Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I can think of many good reasons why the number should not be fixed. There are issues such as reflecting the balance on the authority as well. In some parts of the country there may be more than four or five parties on an authority. Of course, in those instances, size matters because of the balance of the parties and so on. So there are some practical difficulties in that situation. I believe that it would be a mistake to fix law as to the numbers and sizes. In practice we believe that most local authorities will want to have a committee of between three and five members, particularly as regards issues of misconduct. The facility is there to do so by regulation.

Baroness Hanham: I thank the Minister for those comments. My main concern is that any kind of inquiry can be intimidating and to have to face more than five of your own colleagues—or potential colleagues—would be a serious imposition. It is also true that standards boards are not made up of councillors only; they are made up of people who are external and maybe that should be taken into account. I hear the Minister's slightly sympathetic voice about keeping the matter under review, particularly in relation to misconduct. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 219:

"( ) the nature of its business,"

The noble Baroness said: This is a minor amendment. If one is to stipulate the number of members of sub-committees, perhaps one should state the nature of their business. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I can see the point but I do not believe that the amendment serves a useful purpose. The standards committee will want to be able to specify the terms of reference of any sub-committee it decides to appoint. That is certainly the practice with

23 Jun 2003 : Column GC53

which I am familiar in local government. I am not sure what purpose would be served by requiring that to be done. It is a matter of good practice in any event. In the Bill we are trying not to stipulate everything from the centre. I believe that this amendment falls into that category. I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Hanham: The Bill is fairly prescriptive, as we have tried to demonstrate all the way through. I do not believe that this amendment would make it any more prescriptive. However, it is a minor amendment and I shall withdraw it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

7.15 p.m.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 220:

    Page 67, line 24, at end insert "who shall be a senior member of his staff or of the Authority"

The noble Baroness said: This is more than a minor amendment. Where one delegates functions one must state to whom the function is delegated. It is important that the monitoring officer should not delegate to just anyone on his staff, but that the person with delegated authority should, by definition, be a senior member of the staff, or if not of the monitoring officer's staff, a senior member of the authority. I am sure that the Minister will tell me that such a matter should not be on the face of the Bill, but it needs to be provided for to ensure that there is no malpractice, given that monitoring officers have considerable powers and authority. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I understand the point made by the noble Baroness. The amendment would require a deputy monitoring officer to nominate a senior member of his staff or of the authority to conduct an investigation into an allegation of misconduct in circumstances where the deputy monitoring officer considers that he should not perform that function. A conflict of interest could arise; for example, if the deputy monitoring officer had given earlier advice to a member who was the subject of an allegation.

There is a solution at hand. In our view, restricting the nomination to a member of the authority is unnecessary and unhelpful. In many cases the most suitable person to conduct an investigation could be a monitoring officer from another authority. I can see that that would be a way round the problem and I see also that the problem could be a real one for a small district council. I suspect that is part of the reason why the noble Baroness has raised the issue. A senior monitoring officer from an adjacent or nearby authority would have the necessary skills and expertise while being well removed from any potential conflict of interest. We know that many local authorities are now developing reciprocal arrangements so that that kind of support can be provided.

It may also be sensible in some circumstances for councils to commission someone from outside the local authority world altogether, perhaps from a local firm of solicitors or another profession where there is

23 Jun 2003 : Column GC54

similar expertise of conducting investigations. I believe that that would help those small authorities that do not have sufficient capacity for these important matters, and it could perhaps help a parish council in its deliberations in the same way. I hope that that answers the point and deals with the issue that the noble Baroness has raised.

The Earl of Caithness: I have listened carefully to what the Minister has said. That is a possible way out, but it does not give any guidance to the council. It does not have to follow what the Minister has said. What is to prevent it putting in someone who does not fulfil the high standards that the Minister and my noble friend want?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: The answer is already in the legislation. The national standards board will issue guidance that will cover the eventuality.

Baroness Hanham: The reply given to my noble friend reassures me. So long as we can be sure that those matters will be dealt with in guidance, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 221 not moved.]

Clause 114 agreed to.

Clause 115 agreed to.

Clause 116 [Overview and scrutiny committees: voting rights of co-opted members]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 221A:

    Page 69, line 18, after second "committee" insert "or for the proportion of members not so co-opted required to take part in any vote (for which purpose an abstention shall be counted as a vote) for the vote to be valid,"

The noble Baroness said: Amendments Nos. 221A and 221B relate to Clause 116, which gives voting rights to co-opted members of overview and scrutiny committees. My amendment, which is not very elegantly phrased but is the best that I could do, would allow for a minimum proportion of those who are not co-opted members for any vote to take effect. I could not think of a term for such members; they might be called "conventional", "principal" or "elected" members. I was concerned that if the vote was based on numbers alone, depending on the numbers and the forum, one could find that the co-opted members overruled the views of the elected members. That did not seem appropriate.

Amendment No. 221CC relates to a very different matter. It would insert a new clause relating to goods, facilities and services provided to elected and co-opted members under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. I doubt that there would be any difference between your Lordships as to the desirability of encouraging and facilitating the involvement in elected office and participation in local authorities of everyone who can contribute. Disabled people face particular hurdles.

The RNIB suggested that the Government might take the opportunity to facilitate such an involvement by extending the Disability Discrimination Act. I

23 Jun 2003 : Column GC55

understand that the Government, in a response to a disability rights taskforce, agreed to implement the legislation when legislative time permitted—perhaps not in these words but in this spirit. As I said before, this Bill might be called the "Local Government (Here's One I Prepared Earlier) Bill".

The report said that the measure would not result in significantly increased costs for local authorities. I confess that I have not checked that with the Local Government Association. We refer to facilities for Braille, for example. Local authorities often have to provide such services, although perhaps on a sporadic basis, for members of the public. The report also suggested that the duty should cover co-opted members of council committees. I hope that, even if not in this form, the Government would support such a proposal. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker: I take the amendments as presenting two separate issues. The first amendment relates to the proportion of people voting in scrutiny committees. We do not believe that is necessary, given the way in which the clause is drafted. I realise that the clause is very long, running to almost two pages, and is very complicated. However, we do not believe that it needs to be amended to provide for what the noble Baroness seeks. It already provides for that.

Granting voting rights to co-optees is optional. If authorities are concerned about allowing unelected members of committees to vote, they are under no obligation to grant them voting rights. Authorities are also able to define in their schemes the maximum number of co-optees with voting rights. In that way, the risk, to which the noble Baroness alluded, of unelected members dominating the votes of overview and scrutiny committees, can be prevented by the local authority itself. Local authorities can reach their own decisions whether to have co-optees and give them a vote, and how many of them to give a vote to. The noble Baroness's objective is already in the clause. We certainly do not want to rule out co-optees, because of the expertise that they bring, but the noble Baroness does not seek to do that anyway.

I am far more negative about Amendment No. 221C. I shall read the Committee the end of my speaking note. The extent of the Disability Discrimination Act is a matter for my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. We do not therefore believe that the Local Government Bill would be the correct legislative vehicle to extend the Act to apply to local councillors or to co-opted members of local authorities.

The idea of a local authority discriminating against one of its councillors with a disability would be remote—or I hope that it would be remote. Parliament has given a good lead in what we have done in the past decade for colleagues in both Houses. We do not need to take any lessons from local authorities. Of course, I take the message, but it is simply too late to consider changing the legislation in the context of this Bill. It would be a matter for the Secretary of State for Work

23 Jun 2003 : Column GC56

and Pensions and dealing with the DDA as a whole. I am sorry to sound so negative—the spirit is there, but the will is not in this Bill.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page