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Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, there is another reason why this amendment might be seen as important. Some areas of the country are still three-tier areas. Once the population has had an approach from both its county and its district council and, for example, has gone for an option in one case to have a directly elected mayor, it may well come to a different conclusion for the other tier authority. The amendment would allow for more flexibility in places where people have not had any experience of what it would be like to even think about having two people responsible for their well-being, socially, economically and environmentally. It is possible that that would work, although I still have particular reservations in that respect. Nevertheless, the amendment would offer the population a chance to have a second thought about exactly how these arrangements might work.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am not entirely sure that I followed the noble Baroness's point. We are not really talking about two-tier structures here; we are talking about structures within one of those tiers. However, I shall read what she said in Hansard to ascertain whether I need to give her a clearer answer. I did not quite follow the main point.
As far as I am concerned, the main point here is that there should be a clear answer to the referendum question, as well as a clear understanding on the part of those who are voting as to the consequences of voting "Yes" and the consequences of voting "No". In most cases, where we have held referenda, and where other countries have done so, there is a straight Yes/No answer rather than a series of questions to which one must answer Yes and No, which can actually give an inconsistent result. The amendment seems to imply an either/or form of question rather than a Yes/No form of question.
I reassure the noble Baroness by saying that this is not the end of the process. If our approach to this matter is shown to be wrong, it can be changed in that we intend that the Bill will ultimately include a requirement for the Secretary of State to consult the electoral commission--when that is established--on the regulations, including regulations for defining the questions in such referendums. I hope therefore that the noble Baroness will not press her amendment tonight.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, my noble friend made a good point as regards the questions being asked of a single elector in respect of more than one tier of local government and the fact that the answers may be different in respect of the different tiers. The Minister cautions us against having more than one question. However, as I recall, the referendum in Scotland was not confined to one question in that it contained a question about tax varying in addition to the question about whether people wanted a parliament.
The Minister said that voters would know the consequences of a no vote because of publicity that would be given to the fall-back proposals. That seems to me to be arguing against including a question on the referendum paper. If it is assumed that the voters take the publicity into account, they ought to be able to express a view on that as part of the process. However, I recognise that we shall not take the point further now. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, Part III of the Bill concerns codes of conduct and ethical standards. My amendment concerns the availability of publicity on a code of conduct after it has been adopted by a local authority. It is a small point but one that I consider is worth spending a few minutes discussing.
The Bill provides that the code must be published in newspapers circulating in an area. At the previous stage of the Bill I proposed that, for the purposes we are discussing, a newspaper could be a newspaper published by an authority itself. The Minister was concerned about a danger of bias or the paper not being properly delivered and so on. I am, of course, aware of the cost of advertising in a commercial newspaper. I refer again to using councils' own newspapers, which often have a larger number of readers and are certainly more widely circulated than commercial newspapers. I take the points that were made at the previous stage but I believe that there may be some scope for variety here and for assessing the most effective method of circulation. The amendment proposes that the use of such a newspaper must be approved by the relevant standards board. I beg to move.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, this amendment proposes that the Bill be amended so that a local authority may, with the approval of the standards board in England or Wales, publish information regarding the adoption of a code of conduct in a newspaper published by the authority.
We would certainly encourage local authorities to publicise the adoption of a code of conduct through their own publications. Indeed, the Bill as drafted would not prevent that. However, we are wary of including an amendment that would require the standards board to approve such publication.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred to the need for variety in appropriate circumstances. We appreciate the arguments put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in Committee that in some local authorities a local newspaper may not always reach as wide a population as one distributed by the local authority. There may be a case, therefore, for requiring a local authority to publicise that it has adopted a code in both a local newspaper and one of its own publications. We intend to consider that option further. Therefore I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I am grateful for that reply. I hope that I do not argue against myself when I make my next point. The Minister will understand that I would not want an authority to be required to publish a newspaper if it does not normally do so. There is an "if" somewhere in that point. The Minister acknowledges the point. I am grateful for her comments. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is a matter of regret that sometimes human behaviour is not all that we would wish it to be. The amendments that are grouped with Amendment No. 66 seek to protect someone from the possible misbehaviour of those forming a larger group. When we talk of standards of conduct and codes of conduct, it may seem unreasonable--as they are designed to ensure that people behave well--to consider that what appears to be an entirely reasonable provision that should improve behaviour could be used in a perverse way. However, as we are considering the consequences of legislation we have to consider what is possible. We also have to consider the weaknesses of human beings and human frailty generally.
These amendments are designed to ensure that if a member of an authority felt that a code of conduct was designed in such a way as to make it impossible for him to continue to serve, there would be a right of appeal against the oppressive measures in the code. That situation is conceivable.
At present Clause 47 properly imposes on councillors a duty to comply with the current code of conduct. That code can, of course, be amended, in which case all councillors must sign up to the amended code. They have two months in which to do so. If they fail to do so, they cease to be councillors. On the face of it, that is an entirely reasonable procedure. No one could quarrel with the principle that is spelt out at all.
However, there may be a particularly iconoclastic individual on an authority who manages to get himself thoroughly disliked by everyone else. It is not inconceivable; this kind of thing happens in human organisations from time to time. It is sad when it happens. In my career, I can certainly recall having to ease at least two people out of employment for that reason. It was very sad but, despite everything that could be done, the situation was impossible.
In that kind of situation one can imagine an unreasonable temptation--which may in the end be given way to--for members of a standards committee to devise a new code of conduct. They could include in it, for example, conditions in regard to quantum of attendance, and then rig the timings of meetings inconveniently for the individual concerned so that he could not comply with them. One would then have a very false situation. The amendment seeks to provide a route for a person who feels that he or she is being abused in this way to have a right of appeal.
I may be accused of being utterly cynical and thinking too much about the dark side of human nature. I do not apologise for that. I recall that when I was in County Hall in the good old, bad old days, one of our most instructive days was spent--I have said this in the Chamber before--considering how one could set about defrauding the authority. That exercise was very helpful.
One needs to recognise, in any legislation that deals with human beings and human behaviour, that we should take into account the possibility of a darker side to our nature. We need to provide mechanisms which ensure that the darker side--if it comes out--is not allowed to prevail. I beg to move.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, in moving his amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, has made clear his fears about the potential that he sees for an individual to be victimised in some way.
The general principles underlying the code of conduct will be subject to extensive consultation, followed by debate under the affirmative resolution procedure in this House and the other place. The model code of conduct will also be the subject of careful consultation. There is provision in Clause 45 for the code to be drawn up by representatives of local government itself before being approved by Parliament.
Local authorities will be able to add their own provisions to the code, but these will have to be consistent with the code as well as with any guidance issued by the standards board. Members will be able to influence or contribute to the debate before such provisions are adopted. We are confident that careful drafting of the model code will ensure that politically or personally motivated inappropriate local additions to the model by an authority would not be considered "consistent with the national model", as the Bill requires.
So far as concerns the local authority's standards committee, it must comply with any regulations issued by the Secretary of State on size, composition and membership. It is required to send a copy of its terms of reference to the standards board, which could also issue guidance if it felt anything was inappropriate or unfair.
We do not contest the right of an individual to appeal against unreasonable or oppressive provisions, but we believe that the safeguards already built into the new ethical framework will prevent the need for any such measures. It is possible--although, in our view, unlikely--that a local authority may impose a condition on its code of conduct that is politically motivated but that complies outwardly with the tenets of the national model and the general principles. We cannot think of such a provision, but no doubt it would be remotely possible.
If the standards board had not excluded such a provision using its guidance, or if the Secretary of State had not covered it in the model code or standards committee regulations, it would still be possible for a member, using the test of "reasonableness", to apply for judicial review. On that basis, we feel that there is an opportunity for action to be taken in what we believe to be the extremely remote circumstances outlined by the noble Lord. I hope that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
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