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The first point made by the Minister was that we want more detail in a Bill which, as we have said, has too much detail. That is a theme through many of the amendments in this and the next chapter, which is about petitions. We would prefer that the Government did not legislate on either of these matters, but persuaded councils to do them in other ways. If you legislate, there is a choice: one is to have genuine, in-principle framework legislation. It is our view that each of these points could be reduced to half a page: we could get it down on the petitions one but not on this one, because we want to probe more on exactly what Chapter 1 means. Our view is that you can cut it down to half a page and say to councils, “Get on with it and do it sensibly”. They will do it in different ways, in different places, but it will be in line with local circumstances and in line with local democracy.

Some councils will do it a lot better than others, but that is what local democracy is all about. Some will want to spend a lot more money on it and do it really well. Others will want to spend the minimum amount of money to fulfil their legal obligations and no more. There will be very different ways of doing it. That seems to us to be the diversity that comes from genuine local democracy and the way it should be done. There is a genuine ideological difference between us on this. The Government want to legislate and tie everyone down more and more to a uniform system for everything in every detail. That seems to be what is going on. We are against that and the principle behind it.

However, if the Government are going to legislate in this kind of detail, we must cover all the eventualities and make it comprehensive. You must make it work so that people cannot come along and say, “It does not

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apply to this or that”. In particular, you must make sure that it will not get in the way of current good practice. Therefore, you have to make it longer. You cannot get away from that. At the moment we have a very unsatisfactory halfway house.

As far as partnerships are concerned, the Minister said that because a service is contracted out, there will therefore be no involvement in the service delivery, but that may not be the case at all. The contracting out of the service might include the involvement of some people who receive that service or some of the local people in the delivery of that service. It may involve consultation with local area committees or even town and parish councils in the delivery of that service. It is not automatically the case that, just because something is contracted out to the private or third sector, there is no public involvement. That is wrong.

The second part of the amendment was kite flying and probing, as the Minister understood. There are further discussions to be had. To return to the basic principle of partnerships, we feel that partnerships, although perhaps not in this wording or in quite so much detail, ought to be in the Bill. Just because a council is a member of a partnership that does not mean that everything that partnership does will necessarily be covered by this duty. Some things the partnership does may have nothing to do with the council. Nevertheless, because the partnership itself is a public body, it ought to be included in this duty. I would ask the Minister to think about that.

My final point is that some partnerships, as the Minister pointed out, are statutory partnerships. They have a freestanding existence in their own right. They are not part of the council. The council is one of the partners in that statutory partnership. In those circumstances, I am not sure that the duty given to the council will automatically fall on that partnership, because the council will have lots of other duties, in all sorts of ways, that do not fall on the partnership. Statutory partnerships, such as the crime and disorder partnerships, will be governed by the legislation setting them up, so this is also something that the Minister should think again about. We do not think that it is a difficult thing to include so we do not understand the reluctance. Having said that, there is scope for further discussion and debate. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 5 withdrawn.

Lord Patel of Bradford: This may be a convenient moment for the Grand Committee to adjourn for 10 minutes.

5.42 pm

Sitting suspended.

5.52 pm

Amendments 6 and 7 not moved.

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Amendment 8

Moved by Lord Greaves

8: Clause 1, page 2, line 3, at end insert—

“( ) The information provided under subsection (2) may include contact details and other relevant information about registered political parties which sponsor candidates for election to the principal local authority and to other local authorities that include all or part of its area.

( ) The prohibition of political publicity in section 2 of the Local Government Act 1986 (c. 10) (prohibition of political publicity) does not apply to information on political parties provided by a principal local authority for the purposes of this section.”

Lord Greaves: Amendment 8 is partly probing and partly in order to make an important point and to bring some of the discussions into the real world about how things actually happen on the ground. Amendment 8 refers to Clause 1(2) which includes a duty to promote understanding of how to become a member of an authority—or councillor as it is more normally called—of what councillors do and of what support is provided to councillors.

Amendment 8 is about the real world, in which most people, although by no means all, who stand for election to a council do so on behalf of a registered political party. It may be a national or purely local political party, a community group or a group set up to achieve certain local aims, such as when Boston Borough Council was taken over by the Boston Bypass Party, which was for the bypass, not against it. That was despite the fact that Boston Borough Council does not have the power to build a bypass because that is a county council function and Boston is in a two-tier area in Lincolnshire. Nevertheless, in order to have its name on the ballot paper and to promote itself in that way, it had to be registered as a political party. There are now many hundreds of political parties registered with the Electoral Commission. Most people stand for the main national political parties through their local branches.

Section 2 of the Local Government Act 1986 includes a prohibition on political publicity by local authorities:

“A local authority shall not publish any material which, in whole or in part, appears to be designed to affect public support for a political party”.

I am probing whether including basic information about local political parties that put up candidates for the council, such as their contact details or names of officials, in material that is given to people about how to get on the council would contravene this section of that Act. The following subsection modifies that in great detail, and I am not clear at all whether it is covered or not by this prohibition. We must be absolutely clear that it is not. If it is, the local authority is prevented from giving sensible information to people who genuinely want to stand for the council. The most sensible thing you can do is to ask people whether they want to stand as an independent or for one of the registered political parties that fields candidates in this area. If they want to stand for the Labour Party—I am told that there are still a few who do, daft though some of us may think it—the local authority ought to be able to point them in the direction of the Labour Party, or any other political party, as appropriate.

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The purpose of the amendment is to probe whether the Government think that political parties are a part of the process, and whether the council should give real-world advice about how to get on it, not just how to get a nomination paper, get 10 signatures and hand it in. That would not do much good in most cases. Secondly, I am probing whether that would be allowed, given the prohibition in the Local Government Act 1985. I beg to move.

6 pm

Baroness Warsi: I understand why the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has suggested the amendment. It is quite plain that a key element of local democracy is the hard work and time given up by local councillors. They are the real grassroots politicians. It is vital that members of the public should freely and easily be able to make representations to them.

It also goes without saying that the vast majority of local councillors will be sponsored by political parties—in all likelihood by one of the parties represented in this Committee. To that extent, I can see the case for the noble Lord wanting to provide contact information. If you can get in touch with the local party, you should be able to get your message across to your local representatives. It would not be the only route, but I understand the argument that this is another strand of getting the flow of communication between voters and elected representatives.

However, I am not convinced by the argument put forward by the noble Lord that this is a necessary or even desirable provision to have in statute. Apart from the arguments deployed elsewhere that this is not the sort of detailed instruction we wish to see being given to local authorities in primary legislation, there is a deeper point. The noble Lord has made his case for providing simply contact information for political parties, to which I shall return. I am concerned by the words, “and other relevant information”, in his amendment. Who will decide what is relevant? How widely could that phrase be interpreted? I fear that political parties from across the spectrum may use that provision, however much in good faith they think they are acting, to use public bodies to promote their own aims. Promoting their own ideas is the right of any and every party. It should not be the responsibility of the local authority. It would be better to keep that distinction absolutely clear and not to allow any blurring of those boundaries.

I cannot see the need for providing even bare contact details of political parties. I agree that the contact details of elected councillors should be available in order for people to get in touch with those who represent them. However, any political party worth its salt should be able to publicise its own contact details. If a party wishes to promote itself, it should use its own resources and efforts. I and other Members of the Committee have campaigned for our parties and we know that, if a party is sponsoring a candidate for election, as well as publicising its goals and ideas, it should have no difficulty doing the same with its contact details.

I fear too that this amendment could have the unfortunate, although I am sure wholly unintended, effect of disadvantaging independent councillors or

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single issue candidates who are not sponsored by any party, but who are a fundamental feature of local democracy. For those reasons, we on these Benches cannot support this amendment.

Lord Tope: I am disappointed to hear the response from the noble Baroness. My noble friend made it very clear that at this stage this is a probing amendment which raises an important point. We all share the wish to encourage people to become councillors. If an individual approaches the local authority and asks, “How do I do it?”, should the response simply be, as my noble friend said, to send them the nomination form and papers, let them go off to find 10 people to sign them and then send them in? That is what one needs to do to become a councillor. Or is it more helpful to recognise the reality in the vast majority of areas in this country? Most candidates are sponsored by the political parties and the reality is that on most councils most councillors belong to those political parties. There is nothing in this amendment to suggest that councils should promote any or all of the political parties. This is not about the promotion of the parties at all. It is simply to explain the reality that if a person wants to become elected in an area, they should at least consider going through a political party of their choice or understand the implications if they choose not to. It is a free choice.

The second part of the amendment raises an important point, which I come up against quite often, although not in this connection. How restricted does one have to be as a local authority in dealing with any matters that could be held to be party political? Certainly, I understood this amendment to be seeking clarification. It will be on record in Hansard. We may have to return to it. The position will be clear, whatever the Minister may say. Let me be clear—I am sure that my noble friend does not need me to say this—this is not about asking local authorities to promote political parties or to say to people, “If you want to be a councillor in this area, you will have to join the Labour Party”. It is simply for the local authority to say that most candidates will be sponsored by a political party. That is the reality. If a person wants to consider that, these are the contact details that we would ask each of the registered parties to supply. It is simply about relaying information. Of course, the political parties should do that, as I am sure they do, and will indeed seek candidates, but we are talking in this context about the role of the local authority as distinct from the political parties. Somebody who wants to respond to the local authority fulfilling this duty needs to know the reality of the situation. At this stage, local authorities need the reassurance that if they supply the contact details of their local political parties, they will not fall foul of this provision.

Lord Patel of Bradford: The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, rightly pointed out that Clause 1(2) focuses on the council’s role so that members of the public are clear about what their elected representatives do and, should they be interested in taking the next step, how they might go about becoming a councillor and what support will be available to them should they be elected.

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Amendment 8, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, takes this further by allowing councils to point citizens towards local political parties by providing the contact details and other relevant information. I reinforce what the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, said, about relevant information. It was a point well made. I assume that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is trying to plug what he perceives to be a gap in the information that members of the public will need to be given if they are to find out what councillors do and how to become one. The amendment would add an unnecessary level of prescriptive detail to the Bill. The Bill places councils under a duty to promote understanding of how to become a councillor. We expect this to include an explanation of the political party selection process as well as of the fact that people can stand as independents. In the region of 6 per cent of councillors do so.

In discharging this duty, some councils may wish to provide contact details for local political parties in a non-partisan way and in accordance with relevant legislation. We will set out in guidance that this is a route that some councils may wish to consider. I again reinforce what the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, said; while Clause 1 places a duty on local authorities, let us not forget that there is an important role for the political parties in promoting democracy and encouraging local people to stand for office. It is open to all political parties to publicise their activities in an authority’s area, the work of their members who serve on the council and how people may become members of that party.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, rightly pointed to Section 2 of the Local Government Act 1986, which prohibits publicity designed to affect public support for a political party. Local authorities are also required under that section to have regard to the provisions of the Code of recommended practice on local authority publicity before coming to any decision on publicity. As noble Lords will know, the code is commonly known as the publicity code. It was introduced in 1988 and last amended in 2001. It seeks among things to assist local authorities when making decisions about publicity to ensure that resources are not used to publish material that could be perceived as having a party-political purpose.

My department is consulting the local government sector and stakeholders on the future of the publicity code. The consultation seeks views on its effectiveness as an instrument for protecting public money while allowing councils to issue effective publicity to keep their communities informed of the services that they provide and encourage greater participation in local democracy. It would be premature to make changes to the rules relating to local authority publicity without considering carefully the responses received to our consultation exercise. The consultation was launched on 12 December; it is not yet clear in which direction the responses will send us. However, responses received will inform the guidance that the department issues to local authorities to support them in their new duty to promote democracy. The guidance will make direct reference to how the publicity code impacts on councils in their new role and will clarify what it does and does not prevent them doing. We will ensure that comments made by noble Lords during this debate are fully

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considered as part of the consultation exercise on the future of the publicity code and the drafting of any guidance issued by the department to local authorities. The consultation ends on 12 March 2009. We hope that a wide range of people will contribute their views. It is usual for public consultations of this nature to generate more than 1,000 responses.

Given what I have outlined, I hope that the noble Lord will be more reassured and will understand where our proposals are coming from.

Lord Greaves: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. I think I have the answer to my basic question, but I shall come to that in a minute.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, that the words “and other relevant functions” is vague and kite-flying. It was put in precisely to generate a probing debate, and she was quite right to pick it up.

This comes back to the role of the council in promoting candidates to itself in any way. That is something that I have always been uneasy about; to put a duty on an authority to go out and get certain kinds of people or minorities or achieve diversity is an awkward duty because you are asking the authority to determine its own composition when it is meant to be a democratic authority elected by the people. That is a tangential question, but it is part of the problem.

If councils and other public bodies are to spend quite a lot of resources of different sorts in getting more women, ethnic minorities, young people—more Welsh people in Wales, perhaps, or more English people in Wales, or whatever the underrepresented minority is in a particular part of Wales—they are inevitably going to get involved in a political question. Some of those groups of people will be oriented more to some political parties than to others. The whole area causes me some unease. If it is going to happen, we need to be clear about it.

The Bill says that the council has to tell people who might want to be members what members of the principal local authority do. I can tell them what they do a lot of the time. They go to political party group meetings and take part in the local political party as part of their involvement in the community. That is what they do. If you say to people that they can be councillors on a council with three political parties, that there is not much chance of anyone else getting elected in the near future and that if they want to be councillors but do not want to go to local ward meetings or party meetings, take part in party campaigns in the area or go to the party group meetings, when they go to council meetings, unless they are very brave and have very strong views on things, they will very often vote how they are told to vote by their political party. In a more democratic party such as ours, of course, people go to the meetings where it is decided how to vote and take part in that process, then vote voluntarily with the majority. However, it works, they are working within a political context, which is what people will have to be told.

People who want to be councillors could also be told that, while they might be elected as an independent, with a lot of work and a lot of effort, if they were they would be on a council where everything was run through the political parties. They would not be part

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of the council administration in the remote future, unless there happened to be a fluky election where they personally held the balance of power, in which case for a year they might be, until it changed. That is the truth; it is the real world, and there is no point in not telling people about the real world.

The provision says that people must be told what support is available. If the political groups and parties are any use they will be a source of great support to the councillor. If you are not a member of a political party, you would not have that support and resource. Particularly if it was a big council, you would be on your own, in the wilderness. You might have the strength of personality to make some impact, but it would be much more difficult than if you are a member of a political party, unless you joined a dreadful, highly authoritarian political party and were just treated as muck as a Back Bencher, told what to do and not given any influence at all. That exists in all parties. It is the real world.

My question was whether Section 2 of the 1985 Act applies to giving sensible advice on the role of political parties in a particular area. Is that banned? I think that the answer from the Minister was that it is not banned. If that is a sensible thing to do in that area, within the reasonable limits of providing factual information, it would be possible. Both Ministers are nodding their heads; I shall put that on the record. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 8 withdrawn.

6.15 pm

Amendment 9

Moved by Lord Low of Dalston

9: Clause 1, page 2, line 3, at end insert—

“( ) The duty under subsection (1) includes in particular a duty to provide relevant information in formats accessible to people with disabilities.”

Lord Low of Dalston: I also speak to Amendments 30 and 73. Through these amendments I seek to specify that the duty in Clause 1(1) to promote an understanding of an authority’s functions, its democratic arrangements and how members of the public can take part in them, includes a duty to provide that information in formats accessible to persons with disabilities.

Through these amendments, I am seeking to address a major democratic deficit in British society. No one can be in any doubt that we live in the information society today, if by that we mean an age in which we are bombarded by information from all sides as never before. The ability to handle this information effectively is critical to being able to participate effectively in society, avail oneself of its opportunities, fulfil one’s responsibilities and negotiate one’s way around the various institutions of society and the services it offers. Yet, for blind and partially sighted people, or those who are print handicapped in any way, the ability to do that is largely denied by the fact that the great bulk of that information is completely inaccessible to them.

Article 21 of the recently adopted UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, on freedom of expression, opinion and access to information, says

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that state parties should provide information intended for the general public to persons with disabilities in accessible formats and technologies appropriate to different kinds of disabilities, in a timely manner and without additional cost. Yet, in health services alone, a recent survey of blind and partially sighted people in the UK showed that 95 per cent of respondents had never received health advice leaflets or information from their local surgery in their preferred format; 96 per cent had never received letters from their GP, results of tests or other correspondence in their preferred format; 95 per cent had never received medicines labelled in large print; and the NHS is apparently unable to send out appointments in an accessible format.

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