Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 17:

("(4) An overview and scrutiny committee may discharge any functions imposed or permitted by the authority other than functions which are the responsibility of an executive of the authority under executive arrangements or functions specified by the Secretary of State in regulations.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this amendment deals with the functions of the overview and scrutiny committees. Clause 19(4) provides that an overview and scrutiny committee,

    "may not discharge any functions other than its functions under this section".

At the last stage, we sought to tip the coin and reverse the matter so that certain functions were those which the committee could not undertake provided that they were designated by the Secretary of State. That would have allowed the committee to undertake other functions not so specified, provided that the local authority--the council--so designated them.

The Minister objected to that earlier version of the amendment because he said that allowing the overview and scrutiny committee to take on other functions would mean that it would take on executive functions, which would not be appropriate. I have sought to deal with that in this version of the amendment, which says:

    "An overview and scrutiny committee may discharge any functions imposed or permitted by the authority other than functions which are the responsibility of an executive of the authority under executive arrangements or functions specified by the Secretary of State in regulations".

These matters that the overview and scrutiny committee may not take on have been dealt with as carefully as possible so as to accept the executive/scrutiny split that the Government are promoting, while still allowing the Secretary of State to specify functions--not necessarily executive functions--which he regards as not being appropriate for the committee.

I was concerned on the last occasion, and remain so, that the Government are so sure that everything is hunky-dory. When we debated the previous version of this amendment, the Minister acknowledged that there were still matters that the Government were considering. We talked a little about the client/contractor split and the noble Lord acknowledged that the Government are considering the implications involved and how they may be dealt with by the executive/scrutiny split. He said:

    "There may be some edges which need to be made clearer in the final guidance".--[Official Report, 28/2/00; col. 430.]

I do not believe that it should be a matter for guidance; indeed, I do not even believe that it can be, given the way that Clause 19(4) is drafted. I said then that I admired the Government's confidence that they had got this Bill absolutely perfect.

9 Mar 2000 : Column 1205

I do not want to descend into un-parliamentary language, but I feel that the Government are being perhaps rather narrow in the way that they are approaching the matter. We are not trying by stealth to extend the powers of the overview and scrutiny committee; we are merely attempting by way of this amendment to ensure that, given our own responsibilities for scrutinising legislation, we are not storing up problems for the future when we discover something that an overview and scrutiny committee could usefully do but which no one in this House had thought of. I beg to move.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, if it has not been obvious, perhaps I may put on record the fact that the Government do not necessarily think that the Bill is absolutely perfect. Indeed, if that were so, we would not have brought forward a number of amendments at various stages in the passage of this Bill. Nevertheless, we think that this attempt by the Liberal Democrats to broaden the role of overview and scrutiny committees--even in the modest way that the noble Baroness suggests in the amendment--is the wrong approach. We need overview and scrutiny committees to deal with just overview and scrutiny. That role needs to be distinct and identifiable. People need to know what that role is and who holds the decision-makers to account.

I appreciate that the noble Baroness has modified her previous approach to this matter, but, nevertheless she seeks to allow overview and scrutiny committees to do what they are not expressly forbidden to do. There are areas of council responsibilities which are not the responsibility of the executive--for example, an exercise in policy review or in moving towards future decisions, or a more regulatory activity of the council--which an overview and scrutiny committee might subsequently wish to review or scrutinise. Had it already been party to that decision or had some responsibility for it, that would blur its role. We should not blur its role on the face of the Bill.

The noble Baroness referred to an earlier discussion on the issue of client contractor relationships for direct services. That is an area that we are considering in the light of the responses we have received to the draft guidance. That issue may need some clarification which I believe is appropriate for guidance. There is flexibility as regards this matter in Clause 11. However, an overview and scrutiny committee would not take responsibility for functions in such arrangements; an ordinary committee of the council appointed by the council would do so, as now.

We believe that to allow overview and scrutiny committees to discharge functions, including those which are not the responsibility of the executive but could be subject to overview and scrutiny, would blur their roles. I therefore do not think that we should open up that possibility in this clause. Flexibility already exists, but the essential role of the overview and scrutiny

9 Mar 2000 : Column 1206

committee needs to be preserved. This amendment would put it in doubt; I hope that the noble Baroness does not pursue it.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I shall not pursue the matter but I still have anxieties as to whether we shall get it right. It seems to me that the number of amendments that the Government have had to table and the number of provisions that will be dealt with by regulations makes my case for me. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 20 [Access to information etc.]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 18:

    Page 14, line 1, after ("executive,") insert ("or a joint committee or a sub-committee of any such committee,").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 18 I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 19 to 25 with which it is grouped and which stand in my name. Amendment No. 26, in the name of the Minister, is also grouped with it.

These amendments deal with access to information, the provision of information and the question of transparency, on which we have already touched. On Report the Minister said that my amendment failed to recognise the nature of executive arrangements. I recognise the structure that the Government are putting in place but I take issue with the proposal which sets up executive arrangements and then deals with issues of transparency and accountability as if they were somehow separate or at best semi-detached from the nature of the arrangements themselves. We on these Benches believe that the basic design must ensure transparency and accountability.

Amendment No. 18, refers to,

    "a joint committee or a sub-committee of any such committee".

This is a matter on which I seek clarity. The point may have been answered as I believe that the amendment standing in the Minister's name allows for regulations to cover joint committees and their sub-committees. However, the Minister is merely allowing the application of Part VA of the Local Government Act 1972--which deals with access to information--by regulation; and not requiring its application.

Part VA deals fully with admission to meetings, access to agendas and reports, the inspection of minutes and documents after a meeting, the inspection of background documents and additional access for members. Much of this is touched on in Clause 20 of the Bill, but none of the provisions, with the exception of Clause 20(1), will certainly be applied. The other provisions are subject to regulation. Clause 20(1) simply states,

    "Meetings of a local authority executive, or a committee of such an executive, are to be open to the public or held in private".

Therein lies our objection; namely, the only thing that is certain is that the meetings may be held in private.

The Department of the Environment, as it used to be called, undertook research in 1995 to evaluate the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985. A

9 Mar 2000 : Column 1207

number of its findings appeared to give the Act a pretty clean bill of health, although I shall in a moment mention some of its recommendations for improvement. The summary of the document stated:

    "The Act was found to be effective in establishing minimum standards for openness and accountability, with which all local authorities appear to be complying".

The document further stated that,

    "the Act facilitated a transition to more open attitudes and working practices".

However, it also stated that,

    "More could be done to facilitate access to information".

It further stated that,

    "Members of the public and the press use their rights under the Act, although local authorities perceive the take-up to be low".

I accept that, although I emphasise that a low take-up does not mean that a provision has no merit; quite the contrary. The document further stated:

    "Steps taken by local authorities to meet the requirements of the Act, and even to exceed them, had generally been achieved without incurring significant additional costs".

As I say, that seems to me to be a pretty good approval rating for the Act.

The document made a number of recommendations. It stated:

    "Authorities should review their overall approach to ... take account of the different objectives of information provision: public relations, accountability and informing people about services".

The document proposed that,

    "Authorities might benefit from a review of the extent to which ... they actively make information accessible ... Authorities might also consider their approach to public participation, involvement and consultation".

I do not take issue with any of that, but it seeks to improve on what is not too bad a position, although it can, of course, always be improved.

I believe that Clause 20(10) is the most important part of the clause. It defines "prescribed". That term crops up quite often in the clause. Clause 20(10) states that,

    "'prescribed' means prescribed by regulations made by the Secretary of State".

Clause 20(6),(7),(8) and (9) refers to regulations. Clause 20(8)(a) gives the game away as it states that,

    "The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision",

with regard to access to meetings,

    "including provision enabling such meetings to be held in private".

I believe that these matters should be dealt with in primary legislation, not by regulation, as this clause provides. To the uninformed reader it may appear to be rather a long clause; it covers a page and a half. The provisions of the Act are, of necessity, much longer. It seems to me that either the Government have not had enough time to draw up the detail which needs to underpin the provisions of Clause 20 as printed in the Bill--if that is the case, that is not good enough, although there will be an opportunity to rectify the matter in another place--or they are simply not sufficiently enthusiastic as regards the importance of the issue.

9 Mar 2000 : Column 1208

Access to information affords protection to the public. It affords protection to the media, who in turn pass information to the public. It is protection for other councillors, who serve the public and are part of the whole process. Access after the event to the decisions of a "strong mayor"--I put the term in inverted commas; we have been using it as jargon--and access after the event to the reasons for the decisions, are a poor substitute. Accountability every four years, or perhaps more frequently, at the ballot box will not rectify a lack of knowledge at the time that that knowledge would count. I beg to move Amendment No. 18.

6.30 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, the Government have often quoted that the reason for bringing in the Bill is to improve the relationship between the public and local authorities. I should like to dwell for a moment on the fundamental role that residents see their local authority playing. They see their councillors as people who make decisions. Up until now, they have often been seen as not very accountable--here I agree with the Minister--because decisions have been made behind closed doors in smoked-filled rooms. Councillors' postbags are full of letters from residents who write in and say, "When you make a decision, will you please take this matter into account?". They have the agendas of meetings, not only on regulatory issues, which I know will not be subject to this same discipline, but on all manner of issues.

It is noticeable that usually it is one letter per citizen. Residents in a council's area do not write in frequently on all kinds of subjects; they will write in once about something on the council's agenda that particularly concerns them and on which they would like to have some influence. If the Government include in the Bill a provision for the executives to meet in private, particularly the executives of a majority party--which, as I said, will be some 60 per cent of executives--the public will be no better served in councils which operate such a system. For them it will be a very poor second to hear that the scrutiny committee will consider the views of other members of the council, which will probably include their elected councillor. They will question what they elected that councillor for, and the relationship between local authorities and the public will be further damaged. This process of modernisation has led people to believe that they will have a closer relationship with their local authorities and that they will be included more in meetings.

The more successful local authorities are those which have done their best to go out to meet the public in places to which they have easy access--community halls and so on--and to make their meetings public friendly. It is noticeable that the public will turn out when they feel they will have some influence on the decisions to be made. On the whole, the public are not interested in being part of the ongoing discussions about scrutiny and policy making. Why should they be? They have elected people to do that job. A remark often heard is, "You were elected to make that

9 Mar 2000 : Column 1209

decision. I just want to put my point of view to you, as my councillor, and I hope that you will put forward my view to the council".

If an executive is able to meet in private, this cycle of events will not happen and many of the benefits of accountability that the Government believe will come out of the Bill will be lost. The public will see that important decisions are made by executives meeting in private, in those authorities that allow them to do so. The last time this matter was discussed the Minister said that the issue was not whether meetings are held in public or private but accountability. The kind of accountability the public want is where they can see, hear and be part of the process of decision making; they do not want to know who made the decisions and to receive some dry papers only after the event.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page