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Amendment 71

Moved by Lord Best

71: Clause 16, page 10, line 23, after “authority” insert “or relevant person from any of the organisations set out in section 2(2)(a) and (c) to (f)”

Lord Best: My Lords, I shall speak also to the related Amendments 72 to 75. Before I get to the meat of the issue, perhaps I may make a rather more general remark or two. I find myself frequently in meetings where we talk about devolution, decentralisation and the shift of power from the centre to local authorities and to community organisations. It is great to be part of those discussions and to feel that that mood is a cross-party consensus view shared by Members of this House. At the same time, though, one is always anxious that local authorities just do not command the kind of local support and respect that that decentralisation, that move to devolution, implies.

The Bill is necessary. It promotes local democracy, tries out some new things and does some things differently, brings in petitions and attempts to find new ways of engaging people. We cannot feel complacent that everyone is comfortable with the way in which local authorities operate. This is about restoring people’s faith in local government, increasing their confidence and involving more local people in the processes. My amendments are but a small part of a much bigger picture in which the trade-off for the political consensus about devolution is that there must be some change and some things being done that make a difference to how people feel involved and engaged in local processes.

The amendments relate to councils’ overview and scrutiny functions following valid petitions. They extend the arrangements for holding officers to account from just a council’s own staff to appropriate officers from partner organisations that operate in that council’s area. I am grateful to the Local Government Association for preparing these amendments, which are intended to strengthen the accountability to the community of all local public officers while ensuring that the democratically elected council is at the heart of this process.

In Committee, there were some crossed wires, leading to clarification from the Minister that Clause 16 was not about public meetings that could turn into kangaroo courts where lowly officers were publicly pilloried by an angry mob. No, the holding of officers to account relates just to coming before and giving evidence to overview and scrutiny committees meeting in public. So, too, of course, does the proposal in these amendments for extending the list of individuals covered. The senior officers who would be covered by these amendments could come from the primary care trusts, police authorities, waste disposal authorities and others.

Select Committees of this House and another place summon civil servants and officers of public bodies, as well as their political masters. This has enhanced public scrutiny and shed light on public service provision. At the local level, holding officers to account from a range of local public bodies has similar merit. Indeed, since local authorities are being obliged to promote the work of such bodies and the public may, however

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unfairly, hold the local authority responsible for their actions, these amendments would make the position more equitable, while increasing accountability to the local community. They should improve scrutiny of the public bodies operating in the locality, thereby, to quote from the Bill’s Title,

I beg to move.

9.15 pm

Lord Tope: My Lords, we have some difficulty with the noble Lord’s amendments. I understand very well what he is trying to achieve and I think that there is a good case for it in many respects, as many of the bodies to which he is referring do not have the same open, democratic accountability as do local authorities. The problem that we have is one of principle—a quite strongly held principle—which is that members, whether they are Members of Parliament of members of local authorities, are the ones who are accountable. It is a firm principle. In Committee, my noble friend Lord Greaves was corrected by the Minister when he made some perhaps injudicious remarks about civil servants. The Minister explained quite clearly and rightly that it is the Ministers who are responsible and that, if we wish to cast blame or aspersions, we do so on the Ministers, not on the officials who support them.

The same principle applies in local government: it is the officers who advise and support the members. Throughout my 35 years in local government, members have always called on and expected officers to be at committee meetings—overview and scrutiny, as it is now—to be questioned by councillors. But it is still the councillors who are responsible to the electorate for what is done and what is said. Those meetings, where councillors question officers, sometimes robustly, are held in public; the public and petitioners can hear it. But it is still the members who are responsible. I see the Minister nodding in agreement.

This clause, which the noble Lord seeks to extend, for reasons that I understand and sympathise with, breaches that principle. If this were to go ahead, I certainly think that it should apply beyond simply local authority officers. However, it is the principle that is wrong and, if the principle is wrong, the amendments to extend that principle must be equally wrong. We will not be able to support these amendments at this stage.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Best, for what he said about the principle of the Bill and what it intends to do in order to proactively promote democracy. In Committee, he described this as the core business of local authorities. I am grateful for the graciousness of his opening remarks. I also welcome his amendment, with which I have some sympathy.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, has pre-empted the debate that we will have on the next set of amendments, but I certainly do not quarrel with him at all over his description of the accountability of elected members of local authorities. I hope to defend what we are doing in this clause while upholding that principle.

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The noble Lord, Lord Best, did a superb job in explaining what Clause 16 is all about. He demolished the argument that we were somehow creating a kangaroo court in order to pillory junior members of authority staff—not at all. However, I should like to postpone discussion of this until the next group of amendments.

The noble Lord’s amendments start from the position that the requirements in Clause 16 are important; they would extend them in a bid to strengthen local authorities’ ability to act as advocates for their local communities. I welcome the fact that in principle the noble Lord, Lord Tope, accepts that. I welcome his focus, and that of the noble Lord, Lord Best, on the empowerment benefits that this could bring citizens. The noble Lord, Lord Best, described this as creating a more equitable and accountable arrangement. However, I do not think that the amendments would deliver quite what he is looking for.

Amendment 71 would apply Clause 16 to petitions that requested that a local authority officer or a relevant person from any of the range of connected authorities listed in Clause 2 attend a public meeting of the local authority. Those organisations include parish councils, police authorities, primary care trusts, NHS trusts, the National Offender Management Service or the governing body of a maintained school. The exception is the Homes and Communities Agency, which is listed in Clause 2 but which Amendment 71 would not include.

As I said, I have considerable sympathy with the intention behind the amendments. I appreciate their aim and I think that the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, who is not in his place, would do so, too. He noted in Committee that local authorities sometimes find themselves bearing the brunt of their constituents’ ire in relation to decisions made by other public bodies over which the authority has no control. So the amendments are intended to give local authorities the ability to investigate such issues where they are raised by petitioners. Local authorities would be expected to require a relevant person from the organisation in question to attend a meeting of the overview and scrutiny committee and give evidence.

The reason why I say that the amendments as drafted may not achieve their aims is that overview and scrutiny committees can request that anyone attend their meetings and give evidence, but they have powers only to require officers of their own local authority or, in relation to health matters, an NHS body to do so. The amendments would place a requirement on principal local authorities that they would have no powers to meet if other bodies refused to co-operate.

I know that noble Lords opposite have expressed concern about the principles behind Clause 16, and we will come to those in the next group of amendments. They may be relieved to hear me sound a note of caution. I firmly believe that it is right for local people to be able to influence the way in which O&S committees hold the executive of a local authority to account. As I said, I am sympathetic to the amendments, but we have heard genuine concerns from noble Lords about the impact of the proposals in general, including the ability of O&S committees to manage their workloads. This should not prevent us from moving forward with measures that will genuinely empower citizens, but it is

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right to proceed carefully to assess how the powers would work in practice in relation to the officers of principal local authorities before we consider extending local authorities’ powers to call relevant staff from other public bodies.

I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Best, will understand those concerns and why I cannot support Amendments 71 to 75, but I commend him for bringing them forward. I hope that he will agree to withdraw Amendment 71.

Lord Best: My Lords, I detect rather muted support for my amendment at this stage. It is unlikely that we will see considerable devolution and decentralisation of power without some change to the way in which local authorities and other public authorities approach some of their tasks. To enhance and strengthen local government in the long term, we need to build on ways of working for the future. At this stage, however, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 71 withdrawn.

Amendments 72 to 75 not moved.

Amendment 76

Tabled by Lord Tope

76: Clause 16, leave out Clause 16

Lord Tope: This amendment was tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and is a measure about which she feels very strongly. As I said previously, it is a matter of considerable importance and principle to us. Therefore, I shall not move it at this time of night and will bring it back at Third Reading.

Amendment 76 not moved.

Clause 17: Review of steps

Amendment 77 not moved.

Clause 18: Supplementary scheme provision

Amendments 78 to 80

Moved by Baroness Andrews

78: Clause 18, page 12, line 32, leave out from “not” to end of line 33 and insert “petitions to which section 12 applies”

79: Clause 18, page 12, line 34, leave out “valid”

80: Clause 18, page 12, leave out lines 38 to 40

Amendments 78 to 80 agreed.

Amendment 81 not moved.

Clause 19: Powers of appropriate national authority

Amendment 82

Moved by Lord Tope

82: Clause 19, page 12, line 43, leave out subsection (1)

Lord Tope: I speak also to Amendments 84 and 85.

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Baroness Anelay of St Johns: It might be appropriate to intervene. I am somewhat confused about a statement that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, has just made in seeming to move an amendment and then saying that he was not moving it. He appeared to say that he would bring it back at Third Reading. Is he aware of the rules at Third Reading and has he discussed them with the Government Chief Whip, his own Chief Whip and with me? Is he aware that he is not in a position to make the statement that he may bring the amendment back at Third Reading?

Lord Tope: My Lords, I thought that we were on Amendment 82, not Amendment 76, so I shall continue. I cannot unsay what—

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, is unwilling to answer a straightforward question.

Lord Tope: No, my Lords, I am dealing with the business that has been called—Amendment 82. That is what I am going to speak to. I am very grateful to the Conservative Chief Whip for putting on record that there are still Conservatives in the House, even though they remain silent except to correct me when I make human errors.

Amendment 82 has been called and I am moving it. It seeks to remove the power of the appropriate national authority, which is presumably the Secretary of State in England, to determine in effect what a local authority’s petition scheme should or should not contain. Amendment 84 similarly seeks to weaken that provision. Throughout this discussion we have heard that the Government want to adopt a light-touch approach and that they do not wish to inhibit what local authorities do with their petition schemes beyond the most minimal requirements set out in the Bill. Therefore, it seems entirely unnecessary to us to have these reserve provisions, as it were, which allow the Secretary of State, or the appropriate national authority, to overrule what a local authority has determined, which must comply with the law. I have expressed my reservations and concerns about the guidance that we have not yet seen. The Minister aspires to it being light touch, yet Clause 19(4) says that the guidance,

The guidance could include a model petition scheme whether or not the relevant subsection is included in the Bill. Putting it in the Bill just reaffirms our concern that the guidance may not be as light touch as we are told. I would be reassured if that subsection were taken out, although I shall not be fully reassured until we see the guidance. I beg to move.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, these amendments deal with the powers set out in Clause 19 for the appropriate national authority to make orders and give directions to principal local authorities in relation to their petition schemes.

I remind the House that Clause 19(1) provides a power for the appropriate national authority to make orders about what should be in petition schemes, and what should not be in them. This power will be used

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for situations where, despite guidance and support, local authorities are failing to create schemes which are accessible and effective. Clause 19(3) sets out particular issues which these orders cover. Amendment 82 removes the power for the appropriate national authority to make these orders and Amendment 84 is consequential.

9.30 pm

I have listened carefully to noble Lords and I appreciate that they have concerns about this power. I want to offer some reassurance. I am receiving notes because my draft has numbers of amendments deriving from some weeks ago so I shall have to cross-reference. The provision in Clause 19(1) is a fairly typical reserve power which has been scrutinised with the rest of the provisions in Clause 19 by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. Clearly, the committee is expert in this matter and it is always quick to alert the House to any unusual or excessive delegation of powers. The DPRRC considered those provisions to be acceptable for good reason because they are standard practice. I can assure noble Lords that there is nothing sinister or unusual in their inclusion here.

We have been clear from the very start about our intentions in relation to Clause 19(1). Quite simply, our plans are to use this power to set a maximum threshold for the number of signatures required on a petition for it to trigger a debate of the full council. The proposal to have a maximum threshold of 5 per cent of the local population is an important one. It is unique. If we are to raise the profile of petitions as a mechanism to encourage people to influence local councils, it is obviously essential to have a sensible figure. If the power to fix such limits is not to be included in subordinate legislation, it would have to be in the Bill. I have listened to noble Lords telling me how much this Bill is overdetailed and I am not persuaded that adding a technical detail is a good idea. What happens if the figure we propose turns out not to be appropriate?

Outside the proposal to set a maximum threshold for triggering a debate of the full council, we are committed to keeping this power as a reserve to be exercised only where consultation with the sector or evidence indicates it is necessary; that is to say, if there is a clear need to act to ensure a minimum set of standards for citizens. I make this commitment again because it is important and puts the provision in perspective. Noble Lords might ask, if that is the case, why take the power at all? The first answer is simple: we are committed to ensuring that local authorities take seriously the petitions they receive, and this power clearly indicates that we are prepared to act if evidence shows that local authorities are not creating schemes which are accessible, effective and meet expectations.

This is not uncommon; for example, a similar provision is contained in the power of the well-being regime in the Local Government Act 2000. The principle of giving discretion to local authorities with scope to intervene if necessary, in this case enabling local authorities to set out their petition scheme but taking a power to step in should those schemes not be sensible and effective is, therefore, not a new one. In the case of the well-being regime, we have never exercised the power

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in question and have no present intention of doing so. We hope that, in the case of petitions, the existence of the power will ensure that it does not need to be used.

The second answer is that we recognise that legislation is not always a precise science. Situations change, evidence emerges and some things are simply too detailed to put into the Bill. We all agree that secondary legislation is there for a purpose. Continually overseeing minor amendments to primary legislation is not a good use of parliamentary time. I hope I have reassured the noble Lord of the principle behind the provision in subsection (1) and that he will consider withdrawing Amendment 82.

Amendment 85 removes subsection (6) from Clause 19. This provision permits the appropriate national authority to direct a principal local authority to amend its petition scheme if an authority were to set an inappropriately high threshold for the number of signatures required to receive a response to a petition. In this instance, the appropriate national authority could make a targeted intervention without the need to exercise the order-making power and require an authority to set a lower threshold. That would avoid disruption to other principal authorities which were operating effective schemes.

Noble Lords are perhaps concerned that this provision is somehow part of a government job-creation scheme, and I take their concern to be that there will be staff dedicated to monitoring petition schemes on a daily basis. That is not the intention and it will not be the case. As I mentioned in Grand Committee in our discussion of impact assessments, the Government are committed to reviewing the impact of all policies, and the petitions requirements in this chapter are no exception. We are committed to carrying out a review of the petitions duty within three years of implementation, and because the requirements set out in the Bill put an emphasis on local authorities making their decision-making processes more transparent, including providing clear and accessible information on their website, a use of disproportionate staff resource will not be required.

In summary, I assure noble Lords that this power of intervention would not be used other than in extremis, if at all, and certainly not without good evidence that the local authority in question was failing to uphold the requirements set out in this chapter. Should such an instance occur, nothing would happen without prior communication with the authority in question. The provision makes it clear that we are committed to ensuring that standards everywhere can be raised to those of the best, so that people can be confident that their concerns will be taken seriously no matter where they live. Where one or two local authorities fail to meet those standards, the provision confirms that we are not in the business of disrupting the good practice of the rest; instead, we will take action in relation to those few.

I hope that the noble Lord is content with that explanation and that he will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Tope: My Lords, perhaps all our voices are going at this time of night. I am of course grateful to the Minister for her assurances and reassurances, but I do not need reassurances from her; I have no doubt

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whatsoever of her good faith and good intentions in all this. However, we have said on other occasions that it is just possible that one day there may be a different national authority—a Secretary of State with perhaps less benevolent intentions—and the power will still be there to be used.

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