§ 4.5 p.m.
§ House again in Committee.162
Lord Alport moved Amendment No. 18:
After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause:
("Inner London Education Authority.
.—(1) Section 2(1) of this Act shall not apply to the election to the Greater London Council by electors of an inner London borough or of the City of London for membership of the Inner London Education Authority.
(2) Subject to subsection (4) of this section a person elected to be a member of the Inner London Education Authority in accordance with subsection (1) shall hold office for a period of four years from 7th May 1985.
(3) Any person elected to membership of the Inner London Education Authority under subsection (1) or (4) of this section shall be a member of any body or authority which may, as a result of any subsequent enactment, be established to assume the responsibilities and functions of the Inner London Education Authority.
(4) In the event of a vacancy arising among those persons elected to serve on the Inner London Education Authority after 7th May 1985, such vacancy shall be filled by an election held in the electoral district where the vacancy has occurred, and any provisions contained in this Act for the suspension of elections to the Greater London Council will not apply to such an election.").
§ The noble Lord said: The amendment which I now propose has none of the political undertones which have characterised so much of our previous discussion of this Bill at Committee stage and before. Nor do I think that this amendment is affected, except in a very minor way, by the decision of your Lordships to give approval to Amendment No. 1 a short time ago. This amendment has as its object that we should ensure that, whatever may be the consequences of this Bill for London as a whole, the educational system of inner London shall continue without interruption of its administration.
§ The importance of this continuity for inner London is because, firstly, there is an important and, up to the present, successful campaign to improve the general quality of secondary education in inner London schools. This follows what Members of the Committee will remember as the Hargreaves Report. Secondly, steps are being taken to improve the provision of education for children with special need. Thirdly, the present ILEA is trying to cope with the very difficult problem of dealing effectively with a contracting school population, which has been falling by an average of 10,000 a year since 1979. This, as your Lordships will well recognise, means the closure of schools and the re-allocation of pupils to different schools, with very great changes taking place, decisions upon which are urgent.
§ I should say to your Lordships, if I may, that my own knowledge of the education problems of inner London is based simply upon a school founded many years ago by one of the Livery companies in North London, now a very seriously disadvantaged area, which is administered by a governing body of which I am not, and never have been, a member. It comprises members of the court of that company and the governors nominated by the ILEA.
§ This amendment is in rather different terms from, but has the same object as, an amendment which was moved in another place and debated at a very late hour. Its purpose is to ensure that elections for the ILEA take place in May of next year. Under the present dispensation, membership of the ILEA consists of 35 councillors who are at the same time 163 elected to the GLC by the local government electors of inner London constituencies. There are, in addition, 12 members nominated by the boroughs of inner London and one by the City of London.
§ If the Bill before us had gone through without amendment, the present ILEA would have ceased to exist at whatever date Parliament decided. A wholly nominated body would then have taken over until 1986, and then, presumably, elections would have been held for the new ILEA at some date after that. If Amendment No. 1 is retained and accepted by the Government, or if decisions are made to extend the life of the present GLC for a period of months, or perhaps until the major Bill has passed through all its stages in the House—whatever decision the Government may make—there is bound to be a period of 18 months or more of very considerable uncertainty with regard to the development of the educational policy in inner London.
§ My interest, as I have intimated, refers to the Skinners Company's School for Girls at Stamford Hill. That school is a microcosm of the real problems of education in Inner London, partly on account of the very great racial mixture of the pupils in that school and the very great social problems which surround the parents—often single parents—in that part of London. For a school of that sort—and indeed schools of all sorts in Inner London—the standard and efficiency of the administration and the ability of the authorities to make decisions quickly is exceedingly important. As I have said, it is perfectly clear that under the proposed arrangements in the Bill, or whatever new arrangements the Government may put forward in the next few days, there will be an interim period, under different authorities, of very great uncertainty.
The Secretary of State for Education has accepted that the ILEA in the the future, whatever may be the fate of the GLC, shall be elected. Indeed, there are very strong arguments for this, as the Government acknowledged. These were set out by my noble friend Lord Bellwin on 5th April. On that occasion, referring to the White Paper, Streamlining the Cities, he said:
The White Paper proposed that there should continue to be a unitary education service in Inner London, run by a single education authority. It also proposed that the authority should be a joint board of councillors appointed by the Inner London borough councils and the Common Council of the City.
Those whom we consulted, in particular those Members of this House and others with a close understanding of the needs of education in Inner London, were overwhelmingly in favour of a directly-elected authority. We have been persuaded by their arguments. The nature, scale and importance of the education service in Inner London, taken together, justify a directly-elected authority in this special case".
He went on:
We propose, therefore, that the successor body to the ILEA should be directly-elected. We intend to provide for this in the main legislation abolishing the GLC and the metropolitan county councils, to be introduced in the next Session.—[Official Report, 5/4/84; cols. 817–8.]
If that is the considered view and decision of the Government, why is there any objection on their part to an election taking place to the successor of the ILEA, or to the ILEA itself if the GLC is still in being, in May of next year? That is the date when the election for the ILEA, in parallel with that for the GLC, would have taken place.
§ Reading the account of the debate in another place, and the Secretary of State's reply to that debate, I have a very clear impression that his own personal wish would be to hold these elections to the ILEA next May, but loyalty to his colleague in the Department of the Environment naturally precluded this. However, he admitted on three occasions during his speech that the Government's interim proposals—that is, for the future of the ILEA—were not perfect. Surely it can only make sense, whatever may be the mischief of this Bill to the GLC, that the body to administrate education in London should be excluded from it. That is what this amendment seeks to do.
§ What would happen if this amendment is accepted is that elections would take place next May in the Inner London boroughs for 35 members of the ILEA, whether it is regarded as being the present one or the new one. There would be an election for one member by the City of London. I believe your Lordships have agreed on an earlier occasion that the City of London should be, so to speak, comprehended in any plans that may be had in the future for the government of London, whether nominated or whatever it may be.
§ Under that principle, the election that takes place next May would be for members who would hold office for four years. If under the principal Act a successor authority is established, as indicated in my noble friend's Statement to which I referred, the members elected next May would comprise that authority. If a vacancy occurred, elections would take place as and when necessary in the particular part of London where the vacancy occurred. That is the purpose of the amendment. Thus, the continuity of education administration for Inner London would be safeguarded at a time when, as I have said, it is essential in the interests of 300,000 or more children who depend for their primary and secondary education on Inner London schools.
§ The difficulties and weaknesses of an interim nominated body or indeed any other interim arrangement would be avoided. Schools like the Skinners's school to which I referred earlier would not have to wait for 18 months, 2 years or perhaps 3 or 4 years before important decisions are made about accommodation and the complement. The elective principle for the education authority for Inner London would be established. Teachers and administrative staff in London's most important public service—and the Government acknowledge that—would be relieved of a long period of uncertainty and frustration, and one of the major disadvantages of the Government's present proposals for the future of London would disappear.
§ I have drafted this amendment to the very best of my ability to cover all the matters which seem relevant and to give effect to the proposal for which I am asking your Lordships' support. If there are any deficiencies in drafting, they can be put right at a later stage in the progress of the Bill through this House. I most sincerely and earnestly invite my noble friend the Minister to accept the principle of this amendment whit h seeks to give practical effect to the policy to which he and the Government are already committed, and in doing so act in the best interests of the children and people of London generally. I beg to move.165
§ Lord Kilmarnock
I should like to intervene briefly to say that I had drafted an amendment which was almost identical in terms to that of the noble Lord, Lord Alport. I think his amendment is a slight improvement. As soon as I saw his amendment on the Marshalled List I immediately added my name.
The noble Lord, Lord Alport, has explained with the greatest clarity the purpose of his amendment. It may of course seem slightly hypothetical this afternoon, as most of our proceedings will, but the matters raised in this amendment are, I should have thought, certainly arguments in favour of leaving Amendment No. 1, which was passed in your Lordships' Committee, in which case this amendment would not he necessary. However, the matter certainly deserves to be aired in case, at a later stage, this amendment should prove necessary.
The Bill proposes the nomination of borough councillors—either 35 or 29 (we are not told which) on the old boundaries or the new boundaries—which means that each of the 12 boroughs and the City would need to nominate two or three councillors for the interim period: that is, in addition to those who are already there. These nominated borough councillors would have a terrifying triple mandate. They would be members of the interim GLC, members of ILEA and members of their boroughs. It must also be borne in mind that they would he people who had been elected in 1982 not with this particular purpose in mind and they would be confronted with an enormous volume of work for which they would not necessarily be best fitted. The workload they could expect—that is, borough, GLC and ILEA—would be quite unprecedented and almost certainly physically impossible. That was a point made by Conservative members of the ILEA during a debate I heard in the ILEA chamber towards the end of last year.
The mind really boggles. Here we have the Hargreaves report on improving secondary schools in the Inner London Education Authority area, in which we understand the Secretary of State has taken a great interest and expressed approval of many of its aspects. It has 104 recommendations, and a five-year plan is proposed to implement the report's proposals, some of which are of the greatest importance to education in Inner London. Is it conceivable that an interim body, composed as I have described, could possibly begin to make any advance on the implementation of the Hargreaves Report?
What would happen to the composition of ILEA under the Government's proposals in this Bill bears thinking about. Under the paving Bill the following senior ILEA members would he suspended, because elections would be cancelled, and they would have to be replaced by these inexpert borough councillors. The people who would automatically go are the leader, the chairman and the chief whip—and I speak feelingly of chief whips—but much more importantly, the chairmen of the policy co-ordinating committee, the schools committee, the development committee, the staff and general committee, the staff appeals committee, the equal opportunities committee and the 16 to 19 review committee. All those jobs would fall vacant to be filled by—I do not know whether they would be reluctant amateurs—certainly amateurs, quite unfitted for this task.
166 Therefore, it seems to me that the noble Lord, Lord Alport, has done us a great service in putting forward this amendment. The Secretary of State has committed himself to elections in 1986. We do not yet know the format that he will propose or the number he will envisage on the body. It might possibly be two per constituency, in which case it would be 58, or it might be less. But there is no doubt that under the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Alport, there would be genuine continuity between the old body and the new. That is to say, those who were elected onto Lord Alport's body would stay on and be joined at the time of the 1986 elections by a roughly equal number of new colleagues. We should therefore have continuity on the authority, and it would be able to get on with doing all these extremely important jobs in the field of Inner London education.
On all those grounds I would recommend this amendment very strongly to your Lordships. I do not imagine that the noble Lord will press it this afternoon, but if we have to come back to it at a later stage, I hope that it will gain the approval of your Lordships' Committee.
§ 4.22 p.m.
§ Baroness David
I should also like to support the noble Lord, Lord Alport. I thought that the amendment was originally put down to save ILEA from the damage done by the Bill, as originally drafted, but now that elections in 1985 have been restored by the passing of the all-party amendment last Thursday, the situation seems to me different. The noble Lord thought that perhaps it was not. There is confusion about this in all our minds, I think, and that has been shown widely by the discussion earlier in the afternoon. It seems to me to be worth while anyway to use the amendment to discover, if possible, the Government's intentions as regards ILEA and to make abundantly clear how important continuity is for ILEA and how damaging three different administrations in three consecutive years would have been to the education service after its 114-year-old unbroken tradition as an education authority directly accountable to the people of Inner London.
Sir Keith Joseph said on 5th April:The nature, scale, and importance of the education service in Inner London, taken together, justify a directly elected authority in this special case".So the point has been conceded that there should be a directly elected authority. Could not the Secretary of State move one further important step forward and agree that the directly elected authority should be elected in May 1985, so that there would be continuity? Sir Keith claimed that an interim GLC/ILEA, composed of nominated borough councillors, would provide, "continuity, capacity and coherence", but I simply cannot believe that. Three-quarters of the membership would disappear to be replaced by borough councillors perhaps with no experience of running an education service and maybe not even an interest in it.
As the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, said, those nominated members would not have the vast amount of time necessary, and Conservative Members agree with that, as he said. Ten of the leading chairmen 167 would go, and many vice-chairmen, too. Sir Keith has admitted that:the interim arrangements proposed by the Government are not totally perfect".That, I should think, was the understatement of the year.
Speaking from my own quite long experience on an education committee. I well remember after elections, when there were a good many new members on the education committee, what a long time it took to run them in, because they simply did not understand the whole service. Many questions were asked. The work took very much longer to get through. I think that these borough councillors, who would not have been elected to perform an education service, would find great difficulties and the service would suffer indescribably. These inexperienced members might have to deal with rate capping. They might have to enforce cuts in the education budget without having the knowledge and understanding of the service necessary to do the job. They would also be responsible for setting the 1986–87 rate budget, even though they would have no responsibility for its implementation, because after the interim year they themselves would be replaced.
The next two years will be very critical, as both noble Lords who have spoken have said. Falling rolls will mean a lot of reorganisation of secondary schools and then there is the development of the new initiatives to improve standards and achievement that have been proposed in the Hargreaves Report, which has been widely acclaimed by everyone, including the Secretary of State. He is very concerned with improving standards. We hope that this work will go on quickly, but certainly it will be infinitely more difficult if temporary councillors are running the service. For all those reasons, I hope that the Minister will have something constructive to say in reply to this amendment, and that the future of ILEA, and, most important, the future of the school children in Inner London, will be firmly secured.
§ Lord Bellwin
As my noble friend Lord Alport reminded us, on 5th April the Government declared, after consultations and discussions, that they would prefer to have a directly elected body in regard to ILEA. The reason for the change was that the weight of informed opinion among those whose views the Government respected was overwhelmingly in favour of the change. I think that it is probably only fair to say that the Government deserve credit for taking the consultation exercise very seriously. This was one of a number of changes made as a result of the comments we received.
It has to be said, however, that the focus of the argument was on the longer term and the successor body to the ILEA. In the short term the proposals for the interim body did not attract the same weight of comment. This is only reasonable and to be expected, since the interim arrangements are complicated by the wider question of the elections to the GLC itself and the complex relationship between the GLC and the ILEA.
The Government have taken the view that it would be anomalous, and in principle difficult, to attempt to 168 distinguish the ILEA from the GLC in the interim period. The strict legal position is that the ILEA is the GLC, acting through a special committee as the local education authority for the Inner London area. The basic principle of the paving Bill is that it should make the minimum necessary change. We have been scrupulous in not anticipating the provisions which would be proper to the main abolition Bill. Until we are in a position to put forward detailed proposals for the abolition of the GLC, it would surely be premature to set about the task of disentangling the ILEA.
Thus, the interim arrangements for the membership of the ILEA ought to follow those for the GLC. The members of the special committee comprise two groups. First, there are 13 nominees from the Inner London borough councils and the Common Council of the City of London. They are councillors whose term of office on their council runs until May, 1986. So there is no need to take any action in the paving Bill in respect of them. Then, as has been said, there are also 35 elected GLC councillors elected for electoral divisions in the area of the inner London boroughs and the City. They are, ipso facto, members of the special committee by virture of being the GLC councillors for their electoral divisions. Their term of office, like that of all the other GLC councillors, expires in May 1985. The argument about what should happen beyond 1985 is part of the general question which the Government are now considering in the light of the decision on Amendment No. 1. This is why when we were talking earlier I said that there would be areas of difficulty in answering all the points on all the amendments, and this is certainly one of them. Yet it is not my wish—and I think it would be wrong—to put the case against this new clause to strongly.
As my noble friend Lord Alport very properly pointed out, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science, in replying to a debate on a similar amendment in another place, did not make the error of putting the case against this too strongly. He agreed that there are arguments here on both sides. However, as the Committee will know, in the end the Government would have to be convinced that the alternative proposed was superior to the intention. The considered view at the end is that the practical problems in operating the body in the interim period perhaps should not be exaggerated, and that the case in principle for separating the ILEA from the GLC and treating the two differently is not strong enough.
Another problem is whether it would be right to seek to make permanent arrangements for the ILEA in what is, after all, an interim Bill. This is clearly a difficulty. I hope that the Committee will gather, not only from what I say but from the way in which I say it, that I go along very much with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science. Here is not an impassioned argument against the amendment—not at all. I think that what my noble friend said, and what the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, and the noble Baroness, Lady David, said, is a very fair point of view. However, as in so many things, at the end of the day someone has to take a balanced view. That is why we have come to the conclusion that we have. We think that the weight of the evidence just goes that way, not least because we 169 are in an interim, paving situation. That really is the difficulty that I am in.
I hope that my noble friend who moved the amendment will understand the way in which I am answering. It would not be difficult for me to say that we would have another look at the question. All these matters are not black and white, and open and shut. We think very hard before coming to conclusions. We have just on the balance reached the conclusion which I think is probably right. I cannot go further today, as I am sure the Committee will understand.
§ Lord Alport
I am very grateful to my noble friend for what he has said. I do not think that those of us who sit on the Back-Benches are always very sympathetic to those sitting on the Front Bench. However, on this particular occasion and during the debates on this Bill my sympathies lie entirely with my noble friend Lord Bellwin. At the present moment he has the hopeless and impossible task of trying to answer questions. The noble Lord, Lord Boothby, said something to this effect: if the Government do not know their mind, how on earth are we supposed to understand it ourselves?
I accept that my noble friend has done his best to stall at the present moment. I do not propose to carry this amendment further at this stage. I very much hope that my noble friend and the Government—and in particular the Secretary of State for Education—will consider this matter because I can assure him that there are very strong arguments on our side of the balance. I would submit to the Government that there are better arguments on our side than on their side. I hope that at the next stage, if it proves necessary, we will be able to prove that the proposals that are represented by this amendment are superior to the proposal which the Government have put forward. However, that remains for another stage.
I can assure my noble friend that I will return to this with a revised amendment which will include something which I overlooked in the present one, which is divorcing the ILEA from the GLC so that it would cease to be a sub-committee of the GLC after the election in May. That was the loophole which I forgot. So my noble friend has given me an opportunity of improving the amendment at the next stage. I am grateful to him for that. I am grateful to him for what he has said. I beg leave to withdraw this amendment.
§ Baroness David
Before the amendment is withdrawn, I should like to say I was not quite so happy with the Minister's reply as the noble Lord, Lord Alport. I hope that when the Government are considering what they are going to do about the ILEA elections that it will not be the convenience of the Government's legislative programme which will be their prime thought but that it will be the 300,000—I think that is the number—of schoolchildren who are under the authority of ILEA.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 3 [Replacement of councillors]:
§ [Amendments Nos. 19 to 21A not moved.]
§ Clause 3 agreed to.170
§ Clause 4 [Filling of vacancies]:
§ [Amendments Nos. 22 and 22A not moved.]
Lord Bellwin moved Amendment Nos. 23 and 24:
Page 4, line 27, leave out ("any provision of").
Page 4, line 32, leave out ("under that provision").
§ The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendments Nos. 23 and 24. These are technical amendments. They do not in any way alter the operation of Clause 4, which deals with the filling of casual vacancies. I have been advised that it is not strictly technically correct for Clause 4(7) to require the substituted appointment to be made under the provision under which the original appointment was made. I am aware that Clause 4 is not—shall I say?—the most transparent of clauses. However, I can assure the Committee that the effect of the clause is in no way altered by these two technical amendments which I beg to move.
§ On Question, amendments agreed to.
§ Clause 4, as amended, agreed to.
§ Clause 5 [Supplementary provisions]:
§ 4.38 p.m.
Lord Graham of Edmonton moved Amendment No. 25:
Page 5, line 6, leave out subsections (3) and (4).
The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 25, I also intend to speak to Amendment No. 26.
Amendment No. 26: Page 5, line 13, leave out from ("instrument") to end of line 14 and insert ("and no order shall be made under subsection (3) above unless a draft of it has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.").
These amendments relate to the powers which the Secretary of State is seeking to reduce the quorum at the metropolitan county council and GLC meetings. For the benefit of the Committee I will read out parts of Clause 5 and subsections (3) and (4). I believe that the proposed power of the Secretary of State is quite breathtaking. In Clause 5(3) it states:
If the Secretary of State considers it necessary for the transaction of business at meetings of a council whose members are appointed under this Part of this Act he may by order prescribe for meetings of that council a quorum which is smaller than that specified in paragraph 6 of Schedule 12 to the principal Act".
Subsection (4) states:
The power to make orders under subsection (3) above shall be exercisable by statutory instrument subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament".
A number of serious questions need to be asked both as to the purpose of the amendments and the consequences of the amendments. First of all, as we know, the quorum has a very hallowed place in the democratic practices of this Chamber and of any other democratically elected body. The number of people in any body who by standing orders must be present in order that the business be valid is always given very careful consideration.
§ As we know, it is in order to give some substance and strength to the decisions of the committee, the council, the House, the authority, or whatever it is. It is normally fixed at the lowest possible number consistent with the ability to say, after a decision has 171 been taken, that an adequate number of individuals were present. In no way can we see any possibility for a lower limit to the quorum. What the Bill says is that the Secretary of State himself shall decide the lowest possible number that need to be present in order that the business shall be valid. There is no power-making authority on the face of the Bill to ensure consultation with the authority concerned before the lower figure is fixed.
§ We realise that the prime tenet of the Government in local government legislation is to centralise the maximum amount of power in the hands of central government. This is a very good illustration. We come later to amendments that deal with the substance of how the Government will persist in interfering with the ability of a county council to carry out its work. Here, the Secretary of State is saying that he will decide without consultation the lowest number of people who, in his opinion, are competent to be present in order to give the business that is carried out validity and purpose. We consider that this constitutes an unwarranted interference by central government.
§ Of course, we are aware of what the Government are seeking to anticipate. It is the possibility that if the quorum remains at the level at which it is presently pitched and the Secretary of State does not take these powers, it will be possible for members to absent themselves from a council, which democratically they are entitled to do, and thereby invalidate the quorum that at present exists. This is the argument that we have already seen trailed. It is possible, judging by the statements made earlier today, that the Government do not know what is going to happen, that they do not know what legislation they are going to ask us to approve, and that they do not know the powers of the abolition Bill. In this realm of fantasy, let us therefore try to imagine what is to happen and come forward with legislation to check what the Government are going to do. We believe that the Government have to make out a much more substantial case. They have made no case so far in this Committee for the reason that they seek to anticipate an event that hinges upon a premise that may well have a false base.
§ All this matter is in conjecture following upon last week's decision and today's statement, and anticipating tomorrow's statement and Thursday's Cabinet decision. The Government Chief Whip asks us to proceed because there may be no changes at all. We cannot make any assumptions; we cannot make any guesses; we have simply to proceed. However, as I see it, the Government are saying that they anticipate the possibility of some mischievous people seeking to thwart the main intentions of the Bill, the details of which we have not had for a period of time, the length of which we do not know. Whether the interim is two months, 12 months or whatever, the Government are saying that they want to make certain that there is no way that anyone can turn.
§ The only saving grace is that subsection (4) contains the possibility that a statutory instrument will be laid so that we shall at least have the opportunity of scrutinising what the Government intend to do. However, we are very unhappy indeed. This is a matter that hinges absolutely on Amendment No. 1. We know the effect of Amendment No. 1. However, 172 until the Government say what they intend to do about Amendment No. 1, we remain far from happy and very much opposed to what the Government intend in Clause 5(3) and (4). At this stage, before coming back to the issue, we await to hear the Government's justification of their case based on something more than a premise or an assumption. It has to be based on something solid, not something insecure and insubstantial. I beg to move.
§ The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Jacques)
If this amendment were agreed to, I could not call Amendment No. 26.
§ Lord Evans of Claughton
I should like to say briefly that I support the amendment. We have here another example of the cart being put before the horse. If the Government had proceeded by the more conventional and well-established method of agreeing the substantial reforms first and introducing the interim provisions secondly, with the substantive legislation agreed, they could have gone about dealing with the status of the quorum in the usual way of allowing it to be fixed by the local authority itself. They are now taking the step of putting the transitional provisions first, demonstrating that they cannot trust local councils to behave responsibly, as the noble Lord, Lord Graham, has indicated.
Surely, this is a prime example of where the Government have got it all wrong. You pass the substantive regulations and conditions first so that you have a body with statutory approval that is able to introduce a quorum and things of that nature, during its term of office. Now we are imposing on a nonexistent council the ability of the Secretary of State to reduce the quorum because it is not known how the interim authority will behave and react. This is a problem of the Government's own making, and they should, in all good will, withdraw this and reconsider the matter in the light of what has happened during the Committee stage of this Bill.
§ Baroness Gardner of Parkes
I speak against the amendment. Those who think that this is an outrageous power to take are not correct. They really do not understand how difficult it is at present to maintain a quorum at County Hall. Hardly a meeting goes by without the quorum bell having to be rung. I have known occasions under the present administration in the last few years when the business of the council has had to be adjourned for lack of a quorum. If that situation exists now, when we are supposed to be governing London well, how much greater will be the risk if there is any attempt at deliberate obstruction afterwards?
The present administration of the Greater London Council, after taking power, arbitrarily reduced the numbers on all committees without any consultation, and certainly with no agreement. It might be wrong to say "without any consultation". There might have been minimal consultations; but there was certainly no agreement with the other parties. The membership of all committees was suddenly reduced in number by hall. There have been arbitrary decisions taken. We cannot rely on the common sense of the council in this matter. I believe, therefore, that this power may be 173 necessary. Adequate protection is already built in under subsection (4) whereby the Government would have to justify to Parliament the reason for the need to bring in a different quorum. I think it an important part of the Bill, and I oppose the amendment.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
Can the noble Baroness give us any idea whether her remarks regarding the Greater London Council apply to the six metropolitan counties? Has she any reason to believe that they are not maintaining a quorum?
§ Baroness Gardner of Parkes
I thank the noble Baroness for her question. I am not able to comment on those councils; I have no direct personal experience. But, again, I believe it is covered by subsection (4), whereby, if the opportunity was taken to make some alteration of the quorum in the metropolitan interim authorities, it would have to be justified through the House at the time. I do not therefore think that there is any danger in that.
§ Baroness Denington
I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for all the information she has given us. I must say that I am horrified by it. But it seems to me that there is no reason for this Committee to act badly simply because one council, whichever council it is, has itself acted badly.
§ Lord Bellwin
I think the first point to make here is that if it was ever necessary to use this power to adjust a quorum, it would be only in response to obstruction; that would be the only time when it would be necessary. The powers which subsections (3) and (4) of Clause 5 confer on the Secretary of State are a very necessary safeguard. I fully expect constituent councils and their members to behave responsibly. As I said before, if they do, there is no need at all for this power ever to be exercised.
The first amendment would give a group of constituent councils, or a sufficiently large group of like-minded appointees, the ability to prevent a transitional council from transacting any business. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Graham, that we do not know, and so forth, and therefore the debate is in that context. But the fact is that appointees would need only to stay away from meetings and they would have a power, in fact, a veto, out of all proportion to their representation.
The local electorate have a right to be protected from such an eventuality; hence the inclusion of the power to reduce the necessary quorum. By removing that power we would leave the transitional council open to disruption. We need the safeguard against such actions which subsections (3) and (4) of Clause 5 provide. I say again that I hope one would never need to use them; but in hoping for the best, one must always prepare for the worst. Amendment No. 26 is unnecessary because any order altering a quorum would be made under the power contained in this Bill, which would recently have been approved fully by Parliament. It is entirely appropriate for such orders to be subject to a negative resolution of either House, and that is what we are providing for.
The noble Lord, Lord Graham, said—I wrote it down; he knows that I do that when he or anyone else 174 speaks, if I am to respond—the Government feared that there may be mischievous people who will seek to thwart, and so on. They are on record. These people say that it will be part of the policy to disrupt; there is no secret about that. The noble Lord said that people are entitled democratically to absent themselves, and that what we are contemplating is in the realm of fantasy. Not much fantasy! In fact, these are commitments which are spoken of openly every day by various people, and, to my regret, not just by the GLC leadership. They feel that this is a way in which they could thwart the working of the councils. Therefore, surely it must be right for a Government to protect the situation should that ever arise.
Despite what is said at these moments, I believe that members of the metropolitan county councils, who I know very much better than I know the ones in the GLC, are responsible people. Despite what they say at a time like this, when all the argument is going on, I do not think they would do that when things are in place. But to decide, when we are trying to introduce a Bill that covers all the authorities, not to take any steps to deal with such a situation, should it arise, would be very dangerous for a Government and would be something we really could not accept.
I do not want to go into what people have said, because, as I say, I think they say these things at times like these, and I do not want to make capital out of that. But we would be very wrong to assume that it could not happen and wrong not to take some steps in case it ever did. If it does not happen, then nobody has anything at all to be concerned about.
§ 4.53 p.m.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
The Minister talks in terms of the likelihood of something happening, based upon assumptions which he has drawn from statements that have been made. I want to face the Committee with this further reality of the Government's attitude. This is a simple matter of a quorum at a council meeting or a council committee meeting. The Government feel constrained, in a piece of legislation, to deal with the quorum at a council committee meeting. I know the Minister is going to say that enormous consequences could flow from the absence of a quorum—that is, a larger quorum—and it is a question of looking forward.
This is not the first occasion when the Government have said that it is their responsibility to look at every little bit of detail about how local government works, and to anticipate an eventuality. The Secretary of State has discretion as to the number, but I ask your Lordships to bear in mind that, as well, it is going to be some future Secretary of State of a different party. The Government say they believe it is right that, to this extent, power should be aggregated to the centre.
I am saying simply that there are two ways of doing this. If, from the Government's point of view, the worst came to the worst—that is, they have got their legislation, but it was being thwarted—the Government have powers. There are emergencies. There are situations where one comes to the House and says, "This, in actual fact, is what is happening; there is a defiance, and not only defiance but a consequence; and it is an appalling consequence 175 because the government of London, or the Midlands, or Merseyside, cannot continue". Are the Government telling us that, faced with a concrete situation such as that, there is no parliamentary device whereby, in the light of a fait accompli, it is possible for them to say, "We want powers to deal with this emergency situation"?
The Minister has been very fair. He hopes very much that good sense will prevail; that it may not happen; that he may not have to exercise the power; that it may not be necessary. I am prepared to agree with him. I cannot anticipate what colleagues outside will be moved to do, or attempt to do; certainly I have no power to underwrite their threats or statements. All I am saying is that the Committee needs to be very well aware that this is a Government who are prepared not only to anticipate but also to go further and further, as a central Government, into the nitty-gritty of how local councils work. If the Government are saying they have justification, not for setting a quorum but for reserving to themselves the right to set a quorum, for as long as they consider necessary in the future, what else is there left in local government management where this Government will not say at some stage, "We believe this or that can happen and therefore we reserve or we take the right in legislation to look after it"?
We do not intend to press these amendments to votes at this time. Besides the whole uncertainty as to what we are going to be faced with in the next few months, or the next 12 months, until the main legislation is through, there is a very serious principle which the Government are asking the Committee to endorse—that is, that the Secretary of State shall have one further arrow in his armoury to deal with a situation that may or may not arise. We believe that it would be a retrograde step. Before I sit down, I shall allow the noble Lord to use the time-hallowed words, "Before he sits down".
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
I want to say only a few words, not as an intervention in the noble Lord's speech, but simply by way of comment. If, in the face of the threats that have been uttered, particularly, let us say, by the leaders of the GLC, the Government did not introduce as a precaution a clause of this kind, or two subsections of this kind, in my view they would be guilty of the grossest negligence. These threats have been uttered. If they were applied, and if no powers had been taken, local government could be paralysed. I think the Government would be very much at fault if they did not take this step.
For the noble Lord opposite to say that this shows a desire by the Government to intervene in the nittygritty—that was his phrase—of local government is the greatest nonsense. If the local authorities concerned behave properly, we shall hear nothing of the exercise of these powers. But if they do not, I am sure that the Government will exercise them. For the noble Lord to say that the Government should wait until this has happened and then look for some either strange or 176 extraordinary power—which the noble Lord did not bother to specify—with which to intervene or introduce the whole process of separate legislation through both Houses, is not a responsible way in which to carry on government. If that is the noble Lord's idea of the way in which to carry on government, one can well understand why the Labour Party got in a mess when they were in power.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
The noble Lord invites the Committee to pass this legislation on the ground that he would assume that councils would behave properly. If they behave properly, legislation will not be necessary. Who is to decide whether a council has behaved properly or improperly? Apparently the Secretary of State. There may be some matters at which the noble Lord would not take offence but at which the Secretary of State would. We have spoken in terms of waiting until the event. I am simply saying that the enormity of the power which the Secretary of State will take unto himself is sufficient for me to be prepared to wait.
The noble Lord asked what kind of action could be taken. I have been a Member of another place when legislation has been passed very quickly, although not without opposition. Normally we went through the proper processes of scrutiny, filibustering, long talks, etc. But when an emergency occurred the Government came to the House and said that there was a matter which could only be dealt with by emergency legislation.
I am not talking about reactivating powers, which is what would happen in this case. We still have a long way to go. It could be as long as 12 months. If matters proceed in the way in which both the Government and this side of the Committee believe they will, the main Bill could very well be before this House about this time next year, and the matter would still not be resolved. Therefore, there is a long way to go.
There will be no compromise. It is the Government's intention to abolish and it is our intention to resist. But atmospheres can change. The Government can reflect on powers and there can be reflections in other places. In my view, the enormity of what the Government want means that we should wait. Apparently it is now proper to consider that where one anticipates events, one actually gets down to determining the quorum of a county council.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, quite rightly pointed to some inabilities in the GLC to keep to a quorum. This certainly has not been by design; it has been by bad management. However small or large the quorum may be, it can apparently be used by people on a council now. So one assumes that when the power is effective and the quorum is reduced, it will then be capable of being manipulated. I believe that it should be the proper function of a council to decide whether or not its quorum is inadequate, and not the function of government.
§ Baroness Gardner of Parkes
I believe that it is very much by design now, because it is a deliberate way of attempting to prevent minority business being dealt with.
§ Lord Bellwin
I do not want to go on about this and I have tried not to overstate the case; I do not want to reel off a whole series of quotations by people, and so on. However, my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter put the case so rightly. The Government would be monumentally neglectful if they took no heed at all of all those matters and did not recognise that the statements made are part of an absolute policy to thwart the legislation. I shall not say any more because, if I do, I shall be drawn into the nuts and bolts of the matter and I do not want to do that now, certainly in view of what the noble Lord, Lord Graham, has said about it. Therefore, on this matter we shall have to agree to differ.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
I intend to withdraw this amendment, but this particular Secretary of State, who is in charge of other departments, is no stranger to actions of an arbitrary nature being taken to the courts and challenged. When the noble Lord was a Minister of health he took actions in the exercise of what he considered to be his powers and found that he came adrift when they were challenged in the courts. I am simply saying that this is yet another minefield in which this Secretary of State, let alone this Government, is likely to find himself. I certainly shall not shed any tears if expenditure of public money, time and aggravation is the net result of this legislation. We are far from happy. We are not prepared to let the matter rest, but at this stage I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 26 not moved.]
§ Clause 5 agreed to.
§ 5.7 p.m.
Baroness Birk moved Amendment No. 27:
After Clause 5, insert the following new Clause:
§ . Part II of this Act shall cease to have effect as from 1st April 1986 and thereupon any enactment repealed by this Act shall revive.").
§ The noble Baroness said: On Second Reading, at col. 908 of Hansard on 11th June this year, I asked the Minister for a guarantee that the term of these non-elected councillors would not be extended to two years. He did not respond.' I asked him for a very specific reply that the 11 months, which had been stated throughout, would be the real and the actual as well as the notional time limit for these non-elected councillors. As was made clear from the discussions on the first amendment, it is our intention to remove the interim councils from this Bill and, indeed, the whole Bill may turn out to be quite superfluous in a very short time. But we are plugging on and discussing it today and, as we are discussing it, I believe that it is important to highlight some of the points which aggravate what is far from being anything like a good Bill or a good piece of legislation in any case.
§ The Government have continued to assert that these interim GLC and metropolitan county councillors will last for only 11 months, and in the wider spectrum of what happens about abolition itself it is important to look at the times set by the Government and at what is needed to be done within that time, and to ask the 178 Government whether they recognise that their self-imposed 11-month timetable is totally unrealistic. Certainly they would be wise to do so.
§ Whether or not there are interim councils, the timetable for the run up to the abolition Bill, which they have threatened to introduce, is of the greatest importance. During that period action will have to be taken, first, to transfer staff to the 67 district and borough councils and the 20 or more joint boards which the Government are talking of setting up, although I must hastily repeat that as no one has had any sight of the proposals and as it does not appear that the Government have yet got down to drafting them—in fact, we do not even know how far they have advanced on the drawing board—this may also be the realms of mythology.
§ Secondly, they will have to transfer assets, including buildings and equipment, to the district and borough councils and also to the boards or other quangos that are set up. They will have to decide the title to assets. They will have to set up 20 or more new joint boards, each having its own tax-raising power. They will have to appoint the members of these new quangos and appoint their staff.
§ There will have to be a basis on which they are appointed. Are there going to be extended lists of the great and the good, many of whom will sit on a certain number of boards? Will there be a limit to the number of quangos on which the same person can sit, and rush from one to the other? How are the staff going to be appointed? Will they be taken on from the metropolitan counties, or is it proposed that they try to take on staff from the GLC? They will have to transfer functions to borough and district councils. Boroughs and districts will need to appoint staff dealing with transferred functions or train existing staff.
§ The Government will have to adjust the rate-support grant system. Existing bodies—for example, the Arts Council, the Historic Buildings Commission, the DoE, and all the other organisations dealing with the world of art, leisure and conservation—will have to be prepared to receive transferred functions. There is the question of all the voluntary bodies and how they will be helped to proceed when in the past they have been dependent on financial help and resources from the GLC and the metropolitan counties.
§ Even the Government do not appear to believe that these interim councils, to which they still appear to be wedded, will last only 11 months, since in the Bill there is no provision for a final date on which the interim councils will leave office. This means that in theory, and so far as the legislation is concerned, they could go on for ever. This amendment seeks to put in the Bill the deadline of 1st April 1986. In other words, that is what the Government themselves continue to assert.
§ The amendment approved by the Committee last Thursday ensures that no order cancelling the 1985 elections can be made until Parliament has enacted the main abolition and reorganisation legislation. This can only be right. Despite the claims of precedent for the paving Bill, all the precedents point to the continuation of elections until Parliament has agreed both the new structure and the date when it is to he in place. In other words, when it is to be implemented.179
§ In the 1972 reorganisation, elections continued until the end of 1972 during, and indeed after, the passing of the Local Government Act 1972. That Act saw 1st April 1974 as the start date for the successor authorities, and in the knowledge that they had approved that start date Parliament suspended the 1973 elections and introduced transitional arrangements. But of course the legislation had already gone through. Nothing like that is being proposed in this Bill. The Bill proposes the cancellation of elections before Parliament has approved the new structure.
§ This basic flaw has now been amended by the passage of Amendment No. 1 last week, but it still proposes transitional arrangements for appointed interim county councils before Parliament has agreed a start date for the new structure; in other words, before we know when the new legislation—if it is passed by both Houses of Parliament and gets Royal Assent—in fact will be implemented.
§ The 1st April 1986 might be the Government's intention but is not necessarily Parliament's intention. This amendment would take the Government at their word and ensure that the interim councils do not continue beyond the date set by the Government. The benefits of adopting the amendment—although we are speaking throughout this Committee stage partly in reality and partly in complete unreality—are that it avoids the risk that the cancellation of elections may be followed by a failure of the main abolition Bill and appointed county councillors being left in office indefinitely. They could be left there for a four-year term as district councillors, then to be replaced by further district councillors, and so on, with no further obligation in statute on the Secretary of State to restore the existing electoral system.
§ The amendment would ensure that the appointed county council system really is an interim provision —if that ever sees the light of day—and it guards against enactment of an indefinite, undemocratic system, which the Bill's own Long Title clearly never intended, and ensures that the system proposed is only transitional up to the White Paper's projected abolition date of 1st April 1986.
§ It is important—particularly in the middle of the situation we are in at the moment, and if we are to discuss this Bill at all—that we should be using this opportunity in order to find out much more about the Government's intentions and get some answers to the many questions which are raised in the minds of many of us whatever party we belong to, so that we know how the Government propose to go about what is a major reorganisation of local government. I beg to move.
§ Lord Bellwin
Amendment No. 27 alights on the date of 1st April 1986 as the date by which the whole of Part II of the Bill will be brought to an end. There is no need for this deadline. Clause 1 of the Bill includes a provision for the repeal of interim measures and the restoration of the original situation should the main Bill fail at any stage. If the main Bill fails after Part II has commenced, then Part II will be repealed. If abolition goes ahead, then the transitional councils, in whatever form they may be if they are there, will terminate according to the provisions of the main Bill.
180 To put a specific deadline in this Bill is not only unnecessary but it prejudges Parliament's timetable for considering the main Bill, and prejudges Parliament's consideration of that Bill since it is that Bill which will specify the abolition dates. I take the noble Baroness's point that there is a difficulty in discussing this because there is that which is as yet unresolved and about which we need to know, but in the circumstances as they are I do not think I can add any more to help the noble Baroness. If she says that she wants to ascertain more of the Government's intentions, well, those are the Government's intentions and I have explained—even if in only a few words—why in practical terms this is not an amendment that the Government could accept.
§ Baroness Birk
The reply is unsatisfactory and shows clearly the difficulties under which the Minister is having to work as well as the difficulties we are in when asking these questions, he being unable to provide the answers. I do not think that the noble Lord is unwilling to provide the answers. I cannot understand why all the way through we are told that the interim councillors will be there for 11 months. I mentioned in moving Amendment 17A what the Secretary of State had said in another place about it not being worth having elections for a few months. The Government seem to have made up their mind, but on the other hand we have no information that there is any substantial infrastructure to these beliefs of theirs that they can in fact complete all this tremendous work, which I am afraid I spelled out in some detail, within the 11 months.
I find it unsatisfactory that one should rely on the repeal order parts of this Bill. Are we going to have a series of repeals every time the Government find that it is literally impossible to be able to come up to the timetable which they are trying to attain? This is going to be extremely unsatisfactory.
If this does not take place, and if there is this long extended period, there will be a number of problems to which we have not had any answers. The answer which the Minister was trying to give does not answer the point that I was making, and does not alter the position at all. I think that he was aware of that.
In the light of the amendment that was passed last week, we are all agreed that this is an unsatisfactory way to deal with the Bill and a useless way to spend our time. Quite frankly, I should rather watch Wimbledon on television—
§ Baroness Birk
Or cricket. I should prefer to watch Wimbledon, rather than to discuss these amendments in the political contours in which we are discussing them today. Although it may be, and probably will be, necessary to return to this question on another occasion, I now propose to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 28 not moved.]181
§ Clause 6 [Establishment and functions of staff commission]:
§ 5.21 p.m.
Lord Evans of Claughton moved Amendment No. 29:
Page 5, line 34, leave out from ("such") to ("shall") in line 36 and insert ("relevant authorities, bodies representative of such authorities, and staff employed by them").
The noble Lord said: I should be grateful if, with this amendment, there are considered Amendments Nos. 30 and 31.
Amendment No. 30: Page 5, line 36, leave out ("not later than one month after the passing of this Act").
Amendment No. 31: Page 5, line 37, after ("Act") insert ("if those authorities and bodies consulted under this subsection agree that it shall be expedient to do so").
The first amendment seeks to broaden the consultations which the Secretary of State will be required to undertake before establishing the staff commission and to remove the element of discretion in the consultation he makes. Clause 6(1) requires the Secretary of State to consult such of the local authority associations, or of the local authority unions,
as appear to him to be concerned".
before establishing the staff commission. This subsection also requires the commission to be established within one month after the enactment of the Bill. Amendment No. 30 tries to deal with removing the requirement for the staff commission to be established within such a short period of the passing of the Bill.
§ The second amendment proposes to allow sufficient time for serious, in-depth consultation to take place before the establishment of the commission. So far as I am aware, there has so far been no discussion about the type of issues which are likely to arise. The position is so uncertain at the moment, and will be uncertain until the enactment of the main Bill. Already a number of changes have been introduced by the Government, and it seems that one month is far too short a period. It seems that a consultation period of a month cannot be intended by the Government to be extensive, nor to be to any degree a serious consultation process.
§ There is no requirement to consult the local authorities themselves. These are the bodies which will be most directly concerned and affected by the staffing implications of the abolition of the metropolitan counties and the Greater London Council. The clause defines the GLC, the metropolitan counties, the boroughs, the districts and the common councils as "relevant authorities", but there is apparently to be no opportunity for them to take part in the consultations.
§ The Secretary of State apparently intends to undertake consultation through the local authority associations. One of those is a body that I am connected with, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, which represents all the authorities that are the subject of this paving Bill. The Secretary of State appears to consider, judging from the proposed legislation, that consultations with the AMA is sufficient. I have no criticism to make of the AMA; as such it is an efficient body, and I have the honour to be a vice-president. But since the AMA represents a considerable breadth of varying opinions—it 182 represents metropolitan district councils, metropolitan county councils, and the Greater London Council—the difference in interests of the authorities has always been a problem. As will be recognised, there is a considerable clash of interest among the councils. For instance, the metropolitan district council in whose area I live may favour abolition of the metropolitan county, while the Merseyside County Council, which also covers my area, is very much against abolition. Thus, even with the best will in the world, the AMA will be in great difficulty in representing such disparate interests.
§ Other associations represent some of the local authorities at regional level—such as the Association of London Authorities, which has recently received recognition—and they will be in a similar position, representing a large number of authorities with differing interests on staffing issues. Associations can be placed in the totally unacceptable position of having to speak for a large number of authorities at a time when the abolition question will be far from settled in the final Bill, which, presumably, we shall not be considering until the next session.
§ As I have said before, it is important to remember that, since the AMA represents the GLC, the metropolitan boroughs and the metropolitan councils, there is, inevitably, a conflict of interests. Therefore it seems to me that it would be preferable for the authorities directly facing abolition individually to have the opportunity to take part themselves in any discussions, so as to enable local problems to be identified at an early stage. The subsection would allow the Secretary of State discretion to choose which associations to consult. It is claimed by the Government that the staff commission is to be established primarily to look after the interests of local authority employees facing transfer or redundancy following abolition. To allow discretion to the Secretary of State in this instance seems not only unnecessary, but wrong in principle.
§ The legislation should seek to ensure that everything possible is done to protect the interests of staff who might otherwise be the victims of abolition programmes and who might face considerable hardship in the process. To require the Secretary of State to enter into full consultation with all organisations involved may be inconvenient to the Government, but it would seem to be the minimum form of protection which the legislation should afford. We have spent so much time considering the future of the councils themselves, but it is the individual employees who will be affected by the changes much more perhaps than the electors, the ratepayers and the councillors. They are the people whose jobs depend on the matter being considered in a conscientious and sympathetic way. These amendments seek to make that consideration more sympathetic and they would enable the staff to feel that they and their problems were being taken more seriously. I beg to move.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
I hope that the Minister is prepared to consider this series of three amendments in the spirit in which Members on this side of the Committee have considered earlier amendments; that is, that we recognise the difficulties that we are all in at this stage in the light of last week's decision. We have 183 sought to indicate that at this stage we are prepared to press matters not to finality, but to something approaching finality, in regard to a vote on the issues, one way or the other. Here is a group of amendments that we may not be pressing. However, the Minister should say something helpful about his and his colleagues' willingness to consider the seriousness of what has been said so reasonably and authoritatively by the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Claughton. His concluding words ought to be taken very much to heart.
At the end of the day we are not simply removing lines from the local government map of this country, we are not simply changing the possibility of political power, but we are actually affecting the professional lives, and life in every way, of literally thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of men and women. Therefore, we ought to reflect. Although what is proposed looks neat and tidy—and from the Government point of view watertight—we nevertheless ought to ask: "What is it that the employees have to say on every bit of mechanism which is forming part of this legislation?" As I understand it, the view of the unions affected—the unions themselves and not the authorities—has not been sought on the nature of a staff commission, the functions of a staff commission, and so on.
I happen, not uniquely I am sure in your Lordships' House, to have been very heavily involved in local government at the time of the reorganisation of London local government in 1963–64, when I was a member of the Enfield authority. I can tell the Minister that it was one of the most traumatic experiences that I have had in local government; because what the staff commission then did and how it did it—and I have no complaints—really meant that when it came to a question of creating posts, of designating posts and slotting people in and hoping that they fitted in was a nightmare for the councillors let alone for the officers who were affected. There were very many distressing situations. That is the size of the problem that we have got.
One of the things that we cannot understand is the Government's unwillingness to consult meaningfully and openly with the people with whom one is going to have to work. The Minister is going to have to work very closely with people in local government. This Minister more than most in your Lordships' House, but not exclusively, is very well versed in local government matters. He must know that the councils who are affected will not want to have their responsibilities for their employees handled once remove. They will want to have an input into the actual mechanics.
What is this series of amendments saying? We are simply saying to the Government that it is much better to get it right than to get it done quickly. The Government intend within one month—and as the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Claughton, has said, a month is a terribly short period of time—to have meaningful consultations with the authorities. And there is only one authority, as we see it, which is likely to have a prescriptive right to be consulted; and that is the AMA. Within the AMA, you have got the metropolitan and the London boroughs but, as the 184 noble Lord, Lord Evans of Claughton, pointed out, there are different records to be judged, there are different attitudes and the AMA—and it has the highest regard of the Minister, as I know, for the work that it is doing—will do as good a job as possible to represent what the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Claughton, called the disparate nature of the interests that are affected. What we are saying is this. Why provide the AMA with the difficult task of representing the individual authorities? Why not allow the individual authorities to have a direct input in the consultative process? That is the first part of the amendment.
Secondly, we are asking: why tie yourself down to one month? It may take a little longer. It may be possible, if the consultation is proper consultation, to be able to produce the staff commission and its plan within a month. I suggest that it is more likely to be obtained within a month by consultation than without consultation. If it is produced after a month but without the agreement of the authorities, you have a recipe for delay and procrastination.
The third sprig to the trio of suggestions is that nothing should proceed without agreement. I know the Minister will say that here is another device that can be seized upon before we make progress. Well, I am not going to pre-empt the tactics of anyone outside. I am simply going to say this. Is this not a time when the Government ought to be looking for some friends in the reality of the world after the passage or the abandonment of the Bill? This Government have plans, I believe, to continue to have relationships with councils, unions and individuals outside the scope of this Bill. If the Government could say something helpful that we could work on between now and the Report stage I think it would be helpful not only to the Government but also to this Committee.
The case that has been made—and the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Claughton, will readily admit it—is not merely his own case; it is the collective view of the local authority associations, the collective view of all of them, representing, certainly, 18 million voters. To talk in terms of reality, it is representing thousands of men and women whose future welfare and happiness are going to be affected by the staff commission. The staff commission is needed. We are not arguing about the mechanism. For the very helpful people who served during the London reorganisation I have the highest regard. No one ever queried the authority of what they did. They had permanent civil servants, they had ex-town clerks. They did a wonderful job. I have no doubt that the people who will serve on this commission will be chosen from the same good stables. We are simply saying: let them have a better chance of doing the job by consulting with a wider group of people than appears to be in the mind of the Minister at the moment. I hope the Minister can say something helpful.
§ Lord Harmar-Nicholls
I am rather confused. I read Clause 6 quite differently from the noble Lord. I think that this is a protection for those who are employed. This is to set up a commission to look after their interests at the end of the day. The one month is written in to indicate that they have got to get down to looking after the interests of the employees very 185 quickly and not to keep pushing their task under the rug. So, far from this Clause 6 being the terrible thing that the noble Lord seemed to suggest—and I was surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Evans, seemed to have the same view—this I read as a protection for the employees and as the sort of thing that the employers would rather not have in, if you like. Within one month the staff have got to be looked after and the commission has got to be set up to see that from the outset their interests are properly taken into account. I think that that is a good clause.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
I should like to support what was said by my noble friend and by the noble Lord on the Liberal Benches. I was a member of the New Town Staff Commission, which was a very difficult commission. It dealt with the handing over of housing from the new towns to the local authorities, with all the problems of dealing with housing staff in the new towns and with what would happen to them. It was a long and detailed matter. We sat for 15 or 16 months. I think, meeting very regularly and the reports were compiled and available to Government.
What my noble friends on this side of the Committee have said is that the issue is about individual people. It very often comes down to individuals and to what is going to happen to a particular individual. This is going to be a much more difficult commission than the one on which I sat, which concerned a straightforward issue of transfer from a new town to an individual local authority. This will mean that there will be various local authorities who will have portions of the powers now held by the counties and the GLC. It is not just one local authority that is affected; they are all going to be a little jealous about not having too many of the staff because of the rate support grant and all the problems with which that confronts them. Obviously there will be problems from the counties which will be wanting to keep their teams together as far as possible and there will be the conflicting situations with established officers who are in the district and the boroughs. It is a very difficult job.
I can remember distinctly—and this is where I went along with what was said by the noble Lord on the Liberal Benches—the need to understand each of the local authorities' opinions and those of the staff associations in those areas. We made a point on the staff commission that we visited all those persons concerned, we met staff associations and local authority representation in all the areas in which the new town housing had to go over. I would commend the Government, if they have not already done so—and no doubt the noble Lord has already read the report on the passing over of the housing in the GLC area—to study very particularly the recommendations that the commission made. They could then see, if there were any difficulties or problems in the passing over of staff, that they do not occur this time.
§ The Earl of Kintore
Having gone through the local government reorganisation in Scotland, when the Government succeeded in greatly accelerating the cost to local government, satisfying nobody, I hope that this time they will really look at all points of view. For example, our people who represent COSLA do not 186 really represent more than Glasgow. Therefore, I think there is a great deal of merit behind the suggestions that have been made on the other side and I hope that Government will look into this. I shall say no more, but it is an important point.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Kintore and the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher of Rednal, because they have made several of the points that I wanted to make myself. I think it would be helpful to the Committee if I said first of all that this commission is nothing unusual. In relation to the two reorganisations that we have on the statute book to date, namely the 1963 London Government Act and the 1972 Local Government Act—indeed within certain tolerances which will become obvious as I speak—it is identical to those two staff commissions. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Graham; I think it is common ground that a staff commission of some sort in such circumstances should be set up. But I also think it is important for me to tell the Committee that its main purpose will be to ensure fair treatment to staff affected by the abolition, working by influence and persuasion, in consultation with representative bodies of staff and employers, as well as the authorities concerned. That is one of the points that has been made in this small debate.
The Commission will consider the need for special procedures for recruiting staff by successor bodies, for example the ring fencing of posts, to give the Greater London Council or the metropolitan county council staffs a proper opportunity to obtain posts in the new structure. It will look at any arrangements for the block transfer of staff. It will keep staff informed of matters affecting their interests and the commission will ensure that appeals machinery exists to consider hardship and other relevant appeals, which I am sure the whole Committee would agree is the only right and proper thing to do.
I accept, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher of Rednal, has said, that this will take some time to achieve. She spoke of 15 to 16 months on the New Town Staff Commission, of which she was a very distinguished member. I think it is entirely right that the Government are seeking to set up this commission in very good time and that by the planned date of the commencement of the main Bill it is likely to have been in operation for some 20 months, give or take the odd months which cannot be decided upon, as usual, until the main Bill has the total approval of Parliament and is on the statute book.
On the face of it, I must admit that the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Claughton, were quite a good idea. They really were: and I looked at them, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Graham, as I always do, with great care. Merely to place a limited constraint on the Secretary of State's duty—and it is a very important duty—to establish a staff commission seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do. But on further study I found that their effect was really quite different. These three amendments actually achieved something I am sure no member of the Committee would want; namely, to put the very existence of such a commission in jeopardy by requiring the Secretary of State to consult individual staff and authorities, not just their respresentative bodies.
187 These amendments—the noble Lord, Lord Graham, is quite right—would in effect give any one authority or representative body consulted by the Secretary of State the power to veto or delay indefinitely the establishment of a staff commission, irrespective of what any or all of the others think. I really cannot think this is the right way to go about it. Nor, indeed, is it democratic, in my view, or in the best interests of staff. Are noble Lords really saying that they care so little for the interests of the staff concerned that they are prepared to put those interests at risk in this way?
Our intention is to set up a staff commission, as I have already said, along the lines of those established under previous reorganisations. Perhaps I should say that in both the cases that I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, one month after the Royal Assent to the relevant Act was the time designated there, and I have not yet been convinced that it should be any different now.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
Would the noble Lord address himself to the fact that there is a unique situation here? This legislation is coming through in a paving Bill before the main Act. Would the noble Lord address himself to the situation of 1963 in London and the rest of the country in 1972? To the best of my knowledge, what one had then was, in the main Act, the setting up of the staff commission.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
I accept that, but I also accept the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, that proper arrangements must be made for the establishment of the staff commission in good time for it to do an effective job of work.
Such commissions, independent commissions, have been widely welcomed and have played a valuable role in ensuring fair treatment for staff. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has made it clear that he intends to see that this commission matches its predecessors, both in standing up for the staff who obviously face an unsettling period, and in having a real understanding of the problems of both new and old employees.
As I have said, it is totally unacceptable to make the existence of such an important safeguard a hostage to what may or may not be politically motivated vetoes. I do not intend to get into that argument, but I must tell the Committee that there is a danger of it. I am sure that the Committee will agree that the commission needs to be in place at the earliest possible opportunity. It must be in the best interests of all the staff concerned that it begins the process of consultation with interested bodies, to provide my right honourable friend with general advice on staffing issues without delay. It is entirely up to the staff commission to consult anybody it wants, and I think that this was probably the clarification that the noble Lord, Lord Evans, was really seeking. Having said that, I hope the Committee will reject these amendments.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
Before the noble Lord, Lord Evans, comes back, may we be clear from the Minister that within this period of one month it is the 188 intention to consult with anyone and everyone who wishes to be consulted? If in actual fact we are in that situation—and this is a moot point, I was trying very carefully to listen to the words of the Minister in the early part of his speech where it appeared as if there was no need for the amendments—if there is common ground that our concern is the protection of the rights of employees and the equity of treatment, is the Minister saying that it will be dealt with? I am bound to say and repeat that these amendments have their genesis not just in the authorities who are threatened with abolition but in the trade unions which are affected.
If what the Minister is saying is that there is no need for concern, and that he believes, although they do not, that that month of consultation for everyone who wishes to be consulted will be adequate and meaningful, I would be very grateful if the Minister would confirm that he has a mechanism whereby everyone who wishes to be consulted will be consulted properly.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
I should be perfectly happy for my right honourable friend to be consulted by whomever wishes to consult with him in the circumstances. The great problem we have had over our entire plan for this Bill is that although consultation has been offered again and again and we have put out a White Paper for the main abolition Bill, consultations and comments on it have been less than forthcoming. But what I in fact said originally was that once the commission is set up it can consult with anybody it likes. Having said that, I go back to what I said in my original answer to the noble Lord. Lord Graham: yes, my right honourable friend will be perfectly happy to consult with those who want to consult him.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
The Minister ought not to try to flaunt the unwillingness of authorities to consult hitherto, because the reason is that they were invited to participate in drawing up the plans for their own demise. We are talking about a new situation. We are talking about after there is an Act of Parliament. That is the premise for the proposal of the staff commission. After that, as I see it, there is a terribly limited period for all the people concerned: the authorities, the trade unions and others who can put it forward that they have a genuine interest. I am not talking about anybody at all, but primarily the trade unions.
I take it from the Minister that, if that is the case, then we simply have to say to people outside: the Minister believes that all of this—not the actual resolution of matters but the modus operandi of the commission, because we are talking about the commission starting up and after it has started up—must be within a month. I think the Government ought to be aware that we well understand that part of the problem is that they are boxed in by their own timetable. If in fact that is not so, then the Minister ought to be prepared to look at a longer period than one month, because the people who give us advice say that one month will be inadequate. If there is no problem before the staff commission comes into operation, why not consider a longer period?
§ Lord Harmar-Nicholls
Would my noble friend allow me to intervene? I really do think that the noble Lord, Lord Graham, is absolutely wrong on this. The effective thing is to have the commission set up, and, the commission having been set up, they can then consult over whatever period they like. As the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, said, they took time to find out what it was all about. I do feel that he ought to recognise, as my noble friend tried to point out, that with this particular interim measure there has been opposition to it expressed in very direct terms, and if you leave it completely open-ended, where you give the power to certain people to delay it, virtually to have a veto on the setting up of the commission, then you are not being helpful to the staff and the people who will be the victims, or the beneficiaries, of all that flows from the commission.
I am quite certain that one month is about right. As I said in my previous intervention, one month is a protection to the staff. It means that nobody can delay the setting up of machinery to ensure that the staff is properly dealt with; and that is the way in which we, as a Committee, ought to view it.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
I know it was a genuine comment which was made by the noble Lord, Lord Graham, but so was my own. I endorse every word that my noble friend Lord Harmar-Nicholls has just said. If the willingness to consult had been really there, then ever since this Bill has been printed and made publicly available consultations could have been held at the instigation of those people about whom we are talking. The suggestion was never made.
§ Lord Evans of Claughton
Let me make it quite clear to the noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, if to no one else, that I have no objection to the main thrust of Clause 6, the establishment of a staff commission. I think it has come out in the course of these discussions (at one point the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, actually said he thought there might be something in the amendment which I had moved, which made me wonder whether I had wandered into the right Chamber) that if you are establishing a staff commission to deal with extremely sensitive problems of redundancies, retention of jobs, status of jobs, and so on, it seems very important indeed that the people concerned, the staff themselves, should feel that the commission will deal with them fairly and objectively.
I suspect that a period of one month is not going to enable that feeling of security and satisfaction to come about in the minds of the people most affected. That is my concern; and I really do feel very strongly, as one who has been a member of the AMA, of a metropolitan county council and of a metropolitan borough council, that there is inevitably not only a clash of interest between those two types of body, very often over a whole area of local government, as one has discovered over the years, but also a very considerable potential conflict within the AMA (which they cannot avoid because of the nature of their composition) between the interest of the metropolitan boroughs, many of whom are waiting with great anxiety and enthusiasm for the demise of the county councils, and the metropolitan counties themselves, who take an entirely different view.
190 If you are employed by a metropolitan county council which is going to be abolished, you are saying to yourself, I suspect—indeed, I know this for a fact because it has been said to me already—"What is going to happen to me is that I am going to be given a job by the new metropolitan district. Is my salary going to be protected? It probably is going to be protected, or it may be higher because it was calculated by the metropolitan county on population. So I am going to have a salary at a certain level because it has been protected, but I am going to have a job which is inferior to the job of the metropolitan borough official who will be supervising me, and that is going to be a very difficult and problematical position from my point of view as a former county council employee".
I think there are extremely sensitive and difficult issues here; and if people feel that this staff commission is being imposed on them in the brief period after such consultation as the Secretary of State feels like making, rather than a more in-depth consultation with individual metropolitan counties and the individual unions representing those employees, then the staff commission, with the best will in the world, however efficient, however sensitive and however conscientious it is, will be treated by those people whose future they are dealing with possibly with suspicion and with a lack of willingness to co-operate.
Let us forget the fact that we on this side are opposed to the abolition and that noble Lords on that side are in favour of it. Whatever happens, we are all in favour of trying to ensure that the staff of the new authorities feel happy and confident that they have been treated properly. What I am saying is: for heaven's sake! please be willing to take a little more time and have a little more consultation to make sure that people do not spend the next 10 years of their working lives, or whatever period is left to them until they retire, feeling embittered and that they have had a raw deal.
It was only on that basis that I was proposing this series of amendments. I do not see any purpose in dividing your Lordships' Committee on this; but, with all the sincerity I can muster, I beg the noble Lord the Minister and his colleagues to consider this very serious human problem before this Bill finally passes through your Lordships' Chamber. On that basis, and on that basis only, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 30, 31 and 32 not moved.]
§ The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Wootton of Abinger)
I have to point out that if Amendment No. 33 is agreed to I shall not be able to call Amendments Nos. 34 and 35.
§ 5.58 p.m.
Lord Evans of Claughton moved Amendment No. 33:
Page 6, line 5, leave out subsection (2).
The noble Lord said: I take the point that if Amendment No. 33 is carried then Nos. 34 and 35 cannot be considered, but I think they should be
considered as a group. I think that Nos. 33, 34, 35, 36, 37 and 38, all on the staff commission, should be considered together.
Amendment No. 34: Page 6, line 10, leave out from ("commission") to end of paragraph (b).
Amendment No. 35: Page 6, line 14, after ("duty") Insert ("as provided for by subsection (2A) below").
Amendment No. 36: Page 6, line 16, at end insert—
("(2A) The duty imposed upon a relevant authority under subsection (2) above shall only rise in respect of any direction given to that authority under that subsection after the passing hereafter by Parliament of the enactment which provides for the abolition of the Greater London Council and the metropolitan county councils.").
Amendment No. 37: Page 6, line 16, at end insert—
("() No direction under subsection (2) above may be given by the Secretary of State until he has consulted the commission or a relevant authority or bodies representative of staff employed by a relevant authority, as the case may be, as to its proposed terms.")
Amendment No. 38: Page 6, line 18, leave out ("and not recovered from a relevant authority").
§ Amendments Nos. 34 and 38 I shall withdraw in due course, but I should like to concentrate very briefly, if I may, on Amendments Nos. 33, 35 and 36. Amendment No. 33 would, by the deletion of subsection (2), remove a potentially very sinister power from the Secretary of State. As worded at present, this subsection allows him to give directions to the staff commission and any relevant authority on the furnishing of information requested, and the implementation of advice given, by the commission.
§ This sweeping power would imply direct Secretary of State rule over all receiving authorities: for example, the London boroughs. Thus a direction to boroughs could legally compel them to accept or refuse to accept any GLC staff, or to impose any particular terms and conditions on them, all with the appearance of safeguarding the interests of the staff, though in fact producing a very different result.
§ Following what I said in the last debate, the potential here for dividing and ruling, and the danger of the Secretary of State, possibly unconsciously—I am not suggesting that he would deliberately do this—setting people employed in the boroughs against people employed in the counties, or people employed in the London boroughs against people employed in the GLC, is endless and is a further increment of the present Government's apparent desire to introduce centralised Whitehall control at every level.
§ Moving to Amendments Nos. 35 and 36—since for the purpose of saving time I think that they should all be considered together—the duty of the council and the relevant authorities to comply with directions from the Secretary of State under these amendments would arise only after the enactment of the main abolition Bill. Therefore, I submit that these amendments are entirely in keeping with the views taken by your Lordships' Committee in the decision which was made on Amendment No. 1, and extend that decision—as the noble Lord, Lord Denham, has said we made that quite clearly—to this aspect of staffing matters. I hope the noble Lord the Minister will bear that in mind in dealing with the matter.
§ Clearly, there would be no logic in directions under Part III being imposed on boroughs or district councils which forced them to take on staff or which for example, froze recruitment to reserve jobs for GLC or 192 metropolitan county council staff until the main abolition dicision had been taken. The abolition costs and efficiency could in no way, in those circumstances, be justified by the Government.
§ I beg the Government, in the light of the decision made on the first amendment last week, and in the light of the general problems to which we are coming to do with staffing, to take these amendments to heart and perhaps be willing to reconsider the matter. As have several of your Lordships, I am sure, one has had many visits from members of NALGO who are very worried about what the future holds for them, and the circumstances envisaged in the legislation as it now stands in the Bill. I hope that if these amendments or something like them were accepted, it might assist local government officers to feel a little less worried about their future than they do now. I beg to move.
The Deputy Chairman of Committees
The difficulty is that Amendment No. 33 removes the contents of Amendments Nos. 34 and 35. That is why they cannot be moved.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
I was interested in the remark of the noble Lord, Lord Evans, that the Secretary of State's apparent desire is to have centralised local government. That is a slight paraphrase of what he said, but I think that it was his intention. Before moving on to this amendment, may I say that I am perfectly happy to read very carefully the small debate on the noble Lord's last amendment. In the constructive spirit with which he has spoken, I shall be perfectly happy to do the same with this series of amendments.
It would be helpful to say that this block of amendments—whether finally moved, withdrawn or whatever—all seek in various ways and to various extents to remove the Secretary of State's power to make directions under subsection (2) of Clause 6 or, in one or two cases, to disable it. It may help if I make clear the reasons for including such a power in the Bill in the first place.
First, let me say that this provision follows exactly the precedent set out in earlier reorganisations. I hope and expect that the commission will work largely by laying down general principles and then, by influence and persuasion, will secure the free acceptance of these by the parties concerned; because, after all, it is working in the interests of the staff. However, some degree of enforcement may be needed and the choice lies between giving a power of direction to the commission and reserving such a power to the 193 Secretary of State to use on the recommendation of the commission. We do not wish to jeopardise the commission's essential role as an advisory body working by encouragement and persuasion. The subsection therefore reserves the power to the Secretary of State and I repeat that this provision is well precedented.
But let me also say that we see the exercise of this power as something of a last resort. Nevertheless, it is necessary if the interests of staff are to be fully safeguarded. Amendment No. 33 removes the duty on relevant authorities to comply with any such direction. The net result would be a toothless tiger. The commission will be concerned to ensure equity of treatment of staff between one authority and another, to ensure that common procedures are adopted and that nobody tries to jump the gun. Without the threat of a power of direction, authorities would be free to accept or ignore the commission's advice as it suited them. That cannot be in the interests of the staff.
Amendments Nos. 35 and 36 seek to tie the power of direction to the main Bill. Perhaps I could explain why we decided to provide for the establishment of the commission in this Bill, because it is germane to consideration of these amendments. If we had left it until the main Bill, it could not have been set up as a statutory body until the summer or autumn of 1985. That would be too late to begin effectively to protect the interests of the staff—again a point made earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher. As my noble friend Lord Bellwin and I have made quite clear, this Bill is not intended to prejudge the principle of abolition and the establishment of the staff commission does not do so.
The staff commission will not begin its work in earnest until such time as Parliament has still to decide. Until then, the commission will make its plans, will make contact with authorities and staff representatives, and will ensure, as I have said, that no one tries to jump the gun. The commission will need to be getting on with its work while the main Bill is still in Parliament. The effect of these amendments would be to ensure that it could not properly begin its job until it was too late to be of benefit to the staff concerned.
Amendment No. 37 would oblige the Secretary of State to consult with relevant authorities about the proposed terms of any direction before he could make it. But since a direction would normally be necessary only because the relevant body had refused to be cooperative or reasonable, one cannot help but wonder what point there would be in such consultations—unless it was a deliberate attempt to delay and frustrate the commissions's efforts on behalf of staff. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Evans, does not want that. There is of course nothing in the subsection as it stands to prevent such consultation, should it seem worthwhile.
Although the noble Lord said that he would not be moving Amendments Nos. 34 and 38, and as a result I do not think I ought to go into any detail on them, I would say in parenthesis that they remove a perfectly fair provision which we have good reasons to include in the Bill. There is nothing new in subsection (2) of Clause 6. It is a tried and tested formula. Therefore, although I shall listen with great respect and read very 194 carefully what the noble Lord, Lord Evans, has said in opening, and what he will say in closing on this amendment, I cannot at this moment go along with the argument that he has produced.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
I have listened very carefully to what the Minister has said. He has been very careful to use phrases like "the last resort" and "only if necessary" and after virtually the wilful refusal of authorities to act in accordance with the directions, instructions, influence and pleading of the staff commission. I should like the Minister to say a little more about the ultimate powers and to recall that he has advised us that this is all of a piece with the functions of previous staff commissions.
Am I correct in thinking that at the end of the day this means that the Secretary of State can direct Enfield council, for example, to employ such members of the GLC staff as he shall direct them to employ and at such remuneration as he shall direct? If he does not have those powers, I have misread the subsection, which states:The Secretary of State may give directions to the staff commission as to their procedure and to any relevant authority".A relevant authority is a component part of the GLC. The GLC is in the process of being abolished. Enfield Borough Council is a relevant authority and can be given directions by the Secretary of State to furnish any information that is requested and to implement any advice which is given. We are talking about the Secretary of State saying, "You have been advised to take on so many GLC architects, so many GLC roadsweepers and so many GLC clerks" and Enfield council saying, "We have very good reasons for not taking them on, not least because we cannot afford to do so". Or they may say that they do not want to afford to take on the extra staff, or that there are no vacancies.
Am I to understand that it is not intended that Enfield council shall be made to implement the advice which is given to them by the staff commission? The advice from the staff commission could be, "In equity, we want you to take your share". If, however, they decided not to take their share, what are we talking about? There are 32 authorities in London, all of which may hold different views and may resist in different ways the advice which they are given. Are we talking ultimately in terms of dictatorial powers being held by the Secretary of State in order to implement advice which may not be acceptable to those 32 authorities?
§ Lord Harmar-Nicholls
This is the group of clauses which caused me to sit in on this Committee stage. I have a very clear view of this matter. As my noble friend said, there are precedents for it, in normal circumstances. The precedents are quite clear. Who is likely to disrupt the proper working of the Bill, when it becomes an Act, arising out of what has happened, and not because of any prejudice? I have a feeling that certain relevant councils may want to disrupt its working for political reasons. It is much more likely that this will happen, rather than that the Minister will be dictatorial. This is the Minister's Bill. Since he will want it to work, he is unlikely to do stupid things by forcing upon Enfield council, or any other council, people they do not want to employ.
195 However, in view of what has happened over the last few months—the virulent objection to the Bill and the steps which various authorities and people have taken to prevent the abolition of these authorities, as evidenced by the placard at the top of County Hall and the money which has been spent upon propaganda—I appreciate that people feel deeply about it. I do not object to that, but their reaction to their no doubt genuine feelings is such that in order for this Bill, when it becomes an Act, to work properly somebody must have Parliament's authority to make a final decision. The person to make that final decision is clearly the Secretary of State, whoever he may be. This is the Government's Bill. They will want it to work and they are more likely to be reasonable, I would suggest, than those who have gone to extreme lengths in order to try to prevent it becoming law.
I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Claughton, would concede that Amendment No. 33 would leave the matter completely open and would remove any outside control at all. Therefore, it would be possible for all the relevant authorities to kill the operation of the movements which should flow from the Bill. This is one occasion when we must not only look at the reasonableness of the argument, as it seems on paper; we must also take into account the surrounding atmosphere which we have all experienced. That atmosphere is very recent, and it continues today.
I intervene in order to support my noble friend who is speaking for his right honourable friend. He has shown every indication of wanting to be very upright on this matter. His whole manner, his words—and he is getting the sympathy of the Committee and of the Benches opposite—are commendable and make him a good Minister. But I do not want him to be so upright that he leans over backwards to the point where the whole reason for doing this will be completely sabotaged by those who have a "gut" feeling that they want to kill the Bill at all costs. I have more faith in the Secretary of State having the power, because he would want to make the Bill work, than I have in those who would want to disrupt the Bill, as evidenced by the actions they have taken over the last four to five months.
§ Baroness Gardner of Parkes
In some ways I support my noble friend who has just spoken, in that I oppose this very sweeping amendment. But I am very concerned as to what the three words "any advice given" mean. I would query those three words, and I should like to know what the extent of that advice would be.
In supporting the Government, I must emphasise very strongly the need for information. Whatever may be done in terms of reorganisation, there must be information. If information is not made available and is deliberately withheld, it is extremely difficult to do your best. I hope that I am not repeating points which were made by other speakers when I was not in the Chamber while the last amendment was being dealt with. We are all very concerned about the GLC staff at County Hall, for whom we have the greatest respect. They have been splendid in the exercise of their duties.
196 When housing, as a function, was transferred from the GLC to the boroughs there was quite a difficult situation. Different rates of pay were operated by the two authorities. The local authorities found that they had to accept GLC officers at rates of pay which were above those they were paying to their own staff. This created difficulty for the local authorities. Pressure was put upon them by their own staff to upgrade the rates of pay to match the other rates. When the health service was reorganised there was what amounted almost to a scandal because people received redundancy pay and were afterwards re-employed in almost identical posts. It cost the Government £45 million more than had been anticipated.
Therefore it is very important to ensure that we obtain the best possible deal for the staff. We must ensure that as far as possible they will be able in the authorities to which the various duties will be transferred to carry on with the jobs they are now doing. I am a great believer in giving as much power as possible to the boroughs.
It is also very important that the interests of ratepayers and taxpayers should be safeguarded. We do not want to end up by paying out vast sums of money in redundancy pay—money which is then wasted because those who are made redundant go and get other jobs. This is a very difficult question. I strongly support the subsection and believe that information should be furnished. I also support paragraph (b) of subsection (2). However, the way the paragraph is worded could mean that the Government could give a directive that an authority must employ Mr. A. or Mr. X. May I have clarification, please, of the phrase "any advice given"? I oppose the amendment, but I seek clarification of that point.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
The question of the giving of information is one of the greatest causes of concern to the staff at present employed. If the Bill goes through and abolition takes place, then at this stage the staff do not know where they will be going. Information must be provided by both sides. As soon as the Government have made their decisions, that information should be given to the staff.
Many of the powers will not be going to boroughs but to quangos, to standing committees, or to other bodies. In the West Midlands—which I cite because I know that area—we do not know what will happen in respect of the police, the fire brigade or consumer services. It is that kind of ignorance which the staff find worrying. If they knew that after reorganisation they would all have comparable jobs, then they would not feel quite so concerned.
We know very well that the Government have said that the abolition of the metropolitan county authorities must save money. Unless one is going to cut services, the best way of saving money is by getting rid of staff. Information must come from the Government as well as the metropolitan authorities being asked by the Government to provide information about what they are going to do.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
Obviously I did not make myself clear the first time around. The only reason for this power of direction relates to those who are affected by it when they, for one reason or another, make the 197 commission's work inoperable. I do not want to single out—as the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, keeps doing—the London Borough of Enfield, but it happens to be a convenient London borough that comes to mind. But if in some unenvisagable circumstances—
§ Lord Skelmersdale
I am grateful to the noble Lord. If in some unenvisagable circumstances the London Borough of Enfield were to say quite firmly, "No, this is something up with which we will not put", but then 31 other London boroughs all agreed and had discussions with the staff commission, then that may well be the sort of circumstance in which the Secretary of State might threaten a direction.
In the past, such a power of direction has been given but it has never needed to be used. The mere threat of the use of a power of direction has been sufficient. But it has always been considered wise to have this ultimate fall-back power and I believe it is right and proper that it should he there in the present case as well.
§ Lord Evans of Claughton
I appreciate the difficulty I have posed the Committee in my attempts to save time when moving Amendment No. 33, which would make it necessary to withdraw Amendments Nos. 35 and 36 if it were passed. I have become so embittered in the period I have been here that I realised Amendment No. 33 probably would not be carried and so I spoke to Amendments Nos. 35 and 36 at the same time.
The discussion has been useful because the problems we must face have been underlined in a number of speeches. I was particularly impressed by the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, because she drew attention to the whole series of problems we are likely to encounter as we go through with this Bill. That process will be made more difficult by the fact that many decisions have to be made before the decision has been made as to whether or not county councils will be abolished. The period of difficulty, uncertainty and agony for the staff has been extended. Indeed, as the noble Baroness quite rightly said, there is also the uncertainty of whether the ratepayers will be confronted with having to pay augmented salaries to people doing broadly the same jobs as before.
Many of us remember with some bitterness (and there are many people living fairly luxuriously who benefited from it) those who are performing in the county councils' set-up a very similar job to that which they were doing in the county boroughs but perhaps at a salary one-third more than that which they were receiving before. Or they received such generous terms for early retirement that they have been able to reduce their golf handicap by leaps and bounds ever since. There are two angles to this—there is also the protection of the ratepayers to be considered.
I must say, before we reach the next Bill, that in setting up quangos, we are probably setting up bodies that will give every encouragement to people to seek 198 huge salary increases which they would not have received under the examination of an elected body. But the discussion has been useful—
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
Before the noble Lord sits down, does he appreciate also the additional dimension which is present this time around as opposed to 1963 and 1972? I am speaking of the fact that the Government's policy in respect of rate capping and in respect of the control on local government expenditure will be bound to heighten the resistance of not just one council but of a group of councils taking one view or another. It will not be a question of just one council standing out: there will be a real hiatus in every metropolitan authority where the direction, if it has to be given, will have to be given to many and not just to one council.
§ Lord Evans of Claughton
I am obliged to the noble Lord for pointing that out. It is indeed very much in one's mind when looking at this matter. However, the real problem is the extent to which elected local authorities will have officials or staff imposed upon them.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
Please will the noble Lord allow me to intervene? The staff commissions will not impose anything on anybody. They will only be seeing to it that there is a fair deal for the staff. Earlier I gave a list of the commissions' responsibilities. At this eleventh hour, it might be appropriate if I told the Committee what a staff commission will not do.
A commission will not play any part in setting wages, salaries, gradings or other conditions of service. It will not set the staff structure and complements of successor bodies. It will not decide who gets jobs in the new structure and who does not. It will not set the terms of compensation for redundancy or detriment. In all these cases, the commission will simply want to ensure that adequate arrangements exist for considering such matters in the period of reorganisation and that staff are treated equitably. Nor will the commission be involved in investigating allegations that staff have been given unjustified increases in salary, enhanced conditions or upgradings prior to reorganisation. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, asks, "Who will?". That will be the responsibility of a separate body to be provided for under the main abolition Bill.
§ Lord Evans of Claughton
If I may say so, that is very reassuring and one is inclined to believe that what felt like hours but probably was only a shorter period of time spent in debating this matter has been well worth while. The noble Lord has provided a very interesting and useful piece of information. There are still some matters I am not happy about, but I nevertheless beg leave to withdraw Amendment No. 33 because I can cover them under a subsequent amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 34 to 36 not moved.]
§ 6.28 p.m.
§ Lord Evans of Claughton moved Amendment No. 37:
§ [Printed earlier.]199
The noble Lord said: This amendment deals with the other objections that I expressed when moving the earlier amendment. I must say that I am very impressed by the touching faith in human nature and in the Government shown by the person who prepared my brief, because in it appear the words:
In the unlikely event of the earlier amendment failing, this amendment seeks at least to ensure that the Secretary of State's powers to give directions shall only be examined after consultation with the commission".
I had a suspicion that the earlier amendments would fail. As the Committee will see from the form in which this amendment is set out, it seeks to provide that no direction under subsection (2), which the Committee has supported,
may be given by the Secretary of State until he has consulted the commission or a relevant authority or bodies representative of staff employed by a relevant authority as the case may be, as to its proposed terms".
§ I would hope that the Government, if not actually agreeing to this amendment, might give some more hope based on what the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said, during the discussion on the last amendment. If he does not concede the value of such consultations, he is really saying that he is not only omniscient but that the Secretary of State must also be all-powerful. I do not think that anyone on any side of your Lordships' Committee would want to support that kind of attitude. The experts in the commission, who will be appointed by the Secretary of State—the professional staffs in the receiving authority with their very deep knowledge of the organisational industrial relations and management realities, and the trade unions representing the staff—would all have valuable comments to offer which would save the Secretary of State from potential pitfalls.
§ I concede that these consultations would take a little time but from the way the noble Lord the Minister and the Government have reassured themselves that they can set up the commission within a month, surely this kind of consultation which I am proposing in Amendment No. 37 could also be carried out by definition in a similarly brief period. I should have thought it was well worth doing this in order to try to ensure the pitfalls that we have been debating and discussing over some time now could be avoided by this consultation taking place by the Secretary of State and not relying completely on his own information and his own knowledge. I beg to move.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
I suppose it is par for the course! I am not really doing very well this afternoon, am I? I sought to explain in my original response to this set of amendments that Amendment No. 37 would oblige the Secretary of State to consult with relevant authorities about the proposed terms of any direction before he could make it, but since a direction by definition would normally only be necessary because the relevant body had refused to be co-operative or reasonable I really cannot envisage a circumstance in which there would be any point in such consultations unless it was a deliberate attempt to delay and frustrate the Commission's efforts on behalf of the staff.
It might be appropriate—I accept from the noble Lord—for the Secretary of State to say, "Look, I have 200 been considering making this direction. What are your reasons for your behaving so out of step with other authorities?" or whatever the situation might be. There is absolutely nothing in the subsection as it stands to prevent such consultation should it seem worth while. But to enforce it by including—I can only use the noble Lords' phrases that they have used on me—such a draconian means is quite inappropriate.
§ Lord Evans of Claughton
I approach from a different point of view fairly obviously since I am endeavouring to get the Government to try to see the light. I concede that the direction would only be used under unusual circumstances. What I am suggesting is that if there is written into the legislation this right for the representative bodies—the local authorities, trade unions, and so on—to have a say before a direction is made, then it might make the transition that is going to be a very painful one for very many people, including the Ministers of the Government and civil servants, a little easier to bear. But since the noble Lord the Minister is insistent upon pursuing his draconian, omniscient, and all-powerful course of action, all I can say when in due course he has trouble on his hands, is, "I told you so". I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 38 not moved.]
Baroness Birk moved Amendment No. 39:
Before Clause 7, insert the following clause:
§ ("Information about Cmnd. 9063.
§ . Within one month of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State shall publish all the responses he has received in response to the proposals included in the White Paper "Streamlining the Cities" (Cmnd. 9063).").
§ The noble Baroness said: This new clause says something very simple and, I would have thought, completely acceptable to any government. Within one month of the passing of this Act the Secretary of State shall publish in such form as he thinks fit all the responses he has received in response to the proposals included in the White Paper Streamlining the Cities.
§ What this does is completely self-explanatory. In October 1983 the Government published their White Paper on the future of the GLC and the metropolitan counties and invited views; this was so far so good, and the right way to go about things and to behave. As I understand it, almost 5,000 responses have been received; but 10 months later the Government have not seen fit to publish or list these responses. As I also understand it, the Department of the Environment have not listed or made a detailed analysis of all these detailed responses. If they have, then none of us has had the benefit of the opportunity to see these. Instead the department have produced one list of responses received from local authorities and major national organisations in February without any analysis and a further analysis of responses in May without putting names to them. The named lists represent fewer than 14 per cent. of the total responses. From the department's own summary analysis, there is an overwhelming rejection of the White Paper proposals. I do not think that there is any dispute over that. Only 8½ per cent. of approximately 1,200 responses showed 201 a clear view in support of proposals to abolish the metropolitan county councils, and 6 per cent. of approximately 1,500 responses supported the proposals to abolish the GLC.
§ It is clear from the analysis that the Government received virtually no support from major national organisations or from local authorities outside the metropolitan areas. Indeed, the analysis shows that the only significant element of support for the Government's proposal comes from a limited number of GLC boroughs and metropolitan district councils. Not unnaturally the number of respondents expressing support approximates rather exactly to the number of Conservative-controlled GLC boroughs and metropolitan councils—that is quite right; there is no reason why they should not—and overall 72 per cent. of the metropolitan districts did not support the Government's proposals. The analysis, such as it was, produced by the DoE in May showed consistently in all categories that the majority of replies were against the Government proposals. Their figures are, however, distorted by the large number who were categorised as expressing no overall view. For example, it was claimed that there were 219 responses in favour of a directly elected ILEA; 13 against; and 2,301 who expressed no overall view.
§ The details of this are interesting as giving some idea of a picture of how people, organisations and local authorities have received the suggestions put forward by the Government for consultation—because that is what the White Paper is all about. What is important is that these replies should be made public. It does not matter in this instance—and should never matter—whether they are in favour of the Government proposals or largely against the Government proposals. They should be published so that everybody has the opportunity to see them, to read them, to understand them, and to take them in. First of all, that should be done. It is only right and proper that it should be done. If it is done properly then any of the interpretations that have been put on what has emanated so far from the DoE, would be more accurate and fairer to the Government and to the department.
§ At this particular time, when we are all concerned about freedom of information, this is an area about which there should be no doubt and there should be no need for delay or endless discussion as to whether it is right or wrong. There are no security issues involved. This is something which will affect the lives of millions of people and it is essential that there should be public participation. Surely that was the intention of the Government when they put out their White Paper, Streamlining the Cities. There is not much benefit in putting out a White Paper and then being very coy or dilatory about properly analysing the results and making them available for people to read and understand and, if they wish, to comment on further directly to Ministers or to the department.
§ Therefore, whether or not this particular Bill goes forward, it is still important and essential, now that the Government are coming to the run-up to considering how they are to go about their main piece of legislation—the abolition legislation—that they not only take account of comments, replies and responses they have received, but also make them available to 202 everybody who is interested and who wants to know what is happening and what, for example, local authorities think of it. An enormous number of organisations will be greatly affected by the abolition proposals. People will want to know how they react.
§ One would expect that the Government want to make the best possible job of implementing their abolition proposals. If they do, they must want to get the widest possible publicity. They can do that only by publicising the findings as soon as possible. Although the amendment is drafted in this particular form, the Minister may say that he intends to publish very much sooner. Whenever the information is available is, I suggest, the time when the public should have the right to know. In this case they have a right to know. I beg to move.
§ Lord Harmar-Nicholls
When purporting to read her amendment the noble Baroness said:The Secretary of State shall publish all the responses as he thinks fit.The printed amendment we have states;the Secretary of State shall publish all the responses".Each is very different in its emphasis. Which does the noble Baroness wish us to consider?
§ Baroness Birk
I beg the noble Lord's pardon. I was going from the original amendment, and it is true that I changed the drafting. It is the later amendment to which I am speaking. However, what I said was applicable to both. If not, I will, if I may, right it. I thank the noble Lord, and I apologise.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
The Committee is dealing with the revised, rather than the orthodox, version of the text. When I saw this amendment on the Marshalled List I thought that the noble Baroness was indulging in a joke. That seemed to be the only rational explanation for this quite extraordinary proposal. The amendment states—again, perhaps it was in another version—that publication has to take place,Within one month of the passing of this Act".Therefore, it is not even possible to argue that the opinions expressed would assist your Lordships in reaching a decision because it would only be within a month of passing that publication would take place.
However, broader than that, it is an extraordinary suggestion—
§ Baroness Birk
The responses to Streamlining the Cities refer to the abolition legislation. Therefore, it is not just a post facto situation. We are not asking the Government to publish information applying to this Bill after it has been enacted. We are talking about the abolition proposals.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
The noble Baroness need not have troubled herself to intervene. That is obvious from the reading of the amendment. The only purpose in going ahead with this measure is to clear the way and make preparations for the next Bill. If it is suggested that these responses are such that the Government should suddenly, as it were, look a little faint and say, "We have got it wrong" and drop 203 everything, it would be much more appropriate if they did so at an earlier stage and did not put your Lordships to the trouble of debating this measure, though your Lordships seem so much to enjoy debating it at such length.
It is a most extraordinary suggestion that apparently thousands of representations from all kinds of people—obscure or distinguished, official or private—should solemnly, and expensively, be published. I cannot conceive of a greater waste of public money, particularly in an area where public money is already being conspicuously wasted. The Greater London Council is spending millions of pounds of ratepayers' money in putting forward its views about the proposal for its abolition—millions of pounds about which the ratepayers have never been consulted. In addition, it is suggested that the Government should waste some of the taxpayers' money reproducing opinions which, good, bad, wise, or sensible, are really not relevant to our discussion, and that confirms my view that it is not only a joke, but a bad joke.
§ 6.47 p.m.
§ Lord Bellwin
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter who, in his own most effective way said much, if not all, of what I wanted to say. The new clause would serve no useful purpose. The Government have conducted an extensive consultation exercise on their proposals and there has been wide public discussion of them. We have already moved forward from those orginal proposals in the light of consultation and debate, but to publish all the views submitted to us last January would be pointless and, as my noble friend says, an absolute waste of resources. That is a consideration that does weigh with some of us. We must decide whether such an expensive contribution to historical research would be justifiable.
There is, however, a fundamental and overriding reason for asking the Committee to reject this new clause. Consultation on a White Paper is not a public inquiry. All those who sent views to us were, and are, entitled to expect that those views were put in confidence. Of course, many have wished to make their comments public, and they are perfectly at liberty to do so, and they have done. In recognition of the great interest in our proposals the Secretary of State made available to the House, and generally, a summary report of the views that have been put to us. This, in itself, goes well beyond anything done previously. I am not trying to keep confidential material which ought to be in the public domain. I am simply saying that it is not for the Government to tell other bodies, least of all individuals, that they must speak up in public. Parliament has a perfect right to do so, if it wishes.
This clause would retrospectively change the nature of the exercise and require that all the thousands of letters sent in should be published, whether or not their authors wish it. We are sure it would be wrong to do so and I am sure that to do so would contribute nothing to the public debate. That is the main reason why, in addition to the other points made, we cannot accept this new clause.
204 I remind your Lordships before I sit down that we made available a summary analysis of the main points in two stages: a general summary on 9th April and more detailed aspects on 4th May. They have both been placed in the Library of your Lordships' House, and will be sent to anyone requesting them. I think that is fair and reasonable, and certainly as far as anyone would be expected to go. It would be unprecedented to make public the views submitted by individuals or organisations in response to an invitation to comment on the White Paper and the associated consultation documents.
§ Lord Harmar-Nicholls
May I put a final question to the noble Baroness, who is very experienced as well as being very charming? Does she really think that any body which wished its response to be published would not itself have already published it? Is that not the way things work? People who want their response to be published will take jolly good care to see that it is made public. There is no need to put the state or the local authorities to the expense of doing what those bodies will already have done themselves.
§ Baroness Birk
A great deal of excitement has been generated about something which seems to me to be perfectly normal. I say right away that the drafting of the amendment could have been better. What we are really discussing is the substance of it.
I do not see anything extraordinary about publishing that number of responses. It is a comparatively small number: 5,000 is not a large number. We are talking about a complete upheaval of local government in this country. Noble Lords talk about the expense of publishing the information. It is already in the Libraries here and in another place. If it is put in Libraries, presumably individuals and organisations interested could be charged for copies of it. I was not suggesting that the information should be handed out as a "freebie" everywhere.
What I am concerned about, and what the Minister has not dealt with, is the inadequate publication since Streamlining the Cities, and the responses which were asked for. In our view, and in the view of many other people and organisations, there has not been sufficient analysis and explanation. What the Government suggest not only affects local government organisations, voluntary organisations, arts organisations and other organisations with which people are more familiar: it will affect all sorts of economic organisations, too. There will be technical and scientific effects. To treat it as an amateurish exercise is not good enough. The Government, in setting out to do this, are in very big business. They should behave in that way and not in this amateur way.
The amendment could probably be worded in a better way, and I do not intend to press it in this form. We shall consider another form for a later stage. But I think it is depressing that the Government take what I think is an extremely casual view of a very important matter. At this point, however. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.205
§ The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Hayter)
Before I put the next amendment, I should have put the Question, That Clause 6 shall stand part of the Bill?
§ Clause 6 agreed to.
§ Clause 7 [Information in connection with proposals for abolition of authorities]:
Baroness Birk moved Amendment No. 40:
Page 6, leave out lines 35 to 37 and insert—
("(1) This section has effect where an enactment has been passed by Parliament which provides—").
§ The noble Baroness said: There is a series of amendments which deal with information. They are to limit the duty on councils and officers to provide the information needed to implement the proposals, once approved by Parliament. The clause places a duty on the GLC, MCCs and their officers to supply information to the Secretary of State and to the borough and district councils. As drafted, the duty is not limited to the provision of information to give effect to the abolition of the respective councils. I agree that that would be understandable. It requires the GLC and the MCCs to facilitate the formulation of proposals for their own abolition. That seems to be taking things rather far.
§ The view has consistently been expressed since the proposals were first announced that any changes in the structure of local government should be preceded by a proper inquiry in accordance with well accepted custom and practice. It is well known that academics and commentators on local government, and various other experts in that field, who have no political axe to grind, argue that, with such important issues at stake, the public has a right to the kind of impartial committee of inquiry which has traditionally accompanied past changes of this nature.
§ We raised this matter in a different form on the rate capping Bill and on the Second Reading of this Bill. When undertakings of this immensity are contemplated, there ought to be very much more research into what it all means and what its effects are. This fact was stressed by both Francis Pym and Edward Heath during the Second Reading debate in the other place. In commenting on the publication of the Bill, the Secretary of State said that it did not prejudice the main issue of abolition. Notwithstanding that statement, the opening words of Clause 7(1) make it absolutely clear that that is precisely what the clause is intended to do.
§ One of the main planks of the manifesto commitment, and one of the reasons that the Secretary of State puts forward, is the amount of savings, but he has so far significantly failed to quantify those. One reason he gives is that the staff of the GLC and MCCs are required to co-operate: but they are being required to co-operate in the possible extinction of their jobs. That is an extremely onerous duty to lay on any employee, as has been said in another place. It is wrong to ask for that provision before the substantive measure has been debated and has become law. Only when the abolition of the MCCs is a reality can the requirement to provide information be seen to be reasonable. The powers included in this clause are an affront to the 206 parliamentary process. It is for that reason that this amendment is being moved from these Benches. I beg to move.
§ Lord Bellwin
The amendment seeks to frustrate the operation of Clause 7 of this Bill. Clause 7 is an integral part of the measures we are taking to pave the way to abolition. The principal object of the Bill is to allow the successor authorities every opportunity to prepare for their new responsibilities and for a smooth transfer of functions. In order to be able to do that they need information, and they need it as soon as possible. That is why we have included Clause 7 in this Bill. It does not prejudge the main abolition issue at all; it prepares for that eventuality. It does so by extending existing powers under Section 230 of the Local Government Act 1972. It is a perfectly reasonable and appropriate paving measure.
This amendment would prevent Clause 7 from being used until the main abolition Bill had been passed. The clause as it stands makes it explicit that its purpose is to facilitate the formulation of proposals to abolish the GLC and MCCs, as well as to implement such proposals in the event of their being approved by Parliament. So in drafting this clause we have been at great pains to show that the clause does not prejudge the main Bill and to explain why the provision is needed in advance of it. This amendment would undermine one of the Bill's most important interim measures and I urge the Committee not to accept it.
§ Lord Harmar-Nicholls
This is Amendment No. 1 all over again. That is precisely what it boils down to. It is undermining the movement towards what is the main intention for which the Government have a mandate. It is the same argument all over again in another form. I congratulate the Opposition party on being persistent. However, on this occasion I think they are being too tenacious in view of the success that they think they had the other day on Amendment No. 1.
§ Baroness Birk
It was not a success we thought we had; it was a success we did have. The figures are there. This is not an imaginary success. The noble Lord, Lord Harmar-Nicholls, very charmingly and engagingly keeps referring back to Amendment No. 1, as though if he mentions Amendment No. 1 enough it will just go away. He had better realise that it will not go away.
This amendment has nothing at all to do with Amendment No. 1. The noble Lord really ought to understand that Amendment No. 1 was to do with this Bill and how it fitted into the scenario of the plans for abolition. The amendment about which we are now talking is entirely to do with information to be sought from the metropolitan county councils and the GLC functions. There was nothing in Amendment No. 1 about information. They are two entirely different aspects of not even the same subject. One is entirely to do with abolition in a more detailed way; the other is to do with constitutional principles, democracy and the whole question of elections.
However, the trouble that faces the Government over these amendments—and I did not expect the Minister to agree to this amendment—is that they are going about this whole thing in such a way that they 207 are not setting out to get the confidence of anybody, any organisation or any individual. So all the time all they can do is, through legislation, try to batter people on the head until they get the result they want. Without getting the confidence of the people with whom they want to consult or whose help they want, they cannot expect the results they want. They cannot expect to get those results if there is a confrontational situation over this—which there is all the time. It then becomes almost a dead end and the Government will find, and are finding, themselves in great difficulties.
This is why the Secretary of State says that it is impossible to quantify the cost of the whole exercise—because they cannot get the information. Yet they have the sheer brass to come to the public and say they are going ahead with this, without even knowing what it is going to cost. Far from the whole exercise going to be costing less, the only reputable information that has come forward so far is the analysis that was done by Coopers and Lybrand, who came out with the result that they thought it would probably cost more in the future than the counties in existence at the moment are costing at the present time. So the Government have got themselves into a cleft stick entirely through their own handling of the whole operation, starting right from the beginning. I am afraid this will continue until they start all over again, go back to the drawing board, think things out differently, think in terms of a committee of inquiry, and behave properly and responsibly. Having said that, and expressed how we feel about what is in Clause 7, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 41 to 44 not moved.]
§ 7.5 p.m.
Lord Graham of Edmonton moved Amendment No. 45:
Page 7, line 1, leave out ("and its officers").
§ The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 45 is the one that lays a duty on not just the councils but also the officers of the councils to furnish the Secretary of State with all such information relating to the council and its functions. I want the Minister to listen very carefully.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
Well, I want the Minister to listen with even more care because there may be some premise in my argument that may cause the Minister and his advisers to look again at the necessity of including the officers in this particular point. As the Committee is aware, Clause 7(2) and (3) impose a duty not just on the councils but on the officers as well. In a Court of Appeal decision in 1932—Rex v. The City of Birmingham—Lord Donaldson made the point,As I have already said, all relevant information acquired by a local authority's social workers in the course of their duties, whether or not it be confidential, is acquired on behalf of the local authority, and becomes the authority's information".As such the point has now been clearly established that all information relating to a local authority belongs to the local authority and not to any one or more of its 208 officers. How that information is to be treated 'and to whom it is made available is a matter for the authority alone to decide.
I think the departmental advisers might have taken note of the purport of that decision because when the latest Housing and Building Control Act was received there was a remarkable difference between that and the earlier Act. Section 23(5) of the Housing Act of 1980 laid a duty upon the officers to comply with a notice from the Secretary of State to produce a document. Yet in the later Act, the Act that has just received its Royal Assent, on 26th June, that duty upon an officer—not upon the council but upon an officer—had been deleted: it was deleted from the Bill. For an officer to deal with information outside the terms of his employment renders him at risk of being in breach of his duty to his employers. As such it cannot be appropriate to impose a duty directly upon any officer to make information available to another officer, because the duty must clearly be that of the authority and not of the officer.
If the Minister can tell us that we have it wrong—he has done that so often that it may be automatic, but if he can tell us in this instance that we have it wrong—and that the premise upon which our argument rests is not valid in these circumstances, then there will be justification for asking us to withdraw the amendment. So I should like to hear what the Minister has to say about the argument we have produced. I beg to move.
§ Lord Bellwin
I listened particularly carefully to the noble Lord who, as always, presents his arguments very clearly. It is not at all difficult to follow them. Clause 7 is vital to ensure that the necessary information is available to assist in formulating and, should Parliament approve, implementing proposals for abolition and for the smooth transfer of functions. The clause clarifies and extends the existing information requirements of Section 230 of the 1972 Local Government Act. One way in which Clause 7 extends Section 230 is that, as the noble Lord told us, it places a duty on officers of the GLC and the MCCs as well as on the councils themselves to supply information. It is that duty which these amendments seek to remove.
The noble Lord has said that the provision would place officers in an invidious and difficult position. If I heard him aright and understood him, he said that it would mean that they would perhaps have to choose between obeying the law and obeying their employers. I think he also said—I have certainly heard it said—that an officer who complied with the duty and perhaps thereby defied his authority's instructions could even be in breach of contract of his employment.
The duty is a protection for the officers concerned. Its effect is to leave no doubt as to the obligations which will be placed on officers. Without it, the officers could be in a very difficult position indeed. There could be conflicting demands made by their employers and by the Government on lower tier authorities with no guidance about which course to take. I do not pretend that it would necessarily always be easy for the officers concerned. I must, however, make clear that such a situation would be the creation of the employing authority and no one else.
209 The statutory duty to provide information is imposed by Parliament. No one, not even the more vociferous of the authorities with whom we are concerned here, has the right to defy Parliament's wishes. The duty imposed in subsections (2) and (3) leaves no doubt as to the course that individual officers must take. Above all, I would have thought that they wanted to know where they stand. They must know where they stand.
I want to reassure the Committee that if an officer had to provide information despite his authority's wishes, there would be no question of his being in breach of contract of his employment. It is an implied term in every contract of service that an employee may not be required to do an unlawful act or to refrain from carrying out a legal duty. In fact, officers will not be in breach of contract if they go against their employer's wishes in this respect. I am not sure that I can say much more to help the noble Lord. I understand clearly his concern which I have seen expressed elsewhere. At the end of the day, this is really about enabling legislation, if it is approved by Parliament and goes forward, to achieve an objective which has been previously specified by the Government.
I understand the feeling that was expressed earlier about whether there was a dilemma for officers perhaps acquiescing in their own demise in individual situations. Yes, I understand that. I did not become involved in the debate about the staff position, but I feel strongly about it because I happen to get round the country more than most to the areas in question. I see the great numbers of demonstrations and banners. I often talk to those involved and find that the great concern that they express, quite rightly, is about their own position. What is to happen to them? That would be my first question—"What is to happen to me? Will I go to the new authority? If not, where will I go? What will be the terms and conditions? Who will look after my interest in those situations?"
I suggest to them—it is apposite to this amendment—that these are the things that should be discussed. By saying that you acquiesce in a policy, you forfeit, and abdicate from, an input into that. This is a fair point. I shall not say invariably, because that would he too strong, hut almost always, the people concerned agree with that, and have some difficulty. Here, it is not quite the same. It is not about terms of employment, I agree. Nevertheless, the basic intention to withhold information and so on, which seems to be of such concern to the authorities concerned, will not at the end of the day help the people. Quite the opposite. All right, if the Government have to make their decisions without certain access to information, then they will have to do so. They will make their assumptions. But the forfeiting of the right to have an input into that and to contribute to that, I do not regard as a constructive action to take, as I have told those who are my erstwhile, I hope, still, to some extent, friends in the associations. They know that this is my view.
§ Viscount Simon
Can the noble Lord tell the Committee whether there is any precedent for an obligation placed on a corporate body being equally placed on all the employees of the corporate body?
§ Lord Bellwin
I am pretty sure that there are a great number of precedents of that kind. I do not have a list before me, but I gladly undertake to send such a list to the noble Viscount.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
Is the noble Lord aware that there is a little disquiet regarding information in the hands of lawyers who are employed by the metropolitan county councils? There are many such lawyers who are subject to the Official Secrets Act because they are serving the metropolitan police authorities and act on behalf of the police in civil matters, very often in connection with claims against the police and that kind of thing.
Is the Minister aware that there is concern regarding this group of people because of the giving of information that will no doubt, as the Minister has explained, only be for the purpose of formulating future policy on the police authorities. They are concerned especially through being bound by the Official Secrets Act. We know that there already have been difficulties facing the Government in regard to the Official Secrets Act. It is therefore important that the Minister's attention should be drawn to the concern of lawyers in that category.
§ Lord Auckland
Althought it has become apparent that I am no friend of the Bill, I believe that the amendment is on the whole a sound one. I address the Committee as one who has had no practical experience in local government. However, it strikes me that the officers of the council are the permanent executive officials. Therefore, they should be empowered under the clause to supply the information required as well as members of the council.
I should like to put one question to my noble friend the Minister. The amendment seems to be somewhat widely drawn. Officers vary from council to council both in numbers and in their functions. I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister—I ask him this out of pure ignorance—can tell the Committee which officers specifically are involved. Is it the chief executive and his deputy? Will it be the senior officers of the council? Or will any employee of the council be required under the clause to supply information?
§ Baroness Gardner of Parkes
My noble friend who has just spoken was probably speaking against the amendment rather than in favour of it. I shall, however, leave it to him to clarify the point. My noble friend seemed to be speaking in favour of the officers being obliged to provide information. If so, that is against the amendment rather than in favour of it. I wish to speak strongly against the amendment. I consider that the clause as drafted is essential to protect officers of the Greater London Council. I think that at the present time they are under a clear instruction to supply no information whatever.
Whether or not they would wish to be helpful to their colleagues looking for other jobs and to the whole reorganisation of London, they must at present follow the instructions of the elected majority of the council whose clear policy is to provide as little information as possible. At council meetings, we are able to drag out a little bit of information in response to a question. But information is very slow in coming. I put on 13th June 211 to the chairman of finance of the Greater London Council a question concerning a number of grants. It was not until 25th June that I received a letter back from him in which he gave no information but quite a lot of abuse. In the end, he said that if I come back with a more detailed request, he might look into it. This means that either he is incapable of putting his hand on the information, or he does not want to put his hand on it. I know that if I had followed up these points with officers who had not been instructed to prevent information from being available, this information would readily have become available. Indeed, it should be available virtually to the general public, never mind to the people who are requesting it for the purposes of the very important job of winding up and re-allocating the responsibility for running London.
I feel most strongly that information is the whole key to whatever is to happen. Whatever decisions are to be made must be based on correct, detailed knowledge and information. If those officers who could, or would, supply such information were to be at risk, and perhaps he blackballed in the future for the jobs they were going to, this way, with this provision built into the Bill, they will know that it will be their legal duty and that they will have the protection of the law in taking whatever action is necessary to supply information. I think it is very important that we do not accept this amendment.
§ Lord Bellwin
May I say to my noble friend Lady Gardner that I saw the letter to which she referred. I am bound to say that it was one of the most abusive letters I have ever seen any member of a council write to another member of the same council who had only asked for information. All right; perhaps that is what one comes to expect these days in certain situations.
The answer to my noble friend Lord Auckland is that it would apply to any officer who may have the specific information that may be required. The noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, raised an interesting point. If she looks carefully at Clause 7, she will see that it is focused rather narrowly. I should not have thought that the scenario she painted would have been one of difficulty, but I want to think about what she said. We shall have a look at that, and I will be in touch with her about it. The point she raised was important.
In general, what my noble friend Lady Gardner said is quite right. Officers need to know where they are and they, too, need protection. In no way is it attacking them or making life more difficult for them; quite the contrary—it makes it clear where they stand. For this reason I am sure that when the proposers of the amendment think carefully about it, they will go along with that.
§ Lord Harmar-Nicholls
My noble friend was asked whether there are any precedents for this. I want to suggest to him that, whether or not there are precedents, the circumstances would justify setting a precedent if he is not able to produce any others.
§ Lord Bellwin
I am grateful to my noble friend. Perhaps I ought to have said to the noble Viscount, to whom I have said I shall write, that there is a similar, 212 albeit not an exact, precedent in Section 23(5) of the Housing Act 1980, which requires officers of the local authorities concerned to supply information without instructions from the local authority. It was designed to cover a somewhat similar situation of political obstruction, but this time without instructions. Actually, it does not go far enough, so there is a difference. I do not want to confuse the noble Viscount.
§ Lord Harmar-Nicholls
That is very helpful. This is a step just a little further along than the example the noble Lord has given, but the circumstances would justify it. Officers deserve the protection that this clause gives them. Without it, they are in a very invidious position.
§ Lord Tordoff
Did I not understand the noble Lord. Lord Graham, to say that that provision had been repealed in an Act which received Royal Assent in June of this year?
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
If it helps the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, I would point out that what I said was that in Section 23(5) of the Housing Act 1980 there was a duty on officers to comply with a notice from the Secretary of State to produce a document. I am advised—the Minister is much closer to the detail of the legislation—that that was repealed in the Housing and Building Control Act, which was given Royal Assent last week. Am I talking about the same thing, or is it possible to misinterpret it differently to suit one's purpose?
§ Lord Bellwin
This is something which together we shall clear up for the noble Lord, outside the Committee.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
That is fine. We need clarification. I do not intend to press the matter to a Division. I rest my case on the basis that this refers to all the information that the Minister would want. The Minister was very careful not to specify the kind of information that could not be obtained from a council, unless it was withheld wilfully; that is a different matter. If we are talking about a case where the officer has no information that is not in the possession of the council, or where all information in the possession of the officer is the council's information—that was the purport of the Birmingham case which I quoted—then what we are saying is that there is no new information or separate information. We are talking about two sources of information—one, the council, and the other the recipient of the council's information; that is, the officer.
We are talking about a circumstance which may or may not arise, because this Bill may or may not emerge in the form it is now in, or the main abolition Bill may or may not come about. At some time in the future the Government might feel that they want information which is in the possession of the council (the corporate body) and the council might decline to give it. Then, what the Government are saying is that under this Bill they are going to have power to say to an officer, "Knowing that your employers don't want 213 to give this information, we are going to demand it and take steps to get it".
I think that is a reprehensible step, because the Government are going to place those officers—not the authority—in an invidious situation. At the end of the day the Secretary of State says that what he wants is so powerful, so strong, that he wishes to place officers in that wretched position. Quite frankly, it is a very weak and indefensible proposition. It is aimed at the political opponents of the Government, or the political opponents who are controlling the council which refuses to give the information.
The Government feel it is quite all right to say, in those circumstances, that where their will is being thwarted by the political will of another political body, they are now going to involve the individual officers, not only those at the top, but also those in all grades. That is the kind of proposal we ought not to allow to pass easily. I should be interested to hear from the Minister—there are other stages of the Bill—what are the views of the associations of chief officers and the trade unions.
I note the experience of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner. The Minister spoke about the level of the correspondence into which the noble Baroness was drawn, apparently in asking an innocent and reasonable question. I should like to see not only the answer, but the question as well. Clearly we are not in the business—and I hope the Minister is not—of involving professionals who have difficulties which are not of their making. They arise because of the political initiatives of either the Minister or his colleagues. I am going to withdraw the amendment, but I think that the Minister wants to say a word before I do so.
§ Lord Bellwin
I am very grateful to the noble Lord. If one thinks through in depth what we are talking about, one sees that really it is all very sad. After all, all the information we are talking about is information that is there and should be available to everybody, to the public. In my own time on councils I always had an absolute policy that everyone should have access to everything. This is information that is in the public domain. If one is an elected member representing people, one has to make available information. That is not the same as being part of the decision-taking process, where one needs to weigh up pros and cons, consider alternatives, and all the rest of it.
If it comes to statistical facts and information which is there, it is the right of people to have that information and to seek to deny it to anybody—to a ratepayer, to a citizen—is something that I should never condone. Therefore, as I say, I think it is rather sad that we have to deal with the situation in this way, but it is necessary to do so.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
I know that when I move a freedom of information Bill in the future it will be seconded by the noble Lord the Minister. In other words, there should be access by everyone to everything, excluding the decision-making process, the policy-making process. As I say, there should be access by everyone to everything. In the strictest context, that means a freedom of information Bill nexus. However, we shall return to these matters at another stage. Meanwhile I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 46, 47 and 48 not moved.]
The Earl of Caithness
This, perhaps, is a convenient time to resume the House, and in moving the Motion may I say that I think it is agreed that we should not return to this Committee stage before 8.30 p.m. I beg to move that the House do now resume.
§ Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House resumed.