HC Deb 10 May 1984 vol 59 cc1136-7
Mr. Simon Hughes

I beg to move amendment No. 55, in page 3, line 42, leave out

`not later than one month'

and insert 'at its first meeting'.

The purpose of the amendment is to determine the period after which the borough councils in London, and the district councils in the metropolitan county areas, would take decisions to replace people needed to fill vacancies on the county authorities. It was tabled for reasons of practicability. The fact that we had to table it suggests that yet again the Government do not understand or appreciate or have not reflected upon the practical day—to—day workings of local authorities.

It is usual practice in local authorities for there to be a six—week cycle of council meetings. It will therefore by impossible for the authorities to comply with the provisions of subsection (3). If what the Government intend happens, unless they can point us to some ancillary provision that we have not noticed, if a vacancy occurs at the relevant date as defined in subsection (4)—

the date on which the person in question ceased to be a member of the constituent council and,"—

in certain cases—

the date on which notice of the vacancy is given to the constituent council"—

an appointment has to be made within a month.

What happens if a local authority has just had its cycle council meeting? It would not normally meet again for about another five weeks. Without calling a special meeting of the council. It might be impossible to have such a meeting. The implication is that either a special meeting of the council would have to be called—which costs money because the town hall would have to be opened up and lighting and other things paid for, and there is also the inconvenience to councillors — or councils do not do what the Government are clearly determined that they should do, that is, ensure that the decision is made by the whole council.

Now that it has been clearly stated by the Liberal party, the Social Democratic party and the Labour party that, in their view, the Bill is a total muddle—the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), the former Prime Minister, called it "a dog's breakfast" in the early hours of the morning—we do not want the powers to replace people when vacancies arise to be handed out of the control of the full council to a sub—committee or majority group or other less democratic and visibly accountable body.

If vacancies arise — I regret that the amendments were not proceeded with because we need to ensure that appointing authorities cannot pull people out after one meeting—they have to be filled by the council, and the convenient time to do that is at the council's first meeting after "the relevant date". I hope that the Government will accept the strength of that argument on practical grounds today and accept our amendment or bring forward their own amendment so that the Bill can proceed in a more practical way.

Sir George Young

No one is more aware of the mechanics of local government than myself, having served on a London borough council and the GLC. I am also aware of the time scales. I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the assurance which he sought towards the end of his remarks. In a nutshell, the debate is between speed — the necessity to replace people and fill vacancies when they occur—and convenience, and to a small extent cost, if special meetings of the council have to be called to fill a vacancy. We do not envisage great use of the powers. They are necessary to replace someone who, for whatever reason, can no longer serve on a transitional council. But, as I said in reply to the previous debate, we do not envisage a merry—go—round or a constant changing of members of the transitional councils.

The point of putting a one—month time limit on the filling of casual vacancies is merely to ensure that they are filled, notified and commenced as soon as possible after they occur. The transitional councils have only 11 months to run and there will be quite a lot of work to be done in that period. Waiting for the next scheduled council meeting might mean a delay of six or seven weeks, or more, and several weeks' valuable experience for an appointee could be lost. I believe that one month will be ample time for a council to make an appointment. Indeed, I hope that most casual vacancies will be filled in considerably less time than that.

Therefore, I ask the Committee to reject the amendment. We place a greater priority on speed and filling a vacancy than on the arguments of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes).

Mr. Simon Hughes

I understand why the Government resist the amendment, but I do not find their argument convincing. It is part of the package which adds to the administrative muddle which local councils will have to cope with. Although speed is vital, I had hoped that the Government would accept the amendment and therefore do something about limiting the number of times that vacancies will occur. However, having heard that about half an hour ago members of the other place defeated the Government on the Housing and Building Control Bill for a second time, I still have some hope the Government might be affected by the risk of being defeated again on this and many other matters. Nevertheless, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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