Clause 3

Local Authorities (Overview and Scrutiny) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:15 am on 3rd March 2010.

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Power to require information

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

The clause deals with the provision of information to overview and scrutiny committees. Subsection (1) provides that an overview and scrutiny  committee may by written notice require a designated body or person to provide the committee with information to enable it to carry out its functions. It also provides that an overview and scrutiny committee can require such a body or person to send an appropriate person to attend before the committee to answer questions.

Subsections (2) to (4) provide that the Secretary of State may make regulations about the exercise of the powers. The intention is to ensure that appropriate provision may be made for the handling of personal and confidential data of all types. I hope that the Minister can reassure the Committee that that will be the case.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Conservative, Northampton South

Having had my rant about illiberal Liberals, not least because of the experiences that we suffered in Northampton under a Liberal council, I shall now proceed to the matter that I wished to raise in the first instance. However, because I was not wide awake, I failed to recognise at what stage we were at.

I served as scrutiny chairman for a sizeable time when the Conservative party was in opposition on Northamptonshire county council. We duly took control of that council, and my role changed. I am a supporter of scrutiny. It plays a vital part in local government and if we did not have scrutiny, many elected councillors would not have much to do. One of its purposes is to ensure that they are at least kept busy and off the streets.

I want to ask some questions specifically about the ability to summon people to provide information or, indeed, to attend scrutiny meetings in connection with the provision of public services by authorities or persons designated under regulation by the Secretary of State. I seek clarification of that particular measure. It seems to be a wide definition of those people connected with the provision of services. For example, many small businesses provide services for the provision of a wider service within the remit of local government. Will the clause include the many businesses that supply goods or services to local organisations, which themselves provide a wider and perhaps more specific service?

I recognise the value of local councils, but I also recognise their ability to be mischievous, and even more than mischievous on some occasions. I am worried about the power that will be given to councillors who wish to be mischievous, so I am looking for confirmation from the proposer of the Bill, who I know to be a very fair man, and I know he would be concerned if his Bill were misused in any way. He would certainly not want that.

I want to know about the legal situation. A small business that supplies a bigger organisation might be open to giving away information that might impact on it legally. What protection is there for people who might be summoned under the new legislation? We all know that scrutiny bodies do not have the right to summon people at the moment.

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Chair, South West Regional Select Committee

Later in the Bill, protection for commercial confidentiality is set out. Committees can keep information confidential, so there is some security there.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Conservative, Northampton South

I did see that there was some security and I am grateful for that intervention, because that properly explains the situation—“some security”. I am looking for a greater degree of security for innocent people who  could be summoned for mischievous reasons at a local level, particularly, if I may say so, in the run-up to an election.

Photo of Jacqui Lait Jacqui Lait Conservative, Beckenham

My hon. Friend will be aware that councils are responsible under the Freedom of Information Act. Given that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport mentioned that there would be commercial confidentiality, I wonder whether my hon. Friend might care to speculate on how the FOI would play into commercial confidentiality for small companies.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Conservative, Northampton South

That is what I meant when I made the point about illiberal Liberals. It is all very well to state in the Bill that there is some protection. I accept that, but once a matter gets into a formal arena, there is grave doubt that the protection will still exist; that is my concern.

I am also concerned about the mischievous nature of the clause. I am concerned about legal involvement and the cost to suppliers to the organisations. I want to ask the proposer of the Bill what evidence he has to suggest that people do not co-operate under the present arrangements. When we have asked for information from an organisation that is not directly accountable to a local authority, in my experience people have been very helpful and we have always got that information. What evidence does the proposer have that requires this rather more draconian measure? I favour maintaining a degree of freedom and independence from local authority involvement, particularly if it turns out to be a mischievous action rather than an action that is helpful to the local community.

Photo of Julia Goldsworthy Julia Goldsworthy Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Once again, I am slightly confused by the point that the Conservatives are trying to make. They are either saying that all this already happens and people come forward and co-operate anyway, or they are saying that it is a massive additional burden, which will breach commercial confidentiality. I am not entirely sure how it can be both things. From a party that says that it has converted to the localist agenda, I have not heard anything to indicate that that is the case. From the comments that have been made so far, their apparent support for the Bill is massively grudging.

Photo of Julia Goldsworthy Julia Goldsworthy Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 10:30 am, 3rd March 2010

I have only a brief point to make and, having been generous, I would like to make some progress. The way in which the Warm Front scheme operates is an example of how public money and private companies could open up the need for the kind of scrutiny that we do not have at present. It is a national scheme involving large sums of public money, but in Cornwall we have very few installers, which means that we have had huge problems with installers coming all the way from Cardiff with no reputational stake in delivering a good service. As a result, people have their hot water and heating turned off and the installers simply do not come back. Those are terrible experiences, and it has been difficult to get information out of Warm Front.

Photo of Jacqui Lait Jacqui Lait Conservative, Beckenham

Warm Front is a national scheme. It is the hon. Lady’s job to raise the issue here; it is not for local government to raise it impotently in the local area.

Photo of Julia Goldsworthy Julia Goldsworthy Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

As I am sure the hon. Lady knows, the scheme interacts with local authority grant funding to help deliver in areas such as Cornwall, where there is little gas heating and a grant is required from the local authority to ensure that some local people can afford it.

Photo of Julia Goldsworthy Julia Goldsworthy Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, since he has been so polite.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Conservative, Northampton South

Thank you very much—there had appeared to be some sort of anti-male attack. May I clarify a point raised by the hon. Lady? She claimed that I may want to have it both ways. Let me make it clear that I stand on the side of the great majority of individuals who are concerned about the over-mighty weight of bureaucracy and administration. That is the point that I am making, and I am making it with particular regard to small and medium-sized businesses, which might be mischievously impacted upon. I want to guarantee that that will not happen. I would have thought that every liberal in this country would support that point.

Photo of Julia Goldsworthy Julia Goldsworthy Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I suppose all I can say is that I stand on the side of taxpayers who want to ensure that the money that they are being asked to pay is being spent effectively and efficiently on delivering services that benefit them. To return to my earlier point, Warm Front is exactly the kind of scheme where private companies receive large sums of public money and where there may be problems with delivery at a local level. It would be helpful to have a power to ensure that such a scheme provides appropriate information, so that the weaknesses of its delivery across a local authority area can be understood, debated and scrutinised. That is why the clause is important.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. I am sorry that I missed the first half hour. Had I known that it was going to be such fun, I would have rushed here expeditiously. It is good to see my good friend the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne present.

I want to make a point to my hon. Friend the Minister. How does the clause relate to the local spending reports in the Sustainable Communities Bill, which some of us have some knowledge about and continue to support as it progresses? I hope that the Minister will say some nice things about how the clause will connect with the ability for greater transparency on how different parts of the statutory sector are laid bare in terms of their funding, so that we can do a better job of spending the money subsequently.

Photo of Barbara Follett Barbara Follett Minister of State (the East of England), Regional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (the East of England), Department for Communities and Local Government

The Government recognise the need for proportionality and the need to avoid duplication. That is why we intend to use the regulation-making powers in clauses 2 to 4 to ensure that there are certain safeguards and procedures in place to make sure that the exercise of the powers by councils does not impose a disproportionate burden on the bodies subject to scrutiny.

To reassure the hon. Member for Northampton, South, the duty to attend will apply to designated bodies only, and the regulations may need to make further provision  to ensure that any burden is proportionate. Such regulations could provide that information already in the public domain need not be provided again, and prohibit overview and scrutiny committees from undertaking scrutiny reviews on a matter more than once in a period specified in the regulations. They could also make provision on the disclosure of confidential and personal information to scrutiny committees, and the description of who is an appropriate person for the purpose of designated bodies sending a person to attend a scrutiny committee hearing to answer questions. Our thoughts—as you can tell from this, Mrs. Humble—are what could be included in the regulations that are still at an early stage of development. As with regulations under clause 1, we intend to consult before making any regulations under these clauses.

I hope that, given these assurances, the Committee will see fit to accept the clause. In conclusion, I would like to say that I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud that transparency is always to be welcomed. I welcome working with him on the extension to the Sustainable Communities Act 2007.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

My hon. Friend the Minister has rightly highlighted that there will be consultation before any regulations are prepared. That gives the right opportunity for all interested parties, particularly the business community, to express views about the proposals. As I stressed in an earlier debate, it is a matter of balance. There is evidence—some anecdotal, but widely circulated and believed—referred to on Second Reading by the hon. Member for Putney, that in some cases, councils seeking information do not get the co-operation that they should from bodies such as utilities. Water companies are often mentioned: the leaky bucket story and other such events. In those cases, where one is dealing with very large organisations, there should be no reason for them not to provide information to a local authority when requested.

The hon. Member for Northampton, South is right to express concerns about disproportionate burdens on small businesses, and they should be taken into account during the consultation on the regulation-making powers. With those assurances, I hope that hon. Members will agree that the clause should stand part of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.