HC Deb 11 April 2000 vol 348 cc203-87

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

I should inform the House that Madam Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. Madam Speaker has also imposed a 15-minute restriction on Back Benchers' speeches.

4.30 pm
The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State rang me last night sending his apologies to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. He also sent very special greetings to the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman). My right hon. Friend has, of course, been in Japan at a G8 meeting of Environment Ministers, and has also had a meeting with the new Japanese Prime Minister. He is currently travelling home.

Last spring, the House debated the Government's first Local Government Bill. That legislation introduced the new duty of best value, which came into force last week. This Bill takes another firm step towards modern local government. It has already been considered in draft by a Joint Committee of both Houses last Session, and by their lordships.

Over the past three years—in stark contrast to the ideological dogma that underpinned the Conservative party' s approach to local government—the Government have worked to develop a new partnership with local people and local councils. We have worked to give local people a bigger stake in shaping their future, and to revitalise local democracy—fostering new local democratic institutions that are appropriate for the new millennium.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the Minister explain how, in a scripted speech, she has the brass neck to go on about ideological dogma when the principal purpose of the Bill is compulsorily to impose a system that thousands of councillors regard as less accountable, less transparent and less representative? Why does not she listen to the view of Lord Dixon-Smith, who opposes the compulsory provision? He has 28 years of experience in local government, in contrast to her meagre three years of service there.

Ms Armstrong

I was clearly wrong to give way, so I shall continue with my speech. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will learn something from it, and realise that he has made a few mistakes.

We have increased the level of resources available to local councils to meet local needs. We have established new partnerships, giving local councillors real influence in shaping national policies. We have abolished crude and universal capping, and we have replaced the ideological dead hand of compulsory competitive tendering with a new best value regime that has been widely welcomed by local authorities and is already delivering better value local services for local people. We are putting local people at the centre of determining what works best for them in their localities.

The new Local Government Bill builds on the foundations of that new partnership and delivers a new democratic settlement for local communities. The Bill will bring new life to local government, bringing an end to the red-tape town hall committee culture and building modern local government that puts local people at the centre of decision making and enlivens local democracy.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

How does the right hon. Lady square this extraordinary paean for her own efforts over the past three years with the brutal shift of £500 million of central Government money from the shire counties to the inner cities?

Ms Armstrong

The hon. Gentleman cannot add up. This Government, in contrast to the previous Government, have put a further 7.8 per cent. in real terms into local government over the past three years. It is not true that £500 million less goes to shire areas now than they had at the start of this Parliament, or than they would have had if the Conservative Government had continued in office. Over the three years before the election, local government finance was cut by 4.3 per cent.

The Government's modernising agenda for local government is a unified package: changes in local political structures are integral to effective service delivery. Modern local government is, in turn, a vital part of the fabric of the dynamic, democratic, fair and inclusive society that people want to see. It is vital to securing the quality of life that people deserve and have a right to expect.

The Bill makes much clearer to the public the fact that local councils are there to serve, and the public will understand more clearly who is accountable for local decisions and where the buck stops when things go wrong. That is a vital component of any democratic renewal. The Bill is intended to bring new life to local democracy and to create dynamic local government that listens to what people really want.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

The right hon. Lady refers to accountability to the public, but many people are worried that public access to council meetings and decision making will be restricted. The Darlington Labour council leader said: Holding meetings in public would merely create a theatrical experience for onlookers. Does the right hon. Lady agree that the Bill will increase secrecy, lack of openness and lack of transparency in local government?

Ms Armstrong

As my speech continues, I shall deal with those issues. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will enjoy that part of my speech, and he can wait for it to come.

The vast majority of local councils have already begun to modernise their working arrangements by consulting their public and devising new ways of working that empower them to tackle 21st century problems. The Bill will create the framework so that all citizens can be assured that they are governed locally by a local authority that is fit for the purpose for the new millennium.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

Will the Minister give way on that point?

Ms Armstrong

Which point?

Mr. Gray

I wished to intervene on the point that the right hon. Lady was making. She obviously did not gather that.

Along with all the new Labour cant words that she uses, the right hon. Lady makes great play of allowing local authorities to decide how they will run themselves and modernise themselves for the new century. Why, then, has she said specifically that most councils in the land may not do what they wish, but must conform to one of the three options that she offers them? Why has she ignored the unanimous cross-party recommendation from the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee, on which I served?

Ms Armstrong

I am coming to that point. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was challenging my saying that we are in the new millennium. Given where he is coming from, I would not have been surprised if he had.

Local councils have a vital role in exercising community leadership. They know that if they are to carry out that role effectively, they need to modernise the way in which they work to meet new demands—for example, social inclusion, community safety and sustainable regeneration—in addition to local government's historic purposes of nurturing and educating our children and protecting the vulnerable.

Only modern councils can carry out those vital roles—councils that are in touch with the people, with councillors scrutinising the work of executive members and thus ensuring that those who make the decisions locally are held accountable for those decisions locally. They will deliver better quality local services in a responsive way, and work within a strong, clear ethical framework that strengthens the bond of trust between the community and those who seek to serve it.

The Government are committed to ensuring that the devolution settlement for Wales is reflected in this legislation, and we have been working with the National Assembly to achieve that. Both the Government and the Assembly agree that it is essential to get the arrangements for local government right. We are listening to views in Wales to ensure that we get the approach right for Wales, and it is up to councils in England and Wales to listen to their local communities too.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

Before the Minister leaves the subject of Wales, will she say something about community planning? I appreciate the work that has gone into the co-operation between the Government and the National Assembly, but the Welsh Local Government Association has requested that the Bill impose on local authorities a duty to undertake community planning, rather than merely giving them the power to do so.

Ms Armstrong

I am becoming more and more convinced that I should not take interventions, because the next point in my speech is to reaffirm that the Government have already told the House of Lords that we have agreed that point with the Welsh Assembly and other bodies.

Part I gives local authorities a broad new power to promote or improve the economic, social or environmental well-being of their areas, or of the people who live there. It will give the initiative back to local authorities, enabling them to take new action to respond to the specific needs of their communities, and build new partnerships with other local bodies to deliver real improvements in local conditions.

Accountable councils in this age can do more than just deliver services. They also give clear direction to their communities, and help to ensure that local action reflects local priorities and is co-ordinated effectively. Effective community leadership means generating support for change and working with others to deliver that change. It means managing and negotiating differences and co-ordinating and facilitating action by others, not just by the council itself.

That is why community strategies are such an important part of our plans to modernise local government. With the new power to promote well-being, it will be for local authorities and their communities to determine what action should be taken. We therefore want to see strategies being prepared by "local strategic partnerships", bringing together councils, public sector agencies, local businesses, voluntary organisations and local communities. Those strategies should set out a shared vision for the community that reflects local aspirations and recognises the potential for all sections of the community to contribute ideas and resources.

Because of the importance that we attach to that role, and the potential for effective community planning to help deliver many of the changes that are essential if local quality of life is to be improved, we will table appropriate amendments to give local authorities a duty, rather than simply a power, to undertake community planning.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley)

Clause 3 deals with the limits that will be put on local authorities' powers, and with the prospect that that will be done through guidance. When the Bill goes into Standing Committee, will that Committee be able to see examples of that guidance, and know where the Government intend to put the limits?

Ms Armstrong

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have consistently sought to give the House opportunities to see guidance and regulations during the passage of legislation through the House. We certainly intend to do the same this time, and substantial draft guidance has already been issued in relation to other parts of the Bill. We have received comments on that guidance, and some of the Government amendments will reflect that process. We want to rework the proposals constantly, in the light of the ideas and views that are brought forward.

The new powers and responsibilities for local government, in addition to the new responsibilities in connection with best value and the new freedoms arising from changes in the financial regime, present both challenges and opportunities for modern councils.

The traditional council committee structure is not well placed to deal with the new responsibilities that modernisation brings—it simply cannot cope. Local people deserve better. That is what the reforms of the political management system will provide—a more efficient, transparent and accountable system that can meet the challenges of modern governance.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Ms Armstrong

If my hon. Friend does not mind, I will finish this section of my speech, because I suspect that it deals with a matter that he wants to raise.

Amendments were carried in the other place which have contradictory effects, but which essentially could allow councils to retain the status quo. That cannot be an option. We simply do not agree that the outdated committee system can deliver. All councils will have to change to reflect the new demands on them and the expectations of local people.

Under these provisions, councils will draw up new constitutions in which the full council, meeting in public, decides the policy framework and budget, while the executive—whatever its form—is accountable for implementing the policies and delivering the services that local people want within that policy framework. The overview and scrutiny committees will hold the executive to account for what they have done and what they are planning to do. The provisions will also ensure that councils consider how the implementation of service delivery is working for the citizen.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Will the Minister give way?

Ms Armstrong

I really should give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) first.

Mr. Smith

The Minister said that the Government were in the business of devolving power. However, the Bill centralises power, in the hands of either a mayor or a leader with a cabinet. I accept that some local authorities may want that system, but others prefer the status quo. If the Government really are in the business of devolving power, those local authorities should have the opportunity to develop a system that reflects the problems and ambitions of their local community.

Ms Armstrong

I think that my hon. Friend has not recognised that many councils are already changing, not because we say so, but because they know that the present system simply cannot meet people's needs. If my hon. Friends will bear with me until I am further into my speech, I will develop those arguments.

We will not force councils down one route. The options available to them are far more extensive than anything for the past 150 years. I remind the House that the current system was introduced when the only people who went into local government belonged to the squirearchy—the people who owned land. [Interruption.] Friends of Conservative Members, obviously. Committee systems were set up for people to come together every now and again to agree matters—not very many—for their area. That is the basic system, and it is the only legal system that can be used today.

Three broad types of executive are set out in the Bill—mayor and cabinet, leader and cabinet, mayor and council manager. There is, however, considerable scope for diversity within those options to meet local circumstances. Local councils will, for the first time for more than 150 years, be able to develop different structures that reflect the different local circumstances. The options allow great variation within each framework, even though many have failed to recognise that.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

I hate to have to disagree with the conclusion to which my right hon. Friend is coming on the Bill, but is it not a fact that the Joint Committee, on which I served, expressed the view that an improved status quo should be offered within the Bill? That would not be the status quo exactly as it is now, but a fourth option—an improved status quo.

Ms Armstrong

Amendments have been made to the Bill, and they reflect the ideas that came from the Joint Committee. I hope that my hon. Friend will have the opportunity to express those ideas in Committee. We are prepared to consider other ways of doing things. I want to be responsive to the points that my hon. Friend is making, but I also want to enable councils to ensure that they can conduct their business in ways that deal with the issues that face them today—the issues involved in being a community leader—in a way that frequently has simply not been their role in the past. That is much more important today than previously.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Ms Armstrong

I am trying to deal with the previous intervention.

Hon. Members


Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

She has lost her cliché.

Ms Armstrong

I will give way to my hon. Friend.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I am deeply grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way so graciously. I want to ask her one simple question. All the systems that she has outlined will require tough scrutiny and, as she knows, scrutiny committees are not always met with unalloyed appreciation when they express their views. What measures in the Bill will guarantee that a scrutiny committee will be given sufficient resources to deal with the real possibility of corruption and distortion of honesty in relation to council matters, and will be independent of the people who are working for the leader and the tiny group around him or her?

Ms Armstrong

I agree that scrutiny is ever more important—and that that is one of the problems with the status quo. There is no opportunity within the status quo legitimately to pursue scrutiny. That is one of the reasons why we say that there needs to be a change. As my hon. Friend may already know, we as a party have already made it absolutely clear that no whip will be allowed on scrutiny committees. We are discussing and working with the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and other officers to ensure that they are content that they will have the appropriate mechanisms to support scrutiny properly. They are discussing with us the nature of the guidance and so on that will go alongside the Bill to secure exactly what my hon. Friend asks for.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Ms Armstrong

I have to make some progress with my speech. I shall be more than happy to give way in a moment or two.

The Bill makes it clear that local people will decide the form of the executive, but our reforms are not simply about mayors and cabinets. The executive is only one half of the new executive arrangements. The other half—overview and scrutiny—is equally important. Indeed, I have said consistently that when setting up a new constitution, councils should consider overview and scrutiny first, because without effective overview and scrutiny, any new executive arrangements simply will not work. It is also clear that the representative role of councillors will become much more important. Councillors will spend more time bringing the views of local people and stakeholders to bear on the development and implementation of the council's policy, either through the overview and scrutiny committees or in full council meetings.

It has been said that those councillors will be second class. I reject that. The role is different, but it is no less important than that of any member of the executive. The present committee system offers no opportunity for the routine scrutiny of decisions, nor for regular and systematic examination of their implementation. No one can defend that.

Dr. Lynne Jones

I assure my right hon. Friend that when I was a member of Birmingham city council, I took extremely seriously the scrutiny of policy—as I do in this place. As a member of the council, I was able to do so because I had access to officers.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the need for community leaders. Surely, the real impediment to true community leadership is interference from Government.

Ms Armstrong

That is why the Bill includes proposals to give local government far more freedom to develop matters—that is what the well-being power is all about.

I am aware that my hon. Friend, as the chair of a council committee, made sure that she followed up policies and policy development. That was not the point that I was making. My point is that it is the responsibility of the council to do that, and to do so in public so that the public are involved and can ensure that questions are asked and that there is accountability. That is the key to these changes—many people have not yet realised that.

It is clear that the representative role of councillors will become much more important. Councillors will spend more time bringing the views of local people and stakeholders to bear on the development and implementation of the council's policies, either through the overview and scrutiny committees or in council meetings.

Some people have asked why the Bill does not insist that executives meet in public. The executive is not a committee; individual members will be given the right to take decisions. Indeed, at present many decisions are delegated to officers. A formal event, such as a public meeting, does not make an arrangement transparent or accountable. If we are honest, we all know what really happens. Frequently, a political group meets to debate the options and to take decisions; often, there are not even minutes of the meeting. If minutes are taken, they are certainly not made public. The meetings are not open or accountable. The committee then formally takes a decision, often without even revealing which options were considered. That is what happens at present; it is not open and transparent.

It is right that members of an executive should have the opportunity to think. Decisions will be published—as will reasons and background papers. In the draft guidance, we have already stated that significant decisions should not be a surprise to those whom they affect. Too many councils have rushed into interim arrangements that have not taken into account the points made in the draft guidance.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

I agree with the Minister that decisions made in caucus—whatever the political party—do not serve the public well. They are not open and transparent to the public. However, how on earth will private meetings of executives—in closed session—help the participation of the public? How are the public to know about the debate and the decisions? The executives will merely present them with a fait accompli. How will the Bill result in greater participation, transparency or openness?

Ms Armstrong

As I have already said, the executive is not a committee. Decisions will be published, and will be published quickly; the options that have been considered will be published; and the minutes that lead to the decisions and the way in which the decisions are taken will be published. All that will be open to scrutiny. Therefore, decisions will be accountable in a way that decisions taken at the moment are simply not accountable. I urge my hon. Friends to consider how people take decisions and take time to think. If an individual takes a decision, it is very difficult to legislate for that decision to be taken in public.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

I have listened carefully to my right hon. Friend. However, if people come to believe that there is more secrecy under the new arrangements than under the old arrangements, the whole intent of the Bill, which is to revitalise local democracy, will be undermined from the start. Surely the Bill's drafting must ensure that that does not happen.

Ms Armstrong

I agree with my hon. Friend. I am trying to describe the real problems that there are with the argument that one obtains openness by formally taking decisions in public. I do not believe that that guarantees openness or accountability. We want to ensure that all the options considered are in the open and that the way in which they are considered and the advice given on them receive proper scrutiny. After all, we are well used to such a system in this Chamber, and our proposal will lead to improvements in the quality of decision making in local government and to the way in which such decisions are held accountable.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

Is not one of the key points that we should consider the ability of people who may be interested in a decision to have an influence on that decision before it is a made? If an executive meets in private, how can anyone have an influence on a decision before it is made? At present, under the system that involves party political groups, people know that decisions are being made or are being considered, so they have an opportunity to try to influence them.

Ms Armstrong

My hon. Friend obviously did not hear or understand what I said. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] We are trying to hold a debate, but Conservative Members are not used to that.

In the draft guidance, we say that significant decisions should not be a surprise to those whom they may affect, and there is much more in the guidance on that point. It explains how executives will consult on, and work through, options before they take a decision. Some authorities—and members of them are present today—take careful pre-scrutiny positions so that their scrutiny committees are involved before a decision is made. Some of those decisions will be taken in public. However, some emergency decisions are taken by an officer without people receiving any prior knowledge. Such decisions do not receive scrutiny and they are not accountable. In future, emergency decisions will be taken by an executive, and they may need to be taken quickly on the day that a problem arises. In those circumstances, it would be difficult and might threaten the safety of children or other people if executives were not able to take decisions without having to give the three-days' notice that is in the current arrangements. The aim is to achieve more open and accountable decision making. I hope that the ideas of colleagues and others will enable us to include a process in the Bill that people are convinced is more open and will allow proper decision making.

Mr. Gray

Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Ms Armstrong

No, I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman.

I urge all councils and councillors to recognise that the new system is part of a new culture of openness, accountability and closer working relationships with the public, and I hope that they will introduce ways of working that express that culture and which are not bound up with traditional methods.

Mr. Llew Smith

As I understand it, the Bill does not require the executive even to publish the agenda. If it does not, how can people outside the executive—other councillors and the general public—know what policies are being discussed and what options are available?

Ms Armstrong

That is precisely why I say that there should be a new culture. On some occasions, it would be absolutely right and possible to publish an agenda, but if, for example, a child abuse case required a quick decision, there would be no opportunity to publish an agenda. Hon. Members say that we can deal with such situations now, but we are seeking to ensure that elected members make those decisions, whereas in the past they have been almost exclusively delegated to officers. Such a shift requires new rules. If councils are working within that—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I know that the right hon. Lady is seeking to answer points made by her colleagues, but she should be addressing the Chair, not turning her back on me.

Ms Armstrong

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I usually talk only to the Chair, but sometimes I feel that I am being rude to those behind me.

I am seeking to make sure that hon. Members know that we aim to introduce a new culture, but we are also trying to find ways to ensure that there is proper, effective decision making. It is clear that Opposition Members do not want proper, effective decision making; they are simply looking for ways to have a go at local government.

I move now to part III, which introduces the new ethical framework. That is an integral part of our plans to bring new life to local democracy. Effective democratic government is dependent on the bond of trust between the community and those who represent them, whether in local, regional or central Government. Restoring and strengthening that bond is vital. No unethical behaviour is acceptable. In the few cases where it does occur, we need to make sure that there is a suitable framework for investigating and punishing any wrongdoing. Part III establishes such a framework.

Sir Paul Beresford

Many hon. Members on both sides of the House are deeply concerned that the mechanism that the Minister is setting up will engender the possibility of more corruption. Part of her answer to that point is the scrutiny committee, which she says should not be whipped. If, however, she has read the evidence given to the Select Committee by the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council, she will be aware of the pressure of patronage—cronyism. How can she answer that point?

Ms Armstrong

Every system, as we know, is open to corruption. We intend to make sure that there are methods of dealing with wrong-doing, by making processes as open and accountable as possible, in a way that they are not at the moment. We hope that the Bill will ensure that anybody who is interested in coming into public service for corrupt means thinks that it is not worth trying to do so. I believe that the provisions in part III will help us to do that.

Those provisions establish a framework, the principal components of which are: statutory codes of conduct to which all members of local authorities must sign up; standards committees within councils to promote and maintain high standards of conduct; and an independent mechanism for the investigation of allegations of misconduct. In England, the latter function will be the role of a new body, the Standards Board; and in Wales, the Commission for Local Administration in Wales will take on the task. There will also be a separate tribunal mechanism with the power to impose suitable penalties, ranging from censure to suspension from standing as a councillor for up to five years. Alongside those arrangements, the Bill includes provision for the repeal of surcharging. That is in line with the recommendations of the Nolan committee and, more recently, the Joint Committee that considered the draft Bill.

The welfare services provisions in clauses 86 and 87 are only a small part of the Bill, but they are vital to many people in Great Britain. They are designed to improve the quality and diversity of support services by introducing a new holistic planning and grant-making system at local level. That means that vulnerable people will be able to receive the support they need to live independently in the community, and it gives local authorities an important community leadership role in the planning and provision of services in partnership with others.

We shall table an amendment in Committee to facilitate joint working through a one-off transfer of data at the point of change to the new system. That will ensure that vulnerable people continue to receive the vital services they need during the changeover period, and beyond.

Mr. Bercow

Will the Minister give way?

Ms Armstrong

On this point?

Mr. Bercow

Yes—it is a most important point. The right hon. Lady rightly refers to standards committees, and I am sure that she is familiar with the provisions of clause 49. Will the regulations governing the size and composition of those committees be subject to the negative or the affirmative procedure?

Ms Armstrong

That is not the point to which I was speaking, but never mind. I am sure that that will be an issue of debate in Committee—

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

She does not know!

Ms Armstrong

We have not yet finished the Bill. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we worked co-operatively on the previous legislation; on many occasions when pressure was exerted in Committee to change provisions in the Bill, we agreed to do so. I do not want to preclude the possibility of doing that with this Bill. Perhaps he likes to work in a confrontational way, but I prefer to work, as far as possible, in a co-operative way—as he knows from his experience on previous legislation.

The Government also intend to introduce an amendment to the Bill that will enable local authorities to respond better to the needs of the national child care strategy. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), submitted an outline of the amendment in a parliamentary answer given today. Local authorities cannot pass on any of the costs of the child care that they provide to parents who receive the working families tax credit. We will continue to provide free child care where children are in need, but we want the child care tax credit within the WFTC to help families with their child care costs. Therefore, the amendment will allow local authorities to charge other parents receiving WFTC a proportion of their child care costs.

Clause 91 amends section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986—more infamously known as section 28. The Government are committed to its repeal and will table amendments to achieve that. It would be fair to say that the debate so far on this issue has generated more heat than light, so before Opposition Members attempt to raise the temperature again, let me set out clearly the limits and deficiencies of the legislation.

Contrary to popular belief, section 2A does not apply to schools and, therefore, has no effect on what is taught in the classroom. That was clearly recognised by the previous Government and was spelled out in guidance that they issued in 1994. It does, however, inhibit local authorities from addressing the legitimate needs of a particular section of their communities. The Government believe that there is no place for such discriminatory legislation on the statute book.

Local authorities should be free to address the needs of the gay community in exactly the same way as they address the needs of other groups, and it should be for authorities—properly accountable to local people—to decide what action they need to take to improve the quality of life of all sections of their community. That simple principle is at the heart of the Bill. I make no apologies for it, and none for telling the House that we will table amendments to the Bill to repeal section 2A of the 1986 Act.

In response to an earlier intervention, I can say that there are considerable doubts whether section 2A is compatible with the European convention on human rights. Clause 91, inserted in the other place, amends but also reaffirms the provisions of section 2A. By extension, the amendment makes it doubtful that the Bill is compatible with the European convention on human rights.

Mr. Robathan

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady. She said that the measure did not affect schools, but section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 states that a local authority shall not promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship. Does the right hon. Lady want local authorities to spend money on that?

Ms Armstrong

That Act was overtaken by a subsequent Education Act, which put the teaching of sex education in the hands of governors, in consultation with parents. The previous Government issued guidance which made that clear. The guidance stated that section 28 could not apply in schools.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I have no hesitation in supporting the amendments that the Government are to introduce on the matter. On the issue of law making, however, my right hon. Friend should publish the advice that she was given. I find the Bill neutral. The previous Act may be contrary to human rights, but the Bill is not. When the Human Rights Bill went through another place, the Lord Chancellor said that there would be a burden on Government to explain why it was not possible, unusually, to make a statement of human rights compliance.

It should also be borne in mind that, since the case of Pepper v. Hart, what is said in the Chamber can be considered by the Law Lords. Unless the fact of human rights compliance is explicitly stated on the Floor of the House or in the explanatory memorandum, which is silent on the matter, there could be confusion rather than clarity. Will my right hon. Friend therefore publish the advice that she received?

Ms Armstrong

I have made it clear that we believe that there are considerable doubts whether section 2A is compatible. It is our responsibility to say that we are certain that a Bill is compatible. We are not certain; there are considerable doubts. I believe that the comments on the Bill have been published, as the advice was given by lawyers to the organisation known as Justice. My hon. Friend says that the Bill may be compatible, but because it amends section 2A that may bring its compatibility into doubt.

As we move into the 21st century, we also move towards a new era of local government and local partnership, with councils working together—

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

The Minister claimed that the Local Government Act 1988, which includes section 28, was superseded by another Act. However, I believed that we were considering section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986, which was superseded by the 1988 Act. The 1988 Act should therefore prevail. However, is the Minister suggesting that the European convention on human rights will render the House powerless to protect children and to uphold the protection that parents want enshrined in law?

Ms Armstrong

Section 28 is not about protecting children. The Government have made their position clear on the responsibilities of sex and relationship education. The Education Act 1994 places the responsibility for that clearly in the hands of governors in consultation with parents. We affirm that.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment said that he would publish guidance, which clearly outlines the way in which governors should deal with sex and relationship education. Teaching and work with children have nothing to do with section 28. Conservative Members should bear that in mind when they vehemently oppose abolishing section 28. They are not trying to protect children. I wonder what they are trying to do if not to promote prejudice and bigotry in this country.

Mr. Mackinlay

If it is not possible to get the Bill through Parliament in the form that my right hon. Friend and I would like, perhaps because of decisions in the other place, we will face the dilemma of whether to enact a Bill that does not comply with the European convention on human rights. That would be misunderstood around the world, because the Bill also covers mayors, elections and so on. It would be perverse if, to correct stupid law making under previous Governments and poor advice from the Lord Chancellor, we ultimately produced an Act which stated that it contravened human rights legislation. That is bonkers.

Ms Armstrong

That is not a matter for me. I am not in charge of the House's decisions. I believe that the House will make the Bill compatible with the European convention on human rights. I hope that Opposition Members and Members in another place will take note.

As we move into the 21st century, we are also moving towards a new era of local government and local partnership, with councils working together with other organisations and local people to improve the quality of life in their local communities. Many local authorities already have a vision of their future; the Bill should give them the means to realise it.

As I explained earlier, the version of the Bill that has been brought to this House from another place is not yet in the form that the Government would like. We shall propose changes when we progress to the next stage. I repeat that we want the Bill to be compatible with human rights legislation.

The Bill is far from being a centralising measure. We intend it to return local government to the heart of local communities. It grants new powers and their attendant responsibilities to councils and the local people whom they serve. The Bill should receive a Second Reading.

5.24 pm
Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells)

I beg to move, To leave out from "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Local Government Bill [Lords] because it is a centralising measure which will have the effect of undermining local democracy, because it will put pressure on local councils to introduce structures which may not suit local needs and circumstances, which will tend to encourage and facilitate a culture of secrecy and lack of consultation, engender corruption, diminish the role of ordinary councillors, encourage the growth of a class of professional local politicians with large salaries, pensions and other fringe benefits, and place officers in a position of potential conflict of interest, because the arrangements in the Bill for the conduct of local referenda in respect of elected mayors are inadequate, because the new power to promote economic, social and environmental well-being, while welcome in principle, is insufficiently defined and overly subject to ministerial interference, because the powers being taken relating to the frequency of elections are too centralising in their nature, and because, although containing welcome provisions relating to the protection of school children from the promotion of homosexuality in schools and from bullying, and the conduct of local councillors and officers, it fails to provide for open, accountable and empowered local government with councils adopting structures that best suit local needs, including modernised and streamlined versions of the committee system".

I regret the Deputy Prime Minister's absence, although, having heard the genuine concerns expressed from both sides of the House, I can understand why he chose today to be absent. I understand that he is on important business, but I trust that the Minister will pass on my greetings and say that we have missed his inimitable contribution to the debate on Second Reading of another significant Bill.

The Minister made a torrent of extravagant claims. I have never heard so much jargon on a single issue. She said that the Bill will revitalise local democracy, put local people at the centre and bring a new democratic settlement for local communities and talked of a democratic, dynamic and fair solution, of empowering people to tackle 21st century problems and so on. Those aspirations are universally shared, but largely irrelevant to the subject at hand and most unlikely to be delivered by the Bill.

We welcome aspects such as the introduction of standards committees, the abolition of surcharging and the extension of councils' responsibilities, but we regret that the Minister appeared to rule out the Lords amendment to allow councils to keep the fourth option—the status quo. The Bill is a hotch-potch and the consideration of it has been a shambles throughout. We have seen more of that today. Proposals aimed at setting in concrete the shape and form of local government for decades should be thought through in minute detail, experimented with, piloted properly in the real world and tempered to reflect the views of practitioners, but these have been cobbled together to such an extent that the Lords passed 438 amendments—one for every five and a half lines. It is no good her saying that we have not finished the Bill because, as it will play a role in shaping democracy in this country, it should have been thought through and experimented with in the first place.

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

The last major reform of the structure of local government was the abolition of the Greater London council. Can the hon. Gentleman describe the temperate way in which pilot schemes were introduced by the Conservatives when that was suggested?

Mr. Norman

The whole House had sufficient experience of the GLC in operation, so there was no need to experiment with abolition.

Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Norman

No. I want to make progress, but I shall take interventions later.

In short, the Bill is another ill-thought-through collection of proposals that are widely seen as unsatisfactory on both sides of the House. That is apparent today. At its heart, it reflects a fundamentally flawed thought: the Government's belief that imposing detailed structures and processes from on high will solve the problems of local government. It will not, because the problem is not one of process and structure, but one of substance—what local councils are free to do, what controls and restrictions central Government impose on them and how they are financed.

Instead of addressing those issues, the Bill represents more centralisation. Worse than that, it will reinforce the dominance of political parties and narrow cliques, encourage secrecy and deter the participation of the able volunteer councillor. Conservative Members recognise that local government has become over-centralised, but when Labour came to power many councillors on all sides looked forward to a different approach. The Deputy Prime Minister himself said that local authorities should be liberated from the fetters of Whitehall and the stupid restrictions of the Treasury that inhibit growth and destroy jobs… No doubt he still hopes to be released from the stupid restrictions of the Treasury, as seen in the Budget.

Today, those same councillors are bitterly disappointed because the Government are the most centralising ever. Far from liberating local government, Labour is imposing an ever tightening straitjacket on local democracy. Jeremy Beecham, the Labour chairman of the Local Government Association, summed that up when he warned of the strange death of local democracy…

Dr. Lynne Jones

The hon. Gentleman implies that he agrees with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. If so, which Treasury restrictions do the Conservatives propose to remove?

Mr. Norman

I rarely find an opportunity to agree with the Deputy Prime Minister. Again, I am sorry that he is absent, and cannot hear me do so. The Conservatives have already said that we would like capping to be removed from local authorities: that is shared ground.

The Bill compounds the problem that we already have. It is a straitjacket that centralises power not just within the state, but within councils. Councils will be denied the right to choose alternative, more open ways of working.

Mr. Llew Smith

Although it is fairly obvious that I disagree with substantial parts of the Bill, I am somewhat confused by the statement that previous Governments wanted—and, indeed, the present Opposition want—to liberate local authorities, and return more powers to them. Can the hon. Gentleman tell me how many of the 200 Acts that altered the powers of local authorities during those previous 18 years gave more powers to authorities or liberated them?

Mr. Norman

I have made clear our belief that local government has become too centralised. We have a substantial agenda for decentralisation; it is not a matter for today's debate, but I am very willing to take the hon. Gentleman through it on another occasion. No doubt the opportunity will arise.

Sir Paul Beresford

Perhaps my hon. Friend should ask the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) to have a look at the best value legislation that has been passed. It is the most centralising and forceful legislation that has ever been imposed on local government in any field.

Mr. Norman

My hon. Friend has great experience of these matters, and makes his point powerfully.

The effect of cabinet government will be to vest power in local political parties, especially when one party is dominant. More than ever, a narrow clique of party politicians in caucus will be able to make all the major executive decisions. No longer will the committee structure provide a role for individual councillors and minority parties, and safeguard the participation of all councillors.

It is not only Conservative Members who believe that there is already a problem to be solved. Some of our Councils are quite frankly very badly run…The Party is usually controlled by a small clique and they have very poor relationships with the community which they serve. Those are the words of the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney).

That brings me to the question of secrecy.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Norman

I want to make some progress.

It is one of the great achievements of the last 40 years that local government in the United Kingdom has been open government. It was Margaret Thatcher who, in 1960, forced councils to open all meetings to the press and the public, and it was a Conservative Government who passed the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985, which enables the public to obtain local council papers three days before meetings. It is a Labour Government who are now bringing back secrecy, and closing the doors to the public.

Andrew Ecclestone, of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, has said: we are now finding a Labour Government removing the rights Mrs. Thatcher gave us. It was the Prime Minister who said: The first right of a citizen in a mature democracy should be the right of information. It is time to sweep away the cobwebs of secrecy which hang over far too much Government activity.

Instead, cabinet government as prescribed in the Bill will mean that executive decisions are made in private and that leading councillors will no longer be accountable for their views. There will be no pre-scrutiny and ordinary citizens will not be able to lobby councillors ahead of time because they will not know what is coming up on the agenda. Both points were well made by Labour Members.

The Bill will mean that full minutes will no longer be available for scrutiny and that papers and agendas will no longer be available in advance. Several Labour Members have made that point. It is not just a question of introducing a new culture, as the Minister said. Such waffle is risible in response to the genuine concerns of experienced Members on both sides of the House. Proper safeguards should be in place, not just in the guidance, but in the Bill, otherwise, for many councils, standards of openness will step back 40 years.

Dr. Whitehead

Has not the hon. Gentleman read the Bill where it states that the council meeting continues to be the supreme body in relation to policy decisions in local authorities? Does he not understand that the scrutiny extends to decisions that may be taken, as opposed to decisions that have been taken? His points about it being impossible to scrutinise a decision before it is passed appear to have no substance.

Mr. Norman

I have to wonder whether it is the hon. Gentleman who has not read the Bill. It contains no provision for proper pre-scrutiny or for ordinary citizens to know what is coming up in council meetings and discuss things with councillors ahead of time. There is no provision to ensure that people are held properly accountable and that minutes are fully published.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Norman

I want to make some progress.

Without improved safeguards, cabinet government conducted in secrecy will reduce accountability, concentrate power and increase the scope for corruption.

If the Minister will not listen to us, why does she not listen to the concerns of Labour councillors and the local press throughout the country? Why does she not listen to the Birmingham Labour councillor who said: decisions made behind locked doors…is exactly how Hitler started and it is a very dangerous precedent for a modern city like Birmingham?

Why does the Minister not listen to the Hull Daily Mail? Again, it is a pity that the Deputy Prime Minister is not here, but doubtless she will let him know. It said: A cloak of secrecy could descend on important council decision making in Hull. There are many other such instances. Far from revitalising local government and decreasing secrecy and concentration of power, the Bill will achieve the opposite. It will encourage high salaries, professional politicians and party apparatchiks but discourage the apolitical volunteer. It will create two classes of councillor: the executive and the rest; the political insider and the volunteer outsider. In short, it is a Bill that centralises. It vests power in local parties, encourages secrecy and deters participation.

Mr. Campbell

May I give the hon. Gentleman an example? Labour-dominated Blyth council in my constituency operates the cabinet system. All the minutes are free for the public, councillors who are not sitting on the cabinet and the press. Cabinet meetings are totally open to anyone who wants to sit there and listen; so are the council and all the scrutiny committees. If that is not openness, what is?

Mr. Norman

The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me. With proper safeguards on openness, publication of agendas and pre-scrutiny, the system can be made to work.

Sir Paul Beresford

Perhaps we should use the example of Hammersmith and Fulham council, where the leader made it clear that the Labour group had decisions given to it by leaders of the group. Decisions were made in the Labour group. They were put through on the executive and rammed through the scrutiny committee. That is not openness.

Mr. Norman

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. Such safeguards are not adequately built into the Bill. It centralises, does nothing to address the real problems of decentralisation in local government and vests powers in local parties and political cliques.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Norman

I will not.

The Bill encourages secrecy and deters participation. Then, tacked on to its end, there is the abolition of section 28.

Let me be clear: Conservative Members recognise the need to maintain an attitude of tolerance in our local councils and schools and to maintain a culture of respect for all, no matter what their background, life style or sexual preference. However, section 28 has to be seen against the background of a widespread desire to promote family values and the need to educate all our children on the importance of good parenting in our society. The debate in another place highlighted the fact that those concerns are shared across the whole political spectrum. Church leaders—from the Archbishop of Canterbury to Cardinal Winning and the Chief Rabbi—business men and politicians of all parties have expressed those concerns.

The Government's dogged determination to persevere reflects a dog in the manger attitude and a determination not to listen but to put political correctness over the fears of parents and community leaders. It matters not whether governors of schools have the ultimate right to determine what is taught, concerned parents and council tax payers simply fail to see why taxpayers' money and resources should be used to promote any particular minority life style. That is the issue, and that is what section 28 is about. We regret that the Minister has said that the Government are yet again simply not prepared to listen.

The strength of British local government has been its flexibility, openness, ability to adapt to the requirements of different communities, and encouragement of voluntary participation by men and women of ability. I therefore hope that, in her reply, the Minister will answer very fully the questions that were not answered in the opening speech.

How will the Bill, in practice, protect against the concentration of power in the hands of narrow cliques of party-selected politicians? How will it prevent a cloud of secrecy descending on local council decisions? How will it help accountability? Why does it not provide for pre-scrutiny before decisions are taken?

How will the Bill's provisions be paid for, given that the Local Government Association has already estimated that they will cost £150 million? What will it do to bring back to participation in local government ordinary people seeking to dedicate their spare time to local communities? When will the Government start to live up to their promise of less centralisation and reverse the tide of red tape and regulation on house building, planning and how councils spend their money? What can be done to give communities once again a real sense of ownership of their neighbourhoods and the power to shape and determine their future?

The Government have failed to live up to their promises. That is why I urge hon. Members to vote for the reasoned amendment.

5.43 pm
Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

I think that every Labour Member—and, I hope, every Opposition Member—recognises that the Government's aims to provide more efficient and better local government and particularly to promote greater understanding of what local government is doing among people, and more intelligent participation and involvement in it, are laudable and something to which everyone can subscribe.

The Minister very generously gave way in her speech. I can seldom remember a Minister speaking on Second Reading who has been so prepared to engage in debate and to take on board hon. Members' concerns. She and her Department deserve great credit for that generosity, which indicates the openness with which she will approach the overall subject. However, her generosity allowed grave concern on one matter to be revealed very clearly on both sides of the House.

Under the Bill's provisions, people will have less knowledge about what is going on in local government, less access to information and less involvement in local government. That cannot be, and quite clearly is not, what the Government want. I hope that, during scrutiny in the House, the Government will recognise that the Bill works against the grain of what they are seeking to achieve. The Minister knows the Bill only too well, so there is no need to rehearse all the areas that reinforce that point.

Although the full council will be in public—as has been said—cabinet and cabinet bodies will not be required under clause 21 to meet in public, and will have to publish decisions only after they are made. Mayors also will be outside the scope of the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985. Similarly, executives will not have to meet in public and cannot be required to do so by the full council—an extraordinary provision. Also, they will have to publish only after decisions have been made.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) said in a good intervention, those provisions do not prevent good practice by individual councils. However, the point of legislation is that it sets a benchmark for what has to be done. Many councils will not follow the lead of his council's good, open practice. Many will follow the lead of the Bill, and say that they can operate in private. In many ways, that makes for easier and faster decision making and the avoidance of problems for councillors. The temptation will be enormous, and the Bill—as it is drafted at the moment—will give full rein to those seeking secrecy.

Executives will be able to decide for themselves, which means that the present duties on councils to take decisions in public may change. The duties were introduced in the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960—proposed, amazingly, by Baroness Thatcher when she was a Member of Parliament—which gave a great deal of openness to local government. It is a great pity that when she became Prime Minister, she forgot the democratic and open instinct that led her to introduce, as a private Member's Bill, a good piece of legislation. All credit to her as a Back-Bench Member; I wish that she had continued in that way when she was Prime Minister.

The public will lose their right to involvement and participation in decisions before they are made. That very popular former Member of this House, Robin Squire, introduced a Bill which became the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985. It is important to remember that those are rights that the public have enjoyed to call bodies to account and to get access to information. The Bill will bypass those rights, which will not exist unless we can amend it, as we ought to.

The Freedom of Information Bill—which we debated at great length and not entirely happily last week—applies to local authorities, but sadly does not help much in this respect. Under the Bill, information can be withheld if, in the authority's reasonable opinion, disclosure would prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs. That is a powerful inhibition to open government and the right of people to know what is going on. The implication is that the Freedom of Information Bill gives legal weight to an authority's opinion in a way that is remarkable and extremely regrettable. It will create a new cloak of secrecy, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) has said.

The Bill in its present form is deficient and will lead to more closed, less well-informed and less informative local government, but all is not lost. It is up to this House to make changes. Cabinets and executives can meet in public, and should be made to do so by amendments to the Bill; that is, unless there is confidential or exempt material that cannot be disclosed. That has always been the case. That provision should be put in the Bill. I hope that the Minister and the Secretary of State will listen to the debate and recognise that there is great concern inside and outside this House. We want open local government, and if the Bill said that cabinets and executives had to meet in public, that would be a big step. Similarly, reports, the factual information on which decisions are based, options and recommendations should be made public before information is exempt.

Ms Armstrong

It is in the Bill.

Mr. Fisher

I suspect that the Minister knows the Bill better than I do, but I cannot see any strengthening of openness provisions.

What I am asking for can and must be achieved. We cannot let the Bill pass from this Chamber in its closed state. If we can include provisions for the open local government that we need for the next generation, we shall have done something good.

5.50 pm
Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), who has made a valuable contribution to our deliberations in the past few weeks, not least in his valiant efforts on freedom of information. I am pleased that he continued that theme in his speech on this Bill. I agree with every word that he uttered.

We are in a unique and, I suspect, somewhat bizarre situation. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) has made it clear that he is deeply concerned about many aspects of the Bill. Judging from the interventions from several of his hon. Friends, I suspect that he was speaking on behalf of all of them. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central—and every Labour Back Bencher who has intervened—highlighted concerns about various aspects of the Bill. Like all my Liberal Democrat colleagues, I have many reservations about the Bill. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where are they?"] So keen are my hon. Friends on the importance of local government that they are out campaigning. Every hon. Member who has spoken, including the Minister, voiced deep concerns about various aspects of the Bill. She said—I think that I quote her correctly—that the Bill is not in the form that the Government wish to see it in.

We are in a difficult position, because we have to decide whether we want to give the Bill a Second Reading. I should make it clear at the outset that, while I have deep concerns about a number of aspects of the Bill, I shall vote for a Second Reading in the hope—I suspect that many others share this hope—that we shall be able to make several amendments during the Bill's later stages.

Above all, I hope that the amended Bill will help to bridge the growing gulf between politicians and the people whom they represent. Sadly, people often no longer trust politicians. They certainly do not join political parties. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has more members than all three major political parties put together. Although there are some notable exceptions, that gulf is as true in local government as in other tiers of government. The turnout for local government elections is testimony to that problem. People value the services provided by local government, but they do not believe that councillors have enough power to do much about them. I very much hope that the Bill will play a part in reconnecting the people to the politicians who seek to represent them.

We have considerable sympathy with various provisions in the Bill and support them fully. The proposed new powers of well-being, the proposed ethical arrangements and the replacement of surcharging—the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells acknowledged that point—are sensible moves in the right direction. The hon. Gentleman and I disagree on the plans, held up by a decision in another place, to repeal section 28, because the Liberal Democrats support those plans. We also support the arrangements to enable the giving of powers to area committees.

However, like every hon. Member who has spoken, we have several areas of considerable concern, not least the number of new powers being given to the Secretary of State, particularly his ability to limit significantly the scope of the new well-being powers. We are particularly concerned about the excessive prescription of matters that are best left to local determination. If the proposals for new structures of local government are not amended, they will concentrate too much power in the hands of a few individuals. Despite what the Minister says, they will create divisions between two ranks of councillor and, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central has said, will reverse the recent huge strides in opening up local government decision-making processes.

When the Bill hit the headlines, all the talk was about mayors and cabinets. The Government were embarrassed by some old Labour councils such as Doncaster and began to find that other Labour heartland councils, such as Liverpool, Sheffield and Islington, were being taken over by the Liberal Democrats. They were desperately keen to find a new, streamlined look for some of their councils.

The public want local councils with the power to make decisions about issues of concern to local people. They are not interested in the fancy wrapping of the council, they just want to know that it is able to get on and make the necessary decisions and has the cash to back them up. People know that, at the moment, their local council has neither the power nor the cash to make a real difference. The bulk of cash for local government comes from Whitehall. Central Government are calling the shots.

I welcome the last-minute conversion of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells to a belief in freeing up local government, but I hope that he acknowledges that the previous Conservative Government stripped away many local government powers. The sad truth is that the Labour Government have continued that trend. Councillors no longer have room for manoeuvre, because ever more decisions are pre-empted by diktat from Whitehall. Ever more local government funding comes as specific grants. Councils get the cash only if they agree to spend it in the way that the Government tell them. We have also seen the massive introduction of a bidding process for specific grants, which takes up a great deal of officers' time. More often than not, they are disappointed. Research figures show that only one third of all bids made for specific funds are successful. That means that two thirds of the bids are unsuccessful. All that officer and member time is wasted.

The target-setting process is a further example of that centralisation by a Labour Government. Target after target is being imposed on local government. Target-setting can have value and improve the management process, but it is getting ludicrously out of hand. The ultimate in the ludicrous situation that we have reached is that, having imposed targets on local government, central Government throw them in the dustbin. Anyone wanting evidence of that need only look at the written answer that I received from the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes), on 2 December last year to a question about targets. She said: Details of any targets agreed with local government are not held centrally—[Official Report, 2 December 1999; Vol. 340, c. 273W.] The implication is that the Government do not even know what targets they have set for local government. If Whitehall is known to pull all the strings, people will not bother to vote for the puppets. We must free local government if people are to regain an interest and involvement in local government.

Maria Eagle

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that his party's policy is to raise more finance locally instead of the Government handing over money to local government from the centre? Is he suggesting that that should be done through the council tax?

Mr. Foster

The answer to the hon. Lady's question is yes. It is Liberal Democrat policy to rearrange local government finance so that a greater proportion of the money spent locally is raised locally. At the moment, some 80 per cent. of the money spent locally comes from Government funds. That is wrong and we need to reduce the amount of money raised through income tax and increase the amount raised through local taxation. That is a clearly stated party policy—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) is excited by it, I will happily ensure that he receives a copy.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

For the sake of clarity, will the hon. Gentleman tell the House whether it is Liberal Democrat policy to put a penny on income tax and a penny on local government taxes?

Mr. Foster

I do not wish to delay the House for too long, but the hon. Gentleman confuses two separate issues. The Liberal Democrats believed that the Chancellor was wrong to reduce the level of income tax, because that money would have been better spent on improving public services such as education, health and support for pensions. The hon. Gentleman disagreed with us and voted with the Chancellor. The issue of the funding of local government is separate. Local government funding should be arranged so that more of the money that is spent locally is raised locally. The quid pro quo is a reduction in the amount of money raised through central taxation.

Dr. Whitehead

Is there not a contradiction between the Liberal Democrats' demand that the Government do not cut taxes but increase public spending, which mostly goes through local government, and his idea that local government should be responsible for raising its funds and should not receive grants from the Government?

Mr. Foster

I suspect that we are straying a long way from the Bill, but if the hon. Gentleman wants the full text of our policy, I would be happy to send it to him. We make it easy for the hon. Gentleman because we suggest that money should be collected locally through a form of local income tax, not through the council tax arrangements.

The most important part of the Bill is not part II, which has been the subject of most controversy, but part I, which gives additional powers to local government in respect of the so-called powers of well-being. We have long thought that local government should be given a power of general competence. In other words, local councils would be able to do all those things that they felt were in the interests of local people, except for some things that were specifically prohibited. In part I, the Government have gone a long way in that direction and we welcome that. However, we are concerned that the Bill will still give the Secretary of State significant ability to limit those arrangements. We are also concerned that the Bill contains no mechanism to allow local councils to raise funds to pay for those activities that they develop within the new power. I hope that we will debate those issues further in Committee.

I also hope that the Minister will acknowledge that arising from that power is the ability to produce community strategies and plans, which is also contained in part I. She will be aware that local government has to produce many different plans. In some cases, local authorities have to produce as many as 40 different plans, including economic development plans, civil defence plans, air quality management plans, youth justice plans, community safety plans—the list goes on. We hope that, in Committee, it will be possible to table amendments to ensure that, when a local council develops a community plan under part I, it will be able to integrate within that plan many of the other plans. The Minister is aware that, to achieve that, we would need to change the power to a duty, and I am delighted that she acknowledged that the Government intend to table amendments to that effect.

I hope also that the Minister will be willing to accept amendments that deal with the thorny issue of quangos. As we try to achieve joined-up government at local and regional level, it is vital that we find more effective ways to get local government and the various quangos to work together. That is missing in the current arrangements and is not referred to in the Bill.

Part II has been the most controversial. It is true that many councils need to streamline their decision making. Many councils have already made radical changes without legislation forcing them to do so, but the Government now want to force on all councils one of only three models. We recognise that those three models are more flexible than many people have given them credit for, but—despite the Minister's protestations—any one of the models could lead to the creation of two ranks of councillor. They could also concentrate power in the hands of too few people. All councillors should be able to represent the views of their communities equally, and we do not want to see standard-class councillors and first-class councillors.

Pilots of the models have been carried out, and the evidence in some cases shows disillusionment among the back-bench councillors. It is therefore important to recognise the pressure for a fourth option or a locally determined option. With good will on both sides, it would be possible to develop such an option in Committee, based on Baroness Hamwee's amendment in the other place. That amendment sought to provide a locally determined option that is nevertheless based on several key principles, including the vital importance of scrutiny, accountability, openness, transparency and efficiency. I hope that we will have the opportunity to develop that issue in Committee.

Mr. Simon Thomas

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in Wales, we have the ideal method of developing local options, because the National Assembly could develop a set of options that took into account the unique circumstances of Welsh local government?

Mr. Foster

I agree entirely, and several amendments will be needed in respect of the arrangements for Wales. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central rightly raised another concern about the executive models in part II. Liberal Democrats and others have worked hard in local authorities throughout the country to move them out of the dark ages. We have fought for meetings to be held in public, for the public's right to speak or to present petitions and for papers to be available to all councillors and the public in advance of meetings. The Bill's provision to allow executives the option—I accept that some will choose not to take advantage of it—to meet in secret would take us back to those dark ages and is a recipe for concealment and corruption.

Open access to all papers in advance of meetings is crucial. How will other councillors, the public and partner organisations know that they need to lobby executive members if they do not know in advance what will be discussed and when? Publishing decisions after the event is not adequate.

Parts III, IV and V are much less controversial than parts I and II. We would like to see changes to those parts and we shall introduce amendments in Committee. Part V involves the vital issue of section 28. I wish to make it absolutely clear on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends that we are opposed to the section. We welcome the new guidance that is being proposed by the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, but we believe that section 28 must be repealed. We shall give our support to any measures that the Government feel should be taken to ensure that that is done.

Much in the Bill needs to be amended to give real powers, including fund-raising powers, to local government. Local government should be given real choices and be subject to less prescription to ensure that there is no return to the dark ages of decisions being taken in secret. We must ensure that the work of all councillors is equally valued. Above all, we must set local councils free so that they can truly serve and meet the needs of local people. As I have said, it is with some difficulty, but in the hope that, with amendments, the Bill can move us in that direction, that we shall support Second Reading.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the House that there is a 15-minute limit on Back-Bench Members' speeches.

6.11 pm
Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I think that we all recognise the huge contribution that local authorities have made to the community, and the proud tradition of many authorities. In recognising the need for change and revitalisation, it is important also to recognise the tremendous good work that the authorities have done in their present form.

The Cardiff local authority started street lighting services. At one time, it had its own electricity company. It introduced a trolley service and bus services. All those vital services are an important part of our lives. Local authorities have provided community leadership, and I welcome the extended powers in the Bill that will enable them to continue to do so.

As my right hon. Friend Minister for Local Government and the Regions said when opening the debate, the Bill applies to England and Wales. There are separate clauses for Wales that specify that the National Assembly for Wales has the powers of the Secretary of State in England.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

Does the hon. Lady think that the council tax payers of Cardiff are getting the best possible value in paying £58,500 to the leader of that council?

Ms Morgan

Probably not. The Assembly has considered the issue and has given the leader of the local authority a deadline to reduce the allowances. I agree with its recommendations.

The relationship between the Assembly and local government in Wales is unique, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) mentioned earlier in an intervention. During the devolution campaign, the referendum and the vote last May, one of the big fears expressed by local authorities, councillors and supporters of local authority government was that devolution would take powers up from local authorities rather than bringing them down from Westminster. It was therefore built into the devolution settlement that the Assembly would work with local government and would not take work from it. The Government of Wales Act 1998 specified that a partnership council should be established. That council has been set up and it is meeting regularly. Local government in Wales is already working with the Assembly through the partnership council to develop Assembly statutory guidance on part II.

There is a unique situation in Wales because of the creation of the Assembly and the fact that local government is bound to be closer to people's lives on a day-to-day basis than the Assembly and central Government. We have an opportunity to show our confidence in local government and to work as much as possible via local authorities. The function of central Government in Wales is not to take over the functions of local government. It is significant that a substantial amount of the extra education money in Wales has gone to local authorities and not direct to schools. Direct provision is not seen as feasible in Wales and it is not being attempted. The situation is different in Wales, and we must accept that, with devolution, there will be different solutions in different parts of the country.

In principle, the Welsh Local Government Association accepts the case for a separation of powers with the creation of an executive that will be separate from the council. As my right hon. Friend the Minister said, councils are experimenting, and 12 councils are doing so in Wales. Another seven have plans to do so. There seems to be no interest among the councils in having directly elected mayors. I do not know whether that feeling is reflected by the public. Most authorities are thinking of a cabinet model. The Cardiff local authority has a cabinet of seven and an executive of 20. I do not know whether that is unique.

Cabinet and executive models throw up problems over the role of non-executive councillors. There is a danger that a divide will be created, which might be made worse by the payment proposals of some authorities. It is difficult to see how back-bench councillors will take part in policy making. Scrutiny is vital and that process gives a tremendous role to councillors, but it is important for every councillor to have an opportunity to participate in policy making. That may be possible via the scrutiny role, and it needs to be spelt out to local councillors that that might happen.

Ms Armstrong

The overall policy of the council is the responsibility of the whole council and not of the executive. The executive's role is to implement, and to take decisions that are required to implement the overall policy.

Ms Morgan

I thank my right hon. Friend for that information.

There has been much criticism about the plethora of committees and sub-committees that have characterised local government. I served as a councillor for 12 years and I spent a lot of time on various sub-committees, committees and working groups. I suppose that many of the individuals and groups involved spent an inordinate amount of time sitting in committee. However, many of them made important decisions. They co-opted people who had experience of receiving the council's services. I initiated a child care strategy and a local authority nursery via those committees, which may not feature in the future structure. At a recent women's conference that I attended in Wales, representatives of all four political parties regretted the loss of those committees and groups. They felt that they provided an opportunity to learn, and opportunities, particularly for women, to become involved in local government on first becoming councillors.

There is a lack of women's representation. Women are not very well represented in this place, but in local government there is a huge problem. Local government will never really be credible until it is more representative of the public that it serves, and that relates particularly to women. I hope that, in the consultation period and the processes that may arise as a result of the Bill, there will be opportunities to address this issue.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) has recently produced a report entitled "Democratic Deficit 2000", which highlights the under-representation of women in local government. It asked whether there would be any women mayors and how many women would be in the cabinets. In my own local authority of Cardiff, three of the seven cabinet members are women. There are 17 men and one woman in the executive, and four men and one woman chair the five scrutiny committees. Although 32 per cent. of Cardiff's councillors are women, most are not in positions of power. Women account for only 24 per cent. of councillors in Wales. It is important that the Bill does not reinforce women's absence from decision-making positions.

I hope that the consultation process, and the Bill itself, will encourage councillors to ask themselves why so few women are involved. Will the models adopted by the Bill make it easier for women to participate? What will councils do to make participation easier? I welcome the Bill's recommendation for carers' allowances, as there is no doubt that the lack of arrangements for people with caring responsibilities is one of the reasons why women have not been fully involved in local politics.

Clearly, the ultimate power of scrutiny and control of councils and councillors resides with the electorate. I hope that some of the changes in the Bill to make elections more frequent will help make local government more relevant to people's lives. There is no doubt that the abysmal turnout in local elections shows that something must be done about local government.

I hope that the Bill will revitalise local government. Ultimately, the electorate will let us know how they feel about the standard of councils.

6.22 pm
Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to take part in the debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan), whose enthusiasm for, and experience in, local government shone through her contribution. It was interesting to hear her description of the links that have been made between the Welsh Assembly and existing local government in Wales.

As always, it was good to hear the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), who was mercifully brief, unlike some of his colleagues—but they are not present this afternoon. It was especially interesting to hear the thoughtful contribution from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher). I hope that the Minister took careful note of the points that he made.

We heard a great deal from the Minister about the Government's enthusiasm for local government and its autonomy. However, the contributions made by hon. Members of all parties show that not everyone is certain that the Bill is the best illustration of that enthusiasm. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) said, local government is important to people and communities. It is important to communities because it is a vital strand of the democratic process, because its decisions are closest to the people whom they affect, and because it delivers services that are important to everyone—literally, from cradle to grave.

Local government is also important because when it is efficient, accountable, transparent and truly autonomous, it can play a role in limiting big, central Government. However, despite its importance, electoral turnouts show that people are apathetic towards local government, as the hon. Member for Cardiff, North noted.

Like their predecessors over many decades, the Government want to counter that apathy, and the Bill and other measures are the means that they have chosen to achieve that. In the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions press notice of 26 November last year, Ministers stated that the Bill was part of the Government's agenda to revitalise local democracy and modernise public services. The Minister used a similar phrase earlier this afternoon. The press notice also advanced the hope that the provisions in the Bill would make councils more efficient, transparent and accountable.

There is some way to go before that is achieved. Keith Lucas and Richards point to part of the reason for that in their "History of Local Government in the Twentieth Century", when they state: At no stage of English history has any Government held a consistent and logical policy on the range of limits of municipal services. Local government was not evolved to provide a co-ordinated system of administration for a logically defined range of services; it emerged, piecemeal, in answer to a succession of separate needs and demands. Everyone interested in local government would agree with that analysis. It has been the task of successive Governments to try to put the deficiency right, but they have all had to start with an unsatisfactory patchwork. There has been no Napoleonic tendency in this country.

However, people value the services provided by local government. A MORI poll conducted for the Local Government Association in spring 1999 found that although people believe that local government services are important to their lives, they are unclear about who is responsible for which services, and who should be held accountable for what.

For example, the survey showed that people understood that street sweeping, refuse collection and—interestingly enough—the library service were provided at local level, but that they were vague about other provision such as education and social services. That is partly because a succession of central Governments—not just this one and their predecessor—have regarded local government as the vehicle for their own initiatives. Circular 10/65, the Housing Finance Act 1972 and the Rates Act 1984 come to mind in that regard.

This Government came to power full of the good intentions expressed in their 1997 election manifesto, which stated: Local decision making should be less constrained by central government and also more accountable to local people. From the contributions that we have heard so far from hon. Members of all parties, I think that we would all agree with that.

However, what is the reality, as opposed to what some people might call the Bill's pious intentions? Does the Bill tackle the real reasons for public apathy towards local government and all its works? Does it grasp the opportunity of its own existence?

The Bill's proposals must first be set against the context created by the Government. The hon. Member for Bath mentioned some of the relevant points. For example, in 1999–2000, local councils must produce no fewer than 26 "Plans"—with a capital "P"—outlining their response to Government-set priorities. They are to produce 124 Audit Commission performance indicators, and 43 quality protects indicators for children's social services. In addition, the Department of Health has produced 48 performance indicators, covering the whole range of public services.

The time taken by local authorities on such work can be imagined, but the use to which all the information would be put is less easily grasped—although the hon. Member for Bath has told us that it is often destined for the dustbin. I hope that he is not right, but it is hard to see how a Government elected on the promise that local decision making should be less constrained by central government can justify the degree of central control that the Bill will impose.

Mrs. Ellman

Am I correct in believing that the right hon. Lady at one time advocated the total removal of responsibility for education from local authorities? Is she still of that opinion? Would she like the Bill to include provision to achieve that removal?

Mrs. Shephard

I believe, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer apparently does, that money is well handled at local level by schools. I do not remember the hon. Lady challenging the right hon. Gentleman on that point when he made his Budget statement.

As the hon. Member for Bath said, the work of local government has been overlapped, if not undermined, by the sheer number of quangos and executive agencies. At present, there are 6,500 quangos—the number is rising—and 238 executive agencies. There are also 708 executive non-departmental bodies.

Moreover, the Government's rush to constitutional reform has further blurred the accountability of local government. The plans for the governance of London illustrate the point. London has 32 boroughs and the Corporation of London. The mayor and the Greater London Authority will be superimposed on the local government system. Some of its members will represent constituencies of 500,000; others will have Londonwide responsibilities. In addition, the people of London will of course continue to vote for Westminster Members of Parliament and Members of the European Parliament. They will also have the services of the London regional development agency, the Government office for London, the police authority, a fire and emergency planning authority and a culture and arts commission.

However, what the people of London will not know—the Bill will not help them—is where to turn when there is a hole in the road. That is the simple test of accountability, without which local government will continue to be regarded with scepticism and apathy. No amount of electoral gimmicks or quick fixes will deal with the basic problems of local government, not all of which are of this Government's making. The legacy is of long standing. However, the Government undertook to solve problems that the Bill not only does not solve, but exacerbates.

I wish to deal briefly with the proposals for the new management structures. Do they address the problem of accountability? Do they make for greater transparency? Will they create more interest in local government? Do they demonstrate the Government's stated intention in their manifesto to make local government more accountable to local people? The Bill fails those important tests. It is a mockery that a Bill claiming to make local government more accountable to local people denies local people the choice of retaining the management structures they already have if that is what they prefer. How can Ministers, aware of their manifesto commitment, maintain that the only acceptable executive arrangements are those which they have devised in Whitehall, rather than those devised by local people? Why will they not have real confidence, and allow accountable elected local people to propose their own executive arrangements which, in their view and in the view of those whom they represent, are workable in their areas?

I have listened very carefully to what the Minister has said on this point. She seems to think that a committee system is, by definition, outdated. "Outdated" is her stock epithet. How sure is she that in a county council with a cabinet and executive system all the skills, knowledge and expertise of, say, 80 members are used to the full? I accept that in a smaller council, it may be easier to ensure the involvement of everybody, because everybody will have great knowledge of a small area. However, to exclude a large number of councillors in a large county is a waste of human potential.

The Government view, as stated in their press notice of 26 November, is clear. They want to create dynamic local government that listens to what people really want—how they want to be governed and how they want their services to be delivered. However, people will not be empowered by the Bill to say how they want to be governed unless their view happens to coincide with what the Government decree.

The Minister said in support of her cause that many local authorities have introduced the new arrangements ahead of legislation. She must know, but perhaps will not say, that as local authorities know that they will be obliged to do so, they might as well get on with it. Compliance under the cosh is not a cause for self-congratulation on the part of those holding the cosh. Although some cabinet and leader arrangements are working well and democratically, there are some awkward contrasts regarding transparency and fairness.

I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), who is no longer in his place, cite the good example of his local council. In Norfolk, the Conservative-controlled Breckland district council, with its balanced cabinet of four Conservative, three Labour and two Independent members, makes an interesting contrast with the Lib-Lab-controlled Norfolk county council. Seven of its nine cabinet members are Labour and two are Liberal, and eight members represent urban wards. The Conservative opposition, of course, was not invited to take part.

Sadly, Norfolk is not exceptional. According to the House of Commons Library figures, taken from an article in The Independent, in more than 60 per cent. of councils with a cabinet system, only the ruling political party is represented, and more decisions are taken in private. Such points have been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House and I hope that the Minister will take careful note of them. She has clarified the Government's position on these matters, and I expect them to be further explored in Committee.

I cannot believe that the Minister intends to leave openness in large areas of decision making to the discretion of the new executives and remove the duties on local authorities to take decisions in public. Notwithstanding the Minister's clarification, the Bill produces the curious anomaly that local councils cannot choose the mechanisms by which they take decisions, but can choose to take them in secret. That seems a curious set of priorities and is difficult to square with the Government's avowed intention to create effective, democratic government which, as the DETR press notice says: relies on the bond of trust between the people and those who represent them… Let us see the Bill demonstrate that intent.

The Minister will have noted the misgivings expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Of course there is agreement on other aspects of the Bill, but the problems of local government are fundamental and of long standing. Sadly, unless the Bill is greatly amended, it represents a wasted opportunity.

6.36 pm
Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)

I am grateful to have an opportunity to speak in the debate and to follow the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard). I am glad that so many women are speaking in the debate. Those of us who have been excluded in one way or another from central Government over the years—not for too much longer, I hope—have often found a place in local authorities. I do not speak of myself in this instance—I have never been a councillor.

I should like to concentrate on part II on governance arrangements, as many right hon. and hon. Members have also done. The city of Liverpool, a part of which I have the honour to represent, has had a long-standing problem of inadequate civic leadership. That is why I am interested in part II. Like many fellow citizens, I have had a long-standing interest in trying to put this right. My memory of politics in Liverpool goes back about 30 years, and I do not recall having any other opportunity to try to get things right. It is very important that local authorities, cities and other administrative areas with problems now get this right.

Liverpool has had 30 years of missed opportunities and poor civic leadership—my remarks are not aimed at any one political party, as they have all had a go in that time—but the result is that Liverpool, one of our greatest cities, has been unable to fulfil its potential. I hope that the Bill will assist in enabling Liverpool, which is moving into the 21st century with hope and ambition, to fulfil its potential at last, and to become what it should be—a great modern city.

The ideas in the Bill have been seized on in Liverpool. Many right hon. and hon. Members may think of Liverpool as a backward-looking place, but in fact it is very forward looking. There has been a major debate in Liverpool for the past two years about how to improve and modernise local government to ensure that the city can fulfil its potential.

The document "Local Leadership, Local Choice" was published in March last year. Since then, a debate has raged about how the ideas that it contains can be adopted to make Liverpool a better place. The Liverpool democracy commission, which was established in March 1999, finished its work in July 1999. It is a unique commission. I do not know of any other city or local authority area setting up an independent commission to consider how to improve governance. It was chaired by a well-respected local business man, James Ross of Littlewoods, and its membership included local parliamentarians of all parties, academics, business people, Church leaders and media figures.

The commission took oral and written evidence from anyone who cared to present it, including local organisations, individuals and those who had been involved in governance, local and national. It held meetings and consultations. Debates were held across various branches of the media—radio and local television—and it also commissioned polling; so I can safely say that we know very well what people in Liverpool think about what they have.

The commission made some recommendations, but in a sense they are not the important thing. What was revealing was the generalised will among all political parties, all types of business people and all organisations to see change. The conclusions were interesting. Only 2 per cent. of people polled thought that the council was doing a good job. Some of us who have been in Liverpool and represented it in various ways for many years thought that 2 per cent. was quite a high figure. Sixty-nine per cent. were willing to say that they were dissatisfied.

It was also apparent that the council was unable to represent the city to the outside world. In the modern era, that is increasingly necessary to improve the city and to bring inward investment and new people and jobs to the city. Local and civic governors need to be able to represent themselves to the outside world. Only 15 per cent. of people asked thought that the city council was either good or excellent at doing that; 75 per cent. thought that it was not.

One of the other major issues about which people are concerned is value for money in local government. Only 8 per cent. of people thought that the council gave value for money. Again, some of us were surprised at how high that figure was—certainly judging by my surgeries. I accept that the 8 per cent. probably never come to see me. Also, 90 per cent. of those asked could not identify even one of their local councillors. That is a damning indictment of the existing system. If those councillors had a defined role and were able to carry it out, in a way that local people could understand or tap into, more people would certainly be able to identify them.

The system is not good for councillors either. Evidence was given to the commission that many felt excluded, bewildered, unable to do a good job or not sure what the job that they were supposed to be doing was. One, Councillor Bostock, said: I did four years on the council and it did my head in.

Mercifully for him, he is no longer a councillor, but when someone voluntarily puts in four years of their time and effort and that is the outcome, it reflects something wrong with the system. So perhaps it is no wonder that the average turnout in Liverpool wards is now below 25 per cent. in local elections. It is no wonder that in some wards in the city the turnout is as low as 10 per cent. It is no wonder that in the north end of the city in the Melrose by-election within the past two years, the turnout fell to 6 per cent. That cannot be good for local democracy. It requires a change.

Something needs to be done—perhaps a mayor is the answer. That debate was raging two years ago in Liverpool and it still rages. There is already speculation about who the candidates might be. I shall not add to that speculation except to say that the Liverpool Labour party, for one, will have an excellent local candidate.

The poll conducted by the Liverpool democracy commission also asked people whether they would like to have a mayor, and 63 per cent. of those asked said that they would. Only 20 per cent. were unsure and 16 per cent. were against. There is a great will to change what we have. All types of people and stakeholders in Liverpool are dissatisfied with the present arrangements.

However, we must make sure that the new arrangements are better. That has come through in the debate this afternoon. There has to be a hard separation between the executive and scrutiny functions. Any of the models in the Bill can provide that, but the Government need to make very sure that that is what happens when the new structures are adopted.

I want to use the example of Liverpool to show what can go wrong. While the Liverpool democracy commission was doing its work between March and July 1999, the city council, now controlled by the Liberal Democrats, sprang into action and decided that it would pre-empt the commission's findings and move straight to some new structures. They had just taken control and they wanted to make a mark, which is fair enough. They established a cabinet with a leader, all the members of which were from one party. They established scrutiny committees led by back benchers and area committees based more or less on a ward or a small cluster of wards, which theoretically enabled local people to deal with local issues and become more involved.

However, even though a massive debate was going on in Liverpool at the time, the county council consulted no one about precisely what arrangements it intended to establish. The result is a mess. Whether it is a deliberately contrived mess or has become a mess because the flaws of the system adopted have been exploited by the ruling group, I shall leave the electorate to decide on 4 May.

I shall use one illustration from my constituency of the consequences of the new system. The Liberal Democrat-run council has just announced the closure of Alderwood primary school in Speke. There were undoubtedly problems of poor teaching and a lack of grip by the governors and the local education authority, which meant that there were justifiable concerns about standards, but the council announced the closure to a local newspaper before it even told parents, governors or children. The story was telephoned through to the reporter by the Liberal Democrat chairman of the lifelong learning committee—the scrutiny committee. In other words, the chair of the scrutiny committee announced the council's policy to the local newspaper. What confidence can parents have that that scrutiny committee will organise proper scrutiny of a decision that he has announced?

That thought occurred to colleagues in the Labour group so they put that question to the leader of the council. They asked: Will the Leader of the Council state how the Chair of the Lifelong Learning Select Committee is meant to have any credibility in performing scrutiny of the Executive when he is quoted as announcing the administration's policies to the press? Good question; and the answer was: He has obviously taken lessons from the Labour Party. Oh Dear! That was not an adequate answer from the leader of the council.

The closure was then designated by the executive as a ward issue, which in the new structure means that, despite the fact that a citywide review of surplus primary places is being conducted—of which the closure should surely be a part because there are surplus places in Speke—the decision can be called in to be scrutinised only by the local ward councillors, who all happen to be Liberal Democrat. They are certainly not Labour. A manipulation has taken place that prevented the Labour opposition from calling in the decision for scrutiny, even though the scrutiny would have been led by the man who announced the decision. The decision to close the school has been ratified through the council's rubber-stamp procedure within a week of its being announced, using a process designed to deal with non-controversial issues. The closure of a school is never non-controversial, certainly not for children, parents and governors.

The parents are extremely angry but it is not until tomorrow, after the decision has effectively been made, that the first consultation meeting will take place with those parents. Now, I am not a cynical person, but I think that the decision has already been made—so do the parents. That is not effective local democracy but an abuse of local democracy. I hope that the Government, in taking powers to regulate, as they propose in the Bill, will take steps to prevent such Liberal Democrat manipulation in Liverpool and make sure that the executive and scrutiny functions of local councils are well and truly separated. Unless they do that, local people will not have confidence in the new arrangements.

The Bill offers a way forward, but I urge the Government to ensure that the arrangements that are established satisfy its principles, rather than the ambitions of local groups.

6.50 pm
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

May I make a suggestion to the Minister for Local Government and the Regions, who has just left the Chamber? Too often, she makes herself the worst advocate of a reasonable case. Instead of using simple English to explain her intentions, she uses an Orwellian jargon that replaces meaning with slogans. That does not work; it would be better for all of us if she stated directly what she was trying to achieve. We could then understand the good points and disagree with the bad points.

The Minister tried to make a case for change. However, she failed to demonstrate that a new structure was necessary to remedy problems in local government. The new structure will stand as much chance of success or failure as the old one. Structures are not always at the heart of a problem—it is the way people make them work. She failed to show that the existing structures—in the hands of people of efficiency and good will—could not deliver her results just as well as new structures. People who were not efficient, or who did not have good will, would make just as much of a mess under the new structures as they would have done under the old ones.

How should we judge the Bill? We need sensible criteria. Does it promote competent, accountable, accessible local government, with a sustainable and reasonable balance between what central Government require and the independence of local councillors? Such a balance must he achieved. We all know that the Government have requirements and that local government aspires to greater independence. Sensible government will find a way in which those two forces can come to an arrangement.

It would be helpful if we had a clear idea of the Government's view of that relationship. However, their view is disguised by their curious placatory rhetoric and the use of words such as "modernisation". Modernisation is described as though it were a nirvana that we could achieve. It has become a Government mantra, but the word is devoid of any intrinsic meaning.

Will the Bill help in meeting those criteria? The straws in the wind are not good. In the Budget, the number of specific grants increased again. The Secretary of State for Education and Employment told local councils that they had to use that money for the purposes that he specified—irrespective of the principles of hypothecation. However, now there is a review of local government finance. Perhaps that will tell us a little bit about which way the Government are going.

From one of the new Labour think tanks—the new Labour forum, I think—we hear that there is a flirtation with the idea of abolishing local education authorities. That is all part of the front line first project.

In The Guardian, Sir Jeremy Beecham—who seems to have been under-rewarded in comparison with some of local government's lesser Labour luminaries—stated that the danger of front line first was that it masks a real shift of power away from local government and back to control by Whitehall. We could, unless we are careful, be witnessing the strange death of local democracy…the fact is that "frontline first" and the general move toward more ring-fencing of resources are pushing relentlessly in the direction of greater central control.

The latest edition of Local Government Chronicle—I am paid to write a column for it, so I declare an interest—states: Downing Street, the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Health are all expressing interest in radical options to channel funds directly to services without the involvement of local government—so-called "frontline first" funding. Ideas include giving funds directly to the country's 25,000 schools, and handing care of the elderly to health authorities. Prime Minister Tony Blair and his advisers believe attacking councils is a vote winner. There is strong and persistent spin coming from Downing Street that Mr Blair wants results and sees local government as bureaucracy standing in the way. It is not difficult to see why a case will have to be made to convince local government that the Bill is supposed to be for, rather than against, it.

The central problem is that of prescription by central Government. All parties are to blame for that. If it helps hon. Members, I shall say "mea culpa"—as a Local Government Minister, I played my part in that process. We have seen prescription of the means of service delivery and of methods of assessment and testing—with an emphasis on outcomes. There has been a move from compulsory competitive tendering to best value. Those are not opposites, but a continuum—the use of different methods to achieve the same outcome. The prescription is the same.

There has been a move from universal and crude capping to the use of specific and much more severe forms—if the Government choose to exercise the powers that they have taken. There has been widespread creation of inspectors—the new commissars of local government. Many local councillors are now more preoccupied with passing the test with the inspectors than the test with the electors. Under the prescription that is so prevalent, perhaps the inspectorate is in danger of taking over from the electorate.

The Bill has contradictory aspects. There is a credit side. The general power—used sensibly, in the hands of reasonable people—will be of benefit to the community and will enable people to enlarge the partnership that is at the heart of local regeneration. Obviously, the attempt to bring order to ethical standards is important. If we can sort out and clarify the allowances system so that it is transparent and there is common agreement as to what is reasonable, we shall have done local government a service.

However, there is a debit side. The first element of that is the prescription of structures, and the wholesale condemnation of the existing arrangements. It was interesting that the Minister said that she was not an ideologue, but that the present system was insupportable. If that is not an ideological statement, what is? The present system is dismissed, without finding out whether it can be changed or reformed.

An amendment to make that reform possible was tabled in the other place. We hear that moves are afoot to introduce a famous fourth way—I suppose that will be better than the third way. It will be interesting to see whether a way can be found to give the present system an internal rejuvenation, and whether the Government will be receptive to that. It would be a pity if there were only three choices on the menu.

Another element on the debit side is the curious methodology for referendums. I do not like referendums, especially those with a 5 per cent. threshold and no floor for the number of participants. A 5 per cent. threshold is pretty dismal. However, if the electorate are not sufficiently responsive to the need for change, if that need does not well up in their breast, the Government will take power to cause it to well up by requiring a local referendum. However, at that level a referendum would be a tool of coercion—as the Government are well aware.

The Bill contains ambiguities—for example, on the possibility of more frequent elections. In the original Green Paper, the Government referred to the imposition of annual elections—presumably, they did not want councillors to sleep easy in their beds at night, because they would have to keep looking over their shoulders at the electors. The Government retain the power to impose elections by order, although the method is not specified in the Bill.

If the Government really do not want councillors to sleep easy—if they really want to introduce an instrument that, they hope, will threaten the monolithic majorities in certain areas—there is an obvious answer. They should introduce proportional representation in local government. That would do the trick—whether we like it or not. That would deliver the result far more effectively than the Government's clumsy proposals.

There could be ambiguity in the relationship between directly elected mayors—if we take that route—and directly elected service chiefs. That is possible under the Bill. I cannot imagine a greater recipe for incoherence than to have people with separate mandates pursuing an allegedly common policy. I cannot understand how that would deliver joined-up government—one of the preoccupations of the Labour Administration.

As others have said, it is difficult to imagine the role of councillors in scrutiny mode. All parties have problems attracting candidates to local government. If we are honest, we must admit that we all scratch around to find candidates for certain wards. We all win seats in uncontested wards where we have difficulty in putting up candidates. If I tried to persuade someone to stand as a councillor by saying, "Come on Fred, stand for the council—you'll enjoy being a scrutineer", rather than by saying, "You're going to run the council", I should not be greeted with the spontaneous enthusiasm that I normally expect when I ask people to do something on behalf of the party. If we divide the process up between the deciders—those on the inside track, backed up by the officers—and the scrutineers, who will service the scrutineers? There would be a real difficulty.

There is one aspect of the Bill that I am inclined to support even though I realise that I may not be wholly on-message. I am sympathetic to the idea of directly elected mayors. London was a damn silly place to start; having an elected mayor in London who will enjoy fewer powers than any directly elected mayor elsewhere was a pretty silly way to test the concept. I do not think that I will feel a great deal better governed when I wake up on 5 May, whoever has won the election and however I have resolved my personal difficulty about whom to vote for as my second option. I rejoice only in knowing that the Prime Minister probably faces a greater difficulty deciding whom he will vote for as his second choice.

Perhaps, at last, we have a chance to reverse the tide of centralisation that is symbolised by the number of leaders of councils who are now in this place. I can see several sitting on the Labour Benches, and there are no doubt some on the Opposition Benches, too; they have migrated to this place. However, the day that people migrate from this place to local government because they think that that is where real power lies, we will know that we have at last brought about a mechanism that can challenge the complacency and centralising tendencies of Government. On the whole, that would be a good thing, and I am anxious that we should achieve it.

However, the political parties will all receive a nasty shock. People who stand for the post of mayor will not just seek a party mandate; they will want a much wider appeal that goes beyond their party. They will all be off-message, as has been demonstrated by events recently in London. Because they will be held responsible for all services, even the ones that they do not control closely, their necessary tendency will be to seek more power so as to bring reality into line with perception. That will involve interesting chemistry. They could seek more power over education. Policing is another obvious example. The man or the lady seeking to be a tough mayor will want to be able to control the police.

The process might be inconvenient, but it is a lot more persuasive than the Government's regional agenda, which is dying on its feet. Its pale ghost—a Banquo's ghost—will appear tonight in the form of the proposal for the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs. Elected mayors could turn out to be the sorcerer's apprentice for that legislation. Once they are unleashed, the Government will find it awfully difficult to put them back in their box. That is why they are a rather good idea.

There will be many unanswered questions. How will an elected mayor relate to elected councillors, and what will their relative powers be? Are we moving towards a gubernatorial system in relation to service inspectors and the role of the mayor? For once, this is an experiment that is worth carrying out.

The Bill offers some possibilities. We can improve it in Committee, and I hope that the Minister does not approach that with the attitude that a light is behind her and that she can stonewall all the questions that are asked. With the majority at her disposal, she will be perfectly able to do that. Instead, I hope that she realises that we all want local government to work, and that in the past, all parties have not delivered to local government the conditions in which it can thrive as it should if we are true believers in representative democracy. As we are in the House, we should at least believe in that.

7.3 pm

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

I enjoyed the speech of the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) rather more than I did that of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), who opened the debate for the Opposition. He spent 20 minutes trying to tell us that the Tory party was the defender of local government democracy, but it gave us the poll tax, rate capping and, for those of us who were in local government in the 1980s, year after year of cuts in powers and spending. When we consider the disillusionment in local government, we must remember that a key issue is that of powers. If people do not believe that local government is capable of delivering anything or if those in local government are not able to deliver what they want, that will be a source of much disillusionment.

I want to concentrate my comments on those parts of the Bill that deal with structures. However, much in it is welcome. In particular, I welcome the changes on functions and the ability to promote economic, social and environmental well-being that appear in part I. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Minister said that that will be a duty and not just an enabling power. The abolition of the surcharge is long overdue and I was glad to hear her show in her opening remarks the same strong commitment that she has shown on many occasions in debates on the subject of the repeal of section 28. I welcome the fact that she insisted that that would happen.

I have no difficulty with the idea that we should consider the possibility of structural change in local government. The key questions are what form that change will take and who will decide how it is carried out. To what degree will decisions be made at a national, as opposed to a local, level?

Irrespective of whether there have been experiments in some local authorities, the Bill proposes something very new and different. It proposes the complete separation of the executive function from the scrutiny function. Councillors will have executive powers that they will exercise personally, and that is a completely new concept. If I have understood clause 11(7) correctly, it appears that a range of people with executive powers might be appointed, rather than elected, to the new positions. We are moving to something that is untried and untested in our political system. We must recognise that in the proposals for the executive functions.

Some of the proposals are based on arguments about the failings of the committee system in local government. Sometimes, I have felt that that has been turned into the argument that local government has failed consistently for years. I have seen many of the faults of the committee system and I have spent many unhappy hours with sub-committees of sub-committees and gone through all the processes and time that it takes to do something that appears to be relatively simple. However, let us consider what local government achieved 20 years ago. Innovations for equal opportunities took place in local government, not central Government, and the Greater London council introduced a policing committee. That idea was attacked then on the ground that local authorities in London should have nothing to do with the police, but it is now being implemented.

Local authorities did much innovative work on economic redevelopment and on the relationship between the regeneration of estates and economic development. That all happened in local government, and it involved much more innovation than many central Government Departments can claim to have introduced over the past 20 years. I wonder why we need to be so prescriptive in the proposals. Why must we insist on a separate executive and why is it not possible to consider alternative models? I do not argue that change should not be made or that we should not adapt to changing circumstances.

Many questions have been asked about the mechanisms involved in decision making and the role of the scrutiny committees. In many local authorities—it is not true in all; it depends on their political composition—the system is likely to be based on a one-party cabinet and a scrutiny committee that is subject to the rules on political balance. Therefore the scrutiny committee will be made up of a majority of members from the majority party on the council and the cabinet will be made up entirely of members of the majority party. How will the scrutiny functions operate and what will be the role of an opposition councillor on such a committee? I suspect that the scrutiny function might involve rather more political polarisation than often happens at the moment in the committee structures of local government.

Some hon. Members have discussed the possibility of there being two types of councillor. I have no illusions about all councillors having equal influence over events, because anybody who has been on a council knows that that is not true. I spent 17 years on a local authority, as a back bencher, as a committee chairman, in opposition and as leader of the council, so I have seen it from all aspects, and I have no illusions about the different influences of those positions and the power relationships between them. At the end of the day, however, in each position I, like any other member of the council, had one vote in any of the council's significant policy decisions.

If we are to have councillors whose primary role is as a member of a scrutiny committee, there is an important question about the resources for those committees, which was raised earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). Resources are not mentioned in the Bill. We know that the effectiveness of a Select Committee in the House depends on its members and, in particular, on their personalities. Those of us who have served on Select Committees recognise that they are seriously hampered by a lack of resources to do their work and the small number of people who work directly for them.

What will be the situation of local authority scrutiny committees when we move away from the experimental arrangements that have been set up in some places and completely separate the executive function from the scrutiny function? Who will service the scrutiny committees? Will a council officer be able to give advice to the executive and then go to the scrutiny committee and suggest how it might question the executive? That is not realistic.

Will working for the scrutiny committee be an attractive job for a local government officer? Will a junior officer go to the committee and say, "By the way, you really ought to question what the housing department has been doing and what it has suggested to the executive"? We need to examine how we can provide scrutiny committees with independent resources and people to work directly for them, rather than being dependent on others for their jobs and careers so that they will not want to upset someone when doing their work for the committee.

Dr. Lynne Jones

I very much agree with my hon. Friend, and there are many dilemmas to face in how we go about making changes without increasing costs. We need closely to consider the scrutiny role and, in particular, the committees' powers to call witnesses and demand that they answer questions correctly. We need to be clear about those responsibilities.

Mr. Gerrard

My hon. Friend makes the critical point that the powers of the scrutiny committees need to be spelt out. Why will they not be able to initiate or propose policies in certain circumstances? The support that they receive will be critical to their effectiveness.

There has been much discussion about how members of scrutiny committees will function, but little discussion about the effect of the structural changes on local government officers and how they will work in relation to the executive and the scrutiny committees. We need to give that some thought because if we are to make these changes, we want to make them work. We want the scrutiny committees to have teeth and to be able to operate sensibly and efficiently; otherwise, they will become second-class structures and be seen as repositories for people who are not considered fit to be in the executive. If that happens, the system will start to fail.

The other issue that was raised earlier, on which I want briefly to comment, is secrecy and private meetings of the executive. That is a recipe for creating suspicion. We do not expect Cabinet meetings in Downing street to take place in public, but I should think that during several Governments' time in office, many decisions taken in private in the Cabinet have been regretted when the public reaction has become apparent.

We must tell councils to have executive meetings in public and to make agenda papers available in advance. It is not good enough to put that in guidance, because some people will totally ignore it. If we do not do that, we will contribute to poorer decision making. People should know in advance what will be discussed, and members of the executive will be alerted to matters that are likely to create a problem. It will also make it easier for the executive to change its mind. It is easier for us all to change our minds before we have announced our decision and put it into practice than to do so afterwards. I therefore hope that we will consider transparency and openness, and recognise that there is a significant difference between providing transparency after a decision has been made and providing it before it has been made.

We have discussed the problems that might arise and what would happen if there were an emergency. Most councils have provisions in their standing orders to make decisions in an emergency; that is not an insoluble problem. We all recognise that certain issues on the agenda, particularly to do with individuals, must be dealt with in private. Transparency is even more important when individuals, rather than groups, hold executive power.

Although I have concentrated on concerns about the Bill, the number and scale of amendments needed to make it work, to make the system open and to ensure that the scrutiny committees have the power and support that they need are not that great. I hope that we will consider those details, because I am sure that we can improve the Bill so that it will deliver what we all want—a better and more efficient system of local government.

7.18 pm
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak, and I commend the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), whose 17 years of experience in local government shone through in his speech. I disagree with him about many matters, and I am sure that I shall continue to do so, but he made sensible points. I particularly liked his remarks about secrecy in the cabinet system being a recipe for suspicion because that is one of the points that I shall address.

My experience of local government is a great deal more limited than that of the hon. Gentleman. I was an opposition councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham, and so I am conscious of the need for change. Many decisions were made in closed caucus by the Labour leadership; nevertheless, I had the opportunity in committees to hold those leaders to account, which was valuable.

This is a large Bill, and in the limited time that I have I shall concentrate on two issues: cabinet secrecy and section 28, which has attracted so many headlines. The first problem about the secrecy of local government cabinets is that they will not be subject to the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985, so statutory openness has been lost, with all that it brings with it. The second is that cabinets will inevitably tend to be single-party bodies, so the openness of cross-party discussion will be lost. Openness will be retrospective under new arrangements, so there will be scrutiny of decisions that have already been made, as has been said. In the present system, information must be made available three days before meetings.

Councillors who are not cabinet members—especially, and mostly, councillors who are members of opposition parties—will be excluded from the decision-making process. Allegedly, back-bench councillors will be able to spend more time representing their communities— as the explanatory notes put it; however, the Conservative leader of Blaby district council pours scorn on the idea that they will have anything to do.

As the House knows, under the current committee system, all important council decisions have to be taken at meetings of the full council or its committees, and they are subject to the 1985 Act. Therefore, meetings are open to the public and the media, although, of course, exempt information can be discussed and decided in private session. Under the Bill, cabinets will not be required to meet in public, but must publish decisions after they have been taken. Furthermore, under clause 21, Regulations…may make provision for or in connection with preventing the whole or part of any record or document containing prescribed information from being made available to members of the public.

In other words, the Bill explicitly leaves open the possibility of blanket restrictions being imposed on access to information. Decisions of directly elected mayors or individual cabinet members will not be subject to the provisions of the 1985 Act, even though a record of decisions made must be published after they have been taken. My local district council, Blaby, is actively taking steps to avoid problems.

All that sits ill with comments made previously by the Prime Minister and other Labour Ministers. My hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) mentioned that, in 1996, the Prime Minister said: The first right of a citizen in any mature democracy should be the right to information. In March 1996, he said: We want to end the obsessive and unnecessary secrecy which surrounds government activity and make government information available to the public, unless there are good reasons not to do so. That rings hollow after last week's debate on the Freedom of Information Bill and sits ill with the arrangements on local government cabinet secrecy.

I shall give a few examples of how secretive cabinet meetings are already creeping into the processes of local government. In Sedgefield district council, which, the House will not be surprised to learn, is Labour-controlled, independent councillor Tony Moore remarked: without the press or public allowed in to listen to the debate of councillors, these secret meetings will leave us open to…abuse of power. That is a reasonable comment, quoted in The Northern Echo. In Labour-controlled Lambeth borough council, the chairman of an organisation called Streatham Forward says that To the present leadership of Lambeth council openness "is an alien concept." That valuable newspaper, the Highbury and Islington Express, attacked the secret council meeting held in Liberal Democrat-controlled Islington borough council, lambasting eight politicians wanting to decide our future in secret. A report about Labour-controlled Newcastle upon Tyne metropolitan borough council in The Independent stated: Ten councillors sit in single-party Cabinet meetings closed to the public. Afterwards the council issues a list of recommendations to a further committee, which although held in public, has been accused of "rubber-stamping" Cabinet decisions. Those comments, many made by members of the Labour party, express a legitimate concern. We, too, should voice that concern, because local government should be transparent.

Blaby district council is Conservative-controlled. In a six-month experiment, it has already moved halfway to a cabinet system. However, the seven cabinet members make recommendations to the policy and resources committee—they do not make policy. The biggest concern is about the extra cost: the independent committee that recommends allowance rates has increased allowances by £100,000, which is a lot for a relatively small district council. It has also recommended that every councillor should have a laptop, which might be sensible, but it will certainly be expensive. In Leicestershire county council, the cost of allowances has now more than doubled.

The big problem in Blaby is that councillors who are not part of the cabinet are left out of decision making, even though attempts are being made to keep them informed through a members' information system. Under the Bill, the only committee work done will be that of scrutiny committees, which will only consider decisions after they have been made. Among all councillors of all parties in Blaby, there is no desire for the change set out in the Bill.

Mr. Waterson

Given his experience in Hammersmith and Fulham, is my hon. Friend aware that, under the new cabinet system there, more than 600 decisions have been made, only one of which has so far been reversed by the scrutiny process? Does he care to comment?

Mr. Robathan

I was not privy to those details, but I did know that there has been much criticism expressed in the area of the secrecy surrounding the new cabinet system. All members of good intent would regret that.

The section 28 debate is bizarre—it strikes me as strange that anyone should believe that public money should be spent promoting homosexuality as an alternative life style. I should like to correct what was stated earlier by the Minister for Local Government and the Regions, who has now left the Chamber. The right hon. Lady said that the issue has nothing to do with schools. Section 28 is an amendment made by the Local Government Act 1988 to the Local Government Act 1986, It states that "A local authority"—not a school or a teacher— shall not…intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality; nor shall it promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship. Like the majority of people in this country, I find it strange that anyone should think that public money should be spent on such purposes.

Dr. Lynne Jones

First, will the hon. Gentleman explain how it is possible to promote homosexuality—is that not a contradiction in terms? Secondly…secondly—I have forgotten what my second point is. [Laughter.]

Mr. Robathan

Knowing the hon. Lady, I am sure that it was an important point. However, she made one sensible point, and I, too, would have thought that it is difficult to promote homosexuality. However, a report in The Times today, states that Berkshire health authority has issued a pamphlet called "Connect"—a gay newsletter aimed at children and young people of 11 years and older that teaches them how to cruise for sex. The hon. Lady might recall from the time when we were young that, sometimes, being told about such things makes them interesting and encourages one to go out and see what is what. I do not suggest that either she or I ever did so, but I believe that that is how homosexuality might be promoted.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Has my hon. Friend noticed the way in which the argument has changed over the past few months? A few months ago, we were told that section 28 had to be repealed because it stood in the way of teachers legitimately and properly dealing with homophobic bullying. Now, we are told that it does not apply in schools. The Government cannot have it both ways.

Mr. Robathan

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Hearing the Prime Minister last Wednesday was astonishing. The debate is not about tolerance; it is about whether or not public money should be spent promoting homosexuality in schools and elsewhere.

Dr. Jones

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Robathan

I am sorry, but no—I have given way twice and, as the hon. Lady knows, we are subject to a time limit.

Some say that section 28 has been quite ineffective, citing in evidence the absence of prosecutions under the provision. However, I suggest that its effect has been achieved through the message—the statement—encapsulated in it and the consequent deterrent effect that that has had. Local authorities have not felt minded to push "Jenny lives with Eric and Martin", but, apparently, the publisher of that book promises to reprint it if section 28 is repealed. I have seen the book: it was pretty shocking in the 1980s, but, regrettably, it is less shocking now, because we are inured to such stuff. Nevertheless, I am quite certain that, if the provision is repealed, many publications that promote homosexuality will be produced.

The issue has become the star turn of the Bill, even though it is only one small part of it, so it is curious how out of touch with popular feeling the Government are. As a parent of two young children, I am against the repeal of section 28. A Gallup poll showed that a large majority of the British public are in favour of maintaining section 28. The Prime Minister should spend more time listening to his constituents in Sedgefield, where 71 per cent. of those polled stated that they want to keep the law as it is.

I am not a Roman Catholic, but I shall quote Cardinal Winning, because his words are reasonable and measured. He said: The current debate is not about homophobia, or discrimination, or intolerance. It is about education. It is perfectly natural that parents should be concerned that their children will be exposed to material that they do not consider either appropriate or advisable. Our politicians are imposing a values-free policy of political correctness on children, parents and society in general. I well remember Cardinal Winning criticising the previous Conservative Government. Labour politicians should listen carefully to what he says, whether they are practising Catholics or not. He makes a good point.

The Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, stated: Section 28 is the logical outworking of putting the family at the heart of a stable society. It is, of course, discriminatory. Yet the setting of all values is a form of choice and discrimination in favour of certain moral principles.

Muslims, Sikhs and others have all criticised the Government's moves to repeal section 28. Dr. Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, who speaks a lot of sense, put it well when he said that repealing section 28 threatens to undermine a moral code shared by the world's great religions. Perhaps he overstates the case, but it is an important marker, which Labour Members should consider carefully.

The Government have given the matter such priority because they have bought a wider gay agenda. They have bought the aggressive single-issue pressure group lobbying to which we have all been subjected. Indeed, I am sure that the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward) is about to jump up and tell us about all the lobbying to which he has been subjected.

The Government apparently intend to publish a code of practice for employers to discourage discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, which will mean that gay partners get the same rights to health care, travel benefits and relocation allowances as married couples. There is also, apparently, a case for the law to be changed to allow gay partners to register as next of kin and thereby to qualify for inheritance tax relief.

To most people in the country, outside the Westminster village, that is nonsense. It is not intolerant of them to say that. I am not intolerant of all homosexuals. I do not think that homosexuality is an equivalent life style, but I am not intolerant of homosexuals. What people do in the privacy of their own bedrooms is largely up to them.

However, the proposal is an unwise move by the Government, which I shall certainly oppose. To most voters, especially Labour voters who are concerned about the real issues that face them in areas which may not be as prosperous as the area that I represent—this was well expressed by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle)—it is extraordinary that the Government should give such priority to this one politically correct issue. I believe that that is because it is being driven by the single-issue aggressive campaigning homosexual lobby. I wonder what Labour Members' voters will think, in the local elections and come the general election, as well.

7.33 pm
Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney)

I look forward to the Government introducing their proposals to repeal section 28 in Committee, and I look forward to the removal of the amendments that were introduced in another place. I hope that that will happen soon.

No one should be in any doubt about the purpose of section 28. It was introduced not to protect, but to discriminate and to hurt. Its presence on the statute book directly or indirectly creates a climate of confusion, fear, intolerance and hatred. That climate still pervades the classroom, despite changes to the legislation in the 1990s—not directly, because of the Education Act 1994, but indirectly.

Let there be no doubt that the purpose of keeping section 28 is to maintain discrimination, to continue hurting, and to inflame prejudice. We heard some of that prejudice from the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan).

If there has been a consistent theme justifying the actions of those who oppose the repeal of section 28, it is the claim that there is no evidence to support its abolition. I shall focus on evidence.

The House knows that I was sacked from the Conservative Front Bench because I opposed the party's decision to force its Members through the Lobby to keep section 28. I shall say more about those events in a moment. In the weeks that followed, I received an enormous quantity of letters, more than 95 per cent. of which supported my stand.

As so much of the debate has focused on family values, let me begin by quoting from a family—a mother—[Interruption.] I am sorry that the hon. Member for Blaby finds a letter from a mother funny. I think that it is rather important. She writes: My son is gay and has lived his life being bullied at school. His life has been an absolute misery. I, like most of the nation, cringed at the very thought of homosexuality (not knowing my son was gay.) I have recently found out and am so ashamed that I have been so ignorant of all the facts, believing that this was a life choice and not understanding that there is no choice in this matter—that it is purely a fact of nature. I now have to live with the fact that my ignorance has been a factor in how my son now feels about himself. He spends most of his time in a depressed and suicidal state. And yes, I do blame myself for this because he has been conditioned by myself to believe there is only one way to live and that is to marry someone of the opposite sex.

The letter continues: If children could go to their teachers and tell them why they are being bullied and it could be discussed in an open way, I'm sure that by the time they reach adulthood they would not feel ashamed and disgusted about themselves. This matter has touched me in a way I couldn't have imagined. I can't do much to help my son. I can't change the way people think. I can't educate people or make them understand what it can do to a young person—how society can make them want to commit suicide. But you and people like you can. [Interruption.] It is a great shame that four of the greater exponents of keeping section 28 on the statute book are not even interested in listening to that lady's letter—the mother who has had the responsibility of bringing up that child.

We have a choice today. The House will have to decide how we respond to that mother's letter. Do we listen or do we ignore her, her son and their family? If we ignore them, what does that say about our so-called family values? After all, families are not just about structures. They are about relationships and they are about love.

I regret the fact that so much of the debate has degenerated into an almost warlike atmosphere. It is presented as some kind of cultural war. Efforts to persuade people to adopt greater tolerance and understanding of those who are gay have been caricatured as a battle to defend family values. Somehow we have arrived at the ludicrous position in which arguing the case to end discrimination is seen as attacking the role of the family and family values in our society.

Nothing could be further from the truth. That caricature is misleading and grossly misrepresents the real argument. Somehow, being against discrimination is equated with being against the family. That is utter nonsense, utterly wrong and utterly misleading.

I find it difficult to understand why anyone should not logically want equal treatment for all our citizens. There is something very unpleasant about the way in which the argument about section 28 has evolved. Of course, discrimination has too long played a role in the history of our society. Likewise, we have long debated the meaning of equality.

Today, the rhetorical equation of civil rights with special rights—or as the hon. Member for Blaby called it, a special agenda—has dominated much of the debate. The tension between equality and individual freedom to discriminate fuels much of the discussion of section 28.

Regrettably, we live in a society that still fosters a system of sexual apartheid. Just as apartheid in pre-1994 South Africa denied black people full citizenship, so our laws deny that same full citizenship to those who are gay. As the mother's letter that I read earlier said so poignantly, it is all to easy to fail our children because of our bigotry, to think that it does not matter, or even to justify the discrimination because we think that it is about special rights, not civil rights.

In Britain we still have an age of consent that is not equal. We expect those of our citizens who are gay to fight in our wars, to defend our country and perhaps even to sacrifice their lives, yet only recently have we begun to realise that they, too, should have rights in the armed forces which may ask them to lay down their lives.

Much has been distorted in the argument about so-called pretend families. It is claimed that lesbians and gay men do not have families, only pretend families. We tell them that they are second best, if that.

However, we tend to consider the matter only from the perspective of adults. What about the children? As a trustee of Childline, which has counselled nearly 1 million children in 12 years, I have listened to children for a long time. I shall quote a letter from a mother, whom we shall call Kate. She said: My son David is 7-years old and already he is bullied at school for having gay parents. When he started school at 5 he thought there was no difference between having gay parents and straight parents. Not any more.

  • We have been staggered at the levels of homophobia in schools.
  • Hug a friend of the same gender and you are gay.
  • Use a smaller girl's knife at lunchtime and you are gay.
  • It's not all aimed at him.
  • It is just a term of abuse. Like nigger used to be when society sanctioned racial prejudice, like Section 28 sanctions homophobia.
  • The school knows about this kind of abuse, but feels unable to challenge it because of Section 28.
Kate says that David is all right because he has the support of loving parents and they have had the support of others, but what about the children in David's class who might be gay? The letter continues: How do you think these children are going to feel about their sexuality when it has been an officially sanctioned term of abuse throughout their childhood?

Section 28 contributes to a climate that sets some people apart from the rest of society. Yet Conservative Members present arguments that all too easily blame lesbian and gay people for setting themselves apart. However, the House is beginning to realise, as we realised with race apartheid, that sexual apartheid is wrong. It is just as cruel, and it arouses the same feeling of injustice, and the same pain and suffering. It is divisive.

Much of the debate has been about misunderstanding. The climate in which misunderstanding operates easily becomes one of fear, prejudice, intolerance and even hate. It would be wrong to suggest that all those who oppose the repeal of section 28 wilfully wish to mislead the public. However, some do. They distort the facts and present misleading arguments. Their conclusions are underpinned by appalling prejudice.

Let us consider a Conservative party press release, which was issued by the shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment. It states: The Conservative party is quite clear. We believe that no public money should be spent promoting homosexuality. Public money should be used to raise educational standards. Of course money should be spent on raising educational standards. However, resources need to be used to tackle bullying. Homophobic bullying is a serious problem in our schools. The Conservative party press release continues: Bullying is wrong. We do not believe that section 28 provides any legal impediment to teachers to tackle bullying. The Tories claim that bullying must be stopped, but would not provide money to tackle that problem in schools.

The row over section 28 led to my sacking from the Conservative Front Bench. I had no idea that the Government intended to repeal section 28 until the Queen's Speech last November. As soon as I knew, I consulted every headteacher in every school in my constituency. Every secondary school headteacher wanted the law repealed. They gave example after example of homophobia. They said that, despite the fact that the law had changed, the climate meant that section 28 hung like a sword of Damocles over teachers' heads.

I tried to explain that to the Conservative Chief Whip. He was not very interested. I said that a party that wanted to listen to Britain should listen. However, he said that, when it came to section 28, the Conservative party was not listening. In three minutes, a meeting of members of the shadow Cabinet decided, after taking no evidence from any interested party—social workers, teachers, the British Medical Association or children's charities—that section 28 constituted a good opportunity to promote their so-called family values. They ignored the sort of letters that they received from people whose families genuinely suffer.

The university of London produced some evidence. It polled teachers in 307 schools. The research concluded: Although the direct legal effect of Section 28 on school policies is minimal, the existence of the legislation sends a clear signal that there may be something dangerous or wrong about addressing the needs of gay pupils. This is an unnecessary, damaging and confusing message for teachers which adversely affects the lives of the young people with whom they work. We must all regret that none of that is reflected in Conservative party propaganda, statements or briefings.

A briefing note that the Tories prepared on 27 March this year stated: Key point. Parents want the comfort of knowing that homosexuality cannot be promoted in schools at public expense, and that their children are protected. How misleading—the Tories know that section 28 does not apply directly in schools. Their legislation provided for that. School governors have the responsibility for sex education. Yet the attempt to mislead the public continued, even by the Leader of the Opposition. In Prime Minister's questions, he challenged the Prime Minister to back down and asked him what people had to do to get him to back off politically correct nonsense.

The Prime Minister will not back off because the Labour party will do what is right, not what is expedient to exploit people's fears and prejudices. A teacher wrote a letter, which stated: I was asked to interview a young 15-year old boy who had not attended formal education for two years. It soon transpired that his failure to attend school had been due to vicious homophobic bullying. This resulted in a severe breakdown and admission to a psychiatric unit. He also told me that had been self-abusing and showed me his scars. Both his arms are covered by a huge series of scars from knife cutting. Another teacher wrote about an appalling case. He said: When I was at school, there was a swing park next to Airdrie hospital, and next to this there was a set of public toilets. The one painful memory I have is that a young man was beaten to death in those toilets late one night. His face had been kicked and booted so badly that his face was no longer recognisable as a face. I do remember how everyone at school was laughing about it because the general idea was that he was gay and therefore his death was a good thing. The fact that he suffered an inhumane death…was irrelevant. I know of young kids who have been beaten up at school because they were perceived to be gay, and the school did nothing about it. A young man called Darren committed suicide last year because he could no longer go on suffering the beatings and the abuse. His teachers knew all about it, but because of Section 28 felt obliged to ignore it. Section 28 drove him to suicide. How many other young children has it driven to suicide, or suffered brutally…? We will never know, but it cannot be denied that such a situation is immoral and unfair. A few years ago, Neil Kinnock, the former leader of this party said: Section 28 is crude in its concept. Slanderous in its drafting. Vicious in its purpose. It is vicious. It should go.

7.48 pm
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

The Bill is bad and dishonest. Anyone who had any doubts should have been here this afternoon to listen to the Minister of State's introduction. It was appalling. She convinced no one, least of all members of her party. I do not wish to be unkind to her but she has had a bad week. I listened to her on the radio when she talked about what she described as "best value". After her big build up, the interviewer asked what was new about the idea. She had no answer. The interviewer described value for money in local government as simple common sense.

At the weekend, the right hon. Lady described the dome as a remarkable building. It is remarkable that it was ever built—I suppose that my party had a hand in that. However, it is a different matter to go on radio and claim that it constitutes a remarkable example of fine British architecture.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes)

It is.

Mr. Amess

I am sorry to disagree with the Under-Secretary, but I do not believe that the dome is a remarkable building, and the majority of British people are not proud of it.

The Bill is a bad measure. The Government tabled more than 300 amendments to it in another place. Most of them did not tackle the substantive points. This afternoon, the Minister showed that she had not mastered the arguments.

The Bill is dishonest. The 1997 Labour party general election manifesto states: Local decision-making should be less constrained by central government…

Well, yes. Also, it should be more accountable to local people. Yes. The manifesto goes on: We will place on councils a new duty to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their area. However, there was no rider to say that there would be no money for any of that, as the way in which Lord Dixon-Smith tried to amend the Bill shows. It also says: They should work in partnership with local people, local business and local voluntary organisations. I want to share with the House the fact that none of that has happened in my town, Southend, where this dreadful experiment went ahead. Under no circumstances have the local people been consulted about the nonsense that has gone on. It adds: They will have the powers necessary to develop these partnerships. To ensure greater accountability, a proportion of councillors in each locality will be elected annually.

The Minister of State kept firing her guns at Her Majesty's loyal Opposition, who were saying nothing, and completely ignored Labour Back Benchers, although she knew only too well that they were deeply unhappy with the Bill. Hardly any Labour Member has supported this shambles of a Bill this afternoon—everyone seems to oppose it—or perhaps they are terribly busy. The Government have had months to sort it out, yet we again find shabby legislation before the House.

I pay tribute to Friends of the Earth, Charter 88 and the Campaign for Freedom of Information. Under normal circumstances, they would be close to the Labour party but, judging by the brief that has been sent to me, they are very unhappy with the Bill. Although one or two hon. Members smiled earlier, it was Baroness Thatcher who in 1960 introduced a private Member's Bill to allow council meetings to be open to the press and the public. The Conservative party should be proud of that. When we were in office for our 18 years, we also passed legislation to allow the public access to key council papers three days before meetings.

Everything in the Bill is dishonest and rubbish is talked about it. The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions seemed to disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) when he talked about modernisation. What the devil is this modernisation about? I shall tell the House. It is about the Labour party stifling any debate, just as it wants to stifle its own Back Benchers. The Bill is not about openness and transparency—that is an absolute travesty of what has happened in Southend.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) talked about her Liberal council. I shall talk about my Labour and Liberal council and we shall see how open and transparent it is. What the Bill suggests is nonsense. The public will not know what is being discussed at local authority cabinet meetings, apart from seeing a brief summary of decisions made after the meeting. Time after time, Labour Back Benchers tried to intervene on the Minister of State to make that point. Whether she could not be moved from her brief or did not understand the point I do not know, but I thought that she would have had a tangible argument to meet it.

The Bill will strip the British people and local newspapers of their right to observe how councils make decisions and how individual councillors vote. A year ago in Southend, for whatever reason, it was decided to opt for cabinet-style government. It has been a total disaster. What has gone on in Southend is a disgrace and I want to touch on many issues. I asked for a report on what the new system has meant in Southend and most councillors of all parties think that it is undemocratic that a small Cabinet of 8 make all the decisions and…the other 31… are turned scrutineer. That is what my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon referred to earlier. It is a waste of time being a scrutineer councillor. They have no power whatever.

What have the daft Government done in Southend? We all nodded and said that it is difficult to get people to stand for the council so we are to have another 13 scrutineers. We shall have more councillors, but fewer people will be involved in the democratic process. What a complete waste of their time. Although the Southend cabinet meets in public, the decisions are taken at its private briefing with officers. Like many hon. Members, I have been a councillor, though to be honest I did not much enjoy being a councillor in Redbridge. I prefer being a Member of Parliament. However, I got a feel for the way things work. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) or the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) said that parties met in private under the old committee system and the press did not get to hear what went on. That is not the case. Councillors could be whipped to any end in a private meeting on a three-line Whip, many things were leaked to the media and there was close scrutiny of decisions before they reached the committee stage.

I am also advised by the Southend councillors that morale is low among those on all sides who are not in the cabinet. They are very bitter about being excluded and people will become totally disenchanted in the long term, but that is what this rotten Labour party is all about: fewer and fewer people voting and fewer and fewer people getting involved in the democratic process, but Ministers have the nerve to come to the Dispatch Box to pretend that they are propagating openness and transparency. There is nothing open and transparent about this dreadful Government.

The cabinet system encourages decisions to be taken first and public debate to take place afterwards, which is odd.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North)


Mr. Amess

The hon. Lady should come to Southend to talk to Labour councillors. Let them try to convince her that it is no good taking decisions privately and arguing about them afterwards, when it is too late. The scrutiny committee has few powers and must refer matters back for reconsideration.

I have always been against officer-led local authorities, but the proposal plays into officers' hands as it is all about taking control away from democratically elected representatives. That is part of a hidden agenda for the long run to drive potential councillors out of local government and to shift their powers to regional assemblies, which we shall discuss later.

I also want to refer to the payment of councillors. In our local newspaper, the Evening Echo, I read: Southend's council leader could be set for a 100 per cent increase in allowances under new recommendations revealed today. That has gone down like a lead balloon locally. Executive councillors could be paid £10,000 to £12,000, but I cannot see too many people giving up full-time jobs for such a salary. If the Bill becomes law, I shall be very worried about the way in which local government is going.

I want to share another matter with the House. Local people have been kept in the dark about important issues such as assisted area status because of this ridiculous cabinet system. What has gone on is a disgrace. At one point, Southend applied for objective 2 status under the fisheries strand arrangements. There was no consultation. Two wards in my area, Leigh and Chalkwell, were moved to the urban strand. There was no openness and no transparency. The one ward that I represent, Westborough, was taken out rather than being switched to the urban strand. Therefore no ward in my constituency qualifies, as a direct result of a lack of openness. On Friday, I shall raise on the Floor of the House a variety of disgraceful developments in connection with social services which I believe have been kept secret.

Then there is the nonsense involving our roads. Our poor businesses are struggling to make a living; now we find that, to try to get the traffic flowing, the barking mad council has arranged for us to have bus lanes all along the A13, and gridlock along the Al27. Because of the secrecy of the cabinet system, local traders knew nothing of what was happening. Unfortunately, the Liberal-Labour-controlled Essex county council dropped a scheme that would have given us a decent road to the north of the town. At present, that is costing Southend dear.

Owing to the secrecy, the planning system is a disgrace. We never hear about houses in multiple occupation until it is too late. There have been many instances of masts being put on top of buildings; a number of my constituents are worried about the health hazards, but because of this secrecy, we hear nothing.

I am proud to represent a very Christian society in Southend, but what has gone on in regard to asylum seekers is an absolute disgrace. There are now more than 2,000 in the area that I represent. Given the strength of feeling, it is disgraceful that the matter has been handled in complete secrecy. Now that it is out of control, however, the council is taking legal action against the boroughs of Hackney, Redbridge and other areas.

This is a bad Bill. It is a dishonest Bill, and, unfortunately, it is a Bill that is absolutely typical of this dreadful Government.

8.2 pm

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

The Bill is about reviving local government and local democracy after a Tory onslaught that continued for 18 years. It is difficult to take seriously any comments made by the Opposition, given that they were part of that onslaught, and given that we heard again this evening—in reply to a question from me to the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard)—that they still intended to abolish local education authorities. The Tory track record in local government is about destruction, and the Tory promise for the future is about further destruction and running down.

The Bill is about revitalising local government, but it is also about preparing local government for change—change that will be very important if local government and local democracy are to lead developments in the new century by ensuring that local authorities work as effectively as possible, and by leading local communities.

The Government have already recognised the importance of local authorities as providers of local services, either directly or indirectly. The replacement of compulsory competitive tendering by best value is a welcome indication of that. But the Government have also recognised the importance of leadership and innovation at local level. I welcome the new powers giving local authorities a duty to promote social, economic and environmental well-being.

Nevertheless, I ask my hon. Friends to recognise that local government also has a proud record of innovation and creativity. During the 1980s, it was local government that pioneered major changes for the benefit of the community, against a background of Tory Government hostility to local government, both generally and specifically.

In the early 1980s, when I was leader of Lancashire county council, I was involved with not just my local authority but county councils in areas such as the west midlands, West Yorkshire and Merseyside. Despairing of the Tory Government's inaction and their uncaring attitude to rising unemployment and the destruction of our local economies, the local authority sector worked with private enterprise to set up local enterprise boards, the precursors of regional development agencies.

The most spectacular achievement of Lancashire Enterprises was the saving of Leyland Trucks when it collapsed in the early 1990s. Lancashire Enterprises, the Labour authority-controlled local economic development company, worked with the private sector to preserve truck making in Lancashire, which continues to this day. We did that through judicious investment, rather than grant or subsidy. Moreover, we preserved thousands of jobs—the jobs of workers at Leyland Trucks, and of workers in the hundreds of feeder companies operating not just in Lancashire but throughout the north-west. That is an example of what could be done by the local government initiatives set up in the early 1980s. They showed that manufacturing could be saved by local authorities working with the private sector, although the Government of the time opposed what was happening.

I can give other examples of my experiences in Lancashire local government during those years, showing what local authority initiative can do. Lancashire country council, working with Greenpeace, pressed for a public inquiry into the proposed nuclear reprocessing at Sellafield, because we did not accept the statistics given to us by British Nuclear Fuels. We were not successful in that regard, but we were successful in securing new legislation: from that day on, European environmental law became United Kingdom environmental law. I believe that the sad events of recent months fully vindicate the stand that we took in calling for an inquiry into Sellafield all those years ago.

I could give many more instances of Lancashire's innovation against the background of a Government who did not care, did not listen and tried to impede. I am sure that many other Members can give examples from their own experience. I emphasise that all those initiatives, and many more, were taken under a Government who wanted to impede us. I welcome the powers in the Bill to encourage local authorities to take a leadership role, to work with the private and voluntary sectors, and to show the way forward for the community. However, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider whether those powers are sufficient to give the new leadership role the strength that it deserves.

Although the Bill gives wider powers to local authorities, there appear to be no proposals to look again at the legislation imposed by the Conservatives restricting local authorities' interests in companies. That is an extremely important issue. If local authorities are to play a full part in regeneration and if there is to be accountability for public money that is spent, it is essential for legislation relating to authorities' interests in companies to be revisited, and for authorities to be given stronger powers.

I ask for that in general terms, and also specifically. We should consider how local authorities can play their part in urban regeneration and, in particular, in the activities of the urban regeneration companies proposed in the Rogers report on urban renaissance. One such company already operates in Liverpool. I want that project to be fully supported, but I also want the local authority to have sufficient powers in regard to that company, and other regeneration companies, to ensure public responsibility and accountability for the money that is spent.

I ask the Minister to consider whether local authorities will, through the Bill, be properly equipped to take on that leadership role and to tackle financial issues. If they are to take on real leadership, show the way forward and innovate, they will need access to funding that is flexible. Although I accept that there are cases where specific grants to local authorities are justified, it is wrong for the vast majority of central Government funding to local government to be prescribed.

In the past, local government has innovated against the odds. This Government want local government to innovate, but, to do that, it must have legal powers and the financial flexibility to be able to identify the funds to allow it to pioneer a new way forward.

During the debate, much has been said about the new structures. It is much easier to say what is wrong with existing structures than to find new ones that will solve all problems. I share many of the concerns that have been expressed. It is important that local authorities move forward with all members feeling that they are part of one authority. It is important that there is access to relevant information. It would be wrong if there were unnecessary divisions within councils, so I add my voice to those of hon. Members who have asked for another look at some of the detail of how the structures may go forward.

There is provision in the Bill for directly elected mayors where local people feel that they are appropriate. Given the new structures and the emphasis on new powers of community leadership in local government, there is a role for a directly elected mayor, provided that the people of the area want one. A directly elected mayor could bring new focus, direction and confidence to local authorities, but it is essential that the powers given to directly elected mayors are sufficient to make a difference and are exercised for the benefit of all the people of the area.

The Bill presents new challenges. It tries to revitalise local government, which was almost decimated by the Conservatives over all those years, but it also offers a new way forward. That new way brings opportunities, but also new challenges.

I ask the Minister to recognise the great achievements of local government in the past and in the present. I ask the Government to maintain their support for local democracy through directly elected local government, and I ask local authorities to grasp the opportunities that are offered.

8.13 pm
Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to take part in the debate. Like many other hon. Members, I cut my teeth in local government, both as an officer working for a local authority and, later, as a county councillor. Therefore, having worked on both sides of the local government fence, as it were, I appreciate, and pay tribute to, the hard work that officers and councillors in particular undertake voluntarily, working for local democracy, local governance and continuing devolution in Wales.

Wales is in a unique position with regard to the Bill because it has universal unitary authorities, the National Assembly and the Partnership Council: again, a unique way of working involving the structure at both parliamentary and local government level. I hope that, because of the interest in Wales in what is happening in local government and in the Bill, there will be good representation from Wales on discussions of the Bill in Committee.

In the White Papers in both England and Wales, the Government set out four main planks for modernisation; I hesitate to use that word after some criticism has been made of it, but let us accept it for the moment. The four main planks were: the introduction of the executive style of decision making; new standards of conduct for officers and members; the introduction of community planning; and the introduction of best value.

Best value has had a hesitant start in Wales. The beacon council schemes had to be put back a year because of the plethora of bureaucracy, papers and difficulties. Local government has sometimes been asked to respond and to change perhaps a little too quickly after the recent shake-up of local government structures in Wales, but the Bill sets out the rest of the changes. I was pleased in particular to hear the Minister's comments on community planning. She confirmed that the intention is to place a duty on local authorities to bring in community planning and made positive comments about that.

That duty is important. It is not in the Bill as amended. It is a pity that the Government did not use the other place to table their amendment, so that we could see what they meant by that. Nevertheless, the intention has been made clear and confirmed today. Therefore, I look forward to seeing the Government amendment to introduce the duty on community planning. [Interruption.] Excellent; the Minister has returned to her place. She is just in time. I bring to her attention what is perhaps an oversight in the Bill.

I take it that, if community planning is to be a duty in Wales, clause 4 will be amended. Therefore, it will have to be brought within the ambit of clause 92, which gives powers to the National Assembly to make regulations and so forth. Otherwise, community planning in Wales will be run by regulations from the Department in England. That cannot be right. We need to look carefully at the matter and to tidy up that provision.

On the whole, so far, what we have seen from the Government on local government is strong rhetoric about hearing local voices and enabling local decision makers, but weakness on practical methods of achieving that. The only way to involve local communities is to involve them at the earliest part of service delivery planning, so that they look at the options, are part of the vision of the future, and debate the different ways forward. That extends to businesses and voluntary and community groups.

Executive structures on their own are no guarantee of greater local accountability. Indeed, they could tend to isolate councillors one step further from local people, and we must avoid that. Therefore, one of the key modernising requirements—that word again, I am afraid—must be to move local government from its tendency towards oppositional decision making to a more collaborative and consensual process.

I appreciate that that is what the Government are trying to achieve in the Bill, but, without that key requirement, its other welcome measures could tend to strengthen, or even to fossilise, current ways of doing things. The replacement of one set of, as it tends to be, slightly older men by one individual who is also likely to be a man, will not bring about the changes.

Reference was made to the report by the right hon. Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) on the number of women in local authorities. I regret that a local authority in Wales, Ynys Môn, or Isle of Anglesey county council, has the lowest number of women—just 8 per cent. of its members are women. My own local authority only just creeps above that: four of its 44 members are women, about 9 per cent. That has been unchanged for eight years; there has been no improvement in the amount of women represented in Ceredigion in the past eight years.

We must change that. The key way forward is to modernise our councillor profile. Community planning is an important step along that way. It can open up local government and encourage more balanced and informed participation.

How do we achieve that? One of the ways is to change the way in which we elect councillors. The encouragement towards annual elections is to be welcomed—I know that not everyone in Wales agrees with me on that. We have little experience of elections by thirds, although the old Rhondda district council did elect by thirds.

In the Representation of the People Act 2000, the Government introduced a rolling electoral register. That is welcome, but more important than all those changes—it is singularly lacking in the Bill—is the need to move towards proportional representation in local elections. That would be the single most important influence for change in local government. An amendment to the Bill to allow the National Assembly for Wales to experiment and to introduce PR would be a tremendously powerful tool for change.

I know that the Government have experimented with the way in which the May elections in England will happen. There are different days and ways of polling. The London elections will take place over several days. Those changes are all welcome. We look forward to the detailed reports on how they have worked. However, Plaid Cymru has long supported the single transferable vote, and we see no reason why it should not apply at local authority level.

My comments on the Government's proposals on the executive are perhaps not so warm. I welcome the Bill as amended in the other place. We should be seeking not to impose new structures on local government, but to establish best practice and to encourage local authorities to adopt it. Although I accept that the three new executive structures—potentially with a fourth or more—are flexible, that in itself does not greatly recommend them. We should be moving towards a system that allows local people to choose the local structure that suits them best.

In Wales, about 19 of the local authorities are either introducing a shadow system or experimenting with one. I think that Flintshire and Powys have said that they want to keep a "new look" committee structure. I do not know whether Blaenau Gwent has joined those authorities in that, but it may well have done. However, I feel very strongly that the National Assembly for Wales should decide what systems of local authority should operate in Wales, and that the decision should be an example of devolution and subsidiarity—to use a now rather old-fashioned word—at work. As the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) who has left the Chamber said earlier, it is an excellent opportunity for the Government to put into action their new-found appreciation—announced in The Observer, on Sunday—of the lessons of devolution.

Elected mayors are a case in point on those lessons. The idea of elected mayors is quite popular in some of the larger cities in England—

Ms Armstrong

And with the public.

Mr. Thomas

Yes, I appreciate that. However, I do not think that the same is true in Wales. We could have elected mayors in Wales, and it might make sense to have one in places such as Cardiff or Swansea. Wales may also soon have a third city—although I should not make a pitch on behalf of Wrexham or even Aberystwyth. However, I do not detect a real groundswell of support for elected mayors in Wales. Indeed, I think that mayors are now very much off the agenda in Wales, thanks in no small degree to the antics of Cardiff's Lord Mayor. The antics were precisely what people feared might happen with elected mayors—individuals taking power for themselves, riding roughshod over others' opinions, feathering their own nests and generally ignoring events in the local community.

Mr. Waterson

Does the hon. Gentleman, in summary, perhaps agree with the Deputy Prime Minister, who said that he was "not a fan" of directly elected mayors?

Mr. Thomas

I agree that I am not a fan of directly elected mayors, but I am prepared to allow local people to have a say in whether they want to have directly elected mayors.

Last May, in its press release on the new Lord Mayor, Cardiff city council said: Under the new set-up, the process for installing the Lord Mayor took less than three minutes instead of the usual two hours, there was no civic lunch and the Lord Mayor drove himself home instead of having a chauffeur-driven car, saving Council Taxpayers thousands of pounds. I do not know what mileage allowance Cardiff councillors receive, but that journey home has cost Cardiff's council tax payers a great deal.

My concern about the new executive structures is that they do not seem to offer a real way of dealing with a failing system. If a mayor or a "new look" cabinet is failing, how can local people deal with that failure, get rid of the mayor or cabinet and install a different system?

Plaid Cymru supports the principle of separation of the executive. Implementation of such a principle would only make explicit what already happens in most authorities.

Ms Armstrong

It is in the Bill.

Mr. Thomas

We feel that it should be done by encouragement of best practice and not by compulsion, and that the National Assembly should be the body to decide on the matter. I should like to see what the National Assembly and local government in Wales could come up with by using a voluntary framework and after real consultation with their communities, the voluntary community sector and businesses in Wales.

I acknowledge that de facto executive structures already exist. I have a very small footnote in the history of local government in Wales, as I was the first appointed political assistant—under whatever Act it was—in Wales. I have spent three years in party caucuses and party groups, behind the closed doors. I know how they work and have written up their minutes. Undoubtedly, the Bill's one real failure is that it does not deal with the need for access to information. I have been there behind the closed doors, and I know what it is like. Unfortunately, on that matter, as Labour Members have said, the Bill is a retrograde step.

It is not good enough for the onus to rest on local authorities to open up their cabinets to scrutiny. It may well be that the National Assembly will establish more stringent regulations in Wales than apply in England—although many English Members may not appreciate that. Nevertheless, the principle that should apply is that the public should have access to information—precisely as they do under the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985—unless that information relates to personnel matters or commercial decisions.

I think that the Minister put up a bit of smokescreen about matters such as emergency decisions, but those should be removed from legislation. In the absence of political balance in cabinets—I do not think that, practically, we can assist in achieving that balance in cabinets—we have to have public scrutiny and accountability. The best form of public scrutiny and accountability is not a scrutiny committee, but access to the information on which decisions are made.

I pay tribute to those councillors in Wales who are now opening their cabinet structures to the public. There might be a slight Plaid Cymru balance in this, but I should like to name some of the councils involved. One can watch the meetings of Gwynedd county council's cabinet, for example, live on the internet. One can see it all happening on the internet. [Interruption.] It is live on the internet. Hon. Members should tune in and have a look at it, but they should choose the English-language feed, because the Welsh one might be slightly misleading.

Ms Armstrong

Does that mean that, in those areas, Plaid Cymru has stopped having group meetings first to take the decisions?

Mr. Thomas

Of course it does not. However, the decisions are taken openly, in cabinet. I do not think that the Labour party has stopped having group meetings. The day that political parties stop having group meetings will probably be the day that the cabinet structure is also no longer used.

Recently, Caerphilly opened its cabinet meetings to the public. My own authority, Ceredigion, under pressure from the opposition Plaid Cymru members, has just opened up to the public its cabinet meetings.

It is essential that the Bill is amended to give the public access to the documents on which decisions are taken, so that they can determine for themselves why the decisions were taken. We should not be going backwards. The 1985 Act has worked very well. It is valued by businesses, community groups and individuals. They are able to see the agenda and papers beforehand, information can be provided, and the people can lobby. Often, at the end of that process, better decisions are reached.

An important aspect of public access to information is that it allows us to make better decisions. Openness breeds a culture of consultation and accountability, but secrecy breeds arrogance and contempt for the electorate. We have recently seen some examples of that.

Local government in Wales has an honourable tradition. It has introduced uniform secondary education, helped to establish the health service and widened provision of leisure facilities and libraries. Now, it is leading on sustainable development in Wales. Much in the Bill will continue that tradition. However, there are some serious sticking points in the Bill—on executive structures, access to information, community planning and proportional representation—which I hope will be fully dealt with in Committee.

Plaid Cymru will certainly support the Bill on Second Reading, so that it can be considered in Committee and, I hope, knocked into even better shape.

8.28 pm
Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions said that the Government were committed to devolving powers, and that there was a need for people to have more control over their lives and more influence over decision makers. We all accept that. However, the Bill will not achieve that.

The Minister may respond to my scepticism about the Government's commitment to devolving powers by repeating her earlier remarks that that commitment is shown by the fact that we now have a Welsh Assembly and a Scottish Parliament. However, some argued at the time of the referendum—and continue to argue—that a Welsh Assembly and a Scottish Parliament had little to do with devolution, but much to do with going down the road of nationalism and separatism. Almost 12 months on, I see no reason to depart from that view.

In Wales, there is almost total disillusionment with that so-called act of devolved power. The people of Wales cannot see that they have any more influence over the decision makers because they now have an institution based in Cardiff. We were told that, with the Assembly, we would put powers back into local authorities. One of the ways in which that was to be done—we were told that this was the main reason for a Welsh Assembly—was by making a bonfire of the quangos. Almost 12 months on, that bonfire has not happened—indeed, it has been a damp squib. Most people knew at the time that that was a cheap publicity stunt to try to persuade people to vote for a Welsh Assembly. The quangos have not been scrapped, and are very much intact. Local authority powers have not been increased.

One of the ways of maintaining the powers of local authorities would be to support the amendments in another place, which would give authorities the opportunity of having a mayor, a leader and a cabinet but would also give them the opportunity to continue with the committee system if they believed that that system was more relevant to their community and more able to respond to its problems.

The Bill is not about devolving power. I cannot see the logic of a Government who are seemingly committed to devolution, but are also centralising power in the hands of mayors, leaders and cabinets. That is not acceptable to me, or to my local authority. The role of councillors who are not in one of those bodies will be almost non-existent.

The Government may say that they are setting up scrutiny committees and that councillors will have a positive role, not just in scrutinising decisions that have been taken, but in developing ideas which then become the policy of the local authority. However, from talking to local authority members, it is my view that those committees could be worthless, and that the role of local authorities then would be minimal.

Local authorities should have the opportunity to continue with the committee system if that is what they want. If they think that a mayor or a leader with an elected cabinet would reflect the aspirations, or respond to the problems, of their communities more than a committee system, so be it. I have no argument with that. However, we should not take away the option of a committee system.

If we are going to have a mayor, or a leader with a cabinet, the system should be far more open and democratic than is proposed by the Bill. The Government could legislate so that all cabinet meetings remained open to the public and to all councillors. The present system—of leaving that decision to the executive—is unsatisfactory.

The agenda and the background papers should have to be made public in advance of the meetings. Every step in the decision-making process should be documented and made public. The decision of the proper officer of an executive to make an item exempt could be appealable. The officer's advice to the executive should be made public prior to the meeting.

We should extend the period of availability of papers relied on by councillors before taking decisions. Public reports and background papers should be made available five working days in advance by the council and by the executive. All public reports produced by the council or executive should list background papers, and councils should publish all public reports and background papers on a web site—if there is one—seven working days in advance of any meeting, and the executive should have to do the same.

The Minister may respond by saying that, in the guidance notes for the Bill, all these things are possible. However, I do not want them just to be possible; I want them to be compulsory. We will always have rogue authorities who pick the worst system to defend their unacceptable ways of operating. We must consider making compulsory those things that are optional under the Bill.

Decisions should not be left to individual councils. Mayors and individual politicians will wield considerable powers in their own right, as their decisions will not have to be ratified by the executive or the council. That adds to concern about the arrangements. Vital decisions about housing, education, social services, the closure of facilities or the contracting out of services may be taken in far greater secrecy.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information has made a number of points on the Bill. It says: Mayors are likely to be responsible for many decisions, which they will effectively take on their own. Individual "cabinet members" may also be given similar powers, and officials will be responsible for taking a wider range of decisions. As these decisions will not be taken at "meetings" the 1985 Act cannot directly apply. However, the Bill should be amended so that the public is given equivalent rights to see papers before decisions. That is reports, recommendations and background papers should be open to the public unless they contain exempt information. The Bill should also be amended to require a short period of delay (a week has been suggested) before executive decisions can be implemented, with powers for non-executive councillors or a scrutiny committee. The Bill includes measures to improve ethical standards. But if decisions are taken in private, by the executives and individual politicians, there will be less scrutiny of whether councillors' private and financial interests are properly declared, and less oversight of the award of contracts and of appointments to outside bodies. Removing the requirement to publish agendas and papers in advance of decisions could encourage legal advice to politicians, and it will be harder for the monitoring officer to fulfil his/her responsibilities to ensure decision making is legal and ethical.

The amendments made in the Lords to approve the present committee structure should be accepted. They would maximise opportunities for councillors and electors in every local authority area to have a say on decisions that may affect their community.

The previous Government passed approximately 200 Acts that altered the role and powers of local authorities, almost always taking powers away. If the Government are committed to devolving power to local authorities, they should start by reversing many of the measures in those 200 Acts. They should also quickly scrap the private finance initiative, which gives private companies the right to build, own and, in many instances, run services.

Many things can be done to give local authorities a greater role in the running of our communities. Giving them a bigger role in job creation, as happens in countries such as Germany, would help people to relate to local authorities, because they would see that they had some relevance to their communities. It is naive to believe that setting up a cabinet system or introducing mayors will result in people suddenly coming out in droves to vote in local authority elections. People will vote in elections if they see that they are relevant to their community. We should focus on policies that are decided by local authorities rather than constitutional or structural issues.

8.40 pm
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

Having served as a councillor in the London borough of Hounslow for about a year before I translated to this place, I have some modest qualification, but none as extensive as those of the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith). I shall study his detailed recommendations.

I shall concentrate on clause 91, the proposed repeal of section 28 and the whole business of homosexuality and teaching in schools, principally because it is a matter of grave concern to people throughout the country. The Government are obsessed with homosexuality and race. The Bill is not the only measure in which we are faced with the issue. The Government's caving in to the European Court of Human Rights and admitting homosexuals to the armed forces also affects my constituency. Even as we are debating the Bill, the other place is debating the age of consent. The Government wish to impose on the other place a requirement to reduce the age of consent to 16, notwithstanding the clear warning issued by the Waterhouse report on the abuse of young people in north Wales.

This Bill and the Learning and Skills Bill show that the Government are in a shambles on sex education in schools. They face not just both ways, but all ways. The Home Office has published a document called "Supporting Families". The Home Secretary is keen to encourage us all to believe that marriage presents the best framework within which to bring up young people. I think that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment also holds that view. As the Bill before the Lords today shows, the Government want not just to appeal to middle England through "Supporting Families", but, through other measures, to square the circle with the minority groups that the Labour party is always in the business of seeking to appease.

The hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward) sought repeatedly to dismiss as prejudiced those of us who disagree with him.

Ms Armstrong

Hear, hear.

Mr. Howarth

It is fine for the right hon. Lady to say "Hear, hear"; dismissing one's opponents as prejudiced is very simple, but it does no credit to her or her party. There is a legitimate view on the other side of the argument. I wonder whether she says "Hear, hear" to my support for the Bishop of Lichfield, whom I was pleased to call a friend when I was the Member of Parliament for Cannock and Burntwood. He referred to the stabilising benchmark of section 28, but I suppose that in the right hon. Lady's terminology, he is prejudiced too.

Parents are writing to all of us in droves about the issue.

Mr. Swayne

The Minister thinks that they are all prejudiced.

Mr. Howarth

Of course, in the Minister's view they are all prejudiced. She will know that many correspondents explain that they are not homophobic, but they do not believe that normal heterosexual marriage can be put on the same moral basis as two men or two women living together. That is what nearly all of them said, and many of them are teachers—I believe that the Minister herself used to be a teacher.

Some of my hon. Friends from England may not be aware that in Scotland the issue is dominating the debate. The Daily Record, which is not known as a Conservative newspaper, reported on 19 January "2:1 against gay lessons". Some 66 per cent. of those surveyed wanted to keep section 28, which shows what the people of Scotland want. An anonymous Labour Member was quoted in the Daily Record yesterday as saying: The problem is that someone decided that they were going to make the abolition of section 28 a crusade. We have lost the support of a large section of the electorate and we have lost the support of Scotland's leading Catholic cleric. That, of course, is Cardinal Winning, who has done a magnificent job of articulating our concerns in Scotland.

The country is up in arms and the Government have no solution. They will remove clause 117 from the Learning and Skills Bill, which was amended by Baroness Young in the other place. They will try to reinsert into this Bill the repeal of section 28 which they were prevented from doing in the other place. We are in limbo. Meanwhile, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has published some guidelines that have been roundly criticised by those who do not believe that they represent a proper instruction to our young people.

The Government say that section 28 does not prevent homosexuality from being taught and promoted in schools. In that case, why do they wish to repeal it? Why is it necessary for the Government to engage in that confrontation with two thirds of the nation? There is an inconsistency, because originally the Government told us that they wished to repeal it to prevent bullying. Now they tell us that it is because it does not prevent homosexuality from being promoted in schools anyway.

We are all against bullying in schools, of any description or on any grounds. To suggest that anyone is interested in protecting section 28 to allow bullying is unworthy of Ministers and the Government. They know that the chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, has made it clear that it is nonsense to suggest that section 28 stops schools tackling the issue of bullying. Indeed, Mr. David Hart said at one stage: The Government needs to be very clear why it is going down this road. Section 28 has not caused difficulties but has constituted a protection which by and large has been welcomed. It is possible that he has changed his mind since then.

The hon. Member for Witney said that schools in his constituency have expressed concern that section 28 stands between them and stamping out bullying, but that has not been my experience in my constituency. I suggest that many of my hon. Friends would agree.

Parents do not wish to see the flood of pornographic material, for that is what some of it is, which was coming into our schools previously. Parents' view of how the matter should be treated is summed up in a publication that is produced by the Christian Institute and makes the case for extending section 28. It states: Civilised societies have always restrained sexual activity. Until comparatively recently, social control strongly promoted marriage. Homosexual proselytism seeks to reverse this and to manipulate young people into seeing homosexuality as an acceptable and morally right lifestyle. That is what people in this country overwhelmingly object to. They are not intolerant of what people do in their own homes, but they believe that certain standards in our society should be maintained.

Section 28 was enacted in 1988, when I was a Member of Parliament. As Nick Seaton of the Campaign for Real Education has said: Before Section 28 came into force we were getting considerable numbers of parents complaining to us about the promotion of homosexuality in schools. After Section 28 it almost disappeared as an issue. If Section 28 were to be repealed it's almost certain that the promotion of homosexuality would become a huge bone of contention between parents and schools. We do not need to be assured by Ministers that that will not happen because their assurances will be worthless. That is because already material is coming into the public domain. The draft guidance of the Secretary of State for Education and Employment is out for consultation. Paragraph 6.1 states: Elements of sex and relationship education are also provided by a range of people in the wider community including health professionals, social workers, youth workers, peer educators and visitors. There we see it. There is no section 28 control in respect of health promotion, and a flood of material is coming in under that guise.

I draw the attention of the Under-Secretary, with whom I had the pleasure of serving on the Select Committee on Home Affairs, to a document that has been published by Camden and Islington community health services NHS trust, which is entitled "Colours of the Rainbow". It contains some pretty disgraceful stuff, and I urge the hon. Lady to read it. It is not something that might be available in the event of section 28 being repealed. It is available now because there is no control over the material that health authorities can put out.

We have a key stage 1 lesson, the purpose of which is to consider one explanation of a family. It is intended for five to seven-year-olds. It ends by saying: Finish by making the point that different people live together as a family and what is important is that they love and care for each other. Those are laudable objectives. However, the document is seeking to promote homosexuality as a pretended family relationship. Many of us object to that.

There is another example of an attempt to equate homosexuality with normality. We are told that research has found that about 50 per cent. of women and men have experienced a sexual attraction to someone of the same sex. There is the extraordinary claim that nearly 40 per cent. of all men had sex with another man at some point in their lives. This material is trying to assert that somehow homosexuality is perfectly normal and that children should regard it as being on a par with normality and a normal heterosexual relationship.

The publication refers to resources and to the "Playbook for kids about sex" by Joanie Blank and Marcia Quackenbush, published by Sheba Feminist Publishers in 1982. For the assistance of the House, I have a copy of the playbook. I shall not explain some of what it covers, but one passage reads: When grown-ups choose someone to be one of their sexual partners, they sometimes choose a person of the same sex and they sometimes choose a person of the other sex. Some big words are sometimes used to name people by the sex partners they choose. We then have mention of heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual, as if they are all equally compatible. Many of us would argue that that is not the case.

The biscuit is taken by the health promotion service in Avon in a publication entitled "A Practical Guide to Challenging Homophobia in Schools". Here we have "Roles for the 'Race' Game". That wholly contradicts the Prime Minister's understanding when he went to the Ayr by-election and found ghastly posters stating that there was no question of role play taking place in the schools in that area. In fact, it is happening today, and I have the evidence. Children as young as 12 are being encouraged to be a female sex industry worker— whatever that is— a Chinese bisexual 15 year old Young Man, a transvestite cabaret artist, a Black Disabled Lesbian who is a wheelchair user and a nun.

It beggars belief to think that public money is being used to promote that.

Hon. Members may laugh, but the most disgusting literature of all is the "Gay Sex Now" booklet produced in Glasgow. I gather that £50,000 of public money was used to produce a booklet that children as young as 12 are seeing. I invite the Minister to have a look at it.

Members of the House of Lords, led by Baroness Young and the Bishop of Winchester, and Mr. Brian Souter and some other public-spirited people are the only ones who want to protect our children by standing in the way of the Government's ambition, for which the Bill is the chosen vehicle.

8.55 pm
Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan)

We have just had 15 minutes of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) speaking about a Bill that introduces new proposals for local government. He did not mention local government once.

I welcome the Bill, which represents the second phase of necessary change to local government. I have no ideological bias, but I have more than 20 years' experience as a councillor.

I especially welcome the new structures in part II. The structures that existed for most of my time in local government seemed to work reasonably well. We had to do some tinkering around the edges occasionally and create a few new sub-committees to deal with the bits and pieces. However, our chief executive once told me that our council had 75 officer working groups. On investigation, they all seemed necessary, reasonable and forward looking, but it was clear that there was no democratic overview of those groups. Members had no control over them and could make no input to them.

When the working groups' reports went to committee, they received no proper scrutiny because departmental input was partial in any given area, and no one was willing to take control to push items through. The working groups considered matters such as drug action teams and services for the elderly and for young people, which cut across several departments and committees. The absence of proper scrutiny, democratic control and direction was a result of the old committee structure in that council. There was a clear need to examine alternatives.

Another major factor confirming my view that we needed to look at our organisation was my experience with best value. Twelve months ago, before I was somewhat unexpectedly catapulted into the House, I chaired the best value review panel in Wigan council. The panel was busy setting up ways to introduce best value in that local authority, and was studying the challenge process that involves the four Cs—compete, compare, consult and challenge. The panel was designed to look at those elements of the council that we wanted to review.

It quickly became clear that the intensiveness of the process was being hindered because councillors did not have time to engage in that process and conduct their normal committee work. We had to find ways to free up time and give people more chance to do all the work demanded of them.

It has been said that many of the Bill's proposals are too rigid. That is not my experience. Earlier this year, I attended the Labour party local government conference. I ran a workshop on the new structures, and it was attended by councillors from metropolitan, district, unitary and county councils. Those councils were under all sorts of control—some were overwhelmingly controlled by the Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat parties, others were under no specific party control, and still others had only one or two Labour councillors.

That diversity of experience was very useful. When we started talking about how to implement the new structures proposed in the Bill—and the cabinet structure in particular—it was amazing to discover the immense diversity of approaches that people were adopting. I say amazing, but it should not be all that surprising. Under the present system, no council has the same committee structure as its neighbour. The structures have evolved because of the history of those councils, the personalities involved and, more important, the way in which they want to serve the needs of their communities. Just as the committee structures have evolved, so, too, will the new cabinet structures.

There must be scrutiny not only of what the cabinet has done but of what it will be doing. In my authority, policy development groups are part of the scrutiny process. Other councils take a different line. However, nothing in the Bill will prevent pre-scrutiny from taking place. If there is to be proper scrutiny, it is essential that it takes place before, as well as after, policy is decided.

I welcome part I, and particularly clause 2, which deals with the need to promote the environmental and social well-being of communities. Clause 5 is vital in that respect: if the community leadership role of councils and councillors is to be exercised properly, unnecessary restraints must be freed up. Clause 5 will allow that to happen.

We must ensure that partnerships are developed to the full. To be real partnerships, developed with the private sector and voluntary groups, both sides must bring something to the table. There is no room for aspirations alone—there must be the cash to back up those aspirations.

When she replies to the debate, will the Minister tell us whether clause 3(2) excludes the possibility of councils making reasonable charges for the services that they provide? Will it prevent them from applying for additional funds through supplementary credit approvals?

I am aware that other people want to speak, so I will finish on this point, Mr. Deputy Mayor.

Mr. McDonnell

My hon. Friend thinks that he is back in local government.

Mr. Turner

I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have not quite got used to my new role. I apologise.

Part III deals with standards. Local government is remarkably sleaze-free—we have a lot of hard taskmasters and scrutineers in the form of the general public. I think that most councillors welcome such public scrutiny. The independent scrutiny committee will provide additional reassurance that allegations will receive independent consideration.

When considering local government, we must recognise that people both inside and outside councils make vexatious and politically motivated allegations against councillors. When the scrutiny committee considers such allegations, they should lance those boils quickly and cleanly. I hope that if the committee believes that vexatious and politically motivated allegations have been made, its members will be able to name the people responsible to ensure that in future those people will think twice and ensure that any allegations have a real foundation.

9.4 pm

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

The speeches of Conservative Members deteriorated rapidly after the excellent and constructive contribution by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry). The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) accused the Government and Labour Members of being obsessed with sex and race. I had no intention of speaking about section 28 because we are dealing with a complex Bill about local government, but it is interesting that both he and the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) chose to spend the whole of their speeches discussing the one aspect of the Bill that relates to sex. It is they who are obsessed, not Labour Members.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

All that I was seeking to point out was that I am receiving a huge number of letters on the subject, as I suspect that the hon. Lady and other hon. Members are. The Bill is one of two measures that deal with the issue, which is of live concern to people now.

Dr. Jones

I respond to those constituents who write to me, and they are not writing in droves, even though I have a high profile in the local press on the issue. I receive many letters from people who take the opposite view, including two correspondents who are senior members of the Church. They support the repeal of section 28.

Both the hon. Member for Aldershot and the hon. Member for Blaby make it clear that they regard any relationship involving homosexual people as "pretend" and not at all valid. At least the hon. Member for Blaby had the honesty to admit that he advocated discrimination against such people. Discrimination is, of course, why the legislation as it is constituted is probably not in accordance with the European convention on human rights. The sooner we change it so that it does comply, the better.

The material that was quoted by the hon. Members for Aldershot and for Blaby was an insult to the good sense of school governors, who, in consultation with parents, have the last say in decisions on policy involving sex and relationships education. There is plenty of inappropriate heterosexual material that people could quote, but I note that Conservative Members do not suggest that there should be a clause that prevents the promotion of heterosexuality. That would be just as ridiculous as section 28, which I hope will be abolished. It is inappropriate and unnecessary in the real-life situation in schools today.

I want to spend most of my time talking about the local government provisions in the Bill and reforms to local democracy. No one would disagree with the Government's intention to bring new life to local democracy. We all realise that that is sorely needed. I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), and I am pleased that things are not quite so dire in Birmingham as in Liverpool. It shows that there is a great variety of activity around the country.

Voting in local elections has fallen off, and there is less interest, although in last year's local government elections there was a 55 per cent. turnout in one of my wards, due to strong campaigning. If we are to revitalise local democracy, we must address two fundamental issues. First, local government must be more accountable to the electorate. Secondly, we need a surplus of competent people who want to take an active role and serve as local councillors. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon admitted that in his area there is great difficulty in persuading people to come forward to take on that role. That is certainly the case in Birmingham. There is often little competition for candidates. Whatever structures are in place, if people do not want to come forward and take on the role of councillor, local government will not be healthy.

I shall talk about greater accountability first. Over the years, there has been so much centralisation of decision making that it is well known that many of the decisions taken by local government are dependent on approval or finance from central Government. That is the main reason why people are less interested in taking part in local elections—either as voters or as candidates.

It is difficult to decide who is really responsible for councils' decisions. For example, in Birmingham, there is much controversy over proposals to close old people's homes. The local authority was forced to take that route because the homes need refurbishment and modernisation to bring them up to standard, and the money is not available. Who is really taking that decision? Is it local government or central Government who hold the purse strings? When councillors are unable to take the decisions that they know their electorate want, they blame central Government. Unless we put that right, all the tinkering with the structure of the system will come to nothing.

In the housing Green Paper, the Government propose new powers for local authorities to raise capital on their housing assets. In his statement to the House, the Deputy Prime Minister admitted that there was discrimination against council housing. However—as with many measures that seem to be moving in the right direction—there are so many strings attached that those additional powers will be given only to councils prepared to jump through the hoops imposed on them from the centre.

That is not what local electorates want. It is not what council tenants want. By all means let us give them a vote on changing their landlord, but there should be a level playing field for the options. Tenants should not have to opt for another landlord because that is the only way to raise the finance for the modernisation and improvement of their homes. I hope that the Government will deal with that point.

I agree with several of the points made by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). It is wrong that such a high proportion of local government finance is centrally controlled—that is true of the Government grant and of the business rate. Until the introduction of the poll tax, things were moving in the other direction: about 60 per cent. of local government finance was raised locally.

However, the figure went into reverse as a result of the introduction of the council tax. The Tory Government wanted to keep council tax low to try to make it acceptable after the poll tax fiasco, so they increased VAT to subsidise it. We should start to move back again—to make local government accountable because it raises most of its finance locally. We need to do that over a long period, because we cannot make sudden changes.

If the Government are serious about local democracy, they should think long and hard about that matter. Perhaps it could be addressed in the local government finance review Green Paper. In the short term, perhaps the council tax could be made more progressive; in that way, councils would be allowed to raise more money.

As I pointed out, it is not only structures that are important in encouraging more people to participate. However, they do have a role. I share some of the concerns expressed by other hon. Members that the distinction between executive and back-bench council members could mean that there was a small number of high-profile, perhaps well-paid members, while the others were seen as second-class, with no real opportunity to influence decision making.

Most people who want to enter politics—whether nationally or locally—do so because they want to bring about changes and improvements; they do not want to be glorified social workers. Taking into account the concerns of their electorate is a role for elected members, but they need to be able to translate those concerns into action at a political level so that policy changes are made to address them. That motivates people to get involved in politics, and I have grave doubts about whether the proposed model will enable the majority of elected members to take part in policy development.

Many Members have suggested ways in which the system might be improved, but time is short and I do not have the time to go into them. However, it is important that we do not have central control. To return to the point about local accountability, surely the Government should impose on local government the responsibility to review its procedures and to consult the electorate—there may also be the opportunity to hold referendums—but final decisions should be taken locally, not imposed centrally.

I do not accept the idea that the committee structure does not provide opportunities for scrutiny. As the chair of a major committee and as a back bencher, I took my scrutiny role seriously. I also had access to the most senior council officers. Under the separation that is proposed, will back-bench members have the same access to the chief executive and to the directors of housing and social services?

It is interesting that we recently held a meeting between Birmingham Members of Parliament and the new director of social services for the city. I asked her to whom she felt accountable as director. She immediately said, "The leader of the council," then reluctantly added, "And the deputy leader." The executive member for social services did not get a look in.

We all know from our experience of local government that a tremendous amount of patronage can exist within it. I urge the Government to consider mechanisms that will reduce patronage and provide genuine opportunities for back-bench members to participate in decision-making processes. If necessary, they should consider retaining the committee structure.

Where I suggest that there is an important role for an overarching scrutiny committee is in budget setting. There is no doubt that the most important decisions made in local government are those taken at the annual meetings that allocate the budget for different services. I am not satisfied with the way in which the system operates at present, because it is based on patronage and depends on which service is in favour rather than on who has made an effective case for more spending and has shown that a service is operating efficiently. If the chair of each committee, executive members and executive officers had to present their case to a scrutiny committee that considered all the different services and took an overview, we might have sensible decisions at the end of what should be an important process.

Time is short, so I will conclude. It has been widely suggested that there is public support for elected mayors. If the concept of an elected mayor is distinguished from a leader who is given tremendous powers by means of an internal election in which patronage can be a factor, I suggest that an elected mayor is preferable. At least that person will be directly accountable to the people.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. The hon. Lady's time is up.

9.19 pm
Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

Like other hon. Members, I have served in local government. I was in it for 20 years as an officer or as an elected member. For most of that time—this is not a party political point because it applies to all parties—local government and councillors were denigrated. Their powers were restricted, whole structures were abolished and resources were curtailed. I welcome the debate and the Government's objective of reinvigorating local government and giving it strength, new powers, new resources and a range of structures and new methods of organisation and working that demonstrate the vital role of local democracy.

The overall objective of hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber is to make every local councillor, every officer and every resident who gets involved in local government feel that they have contributed to something worth while. We were all brought up in the tradition of the Webbs and others who argued that local government comprises two roles—one is to involve and educate people in democracy and to provide them with a voice at a local level, and the other is to provide them with an opportunity to determine what local services should be provided effectively. Local government should not simply be an agent of central Government, but should mediate in the delivery of services to meet local needs.

We should judge the Bill by how well it will enable local government to fulfil those two traditional roles. It could achieve that, but if we are not careful it could be a lost opportunity because it is too timid. The main thrust of our local government reform should be to provide effective local services that are responsive to local needs, not only at a cost that local people are willing to pay but on a basis that they determine. The key question must be how we empower people to determine the future of their communities and how they are governed locally.

I welcome the new powers, which are part of the campaign for a general power of competence that we have waged for nearly 15 years. However, I am concerned about clauses 3 and 4, which take back power to the Secretary of State. I hope that in Committee we will be able to define the light touch that the Secretary of State will be limited to using in exercising those powers.

If we give local authorities new powers, we should give them appropriate vehicles for using them—which includes the reform of local authority companies—and a new resource base. The discussion about the restoration of the business rate has gone on for too long. We need urgent action to restore some control over the local business rate and enhance the resources on which local authorities can draw to implement the new powers.

The new powers will give local authorities the opportunity to introduce community plans. That is an extended power for which they have long argued, and I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions has said that she will introduce that as a new duty. To make sure that the community planning process is implemented successfully, we need also to consider what duties are placed on other agencies to participate in that process. For example, the local health authority and the police, among others, need to have a duty to participate.

In the other place, there was an attempt to extend the duty placed on local authorities to include promotion of equal opportunities. The Minister who responded to that debate said that that would be part of the overall review of the Race Relations Act 1976, and I understand that approach. However, recent events have given us a sense of urgency about giving local authorities the duty to promote equal opportunities.

I say that because of the debate about asylum seekers—and I am not making a party political point. This morning I met constituents who had been the subject of a racial attack within a week of leaflets about supposedly bogus asylum seekers being distributed for a by-election in my constituency. That attack was a direct result of the climate that has been whipped up. It behoves us all in central and local government to promote equal opportunities, and that is why we should, in this Bill, reconsider the proposal to place that duty on local authorities.

On structures, we have had lengthy discussions about mayors, cabinets, leaders and managers, but I note, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) pointed out, that the Bill contains the opportunity to have directly elected individual cabinet posts. We need more clarity on that point, because it has not been debated in detail in the other place or in Committee.

Throughout the debate, the question has been raised of why we are giving local authorities and communities the opportunity to change their structures in only these restricted ways. Why are we not allowing them wider opportunities for discussion about different options? If this is about local democracy, why are we forcing the proposals on them?

It is as though we were installing the parliamentary system into local government, with secret decision making, scrutiny usually fairly feeble and exercised only after the decision is made, and individuals frequently whipped to vote against their own principled positions. I understand that assurances have been given that most local authority votes will not be whipped: I look forward to that lesson being learned and applied in the House of Commons. To restrict options to near-parliamentary models undermines the general thrust of the Bill, which is about liberating local communities.

The Bill is also timid in not considering the revision of local government structures. In my area, I want to re-establish the urban district council and deconstruct the monolith of London borough councils that was erected in the 1960s. The Bill does not enable a decision to be made locally to achieve that. I accept that, under the Bill, local committees can be established, but that has more to do with decentralisation than with devolution of decision making.

We should allow local authorities to experiment with smaller units of local government that can, if necessary, form consortiums to provide services that are best organised across more than one district. As long as the service is provided to an acceptable quality and at a cost of which central Government approve, such proposals should not be debarred from the local decision-making process. We should take a far more thoroughly democratic approach to energise local decision making by drawing on local people's loyalties, traditions and sense of place.

Access to information is critical. Whatever the structure, policy making and accountability can be successful only if information about policy making is easily accessible and widely available as of right. Many reservations have been expressed by hon. Members this evening and by people outside the House, including editors of local newspapers, about the fact that the proposals will restrict access to information.

I should welcome the views of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the implications of the changes that we have made to the Freedom of Information Bill, and whether those counterbalance our concerns about lack of access to information in local government. The Standing Committee should address the whole issue of secrecy in connection with the modernisation of democratic government in this country, and whether the right to information should be about more than issues of fact, as we discussed last week, and should also cover issues of policy.

I should like to raise one issue of participation that has not been mentioned so far. The Bill is designed to increase participation in local government, but 1980s legislation denied many local authority workers the right to participate. It is not merely a question of being elected to one's local authority; it extends to a local authority worker above a certain salary not being able to participate in local campaigns in his or her community—not being allowed to campaign against a local health facility closure, to write to the local press, or to make a speech to a community group that could be regarded as political. It was said in the other place that the Bill would help to tackle that issue through codes of practice and guidance, but I should prefer that the Bill explicitly abolished restrictions on politically restricted posts, which undermine certain individuals' civil liberties.

On the question of electoral participation, I can understand the argument for annual elections. To be honest, it is a matter of indifference to me as a seasoned—not to say inveterate—canvasser. However, there will not be annual elections for directly elected mayors, so I urge consideration of some right of recall, if only through a petition of the electorate or a vote of confidence in the whole council. Otherwise, people will be unable to get rid of mayors who, even though they might have not have committed a criminal offence, have sustained some dishonour or become the subject of public opprobrium. Overall, however, the Bill offers opportunities to enhance local government.

Almost as an aside, I should like to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward) made an excellent speech this evening, in which he revealed the homophobic nature of those who have been campaigning in support of section 28. I welcome the opportunity offered by the Bill to put that anachronistic provision behind us.

I welcome the Bill for the things for which it stands. It offers the chance to rehabilitate local government and to re-establish local democracy. However, when change comes, it should be as a result of demand that is locally driven. Let us not, in the name of local democracy, deny the local voice.

9.29 pm
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

This has been an excellent debate, with many contributions from all parts of the House by people who know what they are talking about. A great deal of good will was exhibited towards local government. We all share common goals—to improve the standing of local government, to improve voter participation, to attract even better candidates to local government elections, and to make the system work better.

The problem is that the Bill will not achieve those goals. It is as though the Bill were a metaphor for the Government. First, it is inept and confused, and I am referring not just to the Minister's speech. There were 400-odd amendments in the House of Lords. There was the debacle of section 28 being taken out, and now it is to be put back in again. What the Minister in the Lords, Lord Whitty, described as the central part of the Bill was ripped out in the other place.

We heard the wonderful concession by the Minister for Local Government and the Regions in her opening speech that the Bill was not yet finished. It is a kind of Spanish hotel Bill: some rooms are finished, some have the roof missing, and one or two were finished but have fallen down in the meantime—that is how we shall have to view it.

No wonder the Deputy Prime Minister distanced himself, although even by his standards he went a little far by travelling to Japan. At least when we do not understand what the Deputy Prime Minister is saying, we understand what he means, which is quite different from the case of the right hon. Lady, who spoke the kind of modernising gobbledegook that we have all come to know and love.

Another reason why the Bill is a metaphor for the Government is that it says one thing and does another. It mentions modernisation, improving local democracy and revitalising local government, but it will do nothing of the sort. It is a centralising measure which exhibits yet again the control freakery that is at the heart of the Government.

Both Ministers must realise that the heart of the issue is compulsion. We in the Opposition do not argue that Cabinet systems are invariably wrong or inappropriate. They may suit certain circumstances on the basis of certain models, but they should not be forced on local government by central Government.

The third reason why the Bill is a metaphor for the Government is that it is so clearly out of touch with ordinary people and local government. It fails the Kilfoyle test. It shows graphically, as has the entire debate, the fault line between old Labour and new Labour. It ignores Labour heartlands in local government. It is a slap in the face for local democracy.

If Ministers really believed—this is the acid test—in all the virtues and merits of the cabinet or executive system, why cannot they allow local councils and communities to make up their own mind on that matter? That is at the heart of the debate, and that is why the Bill is a wasted opportunity.

The Minister began by saying that the Bill was a firm step forward. That is true, because it led straight into an abyss of the Minister's own making. She achieved the rare feat of creating near unanimity in all parts of the House—sadly, against what she was saying. She spoke about crude and universal capping, omitting the fact that the Government have continued capping, in an even more refined form. She spoke about best value, leaving aside the fact that some authorities will face 179 separate performance indicators.

The Minister left to one side the problem of specific grants and the ways in which Government impose their own agenda on local government. She went to enormous trouble to demonise what she described as the red tape town hall committee culture, as though it were some obscure drug-taking bunch of freaks who practised in dark corners. It is wrong of her to demonise the committee system in that way. She must realise, even from her rather limited perspective, that things have moved on. We are not considering committee meetings for their own sake, but streamlined and modernised committee systems. The Minister presented the whole grisly lexicon of new Labour and local government: modernisation, new culture, dynamic, inclusive, empowerment, holistic, transparent, 21st century problems.

The Minister lauded the new power that part I grants local authorities and it is right to say that local authorities have welcomed it. We also broadly welcome it. However, the Minister omitted to say that Lord Whitty made it clear that the new power would not be accompanied by new money. The hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner), who spoke from great experience on local government matters, made a point about that. Local government cannot raise money for the power. Lord Whitty confirmed that in a written exchange with Lord Dixon-Smith.

It is tragic that the Minister has told us yet again that the status quo cannot be an option. That flies in the face of all the advice that she has received, and all the debates and decisions in the House of Lords. She is wholly dogmatic about the matter. I do not understand the reason for that apart from the sketchiness of her grasp of local government history. She talked about the squirearchy who used to run local government. Surely she realises that we have moved on from 100 years ago, and that the committee structure, like everything else, has changed and adapted.

The Minister mentioned directly elected mayors, but we know that the Deputy Prime Minister is "not a fan", as he put it, of them. The Minister also commented on the welfare provisions, which we broadly welcome. However, as with so much of the Bill, many details will have to be tackled through amendments.

On section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986, or clause 91, I can only express our regret at the Government's bizarre determination to repeal section 28. The first manifestation of their intention to do that was a tawdry example of gesture politics even from this Government. They accused those who opposed repeal of being a small minority of homophobes. However, the Government are the small minority. No one outside the House understands why many more hours will be spent debating that proposal when there are so many more pressing matters to debate.

The Government initially said that section 28 prevented teachers from dealing with bullying and that it caused problems in schools. When all else failed, the Government fell back on the lawyers. We are told that section 28 is either contrary to the European convention on human rights or that it does not apply to schools. That will be news to many teachers, lobbying groups for the gay community and others who believed that it applied. As recently as January, the Prime Minister was convinced that section 28 applied to schools. I hope that, when the Under-Secretary replies to the debate, she will identify the wording in clause 91 that makes it incompatible with the European convention on human rights.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) made an eloquent contribution. He said that the Bill would give full reign to secrecy in local government. We agree with him.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) expressed his party's support for our position on structure. We look forward to Liberal Democrat support in Committee. The hon. Gentleman also considered the fourth option at length. I agree with his comments on that.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) spoke knowledgeably about the local government system in Wales. I agree with her comments on the role of women and that of back-bench councillors in Wales and elsewhere.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) spoke from considerable experience. She asked whether the Bill tackled the real reasons for public apathy towards local government. She referred to the problem of best value and its imposition on many local councils. She talked about the "hole in the road" test: do people know who they should contact about a hole in the road in their street? There is a hole in the road in the shape of Government thinking—a black hole. She was right to raise the cabinet system in Norfolk and described the Bill as a wasted opportunity.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) told us about the travails of local government in Liverpool. It must be mildly depressing, to put it at its lowest, for a local councillor to be told that only 2 per cent. of his electorate think that he is doing a good job. She also told the story of disgraceful manipulation by the Liberal Democrats, but I am afraid that she missed the point: that sort of behaviour is precisely what the Bill can and will promote.

In a gem of a speech, my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) spoke from massive experience and expertise. He rightly criticised the Government's obsession with structures, referred to the spin from No. 10 and made extremely interesting remarks on elected mayors and the conduct of referendums. All in all, he made a significant contribution. The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) stuck up for the committee system despite its failures, of which he has experience, and told us his real concerns about the executive-scrutiny split, which many others share.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) also drew attention to problems of cabinet secrecy and discussed clause 91 and the so-called section 28 issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) made penetrating remarks about the proposals and, not least, the activities of Southend council. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) also spoke from considerable experience of local government and expressed coded concerns about unnecessary divisions in councils.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) spoke at length about the situation in Wales and touched on the danger of isolating councillors from local people. Good contributions were made by the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith), who again expressed scepticism about the Government's commitment to devolution, and my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who spoke knowledgeably and sensibly about the proposals to abolish section 28. The hon. Members for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) and for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) referred to the dangers in the Bill, though hoping that the Secretary of State will apply some of the powers with a light touch makes the latter the eternal optimist—the Government will not listen.

Why will the Government not listen to Sir Jeremy Beecham of the Local Government Association, who talks of witnessing the strange death of local democracy…? Why will they not listen to the Society of Editors, which talks of councils reducing the flow of information to the public and the media as a result of reforms… and of some councils being "secretive and defensive"? Why will they not listen to the National Union of Journalists, which talks of cabinets or executives, meeting behind closed doors, which are now being imposed will deny basic access to local democracy…? Why will the Government not listen to the concerns of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, which says if being "executive" means delving into operational management then the clock will have been put back several years, and the promises of modernisation will turn to dust.? Why will they not listen to the Local Government Information Unit, Charter 88 and the Campaign for Freedom of Information, none of which are obvious branches of the Conservative party? Why will they not listen to Mr. Ecclestone of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, who says that we are now finding a Labour government removing the rights Mrs Thatcher gave us…? Why will they take no notice of the Labour Campaign for Open Local Government and the views of so many Labour Back Benchers who have expressed deep concerns about the Bill and its central provisions, today and on other occasions?

The Minister of State carried no one with her, not even her hon. Friends, and the proposals do not have a friend in the world, yet the Government are determined to force them through if necessary. We shall oppose them, and we shall not be alone. They like to talk a lot about open government, but prefer it to be practised behind closed doors. I commend our amendment to the House.

9.45 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes)

The Bill is part of a long-term radical change for local government—a change that is, I believe, essential if local government is to fulfil its responsibilities to local people in the future, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) said, its potential. This is not change for change's sake; it is happening because the present Government, unlike the last, believe in local government. We believe in local democracy, and we want to strengthen it, to raise standards of local services, and to give people a real say in what their councils are doing.

After 18 years of denigration from the Conservative party, local government in its present form simply cannot deliver effectively to local people. Fundamental change is needed. Our previous legislation, together with this Bill, will tackle all the key areas that must be tackled if councils are to work better. Best value and beacon councils are driving up standards of public service; the power of well-being underlines the overarching responsibility for improving the quality of life of local people. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner) that we have already said we are prepared to use section 150 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 in respect of new well-being powers. We shall discuss that in the finance Green Paper.

The community planning provisions emphasise the potential of local authorities as strategic leaders. The new constitutions will allow better, more effective, quicker decision making and the Bill will build into the structure of local government an important and detailed mechanism for the effective scrutiny of that decision making. We will also institute a robust ethical framework to ensure that councils are not only above reproach, but seen to be above reproach.

A number of Conservative Members questioned whether the case for change had been made. The case for change is obvious. I want to make three points in particular, on the first two of which I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell). The first relates to the need to involve local people to redress the democratic deficit. We should start from the point that we cannot claim a mandate in local government if only 10 per cent. of people—and, we have heard, 6 per cent. in parts of Liverpool—are voting for their local councillors. We need to strengthen local government: that is the first main objective.

Mr. Curry

If the Minister has set a figure that validates a mandate, will she tell us what figure would be required in a referendum to validate a decision to change the structure of local government?

Ms Hughes

I have not set a figure for a mandate, but when we are talking about very low turnouts for a local council election, we must question whether local people are really engaged.

Secondly, we must improve standards of public service. In doing so, we must ask ourselves whether the present variation in council standards is acceptable. The top 25 per cent. of councils are excellent, and they are certainly not Tory councils. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), the top 25 per cent. have demonstrated innovation and real delivery of good services to local people, but we must take seriously the difference between them and other councils.

The third issue is the current system. We heard a considerable defence of that system today, and also considerable criticism of what some Members see as the potential for less transparency in the new arrangements. Let us take a moment to consider what the current system involves. Under the current system, reports are taken to committee. Who decides the agenda of that committee meeting? It is the chair of the committee, in consultation with officers. There is no accountability. No one knows what has been left off the agenda. No one knows what is not included in reports: for example, options that have been considered, but discarded. Different party groups meet before committees and decide their position.

The reports do the rounds; the same report goes to committee after committee. All that time, committee chairs are meeting through the day and evening with officers and selected members, making decisions. Where is the scrutiny in that system? Where is the access for the public and the press? It is a bureaucratic, slow and unresponsive system that is opaque and inflexible. I defy anyone to say that any modern organisation starting from scratch would organise itself in that way.

Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) and the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), argued that executives should be made to meet in public. That fails to recognise the real world and what is happening under the current committee system.

The meeting of the executive will not be a committee because executives will be individually, not collectively, responsible. If executives met in public, it would not challenge the integrity of our proposals. However, where executives have decided to meet in public, this is what is happening. They have a pre-meeting in private, which is not minuted, or divulged to the public. The public meeting then takes place in a short time. The minutes that come out of it are equally short. It is a way of closing access to information by the public. Members who argue for public executive meetings on the ground of secrecy are not taking into account what will happen. They have lost the plot. The real mechanism for openness in the arrangements is scrutiny.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions talked about those measures. Hon. Members are right: structure of itself will not deliver all that we seek to achieve. Culture and the way that structure is used is equally important. The views of Opposition Members and some of my hon. Friends seem to suggest that they do not trust local councillors to embrace a change of culture and to be more open with their electorate.

Nothing in the structure inhibits openness; quite the opposite. Everything in the structure requires openness. It requires scrutiny in public for the first time, calling executive members to answer questions in public, calling residents—local people—to give their views or to be members of scrutiny committees, and calling expert witnesses to comment on executive policy and decisions.

Effective scrutiny is crucial, but I wonder why hon. Members who have made points of dissent ably tonight and on many other occasions believe that, when local authority councillors get the hang of scrutiny, they will not be able to deliver the challenge to the executive as effectively as some hon. Members in the Chamber.

Mr. Waterson

May I explain? That is not the point. The point is why the Minister will not trust people to choose between that system and the system that they are probably operating perfectly well at the moment?

Ms Hughes

I do not think that that is very good at all. The hon. Gentleman has missed the point. The system at the moment is not working very well. Most particularly—it is one of the telling points—the current system is not working effectively from the point of view of local people, who cannot find out what is going on. They cannot get access. If Opposition Members think that reading the average minutes of a committee meeting tells anyone anything about the real decisions that are being made behind closed doors in local councils, they are more naive than I thought.

Mr. Curry

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Hughes

No; I must progress. I am terribly sorry, but I have to make some points on scrutiny to Opposition Members.

The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) said that there would be no pre-scrutiny of executive decisions. That is a travesty. The Bill makes it clear that, at any time, any member of an overview and scrutiny committee, including co-opted members, can demand that an executive member or officer appear, put any item on the scrutiny committee's agenda and call executive members to account to explain precisely not only what they are doing, but what they are planning to do.

Overview and scrutiny committees can initiate policy. They can make recommendations either to the executive or to the full council. The Bill makes it quite clear that they can look not only into the business of the executive, but into any council matter and even matters that are not the direct function of the council.

Mr. Norman

Will the hon. Lady explain in what sense that is pre-scrutiny, please?

Ms Hughes

The provision will enable scrutiny committees to raise issues and to discuss with executive members their intentions before they have taken decisions. It will therefore enable them to consider an issue before the process leading to a decision has even started. It is through scrutiny, area committees and full council that there will be important and challenging roles for non-executive members.

Mr. Curry

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Hughes

No. I am sorry, but I must go on.

My hon. Friend the Member for Garston made some good points about how current legislation fails to deliver proper scrutiny. However, that is why we need the new legislation to make scrutiny really work.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) that scrutiny committees are important and need to be given teeth to hold the executive to account. What we cannot do—it is surprising that the request is made when we are also hearing calls not to constrain councils—is to tell them how they will deploy resources on scrutiny committees. However, we shall strongly recommend in our guidance that councillors consider separate officer support and that scrutiny committees are properly resourced.

The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) said that the debate on section 28 is not about tolerance. He is right—it is about prejudice. Let us set the record straight. Section 28 bites on the actions of local authorities. It does not apply to schools, although many teachers and governors have thought that it does. Independent research has revealed that. I am glad that the penny on that has finally dropped for the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson).

Let us be clear that that legislation singles out homosexual people for differential treatment and forces local authorities to discriminate against them. It is blatantly divisive and stigmatising, and it feeds the attitudes, and leads to the experiences, that were so poignantly described by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward).

Today, we saw some of the contortions that Conservative Members attempt in trying to portray themselves as new friends to local government. They talk about "A New Approach to Local Government: Bringing Common Sense to Your Local Council", but the problem is that they have a credibility gap. They introduced the poll tax, but they ditched it. They introduced compulsory competitive tendering, but they ditched it. They introduced capping, but they ditched that. Only 27 per cent. of councillors today are Tories. They say that they want a healthy mix, but the numbers of women and ethnic minority councillors are pitiful.

The Government present the best future for local government. We are investing in the local services that hard-working families need. Real improvement in the quality of life and in local public services needs dynamic responsible councils, and the Bill will deliver that.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 130, Noes 342.

Division No. 160] [9.59 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Butterfill, John
Amess, David Cash, William
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E) Clappison, James
Baldry, Tony Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Bercow, John Collins, Tim
Beresford, Sir Paul Cormack, Sir Patrick
Body, Sir Richard Cran, James
Boswell, Tim Curry, Rt Hon David
Davies, Quentin (Grantham)
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Duncan Smith, Iain
Brazier, Julian Evans, Nigel
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Faber, David
Browning, Mrs Angela Fabricant, Michael
Fallon, Michael Madel, Sir David
Flight, Howard Maude, Rt Hon Francis
Forth, Rt Hon Eric Moss, Malcolm
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Nicholls, Patrick
Fox, Dr Liam Norman, Archie
Fraser, Christopher O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury)
Gale, Roger Ottaway, Richard
Garnier, Edward Page, Richard
George, Andrew (St Ives) Paice, James
Gibb, Nick Paterson, Owen
Gill, Christopher Pickles, Eric
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Prior, David
Gray, James Randall, John
Green, Damian Redwood, Rt Hon John
Greenway, John Robathan, Andrew
Grieve, Dominic Robertson, Laurence
Gummer, Rt Hon John Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Hague, Rt Hon William Ruffley, David
Hammond, Philip Sayeed, Jonathan
Harris, Dr Evan Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Hawkins, Nick Shepherd, Richard
Heald, Oliver Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Soames, Nicholas
Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas Spicer, Sir Michael
Horam, John Spring, Richard
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Steen, Anthony
Hunter, Andrew Streeter, Gary
Jack, Rt Hon Michael Swayne, Desmond
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Syms, Robert
Tapsell, Sir Peter
Jenkin, Bernard Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Johnson Smith, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Townend, John
Key, Robert Tredinnick, David
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) Trend, Michael
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Tyrie, Andrew
Laing, Mrs Eleanor Walter, Robert
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Waterson, Nigel
Leigh, Edward Whitney, Sir Raymond
Letwin, Oliver Whittingdale, John
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E) Wilkinson, John
Lidington, David Wilshire, David
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham) Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Loughton, Tim Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Luff, Peter Yeo, Tim
MacGregor, Rt Hon John Young, Rt Hon Sir George
McIntosh, Miss Anne
MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew Tellers for the Ayes:
Maclean, Rt Hon David Mr. Stephen Day and
McLoughlin, Patrick Mr. Peter Atkinson.
Abbott, Ms Diane Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield)
Alexander, Douglas Bennett, Andrew F
Allan, Richard Bermingham, Gerald
Allen, Graham Berry, Roger
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Best, Harold
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Betts, Clive
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary Blackman, Liz
Ashton, Joe Blears, Ms Hazel
Atkins, Charlotte Blunkett, Rt Hon David
Ballard, Jackie Boateng, Rt Hon Paul
Banks, Tony Borrow, David
Barnes, Harry Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)
Barron, Kevin Bradshaw, Ben
Battle, John Brake, Tom
Beard, Nigel Breed, Colin
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Brinton, Mrs Helen
Begg, Miss Anne Brown, Russell (Dumfries)
Beith, Rt Hon A J Browne, Desmond
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Burden, Richard
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C) Burgon, Colin
Butler, Mrs Christine Fyfe, Maria
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Galloway, George
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Gapes, Mike
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife) Gardiner, Barry
George, Andrew (St Ives)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Gerrard, Neil
Campbell-Savours, Dale Gibson, Dr Ian
Cann, Jamie Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Caplin, Ivor Godman, Dr Norman A
Caton, Martin Godsiff, Roger
Cawsey, Ian Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Chaytor, David Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Chidgey, David Grocott, Bruce
Chisholm, Malcolm Grogan, John
Clapham, Michael Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Hanson, David
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands) Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet
Harris, Dr Evan
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Healey, John
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Clelland, David Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Clwyd, Ann Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Coaker, Vernon Hepburn, Stephen
Coffey, Ms Ann Heppell, John
Cohen, Harry Hill, Keith
Coleman, Iain Hodge, Ms Margaret
Colman, Tony Hoey, Kate
Connarty, Michael Hope, Phil
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Hopkins, Kelvin
Corbett, Robin Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Cousins, Jim Howells, Dr Kim
Cox, Tom Hoyle, Lindsay
Crausby, David Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley) Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Cummings, John Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack (Copeland) Humble, Mrs Joan
Hurst, Alan
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Hutton, John
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs Claire Iddon, Dr Brian
Dalyell, Tam Illsley, Eric
Darling, Rt Hon Alistair Ingram, Rt Hon Adam
Darvill, Keith Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Jenkins, Brian
Davidson, Ian Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Davis, Rt Hon Terry (B'ham Hodge H) Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn)
Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Dawson, Hilton Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW)
Dean, Mrs Janet
Denham, John Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Dismore, Andrew Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Dobbin, Jim Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Donohoe, Brian H Keeble, Ms Sally
Doran, Frank Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Dowd, Jim Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Kemp, Fraser
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston) Khabra, Piara S
Edwards, Huw Kidney, David
Ellman, Mrs Louise Kilfoyle, Peter
Ennis, Jeff King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Etherington, Bill King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Fearn, Ronnie Kirkwood, Archy
Field, Rt Hon Frank Kumar, Dr Ashok
Fisher, Mark Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Flint, Caroline Laxton, Bob
Flynn, Paul Lepper, David
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Leslie, Christopher
Foster, Don (Bath) Levitt, Tom
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Foster, Michael J (Worcester) Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
Foulkes, George Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen
Linton, Martin Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N)
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C) Rendel, David
Llwyd, Elfyn Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)
Lock, David Roche, Mrs Barbara
Love, Andrew Rooker, Rt Hon Jeff
McAllion, John Rooney, Terry
McAvoy, Thomas Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
McCabe, Steve Rowlands, Ted
McCafferty, Ms Chris Ruane, Chris
McCartney, Rt Hon Ian (Makerfield) Ruddock, Joan
Russell, Bob (Colchester)
McDonagh, Siobhain Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)
McDonnell, John Salter, Martin
McFall, John Savidge, Malcolm
McGuire, Mrs Anne Sawford, Phil
McIsaac, Shona Sedgemore, Brian
McKenna, Mrs Rosemary Shipley, Ms Debra
Mackinlay, Andrew Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
McNamara, Kevin Singh, Marsha
McNulty, Tony Skinner, Dennis
MacShane, Denis Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
Mactaggart, Fiona Smith, Angela (Basildon)
McWalter, Tony Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S)
McWilliam, John Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Mahon, Mrs Alice
Mallaber, Judy Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S) Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Snape, Peter
Marshall-Andrews, Robert Spellar, John
Martlew, Eric Squire, Ms Rachel
Maxton, John Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Meacher, Rt Hon Michael Steinberg, Gerry
Meale, Alan Stevenson, George
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley) Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Milburn, Rt Hon Alan Stinchcombe, Paul
Miller, Andrew Stoate, Dr Howard
Mitchell, Austin Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Moonie, Dr Lewis Straw, Rt Hon Jack
Moore, Michael Stringer, Graham
Moran, Ms Margaret Stuart, Ms Gisela
Morgan, Alasdair (Galloway) Stunell, Andrew
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N) Sutcliffe, Gerry
Morris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley) Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Mountford, Kali Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck) Temple-Morris, Peter
Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen) Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Naysmith, Dr Doug Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Norris, Dan Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Oaten, Mark Timms, Stephen
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks) Tipping, Paddy
O'Hara, Eddie Tonge, Dr Jenny
Olner, Bill Touhig, Don
O'Neill, Martin Trickett, Jon
Öpik, Lembit Truswell, Paul
Organ, Mrs Diana Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Osborne, Ms Sandra Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Pearson, Ian Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Pendry, Tom Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Perham, Ms Linda Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Pickthall, Colin Tyler, Paul
Pike, Peter L Vis, Dr Rudi
Plaskitt, James Walley, Ms Joan
Pollard, Kerry Wareing, Robert N
Pond, Chris Watts, David
Pope, Greg Webb, Steve
Pound, Stephen White, Brian
Powell, Sir Raymond Whitehead, Dr Alan
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Wicks, Malcolm
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Prosser, Gwyn
Purchase, Ken Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Radice, Rt Hon Giles Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Rammell, Bill Willis, Phil
Rapson, Syd Winnick, David
Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C) Wyatt, Derek
Wood, Mike
Woodward, Shaun
Worthington, Tony Tellers for the Noes:
Wray, James Mr. David Jamieson and
Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock) Mr. Robert Ainsworth.

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 62 (Amendment on second or third reading), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).