With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 2—Action plans—
‘(1) The Secretary of State shall, within six months of the passing of this Act, consult all principal councils in accordance with this section—
(a) on the matters set out in the Schedule to this Act, which specifies matters which affect the sustainability of local communities, and
(b) on any other matters which in the opinion of the Secretary of State affect the sustainability of local communities.
Consultation under this subsection shall be by notice in writing (“a consultation notice”).
(2) The Secretary of State may, if he thinks fit, require the consultation under subsection (1) to be carried out by the Local Government Association.
(3) Arrangements made under subsection (2) may—
(a) require the Local Government Association to comply with the requirements of this section relating to consultation by the Secretary of State, and
(b) contain provisions not specified in this section provided they do not conflict with any requirement of this Act.
(4) A district council or county borough council shall, within six weeks of the date it receives a consultation notice, send a copy of the notice to all parish or community councils in its area.
(5) Subject to section 3, any principal council may, in response to a consultation notice make recommendations to the Secretary of State for measures which the council reasonably believes would promote the sustainability of local communities in its area.
(6) Any recommendation under subsection (5) must be made by a council within a period of nine months of the date on which it received the consultation notice.
(7) The Secretary of State must co-operate with the Local Government Association in drawing up an action plan to promote the sustainability of local communities which shall—
(a) be based primarily on those recommendations that have been identified by the Association as having cross-party support; and
(b) include such other recommendations made by principal councils as the Secretary of State thinks fit.
(8) Before drawing up the action plan, the Secretary of State must—
(a) consolidate the recommendations or arrange for the Local Government Association to consolidate them; and
(b) obtain from the Local Government Association—
(i) their views as to the order in which the recommendations should be implemented,
(ii) a list of those recommendations which in the opinion of the Association should be given the greatest priority, and
(iii) a separate list of those which received cross-party support in the Association.
(9) Before drawing up the action plan, the Secretary of State shall consider the views of the Local Government Association and shall determine which recommendations are not appropriate to be implemented immediately or at all, on the grounds that—
(a) the direct or indirect costs likely to be involved in their immediate implementation are excessive, or
(b) their implementation in whole or in part is likely to conflict, to a significant extent, with a specific government objective.
(10) The Secretary of State shall lay the action plan before each House of Parliament for approval by each House.
(11) The Secretary of State shall have a duty to implementthe action plan and for that purpose shall keep under review the progress made from time to time in the implementation of the action plan.
(12) The Secretary of State shall ensure that every regional office of government cooperates with principal councils and panels established under section 3(1)(a) for the relevant region in the promotion of the sustainability of local communities.
(13) The Secretary of State shall in each Session of Parliament beginning after the enactment of this act lay an annual report before each House of Parliament containing the action plan, if completed, and detailing the progress made to the date of the report in producing the action plan if not completed, and in implementing the recommendations contained in the action plan in pursuance of subsection (7).
(14) The Secretary of State shall be taken not to have complied with subsection (10) unless the plan is approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.’.
Thank you, for your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Cummings. I picked up over lunch that it was very much appreciated by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee.
Just as I was concluding my remarks in the stand part debate on clause 2, the right hon. Member for West Dorset sought clarification as to our attitude on three points: the timetable, the appointment of the selector and the parliamentary procedure on accountability.
In principle, I have no difficulty about requiring the Secretary of State to invite proposals from principal councils by a particular date. However, I have two riders. As I said, we need to consult on the implementation of the process, not only because that is required under new clause 4(3), but because we need to consult the Local Government Association about taking on the role of the selector. Given the need to consult, I am concerned to avoid the imposition on the Secretary of State of a duty that she is unable to fulfil at this point. I am happy to consider that further. One possibility would be to enable the Secretary of State to commence the provisions of the Bill by order. In that way, she would not commence a duty until she had the relevant powers. The right hon. Gentleman suggested in the margins of the Committee that the wording “she thinks” introduces subjectivity. I am more than happy to consider the proposal to remove that subjectivity so as to give the Committee the reassurance that it needs.
Concerns were expressed this morning about the apparent latitude that new clause 4(2) would give the Secretary of State when appointing the selector. That subsection was drafted with the LGA in mind for the role, and that is why it is worded in that way. That is what the words
“who must be a person who the Secretary of State thinks represents the interests of principal councils” were intended to emphasise. There is particular concern about the phrase
“who the Secretary of State thinks” and I am happy to think about that.
There was also concern this morning about the absence of any reference to parliamentary procedure in relation to the Secretary of State’s decisions. I entirely agree with the principle that Parliament must be kept fully involved and informed. However, in reality the types of action that councils are likely to propose are changes to the amount or allocation of funding or to legislation, both primary and secondary. Those are matters on which the Secretary of State requires discretion. It would be odd for the Secretary of State to be required to promote legislation with which she did not agree. Those are also matters that would be debated by Parliament in any event. I am concerned about creating a rigid system, which might not make the best use of Parliament’s time. I am happy to debate the Secretary of State’s decisions in Parliament, but we need to leave discretion with her about the content of her decision. As I said, many of the actions undertaken by the Secretary of State will be subject to the scrutiny of Parliament in any event.
Finally, it might be worth considering the possibility of legal challenges, a point that I raised which was picked up by hon. Members. Under new clause 2(9), it seems that the Secretary of State’s ability to reject recommendations or delay their implementation is restricted where the costs of implementation are excessive or implementation is
“likely to conflict, to a significant extent, with a specific government objective.”
If that is the correct interpretation of new clause 2, we believe that there is a risk that a person aggrieved by the Secretary of State’s use of that power would be able to challenge the Secretary of State’s action plan, which would not benefit anyone.
It is also worth making the point that what we are after in this Committee is clear and workable legislation, in particular legislation in which the roles of the Secretary of State and the selector are clear. That is what I am trying to achieve. I hope that that is constructive, and I hope that with your help, Mr. Cummings, we can move forward. I am grateful to Committee members for giving me time to explain the Government’s point of view.
I thank the Minister again for taking the time to place his position on the record. He has been extremely constructive today. I think that the distance between us on the dance floor has narrowed, but I shall press him on another point. I hear what he says about the timetable and the difficulties of imposing a duty on the Secretary of State before consultation has concluded, but we look forward to seeing a specific proposal from him. The Government should have an obligation to get the ball rolling according to a specific timetable following the passing of the Bill into law.
On the definition, I think that the Minister has taken on board the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset and will consider the feasibility of removing from new clause 4(2) the words
“must be a person who the Secretary of State thinks represents” and replacing them with “must represent”, to reduce the scope for misinterpretation.
I think that I understood what the Minister said about accountability, although my digestive system was focused on lunch rather than his words, but I fail to understand what is so complicated about the concept of the Secretary of State laying the national action plan before each House of Parliament and undertaking to publish an annual report on the progress of implementation. I cannot think of a simpler concept, and I am still struggling to understand the reasons for the Minister’s reservations, other than the time-honoured tradition of trying to preserve maximum flexibility for Ministers. I ask him to reconsider.
I was generally encouraged by what the Minister said, but I was more troubled by the fact that he was vague to the point of obtuseness about whether he was prepared to agree to the concept of a duty of co-operation between the Secretary of State and the selector, as we have come to know that person. I might not have been paying as much attention as I should have, but it is a fundamental concept. From the terms of new clause 4, it is clear that the Government want to move from a duty to consult to the more distant duty to co-operate, as in the terms of new clause 2, tabled by me and the hon. Members for Falmouth and Camborne and for Stroud. I encourage the Minister to respond to that specific point.
On the duty to co-operate, I repeat what I said earlier. There is a good symmetry between the proposals in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill regarding co-operation between local partners and the process undertaken through the call for action and other measures, particularly the performance regime and the duty to co-operate in setting those targets. There is a parallel between that and the responsibilities of the selector and the Secretary of State, bearing it in mind that, in legalese, when we refer to the Secretary of State, we refer to the Government collectively—to Secretaries of State. That is an important point, although it is probably more important from my point of view than that of the hon. Gentleman.
I accept the point about co-operation, and I have clarified the definition of “co-operation”. Ultimately, in lay persons’ terms, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. However, we are creating a statutory framework whereby the process locks in the partnership between the selector and the Secretary of State and builds on the existing informal, voluntary mechanisms of the central-local partnership. I look forward to the discussions with Lord Bruce-Lockhart and his colleagues at the LGA, should they be willing, as I expect they will, to engage in this process. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman some satisfaction.
I thought that I had answered in the affirmative. I am sorry if I have failed to qualify in terms of plain English. Once again, I am not trying to be awkward. I am trying to help the Committee. One must not raise too many expectations about the duty to co-operate
It is a future “but”. There is a “but” in the sense that the duty to co-operate does not compel a course of action. That is the only caveat to my answer in plain English, which is yes.
I thank the Minister for that response, because he knows that this is an important point for the Committee and supporters of the Bill. As I tried to explain in speaking to our new clause, I feel that the Bill’s supporters have moved a long way from our original position, in terms of what we expect to be required of the Secretary of State, to one that shows greater understanding of the need for some flexibility for him or her. If the Minister is saying that he is not prepared to move beyond a duty to consult, that would cause problems for the Committee. However, if he is going to return to the Committee with an amendment that uses the words “duty to co-operate”, that will be acceptable. It would not be good enough to stick with
“a duty to consult”, but I am sure that Committee members will correct me if that view is misguided.