Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford) : My hon. Friend will acknowledge that throughout the

Column 764

country many independents win local authority seats. Are the Government suggesting that independent councillors have no part to play? Will the Bill prohibit a local government officer earning more than £13,500 a year from standing as an independent for another local authority?

Mr. Cryer : That may be another implication of the clause, and no doubt the Minister will guide us through the minefield as to what is and what is not deemed to be political activity.

New clause 4 concerns the publication of a new voluntary code of practice. It has been suggested that such a code will have no effect and be of little use. However, the Government are producing codes of practice every week. They apply them to health and safety at work, for example. If Conservative Members are so critical of such an arrangement, why have they not made their views known? If a code of practice is good enough for health and safety at work, the Minister should at least consider one to serve as guidance in the way that new clause 4 proposes. It is an area where a code of practice would be useful. I have reservations about a code's value in areas such as health and safety, but in the context proposed, one would be admirable in its application. The Government will not accept new clause 4 because they are motivated by vindictiveness, not by logic or reason.

Will membership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament be deemed political activity? The Minister may say, "Of course, because I want to do whatever damage I can to CND." What about the Campaign for Peace and Security through NATO, which one might argue is equivalent to CND and is run by Lady Olga Maitland--who presumably has the Minister's support? Will membership of that count as political activity?

Let us suppose that local government officers go to a meeting of their trade union, the National and Local Government Officers Association, and NALGO discusses its affiliation to the Labour party, which it does from time to time, although it is not yet affiliated. Will those local authority members who are covered by this sweeping legislation have to leave the meeting because they might be reported by other NALGO members and be barred from political activity or discussion? Will they be excluded from the political arguments about whether NALGO should be affiliated to the Labour party? It is an absurd minefield.

My hon. Friends raised the issue of putting political party bills in windows. Will the various snoopers appointed under other sections of the Act go round checking local government officers' windows to ensure that they are free from posters carrying any suggestion other than that people should vote, and do not suggest for whom they should vote?

If the Minister cannot produce, as I suspect that he cannot, any evidence of damage to the impartiality of advice and the numbers of people which these draconian measures will involve, why does he not bear in mind the fact that, when all is said and done, even if we accept some of the criticisms about there being two jobs for the boys and girls, the publicity of such arrangements is always at its most intense locally. The local papers often have a field day with such arguments and the local voters make their judgment on it. If they do not like it, they are entitled to say to the candidate that they do not like the fact that he or she has a job in another local authority and is a councillor in theirs and so will not vote for him or her. The Minister's case is untenable on every count.

Column 765

The new clauses accept the desirability of senior local government officers being excluded and, by and large, the vast majority are. The Minister can tell us the percentage of those who do not take part in political activity and the tiny percentage to whom this will apply. The proposals are modest in scope and reasonable in the way in which they lay down safeguards before the Minister makes regulations. What sort of regulations will the Minister produce? We want to know because the erosion of political rights varies from legislation passed by Ministers who are largely vindictive to the use of tanks in Tiananmen square in China. It is because of the erosion of the right to argue for a set of values that conflict begins and develops. The Bill is an exact formula for the development of doubt,

misunderstanding and, above all, conflict.

Mr. Winnick : Like my hon. Friends, I work on the assumption, however old fashioned or outdated it may be to Conservative Members, that one of the main functions of the House is to defend people's rights. The most crucial function of a democracy is that Parliament should defend people's rights to go about their lawful business and exercise their rights. If those rights are to be undermined and completely taken away, it is a serious matter for the House. If we do not give it proper consideration, we shall certainly be failing in our duty.

I am suspicious of the Government's motives. Like my hon. Friends, I think that they are motivated by sheer intolerance. Even if I was not of that view, I would bear in mind their conduct over the past 10 years and be highly suspicious of any move which they made to restrict or undermine civil liberty, on which they have an appalling record. They have banned union membership at GCHQ and taken measures against the broadcasting authorities. Fortunately, a healthy suspicion always exists, not only amongst Labour Members but in the country at large.

There is no reason why anyone earning the magical sum of £13,500 should be banned from being elected to a local authority. My hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) and for Newham, North- West (Mr. Banks) conceded that at times they were not always happy with twin tracking. I join them because there have been cases with which I have not always been happy. If abuse occurs, those cases should come before the Government so that if they believe action should be taken they can produce evidence.

However, I am not in favour of a blanket ban. If abuse has occurred which, for the sake of argument, I concede it may have done, why should there be a blanket ban covering everyone? Some Tory councillors will be adversely affected, but in the main the Government work on the assumption that the majority of councillors or prospective councillors covered by the ban will be Labour ones. If it were the other way round and the majority of people caught in the ban were Tories, I believe that no such measure would have come before us.

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston) : Will my hon. Friend comment on another kind of twin-tracking which goes on in the House and involves those who have highly placed and powerful directorships in private industry? Is not that twin tracking infinitely more harmful?

Mr. Winnick : I do not want to be led astray, but I must say that great minds think alike. I have a note here to say that the worst form of twin-tracking and the worst kind of abuse is that of Tory Members with countless

Column 766

consultancies so that at times we do not know whether their loyalty and devotion is to their own constituents or to the companies which employ them. As my hon. Friend said, that is a far greater subject of concern than anything involving councillors.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) said, new clause 2 puts forward a compromise. If we work on the assumption that the most senior positions in local government should not be occupied by those who are councillors or who intend to be councillors in another local authority, it would be far enough. If that were accepted by the Government, it would be an honourable way out for them, without introducing a ban that affects the most junior officers. As has been pointed out, the limit is now £13,500, but what will happen after the next pay rise, next year or the year after? Are we really to work on the assumption that even the most junior people in local government should have their political rights taken away, and that the right to stand for public office at local level, which has always been respected, should simply be taken away and abolished because the Conservative Government consider that they should be motivated by malice and intolerance?

The Minister has not made the case and it is interesting that Conservative Members have not done so either. They have not produced evidence of abuse or of any local authorities having acted in a way to show that such a measure should come into operation.

I began by saying that we should be extremely wary of any measure which undermines people's rights, and I stand by that. Unfortunatly, not a single Tory Member has seen fit even to express some reservations. What has the House of Commons come to when not one Government Member says, "All right, perhaps the Government have a case, but I have certain reservations on the basis of civil rights. I believe in people's rights and democratic rights?" Not one Conservative Member has seen fit to do that, which is a sorry commentary on the Tory party of today.

Mr. Gummer : This has been an interesting debate, not least for those of us who have sat through similar debates in Committee, because it has shown a major shift in the position of the Opposition parties.

In Committee, there was no kind of twin-tracking that did not find its advocates on the Opposition Benches. There was no question of Opposition Members saying, "Of course we do not mean that senior officers should be allowed to engage in twin-tracking." Today we have heard what we expected to hear : that the Labour party and, to some extent, the Liberals have learnt that their espousal of this kind of policy--

Mr. Matthew Taylor rose --

7.30 pm

Mr. Gummer : I have had some chance to listen to the debate, and now I should like to reply. If the hon. Gentleman will listen to what I have to say, he can decide whether it is true when I have finished. There is no doubt that until now Opposition Members have been prepared to defend almost any kind of twin-tracking, but now it is extremely unpopular with them.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) made the reasonable comment that people from his part of the world were very angry because our proposals were based on what he described as isolated

Column 767

gross abuses in London. There are indeed a number of gross abuses in London, but many take place elsewhere. Can it be reasonable, for example, for the chief executive of Clydebank council to be seen as an independent adviser to that council when he was an elected Labour member of Glasgow city council?

Mr. Matthew Taylor rose --

Mr. Gummer : No, I will not give way ; I will complete what I have to say. I listened with great care to what the hon. Gentleman said. Can it be reasonable for the chief executive of Llin valley district council in south Wales to have been at the same time chairman of the local Labour party? How can someone claim to be an independent adviser to a council and all its members if at exactly the same time he takes a clear and senior party-political role elsewhere? I do not believe that Derbyshire is in London, but Mr. Reg Race was appointed chief executive of Derbyshire county council. Even Mr. Race found the leader of Derbyshire county council impossible to work with, although he took longer to do so than many others. The Labour leader of Bradford council was--and is now, although he is no longer leader of the council--anti-privatisation officer of Wakefield council. That does not make it easy to believe that his advice on privatisation could be seen as suitable for the whole council ; after all, he clearly took a party-political view as Labour leader in Bradford. The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) may say that the electorate has a chance to decide. Bradford did decide : it decided that it did not want its affairs run in that way.

Let me tell the hon. Member for Perry Barr that abuses are widespread, and that they take place outside London. In London they are not isolated : 24 of the 40 members of Greenwich borough council--

Mr. Cryer : Fewer than half.

Mr. Gummer : Twenty-four is not less than half of 40. The hon. Gentleman ought to listen ; I have listened very carefully to him. It is said in the local paper, and not denied by the local Labour party, that 24 members of Greenwich council would be affected by these proposals. All that the Government are saying is that in the past local government has recognised that, if an officer is to be effective and to take any real part in advising those of all parties in the local authority, he must be able to show that his advice is wholly above question and is entirely impartial. For a long time individuals have made the choice that that is the role in which they wish to serve the public.

Let me say, as one who both enjoys and respects what the hon. Member for Perry Barr has to say to the House, that I believe in good, independent local government--to use his words. Evidence of that is contained in this very part of the Bill. I do not believe that good, independent local government is possible if officers in one local authority purport to be giving independent advice when they are active members of the next-door local council, figuring in a political role. That is why the Government have made their suggestions, not out of their own head but on the recommendation of the Widdicombe committee.

Column 768

Perhaps the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) should spend less time being affected by the generality of his speech, which we hear time after time with the various names and places altered, but which always expresses the same desperate desire to see the same terrible, nasty reasons for everything. The hon. Gentleman must be so miserable : everybody and every circumstance is nasty, suspicious and unpleasant to him. I am so pleased that I am not his psychoanalyst. Something very nasty must have happened in the woodshed at some stage to cause this embarrassing state of affairs.

However, the hon. Gentleman need not be suspicious about the £13, 500. It was not an arbitrary figure, as the hon. Member for Bradford, South suggested ; he would know that if he had read the Committee proceedings in detail. It represents an attempt to provide a clear and simple figure to meet what the Widdicombe committee has proposed for principal officers. As it was obvious that the term "principle officer" meant different things in different areas and authorities, we tried to fix the level in the easiest possible way. If there is a better way, I shall be happy to employ it. I have already given an undertaking to take powers to increase the level, so that the problems that the hon. Member for Walsall, North--with his suspicious mind--might expect will not arise.

The suggestion that we are removing democratic rights, made by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) and others, is entirely untrue. First, it suggests that the proposal applies to far more people who are called civil servants. We consider it important to ask civil servants to take an independent position to protect other people's democratic rights, and the same is true of local government officers. We have not gone as far as the independent Widdicombe committee would wish. We arranged for people to be able to appeal to an adjudicator, with no absolute ban. Many of the examples that hon. Members have given clearly show that--as they know--the people involved would be excluded under the rules implemented by the adjudicator.

Let me make it clear that I am not misleading the House about what the hon. Member for Truro said in Committee. Both in Committee and here, however, he has seemed to suggest that some people could be excluded, but that he did not approve of the exclusions in the Bill. If it is possible to exclude some people, it is difficult to say how impossible it will be to exclude others. The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways : he cannot tell the House at length how difficult the arrangements would be when he starts from the position that some people ought to be excluded--

Mr. Matthew Taylor rose --

Mr. Gummer : Will the hon. Gentleman just let me finish this point?

In the country as a whole it is generally accepted that the best way in which local government, and indeed national government, can work is for everyone to have a clear view of the distinction between those who are party-politically elected and motivated and have obvious party-political concerns, and those whose job is to serve equally parties of any kind that are elected by the public. That distinction has always been maintained by the good practice of officers, and has never before needed definition. It is sad that the Government have had to present these proposals, which are based on the Widdicombe report, because the public as a whole welcome the proposals,

Column 769

having seen the decline in public decision making by those who thought that the two could be mixed. If only we lived in a world where we did not have to legislate upon such matters, it would be a better world. It should be a matter of shame to the hon. Member for Walsall, North that those who are most likely to be caught are members of his own party.

Mr. Blunkett : It was not the driving of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) that I questioned ; it was his judgment. I question, too, the judgment of Conservative Members who have argued that independence and impartiality depend on people hiding their true democratic views in an open society. That is not accepted in West Germany, under the system that we imposed upon it, or in any other part of the world.

7.45 pm

New clause 4 deals with the majority of the points that the Minister has made. We could all dream up individual items. We could name the leader of Bournemouth council, Councillor Trenchard, the head of a housing association which has been asked to take over Bournemouth's council housing. The local council is willing to give him £20,000 to put forward the case on behalf of his own housing association, in an effort to persuade council house tenants to change landlords. We could all dream up examples of that kind if it is a slanging match that the Minister wants. But it is not. It is about whether we believe that to take away people's democratc rights safeguards democracy.

If it is good enough for local authority officers on £13,500 and above, why is it not good enough for teachers? As an elected member of Sheffield city council, why should I not have been disqualified when other people on the same salary would have been disqualified? It is nonsense. The only reason can be that the Conservative party has added up the figures and believes that it has more headmasters and teachers serving local government than we do. There is no logic to it.

Opposition Members have put forward clearly who should and who should not be restricted because of their political activities. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) did so. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) made exactly the same speech tonight as he did in Committee, except that he used different jokes on this occasion. Some Opposition Members wanted a code of practice to be established, but we were not allowed to make that point in Committee. We have been allowed to do so tonight. I am very glad. If implemented, the code of practice would provide a year in which we could test whether it would work. The Bill would not be implemented in its present form unless the code was proved not to work. That is a perfectly reasonable compromise on which the whole House should unite.

Let us lift the uncertainty from the tens of thousands of people who might want to stand in next year's elections and who might also wish to seek selection as candidates in the general election. We should lift the uncertainty from those who are worried about taking minor office in a political party, or who want to be able to canvass, to speak or to write for political parties in our democracy. Let us lift that uncertainty. Let us make sure that we are able to hold our heads high by defending democracy rather than removing it. Question put, That the clause be read a Second time :-

Column 770

The House divided : Ayes 156, Noes 227.

Division No.237] [7.43 pm


Alton, David

Archer, Rt Hon Peter

Armstrong, Hilary

Ashley, Rt Hon Jack

Ashton, Joe

Banks, Tony (Newham NW)

Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)

Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)

Barron, Kevin

Battle, John

Beckett, Margaret

Bell, Stuart

Benn, Rt Hon Tony

Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)

Bermingham, Gerald

Bidwell, Sydney

Blair, Tony

Blunkett, David

Bradley, Keith

Bray, Dr Jeremy

Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)

Buckley, George J.

Callaghan, Jim

Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)

Campbell-Savours, D. N.

Canavan, Dennis

Clark, Dr David (S Shields)

Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)

Clelland, David

Clwyd, Mrs Ann

Cohen, Harry

Coleman, Donald

Corbett, Robin

Cousins, Jim

Crowther, Stan

Cryer, Bob

Cummings, John

Cunliffe, Lawrence

Cunningham, Dr John

Darling, Alistair

Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)

Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)

Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)

Dixon, Don

Doran, Frank

Douglas, Dick

Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth

Eastham, Ken

Evans, John (St Helens N)

Fearn, Ronald

Field, Frank (Birkenhead)

Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)

Fisher, Mark

Flannery, Martin

Flynn, Paul

Foot, Rt Hon Michael

Foster, Derek

Fraser, John

Garrett, John (Norwich South)

George, Bruce

Godman, Dr Norman A.

Golding, Mrs Llin

Gordon, Mildred

Gould, Bryan

Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)

Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)

Grocott, Bruce

Hardy, Peter

Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy

Hinchliffe, David

Howarth, George (Knowsley N)

Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath)

Howells, Geraint

Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)

Hughes, John (Coventry NE)

Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)

Hughes, Roy (Newport E)

Illsley, Eric

Ingram, Adam

Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)

Kennedy, Charles

Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil

Kirkwood, Archy

Leadbitter, Ted

Leighton, Ron

Lestor, Joan (Eccles)

Lewis, Terry

Litherland, Robert

Lofthouse, Geoffrey

Loyden, Eddie

McAllion, John

McCartney, Ian

McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)

McWilliam, John

Madden, Max

Mahon, Mrs Alice

Marek, Dr John

Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)

Maxton, John

Meacher, Michael

Meale, Alan

Michael, Alun

Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)

Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)

Moonie, Dr Lewis

Morgan, Rhodri

Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)

Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)

Mowlam, Marjorie

Mullin, Chris

Murphy, Paul

Nellist, Dave

Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon

O'Brien, William

O'Neill, Martin

Patchett, Terry

Pendry, Tom

Pike, Peter L.

Powell, William (Corby)

Prescott, John

Primarolo, Dawn

Quin, Ms Joyce

Radice, Giles

Redmond, Martin

Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn

Richardson, Jo

Robertson, George

Robinson, Geoffrey

Rogers, Allan

Rooker, Jeff

Rowlands, Ted

Sedgemore, Brian

Shore, Rt Hon Peter

Skinner, Dennis

Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)

Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)

Smith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)

Smith, J. P. (Vale of Glam)

Snape, Peter

Soley, Clive

Spearing, Nigel

Stott, Roger

Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)

Taylor, Matthew (Truro)

Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)

Turner, Dennis

Wall, Pat

Wallace, James

Walley, Joan

Wardell, Gareth (Gower)

Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)

Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)

Next Section

  Home Page