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Column 716The anomalies in the Bill as drafted are self-evident. The idea of using the Representation of the People Act 1989 as it applies to police officers is absurd. It states that they should not, by word, message or writing or in any other manner, persuade or dissuade any person from giving their vote whether as an elector or proxy. That is absurd. The idea that an individual cannot persuade people to cast their vote for a political party will lead us into all sorts of difficulties. If that is what the Bill means, it will need to be policed and monitored and we shall have to brace people who knock on people's doors, and, still more ridiculous, those who deliver leaflets through people's doors.
Perhaps we shall even have to monitor our discussions. Carried to an extreme, that could mean that people having an argument in a pub on a Saturday night could be reported by someone with a vindictive streak. However, it is quite possible that people who attend public meetings in a non-political way could be caught by the Bill because someone decided to report the fact that, although they were employed by a local authority at a specified level and fell into the category of politically-restricted personnel, they were engaged in persuading people in a way which might be construed as asking them to vote for, or perhaps not to vote for, a political party. Under section 100 of the Representation of the People Act 1989 they might even find themselves restricted in normal conversation. That would be ridiculous. If Conservative Members agree that it would be ridiculous, they should accept the amendments. If they believe that it is unenforceable, we should not accept it, but if it is enforceable we must know how it will be enforced.
The Representation of the People Act refers not to persuading people to vote for a political party but only to a person, who could be someone holding minor office, standing as an independent or engaging in any measure of political activity. If the Government are serious about this provision they should be clear about how it would be enforced. If they are not, we ask them to withdraw the Lords amendment.
The Government have seen sense and responded positively on a number of issues. When we last debated the Bill, many hon. Members felt that our democracy was at threat. It was not a major issue outside the House, but it would have become so. There was talk of having to take action through European Community institutions to ascertain and retain our democratic rights. The Government have seen substantial sense, and tonight they could make a substantial contribution to reassuring people outside by accepting amendments (b) and (c) to Lords amendment No. 3. For those reasons, we shall divide the House on amendment (c).
The Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities (Mr. David Hunt) : As this is my first opportunity to do so, may I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) for his earlier remarks? To reassure him, what is now being proposed is merely to apply the rules that have applied to thousands of civil servants for generations to those who will fulfil the same role in local government. That is a wise and sensible measure, because all hon. Members condemn the abuses that have occurred. Indeed, many Opposition Members have told me that they do not support the abuses that have brought the system of independent local government into disrepute.
Column 717We are in a complicated position, because the nine amendments to which we are speaking were moved by the Opposition spokesman in another place, the noble Lord McIntosh of Haringey. In doing so, he announced that agreement had been reached between the Government and the Opposition about which posts should be subject to the restrictions on public political activity. In accordance with that agreement, I shall recommend that the House should accept the Lords amendments. As the hon. Member for Brightside said, the Opposition have now tabled four amendments to the Lords amendments. In part, they raise questions about which their noble Lordships expressed reservations, but on one significant point they would effectively undermine the agreement reached in the other place.
To set the four Opposition amendments in context, it might help the House if I were to explain the effect of the nine Lords amendments and the reason why the Government recommend their acceptance. The proposals in the Bill, with the Lords amendments, will ensure that all posts that are properly regarded as politically sensitive--not just those over a certain salary level--will be subject to political restrictions, and that there will be proper independent scrutiny of what those posts should be. Two separate questions must be addressed.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : As the restrictions will apply to a number of people who earn less than £19,000 but who are considered to be politically sensitive, may we have a calculation of how many are likely to be affected?
On the first question of which local authority officers should be subject to restrictions, the Widdicombe committee recommended that the restrictions should apply to all officers of the rank of principal officer and above. At that time, after consulting widely, the Government took the view that that would spread the net too widely and therefore proposed that the restrictions should apply only to a much more precisely targeted group of staff. Initially, it was proposed that chief executives, chief officers and their deputies, monitoring officers and all officers to whom council functions had been formally delegated should be politically restricted ; to that list, for separate reasons, we added political assistants. Next, we proposed that restrictions should apply to all people in three politically sensitive categories--those who advise councillors, those who speak to the media for the council, and those who deal with the public and seem to represent the council. We proposed two mechanisms to apply those categories. For those paid a specified salary level or higher, to whom the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) referred, there would have been a system of contracting out. The restrictions would normally have applied to those with jobs on that salary level or higher, but if the employing council and adjudicator agreed that the posts did not fall into any of the three politically sensitive categories, they would be exempted. For those paid at less than the specified level, there would have been a system of contracting in. The restrictions would apply only if the employing council considered the
Column 718post to be in one of the three politically sensitive categories. As the House knows, the specified salary that divided the two approaches was £13,500
Three main changes are effected by the Lords amendments. First, one of the three categories of politically sensitive posts has been dropped. The two that remain are those who advise the council, a committee or sub-committee and those who speak for the council to the media. We came to the conclusion that the third category--those who deal with the public in ways whereby they seem to represent the council--was of less significance in local government than in equivalent posts in the Civil Service, which are politically restricted. I think that that is one of the most significant changes.
Secondly, the salary level that divides the contracting-out approach from the contracting-in approach has been raised to £19,500. We have further agreed that by regulation we shall link that salary to spinal point No. 44 of the national joint council scale ; it will therefore be increased in line with that scale. Provided it can be adequately drafted, we shall provide for the disregard of nationally agreed local weightings. That change reflects a decision to raise the level at which it is assumed that a post's duties will be politically sensitive in the ways defined. As the hon. Member for Walsall, North said, that change does not mean that those in politically sensitive jobs on a salary below £19,500 will be free from political restrictions. If the duties of a post under that salary level fall within the definitions of the politically sensitive categories, the employing council will be required to apply the restrictions. If they fail to act when they should, the adjudicator can ensure that the restrictions apply either as a result of a complaint or on his own initiative.
The reason for that lies in the third main change, because the role of the adjudicator has been widened. He will now be able to consider applications for exemption from the political restrictions even if the employing council thinks that they should apply. Equally, to prevent abuses that may flow from the raising of the salary level, he will be able to consider complaints from anyone that an employing council has failed to apply the restrictions to a post that meets the criteria for political sensitivity. If he agrees, he will be able to direct that the political restrictions shall apply to that post. I must stress that the Government regard this safeguard as important to ensure that the criteria for what posts should be restricted are properly applied. It provides an important assurance to those who have expressed concern, including many of my right hon. and hon. Friends who have written to me about it, that raising the salary level to £19,500 would give councils carte blanche to employ political activists as long as they were not paid more than £19,500. The new powers of the adjudicator will help to ensure that that does not happen. In addition, a number of minor changes will be made. The adjudicators will be empowered to issue guidance to which the local authorities are to have regard. The drafting of the definition of those who speak to the media for the council has been improved and other aspects have been clarified.
We regard as satisfactory the agreement reached in another place with the Opposition parties on the arrangements for determining what posts should be politically restricted. We commend the nine Lords amendments in this group to the House. I regret to have to reveal to the hon. Member for Brightside that I cannot say
Column 719the same for the four Opposition amendments. However, I want to make some remarks that I hope will be of assistance to him.
Mr. Hunt : I have not said that, but I will come back to the hon. Gentleman's point in a moment. I have laid down the criteria carefully. The question of what restrictions there should be will go some way to answering the points raised by the hon. Members for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) and for Brightside.
The Bill provides formal prohibitions on those in politically restricted posts from being Members of Parliament, Members of the European Parliament and councillors on principal councils. It further provides for contractual restrictions on certain other activities. The consultation paper that we have issued makes it clear that those are, being a candidate for those elected offices, holding office in a political party, canvassing and speaking and writing in public in support of a political party.
It was suggested in another place that there should be two levels of contractual restrictions for all but those in the most senior posts. Although I am not immediately convinced by that argument, I shall consider it carefully.
The four Opposition amendments reflect, in part, the questions raised in another place by the Opposition spokesman. Amendment (a) would negate the basis of what has been agreed on the question of the post to which the political restriction should apply. It was argued in another place that there should be a distinction between the restrictions that apply to chief executives, chief officers and their deputies and those that apply to other staff. It was suggested that all politically restricted staff should be prohibited from being elected to public office, but that the other restrictions should not be necessary in the case of staff other than chief executives, chief officers and their deputies. We have agreed to consider that. We have issued a consultation document which proposes that the restriction should be uniform for all the officers to whom the restrictions apply, as they are in the Civil Service for all members of a fully restricted group who are the equivalents of the politically restricted group in local government. We have an open mind on the issue and, as my noble Friend Lord Hesketh said, we will consider the case for a different approach.
However, I cannot accept the approach of amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 3 because that would exempt staff, other than the most senior, from not only the wider restrictions that we acknowledge are to be considered but from the basic prohibition on being a councillor in another local authority. It would mean that the only political restriction on staff other than chief executives, chief officers and their deputies would be a restriction on being a Member of Parliament or a Member of the European Parliament. I stress that everything other than actual membership would be permitted. That would go back on the agreement as to which post should be politically restricted by making the content of those political restrictions practically non-existent for posts other than chief executive, chief officer or their deputies.
The basic mischief at which the provisions are aimed is that of being a publicly active politician and at the same
Column 720time claiming to be the impartial servant of the local authority. I cannot therefore accept this attempt to set aside the Government's proposals to restate in law conventions which have previously ensured that there are no problems in this area.
Mr. Soley : The Minister must know--he is not naive--that the Government got into an indefensible mess on this and that our colleagues in the House of Lords bailed them out. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brightside said, that does not mean that it is legislation that we would introduce. The Minister has said that he has an open mind on one or two issues and is willing to move on them. I am delighted to hear that. But how on earth can he legislate for that given we are at the final stages of the Bill and at the tail end of the Session? Does the Minister think that he can do these things by an Order in Council?
Mr. Hunt : As the legislation and the consultation paper point out, there is scope for setting out the guidelines so that they are acceptable along the lines that I have already indicated. If I heard the hon. Gentleman correctly, he agreed with his hon. Friend the Member for Brightside on canvassing. He is under a misapprehension. Our consultation paper suggests that those in politically restricted posts in local government, like those in comparable posts in the Civil Service, should not be able to canvass for political parties or for candidates in elections to main local authorities or Parliament. The consultation paper suggests that a special definition of "canvassing" is needed, but if one were needed the definition of what is forbidden to policemen might be appropriate. That was the definition that was criticised by the hon. Member for Brightside. I do not think that it is an unacceptable approach.
Mr. Tony Banks : The political activist in one area is usually employed in another area, and the logic behind the Government's point is that if someone who lives in the area where the activist works were to see him canvassing for a political party that ratepayer would lose confidence in the local authority. How does that apply when the political activist will be canvassing in the area where he or she lives rather than works? Why is the restriction being introduced?
Mr. Hunt : It does not need me to reductio Zenosis as opposed to the hon. Gentleman's reductio ad absurdum. The consultation paper shows that we are adopting a sensible and fair approach to the issue. We have an open mind as to the way in which we can best ensure that the objective that I clearly laid out, and thought was agreed on both sides of the House, can be achieved. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) referred to clause 1(5). Under that clause we have to lay regulations to determine the restrictions other than those on membership of councils, Parliament and the European Parliament. That is what we are consulting on.
Amendments (a), (b) and (c) to Lords amendment No. 3 in part exempt assistants to political groups from restrictions other than being a Member of Parliament or a Member of the European Parliament. We have now sent to the local authority associations a consultative document setting out our proposals for restrictions for those political assistants, other than those on being a councillor, Member of Parliament or Member of the European Parliament which are included in the Bill. The document acknow-
Column 721ledges that the arguments for restrictions on these staff are different from those on other staff. Here there can be no conflict between the duties of the post and declared political allegiance. However, there must be safeguards against such posts being used merely to support a local party organisation. For instance, similar restrictions apply to Minister's special advisers for the same reasons. Such restrictions must exist if there is to be a power to appoint political assistants.
Amendments (b) and (c) would exempt more junior staff from restrictions on being officers of political parties and on canvassing. As my noble Friend Lord Hesketh said in another place, we have agreed to consider the case for a less restrictive approach for staff other than the most senior. However, there are disadvantages in such an approach. It would make it much more difficult for people to understand what particular officers were allowed to do. It does not deal with the basic problem of a clash between publicly declared political views and a claim to serve a council impartially, and it would represent a significant step away from the traditional conventions on this subject.
Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh) : Will my hon. Friend clarify this point? Is there a limitation on the number of political advisers that each authority is allowed to engage, or are we considering legislation that will enable any authority to engage, say, 50 of them?
I shall carefully consider all the arguments, but I do not think that the case is so clear that we should now rule out the possibility of uniform treatment of everyone subject to political restrictions. I may have misheard the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg). I should like to clarify a point. I thought that he was referring to a member of staff who in any way advises a council on its decisions. I should like to make it clear that every officer who advises a council committee or sub-committee will be restricted, regardless of pay level.
Mr. Hunt : My recollection is that the legislation applies to the officer who advises. A typist who types the document or someone similar much further down the chain will be affected by the restrictions only in the way that I explained earlier.
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North) : My hon. Friend may or may not know that each council chairman of a committee in Ealing has a personal assistant whose wages are paid by the ratepayer. That is a political figure. Am I to understand that this will be disallowed by the Bill in all cases but three?
Column 722whether Ealing council will attempt to find some way of explaining such a post as other than that of a political adviser. I should be interested to investigate the status of a political adviser who overnight assumed a different mantle. No doubt, through my hon. Friend's vigilance, combined with my authority, we shall defeat any attempt to circumvent the legislation's provisions.
Mr. Allen McKay : I do not agree with the Government's views. The legislation seems to result from shallow thinking and a biased view towards local government, and the Government have got it wrong. A chief officer may advise committees, but his advice will have come from further down the chain. Is the person further down the chain also debarred from taking part in political activities?
Mr. Hunt : Let us not get the matter out of context. The hon. Gentleman and I know individuals who work in local government. I have constantly been in touch with such public servants for most of my political life. The majority in no way transgress in any of the respects which I have outlined. We are well served by the high calibre of public servant at local authority level.
I remind the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) that the amendments were moved by the Opposition in another place to find a common solution to an uncommon problem--the individual who openly canvasses views for a political party and at the same time seeks to occupy an impartial position as a member of a council. It is to those people that the legislation is addressed. That is why I strongly urge the House to vote against the Opposition's amendments and to support the Lords amendments.
Mr. Winnick : The Minister concluded by paying a tribute to local government staff, and I echo his sentiments. There is, however, no evidence to show that the small numbers of people employed by local government who are politically involved do their job other than in the manner described. It is a slur on those people to argue that an officer who is employed by a local authority and is a member of another authority is not carrying out his basic function as a local authority employee in a forthright, honest and impartial way. If I had been a member of a local authority and were employed by another, I would consider it my duty, despite my strong political views, to carry out my responsibility as an employee impartially. Why should we believe that restrictions are necessary to cover someone who is a member of a local authority and is employed by another?
Like my hon. Friends, I believe that in so far as these restrictions are necessary--I deplore them--it is far better to accept the Lords amendment than the Government's original provision. The original figure of £13,500, to which the Government clung in Committee, was unacceptable. If it had been accepted, a number of local authority employees would have been barred from carrying out any kind of democratic activity.
I am worried about the legislation because those who earn less than £19,500 are to have their activities restricted, as the Minister made clear. When I asked him how many were affected, he said that he was not in a position to reply. I do not want to criticise him personally, but I should have thought that his advisers could give a rough calculation.
Column 723Those employees earning £19,500 will incur further restrictions, to which the Minister referred. People will be caught in the net. It is unfortunate that these restrictions are necessary, but in so far as they are necessary, they should apply to chief officers and deputy chief officers. I accept the possible need to impose a restriction on those two categories. One can argue that it is anomalous to allow a chief education officer or town clerk to be elected to serve on another local authority. I accept that argument, even if I am not wholeheartedly in favour of the restrictions. I would not go further, for the reasons which I have given. A number of people who are not chief officers or deputy chief officers and who do not occupy anything like those senior positions will be caught up in these restrictions because it will be argued that they hold politically sensitive positions such that they should not be allowed to stand for public office.
Mr. Pike : Was not the Minister himself confused about how the people caught below the £19,500 figure would be defined? It is common in many councils for members of either the controlling or opposition party to consult the officer who prepared a report on a matter about which they are not clear, even if his is not the name on the report that goes to the committee.
Mr. Winnick : My hon. Friend is right. As I said earlier, I am still worried that some who earn less than £19,500 will be caught despite the appeal system. Such employees may find that they are in the category, and I deplore that. The Minister must be aware that anyone who earns less than £19,500 is probably not in a position of seniority.
Teachers are not included in the category. I am not in favour of including them. Indeed, I am not in favour of the Bill as it stands, let alone of extending the category. The only explanation that I can find for teachers and head teachers not being included is simply that the Government assume that the majority of teachers involved in political activities, such as being a member of a local authority, will be Conservatives. I see no other reason why one group of local government employees is included while another is not. That confirms my original view, expressed on Second Reading, that the ban or restriction is politically motivated. The Government have a deep authoritarian streak which works on the basis that the people whom they do not like should be banned. Similarly, they decided to finish off the Greater London council and the metropolitan county councils because they were Labour controlled.
If there are to be restrictions on election to another local authority, they should not include canvassing for a political party or holding office in a party. Hence the Opposition amendment. It is crazy that a citizen of our country should be prevented from being elected as treasurer to his local Labour or Conservative ward. Is it really suggested that a person who comes within a politically sensitive category may not carry out his functions because he is a member of a local political party, goes to its annual general meeting, and has been elected as treasurer, secretary or chair of the ward, or because he canvasses?
I do not know the view of the Minister or of his hon. Friends, but, as a democrat, my view is that the more people are involved in political and democratic activities the better. In my party, and quite likely in the Conservative
Column 724party, we usually moan that too few people are willing to carry out such chores. Yet the Government say, "If you are employed by a local authority and you come within a politically sensitive category, you are not allowed even to canvass".
Like so many other Bills, this Bill in anti-democratic. I regret the motives behind the Bill and the fact that the Government have not shifted further. They have removed the figure of £13,500 only because they have taken into account the arguments advanced in another place and the possibility of an action in the European Court of Human Rights. Our amendment would be some improvement on a bad, anti-democratic Bill, and I urge my hon. Friends to support it.
Mr. Harry Greenway : I welcome the remarks of my hon. Friend the Minister. He made a proper distinction between elected councillors and officers of a council. Too much and too often recently the line dividing the work of councillors and of council officers has become blurred. Full- time employees of one authority elected to another have been allowed to spend almost all their office hours on politics. There should be a distinction between councillors who are elected to lay down a local authority's policy and officers who are employed to carry it out. The Labour party, both locally and nationally, seems to believe that councillors should work full time and direct the minutiae of council policy. I disagree. It is for council officers to carry out the policy laid down by councillors and the Lords amendment will ensure that that happens.
It must be seriously wrong for council chairmen to have political assistants. In Ealing, each committee chairman has a personal assistant who is effectively a political assistant. Many think that the chairman's aide is there to make sure that the chairman does what the party wants him to do.
Mr. Winnick rose --
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) rose --
Mr. Winnick rose --
Mr. Soley rose --
Mr. Greenway : I am simply saying that it is absurd and wrong for chairmen of local authority committees to have personal assistants who are really politicians at the behest of the local Left-wing hierarchy, in the case of Ealing, to see that he does what the hierarchy wishes. I am not saying that it is corrupt.
Column 725Mr. Tony Banks rose --
Mr. Winnick rose --
Mr. Greenway : In Ealing, between eight and 13 Labour councillors would certainly have been caught by the £13,500 cut-off and prevented them from standing for re-election--in which they would probably have been unsuccessful--to Ealing council next year because they are employees of other authorities. There is political unfairness in the way in which councillors who are employees of other authorities operate. In many cases they seem to be given leave by the council employers to work full time on council work in Ealing.
Thirty years ago I was at the Oxford university settlement in Bethnal Green. Poplar councillors were employed by Stepney council, Stepney councillors were employed by Bethnal Green council, Bethnal Green councillors were employed by Poplar council, and so on. In effect, the councillors worked full time in politics. That was grossly absurd because the Labour party had 100 per cent. control of each council.
Mr. Lofthouse : The hon. Gentleman will have noticed that the Minister has eight personal advisers in the Box. Does he agree that there are quite a few distinguished hon. Members who have been politically active while employed by local government and who would never have been able to become Members of Parliament under this legislation? Does the Minister also agree that local government officers are as honourable as headmasters of schools who are politically active?
Mr. Greenway : I know that the hon. Gentleman is an honourable man and his comment is interesting. However, the Minister's advisers are not apparatchiks in the same way as the political or personal assistants to Ealing council chairmen, to whom I have referred--or at least they do not look like apparatchiks. I was prevented from becoming a councillor when I was a young teacher, although I would have liked to have been one, because teachers were not then allowed to stand for election to their local authority, and they are not allowed now.
Some councils are thought to appoint officers whom they believe will drive through a political point of view in their work as council officers. That is a serious problem because, like civil servants, council officers should not drive through political objectives for themselves. They should drive through policy objectives laid down by the council and should not pursue their own political aims, so they should never be appointed for such reasons. The Bill will help to ensure that that does not happen.
Another problem is that some local government officers who speak to the media are in a sensitive position, as my hon. Friend the Minister said. It can soon happen that information put out to the media, electors, ratepayers or community charge payers becomes propaganda. It is right to ensure that anybody who deals with the media or who distributes information from councils is above reproach in political terms.
I say that with particular feeling because a magazine called "Voices", which is a highly political document, has been produced in Ealing, financed by the ratepayers of
Column 726Ealing. It is wrong because it is merely Socialist propaganda. The leaflet that Ealing council produced on the community charge--and presumably it was produced by officers with access to the media--was incorrectly called "Poll Tax Information", and was highly prejudiced political propaganda. The amendments will rightly stop that. If people do not have the self-restraint or integrity to stop such practices themselves, it is right--although sad--that Parliament should do so for them.
Council officers must be appointed on merit, regardless of political beliefs, sex, or ethnic background, but it is clear that that is not always the case. The Bill will ensure that such corruption ceases. Many of us are sorry that the Government have raised the cut-off point from £13,500 to £19,500, although we understand their reasons. Many of us fear that many council officers below the level of £19,500 will slip through the net into political activity and it will be important to ensure that they do not. However, I honour local government employees in general for the marvellous work that they do.
Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East) : The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) expressed concern that press officers in particular, who are responsible for issuing information, may become involved in issuing party propaganda. Will the hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to intervene and to say whether he thinks that Mr. Bernard Ingham is beyond political reproach for the way in which he issues information on behalf of the Prime Minister's Office? Time and again the information he has issued has been pure political propaganda. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us whether he thinks that Mr. Bernard Ingham is above reproach in terms of allowing political propaganda to interfere with his work as press officer for the Prime Minister's Office? The hon. Gentleman seems to be remaining in a sedentary position because he knows what the truth is.
I welcome the concessions in Lords amendment No. 3 and the change in salary level from £13,500 to £19,500. I also welcome the Minister's assurance that he will recommend the amendment to the House. I was interested to hear what the Minister said about politically sensitive posts remaining under the salary level of £19, 500. I remember that in Committee the Minister who was then responsible for the Bill and who has now moved on to pastures new as Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food went to great lengths to try to justify the figure of £13,500. He gave the Committee two examples of high salary earners and low salary earners who would be affected. For his example of a low salary earner, he referred to a council officer in his own constituency who was responsible for allocating houses in the area. The Minister said :
"It is important that he should not have political affiliations because his decisions must be clearly seen to be on the basis of priority When decisions have to be taken and advice given to the authority about allocation, it is easier if the political affiliations of the person taking that decision are not known. He cannot then be accused of favouring someone who has a housing priority, even if they have the same political affiliations."--[ Official Report, Standing Committee G, 7 March 1989 ; c. 188.]
Column 727It seemed a strange principle to apply. The Minister seemed to be saying that it was unacceptable for an officer to allocate houses and at the same time to have open political affiliations, but that it was wholly acceptable to do so if those political affiliations remained secret. It seemed that if the people in a particular area did not know what was going on, they had no need to worry. That has a masonic ring, and I hope that the Minister does not extend that principle. Will the Minister tell us whether council officers who are responsible for allocating houses will continue to be regarded as being in politically restricted posts, as the former Minister suggested they should be? Their salary level will be well below £19, 500, so it is important that the Minister clarifies whether such officers will be affected by the politically restricted posts legislation.
I was interested to hear the Minister say that the reason for the Bill was the extent of the abuses which had brought the whole system of local government into disrepute, and that point was made many times in Committee. If such abuses exist, they are alleged to exist only in England and Wales, and have never existed in Scotland to my knowledge. In Committee, I tabled an amendment that sought to exempt Scotland from the effects of the provision. Twin tracking has never been a concern in Scotland. I and my hon. Friends believe that and Widdicombe said that the traditional practices survive more readily in Scotland than in England or Wales.
The research study upon which Widdicombe was based said that "the professional adviser model of officer-member relations remains dominant in Scottish local government".
The research study also pointed out :
"Councillors expect, seek and generally receive"
politically neutral advice and said that, in general, relationships in Scotland are satisfactory and in no need of legislation such as this. The Government are trying to apply a remedy for a perceived disease in England and Wales and they have no basis for arguing that that remedy should also apply in Scotland. That is why I should have been pleased had Scotland not been included in the Bill.
If anything, Scotland suffers from the opposite of the problem with which the Bill seeks to deal. We suffer not as a result of council officers' openly saying where their political affiliation lies but from officers not telling us where their affiliation lies, especially when that affiliation interferes with the advice that they give to elected councillors. I cite the case of compulsory competitive tendering because it has recently caused anger in my own area, the Tayside regional council area, where a contract was lost to an outside tenderer. Everyone who has been involved in the process has said that, if the in-house tenderer is to win, it is most important that elected members' trade unions representing the work force and council officers work closely together and show the same commitment to winning the contract. Council officers do not say what their political affiliation is but often by their actions and by failing to show such commitment, they undermine the in-house tender and make it possible for the contract to go to an outsider tenderer. That often happens without our being told the real political affiliation of the council officers and whether that affiliation is interfering with the advice that they give to the elected representatives.
Some other council officers will remain caught by the politically restricted posts provisions. They include press
Column 728officers. Press officers are professional council officers and they act in a wholly professional manner. They impart information concerning democratically reached council decisions, publicise statements made by elected conveners on council committees, and so on. The Government have decided to reward them for doing a thoroughly professional job by designating press officer a politically restricted post and disallowing press officers from standing for political office or taking part in political activity--even from canvassing or taking part in the democratic process in any way. Our amendment (c) to Lords amendment No. 3, on which we shall divide the House, would at least restore some democratic rights to council officers. It is important that those Conservative Members who take these matters seriously should vote with the Opposition. After all, we are dealing with a serious infringement of civil liberties. The Minister said that the Lords amendments represented a sensible and fair approach on the part of the Government. Although it is true that the Government are taking a more sensible and fair approach than they did in Committee, the principle of politically restricted posts remains deeply objectionable on democratic grounds. I remind the Minister that, perhaps for very good reasons, Germany introduced the concept of politically restricted posts in the aftermath of the second world war. The Germans tried to exclude from public service those extremists who were opposed to the constitution and to the very notion of public service. They did that to deal with the Nazi party and its supporters. Unfortunately, in practice, Berufsverbot has been used not against Nazis but against those who subscribe to Left-wing ideologies. Since 1972, there have been 3 million political screenings in Germany, several thousands of hearings and 1,250 rejections of applicants for jobs in the public service. There have also been 300 forced retirements. The orginal concept of Berufsverbot has been abused for political ends just as the principle of politically restricted posts will be open to abuse for political ends. It should be opposed, and the House should accept the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends.
Mr. Tony Banks : There has been more than the usual whiff of hypocrisy on the Conservative Benches this evening. The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) talked about propaganda. It comes ill from the Conservative party these days to talk about information as propaganda or propaganda as information, given the publications that now emerge from the Ministries almost daily. The last one that I saw was published by the Central Office of Information and dealt with the Conservative Government's approach to South Africa. It was printed in blue and there was a picture of the Prime Minister on every single page. That is the sort of publication that we believe should be paid for by Conservative Central Office and not by the hard-pressed taxpayer, but the hon. Member for Ealing, North would never say that.
Much of the information that the Government publish about privatisation--at a cost of about £150 million of taxpayers' money--in so-called public information schemes is no more than propaganda to advance the Conservative party's cause. We do not need lectures from the hon. Member for Ealing, North about propaganda and information because the Government are past masters