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Lord Graham of Edmonton : I hear the cry. We are the only body of legislators not to have had its pensions and allowances reviewed recently. Members and Ministers in the House of Commons and Ministers of this House have had their allowances reviewed, but not Members of this House. Three cheers for the Government for grasping the nettle as part of the Bill.
I wish the Bill well. I am sure that the Minister will give us many a long night in trying to explain to Members opposite that it is sensible and reasonable. He should be assured that Members on this side of the House give him their full support.
Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, I can claim to have been elected to local government even longer than the noble Lord, Lord Graham. I hope that it will not offend him or other noble Lords if I call him my noble friend Lord Graham. We have known each other a long time.
I am tempted, also, to stray to the main body of the Bill. However, at this hour I feel I must concentrate all of my time on Clause 68. I have a special interest in this matter. I must tell your Lordships that it was I who introduced and carried through Section 28 as a Private Member's Bill in the other place in 1987. I fought the
I must warn all colleagues who have spoken tonight that in speaking in support of Section 28 they may well incur considerable wrath, as I did. I did not only incur verbal abuse for my pains but physical abuse too. On one occasion, opponents of Section 28 attacked me outside my constituency office and tried to turn my car over with me inside it. I was saved by the swift arrival of several police cars with sirens blaring.
Why did I bother to go on with it and run such a dangerous gauntlet? I was then Chairman of the Child and Family Protection Group. I was contacted by parents who strongly objected to their children at school being encouraged into homosexuality and being taught that a normal family with mummy and daddy was outdated. To add insult to their injury, they were infuriated that it was their money, paid over as council tax, which was being used for this. This all happened after pressure from the Gay Liberation Front. At that time I took the trouble to refer to their manifesto, which clearly stated:
However, I would be surprised to learn that he did not see parents of children in his own local government constituency. Parents certainly came to me and told me what was going on. They gave me some of the books with which little children as young as five and six were being taught. There was The Playbook for Kids about Sex in which brightly coloured pictures of little stick men showed all about homosexuality and how it was done. That book was for children as young as five. I should be surprised if anybody supports that.
Another book called The Milkman's on his Way explicitly described homosexual intercourse and, indeed, glorified it, encouraging youngsters to believe that it was better than any other sexual way of life.
Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. I do not disbelieve a word stated by the noble Baroness. However, what she says is so grotesque that I would be grateful if, before Committee, she could supply copies of the books she mentions. We shall then be able to look at them and no doubt will be as abhorred as she was. From her description it is both obscene and grotesque. I do not believe a word of it, from my experience. My noble friend Lord Harris spoke from his experience and I spoke from mine. Edmonton and Enfield may be
Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, I do not refer to parents from my own constituency but to those from some of the very left-wing boroughs in London. I was keen to get rid of the books but I know they still exist because they were produced to me by parents. I was shown what the children were being taught and told why the parents objected so much.
Another book, which I should have thought everyone would remember, was called Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin. It depicted, on its cover, a little girl of about six years old sitting up in bed with her naked father on one side and his naked lover on the other. I shall quote the exact words used in the book because that, more than anything else, shows the age for which it was intended. It stated:
Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for drawing my attention and that of the House to what is now being keenly anticipated. It would amaze me if anyone in this House supported what we have just heard. It was those matters which made me introduce Clause 28 and it is important that the House understands that.
I referred earlier to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey. Haringey council made a video called "How to become a lesbian in 35 minutes". It was intended to be shown in a school for mentally handicapped girls, some of whom were extremely young. In the course of my years as a local councillor I took a great interest in the mentally handicapped children in my area; I served on the boards of schools and had a great deal to do with them. From my experience of those children, it is difficult enough for them to understand normal sexual relations without having homosexuality foisted upon them. I find it horrifying that anyone would support that.
When Clause 28 was introduced, it was recognised that it was necessary. My provision obtained a big majority in the other place, though the most wild allegations were being made. Some people suggested that it would not allow the production or teaching of Shakespeare in schools. That has been proven to be quite wrong, as were many other allegations. My noble friends Lord Waddington and Lady Blatch made it clear that there was nothing in Clause 28 which could encourage or initiate bullying. We all hate bullying. It happens for a number of reasons and it is the job of the teacher to notice it happening and to stop it. There was no suggestion that Clause 28 encouraged bullying and I utterly reject that allegation. In fact, I am in touch with a number of schools and school governors. I am known to be the initiator of Clause 28 and have had not one complaint that it led to bullying. I am sure that I would have done. Clause 28 was intended solely to protect little children. Those who seek to repeal it now must explain why they seek to withdraw that protection and on what grounds they so deplore normal family life.
In the past week I have received over 1,000 letters and petitions from those who support what is now Section 28. I ask your Lordships, and in particular I ask the Government, to realise that there is a well of public opinion that is extremely anxious that it be abolished. People are anxious that their children should not be subject to that kind of proselytising. I suggested to some of those who wrote to me that they ought to write to their Members of Parliament and tell them their views. Many of them did so and some sent me the replies. The Member of Parliament for Brighton Kemptown said that he understood the concern but had to point out that no prosecutions had ever been brought as a result of Section 28. Does that show it is not successful? I should have thought it showed the reverse.
I particularly noticed that at the start of this debate the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, called Section 28 "pernicious". I went to the Library and looked up the word in the dictionary. The meaning of the word pernicious is,
Lord Hunt of Tanworth: My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest as honorary chairman of the Local Government Association, particularly since, prior to the establishment of the parliamentary Joint Committee, I chaired a hearing on behalf of the LGA which took evidence both from local authorities and from partner bodies on the Bill in its draft form. The procedure of having a draft Bill for scrutiny before it comes to Parliament is very useful. I commend the Government on that and congratulate the Joint Committee on its report.
I cannot forbear saying, however, that it is slightly ironic that, having had this slow and careful procedure of the Bill being available in draft in March, the present version is already going to be subject to amendment following the report of the Joint Committee, which we received at the end of last week. Of course, we must wait for the crucial draft regulations and guidance, which will put flesh on the skeleton of the Bill and which will be crucial to how it will work in practice. I suppose we must be patient.
Given the number of speakers and that we have to some extent been having two separate debates today, I propose to keep my remarks brief and confine them to Parts I and II of the Bill--in which I find much to welcome. In particular, I welcome the proposed power to promote the well-being of a local authority's area. It has been common ground for some time that just as there has been a shift in the role of local authorities from being mainly service providers to enablers, so the field of local governance below local authorities has expanded. It is highly desirable that local government should be encouraged to play its role as the democratic community leader in the complex world of local government.
During the hearing on the draft Bill that I chaired on behalf of the Local Government Association, I was repeatedly struck and encouraged by the absence of complacency among the witnesses. They did not tell us that what they had been doing for ages past was right and should not change. Almost all of them recognised and accepted the need to modernise their political leadership arrangements and structures. As many of your Lordships know, many local authorities have been doing so in anticipation of the Bill. Many welcomed the draft Bill as it stood but witnesses also expressed two concerns, to which noble Lords have referred today.
First, many witnesses expressed the feeling that none of the three executive models might be suitable for some authorities, such as small local authorities or those without a party political majority. The response to the Joint Committee makes it clear that while the Secretary of State would be able to add other executive models to the three in the Bill, he would not add any that did not involve a split between the executive and scrutiny roles. The question of further models will need further consideration and testing during the passage of the Bill through this House.
I am not saying that our witnesses wanted the status quo. Nor did they say that. They talked about the status quo plus. They used all sorts of language. The need to modernise was generally accepted but there was a feeling that the executive models would not suit in all circumstances, although they might suit in many of them.
The second concern was that while the proposed arrangements in Part II should lead to executives that in theory can be more efficient, identifiable and accountable, they could in the long run--by appearing to diminish the role of back-bench members--lead to fewer able people being willing to stand for council membership. I am glad that there appears to be agreement on the importance of making scrutiny and overview a genuinely worthwhile job. That is something to which the Government say they attach importance and, in their response to the Joint Committee, they proposed to allow the development of the role and the delegation of executive functions to area committees. Again, we need to give further consideration during the passage of the Bill to establishing good direction of policy through the
Perhaps it is permissible to conclude by stressing the need for maximum flexibility within an overall policy. Local authorities differ considerably in their needs and aspirations. They should be encouraged to respond to local circumstances wherever possible. Local government is for local people. Central government guidelines and regulations ought to be as flexible as possible except where central control is genuinely necessary. Providing that flexibility will be the surest way to interest people and turn out the local voter.
Lord Tope: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth. My noble friend Baroness Hamwee and I served on the Select Committee to which the noble Lord referred. He is quite right in his description of the evidence that was given. We entitled our report Rebuilding Trust, which was an apt title at the time and is still. It is a title against which we should judge how well the Bill fulfils its intentions.
I welcome the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, and a speech from another council leader in your Lordships' House. I have been here just five years and for most of that time I have been the only council leader in the House. For much of that time, more than half the councillors in your Lordships' House were in my own party. I am delighted that is no longer the case and that in this House, at least, we have people who speak with current knowledge and experience of local government. That will prove invaluable as the Bill goes forward.
I repeat and endorse the concerns expressed by my noble friend Lady Hamwee at the start of this debate. As it happens, members of all three Front Benches suffered through the long hours of the Greater London Authority Bill. All of us suffered a huge number of government amendments, often at late notice. We were very tolerant. We understood that there were considerable time pressures and we wanted to see the Bill through. We knew that Ministers were at least as angry, and embarrassed--and, no doubt, so were their officials.
I must put the Government on notice that we are not prepared to go through that process again with this Bill. The same excuses do not apply. The very day after the Bill was published, in a Written Answer in the other place, it was announced that the Government intended to bring forward substantial amendments to reflect their response to the Joint Committee report. But, at that time, none of us had seen the response to the Joint Committee's report, even though it was published last July. With some pressure from the Ministers, for which we are grateful, that response was finally published on Thursday afternoon.
However, I had the somewhat bizarre experience of going to the Printed Paper Office and being told that, although they had the Government's response, they could not give it to me, or anyone else, because they had not been authorised to release it. I do not wish to embarrass the Minister, but I believe he discovered the limitations of his powers that afternoon because he was not able to authorise that release. All this took place on the last sitting day before the Second Reading debate of a Bill which we have been told is not actually the Bill that the Government are going to take through this House. That is extremely unsatisfactory; indeed, we should not have to put up with it.
In case the Minister has forgotten, I shall repeat the request that my noble friend made earlier for assurances on when we will get all--not just one or two--of the Government's amendments as a package. Can the Minister tell us when we will get those amendments? Can he assure us that we will have them 14 days before the Committee stage begins, so that, this time, we can give proper and due consideration to the Government's real Bill, not the one that is before us today? Can the noble Lord also confirm that these amendments relate only to, or primarily to, Parts II and III of the Bill? Alternatively, will we see amendments to other parts of the legislation of which we are not yet even aware? That is the end of my whinge; but it is a serious one. I know that the Government Front Bench will take it as such.
I turn now to the Bill. A Second Reading debate should be about the principles of the legislation. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, just said, we have actually had two debates going on almost in parallel here for, perhaps, understandable reasons. The intention of the Bill is to promote the community leadership role of local government. We have heard talk about partnership committees and know that they have existed in one form or another in many authorities over the years. I was amused to hear the noble Lord, Lord Smith, refer to the leaders' forum in his local authority. We have a similar forum in my local authority, but we do not call it "the leaders' forum" and we do not have it over dinner; we call it the "breakfast forum". Perhaps that reflects the difference between a Labour-controlled authority and one controlled by the Liberal Democrats.
The other intention of the Bill is to ensure that local government is modern--a most over-used word that I am coming to resent more and more. Indeed, it must be modern, effective, transparent and, above all, accountable in its decision-making processes. In other words, the Bill's intention is, or should be, to revitalise local democracy. It is against those criteria that we have to judge the likely effects of the legislation.
I strongly support the proposals that are coming from elsewhere to modernise the electoral arrangements so as to bring a 19th-century system into the 21st century. I am strongly in favour of that aim. However, I do not believe that difficulty in voting is the reason for low turnouts at elections in this country. There may be some people who find it difficult or impossible to get to the polling station, but not 65 per cent of the electorate. If people want to vote in this
It will not surprise noble Lords to know that I strongly support the change to a fairer voting system. I was impressed to note today that the calls we have heard in today's debate for such a system have come from Benches other than the Liberal Democrat Benches; indeed, such calls came mostly from the Government's own Benches. I take some heart from that fact. If we were ever to see any form of PR in this country, I always believed that it would come first to local government. However, I am now beginning to wonder whether it will ever come to local government.
Local government is ideally suited to a proportional system. If any single measure could break up the one-party state, to which the Government seem to object--though, personally, I have no objection to some one-party states, especially in the London borough of Sutton--it will be a proportional voting system. That, too, will go some way towards making voters feel that their vote is not wasted. However, important though it is, not even I believe that PR is the panacea to revitalise local democracy. What we need to revitalise local democracy is an entirely different relationship between local government and central government and, above all, between local government and local people.
My noble friend Lady Hamwee has occasionally referred to my liking for referring to "spheres" rather than tiers of government. It is not an original thought; indeed, it is fairly common in Europe and was, I believe, adopted in South Africa. But it is not a matter of playing with words; it is an important difference in attitude. The word "tiers" implies a hierarchy. It suggests that local government is somehow lower than central government. That is reinforced by the huge number of people who go from, and sometimes use, local government as a stepping stone into the House of Commons. When one talks about "spheres" of government, one is recognising that each different form of government has its own part to play in the total governance of the country. It is a very important difference in attitude and not just a matter of playing with words. Those are the principles--the criteria, if you like--on which we need to judge this Bill, and decide to what extent they will be achieved.
I start with Part I, which deals with what I would call the power of promoting well-being; in other words, economic, social and environmental well-being. That is welcomed. We are very pleased to see that provision and will support it. However, that still reinforces the idea of tiers rather than spheres. That is the essential difference between this power and the power of general competence that we seek. A power of general competence would say that local government may do all those things that it wishes to do, unless there is some prohibition by Parliament to prevent it from so doing. This power is the other way round and that is the important difference. Nevertheless, this is still a welcome step forward.
Part II of the Bill is considerably more troublesome. I find it a lot more difficult. That is not because I have a great problem in understanding or even, to some extent, agreeing with the executive and scrutiny split. Part II concentrates so much on the process and so little on the outcomes. The role of Parliament and of government should be to say, "These are the outcomes we want from government. This is what we want local government to achieve". If the Government really trusted local government, they would set those targets--those outcomes--and say to them, "You determine the process for achieving those targets in co-operation and consultation with your local partners and local people. What is important is not how you get there but where you get to". I believe that that is one of the essential weaknesses of Part II of this Bill.
I shall talk for a moment about my own local authority in the London borough of Sutton. I am no longer leader there, which makes it a little easier for me to talk about it. My party is now in its fourth term of office there. That is a fairly unusual experience for the Liberal Democrats, even these days. It is even more unusual in London, which is not generally considered to be natural Liberal Democrat territory.
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