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The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this group of amendments deals with overview and scrutiny in district councils operating in two-tier areas. At the Commons Report stage, the Government introduced new clauses which would allow district shire councils to set up joint overview and scrutiny committees with county councils in order to review local area agreements and enable district scrutiny committees to report independently on improvement targets within that. However, as currently drafted, the new government clauses will depend on the Secretary of State bringing forward appropriate regulations to allow district councils to use that power.
I tabled this amendment to try to gain an understanding from the Minister as to why the community call for action has not been treated in this way. Members of the public are trusted to bring items to the attention of the local authority, whereas, in the case of county and district councils, we will have to wait for a raft of regulation. It seems to me and to the Local Government Association that that is unnecessarily bureaucratic and that it will cause delay. A lot of regulation arises from the Bill and I know that the department will have its work cut out in producing all that. Therefore, these amendments represent one more attempt to persuade the Minister. Given that the principles to be applied are now clear in the Bill, is it not possible to trust local authorities and leave them to get on with the job, rather than having to wait for detailed regulation? I beg to move.
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, we did indeed debate this, and I remember the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in particular pressing me quite hard on this point in Committee. I have also spoken to the Local Government Association about this matter and have tried to reassure it that this is certainly not a case of not trusting local authorities. The facility that we seek to make regulations is there for a purpose and it is a benign one. Perhaps I may explain that.
Clearly, Amendments Nos. 195ZE, 195ZF, 195ZG and 195ZH would place the provisions on establishing joint overview and scrutiny committees in the Bill, and Amendments Nos. 195ZJ, 195ZK and 195ZL would place in the Bill the provisions on enabling the overview and scrutiny committees of a district council in a two-tier area to make reports and recommendations to its county council or to that countys executive. I want to explain to noble Lords why we are doing it this way and assure them that there is nothing malign or devious about it.
The use of regulations to provide for enhanced scrutiny is not without precedent. The House recently approved similar provisions being made through regulations on the scrutiny of health matters in the National Health Service Act 2006 and on crime and disorder matters in the Police and Justice Act 2006. I should also point out to noble Lords that the provisions in Clause 127, which provide for new powers to enable scrutiny committees to require information from local partners, apply to both shire district and upper-tier councils.
I therefore hope that if noble Lords are concerned that we are putting all the provisions which enhance the scrutiny powers of upper-tier councils on the face of the Bill, and implementing all the respective provisions for shire district councils through regulations, they can see that that is not the case. We will be implementing the provisions for both upper-tier and shire district councils through a combination of primary and secondary legislation. There are no second-class citizens here.
As I have been reading through the preparations that we are making for local area agreements, I am also struck by the heavy weight that is given throughout those processes to the role of the district council. I know that we debated this in Committee, when I sought to provide reassurances. Since then, the guidance on the making of local area agreements has come out, and there is an important and specific role for district councils, which is marked throughout the documents and guidance that we have issued.
That leads me to my second point, which is that the use of regulations does not mean that we intend to prioritise the implementation of the enhanced arrangements for upper-tier councils over shire districts. Far from it. We know that the districts have a critical role to play in the making of local area agreements, and we discussed how that would be done in the early formative stages of negotiations through to delivery. It is our clear intention that we will commence the enhanced scrutiny powers, both in the Bill and through regulations, as a coherent package, and at the same time for all councils.
The third assurance, and possibly the most importantthis is the one about which I talked to the Local Government Associationis that we are not using regulations because we have any intention of returning to the days of micro-management of local authority functions. It is simply a reflection of the fact that the scrutiny of partners in two-tier areas will not operate in the same way as in single-tier areas. Regulations will provide us with the flexibility to ensure that we get the arrangements right. We shall not retreat to some dusty corridor to impose a set of regulations that do not reflect how things really work. We shall work closely with the Local Government Association, and local authorities, to develop the regulations. I can explain why we are using the regulations.
In Committee, I said that to support councils in their role as place shapers, we were strengthening the ability of local authorities to hold local partners to accountthat is, the duty to co-operate on local area agreements, and so on. Local partners will be required
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The responsibility for co-ordinating LAAs rests with unitary councilsand in two-tier areas, county councilsbut district councils are vital partners. In Committee, there seemed to be a general consensus that the enhanced scrutiny powers for shire districts should reflect the arrangements for LAAs and that providing the overview and scrutiny committees of shire district councils with exactly the same enhanced powers over LAA partners as county councils could cause confusion and duplication. That is what we are anxious to avoid. The consequence of that, for example, is that the Environment Agency could receive separate reports on two levels on similar matters containing conflicting recommendations, to which the EA would have to have regard, from a county and up to 13 district councils, and some of our larger areas. That would be the effect of Amendments Nos. 195ZJ, 195ZK and 195ZL. Clearly that is not satisfactory.
It is our intention to provide the overview and scrutiny committees of shire district councils with enhanced scrutiny powers in relation to those partners that shire districts themselves have with partnership arrangements. There could be a district council, which might in the operation of the LAA make a partnership with, say, the Environment Agency in relation to a particular district issue on waste collection, for example. In relation to that specific partnership, reports could be produced, which honour LAA targets, and could be sent to the county council, thereby providing an important contribution to scrutiny. Those enhanced scrutiny powers apply to those specific partnerships at that level.
As I have already explained, we need to ensure that the arrangements make sense and do not place unreasonable burdens on local partners. There are some important points of detail to address on these arrangements in two-tier areas. For example, which particular public service providers should be required to provide information to shire district scrutiny committees? What requirements should there be on county councils and local partners in relation to shire district scrutiny reports? All the regulations do is to give us the flexibility to ensure we can provide for a framework that does not see duplication and unnecessary burdens. It is really as simple as that.
We also provided in the Bill, through regulations, that county and district councils may establish joint scrutiny committees, as the noble Baroness said, which would have the same enhanced powers of scrutiny over LAA partners as a county or unitary authority. Amendments Nos. 195ZJ, 195ZK and 195ZL would remove our ability to make such regulations. Again, we have not opted for that approach because we want to prescribe the fine details of how such local arrangements will work; far from it. Regulations simply ensure a broad framework and flexibility to address key questions, such as which of the powers in the Local Government Act 2000 underpinning individual scrutiny committees should apply to joint committees? Should councillors be able to take a councillor call for action to a joint
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There are some potentially broad powers here and, as I said in the White Paper, they need to be exercised responsibly by focusing on constructive challenge and consideration. Ultimately, everything is about improving services and benefits to people. I hope that the noble Baroness will feel that that fairly detailed explanation is reassuring enough for her to withdraw her amendment.
Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, I am grateful for the Ministers assurances that the intentions are benign and that this does not represent a return to micro-management. I am sure that district councils will also welcome her words on the importance of district councils in local governance.
I conclude with two remarks. First, I hope that we do not wait too long for these regulations. There are examples of regulations taking up to two years after the Bill is passed. That would make life very difficult for the local authorities concerned. Secondly, I emphasise to the noble Baroness that we must remember that county and district councils have each been elected, and each has its own mandate. While we do not on the one hand want unnecessary bureaucracy and burdens on partners, on the other hand the response of an organisation to a county council will have a county council focus. It may be that the legitimate aspiration of a district council is rather different. They will have been elected on that basis. There is sometimes a tensionwhich I recognise is uncomfortable for the Governmentbetween respecting the democratic institutions on the one hand and bureaucracy on the other. In developing these, we must be careful to ensure that we respect that district councils are elected and have a separate mandate from the county council. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: These amendments would require the Government to identify those local government by-law matters, across all government departments, on which the Secretary of States approval would be retained, and to devolve the rest. The amendments would also require the Government to regularly review those by-laws it wishes to retain, and the confirmation powers over them.
The Government rightly propose to end the Department for Communities and Local Governments confirmation for its local authority by-laws in the Bill. That is very welcome. This will enable local councils to respond more immediately to local needs, cut bureaucracy and modernise government processes. Councils have more understanding of what issues matter in their area and require by-laws than a central government Minister can possibly have.
The Bill devolves to councils only by-laws confirmed by the Department for Communities and Local Government. Many local by-laws are controlled by other government departments, such as Defra, the Department for Transport, the DCMS and the Department of Health. We believe that government proposals to give councils control over by-laws under a procedure that does not require central government confirmation should be applied equally to local authority by-laws confirmed by other government departments.
In Commons Committee, in response to the Local Government Association amendments on extending by-law devolution, the then local government Minister Phil Woolas confirmed that the Bill aims to allow the devolution of by-law-making powers to councils across the board and that other government departments are enthusiastic about handing powers to confirm by-laws to councils under this new procedure. The Minister said that regulations had already been prepared to allow by-laws for museums and libraries, which are the responsibility of the DCMS, and tattooing, which is the responsibility of the Department of Health, to be handed down to councils once the Bill is passed. However, in the Lords Committee, the Government were unable to confirm whether any local government by-laws beyond those controlled by the Department for Communities and Local Government would be devolved to local councils. The Minister said:
We have taken this approach to ensure that the Government can retain their function of confirming certain types of by-laws where it is considered important to do so. That is why I cannot simply give a list, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves
We would like clarification from the Government on which by-laws they will devolve to councils under the alternative procedure set out in the Bill, which they will retain confirmation powers over, and why.
I understand that in conversation the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, and the Department for Communities and Local Government have said that other departments are keen to devolve their by-laws. However, until we get a full list from the department of what is to happen, we believe that we should push this matter yet again to find out what the picture is.
The amendment requires the Government specifically to list by-laws they wish to retain confirmation powers over and to devolve all other issues to councils. Furthermore, we would like the Government to review their confirmation powers regularly to ensure that they continue to devolve by-laws to councils to give them the responsibility that they should exercise properly in respect of local problems.
For communities and their representatives to have comprehensive control of behaviour and rules in their localities, they need to have control over by-law-making powers which are at present controlled by government departments other than the department that is promoting the Bill. For example, the Bill does not currently enable the devolution of by-laws that regulate the use of taxis, walkways and horse-drawn omnibusesof all thingswhich are Department for Transport matters; guided transport systems other than railways, countryside recreation and local nature reserves, which are Defra matters; public libraries, which are DCMS matters; or acupuncture, piercing and tattooing, which are Department of Health matters. There is no good reason for treating these by-laws differently from those that have been confirmed by the Department for Communities and Local Government, which it proposes to cede to local government. Matters appear to be held in what I can only call a limbo of departmental indecision or, worse still possibly, a limbo of ministerial indecision. Can the Minister offer us any encouragement about whether these matters are to be clarified, and, if so, what sort of timescales they are looking at for action? I beg to move.
Baroness Crawley: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. I hope that I will be able to clarify further than I did in Committee the points that he has raised on other departments confirming by-laws. We are also grateful for the general support which has been given to our provisions to simplify and streamline by-law-making procedures throughout the passage of the Bill. In particular, we are grateful for the consensus surrounding the approach taken in Clause 134, whereby the by-laws which will no longer require central confirmation will be specified in regulation made by the Secretary of State.
I shall recap briefly. We have taken the regulation-making approach so that decisions on whether exceptionallyand it will be exceptionalthe confirming role should be retained by the Secretary of State can be taken on a case-by-case basis, taking account of the subject matters of the by-laws and the locations in which they might apply. This approach also allows as necessary for elements of the by-law-making process to be the subject of certain minimum requirements; for example, consultation on draft by-laws and publicity of by-laws following their enactment.
I appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and other noble Lords would like to know the details of the particular by-laws which will be specified in these regulations. First, I assure noble Lords that there is a will across Whitehall to remove the Secretary of States confirming role unless there are strong grounds for retaining some level of central scrutiny.
We intend that as many local authority by-laws as possible will be included in the first set of regulations, which will remove the Secretary of States confirming role. Of course those regulations have already gone out to consultation. That is why we are further ahead for the confirming of local authority by-laws than other departments.
I can reaffirm that all by-laws currently confirmed by CLG will be included. This accounts for the vast majority of by-laws made by local authorities, and includes by-laws for pleasure fairs and roller-skating rinks, which are referred to in Amendment No. 195C. Furthermore, subject to the outcome of the consultation referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, on the contents of our regulations, by-laws confirmed by the DCMS applying to libraries, museums and by-laws for walkways confirmed by the Department for Transport will no longer need central clearance before they can be enacted by local authorities. I also assure noble Lords that all departments and agencies are actively considering the by-laws which they confirm on a subject-by-subject basis. That includes Defra, the Department of Health and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which respectively confirm by-laws relating to hairdressers, barbers and seaside pleasure boats, which are the subject of Amendment No. 195C.
As to the timetable for removing the central confirming role referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and which other noble Lords referred to in Committee, we plan to consult on our regulations at the end of the year with a view to having them in place for April 2008 if at all possible. That is as precise as I can make it.
I hope that the noble Lord will accept the Governments clear and committed intentions in respect of devolving responsibilities for making and enacting by-laws to local authorities, and agree to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. It gives us some indication of the timescale. April next year is not that far away, and at least we shall then know what will be devolved and what will not and whether more departments than the immediate department promoting the Bill will be involved. It was a helpful reply and, in the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
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