HC Deb 18 June 1973 vol 858 cc302-17
Mr. Younger

I beg to move Amendment No. 64, in page 16, line 36, leave out 'or the Isle of Man' and insert: 'the Isle of Man or the Irish Republic'. The amendment results from an undertaking I gave at the twenty-seventh sitting of the Committee to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Ronald King Murray) to consider whether it might be necessary to disqualify for election to the local authorities persons convicted of offences carrying a sentence of three months' imprisonment or longer in the Irish Republic as well as in the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands, or the Isle of Man. I accept that since citizens of the Irish Republic are qualified to stand for election a sentence imposed in the Irish Republic should also count towards disqualification.

Amendment agreed to.

4.30 a.m.

Mr. Grimond

I beg to move Amendment No. 248, in page 16, line 42, at end insert: 'but nothing in this section shall prevent members of the teaching profession from seeking election to any council, save that such councillors shall not serve on any education committee of a council. Councils shall have discretion, subject to approval by the Secretary of State, similarly to exempt any other category of employees from the effects of this section'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With it it will also he convenient to take Amendment No. 65, in page 17, line 24, at end insert: '(5) The Secretary of State may from time to time, by order made by statutory instrument, direct that the disqualification imposed by subsection (1)(a) above shall not apply to any such class or description of officers or servants of local authorities, or of any local authority or class of local authority, as may be designated in the order'.

Mr. Grimond

The purpose of the amendment is to allow teachers to serve on the regional authorities which employ them. The reasons for the amendment are obvious and have been debated before. First, teachers tend to be able people. Many of them tend to be public-spirited people who are much interested in their communities. It is certainly desirable that they should be interested in their communities. They can give good service to the community, and it is right that the electors should have the chance to choose them if they so desire.

They also tend to be more impartial on many tricky matters than many people who are eligible for election. On all sorts of questions concerned with contracts and so forth the teachers can introduce an element of impartiality which is certainly desirable. I am always surprised that people who may have a considerable conflict of interests in dealing with local authority matters are eligible to serve while teachers are not.

This matter was discussed in Committee, and, as I understand it from reading the report of the proceedings, the Under-Secretary indicated that his mind was not entirely closed on the matter. He said that he was anxious to broaden the class of people who were eligible to serve on regional authorities and, in general, he was not ill-disposed towards proposals of this nature. There were other proposals concerning other classes of person but I shall not touch on that.

The Minister said in talking of the objections to the proposal that teachers had an opportunity to serve on a different tier of authority from that which employed them. Of course, that opportunity does not arise in those authorities such as my own in which there is only one tier. Secondly, I do not think that should prevent them from giving service on the main new authority we are establishing, the regional authority.

The amendment precludes them from serving on education committees, and the Under-Secretary drew attention to this in Committee saying that this showed that my hon. Friends and I recognised that there could be a conflict of interest and that there were difficulties. We are not adamant about this. If the House thinks that they should be permitted to serve on education committees I should not strongly oppose that, but my reason for including this provision in the amendment is not only because of the conflict of interest that might arise, but because it is desirable to increase the lay influence in education and I should be sorry to see education committees dominated by teachers to the exclusion of lay members.

The Under-Secretary said that there could be an all-party examination of this matter after 1975 after the new authorities came into being. The right place to consider this matter is in the Parliament either in Committee or in the House. The Under-Secretary is wrong in saying that by permitting candidates to offer themselves to the electors we might be doing the electors a disservice. It is up to the electors to decide whether the restrictions we place on teachers should preclude the teachers from attracting their votes. But many people elected to local government are in positions in which a conflict of interest can arise much more seriously than in the case of teachers.

Therefore, I do not find the hon. Gentleman's objections convincing. He said that he had an open mind on the matter. If that is so, and if the whole matter is to be discussed in two years on an unofficial basis, I do not see why it should not be discussed now.

I notice that occasionally in our deliberations there is a tendency to push decisions outside the House and sometimes not to give enough weight to the desires of our constituents as one of the overriding factors in arranging the new system of local government. In my constituency there is a fairly widespread desire that teachers should be given the opportunity of standing.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Our Amendment No. 65 would allow the Secretary of State from time to time to direct that the disqualifications should be removed for certain officers and servants of local authorities.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) has made a special plea for teachers, despite the proviso in his amendment that they should not serve on the education committee. He adds almost as an afterthought that other categories of employees should also be exempt. I resent the impression so often given, perhaps inadvertently, that teachers are a special class of people employed in local government, more able than others, and with a particular service that they can give to local government which other employees do not offer.

Mr. Grimond

The reason I confined my remarks to teachers was that the amendment deals with teachers. I should have been out of order if I had dealt with all sorts of other classes. That does not mean that I am against other classes. I said earlier that each hon. Member must move his own amendment. I do not oppose the Opposition's wider amendment, but if I had made a long speech on other classes the Chairman would have ruled me out of order.

Mr. Robert Hughes

The right hon. Gentleman has confirmed my point. He would have been in order in speaking about the other people to whom I am referring. It seems that he has not read his own amendment. The last sentence reads: Councils shall have discretion subject to approval by the Secretary of State similarly to exempt any other category of employees from the effects of this section. The amendment encompasses the idea that people other than teachers can be considered if the councils think fit.

There is an omission, whether deliberate or inadvertent, of the great worth of the many thousands of people who work in local government and have been debarred for years. That is why our amendment is much more important, because it does not have any distinction between teachers and other people.

Bus conductors, street sweepers, gardeners, people who work in the town clerk's department and in the city architect's department, and so on, deeply resent the way in which on every occasion disqualification is considered there is special pleading for teachers, who are always held up as being more worthy. I share that resentment.

Earlier today we heard special pleading on behalf of businessmen. Hon. Members on both sides held up their hands in horror at the idea that firms might be debarred from tendering for local authority contracts because shares in them were held by councillors or their relatives. It was suggested that my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew, West (Mr. Buchan) was being far too restrictive in his approach. Businessmen apparently are not corrupted by contracts which they or their firms might have with their local authorities. But it is thought that people employed in local government would pursue their own interests in a much more vigorous way than businessmen do. I reject that suggestion. The only argument which we have had against the proposal that disqualification for a fair number of local authority employees should not apply is that there might be a conflict of interest and consequent difficulties. The conflict of interest point is easily covered by the fact that when wages and conditions came under discussion such employees would declare their interest in the same way as businessmen. That would put them on an equal footing.

Difficulties of administration were mentioned. The Under-Secretary of State for Development gave the example, in Committee, of the gardener who might not have the green fingers which he should have. It was said that such a person would not be able to be sacked by the director of parks because he was a councillor. That was one reason given for disqualifying gardeners. It was suggested that in that way the relationship between the chief officials and the ordinary council employee could become very difficult.

But there was never any difficulty expressed about the clerk of works or the city architect who may have difficulties with local building firms. A senior partner who might be on the council or who might serve on the housing committee would have no difficulty discussing, for example the class of work being done by his firm, the supplies being undertaken by his firm or the time at which the work of his firm would be completed.

I do not cast any aspersions on Aberdeen Town Council. I should never do that. However, I doubt whether there is one building firm or building supplies firm of any size in Aberdeen which does not have a major partner on the town council. I do not think that the city architect has had any difficulties in discussing problems of contracts with such people not as councillors but as members of building firms. The idea that because people are bus conductors or street sweepers, for example, they have nothing to contribute to local authorities or that they cannot be trusted to take an impartial judgment is wide of the mark.

I find in Aberdeen, Glasgow and other places that often the most active discussions about local affairs take place in the trades councils. Members of trades councils are disbarred under the present law from taking part in local government but they provide first-class views not just on the service in which they work or operate but over the whole range of local government. It is very important that we should accept that people who work in local government should be allowed to stand for the local council.

We are not suggesting that there should be a complete removal of disqualification. We accept that senior officials such as town clerks and their deputies should not be able to be elected. With the widening of local government so many more people will be disqualified. At least under the old system it was possible for people to work for one authority and to stand for another if they lived in a different authority from that where they worked. The opportunity to do so has narrowed because of the extended districts and the new regions.

If we are serious about bringing more people into local government we must accept that there is a vast reservoir of untapped talent which is available for use if only we will permit ourselves to use it. Amongst that talent are people who are enthusiastic about local government and wish to take part in local government.

I accept that when an amendment is drafted to take care of such a provision—I recite our experience in Committee and what the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) found to his cost earlier—and it specifically sets out grades of people who will not be disqualified, someone will always have a complaint that the provision goes too far or that it does not go far enough and that for that reason the amendment should be rejected.

4.45 a.m.

We cover the position in Amendment No. 65 by leaving it to the Secretary of State from time to time to decide this issue—not in the early hours of the morning, or under pressure in Committee but soberly, once the Bill has become law, through discussions with the local authority associations, the unions, such as NALGO, the General and Municipal Workers Union and the Transport and General Workers Union and others. In that way he could work out arrangements which would allow those who wished to take part in local government to do so.

I hope that the Secretary of State will be a bit more accommodating than he was in Committee and that he will show one of his bouts of flexibility and accept our amendment, which protects the position and allows a great deal of merit to be imported into the Bill.

Mr. David Steel

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Robert Hughes) has made appallingly heavy weather of the point about the teaching profession. The point is that they are an easily identified group. At one point the hon. Member spoke of people in the town clerk's office. Practically, it would not be possible for, say, the shorthand-typist in the chief officer's office to be an elected member of that authority and, therefore, the employer of the person for whom she was working.

It is obviously difficult to cover in statute every category and that is why I believe that the amendment of my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), which identifies the teaching profession as an obvious and definable group and goes on to say that this principle should be applied to others, is a more acceptable amendment. Amendment No. 65 seems to suffer from the defect that the initiative still rests with the Secertary of State, and no disqualifications may be raised, whereas Amendment No. 248 would at least make a specific provision for one easily identifiable category which could make a contribution to local government. That exemption made by Parliament would spur on others, as we agree we want it to.

Mr. Robert Hughes

There is deep resentment among local authority employees because the only people who can be co-opted on to the education committee are teachers. That exemption has not spurred anyone into making similar provisions for other people.

Mr. Younger

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Robert Hughes) for giving us an opportunity to deal with this subject again. My position is as it was earlier. I recognise that there is a legitimate cause for concern here. We want to see that the law is brought up to date and that such disqualifications as there must be, and there must be some, are looked at in the context of electoral law. It must be looked at in the widest possible context, rather than making changes now of a piecemeal nature.

The correct way to put this right is surely through the medium of all-party discussions on the disqualifications of employees. Then the subject can be looked at in the round, as part of the whole picture, so that we can help in the fairest way. There probably always will be some categories of disqualification and it would be capricious and wrong to take one aspect and change only that. I do not see much prospect of this all-party study being completed swiftly. It is to include the local authority associations. Pressure of work on the new local authorities and on associations connected with reorganisation itself has already built up to formidable proportions in England and is clearly going to in Scotland, too. I hope that on reflection hon. Gentlemen, with whose sentiments on this I very much sympathise, will agree that this is something we must see done properly in the proper context and not rushed through at the wrong time.

In Committee I undertook to raise the subject with the local authorities and other interested parties as soon as the immediate preoccupations with reorganisation are out of the way. I hope that any changes resulting from the proposed study will be capable of implementation—not, of course, in the first elections, but in the elections thereafter.

I also promised to try to get the current views of the local authority associations before this Report stage. I am afraid there has not been time for me to have formal consultation with them, but I have been able to obtain from them informally some provisional views. I emphasise they are provisional. To summarise these, the associations are in favour of Clause 31 as it now stands. They welcome the proposal for an all-party study, but they think that anything which emerges from it should be dealt with by primary legislation, and not by a subordinate order-making power. I must emphasise that these are not formal statements of the local authority associations' viewpoints because, as I said, there has not been time formally to get them, but they are comments which give a reasonably clear and fair picture. So far as they go they confirm what I stated in Committee, that they prefer the situation as it now is and will be in Clause 31.

So, I am thoroughly sympathetic to the general proposition that we must review the law and bring it up to date, but I do not think it should be rushed through or done in a half-baked manner in this Bill. I would urge the House to agree.

Mr. Mackintosh

The simplest thing would be to remove all disqualification. We have laboured in a Victorian manner about this, when the position is that on most local authorities in Scotland there are few people who do not have, in a very broad sense, a special interest—not a pecuniary interest—in the way local government works. They are people concerned with property companies, companies associated with various activities, including building. They are people who belong to the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers or to the Municipal and General Workers Union. They are not from the major industrial unions, but they are people whose day-to-day work is involved in civil affairs. We do not exclude all those people, but we treat professional people, particularly people whose employment is from the municipalities, as though they would somehow warp the proceedings to their benefit. It is a ludicrous idea.

They would constantly be under observation lest they should do that, and would have continually to prove, as it were, that they did not seek election for any such improper reason. There are some sections of them who have a lot to offer local government. Other countries—Germany, for example—which have some trouble in getting good candidates for local government, have gone to the length of letting in the local civil servants, who have proved very satisfactory candidates.

The simplest way is to trust the electorate and the members of the authorities to see that there is no corruption and no axes being ground. The simplest way is to remove disqualification.

Mr. Hugh D. Brown

I think there is some slight improvement in the Government's approach to this subject. I do not know whether it has been due to an intimation that we would be pressing it again now, but the Minister is now on record as saying that he is sympathetic and will press forward, whatever that means. I appreciate that there are other matters with which he has to deal in the next year or so.

Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman has indicated that he genuinely on behalf of the Government wants to seek some change, but he shelters behind some informal provisional talks in which some unspecified people have told him that primary legislation is needed. That is no reason for not accepting the amendment, which is so widely drafted as not to rule out anyone doing anything, certainly in a specified time. The hon. Gentleman would be wise to accept the principle and then have his talks with the interested parties. That would be a more convincing demonstration that the Government truly believe in trying to eliminate at least some disqualifications.

I agree that the possibility of what I call the "civil service approach" should be examined. Of course there is a dilemma. We cannot blind ourselves to the fact that not all teachers are saints. Indeed, I sometimes think they are among the worst in wondering when the next promotion is coming. I think the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) is being a little naïve in suggesting that teachers necessarily bring a degree of impartiality which does not seem so commonly distributed among other people in local government.

But there should be a Civil Service approach whereby anyone interested could surely be given leave of absence or temporary secondment. We are dealing in some cases with big authorities which would not miss one or two top officials who might be inclined to enter local government as elected representatives. Why not make such provision? We would not be snowed under by applicants, certainly not with allowances as they are. Few people beyond the middle range of official would be attracted.

This kind of thinking needs to be done at least to bring in some people who could make a contribution to local government. I hope that the all-party discussions will be pursued and I think the amendment should be pressed, since it is a matter of principle. The public are suspicious of people in local government—over-suspicious in many regards. We have to assure them that people in local government as far as possible are free from pressure or personal interest, which can take many forms. We are entitled to try to show the public that we are concerned to improve the standard of elected representatives, and one group which could be tapped is the local government employees. I do not understand the Government's opposition to Amendment No. 65, which could be perfectly well accepted if they really believed in the principle.

5.0 a.m.

Mr. Ross

I am disappointed by the Government's action. No doubt we have been too timorous about ruling out certain people from standing as candidates. I do not like the amendment. It should not be left to councils to decide who should or should not stand as a candidate.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) said that teachers are mentioned only because they are an easily defined group, but so are janitors, members of direct labour departments and many others. Parliament has to decide that question, whereas the amendment provides for councillors to decide it, and that is a considerable weakness.

At one time councils had a discretionary right to decide whether to co-opt teachers on to education committees. The education committee is the very committee on which teachers should not serve. Local education authorities will have no right to make up their minds whether teachers should be on the education committee because the Bill makes it mandatory. It is an unsatisfactory solution.

Amendment No. 65 does not bring in new categories. The Under-Secretary of State assured us that there would be all-party discussions. He said that he would have to wait until the new local authority associations were formed and the new councils elected. It will not be before 1976 or 1977 that the talks are started. What date has the Minister in mind?

The Minister said that he had some opinions, and he was careful to say that they were informal. How did he get those opinions? Did the local authorities consult all their constituent bodies, or did the opinions come from one or two officials of the associations? I am surprised that these informal opinions should be of sufficient weight to be paraded before the House in support of the Government's attitude.

The Government have already made up their mind that they will need primary legislation after the discussions have taken place. It is not every day that the Government are able to get agreement to primary legislation. The Opposition are saying that if a decision were reached to widen the provisions there need be no delay because the power is already there.

I should have thought that the Government would jump at this and that, having had discussions, having come to a conclusion, and having determined to widen the exemptions, they would not feel it necessary to wait for a Bill to be introduced, to pass through the Scottish Standing Committee and to have its Report stage taken at an unearthly hour. Later today we shall relegate this important subject to second place in order to spend an hour and a half discussing some unimportant business relating to England and Wales. I have no doubt that the Tory Chief Whip and Secretary of State would again agree that the Scottish business might start at some time after 10 o'clock and that again we should find ourselves discussing these matters in the early hours of the morning.

It is not good enough, and no Minister will persuade me that any Department which really wants to do something quickly will accept the position that it will only be done on the basis of primary legislation when here there is an opportunity to take the power now.

To my mind, this is almost an earnest of the Government's intentions. I have the feeling that if a Committee came to the conclusion that there should be a certain widening, we should be told at Question Time after Question Time "We cannot tell you when legislation will be introduced, but it will be in due course", and then it would be relegated to the long legislative queue and we should wait years.

I am surprised that the Under-Secretary has not accepted Amendment No. 65. Certainly I should like to have this voted upon, but I do not want to see it voted upon with the House so dangerously sparse in its attendance. But I hope that the hon. Gentleman will think about it again. I do not want to ask my hon. Friends to pursue the matter, but we could do so at considerable length. It might be better if we broke off our discussions at this point so that with a very much fuller House we might again embark upon what is a very important principle from the point of view of participation in politics.

I am afraid that more and more people will be cut out of being able to serve on local authorities. Bearing in mind the size of the Western Region, in the whole of that area no teacher will be able to stand, no matter how interested he is in social work, in aspects of education or in roads, planning and the rest of it, by virtue of the fact that he is a teacher. The same is true of firemen and anyone else employed by the regional authority. It applies equally to those who are themselves involved in social work. I know people employed in Glasgow's social work department who are county councillors in Ayr. I think of one very good councillor from my own constituency. By virtue of the extension of social work to this great wide area, he will no longer be able to serve in the broader capacity as he does at present. His experience in respect of education, planning and the rest will be lost. Is that fair?

I am surprised that the Government did not institute inquiries into this a long time ago. When we talk about all-party talks, we have a capacity for taking up a great deal of work. It may be that the Scottish Office has been slightly preoccupied with other matters. The Under-Secretary has been Mr. Industry, Mr. Europe and Mr. Committee Room 14 for a long time. Bearing in mind that the hon. Gentleman has got rid of his responsibility for industry to somebody in the DTI and his responsibility for Europe to somebody else and is dealing only with this matter, surely he could have spared some time to organise some of us to talk to him about this important aspect. I hope that the Minister will do more than he has done. We are glad that these talks are to take place. We hope that they will not be postponed to an indefinite date, but that was the feeling that I got from what he said about everybody being so busy.

We must get down to this matter. We ought to be able to make these exceptions in time for the elections which will take place after the 1974 elections. It is a great pity that we cannot make them in time for the 1974 elections, but we should be able to arrange them for the elections thereafter. It is not outwith the bounds of possibility.

If the Under-Secretary does not accept Amendment No. 65, then, even though within a year we come to a decision about widening the categories of those who should be allowed to stand, he will not be able to put it into effect because he will not and is not likely to have the legislative power. Just think of what he has to do next year. My goodness, he has a whole list of things to do. He has to reform the whole feudal system. He has to introduce legislation to deal with the pledge that was given before the General Election—the great declaration of Perth. We heard something in the first Queen's Speech about proposals being brought forward. They will have to be brought forward at the latest in the next Session of Parliament. The hon. Gentleman and his Leader presented many other proposals to us. I see no hope at all, even though we may reach a conclusion about what we should do, of being able to get it done if we are to rest on primary legislation.

In Amendment No. 65 we are offering the hon. Gentleman an opportunity to do something. I wonder why the Government hesitate. I know it is late, but the hon. Gentleman has a chance. The Secretary of State is away, so we will rest upon him. He can make a name for himself. This can be yet known as the great Younger amendment—the day that he threw aside all the restraints of Whips, of Cabinets, and everything else and asserted himself in the cause of democracy in Scotland. Chuck them, George, and accept Amendment No. 65.

Mr. Grimond

I regret that the Government will not come a little further to meet us. Whatever differences there may be in the House, clearly hon. Members on both sides desire to make progress in this matter of widening the pool from which local councillors can be chosen.

I am fairly certain—I have not looked at the record—that when I raised this matter some time before the Bill went into Committee I was told by the Government that the proper time to consider it was in the Bill. Now, when the Bill comes before the House on Report, I am told that the proper time to consider the matter is outside the Bill. This is a good opportunity for the Government to make progress on a matter that everybody wants to tackle in some way. Certainly I am open to a redrafting of the amendment. However, it is disappointing after all this time to be told that nothing can be done until 1975.

Mr. Ross

Will the Under-Secretary indicate whether he is prepared to look at the matter again? After all, the Bill has yet to go to another place. Surely his mind is not closed to the possibility of taking this power. He may not be in a position to do anything much about it now, but may I ask whether he is prepared to indicate that he will look at it?

Mr. Younger

I was so excited by the exciting prospects that the right hon. Gentleman drew for me that I thought I had better not commit myself in case I excited him too much on the other side.

I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman the undertakings for which he asked. I cannot give him any more detail than I have already given. I take it from what he said that he felt we ought to aim at getting the matter settled in time for the first lot of elections after those which are to take place in 1974. I hope that that might be possible, and I shall be glad to take that away as the view that has been expressed today and say that I hope to achieve that timetable. I can go that far towards meeting the right hon. Gentleman, but no further.

5.15 a.m.

Mr. Mackintosh

On a point of order, Sir Robert. It is clearly the wish of the House to consider the matter, and it is clear, too, that hon. Members are dissatisfied with what the Government are doing. In view of the collapsed state of two or three hon. Members on the Government benches—in fact they are totally moribund—would it be in order to move that the debate be adjourned until tomorrow, when some hon. Gentlemen opposite may be better able to consider the amendments?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It would be in order for the hon. Member to try to move such a motion, but I should not accept it.

Mr. David Steel

On a point of order, Sir Robert. Amendment No. 248 was selected for discussion and Division if requested. Amendment No. 65 was selected for discussion only. During the debate the latter has received wider support than the former. Would it be possible for the Division to take place on Amendment No. 65 instead of on Amendment No. 248?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

If the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) would like to withdraw his amendment, I should be prepared to consider allowing a Division on the next one.

Question accordingly negatived.

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