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One of the first people after the 1939-45 war to be appointed as a freeman of the Cinque Port borough of New Romney was a local young man, Wing Commander Learoyd, DFC. He was a distinguished World War II pilot whose exploits included involvement with the famous Dambusters. I was one of the most recent to be given the honorary freedom of that town, in 2000, but I cannot lay claim to exploits like those of Learoyd and his many Battle of Britain colleagues. It seems that as a result of the Local Government Act 1972, the town council may not have had the legal power to confer that honour on me. Am I the first illegal in your Lordships House? Speaking selfishly, perhaps this is all the more reason to correct the current anomaly.
If we fail to accept this amendment to the proposed Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, should we expect in the future some legislative error to commit us to ploughing up the Battle of Britain memorial to those precious few, which stands as a proud symbol of freedom and bravery on the cliffs between Folkestone and the Cinque Port borough of Dover? I strongly urge your Lordships to support the amendment.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I would be happy to do so. We have had three fascinating speeches and I have learnt a lot which I did not know before. One of the proudest things that a local authority can do is to honour someone who has been of help, has had a significant position, has been of assistance, or is just such an example that it wishes to honour him or her. It is done sparingly, and it is therefore that much more important. Any local authority worth its name should have the right to do soif for no other reason than to make the noble Lord legal.
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham; it has been a delightful short debate. The Cinque Ports could not have a more distinguished or powerful group of champions and advocates. I am impressed by the personal associations, especially that of the noble Lord, Lord Imbert, who gave us his personal history, and the loyalty which the Cinque Ports command from their residents and supporters. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said, it is a great honour to be able both to receive and award these distinctions. It is a very important part of our history and traditions and we are not in any way diminishing that.
I have some disappointing news, but I can also hold out the prospect of some positive news as I respond to the noble Lord. We have, as he knows, given his amendment serious consideration, but we are unable to include it in the Bill for practical reasons. He referred to the pressures on the Bill and spoke about the direction that it had taken in terms of its major function, the improvement of public services. That is certainly one barrier. A greater barrier, however, is that the issue is not as straightforward as it first appears. Our principal concern is that the power to grant such privileges is usually conferred on a local authority, but some of the Cinque Ports are not local government entities; in particular, Winchelsea is currently not a local government area. It is therefore not clear on whom the power to admit freemen would be conferred. Resolving the question will require serious discussion with a variety of local partners about who is best placed to take on the role of admitting freemen. Any legislative solution will need to include a suitable definition of the ports that are compatible with current local government legislation. We need also to consider whether extending this power to admit freemen has implications as a precedent for other areas.
I am absolutely willing to see whether there are ways around these difficulties. There may well be, such as by conferring powers on charter trustees, as suggested by the noble Lords amendment. This will need to be explored further. We also know, for the reasons set out by the noble Lord, Lord Imbert, that
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I have every sympathy with the wishes of the confederation. As I said, it is important that we maintain our most ancient and historic local traditions. I regret that the ability to honour eminent citizens has been lost to the historic ports and towns in the confederation, although I understand that Hastings may still confer the honour. The noble Lord will know that I am keen to do whatever I can to help him meet his aims and the aims of the confederation. We have already done some work in the departmentwhich is why we know how much more there is to be doneon how best this might be achieved. My officials will be in touch with the confederation, if they have not done so already, so that as a first step we can get a real understanding of the issues and help prepare for what may be a more suitable legislative opportunity.
I hold out that prospect to the noble Lord. The Government are certainly sympathetic and will be prepared to do some work with the confederation on this. I hope that, for the moment, he will withdraw his amendment.
Lord Boston of Faversham: My Lords, I am very grateful to those who have taken part in this short debatethe noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and my noble friend Lord Imbert. I am also grateful to the Minister for what she said. She has indeed been encouraging and sympathetic, even more so in recent days than she was a little while ago. In her response she indicated what sounds to me like a positive way forward. The words she used today about another legislative opportunity which would enable us to pursue these aims, and we hope secure them, sound as though that will not be in the remote and distant future, but sooner than that. She has also been helpful in meeting me with some of her officials during our recent Recess. I am grateful for that. I hope that my noble friends and other supporters of the amendment will agree with me in saying that, with the positive approach indicated by the Minister, we can take that step forward. In those circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment takes forward the debate we had in Committee on the abolition of the current statutory code of practice covering the conduct of each local authority in organising and funding publicity about its work. I speak as
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In times past, central government felt it necessary to ensure that there was no so-called propaganda on the rates with local authorities using council taxpayers money to promote their own party political interests. The problem dates back to the hostilities between the then Prime Minister and the then leader of the GLC. Today, I suggest, a quite different relationship exists between central and local government, and the code, a product of mistrust and the urge to centralise, has passed its sell-by date.
As always, attempts at centralised control of local authority practice produced their own unintended consequences. In this case authorities have interpreted the code differently, and many have felt that they must err on the side of caution. They have lost opportunities to refute criticisms on the one hand and to blow their own trumpet on the other, even when such publicity was entirely justified. Legal advice will tend to be risk-averse. Communications chiefs are often cautious with the code hanging over them. Particularly in areas where local politics are very divisive, the code can have a paralysing effect. Yet it is vital that local government at the local level, as the place-shaper and community leader, feels able to speak out openly and powerfully. It is important that the council robustly rebuts ill-informed allegations appearing in the local press or in locally distributed leaflets, as with some BNP misinformation that stirs up ill will and antagonism between communities, and for councils to publicise fully the good work they do. Indeed, promoting the good news that the local authority is doing a vital job for local citizens is a key part of the restoration of faith in the democratic institution of local government itself.
Relationships between central and local government are being changed for the better by the Bill. This amendment provides an opportunity to take forward one modest but valuable devolutionary measure. It allows Ministers to let go and enable the local government family, probably through the good offices of the Local Government Association, to devise a new voluntary code that empowers, rather than inhibits, local authorities.
When we debated this before the Summer Recess the Minister gave a helpful response suggesting that the code should now be reviewed, but the amendment goes a bit further, asking central government to back off altogether, to end the statutory code and to leave this one to the local authorities, collectively and then individually, to handle themselves. I beg to move.
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, we debated the proposal in Committee. I do not have a huge amount to add to what I said then, but we have certainly moved on a little way, not least because of our conversations with the LGA.
Amendment No. 222 would abolish the Secretary of States power to issue a code of practice for local authorities about the content, style, distribution and cost of publicity issued by authorities. I still do not
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Abolition of the publicity code would not help. It would mean that authorities would be left to themselves to decide what to publish and not to publish. There is an obvious problem of inconsistent treatment and lack of clarity. That is why so many people in local government wanted to keep the code.
However, as I indicated, we are looking at the wider future of the code. We want to explore any suggestions from the local government world and stakeholders on the content of the code and how it might be updated, simplified or clarified; for example, to support members advocacy role for their communities. I would be grateful if the noble Lord joined us in that dialogue. We will reach a decision on the ownership, format and content of the code on the basis of the responses to the consultation.
The existing rules require the Secretary of State to consult local authorities before issuing any code. We will consider with local government, including the LGA, with which I have already discussed the matter, what form they would like to see the code take to make sure that the views of the representative bodies are reflected. I have discussed with the LGA the possibility of it and other representative bodies consulting on the future of the publicity code. I hope that we can further consider how to go about framing a new code, because it is the most sensible and effective way of taking the matter forward. I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to contribute his own views during the consultation.
Lord Best: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. If the local authorities had been asked whether, in place of a statutory code laid down by central government, a code prepared by local government, put forward perhaps with the Local Government Association at the helm, might exist, they would have been almost unanimous in saying that that alternative would be preferable. They were not asked that question. However, the review that the Minister promised might come to almost the same conclusion. That would be a happy outcome. It is part of the process of central government backing off and local government doing its own thing. I hope that that outcome will come to pass. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Bruce-Lockhart is not in his place today to move Amendments Nos. 222A to 222C; he is not very well. I shall table them again at Third Reading in the hope that he might be able to be here then.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, noble Lords will recall that as a result of the DPRRC recommendation in Committee, the Government tabled amendments to restrict the term document used in Part 12 to mean that it must be a document identified by regulations made under Section 21, on accounting practices, of the Local Government Act 2003. One of the current documents identified by such regulations is the CIPFA SORP, which defines proper accounting practices. The amendment has been tabled to ensure that the provision at Section 221(5) comes into force two months after the Bill receives Royal Assent. This brings the commencement of this subsection into line with other relevant commencement provisions relating to Part 12. I beg to move.
(2C) Where a council mentioned in subsection (1) or (2) above are operating executive arrangements which involve an elected executive, the council shall consist of the members of the elected executive, a chairman and councillors.
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