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Baroness Young: My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, does she accept that when you are legislating the use of words is not just a matter of semantics; it has to be precise? The word that is used in this context is "promotion". The noble Baroness mentioned that word when she referred to the promotion of marriage. I agree with a great deal of what she has said and have no quarrel with much of it. However, the argument is whether or not a homosexual lifestyle should be promoted as being as good as a married lifestyle. This is not a question of semantics; it is an important issue of the words that are used.
Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, I respect what the noble Baroness, Lady Young, has said. However, the word "promote" is used in Section 28. That word is unclear and has always been said to be unclear. Teachers, doctors and school governors agree that it is unclear and are sometimes put off teaching about HIV and AIDS because the word is unclear.
The Duke of Norfolk: My Lords, it will not surprise noble Lords to hear that I disagree with practically everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, has just said. I strongly support the comments on Clause 68 of the noble Baronesses, Lady Young and Lady Seccombe, and the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. I wish to hammer home the need for Clause 68 to be repealed as it would allow local authorities to promote homosexuality in schools or elsewhere.
Why am I against homosexuality? I am against homosexuality because, in the first place, it is unnatural. One must go into frank details in this matter. The male body is made to go with a female body, not to go with another male body. That is how the male body has evolved. The human species is the highest order of species. Christians believe that Christ sent his son in our species on this earth. Lower orders of species, such as animals, do not practise homosexuality. That is a fact. If you go to see a herd of elephants in Kenya, you do not find homosexuality. If you see a stag and a hind in this country, you will find that they live together, but two stags do not. As regards birds, a cock and a hen live together, but two cocks do not. As I say, homosexuality is unnatural.
Secondly, all the religions of the world ban homosexuality. Christianity, the Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists all ban homosexuality. Most parents want their children to grow up, marry and found a normal family. They do not wish their children to set up a "gay" lifestyle as a pretend family relationship.
Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, is not the noble Duke making a Committee stage speech when we should address the principles of the Bill? Admittedly, he is following the bad example of many other noble Lords, but is that not the case?
I note that there are some cases of homosexuality, especially in boarding schools and among young teenage boys, but normally those concerned grow out of it--the same applies to girls--and I want to see schools encourage them to do so. I do not want the lives of those boys and girls to be arrested and directed down homosexual channels which lead nowhere. It is the duty of schools to direct their pupils with regard to a proper sex life. There is no question of my advocating homophobic bullying or anything of that kind. As I have said, most boys and girls grow out of these practices and lead happy, normal lives. I know that some boys and girls remain homosexual. I wish to see all our efforts directed to encourage them to grow into normal beings. In no way do I wish to see schools trying to retard their lives when they are at school.
Baroness Maddock: My Lords, many noble Lords may be grateful to hear that I do not intend to mention Clause 68 other than to say that I support my noble friend's comments and those of others; namely, I support the repeal of what has been an unnecessary law which has caused difficulties.
Like many others I wish to make some general comments about local government and then concentrate on the style of government and housing welfare support services. Many of us have reminisced today but that is probably because many of us are here as a result of our past experiences in local government and in life.
Over 30 years ago as a newly qualified teacher I settled in Southampton. The school in which I taught provided every young person with their own textbooks in the subjects that I taught; namely, geography and maths. The grounds and the buildings were well cared for and our exam results were good. City buses regularly took children to the fairly new swimming baths to give every child the opportunity to learn to swim. Buses also took us to concert workshops with the local Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Our chief education officer was well known nationally. Local people appreciated the good local services and, whatever the political control, Southampton council aimed for good quality services, particularly decent
I am possibly painting a rather over-rosy picture, but the reality today is that if one talks about local government it is not that kind of picture that comes to people's minds. Life moves on, the world changes, and institutions have to change. In looking back, I am aware that many of us in the Chamber who have been involved in this area have failed to value and safeguard much of what was and has been good in local government. Most of all we have failed to value the democratic role of local government as a building block for our national domestic democratic institutions.
For me, the test of the Bill is how much it will do to put back some of the cornerstones of our local democratic society--a society so very different from the one I have described. No longer can people read daily in their newspapers full accounts of what is happening in their council. As other noble Lords have said, often people no longer know the names of their local councillors and their local leaders. As we all know, no longer do many people even bother to vote.
Many noble Lords have expressed a desire for things to change. Many in your Lordships' House have expressed concern that although the intention of the Bill is to address some of these issues, some of us--I count myself among them--share concerns about whether it will do so.
As has been said, the Bill opens with a section which gives more power to local councils, particularly to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their areas. I am not ashamed to say again that, although we on these Benches welcome this, our policy is that it would be very much better to give a power of general competence. Here the power to promote well-being is very specifically limited. As has been mentioned, it does not allow authorities to raise money by precepts borrowing or other methods for any of those issues.
The power to promote may sound very good in principle but it is still quite restrictive in practice. For example, it will facilitate partnership working on economic development and on home energy conservation, which I particularly welcome, but it does not give the freedom for local authorities to act.
I listened with interest to the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, who is no longer in his place. I was particularly interested in what he was saying because, when I heard of his background, I realised he has probably voted money for books in my school many years ago. He made a comment about the powers of the Secretary of State and not enough power in the areas that we all want to change being left in the hands of local authorities. It is always disappointing to see how many extra powers are given to a Secretary of State when new legislation comes forward. I shall not
Turning to the arrangements for executives, several models have been put forward. Like other noble Lords, I hope that the Minister will come forward with other models--but not only models put forward by the Government. Experiments have been going on in local government and I hope that if amendments come forward they will reflect local communities' ideas about how we can run local government and how the structure should be set up.
I do not quite understand why the Government and the Local Government Association together are so against local councils being allowed to maintain some of their working practices, particularly if people feel that they are working satisfactorily. As other noble Lords have said, if we are to have cabinet forms of government it is important that we have scrutiny. The crucial part of the new arrangements will be the relationship between the cabinet and the scrutiny committee. In broad terms, the greater the power given to the cabinet and the fewer checks there are at cabinet level, then the stronger the scrutiny function needs to be.
Local government reform offers the possibility of bringing about a great cultural reform in local government--the breaking down of the tribalistic loyalties often seen from back bench councillors. This matter has been touched on by other noble Lords. A strong scrutiny role can give great power to councillors, just as in another place and here the Select Committee system has given great power--particularly in another place--to Back Bench Members. As we have seen over the years, party loyalties get put aside on Select Committees, which have delivered some fairly damning criticisms of government policy. The big test is for scrutiny committees to develop that kind of independence.
Whatever a local authority decides to set up, it has to put its plans in a referendum to its local communities. I am very interested that, although this is about modernising local government, on the face of the Bill councils are required to put in the newspapers whatever model they take up. There is no mention of the web or any other kind of modern technology. I hope that that matter will be examined during the passage of the Bill.
Clauses 64 and 65 are only two clauses in a 73-clause Bill. However, they deal with matters which have consequences for a very large number of the most vulnerable people in our society. I refer to support services.
The Bill will affect quite a number of areas, some of which have already been mentioned: sheltered housing, community alarm schemes for the elderly and vulnerable, foyer schemes, supported housing for people with learning disabilities or physical disabilities, supported housing for people with mental health problems, probation hospitals, women's probation hostels, women's refuges and other hostels that provide support. The Local Government Association and I are concerned as to how these matters will be dealt with. I hope that we will be able to discuss them during later stages of the Bill.
Shelter seems to think that grants, rather than payment through housing benefit, may be a better system. Perhaps the reason that some people in local government and myself are concerned is that however well-intentioned the Government's plans for block grants to go to support services, some of us have seen how that has worked out in practice in the past. That may be why I and other members of local authorities are concerned about the Government's proposals. As the Bill progresses, I hope that we shall be able to address those matters more satisfactorily.
In conclusion, there is much that we do not yet know and there is a great deal of bureaucracy in the Bill. I wish that the Government trusted local people and local councillors a little more. Councils could then be given the right to have general competence and we could have a fair voting system. That would have meant spending a deal less time than we are going to have to spend trying to improve the Bill.
Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, like my noble friend Lady Massey of Darwen, I wish to concentrate my brief remarks on Clause 68 of the Bill and to welcome the repeal of Section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986 and what was to become Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988.
There were a number of points of detail that I would like to have raised on other aspects of the Bill, not least those that deal with referendums and elections. But I thought that I could leave those until Committee stage. However, there was one point that I could not resist taking the opportunity to raise. The turnout at local elections in this country is the lowest in the European Union. Many measures in the Bill are designed to help to rectify that position, as will the provisions of the Representation of the People Bill currently in the other place. But greater voter participation might have been further aided by an examination of our voting system for local elections.
It is now too late to make a change to our voting system in the Bill before us. But there has been at least a move in the right direction by the fact that mayors will be elected by a supplementary vote. I hope that that indicates that the Government are prepared to consider how local councils are elected and that they are not closing the door on changing the voting system. I should add that I do not expect a reply from the Minister on that point, unless he has some good news to impart.
However, what I did not expect was that Clause 68 would play such an important part in the selection of candidates for mayor of London. I say that not to make a party political point but rather the reverse; namely, to illustrate that across the parties there is support for the removal of Section 28. I hope that the debate on the issue, when we discuss it in more detail as we pass through the various stages of the Bill, will concentrate on the principle and not party political issues. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said--this is probably the only point on which I agree with her on the issue--we must not play politics with young children.
The debate should be about removing any climate of prejudice and discrimination against gays and lesbians. It should be about keeping a sense of perspective and understanding that homophobic intolerance does exist and that it is not acceptable. It must be about a more caring and compassionate society and about equal treatment for everyone. It must not be about seeking political gain from aiding and abetting bigotry and discrimination, nor do I believe that it is a debate about marriage versus homosexuality. That is a red herring that has been drawn across this issue.
I have read with interest reports of the previous debates in your Lordships' House when Section 28 was introduced. It seemed to me that the then government had latched on to homophobia as a means of attacking certain Labour councils. It was said then that it was a necessary measure to restrain the activities of a small minority of councils that had gone too far in using their discretionary powers. As a consequence, local authorities, school teachers and pupils have all been affected. The fear of how Section 28 might apply has served to create a climate of prejudice and bigotry that has affected a section of the community up and down the country.
So what have been the implications and what have been the long-term consequences? There is no question that one of the immediate effects of the implementation of Section 28 was an increase in hate crimes against both individual gays and lesbians and organisations they were associated with. It has stopped libraries from stocking books on homosexual issues and the ambiguity it has created has meant that some teachers have used Section 28 to avoid discussing the issues of sexuality. It was not that they could not but
All these factors, and the confusion or unwillingness to tackle the issue by teachers, coupled with a flourishing intolerant sub-culture in schools, has had a detrimental effect on young gays and lesbians, who are often treated as being of a lesser status. The section's message--that lesbians and gay men are less acceptable in our society--continues to haunt schools and local authorities. We must change that culture, but the current patchiness of sex and relationship education provision in general means that many young people are not developing the knowledge, skills and attitudes they require to form positive and tolerant relationships, sexual or otherwise. To do that, the provision needs to include discussions of emotions, relationships, different sexualities and lifestyles. A memorandum sent in October 1987 to teachers and governors of Church of England schools stated:
A Family Planning Association project--here I must declare an interest as the president of the Family Planning Association--was conducted this year called "Gender Issues in Secondary Schools". It found that bullying is primarily about difference, in particular difference related to gender and sexuality. The extent of that bullying was highlighted in a study carried out in 1997 by the Institute of Education entitled "Playing It Safe". It found that only 6 per cent of schools surveyed had a bullying and discipline policy relating to homophobia, and that 56 per cent of schools had difficulties meeting the needs of lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils because, as the survey also showed, 82 per cent of teachers admitted that they found Section 28 confusing. There is a direct correlation between homophobic bullying and Section 28.
There is no question that there have been no prosecutions under Section 28, but its psychological impact has eliminated freedom of discussion and penalised a minority group made up of large numbers of individuals from all social classes who play a vital role in our society. That psychological impact has
In conclusion, the Local Government Bill is about the promotion of economic and social well-being and about improving the quality of life of people in any given locality. The repeal of Section 28 will improve the quality of life of a very vulnerable section of our society. It is time it was repealed, and the Government are to be congratulated on attempting to do so. I, along with many others, hope that they succeed.
Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, I, too, shall concentrate on Clause 68, so anyone bored with it had better leave now. First, the clause was not in the draft Bill which came before the Joint Committee. It was put in--I was going to say "sneaked in"--later. It was not in the manifesto; nor did it form part of the gracious Speech.
Clause 68 repeals Section 2A--better known as Clause 28--of the Local Government Act 1986. Some of your Lordships may be interested in the story of its birth. It started very soon after the opening of Parliament in 1986. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, and I were having a drink together in the Bishops' Bar. He said to me, "Well, what are you going to get your teeth into this Session?" I said, "I am very worried about the fact that some local authorities are promoting homosexuality in their schools, teaching children that it is better to be homosexual than heterosexual, and using taxpayers' money to do so. What is more, parents who object have not only been ignored but subjected to every kind of unpleasantness and even to violence". So we decided that probably the best way to deal with the matter would be a Private Member's Bill.
We discussed the issue a little further and decided that the best person to take the Private Member's Bill through this House would be the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, who was so greatly loved and respected on all sides of the House and is sadly missed by all who knew him. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, drafted a Bill. If the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, believes that it was abominably drafted, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, would be the first to agree with him. It was a DIY job and the noble Lord is not a parliamentary draftsman. The Bill was amended by the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, also took a great interest in it. The Bill passed through this House but was talked out in another place. That was the end of
The repeal of Section 28 will remove the small amount of protection which it has provided for the past 11 years against the manipulation of even quite young children against their parents' wishes by a small but vociferous and determined minority, which has recently been trying to get round the limitations imposed by Section 28 by proselytising under the pretence of giving health education or counselling. Section 28 needs to be strengthened, not abolished. I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, that he really should not believe all he is told by vociferous lobbies with vested interests. To say that Section 28 has led to the "institutionalisation of intolerance" is nonsense. There is nothing in Section 28 to prevent any teacher checking bullying or giving advice when asked. If there have been no prosecutions under Section 28, which is another indictment of it that I have heard today, perhaps I may say that Section 28 was not devised in order that people should be prosecuted: it was devised in order that people should not need to be prosecuted; and they were not because they paid attention to it.
So what is wrong with teaching children that it is better to be homosexual than heterosexual, because that is what promoting homosexuality means? Well, quite a lot is wrong. First, there is the health risk, particularly to boys, from many homosexual practices. I really am not going to go into the unedifying details. Most noble Lords know perfectly well what I am talking about; and if they do not, I suggest that they read either page five of Bankrolling gay Proselytism, the booklet which the Christian Institute has probably sent to many of them, or else ask the noble Lord, Lord Quirk, who made a speech on the subject not long ago.
Then there is the sadness in the lives of many homosexuals, particularly in later life, that they have no children or grandchildren. Yes, they may be able to adopt, and some lesbians may be able to have in vitro fertilisation, but it is not the same as having children who are your own flesh and blood, quite apart from whether or not it is desirable for the children.
We all know that boys are prone to hero worship older boys or men and that girls have crushes on older girls and women. That is caused by the hormonal changes of puberty. As a result, many young people in their teens are ambivalent about their sexuality and can be manipulated into homosexual relationships which may do permanent damage to their health, whereas had they been protected, they would have grown out of their homosexual leanings without any damage to themselves. It is a time when young people are very vulnerable--that is about only the point on which I agree with what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford said. The homosexual lobby knows this. There is no such thing as a "homosexual gene", as some have tried to pretend, and they know that too.
The various Christian denominations, the Jewish faith and other religions which forbade homosexuality, or used to, did not do it just for the sake of saying no, any more than they forbade the eating of certain food just for fun. They did it for very good reasons--mainly health reasons. I am sorry that the Christian Churches, and especially the Church of England, seem to have weakened their stance recently. I had hoped to see a bank of Bishops here today to support me, but in vain. There is some quite powerful stuff in the gospels about the consequences of corrupting children, but perhaps they do not read the Bible any longer, or only in some new fangled translation where the meaning has been watered down. Perhaps that is why churches are getting emptier and emptier. There is not much point in belonging to a church which has no morals and believes in nothing.
I really cannot understand why the Government want to do this. From where is the money coming for this proselytising? It comes out of the education budget, at the expense of paying teachers, having enough books and so on; or it comes out of the health budget, at the expense of such things as adequate nursing staff in hospitals and necessary drugs for elderly people. What is most important, it is going against the wishes of the vast majority of the people of this country, who are decent people who just want their children to grow up healthy and have a chance of a normal, happy married life. They do not want their children to be manipulated and pressurised at school, and they certainly do not want the taxes they pay to be used to pay for it. Why flout their wishes at the behest of a small, vociferous and sometimes violent minority?
At Committee stage, I hope to join the noble Baroness, Lady Young, in any amendment that she may choose to table to Clause 68. Since this is a moral question, I hope that this House at any rate will be allowed a free vote. It should be. Such matters should not be subject to the dictates of party policy, fashion and political correctness.
Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, I hope, in a brief speech, to bring the debate back from Committee stage consideration of one clause to a discussion of what we should be discussing, as we did to a certain extent earlier; namely, the principles behind the Bill.
The Bill bears all the hallmarks of this Government. Its aims are irreproachable, but the machinery provided is "control freak" machinery. I welcome the increased powers for local government. They are long overdue and have long been advocated by many of us. I support the pleas made by the noble Lord,
The Bill is good in principle. However, it runs into problems in Part II, where the executive options tend to concentrate power too narrowly either in a single person or a single party, and presently rule out the committee system--which seems a pity, to put it mildly. I hope to support any effort to include that as one of the options.
It seems that it would also be possible--a view supported by a number of speakers--for a single party executive to meet in closed session. That view was supported by a number of speakers. That must be wrong. It must be a move away from the visibility and openness for which the Government say that they stand. It must be a retrograde step. I shall table amendments to improve that part of the Bill.
The provision in Part IV which enables annual accountability at the ballot box is surely to be welcomed--although I hope that we shall be able to insert a possible option for election by single transferable vote, which is the only decent form of proportional representation and is badly needed in local government.
I shall say nothing more about the cause celebre of Section 28. Far too much has been said about it already. I shall certainly vote for the repeal of what seems to me a pointless and ill-drafted section--in spite of what has been said--which goes against all the principles that we hold as regards the provisions that should be included in that kind of Bill.
My party, the Green Party, is growing in strength at local level. In common with the Liberal Democrats, but not many others, we support any provision that encourages grass roots power. The Bill could be a very good measure were it to be made more democratic. Let us endeavour to make it so. At the same time, if we can devise a way to make it work more gradually so that we can see the result of some of the experiments before laying them down and ruling others out, that would be a good thing too.
It is necessary that we do not make major, drastic decisions that will bind too many people for too long without flexibility. There is a certain amount of flexibility in the Bill--I pay tribute to those who have included it--but there is not enough. We should have the ability to see how systems involving elected mayors work before encouraging people to plunge unduly, and too early, into them.
This is not a bad Bill. I am delighted to know that the normal practice of the House will be followed in giving it a Second Reading. However, there is a great deal of work to be done in Committee and I hope to play my part.
One of the disappointments I have registered during the debate has been a lack of the support that we seek to oppose the repeal of Clause 28--from the Church (from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford) and from the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. When considering the protection of young people, I expected the Church to be loud, clear and unequivocal in its support.
I have no doubt that the repeal of Section 28 has been slipped in as a distraction from what is otherwise an unpopular and anti-democratic Bill. It is also important to counter the comment from the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, who is not in her place, that Section 28 was slipped in in another place. I do not regard amendments to any Bill as being slipped in, but as matters placed before Parliament for proper consideration. Parliament as a whole accepted the provision. My noble friend Lady Knight, who will speak later, cannot be considered guilty of slipping something in. She picked up a mood; she picked up on something that was happening, and was widespread, in local authorities and among local councillors across the country. I shall refer to certain local authorities during the course of my remarks.
There is a great deal of misinformation. We have been accused of peddling misinformation. But Section 28 does one thing unequivocally: it prohibits the promotion of homosexuality. Whatever noble Lords opposite and all those who support the repeal of Section 28 say, if the prohibition is repealed, we allow the promotion of homosexuality. It will free up local authorities, local councillors and all the vociferous and tenacious outside bodies that place people under enormous pressure to promote homosexuality.
I went to the Library to look up the word "promote" in case I was guilty of the accusation by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, that there is a great deal of confusion about the word, and that our wonderful professional teaching staff are confused about what it means. If I promote myself, I am selling myself. If I promote a product, I am selling a product. If I promote an idea, I am selling an idea. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the definition as,
I want to return to first principles. We are talking about children of school age to whom Section 28 is pertinent. There is copious literature about the activities being undertaken by local authorities and local councillors prior to the introduction of Section 28. I have with me for the noble Lord, Lord Harris of
The main plank of the argument of those who advocate the repeal of Section 28 is that somehow or other it will address the whole issue of bullying. Like my noble friends Lady Young, Lady Seccombe, Lord Waddington and no doubt Lady Knight, who is to speak later, I abhor bullying, whether it is because a child is too fat, too thin, is not clever, comes from an ethnic minority or is homosexual. Whatever the issue, it must be addressed by schools, parents and any of us who care passionately that people should not be discriminated against because of background, race or creed. Bullying is not an issue. Those who advocate the repeal of Section 28 because they believe that somehow bullying will be addressed and melt away are sadly mistaken. I suspect that there will be more vociferous promotion of homosexuality and the lives of many young children will be much more unhappy as a consequence.
My noble friend Lady Young made the very real point that as young people grow up many go through a period of great uncertainty about their sexuality. Those of us who care about young people--parents, friends, families and teachers--have a responsibility to help them through that stage. To advocate homosexuality, or even sexual activity, at any stage while young people are at school is wholly irresponsible. Certainly, to advocate homosexuality as a desired lifestyle is reprehensible.
The Government cannot have it both ways. On the one hand, they say that to promote the importance of marriage and the family is now orthodox Labour Party policy. We support that. We rather forced upon the Government the importance of recognising the family as the cornerstone of our communities. On the other hand, the Government want to remove Section 28 to permit LEAs and schools to promote homosexuality. For example, in another Bill the Government seek to make it a criminal offence for a 24 year-old male teacher to have a relationship with a 17 or 18 year-old pupil and at the same time they advocate the lowering of the age of consent to 16, which will encourage even more promiscuity and same sexuality activity among young school children. There is no consistency here.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, said that what happened before Section 28 was introduced was a mirage. I have given one example of the reality of the situation. I have educational books produced at that time and comments made by councillors and policies put before committees of councils at that time. Much
Peter Tatchell himself agreed that Section 28 had had an effect on the promotional activities of schools and LEAs. What better endorsement can one have of Section 28? The way in which health authorities exploit the promotion of homosexuality with our school children is of concern. As Section 28 does not bite on health authorities I hope that amendments will be tabled--if possible, I shall attach my name to them--to ensure that whatever the promotional activities of health authorities they do not impact on young people at school.
Apart from the moral aspect--I recognise that there are varying opinions on what constitutes the moral issues in sexual activities--I believe passionately that this is an issue of child protection, and on that there should be no difference between us. I care about the moral and spiritual dimension of education. Without it, education can be no more than an arid and clinical experience. It cannot be right to permit schools and local authorities to use time and precious resources to promote homosexuality or to publish material with that intention. Nor can it be right to teach that a homosexual partnership provides an equal, or even more desirable, family relationship. Are the Government saying that the repeal of Section 28 will resolve the bullying issue in schools? If so, as I thought, the Government are more interested in gestures than in genuine solutions. I shall support any amendment that opposes the Government's intention to repeal Section 28, and I hope fervently that it will be successful.
Lord Woolmer of Leeds: My Lords, I should like to add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Smith on his maiden speech this evening. Among other matters, this Bill seeks to increase the transparency and accountability of local government processes with two ends in mind: to increase further its efficiency and effectiveness and to raise the level of awareness, interest and involvement in local government. There is much in the Bill, but I shall confine my remarks this evening largely to Part II.
Perhaps I may first reflect on some of the problems that this piece of legislation seeks to address. Often the question is asked: why is turnout so low in local government elections in this country? Why do electors say that they believe there is too much politics in local government? In my experience the electorate has a mixed view of what it wants. Often it says that it does not want a great deal of politics in local government and yet highly respected local councillors find themselves displaced in elections when the electorate votes entirely on political grounds without regard to the excellent service of those individuals. I believe that in their everyday lives people value the work of councillors as representatives of their local communities. I make that observation because later in my speech I shall suggest that, just as it is important to consider the executive/scrutiny split and whether or
At the outset I pay tribute to the work of councillors and officers who serve their communities through work in or on local authorities. There have been deeply regrettable lapses in some authorities from the normal high standards of conduct to be found generally in local government; and those cases should not be minimised. I welcome Part III of the Bill which seeks to strengthen further the rules of conduct. However, that should not blind us to the unstinting, valuable and valued work of all those involved in local government contributing, as they do, to the well being of their communities, whether rural or urban.
Local government plays an important part in the democratic processes of our country. Any legislation in this area should be judged by its impact upon the health and vitality of local government as a whole as well as upon its efficiency and effectiveness. Central government is neither all seeing nor the fount of all wisdom. I trust that that is the spirit in which the legislation is brought forward and in which its many regulatory devices will be applied in due course.
Changes over the years have brought new challenges to local government and the need for new approaches and processes. Councillors work hard for their local wards and constituents but have faced many difficulties over the years. It is difficult to get joined-up government or action in local communities. The number of employers who will give generous time off for local government work has reduced greatly over the years. The demands of committee work and of work for the local council as a whole have been increasingly pressing, reducing time and energy for the work of councillors in their communities. In practice, despite attention to volumes of paperwork and time spent in committees, decisions in the larger authorities are often rubber stamping proposals for action from officers and from increasingly full time chairs of committees.
Within councils, especially the larger ones, it has often been difficult to develop and maintain strategically driven and coherently implemented policies and actions. The very virtues of having 60 to 100 voices on a council and its committees have at times been a handicap to clarity of direction and resolution in implementation. Faced by the need to get things done, many councils have de facto given a great deal of power to leaders, committee chairs and officers. The consequent lack of transparency and clear lines of public accountability frequently mean that it is difficult for people outside the process to know how or why decisions are reached.
Many local authorities around the country have recognised those problems and have been seeking different ways to improve matters: to help increase transparency and accountability; and to provide a more meaningful and satisfying job of work for those giving up their time to be local councillors. The proactive and positive way in which many local authorities have already responded to the ideas set out in the Government's White Paper Modern Local Government: In Touch with the People demonstrates that the Government have correctly identified issues which need to be addressed.
The distinction between executive and scrutiny functions makes a great deal of sense. It is a realistic view of how local authorities of any significant size seek to work in practice although constrained to a degree by current legislation.
I agree that councils as a whole need to face up to modernisation of their processes; and I believe that local government as a whole understands and accepts that. I hope that the Government will be equally tolerant if the outcome at least for a substantial period does not produce a large number of elected mayors. There is at times a feeling that there is a presumption of the outcome of choice. If choice is truly to be choice at local level I hope that that choice is freely exercised.
A degree of evolution based on a lot of experience may be a preferred way for many councils. In my view the success or otherwise of introducing a clear distinction between the executive and the power of scrutiny, and the success in making the work of local executive representatives more meaningful to those doing the work and to the electorate, hinges more than upon the body count of mayors and leaders.
In establishing the effectiveness, efficiency and attractiveness of a new executive structure many important issues will need to be addressed. What will be the relationship between the executive and the full council of a local authority? How will executive members be subject to recall or replacement, if at all? How responsible will the executives be to full councils as well as to the electorate? The way in which the scrutiny committees operate will be critically important to the success and improvement of transparency and accountability. It is important to ensure that the scrutiny committees and the work of local councils are sufficiently attractive for people to wish to be elected councillors and to wish to take on the position of chairs of scrutiny committees if they do not have the prospect of being on executive committees.
How will the scrutiny committees be appointed to ensure a significant degree of independence of mind in the scrutiny process? How well staffed will scrutiny committees be? Can scrutiny committee staff truly be independent of the general officer structure of their local authority?
Those are important matters if the bare bones of the legislation are to be effective. It is well recognised that councils will need to be trained in new skills if the scrutiny process is to be meaningful. But more than training they will need to be willing to adopt independent and challenging roles and stances.
I was interested in the Joint Committee report and the government response on the subject of "whipping" on scrutiny committees. The Joint Committee and the Government appear to agree that "whipping" in this context is primarily a matter for political parties. Some years ago I was accorded the honour of the freedom of the city of Cleveland in Ohio in the United States. That city had a powerful mayor in the style of the current legislation. The elected councillors at that time were all Democrat councillors. There was not a single member of the opposition party. Yet before the council meeting headed by the mayor, the Democrat caucus still met in private to decide the whip on what they would say or do in public. Therefore, mere form is not always the same as substance.
In order to ensure the best outcome, we need the correct structure of relationships, but we also need a framework which gives real weight and influence to a significant number of elected representatives as well as representatives of the executive. It is important to give weight to the community work of elected councillors. For years, many councils have sought ways of strengthening the focus of elected local representatives, representing communities to councils and councils to communities. It is essential to vibrant local government, where people are involved, that councils as well as executives are not marginalised. Despite the Government's intentions in this and other legislation, it would be possible for that sense of marginalisation to occur. I welcome the statement in the Government's response to the Joint Committee's report (paragraph 2.81) which acknowledges the danger and indicates the view that there needs to be full support for councillors in these various roles.
This is an important piece of legislation. Its effect and impact will be felt across our system of local government. Its implementation will depend on a number of important details yet to emerge. Given sensitivity in that direction, the legislation will produce changes for the better for our councils, for our councillors and, most importantly, for the people whom they serve and represent.
Lord Lipsey: My Lords, it is knocking on for a quarter of a century since I penned the only words which ever had currency beyond the family kitchen. Those words, famous or infamous according to taste, were, "The party is over." They were delivered by Anthony Crosland, the Secretary of State for the Environment, to whom I was speech writer.
I remember the occasion vividly to this day. We were in the splendid surroundings of Manchester Town Hall. Hundreds of local dignitaries were assembled and the council provided us with Chateau Latour 1965 to drink. Those of your Lordships who are Bordeaux buffs will know that 1965 was a shocking year for Bordeaux. Even Chateau Latour, with its established reputation for making drinkable wine in a bad year, could not balk the climate of 1965. The taste remains with me still!
It was an expensive wine and its purchase was a piece of local government extravagance combined with poor value for money. I hope that like most local authorities Manchester has since repented. Despite the torrent of abuse which descended on us for daring to suggest that it was being a little extravagant, local government, with notorious exceptions, achieves better value for money and is more careful with public money.
However, local government is not flawless. Just as it responded to that speech, it has responded to some of the Government's suggestions for change in ways that do not do it great credit. It is, or has been, a conservative institution. It tends to by hypersensitive to criticism. It is too often inward looking and insufficiently aware of changes in the wider world. There are many exceptions in many local authorities to those generalisations, but it is still true. That is why so many of the powers of local government were eroded, particularly under the previous government, without popular opinion saying, "Enough!" Local government was not sufficiently popular.
I believe that we need to get away from the old desperate dualism, localism versus centralism; total control for local authorities against central control. We must move to something different; that is, a third way. It contains a large role for local government, but not for an unchanged, unmodernised local government. For local government today, the watchword must be "modernise or die". The reason I strongly welcome the Bill before the House tonight is that it is one of modernisation, giving local government new opportunities to handle its business and affairs in a better and more productive way; to modernise before it dies.