Setting councils free

In a speech last week Communities Secretary Eric Pickles declared ‘the sky’s the limit for localism’. And according to Mr Pickles when it comes to public services ‘there is no guidance manual’. The balance between setting councils free and making sure they are meeting the needs of all their residents is an ongoing debate (also see my blog: Is there a limit to Localism). As the Localism Bill enters Committee Stage of the House of Lords this week the debate goes on.

The Localism Bill gives local authorities a ‘general power of competence’. At first glance the general power appears to have adequate safeguards. Yes, local authorities will be given the ability to do anything an individual can do, rather than only being able to do things that Parliament specifically authorises. But they will also have to act in accordance with statutory limitations or restrictions.

The concern arises when you look at the other powers sited in this clause: the Secretary of State has the power ‘to amend, repeal, revoke or disapply’ any statutory provision that prevents local authorities from exercising the general power of competence.

For a Bill pledging to give more powers to local authorities, you may be surprised to hear that the Secretary of State gets a large share of extra powers too. These so-called Henry VIII clauses give them the power to amend or repeal primary legislation without further parliamentary scrutiny. Many services for older and disabled people are delivered under statutory provisions by local authorities. Any repeal of these kinds of provisions should be subject to public consultation and full parliamentary scrutiny. Not on the whim of the Secretary of State.

The House of Lords are already looking closely at the increasing inclusion of broad sweeping powers for the Secretary of State in this parliament. Similar Henry VIII clauses in the Public Bodies Bill, were removed after being challenged by the House of Lords. In earlier debates on the Localism Bill Baroness Whitaker has raised concerns saying it could effect the public sector equality duty “with barely any parliamentary scrutiny or consultation and could adversely affect minority communities already suffering prejudice”.  She asked how fairness can be safeguarded with “such sweeping powers”.

There are very important statutory duties providing a clear legal framework for people at some of the most vulnerable times in their lives. There might not be a guidance manual, but there should be some limits to localism.

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