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17 Mar 2009 : Column 175

Lord Greaves: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that. If that information could be given before the deadline for tabling amendments for Third Reading, it would be extremely helpful to all of us.

Amendment 21 agreed.

Amendment 22

Moved by Baroness Andrews

22: Clause 5, page 5, line 23, leave out “, at least once a year,”

Amendment 22 agreed.

The Deputy Speaker (Baroness Harris of Richmond): My Lords, if Amendment 23 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment 24 by reason of pre-emption.

Amendment 23

Moved by Baroness Andrews

23: Clause 5, page 5, line 24, leave out from second “council” to end of line 27 and insert “under paragraph (za)”

Amendment 23 agreed.

Amendments 24 to 26 not moved.

Amendment 27

Moved by Lord Tope

27: After Clause 7, insert the following new Clause—

“Eligibility for membership: politically restricted posts

In section 2 (politically restricted posts the holders of which are disqualified from membership of the local authority) of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 (c. 42), in subsection (2)—

(a) paragraphs (a) and (b) are repealed, and

(b) in paragraph (c), the words “not falling within paragraph (a) or (b) above the” are repealed.”

Lord Tope: My Lords, I shall also speak to Amendments 28 and 29. Noble Lords will have noticed that these amendments are identical to those moved by my noble friend Lady Hamwee in Committee. On 3 February in Committee, she explained their purpose very fully. Your Lordships will be pleased to know that I am not going to repeat all that. Let me simply say for the record that Amendment 27 would repeal legislation that establishes a salary threshold for politically restricted posts in local authorities. Amendment 28 would repeal current legislation that requires council employees to resign on nomination as candidates in an election to be a councillor to their employing council by substituting a requirement that they resign immediately on election, if they are so fortunate.

Amendment 29 would reduce to three months the period during which most former councillors cannot take up employment with a council after their period of service comes to an end. The current 12-month period would be retained for politically restricted posts and for councillors who have been involved in the appointment of senior council staff. We had a constructive

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discussion on this in Committee and a wide measure of all-party support, particularly for Amendment 27, on the salary threshold.

We have retabled these amendments to give the Government another opportunity to extend their thinking and to explain what they are doing, or more particularly why they are not taking the opportunity now to meet their commitment. The recommendation originally came from the Councillors Commission, and we have had the Government’s White Paper, in which they made a commitment to abolish the salary rule. However, we understand from the Minister that, rather than taking this very obvious opportunity to fulfil the commitment that the Government have already given and which enjoys all-party support, they are deferring it and putting it into a draft Bill for further consideration, even though there is all-party support for it and recognition of the need to do it; so we may or may not see a draft Bill eventually becoming a Bill, and even longer after that becoming an Act of Parliament, if nothing else has intervened in the mean time to prevent that happening.

It is genuinely puzzling to all of us why the Government, having made the commitment with all-party support, and having the obvious opportunity, with the Bill now in Parliament, to fulfil that commitment, are now reluctant to fulfil it and are pushing this off for unnecessary further consideration as a draft Bill that may never actually become an Act of Parliament because of other means entirely outside our control. We have tabled these amendments again to try to understand why the Government are apparently so reluctant to fulfil the commitment that they gave. I beg to move.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, Amendment 27 would remove the link between the salary level and the designation of a local authority post as politically restricted. We certainly support the policy behind the Widdecombe rules, which preserve the visible political impartiality of senior local authority employees. In Communities in Control: Real People, Real Power, our 2008 White Paper, we acknowledged that, with regard to the link between salary and political restrictions, change to the Widdecombe rules is desirable. We are satisfied that the removal of what can be perceived as a blunt instrument will not undermine the important principle at stake. The remaining categories of officer that will remain subject to political restrictions will, in our judgment, continue to cover the most senior officers. That is broadly why I am sympathetic to the intention behind the amendment.

It is clear that noble Lords feel strongly about the need for reform along the lines proposed in Amendment 27 to make it happen more quickly, and that there is cross-party support for this. I can therefore put the noble Lord out of his misery by telling him that I will take the amendment away and reconsider it. I know that noble Lords will appreciate that, as always with these matters, there are technical drafting points at issue. There would, for example, need to be knock-on amendments to Sections 3 and 3A of the 1989 Act, which refer back to the provisions that would be removed by Amendment 27. I will come back to noble Lords on that point at Third Reading, so the noble Lord can regard that as a real victory.

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I am afraid that I cannot give as much satisfaction on Amendments 28 and 29, as they are much more complex. They address the relationship between being a local authority officer and a local authority member. We have talked a lot about how we want to encourage people to stand as councillors and take an active role in representing their community. Indeed, the burden of the suggestions made by the Councillors Commission related to promoting the role of councillors and so on. However, we need to be a little cautious about the amendments. Neither of the proposals in Amendments 28 and 29 was recommended by the commission after its very comprehensive investigation into this topic, and I can give reasons why that might be the case.

Amendment 28 would permit officers who are not subject to political restrictions to remain working for an authority while simultaneously seeking election to it. At present, the legal position is that if such people have political ambitions or a desire to offer their services to the public as a councillor, they are free to seek election to every council in the country besides the one that employs them. However, if they think that the best capacity in which they can serve their own council is as a councillor, they are asked to give up their employment before accepting nomination for election. In effect, one has to choose whether one wants to serve as an elected member or as an employed official.

If an employee has a realistic chance of being elected to the authority for which he or she works, the position is not entirely different from the one that applies to someone who has already been elected. The conflict of interest already starts to apply. The candidate will inevitably, and indeed in some respects quite properly, be looking ahead to the long term and to carrying out the duties of a councillor. From a practical point of view, the period between being elected as a member of a council and having to resign one’s employment will necessarily be very short, as Amendment 28 recognises. A person would be unable to serve any notice period. There are therefore big issues such as future income and time in this situation.

Even if an employee has no realistic chance of being elected, there are grounds for objecting to permitting retention of employment by the council while standing for election. The possibility is opened up of candidacies that might be perceived as undermining the relationship between employer and employee. What if voters believed that employees were standing for election against sitting councillors as part of a strategy in pay negotiations? I am afraid that that might undermine confidence in the democratic process.

Amendment 28 would not in fact permit council employees to stand for election to the council by which they are employed; it would remove the statutory prohibition but whether a person was subject to any restrictions would then be a matter of contract and employment law. That opens up the possibility of different provisions applying across the country or indeed within the same authority. It raises the prospect of party political considerations interfering or being perceived to interfere in decisions by existing councillors as to whether a council employee should be permitted to stand for election. So while I applaud the sentiment

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of seeking to widen the category of person who is able to offer their services as elected members of authorities, to include existing employees of local authorities is fraught with practical problems.

Amendment 29 seeks to allow local authority members to take up paid employment with the local authority they used to be a member of just 12 weeks after leaving office. Presently, the period is 12 months. I ask noble Lords to consider very carefully the effect of such a serious reduction in the interval between leaving office and taking up employment. On the most practical level, most posts in local authorities take at least 12 weeks to fill. The effect of Amendment 29 would be that councillors who had lost their seat would be able to put in their application for employment by the council from which they had just been unseated virtually before the ballot papers were counted.

That officers of a local authority are fairly appointed on merit is a fundamental and legitimate expectation that the citizen has of those working on their behalf in their local authority. The 12-month buffer gives citizens and officers confidence that the former local authority member has attained employment through ability and honest competition, and helps him or her to be free of the spectre of having used some undue influence in winning the post.

Simply put, I remain unpersuaded that there is any substantial reason for change, especially change that might damage confidence in the performance of the local authority. I am unaware of any evidence that the existence of the 12-month buffer period is acting as a disincentive for able people to put themselves forward as candidates for election to local authorities, or that reducing it to just three months would have any appreciable effect on increasing the willingness of people to come forward. So I do have a problem with the amendment. However, I hope that is overcome by my response to the first of these amendments, which I am sure the noble Lord will take in very good part.

7 pm

Lord Tope: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister and I certainly take her response in good part. My understanding is that she has accepted the intention behind Amendment 27 but that it needs to be correctly drafted, and that it will come back to us at Third Reading. She is indicating her assent, and in that case I am extremely grateful to her and pleased that that is to happen. I am sure that the revised amendment will receive all-party support and a general welcome in local government.

I listened carefully to her clear comments on Amendments 28 and 29 and I should like to look at them more carefully. I understood and agreed with quite a lot of what she said in response to Amendment 28, but I am less sure about Amendment 29. However, we will consider them further and see what happens at later stages. For the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 27 withdrawn.

Amendments 28 and 29 not moved.

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Clause 10: Electronic petitions

Amendment 30

Moved by Lord Greaves

30: Clause 10, leave out Clause 10

Lord Greaves: My Lords, this amendment would leave out Clause 10, which refers to electronic petitions. I suppose that I should mark the fact that we have moved away from Chapter 1 about democratic involvement and into Chapter 2, which relates to petitions. It will come as no surprise to the Minister to hear that I would much prefer that the entire chapter on petitions did not exist. It is unnecessary. To produce eight full pages and getting on for 3,000 words of primary legislation telling councils how to deal with petitions is a waste of legislative time and, some would say, an insult to local authorities. I would certainly say that it is not the best way to go about it.

I am less agitated about Clause 10 than I am about the rest of the chapter. No doubt the Minister will remind me that in Grand Committee I said that this was a well drafted clause and showed how the rest of the clauses on petitions should be done if the Government insisted on legislating on petitions. I stand by that because it is brief, clear and leaves local authorities to work out exactly what they are going to do. Nevertheless, it is not necessary. This is not something that councillors cannot do now. If councils want to set up an e-petition facility on their websites, they can do so. I do not know whether any councils are doing it, but I am absolutely certain that the best approach would have been to work out sensible guidance in co-operation with the Local Government Association and send it round to councils. Whenever Ministers such as the noble Baroness go around the country making speeches, they could include this as something that should be done. Articles could be written in magazines and there could be a general acceptance within the local government world, or what people nowadays, in a rather modern way that I do not really approve of, call the local government community. It that were done, I do not doubt that the great majority of councils would have e-petitions up and running within 12 months. In fact, they would get them ready more quickly than as a result of legislation that made it compulsory.

It really is a nonsense to introduce legislation that forces councils to do exactly what the Government want on issues such as this. If the culture in local government was to adopt e-petitions and they were accepted as something that everyone just did, all councils would have them. That is the right approach. One of the reasons why that is a better way is that different councils would set them up in different ways. We would see diversity of provision in e-petition systems around the country. The Government will say that they want everyone to be exactly the same, but the problem is that unless you have diversity of provision, you will never know what best practice is. The best approach is to let people do their own thing and then learn from one another on the basis of best practice.

The Government believe that they know how to do things in detail. The nanny state comes along and says, “This is exactly what you have to do and exactly how

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you have to do it. If you don’t do it our way, you will be breaking the law”. That is ludicrous. I therefore have no hesitation at all in moving this amendment to take Clause 10 out of the Bill. That would not prevent councils from setting up e-petitions, and indeed it might even encourage them, but this is the wrong way to go about it. It is a top-down, new Labour, centralised state way and it should not happen. I beg to move.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, I am puzzled by the attitude of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, although I know where he is coming from. I sympathise with his feeling that this is an attempt by centralising government, local or national, to have things done exactly as they feel they should be done. But that is not necessarily so. I believe that the noble Lord has wide experience, so he must have seen petitions drawn up in many ways. By and large, when someone asks someone else to sign a petition, they sum up in two sentences what the petition is about and the petitioner then signs it. No one examines the syntax or logic of the motion because it is the issue that matters. The issue is accepted by the petitioner and he signs it. However, if the petition is capable of misinterpretation, certainly after the event when the result is known, to say that the petition did not mean this or did not mean that would be anti-democratic and not in the interests of pursuing the issue.

I had some experience of petitions during my service on Enfield Council. They invariably argued against an action of the council in the planning field, for instance, or in the education field. I remember the actions of my friend the late John Mackie, the MP for Enfield East, at the time of the introduction of national comprehensive education in the mid-1960s. A tremendous petition was presented to the council and to Parliament in the name of the voters and residents of Enfield. When it was examined it was found that many hundreds of people who had attended the Enfield or Edmonton markets had signed the petition but had no right to do so. The noble Lord’s concern is misplaced. There needs to be some guidance and a method whereby petitions can be made clear.

Another petition with which my good friend the late lamented John Mackie was involved concerned a planning issue where big sums of money were at stake. When people sign a petition they are generally driven or motivated by how the issue affects them. That is all very good and correct, but I do not think that we should be too mealy mouthed and say that a petition should be acceptable in whatever form the promoter wishes it to be. There is nothing wrong with the Government giving the appearance of being heavy-handed; if petitions are to have relevance and validity they must be seen to be well drawn up. I am talking not about the contents of the petition but about its style and its manner.

I cannot accept the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, which can be summed up as being against the policing and shaping of petitions in the way proposed by the Government. I believe that the Government’s proposals are far better than the present situation.

Baroness Warsi: My Lords, unfortunately, I do not support the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in seeking to leave out Clause 10. We on these Benches are not

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opposed to an e-petition scheme; on the contrary, we believe that it is likely to assist both the local authority and those making petitions. I seldom compliment the Government on what they do but the introduction of the online petition scheme at Downing Street has been very useful in providing the oxygen of publicity on various causes, such as the Lisbon treaty and a new bank holiday. Members of the House may disagree on whether the petitioners were right or wrong, but if we are looking for an increased engagement between local people and local authorities, Clause 10 may help to facilitate that.

7.15 pm

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Baroness’s intervention. I welcome her support and that of my noble friend, who made some very telling comments. I know that we are pre-empting a larger debate, which will surface as we go through the amendments, on whether we should legislate for petitions at all, and I shall use those arguments as we come to them. I am confused by the noble Lord’s opposition now to a clause that he said he was in favour of in Committee. He was relatively full of praise for the clause and congratulated the Government on it. During later discussions he went so far as to say that he did not seek to leave out e-petitions. I was hopeful that we might maintain some consistency and I am surprised by his new-found opposition.

I can only confirm what I said in Grand Committee, which was that e-petitions are an invaluable tool. As the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, said, we need to look only at the success of the No. 10 e-petition site and the experience of local authorities such as Bristol and Kingston to see how effective e-petitions can be in communicating community concerns and giving public bodies the opportunity to address them in ways that they could not have dreamt of even five years ago. Therefore, it is only right that our legislation should show that people can make petitions in this way.

The noble Lord seems to think that this is happening, or might happen, in many more places, but so far we are aware of only three local authorities operating e-petitions out of the 388 authorities in England. We want to make more happen and we have chosen this vehicle to do that. We want to achieve both visibility and a systematic way of drawing petitions to the attention of the community, as well as their rights under the Bill to receive acknowledgements and action. We will come on to that in later amendments.

These provisions are essentially about raising standards everywhere. This is an important clause and I am disappointed by the noble Lord’s response. I certainly stand by my comments in Grand Committee and wish to see Clause 10 stand part of the Bill.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, there are degrees of opposition: some things are absolutely crazy and can get me going, such as an amendment that we debated earlier, and some things we would be better simply not doing. This is in the latter category. If you are going to do this then, as I said in Committee and I stand by it, this is a sensible clause.

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I do not know which the three local authorities are. One is Bristol and one is Kingston, but whether the third is also Liberal Democrat run I do not know. The two named by the noble Baroness certainly are. Perhaps that says something; I do not know.

If it is made clear to local authorities what e-petitions are and what they are meant to do, if local authorities are given clear guidance on how to conduct them and if they are encouraged to do it, then I think that this should happen, particularly if it was a joint initiative between the LGA and the Government. If this were to be done in a serious, voluntary way, half the authorities in the country would set up schemes within 12 months and most of them within two years. Once it became known that other councils were doing it, there would be a demand for it locally and those councils that did not want to do it would be forced to do it by their residents, local newspapers and other local groups. There is no doubt about that and that is the way to do it.

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