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Column 745Steen, Anthony
Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Tapsell, Sir Peter
Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Townend, John (Bridlington)
Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Twinn, Dr Ian
Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Waddington, Rt Hon David
Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Woodcock, Dr. Mike
Young, Sir George (Acton)
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. David Maclean and
Mr. Tom Sackville.
Question accordingly negatived.
Clause added to the Bill.
.--(1) It shall be the duty of a local authority to secure that, so far as practicable, the interests of that authority in any negotiations with respect to the terms and conditions on which persons in local authority employment hold office or are employed are never represented, whether directly or indirectly by, or by persons who include--
(a) a person who is both a member of the authority and in such employment ; or
(b) a person who is both a member of the authority and an official or employee of a trade union whose members include persons in local authority employment.
(2) In this section--
"member", in relation to a trade union, includes any person who is a member of that union within the meaning of the Employment Act 1988 ; and
"official" and "trade union" have the same meanings as in the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1988 ; and
"official" and "trade union" have the same meanings as in the Trade Union and Labour relations Act 1974 ; and
and a person shall be treated for the purposes of this section as in local authority employment if he holds any paid office or employment under a local authority or any such paid office or employment under any other person as, by virtue of section 80(1)(a) of the Local Government Act 1972 or section 31(1)(a) of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, disqualifies him for membership of any authority.
(3) This section shall come into force at the expiry of the period of two months beginning on the day this Act is passed.'.-- [Mr. Gummer.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Mr. Gummer : I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time. The effect of the provision would be to prohibit a local authority appointing a person who is both a member of the authority and an employee of local government from representing its interests in any negotiations concerning the terms and conditions of local government staff. The prohibition would also cover any member of local government who is also an official or employee of a trade union, the members of which include persons in local authority employment. This is an attempt to ensure that conflicts of interest do not arise in staff negotiations.
Column 746authorities--indeed, all, because I do not know of any exceptions--practise this. Why on earth the Government, who boast about not producing unnecessary legislation, choose to do this is beyond me, but if they want to go through this strange rigmarole, so be it.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
(1) This part shall have effect for the purpose of disqualifying a person from becoming or remaining a member of a local authority, in accordance with section 1(8), where that person holds a politically restricted post in a local authority in Great Britain.
(2) For the purposes of this part, a person shall be regarded as holding a politically restricted post under a local authority where that person is--
(a) the person designated under section 4 below as the head of the authority's paid service ;
(b) a statutory or non-statutory chief officer ; or
(c) a deputy chief officer.'.-- [Mr. Blunkett.]
(1) No regulations about politically restricted posts shall be introduced under Part I before the completion of any inquiry established under subsection (2) below, and the publication of its report.
(2) The Secretary of State shall establish an independent inquiry to assess the impact on local authority employees of the numbers likely to be affected by, and of the consequences for staff morale and the quality of service of--
(a) the operation of a £13,500 salary qualification, or such higher amount as the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument specify ;
(b) the introduction of a political restriction in respect of giving advice on a regular basis to the authority, to any committee or sub-committee of the authority or to any joint committee on which the authority are represented ; and
(c) the introduction of a political restriction in respect of acting on behalf of the authority on a regular basis for communicating with journalists or broadcasters ; and
(d) the introduction of a political restriction in respect of dealing on a regular basis with members of the public in circumstances from which they might reasonably infer that the holder of the post is in a position to influence the decisions of the authority, any committee or sub-committee of the authority or any joint committee on which the authority are represented.'.
(1) This Part shall have effect subject to the provisions of this section, and after the making of an Order by the Secretary of State. (2) No Order shall be made under subsection (1) above unless a draft has been laid before and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.
Column 747(3) No Order shall be made under subsection (1) above before a period of twelve months from the introduction of a Code of Practice under subsection (4) below.
(4) The local authority associations shall, as soon as practicable after the passing of this Act, prepare and publish a voluntary Code of Practice for local authorities covering the matters referred to in this Part.
(5) No Order shall be made under subsection (1) above unless the Secretary of State has reasonable cause to believe that a serious infringement of the Code of Practice has taken place, and that the making of the Order will prevent a recurrence of such an infringement.
(6) Before making an Order under subsection (1) above, the Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament a report setting out his reasons for making such an Order, with reference to any alleged infringement of the Code as specified in subsection (5) above.'.
Mr. Blunkett : In moving new clause 2, with which new clauses 3 and 4 are being considered, I want to try to disentangle the way in which certain aspects of local government practice have been distorted and promoted through the media as inferring that all those who are openly politically active in whatever capacity and who work for local government at above a salary of £13,500 are, in the words of the Minister in Standing Committee G, "acting despicably".
The Opposition need to disentangle clearly what we are and what we are not in favour of and to ask the House to vote on those matters. First, we are not in favour of people having jobs created for them so that they may continue their political activities in working time, irrespective of their contribution to the local community in the job in which they have been employed. We want to make that absolutely and unequivocally clear. As our new clause 4 suggests in relation to other matters, we seek ways of ensuring that codes of practice and reasonable standards and rules of behaviour are applied. That is quite possible and, indeed, appointments procedures for local authorities, involving members of all political parties, can be and have been devised to ensure that that objective is met.
The second and associated smear that has been deliberately followed through understandable public worries on the first point has been the interesting notion that if one works for a local authority, one should not, perhaps, be involved in any political activity of any kind ; that one should be restricted from standing for office either in local authorities, for Parliament here in Westminster or for the European assembly ; and that one should be restricted from being able to speak, write or canvass on behalf of a political party or a cause associated directly with a political party. We reject that inference and smear on literally tens of thousands of people who have been giving decent service not only to local government but to their communities and to the cause of democracy.
Openly speaking and the ability to write and to declare oneself in favour of a political cause is not something of which to be ashamed ; it is something of which to be proud. It is something that we should welcome in a democracy. Indeed, it is something that is suppressed and oppressed in regimes which all hon. Members would be eager to condemn and which the media outside the House spend a great deal of time rightly vilifying. However, when it is near to home there is the silence of indifference. There are people who are keen to preach to others and yet reluctant to practise the same rules for themselves. Therefore, this evening, we are proposing measures to separate those things that we think have some validity in
Column 748terms of needing guidance and restriction from those things that should be accepted as a normal and reasonable part of our political life.
First, we suggest that there should be some restriction on chief officers and their deputies and on the heads of the paid service and their deputies in terms of standing for other local authorities. That is reasonable and prudent. We do not think that many people would object to that. However, we do not see why that restriction and the political restrictions to which I have referred on people's ability to take part in politics should be extended to the vast number of people to whom the Bill would apply. Following the offer that has been made to administrative, professional, technical and clerical staff in local government, after July as many as 130,000 people will be caught in the restriction that forbids those on a gross annual salary of more than £13,500 to take part in political activity. That number comprises those who work directly in the paid service and does not include those caught in other aspects of the clauses that we are debating in terms of direct restrictions, irrespective of salary level.
That number of people, who can practise their democratic rights quite openly this week in the European elections and who have the civil right to display posters and to persuade other people to vote for any political party in that election will, if the Bill is passed, find that what is legal and acceptable this week will no longer be acceptable from the time that the Bill receives Royal Assent. We shall be placed in the farcical position that at the next European Assembly elections people who work in local government and who wish to be politically active will have to join the former leader of the Liberal party in campaigning in Italy, France or West Germany where they will presumably be free to engage in political activity. But they will not be able to promote their views and campaign on behalf of members of the same party in the United Kingdom-- [Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames) wish to intervene? Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley) indicated dissent.
Mr. Blunkett : I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman has nothing to say. The Government's proposals are disgraceful. They are an infringement of basic civil and human rights and they will be challenged in the European Court of Human Rights. The legal view already is that they infringe article 10 and the first protocol, article 3 of the European convention on human rights.
Mr. Patnick : Is the hon. Gentleman aware that civil servants are already bound by certain rules? Are Opposition Members changing their view on this issue, bearing in mind what they have said in advocating that the rules for hon. Members should be the same as those applying to councillors?
Mr. Blunkett : On present salary levels, industrial and non-officer grades in the Civil Service earning up to a maximum of £24,000 are not restricted. Those working in grades in a "politically restricted capacity" on salaries ranging between £17,500 and £24,000, including London weighting, would have to ask their immediate superiors for permission to engage not only in those activities which are now banned but in standing for public office. There is no comparison between the restrictions on civil servants and the £13,500 arbitrary ban, as it were, in the Bill.
Column 749Is impartiality in the public service to be judged purely in terms of whether people pretend not to hold political views? After all, one could be a sleeper--a quiet and surreptitious revolutionary--or hold all manner of views so long as one did not express them. Are we to sweep such views under the carpet, pushing them into shady corners of unacceptability? Are we to push democracy so that people are obliged to hold their views in quiet silence?
Not only is that unacceptable to us, but it demonstrates an important contradiction that emerged in Committee. If public confidence is endangered because people hold views and, as it were, practise democracy in their spare time, seeking exemption must cast doubt on their impartiality as well as questioning the advice that is given, even though, as the Minister said in Committee, the political views of the individual are not of concern. I question the fact that the individual is politically active.
The act of seeking exemption, of going to the arbitrator and asking to be permitted, because of one's job--perhaps because one is a mortuary attendant on overtime or a psychiatric social worker in the children's service--to go forward for selection for, say, the Conservative party, as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment found herself doing in the 1970s and 1980s, will be tantamount to declaring oneself to be politically active. The moment one declares oneself to be political, in accordance with the Bill, one will be labelled and blacklisted. One will have indicated that one holds views strongly enough to want to be, say, the treasurer of the local Conservative association, and in Committee we showed that that would come under the "unacceptable" category. At general election time we may describe such a request as unacceptable, but to find Ministers now talking about an activity in their party as being in some way dangerous to the nation's democracy is beyond belief. That is why we wish to differentiate between political knock-about and propaganda that seeks to discredit individuals and the dangerous road down which we are now being led in terms of disqualifying tens of thousands of people from practising their normal political rights.
If it is reasonable to believe that impartiality flows from the advice given by solicitors, accountants, surveyors or estate agents, even though they are politically active, the same must apply to local authority employees undertaking normal and reasonable tasks. That has been the case in Tory authorities with Labour activists and in Labour authorities with Tory activists, and with few exceptions there has been no malpractice. Dedication and decency have been the general rule.
In seeking to restrict the Bill to a few, clearly-designated and highly- paid senior officials, and in promoting a code of practice which would enable us to see what was and was not acceptable, local government would regulate itself, and Parliament would decide whether the code of practice had worked. We aim by that means to protect basic rights that have been acceptable in the past but which, with the passage of the Bill, will be described as "despicable". I hope that, even at this late stage, common sense will prevail in the Government and that it will not be necessary for people to go to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that the British Government had acted in an unacceptable and arbitrary manner. We do not have a
Column 750good record in that court. We have lost on vastly more occasions than other countries. Indeed, whenever people turn to European institutions to obtain redress and have their civil rights upheld, those institutions are strengthened to the detriment of the authority of the British Parliament.
That leads people to have less confidence in securing their democratic rights at the national level. That is bad for Parliament and for Britain. It reveals us in a poor light. What the Government propose may be good knock-about politics and they may think they are getting political capital out of it, but it is a basic infringement of all that we in Britain stand for.
Mr. Matthew Taylor : We debated this issue on Second Reading and at some length in Committee, and throughout those debates Conservative Members showed no sign of understanding the gravity of what is involved in removing people's basic democractic rights in a country the political system of which is based fundamentally on people holding those rights.
The Government's proposals mean that the right of freedom of speech will be curtailed for thousands of people. The right of free association, to campaign and to do something about those things in which people believe will be removed at a stroke, yet Ministers have been unable to give satisfactory reasons for what they are doing. They have not said, for example, that what they propose is vital or that they have tried to frame other options that would not remove those fundamental liberties. They have said that it must be plain common sense and that we must simply take away those liberties. It is that more than anything that appals me about our debates.
Mr. Gummer : Is it the policy of the hon. Gentleman's party to give civil servants the right to do all those things--a right that they have never had, even as far back as the period during which the hon. Gentleman's party was last in power?
Mr. Taylor : The Minister diverts me down the lengthy route that we followed in Committee. He will recall our long and detailed arguments about procedures within the Civil Service, the greater rights of individuals to appeal and the clearer levels at which differences occur. We reluctantly accept that there is a level within local government at which there should be certain restrictions, although I should much prefer that not to be the case.
The powers being taken by the Secretary of State and the arbitrary nature of the £13,500 figure suggest that the Minister, both for political ease and to win political support from some members of the general public, has found it simpler to wipe out a whole set of liberties at a stroke. We do not even know precisely what liberties will be removed and no details will be available before we vote. We know that the provision will be imposed retrospectively and will include, at least, prohibition on holding office in a political party, speaking or writing publicly on matters of political
controversy--however that may be defined--and canvassing at elections. Ministers defend the provision by saying that it will affect only a tiny number of people, but we must remember that even on their figures, on a salary bar of £13,500 it will affect 70,000 or 80,000 people--enough to elect one Member of Parliament or to provide a majority for two Members of Parliament. That is only an initial figure. There have been no commitments from Ministers--and they certainly have not been included in the Bill--that there will be suitable changes year by year to
Column 751ensure that the numbers affected do not rapidly expand. There are many ways in which more people can be brought within the net, but the most obvious is through the annual pay awards. The local authorities' conditions of service advisory board estimates that a further minimum of 20,000 staff each year will fall into the restricted category simply through the normal run of pay settlements.
In addition to the Government's reference to principal officers and above, 4,000 staff will be brought in through London weighting, another 4,000 on local scales and 8,500 fire service employees. Ministers have not told us the reality of what is being done. They have given no commitment that more and more people will not be brought into the net. That is fundamental to the liberties of every citizen, not just those directly affected, because it distorts the very democracy within which we work. Certainly all hon. Members should have a special regard for that.
Ministers say that the provision will be subject to an appeal system, yet many of those affected will have no recourse to appeal. The Government intend to scrub out the liberties of many thousands of local government employees simply by putting them under other categories. Even with the £13,500 rule, which will be subject to appeal, we are asked to believe that one adjudicator can deal with the whole of the appeal system. How can that be so? Can an appeal be held in advance? Can someone say that as he is expecting a pay rise the next year and might be banned from local government he wants to appeal in advance, not be kept hanging on a fine thread, so that he knows what he can or cannot do?
We have discussed at length the difficulties of deciding how the appeal process will operate and whether it can cope, especially when the provision is initially enacted and will affect so many people almost overnight. How does the Minister envisage it working when it is thought that people have broken the rules? It will be difficult for the individual to be sure whether his actions will be assessed as taking part in matters of public controversy. Will he be thrown out of office simply because he has miscalculated what he can or cannot do? Will the public have glossy literature pushed through their doors asking them to keep an eye on local government employees who might be breaking the rules? Are people expected to report on neighbours who have political posters in their windows or have been at a vaguely political demonstration? Or will the system operate through confessions--an individual going to the adjudicator and confessing his sins? Will the adjudicator say, "Own up, you have been a bad boy and we must do something about it."
It will be impossible for the system to work in the way intended. Either there will be some sort of police state, under which everyone will be worried about who might be reporting him to the authorities, on Left or Right, as he goes about his daily life and becomes involved--or even only said to be involved--in issues of importance to his local community, or there will be a special group of people employed to monitor the system in the way that snoopers police the poll tax by going around homes to see how many tooth brushes are in the bathroom.
The Government are launching a broadside at the basis on which our democracy works without apparent awareness of the implications and without placing