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Accountability is essential when devolving power

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The Cities & Local Government Devolution Bill received its third reading in the House of Lords on 21 July. It will go to the House of Commons in the autumn.

It is an enabling bill that will give the communities secretary the necessary powers to agree devolution deals with councils and combinations of councils. It is hugely welcome. As amended in the House of Lords, it is much stronger than it was and it can build public ownership of the devolution process.

One of the issues that has caused significant debate is the need to find the right balance between enabling local areas to innovate and thus to suit their own circumstances and giving the communities secretary too much freedom to make requirements of councils they might not want.

That means we must find a way to enable councils to earn bespoke deals for the plans they devise and for the communities secretary to have the necessary powers to agree them.

During the passage of the bill I applied two tests to each of its clauses. First, did it pass the test of legitimacy and second, did it pass the test of accountability?

By legitimacy, I mean that there is consent from the general public for this new tier of local government and also for those making decisions within it. By accountability, I mean that we have a robust system of overview, scrutiny and audit both during and following decisions being made.

The Lords made a number of changes to the bill following debates at committee stage. The government rightly introduced proposals for an audit committee for a combined authority with some independent membership and it also sought to define more closely the requirements for overview and scrutiny.

It accepted that consultation must take place and be reported on when a case is made for devolved powers.

Following votes, the house resolved to amend the bill in a number of ways despite the government’s opposition. These related to the requirement for the communities secretary to report annually to Parliament on devolution agreements and proposals for devolved powers and for each new bill introduced to Parliament to have an explanation at the outset of its effect on devolution should it be approved.

The government also lost a vote on whether the communities secretary should have the power to insist that a local area must have a mayor even if it did not want it and could demonstrate this through consultation.

The government lost a further vote on an amendment proposing that the electors of Bristol should have the power to undo their mayoral structure. Currently, Bristol is the only place not able to do this.

The Lords also decided by a majority of 67 that voting at 16 should be supported if there were to be elections for a mayor.

At committee stage, I moved that we should introduce a degree of direct elections to combined authorities to prevent a one-party state arising and the consequent lack of legitimacy that might be felt by the general public should the only direct election to a combined authority be for the mayor.

There was little support for this so at report stage our effort went into making the overview and scrutiny procedures even stronger.

I also pressed amendments at report stage on guaranteeing rights of access to combined authority meetings for the public and the media. I regret that these did not get approved.

Our attempt to introduce proportional representation into local government elections failed too. It was aimed at building up the numbers of opposition councillors so that a combined authority would, at its various levels of governance, have more opposition representation and therefore stand more chance of meeting the legitimacy test.

This is because having one party controlling the post of elected mayor and the combined authority when it also holds most seats on overview and scrutiny committees runs the risk of causing the public to doubt the structure particularly when difficult decisions have to be made.

Then there is the NHS. The more devolution of NHS services was discussed, the more the need to configure that devolution properly for it to remain a national service came to the fore.

The house agreed after a vote that “authorities or bodies to whom health service functions are transferred (must) adhere to the national service standards and the national information and accountability obligations placed on all health service bodies responsible for functions of the kind being transferred.” This matters.

It is a difficulty that there is no list of functions than can be devolved and that there is no list of what could be devolved if an area does not want to have a mayor. Of course, the government wants maximum flexibility so the less detail there is on the face of the bill the easier that flexibility will be.

Lord Shipley, Liberal Democrat spokesperson on devolution, communities and the Northern Powerhouse





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