Voluntary Code of Practice (Part I)

Orders of the Day — Local Government and Housing Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:15 pm on 13th June 1989.

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  1. `(1) This Part shall have effect subject to the provisions of this section, and after the making of an Order by the Secretary of State.
  2. (2) No Order shall be made under subsection (1) above unless a draft has been laid before and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.
  3. (3) No Order shall be made under subsection (1) above before a period of twelve months from the introduction of a Code of Practice under subsection (4) below.
  4. (4) The local authority associations shall, as soon as practicable after the passing of this Act, prepare and publish a voluntary Code of Practice for local authorities covering the matters referred to in this Part.
  5. (5) No Order shall be made under subsection (1) above unless the Secretary of State has reasonable cause to believe that a serious infringement of the Code of Practice has taken place, and that the making of the Order will prevent a recurrence of such an infringement.
  6. (6) Before making an Order under subsection (1) above, the Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament a report setting out his reasons for making such an Order, with reference to any alleged infringement of the Code as specified in subsection (5) above.'.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Opposition Spokesperson (Local Government & Poll Tax), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

In moving new clause 2, with which new clauses 3 and 4 are being considered, I want to try to disentangle the way in which certain aspects of local government practice have been distorted and promoted through the media as inferring that all those who are openly politically active in whatever capacity and who work for local government at above a salary of £13,500 are, in the words of the Minister in Standing Committee G, "acting despicably".

The Opposition need to disentangle clearly what we are and what we are not in favour of and to ask the House to vote on those matters. First, we are not in favour of people having jobs created for them so that they may continue their political activities in working time, irrespective of their contribution to the local community in the job in which they have been employed. We want to make that absolutely and unequivocally clear. As our new clause 4 suggests in relation to other matters, we seek ways of ensuring that codes of practice and reasonable standards and rules of behaviour are applied. That is quite possible and, indeed, appointments procedures for local authorities, involving members of all political parties, can be and have been devised to ensure that that objective is met.

The second and associated smear that has been deliberately followed through understandable public worries on the first point has been the interesting notion that if one works for a local authority, one should not, perhaps, be involved in any political activity of any kind; that one should be restricted from standing for office either in local authorities, for Parliament here in Westminster or for the European assembly; and that one should be restricted from being able to speak, write or canvass on behalf of a political party or a cause associated directly with a political party. We reject that inference and smear on literally tens of thousands of people who have been giving decent service not only to local government but to their communities and to the cause of democracy.

Openly speaking and the ability to write and to declare oneself in favour of a political cause is not something of which to be ashamed; it is something of which to be proud. It is something that we should welcome in a democracy. Indeed, it is something that is suppressed and oppressed in regimes which all hon. Members would be eager to condemn and which the media outside the House spend a great deal of time rightly vilifying. However, when it is near to home there is the silence of indifference. There are people who are keen to preach to others and yet reluctant to practise the same rules for themselves.

Therefore, this evening, we are proposing measures to separate those things that we think have some validity in terms of needing guidance and restriction from those things that should be accepted as a normal and reasonable part of our political life.

First, we suggest that there should be some restriction on chief officers and their deputies and on the heads of the paid service and their deputies in terms of standing for other local authorities. That is reasonable and prudent. We do not think that many people would object to that. However, we do not see why that restriction and the political restrictions to which I have referred on people's ability to take part in politics should be extended to the vast number of people to whom the Bill would apply. Following the offer that has been made to administrative, professional, technical and clerical staff in local government, after July as many as 130,000 people will be caught in the restriction that forbids those on a gross annual salary of more than £13,500 to take part in political activity. That number comprises those who work directly in the paid service and does not include those caught in other aspects of the clauses that we are debating in terms of direct restrictions, irrespective of salary level.

That number of people, who can practise their democratic rights quite openly this week in the European elections and who have the civil right to display posters and to persuade other people to vote for any political party in that election will, if the Bill is passed, find that what is legal and acceptable this week will no longer be acceptable from the time that the Bill receives Royal Assent. We shall be placed in the farcical position that at the next European Assembly elections people who work in local government and who wish to be politically active will have to join the former leader of the Liberal party in campaigning in Italy, France or West Germany where they will presumably be free to engage in political activity. But they will not be able to promote their views and campaign on behalf of members of the same party in the United Kingdom —[Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames) wish to intervene?

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames , Crawley

indicated dissent.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Opposition Spokesperson (Local Government & Poll Tax), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman has nothing to say. The Government's proposals are disgraceful. They are an infringement of basic civil and human rights and they will be challenged in the European Court of Human Rights. The legal view already is that they infringe article 10 and the first protocol, article 3 of the European convention on human rights.

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that civil servants are already bound by certain rules? Are Opposition Members changing their view on this issue, bearing in mind what they have said in advocating that the rules for hon. Members should be the same as those applying to councillors?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Opposition Spokesperson (Local Government & Poll Tax), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

On present salary levels, industrial and non-officer grades in the Civil Service earning up to a maximum of £24,000 are not restricted. Those working in grades in a "politically restricted capacity" on salaries ranging between £17,500 and £24,000, including London weighting, would have to ask their immediate superiors for permission to engage not only in those activities which are now banned but in standing for public office. There is no comparison between the restrictions on civil servants and the £13,500 arbitrary ban, as it were, in the Bill.

Is impartiality in the public service to be judged purely in terms of whether people pretend not to hold political views? After all, one could be a sleeper—a quiet and surreptitious revolutionary—or hold all manner of views so long as one did not express them. Are we to sweep such views under the carpet, pushing them into shady corners of unacceptability? Are we to push democracy so that people are obliged to hold their views in quiet silence?

Not only is that unacceptable to us, but it demonstrates an important contradiction that emerged in Committee. If public confidence is endangered because people hold views and, as it were, practise democracy in their spare time, seeking exemption must cast doubt on their impartiality as well as questioning the advice that is given, even though, as the Minister said in Committee, the political views of the individual are not of concern. I question the fact that the individual is politically active.

The act of seeking exemption, of going to the arbitrator and asking to be permitted, because of one's job—perhaps because one is a mortuary attendant on overtime or a psychiatric social worker in the children's service—to go forward for selection for, say, the Conservative party, as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment found herself doing in the 1970s and 1980s, will be tantamount to declaring oneself to be politically active.

The moment one declares oneself to be political, in accordance with the Bill, one will be labelled and blacklisted. One will have indicated that one holds views strongly enough to want to be, say, the treasurer of the local Conservative association, and in Committee we showed that that would come under the "unacceptable" category.

At general election time we may describe such a request as unacceptable, but to find Ministers now talking about an activity in their party as being in some way dangerous to the nation's democracy is beyond belief. That is why we wish to differentiate between political knock-about and propaganda that seeks to discredit individuals and the dangerous road down which we are now being led in terms of disqualifying tens of thousands of people from practising their normal political rights.

6.15 pm

If it is reasonable to believe that impartiality flows from the advice given by solicitors, accountants, surveyors or estate agents, even though they are politically active, the same must apply to local authority employees undertaking normal and reasonable tasks. That has been the case in Tory authorities with Labour activists and in Labour authorities with Tory activists, and with few exceptions there has been no malpractice. Dedication and decency have been the general rule.

In seeking to restrict the Bill to a few, clearly-designated and highly-paid senior officials, and in promoting a code of practice which would enable us to see what was and was not acceptable, local government would regulate itself, and Parliament would decide whether the code of practice had worked. We aim by that means to protect basic rights that have been acceptable in the past but which, with the passage of the Bill, will be described as "despicable".

I hope that, even at this late stage, common sense will prevail in the Government and that it will not be necessary for people to go to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that the British Government had acted in an unacceptable and arbitrary manner. We do not have a good record in that court. We have lost on vastly more occasions than other countries. Indeed, whenever people turn to European institutions to obtain redress and have their civil rights upheld, those institutions are strengthened to the detriment of the authority of the British Parliament.

That leads people to have less confidence in securing their democratic rights at the national level. That is bad for Parliament and for Britain. It reveals us in a poor light. What the Government propose may be good knock-about politics and they may think they are getting political capital out of it, but it is a basic infringement of all that we in Britain stand for.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government, Housing and Transport)

We debated this issue on Second Reading and at some length in Committee, and throughout those debates Conservative Members showed no sign of understanding the gravity of what is involved in removing people's basic democractic rights in a country the political system of which is based fundamentally on people holding those rights.

The Government's proposals mean that the right of freedom of speech will be curtailed for thousands of people. The right of free association, to campaign and to do something about those things in which people believe will be removed at a stroke, yet Ministers have been unable to give satisfactory reasons for what they are doing. They have not said, for example, that what they propose is vital or that they have tried to frame other options that would not remove those fundamental liberties. They have said that it must be plain common sense and that we must simply take away those liberties. It is that more than anything that appals me about our debates.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government)

Is it the policy of the hon. Gentleman's party to give civil servants the right to do all those things —a right that they have never had, even as far back as the period during which the hon. Gentleman's party was last in power?

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government, Housing and Transport)

The Minister diverts me down the lengthy route that we followed in Committee. He will recall our long and detailed arguments about procedures within the Civil Service, the greater rights of individuals to appeal and the clearer levels at which differences occur. We reluctantly accept that there is a level within local government at which there should be certain restrictions, although I should much prefer that not to be the case.

The powers being taken by the Secretary of State and the arbitrary nature of the £13,500 figure suggest that the Minister, both for political ease and to win political support from some members of the general public, has found it simpler to wipe out a whole set of liberties at a stroke. We do not even know precisely what liberties will be removed and no details will be available before we vote. We know that the provision will be imposed retrospectively and will include, at least, prohibition on holding office in a political party, speaking or writing publicly on matters of political controversy—however that may be defined—and canvassing at elections. Ministers defend the provision by saying that it will affect only a tiny number of people, but we must remember that even on their figures, on a salary bar of £13,500 it will affect 70,000 or 80,000 people —enough to elect one Member of Parliament or to provide a majority for two Members of Parliament. That is only an initial figure. There have been no commitments from Ministers—and they certainly have not been included in the Bill—that there will be suitable changes year by year to ensure that the numbers affected do not rapidly expand. There are many ways in which more people can be brought within the net, but the most obvious is through the annual pay awards. The local authorities' conditions of service advisory board estimates that a further minimum of 20,000 staff each year will fall into the restricted category simply through the normal run of pay settlements.

In addition to the Government's reference to principal officers and above, 4,000 staff will be brought in through London weighting, another 4,000 on local scales and 8,500 fire service employees. Ministers have not told us the reality of what is being done. They have given no commitment that more and more people will not be brought into the net. That is fundamental to the liberties of every citizen, not just those directly affected, because it distorts the very democracy within which we work. Certainly all hon. Members should have a special regard for that.

Ministers say that the provision will be subject to an appeal system, yet many of those affected will have no recourse to appeal. The Government intend to scrub out the liberties of many thousands of local government employees simply by putting them under other categories. Even with the £13,500 rule, which will be subject to appeal, we are asked to believe that one adjudicator can deal with the whole of the appeal system. How can that be so? Can an appeal be held in advance? Can someone say that as he is expecting a pay rise the next year and might be banned from local government he wants to appeal in advance, not be kept hanging on a fine thread, so that he knows what he can or cannot do?

We have discussed at length the difficulties of deciding how the appeal process will operate and whether it can cope, especially when the provision is initially enacted and will affect so many people almost overnight. How does the Minister envisage it working when it is thought that people have broken the rules? It will be difficult for the individual to be sure whether his actions will be assessed as taking part in matters of public controversy. Will he be thrown out of office simply because he has miscalculated what he can or cannot do? Will the public have glossy literature pushed through their doors asking them to keep an eye on local government employees who might be breaking the rules? Are people expected to report on neighbours who have political posters in their windows or have been at a vaguely political demonstration? Or will the system operate through confessions—an individual going to the adjudicator and confessing his sins? Will the adjudicator say, "Own up, you have been a bad boy and we must do something about it."

It will be impossible for the system to work in the way intended. Either there will be some sort of police state, under which everyone will be worried about who might be reporting him to the authorities, on Left or Right, as he goes about his daily life and becomes involved—or even only said to be involved—in issues of importance to his local community, or there will be a special group of people employed to monitor the system in the way that snoopers police the poll tax by going around homes to see how many tooth brushes are in the bathroom.

The Government are launching a broadside at the basis on which our democracy works without apparent awareness of the implications and without placing restrictions on the number of people who can be brought into the net. Many people will be brought into it at a later date. Will they be only local government employees or will the employees of the few remaining public utilities be included? How far will the net extend? That is a fundamental issue that should not be pushed through the House.

I support the new clauses because their aim is to ensure proper democratic debate and decision-making, to restrict the numbers involved and to delay implementation of the provision. The Minister will no doubt argue that the new clauses aim to prevent the provision ever being implemented. That is true, and I welcome it. Those hon. Members who believe in the fundamental democratic rights and liberties of the people should do everything possible to oppose such a broad brush, sweeping attack on many thousands of individuals and the many tens of thousands who the Government may say are not included, but who we know potentially will be included in future.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Hind Mr Kenneth Hind , West Lancashire

What is at the root of the Government's proposal, and why I urge the House to reject the new clause, is the importance of the neutrality of the local government official and the impartiality with which he gives his advice as a servant of the community. I have some knowledge of these matters. My father was chief accountant for Salford corporation for 30 years before he joined the National Health Service in 1948. He always regarded as a prime factor in his service to the local authority the fact that he was essentially politically neutral, taking no part in any political activity, so that the advice that he gave to all parties was equal and fair and seen to be unbiased. That is the role of the local government employee—who, after all, chooses to work in local government—especially those with salaries of more than £13,500 and the designated officers whom my right hon. Friend the Minister has included within the scope of the provision—

Photo of Mr Kenneth Hind Mr Kenneth Hind , West Lancashire

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will catch Mr. Deputy Speaker's eye.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) talked about the rights of the individual and of appealing to the European Court of Human Rights. That is very much going over the top in relation to my hon. Friend's modest recommendation contained in the clause.

If we look at the Civil Service and at local government officials throughout the European Community, we will find that it is expected that they will be neutral, servants of the community providing unbiased political advice to the elected representatives. That, after all, is the role of a local government officer. Considered from that point of view I am sure that we can see the sense and the purpose of the clause.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Hind Mr Kenneth Hind , West Lancashire

The hon. Gentleman has already spoken. We wish to make progress.

The proposals contained in these clauses have been introduced because the non-existence of regulations in the immediate past was abused. The fact that we did not have much regulation in this area, so that it was possible to be a councillor on one authority and work for another, has been abused in recent years. We have seen it occurring constantly, especially in the south-east. I make it clear that it is not a problem in Lancashire and the north-west, apart from Merseyside. We have seen, however, over and over again in the south-east examples of councillors working for one local authority being given a job in another.

Photo of Mr Bob Cryer Mr Bob Cryer , Bradford South

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Hind Mr Kenneth Hind , West Lancashire

I shall not give way. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to make his point.

That sort of job-for-the-boys situation must be stopped.

New clause 4 is asking for a voluntary code of practice —in effect a series of regulations with no teeth. It is clearly a wrecking amendment that the hon. Member for Brightside has tabled to destroy the intention that is behind my hon. Friend's clause. Secondly, it asks the House to deal with each individual case that is reported to it, through the Secretary of State, so that, effectively, each individual case is resolved by the House. That is a huge waste of the legislative time of the House. It is something that should be dealt with elsewhere.

I respect the tactics of the hon. Member for Brightside, because he is in opposition, but this is a wrecking amendment that will achieve nothing. I say to my hon. Friends that it is just undermining the Bill. I advise them completely to reject the three new clauses. I commend that view to the House.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike , Burnley

I believe that we are debating an important issue. This group of new clauses is relatively modest in its approach. The new clauses recognise that the Government are not likely to recognise the folly of their policy. However, at least they give them the opportunity, if they accept the new clauses, to analyse the implications of their policy. While it would delay the implementation of the relevant parts of the Bill, it would allow them to reconsider. If the Government considered the matter positively, I believe that they would recognise that it is unnecessary to move in that direction.

The hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) appears to believe that a person earning £13,500 could not serve on one local authority and perform his duties in his employing authority in a way that was not reflecting his political view. I am sure that the majority of employees who earn such a salary could not in any way influence the political viewpoint or the direction in which a local authority moves. The arbitrary figure chosen is nonsensical. It penalises those, especially in London and the south-east, who, because of the higher cost of living and property values resulting from the Government's policies, must be paid a salary for a job that would attract a much lower level of salary elsewhere.

I accept that, if a council is being advised by officers on a committee, it wants those officers to give impartial advice and to carry out the decisions of the local authority. That would be expected by any local authority, whether Labour, Conservative or SLD. When we take over government, we shall certainly expect the civil servants to act in the same way and to carry out the wishes of a Labour Government. There are genuine fears that the Government are stacking the Civil Service with senior civil servants who are of their viewpoint. If the Government are concerned about political interference, they should look into that matter. I know that a series of questions has been asked about the number of political advisers who have been appointed in many Government Departments. In fact, the Government have more political advisers in the different Departments than any previous Government.

I feel strongly that it is wrong to erode people's rights to stand for local authorities and to remove their political freedom. We see the Government continuously eroding civil liberties, freedom and rights.—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames) of course rejects that charge. He never speaks in these debates. He fails to recognise that consistently this Government, who talk about freedom, erode freedom by their legislation. Obviously, the constraints of the debate will not allow me to cite examples, but that is very much in accord with their policy of removing rights.

We do not know what the regulations will contain and whether they will say that local authority employees cannot display a poster or cannot go canvassing. We have seen examples of the powers given to the Secretary of State. He can make regulations under legislation, and we saw how a few weeks ago seven orders, involving 94 pages of poll tax regulations, were dealt with in an hour and a half. That shows why we are rightly concerned about what the Government are doing. That was a sham of a debate. As I said that night, we are increasingly becoming a sham of a democracy.

If the Government are not prepared to accept the new clause moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), they will make a great mistake. While it may be right that the very senior officers should not be in a position to stand for local authorities, it is nonsense to bring in this arbitrary figure and thereby remove so many people from service on local authorities and participation in political activities. The Government would really like to move a motion that no one takes part in political activities in this country unless they happen to be Conservative activities. They do not like anyone with a different point of view from the one expressed from the Conservative Benches. The Government do not believe in democracy. It is consistent with their policy to erode democracy. If they are not prepared to accept the new clauses, I fear that it will be a further serious erosion of and a restriction on the rights of local government employees, of whatever party, to express their political views and, if they so wish, to serve on local authorities.

I hope that the Minister recognises the importance of what we are debating. I stress that it is a dangerous direction in which the Government are moving. If they want to preserve democracy, freedom and people's rights, they will be prepared to accept the new clauses.

Photo of Mr Jeff Rooker Mr Jeff Rooker , Birmingham, Perry Barr

I support the three new clauses. In all honesty, I do not believe that the modern Conservative party believes in local government. The evidence of the past few years is there for all to see, and this is just one further example. They are driving people out of local government. That is their intention, because they do not want any strain of independence or any other form of power in the land other than central Government under Conservative party control.

If the Government get their way, by and large the people who really want to contribute to society will not go into local government. They will want nothing to do with it. Following the financial changes, local government officers will be bereft of any decision-making powers and their other powers will be greatly restricted.

Over the past decade it has become clear—I shall not cite individuals as that is unfair—that the whole thrust of the Conservative parliamentary party has been against good independent local government. That government is not partisan and it is not political, but independent and good and the Government do not like it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) made it clear that many people in local government believe that their fundamental democratic and human rights are being severely curtailed by the Bill. He said that those people will seek to use their democratic rights to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights. I was amazed when the hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind)—I believe that he is in the legal profession—said that to take such a complaint to the European Court was "going over the top".

Photo of Mr Jeff Rooker Mr Jeff Rooker , Birmingham, Perry Barr

Are we to assume that an amendment will be tabled to stop people exercising their right to make such a complaint? Because of our unwritten constitution the Government are able to trammel people's rights. More and more people are forced to go to courts outside the United Kingdom to seek redress. It is expensive and all possible pressure is exerted on people not to do so. To argue that it is over the top to make such a complaint to the European Court—the function of that court is to stop member states trammelling the civil liberties of their citizens—is a disgraceful remark from a parliamentarian.

Photo of Mr Jeff Rooker Mr Jeff Rooker , Birmingham, Perry Barr

The hon. Gentleman did not give way to any hon. Members and I shall not give way to him.

Photo of Mr Robert Hughes Mr Robert Hughes , Harrow West

The hon. Gentleman should give way as he attacked my hon. Friend.

Photo of Mr Jeff Rooker Mr Jeff Rooker , Birmingham, Perry Barr

Of course I attacked him and I shall continue to do so. I will not give way to him.

The issue goes much wider because the Government's legislation does not just cover those who give advice—

Hon. Members:

Sit down.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Hind Mr Kenneth Hind , West Lancashire

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Surely it is a matter of courtesy in this House for an hon. Member who criticises another, whether it is justified or not, to give way to the hon. Gentleman criticised so that he may respond.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

It is for the hon. Gentleman who has the Floor to decide whether to give way.

Photo of Mr Jeff Rooker Mr Jeff Rooker , Birmingham, Perry Barr

If the Government's legislation just covered those who gave advice and its scope was that narrow, there would be some merit in the argument that we could debate. The Bill, however, will not just cover those who give advice, but manual workers and people who, by and large, have no contact with the public or with councillors. That is the incredible thing about the Bill.

Frankly, we would not be having this debate today if it were not—I say this as a Member representing Birmingham—for a mere handful of isolated cases of gross abuse in London. That is the truth of the matter. Those hon. Members who represent parts of the country outside London deeply resent what has happened. What is more, that abuse could have been put right much more easily than by the introduction of the draconian measure before us today. The Bill will affect thousands of councillors and it is a smear on good local government on both sides of the political divide. All that, just because of a handful of people in certain London boroughs. No one denies that certain chief officers were twin-tracking, but it is disgraceful that this Bill has been introduced because of their actions.

I am also concerned about the definition of political activities. The Government have attacked a range of activities and people's rights and freedoms. People join political parties, but they also join political movements. Not all political movements are political parties and a fine distinction must be drawn. At one time one could have argued that the environmental movement was not a political party, although one party may have claimed to have been more concerned about the environment than others. All parties claim that today.

6.45 pm

Our constitution is unwritten and it allows the Government to do what they want. It allows them to take people's rights away, but it also allows people to complain to the European Court of Human Rights. Charter 88 is a people's movement for constitutional reform and I understand that it is supported by members of all political parties and people of no political party. That group holds meetings around the country—some of which are said to be ordinary public meetings and some of which are fringe meetings held at conferences run by political parties and other organisations. That group is seeking to campaign for wide constitutional reform on a non-party and all-party basis. Under the Bill, will membership of that group constitute political activity? Some signatories to the charter are Conservative—they are few and far between, but honourable nevertheless. It is their constitutional right to campaign, outside of political parties, for constitutional reform. We must not forget that. I plead guilty to not following the Committe proceedings as well as I should have done and I do not know whether what is meant by political activity was discussed.

The Bill is extremely dangerous. New clauses 2, 3 and 4 go some way to mitigate that danger and to meet the main thrust of the abuse that undoubtedly took place. We did not support that abuse and we would have sought to put that matter right.

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

I missed the speech of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett). It is a pleasure to listen to the logic of his argument, but it is difficult to follow.

I accept that the Local Government Act 1972, introduced by a Conservative Government, sought to distinguish between an officer who worked for the council and those people who were officers initially, but then became known as party activists. Pre-1972 it was possible to go to local government officers to seek impartial advice. I do not mean to be disparaging about the present officers in local government, but if they are responsible to political masters it is hard for them to give impartial advice.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) referred to the fact that only London councillors were twin-trackers. The Daily Mail of 20 November 1985—

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) has made more speeches from a sedentary position today than anyone else. I have not yet seen him get up to say anything positive; he merely continues his abuse from a sedentary position—[Interruption.]

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

Thank you for your protection—[Interruption.] Now our Member of the European Parliament, the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), is joining in.

The Daily Mail article stated that a quarter of Glasgow's city councillors were employed by their regional council, Strathclyde. The hon. Member for Brightside and myself had the honour to be members of South Yorkshire county council—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Bradford, South wants to intervene, I shall give way.

Photo of Mr Bob Cryer Mr Bob Cryer , Bradford South

All I want to say is that I am being constantly pestered by the junior Minister from the Home Office, the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg), who keeps shouting questions at me which are entirely irrelevant, and I am merely being courteous.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I think that we ought to show a little common courtesy in this Chamber and hear only one speaker at a time.

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

I apologise to the hon. Member for Bradford, South; I thought he wished to intervene.

Both the hon. Member for Brightside and I were members of South Yorkshire county council and Sheffield city council and had a chance to see if friendship across the political divide could blossom because I had the pleasure of transporting him from Barnsley to Sheffield, where we used to slither in to the next meeting.

From the four districts—Barnsley, Rotherham, Doncaster and Sheffield—many officers employed by the local authority were also county councillors. I do not say that there was anything wrong in that. I am making the point because the hon. Member for Perry Barr said it was only London people who did this and I have endeavoured to prove that it was not.

The fact is that 16 per cent. of local authority councillors of all parties in Britain are also local authority employees—that is, about 4,000 people.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government, Housing and Transport)

The hon. Gentleman makes a point that we have heard before and that features in the Conservative party's brief on the Bill. Can he tell us how many of those to whom he refers as being also local authority employees would come under these restrictions, because clearly many of them would be on much lower salaries and not in positions that would be included in this Bill?

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

I thank the hon. Member for that wonderful intervention. If he had allowed me to finish the point that I had started to make, I would have answered that. His crystal ball is not as good as it appears to be.

Of those 4,000 people, about 58 per cent. are teachers or lecturers, to whom the twin-tracking provision does not apply—[Interruption.] I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has read the Bill and it does not apply to teachers or lecturers—wrongly, some may think. This was discussed in Committee and the Minister stated that it did not apply. That leaves about 1,700 people to whom the twin-tracking provision might apply, although not all will be politically restricted. So we are left with the basic number, which could be 400 to 500 councillors, who may be caught by the twin-tracking prohibition. Does any hon. Member say that that is unreasonable? There are only a few people to whom this applies and I cannot see that it is so onerous that it is taking away privilege and making people go I o the European Court, although no doubt some Opposition Members will make that case.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

As ever, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) missed the point. I should like to say that I compliment him on a good speech, but I would not wish to mislead the House.

The twin-tracking argument has been used to distract attention from the more insidious aspect of this Bill, which is the political restriction on officers earning £13,500. I am not particularly in favour of twin-tracking. When I was a member of the Greater London council—and the sun always shone in those days, as we all know—

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

No, the sun was not shining today; it was the greenhouse effect today. It was a microwave oven out there. It is all part of the ozone layer breaking down because of Government policies. The sun genuinely shone in GLC days. I was not particularly happy about officers who had heavy council responsibilities being elected members of other local authorities. I accepted the fact, but I was not happy about it.

The point—and we said this to the Minister in Committee—is that we should look at the whole matter of compensation and the way that we remunerate our councillors. We have a crazy system. We still rely very much on people giving up their careers in order to be local councillors. It seems to me that, if we are really worried about the question of twin tracking, rather than just moving in to obliterate the idea we should start talking in terms of fewer councillors perhaps, of looking at the whole structure of local government and of paying local councillors a decent salary for doing a good job.

Photo of Mr Robert Hughes Mr Robert Hughes , Harrow West

I am sure that the hon. Member will wish history to record that he was an influential and important member of the Greater London council. If he felt as he has just said and was unhappy with councillors twin tracking, being local councillors and members of the GLC staff in high positions, why were there so many of them? Why did it seem to be the policy of the Labour party to promote so many people who were in Labour party positions or were Labour councillors elsewhere to high positions in the GLC? He really cannot have it both ways.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

I did not say that I was unhappy; I said that I was not happy, which is not quite the same thing. Words are supposed to mean something in this place, and there is a difference there. I was not happy, but that unhappiness arose not because people were twin tracking but because the system of local government and remuneration of councillors is all wrong.

I would be much more in favour of seeing whether there was a problem if the Government were prepared to make some serious proposals for looking at the way in which we remunerate local councillors who do a good job. We are not looking at it in that root and branch fashion. We are looking at it at a superficial level, and this symbolises the Government's approach. It is superficial and layered with malice, venom and bigotry. That is the way in which the Government approach local government.

Coming now to the £13,500 cut-off, it is typical of this Government that they attach a price to everything; they set an economic point at which there will be a cut-off. That is not a qualitative argument; it is a quantitative argument based on money. The only thing that the Arthur Daleys on the Government Benches who now run this country understand a little bit about is money. That is their level. They know nothing about the qualitative arguments that the Opposition are addressing.

The figure of £13,500 relates back, I suppose, to Widdicombe's point about principal officers. But things have moved on since then. If the figure stays at £13,500, and assuming that the Government are around for a few years yet, in the end, logically, virtually every local government officer will come within the category. Clearly the Minister, when he replies, must tell us what he intends to do about uprating the £13,500 figure because things have moved on even while the Bill has been in Committee. It is difficult now to be precise about the number of officers in local government who will be caught, but it may be as many as 130,000. I urge the Minister to tell us because, although the Government said originally that the ban would affect a mere 3 per cent. of local government employees, that figure has gone up and I want the Minister to give precisely his estimate of the number of local government officers affected.

We also need to know from the Minister what he means by political activity. Will it be so ridiculous as to include canvassing or putting up a poster? That has nothing to do with the impartial advice that local officers are giving; it has to do with their own civil rights, I would have thought, and therefore cannot be seen as affecting them in terms of the advice they give.

The hon. Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind) mentioned his dear old dad, who was a local government officer. I am sure that he gave very good and impartial advice. It is a pity that some of it did not rub off on his son. I understand that the hon. Member used to be a member of the Labour party, so clearly his dad told him some good things. I only wish that his dad would carry on telling him those things because he has clearly gone all wrong since. His dad, being a sufficiently senior officer, would clearly have come within the terms of our clause. That shows that, as ever, we are being wholly reasonable.

We say that there are two good reasons why it is right that senior officers whose purpose is to give advice should not be involved in political activity, certainly of the twin-tracking sort. First, they do not have the time and, secondly, their advice is crucial. But it is nonsense to talk about £13,500 at those sorts of levels. That is the point at which it matters. The Government are not concerned with the sort of advice that they are giving; they are saying that because that is how much they earn they should not be in a position to give advice to elected members because that advice could be called into question. That is nonsense. First, the Minister must tell us how many local government officers will be included in his net and, secondly, what is the scope of political activity. How will he revise those salary levels or levels of political activity?

This is a crude attempt by the Government to smash local authorities into a shape that appeals to Conservative Members. That approach can be seen running through the Bill. There is no finesse about it; they are simply trying to smash local authorities. That is their philosophy and their approach and that is why we ask all reasonable Members —there are one or two, although I cannot see them at the moment, but no doubt they will be coming in soon—to support us in the Lobby when they realise the appalling nature of the Bill.

7 pm

Photo of John McAllion John McAllion , Dundee East

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) seemed to be worried by the fact that some Glasgow district councillors also work for Strathclyde regional council. That does not seem to worry the voters in Glasgow who continue to vote in overwhelming numbers for representatives of the parties who oppose this legislation. So dominant is the Labour party in Strathclyde region that the main opposition party on Glasgow district council after Labour is composed of six Labour councillors who have temporarily had the whip withdrawn as a matter of internal discipline. They outnumber the Tory group in the council by almost two to one. Conservative Members should listen to the people of Scotland rather than use them as an example to substantiate their arguments.

While I am on that subject, let me tell the Minister that the only people who are not displaying political posters in Glasgow, Central this week are members of the Conservative party who are so ashamed of being associated with legislation of this kind that they will not display their own party's posters in the by-election.

I support the new clauses, particularly new clause 4 which has a specifically Scottish angle. It proposes that no regulations can be laid until a code of practice has been agreed with the local authority associations. In Scotland, that means with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. It also means the politicians who have been elected by the Scottish people. At the moment, restrictions have been imposed by a Government who in no way represent the views of the Scottish people. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), is present and that he represents a Scottish constituency, but the most recent opinion poll in Scotland which was published this morning shows support for the Conservative party standing at 7 per cent. That shows that the Government do not have a democratic mandate for imposing a new system of local government to serve people who in no way support the views of the Conservative party.

It is particularly important that the Minister should give a definition of what will constitute the kind of political activity that will be restricted. It has been said that there is a difference between political actions and actions which become a movement. Scotland has many unique movements. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sillars) is almost completely unique in that respect. Only this week in Glasgow, Central he claimed to be the true inheritor of the Red Clydesider, Jimmy Maxton, who once served well in the House. Yet at the same time he was picking up a fat salary from Rupert Murdoch's son—the same Rupert Murdoch who sacked 6,000 print workers. I would venture to suggest that had Jimmy Maxton been alive today he certainly would not have been a member of the Scottish National party working for the son of Rupert Murdoch and taking the side of the capitalists against the print workers, as the hon. Gentleman has done so unimpressively in Scotland recently.

Let us take a campaign such as that for a Scottish assembly. I hope that the Minister is listening because this is an important point which the Scottish people want clarified. Will belonging to such a campaign be a politically restricted activity? Will local government officers who earn more than £13,500 a year be denied the right to go along to the local branch meeting of their campaign for a Scottish Assembly, to go on demonstrations and to put posters in their windows in support of such a campaign?

Will the same thing apply to the new phenomenon in Scotland—the Scottish constitutional convention? Will a local government officer be restricted from expressing support for that convention? Those are important matters that must be clarified by the Minister which to date have not been clarified.

I remember a song when I was at school about a cruel law against the wearing of the green, which was a way of trying to restrict support for Irish home rule. If the Minister does not clarify the position, we shall know that this is a direct attempt to restrict support for Scottish home rule by making it illegal for many thousands of local government officers to express their support for that concept. It is important to have that matter cleared up.

Many Scottish people are taking part in non-payment campaigns against the poll tax. Will that become a politically restricted activity under the Act? I am a member of a Scottish committee of 100 who refuse to pay the poll tax and there are also many local government officers who earn more than £13,500 a year. If the Bill is enacted, will they he forbidden from taking such action next year when the poll tax is implemented in Scotland, or will they be allowed to take part in such non-party political activities?

In Committee I asked about local government officers being elected to schools boards in Scotland. Since then, teachers' unions in Scotland have made it clear that they will work with school boards and use them as one of the main engines by which to oppose the Government's privatisation policies in Scottish education. Will local government officers be able to take part in school boards and join in campaigns run by school boards against the Government education policy in Scotland without being restricted from doing so under the Bill? Teaching members of the board will be able to do that, but if they happen to be a parent member who is also a local government officer earning more than £13,500 a year, will they be restricted from openly and publicly attacking Government policy in respect of opting out and privatising Scottish education? That must be sorted out, and I hope that the Minister will make it clear when he replies.

I want to clarify how far the clause will apply to local government officers. In Committee on 7 March I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Grist), to consider the problem of a technical officer who was a councillor in Strathkelvin and Bearsden district council and who worked for Glasgow city council as a structural engineer. I asked whether technical officers would be exempt from restrictions placed upon politically restricted posts if they earned more than £13,500 a year. The Minister said: It depends on what they are paid, whether they regularly advise the council, have contact with the media, and whether it can be believed that because of their position on the council they have some influence on the public. There are provisions in the Bill for such cases to be considered on their merits" —[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 7 March 1989; c. 156–7.] Recently in Dundee there was much political controversy about the safety of Tayside house, the headquarters of Tayside regional council. If that man had been a structural engineer working for Tayside regional council, he could have been earning more than £13,500 a year and advising the council on matters which affected that building. He certainly could have had contact with the media over that matter and he could have influenced public opinion by what he said in respect of that building. Would such an officer be in a politically restricted post in those circumstances?

It is important that the Minister should clarify such details, because the Government are interfering in matters that they know nothing about. They know nothing about Scottish local government, yet they are imposing this new system on Scotland against the will of the Scottish people, and the Opposition will continue to resist them.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike , Burnley

Is it not the case that under the Government's competition policy a person may be employed in an identical post in a private company as that of someone working in local government and yet not be subject to restrictions?

Photo of John McAllion John McAllion , Dundee East

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Recently in Dundee the cleaning contract for Dundee schools was lost to a private contractor because the SNP and the Tories voted for that to happen. As a consequence, Tayside regional council employees are cleaning schools in Angus, Perth and Kinross, whereas private sector employees are cleaning schools in Dundee. The same situation could arise in other sectors of local government service, with people providing the same service in various parts of the region being treated completely differently.

Private sector employees will not be subject to the Bill's provisions but anyone working for the regional council will be. That is a mighty big flaw. The House does not understand or know Scottish local government and has no right to interfere in it. It should be left to the next Labour Government to create a Scottish Parliament to deal with Scottish local government in the way that it should be dealt with.

Photo of Mr Bob Cryer Mr Bob Cryer , Bradford South

New clause 2 is a particularly strong indicator of the vindictive nature of the whole Bill. The matter under consideration goes back to the Local Government Act 1972, when there was another act of aggression by a Tory Government against local authorities. It proposed the abolition of a large number of smaller local authorities, all the municipal boroughs, and rural and urban district councils. They were all wiped out by the 1972 Act, and one of the Government's arguments for taking that course was that as larger local authorities would involve important decision taking they would attract the right calibre of officers.

Prior to 1974 and the operation of the 1972 Act, the majority of local government work was undertaken entirely by amateurs in their spare time, outside working hours. However, the very large local authorities created by the then Tory Government placed enormous burdens on people and, as a consequence, a small number of them became involved in the business of electing councillors who then had to look round for some way of supplementing their income, and they obtained local authority jobs.

Restrictions are already placed on a local authority employee who is also an elected member, so many councillors have been compelled to look outside their own areas for employment. It sometimes happens that they work for one local authority and live in the area of another, where they represent local people in a perfectly normal and proper way. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) mentioned, the burdens placed on local authority representatives are now so great that councillors in key positions find it almost impossible to sustain a full-time job.

There is a marked difference between employees in the public sector and those in the private sector. Company directors are given as much time off as they want by the board. Tory party representation in a local authority often comprises people who have a place in the board room or who are solicitors, who find it easy to get time off. That is not always the case, but it often is. However, wage earners must always obtain permission to get time off, and it is not always given. Employees of large privatised organisations such as British Telecom are given only a certain number of days off each year, which they must allocate very carefully. Such are the difficulties that have precipitated the decision by many councillors to find local authority employment.

7.15 pm

How many people find themselves both representing a local authority and working for one? Is the figure 20, 30 or 40? What percentage of the total number of councillors does the Minister seek to embrace in his legislation? He has not mentioned any number. The fact is that the vast majority of local authority committees and full councils are served by councillors who have other jobs, and who believe that they can best do so by advocating certain political views.

It is incumbent on the Minister to provide evidence of the need for the measure he proposes. What evidence is there that there has been damage done by the advocacy of so-called prejudicial information because officers of a certain local authority are Labour or Conservative members of another council? It is an implied term in an employee's contract of employment that he will use his skills and abilities to the full. Is there any recorded case of a member of the public, body or institution suing a local government officer for breach of his contract of employment, in failing to display the required standard of quality advice?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford

My hon. Friend will acknowledge that throughout the country many independents win local authority seats. Are the Government suggesting that independent councillors have no part to play? Will the Bill prohibit a local government officer earning more than £13,500 a year from standing as an independent for another local authority?

Photo of Mr Bob Cryer Mr Bob Cryer , Bradford South

That may be another implication of the clause, and no doubt the Minister will guide us through the minefield as to what is and what is not deemed to be political activity.

New clause 4 concerns the publication of a new voluntary code of practice. It has been suggested that such a code will have no effect and be of little use. However, the Government are producing codes of practice every week. They apply them to health and safety at work, for example. If Conservative Members are so critical of such an arrangement, why have they not made their views known? If a code of practice is good enough for health and safety at work, the Minister should at least consider one to serve as guidance in the way that new clause 4 proposes. It is an area where a code of practice would be useful. I have reservations about a code's value in areas such as health and safety, but in the context proposed, one would be admirable in its application. The Government will not accept new clause 4 because they are motivated by vindictiveness, not by logic or reason.

Will membership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament be deemed political activity? The Minister may say, "Of course, because I want to do whatever damage I can to CND." What about the Campaign for Peace and Security through NATO, which one might argue is equivalent to CND and is run by Lady Olga Maitland—who presumably has the Minister's support? Will membership of that count as political activity?

Let us suppose that local government officers go to a meeting of their trade union, the National and Local Government Officers Association, and NALGO discusses its affiliation to the Labour party, which it does from time to time, although it is not yet affiliated. Will those local authority members who are covered by this sweeping legislation have to leave the meeting because they might be reported by other NALGO members and be barred from political activity or discussion? Will they be excluded from the political arguments about whether NALGO should be affiliated to the Labour party? It is an absurd minefield.

My hon. Friends raised the issue of putting political party bills in windows. Will the various snoopers appointed under other sections of the Act go round checking local government officers' windows to ensure that they are free from posters carrying any suggestion other than that people should vote, and do not suggest for whom they should vote?

If the Minister cannot produce, as I suspect that he cannot, any evidence of damage to the impartiality of advice and the numbers of people which these draconian measures will involve, why does he not bear in mind the fact that, when all is said and done, even if we accept some of the criticisms about there being two jobs for the boys and girls, the publicity of such arrangements is always at its most intense locally. The local papers often have a field day with such arguments and the local voters make their judgment on it. If they do not like it, they are entitled to say to the candidate that they do not like the fact that he or she has a job in another local authority and is a councillor in theirs and so will not vote for him or her. The Minister's case is untenable on every count.

The new clauses accept the desirability of senior local government officers being excluded and, by and large, the vast majority are. The Minister can tell us the percentage of those who do not take part in political activity and the tiny percentage to whom this will apply.

The proposals are modest in scope and reasonable in the way in which they lay down safeguards before the Minister makes regulations. What sort of regulations will the Minister produce? We want to know because the erosion of political rights varies from legislation passed by Ministers who are largely vindictive to the use of tanks in Tiananmen square in China. It is because of the erosion of the right to argue for a set of values that conflict begins and develops. The Bill is an exact formula for the development of doubt, misunderstanding and, above all, conflict.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

Like my hon. Friends, I work on the assumption, however old fashioned or outdated it may be to Conservative Members, that one of the main functions of the House is to defend people's rights. The most crucial function of a democracy is that Parliament should defend people's rights to go about their lawful business and exercise their rights. If those rights are to be undermined and completely taken away, it is a serious matter for the House. If we do not give it proper consideration, we shall certainly be failing in our duty.

I am suspicious of the Government's motives. Like my hon. Friends, I think that they are motivated by sheer intolerance. Even if I was not of that view, I would bear in mind their conduct over the past 10 years and be highly suspicious of any move which they made to restrict or undermine civil liberty, on which they have an appalling record. They have banned union membership at GCHQ and taken measures against the broadcasting authorities. Fortunately, a healthy suspicion always exists, not only amongst Labour Members but in the country at large.

There is no reason why anyone earning the magical sum of £13,500 should be banned from being elected to a local authority. My hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) and for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) conceded that at times they were not always happy with twin tracking. I join them because there have been cases with which I have not always been happy. If abuse occurs, those cases should come before the Government so that if they believe action should be taken they can produce evidence.

However, I am not in favour of a blanket ban. If abuse has occurred which, for the sake of argument, I concede it may have done, why should there be a blanket ban covering everyone? Some Tory councillors will be adversely affected, but in the main the Government work on the assumption that the majority of councillors or prospective councillors covered by the ban will be Labour ones. If it were the other way round and the majority of people caught in the ban were Tories, I believe that no such measure would have come before us.

Photo of Ms Audrey Wise Ms Audrey Wise , Preston

Will my hon. Friend comment on another kind of twin-tracking which goes on in the House and involves those who have highly placed and powerful directorships in private industry? Is not that twin tracking infinitely more harmful?

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

I do not want to be led astray, but I must say that great minds think alike. I have a note here to say that the worst form of twin-tracking and the worst kind of abuse is that of Tory Members with countless consultancies so that at times we do not know whether their loyalty and devotion is to their own constituents or to the companies which employ them. As my hon. Friend said, that is a far greater subject of concern than anything involving councillors.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) said, new clause 2 puts forward a compromise. If we work on the assumption that the most senior positions in local government should not be occupied by those who are councillors or who intend to be councillors in another local authority, it would be far enough. If that were accepted by the Government, it would be an honourable way out for them, without introducing a ban that affects the most junior officers. As has been pointed out, the limit is now £13,500, but what will happen after the next pay rise, next year or the year after? Are we really to work on the assumption that even the most junior people in local government should have their political rights taken away, and that the right to stand for public office at local level, which has always been respected, should simply be taken away and abolished because the Conservative Government consider that they should be motivated by malice and intolerance?

The Minister has not made the case and it is interesting that Conservative Members have not done so either. They have not produced evidence of abuse or of any local authorities having acted in a way to show that such a measure should come into operation.

I began by saying that we should be extremely wary of any measure which undermines people's rights, and I stand by that. Unfortunatly, not a single Tory Member has seen fit even to express some reservations. What has the House of Commons come to when not one Government Member says, "All right, perhaps the Government have a case, but I have certain reservations on the basis of civil rights. I believe in people's rights and democratic rights?" Not one Conservative Member has seen fit to do that, which is a sorry commentary on the Tory party of today.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government)

This has been an interesting debate, not least for those of us who have sat through similar debates in Committee, because it has shown a major shift in the position of the Opposition parties.

In Committee, there was no kind of twin-tracking that did not find its advocates on the Opposition Benches. There was no question of Opposition Members saying, "Of course we do not mean that senior officers should be allowed to engage in twin-tracking." Today we have heard what we expected to hear: that the Labour party and, to some extent, the Liberals have learnt that their espousal of this kind of policy—

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government) 7:30 pm, 13th June 1989

I have had some chance to listen to the debate, and now I should like to reply. If the hon. Gentleman will listen to what I have to say, he can decide whether it is true when I have finished. There is no doubt that until now Opposition Members have been prepared to defend almost any kind of twin-tracking, but now it is extremely unpopular with them.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) made the reasonable comment that people from his part of the world were very angry because our proposals were based on what he described as isolated gross abuses in London. There are indeed a number of gross abuses in London, but many take place elsewhere. Can it be reasonable, for example, for the chief executive of Clydebank council to be seen as an independent adviser to that council when he was an elected Labour member of Glasgow city council?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government)

No, I will not give way; I will complete what I have to say. I listened with great care to what the hon. Gentleman said.

Can it be reasonable for the chief executive of Llin valley district council in south Wales to have been at the same time chairman of the local Labour party? How can someone claim to be an independent adviser to a council and all its members if at exactly the same time he takes a clear and senior party-political role elsewhere? I do not believe that Derbyshire is in London, but Mr. Reg Race was appointed chief executive of Derbyshire county council. Even Mr. Race found the leader of Derbyshire county council impossible to work with, although he took longer to do so than many others.

The Labour leader of Bradford council was—and is now, although he is no longer leader of the council—anti-privatisation officer of Wakefield council. That does not make it easy to believe that his advice on privatisation could be seen as suitable for the whole council; after all, he clearly took a party-political view as Labour leader in Bradford. The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) may say that the electorate has a chance to decide. Bradford did decide: it decided that it did not want its affairs run in that way.

Let me tell the hon. Member for Perry Barr that abuses are widespread, and that they take place outside London. In London they are not isolated: 24 of the 40 members of Greenwich borough council—

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government)

Twenty-four is not less than half of 40. The hon. Gentleman ought to listen; I have listened very carefully to him.

It is said in the local paper, and not denied by the local Labour party, that 24 members of Greenwich council would be affected by these proposals. All that the Government are saying is that in the past local government has recognised that, if an officer is to be effective and to take any real part in advising those of all parties in the local authority, he must be able to show that his advice is wholly above question and is entirely impartial. For a long time individuals have made the choice that that is the role in which they wish to serve the public.

Let me say, as one who both enjoys and respects what the hon. Member for Perry Barr has to say to the House, that I believe in good, independent local government—to use his words. Evidence of that is contained in this very part of the Bill. I do not believe that good, independent local government is possible if officers in one local authority purport to be giving independent advice when they are active members of the next-door local council, figuring in a political role. That is why the Government have made their suggestions, not out of their own head but on the recommendation of the Widdicombe committee.

Perhaps the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) should spend less time being affected by the generality of his speech, which we hear time after time with the various names and places altered, but which always expresses the same desperate desire to see the same terrible, nasty reasons for everything. The hon. Gentleman must be so miserable: everybody and every circumstance is nasty, suspicious and unpleasant to him. I am so pleased that I am not his psychoanalyst. Something very nasty must have happened in the woodshed at some stage to cause this embarrassing state of affairs.

However, the hon. Gentleman need not be suspicious about the £13,500. It was not an arbitrary figure, as the hon. Member for Bradford, South suggested; he would know that if he had read the Committee proceedings in detail. It represents an attempt to provide a clear and simple figure to meet what the Widdicombe committee has proposed for principal officers. As it was obvious that the term "principle officer" meant different things in different areas and authorities, we tried to fix the level in the easiest possible way. If there is a better way, I shall be happy to employ it. I have already given an undertaking to take powers to increase the level, so that the problems that the hon. Member for Walsall, North—with his suspicious mind—might expect will not arise.

The suggestion that we are removing democratic rights, made by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) and others, is entirely untrue. First, it suggests that the proposal applies to far more people who are called civil servants. We consider it important to ask civil servants to take an independent position to protect other people's democratic rights, and the same is true of local government officers. We have not gone as far as the independent Widdicombe committee would wish. We arranged for people to be able to appeal to an adjudicator, with no absolute ban. Many of the examples that hon. Members have given clearly show that—as they know—the people involved would be excluded under the rules implemented by the adjudicator.

Let me make it clear that I am not misleading the House about what the hon. Member for Truro said in Committee. Both in Committee and here, however, he has seemed to suggest that some people could be excluded, but that he did not approve of the exclusions in the Bill. If it is possible to exclude some people, it is difficult to say how impossible it will be to exclude others. The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways: he cannot tell the House at length how difficult the arrangements would be when he starts from the position that some people ought to be excluded—

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government)

Will the hon. Gentleman just let me finish this point?

In the country as a whole it is generally accepted that the best way in which local government, and indeed national government, can work is for everyone to have a clear view of the distinction between those who are party-politically elected and motivated and have obvious party-political concerns, and those whose job is to serve equally parties of any kind that are elected by the public. That distinction has always been maintained by the good practice of officers, and has never before needed definition. It is sad that the Government have had to present these proposals, which are based on the Widdicombe report, because the public as a whole welcome the proposals, having seen the decline in public decision making by those who thought that the two could be mixed. If only we lived in a world where we did not have to legislate upon such matters, it would be a better world. It should be a matter of shame to the hon. Member for Walsall, North that those who are most likely to be caught are members of his own party.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Opposition Spokesperson (Local Government & Poll Tax), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

It was not the driving of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) that I questioned; it was his judgment. I question, too, the judgment of Conservative Members who have argued that independence and impartiality depend on people hiding their true democratic views in an open society. That is not accepted in West Germany, under the system that we imposed upon it, or in any other part of the world.

7.45 pm

New clause 4 deals with the majority of the points that the Minister has made. We could all dream up individual items. We could name the leader of Bournemouth council, Councillor Trenchard, the head of a housing association which has been asked to take over Bournemouth's council housing. The local council is willing to give him £20,000 to put forward the case on behalf of his own housing association, in an effort to persuade council house tenants to change landlords. We could all dream up examples of that kind if it is a slanging match that the Minister wants. But it is not. It is about whether we believe that to take away people's democratc rights safeguards democracy.

If it is good enough for local authority officers on £13,500 and above, why is it not good enough for teachers? As an elected member of Sheffield city council, why should I not have been disqualified when other people on the same salary would have been disqualified? It is nonsense. The only reason can be that the Conservative party has added up the figures and believes that it has more headmasters and teachers serving local government than we do. There is no logic to it.

Opposition Members have put forward clearly who should and who should not be restricted because of their political activities. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) did so. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) made exactly the same speech tonight as he did in Committee, except that he used different jokes on this occasion. Some Opposition Members wanted a code of practice to be established, but we were not allowed to make that point in Committee. We have been allowed to do so tonight. I am very glad. If implemented, the code of practice would provide a year in which we could test whether it would work. The Bill would not be implemented in its present form unless the code was proved not to work. That is a perfectly reasonable compromise on which the whole House should unite.

Let us lift the uncertainty from the tens of thousands of people who might want to stand in next year's elections and who might also wish to seek selection as candidates in the general election. We should lift the uncertainty from those who are worried about taking minor office in a political party, or who want to he able to canvass, to speak or to write for political parties in our democracy. Let us lift that uncertainty. Let us make sure that we are able to hold our heads high by defending democracy rather than removing it.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:-

The House divided: Ayes 156, Noes 227.

Division No.237][7.43 pm
Alton, DavidHowells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)
Archer, Rt Hon PeterHughes, John (Coventry NE)
Armstrong, HilaryHughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Ashley, Rt Hon JackHughes, Roy (Newport E)
Ashton, JoeIllsley, Eric
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)Ingram, Adam
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)Kennedy, Charles
Barron, KevinKinnock, Rt Hon Neil
Battle, JohnKirkwood, Archy
Beckett, MargaretLeadbitter, Ted
Bell, StuartLeighton, Ron
Benn, Rt Hon TonyLestor, Joan (Eccles)
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)Lewis, Terry
Bermingham, GeraldLitherland, Robert
Bidwell, SydneyLofthouse, Geoffrey
Blair, TonyLoyden, Eddie
Blunkett, DavidMcAllion, John
Bradley, KeithMcCartney, Ian
Bray, Dr JeremyMcKay, Allen (Barnsley West)
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)McWilliam, John
Buckley, George J.Madden, Max
Callaghan, JimMahon, Mrs Alice
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)Marek, Dr John
Campbell-Savours, D. N.Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Canavan, DennisMaxton, John
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)Meacher, Michael
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)Meale, Alan
Clelland, DavidMichael, Alun
Clwyd, Mrs AnnMichie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Cohen, HarryMitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Coleman, DonaldMoonie, Dr Lewis
Corbett, RobinMorgan, Rhodri
Cousins, JimMorris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Crowther, StanMorris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Cryer, BobMowlam, Marjorie
Cummings, JohnMullin, Chris
Cunliffe, LawrenceMurphy, Paul
Cunningham, Dr JohnNellist, Dave
Darling, AlistairOakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)O'Brien, William
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)O'Neill, Martin
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)Patchett, Terry
Dixon, DonPendry, Tom
Doran, FrankPike, Peter L.
Douglas, DickPowell, William (Corby)
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs GwynethPrescott, John
Eastham, KenPrimarolo, Dawn
Evans, John (St Helens N)Quin, Ms Joyce
Fearn, RonaldRadice, Giles
Field, Frank (Birkenhead)Redmond, Martin
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn
Fisher, MarkRichardson, Jo
Flannery, MartinRobertson, George
Flynn, PaulRobinson, Geoffrey
Foot, Rt Hon MichaelRogers, Allan
Foster, DerekRooker, Jeff
Fraser, JohnRowlands, Ted
Garrett, John (Norwich South)Sedgemore, Brian
George, BruceShore, Rt Hon Peter
Godman, Dr Norman A.Skinner, Dennis
Golding, Mrs LlinSmith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Gordon, MildredSmith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)
Gould, BryanSmith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)Smith, J. P. (Vale of Glam)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)Snape, Peter
Grocott, BruceSoley, Clive
Hardy, PeterSpearing, Nigel
Hattersley, Rt Hon RoyStott, Roger
Hinchliffe, DavidTaylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath)Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Howells, GeraintTurner, Dennis
Wall, PatWinnick, David
Wallace, JamesWise, Mrs Audrey
Walley, JoanWorthington, Tony
Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)Tellers for the Ayes:
Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)Mr. Frank Cook and
Williams, Rt Hon AlanMr. Frank Haynes.
Adley, RobertForsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Alison, Rt Hon MichaelForth, Eric
Allason, RupertFox, Sir Marcus
Amess, DavidFranks, Cecil
Amos, AlanFreeman, Roger
Arbuthnot, JamesFrench, Douglas
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)Fry, Peter
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)Gale, Roger
Ashby, DavidGardiner, George
Aspinwall, JackGarel-Jones, Tristan
Atkinson, DavidGill, Christopher
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Baldry, TonyGlyn, Dr Alan
Batiste, SpencerGoodhart, Sir Philip
Beaumont-Dark, AnthonyGoodlad, Alastair
Bendall, VivianGorman, Mrs Teresa
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW)
Benyon, W.Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Bevan, David GilroyGreenway, John (Ryedale)
Blackburn, Dr John G.Gregory, Conal
Body, Sir RichardGriffiths, Sir Eldon (Bury St E')
Bonsor, Sir NicholasGriffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)
Boscawen, Hon RobertGrist, Ian
Boswell, TimGround, Patrick
Bottomley, PeterGummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn
Bottomley, Mrs VirginiaHague, William
Bowden, A (Brighton K'pto'n)Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)Hampson, Dr Keith
Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir RhodesHanley, Jeremy
Braine, Rt Hon Sir BernardHannam, John
Brandon-Bravo, MartinHargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon AlickHaselhurst, Alan
Buck, Sir AntonyHayes, Jerry
Budgen, NicholasHayward, Robert
Burns, SimonHeddle, John
Burt, AlistairHicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)
Butterfill, JohnHicks, Robert (Cornwall SE)
Carlisle, John, (Luton N)Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)Hill, James
Carrington, MatthewHind, Kenneth
Carttiss, MichaelHogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Channon, Rt Hon PaulHoward, Michael
Chapman, SydneyHughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)
Chope, ChristopherHunt, David (Wirral W)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)Hunter, Andrew
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)Irvine, Michael
Conway, DerekIrving, Charles
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)Jack, Michael
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)Jackson, Robert
Cope, Rt Hon JohnJanman, Tim
Couchman, JamesJessel, Toby
Currie, Mrs EdwinaJohnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Davies, Q. (StamCd & Spald'g)Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Davis, David (Boothferry)Jones, Robert B (Herts W)
Day, StephenJopling, Rt Hon Michael
Devlin, TimKey, Robert
Dorrell, StephenKilfedder, James
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord JamesKnapman, Roger
Dunn, BobKnight, Greg (Derby North)
Durant, TonyKnox, David
Dykes, HughLightbown, David
Eggar, TimLilley, Peter
Emery, Sir PeterLord, Michael
Evennett, DavidMacGregor, Rt Hon John
Fallon, MichaelMaclean, David
Favell, TonyMcLoughlin, Patrick
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)Maples, John
Finsberg, Sir GeoffreyMaude, Hon Francis
Fookes, Dame JanetMiller, Sir Hal
Forman, NigelMiscampbell, Norman
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Mitchell, Sir DavidSmith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Moate, RogerSpicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)
Montgomery, Sir FergusSquire, Robin
Morris, M (N'hampton S)Stanbrook, Ivor
Moss, MalcolmStanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Mudd, DavidSteen, Anthony
Neale, GerrardStern, Michael
Needham, RichardStevens, Lewis
Nelson, AnthonyStewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Nicholls, PatrickStradling Thomas, Sir John
Nicholson, David (Taunton)Sumberg, David
Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)Summerson, Hugo
Onslow, Rt Hon CranleyTaylor, Ian (Esher)
Oppenheim, PhillipTaylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Paice, JamesTemple-Morris, Peter
Patnick, IrvineThompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Patten, Chris (Bath)Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Pawsey, JamesThornton, Malcolm
Peacock, Mrs ElizabethThurnham, Peter
Porter, Barry (Wirral S)Townend, John (Bridlington)
Porter, David (Waveney)Tracey, Richard
Portillo, MichaelTredinnick, David
Powell, William (Corby)Trippier, David
Price, Sir DavidVaughan, Sir Gerard
Raffan, KeithViggers, Peter
Redwood, JohnWaddington, Rt Hon David
Renton, TimWaller, Gary
Rhodes James, RobertWardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Riddick, GrahamWarren, Kenneth
Ridley, Rt Hon NicholasWatts, John
Ridsdale, Sir JulianWells, Bowen
Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)Wheeler, John
Rowe, AndrewWhitney, Ray
Sackville, Hon TomWiddecombe, Ann
Sainsbury, Hon TimWinterton, Nicholas
Scott, NicholasWolfson, Mark
Shaw, David (Dover)Wood, Timothy
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)Woodcock, Dr. Mike
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')Young, Sir George (Acton)
Shelton, Sir William
Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)Tellers for the Noes:
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)Mr. Alan Howarth and
Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory.
Skeet, Sir Trevor

Question accordingly negatived.