Clause 6
Local Authorities (Overview and Scrutiny) Bill
10:30 am

Interpretation

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Nick Raynsford

Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich, Labour)

I would not normally rise to speak on an interpretation clause, but this is the opportunity to discuss the role of district councils, which we should touch on briefly, as Members have raised the matter.

The one difficulty that will arise in the case of district councils in two-tier areas is the possible risk of duplication if more than one district were to initiate an inquiry on the same subject simultaneously. That would impose an unreasonable burden on local partners, so it is right that there should be a proper co-ordinated framework. On Second Reading, I expressed concern that the Bill appeared to convey the message that district councils in two-tier areas were excluded. That is not the intention; there should be a proper co-ordinated framework to ensure that issues affecting more than one area are the subject of joint scrutiny. There should not be the kind of duplication about which Opposition Members have rightly expressed concern.

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David Drew (Stroud, Labour)

Would my right hon. Friend see this as an excellent opportunity to move towards unitary authorities as a matter of extreme urgency?

Photo of Nick Raynsford

Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich, Labour)

Whatever my personal view on that subject, I think that we have had enough controversy this morning to lead me not to enter that particular minefield. I shall pass rapidly over my hon. Friend’s question.

It is my understanding—the Minister may wish to add her reassurance—that in no way is it the Government’s intention to exclude district councils and two-tier areas. There should be a proper framework to avoid unnecessary duplication.

Photo of Jacqui Lait

Jacqui Lait (Beckenham, Conservative)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that explanation, and I hope that the Minister can be equally positive. However, it still prompts the question of when the regulations, which are meant to be being prepared, are likely to emerge. Without them, district councils will be excluded. We are considering this legislation against the background of an imminent general election, so if the Bill progresses but the regulations do not, the district councils will be left out.

10:45 am
Photo of Barbara Follett

Barbara Follett (Minister of State (the East of England), Regional Affairs; Stevenage, Labour)

I should like to reassure the hon. Member for Beckenham that we will make the regulations a priority. I am aware of the cliff that we are all facing—

Photo of Jacqui Lait

Jacqui Lait (Beckenham, Conservative)

Over which I hope this lot all fall, but never mind.

Photo of Barbara Follett

Barbara Follett (Minister of State (the East of England), Regional Affairs; Stevenage, Labour)

I do not share the hon. Lady’s hopes; in fact, I have entirely different ones. I look forward to the regulations being taken through the House but, sadly, I will not be here to see it because I am standing down at the general election.

Clause 6 provides that the provisions of part 1 of the Bill, which sets out the framework for the enhanced scrutiny regime, will apply to county councils in England and to London borough councils, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich said. Part 1 of the Bill does not apply to non-unitary district councils.

That approach has been taken to minimise the potential burdens placed on bodies subject to the enhanced regime—I hope that the hon. Member for Northampton, South, will be pleased about that—and to reduce the ever-present risk of duplication. However, that is not to devalue the important work of non-unitary district councils in scrutinising matters of local concern. I can reassure right hon. and hon. Members that such district councils will continue to have a very important role, under both the existing and the enhanced scrutiny regimes, in holding to account and scrutinising the decisions of local public service providers.

Amendments made by the Bill will allow the Secretary of State to extend the enhanced scrutiny powers to joint overview and scrutiny committees. That will enable non-unitary district councils, working with their county council, to take full advantage of the new powers to hold local public service providers to account on behalf of their communities.

The Government intend to work with experts in the field of local government scrutiny to produce best practice guidance on the operation of joint overview and scrutiny committees when the new scrutiny powers that are set out in the Bill are used. That guidance may also include helpful suggestions and illustrative examples of how non-unitary district councils can become involved in that scrutiny work.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 6 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.