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The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, referred in particular to the position of parishes. There is clearly a need to consider the substantial workload generated by complaints within the very large number of parishes that we have. It is sometimes difficult for principal authorities to cope with the volume of issues that arise. I endorse his view that, where the principal authority is to remain responsible, some representation from parishes within that authority would be helpful. That is certainly the practice in Newcastle, as the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, will confirm. We do have parish members on the standards committee. I ought to say that, whatever happens in terms of the legislation, both political parties in Newcastle wish to continue with that committee, which is of course independently chaired. Incidentally, the independent members have written to say that they would very much wish to see an obligation on authorities to maintain those committees. However, I wonder whether it would be possible, in conjunction with the National Association of Local Councils, to which most, but not necessarily all, parish and town councils belong, to look at ways in which that burden might be moderated. For example, if the association in a county area were able to put together a panel drawn from
14 Sep 2011 : Column 840
There is also the fundamental issue of what the purpose of this whole procedure is. The Bill puts the situation as effectively criminality or nothing. If there is a criminal offence, as defined by the Bill, then something happens; nothing else comes within the purview of the legislation. The criminality is based, as we have already heard, on a fairly narrow definition of financial interests. That in one sense is too narrow. But in any event there are other issues which are perfectly legitimate issues for public concern-for example, members' relations with members of the public or staff, or the misuse of council property.
All these, I fear, occur and there needs to be a mechanism whereby complaints and issues of that kind can be dealt with and appropriate sanctions imposed. I concur that that would be better at a local than a national level. I hope, therefore, that we can carry forward those discussions. The noble Lord, Lord Filkin, is absolutely right: if you do not have sanctions, you do not have a mechanism that the public can have any confidence in. The Minister has indicated-I think to all and sundry-that the Government are prepared to move on these issues. That is extremely welcome, and I hope that we can have productive discussions that will lead to a more flexible and perhaps a more locally based system; but one in which the public in particular-whom it is there ultimately to serve-can have confidence. I very much welcome that change of mind and the positive attitude, which characterises Ministers in this House, at least in this department. I look forward very much to hearing the Minister's reply and his anticipated undertaking to take this away and consider it, so that we might have an opportunity to see the position satisfactorily resolved at Third Reading.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, it is certainly clear that these amendments cover an important aspect of local government governance, and I acknowledge the strength of feeling around the House. It has been a very informative and well informed debate, and I think it has added a very useful stimulus to the discussions which have been well trailed but which I hope will follow as a result of this debate. I have to say that there is considerable common ground between us: we all want a vibrant and the strongest possible local democracy and we all want the highest standards of conduct in local government. The issue-and this is what we are trying to grapple with-is how we achieve that. The abolition of the Standards Board regime is a coalition agreement commitment. Whatever the original intentions behind the establishment of the regime, it has become a heavy-handed and costly vehicle for dealing with complaints, which can, in some cases, be petty, malicious, vexatious or politically motivated. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Bichard, in his very able presentation of his amendments, agrees with this judgment. My noble friend Lord Tyler did so most powerfully.
At the same time, it is evident that many noble Lords have significant concerns that what the measures in the Bill put in its place are too localist and do not
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I think there is merit in some of the amendments that have been put forward. In particular, I am sympathetic to the proposal in Amendment 175 that there should be an obligation on local authorities to have a code of conduct, and that any such code should have some core mandatory elements to it. If the House is willing to give us space to consider this matter further, I am willing to take it away with a view to discussing it with noble Lords and seeing if we can come up with something suitable ahead of Third Reading.
At the same time, I am more sceptical about some of the other proposals that have been put forward. For instance, I would have concerns that, in making provision about an enforcement or appeals mechanism, we might in effect recreate much of the architecture of the standards regime. I think that is a concern shared by many noble Lords, judging from the contributions they have made. We could end up inadvertently modifying rather than abolishing the Standards Board regime.
I note also the concerns of noble Lords on the criminal sanctions. While we have some amendments to include in the Bill, which I will be moving, we accept that this can also be a matter for discussion and clarification.
We also need to look carefully at the points the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and my noble friend Lord Greaves have made about parish councils. It is vital we get a system that works not only for principal authorities but also for parish councils. My sense is that we need to discuss the shape of the regime first, then work through how we apply that to parishes. I would not want to prejudge those issues at this stage. However, it has been very useful to have the input on that matter here this evening.
Given all this, in light of this debate and my offer to look again at the way our localist view can be implemented, I propose that we should hold discussions off the Floor to see if we can find a way through ahead of Third Reading. If the House is willing to give us space for those discussions, I would like to invite all noble Lords who have led the debate today to meet my noble friend Lady Hanham and me between now and Third Reading to see if we can agree how we might strengthen this Bill. I hope noble Lords will take up that offer in the spirit in which it is intended, not force it to a vote today. There is much to discuss and I hope between us we can bring it to a satisfactory conclusion.
Lord Bichard: But this noble Lord did not move the amendment. However, I think the Minister was happy for me to interject at this point before he sat down, and my interjection was merely to say how grateful I was for the constructive nature of the response. It was as much of a surprise to me as it was to the noble Lord, Lord Newton, and others that this offer was made this evening, but we are very grateful to accept it and I too look forward to those discussions. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, that I would certainly enter those discussions saying, "Read my lips: no excessive bureaucracy and no Standards Board". Finally, I would just like to say to noble Lords who have spoken this evening and supported this amendment how grateful I am for that. I think it is, as the noble Lord, Lord Tope, has said, a really good example of the House at its best.
The Earl of Lytton: My Lords, it falls to me to wind up and I shall be extremely brief given the lateness of the hour. For my part, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken and I particularly pay tribute to the noble Lords, Lord Bichard and Lord Filkin, for the meticulous way in which they have looked at the Bill and the way they have been prepared to enter into dialogue with me. I feel certain this has borne good fruit. I feel very much like a minnow among giants beside those noble Lords who have spoken and have far greater knowledge than I have of local government, and I am grateful for their indulgence towards me-a mere Johnny-come-lately.
I thank the Minister for his willingness, and the willingness of his team, to discuss things. I am sure that it would be churlish not to take up his offer to look into this and to try to forge between us some workable solutions. I am mindful of the fact that various noble Lords have commented on the burdens that parish and town councils may place on standards committees of principal authorities. I take the point that was made in that regard by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, and we must work to ensure that unnecessary burdens are not being added to principal authorities in this respect.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, this group of government amendments is designed to formalise the arrangements for London. Amendments 171 and 172 take on board the representations that have been made to us by the mayor and the Assembly of the Greater London Authority, asking that the standards function be a joint function of the Assembly and mayor. I said in Committee that we would be open to considering that request as we could see the benefit of ensuring that the mayor and the Assembly were given equal roles and responsibility for promoting and maintaining high standards, rather than leaving that function to be discharged by the Assembly alone.
Amendments 176 and 189 allow the Assembly and mayor to delegate functions to a committee or a member of staff. This mirrors the powers that local authorities have to delegate the function to a committee or a member of staff. Amendment 173 defines Joint Committees and Amendment 170 is a technical amendment related to the definition. Amendments 245 to 247 are also technical amendments. I hope that these amendments meet with the approval of the House and I beg to move.
(a) a reference to a committee or sub-committee of a relevant authority is, where the relevant authority is the Greater London Authority, a reference to-
(i) a committee or sub-committee of the London Assembly, or
(ii) the standards committee, or a sub-committee of that committee, established under that section,
(b) a reference to a joint committee on which a relevant authority is represented is, where the relevant authority is the Greater London Authority, a reference to a joint committee on which the Authority, the London Assembly or the Mayor of London is represented,
(c) a reference to becoming a member of a relevant authority is, where the relevant authority is the Greater London Authority, a reference to becoming the Mayor of London or a member of the London Assembly, and
(d) a reference to a meeting of a relevant authority is, where the relevant authority is the Greater London Authority, a reference to a meeting of the London Assembly;
and in subsection (2)(b) the reference to representing the relevant authority is, where the relevant authority is the Greater London Authority, a reference to representing the Authority, the London Assembly or the Mayor of London."
176: Clause 17, page 23, line 33, leave out from "section" to end of line 34 and insert "(Delegation of functions by the Greater London Authority) (delegation of functions by the Greater London Authority)"
(a) no longer has the interest, or
(b) is (otherwise than transitorily on re-election or re-appointment) neither a member nor a co-opted member of the authority.
(4) In the case of a relevant authority that is a parish council, references in this Chapter to the authority's monitoring officer are to the monitoring officer of the parish council's principal authority.
(a) that a copy of the authority's register is available for inspection at a place in the authority's area at all reasonable hours, and
(b) that the register is published on the authority's website.
(a) secure that a copy of the parish council's register is available for inspection at a place in the principal authority's area at all reasonable hours,
(b) secure that the register is published on the principal authority's website, and
(c) provide the parish council with any data it needs to comply with subsection (7).
(a) in the case of a parish council for an area in a district that has a district council, that district council,
(b) in the case of a parish council for an area in a London borough, the council of that London borough, and
(c) in the case of a parish council for any other area, the county council for the county that includes that area.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, we have tabled this group of amendments following consideration of these clauses in the light of points raised in Committee. We have made amendments to the register of interests provisions in order to ensure that the best elements of the pre-Standards Board regime are incorporated into the new system that will replace it. We have taken the decision to focus on pecuniary interests for the new regime for the declaration and registering of interests. This ensures that real concerns about ensuring that councillors cannot use their position for financial advantage are addressed and we do not recreate the current system, where petty complaints are rife and councillors are hauled over the coals for inconsequential matters.
It is right that these provisions should be about dealing with situations where there is a serious risk of a member seeking personal gain or acting corruptly. In such cases, the criminal law should be engaged. We are therefore ensuring that a councillor can be fined up to £5,000 and disqualified from office for up to five years where such criminal activity is found.
We have also taken the opportunity to tighten up the wording in these provisions that was originally included to ensure that councillors who are simply forgetful in the registering of their interests are not criminalised. This clarification ensures that a failure to declare or register pecuniary interests, or a councillor voting on a matter where he or she has a pecuniary interest, will be a criminal offence only where the councillor does not have a reasonable excuse or where the councillor deliberately or recklessly provides information that he knows to be false or misleading. To improve transparency, and so that noble Lords can be clear about how we intend the system to work, we have also moved the detail of the interest requirements and criminal offences from secondary legislation to the Bill. Noble Lords will have noted my previous comments about these matters. With the prospect of our decisions ahead, I beg to move the amendment.
Lord Filkin: My Lords, I would prefer it slightly if these amendments were not moved formally so that they could be on the table as part of our discussions. Nevertheless, we understand that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, wishes to do so and to get them into the Bill, while recognising that all these things are issues that we may wish to discuss and explore further and, if we can reach agreement, come back to. Even if we cannot reach agreement, we may come back to them by the usual processes that we know of. Having said that, I do not intend to move against these amendments tonight. I shall use the opportunity, as part of the process of
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As has been said, the criminal offence is serious and the defects, as we see them, have been pointed out succinctly by the noble Lord, Lord Bichard. We could amplify those if necessary. It is unclear to us what sanctions are available beyond the criminal offence. If there is to be a code-we are now moving towards a consensus on that-there clearly have to be meaningful sanctions if it is to be effective. As drafted, the Bill seems vague about what councillors can do. Under the current system, they can suspend members for serious misbehaviour. The Bill currently simply says that councils may impose sanctions as they see fit. Does that mean that they can suspend members or even disqualify them, or can they merely censure them?
Previously, the Bill said that the Secretary of State would make regulations about available sanctions and would specifically exclude suspension and disqualification as options. That was extremely surprising for many of us. However, that regulation-making power has now disappeared from the Bill. Does that mean that the Government now think that suspension and disqualification can be imposed locally if a council chooses to do as it sees fit? When the Minister writes to me, will he explain what councils can and should do as proposed by the Bill in its current form, albeit informed by what he thinks in light of our debate? If a council can merely censure somebody for serious misconduct, clearly many of us would feel that that would not do. For example, putting persistent, excessive and improper pressure on officers behind the scenes to ensure that someone gets their own way occasionally occurs. Officers are there to have a degree of pressure put on them, as I know, having been one for many years. Clearly that is not caught at all by the new criminal sanction. Is there to be no sanction at all for that?
Without more ado, let me leave those questions about what the Government's position on the appropriate sanctions and the sanctions currently in the Bill has been and will be. Those of us who have studied the Bill are completely at a loss to understand the current position. We have views on what it should be but let us start from what the current position is. We can then discuss what it should be.
Lord Newton of Braintree: My Lords, I intervene briefly in support of and in the same spirit as the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, with whom I have worked closely on this. I, too, have some reservations. I just want to put them on the table-not for an answer now and not to pre-empt discussions, but because it is probably helpful to the Minister if I do so.
My perception is that all of this talk about criminal sanctions is over the top. It was intended as a fig leaf when there was a void in the standards and code regime. I cannot understand why we should have a criminal offence in this particular area when I believe that none exists in respect of either MPs or Peers.
There are farcical elements to the amendments now before us. For example, in one of these amendments it states that people who have a defined pecuniary interest cannot speak or vote or take any part in proceedings unless they have a dispensation. Such dispensation can be granted under Amendment 184 if it is thought that so many people will be prohibited that it would impede the transaction of the business, or that it would upset the representation of different political groups in a way that would affect the outcome, or that it would be in the interests of persons living the area to grant such a dispensation. That borders on farce. It means, particularly in respect to the first and second points, that in a literally hung council-such as a council of 60 with 30 of one opinion and 30 of the other-nobody could be not-dispensed because it would clearly affect the outcome.
The Earl of Lytton: Following on from the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, and from what has just been said, there is one other point that I should like to flag up for the Minister. I refer to subsection (3) of Amendment 181 regarding the nature of disclosable pecuniary interests. This deals with elected or co-opted members of councils and it concerns an interest of that councillor, or an interest of their spouse or civil partner, or a person who is living with them as husband or wife, or a person with whom that councillor is living as though they were civil partners where they are aware that the person has an interest. I do not believe that subsection goes far enough. The point has been made to me-I am sure that the Minister will be aware of this issue-about the son-in-law's development project or the sister-in-law's application to the council. The objective test of external public scrutiny is what we have to meet here. I think that this really does need to be tightened up.
Lord Beecham: My Lords, I am fascinated by the notion of a literally hung council. I am not sure that I would wish to be a member of such a body-presumably it would be a very short life. That apart, I endorse the views of the noble Lords, Lord Filkin and Lord Newton, and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. There is something to be discussed here. It requires a little more care and, perhaps, a little more legal input into definitions and processes. That said, the noble Lord has assured us that those discussions will take place and that we may be able to revisit, if necessary, at Third Reading. On that basis I am happy to accept that position.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, it has been useful to have this discussion. One of the ways forward for the discussions that we may well have between now and Third Reading is the provision of government position papers describing the factual information that noble Lords are seeking. The noble Lord, Lord Filkin, kindly let me off responsibility for replying in detail on the hoof this evening. Indeed, it would be far better to be able to put these matters to noble Lords at a point where we could commence our decisions. I hope that noble Lords will agree with that procedure.
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(1) A member or co-opted member of a relevant authority must, before the end of 28 days beginning with the day on which the person becomes a member or co-opted member of the authority, notify the authority's monitoring officer of any disclosable pecuniary interests which the person has at the time when the notification is given.
(2) Where a person becomes a member or co-opted member of a relevant authority as a result of re-election or re-appointment, subsection (1) applies only as regards disclosable pecuniary interests not entered in the authority's register when the notification is given.
(3) For the purposes of this Chapter, a pecuniary interest is a "disclosable pecuniary interest" in relation to a person ("M") if it is of a description specified in regulations made by the Secretary of State and either-
(a) it is an interest of M's, or
(b) it is an interest of-
(i) M's spouse or civil partner,
(ii) a person with whom M is living as husband and wife, or
(iii) a person with whom M is living as if they were civil partners,
and M is aware that that other person has the interest.
(4) Where a member or co-opted member of a relevant authority gives a notification for the purposes of subsection (1), the authority's monitoring officer is to cause the interests notified to be entered in the authority's register (whether or not they are disclosable pecuniary interests)."
(a) is present at a meeting of the authority or of any committee, sub-committee, joint committee or joint sub-committee of the authority,
(b) has a disclosable pecuniary interest in any matter to be considered, or being considered, at the meeting, and
(c) is aware that the condition in paragraph (b) is met.
(3) If the interest is not entered in the authority's register and is not the subject of a pending notification, the member or co-opted member must notify the authority's monitoring officer of the interest before the end of 28 days beginning with the date of the disclosure.
(a) participate, or participate further, in any discussion of the matter at the meeting, or
(b) participate in any vote, or further vote, taken on the matter at the meeting,
but this is subject to section (Dispensations from section (Pecuniary interests in matters considered at meetings or by a single member)(4)).
(5) In the case of a relevant authority to which Part 1A of the Local Government Act 2000 applies and which is operating executive arrangements, the reference in subsection (1)(a)
14 Sep 2011 : Column 849
(a) a function of a relevant authority may be discharged by a member of the authority acting alone,
(b) the member has a disclosable pecuniary interest in any matter to be dealt with, or being dealt with, by the member in the course of discharging that function, and
(c) the member is aware that the condition in paragraph (b) is met.
(7) If the interest is not entered in the authority's register and is not the subject of a pending notification, the member must notify the authority's monitoring officer of the interest before the end of 28 days beginning with the date when the member becomes aware that the condition in subsection (6)(b) is met in relation to the matter.
(9) Where a member or co-opted member of a relevant authority gives a notification for the purposes of subsection (3) or (7), the authority's monitoring officer is to cause the interest notified to be entered in the authority's register (whether or not it is a disclosable pecuniary interest).
(10) Standing orders of a relevant authority may provide for the exclusion of a member or co-opted member of the authority from a meeting while any discussion or vote takes place in which, as a result of the operation of subsection (4), the member or co-opted member may not participate.
(a) under this section or section (Disclosure of pecuniary interests on taking office), the interest has been notified to a relevant authority's monitoring officer, but
(b) has not been entered in the authority's register in consequence of that notification."
(a) a member or co-opted member of a relevant authority has an interest (whether or not a disclosable pecuniary interest), and
(b) the nature of the interest is such that the member or co-opted member, and the authority's monitoring officer, consider that disclosure of the details of the interest could lead to the member or co-opted member, or a person connected with the member or co-opted member, being subject to violence or intimidation.
(2) If the interest is entered in the authority's register, copies of the register that are made available for inspection, and any published version of the register, must not include details of the interest (but may state that the member or co-opted member has an interest the details of which are withheld under this subsection).
(3) If section (Pecuniary interests in matters considered at meetings or by a single member)(2) applies in relation to the interest, that provision is to be read as requiring the member or co-opted member to disclose not the interest but merely the fact that the member or co-opted member has a disclosable pecuniary interest in the matter concerned."
(1) A relevant authority may, on a written request made to the proper officer of the authority by a member or co-opted member of the authority, grant a dispensation relieving the member or co-opted member from either or both of the restrictions in section (Pecuniary interests in matters considered at meetings or by a single member)(4) in cases described in the dispensation.
(a) considers that without the dispensation the number of persons prohibited by section (Pecuniary interests in matters considered at meetings or by a single member)(4) from participating in any particular business would be so great a proportion of the body transacting the business as to impede the transaction of the business,
(b) considers that without the dispensation the representation of different political groups on the body transacting any particular business would be so upset as to alter the likely outcome of any vote relating to the business,
(c) considers that granting the dispensation is in the interests of persons living in the authority's area,
(d) if it is an authority to which Part 1A of the Local Government Act 2000 applies and is operating executive arrangements, considers that without the dispensation each member of the authority's executive would be prohibited by section (Pecuniary interests in matters considered at meetings or by a single member)(4) from participating in any particular business to be transacted by the authority's executive, or
(e) considers that it is otherwise appropriate to grant a dispensation.
(4) Section (Pecuniary interests in matters considered at meetings or by single member)(4) does not apply in relation to anything done for the purpose of deciding whether to grant a dispensation under this section."
(a) fails to comply with an obligation imposed on the person by section (Disclosure of pecuniary interests on taking office)(1) or (Pecuniary interests in matters considered at meetings or by a single member)(2), (3) or (7),
(b) participates in any discussion or vote in contravention of section (Pecuniary interests in matters considered at meetings or by a single member)(4), or
(c) takes any steps in contravention of section (Pecuniary interests in matters considered at meetings or by a single member)(8).
(1A) A person commits an offence if under section (Disclosure of pecuniary interests on taking office)(1) or (Pecuniary interests in matters considered at meetings or by a single member)(2), (3) or (7) the person provides information that is false or misleading and the person-
(a) knows that the information is false or misleading, or
(b) is reckless as to whether the information is true and not misleading."
186: Clause 19, page 24, line 35, leave out from beginning to "by" and insert "A court dealing with a person for an offence under this section may (in addition to any other power exercisable in the person's case)"
(a) after "2000" insert "or section 19 of the Localism Act 2011 or", and
(b) after "decision" insert "or order".
"(ia) under section 19 of the Localism Act 2011,".
(a) before "or by virtue of" insert "or section 19 of the Localism Act 2011", and
(b) after "that Act" insert "of 1998 or that section"."
(a) a member of staff of the Greater London Authority, or
(b) a committee appointed in accordance with provision made by virtue of this section.
(3) Standing orders of the Greater London Authority may make provision for the appointment of a committee ("the standards committee") to exercise functions conferred on the Mayor of London and the London Assembly by or under this Chapter in accordance with arrangements under subsection (1).
(a) provision for the standards committee to arrange for the discharge of its functions by a sub-committee of that committee;
(b) provision about the membership and procedure of such a sub-committee.
(a) is not to be treated as a committee or (as the case may be) sub-committee of the London Assembly for the purposes of the Greater London Authority Act 1999, but
(b) is a committee or (as the case may be) sub-committee of the Greater London Authority for the purposes of Part 3 of the Local Government Act 1974 (investigations by Commission for Local Administration in England).
(7) Sections 6(3)(a) (failure to attend meetings) and 73(6) (functions of monitoring officer) of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 apply to the standards committee or any sub-committee of that committee as they apply to a committee of the London Assembly or any sub-committee of such a committee.
(a) it were a committee or (as the case may be) a sub-committee of a principal council within the meaning of that Part, and
(b) the Greater London Authority were a principal council in relation to that committee or sub-committee.
(a) a member of staff of the Greater London Authority, or
(b) the standards committee,
do not prevent the Mayor of London and the London Assembly from exercising those functions.
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