§ 4.54 p.m.
§ The Earl of Arran
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
§ Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(The Earl of Arran.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House in Committee accordingly.
§ [The LORD AYLESTONE in the Chair.]
§ Clause 4 [Designation and reports of head of paid service]:
Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 72:
Page 6, line 14, leave out ("in his opinion").
§ The noble Lord said: When I first saw Clause 4 of this Bill I was puzzled to understand why the Government should wish to impose such detailed controls on local authorities vis-à-vis the role of what is now to be called "the head of their paid service" and what has always in the past been called their "chief executive".
I thought it was extraordinary that anyone could think it necessary for a local authority to designate one of its officers as "head of their paid service" and provide him with:
such staff, accommodation and other resources as are, in his opinion, sufficient to allow his duties … to be performed";
or for anybody to think that it was necessary for the head of a paid service to have the right to report to the authority on the way in which its functions are co-ordinated or:
the number and grades of staff required … the organisation of the authority's staff; and … the appointment and proper management of the authority's staff'.
I could continue; it is a substantial clause. But it seems to imply a lack of trust between a local authority and its chief executive which I did not expect to find in the mind of the Government and which I have not generally found in the local authority world as I know it.
§ However, as of last night I know the explanation. Those Members of the Committee who saw the 940 "Panorama" film—and I think rather more Members from the Government Benches than these Benches were available at that time to see the film—will have learnt about what happens in the City of Westminster. According to that film and the hearing which is now being conducted by the district auditor into the affairs of the City of Westminster, the leader of the Westminster City Council, Lady Porter, as I think is well known, for £1 has given away three cemeteries. It is now seeking to buy them back and will have to pay £5.5 million. That is a financial matter with which we may well be concerned in the course of our later considerations of this Bill.
The leader of the council clearly treated her then chief executive, Mr. Rodney Brooke, in a manner which in many ways justifies the Government's concern in bringing forward this amendment. A number of chief officers of the Westminster City Council have testified about the impossibility of working with Lady Porter. Mrs. Patricia Kirwan, a former colleague of mine on the GLC, who was Westminster's housing chairman said that she once saw a senior officer in the council who was upset and not particularly well being bullied by Lady Porter. She said:
He did dissolve in tears and he was a decent man. He was trying his best. He was trying to explain something which she did not want to hear. I find that very upsetting because the officers are human beings and I don't like treating human beings badly".
A former chief press officer said that it was interesting and sometimes exciting working with Lady Porter but added that she could also be a tyrant and difficult to work for.
Once you did not remain 'flavour of the month', as we used to say, she could drop you and demoralise you and make your working life very, very difficult".
More to the point, the senior officer who handled the controversial sale of the cemeteries told an internal inquiry:
I've never had to work in a climate like I worked in here, and I've dealt with some pretty difficult socialist councils. If you put any opposition up, you were either 'not one of them' you were opposed to them politically, or you were 'negative' ".
§ Lady Porter has put forward the best arguments that I could have thought of for having Clause 4 in the Bill. I have modified my views about large parts of Clause 4 as a result of Lady Porter's activities. It is quite clear that any accusation that such bullying could take place in a Labour council has not been attempted. The Government have not at any stage during which this Bill has been before Parliament attempted to show that any Labour Council has behaved in that way toward its chief officers.
§ It appeared to be a matter of ideological spite to put forward this clause. We now see that it is a very clever and well timed proposal to restrain the activities of one of their least restrained colleagues who certainly is not only under fire from the media—and many people are—but is under fire in what appear to be well founded complaints to the district auditor.
In the circumstances I wish to concentrate in Amendment No. 72 on only one very specific point in Clause 4, which even with the justification that has now been given for much of the clause seems
to go not only too far but very much so. In Clause 4(1)(b) the Bill states that the authority shall,
provide that officer with such staff, accommodation and other resources as are, in his opinion, sufficient to allow his duties under this section to be performed".
Mr. Rodney Brooke was treated very badly by the Westminster City Council but I do not think that he would ever have claimed that he did not have the staff, accommodation or other resources to perform his functions. What happened was that all his warnings were ignored by the Conservative leader of the council.
§ It is proposed that a significant part of the expenditure of the council—that is, the expenditure on the staff, accommodation and other resources of the head of the paid service—should be outwith the control of the elected members. It should be the responsibility only of a paid official rather than of the elected members, who have in turn to respond to the electorate.
§ I wish to suggest to the Committee that, however justified some of the other provisions may be, it is such a consitutional outrage—it is not constitutional because it is all delegated authority anyway—and such a departure from all the principles of responsibility of local authorities to their electors, their fiduciary duty to their electors, as the judges have termed it, that it cannot and ought not to be accepted by this Committee. The fiduciary duty has become a principle of the way in which the courts consider local authority expenditure. The principle would completely collapse if local authorities criticised for breach of fiduciary duty were able to say, "I am sorry, my Lord, I had no opportunity to control the expenditure of my council because the head of my paid service had the responsibility which we, the councillors, could not control to provide himself with such staff, accommodation and other resources as are in his opinion sufficient to allow his duties under this section to be performed".
§ If the elected councillors are to be responsible to their electorate, and if they are to carry out the task for which they are to be held responsible, they must be responsible for all of the expenditure of their authority. It must not be possible for an appointed paid officer to override the decisions of the finance committee and of the council as to what the expenditure should be. In this clause, with all its virtues on the control of the outrageous behaviour of Conservative authorities, these three words are an excrescence and they ought to be removed. I beg to move.
§ 5 p.m.
§ Lord Hesketh
When I was very small my elders and betters always told me that I should be very careful about what I watched on television. Last night I was unable to have the benefit or the privilege of observing the "Panorama" programme. Not having seen it, I shall not comment apart from to say that this Bill governs the whole of Great Britain rather than just Westminster.
This amendment would remove the right of the head of the local authority's paid service to claim 942 the resources which he thinks that he needs for his functions under Clause 4 and leave him dependent on what the local authority thinks is sufficient. Let me say at the outset that in the vast majority of cases we can see no reason why there should be any difference in the assessment that a chief executive will make of what he needs and what his local authority thinks he will need. However, in legislating we cannot rule out the possibility that there will be differences of opinion. The Government have taken the view that in this one small area it is necessary to allow the officer's views to prevail.
The purpose of Clause 4 is to strengthen the management within local authorities by making sure that there is a focus—the head of the paid service—for all questions about management, and that proper professional advice is given to the authority about the steps that are necessary to ensure proper management.
I should mention the reason why we have used the term "head of the authority's paid service" rather than say, "chief executive". Most local authorities have a chief executive or chief executive officer. However, some have not chosen to use such a title. Basildon District Council, for example, has a town manager, while Harlow District Council has a general manager. We do not want to overrule such local usages. We therefore chose a term which, while clearly descriptive of the position, did not pre-empt the actual title of the post.
To achieve the purpose of strengthening the management, to which I have referred, Clause 4 therefore imposes a duty directly on the chief executive. If we impose a duty on an officer directly, then we have to take steps to ensure that he has the wherewithal to carry out that duty. We have therefore given him the right to claim such resources as he thinks are necessary. I should emphasise that this claim is only for his duties under Clause 4—reporting on management arrangements. The right does not extend to any other duties he may have as chief executive.
This follows the pattern set last year in the Local Government Finance Act 1988, when the chief finance officer was given a similar claim for the resources that he needs for preparing any reports under Section 114: his duty to call the council's attention to any unlawful expenditure or any budget deficit.
This in turn follows a pattern set elsewhere when officers have directly been given duties. For example, if a superintendent registrar is not provided with a suitable register office, he can hire one at the local authority's expense, because he personally is responsible for providing the service. The same principle has been followed in Clause 5 in relation to the monitoring officer in respect of his duties.
We do not expect that local authorities are likely to have a different opinion to their chief executives about what is needed. But if there is a difference of opinion, it is important that the views of the council's professional adviser on the management of that authority should be presented to the authority and that the resources for this to be done should be forthcoming.
943 It is for this reason that we resist the amendment of the noble Lord.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
The Minister begins by saying that we can dismiss or forget what happens at Westminster City Council, and that those of us who did not see the "Panorama" programme last night or read about the matter in every newspaper this morning can forget that it happened. In discussing local government and political interference or political judgments, how on earth can we forget such lessons? There is no doubt that Members opposite believe that they are on a winner when they talk of political interference. They talk of political interference from the Left. Yet we have the very good illustration that will run and run not only of how Westminster City Council has been so very badly interfered with politically but also of many others.
The Minister chooses to forget such lessons. I can assure him that on this side of the Chamber we shall not. We shall come back to the matter time and again. It is a good example of the disreputable way in which local government has been brought into disrepute.
Will the Minister take on board this aspect of what he has said? He believes that on very rare occasions there will be a dispute between the members and the chief officer as to the extent to which the chief officer requires resources. This clause provides that, when the chief officer does not get his way, when there is no agreement with the elected members, he has the right in limited circumstances to incur expense over the heads of the elected members. Who is responsible to the electorate for that expenditure? Who will have to stand up and justify that expenditure from election time to election time? Who will have to justify the community charge? Who will have to explain that this expenditure is preferable to other expenditure, for instance, on old people's homes, the disabled, the blind or the crippled? Can the Minister say how the Government will help a council which believes that the expenditure should not be incurred but is overruled. In future will there be a special element in what we know as the "rate support grant"? I believe that my noble friend Lord McIntosh fairly understood the genesis of the clause and gave good illustrations. However, many questions need to be answered.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
Noble Lords opposite have made a perfectly legitimate political point about a programme shown on television last night which I did not see. However, I believe that they are arguing against themselves. The subsection protects a chief officer being disregarded, maltreated and not trusted by his authority. If the chief officer cannot have what in his opinion is essential to do his professional job according to the law he would be in trouble. He would be in a difficult position.
I have never been in that situation but I can picture circumstances in which councillors tried to get at the chief officer by failing to provide him with the resources he legitimately required. The Government appear to be justified in saying that he should have the resources which, in his opinion, are correct. It is 944 the only circumstance in which I can envisage it being correct. It would be a pity to remove the provision particularly in the light of the evidence that noble Lords have cited. They appear to be arguing against themselves. That was unconvincing; we should not support the amendment.
§ Lord Sefton of Garston
I am rather mystified although I admit that I did not read the clause before I entered the Chamber. I have had experience in local government because for five years I was the leader of Merseyside County Council; I was also chairman and leader of Liverpool City Council. We had a policy of always establishing a close liaison between the officers and the membership in those bodies.
I understand that the clause refers to the head of the paid service of a local authority. In Liverpool we never had one head. On the recommendation of a so-called expert management consultant we had complete autonomy in certain departments. Therefore, there was more than one head. I understand that even today plenty of councils like to operate that way. Who will decide the expenditure for the resources necessary for those officers to do their job?
I had an unpleasant experience when I was in Liverpool. The chief officer and the chief housing officer whom we placed in two separate compartments did not get on too well. Ultimately the elected members had to decide the differences between them. That, I believe, is the only way it can be done. However, the clause puts the matter firmly in the hands of one officer: I do not believe that to be practicable.
I am interested to note the number of people who did not see the programme last night. Evidently they have not read today's serious newspapers because they contain good résumés of a serious issue. Leaving that aside, what does the Minister mean by the head officer of the "paid service"? How will that officer decide the following issues? First, where a local authority has appointed two separate officers to look after their own area, who will take the decision? Secondly, who will decide resources to be made available to officers and members in one building and operated through one administration? This appears to be a recipe for complete chaos between the elected members and paid employees.
§ Lord Hesketh
The noble Lord will see that Clause 4(1)(a) provides that it is the duty of every local authority,to designate one of their officers as the head of their paid service"—
§ Lord Sefton of Garston
Will the Minister give way? Does that mean that the Bill is intended to order local authorities to organise their administration as the Government want?
§ Lord Hesketh
No, but obviously it is more sensible to have one person in charge than a number. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, asked how the councillors will justify the expenditure. We anticipate such expenditure to be a rare occurrence 945 but the behaviour of the councillors will have brought about the circumstances in which the officer must exercise the powers that he has been given. It is for their behaviour that they will have to answer.
§ Lord Sefton of Garston
The Minister did not reply to the other point that I raised. However, it is now clear that the Government intend to tell local authorities how to organise their affairs. One of the reasons Liverpool organised its affairs in the way I described was to reduce conflict between chief officers and members and chief officers. If the Government intend to tell a council such as Liverpool, "No, you must now designate one head", they really are heading for trouble.
§ Lord Hesketh
We are not in any way trying to tell local authorities how they should be run. We are merely trying to provide the tools to improve the management.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
The Minister could have fooled me. My noble friend Lord Sefton does less than justice to the Government, and the motivation behind Clause 4. After all, he comes from well-run authorities such as Liverpool and Merseyside where there would be no justification for the kind of detailed intervention proposed in Clause 4.
Clearly, the Government are concerned about the kind of abuse to which I referred and the issue goes much further. Westminster City Council—and it was only legal opinions obtained by the BBC and not opinions obtained by the council—proposed a homes sales policy which, according to the chairman of the Housing Committee, was deliberately intended to increase the Conservative vote in marginal wards. It was a deliberate attempt to gerrymander the electorate of Westminster in order to suit the Conservative Party. How will this clause and the Bill remedy that abuse?
The leader of Westminster City Council commissioned a pamphlet of profiles designed to discredit the Westminster Labour Party. In a paper called Keeping Westminster Conservative Lady Porter suggested employing five activists to work in the eight marginal wards and find out the background of Labour candidates so that skeletons in the cupboard could be exposed. How will this clause and the Bill remedy those abuses?
I suggest that the Government have been blindfolded and have so much tunnel vision. They have an impression of wicked Left wing councils behaving in a wicked way towards their electors and officers. Therefore they are missing the abuses which take place in a local part of local government—the part of local government in which we are now standing. If the Minister is to defend this part of the Bill, as well as this clause and the provision he must show what will be done to stop Lady Porter and others from behaving in such a way. It is unacceptable that such events should continue and that interference should be based on politically- 946 motivated grounds rather than de fence of the ratepayers.
The noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, appears to have misunderstood the purpose of our amendment. I return to the issue. It is simple and concerns only the provision of staff accommodation and other resources. We say that even in the worst-run local authority in the country—that is Westminster City Council in whose area we are now standing—it was never a complaint of Mr. Rodney Brooke, the chief executive forced out and given a large golden handshake, that he was not given the staff, resources or accommodation. That was not the complaint. This clause would not deal with his problems. The complaint was that his warnings were ignored and that the council, and particularly the leader of the council, did nothing to protect the ratepayers from blatant gerrymandering and political manipulation of the powers of the council.
If the Minister were to tell us that the Government have positive plans to deal with those abuses, we might be more sympathetic. However, at present this provision in Clause 4 is irrelevant to the problem which faces the worst-run councils of this country and it is in conflict with the more fundamental principle of accountability of councillors to their ratepayers for their expenditure. It is on that basis that I believe it is necessary to seek the opinion of the Committee on the amendment.
§ 5.21 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 72) shall be agreed to?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 78; Not-Contents, 121.947
|DIVISION NO. 1|
|Addington, L.||Grey, E.|
|Airedale, L.||Hampton, L.|
|Amherst, E.||Hanworth, V.|
|Attlee, E.||Harris of Greenwich, L.|
|Aylestone, L.||Hatch of Lusby, L.|
|Beaumont of Whitley, L.||Houghton of Sowerby, L.|
|Birk, B.||Irving of Dartford, L.|
|Blackstone, B.||Jeger, B.|
|Blease, L.||Jenkins of Hillhead, L.|
|Bonham-Carter, L.||Jenkins of Putney, L.|
|Boston of Faversham, L.||John-Mackie, L.|
|Bottomley, L.||Kilbracken, L.|
|Bruce of Donington, L.||Kilmarnock, L.|
|Campbell of Eskan, L.||Kirkhill, L.|
|Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L.||Lawrence, L|
|Carter, L. [Teller.]||Listowel, E.|
|Cledwyn of Penrhos, L.||Lloyd of Kilgerran, L.|
|Cocks of Hartcliffe, L.||Longford, E.|
|David, B.||Lovell-Davis, L.|
|Dean of Beswick, L.||Macaulay of Bragar, L.|
|Elwyn-Jones, L.||McIntosh of Haringey, L.|
|Ennals, L.||Milner of Leeds, L.|
|Ewart-Biggs, B.||Mountevans, L.|
|Falkender, B.||Mulley, L.|
|Falkland, V.||Nathan, L.|
|Fisher of Rednal, B.||Peston, L.|
|Gallacher, L.||Phillips, B.|
|Galpern, L.||Pitt of Hampstead, L.|
|Gladwyn, L.||Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L [Teller.]|
|Graham of Edmonton, L.|
|Gregson, L.||Rathcreedan, L.|
|Rea, L.||Stedman, B.|
|Ross of Newport, L.||Strabolgi, L.|
|Rugby, L.||Tordoff, L.|
|Russell, E.||Turner of Camden, B.|
|Sefton of Garston, L.||Underhill, L.|
|Serota, B.||Wallace of Coslany, L.|
|Shackleton, L.||White, B.|
|Stallard, L.||Williams of Elvel, L.|
|Airey of Abingdon, B.||Layton, L.|
|Aldington, L.||Lindsey and Abingdon, E.|
|Alexander of Weedon, L.||Lloyd of Hampstead, L.|
|Allenby of Megiddo, V.||Long, V.|
|Arran, E.||Lucas of Chilworth, L.|
|Auckland, L.||Luke, L.|
|Belhaven and Stenton, L.||Lyell, L.|
|Belstead, L.||McAlpine of West Green, L|
|Blatch, B.||Mackay of Clashfern, L.|
|Blyth, L.||Macleod of Borve, B.|
|Borthwick, L.||Margadale, L.|
|Boyd-Carpenter, L.||Marley, L.|
|Brabazon of Tara, L.||Merrivale, L.|
|Brougham and Vaux, L.||Mersey, V.|
|Bruce-Gardyne, L.||Mowbray and Stourton, L.|
|Butterworth, L.||Munster, E.|
|Caithness, E.||Murton of Lindisfarne, L.|
|Caldecote, V.||Napier and Ettrick, L.|
|Campbell of Croy, L.||Nelson, E.|
|Carnegy of Lour, B.||Nelson of Stafford, L.|
|Clitheroe, L.||Newall, L.|
|Cork and Orrery, E.||Nugent of Guildford, L.|
|Cowley, E.||Orkney, E.|
|Craigavon, V.||Orr-Ewing, L.|
|Crickhowell, L.||Pender, L.|
|Cullen of Ashbourne, L.||Penrhyn, L.|
|Dacre of Glanton, L.||Peyton of Yeovil, L.|
|Davidson, V. [Teller.]||Platt of Writtle, B.|
|Denham, L. [Teller.]||Quinton, L.|
|Donegall, M.||Rankeillour, L.|
|Dundee, E.||Renton, L.|
|Eden of Winton, L.||Renwick, L.|
|Elibank, L.||Rochdale, V.|
|Elles, B.||Romney, E.|
|Elliot of Harwood, B.||Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly.|
|Elton, L.||Sanderson of Bowden, L.|
|Ferrers, E.||Seebohm, L.|
|Fisher, L.||Shannon, E.|
|Forbes, L.||Skelmersdale, L.|
|Fortescue, E.||Stanley of Alderley, L.|
|Fraser of Carmyllie, L.||Strange, B.|
|Fraser of Kilmorack, L.||Strathcarron, L.|
|Gardner of Parkes, B.||Strathclyde, L.|
|Gibson-Watt, L.||Suffield, L.|
|Greenway, L.||Swinfen, L.|
|Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L.||Teviot, L.|
|Thomas of Gwydir, L.|
|Hardinge of Penshurst, L.||Thomas of Swynnerton, L.|
|Henley, L.||Torphichen, L.|
|Hesketh, L.||Trafford, L.|
|Hives, L.||Trefgarne, L.|
|Home of the Hirsel, L.||Trumpington, B.|
|Hood, V.||Ullswater, V.|
|Hooper, B.||Vaux of Harrowden, L.|
|Jenkin of Roding, L.||Waldegrave, E.|
|Johnston of Rockport, L.||Weir, V.|
|Joseph, L.||Westbury, L.|
|Killearn, L.||Wise, L.|
|Kinloss, Ly.||Wolfson, L.|
|Kitchener, E.||Young, B.|
|Lauderdale, E.||Young of Graffham, L.|
§ Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
§ 5.28 p.m.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick moved Amendment No. 73:
Page 6, line 22, at end insert—
("(aa) the quality of the authority's services and their appropriateness in relation to the needs of the area concerned").
§ The noble Lord said: The purpose of this amendment is to broaden the role of the head of paid service to enable him or her to report on the quality of the authority's services.
§ In setting out the specific areas on which the head of service can report, the Bill makes a glaring omission. It makes no provision for assessment of the quality of services provided, the end product of local authority administration and the benefits which local people receive. The post holder addresses himself or herself to the mechanics of service provision, co-ordination of functions and the levels, grades and organisation of staff.
§ However, the result of all that co-ordination—namely, local services for local people—does not enter into the equation. For example, how can the head of paid service look at the numbers and grades of staff required by the authority for the discharge of those functions and yet not look at the quality of those functions? Most local authorities have indicated that the duties of this post would fall to their chief executive or his equivalent, who is sometimes known as the town clerk. The White Paper says that this function would almost certainly fall to the chief executive if there was one. How can the quality of service delivery be divorced from management co-ordination? If, as Ministers tell us, the Government are genuinely concerned about the effectiveness and efficiency of local government, they should accept this amendment which links resources with results.
§ Assessment of service quality is particularly important when services are increasingly being provided out of house due to government legislation imposing compulsory competitive tendering. The Government's maxim of "private sector, good; public service, bad" is not always borne out, as the experience of Wandsworth ratepayers and taxpayers demonstrates. Wandsworth, in the forefront of privatising services, sacked the ARA catering because the quality of private sector service to old people's homes was so low.
§ Surely, the head of the paid service who is reponsible for co-ordinating the discharge of the authority's functions and the agreed staffing levels in house, needs to look at the services being delivered.
§ There may be reasons why the Government are not worried about the quality of services provided. Perhaps Ministers have been reading a survey which was published in the March edition of Which? Scotland was excluded because of the imminent introduction of poll tax. The survey showed that 78 per cent. of the people interviewed were satisfied with local authority services generally; 75 per cent. were satisfied with the services given by their local council on the most recent occasions; 82 per cent. were satisfied with social services such as home helps and social workers; and 90 per cent. were satisfied with education services. Only 18 per cent. of people interviewed thought that central government would offer better value for money in providing services currently run by local authorities.
§ However, local authorities are not content to rest on their laurels. They want to ensure that services are reaching the people who need them and that the 949 quality of service meets public needs. The elected member needs to know the practical effects of policy decisions as they affect service delivery. After all, the elected members can be voted out of office and are accountable to their community.
§ The Bill requires the head of paid service to report, as appropriate, under the structure of the local authority. There should also be a requirement to report, as necessary, on the services which that structure has been put in place to achieve. I beg to move.
§ Lord Hesketh
This amendment would add a new item to the list of matters on which the head of the paid service is under a duty to report to the council where he considers it appropriate; that is, on the quality of the local authority's services and their appropriateness in relation to the needs of the area concerned.
In order to explain why we think it inappropriate to add this new requirement, I must take the Committee back to the underlying purpose of Clause 4. It has long been recognised that there is a problem in managing a local authority in that it is an organisation with a wide remit, covering many services, with many different interest groups to serve and many conflicting priorities. This problem is, if anything, made more difficult by the tradition of very strong functional departments which have sometimes almost become warring principalities for the committee chairmen or chief officers concerned. This point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Sefton, during discussion on an earlier amendment.
There has been a concern for many years to strengthen the overall management of local authorities. The Bains Report, which led to the emergence of the policy and resources committees and the posts of chief executives was one aspect of this.
After the 1974 reorganisation, nearly all local authorities appointed chief executives. More recently, however, there has been a drift away from this emphasis on central management leadership. A number of local authorities have given up the post of chief executive. We think that it is timely to re-emphasise the need for central leadership and to take an overall look at the way in which the authority organises itself. Our proposals in this field were almost simultaneous with the Audit Commission report on the role of the chief executive, and obviously many people compared them. The most noticeable difference was the emphasis which the Audit Commission placed on the role of the chief executive in carrying out a performance review, which does not feature in Clause 4.
It is therefore not surprising to find that the noble Lord is proposing that one of the duties of the head of the paid service—indeed, the first duty—is to carry out a review which might well be described as a policy review. The reason that we decided not to include such a review is apparent from the words that the noble Lord has had to use to describe his proposed new duty:The quality of the authority's services and their appropriateness to the needs of the area concerned".950 This is set out in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey. I emphasise the words, "and their appropriateness to the area concerned." I have no doubt that any good local authority will want to ensure that such a review is carried out. But, in our opinion, it is for the elected members to decide what the needs of their area are, and what services are appropriate to them. Without, therefore, the willing co-operation of the members in a review of the kind proposed by the noble Lord, we doubt that the exercise would be worthwhile. We cannot legislate for that willing co-operation.
All that we can sensibly legislate for is the nuts and bolts of administration that are covered by the duties imposed by Clause 4. These are the details that any official leading an organisation should be expected to bring to the attention of the governing body as appropriate, and that the governing body should consider. The reason, therefore, that we have made no provision for a performance review of the kind advocated by the noble Lord is that it needs the willing interest and co-operation of the elected members. Only when they take up these questions will the authority properly address the purposes for which it is there. Only when they take an interest in the questions of what services are appropriate in their area—and I am sure that they will—and define standards to be achieved, can a proper review of this kind be carried out.
Our clause has no such high aspirations: it is aimed at the day-to-day details of the operation which are sometimes overlooked. We would in no way want to stop an authority commissioning the kind of review described. Indeed, we would want to encourage them to do so. But we do not think that we can do it by legislation, rather by example. For those reasons we resist the amendment.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
I am sorry to hear the tenor of the Minister's reply because I think that the Government have got this completely wrong. It is nonsense to say that a chief officer, charged with a specific duty of being in charge of a particular service or area, can only report on the dimension of a problem and how to deal with it when requested by the local authority.
In my days on the Manchester City Council the five leading officers in all large authorities were known as the big five. I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, will concur with me on that point. They were the town clerk, the medical officer of health, the city engineer, the city architect and the chief public health inspector. Strangely enough that officer had wide statutory powers that could be invoked without reference to his political masters.
These officers had certain statutory duties which were not merely related to working for the council but were conferred on them as officers of a local authority. They could report direct to the council without the permission of the chairman of the committees because a statutory duty was vested in them historically by Royal seals and the granting of a Royal charter. I have to say that they did so quite fearlessly.
In Manchester we asked the medical officer of health just after the war to conduct a total survey of 951 the houses in Manchester. He asked how total we wanted it to be. He said, "It is going to be pretty disastrous if I report as I ought to do, and it is going to take a tremendous amount of time and money". Nevertheless, we said, "Get on with it". He wanted to do that in any case and he came up with a result similar to that in Birmingham and other big cities—namely, that there were about 100,000 slum houses that ought to be got rid of.
I make another comparison. The Government say that a chief officer—that is who we are talking about—can only act with the cognisance of his political masters. However, in Manchester from 1960 onwards we decided to organise a direct works department to do our building. We think that we did it particularly well, to the point where we had over 4,000 people working in that department building houses, schools and carrying out maintenance in the way that the other big cities were doing.
In 1967—a particularly bad year in local government for the Labour Party—we lost control of Manchester overnight. The first action taken by the Conservative controlled group was to ask the city treasurer, who was one of the big five, to report on the direct labour department's performance in Manchester.
It took the city treasurer some time. He was a very distinguished man in local government and within his national organisation. His report overwhelmingly found that, on balance, the direct works department in Manchester had performed well on behalf of the ratepayers. However, when he delivered his report to the city council the first charge made to him was from one of the leading members of the Conservative group—a former Lord Mayor who eventually had to leave Manchester under rather dubious circumstances. He accused this officer of great distinction and integrity of making a political report, because it was not the report that the Conservative group wanted. Shortly afterwards that officer and some other officers left the council.
I am not at all satisfied with what the Minister said. He needs to convince me that the Government have it right in this instance. One aspect that is apparent in far too many local authorities—and I think my noble friend and colleague Lord McIntosh indicated this—is that political masters can behave in very peculiar ways, such as the present leader of Westminster City Council is doing. I do not suggest that it is all on one side because there are similar cases across the board.
With my long experience in local government I would always want to see senior officers with a great deal of independence and able to speak as individuals and as professionals of character who have the right training, without always having to genuflect and bend the knee to their political masters before they can make public statements on the need for services, the level of services and their cost. They have a public duty to do so. It is then up to their political masters to decide on whether or not to act.
It is regrettable that the Minister's arguments adduced so far have not convinced me that the Government have got this right. If the Minister 952 wants to say something more on the issue I should be glad to hear from him.
§ Lord Hesketh
I was not for one moment expecting to convince the noble Lord. However, I believe we have reached the interesting position where on the previous amendment a great deal of discussion took place concerning the rights of elected members of an authority but the moment the Government propose to provide rights for an elected authority to make decisions it is immediately considered unacceptable.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
Perhaps I may deal with this point. I am not arguing the case that the officer should make the decision. The officer has no right at all to make the decision. What an officer should do, and is charged with doing otherwise he should not be in post, is to tell his political masters about the situation and how to deal with it or how not to deal with it. It is for the political masters to make the decision. The Minister should not confuse the two issues. I am saying that the officers should be fearless and independent in reporting, but the decision on what to do about a report is obviously taken by the political masters. It cannot be taken by anyone else.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ Baroness Blatch
The noble Lord was right in one respect. He said that this was not necessarily a matter of public services being bad or public services being good. I could not agree more with that. I believe that we have some very fine local authorities who, managerially and in every other sense, are serving their local communities extremely well. Equally, there are some fairly awful private companies with poor management and poor delivery of service. I suppose that the difference is that if a public company is poor it usually finds itself going out of business. Sadly, if local government management is poor the ratepayers—or community charge payers next year—pick up the bill and the authority continues to exist. The tab is always picked up and that is the difference.
One of the real difficulties about public authorities in terms of management is the distinction between the role of the members of the body that should determine policies and strategy and the officers who get on with the operation and implementation of those policies. So often within local authorities that distinction is blurred because too many local authority members involve themselves in the operational day-to-day management of the authority.
There is nothing in this clause, as I read it, that precludes members from their primary function; that is, to determine policy. Local authority members quite rightly must do that. There is also nothing to preclude local authority members from having an obligation to hold a view about the quality of services. I believe it is possible for local authority members to determine how they are to measure output—something which we are not particularly good at in local government but which increasingly is being done and has to be done.
953 There is one point on which I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Sefton. He said earlier that it is not necessary to have one person running an authority and that there can be lots of chiefs. I believe that that has been a great failing in local authorities. There has to be somebody nominally in control of the authority—a head of management. That person should be co-ordinating and organising the authority to ensure effective implementation of the policies of the members of the authority. Quality of service, therefore, must be the preoccupation of the officers. The quality of service and the organisation of the authority must be his responsibility. The performance of the people who work within the authority is also a function of the chief officer, or chief executive, whatever one may call him. Therefore, it is a matter of separating the determination of policy and the function of operational management. Most of what I read in Clause 4 concerns the most effective delivery of services. Underlining all of that is making sure that it happens in a way that does not compromise an officer.
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Sefton, is not present. I can remember being privy to a discussion on Widdicombe and the functions of local authorities. A leading member of an authority said that she was not interested in what was legal and constitutional and what was not legal and constitutional. If the members determined on action then it was the officer's job to carry that out. What we now have in the Bill is a framework where no local authority member can compromise a professional officer in that way. I see this as a protection clause for the officers and for the members. It gives a framework which separates the distinct functions for the better efficiency and provision of services.
§ Lord Ross of Newport
I agree with everything said by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and I therefore do not understand why she does not want to add this provision to the clause.
I wanted to intervene earlier because I think the amendment would prevent the terrible political in-fighting that occurs when certain statistics are published. My former constituency contains a large number of elderly people and was always being attacked for not having enough home helps. In fact we had a whole range of services—tucking in services—which were highly satisfactory. The great difficulty was to convince political opponents that the social services within the Isle of Wight were run rather well; by a very good Geordie from Sunderland, as it happens. I believe he is still running them extremely well. However, it would be helpful if the chief executive was obliged to make annual reports on the quality of services and the needs of the various areas concerned because areas vary considerably.
I go very much along the same path as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. This is a good clause and it strengthens the arm of the chief executive. It is right that it should do so. In a well run authority that is his position, as there are always a few renegades who will challenge his considered opinions, but they are 954 nearly always wrong and it is up to the other members to make sure that they are kept in line.
I still believe that in due course we shall have to reorganise local government so that chief executives are elected by the public. I am in favour of a directly elected mayoral system. I think that that will have to happen so that at the end of the day somebody at the top of the tree is responsible, can take back the can and get the policy through. The public can decide to sack him after his term is up or re-elect him. If T. Dan Smith had been elected it might have been a much better story in Newcastle. I cannot say that this is party policy, but I have been trying to sell it to my party for some time. Everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said points in that direction.
§ Lord Underhill
I follow briefly the noble Lord, Lord Ross and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. I ask the Minister to consider the four points on which the officer has to report. The first is:the manner in which the discharge by the authority of their different functions is co-ordinated".How can he do that unless he knows what the quality of the services are and the needs which have been laid down? The second is:the number and grades of staff required by the authority for the discharge of their functions".The same point arises, as it does with:the organisation of the authority's staff".And the fourth:the appointment and proper management of the authority's staff".How can he report on those unless he can look at the quality of the services in relation to the needs? As my noble friend pointed out when he introduced the amendment, no power is being taken away from the elected authorities. The Minister should read subsection (5):It shall be the duty of a relevant authority to consider any report under this … head".Therefore it still rests with the relevant authority to consider the report. The problem with many of these debates is that the Minister has a brief to reject, irrespective of the common sense of our arguments, and that is his answer. I ask the Minister to consider these four points carefully in relation to the amendment which my noble friend has moved.
§ Lord Hesketh
In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, the officer in question should, if he is competent, already be aware of the facts concerning those four points in subsection (3). The difficulty is a straight difference of opinion concerning whether this should appear in the Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Dean, feels, or whether such a review should be commissioned or requested by the elected members, which is the Government's view. It is a straightforward difference of opinion and I fear that it will not be resolved this afternoon.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
I hope the Committee will allow me to give two quick examples of what I am talking about. I am thinking about the halcyon days of local government when local government was highly regarded in this country. The medical officer of health of Manchester used to publish an annual 955 report. It was not issued by the Labour group or the Conservative group, but it was his own report as the officer with the statutory duty to protect the general health of the City of Manchester. In those reports sadly he always had to say—I think it is still true—that Manchester had a far higher number of deaths from heart attack, still-born babies and deaths before the age of 12 months than the national average. Someone in Manchester then had to decide what resources could be made available to deal with the situation based on the health officer's report, which was produced without pressure from anybody else and based on his total professional expertise.
I can illustrate the difference between the officer making the decision and the local authority making the decision in this way. Manchester, which is a small city in terms of area, needed very quickly some additional sites to continue a building programme of 3,000 housing units a year. The city is only about a seventh the area of Leeds for example. The town clerk and his team of officers produced a report for the elected members concerned which showed that by 1967 Manchester would be in surplus for housing. He advised the then leader of the council, Sir Robert Thomas, that Manchester ought to stop building. That was the advice given by the town clerk as the chief executive officer of the city.
I remember my predecessor telling the town clerk that that was not the policy of the council. The town clerk had indicated what should be done but council policy was to keep building traditional style houses to get rid of walk-up flats. The town clerk had forgotten the walk-up flats in his equation. I shall never forget the town clerk saying that he had offered the best advice that he could, but that if he had to search for extra sites, at least he had put his views on record despite the fact that the elected members wished to go on. However, he accepted his place as the servant of the elected members. I hope the Minister understands the difference between what I am talking about and what is in the Bill. He obviously will not shift on this. We shall have to come back to it and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Baroness Blatch
Before the noble Lord withdraws his amendment can he show me the words in the clause that prevent the chief executive, the chief officer or any officer of the council giving advice to a member or members and the members being allowed to hear the advice but not heed it? There is nothing in the clause that prevents that from happening.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
A short time ago I raised questions in your Lordships' House relating to the departure of the chief executive from the City of Westminster and the golden handshake he was to receive when he left. It was apparently over 1.5 million. He was under instruction that the deal would be carried out only on the basis that he would make no public statement about why he was leaving. That is the kind of thing that ought to eliminated, not what I have been talking about.
§ Baroness Blatch
I still do not see what there is in this clause that prevents that from happening.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
Before my noble friend answers again, we are in a different ball game, since the Government have been asking for compulsory competitive tenders. That means that the chief officer, whoever he is, has the greatest difficulty in seeing that tenders are being carried out to the specifications, once they have been accepted. Nobody is travelling around to see if the lawns have been cut every week, as should have been done according to the tender. That is an important aspect, as the Government have insisted on compulsory tendering. Somebody from the local authority must see that the money is being well spent, otherwise the elected local members can be accused of wasting ratepayers' money when it might not be their fault because the tender has gone out. For example, there is the recent example of the tender across the road in St. James' Park where, the deckchair tender having been given out, now with all the hot sunny weather only one-third of the deckchairs are available because the man who was given the tender has disappeared. How does the chief executive know that the people who have the tender are still doing the work? That is another problem to be solved.
My other point is that many local authorities are trying to co-ordinate their services in a given area. In an inner city area it is no good trying to provide better child care facilities if housing conditions, health provision and schools are not being taken together overall. The chief executive needs to have before him the opinions of the council to ensure that what it needs is a complete co-ordination of the services in the area. Local elected members have to ensure that the chief executive is monitoring these services.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
I have little further to say. In one authority 11 officers left because, as professionals, they bitterly objected to their political masters overriding all their advice and treating them like office boys.
I have nothing further to add. We shall have to come back to this matter at a later stage. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 4 agreed to.
§ 6 p.m.
§ Clause 5 [Designation and reports of monitoring officer]:
Lord Dean of Beswick moved Amendment No. 74:
Page 7, line 30, after second ("to") insert ("the Chairman of the authority and the Chairman of any committee of the authority which he considers to be concerned, and it shall be the duty of the Chairman of any such Committee so far as practicable to take steps within 21 days of receipt of the report to correct any defect and prevent its reassurance.
(4A) Where in the opinion of the head of the paid service no such action as is referred to in subsection (4) above is taken, or it is inadequate, he shall arrange for a copy of his report to be sent to").
§ The noble Lord said: The purpose of this amendment is to inject a little common sense and practicality into Clause 5. It attempts to provide a cooling off period of 21 days before a monitoring 957 officer has formally to report to the authority under the provisions of the clause. During that time he or she can offer advice to the authority, committee, sub-committee or officer. The authority, committee, sub-committee or officer then has 21 days to comply with that advice.
Subsection (2) sets out the duties of the monitoring officer in relation to what he or she has to monitor. It is worth analysing the subsection. The officer has to watch for,
any proposal, decision or omission by the authority, by any committee, sub-committee or officer of the authority or by any joint committee on which the authority are represented".
§ I shall give an example. In Greater Manchester, 10 monitoring officers—one from each of Greater Manchester's constituent districts—would have to monitor the Greater Manchester Fire Brigade and Civil Defence Authority, the Greater Manchester Police Authority and the Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Authority. There would perhaps be a little duplication. They would have to monitor these in respect of any contravention of law or code of practice, which in law might be only a code of practice to which regard must be had, and anything leading to maladministration or injustice.
§ The breadth of issues covered by these criteria is staggering. The number of times in a large authority that deeds are done, decisions are taken or proposals are made which could come within the remit of the clause must run into thousands. Ministers must have an idea of the scale of monitoring operation implied by the clause. Every time such a transgression comes to the notice of a monitoring officer, he or she must prepare a report to the authority. In most cases the authority means the full council, which may meet only every four or six weeks. This amendment recognises that transgressions or potential transgressions are better dealt with quickly and by giving the transgressor or potential transgressor a chance to reconsider his actions or proposals.
§ Similar arrangements exist with the local ombudsman by which wrongs can be righted before the ombudsman's powers are fully involved. I cannot see why that arrangement cannot be built into this provision. I am sure that everyone would benefit from it. I beg to move.
§ Lord Renton
As this is the first time I have ventured to intervene in discussions on this Bill, perhaps I may say how surprised I am that Parts I and II contain so much purely administrative direction to local authorities. That is especially true of Clauses 4 and 5. With all the experience that local authorities have gained over the years I should have thought that it was unnecessary for Parliament to take up its time with so much purely administrative detail. I have looked through the later parts of the Bill to see where enforcement of these provisions is set out. I cannot find it. Perhaps we can be told how these provisions will be enforced.
The amendment will increase unnecessarily the amount of purely administrative instruction, direction, persuasion and advice—call it what you will. In a well run body—whether central or local government, a business organisation, a quango or a 958 nationalised industry—those things ought to take place in the normal course of dealing; between the officers of an authority and the elected members and between the elected members themselves. For the chairman of the authority to be given this further instruction—as to, for example, copies to be sent internally—does not seem to be a matter with which we should be concerned.
The fifth line of the amendment reads:the report to correct any defect and prevent its reassurance".In that context, what can "reassurance" mean? It puzzles me.
§ Lord Hesketh
My noble friend Lord Renton has spotted an obvious flaw in the amendment, and the noble Baroness, Lady David, has discovered the cure. The Committee will agree that what she says makes sense.
The aim of the amendment is to require the monitoring officer to report to the committee chairman rather than the council. If what is wrong is an illegality or an impropriety it would be for the council to consider it. I do not believe that there will be as many cases as the noble Lord suggested. The monitoring officer will first try to set the matter right unofficially and will report only if he cannot solve the matter unofficially. However, we oppose the amendment because it operates on a completely different basis from the intentions of the clause.
I would also criticise it on some matters of detail. Chairmen of committees obviously guide their committees in their work, but they cannot on their own have any function to take action. The High Court has made it clear that the power to delegate functions which all local authorities enjoy does not extend to giving individual elected members a power of decision on behalf of the local authority. Although the Widdicombe Committee recommended the legitimisation of the powers of chairmen to take action in an emergency, the Government believed that other devices were workable which were consistent with the fundamental rule that members do not act on their own. The amendment comes near to breaching that fundamental rule.
Secondly, we do not think that it is appropriate, even if one accepts the idea that the chairman should on his own take action, for an officer to be put in the position of deciding whether to appeal over the head of a councillor to the full council about a decision by that councillor. The duties which we have given to the monitoring officer and the chief finance officer are to draw to the attention of all members of the council the cases where the authority is about to do something illegal or improper, judged against objective standards and not where they disagree with a matter of judgment. For that reason the amendment therefore seems to give officers greater power to stand in judgment over the performance of members than we, or I suspect the officers themselves, would judge to be appropriate or suitable. It is in the light of those considerations that we resist the amendment.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
Once again I am not very happy with the Minister's reply. I should like to press him on one point. Very often when another specific duty is laid upon an authority—I am not talking here about officers—it is often decided, in order to expedite the business, to form a sub-committee and to give that committee powers of delegation to deal with a particular situation or a particular function. What would be the Government's view of an authority if it decided to do just that?
I must say to the Minister that it is quite a new idea that the locally elected members of local authorities will decide who has transgressed the law. Traditionally, if a member of the council is breaking the law, local authority officers do not report that fact back to the council. There is a statutory duty, if it is a financial matter, to send the papers direct to the DPP, without recourse to anyone. The local authorities do not decide in any respect who among their members can be prosecuted in issues which concern the council. That is done quite separately for obvious reasons. Therefore I do not know why it should be any different in this situation.
I think that if a particular officer is endowed with those powers, and if he has to report back, he should be in a position to act in the capacity of an official officer. We seek to stop matters at an early stage when they could possibly be stopped to everyone's benefit, instead of going through the whole rigmarole and producing thousands of cases some of which—or, I have no doubt, the majority of them—may well be thrown out. It may well be that if someone decides to put the matter right within the 21 days specified, it can be done. That would be on the basis, naturally, that the officer would report back to the local authority periodically as often as is deemed necessary. But for the Minister to stand back and say that it should be the local authority which decides for the locally elected members is a nonsense. That has never happened in local government before.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
Can the noble Lord explain the duties of the "monitoring officer". It is a new nomenclature in local government. However, if I am incorrect in that, I apologise to Members of the Committee. This monitoring officer reminds me very much of the Housing Corporation and its monitoring officers. It is a title which the corporation uses. In that case the idea of a monitoring officer is that he visits each of the housing associations once a year (twice a year, if he is not a very capable officer); a report is made; and a rating of A, B, C or D is given. If many D-ratings are received, another monitoring must be carried out.
Is this the thin end of the wedge that local authorities will come under the same kind of monitoring? Will the monitoring officer bring forward his report and give some indication of whether a department is in the A class, the B class and so on? I am not sure that I understand why we must have someone monitoring something if the information is not being gathered for statistics. If this is being done merely to pass on good advice, I should have thought that we do not need to nominate someone for that title. I may be entirely wrong in what I say, but I should be glad if the Minister could 960 tell me what the monitoring officer will do with the statistics when he has collected them.
§ 6.15 p.m.
§ Baroness Blatch
There seems to be some misunderstanding about the purpose of the clause. My noble friend Lord Renton was surprised, and I think probably also saddened, that the early clauses in the Bill were necessary. However, perhaps we should take the country as a whole and look across local authorities. Let us take, for instance, the example I gave to the Committee earlier. I heard a leading local authority member say that a member's job was to determine policy, and whether it was legal or constitutional, or illegal or unconstitutional, it was the officer's job to implement that policy.
Therefore, I think that it is very important for there to be some form of protection for the officer, who will from time to time be required, in an atmosphere of intimidation, to give advice. He may have to warn a single member, a small sub-committee or the council as a whole that they may well be heading for a situation which is unconstitutional or illegal. For that reason I think that all authorities should have someone nominated within the authority to ensure that all that the authority is doing in carrying out its functions is being done within a constitutional and legal framework.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
Can the noble Baroness enlighten me on what she really meant by her remarks? Was she talking about my remarks as regards the City of Westminster, or did she misunderstand something I said as regards the officer? Did she think I said that the officer would have to carry out something which was legal or illegal? I never attempted to convey that fact. But, if she was referring to the City of Westminster, I did not use the word "illegal"; I said that in my view the severance pay was given on the basis that no statements were made. I would not want to breach the sub judice rule, because I understand that at present an investigation is taking place in regard to a large area of the council's activities and also in regard to the types of policy which the leader of the council has adopted. That is as far as I went. I did not accuse anyone of acting illegally because I have no evidence to that effect at this point.
§ Baroness Blatch
I must make it clear that I was not referring to the City of Westminster; I was referring to any local authority anywhere contemplating either wittingly, or unwittingly, a particular proposal which may well turn out to be illegal or unconstitutional. It seems to me to be appropriate that someone within the authority should have the responsibility to advise and try to prevent such a situation from occurring. Further, where a particular member or members insist upon a particular proposal, then it is absolutely necessary to invoke this clause and to present a report. Moreover, I believe that it is right that that should go to the whole council.
There have been situations where officers have been compromised and there have certainly been 961 situations where such has been the intimidation that an officer has been reticent about publicly giving advice to an authority. I think that this Clause provides the kind of protection which at least strengthens the arm of the "proper officer", as we would call him in my authority of Cambridgeshire, where he is backed by law and has not only the authority but also the duty to tell a member, members or the authority itself where they may be going wrong.
I make my remarks simply in answer to the two points which I think were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, and the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher of Rednal. The noble Lord appeared to interpret this clause as being the only avenue for the monitoring officer to pursue. I believe that if the monitoring officer is doing his job he will try everything short of having to produce that report; in other words, he will try holding meetings, private meetings, talking to members off the record and using all the avenues which are open to him to prevent such a situation. Therefore early intervention is certainly not precluded by the clause.
The noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, asked why we needed such an officer. I have probably answered that by saying that the monitoring officer is needed as a longstop for those isolated occasions when someone is, as I said, wittingly or unwittingly unconstitutional. It is appropriate that there should be someone in the authority who has the duty to ensure that that does not happen.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
Such an officer already exists. It is the chief officer or the town clerk of the authority. I have known cases where some members have tried to pressurise junior officers in regard to planning permissions. Junior officers in the planning department have gone to their chief, who has then gone to the town clerk/chief executive, who has sent for the leader of the group involved. He warns the councillor involved to behave himself or else.
The monitor would not be able to decide whether the matter goes to court when it is a question of the law being broken. I do not see that that is his function. If someone breaks the law it is the town clerk's responsibility to invoke the necessary proceedings without asking his political masters. That point should be made clear.
§ Lord Hesketh
The noble Lord, Lord Dean, is of course correct, because, with regard to enforcement, the monitoring officer is only part of the process. When something has happened, it is up to the party who feels aggrieved to take the matter to the courts. After that, the matter has nothing to do with the monitoring officer.
The noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, referred to the descriptive term at the top of Clause 5 and asked whether the monitoring officer would just be providing friendly advice. As I said earlier, we want to reduce the number of cases. We hope that we shall be able to settle matters by giving advice rather than going to due process. That is obviously far more satisfactory in any walk of life.
962 The noble Lord, Lord Dean, asked about the forming of a sub-committee. That is legal. What is not legal is to give a single elected member the powers of the council. That is my answer to his point on the sub-committee.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
Before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may put to him one further point. For the purposes of an election the chief officer of the local authority, be it the parish clerk, the district clerk, or the county clerk, is also the returning officer, in whom statutory duties are resposed. I am not sure that we are not wasting too much time on this point about laying down guidelines under which the town clerk can say, "You do not qualify, because you do not have a residential qualification." We may have to return to this point. If the Minister is not going to rise again, we shall have to debate a t a later stage what the amendment is trying to do. On that basis I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ On Question, Whether Clause 5 stand part of the Bill?
§ Lord Renton
Perhaps I may ask my noble friend if he will be so kind—I hope that I am not being unfair—as to deal with the point I made when we dealt with the amendment that has just been withdrawn. We have here a great many administrative instructions, but, as I said, I cannot find where in the Bill there is a reference to what is to happen if, as my noble friend Lady Blatch said, something which is illegal or unconstitutional is done or not done. Fortunately, we always have the process of judicial review. The jurisdiction is always dependent upon the exact wording of the statute. Judicial review can sometimes be used and sometimes it cannot. Apart from judicial review, is there anything to which my noble friend on the Front Bench can point which will assure us that the provisions in Clause 5 can be enforced?
§ Lord Hesketh
The Government propose that the monitoring officer will draw the council's attention to any illegality. If the council persists, it is for those concerned to pursue the matter before the courts.
§ Clause 5 agreed to.
§ Clause 6 agreed to.
§ Clause 7 [All staff to be appointed on merit]:
§ Lord Carter moved Amendment No. 75:
Page 10, line 37, at end insert—
("(aa) section 15 of the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944 and section 3 of the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1958 (Provision of Sheltered Employment by Local Authorities)").
§ The noble Lord said: I should like to speak also to Amendments Nos. 76 and 77. The group of amendments is intended to ensure that nothing in Clause 7, dealing as it does with appointment on merit, will cut across such things as sheltered placement schemes or positive employment policies geared to those with physical or mental disabilities.963
§ Amendment No. 75 refers to Section 15 of the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944 and Section 3 of the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1958, which deal with the provision of employment facilities for people with disabilities. In some cases that involves the local authority acting as the employer of disabled people. Under the sheltered placement schemes, businesses provide work for disabled persons, but the sponsor is often the local authority, which is the legal employer of the disabled person.
§ Clause 7 as it stands means that jobs will be given to those who are best able to do them. That is clearly inconsistent with the aims and objects of the various placement schemes for disabled people, whose whole purpose is to provide employment for those who are unable to do jobs as well as others.
§ A similar situation occurs with mentally handicapped people, who are mentioned in Amendment No. 76. There is a growing understanding that genuine employment is the best way to help people with mental handicaps. The problem seems to arise in Clause 7(1), which refers to "employment under" a local authority. Clause 7(2)(a) refers to Sections 9 and 12 of the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944. That applies only to the registered disabled and to a maximum of 3 per cent. of the employed workforce. We are sure that it is not the Government's intention to create a discriminatory situation in the employment of disabled people by local authorities, either in the normal way or under the sheltered placement scheme. The disability organisation—I know that the Minister is aware of this—are concerned. They have helped in the drafting of the amendments which are intended to clear up the confusion.
§ Amendment No. 77 is a rounding-up amendment to ensure that there is no misunderstanding of the policy towards the employment of disabled people. As I said, I am sure that the Government do not intend that confusion, so I hope that the Minister can explain the situation for us. I beg to move.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
I rise with great pleasure to support the case made by my noble friend Lord Carter. Nothing more needs to be said about the substance of the amendments. On Second Reading, the Minister said that a placement under a sheltered placement scheme is not an appointment to the service of a local authority. My noble friend Lord Carter has pointed out the difficulties. I hope that the Minister recognises that disabled people already bear an enormous burden because of their physical incapacity. If in addition they are of an age where they would normally expect to find work and be gainfully employed there might be problems—I shall not say difficulties or disbarments.
I hope that the Minister will listen to the voices of those who seek to persuade us that the legislation, however well drawn for general purposes and general situations, bears unfairly and punitively upon those who are disabled. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, is a worthy advocate and so is the noble Lord, Lord Renton, who wants to make sure that those who have an incapacity, whether physical or mental, 964 are given fair treatment. We would also ask the Minister—and here I include the noble Lords, Lord Renton, and Lord Carter—that it be not just fair treatment but that it be more than fair treatment.
I shall listen very carefully to what the Minister has to say as to why the amendments cannot be accepted. They seek to make sure that the protections which already exist will not be superseded by the words on the face of the Bill. I think that is very important; perhaps the Minister will give a helpful answer.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
Before the Minister answers, perhaps he can tell me whether or not Sections 9 and 12 of the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944 include those people with a sensory handicap—that is, people who might be blind or partially sighted or who are suffering from deafness.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Lord Hesketh
I hope very much that by the time I sit down I shall be able to answer the point on sensory handicaps raised by the noble Baroness.
These amendments would add various provisions relating to the provision of employment facilities for the disabled to the list of enactments which are not to be overridden by the requirement that local authorities make all appointments to paid office or employment on merit.
Let me say at the outset that there is nothing between the Government and the proposers of this amendment as to the policy which should be adopted. We have no intention whatever that the requirement that local authorities should make appointments on merit should cut across the admirable work that they do in providing employment facilities for the disabled. The only difference between us is one of legislative technique in achieving this common aim.
The proposers of the amendments are concerned that, unless there is a specific disregard for these provisions, there would be a conflict between the requirement to appoint on merit and the provisions on the provision of sheltered employment when it came to offering disabled people employment in the various sheltered facilities that are provided.
We have carefully considered the point. As the Committee will see we have provided a specific disregard where a provision for the benefit of the disabled could come into conflict with the requirement to appoint on merit. These are the provisions of Sections 9 and 12 of the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944. Here the requirements about quotas and employment specifically reserved for the disabled could conflict with a requirement to appoint on merit. We have accordingly provided that the provisions for the benefit of the disabled shall prevail.
The provisions of Section 15 of the 1944 Act, as applied by Section 3 of the 1958 Act, and of Section 11(1) of the Mental Health (Scotland) Act 1984, however, are not capable of giving rise to that conflict. Section 15 is not concerned with who should be employed to do a particular job; it is about 965 providing facilities to enable the disabled to obtain employment. Likewise Section 11 is concerned with the provision of training for persons who are mentally handicapped.
The activities undertaken by local authorities for the purposes of these provisions are only capable of benefiting the disabled. There is therefore, we believe, no need to disapply the requirement to appoint on merit, since it can have no application in this field. To include the disregard of these provisions might indeed cause confusion, since it would raise the question of whether the requirement to appoint on merit could have applications in other areas where one might not think that it did.
I have no doubt that your Lordships would not welcome a lesson on statutory interpretation from me.
§ Lord Hesketh
The point is that if we include a provision saying that something does not apply when at first sight there could be no question of it applying, then we raise the question of why it was necessary to say that. And the answer will sometimes be that by a side-wind effect one has extended the scope of the original provision further than one intended. That, I believe, could happen here.
As I have said, we have no doubt that there is no clash between the requirement to appoint on merit and the provisions mentioned in the amendments. We entirely share the aims of the promoters in ensuring that the requirement to appoint on merit should not cut across the valuable work of these facilities. We do not think that it could do. We therefore believe that the amendment is possibly superfluous. It could give rise to confusion in other contexts where one would not at first think that a conflict existed. However, as always, I shall pay the greatest attention to what the noble Lord, Lord Carter, has to say on this matter, on which he is an accredited expert.
§ Lord Renton
I am sure we should all be grateful to my noble friend for that reply, including what he called his lecture on interpretation. I must say that I greatly welcomed it.
The clause is a very generous one. We must remember that it applies to every person in paid office or in the employment of a local auhority. That means not only the top executives, the accountants and the specialists of various kinds; it also applies to the office cleaners and the road sweepers. Even they must be appointed on merit, which is a fine conception.
The Government, wisely and in a caring way, have made the merit test subject to these various other provisions, especially the provisions of the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act, or at any rate Sections 9 and 12 of that Act.
In that connection, I hope that I am right in pointing out—as I believe I am—that the word "disabled" includes the mentally handicapped. Indeed, the largest single group of disabled people 966 in this country is the mentally handicapped. To an extent, that answers the point which the noble Lord, Lord Carter, was making.
So for those reasons and for the other reasons which my noble friend has given, I think that it would be better and also in the interests of those whom we are trying to help, to keep the clause as it is. For the interpretation reasons which my noble friend gave, if we accepted either Amendment No. 75 or Amendment No. 76, the clause could give rise to some confusion and lead to an unextended extension of previous statutory provisions.
I have to confess—and I am sorry to do so at this relatively late stage in the discussion on these amendments—that I am puzzled by the wording of Amendment No. 77. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, did not invite us to consider it in detail.
§ Lord Carter
I am extremely grateful to the Minister. This is one of those situations where, as the noble Lord said, all we want is the technique in order to achieve the answer on which we are all agreed. I take the point that the noble Lord made about the first two amendments. However, the third amendment, Amendment No. 77, is a rounding up amendment to make sure that the intention is clearly understood—that nothing earlier in the clause should affect the selection of any person who is disabled.
I am not sure whether the Minister would like to answer this point. If that first amendment were included, would it help to prevent the confusion? Obviously I shall not press the matter to a Division and perhaps later we could write to each other about it. But he might like to consider whether the inclusion of the third amendment in the Bill might help to prevent any confusion. Having heard his answer we are a little concerned about that, but we are reasonably happy and I therefore beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Lord Hesketh
I apologise to the noble Baroness. I am not sure that I have the entire answer to her question. However, my understanding as regards Sections 9 and 12 is that they are concerned with the registered disabled. Thus all those who are registered disabled are covered. However, I am not sure whether that satisfactorily covers her sensory point. I should be grateful if the noble Baroness will allow me to write to her on the sensory point.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn
§ [Amendments Nos. 76 and 77 not moved.]
§ Clause 7 agreed to.
§ Clause 8 [Duty to adopt standing orders with respect to staff]:
Lord Graham of Edmonton moved Amendment No. 78:
Page 11, line 6, leave out ("provision") and insert ("core provisions").
§ The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 78, I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 79, 80, 967 81, 105, 106, 107, 108 and 109, as they all have a bearing upon the amendments that I wish to move. Clause 8 lays down a duty to adopt standing orders with respect to staff. The purpose of the amendments is to limit standing orders to be imposed by regulation to specific core standing orders, while maintaining the maximum degree of local discretion.
§ I think most people recognise the value of a code of practice, a set of standing orders, or regulations which are flexible, in that they can be guidelines or they can be measures which need to be taken into account. Certainly they are always measures which can be referred to. However, that which is laid down more or less as the rule or guidance needs to be the subject of maximum consultation before it is laid down. Any provision that is laid down needs to be relevant to the job in hand.
§ The current model standing orders, which were prepared for guidance only and which do not have the force of law, were drafted in 1963. Local authorities generally have agreed that further guidance, more suited to the current scene, would be helpful. It is important to note that a local authority's own adopted standing orders are legally binding and that courts will require a local authority to comply with its own standing orders. Decisions taken in breach of these may be declared invalid.
§ The new standing orders to be prepared as regulations in accordance with the provisions of Clause 8 of the Bill will have the force of law. This principle further shifts the balance from establishing satisfactory local arrangements, with the reserve legal power to be invoked when such arrangements are clearly improper, to ensuring that local government is run as central government wish. That is the first jib. Those of us on both sides of the Committee who have experience of local government will, I hope, support the general premise that I am taking in these amendments, which is that we should be careful before we shifted every single aspect of town hall power and direction. We should be careful before we establish leads coming from the centre rather than leaving them in local hands.
§ The White Paper, in addressing such issues as standing orders, members' allowances, pecuniary interests and the national code of local government conduct, proposes that discussions should be held with local authority representatives to explore the extent to which local government is prepared to introduce changes on a voluntary basis or to agree a basis for legislation at a later date. The underlying presumption as regards both the draft legislation and discussions between the local authority associations and the Department of the Environment has been that the most serious issues will be addressed through legislation. There is little reserve about the powers in the Bill.
§ I make the general case that, rather than plunging into legislation, the Government should stand back and see how local authorities respond to a new set of standing orders prepared for guidance. In many areas a consensus has been reached within the locality, if not on details at least on principles. I believe that the Minister, and certainly his advisers, will understand that we are sensitive about, first, the 968 purpose of this clause and, secondly, the extent to which standing orders relating to staff will be enshrined in their totality in this clause. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's response to the amendments. I beg to move.
§ 6.45 p.m.
§ Lord Renton
It may be that with increasing longevity I failed to take on board the ever, increasing richness of our language. But I must confess that I am unable to tell what is the difference in the statute between a provision and a core provision. It may be that I have missed something out. I ask this question rhetorically to see whether any Member of the Committee can give an answer; we are after all only at the Committee stage. Has this become a term of art in our statutory language, or is it just an attempt by the noble Lord, who is always trying to help, to add a new concept to local government law? What is the difference in statutory effect between a provision and a core provision? That is my first comment on these amendments. Quite frankly I doubt—I shall not go into detail at the moment—whether Amendment No. 80 is necessary, bearing in mind the provisions we already have in Clause 8(1), and elsewhere in the Bill, where we find the power on the part of the Secretary of State to make regulations. I would very much doubt whether it is necessary to add this further power.
As for leaving out subsection (3) of Clause 8, which is very long and detailed, I must say that I find that the most attractive of the amendments which the noble Lord is to move. If it were possible to do without this mass of detail in subsection (3), I should say very good luck to him.
§ Baroness Blatch
I hesitate to rise because I thought we were going to have a definition of the word "core". I have the same difficulty as my noble friend Lord Renton.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
I shall try to help the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. Both the noble Lord, Lord Renton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, will be very familiar with the word "core" because they supported the concept of the core curriculum. Members of the Committee remember that term immediately, now that I have reminded them of it. While this may well be a modern manner in which to be precise, I should say that the idea of a core curriculum, as opposed to referring to matters within a curriculum, and were, the idea of core provisions, is to give strength to a basic group of provisions which can be added to if, in the light of experience, one needs to expand on them. That is the concept here. The provisions here could very well be limited, more precisely defined and then agreed upon.
§ Lord Renton
I am sure that we are very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Graham, for giving us the reason for his ingenuity. But I do not think, with great respect, that his analogy is quite correct, because there are so many different kinds of provisions. If we start saying that some are of greater weight than others and some are more central than others, I should have thought we would be getting into very fine and artificial distinctions, whereas, on 969 the curriculum, we are not dealing with such a wide spectrum. We are dealing with a number of subjects which can be the subject of education. I should have thought that in that case the use of the word "core" in relation to curriculum was justifiable, as everyone felt when the Education Bill went through, although noble Lords opposite did not agree with the concept of picking out those particular subjects. But I think that in the context of this Bill to use the expression "core provision" could be confusing.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, I am rather taken aback by the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, who is so expert on legislation. He says that it would be wrong to give some elements more weight than others. All legislation gives some elements more weight than others; it puts some on the face of the Bill and some in schedules and it allocates some to regulations. Legislation by this Government is almost entirely by regulation, presumably on the basis that it is given less weight than provisions which appear on the face of the Bill.
The Government propose that every single item of standing orders for a local authority shall be laid down by government. We do not really like it, but we shall have to agree to provision for the Government to lay down core standing orders—those which they consider to be essential for every local authority. However, local authorities may have separate or local needs. They may need to add other items which should not be in conflict with the core standing orders, and local authorities ought to have the right to do so. I do not think that in moving the amendment my noble friend has said anything out of keeping with existing legislative procedures or the way in which local authorities operate.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I shall set aside that point and the definition of "core". I think that we could go round in circles discussing whether it has a proper place in the amendment.
I wish to address a different point. One of the most important tasks of any local authority is to employ good staff to provide the services that have been determined by the membership of the local authority. Again we come back to the distinction between the roles of members of the council and the roles of officers. As someone who has worked in and been a member of a local authority, I have to admit that there is a temptation to involve oneself in the appointment of officers. It is a natural temptation. Some members do so for the wrong reasons: they believe that appointing someone friendly to their political views is the way forward. Some of us believe that appointment on merit is the way forward, subject to the criteria which we discussed earlier in relation to the disabled and racial and sexual discrimination. But we have to resist the temptation to become involved if we want our authority to run efficiently.
Despite the length of this clause—and my noble friend Lord Renton constantly chides us on the length and size of Bills—I believe that to have a specific and precise framework within which to 970 appoint staff in local authorities is helpful to both members and officers.
If members carry out their proper functions—namely, determining policy and priorities—their only other occupation is to see that those policies are properly carried out. If staff are appointed on merit, subject to the caveat of the previous clause, the chances are that the authority's performance will be sound. The mechanism by which members ensure that the right staff are imposed involves measuring the quality of services and output of the authority. It is important that systems of accountability are put in place so that the officers making the appointments are accountable to the membership of the authority for the performance of their various departments and of the council as a whole.
The duty of the officers is to carry out the will of the council. The quality of the service to the customer is the concern of the membership. Members should resist the temptation to become too involved in the day-to-day management of the authority. With the kind of framework set out in the Bill it is much easier for such a system of accountability to operate and for the distinction between officers and members and their particular roles to be made very clear. For that reason I hope that the amendments will be resisted. I shall certainly support the clause.
§ Lord Hesketh
My Lords, the amendments conveniently form a package, since they would make very similar alterations to Clause 8, which deals with requirements for standing orders affecting staff, and to Clause 19, which deals with requirements for other standing orders.
The first twin pairs of amendments—Amendments Nos. 78 and 79, and 105 and 106—would replace the present references to "provisions" with a reference to "core provisions". I am reluctant to debate matters of style with the noble Lord. My view is that we should be guided by the expert parliamentary draftsmen and not put unnecessary words into the Bill. However, I suspect that I shall have to fall back on the support of my noble friend Lord Renton, who has his doubts about the use of the word "core" in these circumstances.
It is quite clear that these provisions are intended to be a core to which local authorities would be free to add such other items as they think fit. There is, for example, no suggestion that the provisions will impair the ability of local authorities to make standing orders under their other powers in so far as those other standing orders do not conflict with those required under these two clauses. Indeed, one of the tasks of the joint working group of local authority and departmental representatives is to revise the set of model standing orders last revised over a quarter of a century ago and to offer guidance on how matters not dealt with under these clauses may best be drafted. I therefore suggest that this aspect of the Bill should be left as it is.
The next pair of amendments—Amendments Nos. 80 and 107—would, in almost identical words, limit the power under the clauses. Instead of allowing local authorities generally to be required to make standing orders on certain lines dealing with staff 971 matters and other procedural questions, they would permit action to be taken only in the case of specific authorities where it could be shown that such action was necessary to preserve the probity of the authority's operations.
In relation to staff matters this seems to us to be the wrong approach. We do not say that there is widespread concern about the probity of personal operations of local authorities. We do say that there is increasing politicisation of local authorities. In those circumstances, the Government believe that it is prudent to introduce controls generally to reinforce traditional standards so that the spread of politicisation does not lead to any drop in the high standards which local authorities have established over many years. The government proposal is intended to prevent problems developing rather than to cure them after they have arisen, which seems to be the intention of the noble Lord's amendment.
In the past we have been able to rely on the innate tradition and good sense of local authority councillors and officers. When the whole environment becomes more sharply politicised, such virtues are put under strain. The basic thrust of the Widdicombe Report was that such strains should be resisted by making more formal the rules under which local authorities have operated.
The appointment of staff is one area where this is important. We have built up a great tradition in local government. We want to maintain that tradition. If the natural pressures of increased politicisation may undermine it, we think that action generally is needed, rather than waiting until the signs are manifest that the horse has bolted and then trying to shut the stable door.
The scope of Clause 8 as drafted is wider than matters of probity alone. Clause 8 proposes limited but necessary rules on the appointment, discipline and dismissal of staff. So far as concerns appointments, the matters to be covered would include, for example, the posts which may be reserved for appointment procedures involving councillors and a requirement that the councillors involved in interviewing and taking decisions on appointments should reflect the composition of the council.
Clause 8 also provides that standing orders may require councillors to consider an independent report before taking a decision and that no disciplinary action can be taken which is more severe than that recommended in the independent report. I urge the Committee to resist the amendment.
Turning to Clause 19, the new provision would again limit action under the the clause to individual cases where it was needed to ensure probity. I do not think that that would be right here either. The clause concerns standing orders. The purpose of standing orders is, among other things, to hold the balance between the dispatch of business and the rights of minorities. We believe that there is an advantage in ensuring that certain minimum standards of protection of the rights of minorities should be built into all local authority standing orders. This is another case where the pressures of politicisation have led to the disappearance of 972 traditions of even-handedness. There are cases where the rules have been manipulated, denying minorities the right to put their case. I am prepared to accept that that is not the prerogative of any one party, but wherever it has happened it should stop. In many councils such arrangements are not necessary, at least yet.
We believe that there may well be a case for allowing any such otherwise mandatory arrangements to be set aside by general agreement. I understand that the working group to which I referred earlier has made good progess towards devising such a system.
I therefore do not believe that intervention by the Secretary of State on a case-by-case basis would be right; nor do I think that probity is the right description for what we are aiming at. That has the overtones of preventing corruption and, while noble Lords used that word yesterday in an extended or antique sense to describe situations to which they objected, I do not think that it properly covers the aim of the proposed core provisions; namely, that of holding a balance between the dispatch of business and the rights of minorities.
I turn next to the amendments that would delete the existing proposals—Amendment No. 81, which would remove subsection (3) of Clause 8, and Amendment No. 108, which would delete subsection (2) of Clause 19. Amendment No. 81 is consequential on the new subsection, but it also has the unfortunate consequence that it removes the list in Clause 8(3) of specific topics with respect to staff which the Secretary of State can by regulations require local authorities to adopt. By removing the list, it introduces doubt as to whether the regulations covering the matters referred to in Clause 8(3) would be within the scope of the power which the amendment does not otherwise alter.
On the other hand, Amendment No. 108 would remove certain improvements to the statutory provisions on council procedure. What these amendments would delete is rather different in kind to the provisions that the similar amendment to Clause 8 would delete. Subsection (2) would enable three changes to be made to the provisions in Schedule 12 of the Local Government Act 1972 which would govern the proceedings of local authorities. These have come out of the deliberations of the joint local authority working group on standing orders which has been meeting throughout this year. The Government are therefore responding to requests from the local authorities rather than trying to impose something that is not wanted.
Finally, Amendment No. 109 would return to the old scheme of consultations. I hope that what I have been saying has shown that, on both these clauses, real consultation is already taking place. The working party has been meeting and has made good progress. I very much hope that there will be a high degree of agreement on the detail that is proposed by and emerges from that working party. For those reasons, I urge the Committee to reject the amendments.
§ 7 p.m.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
I am grateful to the Minister for the care and time that he has taken to 973 make his case and demolish mine. However, it is quite breathtaking to say, on the one hand, that the working party, which was created without the force of law in 1963, has been looking at the guidance for standing orders—the noble Lord paid tribute more than once to the collaboration and good progress that has been made—and, on the other hand, that, "In the meantime, we have decided that, with the force of law, we shall include in the Bill matters that may well be to the liking of the working party". I can assure the Committee that some of those matters are not to the liking of certain elements in the working party.
I believe that that attitude displays a certain arrogance on the part of the Government. They are so concerned to put across their own point of view and to exercise their own political nostrums in this field that they are not prepared to wait and do the decent thing; namely, to satisfy either by legislation or in some other way, the wishes of the people at the sharp end.
The Minister tells us that this issue stems from the increased politicisation in local government which he and his colleagues have noted and disliked. Perhaps he will tell us what kind of regulations will be promulgated to deal with the disgraceful situation at Westminster Council about which we now know. Will he tell us what he and his colleagues had in mind to deal with that and similar situations? I hope that that situation is unique. It is certainly disgraceful. If it is unique and perhaps unforeseen by the Minister, that could well be an excuse, but it is not the kind of situation that is being revealed. As the Minister knows, there is more to come. When that has been revealed, how does he intend to explain matters?
The purpose of the debate is to try to encourage the Minister to tell us what he has in mind. What regulations and standing orders will be brought forward? In opening the debate, I said that the principles enshrined in Clause 8 shift the burden which has hitherto been held locally on to the Minister and his colleagues, so it will now be held centrally. That is another illustration of the Government's refusal to allow local government of whatever persuasion the right and ability to be flexible. That is why we referred to the core provisions, although that may be a clumsy phrase, which are central, basic and could be added to rather than having to enshrine every item in statute.
The Minister said that that was not the case. He said that there would be two sets of standing orders. There would be standing orders that comply with the Bill and, if a local authority wishes, there will also be local by-laws or local standing orders. If that is the case, the provisions prescribed by the Minister and his colleagues will be the core provisions which can be added to by a local ordinance.
All that the Minister has demonstrated to the Committee and to people in local government is that what they experience at the sharp end, in practice, will not prevail. We hope that there will, at least initially, be something whose relationship to reality it is possible to assess. If that turned out to be 974 accurate, there would be no disturbance, but, if practice showed that there was a need for addition—that would be done by consultation—that would be possible.
We have other evidence that the practice of Conservative politicians at the sharp end of power varies greatly from the aspirations of the Minister and his colleagues at the Dispatch Box as regards what they want to see happening in local government. There is a long course to run in the Bill. There will be many opportunities for us to remind noble Lords and the Minister that he has some difficulty in bridging what he tells us he wants to see in local government and what we know certain elements of local government under the control of the Conservatives are doing.
Perhaps the Minister will deal with one question: what kind of regulations will be laid down under the clause to deal with the situation at Westminster?
§ Lord Hesketh
I have had to cover a familiar piece of ground again today. Noble Lords opposite constantly refer to a television programme that was broadcast last night while I was here in the House. I arrived at the department this morning and, surprising though it may seem, I have not had a chance to read a newspaper today. The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, then asked me a hypothetical question about what we shall do about allegations in a newspaper. It is with the greatest sorrow and respect that I must tell him that it is physically and mentally quite impossible for me to provide an answer to his question, much as I should like to do so.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
I appreciate the difficulty. Perhaps I may draw the Minister's attention to an article in one of today's newspapers which does not concern allegations, In a debate yesterday evening, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, was concerned about the manner in which certain headmistresses and deputies exercised political influence that was outwith what she considered to be the bounds of propriety in respect of their duties. The newspaper article to which I referred states:Conservative Central Office is planning a campaign this autumn to put pressure on heads and teachers to make a `Conservative educational agenda effective in their day-to-day work' in schools. Mr. Peter Morrison, deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, has set up a special unit inside Central Office to increase party political influence in schools, contrary to the official stance of the Government to keep politics out of education. The Conservatives' initiative has been disclosed in a letter leaked from Central Office to Tory MPs seeking help to launch the campaign".Further on in the report there is evidence from a Mr. John Spiers:who Central Office confirmed last night was working for the Better Schools Unit set up in April. Mr. Spiers says that Mr. Morrison has invited him to edit a new termly Conservative publication for school governors, to be launched in September. Central Office confirmed yesterday that this was going ahead".I realise that that is just one remove from an allegation. I appreciate that the Minister said that he was not familiar with it. However, against that background we on these Benches are puzzled, on the one hand to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and the Minister say that they are determined to 975 keep politics out of local government and schools; yet on the other hand to have evidence that by another underhand way they are attempting to introduce politics.
§ Lord Hesketh
It is my recollection, and I hope that I am not wrong, that the noble Lord, Lord Graham, supported the Government's position when I responded last night to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. I find the noble Lord's remarks rather confusing. He is now taking a new line and presenting evidence in a different light.
Lord Harris of Geenwich
I have just one thing to say to the noble Lord. I recognise the heavy pressure that he must be under in dealing with this Bill and that he did not have quite as much time as he would have liked to read this morning's newspapers and the quite extraordinary set of allegations that have been made against the leadership of Westminster City Council.
I should like to put one point to him. Let us assume for a moment that the programme in question had been about a Left-wing Labour council which behaved in anything approaching the same degree of gross impropriety as was involved in Westminster Council. Does the Minister agree that in that case one of his officials would have drawn his attention to the matter before he came to this debate today in order to strengthen his arguments? I find it very surprising that not a single official from his department drew his attention to that matter. Is that what he is saying to the Committee?
§ Lord Hesketh
If the Committee had been lucky enough to have had the attendance of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, during its other sittings, he would know that I have gone to a great deal of trouble from the very start of this Bill in order not to reduce the debate to a low level slanging match about who said what or did what. I have gone to a great deal of trouble to do that. I had hoped that in a way we might have avoided going on to an area which I feel will be completely unproductive to the Committee. I should like to think that the noble Lords, Lord Graham and Lord McIntosh, are conscious of the effort that I have made in that direction and possibly appreciate it.
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
I should appreciate it more if the Minister had made any attempt to answer the question that I put to him. It is not a matter of a low level debate. We are discussing an extraordinary set of allegations made against the leadership of the Westminster City Council. The Minister was asked a question by the noble Lord, Lord Graham, and he has not answered it. I put to him that I find it quite incredible that on an important matter of this character, which is highly relevant to the issues that we have been debating on this Bill, the noble Lord has nothing whatever to say; whereas, in fact we all know perfectly well that if that programme had concerned either Liverpool City Council or Islington Borough Council the noble Lord would have an immense amount to tell the Committee.
§ Baroness Blatch
I, too, am blissfully ignorant of the programme that was screened last night; neither have I read the press this morning which apparently catalogues the happenings at Westminster Council. I understand that the situation in Westminster is sub judice anyway. There is an inquiry taking place at the moment and until there is some proof of what has happened I should prefer to reserve my judgment. However, if any impropriety has occurred, I should like to think that these parts of the Bill apply as much to Westminster City Council as to any other council.
With regard to my amendment last night which referred to head teachers and their deputies, I believe that I probably upset as many Conservatives across the country as I did Labour and Liberal colleagues, who are concerned about what they see as a restriction of the freedom of teachers to become involved in local politics.
I happen to hold a very strong personal view that being involved in local politics is something in which teachers should not engage, whether they are Conservative, Liberal or Socialist. I believe it is imcompatible with the professional work of a teacher. I said that I was not in the business of cataloguing abuses because as long as it is legal to do so anybody who becomes involved in local politics is not in fact abusing his or her position. I think it is important to get the record straight. I was not accusing anybody of abuse. I was simply saying that dabbling in local politics is in compatible with the professional job of a teacher.
I should like to think that, whatever the complexion of the authority—be it Conservative Liberal, Labour or any other party—wherever impropriety takes place or unconstitutional or illegal behaviour—it will covered by this Bill.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
I should like to respond to the specific point made by the Minister when he challenged me to agree with him that he had not been taking specific cases and had not been making particular allegations about individual councils. That is certainly correct and I can confirm that. That applies also to the noble Earl, Lord Caithness.
On the other hand, a number of his colleagues on his Back Benches have been making such allegations. It is difficult to believe that some of these comments have not been orchestrated and that the Conservative Party as a whole, if not the Government, has not been attempting, as it has been over a number of years, to blacken the names of a very large number of Labour councils by exaggerating the faults of a very few.
I think it is necessary to say that in this Bill the Government are proposing very drastic restrictions on the freedom of action of local authorities. We do not feel that it would be wrong for the Government to give examples of the abuses that they are seeking to correct with this Bill. Our complaint is the opposite of that which the Minister seems to think we are making. We do not say that he is blackening the name of individual local authorities; we say that he is not giving evidence—other than the evidence 977 that we have given about Conservative councils and Westminster City Council in particular—that such abuses exist or that they exist on a scale to justify the provisions of this Bill.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
I shall certainly be withdrawing the amendment in due course. I share the view of my noble friend regarding the tenor of the Minister's remarks and conduct in these matters. These Benches did not ask for this Bill. The Minister's arguments on a Second Reading did not persuade us at all, nor has the manner in which this issue has been debated. The Bill has been brought forward by the Conservative Party with the clear intention to deal with what it believes is the rottenness in the conduct of local government, especially in Labour-controlled areas.
Certainly we expect evidence to be produced. Then we should have the job of evaluating it, perhaps agreeing with much of it and defending it. I do not believe that anyone in this Chamber ought to be upset (certainly these Benches are not) at the robustness of a debate which names names and cites places. Otherwise the Committee would be composed of charlatans.
We are dealing with a situation in which we literally have the power of life and death over councils, councillors and council officers. The ability to earn a living can be a matter of life or death. We therefore take the Bill very seriously indeed.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, told the Committee last night—and I challenged her for evidence to support her point of view—that substantially this Bill was endorsed by a very large number of people who had attended the Conservative educational conference earlier this year. I simply say that that was evidence of support. I certainly hope that it is not the view of the majority. She is entitled to persist in her personal view, but I hope that she sees the evidence that I have read into the record from one of the local papers. If it is correct, or if she wants to confirm it, I hope that she will get in touch with Central Office and say, "If this is true, I deplore it and intend to stand up in the House of Lords and denounce it at every opportunity".
If she were to do that there would certainly not be rejoicing on this side of the Committee but there would be agreement. We have had a good debate. It has not been a very satisfactory one and we reserve the right to come back at a later stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 79 to 81 not moved.]
Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 82:
Page 11, line 32, leave out ("proposed").
§ The noble Lord said: With Amendment No. 82 I should like to speak also to Amendments Nos. 83, 84 and 85. We made substantial changes yesterday to the definition of politically restricted posts. To that extent the rather extreme powers and duties that are given to the monitoring officers under Clause 8 978 of the Bill are not as serious as they would have been had the Committee not taken the decision that it did about the salary bar on politically restricted posts. However, it still seems to us that the provision that the monitoring officer should be required to prepare a report to the authority in respect of every proposed appointment of a person to a politically restricted post goes much too far. Our amendments attempt to simplify and reduce this intervention by the monitoring officer both to a level which is administratively feasible rather than bureaucratically impossible and to a level which is politically meaningful and which would produce effective results.
§ Amendment No. 82 leaves out the word "proposed" and restricts the intervention of the monitoring officer to a person selected for appointment. If the monitoring officer is to involve himself with every candidate for a politically restricted post presumably it will not be enough for him just to add some inquisitive questions about politicial activities to the candidate's application form. He will have to go further. If he is to be satisfied, he will have to verify that the candidate's claims are true and that the candidate has not been involved in political activity that he is not admitting. Other parts of a candidate's application are verified by the use of referees. What will the monitoring officer do to satisfy himself that these candidates, these proposed appointments, do not offend against the standing orders regarding staff?
§ Amendment No. 83 seeks to restrict the category of politically restricted posts to chief officers deputy chief officers or third tier management posts in respect of any matters which may be relevant to the political restriction applying to that post. We talked about the black and white nature of the political restriction provisions in the Bill and how much worse it is than the Civil Service code of practice. As the Bill is drafted at the moment, the monitoring officer has a quite impossible task. In respect of all candidates for restricted posts he has the task of applying the full range of limitations of political activity; whereas if the Civil Service example were used, those restrictions could be used selectively. They could be used more severely when appropriate, and less severely when appropriate.
§ Amendment No. 84 would restrict his intervention to where there are one or more elected members on the panel. If the appointment is to be made by officers, presumably they are senior officers to whom the restrictions on political activity already apply. To accuse them—which appears to be implied in the clause at the moment—of political bias in making the appointments seems to us quite unjust and excessive in the light of any evidence that has been produced about any level of abuse.
Finally, Amendment No. 85 brings the matter together by suggesting that the words,
when it appears to him that any contravention of standing orders may have occurred",
should be added. That means that it will not be necessary for the monitoring officer in a well run authority—and it has been agreed on all sides of the Chamber that virtually all are well run authorities with the exception, of course, of Westminster City
Council—to intervene in every single case of an appointment. The amendment will give him the discretion only to intervene and to make a report to the authority when it appears to him that any contravention of standing orders may have occurred.
§ These are rational limitations on what would otherwise be not only an excessive bureaucratic power but an excessive intervention in the normal process of appointment of staff in the local authority service. I beg to move.
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ Lord Hesketh
Amendment No. 82 proposes the deletion of the word "proposed" before the word "appointment" in Clause 8(3)(c). The effect of the amendment would be that the monitoring officer would be required to submit a report only on an appointment to a politically restricted post after the appointment had been made. There would be no time limit by which the report was required.
The amendment raises the question of the best way of making sure that, where councillors are involved in making appointments, everything is done properly. We believe that it is desirable that the monitoring officer should apply his mind to every case and say positively that everything is satisfactory before the appointment is made. To do so afterwards would simply be too late.
We feel that it is enough for the monitoring officer to sign a clearance report without having to submit it before the appointment is confirmed. This should ensure that, except where an appointment has not been properly made, appointments are not delayed.
Amendment No. 83 would limit the scope of the standing orders that the Secretary of State can require local authorities to adopt. Clause 8 would authorise the Secretary of State to make regulations requiring relevant authorities to make standing orders requiring, among other matters, their monitoring officer to prepare a report to the authority in respect of every proposed appointment of a person to a politically restricted post. The amendment proposes that such standing orders could apply only to proposed appointments down to third tier management posts within a local authority. The monitoring officer would have to report only on matters considered relevant to the restriction applying to that post.
The Government's intention is that this power to require a report by the monitoring officer should be used only in respect of posts where councillors are involved in the appointment process. We believe that the public should in those circumstances be entitled to confirmation that no unlawful actions have been taken.
To understand the importance of this safeguard, we have to look at the underlying rationale for the whole clause. The Widdicombe Report confirmed the generally acceptable view that party politics are playing an ever more important role in local authorities. The increasing politicisation imposes strains on the long-standing traditions of local government. One of the areas into which these pressures are very likely to spill over is the appointment of staff. We think that it is desirable to 980 strengthen the safeguards to ensure that the tradition of an impartial local government service supporting the whole council is maintained.
The arrangements whereby the monitoring officer has to check and report that all is well seems a useful element in this strengthening. We do not think that it imposes too great a burden on the monitoring officer. He will not personally have to attend every meeting to appoint staff. He will need to ensure that there is a place in the system that is designed to bring to his attention any questionable cases. But with such a system in place he will be able to rely on it. In line with our general approach there is no question of giving a monitoring officer power to override the council. If he cannot give a clean bill of health there will be a report and it will then be for the authority itself to decide what to do. If it wishes to press ahead despite the report it will be free to do so. There is therefore no question of giving the monitoring officer a veto.
The joint government/local authority working party has already been considering the details of these proposals for some months. I understand that it has reached general agreement on the details of the scheme. In due course this will be reported to Ministers and the local authority associations. There will then be an opportunity for further consideration before the details are converted into regulations.
I believe that this shows that the scheme is workable and should be acceptable to the vast majority of those concerned. In short, we think that this positive report that all is well has an important part to play in strengthening the tradition whereby local government staff serve a council of any political complexion impartially. We think that the duty to report should be positive so that in every case someone has the answer to the question, "Is all well?" We think that the duty should cover not only questions of whether standing orders have been complied with but also whether other statutory provisions have been observed and whether any relevant considerations have been taken into account. I therefore resist the amendment.
Amendment No. 84 would appear to be aimed at restricting the power under Clause 8 to require the monitoring officer to report on appointments to cases where the interviewing panel would include elected members.
The Government's proposals extend only to requiring such a report in cases where members have been included in the appointment process. That is not quite the same as saying that it would be restricted to cases where members have formed part of the interviewing panel. There is no requirement that the interviewing panel should necessarily be the organ of the local authority that actually makes the appointment. And there are other earlier stages in the process where members might be involved, such as selecting the short list or settling the terms of the advertisement.
I do not think that there is any particular mystery about the Government's proposals under this clause. A joint working party between government and the local authority associations has been working at this 981 for some months now. Drafts have received wide circulation and comment.
An amendment such as the one proposed would not restrict necessarily the introduction under this clause of measures other than it specified since the whole of subsection (3) is illustrative and without prejudice to the general provision of subsection (1). I do not therefore think that as a legislative technique it is very sensible to try to restrict an illustrative example of a use that might be made of a wider power. Therefore the amendment would go too far in resricting both the posts which might be covered and the nature of the matters to be considered.
Amendment No. 85 would add to the provision that the monitoring officer may be required to report on appointments the restriction that this was only to be done where he considers that there has been a contravention of standing orders. This amendment shows some misunderstanding of the relationship between paragraphs (c) and (d) of subsection (3) of this clause.
Paragraph (c) introduces the idea of the monitoring officer making a report on appointments to politically restricted posts. Paragraph (d) goes on to spell out the content of those reports. The first subparagraph identifies as a matter to be covered whether the appointment can be made without contravention of any provision made by or under Part I of the Bill. These provisions will include the standing orders relating to the appointment of staff for which this clause provides. The Bill therefore already provides for reports by the monitoring officer to address the question of whether standing orders have been contravened.
The purpose of the amendment therefore seems to be to rule out any need for the monitoring officer to make a report if the standing orders have not been contravened. I can see that there is an argument for having a report only if there is something to which attention needs to be called. However, I think that there are two reasons why we should not adopt that approach.
First, paragraph (d) requires the monitoring officer to address a wider range of questions than simply whether standing orders have been breached. In the first place he is directed to consider other provisions in Part I. Principal among these will be the requirement in Clause 7 that all appointments shall be made on merit. Secondly, he is directed to consider whether any irrelevant considerations appear to have been taken into account.
The amendment would restrict him to reporting only where there is a breach of standing orders. These other points, which are of equal concern, will not necessarily arise in the context of a breach of standing orders. I therefore suggest that the amendment will impair the aim of ensuring that there is a check that all is well in the appointment of senior staff.
Secondly, we think that there is merit in having a positive check that all is well. This is the practice in the Civil Service: appointments are certified by the independent Civil Service Commission. The monitoring officer would in any event have a duty 982 to report under Clause 5 if he was of the opinion that the council were proposing to act in an illegal way. What this provision adds s the positive safeguard of a check. The monitoring officer will be required to address his mind in every case to the question of whether everything has been done properly.
We do not have any proposals to use the power to introduce reports on monitoring officers on appointments and cases where it has not already been discussed in a joint working party. It may be that when we come to discuss the outcome of the working party with the local authority associations other ideas will surface. Subject to that caveat, which must go with all proper consultations, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
I have two difficulties with that response. First, it reminds me of nothing so much as the Left wing GLC and the Islington, Haringey and Camden borough councils having their women's and race relations committees. In every report it was their job to say that there was no race relations or sex discrimination. It mattered not whether it was the provision of a sliding pole for a fire station or any other non-controversial business.
The Government are introducing a provision which will inevitably become a nonsense. Even if no positive report is made, in the vast majority of councils which are well run the monitoring officer will find himself repetitiously, expensively and frequently doing totally unnecessary work.
Secondly, the Minister is throwing us titbits from the process of joint consultation with the local authorities. He is asking us to be satisfied not only that the final regulations will meet our objections—a point which he did not effectively answer—but that they will also be satisfactory to the local authority associations. We have no assurance on either of these points. We are being asked to take on trust a process of negotiation which ought to have been completed before the Bill was introduced. By introducing the Bill and giving the Secretary of State virtually unlimited powers to make such regulations as he thinks fit the department is interfering in the consultation process which, as the Minister rightly said, is already taking place and which I am glad to hear is proceeding well.
There were scraps of comfort in the Minister's reply—for example, the involvement of elected members in the appointment process. I must read his reply carefully before deciding whether to bring back the matter at a later stage. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 83 to 86 not moved.]
§ Clause 8 agreed to.
§ Clause 9 [Assistants for political groups]:
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 87:
Page 12, line 39, at end insert—
("(1A) The following provisions of this section shall apply to any authority which has not, with the concurrence of any
minority party or parties (as the case may be) agreed or confirmed having obtained the advice of officers such local arrangements for the provision of political assistants to elected members as it may consider appropriate.").
§ The noble Lord said. This is another example of heavy-handed intervention by the Government in the affairs of local authorities particularly those affairs which really concern them and no one else. The clause lays down that assistants for political groups shall be restricted to not more than three on any council. There is also a restriction on salary which we shall deal with in the next amendment.
§ The purpose of tabling the amendment is to demonstrate the fact that there are a large number of councils—I have been given examples, particularly from Scotland—where the provision of only three political assistants would mean that nearly half the Scottish local authorities would be unable to allocate political assistants to all the representative groups. Therefore, a large number of councillors organised in political groupings would be deprived of political assistants.
§ I appreciate that some Members of the Committee believe that there should be no political assistants. I had anticipated amendments from Government Back-Benchers prohibiting all political assistants. On behalf of the Minister I am relieved that that is not the case. However, it is a nonsense to have political assistants under these restrictions which mean that they are not available on a fair and equal basis to political groups of all types.
§ The amendment is not put forward in the interests of the Labour Party. It has a large number of councils either in majority or as the largest opposition party and therefore inevitably receives political assistance. It is tabled on behalf of those benighted parties such as the Social Democratic Party which is now down to about 12 councillors in England. I should not like to see them deprived of political assistants although I am sure that the calibre of their councillors is such that they can do without them.
§ However, the restriction is unfair. With adequate precautions we propose that where there is a decision of a full council acting on the advice of officers—in other words, reflecting the position of political groups in the council, agreed or confirmed on the advice of officers—there should be different provisions for political assistants and local councils should have the ability to appoint them. After all, if they kick over the traces and appoint too many political assistants there is no doubt that they will be criticised publicly and that they run a severe risk of that being used against them at a subsequent election. There is always the democratic process to be borne in mind as the ultimate deterrent to abuse. However, surely a full council acting on the advice of officers could hardly be accused of abuse. The present provisions are much too restrictive and in our view should be modified in the way proposed by this amendment. I beg to move.
§ Lord Trafford
I hate to disappoint the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. I am one of those who in general does not like the idea of political assistants. I accept that they have a part to play and I accept that since the late 1960s or possibly early 1970s they have 984 been accepted in central government—brought in by Ministers as advisers. However, when we are talking of political assistants we should distinguish between two types. The first type is those who are paid by party organisations or other organisations and are not in any sense a charge on the authority concerned, and in this case we are talking about a local authority. I believe that it would be very difficult to deal with a situation like that. That would be unfair to the small or smaller parties. In terms of their general national organisation or finances, there would be difficulty in providing remuneration for those people. However we are not talking about those people but about paid employees.
I think I am right in saying that, although this came from the Widdicombe Committee, in the White Paper the Government rejected the idea of political advisers. However, after due consideration with local authorities, they came round to accept this modified form of only three. Therefore, it was almost predictable that the noble Lord would move an amendment which suggests that we should have more than three for two reasons.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
Nothing in my amendment says that there should be more than three. There could be fewer than three if that seems appropriate.
§ Lord Trafford
Perhaps I should have said that it would have been predictable for the noble Lord to try to change the numbers or make them flexible in the sense that a local authority should decide how many it wished to appoint.
To my mind, the objection to this is that the local authority could then, by various manoeuvrings, if it so wished employ a very large number of such people. The noble Lord puts in the amendment the protection—and I see the point—of the agreement of officers which adds some weight to the amendment. I am now speaking as one of those who the noble Lord suspected was sitting on these Benches. I do not like the idea of publicly paid political advisers to party political groups on local councils. I believe that that allows or could allow—and I do not say that it would—a creeping number of this particular type of person in publicly paid employment for the purpose of promoting party political activities.
I must confess that I much prefer the original White Paper suggestion that none of those people should be employed to the Government's present agreement after consultation that three such people should be allowed. Therefore on the grounds of personal prejudice and the practicality of the likely consequences, I hope that the Government will resist this amendment.
§ 7.45 p.m.
§ Lord Hesketh
The effect of Amendment No. 87 would be that a local authority, with the agreement of all parties and after having obtained officer advice, could opt out of the restrictions on the appointment of assistants to political groups and adopt such alternative local arrangements as they wish. We believe that such matters as the number, remuneration and allocation of such posts need to 985 be regulated. This was the view of the Widdicombe Committee. We believe the amendment would lead to a proliferation of such posts, which could in individual authorities lead to the creation of alternative administrations within the council, not responsible to the council as a whole but to a particular political party group.
This would be an inappropriate use of public funds and could seriously undermine the position of the permanent staff of the council. We believe that it was proper to follow the pattern for special advisers in central government who are subject to careful limits on numbers, pay, functions and length of appointment.
Furthermore, on this amendment it is true that I like to think I am the voice of moderation between the appeals of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, and the views held by my noble friend Lord Trafford. It may be that the number of three is about right. Therefore, I hope that the Committee will resist the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
If the Minister is going to be moderate, he should accept that the Government's position is rather extreme, that the noble Lord, Lord Trafford, is really extreme and that I am the moderate in this matter, as is so often the case.
The Minister has not really answered my point that there are a large number of councils—and I can give some Scottish examples—where the number of political groups is quite large and where the restriction of three would mean that a significant number of councillors in political groups would be deprived. I only give the number for groups in the regional councils in Scotland without going on to the district councils: Borders, four; Central, five; Dumfries and Galloway, four: Fife, six; Grampian, five; Highlands, four; Lothian, four; Strathclyde, five; Tayside, four. In all those cases significant political groups on the council would be deprived of political assistants. That cannot be right and is simply loading it in favour of the larger and better established parties. I do not believe that the Conservative or Labour parties should do that.
I believe that we should have rather more democratic concern for the minority parties. Let us beat them at the polls and not beat them by depriving them of the privileges which we have. I am very disappointed with the Minister's response. I shall think again about what to do. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 88:
Page 13, line 6, leave out from ("secure") to ("that") in line 8.
§ The noble Lord said: In some ways the stuffing has been knocked out of Clause 9(4) because the Committee decided yesterday that the £13,500 limit for politically restricted posts was not appropriate. I concede at once that there is not a direct analogy between a level above which a post is presumed to 986 be politically restricted and a maximum sum allowed to be paid to a political asssistant. I can see that in one sense they are different issues.
§ However, many of the detailed problems to which I referred when moving Amendments Nos. 27 and 28 also apply to Clause 9(4) because the £13,500 grade is very arbitrary and would cause great difficulty in different parts of the country. For example, in Scotland it would indicate 32 on the scale which is in the lower half of grade APV; in the rest of the country that would indicate 35 on the scale, which is well up into the principal officer grades. Therefore, it works differently in different parts of the country and all the difficulties referred to about London Weighting, any overtime payments which there might be or any of the other difficulties could well apply to the posts of political assistants. The result would be a provision which, because it claims to be simple, would in fact work differently in different parts of the country and unfairly in some parts of the country.
§ I hope that the Government will recognise that the general concern that the Minister and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, acknowledged at the close of the debate on Clause 2 also applies to the £13,500 limit here. I shall not press this amendment because it provides no alternative ceiling and I accept that the Government may feel so strongly that they wish to impose a ceiling.
§ Having regard to the spirit of the responses which the Minister made to the Clause 2 amendments yesterday, can he indicate that the £13,500 ceiling, simple and crude though it is, is perhaps not the most appropriate way of dealing with this matter? It should be dealt with on a grade basis rather than a salary basis, and preferably on a higher grade basis for the larger local authorities. The political assistants in those cases will have very substantial tasks, bearing in mind the responsibilities of those local authorities. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Blatch
I find some difficulty with regard to this amendment because I do not approve of political advisers at any price. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, ran a local authority. I am not sure whether or not he ran it with paid political advisers.
§ Baroness Blatch
Perhaps I ascribe greater things to the noble Lord than I ought to. I thought that the noble Lord was leader of his authority. I wonder if the leader of the authority ran it with paid political help. Many local authorities throughout the United Kingdom function extremely well without the help of paid political advisers. It is possible to obtain political advice if it is required, but I do not think it right to use ratepayers' or community chargepayers' money to pay for political advisers. It is not just that one is employing an individual; one has to provide office space, office equipment and very often clerical assistance, etc.
I find it almost impossible to support the idea. I said at Second Reading that I opposed the idea of political advisers. We are trying very hard in this 987 Bill to depoliticise the running of local authorities. This amendment would put a very real political dimension back into local authorities.
When I was leader of Cambridgeshire, I found that there were facilities available to me—for example library facilities, data from the various departments and a research department within the authority. I had all the information that I required to help me perform my task as leader of the authority. I found that to be adequate. I would not have wanted to have had a political adviser superimposed on that.
With regard to the removal of Section 4, there is a difficulty about the ceiling of £13,500 for all the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, has given. Some of the arguments were deployed in relation to parts of Clause 2 yesterday.
I hope that my noble friends on the Front Bench will heed the point—that there should be a ceiling at around £13,500. That figure may be too high. In some parts of the country it would be excessive and in other parts it would be about right. I believe that there should be a method of determining the ceiling, perhaps inflation-proofing it so that it moves with the times. I think that it would be open to abuse if the ceiling were removed. If a ceiling were to be found, it might have to be different for different parts of the country. I think that it is absolutely right that there should be a limit, but I should like to see the whole clause removed from the Bill.
§ Lord Hesketh
I feel that once again I am rising somewhere in the middle as the voice of moderation.
The effect of these amendments would be to remove the salary limit of £13,500 proposed for the assistants of political groups. There is obviously room for debate on this matter. We are anxious to underline that these political assistants are not intended to be a source of policy advice and competition with council chief officers, who we believe should be available to assist all political groups.
This, it seems to us, argues for the maximum pay being set at a sufficiently low level that such a post would not be seen as an alternative career for the ambitious. The aim would be to attract good staff. We doubt that it would be appropriate for such posts to be a lifetime career.
The Widdicombe Committee suggested that such posts would be graded as senior officers. We think that a point within the senior officer range, which is also the bottom of the principal officer range—namely the £13,500—is about right as a maximum. We therefore think that the figure in the Bill is correct and urge the Committee to retain it. We recognise that there will be variations in different parts of the country, as the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, pointed out. However, the £13,500 figure is a ceiling, not a recommended pay level. For those reasons we urge the Committee to reject the amendment.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
When the Minister said that he was in the middle, my noble friend Lord Graham and I barely resisted the temptation to think "pig in the middle". However, I must remind the 988 noble Lord that those who stay in the middle of the road often get run over. It is a serious risk.
In reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, I have served as a committee chairman on two local authorities, one of which had political assistants, and one of which did not. The one which did not was a London borough council with very much more limited responsibilities than the one which did. I managed on the borough council. I do not think that I could have managed without political assistants on the larger council. I am certainly not convinced that, although there may on occasion be abuses, the political assistants are not a valuable addition to the power of local authorities in enabling them to do an effective job.
The fundamental problem is the same as that which arose on the previous amendment. It is easy for the large parties, and particularly easy for a large and rich party like the Conservative Party, to provide political assistants for its councillors out of central party funds. My noble friend gave the example of Conservative Central Office deliberately setting out to intervene to introduce politics into our schools. That is not just a disgrace in terms of intervention in our educational establishments, but it is an indication that the Conservative Party has the funds to do that kind of thing. The Labour Party could not do that even if it wanted to, and I doubt whether the smaller parties could either.
Political assistants are a way of ensuring that the smaller parties have the same kind of help that the Labour and Conservative parties are more likely to get from their own resources. This amendment is not an attempt to promote the position of the Labour Party.
I had hoped that the Minister would acknowledge the difficulty of the £13,500 limit. He acknowledged that it would operate differently in different parts of the country. If we are not going to make any greater progress, maybe we ought to concentrate on that matter at a later stage. In the meantime I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 89 not moved.]
§ Lord Ross of Newport moved Amendment No. 90:
Page 14, line 23, at end insert—
("( ) Any group shall have a right of appeal to the Secretary of State if it believes that it has been the subject of unfair treatment due to (a) the regulations in (5), (6) or (7) above or (b) the actions of other political groupings on the authority.").
§ The noble Lord said: I deliberately kept my trap shut because I gathered that we wanted to make progress with this Bill tonight. However, I feel able to say something about political assistants. I am, I am afraid, a hawk. I am not in the middle of the road. I have always been accused of being in the middle of the road as a Liberal, but I am a hawk too. I do not like political assistants in local government.
§ It is true to say that Widdicombe recommended (5). The Government, it is perfectly correct—the noble Lord, Lord Trafford is right—wanted to cut it out altogether.
§ I admit that I have never served on such an authority as a regional authority in Scotland. They 989 are very much larger than a county council like the Isle of Wight and no doubt some of the city councils in London. Basically I am against the idea and I regret their introduction.
§ I am also against the idea of monitoring officers. The clauses in the Bill which deal with monitoring officers and political assistants will lead to all kinds of problems and quarrels. That will not achieve anything. The answer is for the public to finance the political parties—but I will not go into that. It would get the Labour Party off the hook with the trade unions, it would give us a chance and it would be to the advantage of the Tories as well.
§ At a time when we had high unemployment of over 18 per cent. I appointed Mr. Alan Curtis as a consultant. He was chairman of Lotus Cars. He was a good paid-up Tory. I did not know that at the time, but never mind. However, I recognised that he did a very good job for us and I am still a friend of his. I suppose that, without political assistants and as leader of the council for three years, I cannot have done too badly because we were re-elected and re-elected again this time. Everybody thought that we were not going to hold on, but we did.
§ However, I come back to the amendment. If we are to have political assistants, and there are all kinds of things in the clause about that, and if we are to have regulations yet again on this whole issue, we suggest that there will probably be problems in some councils for the smaller political parties and that therefore there should be a right of appeal to the Secretary of State. It appears elsewhere in the Bill so can we have it here?
§ Perhaps the right of appeal will appear in regulations and if the Minister confirms that then I shall quickly withdraw the amendment. The system may work well in 80 per cent. of cases but there are bound to be squabbles and, therefore, if we must have these people—and again I say that I wish that were not so—then perhaps there should be appeal to the Secretary of State where there is disagreement on a local authority. I beg to move.
§ 8 p.m.
§ Lord Hesketh
This amendment would give political groups in local councils a right of appeal to the Secretary of State if they think that they have been treated unfairly over the arrangements for political advisers. I think that I may fairly say that I was surprised when I saw that the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Newport, on the Liberal Bench had put down this amendment. It would give the Secretary of State wide and undefined powers to intervene in the internal affairs of a local authority if a political group believes that it is being treated unfairly.
This seems to me the wrong way to go about matters. Local authorities are elected to discharge their own functions. There will be cases in which it is desirable to lay down rules about how they shall conduct their affairs, but within those rules our tradition is that they should take their own decisions. The amendment considers two cases: one where the unfairness arises from the regulations; the other 990 where the complaint arises from the actions of other political groups on the authority.
If the regulations work unfairly I am sure that any reasonable Secretary of State—and all Secretaries of State are required to be reasonable in the discharge of their statutory functions—would want to consider the regulations to see if they can be improved. To that extent, therefore, the amendment is unnecessary.
The second case considered is where the other political groups have ganged up on the one which complains to do something unfair. If what the other groups have done is unlawful, then the remedy is clear; it is for the courts to decide what is unlawful. If it is not unlawful then it is a matter of discretion and I think that it would be unwise to introduce the precedent of giving the Secretary of State a general power to intervene in the internal workings of a local authority to overrule a lawful discretionary decision of that authority.
To sum up, in part this amendment is unnecessary because if the regulations are wrong any sensible Secretary of State will want to correct them, not to have an undefined power to intervene. If what is complained about is a lawful discretionary decision of the authority about its internal affairs, then it is an unsound principle to give the Secretary of State power to intervene. I hope that in the light of these comments the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment.
§ Lord Ross of Newport
I have to say to the Minister that that is a pretty ripe reply. The Secretary of State is interfering all over the place with local government. To say as an answer that it is to be left to local discretion, after all the regulations that he has laid down, is beyond belief.
There is a situation that fortunately has never occurred in my part of the world, though it did in one of the boroughs for a short while. The opposition party, which happened to be my party and which had a large number of councillors, was denied any place whatever on the policy and resources committee. That has now been put right. However, it is happening in other parts of the country. Minority parties are deliberately being omitted from certain committees on which they have a right to sit.
This Bill may put that right but there will be arguments over political assistants and whether or not a minority group should have one. An overwhelming Labour or Conservative majority may want to claim two and leave one to the opposition with nothing for the third party. That is why the appeal procedure was suggested. I am willing to withdraw the amendment but I ask the Minister not to reply that the Government are leaving this to the local level because everything has been taken away from local government.
§ Baroness Blatch
Perhaps I may be allowed to ask a question on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Ross. We may both be interested in the answer. Given the prescriptive mechanism for setting up political advisers and allocating them to particular groups, and the mathematical calculations that will have to be done, if a minority group was unfairly treated 991 would it not have recourse in the first instance to the monitoring officer within the authority? Would that not be a breach of the provisions of the Bill?
§ Lord Hesketh
My noble friend is entirely correct. I did not mention it because the next stage after that, if there is still dissatisfaction, is to go to law.
§ Baroness Blatch
But the fact that it is on the face of the Bill would give protection to the minority groups. They would not need something as dramatic as recourse to the Secretary of State.
§ Lord Ross of Newport
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that intervention. It had occurred to me that the monitoring officer might be the person to turn to, but having already criticised the role of the monitoring officer I thought it better not to mention that possibility. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 9 agreed to.
§ Clause 10 [Limit on paid leave for local authority duties]:
§ [Amendments Nos. 91 to 95 not moved.]
§ Clause 10 agreed to.
§ Clause 11 [Confidentiality of staff records]:
Lord Graham of Edmonton moved Amendment No. 96:
Page 16, line 18, leave out ("Subject to subsection (3) below").
§ The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment I speak also to Amendment No. 97. These amendments are designed to ensure that the public sector has the same degree of accountability as the private sector in terms of the information that it is required to disclose regarding the numbers and salaries of its employees. The new Clause 11 of the Bill allows ratepayers to identify the salaries of named individuals.
§ The intention of this amendment is to place employees of local authorities on the same footing as private sector employees regarding information publicly available about their salaries. The Government claim that Clause 11 of the amended Bill will restore law to the position the Government understood it to be prior to the Northampton case; that is, individual ratepayers—and from 1st April 1990, poll tax payers—will be able to see the gross salaries of named local authority employees.
§ One argument against this clause is that it creates a "snooper's charter". Given proposals in Part I of the Bill to link political restriction to salary, gross earnings are now sensitive information. But it is more important to address the increasing imbalance between disclosure required in the private sector and disclosure in the public sector, particularly in the light of the Companies Bill now in another place.
§ The 1985 Companies Act required disclosure of the number of employees "remunerated at higher 992 rates"—that is, earning over £30,000 per annum—set out in salary bands. The Act describes how those bands are to be calculated, and it is to those provisions which paragraph (a) of this amendment refers. Paragraph (b) provides for disclosure of the numbers of staff employed within different categories as determined by the head of the paid service; that is, caretakers, home helps and so on. That again is in line with the provisions of the 1985 Act.
At the same time as deciding that named local authority employees must have their gross salaries open to inspection, the Government are proposing to drop the provisions of the 1985 Act for private sector employees. In the Committee debate on an Opposition amendment to retain the current disclosure provisions, Mr. Eric Forth said:
I do not believe that simply knowing what highly paid employees earn is vital for public accountability. … It could become increasingly burdensome to provide such information".
He later continued:
It would be burdensome and would allow people's pay to be revealed, albeit inadvertently".—[Official Report, Commons, Standing Committee D, 6/6/89; cols 173–177.]
§ This argument emanates from the same Government who are quite happy for all local authority employees, however little they may be paid, to have their individual salaries disclosed. In the interests of public accountability, the provisions of the 1985 Act should be retained in the new Companies Bill.
§ The Government do not know what they mean by "public accountability". It would be charitable to say that they take a flexible approach to the term, to the detriment of shareholders' rights on the one hand and to the privacy of local authority employees on the other. In the private sector, top level salaries have increased well above inflation, with a further bonus by way of the tax cuts this year. Yet this information is now to be kept secret from shareholders. In the public sector, where a salary of £13,500 is sufficient for an employee's civil rights to be abrogated, that employee's name and salary falls within the public domain. There is clearly a double standard, based on feeble arguments. Shareholders and ratepayers (poll tax payers) equally should be able to see how money is being used. I beg to move.
§ Lord Hesketh
Clause 11 restricts the information which is available to the public when exercising their rights at the time of audit to inspect the accounts of local authorities and certain other bodies. Only information about payments gross of any deductions made by an authority to each of its employees would remain open to inspection. The clause provides that the information which is purely personal, such as tax and national insurance deductions would not be open to inspection.
These amendments aim further to restrict the information which is available so that it would include nothing about individual members of staff. The amendments would limit the information to numbers of staff employed, identified only by salary band and by categories of employee. I should say that we do not consider that these amendments will work. But, as my right honourable friend said in 993 another place, we have a great deal of sympathy with what the noble Lord opposite is aiming to achieve. Indeed, we are of the view that it may now be possible to go some way to meet the real concerns that have been expressed here and in another place. And while it is important to keep the right balance between personal privacy and public accountability, I am hopeful that it may even be possible to provide the kind of protection for individual employees that these amendments seek.
We shall consider these proposals and the points the noble Lord has made before deciding what should now be done.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
I am not likely to get a fairer offer than that between now and half past eight when the proceedings on the Bill will terminate. I am grateful to the Minister. I can sense a genuine desire to seek agreement in a very sensitive area. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 97 not moved.]
§ Clause 11 agreed to.
§ Clause 12 agreed to.
§ Clause 13 [Voting rights of members of certain committees: England and Wales]:
§ [Amendments Nos. 98 and 99 not moved.]
§ Clause 13 agreed to.
§ Clause 14 [Voting rights of members of certain committees: Scotland.]
§ [Amendment No. 100 not moved.]
§ Clause 14 agreed to.
§ Clause 15 [Duty to allocate seats to political groups]:
§ 8.15 p.m.
§ Lord Ross of Newport moved Amendment No. 101:
Page 23, line 27, at end insert—
("(e) that no body consisting of 5 or more members shall exclude a political group comprising 20 per cent. or more of the nominating authority or authorities, and no body consisting of 10 or more members shall exclude a political group comprising of 10 per cent. or more of the nominating authority or authorities.").
§ The noble Lord said: I have tried to make sense of Clause 15. It is fairly complicated. The amendment attempts to clarify the subject of proportionality. I hope that the Government will consider it in that light. It is fairly straightforward and the amendment seems to me to be less complicated than what is proposed in Clause 15. I beg to move.
§ Lord Hesketh
The intention of the amendment is to guarantee that any political group which constitutes at least 20 per cent. of the authority is represented on any body comprised of five members or more, and any political group which constitutes at least 10 per cent. of the authority is represented on any body comprised of 10 members or more. I 994 appreciate what the noble Lord is seeking to achieve and I feel gratified that his proposal is very much in the spirit of the principle of the pro rata representation which we have embodied in the Bill. However, although we have tried to keep the rules for determining the allocation of seats to political groups as simple as possible, they are nevertheless fairly complicated.
We believe that the amendment would make the rules even more complicated and to that extent it is undesirable. The amendment also seeks to deal with a situation which is likely to arise only very rarely. The current rules normally provide for a political group representing 10 per cent. of the members to be allocated a seat on a 10-member committee. The only circumstances in which such a group might not be entitled to a seat would be if the majority group, having only a small majority, were entitled to six out of the 10 places. If there were several such committees, a political group with only 10 members may not be entitled to one of the four minority group places on some of the committees. A similar situation could occur if there were several five-member committees. Noble Lords will appreciate how unlikely these circumstances are to occur when I add that a 10 per cent. group would always be entitled to a seat on committees consisting of 11 or more members and a 20 per cent. group on committees with seven or more members.
I hope that the Committee will agree that it would be wrong further to complicate the rules to deal with an arithmetical possibility which, practically speaking, is rarely likely to occur. Instead we should concentrate on the enormous good that the rules do to restore true local democracy and to allow minority parties to play a meaningful and effective role in local government after being overlooked for so long in some authorities.
Our measures will ensure that at least one minority party is represented while quite properly allowing the majority party a majority on all committees and sub-committees. I should point out, however, that the provisions of the Bill do not prohibit local authorities from allocating seats in line with the amendment or in any other way, provided that there is unanimous agreement to do so.
I trust that the Committee will therefore recognise that the measures we have provided in the Bill are sufficient to secure the principles of pro rata representation for all political groups. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Ross, will feel that he is able to withdraw the amendment.
§ Baroness Blatch
I have sympathy with the amendment because I believe the Bill goes further than any other framework we have had in the past to protect the rights of minority groups. That is right. But there are practical difficulties and I see two. One is where the 10 per cent. in numbers turns out to be, such as in my local authority, 7.7 members. The idea that they could be represented on every single committee that is greater than five would be a physical task beyond the ability of just seven members. There is another practical difficulty, which I do not think would be excluded under the Bill. My own local authority allows each individual group the 995 right to form a policy planning committee. In other words, it allows it officially within the rules of the council to receive advice from officers to plan, to think and work out its own policies and priorities. The protection and confidentiality of each group meeting is protected. If it were any group consisting of five or more members that reflects the political makeup of an authority, that would exclude or preclude that kind of gathering. It is important for all groups, even minority groups, to have thinking time on an authority and to be able to work out priorities and policy planning without necessarily being out in the cold because the group is not the majority group. Therefore there is sufficient protection within the Bill for minority groups and I believe the amendment would present practical difficulties.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
I am genuinely interested in what the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has been saying. I have served on a local authority where in my time—which perhaps dates me—there was a clear understanding that council officers did not attend what the noble Baroness has described as group meetings; that is, meetings which are restricted to members of one political group. I appreciate the integrity of council officers who would be there to assist. But can the noble Baroness tell me whether the same officer attends the same groups or whether an officer could attend different groups in the same cycle, for example, and therefore could be privy to the political intelligence and the political opportunities which are created by each of the separate groups inside the Council? When I was a councillor a council officer would come to our group from time to time to explain the broad strategy of a development plan. Perhaps the noble Baroness can help us further.
§ Baroness Blatch
I can speak only of how it happened in Cambridgeshire. It was thought that for the officers to be available to give advice and information to the ruling group alone was not appropriate. The rules are very specific. The meetings must be recorded and they must take place within Shire Hall. We discovered that one group on the council was having meetings in the private homes of councillors. Party members attended those groups and officers advised. We felt that that was unhealthy; so we came to an all-party agreement that individual groups could have access to information and advice from officers but that information and advice from the same officers would be available to the whole council.
We have a strict code of confidentiality. For example, at budget time, in addition to the ruling group working out its strategy it should be possible for other groups—the main opposition group and minority groups—also to have information and advice to help them to determine their strategy. The officers do not advise on how to behave politically. They give advice and information. That has worked very well. The meetings are exposed and are recorded as having taken place. So far we believe that it has worked to the benefit of all councillors. We have found that our officers are loyal to each of the groups.
996 We as Conservatives would never be told what went on between an officer and another group. As long as it is open and above board and the rules are written down we have found that it works.
§ Lord Ross of Newport
That example is absolutely correct and I support it. I received a fair reply from the Minister. I realise that a slight problem could arise with my amendment. I should put it on the record that we recognise the steps the Government are taking with the Bill to give rights to minorities. We welcome it very much. With those words, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 15 agreed to.
§ Schedule 1 agreed to.
§ Clauses 16 and 17 agreed to.
§ Clause 18 [Members' interests]:
Lord Ross of Newport moved Amendment No. 102:
Page 25, line 7, after ("member") insert ("and officers who attend committees or are involved in any tendering process").
§ The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 2 seeks to extend the declaration of interests to officers. Many officers have powers devolved to them by local authorities. It probably happens less now but when I was first elected to the Isle of Wight county council in 1967 many of the older members would come in opening their envelopes. They had not studied the business. They left almost everything to the officers. Officers have to deal with tenders and negotiations with potential contractors. Should they not also declare their interests? There is something in this. I beg to move.
§ Lord Hesketh
This amendment seeks to extend the provisions of Clause 18 to enable the Secretary of State to require officers who attend committees or are involved in any tendering process to provide information about their own pecuniary interests.
The noble Lord is right to be concerned about the pecuniary interests of officers. They may make important decisions on behalf of councils, and it is vital to ensure that they are not influenced by personal pecuniary considerations. Section 117 of the Local Government Act 1972 already requires officers to give notice of any pecuniary interest they have in contracts with the council. This does of course cover only a limited range of interests and requires disclosure only when a conflict of interest actually arises. We accept that some further safeguards are needed but propose taking a different approach from that which the noble Lord has put forward in his amendment.
The reason for this different approach is that, unlike members, officers are employed by the council, and it is the council's responsibility to assure itself as to the proper conduct of its staff. In doing so, the council is able to impose requirements on its employees and back these up with disciplinary measures in a way that it cannot do with members. Some councils have already used this to require officers to complete a register of interests.
997 We believe it is important to build on this, and we are therefore considering using the provisions of Clause 19 of the Bill to require councils to make provisions in their standing orders for officers to declare their pecuniary interests. This will leave responsibility for ensuring, and enforcing, the proper conduct of officers where it belongs—with the council—while at the same time making provision to ensure that councils carry out that responsibility uniformly.
We are discussing details of the proposed model standing order with the local authority associations in the context of the joint working group which we have set up to review the model standing orders. I hope that, in the circumstances, the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
Before the noble Lord decides whether to withdraw his amendment, I have some sympathy with what he is trying to achieve although I am more attracted by the Government's approach to it. What really worries me is the combination of this amendment and the next amendment which would extend the declaration to non-pecuniary interests. That really worries me.
§ Lord Ross of Newport
I thank the Minister for that detailed and helpful reply. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lord Ross of Newport moved Amendment No. 103:
Page 25, line 10, leave out ("pecuniary").
§ The noble Lord said: I now stand in fear and trepidation of moving this amendment; I shall do so very quickly. Clause 18(1)(a) requires that members should declare direct and indirect pecuniary interests. Should that not go rather wider? We suggest that the word "pecuniary" should be taken out of the Bill altogether. I think that we should widen the need for members to declare interests. I refer not only to pecuniary interests. There are other interests which may not necessarily involve finance. I have in mind people making planning decisions of one kind or another. They may be involved in running properties and so on. I beg to move.
§ Lord Hesketh
This amendment would extend powers and enable the Secretary of State to require members to disclose their non-pecuniary interests. We considered very carefully, in the context of the Widdicombe Report, whether members should be required to register non-pecuniary interests. Such interests can be as important as pecuniary ones in influencing a member's behaviour. There is no question that where such an interest arises members should not vote or take part in proceedings. However, the existing criminal sanctions which apply in relation to disclosure of pecuniary interests at meetings do not apply to non-pecuniary interests. That is because non-pecuniary interests are, by their very nature, difficult to define and it would be wrong, in these circumstances, to make disclosure subject to criminal sanctions.
998 The proper way of dealing with non-pecuniary interests is, as now, through the national code of local government conduct. The code is quite clear that non-pecuniary interests can be just as important as pecuniary ones and should be treated in the same way. The code will be strengthened by the provisions contained in Clauses 29, 30 and 31 of the Bill which provide for the code to be statutorily prescribed and for councillors to be required to declare on taking office that they will be guided by the code. The local ombudsman will also be required in his reports to name councillors who have breached the code where this has resulted in maladministration by the authority.
I hope that your Lordships will agree that the clause, together with the provisions for the national code of local government conduct, provide sufficient safeguards in relation to non-pecuniary interests. I ask your Lordships to resist the amendment.
§ Lord Ross of Newport
I am grateful to the noble Lord. It is worthwhile having that on the record. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House resumed.