Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield Combined Authority (Election of Mayor) Order 2016 - Motion to Approve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:15 pm on 18 July 2016.

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Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat 8:15, 18 July 2016

My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, on his appointment, and we welcome him in assisting the drive for devolution. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, said about the importance of devolution—it is a shared agenda across your Lordships’ House. I hope very much that the new Minister will bring his expertise to bear on the detail of the move to greater devolution within England as the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act is implemented.

I should say at the outset that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Right across local government, politicians have been very supportive of the move to greater devolution.

Last week, there was a debate on similar orders for Merseyside and the Tees Valley. I do not want to repeat comments that were made during that debate, except to say that I agree with much of what the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, said about the general approach being taken and about some of the problems being produced by changes in government, as well as the overall financial problems that local government has.

Last week it was confirmed—as it will be tonight—that there will be a mayoral election in May 2017, even if there is no agreement later this year on the powers and budgets that a combined authority will have. I understand the reasons for that, although if that were to happen it would clearly make things more complicated and more difficult to explain to the general public.

In our debate on Merseyside and the Tees Valley, I drew attention to a report on the devolution process published at the beginning of this month by the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons. There is a full record in Hansard of what we said, but the crucial sentence in the report that I want to draw to the Minister’s attention tonight is on page 3 of the summary:

“There has been insufficient consideration by central government of local scrutiny arrangements, of accountability to the taxpayer and of the capacity and capability needs of local and central government as a result of devolution”.

I subscribe to that. There was a request by the Public Accounts Committee that:

“Government should set out by November 2016 its plans for how it will ensure that local scrutiny of devolved functions and funding will be both robust and well supported”.

I think there is a commitment from the Government to come back with the detail of the powers, budgets and scrutiny at the same time so that we get both at once, because that really matters.

I am grateful to the Minister for the letter that we received today by email. It answers some of the issues that we raised during the debate on the Merseyside and Tees Valley orders concerning how a chair of an overview and scrutiny committee could be appointed. It is made clear in the letter that an independent chair will be appointed following “an open, competitive process”. I think that that implies the Nolan procedures, but I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed that it does. The letter states that,

“a candidate must submit an application to the combined authority in response to a public advertisement”,

and the appointment,

“must be approved by a majority of the members of the combined authority”.

The letter then says—this is a point I take issue with—that there will therefore be,

“a wholly transparent appointment process mirroring the approach which councils must use when appointing independent persons under the Localism Act 2011 for the purposes of the councillors conduct regime”.

Local councils are bound by statute to proportionality in the make-up of committees. The difficulty here is that a combined authority will be the leader of the local authorities. It is entirely possible—and certainly it would happen in the north-east of England, where I live—that there would be seven Labour chairs. I am concerned that proportionality simply cannot exist in such a constitutional structure. Indeed, an independent chair could be appointed by a majority vote of a one-party committee. I hope very much that when the Minister comes back later this year, the guidance—if it is guidance, as opposed to being statutory—makes it clear that this appointment cannot simply be in the hands of a handful of people, all from one party, who may decide to support an independent person who, in practice, may well not be entirely independent. I draw that to the Minister’s attention because it is important we ensure that public confidence in the powers of an elected mayor is protected.

Finally, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee made an important point about what it calls “combination creep” through the involvement in combined authorities of non-constituent councils. There is a problem regarding whether we have top-down devolution or devolution on the basis of what local people want. Of course, the councils, particularly in the case of South Yorkshire, have made a decision. For example, Bassetlaw and Chesterfield have asked to belong to the combined authority. Although I note the point made by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, it seems to me that the principle of devolution is best served by asking local people what they want. If those councils want to be part of that structure, it is for them to decide.

Indeed, during the passage of the Bill we debated whether a council could belong to two combined authorities. I remember perfectly well the then Minister’s reply: they could. That point has been picked up by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, and is one for the Minister to look at. It need not be answered now, but it needs to be answered clearly by the time we get to finalising these orders in the autumn.