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Column 729at squandering taxpayers' money to push the Government's cause. It will do them no good because the public see through these thinly disguised activities and will boot them from office in the next couple of years or so.
Let me say to the Minister, however, that I welcome his appointment. Perhaps he will take my congratulations to cover next week's ministerial reshuffle as well, as that will save me from repeating myself.
In Committee, I made it clear that I was not in favour of twin tracking. I speak as one who was in local authority service as an elected member for 16 years. But the principle that we are discussing goes much further than twin tracking. I objected to twin tracking not so much because I was concerned about whether the advice given would be impartial but because of the pressure of time on the individual concerned.
My solution was to suggest that if we approached local government responsibilities seriously and remunerated councillors so that they were not required to seek jobs with other local authorities--which might be broadly sympathetic because of the sacrifices that councillors have to make --we might prevent it from happening. It is difficult to get a job or hold a job when one is acting as a councillor, but if we were prepared to admit that we have local government on the cheap and to make positive suggestions about remunerating councillors, the twin tracking that occurs in some parts of England and Wales would cease to exist.
The Bill goes much further, however. We are talking about placing restrictions on low-level political activity such as canvassing or holding political office. The Minister spoke as though political activity and involvement with a political party were in some way criminal. If that is so, this is a home for recidivists. I do not understand how the Minister can say that being involved in cavassing or holding political office disbars someone from being an effective local government officer. That person is not in the same position as someone who works for one local authority and advises another. As I understand it, Conservative Members would argue--I do not accept the argument--that public confidence is diminished if people receive advice from or make contact with a supposedly impartial council officer knowing that that officer is also an active member of a political party working on or representing another council somewhere else. One can almost go along with that argument a little way in the case of twin tracking, but canvassing and holding political office are completely different matters. The political activist does those things in the area in which he or she lives and not in the area in which he or she works. There is no reason why anyone who meets a political activist on the doorstep or within the local party should have their feelings about the local authority diminished, because that is not the same local authority. It is another local authority. Obviously if a council officer were canvassing and held a political office in the area where he or she worked, there might be something in it. However, the proposals in the Bill amount to an attack on the democratic civil rights of thousands of local government officers around the country. The proposal goes too far. The Minister has said that the matter will be reconsidered, but I want to know what he intends to do.
With regard to holding office, the consultative paper states : "The concept of holding office' seems sufficiently
self-explanatory not to need any special definition."
Column 730That is not so. Does it really include being the social secretary? If one holds that office, is one excluded from being a councillor? Would the organiser of the revolutionary jumble sales that we have from time to time in the Labour party be excluded? In my constituency there is a premises officer and an assistant premises officer. If they happen to work for another local authority, will they be excluded?
The proposal really is a reduction to the absurd, as the Minister said. I am not reducing it to the absurd ; the Minister is doing that by accepting the absurdity that
"The concept of holding office' seems sufficiently
self-explanatory not to need any special definition."
We need a definition or the concept will be so imprecise as to be meaningless.
The consultative document also states :
"Canvassing seems sufficiently self-explanatory not to require a special definition."
I am beginning to get the feeling that, because it was too difficult for the people who drew up the draft code to provide any definitions, they decided that everything was self-explanatory. That is a rather neat way of surmounting the problem.
In many cases canvassing is an anonymous activity. I try to make it as anonymous as I possibly can when I am canvassing in the London borough of Newham. I must be honest about it, I do not like canvassing for myself. I do not like trying to sell myself from door to door like a suitcase full of Kleenezee brushes. However, I find many ready takers. I normally knock on the door and say, "Excuse me, very sorry to disturb you, but I am from Newham, North-West Labour party. I hope you will be voting Labour in the next election." If I am asked, "Are you Tony Banks?" I look at them very carefully and decide whether the question is asked in an amicable or a hostile fashion and either admit it or deny it according to the circumstances.
Canvassing is an anonymous activity. People are not going to say, "Hang on. I know you. You work for the local authority down the road. My God, what are you doing canvassing for the Conservative party or the Labour party?" It is absurd to include canvassing and holding political office as activities that will carry disqualification. What will happen if someone continues to act in this way? The Bill states :
"It will be included in contractual terms."
If someone grasses on the person who comes round canvassing or is organising the jumble sale or the bring-and-buy down the local Conservative association or Labour party office to the employer--the local authority-- will that person face dismissal? That must be spelt out. This proposal goes much further than the concept in Committee. It is an attack on people's civil and political rights who are trying to organise within a political party.
If our democracy means anything and if political parties are in any way supportive of our democracy--some might argue that they are not, but I assume that all hon. Members would argue that they are--anything that limits people's involvement at even the most humble level in political parties should be rejected out of hand in this House, of all places.
Mr. David Hunt rose--
Mr. David Hunt : I was listening to the debate and I was enjoying it. However, from time to time I had to remind myself that we are debating the acceptance of Lords amendments which are the product of all-party agreement. I had to remind myself of that as the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) was speaking. I have made a pledge not to be critical of him because he paid me such a fulsome tribute. It was so fulsome that I cannot remember exactly what he said--I was in a state of shock.
This has been an interesting debate on a very important subject. The hon. Member for Dundee, East Mr. McAllion) should not claim that the proposal should not apply to Scotland. He should listen to his hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) who said that it would be wrong for a chief executive of a council to be a councillor on another council. It just so happens that the chief executive of Clydebank district council is a member of Glasgow district council.
Mr. Hunt : I am sure that he does, but we are laying down the guidelines on how he can best carry out his duties in future. Therefore, the restrictions should apply to Scotland as much as to the rest of the United Kingdom.
In response to the hon. Member for Walsall, North, I can state that the criteria for political sensitivity applies to those who regularly advise council committees and sub committees, not those who may offer advice to individual councillors. With regard to other members of staff, what matters is who personally puts the advice to the committee. If a chief officer is assisted, but takes responsibility for the advice, the assistant is not regularly advising the committee. If the junior officer takes responsibility for the advice, he or she will be restricted.
There are already provisions in education legislation to restrict the professional activities of teachers in political areas.
Mr. Maxton : I do not know whether that is true in England and Wales, because I am not an expert. However, someone employed as a teacher in Scotland by the regional council is quite entitled to stand as a district councillor on the tier below that.
The hon. Member for Walsall, North referred to treasurers of political parties. Since 1948 that has been regarded as incompatible with being a senior civil servant. I remind the House that these provisions would come as no surprise to the vast majority of public servants in local government, because our proposal is a code of conduct to which they already subscribe. We are dealing with a very small minority of people who may feel that they are caught by the provisions.
With regard to Ministers' advisers, I must state that I am honoured to be so well served by some of the highest calibre civil servants who give me just as much loyal and impartial advice as they gave to members of the last Labour Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) was right to stress the inadequacies of Socialist
Column 732propaganda on the rates. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West did not try to justify that propaganda ; he tried to show that other political parties tried to put forward political propaganda. While I do not accept the correctness of anything that the hon. Member said, he is talking to the same subject. It is wrong to have party political propaganda either funded on the rates or from people who are normally associated with the impartial activities of a local council.
Mr. Soley : May I have a commitment from the Minister? He is a Minister in the Department of the Environment, and it has been admitted in the background papers that the expenditure of £21 million by the water boards was designed to help privatisation. Given that the Minister has said that that is unacceptable, will he resign?
Mr. Hunt : No. That was to explain the importance of the measure, and it was in accordance with Government policy. If Opposition Members were reasonable, they would understand that we are talking about official council policy and official Government policy as opposed to party political propaganda.
Mr. Tony Banks : The Minister is demonstrating how difficult it is to make an acceptable distinction between information and propaganda. Politicians are deciding that the Government are putting out information and that local authorities are putting out propaganda. That is the problem. There is no objective assessment. Unless the Minister can come up with an acceptable and objective way of determining what is propaganda and what is information, he is simply interfering in a party political way in the affairs of local authorities.
Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro) : We are getting to the nub of the matter. Many people in local government fear that, although there may have been some all-party compromise rather than agreement in the other place, everyone is not necessarily talking about the same thing--they may think that they are, but they may not be. Will the Minister elaborate on future progress in defining some of the things that he promises and what opportunity there may be to review and reflect in future?
Mr. Hunt : I readily respond. It has been an interesting debate, and I shall carefully consider the points that have been made. To return to the all-party approach which characterised the start of the debate, the Lords amendments are the product of compromise and agreement between the Opposition and the Government. That they must now work effectively must be agreed. That is why we have gone out to consultation, and that is why, before we bring forward the regulations, we shall carefully consider all the points that have been made and listen to further representations that hon. Members may wish to make. We are determined to ensure that the product of these amendments is put into good law and that everyone knows exactly where he stands.
Amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 1 negatived.
Lords amendment No. 1 agreed to.
Lords amendment No. 2 agreed to.
Column 733Lords amendment: No. 3, in page 3, line 29, at end insert-- "(1A) It shall be the duty of every local authority to prepare and maintain a list of such of the following posts under the authority, namely-
(a) the full time posts the annual rate of remuneration in respect of which is or exceeds £19,500 or such higher amount as may be specified in or determined under regulations made by the Secretary of State;
(b) the part time posts the annual rate of remuneration in respect of which would be or exceed that amount if they were full time posts in respect of which remuneration were paid at the same rate as for the part time post; and
(c) posts not falling within paragraph (a) or (b) above the duties of which appear to the authority to fall within subsection (3) below,
as are not posts for the time being exempted under section (grant and supervision of exemptions from political restriction) below, posts for the time being listed under section 100G(2) of the Local Government Act 1972 or section 50G(2) of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 or posts of a description specified in regulations made by the Secretary of State for the purposes of this subsection"
Read a Second time.
Amendment proposed to the Lords amendment : (c), in line 21, at end insert- -
(1B) No regulations issued under section 1(5) above in respect of a post in a list prepared and maintained under subsection (1A) above, or in respect of a post falling within subsection (1)(f) above, shall prohibit a person holding such a post from endeavouring to persuade any person to give, or dissuade any person from giving, his vote for any candidate, whether as an elector or a proxy at any election.'.-- [Mr. Blunkett.]
Question put, That the amendment to the Lords amendment be made :--
The House divided : Ayes 203, Noes 283.
Division No. 368] [7.2 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane
Archer, Rt Hon Peter
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)
Beith, A. J.
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Buckley, George J.
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Cunningham, Dr John
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)
Duffy, A. E. P.
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth
Evans, John (St Helens N)
Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)
Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)