HL Deb 30 March 2001 vol 624 cc568-75

1.9 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 15th March be approved [11th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the draft regulations, which set out alternative arrangements, put in place the "fourth option" of a streamlined committee system with overview and scrutiny for district councils in two-tier areas with a population below 85,000. They fulfil the commitments made by the Government in accepting the amendments proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, to last year's Local Government Bill.

The Local Government Act 2000 also provides for councils which wish to implement a form of executive arrangement that requires a referendum—that is, for a mayor and cabinet or mayor and council manager—to draw up proposals for fall-back arrangements to be implemented, should the local electorate vote "no" in that referendum. The alternative arrangements are one of two options that currently we intend will be available to councils in such circumstances.

I also want to place on the record that I am satisfied that these regulations comply with the Human Rights Act 1998.

Your Lordships will recall that during debates on the Local Government Bill we made clear our belief that executive arrangements provide the best new form of governance to replace the traditional committee system. Nevertheless, we recognised the views expressed from the Liberal Democrat Benches and accepted the need for an alternative system for small shire districts of a streamlined committee structure with overview and scrutiny.

These regulations make available that streamlined committee system. They provide for a stronger role for the full council, setting the authority's budget and providing the policy framework within which the committee system will operate. Together with the guidance, they provide for fewer and smaller policy committees. Most importantly, they require each council which operates alternative arrangements to put in place robust arrangements for overview and scrutiny.

The traditional committee system has served local government well but it is now creaking at the seams. It is essential that councils adopt a more streamlined form of decision-making. The statutory limit on the number of councillors who can sit on committees, coupled with statutory guidance recommending that there should be no more than five policy committees, achieves that aim, while giving councils flexibility to meet local circumstances.

Having listened to representations made by the LGA and others, we have decided not to include regulatory committees in the description of committees to which the limitations apply. The regulations and guidance make specific exceptions for committees discharging quasi-judicial functions which, under executive arrangements, would not be the responsibility of the executive.

Regulations 7 to 17 deal with the overview and scrutiny of education where it is the responsibility of the authority concerned. They reflect the importance which the Government attach to providing a voice for Church and parent-governor representatives in decision-making at school and local authority level.

The regulations provide for the appointment of Church representatives to overview and scrutiny committees whose remits include education. Representatives of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church are granted that right directly. Representatives of other faiths and denominations may be granted such rights on an authority-by-authority basis by direction from the Secretary of State. They also provide for at least two, but not more than five, parent-governor representatives on such overview and scrutiny committees.

The regulations will, subject to parliamentary approval, form an integral part of the Government's modernisation agenda for local government and will allow councils to continue to progress their implementation of new constitutions. I commend them to the committee. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing these regulations. I am aware that representations were made in relation to the earlier draft, and I am glad that the Government were able to respond to them. While I thank the Minister and note the actions that the Government have taken in response to the points on which we bargained in a fairly hard-nosed fashion last summer, she will understand that, nevertheless, we wish that there were further discretion, and not only in relation to small authorities. We are dealing today with regulations for small authorities, and on these Benches we wish that the population limit had been increased to a higher number. I make those points for the record because I know that some people who read this may be new readers. Of course, the story does not start here.

The Minister will be glad to know that I do not want to raise as many points as I did in relation to the previous order, although I believe that my noble friend may have some searching questions. With regard to the detail of the regulations, I have heard that, although approximately half of the smaller councils, as defined, are likely to wish to use the fourth option—at any rate, they may not wish to use options 1 to 3—other small councils are wary of them—this is my point for the Minister—because they believe that they will be punished by the Government if they do so. I hope that she will take the opportunity today to put on the record that that is not in the Government's mind.

The first draft of this order caused much anxiety as to whether it would create an unworkable bureaucracy and whether the streamlining proposed by the Government was such that it would become impossible. I am glad to see that the committees, limited to five in number, now exclude regulatory committees. I believe that area and joint committees are also excluded. I do not believe the noble Baroness mentioned those. I am still not convinced that the limit is either needed or appropriate. However, I wonder whether the noble Baroness can confirm that it will be possible to exceed five because, as I read it, the limit is set out in the guidance and not in the order. Perhaps she will confirm the position.

I believe that while the number is probably acceptable for small authorities, which have fewer functions, there could be a considerable problem in relation to all-purpose authorities, for which these will be the fallback arrangements in the events that we have just discussed.

That leads me to a question which the Minister will probably not want to enter into today but which I shall again put on the record. Why is this fourth option acceptable for fallback arrangements for all authorities but not an option on which they can consult in the first place? I wonder also why the limits on membership of committees have been set at 15 and 10. In addition, what are the criteria for the plans and strategies listed in Schedule 4 to which Section 101 of the 1972 Act is not to apply; in other words, the plans and strategies which must remain matters for the full council? We on these Benches do not intend to hold up these regulations. Authorities are required to submit proposals for new constitutions by the end of June, and we are already very close to the wire. Therefore, we support their passage. We have doubts about the underlying guidance, but that of course is more easily reviewed and revised.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness for the very kind words that she said to me. I remind her that very often reformed poachers make the best gamekeepers. I also compliment her on the broadness of her back in reminding your Lordships, or, indeed, anyone else, about the Ribble Valley by-election.

I live in an authority which qualifies potentially for alternative arrangements because it has a population of fewer than 85,000. It is an authority in which I spent a great deal of time over the past three decades as a member. I also spent a large part of the 1990s looking for ways in which local government could be modernised—if I dare use that term—so as to become more efficient and more effective. At the same time, I looked for ways in which it could become more democratic and responsive to the people in the area and, indeed, involve them far more in the work of the authority. I refer, of course, to the borough of Pendle in east Lancashire.

I consulted the leading officers in Pendle about the statutory instrument and the guidance that they had received from the Government on the fourth option. In that authority, where the political will is to go for the alternative arrangements fourth option—a modified committee system—if that is sensible, I have to report that the advice that the officers are giving as a result of the guidance that they have received from the Government is that the approach may be unworkable and that if it is not unworkable it will certainly be extremely difficult. Their view is that despite the fact that the Government made such welcome concessions during the legislation's passage through Parliament, the Government are now attempting as best they can to obstruct those authorities that wish to adopt the alternative arrangements fourth option. That is their view; it is not a political view. I have worked with those officers for a long time, I respect them and I trust their judgment.

The regulations are fairly innocuous—there is not much in them about which to complain. However, limiting the number of members of committees to 15 and the number of members of sub-committees to 10 is an arbitrary limit. People can obviously live with that. Such detailed and pernickety interference by central government in the work of local government gives central government a bad name. Such detailed prescription is ridiculous. Nevertheless, that is the way of the world at the moment.

The problems that people report involve the guidance pack, which is entitled, New Council Constitutions Guidance Pack: Volume 1. Look at the size of it! People are struggling with it. It contains statutory guidance. It may be true, as my noble friend said, that it has less legal effect than a statutory instrument, but the clear message that local authorities receive is that if they get statutory guidance from central government, they ignore it and attempt to act in ways that are contrary to it at their peril. So far as concerns local authorities, there is very little difference between a statutory instrument and statutory guidance. The message nowadays is very clear. Authorities are told, "You've got to do it. If you don't, we have all sorts of ways of twisting your arm and of penalising you". We all know that that is the case—it has been for many years and under various governments.

I regret the fact that the regulations are so slim compared with the document that we have not been asked to approve but with which local authorities will still have to comply. Even the section of the statutory guidance that refers to alternative arrangements—chapter 9—consists of 20 long and detailed pages. People say that the devil is in the detail. In this context, the devil is in the statutory guidance, not the regulations. The view of officers in an authority that has streamlined—it has only three central policy committees—is that if they are to go along the alternative arrangements route, they will probably have to increase rather than reduce the number of central policy committees. Most authorities may still be living in the Dark Ages and that provision would not apply to them.

We should not treat every small district council as if it suffered the abuses experienced by some of the large metropolitan councils or the problems suffered by large county councils such as Lancashire or big cities such as Manchester or Liverpool. Local democracy and traditional, local committee-based democracy have been thriving in at least some of the smaller districts—perhaps the system is easier to put into effect in them—in a sensible and modernised way.

I do not want to go on for much longer; I shall make one or two further points. The decision-making powers of sub-committees should be limited to time-limited projects only. That is again seen not simply as a pernickety national rule but as a rule that could cripple an authority that is running efficiently. The suggestion that the leader of the authority in a small district should have the status that a big city leader might have is inappropriate. I am told by my officers that a leader who has to attend, vote and speak at all policy committees may be viewed with suspicion in some authorities. They understand that that could disrupt the co-operative arrangements between political parties. The proposal would introduce a new culture. That may be a new dynamic, leader-led culture, which may be what the Government want, but it is not necessarily the best way in which to run the smaller authorities, which can be run in a more traditional, co-operative and consensual way.

Another suggestion is that some members of authorities should sit only on scrutiny committees, not the main policy committees. Who will those people be? Where will we find them? Those questions have been raised with me. There is a limited pool of interest—I was going to use the word "talent", but that is the wrong word—in a small authority. There is a limited pool of people who are interested in getting involved in the technical aspects of scrutiny. Some councillors get elected because they want to be involved in policy decisions and in running the authority. That might be true of one-fifth of the members across the parties in a small district. Most of the other people become involved because they are interested in representing their areas and wards on the council. The idea that there is a great pool of talented people who can scrutinise and monitor but not otherwise become involved in the policy process is a myth. The view among the officers in Pendle is that that is a myth. The rules will force some councillors into a scrutiny and monitoring role that they do not want and in which they are not interested. That will stop them from doing what they really want to do and what they are really interested in; namely, representing their wards and being involved in taking policy decisions. The result will be that people will lose interest and give up when they would have been good councillors and done a good job in their field.

Such rules are not in the regulations, and I have no objection to agreeing to them. The problem lies with the rules, regulations and instructions that the Government send down to local authorities. There are too many rules and the system is altogether too complicated. In relation to smaller councils, the Government should pull back a little, let go and get away from the idea that they have got to tell everyone how to do things at every minute of every day.

1.30 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I begin by referring to the guidance pack, which was discussed by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. It covers all aspects of executive arrangements and alternative arrangements. Only part of it is statutory; much of it is advisory and non-statutory. Much of its material was included as a result of requests from local government to provide that degree of information.

I make it absolutely explicit that there is no question of punishing councils for adopting alternative arrangements or of punishing any local authority that takes advantage of the wide variety of opportunities for making judgments on subjects that are matters of guidance rather than requirements from the Government. I hope that that reassurance will be recognised and transferred to others by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves.

It is quite possible, in alternative arrangements, to have one or even no policy committee. The guidance recommends no more than five such committees, but that is a different issue. We have consulted widely on the regulation, and to date, no one has expressed the view that alternative arrangements would be unworkable. The plans and strategies in the schedule were chosen to mirror those which, under executive arrangements, form the policy framework for approval by the full council. It would be strange if we had taken a different view of what constitutes key policy from that for councils operating executive arrangements.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred to the five committees point. That point is not covered by the draft regulations. It is purely a matter of guidance. The draft regulations specify only a maximum number of members of a policy committee. Such policy committees do not include area or regulatory committees. The draft guidance then goes on to say that for small district councils, there should be no more than five policy committees and excludes explicitly those area and regulatory committees. The guidance will be statutory guidance, to which councils must have regard. Some councils may decide that their local circumstances dictate that they should have more than five committees, but we cannot imagine those circumstances. As regards the larger councils, as I said, the draft guidance applies to the keeping of committees to a minimum.

The noble Baroness also raised the issue of fall-back. The streamline committee system is also available as a fall-back for any council holding a referendum for a directly elected mayor. We are firmly of the view that such a fall-back is less likely than an executive-style fall-back—that is, a leader and cabinet—to deliver the efficiency, transparency and accountability that people want. But if local people are content with it, they will be able, in a referendum, to choose a streamline committee system.

As regards limits on membership, we made a judgment following widespread consultation. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, expressed concern about the people involved in the scrutiny process. My experience is that people become involved in the work of local government and local authorities when they are motivated to do so by a particular set of circumstances which has impinged dramatically on their own lives. Many of those people continue with that involvement.

We believe that the new arrangements will enable a wider cross-section of people to be involved in local government and that in many ways, particularly in the large authorities, the current system militates against having a full cross-section of the community.

Finally, the noble Lord said that I must have a broad back. It is impossible to lose spectacularly in a by-election without everyone knowing about it. I was only pleased that the Ribble Valley tourism did so well. At least someone got something out of it. I commend the regulations to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.