Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Whitty: My Lords, as the right reverend Prelate said, he has written to me on both these points. On the second point it was not the intention of the drafting to achieve that outcome in relation to possible

28 Feb 2000 : Column 434

areas of dispute, it was merely to differentiate between those who had schools in the area and those who did not. We are looking at that.

On the first point, I am in consultation with colleagues in the DfEE to ensure that the phraseology we are using reflects fully that of the latest Education Acts, but by so doing does not exclude any other persons appointing. Those two items are in train. I regret that I am actually not able to give the right reverend Prelate the final formulation, but the discussions among officials are still continuing. I hope that by the time the Bill leaves this House we will have resolved those matters.

The Lord Bishop of Blackburn: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for that reply.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 34:


    Page 13, line 9, at end insert--


("( ) An overview and scrutiny committee shall be chaired by a member elected by the committee.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this amendment deals with the position of the chair, or even chairman, of the overview and scrutiny committee. I raised this issue at the previous stage of the Bill when I expressed my concern that in some old-fashioned authorities there might be a temptation on the part of the administration to put into the chair of the overview and scrutiny committee someone who could be relied on to make sure that things went okay for the executive. I would propose that the chair of the committee should be a member of the opposition, but in some authorities there is no opposition; there is a one party state. We cannot legislate for that situation.

At the previous stage the Minister said that this must be a matter for local decision. My proposal is that it should be for the committee to elect the chair. I recognise that that is by no means a watertight method of avoiding the situation that I described where a member of the administration in all but name is put into place, but it would ensure that, at any rate formally, the chair could not be imposed by the executive and by those who have the responsibility for running the authority, if I may so express it.

I have been searching for a better way of dealing with what in a handful of authorities could be a real issue. I am not convinced that this is the best way but it is the best I have been able to think of. It would be helpful if the Government could give some assurances as to how the system could not be rigged or abused. I beg to move.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I am still not clear why the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, wants to place this requirement on the face of the Bill. We leave it to councils to decide how chairs of committees should be selected and we do not see any case for acting differently here. We believe that the precise arrangements should be left to local choice. In our guidance we point out that councils might consider it appropriate to have some or all of these committees

28 Feb 2000 : Column 435

chaired by people who are not members of the ruling group. As the noble Baroness said, in a small number of authorities there are no minority members. But they are a small group. We believe it is important for all executive functions to be scrutinised, but it is for councils to decide how that should be done.

The noble Baroness seeks an assurance that it would not be possible for people to "rig" support. A separation between executive and overview and scrutiny is precisely aimed at preventing that power bloc of dead decision-making being taken outside the processes of the authority. I hope that I have managed to convince the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.

10.30 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I shall withdraw the amendment, but I cannot say that I am convinced. I do not believe that simply designating someone as having an overview and scrutiny function will change the culture in an authority if that person is naturally sympathetic to those who have been his or her colleagues and who have run the authority in a way of which none of your Lordships would approve. It may change the culture over a long period; however, I do not think that it will address the situation in the early and medium term of the new arrangements being in place. It is a nice hope, but I do not believe that the title will change the culture. I am pretty clear in my own mind that some of those authorities that have brought local government generally into disrepute, or have reduced the reputation of local government, will find one of their number who will take up the position of chair of the overview and scrutiny committee and help his or her colleagues run the committee in a way that is as close as possible to the old arrangements.

I shall not pursue the matter now. However, I ask the Government to understand that this is a genuine concern on my part. Again, we are seeking to move in the same direction as the Government. We do not oppose what they are doing. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 35:


    Page 13, line 12, leave out ("subsection (9)") and insert ("any provision made by or under paragraphs 6 to 8 of Schedule 1").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 36:


    Page 13, line 15, leave out subsections (8) and (9).

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer moved Amendment No. 37:


    Page 13, line 35, at end insert--


("This provision shall not apply to a committee or sub-committee of an area committee which includes a minority of members who do not carry out executive functions.").

28 Feb 2000 : Column 436

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 45. The amendments seek to place on the face of the Bill the fact that area committees, when exercising the appropriate overview and scrutiny function, which the Government helpfully said at the previous stage they might do, should not be subject to political balance requirements.

I fully accept the Government's position that area committees would be able to exercise this function. However, there would still be a requirement for councils to have an overarching scrutiny and overview committee that would ensure consistency throughout the authority. It is important to make it clear on the face of the Bill that area committees are exempted from political balance requirements, particularly in the light of the Minister's comment in his letter; namely, should an area committee happen to be politically balanced because that is how the electorate voted it in, it may discharge the overview and scrutiny function.

It would be a curious state of affairs if among, say, four area committees, one happened to reflect the exact political balance of the council and that committee could exercise the whole overview and scrutiny function whereas the other three could not. I appreciate that that is most unlikely to happen. However, our amendments would further clarify the situation. It is important to make sure that area committees are rightly able to scrutinise the delivery of local services and are not threatened with being unable to do so as a result of not being politically balanced.

Perhaps the Minister will clarify a point of concern on this subject regarding executive members. I have become more unclear as we have discussed the Bill as to exactly how an executive member will be able to represent the electorate at all. An executive member will not be able to be a member of the scrutiny and overview committee; and I gather that he or she will not be allowed to be a member of the area committee either. It seems to me that if the member is not able even to be a member of an area committee, it will be difficult for him or her to fulfil any kind of representational role, except in relation to purely regulatory functions. That may be the intention of the Government. However, 10 wards or divisions within a local authority area will effectively lose their representation altogether. In multi-member wards that is perhaps not so serious but in single member wards, which are quite common in my part of the country, the local electorate will begin to think that it is getting a very poor deal if the person it elects is not able to be a member of an area committee, where a good deal of the day-to-day business of the council takes place. In moving this amendment I look forward to the Minister's comments upon that difficulty. I beg to move.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the Government understand the thought behind these amendments. However, they do not address the matter effectively and we cannot accept them. We believe that every council should have at least one authority-wide

28 Feb 2000 : Column 437

overview and scrutiny committee, as we made clear in draft guidance. Such committees should take a broad corporate view across the whole of the executive's decisions in developing and reviewing policy. There is nothing to stop a council from setting up area committees or fora--in some cases it would be very positive--to conduct reviews of policy and executive decisions, with particular emphasis on the impact on their areas. The recommendations could then feed into the wider review being conducted by the council-wide overview and scrutiny committee; or they could be sent directly to the executive or be fed into a full council debate on the particular policy area in question. We have encouraged that multifarious approach in the draft guidance, which makes clear that the Government recognise that in many authorities, area committees have an important role to play in bringing decision-making closer to the people. But in the end we believe that there must be a requirement for at least one authority-wide overview and scrutiny committee to take a corporate view and to avoid unnecessary and damaging turf wars between areas within the authority.

As far as concerns the role of executive members, we have indicated that nobody should scrutinise his or her own actions. Therefore, executive members cannot be members of overview and scrutiny committees but they can be members of area committees. They are also members of the full council. Therefore, in reply to the noble Baroness, there are at least two points at which they can fulfil the role of representing their constituents even within one-member wards. Area committees are also exempt from political balance, as is made clear in regulations. Those regulations will not change in relation to area committees once the new system is in place.

As to Amendment No. 37, it appears that the noble Baroness seeks to allow only area committees with a majority of members who carry out executive functions to discharge the overview and scrutiny function. That seems to us to cut across the fundamental principle that no councillor should scrutinise his or her own decisions. That is why members of the executive cannot be members of overview and scrutiny committees and why members of area committees, who discharge functions delegated by the executive, cannot in that context scrutinise their own decisions. The amendment of the noble Baroness would cut across that general principle.

However, I hope that the noble Baroness is not led to believe that the Government seek to restrict area committees from playing a real and important role in the development of policy and holding the executive to account. That does not mean that they need a specific power formally to discharge the overview and scrutiny functions. Therefore, I do not believe that these amendments are necessary. I hope that I have said enough to indicate that not only are area committees a potentially important part of the new structure but also that executive members are not quite as constrained as the noble Baroness alleges.

28 Feb 2000 : Column 438


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page