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Local Audit and Accountability Bill [HL]

Volume 747: debated on Wednesday 17 July 2013

Report (2nd Day)

Relevant documents: 3rd and 6th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee.

Clause 39 : Council tax referendums

Amendment 44

Moved by

44: Clause 39, page 26, line 25, at end insert—

“( ) This section ceases to have effect after 30 April 2016.”

My Lords, I have no wish to reopen, especially at this time of night, the debate on Clause 39 which was so rudely interrupted on Monday evening when we might well have concluded it. In moving the amendment, which is of course a sunset clause, I am following the wisdom of the current Secretary of State, who described sunset clauses as being:

“In line with best practice on public policy”,

because they limit,

“changes to three years and a review of the benefits from the policy at that point”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/1/13; col. 17WS.]

I am sure that those of us who worked so assiduously on the Growth and Infrastructure Bill will remember those wise words from the Secretary of State, and that is the effect of this amendment.

The LGA would like to see the removal of the clause altogether because it believes that it is,

“a significant threat to both local government’s financial stability and infrastructure investment”.

On the other hand, the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, when he spoke earlier on Report, wanted the clause removed, or at least not implemented, because he thought that the Government had overreacted to what he described as,

“a pretty small problem in terms of the number of authorities and the cash affected”.—[Official Report, 15/7/13; col. 607.]

Time will tell who is right, and that is the purpose of the amendment. The Government are clearly unwilling to remove the clause altogether, so if it has the unforeseen and negative consequences that some fear, it could be removed without the need for primary legislation. As the Secretary of State has said, that accords with best practice on public policy, so I am sure that the Minister will be keen to accept this amendment. I beg to move.

My Lords, the sun has already set; none of us wants to be here when it rises in the morning. I concur with the amendment moved by the noble Lord and I trust that the Minister will accept it.

My Lords, I can be very brief. The Government cannot accept the amendment. The Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that council tax payers should have the final say on excessive increases and that the case for the inclusion of levies in the referendum legislation is compelling. The Government intend that, once made, the change to the legislation should remain on the statute book and that council tax payers should be protected from excessive increases permanently—not just for a few years. Local authorities and levying bodies would not appreciate the prospect of further change to legislation in three years’ time.

It may be helpful to the noble Lord if I also mention a major practical issue raised by the amendment. In 2016, as in all years, local authorities must set their council tax by 11 March. Any authority triggering a referendum must begin preparations almost immediately, so the referendum will be scheduled for the first Thursday in May 2016. The sunset clause would take effect on 30 April 2016, right in the middle of local authorities’ preparations to hold a referendum. Furthermore, if the amendment is accepted, by that time, the provision would have disappeared from the statute book and rendered regulations relating to the conduct of the referendum and its effect in direct conflict with the legislation on which they are based. That is because they would be based on the definition of the relevant basic amount of council tax, including rather than excluding levies. That would be a recipe for confusion and would not be fair on local authorities or council tax payers. So, for reasons of principle and practicality, the Government are unable to support the amendment, and I hope that the noble Lord is willing to withdraw it.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister. I confess to a little disappointment about that reply, although I wonder whether I should see some encouragement. If the only defect in the amendment is a technical one on timing, perhaps the principle could be accepted. I look forward to that being pursued in another place at another time. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 44 withdrawn.

Amendment 45 not moved.

Amendment 46

Moved by

46: After Clause 39, insert the following new Clause—

“Local authority publicity requirements

(1) Any requirement for a local authority to publish a notice in a newspaper shall cease to have effect.

(2) Instead, the local authority shall publish the notice in question in such way as the local authority thinks is likely to bring it to the attention of the greatest number of people in the area most concerned.”

My Lords, I will take a little longer on this amendment as we return to the subject of statutory notices. The amendment is simple, clear and straightforward. It would remove the requirement to publish statutory notices in local newspapers, but it would require local authorities still to publish those notices in such a way as is likely to bring them to the attention of the greatest number of people in the area most concerned.

The arguments for the amendment were well rehearsed at Second Reading and in Grand Committee. We know that the legislation dates from 40 years ago, in 1972, which was a very different world. I think that there is common agreement that the publication of a statutory notice, often in small print and in an impenetrable form, in the middle or back pages of a local paper is, arguably, the least effective means of communication. Those arguments were well rehearsed in Grand Committee and I shall not repeat them all today. What were much less well rehearsed were any arguments against the actual amendment. Instead, noble Lords made perfectly valid points with which I agreed but which had nothing to do with the purpose of the amendment. Let me begin by being clear what the amendment does not do. It does not remove or weaken in any way the requirement on local authorities to publish statutory notices. Indeed, I would argue that it strengthens that requirement, because it requires them to publish them in a way most likely to reach the greatest number of people in an area, which a statutory notice in a local newspaper certainly does not do. Nor does it make any changes to the 163 enactments, which I listed in another amendment, that require publication of a statutory notice. I happen to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, when he said that a cull of those enactments is probably overdue, but that is not part of the amendment. It can, and I hope will, happen anyway.

I agree with noble Lords who said that not everyone looks at the local authority website or even uses the web at all. The amendment deliberately does not specify how statutory publication should be done, only that it should be done in the best way. In some areas, and in some circumstances, that may well be through the local newspaper.

All speakers in Grand Committee agreed that the requirement to publish in a local newspaper came from a very different age. Communication methods have changed hugely in the intervening 40 years. So have local newspapers themselves. There are fewer of them, they are generally less well-read and, as the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, graphically illustrated in a previous debate earlier on Report, the coverage of local government by local newspapers has also changed. It is a fast-changing world, not least in the field of mass communication. It would be wrong now for government to specify how statutory notices should be published. That would be likely to be out of date even before it was enacted, let alone in 40 years’ time. It would also not be in keeping with the spirit of localism. There are very different circumstances in different areas. Some are fortunate enough to have a well-read daily local newspaper; some still have widely read and paid for weekly newspapers; and some have weekly free sheets that may reach a greater proportion of the local population. But many areas now have none of those things. Not all statutory notices are appropriate to a whole council area. Publication of some can be much better targeted at the particular area to which they relate. These are all reasons why I believe that, while the statutory requirement to publish these public notices must remain, the decision on the most effective way to communicate them should be with the local authority and not enshrined in statute.

The LGA estimates that last year local authorities spent £26 million on the publication of statutory notices in local newspapers as well as a further £17 million voluntarily on general advertising. This was really the only argument put forward against the purpose of the amendment; that local newspapers are in difficulty because of the changes in communication and that therefore local authorities should continue to be required by law, not by choice, to subsidise them through the publication of statutory notices. I do not think anyone regards that as a tenable argument at any time, but it is certainly not one in the face of the severe budget pressures on all local authorities now. Many local authorities, including my own, have good and positive partnerships with the local press that are of mutual benefit and that is surely the route down which we should all be encouraged to go.

Although the Minister gave no indication of this in her reply in Grand Committee, the Government seem to be persuaded by these arguments. The Local Government Chronicle reported last week that the Secretary of State told Conservative councillors that he,

“pledged to let councils publish statutory notices online in the next two years”.

It then reported that the DCLG issued a statement that did not confirm or deny Mr Pickles’ comments. Instead it quoted the Minister, Brandon Lewis, as saying that,

“commercial newspapers should expect over time less state advertising as more information is syndicated online by local authorities for free. The flipside is the free press should not face state unfair competition from town hall newspapers and municipal propaganda dressed up as local reporting”.

This Bill legislates for one side of the quid pro quo. My amendment deals with the flip-side, to use the Minister’s expression. It needs to be in the Bill before it is enacted. Will the Minister tells us in her reply whether it is the Government's intention that the current requirement to publish all statutory notices in newspapers should be ended? If that is the Government’s intention, what is the timescale? Is it the two years that the Secretary of State has referred to? If that is not the intention, how do they intend to give effect to Brandon Lewis’s statement? Assuming that it is the Government’s intention, as I hope and believe it is, will the Minister tell us how and when the Government expect to remove or at least change the current legislative requirement?

Within two years clearly means in the lifetime of this Government. Surely the Government are not intending to legislate separately for this in the last few months before a general election. While it would be wonderful if this amendment was accepted today, I expect to be neither surprised nor disappointed if it is not. I made clear in Grand Committee that what I am seeking is a clear commitment from the Government that they will use this Bill to give legislative effect to whatever change they propose to take effect within the next two years.

Given the reported comments of the Secretary of State since Grand Committee and the renewed interest in and speculation about the Government’s intentions, I hope that the Minister will make the position clear beyond any doubt in her reply today. I beg to move.

My Lords, I will add a brief comment about this, because from the perspective of the general public it is a very important issue. I understand that the Secretary of State has made a statement, published in the Local Government Chronicle, that a change will be effected in two years’ time. However, we need to be a bit clearer about what this might mean because of the rights of people to know what statutory notices are being placed that they might be interested in.

As I understand it, newspapers can still be used, which I welcome because newspapers in many parts of the country still have a role in publishing statutory notices. However, that will become a matter for a local council to decide. Let us also note that in the second part of this amendment my noble friend Lord Tope is saying that a local authority has to use a means of publicity that will bring it to the attention of the greatest number of people in the area. I hope no local authority thinks that that means it need not advertise on local lampposts and notice boards. If you are going to get to the greatest number of people, using local lampposts is a very effective means of achieving that.

I think the Secretary of State was quoted as saying that he prefers websites to be used in future. However, I will make three proposals to the Minister that might be thought about when the time comes to issue guidance. It is very easy for information to be lost on websites. There has to be a link to statutory notices from a council’s main page, and the website has to be easy to navigate to get the information off it. I also ask the Government to introduce an automatic postcode search facility so that someone who wants to inquire, as they do on a planning matter, can input a postcode, as they can in most local authorities, and get a straightforward list of current planning applications in that area. I propose that the same thing should happen for statutory notices.

Other than that, the world is changing around us. While I quite like to read statutory notices in newspapers, I understand the need to move with the times as long as the interests of the general public are protected and information is not hidden from them when lampposts, newspapers and the web could all be used in relevant ways as decided by local authorities.

My Lords, far be it from me to seek to mediate between the coalition parties on this matter, although of course I cannot resist the temptation to do so.

The noble Lord’s proposition is in many ways sensible. Even under the present law, councils certainly have the right to advertise in ways additional to publication in newspapers if they choose. Eventually, no doubt, that will become pretty much par for the course. The Government could facilitate the process by at least reviewing now rather than at some definite point in the future the list of items that have to be publicised, because frankly it is ridiculous. Planning matters are clearly important. However, when it comes to dog control orders or their revocation, the licensing of buskers, charges for street trading licences, abandoned shopping trolleys and charges for public baths and wash-houses, one wonders whether a formal statutory notice of any kind is desired. It is certainly not required, and certainly not in paid publications.

If the Minister were to indicate that the Government will address this matter—it is not that complicated; after all, there are only eight or nine pages of these things to work through—a sensible accommodation could be achieved that still leaves a statutory requirement for publication in newspapers. That should remain as part of a new framework, given that not everyone can look at the website, and there will at least be the opportunity to read a printed version. I hope that that would alleviate some of the concerns of the Local Government Association and, indeed, of the noble Lords who have already spoken. It would not be acceptable for the Government simply to reject the Motion and do nothing about this ridiculous list of notices that have to be published in a paid-for publication at the present time. A gesture from the Government in that respect, other than the normal gesture that one tends to get metaphorically across the Dispatch Box, would be helpful.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for those rather contrary views. Only three people have spoken, and their views were all different, so that is a pretty good start and leaves me with a fine path through.

The purpose of a statutory notice, as everybody clearly knows, is to inform the public about decisions that affect their lives, their property and their amenity. That is especially the case for issues where the public have a limited period in which to respond.

The Committee was in broad agreement that notices should be easily available for local people and that they are vital for local transparency and accountability. The noble Lord has highlighted the cost of statutory notices and suggested that local newspapers are one of the least effective ways to convey information to people. We do not agree. Research by GfK for the Newspaper Society found that the reach of local newspapers was much greater than council websites: 67% of the respondents to that survey had read or looked at their local newspaper for at least a couple of minutes within the past seven days, compared with 9% who had viewed their council website. Some 34% of adults questioned had not accessed the internet at all in the last 12 months.

The most recent internet access quarterly update from the Office for National Statistics, published in May, shows that 7.1 million adults in the United Kingdom—14% of the population—have never used the internet. Two-thirds of over-75s, a third of 65 to 74 year-olds and 32% of disabled people, as defined by the Disability Discrimination Act, have never used the internet. There are quite a lot of people, therefore, who do not, would not and could not use the internet for these notices.

The GfK research for the Newspaper Society showed that local papers are spontaneously cited as the way in which most people—that is, 39%—expect to be informed about traffic changes, for example. My noble friend Lord Shipley will be interested to know that the next placed source of information is street signs, at 26%—they come immediately to notice. When prompted, 79% of all adults responding said that they expect to be made aware of traffic changes in their printed local paper, second only to street signs and ahead of any other communication channels.

Undoubtedly, the requirement to publish some notices in newspapers comes from an age when there was no access to other means of communication. Under present conditions it could perhaps be removed, but the requirement to ensure that these notices are available easily remains as valid today as it always has.

As I said in Committee, the last Administration consulted in 2009 on removing the statutory requirements to publish planning notices in newspapers and found that that was not well received, as noble Lords opposite will remember. Some 40% of respondents to that survey were against the proposals, with a further 20% giving only qualified support. I acknowledge, of course, that that was four years ago. Things have moved on a bit. However, the party opposite concluded that some members of the public and community groups relied on the statutory notices in newspapers, and was not convinced that good alternative arrangements could readily be rolled out. A recent debate in the other place on alcohol licensing notices showed the strength of cross-party feeling against repealing the requirement to publish the notices in newspapers.

In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, said that statutory advertising should not go altogether—I think he repeated that today—and that it was more a question of which statutory notices should be reformed and which should continue to be advertised in newspapers. That can already be done, because departments can put forward particular statutory notices for consideration under the Red Tape Challenge, and that provides opportunities to review a statutory notice. The amendment gives little consideration to which statutory notices are important to local people or where there is a case for retaining publication in a newspaper, and that of course would have to be looked into.

In the internet age, it is clear that commercial newspapers should expect less state advertising over time, as my honourable friend Brandon Lewis has made clear, as more information is syndicated for free online. We accept that newspapers need to develop new business models rather than relying on revenue from statutory notices. However, the newspaper industry is very clear that competition with local authority newspapers, for example, can be damaging.

It would be unfair to remove statutory notices in the blanket way that is being proposed while independent newspapers still face unfair competition from local authority newspapers. We must stop this first before looking at other issues. We acknowledge that the DCLG Select Committee’s recommendations a couple of years ago for a review of publication requirements of statutory notices cannot be ignored in the long term.

I hope that with those explanations the noble Lord will be happy to withdraw his amendment.

Before the Minister sits down, I ask her to comment, as she seems to have forgotten to do so, on the reported comments of the Secretary of State that this requirement will be phased out within two years. He was quoted as saying this by I think three or four Conservative councillors separately, while Brandon Lewis, the Minister, has similarly indicated that the Government intend to change the statutory requirement as a quid pro quo for the legislation that we are in the process of passing. Can the Minister not end this uncertainty now and give us some certainty on what the Government’s intentions are and when they are going to be implemented?

My Lords, I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the debate. An issue that concerns me about statutory notices being advertised in newspapers is that in some of our larger cities there are large communities that have no language to read a local newspaper. It can be very helpful when the council passes out information in appropriate languages, and I do not think that any of the debate we have had so far has given any indication of how this is to be communicated to very large sections of larger cities’ communities.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her intervention. It is perfectly clear that in most cities, where there are large groups of ethnic minorities, they often have their own publications, and anyway I know that most councils are happy to ensure that information is available.

With regard to the review, as I have said, we accept the Communities and Local Government Select Committee’s recommendation that a review must be undertaken. I have no knowledge of the Local Government Chronicle’s information or where it got it from. I have pointed out that it is possible to have statutory notices considered under the Red Tape Challenge at the present time.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Shipley for supporting my amendment. I remain not entirely clear whether or not the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, was supporting it because once again he avoided the issue. He indicates that he does not support it. He called for a cull of the requirements; I said in my introduction that I have much sympathy with that, but, again, it is not the purpose or the point of this amendment.

The Minister answered—I think speaking on behalf of the Newspaper Society—in terms of more people getting their information from the news reporting in local newspapers. The issue is not about whether local newspapers report the news and provide information more adequately or more fully than council websites. It is not about local newspapers, it is about statutory notices published in them. That is very different from news stories that appear on the news pages of a local newspaper. Again, we are avoiding the issue.

I understand and accept that the Minister is not in a position tonight to make the definitive statement that I think everybody now wants. Whatever side of the argument they are on, everybody wants that definitive statement. I accept that the Minister cannot make it but the Government cannot go on simply avoiding the question. They cannot go on as they have done for several years—almost since they were elected—saying that this is under review; at some point that decision has to be made.

The Local Government Chronicle reported a number of Conservative councillors saying separately that the Secretary of State had said this. The DCLG in its statement neither confirmed nor denied it—most of us would accept that that is as near to a confirmation as you are ever going to get. Before long, and certainly before this Bill finishes its passage through the other place, the Government are going to have to state their intention. They are going to have to give a timescale and say how and when they will legislate to amend the 1972 provision. That is clearly not going to happen tonight. I am sad and sorry about that but I have no choice but to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 46 withdrawn.

Amendment 47

Moved by

47: After Clause 39, insert the following new Clause—

“Parish polls

(1) The Secretary of State may by order amend Schedule 12 to the Local Government Act 1972 to make revised provision for parish polls with implications for parish finance.

(2) An order under this section may make provision for—

(a) the number of persons on whose vote may give rise to a parish poll;(b) the purposes for which a parish poll is sought;(c) its application to smaller authorities or authorities with electorates below a threshold to be specified in the order;(d) safeguarding an authority against frivolous or vexatious use of the right to call for a parish poll and disproportionate costs of a parish poll, including circumstances in which an authority conducting the poll may require reimbursement of the cost of a poll from a parish; and(e) the circumstances in which a demand for a poll gives rise to a mandatory or discretionary requirement to conduct a poll including the discretion of the chairman of a meeting at which there is a demand for a parish poll.”

My Lords, this amendment is a further attempt to remedy an issue concerning parish polls. I declare my interest as president of the National Association of Local Councils, which has a particular interest in this. The background to this is already recorded in the Official Report of 26 June. On that occasion I was very gratified to receive not only the general support of the Committee but recognition from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that there is a problem that needs addressing.

Since then, accompanied by the chief executive of NALC, I have had an extremely useful meeting with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, and her departmental officials, and I am extremely grateful to her for that opportunity. I was encouraged by her very positive stance on this, as well as the great care with which her officials had obviously looked into the whole matter.

To summarise, parish polls are a very important way in which matters of interest can be aired and views sought, but they are governed by some fairly archaic legislation, which is more than 40 years old and contained in Schedule 12 to the Local Government Act 1972, and they are open to abuse. The issues are fourfold. First, incredibly minimal requirements are necessary to trigger a parish poll, which I have referred to in the past. Secondly, although it has to be on a parish matter, “parish matter” as a term of art is nowhere defined. Thirdly, once triggered, the costs incurred by the principal authority in conducting the poll are recoverable from the parish. While these may not be great in the overall score of things, in proportionate terms for a parish budget, they are pretty significant. Fourthly, there is no obligation to act on the poll, regardless of its outcome. Indeed, a number of polls have had very poor turnouts and inconclusive or even contradictory outcomes, as was outlined in the report by Action with Communities in Rural England.

This problem can only get worse. In Grand Committee, it was made clear that the Bill might not be the place for such an amendment. I understand that and the reasons for it. Yet it does affect parish finance and has a clear bearing on the way in which a parish is held to account. Equally clearly, there is a dimension of audit, although usually long after the event, as a check that the expense has been properly incurred.

The effect of the amendment would simply be to give the Secretary of State the power to amend by order the provisions of the 1972 Act. It does not of itself change anything in the Bill. The main change in this amendment compared with the previous version is in the five words at the end of proposed new subsection (1),

“with implications for parish finance”.

That was my way of trying to get round the issues to do with the scope of the Bill in terms of financial accountability and audit, which I explained in more detail in Grand Committee.

I am not hopeful that the amendment will prove acceptable. My purpose is to get on the record a firmer commitment to do something about this. The questions really are, if not here and now in the Bill, by this amendment, can something not be done at Third Reading, perhaps with—dare I say it?—a tweak to the Long Title of the Bill; I say that in the knowledge that we will shortly be dealing with a tweak to the Long Title. The best solution would be to accept something along the lines of this amendment in the context of the Bill, because it will be the quickest way of actually achieving something rather than expending powder and shot on trying to find some other parliamentary workaround to deal with what is, after all, not really the biggest of nuts to crack and which should not require a huge hammer to deal with.

Public money is at stake. If my amendment is not acceptable, and there is no tinkering with words that will make it so, perhaps the Minister could undertake to use reasonable endeavours to see if the Commons, with its wider powers over the scope of Bills, could be persuaded to do something. I believe, and have to accept, that the regulatory reform procedure is of no help here. The fall-back position, as I understand it from Grand Committee, would be for a Private Member’s Bill to be brought forward in a future Session, but at the cost of a further delay. If that is the only way forward, although it seems an awfully long-winded way of achieving something that really should be fairly uncontroversial, so be it. I would be happy to offer any assistance or activity on my part that could bring that forward. Perhaps the Minister could give an indication of whether, in that fall-back event, such a single-issue Bill would, in principle, receive government support and, more crucially, time to see it through. I beg to move.

My Lords, we are sympathetic to the position adopted by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, As my noble friend Lord Beecham said in Committee, the noble Earl has explained the archaic regime that exists at the moment for parish polls, the small numbers involved in calling a poll, the fact that the poll is not binding and the financial cost being recoverable for the parish. I would have thought an effort to address that would be well worth while. Indeed, the noble Earl’s amendment suggests that there should be an order-making power inserted into the Bill. Obviously, once the amendment itself has been accepted, it is presumably within the scope of the Bill; otherwise it would not be on the Marshalled List.

I do not see why it cannot be done. Maybe the wording needs to be changed. If the Government are reluctant to pick this issue up because they think that there are broader issues involved and it needs to be dealt with in some different way, perhaps we could hear that. However, if there is sympathy for the noble Earl’s proposition, and we are just looking for a parliamentary process to facilitate that, why not an order-making power?

My Lords, we, too, are sympathetic to this amendment, and I am grateful to the noble Earl for having brought it to the attention of the House. We all recognise that parish polls are a way for local people to achieve something they want that is relevant and appropriate to the area over which they have authority. The noble Earl made it clear in Committee that sometimes that area extends to the European Union, which seems rather beyond the competence. We accept that there are concerns about the threshold for polls being called. I am very grateful to the noble Earl for coming to spend a bit of time with us, and we have had an opportunity to talk about it.

The way in which the noble Earl has constructed this amendment just about puts it within the scope of this Bill, but it is not wide enough for all that needs to be done. We believe that the scope can be made wider in the other place. We need to look at that carefully and will come back to it. I hope very much that we will be able to say that we will take that up and see it dealt with in the other place. If we cannot, then we are in the sort of territory that the noble Earl has talked about—a Private Member’s Bill or a hand-out Bill. I assure him that the Government are supportive of what he has said, and I give an undertaking to the House to take this away and look at how we can get it implemented in the best and quickest way. I hope that the noble Earl will be willing to withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, in the light of that undertaking by the noble Baroness, it would be entirely churlish of me, especially at this time of night, to seek to do anything other than to withdraw this amendment. I do so with my enormous thanks to her and her officials for the input that they have had on this. I have my fingers crossed for a later stage. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw this amendment.

Amendment 47 withdrawn.

Schedule 12 : Related amendments

Amendment 48

Moved by

48: Schedule 12, page 79, leave out lines 19 to 27 and insert—

““(1A) The Chief Inspector may do anything the Chief Inspector thinks appropriate to facilitate the carrying out of an inspection under section 10 of the Local Government Act 1999 (inspection of best value authorities).”, and”

My Lords, these amendments refine the provisions in the Bill that enable existing inspectorates to co-operate with an inspector, appointed by the Secretary of State, to inspect a best-value authority under Section 10 of the Local Government Act 1999, as amended by this Bill. Clause 33 and Schedule 10 to the Bill give a similar power to the Secretary of State’s existing power to ask for an inspection of a best-value authority. This is intended for use as a last resort in very serious cases, such as the ongoing intervention in Doncaster.

Paragraphs 2, 25, 36, 38, 54 and 72 of Schedule 12 amend existing legislation to enable existing inspectorates to co-operate with such a corporate governance inspection, as they sometimes do at present. The relevant bodies and inspectors are Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Probation, and Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service. The amendments to each of these paragraphs of Schedule 12, which take the same approach in each case, achieve this policy intention more cleanly. They remove the provision suggesting that a chief inspector may be appointed under new Section 10 as an inspector by the Secretary of State to inspect a local authority. This is because it is unlikely that it would be the chief inspector himself or herself who would undertake the inspection. Instead, it simply states that the chief inspector—or the commission, in the case of the Care Quality Commission —may do anything they think appropriate to “facilitate” such an inspection. This could include releasing staff to form part of an inspection team. All these amendments allow bodies to co-operate; they do not compel them to do so. We believe that these amendments simplify and clarify our approach without significantly affecting the impact of the Bill. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that explanation. I was puzzled by what the substantive difference was between some of the clauses in the Bill and those that replaced them, but I believe the noble Lord’s explanation has helped me in that regard and I am happy to support his amendments.

Amendment 48 agreed.

Amendment 49

Moved by

49: Schedule 12, page 81, line 21, at end insert—

“(1) Section 22 (other local authority capital controls in England and Wales) is amended as follows.

(2) For subsection (5) substitute—

“(5) In a case where the controlling authority of a public airport company are—

(a) a county council or county borough council in Wales, or(b) a composite authority of which both or all the constituent councils are county councils or county borough councils in Wales,it shall be the duty of the controlling authority to exercise their control over the public airport company so as to ensure that the company appoints as auditors of the company only persons who, in addition to meeting the requirements of Part 42 of the Companies Act 2006 (statutory auditors), are approved for appointment as such auditors by the Auditor General for Wales.(5A) In any other case, it shall be the duty of the controlling authority of a public airport company to exercise their control over the company so as to ensure that the company appoints as auditors of the company only persons who meet the requirements of Part 42 of the Companies Act 2006 (statutory auditors).”

(3) In subsection (6), after “(5)” insert “or (as the case may be) (5A)”.”

My Lords, this is another group of government amendments. It includes Amendments 49, 50, 54 and 55, 57 to 62 and 64, which remove redundant references to the Audit Commission and make clarifications to related provisions in existing legislation.

Amendment 49 is a consequential amendment to the Airports Act 1986. Amendment 50 makes a similar amendment to the Education Reform Act 1988. Amendment 54 repeals sections of the Public Audit (Wales) Act 2004, which place duties on the Auditor-General for Wales and the Audit Commission to co-operate with each other when necessary in undertaking value-for-money studies, et cetera.

Amendment 55 amends the Public Audit (Wales) Act 2004 to remove provisions which enable a transfer scheme of property, assets and liabilities from the Audit Commission to the Auditor-General for Wales.

Amendments 57 to 61 deal with the National Health Service Act 2006. Amendments 57 and 60 are tidying-up amendments, which simply clarify how an auditor may be appointed to a clinical commissioning group and other NHS bodies under the Bill. These bodies may not always appoint their own auditors; the appointment may be made on their behalf in certain circumstances by the commissioning body or the Secretary of State.

Amendments 58 and 61 replace the references to the Audit Commission Act in Schedule 4 to the National Health Service Act 2006 with the relevant provisions from this Bill which relate to reports and other information in respect of NHS trusts in England. Amendment 59 amends paragraph 23 of Schedule 7 to the National Health Service Act 2006 so that an NHS foundation trust can appoint an auditor who is eligible under this Bill, thus replacing the reference to the Audit Commission Act 1998.

Amendment 62 inserts an amendment to the National Health Service (Wales) Act 2006 to remove the reference to the Audit Commission Act 1998. The audit of Welsh health service bodies is now within the remit of the Auditor-General for Wales. Amendment 64 removes provisions in the Public Audit (Wales) Act 2004 which amend other legislation but which are now superfluous, given other amendments to those Acts made by this Bill. I beg to move.

Amendment 49 agreed.

Amendments 50 to 64

Moved by

50: Schedule 12, page 81, line 33, at end insert—

“Education Reform Act 1988 (c. 40)The Education Reform Act 1988 is amended as follows.

In section 124B, omit subsection (5) (duty of certain higher education corporations to consult Audit Commission before appointing auditor in respect of first financial year).

In paragraph 18 of Schedule 7 (higher education corporations)—

(a) omit sub-paragraph (4) (duty of certain higher education corporations to consult Audit Commission before appointing auditor in respect of first financial year),(b) in sub-paragraph (5) for “that sub-paragraph” substitute “sub-paragraph (3) above”, and(c) in sub-paragraph (6) omit the definition of “the first financial year” and the “and” which follows it.”

51: Schedule 12, page 83, leave out lines 5 to 13 and insert—

““(1A) The chief inspector of constabulary may do anything the chief inspector thinks appropriate to facilitate the carrying out of an inspection under section 10 of the Local Government Act 1999 (inspection of best value authorities).”, and”

52: Schedule 12, page 84, line 42, leave out from beginning to end of line 6 on page 85 and insert—

““ (1A) The Chief Inspector may do anything the Chief Inspector thinks appropriate to facilitate the carrying out of an inspection under section 10 of the Local Government Act 1999 (inspection of best value authorities).”, and”

53: Schedule 12, page 85, leave out lines 28 to 36 and insert—

““(1A) The chief inspector may do anything the chief inspector thinks appropriate to facilitate the carrying out of an inspection under section 10 of the Local Government Act 1999 (inspection of best value authorities).”, and”

54: Schedule 12, page 88, line 11, at end insert—

“Omit section 43 (co-operation with Audit Commission).

Omit section 57 (provision of information to Audit Commission).

In section 62, omit paragraph (b) (co-operation with Audit Commission).”

55: Schedule 12, page 88, line 15, at end insert—

“52A (1) Schedule 3 (transfer schemes) is amended as follows.

(2) In paragraph 1(1), omit paragraph (b) and the “and” preceding it.

(3) In paragraph 2—

(a) in paragraph (a) after “Wales,” insert “and”, and(b) omit paragraph (c) and the “and” preceding it.52B (1) The amendments of Schedule 3 to the Public Audit (Wales) Act 2004 by paragraph 52A do not affect—

(a) the transfers of property, rights and liabilities of the Audit Commission to the Auditor General for Wales by a scheme under that Schedule, or(b) the operation of that Schedule or of such a scheme in relation to those transfers.”(2) In this paragraph “the Audit Commission” means the Audit Commission for Local Authorities and the National Health Service in England.”

56: Schedule 12, page 89, leave out lines 5 to 13 and insert—

““(1A) The Chief Inspector may do anything the Chief Inspector thinks appropriate to facilitate the carrying out of an inspection under section 10 of the Local Government Act 1999 (inspection of best value authorities).”, and”

57: Schedule 12, page 89, line 23, leave out from “2013” to end of line 24

58: Schedule 12, page 89, line 25, leave out paragraph 58

59: Schedule 12, page 89, line 41, at end insert “, and

(c) in paragraph (c) for “any other” substitute “a”.”

60: Schedule 12, page 90, line 28, leave out from “2013” to “and” in line 29

61: Schedule 12, page 90, line 30, at end insert—

“(1) Until the repeal of Chapter 3 of Part 2 of the National Health Service Act 2006 by section 179 of the Health and Social Care Act 2012 is fully in force, Schedule 4 to the National Health Service Act 2006 (NHS trusts) has effect with the following modifications.

(2) In paragraph 12 (reports and other information)—

(a) in sub-paragraph (2)(b) for “section 8 of the Audit Commission Act 1998 (c. 18) or paragraph 19 of Schedule 8 to the Government of Wales Act 2006 (c. 32)” substitute “paragraph 1 of Schedule 7 to the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2013”, and (b) in sub-paragraph (2A) for “section 8 of the Audit Commission Act 1998” substitute “paragraph 1 of Schedule 7 to the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2013”.”

62: Schedule 12, page 90, line 30, at end insert—

“National Health Service (Wales) Act 2006 (c. 42)In paragraph 12(2)(b) of Schedule 3 to the National Health Service (Wales) Act 2006 (NHS trusts established under section 18 of that Act: reports and other information) omit “section 8 of the Audit Commission Act 1998 (c. 18) or”.”

63: Schedule 12, page 92, leave out lines 27 to 35 and insert—

““(1A) The Commission may do anything it thinks appropriate to facilitate the carrying out of an inspection under section 10 of the Local Government Act 1999 (inspection of best value authorities).”, and”

64: Schedule 12, page 98, line 24, at end insert—

“( ) paragraphs 9(2) and 20(b) of Schedule 2 to the Public Audit (Wales) Act 2004;”

Amendments 50 to 64 agreed.

Schedule 13 : NHS trusts and trustees for NHS trusts: transitory and saving provision

Amendment 65

Moved by

65: Schedule 13, page 101, line 26, leave out paragraph 10 and insert—

“Section 20(2A) (general duties of auditors of accounts of health service bodies) is to be read as if—

(a) for “accounts of special trustees for a hospital” there were substituted “accounts of a health service body other than a clinical commissioning group”, and(b) in paragraph (c)— (i) for “the special trustees have” there were substituted “the body has”, and(ii) for “their” there were substituted “its”.”

Amendment 65 agreed.

Amendment 66

Moved by

66:In the Title, line 9, leave out “for directions to comply” and insert “about compliance”

My Lords, in response to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee report on the Bill, we have amended Clause 38. Provisions for compliance with the code now include the power for the Secretary of State to make a direction requiring individual authorities to comply with some or all of the code, and that the exercise of the power to ensure compliance with the publicity code in relation to classes of, or to all, local authorities should be made by an affirmative statutory instrument. As a consequence of this, we are required to amend the Long Title of the Bill to accurately reflect that a requirement to comply may not be the result solely of a direction. Our amendment makes this clear in the Long Title of the Bill. I beg to move.

My Lords, we have spent some time debating the requirements on local authorities to comply with the code of practice. I suppose this is our last opportunity to comment before Third Reading and the eventual passage of the Bill to the House of Commons. It is an opportunity to reiterate the problems that many of us envisage in the Government’s approach.

I suppose we ought to be grateful to the Government for clarifying the Title of the Bill, but the Title is almost irrelevant to the substance with which councils will have to contend. The further accretion to the Secretary of State of powers to direct individual councils is not a concession from the original proposition that a direction can be given to all councils. In replying to this short debate, will the Minister indicate exactly how the Secretary of State intends to go about giving his directions, whether to individual local authorities or to categories of local authorities? Would he envisage doing so after consultation and, if so, with whom: individual authorities or the Local Government Association?

Who else might the Secretary of State involve in the consultation process? For example, before making any direction, would he consult the local print media, which he purports to be most concerned about? How would he do that, particularly if he is issuing a general direction? Has the Secretary of State consulted at all, with anybody, about this proposal, thus far? It would be interesting to know whether he has had meetings with, for example, the Newspaper Society, if that is the correct name of the outfit in question, assuming that it has time to indulge in such consultations while the Leveson report remains undetermined.

There is a fundamental problem with the Government’s approach, which largely depends on what I have described —accurately, I think—as an obsession of the Secretary of State and has very little to do with the reality on the ground. I had the opportunity today of a brief conversation with representatives of the National Union of Journalists who were ensconced in Portcullis House. I do not know whether any other Members of your Lordships’ House were invited to meet them, but they stressed again their opposition, as members of a union that represents journalists both in local government and in the print media—

I wonder whether my noble friend can help me before he leaves this subject. I refer to the change in the Title of the Bill, for the reasons that were outlined. By tweaking the Title further, as we have just discussed, might there be a way of facilitating the desire of the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, in respect of parish polls? Does my noble friend think that that could that be accommodated by changing the Title of the Bill?

I certainly do, but it would be more relevant to know whether the Minister will accept that point. In a moment or two, I shall give him the opportunity to make his position clear.

As I said, the National Union of Journalists, representing journalists across the piece, feels very strongly that the Government’s stance on this is entirely unjustified. Having said that, it would be remiss of me not to point out to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, that the NUJ has great reservations about the amendment that he moved. However, I will be interested to hear what the Minister says in reply before the debate ends.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for those points. Many of them deserve further conversation in the Corridors and elsewhere. The Bill is part of a long process by which we hope to devolve more power to the cities and local authorities of England—an objective that I know the noble Lord shares. There are many difficulties in doing so, particularly during a recession when there are insufficient funds to do everything that one would like to. However, that is the objective, which I hope is shared across the House, and which I hope we will have the opportunity to explore further in future debates.

Amendment 66 agreed.

House adjourned at 10.41 pm.