moved Amendment No. 15:
After Clause 114, insert the following new clause—
(2) This section shall come into effect on the day on which this Act is passed."
My Lords, Parish Councils are the first tier of government. They do enormous good work for their communities, often for little recognition or reward. They do that because they are made up of public minded citizens with a real sense of community, who wish to make a positive impact on their localities. The parish councils' code of conduct requires all parish councillors to register interests, including their property, their employment and their business interests. It also requires them to register the interests of their spouses and relatives—and possibly friends. Minor infringements of the code can end up with the National Standards Board of England. The code places parish councils under a duty to make written allegations about the conduct of other councillors.
No-one disputes the need for probity in public life, but there are times when regulations such as these go too far; they are too heavy-handed and wholly disproportionate to that which is being regulated. When that happens it damages the institutions that we all wish to see supported. The situation with parish councils is potentially serious. In May 2002 the University of Aberystwyth published an Economic and Social Research Council report on community governance in England and Wales. That report found that nearly 40 per cent of parish councils did not have enough councillors to fill their seats and that the situation had been in decline for more than a decade. The report concluded:
"It has been suggested to us that one factor behind the lack of candidates is that being a parish councillor is seen as an onerous task with little reward. The introduction of the new code of conduct may prove a further disincentive".
For the most part, parish councillors are giving up their time for free to deal with very local issues. They do so because they are committed to the community ethic. We need to encourage more people to take that view. The introduction of this code by the Government has had the opposite effect: it has made a difficult situation worse. It threatens to undermine one of our oldest institutions of government in this country. I hope the Minister will consider the amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, we do not support the amendment. It was very interesting that in moving it the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, said that parish councils deal with very local issues. They do. Many have very local interests as well. It is absolutely right that people in the locality should know what those interests are when decisions are being made on their behalf in the area. It does not matter at what level one represents and holds public office; it is absolutely right that one should be transparent about every interest one has. If people are not prepared to serve their local community on that basis, so be it, but I think it is absolutely right that they should declare every interest that is not typical.
My Lords, if this is the issue I think it is, people have been bending my ear about it. They have said that it is a ridiculous situation in which people who are experts on a particular subject in an area—say on property or whatever—are not allowed to take part in debates on it. As a result one gets people debating the issue who do not know anything about it, and people who do know about it have to withdraw. The thing is all going slightly over the top. If one just had to declare an interest, it would work.
Apparently, if I am right—and it may be that people are misinterpreting the regulations—at the moment, one gets the experts having to withdraw, whereas in the House of Lords we declare our interests and you are then accepted as an expert and people listen to you.
My Lords, I want to reinforce what my noble friend Lord Hanningfield said. I do not think that it will have escaped the notice of Ministers that there has been great concern among parish councillors. That concern is not related to declaring an interest or being open; it is partly to do with the fact that councillors are responsible to the National Standards Board of England. Every other authority is responsible to its own national standards boards in the first instance and then to the National Standards Board of England ultimately if there is a major complaint. That is not so with parish councils. Their overseeing and over-supervising—I suppose I can put it in that way—body is the National Standards Board of England.
Amendment No. 15 would get rid of that model code. We probably accept that in its place there would need to be another body, but there would need to be some discussion about it because the issue has not only caused offence but has also caused people not to stand for parish councils.
This model code was not meant to have that effect. In our view it needs reviewing at the very least. The best way of reviewing it is to remove it for the time being and to go back and reconsider it in the light of what parish councils do, who they are, what they give to their community, what levels of budgets by and large most of them are dealing with and what powers by and large they are operating under. I support very much the amendment put forward. I hope that the Minister will be more sympathetic about its withdrawal on the basis that it might be reconsidered in another way.
My Lords, I live in a parish where the model code of conduct has produced a disproportionate effect. I am not a parish councillor myself. Nor is my wife. But we made a point of getting hold of and studying this document. I came to the conclusion that there is something of a storm in a teacup about this matter, or, as they say in Italy, "a tempest in a wine glass". It is largely a question of insensitive drafting. When some serving councillors looked carefully at the words, they felt they could not possibly continue.
If the order is written in a rather more sensitive and less bureaucratic way, I think the problem can be overcome. Clearly, there should be a declaration of interest. I do not think the prose in this model conduct has had quite the right effect. A further effort could produce better results.
My Lords, I support the amendment and also what my noble friend has just said. When it comes to the smallest unit, one is looking at parish meetings. It may be possible for the Minister to inform the House whether parish meetings are automatically exempt. In my experience the smaller the unit the less possible it is for local people to absorb not only this regulation, but all the other regulations that are coming through.
My Lords, this issue is interesting. I recall it being raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Knight of Collingtree, some while ago in a parliamentary Question. At that point I had a grain of sympathy for her position. I attended parish meetings when I was growing up. My mother took an interest in our local parish council and should really have been made a parish councillor. But there we are. I could see the point.
Ultimately, I hold very firmly to the view we have taken. For many of the reasons alluded to by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, we believe very strongly in the importance of parish and town councils. Equally, we believe that those who serve as parish and town councillors should observe the highest standards of conduct. That is probably a view shared by all Members of your Lordships' House; I should be very surprised if it was not.
The parish code sets out the expected standards and gives, we believe, reassurance to local people that their councillors are behaving correctly, as they would expect any other councillor to behave actually.
When we took office, there were some 8,700 parish and town councils in England. They varied widely in many ways. It must also be remembered that some are representative of small villages and hamlets, perhaps of fewer than 100 people. Others, like my own Great Bentley, have a population of 2,500. Others are larger still and can represent large towns, perhaps with as many as 70,000 residents. For that reason their budgets vary. The smallest might have a budget of a few hundred pounds; the largest might have one of perhaps more than £1 million. They operate local services; they maintain footpaths; they maintain street lighting; they look after playgrounds and play equipment; and they run community halls. Some run markets. There are some famous markets. Oswestry is one that is run by a local town council. They generate considerable income and revenue. So they are very responsible small units of local government and democracy.
One of the most important jobs of the councils is to enable that small unit of local governance to make comments on important planning matters. Planning at local level is sometimes a very vexed issue. I doubt whether there are many Members of your Lordships' House who have not at some time had a view on a particular planning matter and become caught up in the crossfire on the debate. These issues can be very controversial.
Since 1997 over 80 new parishes have been created across England. In line with our recommendations in the rural White Paper, Our countryside: the future, a fair deal for rural England, all parishes have been given further powers and responsibilities. These include powers to provide community transport, to introduce traffic calming and to undertake basic crime prevention measures within the terms of the Local Government and Rating Act 1997.
With those increased powers comes a need for increased responsibility and openness. The code of conduct for parish councillors was put in place only after extensive consultation. The overwhelming majority of the 700 plus responses to the consultation supported the registration proposals. Even among these parish representatives who responded, a majority felt that the registration requirements were reasonable, clear and workable.
I accept that sometimes the language of Government is less transparent than we would like. It can feel excessive and bureaucratic. But it is worth remembering that the bodies representing parish councils—the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) and the Association of Larger Local Councillors (ALLC)—were supportive of the proposal that parish councils should be subject to the same registration requirements as principal councils. They deserve to be taken seriously. I understand the concerns that these additional duties and powers may deter some local people from making that important decision to stand for election to local parishes. But I believe that in the main, in the large majority of parish councils, members have accepted the code and have not found it an excessive burden.
We have done some interesting research on the pattern of complaints and allegations about local members. Between April 2002 and the end of June this year, there were 3,689 allegations of misconduct to the Standards Board. Of those, some 54 per cent related to parish councils. In total, some 1,491 allegations have been sent for investigation. Of those 60 per cent related to parish councils. After investigation the most serious cases were referred to the Adjudication Panel for England. One hundred and thirty-five cases involving parish councils were referred to that panel. Of those, 121 related to a failure to register interests. The penalties are clear. Councillors can face a period of disqualification. Sixty-eight councillors were disqualified for a year, 15 were disqualified or suspended for a shorter period and three received no sanction.
The sorts of cases being heard are also interesting. I have a number of examples of which I shall give a couple because they are important. There was one member of a town council who sexually harassed and criticised the parish clerk in letters and comments to that council. It was considered that the member had failed to treat the parish clerk with respect and brought his office or authority into disrepute. Who can argue against that being properly investigated so that we uphold standards? It is unarguable that that should be properly investigated.
There was another case involving the member of a parish council who failed to disclose a prejudicial interest and withdraw from relevant meetings when decisions were made on land adjacent to his house. Those decisions would have had an effect on the value of his property. The member had previously expressed the strongly-held view that the land should not be used for a particular purpose. In the member's mind, the decision that he was involved with, ensured that the land in question could never be used for that purpose. There is a distinct conflict of interest relating to land and property values. The other cases that I have are very similar. We find the argument against the application of the code to parish councils less than compelling because serious conflicts of interest arise.
The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, raised the question about declaring interests. The code allows councillors to declare a personal interest, remain in the chamber and speak and vote. But they have to declare that personal interest which is right and proper. I do not find the case against the operation of the code compelling. I understand some of the concerns raised by its imposition on parish councils. Those councils have an important job to do. They consider important matters and they can make important comments on major planning decisions. Some parish council members overstep the mark from time to time. It is right that the code of conduct should apply to them so that the highest standards of probity operate even at the lowest level of local government. I hope that having heard that explanation, the Benches opposite will withdraw their amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his answer. I repeat what I said earlier. We have the most local form of local government. We have thousands and thousands of parish councillors. I am a county councillor and the patch that I represent has 12 parish councils. I attend quite a lot of them. They debated this code of conduct. They went along with it after a lot of discussion and unhappiness but accepted it as the law of the land.
The Minister's reply was far too simple. Everyone wants probity. Anyone should declare any interest in planning issues, and 99.9 per cent of people in local government have done that, whether at parish, district, county or metropolitan level. Obviously one gets the odd person who does not obey the law, whether in local government or any other field. This legislation is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I was involved with Hilary Armstrong, the then Minister for Local Government when this legislation was talked about. I was Vice-Chairman of the Local Government Association. At that stage it was not envisaged to include parish councils in this rigorous code of conduct. We concentrated on more major councils.
The Minister quoted a lot of ammunition from the Standards Board. Most parish council complaints concerned four-letter words. Therefore the Standards Board has sat for hours and hours at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds just because people complained about name-calling. The cases he quoted were serious, but I repeat that we do not need a sledgehammer to crack a nut. As my noble friend Lady Hanham said, we do not suggest that there should be nothing at all for parish councils. We suggest removing the onerous conditions of the Standards Board and replacing them with something more simple for parish councils. We will reflect on what the Minister has said, but for today I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, Clause 117 confirms the right of a local authority to conduct an advisory poll. The provision creates an express power removing doubt about the freedom of local authorities to hold advisory polls. We want councils to have maximum flexibility in who is polled and how the poll is conducted. We have carefully considered the points made during Grand Committee following the amendment proposed by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Maddock requiring local authorities to have regard to guidance about making local polls accessible to local people. We have tabled the amendment in order to provide for the Secretary of State in England and the National Assembly for Wales in Wales to be able to issue guidance, to which local authorities must have regard, on facilitating participation by disabled people in a local poll.
I hope that this amendment meets with the approval of the Liberal Democrat Benches. I found it rather difficult to defend the position that we had previously. I am much happier with the position we have now reached as I am sure other noble Lords will be. I am grateful to them for the work that they did in bringing forward their original amendment. I hope that this one satisfies the points about which they were concerned. I beg to move.
My Lords, we are grateful to the Government and the Minister for this amendment. I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton. I do not believe she had anticipated contributing to the debate, but she made some very telling points from her own very long and deep electoral experience.
I have one or two questions to put to the noble Lord. I note that the amendment refers to "any guidance" which means that there is no requirement on the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales to issue guidance. I appreciate that it is sensible for the Government and the National Assembly to give themselves an opportunity to consider what is necessary in this area, but if the noble Lord has any news on how the matter might be progressed, I know that that would be considered with interest. I say that because I hope that guidance is issued.
The second point I should like to make is that, having consulted on the matter, this is an issue that is often raised in the local government world when considering local government legislation. We have become accustomed to hearing the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, say, "Of course we are going to consult". I hope that he will say it again today, thus confirming that the disability organisations will be consulted, allowing those who really can make helpful contributions to what should be set out in the guidance to do so.
My Lords, noble Lords on this side of the House are very consultation-friendly and of course we shall encourage all views to be brought to us on these matters and that best practice is commonly adopted.
moved Amendment No. 18:
After Clause 117, insert the following new clause—
"GENERALLY ACCEPTED ACCOUNTING PRACTICE: POWER TO AMEND ENACTMENTS (1) The appropriate person may by order amend or repeal an enactment relating to a local authority if he considers it appropriate to do so in the light of generally accepted accounting practice as it applies to local government.
(2) It does not matter for the purposes of subsection (1) whether the enactment itself relates to the accounts of a local authority.
(3) No order under this section shall be made by the Secretary of State unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing the order has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.
(4) In this section—
"enactment" includes an enactment contained in this Act or any Act passed after this Act;
"local authority" means—
(a) a body which is a local authority for the purposes of Part 1, or
(b) a parish council, a community council or charter trustees."
My Lords, Amendment No. 18 sets out a new clause regarding accounting practices and the power to amend enactments. I shall take a little time to explain the clause because it has been drafted in response to a point which came up in Grand Committee. Indeed, the matter has also been looked at by the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform. I want to set out in a proper response the reasons why we have produced this new clause.
The clause would give the Secretary of State in England and the National Assembly for Wales power to amend or repeal, by order, any enactment relating to a local authority in the light of generally accepted accounting practice as it applies to local government.
It is in part a response to the Liberal Democrat amendment to Clause 18 tabled in Grand Committee, as reported in the Official Report on 4th June at col. GC 220. Clause 18 concerns the definition of a local authority company and the Opposition amendment reflected the pressure from local government for a modern, all-purpose definition of such a company. In resisting that amendment, we acknowledged that it raised an issue of real importance and I promised that we would bring forward our own measure on Report.
Our new clause will achieve all that the Liberal Democrat Opposition amendment was meant to do. It will enable the definition of a local authority company in Clause 18 to be brought into line with accounting practice. The timetable for that action will depend upon the work being done by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. CIPFA is currently working on a revision to its standard local government accounting code to incorporate a group accounting requirement for companies. As soon as the CIPFA code is ready, the proposed new power would be used to substitute the accounting definition for a statutory one.
The need to update the definition has arisen in particular as a result of work being taken forward on the Treasury-led Whole of Government Accounts exercise in which the Audit Commission and CIPFA are also closely involved, along with officials from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Welsh Assembly.
This initiative to produce a consolidated set of accounts for the whole public sector, as required by the Code for Fiscal Stability, must encompass all central and local government bodies, including not only local authorities but also those companies in which they have a major interest.
The present definition of a local authority company now in the Bill for the purpose of the new prudential system would not meet the needs of the Whole of Government Accounts exercise. The result is that authorities would have to undertake two different accounting procedures in relation to their companies. This would be onerous and unwelcome, and potentially more unreliable than operating a single set of procedures. So the new power will serve as an important function in solving that problem relating to companies.
However, the new clause goes further. It allows other aspects of the local government finance system to be harmonised with appropriate accounting practices and to be adapted to reflect future developments without the need for primary legislation. Such a move would implement the Government's policy objective of bringing public sector accounting more into line with generally accepted accounting practice—GAAP. There has also been pressure for a move in this direction from the former Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions, as well as from the Commons Standing Committee on this Bill.
As this is a power to amend primary legislation, we propose that orders exercising it should be subject to the approval of both Houses of Parliament. We also submitted a memorandum on the new clause to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee of your Lordships' House. In its response, the committee commented that it did not find the delegation or level of scrutiny inappropriate. However, the committee identified two areas where it considered that further clarification might be helpful to the House, and I should now like to address those two issues.
The committee noted that the clause offers no definition of the term "generally accepted accounting practice" and asked how the scope of the power is in practice to be limited. In leaving the term undefined, we were aware of setting a precedent. The Government Resources and Accounts Act 2000 requires the Treasury to use its powers to ensure that departmental resource accounts comply with generally accepted accounting practice subject to adaptations that are necessary in context, although it does not give a definition.
In fact, the expression has a well-established meaning. In the UK, it means the aggregate of the accounting practices that companies are required to follow in preparing their accounts. It includes elements drawn from the companies Acts and uncodified accounting practice, but its principal source is the practices recommended by the Accounting Standards Board, a body independent of government.
For local government, accounting practice is established by the code issued by CIPFA. This is a statement of recommended practice within the Accounting Standards Board framework. The Accounting Standards Board will not award that status unless the local government body complies with generally accepted accounting practice and, in particular, any accounting standards issued by the board. The only exception is where local government is unable to comply with generally accepted accounting practice because of statutory constraints. The link with generally accepted accounting practice, a standard that is independent of government, is the key to understanding how the clause will work and how its scope will be limited. I can best explain this by citing some examples.
First, generally accepted accounting practice itself may change, perhaps to a new standard issued by the Accounting Standards Board. Accounting practice is developing rapidly and a number of important new standards are in the pipeline. CIPFA will wish to incorporate those changes in the local government code, but may find that it cannot do so because of incompatible primary legislation. This is where an order made under the new clause could assist by amending the inconsistent statutory provisions.
Another possible scenario is where generally accepted accounting practice does not itself change, but CIPFA decides that it wishes to bring the local government code into closer conformity with generally accepted accounting practice. Again, an order made under the new clause may assist by amending statutory provisions that are either directly incompatible or are so closely linked that a difference in definitions would impose a burden on local authorities. That last situation is the one that I have already mentioned in relation to companies.
This is how we would see the new power being used. In each case, the provision of generally accepted accounting practice which was behind the order should be readily apparent. It would be easy for Parliament to check that we were following this approach when the order came before it for approval. Powers to amend primary legislation by order are always of concern to this House and to the other place, and rightly so, since they can confer extensive freedoms on the government of the day.
However, the effect of this new clause is significantly different. It only affects legislation to which accounting practice is directly relevant and, when the power is used, the Secretary of State will be giving up his own freedom to devise accounting practices and will be choosing to rely instead on standards imposed by independent accounting bodies.
The second matter raised by the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform was the link between the new power and that already provided for in the Bill under Clause 21. The latter enables the Secretary of State to specify codes that are to count as proper practices. The Committee sought clarification of the relationship between the concepts of proper practices and generally accepted accounting practice. I am happy to confirm, as the Committee requested, that the local government accounting code to which I have referred as the route by which generally accepted accounting practice is imposed on local government is exactly the same code as the one identified under Clause 21(2) as proper practice.
The two powers work in different ways. Clause 21 ensures that local government accounting practice is compliant with appropriate professional codes—again, normally those issued by CIPFA. However, that power could not be used to amend existing legislation that might be acting as an obstacle to the adoption of proper practices. That is likely to be an issue of increasing concern over the next few years. We know that there are likely to be major developments in national and international accounting practice to improve transparency and reduce the scope for the kind of creative accounting highlighted in the Enron affair. For example, there could be fundamental changes in the treatment of borrowing and investments, the full implications of which may not become clear for some time. Those changes would need to be applied in local government. Clause 21 is unlikely to be adequate on its own for that purpose, but we are confident that the new clause would make that possible.
In conclusion, I should add that the need for such a power has been recognised by the Local Government Association. In its latest briefing on the Bill, the LGA said that it supports the new clause, as it allows a wider range of definitions to be revised by order in line with accounting practice. The measure also has the support of CIPFA, of course.
I apologise for taking so long to explain what is a complicated matter, but I felt that the Committee deserved a response and that it was better to put that response in Hansard. Of course, the explanation is also important for those outside who will operate the procedure.
I beg to move the amendment.
My Lords, we welcome the amendment. I particularly welcome not having had to have any hand in its drafting or indeed the drafting of the new clause that CIPFA asked me to table in Committee. I am pleased that the matter is moving to a resolution.
The Minister answered all my questions bar one. In Clause 21(4), "enactment" is defined to include
"any enactment contained in . . . this Act . . . [or] any Act passed after . . . this Act".
Will the Minister confirm that the term also extends to any enactment passed before the Bill is enacted? After all, that seems to be where the problem is. I am almost wholly certain that that must be the case, as the clause says not "any enactment means", but "any enactment contained in". However, I would welcome confirmation of that.
My Lords, I have listened carefully to what the Minister said. Obviously, one would agree that the Government should fall in line, follow accounting practice that is recommended by the accounting world and be transparent. The powers should be available to allow that to happen.
I should like some clarity from the Minister, although my point is not so much about the revenue side of accounting. We had a long debate in Grand Committee—we will probably come back to the issue later—about where private finance initiatives sit in the transparency of accounting. PFIs involve both capital and revenue and the issue of where they stand in relation to capital borrowings seems rather fudged. Obviously, PFIs have revenue consequences too. As there is not quite clarity on the matter, perhaps the Minister will give his view on where PFIs sit in relation to the amendment that he has just moved.
I will certainly not give my view on that. As I think I said in Committee, Part 1 of the Bill is really for the people whose eyes glaze over when they discuss local government finance—for them, local government finance is the most exciting thing and it gives them a tingle on the back of their neck. It does not do that for me, although I accept that it is incredibly important—we are dealing with billions of pounds of expenditure.
I regret that I will not go down the PFI route. I do not have a specific answer. If there is some global announcement, I promise that I will write to the noble Lord to clarify the matter.
One wonders why the term "enactment" is used. I keep defending the parliamentary draftsmen, who are an excellent body of good women and men. The term includes
"any enactment contained in . . . this Act . . . [or] any Act passed after . . . this Act".
It also includes any previous Act, so why mention it in the first place? It includes past Acts, this Act and future Acts. The answer to the question posed by the noble Baroness is "yes", as the measure would not work if that was not the case.
moved Amendment No. 19:
After Clause 119, insert the following new clause—
"EMPLOYMENT RIGHTS OF LOCAL AUTHORITY EMPLOYEES (1) No employee whose employer is a local authority or local authority company shall be required to work on both a Saturday and the immediately following Sunday if that person has the care and control of a school-age child.
(2) On whichever day the employee is not required to work under subsection (1), he shall not be required to work at any time during that day.
(3) For the purposes of subsection (1), any adult with whom a school-age child customarily lives as part of his or her family has the care and control of that school-age child and where more than one adult qualifies under this test each of them has the care and control.
(4) In this section—
"employee" and "employer"—
"local authority" means a local authority in any part of the United Kingdom, including the Common Council of the City of London but excluding a parish or community council;
"local authority company" means a company through which is exercised a power conferred under section 95;
"school-age child" means a person who has attained the age of five but has not attained the age of eighteen."
My Lords, Amendment No. 19 is relatively modest, but I think that the principle underlying it is important. It seeks to give the legal right to employees of local government to spend at least one whole non-school day per week with their child or children. I shall explain later why I think that it is particularly relevant that local authorities should take this view.
As I said in Grand Committee, it is in the nation's best interest to provide children with the opportunity to spend time with their parents. I am sure that most noble Lords would agree with that. Much research shows that time spent with a parent or indeed with a long-term, committed carer is crucial to a child's normal, healthy development. For boys of school age, time with a father or a surrogate father is particularly important—time doing normal family things together, such as going to the shops, having a meal, kicking a ball around, flying a kite in the park or just watching television.
Without the amendment, some employees might and do, in term time, see their children only in the evening, when the children are tired or struggling with homework, and in that dreadful half-hour in the morning before the children rush off to school. During term time, which is most of the year, Saturday and Sunday are the only times when children can spend the whole day with their parents.
The amendment is not about religious observance; it is about children seeing their parents. Children need their parents. Time in childhood is not refundable. A recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, Happy Families? Atypical Work and Its Influence on Family Life shows that about 10 per cent of all parents with children under 14 regularly work on both Saturdays and Sundays. It also shows that between 70 and 80 per cent of those people say that they have no choice in the matter.
Local authorities employ about 10 per cent of the total workforce, if we exclude education, and they should set an example to all employers in helping employees who are parents to give the nation's children the time and support that they need to develop into the good citizens of tomorrow.
Both in Grand Committee and in another place, there has been strong support from all sides of the House for the amendment's objectives. Those local authorities that have been consulted have indicated that they can see no insuperable difficulty in applying the provision. Sadly, in spite of the support from all sides of the House and in spite of the Government's declared policy of support for children and parents, the Ministers' response to the proposal, in both Houses, has so far been entirely unhelpful. The objections that were raised in Committee do not in my opinion stand up to scrutiny.
First, it was held that many local government employees may be required to work on both days of the weekend by the very nature of their employment. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, gave the examples of the emergency services, gritting roads in adverse weather conditions, and security. Emergency and stand-by services would not be affected by the amendment; if they were they could easily be excluded from it. As for other kinds of local authority employment, residential care has been cited. I have some experience of residential care and see no reason why suitable rostering cannot ensure that the amendment's objectives are achieved without any adverse effect on the care given.
The second argument used by the Minister was that any such provisions would have to apply to the whole workforce in an employment Bill as there would be no particular case for singling out local authorities. The case for singling out local authorities is perfectly clear. As public bodies, they have a special responsibility to set an example. Many local authorities and government departments are already doing that. We must give credit where credit is due. The purpose of the amendment is simply to secure that those who are not already doing that are made seriously to consider their responsibilities.
Thirdly, the Minister suggested that the Employment Act 2002 included a whole raft of rights specifically for parents, launched on 6th April 2003. He therefore argued that the amendment was unnecessary. I carefully re-read the Minister's speech and the Act. It seems to me that the raft of rights that he describes applies only to children under six or disabled children. I should be grateful if he could confirm that I am right about that. If so, those rights will affect only children between five and six years old. I could find no reference in the Act to weekend working for parents with children of school age, which is the subject of the amendment. Can the Minister give a reference to the Act he mentioned in Committee?
Finally, the method of argument used by the Government in both Houses has been to list a number of family-friendly policies and employment practices that have been adopted by local authorities. It is an impressive list and the Government and local authorities deserve to be congratulated on it. But nothing in the list deals with the issue addressed by the amendment. Existing authority policies do not offer an answer to the problem addressed by the amendment.
I have read the Government's survey of a work/life balance in local authorities published in 2001. At no point does it mention the subject of the amendment—the right of local government employees to spend at least one non-school day per week with their children. I suggest to the House that that is an important right that should be given, first, to local authority employees, and then, progressively, to all other employees who have children of that age. I beg to move.
My Lords, this is an attractive and generous amendment. It is the sort of amendment that one would expect from the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, who has thought long, carefully and usefully about the matter. There is no doubt that the issue of work/life balance will demand a great deal more attention from all of us. To take the latest topical example, I cite the report in The Times on Monday from the young solicitors' group recording the fact that an alarmingly large number of women are leaving the legal profession as a result of problems with work/life balance.
Of course, business may complain of the burdens placed on it. But business can employ no one else but people. Increasingly, the issue of work/life balance is affecting both genders, not yet equally, but the gap is closing so rapidly that that may come within many of our lifetimes. Something needs to be done. Our concern is whether the prescriptive form of the amendment, confining the provision to Saturday and Sunday, is necessarily the best way to approach the matter—especially for separated families, where there is the problem of ensuring access for fathers. I know that the noble Lord has concerned himself with that problem for some time; it requires concern. Friday may often be a crucial part of the package.
To take a topical example—I am here speaking off the top of my head—this morning, to my great regret, I had to withdraw from accepting an invitation to a wedding in Oxford on Saturday because I could not find the time to do my shopping on Friday, being engaged in an all-day conference. That sort of situation will be repeated in a great many cases. If we do not consider the problem of Fridays, we shall not succeed in the object of the amendment, which is to clear Saturday and Sunday.
As has been said, there are a great variety of people who do and must work on Saturdays and Sundays. Some arrangements should be considered for finding time for those people to get time off during the rest of the week because they have the same rights and needs to see their children as all the rest of us. If we could find the right words to do it, I should prefer to approach the matter in the spirit of the Renton report on the preparation of legislation—laying down a general principle asserting the need and the obligation to do something to meet it without having prescriptive allocation of particular days of the week. I do not immediately see how that could be done. I find it hard to imagine that it could be compulsory.
I should like to hear the Minister say that he will set up consultation about how such a thing can be done. Meanwhile, whether or not the noble Lord has got his amendment right—personally, I do not think that he is quite there yet—he has done us a great service by drawing attention to a problem about which we ought to be thinking hard and which will take some time, especially because, like the Irishman's pigs, it keeps changing every time we try to count it. I thank the noble Lord for moving the amendment. If I say that it is not quite right yet, I say so in no unsympathetic spirit.
On the face of it, I have a great deal of sympathy with the amendment. I have to work long hours in your Lordships' House and greatly value my weekends with my children. It is hard to argue against that point. However, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has put his finger on part of the problem—the prescriptive allocation of days of the week—and there are other important considerations. I hope that your Lordships will bear with me while I go carefully through them.
The new clause is intended to ensure that no local authority employee or employee of a local authority company is required to work on both a Saturday and the immediately following Sunday if that person has the care and control of a school-age child. The clause covers any adult with whom a school-age child customarily lives as part of his or her family, or who has the care and control of that school-age child.
It is important that I start by setting out what legislation already exists to encourage flexible working. The Government have in place a range of family friendly policies, including a commitment to help to support working parents. As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne recognised, on 6th April a new series of new rights specifically for parents were announced, provided through the Employment Act 2002. This includes a new right for parents with children under six or a disabled child under 18 to ask their employers for flexible working arrangements. That law places a duty on employers to consider these requests seriously. The 2002 Act specifies the grounds under which any such request can reasonably be refused.
The new flexible working law is a "light touch approach" based on best practice. It aims to provide parents with more choice in when they work and how they manage their time while understanding the needs of management, particularly in businesses of a smaller size.
Prior to the introduction of new rights for flexible working, there was extensive consultation—this is the key—on the needs of working parents. At no stage during the two-year policy development and consultation process were concerns raised specifically about local authority employees, or any parents in any sector, having to work weekends. The consultation process established that parents and employers alike wanted flexibility so that they could make choices and that they did not want rigidity in the legislation.
The working time directive already ensures that everyone is entitled to at least one day off per week or two days per fortnight. So there is a regulatory framework in place to ensure that employees are treated fairly. It does not just apply to local authority employees.
In addition, work-life balance for all employees is promoted through the Government's Work-Life Balance campaign and the Challenge Fund, which provides subsidised consultancy advice to assist employers in introducing and developing work-life balance practices and flexible working into their workplaces.
Sadly, Amendment No. 19 is inconsistent with the Government's general approach to better regulation; that is, we regulate only where there is an identified problem which cannot be solved in another way. Our approach to employment legislation has the specific aim of creating flexibility and choice in the workplace.
This amendment is based on a supposed need that has not been raised at any point to date. I believe that in practice the amendment has the potential to reduce choice and flexibility in the workplace because it is so specific, inflexible and, to use the term of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, prescriptive. For instance, it will potentially require local authorities radically to reorganise existing shift-working patterns. This may mean that some local authorities, in order to ensure that they do not breach the law, actively prevent all of their employees from working full weekends, even when they are willing to do so and they do not have responsibilities as parents. Such rigid legislation could also potentially have an adverse effect on other flexibility currently offered by local authorities, such as midweek shift patterns or flexi-time or compressed hours that allow employees to take time off at other times when they need it, perhaps because they are carers. The Government aim is to promote flexibility on both sides—for employers and employees.
I have so far addressed the possible impact of such regulation on the employees, but it is also important that we recognise the potential impact on the services that they might provide. As we have made clear when this clause was previously debated, within local government there will always be situations where staff are required to work at weekends. In regular circumstances this would apply, for example, to residential homes, as has been mentioned, where care needs to be provided on a 24-hour basis, seven days a week. In less regular circumstances, as I think I pointed out in Grand Committee, it would apply to road gritting in adverse weather conditions or to other critical environmental or security emergencies.
Whether these services can be adequately provided if employees are given the right not to work, the impact on recipients of such services being inadequately staffed and local authorities being unable to meet demand, and the possible cost to local authorities of having to pay premium wages for employing weekend staff do not appear to have been properly addressed or considered.
I see no special local government case for making the provision sought by the amendment. Local authority workers have full general protection under existing employment law and are as fully protected as any other employee in any other sector. Moreover, local authorities—I think this is recognised by your Lordships' House—are generally at the leading edge and proactive in promoting flexible working and adopting best practice policies in this field.
The new flexible working law, which is unprecedented across Europe, has only just been introduced. The Government are committed to commence a review of the law's impact in three years' time. The Government are currently developing a monitoring strategy in collaboration with the key stakeholders. It would be inappropriate to bring in another piece of legislation in this area before we have had the opportunity to review how existing legislation is working. If there are perceived to be problems in this specific area—and I repeat we have not had this brought before us—then the review might be an appropriate vehicle for addressing such issues.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, made the point that you have to have consultation. He is absolutely right on that point. During such a review it will be important for us to consult the employing organisations and ensure that we get it right if there is a perceived and major problem. We do not see one now although we entirely understand the spirit and the generosity that lies behind the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne.
In any event, the impact of the cut-off age of the child is an issue and we will look at that in particular. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, made a point about that.
We recognise the generosity of spirit behind the amendment. We do not yet have any information that suggests this issue is a major problem. We are impressed that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, wants to encourage good practice and we think that local authorities are generally at the leading edge of that good practice. We see no need at present for this amendment.
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he has announced a review of existing legislation, which could be helpful. Will he give an undertaking now that that review will include the needs of children between the ages of six and 18 and their need for good access to their parents on non-school days?
My Lords, that is exactly the purpose of a review—to consider such subjects. I am sure that if it is a perceived problem—we have no evidence to suggest it is a major problem for local authority employers—we will include it in that review. I am happy to give such an undertaking.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for that reply and to those of your Lordships who have taken part in the debate.
As usual the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has been most helpful and has also put his finger on some weaknesses in this amendment. The difficulty which neither the noble Earl nor the Minister addressed is that children are out of school only in the holidays and on Saturday and Sunday. It may be that flexible school hours could be looked at some time.
It is no good the Government saying that they are doing other things. They are doing other things and I congratulate them. The point of this amendment is that it addresses a particular issue.
It is possible that the results I seek to achieve could be achieved through guidance to local authorities urging them to pay attention to the importance of the time between parents and children and the necessity, as school programmes stand, for parents to be available either on a Saturday or Sunday during term time.
Next week we shall debate the Second Reading of the Anti-social Behaviour Bill. I shall make then, as I make now, the point that there is no better way to encourage anti-social behaviour in young people than to deprive them of the time and attention of their parents, especially their fathers. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 20, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 25, 88 and 91.
Once again, sadly, Section 28 has become something of a political football. I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association and I was shocked, therefore, to receive—without a covering letter and in a House of Lords envelope—a briefing paper for this debate which contained inaccuracies and was written on Local Government Association headed notepaper. Having discussed the matter with the chief executive of the Local Government Association, he informed me that the LGA did not circulate the paper. The noble Lord, Lord Alli, did so, using House of Lords facilities and its materials.
I was told that the person who drafted the paper did not follow the proper procedures, including a requirement to clear the paper with the LGA public affairs office. The person has been interviewed and disciplinary proceedings are likely to follow. I have even heard that a council was telephoned by someone from the LGA who was looking for material to strengthen the brief. He said:
"We are doing a job on Lady Blatch".
The Local Government Association conservative group has put out a press release stating that it did not lend its support to the briefing—in fact it was not even consulted about the brief—and therefore it is not the all-party brief that has been claimed. The chief executive criticised the tone of the paper and said that it has never been LGA policy to criticise individual Peers by name. As I am criticised in the paper by name, I have received a fulsome apology from the chief executive. He went on to say that someone had got it wrong and that he was dealing with it as a disciplinary matter.
The Local Government Association has been brought into disrepute and Members of the House have been misled. I deeply regret that.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alli, almost certainly will be speaking in the debate and he will have an opportunity to rebut anything that I have said. I am not giving way because the noble Lord will have an opportunity to speak during the debate.
I am sorry to use precious time on this issue but, given the wide distribution of the briefing paper and the fact that many people will have been influenced by it, it is important to set it in context and to place it on the record.
Today it is my wish to focus on what has always been my concern and that of my late friend Lady Young—the protection of children. Mine is a simple mission in the debate. It is to protect children from the worst form of sex education. My amendments will achieve that by giving power to parents to make judgments about the sex education of their children and what they receive in school.
My views on the issue of Section 28 are well known, but three concerns have led me to table alternative amendments which would replace Section 28. First, although there has been much misunderstanding about Section 28—and as long as the perception of this clause rather than the reality is responsible for endless challenges in Parliament—I thought that it would be helpful to find a way of addressing the more sensitive issues without in any way compromising the protection of children.
My second concern is that Section 28 was not drafted to protect children from unacceptable health authority materials, including inappropriate heterosexual materials, or from visiting sex educators and advisers, who assist in schools at no cost to local authorities.
My third concern, which has led me to table an alternative amendment, is that for many parents Section 28 does not provide a simple remedy. Once Section 28 has been breached, the only routes available to parents are the very costly judicial review procedures, the intervention of the district auditor or the monitoring officer of the local authority. None of those options is very easy for an ordinary parent to resort to. It is for these reasons that I have tabled amendments which I believe should be supported even by those who wish to see Section 28 repealed.
If Section 28 is repealed—as, indeed, it would be under my amendments—we must strengthen the protection of children. It is not enough to say that the guidance issued under the Learning and Skills Act provides sufficient safeguards. For example, it is true that local authorities and schools must have regard to the guidance—but that does not oblige them to comply with it. As your Lordships will know, guidance can be considered but then ignored quite legitimately. The law requires schools and local authorities only to have "regard to" the guidance. As one local authority-funded sex education publication has already pointed out, to have "regard to" does not mean to "adhere to".
My amendments do not prohibit anything. Instead, they devolve decisions about sex education down to school level and, for the first time, give parents a role, in law, to determine the contents of sex education for their children. My amendments rely entirely on the good sense of parents and on the fact that they, above all other people, understand what is in the best interests of their own children.
I accept that schools are expected to consult parents about the content of sex education. However, the strength of my amendments is that they give parents a legal right to be consulted about the sex education policy of a school and its method of delivery, and to have information about and access to the materials used. They will also have a legal right to know the school policy on the use of visiting sex educators and advisers who are not teachers in the school.
As a last resort, if all the normal grievance procedures fail, 10 per cent or more of registered parents can trigger a ballot of parents within the school. If the ballot is supported by a majority, the school is obliged to comply with the parents' wishes.
Existing government guidance on sex education advocates that schools should seek to work in partnership with parents. I absolutely agree with that. In the main, most schools will do that most of the time. I also believe that most problems which occur will, under my amendments, be resolved at school level. However, we have a duty to protect those children in schools where this is not the case. That is why I believe that the best way forward is to strengthen the power of parents to make judgments about what is best for their own children. As I have said, if 10 per cent or more of parents are deeply unhappy with the content or delivery of sex education then—I repeat—as a last resort, a ballot of parents is an appropriate way to resolve the issue.
I said that Section 28 must not be repealed without safeguards being put in its place. The Government argue that no further safeguards are necessary. The Minister will no doubt argue that the guidance on sex education is sufficient. But there are problems with the guidance. Consider what some local authorities have recommended for the teaching of sex education while, at the same time, claiming to comply with the guidance.
Very few parents would knowingly allow their seven year-old child to participate in a class discussion of anal intercourse, yet there are local authorities that recommend a sex education pack outlining just that. Very few parents would allow their 11 year-old child to take part in a teacher-led discussion on the use of sexual toys, sadism, masochism, dressing up and tying up, involving multiple partners in sex at one time and other activities which, quite frankly, I cannot bring myself to repeat on the Floor of the House, yet there are local authorities which recommend such resources. For the benefit of those noble Lords who are laughing, I should say that I do not find such matters amusing.
The latter lesson I described is to be found in a pack called Taking Sex Seriously. Many more such lessons can be found in that publication. I hope that noble Lords will agree that inviting children of 11-plus to discuss sado- masochism, bondage and sex orgies is not appropriate sex education. It is frankly astounding that such appalling resources are being recommended for use in schools by local authorities. To my knowledge, Taking Sex Seriously is currently recommended by a number of local authorities. Despite campaigning letters to the contrary, this information is irrefutable.
However, I know that many local councillors do not even know what council employees are recommending in their names. In fact it happened to one quite recently, who was named in the publicity surrounding this issue. This is all the more reason for giving parents a legal right to disclosure and consultation.
Advisory teachers working for Brighton and Hove and East Sussex Councils specifically recommend that all secondary schools should obtain a copy of Taking Sex Seriously. They claim that their advice to schools is based on the Government's own guidelines.
Taking Sex Seriously is not the only outrageous resource being recommended to teachers. There is, for example, the video pack "Beyond a Phase", which suggests to pupils aged 13 and over:
"Try experimenting with boys and girls and see who you feel most comfortable with".
If they knew that this suggestion had been made to their sons or daughters, most parents would be very angry.
"Beyond a Phase" is currently recommended by Gloucestershire County Council and in response to recent criticisms the council defended its actions by quoting previous government guidance. There can surely be only one conclusion. There is a problem and guidance alone will not solve it.
Although no doubt the Minister will argue that it is schools and not local authorities that are responsible for sex education, local authorities are highly influential. In most cases they are the employers of the teachers in schools. Local authorities provide teachers with courses on how to teach sex education and produce sex education guidance for teachers. Some local authorities fund advisory teachers for personal, social and health education, specifically to write sex education material or to advise teachers how to teach sex education.
My amendment to Clause 121 makes it clear that the repeal of Section 28 is subject to the terms of my new subsection (2A) to Clause 127, which deals with commencement dates for the Bill. My amendment therefore stipulates that the repeal of Section 28 can only take place when arrangements are in place that establish a right for parents to view the materials used in sex education and to be consulted when schools set a policy on the use of people who are not teachers to take sex education lessons. That does happen in some schools and there have been problems when third parties who are not teachers make poor judgments about the kind of materials that are suitable for children. Schools that use staff or volunteers from outside agencies should have a policy about doing so and ensure that arrangements are in place to inform parents of their new rights and to update government guidance.
A vote against my amendments would be a vote against giving parents a right in law to be consulted by schools about the content and delivery of, and the materials used in, sex education.
My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, but would she not agree that schools are already required by law to have parents on the governing body, which has oversight of the sex education curriculum? Therefore, those parents already have a right to inspect material and develop policy.
My Lords, I am coming to the very point that the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, has just made.
Surely, all that I suggest is perfectly reasonable. Why should parents not enjoy a legal right to be consulted and to see the materials used? My amendments would strengthen the partnership between parents and schools and, having discussed them with many in education and local government, I have been heartened by the support for this approach.
My amendment would come after Clause 121. In Clause 117 the Government have decided to give local authorities a new legal power to conduct polls on the provision of local services. Clearly, the provision of education has to be one such service, and in particular the provision of sex education. Under Clause 117—the Government's own clause—local authorities can choose who is polled and the questions asked. Under my new clause, once the requirements set out in the amendment are met a local authority is required to exercise its powers under Clause 117 to carry out a poll of parents on the sex education provided at their children's school.
I see the arrangements for a poll of parents as an important measure of last resort. Parents who are concerned about their children's sex education will be able—and this is the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen—to speak formally or informally to their class teacher, head of department, head teacher, parent governors and the governors, and to all those who have a responsibility. In that way, most concerns will be resolved. Having a legal right to be consulted and to view materials will also minimise the need to take such matters further.
Sadly, at the end of the day there are some people who advocate the use of the kind of wholly inappropriate material from which I quoted earlier, and there are those who wrote that awful material in the first place. There are advisory teachers who are currently recommending it to schools. For 10 per cent or more parents to wish to resort to a ballot, there would have to be deep dissatisfaction among parents and a widespread desire for the school to change its sex education policy. For clarification, sex education within the national curriculum is not affected by my amendments. No vote is allowed on the content of the national curriculum.
When a council has received a valid petition consistent with the conditions in subsections (2), (3), (4) and (6), the council must call a poll within two months. If the proposition is successful, a further three months is allowed to ensure that the school complies with the wishes of parents.
My amendment does not create a need for a new register of parents because schools are already required to do this by law. A register of parents is already needed to hold elections for parent governors, for example. My proposed new subsection (2)(c) stipulates that a poll can only be held once every two years.
On a point of interest, I could not help noting that, last week, the Government announced that there would be local ballots to decide who should receive money from the National Lottery. How can it be that the Government encourage local ballots on the lottery and yet oppose ballots of parents on the quality of their own children's sex education?
I hope that when noble Lords speak to my amendments, they will confine themselves to the case that I have made and not speak about issues that I have not raised. My package of amendments provides a safeguard for children that should be in place following the repeal of Section 28. They enshrine legal rights for parents and protection for children from some materials and lesson plans that frankly border on the pornographic.
As I said, to oppose my amendments would be to deny greater protection for children and more power to parents. I hope that noble Lords will agree that I have not sought to engage in the sterile and divisive debate about being pro or anti-homosexuality. My concern is exclusively for the education and well-being of children. In this, I have been supported by many Members of this House, both present and those who are unable to be here today, but, in particular, by thousands of teachers, many professionals, and parents and grandparents from the length and breadth of this country. It is our duty to support them and their children, and that is what I invite noble Lords to do. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have added my name to the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and after such a powerful contribution it is difficult to say very much else. I believe that many of your Lordships will have received a letter, probably this morning, from the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, and others urging support for the repeal of Section 28 and attacking the Christian Institute. I have yet to see any evidence that the Christian Institute briefings are misleading as is alleged. I have always found its material to be rigorously researched and thoroughly reliable.
I was deeply shocked to receive such a letter from such eminent people and even one from a right reverend Prelate for whom I have the greatest respect, and indeed, affection. The letter calls for the repeal of Section 28. The amendments to which I have put my name, of course, allow the repeal, subject to certain conditions. I hope that noble Lords who put their name to the letter will be willing, therefore, to look at these amendments with an open mind.
I support the amendments because I believe that there is a genuine need for strong, statutory safeguards to protect children from inappropriate sex education. Vague guidance and warm words from the Minister are simply not enough. Many people who have had sight of some of the ghastly sex education material recommended by various councils may have been surprised that such material even exists. That it should also be recommended by local authorities—bodies with statutory responsibilities for schools—is even more appalling.
I shall not begin to repeat what I said in Grand Committee. Suffice it to say that we have learned in Scotland that there are people in positions of influence in education who are prepared to recommend some awful sex education material for use with young people. Recommendations made by Learning and Teaching Scotland, the Scottish Executive's education quango, caused such a furore among parents that 12,000 of them signed a petition to the Scottish Parliament calling for them to be withdrawn. The parliamentary Education Committee sympathised with their concerns, and, after many months of pressure, the chairman of Learning and Teaching Scotland conceded that some of the resources are unfit for use with young people.
Of course, in a highly charged debate such as this, whenever any noble Lord cites an example of a resource or a recommendation which others find shocking, some people will try to split hairs about the status of the resource or what the council meant by its recommendation. Ultimately, however, if there really are people producing this sort of material with the intention that it should be used in school sex education, I believe that we must do everything we can to ensure that they are unsuccessful. That is why I support these amendments. They are, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said, intended purely to support the protection of children. Even with Section 28 in place, the sorts of powers which her amendments give to parents would always have been a good idea. If Section 28 is to be removed, I believe that the amendments are absolutely essential.
I would also urge noble Lords who support Section 28 to support these amendments as a realistic alternative—one which addresses all inappropriate sex education, not just material to do with homosexuality. I would also urge noble Lords who oppose Section 28 to support these amendments. There is certainly no way in which they can be thought as anti-homosexual. The amendments make no statements about sexual preferences at all. Instead, they move parents closer to the centre of the circle when it comes to deciding sex education policy. That can only be a sensible and logical idea. It places more powers in their hands to ensure that the sex education that their children receive is appropriate.
Who would deny parents a greater role in the sex education given to their own children? I believe that very few of us would. Who would deny them the right to view the material to be used? Who would deny them a legal right to be consulted? Who would refuse them a right ultimately to vote on the sex education policy in their child's school? I believe that the noble Baroness ought to be congratulated. She has sought to provide new safeguards which protect children by bringing in greater influence from their parents. I can see no good reason why her amendments should not attract the broadest possible support from all sides of your Lordships' House.
My Lords, if I may, I should like first to deal with the LGA briefing which the noble Baroness mentioned. I did indeed circulate that briefing. As I understand it, it was prepared for me and not for public consumption. I also understand that the LGA did not intend it to be circulated, but I did not know that at the time. Therefore, I circulated it to Peers who I thought would be interested. If I have caused any offence, I apologise unreservedly. I have already written to the noble Baroness, as she knows. If I have caused her any particular offence, I wish to apologise unreservedly.
This debate arouses a huge amount of passion and controversy. However, it has long since lost any sense of proportion, reason or logic. It has long since lost any basis in fact. This debate has become about two sets of values—values which come into conflict on issues to do with sexuality, and in particular if it has something to do with children or the protection of children. The noble Baroness's amendment not only seeks to reinstate Section 28 but also to put in place what is surely an unworkable system for both teachers and parents. My Lords, I ask you, is this debate to be reproduced in every school throughout the land, with headmasters, teachers and governors trying to adjudicate between warring parents trying to get votes? How would that help children?
Noble Lords have seen today, as in previous debates, the continued polarisation of the issues. In essence, the argument boils down to one of two truths. First, does Section 28 protect children in schools from inappropriate materials and, in doing so, stop loony councils from an overdose of political correctness? Secondly, does Section 28, in the light of the Learning and Skills Act, become redundant and serve only as another piece of discrimination against homosexuals?
Many smokescreens are erected by those in pursuit of a cause. In the one corner there is the Christian Institute which tries to dress up its cause in religion and prey on people's fear for their children, citing bogus material as their evidence.
I am not giving way to the noble Baroness, my Lords.
In the other corner are gay organisations with their own equality agenda. To the many in this House who are in neither of the two camps, may I say that I have a huge sympathy for you for what has become an almost annual if not monthly event? I understand that if you vote against the repeal of Section 28 you will be labelled as a bad Christian.
My Lords, if the noble Lord will allow me, I shall come to that very point.
I understand that some noble Lords who vote against the repeal of Section 28 will, even if they are bishops, be labelled as bad Christians, and possibly as uncaring about the safety of our children. And if they vote for the retention of Section 28, they will be condemned as homophobic and endorsing gay bullying. Section 28 is just one of those issues. It was designed to divide and it is unsurprising that it does just that.
We all take our predictable paths. It is bit like a bad soap opera—we deliver our lines, and in some cases we play to the camera. However, I ask noble Lords the same questions as others will no doubt pose later today. Why would the NSPCC, Childline, the Children's Legal Centre, the Children's Rights Alliance, the National Children's Home, the National Youth Agency and the Children's Society all write to noble Lords setting out their support for the repeal of Section 28? Could they be so misguided as to believe that the repeal of Section 28 will leave schools exposed to an onslaught of inappropriate material?
Those organisations have considered this issue in detail, discussed it and agreed to put their views on paper and in public. They are not a few individuals writing letters with anecdotal evidence, trying to undermine an organisational response. Those organisations have reputations that we have learned to trust. This is not a group of trendy, left-wing, politically correct individuals. These are people who have dedicated their lives to helping, teaching and working with children.
Why would an overwhelming majority of MPs vote for the repeal of Section 28 if they believed that it would harm vulnerable children?
Then let me deal with it directly, my Lords. The enactment of the repeal would depend on a set of criteria of which the Secretary of State must be satisfied. However, the Secretary of State can never be satisfied that all those conditions are in place over the period. As noble Lords know, this is effectively a wrecking amendment. Nobody here believes that it is anything but that.
Perhaps I may inform the House why those people support the repeal. It is because they understand that sex education in schools is not governed by Section 28. No matter how many times the other side repeat it, it does not make it true. They know that maintained schools must have a written policy on school sex education. Because of Section 404 of the Sex Education Act 1996, they know that governing bodies of all secondary schools are required to provide a programme of sex education which is offered to pupils above the age of 16. Because of Section 352 of the Education Act 1996, they know that the governing body and head teachers must ensure that sex education encourages people to have due regard to moral considerations and the value of family life. Because of Section 403 of the Education Act 1996, they know that parents have the right to withdraw their children from all or part of sex education. Because of Section 405 of the Education Act 1996, they know that the schools are under a duty to promote the education guidelines of the Learning and Skills Act.
In fact, we have discussed this countless times in connection with that legislation. I am sorry that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn is not in his place. He sought to find a compromise and a way through via an amendment to satisfy the House on that very issue. He said,
"In an ideal world, these issues would be expressed more precisely. But in relation to the government amendment, there has been considerable discussion to find the appropriate words to deal with these matters and it is certainly a considerable advance on Section 28, which does not at all protect children in school from these matters".
My Lords, I would rather get on because others wish to speak and I do not believe that I should make the noble Baroness's arguments for her. We must take heed of the organisations and professionals as well as the countless people who tell us that they work with children.
Section 28 is about one group of people trying to use the law to embody their own prejudices. Section 28 has no place in the protection of children, let alone in a modern, civilised society.
I turn to the specifics of the noble Baroness's amendment. As I said, it disguises the fact that in effect it prevents the repeal of Section 28 happening until the Secretary of State is satisfied that he has done everything in her amendment. It also seeks to use parental choice as a cloak under which to disguise what is simply an amendment to prevent the repeal of Section 28. The amendment is unworkable. It is simply a wrecking amendment.
I have one final request. Abstention, while welcome, may not see the back of Section 28. I believe that it will not be repealed without noble Lords walking through the Lobby and voting for the repeal. The measure is supported by a powerful and, in my view, compelling coalition of children's organisations, Christians, Labour, Conservative and Liberal councillors and MPs. It is a coalition which cares about children and their welfare and most of all it is a cross-party coalition. Please support that coalition and vote down this amendment.
My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, I wonder whether he has seen the letter from the care organisation, Christian Action Research and Education, which has reached me and I imagine a number of Members of this House, which states quite clearly,
They certainly believe that that is what her amendments do and I suspect that a large number of people outside believe so too.
My Lords, I understand that that letter was written before the amendments in question were tabled. I had not intended to speak, but it is really important that I should ask your Lordships to address the question before the House, which is not whether Section 28 should be repealed or not, but whether it should be repealed before certain fairly simple requirements are met.
It is not a wrecking amendment because, as anyone can see by reading the two substantial amendments in the group, the process set in place is simple. The process is designed to enable worried parents to have a final say in the way their children are taught. There is no question but that parents are worried and that the material to which my noble friend has referred and quoted, is in circulation or is intended to be acted on, as is clear from the note she circulated in reply to that of the noble Lord, Lord Alli, and which he spoke to earlier.
The question, therefore, is simply whether Section 28 should be repealed and nothing else put in its place or whether parents who are already anxious and who will be rendered much more so by the repeal of Section 28 should be given the power to speak in a forum in which what they say will have effect; that is to say, in the forum of the school in which they are taught.
There are so many vibrations in the Chamber at the moment, which relate to an earlier debate about homosexual practices. This is not about that, but all sexual practices, some of which are extremely odd. Some of the non-homosexual ones are perhaps less appetising than anything. It seems a natural thing to give reassurance to parents that their children will be brought up as they want and not as some activist in any cause, heterosexual, homosexual or whatever, believes is fit for them. Parents have the ultimate responsibility. My noble friend's amendments give them the means of fulfilling that responsibility. I hope that your Lordships will go through the Lobby with my noble friend and not vote against her.
My Lords, I shall speak very briefly. My credentials are that I have taught sex education and I have been a school governor for many years. I suggest that the amendments before us today, for all that they are designed to clarify a situation, would simply compound the confusion about teaching sex education and would not serve parents, teachers or governors well.
There is much talk about protecting children from unsavoury resources. I shall comment on that later. What concerns me is that the sex education of many young people is inadequate. They are left vulnerable to disease, relationship problems and susceptibility to abuse. This is not protection, but negligence.
I was at a conference this week where 450 young people were discussing sexual health. The question was put to them about the adequacy of their sex education. Only 11 out of 450 thought it was "good". One quotation from the conference was, "They told us what the bits were called and the teacher was a nervous wreck". No wonder if teachers are left in confusion about what they can and cannot teach. Ofsted reports point out that sex and relationships education should be taught by teachers who are confident as well as informed.
The statistics on sexual health speak for themselves and for our woeful failure to educate young people. One in 10 women have Chlamydia: many do not know it. Over 40 per cent of these women are under 20. Over 17,000 men had gonorrhoea last year. We have an unprecedented rise in other sexually transmitted infections. HIV/AIDS rates are rising, especially among young gay men. It is simply impractical to recommend the married state and total fidelity to one's partner being the only viable state. We have to be pragmatic and realistic.
We have heard today and in earlier debates about the unsuitability of resources being produced for schools. I have seen some such materials. Some were not produced for children in the first place. I contacted several teachers and asked about the resources. Ninety-nine per cent of the teachers I spoke to had never heard of them, let alone used them. What evidence is there that such materials are being used in schools?
Let us not be dragged into thinking that there is a plot in schools to corrupt young people—there is not. Let us not be dragged into thinking that unsavoury materials are rife in our classrooms. They are not. Sex and relationships education is probably the most policed area of the curriculum and the most subject to recommendations and guidance. Parental and pupil involvement in assessing resources has increased with the positive support offered by the national healthy schools standards scheme and the DfES sexual relationships guidance.
The Learning and Skills Act 2000, mentioned previously, requires that young people learn about the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and the bringing up of children; and that pupils are protected from teaching and materials that are inappropriate having regard to the age, religion and cultural background of the pupils concerned. What could be stronger?
I want to stress that governing bodies have a number of parents as members and that they have power. Governing bodies are charged with the oversight of sex and relationships education. They are already expected to ensure the involvement of parents, young people, health and other professionals in developing policies on sex and relationships education.
Parents already have all the rights about which the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, is so concerned. I am a school governor and I know that that is precisely what happens. My governing body would be appalled by the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. We would not want to spend our time conducting polls of parents. There are already parents on the governing body and we know what happens in the curriculum.
I have just received a communication from the chair of governors of the City of Portsmouth Girls' School, who says that the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, would:
"add to teachers' workload significantly . . . [and] undermines the role and responsibilities of Governors which is both insulting and offensive to the largest voluntary force this country has".
There is no need for the amendment before us. Spreading contention and confusion about sex education will damage even further the confidence of professionals. What they require is training, which is already being made available to deliver this area of the curriculum.
We must not deny our young people the information and skills to protect themselves and to form fulfilling relationships. We must reject the amendment.
My Lords, when "Newsnight" finished yesterday evening I looked to see what else I might watch. I could have watched a programme on whale hunting, or I could have turned to Channel 4, where in "Sex Tips for Girls" two unsatisfied women sign their boyfriends up for sex lessons to learn oral sex technique; or I might have chosen Living TV, which offered "Sex Toys": the easy guide to fulfilling one's sexual fantasies, followed by "Undressing", another easy guide to sexual fantasies. In the event I switched off in order to think what I might say today.
It is ludicrous to suggest that children and young people are waiting for local authorities to produce sexually explicit material with which to corrupt them. Such material is readily available. What young people need is to be taught how to respond to the material thrust at them from all sources. Any material produced by local authorities is already filtered by the time it reaches children. It is filtered by local authorities, which have community representatives available. It is filtered primarily by the governing bodies of schools that have responsibility to see what is used in sex education classes.
I am not convinced by arguments that parents know better than teachers. Many parents have failed their children dismally in carrying out sex education at home, which is why it is so important for sex education policy to be carefully worked out by governors, teachers and parents, who are all involved in policy and not the minutiae of what is dealt with in the classroom.
Sexual orientation is a given; it cannot be caught or taught, and even if promotional material were to be made available, it would be ineffective. But sexual behaviour needs to be discussed. To allow in class only responsible heterosexual behaviour to be the focus of sex education is to deny those of homosexual orientation the opportunity to be helped towards a responsible use of their own sexuality. Parents are singularly bad at recognising the homosexual orientation of their children and children need a safe place in which to discuss this. Teachers must be allowed to introduce discussion of such matters without fear of prosecution.
Education is about giving the tools for good judgment. It is about protecting young people by promoting respect for difference and about valuing themselves and one another and being able to evaluate the materials that come into their hands. To suggest that there are some things that should not be discussed openly is to create a climate of secrecy that could lead to bullying and allow abuse to go unreported.
Either to leave Section 28 in force or simply to replace it with a poll of parents is not responsible behaviour. To leave it in force is an offence not only to lesbians and gays but to the integrity and judgment of all involved in education. It should be repealed.
My Lords, this is the first time that I have participated in a debate on this subject and it has been a privilege to follow the noble Baronesses who have just spoken. I have followed the issue with some interest over the years as a member of your Lordships' House, as a county councillor in Suffolk, part of a local education authority; but above all, as the mother of two teenage children with whom I discussed the issue yesterday evening, because I thought it was interesting to get the perspective of at least two of the young people about whom we all purport to know and understand so much.
What originally moved me to speak was the briefing material that I received from the Christian Institute, which has been widely quoted. When I read it I was shocked. I was shocked by the way in which material that was never intended to be seen by young people was presented as though it had been, and I was shocked by the selective and partial use of out-of-context quotes, in a way that was designed deliberately to shock and outrage.
This dodgy dossier contains a number of myths. The first is the myth that somehow wholly unsuitable materials are being distributed widescale across our schools. In my 12 years on a local education authority I have never seen such material distributed to children, nor has a teacher, parent or governor ever come to me and expressed such concerns. I am deeply offended by the suggestion that a local authority run by whichever party, or that teachers, youth workers and organisations dedicated to young people are all somehow hell bent on corrupting the young people to whom they have dedicated their professional lives.
The second myth being propounded is that local authorities are retaining responsibility for sex education. That is simply not true. The teaching of sex education is a matter for school governors and parents. I find it ironic that someone who has rightly championed the freedom of schools from central control should seek to add to that control by imposing compulsory ballots on schools that in the main do not want them.
Local authorities produce guidance, but they do so as a result of demand from teachers, many of whom are struggling to know how to deal with those difficult topics. Goodness knows, anyone who has ever sat down with their children and tried to tell them the facts of life knows how excruciating it can be for both parties. Teachers find it very difficult, and the guidance is often produced as a response to their needs.
I also received the briefing from the chair of the board of governors. I believe that his final comment, concerning the question of balance being "insulting and offensive" to his profession, is very telling.
The third, and to my mind most invidious, myth is that somehow children will be protected by ignorance. There is no doubt that sex can be a risky business. Unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and psychological damage are issues dealt with by health professionals every day. But whispered conversations behind the bike sheds, a furtive exploration of porn sites on the Internet or, indeed, mainstream television channels leave young people in ignorance of the real facts of life, and it leaves them more and not less vulnerable to damage in the future. Unless responsible sex education takes place under appropriate circumstances, we leave them highly vulnerable.
Therefore, sex education must—for practical purposes if for no other—pay heed to the reality that there is a variety of sexual activity out there. We cannot simply teach activities which the noble Baroness or anyone else regards as mainstream or acceptable.
It is very difficult for any parent to consider his or her adolescent offspring as sexually active beings. It is probably even more difficult for the offspring to think about their parents in that light. Therefore, on either side it cannot be relied upon that sex education between parents and children will, indeed, be adequate and address these issues.
I am the mother of two teenage children and I desperately want them and their friends to receive an education which prepares them for a life in which they are happy and confident in themselves and their sexuality. I want them to learn to respect the differences found in other people's faith, belief, culture and sexuality. I want them to make reasoned judgments about danger and risk and I do not want them to lead their lives in fear through ignorance and scaremongering. What I want for them, I want for all children.
I have listened very carefully to the many organisations which specialise in the care of young people and which want to see Section 28 repealed. They do not want to see anything that will delay that repeal. The Children's Society, the NSPCC, Childline and the National Children's Bureau all want to see Section 28 repealed as soon as possible. Those are the very organisations in which we have entrusted the care of our most vulnerable people, and we should listen to them.
My Lords, I would not normally have spoken in this debate, and I feel privileged to follow the previous two speakers. However, it seems to me that I should say that I am in favour of the abolition of Section 28, unencumbered by the proposals put forward in these amendments.
Listening to some of the arguments in favour of the amendments causes me to reflect on what happened north of the Border when Section 2A—the equivalent section—was abolished by the Scottish Parliament. The original intention had been to go ahead with abolition at the same time as Section 28 was abolished south of the Border, but the decision here by this House not to support abolition meant that Scotland went alone. There followed in Scotland a consultation exercise, and the main Churches did not object to the proposal to repeal. In particular, initially the Catholic Church made no move to oppose it. There were good reasons for that.
Section 2A had never been used in a court of law to protect children. The existing procedures achieved that. From the first announcement of the intention to repeal, a review of existing guidelines was offered to reassure those who had concerns. There was a feeling that the issue had become one of whether or not teachers and head teachers could be trusted to make sensible decisions. There was, and is, no reason to doubt that.
At the very end of the eight-week consultation period, a group of individuals, representing a rather narrow and far from liberal view of society, intervened and applied great pressure on others with a campaign based on fear and misinformation. Some of those fears and the misinformation have reappeared in this debate. It led to a period of great uncertainty.
However, the doubts raised by them were dealt with to the satisfaction of all the other groups. The working group, on which there was very broad representation, reached agreement on guidelines about the future teaching on this difficult range of subjects. Those guidelines have been very generally accepted. None of the largest Churches in Scotland—not the Catholic Church, the Church of Scotland or the Episcopalian Church—is calling for the section, or one like it, to be reintroduced. Noble Lords should bear that in mind when they read the far more narrow views expressed by the Christian Institute.
Throughout the process of abolition in Scotland, many extravagant views were expressed about the disasters that would follow. Some of them have been reflected here, but none has come to pass. The confidence in the good sense of the teaching profession and in the guidelines was well placed. I have no doubt that the same would be the case in England. And there were many benefits, of which I may perhaps raise one. The issue of homophobic bullying had to be addressed by teachers when it arose, and there were real doubts as to whether or not they could do so when Section 2A—or, here, Section 28—was in place. That cannot have been right north of the Border; it is not right here.
It is often claimed that the whole Section 2A experience was a bad one for the Scottish Parliament. That is not how I see it. A proposal was made. There was consultation. Agreement was reached on the way forward, and that allayed a number of greatly exaggerated fears which a small group had generated. That led to a general agreement, which has the support of a very broad consensus, and a wrong was righted. I do not believe that the Scottish Parliament should be in any way ashamed of that, and I very much hope that the same balanced decision will be made here today.
My Lords, I want to raise one or two points. The first is that I seem to remember a definition in which it was stated that the only way to explain the difference between education and training was as follows. If your daughter came home from school and said that she had received sex education, you would probably be very grateful. If she came home and said that she had received sex training, you would be somewhat concerned. On a more serious point, I believe that one worry is that role play—an issue mentioned in some of the lobbying material—falls into the area of training. That is one concern in people's minds.
"The LGA is quite clear that the repeal of Section 28 will make no difference to how sex education is conducted in any classroom in any school in England and Wales".
That is interesting because it shows that perhaps we need some protection. I believe that such protection should be democratic and at the school stage. Conditions vary hugely in different areas. I am sure that there are deprived areas where very explicit education is required and that in other areas, where people are perhaps better behaved, such education does not need to be quite so explicit so early.
Therefore, I believe that discretion should be left in the hands of the parents, who can decide what is needed for their own children. Sending the material to parents may be a very good way to deal with the matter and may even revitalise some marriages—or perhaps, these days, I should say "partnerships".
My Lords, I declare an interest as a patron of the Family Planning Association. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has asked us to discuss in this debate the terms of her amendment rather than, by implication, the whole principle of Section 28. I shall attempt to do that, although I say to her that I believe Section 28 and the way that it set a context for sex education in this country over a number of years is very relevant to the amendments that she puts forward and the likely consequences of those amendments.
My own view is that Section 28 was ill-conceived and, I believe, a source of great confusion. Even though it did not relate specifically to schools and to teachers, it encouraged a climate in which teachers avoided dealing with issues of sexuality in schools because of fear, inadequate training or, indeed, homophobia. That then acted as a barrier to young people receiving help and support and created a situation in which homophobic bullying was far less likely to be challenged. I believe that it also led to an inhibition in bringing forward health promotion in relation to sexual issues.
I recommend that noble Lords read the report of the House of Commons Select Committee, produced only three weeks ago. It spoke about the alarming rise in sexual disease in this country and the inadequacies of many of our services in dealing with it. I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that the Government will need to address that matter. The report also gives a very strong clue as to the need for more effective health and sexual education measures in our schools and in society in general.
I have four children in school and I certainly want them to be able to talk openly and honestly to teachers and to me and my wife about issues concerning sex, sexuality and relationships. But, as the noble Baroness, Lady Richardson, has suggested, it is not always easy for parents to do that. We do not live up to the expectations that are often placed on us by official edicts from government departments, the Family Planning Association and other august institutions. It is very difficult to do so. That is why what schools do is very important indeed, and why Section 28 was a major mistake—it inhibited what teachers felt able to do.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, says that repealing Section 28 will lead to problems because the current guidance is not sufficient. My experience is that the current guidance is very sensible, that schools understand what the guidance means and requires, and that the large majority of schools have been able to implement it to the satisfaction of the great majority of parents.
My noble friend Lady Massey, who is not in her place, made the very telling point that governing bodies have a critical role to play. These days, governing bodies are much more experienced and have to work much harder than they did 20 or 30 years ago. They no longer listen to a head teacher's report once a term and then rubber-stamp and endorse the head's decision. Governing bodies now take an active interest in the life of a school and have corporate responsibility for the decisions that they make. A large proportion of those governors are parents.
In the face of very little evidence that some of the materials mentioned by noble Lords opposite are actually used in our schools, the suggested ballot seems to me to be extremely heavy handed. I suspect that those materials are rather more an urban myth than a reality. I know to my cost that the House is traditionally averse to the passing of unnecessary legislation. The potential ballot proposed by the noble Baroness is surely a very heavy hammer to crack a very small nut.
My noble friend Lady Massey talked very wisely about the problems for teachers who are confused and not confident about the teaching of relationships and sex education. Far from conveying parental rights, the Draconian sword of the potential of a poll could, in my view, lead to a continued loss of confidence among those teachers. Teachers need to teach sex education in a consistent and sensible framework, and I believe that the guidance that is available provides that very framework.
I have not always agreed with the views of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, on education. In fact, I rarely agree with her on education. However, she has championed the cause of taking responsibility away from the department of government and local education authorities and placing it with schools. I agree with her and I applaud her for that. But, at the end of the day, why on earth do we not trust teachers in schools, working in partnership with governing bodies and parents, to implement that guidance in a sensible way?
In my view, the acceptance of the noble Baroness's amendment for the potential of a poll would inhibit the sensible approach of teachers to the proper and effective teaching of sex education. I very much hope that the House will reject her amendment.
My Lords, I very much endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has just said in respect of trusting teachers and governing bodies.
The noble Lord, Lord Elder, was right to say that the question here is whether to repeal Section 28 encumbered or unencumbered by the two proposed new clauses. My reading of the new clauses is that the first, tabled as Amendment No. 25, would provide that where a group of parents is unhappy with the way in which sex education is being taught in schools, that group of parents, if it constitutes more than 10 per cent of the governing body, can trigger a ballot of parents about specific provisions relating to sex education.
The second clause, which is Amendment No. 91, maintains that Section 121 shall not come into effect until the Secretary of State is satisfied that parents know their rights under the new clause; that they know the name of the officer whom they should contact if they want to hold a ballot; that full consultation procedures are in place about the way in which sex education is delivered in schools, including a full statement of policy by the governors; that there should be full disclosure of all materials used in the provision of sex education, although "full disclosure" is not defined; and that there should be full vetting of all individuals involved in the teaching of sex education where such people are not members of staff.
The implication of those two amendments is not that parents are given control—a point about which the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, made a great deal—but that the Secretary of State would have more power. The Secretary of State—not the governors, as at present—would have to supervise what happens in schools, but the Secretary of State would have to make sure that all the provisions are satisfied. We would therefore have yet more direct supervision from the Secretary of State. I am very surprised that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch—
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. The point of my amendments is almost the opposite. They wrest power from the Secretary of State and from local government. They place judgments as to what should happen to children in school in the hands of the parents.
My Lords, a reading of Amendment No. 91 indicates that the Secretary of State shall have those powers. It means more directives and more involvement—precisely what we do not want to happen—which the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has on many occasions fought to prevent. Parents already have full rights to know about and view all the material that is used in teaching their children sex education, or any other form of education, and the right to express their concerns to heads, to the schoolteachers involved, to governors and to local education authorities. Those arrangements work perfectly satisfactorily at the moment.
My noble friend Lady Scott mentioned that, as a member of a local education authority for 12 years, she has received no complaints about the materials used in teaching sex education. In addition, if they are unhappy with the procedures, parents have full rights to withdraw their children from sex education classes.
First, the proposal put forwarded by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, introducing the possibility of a poll adds yet another layer of complications. Again, it takes away from the responsibilities that lie with governors and teachers and in that sense undermines yet further their authority. The threshold for the ballot is 10 per cent, half of the 20 per cent required when ballots were held for grant-maintained schools, although at that time, the government, which I remind the House was a Conservative government, set the figure at 20 per cent deliberately to avoid the capture by the parent bodies of a narrow interest group.
Secondly, the procedures about ballots are divisive. We will have a two-month period of elections which will tend to politicise the whole issue, feeding dissension among parents and polarising views.
Thirdly, it is not at all clear on what parents will be required to vote. There is talk of a specific proposition but that could be as narrow as the use of a particular textbook or a particular video for a particular class. Yet, it is the whole body of parents that is being asked to ballot on these issues.
The best way for schools to respond to the parents cannot be put into legislation. School staff must get to know the parents and confer over the school's curriculum, be it on sex education or on other issues. Such matters are best raised informally on occasions when each side has the time and the space to listen to each other. Hustings are not the place to raise specific issues about a school's curriculum.
Parliament has made several legislative attempts over the past quarter of a century to find how best to poll the collective views of parents on school matters. Depending upon one's point of view, they have either been a brilliant success or a dismal failure. Perhaps one thing that they had in common was that they imposed considerable bureaucratic demands on schools and took school staff away from their prime responsibility to educate children.
One exception to all that is Parliament's first attempt to give parents a voice and to put elected parents onto school governing bodies. Parents almost universally have confidence in their elected parent representatives and Parliament should have confidence in them by rejecting the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. In the newly reconstituted governing bodies that will be in place from September 2003 parent governors will have at least one-third of the seats on governing bodies. They will form the biggest group, the biggest stakeholder group, on school governing bodies.
Perhaps I can quote from a contribution that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, made to our debates on the Education Bill last year when we were talking about the role of parents within schools and the possibility of ballots on another issue. On that occasion she said:
"I know of no statute that states that one has to ascertain the views of parents and give due weight to them as regards the running of a school. It is the governing body that does that. Almost any school worth its salt knows its pupils".—[Official Report, 9/5/02; col. 1386.]".
Parents have already elected fellow parents to make their views heard in the decision-making body of the school, the school governing body. Parliament should have confidence in the good judgment of those parents by rejecting the amendment.
My Lords, one thing on which I hope that all noble Lords can agree is that on this matter the interests of children should come first, last and always. Anyone who seeks to put the rights of homosexuals or heterosexuals or any other group ahead of the need to protect children is deeply misguided.
I supported the late Lady Young on Section 28 and I greatly admired what she did. I was, and remain, sure that it is right that local authorities should not intentionally promote homosexuality. I believe that the clause was effective in deterring some councils from promoting the homosexual agenda, but it was defective in dealing only with homosexuality. It has now gone and we are considering a new approach.
Simply to repeal Section 28 and to put nothing in its place, in my view, would be quite wrong. I fear that to remove the prohibition on intentionally promoting homosexuality, by itself, will be a green light to those who want to corrupt children.
At the heart of the debate is the issue of sex education. I never had any sex education, at least I do not recall it. No doubt it is necessary to give children in maintained schools some simple explanation of the process of reproduction and the details of contraception, but it seems to me that sex education has got out of hand. Most ordinary people would be appalled if they were to see the material now used by a small minority as a basis for sex education.
Of the many letters that I have received on this subject I was particularly struck by one I received from a secondary school teacher in Wales from which I should like to quote. The lady wrote:
"I am on the front line in the sense that I have to teach Personal and Social Education (which includes Sex Education) and I am involved in helping pupils pastorally. I have read some sex education resources being used currently by a minority of local authorities which have managed to slip through the net, and I am both appalled and immensely disturbed by what I have seen. If Section 28 were repealed then it would be highly likely that these resources could spread throughout the country, and I might have to end up using them in my teaching. I am no prude, but the information contained is highly explicit and encourages pupils to experiment with homosexuality . . . Furthermore, it seems that there is a false belief that more explicit sex education at increasingly younger ages will solve the problems of teenage pregnancies and the growing crisis of sexually transmitted diseases. I see no evidence of this at all. Indeed in my experience, many pupils are sexually active and promiscuous at a younger age than ever before. It is time some limits were drawn".
I welcome and support the amendments which have been proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and by my noble friend Lord Palmer, especially the need for parents to know what the materials used are, both for children and to brief teachers, and to see the material for themselves. I warmly welcome subsection (2A)(e)(i) of Amendment No. 91. There is also a need to stop, or at least closely to control, those other than teachers who come in to take part in sex education. I think that subsection (2A)(e)(ii) of Amendment No. 91 is also important. Our children deserve not the debasing of sex that is encapsulated in the injunction for 13 year-olds quoted by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, "try experimenting with other boys and girls and see what you feel most comfortable with", recommended by Gloucestershire and East Sussex County Councils, but the experience, if they are lucky, of the magic of life-long love.
My Lords, influence on teenagers comes from a number or sources—from parents, from teachers, from peer group and from the media. In those contradictory influences we give to children choice, which is the most precious thing that one can give to a young person. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in her Amendment No. 91 has attempted to elevate parents to a position of sovereignty in this web—and is therefore pulling the web apart.
Our teachers and local authorities are not the European Union—they do not deserve to be treated in that way. Parents come in all shapes and sizes. I knew one who said that there was no credit in loving her children, it was like loving one's big toe. That is a proprietary attitude which is not always in the interests of the children. If it had chanced that my father had been the father of the noble Baroness, she might have wanted more to have been protected from his influence than by him. As my noble friend Lady Scott said, there is also a big problem with parents for children who are homosexual. I have discussed this with pupils who want to come out. The one matter that most terrified them was their parents knowing their state. If one works on teenage homelessness, as I have done from time to time, it is full of cases of people who have been thrown out because their parents discovered that they were homosexual.
Parents should have strong influence on their children. They should not have absolute power. No one should have that over another human being. It is because this amendment builds up the absolute power of parents that, thinking what the noble Baroness knows I think about Section 28, I even prefer Section 28 to this amendment. It is possible that the Secretary of State might think the same, which is why the noble Lord, Lord Alli, was right to say that this was a wrecking amendment.
My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, talks about the importance of giving choice to children. I accept that this is a hugely important part of parental responsibility. But it seems to me—and we are talking here about children of young and vulnerable age—that the most important thing we can give to them is guidance. That is exactly what my noble friend's amendment is about.
I had no intention of speaking today. Unlike other noble Lords, I have not participated in the debate so far. But the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, made reference to a letter that was circulated to your Lordships on this subject. I fully understand that at times it is difficult for your Lordships to be in their places at the appropriate time. It is interesting to note that of the five people who wrote the letter, only one is in his place at the moment—my noble friend Lord Norton. The rest are not in their places. That does not mean that they do not feel strongly about the subject, but, having gone to the trouble to write the letter, at the very least they could have attempted to be in their places during today's debate.
I have one other point. My noble friend suggested that we should address our remarks to the points she raised. I crave her indulgence and that of the whole House as I move on to one other item, which I think is incredibly important. It appears once again in the letter which your Lordships received. I find it extraordinary that the five noble Lords who put their names to the letter should suggest that the debates that have taken place on this subject, which they describe as,
"highly emotive and divisive debates", should thus far have done the public reputation of this House little good. I am sorry, but I take extreme exception to that.
I believe that quite the reverse has happened. The letters that I have received—and there have been more on this subject than on virtually any other—have been totally supportive of the actions of your Lordships over the years on the question of Section 28. And let us not forget that the duty of this House is to subject legislation to full and proper scrutiny in a way which sadly does not happen now in another place. That is what we are doing, and we should continue to do so. Anyone who suggests otherwise is in my opinion taking a very dim view of your Lordships' House.
My Lords, I had not intended to speak because I felt that noble Lords had made many of the points I wanted to make. What I shall say focuses on two questions that I want to put to the noble Baroness. I begin by saying that it seems to me that all noble Lords have at the core of their hearts the protection and development of children. We may come at it from very different positions.
If we had been discussing Section 28, I should have been speaking on behalf of its repeal. As a Christian and a childcare enthusiast and worker for many years, I would have exactly the same standing as people whom I respect—and I do respect the position of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch—for taking a different view on these issues. It is our responsibility to think through the issues. I have thought very carefully this afternoon because the noble Baroness's amendment has many attractions.
Having sat through the debate, I want to tell the House why I shall not be voting in favour of the amendment having thought about it during the afternoon; and I have listened very openly. I have two questions, which were encapsulated for me by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. The first question is: what happens in a classroom after the late night show or after a child has picked up the magazine I picked up in my hotel last night called Elle, which I thought was an ordinary magazine for females? I do not read many of those magazines. As I flicked through it I read story after story of lurid sex. I am sure that that magazine is on the coffee table of many middle class homes. I am sure that many children I have worked with actually listen to and watch those TV programmes. I, too, caught one recently: I learnt a great deal. But these things are there for children as well as for adults to see, which I do not think we can deny.
So what happens in the classroom on the Tuesday morning after the programme when the child asks the question: what is oral anal sex? What are these other things that they see on television? Does the teacher say, "I cannot engage in a discussion about this." What does that do in terms of mystique? I would much rather that a child for whom I was responsible had a direct answer to that question than for them to come home with real queries, even though someone in another place had voted against that happening. I would give them a reasonable answer. We know the level of child poverty. I do not have the numbers in front of me because this was not the speech that I was going to make. But there are many children who go back to homes where they could not even admit to the question.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, mentioned the many children who are worried about their sexual development. For many years I was the chief executive of Childline. Last year Childline counselled 16,000 children who were confused about their sexuality. This does not mean that they thought they were one thing or the other, they just did not understand about their sexuality. It says something about present sex education in this country if that is happening with children. If teachers are prevented from giving education, then it would be even more difficult.
They talked to 124 youngsters, mostly boys, who were concerned about being homophobic. The stories of children speak for themselves. I spoke to a youngster whom I will call Bill. He was 15 and very distressed. He had been called names and experienced homophobic bullying at school which, as we all know, is a result of Section 28. He could not talk to his teacher who told him to go home and talk to his parents. Bill's father was extremely homophobic. He knew he would be beaten. He had been beaten anyway. That child decided to run away. If he runs away, he ends up on the streets of London. We know what happens to young homosexual boys and men on London streets. They get into the sex industry. I worked with youngsters involved in that. Once in that industry, the children do not get out of it. That is the long-term consequence of not helping children to understand the nature of what goes on.
When I was younger I do not really remember my sex education, although I think I had it, but the world now is a very different place. If we are to protect our young people then we have to make absolutely sure that every child has proper sex education. I have the utmost confidence in teachers and in my very long experience I have never seen the material to which the noble Baroness refers. I feel sorry about that. It is something that I should have seen. I have great confidence that our teachers will convey to young people the right information. They will be able to answer their questions and therefore give them the protection and care that they rightly deserve. I hope that your Lordships will reject the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch.
My Lords, I have taken a few soundings not least from the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. There seems to be a feeling that perhaps we could move reasonably soon towards a vote.
My Lords, I must put on record our party policy to repeal Section 28. It was stated in our manifesto as:
"A section which gives legal sanction to discrimination, preventing schools taking effective measures against bullying and hampering responsible sex education."
The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, has summed up very well the positions and the dilemmas. As the recipient of an absolutely hopeless sex education, I feel strongly that children should be given the opportunity to ask questions and to receive answers. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, spoke of teachers who are "wrecks" when dealing with the subject. I suspect that that is in part because of the generation of children, now grown up, who are not able to deliver good sex education.
Amendment No. 91 imposes the element of conditionality that goes to the repeal of Section 28 and requires the Secretary of State to provide a certificate in respect of each school. On checking with the Library, I find that in this country there are some 34,538 schools. I do not wish to detain the House, but that conditionality is a fundamental point of the vote today. To agree to an amendment which many noble Lords have illustrated is impracticable and unworkable would mean that we would not be repealing Section 28 in the unencumbered fashion that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, suggested.
My Lords, 16 noble Lords have spoken in the past hour and a half, so the speeches have been brief and I shall try to be equally swift in my response. First, this is a free vote. Secondly, I suspect that there is not a soul in this place who will change their vote as the result of anything that I say in the next few minutes.
I wish to make a few brief points. First, let us not beat about the bush: this is about keeping Section 28 on the statute book. That would be the consequence of the amendments. I say that because the Government have no intention of organising polls in 30,000 schools. That is out of the question. If the amendment is carried, Section 28 would stay. We need to get that point out of the way at the start.
As regards my own experience, I have nothing to declare. I am not a parent and this is the first time I have sat in a debate such as this. I have never spoken on the issue before, but the experience of friends of mine who are parents certainly bears out what has been said in our debate. However, as a Member of Parliament I did not encounter any problems from teachers, school governors or children following the legislation in 1987.
I can recall some of my own sex education at Handsworth Technical School for Boys in Birmingham. Basically we were told to be careful when going into public lavatories, mainly to make sure that the seat was clean as much as anything else. Our education amounted to gross embarrassment and we all thought "Thank heavens" when self-service chemists came along. That is the reality of it, but one criticism made in a document sent in is that children might be embarrassed when they go into a chemist to buy contraceptives.
I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, is in his place. I recall his very courageous action on behalf of the government of the day on the HIV and AIDS campaign. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, the former Prime Minister, for backing him. To distribute to every household in the country those warnings about HIV infection in such an explicit fashion was a very brave thing to do. More education came out of that campaign in terms of changing sexual practices than practically anything that has taken place in our schools. But much of it has been forgotten and it bears repeating.
Secondly, I regret to say that in some ways the atmosphere on this issue is almost the same as it was on 8th December 1987 in Commons Standing Committee A on the Local Government Bill. I was a member of that committee on the Opposition Front Bench. I did not reply to the amendment; that was the task of my right honourable friend Jack Cunningham. The atmosphere in that committee was one of suspicion, fear, accusation and the misquoting of various materials that were circulating at the time. Contrary to the myths that have been perpetuated, we did not vote on it. Noble Lords can check the record and see that the section went into the statute book in Committee without a vote. A vote seeking to amend it was taken later on Report—on an amendment that sought to improve sex education—but it was voted down. Earlier this afternoon I checked the record and found that the honourable Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey, Simon Hughes, moved the amendment.
I do not want to argue about the number of schools in England. I think that there are around 20,000 primary schools and 4,000 secondary schools. That leads me to believe that there are at least a third of a million people functioning as school governors in England alone. With that many schools, there must be at least 50,000 parent governors. I have to say, in all honesty, that if there was a problem that was reasonably or even partially widespread, given the number of lay people involved in school governing bodies, which of course have legal authority in this matter—not the councillors on local education authorities—we would be hearing about it day in and day out. The fact is we do not. Less than one per cent of parents withdraw their offspring from sex education classes.
I shall respond to some of the points made in the debate. First, I shall take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in respect of taking sex seriously. The note that I have been given says that 11-year-olds would never be taught the issues identified by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. The teachers' pack provided an approach to use if the children raise certain issues. That is part of the issue—how do the teachers respond? They are not there to be proactive—they are there to respond. Local authorities, head teachers and governors cannot ignore or contradict the guidance. The materials mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, were part of a reading list for teachers, not for pupils. It is crucial to bear that in mind.
Many of the children's organisations referred to by several noble Lords have asked for the repeal of Section 28. None has seen the need for additional protection with which to replace it. That is partly because there are other organisations that look after young people in other areas. For example, Ofsted deals with youth clubs and reports on local education authorities. Anyone would think that outside the schools there is no mechanism. However, we would hear from Ofsted if there were a problem in youth clubs, because the LEA would be checked out in that respect.
There are indeed some myths about. I will not go through some of the quotes that have been read out, and I will certainly not return to the LGA memorandum, whether if was from the LGA or not, although I note that no one in the course of this debate has said that any of the points made in it were factually incorrect. That is worth noting. Sometimes we have been given a full sentence instead of the part of a sentence that was given in other briefs. It is also useful to note that.
This is not a government issue—this is a free vote—but I should point out that the amendments seek to introduce new mechanisms for consulting parents on specific issues. However, those issues are not set out, and it is clear that would be a minefield in itself. The amendments propose that local authorities would undertake polls. We would argue once again that the framework that is already in place that ensures that parents have a voice in what is taught in schools has been ignored. The role played by local authorities in sex education has been misunderstood. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has referred to only two authorities, and I do not propose to go into rebuttals that could come from either of them. One is Labour-controlled and one is Tory-controlled, so this is not an issue of political affiliation.
Decisions about sex education in schools are made by head teachers and governors. I will repeat that: decisions about sex education in schools are made by head teachers and governors, having regard to the Government's guidance, which they are not able to ignore. The sex and relationship education guidance specifically addresses the issue of parental involvement, making it clear that it should be ongoing. The guidance says that it is essential that parents be regularly consulted on sex education in schools, particularly when the contents are being reviewed.
As long as a school has regard to the government guidance by involving parents in devising policy, there should be no reason for parents to object to the content of sex and relationship education. However, if they do, they can raise their concerns with school and the Secretary of State for Education. They can withdraw their children from all or part of the sex and relationship education provided by the school, except for those parts included in the statutory national curriculum for science. In practice, as I have said, very small numbers—less than one per cent—choose to do so.
We submit that this is a robust framework that works well. It is fairly new in some ways—it was not on the horizon in 1987, so I am not making that comparison—but it works well. To propose parental polling on sex education by local authorities is unnecessary, bureaucratic, potentially divisive and not the way to decide the content of an effective sex and relationship education programme for our children in their schools. So I shall be voting against the amendment.
My Lords, I know that noble Lords are anxious to get away and I shall be brief, but the noble Lord almost accused me of being dishonest about the material in my reference to Taking Sex Seriously. So if noble Lords will forgive me, perhaps I may read a lesson plan for 11-plus children. The objective of the lesson plan is:
"To learn about the full range of sexual activities.
The time required is one hour. The materials required are:
"Lots of strips of card or paper (size about 8 inches by 4 inches). Marker pens. Bluetack".
The literacy level is expected to be medium. The plan states:
"Explain the purpose of the exercise.
"Ask people to move into groups of three and give them a bundle of strips of card or paper.
"Ask them to think about all the different sexual activities two people can do together. Ask them to write each one on a separate strip of card large enough so that it can be seen if put up on the wall. Tell them they can put down whatever they think of and that it is best if they do it in a specific way. E.g. rather than just 'oral sex' they might put 'sucking a man's penis' or 'licking a woman's clitoris'. (Some examples of sexual activities are given below. You"— the teacher—
"may need to give a few examples to get the group thinking on the right lines".
I stand here as a mother and simply say that for 11 pluses in schools that is outrageous.
I have been staggered at the aggressive reluctance to trust parents. I have moved away from pontificating from on high about what thou shalt and shalt not do. Parents are best placed to know what is right for their children. I was also staggered at a point made earlier: that teachers would be appalled to put that trust in the hands of parents. All good teachers—most of them are good teachers—would welcome that partnership with parents, which would be strengthened by my amendments.
So much has been said that misinterprets what my amendments are about. They are not about keeping Section 28 in disguise. I expect Section 28 to be repealed. The aims of my amendment are simple: that in the light of the repeal of Section 28, the protection of children from the worst form of sex education should be strengthened, so that power is wrested from the Secretary of State and placed in the hands of parents.
I respect parents. They are best placed and the best people to make the judgments. I trust them to know what is best for their children. Tonight, I shall support them and ask other noble Lords to do the same. I beg to test the opinion of the House.
moved Amendment No. 21:
Page 74, line 31, at end insert—
"(2) For the avoidance of doubt, it is hereby declared that nothing in this section affects the duties and powers of the Secretary of State to make rules and issue guidance in connection with sex education under section 148 of the Learning and Skills Act 2000 (c. 21) amending the Education Act 1996 (c. 56)."
It appears that the melodrama is over and a rather insignificant act follows.
I move the amendment for two reasons. The first is because there ought to be no controversy on the subject of education and children, and I wish the Bill to become one with reasoning behind it. Secondly, I hope that a resolution will be passed that finds favour in another place. That will accomplish two things. First, we will have escaped—if that is the appropriate word—the hammer of the Parliament Acts being invoked. Secondly, we will have achieved something by way of guidance to teachers in our schools.
Many of us remember the debates on this matter in the past. I believe I am right in saying that the bishops took a prominent part in trying to see whether a Bill could be enacted that would favour guidance being given to teachers in terms acceptable to everyone. I shall read exactly what transpired after that. Then, no doubt to your Lordships' pleasure, I shall sit down.
The Bill that followed from some of our discussions was the Learning and Skills Bill. Anyone who was seeking to know what happened with regard to our discussions on the matter of Section 28 would look up the Act under which it was being dealt—the Local Government Act 1988—and would find the word "repealed". That means that a number of people would not know what had happened and would think that Parliament had decided, after all, that what was behind that section was not the policy of Parliament. Parliament wanted clarity of view and that clarity was, "We have repealed it because we do not agree with what it says". In those circumstances, this fact was passed as an Act:
"The Secretary of State must issue guidance designed to secure that when sex education is given to pupils at maintained schools— (a) they learn the nature of marriage and the importance for family life and the bringing up of children".
"(b) they are protected from teaching and materials which are inappropriate having regard to the age and the religious and cultural background of the pupils concerned.
1(B) In discharging their functions under subsection (1) governing bodies and head teachers must have regard to the Secretary of State's guidance".
I should have thought that following on the vote which has just taken place—and indeed even if it had had a different result—that would be acceptable to the House and, one would hope, also to another place. Then we would have a clear view as to what Parliament had intended. I beg to move.
My Lords, Amendment No. 21, moved by my noble friend, seeks to provide an assurance that the repeal of Section 28, to which the House has just agreed, will not affect the duties and powers of the Secretary of State for Education to issue guidance in respect of sex education. I can without any qualification give my noble friend that assurance. Therefore, we do not believe it necessary to put the words on the statue book.
The Education Act 1996 as amended by the Learning and Skills Act 2000 clearly sets out the duties of the Secretary of State to issue guidance designed to secure that, where sex education is given to pupils in maintained schools, they learn the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and they are protected from teaching and materials which are inappropriate. Those arrangements will be entirely unaffected by the repeal of Section 28. No changes are made to the Education Act as a result of the amendments associated with repeal of Section 28 that will in any way affect the role, powers or duties of the Secretary of State for Education. There is no doubt on that score. Therefore, we do not believe that any confirmation of it is required on the face of the legislation.
My noble friend's amendment has nevertheless been very useful by allowing the position to be so clearly stated in Hansard immediately after the preceding debate.
had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 22:
After Clause 121, insert the following new clause—
"PROMOTION OF PARTICULAR SEXUAL LIFESTYLES (1) Subject to the general principle that the institution of marriage is to be supported, a local authority shall not encourage, or publish material intended to encourage, the adoption of any particular sexual lifestyle.
(2) This section does not prohibit the provision for young persons of sex education or counselling services on sexual behaviour and associated health risks."
moved Amendment No. 23:
After Clause 121, insert the following new clause—
"Openness in relation to the Mayor
(a) the Mayor was a local authority executive,
(b) a reference to an individual member of such an executive referred to either the Mayor or to a person or body mentioned in section 38(2) to whom an authorisation has been given by the Mayor under section 38(1), and
(c) any occasion on which either the Mayor or such a person or body exercises any function of the Authority (whether such a function is exercisable by him solely or by him jointly with the Assembly on the Authority's behalf) was a meeting of a local authority executive, but with the modifications contained in subsections (2) to (4) below.
(2) Any reference in section 22 of that Act to a committee of a local authority executive, or to a sub-committee of such a committee, shall be disregarded.
(3) A reference in section 22 of that Act to an overview and scrutiny committee, or to a sub-committee of such a committee, is a reference—
(a) to the Assembly;
(b) if the Assembly has appointed a committee or committees under section 54, to such a committee or committees (being ordinary committees within the meaning of section 55(1)) as the Assembly shall designate under subsection (4).
(4) The Assembly shall designate a committee or committees for the purpose of discharging an overview and scrutiny committee's functions under section 22 of that Act, provided that section 54 shall not apply to its functions under this subsection."
(2) In section 420(8) of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 (regulations and orders) after "section 25;" there is inserted "section 38A;"."
My Lords, Amendment No. 23 brings us to quite a different topic—access to information in relation to the Mayor of London. I should again declare an interest as a Member of the London Assembly and currently the chair.
The amendment is not attempting to impose detailed provisions at this point. It simply proposes a regulation-making power to enable the Mayor of London, currently the only local authority executive—a technically correct term, although I use it in the wider sense here—not subject to the access to information provisions in the Local Government Act 2000, to be made subject to them.
I wrote to the mayor when I tabled this amendment in Committee assuring him that it was not an attack on his style of government and I repeat that now. It is attempting to use a rare legislative opportunity to rectify what I believe is perhaps an oversight in the drafting of the Greater London Authority Act. There are so few opportunities for amending primary legislation that I could not let this opportunity pass.
The amendment is intended to be a regulation-making power. The application of legislation in the area of access to information is changing fairly fast. Freedom of information provisions will come into effect quite soon. At that point I believe that the Mayor of London, whoever he may be, will have to have in place arrangements to ensure compliance, which will include a flow of information, a particular context for reporting, and making the decision-making process open and transparent.
Although I appreciate that there are difficulties inherent in the access to information provisions which apply to executives now concerning when important key decisions are to be made, nevertheless, it does not seem appropriate that a single executive is exempt from the regime. There are provisions in the Act which enable the Assembly to require the mayor, the staff, the chairs of the functional bodies and their staff, to produce information and to appear before it and be questioned.
As a matter of practice, they are matters which the Assembly regard as being like a sledgehammer. It would be far more appropriate to have a routine arrangement in place which would enable the Assembly, elected to fulfil a scrutiny role, to have sight of those decisions and warning of them, and allow the public to have access to them.
I do not believe that I could ever be accused of crawling to the mayor so I have no fear of repeating it. This is not an attack on the way in which he conducts matters. He has committed himself to the GLA being the most open and transparent government that the UK has ever seen. I do not believe that this is the time to debate whether he has yet achieved that. It is not an attack on what he is doing at the moment. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have to put it on record that I have never considered the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, to be a crawler. She knows in her heart that the Government are not going to give on this, but we shall be more generous as regards a later amendment.
I am slightly puzzled by the amendment because the GLA and the mayoral system, as designed by legislation, is one of the most open and transparent bodies that legislators have provided compared with other forms of public authority. What the noble Baroness seeks to achieve is effectively already there.
Perhaps I may list the key openness provisions which are in place. There has to be a statement of executive decisions as soon as is practical after they are made. All the meetings are held in public, unless they are commercially sensitive. A forward plan has to be published for all the executive functions, whether it is from leading figures within the Assembly, the mayor or a council manager; they have to produce a plan each month.
There has to be a report on key GLA decisions—that is established in statute in Section 45 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999. A mayoral question time is established under the same section. All Assembly meetings are in public by virtue of Section 58. The committees have to be held in public as well. They have to give proper notice and documentation has to be publicly available.
I turn to attendance at Assembly meetings. The Assembly can summon people, including the mayor, Assembly members, functional body board members, Authority staff, and functional body staff to give evidence at its meetings and to give evidence at its meetings and to produce documentation.
Section 47 of the GLA Act establishes an annual state of London debate, which has to be held shortly after the mayor's annual report. It has to be in public and there has to be an opportunity for the public to speak. There is also that great innovation, the people's question time, which takes place twice a year. I should say that my local authority launched that innovation. It took place at every council meeting. Twice a year the people's question time takes place—it is written in statute; it has to happen and the public can put any matter of interest, public concern or embarrassment to the mayor directly.
I do not think that the Authority or the mayor can easily hide away matters that should be in public. I join the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in giving credit to the mayor. He is one of those people in public life who believes in openness and transparency. He has promoted them in his personal style and the Assembly has joined with him. He has been vigorous and clear-sighted in making good use and ensuring good use is made of the openness arrangements.
Much as I understand the spirit behind the amendment, I do not think it is necessary. What it seeks to achieve is already there. I pay tribute to both the mayor and the Assembly for the way in which they have operated and hope that the open and transparent process of which they have made great use continues into the future. I do not think that the amendment would add anything to the processes already in place.
My Lords, I am not so sure that I know in my heart that the amendment will not go anywhere, but I know it in my head because the Minister told me so before we came into the Chamber. Of course there are mechanisms. We have people's question time, which is good fun. It is particularly good fun with the current mayor because he is such a good performer. Those are occasions where large numbers of people—and they have been large numbers—are able to raise issues of concern, and it is right that they should, but that is not the same as finding out precisely what the mayor is doing and intends to do.
The state of London debate now takes the form of a television programme. It is good entertainment for those of us interested in these matters at 10.30 on a Tuesday night watching people whom we tend to know—they are often the usual suspects—using "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?"-type voting methods by which they let the audience advise them. I shall leave that aside.
The access to information regulations to which I referred are about executive mayors having to publish in advance a proposed decision, having an agenda and reports and a record of the decision made in public. Ironically, the London Assembly, which has minimal powers, is exposed to 100 per cent scrutiny because all those regulations apply to the Assembly. The mayor, who has almost all the GLA's executive powers, is not subject to them.
I hear what the noble Lord says. I rather doubt that I shall be able to retrieve enough people to come back to the Chamber to vote on this amendment in order to obtain the outcome that I should like. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
moved Amendment No. 24:
After Clause 121, insert the following new clause—
(1) Section 52 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 (c. 29) (meetings of the whole Assembly) is amended as follows.
(2) After subsection (3) there is inserted—
"(3A) A meeting of the Assembly held under subsection (3) shall not be held within 21 days of the date when the last such meeting was held."
(3) In subsection (6)(b) for "28" there is substituted "21".
(4) Subsection (7) is omitted."
My Lords, I know in my heart that this might go somewhere. I am not able to read the code signalled by the Minister and so I do not know whether I should speed up or slow down.
Amendment No. 24 concerns the meetings of the London Assembly. It seeks to rectify a technical but very irritating difficulty. At present, the assembly is not required to give notice of the Mayor's question time until the previous Mayor's question time has taken place but it must give 28 days' notice. It is perfectly reasonable that Mayor's question times should not be bunched because if the Mayor and the majority of the assembly were ever of the same political party it would be possible for them to be in cahoots and bunch together all the meetings, possibly even over August when the press are not very active.
My amendment seeks to address that point and to make the notice period shorter so that there is more flexibility in the programme. Even though the diary would normally be set many months in advance, it would be possible to make a change without being caught by these very tight provisions.
I believe that the amendment meets the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, in Committee. His view was that the Mayor should have time to report and that the public should receive sufficient notice to enable them to attend the meetings. Therefore, I hope that the amendment, or something very similar to it, will find its way into the final version of the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, at present the London Assembly is required to hold 10 mayoral question time meetings each year. There is a requirement that at least 28 days' notice be given of any such meeting. The practical effect of that is that the meetings will always be at least 28 days apart. Amendment No. 24 would reduce the notice period and the minimum time between each meeting from 28 to 21 days.
It is important for the effective scrutiny of the London Mayor that the mayoral question time meetings should continue to be spread relatively evenly throughout the whole year. We are also keen that adequate notice should be given of the meetings so that the Mayor and others attending the meetings have time to prepare and so that members of the public have time to make arrangements to attend if they so wish.
I listened carefully to the debate on this issue in Committee. We fully understand that the GLA has experienced some difficulties with timetabling the meetings. We appreciate that the amendment seeks to resolve those difficulties. As I explained when the noble Baroness raised this issue in Committee, there are a number of technical defects in her amendment, and therefore, in those circumstances, the Government cannot accept it.
However, having considered the matter very carefully since the Committee stage, we have considerable sympathy with the concerns raised by the amendment. Therefore, what I say today is designed to be helpful. We want to explore the issues further before Third Reading and, as part of that, we shall offer the noble Baroness an early meeting so that we can resolve the matter fully to everyone's satisfaction.
I have seen the various options laid out in the letter that the noble Baroness was kind enough to send to me and to the Mayor and others. Obviously, if the noble Baroness has identified a problem here, then we shall want to sort it out. It will help to ensure that the extra layer of openness and transparency, to which I referred earlier, is available in the multiple ways that access to information, and so on, is provided for in the GLA and by the Mayor and that it is further enhanced. We want to ensure that we underpin and underwrite that. Therefore, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel that I have addressed the issue, and I hope that she will now be happy to withdraw her amendment with the promise of exploratory talks to sort out the problem.
My Lords, as long ago as 1970 the age of eligibility to vote in public elections was reduced from 21 to 18. However, the age at which an individual can stand for election remains at 21, and my amendment seeks to reduce the age of eligibility to 18.
The Local Government Information Unit recently commissioned an independent inquiry into local governance and recommended that the age of candidature for local elections should be reduced to 18. It felt that that was especially important in local elections, for which there is generally a very poor turn-out, particularly among those in the youngest age range. It believed, and I agree, that reducing the age of candidature would be a step towards encouraging young people to vote and to play an active role in local government in their areas.
The British Youth Council gave written evidence to the commission. It cited research showing that young people do not engage in the political processes, not because they are apathetic but because they see politicians as negative and unrepresentative of their views. That view is rather supported by the report of the Hansard Society, published in December 2001. It considered why people failed to vote in the 2001 general election and found that many of the young people who did not vote were very active in interest groups and that some of them were even members of political parties, but that they did not vote then because they felt that it would make no difference to their areas or their lives. I believe that the large number of people who turned out to march against the war demonstrates that they are not apathetic but that they care.
The Government have quite rightly introduced citizenship lessons for young people in schools, so it is possible that young adults will be quite politically aware at the age of 16. Nevertheless, they will have to wait two years before they can vote and five years before they can stand for election to their local councils. I have been unable to find many activities in relation to which 21 remains the age of eligibility. The only one of which I am aware is the requirement to be 21 to hold a heavy goods vehicle licence. It seems to me rather odd that we can trust young people to be soldiers at the age of 18 but not to be members of the allotments sub-committee of their local district council.
I hope that the Government will look sympathetically at the principle behind this amendment, even though I have not quite got the technicality right. I beg to move.
My Lords, in supporting the amendment, I would like to quote a passage from my grandfather's diary in 1864. He was standing as a parliamentary candidate in a by-election on behalf of the Leeds Radical Workingmen's Association. He said:
"Either the working class have a separate interest from the rest of the community or they do not. If they do, the injustice of denying them the suffrage is greater than even Mr Bright has ever maintained it to be, and, if not, why so much fuss?".
I believe that a large number of issues come before a local authority in which people between 18 and 21 have interests that tend to be different from those of others. One might mention, for example, leisure facilities. In particular, there is an interest in late-night transport. I remember very vividly from the days when I was courting that she lived in Notting Hill and I lived in Hornsey. The issue of late-night transport was ever present.
I believe, therefore, that there is a separate interest. I have no idea of the views of Mr Bright, but I think that to deny them the right to be councillors is a greater injustice than even the Liberal Democrat youth and students have ever maintained it to be.
My Lords, I support the amendment. I have indicated my support on previous occasions for lowering the qualifying age for candidature for public office. It is right that lowering to 18 the age at which one qualifies for election would bring the age into line with the voting age, but there is no reason why the two should be the same. In many countries they are not. My view is that if one lowers one age, one can make a greater case for lowering the qualifying age for public office. The reason is that lowering the voting age to 18 empowers 18 year-olds. When one provides for 18 year-olds to stand for office, one empowers the electorate. The choice available to the electorate is widened.
The important point is not about candidates—they may be immature or they may not be—but about electors deciding whether they want candidates to speak for them. That is the fundamental point. My view is that the matter should be widened as much as possible and then it is up to the electors. If the electorate want someone who is not good, it is entirely up to them. I can see no argument against widening the choice. Although 18 year-olds would be allowed to stand, they would have to go through a certain process before becoming candidates as it is not an open matter like using a vote. I believe that there is a very powerful argument for lowering the qualifying age for candidature for public office. I believe that that case is stronger than the case that was made for lowering the voting age to 18, which took place in 1969. I believe that this change is long overdue and I add my support to the amendment.
My Lords, there are some serious anomalies concerning the age of candidature. One could make the case that people should hold public office only if they have a certain amount of life experience. I believe that in the United States there are different qualifying ages for being a member of the House of Representatives or the Senate or even for being President. However, it is difficult to see what additional learning experience comes from saying that one has to wait three years after being entitled to vote before one can stand for public office. I believe that it is a matter that should be considered.
I would add a caution—not that any noble Lords have suggested that this would be the case—that somehow this will magically open the floodgates and that large numbers of young people will stand for office. I speak as someone who was at one time the youngest member of my local authority. I do not believe that very different kinds of people will come forward to stand for election. I believe that the signal that it will provide will be extremely important. I hope that the Government will give some indication that this matter is under active consideration.
My Lords, I appreciate that this is a probing amendment to see what possibilities there are for lowering the age. I have some sympathy with the amendment, but I do not think that it is something that could simply be incorporated into the Bill without further consideration. It is true that people can do much at 18, including vote and one comes of age at 18, so there is a rationale behind this. Although I do not support the amendment being included in the Bill, it is worth consideration. If the Minister would give such an assurance I am sure that we would all be happy to make observations on it.
My Lords, the amendment would mean joining together the age of standing for election and the age for voting for local authorities. While saying that we believe that it would be wrong to accept the new clause now—I have some words to say that are good and positive—it would pre-empt the findings of the Electoral Commission, which is currently undertaking a review of the age of candidacy along with the voting age. The review commenced only on 27th February this year. The commission is planning to conduct consultation in the summer and will make its recommendations early next year. At that stage the Government will carefully consider any recommendations that the commission has to make. Given the fact that that work is taking place, I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, said about who becomes empowered under such a change. I freely admit that I am a little conservative about the age in the other place.
I only once wrote a Bill, in 1995. I went to the Library one night and tried to write a Bill from a policy document. It is not the easiest thing to do as a humble Back Bencher, as I was at the time—I had never sat on the Front Bench. The Bill was to convert the Labour Party policy document about elections and changes, one of which was to bring forward the Electoral Commission, to convert the Plant report into legislation. I produced a Bill in March 1995. Part of that proposal was to change the age of being able to be elected. In order to make the change I had to go back and find out where it appeared in legislation. I found out that the current legislation—it shows what a disgrace this place is; it is unbelievable—requiring that one has to be 21 to stand for election to the other place, but it apples also to local government, is contained in the Parliamentary Elections Act 1695. The reference is,
There is only one section of that Act on the statute book—Section 7. The side title is,
"Infants not to be elected".
It is worth repeating, and it states,
"And that no person hereafter shall be capable of being elected a member to serve in this or any future Parliament who is not of the age of one-and-twenty years and every election or return of any person under that age is hereby declared to be null and void. And if any such minor hereafter chosen shall presume to sit or vote in Parliament he shall incur such penalties and forfeiture as if he had presumed to sit and vote in Parliament without being chosen or returned".
That is currently the law of this land in 2003. The legislation is over 300 years old. There might be other parts that are older, but I hope that the Electoral Commission gets to work with this, as we certainly need to update our legislation.
My Lords, I was about to make the same point. The Act to which the Minister referred was not fully enforced until after 1832. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, is right. Many were elected under-age, including Charles James Fox, who entered Parliament at the age of 19. I gather that research carried out by the excellent History of Parliament has actually found some Members were returned at the age of 15. So there are precedents if one lowers the age. It might be that one may wish to choose someone below the age of 21.
My Lords, I should not have done that; it was totally out of order. Although we have changed the age of majority from 21 down to 18, in fact there is virtually no age between about the age of five and 21 where there is not some restriction. I remember dealing with the question when I was a Home Office Minister. Someone set all this out for me. There are all kinds of odd age restrictions, even concerning buying chemicals. There is a whole series. There might be a couple of years between five and 21 when there is no restriction on what the individual can do. But all the way up the age range there is a huge number of limitations based on age. It shows just how pathetic this place is at modernising its legislation, if nothing else. To be positive, I hope that with the Electoral Commission's review we shall have a consultation and a report, which will be published next year, and then we shall be able to get our teeth into it.
My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have made a contribution. It is an unexpected gem at the end of a long afternoon. I am also grateful to the Minister for his positive replies. I am fairly happy to wait for the outcome of the Electoral Commission report—although I note in passing that having had the same legislation on the statute book since 1695 we would not wish rush into anything, would we? I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
moved Amendment No. 27:
Page 3, line 5, leave out subsections (2) to (6) and insert—
"( ) No regulations may be made under this section unless—
(a) the Secretary of State has consulted such representatives of local government as appear to him to be appropriate,
(b) he has laid before each House of Parliament a report explaining the reasons why he considers it necessary that the regulations be made, and
(c) the report has been approved by resolutions of each House of Parliament.
( ) Section 122(1) and (2) do not apply to regulations made under this section."
My Lords, we discussed this matter in Committee. The clause lays down restrictions on local authorities' ability to borrow. To borrow was one of the great flexibilities and freedoms that the Bill was intended to promote, and it is one of the areas upon which local authorities have hung their collective hats and hopes for the future.
Clause 1 gives local authorities the power to borrow. Clause 2 promptly reduces that and states that it can be limited. The amendment seeks to restrain the Secretary of State from rushing in too liberally to limit that power. We understand that the Secretary of State may have reasons—for example, macro-national reasons—that require all borrowing to be curtailed in some way. The power in the Bill would enable him to curb that borrowing.
However, we believe that before any such necessary curbing is brought forward, either for individual local authorities or in general, that there should be discussions with the local authorities—either with the Local Authority Association or individual local authorities—which might find this power reduced.
Under the amendment, we would also expect the Secretary of State to come to Parliament and explain why this borrowing power was going to be reduced. We would further ask were it to happen that it should be introduced only by affirmative resolution, so the House has another opportunity to discuss the issue.
As I said at the beginning, this power to borrow has become a major feature of the freedoms and flexibilities which local authorities are looking forward to having. So any restriction of it will be—and should be—taken extremely seriously. It is for that reason that we move the amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, as in Committee, we support the amendment of the noble Baroness. As she said, the provision gives with one hand and takes away with the other which seems to be clad with a rather tougher glove in a tougher fist. It is a pity because the Government have made so much of building a good relationship with local government. That has been referred to throughout the proceedings on the Bill.
The Government's attitude is that they want to recognise local government's responsibilities; they want to allow it to take its own decisions; and they want to reserve to themselves the right to deal with authorities which are in difficulty or which are not doing so well. Of course we have our own interpretation of the possibilities allowed by some of these provisions. But, that is not the way to build the relationship, and certainly not the way to bring struggling local authorities up to scratch.
I have had difficulty throughout with Clause 4(2) to (6), including what still seems to me to be an inconsistency between subsections (1) and (2), that the whole of this is based on the Secretary of State being able to limit borrowing for national economic reasons. One understands the rationale for that, but under subsection (2) the Secretary of State is able to set limits on borrowing by a particular local authority. I do not find those two points lie comfortably or logically with one another.
The noble Baroness has covered both the philosophical and practical points well. We support her.
My Lords, I should like to add one further point in support of my noble friend Baroness Hanham. We discussed this in Grand Committee and I should like the Minister to clarify this point. We have a prudential borrowing regime that is accepted by the professional bodies. We spoke about this at considerable length in Grand Committee. This regime is generally supported by local government. That should be enough power for the Government. The whole point of the new system is that local authorities would not be able to borrow if they could not afford it. We all recognise that this regime could be a good way forward for capital borrowing in local government. This particular power is encapsulated in the prudential borrowing regime. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, described the Minister's approach as "iron fisted". I believe it could be a slightly sinister approach where Ministers could target particular authorities when they should already be covered by the borrowing regime. We shall come back to this again because we still have not had a satisfactory response.
My Lords, this amendment is identical to one put down by the Conservatives in Grand Committee. It was supported by the Liberal Democrats as they said this afternoon and reported in Hansard cols. GC90 to GC92. It partly reflects the recommendations in Paragraph 14 of the report on the draft Bill by the Transport, Local Government and Regions Committee. The amendment has integrity behind it. However, its main effect is to require the approval of both Houses of Parliament—and require local government to be consulted—before regulations are made setting a national borrowing limit under Clause 4(1). The ODPM response was that no statutory requirement for parliamentary approval was necessary, given that any national limit would be implementing policies on public expenditure that had already received parliamentary scrutiny.
If noble Lords opposite think about it, that is a very logical and sound approach. I am surprised that they have chosen to argue their case in the way that they have. I think back to the Conservative period of government. In local government we were concerned about the impact of the very tight capital and revenue expenditure limits to which we were subjected. Although I found them very hard to live with, they were a logical part of a national economic strategy and they were argued in those terms. We were told that local government should be no different from the rest of the public sector and that the public sector had to play its part in a particular economic approach. One can argue about the ideology and the principles behind it, but it rested on logic.
I am surprised at the way in which the Opposition have moved this amendment. It would have—will have—far-reaching economic implications. It is essential that the freedom to borrow is balanced by safeguards to protect both the national economy and local taxpayers. Clause 4 gives the Government reserve powers that I do not see as sinister. Governments often have reserve powers in these situations enabling them to impose borrowing limits which would override the affordable borrowing limits set by authorities themselves under Clause 3. But those powers are for national economic reasons—the state of the economy.
The amendment has other unacceptable side effects. By deleting Clause 4(2) it would prevent a limit being set for an individual authority to stop imprudent borrowing. This would remove a valuable safeguard for local taxpayers. By deleting subsection 4(3) it would prevent different limits being set for different kinds of borrowing. It would remove a flexibility that could benefit local authorities. By deleting subsections (4) to (6), the amendment would prevent authorities from transferring spare borrowing headroom between and among themselves, something which I am sure noble Lords opposite would see as a useful and valuable flexibility within the community of local government.
Moreover, the amendment also seeks to disapply Section 122 which allows different provisions to be made in regulations for different classes of authorities. We think that that could be needed to spread more fairly and properly the impact of any national limit. For all those reasons, we think that the amendment is unwise.
I turn now to the points raised about consultation. It needs to be said simply and honestly that of course we consult with local government on matters relating to financial regulation. We do so all the time. Indeed, many noble Lords and noble Baronesses on both the Opposition Benches are well aware of that through their long involvement in local government. We listen to and take such consultation seriously because we want to get things right. We accept the advice we are given by local government representatives because, after all, they deal with these matters day in and day out. They have a clear sight and understanding of what goes on in local government. Consultation is a given and we try to ensure that it is as open and transparent as possible.
Taking all these reasons together, I cannot accept the amendment. I hope that noble Lords, in particular those on the Conservative Benches, will understand why we feel that under the circumstances this amendment is exceptionally unwise.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I am conscious of the response he gave in our previous debate in Grand Committee on 2nd June 2003 at col. GC 92 of Hansard. At that point he made it clear that, with regard to consulting local authorities, the Government had given a firm commitment to do that. However, as I understand it, that commitment applies to general local authorities and does not deal with what is set out in Clause 4(2) on the direction to a particular local authority.
I do not think it would be possible to impose a borrowing limit without some form of consultation, but having said that, perhaps it could be done. It may be a power that the Secretary of State will take to himself so that he could decide to impose it. That is not an unreasonable assumption. However, working as always on the assumption that, while Ministers in this House are nothing but reasonable and understanding, I am not so sure about the other place; and it would not be a Minister in this House who made the decision. Therefore under the terms of Clause 4(2), I hope to see that individual local authorities will be consulted.
Of course we understand that, in a national crisis, borrowing limits might have to be imposed. However, Clause 1 is very specific and has come to be regarded as a serious totem by local government: it will now have the power to borrow. That is a very new and fresh responsibility and it is one that has been warmly accepted. Then to put caveats on that freedom requires the most thorough justification—I think only for national economic reasons. Within those, there has to be proper discussion with local authorities.
I hear what the Minister has said and I have read his remarks made on the last occasion. I appreciate that he has given us a full response. For today's purposes, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, this amendment relates to Clause 8 which deals with credit arrangements such as leasing and hire purchase contracts. It empowers the Government to make regulations about the cost of such transactions so that they can be treated like borrowing and brought under the prudential and any other national limits set in accordance with Clauses 3 and 4. All of that is essential to the new system. However, Clause 8(4) contains a further regulation-making power, allowing us to impose additional restrictions on the power of a local authority to enter into credit arrangements.
An Opposition amendment in Grand Committee sought to delete subsection (4). In resisting the amendment, we tried to allay concerns about the scope of the power. To explain how we intended to use the power, we drew the Committee's attention to regulation 7 in the draft capital regulations, which we have placed in the Library.
We had in mind one, specific objective—to retain the prohibition that has existed since 1990 on using credit for anything other than the acquisition of capital assets. Long-term credit like borrowing should be used only to meet capital needs and not to pay for services and running costs. At present, that restriction appears in primary legislation, but has given rise to some technical difficulties. We therefore felt that the rule could be more effectively dealt with by regulations, and that is the reason for Clause 8(4).
The debate in Grand Committee was most helpful. We fully understand the anxieties about the provision. It is drafted in broad terms and could conceivably be used in the future to achieve ends very different from our present intentions. Though we resisted the amendment on the day, the debate persuaded us to reconsider the means of implementing this policy objective.
It is a key aim of the Bill, and one that I know has general support, to base the capital regime as far as possible on standard accounting principles rather than on special rules devised by the Government. We have therefore been examining the accounting background and we are now satisfied that modern accounting practice offers sufficient safeguard against the use of credit for revenue purposes.
An authority receiving some form of service and having the fees deferred for several years would be required to make a charge to revenue during those years, so there would be no perverse incentive to acquire services on credit. We believe, therefore, that we can now do without the additional legislative safeguard. This means that regulation 7 can be deleted from the draft capital finance regulations and therefore the power to make such a regulation is no longer needed. Accordingly, the amendment seeks to delete subsection (4), which I hope will meet with the support of the House. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am sure that it meets with the approval of those Members of the House who are left, who consist largely of those who spoke against this provision at the previous stage. I am delighted that the Government have taken this view of the matter. It was probably, although I have not gone back and checked Hansard, one of those occasions when at least one of us asked what might happen if the other lot were in control. I very much welcome what the Government have done. I hope that it does not sound patronising if I say that it is a very mature response to the situation—I do not mean that to be patronising.
My Lords, we had a considerable discussion in Committee on the use of capital receipts. We discussed at length the difficulties of part of those capital receipts being clawed back, and we also discussed the problems associated with local authorities having to hand over capital receipts and then having insufficient money to maintain the stock that they still held. One of the serious things that has happened over the years is that where local authorities have been responsible for housing stock they have not had sufficient capital to maintain it.
The amendments are intended to deal with that, especially Amendment No. 32, so that where a local authority is to hand over capital receipts to the Secretary of State, 50 per cent of that should be either held back by the local authority or returned to it specifically to deal with the cost of any capital works to any building or land which a local authority has a duty to maintain, or for a local registered landlord to have access to some of the money to repair property that is being used, effectively, for social housing purposes. That is the purpose of the amendments. I beg to move.
My Lords, the intention of my amendments, which are grouped, is similar, although they are couched differently.
Clause 11 gives the Secretary of State the right to pool capital receipts—75 per cent of receipts from the sale of council houses and 50 per cent from other assets. We debated that in Committee and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, argued that authorities' receipts from right-to-buy sales were a windfall and that the income does not arise from active asset management but from tenants' decisions to buy their homes. To many of those involved, that does not justify sequestration of all the receipts for redistribution.
Local authorities are under constant pressure to provide new, affordable housing and to make the necessary investment to bring houses up to the decent home standards. The more homes that an authority sells, the greater the need for use of capital receipts. Our amendments are a compromise. They are intended to try to persuade the Government that if local authorities are going to use the receipts for housing purposes, they should not be sequestered by the Government and redistributed.
The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, also argued that redistribution is an essential part of the housing capital finance system. It is a complex system that already incorporates an element of redistribution, but it is rather different: it does not take money from local authorities to redistribute it; it just does not distribute so much money in the first place.
There is concern about the matter. Even if the Minister is not minded to agree to any of our amendments—they may not be perfectly worded—I hope that he will agree to the principle. Even if he does not, those who will be affected want to know how the Government intend to roll forward their proposals. How will the pooled housing capital receipts be redistributed? We understand that those figures will not be available until the autumn. Many people also fear that the Government may take real money away from authorities and that any funds returned will be in the form of approval to borrow rather than actual grant.
The Government have made transitional arrangements. We understand that in the first year 75 per cent of what authorities pay into the capital receipts pool will be returned to them, provided that it is spent on housing; and that that will fall to 50 per cent and 25 per cent in succeeding years.
I am also grateful to the Minister for a copy of the letter that he sent to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford, in which he outlines a little more of his thinking. He states:
"It is wrong that a local authority rich in receipts with a relatively low housing need uses those receipts to artificially reduce their council tax while a less fortunate authority with far greater housing need is starved of funds".
I do not think that any of us disagree with that statement, but I remind the Minister that we have built the fewest number of houses since 1924 in this country. It is not houses in the private sector that make up the reduction. We have been building similar numbers of homes in the private sector year on year. However, it is in the public sector that housing has not been built. The right reverend Prelate goes on to say that without pooling receipts for all authorities, the alternatives are either higher taxes, less investment and cuts in other programmes. The programme has been cut for at least the past 20 years.
If the Government are short of money, I would remind the Minister that since this Government came to power, house price increases have meant that their take from stamp duty has been extra billions every year. Therefore, I do not find a shortage of money a compelling argument.
I hope that the Minister will look at this favourably. It seems to me that because of the cutbacks in social housing, every authority is having a problem providing affordable homes, particularly for key workers. They should be allowed to keep that money if they are investing it in affordable housing.
My Lords, I appreciate we have turned to an issue that we discussed in Committee. However, that is not a complaint on my part because this is a very important issue for local government.
These amendments are concerned with the treatment of capital receipts and limiting the housing capital receipts that may be subject to pooling or removing the power to pool housing capital receipts altogether.
Perhaps I may briefly outline how it appears to us that each of the amendments would operate. Amendment No. 29 would remove the Secretary of State's power to pool capital receipts. This would result in many authorities not getting the resources they need to meet the pressing demand for housing. That would be unacceptable.
The redistribution of housing capital receipts has been, and will remain, a fundamental principle of housing capital finance. It is right that a portion of the proceeds from the sale of council housing is available for use in the areas of greatest housing need. The current arrangements do this by requiring local authorities to set aside a percentage of their housing capital receipts.
The flaw in this system is that debt-free authorities are exempt. They do not have to set aside any of the capital receipts they receive and therefore they do not contribute to the redistribution system that lies at the heart of housing finance. Unlike other authorities, they hold on to the receipts and they can use them for whatever purpose they want. As I said repeatedly in Committee, such authorities did not manage the acquisition of receipts. The receipts were a result of the decision of the tenants, not a result of prudent management by the council. These funds are generated not because of good management and planning.
Redistribution must apply to all if it is to be fair to all. It is unacceptable that some authorities should have more resources to spend than others regardless of their needs, but simply because they are debt-free and happen by chance to be rich in right-to-buy receipts. Other authorities—of all political persuasions—that have debt and lower capital receipts but greater housing investment need will lose out if they are denied redistribution. Their citizens will also lose out. That is indefensible.
It is right that the resources generated by the sale of council housing stock should be recycled and made available for the areas of greatest need. This amendment would remove our ability to do that. The alternatives are higher taxes, less investment or cuts in other programmes.
I accept what the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, has just said but we are putting things right with the sustainable communities plan that my right honourable friend, the Deputy Prime Minister, is taking forward.
Amendment No. 32 is a half-way house. It would oblige the Secretary of State to hand back 50 per cent of pooled capital receipts to local authorities, but again with absolutely no regard to their relative housing need. This would, at a stroke, remove £600 million from the amount available for redistribution to housing authorities for investment in social housing. The effect would be the same as the amendment to which I have just referred. Those authorities who, through no fault of their own, do not happen to have large amounts of right-to-buy receipts falling in their laps will suffer.
That the funds would be ring-fenced for housing is neither here nor there. The redistribution of resources has to be targeted to housing need. The amendment does not do that.
As I have said on many occasions, it is right that the resources generated by the sale of council housing stock should be recycled and made available to the areas of greatest need. It is right that the proportion of capital receipts to be recovered is 75 per cent for dwellings and 50 per cent for land and other assets. That mirrors the level of set-aside that exists now and strikes the correct balance between the amount to be recovered to the pool and the amount that remains available to the local authority for capital use.
Amendment No. 30, like Amendment No. 29, seeks to remove the Secretary of State's power to pool capital receipts, with the negative consequences that I have outlined. However, the amendment goes further than simply denying the authorities the resources they require to meet pressing housing needs. It would allow authorities to use all the receipts from the sale of council housing for any purpose they see fit. For instance, they could bank the receipts and use the interest generated to pay for the running costs of council services and so reduce the level of council tax. As a late eminent Member of the House once said, that is selling off the family silver—or, in this case, much needed social housing to meet ordinary day-to-day expenditure. It is just not fair.
Amendment No. 31 would omit subsection (5) from Clause 11 so that the Secretary of State could not set-off any amount payable under the clause against any amount he is liable to pay the authority. It has been suggested that subsection (5) is a power enabling abuse of the pooling system for political ends. That is not true.
As I explained in Grand Committee, subsection (5) is simply an administrative measure. It is designed to deal with the situation where a local authority is liable to pay the Secretary of State a sum of money and, at the same time, he is due to pay it a sum of money. Clause 11(5) simply allows us to give the authority the difference between the two. That then saves the authority the trouble of making a cash transfer. I emphasise the point that it would have no other financial effect on the authority and would not affect the level of overall resources available to that authority. It is not a back-door method of penalising the authority in any way, shape or form.
Removal of the clause would not stop either the payment of capital receipts to the Secretary of State or the payment of subsidy grant to authorities, but simply make the process more administratively burdensome. I cannot believe that that is the intention.
I appreciate that I have used exactly the same arguments as in Committee. The trouble is that the same amendments have been tabled and we have not changed our arguments, except, of course, where we have accepted what was said in Committee—but in this case we have not.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. When we bring forward amendments for the second time, even more questions spring to mind in regard to the whole policy.
The right to buy has been strongly promulgated by some authorities and not very much by others. There is a big comparison to be made between those authorities which have right-to-buy receipts and those which have not. The question is whether those authorities which do not have receipts have followed the policy in a way which would enable them to have such capital receipts. As to those authorities which have capital receipts as a result of giving people the right to buy—and those people wishing to buy and doing so—there is a big argument as to why those capital receipts should be taken away from them.
There is still an argument in regard to the maintenance of property associated with affordable housing. Even within debt-free councils there will be properties that they still own and need to maintain.
I hear what the Minister says. I have grave concerns still about the whole policy, but I shall not do anything further tonight. I thank the Minister for what he said, but I am not sure that we will not return to this issue at Third Reading.
My Lords, I beg to move that consideration on Report be now adjourned.