§ 4.35 p.m.
§ Second Reading debate resumed.
§ The Lord Bishop of Oxford
My Lords, I very much welcome the broad intention that lies behind the Local 1043 Government Bill; namely, to ensure that local government works more effectively. However, before commenting in more detail I should like to give my apologies to the House that, due to an inescapable engagement, it may not be possible for me to return in time for the Minister's response. If that is the case, I shall of course read very carefully both his and other speeches that I miss. Together with other speakers, I look forward very much to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, who is to follow me.
Particularly to be welcomed in the Bill is Part I setting out the community leadership role that is to be given to local authorities. I believe also that there is widespread support for the code of conduct proposed in Part III. The new election arrangements in Part IV are also judged on the whole to be helpful. Obviously, Part II is controversial and a good many councillors are opposed to the proposed changes. There is also the question of whether, given support for a change of some kind, the three choices on offer are not too restrictive. Other models may be better able to respond to local needs.
The Church of England has a particular interest in Clause 15 of Part II. We very much welcome the fact that a local authority must include provision for the appointment of,one or more … overview and scrutiny committees".For many years the Church has had a very fruitful relationship with local education authorities. We believe that it is particularly important that there should be an overview and scrutiny committee when a local authority has educational—that is, school—responsibilities. The chairman of our Board of Education, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, and Bishop Vincent Nichols, chairman of the Catholic Education Service, had a meeting earlier this year with the relevant Ministers and received a positive response to some of our particular concerns. However, although the Bill states that there should be one or more overview and scrutiny committees, it does not specifically state that where an authority has educational responsibilities there must be an overview and scrutiny committee that relates specifically to those responsibilities. We believe that such an obligation should be put on the face of the Bill. Nevertheless, we welcome the requirement that such a committee, if set up, would meet in public, would be able to determine its own agenda, would be able to call officers and executive members to account, and would report direct to the council and the executive. These provisions are, of course, all on the face of the Bill in Clause 15(1)(b) and subsections (3) and (4).
However, there are some concerns that we hope might be met by government amendments in due course. These primarily concern the rights of Church and parent governor representatives to sit on and be elected to chair such a committee. In the past the very fruitful relationship between the Churches and local education authorities has been underpinned by Churches' representatives being appointed with voting rights on education committees. They have not usually exercised their vote on controversial political issues 1044 but have frequently been a respected voice in the committee room and have sometimes voted to good effect. Obviously, there is widespread concern about the loss of that voice and vote under the present Bill. Our concern is not just for Church representatives but for those parent governors to whom legislation only last year extended the power to vote on education committees.
We also have concerns about any such committee being dominated by considerations of party balance. We believe that the directive contained in Clause 17(b) of the Bill—that is, freedom not to allocate seats to political groups—should apply also to any overview and scrutiny committee responsible for education in order that independent voices are properly heard and taken into account. We believe that the Government understand these concerns and, as I say, we hope that there might be government amendments in the future to meet them. Alternatively, we shall bring forward amendments of our own.
On Clause 68—the repeal of Section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986—I believe that the main concern of the Churches is that there should be high quality sex education in schools, setting it within a firm ethical framework and looking to marriage as the proper context for full sexual intimacy. In that connection, we warmly welcome the Government's announcement on 9th September that they had decided that pupils,should be taught about the importance and nature of marriage and family life and bringing up children".At the same time it needs to be recognised that in any class there are likely to be one or more pupils who feel attracted to members of their own sex. For some, this may be a passing phase; for others, as we know, this will be a lifelong orientation. The feelings of such pupils need to be taken into account and handled with great sensitivity. Adolescents are very vulnerable in their sexuality, particularly if they are conscious of not conforming to the norm of their peers. Such pupils are likely to have a very hard time anyway. A survey in 1996 revealed that one in two gay adolescents under the age of 18 had experienced violence; 61 per cent recorded harassment; and 90 per cent recorded verbal abuse. Obviously, we need to be very careful not to have legislation which will reinforce such cruelty.
So when we come to consider Clause 68 and any amendments in relation to it, I hope that we might be able to bear in mind two criteria: first, the need for high quality sex education in all our schools, one which will give people a clear ethical framework and which looks to marriage as the proper context for full sexual intimacy; and, secondly, legislation which will help teachers deal sensitively and supportively with those pupils who are conscious of being attracted to members of their own sex. I do not claim it will be easy to maintain both those objectives but I do think it is desperately necessary to try to do so.
This is an important Bill, widely supported in some of its parts, controversial in others. We from these Benches certainly support the intention to strengthen local government, with which the Churches have friendly relationships. We will also be particularly 1045 concerned with Clause 15, dealing with the overview and scrutiny committees, which we certainly welcome in principle but which we think need to relate in particular to local authorities with educational responsibilities. Finally, as I have just indicated, I believe that there are two criteria that we will need to bring to bear when considering Clause 68.
§ 4.43 p.m.
§ Lord Smith of Leigh
My Lords, with my experience as a councillor for more than 21 years and as leader of a metropolitan council for the past nine years, local government has always been challenging and never dull, whether dealing with the problems faced by ordinary people in their everyday lives or dealing with the changes, some more welcome than others, introduced by successive governments. But I must say that the Bill offers change that is welcomed by local authorities as a whole. The evidence for that statement is the recent survey by the LGA which showed that by 1st October, 87 per cent of authorities had already implemented changes to their political structure; 75 per cent were considering such changes; 41 per cent already had a standards committee; and a further 30 per cent were in the process of forming one.
Local authorities come in a variety of different shapes and sizes, differentiated by location, by their responsibilities, by composition and by their culture, but they should share two overriding responsibilities: first, to serve and to secure, where they have direct responsibilities, the best quality services for local people; and, secondly, to act as community leaders, working with local people, business and other organisations to create a better community. The aim of the Bill is clarity, making it clearer where responsibility lies and making sure that local authorities can perform.
I shall concentrate on Parts I, II and III of the Bill. I certainly welcome the promotion of economic, social and environmental well-being. That will give clarity with regard to the current position of the law, amending the very narrow permissiveness given by Section 137 of the 1972 Act and by the further constraints put on that Act by the Local Government and Housing Act 1989. The law is catching up with the practice in many authorities, which are responding to real local needs. In my authority, we are currently establishing seven partnerships concerning the whole range of our different activities. I can assure the right reverend Prelate that we have set up one on lifelong learning in which the Church of England and other faiths will be fully invited to participate as partners.
By coincidence, last Friday evening I hosted a dinner at my town hall for the first meeting of what we call the leader's forum, which is a. partnership of partnerships. It is not just to be a talking shop, although I think that the partnership will develop the community plan, which will be an important part of the judgment of local authorities in the future. We need to work more closely together to change things in concrete ways. In my authority, if I may echo what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, we have already had a business partnership for a number of years. 1046 We have merged economic development staff of the local authority with the TEC, Business Link and the chamber of commerce to provide an effective one-stop shop for local business. In terms of health, we are currently creating an assessment centre for old people which will reduce bed blocking and allow a full and proper review of the position and capabilities of each individual in order to assess whether he or she is able to return to independent living. Last week we had the publication of some statistics on health inequalities. They will not be tackled by putting more money into medical treatment. These inequalities can be tackled only by looking at the underlying facts of social exclusion.
Part II of the Bill will make for clearer decision-making. The responsibility for making decisions will be clearer both to the council and to local people. Perhaps I may reassure the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who were concerned about there being two classes of councillor. I think that that concern is felt by people if they do not understand what is happening. I had a busy day last Friday. In the morning I attended a seminar for my own members which tried to explain what the Bill will mean for them. A new and productive role is being offered. There will be lots of things for councillors to do. I refer not only to scrutiny, although that is very important, but to involvement in the future development of the local authority and working in more ways with local communities. We will have a system of special responsibilities, which will enable people to become expert in specific areas and provide a career path so that people can move forward.
In discussing whether we should have elected mayors or leaders in local government perhaps I should declare an interest. I am still the leader of the council. I am willing for such decisions to be taken by local people. However, I think that two factors should be mentioned. First, if we change to a system of elected mayors for some local authorities, there are implications for council staff which we need to bear in mind. The role of chief executive in an authority will inevitably change. We need to understand that. Secondly, if I may say so as a new Member of this House, it is somewhat ironic that as a local authority member I am accused of acting in a 19th century manner when I understand the ways of this House and the other place, which as a result of the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth, could be defeated by a single voice of objection. There may be lessons that we need to learn about modernising.
Part III of the Bill, dealing with standards and ethics, arises from the third report of the Nolan committee. Despite a number of highly publicised cases, the behaviour of most of the 20,000 councillors and over 2 million council staff has been of the standard that we should expect in British public life. I welcome the proposal to abolish surcharges. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, I was for a time chairman of the finance committee and they were sometimes an effective stick to wave at people in order to remind them of their responsibilities.
1047 I am pleased that there will be new codes to clarify what local councillors can and cannot do. The declaration of pecuniary interest is important to local authorities but can be taken, given the current state of war, to extremes. Again, to give an example from my own experience, I am appointed by my council to be a director of Manchester airport, because the local authorities of Greater Manchester are all shareholders. But because I am a director that is seen to represent a pecuniary interest, although the position is unpaid. That prevents me from reporting back to my council on the affairs of Manchester airport or offering it advice as a shareholder on what decisions to take.
The new standards committees will clearly be welcome; many have already been set up. The fact that there will be independent representatives should give greater assurance to the public that things can be done properly. The standards boards will also allow for further independent investigation and adjudication. In the interests of justice, a fair and full inquiry plays an important part, and the Bill provides for that. We also need to make sure that justice is achieved with some speed. We shall need to remember that some people who go through that process will inevitably be innocent of the allegations made against them. It should not be necessary to wait for an undue length of time for the process to be completed.
Overall, the Bill commands respect throughout local authorities. It demands detailed investigation in Committee. I ask the House to support it.
§ 4.52 p.m.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to be the first to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, on his maiden speech. I understand that he first started as a councillor in Wigan in 1978 and since then has been continuously in local government in a number of different authorities. From the way he spoke, it is clear that he has had wide experience. We were most interested to hear what he had to say and look forward to hearing him on many occasions in the future.
It is a long time since I was in local government, but I began my political career there, and remained there for 15 years. I welcome the Bill—but with the notable exception of Part II, which has a great deal to commend it, I cannot say that I am not critical about other parts of the Bill.
I welcome the proposals on conduct, both for councillors and officials. Of course we shall need to examine the detail of the proposals. Unfortunately, there have been many well-publicised examples of corruption and fraud in local government. I hope that these proposals will help to reassure the public on that front. That said, I should like to concentrate my remarks on Part II of the Bill and on Clause 68.
Over the past two and a half years we have learnt that when this Government use the word "modernise" we need to watch out. It actually means "destroy". Part II of the Bill does that. All the constitutional arrangements of local government, some going back 1048 hundreds of years, others amended and changed by numerous local government Acts, are to be overthrown for new structures based largely, so far as I can see, on continental and American models. There is no evidence to show that their local government is that much better than ours; it may be different.
Furthermore, under the Bill it is not possible to maintain the status quo, even in those authorities which the Government say have done a good job. They might be beacon authorities; nevertheless, they have to change. And nowhere is it made clear that the services that local government provides will be improved. The right reverend Prelate touched on education. A key issue is how to raise educational standards. How will the Bill do that? Shall we see some great change? Or indeed, how will vulnerable young people be helped? For example, in the case that has been well publicised this weekend of the 13 year-old boy with a 17 year-old mother and the twins, will they be better off under these circumstances? The Bill certainly does not make that clear.
I agree with those who have said that the Bill will create two tiers of councillors. There will be those at the top—the mayor, the council chairman, possibly the city manager, certainly the cabinet or the group around them—who will all be very powerful. Then there will be the rest. The others will make up the scrutiny committee, but that will not be a decision-making body. One must ask oneself whether one would not as an individual be better off as a powerful member of a pressure group rather than as a second-class councillor. It is not at all clear what advice the scrutiny committee will receive. Will it be from the same officials who advise the cabinet? Or will it be from another set of officials? How will that help discussion?
In the end, I think that we all agree that the quality of people who enter local government and become officials is the most important issue. The question that needs to be addressed is: will the Bill improve the quality of intake? Who will stand for the all-important post of mayor? Will it be a full-time job? If so, will he or she be quite unrelated to the community in which he or she serves? What about the relationship between the powerful elected mayor and the local Member of Parliament? One has the impression that, as in so much government legislation, those important questions have not been answered and have not been thought through.
Then there are the referendums which must precede the election of a mayor. Little is said in answer to the major criticisms arising from, for example, the referendum on the mayor for London. In that case, there was a very low poll—I believe, some 30 per cent of the population voted—and an even smaller percentage was in favour. Will that be good enough for the whole of local government? I do not believe that it will be. I believe that referendums are a very serious business. We need to have the rules set out in detail as to what percentage must vote for change, and what percentage of the whole population must vote if there is to be change. These issues are too big to be left to a fringe of people committed to one cause or another.
1049 We gather that the cabinet must be of one party. How opposition members are to be informed about what is happening is by no means clear. Nor is it democratic. New Labour is changing the meaning of words. Re-reading the White Paper that preceded the Bill, I noted that it talks increasingly about a "participatory" form of democracy. I am interested in that. I visit Cuba on a number of occasions. It defends its democracy by describing it as a participatory democracy. I am a traditionalist. I believe in representative democracy. I believe that we are seeing a change coming about by means of a rather skilful manipulation of words. I regard it as a dangerous development, one masquerading under a welter of words from the spin doctors. There will be much to debate when we examine that part of the Bill.
I now turn to Clause 68. There are a number of reasons why I am against the clause. The first is that it has nothing to do with the main purposes of the Bill. Like the issue of lowering the age of consent for homosexuals, which the Government tried to slip into a crime and disorder Bill by a last-minute amendment in another place in the summer of 1998, they now slip a repeal into this Bill. There was very little openness or transparency about it until we heard the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, defend it this afternoon. It was not mentioned in the Queen's Speech nor in the summing-up of the debate on it by the Lord Privy Seal. Yet it is an enormously important piece of social legislation. I looked in vain to see whether the Prime Minister would mention it in his Romanes lecture on education at Oxford. No doubt it is not mentioned because Alastair Campbell has told the Government that it will upset the middle-class vote and therefore they must be very careful. To slip it into this Bill in the hope that no one will notice is something that will not have any effect in this House. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, that it will be a very hard fought issue.
I turn to the issue of principle. Let us look at the verb that is used. The intention is to promote homosexuality. With all due respect to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, that was not what he said in his remarks about the clause. To promote homosexuality goes far beyond the brief from Stonewall which talks about bullying and helping young people who are uncertain about their sexuality. I am second to none in deploring bullying wherever it occurs and for whatever reason. It is the job of the school to deal with it. Any school with which I have ever been associated, maintained or independent, has had a policy on bullying. The school should deal with it.
It is right that teachers should give help where pupils are uncertain about their sexuality, and they can do that under existing legislation. One only needs to read the circular from the Department of the Environment (as it was then) that accompanied the 1968 Act which makes quite clear what teachers can do. Nor would it make it possible to say that marriage is best. It tells young children—remember that it applies to both primary and secondary schools—that a homosexual relationship is the same as a heterosexual one. It is not. Nor do I believe that the overwhelming majority of 1050 people in this country believe that it is the same. But if Clause 68 is agreed it will promote something that children are far too young to understand. Above all, it goes against the tradition of family and undermines responsible parents.
If anyone doubts what will happen he should look at some of the material that is currently being produced by health authorities. I have with me a copy of Colours of the Rainbow published by Camden and Islington NHS Trust. That sets out for children at key stage 2 (seven year-olds) what they should be told right the way through school. That promotes homosexuality and does not teach children what a homosexual is, which is a major difference. I believe that that is wrong and dangerous. Nor does it make clear the very well known medical dangers of this kind of behaviour, particularly among the young. This is not the place to go into those dangers; nor am I in any way an expert. However, I have read a great deal of research and evidence on the subject, and it is an undesirable practice from the medical point of view. To introduce that to children is something which no responsible adult should undertake. Furthermore, is it right that when there is a shortage of money for a good many projects general taxpayers' and council taxpayers' money should be used in this way? I believe that it is a questionable use and not one that we should support.
There will be much argument on the point. I have been told that I am being intolerant over this matter. I am intolerant about some matters. I am always intolerant when I believe that anyone is playing politics with children. I suspect that there is a great deal of that in this particular clause. This is a nasty provision which will have a damaging effect on vulnerable children. If we support it we shall all bear a great measure of responsibility for setting children off on a path that possibly they may come to regret subsequently in life. In this matter children who are too young to understand the position are likely to he manipulated by others who know only too well what is happening.
The proper use of teaching and sex education—to prevent bullying and to answer proper questions from those who are worried or unhappy—can be conducted under the present law. But of one matter I am certain: if Clause 68 is agreed it will open the floodgates to very unsuitable material appearing in schools for the use of children. It will encourage many children to pursue a path which most responsible parents do not believe is right. As a responsible person in public life, I cannot possibly support this clause. I shall table an amendment and hope that when the House comes to debate the matter it will support me.
§ 5.6 p.m.
§ The Earl of Carnarvon
My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Smith, a fellow member of a large finance committee, on his speech today. I hope that we shall hear him speak often on the problems of local government. I shall not refer to Clause 68 to which the noble Baroness, Lady Young, has referred. I am sad to the extent that this is a very 1051 important Bill, but this particular clause has been hijacked by the media. Interest has focused on Clause 68 and not the real Bill which was considered by the Select Committee of which I had the honour to be a member, together with the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Hamwee.
It is unusual for me to be aggressive to the Government but in this instance I shall be. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is aware of this because I warned him in advance. I believe that the situation is a disgrace. It was a good idea on the part of the Government to set up a Select Committee of both Houses to consider the draft Bill before it came before the House. I do not necessarily criticise the Government for failing to agree with the Select Committee. My criticism goes to the fact that the committee interviewed a mass of witnesses between June and July and its report was available in August in order to be considered by Members of your Lordships' House. However, I understand that it was only on Thursday afternoon that that report was available in the Printed Paper Office. I went to the office with the Clerk of the Parliaments at three o'clock on Thursday afternoon and it was not there. I managed to get it at home only on Friday afternoon. If this is the new method for handling important draft Bills, it is certainly not the right way to present the matter to this House. I feel strongly about that. I am pleased to see the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, nodding in agreement.
There were 16 members of the Select Committee: eight Members of this House and eight Members of another place, eight of whom were Members of this Government. We were unanimous in our recommendations. Having got my anger somewhat out of the way, I wish to turn to some of those recommendations.
I refer to the structural issues under Part II. We interviewed people for many days, discussing the important issues referred to on page 32. The majority of witnesses argued that the three proposed models were insufficiently accommodating and wished to see further models added to the face of the Bill. The Local Government Association stated that, if it has a criticism of the Bill, it is that it is unduly prescriptive and confines models of local government to three. I very much agree.
In their response the Government say:The Committee noted that some authorities believed that none of the three kinds of executive arrangements which the draft bill provided would work in their circumstances. The Committee also noted the power in Clause 2(5) of the draft bill for the Secretary of State to specify by regulations further kinds of arrangements".They therefore recommended further amendments. What is the Government's reaction as regards the unanimous report of the Joint Select Committee? The Government state:The Government does not intend to change the approach of the draft bill in order to permit the Secretary of State by regulations to allow councils to adopt forms of constitution which do not involve a separate executive linked with separate and rigorous arrangements for overview and scrutiny".1052 Clause 10 of the Bill published 10 days or so ago states:An executive of a local authority must"—I underline "must"—take one of the forms specified in [the following] subsections".Here is the executive telling the locally elected people how they should run their business. Clause 10(6)(b) refers to,a form of executive some or all of the members of which are elected by those electors but not to any such post".I believe that that may be agreed as one of the ways forward.
I have been involved in local government for nearly 50 years. I am in agreement with the idea of an executive. I was vice-chairman of the old Hampshire County Council and chairman of the new county council at the same time as being chairman of the finance committee. Our budget was £1.6 billion a year. We employed 55,000 people. It was an honour and a great experience to run a major authority which stretched between Bournemouth and Aldershot and from Petersfield very nearly to Newbury.
The council worked extremely well; it is working extremely well. It has worked with an executive and a committee system. The Government want to do away with that. The committee system has two major inputs. It enables back-benchers and leaders of the different groups within the authority to work together in areas of special interest. From where will we get new local authority members? Who wants to stand for a local authority when they know that in the first two or three years of their membership they will meet for perhaps five county council meetings a year? With 100 members of the council, 15 will be on the executive and perhaps 20 on the scrutiny committee. What will all the others be doing? They may be on other scrutiny committees. They will not learn about education, social services or the police force. How did I learn about planning? It was by working on the planning committee, finally becoming chairman. After that I became chairman of the County Councils Association Planning Committee. I was then chairman of the South-East Economic Planning Council. I still serve as chairman of SERPLAN, which involves all the local authorities in the south-east today.
I believe that there is a great danger. We saw it when the Select Committee met with two London boroughs which are working on the basis that the Government intend for all local authorities. One back-bench member of a London borough said that he had the greatest difficulty as a governor of his school because he was unable to get in touch with any member of the education committee or the education officer. He knew that as a manager he would be asked questions which he could not answer. He thought that the new approach was a rotten idea. Previously the council had an education committee and he was on it.
Finally, to ask the public about the structure of local government is a very big question. While I was chairman of Hampshire County Council, unfortunately I was eternally on television and attending meetings talking about rates. People wanted 1053 to know why we were spending money on education and not enough on roads, and so on. They were interested in the results of the local authority; they were not interested in its structure. Perhaps with better information, and talks at schools about local government, young people may give up some of their time to local government. I very much hope that they will. However, I cannot believe that they will if, for most of the time, they are not involved in any way. I speak about all political parties. Two years ago I visited Bedfordshire County Council. The chairman of the planning committee is not briefed by the planning officer. He is elected on the day because there is no overall political majority on the council. Conservative, Liberal and Labour members are equal.
How will local government work with a scrutiny committee composed of one political party, with a majority party only on the executive? There are many problems ahead. In his reply, I hope that the Minister will tell us why the Government do not wish to allow an authority to set up an executive, a scrutiny committee and some standing committees of the county council or education, police, planning, social services and the like.
§ 5.20 p.m.
§ Lord Harris of Haringey
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, with whom I have worked so closely on London local government matters. It is also A pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Smith of Leigh, whose maiden speech made an important contribution to our debate. It demonstrated the value of the experience that he brings to the Chamber.
First, I declare an interest as a London borough councillor for the past 21 years; as a member of the executive of the Local Government Association; and as the current chair of the Association of London Government. During my time as a councillor, I have seen a decline in the standing of local government, but that decline is not just a phenomenon of the past two decades. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Hattersley, in a splendid written evocation of his youth, records:At the end of the war, the counties and the county boroughs were responsible for hospitals, police, water and a major part of the welfare budget, which was appropriately enough called 'local assistance'. Some of them generated electricity and distributed what came to be called 'town gas".Clearly, there has been a reduction in the size of the responsibilities and powers of the local authorities since the halcyon days described in his article. But I believe that that reduction has contributed to the decline in the public's view of local government, the turn-out in local elections and the willingness of people to put themselves forward for election.
The profile of local councillors is in no way representative of the population at large. There are some 25,000 elected local representatives, setting aside for the moment the 70,000 parish and local community councillors. Of those, only 27 per cent are women; a mere 3 per cent are from minority ethnic communities; and only 38 per cent are employed either full time or part time. The average age is 56. I have to admit that 1054 I find it a sobering thought that after more than two decades as a councillor I am still 10 years younger than the national average. I suppose that that makes me a representative of youth in local government, but I am not sure that I should be recognised as such by many young people.
That situation cannot be allowed to continue. Indeed, how can councillors truly represent their communities if they are not part of that community and reflect that community? So it is important that we give serious thought to encouraging more of our young people and more ethnic minority residents to participate in the democratic processes and to stand as councillors. And, of course, the same is true for women in order to equalise the gender balance.
We have to prove that being a councillor is a worthwhile way to spend your time; that what they say can influence decisions and bring changes; and that the community will benefit from their involvement. We can do that only by making changes to the way local authorities work; by stressing the representational and representative role of local councillors.
Let me put that in context. Hitherto, much time has been spent in a round of unproductive committee meetings. Concerns about this are nothing new. In 1967, the Maud Committee commented:The [committee] system involves the production of increasing volumes of paper … which often overwhelms members … [and] … discourages the type of person … who is prepared to give time to the consideration of major issues but who is not prepared to spend it on matters which specialist staff should deal with themselves.When I first saw that quotation, I thought that it was from the latest government White Paper. The words must be saved on the word processor and appear in a slightly changed form every few years. Despite the condemnation in 1967, the system has changed hardly at all. By 1990, the Audit Commission produced a report entitled, We Can't Go On Meeting Like This, and followed it up with a further report two years ago which concluded that under the committee system:too much of a burden is placed on councillors, often unproductively, by committee meetings which focus on detailed issues.And, more importantly, it stated:the degree to which councillors have been supported in developing other aspects of their representational role (aside from committee work) is limited, so an opportunity for councillors to have a stronger voice on behalf of local communities is being missed.What is more, as far as concerns the general public, the arrangements have been opaque and obscure. People assumed that the real decisions were being taken elsewhere and usually they were right to think so. This was as true of Conservative councils as it was of Labour and it is applied just as much to Liberal Democrat administrations as to councils where no party had overall control.
I listened with great interest to the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, speaking fondly of the emergency procedures in his local authority when he was involved. I could not help feeling that he was describing an arrangement under which decisions were being taken rapidly behind closed doors and the 1055 reasons for them and the forum of their discussion would not have been apparent to members of the public.
The Bill provides an alternative model: one where decision-taking is clearly located and where accountability is explicit. By encouraging local councils to adopt an executive/scrutiny split, the Bill addresses some of the problems with the existing arrangements. This should be positive for the image of local government and may begin to lead to an improvement in the level of civic engagement by the public at large. By cutting down on otherwise pointless meetings, the role of individual councillors is enhanced as more time will be available for them to carry out their representative role in their local communities.
The Government have emphasised that both the executive and back-bench roles of councillors are vital to the health of local democracy. The executive role will be to propose the policy framework and implement policies within the agreed framework. The role of back-bench councillors will be to represent their constituents, share in the policy and budget decisions of the full council, suggest policy improvements and scrutinise the executive's policy proposals and their implementation. Incidentally, I thought that the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, suggesting that somehow it would be the end of the Bill when it came to a review and scrutiny committee putting forward a policy proposal, reflected a misunderstanding of what is proposed.
Suggesting policy improvements and scrutinising policy proposals is central to the role of the overview and scrutiny committees outlined in the Bill and it is very different from making the decision. It creates a process which will allow much more flexibility of thought and is much less likely to lead to a particular viewpoint being pushed through by a majority party without significant discussion.
In the same way as the Select Committees of your Lordships' House and of another place can raise issues, can challenge orthodoxy, can perhaps criticise the majority party of government and can certainly recommend improvement, so, too, can the overview and scrutiny committees clarify the position and explore the implications of proposals within a local authority. Those proposals are contained within the Local Government Bill.
At first, most of the discussion and emphasis was placed on the introduction of directly elected mayors to UK local governments for the first time. That is important, but less attention has been placed on the newly-defined and regularised role of the executive outlined in the White Paper, first, to translate the wishes of the community into action; secondly, to represent the authority and its community's interests to the outside world; and, thirdly, to build coalitions and work in partnership with all sectors of the community, and bodies from outside the community, including the business and public sectors.
This is all about community leadership; a new and important concept which enhances local democracy. While government are not perhaps proposing a return 1056 to the heady days described by my noble friend Lord Hattersley, it is clear that the new power to promote the economic social or environmental well-being of a local authority area, contained in Part I of the Local Government Bill, gives much greater freedom. It may not be a power of general competence, but it enables councils which wish to go beyond the narrowly-defined limits placed on them by statute so to do. That is important in terms of giving body to the role of community leadership.
I want to move briefly to the role of the backbencher. Clearly, back-bench councillors will be spending less time in council meetings. Therefore, they will have more time to spend in the local community, at residents' meetings or at surgeries. They will therefore be accountable in a direct way through encountering their communities on a day-to-day basis. They will be strong local representatives for their area. They will bring their constituents' views, concerns and grievances to the council through the council structures. Their role will be to represent the people to the council rather than to defend the council to the people.
In effect, they will be able to offer community leadership at a ward level and relate to their communities in a positive way without having to bear the responsibility or blame for the day-to-day decisions of the executive. That is an extremely positive and valuable role for all involved.
All in all, those changes are fundamental. They are part of a true modernising agenda which will bring about a fundamental transformation of the roles of elected members, of the status of councils and councillors as community leaders and in the way in which local authorities take decisions. That is not some cynical rearrangement of the deckchairs on the Titanic, but an opportunity for local government to renew itself as a reinvigorated champion of the communities it represents.
I therefore welcome the Bill. However, I should like to mention a number of specific points where it could be improved. First, I have already indicated that the new power is welcome. It would be even more welcome if Clause 2(3) required local authorities also to have regard to the achievement of social inclusion in the area and to the importance of harmonising race relations and achieving equal opportunities in the area. Secondly, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I should like to see maximum flexibility in terms of options for the executive/scrutiny split. Thirdly, I welcome the arrangements to pay allowances and pensions to local authority members. I trust that that will extend to all members and not only to those who happen to sit on the executive.
Finally, I cannot close without referring to Clause 68. I was a member of my local authority—although not at that time its leader—when it was at the forefront of debates on the matter in the mid-1980s. I remember well those discussions and I believe that Section 28 was introduced to set up an Aunt Sally. It was set up to attack local government, in particular Labour local government, which at the time did not 1057 much need to be set up as an Aunt Sally because there were plenty of other issues on which it could be criticised.
However, I believe that Section 28 was set up to do exactly that. It attacked a mirage; something which was not happening. In my local authority an extremely lengthy, learned and detailed report was presented to the council. It was entitled, if I remember correctly, Mirrors Around the Walls. It was about recognising the position of individual young people who are perhaps uncertain of their sexuality—an issue referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford—or are children who are not part of conventional families in the sense that most of us would understand.
I find some of the comments which have already been made extraordinary. I listened with interest to the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Young. She talked about the clause being "slipped in". There has been debate and discussion about the repeal of Section 28 for a number of years. It has clearly been government policy. She referred to Section 28 as being an enormously important piece of legislation. I do not believe that it is so. As a piece of legislation it has never led to a successful prosecution. It is a piece of legislation that was extremely badly drafted to make a political point a number of years ago. It was extremely badly drafted because it is difficult to define what "promote" actually means in that context. It was badly drafted because it was clearly about education, but it related to local authorities rather than recognising the position in terms of schools, the role of governors and the role of teachers.
The most worrying part of that badly-drafted piece of legislation is that it creates a climate of fear and uncertainty. The extent of the lack of clarity as to what it does or does not cover has meant that initiatives which would tackle homophobic bullying and the uncertainties and difficulties of young people coming from non-conventional families have not been implemented. Teachers, governors and local education authorities did not know what could or could not be clone without falling foul of that particular provision.
The Government are right to repeal that section. I am delighted to see Clause 68 included in the Bill. It is not something which has been "slipped in", but enhances the Bill. The Bill is important because it presents the opportunity to renew local government. It presents the opportunity to renew the role of local authority councillors. The inclusion of Clause 68 is important because it renews the opportunity to ensure that those issues are addressed properly and appropriately—not to promote homosexuality, but to ensure that young people are clear and that they are advised and counselled accordingly. That is why I am such a clear supporter of this piece of legislation.
§ 5.35 p.m.
§ Lord Waddington
My Lords, it is with some diffidence that I rise to follow the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, because I am not an expert on local government. When I make a few remarks about 1058 Part II, I do so with some diffidence and in the hope that it is sometimes helpful to have a layman's perspective. It certainly seems somewhat strange to me that even before there is a mayor in London and we have seen the consequences of having a mayor in London, we should be hurrying on to consider having mayors elsewhere.
Looking at the situation in London at the present time, I am not encouraged to believe that the post of mayor is bound to fall to someone interested in good administration and the delivery of efficient service rather than a demagogue bent on political posturing and confrontation with the government of the day. We shall have to see. However, when I read in the papers who is supposed to be the front runner for the Labour nomination, I am not exactly encouraged.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, said that there had been a decline in the public's view of local authorities over the years. I am told by many people that it has been quite difficult in recent years to get good people to stand as councillors in some of our cities. There may be a number of reasons for that, but one reason represented to me not long ago is that when one has sought election in order to ensure that the street lights work and that one's children receive a decent education, it is fairly dispiriting to have to sit patiently while one is harangued night after night about gay rights. It is hard to see how abolishing the committee system is going to solve that difficulty.
Furthermore, having an inner circle of councillors serve on an executive, relegating the rest to second-class status with no part in decision-making, will not—in spite of all that was said by the noble Lord—improve democratic accountability, which Labour say is their aim. It is hardly likely to encourage those who do not get into the magic circle to continue to serve.
We are told that those who serve on the executive may be paid pensionable salaries. It is important that the public should be aware that that new idea is not a no-cost idea and that it may cost council tax payers dearly. Clearly, higher remuneration does not necessarily guarantee the involvement of higher quality people any more than paying expenses, however justified, resulted in better councillors at that time.
In other contexts, I believed that the Government rather liked the idea of power-sharing. There is much to be said for the committee structure in which all councillors can be involved in decision-making. Surely the Government should therefore think again about the unanimous conclusion of the Joint Committee and allow an authority to choose arrangements other than the executive arrangements on the face of the Bill. Otherwise, with the abolition of the committee system, absolute unfettered power really will be given to one party in many of our big cities. That is not desirable.
I turn now to the repeal of Section 28 by Clause 68. As my noble friend Lady Young said, the matter was not mentioned at all in the Queen's Speech, and when the Deputy Prime Minister mentioned the matter in debate in the other place on 18th November at col. 127 of Hansard, he was almost apologetic, admitting that 1059 the intention behind Section 28—that is, to prevent the promotion in the classroom of homosexuality as a way of life—was,a fair and proper intention".My noble friend Lady Young pointed out that, although both she and I mentioned the proposal for the reduction in the age of consent and Section 28 in our speeches in this Chamber during the debate on the gracious Speech, and although the Lord Privy Seal did us the courtesy of replying to our comments about the reduction in the age of consent, not a word fell from her lips about Section 28.
I am not surprised at the Government's diffidence because the arguments which they have been able to muster in support of repeal range from the tenuous to the trivial. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said that there have not been any prosecutions under Section 28. But according to Mr Nick Seaton of the Campaign for Real Education, neither has there been the same volume of complaints from parents. Even Mr Peter Tatchell seems to think that Section 28 has had a deterrent effect. In an article a year or two ago he said that he had identified,at least 35 instances of self-censorship by local authorities fearful of prosecution".According to the Christian Institute, there have been many instances where local authority officials have used their powers to block expenditure which would have been illegal under Section 28. Therefore, quite clearly it has had a deterrent effect.
That is the whole point. Section 28 is aimed at local authorities and the spending of money by local authorities on material which promotes homosexuality. It is not aimed at and poses no threat to teachers. I believe that the right reverend Prelate, who is not in his place at the moment but who will be able to read Hansard, can be assured that it does not affect what is taught in sex education lessons. That is decided on a school-by-school basis by the governing body with guidance from the department. It clearly allows counselling of pupils who are concerned about their sexuality.
It is said that the present law prevents teachers from dealing with bullying about which, of course, all teachers are rightly concerned. But it goes without saying that no teacher has ever been prevented by Section 28 from dealing with a bully. It is perfectly absurd to assert that a teacher cannot check bullying and cannot counsel young people about their feelings without promoting a gay lifestyle.
I submit that the Minister was wrong and that his remarks were in no way based on any evidence or on the wording of the section. He was quite wrong when he said that the legislation prevented local authorities addressing the needs of the gay community, still less from funding counselling services. The very limited scope of Section 28 was set out in DoE circular 12/88 1060 and an extract is quoted in the excellent paper by Care. If the House will bear with me for a moment, I shall read the relevant extract:The provision will be relevant in cases where a local authority in exercising one of its statutory functions proposes to do something for the deliberate purpose of promoting homosexuality. Local authorities will not be prevented by this section from offering the full range of their services to homosexuals on the same basis as to all their inhabitants. So long as they are not setting out to promote homosexuality they may for example include in their public libraries books and periodicals about homosexuality or written by homosexuals and fund theatre and other arts events which may include homosexual themes".The circular went on:Section 28 does not affect the activities of school governors nor teachers. It will not prevent the objective discussion of homosexuality in the classroom nor the counselling of pupils concerned about their sexuality".The Minister was clearly ignoring entirely that circular, which must have been brought to his attention by a government department when he made his remarks. Those remarks are in complete conflict with what he and this Government know to be the position.
We were told by the noble Lord who last spoke that when Section 28 was introduced it was set up as an "Aunt Sally". I can assure him that nothing could be further from the truth. When Section 28 was introduced, the Government were acting in response to the genuine concerns of parents that local authorities were using their money to teach children that there was no meaningful difference between a family headed by a man and a woman and two homosexuals living together. Section 28 seems to have had a beneficial effect in the education service and in local authorities.
Unfortunately, again as was pointed out by my noble friend Lady Young, the activists who caused so much trouble in the late 1980s seem to have found other ways of pursuing the same agenda. That is obvious from the actions of a number of health authorities. For the sake of brevity I shall mention just two. The Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham Health Authority has funded a guide to the etiquette of "cruising" and "cottaging". The North Bristol National Health Service Trust has funded a so-called educational pack which encourages children as young as 14 to act out homosexual scenes, including pretending to be a married man who had sex with other men in secret.
As I received no response from the Lord Privy Seal when I spoke in the debate on the Queen's Speech, perhaps I may put the same question to the Minister today. How can the Government countenance young children being taught that it is all right to indulge in homosexual activity, and promiscuous homosexual acts at that, when they know perfectly well that if that lifestyle is adopted by those children, it will mean at the very least an increased chance of HIV infection and a reduction in their life expectancy? How can they countenance money being spent on that kind of material when it has been voted by Parliament for the treatment of sick people?
1061 Last Tuesday night Stonewall put on a star-studded show attended by the Prime Minister's wife to advertise gay rights. Apparently, it included a scene in which male dancers dressed as cub scouts gyrated suggestively and made obscene gestures while the audience clapped, cheered and stamped their feet. Some people could have been excused for thinking that the dancers were signalling that cub scouts were proper game for adult homosexuals. But Mr Tim Telman, himself gay and a journalist who writes for a homosexual publication, was surely right to say in an article in the Daily Mail on 1st December that that scene, far from reminding us that homosexuals are an oppressed minority, was symptomatic of a wider gay triumphalism in public life.
I say in all solemnity that it is our job to see that that triumphalism does not infringe the right of children to be brought up knowing what is right and what is wrong, understanding that sodomy is not the moral equivalent of sexual intercourse between a man and a wife, and appreciating the importance of marriage and of children being brought up by a man and woman bound by their marriage vows to a lasting relationship.
§ 5.50 p.m.
§ Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer
My Lords, I somewhat regret that I must follow the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. I wish to address my remarks in particular to the modernisation of local government. However, the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, tempts me to stray into what I believe is a small area of the Bill. My two daughters sometimes sit in the public gallery to listen to your Lordships' debate. I believe that had they been here this evening, they would have been asking themselves where some noble Lords get their information from. From their experience of the playground, they see that bullying is very much an issue which needs to be dealt with.
I turn now to the Local Government Bill. We have heard that it is a fundamental and renewing Bill. I do not believe that those descriptions are entirely accurate. I believe that it is an evolutionary Bill which takes a small step towards improving local government.
I heard the Minister's remarks when he introduced the Bill and I hope that the recommendations of the Joint Committee will be incorporated. Their incorporation will mean that structures become more flexible. At present, the Bill still includes some features which have made local government less than desirable in the public perception; namely, a small clique of people, meeting in private, who make decisions which are fundamental to public life. If the Bill continues to retain the executive's ability to meet in private, then that public perception will scarcely change.
I should declare an interest as a county councillor for Somerset and as a former district councillor. As such, I cannot understand why councillors fear meeting in public. Sometimes it is more difficult when the public hear the debates which are held and, of course, sometimes groups meet beforehand. But it should he possible to debate in public most decisions 1062 which are made. Some noble Lords may say that I am an idealist to expect that that should be so. But I worked within a system in which debates—and sometimes heated debates—were held in public and conclusions were reached. The public believe that to be a satisfactory way in which to conduct business.
In particular, I wish to address the role of area and partnership committees. Those are not yet contained in the Bill although I understand that the Government look favourably upon them. The area committees of which I have experience are based on a natural geographical area. The councillors for the area meet in public with the public able to ask questions on all matters concerning the area. In relation to social, economic and environmental well-being, such a committee—a scrutiny committee or whatever— would be extremely powerful. It would be extremely important in terms of community planning and enabling communities in the area to address what are described in the jargon as cross-cutting issues. In the past, committees have concentrated far too much on, for example, housing while disregarding planning and environmental health issues when all those issues are fundamentally entwined. Area committees have been successful in many authorities. I am extremely anxious that they should be allowed to continue. to build on their strengths, and to receive great community support. They enable communities to understand what local authorities are trying to achieve for them.
I turn now to partnership committees—a different animal. I believe that the Bill has been drafted with unitary authority areas very much in mind. Partnership committees address the need for district and county councils to work together. Some measures provide that executive decisions can be made only by one local authority or another. If the Government's agenda of best value and community planning is to be achieved, those committees must be not only encouraged but enabled to delegate decisions, if the executives of those authorities agree, to a partnership committee. In that case, areas such as waste collection and disposal and planning in its broadest sense—issues which cut across the work of both authorities—can be considered jointly by those authorities, with budgeting provisions being made by the two of them together. In that way, we should avoid the rather messy situation left behind by the last government, who failed to address the Local Government Commission's initial brief which was to rationalise the structures of local government so that the public could understand it.
I have some fears that under the Bill as drafted the executive and scrutiny split will be extremely divisive. The situation may arise that the opposition members are placed in charge of scrutiny while the executive members are a ruling group. If so, the old game of political football will then ensue. One of the reasons that the public are so turned off local government is that they see that that game of political football is being played at the expense of addressing local issues.
It may cause difficulties in relation to the natural progression of councillors, who are elected to represent their communities and who enjoy doing so, to becoming members of the executive. It may 1063 encourage the career politician rather than the community leader. I am sure that that is not the intention of the Bill. But it will be important that councils are given help in addressing the problem of councillors moving from the scrutiny to the executive function. Training through the improvement and development agency should be available to all members so that they can make what has been in the past a natural progression; for example, through being a vice-chairman of a committee. When the Government table their amendments, I hope that they will address some of those issues.
Part IV deals with electoral arrangements. The noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, referred to young people being able to represent their councils. I am sure that I do not need to remind your Lordships that people of the age of 18, who are adults, are still not able to represent their local councils. One has to be 21 to stand as a candidate. That is a great shame. Although there would not be large numbers of young people wanting to be councillors, those few who are thus motivated are precluded from doing so, sometimes until they are 24, should their birthday fall at the wrong time.
I have a question to ask on Part V dealing with welfare services and support for the vulnerable. I know that this is a difficult matter. I am closely connected with my local women's refuge and I am concerned about whether the measures will affect the way in which such refuges are funded. I heard the Minister's introduction. At present, such funding is heavily dependent on housing benefit. Those provisions may be extremely suitable for the elderly who are less mobile. But I wonder whether they will be of benefit for those who must move from, for example, shelter to shelter. Perhaps the Minister will say how wide the consultation has been on that issue.
I look forward to the Government introducing their amendments. I look to them to increase flexibility in the structures. With much increased flexibility, the Bill is a small, rather than a large, step towards modernising local government.
§ 6 p.m.
§ Baroness Thornton
My Lords, it was a great honour to be part of the team from your Lordships' House which served on the Joint Committee to examine the draft Bill this summer. I join with others in saying what a pleasure it was to serve on a committee so excellently and capably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Bowness. Two of my fellow members of that committee have made contributions to today's debate: notably, the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, with whom it was a great privilege to serve and from whose perspective I gained a great deal, as did the committee; and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, whom I sat next to several times. I confess to shamelessly cribbing from her greater knowledge of these matters. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Smith of Leigh on his maiden speech. He will bring enormous experience and practical intelligence to your Lordships' House and to our consideration of the Bill.
1064 As some of your Lordships may be aware, I am an unashamed moderniser of the new Labour variety. I am keen to see our public institutions and democratic bodies tested against the criteria of whether they match up to the needs of today's world and are fitted to be flexible in the rapidly changing economic and social context in which they inevitably exist.
The Bill seeks to address long-overdue reform. However, whatever structures are found to be most appropriate, in whatever setting, the one constant which has to apply to all and which cannot be found wanting is that of proper standards, probity and ethics. I therefore intend to address my remarks to Part III of the Bill, which deals with the conduct of local government members and employees. The Joint Committee made a number of recommendations in that regard. I welcome the fact that many of our recommendations appear already to be taken on board; indeed, they are referred to in the Government's response.
Nothing discredits more the work of the vast majority of local councillors and officers in their legitimate public service than corruption and abuse of public trust by a small minority of councillors and officers. I welcome the measures in Part III of the Bill which establish a new ethical framework for local government. It will help to improve the standing of local government in the community and ensure that councillors and officers have the tools to get their own house in order and, indeed, clean up local politics.
This is not a party political matter. I do not wish to dwell upon, nor intend to mention, the antics of any particular authority, be it Conservative, Liberal Democrat or Labour. We have all been diminished by the activities of a handful of councillors who have failed to live up to the high standards of probity and integrity. The important point I welcome is that this Government are taking action to deal with the matter, to reassure the public and ensure that the strongest possible framework is in place to ensure higher standards in local public life. It is clear that the existing measures set out in the Local Government Acts of 1972 and 1974 and the 1989 legislation along with the National Code of Local Government Conduct have not been sufficient to deal with the small number of abuses we have witnessed.
Under the Bill every council will be required to adopt a new code covering the behaviour of elected members and officers. Every authority will have to create a standards committee. More importantly, the new standards board for England and the standards board for Wales will appoint ethical standards officers to ensure that the allegations of misconduct are thoroughly and, most importantly, independently investigated.
I am pleased to see that Clause 43 of the Bill enables ethical standards officers to investigate allegations even if the person concerned is no longer a member of an authority. That will help to ensure that councillors cannot evade an investigation by resigning from the council having already brought it into disrepute. It is 1065 vital that the ethical standards officers have teeth. The Bill gives them the teeth they need to carry out their work effectively.
Clause 44 gives wide scope to the ethical standards officer to conduct an investigation as he or she sees fit. It also sensibly ensures that the investigations need not give local authorities excuses for not acting while matters are being investigated. Clause 45 is particularly important in that regard. It will ensure that ethical standards officers have access to all the information they need to investigate the allegation. Fines will be imposed for failure to provide them with the information they need to further their investigations.
It is important that the process is transparent from beginning to end. Clauses 45, 47 and 48, which govern the publication of reports in the local media, will be welcomed. It is also vital that action can be taken quickly where interim findings of the investigations of the ethical standards officers are damaging. Clause 48 enables the ethical standards officer to conclude that the person being investigated should be suspended from being a member of the authority for up to six months with a possibility of extension, if necessary.
That will help to ensure that if it is felt by the ethical standards officers to be in the public interest to prevent a councillor from continuing to participate in decision-making, they will have the powers to do so. We might say that this "sin bin" approach is a further reassurance that the issues are being properly addressed.
I imagine that councillors will welcome the provisions in Clause 53 for regulations regarding the disclosure of pecuniary and other interests as this area requires clarification. It is right that councillors should declare such interests. However, as my noble friend Lord Smith illustrated so well in the example of which he spoke, under the existing arrangements there are anomalies. It is indeed the case that as a result of councillors representing their council on one body they cannot report back and carry out their public duties. That is plainly absurd and does not make for effective local policy-making. I look forward to the regulations which will tidy up the situation.
In conclusion, I welcome the approach of the Government to this issue, upon which the credibility of local representation rests. The approach is holistic, can even be said to be "joined up" and greatly enhances the Bill.
§ 6.6 p.m.
§ Baroness Seccombe
My Lords, I shall not detain your Lordships for long but I feel that I cannot let this moment go by without stating where I stand. I have many concerns about the Bill. However, the one clause which really horrifies me is Clause 68 with its intention to repeal Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. I find it inconceivable that any government would wish to go down this route. I was interested to see that the issue commanded all of three lines in the Explanatory Notes to the Bill. I do not accept the premise that the repeal is necessary to enable local 1066 authorities to tackle homophobic bullying at school. I have to say that that is a practice which I abhor wholeheartedly. However, there are other ways of coping with the problem.
In January this year the Government's Green Paper stated that marriage is still the surest foundation for raising children. Since then, statements made by some Ministers and measures taken are in direct contradiction to the Green Paper. The family is the bedrock of society and we need to strengthen it all we can. Listening to some descriptions of the family makes me realise how the understanding of an issue is so different for different people.
My father died, so I grew up in a one-parent family. My mother was wonderful but I longed for my father; that could not be. I believe most sincerely that where both parents are alive everything should be done to help that union survive. It does not help anyone to be told that it does not matter if you have a peripatetic father who has other liaisons or that life is wonderful if your parent has a live-in lover. If you have to live out of a suitcase because you have your time split between your parents who have other relationships. it does not help to be told that that is fine. It must be hell for everyone, even if no one says it aloud. Marriage should be promoted in schools so that children can grow up, wherever possible, with two parents living together under one roof. Those of us who feel passionately about that must stand up and say so.
I have always felt that homosexuality is a sensitive and personal matter between consenting adults. I have friends who are homosexual and I do not discriminate in any way against people on sexual, religious or gender issues. But I am emphatically against promoting homosexuality. Children have enough problems when they reach puberty coming to terms with their sexuality and to have someone in authority encouraging them to accept alternative lifestyles as normal is abhorrent and against natural teaching.
I want to mention girls because often this is seen as a male problem. Reducing the age of consent will lead to problems for girls as it would legalise consensual buggery with girls of 16 to 18 for the first time. It is a physically harmful practice. It can lead to the spread of infection as well as traumatising girls at a tender age. One wonders if normal, loving relationships could ever succeed after such abuse.
This Government have an obsession with modernisation. In the past, under a Labour government, we had a permissive society. The legacy of this Government may be an "anything goes" society; "Forget about standards, just go for it. Do it your own way. We will back anything you do". If that is where we are going in the Government's so-called modern society, I fear for future generations.
§ 6.10 p.m.
§ Lord Filkin
My Lords, I rise with some trepidation to speak as a former local authority chief executive in the face of so many distinguished council leaders for whom I have a great deal of respect and affection. Nevertheless, I want to speak clearly on this issue.
1067 I shall advance the argument that the Bill is necessary because local government is fundamentally in crisis. The evidence for that statement comes from the public themselves, which must be the central focus for the legislation. There are voluminous data from MORI opinion polls and elsewhere showing that the public hold local councils in low esteem. At the last election only 29 per cent bothered to vote in local elections in England; that is the lowest figure we have ever seen. In a recently published British attitude survey, 60 per cent of the public said that they had no interest whatever in local politics. It is said that 95 per cent of the public cannot name their council leader. For many, particularly the young, local government is seen as being largely irrelevant to their concerns and interests. Local government committees are seen as talking shops. I say that with sorrow because I am a passionate supporter of local government and had a satisfactory personal career in it for between 25 and 30 years. The arguments that we do not need change have no foundation in the face of that evidence.
The debate should involve how we change and reconnect with the public. We are not talking about a static society. We are talking about a society where we expect substantial continuing economic growth. If the rate of growth is at a level of below 2 per cent, within a decade GDP will have risen by 20 per cent. That level of increase and the consequent effects on local communities will be profound. At the same time we are aware that technology and society changes are under way and are looking therefore at how a governmental system, whether at national or local level, is capable of addressing the needs of a fast-changing society and economy rather than hankering to get back to the world that we have lost. That is why we must be concerned as to how we can reform and modernise local government on a cross-party basis. if we are not capable of doing that and the public continue to see local government as being largely irrelevant to their needs, the only option left will be for central government to run things through their bodies and agencies.
We have seen over the past decade or so that there has been virtually no opposition from the public to the loss of local government functions. That matters. Locality still ought to matter to us. The argument is sometimes made that the issue of locality has gone; that people move around more frequently; they live in different places and work in different places from where they live. Yet if one takes a practical look at the situation, to most of us where we live and where our children go to school matters; locality still has impact. The debate therefore is how, in a more mobile society, we can reconnect people back to a governmental system at a local level.
One of the components of that debate has to be the issue of leadership. No one would argue that leadership is the simple or sole issue necessary for change in the local government agenda; but it matters in terms of organisations being better able to address the needs of the communities they serve. So, unashamedly, I should like to speak for a few minutes 1068 about why the structures and systems of local government matter as well as its powers and functions, while welcoming the long-overdue recognition of the power of well-being that the Bill brings forward.
It is known to all in the Chamber that every year a leader must secure a vote in his or her majority group to continue as a leader in that council. I do not want to make too much of that, but in essence leaders are forced to have an internal as well as an external focus. They are forced to ensure that, by and large, back-benchers are comfortable with what they are doing and that there is an opportunity for back-benchers to play a part in the process, however minor.
It might be said that there is nothing wrong with that. But surely the central focus of leaders should be to have a strong connection with the interests and needs of their community. That is why we should look with an open mind at one of the options that the Bill offers to indicate that a direct relationship between a leader and the community is important. It is nothing new. Members on the Benches opposite have, in the past, argued for such reform strategies, and done so well and persuasively.
The Bill offers basically three options. What is not an option is the status quo. I hope I have indicated some of the reasons why that should be so and how much I commend the work of the Joint Committee in its deliberations in the summer. Those who went to the LGA briefing before this debate were heartened to hear the chief executive of that organisation say that the Local Government Association did not support the status quo. I commend it for that; it is a progressive move.
We should look also at where local government is in relation to this debate and the option of a directly-elected mayor. The committee system has been spoken of fondly. Members of the House are well aware that the committee system has virtually disappeared in local government in the rest of the world. No doubt it has a role in some places, but does not appear to have adherence in the rest of the world. It was clearly appropriate for the 19th century, but that is in the past.
The debate therefore is how councils will choose the options. They will not be imposed by government; it will be an issue of choice for a local authority and its community. There is cause for concern in that regard on two fronts. If we ask the public the straightforward question—it has been asked in numerous polls over the past year or two—"Are you interested in having a directly-elected mayor for your area?", between 60 and 70 per cent will say "Yes". That is a remarkably high figure for a reform option. If we ask local councils how many are interested in having a directly-elected mayor for their area, only 2 per cent will respond with a "Yes". The difficulty is that if there is to be a genuine debate about new structures that will better serve the interests of the public, it must be a debate involving the public rather than one held in the smoke-filled rooms of the ruling party of the council. So far we have not been overwhelmed with enthusiasm by local authorities wanting to have that debate with their communities. There have been impressive exceptions.
1069 Lewisham, Liverpool and one or two others have sought a genuine discussion with their local communities about a system that would best suit the needs of the public rather than those of the current local political elite. One hopes that the Bill and its subsidiary legislation will make such full and open debates an essential part of the process. Again I pay tribute to the Local Government Association. When asked, "Should a local authority put all options before its public and debate them?", the unequivocal answer was that of course it should do so.
We are all saying that scrutiny is vital. I may not have been paying attention in all my 25 years in local government, but I did not see a great deal of evidence of scrutiny. That is best exampled by the deputy leader of a council, for which I was chief executive, when we were forming a performance review committee. He said, "You can look at anything you like whatsoever, as long as it doesn't cause us any embarrassment in public."
Past practice on scrutiny in local government is not very impressive. which is why we should keep an open mind on the need for change. The current system whereby all decisions on policy, practice and scrutiny are in theory made by one body—the committee—has failed to deliver clarity on policy making, clear strategic leadership at times or much evidence of vigorous challenge to what a council has done in the past.
I warmly commend the Bill and support many of its measures. I hope that we can have serious debate on how the Bill can best serve the interests of the public, rather than on the world that is behind us now.
§ 6.21 p.m.
§ Lord Laming
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, began by saying that local government is in crisis. That may be but I cannot agree with him that the Bill addresses those serious matters. I make it plain that to question the Bill should not be seen as an indication that one is opposed to change. I suggest that change is equally a responsibility for central government as it is for local government.
My response to the Bill follows closely the contribution of the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, and I hope that the Minister will be able to persuade me and others that we should not feel terribly disappointed that this is a Bill of lost opportunities in achieving the Government's wish to revitalise local government. At this time, the Government could have set clear, new and modern objectives for local government and concentrated on outcomes and impact. Instead, the Bill concentrates on structure and process, which are not central to the issues on restoring local government.
Over the years it has become commonplace for Governments to advance the cause of strong local authorities while strengthening the grip of central control. In a healthy democracy there needs to be a proper distribution of power. The best way to tackle social exclusion—I pay tribute to the Government for giving that a higher priority—or economic regeneration is to empower local authorities to engage 1070 local people and to identify new ways of encouraging local communities to take a strong stake in their quality of life.
At a time when the Government have a large majority in the other place, there is even more need to take proper regard of checks and balances on power and control. It is ironic that we are discussing these matters on a day when the Prime Minister is in the north of England addressing the north-south divide. I suspect that few people in Whitehall would be able without hesitation to identify the location of Sefton, Knowsley, Tameside and Kirklees—let alone Three Rivers or Dacorum—yet Whitehall is able to set priorities for local authorities and to determine through the standard spending assessment how much each should spend on the services for which they have responsibility.
The Bill seems to take even more control to the centre by interfering in internal structures and management arrangements. Clause 18 even requires each local authority to report to the Secretary of State on its executive arrangements. I would be interested to hear from the Minister how many local authorities will need to do that. Is the number really in excess of 400? What is the population range of each authority? I suspect that it is something between 30,000 and 1 million. Do the Government really want to get involved in the internal management structures of every local authority in this country?
There was a time when local government raised most of the money it spent in its own locality, with a small top-up from central government. That position has reversed. About 80 per cent of local government expenditure now comes from central government, with a large number of strings attached. Is it any wonder that local authorities are often thought of as being agents of central government rather than separately elected public authorities with rights and responsibilities and having wide discretion over local decision-making?
If one of the local authorities visited today by the Prime Minister made a thorough assessment of the social and economic needs in its area, for the most part it would have to go cap in hand to Whitehall or to Europe in the hope of changing the distribution formula or attracting a special grant. Is it any wonder that the turnout for local elections is so low? Electors know where the power lies. If the Minister's ambition to revitalise local government is to be realised, it is necessary to release local government from the tight grip at the centre and to encourage good-calibre local people to present themselves for election and become leaders of local communities, feeling that they will have a strong influence on the way that local authorities address the issues they confront.
It is more than a question of structures and processes. In this day and age, it is vitally important to find new ways of involving local people to combat areas of alienation and feelings of resignation that are so evident in some communities. Too many local communities reveal clear signs of disillusionment and disbelief that they can do anything about their 1071 environment or life opportunities. We need to find ways to engage local people and to stimulate and motivate local communities. Gone should be the days when the state does things to and for people. We should be finding ways of working with people in a genuine and equal partnership, supporting initiative and innovation. We should be finding ways of bringing together individuals, groups and organisations—voluntary and private—and public bodies to shape the future of local communities. Local government will not be able to perform that leadership role effectively if it does not have greater flexibility than the Bill allows.
Clause 2 gives powers to local authorities to promote the "well-being of their area" but Clause 3 prevents them from raising money to be used for that purpose. The Bill ratchets up further the Secretary of State's control and I cannot help but observe that the enthusiasm for referendums at local level seems not to be shared by central government, who wish to keep a firm grip on their own agenda.
Although I welcome the wish to improve standards in public life, as I am sure all your Lordships do, even at local level power will be concentrated in the hands of the few and many elected members will feel marginalised—even in the authorities to which they have been elected. I fail to understand why the time-honoured practice of political balance being reflected in the decision-making process is to be reduced. Some parts of the Bill are welcome but overall it is far too intrusive and allows too little flexibility for local government.
Will the Minister indicate whether he is aware of the real concern about Clause 64—particularly the financial arrangements for supporting people in sheltered housing? That is such an important part of fulfilling government policy on care in the community that I hope care will be taken to ensure that sheltered housing and tenants of sheltered housing are not put financially at risk.
I hope that I have managed to convey that, although this is a time when we should be seeking to revitalise and empower local government and help local communities to feel that they have greater influence over their quality of life, the Bill increases the powers of the Secretary of State to interference in the way that local authorities go about their business and adds to central control. I shall be a happy man if the Minister can convince me that I have got it all wrong.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Baroness Massey of Darwen
My Lords, I am glad that this is not my maiden speech because I want to support the repeal of Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. I shall limit my remarks to the relevance of this section to schools and young people. The section is only a small part of the Bill, though it may attract a disproportionate amount of attention; I hope not. I shall try to convince your Lordships that Section 28 is simply outdated and unnecessary, for it has been overtaken by new guidance. I shall also argue that it is actually counter-productive.
1072 The section has always been a confusing piece of legislation. Of course, in truth, it applies only to local authorities, which are not in fact responsible for the management of schools and colleges: power lies with the governing bodies. However, I do not intend to spend time on this anomaly; nor do I intend to go over old and sensationalist arguments relating to Section 28. My main argument is that the section has been rendered obsolete by guidelines to schools from successive governments since 1988.
As your Lordships know, this section was written into—I almost said slipped into—the Local Government Act 1988, a long time ago. Much has happened since then in the fields of education and health. I shall not go into a detailed description of this, but I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to some significant interventions which, whatever one thought of Section 28 before, now make it unnecessary, and as counter-productive as ever.
In 1990, the National Curriculum Council published its guide to health education in schools for five to 16 year-olds. For the first time, and after much consultation, the content and organisation of health education was spelled out for the four key stages of schooling. Sex education falls under health education and biology, and age-appropriate topics are given. There is no promotion of homosexuality; rather an emphasis on responsible decision- making and the expectations of parents. These guidelines are widely respected.
In 1993, the National Curriculum Council published its report, Spiritual and Moral Development for schools. It aimed to demonstrate that spiritual and moral development belongs,to every area of the curriculum and to all aspects of school life"—the school ethos, the curriculum and collective worship. The Education Act 1993, since subsumed into the Education Act 1996, stated that the Schools Inspectorate must inspect and evaluate schools' provision for spiritual and moral development. This same Act required school governors to ensure the provision of sex education (including HIV and AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases) for all pupils.
The Act also established the rights of parents to withdraw children from all or part of sex education. except the biological aspect of the national curriculum, both in primary and in secondary school. In addition, school governors are required to provide a separate statement to parents on the teaching of sex education and to present it at the statutory annual meeting of parents. Of course, parents now constitute, numerically, almost a third of a school's governing body.
Prior to these discussions and curriculum documents, a seminar was held in 1992, funded by the Health Education Authority, where people representing 24 different religious faiths discussed sex 1073 education, values and morality. Consensus was reached and the report found that young people need sex education that,encourages self-awareness, self-esteem, a sense of moral responsibility and the development of social and communication skills essential for making informed decisions and maintaining personal relationships".The seminar concluded that,values cannot he imposed, but children can be equipped with the skills needed to allow them to develop their own".It was agreed at the seminar that pupils have the right to age-appropriate and accurate information on all aspects of sexual health, a right to learn communication and social skills and the opportunity to discuss attitudes, values and beliefs in order to develop a mom] framework for action.
At this seminar, differences between the faiths were acknowledged in an open and accepting way. Differences included issues of abortion, celibacy, cohabitation, disability and sexuality, and homosexuality. It was recognised that for some faiths,homosexuality is unacceptable, whilst others are struggling with the tensions of wider acceptance".This is not to say that homosexuality cannot be discussed—the seminar certainly discussed it—but that religious and cultural viewpoints should be made clear. Many Roman Catholic schools discuss contraception, but make the Catholic faith's position apparent. Discussing is not promoting, but the semantics have confused teachers, doctors, school governors and young people.
I hope that the examples I have given will waylay some of the fears that I have heard expressed about the teaching of sex education. Those fears include: first, the view that there are not enough controls over school sex education, but this is counteracted by the provision of curriculum guidance, inspection and the role of school governors; secondly, that vulnerable children will be corrupted, taken advantage of, or manipulated by inappropriate teaching or teachers, but guidelines emphasise age-appropriate teaching and the safety of children.
Thirdly, there is the fear that religious faiths will be ignored or contravened, but guidelines take account of this. If parents are truly worried, they can withdraw children from lessons. I am a school governor of a primary school. I have just arrived from a school inspection meeting where these issues were discussed. My school has parents who represent around 20 faiths. No one has ever withdrawn a child from any lesson.
There is an extreme view that sex education has been rampant in this country for years and has done untold harm. In fact, sex education has mainly been in the spotlight with very little to see. It was introduced to the school where I am a governor six years ago by a new head teacher and introduced in the context of personal, social and health education. Nothing but good has come out of the programme, including dramatic improvement in the behaviour of the children and in academic results.
Of course, lurid examples sometimes hit the newspaper headlines, but every institution has its lurid examples. It does not mean that they are the norm.
1074 A headline I saw at the weekend was about a boy who has fathered twins. I understand that he was a perpetual truant from school. If he had attended, he might have learned something to his advantage!
If the examples that I have given are not enough, perhaps I may go on to quote more recent guidelines from the Department for Education and Employment (on the National Curriculum for Schools) where sex education is now, I am glad to say, firmly within personal, social and health education. The guidelines are clear about what should be taught and when. They are based on wide consultation, including consultation with young people. The young people were clear that they expected schools to help them sort out dilemmas related to drugs, friendship, sex, smoking and crime. Parents in many surveys have overwhelmingly supported efforts of schools in these areas. The guidelines also support and emphasise home-school relationships and the role of school governors. A new framework for inspection comes into force in January.
Again, I have no time to go into detail, but there is an emphasis in these guidelines for primary schools on developing confidence and responsibility, keeping safe and learning to reject pressure to behave in unacceptable ways. In secondary schools, issues of sexual health are placed,within a context of the importance of relationships".In each curriculum document there is a statement of values from the National Forum for Values in Education and the Community. The word "promote"is used once—it refers to marriage.
I turn to why I believe this section to be counter-productive. Children ask questions about sexuality; they deserve honest responses. They deserve information and a place where they can discuss relationships and moral issues in safety. One of those places is schools. Parents appreciate this. Some children, from all religious groups, will be lesbian or gay, not because they have been taught to be lesbian or gay but because they are. These young people are entitled to information and protection.
As Shaun Woodward said in yesterday's Independent newspaper,At such a sensitive time in the development of young people's lives, they need understanding and acceptance, whatever their sexual orientation".Finally there is the issue of HIV, AIDS and sexually transmitted infection. This cannot be discussed without reference to sexuality (heterosexual as well as homosexual) and to drug misuse. It is vital that we give young people the information and skills to protect themselves. At the beginning of concern about HIV and AIDS public education campaigns in this country were successful. We have fewer cases of AIDS than predicted. However, the medical profession is becoming worried that today's teenagers missed out on those campaigns and urgently need education. We cannot afford to discourage teachers, doctors and school nurses from giving that education. Therefore I suggest that we get rid of Section 28. It is not necessary, if it ever was. It is potentially confusing and damaging. It might be more productive to direct our attention to 1075 some media treatment of sexual issues where violence, exploitation and inaccurate information are rife. Responsible sex education can, of course, counteract these influences.
Agreeing to the repeal of Section 28 would show that your Lordships have taken into account new curriculum guidelines on personal, social and health education, inspection frameworks, parental involvement and the responsibilities of school governors. To retain this measure denies the integrity of organisations and individuals consulted about the guidelines, and the common sense of teachers, parents and young people themselves.
My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, does she accept that when you are legislating the use of words is not just a matter of semantics; it has to be precise? The word that is used in this context is "promotion". The noble Baroness mentioned that word when she referred to the promotion of marriage. I agree with a great deal of what she has said and have no quarrel with much of it. However, the argument is whether or not a homosexual lifestyle should be promoted as being as good as a married lifestyle. This is not a question of semantics; it is an important issue of the words that are used.
§ Baroness Massey of Darwen
My Lords, I respect what the noble Baroness, Lady Young, has said. However, the word "promote" is used in Section 28. That word is unclear and has always been said to be unclear. Teachers, doctors and school governors agree that it is unclear and are sometimes put off teaching about HIV and AIDS because the word is unclear.
§ 6.42 p.m.
§ The Duke of Norfolk
My Lords, it will not surprise noble Lords to hear that I disagree with practically everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, has just said. I strongly support the comments on Clause 68 of the noble Baronesses, Lady Young and Lady Seccombe, and the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. I wish to hammer home the need for Clause 68 to be repealed as it would allow local authorities to promote homosexuality in schools or elsewhere.
Why am I against homosexuality? I am against homosexuality because, in the first place, it is unnatural. One must go into frank details in this matter. The male body is made to go with a female body, not to go with another male body. That is how the male body has evolved. The human species is the highest order of species. Christians believe that Christ sent his son in our species on this earth. Lower orders of species, such as animals, do not practise homosexuality. That is a fact. If you go to see a herd of elephants in Kenya, you do not find homosexuality. If you see a stag and a hind in this country, you will find that they live together, but two stags do not. As regards birds, a cock and a hen live together, but two cocks do not. As I say, homosexuality is unnatural.
1076 Secondly, all the religions of the world ban homosexuality. Christianity, the Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists all ban homosexuality. Most parents want their children to grow up, marry and found a normal family. They do not wish their children to set up a "gay" lifestyle as a pretend family relationship.
§ Lord Beaumont of Whitley
My Lords, is not the noble Duke making a Committee stage speech when we should address the principles of the Bill? Admittedly, he is following the bad example of many other noble Lords, but is that not the case?
§ The Duke of Norfolk
My Lords, I disagree entirely with the noble Lord. I shall continue with my speech. It is not a Committee stage speech; it is a Second Reading speech.
I note that there are some cases of homosexuality, especially in boarding schools and among young teenage boys, but normally those concerned grow out of it—the same applies to girls—and I want to see schools encourage them to do so. I do not want the lives of those boys and girls to be arrested and directed down homosexual channels which lead nowhere. It is the duty of schools to direct their pupils with regard to a proper sex life. There is no question of my advocating homophobic bullying or anything of that kind. As I have said, most boys and girls grow out of these practices and lead happy, normal lives. I know that some boys and girls remain homosexual. I wish to see all our efforts directed to encourage them to grow into normal beings. In no way do I wish to see schools trying to retard their lives when they are at school.
§ 6.47 p.m.
§ Baroness Maddock
My Lords, many noble Lords may be grateful to hear that I do not intend to mention Clause 68 other than to say that I support my noble friend's comments and those of others; namely, I support the repeal of what has been an unnecessary law which has caused difficulties.
Like many others I wish to make some general comments about local government and then concentrate on the style of government and housing welfare support services. Many of us have reminisced today but that is probably because many of us are here as a result of our past experiences in local government and in life.
Over 30 years ago as a newly qualified teacher I settled in Southampton. The school in which I taught provided every young person with their own textbooks in the subjects that I taught; namely, geography and maths. The grounds and the buildings were well cared for and our exam results were good. City buses regularly took children to the fairly new swimming baths to give every child the opportunity to learn to swim. Buses also took us to concert workshops with the local Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Our chief education officer was well known nationally. Local people appreciated the good local services and, whatever the political control, Southampton council aimed for good quality services, particularly decent 1077 housing, and good education and public transport. There was great interest in local elections and in what the council was doing. The well-known, sometimes rather colourful, movers and shakers in the community tended to be members of the local council.
I am possibly painting a rather over-rosy picture, but the reality today is that if one talks about local government it is not that kind of picture that comes to people's minds. Life moves on, the world changes, and institutions have to change. In looking back, I am aware that many of us in the Chamber who have been involved in this area have failed to value and safeguard much of what was and has been good in local government. Most of all we have failed to value the democratic role of local government as a building block for our national domestic democratic institutions.
For me, the test of the Bill is how much it will do to put back some of the cornerstones of our local democratic society—a society so very different from the one I have described. No longer can people read daily in their newspapers full accounts of what is happening in their council. As other noble Lords have said, often people no longer know the names of their local councillors and their local leaders. As we all know, no longer do many people even bother to vote.
Many noble Lords have expressed a desire for things to change. Many in your Lordships' House have expressed concern that although the intention of the Bill is to address some of these issues, some of us—I count myself among them—share concerns about whether it will do so.
As has been said, the Bill opens with a section which gives more power to local councils, particularly to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their areas. I am not ashamed to say again that, although we on these Benches welcome this, our policy is that it would be very much better to give a power of general competence. Here the power to promote well-being is very specifically limited. As has been mentioned, it does not allow authorities to raise money by precepts borrowing or other methods for any of those issues.
The power to promote may sound very good in principle but it is still quite restrictive in practice. For example, it will facilitate partnership working on economic development and on home energy conservation, which I particularly welcome, but it does not give the freedom for local authorities to act.
I listened with interest to the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, who is no longer in his place. I was particularly interested in what he was saying because, when I heard of his background, I realised he has probably voted money for books in my school many years ago. He made a comment about the powers of the Secretary of State and not enough power in the areas that we all want to change being left in the hands of local authorities. It is always disappointing to see how many extra powers are given to a Secretary of State when new legislation comes forward. I shall not 1078 bore your Lordships with them all, but I have particular concern that Clause 6 allows the Secretary of State to,suspend, disapply or repeal any enactment … which requires a local authority to prepare … any plan or strategy".Having piloted through this House and another place the Home Energy Conservation Act, which was about preparing plans—and to which your Lordships agreed—I should like the Minister to reassure me that that area will not be repealed by the Secretary of State under this legislation.
Turning to the arrangements for executives, several models have been put forward. Like other noble Lords, I hope that the Minister will come forward with other models—but not only models put forward by the Government. Experiments have been going on in local government and I hope that if amendments come forward they will reflect local communities' ideas about how we can run local government and how the structure should be set up.
I do not quite understand why the Government and the Local Government Association together are so against local councils being allowed to maintain some of their working practices, particularly if people feel that they are working satisfactorily. As other noble Lords have said, if we are to have cabinet forms of government it is important that we have scrutiny. The crucial part of the new arrangements will be the relationship between the cabinet and the scrutiny committee. In broad terms, the greater the power given to the cabinet and the fewer checks there are at cabinet level, then the stronger the scrutiny function needs to be.
Local government reform offers the possibility of bringing about a great cultural reform in local government—the breaking down of the tribalistic loyalties often seen from back bench councillors. This matter has been touched on by other noble Lords. A strong scrutiny role can give great power to councillors, just as in another place and here the Select Committee system has given great power—particularly in another place—to Back Bench Members. As we have seen over the years, party loyalties get put aside on Select Committees, which have delivered some fairly damning criticisms of government policy. The big test is for scrutiny committees to develop that kind of independence.
Whatever a local authority decides to set up, it has to put its plans in a referendum to its local communities. I am very interested that, although this is about modernising local government, on the face of the Bill councils are required to put in the newspapers whatever model they take up. There is no mention of the web or any other kind of modern technology. I hope that that matter will be examined during the passage of the Bill.
Clauses 64 and 65 are only two clauses in a 73-clause Bill. However, they deal with matters which have consequences for a very large number of the most vulnerable people in our society. I refer to support services.
1079 The Bill will affect quite a number of areas, some of which have already been mentioned: sheltered housing, community alarm schemes for the elderly and vulnerable, foyer schemes, supported housing for people with learning disabilities or physical disabilities, supported housing for people with mental health problems, probation hospitals, women's probation hostels, women's refuges and other hostels that provide support. The Local Government Association and I are concerned as to how these matters will be dealt with. I hope that we will be able to discuss them during later stages of the Bill.
Shelter seems to think that grants, rather than payment through housing benefit, may be a better system. Perhaps the reason that some people in local government and myself are concerned is that however well-intentioned the Government's plans for block grants to go to support services, some of us have seen how that has worked out in practice in the past. That may be why I and other members of local authorities are concerned about the Government's proposals. As the Bill progresses, I hope that we shall be able to address those matters more satisfactorily.
In conclusion, there is much that we do not yet know and there is a great deal of bureaucracy in the Bill. I wish that the Government trusted local people and local councillors a little more. Councils could then be given the right to have general competence and we could have a fair voting system. That would have meant spending a deal less time than we are going to have to spend trying to improve the Bill.
§ 7 p.m.
§ Baroness Gould of Potternewton
My Lords, like my noble friend Lady Massey of Darwen, I wish to concentrate my brief remarks on Clause 68 of the Bill and to welcome the repeal of Section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986 and what was to become Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988.
There were a number of points of detail that I would like to have raised on other aspects of the Bill, not least those that deal with referendums and elections. But I thought that I could leave those until Committee stage. However, there was one point that I could not resist taking the opportunity to raise. The turnout at local elections in this country is the lowest in the European Union. Many measures in the Bill are designed to help to rectify that position, as will the provisions of the Representation of the People Bill currently in the other place. But greater voter participation might have been further aided by an examination of our voting system for local elections.
It is now too late to make a change to our voting system in the Bill before us. But there has been at least a move in the right direction by the fact that mayors will be elected by a supplementary vote. I hope that that indicates that the Government are prepared to consider how local councils are elected and that they are not closing the door on changing the voting system. I should add that I do not expect a reply from the Minister on that point, unless he has some good news to impart.
1080 However, what I did not expect was that Clause 68 would play such an important part in the selection of candidates for mayor of London. I say that not to make a party political point but rather the reverse; namely, to illustrate that across the parties there is support for the removal of Section 28. I hope that the debate on the issue, when we discuss it in more detail as we pass through the various stages of the Bill, will concentrate on the principle and not party political issues. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said—this is probably the only point on which I agree with her on the issue—we must not play politics with young children.
The debate should be about removing any climate of prejudice and discrimination against gays and lesbians. It should be about keeping a sense of perspective and understanding that homophobic intolerance does exist and that it is not acceptable. It must be about a more caring and compassionate society and about equal treatment for everyone. It must not be about seeking political gain from aiding and abetting bigotry and discrimination, nor do I believe that it is a debate about marriage versus homosexuality. That is a red herring that has been drawn across this issue.
I have read with interest reports of the previous debates in your Lordships' House when Section 28 was introduced. It seemed to me that the then government had latched on to homophobia as a means of attacking certain Labour councils. It was said then that it was a necessary measure to restrain the activities of a small minority of councils that had gone too far in using their discretionary powers. As a consequence, local authorities, school teachers and pupils have all been affected. The fear of how Section 28 might apply has served to create a climate of prejudice and bigotry that has affected a section of the community up and down the country.
My noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton—I am pleased to see him in his place—warned at the time that the clausewill inhibit a young person who will wonder where he or she can get advice as regards his or her sexual orientation".A further telling statement was made by the noble Lord, Lord Habgood. I paraphrase what he said:It is important to see the long-term implications of this clause … it does not defend human rights, it is dangerous and unnecessary".It is clear that those warnings have been vindicated at considerable personal cost to many young men and women attempting to come to terms with their sexuality.
So what have been the implications and what have been the long-term consequences? There is no question that one of the immediate effects of the implementation of Section 28 was an increase in hate crimes against both individual gays and lesbians and organisations they were associated with. It has stopped libraries from stocking books on homosexual issues and the ambiguity it has created has meant that some teachers have used Section 28 to avoid discussing the issues of sexuality. It was not that they could not but 1081 rather that they would not because of the confusion over what would be their position. It has also meant that some teachers who are homophobic—and they do exist—have found Section 28 has given their prejudice a legitimacy. Furthermore, it has almost certainly meant that in many cases homophobic bullying has been tacitly tolerated.
All these factors, and the confusion or unwillingness to tackle the issue by teachers, coupled with a flourishing intolerant sub-culture in schools, has had a detrimental effect on young gays and lesbians, who are often treated as being of a lesser status. The section's message—that lesbians and gay men are less acceptable in our society—continues to haunt schools and local authorities. We must change that culture, but the current patchiness of sex and relationship education provision in general means that many young people are not developing the knowledge, skills and attitudes they require to form positive and tolerant relationships, sexual or otherwise. To do that, the provision needs to include discussions of emotions, relationships, different sexualities and lifestyles. A memorandum sent in October 1987 to teachers and governors of Church of England schools stated:In order to love effectively, one must understand and hence it is vital that any good education programme must include some treatment of homosexual relationships alongside any treatment of heterosexual relationships.I am sorry that the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, is not in his place to hear that statement which was sent to Church of England schools.
I should also like to quote the words of Shaun Woodward MP who, when speaking on LBC Radio recently said that:Teachers need to be able to talk frankly about homosexuality to help those pupils taunted as 'gay' and 'lesbians"'.Section 28 prevents that from happening. It is the biggest obstacle to teachers tackling homophobic bullying in schools. Many debates have been held in your Lordships' House on the extent of bullying in schools and many concerns have been expressed.
A Family Planning Association project—here I must declare an interest as the president of the Family Planning Association—was conducted this year called "Gender Issues in Secondary Schools". It found that bullying is primarily about difference, in particular difference related to gender and sexuality. The extent of that bullying was highlighted in a study carried out in 1997 by the Institute of Education entitled "Playing It Safe". It found that only 6 per cent of schools surveyed had a bullying and discipline policy relating to homophobia. and that 56 per cent of schools had difficulties meeting the needs of lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils because, as the survey also showed, 82 per cent of teachers admitted that they found Section 28 confusing. There is a direct correlation between homophobic bullying and Section 28.
There is no question that there have been no prosecutions under Section 28, but its psychological impact has eliminated freedom of discussion and penalised a minority group made up of large numbers of individuals from all social classes who play a vital role in our society. That psychological impact has 1082 considerably hindered the work of local authorities in providing support and services to the gay and lesbian communities. It is difficult to assess the effect on people's lives of the closing down or never coming into being of such services, or how many young, vulnerable men have experienced negative health consequences because they have been unable to speak to the right people who could guide them. The effect of Section 28 has been to shut the door, resulting in despair and tragedy; and, as my noble friend the Minister said in his opening remarks, one in five gay people attempts suicide.
In conclusion, the Local Government Bill is about the promotion of economic and social well-being and about improving the quality of life of people in any given locality. The repeal of Section 28 will improve the quality of life of a very vulnerable section of our society. It is time it was repealed, and the Government are to be congratulated on attempting to do so. I, along with many others, hope that they succeed.
§ 7.10 p.m.
§ Lady Saltoun of Abernethy
My Lords, I, too, shall concentrate on Clause 68, so anyone bored with it had better leave now. First, the clause was not in the draft Bill which came before the Joint Committee. It was put in—I was going to say "sneaked in"—later. It was not in the manifesto; nor did it form part of the gracious Speech.
Clause 68 repeals Section 2A—better known as Clause 28—of the Local Government Act 1986. Some of your Lordships may be interested in the story of its birth. It started very soon after the opening of Parliament in 1986. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, and I were having a drink together in the Bishops' Bar. He said to me, "Well, what are you going to get your teeth into this Session?" I said, am very worried about the fact that some local authorities are promoting homosexuality in their schools, teaching children that it is better to be homosexual than heterosexual, and using taxpayers' money to do so. What is more, parents who object have not only been ignored but subjected to every kind of unpleasantness and even to violence". So we decided that probably the best way to deal with the matter would be a Private Member's Bill.
We discussed the issue a little further and decided that the best person to take the Private Member's Bill through this House would be the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, who was so greatly loved and respected on all sides of the House and is sadly missed by all who knew him. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, drafted a Bill. If the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, believes that it was abominably drafted, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, would be the first to agree with him. It was a DIY job and the noble Lord is not a parliamentary draftsman. The Bill was amended by the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, also took a great interest in it. The Bill passed through this House but was talked out in another place. That was the end of 1083 the story for a short time. But then in 1988 the Bill was subsumed into the Government's Local Government Bill as Clause 28.
The repeal of Section 28 will remove the small amount of protection which it has provided for the past 11 years against the manipulation of even quite young children against their parents' wishes by a small but vociferous and determined minority, which has recently been trying to get round the limitations imposed by Section 28 by proselytising under the pretence of giving health education or counselling. Section 28 needs to be strengthened, not abolished. I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, that he really should not believe all he is told by vociferous lobbies with vested interests. To say that Section 28 has led to the "institutionalisation of intolerance" is nonsense. There is nothing in Section 28 to prevent any teacher checking bullying or giving advice when asked. If there have been no prosecutions under Section 28, which is another indictment of it that I have heard today, perhaps I may say that Section 28 was not devised in order that people should be prosecuted: it was devised in order that people should not need to be prosecuted; and they were not because they paid attention to it.
So what is wrong with teaching children that it is better to be homosexual than heterosexual, because that is what promoting homosexuality means? Well, quite a lot is wrong. First, there is the health risk, particularly to boys, from many homosexual practices. I really am not going to go into the unedifying details. Most noble Lords know perfectly well what I am talking about; and if they do not, I suggest that they read either page five of Bankrolling gay Proselytism, the booklet which the Christian Institute has probably sent to many of them, or else ask the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, who made a speech on the subject not long ago.
Then there is the sadness in the lives of many homosexuals, particularly in later life, that they have no children or grandchildren. Yes, they may be able to adopt, and some lesbians may be able to have in vitro fertilisation, but it is not the same as having children who are your own flesh and blood, quite apart from whether or not it is desirable for the children.
We all know that boys are prone to hero worship older boys or men and that girls have crushes on older girls and women. That is caused by the hormonal changes of puberty. As a result, many young people in their teens are ambivalent about their sexuality and can be manipulated into homosexual relationships which may do permanent damage to their health, whereas had they been protected, they would have grown out of their homosexual leanings without any damage to themselves. It is a time when young people are very vulnerable—that is about only the point on which I agree with what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford said. The homosexual lobby knows this. There is no such thing as a "homosexual gene", as some have tried to pretend, and they know that too.
So why do homosexuals proselytise? I think it is rather in the same way that drunks try to persuade everyone round them to drink too—because they feel 1084 more comfortable if all around are the same as them. If I were purple with orange spots, I should probably want every one of your Lordships to become purple with orange spots, so that I should feel at home. But there is another aspect with homosexuals. They are a minority, and so their choice of "partner", which I suppose is the word I shall have to use, must be restricted. But the more converts they can make, the wider their choice will be.
The various Christian denominations, the Jewish faith and other religions which forbade homosexuality, or used to, did not do it just for the sake of saying no, any more than they forbade the eating of certain food just for fun. They did it for very good reasons—mainly health reasons. I am sorry that the Christian Churches, and especially the Church of England, seem to have weakened their stance recently. I had hoped to see a bank of Bishops here today to support me, but in vain. There is some quite powerful stuff in the gospels about the consequences of corrupting children, but perhaps they do not read the Bible any longer, or only in some new fangled translation where the meaning has been watered down. Perhaps that is why churches are getting emptier and emptier. There is not much point in belonging to a church which has no morals and believes in nothing.
I really cannot understand why the Government want to do this. From where is the money coming for this proselytising? It comes out of the education budget, at the expense of paying teachers, having enough books and so on; or it comes out of the health budget, at the expense of such things as adequate nursing staff in hospitals and necessary drugs for elderly people. What is most important, it is going against the wishes of the vast majority of the people of this country, who are decent people who just want their children to grow up healthy and have a chance of a normal, happy married life. They do not want their children to be manipulated and pressurised at school, and they certainly do not want the taxes they pay to be used to pay for it. Why flout their wishes at the behest of a small, vociferous and sometimes violent minority?
At Committee stage, I hope to join the noble Baroness, Lady Young, in any amendment that she may choose to table to Clause 68. Since this is a moral question, I hope that this House at any rate will be allowed a free vote. It should be. Such matters should not be subject to the dictates of party policy, fashion and political correctness.
§ 7.20 p.m.
§ Lord Beaumont of Whitley
My Lords, I hope, in a brief speech, to bring the debate back from Committee stage consideration of one clause to a discussion of what we should be discussing, as we did to a certain extent earlier; namely, the principles behind the Bill.
The Bill bears all the hallmarks of this Government. Its aims are irreproachable, but the machinery provided is "control freak" machinery. I welcome the increased powers for local government. They are long overdue and have long been advocated by many of us. I support the pleas made by the noble Lord, 1085 Lord Dixon-Smith, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that they should be backed up with fund-raising powers, so that it will not be nugatory to say that local authorities have the increased powers given that they may have no means of putting them into practice.
The Bill is good in principle. However, it runs into problems in Part II, where the executive options tend to concentrate power too narrowly either in a single person or a single party, and presently rule out the committee system—which seems a pity, to put it mildly. I hope to support any effort to include that as one of the options.
It seems that it would also be possible—a view supported by a number of speakers—for a single party executive to meet in closed session. That view was supported by a number of speakers. That must be wrong. It must be a move away from the visibility and openness for which the Government say that they stand. It must be a retrograde step. I shall table amendments to improve that part of the Bill.
The provision in Part IV which enables annual accountability at the ballot box is surely to be welcomed—although I hope that we shall be able to insert a possible option for election by single transferable vote, which is the only decent form of proportional representation and is badly needed in local government.
I shall say nothing more about the cause célèbre of Section 28. Far too much has been said about it already. I shall certainly vote for the repeal of what seems to me a pointless and ill-drafted section—in spite of what has been said—which goes against all the principles that we hold as regards the provisions that should be included in that kind of Bill.
My party, the Green Party, is growing in strength at local level. In common with the Liberal Democrats, but not many others, we support any provision that encourages grass roots power. The Bill could be a very good measure were it to be made more democratic. Let us endeavour to make it so. At the same time, if we can devise a way to make it work more gradually so that we can see the result of some of the experiments before laying them down and ruling others out, that would be a good thing too.
It is necessary that we do not make major, drastic decisions that will bind too many people for too long without flexibility. There is a certain amount of flexibility in the Bill—I pay tribute to those who have included it—but there is not enough. We should have the ability to see how systems involving elected mayors work before encouraging people to plunge unduly, and too early, into them.
This is not a bad Bill. I am delighted to know that the normal practice of the House will be followed in giving it a Second Reading. However, there is a great deal of work to be done in Committee and I hope to play my part.
§ 7.25 p.m.
My Lords, the House will be relieved about one thing: I have left my prepared notes 1086 at home. I want to say at the outset that I strongly agree with my noble friends Lady Young, Lady Seccombe and Lord Waddington. I am tempted to become involved in local government matters in regard to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Laming. However, I shall leave that to my very able colleagues on the Front Bench.
One of the disappointments I have registered during the debate has been a lack of the support that we seek to oppose the repeal of Clause 28—from the Church (from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford) and from the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. When considering the protection of young people, I expected the Church to be loud, clear and unequivocal in its support.
I have no doubt that the repeal of Section 28 has been slipped in as a distraction from what is otherwise an unpopular and anti-democratic Bill. It is also important to counter the comment from the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, who is not in her place, that Section 28 was slipped in in another place. I do not regard amendments to any Bill as being slipped in, but as matters placed before Parliament for proper consideration. Parliament as a whole accepted the provision. My noble friend Lady Knight, who will speak later, cannot be considered guilty of slipping something in. She picked up a mood; she picked up on something that was happening, and was widespread, in local authorities and among local councillors across the country. I shall refer to certain local authorities during the course of my remarks.
There is a great deal of misinformation. We have been accused of peddling misinformation. But Section 28 does one thing unequivocally: it prohibits the promotion of homosexuality. Whatever noble Lords opposite and all those who support the repeal of Section 28 say, if the prohibition is repealed, we allow the promotion of homosexuality. It will free up local authorities, local councillors and all the vociferous and tenacious outside bodies that place people under enormous pressure to promote homosexuality.
I went to the Library to look up the word "promote" in case I was guilty of the accusation by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, that there is a great deal of confusion about the word, and that our wonderful professional teaching staff are confused about what it means. If I promote myself, I am selling myself. If I promote a product, I am selling a product. If I promote an idea, I am selling an idea. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the definition as,to move forward, advance or raise to a position of honour, dignity or emolument, to raise to a higher grade, to prefer".There is no confusion about the word "promotion". If you promote homosexuality, you are advocating it; you are saying something positive about it as a lifestyle.
I want to return to first principles. We are talking about children of school age to whom Section 28 is pertinent. There is copious literature about the activities being undertaken by local authorities and local councillors prior to the introduction of Section 28. I have with me for the noble Lord. Lord Harris of 1087 Haringey, a copy of Mirrors Around the Walls: Respecting Diversity which makes pretty awful reading. I read it from cover to cover in 1988 when it was produced and I have re-read it. All I can say about the London Borough of Haringey and many other London authorities that followed suit is that if at that time they had been as assiduous about educational standards as they were about promoting homosexuality they might have been more successful, and Mr Blair might not have been so preoccupied with the issue of raising school standards particularly in many inner city authorities.
The main plank of the argument of those who advocate the repeal of Section 28 is that somehow or other it will address the whole issue of bullying. Like my noble friends Lady Young, Lady Seccombe, Lord Waddington and no doubt Lady Knight, who is to speak later, I abhor bullying, whether it is because a child is too fat, too thin, is not clever, comes from an ethnic minority or is homosexual. Whatever the issue, it must be addressed by schools, parents and any of us who care passionately that people should not be discriminated against because of background, race or creed. Bullying is not an issue. Those who advocate the repeal of Section 28 because they believe that somehow bullying will be addressed and melt away are sadly mistaken. I suspect that there will be more vociferous promotion of homosexuality and the lives of many young children will be much more unhappy as a consequence.
My noble friend Lady Young made the very real point that as young people grow up many go through a period of great uncertainty about their sexuality. Those of us who care about young people—parents, friends, families and teachers—have a responsibility to help them through that stage. To advocate homosexuality, or even sexual activity, at any stage while young people are at school is wholly irresponsible. Certainly, to advocate homosexuality as a desired lifestyle is reprehensible.
The Government cannot have it both ways. On the one hand, they say that to promote the importance of marriage and the family is now orthodox Labour Party policy. We support that. We rather forced upon the Government the importance of recognising the family as the cornerstone of our communities. On the other hand, the Government want to remove Section 28 to permit LEAs and schools to promote homosexuality. For example, in another Bill the Government seek to make it a criminal offence for a 24 year-old male teacher to have a relationship with a 17 or 18 year-old pupil and at the same time they advocate the lowering of the age of consent to 16, which will encourage even more promiscuity and same sexuality activity among young school children. There is no consistency here.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, said that what happened before Section 28 was introduced was a mirage. I have given one example of the reality of the situation. I have educational books produced at that time and comments made by councillors and policies put before committees of councils at that time. Much 1088 of that material will be used during the Committee stage of this Bill. It is said that the repeal will not allow the promotion of homosexuality. What else can the repeal mean if it does not mean that?
Peter Tatchell himself agreed that Section 28 had had an effect on the promotional activities of schools and LEAs. What better endorsement can one have of Section 28? The way in which health authorities exploit the promotion of homosexuality with our school children is of concern. As Section 28 does not bite on health authorities I hope that amendments will be tabled—if possible, I shall attach my name to them—to ensure that whatever the promotional activities of health authorities they do not impact on young people at school.
Apart from the moral aspect—I recognise that there are varying opinions on what constitutes the moral issues in sexual activities—I believe passionately that this is an issue of child protection, and on that there should be no difference between us. I care about the moral and spiritual dimension of education. Without it, education can be no more than an arid and clinical experience. It cannot be right to permit schools and local authorities to use time and precious resources to promote homosexuality or to publish material with that intention. Nor can it be right to teach that a homosexual partnership provides an equal, or even more desirable, family relationship. Are the Government saying that the repeal of Section 28 will resolve the bullying issue in schools? If so, as I thought, the Government are more interested in gestures than in genuine solutions. I shall support any amendment that opposes the Government's intention to repeal Section 28, and I hope fervently that it will be successful.
§ 7.36 p.m.
§ Lord Woolmer of Leeds
My Lords, I should like to add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Smith on his maiden speech this evening. Among other matters, this Bill seeks to increase the transparency and accountability of local government processes with two ends in mind: to increase further its efficiency and effectiveness and to raise the level of awareness, interest and involvement in local government. There is much in the Bill, but I shall confine my remarks this evening largely to Part II.
Perhaps I may first reflect on some of the problems that this piece of legislation seeks to address. Often the question is asked: why is turnout so low in local government elections in this country? Why do electors say that they believe there is too much politics in local government? In my experience the electorate has a mixed view of what it wants. Often it says that it does not want a great deal of politics in local government and yet highly respected local councillors find themselves displaced in elections when the electorate votes entirely on political grounds without regard to the excellent service of those individuals. I believe that in their everyday lives people value the work of councillors as representatives of their local communities. I make that observation because later in my speech I shall suggest that, just as it is important to consider the executive/scrutiny split and whether or 1089 not elected mayors and others add to the richness of local government, it is equally important to seek ways to strengthen the role and reputation of local councillors. While we look elsewhere in the world at patterns of local government to give us new ideas on how to be attractive to electors, so we should have the confidence about some of the very good things in our own local government. The role of local councillors as local representatives is one of the very good things seen in our local government.
At the outset I pay tribute to the work of councillors and officers who serve their communities through work in or on local authorities. There have been deeply regrettable lapses in some authorities from the normal high standards of conduct to be found generally in local government; and those cases should not be minimised. I welcome Part III of the Bill which seeks to strengthen further the rules of conduct. However, that should not blind us to the unstinting, valuable and valued work of all those involved in local government contributing, as they do, to the well being of their communities, whether rural or urban.
Local government plays an important part in the democratic processes of our country. Any legislation in this area should be judged by its impact upon the health and vitality of local government as a whole as well as upon its efficiency and effectiveness. Central government is neither all seeing nor the fount of all wisdom. I trust that that is the spirit in which the legislation is brought forward and in which its many regulatory devices will be applied in due course.
Changes over the years have brought new challenges to local government and the need for new approaches and processes. Councillors work hard for their local wards and constituents but have faced many difficulties over the years. It is difficult to get joined-up government or action in local communities. The number of employers who will give generous time off for local government work has reduced greatly over the years. The demands of committee work and of work for the local council as a whole have been increasingly pressing, reducing time and energy for the work of councillors in their communities. In practice, despite attention to volumes of paperwork and time spent in committees, decisions in the larger authorities are often rubber stamping proposals for action from officers and from increasingly full time chairs of committees.
Within councils, especially the larger ones, it has often been difficult to develop and maintain strategically driven and coherently implemented policies and actions. The very virtues of having 60 to 100 voices on a council and its committees have at times been a handicap to clarity of direction and resolution in implementation. Faced by the need to get things done, many councils have de facto given a great deal of power to leaders, committee chairs and officers. The consequent lack of transparency and clear lines of public accountability frequently mean that it is difficult for people outside the process to know how or why decisions are reached.
1090 Many local authorities around the country have recognised those problems and have been seeking different ways to improve matters: to help increase transparency and accountability; and to provide a more meaningful and satisfying job of work for those giving up their time to be local councillors. The proactive and positive way in which many local authorities have already responded to the ideas set out in the Government's White Paper Modern Local Government: In Touch with the People demonstrates that the Government have correctly identified issues which need to be addressed.
The distinction between executive and scrutiny functions makes a great deal of sense. It is a realistic view of how local authorities of any significant size seek to work in practice although constrained to a degree by current legislation.
I agree that councils as a whole need to face up to modernisation of their processes; and I believe that local government as a whole understands and accepts that. I hope that the Government will be equally tolerant if the outcome at least for a substantial period does not produce a large number of elected mayors. There is at times a feeling that there is a presumption of the outcome of choice. If choice is truly to be choice at local level I hope that that choice is freely exercised.
A degree of evolution based on a lot of experience may be a preferred way for many councils. In my view the success or otherwise of introducing a clear distinction between the executive and the power of scrutiny, and the success in making the work of local executive representatives more meaningful to those doing the work and to the electorate, hinges more than upon the body count of mayors and leaders.
In establishing the effectiveness, efficiency and attractiveness of a new executive structure many important issues will need to be addressed. What will be the relationship between the executive and the full council of a local authority? How will executive members be subject to recall or replacement, if at all? How responsible will the executives be to full councils as well as to the electorate? The way in which the scrutiny committees operate will be critically important to the success and improvement of transparency and accountability. It is important to ensure that the scrutiny committees and the work of local councils are sufficiently attractive for people to wish to be elected councillors and to wish to take on the position of chairs of scrutiny committees if they do not have the prospect of being on executive committees.
How will the scrutiny committees be appointed to ensure a significant degree of independence of mind in the scrutiny process? How well staffed will scrutiny committees be? Can scrutiny committee staff truly be independent of the general officer structure of their local authority?
Those are important matters if the bare bones of the legislation are to be effective. It is well recognised that councils will need to be trained in new skills if the scrutiny process is to be meaningful. But more than training they will need to be willing to adopt independent and challenging roles and stances.
1091 I was interested in the Joint Committee report and the government response on the subject of "whipping" on scrutiny committees. The Joint Committee and the Government appear to agree that "whipping" in this context is primarily a matter for political parties. Some years ago I was accorded the honour of the freedom of the city of Cleveland in Ohio in the United States. That city had a powerful mayor in the style of the current legislation. The elected councillors at that time were all Democrat councillors. There was not a single member of the opposition party. Yet before the council meeting headed by the mayor, the Democrat caucus still met in private to decide the whip on what they would say or do in public. Therefore, mere form is not always the same as substance.
In order to ensure the best outcome, we need the correct structure of relationships, but we also need a framework which gives real weight and influence to a significant number of elected representatives as well as representatives of the executive. It is important to give weight to the community work of elected councillors. For years, many councils have sought ways of strengthening the focus of elected local representatives, representing communities to councils and councils to communities. It is essential to vibrant local government, where people are involved, that councils as well as executives are not marginalised. Despite the Government's intentions in this and other legislation, it would be possible for that sense of marginalisation to occur. I welcome the statement in the Government's response to the Joint Committee's report (paragraph 2.81) which acknowledges the danger and indicates the view that there needs to be full support for councillors in these various roles.
This is an important piece of legislation. Its effect and impact will be felt across our system of local government. Its implementation will depend on a number of important details yet to emerge. Given sensitivity in that direction, the legislation will produce changes for the better for our councils, for our councillors and, most importantly, for the people whom they serve and represent.
§ 7.51 p.m.
§ Lord Lipsey
My Lords, it is knocking on for a quarter of a century since I penned the only words which ever had currency beyond the family kitchen. Those words, famous or infamous according to taste, were, "The party is over." They were delivered by Anthony Crosland, the Secretary of State for the Environment, to whom I was speech writer.
I remember the occasion vividly to this day. We were in the splendid surroundings of Manchester Town Hall. Hundreds of local dignitaries were assembled and the council provided us with Chateau Latour 1965 to drink. Those of your Lordships who are Bordeaux buffs will know that 1965 was a shocking year for Bordeaux. Even Chateau Latour, with its established reputation for making drinkable wine in a bad year, could not balk the climate of 1965. The taste remains with me still!
1092 It was an expensive wine and its purchase was a piece of local government extravagance combined with poor value for money. I hope that like most local authorities Manchester has since repented. Despite the torrent of abuse which descended on us for daring to suggest that it was being a little extravagant, local government, with notorious exceptions, achieves better value for money and is more careful with public money.
However, local government is not flawless. Just as it responded to that speech, it has responded to some of the Government's suggestions for change in ways that do not do it great credit. It is, or has been, a conservative institution. It tends to by hypersensitive to criticism. It is too often inward looking and insufficiently aware of changes in the wider world. There are many exceptions in many local authorities to those generalisations, but it is still true. That is why so many of the powers of local government were eroded, particularly under the previous government, without popular opinion saying, "Enough!" Local government was not sufficiently popular.
I believe that we need to get away from the old desperate dualism, localism versus centralism; total control for local authorities against central control. We must move to something different; that is, a third way. It contains a large role for local government, but not for an unchanged, unmodernised local government. For local government today, the watchword must be "modernise or die". The reason I strongly welcome the Bill before the House tonight is that it is one of modernisation, giving local government new opportunities to handle its business and affairs in a better and more productive way; to modernise before it dies.
Having made those general remarks—
§ Lord Lipsey
I hope that my noble friend will find the rest of the speech as much to his taste. However, on the basis of a conversation I had with him the other day, I am not sure he will.
I want to turn to elected mayors— concept for which I have long had considerable enthusiasm—and particularly to the system of election. The Government have opted for a good system for the election of the mayor; it is the supplementary vote system such as is being used for the election of the mayor of London. It is good because, broadly, it ensures that a mayor will have a mandate. Voters will have a second choice as well as a first choice and therefore in almost every case a mayor will have the support of a majority of those who bothered to vote in his or her area. That is a good system and much better than the system used to elect Members at the other end of this building. Out of 659 Members of Parliament, 312 were elected only by a minority of voters in their constituency—but we shall let that pass.
Incidentally, it is not the best system. I should prefer the system which ensures that everyone is elected with a majority; that is the alternative vote. I see the noble Baroness nodding encouragingly so perhaps I might be 1093 more encouraging. The correct technical term for that system—I mastered such terms as a member of the Jenkins Commission—is a single transferable vote in a single member constituency. I am pleased to have the support of the Benches opposite and no doubt we shall consider the issue further in Committee.
However, there is a larger flaw. In the London election, the mayor will be chosen by a supplementary vote, but the assembly which stands behind him is elected on a more proportional system; a reformed electoral system. There is nothing in the Bill which will change the make-up of the councils which stand behind elected mayors.
When one considers the anomalies of the present system. it is scary. In Wandsworth, which is a Conservative borough, in the 1998 election the Conservative share of the vote was 52.7 per cent and they won 50 out of 61 seats. In Newham, which is a Labour borough, Labour's share of the vote was 57.3 per cent and they won all 60 seats. Labour controlled Croydon is not Labour controlled in terms of voters, because 46.9 per cent of the electorate voted for the Conservatives and 38.5 per cent for Labour. But Labour have a majority of seven seats there.
That is not a party prejudice; it is a rotten electoral system having rotten results. I believe that this House should take the opportunity to seek to improve the Bill. I hope that the Government are becoming more open minded about that prospect.
I am sorry now to turn to a matter of unnatural practices; indeed, unnatural acts. They are the Acts of 1986 and 1988, which put Section 28 on the statute book. I respond to the sincerity of the speeches made predominantly from the other side of the House in favour of Section 28. I understand the strong human emotions which they reflect. I cannot say the same in every case about how well informed the speakers are. I heard the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, who unfortunately has not been able to stay to hear the other side of the argument, saying that there was no homosexuality among animals. The Canadian biologist, Brian Bagemihi, has recently produced a book, entitled Biological Exuberance, which is all about homosexuality in animals. I am told that it shows practices rather kinkier than most human beings get up to and that it is illustrated. Anyone wanting to have a quick look to prove the falsehood of that case can do so.
There is another regard in which I find the arguments, although sincere, naïve. There are always exceptions, but the notion that there was any widespread campaign anywhere in state schools to promote homosexuality is truly bizarre. If there are any schools where homosexuality is promoted, it is the single-sex boarding schools favoured by so many people for the education of their young men. Even so, that does not have much effect because basically people are born with their sexuality.
Although that idea was put forward in all sincerity, it was not adopted by the government of the time in all sincerity; not at all. I talked to Ministers at the time in private and there was no doubt as to what they were 1094 really up to. It was a little sop before the 1987 general election to the closet homophobes of the golf club bar and the regimental dinner. That is what it was; truly about.
I am in politics. I know that one does things to please one's supporters from time to time and that one should be forgiving. But unfortunately, although the Bill achieved nothing concrete—of that I am absolutely sure— result was worse. This was not a victimless crime. The victims of the clause were millions of perfectly normal homosexual people who found that the legislature of this country—their country—had determined to stigmatise their lifestyle, to whip up popular prejudice and to make them feel less at ease with themselves. Anyone who talks to friends who are members of that community know that that is so and that the wound goes deep.
Therefore, of all the many things of which I hope to be proud during this Government's term, I am proudest of all that that clause is now to be wiped from the statute Book by the Government, of whom I am a supporter.
§ 8.1 p.m.
§ Baroness Thomas of Walliswood
My Lords, I begin by apologising to the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, for not being present to hear his maiden speech.It was clearly extremely effective; a number of people have referred to it in tones of great admiration. I look forward to reading it tomorrow in Hansard. At this rather late hour, with 23 speeches behind me and, I believe, another nine ahead, I shall do my best to be brief. I am aided in that because I agree so thoroughly with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, about Section 28 that I do not need to spend any time on it. I shall therefore concentrate on Part II of the Bill and its effect upon councillors—a subject which was touched on also by the noble Lord, Lord Woolmer.
When one reads the Bill and listens to some of the people who have been promoting it—to use that controversial term—one has the feeling that they do not believe that anyone has ever thought about changing local government before. There are many Members of your Lordships' House from local government who know that that is not the case. There has been continuous change in local government, certainly during the whole of the 12 years that I was in it. Other noble Lords have served in local government for far longer than I have. I see the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, who is the classic example of a long-serving councillor, nodding in his place.
It is not true that local councils have been inhibited by legislation from being innovative. That is simply not the case. The question is rather what sort of change one wants to achieve. In my experience, the best lever for change was the shift of the authority of which I was a member—Surrey County Council—to no overall control. As far as I could judge, the people who benefited most from that were not the minority parties, because they were used to working as a group and treating each other as equals, but the non-leading 1095 members of the majority party. They suddenly found themselves of great importance in the running of the council and were treated as such for the first time by the clique which had previously run the county council. That was my observation, although members of that group might have disagreed with me.
Yet it seems to me in reading the Bill that the reinstitution of a clique to run all the decision-making processes of the council and the policy-making processes, as several interventions have made clear, is one of the features of the Bill. Ten people, perhaps one more or less according to how the judgment is made, will take all the decisions in the council. I must say that that reminds me of Surrey County Council when I first joined it.
That concentration of power has been one of the roots of bad governance—I shall put it no more strongly than that—in some of those Labour authorities which have been so severely criticised, and quite rightly, over the past few years. The more power is concentrated, the more it can be abused. The noble Lord said it rather more clearly than that. All power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I am not suggesting that the executive arm of local authorities as envisaged by the Bill will have absolute power, but they will certainly have a great deal of power. The dangers are plain.
Do we really want change which, once instituted, cannot be modified again in any serious respect without a referendum? In the old days we were able to change the structure of the committees and the way in which local authorities carried out their work. I shall refer to one of those major changes, which was typical of Surrey as of other local authorities, in a minute. We were able to do that and we were not impeded by the cost. For example, it is quite an expensive business to run a referendum. It involves all sorts of rules and regulations which no doubt will be spelled out for us in the Bill.
One of the changes which we and others undertook was based, in our case, on what was at the time I joined the local authority an almost unique local partnership committee or series of local partnership committees. We conducted part of our highways role via partnership committees between the county council and those second-tier authorities which were district councils. Those committees, of one of which I was a member, were in fact decision-taking committees within the overall ambit of council policy. After the review of local government of rather unblessed memory, we responded, as did many other authorities, to the justified criticism by the commission that county government was becoming too remote from its citizens and we instituted a series of decision-taking partnership committees with the local authorities, boroughs and districts which formed the second tier of the two-tier authority.
In the Joint Committee's report, reference is made both to area decision-taking committees, which are quite common in urban boroughs and in some cities, and to that particular form of local decision-taking committee which occurs only in two-tier authorities. 1096 As far as I am aware, the Government have not responded to that element of the Joint Committee's report. They have responded to the local decision-taking committee in the urban areas, but they have not responded to the two-tier type committee to which I am referring. I should like the Minister to respond to that point, if he can, because I believe that it is an important one; it is a good example of partnership and so forth.
Again, from listening to people talking about the Bill one would think that no one had ever thought of partnership, of accountability or of trying to make the decision process more transparent. One would have thought that that was being presented as something new to an astonished world. I can assure anyone who believes that that is the case that it really is not. Long before the Bill was written and, indeed, before the Government were elected, such matters were the driving force which persuaded local authorities to scrutinise their own procedures and make them more effective, more responsive, more open and more in tune with local demands.
I turn now to the role of local councillors in the new system. I support all those who have expressed the fear that there will come about a real division between those councillors who carry out scrutiny in the council and those who carry out decision-making, with most power, as I say, concentrated in the latter. Indeed, they will have not only most of the power but most of the interest as well. After all, people join local councils partly because they are bashed around the head and neck by their friends and political colleagues. They are told, "Please stand. We can't get anyone to stand. You must stand". They reply, "Well, I'll stand so long as there is no chance that I will get elected". Then they are elected and suddenly find that a local authority is fascinating.
People who are elected in that way often become extremely good and devoted councillors. The reason for that is that the job responds to people's desire to act and to get things done for their local community and for individuals in it. I do not see how that particular aspect of being a local councillor will be satisfied by this Bill. I believe that there will be far too many back benchers who do not have that thirst for power and decision-taking and even policy-making. Far too few have a thirst for those things. Reference was made by a previous speaker to the unfortunate situation in which a member of a school governing body was afraid of being found in that situation as a result of the new arrangement because he no longer had direct access to the decision-making part of the council that he used to have. I believe that that is a serious matter. Before the Bill goes into Committee, and preferably tonight if possible, I should like the Minister to respond to that point. I believe it is a concern which has surfaced in a number of speeches from different sides of your Lordships' House.
I believe in a real change and modernisation of local government. I believe in a local government which has the power of local taxation and independence of action—by that I mean independence of central government, even to the extent of being allowed 1097 occasionally to make a mistake. That is something which all governments of all colours increasingly have become unwilling to countenance. I should like to see them backed by PR for elections, which presents the easiest way for voters, first, to kick people off the council, because relatively small shifts in votes will achieve that, and, secondly, to defeat the pretensions of any party, whichever party it is, to create and maintain a single party governance in a local government organisation.
§ 8.14 p.m.
§ Baroness Young of Old Scone
My Lords, I hope to be brief at this time of the evening, mostly because much has already been said on several of the provisions of the Bill, and partly also with a mind to the fact that I rashly put my name down for the following debate. I fear that we shall be here until midnight at the rate we are going.
I touch on two provisions of the Bill. First, I cannot not give my support to Clause 68, repealing Section 28 of the Local Government Bill. Enough has been said about it, including by my noble friends Lady Gould of Potternewton and Lord Lipsey. Section 28 has no place in a modern, inclusive Britain, and I am pleased that the Government have brought forward the repeal. I look forward to supporting that.
Tonight, I want to focus mostly on Part I of the Bill. The vital role of local government in achieving environmental improvement as part of sustainable development has long been recognised. Local authorities are uniquely placed to deliver across the agenda of economic, social and environmental objectives of sustainable development. That has been recognised at several points. The Government's 1997 manifesto indicated that they would place on councils a new duty to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their area. Indeed, the White Paper on modern local government restated the commitment quite strongly. It stated that the duty would put sustainable development at the heart of council decision-making and would provide an overall framework with in which councils must perform all their existing functions. In taking decisions which affect their area or their people, councils must weigh up the likely effects of a decision against the three objectives: economic, social and environmental.
I very much welcome that the Local Government Bill includes a power for local authorities to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their area. However, the provision is rather weak and watery, on three counts. The provision is now not a duty but a discretionary power, distinctly weaker than the original intentions and very much weaker than the provisions in the Greater London Authority Bill. My concern is that big local authorities will embrace the provision of discretionary power and that poorer local authorities will not.
It is also a rather pick-and-mix provision. Local authorities are being required to take into account the effects of decisions against three objectives, but they are not being required to take into account all three. 1098 For example, they are able to pick just one of the objectives that they choose to embrace. The whole point of sustainable development is, indeed, the integration of those objectives, with win-win-win solutions where all three objectives are achieved. To some extent, it is quite fundamental to the concept of well-being that solutions will be sought in which all three of the objectives complement each other. One cannot have well-being simply on a social scale if one does not also have well-being on an environmental and economic scale.
The third difficulty which I have with Part I is that local authorities have only a discretionary power to prepare a strategy for well-being. Again, the concern will be that progressive local authorities will carry that out but that there is no obligation for the poorer local authorities to do so. They, perhaps, are most in need of being encouraged along the way.
There is also no provision for monitoring and reporting on the well-being strategies, unlike the very strong provisions on monitoring and reporting which have accompanied the best-value provisions. Therefore, although I welcome the idea of the well-being provision being included in the Bill, it is all too wishy-washy and too discretionary. I hope that in Committee the Minister will tidy up the provision in that respect.
Before I sit down, I wish to make a more general point on this issue. When I was preparing to talk tonight, I was a little bemused because I felt that I had written all this before. Those of your Lordships who may have heard me speak may have heard it all said before. The reason for that is that we keep covering the same ground. We had a long debate about the sustainable development duty during our discussions on the Greater London Authority Bill, as we did when we debated the establishment of the regional development agencies. Before I entered your Lordships' House, when I was on the other side, as it were, as chief executive of the RSPB, we were trying to influence the passage of the Environmental Protection Bill to set up the Environment Agency and, at that time, we had a lengthy debate about the sustainable development duty.
It is sometimes referred to as sustainable development, sometimes as well-being and in the Government's recent sustainable development strategy, it was referred to as quality of life. Therefore, there is a range of terminologies. In each of the Bills to which I referred, there were also different terminologies in terms of requiring, exhorting, encouraging, suggesting or hinting to local bodies or government bodies that they might take account, bring into play, take a view on or promote the sustainable development requirement. The language was tortuous. There were powers and duties. Indeed, in Clause 2 there is tortuous language which says that local authorities are to have regard to the effect which the proposed exercise of the power will have on the achievement of sustainable development in the United Kingdom. I suggest that anyone who is not con fused at this point does not know what is going on.
1099 I am rather tired of debating the different formulations with each new Bill and I am absolutely certain that the Minister is tired of responding to them. Therefore, in this important area, can we not stop arguing about the formulations? Can we not have a standard duty to promote the social, economic and environmental objectives of sustainable development for all public bodies in the future?
§ 8.21 p.m.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, it is a pleasure for me to take part in a debate on local government. It is extremely impressive for someone of my background to sit here and listen to noble Lords on all sides of the House speaking from their own experience. The first thing I want to say is that we need to respect each other's views from the background from which they are expressed.
Next year, it will be 40 years since I became a member of a local authority. That is a long time. It does not seem it because it has passed quickly. But in 1960 I became a member and subsequently the leader of the London Borough of Enfield for a short time. My general remarks are made in the light of that background. I want to congratulate the Government on taking the time, although they have moved as quickly as possible, to present this House and the other place with an opportunity to consider the situation and for taking stock.
From time to time, I go to the Civic Centre in Silver Street, Enfield. I meet my Labour colleagues and the officers. The world of local government in 1999 is a million miles away from the world of local government in 1960. The staggering thing is that when I was actively involved in that life, which I enjoyed very much, I had no idea of how antiquated and antediluvian it all was. People who have as much experience as I do tell me that over 40 years there have been four or five waves of change. I shall not comment on whether those changes were good or bad. But the job of a councillor for any party in any authority in 1999 is a million miles away from what it was, even in my time. Although that is a long time ago, it is a short time in the history of local government.
We must not be frightened of change. There are people who will automatically decide that something is wrong before they have studied it simply because it involves a change of practice. I know how comfortable it is to be familiar with a practice and an arrangement. The Government and the Minister are to be congratulated on placing before us a number of matters for us to look at in that way.
I agree with the comments about the worry in relation to the apathy of the electorate. I do not suppose that the Government are trumpeting from the roof tops that this is the cure; that this is the answer. They are putting it forward as their latest attempt to try to stimulate an interest in those matters in which ordinary people should be interested.
I listened carefully to what noble Lords opposite said about the importance of Section 28 and its replacement. I understand their attitude and sincerity. 1100 But that is not my view; it is the antithesis of my view. I was in this House during the debates in 1986 and 1987. A great deal of emotion was generated. It is a subject about which people feel passionately in this Chamber. Perhaps in Committee we shall be given more illustrations of that.
However, I am puzzled by the generalisations which are made. Most weekends I go to Edmonton Green. I do that because it has one of the finest markets in the country. That is a plug for the market. Let us suppose that I say to a number of my friends—traders and constituents—"There is a list of five things which the Government are intending to do. Place them in your order of priority". Let us suppose that I explain to them that the economic regeneration of the social and economic environment means tackling jobs or building houses or curing road congestion or improving hospitals or increasing the quality of life. I then say to them, "Incidentally, there is also an intention to deal with the repeal of Section 28 which was put in place allegedly to avoid the promotion of homosexuality". In all honesty, I believe that that would be at the bottom of the list of their priorities.
The real people in the world—and I say, without giving offence, not the people in this Chamber—are bothered about the quality of education for their children or their inability to get their children into the schools of their choice; they are bothered about the fact that they have children who cannot afford to buy a house; they are bothered about the fact that they have a car which they cannot use properly because the roads are full; and they are worried about congestion charges. Therefore, we need to keep in perspective the importance of repealing or retaining Section 28.
I listened carefully to Shaun Woodward. He is not a member of my party but of the party opposite. We know his attitude. We know that he prayed in aid a headmaster who, from his experience—not yours or mine—said that the retention of Section 28 acted as an inhibition on him and his teachers from doing their job properly. On this side of the Chamber, we take no lessons from Members opposite as to our attitude towards the care and protection of children in any aspect of life. If it is wished to make this a party-political point, so be it. But it is not. It goes across the board. Noble Lords should be sincere in their views, should state them and should make the case. But we need to keep the matter in perspective.
I was interested in the Bill's intentions with regard to local councillors and arrangements for mayors. Your Lordships will be able to tell from the way that I speak that I was not born within the sound of Bow Bells. I come from Newcastle-on-Tyne. A few years ago there was a politician called Dan Smith. He introduced the town manager concept into local government. That lasted for a few years. It was a fad. We do not yet know whether a town mayor will be the answer. But that is a matter for the people. By the time that the provisions of this Bill are put into effect, there will be experience to be gained from the Mayor of London exercise. Judgments will be made.
1101 As regards scrutiny and oversight of councillors, no one can make a party point about the culprits in that regard. They are in small and large councils and from the parties of all noble Lords. But the provisions of this Bill are a first-class idea. I recollect that no payments at all were made to councillors or the leader in the 1960s. I certainly support all moves designed to give recompense to those councillors who give up not just one or two nights per week but, if they are serious, four or five nights, 20 or 30 hours in addition to what they already do. Thai disrupts both their domestic and professional arrangements. I note that a provision in the Bill makes arrangements for allowances and pensions, which is a good idea. I wonder when Members of this House will have their expenses and allowances reviewed. Do I hear, "Hear hear"?
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
I hear the cry. We are the only body of legislators not to have had its pensions and allowances reviewed recently. Members and Ministers in the House of Commons and Ministers of this House have had their allowances reviewed, but not Members of this House. Three cheers for the Government for grasping the nettle as part of the Bill.
As regards support for the work of the Government, I have received advice from UNISON, the large trade union, which speaks not exclusively on behalf of the workers, but of its members. It states:UNISON … welcomes initiatives to re-vitalise local government and local democracy. We believe we have an important and unique contribution to make to the debate about local political management".I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, in his place. He made a first-class maiden speech. During the war I happened to be wounded and was treated at Winwick Hospital. One of the joys of that memory of 1944 was the people of Leigh. I remember that Callendar Cables, a large firm, and the people of Lancashire were warm in their hospitality to wounded soldiers. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Smith, will be an asset to this House.
I wish the Bill well. I am sure that the Minister will give us many a long night in trying to explain to Members opposite that it is sensible and reasonable. He should be assured that Members on this side of the House give him their full support.
§ 8.31 p.m.
§ Baroness Knight of Collingtree
My Lords, I can claim to have been elected to local government even longer than the noble Lord, Lord Graham. I hope that it will not offend him or other noble Lords if I call him my noble friend Lord Graham. We have known each other a long time.
I am tempted, also, to stray to the main body of the Bill. However, at this hour I feel I must concentrate all of my time on Clause 68. I have a special interest in this matter. I must tell your Lordships that it was I who introduced and carried through Section 28 as a Private Member's Bill in the other place in 1987. I fought the 1102 Labour Party's blocking of it and reintroduced it as a clause in the Local Government Bill after this House approved the principle in yet another Bill.
I must warn all colleagues who have spoken tonight that in speaking in support of Section 28 they may well incur considerable wrath, as I did. I did not only incur verbal abuse for my pains but physical abuse too. On one occasion, opponents of Section 28 attacked me outside my constituency office and tried to turn my car over with me inside it. I was saved by the swift arrival of several police cars with sirens blaring.
Why did I bother to go on with it and run such a dangerous gauntlet? I was then Chairman of the Child and Family Protection Group. I was contacted by parents who strongly objected to their children at school being encouraged into homosexuality and being taught that a normal family with mummy and daddy was outdated. To add insult to their injury, they were infuriated that it was their money, paid over as council tax, which was being used for this. This all happened after pressure from the Gay Liberation Front. At that time I took the trouble to refer to their manifesto, which clearly stated:We fight for something more than reform. We must aim for the abolition of the family".That was the motivation for what was going on, and was precisely what Section 28 stopped. I was absolutely amazed to hear the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, who, as I noted, stated that the Bill was introduced in the other place and joined to the Local Government Bill for something that was not happening. I was astounded to hear that. I wondered what sort of ivory tower he inhabited. Let us be kind and say, instead, that he was too busy working on his own committees to realise what was going on.
However, I would be surprised to learn that he did not see parents of children in his own local government constituency. Parents certainly came to me and told me what was going on. They gave me some of the books with which little children as young as live and six were being taught. There was The Playbook for Kids about Sex in which brightly coloured pictures of little stick men showed all about homosexuality and how it was done. That book was for children as young as five. I should be surprised if anybody supports that.
Another book called The Milkman's on his Way explicitly described homosexual intercourse and, indeed, glorified it, encouraging youngsters to believe that it was better than any other sexual way of life.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. I do not disbelieve a word stated by the noble Baroness. However, what she says is so grotesque that I would be grateful if, before Committee, she could supply copies of the books she mentions. We shall then be able to look at them and no doubt will be as abhorred as she was. From her description it is both obscene and grotesque. I do not believe a word of it, from my experience. My noble friend Lord Harris spoke from his experience and I spoke from mine. Edmonton and Enfield may be 1103 different from Edgbaston and Birmingham. However, I can assure noble Lords that the issues raised in the noble Baroness's part of the world were certainly not raised in mine.
§ Baroness Knight of Collingtree
My Lords, I do not refer to parents from my own constituency but to those from some of the very left-wing boroughs in London. I was keen to get rid of the books but I know they still exist because they were produced to me by parents. I was shown what the children were being taught and told why the parents objected so much.
Another book, which I should have thought everyone would remember, was called Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin. It depicted, on its cover, a little girl of about six years old sitting up in bed with her naked father on one side and his naked lover on the other. I shall quote the exact words used in the book because that, more than anything else, shows the age for which it was intended. It stated:Jenny is a little girl. Martin is Jenny's dad and Eric is Martin's lover. They all live happily together".The book went on to state that Eric, the father, drew Jenny a series of cartoons of two men who were saying:I love you FredI love you too, Bill. Why don't we move in together?That's a good idea".
§ Lord Waddington
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for giving way. Perhaps I may ask for her comments. I am told that the publisher of that very book stated only the other day,When Section 28 is successfully repealed, as I believe it will be shortly, we will be rushing to re-publish an updated version of the book. We shall make sure that every school which wants a copy will get a copy.What does my noble friend have to say about that?
§ Baroness Knight of Collingtree
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for drawing my attention and that of the House to what is now being keenly anticipated. It would amaze me if anyone in this House supported what we have just heard. It was those matters which made me introduce Clause 28 and it is important that the House understands that.
I referred earlier to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey. Haringey council made a video called "How to become a lesbian in 35 minutes". It was intended to be shown in a school for mentally handicapped girls, some of whom were extremely young. In the course of my years as a local councillor I took a great interest in the mentally handicapped children in my area; I served on the boards of schools and had a great deal to do with them. From my experience of those children, it is difficult enough for them to understand normal sexual relations without having homosexuality foisted upon them. I find it horrifying that anyone would support that.
All of that was stopped dead by Clause 28. Clause 28 was introduced for that purpose, and that purpose alone. It was not intended to harm people who, as 1104 adults, decided that that was the way of life for them. Clause 28 had nothing to say about that. It was certainly not my intention at any time to try to marginalise or be unfair to those who choose the homosexual way of life. But I am anxious about little children and feel I have a perfect right to be so.
When Clause 28 was introduced, it was recognised that it was necessary. My provision obtained a big majority in the other place, though the most wild allegations were being made. Some people suggested that it would not allow the production or teaching of Shakespeare in schools. That has been proven to be quite wrong, as were many other allegations. My noble friends Lord Waddington and Lady Blatch made it clear that there was nothing in Clause 28 which could encourage or initiate bullying. We all hate bullying. It happens for a number of reasons and it is the job of the teacher to notice it happening and to stop it. There was no suggestion that Clause 28 encouraged bullying and I utterly reject that allegation. In fact, I am in touch with a number of schools and school governors. I am known to be the initiator of Clause 28 and have had not one complaint that it led to bullying. I am sure that I would have done. Clause 28 was intended solely to protect little children. Those who seek to repeal it now must explain why they seek to withdraw that protection and on what grounds they so deplore normal family life.
In the past week I have received over 1,000 letters and petitions from those who support what is now Section 28. I ask your Lordships, and in particular I ask the Government, to realise that there is a well of public opinion that is extremely anxious that it be abolished. People are anxious that their children should not be subject to that kind of proselytising. I suggested to some of those who wrote to me that they ought to write to their Members of Parliament and tell them their views. Many of them did so and some sent me the replies. The Member of Parliament for Brighton Kemptown said that he understood the concern but had to point out that no prosecutions had ever been brought as a result of Section 28. Does that show it is not successful? I should have thought it showed the reverse.
My noble friend Lord Waddington mentioned Nick Seaton. He is the chairman for the Campaign for Real Education and once said:Before Section 28 came into force we were getting considerable numbers of parents complaining to us about the promotion of homosexuality in schools. After Section 28 it almost disappeared as an issue. If Section 28 were to be repealed, it is almost certain that the promotion of homosexuality would become a huge bone of contention between parents and schools".The interjection from my noble friend proves that that is the case. However, when the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, spoke, she was very soothing and said that there are a whole number of new rules. But when Clause 28 was introduced there were already rules about governors; that what was being taught should be passed by the whole school; but it was still taught. The noble Baroness said that one of the new rules was that there should be no promotion of homosexuality. But if we repeal Section 28 that is 1105 exactly what will happen. The message will be: "Go out and promote homosexuality; go ahead. There is no earthly reason why you should not". And that worries me greatly.
I particularly noticed that at the start of this debate the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, called Section 28 "pernicious". I went to the Library and looked up the word in the dictionary. The meaning of the word pernicious is,wicked, malicious, causing grave harm".I feel that the situation is the other way round; that it is wicked to tell children of five and six years old how to commit a homosexual act and encourage them to do so; that it is malicious to approach young mentally handicapped girls with the idea that homosexuality is a good way to proceed. I do not know what could cause more grave harm than to try to promote, as does the book Jenny lives with Eric and Martin, marriage as being outdated; that we should not have a mummy and daddy and can just as well have a daddy and a homosexual lover. I warn the Government that if they proceed with this, they will come up against a great deal of public objection, with which I heartily agree.
§ 8.48 p.m.
§ Lord Hunt of Tanworth
My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest as honorary chairman of the Local Government Association, particularly since, prior to the establishment of the parliamentary Joint Committee, I chaired a hearing on behalf of the LGA which took evidence both from local authorities and from partner bodies on the Bill in its draft form. The procedure of having a draft Bill for scrutiny before it comes to Parliament is very useful. I commend the Government on that and congratulate the Joint Committee on its report.
I cannot forbear saying, however, that it is slightly ironic that, having had this slow and careful procedure of the Bill being available in draft in March, the present version is already going to be subject to amendment following the report of the Joint Committee, which we received at the end of last week. Of course, we must wait for the crucial draft regulations and guidance, which will put flesh on the skeleton of the Bill and which will be crucial to how it will work in practice. I suppose we must be patient.
Given the number of speakers and that we have to some extent been having two separate debates today, I propose to keep my remarks brief and confine them to Parts I and II of the Bill—in which I find much to welcome. In particular, I welcome the proposed power to promote the well-being of a local authority's area. It has been common ground for some time that just as there has been a shift in the role of local authorities from being mainly service providers to enablers, so the field of local governance below local authorities has expanded. It is highly desirable that local government should be encouraged to play its role as the democratic community leader in the complex world of local government.
The doctrine of vires, whereby local authorities have to produce statutory authority for any actions they take, has to a large extent inhibited the role of the 1106 community leader—particularly in partnerships with the private sector, where both sides have agreed and wanted to do something but have held back fearing a legal challenge. In 1995–96, the Select Committee on relations between central and local government recommended the sort of power that the Bill will introduce, which is very welcome. I take the point made earlier that the power will to some extent be circumscribed by the limits on local authorities raising their own finance. Nevertheless, that power will produce the statutory basis for community leadership.
During the hearing on the draft Bill that I chaired on behalf of the Local Government Association, I was repeatedly struck and encouraged by the absence of complacency among the witnesses. They did not tell us that what they had been doing for ages past was right and should not change. Almost all of them recognised and accepted the need to modernise their political leadership arrangements and structures. As many of your Lordships know, many local authorities have been doing so in anticipation of the Bill. Many welcomed the draft Bill as it stood but witnesses also expressed two concerns, to which noble Lords have referred today.
First, many witnesses expressed the feeling that none of the three executive models might be suitable for some authorities, such as small local authorities or those without a party political majority. The response to the Joint Committee makes it clear that while the Secretary of State would be able to add other executive models to the three in the Bill, he would not add any that did not involve a split between the executive and scrutiny roles. The question of further models will need further consideration and testing during the passage of the Bill through this House.
I am not saying that our witnesses wanted the status quo. Nor did they say that. They talked about: the status quo plus. They used all sorts of language. The need to modernise was generally accepted but there was a feeling that the executive models would not suit in all circumstances, although they might suit in many of them.
It could even be argued that, if there is doubt, there could be a case—at least for a transitional period of years—for letting different models run in parallel, to see which worked better.
The second concern was that while the proposed arrangements in Part II should lead to executives that in theory can be more efficient, identifiable and accountable, they could in the long run—by appearing to diminish the role of back-bench members—lead to fewer able people being willing to stand for council membership. I am glad that there appears to be agreement on the importance of making scrutiny and overview a genuinely worthwhile job. That is something to which the Government say they attach importance and, in their response to the Joint Committee, they proposed to allow the development of the role and the delegation of executive functions to area committees. Again, we need to give further consideration during the passage of the Bill to establishing good direction of policy through the 1107 executive model or any other, while preserving a genuinely worthwhile role for the back-bencher, or whatever he is called in future.
It is impossible to comment on the regulations and guidance because we have not seen them.
Perhaps it is permissible to conclude by stressing the need for maximum flexibility within an overall policy. Local authorities differ considerably in their needs and aspirations. They should be encouraged to respond to local circumstances wherever possible. Local government is for local people. Central government guidelines and regulations ought to be as flexible as possible except where central control is genuinely necessary. Providing that flexibility will be the surest way to interest people and turn out the local voter.
§ 8.57 p.m.
§ Lord Tope
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth. My noble friend Baroness Hamwee and I served on the Select Committee to which the noble Lord referred. He is quite right in his description of the evidence that was given. We entitled our report Rebuilding Trust, which was an apt title at the time and is still. It is a title against which we should judge how well the Bill fulfils its intentions.
I welcome the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, and a speech from another council leader in your Lordships' House. I have been here just five years and for most of that time I have been the only council leader in the House. For much of that time, more than half the councillors in your Lordships' House were in my own party. I am delighted that is no longer the case and that in this House, at least, we have people who speak with current knowledge and experience of local government. That will prove invaluable as the Bill goes forward.
I repeat and endorse the concerns expressed by my noble friend Lady Hamwee at the start of this debate. As it happens, members of all three Front Benches suffered through the long hours of the Greater London Authority Bill. All of us suffered a huge number of government amendments, often at late notice. We were very tolerant. We understood that there were considerable time pressures and we wanted to see the Bill through. We knew that Ministers were at least as angry, and embarrassed—and, no doubt, so were their officials.
I must put the Government on notice that we are not prepared to go through that process again with this Bill. The same excuses do not apply. The very day after the Bill was published, in a Written Answer in the other place, it was announced that the Government intended to bring forward substantial amendments to reflect their response to the Joint Committee report. But, at that time, none of us had seen the response to the Joint Committee's report, even though it was published last July. With some pressure from the Ministers, for which we are grateful, that response was finally published on Thursday afternoon.
1108 However, I had the somewhat bizarre experience of going to the Printed Paper Office and being told that, although they had the Government's response, they could not give it to me, or anyone else, because they had not been authorised to release it. I do not wish to embarrass the Minister, but I believe he discovered the limitations of his powers that afternoon because he was not able to authorise that release. All this took place on the last sitting day before the Second Reading debate of a Bill which we have been told is not actually the Bill that the Government are going to take through this House. That is extremely unsatisfactory; indeed, we should not have to put up with it.
In case the Minister has forgotten, I shall repeat the request that my noble friend made earlier for assurances on when we will get all— not just one or two—of the Government's amendments as a package. Can the Minister tell us when we will get those amendments? Can he assure us that we will have them 14 days before the Committee stage begins, so that, this time, we can give proper and due consideration to the Government's real Bill, not the one that is before us today? Can the noble Lord also confirm that these amendments relate only to, or primarily to, Parts II and III of the Bill? Alternatively, will we see amendments to other parts of the legislation of which we are not yet even aware? That is the end of my whinge; but it is a serious one. I know that the Government Front Bench will take it as such.
I turn now to the Bill. A Second Reading debate should be about the principles of the legislation. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, just said, we have actually had two debates going on almost in parallel here for, perhaps, understandable reasons. The intention of the Bill is to promote the community leadership role of local government. We have heard talk about partnership committees and know that they have existed in one form or another in many authorities over the years. I was amused to hear the noble Lord, Lord Smith, refer to the leaders' forum in his local authority. We have a similar forum in my local authority, but we do not call it "the leaders' forum" and we do not have it over dinner; we call it the "breakfast forum". Perhaps that reflects the difference between a Labour-controlled authority and one controlled by the Liberal Democrats.
The other intention of the Bill is to ensure that local government is modern—a most over-used word that I am coming to resent more and more. Indeed, it must be modern, effective, transparent and, above all, accountable in its decision-making processes. In other words, the Bill's intention is, or should be, to revitalise local democracy. It is against those criteria that we have to judge the likely effects of the legislation.
I strongly support the proposals that are coming from elsewhere to modernise the electoral arrangements so as to bring a 19th-century system into the 21st century. I am strongly in favour of that aim. However, I do not believe that difficulty in voting is the reason for low turnouts at elections in this country. There may be some people who find it difficult or impossible to get to the polling station, but not 65 per cent of the electorate. If people want to vote in this 1109 country the vast majority of them can do so. Therefore, desirable though these changes are, that is not the reason for low turnouts.
It will not surprise noble Lords to know that I strongly support the change to a fairer voting system. I was impressed to note today that the calls we have heard in today's debate for such a system have come from Benches other than the Liberal Democrat Benches; indeed, such calls came mostly from the Government's own Benches. I take some heart from that fact. If we were ever to see any form of PR in this country, I always believed that it would come first to local government. However, I am now beginning to wonder whether it will ever come to local government.
Local government is ideally suited to a proportional system. If any single measure could break up the one-party state, to which the Government seem to object—though, personally, I have no objection to some one-party states, especially in the London borough of Sutton—it will be a proportional voting system. That, too, will go some way towards making voters feel that their vote is not wasted. However, important though it is, not even I believe that PR is the panacea to revitalise local democracy. What we need to revitalise local democracy is an entirely different relationship between local government and central government and, above all, between local government and local people.
My noble friend Lady Hamwee has occasionally referred to my liking for referring to "spheres" rather than tiers of government. It is not an original thought; indeed, it is fairly common in Europe and was, I believe, adopted i n South Africa. But it is not a matter of playing with words; it is an important difference in attitude. The word "tiers" implies a hierarchy. It suggests that local government is somehow lower than central government. That is reinforced by the huge number of people who go from, and sometimes use, local government as a stepping stone into the House of Commons. When one talks about "spheres" of government, one is recognising that each different form of government has its own part to play in the total governance of the country. It is a very important difference in attitude and not just a matter of playing with words. Those are the principles—the criteria, if you like—on which we need to judge this Bill, and decide to what extent they will be achieved.
I start with Part I, which deals with what I would call the power of promoting well-being; in other words, economic, social and environmental well-being. That is welcomed. We are very pleased to see that provision and will support it. However, that still reinforces the idea of tiers rather than spheres. That is the essential difference between this power and the power of general competence that we seek. A power of general competence would say that local government may do all those things that it wishes to do, unless there is some prohibition by Parliament to prevent it from so doing. This power is the other way round and that is the important difference. Nevertheless, this is still a welcome step forward.
However, it may be an empty step. As others have said, the power is all very well: but if you have the power without the resources it is very limiting. I do not 1110 call for more money from the Government. I sometimes wince when my colleagues in local government continually ask for more money from central government. I want more power and more ability for local government to raise its own resources. I want it to be able to convince its own taxpayers and charge payers that what it wants to do is what they want it to do. That is what we need and that is what we should be getting through this power.
Part II of the Bill is considerably more troublesome. I find it a lot more difficult. That is not because I have a great problem in understanding or even, to some extent, agreeing with the executive and scrutiny split. Part II concentrates so much on the process and so little on the outcomes. The role of Parliament arid of government should be to say, "These are the outcomes we want from government. This is what we want local government to achieve". If the Government really trusted local government, they would set those targets—those outcomes—and say to them, ''You determine the process for achieving those targets in cooperation and consultation with your local partners and local people. What is important is not how you get there but where you get to". I believe that that is one of the essential weaknesses of Part II of this Bill.
I shall talk for a moment about my own local authority in the London borough of Sutton. I am no longer leader there, which makes it a little easier for me to talk about it. My party is now in its fourth term of office there. That is a fairly unusual experience for the Liberal Democrats, even these days. It is even more unusual in London, which is not generally considered to be natural Liberal Democrat territory.
§ Lord Tope
My Lords, I said that it was unusual, but not unique. What is unique is that at the previous two London borough elections the Liberal Democrats in my borough polled over 50 per cent of the vote. Therefore we have a popular mandate, albeit not one that justifies our having 85 per cent of the seats.
Every two years since 1987 we have commissioned MORI to take a residents' attitude survey. For their interest rather than ours, the first question always concerns overall satisfaction. We have just had the latest results for 1999. I note that in the table showing the results for authorities over the past five years the London borough of Sutton features three times in the best five results. However, we are not complacent. We have undertaken our own restructuring. We have adopted an executive and a separate scrutiny role. We did that with all-party agreement. We consulted the public on this matter earlier this year. Other noble Lords have said that the public are not necessarily most excited at being consulted on council structures and that that is not a natural turn on for the electorate. The consultation was issued with a covering letter signed by the three party leaders. We put forward Sutton's model, which is a little different from that proposed by the Government, and we put forward the Government's three models. Some 2,800 households 1111 in what is a relatively small London borough responded to that consultation, and 80 per cent of them supported our proposals.
Although we have a heavy party majority, our executive is all party and it meets in the open. I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate he will say whether it is the Government's intention that when this Bill becomes law we shall throw the Labour Party off our executive committee, as it will not be happy if that has to happen. If it happens shortly before the 2002 London borough elections, I shall probably be slightly happier than that party.
There are concerns about the scrutiny role which we need to address. I believe that it is an important role. I agree with what others have said; namely, that councillors need to value that crucially important role. However, in my experience most councillors wish to be not necessarily members of the executive but at least to have a proper and effective say in decisions that will be taken by the executive, wherever that executive is and whoever it comprises. That is echoed in concerns that have been expressed by the right reverend Prelate with regard to the Churches, and indeed other bodies, governors and so on, who are represented on committees under old structures. That is most obvious in the case of education committees where church, teacher and parent governor representatives have a statutory right. They may have a useful role on a scrutiny body but they want to be on the decision-making body. I have yet to hear of anyone dealing satisfactorily with that difficulty.
My next point—I believe that this is extremely important—is that local authorities should have the resources to be able to give distinct and separate support to the scrutiny committee. If councillors are back-benchers, as many have called them, less experienced, have less time—and, let us be honest, some may have less ability—but are effectively to carry out the scrutiny role they need professional support, advice and guidance to be able to do so. That advice and guidance cannot be given fairly by those who are being scrutinised. That is an important issue.
As regards area committees, I was delighted to see that the Government have recognised that they can have a value and a role. I hope that the Minister can say more tonight about what the Government mean in their response by keeping,clear corporate accountability for executive functions".Will all councillors in an area be able to serve on the area committee and take the executive decisions that that committee is empowered to take regardless of where they happen to be in the executive/scrutiny split? If we are told that, it may go a little way to help councillors who are not on the executive.
The Minister would be surprised if I did not mention recall of the mayor. We disagreed on this issue on a number of occasions when we discussed the GLA Bill. I note in their response that the Government have carefully considered this matter. Among their objections is a principled one as an elected mayor,would be unique among those in the UK directly elected1112 who could be replaced in some other way. I suspect that is true but I wonder whether the Minister can tell us whether any other directly elected office anywhere in the UK will have the personal power that a directly elected mayor will have. It is a unique role and we need unique provisions to be able to deal with what I hope will be a small number of cases where the mayor truly loses the confidence of his or her local community. We can all imagine—perhaps we do not need too much imagination—how such circumstances could arise. There has to be some way of dealing with such a situation—and we need to find that way before it happens, not afterwards.
Part III of the Bill has not attracted a great deal of attention—although there was one very good speech on it. That is perhaps because we all welcome it. It is the part which deals with ethical standards. Despite some quite properly well-publicised and extremely unfortunate and unpleasant cases, local government generally in this country is remarkably free of corruption. It may well be that that is because local government has very little power in this country and is not worth corrupting, but I like to think that it is for higher reasons.
Part IV deals with elections. I cannot help but agree with the view of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, about electoral systems. When he replies, I hope that the Minister will be able to say a little more about what the Government intend with the power they will be given when the Bill is enacted. They have the power to change the electoral timetable. Perhaps I may ask the Minister whether it is the Government's intention to impose such changes, or simply to have power to respond to local wishes for such changes to take place. Again, that is a very important difference.
The parallel debate which has been going on has been about Clause 68. I have spoken on the subject of Section 28 on many occasions; I have no doubt that I will do so again on many occasions during the progress of the Bill. I think that tonight it has all been said in some excellent speeches, particularly by the noble Baronesses, Lady Massey and Lady Gould, with whom I agree entirely. I was astonished to hear speakers from the Conservative Benches suggesting that the Government had been trying to slip this in unobtrusively so that nobody would notice. I occasionally think that the Government are naive—but not that naive. Given that the Conservative Party apparently believes that this was coming in surreptitiously, we all owe the Conservative Party a debt for such noble self-sacrifice in drawing such great public attention to the provisions of the Bill. It was not necessary. It is astonishing that it has got rid of its most effective London spokesman—I did not agree with what he said, but he was certainly effective—on an issue such as this.
I will say a lot more about this on another occasion; time is getting on now. It was also a manifesto commitment of the Liberal Democrats to repeal Section 28. We strongly welcome the Government's courage in grasping the nettle and including it in the Bill. It is an extremely important measure. I understand very well its importance but I hope, none 1113 the less, that it will not dominate the proceedings of the Bill, which is about many other important measures as well. But we will give it our support.
In conclusion, l resent very strongly the suggestion that if we question some of the provisions of Part II of the Bill we must be against change; that somehow we are anti-modernists or dinosaurs. It is very difficult for a Liberal Democrat to feel himself or herself to be a dinosaur. We are not against change; we are strongly in favour of change. We want change that makes local government truly more open and transparent; that makes it more effective and more locally accountable in its decision-making. We want change that builds trust, not only between central and local government but between local government and local people. That is how we will judge the Bill and why we have grave doubts that Part II, as drafted, will bring about the changes we want.
§ 9.17 p.m.
§ Lord Brabazon of Tara
My Lords, it has been a long and interesting debate. As has been said, it is a debate which, in a way, is in two parts. I feel somewhat in a minority in that I am not one who has ever been involved in local government, unlike most noble Lords who have spoken, including the noble Lord, Lord Smith, who made a very interesting maiden speech. We hope very much to hear more about his experiences in local government.
However, I was brought up in a family where both my father and mother were involved in local government. Sadly, had my father now been doing the job that he was then, he would not have had the time to be involved in local government. That is possibly a factor which puts off people from being involved in local government these days. I do not know the answer but I am absolutely certain that the pace of modern life and the pressure of work does not allow many people who might have been able to take part in local government now to do so.
The Bill is said to be a great deal about modernisation or to be "modern"; I think the Minister used that word at least half a dozen times. I wonder whether everything needs to be modernised; whether "modern" is necessarily always right. I remember that when I was younger modern architecture was all the rage. That modern architecture gave us Marsham Street, Centre Point and some of the tower blocks that one sees around London and in other cities. I do not believe that anyone would wish that on anyone else. So I hope that when we talk about modernisation we will go for something better than the present system.
The Bill was carefully examined by a Joint Committee of both Houses. I am glad that a number of noble Lords who served on that committee have been able to speak in our debate today. As has been said, the committee reported a little over four months ago—at the end of July. However, the Government responded to the committee only last Thursday, the last sitting day before the Second Reading debate today.
1114 In his opening remarks the Minister said that amendments would be tabled to take account of the recommendations of the Joint Committee. I join with the noble Lord, Lord Tope, in hoping that those amendments will be tabled rapidly so that we can examine them. However, I must point out that the Government had plenty of time to incorporate the amendments in the Bill before it was introduced in this House. Of course we all know why they did not. The draftsman and officials were kept busy drafting the 900 amendments required for the Greater London Authority Bill. Nevertheless, I doubt whether the Minister will either confirm or deny that accusation.
Large parts of the Bill depend upon draft regulations and guidance, in particular Part II of the Bill. Can the Minister say whether those draft regulations and guidance will be laid before the House prior to the Committee stage? It is important that we see those in good time, otherwise consideration of the Bill will be quite difficult.
As has been said, Part I of the Bill deals with the promotion of economic, social and environmental well-being. However, the Government say one thing and do another. Offering the power to promote such objectives is a popular idea, yet under Clause 3(2) a local authority is not allowed to raise any money for that purpose. At the same time, the next subsection states:The Secretary of State may by order make provision preventing local authorities from doing, by virtue of section 2(1) anything which is specified, or is of a description specified, in the order".In other words, local authorities can do it, but only if the Secretary of State approves of it. Similarly, in Clause 4, which provides for the preparation of a strategy under this part, the local authority,may consult or seek the participation of such persons as they consider appropriate".But it then states that local authorities,must have regard to any guidance for the time being issued by the Secretary of State".Yet again more power is to remain at the centre. Where is the European Charter of Local Self-Government to which the Government have signed up? Does this clause not go very much against the spirit, if not the words, of that charter?
We regret that in Part II no so-called fourth option has been provided as a fallback position to streamline the existing committee structures. We believe that Part II is too prescriptive by offering only three options and not offering the fourth one, which is the status quo modified. That appears to be change for the sake of change. Although the Government say they believe that things will work better this way, I hope that in Committee we shall be able to probe the evidence that that will be the case.
My noble friend Lady Young referred in particular to referendums. The Bill provides that a petition signed by at least 5 per cent of the electorate is required to hold a referendum, or that the Secretary of State can require local authorities to hold a referendum. I should make it absolutely clear that we on this side of the 1115 House are not generally in favour of referendums. But if we are to have referendums, provision should be made to ensure that there must be a minimum turnout and a minimum majority in favour of any change. We do not wish to see a repeat of the referendum held for the Greater London mayor where such a small number of people voted that it could not be said to be representative of the wishes of the majority. We believe that regulations concerning referendums should be the subject of primary legislation.
Clause 11 provides:The Secretary of State may by regulations specify—(a) functions of local authorities which may not be the subject of executive arrangements".Presumably those are the quasi-judicial functions of local authorities: planning, licensing and so forth. However, we should like to be told what those functions might be before we proceed much further with the Bill.
Clause 15 deals with pre-decision scrutiny—or rather it does not deal with pre-decision scrutiny, only post-decision scrutiny. We would favour the scrutiny committees being able to consider matters pre-decision rather post-decision. How will the executive system work in a council where there is no overall control or where there may be a number of independent councillors or "ratepayer" councillors?
Part III of the Bill, dealing with ethical standards, is to be welcomed, but it is something of a sledgehammer to crack a nut and could be described as legislation to clear up the Labour Party's own mess in certain parts of the country. Is it really necessary? We shall certainly not oppose it, but I ask the Minister for an assurance that nothing in Part III prohibits, in a serious case of fraud, a criminal investigation by the police or the Crown Prosecution Service, or prevents criminal charges being laid. So far as I can see, it deals only with the possibility of censure or disqualification of councillors. Would it not be a good idea to have attached to this part of the Bill some financial penalties as well?
Part IV of the Bill deals with elections. It is clear from the White Paper, Modern Local Government: In Touch with the People, that the Government favour a move towards annual elections—three years out of four for unitary authorities, metropolitan districts and London boroughs, and election by halves every other year for shire districts and counties. The Government's Explanatory Notes accompanying the Bill go on to reaffirm that preference. I wonder whether that will have any bearing on the low turn-out at elections, which was referred to by a number of noble Lords, notably by the noble Lord, Lord Filkin. I should have thought that the possibility of throwing out the whole council at one time if people did not approve of what it was doing would increase the likely turnout rather than the ability to tamper at the edges by having a marginal vote only.
I do not believe there is any evidence that turnout increases under the proposed system. I should be grateful if the Minister could let us know whether there 1116 is any evidence of that. We believe that it would be far better to leave such matters for local choice by local councils or county councils, as happens at the moment. By the way, if there are to be mayors for fixed terms and councils for different terms, that will undoubtedly lead to some confusion and possible difficulty.
Lastly, I turn to what has occupied a good deal of the debate today. I regret that Clause 68 is in the Bill. It muddies the waters of what is otherwise an interesting Bill. Clause 68 repeals Section 28. From these Benches we oppose the repeal of Section 28. We want to divert more resources into improving education. Public money should be spent on raising standards in schools and not furthering a particular minority agenda. We have heard some powerful speeches from this side of the House on the subject. I note particularly the speeches of my noble friends Lady Knight of Collingtree and Lady Blatch, my noble friend the Duke of Norfolk, and my noble friends Lady Seccombe, Lord Waddington and Lady Young. We shall undoubtedly come back to this issue at the Committee stage and I fear that dealing with it will take a considerable time.
We do not believe that Section 28 provides any legal impediment to teachers tackling bullying. However, we favour amending the section to address teachers' concerns on the issue. We believe that that would be possible. We are listening to teachers, parents and other interested parties on the subject.
We also find it strange that the Government want to repeal Section 28 at the same time as David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, has ordered that schools should teach the importance of marriage. How can schools promote homosexuality and marriage at the same time? The Government have yet to explain what they will and will not allow local authorities to do.
I look forward to the Committee stage. There is considerable work to be done, particularly as there will be a raft of government amendments that we have not yet seen. I echo the words of the noble Lord. Lord Tope. I hope that we shall be able to see them in good time, bearing in mind that we break for the Christmas Recess next week and return at the beginning of January. None of us wants to have to spend Christmas examining the amendments. We would rather examine them before Christmas if possible, or, if not, there must be a suitable gap between the tabling of them and the Committee stage.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, this has been a wide-ranging debate on a Bill which will make a substantial difference to the way in which local government is conducted. I should like to commend two or three aspects of the debate: first, the speech of my noble friend Lord Smith of Leigh, which demonstrated his breadth and length of experience in local government, which will, I hope, inform remaining debates on the Bill and the other debates that we shall doubtless have on local government.
1117 Although it may be considered invidious, I should like also to single out the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth. I commend him both on his remarks today and on the work that he did in promoting a Bill which unfortunately fell in another place. During its passage, many of these concepts and ideas were pursued and that stands us in good stead. I know that the noble Lord has a few doubts about aspects of this Bill, but local government is the richer for his having pursued his earlier proposals.
I also want to record my thanks to the Joint Committee, and particularly to those committee members who have spelt out their concerns in this debate.
I had better address two amendments before coming to the meat of the Bill. The first relates to the procedural issues that were raised mainly by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, but also by his noble friend Lady Hamwee at the beginning of the debate. That is why we are in a situation whereby further amendments will be required before the Bill is considered by this House in Committee, so as to introduce into the Bill responses to the Joint Committee report and the Government's reaction to it.
I do not think it is completely fair to compare the situation in regard to this Bill with that of the GLA Bill. I quietly had a little sympathy with noble Lords during proceedings on the GLA Bill—not as regards the substance but the procedure. However, that Bill had passed through the other House and amendments came before this House on Report and at Third Reading. The concerns expressed then were legitimate. The Bill with which we are now dealing comes before this House first. There will be amendments. However, I assure the noble Lord that, as far as is reasonably possible, we shall produce all the substantive amendments to which I have referred in time for the Committee stage. I am not in a position to give an absolute assurance that every amendment will be there, but we shall do substantially better than we did on the GLA Bill, albeit that that Bill had already passed through the other House.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, with the leave of the House, perhaps I may press the Minister further on this matter. "In time for the Committee stage" could mean the day before the Committee stage begins. I made the point at the beginning of the debate that this is not merely a whinge. We are concerned to have a useful Committee stage, not one which is in effect a Second Reading, postponing the Committee type work until Report stage. My request for a 14-day period from the tabling of the amendments to the Committee stage was a very serious point.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I sought to assure the House that as far as possible all of the amendments would he tabled in reasonable time for Committee stage. I note the noble Baroness's definition of "reasonable time". No doubt my noble friend the Government Chief Whip has also noted it. I cannot give an absolute assurance that every single amendment that we want to make to the Bill—my 1118 noble friend the Government Chief Whip never hears such remarks—will be tabled in that timescale. However, I shall do my best to meet the requirements of the noble Baroness and other noble Lords who have expressed concern.
It was important for us to take fully into account the report of the Joint Committee which was produced during the Summer Recess. We wanted to take account not only of the report of that committee but of local government and other interested parties before we drew up our response. In part that is the reason why the response has been somewhat later than noble Lords would have wished. I regret that the necessary amendments were not available at the time the first print of the Bill was produced.
We have also been asked whether all of the regulations stipulated under the Bill will be available in time for Committee stage. We are keen to ensure that the House has the opportunity to give adequate consideration to the amendments. As to those, the main substantive amendments will be to Parts II and III of the Bill. There may be some technical amendments to the other parts. There is one substantive issue related to allowances which falls outside those parts of the Bill. As far as concerns regulations, it would be unusual if all such measures under a Bill were produced before the Committee stage of the first House which considered it. Nevertheless, I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that, as our response to the report of the Joint Committee indicates, the regulations concerned with executive functions, policy framework and petitions will be available in time for Committee stage. Others will be produced during the passage of the Bill, as is normal practice. I hope that that reassures the House that as far as possible we seek to accommodate noble Lords in providing as good a basis for consideration of this Bill as we can.
The other issue that I must address initially relates to the repeal of Section 2A—in other words, Section 28—by Clause 68 of the Bill. My comments on the contributions on this aspect of the Bill are perhaps made more in sorrow than in anger. I admit that there is a degree of anger also involved. I do not believe that in this respect there will be much of a meeting of minds. I respect the views of the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, and others who were involved in the original introduction of Section 28. I am aware that she can quote anxieties. Nevertheless, I recall that at the time colleagues and friends in the gay community felt very strongly that hysteria about these issues was being whipped up. I believe that it was wrong for the government at that time to respond to that hysteria and it is wrong for noble Lords to seek to defend that position.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Tope, I believe it is completely ludicrous to suggest that this Government have slipped the repeal of Section 28 into this Bill. It has been Labour Party policy ever since it was introduced, and was referred to by the Labour Party spokesperson throughout the election and since, that we intend to take the opportunity to seek this repeal. The reality is that, whatever the words and perhaps the 1119 intention of Section 28, the effect not only on the gay community but the bringing up and education of our children has been very damaging. It causes confusion, as my noble friend Lady Massey said. That confusion seriously inhibits substantial numbers of teachers, as my noble friend Lady Gould said, from providing help and support for young people who are confused about their sexuality. They believe they are gay, they know they are gay, or they are being picked upon by others because they think that they are gay. It has inhibited a large number of teachers, governors and education authorities from providing the independent advice and guidance that those children need.
Those children and young people growing up in our society do not have to be taught homosexuality. Some will be gay. Some will know gay people within their own families and friends with whom they have close friendships and relationships. Hundreds of thousands of children in this country are growing up knowing people who are gay and wanting to know more about how they should respond to them. Their own parents, friends and siblings may well act in that capacity. Yet the section inhibits the way in which our authorities can deal with that situation.
§ Baroness Knight of Collingtree
My Lords, in contemplating changes in the future, does the Minister recognise that there is a worry about the need to support marriage as the cornerstone of our society? There are concerns among a large number of parents that it is under threat.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I do not believe the fact that we tell young people that there are relationships in life other than marriage undermines the institution of marriage.
I do not know whether noble Lords ever watch television on Saturday nights. They probably have better things to do. However, last Saturday's episode of "Casualty" portrayed the family of a young boy. His father had left and his mother had engaged in a lesbian relationship. That boy was seriously confused. But at the end of the episode—the issue was dealt with sensitively—not only was the homophobic father seriously reconciled but also the young boy at least understood some of the situation. It was not ideal for him. It was not the optimum situation for him. It was not what he would have wanted. But neither was it the end of the world because for the first time someone had taken the time to explain the situation to him. That explanation, that sensitive way of dealing with these things, is what a lot of our teachers, regrettably, and probably not on the literal reading of Section 28, now feel that they are inhibited from doing.
That is why we say that that provision allows more homophobic bullying in our schools, not because it directly causes that bullying but because teachers and others in authority are more inhibited than they should be about doing something about it. That is why, without ascribing any malign motivation, I believe that in effect it has become a pernicious piece of legislation. The number of assaults, self-inflicted 1120 wounds and suicide attempts among young gay people, referred to by the right reverend Prelate and others, bears witness to that.
I believe that it is time to put that section behind us and to approach the subject in a more adult and mature way. Our society is diverse. This Bill is about diversity in our communities as a whole. The gay community is part of that diversity and young people need to understand about it. In no way do I believe that that undermines the institution of marriage where marriage is strong and where the community supports that marriage. But I believe that young people need to know that there are other equally loving circumstances to which they have to react in their lives. Whether noble Lords opposite like it or not, some of those young people will grow up to be gay and we should nurture them as well as other members of our society.
I turn to what six minutes ago I said was the meat of the Bill. It provides a new and central part of reforming the system of governance in this country. Local government is a vital part of that. The provision for a power of well being will give local authorities powers to carry out actions which are of benefit to their communities in a way in which they have been inhibited previously.
The power has been criticised for not going far enough, but it is a substantial—probably the biggest—enlargement of local authority powers for many years. Some people are calling for a general competence, but I do not believe that had we called it a general competence it would have been unrestricted. Clearly, restrictions as regards finances and the role of local authorities must be in the Bill. It is important that we get away from labels and move on to make a reality of the new power of well-being.
Another criticism is that the provision should be a duty rather than a power. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, made that observation, as did my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone. It is true that the White Paper proposed a duty to provide community well-being. We have taken the view, which is supported by the Local Government Association, that imposing another duty could be the wrong way of allowing the authorities the powers they need to improve the well-being of the communities they serve. We want to free authorities and give them flexibility to be able to take action to meet community needs. Giving them the power and leaving them flexibility in the way they operate seems to us the sensible way forward.
Again, I refer to my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone. It is important that the sustainability of wellbeing runs through the social, environmental and economic aspects of well-being. I can assure the House that that is the way in which the Government are approaching these matters.
It is not true that the councils will not be able to spend on pursuing this power. The power restricting expenditure is not to restrict them from deploying their budgets in this regard, but it is a reserve power which may be used to prevent the new power being used in a way which might damage regional or national 1121 interests. We hope that with all our reserve powers that will not be used. The restriction on finances in Clause 3(2) to which the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, and the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, referred is simply to safeguard the position that councils cannot levy taxes on business or individuals without specific powers being granted to them by Parliament. That applies in this as in all areas of local government.
The important point about the well-being provision is that it places local authorities in a position in which they can truly engage in the kind of community leadership to which the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, referred. But in order to do so we need not only a change in powers but also in structures. I join my noble friend Lord Woolmer of Leeds and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, in paying tribute to the dedication, achievements and probity of local governments in this country. But the structure needs to be changed. The committee structure is being changed in practice. People have to invent new procedures in order to cut through the Victorian structure which we have inherited. As my noble friend Lady Thornton said, it is important now to address that structure.
The present structure has been unresponsive. In some cases, it is obscure and opaque, as my noble friend Lord Harris said. As was said by my noble friend Lord Filkin, who has a lifetime of experience serving such councils, it does not always lead to efficiency or transparency of decisions. It is all important that the structure reflects the purpose of the council. The purpose of the council is twofold: to take strategic decisions in order to deliver services to the community and also to scrutinise the way in which those decisions are taken. We believe that the provisions in the Bill to provide for the separation of powers are a sensible way forward. By and large, the Local Government Association agrees with that, as do most people in local authorities.
That does not mean that that is a complete break with the actions of local authorities over the past few years in terms of establishing quasi-executive structures. My noble friend Lord Lipsey said that over 30 years ago we indicated that the party was over and that concentration on efficient management of local authorities was more important than grand gestures. Obviously he has not received the hospitality of Manchester City Council recently to know that in that city as elsewhere those lessons have been well and truly learnt. Nevertheless, the structure is still inhibiting the next stage of transformation into efficient deliveries of both democracy and services.
As the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said, the provisions for new constitutions are not enough on their own, but we need a more thoroughgoing approach to the relationship between councils and those whom they govern. I entirely agree with that. That is the basis of our whole approach, including our approach to this Bill. What lies behind the Bill, as set out in the White Paper, is a programme taking 10 years or more. It is a radical agenda which will be addressed in a comprehensive way to make good the deficiencies of local government. It includes a best-value regime, the 1122 promotion of well-being and the new ethical framework. The constitution based on a new separation of powers is one of the most important aspects of the Bill.
The noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, and the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, both voiced fears that back-bench councillors could become second-class citizens as a result of the separation of powers. As my noble friends Lord Harris and Lord Smith have pointed out, the group who will form the scrutiny committees is absolutely vital to the health of democracy and the operation of the council. Its members will probably spend less time in committees and council meetings than at present, but they will be developing a much closer relationship with local people and the council will benefit as a result.
It is even possible that, in that context, the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, might have been able to serve as a councillor effectively on one of the scrutiny committees, even if the rest of his time was taken up in other duties. It is important that we widen the number of people currently involved in council matters. Local councillors need to be able to bring local needs to the council and to their decisions. It is important that the separation does not lead to any second-class structure. It is probably unwise to believe that it would.
There will be an increased independence of the councillors who form the scrutiny side and, indeed, in the eyes of Members of another place that scrutiny may be rather undeveloped. Powerful scrutiny committees are already no longer the bottom of the pyramid compared with Ministers and the executive. I assure noble Lords present that even my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister takes very seriously indeed his duties when appearing before the honourable Member for Crewe on the Environment, Transport and the Regions Committee. That will be writ large in the local government dimension.
I repeat that decisions must be taken to reflect what people want. They must be taken efficiently but be subject to effective scrutiny. We have been criticised for providing only three models in the Bill. I could make the relatively cheap point that at present there is only one model and that the Bill provides a fairly wide broadening of the scope of choice that applies at local level. However, within those three structures there is a further possibility for flexibility in a number of respects.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and others were concerned that we should perhaps consider other models. The terms of the Bill provide that the Secretary of State might consider other models in certain circumstances. We are by no means closing our minds completely on that point. However, we believe that the clear separation of powers is indicated by the three models; that the clear basis for an efficient running of the council lies within those three options; and that most authorities will be capable of choosing one of those three options as the way in which they want to carry their authority forward.
1123 In our response to the Joint Committee we made it clear that we do not believe that the status quo is an option. I believe that it would be true to say that the vast majority of speakers in this debate have indicated that they do not want the status quo; that we need to develop a new form of local government for the 21st century.
The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and others made a number of comments on the way in which we would conduct referendums for the institution of a mayor. I can tell the noble Lord that regulations which describe how that will happen will be made available as soon as possible. However, as in all forms of local government, it is also the case that local government legislation and regulations under local government legislation provide the basis for election in that context. It is not the equivalent of legislation for Scotland and Wales. Perhaps I should stress here the importance of the proposed electoral commission which will need to consider those matters.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, seemed to be concerned less with the method of acquiring a mayor and more with the issue of how we would get rid of him once he was there. I do not propose to go over the arguments which we had during the GLA Bill. Someone who is directly elected by the people should not be removed by another group of politicians. That remains my case. The legal requirements of the mayor and the ability to remove a mayor who has infringed the legal requirements are clearly stated. Therefore, should the mayor transgress, a judicial means exists of removing him. However, a political means of removing the mayor through an impeachment procedure does not seem to me to be sensible. As I said during the GLA Bill, the recent experience of the greatest democracy in the world does not indicate that impeachment is a sensible process in those circumstances.
A number of questions were asked about the role of back-bench councillors and the structure under which we might operate the executive. Many noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Young, indicated that they were concerned about the single-party nature of a cabinet or an executive. I can assure noble Lords that it will be a matter, first, for the electorate and subsequently for the council to make the decisions as to whether the executive should be a single party, a coalition or politically balanced. Executives can continue to be politically balanced if the council so wishes. Therefore, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Tope, that the Sutton Labour councillors can stay for as long as he wants and for as long as they wish to.
I move now to the issue of area committees, which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer. In our response we indicated that the Government are in favour of decentralised structures and that the Government intend that the legislation should allow the delegation of executive functions by the executive to area committees within the context of a systematic scheme for delegation. The Government intend to put forward amendments in Committee to that effect. Again, to address the point 1124 made by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, all councillors from an area would therefore serve on such area committees.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Miller and Lady Thomas, also raised the question of joint partnership committees between different tiers of government and between counties, districts and, indeed, parishes. We recognise the importance of allowing partnership committees to continue to work together. I can reassure the noble Baroness that the Bill will allow such working arrangements to continue and to be built upon.
The right reverend Prelate raised the question of church representation on education committees. I can reassure him that church and parent-governor representatives will continue to play an important role and to have the statutory right to sit and vote on overview and scrutiny committees which deal with education.
The noble Baroness and others raised the question of privacy in meetings of the executive. The proposals will of course allow private meetings of the executive, as noble Lords have observed. Noble Lords have conceded also that such meetings already take place under the current structure and that it is at those meetings that the real decisions are made. That is so not only in the case of Cleveland, Ohio, which was referred to tactfully by my noble friend Lord Woolmer. There are many councils throughout the land where a group makes a decision behind closed doors which binds the council. Indeed, that is almost invariably the case. The executive will now be able to have private meetings and therefore be part of the formal structure. But those private meetings will be publicly accountable. The decisions must be recorded; explanations must be given for those decisions; and it will be necessary to record and make available advice from officials on which those decisions were based. So our proposals do not provide for greater secrecy. They provide for less secrecy than is the case in practice currently.
A number of questions were asked about more frequent elections. The provisions on the face of the Bill will be enabling provisions. Noble Lords rightly referred back to the White Paper with regard to our preferences in that area. However, that will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis and the provisions will enable the Secretary of State to bring forward regulations which will ensure more frequent elections than is currently the case in some authorities.
As regards other election matters, a number of noble Lords asked about electoral reform. That is not currently provided in the Bill. No doubt we shall debate those matters at various stages of the Bill's passage and beyond. The Government have no intention of bringing forward amendments to that effect for the Committee stage, much as some of my noble friends and others may wish to see that.
I move on quickly to the ethical framework. I am grateful for the support for that, in particular from my noble friend Lady Thornton who emphasised the importance of that part of the Bill in cleaning up the 1125 image and actuality of local government. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, that nothing in those provisions would restrict the ability to bring criminal prosecutions.
I move on now to welfare services. The intention is to bring together the various forms of funding and services which are currently available to the more vulnerable groups of people in our community so that they are more understandable, accessible and flexible to their needs. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and others that the Government recognise the importance and value of sheltered housing and there is no intention of structuring that new, more co-ordinated form of support in a way which would be to the detriment of those who depend on sheltered housing.
I have well over-stretched my time. I am sorry that throughout the debate, we have entered into some controversy on Section 28. I hope that we can recognise the importance of changing the situation and more particularly that we can support the main objectives of this Bill; namely, to bring to local democracy in our country a more efficient, accountable, transparent and—dare I say it? —more modern system of local government which can take us into the 21st century. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ On Question, Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.