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Mr. Sanders: Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us the Conservative principle in respect of the capping of local authority budgets? What is the latest position on that?

Mr. Gummer: That was a very good principle when local authorities wanted to spend other people's money with a precept on taxation--[Interruption.] Liberal Members fall about with laughter, but, at that time, they did their usual trick: they said that they would give freedom to local authorities, but would not increase taxation--[Interruption.] Like his colleagues, the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) is good at throwing out the odd sentence or two, but in his own constituency finds it difficult to explain Liberal principles. That is because those principles are different from his--his views are different from his neighbours' views. Liberals all have different views from their neighbours. It is not surprising that the Government managed to buy off the Liberal Democrats--the price was low.

11.45 pm

I turn to the--

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): Sit down; you've lost it.

Mr. Gummer: The hon. Gentleman, who never had it, cannot tell others that they have lost it.

Fundamentally, we have a dictatorial Government who are using their majority to stop locally elected people deciding how they will run their own council. Liberal Democrats are intervening to try to claim credit for keeping 20 per cent. of councils out of the unacceptable maw which the Minister has presented to us but has never explained.

As usual, the Liberal Democrats have connived yet again in the destruction of democratic choice in local authorities. Like anyone who knows that what is being said is true, their only answer is to giggle. Giggling is the only logic that they can put forward. They cannot explain why 85,000 is a magic figure. They cannot explain either

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why they went for a population of 85,000 and not an electorate of 85,000. Similarly, they cannot explain why they have had a special deal for Wales, but only if the Welsh Assembly agrees. They cannot explain the arguments that they advanced to the Government. They cannot explain why they did not hold out for more; nor can they explain why they went back on their principles on this issue and on clause 28. They can explain nothing to us, and that is because they are dealing with the inexplicable.

When we come to the elections next year, Liberal seats will fall one after the other throughout the wards that they fight. It is good to welcome to the Conservative party a Liberal Democrat who has crossed the floor in Bromley for precisely the sort of reasons that have emerged this evening.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): And in New Forest.

Mr. Gummer: Indeed. They cross the floor once they begin to see that the party in Parliament has few real principles, will not stand up for them and then pretends that an abject surrender to the Government is somehow a success. Principles? Of course Liberal Democrat Members have principles. There are as many principles as there are Liberal Democrat Members, and they are all utterly different.

Ms Armstrong: I shall respond fairly briefly. I am not sure whether I should respond to the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who has not been present for many of the debates and so has not heard the arguments that have been advanced. However, I remind him that there was a Joint Committee which asked us to consider how we could make particular arrangements for small councils, especially those that had a history of non-party political control. That is now extremely difficult to define because a Bill that has passed through the House allows for the registration of political parties. Many independent parties--ratepayers, residents and so on--have registered as political parties. We therefore have no sound definition of no political control because everyone is a member of a party. We therefore considered other ways of responding to the Joint Committee's wishes and to the points that were made in Standing Committee.

On that basis, I shall respond to the debate. I assure hon. Members that the principles that are expounded in the Bill of transparency, accountability and efficiency will be required of all councils. It is choice not for councils, but for local people. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal seems not to have understood that there has been real change in his party's policy. Perhaps he can spend some time talking to his colleagues and catching up.

Mr. Waterson: Can the Minister explain how, in 20 per cent. of councils under the proposals, transparency, efficiency and accountability will be delivered?

Ms Armstrong: Those councils will have to demonstrate that. They will also have to demonstrate that they have effective scrutiny and overview functions built into the way in which they operate.

Mr. Gummer: If that is what councils with a population of less than 85,000 can do, why cannot

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councils with less than 100,000 or 120,000 population do likewise? Why cannot my council be given the same choice, and why cannot my electors be given that choice?

Ms Armstrong: The right hon. Gentleman's electors, like the electors of every right hon. and hon. Member, will be given substantial choice within the framework of the Bill--much more choice than they are allowed at present.

I am grateful to hon. Members for their contributions, and I commend the amendment.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 3 to 15, and 17 agreed to.

Clause 44

Interpretation of Part II

Lords amendment to Commons amendment No. 120: No. 19, in page 26, line 3, leave out ("paragraph 5A") and insert ("paragraphs 5B to 5I")

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendments Nos. 21, 22 and 31 to 35.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes): I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Lords amendments Nos. 31 to 35 add several modifications to the schedule that was introduced into the Bill in the Commons on Report. That schedule sweeps up a number of amendments to the Local Government Act 1972, which are consequential upon the establishment of executives and elected mayors under part II.

Amendments Nos. 19 to 21 are consequential upon amendments Nos. 31 to 35. Amendment No. 22 is a minor drafting amendment.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 21 to 23, and 25 agreed to.

Clause 91

Prohibition on promotion of homosexuality: bullying

Lords Reason:
The Lords disagree to Commons amendment No. 377 for the following Reason:
Because the prohibition on the promotion of homosexuality contained in section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986, as amended by Clause 91 of the Bill, should remain in force.

Ms Armstrong: I beg to move, That this House does not insist on its amendment to which the Lords have disagreed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendments Nos. 27 to 29 and 39 to 41.

Ms Armstrong: The House may already know that, following events in the other place last night, the Government have decided not to seek to reintroduce in this Bill the repeal of section 28. I want to start by explaining the reasons for that decision and then to reflect on last night's events.

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The House will know that the Bill contains many measures that are vital to the reform of local government. Part I contains new powers for councils to promote the well-being of their communities, and everyone has welcomed those. Parts II and III will replace council structures, give people real choice over how their communities should be governed and tighten up standards of conduct. The clauses on welfare services will improve the quality and diversity of support services to vulnerable people.

As important as the repeal of section 28 is--it is important and it remains important to the Government--we cannot afford to lose the hard work that the Government and Parliament have put into those parts of the Bill; nor can we afford to delay the benefits that they will bring to our communities, so we have decided, with extreme reluctance, not to seek to reintroduce the repeal in this Bill. Therefore, at this stage, for all the reasons that I have outlined, we will not ask the House to oppose the Lords proposals and insist on the Commons amendments.

The arguments in favour of retaining section 28 were never very strong. Much of the concern about the repeal was whipped up by sections of the media, fed by the opponents--[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The House must listen to the Minister.

Ms Armstrong: As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my father used to sit in that Chair, and he always said, "No one should ever go into the Chamber having had a drink, because it always shows."

Much of the concern about the repeal was whipped up by sections of the media, fed by the opponents of repeal on a diet of exaggeration, misinformation and sensationalism.

We acknowledge that parents in particular are concerned that effective safeguards are in place to ensure that children and young people are taught in an appropriate and supportive way in schools. That is why we worked with the Churches and others to bring forward the comprehensive measures in the Learning and Skills Bill.

From last night's debate in the other place, we learned again of the difficulty that the unelected House has in passing any legislation that strengthens the rights of the gay and lesbian community. We learned again of the corrosive effect that misinformation and misrepresentation can have on public opinion, stirring up unnecessary fears and then playing those back as a reason to justify obduracy and intolerance.

Most importantly, we learned what lies behind the sentiments of the hard core of section 28 enthusiasts. The leaders of the campaign against repeal like to mask their views behind concerns for educating young children and protecting taxpayers' money. We have dealt with the first concern in the Learning and Skills Bill; the second never amounted to much. Why, therefore, do the enthusiasts continue to argue for the retention of section 28?

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