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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to resume his speech.
Mr. Hogg: I shall return to my main theme. The Government are in danger of being small-minded to the point at which they will destroy an important aspect of local government. As I have said, they were right to set up the staff commission, but they are spoiling the ship for a ha'porth of tar. It would be simpler to leave the matter as it is, and local government employees throughout
Column 1427Scotland would appreciate that. I hope that the Government will take account of the views of someone who has at least some experience of staff commission operations. It was well worth while in the 1970s, and we want to see it function in the way that it did then. That aim is not helped by the Government's proposals.
Mr. Welsh: The hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mr. Hogg) has drawn on his experience to outline what happened in the 1970s during the previous local government reform. I was there, and I share his views.
I hope that the Government are listening to the voice of experience, because they are taking us into territory that we have been through before. I hope that the mistakes that were made then will not be repeated, but I fear they will, because of the way that the Government are hassling the measure through. The people who will suffer as a result will be not only local government staff but the people of Scotland who rely on the services that they provide. The Minister tried to dismiss the amendment as a purely drafting or technical measure. That may be so, but the problem arises because of the political powers that the amendment gives the Secretary of State. The commissions are important mechanisms to ensure fairness, justice and efficiency in the transfer of powers to the new authorities. They will play a crucial role during the transitional phase, but the amendments would place them totally in the Secretary of State's hands.
We are told that the amendments simply clarify the Secretary of State's powers. But because of draconian powers taken arbitrarily by the Secretary of State to suit himself and his political purposes, local government is now simply the creature of central Government. Now he is even dominating the transitional arrangements and apparently allowing no freedom of action to anyone but himself. He can appoint and dismiss at will the commissions that he will set up. If he does not like the actions of the commissions, he will have the power to get rid of them. That is hardly freedom or independence of action. Local government staff and people in Scotland have to rely on the commissions to find a fair solution to problems.
The amendments give the Government yet another power. The Secretary of State appoints the staff in property commissions, and now seeks powers to get rid of them. Seeking complete power over his own creatures seems a wee bit paranoid--or does the Secretary of State envisage that these temporary bodies will in some way be independent in their pronouncements and have to be brought to heel for political reasons?
I hope that the commissions will defend the public's interest, and will seek fair solutions to complex and over-hasty procedures. It is not the fault of the commissions that the Government are hustling the Bill through as fast as they can, but the commissions will have to cope with the practical problems that the Government have created. The Government have given the staff commission and the property commission little time to complete their work, and the amendments betray a hint of panic in conferring powers of instant dismissal. Presumably, if
Column 1428either commission shows any independence of thought or points to any shortcomings in the Government's botched local government schemes, it can be dismissed. That is too much power, and it is being taken arbitrarily by the Government.
The Minister must explain the import of the amendments, and not just say that they are technical. Why are they necessary? Are they simply an insurance policy that gives legal powers to the Secretary of State? Can he tell us in clear terms so that Parliament and commission staff know under what circumstances the power can be invoked? Clearly, the Government must have some situation or situations in mind; otherwise, the power would not be sought. The Minister should take the time to state clearly why the provision is required and how it will be used. We have no reason to trust the Government.
Mr. McAvoy: Like my hon. Friends, I was astonished by the Minister's statement that the amendments are technical. I should like to speak to amendments Nos. 4 and 5, which are plainly not technical. They are authoritarian, striking a dagger straight to the heart of the independent operation of the staff commission.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mr. Hogg) described how the problems of transition from one system to another were tackled just over 20 years ago. It was more than 20 years ago, and contrasts with what is happening now.
All the problems that involve the staff commission, such as deciding where employees go and how they are treated, should be dealt with by a completely independent body. At the end of the day, if the amendment is accepted, if the staff commission has an idea or takes a course of action which the Secretary of State for Scotland does not like purely on political grounds, never mind anything else, the Secretary of State can remove either the chairman or the members of that commission.
How can the members of the staff commission reasonably be expected to work in an independent atmosphere and without the threat of intimidation? If they say yea or nay in any way that differs from their master's intentions, they can be removed from the commission. It amounts to a sword of Damocles hanging over the commission, so that it can never have freedom of action or independence. It is disgraceful that the future of 300,000 local government employees in Scotland should be treated in such a cavalier fashion. My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) mentioned the Welsh comparison. Surely what is good enough for Wales is good enough for any part of the United Kingdom. I remind the Government that they are a Conservative and Unionist Government. How can they justify treating one part of the United Kingdom differently from another specifically on the issue over the staff commission?
The TUPE regulations have been mentioned. Many of us are concerned that, as soon as the commission recommends or endorses them, in will step the Government and remove people from that commission. The staff commission should be totally free to reach any recommendation on the TUPE recommendations.
Column 1429Turning to the wider remit of that staff commission, with which the amendment deals directly, and its independence, if the staff commission knows--I am sure that a message can be got through one way or another--that any of its recommendations on appropriate arrangements for staff deciding to accept redundancy or early retirement approach what the Secretary of State would like to see, it will know full well that employers would meet those recommendations, which therefore would not affect its deliberations. It is disgraceful that there should be such an amendment.
Amendment No. 5 makes the same so-called technical amendment to the property commission. All the reasons for opposing amendment No. 4 apply to amendment No. 5.
The work of the property commission is of immense importance, although the Minister did not spend too much time on it. I shall use an example from my constituency. The main part of my constituency is being detached from a larger authority. Like the staff commission, the property commission needs to be totally independent, and needs to take certain attitudes in dealing with property disputes, particularly in my constituency.
I give one example of an issue that could face the property commission. In the royal burgh of Rutherglen, a statue of St. Eloi was found in the ruins of old St. Mary's church, which was destroyed after the reformation; a parish church was built on that site. The statue was found in the late 19th century. It dates from the middle ages, and always took pride of place in the Rutherglen burgh museum, until--lo and behold--Glasgow district council transferred it from its museum, and put it into an exhibition in the Glasgow cathedral. People in Rutherglen were proud that part of their heritage was being displayed, but the magazine advertising that exhibition had the statue of St. Eloi on its cover, with a statement along the lines that, although the statue was found in the ruins of the old parish church in Rutherglen, there was no doubt that it belonged in Glasgow, because it came from the ruins of Glasgow cathedral during the reformation.
It may seem a small matter to some colleagues, but I remind hon. Members on both sides of the House that, if they are not here to represent people and their fears and understandings, they should not be here at all.
Mr. Gallie: I sympathise totally with the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. He makes a very good point indeed. Perhaps the Government should give the Secretary of State powers to oversee such situations and make sure that great boroughs like Glasgow do not rob the smaller ones.
Mr. McAvoy: I do not accept that at all. My hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mr. Hogg) described the atmosphere of what happened 20 years ago. I am prepared to trust a staff commission and property commission to deal fairly with problems. We should bear in mind the fact that a big council such as Glasgow or Edinburgh may be able persuade the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), to take a certain line in property disputes.
Column 1430The property commission should be as independent as the staff commission. There are bound to be numerous property disputes. It is essential that members of the property commission are able to tackle their work in a calm and rational manner without fearing that, if they step out of line, the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers will sack them. I am totally opposed to both amendments.
Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): I am pleased that we have at last reached an important debate, after being trapped in the debate we had earlier. Using the same metaphor as my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mr. Hogg), the ship of state does not just need some tar; it is so seriously structurally flawed in everything in the Bill that the sea is lapping at the captain's door at this very minute.
The debate in Committee was rather fraught. There were expressions of concern about an unknown commission which might or might not damage the reorganisation of local government by making the wrong staffing decisions. The Secretary of State pulled out Mr. Robert Peggie's name, like a rabbit out of the hat, saying not that he was cuddly but that he would be honest and fair, and that he would have some support for his professionalism and competence.
Now, however, we are debating a Lords amendment which means that, at the whim of the Secretary of State, that person held up by the Secretary of State as a example in staffing matters can be removed from office, and the commission with him. We must express concern about amendments Nos. 4 and 5.
I am reminded of a planning inquiry I once sat on, where the planning consultant applied for an architect-designed bungalows. He put a very good case to the planning authority, but as soon as the permission was granted-- I am told that it happens often in Scotland--the developer had gone and a sign was up saying, "Vacant plot available with planning permission for development". That is rather like the staff commission, but the sign says, "Vacant committee with permission not for development but for demolition of local government. Only known Tory supporters need apply". That could be the scenario we face.
The Minister is pulling a face, but it is rather strange that health boards are another group of quangos to which the Government can appoint and from which they can remove people at any time. For example, the well respected chairman of Forth Valley health board was removed, and Mrs. Iris Isbister, a former Tory councillor and the wife of a consultant, was appointed. The havoc wreaked by that health board since that person was appointed shows that we have real cause for concern when the Secretary of State has powers to remove or appoint members or chairs of commissions.
I am particularly concerned about the present Secretary of State--and with reason. Never has a Secretary of State for Scotland been so out of touch; he is a Secretary of State whose party has the support of only 14 per cent. of the people in Scotland, and he was deaf to the response to the water referendum in Strathclyde. As the clause mentions the Secretary of State, we have to examine his credentials. More recently, he was deaf to the demand for a children Act in Scotland,
Column 1431which is now the only country in Europe which does not have the United Nations declaration on the rights of the child in law to protect its children.
The Secretary of State is a barrier to progress, and in no way an arbiter of competence or someone in whom we can have confidence. I am also worried about the local impact of flawed or prejudiced political decisions being taken because of the pressures that could be applied to both staff and property commissions.
Much has been said about the importance of decentralisation. The Opposition made the point in Committee that no staff resources have been allocated to that. Theoretically, the staff commission would ensure that people of the appropriate quality, with decent pay and conditions of service, could deliver decentralisation. I am now seriously concerned that if they tried to do so and it cost more than Government liked, they would be removed from their positions. Property needs have been debated at great length. At last, Falkirk is to become a unitary authority, but it will have a massive property deficit. It needs property, but members of a property commission that allocated resources to such councils could be removed by the Secretary of State if that allocation did not fit in with his other spending plans and with the shadow budgets that had been set. The break-up of education would be disastrous for many children. It is important to get the right calibre of officer with proper pay and conditions. The staff commission is one of the safeguards that would achieve that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) has said, we are concerned not only about human beings but about the effect that bad staff commission decisions would have on services. We must consider both those who deliver the services and those who receive them.
To use American terminology, it is time for the Secretary of State to butt out. He has done enough damage already with this ill-considered Bill and he should leave the staff and property commissions with an independent role.
Mr. Wallace: I, too, oppose Lords amendments Nos. 4 and 5. However, before dealing with them I want to register the fact that Lords amendment No. 3 was one of the very few amendments tabled by an Opposition Member--my noble Friend Lord Thomson of Monifieth--that was accepted. Indeed, so shattering was that event that Lord Ewing of Kirkford said that it felt as though Cowdenbeath were in the European Cup. Only Lord Ewing would know how that would feel.
I endorse the concern expressed about the wording of Lords amendments Nos. 4 and 5, which provide for the removal from office of those who have been appointed to the staff commission. As the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) said, the staff commission has among its functions the keeping under review of certain issues, including the transfer of staff under the Bill. That is important, given the operation of the TUPE regulations.
The hon. Gentleman asked the Minister to confirm that all staff transfers between local authorities, old and new, under the Bill would be covered by TUPE. The
Column 1432Minister should be aware that, in the other place, the Lord Advocate suggested that some transfers would not be covered. I am not allowed to quote him directly, but he said that the TUPE regulations were open to various opinions. There have certainly been enough legal cases to confirm that view. He accepted that they would undoubtedly apply in some circumstances, but said that they would not necessarily apply in others.
We are talking about people's livelihoods. What the Bill has done more than anything else is to reduce morale among those who work for local authorities. Uncertainty will still hang over them while the senior Law Officer in Scotland says that the TUPE regulations will apply in some cases, but not in others. The Minister owes us an explanation tonight of the precise application of the regulations. We have also been told that the words "and removal from office" are essential, but that the provision is purely technical and that there is no intention to use it. If so, why was it included in the first place? If there was concern whether the original Bill gave the Secretary of State the power to make the appointments, the Government could have simply stuck to words such as "the appointment by the Secretary of State of the chairman and members of the commission." The Lord Advocate also said that the additional words "and removal from office" were necessary because there might be circumstances in which someone would have to be removed. What are those circumstances? There is a great contrast between appointments to the staff commission--where the Secretary of State wants absolute power to remove people from office--and appointments that he can make under schedule 7 to the new water and sewage authorities.
Paragraph 7 states that the Secretary of State can remove a member of the authority, but only in specified circumstances such as sequestration of an estate, incapacity by physical or mental illness, absence from meetings or being unable or unfit to discharge his functions or unsuitable to continue as a member.
It is not unreasonable to point to the proposed provision covering removal from office, bearing in mind that the Lord Advocate said that there might be circumstances in which that will be necessary. What are those circumstances? They are not spelt out in the Bill. The Minister must give an explanation this evening.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Hon. Members spent 177 hours in Committee on the Bill, but during all that time there was no suggestion that an amendment along these lines would be tabled. Governments do not introduce amendments just for the hell of it or for fun. There is always a reason, but we have not been told what it is.
Forgive our curiosity, but neither have we been told who initiated the amendment. Was it Ministers or was it Government lawyers? I have a high respect for Government lawyers and parliamentary draftsmen. I find it difficult to believe that the draftsmen were so incompetent or the lawyers so ill informed that they did not think of such a meaningful amendment during all those hours that the Committee sat, or at least when they were preparing the Bill.
Column 1433I want to put a direct question to the Minister: was it political Ministers who initiated the amendment, or was it Government lawyers or parliamentary draftsmen? Which?
Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde): I can answer the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)-- the amendment is the result of the Government's political decision. There is do doubt in my mind that they decided that a mere "Peggie" would not go into a round hole. When the Minister speaks about a technical amendment, he means getting the power to allow the Secretary of State to press a button to wipe out the likes of Mr. Peggie, who may not carry out his duties in the way that the Tories want.
I warn the House that the Government have proved what they are prepared to do. They wiped out the Greater London council because it did not agree with the Government's aspirations. They pressed the button and wiped out unionism at GCHQ in Cheltenham. The amendment would give them further powers to take more decisions like that, so we must be extremely careful.
The amendment should be opposed by all those who are concerned about democracy. The commissions should be left with a neutral hand, just like any sheriff or judge. I want to know why the Government want another button to press. They have already pressed every damaging button in their power. Tonight we are debating an aspect of local government reorganisation in Scotland that none of the people of Scotland want.
Mr. Stewart: I congratulate the hon. Member for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mr. Graham) on having the best line of the debate so far-- [Interruption.] I said "so far".
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy) raised property issues that I shall consider carefully. I point out to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) that, in my opening speech, I said that Lords amendment No. 3 was tabled by the Liberal Democrats in the other place. I am glad that it has his support. Two essential points have been made about the substance of the debate. First, a comparison has been made with Wales. I confirm that, in the Welsh legislation, all the provisions relating to the staff commission, including powers of dismissal, are in a schedule. Therefore, there is no difference of substance between the two Bills.
The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) asked whether this was not all the most terrible conspiracy. That was encapsulated in the remarks of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), who fairly asked whether the amendments had been initiated by Ministers or by draftsmen. I can tell him without equivocation that they were initiated by draftsmen. There was no ministerial instruction. Clause 12(3) already empowers the Secretary of State to provide for the constitution and membership of the staff commission. As hon. Members will know, Bills are constantly scrutinised throughout their parliamentary passage. There is nothing new in that.
Column 1434There was doubt as to whether that general power in clause 12(3) was sufficient to enable my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to appoint the chairman and members of the commission. When it was put to him, that doubt was shared by my noble Friend the Lord Advocate, to whom the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) referred, and that doubt is resolved by the amendment. These are technical amendments.
Mr. Wallace: The Minister has explained half the story, which is that the Secretary of State needed the power to appoint, but he has not explained why he needed the power to remove.
Mr. Stewart: The two go together, do they not? Clearly the Secretary of State must have the power to appoint and to remove members. That is exactly the position in Wales. That is exactly the position in relation to all our public appointments.
Mr. Wallace: I note with interest that the Minister says: that that is exactly the position in relation to all public appointments. The power given to the Secretary of State in the BIll with regard to the new water and sewerage authorities specifies the circumstances in which he can remove. There is no such specification of circumstances with regard to the staff commission. Moreover, I can see no provision in the Bill for removing members of the customers council for the new water and sewerage authorities.
Mr. Stewart: Let me spell it out, in the hope that I will satisfy the hon. Gentleman, who is a lawyer.
The legal advice we received was that clauses 12 and 19, as originally drafted, gave rise to some doubt about whether regulations appointing or removing members would have been ultra vires. Clearly that had to be sorted out. The amendments were not initiated by Ministers, and were not a matter of policy. [Interruption.] Of course Ministers take responsibility for them. They were initiated by the lawyers and the draftsmen. There is nothing unusual in that, and on those grounds I reject the conspiracy theory of the hon. Member for Hamilton.
Mr. George Robertson: We have had a good and useful debate, with my hon. Friends making brief, pertinent and relevant points. Far from being reassured by what the Minister has said in a brief intervention at the end, our suspicions might have been seen even to grow. We have gained no reassurance that members of this important commission would not be removed without due cause. We have been given no assurance by the Minister that some system would be established to assure local government employees or Members of the House that, in circumstances where individuals had to be removed, the grounds would be made known.
We have simply been told that, in the case here of what the draftsmen deem to be an illegal defect, the Secretary of State will take upon himself not only the power to appoint but the power to remove, and to remove without any reasons being given to the members of the staff commmission.
Column 14358.45 pm
It is a function of Ministers of the Crown to take the advice of draftsmen and to say to those draftsmen that Members of Parliament will rightly ask why Ministers are now taking what appear to be new powers in relation to an independent staff commission, and that Ministers will not be able to give any reassurance.
Why is the Minister coming along and hiding behind technical and legal advice, when he has created a political dilemma for the staff commission and its chairman? Surely it is up to Ministers to reassure Members of the House and 300,000 people in local government that the powers he is taking upon himself and the Secretary of State will not be used arbitrarily, willy -nilly or without any justification being offered.
Mr. Salmond: I am sure that the Minister will have the leave of the House to speak again if he wishes to do so. But there is a suspicion, which I think is generally shared, that he curtails his speeches when he does not know the answer to the question he is being asked.
I specifically heard the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), not once but several times, ask the simple question: why were not the grounds for dismissal specified in the Bill? That is an entirely reasonable question. If the Minister has the leave of the House to speak again, I am sure that he will address that point, as opposed to brushing it aside with some bluster.
For example, we would like to know whether the Minister telephoned the Prime Minister's office for expert guidance on the grounds for dismissing people from office. It is reasonable to ask why the grounds are not specified on the face of the Bill. If the Minister has the leave of the House to speak again, will he answer that simple question?
Mr. Stewart rose --
Mr. Deputy Speaker: I take it that the hon. Gentleman has the leave of the House to speak again.
Mr. Stewart: With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am genuinely trying to reassure Opposition Members. I may not have succeeded, but I hope that what I am saying is clear. Of course Ministers accept responsibility for the amendments. I was asked whether they were the result of some policy initiative by Ministers, or whether they were simply put to Ministers by the draftsmen. Of course we accept responsibility. Or course I accept that they are legally necessary.
If it is any reassurance to Opposition Members, we entirely accept the independence of the staff commission and of any property commission. There is no threat to that. Secondly, if there should be a need on occasion to change the membership of the staff commission, we shall not do so without consultation beforehand with the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) and representatives of the other two Scottish political parties.
Question put and agreed to .
Lords amendment: No. 4, in page 8, line 33, leave out ("and may include provision as to") and insert
(", the appointment and removal from office by the Secretary of State of the chairman and members of the commission,)"
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.-- [Mr. Stewart.]
Question put :--
The House divided: Ayes 278, Noes 247.
Division No. 320] [20.51 pm
Column 1436Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)
Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)
Allason, Rupert (Torbay)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)
Banks, Matthew (Southport)
Beresford, Sir Paul
Biffen, Rt Hon John
Body, Sir Richard
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia
Bowden, Sir Andrew
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes
Bright, Sir Graham
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)
Browning, Mrs. Angela
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)
Carlisle, John (Luton North)
Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln)
Channon, Rt Hon Paul
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif)