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12 Mar 2010 : Column 568

Amendment 20, page 3, line 23, leave out 'negative' and insert 'the affirmative'.

Amendment 23, in clause 6, page 4, line 16, leave out from 'England' to end of line 17.

Amendment 24, in clause 7, page 5, line 15, at end insert-

'(5) The Secretary of State must bring forward regulations to allow for joint overview and scrutiny committees to be established between county councils and one or more district councils in their area, as provided for in the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009, before the provisions of this Act come into force.'.

Amendment 26, in clause 10, page 6, leave out lines 9 to 12 and insert-

'(3) All regulations under this Act are subject to "the affirmative resolution procedure", and the regulations must not be made unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing them has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.'.

Amendment 27, page 6, leave out lines 13 to 15.

Amendment 28, page 6, leave out lines 16 to 18.

Mr. Chope: I am speaking to these amendments on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening), who represents the constituency in which I had the privilege to be born-some years ago.

Amendment 8 would leave out "section" and insert "significant section"; amendment 9 would leave out "or" and insert "and", and amendment 10 would insert

These three amendments, along with the others in the group, are part of a theme. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Putney, like me, does not agree with too much prescription in local government. Indeed, we can now see that the Local Government Act 2000, which required most local authorities in England to abolish the traditional committee system of governance and to adopt new executive structures, was unnecessarily prescriptive. That is why my hon. Friend seeks through the amendments to reduce the level of prescription and the extent of the regulation-making powers.

Let us look at the amendments in more detail. Amendment 8 would narrow the definition of a "public service" for the Bill's purposes. In order to fit in with the Bill's parameters, "public service" would be

"and"-rather than "or", as affected by amendment 9-

Those two amendments are complemented by amendment 10, which changes clause 1(3)(c) by adding additional words that would make it

Effectively, the promoter and his supporters think that local authorities should branch out from their core business into the business of looking at local public services other than the ones run by the council itself. They believe it would be a good idea for the local council to hold these other public services to account, irrespective of whether they are provided by other public bodies or private companies delivering public services. The promoters argue that councillors will have the
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ability to shine a spotlight on services that they do not think are delivering for local people and will be able to demand action on behalf of their communities to resolve local problems.

As I see it, however, the difficulty is that we already have local authorities up and down and country that are not even getting on properly with their core business. If they cannot cope with their core business and are always complaining-well, not always, but quite often-about the lack of resources they have to discharge that business, why should we let them nose around in other public services in the area? Why cannot we leave the people charged with taking responsibility for those services to get on with providing them and to be accountable to the public either through their Members of Parliament or through some other means? If they are in receipt of public funds, all sorts of methods and avenues of accountability are available. Why should we want to get the local council involved in all that?

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I remember saying, when I was leader of a local authority, that it was a legitimate part of an authority's business to transfer powers from another authority: for example, to abolish the Greater London Council and give its powers to the London boroughs, or to abolish the Inner London Education Authority and give its powers to local councils. However, I think that that is different from the arrangement envisaged in the Bill, which would enable councils to stick their noses into activities that were not part of their core business. Amendments 8, 9 and 10 are designed to mitigate the adverse consequences of that.

I am delighted to see that the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) is present. His amendment 1 states:

clause 1-

That strikes me as an important and sensible safeguard, which accords with the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Putney that local authorities should not start interfering in areas where they ought not to interfere. If before making regulations the Secretary of State had to consider their potential effect on small businesses and so on, it would probably be to the good, particularly if that Secretary of State was a member of a Conservative Government.

Amendment 6 proposes to insert the following provision in clause 1:

I admit that I have not discussed the wording with my hon. Friend the Member for Putney, but it seems pretty innocuous and sensible to me-as, indeed, does amendment 17, which proposes to insert in clause 3 the words,

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Clause 3 is headed "Power to require information", and states:

Subsection (1)(b) provides that the overview and scrutiny committee may

Amendment 17 suggests that that should not be a general power, but should be limited to circumstances in which the person who is asked to attend

That is not an expression with which I am familiar, but I imagine it means information that it is in their power to give. My hon. Friend the Member for Putney might, for example, have had in mind the brain of the person who is being asked to answer the questions, because one could describe one's brain as a "personal resource base"-I am now speculating a little, however.

It is also necessary to ensure that this could only be done

That addition speaks for itself, and it would limit the power to require information under clause 3.

The same can be said of amendment 18. Clause 3(3)(b)(v) currently refers to

The amendment would replace "person" with

and I think that is what the drafter of the Bill intended. He was concerned about not the description of the person-such as whether they had long or short hair-but the role of that person. I am therefore sure that my hon. Friend's amendment is a more accurate reflection of the original intentions of the Bill's promoter.

The other amendments in the group refer to a number of further issues, such as whether there should be affirmative resolutions.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is desirable and important that we have the affirmative, rather than the negative, procedure? Given that one is not able to amend a statutory instrument or regulation, and that instead they have to be taken on an all-or-nothing basis, having the affirmative procedure guarantees, or at least enhances the chance, that they will actually be debated so that the Government of the day can be held to account on the contents of the order or regulation.

Mr. Chope: As so often, my hon. Friend makes a very important point. We are talking here about interfering with another elected body-local authorities-and we should not change their regime without giving proper notice and ensuring that we can have a proper debate in this House. We should pay due respect to such democratically elected bodies. We are also talking about the implications for other public sector bodies in respect of their interactions with local authorities, and that is another important issue. If we are going to change
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these regimes, we must ensure that there is a chance for proper debate. Although we would not be able to make any amendments, of course, there would be more chance of any consultation beforehand being meaningful if it were conducted in the knowledge that the statutory instrument could not just go through on the nod, and that there would have to be a debate in this place. I think that all my hon. Friend's amendments dealing with changing the way in which regulations could be amended are very important.

Amendment 22 to clause 4 states:

That is similar to the one that I described earlier.

Then we come to amendment 23 to clause 6, which states:

That is a sensible way of restricting the ambit of clause 6, which is the interpretation clause. It states:

Under the amendment, the reference would be to all district councils, rather than just to those in a county.

Mr. Burns: Perhaps I should intervene on the Minister later for an answer to this question. In the interpretation clause, there is no mention of borough councils, only district councils. There may be a logical reason for that, but as my hon. Friend knows, there is a subtle difference between the two.

Mr. Chope: It is true that there is no reference to borough councils, except London borough councils. Colloquially, people often talk about "the borough council". For example, they talk about Christchurch borough council, but in strict parlance, Christchurch council is a district council, rather than a borough council.

Mr. Burns: My hon. Friend is right, as usual. The reason I asked is that in the area that I represent, the council is called Chelmsford borough council, whereas in the neighbouring two districts, the councils are Braintree district council and Brentwood district council. Perhaps the Minister can deal with that.

Mr. Chope: Indeed. The more important issue that the Minister needs to address is why a local authority is defined in clause 6 as not including a district council which is

It would be useful to find out why that wording is included. Amendment 23 tries to tease that out of the Minister in the course of the debate.

Amendment 24 to clause 7 states:

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Of all the amendments that have been tabled, this is the most relevant to my own experience. In Dorset, we are lucky enough to have two-tier local government, where we have a county council and some good district councils. They are almost invariably under the control of the Conservative party, but that is another story.

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At the moment, the district councils and the county council are working closely together to ensure that best value for money is obtained. The idea that there might be joint overview and scrutiny committees is an imaginative one, which will further build upon the co-operation that is already present to a large extent and growing all the time between Dorset county council and the district councils in its area. I hope that amendment 24 to clause 7, entitled "Consequential amendments", will find favour with the Bill's promoter or his representative today.

That brings us to the last group of amendments in the list, amendments 26 to 28 to clause 10. Their result would be to leave out lines 9 to 12, subsection (3), and insert the words in amendment 26. That is the text relating to the desirability of having affirmative resolutions, which we touched on earlier, the consequence of which is that we need to leave out lines 13 to 15 and lines 16 to 18 of clause 10.

It is always an invidious task to speak to amendments on behalf of somebody else, who has probably spent a lot of time preparing them, and to get the right tenor of those amendments. I hope that I have done justice to the intent of my hon. Friend the Member for Putney and that when she sees the Official Report she will be not discontent with the way in which I have put her case. I look forward in due course to being able to respond to this important debate.

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): I should say at the outset that I am taking the Bill through its remaining Commons stages on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), and that is why I am speaking to this group of amendments. I should also repeat the declaration of a non-pecuniary interest that I made on Second Reading and in Committee: I am chairman of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, a body that promotes good-quality scrutiny by public authorities.

This large group of amendments all deal with the range and scope of the regime, and the extent to which the powers may be exercised by local authorities. In Committee, I accepted the importance of amending clause 1 to safeguard against potential burdens that may arise on designated bodies, in particular, to ensure that it does not have the unwanted effect of unduly burdening small business and charities. Throughout, we have been clear that this scrutiny regime must be proportionate.

Amendment 1 builds in such safeguards for small business and voluntary or community interest organisations. It does so by requiring the Secretary of State to consider
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the potential effect on small business and voluntary and community interest organisations before making an order designating bodies as subject to the regime.

The definitions in the amendment are generous. "Small business" is defined as

and it is consistent with the definition in section 382 of the Companies Act 2006. Similarly, a "voluntary or community interest organisation" for these purposes means

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