Local Government Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:35 pm on 6th December 1999.

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Photo of The Bishop of Oxford The Bishop of Oxford Bishop 4:35 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, I very much welcome the broad intention that lies behind the Local 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 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 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.