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Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill

House again in Committee on Clause 2.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clause 3 [Invitations, directions and proposals: supplementary]:

[Amendments Nos.14 and 15 not moved.]

Baroness Scott of Needham Market moved Amendment No. 15A:

“(c) the potential impact on the membership of any National Park Authority affected or on the Broads Authority.”

The noble Baroness said: This amendment and Amendments Nos. 22A and 42A relate to the special status held by national parks—an arrangement developed carefully over recent decades. Currently, the membership of national park authorities is made up of representatives from all the local authorities in the national park area, including parish councils, along with people appointed by the Secretary of

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State. This reflects the fact that national parks are a treasure of national significance, yet are places where people have to live and work.

The English National Park Authorities Association has raised concerns about unitary proposals, specifically about how the current balance of the membership of national park authorities will be affected by the creation of unitary councils in their areas. The association is concerned that the creation of unitary councils will give the local authority a more dominant position within the national park authority. Without commenting on whether I think that that is a good or bad thing, I tabled the amendment to give the Minister a chance to, I hope, reassure national park authorities that the department is aware of this issue, particularly because the authorities’ normal dealings would be with Defra and it is not unknown for one department not to talk to another. I beg to move.

Baroness Andrews: I am delighted to say that I have never come across the situation of departments not talking to each other. In this instance, not only are we talking constantly, but I can assure the noble Baroness that we absolutely understand these concerns over the independence of the national parks. As I am sure the noble Baroness knows, on 19 June in the other place, my honourable friend the former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced that, where the creation of a unitary authority would result in that authority appointing more than eight members to a national park authority, the Government would review the membership arrangements with a view to reducing the number of local authority appointees.

I am absolutely at one with the noble Baroness about the need to control the impact of unitary authorities on the membership both of the national park authorities and the Broads Authority. I hope that I can persuade her that we do not need the amendments, because they are unnecessary and because they would not have the effect that she seeks. Amendment No 15A would require an authority, in framing a unitary proposal, to have regard to any guidance that the Secretary of State had issued about the potential impact of the proposal on a national park authority or the Broads Authority. It is not for the local authority to consider matters; the Government are responsible for the membership arrangements in the national parks and the Broads.

I refer the noble Baroness to the Written Statement of 19 June. The Minister went through all the actions that he would want to take in order to ensure the independence of the authority:

The Minister has certainly thought through the potential impact and how we might safeguard the parks’ independence. I am very happy to send the noble Baroness a copy of the Written Ministerial Statement.

Amendment No. 22A, as drafted, would require the Secretary of State to be satisfied that appropriate measures were in place before she determined to implement a unitary proposal. I understand what the noble Baroness wants to achieve, but she has created a Catch-22 situation. The amendment would not allow us to decide to implement a proposal until we had put new membership arrangements in place. We cannot do that until we make the order to create the unitary authority et cetera.

Amendment No. 42A would provide the Secretary of State with the power to make an order for the membership arrangements in the national park authorities or the Broads Authority. That is covered by the Bill in Clause 11(4)(e), which allows us to provide for the membership of any public body, including the national park authorities and the Broads Authority. I hope that this reassures the noble Baroness that we are absolutely serious about maintaining the very precious independence of the national park authorities and the Broads Authority. The Bill allows us to do that.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that full explanation. I am sure that it will reassure the National Park Authorities Association. It would be helpful if Defra could begin the process of evaluating the effect on the national park authorities sooner rather than later, given that there are a limited number of local authorities now in contention for unitary status. Of those, very few will have national parks contained within them. It would be better for good governance if these proposals were developed before the changeover, so that there is no battle that results in a hiatus in governance. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 16:

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 16 is in a group that contains two government amendments. Two of my further amendments in this group amend the government amendments. I will speak to them all together. The Minister will anticipate what I intend to say.

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Amendment No. 16 provides for the Secretary of State to give guidance on who should be consulted. It is not a particularly elegant amendment, but it is there because I could not believe that I had reached this point in my reading of the Bill without seeing a reference to consultation. It might be implicit in earlier parts of the Bill, but it is not spelt out or required. If I use the term “retrospective”, the Minister will understand that I do not use it in a technical sense, but this amendment illustrates retrospectively, in lay terms, the very odd situation that we find ourselves in.

The amendment raises not just the need for consultation. It may be that it is not required because the process is done and close to dusted, although we have heard that there is the prospect of some sort of resurrection or continuation. It also raises the issue of quality of information and sometimes misinformation—and sometimes, no doubt, information characterised as misinformation—or indeed the completeness of information. The amendment may now be irrelevant, given the timing, but the principle is worth airing.

Government Amendment No. 29 requires the Secretary of State, under Clause 7, to go to,

I have sought to reinstate the reference to persons whom he believes to have an interest, in order to understand who is appropriate within this provision. It would have seemed to me on a “new reader, start here” basis that “persons who have an interest” would be appropriate. However, the more that I thought about it, the less clear I was which was the wider and which the narrower of the two terms.

Amendment No. 31 raises the issue of who is a person for this purpose. I suspect that we will be told that it has a very wide definition, but I would like to have that confirmation. Amendment No. 52 concerns the timing of formal consultation and local debate, providing that the Secretary of State—we have now jumped to Clause 21, but the issues are similar—will take full account of representations made at any time before the commencement of the relevant provisions.

That has come about because we have been contacted by local authority members in areas which are in contention—if I go on using that term, at least everyone will know what I mean—where the deadline for responses is around the middle or towards the end of June. Authorities in the relevant areas were known to be submitting supplementary information and the stakeholders, or persons interested, felt the need to be reassured that they would have the opportunity to comment on or rebut any of the materials included in that supplementary presentation. I understand that they asked the department what its position would be on that, but that, at that time, they had not had a response.

It is important that the process commands confidence. We may have shown a lack of confidence today, but I hope that at the end of the process there will be confidence in what has happened. It is important that those who are assessing the bids are able to take account of everything that is presented to them. I beg to move.

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Baroness Hanham: I have tabled Amendments Nos. 20A and 25 in this group, which both concern consultation, or the lack of consultation time in the Bill and the lack of detail about who is to be consulted. There are a few stakeholders here and there and one or two others, but the local electorate seem to have been entirely left out.

Amendment No. 25 would extend the time within which it is possible to make representations to the Secretary of State following a proposal by the Boundary Commission. I regret that I have not seen the guidance on the clause that was promised to my honourable friend Robert Syms in another place. I do not know whether it has not been issued or whether it just has not come my way. If it has been issued, I should be extremely grateful if it was placed in the Library for reference between now and Report. I am sure that that was overlooked, if it has been issued, but it would be helpful to have it.

The current provision for a four-week period in which to make representations following a Boundary Commission report is simply not enough for councils and individuals to galvanise views and put together a convincing case. Even the two months that I propose in Amendment No. 25 would provide only just enough time to carry out a consultation in response to the proposals. I have proposed a shorter time than I would otherwise as a conciliatory gesture, but I am not sure whether it will be accepted. I hope that the Government can meet us on this because it is important not only for the interests of those who want a fair amount of time to make representations, but so that, in this whole process, the Secretary of State listens, and is seen to listen, and does not simply shut out dissenting voices through the use of unforgiving deadlines.

2.45 pm

The Government have a bit of form on this. The date of publication of the White Paper setting out the broad basis of structural change—omitting some detail, as we know—and the 25 January deadline for the submission of bids strangled the consultation process. Indeed, the strangulation continues in the government amendments. Amendments Nos. 27 and 29 have, I fear, provoked great anxiety among councils. The effect of the amendments seems to be that the Government will assign to themselves the right not to consult the public—in effect, they give the Government the means to make the decision on whatever grounds of consultation they might choose. I reiterate that the Bill and the Government’s handling of it are in stark contrast to the message that the Government are sending out that they take into account the views of communities and seek to empower them through their proposals.

We have received representations from a number of parties going through what is becoming a messy restructuring process. As the Minister knows, there is already a judicial review on consultation. I have no doubt that that will be heard before Report, so we will have the benefit of it after the Recess. One party told me that the consultation process so far has been nothing more than talking to 44 citizens—

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presumably, some sort of residents’ panel—75 interviews and a negative market research exercise. I am astonished that with these deep objections to the consultation procedures the Government are apparently seeking further to restrict communication between the Executive and the electorate. The electorate need to be involved in those decisions. This matters to them. After all, they are the people who are affected by any change to local government and it is paramount that they should be consulted properly.

Baroness Andrews: I am grateful to Members of the Committee for addressing their amendments in the way that they have. I want to take them through the argument for the government amendments, Amendments Nos. 27 and 29, and address the various amendments tabled alongside them.

The whole group of amendments deals in various ways with processes of consultation. I am certainly happy to respond to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, by clarifying our intention in our amendments, which will not restrict consultation in any perverse way, but which will align the consultation processes of the Bill and the invitation. Amendments Nos. 27 and 29 are intended to ensure that the Secretary of State is required to consult those whose views she needs to know to fulfil her role in the restructuring process, but does not duplicate the extensive public consultations that councils themselves will be carrying out.

Amendments Nos. 16, 28, 28A, 30, 31 and 52, which have been tabled by opposition Members of the Committee, are also intended to develop in more detail the consultation requirement. Amendment No. 20A would allow a council when responding to an invitation to make a proposal reflecting consultation with its electorate, as the noble Baroness said. Finally, Amendment No. 25 would modify the period for representations to be made about a unitary proposal which the Boundary Committee has made as an alternative to the proposal put forward by a local authority.

I fully understand the motives that inspire the amendments, and I hope I can persuade the Committee that they are more than met by the restructuring processes that we are establishing. In brief, we are bringing our amendments forward to ensure that the Bill and the process which we have followed throughout the invitation to local authorities to come forward with plans for restructuring are fully aligned with each other and with the principles of devolution itself.

The amendment would replace the words in Clause 7(3)(b) with,

The significance of the change is, quite simply, to correct the drafting—I have to hold my hands up to that need—so that the clause does not mean that the Secretary of State herself is required to impose a form of central general consultation on local areas, at a later stage of deliberation, above and beyond that which has already been undertaken earlier in the process, rightly, by the local authorities concerned. The proposed changes are consistent with the

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intention and the process of restructuring by invitation, which has been welcomed by local authorities.

Amendments Nos. 28 and 30 seek to restore the detail of the consultation requirement. They both use the same wording as in the present text of the Bill, which is inappropriate and redundant, because in any administrative process the Secretary of State must necessarily have regard to representations made to her by any person, whether or not she has consulted that person.

I will address the process that we have already determined in the invitation. The whole process was to enable local authorities to decide whether to seek unitary status. One of the key tests for any such proposal was that it must have support from a range of key partners, stakeholders and service users or citizens—the electorate. That was a deliberate form of words, because we wanted a formative process of consultation. We wanted people to be part of the process of deciding—to ensure that the people most affected, such as the local partners and key agencies, could respond and contribute to the proposals, and that local authorities should seek the views of local people in whatever way was thought best. The key consultees, as they have emerged in the process and we have got to know, have been primary care trusts, strategic health authorities, police authorities, chambers of commerce, learning and skills councils, universities and so on. Within that notion of broad support is the principle that local authorities have got to show, in whatever way they think has been most effective, that they have involved local people. That is the most effective way to engage local people and to obtain well informed views of those affected.

The variety of ways adopted by local councils in obtaining views is very interesting—citizen juries, opinion polls, local referendums in some cases and citizens’ panels. I am not making relative judgments on which are effective. In North Yorkshire, for example, the county council commissioned a citizens’ panel survey—2,500 people took part—and three focus groups. Members and officers of the council attended approximately 250 parish and town council meetings. Three newsletters were sent out and there were 10 meetings with the VCS across the county. Key stakeholders, such as the chamber of commerce, received information through the LSP. The district council commissioned a MORI poll, directly communicated with the community—for example, council tenants—and contributed to newspaper articles. That is one example which is very typical of what has happened. I have other examples, but I will not go through them, unless noble Lords would like me to. When we come to the definition of “person” in the noble Baroness’s amendments, a person includes a body by means of the Interpretation Act 1978—that means real people, but also organisations and companies.

I have described what councils have done, some of which was before the proposals were submitted in January. It was in a way a pre-consultation process, which provided key evidence about how the proposals stacked up against the support criteria. Councils have

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done more, following the decision in March as to which proposals on the information that we had then met the criteria. Councils have done that to provide more evidence.

The Secretary of State’s consultation, which Clause 7 refers to and is the process in the current round of restructuring that ended on 22 June, had a very specific purpose. That purpose was to help her satisfy herself—by seeking the views of those who are in a position to give an informed judgment—that the evidence available showed that the proposals met the criteria. It was not a process for her to duplicate—almost certainly less effectively—what councils had already done in gathering evidence. Clause 7 provides for the consultation period—ending on 22 June—for the Secretary of State to satisfy herself that the proposals meet the criteria. As part of that, a consultation paper was issued and sent to stakeholders, inviting consultation responses. It was put on the website and was open for anyone to respond to. Gratifyingly, we had almost 60,000 responses; some were in the nature of campaigns, but many were individual responses. At this very moment the Secretary of State is, as it were, wading through the consultation responses, to see how people have responded.

It is important to be clear because, although there would be some additional decision-making through popular referendums or suchlike, I want to stress that the amendments were never intended at this stage to impose from above on the local authorities some requirement for a universal public consultation. It is not intended by the Secretary of State to parachute in with a consultation that seeks to second guess the views and decisions of the democratic councils. The Bill recognises this, because it provides that when all councils are in agreement, no consultation is necessary, although the Secretary of State may if she wishes consult. In the last 12 weeks—since we announced the 16 proposals—the Secretary of State has been consulting with partners and stakeholders, considering the stakeholders’ consultation and then, at the end of July, she will make those decisions.

Amendment No. 16, the call for guidance, would contradict some of that process. It would remove the power of local authorities to decide for themselves. Amendment No. 20A does nothing that a council cannot and does not do already—having regard to the electorate when making a proposal. Amendment No. 16, the notion of central guidance, is inimical to the spirit of the Bill. Amendment No. 20A would mean that the Secretary of State must consult every member of the electorate before implementing proposals. None of that is necessary or, indeed, compatible with the very thorough process that we put in place.

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