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Column 1421Viggers, Peter
Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr. Michael Bates and Dr. Liam Fox.
Column 1421Alton, David
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy
Beith, Rt Hon A. J.
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Donohoe, Brian H.
Foster, Don (Bath)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Kennedy, Charles (Ross,C&S)
Column 1421Loyden, Eddie
Lynne, Ms Liz
Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Tellers for the Noes: Mrs. Ray Michie and Mrs. Margaret Ewing.
Column 1421Question accordingly agreed to.
Lords amendment: No. 2, in page 4, line 39, after ("authorities") insert
(", or of the new water and sewerage authority or authorities (within the meaning of Part II of this Act),")
Mr. Stewart: I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.
Madam Deputy Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to discuss also Lords amendments Nos. 3 to 5.
Mr. Stewart: The amendments all relate to clauses which deal with transitional staffing and property issues, and are all purely technical.
As Liberal Democrat Members will know, amendment No. 3 was put forward by their colleagues in the House of Lords to implement a recommendation of the delegated powers Scrutiny Committee. Amendments Nos. 4, 4(a) and 5 are technical drafting amendments designed to clarify the powers of the Secretary of State in relation to the appointment and removal from office of the chairman and members of the staff commission and property commission. This is a
Column 1422straightforward legal drafting matter. I am advised that, as they stand, clauses 12(3) and 19(2) and the scope of any order made under them may not be entirely clear.
I reassure the House that there is no question of those powers being taken as a precursor to dismissing either the chairman or any of the members of the staff commission. Indeed, may I place on record our support for the members of the shadow staff commission, whom we intend, under the terms of clause 12 as amended, to appoint as members of the statutory staff commission.
I commend these amendments in the knowledge that they are purely technical and result from advice from our lawyers.
Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton): As one of my colleagues just said, this is the "sack the board" amendment. All the Minister's platitudes suggesting that it is purely a straightforward, technical, drafting amendment are unlikely to fall on fertile ground on this side of the House. The reality behind the whole Bill is that the Government, and especially the Secretary of State for Scotland, are taking more and more powers unto themselves.
The amendment is one of the most sinister that we have seen, with implications which go way beyond anything suggested by the Minister. It will empower the Secretary of State to dismiss the chairman and members of the staff commission without reason, notice or justification. Yet the staff commission was to be independent, with the power to look objectively at the problems facing local government after a major and unnecessary reorganisation. It was to smooth the transition effortlessly from one system to another.
The question that anybody would want to pose at this time is why it was necessary for the matter to be raised in the House of Lords. We have debated this Bill on and off for some 200 hours in this parliamentary Session. The Official Report amounts to the equivalent of three volumes of "War and Peace". We sat through those debates painfully and we learned so much, but we were able to impart so little to Tory Members. During the whole debate, nothing was said about the powers that it was necessary to take in relation to the staff commission.
In July, the Lord Advocate told the House of Lords:
"There is no intention on the part of the Secretary of State to interfere with the independence of the staff commission."--[ Official Report, House of Lords , 13 July 1994; Vol. 556, c. 1908.] An amendment has now been tabled to give the Secretary of State powers to clarify and make explicit his power to dismiss without reason the whole or part of the staff commission. The Lord Advocate is an honourable individual in the Government, which may distinguish him from many other Government members. He gave his word to the House of Lords in July; yet the Government felt obliged to table an amendment to clarify and reinforce the power to get rid of people who have been asked to take on a substantial job of work-- allegedly independently and without pressure--on behalf of the people of Scotland.
Why have the Government chosen to squeeze through this amendment after the House of Lords stage, right under the wire at the end of the whole process? This enormously serious issue goes to the heart of the Government's handling of the reorganisation. Some 300,000 people employed in local government in Scotland, delivering valuable and crucial services to the Scottish people, are worried about their future. What are
Column 1423they expected to read into the fact that the Government have taken upon themselves, at the very end of the process, the right to dismiss without reason the members of the staff commission in whose hands their future is placed?
One does not have to be Bill Fyfe, ex-chairman of the Greater Glasgow health board, to know that, when the Government take powers unto themselves, they use them. He was asked to resign when the Secretary of State did not have the power to demand or command his resignation. Yet here the Government are taking that power upon themselves. There is no hon. Member on either side of this House who does not believe that, if it suited the Government to use those powers, they would use them quickly and without question. By no stretch of the imagination, therefore, is this simply a technical drafting amendment, and we are unlikely to accept it in that light. If it were a technical drafting amendment, why is the power to dismiss so sweeping? Why is it not qualified in the Lords amendment? Why are Scottish Office Ministers taking greater powers in Scotland in that connection than they have in Wales, where commissioners on the staff commission can be removed for predetermined reasons only? That is a substantial question for the Minister for responsible for industry and local government at the Scottish Office. Why is there that big difference between Wales and Scotland in relation to the staff commission? And why is that power being taken in relation to the current reorganisation of local government when there was no similar power in the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, which reorganised local government on the previous occasion in Scotland? The Minister is obliged to answer those two questions if he is to be taken seriously as someone who is not here to intimidate people in the staff commission.
Opposition Members try not to be suspicious of the Government, but if we were suspicious, we would consider the remarks that Mr. Robert Peggie made on 21 September 1994 at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities conference. Do we perhaps find there an explanation of why the Government are so keen at this stage to introduce powers to dismiss all or part of the staff commission without reason? Mr. Peggie's appointment was welcomed on both sides of the House and my hon. Friends were explicit in recognising him as a man of impeccable qualifications and impeccable background, who took on an unpopular job for the Government but has done it assiduously. On 20 September, reported in the newspapers on 21 September, Mr. Peggie made his view known on the subject of the staff transfer from the old system of local authorities to the one that the Government propose. I quote from The Scotsman:
"Robert Peggie told a conference at Dunblane yesterday that councils were ill-prepared for local government reorganisation and the timetable was dangerously tight."
"Dangerously tight"--those were Mr. Peggie's words.
Mr. Stewart: Will the hon. Gentleman also concede that Mr. Peggie is on record in public and in the press as agreeing that the amendments are purely technical?
Mr. Robertson: Mr. Peggie may feel that Mr. Peggie is safe. We may perhaps have more grounds for doubting
Column 1424Mr. Peggie's security of tenure than Mr. Peggie has at this stage. I am simply saying, as one of those who have some experience of the Government's legislative intentions, that perhaps Mr. Peggie is being unduly sanguine at this time, in his condition, and that he should perhaps be more wary of the Government. He only has to stand up at a conference and announce that the Government's timetable is dangerously tight, and suddenly an amendment is produced in the House of Lords to give the Secretary of State the power to dismiss him and other members of the staff commission in circumstances which do not apply to the staff commission in Wales. Perhaps Mr. Peggie should look carefully at the number of spoons in his cabinet before he leaves the room.
The Dundee Courier and Advertiser reported the same speech by Mr. Peggie. Mr. Andrew Nicol, Scottish political editor of the Courier and Advertiser , said, quoting Mr. Peggie:
"There is grave concern about the short time-scale for the implementation of the reorganisation scheme and local government generally is ill-prepared for this reorganisation, in comparison to 1974."
Mr. Peggie is absolutely right to give that warning. It is a serious warning, which should be listened to by anyone in Scotland who depends on local government services--and precious few people do not.
Vulnerable people employed by local government are worried sick about their prospects and the future of their jobs. Countless thousands of vulnerable people in Scottish society depend on local government services delivered by the 300,000 local government officers, and have reason to be worried about the time scale and the timetable that the Government are embarking on for the
It might be unduly suspicious of us to say that the Government are firing a shot across the bows of the staff commission with the amendment, but we know what the Government can do, and have done. Few people in Scotland would dismiss our suspicion, and few will not be worried by the fact that the amendment has appeared--and appeared so late in the day.
With the amendment, the Government are sending a clear message to the staff commission that it had better not be as independent as its members thought, when they were appointed, that it would be. That is a clear move to intimidate the staff commission from making the type of frank, honest and reasonable statements that Mr. Peggie and his colleagues have felt obliged to make public since they were appointed.
Apart from the timetable and quality of services in local government, Mr. Peggie and his colleagues are worried about the impact that it will have on the people who are currently employed in local government as a whole. That is why they have started to tackle the issue that Her Majesty's Government should have been tackling--where the reorganisation fits into European law. It has become increasingly obvious that statements made by Ministers in Standing Committee--that the acquired rights directive and the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 may have no implication for the local government reorganisation--are wrong. Counsel's opinion, which has been commissioned by UNISON--the largest union in local government--makes it clear beyond doubt that both TUPE and the acquired rights directive will apply to all people employed by local authorities at the present time, and in relation to the transfer that will occur if the unitary
Column 1425authorities are up and running. That has implications for the people concerned, for the Government and for the staff commission, and it has serious implications for the financial projections that the Government have tried to sell during the entire period.
Mr. Gallie: The hon. Gentleman has referred to the trade unions and the importance of protecting their rights. Would he be prepared to declare whether he is supported in any way by trade unions?
Mr. Robertson: I tell the hon. Gentleman, who should be very cautious when he starts talking about who is sponsored by whom--I wonder how he drove to the debate this evening, for instance--that I am sponsored by the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union. I am an officer of the GMB union on leave of absence. I have been for the past 16 years, and I do not expect that it is a right that I will have to take up to become re-employed by the union.
However, my anxiety now is not for the unions. I am quoting counsel's opinion supplied to UNISON, one of the unions in local government, but my concern, and their concern, is for the human beings, the employees of local government--300,000 of them at present--who are important in themselves, and who deliver services that are crucial to the people of Scotland and to the hon. Gentleman's constituents, insofar as they are constituents of his until the next election.
Counsel's opinion is explicit and important. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity of announcing frankly, on behalf of the Government, that he agrees with that adjudication, in order that the work of the staff commission may go ahead, and that Mr. Peggie and his colleagues may declare to the employees of local government where they stand.
I quote the final conclusion of Mr. Aiden
O'Neill's--counsel's--opinion of 18 September 1994:
"Dismissal of local authority employees, whether before or after the transfer, will only be found to be justifiable if shown to be for economic, technical or organisational reasons unconnected with the fact of the transfer itself."
That has dramatic implications for the costings of the Government, and also for the individuals involved.
The only people who have not pronounced on TUPE and the acquired rights directive and their implications for local government are the Government. Today's debate is a real opportunity for the Minister to make it clear that the Government accept, without legal challenge and without any doubt, that TUPE and the acquired rights directive apply to all employees of local government at present, and that employees in local government can therefore look forward at least to having the protection offered by European law.
Ministers already have considerable powers over the staff commission. There is no need for the House, or Parliament, to give Ministers any more powers. If the Secretary of State wishes to reserve the power to dismiss members of the commission for specific contingencies, let him spell them out, and spell them out now, in advance, so that they, we and everyone else at least know what the situation should be.
Column 1426The Government should not have this power. It is one more arm-twisting weapon for a Government who already have an armoury of bully-boy powers, and the Bill will confer more. The people of Scotland are sick of the Government and of legislation such as this. They reject the concept of the amendment, and I hope that the House will reject it.
Mr. Norman Hogg (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth): I should first declare an interest, not least because it is fashionable and also because I am a parliamentary consultant to UNISON, which is the largest trade union in local government.
I have some past involvement with the staff commission. I am old enough to have been involved in the last reorganisation of local government. At that time, I was a NALGO district officer and had to appear before the staff commission, which was chaired by a distinguished Privy Councillor. The value of the staff commission to local government officers cannot be overstated. They place great stock in its existence and in the fact that it will still be there after this reorganisation.
I like to think that I helped to persuade the Government to introduce the commission, as they showed some initial reluctance to do so. But it was the right course, and the amendment is wrong. I hope that the Government will change their mind.
Local government officers value the staff commission's independence and the dispassionate advice that it gives to local authorities on behalf of employees, while taking account of the employers' point of view. The amendment endangers that independence and will result in a loss of authority because the staff commission will be undermined. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) said, the amendment will mean that, if the staff commission does not toe the line, its members will be fired. The chairman of the commission will be told that, if he gives advice that is not liked by the Government, who are apparently all-knowing as to what is good for people, he will be fired.
Why commission members who are appointed by the Government in the usual way should be threatened with dismissal is not immediately apparent to me. The Minister made an awful speech about lord provosts; one hopes that his speech on the amendment will be an improvement on that. I hope that in his winding-up speech he will explain what it is all about.
The amendment is a mean-minded approach to an important matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton made a longish speech, but that is not a criticism, merely a statement. He told me before he started to speak that he would lead by example and that I should not make a long speech. He said that he would show me how to do it. I am trying to pad out the debate-- [Interruption.]