9. The draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards)
Bill is viewed by the Government as forming part of a programme
of change, which they originally laid out in their White Paper
"Modern Local Government: In Touch with the people".
The separate Local Government Bill currently before Parliament,
which introduces the Best Value regime and modifies council tax
capping arrangements, is the first part of this programme. The
draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill which
now stands referred to this Committee changes the way in which
local councils organise their business by allowing for the introduction
of executive arrangements and elected mayors (Part 1); and establishes
a new ethical framework and code of conduct for local government
(Part 2). It is possible that a bill on the lines of the present
draft will figure in the Queen's Speech for the next (1999-2000)
session of Parliament. In due course, other legislation is promisedincluding
the introduction of a new duty for councils "to promote the
economic, social and environmental well-being of their area";
and changes to the audit regime, including abolition of "surcharge".
10. The draft Local Government (Organisation and
Standards) Bill was first published at the end of March as an
Annex to the White Paper "Local Leadership, Local Choice"
which set out the rationale behind the bill and elaborated some
of the detail not readily apparent in the draft bill itself.
The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR)
put its proposals out for consultation to all local authorities.
The consultation period ended on 21 May 1999. DETR received 290
responses and made these available to the Joint Committee.
11. Our Committee was established by resolutions
of the House of Commons of 26 May and the House of Lords of 27
May, with the order of reference to consider the draft bill and
report by 31 July. This was the second occasion for a draft bill
to be submitted to the Joint Committee pre-legislative procedure.
The usual exchanges of messages went smoothly and no time was
lost to us on that or any score. We issued our own invitation
to submit evidence and in all 53 responses were received. We met
14 times over the space of just over six weeks and took evidence
in public at nine of those meetings. All the oral and written
evidence, together with some of the responses to the Government's
consultation exercise, are printed in Volume II. Ms Pamela Gordon
and Mr Tony Travers were appointed Specialist Advisers and we
commissioned a paper on overseas models from Professor Robin Hambleton.
We are grateful for their assistance.
12. In addition, the Committee invited the House
of Lords Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee to consider
whether the extensive use of regulation-making powers in the draft
bill is appropriate. The Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee
have considered the delegated powers in the draft bill and set
out their findings in their Twenty-Third Report (1998-99).
Their report concluded that the delegations were appropriate and
that there were "no delegated powers in the draft bill which
the Committee would need to draw to the attention of the House
if the bill were introduced in its present form". We are
grateful to the Committee for their assistance in this area.
13. We also took the step of asking the Presiding
Officer of the National Assembly of Wales whether that Assembly
wished to express any view of the draft bill. In extending this
invitation we recognised that while the draft bill applies to
Wales, and the National Assembly will be responsible for exercising
in Wales the many powers delegated under the bill's provisions,
the Assembly has no power to consider the primary legislation
itself. Publication of a bill in draft form does, at least, enable
the Assembly's views to be expressed at the pre-legislative stage.
14. In fulfilling our task we have encountered some
difficulties. First, while there is some advantage in working
intensively over a short period, our timetable was really very
short. Although the bill was published in March we were not constituted
until the end of May, literally on the day of the Late Spring
Bank Holiday adjournment. This gave us just over six weeks in
which to consider evidence, hear witnesses and to report. As a
result some witnesses found it difficult to meet us; deadlines
for receiving evidence were on the whole not met; and our own
diaries were put under considerable strain. Had we found it necessary
to use our powers to "adjourn from place to place",
it is doubtful whether we could have found the time. Another result
of the shortness of time available to us was that most of our
evidence came from those individuals and organisations best equipped
to respond at short notice, and those were mainly local authorities.
As a result, the evidence was bound to be partial. It would greatly
enhance the value of pre-legislative committees such as ourselves
if we were in a stronger position to contact other groups, including
non-specialists and ordinary members of the public. More time
would also have allowed us to engage in some consultation by means
of new technology. It cannot, in all conscience, be said that
we have given this bill full scrutiny. No doubt the timing of
the Government's own consultation exercise influenced the date
of our appointment, and the possibility that the draft bill might
be introduced in the coming session influenced the date of our
demise. We recommend that if pre-legislative scrutiny of bills
is to become a regular feature of select committee activity, whether
on a joint basis or otherwise:
- the Government should identify at the beginning
of every session those bills which it is likely to introduce in
- while it is preferable that any Government
consultation exercise should be completed before a select committee
is established, this should not prevent a committee being established
earlier if this would allow a more reasonable timetable.
15. A second difficulty we encountered was that the
bill is in many respects a "skeleton" bill. Large swathes
of legislative provision are delegated to the Secretary of State
or the National Assembly of Wales. The more important of these
include: the functions that may not be subject to executive
arrangements, the operation and functions of scrutiny committees,
the conduct of elections for mayor, access to information and
papers, the conduct and content of referendums, the principles
of ethical conduct, the organisation of Standards Committees,
and the functions of Standards Boards. Thus, although the use
of delegated powers is not inappropriate, the detail of what will
be provided for is often lacking. To some extent it is possible
to infer some of the content of some of these regulations from
the White Paper, but in other areas there has been little or nothing
on which to bite. We heard in evidence from DETR that they were
"organising the legal and other resources to get some of
it (the regulations) drafted to draw on the offers of help
and constructive ideas that have been put forward in the consultation
package" but that this was unlikely to yield "a lot
more material drafted within the timetable of this Committee".
The Minister of State told us that she hoped that draft regulations
would be available by the time the bill was introduced.
We therefore urge that rapid progress be made on the preparation
of the draft regulations so that these may be available to Parliament
at such time as the draft bill may be introduced. Otherwise much
of the debate on the bill will be undesirably hypothetical.
16. This Report should not necessarily be taken
as a comment on the necessity, or desirability, of such a bill
as is contained in Cm4298. We have not taken a view on this, but
rather sought to scrutinise the draft legislation as set out and
to seek to make recommendations whereby it may be improved. Nor
should any individual's membership of the Committee be taken to
imply approval of the bill, nor of any its clauses.
17. While we welcome pre-legislative scrutiny
of the kind in which we have engaged as a valuable contribution
to the legislative process, we are convinced that the procedure
must not replace, or foreshorten any other part of that process,
but rather be a further contribution to it.
1 Cm4014 Back
2 Cm4298 Back
4 Q14 Back
5 Q768 Back