House of Commons
|Session 2008 - 09|
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Public Bill Committee Debates
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Glenn McKee, Committee Clerk
attended the Committee
Second Delegated Legislation Committee
Tuesday 10 February 2009
[Mr. Christopher Chope in the Chair]Overview and Scrutiny (Reference by Councillors) (Excluded Matters) (England) Order 2008
That the Committee has considered the Overview and Scrutiny (Reference by Councillors) (Excluded Matters) (England) Order 2008 (S.I. 2008, No. 3261).
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope, and a delight to see the Minister again. We were crossing swords last night in the Adjournment debate, but, as it turned out, we had a very convivial discussion.
The order commands broad support from the Conservative side in some important aspects. We welcome the provision to the Local Government Act 2000 as it pertains to overview of scrutiny committees. We support the general concept of individual councillors who are perhaps not part of the executive decision-making body of a local authority having the capacity to exercise real authority on behalf of their constituentsto call in key decisions that may affect their constituents or the geographical areas that they support.
The current definition of a local authority matter is one that relates to the discharge of any function of the authority that affects all or part of that area and is not an excluded matter. We believe it appropriateit is common senseto exclude some areas where there is recourse through other governance procedures. That is a sensible approach in the case of quasi-judicial bodies such as licensing panels, and planning and development committees. None of us wants duplication, not least because of the resource implications, time spent by officers and cost to the public purse.
Interestingly, paragraph 7.2 of the explanatory memorandum makes this clear:
Some issues will be better dealt with through existing mechanisms.
Statutory appeals is an example of that. We accept that we do not want any duplication where it is not necessary. However, we have concerns and I want to press the Minister on some specific issues.
Conservative Members have to themselves whether the order is strictly necessary. I know that there has been a public consultation. Significant interest has also been shown by key stakeholders in local government that have contributed to the ongoing consultation. There is an argument, though, which is considered to have merit by Members on this side of the Committee, that this measure is obtrusive, interferes in the minutiae of the governance of local authorities and is too prescriptive.
I shall concentrate on a few issues relating to the order itself. First, perhaps the Minister will tell us what examples exist and how prevalent is the concept of the misuse of the call-in process in the case of, for example, vexatious matters. What are his concerns about the proliferation of such matters reaching the overview and scrutiny committee of local authorities that mean that the order is deemed by his Department to be necessary?
Secondly, how does the Minister define a matter brought before an overview and scrutiny committee that might be detrimental to community cohesion? That is a loose definition and it is cause for concern that suchat best opaquewording is in the order. Will he allay our fears about that prior to any decision that we make, which might divide the Committee?
Similarly, how loose is the definition of discriminatory for the purposes of the order? What does that word mean and why was it necessary to include it, given that there is a predisposition among public bodies, including all committees of a properly constituted local authority, not to be discriminatorycertainly not to breach statute law or codes of conduct with respect to the Standards Board for England, for instance?
What examples can the Minister give of the exclusion of matters in respect of individuals or entities? Again, that is a strange use of the word entities. I think that I understand where the Minister is coming from regarding people who are litigioussingle-issue individuals who perhaps become focused on a slight they have suffered at the hands of a local authority or people who continue to remonstrate with their locally elected councillors and through them seek redress through the appropriate bodies.
I understand that that would not always be an appropriate use of the time and resources of an overview and scrutiny committee. That body could do much more important things, such as looking at primary care, business transformation models, council tax and other issues. However, the concept of entities is a strange one here. Will the Minister clarify why it has a place in the order?
Finally, how, in practice, will the Government monitor and evaluate the effectiveness and impact of the call-in procedure, and of the order, if enacted? I understand that the cost of about £4 million is below the impact assessment threshold. Will the Minister tell me how that sum was arrived at? There seems to be an argument that this order is too much of an intervention in the sovereign affairs of local authorities. If we are truly committed to authority and autonomy at the local levelto devolving power and the decision-making process as far down the chain as we canthe order will surely militate against that.
Will the Minister reassure Conservative Members and answer my specific questions?
Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope.
In preparing for the debate, the first place to look was the document Local petitions and Calls for Action: Consultation, which prompted the order. One cannot
This Government is determined to breathe new life into local democracy. That means giving elected local councillors the space to show a lead... it also means giving local people new opportunities to set the agenda for themselves.
The key question is whether the order extends the remit of councillors and the ability of local people to have their say, or whether it curtails that remit and ability. My concern is that it curtails them. It details exactly which issues can and cannot be considered by the overview and scrutiny committees, and which can be called in. I do not understand why that could not be left to the discretion of local authorities, because surely it would give individuals and councillors power.
In response to the consultation, the Local Government Association agreed with some of the proposals in the orderfor example, some matters such as licensing and planning would be better excluded, although it felt that that would be much better achieved through guidance rather than regulation. Will the Minister explain why it is necessary to use regulatory procedures rather than guidance? That limits councils ability to respond as local people would like them to. There could be duplication, but I wonder whether duplication makes things more complicated or whether we already have a complicated procedure.
On some issues that are to be excluded from the call-in, I would appreciate the Ministers response on some examples that I have. The intention is to exclude individual cases from consideration from this call-in, but I can think of examples where an individual case could highlight a much wider problem, so there would be some merit in considering it. The obvious one is the baby P case. Surely there may be the wish for an overview and scrutiny committee to look at that specific case, or similar cases in other council areas, to see whether there are wider issues that need to be raised.
Similarly, on planning issues, there is indeed a legal court of appeal through judicial review, but there is an imbalance between the right to appeal of the developer and that of the community. Again, surely in some cases, it may be appropriate for there to be some kind of scrutiny of the decision-making process and how fairly the local communitys views are being taken into account.
To be specific, on licensing, I can think of a good example where it would be entirely appropriate for there to be this kind of call-in. Licensing has been a particular problem in north Cornwall, where lap-dancing clubs have been opened on the premise that, in licensing terms, they are public entertainment venues. Theoretically, the letter of the law is being upheld, but this is causing a significant problem in a specific geographical area. I can see that it would be entirely appropriate for the local councillor to wish to call in that particular issue to look at how well the law was working in that specific area. It seems to me that by excluding such issues we are curtailing debate and peoples ability to have their views heard.
There is one more issue that I would like to raise, as the LGA raised it in its response and I do not believe that it has been addressed in the order: what happens, and what the process means, in the two-tier areas where a district councillor may wish to raise an issue about a county council service, or vice versa? The question is, why was that not included? It is one area where some kind of claritysome guidancewould be appropriate.
If the overview and scrutiny committee and the call-in process are to give councils better ability to be responsive to the needs of their electorate, I do not understand why the Minister feels that the process cannot operate on a similar basis to that of a Select Committee, whose beauty is in its wide-ranging remit and the recommendations that it can make.
It is important that councils and these committees can take a view. It is then up to the councils whether they respond. This whole principle is undermined the more we take away the ability of councils to use their discretion in what to take up and what to reject as fallacious.
I want to make a number of very short points. I concur with the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne and seek reassurance from the Minister on how the two-tier areas of our country operate with regard to the overview and scrutiny committee process.
I want to talk about planning. I can think of numerous examples of one authority granting itself planning permissionwhich it is, of course, legally entitled to. However, another authority may wish to look at the process by which that decision was arrived at. I do not understand why that is wrong and why it should be effectively outlawed.
I will come back to planning in a minute as I should declare an interest as a continuing memberof 20 years standingof a local council. We do not have overview and scrutiny committees; we just try to keep going.
I have been involved in both layers of government in my time, and I understand why the Government want to look at this area. Again, I ask the Minister for clarification: is this part of a wider review of the overview and scrutiny process within councils? I certainly have some concernsnot least of which is the fact that, too often, some of those committees are set up in ways that are not as comprehensive as I would like. People who are chosen to go on them should reflect the balance of the council, and I have evidence that that is not always the case.
I am also concerned about the relationship with the Standards Board for England, as too often we have seen vindictive outcomes for things that might have been resolved with the proper operation of the oversight and scrutiny committee. Too many of my councillors have been vexatiously referred to the Standards Board; it may be party politics, but it is not a good use of time. Perhaps if there were appropriate use of the oversight and scrutiny committee, that could come out into the open. To me, the oversight and scrutiny committee process is about learning from mistakes that might have been made. If we are unable to do that, I wonder what is the benefit of the process at all.
I return to planning, which to me is the most political of issues that councils deal with. It may not be party political and it may be subject to all manner of legal constraints, but I would find it difficult if issues to do with, for example, the extension of an airport or the provision of an incinerator on a site were to be considered, because in those situations process is crucial to the eventual decision. If other councillors could not call
That may happen more as a result of the order, rather than less, so will the Minister tell us what is meant by
any matter relating to a planning decision?
Does it mean the process as well as the outcome? If it does mean the process, it is circumscribing anything to do with major decisions that an authority might be asked to take.
I hope that the Minister can clarify whether that refers just to the outcome. I understand that such issues can become a football: decisions are taken, the matter is referred and attempts are made to untake the decision. If the reference is to do with the process overall, that is a huge change in the way that oversight and scrutiny committees can operate.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan): May I say what a pleasure it is on my first outing in this capacity to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope. You, like me, were a councillor in the London borough of Wandsworth. We will bring to this statutory instrument all our years of experiencealthough my experience is relatively small compared with yours in this area.
I will begin by trying to contextualise what the order is about. It excludes a number of matters from the scope of the councillor call for action. Before considering the detail of that, it is important to set out the background to the councillor call for action. Some of the issues raised are relevant and important but I want first to set out what the councillor call for action intends to achieve. I will then discuss the merits of the order in relation to points raised by hon. Members and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud.
As a former councillor, Mr. Chope, you will be aware that councils have a key role to play in ensuring that local peoples concerns are listened to by the appropriate authorities. These concerns might be raised formally or through councillors engagement with the community. We included provisions within the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 for councillors to refer matters to their authorities overview and scrutiny committees. The provisions put in place what is commonly known as the councillor call for action, and will come into force on 1 April 2009.
These powers are additional and an example of individual citizens putting pressure on their local ward councillors to bring a matter before the overview and scrutiny committee. The idea that it can be caricatured as central Government diktat is extremely unfair and not relevant to the facts as borne out.
The councillor call for action gives councillors a new right to raise matters of local concern with their councils overview and scrutiny committee. It is not interference from central Government. It gives the tools to local councils to do much more than hitherto they have been able to do.
As colleagues who have served as councillors will know, it is the overview and scrutiny committee that is responsible for scrutinising the councils executivethe
A range of options will be available to committees in considering how to respond. They could, for example, instigate a review of policy, call members and officers to attend a meeting and answer questions, or make recommendations to the executive. Once again, the idea that we are being prescriptive is as far away from the evidence as can be. They can even require the executive to review a decision that has been made.
The councillor call for action is therefore a valuable tool in equipping councillors to act as powerful advocates for the communities that they serve and to strengthen still further their role as community champions. Councillors will of course continue to resolve issues informally, as they do now, but where they are not satisfied that real action has been taken to resolve the issue that they have raised, they have the ability to ask the OSC to take the matter further.
That is not something that we have suddenly pulled out of our top pocket. We made our intention clear n the 2006 Strong and Prosperous Communities local government White Paper. We also made it clear that the councillor call for action should not be seen as a charter for making mischief. We were clear then that we would introduce legislative safeguards to ensure that councils and OSCs were not forced to waste time dealing with vexatious complaints, or to act in a way that would threaten community cohesion.
The White Paper also indicated that there would be exceptions to the councillor call for action to avoid creating unnecessary confusion or complexity in areas where there were already statutory processes in place for people to make their views known. I can guess that, had we not had this order excluding those matters, we would be criticised for creating additional layers of bureaucracy and nightmare to locally elected councillors. That approach, as has been alluded to by the hon. Member for Peterborough, has gathered support from the respondents to the consultation on those matters which should be excluded from the councillor call for action.
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