Local Government Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:21 pm on 6th December 1999.

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Photo of Lord Graham of Edmonton Lord Graham of Edmonton Chair of Labour Peers 8:21 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, it is a pleasure for me to take part in a debate on local government. It is extremely impressive for someone of my background to sit here and listen to noble Lords on all sides of the House speaking from their own experience. The first thing I want to say is that we need to respect each other's views from the background from which they are expressed.

Next year, it will be 40 years since I became a member of a local authority. That is a long time. It does not seem it because it has passed quickly. But in 1960 I became a member and subsequently the leader of the London Borough of Enfield for a short time. My general remarks are made in the light of that background. I want to congratulate the Government on taking the time, although they have moved as quickly as possible, to present this House and the other place with an opportunity to consider the situation and for taking stock.

From time to time, I go to the Civic Centre in Silver Street, Enfield. I meet my Labour colleagues and the officers. The world of local government in 1999 is a million miles away from the world of local government in 1960. The staggering thing is that when I was actively involved in that life, which I enjoyed very much, I had no idea of how antiquated and antediluvian it all was. People who have as much experience as I do tell me that over 40 years there have been four or five waves of change. I shall not comment on whether those changes were good or bad. But the job of a councillor for any party in any authority in 1999 is a million miles away from what it was, even in my time. Although that is a long time ago, it is a short time in the history of local government.

We must not be frightened of change. There are people who will automatically decide that something is wrong before they have studied it simply because it involves a change of practice. I know how comfortable it is to be familiar with a practice and an arrangement. The Government and the Minister are to be congratulated on placing before us a number of matters for us to look at in that way.

I agree with the comments about the worry in relation to the apathy of the electorate. I do not suppose that the Government are trumpeting from the roof tops that this is the cure; that this is the answer. They are putting it forward as their latest attempt to try to stimulate an interest in those matters in which ordinary people should be interested.

I listened carefully to what noble Lords opposite said about the importance of Section 28 and its replacement. I understand their attitude and sincerity. But that is not my view; it is the antithesis of my view. I was in this House during the debates in 1986 and 1987. A great deal of emotion was generated. It is a subject about which people feel passionately in this Chamber. Perhaps in Committee we shall be given more illustrations of that.

However, I am puzzled by the generalisations which are made. Most weekends I go to Edmonton Green. I do that because it has one of the finest markets in the country. That is a plug for the market. Let us suppose that I say to a number of my friends--traders and constituents--"There is a list of five things which the Government are intending to do. Place them in your order of priority". Let us suppose that I explain to them that the economic regeneration of the social and economic environment means tackling jobs or building houses or curing road congestion or improving hospitals or increasing the quality of life. I then say to them, "Incidentally, there is also an intention to deal with the repeal of Section 28 which was put in place allegedly to avoid the promotion of homosexuality". In all honesty, I believe that that would be at the bottom of the list of their priorities.

The real people in the world--and I say, without giving offence, not the people in this Chamber--are bothered about the quality of education for their children or their inability to get their children into the schools of their choice; they are bothered about the fact that they have children who cannot afford to buy a house; they are bothered about the fact that they have a car which they cannot use properly because the roads are full; and they are worried about congestion charges. Therefore, we need to keep in perspective the importance of repealing or retaining Section 28.

I listened carefully to Shaun Woodward. He is not a member of my party but of the party opposite. We know his attitude. We know that he prayed in aid a headmaster who, from his experience--not yours or mine--said that the retention of Section 28 acted as an inhibition on him and his teachers from doing their job properly. On this side of the Chamber, we take no lessons from Members opposite as to our attitude towards the care and protection of children in any aspect of life. If it is wished to make this a party-political point, so be it. But it is not. It goes across the board. Noble Lords should be sincere in their views, should state them and should make the case. But we need to keep the matter in perspective.

I was interested in the Bill's intentions with regard to local councillors and arrangements for mayors. Your Lordships will be able to tell from the way that I speak that I was not born within the sound of Bow Bells. I come from Newcastle-on-Tyne. A few years ago there was a politician called Dan Smith. He introduced the town manager concept into local government. That lasted for a few years. It was a fad. We do not yet know whether a town mayor will be the answer. But that is a matter for the people. By the time that the provisions of this Bill are put into effect, there will be experience to be gained from the Mayor of London exercise. Judgments will be made.

As regards scrutiny and oversight of councillors, no one can make a party point about the culprits in that regard. They are in small and large councils and from the parties of all noble Lords. But the provisions of this Bill are a first-class idea. I recollect that no payments at all were made to councillors or the leader in the 1960s. I certainly support all moves designed to give recompense to those councillors who give up not just one or two nights per week but, if they are serious, four or five nights, 20 or 30 hours in addition to what they already do. That disrupts both their domestic and professional arrangements. I note that a provision in the Bill makes arrangements for allowances and pensions, which is a good idea. I wonder when Members of this House will have their expenses and allowances reviewed. Do I hear, "Hear hear"?