Local Government Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:17 pm on 6th December 1999.

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Photo of Lord Brabazon of Tara Lord Brabazon of Tara Crossbench 9:17 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, it has been a long and interesting debate. As has been said, it is a debate which, in a way, is in two parts. I feel somewhat in a minority in that I am not one who has ever been involved in local government, unlike most noble Lords who have spoken, including the noble Lord, Lord Smith, who made a very interesting maiden speech. We hope very much to hear more about his experiences in local government.

However, I was brought up in a family where both my father and mother were involved in local government. Sadly, had my father now been doing the job that he was then, he would not have had the time to be involved in local government. That is possibly a factor which puts off people from being involved in local government these days. I do not know the answer but I am absolutely certain that the pace of modern life and the pressure of work does not allow many people who might have been able to take part in local government now to do so.

The Bill is said to be a great deal about modernisation or to be "modern"; I think the Minister used that word at least half a dozen times. I wonder whether everything needs to be modernised; whether "modern" is necessarily always right. I remember that when I was younger modern architecture was all the rage. That modern architecture gave us Marsham Street, Centre Point and some of the tower blocks that one sees around London and in other cities. I do not believe that anyone would wish that on anyone else. So I hope that when we talk about modernisation we will go for something better than the present system.

The Bill was carefully examined by a Joint Committee of both Houses. I am glad that a number of noble Lords who served on that committee have been able to speak in our debate today. As has been said, the committee reported a little over four months ago--at the end of July. However, the Government responded to the committee only last Thursday, the last sitting day before the Second Reading debate today.

In his opening remarks the Minister said that amendments would be tabled to take account of the recommendations of the Joint Committee. I join with the noble Lord, Lord Tope, in hoping that those amendments will be tabled rapidly so that we can examine them. However, I must point out that the Government had plenty of time to incorporate the amendments in the Bill before it was introduced in this House. Of course we all know why they did not. The draftsman and officials were kept busy drafting the 900 amendments required for the Greater London Authority Bill. Nevertheless, I doubt whether the Minister will either confirm or deny that accusation.

Large parts of the Bill depend upon draft regulations and guidance, in particular Part II of the Bill. Can the Minister say whether those draft regulations and guidance will be laid before the House prior to the Committee stage? It is important that we see those in good time, otherwise consideration of the Bill will be quite difficult.

As has been said, Part I of the Bill deals with the promotion of economic, social and environmental well-being. However, the Government say one thing and do another. Offering the power to promote such objectives is a popular idea, yet under Clause 3(2) a local authority is not allowed to raise any money for that purpose. At the same time, the next subsection states:

"The Secretary of State may by order make provision preventing local authorities from doing, by virtue of section 2(1) anything which is specified, or is of a description specified, in the order".

In other words, local authorities can do it, but only if the Secretary of State approves of it. Similarly, in Clause 4, which provides for the preparation of a strategy under this part, the local authority,

"may consult or seek the participation of such persons as they consider appropriate".

But it then states that local authorities,

"must have regard to any guidance for the time being issued by the Secretary of State".

Yet again more power is to remain at the centre. Where is the European Charter of Local Self-Government to which the Government have signed up? Does this clause not go very much against the spirit, if not the words, of that charter?

We regret that in Part II no so-called fourth option has been provided as a fallback position to streamline the existing committee structures. We believe that Part II is too prescriptive by offering only three options and not offering the fourth one, which is the status quo modified. That appears to be change for the sake of change. Although the Government say they believe that things will work better this way, I hope that in Committee we shall be able to probe the evidence that that will be the case.

My noble friend Lady Young referred in particular to referendums. The Bill provides that a petition signed by at least 5 per cent of the electorate is required to hold a referendum, or that the Secretary of State can require local authorities to hold a referendum. I should make it absolutely clear that we on this side of the House are not generally in favour of referendums. But if we are to have referendums, provision should be made to ensure that there must be a minimum turnout and a minimum majority in favour of any change. We do not wish to see a repeat of the referendum held for the Greater London mayor where such a small number of people voted that it could not be said to be representative of the wishes of the majority. We believe that regulations concerning referendums should be the subject of primary legislation.

Clause 11 provides:

"The Secretary of State may by regulations specify--

(a) functions of local authorities which may not be the subject of executive arrangements".

Presumably those are the quasi-judicial functions of local authorities: planning, licensing and so forth. However, we should like to be told what those functions might be before we proceed much further with the Bill.

Clause 15 deals with pre-decision scrutiny--or rather it does not deal with pre-decision scrutiny, only post-decision scrutiny. We would favour the scrutiny committees being able to consider matters pre-decision rather post-decision. How will the executive system work in a council where there is no overall control or where there may be a number of independent councillors or "ratepayer" councillors?

Part III of the Bill, dealing with ethical standards, is to be welcomed, but it is something of a sledgehammer to crack a nut and could be described as legislation to clear up the Labour Party's own mess in certain parts of the country. Is it really necessary? We shall certainly not oppose it, but I ask the Minister for an assurance that nothing in Part III prohibits, in a serious case of fraud, a criminal investigation by the police or the Crown Prosecution Service, or prevents criminal charges being laid. So far as I can see, it deals only with the possibility of censure or disqualification of councillors. Would it not be a good idea to have attached to this part of the Bill some financial penalties as well?

Part IV of the Bill deals with elections. It is clear from the White Paper, Modern Local Government: In Touch with the People, that the Government favour a move towards annual elections--three years out of four for unitary authorities, metropolitan districts and London boroughs, and election by halves every other year for shire districts and counties. The Government's Explanatory Notes accompanying the Bill go on to reaffirm that preference. I wonder whether that will have any bearing on the low turn-out at elections, which was referred to by a number of noble Lords, notably by the noble Lord, Lord Filkin. I should have thought that the possibility of throwing out the whole council at one time if people did not approve of what it was doing would increase the likely turnout rather than the ability to tamper at the edges by having a marginal vote only.

I do not believe there is any evidence that turnout increases under the proposed system. I should be grateful if the Minister could let us know whether there is any evidence of that. We believe that it would be far better to leave such matters for local choice by local councils or county councils, as happens at the moment. By the way, if there are to be mayors for fixed terms and councils for different terms, that will undoubtedly lead to some confusion and possible difficulty.

Lastly, I turn to what has occupied a good deal of the debate today. I regret that Clause 68 is in the Bill. It muddies the waters of what is otherwise an interesting Bill. Clause 68 repeals Section 28. From these Benches we oppose the repeal of Section 28. We want to divert more resources into improving education. Public money should be spent on raising standards in schools and not furthering a particular minority agenda. We have heard some powerful speeches from this side of the House on the subject. I note particularly the speeches of my noble friends Lady Knight of Collingtree and Lady Blatch, my noble friend the Duke of Norfolk, and my noble friends Lady Seccombe, Lord Waddington and Lady Young. We shall undoubtedly come back to this issue at the Committee stage and I fear that dealing with it will take a considerable time.

We do not believe that Section 28 provides any legal impediment to teachers tackling bullying. However, we favour amending the section to address teachers' concerns on the issue. We believe that that would be possible. We are listening to teachers, parents and other interested parties on the subject.

We also find it strange that the Government want to repeal Section 28 at the same time as David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, has ordered that schools should teach the importance of marriage. How can schools promote homosexuality and marriage at the same time? The Government have yet to explain what they will and will not allow local authorities to do.

I look forward to the Committee stage. There is considerable work to be done, particularly as there will be a raft of government amendments that we have not yet seen. I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Tope. I hope that we shall be able to see them in good time, bearing in mind that we break for the Christmas Recess next week and return at the beginning of January. None of us wants to have to spend Christmas examining the amendments. We would rather examine them before Christmas if possible, or, if not, there must be a suitable gap between the tabling of them and the Committee stage.