HL Deb 19 October 1989 vol 511 cc1028-41

3.21 p.m.

Report received.

Clause 1 [Disqualification and political restriction of certain officers and staff]:

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 1: Page 2, line 9, after ("authority") insert ("or an officer of a local authority association").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, these amendments may be technically unsound and I apologise if my drafting skills are deficient. I also apologise for the lateness in tabling these amendments but it is only recently that I have become aware of the situation at the Association of Metropolitan Authorities.

Local authority national associations are extensions of local authorities themselves. The sole rationale for their being is to inform, to advise and to represent the views of local authorities. They provide excellent facilities for local authorities to debate, to develop and even to create and influence legislation.

Membership of national local authority associations is drawn from the local authorities themselves. Therefore, in my judgement, it is appropriate that the disqualification and political restriction of certain officers and staff should apply to national local authority associations.

During the summer it came to my notice that in the headquarters of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities a branch of the Labour Party was formed by some members of the staff. I know that there has been considerable consternation about such overt political activity. I understand that even the chairman, who is of the Labour Party, has expressed concern. I also understand that the Conservative group has restricted the number of officers who may advise them on local government matters.

The requirement for the staffs of local government associations to be professional, objective and apolitical in their work is the same as for local authorities themselves, especially those members of staff involved in advising on policy issues. Overt political activity in the workplace only serves to compromise the individual who is advising members. It is also an embarrassment to fellow staff who are not engaged in party politics. It creates an atmosphere of mistrust between officers and members which must affect the quality of the service provided to local authorities. I beg to move.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, before the Minister replies I wish to point out that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has used the device of a form of words. But the whole of her case has rested on one issue or incident. We have to take head-on the words of the amendment and see what they seek to do. When we look at them we find that they are very wide indeed. The clause states: A person shall be disqualified from becoming (whether by election or otherwise) or remaining a member of a local authority and then the amendment seeks to insert the words: or an officer of a local authority association". On behalf of my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey I declare his interest as an officer of a local authority association. He is vice-president of the AMA. I also declare my own interest as president of the Association of London Authorities and vice-president of the Association of District Councils and the AMA.

Whatever the words in the case put forward, they do not convey the intention of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. I believe she is continuing deliberately to mix up the views of associations and councils. There is a world of difference between the work, significance and responsibilities of the officers of associations of councils and of council officers themselves.

This House and the other place have spent a long time arguing whether it is right and proper that this political proscription should be applied. However, that is not the argument put forward in this amendment. The argument is whether proscription should be extended. I have to tell the House—the noble Baroness will already be aware of this—that it is the view of the Association of District Councils, the Association of County Councils and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities that they would find the passing of the amendment offensive.

In the light of the negotiations that have proceeded very constructively since the last stage of this Bill between the Minister and my noble friend Lord McIntosh, the three associations do not regard legislative proscription on the issue of political activities of officers to be appropriate. All three associations take the view that the application of general local government legislation to voluntary bodies of local authority associations is unwelcome.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has raised the specific issue of a workplace branch of the Labour Party at the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. The noble Baroness knows that all parties at the AMA regard this as an internal matter which is currently under consideration. So I believe that she has chosen quite michievously to bring before the House a matter which she knows has been under consideration constructively by all political parties in the AMA. I understand that a report prepared by those who are considering this matter will go before the committee of the association within the next week. The workplace branch is not meeting at the premises of the AMA.

I very much hope that the Minister will recognise that there is a world of difference between the two situations. Officers of associations very often find that the people they are advising come to the meetings well primed and briefed by the council officers whom they represent. Not all of the councils voluntarily join the associations. As regards the AMA, Bromley and Westminster have declined to be members. Other Conservative associations join because they can see the benefit of membership. I hope the Minister will recognise that this is a matter which is not constructive, particularly in the light of the atmosphere that has emerged from the discussions that have taken place between the Minister and my noble friend Lord McIntosh. The views and the outcome are generally welcomed by the associations. To listen to the case that has been made here is certainly not helpful to local government or the associations.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down can he tell the House what is the view of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities? The noble Lord mentioned all the English associations, but the Bill applies also to Scotland.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I apologise: I do not have its views. Perhaps it would be easier and quicker for the noble Baroness to obtain them. I cannot help the House.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Nugent of Guilford

My Lords, I much admire the enthusiasm and interest of my noble friend for these matters and I usually agree with her. However, it seems to me that we are going too far to make this exclusion. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, has mentioned the Association of District Councils and the Association of County Councils. There is a long tradition of political independence within these bodies. There are long-standing friends of mine in the south-east regional district and it is an entirely voluntary affair involving local authorities. I was chairman for nearly 20 years and there was no political logrolling of any kind.

My noble friend has been able to pick out a point where there is some political interest. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Graham, rightly tells us, this matter is being looked at again. Taking the general picture of local authority associations, there has been a long tradition of political independence. It would be a great mistake to extend this restriction into an area where it would cause a good deal of offence and would have no practical effect at all. After she has heard the views of the Minister, I hope that my noble friend will be prepared to withdraw her amendment.

Lord Evans of Claughton

My Lords, declare an interest as vice-president of the AMA. I am very glad that I was not quick enough on my feet to get in sooner because the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, has put the matter very well. Like him and the opposition I hope that this amendment will be resisted. The three associations are not statutory bodies; they are not answerable to the public at large; and they do not meet members of the public in a general way. They advise local government. Local authorities do not have to belong to, nor do they have to take the advice of, any of these bodies even if they do belong to the associations.

The workplace branch referred to is an unfortunate matter. The flurry of letters and documents that one has received on the subject from the AMA suggests that it too feels that something should be done about that one issue. One problem of that nature does not require an amendment of this kind. I hope that the noble Lord the Minister will persuade the noble Baroness to withdraw this amendment which I believe to be misplaced.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, as I believe most noble Lords know, I am president of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. Am I an officer of the association? After 60 years' membership of a political party, am I to be denied certain activities? Surely that is complete nonsense. The point raised by the noble Baroness about the AMA was discussed at the AMA annual general meeting when I was in the chair. The issue was introduced by the minority party and eventually it was agreed that it was a matter for internal discussion within the association. It has already been mentioned by my noble friend that the discussion is now proceeding.

This issue should not be permitted in any way to influence noble Lords as to whether or not they accept this amendment. I hope that they will reject it.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Hesketh)

My Lords, perhaps I may first of all deal with Amendments Nos. 10 and 11 tabled by my noble friend Lady Blatch. The effect of these would be to include all officers of local authority associations as politically restricted posts under the Bill.

As noble Lords are aware, there are a number of local authority associations which promote and protect the interests of member councils in local government generally. They include the Association of County Councils, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the London Boroughs Association and others. They are voluntary bodies. They do not have a statutory basis like local authorities. I am aware that there has been the question of a party political meeting involving members of staff being held at the offices of one of the local authority associations; and not surprisingly, concern has been expressed that such political activity is inconsistent with the role of association officers in providing impartial advice to their constituent members. The association has, I understand, reacted to that concern and has taken appropriate action to halt such political meetings taking place on its premises.

I would not support the idea of extending the political restrictions to staff working for local authority associations. The associations are in a different position from local authorities. They are voluntary bodies and do not have a statutory basis like local authorities. As such, it is for the members of the association to ensure that its affairs are properly conducted. We believe that it would be inappropriate for the Government to impose the same kind of restrictions on an entirely voluntary body. The problem which prompted this amendment appears to have been an isolated example and action has been taken by the association to resolve the matter.

The effect of Amendment No. 1 would be that a holder of a politically restricted post under a local authority would be disqualified from becoming an officer of a local authority association. We are not aware that such dual activity has given rise to difficulties and it was not identified in the Widdicombe Report on the conduct of local government or in the subsequent White Paper.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, will the Minister answer a specific question about the effect of the amendments? Some noble Lords on these Benches—notably the noble Lords, Lord Irving and Lord Monkswell—are members of local authorities. If they were to become vice-presidents of the AMA, would they then be in breach of the law if the amendments were to be passed?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I feel it would be appropriate, but I cannot reply on behalf of my noble friend. I understand her concern about the proper conduct of local government. However, we do not believe that we should be moving to restrict the activities of local authority officers more than is absolutely necessary. Thus we do not support the case which my noble friend has put before the House.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. One point has clearly emerged. There is all-party support for the proposition that there should not be specific political groupings formed by the staff of our national local authority associations.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am sorry, but I think the noble Baroness is misinterpreting what noble Lords on these Benches have said. The workplace branches are part of the constitution of the Labour Party. They can exist anywhere. They exist in Conservative local authorities. Where we are in agreement is that they should not meet on the premises of the local authority association.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I find what the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, says slightly more worrying. Workplace branches are not conducive to the independence spoken of by my noble friend Lord Nugent. The associations are there to serve local authorities of all political persuasions. Their views, advice and comments are substantially compromised if they are seen overtly to 'be behaving politically in the workplace.

I am pleased to hear that this matter is being dealt with. I am pleased to hear also that the practice is to be disallowed. That is the right way forward. The AMA, the ACC, the London Boroughs Association and all other national local government associations should be independent, objective, professional and apolitical in their work and in the way they carry out their work for local authorities.

I do not intend to press the amendment because it is possible that the matter will be dealt with internally. However, the independence referred to by my noble friend Lord Nugent is what I would wish to protect most strongly. I hope that the outcome will be that we shall not see workplace political meetings in our national local government associations.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, she is on good ground when she expresses her disquiet and when she says she believes that the outcome of meetings which are to take place next week and which are to be based on the report of investigations may well be satisfactory to her. However, nothing we have said can anticipate what will be said. We are dealing with mature, adult political men and women, the members of the AMA. We must leave it to them.

My noble friend Lord McIntosh expressed a perfectly acceptable view that the difficulty arises because the branches have been meeting on authority premises. What the committee reports to the AMA next week is privileged to it. We say that to put down amendments such as these to deal with a tiny isolated matter which the noble Baroness knew was being looked at is an abuse of the use of the House.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

4 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 2: Page 3, line 12, at end insert— ("(6A) No regulations issued under subsection (5) above shall prohibit the holding by a person other than a person falling within sections 2(1)(a)(e) and 2(1)(g) of non-political or internal office in a political party.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I should like to speak also to Amendments Nos. 3, 4, 6, 7, 8 and 9. In a sense—and for this reason I shall not seek to press the amendments—they are not so much amendments to the Bill as amendments to a consultation document issued by the Department of the Environment on 2nd October. That consultation document has asked for responses by 27th November. I have to remind the House that when this consultation document was originally promised it was to have been issued in August. There would therefore have been some chance that the results of consultation would be available in time for the completion of the passage of the Bill through the House. That clearly would have been desirable because, in addition to the issue to which we shall come next—of who should be covered by political restrictions—an issue of equal importance is the nature of those political restrictions and what kind of activities should be covered by them.

I am in no position to anticipate the responses to the consultation document. The essence of the document, and the essence of the ministerial statement from Mrs. Virginia Bottomley which accompanied it, is that the political restrictions proposed are modelled closely on those of the Civil Service. I do not find that an acceptable description of the actual state of play of the Civil Service codes which are based, after all, on the Masterman codes of 1947 and have been available for a long time. Nowhere in the press release and not effectively in the consultation document itself is it recognised that political restrictions in the Civil Service are very much on a graduated basis. It is not black or white, which was the Government's original intention in this Bill.

I ought not to move from this point without thanking the Minister for the last sentence of his statement about political restriction which he issued to the press yesterday. He said: The Government are still considering about the nature of public political activities which are to be the subject of restrictions. In considering the response, we shall pay particular attention to a suggestion from Lord McIntosh that it might be appropriate to have a more comprehensive set of restrictions for very senior officers with a correspondingly lighter regime for others within the politically restricted category". I did indeed make that suggestion, and I am grateful to the Minister for his initial response to it. He is not suggesting agreement with it but he is suggesting that at any rate it is to be taken seriously. That suggestion of different levels of restriction for different levels of staff is not made effectively in the consultation document. The document is weaker for that reason.

However, the consultation process will not be completed until 27th November. It would clearly be inappropriate for us to seek to short-cut that consultation process, and so the amendments we have put down today are not intended to impose on the Government at this stage but to make our contribution to the debate on the nature of political restrictions for local government officers. I shall deal with each amendment separately because each of them has an individual point to make.

I shall start by saying something about the Civil Service code and about the relationship between the code and the proposals in the consultation document. The Civil Service code uses on many occasions a phrase which basically states that restrictive activities are those which impinge wholly or mainly on party politics. That may apply on some occasions in the field of Parliament or in the European Parliament, or it may apply in local politics because the Civil Service code makes a distinction between local politics and national politics which has so far not been made by government. The Civil Service code and other such legislation—for example, the Police Act—go much further than the consultation documen1 in defining what is meant by political activity.

Let us take Amendment No. 3 as the most evident example of the above. The consultation document says that canvassing is self-explanatory and does not need to be defined any further; but the Police Act attempts to define it further and in Amendment No. 3 we have used the wording from the Police Act in order to try to establish a definition. The Police Act contains a very wide definition, which is: endeavouring to persuade any person to give, or dissuade any person from giving, his vote for any candidate, whether as an elector or proxy at any election for Parliament or the European Parliament".

That is a wide definition which goes considerably wider, in my view, than the commonly accepted understanding of canvassing. To me, canvassing means going out on a doorstep or, if we adopt American techniques, using the telephone and saying to someone, "I am speaking on behalf of the Labour Party"—the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democratic Party or whichever party it may be—"and we would like you to vote for our candidate".

However, in the police definition one would be affected by the prohibition if one tried to persuade a member of one's own household to vote in any particular way. Indeed, my youngest son, who was 11 at the time of the 1975 referendum on British membership of the European Community, would have been caught by that prohibition. I say that because I went out first thing in the morning and voted in favour of membership of the European Community. When my son discovered that I had done so, he was appalled because he disagreed with my judgment and he proceeded to persuade my wife to go out and vote against in order to cancel out my vote. I suspect that he would not welcome being told that what he did was in fact acting in conflict with the provisions of the Police Act.

The first of this group of amendments is another good example of the way in which the consultation document is inadequate and gives inadequate definitions. It assumes that the holding of office in political parties is self-explanatory and, if we were to follow the code of the Civil Service, that it would be impinging wholly or mainly on party politics. I put it to the House that many offices in political parties in no way impinge wholly or mainly on party politics. For example, the offices of social secretary, premises secretary, treasurer, member of the bazaar committee, or whatever position it may be—I am not familiar with Conservative Party teminology, but I am sure that it has much more fund-raising activities than we do in the Labour Party—are not political posts in the public sense. Moreover, they ought not to be covered by political restrictions.

We propose a form of words which would exempt non-political or internal office in a political party. Here again the imprecision of the consultation document means that the political restrictions are likely to be wider than they ought on mature reflection to be.

Amendment No. 4 refers again to the nature of canvassing. It reads: endeavouring to persuade (in a manner other than orally and in person) any person to give,"—

we return again to the wording of the Police Actwhether as an elector or proxy at any local government election for an authority in whose area the employee is resident or by whom he is employed". Amendment No. 3 refers to national elections; we now refer to local elections. Again, canvassing, as we understand it, is not as broad as the definition which there could be and which could be imposed in regulations. We think that there should be the narrower definition.

Amendment No. 7 refers to activity which, is not designed to improve the level of public support for the party of which that person is a member". That is a matter which many of your Lordships who are active in civic affairs and in your local community will find very close to home. Let us suppose that I am a member of the Labour Party in a borough controlled by a Labour council. I could be in a politically restricted post. If I objected to a road proposal, for example, and joined a residents' group which opposed my council, my employer and my political party, and I marched up and down the streets and went to picket the town hall to protest against the road proposal, do the Government seriously suggest that such a restriction is the kind of abuse which this legislation is designed to overcome? I suggest to the House that common sense dictates that civic activity which may indeed on occasion coincide with party politics, but not the party politics of the individual concerned or of the council concerned, ought not to be restricted by the Bill and that the results of consultation ought to produce regulations which reflect what is proposed in this amendment.

Amendment No. 6 concerns the displaying of posters. Again, who is to say which window of a house belongs to the person who is politically restricted, his wife, his children, his father-in-law or someone else? Windows exist in houses and even back windows or bumpers of cars do not always belong to individuals. Indeed, politically restricted persons live with non-politically restricted persons. In attempting to go into such detail the Government are making themselves ridiculous. I suggest that they would be wise to accept a formulation comparable to what is contained in the amendment in order to avoid over-elaboration of legislation.

Amendment No. 8 refers to political restriction on writing material which is undertaken anonymously. The whole thrust of the Government's action is that a public political position is that which is dangerous in a politically sensitive post. The whole thrust of this amendment, however, is that anonymous writing cannot be a public political position and therefore ought to be excluded from the regulations.

Finally, in Amendment No. 9 we talk about. undertaking activity other than as a member of a political party on issues of local or national controversy which do not impinge on the work of the person concerned or on the local authority by whom he is employed". That, again, is something which I think the Government ought to take seriously in their response to the consultation process. It will be defeating the object of this legislation if the Government introduce restrictions for local government officers in politically sensitive posts which would prohibit them from taking part in civic activity, in controversy about issues which do not affect the way in which they do their job and which do not damage the political impartiality of the staff of the local authority concerned.

I believe that all these amendments deserve the serious consideration of the House and of the Government. I beg to move.

Lord Evans of Claughton

My Lords, I broadly agree with the amendment. It is a great pity that we have to comment in a vacuum, as it were, on a consultative document which will not come into operation until after your Lordships have had an opportunity to debate it line-by-line when it is introduced by regulation. Nevertheless, it is also a pity that a code of conduct has to be produced at all, because I suspect, from my experience in local government, that in 99 authorities out of 100 no such regulations are necessary.

In 99 cases out of 100, local authority officers, from the most senior to the most junior, do not take any overt part in political activity. I suppose that the reason the consultative document has had to be brought forward is due to the activities of a small minority of local government officers who seek publicity while working for one authority and being members of another. One can list a few names which appear in everyone's list of people who damage local government. We have had the misfortune of having a large number of them in Merseyside from where I come.

Having said all that, and regretted the necessity for the code of conduct, the tenor of the amendment is satisfactory. There are members of the party to which I belong who take a more radical view than the noble Lord or myself about this matter and who do not believe that there should be any restrictions of any kind on any officer. They are often members of my party who live in areas where political controversy hardly ever exists, and not in large conurbations. I support the amendment. No doubt we will all welcome the opportunity to make representations regarding the consultative document before the closing date.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, perhaps I may preface my remarks by returning the thanks given by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, at the commencement of his remarks with regard to the discussions that we have held over the past two weeks. They are fully reciprocated by me.

Amendments Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 9 are aimed at ensuring that certain of the restrictions on public political activity shall apply only to the most senior local authority staff; that is, the staff listed in paragraphs (a) to (e) and (g) in Clause 2(1).

Amendments Nos. 6, 7 and 8 go wider and aim to ensure that certain types of restrictions shall not be applied to any staff in politically restricted posts. It may be for the convenience of the House if I deal with the first amendment, which would make certain restrictions apply only to the most senior staff, and then turn to the other questions.

I must say at the outset that Amendments Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 9 do not achieve their purpose of dividing local authority staff into two categories for the purpose of political restrictions. Clause 2(1)(g) includes all the staff in the lists of politically sensitive posts maintained by the local authority. The result of the amendments would be that a more relaxed regime would be established only with the assistance of political groups. I am sure that that is not the noble Lord's intention. I therefore address what I believe those intentions to be.

Amendments Nos. 2, 3 and 4 would permit all but the most senior staff who held non-political posts or were internal officers in a political party to canvass or campaign on behalf of a candidate for election to Parliament or the European Parliament and to campaign, in ways other than canvassing, on behalf of a candidate in a local election in the area where he or she lives or works.

I start with the fact that we have issued a detailed consultation paper, to which the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, referred, on our proposals for restrictions on public political activity. We genuinely want to hear what people think about those proposals. We shall consider carefully what is said. We do not rule out the possibility that we might want to make a different provision for different cases. We shall consider the arguments carefully before we draft the regulations.

I was pleased that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, had read my statement of yesterday. It gave me a feeling of good heart to know that someone occasionally reads statements issued by the Department of the Environment.

I am however reluctant to jump to conclusions until we have had the benefit of views from all sides on this matter, but I shall pay particular attention to the arguments brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, this afternoon.

I turn to the specific kinds of activity that it is suggested should be excluded. There are strong arguments against some of them. I am uncertain of what a non-political or internal office in a political party is. Some might argue that it covered the treasurer. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, insinuated that. He said that he was not aware of the arrangements within the Conservative Party. I am sure that if my noble friend Lord McAlpine of West Green were here today he would be upset to think that he was not in a post of political interest in the Conservative Party. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, that the treasurer is considered to be a political animal. I do not imagine that such activity, certainly from the example that I have given, is an example of an office which is not political.

Amendment No. 3 deals with canvassing. I find that amendment also difficult. Face-to-face canvassing is one of the most obvious ways by which a person who is known in the community can declare his or her political allegiances. I find it difficult to believe that a Labour councillor would be happy with an officer who regularly advises him, who claims impartiality, and who also regularly canvasses the councillor's ward in, say, the Conservative interest, or, to use the example produced by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, who receives a telephone call from the same officer if American electoral methods are brought to this country.

Amendment No. 4 deals with canvassing at local government elections outside the area in which the local authority officer lives or works. I am far from convinced that that is desirable. I can see that the problem of the clash between political activity and the impartial service to the employing local authority is hidden from sight to a certain extent, but I have doubts about the appropriateness of suggesting that those who neither live nor work in a local authority area should be encouraged to play an active role in the local politics of the area.

Amendment No. 9 would allow the holder of a politically restricted post to undertake activities on issues of local or national controversy provided that, first, the activity was not undertaken by him in his capacity as a member of a politcal party and that it did not impinge upon his work for the local authority by which he was employed.

There seems to be a conflict with the underlying principle behind the proposal. There is an inherent conflict between a local government officer in a politically sensitive post engaging in a public political activity and acting as a politically impartial servant of the whole council, whatever its political composition may be. We made that point clear in the White Paper and again in our consultation paper on the scope of the proposed political restrictions.

The main thrust of the consultation paper is that senior local government officers should not act in a way which appears to de designed to affect public support for a political party. We do not suggest that officers should be restricted from being members of a political party. We do not suggest that officers should be restricted from commenting on issues of local or national controversy unless that is done in a manner which appears to be designed to affect public support for the political party. We believe that to be the crucuial issue.

The amendment would allow an officer who is, by definition, in a politically sensitive post to come onto the political stage so long as he did not do it in concert with a political party or it did not affect his work or his employing authority. We do not believe that that amendment deals with the underlying conflict.

The effect of Amendment No. 6 would be to prevent any regulations under Clause 1(5) prohibiting persons subject to political restrictions from displaying a poster on behalf of a political campaign or political party. The Government's consultation document proposes that the ban on politically restricted officers publishing material on party political matters should not include displaying posters on the officer's property. That would mean a person displaying posters on behalf of a political campaign or political party on his or her place of residence or a poster on his or her private vehicle, or any forms of property. The Government's proposals would go wider than the amendment and permit the display of posters on items other than residences or vehicles. If an officer owns an elephant, he can display a poster on it quietly in the street.

Unless one of those whom we have consulted comes up with any convincing arguments to the contrary, there will be no question of a restriction on the displaying of posters. I find it almost impossible to believe that anyone will suggest that during the process of consultation.

The effect of Amendment No. 7 would be to prevent any regulations under Clause 1(5) banning activity by a person who is a member of a political party which is not designed to improve the level of public support for the party of which he or she is a member.

I must repeat that there is nothing proposed in the Bill or the regulations which will be made under it which is intended to restrict the membership of a political party. The problem at which our proposals are aimed is the contradiction between someone who is simultaneously publicly active as a politician and claiming to be an impartial servant of the local authority as a whole.

The Government's intention is that the restrictions should be broadly similar to those applying to civil servants. We believe that the regulations should cover four broad categories: candidature for office from which the politically restricted post-holders are to be disqualified under the Bill; holding an office in a political party; canvassing at elections; and speaking or writing publicly on party political matters. Canvassing at elections is clearly designed to improve the support of the party.

I believe that the effect of Amendment No. 8 would be to allow all officers in politically restricted posts to write or contribute material of a highly party political nature which is intended to be released to the public, provided that such material is released anonymously.

We believe that this amendment would give the wrong signal to local government. It would give encouragement to the practice of politically restricted officers writing anonymously in support of a political party and that, in my view, would be undesirable. Even though such writing was carried out anonymously, it would still be political activity and the officer would not be acting in a politically impartial way. We believe that anonymity would be dangerous too, as often material which is printed without attribution is well known to be written by a specific person. It has a greater effect as a result.

I conclude what has necessarily been a long speech, reviewing seven substantive amendments, by repeating that we are not opposed in principle to the idea of the two levels of restriction. It is not our first approach, but we are open to persuasion. In the process of consultation which is under way and which is now in hand, I shall pay particular attention to what noble Lords have said this afternoon. With that assurance, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, will not feel, as he said earlier in his opening remarks, that he has to press his amendment.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I made it clear at the outset that since these amendments were contributions to a debate on a consultation document, the time for which has yet to expire, they would not be pursued to a vote. I am grateful to the Minister for the detail in which he has set out his response. Indeed, I am grateful for the content of some small part of it. As regards what he said about posters, I shall possibly inscribe my thanks on my elephant and leave it standing peacefully outside my house for him to see! However I do not think he would welcome it if I left it standing peacefully outside his house.

The Minister has revealed considerable signs of understanding the type of issue which is raised by the consultation document and by the Government's original thinking about the nature of political restrictions. I believe that it is now generally recognised that it is not good enough simply to say that canvassing is self explanatory; political posts are self-explanatory; all these things are self-explanatory and do not need to be defined any further. It is now generally recognised that they will have to be defined further.

When, in reply to my amendments, the Minister says that what I propose is not covered by the Bill or by regulations, he is in a sense telling us more than he is allowing me to know. I have seen the Bill but I have not seen even the draft of the regulations. The regulations themselves are subject to the consultation process. I should be surprised if the Minister himself had seen the draft regulations, unless the consultation process is a sham. I sincerely hope that that is not the case.

The debate has been valuable. It has been useful to have the Minister's views. It will no doubt have sharpened the pens of those in the local authority world who will respond to the consultation process to have had this early indication of Ministers' views on these varying matters. Our principal concern, with which we shall be dealing after the Statement, is of course with the coverage of political restrictions. However, it has been valuable to see how far we agree and how far we disagree on the nature of the political restrictions. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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