HC Deb 04 July 2000 vol 353 cc236-40 '.—(1) No later than the commencement of the meeting of any overview or scrutiny committee, the leader of each political group with at least one member on the committee shall inform the Head of the Paid Service in writing whether or not any matter on the agenda has been the subject of prior discussion at any meeting of the relevant group or of part of it and of whether or not the judgment of any relevant member is likely to be constrained by the rules of the relevant group or political party. (2) The terms "political group" and "leader" shall have the same meaning as in sections 15 and 16 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 and in regulations made under Schedule I to that Act. (3) In the discharge of his duties each member of an overview or scrutiny committee of a local authority shall act independently of any party political interest.'.—[Mr. Waterson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Waterson

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 61, in clause 20, page 14, leave out lines 17 and 18 and insert— 'arrangements for the overview and scrutiny of the executive (such arrangements referred to in this Part as overview and scrutiny arrangements).' No. 62, in page 14, line 18, at end insert— '(1A) Overview and scrutiny arrangements may provide for the discharge of functions and the exercise of powers by—

  1. (a) a committee,
  2. (b) a sub-committee,
  3. (c) a member, or
  4. (d) an officer
of the authority (in this Part referred to as overview and scrutiny bodies).'. No. 66, in page 14, leave out lines 20 and 21 and insert— 'arrangements make provision so that the powers of overview and scrutiny bodies include powers, between them'. No. 63, in page 14, line 36, at end insert— '(f) to require that the implementation of any such decision as is referred to in paragraph (a) or (b) of this subsection is deferred until a decision has been made whether or not to exercise the power conferred by subsection (3).'. No. 67, in page 14, line 37, leave out "committee" and insert "body".

No. 64, in page 14, line 43, at end insert— '( ) Unless the matter is certified by the authority's monitoring officer to be urgent, no decision by an executive, a member of an executive or a committee of an executive, under its executive arrangements, shall be implemented within less than five working days after the decision is published.'. No. 68, in page 14, line 44, leave out subsection (4).

No. 69, in page 14, line 45, leave out "may not discharge any" and insert— 'may by resolution of the authority discharge'. No. 70, in page 15, line 6, leave out— 'committee of a local authority' and insert— 'body of a local authority which is a committee of the authority'. No. 71, in page 15, line 9, at end insert— 'or by a single member or officer of the authority.'. No. 72, in page 15, line 15, leave out "committee of the authority" and insert— 'body of the authority which is a committee of the authority'. No. 65, in page 15, line 22, at end insert— '( ) Where a member of a relevant overview and scrutiny committee finds that a decision by or on behalf of the executive ought to be subject to immediate review he may, with the agreement of two members of the relevant overview or scrutiny committee, cause the decision to be delayed until that overview and scrutiny committee has considered the matter.'. No. 73, in page 15, line 23, leave out subsection (9) and insert— '(9) Overview and scrutiny arrangements shall include provision ensuring that members of the local authority's executive do not discharge any functions or exercise any powers under those arrangements.'. No. 74, in page 15, line 26, leave out— 'committee of a local authority' and insert— 'body of a local authority which is a committee of the authority.'. No. 75, in page 15, line 32, leave out "committee of the authority" and insert— 'body of a local authority which is a committee of the authority'. No. 76, in page 15, line 44, leave out "committee" and insert "body".

No. 77, in page 15, line 47, after "before", insert "him, her or".

No. 78, in page 16, line 1, at beginning insert— '(in the case of a committee)'. No. 79, in page 16, line 3, at end insert— '(15) The authority shall appoint officers to assist the overview and scrutiny committee in discharging their functions, and such officers may not also report to the executive.'.

Mr. Waterson

I shall not read out the amendments in this group. If I did, I would run out of time entirely—[Interruption.] I am glad that the Government Whip finds it all so funny—but, then, I suppose that it is quite funny when one is at the steering wheel of such a programme motion.

One of the curious, almost theological issues that the Committee examined was whether there is whipping in scrutiny committees. We had a fascinating debate on that subject, in which the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes), assured us that the Labour party national executive had issued a decree that whipping should not occur in scrutiny committees. So, that is all right then. However, sometimes, what the Labour party national executive decrees and what happens in the real world are as different as day and night.

The purpose of new clause 10 is to make it absolutely clear that, as subsection (3) provides, those who serve on scrutiny committees should behave in a wholly non-partisan fashion, and that, if there has been prior discussion in a group meeting or some type of whipping, it should be notified to the local authority's head of the paid service in advance of the relevant meeting.

If Ministers are so confident that Millbank's writ runs throughout Labour-controlled local government, there could be no harm at all in including that provision in the Bill. Of course, the only reason why Ministers might be reluctant to accept new clause 10 is that they have a sneaking suspicion that such practices are indeed going on in Labour-controlled local government.

The most debated example that has come to light so far—it is in the nature of these things that they rarely come into the public domain—is that of our old friends at the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, which, as I said in Committee, seems to have fallen into every elephant trap conceivable in this legislation. That borough is one of the great pioneers of the modernised local government system.

The Hammersmith and Fulham cabinet decided to introduce charges for home helps. However, three Labour councillors took the view that that was not a good idea and, in a scrutiny Committee, voted against it. By way of background, it is worth remembering—I think that my arithmetic is right, but the figure may have increased since I last checked—that, in its brief life, the Hammersmith and Fulham cabinet has made 607 decisions, only one of which has been overturned as part of the scrutiny process. The process is, therefore, not really biting in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.

As the Fulham & Hammersmith Chronicle reported, the three hapless Labour councillors were banned from speaking to the press while they face disciplinary action after voting against the proposal to charge elderly and vulnerable people for home help services… A Labour spokesman said no decision had been made yet but disciplinary action could include the withdrawal of the whip. That sounds suspiciously like whipping to me.

Coincidentally, on that same day, as reported in the local government press, the Minister for Local Government and the Regions, in a debate on this Bill, told the House: We, as a party, have already made it absolutely clear that no whip will be allowed on scrutiny committees. However, Mayor Andrew Slaughter—who draws a substantial salary for being the so-called executive mayor in Hammersmith and Fulham, but who has managed to retain his day job—was reported as insisting that councillors could be whipped without the scrutiny process being undermined. He said: It's only reasonable that the party expects adherence to policies agreed at group meetings. It would be fascinating to hear what the Minister has to say about Councillor Slaughter's interpretation of the Bill.

8 pm

Amendments No. 61 and 62 deal with scrutiny. We believe that there need not be a split between cabinet or executive committees and scrutiny committees. In Committee, we had a long and constructive debate on the experience of Wiltshire county council under Councillor Peter Chalke. There, the best of the committee system has been retained, even though there are completely independent scrutiny committees. So impressed was the Minister by what is happening in Wiltshire that she dispatched officials there the other day to find out how it works. I hope that she tells the House the results of that visit. It would be interesting to see whether the Wiltshire approach could be a fourth or even a fifth option in this regard.

Amendments Nos. 63, 64, 68 and 65 deal with deferring decisions, delays in implementation, attempts to restrict the function of the scrutiny committee and immediate review. They are designed to improve the scrutiny process, if that is the road down which we are going.

Amendment No. 79 touches on an important issue that deserves a whole debate in itself—the role of officers. The second consultative draft of the proposed guidance published by the Government stated: Where the same officers are supporting both the executive and overview and scrutiny committees, there is the potential for conflict—overview and scrutiny committees will be questioning the executive's decisions which should be based on officer advice. It is clear that the guidance recognises that there is some need to protect officers whom the new system might place in an invidious position.

We believe that it is artificial to rely on the scrutiny system as the answer to everything. Nowhere is it more artificial than in Hammersmith and Fulham, where scrutiny committees are clearly being whipped on a regular basis. Elsewhere, Newham has 59 Labour members. The one other member is an independent Labour member. How on earth can there be independent scrutiny by other political councillors if there are no members from other parties?

Those are important questions, to which there were few answers in Committee. I hope that our luck is better this evening.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

As the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) explained, new clause 10 would place a duty on the leader of each political group to disclose whether any matter on the agenda had been subject to prior discussion by that group. It is an admirable proposal, and a worthy attempt to prevent the whipping of members, but I suspect that it is unworkable. Whether or not the new clause is accepted, the system will probably encourage group members who want promotion to the executive not to rock the boat. That is the fundamental flaw in the split between executive and scrutiny committees, as it sets up two classes of councillor.

The other amendments in the group would water down the Government's explicit split between executive and scrutiny committees, and give councillors more flexibility over the arrangements. That would destroy what the Government are intending to do, but we have some sympathy for making the arrangements more flexible.

The really important amendment is No. 79, which the hon. Member for Eastbourne said deserved a debate in its own right. It would require separate officers to serve the executive and scrutiny committees. Clearly, if scrutiny is to work, that is a good idea, but there is a resource implication. The amendments do not cover the question of whether the paid head of service should line-manage the officers of both committees—

It being three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the programme motion, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER, pursuant to Order [this day], put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair.

Question negatived.

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour.