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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I have never suggested any ignoble stance at all. I wonder whether he can clarify two points. The first is why the Government have not yet set a date for the judicial training programme so that at least we know that there will be a beginning and speedy end to the process in order to bring into force the Human Rights Act. Will the Government set a date for that programme? Secondly, am I right in thinking that there will still not be any effective remedies on the international or domestic plane for the kinds of discrimination that are not covered by domestic law, and that that is the real gap which we will not fill unless we accept the right of petition?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, as to the JSB I shall certainly make inquiries about its timetable. It is not an organisation with which I have a direct connection, but I shall find out its timetable. As I have said on earlier occasions, a significant budget has been provided by the Lord Chancellor's Department. However, one is talking about the training of many thousands of magistrates, justices' clerks, Crown Court judges, recorders and assistant recorders who will have to deal with these points on an everyday basis. I repeat that these are utterly novel points for many who have to

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carry out these judicial functions. I believe I can say with the concurrence of the noble Lord that when many of those presently in judicial office were trained this matter was not taught in university syllabuses or, to our reproach, as part of the Bar or Law Society courses. This will be a complete culture change.

One matter that strikes me as I go round the country urging people to get themselves ready for implementation is how strange it is that we have discussed these things so often, at such great length, and have become accustomed to thinking in ways that are appropriate to the new Act, but many practitioners, whether judges, magistrates or advocates, have not begun to attend to that.

As to the second point, I believe that I can fairly refer to a Written Answer to the noble Lord. I do not dispute his point that there may be remedies that will not be immediately available. However, in response to his helpful Written Question about the Joint Committee on Human Rights, I said:

    "The terms of reference for the Joint Committee have yet to be finalised and proposed to both Houses. However, it is envisaged that they will include the conduct of inquiries into general human rights issues in the United Kingdom".--[Official Report, 31/3/99; col. WA 77.]

It seems to me--it is a matter for both Houses and those who have the infinite privilege of serving on a joint committee--that the kind of questions that have

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been put by both noble Lords are those that that committee may wish to consider. I did not intend to cross swords with the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill. Objectively, I do not believe that we have adopted an ignoble stance. It has taken a little longer to get things ready than I would have contemplated and the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor would have wished. It is a vast effort. We are determined to get it right, and I believe that we have the energy and commitment to do that.

In specific answer to the noble Lord--he has been extremely courteous in all his questions and correspondence with me--we have not refused to make available the remedies but have taken a course that we believe to be right. We must do the best we can to get the perfect solution to our own incorporation. I have always believed that once we start on this journey there is no possibility of turning back because the moral and philosophical transformation has already begun. One cannot get away from that.

Local Government Bill

Reported from the Grand Committee with amendments: Bill ordered to be printed as amended.

        House adjourned at twenty-eight minutes past eight o'clock.

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12 May 1999 : Column CWH65

Local Government Bill

Wednesday, 12th May 1999.

The Committee met at half-past three of the clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Lyell) in the Chair.]

Clause 14 [Secretary of State's powers]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 65:

Page 10, line 30, leave out subsection (5)

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 65, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 66 and 67 grouped with it. These amendments relate to Clause 14 of the Bill, dealing with the powers of the Secretary of State, which are commonly known as the intervention powers. The first of my amendments seeks to leave out subsection (5), which may be described as the "hit squad" provision. Subsection (5) enables the Secretary of State to give directions as to who shall exercise particular local authority functions, or, alternatively, that an authority shall comply with his or her nominee's instructions in relation to the exercise of the functions. Those powers go right to the heart of the relationship between central and local government.

The subsection is clearly intended for the most extreme circumstances. But neither Clause 14 itself nor the draft protocol that is being discussed between the Government and the Local Government Association states that. Quite apart from my general distaste for this provision in the Bill, the amendment provides an opportunity for Committee to hear from the Minister the criteria that will be applied by the Secretary of State in using these powers. It may follow that we shall wish to see on the face of the Bill the criteria that would be applied if the subsection is to remain in the Bill.

The protocol is written in fairly generalised terms. It does not appear to explain what would constitute failure in the sense in which that concept might be applied in particular circumstances. The Secretary of State's nominee is not expressly subject to the duty of best value, which applies to the best value authorities. When the question was raised on an amendment in another place, the Minister said it was implicit that the nominee would be subject to that duty. The amendment was withdrawn on that basis. The honourable Member for Southampton, Test said that it was difficult to conceive of the Minister acting outside the overall scope of the Bill. That also suggests that there may be some scope for amending this provision to make explicit what appears to be implicit.

However, that is not my main complaint. The subsection raises the issue of who will judge the performance of local authorities. Will it be the users or, as we would say, the electorate rather than the Secretary of State, particularly when the Government still have on

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their agenda annual elections for all authorities? This seems to be an unnecessarily heavy-handed and wide-ranging power for the Secretary of State, rather than local electors being able to say, "We do not like this. Let us get rid of the lot who are doing it".

Amendment No. 66 provides for discussion with the authority concerned around the time when the Secretary of State gives a direction under any part of Clause 14. Subsection (6) deals with all directions under Clause 14, and the authority concerned will be given the opportunity to make representations. My amendment proposes the wider input of representatives of best value authorities generally, which would be helpful in the circumstances of any use of these powers by the Secretary of State. I hate the term "failing authorities". I shall use it because Members of the Committee will understand what is meant by it in the local authority context. I prefer the Bill's idea of continuing improvement. It is much more positive.

At any rate, the issue of any failing authority, or an authority failing in any service, is an issue for all best value authorities, particularly in the local government sphere. There will be useful comments to be gleaned from the local government world in general if this situation were to apply. The last of these amendments proposes that no direction under Clause 14 should be given unless there is a resolution approved by the relevant Select Committee. I have used the words that I have because departments change; "the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions" might become outdated.

The short point here is the scrutiny of the Secretary of State's executive action. I appreciate that this may not be the right time to address how Parliament generally runs itself and issues of modernisation. The Select Committee could, however, have a useful role. The use of capping powers requires debate by the Commons. Intervention would be another example of extreme action by the executive and there should be some method for Parliament to hold the executive to account. I beg to move.

Lord Dixon-Smith: I should like to say a few words in support of the general argument of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. There is always a greater problem of defining failure in this specific regard. There is no obvious way of making a distinction between what is a general failure, which might possibly justify outside intervention--although there ought to be other ways of dealing with it--and what is a specific failure. It can be a highly publicised breakdown of the service, perhaps in social services and occasionally in education--matters which stir up immense local and very often national publicity. In fact, I feel extremely sorry for social services departments, which all too often are in the dreadful position of being open to the charge of a neglect of duty if something goes wrong. Yet, if they pursue their duty with assiduity, they may be charged with pursuing that duty to the point where they have become unreasonable in the other direction.

There is, therefore, considerable difficulty in defining failure. Clearly, a number of different actions are being postulated to the Secretary of State, including of course

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a local inquiry. That may be appropriate in some circumstances. However, in what I would call the "Clause 5 situation", one would presumably be talking about a general failure of administration of a service, rather than a specific instance. But there is a lack of clarity here as to what might happen and when. We could certainly improve the Bill if there were a greater degree of clarity. I accept that there is also a need for flexibility.

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