Joint Committee on the Draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill Report


9. The draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill is viewed by the Government as forming part of a programme of change, which they originally laid out in their White Paper "Modern Local Government: In Touch with the people".[1] The separate Local Government Bill currently before Parliament, which introduces the Best Value regime and modifies council tax capping arrangements, is the first part of this programme. The draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill which now stands referred to this Committee changes the way in which local councils organise their business by allowing for the introduction of executive arrangements and elected mayors (Part 1); and establishes a new ethical framework and code of conduct for local government (Part 2). It is possible that a bill on the lines of the present draft will figure in the Queen's Speech for the next (1999-2000) session of Parliament. In due course, other legislation is promised—including the introduction of a new duty for councils "to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their area"; and changes to the audit regime, including abolition of "surcharge".

10. The draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill was first published at the end of March as an Annex to the White Paper "Local Leadership, Local Choice" which set out the rationale behind the bill and elaborated some of the detail not readily apparent in the draft bill itself.[2] The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) put its proposals out for consultation to all local authorities. The consultation period ended on 21 May 1999. DETR received 290 responses and made these available to the Joint Committee.

11. Our Committee was established by resolutions of the House of Commons of 26 May and the House of Lords of 27 May, with the order of reference to consider the draft bill and report by 31 July. This was the second occasion for a draft bill to be submitted to the Joint Committee pre-legislative procedure. The usual exchanges of messages went smoothly and no time was lost to us on that or any score. We issued our own invitation to submit evidence and in all 53 responses were received. We met 14 times over the space of just over six weeks and took evidence in public at nine of those meetings. All the oral and written evidence, together with some of the responses to the Government's consultation exercise, are printed in Volume II. Ms Pamela Gordon and Mr Tony Travers were appointed Specialist Advisers and we commissioned a paper on overseas models from Professor Robin Hambleton. We are grateful for their assistance.

12. In addition, the Committee invited the House of Lords Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee to consider whether the extensive use of regulation-making powers in the draft bill is appropriate. The Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee have considered the delegated powers in the draft bill and set out their findings in their Twenty-Third Report (1998-99).[3] Their report concluded that the delegations were appropriate and that there were "no delegated powers in the draft bill which the Committee would need to draw to the attention of the House if the bill were introduced in its present form". We are grateful to the Committee for their assistance in this area.

13. We also took the step of asking the Presiding Officer of the National Assembly of Wales whether that Assembly wished to express any view of the draft bill. In extending this invitation we recognised that while the draft bill applies to Wales, and the National Assembly will be responsible for exercising in Wales the many powers delegated under the bill's provisions, the Assembly has no power to consider the primary legislation itself. Publication of a bill in draft form does, at least, enable the Assembly's views to be expressed at the pre-legislative stage.

14. In fulfilling our task we have encountered some difficulties. First, while there is some advantage in working intensively over a short period, our timetable was really very short. Although the bill was published in March we were not constituted until the end of May, literally on the day of the Late Spring Bank Holiday adjournment. This gave us just over six weeks in which to consider evidence, hear witnesses and to report. As a result some witnesses found it difficult to meet us; deadlines for receiving evidence were on the whole not met; and our own diaries were put under considerable strain. Had we found it necessary to use our powers to "adjourn from place to place", it is doubtful whether we could have found the time. Another result of the shortness of time available to us was that most of our evidence came from those individuals and organisations best equipped to respond at short notice, and those were mainly local authorities. As a result, the evidence was bound to be partial. It would greatly enhance the value of pre-legislative committees such as ourselves if we were in a stronger position to contact other groups, including non-specialists and ordinary members of the public. More time would also have allowed us to engage in some consultation by means of new technology. It cannot, in all conscience, be said that we have given this bill full scrutiny. No doubt the timing of the Government's own consultation exercise influenced the date of our appointment, and the possibility that the draft bill might be introduced in the coming session influenced the date of our demise. We recommend that if pre-legislative scrutiny of bills is to become a regular feature of select committee activity, whether on a joint basis or otherwise:

  • the Government should identify at the beginning of every session those bills which it is likely to introduce in draft form;

  • while it is preferable that any Government consultation exercise should be completed before a select committee is established, this should not prevent a committee being established earlier if this would allow a more reasonable timetable.

15. A second difficulty we encountered was that the bill is in many respects a "skeleton" bill. Large swathes of legislative provision are delegated to the Secretary of State or the National Assembly of Wales. The more important of these include: the functions that may not be subject to executive arrangements, the operation and functions of scrutiny committees, the conduct of elections for mayor, access to information and papers, the conduct and content of referendums, the principles of ethical conduct, the organisation of Standards Committees, and the functions of Standards Boards. Thus, although the use of delegated powers is not inappropriate, the detail of what will be provided for is often lacking. To some extent it is possible to infer some of the content of some of these regulations from the White Paper, but in other areas there has been little or nothing on which to bite. We heard in evidence from DETR that they were "organising the legal and other resources to get some of it (the regulations) drafted to draw on the offers of help and constructive ideas that have been put forward in the consultation package" but that this was unlikely to yield "a lot more material drafted within the timetable of this Committee".[4] The Minister of State told us that she hoped that draft regulations would be available by the time the bill was introduced.[5] We therefore urge that rapid progress be made on the preparation of the draft regulations so that these may be available to Parliament at such time as the draft bill may be introduced. Otherwise much of the debate on the bill will be undesirably hypothetical.

16. This Report should not necessarily be taken as a comment on the necessity, or desirability, of such a bill as is contained in Cm4298. We have not taken a view on this, but rather sought to scrutinise the draft legislation as set out and to seek to make recommendations whereby it may be improved. Nor should any individual's membership of the Committee be taken to imply approval of the bill, nor of any its clauses.

17. While we welcome pre-legislative scrutiny of the kind in which we have engaged as a valuable contribution to the legislative process, we are convinced that the procedure must not replace, or foreshorten any other part of that process, but rather be a further contribution to it.

1  Cm4014 Back

2  Cm4298 Back

3  H.L.Paper 86 Back

4  Q14 Back

5  Q768 Back

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Prepared 3 August 1999