HC Deb 12 November 1980 vol 992 cc489-94 3.57 pm
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make it unlawful for local government to discriminate on political grounds in making appointments. The purpose of the Bill that I am drawing to the attention of the House, in the hope that hon. Members will support me, is to make it unlawful for local government authorities to discriminate on the grounds of the political beliefs of applicants in the making of appointments.

The basic criterion that has characterised British local government has been that those who have enjoyed service in it have always respected the positions of those who have enjoyed the confidence of the electorate, and that they have continued to serve the authority, no matter which party controlled it.

In recent years, a number of challenges have arisen to that criterion, and it is a matter of sad regret on my part that I am a Member for a constituency that is part of the metropolitan borough of Walsall, and where a number—only a small number, I believe—of highly motivated individuals wish to challenge a principle that has long been central to the conduct of local government in this country.

I do not intend to deal with the matter in a particularly partisan fashion, but it is important to recognise that in order to bring forward a quality of officer who can best serve the interests of all the community one has to discount the political affiliations or affections of that individual.

Unfortunately, in the small group who control Walsall council it has now become a matter of policy to take into account the political allegiance of individuals. I shall cite approximately some of the policy tenets that this group has set forward. The group has stated as its policy—it did this prior to the local government elections of last year—and has emphasised its determination, by either appointment or influence, to direct the basic philosophy of council staff, acknowledging that this would have a far-reaching effect beyond any single policy matter.

The group further observed that that would have effects that, unlike some policies, would transcend elections. This House and our system of government is dedicated to the fact that no one has a monopoly on truth, and that any of our visions or views of the world are subject to the discretion of the electorate. Unfortunately, the tenet that is put forward by those who now control Walsall metropolitan borough is such that it would override or transcend the effect of elections. The history of the twentieth century is marred by those who have thought that the interests of their policies could be served by transcending elections. It is important for this House to respond to challenges and to matters that are important to the central themes of our political life, as it has done on past occasions.

In the past we have deemed discrimination on the basis of race or of sex to be improper. It is both harmful and wasteful of talent. Discrimination on the grounds put forward by my local authority would also be wasteful and harmful. What honourable career officer in local government could hazard his career by putting forward an application for appointment in a borough that is known to prejudice in favour of those who are, for the moment, sympathetic to their own political objectives? My fear is that for those people who live in Aldridge-Brownhills the quality of their services will be affected by reducing the numbers of those available to serve the whole community. For those reasons, I hope that the House will support the introduction of this Bill to prevent discrimination in appointments to local authorities.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who has been rising in his place, has given me notice that he wishes to oppose the motion.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Labour Members do not need lectures from Conservative Members about combating discrimination. For many years Lord Brockway, when he was a Member of this House, tried to introduce Bills to outlaw race discrimination. He received no support from Conservative Members. But he persisted, and it was a Labour Government who made racial discrimination illegal. Legislation to prevent women being penalised was introduced by a Labour Government and likewise, action was taken by a Labour Government to safeguard the position of the disabled. In terms of combating real discrimination—discrimination that penalties and humiliates people—Labour Members have fought strongly for anti-discrimination measures.

I oppose the introduction of the Bill because I believe that the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) has given a distorted picture to the House. I read in my local evening newspaper on 19 September about the appointment of a new deputy director of social services—a senior appointment, which was made after all the fuss and controversy relating to appointments in the borough. The new deputy director was quoted in that newspaper as saying: During the interview there was no overt or hinted reference to any political colour at all. There was no question of any poitical overtone. Some hon. Members may wish to reflect on the honour of that gentleman and suggest that he was not telling the truth, since he was appointed by the new Labour-controlled council. It is surprising that the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, who I assume saw the report, did not wish to bring it to the attention of the House. At present, the Walsall council is advertising for a housing director, and it is interesting to note from an article in the Local Government Chronicle that at its recent conference the Association of District Secretaries was enthusiastic about the council inviting candidates to look at the borough, rather than simply relying on the usual formal interview.

I suggest that the way in which the council is trying to provide proper services and ensure that the right people are appointed should be supported, and not criticised. The majority party on the council—I know that it has been subject to criticism and controversy—believes that those people who are appointed to senior positions and to jobs that are sensitive, in which the people involved will be interviewing members of the general public, should be sympathetic and responsive to the needs of the public in the borough.

Hon. Members are aware that constituents come to our surgeries with many problems, and our attitude as Members of Parliament is sympathetic because we understand that the people who come to see us, whether on housing, social security or other problems, come because they believe that their individual problem is important. Therefore, understandably, our attitude is sympathetic and understanding. Despite all the controversy, the council is making the point that the attitude of the officials should be responsible and sympathetic to those people in difficulty.

Recently, the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills made an accusation against Sandwell council about a closed shop agreement, and I note from yesterday's evening paper that the hon. Gentleman has admitted that he was wrong. He said that the closed shop agreement in Sandwell was illegal, and he now admits that it is nothing of the sort. My advice to the hon. Gentleman is that he should not be so quick to criticise councils. He should think about what they are trying to do.

Mr. Richard Shepherd

Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that he advocates my case more effectively in fighting to do away with discrimination of the nature that I have outlined today?

Mr. Winnick

Just as the hon. Gentleman has seen fit to apologise about his accusation against Sandwell council, I wait for the day when he will apologise for his remarks regarding Walsall council.

The borough undoubtedly faces many housing and environmental problems. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman uses his time in this House to bring in a sham Bill—a Bill without any need or justification. It would have been far better if he had tried to present the problems that we face in the borough. For example—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must merely say why he is opposed to the Bill being introduced.

Mr. Winnick

I oppose the introduction of the Bill because it is unnecessary and because the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills has given a misleading and distorted picture to the House. It is important that Walsall borough has claimed designation under the Inner Urban Areas Act 1978. There is no controversy in the borough on the question that the council should receive such designation because of the problems that it faces, but the hon. Gentleman has seen fit not to give support.

One of the reasons—

Mr. Shepherd

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The purpose of my Bill is to try to outlaw discrimination in appointments to local authorities. I fail to see the relevance of the arguments of the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick).

Mr. Winnick


Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) has a valid point. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) must confine himself to answering—[Hon. Members: "He cannot."] Order. In his opposition to the Bill being put forward, the hon. Member must confine himself to answering the arguments that were advanced.

Mr. Winnick

What I am saying, Mr. Speaker, basically, is that there is no such discrimination as argued by the hon. Member, but there is discrimination by the present Government against the borough as a whole. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] It seems to me that the sort of problems that are being faced in the borough—problems over housing, problems involving the environment, and the fact that we have not been designated under the Inner Urban Areas Act—are the sort of problems that we should be debating in this House, and not the sham measure that the hon. Member proposes.

One of the reasons, which is very relevant to the measure being introduced by the hon. Member—

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)


Mr. Winnick

One of the reasons—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I should like to make it clear that it is customary, on a Ten-Minute Bill, for a short statement to be made from either side, normally without interruption, and usually both sides relate their arguments to the issue.

Mr. Winnick

I can well understand the impatience and irritation of the Tories, because they are engaged in a purely propaganda exercise and they do not like the facts being presented to them.

One of the reasons that the hon. Member gave for not supporting the council's application for designation—and this is relevant to what he said—is that he has not been getting a prompt response to letters that he has sent to council departments. This occurred before Labour took over.

If a Member of Parliament has had difficulty in getting replies from council departments—this was before Labour took over—it is understandable that the members of the council who now control the local authority should be concerned about the lack of response to the general public. Hence their wish to appoint people who are sympathetic and who understand the problems of people who come to the civic centre with their issues.

I therefore argue that what has been presented today is not necessary. It is irrelevant to the needs of the borough. It is unfortunate that the hon. Member has seen fit to abuse the House by bringing in this shabby Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Richard Shepherd, Mrs. Sheila Faith, Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark, Sir Nicholas Bonsor, Mr. John Butcher, and Mr. John Heddle.