Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill

– in the House of Lords at 8:25 pm on 10th October 2007.

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Consideration of amendments on Report resumed.

Clause 83 [Extension of power to certain parish councils]:

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Spokesperson in the Lords (Regional and Local Government), Department for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, in moving the amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 148 to 151. They are intended to raise again the issue of whether all parishes should be given power to promote well-being. This matter was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, at the previous stage. All the amendments delete the term "eligible" and the definition of an eligible authority or parish council—"eligible" meaning a council that,

"meets the conditions prescribed by the Secretary of State".

The Minister explained what was meant by eligibility and the purpose of these amendments is to seek further information on that. She explained that eligibility would be based on the non-statutory quality parish scheme. She said that it,

"provides for tests of criteria for electoral mandate; qualifications of the clerk"— and various other matters—

"proper accountability; and an ethical framework".

I want to ask her about two of those items and to make a general point. First, what is meant by "proper accountability" in this context? We have democratic elections. Is this something to do with the manner in which meetings are held? What scope is there for a parish not being properly accountable within the terms of its constitution? Secondly, I had not understood that the ethical framework was optional; therefore, where does it fit in as regards meeting the test of eligibility.

She ended by saying that,

"it is definitely not about arbitrarily limiting the number of parish councils that can use the well-being power. It is simply about ensuring that these powers are exercised sensibly".—[Hansard, 11/7/07; col. 1489.]

Can the Minister tell the House what is meant by "exercising powers sensibly" or, conversely, what would constitute "non-sensically" or "non-sensibly" or whatever? It sounds as though I am making light of this; I am not. I should like to understand whether the tests which are to be applied and which will be the basis of the Secretary of State's direction are capable of objective assessment or whether they are tests that might be thought to be exercised subjectively. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, we had an interesting debate on this in Committee and went into some detail about notions of eligibility. The amendment has been brought back in a slightly different form, so I think it is worth reminding ourselves why we have attached conditions to this concept and why that is important.

The noble Baroness asked some good questions. Of the four tests, I think I am better prepared on the two that she did not ask about than on the two that she did, but I might get some assistance on the precise notion of the framework.

Essentially, the clause as drafted must be taken with paragraph 7 of Schedule 6, which releases eligible parish councils from the constraints of Section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972. That is the point. As noble Lords know, that provision limits parish councils' discretionary spending to a small amount per local government elector—currently £5.63. The amendment would deprive government of the power to set conditions which parish councils must meet before exercising the well-being power, for which there are very good reasons. The amendment does away with the concept of eligibility in the main clause, but I should advise the noble Baroness that it leaves it in the schedule, which I assume is an oversight.

When we discussed the clause in Committee, noble Lords knew that we were very much against the idea that every parish should automatically be able to exercise the power, together with an unlimited power to incur expenditure. We think it is much better to have in place some simple conditions that will enable parish councils, and their electorates, to be confident that they have a full understanding of the power that they are exercising and a sufficiently strong democratic mandate to justify it. Without being pejorative, we know that parish councils vary hugely in size and ability.

The noble Baroness asked me to define what is sensible. This is a new power and it involves parish councils being able to spend above their current limits. By "sensible", we intend the ordinary meaning of the word—that is, that councils should undertake things which, on the proper judgment of the council, are appropriate to be done and for which they are competent, that there should be a need for them and that they should not strain or overwhelm the council's resources. The local area should benefit from those things without disproportionate cost in terms of time and effort and without them overlapping with any of the things that other layers of local government could do. I do not know whether there is a better definition than that; there probably is but that seems to me to be the sort of approach that we are taking. So far as I know, "sensible" is not defined anywhere.

The conditions that we have imposed simply illustrate that, by introducing the clause, we are prepared to give parish councils the same broad powers as those enjoyed by principal authorities. However, the main difference is that principal authorities have professional support and legal advice. They are also subject to capping if their expenditure becomes unacceptably high. We need to think about that as the comparator when we consider the wisdom of the amendments.

I want to mention two of the conditions first. We have not coupled the well-being power with a proposal to take powers to cap parish council expenditure. We did not want to do that because we are content to rely on the sensibleness of parish councils. However, we also want them to be confident in what they are doing. We want them to have the sort of preparation and support equivalent to that which is available professionally to the other councils.

We do not think that the conditions will be onerous. As I said in Committee, it will be for a parish council itself to determine whether it is eligible and to defend that decision later if challenged, so there is nothing bureaucratic about this. The first of the two practical conditions will be that a good proportion of the councillors will have been elected rather than co-opted. We think that that will probably mean about two-thirds of the councillors being elected, but that will have to be confirmed after a wider consultation following Royal Assent. The second condition is that the councils, and especially their clerks, can certify that they have undertaken a modest piece of training or briefing, which we expect the sector to develop.

It is interesting that parish clerks are rapidly increasing in number and taking the CiLCA qualification—the Certificate in Local Council Administration. About 1,000 have done so, and I understand that it takes about 40 hours of distance learning. Therefore, I am minded to ask the organisers of this qualification to include it in a module covering the well-being power. Even if they are not taking the whole package, clerks will be required to study this module and councillors will be expected to be familiar with it.

I turn to the two questions that the noble Baroness asked. In terms of the ethical framework, it is a fairly obvious application. The quality framework—the QPS—ensures that a parish is thoroughly applying the code of conduct to which it would, in any event, be committed. That is the objective standard.

I was asked what is meant by "accountability". As I said before, we are not slavishly following the QPS, for the reasons that I explained. We are merely taking account of the conditions which establish competence and mandate. That is laid out in the QPS and would be a set of objective indicators as well. If the noble Baroness would like me to do so, I shall certainly send her that part of the QPS so that she can see what sort of elements go into it. I hope that I have answered the three questions sufficiently to reassure her.

In conclusion, it is very gratifying that the sector is very pleased with what we are doing and thinks that we have gone about it in the right way. It thinks the conditions that we have attached are sensible and wearable, and make for a reasonable and comfortable approach in terms of their competence and responsibilities. I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Spokesperson in the Lords (Regional and Local Government), Department for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I shall certainly ask leave to withdraw the amendment in a moment, but I should say that I remain a bit puzzled by the ethical framework. As the Minister says, they have to have it, so I do not understand how it can be part of a standard or test. That may become clear when I see how it is referred to in the QPS.

On how to ensure a democratic mandate, I wrote down, "How could it not?", and the answer came back, "Because there might be too many co-opted councillors". What about appointed councillors? Maybe that will figure in the final form of the scheme. It still sounds a bit subjective, but I think that I have made the point and I am grateful for the further information that this has elicited—not to suggest that it would not have been forthcoming. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 148 to 151 not moved.]

Clause 86 [Community governance petitions]:

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

moved Amendments Nos. 152 to 154:

Clause 86, page 59, line 16, leave out "area to which the petition relates" and insert "petition area"

Clause 86, page 59, line 19, leave out "area to which the petition relates" and insert "petition area"

Clause 86, page 59, line 22, leave out "area to which the petition relates" and insert "petition area"

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 89 [No review being undertaken:duty to respond to petition]:

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

moved Amendment No. 155:

Clause 89, page 60, line 21, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b) and insert—

"(a) a principal council is not in the course of undertaking a community governance review;(b) the council receives a community governance petition which relates to the whole or part of the council's area."

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 90 [Review being undertaken: duty to respond to petition]:

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

moved Amendment No. 156:

Clause 90, page 60, line 35, leave out paragraphs (a) to (c) and insert—

"(a) a principal council is in the course of undertaking a community governance review of part of the council's area ("the current review");(b) the council receives a community governance petition which relates to part of the council's area;(c) the petition area is wholly outside the area under review."

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 91 [Power to respond to petition]:

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

moved Amendment No. 157:

Clause 91, page 61, line 40, leave out subsection (4) and insert—

"(4) The third case is where these conditions are met—

(a) a principal council is in the course of undertaking a community governance review of part of the council's area;(b) the council receives a community governance petition which relates to part of the council's area;(c) the petition area is not wholly outside the area under review.

(5) The fourth case is where these conditions are met—

(a) a principal council is in the course of undertaking a community governance review of part of the council's area;(b) the council receives a community governance petition which relates to the whole of the council's area.

(6) The fifth case is where these conditions are met—

(a) a principal council is in the course of undertaking a community governance review of the whole of the council's area;(b) the council receives a community governance petition which relates to the whole or part of the council's area."

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 92 [Reorganisation of community governance]:

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

moved Amendment No. 158:

Clause 92, page 62, line 12, after "revoke" insert "a provision of"

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 93 [Constitution of new parish]:

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

moved Amendments Nos. 159 to 161:

Clause 93, page 62, line 30, leave out "available" and insert "unparished"

Clause 93, page 62, line 31, leave out "available" and insert "unparished"

Clause 93, page 62, line 36, leave out ""available" and insert ""unparished"

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 94 [Existing parishes under review]:

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

moved Amendment No. 162:

Clause 94, page 63, line 7, at end insert "(if any)"

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 99 [Duties when undertaking a review]:

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

moved Amendment No. 163:

Clause 99, page 65, line 16, at end insert—

"(6A) As soon as practicable after making any recommendations, the principal council must—

(a) publish the recommendations; and(b) take such steps as it considers sufficient to secure that persons who may be interested in the review are informed of those recommendations."

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 100 [Recommendations to create parish councils]:

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords, Department for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 163A, I shall also speak to Amendment No. 163B. They are about a situation that could occur—probably not very often—when the recommendations of what we now call a parish review, which will in future be called a community governance review, recommends the abolition of a parish council. That refers to the second amendment.

The first amendment refers to when the parish review proposes that a parish is too small to have a parish council. My amendment would allow a parish council to be created in appropriate circumstances even if the number of electors was below 150.

We discussed both these issues in Committee in a rather different form, when some of us expressed concern that the Government's proposal would make it more restrictive when community governance reviews have taken place, so that the thresholds on where there can be or has to be a parish council are significantly raised. I have accepted the Government's views on the middle range, where the level at which there has to be a parish council is raised significantly. I do not agree with it but understand that it is a matter for local discussion. There are a number of instances of existing parishes with very active parish councils that in future would be unable to have a council. That is against the philosophy of devolution of allowing appropriate local activities.

The second amendment is about what happens after a community governance review recommends that a parish should be abolished either in whole or in part so that it would be a non-parish area. In other words, after the community governance review, the present parish government would be abolished. That may not happen very often and it may not be very likely, but I know of at least two instances where, I believe, had the district councils had the ability to abolish the only existing parishes within their district they might well have done so. They regarded the parish as being, frankly, a damn nuisance. They refused to parish any of the rest of the district and were continually at war with that parish. Whether that was right or wrong, and whose fault it was in each case, is a matter of opinion. However, if they had had the opportunity to carry out a community governance review and had had the final say, the future of that parish would have been at risk. If a level of government exists and is being abolished altogether, there ought to be a right to a parish poll, not least because parish meetings and polls are an established part of the system of parish governance.

I am proposing that if a community governance review would result in the abolition of a parished area, either all or part of a parish, and a parish meeting is convened to discuss it and passes a resolution, or if a third of the electors—which is quite high, even in small place—demand that a parish poll is held and it is held, the abolition would not take place. When we discussed this in Committee, the Minister said that it was a matter of the Government's proposals for devolution to councils, and that the district councils should therefore have the final say. The problem is that that is a misreading of devolution. Devolution is not just a matter of giving more powers to one particular tier or level in a system of government, but of looking at the system as a whole. There ought to be at least some safeguards against people at one tier, the district tier, of the system taking action against a lower tier, the parish tier—which could be arbitrary or unreasonable but they would legally have the power to do so—without some safeguards to at least constrain them. We have safeguards in Parliament. Between us, we can abolish local authorities if we want to, but only after a whole series of debates, arguments and so on. Devolution needs to go not just to the district, but below and beyond the district to parishes, to at least give people in those areas some guarantee that the districts are not going to make unreasonable decisions.

I am not suggesting that the wording I have put forward is ideal, but that some safeguards ought to be put into the system. This is put forward again in an attempt to make the Government's new proposals for community governance and community governance reviews sensible and practical, and to avoid the sort of unnecessary and unseemly rows at local level which will occur if people think that actions are being taken that are not fair, and against which they have no means of redress at all. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 8:45 pm, 10th October 2007

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for the manner in which he has moved his amendment, which would remove Clause 100(3). Amendment No. 163B relates to decisions, as the noble Lord said, to abolish a parish, and requires parish polls to be used in certain circumstances.

We had similar amendments tabled in Committee and I am afraid to say that the Government's position has not changed; I have "Resist. Resist. Resist." all over my brief. Clause 100(3) provides that a review must recommend that parishes with 150 or fewer local government electors should not have a parish council. The noble Lord's Amendment No. 163A would allow a principal council, as part of a community governance review, to recommend that small parishes with electorates of 150 or fewer have a parish council.

As I stated in Committee, Clause 100(3) has been included in the Bill as we recognise that sometimes there is difficulty in small parishes in getting sufficient numbers of people to stand for election to the parish council. We believe that it is more appropriate in these areas that the parish is represented by a parish meeting. As I stated in Committee, this provision does not apply to an existing parish of the same size which already has a parish council. So any existing parish falling within this category can continue to have a parish council.

We do not believe that Amendment No. 163A is required as we consider that the Bill's provisions will help to resolve existing problems with small parish councils being unable to find sufficient members. We also resist Amendment No. 163B, which inserts a new clause after Clause 100. We have been clear throughout the Bill's progress that Part 4 is about devolving power from central to local government and communities.

The Bill requires principal councils to consult, to take account of representations, and now to make known the outcome of their decisions for putting in place any community governance arrangements. We believe that provision has been strengthened in the course of the Bill. The Bill contains adequate processes and mechanisms to ensure that the views of local people are taken into account. We have also been clear that we do not expect to see parishes abolished—the noble Lord has referred to that—except in those circumstances where the area of the abolished parish is to be included in a new or revised parish area.

A principal council will only be able to recommend the abolition of a parish where it believes that this will meet the criteria set out in Clause 99(4)—to reflect

"the identities and interests of the community in that area, and is effective and convenient".

It will not be able to abolish a parish just because it does not like it. The noble Lord gave an example of how he felt that might be in the mind of the principal council. We believe that it would not be possible to abolish a parish just because there has been internal tension. Principal councils will need to consider local opinion, including that of parish councillors and local electors.

The noble Lord's amendments seek to extend the involvement of local electors through parish meetings having a say in determining the outcome of any review through a motion on recommendations made or through a poll.

We trust local government to act effectively and efficiently when taking decisions on whether a parish should be abolished. As noble Lords are aware, parish polls already exist—the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, explained this—and have done so since the Local Government Act 1972. However, the amendments proposed would fundamentally change the role of parish polls. The result of any parish poll, as the noble Lord will know, is not binding. Therefore the principal council is not under any duty to act on it. The proposed amendment would make the parish poll result, in terms of the abolition of a parish, binding. We do not believe that this fundamental change to the way parish polls operate should be made.

While it is appropriate for local electors to have their say about community governance arrangements, and of course they should be properly consulted on any changes, we consider that it would be wrong to fetter the principal councils' decisions by making them subject to the outcome of parish meeting polls. The Government believe that by allowing parish meeting polls to determine when a parish should be abolished we will be undermining the newly devolved power from the principal council. Local electors and stakeholders should be consulted properly about community governance arrangements, and their views should be fully taken into account.

In conclusion, ultimately we believe that the principal council should take decisions on these matters. We do not wish to, on the one hand, devolve to principal councils, while, on the other, saying that they do not have the ability to implement the recommendations that they believe are appropriate having conducted a full community governance review. We are also keen to encourage contested elections and believe that parish councils in an area with fewer than 150 electors would face difficulties in having contested elections for the minimum of five parish council seats. Therefore, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords, Department for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister's remarks; some were actually quite helpful in the longer scale of things—

Noble Lords:

Oh!

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords, Department for Communities and Local Government

Not all of them, my Lords, but some of them. On the question of the size of parish councils, the threshold issue, the Minister has again relied on the argument that it is sometimes difficult to get people to stand. It is sometimes difficult to get people to stand for parish councils that have 3,000 or 4,000 electors. There are also sometimes intensely contested elections between people for much smaller councils. My argument is that the local circumstances should determine matters, not a blanket number.

However, the Minister said that no existing councils can be abolished. Perhaps she could clarify that in writing. What happens if there is a community governance review that results in continued parish government in an area, but on different boundaries? For example, if there is a parish and an expanding small town and it is sensible to include part of the parish in the small town, the existing parish might continue—perhaps there is a village and scattered farms and housing around it—but on different boundaries. Because of the circumstances, it might fall below the threshold of 150—from, say, 200 to 140. Does that count as a new parish or the existing parish continuing?

That is a technical matter. It might never happen, but if you do not think these things out you get into trouble in due course.

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I do not think that it would count as a new parish, but if I am wrong I will write to the noble Lord on that matter.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords, Department for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, if there were an active parish council in a place, it would be a shame to close it down just because the boundaries had changed.

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, my note, says, "Wouldn't be a new parish. Wouldn't have to abolish".

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords, Department for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I am most grateful. That will lead me to withdraw my amendment, but before I do I will just comment on the second amendment. The Minister said that the Government were not about undermining the powers of principal councils. I thought that double devolution was all about undermining the powers of principal councils. Well, "undermining" may be the wrong word; perhaps "assisting them to exercise those powers through community institutions from below", or something like that, might be more appropriate. I fear that I cannot put it into new Labour words. Even so, if we are serious about double devolution we must accept that often powers must go down.

In relation to the second amendment, the Minister said, "We do not expect to see the death of parishes". Under my reading of the Bill, I do not see how we can prevent local authorities abolishing parishes, but the fact that the Minister has said it here may help some poor parish in its judicial review if it finds itself in that position, so that was a helpful comment.

What will the Government do if local authorities start abolishing parishes unreasonably? There is no right of appeal. There is no veto by means of polls, as I am suggesting. The only recourse would be judicial review. A small parish may well think that it is better to curl up and die than to impose the council tax increase that the cost of judicial review might involve. If the Minister could write to explain what she meant by saying, "We do not expect to see the death of parishes", that would be extremely helpful. She said that they would not be able to abolish a parish just because they did not like it. That is great news, but it does not seem to be what the legislation says. Some information about that would be extremely helpful. In the mean time I am fairly happy to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 163B not moved.]

Clause 102 [Publicising outcome]:

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) 9:00 pm, 10th October 2007

moved Amendments Nos. 164 to 168:

Clause 102, page 66, line 35, leave out subsections (2) and (3) and insert—

"( ) As soon as practicable after a principal council has decided to what extent it will give effect to the recommendations made in a community governance review, the council must—

(a) publish—(i) that decision, and(ii) the council's reasons for making that decision; and (b) take such steps as the council considers sufficient to secure that persons who may be interested in the review are informed of that decision and those reasons."

Clause 102, page 66, line 42, leave out "gives effect to the review" and insert "makes a reorganisation order"

Clause 102, page 66, line 43, at beginning insert "As soon as practicable after making the order,"

Clause 102, page 67, line 6, leave out from "publicise" to end of line 7

Clause 102, page 67, line 10, leave out "a reorganisation" and insert "the"

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Photo of Lord Graham of Edmonton Lord Graham of Edmonton Labour

moved Amendment No. 169:

After Clause 102, insert the following new Clause—

"Appeals

Appeals

(1) This section applies if a principal council decides not to constitute a parish or parish council contrary to the specified recommendation of a community governance petition.

(2) Within 28 days of such a decision an aggrieved person may appeal against that decision by notice in writing to the Secretary of State.

(3) Upon receipt of a notice of appeal the Secretary of State must hold a public local inquiry into the manner in which the principal council has conducted the community governance review.

(4) Following the holding of a public local inquiry the Secretary of State may recommend that a new parish or parish council should be constituted.

(5) The costs of—

(a) holding a public local inquiry under subsection (3), and(b) recommending the constitution of a parish or parish council under subsection (4), shall be met by the council concerned."

Photo of Lord Graham of Edmonton Lord Graham of Edmonton Labour

My Lords, I am pleased to have been here for the earlier debates on this important issue. Being ignorant of the minutiae of parish council life, I have been fascinated by the number of instances that can occur or have occurred that I would never have dreamt of. It helps to make my case. There is a body called the Association for Neighbourhood Democracy, which I am sure is well known to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, which is campaigning for the creation of parish councils in the unparished urban areas of England.

My interest in this aspect of the Bill relates to extending the right to create parish councils in London. My long-time friend, Sir Richard Knowles, who was the leader of Birmingham City Council and who takes a passionate and involved interest in this area, wrote to me. Knowing Dick, this is not just a kite-flying exercise—this might happen or that might happen. I asked him, "What are the grounds on which you believe that a principal council could refuse or not recommend?" He replied, "We have experience where we live of valid submissions, in accordance with law, at the proper time and in due regard, that are not accepted".

That set me thinking. If this Labour Government are deeply involved, as I believe they are, in taking democracy to the lowest levels, but at the lowest level the district council—the principal council—says no, they ought to be as perturbed as I am. There are good people who want to bring a bit more democracy to their little patch, which I would describe as the parish council. What valid reasons are there for being thwarted?

I would hesitate to ascribe such behaviour to principal councils in general. I live in Loughton, which is a town council. The principal council is Epping, and to the best of my knowledge they are both lively, democratic, non-Labour-controlled councils. They still have my regard because of the people and personalities. They are part of the local community.

Only a few people need to be involved. There should be minimum and maximum numbers and rules and regulations. I introduced this amendment because I would like to hear what the Government feel about a situation in which a group of people—whatever the number—want to exercise democracy under limitations and financial restrictions but despite their willingness to do that, they are being refused.

I have scribbled down in my notes the words "grass roots". My amendment would protect and preserve the rights of the grass roots. If they have a point of view, one might say that they have got democratic opportunities, that there are locally elected councillors and all the rest of it. If we believe in taking democracy to the lowest level, there is a great cause.

The Association for Neighbourhood Democracy tells me that there is unwelcome scope here for a principal council to act capriciously and do nothing in consequence of a petition having been duly and lawfully raised. If a request for the creation of a parish council is refused, the aggrieved people should have the opportunity of asking the Secretary of State to intervene, despite the views put forward by the principal council, to the extent of calling on the principal council to indicate what happened when the adverse decision was taken and to give the factors which militated against the request. If the Secretary of State is not satisfied after a public local review created by him, it should be in his powers to,

"recommend that a new parish or parish council should be constituted".

Most importantly, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has pointed out more than once, because of the limited finance available to people at the lowest possible level, they should not to have to bear the costs, which could be substantial from their point of view. The amendment states:

"The costs of ... holding a public local inquiry ... recommending the constitution of a parish or parish council ... shall be met by the council concerned".

It is a reasonable amendment. I do not understand what argument the Minister could have against it, but I shall be interested to hear it. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Needham Market Baroness Scott of Needham Market Spokesperson in the Lords, Department for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. I expect that the noble Baroness will marshal the same arguments that she used in Committee. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, who is not in his place, raised this issue. I am aware of the problem in shire districts where there is dominance by one large town and then a large rural hinterland. Quite often, the large town wishes to have a town council. The district is not so keen because it sees that it would act as an alternative power base. At the moment, the aspirations of the town are not being met and it has nowhere to go. There is a huge sense of frustration that, having been blocked by the district, there simply is no redress. This is a difficult issue.

In Committee, we discussed whether the county council would be the correct body to act as an arbitrator, but the point was made that that would set the county against the district and that possibly having the Secretary of State involved at this stage would put enough distance to depersonalise the issue. There is some merit in that. On the one hand, there is the argument that these are local issues and they should not be decided by the Secretary of State. On the other hand, the Bill is riddled with the interventions of the Secretary of State and our national law is full of controls by the Secretary of State. Asking him in rare circumstances to act as the arbiter of what should happen in a local area is one case where the Secretary of State's intervention could be justified, so I am pleased to support the amendment.

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton has been a good friend of this Bill. I regret it if my response disappoints him and I know that it will disappoint the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market. The Government cannot accept this amendment.

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Government Whip, Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, through the Bill we are making it easier to set up parish councils by devolving power from central to local government and communities, enabling principal councils, districts, unitaries and London boroughs to make decisions and put in place appropriate community governance arrangements, taking account of the views of local people. At present, principal councils have to make recommendations to the Secretary of State and to the Electoral Commission on parish reviews, which are subject to central decisions on whether their proposals should be accepted or rejected. We believe that in the future such decisions should be taken locally. Local decision-making would be undermined if the Secretary of State were able to override the decisions of the local authority. We have to trust local authorities to act reasonably and to make decisions that are in the best interests of their area. That is what devolution is all about, and to that extent I am regurgitating the points I made in Committee, as the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said I would.

I regret that my cough is getting worse. I would be grateful if my noble friend Lady Andrews could take over at this point.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I shall carry on where my noble friend left off. The Bill's provisions require that local people and stakeholders are consulted during a community governance review, and place a duty on principal councils to take into account any representations received. Recommendations must be published so that everyone is aware of the results of the review. We have also brought forward amendments which require the principal council to publish the reasons behind any decisions it makes on whether to implement the recommendations of a community governance review. Part 4 is all about local decision-making and the measures we are taking in the Bill are essentially deregulatory. They devolve powers and decision-making to principal councils. We believe that local authorities are best placed to take these decisions and that central government should not be involved in what is a local matter.

Perhaps I may pick up some of the pertinent questions asked by noble Lords. I hope that there is no question of local people's views being ignored. That would certainly undermine what we are trying to do. Local people can petition the local authority to conduct a community governance review, and if the petition is valid a review must be conducted unless one has been completed in the preceding two years or a review is being conducted for the same area. My noble friend Lord Graham also asked whether the council could act capriciously and what would be the consequences of that. A council cannot act capriciously because that would be irrational and therefore unlawful. It must decide the review on the basis of the criteria set out in the Bill, and that is the greatest safeguard. It is also worth reminding the House that we have sent copies of the draft guidance, which sets out the form we believe the report should take. I believe that noble Lords already have the guidance, and it is available in the Library. However, if my noble friend or the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, want further information or other issues arise, I shall be happy to provide all I can.

Photo of Lord Graham of Edmonton Lord Graham of Edmonton Labour

My Lords, I am grateful to the Ministers, both of whom have taken the trouble to answer the case I have made. I hope very much that my noble friend Lady Crawley did not choke on what I was trying to say. It is not an easy decision. I have pleaded all along during this Bill that local people and local councils should have the right to make decisions. However, while I do not say that they would act capriciously, if in their wisdom councils decide that the case has not been made, of course they have the right to come to that decision. I have argued that when they do come to a decision that they are able to justify, there ought to be a mechanism to allow the aggrieved person or persons the opportunity to have something like a public inquiry. However, I appreciate that there are some matters into which central government should not stray.

The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, alluded to the possibility of jealousy and of people in one area not taking too kindly to people in another area. I shall certainly ask my friends who have written to me on this matter to give me some hard, concrete cases, but I expect there will not be very many because it is all done by interpretation and by committee conclusions of that kind. I am grateful to the Minister. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 106 [Guidance]:

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

moved Amendment No. 171:

Clause 108, page 70, line 21, leave out "the notice required by 102(3)" and insert "the recommendations made in the review"

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 111 ["Local improvement targets": interpretation]:

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

moved Amendment No. 171A:

Clause 111, page 72, line 46, at end insert—

"( ) In this Chapter "national improvement target" means a national target for improvement designated by the Secretary of State in respect of which there shall be a maximum number of 35."

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

My Lords, this part of the Bill moves us on to the vexed question of targets. It is extremely welcome that the Government are lowering the targets, and that has been picked up by local authorities. However, they are very anxious that in reducing the number of targets, a cap is set on the number that the Government will be able to set. The number "35" has stuck in everyone's mind as the maximum that should be imposed from above, though it is recognised that there will also be local targets.

Rather than leave the matter of how many targets are going to be set by the Secretary of State, we are proposing that there should be an upper limit of 35 in the hope that it will eventually come down to fewer than that. This would give a clear indication that the Government fully intend to see that the number is lowered, and will go below that, rather than leave it at an unspecified level for the foreseeable future. That is the reason for the amendment and I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, we had a very good debate on this part of the Bill in Committee, where the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, who is not in his place, were eloquent in describing the notion of putting upper limits on the face of the Bill. I am afraid that I cannot say very much that is new.

If we did provide upper limits I do not think that it would reinforce the principle of devolution, which is part of the argument. It does not follow that limiting the function of the Secretary of State in the foreseeable future would devolve power to local partners, and it would certainly destroy the flexibility that both central and local government will need in the future.

One of the pleasing aspects of the process which has been evolving over the summer as local area agreements have been negotiated in addition to the guidance and so on is that the arrangements for agreeing and implementing targets have been welcomed by organisations as diverse as the LGA, Sport England, the Environment Agency and so on. It is worth remembering that the LAA will now be the only place for central government to agree targets with local authorities and their partners to ensure that core national priorities are reflected in planning for local areas.

In Committee and in the other place, through the Minister for Local Government, we have made commitments that there will be an upper limit of 35 designated targets in the next round of LAA negotiations. That has been re-emphasised in the phase 1 operational guidance, which is in the Library. I recommend it because it is very clear and very good.

The real problem is that legislation is drafted to stand the test of time—we always think very carefully about what we put in Bills in this House—and I do not think that it would be advisable to limit government or local areas in the number of targets they may want to designate for years to come. I understand noble Lords' concerns that the number of designated targets may increase over time if we do not limit the number, but the whole thrust of the Bill and where we are going is to make a real shift towards light-touch steering. It is a real step back by central government from the affairs of local government.

We are therefore going to maintain the devolutionary trajectory of the White Paper in the Bill to ensure that the burden of reporting targets is confined to key national priorities in each area. We do not want to limit the scope for responding to challenges by putting a long-term statutory limit of 35 in the Bill. However, the noble Baroness has our assurance that we do not want the number to be higher, and we have said that it is an upper limit.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I think that the assurance was almost given within what she said—which was that, irrespective of the number of 35, the entire thrust is to push the figure down. Since the figure of 35 has been bandied around for many weeks, we will assume that it will be the upper limit. There is enough on record to suggest that that would be what it is without putting it in the Bill. I thank the Minister for that and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 112 [Duty to prepare and submit draft of a local area agreement]:

Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government

had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 172:

Clause 112, page 73, line 13, leave out subsection (1)

Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government

My Lords, there has been some confusion over groupings at this point in the Bill. Amendments Nos. 172, 173 to 175 and 176 to 187 will therefore not be moved tonight and will be taken at Third Reading. The usual channels have agreed to that process, unusual though it is.

[Amendment No. 172 not moved.]

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

moved Amendment No. 172A:

Clause 112, page 73, line 13, leave out ", a responsible local authority" and insert "a responsible local authority, or a responsible local authority resolves to prepare a local area agreement, that local authority"

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

My Lords, this grouping is very confusing. My noble friend said that he will not move his amendments, but Amendment No. 172A is in this group. It may help the Minister if I tell her that Amendment No. 172A is linked to Amendment No. 177A, which is standing alone. If the Minister is happy for me to do so, I shall speak to them together.

These amendments ensure that local authorities, as well as the Government, can create LAAs, making changes to local improvement targets without the consent of the Secretary of State. We have already discussed this, but as it has become apparent that the Government are not going to give local authorities the power to make entirely autonomous decisions, local authorities should have the right, along with their local partners, to make LAAs. When the Minister discussed this last time she asked us not to make a meal of it and sought to reassure us that she did not want to have a heavy hand, but there is no guarantee and we would like more reassurance in her response. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment No. 172A and will link it to Amendment No. 177A. The group of amendments in which Amendment No. 172A is buried raises many of the same issues and leaves the initiation of the local authority entirely at the discretion of the responsible authority. I alluded to this problem earlier. This is the only place where the Secretary of State, in the form of the government regional officers, can negotiate what are essentially local targets that reflect national priorities. This is the process that we have arrived at. If we were to accept Amendment No. 172A, we could not guarantee, for example, that a local area agreement would be negotiated to a particular timetable. It is important to keep the Secretary of State in the frame in this proportionate but proper way, otherwise local authorities would be left to negotiate their own targets without the national framework, which is very important. We have stripped out many of the national partners. We are now talking about only 200 targets, not 1,200, and looking at a much smaller number of specific indicators, so we need a framework that involves the Secretary of State as one of the negotiating partners. For that reason, I have to resist the amendment.

Would the noble Baroness like me to talk to Amendment No. 177A now, or is she going to move it separately?

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

My Lords, I think that Amendment No. 177A is near enough to Amendment No. 172A for the Minister to respond.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

Indeed, my Lords. Amendment No. 177A inserts "pre-eminent" into the text, and I take it that it is a probing amendment because the noble Baroness is really asking what it means to have regard to a target and how LAA targets will sit within the wider work. Its effect would be to limit the discretion of the partner authorities in what they could prioritise. They will have to give priority to the LAA targets to which they have signed up.

I see what the noble Baroness is getting at here, but because of the implications we would end up with an unsatisfactory situation. Essentially, to start at the beginning, the amendment concerns the role that partner authorities will play in delivering the LAA targets after the negotiations have concluded. Noble Lords have argued for a stronger definition. They are wrong to do so, because if partners must have regard to their LAA targets over and above the other work they do in exercising their functions, that would remove some of the important flexibility that they need in order to respond to unforeseen circumstances.

I know that as the noble Baroness comes out of local government, she will understand what I mean by that. If, for example, a police force agreed to sign up to a target with other local partners to reduce anti-social behaviour in an area, should it then give greater priority to meeting that target than to dealing with a terrorist attack for which it does not have an LAA target? If the Environment Agency signed up to a target for improving leisure and tourism facilities, should it have to have greater regard to it—in terms of time, effort, resources and so on—than to dealing with a catastrophic flood? It is important to retain flexibility so that judgments can be made. It is important that partners themselves have that flexibility to prioritise at any given time, rather than having their options closed off by the amendments.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response to both amendments. I see the response to Amendment No. 177A as more realistic. We are quite anxious to see the Secretary of State removed from local area agreements as much as we can, and Amendment No. 172A was another attempt to do that. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 173 and 174 not moved.]

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

moved Amendment No. 174A:

Clause 112, page 73, line 23, after "authority;" insert—

"( ) other non-statutory partners to the local area agreement;"

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

My Lords, we are getting tired. When are we going to have this guillotine?

With this amendment we are trying to ensure that the voluntary and non-statutory sectors are put on the same footing as other partner authorities. Again, we have discussed this. The voluntary and community sector is becoming very strategic in the delivery of services. There are many examples, particularly in social services, where they are contracting with local authorities to provide those services, so while they have always been an important aspect, they are now becoming even more important. As time goes on, that importance increases. It does therefore not make sense for the Bill to designate just,

"such other persons as appear to be appropriate".

We would like to see the voluntary sector put on the same footing as other partner authorities and included in the Bill. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) 9:30 pm, 10th October 2007

My Lords, I entirely sympathise with the spirit in which the amendment is moved. The Bill lays a new foundation for partnership working in local areas. Clause 110 lists a number of bodies which should act as partner authorities, with various statutory duties placed on them to co-operate in the negotiation of LAA targets and to have regard to them in the course of their business. We know that those arrangements are suitable for some bodies. In previous debates, we went through the nature of those contractual arrangements with public bodies. However, I know that the noble Baroness agrees with me that they are not suitable for all. We agree also that there must be no closed doors. Those bodies which are not named as partner authorities must have the opportunity to contribute meaningfully.

In moving Amendments Nos. 174A and 187A, noble Lords argued that the existing clauses give insufficient opportunity for non-statutory organisations to be involved in the drafting of LAAs and sustainable community strategies. The amendments would require the responsible local authority to consult such non-statutory partners, of which no definition is given, when they make up their LAA. As I said, I understand the intention behind them.

Clause 112(2)(a)(ii) already provides that the responsible local authority,

"must consult ... such other persons as appear to it to be appropriate" during preparations. I stress that the Bill states "must" rather than "may" consult, because it will allow authorities to exercise discretion. There is a balance to be struck. We want local voluntary organisations to be involved—it is essential that they are—but we do not want them to be placed under an intolerable, compulsory burden; nor do we want local authorities to be placed under such a burden to consult all non-statutory organisations in their area, regardless of their relevance. The amendment would force them to do so. It would be a duty with which they could never comply. It would be impossible to track down each and every non-statutory organisation to consult it, as some of them, as we know, are very small.

It is certainly our intention that consultation must include representatives of local third-sector bodies and of local business if local partnerships are to succeed in delivering on the new deal. We will emphasise that through the statutory guidance that accompanies the Bill. Having a background in the voluntary sector, I am serious about it.

This model reflects arrangements for existing statutory partnerships such as children's trusts. It has been agreed in consultation with national representatives of third-sector organisations. Local authorities and their partners know that if they are to deliver on the targets that they negotiate, they will certainly need the assistance of business and third-sector organisations. It is in their interests to make sure that those consultation processes are open and serious. I hope that, with that assurance, the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

My Lords, as the Minister spoke, I realised that the amendment was too wide. I am happy to accept that if the Minister ensures that the third sector is included with other non-statutory bodies in statutory guidance. I accept that one cannot consult everybody. My intention was to draw attention to the third sector and ensure that it was included, particularly in view of the role that it now plays in local authorities. I thank the Minister for her reply. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 175 not moved.]

Clause 113 [Approval of draft local area agreement by Secretary of State]:

[Amendments Nos. 175A and 176 not moved.]

Clause 114 [Duty to have regard to local improvement targets]:

[Amendments Nos. 177 and 177A not moved.]

Clause 115 [Designated targets]:

[Amendments Nos. 177B to 178 not moved.]

Clause 116 [Revision and addition of targets]:

[Amendments Nos. 179 to 181A not moved.]

Clause 117 [Designated targets: revision proposals]:

[Amendments Nos. 181B to 182 not moved.]

Clause 118 [Approval of revision proposal]:

[Amendments Nos. 182A and 183 not moved.]

Clause 119 [Duty to publish information about local area agreement]:

[Amendments Nos. 184 to 187 not moved.]

Clause 120 [Preparation of community strategy]:

[Amendment No. 187A not moved.]

Clause 123 [Interpretation of Chapter]:

[Amendment No. 187B not moved.]

Clause 124 [Transitional provision]:

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, this and Amendment No. 189 are technical amendments that correct the clause and paragraph numbers relating to the Bill in the relevant sections of the Offender Management Act 2007, which are currently out of alignment. This will ensure that when the Bill comes into force the relevant provisions of the Offender Management Act add the Secretary of State in relation to his functions under Sections 2 and 3 of that Act into the list of partner authorities at the correct section listing partner authorities in what will be—or so I confidently expect—the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, rather than at what would be Section 80. That, I hope, concludes the debate that we had in Committee on the Offender Management Act and how it fits alongside this Bill. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

moved Amendment No. 189:

Clause 124, page 81, line 36, at end insert—

"( ) The Offender Management Act 2007 (c. 21) is amended as follows.

( ) In paragraph 5 of Schedule 3 (which adds functions of the Secretary of State in relation to probation services to the functions in relation to which the Secretary of State is a partner authority)—

(a) in sub-paragraph (1), for "Section 80" substitute "Section 110";(b) in sub-paragraph (2), for "subsection (3)(g)" substitute "subsection (4)(i)"; and(c) in sub-paragraph (3), in the inserted subsection (5A), for "subsection (3)(g)(iv)" substitute "subsection (4)(i)(iv)".

( ) In Part 1 of Schedule 5 (repeals relating to probation services), in the entry relating to this Act—

(a) for "section 80(3)" substitute "section 110(4)"; and(b) for "(g)(ii)" substitute "(i)(ii)"."

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Needham Market Baroness Scott of Needham Market Spokesperson in the Lords, Department for Communities and Local Government

moved Amendment No. 190:

Before Clause 125, insert the following new Clause—

"Contractors' duty to co-operate

Where any private or voluntary organisation is paid by a local authority to provide a public service or function, that organisation shall in relation to that service or function—

(a) provide information requested by a relevant overview and scrutiny committee, as defined by the Local Government Act 2000 (c. 22),(b) attend at a relevant overview and scrutiny committee to answer questions,(c) consider any report or recommendations of an overview and scrutiny committee, and(d) respond to the overview and scrutiny committee indicating what (if any) action the organisation proposes to take."

Photo of Baroness Scott of Needham Market Baroness Scott of Needham Market Spokesperson in the Lords, Department for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I thought that I should speak to this amendment in case your Lordships thought that we were going to get through the whole of the second half without anyone speaking to an amendment. Amendments Nos. 190, 193 and 194 are related amendments and are all to do with the importance of proper scrutiny. As we have learnt from debates on earlier clauses, the Government are now moving much more strongly towards a model of council management in which there is a strong leader and the majority of councillors are engaged in scrutiny.

Effective scrutiny forms a large part of government proposals for local authorities. If local councils are to scrutinise effectively, their scrutiny must include the partnerships that they all have with other local authorities and with the voluntary and private sectors. The White Paper on which the Bill is based stresses the importance of that pluralist approach to service provision. If scrutiny is to be effective, members of overview and scrutiny committees may have to talk to some of those partners. My Amendment No. 190 includes contractors in the scope of the Bill.

When services are outsourced and the contracts are let, there is always a major public concern that there will be a loss of transparency in how services are delivered and what will happen when things go wrong. It will quite often be the case that when an overview and scrutiny committee looks at one of these issues, one of the main points at issue may be the way in which the council has let or managed the contract. If the only person to whom the overview and scrutiny committee talks comes from the council, which is what the Minister suggested in Committee, the committee will hear only one side of the story. The contractor may have real problems with the way in which the council is managing the contract but the overview and scrutiny committee will not know that because it will not be able to talk to the contractor. If it is to scrutinise effectively, it is important to have all the tools available. After all, we are talking about very large sums of public money here. It does not matter who is providing the service, a principle is involved that no one should be shielded from effective public scrutiny.

Amendments Nos. 193 and 194 seek to do the same thing but with relevant partner authorities. As local area agreements and partnership increase in importance, it is vital that an overview and scrutiny committee is able, where appropriate, to talk to other partners involved in the delivery of services. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, we discussed this in Committee. The noble Baroness raises an important point. I do not have anything very new to say to her. Although we appreciate the intention behind the amendment, it raises issues which are serious enough to warrant not accepting it.

Section 21 of the Local Government Act provides that a scrutiny committee can request information from anyone but the powers to require information are limited to a member of the executive or an officer. We stated in the White Paper—we have carried it into the Bill—that we would strengthen the role of overview and scrutiny committees to support councils in their place-shaping role and extend that power by enabling them to require information from public service providers, subject to the duty to co-operate on local area agreements. That is what the Bill does and it is a very welcome and significant extension.

It was also clear in Committee that we all thought that it was important to get the balance right in the way we strengthen these powers. We want to see scrutiny committees looking at strategic issues, in particular the role of the local authority and local partners in delivering the sustainable communities strategy through local area agreements. Therefore, they will be able to request information from the council and those responsible for public services.

I have no difficulty in agreeing with the noble Baroness that in some circumstances scrutiny committees may have concerns about the detailed way in which services are delivered, including where they have been contracted out. There is a lot of progress towards contracting out these days. Where they contract services it is vital to continue to expect that local authorities and others responsible for public services will as a matter of course specify in those contracts the arrangements enabling them to obtain information as part of the monitoring process in which they are involved. Contracts allow those commissioning the services to stipulate the terms and conditions of the arrangements. It would be very odd if they did not set out reporting requirements as part of that.

The other point to which I return is accountability. Throughout the passage of the Bill we have said consistently that we think it is important that councils and other public bodies remain ultimately responsible for the services they commission. That is the spirit of the Bill. If councils were to request information from those contracted by other public service providers, it would be very confusing—a healthcare provider contracted by the PCT could find itself being scrutinised by the local authority to whom it is not accountable and by the PCT to whom it is accountable. This could be seen as letting the PCT off the hook for the way it has commissioned those services but it would also be confusing and burdensome for the service provider to be pulled in different directions. There is a real point there.

Where councils require those responsible for public services to provide information and request that they appear before the committee, they will be able to ask their contractors along to accompany them. That may serve much of the purpose the noble Baroness seeks. I am sure she will agree that we should seek to minimise regulation on the business and voluntary sectors rather than placing unnecessary requirements on them. We believe that the arrangements in the Bill provide for clear lines of accountability which can be understood by commissioners and providers alike. That is the reason why I cannot accept Amendment No. 190.

Amendments Nos. 193 and 194 concern the requirements on partner authorities to appear before O&S committees. As I explained in Committee, we intend in the regulations enabling councils to require information from local partners to provide that the partner will have the choice about whether to respond in writing within 20 days or to appear before the scrutiny committee.

I take the point that has been made again this evening that sometimes it is better to discuss matters face to face, but I remind noble Lords of the context in which the scrutiny powers operate. They will apply to those responsible for public services who are subject to the duty to co-operate. They will be those with whom local authorities have partnership arrangements. We are not convinced that in those circumstances it would be helpful to allow local authorities to compel the officers of all those partners to attend scrutiny committees and be required to answer questions. That feels rather more like interrogation. It is important to maintain partnership working in such a way that councils do not believe that the only way of resolving an issue is to compel a partner to appear to answer questions.

Most local authorities have very good partnership-working arrangements. The White Paper sets that out as the foundation for going forward. But we know that there are challenges. You could not work in local authorities and the voluntary sector without knowing that, as the contractual arrangements reflect. We do not think that compelling partners to attend and answer questions is the answer. If anything, there could be circumstances where enforced attendance would exacerbate the situation. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said in Committee that it was better to have a stick and not use it. The partnership-working arrangements in the White Paper set out a vision of local partners co-operating; they are not intended to provide sticks that the partners could use to beat each other with. We are trying to be careful and to achieve a balance, but I do not think that the amendment would help.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Needham Market Baroness Scott of Needham Market Spokesperson in the Lords, Department for Communities and Local Government 9:45 pm, 10th October 2007

My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with much of what the Minister has said about bureaucracy and regulation. The difficulty from my point of view is that I would not be starting from here. I did not create the overview and scrutiny model and the split between the executive and the rest of the council that is responsible for scrutiny. That has been created by this Government.

The Government need to think very carefully about the long-term effects of the structures that they created in the 2000 Act and which go forward in this Bill. Those structures continue to bring into sharp contrast the executive role of some members on the one hand—or, in the case of a mayor, one member—and the scrutiny function of the others. As time goes on, the demarcation between those two groups of people will become clearer and clearer, and councils will become slightly more polarised.

The elected members who are not on the executive or who do not become mayors are to be given the job of scrutiny. My contention is that, if they are to be given that job and if it is to be done effectively, they have to have all the tools at their disposal. I understand how accountability might be built into contracts, but the contracts will be let by the executive arm of the council, not by the other arm, and the executive arm may not have an interest in building robust scrutiny into the contracts. I urge the Government to think very carefully about how this will work in practice. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Baroness Morgan of Drefelin Baroness Morgan of Drefelin Government Whip

My Lords, I beg to move that further consideration on Report be now adjourned.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at 9.49 pm.