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I want to turn to elected mayors--a concept for which I have long had considerable enthusiasm--and particularly to the system of election. The Government have opted for a good system for the election of the mayor; it is the supplementary vote system such as is being used for the election of the mayor of London. It is good because, broadly, it ensures that a mayor will have a mandate. Voters will have a second choice as well as a first choice and therefore in almost every case a mayor will have the support of a majority of those who bothered to vote in his or her area. That is a good system and much better than the system used to elect Members at the other end of this building. Out of 659 Members of Parliament, 312 were elected only by a minority of voters in their constituency--but we shall let that pass.
Incidentally, it is not the best system. I should prefer the system which ensures that everyone is elected with a majority; that is the alternative vote. I see the noble Baroness nodding encouragingly so perhaps I might be
However, there is a larger flaw. In the London election, the mayor will be chosen by a supplementary vote, but the assembly which stands behind him is elected on a more proportional system; a reformed electoral system. There is nothing in the Bill which will change the make-up of the councils which stand behind elected mayors.
When one considers the anomalies of the present system, it is scary. In Wandsworth, which is a Conservative borough, in the 1998 election the Conservative share of the vote was 52.7 per cent and they won 50 out of 61 seats. In Newham, which is a Labour borough, Labour's share of the vote was 57.3 per cent and they won all 60 seats. Labour controlled Croydon is not Labour controlled in terms of voters, because 46.9 per cent of the electorate voted for the Conservatives and 38.5 per cent for Labour. But Labour have a majority of seven seats there.
That is not a party prejudice; it is a rotten electoral system having rotten results. I believe that this House should take the opportunity to seek to improve the Bill. I hope that the Government are becoming more open minded about that prospect.
I am sorry now to turn to a matter of unnatural practices; indeed, unnatural acts. They are the Acts of 1986 and 1988, which put Section 28 on the statute book. I respond to the sincerity of the speeches made predominantly from the other side of the House in favour of Section 28. I understand the strong human emotions which they reflect. I cannot say the same in every case about how well informed the speakers are. I heard the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, who unfortunately has not been able to stay to hear the other side of the argument, saying that there was no homosexuality among animals. The Canadian biologist, Brian Bagemihi, has recently produced a book, entitled Biological Exuberance, which is all about homosexuality in animals. I am told that it shows practices rather kinkier than most human beings get up to and that it is illustrated. Anyone wanting to have a quick look to prove the falsehood of that case can do so.
There is another regard in which I find the arguments, although sincere, naive. There are always exceptions, but the notion that there was any widespread campaign anywhere in state schools to promote homosexuality is truly bizarre. If there are any schools where homosexuality is promoted, it is the single-sex boarding schools favoured by so many people for the education of their young men. Even so, that does not have much effect because basically people are born with their sexuality.
Although that idea was put forward in all sincerity, it was not adopted by the government of the time in all sincerity; not at all. I talked to Ministers at the time in private and there was no doubt as to what they were
I am in politics. I know that one does things to please one's supporters from time to time and that one should be forgiving. But unfortunately, although the Bill achieved nothing concrete--of that I am absolutely sure--the result was worse. This was not a victimless crime. The victims of the clause were millions of perfectly normal homosexual people who found that the legislature of this country--their country--had determined to stigmatise their lifestyle, to whip up popular prejudice and to make them feel less at ease with themselves. Anyone who talks to friends who are members of that community know that that is so and that the wound goes deep.
Therefore, of all the many things of which I hope to be proud during this Government's term, I am proudest of all that that clause is now to be wiped from the statute Book by the Government, of whom I am a supporter.
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I begin by apologising to the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, for not being present to hear his maiden speech. It was clearly extremely effective; a number of people have referred to it in tones of great admiration. I look forward to reading it tomorrow in Hansard.
At this rather late hour, with 23 speeches behind me and, I believe, another nine ahead, I shall do my best to be brief. I am aided in that because I agree so thoroughly with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, about Section 28 that I do not need to spend any time on it. I shall therefore concentrate on Part II of the Bill and its effect upon councillors--a subject which was touched on also by the noble Lord, Lord Woolmer.
When one reads the Bill and listens to some of the people who have been promoting it--to use that controversial term--one has the feeling that they do not believe that anyone has ever thought about changing local government before. There are many Members of your Lordships' House from local government who know that that is not the case. There has been continuous change in local government, certainly during the whole of the 12 years that I was in it. Other noble Lords have served in local government for far longer than I have. I see the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, who is the classic example of a long-serving councillor, nodding in his place.
It is not true that local councils have been inhibited by legislation from being innovative. That is simply not the case. The question is rather what sort of change one wants to achieve. In my experience, the best lever for change was the shift of the authority of which I was a member--Surrey County Council--to no overall control. As far as I could judge, the people who benefited most from that were not the minority parties, because they were used to working as a group and treating each other as equals, but the non-leading
Yet it seems to me in reading the Bill that the reinstitution of a clique to run all the decision-making processes of the council and the policy-making processes, as several interventions have made clear, is one of the features of the Bill. Ten people, perhaps one more or less according to how the judgment is made, will take all the decisions in the council. I must say that that reminds me of Surrey County Council when I first joined it.
That concentration of power has been one of the roots of bad governance--I shall put it no more strongly than that--in some of those Labour authorities which have been so severely criticised, and quite rightly, over the past few years. The more power is concentrated, the more it can be abused. The noble Lord said it rather more clearly than that. All power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I am not suggesting that the executive arm of local authorities as envisaged by the Bill will have absolute power, but they will certainly have a great deal of power. The dangers are plain.
Do we really want change which, once instituted, cannot be modified again in any serious respect without a referendum? In the old days we were able to change the structure of the committees and the way in which local authorities carried out their work. I shall refer to one of those major changes, which was typical of Surrey as of other local authorities, in a minute. We were able to do that and we were not impeded by the cost. For example, it is quite an expensive business to run a referendum. It involves all sorts of rules and regulations which no doubt will be spelled out for us in the Bill.
One of the changes which we and others undertook was based, in our case, on what was at the time I joined the local authority an almost unique local partnership committee or series of local partnership committees. We conducted part of our highways role via partnership committees between the county council and those second-tier authorities which were district councils. Those committees, of one of which I was a member, were in fact decision-taking committees within the overall ambit of council policy. After the review of local government of rather unblessed memory, we responded, as did many other authorities, to the justified criticism by the commission that county government was becoming too remote from its citizens and we instituted a series of decision-taking partnership committees with the local authorities, boroughs and districts which formed the second tier of the two-tier authority.
In the Joint Committee's report, reference is made both to area decision-taking committees, which are quite common in urban boroughs and in some cities, and to that particular form of local decision-taking committee which occurs only in two-tier authorities.
Again, from listening to people talking about the Bill one would think that no one had ever thought of partnership, of accountability or of trying to make the decision process more transparent. One would have thought that that was being presented as something new to an astonished world. I can assure anyone who believes that that is the case that it really is not. Long before the Bill was written and, indeed, before the Government were elected, such matters were the driving force which persuaded local authorities to scrutinise their own procedures and make them more effective, more responsive, more open and more in tune with local demands.
I turn now to the role of local councillors in the new system. I support all those who have expressed the fear that there will come about a real division between those councillors who carry out scrutiny in the council and those who carry out decision-making, with most power, as I say, concentrated in the latter. Indeed, they will have not only most of the power but most of the interest as well. After all, people join local councils partly because they are bashed around the head and neck by their friends and political colleagues. They are told, "Please stand. We can't get anyone to stand. You must stand". They reply, "Well, I'll stand so long as there is no chance that I will get elected". Then they are elected and suddenly find that a local authority is fascinating.
People who are elected in that way often become extremely good and devoted councillors. The reason for that is that the job responds to people's desire to act and to get things done for their local community and for individuals in it. I do not see how that particular aspect of being a local councillor will be satisfied by this Bill. I believe that there will be far too many back benchers who do not have that thirst for power and decision-taking and even policy-making. Far too few have a thirst for those things. Reference was made by a previous speaker to the unfortunate situation in which a member of a school governing body was afraid of being found in that situation as a result of the new arrangement because he no longer had direct access to the decision-making part of the council that he used to have. I believe that that is a serious matter. Before the Bill goes into Committee, and preferably tonight if possible, I should like the Minister to respond to that point. I believe it is a concern which has surfaced in a number of speeches from different sides of your Lordships' House.
I believe in a real change and modernisation of local government. I believe in a local government which has the power of local taxation and independence of action--by that I mean independence of central government, even to the extent of being allowed
Baroness Young of Old Scone: My Lords, I hope to be brief at this time of the evening, mostly because much has already been said on several of the provisions of the Bill, and partly also with a mind to the fact that I rashly put my name down for the following debate. I fear that we shall be here until midnight at the rate we are going.
I touch on two provisions of the Bill. First, I cannot not give my support to Clause 68, repealing Section 28 of the Local Government Bill. Enough has been said about it, including by my noble friends Lady Gould of Potternewton and Lord Lipsey. Section 28 has no place in a modern, inclusive Britain, and I am pleased that the Government have brought forward the repeal. I look forward to supporting that.
Tonight, I want to focus mostly on Part I of the Bill. The vital role of local government in achieving environmental improvement as part of sustainable development has long been recognised. Local authorities are uniquely placed to deliver across the agenda of economic, social and environmental objectives of sustainable development. That has been recognised at several points. The Government's 1997 manifesto indicated that they would place on councils a new duty to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their area. Indeed, the White Paper on modern local government restated the commitment quite strongly. It stated that the duty would put sustainable development at the heart of council decision-making and would provide an overall framework within which councils must perform all their existing functions. In taking decisions which affect their area or their people, councils must weigh up the likely effects of a decision against the three objectives: economic, social and environmental.
I very much welcome that the Local Government Bill includes a power for local authorities to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their area. However, the provision is rather weak and watery, on three counts. The provision is now not a duty but a discretionary power, distinctly weaker than the original intentions and very much weaker than the provisions in the Greater London Authority Bill. My concern is that big local authorities will embrace the provision of discretionary power and that poorer local authorities will not.
It is also a rather pick-and-mix provision. Local authorities are being required to take into account the effects of decisions against three objectives, but they are not being required to take into account all three.
The third difficulty which I have with Part I is that local authorities have only a discretionary power to prepare a strategy for well-being. Again, the concern will be that progressive local authorities will carry that out but that there is no obligation for the poorer local authorities to do so. They, perhaps, are most in need of being encouraged along the way.
There is also no provision for monitoring and reporting on the well-being strategies, unlike the very strong provisions on monitoring and reporting which have accompanied the best-value provisions. Therefore, although I welcome the idea of the well-being provision being included in the Bill, it is all too wishy-washy and too discretionary. I hope that in Committee the Minister will tidy up the provision in that respect.
Before I sit down, I wish to make a more general point on this issue. When I was preparing to talk tonight, I was a little bemused because I felt that I had written all this before. Those of your Lordships who may have heard me speak may have heard it all said before. The reason for that is that we keep covering the same ground. We had a long debate about the sustainable development duty during our discussions on the Greater London Authority Bill, as we did when we debated the establishment of the regional development agencies. Before I entered your Lordships' House, when I was on the other side, as it were, as chief executive of the RSPB, we were trying to influence the passage of the Environmental Protection Bill to set up the Environment Agency and, at that time, we had a lengthy debate about the sustainable development duty.
It is sometimes referred to as sustainable development, sometimes as well-being and in the Government's recent sustainable development strategy, it was referred to as quality of life. Therefore, there is a range of terminologies. In each of the Bills to which I referred, there were also different terminologies in terms of requiring, exhorting, encouraging, suggesting or hinting to local bodies or government bodies that they might take account, bring into play, take a view on or promote the sustainable development requirement. The language was tortuous. There were powers and duties. Indeed, in Clause 2 there is tortuous language which says that local authorities are to have regard to the effect which the proposed exercise of the power will have on the achievement of sustainable development in the United Kingdom. I suggest that anyone who is not confused at this point does not know what is going on.
I am rather tired of debating the different formulations with each new Bill and I am absolutely certain that the Minister is tired of responding to them. Therefore, in this important area, can we not stop arguing about the formulations? Can we not have a standard duty to promote the social, economic and environmental objectives of sustainable development for all public bodies in the future?
Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, it is a pleasure for me to take part in a debate on local government. It is extremely impressive for someone of my background to sit here and listen to noble Lords on all sides of the House speaking from their own experience. The first thing I want to say is that we need to respect each other's views from the background from which they are expressed.
Next year, it will be 40 years since I became a member of a local authority. That is a long time. It does not seem it because it has passed quickly. But in 1960 I became a member and subsequently the leader of the London Borough of Enfield for a short time. My general remarks are made in the light of that background. I want to congratulate the Government on taking the time, although they have moved as quickly as possible, to present this House and the other place with an opportunity to consider the situation and for taking stock.
From time to time, I go to the Civic Centre in Silver Street, Enfield. I meet my Labour colleagues and the officers. The world of local government in 1999 is a million miles away from the world of local government in 1960. The staggering thing is that when I was actively involved in that life, which I enjoyed very much, I had no idea of how antiquated and antediluvian it all was. People who have as much experience as I do tell me that over 40 years there have been four or five waves of change. I shall not comment on whether those changes were good or bad. But the job of a councillor for any party in any authority in 1999 is a million miles away from what it was, even in my time. Although that is a long time ago, it is a short time in the history of local government.
We must not be frightened of change. There are people who will automatically decide that something is wrong before they have studied it simply because it involves a change of practice. I know how comfortable it is to be familiar with a practice and an arrangement. The Government and the Minister are to be congratulated on placing before us a number of matters for us to look at in that way.
I agree with the comments about the worry in relation to the apathy of the electorate. I do not suppose that the Government are trumpeting from the roof tops that this is the cure; that this is the answer. They are putting it forward as their latest attempt to try to stimulate an interest in those matters in which ordinary people should be interested.
However, I am puzzled by the generalisations which are made. Most weekends I go to Edmonton Green. I do that because it has one of the finest markets in the country. That is a plug for the market. Let us suppose that I say to a number of my friends--traders and constituents--"There is a list of five things which the Government are intending to do. Place them in your order of priority". Let us suppose that I explain to them that the economic regeneration of the social and economic environment means tackling jobs or building houses or curing road congestion or improving hospitals or increasing the quality of life. I then say to them, "Incidentally, there is also an intention to deal with the repeal of Section 28 which was put in place allegedly to avoid the promotion of homosexuality". In all honesty, I believe that that would be at the bottom of the list of their priorities.
The real people in the world--and I say, without giving offence, not the people in this Chamber--are bothered about the quality of education for their children or their inability to get their children into the schools of their choice; they are bothered about the fact that they have children who cannot afford to buy a house; they are bothered about the fact that they have a car which they cannot use properly because the roads are full; and they are worried about congestion charges. Therefore, we need to keep in perspective the importance of repealing or retaining Section 28.
I listened carefully to Shaun Woodward. He is not a member of my party but of the party opposite. We know his attitude. We know that he prayed in aid a headmaster who, from his experience--not yours or mine--said that the retention of Section 28 acted as an inhibition on him and his teachers from doing their job properly. On this side of the Chamber, we take no lessons from Members opposite as to our attitude towards the care and protection of children in any aspect of life. If it is wished to make this a party-political point, so be it. But it is not. It goes across the board. Noble Lords should be sincere in their views, should state them and should make the case. But we need to keep the matter in perspective.
I was interested in the Bill's intentions with regard to local councillors and arrangements for mayors. Your Lordships will be able to tell from the way that I speak that I was not born within the sound of Bow Bells. I come from Newcastle-on-Tyne. A few years ago there was a politician called Dan Smith. He introduced the town manager concept into local government. That lasted for a few years. It was a fad. We do not yet know whether a town mayor will be the answer. But that is a matter for the people. By the time that the provisions of this Bill are put into effect, there will be experience to be gained from the Mayor of London exercise. Judgments will be made.
As regards scrutiny and oversight of councillors, no one can make a party point about the culprits in that regard. They are in small and large councils and from the parties of all noble Lords. But the provisions of this Bill are a first-class idea. I recollect that no payments at all were made to councillors or the leader in the 1960s. I certainly support all moves designed to give recompense to those councillors who give up not just one or two nights per week but, if they are serious, four or five nights, 20 or 30 hours in addition to what they already do. That disrupts both their domestic and professional arrangements. I note that a provision in the Bill makes arrangements for allowances and pensions, which is a good idea. I wonder when Members of this House will have their expenses and allowances reviewed. Do I hear, "Hear hear"?
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