Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Amendment 2 seeks to clarify the information about councillors that local authorities will be required to provide. I agree that this is an important part of what we are asking local authorities to do. We set out previously that we considered it essential that the role and the functions of councillors should be covered. The noble Lord has anticipated my reply, because in Clause 1(2)(b) there is a duty to promote understanding of,

However, he was right to make the argument and to refer back to the Councillors Commission, because the statements in the subsections indicate a proactive commitment to promoting democracy. As my noble friend said, we do not want to overload the Bill with too much detail—we are caught between a rock and a hard place however we do this—but the spirit of the Councillors Commission lives on in that clause.

Amendments 5 and 6 are brought forward by the Government in response to issues raised in Committee. This is an example of how much we value the experience on the other side of the Chamber; I certainly listened to the arguments. One of the most important debates that we had was around the need for the duty to promote democracy to capture partnership working. We are tabling these government amendments to seek to make explicit our intention that the duties to promote democracy include the work of local authorities and connected authorities which is reflected and developed in partnership with others. This may be the first time that we have captured that in legislation. It is important and I am grateful to noble Lords for promoting the debate. Whether this is through a formal partnership arrangement such as CDRPs and LSPs, or a loose partnership that is set up for a specific issue, we want to ensure that they both fall within the scope of the duties to promote democracy defined in Clauses 1 and 2. This is a significant development. We have seen a flourishing of these partnerships in scope and diversity, particularly local strategic partnerships, which play a key role in the democratic and decision-making arrangements in relation to the community strategy,

17 Mar 2009 : Column 146

bringing together statutory bodies and the third sector, making vital decisions in support of the local area agreement process and so on.

There is a general sense in many places that these bodies are not transparent enough and that the general public have little awareness of what they do and thus, inevitably, little chance to influence or take part in them. So, as part of our commitment to greater openness and influence, we want to ensure that that no longer remains the case. This duty as a whole is designed so that local authorities will promote understanding of the opportunities for people to participate in and influence the making of decisions, as well as of their connected authorities, for the reasons that I have explained. It was recognised in our debates in Committee that this can be achieved in partnerships. We agreed that this should be recognised explicitly under this duty, and amendments were laid in Committee both to the main duty under Clause 1, where noble Lords sought to include a requirement to promote understanding of the democratic and decision-making arrangements of partnerships, and to the list of connected authorities under Clause 2, to which noble Lords sought to add specific partnerships.

I explained that the requirement to promote understanding of the local authorities and the connected authorities would be bound to include their involvement in partnership working, but I understood that what noble Lords really wanted to achieve was an explicit recognition of the important role that partnership working now plays in shaping services and the life of the community. We have therefore sought to find a way to amend the legislation that will achieve all our aims. It is not possible to name all relevant partnerships, or even specific partnerships. We have therefore expanded and clarified the definition of “democratic arrangements” so that it clearly includes work taken forward in partnership. The clause refers to,

to which our amendment adds the words,

That means that, where councils have a duty to promote the understanding of democratic arrangements and of Clauses 1 and 2, they will be required to provide information about how partnerships are composed, what they do, how they work and how they make their decisions as part of a partnership. That would apply to Clause 1 in relation to decision-making by the council and to Clause 2 in relation to decision-making by the connected authorities. The amendment will ensure that councils have to explain about, for example, the LSP’s role in the local area, how that relates to the work of the council and the connected authorities and how the public can participate in or influence their decision-making.

I hope that noble Lords will agree that this is a useful and positive amendment that improves the Bill, that it clarifies the intentions behind the duty and that, essentially, it will improve the awareness of local people and their influence on the decision-making process as a whole.

17 Mar 2009 : Column 147

Lord Tope: My Lords, I thank the Minister for speaking to Amendments 5 and 6, which we welcome. She was right to refer to the quite considerable debate that we had at various points in Committee on the nature and role of partnerships. From my experience, if anything needs more explaining to and better understanding by the public, it is the partnerships that now exist, their ever increasing role and importance and the part that they play in the community. I am grateful to her for listening to the points that we made in Committee. We recognise the difficulties in meeting them in legislation and I thank her and her officials for their endeavours in trying to do so. I hesitate to say that this is an historic moment—that is perhaps a little over the top—but it is a significant step forward in legislation, and one that we welcome.

I must be a little less warm in my welcome for her comments on the amendments that I was speaking to, although they did not come as any great surprise. We are, however, at one in our desire to promote the understanding of democracy and to promote an active and engaged role in our local communities. We will continue to have the concerns that I expressed, at least until we see the guidance. That, I am afraid, is inevitable, because the devil is in the detail and the detail will be in the guidance. If the guidance truly encapsulates the light touch that the Minister genuinely wishes, then well and good—it will be helpful to local authorities. If it starts to go further than that, though, we will feel that our fears are justified. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn

Amendment 2 not moved.

Amendment 3

Moved by Baroness Warsi

3: Clause 1, page 2, line 2, at end insert—

“( ) the democratic arrangements of such connected authorities as the principal local authority considers appropriate”

Baroness Warsi: My Lords, I shall also speak to Amendment 13. I thank the Minister for her extensive meetings and correspondence as well as for what we on these Benches agree is a genuine desire to achieve agreement on the Bill. I also echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Tope; clearly all of us in this House are supportive of promoting local democracy to give local communities real information and, with that, real powers to influence and make decisions.

With this amendment we return—after a very long time, it seems—to the question of what it is that local authorities must promote. Opposition Amendment 3 is simple: it would add to Clause 1 the duty for a principal local authority to promote the understanding of,

It was suggested in Grand Committee that the Opposition’s approach to this duty was destructive. I do not feel that we need to rehearse all the same arguments as before, and I think our position is clear. Many parts of this Bill are unnecessary either because they increase the amount of box-ticking a local authority

17 Mar 2009 : Column 148

must perform, or because the provisions will not amount to very much at all in practice. However, I accept that this is not a universally shared view, and I have come back with an amendment which I hope will be seen as constructive.

It is not our view that local authorities should not promote understanding of the facilities and services available to local people. I believe that the more people are able to engage with their local communities and institutions, the bigger the benefits to those communities. I do not believe, however, that the needs of communities are best served by placing a highly detailed duty on local authorities, uniformly across the country and written in an Act of Parliament.

Amendment 3, therefore, would allow local authorities to assess for themselves which bodies connected to them were suffering from a lack of understanding or public promotion. They could then take steps accordingly. No doubt, the Government will be issuing guidelines, so local authorities will not be flying blind on this. They will have an idea of what is expected of them, but our approach would allow them discretion on how to implement it.

So, for example, in an area where the Magistrates’ Association was running a successful outreach programme, the relevant local authority would not need to waste time and money running a duplicate programme. Equally, if a local authority felt that local people were underinformed about, for example, an integrated transport authority—a strong possibility—then it could step forward into that breach.

I have considered everything that was said in Grand Committee and thank the Minister for her detailed correspondence since then. I hope that my amendment can be accepted as a compromise. We have recognised the importance of the duty, and Amendment 3 adds to Clause 1 this extra consideration with regard to connected bodies. The duty will be in the Bill, so there is no need for Clauses 2, 3 and 4, which go into unnecessary detail. I hope that the Minister will agree with our proposals. I beg to move.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, this is the first time I shall have spoken on Report, so I shall declare appropriate interests as a member of Pendle Borough Council, of the executive of that council, and of various bodies—which nowadays I suppose we should call connected bodies—as a result of being on that council. I never got around to declaring, as everybody else did in Committee, how many years I spent on a local authority, partly because I thought that some noble Lords would think that that was a disadvantage—that because I had been there so long, I would be stuck in my ways, and not in line with this exciting modern thinking the Government are coming out with. For the record, however, it is 31 years, and if cumulative membership is included—of years when I have been on more than one principal authority—it is 52 years. That is all more information to horrify the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi.

I shall speak to Amendment 10 in the name of my noble friend, Lady Hamwee, who unfortunately cannot be here today. I am standing in for her—at least I am standing in for my noble friend Lord Tope, who is standing in for my noble friend—

Noble Lords: He is right behind you.

17 Mar 2009 : Column 149

Lord Greaves: Yes, my Lords, I am standing in for him, and he is standing in for my noble friend, Lady Hamwee. I shall do so for a while, though later in the proceedings, because I have the odd Back-Bench amendment in the same group as a Front-Bench amendment, I may have to retreat from the Front Bench. When I do that, it is not through any disagreement with my colleagues, but it is simply to observe the rules of procedure of the House.

5.15 pm

I look forward with interest to the Minister’s response to the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi. Although the Minister has not yet spoken to her amendments in this group, I will comment on them since they are identical to amendments I moved in Committee to include parish meetings and community meetings in Wales. Community meetings in Wales, of course, are exactly the same as parish meetings in England. I thank the Minister for tabling these amendments. The only difference is that she has got them in the right place—I had them in the wrong place. These are minor but useful matters; when what we say in Committee is listened to and acted on by the Government, however minor the subject, it makes us feel that at least it is worth while turning up.

Amendment 10 would include regional development agencies in the list of connected authorities. There was quite a lot of discussion about this in Committee, so I shall not go through it all again, but regional development agencies are becoming increasingly important as funding agencies and with the new arrangements to set up leaders’ boards in places where they do not exist. To miss them out is simply to miss out an important part of the governance of the region, which has a considerable impact on local authorities. That is the purpose of Amendment 10.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for the way in which she opened the debate on her amendments. I am pleased to know that we share so many of the assumptions about the values of local authorities and democratic arrangements. What divides us is not principle but some aspects of process. I am very grateful for the way in which she debated the detail in Committee and made such a positive and important contribution. Where we differ is that the noble Baroness suggests a different way for local authorities to provide information to local people about the functions and democratic arrangements of public bodies that provide or shape public services in the area.

Amendment 3, in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, and the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, would simply replace Clause 2, which defines the duty of the connected authorities, with a general requirement on local authorities to promote understanding of the democratic arrangements of the connected authorities that the local authority considers appropriate. I fully understand the intention behind the amendment.

Let me explain very briefly why Clause 2 is slightly repetitious given our earlier debates, and why we have sought to establish a list of connected authorities. It is simply because we want to be clear about the minimum extent and scope of the requirement. We want to be assured that everyone, no matter where they live, will

17 Mar 2009 : Column 150

be able to understand more than they do now about the public authorities in addition to the local council that affects their life. These public bodies impact directly on the key services—safety, health, education, transport, waste and economic prosperity—which, so far as the general public are concerned, work in mysterious ways. They are all services that people would like to know more about and, we argue, need to know more about. These services will all benefit from closer engagement with local people, as well as wider involvement and representation. They are on the list because they have asked to be on it—they want that greater engagement.

I wrote to noble Lords on 27 February to explain more fully the three criteria that we used in developing the list. First, the bodies included must have a strong presence in the local authority area; secondly, they must make decisions that are directly relevant to people in the local area, and therefore it is right that their governance arrangements are better known; and, thirdly, they must provide opportunities for the public to participate in or influence the making of decisions.

We have taken a broad view of the opportunities to participate because we think that both participative and representative routes are important ways to influence services. My letter explained that those opportunities vary between the different bodies, depending on their function and structure. Each organisation has designed mechanisms that suit its particular area of operation, and we certainly do not intend to alter that. These opportunities include a wide spectrum of involvement such as: contributing views and influencing policy, for example by taking part in consultations or panels; directly electing representatives; making representations to councillors and other representatives; and standing as a councillor or taking on other civic roles such as that of a school governor.

We want this duty to be appropriate and not overly burdensome. We do not want to impose on local authorities a long list of every public organisation that has an interest, however remote, in their area. It is always difficult to know where to draw the line, and some people may interpret the criteria slightly differently. However, as I say, we have aimed to reflect those bodies of interest to most local people. We believe that by so doing we can guarantee that the same opportunities exist for all communities. That is why I cannot accept the amendments to replace Clause 2, with its set of clear purposes and the lists of connected authorities, with the amendments which would leave it up to every local authority to choose how to proceed. That is not because we do not trust local authorities—far from it; the raft of freedoms and flexibilities in recent years stand witness to that—but because this is a new opportunity to open up parts of public life and policy which are so significant that they should be included in statute for all communities to take advantage of. There is consensus around this. The list has been drawn up in consultation with the LGA and the representatives of these bodies. They are content, indeed enthusiastic, to be included in the list.

I repeat that there is nothing in the legislation to stop councils promoting understanding of any other organisation that has a particular relevance in the area. Each local authority will decide how best it can

17 Mar 2009 : Column 151

fulfil this duty so as to complement the public relations work that the organisations do themselves. We seek a simple, single port of call provided by local authorities on behalf of organisations so that information is presented in a strategic and accessible manner, and consistency in the amount and quality of information available on the different bodies. The aim is not to replace the efforts that connected authorities already make in promoting themselves but to supplement and support that. I know that the noble Baroness was anxious about that. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, in the previous debate: the statutory guidance must be proportionate and not over-prescriptive. That is a very important point to put on the record. We will encourage councils to work jointly with the connected authorities to maximise the benefit of any existing campaigns to promote the organisations, avoid duplication of effort, and extend the reach of these campaigns more widely than the bodies could do alone.

We appreciate the intention of Amendment 10, in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, on regional development agencies, as they are, indeed, significant regional players. I reassure noble Lords on the critical point. If a local authority believes that the RDA structures and activities are relevant to its area, there is nothing at all to stop it promoting understanding about its work. However, RDAs are not active in every region and are certainly not active in the same way. They do not primarily engage directly with local people and therefore do not meet the relevant criteria. They do not meet the criteria for having a local presence and providing opportunities for people to influence and participate in shaping service decisions. However, given government Amendments 5 and 6, on partnership work, which we have just addressed, we would expect that partnership work with local authorities and RDAs would be covered already by the duty.

There is also the issue, which noble Lords have not raised, of the Homes and Communities Agency. That is on the list, and it could be argued that they are similar bodies. I want to explain why the HCA is there. It is a nascent organisation. Given the range of powers of the HCA and people’s interest in its activities, we have erred on the side of caution and responded to the HCA, which wanted to be on the list. As the HCA matures and its processes become established, we would look to review its inclusion on the list.

I have taken the advice of the chief executive of the HCA, Sir Bob Kerslake, who has said:

“The vision of HCA is focused around people and places. To create the places where people want to live, work, shop and entertain themselves, you need to engage and involve the local communities to help shape, deliver and sustain the place they carry out all this activity in. HCA will be working with our delivery partners, especially the local authorities, to ensure that there is the opportunity, not a one off opportunity either, for appropriate local involvement in defining and delivering the type of place they want”.

I am happy to have that on the record.

Government Amendments 11 and 12 are in response to the helpful reminder about parish meetings given by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in Grand Committee.

17 Mar 2009 : Column 152

Parish councils in England and community councils in Wales are included in the list of connected authorities under subsections (3) and (5) respectively. That means that principal authorities in two-tier areas in England and throughout Wales will be required to promote understanding of democratic arrangements at this tier of local government in their area. Where parishes exist in unitary areas in England, they will also count as connected authorities, and those councils will therefore be required to promote understanding of them to local people.

As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, pointed out, in some areas the democratic arrangements at parish and community level are carried out through parish or community meetings rather than through parish or community councils. We understand that leaving parish and community meetings off the list of connected authorities might, therefore, have led to a gap as regards our intention to include the range of democratic arrangements at the parish and community level. This government amendment, helpfully prompted by the noble Lord, seeks to plug that gap. I am very pleased that he is pleased with that. I beg to move.

Baroness Warsi: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her detailed response. I continue to have some concerns about the detail but, at this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 3 withdrawn.

Amendment 4

Moved by Lord Low of Dalston

4: Clause 1, page 2, line 7, at end insert—

“( ) The duty under subsection (1) includes in particular a duty to provide relevant information in formats accessible to people with disabilities.”

Lord Low of Dalston: My Lords, noble Lords will recall that I moved the amendments in this group in Committee. I bring them back again today because I support the duties contained in Chapter 1 but I want to see disabled people receive the full benefit of them. The amendments would require authorities to provide relevant information in accessible formats. Those that did not do so would have to give an account of where they fell short each year—not so much naming and shaming but a confession of failure. That is meant as a gentle incentive to improve. If things went according to plan, no authority would ever have to make such a report.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page