Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, with the leave of the House, perhaps I may press the Minister further on this matter. "In time for the Committee stage" could mean the day before the Committee stage begins. I made the point at the beginning of the debate that this is not merely a whinge. We are concerned to have a useful Committee stage, not one which is in effect a Second Reading, postponing the Committee type work until Report stage. My request for a 14-day period from the tabling of the amendments to the Committee stage was a very serious point.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I sought to assure the House that as far as possible all of the amendments would be tabled in reasonable time for Committee stage. I note the noble Baroness's definition of "reasonable time". No doubt my noble friend the Government Chief Whip has also noted it. I cannot give an absolute assurance that every single amendment that we want to make to the Bill--my

6 Dec 1999 : Column 1118

noble friend the Government Chief Whip never hears such remarks--will be tabled in that timescale. However, I shall do my best to meet the requirements of the noble Baroness and other noble Lords who have expressed concern.

It was important for us to take fully into account the report of the Joint Committee which was produced during the Summer Recess. We wanted to take account not only of the report of that committee but of local government and other interested parties before we drew up our response. In part that is the reason why the response has been somewhat later than noble Lords would have wished. I regret that the necessary amendments were not available at the time the first print of the Bill was produced.

We have also been asked whether all of the regulations stipulated under the Bill will be available in time for Committee stage. We are keen to ensure that the House has the opportunity to give adequate consideration to the amendments. As to those, the main substantive amendments will be to Parts II and III of the Bill. There may be some technical amendments to the other parts. There is one substantive issue related to allowances which falls outside those parts of the Bill. As far as concerns regulations, it would be unusual if all such measures under a Bill were produced before the Committee stage of the first House which considered it. Nevertheless, I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that, as our response to the report of the Joint Committee indicates, the regulations concerned with executive functions, policy framework and petitions will be available in time for Committee stage. Others will be produced during the passage of the Bill, as is normal practice. I hope that that reassures the House that as far as possible we seek to accommodate noble Lords in providing as good a basis for consideration of this Bill as we can.

The other issue that I must address initially relates to the repeal of Section 2A--in other words, Section 28--by Clause 68 of the Bill. My comments on the contributions on this aspect of the Bill are perhaps made more in sorrow than in anger. I admit that there is a degree of anger also involved. I do not believe that in this respect there will be much of a meeting of minds. I respect the views of the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, and others who were involved in the original introduction of Section 28. I am aware that she can quote anxieties. Nevertheless, I recall that at the time colleagues and friends in the gay community felt very strongly that hysteria about these issues was being whipped up. I believe that it was wrong for the government at that time to respond to that hysteria and it is wrong for noble Lords to seek to defend that position.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Tope, I believe it is completely ludicrous to suggest that this Government have slipped the repeal of Section 28 into this Bill. It has been Labour Party policy ever since it was introduced, and was referred to by the Labour Party spokesperson throughout the election and since, that we intend to take the opportunity to seek this repeal. The reality is that, whatever the words and perhaps the

6 Dec 1999 : Column 1119

intention of Section 28, the effect not only on the gay community but the bringing up and education of our children has been very damaging. It causes confusion, as my noble friend Lady Massey said. That confusion seriously inhibits substantial numbers of teachers, as my noble friend Lady Gould said, from providing help and support for young people who are confused about their sexuality. They believe they are gay, they know they are gay, or they are being picked upon by others because they think that they are gay. It has inhibited a large number of teachers, governors and education authorities from providing the independent advice and guidance that those children need.

Those children and young people growing up in our society do not have to be taught homosexuality. Some will be gay. Some will know gay people within their own families and friends with whom they have close friendships and relationships. Hundreds of thousands of children in this country are growing up knowing people who are gay and wanting to know more about how they should respond to them. Their own parents, friends and siblings may well act in that capacity. Yet the section inhibits the way in which our authorities can deal with that situation.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, in contemplating changes in the future, does the Minister recognise that there is a worry about the need to support marriage as the cornerstone of our society? There are concerns among a large number of parents that it is under threat.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I do not believe the fact that we tell young people that there are relationships in life other than marriage undermines the institution of marriage.

I do not know whether noble Lords ever watch television on Saturday nights. They probably have better things to do. However, last Saturday's episode of "Casualty" portrayed the family of a young boy. His father had left and his mother had engaged in a lesbian relationship. That boy was seriously confused. But at the end of the episode--the issue was dealt with sensitively--not only was the homophobic father seriously reconciled but also the young boy at least understood some of the situation. It was not ideal for him. It was not the optimum situation for him. It was not what he would have wanted. But neither was it the end of the world because for the first time someone had taken the time to explain the situation to him. That explanation, that sensitive way of dealing with these things, is what a lot of our teachers, regrettably, and probably not on the literal reading of Section 28, now feel that they are inhibited from doing.

That is why we say that that provision allows more homophobic bullying in our schools, not because it directly causes that bullying but because teachers and others in authority are more inhibited than they should be about doing something about it. That is why, without ascribing any malign motivation, I believe that in effect it has become a pernicious piece of legislation. The number of assaults, self-inflicted

6 Dec 1999 : Column 1120

wounds and suicide attempts among young gay people, referred to by the right reverend Prelate and others, bears witness to that.

I believe that it is time to put that section behind us and to approach the subject in a more adult and mature way. Our society is diverse. This Bill is about diversity in our communities as a whole. The gay community is part of that diversity and young people need to understand about it. In no way do I believe that that undermines the institution of marriage where marriage is strong and where the community supports that marriage. But I believe that young people need to know that there are other equally loving circumstances to which they have to react in their lives. Whether noble Lords opposite like it or not, some of those young people will grow up to be gay and we should nurture them as well as other members of our society.

I turn to what six minutes ago I said was the meat of the Bill. It provides a new and central part of reforming the system of governance in this country. Local government is a vital part of that. The provision for a power of well being will give local authorities powers to carry out actions which are of benefit to their communities in a way in which they have been inhibited previously.

The power has been criticised for not going far enough, but it is a substantial--probably the biggest--enlargement of local authority powers for many years. Some people are calling for a general competence, but I do not believe that had we called it a general competence it would have been unrestricted. Clearly, restrictions as regards finances and the role of local authorities must be in the Bill. It is important that we get away from labels and move on to make a reality of the new power of well-being.

Another criticism is that the provision should be a duty rather than a power. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, made that observation, as did my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone. It is true that the White Paper proposed a duty to provide community well-being. We have taken the view, which is supported by the Local Government Association, that imposing another duty could be the wrong way of allowing the authorities the powers they need to improve the well-being of the communities they serve. We want to free authorities and give them flexibility to be able to take action to meet community needs. Giving them the power and leaving them flexibility in the way they operate seems to us the sensible way forward.

Again, I refer to my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone. It is important that the sustainability of well-being runs through the social, environmental and economic aspects of well-being. I can assure the House that that is the way in which the Government are approaching these matters.

It is not true that the councils will not be able to spend on pursuing this power. The power restricting expenditure is not to restrict them from deploying their budgets in this regard, but it is a reserve power which may be used to prevent the new power being used in a way which might damage regional or national

6 Dec 1999 : Column 1121

interests. We hope that with all our reserve powers that will not be used. The restriction on finances in Clause 3(2) to which the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, and the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, referred is simply to safeguard the position that councils cannot levy taxes on business or individuals without specific powers being granted to them by Parliament. That applies in this as in all areas of local government.

The important point about the well-being provision is that it places local authorities in a position in which they can truly engage in the kind of community leadership to which the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, referred. But in order to do so we need not only a change in powers but also in structures. I join my noble friend Lord Woolmer of Leeds and the noble Lord, Lord Tope, in paying tribute to the dedication, achievements and probity of local governments in this country. But the structure needs to be changed. The committee structure is being changed in practice. People have to invent new procedures in order to cut through the Victorian structure which we have inherited. As my noble friend Lady Thornton said, it is important now to address that structure.

The present structure has been unresponsive. In some cases, it is obscure and opaque, as my noble friend Lord Harris said. As was said by my noble friend Lord Filkin, who has a lifetime of experience serving such councils, it does not always lead to efficiency or transparency of decisions. It is all important that the structure reflects the purpose of the council. The purpose of the council is twofold: to take strategic decisions in order to deliver services to the community and also to scrutinise the way in which those decisions are taken. We believe that the provisions in the Bill to provide for the separation of powers are a sensible way forward. By and large, the Local Government Association agrees with that, as do most people in local authorities.

That does not mean that that is a complete break with the actions of local authorities over the past few years in terms of establishing quasi-executive structures. My noble friend Lord Lipsey said that over 30 years ago we indicated that the party was over and that concentration on efficient management of local authorities was more important than grand gestures. Obviously he has not received the hospitality of Manchester City Council recently to know that in that city as elsewhere those lessons have been well and truly learnt. Nevertheless, the structure is still inhibiting the next stage of transformation into efficient deliveries of both democracy and services.

As the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said, the provisions for new constitutions are not enough on their own, but we need a more thoroughgoing approach to the relationship between councils and those whom they govern. I entirely agree with that. That is the basis of our whole approach, including our approach to this Bill. What lies behind the Bill, as set out in the White Paper, is a programme taking 10 years or more. It is a radical agenda which will be addressed in a comprehensive way to make good the deficiencies of local government. It includes a best-value regime, the

6 Dec 1999 : Column 1122

promotion of well-being and the new ethical framework. The constitution based on a new separation of powers is one of the most important aspects of the Bill.

The noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, and the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, both voiced fears that back-bench councillors could become second-class citizens as a result of the separation of powers. As my noble friends Lord Harris and Lord Smith have pointed out, the group who will form the scrutiny committees is absolutely vital to the health of democracy and the operation of the council. Its members will probably spend less time in committees and council meetings than at present, but they will be developing a much closer relationship with local people and the council will benefit as a result.

It is even possible that, in that context, the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, might have been able to serve as a councillor effectively on one of the scrutiny committees, even if the rest of his time was taken up in other duties. It is important that we widen the number of people currently involved in council matters. Local councillors need to be able to bring local needs to the council and to their decisions. It is important that the separation does not lead to any second-class structure. It is probably unwise to believe that it would.

There will be an increased independence of the councillors who form the scrutiny side and, indeed, in the eyes of Members of another place that scrutiny may be rather undeveloped. Powerful scrutiny committees are already no longer the bottom of the pyramid compared with Ministers and the executive. I assure noble Lords present that even my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister takes very seriously indeed his duties when appearing before the honourable Member for Crewe on the Environment, Transport and the Regions Committee. That will be writ large in the local government dimension.

I repeat that decisions must be taken to reflect what people want. They must be taken efficiently but be subject to effective scrutiny. We have been criticised for providing only three models in the Bill. I could make the relatively cheap point that at present there is only one model and that the Bill provides a fairly wide broadening of the scope of choice that applies at local level. However, within those three structures there is a further possibility for flexibility in a number of respects.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and others were concerned that we should perhaps consider other models. The terms of the Bill provide that the Secretary of State might consider other models in certain circumstances. We are by no means closing our minds completely on that point. However, we believe that the clear separation of powers is indicated by the three models; that the clear basis for an efficient running of the council lies within those three options; and that most authorities will be capable of choosing one of those three options as the way in which they want to carry their authority forward.

6 Dec 1999 : Column 1123

In our response to the Joint Committee we made it clear that we do not believe that the status quo is an option. I believe that it would be true to say that the vast majority of speakers in this debate have indicated that they do not want the status quo; that we need to develop a new form of local government for the 21st century.

The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and others made a number of comments on the way in which we would conduct referendums for the institution of a mayor. I can tell the noble Lord that regulations which describe how that will happen will be made available as soon as possible. However, as in all forms of local government, it is also the case that local government legislation and regulations under local government legislation provide the basis for election in that context. It is not the equivalent of legislation for Scotland and Wales. Perhaps I should stress here the importance of the proposed electoral commission which will need to consider those matters.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, seemed to be concerned less with the method of acquiring a mayor and more with the issue of how we would get rid of him once he was there. I do not propose to go over the arguments which we had during the GLA Bill. Someone who is directly elected by the people should not be removed by another group of politicians. That remains my case. The legal requirements of the mayor and the ability to remove a mayor who has infringed the legal requirements are clearly stated. Therefore, should the mayor transgress, a judicial means exists of removing him. However, a political means of removing the mayor through an impeachment procedure does not seem to me to be sensible. As I said during the GLA Bill, the recent experience of the greatest democracy in the world does not indicate that impeachment is a sensible process in those circumstances.

A number of questions were asked about the role of back-bench councillors and the structure under which we might operate the executive. Many noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Young, indicated that they were concerned about the single-party nature of a cabinet or an executive. I can assure noble Lords that it will be a matter, first, for the electorate and subsequently for the council to make the decisions as to whether the executive should be a single party, a coalition or politically balanced. Executives can continue to be politically balanced if the council so wishes. Therefore, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Tope, that the Sutton Labour councillors can stay for as long as he wants and for as long as they wish to.

I move now to the issue of area committees, which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer. In our response we indicated that the Government are in favour of decentralised structures and that the Government intend that the legislation should allow the delegation of executive functions by the executive to area committees within the context of a systematic scheme for delegation. The Government intend to put forward amendments in Committee to that effect. Again, to address the point

6 Dec 1999 : Column 1124

made by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, all councillors from an area would therefore serve on such area committees.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Miller and Lady Thomas, also raised the question of joint partnership committees between different tiers of government and between counties, districts and, indeed, parishes. We recognise the importance of allowing partnership committees to continue to work together. I can reassure the noble Baroness that the Bill will allow such working arrangements to continue and to be built upon.

The right reverend Prelate raised the question of church representation on education committees. I can reassure him that church and parent-governor representatives will continue to play an important role and to have the statutory right to sit and vote on overview and scrutiny committees which deal with education.

The noble Baroness and others raised the question of privacy in meetings of the executive. The proposals will of course allow private meetings of the executive, as noble Lords have observed. Noble Lords have conceded also that such meetings already take place under the current structure and that it is at those meetings that the real decisions are made. That is so not only in the case of Cleveland, Ohio, which was referred to tactfully by my noble friend Lord Woolmer. There are many councils throughout the land where a group makes a decision behind closed doors which binds the council. Indeed, that is almost invariably the case. The executive will now be able to have private meetings and therefore be part of the formal structure. But those private meetings will be publicly accountable. The decisions must be recorded; explanations must be given for those decisions; and it will be necessary to record and make available advice from officials on which those decisions were based. So our proposals do not provide for greater secrecy. They provide for less secrecy than is the case in practice currently.

A number of questions were asked about more frequent elections. The provisions on the face of the Bill will be enabling provisions. Noble Lords rightly referred back to the White Paper with regard to our preferences in that area. However, that will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis and the provisions will enable the Secretary of State to bring forward regulations which will ensure more frequent elections than is currently the case in some authorities.

As regards other election matters, a number of noble Lords asked about electoral reform. That is not currently provided in the Bill. No doubt we shall debate those matters at various stages of the Bill's passage and beyond. The Government have no intention of bringing forward amendments to that effect for the Committee stage, much as some of my noble friends and others may wish to see that.

I move on quickly to the ethical framework. I am grateful for the support for that, in particular from my noble friend Lady Thornton who emphasised the importance of that part of the Bill in cleaning up the

6 Dec 1999 : Column 1125

image and actuality of local government. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, that nothing in those provisions would restrict the ability to bring criminal prosecutions.

I move on now to welfare services. The intention is to bring together the various forms of funding and services which are currently available to the more vulnerable groups of people in our community so that they are more understandable, accessible and flexible to their needs. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and others that the Government recognise the importance and value of sheltered housing and there is no intention of structuring that new, more co-ordinated form of support in a way which would be to the detriment of those who depend on sheltered housing.

I have well over-stretched my time. I am sorry that throughout the debate, we have entered into some controversy on Section 28. I hope that we can recognise the importance of changing the situation and more particularly that we can support the main objectives of this Bill; namely, to bring to local democracy in our country a more efficient, accountable, transparent and--dare I say it?--more modern system of local government which can take us into the 21st century. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page