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Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Tope: My Lords, I said that it was unusual, but not unique. What is unique is that at the previous two London borough elections the Liberal Democrats in my borough polled over 50 per cent of the vote. Therefore we have a popular mandate, albeit not one that justifies our having 85 per cent of the seats.

Every two years since 1987 we have commissioned MORI to take a residents' attitude survey. For their interest rather than ours, the first question always concerns overall satisfaction. We have just had the latest results for 1999. I note that in the table showing the results for authorities over the past five years the London borough of Sutton features three times in the best five results. However, we are not complacent. We have undertaken our own restructuring. We have adopted an executive and a separate scrutiny role. We did that with all-party agreement. We consulted the public on this matter earlier this year. Other noble Lords have said that the public are not necessarily most excited at being consulted on council structures and that that is not a natural turn on for the electorate. The consultation was issued with a covering letter signed by the three party leaders. We put forward Sutton's model, which is a little different from that proposed by the Government, and we put forward the Government's three models. Some 2,800 households

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in what is a relatively small London borough responded to that consultation, and 80 per cent of them supported our proposals.

Although we have a heavy party majority, our executive is all party and it meets in the open. I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate he will say whether it is the Government's intention that when this Bill becomes law we shall throw the Labour Party off our executive committee, as it will not be happy if that has to happen. If it happens shortly before the 2002 London borough elections, I shall probably be slightly happier than that party.

There are concerns about the scrutiny role which we need to address. I believe that it is an important role. I agree with what others have said; namely, that councillors need to value that crucially important role. However, in my experience most councillors wish to be not necessarily members of the executive but at least to have a proper and effective say in decisions that will be taken by the executive, wherever that executive is and whoever it comprises. That is echoed in concerns that have been expressed by the right reverend Prelate with regard to the Churches, and indeed other bodies, governors and so on, who are represented on committees under old structures. That is most obvious in the case of education committees where church, teacher and parent governor representatives have a statutory right. They may have a useful role on a scrutiny body but they want to be on the decision-making body. I have yet to hear of anyone dealing satisfactorily with that difficulty.

My next point--I believe that this is extremely important--is that local authorities should have the resources to be able to give distinct and separate support to the scrutiny committee. If councillors are back-benchers, as many have called them, less experienced, have less time--and, let us be honest, some may have less ability--but are effectively to carry out the scrutiny role they need professional support, advice and guidance to be able to do so. That advice and guidance cannot be given fairly by those who are being scrutinised. That is an important issue.

As regards area committees, I was delighted to see that the Government have recognised that they can have a value and a role. I hope that the Minister can say more tonight about what the Government mean in their response by keeping,

    "clear corporate accountability for executive functions".

Will all councillors in an area be able to serve on the area committee and take the executive decisions that that committee is empowered to take regardless of where they happen to be in the executive/scrutiny split? If we are told that, it may go a little way to help councillors who are not on the executive.

The Minister would be surprised if I did not mention recall of the mayor. We disagreed on this issue on a number of occasions when we discussed the GLA Bill. I note in their response that the Government have carefully considered this matter. Among their objections is a principled one as an elected mayor,

    "would be unique among those in the UK directly elected"

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who could be replaced in some other way. I suspect that is true but I wonder whether the Minister can tell us whether any other directly elected office anywhere in the UK will have the personal power that a directly elected mayor will have. It is a unique role and we need unique provisions to be able to deal with what I hope will be a small number of cases where the mayor truly loses the confidence of his or her local community. We can all imagine--perhaps we do not need too much imagination--how such circumstances could arise. There has to be some way of dealing with such a situation--and we need to find that way before it happens, not afterwards.

Part III of the Bill has not attracted a great deal of attention--although there was one very good speech on it. That is perhaps because we all welcome it. It is the part which deals with ethical standards. Despite some quite properly well-publicised and extremely unfortunate and unpleasant cases, local government generally in this country is remarkably free of corruption. It may well be that that is because local government has very little power in this country and is not worth corrupting, but I like to think that it is for higher reasons.

Part IV deals with elections. I cannot help but agree with the view of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, about electoral systems. When he replies, I hope that the Minister will be able to say a little more about what the Government intend with the power they will be given when the Bill is enacted. They have the power to change the electoral timetable. Perhaps I may ask the Minister whether it is the Government's intention to impose such changes, or simply to have power to respond to local wishes for such changes to take place. Again, that is a very important difference.

The parallel debate which has been going on has been about Clause 68. I have spoken on the subject of Section 28 on many occasions; I have no doubt that I will do so again on many occasions during the progress of the Bill. I think that tonight it has all been said in some excellent speeches, particularly by the noble Baronesses, Lady Massey and Lady Gould, with whom I agree entirely. I was astonished to hear speakers from the Conservative Benches suggesting that the Government had been trying to slip this in unobtrusively so that nobody would notice. I occasionally think that the Government are naive--but not that naive. Given that the Conservative Party apparently believes that this was coming in surreptitiously, we all owe the Conservative Party a debt for such noble self-sacrifice in drawing such great public attention to the provisions of the Bill. It was not necessary. It is astonishing that it has got rid of its most effective London spokesman--I did not agree with what he said, but he was certainly effective--on an issue such as this.

I will say a lot more about this on another occasion; time is getting on now. It was also a manifesto commitment of the Liberal Democrats to repeal Section 28. We strongly welcome the Government's courage in grasping the nettle and including it in the Bill. It is an extremely important measure. I understand very well its importance but I hope, none

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the less, that it will not dominate the proceedings of the Bill, which is about many other important measures as well. But we will give it our support.

In conclusion, I resent very strongly the suggestion that if we question some of the provisions of Part II of the Bill we must be against change; that somehow we are anti-modernists or dinosaurs. It is very difficult for a Liberal Democrat to feel himself or herself to be a dinosaur. We are not against change; we are strongly in favour of change. We want change that makes local government truly more open and transparent; that makes it more effective and more locally accountable in its decision-making. We want change that builds trust, not only between central and local government but between local government and local people. That is how we will judge the Bill and why we have grave doubts that Part II, as drafted, will bring about the changes we want.

9.17 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, it has been a long and interesting debate. As has been said, it is a debate which, in a way, is in two parts. I feel somewhat in a minority in that I am not one who has ever been involved in local government, unlike most noble Lords who have spoken, including the noble Lord, Lord Smith, who made a very interesting maiden speech. We hope very much to hear more about his experiences in local government.

However, I was brought up in a family where both my father and mother were involved in local government. Sadly, had my father now been doing the job that he was then, he would not have had the time to be involved in local government. That is possibly a factor which puts off people from being involved in local government these days. I do not know the answer but I am absolutely certain that the pace of modern life and the pressure of work does not allow many people who might have been able to take part in local government now to do so.

The Bill is said to be a great deal about modernisation or to be "modern"; I think the Minister used that word at least half a dozen times. I wonder whether everything needs to be modernised; whether "modern" is necessarily always right. I remember that when I was younger modern architecture was all the rage. That modern architecture gave us Marsham Street, Centre Point and some of the tower blocks that one sees around London and in other cities. I do not believe that anyone would wish that on anyone else. So I hope that when we talk about modernisation we will go for something better than the present system.

The Bill was carefully examined by a Joint Committee of both Houses. I am glad that a number of noble Lords who served on that committee have been able to speak in our debate today. As has been said, the committee reported a little over four months ago--at the end of July. However, the Government responded to the committee only last Thursday, the last sitting day before the Second Reading debate today.

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In his opening remarks the Minister said that amendments would be tabled to take account of the recommendations of the Joint Committee. I join with the noble Lord, Lord Tope, in hoping that those amendments will be tabled rapidly so that we can examine them. However, I must point out that the Government had plenty of time to incorporate the amendments in the Bill before it was introduced in this House. Of course we all know why they did not. The draftsman and officials were kept busy drafting the 900 amendments required for the Greater London Authority Bill. Nevertheless, I doubt whether the Minister will either confirm or deny that accusation.

Large parts of the Bill depend upon draft regulations and guidance, in particular Part II of the Bill. Can the Minister say whether those draft regulations and guidance will be laid before the House prior to the Committee stage? It is important that we see those in good time, otherwise consideration of the Bill will be quite difficult.

As has been said, Part I of the Bill deals with the promotion of economic, social and environmental well-being. However, the Government say one thing and do another. Offering the power to promote such objectives is a popular idea, yet under Clause 3(2) a local authority is not allowed to raise any money for that purpose. At the same time, the next subsection states:

    "The Secretary of State may by order make provision preventing local authorities from doing, by virtue of section 2(1) anything which is specified, or is of a description specified, in the order".

In other words, local authorities can do it, but only if the Secretary of State approves of it. Similarly, in Clause 4, which provides for the preparation of a strategy under this part, the local authority,

    "may consult or seek the participation of such persons as they consider appropriate".

But it then states that local authorities,

    "must have regard to any guidance for the time being issued by the Secretary of State".

Yet again more power is to remain at the centre. Where is the European Charter of Local Self-Government to which the Government have signed up? Does this clause not go very much against the spirit, if not the words, of that charter?

We regret that in Part II no so-called fourth option has been provided as a fallback position to streamline the existing committee structures. We believe that Part II is too prescriptive by offering only three options and not offering the fourth one, which is the status quo modified. That appears to be change for the sake of change. Although the Government say they believe that things will work better this way, I hope that in Committee we shall be able to probe the evidence that that will be the case.

My noble friend Lady Young referred in particular to referendums. The Bill provides that a petition signed by at least 5 per cent of the electorate is required to hold a referendum, or that the Secretary of State can require local authorities to hold a referendum. I should make it absolutely clear that we on this side of the

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House are not generally in favour of referendums. But if we are to have referendums, provision should be made to ensure that there must be a minimum turnout and a minimum majority in favour of any change. We do not wish to see a repeat of the referendum held for the Greater London mayor where such a small number of people voted that it could not be said to be representative of the wishes of the majority. We believe that regulations concerning referendums should be the subject of primary legislation.

Clause 11 provides:

    "The Secretary of State may by regulations specify--

    (a) functions of local authorities which may not be the subject of executive arrangements".

Presumably those are the quasi-judicial functions of local authorities: planning, licensing and so forth. However, we should like to be told what those functions might be before we proceed much further with the Bill.

Clause 15 deals with pre-decision scrutiny--or rather it does not deal with pre-decision scrutiny, only post-decision scrutiny. We would favour the scrutiny committees being able to consider matters pre-decision rather post-decision. How will the executive system work in a council where there is no overall control or where there may be a number of independent councillors or "ratepayer" councillors?

Part III of the Bill, dealing with ethical standards, is to be welcomed, but it is something of a sledgehammer to crack a nut and could be described as legislation to clear up the Labour Party's own mess in certain parts of the country. Is it really necessary? We shall certainly not oppose it, but I ask the Minister for an assurance that nothing in Part III prohibits, in a serious case of fraud, a criminal investigation by the police or the Crown Prosecution Service, or prevents criminal charges being laid. So far as I can see, it deals only with the possibility of censure or disqualification of councillors. Would it not be a good idea to have attached to this part of the Bill some financial penalties as well?

Part IV of the Bill deals with elections. It is clear from the White Paper, Modern Local Government: In Touch with the People, that the Government favour a move towards annual elections--three years out of four for unitary authorities, metropolitan districts and London boroughs, and election by halves every other year for shire districts and counties. The Government's Explanatory Notes accompanying the Bill go on to reaffirm that preference. I wonder whether that will have any bearing on the low turn-out at elections, which was referred to by a number of noble Lords, notably by the noble Lord, Lord Filkin. I should have thought that the possibility of throwing out the whole council at one time if people did not approve of what it was doing would increase the likely turnout rather than the ability to tamper at the edges by having a marginal vote only.

I do not believe there is any evidence that turnout increases under the proposed system. I should be grateful if the Minister could let us know whether there

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is any evidence of that. We believe that it would be far better to leave such matters for local choice by local councils or county councils, as happens at the moment. By the way, if there are to be mayors for fixed terms and councils for different terms, that will undoubtedly lead to some confusion and possible difficulty.

Lastly, I turn to what has occupied a good deal of the debate today. I regret that Clause 68 is in the Bill. It muddies the waters of what is otherwise an interesting Bill. Clause 68 repeals Section 28. From these Benches we oppose the repeal of Section 28. We want to divert more resources into improving education. Public money should be spent on raising standards in schools and not furthering a particular minority agenda. We have heard some powerful speeches from this side of the House on the subject. I note particularly the speeches of my noble friends Lady Knight of Collingtree and Lady Blatch, my noble friend the Duke of Norfolk, and my noble friends Lady Seccombe, Lord Waddington and Lady Young. We shall undoubtedly come back to this issue at the Committee stage and I fear that dealing with it will take a considerable time.

We do not believe that Section 28 provides any legal impediment to teachers tackling bullying. However, we favour amending the section to address teachers' concerns on the issue. We believe that that would be possible. We are listening to teachers, parents and other interested parties on the subject.

We also find it strange that the Government want to repeal Section 28 at the same time as David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, has ordered that schools should teach the importance of marriage. How can schools promote homosexuality and marriage at the same time? The Government have yet to explain what they will and will not allow local authorities to do.

I look forward to the Committee stage. There is considerable work to be done, particularly as there will be a raft of government amendments that we have not yet seen. I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Tope. I hope that we shall be able to see them in good time, bearing in mind that we break for the Christmas Recess next week and return at the beginning of January. None of us wants to have to spend Christmas examining the amendments. We would rather examine them before Christmas if possible, or, if not, there must be a suitable gap between the tabling of them and the Committee stage.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, this has been a wide-ranging debate on a Bill which will make a substantial difference to the way in which local government is conducted. I should like to commend two or three aspects of the debate: first, the speech of my noble friend Lord Smith of Leigh, which demonstrated his breadth and length of experience in local government, which will, I hope, inform remaining debates on the Bill and the other debates that we shall doubtless have on local government.

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Although it may be considered invidious, I should like also to single out the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth. I commend him both on his remarks today and on the work that he did in promoting a Bill which unfortunately fell in another place. During its passage, many of these concepts and ideas were pursued and that stands us in good stead. I know that the noble Lord has a few doubts about aspects of this Bill, but local government is the richer for his having pursued his earlier proposals.

I also want to record my thanks to the Joint Committee, and particularly to those committee members who have spelt out their concerns in this debate.

I had better address two amendments before coming to the meat of the Bill. The first relates to the procedural issues that were raised mainly by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, but also by his noble friend Lady Hamwee at the beginning of the debate. That is why we are in a situation whereby further amendments will be required before the Bill is considered by this House in Committee, so as to introduce into the Bill responses to the Joint Committee report and the Government's reaction to it.

I do not think it is completely fair to compare the situation in regard to this Bill with that of the GLA Bill. I quietly had a little sympathy with noble Lords during proceedings on the GLA Bill--not as regards the substance but the procedure. However, that Bill had passed through the other House and amendments came before this House on Report and at Third Reading. The concerns expressed then were legitimate. The Bill with which we are now dealing comes before this House first. There will be amendments. However, I assure the noble Lord that, as far as is reasonably possible, we shall produce all the substantive amendments to which I have referred in time for the Committee stage. I am not in a position to give an absolute assurance that every amendment will be there, but we shall do substantially better than we did on the GLA Bill, albeit that that Bill had already passed through the other House.

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