Local Authorities (Overview and Scrutiny) Bill

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Mrs. Lait: 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.
Mr. Binley: 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.
Julia Goldsworthy: 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.
Mr. Binley: Will the hon. Lady give way?
10.30 am
Julia Goldsworthy: 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.
Mrs. Lait: 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.
Julia Goldsworthy: 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.
Mr. Binley: Will the hon. Lady give way?
Julia Goldsworthy: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, since he has been so polite.
Mr. Binley: 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.
Julia Goldsworthy: 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.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): 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.
Barbara Follett: 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.
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.
Mr. Raynsford: 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.

Clause 4

Power to require response to report or recommendations
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Raynsford: Section 21(2)(e) of the Local Government Act 2000 provides that overview and scrutiny committees may
“make reports or recommendations to the authority or the executive on matters which affect the authority’s area or the inhabitants of that area.”
The committee may also, in making a report or recommendations, require the designated authority or person to respond to the report within two months of receipt, indicating what action, if any, they intend to take. There are various consequential provisions, including those relating to regulation conditions. This seems a sensible way to ensure that scrutiny reports are not just left to gather dust on the shelf.
Jeremy Corbyn: I understand the point about the requirements of a limited time to reply—two months seems reasonable and fair. Would that also apply to private sector organisations, such as Warm Front, which receive large amounts of public money and virtually become a delivery agency for the public sector?
Mr. Raynsford: The purpose of the Bill is to cover all those involved in the delivery of public services. The definition of public services in clause 1—which includes services discharged either as part of a statutory function or as a result of receipt of grant from the public sector—would cover those organisations.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 4 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

Power to publish response
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Raynsford: As we saw in Clause 4, committees may require a response, and clause 5 simply deals with the publication of that response. It provides that where an overview and scrutiny committee has published its report, it may also publish the designated authority or person’s response. It ensures that scrutiny can be open and transparent and that the public are properly informed about scrutiny reviews. It also provides further incentive for bodies to consider properly and fully the recommendations made to them. Members of the public will be able to see whether recommendations have been taken seriously and to better understand the reasons given.
Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Under the clause, is it possible for the scrutiny committee report to be added to the council’s minutes, which are normally published, rather than published as a separate document?
Mr. Raynsford: The Bill leaves the overview and scrutiny committee a good measure of discretion to decide how it should act, and my hon. Friend’s suggestion of a power to append an item to another document is entirely sensible and reasonable. Ultimately, it is a matter for the local authorities to decide, and it is right that they should have discretion on this matter.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 5 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Raynsford: I would not normally rise to speak on an interpretation clause, but this is the opportunity to discuss the role of district councils, which we should touch on briefly, as Members have raised the matter.
The one difficulty that will arise in the case of district councils in two-tier areas is the possible risk of duplication if more than one district were to initiate an inquiry on the same subject simultaneously. That would impose an unreasonable burden on local partners, so it is right that there should be a proper co-ordinated framework. On Second Reading, I expressed concern that the Bill appeared to convey the message that district councils in two-tier areas were excluded. That is not the intention; there should be a proper co-ordinated framework to ensure that issues affecting more than one area are the subject of joint scrutiny. There should not be the kind of duplication about which Opposition Members have rightly expressed concern.
Mr. Drew: Would my right hon. Friend see this as an excellent opportunity to move towards unitary authorities as a matter of extreme urgency?
Mr. Raynsford: Whatever my personal view on that subject, I think that we have had enough controversy this morning to lead me not to enter that particular minefield. I shall pass rapidly over my hon. Friend’s question.
It is my understanding—the Minister may wish to add her reassurance—that in no way is it the Government’s intention to exclude district councils and two-tier areas. There should be a proper framework to avoid unnecessary duplication.
Mrs. Lait: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that explanation, and I hope that the Minister can be equally positive. However, it still prompts the question of when the regulations, which are meant to be being prepared, are likely to emerge. Without them, district councils will be excluded. We are considering this legislation against the background of an imminent general election, so if the Bill progresses but the regulations do not, the district councils will be left out.
10.45 am
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