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Amendment No. 191 is not about the overview and scrutiny committee taking up a matter, but about the representations from a member if it is. I am concerned not about whether the committee can decide to hear
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The Minister said in effect that one cannot provide for every situation if a member is rather lazy about putting a matter in writing. I agree but, frankly, if the member does not express a matter in writing reasonably welloral representations will inevitably be supplementaryI do not think that he will get very far and perhaps he will become aware of that with time. I know that the relevant words do not come from the Minister herself, but the response was a wee bit paternalistic, if I may say so. I hope that guidance will help everybody to understand where the rights lie in this situation. Having said that, rather impertinently, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment No. 192A is a probing amendment to seek further clarification on aspects of the community call for action. Amendments Nos. 192B to 192E would provide for a single community call for actionCCfAprocess for all local issues by including crime and disorder matters in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill process and would remove the Secretary of State's discretion to exclude matters from the CCfA process.
Despite the growing opportunities for participation through increased empowerment in both national and local government, recent research suggests that people are beginning to feel disconnected from matters in the public realm. As we have discussed many times, this has been seen in falling turnout and reduced trust in political structures. The community call for action could therefore be used as a valuable method of ensuring that communities could ask questions and hold local authority and other decision-makers to account. Yet the Bills proposals for community call for action indicate that local people and groups can request a CCfA only with a ward councillor.
Amendments Nos. 192B to 192E deal with the specific problem of having a separate crime and disorder procedure; in other words, not allowing crime and disorder to be tackled via a community call for action. In Committee, the noble Baroness argued that there were important differences between community safety issues and other matters which necessitated a separate community call for action procedure. However, as we discussed then, crime and disorder is one of the matters which most concern residents and this is all the more reason to bring it under the community call for action procedure in the Bill and not have it as a separate procedure in the Police and Justice Act.
Furthermore, this separate process for crime and disorder running alongside the procedure in this Bill runs the risk of being unnecessarily difficult to operate
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The Police and Justice Act process enables a member of the public to appeal to the council executive if a councillor declines to refer a matter to an overview and scrutiny committee whatever the councillor's reasons for doing so and whether or not he or she has dealt with the matter in some other way. This clearly gives greater licence for vexatious appeals. I should be grateful if the Minister will take note of our anxietyI think and hope that she will do soabout having these two separate functions within two separate aspects of legislation when they should be dealt with together. I hope that she will give us good news on that. I beg to move.
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the noble Baroness and other noble Lords have made a powerful case concerning the difficulties that there might be in the way that these two lines of approach on the CCfA have been developed. I am conscious that these amendments also broadly represent a body of opinion in the local government community. If the noble Baroness is content to withdraw her amendment today, that will give me a little more time to consider the position. I hope to respond substantively and I would be very grateful for her understanding on that point.
I should add that, primarily in relation to Amendment No. 192A, I have real reservations about suggestions that the Secretary of State should not have any power to exclude matters from the procedure. In the public debate about the possible impact of community calls for action on the way in which local authorities do business, there have been a number of recurring themes. The noble Baroness mentioned one in relation to crime and disorder: will the public, or even councillors, use that power vexatiously or mischievously? Our answer to these worries has consistently been that we are content to rely on the good, robust sense of the O&S committees. On the other hand, we said in the local government White Paper, and since, that there must be circumstances in which the community call for action should not be available at all. We cited cases in which there is already a statutory appeals process; for example, planning, licensing, council tax and non-domestic rates. Having taken her amendments away, we propose that, in consultation with the Local Government Association and others, we will seek to work up the detail of these exclusions and bring them to the House by way of an order in due course. I assure the noble Baroness that we have listened very hard to what she has said and I am pleased to tell her that we will be taking the amendment away today.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I am grateful for that and for the meetings that we had during the Recess with the Minister in which the matter was raised. I hope that we have got some way with it. Given the Ministers indication that she is likely to bring back an amendment on Third Reading, I will withdraw this amendment today, but on the clear understanding that if I am not satisfied with her amendment I shall return to the matter then. I hear what the noble Baroness says about excluding other things and that that will come back in an order. I assume that that order will relate to guidance that will be issued on the CCfAor is that not the situation?
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, we have to discuss how best we do that, but there will be a vehicle for doing so by order. We will work through the processes over the next few days by taking advice and making sure that we have everything straight.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I am satisfied with that and hope that we might have an opportunity to discuss the matter before Third Reading so that we all know what we are doing. With the Ministers reassurances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in reference to a discussion that we had on the previous parts of the Bill, my concern remains that nowhere within it do we have any reference to registered social landlords. This becomes important when we talk about overview and scrutiny committees, because registered social landlords are by and large running the whole housing programme in many local authorities but there seems to be no indication that they can be called to speak to an overview and scrutiny committee. I seek a reassurance that they will not be excluded from this part of the Bill and that local government will be able to hold debates on housing. I appreciate that there may be an ALMO or remote social housing management, but most local authorities or many of them still hold the freehold of the properties and many still have a large role to play in housing matters. It is extremely important that housing is part of the responsibilities of the overview and scrutiny committees and that it is possible to ask registered social landlords to come before the committee if that is required. I beg to move.
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, we have debated the status of RSLs and their relationship with the Bill in different ways, and I wish that I could give the noble Baroness as positive a response as I could to the
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I shall start by saying a bit about the Cave review and the partnership arrangements. I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness that housing is bound to be part of what overview and scrutiny committees will be concerned with, because it is what the whole business of place-making is concerned with and what local authorities are concerned with in a local area agreement. It will obviously have a very large role to play in determining how people will be housed in future and the conditions in which they have lived and live in the past and present. The ability for registered social landlords to be represented and be part of this process is extremely important.
I am sorry that the noble Baroness will not be here when we consider the Housing Bill, although she has a very worthy successor in the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. We shall be considering the partnership arrangement that would be most suitable between local authorities and RSLs. We must carefully consider the full implications of how that will work in practice, as we do not want to add disproportionate burdens on to the RSL sector. That was very clear in the Cave review. We do not want either to duplicate the responsibilities of the regulator or to compromise the independent status of RSLs. Nevertheless, we are absolutely clear that we need them to be part of the dialogue and the process, so we shall be addressing that issue. As the LAAs have worked through some of the early stages of the new statutory requirements as we have practised them across the country in different situations, that has been addressed.
We shall certainly bring forward legislation in a future Bill to deal with this matter. It will be done in a robust way and will be something acceptable and wanted by all stakeholders. With that commitment, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel that she can withdraw her amendment.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I think that I have hammered this one as far as I shall be able to hammer it. I believe that the Minister sees the point that I have tried to make. I hope that these proposals will appear in other legislation so as to enable overview and scrutiny committees to call upon registered social landlords if necessary. As we have said, RSLs cover everything; they are responsible for ASBOs, so they take in crime and disorder, and they are responsible for the management of the estates, homelessness and the rest of it. Housing is such a mega part of the local authorities responsibilities, which have been put out to independent bodies, that it seems inconceivable that it should not be part of the ability of an overview and scrutiny committee to deal with housing matters and thereby ask registered social landlords to come and give evidence if necessary.
I cannot take this matter any furtherand I see that the Minister droops any time that I mention registered social landlords. However, I think that I have put my concerns on record sufficiently and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, again, we return to a matter that was raised at the previous stage by my noble friend Lord Greaves: the obligation or otherwise on an entity that is the subject of an overview and scrutiny committee report or recommendations to publish its response whether or not the overview and scrutiny committee has published its report or recommendations.
The Ministers objection, in brief, was that this would undermine the discretion of the O&S committee, would be overly bureaucratic and would indicate a lack of trust in the judgment of O&S committees. I approach it from a different anglethat there is general agreement that overview and scrutiny committees are at different stages of development in different authorities but, by and large, could do with a bit of a boost to their powers and influence. If the executive or authority knew that there would always be publication it would, I hope, take the O&S committee that much more seriously. The amendment is about supporting the O&S committee. These days, publication is not difficult; with the internet one can publish at the drop of a hat or the click of a mouse.
I have summarised the Governments objections to the previous version of the amendment. The noble Baroness may be able to give me some comfort on how the existing provisions of the Local Government Act on publication and access to information and to reports fit in with this part of the Bill. I hope that will help us to develop our understanding of how this might work. I beg to move.
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I will address the point about the relationship between two forms of publication and the Local Government Act with pleasure. I did not over-egg that argument in Committee, so I have a chance to say something about it now. I will also address the other substantive points.
Amendment No. 195 would require a local authority or an executive to publish its response to the report of an overview and scrutiny committee, including where the committee had not published its report. Some of our debate will turn on the idea of what it means to publish in this context. I shall explain why we are not convinced that this amendment is necessary or helpful.
The Bill does nothing to alter or undermine the current framework and rights in relation to access to information. Section 21(11)(a) of the Local Government Act 2000 provides that overview and scrutiny committees
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In fact, as noble Lords know, local authorities generally place agendas, meeting papers and reports, including those of overview and scrutiny committees, on their websites to make access to the documents easier and to fulfil their obligations under the Freedom of Information Act. However, there is currently no obligation on them to do anything over and above the requirements in Part 5A of the Local Government Act 1972.
Clause 128, which inserts new Section 21B into the Local Government Act 2000, strengthens the position in two positive ways and has two aims. First, as we set out in the White Paper, it will for the first time require that councils or their executives must respond within two months to the reports of overview and scrutiny committees. Those are important new powers. I should explain that new Section 21D, also inserted by Clause 128, provides that these reports will be subject to Part VA of the Local Government Act 1972. Secondly, new Section 21B(2) provides scrutiny committees with an explicit additional power to publish their reports beyond the requirements of Part VA.
We are in the realms of definitions and semantics because the definition of publishing in Section 21B goes much wider than keeping copies open to inspection; it means physically making copies freely available to the public, other than at council premises. To match that requirement, Section 21B also provides that the executive or council must provide a reciprocal level of publicity to any scrutiny report. Where an overview and scrutiny committee makes a report on, for example, the playgroup facilities in an area and gives additional publicity to a report or recommendations that is over and above its regular approach to access to informationfor example, sending every playgroup or nursery a copy of the reportthe executive or authority must give equivalent additional publicity to its response and ensure that it is read by the same people. This is to ensure that local people get to hear of the response to reports and that they know that action has been taken. That is, of course, about promoting accountability, engagement and trust.
However, it would not be helpful for executives or councils to be required by Amendment No. 195 to publish in this way every report of the scrutiny committee. The argument for discretion is important. Everything that authorities do, unless it is exempt or confidential, will be published in some form, but it will not have that additional publicity. Authorities and executives will be required to make their reports publicly accessible under Part VA of the Local Government Act 1972, unless they are confidential or exempt. That is, responses to scrutiny committee reports will be required to be in the public domain under those terms.
In Committee, Members were concerned that new Section 21B provided some sort of exemption over and above the well established principles of confidential or exempt information. I can assure noble Lords that it does not. We are simply providing for reciprocity where scrutiny committees give additional publicity. It is a useful provision for additional openness to this process. I hope that the noble Baroness will welcome that and, maybe, withdraw her amendment.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I would not advise anyone to place bets on that. I am left wondering why new Section 21B(3)(c) is required at all. My understanding of the noble Baronesss argument is that the difference between us is the word published. In my mind, publishing means putting into the public domain. Having listened to the Ministers argument on the application of the Local Government Act 2000, and looking at the new Section 21D, I do not understand the purpose of that paragraph. New Section 21D(1)(a)(ii) states that a response of a local authority has to be published. It may exclude the confidential information, but the basis is that there is publication with certain exceptions. Why is Section 21B(3)(c) necessary?
Given that it has taken me until this moment, more or less, to work out that question, it would not be entirely fair to ask the noble Baroness for an instant responseunless one is forthcoming. I am grateful for her information, and perhaps she has some more assistance to give.
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, the answer is what I read from my speaking noteswe need the reference to publishing as it is set out in new Section 21B(3)(c), because it refers to a different sort of publishing beyond the definition used in the Local Government Act 1972which is about making information accessible. I do not have the words of the 1972 Act here. Perhaps it would be best if I sent the noble Baroness a comparison of the two Acts and provide her with the lawyers definition.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I am grateful for that. I am particularly interested in knowing what publish means in the two contexts. I was not asking for an advert in the local paper or anything of that sort; as I said, to my mind, publication means putting the matter into the public domain so that it is accessible by anyone who wishes to find it.
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, for the record, I shall read the relevant section again. The reference to publishing in Section 21B goes much wider than keeping copies open to inspection. It means physically making copies freely available to the public, other than at council premises. I think it would be useful if the noble Baroness looked at the definitions in the two Acts and we could then clarify the matter once and for all.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I am grateful for that. I think that any local authority that does no more than keep copies of stuff available at its premises needs to be introduced to the world of technology. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
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