It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. It is the first time I have done so as the promoter of a Bill, although I have done so in my more normal Back-Bench position. The Bill was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) on 16 December. I have, however, been asked to see it through its remaining stages in this House.
I am grateful to all Members who have agreed to serve on this Committee at rather short notice, and I ask them all to accept my apologies both for that short notice and for some of the rough edges that may affect the procedures in Committee. It was clear to me when I was asked last week to take on the Bill that we had to move speedily if it was to have any prospect of making progress before the coming general election.
I am also grateful for the support that was voiced for the Bill in all parts of the House on Second Reading. It is a measure to enhance and expand the capacity of local authorities to scrutinise activities undertaken by other bodies discharging public service responsibilities in their areas, and as such, it contributes to the localist agenda that I know has support on both sides of the House.
I know that there will be questions posedabout points of detail in the Bill, and where it is not possible for those to be fully considered in Committee, I hope they will be considered on Report. However, I believe that the overall purpose and objectives are widely supported, so I hope that the Bill can make good progress. As on Second Reading, I should make clear my non-pecuniary interest as chairman of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, a not-for-profit organisation that exists to promote better and more effective scrutiny.
I hope that it will help the Committee if I give a short outline of the purpose of clause 1. The clause sets out the framework for the enhanced scrutiny powers provided by part 1 of the Bill. Subsections (1) to (4) provide that the enhanced scrutiny powers will apply when overview and scrutiny committees are scrutinising matters of local concern in connection with the provision of public services by authorities or persons designated in regulations by the Secretary of State.
Subsection (5) provides that an authority or person may be designated generally or in respect of particular services. Subsection (2) defines the circumstances in which a matter is of local concern to a local authority as circumstances in which the matter affects the local area, or its inhabitants, to a greater degree than other areas or their inhabitants.
Subsection (3) defines the term public service. For the purposes of the Bill, a public service includes not just services provided to the public in the exercise of functions of a public nature, but also those carried out under statutory authority, such as by utility companies, or those that are wholly or partly funded by central or local government through grants, subsidies or other financial assistance. It is immaterial whether such a service is delivered by a public authority or by another body, be it public, private or voluntary, and whether charges are made for the service.
I have set out the key terms that set the parameters for the scrutiny powers in the Bill. They establish the scope and range of the powers and the circumstances in which they can be used by overview and scrutiny committees. They are important parameters. While providing a broad framework for enhanced scrutiny powers for councils, they also ensure that scrutiny remains focused on local issues and stays true to its purpose, which is to be constructive in examining, and suggesting improvements on, issues of real local concern.
Subsections (4) and (5) provide that the new powers will apply only to bodies that have been designatedeither generally or in respect of particular servicesby regulations. There is scope within the framework for the Secretary of State to designate a wide range of persons or authorities as being subject to the enhanced scrutiny regime.
On Second Reading, hon. Members raised concerns about the broad scope of the regulation-making power and sought further details about the types of body that will be subject to the enhanced regime. Decisions on which bodies will be specified as being subject to the regime are ultimately for the Government to take, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give us an indication of the Governments thinking on that issue today. In any case, subsection (6) provides that regulations designating bodies as subject to part 1 of the Bill will be subject to the affirmative procedure, so Parliament will have the opportunity to consider and debate designation of particular bodies.
I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Humble. This is the first time I have sat under your chairmanship, but in the brief, few minutes in which you have been in the Chair you have established your personality, and I hope that we continue to proceed in such an amiable fashion.
I did not take part in the debate on Second Reading, but when I was first approached and asked to take part in the Bills proceedings, I read the Bill, and it reminded me of the title of a play by Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author. It struck me as a case of Six Committees in Search of a Role. Then I started to read the Second Reading debate and discovered that my concern had already been voiced by others.
I have consulted my Front-Bench team, who are very disturbed that, notwithstanding the timetable problems, there has not been sufficient time to table the amendments that we would wish to have discussed in Committee, so that we could try to clarify the issues raised on Second Reading. We will almost certainly be tabling amendments on Report. However, I have no wish to hold up the Committee today, or to try to create a second Committee stage on another occasion.
I should declare that I, too, have an interest, because my husband is leader of East Sussex county council. It has an overview and scrutiny role, which he implemented successfully. The issue is, therefore, not a personal one to do with overview and scrutiny not being seen to be effective, because in East Sussex it is effective. It is the approach taken that is so important.
The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich pointed out in his Second Reading speech that district councils are excluded from the Bill. I hope that the Minister will reassure us that such councils will be included. It is the councils approach to scrutiny and overview that makes it a success or otherwise. If a burden of demand, regulation, officialdom, bureaucracy, cost and requirement is imposed, I am sure that it will not be long before marks are awarded for how effective the overview and scrutiny committees arewell, unless there is a change of Government.
A decent overview and scrutiny committee and a good council, with good relations with its various partners, should not need to require those partners to turn up for scrutiny. They should already be working together on any agreement, and should be happy to be open and honest about what is happening. If we need to impose burdens and regulations on partners, which should be willing to participate in the good management of their agreements with local councils, that is the mark of a poor council.
On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) made the point that there are still major ambiguities about which bodies the Bill will cover. I have seen a list, and most of them are public bodies, but one area is not clear. These days, so many local area partnerships involve charities and small and medium-sized businesses. If those bodies are affected, imposing a burden of scrutiny and overview will put extra costs on charities, which are raising money from the public in difficult times, and which should be looking after every penny, to the benefit of the work that they are doing under contract with the local authorities.
Small and medium-sized businesses are also struggling in these difficult economic times. They would have to face not just the cost involved, but the fact that the managements time would be taken up. In a small enterprise, that management can often be the boss, and the boss is already struggling with the extra burden of red tape imposed on businesses in the past few years. Yet another burden will mean that the expertise that small and medium-sized businesses can bring to the delivery of partnership agreements in various forms will be withdrawnbut not in some great confrontation; instead, next time, those businesses will not bid for the contracts. That expertise will therefore be lost, to the disbenefit of the public for whom everyone is working. We need to look more closely at, and have a much better and clearer definition of, the bodies that the Bill will cover.
I do not wish to go on for too long, but what matters does the Bill cover? Will it cover just what is in a contract, or anything that anyone has a bee in their bonnet about? How will a matter of interest to local people be defined? We all know, working in communities as we do, that for every person who has one view about a body, there is an equal and opposite view from someone else, with all gradations of views in between. If a local authority scrutiny and overview committee thinks that it can inquire into anything that it fancies, then I am afraid that it will turn against it the very people on whose behalf it should be working, or indeed the very people whom it needs to take along with it in order to deliver the services.
Clause 1 stand part may not be the best place to talk about the conflict-of-interest issues relating to allowing executive council members to sit on scrutiny committees. I apologise to the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich for not having congratulated him on taking over, at such short notice, what is turning out to be a difficult Bill, but he did rather run through the Bill very quickly. I do not want to hold things up, and I am happy to be guided by you, Mrs. Humble, but I wonder whether I might point out briefly the concerns about the conflict of interest in allowing executive council members to sit on the scrutiny committees.
I have already raised the issue of the district councils. This is probably more a process issue, of interest to the Committee only, and not to the greater public, but the Bill extends the powers of joint committees, even though regulations to set them up are not yet in place. If the Minister can enlighten us on what she expects to happen, that might at least reduce the number of amendments that we are likely to table on Report.
With those broad commentsI am sorry, but they were not as brief as I had intendedI would just like to say that, as a matter of principle, I will ask my colleagues to join me in voting against clause 1 to register that we think that there are difficulties with the Bill that need to be addressed seriously.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship and to take your guidance, Mrs. Humble.
I welcome the powers in the Bill. I hoped that the Bill would get a fair wind, so I am disappointed to hear that we face a vote on clause 1. I did, however, have a concern about the clause. That is why I tabled an amendment, which was not selected. It might be slightly pedantic, but the use of the word greater in the clause gives me concern. Perhaps that could be described as a local concern, given the wording used in other parts of the clause.
I would welcome the views of my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich on whether greater is restricting. It suggests that only where the impact or concern is deemed to be larger in one area than another will an issue fall within the remit of the clause, rather than where the impact of an action, or the decision of a body, is simply different in different areas. For example, let us say that there was a large project in an area that was bounded by three or four authorities, and that they were looking for a large pool of labour to be employed. We would expect the local Jobcentre Plus to be able to find work for a proportionate number of people from each of the local authorities. However, if one local authority was doing particularly badly, and local concern was raised by local residents, who did not feel that the performance was as it should be, it might be a question not simply of the number of people affected, but the service being offered. I would therefore very much welcome my right hon. Friends views on the word greater and on whether, on Report, an amendment might be appropriate, so that we could revisit the issue and bring forward a different wordperhaps the word different.
I understand that there is a need to ensure that the clause is kept as tight as possible to avoid local authorities being tempted to stray beyond their localitythat picks up a little on the point made by the hon. Member for Beckenhamand to hold to account those bodies affected by clearly defining local matters. However, there is a desire to avoid local authorities behaving in an almost vexatious or frivolous way by crossing boundaries, or taking a not in my back yard view.
I strongly agree with the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport, on the issue raised, under clause 1(2), about the extent to which the matter has to affect a local authority before it can come under the consideration of an overview and scrutiny committee. An example from my constituency of an issue that is subject to an overview and scrutiny committee decision is the transfer of upper gastrointestinal cancer surgery to Derriford. People in Devon will have a completely different experience and attitude towards that change from people in Cornwall. We could have an argument about who experienced the greater impact, but we can certainly argue that people have different experiences and real concerns that need to be raised. That is an important difference that needs to be taken into account.
I was slightly confused by the comments made by the hon. Member for Beckenham. On the one hand, she says that councils already undertake such scrutiny, so what is the need to add regulation? On the other hand, she says that the requirement will be an additional burden. I am not sure how both things can apply at the same time.
If I may make a further comment on the points that the hon. Lady made, it is very important that local authorities should be able to call in and scrutinise whomever they wish if there is public money involved. I am sure that plenty of charities and businesses would be keen to come before a Select Committee to outline how they felt public resources were being misdirected, or how money could be spent more efficiently. I see the scrutiny as a matter of proper engagement, working along similar lines to a Select Committee in this House. Some people come before a Select Committee because they want to make a positive contribution and make changes, and others do so because they have some uncomfortable questions to ask. That is entirely the right and proper process.
I do not see why the hon. Lady thinks that there is a conflict between councils working closely with their communities, and therefore not needing the Bill, and the imposition that the Bill would place on local authorities because it is felt that these powers need to be there. A good local authority does not need the Bill. If we pass the Bill, we put on a burden. There is no need for the Bill if there are good local authorities. The key is having good local authorities.
I still cannot see that the contradiction has been resolved. Either the council is already doing it and therefore having it backed up by legislation simply reinforces that, or it is an additional burden. Both cannot be the case.
I note the comments by the Local Government Association, which welcomed the fact that the Bill would strengthen the available powers of scrutiny. More generally, I welcome the opportunity to debate the Bill. It is important that we give it a fair wind. We have to remember that local authorities are democratically accountable to their communities. If anything is lacking in the delivery of public services, it is that there is not enough democratic accountability. Although I personally would like to see that rolled out more directly, setting up overview and scrutiny committees goes some way to ensure a closer look at the impact of the delivery of public services at a local level and greater democratic accountability.
The proposals should dovetail quite well with the Total Place pilots that are going on. This is ultimately not just about what is being done in public services at a local level but about how money is spent. Local people have a right to understand how public services are being delivered at a local level and how money is being spent effectively.
Thinking back to the Sustainable Communities Act 2007which started as another private Members Bill whose scrutiny I participated inone of the big challenges that I found when talking to my own local authorities about that Bill, which introduced powers that went way beyond local authorities existing remit, was that they found it difficult to get their heads round the fact that they were allowed to have an opinion on things that went beyond their existing responsibilities. Similarly, some councils may find it slightly odd that they are now allowed to have a view on things that are beyond their existing remit. That is why it is important to have it backed up in legislation. It will complement Total Place, which I am concerned is too much of a bureaucratic exercise at the moment. It is useful for people sitting round a table discussing local area agreements, but there is an opportunity to engage people and to try to get them to participate, which is one reason why we should welcome it.
Having said that, there are limitations to the way in which the overview and scrutiny committee system works at the moment. I would cite the decision-making process on the transfer of upper GI cancer surgery to Derriford. In that situation, we had an overview and scrutiny committee making a decision on whether or not there would be widespread consultation, which the wider public saw as making a decision on whether the services would transfer, which is a very different thing. The committee was presented with a petition signed by 30,000 local residents, calling on it not to transfer. At that point, we did not have a process for dealing with petitions. Even though we now have that as a result of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009, that is a quantitative decision rather than a qualitative one.
There are problems with the way in which the overview and scrutiny system works. The public can become understandably confused about whether councils are expressing an opinion on a service for which they are not responsible, or whether they are scrutinising a service that they are responsible for delivering. The proposals do not deal with that conflict, but would ensure that a light is cast on the delivery of public services at a local level, so they represent a step in the right direction.
Given the example of the transfer of the upper GI and the numbers involved, does the hon. Lady share my concern about the word greater? If people in Plymouth, Devonport, where we have a significantly larger inner-city population, were also to draw up a petition saying that we wanted that provision in Plymouth, we could by virtue of numbers alone probably outdo the hon. Ladys area. That word therefore needs to be considered.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady. There is some inconsistency regarding the areas that overview and scrutiny committees can consider. The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich pointed out in his initial remarks that utility companies, for example, could come under that consideration. However, if they could not be required to submit evidence or attend, that might make the process unsatisfactory.
Regarding the structures that need to be in place, a difficulty is that we do not know which organisations will fall under the remit. The decisions of the larger regional agencies, which are the obvious organisations to be included, will impact on many local authorities, and if the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport was adopted, those decisions could have many different impacts. I do not understand whether in principle those agencies would be included or excluded, nor how the system would fit with the Regional Select Committee process. To have that kind of scrutiny at a local level would be far more effective than Regional Select Committee system as it currently functions. I see that as not a perfect solution, but perhaps an improved one.
From what I have seen of the Regional Select Committee process, decisions are scrutinised after they have been taken, and it has been difficult to tease out the different impacts that decisions have had on different communities. There is still a lot, therefore, to be teased out, but I am happy to support the proposal, given where we are in this Parliament, and my broad welcome for anything that ultimately gives more power to local people, which I feel it does. I cannot see any reason to vote against clause 1.
It never ceases to astound me how illiberal Liberals can be. We have just seen another perfect example of that in action. There was no thought about the individual who lives in our society, no thought about the possible concerns that the provision might place on them. It was simply said that we need to extend the power of Government at all levels, to get more involved and have more to say and to demand from these poor, depressed individuals, who are working to earn a living under the ever-growing burden of society.
I think the hon. Gentleman has missed the point. If we are moving into a tight fiscal situation, it is important that every penny of public money spent is properly scrutinised and accounted for, regardless of whether the money is being given to a charity, a local authority or any other public agency. It is important that that money is effectively and efficiently spent.
I am grateful for that homily. It did not really cast much more illumination on my point, but I was perfectly happy to sit and listen to it. Now, may I go on to talk about clause 3? [Hon. Members: No.] Oh, we are on the clause 1 stand part debatemy apologies. I shall come back.
It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mrs. Humble, and it is also a pleasure to work on a Bill that has generated so much interest, and on which my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich is to be congratulated. He is to be thanked for taking the Bill forward at such very short notice. Although I was not present on Second Reading, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin), told me that at the time, there was significant cross-party support for the Bills aim of providing enhanced powers to local government overview and scrutiny committees. Just to make it clear to the hon. Member for Beckenham, district councils are excluded, but there should be local arrangements in place to allow them to contribute to joint scrutiny in two-tier areas.
I am aware of that. Obviously there will be a timing issue, which we will have to look at. The Government wholeheartedly support the Bill because it implements the proposals set out in the Department for Communities and Local Governments Strengthening local democracy consultation, which was published last July.
There is not much more that I need to say at the moment, although I would like to deal with some of the matters raised in amendment 1. Clause 1 provides that the enhanced scrutiny powers in part 1 of the Bill apply when overview and scrutiny committees scrutinise matters of local concern, in connection with the provision of public services by authorities or persons designated in regulations by the Secretary of State. The bodies that we intend to designate in the first instance are local area agreement partner bodies, as the hon. Member for Beckenham pointed out. That will remove the current limitation on the scrutiny of activities related to LAA matters only, and recognise that the local contribution activities of partner bodies, such as Jobcentre Plus and the fire and rescue authorities, cut across the full range of local issues that arise and are not limited to the delivery priorities in LAA areas.
We also intend, initially, to extend the enhanced scrutiny regime to two new sectors by designating energygas and electricityand transport providers, such as train, tram and bus operators, as being subject to the regime. I am pleased to confirm that the Government will consult widely before making such regulations. The Bill ensures parliamentary scrutiny of a decision to designate any particular body or person. Hon. Members will have the opportunity to scrutinise and debate draft regulations laid before Parliament.
Our starting point is that the new scrutiny powers need to be limited to matters that are truly localin other words, matters that come under the new scrutiny powers are those that predominantly affect only the area of the council or councils undertaking the scrutiny. The Bill seeks to achieve that by providing that a matter falls within the ambit of the new regime
only if it affects the authoritys area or the inhabitants of that area to a greater degree than it affects the areas of other local authorities or the inhabitants of other such areas.
I am grateful to the Minister for being generous with her time. This may sound trivial, but I want to return to the point about energy. The Government have just published their tariff for individuals who use microgeneration to feed into the grid. In rural areas, many individuals put up wind turbines, which generate extra electricity that goes into the grid. Will those people therefore be defined as energy providers, and hence subject to the overview and scrutiny committee? It is a small point, but if green generation takes off, there could be a big problem.
One of the things I most admire about local government, contrasted with national Government, is its common sense. I am sure that a great deal of common sense will apply when people are appointed.
I am not giving way.
I believe that the formulation encapsulates the aim of subjecting local matters to scrutiny, and excluding national and regional matters that go far beyond the areas of the council undertaking the scrutiny. However, the formulation does not mean that decisions that are taken about some local issues as a result of national policy are outside scrutiny. For example, if there was a policy about closing certain local offices of a national agency, the policy would not be subject to scrutiny.
Is the Minister saying that some regional agencies will be excluded from the scrutiny process? Where would the delivery of convergence funding, for example, fall in Cornwall? The process is being delivered by the regional development agency, but it impacts only Cornwall. Surely, that is an example of how the work of a regional authority should be subject to scrutiny of a local authority?
I am not specifically excluding anything at the moment. I am saying that it will be about matters that are specific to that local area. How that is defined will be a matter for someone else.
I was struck by a perceptive phrase used by the Minister. She said that she was struck by the common sense of local government as opposed to national Government. Will she elaborate further the instances where she thinks that the national Government, of whom she is a member, have not demonstrated common sense?
Common sense is applied at the local levelI speak as a regional Ministerbecause there is an attempt to work in a more consensual fashion. That is not the case in this Committee, however, and such behaviour turns the public off politics, rather than making them interested in it.
I was trying to intervene on the Minister a couple of minutes ago, but the Minister was interrupted by Opposition Members. Will she explain a bit more about the consultation on the scrutiny of transport undertakings? Such undertakings are local, but they inevitably have implications that go across local authority boundaries. Is there a proposal for a consortium of local authorities scrutinising, for example, a tram system or local railway, or will it be strictly one local authority at a time, clearly making the scrutiny less effective?
My hon. Friends question echoes that of the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne. Decisions about exactly how the scrutiny will operate will have to be taken. The idea is to build slowly and look at how we can make the proposal effective. We can expand a local area ad infinitum, but we need local authorities to be as effective as possible. At this point, I will conclude and commend the Bill to the Committee.
I would like to focus on three issues. First, it is important to take the opportunity, on Report, to debate amendments that hon. Members wish to pursue, because of the short timetable that has precluded our doing so in Committee. I wholly sympathise with that view, and I wrote to all hon. Members before todays sitting to say that I would happily discuss any amendments they wish to table on Report.
Secondly, I emphasise the fact that despite the differences that have emerged this morning in Committee the Bill has up to now enjoyed all-party support, and I hope that it will continue to do so. The hon. Member for Beckenham made a point, which was echoed by the hon. Member for Northampton, South, about the possible burden and disproportionate impact on business, and it is very much a concern that we should get a balance and that the Bill should allow more effective scrutiny but should not impose unreasonable burdens.
I want to echo the views of the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) on Second Reading. She said that overview and scrutiny committees perform an important function, but that their powers need to be extended:
There is a growing recognition that overview and scrutiny committees need to have powers over a wider range of external organisations as they become more involved in local public services, and that councils should provide sufficient resources and support to those committees so that they can undertake more scrutiny.
The Bill seeks to address a number of issues, and we welcome its intention to increase local scrutiny powers.[Official Report, 5 February 2010; Vol. 505, c. 524-25.]
I hope that we can proceed on that consensual basis, with the clear undertaking, which I am happy to give, that while I continue to have anything to do with the Bill I want to achieve a balance between enabling overview and scrutiny committees to discharge those functions more effectively, across a wider range of organisations involved in public service delivery, without imposing any undue burden. Three points of detail have been raised, which I think will come up later. The hon. Member for Northampton, South, in discussing a possible burden on business, was worried about duplication. There is provision in clause 7 for joint scrutiny, which is also pertinent to the concern of the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne about the Devon and Cornwall interest in cancer services at Derriford hospital. Again, joint scrutiny would probably be the appropriate response.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport and the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne both spent some time considering the words greater or different in the phrasing of the definition in clause 1. There is clearly a fine balance. If we are to avoid imposing an unreasonable burden on the organisations that are scrutinised, there should be a focus on what is local, and what has a greater impact locally than it does elsewhere. The failure of a jobcentre to ensure that there are effective services for a particular area, to use the example given by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport, may have a greater impact on the citizens of that area than on those elsewhere. However, I should like to take further advice on the issue, and perhaps we may return to it on Report.
I agree very much with the concerns that the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne raised about the link with Total Place and the scope for scrutiny to give more sense of public engagement in something that I believe we all support as a concept, but which has seemed a little remote and technocratic up to now. Perhaps that is a good way to engage the public in an important issue.
The hon. Member for Beckenham raised two specific issues including, first, conflicts of interest between executive and back-bench members, which will come up in relation to clause 8, so I will not say anything more about it now. The second issue was district councils, which will come up under clause 6; we can perhaps pick it up at that point. I understand her concerns and hope that we will find effective answers. I am interested in how the regulations, which are crucial, will be introduced, although I am not in a position to give any guarantees on that. However, it is vital to get the right balance.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his conciliatory approach. However, I shall stick to my suggestion and encourage my colleagues to vote against clause stand part. This brief debate has revealed many flaws in the Bill, which need to be debated. Because of the speed of proceedings, which I accept the right hon. Gentleman did not necessarily desire, we have not been able to scrutinise the Bill thoroughly. To register our objection to the Bills flaws and to that speed, I encourage my colleagues to vote with me against clause stand part.