Local Authorities (Overview and Scrutiny) Bill

[back to previous text]

Barbara Follett: I should like to reassure the hon. Member for Beckenham that we will make the regulations a priority. I am aware of the cliff that we are all facing—
Mrs. Lait: Over which I hope this lot all fall, but never mind.
Barbara Follett: I do not share the hon. Lady’s hopes; in fact, I have entirely different ones. I look forward to the regulations being taken through the House but, sadly, I will not be here to see it because I am standing down at the general election.
Clause 6 provides that the provisions of part 1 of the Bill, which sets out the framework for the enhanced scrutiny regime, will apply to county councils in England and to London borough councils, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich said. Part 1 of the Bill does not apply to non-unitary district councils.
That approach has been taken to minimise the potential burdens placed on bodies subject to the enhanced regime—I hope that the hon. Member for Northampton, South, will be pleased about that—and to reduce the ever-present risk of duplication. However, that is not to devalue the important work of non-unitary district councils in scrutinising matters of local concern. I can reassure right hon. and hon. Members that such district councils will continue to have a very important role, under both the existing and the enhanced scrutiny regimes, in holding to account and scrutinising the decisions of local public service providers.
Amendments made by the Bill will allow the Secretary of State to extend the enhanced scrutiny powers to joint overview and scrutiny committees. That will enable non-unitary district councils, working with their county council, to take full advantage of the new powers to hold local public service providers to account on behalf of their communities.
The Government intend to work with experts in the field of local government scrutiny to produce best practice guidance on the operation of joint overview and scrutiny committees when the new scrutiny powers that are set out in the Bill are used. That guidance may also include helpful suggestions and illustrative examples of how non-unitary district councils can become involved in that scrutiny work.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 6 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7

Consequential amendments
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Raynsford: 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.
Jeremy Corbyn: 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 authority’s 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.
Mr. Raynsford: 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 issue—I am just thinking aloud at this point—
Jeremy Corbyn: Very dangerous. [Laughter.]
Mr. Raynsford: 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.
Jeremy Corbyn: 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 facility—the sort of issue that is familiar to all of us. We would not want a consortium of, say, five local authorities agreeing a majority consensus—if such a thing is possible—while 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.
Mr. Raynsford: 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.
Harry Cohen: May I take the opportunity to raise an issue on which I would appreciate my right hon. Friend’s 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 Newham’s consultation process, because it didn’t 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?
Mr. Raynsford: 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 instinct—it is always dangerous to voice it, and I probably should not do so, but I will—is 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.
On health, my hon. Friend the Minister might wish to have some words with her colleagues in the Department of Health to ensure clarity about how the scrutiny functions are properly discharged.
Barbara Follett: I assure my right hon. Friend that I shall indeed have those words with my colleagues.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 7 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8

Membership of overview and scrutiny committees
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Raynsford: We come to another issue highlighted on Second Reading and by the hon. Member for Beckenham this morning. I share her concerns, of course, because I voiced the same ones on Second Reading.
The effect of the amendments made by subsections (2) and (3) is to allow an overview and scrutiny committee to include members of the local authority’s executive, when the committee is not scrutinising matters relating to the executive. There are also powers to make regulations for further provisions to avoid conflicts of interest. My concern is to avoid creating false relationships, in which a local authority member might be a partner of a body one day and scrutinising it the next. That is a difficult situation, which should be avoided if possible.
My second concern is to avoid the overview and scrutiny members in a local authority to some extent having their important role usurped by executive members, who have far greater powers in the normal course of events. However, I accept that there might be circumstances in which, in the interests of good scrutiny, the expertise of an executive member might be useful as part of that process. I look to the Minister to say that there needs to be very careful drafting of the regulations to ensure that while the permissive power may be used in appropriate circumstances, it is hedged around with sufficient safeguards to avoid the two particular problems that I have highlighted.
Mrs. Lait rose—
Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Lady, I am sure, wants to add to those remarks, so I shall finish mine on that point.
Mrs. Lait: I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I could not have put the point better myself. There is a potential resolution to the problem, because the issue of conflict of interest is very important and could lead to a lot of trouble in the future. There are not many councils I know that could be browbeaten, but it is possible that an executive member could browbeat the other members of the overview and scrutiny committee, and that is not a satisfactory situation.
Obviously, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich hopes that the Minister will reassure him, but I hope that it is possible to come forward with a joint amendment on Report to deal with the issue. My suggestion, as somebody who has observed local government but has never been part of it, is that the executive member could be a witness; they would then not need to be part of the overview and scrutiny committee. The witness could be called more than once if issues arose that affected any contract or local area agreement. That would be more satisfactory than putting the executive member in the unenviable position of having a conflict of interest, or of being accused of browbeating the committee.
Mr. Drew: This is the one part of the Bill that I have some difficulty with, based entirely on my own experiences. The problem is, who decides who goes on overview and scrutiny committees and, subsequently, who chairs those committees? We all probably have, or know of, examples where a majority group—often a very strong majority group—can unfairly influence the whole process, which is based on our Select Committees. However, we come to some sort of arrangement here in the House of Commons through the usual channels; in local government there is no equivalent. It is quite within the power of a majority group to appoint its own chairs—clearly not an executive, but its own chairs—from that party to every one of the committee chairs and to influence who goes on the overview and scrutiny committees.
Jeremy Corbyn: My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Certainly, in my experience of local authorities, the majority group often seeks to appoint somebody. It is a paid position and a lucrative position. In effect, where the majority party appoints them, they become almost an addendum to the executive cabinet system that operates. That is absolutely the opposite of what the scrutiny committee should be and should do.
11 am
Mr. Drew: And that is the whole point. Clearly, they are entirely reliant on those who appoint to keep themselves in that position. I ask my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich to look at that issue. In fact, the problem goes beyond that unacceptable situation. I have seen examples of the majority group not only appointing the chairs but influencing who goes on the committees, to the extent that, where another group has put forward a proposal, the person in question has not achieved the satisfactory level of support and somebody else—either from another group or even, ludicrously, from the same group—has been put on that committee by another party. That brings into question the whole basis of the independence and objectivity of these committees.
We need to look at this issue. This is one of the few improvements to come from the loss of the committee system. As a long-term servant of local government I had some loyalty to that system, although I accept that it had its weaknesses as well. The problem is that in moving to the current system of overview and scrutiny, these committees have to be independent and objective and must be seen to be so. It is not acceptable to have people from the executive on them. I hope that we can look at this again on Report so we can establish that.
I am going beyond where we are now but this is a real problem in local government at the moment, and it could be a growing problem, because unless we nip it in the bud, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said, there will be some slippage. This could be quite a nice position for someone who is not on the executive but who is in a strong majority situation, and who could be encouraged to think that this is another job they can do.
Jeremy Corbyn: My hon. Friend makes a strong point. A scrutiny committee chair is a paid position that is subject to annual appointment. In practice, what happens is that a council election takes place and an executive is established. A scrutiny committee chair is appointed, and they may even give up their own job to do this. I am sure that the knowledge that they may not be reappointed a year later fetters their judgment and their ability to scrutinise seriously what is going on. It is a real issue. If we are to achieve effective scrutiny, there has to be some degree of independence.
Previous Continue
House of Commons 
home page Parliament home page House of 
Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2010
Prepared 4 March 2010