To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make representations to the Government of Egypt concerning the killing of Christians and the attacks on Christian churches in that country, and on the promotion of the safety of all citizens of religious minority faiths in Egypt.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary raised his concerns about the dangers of extremism and sectarianism in Egypt with the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Field Marshal Tantawi, and with the Egyptian Prime Minister when he visited the country on 1 and 2 May. We will continue to urge the Egyptian Government to create the conditions for pluralist and non-sectarian politics and to establish policies that prevent discrimination against anyone on the basis of their religion.
Baroness Cox: I thank the Minister for his reply. Is he aware that since the January revolution there have been at least 20 documented attacks against religious minorities, including not only the Coptic Christians but the Sufi community, and that in many cases the security forces refrain from intervening effectively, giving rise to concerns that they might actually be condoning the violence? Will Her Majesty's Government raise with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces the importance of ensuring that the emerging constitution, legal framework and social structures are guided by the principles of equality of citizenship and equality before the law, consistent with the human rights conventions to which Egypt is a signatory?
Lord Howell of Guildford: I can tell the noble Baroness that we are indeed aware of the ugly situation that she describes. Tensions between Christians and Muslims in Egypt had initially eased during the revolution back in February, but regrettably she is right: there has been an upsurge in sectarian violence, including the worst violent clashes between the two communities in early May, when some 15 people died and over 330 were injured. This is obviously a deplorable situation. As for assisting with the emerging constitution, this country has already committed £1.2 million through the Arab Partnership scheme to support the immediate political transition process. That includes projects to build the capacity of government and civil society in developing
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Lord Howell of Guildford: If the noble Lord is talking about a rising intolerance against people for their religious beliefs, he is absolutely right. This is an extremely worrying trend, which we should not only resist but work against most actively wherever it occurs.
Lord Chidgey: Will my noble friend confirm that Article 46 of the previous Egyptian constitution guaranteed freedom of belief and freedom of worship and that the penal code provided for up to five years in jail for exploiting,
Lord Howell of Guildford: That is certainly the theme of our exchanges and dialogues, and those of my right honourable friend, with the leaders of the Supreme Council. As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, the Government are drafting a new law on the construction of places of worship, which is to be equal for both Copts and Muslims, and a new anti-discrimination law. That will, in a sense, reinforce what went before. As my noble friend appreciates, Egypt is in the process of moving out of the constitutional pattern of the past and, therefore, all the positive laws that come from the past will need to be reinforced and redrafted.
Baroness Berridge: My Lords, in light of the comments of my noble friend the Minister that there is an increase of religious intolerance, would not now be the time for the Government to adopt the recommendation from the Conservative Party's human rights group's report The Freedom to Believe that the Foreign Office should appoint a special envoy for international freedom, religion and belief?
Lord Howell of Guildford: That was an extremely interesting report, which my honourable and right honourable friends are certainly studying closely. I cannot make precise promises on exactly how the recommendations will be implemented or whether they will reflect the pattern of our policy evolution, but I fully recognise that my noble friend's support for this document is right and that it is a valuable study.
The Lord Bishop of Exeter: Can the Minister tell us what advice the 8 June meeting of the FCO human rights panel offered the Foreign Secretary on how the Government might best respond to these recent attacks on religious minorities in Egypt? Will he also say how the Government have responded to any such advice?
Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, the answer to the right reverend Prelate's question is positively and continuously. I know that he appreciates, because he follows these things closely, that we are dealing with a constantly changing situation. We are in constant dialogue through our posts, and indeed through Ministers and officials, with the Supreme Council in Cairo and with Governments in other countries where there are clear discrimination and attacks against religious minorities, including Christian minorities. I think that I have to tell him that the work of the panel and the continuing work of the Foreign Office are moving in the same direction, which is a positive one.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, in declaring an interest as president of the UK Coptic Association, may I ask the Minister whether he recalls the letter that I sent him on 1 January this year, copied to the Foreign Secretary, detailing the attacks made on services at the Church of the Two Saints in Alexandria, in which some 21 people were killed and 79 injured, even predating the Arab spring? Is it not the case that the campaign of asphyxiation against the ancient churches throughout the whole of the Middle East is something that we need to give much more focus to? We should never miss the opportunity, when pointing the finger at organisations such as the Salafis for fomenting this hatred and violence, to enunciate our support for the creation of a plural society where minorities such as the Copts, who constitute an eighth of Egypt's population, are properly respected.
Lord Howell of Guildford: I would not disagree with a word of that. I remind your Lordships that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, is second to none in keeping us up to speed with what is happening on this whole front. When he asked me whether I could recall a letter that he wrote on 1 January, I have to be quite frank and say that I recall a mass of letters that have arrived from him almost every day of the week since then. I ask him please to go on writing and reminding us all that this is a very frightening and terrible situation to which we must, both at the governmental and the individual level, give our full attention.
To ask Her Majesty's Government what progress has been made in setting up the new Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission; and whether a forward work programme for the commission has been established.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Freud): My Lords, the changes required to establish the new commission are included in the Welfare Reform Bill and we will be able to discuss them during the Lords stages of that Bill. The commission will be established as soon as possible. Until then, the Government's Independent Reviewer on Social Mobility, Alan Milburn, will incorporate child poverty into his remit. He will then serve as acting chair of the commission until a permanent chair is appointed.
Baroness Tyler of Enfield: I thank my noble friend the Minister for his reply. Is he aware of the OECD research published last week that shows that the UK is faring badly in international league tables in terms of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds succeeding at school against the odds? Will he give an assurance that the commission will look critically at these sorts of issues to see whether the current measures are sufficient to improve the situation?
Lord Freud: Yes, my Lords. The OECD report was another useful wake-up call for us in an area in which we have not been doing as well as we should. That is precisely why we have combined our child poverty and social mobility strategies. We need to make sure not just that there are fiscal transfers to address poverty but also that the life chances of children are improved.
Lord Soley: Will the commission be able to look at the loss of the child trust fund, or baby bond? It was a serious mistake by the Government to cut that, because it was one of the best ways of enabling children in very poor families to find a way out of poverty in the long term and of encouraging saving. Can we have a guarantee that the commission will be able to look at a replacement for that?
Lord Freud: My Lords, the job of the commission will be to hold the Government to account for their strategy. It is the job of the Government to set the strategy and we will look at all the areas in which we need to improve performance.
Baroness Sherlock: My Lords, I am sure that noble Lords who saw the recent BBC documentary "Poor Kids" will have been moved by the brutal reality of child poverty in Britain that was portrayed. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government will commit themselves to tackling poverty at the very bottom and not just social mobility? Is he aware of the concerns expressed by charities that the Government's approach to the commission may undermine its independence and will he meet the End Child Poverty group to discuss this?
Lord Freud: My Lords, one of the things that we are doing to expand the measures of accountability is to look precisely at severe poverty, which is a combination of very low incomes and material deprivation. That is an area on which we want to focus. One of the
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Lord Freud: We are not weakening the commission's independence in any way; we are strengthening it by requiring the commission to hold the Government to account. The fact that we are not insisting that the commission sets the strategy for the Government means that the Government now have that responsibility and the commission can then hold them to account. I shall of course meet the group at any stage; I am sure that it is in my diary anyway.
Lord German: My Lords, the OECD report, which places the UK 28th out of 35, paints a picture of poverty of aspiration for many of our people, particularly our young people. It suggests, however, that peer mentoring and mentoring of all sorts are a way of improving that position. Will my noble friend ensure that mentoring of all types will be part of the work of the commission that is being established?
Lord Freud: My Lords, there needs to be a massive programme to improve both poverty and social mobility. It needs to be done right the way from foundation years, through school years and the transition period, and even to adulthood. The particular programmes that we will see will come out of this general approach. I cannot give any assurances on any particular approach at this stage, although I am personally most sympathetic to the concept of mentoring.
Lord Peston: Does the Minister recall Scott Fitzgerald's remark to Ernest Hemingway many years ago? "The rich are different from us", Fitzgerald said. "Yes", Hemingway replied, "they've got more money". There is no mystery about child poverty, is there? What children need if they are not to be impoverished is more money, which means that a policy of cutting public expenditure benefits is not the right way of setting about helping them.
Lord Freud: My Lords, regrettably, I was not there when that remark was made. However, I absolutely insist that income transfer is not the way to solve poverty; we need a much more comprehensive approach. Recent research tells us that in-kind support is more effective than income transfers for children in poverty. We are making a sustained, long-term attempt to lift people out of not only poverty of income but poverty of aspiration and poverty of outcomes.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, will the commission be charged with looking at the impact of the legislation going through this House now, such as the Welfare Reform Bill and the Bill that affects legal aid? Will it specifically look at the life chances of the
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Lord Freud: My Lords, the job of the commission is to hold the Government to account on their strategy on child poverty and social mobility. That is what it will do across the wide range of this Government's policies.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Earl Howe): My Lords, my honourable friend the Minister for Public Health, Anne Milton, has discussed the findings of the reports with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Misuse and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Involuntary Tranquiliser Addiction at a meeting chaired by my noble friend Lord Mancroft on 14 June. She wrote to my noble friend yesterday setting out the collaborative action that she will be taking in the light of that helpful discussion. She will be convening a round table meeting to discuss the key issues.
The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that information. Does he accept that this is an emergency for the victims of withdrawal from prescribed drugs and their families? Cannot the Government recognise the good practice that is already out there, set up withdrawal clinics and spread the word that no longer are these prescribed drugs but that they are turning into dangerous substances which can cost lives? These people cannot wait for further reports and consultation.
Earl Howe: My Lords, dependence on prescription or over-the-counter-drugs can be every bit as distressing and debilitating as dependence on illegal drugs and clearly has an impact on not only those suffering from dependence but their families and their communities. It is an important issue which we have clearly resolved to address as part of the national drug strategy by focusing on all drugs of dependence, including prescription and over-the-counter medicines. Many NHS and voluntary organisations provide support to people in relation to prescription and over-the-counter medicine use and support is available to people who develop problems in relation to those issues in most local areas. However, it is clear that there is variation in the levels of support provided between local areas and we need to address that problem.
Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, how much advice is now being given to GPs over the prescribing of psychoactive substances? In the revisions of the NHS as proposed by the Government, will the pricing bureau which monitors GP prescriptions still have the same levers as it currently has in providing GPs with benchmarking of their prescribing of psychoactive substances?
Earl Howe: My Lords, I am not sure that I can answer the latter part of the noble Baroness's question but GPs are clearly in an important position in this context. They are responsible for identifying patients who need help and for supporting them. I do not think that there is any reliable evidence that doctors are failing to comply with guidelines on the prescribing of benzodiazepines but I am aware that the Royal College of General Practitioners is updating its guidance at the moment. It is working hard to produce that very shortly.
Lord Crisp: My Lords, given the importance of making visible the number of people who are addicted in this way, when will the Government calculate the true number of people addicted to and withdrawing from legally prescribed drugs? That information could be made available from GP computer records. Does the Minster agree that both the NAC and the NTA reports confuse the number of patients taking legal prescriptions with the number of users of illegal drugs?
Earl Howe: I agree with the noble Lord that it would be very nice to have a better handle on the numbers here, but the two reports found that nationally available data do not actually provide a definitive prevalence estimate of dependence on prescription and over-the-counter medicines, much as we would wish otherwise. The reports, not unreasonably, consider the full spectrum of need in relation to the issue of addiction. The key point here is that, while different people might start taking these medicines for different reasons and may present with a different range of needs, no one at all should be excluded from the treatment and support that they require. The reports distinguish between the two groups of patients, not just those who are dependent on prescription and over-the-counter medicines but also those who are dependent on illegal drug use. That enables us to make some useful comparisons.
Baroness Jolly: Cognitive behaviour therapy is often considered as an alternative to benzodiazepines. Does the Minister believe that that low-risk alternative might be available more readily through the proposed clinical commissioning groups?
Earl Howe: My Lords, my noble friend will know that we have set aside a very considerable sum of money over the spending review period to expand the availability of talking therapies. I entirely agree that it is an important avenue of treatment.
Baroness Thornton: Following on from the noble Earl's supplementary question on how to ensure that good practice becomes standard practice, how will
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Earl Howe: My Lords, the responsibility for commissioning these services in future will lie with local authorities, supported by Public Health England. The noble Baroness will be aware that it is our proposal to ring-fence the public health budget. Local authorities will be informed by the joint strategic needs assessment that they carry out and will work in partnership with local delivery organisations and with local GPs, who, as I have mentioned, will be even better informed than they are at the moment thanks to the Royal College guidance.
Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, as this is a UK-wide problem, how do you link with the devolved Administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to make sure that the guidelines that we get here for England are shared with those in the other Administrations?
Earl Howe: My noble friend will know, as his question certainly made clear, that health is a devolved matter. However, we work very closely with our counterparts in the devolved Administrations on a basis of mutual information. I am sure that, for example, the Royal College of General Practitioners will wish to make certain that the devolved Administrations are every bit as well informed about their work as we are in the department in London.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Lord Hill of Oareford): My Lords, the Government are funding the training of specialist dyslexia teachers, the development of online study modules for all teachers and the Dyslexia-Specific
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Lord Addington: I thank my noble friend for that Answer. However, would he agree that, even with the efforts made by the last Government, we are in the situation whereby we have several schools per specialist teacher in the education system? When are we going to have a unit of training in initial teacher training, as there is in Scotland, to identify dyslexics and to allow people to be able to cope with them better in the classroom without having to call in specialists?
Lord Hill of Oareford: As my noble friend will know, in order to achieve qualified teacher status, teachers must meet the standards that require them to be able to teach children with a range of needs, including special educational needs. I agree with my noble friend on the importance of taking measures to help children with dyslexia, and the key to that, although he knows a lot more about this than I do, is early identification. It is our hope that having the phonic screening check in year 1 will enable that to happen, and then support can be put in place. We are increasing the numbers of specialist dyslexic teachers and working with ITT providers to look at ways of ensuring that primary school training teachers get the support that they need to learn how to identify and help dyslexic children.
Lord Walton of Detchant: Does the Minister accept that quite apart from dyslexia, which is difficulty in reading, there are other specific developmental learning defects such as dyspraxia, which is serious clumsiness, and dyscalculia, which is difficulty in calculation, each of which can be fully identified and characterised only by skilled psychological assessment? Having been identified, they can be effectively dealt with in schoolchildren only by highly specialised teaching. Are the Government aware of the needs of these children with defects other than dyslexia?
Lord Hill of Oareford: I accept the noble Lord's point that there are a range of challenges across the piece. Communication difficulty is another one, and in that case we are putting in place more specialist help through therapists. Working with the Department of Health and others, we need to find ways of early identification and giving as much support as we can to children with those challenges.
Lord Hill of Oareford: Looking at the literacy figures, we know overall that roughly one in five children leaving primary school are not achieving the basic standard expected of them, and those figures are
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Lord Barnett: My Lords, is not the honest answer to all the questions that the Minister has had today that he does not have the money? Would he care to have a word with his noble friend Lord Sassoon, who is sitting next to him, to see whether he could use some of the reserves that he is using in other areas?
Lord Hill of Oareford: I normally have my discussions with my noble friend Lord Sassoon in a slightly more private setting. I do not accept the basic premise of the noble Lord's question. Clearly, there is a problem across the board that we do not have as much money as we would like, but the education settlement that we got from my noble friend Lord Sassoon and his friends at the Treasury enabled us to maintain school funding at flat-cash levels, so that is not the main issue for us in this regard. It would always be nice to have more, but that is not the fundamental problem.
Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, when most initial teacher training is done in schools, as the Minister of State for Schools appears to wish, how will the Government ensure that all newly trained teachers get proper training on this issue? Do this issue and others not make the case for ensuring higher education institution input into the theoretical side of initial teacher training, especially when 10 per cent of the population are somewhere on the dyslexia spectrum?
Lord Hill of Oareford: I agree with my noble friend about the importance of input from higher education institutions. The Government are not saying that we do not believe that higher education institutions will play an extremely important part in teacher training. We are saying that, alongside that, there should be more opportunities for teachers to learn from other teachers, professionals and practitioners in the school. I very much take the noble Baroness's point about the important role that higher education institutions play.
Baroness Jones of Whitchurch: My Lords, can the Minister explain what requirement there will be in academies and free schools to ensure that teachers are supported in recognising and working with children with dyslexia?
Lord Hill of Oareford: My Lords, as the noble Baroness may recall-other noble Lords certainly will-during the passage of the Academies Act 2010 the requirements about special educational needs across the board were applied on an equal basis to academies. Through the funding agreement, we have maintained those. Clearly, lots of the first-wave academies set up by the previous Government were often in areas with the greatest challenges in overcoming illiteracy and helping children with dyslexia. Those academies have generally done an extremely good job in making sure that those children get the support that they need.
Clauses 1 to 4, Schedule 1, Clauses 5 to 11, Schedule 2,Clause 12, Schedule 3, Clause 13, Schedule 4, Clauses 14 to 16, Schedule 5, Clause 17, Schedule 6, Clauses 18 to 21, Schedule 7, Clauses 22 to 24, Schedule 8, Clause 25, Schedule 9, Clauses 26 to 34, Schedule 10, Clauses 35 and 36, Schedule 11, Clauses 37 to 48, Schedule 12, Clauses 49 to 53, Schedule 13, Clauses 54 to 61, Schedule 14, Clauses 62 and 63, Schedule 15, Clauses 64 and 65, Schedule 16, Clause 66, Schedule 17, Clause 67, Schedule 18, Clauses 68 to 79.
Lord Lea of Crondall: 'I will not detain the House for more than a few minutes. This amendment is an addition to the words now incorporated in the revised Bill at the end of revised Clause 18-those being the words in the amendment moved last week by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. My amendment, which in the words of the Companion is clarificatory, states that all the Acts of Parliament which flow from the famous or infamous EU treaties following on from Rome-Maastricht, Lisbon, et cetera-should set out in a straightforward way the list of the United Kingdom Acts which are the basis on which Parliament here in Westminster has enacted laws to give effect to EU legislation in this country.
One of the reasons for believing that the Government's intention is to pre-empt any rethink is the feed from the office of the Foreign Secretary, the right honourable William Hague, to the Financial Times last week, which appears to throw down the gauntlet that the Lords should be put in their place and get back in their box. That is surely not the height of courtesy when we have not yet completed Third Reading of the Bill.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who cannot be here today because he has to preside at an awards ceremony in Cambridge, but to whom I spoke yesterday, mentioned at Report that a list approach could additionally be considered. On another aspect, he indicated at col. 804 of Hansard that he could indeed visualise clarificatory amendments at Third Reading. I could not speak to the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, because he is in China.
So far as directly applicable law is concerned-where one of the confusions arises-as adumbrated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, it would be a brave man or woman who would try to encompass that in one declaratory yet legally watertight sentence, and it is now becoming increasingly clear that it does not work. The problem is that Ministers wish to make a political point and officials are trying to make it work technically. Trying to kill two birds with one stone is rarely a good idea. There is, indeed, no simple political point that can be made about UK law which can define this in a few words, for the reasons which the exchange on 15 June between the noble and learned Lords, Lord Mackay of Clashfern and Lord Wallace of Tankerness, amply demonstrated. Assuming that I am correct about the Government's
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On the Government's contention so far as directly applicable law is concerned, we have the position as set out on page 2 of the Explanatory Memorandum that all we are looking for is a declaratory sentence. Therefore, I put this amendment forward for consideration. I do not see why it should not be accepted on all sides of the House. I will not press it to a Division but I hope that the issues I have raised will be ventilated this morning and that the amendment will in due course be accepted in the spirit in which I have put it forward. I beg to move.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, for tabling the amendment. It seeks to confirm in statute that Clause 18 does not alter the rights and obligations that the UK has assumed and given effect to in UK law since it became a member state. In particular, the amendment provides that the clause would not affect any existing commitments flowing from subsequent treaty changes and accession treaties. That is the purpose of the noble Lord's amendment.
As I say, I am grateful to him because it allows me the opportunity, once again, to make crystal clear that this Government strongly believe that it is absolutely essential that we continue to respect the rights and obligations that we have as a member state of the European Union under the treaties to which we have committed ourselves. This is because we recognise the benefits of EU membership. This Bill does not do anything to alter our current active engagement within the existing powers and competences of the EU. I do not want to go into too much repetition of our extensive and very valuable discussions in Committee. As I said then, the coalition Government's Programme for Government spelt out that the United Kingdom will be,
I believe that this Government have, since last May, amply demonstrated an active and activist approach to EU matters. This has been exemplified by this country's leadership in the European Union's response, and indeed the global response, to recent events in north Africa and the Middle East, and the continuing turbulence there.
The pragmatic approach that this Government have adopted in their wider EU policy brings home the pragmatism that has been shown at times in your Lordships' House during the consideration of this legislation. We have come a long way since the Bill came from another place. We have undertaken detailed and considered scrutiny of the Bill and its provisions, as we should and as is our proper role here.
I want to pause briefly during these remarks to thank warmly colleagues on all sides of your Lordships' House who have taken part in these debates. Our differences have been there, of course, but those
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The Bill represents a major step forward in the engagement of Parliament over the future direction of the EU. I know that some noble Lords have argued that giving the British people a greater say over decisions could come at the expense of Parliament. However, the more that one examines that proposition, the more I believe that not to be the case. On the contrary, we are seeking to build an enduring framework on which both Parliament and the people of the country will be given a greater say over the key decisions of the Executive in the European Union. That must be healthy. We are seeking to reflect-
Baroness Quin: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because it allows me to make an intervention that otherwise I would have tried to make in the form of a speech. He has claimed that there is general acceptance of the provisions for a referendum lock on key constitutional issues. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, with whom I normally agree 100 per cent on European issues, said that the Government had persuaded us all of this. However, I do not agree with the use of referendums. I tend to share the view of the noble Lords, Lord Jopling, Lord Deben and Lord Brittan, and others that we need to be very careful if we are going towards this plebiscitary form of democracy, rather than a representative one. I should, therefore, at least like to place on record my own concern about referendum locks in general.
Lord Howell of Guildford: That is a very clear view from the noble Baroness, who, as a former Minister for Europe, knows about these things. However, I have to say that, in the age in which we live, that is a heroic position. We are now living in the information age of instant communication. Referenda are being used in every country, not at the expense of parliamentary debate and sensible diligence by elected representatives but as a further extension of the consolidation of the people's trust in the processes of government. They are being used everywhere.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: I am grateful to my noble friend. I simply want to make it clear that my support for referenda is limited to major amendments to treaties. It does not apply, as the Minister knows very well, to the list of issues set out in the schedule to the Bill.
Lord Howell of Guildford: That is a perfectly fair and sensible intervention by my noble friend. We would, of course, expect nothing else. It reinforces my point that to be either at the one pole of being against all referenda and plebiscites or at the other of saying let us have a referendum every five minutes is absurd. In between lies the possibility, in a modern parliamentary democracy, of consultation with the people through referenda on major issues where sovereignty is transferred, where competencies are transferred or where powers are surrendered by this Parliament through treaty to a higher Parliament.
My noble friend has intervened to say that only in very limited circumstances does she agree. The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, has said that she does not agree at all. The noble Lord, Lord Deben, says that he does not agree. But somewhere in between is the sensible, practical way forward. We are seeking to reflect in the Bill the unavoidable reality that, in the information age, parliamentary-based democracy has widened, is widening and is bound to widen to embrace consultation on key issues. We can argue and have argued for many weeks on how far popular consultation should be involved, but the basic principle is the reality with which Governments are now developing their methods of government and holding authority almost throughout the whole democratic world.
Lord Clinton-Davis: The noble Lord has talked about the positive contribution that this Government have made as far as the EU is concerned. However, is that not negated by the unwise alliance that the Government have formed with rather dubious characters, and the withdrawal from a more central grouping?
Lord Howell of Guildford: With great respect for the noble Lord, whose experience in European affairs is enormous, that is widening the debate vastly from discussing the amendment before us at Third Reading. The noble Lord is raising all sorts of political issues, on which I am very happy to engage, but this would not be the appropriate process and your Lordships would rightly criticise me for going into those issues. I am pleased that we have seen an acceptance of the principle that there should be a referendum on future treaty changes which transfer power and competence from the UK to the EU. That is a step forward, although I repeat that I fully respect my noble friend's intervention to the effect that she does not accept that for a vast range of activities.
Lord Davies of Stamford: The noble Lord has been talking at great length about referenda and justifying the use of referenda in the 56 cases listed in this Bill. What is the rationale for going for referenda in all these 56 cases, some on very esoteric grounds, and not having a referendum on the very substantial and dramatic reform of our legislature as proposed by the Government?
Lord Howell of Guildford: We have debated this at length. I have enjoyed some of the noble Lord's interventions-not all of them-and this one is based on a total fallacy and misunderstanding of the Bill
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Lord Dykes: I apologise for intervening and shall be very brief. First, I genuinely thank my noble friends Lord Howell and Lord Wallace for being helpful, whenever they could be, in responding to many of the points made at previous stages. However, accepting that a transfer of powers of sovereignty can be used as a technical description of our membership of the European Union, is it not better psychologically for the public to have an expression which represents the reality that, by apparently agreeing to things in the European Council, we increase not only our own national sovereignty but the collective sovereignty of the whole Union? That also applies to our membership of NATO, the UN and other international bodies.
Lord Howell of Guildford: First, I thank my noble friend for those words of thanks-I was going to say "condolence"-for the efforts that we are putting into explaining the Bill. He makes an extremely valuable point: where Britain's national interests are to be promoted by further involvement under treaties or otherwise in international institutions, that is an important matter on which the Government should certainly seek support through popular consent. The argument that we cannot make progress in any of these areas of international and multinational organisations because the Government somehow fear that the people will not agree is very weak and defeatist. On the contrary, if we are to pursue the national interest in a robust way, I think that the present Government and future Governments will have no fears at all about persuading the people to give popular support and consent to the steps forward.
Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne: I thank my noble friend for giving way. Does he agree that over the past 35 years or so member state Parliaments in other member states have been more heavily involved than the United Kingdom, and the Bill offers a way for the member state Parliament in Westminster to get far more closely attuned-providing that we can work more closely with the British people-to the will of the people on further transfers of sovereignty? Does he not also agree that this has been a profoundly important debate because it has widened the discussion from the very narrow perspectives of Brussels to the Government and back again? It has already brought Parliament in far more fully and, from that, we will be able to have occasional referenda, which will bring the British public much more into the picture.
Lord Howell of Guildford: I totally agree with my noble friend. I believe that the Bill is part of a jigsaw of processes to reinforce the relationship between the general public and the entire European Union project in a thoroughly positive way. I hope that I have not sounded too complaining during the passage of the Bill but I hoped for massive support, which I do not think was always forthcoming from your Lordships' offices, for those who want to see the European Union project greatly reinforced. Let us face it-at the moment, it is confronting some very serious challenges. This is the part of the way forward, although not the only way forward. My noble friend greatly reinforces that central point.
I return to the noble Lord, Lord Lea, who is owed a detailed comment on his excellent amendment. I emphasise once again that Clause 18 does not in any way seek to vary the rights and obligations under EU law to which the UK has given effect in its domestic legal order, principally through the Acts referred to in the amendment. It merely confirms that, for directly effective and directly applicable EU law to have effect in the UK legal order, it must be underpinned by UK statute-an issue that of course we discussed at great length on Report. The House of Lords Constitution Committee, in its very valuable report that has been referred to many times, recognised that the intent of the clauses was to do no more than reflect existing law. Clause 18 does not in any way repeal or amend any existing legislation that the UK has adopted to give effect in our law to commitments assumed under past treaty changes. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Lea, will accept that that is the reality and the basic underpinning ground fact that lies beneath the reasoning for Clause 18 being in the Bill.
Finally, I will touch on the concern that Clause 18 will somehow weaken or dilute our continued support for further enlargement of the European Union. The Government believe that EU enlargement has helped to create stability, security and prosperity in EU-neighbouring countries, in part by spreading and encouraging a firm foundation for democracy, the rule of law and shared values. The Government, like their predecessors, believe that the prospect of European Union membership is the strongest incentive for aspirant countries to implement challenging reforms. In addition, the expansion of the internal market encourages trade between new and old member states, benefiting the whole of the European Union and preparing it for a very challenging future. I hope that I have provided the noble Lord, Lord Lea, with sufficient reassurance on this important point that he rightly raised in your Lordships' House, and welcome the fact that he has already stated that he intends to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Liddle: I will not make any comments on the amendment of my noble friend Lord Lea, which the Minister dealt with very clearly. We on this side of the House greatly appreciate the courtesy with which the Minister has dealt with the many points that we raised in the long debate on the Bill-as has the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. However, what I failed to hear in the Minister's summing-up was an
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Lord Williamson of Horton: I did not intervene earlier because I got the impression that this was not only Third Reading but probably fourth, fifth and sixth reading, given the many points that were made that did not appear to relate in any way to Clause 18. I shall be extremely brief in saying that it is correct that the Bill that now goes to the House of Commons is different because we have fully considered it and made changes, and we look forward to a serious and positive response from the other House.
I will make only one further point. If the Bill becomes an Act, I share the view of the Government on one important point; I hope that it will seriously improve the possibility of a better connection between the people and the European Union. That is the primary intention of the Bill and, however much it has changed, it is still very important that we should seek to achieve that.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I, too, add my warm thanks to the Ministers for the extremely gracious and thoughtful way in which they have responded to issues in this House. In particular, I thank the Minister for his willingness to spend some time meeting people personally to discuss their particular problems when he is an extremely busy man with a heavy ministerial list, as indeed is his colleague the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. I do not want to detain the House either, beyond thanking them very much and saying one other word following the noble Lord, Lord Williamson.
There are issues in the amendments that this House has passed which would improve the Bill very considerably. I hope that the Ministers will think quite carefully before trying to oppose them completely, because they would bring about a degree of consensus across the House that would be extremely valuable for our future relations with Europe, about which the Minister has already spoken eloquently. We welcome what he has said about that. I hope that the Government will take away from this at least a willingness to consider whether it might not improve the Bill to accept some of these amendments.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, we are on the edge, between being in order or out of order. Perhaps I might repeat my noble friend's request that the noble
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Lord Lea of Crondall: I thank the Minister for his reply. I will say for the record that I am taking it from what he has said that we will not have a blinkered or blindfolded ping-pong on the basis of asserting the primacy of the House of Commons. I hope not to be disabused of this but, reflecting on what the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, has just said, I hope that these things will be considered very carefully. We are a mature democracy and there is a lot of mature thinking in this House. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I hope that your Lordships noticed that my noble friends and I withdrew a number of amendments in Committee and forbore to table any on Report or, again, at Third Reading. We did this to reduce by several hours the inordinate time it was taking for this Bill to pass through your Lordships' House, and so, with the leave of the House, I shall speak very briefly now on the Motion that this Bill do now pass.
The first thing I want to do, and it is not much fun, is to recall what I said at the start of my Second Reading speech on 22 March and now to regret that noble Lords in receipt of a forfeitable EU pension, with one honourable exception in the shape of the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, did not declare that interest during our debates. As I said at Second Reading, it is not helpful to members of the public or those who read our debates if they are not told of noble Lords' past experience of the subject under debate or where those noble Lords are coming from. That omission skews the whole tone and understanding of our debates, quite apart from anything else.
Although I and those noble Lords who feel as I do on this subject have received no support on this matter from your Lordships' nomenklatura, in the shape of our Committee for Privileges, I am grateful for the public support which we have now received in the national press: from this country's leading and most amusing diarist, Mr Quentin Letts, on 26 March in the Daily Mailand from the political editor of the Mail on Sunday, Mr Simon Walters, on 19 June. For those who wish to go into the detail of this unfortunate situation, I again recommend my debate in your Lordships' House on 19 July 2007.
As we now look back over our debates and divisions on this Bill, the situation is even worse than a mere failure to declare such an obvious financial interest in debate. Three amendments were carried against this Bill-
Lord Dykes: In view of the importance of these matters, would the noble Lord also undertake to the House to work very hard indeed, since he is getting such support from the many owners of these newspapers, particularly the tabloids, who support his campaign against Europe, to ensure that they pay UK direct taxes as quickly as possible?
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: I am not sure that that intervention is entirely on target. I thought the noble Lord was going to berate us about the Murdoch press, and I do not think that the two newspapers to which I referred belong in the Murdoch stable. I am quite happy to collaborate with the noble Lord on that if he will collaborate with me on getting the BBC to fulfil its duty to explain to the British people how the European Union works.
I think I got as far as saying that three amendments were carried against this Bill which together emasculate it entirely and deny the British people any chance of a meaningful referendum on our relationship with the failing project of European integration, which they do not like.
The point I now want to make about those amendments is that they were largely proposed by noble Lords in receipt of a forfeitable EU pension, most of them undeclared, and they were all carried by the votes of noble Lords who did not declare their interest. I can but suggest that the Privileges Committee revisits this subject before the Bill returns from the Commons and does the obvious thing.
As the Bill now leaves us, there is one other regret that I would like to record. It is that the Government did not respond to a question about the background to this Bill which I put to them twice. The Government's excuse, no doubt in their mind when they designed the Bill, may be that the Bill should not have allowed us to discuss the EU's real defects: its common agricultural and fisheries policies, its wasteful and fraudulent use of vast sums of taxpayers' money and its entirely undemocratic and secret law-making process which now controls so much of our lives. The question I put was this: given that even our political class is beginning to see that the euro was and is designed for disaster-
Lord Richard: Is the noble Lord seriously suggesting that the usual channels have agreed that he should say what he has been saying about people in this House who are in receipt of pensions from Europe? Is he seriously suggesting that that has been agreed by the usual channels? If not, will he withdraw it?
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: If any noble Lord wishes to move that I be no longer heard, I am quite happy to debate that, but in the mean time, I believe I did clear this. It may be that they did not have a meeting. I think I am entirely in order to express regrets about this Bill as it passes towards the House of Commons and to say why.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch:My Lords, I started my intervention with the leave of the House. If the noble Lord wishes to remove the leave of the House, he is free to do so, and we can debate whether or not I should be heard. I appreciate that noble and Europhile Lords do not wish to hear what I am saying, but unless it is moved against me, I intend to continue saying what I am saying.
So, for the third time, I was hoping that the political class has come to realise what a disaster the euro is. Many of us predicted it. It is a disaster which is being visited on the hapless people of Europe, now particularly Greece, but soon on other countries too.
Why cannot the Government see that the whole project of European integration is equally misguided and dangerous? Surely they must admit that the euro was never an economic project; it was a purely political project that was designed as cement to hold the emerging megastate together. Surely they must admit that that cement is proving to be more explosive than adhesive, so-I have put this question twice to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, during our proceedings-why cannot they lift their eyes just a little further than the euro and see that the project of European integration is fatally flawed and should be abandoned, which would make this Bill irrelevant?
I was asking the Government why they cannot see that democracy is the only reliable guarantor of peace and long-term prosperity, and that the sooner we get back to a Europe of democratic nations, freely trading and collaborating together with all their powers returned to their national Parliaments, the better it will be for all the peoples of Europe and, indeed, of the rest of the world beyond. That is entirely in context with the passage of this Bill as it goes to the House of Commons, and as this is the third time I have asked the noble Lord, Lord Howell, the question, I would be grateful for his reply.
Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I am very strongly advised that the custom of this House is that "the Bill do now pass" is intended to be a formal stage. That is what the Companion clearly says, so while I am always tempted perhaps outside this Chamber to engage with the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, who has just put his grand case against not only the entire Bill but the entire policy and this country's commitment to be a positive force in Europe, as it has been for the past 1,000 years in many ways, and while I would love to explain to him that his view is defeatist and belongs to the past century and not the present one, I will resist doing so and instead repeat my grateful thanks for the kind compliments that have been paid by my noble friend and others.
Lord Clinton-Davis: Will the noble Lord, Lord Howell, join those of us who think that the contribution that has been made by those on all sides of the House, except the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, has been worth while? Will he also join me in resisting the animadversions that have been made about former commissioners, which are utterly untrue?
Finally, it is true, as the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, has observed, that your Lordships made some amendments to the Bill that we were unable to support from this side of the House. I have no doubt that the other place will consider those new provisions carefully, but overall the thrust, aims and intentions of this Bill are clear, despite some of the amendments that will obviously water it down. Our differences aside, your Lordships' House has engaged in its proper role of detailed scrutiny of this complex legislation and looked at this Bill with diligence. For that, I am grateful, and I repeat my proposal in the Motion that the Bill do now pass.
Lord Beecham: My Lords, this group of amendments concerns governance issues, the part of the Bill to which we now move. The amendments deal with some of the regulations which the Bill empowers the Secretary of State to make. I have a vision of a group of civil servants in the subterranean depths of Eland House employed full time in drafting regulations on all manner of things, many of which we will encounter as the Bill progresses through Committee. In the interests of health and safety, if nothing else, of those who are so engaged and of local government, I suggest that the Government look again at the degree to which they are seeking to regulate.
The amendments relate to Schedule 2, page 189, and seek to limit the degree to which regulation will take place other than at the request of local authorities. Amendment 34 suggests that regulations should be made only if asked for by authorities. Amendment 35 would limit significantly the arrangements that the Government seek to make under these proposals and would ensure that any such arrangements are consistent with the principles of localism and the representative democracy which featured so largely in the initial debate on the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I beg to move.
Lord True: My Lords, it might be helpful if I speak to my Amendment 37, which is in this group and relates to governance arrangements. I apologise for its rather dense language but it imitates the drafting style of the Bill and I was trying to be as accommodating as possible to the Government. The real issue here is about the relations between lower tier and higher tier authorities, and how we achieve localism where things are done to local people by higher tier authorities.
I have a very live example: before leaving for the House this morning, I received an extremely angry e-mail from a person in my ward asking, "Why on earth are you wasting my money moving bus stops on our high street?". The answer is that I am not doing that. I have had meetings with TfL asking it not to move bus stops. But it is all being done by a higher tier authority within a lower tier authority without any open consultation with the people affected.
There are many other examples of this kind of thing, and I am sure it does not only go on between London boroughs and regional government-it probably goes on between lower tier authorities and county councils and, in some cases, parish councils. Another example would be the one I cited at Second Reading where, after consultation with local people, we proposed revised parking standards in a neighbourhood. Without holding any public consultation, we received a letter from a higher authority saying that the arrangements were not satisfactory and did not accord with its standards, and we were asked to change them.
I do not wish to unpick the constitutional arrangements between lower and higher tier authorities in this country, but I do not think that the Bill is very localist when it comes to London boroughs. Indeed, it strikingly fails to be localist in that respect. What I am really asking for in the amendment, although I do not expect my noble friend to agree to it at first bite nor do I necessarily want to add to the huge bible of regulation that is emerging from this Bill, is recognition of the important principle here. If we believe in localism, at the very least it should be open to the lower tier authority to be able to say to the higher tier authority, "If you are considering planning changes which specifically affect an area", such as whether to have high-rise buildings in the centre of Twickenham, which happens to be a live issue in my authority, "meetings should be held by the higher tier authority to gauge the opinion of local people". It might even be that we could ask officers to come and hold public meetings, or indeed have the right to require that that should happen.
At the moment there is no formal ability for a lower tier authority to act on behalf of its local residents to do what we would regard as absolutely normal in terms of explaining to residents what is going on. It is absolutely inconceivable, if we were planning to change the alignment of a high street in a village or small town centre, that that would be done without prior and detailed public consultation with local people. The purpose of the amendment is to give a lower tier authority such as my own, a London borough, but also those outside London, the ability to propose or suggest arrangements to the higher tier authority to ensure that it conducts itself in a proper, localist fashion in respect of matters that affect local people. I urge my noble friend to reflect on the issue being raised here.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, I have one amendment in the group and I shall speak to the others. I start by saying that we support the amendments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham. They form part of a recurring theme in our discussions on this Bill, which is that while the Government's proposal is that localism should be more prevalent and that there should be more localism in authorities and among local people, it is being done within a highly prescribed framework and is subject to a large number of orders and regulations from the centre. In other words, it is top-down localism, not genuine localism. There is absolutely no reason at all why this amount of central control and prescription of local authorities should take place. It was not the case when I first became a councillor 40 years ago. We had nothing like this amount of central control when the new authorities were set up in 1973 and elected in 1974. It has crept in over the years from both Conservative and Labour Governments, and we are now getting more of it from the coalition.
There is an obsessive view, which I suspect comes mainly from civil servants at the centre in Whitehall, that local authorities cannot be trusted to get on and do things sensibly unless they are provided with thousands of pages of detailed rules telling them exactly how
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Surely now is the time, in a Bill called Localism, to call a halt to it. I have not counted the number of new rules and regulations that the Secretary of State may make. We are told that there are 142 sets of regulations and orders in the Bill, including statutory guidance and so on, that about half of them are new and that half simply restate existing provision. We ought not to be putting in most of the new regulations and we ought not to be restating the existing situation; we should be using this Bill to get rid of a large number of them. Some are necessary-nobody says that none is necessary-but the degree is ridiculous.
We agree with Amendments 34 and 35, and Amendment 36 is consequent in a strange sort of way on Amendment 34, so we are pleased to be helpful there. We agree with Amendment 38. In our view, the size of an executive in a council should be entirely up to the council, but if it has to be controlled, any changes made by order should apply only if the allowable size is increased and not reduced. The last time we discussed this, which I suspect was in 2007, under the relevant Bill of that year, we argued this case and met with resistance from the government Front Bench, which at that time was being manned by the Labour Party. Rules such as this are neither Labour, Conservative nor coalition; they are the rules of civil servants who want to keep their detailed central control over local authorities as far as they can possibly can.
I was very interested in the amendment spoken to be the noble Lord, Lord True. The problem that he indentified is widespread. The noble Lord talked about the situation in London, which I do not have direct experience of. I do have direct experience of the situation in Lancashire, which is typical of many two-tier shire counties. They are two-tier for very good reasons: county councils are much bigger and cover a much bigger area, and decisions are often taken a long way from where they are carried out. The degree of public information and consultation which takes place on all sorts of projects is far less than if it were being carried out by the district council. That is partly because decisions are often taken by officials or, if they are taken by councillors, it is not obvious to local people that they are being taken. There are many decisions. In my part of the country, Lancashire, most of the boroughs used to have substantial agency agreements with the county councils to do a lot of the highways work. Most of the local highways work was carried out by the districts. It was carried out in the normal way that district councils carry out their work. Open meetings are held; the local press attends them; they are reported in the local papers; and there are lots of councillors involved who tell people in their wards what is going on. That does not happen on county councils because of the much bigger scale of everything. I am not
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So things have changed. Lancashire County Council knew that there was a problem and two or three years ago set up what they called Lancashire Locals, which were regular monthly meetings in each borough in the county at which a whole range of county council issues were debated and considered. In some cases, such as traffic regulation orders, those Lancashire Local meetings took the decisions. They consisted of half the local county councillors in each borough and an equivalent number of borough councillors; it is a genuine joint committee. It had decision-making powers, and even on matters where it was not making the decisions, such as building new youth centres, the reports were presented, the local press turned up and a lot of members of the public took part. I pay tribute to the Labour county council, as it was at the time, for introducing that. Unfortunately, when the Conservatives took over Lancashire County Council last year, they closed down the Lancashire Locals and it is now very difficult, even for people like me as a borough councillor who wants to keep in touch with what is happening in my part of the area, to find out what is going on. You can find out, but you have to spend a lot of time trawling websites and obscure agendas and so on. It really is quite difficult.
I am not sure that the wording of Councillor True's amendment-I give him his higher title of the noble Lord, Lord True-is exactly the way to go but the spirit behind it we very strongly support. Amendment 37A, which is in my name, would give a local authority the power to choose whether, when it appoints its executive, it is done by an ex cathedra announcement by the leader of the council or whether, at the annual meeting of the council, it can do what councils have been doing for the past 10 years in most cases and decide itself who should be on the executive. There are arguments both ways. It should not be a matter for central prescription. Local authorities should simply be allowed to choose the way to do it. Having this variety will not cause the whole structure of local government to collapse. It would simply be one more relaxation of central legislative controls allowing local decisions to be made, which is surely what localism is all about.
Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, I have discussed with the Local Government Association and London Councils the central point which my noble friend Lord Greaves has referred to. This is a huge Bill and, as my noble friend has said, it is full of all sorts of prescriptive powers which tell local authorities what to do and how to behave.
I do not think that those who drew up most of the provisions of the Bill have taken on board what is meant by the general power of competence. We discussed
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I am not going to dwell on this subject-I certainly do not wish to take up a great deal of time-but I say to my noble friend that I find it disappointing that the opportunity has not been taken to accompany the general power of competence with a radical relook at how far central government has to prescribe so many detailed rules-either through taking powers by regulations or by spelling them out in the Bill-telling local authorities how to behave. In my discussions with, particularly, London Councils, it has simply said that it would be an entirely different kind of Bill if that were to happen. I have the greatest sympathy with its view that it is impossible to think how one might amend the Bill in order to achieve the inevitable consequence of giving local authorities a general power of competence. It is what the authorities have been clamouring for for a long time-and here it is. But what are the consequences? Whitehall is still going to tell them what to do and how to behave in very great detail. With all the additional regulations to which the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, and my noble friend Lord Greaves have referred, it will get ever more complex in giving directions.
It is very disappointing that we still have this mass of detailed, prescriptive legislation for local authorities which has entirely failed to take account of what is intended to be a genuine new start for them with a general power of competence. I do not think there is anything we can do about it in Parliament. We could say, "Take this Bill away, rewrite it and recognise the general power of competence", but that option is not open to this House when the Bill has already been through another place.
I hope the Government will recognise that there is a deep sense of dismay. The more one looks at the details in the Bill, the more one has to ask oneself the question: where is the general power of competence? What was the Bill supposed to achieve if it was not to achieve the aim of letting local authorities use their position, their power and their accountability to their own electorates to make their own decisions on a great many matters?
I recognise that there may be cases-my noble friend Lord True made this point-where there is a need to protect one tier against another and where there needs to be some kind of protection for council tax payers and so on. However, as I plough through the Bill, look at the amendments and have meetings with a number of representative bodies, I am dismayed by the thought that we have to deal with a local government Bill-although it is called the Localism Bill-which bears such a close resemblance to everything that Parliament has had to consider before.
Lord Tope: My Lords, I associate myself strongly with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. I know from conversations that Ministers are gaining some private amusement from the number of times that local authorities are asking them when guidance will be issued. They are saying that local authorities cannot get hold of the idea of localism-that they will be allowed to do what they want to do and guidance will not be issued. The reason for this is that local government has for years and years become increasingly used to detailed guidance and regulations being issued. It has come to expect it and at times to require it. It will take a little time to adjust to a change of culture-if, indeed, there is one.
When Ministers had the good, original idea for what we now call the Localism Bill, it received a wide general welcome in outline across the board before the Bill was published-I stress, before the Bill was published. The idea of a Bill on the concept of localism-whatever we mean exactly by that, and we have had that debate-which devolved more power and responsibility to local authorities and enabled them to act and do things in the way that best suited them and their local conditions was of course going to be recognised. However, I suspect that as work on the Bill went on in ever more detail the usual risk aversion came into play, and those drafting the Bill looked increasingly at the dreadful fears of "what if" and "supposing that" and came up with a Bill which, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, and others have eloquently said, does anything but set local government free. It both prescribes and allows the Secretary of State to prescribe in extraordinary detail many of the things that local government has grown used to expecting. If we are to break that kind of dependency culture, which much of local government now has, we need a different approach from that contained in or allowed by much of the Bill.
I should like to give the Government and the Minister an example. Norfolk County Council, which is the senior authority of my own district authority, tried to impose an incinerator in Norwich but found that it was unable to do so because of the unpopularity that this aroused and the fact that no one would sell it the land. Consequently it secretly bought a plot at Kings Lynn and said that it was going to stick an incinerator in there. My district council held a referendum which overwhelmingly rejected this suggestion. The local press has been continually complaining about it; there are meetings; there is massive objection to it. Despite this overwhelming unpopularity, Norfolk County Council is claiming to the Secretary of State that the proposition has universal local support.
I urge the Minister to consider the amendment of my noble friend Lord True because, plainly, there is often unhappiness-the example which I have given is not unique-about bullying by upper-tier authorities of lower-tier ones.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Hanham): My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have taken part in this quite long debate on the amendment, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, on introducing it succinctly.
The Bill seeks to remove the current prescriptive and overly burdensome rules and procedures for local authority governance arrangements. I am not sure that I am quite on line with my noble friends behind me because, for instance, the Bill allows councils greater freedom to determine their governance arrangements. We have been asked to allow a committee system ever since the previous legislation, when it was arbitrarily removed by the previous Government. We accept that local authorities, as practitioners, are experts in the field of governance, and that most proposals for additional governance models will come from them.
Amendment 34, on the Secretary of State's power in Schedule 2 to make regulations on this issue, fails to understand that ideas for new governance models may also come from other sources-from government, local government representatives or other bodies. There seems to be some sort of idea that everything has been forced on local authorities. We are not forcing them to do anything; they do not have to adopt the arrangements set out in these regulations for a committee system and can carry on as they are. These regulations-with the prospect of other, newer forms of governance; I cannot think what they are at the moment but there might be some-give them the opportunity to carry them out if they wish.
The restated conditions in Amendment 35 would do little if anything more than recast the existing provisions in the language of today, rather than the language of a decade ago. They are arguably less demanding, since the explicit requirement that the new arrangements must be an improvement on what is already there has been removed. However, it is hard to imagine prescribing a new arrangement unless it achieved something more than what was currently on offer. In short, I do not believe that these amendments would make a substantive difference in how the powers in this section might be operated.
Amendment 36 significantly weakens the conditions, apparently allowing new arrangements that did not provide for decision-taking in an efficient, transparent and accountable way. I am sure that no one would wish to see this. Certainly we do not.
Amendment 37, as the noble Lord, Lord True, said, is all about allowing a district council, for example, to make proposals for governance arrangements that would improve the accountability of the county council to the people of that district. I think that he also mentioned London boroughs as part of that. Effective collaboration between tiers, shared services and shared chief executives, which are coming about more and more, might all be effective ways of improving local governance. I am not certain that we need more central regulation to achieve this. I noted exactly what my noble friend Lord Howard said, that in his area that did not seem to operate. On the other hand, it is a mechanism that I would strongly recommend.
Amendment 37A would disempower local authority leaders by allowing authorities to resolve that the full council, rather than the leader, should appoint the members of the executive cabinet. I remember dealing with the previous local government legislation, where this was accepted as rather a good move, so I am not certain why we now want to get rid of it again.
Lord Greaves: I, too, remember the previous legislation, which brought in this new system. I do not know whether it was accepted as a good move, or by whom, but it was certainly not accepted as a good move by the Liberal Democrat Benches in this House, because we challenged it at the time. The point is that if it is such a good move, surely most authorities will continue to do it that way. But if we are talking about localism, why should they not have the choice?
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, we believe that the leader and cabinet model is a good one. We also believe that the leader should be able to select those whom he wishes to have with him. It is a very close relationship, and it is very important that it works well. We think it right for a leader to be able to appoint his own executive team.
Amendment 38 would prevent the maximum size of an executive being set at a figure lower than 10 members. I accept that current experience with 10 members is about right, but I would not accept that future circumstances will be such that, while it might be right to increase the maximum limit of the size of an executive, it might not be right to have a lower limit. I think that that is what the noble Lord's amendment suggests. Experience demonstrates that 10 is about the right number, and that a lower number may be too little and a higher number too much. Most of these cabinet systems are working quite well as they are. One might also point out that the more cabinet members you have, the more you have to pay. I hope that that resolves some of the questions.
Lord Beecham: I thank the Minister for her reply and thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for the support that he gave to some of the amendments. In relation to Amendment 37A, in practice there would be little advantage in going along that route. It would be a foolish leader who endeavoured to appoint an executive without the support of his colleagues. He would not last long in leadership, I suspect. In reality, I do not think that this particular provision is required.
On Amendment 38, however, the Minister rather skates over the implications of the Bill as it presently stands. I cannot see any reason why the determination of the size of the executive should not be entirely at the discretion of the local authority. At the very least, it would be wrong to leave the Secretary of State with power arbitrarily to reduce the size of the executive to, potentially, one or two members. Generally speaking, 10 is about the right figure; in the case of my own authority and that of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, the new administration has actually reduced the number of cabinet members, to use the phrase adopted, from
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The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, raised the question of principle, which it may be as well that we dispose of today. He asks very legitimately where the power of general competence is in all this. I had the pleasure of working with, or perhaps beneath, the noble Lord when he was Secretary of State for the Environment and chaired the Inner City Partnership committee in Newcastle. He was always clearly committed to local government. The problem is not so much around the concept of general competence as that the Bill, or much of it, rests on an assumption-certainly on the part of civil servants, and perhaps of Ministers of all Administrations-of general incompetence in local government and those who serve in it. I fear that that suspicion lies behind many of the manifold provisions in the Bill which purport to increase the degree of regulation that the Secretary of State can impose, if he sees fit. I hope that on reflection, as we go through the Bill, the Minister and her noble friends will think again about the degree to which they are taking upon themselves a burden that is effectively unnecessary. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
"(6A) A lower tier authority may propose to the Secretary of State that the Secretary of State make regulations prescribing arrangements specified in the proposal if the authority considers that, in addition to the conditions in subsection (5), the arrangements would lead to the increased local accountability of the higher tier authority to residents of the lower tier authority's area and improve the ability of local residents to influence or participate in decisions affecting their locality.
(6B) No proposal under subsection (6A) may involve the duplication or repeating of meetings, but may propose that the higher tier authority, or a body established by that authority, or its responsible officers should meet or publish details of its meetings relating to matters specifically affecting people within the lower authority's area within the lower tier authority's area."
Lord True: I would like to move the amendment. My point is twofold. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, others and I were grateful for the support that was given in the earlier discussion. I think that it underlined the point that decisions are not localist in the way that, in my submission, they should be. We need not have regulations of the kind that I am suggesting might be considered if the lower-tier authority were simply prepared to decide where a bus stop should be on its high street. If the Government wish in their reflections on the Bill to come forward with proposals to localise those decisions then, in the spirit of what my noble friend Lord Jenkin said, I would welcome that. Since I do not anticipate that, though, I am asking my noble friend to consider, before we get to Report, the relationship between the lower-tier and higher-tier authorities.
The problem with the Bill as it is now framed, as I read it, is that a local authority may make propositions to the Secretary of State about regulations prescribing arrangements concerning its own procedures but not regarding arrangements relating to another authority's procedures that affect activity in its own area. I may be wrong in reading the Bill in that way; if so, at this or a later stage my noble friend may be able to enlighten me. As I read it, though, this great Localism Bill, the principle of which we all support, does not give lower-tier authorities the opportunity to suggest that their own people be addressed in a more localist manner by higher authorities.
I regret if I have not been succinct in making this point, but I urge my noble friend and those advising her to consider it seriously. Our daily experience-my noble friends Lord Greaves and Lord Howard of Rising have given examples-show that these matters affect people in their daily lives. As our consideration of the Bill continues, I urge my noble friend to think further and to come back on this matter at a later stage.
Baroness Byford: My Lords, I think that the slight difficulty arose because the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, got up to speak before I had a chance to get in. I apologise for not speaking before he wound up on his amendment.
I come with no practical hands-on experience in local government but I want to reinforce the points that my noble friend is trying to make. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said that there was widespread frustration, as indeed there is, from parish level up to district level and beyond. I hope that the Bill will in some way resolve some of the difficulties that my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding spoke about. We have a great opportunity to try to simplify things and ensure that local communities can act in a manner that is in their own best interests. If we are promoting much more involvement of local communities through the big society, it seems a shame if the Bill is not going to ease some of the situations that different tiers currently find themselves in. I hope that my noble friend will have a chance to reflect on this. If the wording is not right-often it is not exactly what the Government of the day wish-it is the thrust of the amendment that is important. It is trying to ensure
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Lord Wade of Chorlton: My Lords, listening to this discussion, I am prompted to remind the House that in 1994 the then Conservative Government established an ad hoc Select Committee of the House of Lords to reveal the relationship between central and local government. I was privileged to be a member of that committee. We took a great deal of evidence at the time from local authorities, government officials and Ministers to review whether the top-down control of local government was in everyone's interests. The recommendations that we came up with looked closely at the establishment of the cabinet system and the establishment of mayors, and we looked at how local government should not necessarily be thought of, as it was then by central government, to be all the same.
We recommended in our report-it is a long time since I have looked at it-that we should see local government evolving as it was decided by the local community rather than by the centre. I remember that we were struck, when we took evidence from the principal secretaries of the departments, by the fact that they were anxious to see uniformity within local government and not to allow local people to establish different ways of governing as it suited them-indeed, they were anxious to prevent that. That applied to planning, development and local government's relationship with all sorts of services.
When I first saw the detail of the Localism Bill, I thought that it was another step forward in accepting the recommendations that we had made and that it gave an opportunity to local government to be different and respond to what local people needed rather than to what central government needed. However, I am rather concerned, from the way that this argument is going, that the views expressed in the Bill are not going to provide the freedom that we recommended way back in 1994. Many of those recommendations have now been accepted by central government, but I feel that this might be a step backwards rather than forwards.
Baroness Hanham: I think that I replied earlier because I had not realised that other people were going to take part in this. I hear what is being said by my noble friends Lord True, Lord Howard, Lord Jenkin and now Lord Wade. When we look at the measures in the Bill, I think that most of them will turn out to be liberating for local government. It gives them a general power of competence and greater flexibility in what they can do. On some of the areas that we are legislating about now, we think that it is appropriate that there should be some regulations about how things should be done.
I worry a bit about my noble friend Lord True's amendment. It asks the Secretary of State to prescribe a route along which the noble Lord and others have been telling us that we should not be going on any
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There are many changes taking place in the way in which local government is run. Many new arrangements are having to be made, as I said earlier, about management, about sharing chief executives across councils and districts and about sharing services, all of which ought to make it much easier for local government to avoid the elephant traps that my noble friend is talking about. In the light of the concern that there is, I will reflect on this issue before the next stage. I do not think that I would hold my breath that we will be able to accept my noble friend's amendments, but I certainly hear the sentiments that have been expressed in the House today.
Lord True: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for the final part of her response. I take some hope and encouragement from that. I hope that she will reflect on the matter; I certainly will. I had no expectation that my amendment was going to be a perfectly framed answer on this subject. However, I earnestly submit that there is a strong localist argument behind this point. I am content to withdraw my modest localising amendment if perhaps at a later stage the Government might return to me with the withdrawal of some of their rather immodest centralising proposals. I thank my noble friend for her response and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
"(1) A local authority that is operating executive arrangements, an executive of such an authority or a committee or specified member of such an executive may arrange for the discharge of any functions which, under executive arrangements, are the responsibility of the executive by an area committee of that authority.
(2) Arrangements for the discharge of executive functions to an area committee made under this section are without prejudice to any other allocation of functions to such an area committee that the local authority may make."
Lord Greaves: My Lords, Amendment 39 is the most important amendment in this group about area committees. It seeks to remove most of the central prescription about area committees and how they should work. I will also speak to Amendments 41 and 42 in my name, and comment on the two Labour amendments in the group when I respond.
"The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision for or in connection with enabling an executive of a local authority, or a committee or specified member of such an executive, to arrange for the discharge of any functions which, under executive arrangements, are the responsibility of the executive by an area committee of that authority.
(2) Regulations under this section may impose limitations or restrictions on the arrangements which may be made by virtue of the regulations (including limitations or restrictions on the functions which may be the subject of such arrangements)".
Why is this necessary? Why are local authorities thought to be so stupid that, even though they decide to set up area committees, of which I am a huge fan, they cannot be trusted to do it in a sensible way? Why can they not be trusted to take advantage of best practice in other places? Why can they not be trusted to listen to what people advise, wherever that advice comes from, and do what is most sensible in the circumstances? Why do they have to do it in the way laid down in detail in Whitehall?
I agreed entirely with the Minister when she said in her response to the first group that ideas come from sources other than local authorities. That is absolutely true. Ideas come from all over the place. Good ideas even come from national government and Whitehall. Local authorities can be expected to take account of those, to listen and do what is sensible. Back in 1974 when the new authorities were set up, it was generally thought that the way councils had operated before then was not very efficient and there needed to be changes. The Government set up a committee and the Baines report was produced as a result. It was almost universally accepted by local government throughout the country. It set up policy and resources committees, which were the big new idea of the time, with personnel and finance sub-committees and so on. The idea was that the operation of local authorities would be brought together in a more coherent, co-operative and corporate way, rather than each department of the authority operating in what people would nowadays call its own "silo". That still happens in some authorities, but it was an attempt to bring it together, just as the idea of executives was an attempt to bring it together.
However, that was not prescribed in regulations. It was published and we all had a copy of it; no doubt some noble Lords still have a copy languishing on their shelf. People adopted it because it was common sense. It was put forward in a sensible, practical way. It was a way forward. Most authorities did not need telling to do it, we just did it because it was sensible. In those days, central government and whichever department it was-the Department of the Environment, or whatever-people trusted local authorities to do sensible things on the basis of evidence published and provided, and to make modifications according to their local circumstances. Why can that not happen now simply in providing area committees?
My Amendments 41 and 42 actually contradict everything that I am saying. I tabled them merely to make a point; I would not wish to pursue them, because I am trying to be far too prescriptive. As a member of an area committee in Colne & District in Pendle, and the first chairman of that area committee when it was set up getting on for two decades ago-the best job I ever did in local government-my only point
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Finally, in responding to the first group, in saying that the Government held a view as to the best way forward for executive appointments, the Minister said that they believed it was the best thing to do. I believe all sorts of things. Members of this Committee will believe all sorts of things. The essential point about localism is that you can believe all sorts of things, but you do not impose your beliefs unless they are so fundamental that they have to be followed through. A lot of the things we are talking about now, including how area committees are set up, are not so fundamental that the Government should say that they believe something and everybody therefore has to do it. The Government ought to say "We recommend that this is the best way to do it, but do it how you think best in your area". I beg to move.
Lord Beecham: My Lords, I speak to Amendments 40 and 43 and, in doing so, endorse very much what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has said. This is another example of what Tony Blair might have described as "regulation, regulation, regulation". It is certainly well over the top. In particular, new Section 9EA(2) of the Local Government Act 2000, which he read out, is as classic a piece of Civil Service gobbledegook as I have seen for some time. I guess that, as I go through the Bill, there would be further examples.
Amendment 40 would delete that clause, and Amendment 43 would deal with the prescription as to the size to be covered by an area committee, limiting it to two-fifths. In principle, I would like to see that matter left entirely to the discretion of local authorities. However, if the Government were not disposed to take that view, my amendment would reduce the size of the committee to something which is less like half the total size of an authority and more like what most of us would regard as a manageable area in which it is possible to reflect the views of local communities and members. If the Government wish to have some guideline on this, I invite the Minister to opt for something lower than the proportion indicated in subsection (5) as it now stands.
Lord Tope: My Lords, briefly, I support my noble friend Lord Greaves. He certainly has more experience of rural areas than I do, but I speak from the perspective
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Each of those local committees has limited executive powers, which we hope will be extended further, and each operates in quite different ways, partly because of the councillors on them and the way in which they choose to react, and partly, and more particularly, because of the nature of the areas that they represent. All of the councillors for those areas are members of those local committees, to a varying extent, and the local residents in those areas come to those meetings certainly to a far greater extent than they attend meetings of our executive. They take part in those committees and, to varying extents, they feel that they are part of the deliberations.
As a council we have not felt it necessary to prescribe in great detail what each of those local committees shall, or shall not, do or how they will, or will not, behave. They behave sensibly, even the one run by the Conservatives behaves moderately sensibly. We demonstrate, in a very obvious way, the difference between a Conservative-run committee and a Liberal Democrat-run committee. That is what democracy is about; it is what we ought to be doing. As a council, we have not felt the need to prescribe it, nor have we ever thought that we should have prescribed it. I commend to the Government the fact that they too should trust local authorities in this case, as we trust local committees.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, I commend the reply of the Minister on this group of amendments. I advise her to use that exact wording for every group of amendments that we put forward throughout the rest of the Bill; however, I do not say that very optimistically. There are clearly some discussions to be had.
I would just like to respond to the amendments spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, and particularly to Amendment 43, which I disagree with fundamentally. In a sense, the amendment reflects the diversity and variety of local government and the representation of local government in your Lordships' House and in this Committee. It is a big-city view, a view of big authorities: in a big city, an area committee of 40 per cent would, in almost any conceivable situation, be ridiculous. However, that is not necessarily the case in smaller authorities.
Perhaps I can tell the Committee the position in my own authority in Pendle. We have five area committees and they range from 32 per cent-these figures are based on mid-year population estimates for 2008-down to 10.7 per cent. The 32 per cent is for the town of Nelson, which has an estimated population of 28,745,
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Lord Beecham: Does the noble Lord agree that the best course would be to dispense with the clause altogether and leave the matter entirely to the discretion of the local authority, which is my first preference?
Lord Greaves: The noble Lord knows that I agree with him on that. It should be left to the good sense of local authorities. It is difficult to see a situation in which you would want a system of area committees where one area committee was more than half, but there might be such circumstances. There might be a district authority with a large town that is surrounded by a constellation of smaller communities. That would be the sensible way to do it. I believe that if it is left to sensible local discretion, the areas will be based on the real communities that exist there in the best possible way they can be defined on a sensible working basis.
Lord Tope: My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 84DA in the same group, which stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Hamwee. My noble friend would certainly have wished to move this amendment but, unfortunately, she cannot be here. It is suggested to us by the Centre for Public Scrutiny, on whose advisory body she serves, and it follows a theme of today's discussion in Committee. The effect of Amendment 84DA is to remove the right of the Secretary of State to make detailed guidance on scrutiny issues. It would remove the statutory force from existing guidance that the department has produced but, of course, local authorities would still be able to use that existing guidance to get some idea of the legislative intent of Parliament.
The centre believes, and I certainly agree with it very strongly, that the maximum possible discretion should be given to local authorities about how they operate their scrutiny function, with primary legislation providing general enabling powers which are interpreted intelligently by councils, councillors and their officers. Scrutiny is a member-led function and, therefore, it
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Where a specific need for guidance is identified, advisory information can be developed by the sector which can incorporate the views of the Government but which would be prepared independently and based on the needs and interests of local authorities and their residents. The justification for omitting this paragraph on guidance is a combination of practical reasons and reasons of principle. I beg to move.
Lord True: My Lords, I do not wish to prolong proceedings, but I have not had an opportunity to say how much I agree with the general thrust of many of the things that are being said. It may be that, at a later stage, it will be possible, through Amendment 84DA, to leave out a "must" and put in a "may". Those who advise the Secretary of State, and who have the pleasure of writing all sorts of guidance for local authorities, could continue to do so and we could pay due respect to the importance of that guidance and to guidance that came from other sources. Then perhaps everyone would be delighted and a little localism might reign.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, we are back again to the same arguments that we had on the previous amendment on area committees. It relies on the regulations. I thank my noble friend Lord True for suggesting a way in which amendments might come. I think we need to look carefully at what has been said. Perhaps I need to review this before the next stage to see whether anything needs to be done about these provisions.
Lord Beecham: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that very helpful response. We are now into the realm of guidance. It seems to me that guidance is a more acceptable face of regulation-or its better looking twin, as it were-but there is a little bit too much of that as well in the Bill. Matters like this can perfectly sensibly be left to individual local authorities and the guidance that other bodies, such as the Local Government Association, would be prepared to offer. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response. As we go through the Bill, I think there will be many examples where all sides of the House would wish to see precisely that accommodating attitude reflected so that we do not end up on Report with many detailed amendments which should not be dividing us at all.
Lord Tope: My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for what I interpret as a very positive response. I am sure that we will discuss further how we can best approach this subject and I am sure that the Centre for Public Scrutiny would be pleased to engage in that. As I say, the theme that has run through our discussion today is the necessity to have more control and influence over what local authorities do and the extent to which they should be enabled to have the freedom that the Bill purports to give them. There is a distinction
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Lord Shipley: My Lords, this group of amendments relates to scrutiny. In my view, scrutiny is best achieved by a committee system. A committee system is better at delivering good decisions than a scrutiny system which scrutinises those decisions after they have been made. In other words, you scrutinise as you go.
This is a probing amendment. As we do not have a voting system for local government in England based on proportional representation, some councils can have very large majorities held by one party. This may not be reflected in the votes that were cast but is very often reflected in the number of seats that are won. Good scrutiny requires constant challenge. Scrutiny committees are proportional in their overall membership but it would be advantageous for them to be chaired by a member of the authority's largest opposition party.
Members of your Lordships' House are aware that I am a councillor in Newcastle upon Tyne. In 2004, when my party took control of Newcastle City Council, we altered the system to ensure that the Labour opposition chaired all our scrutiny committees. I am pleased to say that this year, when control of Newcastle reverted-temporarily, at least-to the Labour Party, chairmanship of the scrutiny committees passed to the Liberal Democrat opposition. Public scrutiny and public confidence in the system of local government would be improved if scrutiny committees were chaired by opposition councillors. That does not mean that a scrutiny committee has to be proportional in any regard other than the number of seats held by each party. However, public confidence in the system would be improved if the person constructing the agendas was an elected councillor of a party other than the one that was in control of the council. I beg to move.
Lord True: My Lords, I understand where the noble Lord is coming from but there are obvious difficulties with the amendment quite apart from whether or not it is tending towards prescription. For example, I recall a not very happy election in 1986 when I was one of three members of my party on our local authority-
Lord True: It may have been for others. I did not know that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, was there. In those circumstances, had there been a scrutiny system
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Lord Beecham: My Lords, I begin by paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, and his colleagues for changing the system that we operated in Newcastle when they took office in 2004. I will let the noble Lord and your Lordships into the secret that prior to that date I had tried to persuade my colleagues at least to emulate the system in another place of a balance of chairmanship of such committees, but with my usual lack of cogency I failed to persuade them at that time. However, they have now been converted by the noble Lord and his colleagues, so things move on.
I entirely accept what the noble Lord, Lord True, has said about the impracticality of the suggestion behind the amendment. I can give a better justification. The borough of Newham has 60 Labour members and no opposition members at all-or at least no overt opposition members-so clearly the amendment would not work there. The Labour Party advice about scrutiny committees is that the relevant duty should be shared. That is national Labour Party advice and I hope that the same is true of other political parties as well. It would make a great deal of sense.
If I differ from the noble Lord it is because, as has rather often been the case, he has tended to view scrutiny as something retrospective and as a case of holding an executive to account for decisions that it has made or is about to make. That is part of the job but it overlooks the forward programming of an authority and the development of policy. One of the great advantages of properly resourced scrutiny is that it allows members to develop policy free of the operation of the whip, which should not apply in scrutiny.
After 24 years chairing committees and leading a council, I was eventually voluntarily dispatched to my Siberian power station; that is, the arts and recreation committee in Newcastle. I found that being a back-bencher was very different from chairing a meeting. As the chairman of a meeting, you had an agenda and if you were any good at it you knew what you wanted, you
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The whole thing can be summarised for me by my moment of revelation, which came when, having missed a meeting, I went to a meeting of the arts and recreation committee-a very worthy committee with a big agenda -and I read in a minute that a member had raised the question of birds eating grass seed on the Leazes Park allotment. I thought, "Has it really come to this? This is not really an effective way of running things". I therefore support in principle the executive scrutiny split, provided that scrutiny is adequately resourced.
Subject to those reservations, I generally support scrutiny. I will refer briefly to Amendment 48 in this group relating to new Section 9FC and the guidance being proffered. New subsection (3) states that in exercising the power to refer matters to a scrutiny committee,
The notion that 20,000 councillors are going to consult the bible on scrutiny issued by Eland House before they are able to refer something is, frankly, ridiculous. I anticipate that the Minister will acknowledge that this could be excised from the Bill without damage. I invite her so to indicate.
Lord Tope: My Lords, I am sure that we will all forgive the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, for paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Shipley. It was a well deserved tribute. Perhaps I may also help him with the problem he enunciated about the London Borough of Newham. Of course, it would make it very much easier for Newham to implement my noble friend's proposals were we to have proportional representation in local government. For the past 25 years, the first past the post system in local government has very ill served the Conservative Party; it has, throughout pretty well all those 25 years, been most unjustly served by our current electoral system. None of that was what I intended to say. In fact, I rose to speak to Amendment 46 and 47 in this group. My noble friend Lord Greaves will speak to Amendments 49 and 49C.
Amendment 46 is self-explanatory. Its provisions recognise the reality of a situation that in many authorities it is not a single officer who alone has the scrutiny function. That person will inevitably, in most cases, need other officers in the discharge of those functions. That speaks for itself and my amendment is a better way to reflect reality in most authorities.
Amendment 47 is rather more serious. Its purpose, if we are to have this part of the Bill, is that the scrutiny provisions should apply also to district councils. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Greaves has far greater experience. I have no experience of district councils because I am in an inner London borough. I
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Lord Greaves: My Lords, I speak to Amendments 49 and 49C, and I support the comments of my noble friend Lord Tope about district councils. Whether the prescription on scrutiny should exist is a matter for discussion. If it should, then it should apply to district councils as well as to everyone else.
There is a view across parts of the legislation that was brought in 10 years ago that district councils' overview and scrutiny functions are in some way less important than those of bigger councils. However, for some of the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord True, talked about earlier, because district councils are smaller councils and there are more councillors per elector-often a lot more-scrutiny of local services generally, as well as of their own services, is something that they can do very well indeed.
What major national imperative is there that the Secretary of State should make an order excluding matters from discussion? The matters to be discussed are defined as "local government" matters. This exclusion allows the Secretary of State to produce a list of things that the Secretary of State says are not local government matters and, therefore, under this new section, cannot be referred to an overview and scrutiny committee by a member of the council. This is silly.
I do not know what other provision we are using to do it, or if we are just doing it, but my council has decided on and is getting on with scrutiny of part of the local health service within east Lancashire. It provides a vital service that is not provided by the local authority, although it has some limited influence and joint schemes. However, the local authority is performing some scrutiny. Clearly, it will have to do it with the co-operation of those parts of the health service that are being scrutinised, but that can take place. It may or may not be a local government matter. I do not know whether the Secretary of State wants to exclude it under this provision, but it is the sort of situation in which you should let the local authority get on and do what it wants to do in the interests of the people in the area.
I have never really understood local area agreements or got too involved in them, but my impression was that this Government were scaling back on the importance of such agreements and perhaps were looking to abolish them. Perhaps the Minister can tell me where we stand on that.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I shall start by saying that I recognise a lot of what I have heard from noble Lords regarding how councils operate. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, would make it compulsory for scrutiny committees to be chaired by the leader of the opposition party on a council. This amendment is unnecessary. I know of many councils that do precisely that, whereby a leader or senior member of the opposition party chairs review and scrutiny meetings. That is absolutely proper, but such a provision does not need to be couched in either guidance or legislation. As the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, pointed out, there may be some areas where there are no opposition members, but the amendment would make such a provision mandatory. There are some areas where all members are Conservatives and the issue is the same. I hope that from the tenor of the debate noble Lords will agree that such a provision is neither appropriate nor necessary, and that we should not return to it. The annual scrutiny survey, which, I must say, I did not know existed, shows an upward trend, with 42 per cent of authorities allocating scrutiny chairs to members outside the majority group. This idea is clearly taking off well enough, without any interference from Parliament.
Amendments 46 and 47 would change the arrangements on designated scrutiny officers, particularly to make it clear that a designated officer could lead other officers in the discharge of scrutiny functions, as well as requiring district councils in two-tier areas to designate a scrutiny officer. Again, the amendments proposed are not necessary. Of course, we envisage that scrutiny will involve a number of officers to support a scrutiny committee. That already happens, it is part and parcel of the way scrutiny committees are run, and indeed in some councils they are completely separate from the rest of the administration so that they are completely independent. It is unimaginable that one scrutiny officer could not appoint somebody to help him. It is certainly not necessary to make that mandatory because I am quite certain that in most local authorities that is precisely what happens. There is nothing to prevent a district council in a two-tier area designating a scrutiny officer but statute does not require this. Noble Lords have made the point that district councils perhaps do not have quite such onerous responsibilities as county councils and therefore it is not mandatory for them to have a designated officer, although of course if they choose to have one they can. That is perfectly in order.
Amendments 48 and 49 remove the requirement on members to have regard to the guidance and the regulation-making powers of the Secretary of State in relation to referral of matters to a scrutiny committee. These powers enable the Secretary of State to ensure that certain important safeguards are in place. Regulations made under the power that noble Lords are seeking to remove protect against vexatious or discriminatory
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We believe that the existing framework is working pretty well without removing the requirement for scrutiny committees to make reports and recommendations relating to partner authorities and local area agreements. Having said that, I have some sympathy with Amendment 49C, which is seeking to remove the link between local improvement targets and local area agreements-that might indeed become otiose. We are absolutely clear that where authorities operate executive governance arrangements, scrutiny arrangements must be in place. We recognise that scrutiny plays an important role in holding the executive to account and contributing to policy development in authorities. I certainly support what the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, says-that overview and scrutiny committees, like planning committees, should not be whipped. They are clearly committees where scrutiny and challenge should take place and that should not be done against a background of being told what to do.
Amendment 69 would make it mandatory for councils with committee systems to have an overview and scrutiny committee. That is not necessary. The committee system in itself should have a scrutiny role and always did in the past-that was one of the benefits of the committee system. Therefore, that amendment is not necessary.
Lord Beecham: I am grateful to the Minister for her response. In relation to Amendment 69, which I did not address before, scrutiny ought not to be just a matter of looking at the internal workings and policies of the council itself. It should be used, and in many cases is being used, as the noble Lord, Lord Tope, mentioned, to look beyond what other organisations are doing-or not doing, more to the point-in the locality beyond the statutory requirements, for example, that would apply to the health service for authorities with adult service responsibilities. The amendment does not quite address the issue in the terms that perhaps it should have done but I would welcome some encouragement from the Minister for authorities which do not necessarily have a scrutiny committee to use their own committee system for that purpose, and to encourage those to whom application is made for some explanation of what they are doing in a locality to respond as if this were a request from a scrutiny committee. It would be helpful if Ministers said something to support such activity on the part of councils, particularly district councils, which perhaps do not have a full-blown scrutiny process but which may seek to follow the example of other authorities which do have that process to explore the workings of organisations, be they public sector or private sector, and the impact they have on their community.
Baroness Hanham: There is quite a lot of common sense in what the noble Lord has said. I am not going to make any commitments but I would like to talk to the noble Lord before the next stage because I accept that things have changed a lot since the previous committee system was in place, not least partnership working and working across public bodies. It may be that as part of the committee system we at least ought to give tacit acknowledgement to the fact that there may be joint issues they need to discuss. I am not sure whether that needs to be a full scrutiny role or whether it should simply be that the local health authority, or whatever it is, turns up if invited by the committee. Perhaps the noble Lord and I could discuss that before the next stage.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, the Minister said that there might need to be some modification in relation to local improvement targets and local area agreements. Perhaps she could write and tell me exactly where we are with these now, what their status is and what the Government's intentions are.
Lord Shipley: My Lords, before I formally withdraw my amendment, I would like to make two brief points. First, I agree entirely with my noble friend Lord True that in scrutiny there has to be a clear role for back-benchers, particularly those of the controlling party, but there can of course be vice-chairs, and that system works well. Secondly, I hope that the Minister is right that legislation here is unnecessary and will simply bear in mind my amendment should it prove not to be the case. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Tope: My Lords, in moving Amendment 45A I will attempt to speak to the other 31 amendments in this group. I feel sure that your Lordships will be grateful if I do not list each of those 31 amendments to which I am speaking.
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