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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I, too, believe that it is a price well worth paying. As I said in the course of the Statement, even with these increases the cost of a UK passport compares extremely favourably with international rates. A passport costs £34.50 in the US, £46 in Canada, £47.50 in Australia and £74 in France. My noble friend makes an important and telling point. We are introducing improvements to the quality of service. That means that when people call the agency, they may expect a prompt reply. Similarly, when they write, they may expect a swift response, and when they pursue their application in person, they may expect to receive an effective and prompt response delivered with the courtesy and respect people rightly and properly deserve.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, because we have a few minutes left, perhaps I may thank the Minister for answering a question that I did not ask and offering to write to me on the questions I did ask. First, has the Minister had time to consider whether Mr O'Brien, the Under-Secretary of State, was in fact the individual who chose and signed for the new computer system? Secondly, can the Minister tell me whether the document, A Blueprint for the Future, mentioned in the newspapers at the weekend, will be published?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I thought that I had answered the point on efficiency savings raised by the noble Lord. I apologise if I have given the noble Lord more information than I would otherwise have done, but I always try to be helpful on these occasions. I cannot respond to the newspaper article referred to by the noble Lord. It is often wise to reflect on the content of newspaper articles because they are not always entirely accurate. However, I take the point that the noble Lord has raised. I shall be happy to respond by way of correspondence and to place that response in the Library.
Furthermore, I am not in a position to respond to the point raised by the noble Lord concerning my honourable friend Mr O'Brien. While Mr O'Brien took some of the brickbats thrown during the summer, he should be credited with the fact that he was deeply involved in coming to an understanding of the nature of the problems facing the Passport Agency during that difficult time. I know that he alerted Members of the
Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that it would be unfortunate if these exchanges were to close leaving the impression that those who undertake the very difficult job of working in passport offices should be the subject of unfair criticism? Does my noble friend agree that the public themselves have a part to play in the more efficient delivery of services from passport offices? It is simply not right for people to apply for passports, tell the officer behind the desk that they will be leaving on holiday next Thursday and then expect to receive new passports within 15 minutes. Will my noble friend broadcast a message to the general public--including myself--that people ought to apply for renewal of their passports in good time?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, my noble friend makes an important contribution. We should all be grateful to public servants for the hard work they do on our behalf. No doubt staff working under great pressure did find it difficult to deal with the huge influx of applications that occurred during the summer months. Those staff are to be congratulated on their efforts to bring the situation under control. The current happier situation that pertains in the Passport Agency is due in no small measure to the strenuous efforts of its staff. Of course my noble friend is right to say that we all have an important role to play in making the life of those who undertake this important processing work that much easier. If we all work together towards that single objective, I am sure that we will have a more efficient, effective, timely and much-respected passport service.
Indeed, over time the service has improved immeasurably. When I applied for my first passport at the tender age of 17, I waited some three months before I received a response from my local office in Peterborough. Nowadays, we never have cases outstanding for that length of time without receiving proper attention. The improvement in the quality of service that we currently enjoy and will enjoy in the future as a result of today's important announcements on increased staffing and improved efficiency targets will, over time, benefit the whole of the public in the UK.
Particularly to be welcomed in the Bill is Part I setting out the community leadership role that is to be given to local authorities. I believe also that there is widespread support for the code of conduct proposed in Part III. The new election arrangements in Part IV are also judged on the whole to be helpful. Obviously, Part II is controversial and a good many councillors are opposed to the proposed changes. There is also the question of whether, given support for a change of some kind, the three choices on offer are not too restrictive. Other models may be better able to respond to local needs.
However, there are some concerns that we hope might be met by government amendments in due course. These primarily concern the rights of Church and parent governor representatives to sit on and be elected to chair such a committee. In the past the very fruitful relationship between the Churches and local education authorities has been underpinned by Churches' representatives being appointed with voting rights on education committees. They have not usually exercised their vote on controversial political issues
We also have concerns about any such committee being dominated by considerations of party balance. We believe that the directive contained in Clause 17(b) of the Bill--that is, freedom not to allocate seats to political groups--should apply also to any overview and scrutiny committee responsible for education in order that independent voices are properly heard and taken into account. We believe that the Government understand these concerns and, as I say, we hope that there might be government amendments in the future to meet them. Alternatively, we shall bring forward amendments of our own.
On Clause 68--the repeal of Section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986--I believe that the main concern of the Churches is that there should be high quality sex education in schools, setting it within a firm ethical framework and looking to marriage as the proper context for full sexual intimacy. In that connection, we warmly welcome the Government's announcement on 9th September that they had decided that pupils,
So when we come to consider Clause 68 and any amendments in relation to it, I hope that we might be able to bear in mind two criteria: first, the need for high quality sex education in all our schools, one which will give people a clear ethical framework and which looks to marriage as the proper context for full sexual intimacy; and, secondly, legislation which will help teachers deal sensitively and supportively with those pupils who are conscious of being attracted to members of their own sex. I do not claim it will be easy to maintain both those objectives but I do think it is desperately necessary to try to do so.
This is an important Bill, widely supported in some of its parts, controversial in others. We from these Benches certainly support the intention to strengthen local government, with which the Churches have friendly relationships. We will also be particularly
Lord Smith of Leigh: My Lords, with my experience as a councillor for more than 21 years and as leader of a metropolitan council for the past nine years, local government has always been challenging and never dull, whether dealing with the problems faced by ordinary people in their everyday lives or dealing with the changes, some more welcome than others, introduced by successive governments. But I must say that the Bill offers change that is welcomed by local authorities as a whole. The evidence for that statement is the recent survey by the LGA which showed that by 1st October, 87 per cent of authorities had already implemented changes to their political structure; 75 per cent were considering such changes; 41 per cent already had a standards committee; and a further 30 per cent were in the process of forming one.
Local authorities come in a variety of different shapes and sizes, differentiated by location, by their responsibilities, by composition and by their culture, but they should share two overriding responsibilities: first, to serve and to secure, where they have direct responsibilities, the best quality services for local people; and, secondly, to act as community leaders, working with local people, business and other organisations to create a better community. The aim of the Bill is clarity, making it clearer where responsibility lies and making sure that local authorities can perform.
I shall concentrate on Parts I, II and III of the Bill. I certainly welcome the promotion of economic, social and environmental well-being. That will give clarity with regard to the current position of the law, amending the very narrow permissiveness given by Section 137 of the 1972 Act and by the further constraints put on that Act by the Local Government and Housing Act 1989. The law is catching up with the practice in many authorities, which are responding to real local needs. In my authority, we are currently establishing seven partnerships concerning the whole range of our different activities. I can assure the right reverend Prelate that we have set up one on lifelong learning in which the Church of England and other faiths will be fully invited to participate as partners.
By coincidence, last Friday evening I hosted a dinner at my town hall for the first meeting of what we call the leader's forum, which is a partnership of partnerships. It is not just to be a talking shop, although I think that the partnership will develop the community plan, which will be an important part of the judgment of local authorities in the future. We need to work more closely together to change things in concrete ways. In my authority, if I may echo what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, we have already had a business partnership for a number of years.
Part II of the Bill will make for clearer decision-making. The responsibility for making decisions will be clearer both to the council and to local people. Perhaps I may reassure the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who were concerned about there being two classes of councillor. I think that that concern is felt by people if they do not understand what is happening. I had a busy day last Friday. In the morning I attended a seminar for my own members which tried to explain what the Bill will mean for them. A new and productive role is being offered. There will be lots of things for councillors to do. I refer not only to scrutiny, although that is very important, but to involvement in the future development of the local authority and working in more ways with local communities. We will have a system of special responsibilities, which will enable people to become expert in specific areas and provide a career path so that people can move forward.
In discussing whether we should have elected mayors or leaders in local government perhaps I should declare an interest. I am still the leader of the council. I am willing for such decisions to be taken by local people. However, I think that two factors should be mentioned. First, if we change to a system of elected mayors for some local authorities, there are implications for council staff which we need to bear in mind. The role of chief executive in an authority will inevitably change. We need to understand that. Secondly, if I may say so as a new Member of this House, it is somewhat ironic that as a local authority member I am accused of acting in a 19th century manner when I understand the ways of this House and the other place, which as a result of the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth, could be defeated by a single voice of objection. There may be lessons that we need to learn about modernising.
Part III of the Bill, dealing with standards and ethics, arises from the third report of the Nolan committee. Despite a number of highly publicised cases, the behaviour of most of the 20,000 councillors and over 2 million council staff has been of the standard that we should expect in British public life. I welcome the proposal to abolish surcharges. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, I was for a time chairman of the finance committee and they were sometimes an effective stick to wave at people in order to remind them of their responsibilities.
I am pleased that there will be new codes to clarify what local councillors can and cannot do. The declaration of pecuniary interest is important to local authorities but can be taken, given the current state of war, to extremes. Again, to give an example from my own experience, I am appointed by my council to be a director of Manchester airport, because the local authorities of Greater Manchester are all shareholders. But because I am a director that is seen to represent a pecuniary interest, although the position is unpaid. That prevents me from reporting back to my council on the affairs of Manchester airport or offering it advice as a shareholder on what decisions to take.
The new standards committees will clearly be welcome; many have already been set up. The fact that there will be independent representatives should give greater assurance to the public that things can be done properly. The standards boards will also allow for further independent investigation and adjudication. In the interests of justice, a fair and full inquiry plays an important part, and the Bill provides for that. We also need to make sure that justice is achieved with some speed. We shall need to remember that some people who go through that process will inevitably be innocent of the allegations made against them. It should not be necessary to wait for an undue length of time for the process to be completed.
Baroness Young: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to be the first to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, on his maiden speech. I understand that he first started as a councillor in Wigan in 1978 and since then has been continuously in local government in a number of different authorities. From the way he spoke, it is clear that he has had wide experience. We were most interested to hear what he had to say and look forward to hearing him on many occasions in the future.
It is a long time since I was in local government, but I began my political career there, and remained there for 15 years. I welcome the Bill--but with the notable exception of Part II, which has a great deal to commend it, I cannot say that I am not critical about other parts of the Bill.
I welcome the proposals on conduct, both for councillors and officials. Of course we shall need to examine the detail of the proposals. Unfortunately, there have been many well-publicised examples of corruption and fraud in local government. I hope that these proposals will help to reassure the public on that front. That said, I should like to concentrate my remarks on Part II of the Bill and on Clause 68.
Over the past two and a half years we have learnt that when this Government use the word "modernise" we need to watch out. It actually means "destroy". Part II of the Bill does that. All the constitutional arrangements of local government, some going back
Furthermore, under the Bill it is not possible to maintain the status quo, even in those authorities which the Government say have done a good job. They might be beacon authorities; nevertheless, they have to change. And nowhere is it made clear that the services that local government provides will be improved. The right reverend Prelate touched on education. A key issue is how to raise educational standards. How will the Bill do that? Shall we see some great change? Or indeed, how will vulnerable young people be helped? For example, in the case that has been well publicised this weekend of the 13 year-old boy with a 17 year-old mother and the twins, will they be better off under these circumstances? The Bill certainly does not make that clear.
I agree with those who have said that the Bill will create two tiers of councillors. There will be those at the top--the mayor, the council chairman, possibly the city manager, certainly the cabinet or the group around them--who will all be very powerful. Then there will be the rest. The others will make up the scrutiny committee, but that will not be a decision-making body. One must ask oneself whether one would not as an individual be better off as a powerful member of a pressure group rather than as a second-class councillor. It is not at all clear what advice the scrutiny committee will receive. Will it be from the same officials who advise the cabinet? Or will it be from another set of officials? How will that help discussion?
In the end, I think that we all agree that the quality of people who enter local government and become officials is the most important issue. The question that needs to be addressed is: will the Bill improve the quality of intake? Who will stand for the all-important post of mayor? Will it be a full-time job? If so, will he or she be quite unrelated to the community in which he or she serves? What about the relationship between the powerful elected mayor and the local Member of Parliament? One has the impression that, as in so much government legislation, those important questions have not been answered and have not been thought through.
Then there are the referendums which must precede the election of a mayor. Little is said in answer to the major criticisms arising from, for example, the referendum on the mayor for London. In that case, there was a very low poll--I believe, some 30 per cent of the population voted--and an even smaller percentage was in favour. Will that be good enough for the whole of local government? I do not believe that it will be. I believe that referendums are a very serious business. We need to have the rules set out in detail as to what percentage must vote for change, and what percentage of the whole population must vote if there is to be change. These issues are too big to be left to a fringe of people committed to one cause or another.
We gather that the cabinet must be of one party. How opposition members are to be informed about what is happening is by no means clear. Nor is it democratic. New Labour is changing the meaning of words. Re-reading the White Paper that preceded the Bill, I noted that it talks increasingly about a "participatory" form of democracy. I am interested in that. I visit Cuba on a number of occasions. It defends its democracy by describing it as a participatory democracy. I am a traditionalist. I believe in representative democracy. I believe that we are seeing a change coming about by means of a rather skilful manipulation of words. I regard it as a dangerous development, one masquerading under a welter of words from the spin doctors. There will be much to debate when we examine that part of the Bill.
I now turn to Clause 68. There are a number of reasons why I am against the clause. The first is that it has nothing to do with the main purposes of the Bill. Like the issue of lowering the age of consent for homosexuals, which the Government tried to slip into a crime and disorder Bill by a last-minute amendment in another place in the summer of 1998, they now slip a repeal into this Bill. There was very little openness or transparency about it until we heard the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, defend it this afternoon. It was not mentioned in the Queen's Speech nor in the summing-up of the debate on it by the Lord Privy Seal. Yet it is an enormously important piece of social legislation. I looked in vain to see whether the Prime Minister would mention it in his Romanes lecture on education at Oxford. No doubt it is not mentioned because Alastair Campbell has told the Government that it will upset the middle-class vote and therefore they must be very careful. To slip it into this Bill in the hope that no one will notice is something that will not have any effect in this House. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, that it will be a very hard fought issue.
I turn to the issue of principle. Let us look at the verb that is used. The intention is to promote homosexuality. With all due respect to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, that was not what he said in his remarks about the clause. To promote homosexuality goes far beyond the brief from Stonewall which talks about bullying and helping young people who are uncertain about their sexuality. I am second to none in deploring bullying wherever it occurs and for whatever reason. It is the job of the school to deal with it. Any school with which I have ever been associated, maintained or independent, has had a policy on bullying. The school should deal with it.
It is right that teachers should give help where pupils are uncertain about their sexuality, and they can do that under existing legislation. One only needs to read the circular from the Department of the Environment (as it was then) that accompanied the 1968 Act which makes quite clear what teachers can do. Nor would it make it possible to say that marriage is best. It tells young children--remember that it applies to both primary and secondary schools--that a homosexual relationship is the same as a heterosexual one. It is not. Nor do I believe that the overwhelming majority of
If anyone doubts what will happen he should look at some of the material that is currently being produced by health authorities. I have with me a copy of Colours of the Rainbow published by Camden and Islington NHS Trust. That sets out for children at key stage 2 (seven year-olds) what they should be told right the way through school. That promotes homosexuality and does not teach children what a homosexual is, which is a major difference. I believe that that is wrong and dangerous. Nor does it make clear the very well known medical dangers of this kind of behaviour, particularly among the young. This is not the place to go into those dangers; nor am I in any way an expert. However, I have read a great deal of research and evidence on the subject, and it is an undesirable practice from the medical point of view. To introduce that to children is something which no responsible adult should undertake. Furthermore, is it right that when there is a shortage of money for a good many projects general taxpayers' and council taxpayers' money should be used in this way? I believe that it is a questionable use and not one that we should support.
There will be much argument on the point. I have been told that I am being intolerant over this matter. I am intolerant about some matters. I am always intolerant when I believe that anyone is playing politics with children. I suspect that there is a great deal of that in this particular clause. This is a nasty provision which will have a damaging effect on vulnerable children. If we support it we shall all bear a great measure of responsibility for setting children off on a path that possibly they may come to regret subsequently in life. In this matter children who are too young to understand the position are likely to be manipulated by others who know only too well what is happening.
The proper use of teaching and sex education--to prevent bullying and to answer proper questions from those who are worried or unhappy--can be conducted under the present law. But of one matter I am certain: if Clause 68 is agreed it will open the floodgates to very unsuitable material appearing in schools for the use of children. It will encourage many children to pursue a path which most responsible parents do not believe is right. As a responsible person in public life, I cannot possibly support this clause. I shall table an amendment and hope that when the House comes to debate the matter it will support me.
The Earl of Carnarvon: My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Smith, a fellow member of a large finance committee, on his speech today. I hope that we shall hear him speak often on the problems of local government. I shall not refer to Clause 68 to which the noble Baroness, Lady Young, has referred. I am sad to the extent that this is a very
It is unusual for me to be aggressive to the Government but in this instance I shall be. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is aware of this because I warned him in advance. I believe that the situation is a disgrace. It was a good idea on the part of the Government to set up a Select Committee of both Houses to consider the draft Bill before it came before the House. I do not necessarily criticise the Government for failing to agree with the Select Committee. My criticism goes to the fact that the committee interviewed a mass of witnesses between June and July and its report was available in August in order to be considered by Members of your Lordships' House. However, I understand that it was only on Thursday afternoon that that report was available in the Printed Paper Office. I went to the office with the Clerk of the Parliaments at three o'clock on Thursday afternoon and it was not there. I managed to get it at home only on Friday afternoon. If this is the new method for handling important draft Bills, it is certainly not the right way to present the matter to this House. I feel strongly about that. I am pleased to see the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, nodding in agreement.
There were 16 members of the Select Committee: eight Members of this House and eight Members of another place, eight of whom were Members of this Government. We were unanimous in our recommendations. Having got my anger somewhat out of the way, I wish to turn to some of those recommendations.
I refer to the structural issues under Part II. We interviewed people for many days, discussing the important issues referred to on page 32. The majority of witnesses argued that the three proposed models were insufficiently accommodating and wished to see further models added to the face of the Bill. The Local Government Association stated that, if it has a criticism of the Bill, it is that it is unduly prescriptive and confines models of local government to three. I very much agree.
I have been involved in local government for nearly 50 years. I am in agreement with the idea of an executive. I was vice-chairman of the old Hampshire County Council and chairman of the new county council at the same time as being chairman of the finance committee. Our budget was £1.6 billion a year. We employed 55,000 people. It was an honour and a great experience to run a major authority which stretched between Bournemouth and Aldershot and from Petersfield very nearly to Newbury.
The council worked extremely well; it is working extremely well. It has worked with an executive and a committee system. The Government want to do away with that. The committee system has two major inputs. It enables back-benchers and leaders of the different groups within the authority to work together in areas of special interest. From where will we get new local authority members? Who wants to stand for a local authority when they know that in the first two or three years of their membership they will meet for perhaps five county council meetings a year? With 100 members of the council, 15 will be on the executive and perhaps 20 on the scrutiny committee. What will all the others be doing? They may be on other scrutiny committees. They will not learn about education, social services or the police force. How did I learn about planning? It was by working on the planning committee, finally becoming chairman. After that I became chairman of the County Councils Association Planning Committee. I was then chairman of the South-East Economic Planning Council. I still serve as chairman of SERPLAN, which involves all the local authorities in the south-east today.
I believe that there is a great danger. We saw it when the Select Committee met with two London boroughs which are working on the basis that the Government intend for all local authorities. One back-bench member of a London borough said that he had the greatest difficulty as a governor of his school because he was unable to get in touch with any member of the education committee or the education officer. He knew that as a manager he would be asked questions which he could not answer. He thought that the new approach was a rotten idea. Previously the council had an education committee and he was on it.
Finally, to ask the public about the structure of local government is a very big question. While I was chairman of Hampshire County Council, unfortunately I was eternally on television and attending meetings talking about rates. People wanted
How will local government work with a scrutiny committee composed of one political party, with a majority party only on the executive? There are many problems ahead. In his reply, I hope that the Minister will tell us why the Government do not wish to allow an authority to set up an executive, a scrutiny committee and some standing committees of the county council on education, police, planning, social services and the like.
Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, with whom I have worked so closely on London local government matters. It is also a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Smith of Leigh, whose maiden speech made an important contribution to our debate. It demonstrated the value of the experience that he brings to the Chamber.
First, I declare an interest as a London borough councillor for the past 21 years; as a member of the executive of the Local Government Association; and as the current chair of the Association of London Government. During my time as a councillor, I have seen a decline in the standing of local government, but that decline is not just a phenomenon of the past two decades. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Hattersley, in a splendid written evocation of his youth, records:
The profile of local councillors is in no way representative of the population at large. There are some 25,000 elected local representatives, setting aside for the moment the 70,000 parish and local community councillors. Of those, only 27 per cent are women; a mere 3 per cent are from minority ethnic communities; and only 38 per cent are employed either full time or part time. The average age is 56. I have to admit that
That situation cannot be allowed to continue. Indeed, how can councillors truly represent their communities if they are not part of that community and reflect that community? So it is important that we give serious thought to encouraging more of our young people and more ethnic minority residents to participate in the democratic processes and to stand as councillors. And, of course, the same is true for women in order to equalise the gender balance.
We have to prove that being a councillor is a worthwhile way to spend your time; that what they say can influence decisions and bring changes; and that the community will benefit from their involvement. We can do that only by making changes to the way local authorities work; by stressing the representational and representative role of local councillors.
What is more, as far as concerns the general public, the arrangements have been opaque and obscure. People assumed that the real decisions were being taken elsewhere and usually they were right to think so. This was as true of Conservative councils as it was of Labour and it is applied just as much to Liberal Democrat administrations as to councils where no party had overall control.
I listened with great interest to the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, speaking fondly of the emergency procedures in his local authority when he was involved. I could not help feeling that he was describing an arrangement under which decisions were being taken rapidly behind closed doors and the
The Bill provides an alternative model: one where decision-taking is clearly located and where accountability is explicit. By encouraging local councils to adopt an executive/scrutiny split, the Bill addresses some of the problems with the existing arrangements. This should be positive for the image of local government and may begin to lead to an improvement in the level of civic engagement by the public at large. By cutting down on otherwise pointless meetings, the role of individual councillors is enhanced as more time will be available for them to carry out their representative role in their local communities.
The Government have emphasised that both the executive and back-bench roles of councillors are vital to the health of local democracy. The executive role will be to propose the policy framework and implement policies within the agreed framework. The role of back-bench councillors will be to represent their constituents, share in the policy and budget decisions of the full council, suggest policy improvements and scrutinise the executive's policy proposals and their implementation. Incidentally, I thought that the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, suggesting that somehow it would be the end of the Bill when it came to a review and scrutiny committee putting forward a policy proposal, reflected a misunderstanding of what is proposed.
Suggesting policy improvements and scrutinising policy proposals is central to the role of the overview and scrutiny committees outlined in the Bill and it is very different from making the decision. It creates a process which will allow much more flexibility of thought and is much less likely to lead to a particular viewpoint being pushed through by a majority party without significant discussion.
In the same way as the Select Committees of your Lordships' House and of another place can raise issues, can challenge orthodoxy, can perhaps criticise the majority party of government and can certainly recommend improvement, so, too, can the overview and scrutiny committees clarify the position and explore the implications of proposals within a local authority. Those proposals are contained within the Local Government Bill.
At first, most of the discussion and emphasis was placed on the introduction of directly elected mayors to UK local governments for the first time. That is important, but less attention has been placed on the newly-defined and regularised role of the executive outlined in the White Paper, first, to translate the wishes of the community into action; secondly, to represent the authority and its community's interests to the outside world; and, thirdly, to build coalitions and work in partnership with all sectors of the community, and bodies from outside the community, including the business and public sectors.
I want to move briefly to the role of the back-bencher. Clearly, back-bench councillors will be spending less time in council meetings. Therefore, they will have more time to spend in the local community, at residents' meetings or at surgeries. They will therefore be accountable in a direct way through encountering their communities on a day-to-day basis. They will be strong local representatives for their area. They will bring their constituents' views, concerns and grievances to the council through the council structures. Their role will be to represent the people to the council rather than to defend the council to the people.
In effect, they will be able to offer community leadership at a ward level and relate to their communities in a positive way without having to bear the responsibility or blame for the day-to-day decisions of the executive. That is an extremely positive and valuable role for all involved.
All in all, those changes are fundamental. They are part of a true modernising agenda which will bring about a fundamental transformation of the roles of elected members, of the status of councils and councillors as community leaders and in the way in which local authorities take decisions. That is not some cynical rearrangement of the deckchairs on the Titanic, but an opportunity for local government to renew itself as a reinvigorated champion of the communities it represents.
I therefore welcome the Bill. However, I should like to mention a number of specific points where it could be improved. First, I have already indicated that the new power is welcome. It would be even more welcome if Clause 2(3) required local authorities also to have regard to the achievement of social inclusion in the area and to the importance of harmonising race relations and achieving equal opportunities in the area. Secondly, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I should like to see maximum flexibility in terms of options for the executive/scrutiny split. Thirdly, I welcome the arrangements to pay allowances and pensions to local authority members. I trust that that will extend to all members and not only to those who happen to sit on the executive.
Finally, I cannot close without referring to Clause 68. I was a member of my local authority--although not at that time its leader--when it was at the forefront of debates on the matter in the mid-1980s. I remember well those discussions and I believe that Section 28 was introduced to set up an Aunt Sally. It was set up to attack local government, in particular Labour local government, which at the time did not
However, I believe that Section 28 was set up to do exactly that. It attacked a mirage; something which was not happening. In my local authority an extremely lengthy, learned and detailed report was presented to the council. It was entitled, if I remember correctly, Mirrors Around the Walls. It was about recognising the position of individual young people who are perhaps uncertain of their sexuality--an issue referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford--or are children who are not part of conventional families in the sense that most of us would understand.
I find some of the comments which have already been made extraordinary. I listened with interest to the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Young. She talked about the clause being "slipped in". There has been debate and discussion about the repeal of Section 28 for a number of years. It has clearly been government policy. She referred to Section 28 as being an enormously important piece of legislation. I do not believe that it is so. As a piece of legislation it has never led to a successful prosecution. It is a piece of legislation that was extremely badly drafted to make a political point a number of years ago. It was extremely badly drafted because it is difficult to define what "promote" actually means in that context. It was badly drafted because it was clearly about education, but it related to local authorities rather than recognising the position in terms of schools, the role of governors and the role of teachers.
The most worrying part of that badly-drafted piece of legislation is that it creates a climate of fear and uncertainty. The extent of the lack of clarity as to what it does or does not cover has meant that initiatives which would tackle homophobic bullying and the uncertainties and difficulties of young people coming from non-conventional families have not been implemented. Teachers, governors and local education authorities did not know what could or could not be done without falling foul of that particular provision.
The Government are right to repeal that section. I am delighted to see Clause 68 included in the Bill. It is not something which has been "slipped in", but enhances the Bill. The Bill is important because it presents the opportunity to renew local government. It presents the opportunity to renew the role of local authority councillors. The inclusion of Clause 68 is important because it renews the opportunity to ensure that those issues are addressed properly and appropriately--not to promote homosexuality, but to ensure that young people are clear and that they are advised and counselled accordingly. That is why I am such a clear supporter of this piece of legislation.
Looking at the situation in London at the present time, I am not encouraged to believe that the post of mayor is bound to fall to someone interested in good administration and the delivery of efficient service rather than a demagogue bent on political posturing and confrontation with the government of the day. We shall have to see. However, when I read in the papers who is supposed to be the front runner for the Labour nomination, I am not exactly encouraged.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, said that there had been a decline in the public's view of local authorities over the years. I am told by many people that it has been quite difficult in recent years to get good people to stand as councillors in some of our cities. There may be a number of reasons for that, but one reason represented to me not long ago is that when one has sought election in order to ensure that the street lights work and that one's children receive a decent education, it is fairly dispiriting to have to sit patiently while one is harangued night after night about gay rights. It is hard to see how abolishing the committee system is going to solve that difficulty.
Furthermore, having an inner circle of councillors serve on an executive, relegating the rest to second-class status with no part in decision-making, will not--in spite of all that was said by the noble Lord--improve democratic accountability, which Labour say is their aim. It is hardly likely to encourage those who do not get into the magic circle to continue to serve.
We are told that those who serve on the executive may be paid pensionable salaries. It is important that the public should be aware that that new idea is not a no-cost idea and that it may cost council tax payers dearly. Clearly, higher remuneration does not necessarily guarantee the involvement of higher quality people any more than paying expenses, however justified, resulted in better councillors at that time.
In other contexts, I believed that the Government rather liked the idea of power-sharing. There is much to be said for the committee structure in which all councillors can be involved in decision-making. Surely the Government should therefore think again about the unanimous conclusion of the Joint Committee and allow an authority to choose arrangements other than the executive arrangements on the face of the Bill. Otherwise, with the abolition of the committee system, absolute unfettered power really will be given to one party in many of our big cities. That is not desirable.
I turn now to the repeal of Section 28 by Clause 68. As my noble friend Lady Young said, the matter was not mentioned at all in the Queen's Speech, and when the Deputy Prime Minister mentioned the matter in debate in the other place on 18th November at col. 127 of Hansard, he was almost apologetic, admitting that
I am not surprised at the Government's diffidence because the arguments which they have been able to muster in support of repeal range from the tenuous to the trivial. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said that there have not been any prosecutions under Section 28. But according to Mr Nick Seaton of the Campaign for Real Education, neither has there been the same volume of complaints from parents. Even Mr Peter Tatchell seems to think that Section 28 has had a deterrent effect. In an article a year or two ago he said that he had identified,
That is the whole point. Section 28 is aimed at local authorities and the spending of money by local authorities on material which promotes homosexuality. It is not aimed at and poses no threat to teachers. I believe that the right reverend Prelate, who is not in his place at the moment but who will be able to read Hansard, can be assured that it does not affect what is taught in sex education lessons. That is decided on a school-by-school basis by the governing body with guidance from the department. It clearly allows counselling of pupils who are concerned about their sexuality.
It is said that the present law prevents teachers from dealing with bullying about which, of course, all teachers are rightly concerned. But it goes without saying that no teacher has ever been prevented by Section 28 from dealing with a bully. It is perfectly absurd to assert that a teacher cannot check bullying and cannot counsel young people about their feelings without promoting a gay lifestyle.
I submit that the Minister was wrong and that his remarks were in no way based on any evidence or on the wording of the section. He was quite wrong when he said that the legislation prevented local authorities addressing the needs of the gay community, still less from funding counselling services. The very limited scope of Section 28 was set out in DoE circular 12/88
We were told by the noble Lord who last spoke that when Section 28 was introduced it was set up as an "Aunt Sally". I can assure him that nothing could be further from the truth. When Section 28 was introduced, the Government were acting in response to the genuine concerns of parents that local authorities were using their money to teach children that there was no meaningful difference between a family headed by a man and a woman and two homosexuals living together. Section 28 seems to have had a beneficial effect in the education service and in local authorities.
Unfortunately, again as was pointed out by my noble friend Lady Young, the activists who caused so much trouble in the late 1980s seem to have found other ways of pursuing the same agenda. That is obvious from the actions of a number of health authorities. For the sake of brevity I shall mention just two. The Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham Health Authority has funded a guide to the etiquette of "cruising" and "cottaging". The North Bristol National Health Service Trust has funded a so-called educational pack which encourages children as young as 14 to act out homosexual scenes, including pretending to be a married man who had sex with other men in secret.
As I received no response from the Lord Privy Seal when I spoke in the debate on the Queen's Speech, perhaps I may put the same question to the Minister today. How can the Government countenance young children being taught that it is all right to indulge in homosexual activity, and promiscuous homosexual acts at that, when they know perfectly well that if that lifestyle is adopted by those children, it will mean at the very least an increased chance of HIV infection and a reduction in their life expectancy? How can they countenance money being spent on that kind of material when it has been voted by Parliament for the treatment of sick people?
Last Tuesday night Stonewall put on a star-studded show attended by the Prime Minister's wife to advertise gay rights. Apparently, it included a scene in which male dancers dressed as cub scouts gyrated suggestively and made obscene gestures while the audience clapped, cheered and stamped their feet. Some people could have been excused for thinking that the dancers were signalling that cub scouts were proper game for adult homosexuals. But Mr Tim Telman, himself gay and a journalist who writes for a homosexual publication, was surely right to say in an article in the Daily Mail on 1st December that that scene, far from reminding us that homosexuals are an oppressed minority, was symptomatic of a wider gay triumphalism in public life.
I say in all solemnity that it is our job to see that that triumphalism does not infringe the right of children to be brought up knowing what is right and what is wrong, understanding that sodomy is not the moral equivalent of sexual intercourse between a man and a wife, and appreciating the importance of marriage and of children being brought up by a man and woman bound by their marriage vows to a lasting relationship.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I somewhat regret that I must follow the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. I wish to address my remarks in particular to the modernisation of local government. However, the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, tempts me to stray into what I believe is a small area of the Bill. My two daughters sometimes sit in the public gallery to listen to your Lordships' debate. I believe that had they been here this evening, they would have been asking themselves where some noble Lords get their information from. From their experience of the playground, they see that bullying is very much an issue which needs to be dealt with.
I turn now to the Local Government Bill. We have heard that it is a fundamental and renewing Bill. I do not believe that those descriptions are entirely accurate. I believe that it is an evolutionary Bill which takes a small step towards improving local government.
I heard the Minister's remarks when he introduced the Bill and I hope that the recommendations of the Joint Committee will be incorporated. Their incorporation will mean that structures become more flexible. At present, the Bill still includes some features which have made local government less than desirable in the public perception; namely, a small clique of people, meeting in private, who make decisions which are fundamental to public life. If the Bill continues to retain the executive's ability to meet in private, then that public perception will scarcely change.
I should declare an interest as a county councillor for Somerset and as a former district councillor. As such, I cannot understand why councillors fear meeting in public. Sometimes it is more difficult when the public hear the debates which are held and, of course, sometimes groups meet beforehand. But it should be possible to debate in public most decisions
In particular, I wish to address the role of area and partnership committees. Those are not yet contained in the Bill although I understand that the Government look favourably upon them. The area committees of which I have experience are based on a natural geographical area. The councillors for the area meet in public with the public able to ask questions on all matters concerning the area. In relation to social, economic and environmental well-being, such a committee--a scrutiny committee or whatever-- would be extremely powerful. It would be extremely important in terms of community planning and enabling communities in the area to address what are described in the jargon as cross-cutting issues. In the past, committees have concentrated far too much on, for example, housing while disregarding planning and environmental health issues when all those issues are fundamentally entwined. Area committees have been successful in many authorities. I am extremely anxious that they should be allowed to continue, to build on their strengths, and to receive great community support. They enable communities to understand what local authorities are trying to achieve for them.
I turn now to partnership committees--a different animal. I believe that the Bill has been drafted with unitary authority areas very much in mind. Partnership committees address the need for district and county councils to work together. Some measures provide that executive decisions can be made only by one local authority or another. If the Government's agenda of best value and community planning is to be achieved, those committees must be not only encouraged but enabled to delegate decisions, if the executives of those authorities agree, to a partnership committee. In that case, areas such as waste collection and disposal and planning in its broadest sense--issues which cut across the work of both authorities--can be considered jointly by those authorities, with budgeting provisions being made by the two of them together. In that way, we should avoid the rather messy situation left behind by the last government, who failed to address the Local Government Commission's initial brief which was to rationalise the structures of local government so that the public could understand it.
I have some fears that under the Bill as drafted the executive and scrutiny split will be extremely divisive. The situation may arise that the opposition members are placed in charge of scrutiny while the executive members are a ruling group. If so, the old game of political football will then ensue. One of the reasons that the public are so turned off local government is that they see that that game of political football is being played at the expense of addressing local issues.
Part IV deals with electoral arrangements. The noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, referred to young people being able to represent their councils. I am sure that I do not need to remind your Lordships that people of the age of 18, who are adults, are still not able to represent their local councils. One has to be 21 to stand as a candidate. That is a great shame. Although there would not be large numbers of young people wanting to be councillors, those few who are thus motivated are precluded from doing so, sometimes until they are 24, should their birthday fall at the wrong time.
I have a question to ask on Part V dealing with welfare services and support for the vulnerable. I know that this is a difficult matter. I am closely connected with my local women's refuge and I am concerned about whether the measures will affect the way in which such refuges are funded. I heard the Minister's introduction. At present, such funding is heavily dependent on housing benefit. Those provisions may be extremely suitable for the elderly who are less mobile. But I wonder whether they will be of benefit for those who must move from, for example, shelter to shelter. Perhaps the Minister will say how wide the consultation has been on that issue.
I look forward to the Government introducing their amendments. I look to them to increase flexibility in the structures. With much increased flexibility, the Bill is a small, rather than a large, step towards modernising local government.
Baroness Thornton: My Lords, it was a great honour to be part of the team from your Lordships' House which served on the Joint Committee to examine the draft Bill this summer. I join with others in saying what a pleasure it was to serve on a committee so excellently and capably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Bowness. Two of my fellow members of that committee have made contributions to today's debate: notably, the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, with whom it was a great privilege to serve and from whose perspective I gained a great deal, as did the committee; and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, whom I sat next to several times. I confess to shamelessly cribbing from her greater knowledge of these matters. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Smith of Leigh on his maiden speech. He will bring enormous experience and practical intelligence to your Lordships' House and to our consideration of the Bill.
As some of your Lordships may be aware, I am an unashamed moderniser of the new Labour variety. I am keen to see our public institutions and democratic bodies tested against the criteria of whether they match up to the needs of today's world and are fitted to be flexible in the rapidly changing economic and social context in which they inevitably exist.
The Bill seeks to address long-overdue reform. However, whatever structures are found to be most appropriate, in whatever setting, the one constant which has to apply to all and which cannot be found wanting is that of proper standards, probity and ethics. I therefore intend to address my remarks to Part III of the Bill, which deals with the conduct of local government members and employees. The Joint Committee made a number of recommendations in that regard. I welcome the fact that many of our recommendations appear already to be taken on board; indeed, they are referred to in the Government's response.
Nothing discredits more the work of the vast majority of local councillors and officers in their legitimate public service than corruption and abuse of public trust by a small minority of councillors and officers. I welcome the measures in Part III of the Bill which establish a new ethical framework for local government. It will help to improve the standing of local government in the community and ensure that councillors and officers have the tools to get their own house in order and, indeed, clean up local politics.
This is not a party political matter. I do not wish to dwell upon, nor intend to mention, the antics of any particular authority, be it Conservative, Liberal Democrat or Labour. We have all been diminished by the activities of a handful of councillors who have failed to live up to the high standards of probity and integrity. The important point I welcome is that this Government are taking action to deal with the matter, to reassure the public and ensure that the strongest possible framework is in place to ensure higher standards in local public life. It is clear that the existing measures set out in the Local Government Acts of 1972 and 1974 and the 1989 legislation along with the National Code of Local Government Conduct have not been sufficient to deal with the small number of abuses we have witnessed.
Under the Bill every council will be required to adopt a new code covering the behaviour of elected members and officers. Every authority will have to create a standards committee. More importantly, the new standards board for England and the standards board for Wales will appoint ethical standards officers to ensure that the allegations of misconduct are thoroughly and, most importantly, independently investigated.
I am pleased to see that Clause 43 of the Bill enables ethical standards officers to investigate allegations even if the person concerned is no longer a member of an authority. That will help to ensure that councillors cannot evade an investigation by resigning from the council having already brought it into disrepute. It is
Clause 44 gives wide scope to the ethical standards officer to conduct an investigation as he or she sees fit. It also sensibly ensures that the investigations need not give local authorities excuses for not acting while matters are being investigated. Clause 45 is particularly important in that regard. It will ensure that ethical standards officers have access to all the information they need to investigate the allegation. Fines will be imposed for failure to provide them with the information they need to further their investigations.
It is important that the process is transparent from beginning to end. Clauses 45, 47 and 48, which govern the publication of reports in the local media, will be welcomed. It is also vital that action can be taken quickly where interim findings of the investigations of the ethical standards officers are damaging. Clause 48 enables the ethical standards officer to conclude that the person being investigated should be suspended from being a member of the authority for up to six months with a possibility of extension, if necessary.
That will help to ensure that if it is felt by the ethical standards officers to be in the public interest to prevent a councillor from continuing to participate in decision-making, they will have the powers to do so. We might say that this "sin bin" approach is a further reassurance that the issues are being properly addressed.
I imagine that councillors will welcome the provisions in Clause 53 for regulations regarding the disclosure of pecuniary and other interests as this area requires clarification. It is right that councillors should declare such interests. However, as my noble friend Lord Smith illustrated so well in the example of which he spoke, under the existing arrangements there are anomalies. It is indeed the case that as a result of councillors representing their council on one body they cannot report back and carry out their public duties. That is plainly absurd and does not make for effective local policy-making. I look forward to the regulations which will tidy up the situation.
In conclusion, I welcome the approach of the Government to this issue, upon which the credibility of local representation rests. The approach is holistic, can even be said to be "joined up" and greatly enhances the Bill.
Baroness Seccombe: My Lords, I shall not detain your Lordships for long but I feel that I cannot let this moment go by without stating where I stand. I have many concerns about the Bill. However, the one clause which really horrifies me is Clause 68 with its intention to repeal Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. I find it inconceivable that any government would wish to go down this route. I was interested to see that the issue commanded all of three lines in the Explanatory Notes to the Bill. I do not accept the premise that the repeal is necessary to enable local
In January this year the Government's Green Paper stated that marriage is still the surest foundation for raising children. Since then, statements made by some Ministers and measures taken are in direct contradiction to the Green Paper. The family is the bedrock of society and we need to strengthen it all we can. Listening to some descriptions of the family makes me realise how the understanding of an issue is so different for different people.
My father died, so I grew up in a one-parent family. My mother was wonderful but I longed for my father; that could not be. I believe most sincerely that where both parents are alive everything should be done to help that union survive. It does not help anyone to be told that it does not matter if you have a peripatetic father who has other liaisons or that life is wonderful if your parent has a live-in lover. If you have to live out of a suitcase because you have your time split between your parents who have other relationships, it does not help to be told that that is fine. It must be hell for everyone, even if no one says it aloud. Marriage should be promoted in schools so that children can grow up, wherever possible, with two parents living together under one roof. Those of us who feel passionately about that must stand up and say so.
I have always felt that homosexuality is a sensitive and personal matter between consenting adults. I have friends who are homosexual and I do not discriminate in any way against people on sexual, religious or gender issues. But I am emphatically against promoting homosexuality. Children have enough problems when they reach puberty coming to terms with their sexuality and to have someone in authority encouraging them to accept alternative lifestyles as normal is abhorrent and against natural teaching.
I want to mention girls because often this is seen as a male problem. Reducing the age of consent will lead to problems for girls as it would legalise consensual buggery with girls of 16 to 18 for the first time. It is a physically harmful practice. It can lead to the spread of infection as well as traumatising girls at a tender age. One wonders if normal, loving relationships could ever succeed after such abuse.
This Government have an obsession with modernisation. In the past, under a Labour government, we had a permissive society. The legacy of this Government may be an "anything goes" society; "Forget about standards, just go for it. Do it your own way. We will back anything you do". If that is where we are going in the Government's so-called modern society, I fear for future generations.
Lord Filkin: My Lords, I rise with some trepidation to speak as a former local authority chief executive in the face of so many distinguished council leaders for whom I have a great deal of respect and affection. Nevertheless, I want to speak clearly on this issue.
I shall advance the argument that the Bill is necessary because local government is fundamentally in crisis. The evidence for that statement comes from the public themselves, which must be the central focus for the legislation. There are voluminous data from MORI opinion polls and elsewhere showing that the public hold local councils in low esteem. At the last election only 29 per cent bothered to vote in local elections in England; that is the lowest figure we have ever seen. In a recently published British attitude survey, 60 per cent of the public said that they had no interest whatever in local politics. It is said that 95 per cent of the public cannot name their council leader. For many, particularly the young, local government is seen as being largely irrelevant to their concerns and interests. Local government committees are seen as talking shops. I say that with sorrow because I am a passionate supporter of local government and had a satisfactory personal career in it for between 25 and 30 years. The arguments that we do not need change have no foundation in the face of that evidence.
The debate should involve how we change and reconnect with the public. We are not talking about a static society. We are talking about a society where we expect substantial continuing economic growth. If the rate of growth is at a level of below 2 per cent, within a decade GDP will have risen by 20 per cent. That level of increase and the consequent effects on local communities will be profound. At the same time we are aware that technology and society changes are under way and are looking therefore at how a governmental system, whether at national or local level, is capable of addressing the needs of a fast-changing society and economy rather than hankering to get back to the world that we have lost. That is why we must be concerned as to how we can reform and modernise local government on a cross-party basis. If we are not capable of doing that and the public continue to see local government as being largely irrelevant to their needs, the only option left will be for central government to run things through their bodies and agencies.
We have seen over the past decade or so that there has been virtually no opposition from the public to the loss of local government functions. That matters. Locality still ought to matter to us. The argument is sometimes made that the issue of locality has gone; that people move around more frequently; they live in different places and work in different places from where they live. Yet if one takes a practical look at the situation, to most of us where we live and where our children go to school matters; locality still has impact. The debate therefore is how, in a more mobile society, we can reconnect people back to a governmental system at a local level.
One of the components of that debate has to be the issue of leadership. No one would argue that leadership is the simple or sole issue necessary for change in the local government agenda; but it matters in terms of organisations being better able to address the needs of the communities they serve. So, unashamedly, I should like to speak for a few minutes
It is known to all in the Chamber that every year a leader must secure a vote in his or her majority group to continue as a leader in that council. I do not want to make too much of that, but in essence leaders are forced to have an internal as well as an external focus. They are forced to ensure that, by and large, back-benchers are comfortable with what they are doing and that there is an opportunity for back-benchers to play a part in the process, however minor.
It might be said that there is nothing wrong with that. But surely the central focus of leaders should be to have a strong connection with the interests and needs of their community. That is why we should look with an open mind at one of the options that the Bill offers to indicate that a direct relationship between a leader and the community is important. It is nothing new. Members on the Benches opposite have, in the past, argued for such reform strategies, and done so well and persuasively.
The Bill offers basically three options. What is not an option is the status quo. I hope I have indicated some of the reasons why that should be so and how much I commend the work of the Joint Committee in its deliberations in the summer. Those who went to the LGA briefing before this debate were heartened to hear the chief executive of that organisation say that the Local Government Association did not support the status quo. I commend it for that; it is a progressive move.
We should look also at where local government is in relation to this debate and the option of a directly-elected mayor. The committee system has been spoken of fondly. Members of the House are well aware that the committee system has virtually disappeared in local government in the rest of the world. No doubt it has a role in some places, but does not appear to have adherence in the rest of the world. It was clearly appropriate for the 19th century, but that is in the past.
The debate therefore is how councils will choose the options. They will not be imposed by government; it will be an issue of choice for a local authority and its community. There is cause for concern in that regard on two fronts. If we ask the public the straightforward question--it has been asked in numerous polls over the past year or two--"Are you interested in having a directly-elected mayor for your area?", between 60 and 70 per cent will say "Yes". That is a remarkably high figure for a reform option. If we ask local councils how many are interested in having a directly-elected mayor for their area, only 2 per cent will respond with a "Yes". The difficulty is that if there is to be a genuine debate about new structures that will better serve the interests of the public, it must be a debate involving the public rather than one held in the smoke-filled rooms of the ruling party of the council. So far we have not been overwhelmed with enthusiasm by local authorities wanting to have that debate with their communities. There have been impressive exceptions.
We are all saying that scrutiny is vital. I may not have been paying attention in all my 25 years in local government, but I did not see a great deal of evidence of scrutiny. That is best exampled by the deputy leader of a council, for which I was chief executive, when we were forming a performance review committee. He said, "You can look at anything you like whatsoever, as long as it doesn't cause us any embarrassment in public."
Past practice on scrutiny in local government is not very impressive, which is why we should keep an open mind on the need for change. The current system whereby all decisions on policy, practice and scrutiny are in theory made by one body--the committee--has failed to deliver clarity on policy making, clear strategic leadership at times or much evidence of vigorous challenge to what a council has done in the past.
I warmly commend the Bill and support many of its measures. I hope that we can have serious debate on how the Bill can best serve the interests of the public, rather than on the world that is behind us now.
Lord Laming: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, began by saying that local government is in crisis. That may be but I cannot agree with him that the Bill addresses those serious matters. I make it plain that to question the Bill should not be seen as an indication that one is opposed to change. I suggest that change is equally a responsibility for central government as it is for local government.
My response to the Bill follows closely the contribution of the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, and I hope that the Minister will be able to persuade me and others that we should not feel terribly disappointed that this is a Bill of lost opportunities in achieving the Government's wish to revitalise local government. At this time, the Government could have set clear, new and modern objectives for local government and concentrated on outcomes and impact. Instead, the Bill concentrates on structure and process, which are not central to the issues on restoring local government.
Over the years it has become commonplace for Governments to advance the cause of strong local authorities while strengthening the grip of central control. In a healthy democracy there needs to be a proper distribution of power. The best way to tackle social exclusion--I pay tribute to the Government for giving that a higher priority--or economic regeneration is to empower local authorities to engage
At a time when the Government have a large majority in the other place, there is even more need to take proper regard of checks and balances on power and control. It is ironic that we are discussing these matters on a day when the Prime Minister is in the north of England addressing the north-south divide. I suspect that few people in Whitehall would be able without hesitation to identify the location of Sefton, Knowsley, Tameside and Kirklees--let alone Three Rivers or Dacorum--yet Whitehall is able to set priorities for local authorities and to determine through the standard spending assessment how much each should spend on the services for which they have responsibility.
The Bill seems to take even more control to the centre by interfering in internal structures and management arrangements. Clause 18 even requires each local authority to report to the Secretary of State on its executive arrangements. I would be interested to hear from the Minister how many local authorities will need to do that. Is the number really in excess of 400? What is the population range of each authority? I suspect that it is something between 30,000 and 1 million. Do the Government really want to get involved in the internal management structures of every local authority in this country?
There was a time when local government raised most of the money it spent in its own locality, with a small top-up from central government. That position has reversed. About 80 per cent of local government expenditure now comes from central government, with a large number of strings attached. Is it any wonder that local authorities are often thought of as being agents of central government rather than separately elected public authorities with rights and responsibilities and having wide discretion over local decision-making?
If one of the local authorities visited today by the Prime Minister made a thorough assessment of the social and economic needs in its area, for the most part it would have to go cap in hand to Whitehall or to Europe in the hope of changing the distribution formula or attracting a special grant. Is it any wonder that the turnout for local elections is so low? Electors know where the power lies. If the Minister's ambition to revitalise local government is to be realised, it is necessary to release local government from the tight grip at the centre and to encourage good-calibre local people to present themselves for election and become leaders of local communities, feeling that they will have a strong influence on the way that local authorities address the issues they confront.
It is more than a question of structures and processes. In this day and age, it is vitally important to find new ways of involving local people to combat areas of alienation and feelings of resignation that are so evident in some communities. Too many local communities reveal clear signs of disillusionment and disbelief that they can do anything about their
Clause 2 gives powers to local authorities to promote the "well-being of their area" but Clause 3 prevents them from raising money to be used for that purpose. The Bill ratchets up further the Secretary of State's control and I cannot help but observe that the enthusiasm for referendums at local level seems not to be shared by central government, who wish to keep a firm grip on their own agenda.
Although I welcome the wish to improve standards in public life, as I am sure all your Lordships do, even at local level power will be concentrated in the hands of the few and many elected members will feel marginalised--even in the authorities to which they have been elected. I fail to understand why the time-honoured practice of political balance being reflected in the decision-making process is to be reduced. Some parts of the Bill are welcome but overall it is far too intrusive and allows too little flexibility for local government.
Will the Minister indicate whether he is aware of the real concern about Clause 64--particularly the financial arrangements for supporting people in sheltered housing? That is such an important part of fulfilling government policy on care in the community that I hope care will be taken to ensure that sheltered housing and tenants of sheltered housing are not put financially at risk.
I hope that I have managed to convey that, although this is a time when we should be seeking to revitalise and empower local government and help local communities to feel that they have greater influence over their quality of life, the Bill increases the powers of the Secretary of State to interference in the way that local authorities go about their business and adds to central control. I shall be a happy man if the Minister can convince me that I have got it all wrong.
Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, I am glad that this is not my maiden speech because I want to support the repeal of Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. I shall limit my remarks to the relevance of this section to schools and young people. The section is only a small part of the Bill, though it may attract a disproportionate amount of attention; I hope not. I shall try to convince your Lordships that Section 28 is simply outdated and unnecessary, for it has been overtaken by new guidance. I shall also argue that it is actually counter-productive.
The section has always been a confusing piece of legislation. Of course, in truth, it applies only to local authorities, which are not in fact responsible for the management of schools and colleges: power lies with the governing bodies. However, I do not intend to spend time on this anomaly; nor do I intend to go over old and sensationalist arguments relating to Section 28. My main argument is that the section has been rendered obsolete by guidelines to schools from successive governments since 1988.
As your Lordships know, this section was written into--I almost said slipped into--the Local Government Act 1988, a long time ago. Much has happened since then in the fields of education and health. I shall not go into a detailed description of this, but I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to some significant interventions which, whatever one thought of Section 28 before, now make it unnecessary, and as counter-productive as ever.
In 1990, the National Curriculum Council published its guide to health education in schools for five to 16 year-olds. For the first time, and after much consultation, the content and organisation of health education was spelled out for the four key stages of schooling. Sex education falls under health education and biology, and age-appropriate topics are given. There is no promotion of homosexuality; rather an emphasis on responsible decision- making and the expectations of parents. These guidelines are widely respected.
The Act also established the rights of parents to withdraw children from all or part of sex education, except the biological aspect of the national curriculum, both in primary and in secondary school. In addition, school governors are required to provide a separate statement to parents on the teaching of sex education and to present it at the statutory annual meeting of parents. Of course, parents now constitute, numerically, almost a third of a school's governing body.
At this seminar, differences between the faiths were acknowledged in an open and accepting way. Differences included issues of abortion, celibacy, cohabitation, disability and sexuality, and homosexuality. It was recognised that for some faiths,
I hope that the examples I have given will waylay some of the fears that I have heard expressed about the teaching of sex education. Those fears include: first, the view that there are not enough controls over school sex education, but this is counteracted by the provision of curriculum guidance, inspection and the role of school governors; secondly, that vulnerable children will be corrupted, taken advantage of, or manipulated by inappropriate teaching or teachers, but guidelines emphasise age-appropriate teaching and the safety of children.
Thirdly, there is the fear that religious faiths will be ignored or contravened, but guidelines take account of this. If parents are truly worried, they can withdraw children from lessons. I am a school governor of a primary school. I have just arrived from a school inspection meeting where these issues were discussed. My school has parents who represent around 20 faiths. No one has ever withdrawn a child from any lesson.
There is an extreme view that sex education has been rampant in this country for years and has done untold harm. In fact, sex education has mainly been in the spotlight with very little to see. It was introduced to the school where I am a governor six years ago by a new head teacher and introduced in the context of personal, social and health education. Nothing but good has come out of the programme, including dramatic improvement in the behaviour of the children and in academic results.
If the examples that I have given are not enough, perhaps I may go on to quote more recent guidelines from the Department for Education and Employment (on the National Curriculum for Schools) where sex education is now, I am glad to say, firmly within personal, social and health education. The guidelines are clear about what should be taught and when. They are based on wide consultation, including consultation with young people. The young people were clear that they expected schools to help them sort out dilemmas related to drugs, friendship, sex, smoking and crime. Parents in many surveys have overwhelmingly supported efforts of schools in these areas. The guidelines also support and emphasise home-school relationships and the role of school governors. A new framework for inspection comes into force in January.
Again, I have no time to go into detail, but there is an emphasis in these guidelines for primary schools on developing confidence and responsibility, keeping safe and learning to reject pressure to behave in unacceptable ways. In secondary schools, issues of sexual health are placed,
I turn to why I believe this section to be counter-productive. Children ask questions about sexuality; they deserve honest responses. They deserve information and a place where they can discuss relationships and moral issues in safety. One of those places is schools. Parents appreciate this. Some children, from all religious groups, will be lesbian or gay, not because they have been taught to be lesbian or gay but because they are. These young people are entitled to information and protection.
Agreeing to the repeal of Section 28 would show that your Lordships have taken into account new curriculum guidelines on personal, social and health education, inspection frameworks, parental involvement and the responsibilities of school governors. To retain this measure denies the integrity of organisations and individuals consulted about the guidelines, and the common sense of teachers, parents and young people themselves.
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