My Lords, Amendment 97 was alluded to at the end of the previous day's proceedings, and the procedures require us not to move it.
Amendment 98 would take out of the Bill Clause 29, which relates to scrutiny officers. In proposing this, I do not suggest in the slightest that we do not support good scrutiny. I did not explain my concerns terribly well in Committee, and therefore wish to bring back the amendment.
I will also ask the Government to expand on comments that the Minister made then. She said:
"The purpose of the clause is to raise the status, visibility and effectiveness of the overview and scrutiny function".
She added that there was,
"substantial evidence ... that officer support is an important condition. ... If overview and scrutiny is to be effective, it is crucial that officer resources are in place".—[Official Report, 3/2/09; col. GC172.]
I agree very much with that. I declare an interest as a member of the advisory board of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, which has worked with the Government on this. I agree that more resources and staff should, if applied well, lead to better scrutiny. However, designating an officer does not mean that there will be any extra officer resources. The Minister said that having a statutory officer was the critical thing, and that there was evidence to this effect. Will she—or perhaps he, as it looks as if the noble Lord, Lord Patel, will be answering—tell the House what that evidence is?
As regards funding, the Minister gave an indication—I could not find the reference when I looked for it—about the amount of funding. Certainly she said that the Government would provide funding, that this would be ring-fenced and that the costs would be met in full. I recall thinking when I heard the figure that it was not very much funding. However, ring-fencing and meeting the costs in full in the way that she described seem to be inconsistent with the assurances that the Government gave in the same debate that it will be up to the local authority to decide what suits it best. In short, we support good scrutiny, but we do not believe that the Government have found the key to unlocking it.
Also in this group are government Amendments 99, 100, 170, 171 and 172. We welcome these. The first expands on an amendment that we tabled at the previous stage. I believe it came from the Local Government Association. The Minister will explain the now rather longer clause, allowing for joint scrutiny by two or more local authorities. Given the constraints at this stage of the Bill, I will ask him some questions on his amendment, even though he has not yet had an opportunity to introduce it.
The new clause says that regulations may provide for arrangements for joint scrutiny to be made,
"only in circumstances, or subject to conditions or limitations, specified in the regulations".
Will the Minister give us a clue what that might cover; and, importantly, do the Government expect that local authorities will take the lead in proposing any prescriptions that might come through regulations? Could he also confirm that this is not intended to be a provision that would allow the Secretary of State to take particular action against particular local authorities? I cannot think what the Latin equivalent for ad hominem would be, but I am sure that the Minister understands my point.
New Section 5C would allow regulations to provide that an authority must or may not disclose information to a joint scrutiny committee. I was surprised to see this. The essence of good local government lies in its openness and transparency. In providing for restrictions on disclosure, perhaps the Minister could tell us whether there is some equivalent that this replicates in the case of a domestic committee, an overview and scrutiny committee, within an authority. I am quite concerned about that restriction. I beg to move.
My Lords, a number of important issues have been raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. Before I address them, I would first like to set out the Government's position on our proposals. We had a good discussion in Committee about proposals for overview and scrutiny, which together aim to raise the visibility and profile of scrutiny within the council and in the local community. We also want to improve its capacity and effectiveness so that it is better equipped to respond to issues of local importance. I am pleased that the noble Baroness agrees with the principle of what we are trying to do.
This grouping includes our amendments for joint overview and scrutiny committees as well as Amendment 98 on our proposal for the scrutiny officer. I will deal first with the amendments concerned with joint overview and scrutiny committees. We talked at length about the merits of cross-boundary scrutiny and how it could positively contribute to our overarching aim of raising the visibility and effectiveness of scrutiny.
We were in agreement that joint overview and scrutiny committees could provide an efficient and effective means of co-ordinating the scrutiny work of several local authorities. Indeed, it was for this reason that we provided for the setting up of joint overview and scrutiny committees between a county and one or more of its districts in Section 123 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, and why, in Clause 30 of the Bill, we sought to extend the scope of these provisions so that joint overview and scrutiny committees might make reports and recommendations on any matter affecting the area or inhabitants of that group of authorities, rather than on local area agreement matters alone.
However, noble Lords wanted us to go further and extend these arrangements so that any group of local authorities might set up a joint committee. My noble friend the Minister said that we would give the matter further consideration, and we have done so. We have concluded that there is merit in noble Lords' arguments. They will be pleased to hear that the new clause introduced by Amendment 99 will enable us to make provision for the appointment of joint overview and scrutiny committees by any two or more local authorities. This will enable cross-boundary scrutiny of strategic issues affecting a number of local authorities, which supports sub-regional working between local authorities.
The new clause replaces Section 123 of the 2007 Act in its entirety and will also make the changes originally to be achieved by Clause 30 of the Bill; that is, extending the scope of what joint overview and scrutiny committees may do, so that they may make reports and recommendations on any matter affecting the area or inhabitants of that group of authorities, rather than on local area agreement matters alone. Broadening the scope of what these committees may consider will help maximise this more efficient and effective way of working.
Amendments 100, 170, 171 and 172 make necessary technical changes to the Bill and other legislation where references to joint overview and scrutiny committees need updating or where repeals are no longer needed now that we intend to insert a new Section 123 into the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007.
A few noble Lords, prior to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, raised concerns about the need for clarification on the scope and content of the regulations that we intend to draw up and on the timing of these regulations. It is natural to want reassurance about the timing of the regulations and I am happy to provide that. The new provisions for the extended joint overview and scrutiny committees would, if accepted, come into force automatically two months after Royal Assent. The proposals for joint overview and scrutiny regulations that we set out in the Improving Local Accountability consultation will provide a firm basis for regulations on any new, extended joint overview and scrutiny committees, so we are not starting from scratch. We intend to continue to work with the LGA, the Centre for Public Scrutiny and local government stakeholders, consulting as necessary to ensure that arrangements for extended joint overview and scrutiny committees are practical and strike the right balance. With this in mind, we hope to be in a position to issue final regulations providing for joint overview and scrutiny committees under new Section 123 of the 2007 Act shortly after the relevant provisions of this Bill come into force.
On the scope of the regulations, my noble friend Lady Andrews said in Committee that we support the principle of cross-boundary scrutiny. She also said that any extended arrangement would need to be considered in the context of the powers that may be provided to overview and scrutiny committees under the 2007 Act. Our intention is that such overview and scrutiny committees—where they are established, which will be completely at the discretion of the authorities concerned—will be provided with appropriate powers, in line with the proposals that we set out for overview and scrutiny committees in our Improving Local Accountability consultation. These proposals were broadly welcomed by the local government community. Those are our intentions but, as I said, we will want to work with the LGA, the Centre for Public Scrutiny and other representatives from local government to ensure that any regulations for these extended joint overview and scrutiny committees are appropriate and strike the right balance.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked about disclosure and what we mean by,
"must ... or may not disclose", information. This would simply allow us to make provision regarding what information must not be provided by certain partner authorities. In our recent consultation, we set out proposals on this that were broadly welcomed by the authorities, which intend to follow this up using the same approach.
In talking to Amendment 98, which would remove Clause 29, I will address some of the other points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. Clause 29 provides for a designated scrutiny officer in councils with a responsibility for LAAs. That will ensure that overview and scrutiny committees receive the officer support that they need to carry out this important work. The requirement is for one statutory officer who will act as a scrutiny champion. The clause is therefore central to our aims for improving the visibility and effectiveness of scrutiny.
Noble Lords have suggested that the approach that we have set out in the legislation is unnecessary and that we would be better to leave this matter for local authorities to decide on. Let me reassure noble Lords that we have consulted extensively on the proposals for scrutiny support set out in the White Paper, Communities in Control. Views were mixed but, if I lay them out, noble Lords will see where we are coming from. Some welcomed the commitment to require a scrutiny officer resource. The Centre for Public Scrutiny thought it essential if scrutiny is to benefit fully from the new powers and responsibilities outlined in the Communities in Control White Paper. It went on to comment that it saw a danger of there being simply a single officer and that it would favour more extensive requirements. Others, however, while agreeing that scrutiny should be properly supported, stated that how to do so should be left to the discretion of councils. Given the range of contrasting views expressed, I believe that the approach that we have set out strikes the correct balance in that it recognises the important role that officer support plays in supporting members to drive effective LAA scrutiny but carefully balances this with the need to allow local flexibility. That is why, for example, we have not attempted any complex definition of scrutiny support and resources.
While we are creating a statutory post, we are deliberately not prescribing detailed duties that the scrutiny officer must carry out or at what level the scrutiny officer should be, a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, in Committee. The level of other statutory posts, such as the monitoring officer and the finance officer, are implicit from the legislation because of the complex and extensive duties that they must discharge. We have not set out a list of the duties that a scrutiny officer must perform on the basis that the role of the scrutiny officer may need to vary from one local authority to another, depending on the way in which scrutiny is organised in any particular council. We therefore believe that it is better for local authorities to make arrangements that are appropriate for their own circumstances.
Noble Lords raised concerns in Committee that the provision in Clause 29 is not sufficient and that one officer is not enough. Although the requirement is for one statutory officer, we would expect local authorities to decide what resources they need to allocate to scrutiny to suit their particular needs. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that it is not appropriate for us to prescribe such detailed arrangements. As I have said, the approach that we have set out achieves the right balance.
On resources, studies on the development of overview and scrutiny have shown that officer support is an important condition for effective scrutiny. If overview and scrutiny is to be effective, it is critical that officer resource is in place to provide support and advice. An evaluation of the outcomes and impact of new council constituents, for example, made three key points that support this: first, that scrutiny arrangements are not as robust as executive arrangements; secondly, that less officer support is provided for scrutiny compared with executive functions; and, thirdly, that scrutiny works best and is more robust where resources are committed.
We have also consulted extensively on how to implement the proposals for scrutiny support that were set out in the White Paper Communities in Control. As I have said, views were mixed and we have chosen to strike the right balance in this process.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said that my noble friend had commented on this resource being ring-fenced. I should make it clear that it is not. If the provision is enacted, we will ensure that resources are provided through future finance settlements in line with the wishes of local government, but the vast majority of government funding provided for non-school services is through general grants, such as the revenue support grant or the new area-based grant, so local authorities have considerable freedom to determine their spending priorities. The Government are committed to ensuring that local authorities have the flexibility to ensure that they can make local decisions on the provision of funding for the services for which they have statutory responsibilities.
We have no intention of taking particular measures against particular authorities. We will regulate in line with our response to the consultation on implementation of the 2007 Act.
These provisions considerably strengthen the arrangements for overview and scrutiny. I am grateful to noble Lords who brought to our attention the fact that joint scrutiny should be made. We have listened carefully to those views and I hope that the explanation that I have given will provide sufficient assurances on Amendments 99, 100 and 170 to 172 and that the noble Baroness will withdraw Amendment 98. I hope that I have covered all the points that she made. If not, I shall respond in writing.
My Lords, I am not sure at what point I should speak on this, but it is important that I should clearly lend my support to the Government's amendments. Both my noble friend Lord Hanningfield and I have put our names to the amendments tabled by the Minister. We have done so because the Government have clearly listened to what the Opposition and other noble Lords said in Grand Committee. I am grateful that the Government have heeded that advice and have been prepared to cede ground.
My Lords, it is not appropriate for the noble Baroness to respond to the Minister at this point.
My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right that the two amendments are grouped together. However, it is appropriate, I believe, for me to establish that the Minister was speaking early in the debate. It is now appropriate for the noble Baroness to respond and to speak to her amendments.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her guidance. As one of the newer Members of your Lordships' House, I look to your Lordships for guidance.
I am grateful that the Government have heeded our advice and I am delighted to support their amendment. Although the amendment does not go as far as we would like, the Bill is improved by its inclusion and we welcome that. We on these Benches, however, would like to see greater flexibility and a greater ability for councils to set up joint scrutiny committees on specific projects or schemes where joint working is needed, often across county boundaries.
I am sure that my noble friend Lord Hanningfield will approve of my using an Essex example. On matters involving Stansted Airport, for example, it will be a question of Essex County Council working with East Hertfordshire, whereas on issues surrounding the Thames Gateway the appropriate partners might be the GLA or Kent County Council. The Government recognise the logic of allowing the joint scrutiny but have stopped short of allowing a more organic creation of such committees. An enduring theme of our debates on this Bill is the Government's apparent reluctance to accept that kind of bottom-up flexibility rather than top-down centralisation. However, when the Government try to make this a better Bill, we support their efforts.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, for their support and I certainly heed the points that they have made. Before the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, replies, I would like to clarify the disclosure issue. Information that may not be disclosed, for example, would be information otherwise exempt under other legislation, such as data protection. Also, provision may be made to avoid duplication of requests. For example, if a partner has already provided such information, the same information might not be required a second time. Our proposals also set out the information that should be provided, such as on local area agreement matters to which the partners signed up. I hope that that helps to clarify what I said.
My Lords, perhaps I can take this in reverse order. First, on the points that I raised, I am grateful to the Minister for confirming that there will not be ring-fencing, as it was stated on
I am reassured to hear what the Minister has said on disclosure under the government amendment, but the new clause is drawn very widely. I am sorry to bowl this at the Government without notice, but I wonder whether they might consider withdrawing this amendment now in order to use the period between now and Third Reading to reconsider this. I assure them that from these Benches we will be very supportive of the thrust of the amendment, which is a good amendment. I am waffling to give an opportunity for some thought, but the time until Third Reading could be used to draw up something more precise about the restrictions on disclosure. The noble Lord is quite right to remind the House that there is a positive and negative in the sentence on what must be provided, but the interests of transparency and open government have to be considered if we are to limit what must not be disclosed. If the Government would consider using the opportunity to improve their own legislation, we would welcome it.
My Lords, we cannot withdraw the amendment at the moment. We have consulted widely on it and consider it the most appropriate formulation based on the 2007 legislation.
My Lords, I am disappointed by that response; I thought that I was being constructive. I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 98.
Amendment 98 withdrawn.
Moved by Baroness Andrews
99: After Clause 29, insert the following new Clause—
"Joint overview and scrutiny committees
(1) In the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 (c. 28), for section 123 (joint overview and scrutiny committees: local improvement targets) substitute—
"123 Joint overview and scrutiny committees
(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision under which any two or more local authorities in England may—
(a) appoint a joint committee (a "joint overview and scrutiny committee"), and
(b) arrange for the committee to exercise any functions in subsection (2).
(2) The functions in this subsection are functions of making reports or recommendations to—
(a) any of the local authorities appointing the committee (the "appointing authorities"), or
(b) if any of the appointing authorities is a non-unitary district council, the related county council, about any matter which is not an excluded matter.
(3) In subsection (2) "excluded matter" means any matter with respect to which a crime and disorder committee could make a report or recommendations—
(a) by virtue of subsection (1)(b) of section 19 of the Police and Justice Act 2006 (local authority scrutiny crime and disorder matters), or
(b) by virtue of subsection (3)(a) of that section.
(4) In subsection (2) references to making reports or recommendations to a local authority include, in the case of a local authority operating executive arrangements under Part 2 of the Local Government Act 2000, making reports or recommendations to its executive.
(5) Regulations under this section may in particular—
(a) provide for arrangements to be made only in circumstances, or subject to conditions or limitations, specified in the regulations;
(b) in relation to joint overview and scrutiny committees, make provision applying, or corresponding to, any provision of—
(i) section 21(4) and (6) to (12) of the Local Government Act 2000,
(ii) sections 21A to 21D of that Act, or
(iii) section 246 of, and Schedule 17 to, the National Health Service Act 2006, with or without modifications;
(c) make provision as to information which an associated authority of any appointing authority must provide, or may not disclose, to a joint overview and scrutiny committee (or, if the regulations make provision for the appointment of sub-committees of such a committee, to such a sub-committee).
(6) In subsection (5)(c) "associated authority", in relation to any appointing authority, means—
(a) in the case of an appointing authority which is a non-unitary district council—
(iv) the related county council, and
(v) any person who is a partner authority in relation to the related county council;
(b) in the case of any other appointing authority, any person who is a partner authority in relation to the appointing authority.
(7) In subsection (6) "partner authority" has the same meaning as in Chapter 1 of this Part except that it does not include a police authority or a chief officer of police.
(8) Regulations under this section may not make provision of a kind mentioned in subsection (5)(c) with respect to information in respect of which provision may be made in exercise of the power conferred by section 20(5)(c) or (d) of the Police and Justice Act 2006 (guidance and regulations regarding crime and disorder matters).
(9) Any local authority and any joint overview and scrutiny committee must, in exercising or deciding whether to exercise any function conferred on it by or under this section, have regard to any guidance issued by the Secretary of State.
(10) In this section—
"local authority" has the same meaning as in Part 2 of the Local Government Act 2000;
"non-unitary district council" means a district council for a district in a county for which there is a county council (and the "related county council", in relation to a non-unitary district council, means that county council)."
(2) In section 21 of the Local Government Act 2000 (c. 22) (overview and scrutiny committees), in subsection (2A)(e), for the words from "(joint" to the end substitute "(joint overview and scrutiny committees) appointed by two or more local authorities including the authority concerned"."
Amendment 99 agreed.
Clause 30: Functions of joint overview and scrutiny committees
Moved by Baroness Andrews
100: Clause 30, leave out Clause 30
Amendment 100 agreed.
Moved by Lord Tope
100A: After Clause 30, insert the following new Clause—
"Local Government Act 2000
(1) Section 22A of the Local Government Act 2000 (c. 22) (overview and scrutiny committee of certain authorities in England: provision of information etc by certain partner authorities) is amended as follows.
(2) In the heading after "authorities" insert "and other connected authorities".
(3) In subsection (1)(a) after "relevant partner authorities" insert "and connected authorities".
(4) After subsection (3) insert—
"(4) For the purposes of this section "connected authorities" shall mean authorities which are connected with the authority as specified by section 2 of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 with the exclusion of chief officer of police.""
My Lords, I rise to move Amendment 100A —I think to everybody's surprise at this point. We debated the amendment in Committee, but the Minister's reply was disrupted by a Division, so I return to the subject now so that we might give our concentration to it.
My noble friend Lady Hamwee and I need no convincing of the importance of good and effective scrutiny. As I said in Committee, we each spent eight years of our lives on a body devoted almost entirely to scrutiny—the London Assembly. We need no convincing of the need to strengthen scrutiny. My noble friend has just spoken of the limited effect that the designation of a scrutiny officer is likely to have. This amendment, if enacted, would have more effect than probably any other single measure in strengthening the visibility, status and effectiveness of overview and scrutiny committees.
The amendment would give local authorities' overview and scrutiny committees the power to require the connected authorities to give evidence, either in writing and/or in person. In an ideal world, those authorities would respond simply to an invitation and there would be no need for any statutory requirement; in good partnerships, that is what happens now. However, it is more likely to be necessary where the relationship is either not as good as it should be or the particular issues under consideration are rather more contentious. If those other bodies knew that, if necessary, a legal power could be used by the overview and scrutiny committees to require their information, their evidence and, if necessary, their attendance, that alone would raise the standing and status of those committees.
That is the purpose of the amendment. I hope that in moving it again we are giving the Minister an uninterrupted opportunity to give a considered response. I again stress that our purpose is wholly consistent with the Government's intention of raising the status and effectiveness of scrutiny. I beg to move.
My Lords, I hope that I can give a response without interruption on this occasion. Amendment 100A is concerned with those partner authorities set out in Section 22A of the Local Government Act 2000 that must provide information to overview and scrutiny committees. The amendment would add "connected authorities", as defined under Clause 2 of this Bill, to Section 22A so that those partners would be under a duty to provide information to overview and scrutiny committees once this provision and the necessary regulations came into force.
It would seem, from what the noble Lord says, that he believes that this amendment would provide overview and scrutiny committees with the power to require partners to attend. It would not. This issue of partner attendance was discussed at length during the passage of the 2007 Act. Parliament agreed that partners should be required to provide information but that attendance before a committee should be optional. We said at the time, and I say again now, that we firmly believe that it is not necessarily appropriate to impose a blanket requirement on partners to attend in person. Where councillors are working in partnership with such a broad range of public service providers, some of whom are not based locally, it is not necessarily appropriate to allow overview and scrutiny committees to compel attendance.
We must also be mindful of the potential burdens that are placed on partner authorities, some of which will have limited capacity to respond. It is, of course, important to provide overview and scrutiny committees with the powers that they need to carry out their work, but we must strike the right balance. We think that we have achieved this. This is evident from our recent Improving Local Accountability consultation. We have consulted on the regulations that will provide overview and scrutiny committees with the power to require information from relevant partner authorities. We are now in the process of drafting these regulations. The proposals that we set out in that consultation were broadly welcomed by local government stakeholders. In fact, a significant number of responses opposed overregulation on the issue of attendance, taking the view that such matters should be left to local discussion and agreement, on the basis that it would not always be necessary, or cost-effective, to require attendance in person by partner authorities.
Given my explanation and the evidence that I have presented from our recent consultation exercise, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment. A careful balance must be struck between giving overview and scrutiny committees the powers that they need to carry out their work and recognising the limited capacity of some partners to respond. Noble Lords will remember that this issue was discussed in detail during the passage of the 2007 Act. I believe that we have achieved the right balance of powers and that we should not seek to add partners outside those named under Part 5 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 without proper justification and detailed consideration of the potential new burdens. I hope that the explanation will be sufficient for the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving me a clear and uninterrupted response. If the drafting is inappropriate, I shall have a word with my parliamentary draftsmen, but I think that the purpose and intention of the amendment is clear. As things stand, if I understood the Minister correctly, these bodies may be required or requested to give information. However, there is an important difference between receiving information, desirable though that is, and the ability to question and cross-examine on that information, which is, of course, the principal purpose of an overview and scrutiny committee. I am, of course, disappointed that the Minister does not feel able to go just one more step along the road of making scrutiny effective, but under the circumstances I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 100A withdrawn.