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Mr. Gummer : These minor amendments ensure that local authority chief finance officers without formal qualifications are not barred from becoming chief finance officers of the City of London or from a section 73 successor body.

Mr. Tony Banks : The Minister will correct me if I misunderstood him, but he appeared to be saying that the City of London can take people on who clearly do not have the qualifications for the job. Is that what he was saying? The Minister implied that the City of London could take on unqualified people who would have been required to have certain qualifications were they employed elsewhere.

Mr. Gummer : It is simply that certain chief finance officers are permitted under section 113 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 to hold the post of local authority chief finance officer because at the time that section 113 came into force they were already holding such a post. The amendment ensures that such chief finance officers are not barred in the future from holding the post of chief finance officer of the Common Council of the City of London or any new successor body under section 73 of the Local Government Act 1985. The amendment ensures that certain rights accorded under a previous Act will not be excluded.

Mr. Banks rose--

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Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot address the House again.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made : No. 168, in page 9 leave out line 4 and insert-- (c) be a person who qualifies by virtue of section 113(2)(b) of the local Government Finance Act 1988 (existing office holders) as a person who may be given responsibility for the financial affairs of an authority mentioned in section 111(2)(a) to (k) of that Act ; or (d) fulfil two or more of those conditions.'.-- [Mr. Gummer].

Clause 7

All staff to be appointed on merit

Amendments made : No. 233, in page 9, line 43 leave out from Scotland' to end of line 45.

No. 234, in page 10, line 2 leave out from authority' to whether' in line 3 and insert or parish or community council'.-- [Mr. Gummer.]

Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen) : I beg to move amendment No. 140, in page 10, line 7 at end insert--

(aa) section 15 of the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944 and Section 3 of the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1958 (Provision of Sheltered Employment by Local Authorities)'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments : No. 141, in page 10, line 18 after qualification'. insert--

(ee) section 11 of the Mental Health (Scotland) Act 1984 (Training and Occupation of the Mentally Handicapped)'.

No. 142, in line 21 at end insert--

(2A) Nothing in this section shall affect the selection of any person for a place on a sheltered placement scheme, nor the appointment of any person made in accordance with a scheme maintained by an authority for the purpose of promoting the employment of persons with a mental or physical disability.'

9.15 pm

Mr. Murphy : This group of amendments deal with the employment of people with a mental handicap. Their purpose is to clarify the fact that nothing in clause 7, which deals with appointments on merit, will cut across sheltered placement schemes or positive employment policies which are geared to the disabled and to those with a mental handicap or an impairment.

The requirement in the clause to appoint staff purely on merit threatens to make it unlawful for local authorities to adopt any policy of positive discrimination towards people who are disabled or mentally impaired. Such policies recognise that disabled people face difficulties in gaining employment, even when there are jobs available which they could do. Apart from conscious and unconscious prejudice, difficulties arise because the disabled person may not, in the past, have had access to the same educational and employment opportunities as a person without a disability, or because the disabled person may require some additional training to perform the job successfully.

A number of local authorities have adopted policies to help disabled people to overcome these sometimes serious problems and disadvantages. Legislation such as the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944 and the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1958 recognises that

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local authorities have a role to play in increasing employment opportunities for disabled people. Some authorities have a responsibility as social work or social service authorities. Finding employment often reduces the reliance on statutory welfare services and can be seen as a cost-effective way of assisting disabled people.

Section 15 of the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944, which is referred to in the amendment, states that facilities may be provided to enable handicapped or disabled people to gain employment. The 1958 Act allows local authorities to make arrangements for the provision of facilities for the same purpose.

Facilities provided under those powers involve the local authority in employing disabled people. For example, under the sheltered placement schemes, to which I have referred, a business agrees to provide work for a disabled person. It receives a proportion of the standard rate for the job, based on the output of the disabled person compared with the, so to speak, ordinary employee. The balance is met by the sponsor, which is often a local authority.

The crucial point is that the sponsor is the legal employer of the disabled person. If clause 7 is to have the effect intended by the Government, it must be taken to mean that jobs are to be given to those best able to do them. Clearly, that is inconsistent with such schemes whose purpose is to provide employment for people who cannot perform jobs as well as others. Since the Government support sheltered employment and, I am sure, positive discrimination towards disabled people employed by local authorities, it would seem that such a failure is an oversight. I hope that when he replies the Minister will recognise it as such.

Mr. Matthew Taylor : This is an important point which has caused concern for those involved. I cannot believe that the Minister intended the clause to have the effect described by the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). Therefore, I hope that he will either accept the amendments or clarify in specific terms why people with disabilities will not be affected in the way suggested. To a layman at least, it appears that the clause would have that effect. I do not know what a lawyer would make of it. I do not think that there will be any party political controversy on this point, but it is causing concern and I hope that the Minister will make it clear to the House that the clause will not affect disabled people in the way that has just been outlined.

Mr. McAllion : Amendment No. 141 deals with section 11 of the Mental Health (Scotland) Act 1984, which involves the training and occupation of the mentally handicapped. It places a duty on local authorities to provide or secure the provision of suitable training in an occupation for the mentally handicapped.

In the past, we have tended to concentrate on training for disabled people, but there is a growing recognition that genuine employment is the key to great advances for those suffering from mental handicap. A number of innovative schemes, all of which will be prejudiced unless the amendment is accepted, are being implemented by local authorities. It would then be legally impossible to employ the mentally handicapped if employment by merit had to be applied strictly and legally. I hope that the Minister will look at the amendment sympathetically.

Mr. Gummer : First, let me assure the House that it is not the Government's understanding that the provisions

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will have the effect that certain people fear. Clause 7(2) makes it clear that the general provision will have effect subject to certain existing statutory provisions designed to protect particular groups, many of which have been mentioned. The hon. Gentleman has just referred to the Scottish provisions.

I have no doubt that people need have no worries. If anyone has any further anxieties, however, I shall be happy to consider them, and if there is any question that the clause will do other than what we expect it to do I shall be glad to see whether an amendment is necessary. If hon. Members wish to withdraw their amendments, certain aspects of which will cause difficulties, I shall be happy to produce an amendment to deal with any problems, although I do not expect any.

Mr. Murphy : I am grateful for those assurances, on the basis of which I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made : No. 113, in page 10, line 10, leave out paragraph (c).-- [Mr. Gummer.]

Clause 9

Assistants for political groups

Mr. Blunkett : I beg to move amendment No. 149, in page 12, line 16, leave out three' and insert four'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : With this we may take the following amendments : No. 314, in page 12, line 16, leave out three' and insert six'. No. 203, in page 13, leave out lines 14 to 21 and insert the membership of that group numbers at least five'.

No. 315, in page 13, leave out lines 14 to 40 and insert the number of other groups (if any) which are larger than the group does not exceed five.'

No. 150, in page 13, line 17, leave out two' and insert three'. No. 151, in page 13, line 19, leave out two' and insert three'.

Mr. Blunkett : I shall not detain the House for long, because we debated these issues in Committee.

The Bill designates three political assistants, but it was felt that in a number of circumstances, particularly appertaining to Scotland but also in other parts of the United Kingdom, genuine flexibility would be needed to take account of the greater plurality of representation on the local authority.

I do not think that this is a matter of tremendous ideological difference. We can box with each other about whether it would be entertaining to leave particular political parties without the facility of political assistance-- if they choose to take it--but that does not seem awfully clever to us. If we can provide a facility which, within reason, meets the needs of different political parties with reasonable representation on local authorities, we should provide it.

Political support in terms of secretarial, administrative and research facilities obviously takes different forms in different local authorities, and if we are too restrictive we shall be in danger of finding that people consider different ways of presenting and obtaining support for groups.

In the spirit in which we are debating tonight, I am sure that the Minister will say, as he would have in Committee, that the amendment is very reasonable.

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Mr. Andrew Welsh : I wish to speak to amendments Nos. 314 and 315.

The so-called "abuse" of the appointment of paid assistants for political groups has never to my knowledge been a particular problem in Scottish local government. The Bill, however, seeks to impose rules and limitations on Scottish local councillors, and their ability to appoint assistants as and when they wish and to meet their specific needs.

My concern is that the assumptions behind clause 9 are based purely on the English model of local government and local politics, and do not fit easily or usefully with the reality of Scottish local government. There are obvious differences of size and scale between Scotland and England, as well as differences in traditions and customs. There are also differences in local government units and political affiliations, which should be taken into account in the legislation if it is to do more good than harm.

Not only are full-time paid political advisers unheard of, but they would be an absurdity in many of the smaller and more rural Scottish authorities. The Bill sets out to provide Scotland with a supposed solution to problems which it does not have, but which exist in specific parts of England.

The wording of the Bill relates only to the English three-party system. The Scottish reality can be very different. Scottish local government has consisted of at least a four-party system for some time. In certain areas, it is even more diverse than that. Therefore, my amendment seeks to provide a more realistic framework for Scottish local government and to avoid the future unnecessary problems that, if unchanged, the Bill would pose for Scotland. I am attempting not to destroy this part of the Bill but to make it more closely fit the pattern of Scottish local government.

Amendment No. 315 is a simplification. That, for starters, can never be a bad thing for a Government who are introducing an ever-growing flood of legislation. Therefore, I commend my amendment, which simplifies one portion of an extremely long Bill. It takes into account the diversity of Scotland's political life. The Bill is designed to cater exclusively for political life in Wales and England. The Government's underlying assumption is that there is a two-party system in every local authority, with perhaps an occasional nod in the direction of a possible third party. The assumption should be different in Scotland because the political reality there is different. Scotland has a three-party or a four-party system and it has had it for some time.

I am also left with the feeling that no account whatsoever has been taken of independent councillors or independent-controlled councils. Although the inexorable trend of party politics has squeezed independent councillors out of the major urban and more populous areas, independent councillors and independent-controlled councils still exist in Scotland. Obviously it is up to the electorate to decide how long that should continue, but the reality is that in addition to a three-party or a four-party system in Scottish local government, there is still a significant number of independent councillors whose needs ought to be taken into account in the interests of fairness, if nothing else.

My concern is that the assumptions about local government in England and Wales are being applied without thought or alteration to the markedly different

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Scottish local government scene. Hence, the amendment calls for the application of different arithmetic when considering Scotland. The amendments provide for flexibility compared with the rigidity of the provisions in the Bill. They allow for future political changes as well as for the present reality. I am sure that the Minister has noted that all the Opposition parties agree that the Government's proposal is inadequate and that they have tabled amendments which seek to increase the numbers involved. The details may vary sightly, but the need for alteration is accepted as a common philosophy. That leaves the Government in a very isolated position. I should like the Minister to think again. The amendments provide one method by which he can do so. They would allow for the diversity of the political scene in Scottish local government to be recognised.

Mr. Matthew Taylor : As the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) has pointed out, the Opposition parties have all tabled amendments along the same lines.

The purpose of amendment No. 203 is twofold--equity and simplicity. The hon. Member for Angus, East also pointed out that the Government's rules and criteria lead to unnecessary complication. The length and the confused nature of the debate on this part of the Bill in Committee demonstrated that the Government's proposals are tortuous in the extreme and will cause havoc in council chambers up and down the land as arguments rage between third parties of equal size, large fourth parties and allegedly independent groups that may have difficulty in obtaining assistance and that may also divide into groups with very different views on the council.

In Committee the Minister did not appear to understand the problems that he and his colleagues seemed to be intent on causing for no particular good reason. I foresee real difficulties in some local authorities, particularly in Scotland, Wales and in mainly rural parts of England, as well as in Cornwall, where sizeable numbers of independents continue to get elected and play a prominent role on councils. Most importantly, our amendment brings equity between groups of different size throughout the country. Why should members of a council in a group of five on one authority have fewer rights of access to facilities to serve their constituents than a person in a similar position in a similarly sized neighbouring authority simply because the numbers of their opponents happen to divide differently or because the council has different numbers of representatives and therefore the entitlements differ according to the particular circumstances?

Under the Government's plans, a council divided equally between four political parties would be entitled to three assistants. That is the absurdity of the Government's proposals. I understand that they are trying to limit the potential costs involved, but most local authorities do not provide such assistance because local people probably would not support it, no matter which party proposed it. That is because the local electorate has a considerable say over whether such a system would go ahead and could decide whether that cost should be involved.

9.30 pm

The problem is that under the Government's scheme the freedom to make a decision locally, according to local circumstances, is not allowed. The matter may be raised

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again in the other place if the Government do not accept at least one of the amendments. I rather suspect that, given the nature of the party divisions in the other place, and the fact that there are Cross Benchers, they may have a greater understanding than the Government have of the nature of a debating chamber in which many groups of differing but significant size are represented, have a real involvement, and in many cases have a determining vote on the decisions that are taken. That may not happen in this House, but it happens in the other place and in council chambers across the country.

Our amendment offers the Government a simple, sensible way out which might not provide civil servants with so much fun and games when complications arise but would certainly lead to a simple, efficient and fair system within local authorities across the country.

Mr. McAllion : I shall be brief in speaking in support of amendments Nos. 149, 150 and 151.

I do not know the basis on which the Government decided to allow three political assistants for each of the three main parties in every council, but I assume that it had something to do with the result of the last general election when the votes split largely between the Tories, the Labour party and the alliance. The situation has changed since the last general election with the division of the alliance, the SDP splitting away and the rest of the alliance forming the Social and Liberal Democrats. Since then, there has also been the emergence of the Green party as a possible alternative to the Democrats and the SDP as the third main party. The situation is changing, and I know it is difficult for the Government to legislate on something which is constantly on the move.

The amendments emphasise that clause 9 simply does not relate to Scottish local government, and that should be recognised. A large number of district authorities and regional authorities are comprised of four or more representative groups. If the number of political assistants is restricted to three, the ability of almost half Scotland's local authorities to allocate political assistance to all representative groups when those groups fulfil the criteria set out in clause 9(6) will be severely restricted.

COSLA has made available to me a breakdown of more than 63 councils in Scotland. It shows that three of those councils are single party councils, 11 are two-party councils, 19 are three-party councils, 23 are four-party councils and seven are five-party councils. Therefore, in Scotland it is not fair to restrict the number of assistants to only three parties. The Government must recognise that there are four major parties competing for the support of the people in Scotland and that councils should be allowed to allocate political assistants to all main representative groups.

The independent councillors have been mentioned. I do not support the idea that they should be allowed political assistance as independent groups on councils do not necessarily share the same political perspective, and it would be very difficult for them to agree on a political assistant to represent them all as representatives from the Left and the Right stand under the same title of independent.

The situation is becoming ever more complex. In the Glasgow, Central by- election, there are no fewer than nine different political parties competing for the vote. In a recent opinion poll, the Communist party, which is not standing, did much better than some of the parties that are

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standing in Glasgow, Central. We cannot allow for every party that suddenly emerges on the political scene, but we must take on board the fact that there are major parties which command a large number of votes and which deserve to be eligible for being given political assistance under the Bill.

If the Conservative party is not careful, the Green party could overtake it as the fourth party, as the latest opinion polls show. If the Government do not accept the amendment, they may find that they are denying to Conservative groups in Scotland the right to appoint political assistants. I hope that the Government will realise that Scotland is different and will legislate for political assistants for the four major parties in that country.

Mr. Gummer : Some of the discussion has gone along lines that show a division between the Government and the Opposition in the sense that it has been suggested that the idea of having a maximum of three special assistants is to mirror the party structure on particular councils. That is not so. The House will be aware that originally the Widdicombe committee supported the scheme that we should have a number of such posts up to five. When the Government produced their White Paper, they proposed that we should have none at all. I listened with care to the advice given to me from hon. Members of various parties. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen), for example, raised the question and put some pertinent points on it. I had representations from the Labour party as well.

As a result of listening to a range of views, I became convinced marginally --not with enormous enthusiasm--that it was reasonable to allow some special assistants rather along the lines of those provided for Ministers under the present system and under the previous Government. We moved away from the proposal in the White Paper.

The idea of three was a compromise in a real sense. It seemed to us that if we were going to introduce such a system, to have one for the party in power, so to speak, in a local authority and one for the opposition party was, perhaps, a little niggardly, especially where one had a mix that would make it more sensible to have three. We therefore proposed three.

Mr. Andrew Welsh : Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gummer : I shall give way when I have finished the point. I see no reason why we cannot argue for a long time about how many there should be. The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) made the point that there were many parties and many people standing under various groups. He would have denied independents the right to decide that they might like to be an independent group. Under the regulations, the system will be different from the one the hon. Gentleman suggested. If the independents, grouped together, formed the third largest party in the sense that I have described, with a significant number of members, they would be able, if they wanted and irrespective of whether I thought it was a good idea, to form such a group, and in a council that gave up to three special advisers they would be able to gain one adviser. It would be up to them. The hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) felt strongly about the situation in Scotland. He might take

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into account the point made by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor), who made the same application to the situation in England and Wales. This is not a division between the various parts of the United Kingdom. Our proposal is based on the principle that the Government have been persuaded by the arguments of hon. Members of various parties to change their original position. Generally, it has been accepted as a welcome compromise, except by one or two hon. Members, who have revealed rather different views.

Mr. Andrew Welsh rose--

Mr. Gummer : I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment about Scotland but should first like to say something which is not as helpful to the hon. Member for Truro. I was fascinated--I shall check it in Hansard --by his revelations about the unhappy relationships among the small parties of his tendency on various local councils. It was a revelation to those hon. Members who were present to hear that the hon. Gentleman does not feel that these provisions will do anything other than lead, in what I believe were his words, to "very unhappy, very difficult circumstances". I am sorry that that is his relationship with his colleagues. It is a pity--

Mr. Matthew Taylor rose--

Mr. Gummer : Before I give way to the hon. Gentleman, I have promised to give way to the hon. Member for Angus, East.

There is a balance to be drawn about how much of the cost of political organisations it is reasonable to ask the public to bear. Originally the Government felt that they should bear no cost, but I have been convinced that some of the cost should, indeed, be borne. We should retain what seems the reasonable figure of three special advisers. I cannot believe that it is impossible to run a small party group without such a special adviser. It seems an odd version of the current situation to suggest that that cannot be done without some support when in most councils in most parts of the country no support is given and, historically, no support has ever been given.

Mr. Andrew Welsh : The Minister has called his measure a "reasonable compromise" but I put it to him again that it is not reasonable in Scotland. I should like him to address the straightforward point that limiting the number of political assistants to three severely restricts the ability of almost half Scotland's local authorities to allocate political assistance to all representative groups when those groups fulfil the other criteria as defined in clause 9(6). It is entirely wrong for the Minister to say that he has found a reasonable compromise because his provisions will affect almost half Scotland's local authorities. That cannot be right.

Mr. Gummer : I do not think that the matter is of that order. It is perfectly reasonable to say that on any local authority the number of people involved in that activity should be restricted to three. Most local authorities have none--that is the nature of the present position--and very many hon. Members think that it is giving far too much to have any at all. I have sought a compromise and this is the compromise that I propose. Any alternative would lead many people who have been prepared to go along with this

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compromise to say, "If you are going to provide all sorts of extra people for all sorts of groups, frankly we prefer to have none at all". It is a reasonable compromise and one to which I intend to stick.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Blunkett : I beg to move amendment No. 132, in page 12, line 37 leave out subsection (4).

I might be even briefer now than on the last occasion on the ground that this is such a reasonable amendment that it would take a dedicated and extremely unreasonable man or woman to turn it down. The reasonableness of it is that, even allowing for the £13,500 level for debarring people from political activity, if someone is not likely to be felt by those with whom and on behalf of whom they are working to be unduly influenced by their political activities outside, in other words, if they are not likely to be considered to be impartial or lacking independence, the argument about forbidding them from undertaking outside political work and debarring them from outside political activities reaches the depth of absurdity. I should like the Minister to reconsider this issue, because, while it cannot be considered earth-shattering by anybody's standards, the Government's provisions really do take the biscuit.

Mr. Gummer : Obviously, this matter could reasonably be argued by rational people. I do not believe that those who take a different view from myself are in some way peculiar or extreme. I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is possible to have a different view.

We have taken this view because Widdicombe suggested that such posts should be graded as senior officers. We think that a point within the senior officer range, which is also the bottom of the principal officer range-- that is, £13,500--is about right as the maximum.

9.45 pm

We see these posts in a different light from that which the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) put forward, and that is why we refer to a "special assistant" rather than a "political assistant." We see this as the kind of person who might, as part of a career pattern, seek at some later date to take a more active part in politics and wish to use this provision in those circumstances. We say that this would be a reasonable role for such a person to play and that this would be a reasonable sum for him or her to have. I agree, however, that it can be a matter of disagreement between rational people. It is part of a compromise which I propose to the House. It is a compromise which arose because originally the Government intended to suggest that nobody should be available for these posts and that no such post should be designated. But I felt that it was better to propose what we have now proposed.

I accept that it would be just as rational and reasonable to propose a different mix. I am merely saying that this will commend itself even to those people, of whom there are many, who do not think we should have any of these people. I believe this to be about the right level. We shall keep it under scrutiny because it is meant to meet a particular level, and that is the level of principal officer. Amendment negatived.

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Clause 10

Limit on paid leave for local authority duties

Mr. Blunkett : I beg to move amendment No. 144, in page 15, line 8, leave out

it shall be unlawful for the authority to'

sert the authority may'. Mr. Speaker : It will be convenient to discuss at the same time the following amendments :

No. 145 in line 10, after is' insert up to or'.

No. 146 in line 12, at end insert

where any time off is taken in accordance with a scheme made by the authority, and having regard to any guidance which may be issued by the Secretary of State.'.

Mr. Blunkett : There was unanimity in Committee across a wide spectrum of political opinion that the Government needed to think again about what at first appeared to be their vindictive attitude towards the level of remuneration and availability of time off to enable people to undertake council duties.

We are here dealing with the question of time off. We suggest that 26 days should be a minimum--being only half a day a week--rather than being the maximum, which would exclude people from being able to negotiate and agree time off with their employers. This change would allow people to have greater flexibility.

This issue would not have arisen to the extent that it has if we had in prospect a reasonable system of remuneration for council duties. I am aware that discussions are going on to try to find a more satisfactory formula on that front. But we do not have that yet, and we face a situation, which was revealed in Committee, which could lead to senior elected members not being able to undertake basic duties unless they were designated the mayor, the lord mayor or chairman of council, in which case they could have the requisite time off if employed by a local authority. It was mentioned in Committee that we might reach the silly situation where leaders of councils might have to double up in one of those roles to enable them to do their job. None of us wants that to happen. I certainly would not have wanted that to occur when I led a council. Indeed, if it were to happen it would lead us into a model of north American or partly European politics which would be detrimental.

We must accept that the demand here for adequate time in which to do the job is not a threat. It is not a question of elected members beginning to manage authorities or interfering with the role of those whom they employ. It is simply giving them sufficient time in which to formulate and monitor the implementation of policy and to undertake the liaison that is now necessary, even within the restricted bounds of local government. They must be able to do that work in consultation with other agencies and with central Government.

I recall telling the Minister that he and his colleagues would be in an unhappy situation if they had to travel the country meeting elected members who could not get, and certainly could not afford to take, time off to come from the north, Scotland, Wales, the south-west and the midlands to London. The whole attitude appears to be predicated on the experience of people who can pop around the corner to see Ministers, to liaise with civil servants or to take part in local authority association work--which, as everyone agrees, is important. We want people to have time off for such work and also to be remunerated.

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