Once again, I would not normally wish to speak on a clause about consequential amendments. However, for the benefit of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North, who raised the issue of joint scrutiny of health services, I want to highlight the provisions in the clause that amend section 123 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 to enable the Secretary of State to make provision in regulations for the appointment of joint overview and scrutiny committees of two or more local authorities that may discharge their powers in that respect. I hope that that gives my hon. Friend the assurance for which he was particularly keen.
That is helpful. However, my right hon. Friend may be able to help me on what might be a slightly arcane point. I was told by councils in my local authority last week that if they formed a consortium of north London authorities to scrutinise the London strategic health authoritys plans for the north central area, they would lose their ability to scrutinise the same plans at an entirely local level. It became a type of either/or situation, which seems a fairly ridiculous way of proceeding, because there are clearly regional implications, as well as very local implications, for any plans made by any health authority. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend can help me with that point, or whether he just wants to think about it.
I certainly want to think about it, because that point takes us right back to the key issue throughout our debate, which is the importance of achieving a balance between ensuring that there are not gaps in the scrutiny process and avoiding the risks of duplication and creating unreasonable burdens. That is the balance that must be achieved. I believe that what the clause does is correct, because it closes a gap; there was not the scope for the joint committees before. I would have thought that the right way forward on the issueI am just thinking aloud at this point
It is always a dangerous thing to do, but those who know me know that I have form in that particular area.
My thought is that the sensible thing would be to have a joint overview and, in the course of that joint overview process, issues that are uniquely of concern to individual areas should be highlighted as part of the joint review, rather than there being a separate and duplicated scrutiny process.
I accept that, and it sounds sensible. In some cases, the views of two local authorities might diverge completely, for example on the location of a specialist health facilitythe sort of issue that is familiar to all of us. We would not want a consortium of, say, five local authorities agreeing a majority consensusif such a thing is possiblewhile a minority consensus is ignored. Those in the minority cannot ultimately make their point to the Secretary of State on behalf of the people whom they represent. That could become a real problem in some areas.
My response to my hon. Friend on the classic issue of the entitlements and rights of minorities in situations where they might be overridden by the majority view, but where they have a real local concern, is that their recourse is probably to options other than scrutiny. Ultimately, we are being taken into the political arena, and the ability of a public authority to highlight its concerns politically and to raise them with the electorate is probably a more powerful weapon.
May I take the opportunity to raise an issue on which I would appreciate my right hon. Friends comments? In my area, Newham is responsible for London City airport. It may agree, under its process, a change to flight times or arrangements. As part of that planning process, Newham consults around the airport, but not in neighbouring areas such as mine, which the planes go over. That causes some aggravation. Would it be appropriate for the local authority, under local pressure, to say, We want to look at Newhams consultation process, because it didnt apply to our area, even though it affected our area? Would it be legitimate for a scrutiny committee in Waltham Forest or Redbridge, for example, to do that, even though the decision was made in Newham?
I will be cautious in response, not least because, as my hon. Friend knows, I have a similar interest, in that I live in and represent a constituency that lies under the flight paths to Heathrow and to London City airport. I am well aware of the issues in areas that are afflicted by aircraft noise but that are not themselves directly part of the consultation process.
My gut instinctit is always dangerous to voice it, and I probably should not do so, but I willis that the establishment of a joint scrutiny body might be the right way to overcome those fears and concerns. However, that is very much off the top of my head, rather than an official response.
I assure my right hon. Friend that I shall indeed have those words with my colleagues.