This amendment would empower the monitoring officer to deal with any disputes in county or unitary fire and rescue authorities about what matters a police and crime commissioner could vote on.
As drafted, the Bill fails to deal with any disputes in county or unitary fire and rescue authorities about what matters a police and crime commissioner should be able to vote upon. Amendment 185 would remove any ambiguity and empower the relevant monitoring officer to rule on any disputes. This is a dead simple amendment, and I would be really surprised if the Minister did not accept it.
Clause 7 would allow a police and crime commissioner to attend, speak and vote at meetings of county or unitary fire and rescue authorities where the business relates to the functions of the council as a fire and rescue authority. This is the so-called representation model: PCCs have a role in the governance of fire and rescue services. In the case of the 15 county fire and rescue authorities—such as Cumbria, Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire and Suffolk, as well as the case of Cornwall—that means they could attend full council meetings when business relating to the functions of the fire and rescue authority was being discussed.
For some items of business, it will be easy to decide whether the business relates to the function of the fire and rescue authority, and therefore whether the PCC is able to speak and vote on it. However, there is a danger that a PCC may use his or her voting rights on fire matters to proliferate their influence throughout local government. Even if they do not wish to do so, there is plenty of scope for dispute about what voting and speaking rights they have. A PCC could potentially make the case that almost any area of business relates to the fire service. Planning could have an effect on response times. Should a PCC be able to speak and vote, therefore, on all matters relating to planning? The fire service clearly has a role to play in any local government public health strategy. Does that empower a PCC to speak on any matter pertaining to public health?
At council budget-setting meetings in February each year, councils discuss their whole budgets. One may decide to invest more in adult social care and less in the fire and rescue service as part of a balanced budget package. During the meeting, the council will vote on whether to agree the overall budget proposals. The PCC may not wish to see reductions in the fire and rescue service budget. Is the PCC entitled to vote on the budget as a whole? That would have implications for who gets social care, the safeguarding of children, waste disposal and even road repairs.
It is not sensible for us in Westminster to try to answer such questions legislatively. They are better answered locally by those who intimately understand how their council works. Our amendment would give the local authority’s monitoring officer the final adjudicating authority in county or unitary fire and rescue authorities about what matters the police and crime commissioner can and cannot vote on. They will do so by weighing up what business relates to the functions of the council as a fire and rescue authority. I look forward with much interest to what the Minister has to say about our excellent amendment.
If clause 7 were not in the Bill, I would expect the shadow Minister to introduce it. The clause provides for PCCs to request to be represented on the fire and rescue authorities where they do not take responsibility for governance of the fire and rescue service. Where such a request is accepted, PCCs would have full voting rights to ensure that they take part in the business of the fire and rescue authority in a meaningful and effective way. Where the county or unitary FRAs do not have a dedicated committee for fire, the Bill provides for the PCCs’ ability to attend, speak and vote to be restricted to matters relating to the functions of a fire and rescue service authority, and local appointing committees to consider how these arrangements work in practice.
Monitoring officers, as alluded to by the shadow Minister, have existing duties under section 5 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 to report to the local authority if at any time it appears to them that the actions of the authority are or would be in contravention of the legal provisions. It would be a conflict of interest for the PCCs to take a role in arbitrating on decisions. As a further safeguard, PCCs will be subject to the local authority’s code of conduct for the purposes of their representation on the FRA.
If such provisions were not in place, I would understand where the shadow Minister was coming from, but they are in the Bill and we do not need the amendment.