in some way less important than those of bigger councils. However, for some of the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord True, talked about earlier, because district councils are smaller councils and there are more councillors per elector—often a lot more—scrutiny of local services generally, as well as of their own services, is something that they can do very well indeed.
That leads me to Amendment 49, which removes more classic words. The new subsection states that an “excluded matter”, which I shall describe in a minute,
“means any matter which is … a matter of any description specified in an order made by the Secretary of State for the purposes of this section”.
What major national imperative is there that the Secretary of State should make an order excluding matters from discussion? The matters to be discussed are defined as “local government” matters. This exclusion allows the Secretary of State to produce a list of things that the Secretary of State says are not local government matters and, therefore, under this new section, cannot be referred to an overview and scrutiny committee by a member of the council. This is silly.
I do not know what other provision we are using to do it, or if we are just doing it, but my council has decided on and is getting on with scrutiny of part of the local health service within east Lancashire. It provides a vital service that is not provided by the local authority, although it has some limited influence and joint schemes. However, the local authority is performing some scrutiny. Clearly, it will have to do it with the co-operation of those parts of the health service that are being scrutinised, but that can take place. It may or may not be a local government matter. I do not know whether the Secretary of State wants to exclude it under this provision, but it is the sort of situation in which you should let the local authority get on and do what it wants to do in the interests of the people in the area.
The purpose of the second amendment, Amendment 49C, is probing. It refers to new Section 9FF(1)(b) on page 202 of this compendium Bill and to recommendations relating,
“to a local improvement target which … relates to a relevant partner authority, and … is specified in a local area agreement of the authority”.
I have never really understood local area agreements or got too involved in them, but my impression was that this Government were scaling back on the importance of such agreements and perhaps were looking to abolish them. Perhaps the Minister can tell me where we stand on that.
My Lords, I shall start by saying that I recognise a lot of what I have heard from noble Lords regarding how councils operate. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, would make it compulsory for scrutiny committees to be chaired by the leader of the opposition party on a council. This amendment is unnecessary. I know of many councils that do precisely that, whereby a leader or senior member of the opposition party chairs review and scrutiny meetings. That is absolutely proper, but such a provision does not need to be couched in either guidance or legislation. As the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, pointed out, there may be some areas where there are no opposition members, but the amendment would make such a provision mandatory. There are some areas where all members are Conservatives and the issue is the same. I hope that from the tenor of the debate noble Lords will agree that such a provision is neither appropriate nor necessary, and that we should not return to it. The annual scrutiny survey, which, I must say, I did not know existed, shows an upward trend, with 42 per cent of authorities allocating scrutiny chairs to members outside the majority group. This idea is clearly taking off well enough, without any interference from Parliament.
Amendments 46 and 47 would change the arrangements on designated scrutiny officers, particularly to make it clear that a designated officer could lead other officers in the discharge of scrutiny functions, as well as requiring district councils in two-tier areas to designate a scrutiny officer. Again, the amendments proposed are not necessary. Of course, we envisage that scrutiny will involve a number of officers to support a scrutiny committee. That already happens, it is part and parcel of the way scrutiny committees are run, and indeed in some councils they are completely separate from the rest of the administration so that they are completely independent. It is unimaginable that one scrutiny officer could not appoint somebody to help him. It is certainly not necessary to make that mandatory because I am quite certain that in most local authorities that is precisely what happens. There is nothing to prevent a district council in a two-tier area designating a scrutiny officer but statute does not require this. Noble Lords have made the point that district councils perhaps do not have quite such onerous responsibilities as county councils and therefore it is not mandatory for them to have a designated officer, although of course if they choose to have one they can. That is perfectly in order.
Amendments 48 and 49 remove the requirement on members to have regard to the guidance and the regulation-making powers of the Secretary of State in relation to referral of matters to a scrutiny committee. These powers enable the Secretary of State to ensure that certain important safeguards are in place. Regulations made under the power that noble Lords are seeking to remove protect against vexatious or discriminatory matters from being placed on the scrutiny committee meeting agenda. They also exclude matters for which there are already statutory processes and rights of appeal, such as planning and licence decisions or matters relating to an individual. It is not unreasonable that those matters should be placed before scrutiny committees in the course of their business.
We believe that the existing framework is working pretty well without removing the requirement for scrutiny committees to make reports and recommendations relating to partner authorities and local area agreements. Having said that, I have some sympathy with Amendment 49C, which is seeking to remove the link between local improvement targets and local area agreements—that might indeed become otiose. We are absolutely clear that where authorities operate executive governance arrangements, scrutiny arrangements must be in place. We recognise that scrutiny plays an important role in holding the executive to account and contributing to policy development in authorities. I certainly support what the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, says—that overview and scrutiny committees, like planning committees, should not be whipped. They are clearly committees where scrutiny and challenge should take place and that should not be done against a background of being told what to do.
Amendment 69 would make it mandatory for councils with committee systems to have an overview and scrutiny committee. That is not necessary. The committee system in itself should have a scrutiny role and always did in the past—that was one of the benefits of the committee system. Therefore, that amendment is not necessary.
With the various explanations and assurances I have given, I hope that noble Lords will not press their amendments.
I am grateful to the Minister for her response. In relation to Amendment 69, which I did not address before, scrutiny ought not to be just a matter of looking at the internal workings and policies of the council itself. It should be used, and in many cases is being used, as the noble Lord, Lord Tope, mentioned, to look beyond what other organisations are doing—or not doing, more to the point—in the locality beyond the statutory requirements, for example, that would apply to the health service for authorities with adult service responsibilities. The amendment does not quite address the issue in the terms that perhaps it should have done but I would welcome some encouragement from the Minister for authorities which do not necessarily have a scrutiny committee to use their own committee system for that purpose, and to encourage those to whom application is made for some explanation of what they are doing in a locality to respond as if this were a request from a scrutiny committee. It would be helpful if Ministers said something to support such activity on the part of councils, particularly district councils, which perhaps do not have a full-blown scrutiny process but which may seek to follow the example of other authorities which do have that process to explore the workings of organisations, be they public sector or private sector, and the impact they have on their community.
There is quite a lot of common sense in what the noble Lord has said. I am not going to make any commitments but I would like to talk to the noble Lord before the next stage because I accept that things have changed a lot since the previous committee system was in place, not least partnership working and working across public bodies. It may be that as part of the committee system we at least ought to give tacit acknowledgement to the fact that there may be joint issues they need to discuss. I am not sure whether that needs to be a full scrutiny role or whether it should simply be that the local health authority, or whatever it is, turns up if invited by the committee. Perhaps the noble Lord and I could discuss that before the next stage.
My Lords, the Minister said that there might need to be some modification in relation to local improvement targets and local area agreements. Perhaps she could write and tell me exactly where we are with these now, what their status is and what the Government’s intentions are.
My Lords, before I formally withdraw my amendment, I would like to make two brief points. First, I agree entirely with my noble friend Lord True that in scrutiny there has to be a clear role for back-benchers, particularly those of the controlling party, but there can of course be vice-chairs, and that system works well. Secondly, I hope that the Minister is right that legislation here is unnecessary and will simply bear in mind my amendment should it prove not to be the case. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 45 withdrawn.
45A: Schedule 2, page 199, leave out lines 1 to 7
My Lords, in moving Amendment 45A I will attempt to speak to the other 31 amendments in this group. I feel sure that your Lordships will be grateful if I do not list each of those 31 amendments to which I am speaking.
These amendments have come from the Centre for Public Scrutiny and would have been spoken to far more eloquently by my noble friend Lady Hamwee, who serves on its advisory board. I shall endeavour to cover them myself. I share the centre’s concern that in some places scrutiny has got a rather bad name. As the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, said earlier, this is partly because it is seen as simply a post-hoc thing, looking back at what was done and might have been done differently rather than as part of a policy development framework, and also because of some of the effects of the rather strict executive/scrutiny split that we have had for the last 10 or 11 years.
Success in scrutiny is about culture and personal relationships, not processes. As it stands, the law makes unrealistic and unreasonable demands on scrutiny councillors and scrutiny functions to act in a certain way. The law is internally inconsistent, causing frustration to members and officers, who feel that they are constrained in what they can and cannot do for apparently no good reason. At no point have these policy constraints been explained by government. They are the result of 10 years of piecemeal changes to the legislation without any coherent thought having been given to the way that scrutiny operates across the piece. The Bill provides an ideal opportunity to take a broad look and make changes that are supported by practitioners in local government. That is what this raft of amendments seeks to do. Again, I can explain in some detail what each of the 32 amendments seeks to achieve. I can see from the expressions around me in the Chamber that your Lordships are keen and eager for me to do exactly that but I will not. I simply say that they seek to cover two key areas where it is considered that scrutiny needs additional freedom to become more effective.
The first of those, which we have referred to previously, is partnership working. Current powers limit scrutiny in the way that they engage with local authorities’ partners. More and more local services are now being delivered in partnership, and it is inconsistent for scrutiny to have only limited powers, as given in the 2007 Act and incorporated into the 2000 Act, to hold those partners to account. Often they provide important local services where there is no real way for local people to exert an influence over how those services are provided. We are suggesting that scrutiny’s powers over partners should be brought broadly into line with those over the authority itself—the power to require attendance at meetings, to require the provision of information and certain rights to make recommendations which go beyond what is provided at present. In particular, we want a general description for a local partner as a class of person, rather than legislation setting out a specific list of named partners, which is inappropriate, inflexible and a highly centralised, top-down, government-know-best approach.
Rather than continue at greater length, perhaps I may say that if the Minister is minded to give a sympathetic response, as she did to Amendment 84DA from a similar source, I am happy to discuss this matter further outside the Chamber.
The other key area that I want to cover is parity for counties and districts. At the moment, district councils cannot engage with partners in the same way as other authorities and they are consequently at a disadvantage when trying to work with those partners to improve services at district level. This bears no relation to the demarcation of executive-side responsibilities between counties and districts. This anomaly, brought in by the 2007 Act, has never been explained and there can be no policy reason for its continued existence.
I hope that the Minister will be able to give as sympathetic a response as she did previously and, in anticipation of that, I beg to move.
My Lords, I support in some measure the remarks of my noble friend Lord Tope. I hear what is said about the Centre for Public Scrutiny and all its recommendations. Equally, I hear all that the Government want to say about scrutiny. I am sure that there are two very worthy industries involved here that may well come together. I support the recommendation that my noble friend has made to come forward with thickets of advice to local authorities on these subjects—may the twain meet.
However, as this debate goes on, I sometimes wonder whether the end result might be that parts of the Government involved in providing guidance and regulations could be hived off as a social enterprise, perhaps co-operating with other areas in local government. They could sell the benefits of their advice to local authorities and we might be able to reduce the size of government and perhaps, in partnership, improve the quality of advice. That is a slightly impish suggestion but, on the other hand, it is not entirely without seriousness.
I particularly support Amendment 47A, which addresses the point made by my noble friend Lord Greaves. I think that it would allow issues that were not technically local government matters to be referred to scrutiny. I support Amendment 48A on a probing basis. It would delete from the Bill the words:
“Guidance under subsection (3) may make different provision for different cases”.
This means that if a member of an authority wants to say to a scrutiny chairman, “I think this is something you need to look into”, first, he has to refer to the existing legislation, which is before us, and look up the bible of guidance that will be issued by the government department. He may then find that that guidance makes different provision for different cases, with scrutiny into this or that or some other circumstances, and he is therefore entering a potential nightmare world. I know that my noble friend, local government and outside advisers do not want to go there, but I return to my general point. I hope that those discussions can take place but I hope that the presiding principle in all this will be to minimise the requirements on local authorities to read, mark, learn, inwardly digest and obey. Let us please have localism.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their amendments, and I start by saying that I shall be helpful in relation to some but not to others. As noble Lords have said, the various amendments in the group seek to remove the guidance or regulation-making powers of the Secretary of State—a common theme this afternoon. In each case, the powers enable certain safeguards to be in place. Although noble Lords are critical of regulation, sometimes it is necessary at the same time to protect other aspects with which they are concerned.
Amendment 45A would remove the ability to issue guidance on important matters such as scrutiny chairs, as we discussed on the previous group. Amendments 48A, 48B and 48C would remove the requirement for members to have regard to guidance and the Secretary of State’s regulation-making power in relation to the referral of matters to a scrutiny committee. However, as I said, these powers enable the Secretary of State to ensure that certain important safeguards are in place. We have discussed some of them, such as vexatious or discriminatory matters being placed before a scrutiny committee, which we talked about on the previous amendment. I do not think that it is unreasonable that that sort of aspect should be ruled out of the scrutiny committee’s responsibilities. Some might take that view and some might not but I think it is sensible that they are left with no option about that. As well as rights of appeal, the amendments would also exclude matters that are already statutory processes, such as planning and licensing decisions or matters relating, for example, to an individual. Therefore, I shall not be able to accept those amendments.
Amendments 49U and 49V would remove the ability of the Secretary of State to make regulations to guard against the duplication of requests by scrutiny committees to other partner bodies. They are regulations that seek to minimise the burden on such authorities and make best use of the available information.
Amendments 47A, 49A, 49B and 49D to 49T also look to reform existing scrutiny provisions by simplifying and expanding the definition of “partner bodies”. They would expand the matters in relation to which scrutiny committees may rely on their powers, removing the link to local area agreements—which we have already agreed I should look at—and extending the powers of district council scrutiny committees, among other things, as we have already discussed.
As I said in the debate on the previous group, we do not believe that the existing framework hampers innovative practices by scrutiny committees. However, I have some sympathy with the aims of some of the amendments, and, again, I shall draw them into the discussions that we need to have. They seek to bring up to date the scrutiny regime that sits across various Acts of Parliament in light of recent changes, so it is right that we should look at them.
I am happy to consider Amendments 47A, 49A, 49B, and 49D to 49T. In debating previous amendments, we also discussed committee system authorities and the operation of scrutiny. Our view is that such authorities should be able to choose to have overview and scrutiny committees. Proposed new Section 9JA makes this clear. Removing the section entirely would create confusion. It would be unclear whether committee system authorities could operate scrutiny committees, and what the role and powers of such committees would be if they did. Therefore, the amendment is proposing that is unnecessary.
The provisions that Amendments 87ZB to 87ZD seek to change replicate existing provisions in the Local Government Act 2000, which reflect the important interests that the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church have in the provision of education, given the significant number of voluntary-aided schools in most if not all local authorities. It is correct that these significant partners in education should by right have representation on the relevant scrutiny committees. Therefore, we do not support the amendments.
With those explanations, the realisation that we discussed some issues when debating the previous group of amendments, and my acceptance of further discussions on some of the amendments, I hope that noble Lords will not press their amendments.
My Lords, again I found that a very helpful answer, and I agreed with most of the comments and responses that the noble Baroness gave. I offer a suggestion about where an assurance at some stage would be helpful. In exercising his powers to proffer guidance, the Secretary of State might wish to consult either or both—preferably both—the Local Government Association and the Centre for Public Scrutiny. One would not want to write the Centre for Public Scrutiny into statute, but an indication that there would be those discussions, particularly with the Centre for Public Scrutiny, which is quite independent, would be helpful in ensuring that the guidance was broadly acceptable to the local government world and beyond. I take the point that it is necessary, in order to ensure public confidence and that minorities within local government are protected—given that the politics can be a little difficult at times—that there should be some guidance on this range of issues. If the guidance were informed by the Centre for Public Scrutiny and consulted on with the LGA, that would be a way forward. The provision does not need to be statutory, but an indication would be very helpful. I do not ask the Minister to respond immediately.
My Lords, as always I am grateful to the Minister for her reply. I rather wish now that I had gone into each amendment in a little more detail, because they are worthy of discussion. I do not accept entirely the responses of the Minister, but now is not the opportunity to discuss them in detail. However, I am grateful for her willingness at least to consider the issues further. As I said, the amendments were suggested by the Centre for Public Scrutiny, which has considerable experience, and an obvious interest, in ensuring that scrutiny, by whatever system, works more effectively and that we learn from the experience of previous years in order to improve it. That is the sole object of my amendments, which I am sure that all noble Lords will share.
We will certainly take the Minister up on her offer of further discussions, not just on the specifics of the amendments—she is sympathetic to some and clearly not to others—but to try to ensure that the Bill achieves what I hope it seeks to achieve, which is to grant local authorities more freedom to conduct scrutiny, to do so more effectively and to do so in respect of other organisations with whom they share services, help to deliver them or play an important part in local communities. Given the assurance from the Minister, I beg leave to withdraw the first in this raft of amendments and will try to keep up as we go through the rest.
Amendment 45A withdrawn.
Amendments 46 to 49V not moved.
50: Schedule 2, page 207, leave out lines 25 and 26
My Lords, the amendment touches on the question of transparency and the openness to the public of meetings. It seeks to reflect what I understand to be the present position, which is that meetings are open unless council committees or executives decide to exclude the press and public, usually on grounds of confidentiality. This might be commercial confidentiality or sensitive staff issues and the like. The amendments in my name create a presumption that the meetings will be open to the public unless there are good reasons for not having them as such. Those reasons clearly would have to be enunciated. It is difficult to find a form of words that fully meets the case. The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, will speak to his amendments, which import the term “necessarily”. However, the question then arises of how one defines what is necessary. There is no simple answer, but it is important to have the presumption in the Bill if we can get it, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister in due course.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 53, 54 and 55 in my name. Each is a probing amendment to get confirmation from the Minister that there will be no deterioration in the access of the general public, the press and opposition councillors to meetings and to information. I seek that reassurance because, as the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, says, it is quite difficult to get the right wording. The overriding intention must be that there should be no deterioration in what currently pertains in local government for individuals—the public, the media or other councillors—seeking access to meetings and information. The Bill confers an awful lot of powers on the Secretary of State to make decisions in that area. I understand why that is, but I would be more comfortable if it was absolutely clear to the general public that there will be no diminution in their access to information and meetings.
Perhaps my noble friend would clarify the position. I would like to see a presumption that the meetings will be open, but obviously under certain circumstances access will be restricted. As things stand, it is a case of either/or; there is no presumption that open meetings will be the norm and that meetings held in private will be exceptional. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that.
My Lords, the current presumption of meetings being held in public comes under the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2000, with which I am sure the noble Lord is entirely familiar. The general principle of that is that there is a presumption in favour of openness, where key decisions of executives are made.
We are—I hardly dare to say the word—aiming to make new regulations which will remove some of the current prescription that make it clear that there is a presumption in favour of public meetings. As the noble Lord has already said, it is essential that there is some ability for a committee to close its proceedings for private or confidential reasons, but those must not be outwith what would normally be discussed in public. We are going to retain the parts in the Local Authorities (Executive Arrangements) (Access to Information) (England) Regulations 2000—I will not go through that again—to ensure that written records of certain decisions must be available to the public. We are also going to regulate how they must be made available so, as a result of what we are proposing, there will not be any deterioration in the right of access to meetings. We will just tidy up to make it clear that, as the noble Lord and other noble Lords have said, the presumption in favour of open meetings is absolutely understood.
Amendment 50 withdrawn.
Amendments 51 and 52 not moved.
52A: Schedule 2, page 207, leave out lines 27 to 30 and insert—
“(2) Except to the extent that regulations under section 9GA(4) prescribe otherwise, meetings of a local authority executive or of a committee of the executive are to be open to the public.”
My Lords, I shall also speak to Amendments 133A to 133C and Amendment 181A, which are in my name. I should perhaps apologise to the Minister and her officials for having given them relatively little time to consider these amendments. I will of course understand if she is not yet in a position to respond substantively to all of these amendments, but I should be grateful if she would undertake at least to consider them and perhaps respond in due course. These amendments are grouped together because they all deal with the application of the Freedom of Information Act to bodies being given greater powers under this Bill and are all informed by the principle that with greater power should come greater accountability. It is a principle which of course, chimes with the coalition agreement. As I am sure the Minister will not need me to remind her, it states:
“We will extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency”.
Amendment 52A is my attempt to deal with the issue raised by the amendments which have just been discussed. It is designed to try to increase the transparency of local authority agreements. For those authorities operating executive agreements new regulations are to be made, as the Minister has just said, governing the circumstances in which meetings and documents must be open to the public. I take it that the assumption behind these provisions is that the new regulations will be brought into force before or at the same time as the new executive arrangements take place. However, if that does not happen and new executive arrangements come into force before the proposed regulations, the default position will be that an executive will be free to decide for itself which of its meetings are to be open to the public and which are to be held in private.
In theory, at least, executives would be free to hold all their meetings in private if they so chose. Amendment 52A reverses that default position. In the absence of regulations—with the best will in the world, regulations do not always appear when Ministers intend— this amendment ensures that all meetings of the executive or its committee would have to be held in public. In my view, that is a better default arrangement than one which permits executives to exclude the public from all of their meetings and operate entirely in private until such regulations are made.
Clearly, this is not the most fundamental safeguard of openness and, as my noble friend Lord Beecham and the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, have said, it is difficult to get the wording right on this issue. Everything will depend on the provision of the regulations that are to come. However, as I understand they are not available yet, even in draft, it is difficult at this stage of the proceedings to comment further. However, I hope that this amendment will be at least a start in bringing transparency to such proceedings.
Amendments 133A to 133C set out to improve the transparency of services delivered by a local authority through others. The Bill envisages that a growing proportion of local authorities’ functions will be carried out for them by other bodies operating under contract. Amendment 133A deals with what information the public can obtain under the Freedom of Information Act about the work done for an authority under contract. If the authority carries out the work itself, all information about that work is subject to the Act but the public's rights to information are less straightforward when the work is done by a contractor.
Section 1 of the Freedom of Information Act establishes that the right of access is to information which a public authority holds. Section 3(2)(b) of the Act provides that information which another person holds,
“on behalf of the authority”,
is treated as being held by the authority itself. However, how much of the information that a contractor holds about the contract is held on behalf of an authority? The answer is not self-evident. The contract itself may specify that particular information is to be treated as held on behalf of the authority or that a specified type of information must be provided to the authority, if it asks for it to help it answer a freedom of information request. Yet what if such a provision applies only to a very limited class of information? The effect may be then to exclude from access any information which is not specifically mentioned.
For example, in 2007, Islington Council received a freedom of information request for information about the criteria used to reward parking attendants for good results. I am sure that noble Lords will know that this is an electrically sensitive issue for many motorists in London and elsewhere in the country. The parking attendants were employed by National Car Parks Ltd under a contract with the council. The rewards included bonus performance payments and points that could be spent at Argos. The requestor wanted anonymised information about the rewards provided to the best performing parking attendants, including the number of penalty charge notices issued by them, the number of complaints involving those attendants and the number of notices subsequently cancelled. The requestor clearly suspected that the incentives were leading attendants to issue as many notices as they possibly could, regardless of any justification—clearly, a matter of considerable public interest.
The council replied that it did not hold such statistics and that the contract did not give it the power to obtain them from the contractor. The Information Commissioner then examined the contract in force at the time and found that it imposed no requirement on National Car Parks to provide statistical information about the Argos points, the performance payments to individual staff or the criteria used to decide who should receive these. He concluded that this information was not held on the council's behalf and not accessible to it under the Freedom of Information Act, yet that information was central to any attempt to understand whether the incentives were encouraging notices to be issued improperly. That is exactly the kind of problem that may occur when people attempt to use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain information about contracts.
Amendment 133A attempts to deal with this issue by stating that any new contract entered into in future by a local authority will be “deemed to include a” contractual “freedom of information provision”. It stipulates that all information about the performance of the contract which is held by the contractor is,
“deemed to be held on behalf of the … authority for the purpose of … the Freedom of Information Act”.
Incidentally, this would also apply to the Environmental Information Regulations, which provide a parallel right of access to environmental information. If such a request for information is made about the performance of the contract, that information would be within the scope of the legislation, even if held by the contractor. No confidentiality clause would be capable of setting that provision aside. The intention is that the public's right to information—that right to “greater transparency” included in the coalition agreement—should be the same whether a particular task was carried out in-house or contracted out.
I should stress that this does not mean that such information will have to be disclosed. The Freedom of Information Act and the regulations contain exemptions to protect legitimate interests. For example, Section 43 protects trade secrets or information likely to prejudice the commercial interests of the contractor or the authority, subject, of course, to a public interest test. Section 40 protects personal information about any identifiable individual, including members of the contractor’s staff, if disclosure would breach data protection principles, and there are other exemptions where disclosure would be likely to endanger health and safety or prejudice law enforcement or defence, or cause other types of harm. I stress that this amendment applies only to contracts made in future. It would not be limited to those resulting from the community right to challenge provisions, but it would apply to any new contact.
Where the contract itself is performed under a subcontract with a further contractor, the same freedom of information provision would be deemed to apply to the subcontract. Where a third party holds information on behalf of the contractor or subcontractor—for example, a surveyor or an engineer—that information is also deemed to be within the range of a FOI request to the authority. The amendment does not seek to bring the contractor itself with the scope of the Freedom of Information Act. Requests would still be made to the local authority concerned and not to the contractor itself. In answering the request, the authority would be able to draw on any information about the contractor’s performance held by the contractor in addition to the information that the authority itself held. The code of practice issued by the Secretary of State under Section 45 of the FOI Act encourages public authorities to consult third parties, such as contractors, before disclosing information relating to them, and such provision will continue under this amendment. There is one important exception to this principle. Legal advice that the contractor has obtained in relation to its obligations to the authority under the contract would not have to be disclosed to the authority under the provision and nor would a subcontractor have to disclose its legal advice about its obligations towards the contractor. Such privileged material about a possible legal dispute would not have to be disclosed.
I hope the Minister will recognise that I have tried to frame this amendment in a way that makes it not disproportionately onerous on contractors. It is not the intention of this amendment to impose a disproportionate burden on very small businesses, so I would quite understand if the Government wished to look at the detailed wording of this amendment—for example, perhaps to place a limit on the size of the contract that would fall within scope of this amendment —and certainly to consult small business organisations on where such a limit would be placed. However, at this stage, I would be grateful if the Minister would at least indicate whether the Government might have some sympathy with the principle of greater transparency that lies behind this amendment.
Amendment 133B would bring companies controlled by local authorities within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act. At present, the Act applies not only to the public authorities listed in Schedule 1 to the Act, but to companies owned by such public authorities. The existing definition of a publicly owned company in Section 6 of the Act is a company which is wholly owned by a single public authority. The Protection of Freedoms Bill, which is currently being considered in another place, would extend that definition to cover a company which is wholly owned by more than one public authority. That is a very welcome provision. It puts right a long-standing anomaly. When I was the Freedom of Information Minister, it was an anomaly that I intended to put right myself, but time ran out, so I am very pleased that the Government are bringing this provision forward in that Bill.
However, a company that is jointly owned by a public authority and some other body, perhaps a private company, is not subject to the FOI Act at all, even where the public authority is the dominant shareholder. Amendment 133B would bring such companies within the Act's scope. A company in which a local authority owns at least 50 per cent of the shares—again, the Government may want to look at the detailed wording of this amendment, the proportion and exactly how the scope of the amendment should apply—or in which several local authorities between them hold at least 50 per cent of the shares would be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. I think this is fully in the spirit of what the Government are already undertaking in the Protection of Freedoms Bill and is something that ought to be able to command consensus across Parliament in putting right what has been a long-standing anomaly.
Amendment 133C is designed to provide greater transparency for the way in which local authorities discharge their responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Act. For central government, the regular publication of statistics in monitoring central government compliance with the Freedom of Information Act has been important in driving up government compliance with legislation. Local government is not subject to the same requirement, and it is clear that its performance is variable. There are some excellent examples of good practice. I shall cite the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities. It covers 13 local authorities and has a system in place which allows individual local authorities to input on to shared web pages information on: the number of requests received; a breakdown of those requests; the outcomes of those requests; the number of internal reviews; the number of appeals to the ICO; and the length of time taken to deal with each request. The web pages were simple to create and set up using an off-the-shelf IT package and host spreadsheets into which local authorities can input information. It is an excellent example of good practice, but not every local authority matches those high standards.
Many of the issues which most concern people and about which voters most want information fall within the remit of local authorities, and it is clear that there are still some local authorities where the reflex position is to withhold information rather than to publish it. I shall give one brief example from the constituency I used to represent. From the early years of the last decade, there was a growing and desperate need for a local primary school in the area of Oakhurst in north Swindon. Increasing numbers of local parents were desperate for a local primary school. They were having to travel many miles to get their children into a school, siblings were being separated and they were increasingly desperate. Land had been zoned for a local primary school, and the local authority said it wanted to build it but that the Government had not given it the money to do so. So when in 2007 the Government announced a massive increase in capital funding for schools and an allocation of £52 million for Swindon, I said to the council: “Now you’ve got the money, you can finally commit to building this desperately needed primary school”. I also said that if there were any doubts about the nature of the funding, it should contact me and I would clarify it with Ministers.
No one asked me to do that, but what happened was that in January 2008, an officer produced a report saying that the council did not have £52 million and could allocate only £1.8 million to building a primary school and that as the cost would be £7 million, it could not possibly build this desperately needed school. Not a single member of the cabinet in the council challenged this extraordinary discrepancy between what the Government had said was available and what the officer said was available. It was just accepted. I immediately went to Ministers, as I originally offered to do, and within three hours got clarification that however you construed the funding, the council had at least £30 million to build a new primary school, should it wish to do so. I then went back to the council and embarrassed it sufficiently that it had to concede that, after all, when it looked at it again, it had the money to build the primary school. The primary school was then built, but if I had not been the local MP and had not challenged the council, that primary school would not have been built at all, and that would have left all those local parents in a desperate plight.
I believed it was important to find out why this had happened. By any standards, this was a terrible mistake by the council. It had profoundly damaging consequences for very many local parents. There were only two possible explanations: either the council officer was grossly incompetent and the councillors were not doing their duty properly on challenging him on it or there was some sort of political manipulation. The Conservative Party in Swindon was desperate to blame everything on the failure of the Labour Government to fund it as it saw fit. Some local residents, perhaps even more cynically, thought that the council was trying to hold the money back to spend in more marginal wards. It may even have been that the Conservative council thought that an incoming Conservative Government would slash capital funding for education, which, indeed, they went on to do, and did not want to commit to something if a new Government were going to withdraw the funding. Whatever the explanation—to this day, I still have no idea what is was—there is a clear public interest in local residents knowing it. To this day, I and other local residents have failed to get any explanation from the council about what happened in 2008.
This amendment on its own will not solve such problems. If councils are resolute in covering up their failings, it will not stop them, but it will at least help to reveal councils that are less than diligent in observing the letter and spirit of freedom of information legislation and encourage them to raise their game to the standards of excellent local authorities such as those in Manchester.
I stress that this would not be an onerous burden on local authorities. They have the raw data already and are required to keep them under the Freedom of Information Act, so it would be a question only of compiling them. All the local authorities have to do is process them once a year, not quarterly as central government does. Again, the Manchester example shows how easy that would be.
Finally, Amendment 181A seeks to improve the transparency of the work of the Housing Ombudsman. At present, complaints about social housing are dealt with by two different ombudsmen. Complaints about housing associations go to the Housing Ombudsman and are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, while complaints about local authority housing go to the Local Government Ombudsman, who is subject to the Freedom of Information Act. There appears to be no good reason for this distinction, but in any event the Bill proposes that in future there will be a unified complaints system, with both types of complaint going to the Housing Ombudsman. That transfer of functions might be accompanied by a strengthening of the enforcement powers given to the Housing Ombudsman.
The Bill allows the Secretary of State by order to give the Housing Ombudsman the power to make determinations that have the force of a court order, yet the Bill contains no provision to bring the ombudsman under the Act. I can imagine only that this is an oversight, because if the Housing Ombudsman remains outside the scope of the Freedom of Information Act, the Bill will lead to a reduction in the public’s right to information, as the Act will no longer apply to the body that was responsible for dealing with housing complaints against local authorities. This amendment would quite simply make the Housing Ombudsman a public authority for the Freedom of Information Act. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am tempted to wonder how many pieces of information might have been released during the noble Lord’s exposition of his amendments—doubtless, very many.
I hope that my noble friend will consider sceptically the case that has been made. I am a strong exponent of the principle of openness—we discussed whether there should be a presumption of openness in our debate on a previous group of amendments. I think that I heard my noble friend give a commitment that it should apply to meetings.
The noble Lord is clearly a significant enthusiast for freedom of information, for which I commend him, but again I hope that my noble friend will be sceptical when she examines these amendments, which not many of us have had the opportunity to look at in detail. I asked my chief executive how much freedom of information implementation had cost my authority so far in the past year, to which the response was £120,000. That does not sound like very much but it approaches 1 per cent of the council’s discretionary budget, outside schools. The freedom that has been given is important, but it must be exercised in proportion. In my experience, quite often when someone pursued a freedom of information request they would have been given the answer through the front door if they had simply asked the question, although that clearly would not have been so in the case to which the noble Lord refers.
The noble Lord’s Amendment 52A intends to take these procedures into contractor arrangements, subcontractor arrangements, and doubtless sub-sub-subcontractor arrangements. It would end up creating such a cat’s cradle of bureaucracy for these arrangements that we might well end up, as the noble Lord himself recognised, deterring small businesses from putting themselves within this embrace. I reiterate that I strongly support the idea of freedom of information in principle, but I hope that when my noble friend considers this group of amendments she will, as I said, exercise due scepticism—on behalf of those of us, as publicly accountable authorities, who have to administer open systems, which we do—about the costs that local authorities, and through them their contractors and subcontractors, might incur. With £120,000, I could have created a fairly large number of very useful public assets. Doubtless some of the requests were extremely worth while, but there should be nothing in excess.
My Lords, I think that we should thank my noble friend Lord Wills for giving us the opportunity to debate this issue. He had a distinguished ministerial career and responsibility for this area, which very much showed in his contribution today.
We are living in an era of transparency, which has already been very much the byword of many of our debates on this Bill. We are also living in an era in which there will be increasing partnership working, outsourcing and joint working, very much along the lines on which the noble Lord, Lord Tope, focused when he talked about scrutiny functions in our debate on a previous group of amendments. The focus of FOI in the current era is therefore entirely appropriate.
My noble friend’s Amendment 52A very much chimes with the group of amendments that we have just discussed in its presumption that meetings should be held in public. On Amendments 133A and 133B, he acknowledged—and the noble Lord, Lord True, touched on this—that we need to focus on the practical ramifications of driving freedom of information through a contractor, a subcontractor and then perhaps a sub-subcontractor chain. I am thinking particularly of the construction industry and how diverse and complex some of its contractual arrangements are.
In a sense, my noble friend offered the route to a solution when he said that there should be some sort of de minimis or cut-off point in the application of this. His focus, as he acknowledged, was partly on the business left over from when he was a Minister, but he also dealt with some practical examples, such as Swindon, and cited the Islington Council situation, which is not theoretical but actual.
The noble Lord, Lord True, said on the one hand that he was an enthusiast for freedom of information, but on the other urged his noble friend to be sceptical about it. I am not sure that those two concepts sit very comfortably together.
I do not disagree, but I thought that the noble Lord said that he was also an enthusiast for freedom of information. Maybe I misunderstand him and he is not, but if he is I do not think that that sits with his urging his noble friend to be sceptical.
As I said, my noble friend has given us an opportunity to have an interesting debate on an important subject. In particular, he has done us a service by focusing on particular issues relating to the Housing Ombudsman, and I am keen to hear the Minister’s response specifically to those. His request is not for the Minister to give a detailed response to his quite extensive and detailed amendment but for her to say whether the Government agree with the principle behind it. That is a very important ask, particularly, as he pointed out, because the coalition agreement has a commitment to freedom of information and to extending its scope. This area is worthy of further analysis and I hope that the Minister can give us some comfort on that matter.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Wills, for his fairly extensive exposition on the Freedom of Information Act and its relationship with local government. I am sure that he will forgive me if I say that, not having had any detail of his speech beforehand, I simply am not out of my own head going to be able to answer all the important points that he raised, but I will do my best to cover some of them. If, later, we find something of significance, I will make sure that we write to him in response.
We have already discussed Amendment 52A, as the noble Lord acknowledged. I cannot say anything more than that we are very much in favour of open access to meetings of local authorities, but we recognise that there are occasions when confidential information has to be discussed—for example, information on contracts and members of staff. Meetings have to be closed sometimes, but we will make it clear that there has to be a presumption in favour of openness. We think that it is there anyway but we will underscore it.
My noble friend Lord McNally had hoped to be here because he has an overall eye on freedom of information. While I am very happy to take on anything, that seems to be one step too far, but he has asked me to say, in response to this, that the Government are committed to increasing transparency and that, almost without exception, central and local government are proactively publishing information about their contracts online. As noble Lords know, it is a requirement of government to do that and many local authorities have now taken that up and are doing it, which means that access to contract information is available to anyone who wants to see it. We feel, too, that in what is being done we have struck a balance between commitments to increase transparency and commitments to reduce regulatory burdens, particularly on business. I will go into that further in a minute. We do not believe that it is necessary to extend the Freedom of Information Act to those bodies at present with information about contracts with public authorities, which can be requested from them. A local authority can be quizzed about any contract that it has and we are proactively publishing contractual information online.
Amendment 133A would impose unacceptable additional burdens on business, similar to those that would be imposed if the Freedom of Information Act was extended to companies—not public companies but private ones. The Government have included provisions in the Protection of Freedoms Bill, to which the noble Lord referred, to extend the Freedom of Information Act with very limited exceptions to all companies wholly owned by public authorities. A few more of those will be coming up in the light of the legislation.
We have considered the extension of the Freedom of Information Act to companies where a majority of shares are owned by any number of public authorities, but to take this step would create uncertainty over which bodies were subject to the Act, particularly as bodies could pass in and out of its scope on transfer of shares. Should there be a strong argument for including a specific body, the option of inclusion through other means, such as an order under Section 5 of the Freedom of Information Act, still remains.
Amendment 133C would introduce a statutory requirement for the publication of an annual report by every local authority, including the smallest parish councils receiving very low volumes of freedom of information requests. We do not think that that is a burden that should be borne. Statistics about compliance with the Freedom of Information Act for government departments and a range of other central government bodies are already published voluntarily by the Ministry of Justice—indeed, the noble Lord may have generated this—on a quarterly basis. We would obviously encourage the publication of similar information by other public authorities receiving a significant number of freedom of information requests, including those within local government. The Freedom of Information Act will shortly be subject to post-legislative scrutiny, as I am sure the noble Lord knows, when it will be reviewed to ensure that it is delivering an efficient and effective mechanism by which the public can exercise their right to know and hold government to account.
Finally, on extending the Freedom of Information Act to cover the Housing Ombudsman, it is worth noting that we are planning to extend the Act to a considerable number of new bodies through legislation and we intend to keep those under review. While I do not say “in”, I do not say “out” at the present time.
I am very conscious that I have not been able to do anything like justice to all that the noble Lord has said. I hope that he will forgive me for that. I have answered some of the questions arising from the tabling of the amendments, although I appreciate that the noble Lord went wider than that to some extent. As I said in my previous commitment, we will go through Hansard to make sure that, if there is anything I have not touched on adequately, we will come back to it and write to him.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Of course, I understand and I apologise again for not having given her and her officials longer to consider these matters in more depth. I am also extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord True, and my noble friend Lord McKenzie for their contributions to this debate. I understand what the noble Lord, Lord True, says about the burdens on local authorities. I am well aware that transparency can be extremely frustrating and irritating for all those in executive authority.
The noble Lord is right: I am an enthusiast for freedom of information legislation. I think that I was almost alone among my ministerial colleagues in being such an enthusiast and I have no doubt that the same sentiments as he has just articulated are to be found widely among local authorities. All that I can say to the noble Lord and all those who find this legislation irksome, which I well understand, is that I believe passionately that in the end greater transparency helps to improve the services that we all work to deliver, whether in local government or central government. I wish that I shared his confidence that statutory freedom of information requirements are not necessary, which I think was the burden of his remarks. If I shared his confidence, I would not have put down these amendments. Sadly, I do not.
I am grateful also for the contribution made by my noble friend Lord McKenzie, but most of all I am grateful to the Minister for the spirit in which she engaged with these amendments. However, her response was not quite as welcoming instinctively as I would have hoped, so I ask her to scrutinise the amendments in more detail and perhaps to consult the noble Lord, Lord McNally. I do not say that because I discount any possible burdens put on local authorities or contractors and small businesses. As someone who ran a small business in the past, I am deeply conscious of the need to avoid putting burdens on small businesses. These amendments were framed not to place a disproportionate burden on anyone. Perhaps on closer scrutiny that will become apparent.
I am willing to accept any suggestions for amendments and I am sure that the Government would be able to improve the drafting. The key point that I ask the Minister to take away is that, if the Government do not engage with the issues behind these amendments—not necessarily to accept these amendments as worded but with the issues behind them—that will mean, potentially, over time, a significant diminution of transparency in the operation of local authorities and those whom they contract to provide services for them. That is very serious for those who believe in freedom of information. It is in breach of a fundamental tenet of the coalition agreement, which is why I hope that this Government will take it seriously.
This Government are committed to greater transparency, but I suggest that, unless these amendments are engaged with in some form or other, we will see the progress towards greater transparency being reversed. I hope that the Minister will be able to write to me to reassure me on that point and possibly even to meet me before Report if she would be so kind, so that we could discuss these issues in more detail. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 52A withdrawn.
Amendments 53 to 55 not moved.
56: Schedule 2, page 210, leave out lines 8 to 18
My Lords, I am conscious that Amendment 56 is possibly not now the most important or interesting in this group, but we tabled it as a probing amendment with a view to asking the Minister to explain more clearly than is apparent in the Bill itself new Section 9H(3) and (4), which deals with the nature of a mayor and his or her relationship with the council. While I am on my feet, I shall refer to some of the other amendments in this group and, indeed, to others that are yet to come. Again I congratulate the Government on recognising that the whole question of shadow mayors and mayoral arrangements really has no place in a Bill that is about localism. As we discussed at Question Time yesterday, I know that it will be said by some that this is a sensible move by a listening Government, and said by others to be a U-turn. I do not mind very much what it is called; I just feel that the Government are to be congratulated.
I thank in particular the Minister for bringing the decision forward at such an early stage in our consideration of the Bill, which no doubt will save many hours of debate in this Chamber. With that, I beg to move Amendment 56 and I look forward to the debate on the other amendments in the group.
My Lords, I have a number of amendments in this group, and I want to follow on from what the noble Lord, Lord Tope, has said by thanking very sincerely my noble friend for the leadership and responsiveness she has shown on this matter. Those of us who have been present in the Committee today will also have noted the openness, warmth and positive way in which she has responded to a number of the points that have been put forward. We are all grateful for that.
I am slightly confused by the groupings, which have changed a little overnight, perhaps for reasons related to pre-emption or to a number of other points. By the way, I should pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding, who played a big part in raising this issue at Second Reading. There was unity across the House that to create shadow mayors before the electors in the cities concerned had had an opportunity to have their say was not a good idea. The Minister then came forward at the earliest possible opportunity to say that the Government had accepted the arguments, so the principle does not need to be debated at any great length, and I do not propose to do so. However, I should give notice, in speaking to the large number of amendments within this grouping, that it should be taken that I have also spoken to Amendments 74A, 77A, 77B, 79A and 81A. They are not in this group, but they relate to the same subject. Even if I have it wrong, I hope that the Committee will accept that I shall not come back to those amendments later, and I repeat my thanks to my noble friend for taking up the point in the positive way she has.
My Lords, the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, relates to the part of the Bill which defines a mayor as distinct from a councillor. I wonder whether that is particularly well advised. I cannot recall the precise clause or paragraph in the schedule that deals with the eligibility of people to stand for election as mayor. It lists a whole series of officers of an authority who may not stand. At the moment, a serving member or employee of a local authority is disbarred from standing as a councillor. If the mayoral position was to be treated for all purposes in the same way as a councillor, you would not need a provision in the Bill to identify all the authority officers who could not stand for that position. Indeed, it could be argued that if you do not treat the mayor as a councillor, you might find that some people are inadvertently omitted but who perhaps should be barred from seeking to be elected because they already hold a position within the authority. My understanding is that the bar will remain in place for some time after their period of service has concluded.
Would it not be sensible for the Government to rethink this provision and simply state, unless there is a regulation the other way, as it were, that all provisions relating to councillors such as declarations of interest and all the rest of it should apply to elected mayors, rather than reverse the procedure and require regulations specifically for the elected mayor which could otherwise be avoided?
In relation to the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord True, there was a problem, and indeed there still is a problem, in the grouping of these amendments. As I read it, many of the noble Lord’s amendments tag on to provisions for the implementation of the mayoral system, with reference to a referendum having taken place on the basis of three possibilities. One is the decision of a local authority itself, but subject to a referendum. Another is a petition from the public generally, and the third, which is the problematic one for many of us, is the requirement to hold a referendum by the Secretary of State. As I understand it, the noble Lord’s amendments, along with those of his noble friends, assume for the purposes of their amendments that the compulsory referendum remains part of the Bill. Last night I endeavoured to turn the debate around the other way so that we could deal with that issue first. When we come to consider the Bill on Report, perhaps we might look at how to address the issue.
The implementation points are perfectly valid and apply to the two non-compulsory forms of acquiring an elected mayor, but while I know that the Committee will not divide on them today, if the amendments were to be accepted on Report, it would be assumed that the compulsory referendum had been agreed. Some of us, perhaps many of us, have different views about that. In today’s groupings there are amendments which address that issue of principle, and I hope that the noble Lord understands where some of us are coming from in that respect.
I thank the noble Lord. I have seen his Amendment 81B, and obviously that implies the direction he is coming from, but I certainly do not want to be unhelpful to the Committee in any way. My objective, which the Government have now said is theirs as well, is to erase the principle of shadow mayors. However, I agree that the point of principle he has raised does merit discussion at some point in our proceedings. I will be as co-operative as I can, under advice.
My Lords, unfortunately these amendments were grouped and degrouped rather speedily overnight, so we were slightly surprised to see this morning where the degroupings were. However, I accept the fact that the noble Lord will want to deal with the referendum issue at the next stage. Is there an amendment to which he wants to return? Otherwise I will accept all the amendments I have already said that I would accept, and I will go through them quietly again. The noble Lord indicates that he does not have an amendment to which he wants to return. That being the case, within the groupings of the noble Lord, Lord True, I shall list which amendments I am willing to accept, and if there are any differences about that, we shall look at the issue again. The amendments are Amendments 62A, 66A, 69A, 69B, 69C, 73A, 74A, 75A, 77A, 77B, 79A, 81A, 84A, 84B, 84C, 84D, 87A, 87B, 87C, 87D, 108A and 187. In listing them, I repeat the undertaking that I gave at the outset of Committee to remove the provisions for mayoral management arrangements.
I shall deal finally with Amendment 56, to which I suspect the noble Lord will want to return at some stage. The amendment would remove the provisions about whether an elected mayor is to be treated as a member or councillor of a local authority. I am told that these provisions replicate those in the Local Government Act 2000, which put in place the default position that a mayor is not to be treated as a member or councillor unless regulations provide that they should be. I do not know which side of the bed we are now on, or whether we are getting into it or out of it, as the noble Lord has said, but the default position is already in regulations.
I am just anxious that we should not have senior officers of the authority clambering into the bed. It might be easier to deal with it in the way that I have described, but perhaps that can be looked at. If regulations already exist and the intention is to replicate them, that might serve. On the other hand, it may be simpler just to revert to the principle of treating the mayor for all purposes as a councillor. But we can look at that before Report.
My Lords, I guess that I am grateful to some extent for the Minister’s explanation, but I am not sure that her telling me that the provision is taken from a previous Act, which I already knew, necessarily explains more fully the issues which the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, has referred to. I do not think that we will get very much further with this matter today, but we will need to look at it again.
We have a raft of amendments which the Government are supporting. They are in various different groups, which I think the Minister is struggling with—certainly, I am; I admit to that. I think that we are all struggling with it; we were all dealing with it in the middle of the night last night trying to understand it. When the Bill is eventually reprinted on Report, we will inevitably have to look at what is left in it and at what some of the consequences may be. We will undoubtedly return to it if necessary. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 56.
Amendment 56 withdrawn.
57: Schedule 2, page 210, line 27, leave out from beginning to end of line 39 on page 212
My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market, perhaps I may give a very short introduction to this group of amendments. I say at once that my noble friend has been as good as her word and put her name to the main amendment in the group, Amendment 57. She will no longer press the case for mayors and chief executives to combine their role. With this having been virtually outlawed in public companies, and with the idea of an independent chairman and a chief executive being quite separate, having become very nearly standard in major quoted companies, it would seem very odd that local authorities should be moving in the other direction. I am delighted that the Government have seen that that is not a very sensible way to go. I have the same difficulty as my noble friend Lord Tope in trying to find out exactly where we have got to. In moving this amendment, I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will be able to make all things clear. I beg to move.
My Lords, my name, too, is on this amendment like that of my noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market. Unfortunately my noble friend is unable to be here today—which I think she particularly regrets given the other names that have now been added to the amendment. I echo all that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, has said, and I am relieved to know that even with all his experience, he is possibly nearly as confused as I am about exactly where we are left with this, except that it is certainly in a much better place than it was a few days ago, which is welcome.
I understand now—in the proper spirit of localism, I suppose—that those mayors who are minded also to become chief executives, as I think is intended in Leicester, are at liberty to do so. I said at Second Reading that localism must mean the right to make the wrong decision. Therefore, I have to defend the right to make the wrong decision. There should be a clear difference between the role of an elected political leader and the role of a chief executive—I realise that we still have a head of paid service. A chief executive is usually, in theory, apolitical. There is a clear distinction and I regret the extent to which that is becoming blurred.
Once again I thank the Minister not only for her support for the amendment but for being willing and able to come out and say so at an early stage in the Bill. Like the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, I look forward to a clear exposition of exactly where we are, and what is and is not in the Bill, as we go forward.
My Lords, I join this love fest with enthusiasm and congratulate not only the Minister on working this small miracle but other noble Lords—particularly the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, whose long experience and stature have no doubt contributed to bringing about a change of mind on the part of Ministers generally—on achieving this very satisfactory result to what would otherwise have been a very unfortunate situation. I am happy to endorse everything that has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, in thanking all those involved.
My Lords, perhaps I may take a minute of the House’s time and speak now to the two other amendments in the group on which I lead and which have the same welcome effect, as noble Lords on all sides have said. I, too, repeat my salute to my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding and the Minister. The separation of mayor and chief executive is a good idea and we should maintain it. I am grateful to my noble friend.
My Lords, I hope that we might be able to get back on track again without me having to swing round to make sure that I have done all the right things. We are happy to accept Amendment 57; I made clear my support for that previously in Committee. We recognise that there is great concern about the combination of the mayor and chief executive under the shadow arrangements and are content to support the amendment.
We are not quite so happy with Amendment 58 and I am going to reject it—I cannot see why, but I am. By the time we get round to the next stage I will have recovered my composure. I think that I was so taken by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, being so nice about me that I completely got underneath this. No doubt he will return to the issue at the next stage if he feels it necessary. In the mean time, I am not going to accept that amendment but have spoken to all the others.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. I am not sure that I can accept her reasoning for rejecting Amendment 58, which is also in my name—not least because I have been nice to her and about her for at least 21 years; she should be very well used to it by now. That is not a reason for being unable to give the reasons for rejecting the amendment. However, as I am moving Amendment 57 in this group, I beg leave to withdraw that amendment. No, I am sorry. I am so unused to this. I beg to move.
I have already moved Amendment 57. I had originally hoped that my noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market would be here to move the amendment. We have had an exchange of e-mails and I am sorry to see that she is not. In those circumstances, I moved the amendment. I repeat, this is not so much a love fest as a return of common sense, and we are all delighted with that.
Amendment 57 agreed.
Amendments 58 to 62 not moved.
62A: Schedule 2, page 215, leave out lines 4 to 45
Amendment 62A agreed.
Amendment 63 not moved.
64: Schedule 2, page 216, leave out line 27
My Lords, this group of amendments relates to still more regulatory powers conferred on the Secretary of State, this time in connection with the mayoral position, however derived, in respect of terms of office and the like. The schedule gives the Secretary of State power to regulate the term of office of an elected mayor. I am asking, through the amendment, whether “the term” is used in the sense of a four-year or five-year term, or whether it also gives the Secretary of State power to limit the number of terms. For example, under the police reform Bill, there is a limit to the number of terms that a police commissioner can serve—if that cataclysmic proposal should reach the statute book—to two terms of four years. There is nothing in the Bill to suggest that that is the Government’s intention this time, but it would be welcome if we could have an indication that it was not intended to limit the number of terms for an elected mayor. I say that having served what would have been four and a bit terms, had that term applied to the leadership of the council in Newcastle. But I declare no interest whatever in being elected mayor of Newcastle. I make that very clear.
Amendment 65 refers to the wide-ranging powers in regulations and would restrict those necessary for the purposes of this part of the Bill. Amendment 66 relates to a curious provision on elections and their administration. Under subsection (5) of new Section 9HN, the Secretary of State may make regulations,
“exercisable … on, and in accordance with, a recommendation of the Electoral Commission”,
with a curious exception which I do not really understand. Perhaps the noble Baroness can help me, if not today then subsequently, because it goes on to say,
“except where the Secretary of State considers that it is expedient to exercise that power in consequence of changes in the value of money”.
I do not understand to what that relates. It might relate to election expenses, but it is certainly not clear from the section what it relates to, and a little elucidation would be extremely welcome.
Amendment 67 seeks to ensure that the exercise of the Secretary of State’s powers to regulate in this whole issue of elected mayors and their elections is subject to approval by the Houses of Parliament. These are matters going to the heart of the exercise of local democracy, and they should be subject to affirmative resolution.
I think that the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, will speak to Amendment 86. One particularly odd matter is covered by Amendment 87ZA, which curiously has the Secretary of State involved in the appointment of mayoral assistants. I cannot think why that should be the case. I recall once in Newcastle, when we had a twinning relationship with a city in China, their mayoral delegation came over and the mayor addressed the council. He went up to the dais and one of his retinue came up with his spectacle case, opened it and handed the mayor his spectacles. That seemed an interesting position to hold, and I thought I would indent for a spectacle bearer to the leader of the council, but in the end refrained from doing so. Presumably the Secretary of State would now get involved in such an appointment. It cannot be right, can it, for the Secretary of State to be making regulations for the appointment of a mayoral assistant? Perhaps the Minister can explain. If she cannot do so today—and I would not at all blame her—perhaps she might write to me and others of your Lordships on that point. I beg to move.
I shall speak to Amendments 86 and 87 in this grouping. My noble friend Lord Shipley has unfortunately had to leave for an hour for another very important engagement, as things would have it at exactly the moment when his amendments come up, so I find myself once again in that position.
The amendments are fairly self-explanatory. They deal with the appointment by the elected mayor of a deputy mayor. Amendment 86 says that such an appointment should be subject to agreement by a majority of the executive. That is certainly desirable; the amendment would say that it was essential, and that would be quite proper given what the role of the deputy mayor could be.
Amendment 87 deals with a situation when there is a vacancy in the office of deputy mayor and the elected mayor has to appoint another person to be deputy mayor. There is no provision that that other person need be a member of the executive; therefore, it is even more important in those circumstances that the other person appointed by the deputy mayor should meet with the agreement of a majority of the executive. As the noble Lord, Lord Beecham said earlier in a slightly different context, any sensible mayor, like any sensible leader, would make sure that they did that. On the other hand, it is still a little easier to remove a leader if it is necessary than, quite rightly, to remove an elected mayor. Therefore, we feel that this provision should be in the Bill for the sake of good government.
My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Beecham’s comments on Amendment 64. I am not a supporter of term limits. I think that it is up to parties and their candidates, and then it is for the voters to tell them who they want to elect. If the Minister can give us some clarification about term limits, that would be useful.