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Lord Hunt of Tanworth: As I think your Lordships are aware, I chaired the all-party Select Committee on relations between central and local government and in doing that had the honour and pleasure of working alongside the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. One of the conclusions of our report on which we were unanimous was that local authorities should be empowered to experiment with innovative ways of taking their decisions. The question we are now facing is: which ways?
In the course of our consideration we took evidence from a large number of people and bodies and we paid particular attention to the models for decision-taking which had been considered and set out in the 1993 report of the joint working party between the Department of the Environment, as it then was, and representatives of local government. While we did not firmly recommend any one of those models ourselves, we did float them as possibilities and recommended that authorities should be empowered to try them out. That is precisely what the Bill as currently framed seeks to achieve.
The noble Baroness's amendments to Clause 1 would, I believe, prevent any individual member of an authority except a directly elected mayor from having any ability to take decisions on behalf of the authority acting alone. This would take away a range of options described in the 1993 joint working party report and in which there is already significant interest in the local government world. For example, it would not be possible to adopt what is loosely called the cabinet system, where a committee collectively would have executive functions in addition to other functions given to individual members of the committee. It would not be possible to have a lead member either within such a cabinet system or otherwise. It would not be possible for an elected mayor to delegate some of his or her functions to another member of the council forming part of the mayor's cabinet. Surely, in the context of a mayor with a wide range of functions, such an arrangement would make perfect sense. But I do want to make it clear that
It is worth saying a few words about what we mean by scrutiny. Typically, scrutiny would not merely mean criticism of decisions already taken. A scrutiny committee would have full access to information; it would be able to review general strategy as well as discuss the effect or sagacity of decisions already taken; and it would make recommendations on future policy or criticise what had been done. All of that would be done in public, and all by the council or a committee or committees whose membership would reflect the political balance of the council as a whole. We gave that assurance at Second Reading, but it is such an important point that I decided to table an amendment, which we shall be discussing later, to this clause to guarantee that scrutiny committees would be politically balanced in this way.
Such scrutiny could give all non-executive councillors, even the back-bench members of the majority group, a much greater say in the direction and decisions of the authority on which they serve. As I have said, it would lead to greater accountability and better decision-making, but it all relies upon clarity about who is taking the decisions in the first place.
To return to the noble Baroness's amendments, their effect would be severely to limit the scope for experimentation under my Bill, experimentation which I believe could result in the very improvements to decision taking in terms of accountability and openness which I believe the noble Baroness wishes to see. I therefore ask the noble Baroness, in the light of this discussion, not to pursue the amendment, which would shut off a major range of experiments provided for under the Bill and truncate the Bill very considerably. For my part, I am persuaded that, if the Bill is to give local authorities the opportunities they need and should have, it must allow a full range of experiments. But at the heart of many of these is all-party scrutiny. That is why I commend Amendment No. 12 to the Committee.
Baroness Hamwee: Can the noble Lord deal with my question as to whether a lead member--an individual member--to whom functions are delegated or loosely transferred by the local authority may say, "That is too big for one member to decide upon. That is inappropriate. I do not think I will exercise that area of authority". I mentioned social services and planning. I am not clear whether the executive member has to carry out all the functions which the local authority might, under this model, load upon her or him.
Lord Hunt of Tanworth: We shall come shortly to an amendment dealing with a social services committee. On the particular question which the noble Baroness put to me, I might have to take advice, unless the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, can provide the answer. I would personally--and subject very much to
Perhaps I may make it clear that I am not seeking by this group of amendments to rule out all the models that are proposed. Both the noble Lord and the Minister suggested that the amendments would mean ruling out the model of a cabinet committee. I am not seeking to do that and I do not believe that the amendments would achieve that end.
The Minister talked about separating out the functions--separating executive scrutiny and the representational role--and suggested that that would lead to greater clarity. She also said--I hope I have written it down correctly--that the proposals could lead to real improvements in democracy. I accept that they could affect efficiency, and I have doubts about their beneficial effect on democracy. However, that is not a matter we need to pursue today other than by making clear our concern on this point. I do not think, either, that the proposals will necessarily lead to clarity in the minds of the public. That is why I chose this model on which to concentrate.
We shall return to the question of scrutiny. I very much welcome the comments made by the noble Lord. He said that scrutiny is not just a question of looking backwards. That is something which a number of noble Lords mentioned at Second Reading. I am glad to hear that. I am concerned to understand how it can work. If one has a committee of members who can look forward, in the words of the amendment,
will that not lead to the sort of logjam which these amendments are seeking to overcome? If a decision has not been taken, but members can scrutinise it in advance, that means that there has to be some mechanism whereby proposals can be tabled for the members to consider. That of itself could be a recipe for slowing everything down and having completely the opposite effect to the one intended. I do not know whether the noble Lord might wish to make some comment on that as we are in Committee and, indeed, an extremely select committee, if I may put it that way.
Lord Hunt of Tanworth: As I understand it, there is no intention that scrutiny need work in a way which slows things down because not everything needs to go through the two stages. There is the crucial question--and there is an amendment later which bears on this--as regards the availability of information, of agendas and minutes. The scrutiny committee should be able to grip something at any stage and question the executive and make its views clear.
To facilitate that, the schedule to the Bill ensures that there is a requirement placed on any individual councillor empowered to take decisions alone to keep a record of the decisions taken and to make that available to the council. Furthermore, the guidance which the Government are required to issue to local authorities under the Bill, should it be enacted, will set out checks and balances that are required to make such models work and to ensure effective and proper local government.
It may also stipulate that certain regulatory functions may not be undertaken by an individual member. Many Members of the Committee have seen the first draft of that guidance, which the Government have placed in the Library of the House. That is being written in discussion with prominent academics in the field and with the Local Government Association. We are likely to cast the net still wider to ensure that the guidance results in applications which are acceptable to all and provide for the democratic and open local government. I do not know if this has been helpful.
A scheme of delegation will be set up in the arrangements to be approved by the Secretary of State. I believe that that will be helpful. It could allow onward delegation by an executive member to another of his or her political party. The degree of scrutiny would continue. It is an important issue that the opportunity to scrutinise the powers is there on a politically balanced committee level.
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