Local Government Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:52 pm on 6th December 1999.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Young Baroness Young Conservative 4:52 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to be the first to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, on his maiden speech. I understand that he first started as a councillor in Wigan in 1978 and since then has been continuously in local government in a number of different authorities. From the way he spoke, it is clear that he has had wide experience. We were most interested to hear what he had to say and look forward to hearing him on many occasions in the future.

It is a long time since I was in local government, but I began my political career there, and remained there for 15 years. I welcome the Bill--but with the notable exception of Part II, which has a great deal to commend it, I cannot say that I am not critical about other parts of the Bill.

I welcome the proposals on conduct, both for councillors and officials. Of course we shall need to examine the detail of the proposals. Unfortunately, there have been many well-publicised examples of corruption and fraud in local government. I hope that these proposals will help to reassure the public on that front. That said, I should like to concentrate my remarks on Part II of the Bill and on Clause 68.

Over the past two and a half years we have learnt that when this Government use the word "modernise" we need to watch out. It actually means "destroy". Part II of the Bill does that. All the constitutional arrangements of local government, some going back hundreds of years, others amended and changed by numerous local government Acts, are to be overthrown for new structures based largely, so far as I can see, on continental and American models. There is no evidence to show that their local government is that much better than ours; it may be different.

Furthermore, under the Bill it is not possible to maintain the status quo, even in those authorities which the Government say have done a good job. They might be beacon authorities; nevertheless, they have to change. And nowhere is it made clear that the services that local government provides will be improved. The right reverend Prelate touched on education. A key issue is how to raise educational standards. How will the Bill do that? Shall we see some great change? Or indeed, how will vulnerable young people be helped? For example, in the case that has been well publicised this weekend of the 13 year-old boy with a 17 year-old mother and the twins, will they be better off under these circumstances? The Bill certainly does not make that clear.

I agree with those who have said that the Bill will create two tiers of councillors. There will be those at the top--the mayor, the council chairman, possibly the city manager, certainly the cabinet or the group around them--who will all be very powerful. Then there will be the rest. The others will make up the scrutiny committee, but that will not be a decision-making body. One must ask oneself whether one would not as an individual be better off as a powerful member of a pressure group rather than as a second-class councillor. It is not at all clear what advice the scrutiny committee will receive. Will it be from the same officials who advise the cabinet? Or will it be from another set of officials? How will that help discussion?

In the end, I think that we all agree that the quality of people who enter local government and become officials is the most important issue. The question that needs to be addressed is: will the Bill improve the quality of intake? Who will stand for the all-important post of mayor? Will it be a full-time job? If so, will he or she be quite unrelated to the community in which he or she serves? What about the relationship between the powerful elected mayor and the local Member of Parliament? One has the impression that, as in so much government legislation, those important questions have not been answered and have not been thought through.

Then there are the referendums which must precede the election of a mayor. Little is said in answer to the major criticisms arising from, for example, the referendum on the mayor for London. In that case, there was a very low poll--I believe, some 30 per cent of the population voted--and an even smaller percentage was in favour. Will that be good enough for the whole of local government? I do not believe that it will be. I believe that referendums are a very serious business. We need to have the rules set out in detail as to what percentage must vote for change, and what percentage of the whole population must vote if there is to be change. These issues are too big to be left to a fringe of people committed to one cause or another.

We gather that the cabinet must be of one party. How opposition members are to be informed about what is happening is by no means clear. Nor is it democratic. New Labour is changing the meaning of words. Re-reading the White Paper that preceded the Bill, I noted that it talks increasingly about a "participatory" form of democracy. I am interested in that. I visit Cuba on a number of occasions. It defends its democracy by describing it as a participatory democracy. I am a traditionalist. I believe in representative democracy. I believe that we are seeing a change coming about by means of a rather skilful manipulation of words. I regard it as a dangerous development, one masquerading under a welter of words from the spin doctors. There will be much to debate when we examine that part of the Bill.

I now turn to Clause 68. There are a number of reasons why I am against the clause. The first is that it has nothing to do with the main purposes of the Bill. Like the issue of lowering the age of consent for homosexuals, which the Government tried to slip into a crime and disorder Bill by a last-minute amendment in another place in the summer of 1998, they now slip a repeal into this Bill. There was very little openness or transparency about it until we heard the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, defend it this afternoon. It was not mentioned in the Queen's Speech nor in the summing-up of the debate on it by the Lord Privy Seal. Yet it is an enormously important piece of social legislation. I looked in vain to see whether the Prime Minister would mention it in his Romanes lecture on education at Oxford. No doubt it is not mentioned because Alastair Campbell has told the Government that it will upset the middle-class vote and therefore they must be very careful. To slip it into this Bill in the hope that no one will notice is something that will not have any effect in this House. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, that it will be a very hard fought issue.

I turn to the issue of principle. Let us look at the verb that is used. The intention is to promote homosexuality. With all due respect to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, that was not what he said in his remarks about the clause. To promote homosexuality goes far beyond the brief from Stonewall which talks about bullying and helping young people who are uncertain about their sexuality. I am second to none in deploring bullying wherever it occurs and for whatever reason. It is the job of the school to deal with it. Any school with which I have ever been associated, maintained or independent, has had a policy on bullying. The school should deal with it.

It is right that teachers should give help where pupils are uncertain about their sexuality, and they can do that under existing legislation. One only needs to read the circular from the Department of the Environment (as it was then) that accompanied the 1968 Act which makes quite clear what teachers can do. Nor would it make it possible to say that marriage is best. It tells young children--remember that it applies to both primary and secondary schools--that a homosexual relationship is the same as a heterosexual one. It is not. Nor do I believe that the overwhelming majority of people in this country believe that it is the same. But if Clause 68 is agreed it will promote something that children are far too young to understand. Above all, it goes against the tradition of family and undermines responsible parents.

If anyone doubts what will happen he should look at some of the material that is currently being produced by health authorities. I have with me a copy of Colours of the Rainbow published by Camden and Islington NHS Trust. That sets out for children at key stage 2 (seven year-olds) what they should be told right the way through school. That promotes homosexuality and does not teach children what a homosexual is, which is a major difference. I believe that that is wrong and dangerous. Nor does it make clear the very well known medical dangers of this kind of behaviour, particularly among the young. This is not the place to go into those dangers; nor am I in any way an expert. However, I have read a great deal of research and evidence on the subject, and it is an undesirable practice from the medical point of view. To introduce that to children is something which no responsible adult should undertake. Furthermore, is it right that when there is a shortage of money for a good many projects general taxpayers' and council taxpayers' money should be used in this way? I believe that it is a questionable use and not one that we should support.

There will be much argument on the point. I have been told that I am being intolerant over this matter. I am intolerant about some matters. I am always intolerant when I believe that anyone is playing politics with children. I suspect that there is a great deal of that in this particular clause. This is a nasty provision which will have a damaging effect on vulnerable children. If we support it we shall all bear a great measure of responsibility for setting children off on a path that possibly they may come to regret subsequently in life. In this matter children who are too young to understand the position are likely to be manipulated by others who know only too well what is happening.

The proper use of teaching and sex education--to prevent bullying and to answer proper questions from those who are worried or unhappy--can be conducted under the present law. But of one matter I am certain: if Clause 68 is agreed it will open the floodgates to very unsuitable material appearing in schools for the use of children. It will encourage many children to pursue a path which most responsible parents do not believe is right. As a responsible person in public life, I cannot possibly support this clause. I shall table an amendment and hope that when the House comes to debate the matter it will support me.