Standing Committee F
Tuesday 27 February 2001
[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): On a point of order, Mr. Gale. I thank the Minister for providing guidance concerning fixed penalty notices and for tabling two new clauses that deal with the issues surrounding Huntingdon Life Sciences. If it becomes necessary for the Programming Sub-Committee to meet again, will the Minister consider changing the order of consideration to ensure that there will be enough time to debate the new clauses? Perhaps he would consider interposing them after schedule 1, as they address issues that are in the public eye, and there is great concern for the welfare of the scientists involved.
The Chairman: That may be considered, if the Sub-Committee sits again.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): Further to that point of order, Mr. Gale. The Government will carefully consider the comments made by you and the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). His suggestion is worthy of being taken seriously, and the matter might usefully be discussed by the usual channels.
Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough): Further to that point of order, Mr. Gale. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire has anticipated what I was going to say. I draw the Committee's attention to the brutal outrage committed against Brian Cass, the chief executive of Huntingdon Life Sciences. Will the Minister assure the Committee that there will be ample time to discuss the matter?
The Chairman: The hon. Lady has succeeded in drawing the Committee's attention to the matter, but it is not a point of order.
Designated public places
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I beg to move amendment No. 32, in page 8, line 14, at end insert
`(2A) An order under subsection (2) may only be made by a meeting of the full local authority.'.
The Chairman: With this we may discuss the following amendments: No. 33, in page 8, line 22, at end insert
`(5A) The functions of a local authority under this section may not be discharged by an officer of the authority.'.
No. 34, in page 8, line 22, at end insert
`(5A) Regulations under subsection (4) shall, in particular, provide than any meeting of a local authority, or of a local authority executive or committee, which relates in any way to the making of an order under subsection (2), shall be held in public.'.
Mr. Hawkins: The amendments are intended to provide clarification and certainty about the involvement of local authorities in the matter of designated public places. My party feels strongly that the matter should be dealt with only by elected councillorsrather than by delegation to council officersand that it should be discussed only in full and public meetings of the relevant local authority. It is necessary for that to be made clear because, despite the Government's much-vaunted protestations that they believe in open government, in other legislation they have gone back on the traditional practice of ensuring that the press have proper access to local authority meetings. You will remember, Mr. Gale, as it is a matter of considerable comment, that early in her parliamentary career, Baroness Thatcher introduced a private Member's Bill that succeeded in enshrining in statute the provision that all local authority meetings should be held in public and that the press should be able to report them fully.
Mr. Charles Clarke: Will the hon. Gentleman concede that many Conservative councillors throughout the country, including those who represent authorities that are controlled by the Conservative party, are working in the cabinet style of government that the Government introduced to make the system more effective, along the lines suggested by the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) when he was in government. Is there a right hon. Member for Henley versus Lady Thatcher split emerging among the Conservatives on this question?
Mr. Hawkins: Local authorities in my area have been forced by legislation to adopt, reluctantly, a system that they find wholly insupportableas the Minister raised the point, the figures have been fiddled for one of the local authorities in my constituency. On the basis of its real population, the local authority in my constituency should be in a position to benefit from a statutory exemption according to which authorities with a population of less than 85,000 are not liable to the imposition of the new cabinet system. It is only because the Government have indulged in creative accounting and ascribed to my authority an imaginary group of economic migrants and asylum seekers who do not actually exist that their theoretical assessment of the local authority's population is above the 85,000 limit. If I pursue that point any further, I am sure that I will be ruled out of order.
In fairness, the Minister should concede that these are important new provisions. The Government are suggesting significant duties for local authorities. It is essential to clarify in the Bill that proceedings will take place only if the full local authority meets in public and decisions cannot be delegated.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I wish to put on the record a correction to the impression given by the Minister. The Opposition wholeheartedly opposed the local government rules and regulations introduced last year under the Local Government Act 2000. We opposed the Bill on Second and Third Reading and in the House of Lords. We tried to amend it to get rid of the cabinet-style system. We opposed it up and down the nation.
The Minister is right in saying that certain Conservative-controlled local authorities have been forced by the Labour Government to move towards the cabinet-style system, but we would have preferred to retain the status quo.
The Chairman: Order. I know that the Minister raised the issue, that hon. Members wish to respond, and that there is a general election in the offing, but can we get back to the amendment?
Mr. Hawkins: As always, my hon. Friend makes a powerful point, with which I agree.
Returning to the amendment, perhaps the Minister and other hon. Members will recognise that the matters are of substantial public concern.
Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I have a simple question for the hon. Gentleman. Just for a second, let us suppose that I accept the general thrust of his argument. Does he concede that in some circumstancesfor example, when short notice is given of some public event, perhaps a public demonstrationit might be important that a local authority is able to designate an area without delay, and that to insist on a full meeting of the local authority before the event would actually threaten public order? There might be circumstances in which a sub-committee or even delegated powers would make sense, to prevent a threat to public order.
Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that interesting point. The view of the Opposition is that, because of the importance of the new powers, every local authority must have an opportunity to debate fully what is a public place for the purposes of the operation of the new powers. One hopes that a local authority would take its responsibilities seriously. The proceedings should always take the form of full, public debates. A good way to ensure that that happens is to state in the Bill that a meeting of the full local authority is required.
If the provisions become law, local authorities will be able to plan ahead once they are accustomed to using the powers. Surely the hon. Gentleman accepts that the powers will not be workable if events are arranged at short notice. No doubt, in designating public places, local authorities will need to plan ahead and decide which areas are likely locations for such events. We hope that, over time, local authorities will get used to meeting in public, and will realise that they cannot delegate powers and that it is not in the public interest for events to be arranged at short notice. If a local authority has met in full and designated public places where events that require these powers might occur, events that subsequently take place will be subject to that decision.
I hope that the Minister will take our concerns seriously and respond to them. If he says that our amendments are not to the point, but that he will think about tabling Government amendments on the matter, perhaps on Report, we will consider that.
Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood): I want to raise some points about the amendment because, coincidentally, Wyre borough council, which represents half my constituency, will meet this evening to discuss setting up byelaws to limit drinking in public places. The police's recommendation to the council is that although there is not a problem in general, some areasfor example, Fleetwoodhave problems.
The people of Fleetwood are considering whether to set up a town council. They think that it is the responsibility of a town council to debate and discuss law and order and pass on comments to the district council, which covers a wide geographical area.
Mr. Heald: In Royston in my constituency, we have a good town council that does a lot of work along those lines. Is not one of the great benefits of a town council that the local police chiefbe that the inspector or the superintendentcan explain police plans to the town council and listen to the town council's priorities?
Mrs. Humble: That is certainly the case. My point is that I do not want town or parish councilsboth of which we have in Lancashireexcluded from active involvement in decision making. Representatives on those councils have a good understanding of their areas. I have raised that issue, as have some of my hon. Friends, with my hon. Friend the Minister.
The explanatory notes suggest that the Government are considering producing regulations about the procedure that local authorities should follow for designating public places. I urge the Minister to consider how, according to such regulations, parish and town councils might be involved. Will he accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) that there will be instances where local authorities may not meet for two or three months, perhaps over the summer? We must ensure that the regulations govern the right areas.