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Dale’s Devo Diary: ‘Combined authority scrutiny to be in public, except when Government says no’

Dale’s Devo Diary: ‘Combined authority scrutiny to be in public, except when Government says no’

🕔02.Jul 2015

How open and accountable will combined authorities and metro mayors really be? What are the chances of NHS services being devolved to the new bodies? What tax raising powers will combined authorities have? These and other questions featured heavily as the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill continued its journey through Parliament, writes Paul Dale.

Local Government Secretary Greg Clark will have the power to overrule combined authorities and ban the release of sensitive material to the public, the Government has admitted.

Small print in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill allows Mr Clark to “block disclosure of information to an overview and scrutiny committee and to determine what material it, in turn, can put into the public domain.”

Details of the clause emerged as the Bill continued to be debated by peers during its House of Lords committee stage.

Local Government Minister Baroness Williams confirmed that combined authorities would be subject to provisions in the 1972 Local Government Act and that all meetings “must be open to the public except in limited, defined circumstances.”

Commenting on the powers to be given to the Secretary of State to intervene, Baroness Williams said it was “an enabling provision which ensures that there is flexibility to decide which information can be appropriately disclosed or must be discussed.”

Peers went on to debate amendments put forward to introduce safeguards to ensure the newly elected mayor of the combined authority considered sustainable development and the health of local people, these were later withdrawn.

The House then debated amendments which sought to devolve NHS services to combined authorities and who would have overarching responsibility over the services.

Peers also debated amendments which sought to make it easier for local government to enter into a single tier along with extending the voting franchise to 16 year olds in mayoral elections and introducing proportional representation.

Lord Shipley (Lib Dem) raised concerns of Schedule 3 which “contains an enabling power allowing the Secretary of State to block disclosure of information to an overview and scrutiny committee and to determine what material it, in turn, can put into the public domain.”

Shadow local government minister Lord McKenzie of Luton spoke in support for the amendment commenting that Labour were “fully committed to openness and transparency in the proceedings of local government.”

Baroness Janke (Lib Dem) spoke on an amendment which sought to permit combined authorities to retain income from a number of taxes. She went on to highlight that cities around the world retained a significantly higher percentage of taxes raised in their area which demonstrated “the self-sustaining nature of other international cities, particularly capital cities, and our own.”

Baroness Williams confirmed that provisions in the Bill for a council tax precept would meet the costs of functions undertaken by the mayor.

The minister said the Government was open to proposals for the transfer of resources as well as power and would give detailed consideration to any scheme that strikes the right balance between encouraging growth and protecting taxpayers.

Baroness Williams confirmed the Government would confer powers on a combined authority to set multi-year finance settlements and to retain business rates.

She explained the Government already had the powers needed to do this administratively as part of the wider local government finance settlement.

The Bill will already set up a mayoral combined authority as a major precepting authority, and therefore we will be able to use our existing powers under the Local Government Finance Act 2012 to give the authority a share of its locally raised business rates, should we decide to do so.

Lord Warner (Lab) moved an amendment which sought to devolve control over local NHS services to combined authorities. The amendment also sought to ensure that the Secretary of State could not intervene and veto any decisions whilst putting in place a memorandum of understanding between combined authorities and NHS England.

Warner went on to note that statements made by the Government as well as in the NHS’s Five Year Forward View was that there would be variations amongst NHS services in future in order to best fit local need.

Shadow health minister Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Lab) stated that he supported the full roll out of the deal agreed with Manchester in other cities, such as Birmingham. Hunt noted that the debate being held over responsibility of the NHS went back to its origins and that clarity was needed in the Bill in order to move forward on who would be responsible.

Baroness Williams stated that “whatever devolution arrangements are entered into, [local services] must remain firmly part of the National Health Service and social care system”. She went on to state that the specific requirements in the amendment were not needed and that safeguards would be provided “by the requirement that the implementation of any particular devolution deal must be debated and approved by both houses of Parliament.”

Lord Shipley moved an amendment that sought to introduce proportional representation, using the single transferable vote, into local government.

Baroness Williams said the move would require a review of local government electoral areas in England and could not be introduced in any short timescale. It would also cost more and take longer to achieve a result because of the more complicated count processes, she added.

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