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Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, the Ministers departmental website, which I trawled yesterday looking for evidence and research on HIPs, does not show any recent research. I could not find the reference to the
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Baroness Andrews: My Lords, over the past year we have been working closely with the industry. The package that we brought forward in December is looking at different forms of simplification and working parties. I can send the noble Baroness a collection of evidence that we have gathered and put forward, but essentially it is counterfactual evidence because the HIPs were not being seen and we were told not least by estate agents and consumer organisations that it was important for buyers and sellers to be able to handle the HIP to make sure that they knew what they were getting for their money and what information it contained.
The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Lord Adonis): My Lords, Section 30 of the Railways Act 1993, as amended by the Railways Act 2005, places a duty on the Secretary of State to ensure that passenger services are maintained in the event of a franchise failure. The Government have well developed contingency plans in place should a franchisee default on a franchise. These plans draw on the experience gained from the termination of the Connex South Eastern franchise in 2003 and the resolution of GNERs financial position in 2006.
Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, I thank the Minister, but will he give me an assurance that a truly professional team of people is available to him in the event of a default of a franchise and that those people will know that they are going to operate the franchise for a long time, rather than the short time that South Eastern Trains was given, where the people running it were swept aside?
Lord Adonis: My Lords, the time was not that short for South Eastern Trains. The Strategic Rail Authority took over the franchise at the end of 2003 and ran it until April 2006, which is a fairly lengthy period. On the competence of those who will take on this role, my department has a call-off contract with First Class Partnerships, which is an organisation established by former senior British Rail managers, providing strategic, commercial operations, engineering and infrastructure
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Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that it is not his intention to allow franchise holders who may get into trouble mid-term to renegotiate the terms of their franchise? Does he agree that, if they were able to do so, that would send out entirely the wrong message for future franchise bids because the winners would be those who told the biggest whoppers about their projections rather than those who offered the best value for money?
Viscount Tenby: My Lords, in a time of considerable financial stress, some train operating companies may well be tempted to make unwelcome economies from the point of view of the travelling passengers, such as the shortening of trains, the early closure of stations, compulsory redundancies and so forth. Will the Government undertake to monitor that carefully and to take appropriate action if necessary?
Lord Adonis: My Lords, I can give that assurance. Those operating the franchises are expected to abide by the terms of their contracts, which set out their obligations in considerable detail, including their obligations in the provision of train services.
Lord Berkeley: My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that, if one franchise hands the keys back, so to speak, all the other franchises operated by the same holding company will also be terminated? On that basis, can he assure the House that First Class Partnerships has enough people to run three or four franchises for an extended period, which might be required? Would there be any chance of it being allowed to go on to the end of the franchise period, as many of us asked for when Connex was being operated by the Government, because it was a rather good service?
Lord Adonis: My Lords, it would not be appropriate for me to give details of individual franchises and our assessment of them. That is commercially confidential information. However, I can tell the noble Earl that no
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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, with the leave of the House, my noble friend Lady Royall of Blaisdon will repeat the Statement on the spring European Council at a convenient point after 3.30 pm. Immediately after the spring European Council Statement, my noble friend Lord Bach will repeat the rights and responsibilities Statement.
Relevant Documents: 2nd Report from the Regulatory Reform Committee, 7th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and 8th Report from the Merits Committee, considered in Grand Committee on 18 March.
Amendment 98 would take out of the Bill Clause 29, which relates to scrutiny officers. In proposing this, I do not suggest in the slightest that we do not support
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I agree very much with that. I declare an interest as a member of the advisory board of the Centre for Public Scrutiny, which has worked with the Government on this. I agree that more resources and staff should, if applied well, lead to better scrutiny. However, designating an officer does not mean that there will be any extra officer resources. The Minister said that having a statutory officer was the critical thing, and that there was evidence to this effect. Will sheor perhaps he, as it looks as if the noble Lord, Lord Patel, will be answeringtell the House what that evidence is?
As regards funding, the Minister gave an indicationI could not find the reference when I looked for itabout the amount of funding. Certainly she said that the Government would provide funding, that this would be ring-fenced and that the costs would be met in full. I recall thinking when I heard the figure that it was not very much funding. However, ring-fencing and meeting the costs in full in the way that she described seem to be inconsistent with the assurances that the Government gave in the same debate that it will be up to the local authority to decide what suits it best. In short, we support good scrutiny, but we do not believe that the Government have found the key to unlocking it.
Also in this group are government Amendments 99, 100, 170, 171 and 172. We welcome these. The first expands on an amendment that we tabled at the previous stage. I believe it came from the Local Government Association. The Minister will explain the now rather longer clause, allowing for joint scrutiny by two or more local authorities. Given the constraints at this stage of the Bill, I will ask him some questions on his amendment, even though he has not yet had an opportunity to introduce it.
Will the Minister give us a clue what that might cover; and, importantly, do the Government expect that local authorities will take the lead in proposing any prescriptions that might come through regulations? Could he also confirm that this is not intended to be a provision that would allow the Secretary of State to take particular action against particular local authorities? I cannot think what the Latin equivalent for ad hominem would be, but I am sure that the Minister understands my point.
New Section 5C would allow regulations to provide that an authority must or may not disclose information to a joint scrutiny committee. I was surprised to see this. The essence of good local government lies in its
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Lord Patel of Bradford: My Lords, a number of important issues have been raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. Before I address them, I would first like to set out the Governments position on our proposals. We had a good discussion in Committee about proposals for overview and scrutiny, which together aim to raise the visibility and profile of scrutiny within the council and in the local community. We also want to improve its capacity and effectiveness so that it is better equipped to respond to issues of local importance. I am pleased that the noble Baroness agrees with the principle of what we are trying to do.
This grouping includes our amendments for joint overview and scrutiny committees as well as Amendment 98 on our proposal for the scrutiny officer. I will deal first with the amendments concerned with joint overview and scrutiny committees. We talked at length about the merits of cross-boundary scrutiny and how it could positively contribute to our overarching aim of raising the visibility and effectiveness of scrutiny.
We were in agreement that joint overview and scrutiny committees could provide an efficient and effective means of co-ordinating the scrutiny work of several local authorities. Indeed, it was for this reason that we provided for the setting up of joint overview and scrutiny committees between a county and one or more of its districts in Section 123 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, and why, in Clause 30 of the Bill, we sought to extend the scope of these provisions so that joint overview and scrutiny committees might make reports and recommendations on any matter affecting the area or inhabitants of that group of authorities, rather than on local area agreement matters alone.
However, noble Lords wanted us to go further and extend these arrangements so that any group of local authorities might set up a joint committee. My noble friend the Minister said that we would give the matter further consideration, and we have done so. We have concluded that there is merit in noble Lords arguments. They will be pleased to hear that the new clause introduced by Amendment 99 will enable us to make provision for the appointment of joint overview and scrutiny committees by any two or more local authorities. This will enable cross-boundary scrutiny of strategic issues affecting a number of local authorities, which supports sub-regional working between local authorities.
The new clause replaces Section 123 of the 2007 Act in its entirety and will also make the changes originally to be achieved by Clause 30 of the Bill; that is, extending the scope of what joint overview and scrutiny committees may do, so that they may make reports and recommendations on any matter affecting the area or inhabitants of that group of authorities, rather than on local area agreement matters alone. Broadening the scope of what these committees may consider will help maximise this more efficient and effective way of working.
Amendments 100, 170, 171 and 172 make necessary technical changes to the Bill and other legislation where references to joint overview and scrutiny committees need updating or where repeals are no longer needed now that we intend to insert a new Section 123 into the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007.
A few noble Lords, prior to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, raised concerns about the need for clarification on the scope and content of the regulations that we intend to draw up and on the timing of these regulations. It is natural to want reassurance about the timing of the regulations and I am happy to provide that. The new provisions for the extended joint overview and scrutiny committees would, if accepted, come into force automatically two months after Royal Assent. The proposals for joint overview and scrutiny regulations that we set out in the Improving Local Accountability consultation will provide a firm basis for regulations on any new, extended joint overview and scrutiny committees, so we are not starting from scratch. We intend to continue to work with the LGA, the Centre for Public Scrutiny and local government stakeholders, consulting as necessary to ensure that arrangements for extended joint overview and scrutiny committees are practical and strike the right balance. With this in mind, we hope to be in a position to issue final regulations providing for joint overview and scrutiny committees under new Section 123 of the 2007 Act shortly after the relevant provisions of this Bill come into force.
On the scope of the regulations, my noble friend Lady Andrews said in Committee that we support the principle of cross-boundary scrutiny. She also said that any extended arrangement would need to be considered in the context of the powers that may be provided to overview and scrutiny committees under the 2007 Act. Our intention is that such overview and scrutiny committeeswhere they are established, which will be completely at the discretion of the authorities concernedwill be provided with appropriate powers, in line with the proposals that we set out for overview and scrutiny committees in our Improving Local Accountability consultation. These proposals were broadly welcomed by the local government community. Those are our intentions but, as I said, we will want to work with the LGA, the Centre for Public Scrutiny and other representatives from local government to ensure that any regulations for these extended joint overview and scrutiny committees are appropriate and strike the right balance.
information. This would simply allow us to make provisions regarding what information must not be provided by certain partner authorities. In our recent consultation, we set out proposals on this that were broadly welcomed by the authorities, which intend to follow this up using the same approach.
In talking to Amendment 98, which would remove Clause 29, I will address some of the other points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. Clause 29 provides for a designated scrutiny officer in councils
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Noble Lords have suggested that the approach that we have set out in the legislation is unnecessary and that it would be better to leave this matter for local authorities to decide on. Let me reassure noble Lords that we have consulted extensively on the proposals for scrutiny support set out in the White Paper, Communities in Control. Views were mixed but, if I lay them out, noble Lords will see where we are coming from. Some welcomed the commitment to require a scrutiny officer resource. The Centre for Public Scrutiny thought it essential if scrutiny is to benefit fully from the new powers and responsibilities outlined in the Communities in Control White Paper. It went on to comment that it saw a danger of there being simply a single officer and that it would favour more extensive requirements. Others, however, while agreeing that scrutiny should be properly supported, stated that how to do so should be left to the discretion of councils. Given the range of contrasting views expressed, I believe that the approach that we have set out strikes the correct balance in that it recognises the important role that officer support plays in supporting members to drive effective LAA scrutiny but carefully balances this with the need to allow local flexibility. That is why, for example, we have not attempted any complex definition of scrutiny support and resources.
While we are creating a statutory post, we are deliberately not prescribing detailed duties that the scrutiny officer must carry out or at what level the scrutiny officer should be, a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, in Committee. The level of other statutory posts, such as the monitoring officer and the finance officer, are implicit from the legislation because of the complex and extensive duties that they must discharge. We have not set out a list of the duties that a scrutiny officer must perform on the basis that the role of the scrutiny officer may need to vary from one local authority to another, depending on the way in which scrutiny is organised in any particular council. We therefore believe that it is better for local authorities to make arrangements that are appropriate for their own circumstances.
Noble Lords raised concerns in Committee that the provision in Clause 29 is not sufficient and that one officer is not enough. Although the requirement is for one statutory officer, we would expect local authorities to decide what resources they need to allocate to scrutiny to suit their particular needs. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that it is not appropriate for us to prescribe such detailed arrangements. As I have said, the approach that we have set out achieves the right balance.
On resources, studies on the development of overview and scrutiny have shown that officer support is an important condition for effective scrutiny. If overview and scrutiny is to be effective, it is critical that officer resource is in place to provide support and advice. An
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