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Lord Glentoran: My Lords, I was fortunate enough to have a very thorough briefing from Northern Ireland Office officials on this order. Although the noble and learned Lord has given us a very thorough outline of the key issues, it is another order of considerable size. I know that my colleagues in another place were concerned that they did not have sufficient time to debate these issues. However, from these Benches, I assure the noble and learned Lord that
The main purpose of the Local Government Bill is to deliver those measures in the White Paper Strong Local LeadershipQuality Public Services which require primary legislation. This is of critical importance to local authorities; we are seeking to establish a new partnership between central and local government.
The Bill paves the way for a new form of localism where councils will be given substantial new freedoms to help them improve services. The removal of red tape and unnecessary bureaucracy will allow them to focus their efforts on those things which improve effective service delivery. Other provisions in the Bill will help councils to be more responsive to local needs and pressures and, indeed, to promote closer working between councils and other partners, including local business.
There has been substantial consultation on the contents of the Bill. It deals with various aspects of local government finance. The proposals in this respect were first set out in Modernising Local Government Finance: a Green Paper published in September 2000. These were then amended and further developed in the light of the many consultation responses we received and the outcome was set out in the White Paper.
We then published a draft Bill for consultation. This was considered by a Select Committee of the other House and attracted over 300 responses from local government and other stakeholders. In the light of those responses we made further changes to the content.
Apart from the formal consultation processes, we have also been keen to involve key stakeholders in the detailed development of our proposals. For instance, the detailed work on developing and preparing for the implementation of the new prudential systemwhich I shall discuss in a momentin Part 1 of the Bill is being taken forward by a joint working group drawn from central and local government, CIPFA and the Audit Commission. Similarly the arrangements and draft guidance for Business Improvement Districts have been and will continue to be developed in consultation with the local government associations,
I refer at this point to the report published today of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee of your Lordships' House. It has reported on the Bill. I welcome the report and the committee's recognition that the complexity of the Bill is a necessary consequence of dealing with local government finance. We shall, of course, look very carefully at the committee's recommendations. We shall make a serious attempt to accommodate the recommendations in the Bill in due course.
I shall now seek to devote no more than two or three sentences to each of the eight parts of the Bill. Part 1 concerns capital finance and provides a new framework for local government capital investment. Authorities will have greater freedom to raise finance to buy, build and improve all kinds of property and infrastructure. The long-standing requirement for government borrowing consent will be swept away. Authorities will have power to borrow without government approval if it is prudent to do so. They will simply have to satisfy themselves that they can pay the debt out of their own revenues. There are reserve powers for government to step in, but in the light of consultation, the use of these has been circumscribed so that they can be used only in pre-defined circumstances. The new prudential system is a very substantial freedom, which will be available to all authorities, and local government wants to see the Bill enacted in time for the new system to take effect from the new financial year in April 2004, rather than that which is just about to commence.
Part 2 relates to financial management. The delivery of high quality public services depends on sound financial management. Good authorities already have effective processes in place to manage and monitor their budgets effectively and have adequate provision to deal with unexpected circumstances. Part 2 will enshrine in law some basic processes of sound budgetary management. That will ensure that authorities which experience problems can be assisted.
Part 3 refers to grants. Various mechanisms to make grants are provided for in Part 3. These include a wide-ranging power to give greater flexibility in making grants to local authorities for any purpose. This new power will allow government to pay grants without imposing undue conditions, thereby allowing more grants to be delivered as unring-fenced funding. That does not give Ministers carte blanche to pay out what they want. Ministers can allocate grants only where they have the authority of Parliament to do so.
Part 4 concerns business improvement districts. I reluctantly use the acronym BIDs although I shall try to avoid using jargon. Part 4 will legislate for business improvement districts. BIDs are partnership arrangements through which local business communities
Part 5 concerns business rates. There are various measures in Part 5 that will change the non-domestic rating system. For example, small business rate relief will benefit small firms occupying single premises with a rateable value of under £8,000. This will significantly reduce the overheads of those businesses.
Another provision in Part 5 will enable the Secretary of State to put in place a scheme to allow local retention of an element of non-domestic rates. This will provide a financial incentive for local authorities and business to work in partnership to maximise local economic growth and regeneration.
Part 6 relates to council tax. Part 6 will update council taxthat is not a euphemismto ensure that local people contribute a fair share towards local public services. A fixed 10-year cycle of revaluation and varying the number of bands will help to do this. I ought to make clear that the Bill does not include any provision for regional council tax banding. That is not necessary as that provision is already included in the Local Government Finance Act 1992. I must make it absolutely clear that we have no plans to use the power in the 1992 Act.
Under Part 6 local authorities will have very wide discretion to grant discounts and exemptions from council tax where they consider this appropriate. Authorities will thus be free to take decisions locally in ways that best reflect the needs and circumstances of their local communities.
Part 7 is a short part dealing with housing finance. In 1999 we announced the introduction of resource accounting into the Housing Revenue Account (HRA). Part 7 of the Bill completes this, as well as removing a perceived obstacle to our social rent reforms.
Finally, Part 8I am aware that there are nine parts, but the final one does not count as it comprises a technical issuedeals with non-financial provisions. Some people think that local government finance is a wonderful thing but usually their eyes glaze over as they say that. This is only the Second Reading of the Bill and not the time to go into detail in that regard. Some of my colleagues in another place believe that local government finance is the reason for their existence. That does not apply to me, which is why Part
Innovation will be encouraged through the power for all best value authorities to charge for discretionary services. Better-performing councils will be empowered to trade across the services they can provide. An express power will be created to give local authorities the freedom to hold advisory polls on the well-being of their communities and any matter relating to the services for which they are responsible. Councils will be allowed to retain proceeds from litter and dog-fouling penalties and spend these on local environmental improvements, and high performers will be able to use the income for any purpose.
Part 8 also includes a provision to repeal Section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947. The Bill will remove the requirement for fire authorities to seek approval of the Secretary of State before making any reduction, no matter how minor or trivial, in the number of firefighting posts or appliances or before the closure of fire stations. The Bill is about extending freedoms and flexibilities to local authorities, and we believe that in a modern fire service it is not appropriate for the Secretary of State to take these decisions. They are much better taken at local level. I deviate dangerously now. The only fire station that closed in my former constituency was replaced by the first community fire station in the country but it still had to go through the ridiculous process that I mentioned.
Part 8 also deals with what is known as Section 28. During consideration of the Bill in another place, an amendment was made to repeal Section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986, more commonly known as Section 28 because the provision was implemented by Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. Those noble Lords who have done their homework will be aware of this, but I have to warn the House that I do not go along with the folklore related to the matter. I say that because I was present on the night that the section was put into the 1988 Local Government Bill. So I know exactly what was said, what was intended and who voted for what, and I have recently refreshed my memory.
Section 28 is a deeply confusing piece of legislation; indeed, it is more confusing today even than it was in 1988. Its aim, of course, is to prohibit the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities. The Government have made their position on Section 28 abundantly clear. It is an unnecessary piece of legislation. However, concerns remain, and I hope that during the course of our deliberations I shall be able to address them. Concerns have been expressed that repeal could somehow have an effect on what is taught to schoolchildren. One point needs to be made crystal clear to the House: the repeal of Section 28 will have no effect whatever on what is taught in schools. I shall repeat that: the repeal of Section 28 will have no effect whatever on what is taught in schools. Let there be no doubt that the Government's position is that children in schools should be protected from inappropriate
Since Section 28 was last debated in your Lordships' House, the Learning and Skills Act 2000 has been passed which gives effect to the Government's policies and establishes a very robust framework for sex and relationships education. In particular, local authorities have no role in determining what is taught in schools. Section 28 plays no part in that framework. The matter is governed by the Education Act 1996 as amended in 2000, and therefore the repeal of Section 28 would not alter the framework in any way.
The Bill as a whole will deliver significant freedoms and flexibilities to local government and will promote and facilitate real improvement in the way that services are delivered to local communities. It is welcomed by local government and business alike, although I accept that noble Lords will want to explore, scrutinise and debate certain areas. It is absolutely right that that should be so. I beg to move.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for being so commendably succinct. I was going to say "brief", but I think the word "succinct" is more appropriate and polite. I cannot promise to be quite as succinct, but I shall certainly try.
While the Regional Assemblies (Referendum) Bill could rightly be described as predicating a mish-mash of government, to which I have referred before, this Bill is a true pot-pourri, even if it is not particularly sweet-smelling. It is a highly technical concoction with some good and some very poor parts. Covering every aspect of local government from financial administration and accountability to council tax discounts and bands, it has wide implications.
Having added a number of clauses on Report in another place, I wonder whether the Government intend to add further to the Bill during its progress through this House. I ask only because suggestions were made in the weekend press that they might seek to include an environmental policy, an initiative from Mr Meacher regarding charging residents who do not conform sufficiently to separating their refuse for recycling. Perhaps the Minister can address this very important matter when he replies.
The Government have trumpeted their belief that the Bill brings greater flexibilities and freedoms for local authorities. Indeed, the Minister has just repeated that. It seeks to reduce red tape and, for high-performing councils, it offers greater scope for innovation. Local government will welcome that, and here I declare an interest as a member of a local authority. However, local government would not wish
What does the Bill amount to? Councils are to be allowed to fund major improvements and developments through the "prudential" borrowing system, so long as they can afford to service the debt. We do not know yet whether that will carry with it a compensating revenue commitment from the Government. Perhaps it is a point we shall be able to clarify with the Minister at an early stage. The principle of the freedom is welcome. But why, having gone that far, do the Government then decide to demand that capital receipts from the sale of council housingor a high percentage of themare to be paid to the centre for redistribution? That will create a housing pool which will leave in the Minister's hands the reallocation of those receipts for housing purposes, but against what criteria?
In the sum of things, the £1.6 billion which may be raised annually from this source is minuscule in comparison with the enormous investment that will be required to meet the commitments already made by the Deputy Prime Minister in his White Paper on sustainable communities. Furthermore, it will deplete the independent reserve that any local authority might have built up to support a housing initiative in its own area. It would be fair to say that, in the past, such a policy crippled housing authorities and prevented much-needed capital expenditure on renovation and renewal.
It is ironic that, under these clauses, a council which is debt free as a result of disposing of its housing stock and passing most of the proceeds on to the Government could, under the terms of Clause 41, find itself contributing indirectly to reducing or relieving the debt of other, possibly less prudent councils, by way of the Secretary of State making a payment to the Public Works Loan Commissioners on their behalf from the pool.
The philosophy of redistribution is continued in the proposals to scoop up the surpluses from good, well-run housing revenue accounts and pool those so that they can be transferred to authorities which have a deficit on their accounts. We see it, too, in the measures to enable councils to levy a full rate on empty properties, but not to keep the resulting revenue. Those proposals alone could very well act as a huge disincentive to local authorities considering whether to embark on the policy. We see little evidence of freedom or flexibility and we will wish to consider the proposals in detail in Committee.
We shall want to do the same with the Government's initiative to allow local authorities to retain some or all of the growth in business rate revenue. New Clause 71 received little scrutiny in another place, although it was broadly welcomed by my honourable friend Mr Hammond. But how welcome it is will depend on the chains and shackles which could limit what it may be used for. We shall be seeking much greater clarity on this whole matter. Can the Minister confirm that wide consultation among businesses, local authorities
We shall also wish to probe further the Government's proposals for business improvement districts. It is a welcome sign of interest and commitment when businesses wish to become involved in financing a local initiative for improvement. As the Minister remarked, it is not unknown. Indeed, the White Paper makes it clear that already there are many areas where both landowners and business occupiers have joined together and resolved to contribute to a local authority plan to enhance or renovate their area. But, as the Minister also pointed out, those have been voluntary schemes. Business improvement districts will result from a vote by non-domestic ratepayers, which will become mandatory on all businesses in the area. As the Bill stands at present, that vote will be decided on a simple majority and then weighted for a majority based on the rateable values of the hereditaments.
Concerns have been expressed by small businessesin particular the Federation of Small Businesses, from whom I have heard on this matterthat a two-thirds majority would be more appropriate to safeguard the interests of small businesses. That point was also referred to in the Select Committee report. We shall press this matter further in Committee.
As only non-domestic ratepayers are to be involvedthe occupants of premisesthe major landowners will not be involved in the electoral decisions on these schemes. Further consideration needs to be given as to how they become involved, at least by convention if not statutorily. Also, it is not clear how the local community other than the business community will be involved in the development and approval of any plans. The local authority will have to play a major part in any plans and partnerships, but we believe that the Bill should provide for the views of the local community to be sought on any proposals.
I turn briefly to the provisions for rate relief for small businesses. Although the principle is welcomed, there are questions as to whether the threshold of rateable values of under £8,000 is too low. We will wish to consider suggestions that have been made to us that that should be increased to at least £10,000.
There are a number of provisions relating to rates and council tax, not all of which I want to go into now. Subject to understanding the regulations, we would be broadly in favour of those regarding the local retention of non-domestic rates. On the face of it, that would give a local authority a larger local revenue base, as was confirmed by the Minister. However, the desirability of that will depend on the constraints put on it by legislation. It would be helpful if the Minister were able to reassure us that the regulations referred to in the Bill would be available before Committee, so that we might have an opportunity to consider them at the same time.
When the council tax was introduced, it was understood that the bands were a device only to ensure that those in poorer areas of housing did not pay the same as those in more affluent areas. However, it also recognised that those in better-off housing might be impoverished, and those in poorer housing might in fact be quite well off. That is still the situation. The intention was that it should be simple to understand, and in general I believe that the relationship between the limited number of bands is comprehensible. The danger lies in the changing value of properties in various parts of the country. Those in the south-east of England are well in excess of those in the north, for example. Therefore, the burden of council tax could be once again shifted to those in this part of the country.
We can understand the need to update the property values in the interest of accuracy, but the adding of further bands makes that look as though the Government might be intending to turn council tax into a property wealth tax, and without further parliamentary scrutiny. We would resist that approach. We all know that council tax bills have already risen enormously under this Government and that that is well recognised by those paying them. Further rises caused by bureaucratic meddling will surely not be very popular.
One element of the Billthat relating to attributing performance categories of local authoritieshas already been implemented despite the fact that this legislation, which authorises it, has not been passed. Most authorities have now been assessed and placed in one of four categories. That seems to be an inescapable process now to release the best authorities from the plethora of inspection regimes, and to provide at least a modicum of relief from continual government involvement in local government affairs.
That relief, however, does not necessarily apply to other measures relating to financial administration generally considered in local government to be unnecessary, particularly the statutory requirements for the monitoring of budgets and for the Secretary of State to set the level of reserves. I hear what the Minister says about that being intended only for use in councils where there are difficulties, but once legislation is in place it is likely to be used.
There are also some concerns around the general power of the Secretary of State to provide grants to particular local authorities. Although that is suggested as being a mechanism to circumvent the need for specific grants, there is a much greater possibilityit was heavily denied by the Ministerthat that could result in the Secretary of State having far too much power of allocation to particular authorities.
With regard to the first, if the Government continue to include Clause 121it resulted from an amendment in another placein the Bill to abolish Section 28 of the 1986 Act, I confirm that, if there were to be a vote, on our side it would be a free vote. We recognise that that is a very sensitive issue, and that there are strongly held views on both sides, some of which may well be expressed today. However, Parliament's job must be to ensure that children and young people are protected from unsuitable material and information, either supplied or promoted to them under any educational guise.
We shall therefore press the views put forward by our colleagues in another place. In particular, we will table amendments to ensure that the existing departmental guidelines on sex and relationship education are strengthened and given the force of law, that rights are given to parents to force a ballot on the acceptability to parents of any sex-education material being used, and to give parents the option for their children not to attend sex relationship classes. Over and above that, we will put forward any other matters which in Committee we consider appropriate in that regard.
Clause 120 repeals Section 19 of the Fire Services Act. That arises from the Bain report, as the Minister said. It was drafted before it was considered that the fire Bill, which has just been laid before Parliament and which would undo much of what is being proposed in this Bill in relation to the devolving to local level decisions about the employment of fire and emergency cover resources, might be necessary. In the light of that Bill, it is to be hoped that rational decisions are made by the fire service on the pay deal before it is necessary either to implement it or to consider further the provisions. I imagine that there might have to be changes, subject to the eventual outcome of those decisions.
Clauses 102 and 103 refer to staff transfer matters. Essentially, they implement the statutory guidance on best value and performance, which is a code of practice on workforce matters in local authority service contracts. As they stand, the clauses effectively undermine the whole rationale of local authorities seeking to externalise any service through a contract. They imply that each contract will have to include that staff must be employed on standard local authority terms and conditions, as the contract must treat them as though TUPE applies. Whether or not local authority staff are transferred, Clause 102(1)(a) makes it clear that directions can be issued to that effect. Under those circumstances, we will probe the clauses much further.
Finally, in another place my honourable friend Philip Hammond put forward an amendment to bring body-piercing establishments under a licensing regime. I understand from him that the Minister, Mr Raynsford, was inclined to accept the principle but felt that the
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, during the recent debate on the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill, I referred to local government as being one of the "spheres" rather than one of the "tiers" of government. The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, used a synonym to indicate that he thought that that was rubbish. I will try to maintain the fiction of being ladylikeat any rate, within the Chamberso I shall not repeat the synonym but I stick by the term and my point. I referred to "spheres" of government because we are not discussing a hierarchy of importanceeach level of government and each part of government are important.
I must declare an interest as a Member of the London Assembly and currently its chair. In many ways my years as a London borough councillor were the most satisfying of any of the political jobs that I have done. For a time, at any rate, it was the most hands-on job. There has been much debate about whether the Bill is a centralising or decentralising measure. I start one stage further back: is it likely to increase or decrease participation in the political process?
Civic engagement can take many forms: voting, of course; belonging to a neighbourhood committee; being a school governor and so on. Many have executive and scrutiny components. One means of engagement is as a councillor. That job must carry its own job satisfactionthat of doing, not just of being. I can see increasingly the strains on colleaguesmembers of a number of authoritiesand officers. Because of the controls with which they must battle, those strains are greater than those that applied for some of the time that I was a councillor.
Therefore, to the extent to which the Bill decentralises power, it is welcome. However, beauty being somewhat in the eye of the beholder, we on these Benches do not see all of the provisions as being quite as decentralising as do the Government.
I acknowledge that much of the Bill is about returning autonomy to local authorities. Well, some autonomy is returned to some local authorities. It is extraordinary that our constitutional and legislative history mean that freedom is handed down. "Earned autonomy", as the phrase goes, is a contradiction in terms.
I must say that I, the Greater London Authority and the MayorI do not speak for him that often but I believe that I do so in this regardremain to be convinced of the need for new statutory provisions in respect of minimum reserves, reports on the robustness of estimates, budgetary monitoring and so on. An authority already has to have regard to statutory budget-setting provisions covering reserves, proper financial administration, relevant chief finance officer advice, CIPFA guidance, external audit reports and so on. Are central government best placed to judge minimum reserves? For instanceI have grappled with this topic over the past three yearscentral government made no provision for reserves when they set up the Metropolitan Police Authority and Transport for London. In London, we wait to see whether our fears about the reserves that are available to London Underground are confirmed when it is handed over to Transport for London.
The ways in which borrowing is controlled will exercise us in forthcoming stages. Defining long-term liabilities and just what is within the public sector borrowing requirement will not be a dry, technical exercise. I shall certainly try not to let my eyes glaze over about that. I sometimes believe that this is another case of "Through the Looking-Glass" and Humpty-Dumpty; it involves saying, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean. When I refer to the public sector borrowing requirement, it means what I choose it to mean". I share the concerns that have been expressed that with borrowing controls loosened, there is always the danger that the Treasury (on whose grants so much is dependent for so long) will not adequately support local government.
My noble friend Lady Maddock will deal more extensively with the housing provisions of the Bill. I noticed that the Minister in the Commons referred to authorities with a genuine need to spend on housing investment being able to look forward to a new framework with confidence. Surely every authority has problems housing numbers of people who are in need of decent, affordable housing. In other words, they have problems with numbers and/orit is often a case of "and"housing conditions. Is there an authority without genuine need?
Many issues are raised with regard to pooling capital receipts, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said. Is it realistic to expect local authorities to dispose of assetsto the extent that they have anyand to pool receipts, given that the regimes for local government finance appear to change so fast?
I turn to council tax. There are no euphemisms about that. I noticed that Members in the Commons referred to progressive council tax on the one hand and regressive council tax on the other. Perhaps I may leave that with an exclamation mark!
We will of course consider the issue of banding. Mr Raynsford said that much could happen by 2005. It is important in our view that the rebanding is robust enough for the medium term at least, whatever happens by 2005.
We welcome the powers to trade and charge, but the dependency on CPA performance raises a number of questions in my mind. One of themit is perhaps too technical for tonightis about what happens if the performance assessment of an authority changes during the course of the contract. What is the position of the other authority? That involves the whole issue of vires. Some of us lived through the era of the Hammersmith swaps case.
The honourable Member for Denton and Reddish, who is the joint chairman of the Select Committee, talked bluntly at Second Reading in another place about the performance of those assessing performance. He said that some Audit Commission decisions were extremely subjective and that some people from the Audit Commission who went to local authorities did not have a clue about what is going on. That will ring true to many. The most telling approval of the comprehensive performance assessment regime would be if central government departments submitted themselves to it.
We have new statutory provisions, not a tax, in the business improvement district (BID) provisions. I wish that there was more time in which to discuss new forms of taxation generally. I refer for a moment to the desirability of examining the enabling of development, particularly of infrastructure, through new forms of taxation. It is obvious in London that businesses that happen to be on the route of the Jubilee Line extension have benefited significantly. Being able to harnessto taxthose who benefit from, for example, CrossRailwe hope to see that big new developmentcould enable that scheme to proceed.
On BIDs, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, is involving himself with the Bill, given his hard work on that issue. He has previously raised it in the House. He will want to consider the role of owners as well as occupiers of property. I make it clear that I am an enthusiast for the scheme; I want to make it work. That includes, among other things, wanting to see the possibility of securitising an income stream, enabling capital to be released and invested in local schemes. However, I confess to being slightly troubled by the requirement of only a simple majority50 per cent plus oneto impose what is, after all, a levy on those who may have voted against. I accept that there is a double lock of those numbers and rateable values.
I am aware of the concern that such a scheme may, taken together with the business rate, appear a "double whammy", especially to small businesses. I thought that the RICS in that very helpful briefing hit the nail on the head, saying that business rates policies, as a category, are simply too complicated to be transparent to the personin this case, the businesswhich pays them.
Perhaps I may raise one small financial matter. I hope that we can find time to deal with it and a spot for it in the Bill. I am going very much from a major to a minor issue, but this is something which exercises councillors. I refer to the threshold for registration of gifts and hospitality, which is £25 for councillors as against £125 for MPs. That is almost unworkably low in London and the South East. It is topical for me because yesterday the GLA Standards Committee found itself looking at embarrassingly different assessments by a number of us of the value of a dinner which several of us had attended in the City. More importantly, the independent Member, who is a very senior Member, described the exercise of such a low limit as "time wasting".
Bills such as this are often the repository for disconnected provisions. One of those here is to enable polls for local elections to be combined with those for European parliamentary elections. My personal view is that the convenience of electors overrides other considerations, but whatever the decision I beg the Government to let us have it soon to enable planning to take place.
One other disconnected but hugely important provision is the repeal of the so-called Section 28. I expect that some speakers today will concentrate only on that. As has been said by the Minister, not only is it a sensible deregulation of redundant legislation, but it is much, much more. Honourable Members in another place were careful to base their arguments on the redundancy issue. For me, the repeal of Section 28 is hugely symbolic and I welcome it enormously. The suggestion that I have heardthat repeal of the section is designed to stop councils spending money on gay peopleis one which would not, I think, be made about any other group.
We shall examine the Bill not only in its own terms but also in the context of local government structures as they now are. The Government are letting go somewhat. They designed the executive/scrutiny split, and we shall ask what role they now see for the scrutineer in areas which are the subject of the Bill .
There is a great deal to do. Tonight I have not even been able to start on the issues as they affect Wales or matters such as the benefits of charities extending to community amateur sports clubs. I promised that I would mention that. There is a great deal to welcome in the Bill but, sadly, not everything.
The Lord Bishop of Guildford: My Lords, first, I welcome the Bill and thank the Minister for his introduction, which was enormously helpful. As I have said before in this House, bishops bring to the House their own immediate experience of local communities. In my own case I and my colleagues have close dealings with two county councils and a number of boroughs and districts. The churches and faith communities have strong and day-to-day relationships with colleagues who represent the political and public needs of our local communities. Whatever we can do in this
The principle of subsidiarity, which is very much rooted in the Bill, is vital to the health of our politics and our service. We should always do all we can as close as we can to local networks and communities, which are the foundation of a healthy and democratic society.
I hope that the Minister will forgive me for not, like the previous speakers, going through every area of the Bill. I want to comment on two issues, on one of which I am sure noble Lords would expect a bishop to comment. Clearly, I need to comment on the repeal of Section 28. But in both the issues that I want to raise we need to hold on to the principle of seeking to resist centralising power and encouraging local trust and responsibility in local authorities.
That is why I believe this is a good moment to address the vexed issue of Section 28. There has been a great deal of debate upon it. As Members of the House will know, I have always found this particular section unhelpful. It is both a confusing piece of law and discriminatory. But others of my colleagues have taken a different view and quite a number of people, even though they have been concerned about the content of this legislation, have felt that to repeal it might be giving all the wrong signals and messages. So there has been a variety of perspectives around this and we need to be sensitive to all of them.
However, all of us on these Benches, and I am sure more widely, welcome what I believe to be an argument that we are beginning to win; that is, that marriage is a public good for the health of our whole society, not just a good for those who enter that institution. It is good for people who are gay or straight, single, married, divorced, or in reconstituted families. Whatever styles of life people find themselves to be in, marriage is an institution that is a public good; we would say a gift of God to the human community. If marriage is not in good repair in our society, the whole community suffers. So we have a collective responsibility.
I was grateful for the Minister's comments on the learning and skills Bill contribution to all of this. My good friend, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, made a very important contribution chairing the Church of England's Board of Education in encouraging the use of that Bill to provide in this area. Perhaps I may remind the House of the guidance on sex and relationship education from the Secretary of State, which begins:
I am delighted to hear the Minister re-affirm the Government's commitment to that guidance. In terms of people who will be anxious about such matters, without putting things on the face of the Bill it would be good if the Government and all of us kept such matters under review so that the liberties that are given to local authorities are used well and that our gay and lesbian citizens who feel themselves to have been discriminated against in this piece of legislation are rescued from that feeling, which I think we have a public duty to do, and the community as a whole are satisfied that abuse of that new liberty will not take place.
That, to my mind, is the good news. My second issue is a little more troubling. As a bishop in the south of England, I am not at all convinced by the Bill's provision concerning the use of capital receipts from housing sales by local authorities. Clause 11(2)(b) is the one which causes concern. As I understand itI look forward to the Government's response to thisthe effect of this clause is to pool resources from local authority housing sales and redistribute them across the country. I suggest that that is wrong in principle. I shall turn to the practice in a moment. This may be seen as a piece of Government taxation by the backdoor. The Government are taking the resources that thus far have seemed to be the responsibility of local communities and are putting them elsewhere. They purport to tax the rich to meet the needs of the poor. We all support the need to ensure an adequate distribution of resources in our society so that distressed communities across the country are able to meet housing needs, but not by another attackdare I suggeston the principle of local accountability for local resources. It seems to me that this provision goes against the spirit of the rest of the Bill.
I suspect that the attack on principle goes further than that, because the people who are to have their resources raided are those who manage the resources particularly efficiently and well. So the measure punishes efficiency improvements in local government and debt-free local authorities will suffer the most. Thirty-two local authorities in the south of England of all political persuasions are debt free and all are at risk under this provision. An analogy put to me was that it is a little like a gardener who, seeking to kill off a few weeds, sprays weed killer across the whole of the flower bed. Flourishing work will suffer.
I turn to the practice. I know that it has not escaped the Government's attention that we have a housing problem in the south of England. It may come as a surprise to some that even in the leafy suburbs of Surrey and north-east Hampshire, which is my part of the country, we have significant housing and homelessness problems. In the present housing market, in the face of homelessness local authorities have to provide for growing numbers of people who are on their lists.
At present Waverley council, for exampleone of those debt-free authorities that has a principled policy of using all its housing receipts for housing provisionhas over 1,800 households on its housing needs register, 450 of whom are tenants of the council
I understandthe Minister can comment on thisthat should this piece of legislation come onto statute law, the Government propose to phase it in over three years and at the end of that period only 25 per cent of receipts will be left in the hands of local authorities. I think that is bad politics and a bad principle. I wonder whether we can encourage the Government to think again about it. Maybe we need a provision to ensure by statute that the moneys received by local authorities from housing sales are used for housing purposes. Maybe there is another way of dealing with the matter.
As I said earlier, there is much that we welcome in the Bill, not least its consistent approach across the face of the Bill in seeking to liberate and to trust local communities with their own affairs. That is vital for the flourishing of local government which has not had a good history in recent years. I look forward to seeing this measure proceed, with some improvements that your Lordships will bring to the Bill. I also look forward to the rest of the debate.
Lord Alli: My Lords, I wish to concentrate my comments on the new freedoms for local councils that will help to deliver improved services, on the new capital finance systems, and on the issues relating to capital receipts. Of course, I jest! Like a moth to a flame, I am drawn to the issue of the repeal of Section 28 contained in Clause 121.
To any caring, loving individual one's natural instinct is to reassure that young man that being gay is not wrong; that he has a fulfilling life ahead of him and that he is valued as an equal member of our society. People ask me why Section 28 is important. Section 28 denies that reassurance to such an individual at a time when he needs it most. It creates confusion across a whole range of services and organisations.
The opponents of the repeal of Section 28 talk about children. Let us face that issue head on because I am tired of this debate being hijacked by people who claim to be serving the interests of children. I say that not just because I believe that Section 28 has always been a law fashioned in bigotry, but also because the wider
As a result, Section 28 is a law that is now completely redundant. That fact alone should be enough to support its repeal. Opponents to the repeal of Section 28 know as well as I that we already have a substantial structure of protection for our children. They know as well as I that there are guidelines already existing in relation to sex and health education in Section 430 of the 1996 Act. They know as well as I that there are guidelines and procedures built in to the role of school governors and parent governors ensuring that the will of the parents finds its place in the provision of sex education. They know as well as I that there is already a statutory basis in education law to protect children from inappropriate material. They know as well as I that this provision does nothing to protect a child in a school from inappropriate teaching or training materials. And they know as well as I that this is a piece of legislation fashioned out of prejudice and sustained by bigotry.
Section 28 has long lost its place in rational debate. It has become, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, symbolic. Times are a-changing. I know that this House is moving on this issue and I do not want us to change Section 28 because of a threat from another place. It is worth remembering that another place has voted repeatedly on this issue. Its votes inserted Clause 121 into the Bill and those votes were free votes, a most important currency.
To change Section 28 by consent of this House is my objective. I say to the party opposite, it has an opportunity to lead public opinion through this complex area. I want no political capital out of Section 28. The arguments are well rehearsed and I hope that when we finally come to debate whatever amendment emerges to retain Section 28 that noble Lords in all parts of the House, including the party opposite and the Lords spiritual, will find it possible once and for all to repeal a piece of legislation for which the time has passed. I wish the Bill well and I shall return to Clause 121 at a more appropriate stage.
Forgive me for raising this issue when this Bill has so many other important sections that should be addressed. I hope that your Lordships will understand that I felt I had to voice my concerns in this debate. I look forward to what I am sure will be an interesting debateI hope the last of its kind in relation to Section 28.
Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Alli, will forgive me if I do not follow him into that debate at this stage. I wish to confine my remarks to Part 4 of the Bill which introduces the business improvement districts. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, called them BIDs; I suspect that most people will do so.
That is not a statement on Part 4 of the Bill. It is a statement about the Business Improvement Districts Bill, a Private Member's Bill which I introduced into the House over five years ago. It had its Second reading on 26th November 1997 and after full Committee and Report stages was read a third time and sent to another place on 10th March 1998; and that is where it stopped. So here we are, five years later andif I may be guilty of a bad punit is BID time again. The Government's Bill is not exactly the same as mine but perhaps the House will recognise the present Bill's parentage. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, can reassure the Deputy Prime Minister that I shall not ask his department for royalties.
Part 4 is not this Government's first attempt to get non-domestic ratepayers to pay more rates for better services. Their original proposal was to legislate for "a supplementary rate" but, as the White Paper, Strong Local LeadershipQuality Public Services described, that found no favour with either local authorities or business. I need not quote paragraph 7.16. It clearly ruled that out. So the Government scrapped the supplementary rate and did what they should have done in the first placego for BIDs, as now set out in Part 4 of the Bill.
There are many similarities between this Bill and the earlier Bill. That is not surprising since both claim their inspiration from the BIDs system operating in many American cities. I was intrigued to read the department's press release on publishing the guidance notes which states:
As my noble friend Lady Hanham said from the Front Bench, Part 4 will need careful scrutiny in Committee. However, today I have time to raise only one problem that the Government still have to resolve. I refer to the role of the owners, lessors, landlords of propertythe freeholders who are not themselves ratepayers.
The essence of a BID, as opposed to the voluntary schemes, which the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, mentioned, is that to take effect it must be supported by a majority, both by number and rateable value, of the non-domestic ratepayers occupying property in the defined area covered by the BID. If the majority votes "Yes", all must contribute. That is the point. In a voluntary schemeand there are a good many in this countrythere is no way of dealing with what are often referred to as the "free riders", firms who gain the benefit of the improvements that a BID can bring but cannot be made to pay the levy.
In this country, the lessors of properties let to tenants are not the ratepayers because they are not the occupiers. Under the Bill, therefore, they will have no vote, no participation in the ballot. And there is no power to make them contribute. "So what?", you may say, "Surely the purpose of the scheme is to benefit the occupiers, the shopkeepers, offices, restaurants, cafes and so on which will benefit from the improved services and environment that a BID will bring.". But the Government themselves recognise that the owners, the landlords, have a vital role to play.
It is difficult to see how that issue should be dealt with. The Bill allows them to contribute. That is right. There is too a great deal in the guidance about early consultation. That is right. But in the end free riders cannot be compelled to contribute. Amendments were moved in another place to put the matter right but they were rejected by the noble Lord's honourable friends on the Government Front Bench.
In America, where BIDs originated, the real estate taxas it is often calledis paid by the owners of property. It is a tax on the ownership of property. In the UK the non-domestic rate is paid by the occupier and it is a tax on the occupation of the property. As the Government argued in another place, to levy the BID charge in this country on property owners would be to introduce a new tax requiring complex and costly administration. I understand the argument. It was argued at great length in Standing Committee in
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, will remember that five years ago we debated this issue at some length in Committee and at the Report stage of my Bill. The promoters of the Bill envisaged that to gain acceptance by the voting occupiers, lessors would need to agree a fair apportionment of the cost of the BID levy between each landlord and his tenant. Often it is said that if you let under a 999-year lease the landlord has no interest in any BID. However, if the lease is to fall in next year, so that the freeholder will become the owner of the property, of course the answer is that almost the entire benefit of a BID will accrue to him and he should therefore pay the levy. It was said that without such an agreement between landlords and tenants, the scheme would never get off the groundthe ratepayers would not vote for it and it would not receive a majority.
My Bill provided that if a landlord and tenant could not agree what was a fair and equitable apportionment of the burden of the levy, it could be referred to the county court. That is not the only possible solution. I have asked the representatives of the property world, who are anxious to be included in the BIDs scheme, to advance new proposals that might be framed as amendments to the Bill in Committee. As it stands, Part 4 is incomplete and we could do better.
Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, in the debate on corporate governance on 12th March, the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, referred to Halifax town hall. It is one of those flukes that he is presiding over us this evening. Perhaps for the last time, I declare an interest as a member of a local authority. I have been a member of Calderdale Council, which is based in Halifax town hall, for 25 of the past 30 years. But last Tuesday, I did not submit any nomination papers and, therefore, have 28 days left. There has been some comfort in being in that building, being here and knowing that Sir Charles Barry was the one who designed them both.
The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, referred to the inscription above the town hall in Halifax, "Act wisely". They have plenty to act wisely about. As I have reviewed the past 30 years, I have considered the loss of significance of local government. I thought, "When were the halcyon days? What was it like between the wars?". I have got hold of the minute book of Halifax council for the entire yearthree and a half inches; just short of 2000 pagesfor 193637.
About half of the pages consist of lists of bills that it paid, rather than deep policy. But I then find that they had many committees30 oddbut were a bit more sparing on sub-committees and working parties. They had committees to deal with health and hospitals; light, heat and power; public assistance; maternity and child welfare; and pensions. Not a PFI or a PPP in sight.
Of course, much of that work was taken over by the state just after the war. But what has happened since? Just as I entered local government, public transport went to a metropolitan county, then to a quango, and was then privatised. The police were delegated to a local government quangowhich is now rather less a local government quango. The same happened with the fire service. The ambulance service went with the health service, which was nationalised. Water and sewerage went to a quango and was then privatised.
In my time, the colleges went to a quango. In our case, highways are quasi-regionalised. Housing is now in the hands of a social landlordbecause that was how resources could be made available that would not otherwise be available to improve and enhance the housing stock. In education, local authorities have far less to doI believe that to be a good thing, in that there has been delegation to those in schools with real responsibility.
What is left? We have had the three "E"s of efficiency, economy and effectiveness; with best value we have the four "C"s of compare, challenge, compete and consult. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said that he is trying to remove the jargon, because we have comprehensive performance assessments and, usually, we must have a strategic partnership somewhere.
My council alone is involved in more than 100 partnerships. It is not alone in that. A multitude of councils is in the same position. It occurs to me that those who are acting wisely, if they saw the need, got on with it. Local government was a major building block of democracy. It is now debilitated and, rather than being a building block, is more like a wrung-out sponge.
What of the Bill? For me, the foregoing puts it into some context. Reading the documents that have been made available to us about the Bill, it is interesting that the Select Committee on Local Government, Transport and the Regions in another place states, referring to local government:
I have four points. The first is the borrowing regime. It is suggested that it gives power and responsibility to the local authority; if so, I welcome it. We shall need to read the detail. What are the Minister's powers? Are they a back-stop or a front-stop. If they are a back-stop, so be it. Reference has already been made to business improvement districts. Will the business community wonder why it pays business rates in the first place? When considering what are termed business districts, one could have first, second, third, fourth and fifth-class business districts, depending on whether there is one or how much people want to pay. That may not be too bright an idea when considering our localitiesespecially the built environment.
Secondly, will that be a reason for local authorities to stop doing what they are doing now because they say, "Perhaps it would be better done by business improvement districts. Then they can pick up some bills".
My third point concerns council tax revision. I note the detailed points made about changing bands and this, that or the other, but the major thing about council tax is that it is to pay. The major feature of council tax that is to pay is that there is rather more to pay this year than last. That keeps happening.
Without tinkering with council tax, we need a system in which people can have confidence. In 28 days' time, votes will be cast by people who are concerned and who will take it out on certain people they believe to have been responsible for the council tax being significantly enhanced. However, those councillors may have felt that they had no option, because of the disposition of resources made available by the Government, about what to do to keep services going for people in their communities.
The Government must grasp the point that it is easy to push responsibility onto councils, so that they must stick up council tax to keep services going while the Government can say, "We are very good and do not raise taxes nationally".
I should like to end on a positive note for the Minister. Vibrant local government needs good people. With one or two colleagues, last week I was asked to meet some bankers. They told us about their social and corporate responsibility. I suggested that they might be certain that their staff are able to serve local and national government to give public service. They said, "We cannot do that because of the Political Parties and Referendums Act. We have decided that we are not making political donations. If we give people time off to do these things, we shall have to declare it and don't want to do that". I am delighted that element is in the Bill so that banks, financial services and big business can be responsible. Often, people who serve as councillors work in some element of the public sector. The private sector will be able to play a better part and people will be given time off to do this important work. Serving as a member of a local authority is a high calling. It is important. It is also important that real opportunity exists, that it is not constrained and debilitated, and that council members can make their localities interesting, enjoyable and exciting places.
Baroness Gale: My Lords, I wish to speak specifically about Clause 76, which will allow English authorities to reduce or remove the 50 per cent discount that applies to dwellings with no residents for classes of dwellings prescribed in regulations made by the Secretary of State.
The powers conferred by Clause 76 on English authorities that allows them a degree of flexibility should be extended to Wales. It is absolutely essential for Welsh local authorities to be given those additional powers and I shall be interested to hear the Minister's views on that clause.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, although I shall be concentrating on one issue, I am delighted by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, in response to the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform in respect of criticisms of the Bill. We all welcome what the noble Lord has said. That was a very critical report. It is worth noting that since the committee's inception under the last Conservative Government and subsequently under the present Government, its recommendations have always been agreed. We look forward to that continuing.
Unfortunately, the Water Bill taking place in Grand Committee prevents my noble friend Lady O'Cathain from speaking in this debate. She wishes to contribute at later stages and will. She has asked me to express her concern about the repeal of Clause 28 and also wishes to persuade the Government to consider extending the power to license sex shopsa power that was secured by Westminster City Council via a Private Member's Bill.
In this country, we have freedom of religion and belief. The state upholds the rule of law that provides the basis for freedom and tolerancebut it is right and proper for there to be safeguards against state imposition of belief. Those safeguards and protections are all the more important when the state provides services for children. Parents bear the heaviest responsibility for raising and protecting children. The state should not undermine the beliefs of parents. Nor should the state permit its employees to manipulate or indoctrinate children.
Under current law, local authorities are constrained in three areas that can be the subject of controversy. In those areas, the law acts either to restrict the actions of local authority employees or to restrict expenditure of taxpayers' money. The first area is politics. Section 27 of the Local Government Act 1988 forbids local authorities from incurring expenditure for party political purposes. Education law also requires that when dealing with political issues, schools must give a balanced presentation of opposing views.
The third area of regulation is sex education. If politics and religion are controversial areas of the curriculum, so too is sex education. In 1986 Parliament amended the law to require that sex education was given in such a way as to have due regard to moral considerations and the value of family life. When I was an education Minister, that safeguard was not sufficient to assuage parental concerns. In 1993 I was personally involved in making sex education a discrete subject and delegating responsibility for the content of the subject to the governing bodies of schools. For the first time parents were given a statutory right for their children not to receive sex education.
Subsequently I was involved in drawing up sex education guidance from the department, which was in place until it was revised in 2000 following further amendments to the law agreed by your Lordships. Those government amendments required that schools have regard to the new guidance issued by the Secretary of State.
Many parents are concerned about the use of inappropriate materials in schools, which is why Parliament has regulated sex education. Those who support Clause 121 of the Bill and seek the repeal of Section 28 have failed adequately to grasp that point. They have failed to accept that sexualityjust like politics or religionis a controversial area where parents have strong concerns that their children be protected.
Opinion polls show that the vast majority of parents do not want homosexuality promoted in schools. In the referendum funded by Brian Souter, 1 million Scots voted to keep Section 2886.8 per cent of those who voted. A poll carried out in the Prime Minister's own constituency of Sedgefield in 2000 found that 71 per cent of people wanted Section 28 retained.
Parents are also concerned about inappropriate materials that cover heterosexuality as well as homosexuality. Section 28 was introduced for a reason. Some local authorities were actively promoting homosexuality in schools. Three years ago my noble friend the late Lady Young held an exhibition of inappropriate materials in your Lordships' House. Section 28 acts as a restraint for the majority of local authorities. If Section 28 is repealed and nothing is put in its place, what happens in a small number of local authorities could become the norm.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred to Section 28 preventing expenditure by local authorities on gay men. That is not true. Local authorities do have a great influence on what is taught in schools. At the end of the day, they are the employers. They employ teachers and, like any employer, they are ultimately responsible for the conduct of their employees. In repealing Section 28, the Government are asking us to
If only it were true that local authorities have no say or influence over sex education in schools. The Minister seems to be referring to the fact that specific duties on local education authorities with regard to sex education were removed in 2000. This followed a government amendment to the learning and skills Bill. Certain duties may have been removed but the important point is that LEAs still have a general supervisory role over schools. Legislation does not prohibit them from publishing and recommending sex education materials or from employing advisory staff.
The Government expect LEAs to exercise this supervisory role with respect to sex education. That is clear from Section 351(6) of the Education Act 1996. That same section requires that whenever LEAs exercise these functions they "must have regard" to government guidance on sex education. But one can "have regard to" guidance without actually following it. One can also claim to be following the guidance when one is not. As the Minister knows, the only challenge is on procedural grounds and not on what the schools actually do.
That is exactly what has happened. Some local authorities are pushing highly unsuitable sex education materials into our schools and they are praying in aid government's guidance. I shall give an example of what is happening in one area; namely, Brighton. Brighton and Hove Council and East Sussex County Council have a joint personal, social and health education advisory team. These PSHE advisorseight part-timers in totalare using their powers to influence sex education to the full.
In the year 2000 the council's advisory team published its own handbook for teachers. The council claims that the handbook is in accordance with government guidance. So what does the handbook say? It "strongly recommends" that schools buy a particular "essential" resource pack entitled, Taking Sex Seriously. A more unsuitable resource it is difficult to imagine. One lesson suggests that pupils are asked to buy condoms for homework. Another lesson has the aim of getting pupils to think about the full range of sexual activities. Teachers are told to,
The suggested examples include dressing up, tying up, sadism and/or masochism, partner swapping, anal intercourse or multiple partner at one time. Those are just the milder examples. Decency prevents me from reading out the rest.
David Blunkett was Secretary of State at the time of the last debate on Section 28. There was particular concern around that time about a resource entitled, Beyond A Phase, produced by Avon Health Promotion Service, an NHS body. In January 2000, this hit the headlines. The Sunday Times carried a full-page spread about this teachers' pack and video and widespread coverage followed, including ITV's "Tonight with Trevor McDonald".
This resource pack includes an infamous series of "role plays" for pupils to act out. The roles include a married man who was "done" for cottaging, an out lesbian mother, a gay teenager, a married woman who had a "one night stand" with another woman, a bisexual granny, a sado-masochistic heterosexual woman, and a transvestite cabaret artist. Your Lordships, this is for children.
In being all things to all men, the guidance failed to stop local authorities peddling inappropriate materials. The guidance has not stopped the use of Beyond A Phase. It has not stopped Brighton and Hove and East Sussex strongly recommending appalling materials. On the contrary, those authorities say that their advice to teachers complies with the guidance.
Schools are not the only place where local authorities can influence what young people are being taught about sex. There are council-funded youth groups all over the country which have sessional youth workers employed by the local authority. If Section 28 is repealed, this work will be unregulated. The Minister in another place referred to guidance issued by the National Youth Agency. But, again, like Brighton and Hove Council, this guidance also recommends the appalling Taking Sex Seriously pack, which I quoted from a moment ago.
Section 28 has proved to have a very positive influence to curb the worst excesses of council-funded youth groups. It is there for parents to use should they have a grievance about sex education. In 2000 a Glasgow nurse took Glasgow City Council to court under Section 28. She sought judicial review of their
I am particularly concerned that if Section 28 is repealed, there will be nothing to protect young people. Indeed the promotion of "well-being" powers contained in the Local Government Act 2000 seems to give carte blanche to local authorities to spend money on anything that they judge will promote well-being, however that is defined. This will almost certainly include more youth groups.
The repeal of Section 28 is all the more worrying because of the Government's proposals for the Sexual Offences Bill. The Government have decided to give a blanket exemption from facilitating child sex offences for those who claim to be giving sex education. This exemption is in the form of an amendment to Clause 15 of the Sexual Offences Bill currently before your Lordships' House.
Under the amendment a person who gives sex education will, for example, be able to facilitate the showing of pornographic videos to a child or facilitate the commission of sexual acts in front of a child. All this is possible as long as the person who gives sex education says that this was not his intended outcome. That is a perfect defence for someone wishing to corrupt young minds.
A special exemption from the criminal law has never been necessary before. Now it will be. I shudder to think what sort of sex education is envisaged which requires exemption from facilitating a child sex offence.
The noble Lord, Lord Alli, made a comment to which I take offence. I do not just claim to be concerned about protection for children; I do care about the protection of children. The repeal of Section 28 cannot be swapped for government guidance. If protection for young people cannot be put in statute
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