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Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 131:

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 131, I shall speak also to the other government amendments in this group. All of these amendments deal with the issue of overview and scrutiny committees.

We tabled this series of amendments to reinforce what we see as the crucial role of the committees. Under the new arrangements the executive will make the majority of day-to-day decisions. As I said, that decision-making process must meet our aims of being more efficient, transparent and accountable. We therefore need to ensure that, unlike the existing system, it is opened up to clear and proper scrutiny and that councillors outside the executive, and other stakeholders, are given a strong role in policy development alongside the executive. These amendments to enhance the position of the overview and scrutiny committees are designed to do just that.

Amendments Nos. 133 to 135 clarify the remit of overview and scrutiny committees. They make it clear that every function which is the responsibility of the executive must be capable of being reviewed and scrutinised by at least one committee. They also make it clear that they can examine not only decisions, but also all actions taken by the executive in connection with the discharge of its functions. That delivers our policy of ensuring that all executive actions are open to challenge and public accountability and meet some of the anxieties expressed in the earlier debate.

Amendments Nos. 137 and 138 further clarify the power of overview and scrutiny committees in respect of their key roles in policy development and review of all council functions. They are an expansion of Clauses 15(1)(a) and (b)(i) in the Bill.

Amendment No. 140 ensures that an overview and scrutiny committee, where it wishes to challenge an executive decision, has the power to have the decision reconsidered before implementation. Exactly how such a "call-in" mechanism might work in an individual authority will be largely a matter for local choice. But we wish to ensure that such a power exists. The amendment would allow the committee to ask the relevant part of the executive to reconsider the matter, or to refer the matter to full council for debate to see whether it thinks the matter needs consideration. The power is proposed as a direct response to the Joint Committee's recommendations.

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Amendment No. 140 also ensures that an overview and scrutiny committee cannot discharge any other function on behalf of the council. That is to ensure a proper division between the discharge of executive duties and discharge of scrutiny duties. The committees are there to look at how council functions are being discharged. Such an arrangement would be blurred if it was itself carrying out some of those functions.

Amendment No. 145 deals with people who are not members of the authority being co-opted on to overview and scrutiny committees. It also deals, in new subsection (2D), with the rules which govern the way in which such committees operate. For such committees to be effective, it is important that they involve representatives of the local community as appropriate. The amendment would allow them to co-opt non-councillors. However, it also makes it clear that, with one important exception, those co-opted members will not be able to vote on such committees. That is in line with the general existing rules.

The important exception relates to church and parent-governor representatives. They will have the right to be co-opted on to overview and scrutiny committees which deal with education matters. That is dealt with in part by the amendment of the right reverend Prelate. At present such representatives sit on education committees by virtue of the provisions of the Education Act 1996. The Government recognise the valuable role that they have played in education and want to see those contributions continue. The amendment therefore enshrines on the face of this Bill their rights to scrutinise and review education matters.

Subsection (2D) applies also to overview and scrutiny committees and sub-committees the access to information regime that currently applies to the committee system. It also ensures that such committees reflect the overall political balance of the council. Ensuring that all parties on the council are represented in proportion on each committee will make overview and scrutiny suitably non-partisan and, as far as possible, non-adversarial.

I hope that the Committee will recognise that the amendments are designed to achieve exactly the objective referred to in the earlier debate of effective scrutiny of executive decisions of the council under the new structures. I beg to move.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: Perhaps I can ask the Minister a short question for clarification. Do the responsibilities for executive functions under Clause 12 in any way govern or relate to the exercise of the powers of a local authority under Clause 2(1)(b)? The Minister will remember that we had a discussion on this in two contexts on two amendments earlier. It may be that I am ignorant, which I am, of the interstice of local government administration, but I merely seek clarification.

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4.15 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee: This is a difficult group of amendments to handle. A number of different points are raised by a number of the amendments. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, indicated that he will be happy for me to speak next, perhaps because my Amendment No. 140A is an amendment to the Minster's amendment to which he has already spoken.

The noble Lord pre-empted the point by explaining lines 9 and 10 by saying that, if the overview and scrutiny committees were to extend their roles beyond the functions set out on the face of the Bill, there would be a blurring of the position. Our objection to the proposed new subsection is that, to provide that the functions of an overview and scrutiny committee may be only those which Parliament--for which read "the Government"--decides that it may have, seems to us to be yet another inappropriate constraint on the proper flexibility of local government. It is yet another centralising provision.

Amendment No. 140A would provide that an overview and scrutiny committee could discharge functions imposed or permitted by the authority itself. That would not detract from its principal functions as set out in the clause and the clause as amended. We feel--I have no doubt it will be a theme which runs through the rest of today's debate--that the Government are losing valuable opportunities for the input of those people who will be members of the overview and scrutiny committees in such a rigid demarcation.

I want to comment on Amendment No. 146. However, it may be that the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, should speak to it first. Perhaps I may come back into the debate later if I feel that there are still points I should like to make.

Lord Dixon-Smith: I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I tabled four amendments in this group, each important in its way.

Amendment No. 139 would permit an overview and scrutiny committee,

    "to advise the executive [of a local authority] on the future discharge of its executive functions".

It is difficult to make a clear distinction between policy, executive and overview. A real problem exists in this regard and the Government, in trying to make clear distinctions, are in danger of creating a system where smooth operation will not happen.

There is also the problem that members of the authority who are not serving on the executive must have a real job to do. It is perfectly true that some functions will not be handled by the executive; those will still remain for ordinary members.

Then there are the overview and scrutiny committees, of which there may be one or more and in respect of which we have tabled further amendments. There will also be a standards committee. So there are other matters to be considered. However, the question is whether those committees will attract people of ability and vision. If one wishes to serve one's

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community, a considerable amount of trouble and inconvenience is involved in standing for election, even though it may only be for a local authority.

Unless it is felt that there is a worthwhile job to do at the end of the day, good people will not stand for election. It is a very sad fact that, in general, politics today attracts few people of real ability because they can do so much better in the outside world. Indeed, for youngish people, family interests and the interests of one's children inevitably come before what we would regard as the obvious and wider interests of the community at large. That is a sad fact of life. So we must also bear that thought in mind.

Amendment No. 146 requires officers serving the oversight and scrutiny committees to be responsible to the council, and states that they should clearly be seen not to serve the executive. I believe that that distinction will prove to be very important for the integrity of the whole new system. However, it is not straightforward and easy. In the case of some of the very small rural authorities, I suspect that staff numbers of qualified people, especially in the chief executive's department--I am sorry; I have to be careful how I use that word now--will in fact be small. We may well find difficulties in building Chinese walls of the sort that I think everyone agrees are desirable.

Amendment No. 148 would make it possible for the head of the paid service or the monitoring officer to summon a meeting of an oversight and scrutiny committee, whenever he felt that it was necessary. The Minister talked about the need for openness, clarity and clear responsibility. For this system to be open, clear and transparent, I believe that that particular facility should be available.

Amendment No. 149 deals with the matter of education and refers in particular to members in a "non-voting capacity" in relation to religion. I thought it worth tabling the amendment in what I would call a "non-traditional" form by inviting consideration that there should be at least one person representing each of the main religious faiths within the area. In the past, some religious faiths have not been involved in education committees. However, there are communities that are not well served in this respect. I commend Amendment No. 149 as producing a thought that I hope the Minister will consider with some sympathy.

All of these amendments are, in their own right, somewhat serious amendments. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

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