Clause 8
Local Authorities (Overview and Scrutiny) Bill
10:45 am

Membership of overview and scrutiny committees

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

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Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich, Labour)

We come to another issue highlighted on Second Reading and by the hon. Member for Beckenham this morning. I share her concerns, of course, because I voiced the same ones on Second Reading.

The effect of the amendments made by subsections (2) and (3) is to allow an overview and scrutiny committee to include members of the local authority’s executive, when the committee is not scrutinising matters relating to the executive. There are also powers to make regulations for further provisions to avoid conflicts of interest. My concern is to avoid creating false relationships, in which a local authority member might be a partner of a body one day and scrutinising it the next. That is a difficult situation, which should be avoided if possible.

My second concern is to avoid the overview and scrutiny members in a local authority to some extent having their important role usurped by executive members, who have far greater powers in the normal course of events. However, I accept that there might be circumstances in which, in the interests of good scrutiny, the expertise of an executive member might be useful as part of that process. I look to the Minister to say that there needs to be very careful drafting of the regulations to ensure that while the permissive power may be used in appropriate circumstances, it is hedged around with sufficient safeguards to avoid the two particular problems that I have highlighted.

Mrs. Laitrose—

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Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich, Labour)

The hon. Lady, I am sure, wants to add to those remarks, so I shall finish mine on that point.

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Jacqui Lait (Beckenham, Conservative)

I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I could not have put the point better myself. There is a potential resolution to the problem, because the issue of conflict of interest is very important and  could lead to a lot of trouble in the future. There are not many councils I know that could be browbeaten, but it is possible that an executive member could browbeat the other members of the overview and scrutiny committee, and that is not a satisfactory situation.

Obviously, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich hopes that the Minister will reassure him, but I hope that it is possible to come forward with a joint amendment on Report to deal with the issue. My suggestion, as somebody who has observed local government but has never been part of it, is that the executive member could be a witness; they would then not need to be part of the overview and scrutiny committee. The witness could be called more than once if issues arose that affected any contract or local area agreement. That would be more satisfactory than putting the executive member in the unenviable position of having a conflict of interest, or of being accused of browbeating the committee.

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David Drew (Stroud, Labour)

This is the one part of the Bill that I have some difficulty with, based entirely on my own experiences. The problem is, who decides who goes on overview and scrutiny committees and, subsequently, who chairs those committees? We all probably have, or know of, examples where a majority group—often a very strong majority group—can unfairly influence the whole process, which is based on our Select Committees. However, we come to some sort of arrangement here in the House of Commons through the usual channels; in local government there is no equivalent. It is quite within the power of a majority group to appoint its own chairs—clearly not an executive, but its own chairs—from that party to every one of the committee chairs and to influence who goes on the overview and scrutiny committees.

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Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Certainly, in my experience of local authorities, the majority group often seeks to appoint somebody. It is a paid position and a lucrative position. In effect, where the majority party appoints them, they become almost an addendum to the executive cabinet system that operates. That is absolutely the opposite of what the scrutiny committee should be and should do.

11:00 am
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David Drew (Stroud, Labour)

And that is the whole point. Clearly, they are entirely reliant on those who appoint to keep themselves in that position. I ask my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich to look at that issue. In fact, the problem goes beyond that unacceptable situation. I have seen examples of the majority group not only appointing the chairs but influencing who goes on the committees, to the extent that, where another group has put forward a proposal, the person in question has not achieved the satisfactory level of support and somebody else—either from another group or even, ludicrously, from the same group—has been put on that committee by another party. That brings into question the whole basis of the independence and objectivity of these committees.

One thing we pride ourselves on here is our Select Committees: if they are not independent and objective they are completely useless. That is why I am always nervous about PPSs going on to Select Committees,  even in desperation when we have to make the numbers up. They are inevitably wearing two hats, even though the Committee may not be in their Minister’s area. There is inevitably confusion if not in their minds, then in the minds of other Committee members and—dare I say it?—in the minds of those whom we represent. Which hat are they wearing at any one time?

We need to look at this issue. This is one of the few improvements to come from the loss of the committee system. As a long-term servant of local government I had some loyalty to that system, although I accept that it had its weaknesses as well. The problem is that in moving to the current system of overview and scrutiny, these committees have to be independent and objective and must be seen to be so. It is not acceptable to have people from the executive on them. I hope that we can look at this again on Report so we can establish that.

I am going beyond where we are now but this is a real problem in local government at the moment, and it could be a growing problem, because unless we nip it in the bud, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said, there will be some slippage. This could be quite a nice position for someone who is not on the executive but who is in a strong majority situation, and who could be encouraged to think that this is another job they can do.

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Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)

My hon. Friend makes a strong point. A scrutiny committee chair is a paid position that is subject to annual appointment. In practice, what happens is that a council election takes place and an executive is established. A scrutiny committee chair is appointed, and they may even give up their own job to do this. I am sure that the knowledge that they may not be reappointed a year later fetters their judgment and their ability to scrutinise seriously what is going on. It is a real issue. If we are to achieve effective scrutiny, there has to be some degree of independence.

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David Drew (Stroud, Labour)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich knows what I am saying, and I am in no way trying to wreck this laudable Bill. My hon. Friend the Minister also hears what I am saying: I am just describing what I have seen as real, practical problems. Even if they are not in any way what is actually going on, the perception of what could go on influences for the worse the best part of the reforms.

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Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne, Liberal Democrat)

The hon. Gentleman has highlighted some weaknesses in the existing system, which the clause could exacerbate. Perhaps there needs to be a wider rethink of the options available to local authorities. In some cases it might require a return to the committee system or a more effective counterweight to that. The key issue is that the set-up of the current overview and scrutiny system also muddies these waters quite a lot.

For example, the health and adult services overview and scrutiny committee scrutinises services that the council the local primary care trust delivers. Those are very different roles. In one case, it is clear why there might be an argument for having an executive member sitting on a committee scrutinising the work of the PCT, but it would be entirely inappropriate for them to be sitting on a committee scrutinising work they were undertaking themselves.

We need to work out whether it is possible to separate those two issues. Could the executive member attend at the invitation of the committee? That might be a way of doing it. Participation could be linked to a specific report or investigation, so that there was participation only on issues that went beyond the remit of the local authority, but that were subject to scrutiny by the committee.

I see some value in this measure if councils need to campaign on an issue. We should remember that councils not only deliver services but have a campaigning role to fulfil. I understand the benefit of an executive member adding weight to an investigation or scrutiny process, but we must ensure that the various elements are properly separated. I hope there is some way of doing that, and that the Minister and her officials will put their minds to it.

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Brian Binley (Northampton South, Conservative)

I support the comments of the hon. Member for Stroud and others, and I agree that this is one of the greatest weaknesses of the overview and scrutiny process. It is not a party political thing in any sense; it spreads right across controlling groups from all political parties. I urge the Bill’s promoter to think about the matter in more depth. I know how wise he is, and he has tried to be so with the Bill, but I am not sure that it gives quite enough consideration to the problem.

I wish to make three points. First, scrutiny chairmanships can offer a massive opportunity to reward loyal retainers. That is the truth of the matter, and it is happening more and more. Of course, that flies in the face of the very purpose of overview and scrutiny committees. Secondly, the bigger the majority, the greater the problem. The very fact that there is a big majority means that there are not enough people from other parties to fill those roles. We need to think about that, too.

Finally, in such cases overview and scrutiny becomes an adjunct and supporter of the executive. Again, that totally undermines the reason for the overview and scrutiny arrangements that the Government initially proposed. Those weaknesses are not rare, but relatively widespread. I consequently urge the Bill’s promoter to see what he can do to make the business of overview and scrutiny a more effective tool for local government in such circumstances. At the moment, it could easily become a total supporter of the executive and thus lose all reason for its existence.

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

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich said, concerns about clause 8 were raised on Second Reading. In particular, Members were concerned that the provision would undermine the overall structure of accountability in local authorities, with scrutiny committees acting as a check and balance against a strong executive.

I assure the Committee that we do not intend to use the regulation-making power to blur the important distinction between the executive’s role in the strategic leadership of the council and the scrutiny committee’s role of holding the executive to account. Like the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne and others, we believe that there may be circumstances—for instance, if a committee is scrutinising an external body on matters of local concern in which the council has played  no part—in which the capacity to enable members of the executive to be present could improve the scrutiny of such matters and may be more productive to the benefit of the local community.

Like the Committee, however, the Government realise that that could be difficult. Allowing each council to decide whether a member should be present could result in pressure, which is why I urge my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich to work with me and my officials on a way forward that we could introduce on Report.

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Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich, Labour)

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s suggestion, and I would be more than happy to work with her and her officials. I would also like to engage other members of the Committee who have spoken on the matter. There is complete agreement across all parties that the issue needs to be addressed, and I would like to be able to table an amendment on Report that deals with it, while at the same time recognising that there may be merit, in certain circumstances, in deploying the expertise of executive members as part of such scrutiny. However, it must be on terms that do not undermine the role of the scrutiny committee.

Mr. Binleyrose—

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Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich, Labour)

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in just a moment. I refer to his speech in saying that I would not want such participation to create a situation where there is patronage and where the executive, through control of scrutiny appointments, essentially neutralises the effectiveness of the scrutiny. That would be a complete breach of everything that we seek to achieve with better scrutiny.

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Brian Binley (Northampton South, Conservative)

I simply ask whether the right hon. Gentleman thinks this might be workable: one way of ensuring that the executive has no role to play whatsoever in the appointment of chairmen and members of the scrutiny committee would be to leave that for non-executive councillors to decide among themselves. I recognise that undue influence could still be applied in that scenario, but less easily so than in the present situation, in which the executive often decides who should be the chairman, vice-chairman and so on of scrutiny committees. They make decisions for their own reasons and not for the reasons of good scrutiny.

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Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman’s observation is interesting, not least because he makes it in the week in which the House will vote on issues relating to the appointment of Select Committee members. I would like to reflect on that. It would be difficult within the structure of the Bill to make far-reaching changes to existing scrutiny arrangements; nevertheless, he makes a good point.

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Jacqui Lait (Beckenham, Conservative)

In the interests of co-operation, another thought that has crossed my mind is to give the executive member a status similar to that of an adviser to a Select Committee.

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Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich, Labour)

The role of adviser, and the possibility of executive committee members being invited to attend by the scrutiny committee, rather than having a right to attend, as I believe was suggested by the hon. Member  for Falmouth and Camborne, are both interesting options. I would like to reflect on them and speak further with colleagues and, obviously, with the Minister and her officials, then try to shape an amendment that would address those issues on Report. With that, I ask Members to agree that the clause should stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 8 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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Joan Humble (Blackpool North and Fleetwood, Labour)

Before we move on to debate clause 9, Members may wish to note that, under the terms of Standing Order 88(2), I am normally required to adjourn the Committee at 11.25 am. However, the Standing Order also provides for me to defer the adjournment for a maximum of 15 minutes—that is, until 11.40 am—if, in my opinion, there is a realistic prospect that the deferral would enable the Committee to conclude its proceedings during the sitting. That is my opinion, so I give notice to Members that the Committee will adjourn, at the latest, at 11.40 am. There can be no further extension beyond that.

Clauses 9 to 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)

You do not need the 15 minutes, Mrs. Humble.

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Joan Humble (Blackpool North and Fleetwood, Labour)

My role is to facilitate the debate, and to ensure that Members have their say.

Question proposed, That the Chairman do report the Bill to the House.

11:15 am
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Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich, Labour)

Before we conclude our business, I thank you, Mrs. Humble, for presiding with great skill and charm over our interesting proceedings. I thank all members of the Committee for their time and contribution. I hope that, despite the difficulties that have emerged in the course of the Committee’s work, we can find a constructive way forward.

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Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)

There is an important point to be resolved with the Minister on the question of scrutiny committees and the chairing of them. Can my right hon. Friend indicate how quickly that can be done, so that we do not lose the opportunity of getting this valuable private Member’s Bill on to the statute book before the great reaper arrives?

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Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich, Labour)

Alas, that poses all sorts of questions that I am not in a position to answer. As my hon. Friend will know, I have done my utmost to try to ensure rapid progress on the Bill. I will continue to do my utmost to  ensure that it progresses constructively and, hopefully, with agreement through its remaining stages in the House. Beyond that, we are in the lap of the gods.

In conclusion, I thank the Clerks for looking after today’s arrangements so efficiently, and I thank the police and others who have helped to ensure our proceedings are carried forward in an expeditious way. I recommend that the Bill now be reported, as the motion requires.

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Jacqui Lait (Beckenham, Conservative)

May I add my thanks to you, in particular, Mrs. Humble? It has been a cheerful Committee, despite the degree of disagreement that has been evident. I was very interested in some of the Back-Bench comments. The Committee stage has shown which areas we need to work on on Report and which require more clarification, so your excellent chairing has allowed us to do that. I also want to thank the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich for picking up the Bill at such short notice. We recognise how difficult it is. We will work to introduce the amendments that we think are required in the Bill. I thank my colleagues and other members of the Committee for teasing out the issues, and I thank everyone who has helped to ensure that we have been able to complete this Committee stage in relatively good order.

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Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne, Liberal Democrat)

Thank you, Mrs. Humble, for your very efficient chairmanship and for giving me another 25 minutes in which to speak. I would not go quite as far as the hon. Member for Beckenham and say that it has been good-tempered debate, although the mood seemed to improve as hon. Members woke up. We have discussed important issues that we hope to resolve before Report. The debate has also touched on wider issues, which perhaps exposed the Bill’s limitations. The issues raised about scrutiny committees and membership go far beyond what we have debated here. Perhaps that is something to which we need to return in a different debate. None the less, it has been worthwhile and I am pleased that it has ended on such a concordant note.

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

I echo the remarks made by colleagues. I have enjoyed the Bill and the work that we have done together on it. I would like to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North that we will work as expeditiously as possible to settle the matters before we see the grim reaper, whose actual time of arrival is not yet known.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose.