Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 11:

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 10 [Local authority executives]:

Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 12:

    Page 5, line 20, leave out ("must") and insert ("may").

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I was prepared to accept that Amendment No. 11 can be seen as consequential to the previous decision but, although Amendments Nos. 12 and 13 were grouped for convenience with Amendments Nos. 10 and 11, we would not accept them as consequential.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I am now puzzled as to how one should proceed. I certainly had no responsibility for the groupings. If we must vote again, so be it. The groupings for the amendments were put together by officials acting on behalf of the Government. It seems to me that under the conventions of the House a group would normally be taken together, but I am open to correction.

Lord Carter: My Lords, the groupings are agreed for the purposes of debate, but procedurally it is correct to say that the only amendments in a group that

9 Mar 2000 : Column 1197

automatically follow a victory or a defeat are those that are directly consequential. Although Amendments Nos. 12 and 13 are in the group for the purpose of debate, they are not actually consequential on the decision on Amendment No. 10.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, in that case I beg to move Amendment No. 12.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 13:

    Page 5, line 42, at end insert--

("( ) It may take such form as the local authority considers, after it has taken reasonable steps to consult local government electors and other interested persons in the authority's area, will--
(a) enhance decision-making,
(b) meet the principles of transparency, accountability and efficiency, and
(c) be appropriate to local circumstances.").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Carter: My Lords, perhaps it is worth repeating, as some noble Lords are not always aware of the position, that these amendments are not directly consequential. Therefore, we have done the correct thing procedurally and in terms of the sense of the House.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I am grateful to the Chief Whip. He has also taught me a lesson and it is a useful one to learn.

Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 14:

    Before Clause 12, insert the following new clause--


(" . Where a decision by or on behalf of an executive of a local authority requires immediate action by the authority, the decision and action shall be reported to the chairman of the relevant overview and scrutiny committee on the same day.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, both Amendment No. 14 and the Liberal Democrat Amendment No. 16 deal with the issue of urgency of action and how urgent action is to be reported to the local scrutiny committee. In future, overview and scrutiny will become an important function because, despite what happened with the earlier amendment, we can be satisfied that the executive scrutiny split will increasingly be adopted by local councils. That being the case, the work of the scrutineers will become more and more significant.

However, there is always the problem of urgent action. On many occasions an executive working under the new rules may well be required to take a decision that requires immediate implementation. Amendment No. 14 seeks to deal with that situation simply by requiring that the decision and the action be reported to the chairman of the relevant overview and scrutiny committee on the same day as the decision is

9 Mar 2000 : Column 1198

taken and the action takes place. I do not believe that that is an unreasonable imposition. It would ensure that transparency was improved. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, Amendment No. 16 is included in this group. Unless there are arrangements for allowing an overview and scrutiny committee to call in--to use the terminology--a decision by the executive, the powers of that committee are somewhat hollow. My amendment, which builds on one that I moved at the previous stage of the Bill, provides that unless a matter is urgent it should not be implemented in fewer than eight days. That would allow for it to be called in and referred to the council or a committee under Clause 19(3). The objection to the amendment in the form in which it was tabled at the previous stage seemed to be that to use a monitoring officer of the local authority to certify whether a matter was urgent was not appropriate and that decisions about obtaining advice, for instance, by the executive should not be delayed.

This new amendment seeks to meet both those points. It provides that,

    "Unless the matter is certified by a proper officer of the authority";

and that officer will be the monitoring officer unless the authority designated another officer or officers. So it will be not only a "proper officer" technically, but also the appropriate officer. The amendment provides also that,

    "This section shall not apply to decisions solely requiring the preparation of advice or the undertaking of research".

If the system is to be seen not to allow old-style decisions in smoke-filled private rooms, it must allow for call-in by the overview and scrutiny committee. The term "overview" is therefore important. It must allow for call-in on an effective basis.

The Government have been passionate in their advocacy of the good workings of their proposed new system. We will see what the outcome of the recent amendments is. If an overview and scrutiny committee is to do its job properly and take local authorities beyond the days when decisions were taken in private and were not questioned, and were not as transparent and accountable as we would like to see, a provision such as this must be included in the Bill.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, is not in his place. When I was asking him about his view of executives during the last debate, he said that it would be fine if they met in public because they would be subject to subsequent scrutiny. Amendment No. 16 allows for exactly that. The Bill as drafted does not allow for subsequent scrutiny until the moment has passed.

The recent LGA survey--Local Leadership, Local Choice--shows that 60 per cent of councils are running their executives as a majority party executive. Amendment No. 16 would allow that decision to be open not only to local members, who would therefore be re-enfranchised in terms of knowing what the

9 Mar 2000 : Column 1199

decision was and being able to take part in discussion on it, but also to opposition members. We have said a great deal about the disadvantages of the one-party state and the opposition not having a voice. It will not be much use if that voice can only be exercised weeks after the event to much less effect. I therefore support Amendment No. 16.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am afraid that I must oppose these amendments. I see some coalition politics opposite as the noble Lord, Lord Tope, regains his normal place.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I hope that is not a criticism of co-operation and an attempt to make the work of the Chamber move smoothly.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, when a degree of co-operation operates between ourselves and the Liberal Democratic Benches, the Benches opposite usually remark on it. I am returning the compliment.

Lord Tope: My Lords, why does the Minister think it was a "co-operative" move?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am afraid that I must oppose both of these amendments. Indeed, I am not entirely sure what Amendment No. 14 would achieve. Any decision would be recorded. It would be made publicly available for scrutiny and the overview and scrutiny committee could therefore decide whether or not to ask the executive to explain its actions. As it stands, the amendment suggests that if the executive asked, for example, for a bit of research to be done or for some further information to be gathered, it would need to inform the chair of the overview and scrutiny committee. That surely cannot be the intention, but it is the implication of the clause.

If the intention is to avoid decisions of the executive being called in, then it does not achieve that either. The overview and scrutiny committee has substantial powers. It could call in members of the executive at any time it wished. It could have them before it every day to explain their decisions and it could invite the press and the public as well. The overview and scrutiny committee does not lack powers in this area and the consequence of Amendment No. 14 therefore is not clear.

Amendment No. 16 would delay implementation by five days. As the noble Baroness said, we discussed a similar amendment on Report. I am relieved that the amendment was altered so that decisions that simply require officers to work up proposals for future action will no longer be delayed. However, the new addition, while sensible, does not remove my fundamental objection to it; namely, that urgent decisions should not be delayed while seeking a proper officer to confirm that the matter is urgent. Indeed, I am not sure that it should be the role of any officer to pass judgment on the urgency of decisions taken by the executive. It will be for the executive to justify the urgency of its decision, if required to do so, by the overview and scrutiny committee.

9 Mar 2000 : Column 1200

Noble Lords are anticipating problems which may not arise. We explained in our draft guidance that councils should set out in their arrangements how soon decisions should be recorded and made available and that generally there should be a delay between a decision being taken and being implemented so as to allow the overview and scrutiny committee time to call in decisions. To impose the kind of constraints implied by these amendments would not be appropriate in primary legislation. It is for councils to work out the best way of achieving that. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, will not press the amendment.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page