HL Deb 24 June 2003 vol 650 cc59-112GC

(Eighth Day)

Tuesday, 24th June 2003.

The Committee met at a half past three of the clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Lyell) in the Chair.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Lyell)

I remind the Committee that, if there is a Division in the Chamber, we shall adjourn as soon as the Division hells have rung and resume after 10 minutes. I am advised that there are other activities in the Chamber.

Baroness O'Cathain

moved Amendment No. 221C: After Clause 116, insert the following new clause—


(1) Sections 2 to 8 of the City of Westminster Act 1996 (c. viii) (control of unlicensed sex establishments) shall have effect, for the purposes of this Act, as if they were incorporated in this Act with the substitution—

  1. (a) for references to Westminster City Council of references to a local authority, and
  2. (b) for references to the City of Westminster of references to the local authority's area.

(2) In this section. "local authority" means—

  1. (a) a county council;
  2. (b) a county borough council;
  3. (c) a district council;
  4. (d) a London borough council;
  5. (e) the Common Council of the City of London;
  6. (f) the Council of the Isles of Scilly."

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 221C relates to the control of unlicensed sex establishments. I should say at the start that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, had previous notice of the amendment by way of a letter and briefing sent on 7th April. My noble friend Lady Blatch mentioned that at Second Reading on 3rd April. It should come as no surprise.

The background to the amendment is the operation of Schedule 3 to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982. The provisions give powers for controlling sex establishments, as defined by the Act, including the regulation and licensing of sex shops. Many local authorities have adopted that particular piece of legislation and regularly receive applications for the licensing of or renewal of a licence for a sex shop. The procedure for the applications is clearly set out in Schedule 3, and, on the basis of that legislation, the relevant council can refuse or grant an application for a licence or for the renewal of a licence for a sex shop as it considers appropriate.

Research among local authorities, however, shows that problems are encountered when an application for a licence or a renewal is refused by a local authority and the sex shop continues to trade as an unlicensed establishment. I am told that, on refusal of a licence or renewal of a licence, the shop owners will make certain cosmetic changes to the stock layout in the premises and then contend that they do not fall within the scope of the relevant legislation because the business on their premises is not one, which consists to a significant degree of selling sex articles.

The wording that I quoted comes directly from paragraph 4(1) of Schedule 3 to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982, to which I have already referred. Apparently the owner will argue that a licence is unnecessary. The onus is then placed on the local authority to make a decision as to whether a prosecution should follow relating to trading without a licence. This difficulty has been encountered by many local authorities across the country. My research shows that in Bournemouth in particular, at least two if not three sex shops have been trading without a licence for some 10 years without any further action being taken by the authority.

Towards the end of the 1990s the situation in the Westminster City Council area, which of course includes the infamous area of Soho, became so had that the council went to the trouble and expense of obtaining their own Act of Parliament, now known as the City of Westminster Act 1996. That piece of legislation gives the council extra powers relating to the closure of premises trading without a sex shop licence. I understand that the council considers this legislation to be of great help in regulating the trade of unlicensed sex shops.

The legislation requires Westminster City Council to come to the conclusion that a premises is being used as a sex establishment without a licence, and as such is trading in breach of Schedule 3 to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982. The council may then decide to serve a closure notice in respect of the premises. I understand from officials at Westminster City Council that they have found that the service of a closure notice usually leads to the owners of the shop closing the premises and, moreover, that very few such closure notices are tested in the courts. However, when the closure notice is contested, I am told that usually a successful conclusion is reached in those proceedings so far as the council is concerned.

One can understand why Westminster City Council felt that it needed extra powers in relation to the areas for which it is responsible, but I understand also that the chief trading standards officer for a neighbouring authority, Camden Council, would welcome an extension of these powers to cover its area. Camden Council anticipates that if the powers were extended to cover Camden, then both councils, Camden and Westminster, would be able to work closely on enforcement and closure proceedings.

One difficulty with regard to having a piece of legislation such as the City of Westminster Act 1996 on the statute book is that it simply moves the problem over the local authority boundary into neighbouring authorities; in this case, Camden. The purpose of this amendment is to extend the powers granted to the City of Westminster by the City of Westminster Act 1996 to cover all other local authorities which have adopted the powers conferred on them by Schedule 3 to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982.

Members of the Committee will appreciate that this is essentially a probing amendment. It may be that further consideration needs to be given to its implementation, including consideration of whether the City of Westminster Act 1996 should be repealed if the amendment were to be included in the Bill now being considered. Bearing in mind the positive reaction from Camden Council and other councils which have been approached on this over the past few months, it does not seem unreasonable to consider extensions of the powers contained in the City of Westminster Act 1996 to cover all local authorities.

I wish to inform Members of the Grand Committee that, shortly before we commenced our proceedings today, I had a discussion with the Minister about this matter. He is to respond with certain comments that will result in my not pressing the amendment any further at this stage. However, I move it in the hope that we shall be able to solve this problem for the longer term. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

Perhaps the noble Baroness can tell the Committee whether there has been any consultation with the Local Government Association. I well understand the problems with individual boroughs, such as Camden, which no doubt is concerned about the King's Cross area. I am not trying to make any point, other than to ask that question. However, when looking at the 1996 Act, it is a sad situation that one immediately starts thinking, "What will this cost the local authority to carry out?" So, I do not suggest that the problem the noble Baroness has highlighted is not one, but that there is a context to every additional power given to a local authority, welcome as the power itself may be.

Baroness Blatch

I rise very briefly to say that I support my noble friend. She has put the case very well. I think that at least one answer in reply to the question posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, is that of course it is a permissive power. It can use it or not use it as the case may be, but it does mean that if it is a particular problem—particularly in city areas—then at least the local authority will have a mechanism to do something about it. That is why I support the amendment.

Baroness Hanham

I, too, would like formally to support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lady O'Cathain. This issue is extremely important. Interestingly, the City of Westminster was the only authority which initially pushed for this procedure, but it was for very specific reasons, as my noble friend Lady O'Cathain pointed out. It is certainly true that once you deny something in one area and it is available in another, the problem begins to leap out. It is a problem with drugs, sex offences and with all kinds of things where there is prohibition in one area.

With regard to the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, licensing enforcement officers are already dealing, to some extent, with these establishments. So I do not suppose that a little more effort will cost all that much more. My feeling is that this provision would probably be widely welcomed, perhaps not everywhere, but certainly, as my noble friend Lady Blatch said, in those areas that are affected; and it would be a permissive power which the authorities could employ. So I am glad to support the amendment.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am grateful to all noble Baronesses who have spoken in this short discussion. I should start with two apologies. First, I apologise for not being my noble friend Lord Rooker. He is away on ministerial business. As we have had to slot in this extra session today he is unable to be here. I am afraid that I shall have to be a rather poor substitute.

My other apology, or perhaps note of regret, I should enter on the record is that we simply cannot accept the amendment which, as the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain says, is by way of a probing amendment. We recognise that the amendment raises important issues and deserves serious consideration.

It is simply too late to give proper consideration to wholly new proposals, even though of course they are to some extent tried and tested, at this very late and advanced stage of the Bill. The amendment in itself is also technically defective because the scope of the City of Westminster Act 1996 cannot be extended in the way in which the amendment suggests.

More importantly, the powers in that Act were chosen by that authority to meet its own particular circumstances. They might not necessarily be the right powers to meet the circumstances in other parts of the country, so, before legislation used locally is applied nationally, we would have to undertake some very careful consultation with local government and other interested parties. I was interested in the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, about the Local Government Association. I was working for it back in 1976, so it fell in my area of responsibility. I do not actually recall that we had any national discussion at that time.

However, we recognise the importance of the issue that has been raised. For all those reasons, while the Government cannot support the current amendment or agree to bring forward their own in the present Bill, we are prepared to say that in the spirit of being helpful—and we do want to be helpful—we will endeavour to follow the issue separately outside the terms of the Bill and its discussions. We will be willing, for instance, to raise the issue directly with the Local Government Association and if it canvasses support and sees relevance in taking action along the lines suggested in the amendment, we are prepared to work with it, with interested parties, and, in particular, with those councils that have a lot of expertise in dealing with the difficulties, to see whether specific proposals might be developed for legislation at some future date. I am sure the noble Baroness will not expect me to be specific about when that might be. That is not something that Governments do: they do not commit themselves absolutely to parliamentary timetables for particular pieces of legislation.

However, we support the general thrust of the amendment. We can see the relevance and importance of the issue. We are impressed by how the Westminster City Council Act has worked. We are more than happy to be proactive in working with the LGA and those other interested associations—perhaps the Association of London Government which will have an interest in this and other parties—to see what proposals we can develop along the lines set out for future legislation.

Baroness O'Cathain

First I want to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. I also want to thank the Minister for the spirit of his reply. I want to put down two markers. As regards the comment that the proposal was too late, in reality this issue was flagged up on 3rd April. This is now 24th June, so I do not really buy that one. I just do not think that it was. I am glad that the Government see that the amendment has merit.

The other issue regards the Minister's comment that the amendment is defective because the 'Westminster City Council Act cannot be extended. Again, I have to put up a marker. I hope that this is not a delaying tactic by saying that this is in the "all too difficult" basket. There is a huge feeling that this must be tackled, and tackled now.

The Minister is wily enough—he knew perfectly well that I would ask him when they would do something about it—and he got in before me. He said that he knew I would not expect him to commit on that. But I was pleased that he used the word "proactive" because I hope that that means not more than a few months. I will tease this one out further, I suspect.

In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I have not contacted the Local Government Association but I do not think it would take a lot of time. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. spoke of the cost involved. Some local authorities have these people anyway but, whatever the cost, it will not be excessive and will surely largely repay the current difficulties. The situation makes it very difficult for local authorities to conduct business in their areas. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.45 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

moved Amendment No. 221CA: After Clause 116, insert the following new clause—


(1) Section 52 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 (c. 29) (meetings of the whole Assembly) is amended as follows.

(2) After subsection (3) there is inserted— (3A) A meeting of the Assembly held under subsection (3) shall not be held within 28 days of the date when the last such meeting was held.

(3) In subsection (6)(b) for "28" there is substituted "14"."

The noble Baroness said: I have already declared an interest as a member, and currently chair, of the London Assembly. I wish to make it absolutely clear that neither this nor the following amendment are tabled with any degree of political animosity towards the current mayor. Members of the Committee may say that simply by saying that I am confessing to it, but that is not the case. I do not know how I can say it clearly enough.

Both of my amendments relate to matters which need rectification, if I can put it that way, from the position in the Greater London Authority Act. Amendment No. 221CA relates to the notice required to be given for the mayor's question time. Subject to a point I will make in a moment, the mayor is required to submit himself to questions from the Assembly on a regular basis. The Act provides that at least 28 clear days' notice of' each mayor's question time has to be given. That in itself would not be a problem. Indeed, as Members of the Committee will imagine, the current practice is to set the diary at least a year in advance. However, notice cannot he given until after the previous mayor's question time has been held. 'This problem was spotted quite early on when GLA officers started working on the diary. It was raised with officials at the Government Office at a very early date.

As I believe and recollect, the legislation was designed to stop mayor's question times being bunched together. That is entirely appropriate. They take place so that the mayor is held to account on a regular basis throughout the year. One can imagine that if the mayor and the majority of the Assembly were, at some date, to be of the same political party, that party and the mayor might wish not to he held accountable regularly throughout the year at appropriate periods.

I have tried to design the amendment to meet this point by specifying the period of notice and the number of days which have to elapse between meetings—that is, by providing for 14 days' notice of a meeting and meetings not to be held within 28 days of each other.

The issue has become topical and practical and it is a matter only of good luck that the GLA has been able to deal with it. Because someone did not look in the diary, the mayor has booked a holiday this year at a date that coincides with the July mayor's question time. There is an irony in that because, although the Assembly is obliged to hold mayor's question time 10 times a year, the mayor is not obliged to attend. He must provide a written report beforehand and there are sanctions if he misses a string of MQTs, but he does not actually have to pitch up.

This is not a new point. Whether or not my drafting is right. I hope that the opportunity—they come along infrequently enough—presented by the Bill can be taken to sort out this small, practical but difficult point. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

As ever, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has set out her case clearly. As she explained to the Committee, each year the Assembly is required to hold 10 meetings at which it considers a mayoral report and puts questions to the mayor. There is a requirement that at least 28 days' notice be given of such a meeting—which has the practical effect that meetings will always be at least 28 days apart—other than for the first meeting after an election when the notice required is as soon as is reasonably practicable. The amendment would reduce the notice period for meetings from 28 to 14 days while still ensuring that the meetings were at least 28 days apart.

The current 28-day notice period gives the mayor time to prepare his report for consideration at the meetings and for him and others to prepare for the questions that he will be asked. It also gives members of the public time to make arrangements to attend those meetings if they so wish. The amendment would not make it easier to fit those 10 meetings into a year—that is the first important point—but it would halve the notice period given for each meeting. In our view, that may create practical difficulties for those wanting to attend meetings.

The amendment would not solve the problem and could create further difficulty in that insufficient time would elapse for people to realise that the next round of mayor's question time and reporting was upon them. I understand the difficulty but I cannot see the amendment as a practical solution to the problem.

Earl Russell

As I was going up the stair, I met a mayor who was not there. He was not there again today. I wish to God he would go away.

This is a wonderful example of the use of the best brains in the country to think up more and more ways of saying no to practical parliamentary amendments. Of course there are difficulties. There are difficulties with every possible solution. One sometimes thinks that Ministers employ those in Whitehall to provide a problem for every solution. If the Minister thinks that the amendment does not provide the solution, what does he think does?

Baroness Hamwee

I was hoping that the Minister might respond to my noble friend.

When the Bill was originally presented to Parliament—this shows the mathematical ability of those at the other end of the Corridor—no one noticed that 12 meetings a year, which was in the original draft, with 28 days' gap between them would provide even more difficulty. I clearly recall the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and I sitting on the Front Bench saying, -This simply will not work". That is why the number of mayor's question time was reduced to 10. It was not because we do not want adequately to hold to account any mayor.

The Minister, who is a politician to his fingertips even if he is not now an elected politician, will understand that, in practical terms, April is not a good month for holding meetings, nor is August. Quite sensibly, the current arrangements are that those are the two down months. However, the draftsmen who dreamt up a work schedule for members and for the mayor—which, one suspects, they might not necessarily have themselves welcomed—have left us with a problem.

My noble friend is right—as ever, he puts it more effectively than I—and I suggest to the Minister that there must be a solution to this problem. The solution may be 28 days instead of 14. If the Minister would like officials from the Assembly and from the mayor's office to talk this through in front of him, let us have a go.

Of course one must give adequate notice of meetings, but one can give notice while allowing oneself some latitude. The mayor is required to report, but to hold meetings where we cannot have the mayor there—as the Committee can imagine, there is some hilarity as to whether the deputy mayor will make an appropriate substitute—is not a sensible way to hold the mayor of the capital city to account.

If no solution is available today, can I come and talk to the Minister and to his officials? This is a silly point and we need to bottom it out.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I do not want to labour the issue. It is not in our interests to do that this afternoon. I understand that there have been discussions between officials from the Assembly and the ODPM. I am prepared to make the obvious point that we are happy to continue those discussions to see whether a practical and workable solution can be found.

I recognise the importance of ensuring that we have protected time during the cycle of the political year. It is important that the mayor is given the opportunity to explain himself and that people are given the opportunity to question him as the legislation intended. After all, it is all about making sure that he is fully accountable.

There is no way that I will enter into a debate today about whether the deputy mayor is an appropriate substitute.

Baroness Hamwee

I hope that we can try to sort it out before the end of the Bill's passage. As I said, such opportunities are few and far between. As it has been reported to me—I may have misunderstood—such discussions as there have been, which have been with the Government Office rather than with the ODPM, have not particularly flagged up the problems let alone moved towards the solutions. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

4 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

moved Amendment No. 221CB: After Clause 116, insert the following new clause—


(1) After section 38 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 (c. 29) there is inserted—


38A (1) Section 22 of the Local Government Act 2000 (c. 22) (access to information etc) shall have effect as if—

  1. (a) the mayor was a local authority executive,
  2. (b) a reference to an individual member of such an executive referred to either the mayor or to a; person or body mentioned in section 38(2) to whom an authorisation has been given by the mayor under section 38(1), and
  3. (c) any occasion on which either the mayor or such a person or body exercises any function of the Authority (whether such a function is exercisable by him solely or by him jointly with the Assembly on the Authority's behalf) was a meeting of a local authority executive,

but with the modifications contained in subsections (2) to (4) below.

(2) Any reference in section 22 of that Act to a committee of a local authority executive, or to a sub-committee of such a committee, shall be disregarded.

(3) A reference in section 22 of that Act to an overview and scrutiny committee, or to a sub-committee of such a committee, is a reference—

  1. (a) to the Assembly;
  2. (b) if the Assembly has appointed a committee or committees under section 54, to such a committee or committees (being ordinary committees within the meaning of section 55(1)) as the Assembly shall designate under subsection (4).

(4) The Assembly shall designate a committee or committees for the purpose of discharging an overview and scrutiny committee's functions under section 22 of that Act, provided that section 54 shall not apply to its functions under this subsection."

(2) In section 420(8) of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 (regulations and orders) after "section 25;" there is inserted "section 38A;"."

The noble Baroness said: I would have expected this to be the more sensitive issue. I have already made the point that it is not party political. I told the current mayor that I was tabling the amendment and I made it clear to him that it related to the office of mayor, not his mayoralty.

The issue is openness and access to information and it is right to put on record that, although there have been criticisms on the part of the Assembly about openness on particular matters, the mayor makes his ten reports a year. There is now a system for regularly recording mayoral decisions and putting them in the public domain. I think it is fair to say that, within City Hall, work is in progress on this. Nevertheless, as a result of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 and the Local Government Act 2000 we have one executive in this country who is not subject to the access to information provisions. The Assembly, as the scrutiny arm of the GLA, has almost no executive powers at all.

The Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 does not apply to the mayor of London. Although the rules cover many bodies, including local authorities, fire and police authorities, regional development agencies and even three out of four of the GLA's own functional bodies, they do riot cover Transport for London—of which, under the legislative arrangements, the mayor himself is the chair. When the Government implemented their agenda for modernising local government, they introduced new access to information rules to safeguard transparency in the newly created executives. As I said, however, none of the safeguards were applied to the GLA.

The Government clearly appreciate that significant decisions taken by individual mayors or councillors in executive positions in local government should be open to public scrutiny and indeed to press scrutiny. The arrangements therefore require that notification be published in advance when key decisions are to be made so that the proposed decision is made in public. The agenda, reports about the proposal and a record of the eventual decision must be made public. I see no reason in principle why those protections should not apply to the mayor of London.

The Assembly's meetings, which are essentially scrutiny meetings, are open to the public, with advance copies of agendas, reports and minutes. However, it is the mayor's decisions that have a real and immediate impact on London and Londoners. At mayor's question time, to which I have just referred, the mayor decides what to include in his own report. He also has to make an annual report. Members of the Committee have probably received the rather large document which has recently been circulated. I received the document as "Baroness Hamwee" a considerable Lime before I received it as "Sally Hamwee, Member of the Assembly", but that is another matter. However, those arrangements are not adequate for the purposes that I am discussing.

My amendment will allow the Secretary of State to extend regulations on the transparency of decision making to the mayor of London, with a similar approach to a forward plan of future significant decisions. As I said, I appreciate that this matter is perhaps more sensitive than the previous one. It is perhaps right, therefore, to conclude by saying that I am not seeking to extend the Assembly's powers. I am not, for example, seeking to enable the Assembly to call in decisions, change statutory strategies or anything of that sort. However, I think it appropriate that we address why there is a difference in the openness provisions. When I mentioned the matter some time ago to a previous Minister, my comment that the situation had occurred was met with surprise, almost incredulity. I therefore look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

The noble Baroness has explained very well the current situation as she sees it. The amendment seeks to extend the access to information provisions and regulation-making powers that currently apply to principal local authorities operating executive arrangements, to apply also to the London mayor. These regulation-making provisions are to be found in Section 22 of the Local Government Act 2000, which enables the Secretary of State to make provision as to when meetings of local authority executives should he held in public and as to what records of such meetings should be kept and made available.

There are already arrangements—in Sections 45, 52 and 58 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999—for making public the significant decisions made by the London mayor. The mayor, as we discussed earlier, has to make 10 reports per year to the assembly setting out the significant decisions he has taken since his last report and the reasons for those decisions. Those mayoral reports are discussed at meetings of the whole Assembly. As we have also discussed, the mayor has to attend those meetings and answer assembly members' questions. The assembly meetings that the mayor attends, the mayor's reports, the text of questions and answers and the minutes of the meetings all have to be made available to the public.

Those GLA arrangements are slightly different from those for principal local authorities, to reflect the role of the London Assembly in scrutinising mayoral decisions. However, they achieve the same objective of making information about key decisions available to the public. The amendment is therefore unnecessary. There is no need to extend the power to make regulations about public access to local authority meetings and documents to cover the London mayor, because the Greater London Assembly-specific arrangements on public access are already in place. Having heard the noble Baroness's description of how the arrangements work, I think that they are probably one of the most transparent instruments of democracy in this country. It seems to me that there is some very good practice there, not least because of the added layer of the important scrutiny role exercised by the assembly itself.

I fully recognise that it is terribly important to have access to the maximum amount of information. That is why we set out the powers in the way in which we did. Neither I nor my officials are aware that the current arrangements have created any particular difficulties. For those reasons, as well as those I set out earlier, I hope the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Hamwee

I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Russell has not been able to come up with a bit of verse to reflect the noise of, "Let us find a way of explaining what we did four or five years ago even if it was not actually the reason for it". As I said, the mayor is not actually obliged to attend meetings; I think that he has to attend six per year. Consequently, the mayor can avoid coming before the assembly. There are certainly powers for the assembly to require the mayor, the staff and certain office holders from the functional bodies and so on to appear before it, but that is all sledgehammer stuff. That is all the formal stuff that requires two weeks' notice and all the rest of it. I do not see a significant difference between the GLA and a local authority in that regard, in that in each there is an executive arm and a scrutiny arm.

Clearly I cannot pursue the issue today. I suspect that it will be more difficult to resolve than the previous one. However, if we are into horse trading, the Minister will understand where my horse is. It is an important issue and I shall read carefully what the Minister had to say. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 221CC not moved.]

Clause 117 [Local polls]:

Baroness Hamwee

moved Amendment No. 221D:

Page 70, line 47, at end insert— ( ) The local authority shall have regard to guidance which shall be issued by the appropriate person about making local polls accessible to disabled people.

The noble Baroness said: This amendment deals with a very different matter. Although I have been asked to raise the issue by the RNIB, I am sure that the institute also speaks for other organisations dealing with disabled people. The amendment requires local authorities to have regard to guidance about making local polls accessible to disabled people. I should perhaps share with the Committee the fact that I disagreed with the RNI B's original version of the amendment, which made it a condition of local polls that the guidance should "have regard to". I felt that that was going a bit far. As the issue of access is hugely important—as, elsewhere in the Bill, is the freedom for local authorities to conduct their own business—I removed the conditionality in the provision.

As I said, it is hugely important that everyone is facilitated in exercising their democratic voice. The point still applies even though Clause 117 deals with local polls rather than elections. We are talking, for example, about accessible formats for voting papers, how to meet the needs of visually impaired people when new voting methods are used, and whether Braille templates are made available for postal voting. As noble Lords will appreciate, visually impaired people may have particular concerns about confidentiality with regard to Internet voting and other new forms of voting.

Noble Lords recently debated the issue of access, in an amendment which I again tabled at the request of the RNIB, during the passage of the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill. I was assured by the Minister, who at that time was the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Temple Guiting, that the Electoral Commission, intends to ensure that information provision is available to blind, partially sighted and disabled voters"—[Official Report, 24/3/03; col. 528]— for the purposes of regional referendums. I hope that the Minister can give me a similar assurance today about understanding the importance of the issue and how progress might be made. I beg to move.

Baroness Could of Potternewton

I intervene only briefly although I feel very strongly about the issue. I am very sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, decided not to accept the original version of the amendment. I think that making access available should be an obligation on local authorities, just as it is when new buildings are built. The same should apply to polling stations. "Have regard to" means that one can ignore the provision if one so wishes and I feel that that is not strong enough. Nevertheless, this provision is better than nothing.

I appreciate that the noble Baroness dealt mainly with visually impaired people. In discussing such issues, however, I think that we have to take into account every form of disability, including those who are in wheelchairs, the physically lame and so on. One has to think about issues such as steps. However, there are also more hidden disabilities in terms of communication problems. I hope that the information will he simply put so that those who have communication problems and might have difficulty in understanding do not have to go to someone else to find out what they are meant to do. They should feel sufficiently competent to be able to vote privately and on their own, whether it be by postal vote or in a polling station.

I therefore support the amendment. However, I regret that the noble Baroness did not accept the initial wording.

4.15 p.m.

Earl Russell

I think that the conflict between my noble friend Lady Hamwee and the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, is a conflict between right and right. The noble Baroness is quite right about the limited significance of the words "have regard to". I recall that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, once remarked in the Chamber that they meant almost exactly nothing. On the other hand, we do have to start from where we are. Our ancestors, I regret to say, showed a very limited respect for the rights of disabled people in a great many remote places and some not remote, including some very close to me. The only suitable polling place is a church. Church stairs are not designed for the passage of a wheelchair. In fact, our ancestors often took a remarkably painfully unsympathetic attitude to disability. I have seen letters written to mothers of disabled children referring to it as God's punishment upon them for their sins. It was a painful doctrine. However, one cannot undo the past now.

What the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, says is entirely valid as applied to new buildings. But I think that the programme of setting out to rebuild every church in the country, here, now and at once—

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

I am sorry to interrupt the noble Earl. However, it is possible not to use churches. It is possible to use buildings that are accessible. I do not believe that it is beyond the wit of a local authority to find buildings that are accessible.

Earl Russell

In a great many places that is true. In a great many more places than it is practised that is true. However, I have lived in places where there was no other public building for 10 miles around. In those places it is, I think, a little more difficult. So I think that one has to have some let-out in the wording of the amendment. However, in return for that let-out, I think that we need a concessionary spirit from the Minister—slightly more than we have been hearing in other amendments hitherto.

I recall being on polling station duty for my honourable friend Mr Hughes in Southwark and Bermondsey and, over and over again, having to lift people out of their wheelchairs and carry them into the polling station. It should not happen and, in Southwark and Bermondsey, I believe that it need not happen. So in return for the mildly worded amendment, I hope that the Minister will help us make some progress. If he does not, he might get the next amendment worded as the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, suggests.

Baroness Maddock

I wish to raise a slightly different issue. This section of the Bill, as I understand it, does not refer to parish councils. However, parish councils are able to have parish polls. Given that there has been some reform here, I merely wanted to ask the Minister whether there are any plans to change the way in which parish polls operate.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I have a horrible feeling that, with some regret, I am going to disappoint the noble Earl, Lord Russell. I want to explain as carefully as I can why that is.

The amendment proposed by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Maddock, would amend Clause 117 by adding a further provision to ensure that local authorities have regard to guidance about making local polls accessible to disabled people. The clause creates an express provision for councils to hold advisory polls, to help them provide good community leadership and engage with their local communities. It gives councils broad flexibility in who is polled and how the poll is conducted.

Local authorities already undertake a wide range of initiatives designed to learn about the public's views on their work. We know that they attach great importance to involving people with disabilities fully in this process. We believe that good practice in this area is best served by allowing councils the freedom to innovate. We expect local authorities to provide access to facilities to enable any hard-to-reach group to participate in any such polls. However, we do not think that requiring them to have regard to guidance in this way is either necessary or desirable. We cannot see how that would add anything.

Good practice exists and is being disseminated. We do not believe that the imposition of a further layer of guidance will add anything extra. Most local authorities are now much more sensitive to this range of issues and to the need to make polls, including local polls, much more accessible to hard-to-reach groups. There may well have been problems historically, and we appreciate the spirit in which the amendment has been moved.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

I am sorry to interrupt my noble friend. As I said, however, I feel very strongly about the issue. If the Electoral Commission came out with guidance, as I am sure it will, we would surely then expect local authorities to follow that guidance. My noble friend suggests that such further guidance is not necessary, but I suggest that it is.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I entirely support the noble Baroness's point and would find it difficult to argue against it. In any event we think that it might be possible to address part of the problem by applying the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act to this area. It would probably be helpful if we offered to consider how we might be able to do that. Rather than bringing in yet another piece of guidance, that is probably a more positive way forward, when there is already a wide variety of good practice in place. With that sympathetic tone and approach, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel happy to withdraw her amendment.

Earl Russell

The Minister is, I think, right that a number of local authorities are more sympathetic than they have to be. However, as my noble friend Lady Hamwee said on another amendment, the problem for a local authority is usually not sympathy but money. If the Government were prepared to put a sum of money at the disposal of a programme of conversion, that might make a good many of the difficulties disappear.

We have here an issue of equality before the law. There can be no more important equality before the law than equality in the opportunity to vote. One thinks, for example, of the literacy test in the deep south in the United States. I again quote the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. He quoted one black man who turned up to take the literacy test and was asked the meaning of the word hermeneutics. He said, "It means there is one black man isn't going to get the vote today". This reply means, I am afraid, more than one disabled person is not going to get the opportunity to vote today.

May I ask the Minister, before we come to the next stage of the Bill, to take the advice of his noble and learned friend the Attorney-General about any possible human rights implications behind this issue? The sooner governments are warned of such implications, the sooner they can take actions to avoid them.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

The noble Earl, as ever, dispenses very worthwhile advice. Obviously it is an important point. Undoubtedly the Electoral Commission is well versed in taking such advice. I have no reason to be defensive on the issue. This Government have done more than any previous government to make polling accessible in many different varieties and many different forms. I think that we have an extremely good track record on this.

We would like to consider the points made in our discussions today and see whether guidance really is required. I am not absolutely confident that it is. However, I think that we should ensure that some attention is paid to the working of the Disability Discrimination Act. We will have a look and see what else we think may be necessary. We appreciate the importance of the issue.

Baroness Hamwee

Obviously I welcome that proposal. The noble Lord said that guidance was not necessary or desirable. I would respond to that by saying, "By definition it is; otherwise I would not have been asked to propose the amendment". I would also hope that officials will talk to the Electoral Commission to see what it has in mind as regards local polls and whether it feels that any issues surrounding local polls need to be specifically addressed. The issue of accessible buildings, for example, has been touched on. In my own experience, prefabricated buildings—caravans—are often difficult to access, more so than a conventional building.

I go back to where I started, which was whether or not accessibility should be a condition of having a local poll or whether, as was proposed, the condition should have regard to guidance. I also had in mind that it would be awkward if the poll were invalidated because regard had not been had to the guidance, which could leave people in an awful tangle. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, probably has far more practical experience about these issues than the rest of the Committee put together. I am particularly grateful for her support. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 117 agreed to.

Clauses 118 and 119 agreed to.

Lord Northbourne

moved Amendment No. 221E: After Clause 119, insert the following new clause—


(1) No employee whose employer is a local authority or local authority company shall be required to work on both a Saturday and the immediately following Sunday if that person has the care and control of a school-age child.

(2) On whichever day the employee is not required to work under subsection (1), he shall not be required to work at any time during that day.

(3) For the purposes of subsection (1), any adult with whom a school-age child customarily lives as part of his or her family has the care and control of that school-age child and where more than one adult qualifies under this test each of them has the care and control.

(4) In this section— employee" and "employer"—

  1. (a) in relation to England and Wales, and Scotland, have the same meaning as in the Employment Rights Act 1996 (c. 18), and
  2. (b) in relation to Northern Ireland have the same meaning as in the Employment Rights (Northern Ireland) Order 1996;

The noble Lord said: In the past 50 years, it is a truism to say that there have been enormous changes in our society. There have been winners and there have been losers. Among the losers have been those parents who today have to struggle to reconcile the need to earn a living with the responsibilities of bringing up a family. Their children too are suffers. Much recent research shows the great importance to children of having time with their parents.

It is not in the nation's best interests to deprive its children of the opportunity to spend time with their parents; not just an hour in the evening when parents get back tired from work, but at least, if at all possible, one whole day a week when the child is not in school.

Government departments in Whitehall are beginning to take very seriously their responsibilities for family-friendly employment practices. I hope the officials have had that experience; I certainly know of other officials in government departments who have. I believe that many local authorities are now taking their responsibilities seriously in this matter.

The purpose of the amendment is simply to jog the elbow of those who are dragging their feet. I beg to move.

Baroness Hanham

I support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, which indeed was also moved in the other place. It was received with acerbity by the Minister. I think that was rather unfortunate. There are indeed now family-friendly policies and far more attention is being paid to this whole means of keeping parents and children together, particularly during their leisure time and in ensuring that there is an opportunity for them both to be together when they need to be.

I think it is probably true to say now that there are many organisations which will automatically take account of the amendment's aims, but there are others that will not. If this issue needs to start somewhere, perhaps it should start with local government with all its aids for families, for people with children and for child-friendly policies. So, I have a great deal of sympathy for the sentiments expressed by my noble friend.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

I hope that the Committee have sympathy with the thrust of the amendment. Those of us who have been Members of the House for some time will remember one of my famous victories in 1986 when the Shops Bill was before the House and we were successful in defeating it—the only defeat for the Conservative government—at Second Reading. Such events have a spin off effect, and I am an unreconstructed reactionary as regards Sunday trading and the laying-down of the law in relation to it.

I shall not fight old battles—it is one that I and those who supported me eventually lost and we shall have to live with the consequences—but one of the consequences has been a relaxation of the laws on retailing hours, which has been welcomed by many people. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, there have been innocent victims of the change.

As the previous speaker said, good employment practice should recognise that where a person has a responsibility for children, and where that person's employment obligations include working on both Saturdays and Sundays, one would hope that there would be a recognition of the problem and a flexible solution to it, especially in local government.

As the noble Baroness said, the amendment may not be necessary because, in general, there is good practice. But, as we have seen from the Sunday trading nexus, there have been modifications to the six-hour trading practice. We never dreamt that shops would open on Christmas Day, so why legislate for it? The fact that we have not legislated for it means that shops now open on Christmas Day. The same applies to local government employment practices.

The Keep Sunday Special Campaign—which will not be unknown to those who live in or around Cambridge because it operates from 3 Hooper Street—has sent me a list.

[The Sitting was suspended for a Division in the House from 4.32 to 4.42 p.m.]

Lord Graham of Edmonton

I was making the case for local authorities to show flexibility and generosity to employees who have responsibilities for children under the age of 16 and who during the course of their employment may be obliged to work on both a Saturday and a Sunday. Many Members of the Committee and of the House who are mothers and fathers will appreciate that up until children reach the age of 16 there is a special quality of life that one needs to experience and enjoy—not only for the benefit of the parent but for the memories of the child. It is important that, if at all possible, there should be a mechanism under which a parent who is obliged to work on both a Saturday and a Sunday can turn to the law and say, "I am prepared to work on one day but not on both".

As the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said, it is likely that there will not be very many employees in that situation. However, even if only one employee is being oppressed in this way, he or she should be able to seek the protection of the law. I hope that the Minister will give the amendment fair wind.

4.45 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

I support the amendment. It is an unusual day when the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, and I support the same side of an argument. I take enormous pleasure in doing so because I agree with everything the noble Lord said.

The amendment is eminently reasonable because it gives the parents of young children the right not to work. It does not state that they do not have to work at all. As the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, in recent times there has been a great deal of activity in government departments to promote family-friendly policies. However, Ministers have also stated recently that it is a good thing for mothers to go out to work and that their children do not suffer as a result. That is a debatable point. However, if parents make a genuine choice to go out to work—or go out to work because of necessity, which sadly is so often the case—it is not a very tall order to ask that provision be made to give them a right in law not to be required to work, in the way set out in the amendment.

Local government is an enormous employer throughout the country. It is a very good place to start and to set an example. For that reason I support the amendment.

Baroness Hamwee

Perhaps I may ask one or two questions. What consideration has the noble Lord given to the situation of "Saturday fathers"—that is, parents who do not have the care and control of the child but have access only on a relatively infrequent basis, which very often is a Saturday? What thought has been given to the situation where an employee's day of religious observance is a Friday rather than a Saturday or Sunday?

A point has been made to me that many staff want the freedom to determine their own work schedules and welcome the possibility of fitting them around the availability of childcare, which may be greater at weekends. But, as I read it, the amendment is permissive and gives an employee the opportunity to say "no" rather than anything firmer.

My last question concerns what remedies will be available and whether the employment tribunals will have jurisdiction over them. I am not sure what follows on from a provision such as this.

Lord Northbourne

As to the last question of the noble Baroness, I am not sure. The important thing is the message we are sending. Certainly the point she raises needs further consideration.

The noble Baroness also raised an extremely important point in regard to "Saturday fathers". We do not want to make this matter too complicated initially; we merely wish to raise the issue. At a later stage in the Bill, after discussions with the Government, it may be appropriate—if they are prepared to be sympathetic—to refine the amendment.

As to the question of Friday observance, the point of opting for Saturday and Sunday is not that they are days of religious observance, but that they are the only days of the week when children are not in school.

Earl Russell

It would be churlish of me not to add to the general unanimity and even more churlish of me to use more words in saying so.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

As has been said, the proposed new clause is similar to the one debated during the Report stage in the Commons. It seeks to ensure that no local authority employee or employee of a local authority company is required to work on both a Saturday and the immediately following Sunday if that person has the care and control of a school-age child. The proposed new clause also covers any adult with whom a school-age child customarily lives as part of his or her family and who has care and control of that child.

Within local government there will always be situations where people might need to work at weekends. In regular circumstances this would apply, for example, to residential homes where care needs to be provided on a 24-hour basis, seven days a week. In less regular circumstances this would apply, for example, to road gritting in adverse weather conditions or to other environmental or security emergency services.

The Government have a range of family-friendly policies, to which several noble Lords have referred. We have an extremely good track record in promoting family-friendly policies, and the amendment seeks, certainly in its intent, to add another layer to that. We want to ensure that there is a continued commitment to supporting working parents.

A whole raft of rights were launched on 6th April 2003 specifically for parents. These rights were provided through the Employment Act 2002. They include a new right for parents with children under six or disabled children under 18 to ask their employers for flexible working arrangements. The law places a duty on employers to consider such requests seriously and the Employment Act 2002 specifies the eight business grounds under which a request can be refused. These new rights aim to provide parents with more choice in when they work and how they manage their time.

We see no special local government case for making the provision sought by the amendment. Local authority workers have full general protection under existing employment law and are as fully protected as any other employee in any other sector. Moreover, local authorities are generally proactive in promoting flexible working.

Let me give some figures to illustrate that assertion. A DETR research report, Work-Life Balance—A Survey of Local Authorities, published in 2001, found that 94 per cent of authorities operate job sharing and 95 per cent flexitime; 98 per cent of authorities operate part-time working; 64 per cent of authorities provide more maternity pay than the law requires; in 91 per cent of local authorities senior managers work longer than standard hours, junior managers do so in 71 per cent of local authorities and manual workers do so in 42 per cent of local authorities; 75 per cent of authorities already operate out-of-hours successfully for at least one of their services. So the figures illustrate that flexibility and good practice is being followed.

We understand the spirit and the intent behind the amendment. Local authorities are very good at leading the way and have a good track record. I remember that when I became the leader of my local authority one of the first things we undertook to do was to provide adequate childcare facilities during the day for those who wanted to ensure that they had top-class professional childcare while they were at work. That enabled people to enter the workforce and to manage their time much better. We were very proud of that initiative. Local government in general has an extremely good track record in this regard and there are many good practice examples up and down the country.

We appreciate the intent behind the amendment. A great deal of excellent work is being undertaken and the Government have put in place measures to foster and encourage good practice in the way the noble Lord seeks through the amendment.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

I am fascinated by the long list of good practices carried out by local authorities. I completely accept and support them, but they fail to deal with the point raised in the amendment. If, within that range of good practices, easements and encouragements you still have a local authority which obliges a parent with responsibility for a child under 16 to work on a Saturday and a Sunday, that can negate all the other good provisions.

I do not know why the Minister is reluctant to be more sympathetic to the thrust of the amendment. It is all very well to say that these issues can be managed, but I have a list from the Keep Sunday Special Campaign which indicates the areas in which there could be problems. For example, the list refers to support staff in care homes; leisure centres, parks and swimming pool staff; street cleaning teams; refuse tip operators; staff in entertainment venues; and traffic wardens.

People in all those occupations can work in a team, with rosters, days off and so on. It should not he beyond the wit of a good manager of a team of, say, 20 people, to identify those with special needs. In a team of 20 there may be only one or two. The amendment seeks to enable a parent with special needs not to have to work on a Saturday and a Sunday in the same week.

It may be that good managers are already doing this and that the problem does not exist—I cannot quote any figures about the size of the problem—but, if there are children who are failing to get the love, affection and bonding with a parent that a good relationship brings, we should ensure that it is possible for the parent to opt out of having to work on both days.

It is no big deal for anyone, especially for the Government. They are running a mile from legislating for a provision which will need to be policed and which, as a consequence, may be the subject of court cases, judgments, employment tribunals and so on—but it is worth it. It will demonstrate that making things work effectively is not the only criteria of the Government because, under the amendment, due regard will be paid to the bonding between parent and child at a very special time.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I thought I had made plain that the Employment Act 2002 goes some way towards achieving what the noble Lord requires. I am a parent with three young children and I fully recognise the importance of the point being made. I wish sometimes that our working hours were rather more family friendly and that I could see my children in the evenings, which I do not do on at least three occasions in the working week.

I understand the problem and the Government understand the problem—but we do not know its size or extent. All I am hearing in the debate is that there may be a problem. My noble friend Lord Graham highlighted groups of workers that may be affected, but we have received no representations that the situation is as described.

Under the new legislation, the Government have already placed a duty on employers to consider requests for flexible working arrangements and. as I said, those requests cannot unreasonably be refused, although there are business grounds on which they may be. We have gone a long way towards where my noble friend is heading. We are not aware of any difficulties as yet, although I accept that we are required to monitor and evaluate the success and effectiveness of the legislation.

Lord Northbourne

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, has referred admirably to many of the issues I was going to raise and I shall not repeat them. I declare an interest as a member of the advisory body, the Caldecott Community. I also carry out Section 33 visits for the Caldecott Community.

It does not make sense to say that work schedules cannot be arranged in such a way to enable people not to have to work on either a Saturday or a Sunday, the two days when children are not at school. The Minister must accept that even in his dreadful job he does not have to work on Saturdays and Sundays, at least not on a mandatory basis.

I shall not waste the Committee's time. Almost certainly I shall bring the matter back at a later stage of the Bill and press it further. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

5 p.m.

Clause 120 [Fire brigade establishment schemes: removal of Secretary of State's functions]:

On Question, Whether Clause 120 shall stand part of the Bill?

Baroness Hanham

We want to probe the detail of Clause 120, which removes the requirement in Section 19(4) of the 1947 Act for fire authorities to seek the Secretary of State's approval before making any reduction, no matter how minor, in the number of fire-fighting posts or fire appliances or before the closure or relocation of fire stations.

According to the Minister in the other place, who introduced it as a new clause, the benefit would he that the clause would ensure that there is devolution of responsibility to individual local authorities to work within a national framework set by guidance. The point, he explained, is to let decisions be taken at local level, responding to the needs of a particular locality as decided on by democratically accountable fire authorities, with the advice of fire chiefs and with local consultation.

In general, we welcome any provisions that encourage the modernisation of the fire service, particularly the introduction of risk-based organisation, which can increase the number of lives saved. Bain directed many of his comments at that. However, we have some queries and concerns about that approach. First, as I understand it, the guidance has not been issued. If it has, will the Minister be kind enough to tell me, so that I can find it? If it has not, can he say when it will be? In another place, the Minister, Nick Raynsford, said that it would be made public by Report—the Report stage in another place, I guess—but, as yet, there has been no sign of it.

Will local authorities be obliged to follow the guidance, or is it just guidance? Consequently, how prescriptive will it be? What happens if local authorities do not follow it? As we do not have the draft, the position is not clear. In the other place, the Minister also said that the guidance, makes clear the Secretary of State's expectation that fire authorities will consult local communities and stakeholders about significant changes in fire cover"—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee A, 13/2/03; col. 573.] What happens if the Secretary of State's expectation is not met because of inadequate or non-existent consultation? Will the guidance lay out a clear process of judicial review if fire authorities fail to consult properly? For that matter, what will be deemed to be proper consultation and who will be consulted? I hope that we will see the guidance before the Bill leaves this House. In fact, it would be helpful if we could see it before it reaches the next stage, as we could decide whether we needed to pursue the matter.

We welcome decisions taken at local level to some extent, as they allow responses to particular circumstances in each locality. We also understand that there may be a danger of variable standards throughout the country and a lack of consistency and uniformity, if it is adopted.

How does the new clause introduced in Committee relate to the Bain report? I raised that point earlier. Can the Minister elaborate on the reasons why changes to the legislation were deemed necessary in reaction to that report? What will the timescale be? How long will fire authorities have to prepare integrated management plans? Is there a likely to be a transitional period? Will any extra resources be allocated to fire authorities to carry out the consultation process and integrated management plan? The Secretary of State may wish to devolve, but he must also make sure that funding is there to provide adequate financial support for local authorities taking on the new role.

Baroness Maddock

As I understand it, the new clause introduced in another place is in line with Bain. We supported that in another place and in our recent debate on the Fire Services Bill.

I share many of the concerns just raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. There was considerable debate on this in another place. In fact, it went on for a long time. Four times, I think, the Minister promised that guidance would be produced in time for Report stage in another place. I have the list of guidance produced so far, and I cannot find it. I assume that it has not been produced. I do not know whether that is because there have been other developments with the fire services dispute. When we debated the Fire Services Bill last week, questions were raised about the White Paper and legislation ensuing from that. How does that fit in?

We are not against the principle. It is up to local people, within a framework, to set up the best fire service for their area. We are not against that, but I have some concerns, particularly given the other things that are happening, that we have moved as far on as this and yet we still do not have the promised guidance. I hope that the Minister can give a satisfactory answer on that, but I suspect that we will raise it again at the next stage.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I must apologise in advance if I do not answer all the points that have been raised. I recognise the importance of the issues; the effect of seeking to remove Clause 120 from the Bill is widely understood. However, we think that this is a welcome modernising step, and I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, for her acknowledgement of that. As she said, it is our view that decisions on fire cover should be taken by democratically accountable fire authorities acting on the professional advice of local fire chiefs.

Baroness Maddock

I should hate there to be any doubt that my colleagues and I are not in favour of modernising the fire service. Indeed, we voted for the amendment in another place.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I understand that and appreciate the support we have received. There is a degree of political consensus on this point, although on occasion we may disagree about some of the means. In general, it is our intention to secure the early introduction of a new risk-based approach to fire cover that will be more responsive to local needs. We believe that that will offer a real prospect of reducing the incidence of fire outbreaks and the resultant deaths and injuries.

I turn now to the specific points. It is the recollection of officials that draft guidance was placed in the Libraries of both Houses on 4th March last. The guidance was then issued for consultation on 3rd April, and that consultation closed on 30th May. I am advised that the responses are being analysed.

Baroness Hanham

I must take issue with the Minister on this. Throughout the progress of the Bill we have asked for sight of all guidance or regulations which had been produced in draft form. We have consistently made inquiries in the Library of this House for sight of any draft guidance that the Government have made available. Consistently, we have not been given any material about the Fire Services Bill.

I do not doubt that what the Minister has said is correct, but it does not make it easy for the Opposition. Even after asking for the draft material, we are not guided towards it in any way.

Baroness Hamwee

I wish to add to the comments of the noble Baroness. When we received the large bundle of drafts now in the hands of my noble friend at the end of that day's proceedings, I asked officials if that bundle comprised the totality of what we were to receive. They indicated that it was. On the following day, 12th June, I wrote to the Minister, putting questions to him about the regulations. In my letter, I made the point to him that I believed that I had all the drafts—in fact I was chasing up financial regulations—but in response to my letter I was not told that I had it wrong and that the position was otherwise.

Baroness Blatch

I wish to make a point in support of my noble friend Lady Hanham. She has been incredibly kind to the Minister by saying only that she believed that if the Minister said that we had received everything available, that was correct. However, my knowledge of the staff in the Library since I have been a Member of this House is that they are absolutely assiduous. If a document had been placed in the Library in the formal sense in which we use that expression, the staff would not have said that the document did not exist or that no copy of it was available.

Although my noble friend has remarked that the noble Lord is correct, I think I would prefer to phrase it differently and say that, while that may be the noble Lord's understanding, he is well supported by a number of officials who could put us right within a few moments. I invite them to do so.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am as good as the advice I am given and I understand the position to be as I have said. However, I accept the comments made by Members of the Committee and, in fact, I am extremely concerned about it. If it is the case that the drafts are not in the Library, then obviously that is a matter of profound concern. I shall ensure that officials check on it. Furthermore, if noble Lords wish, I shall try to ensure that copies are secured so that they can look through them before we proceed to the next stage of the Bill. It is only right that, noble Lords having requested the information, it is in place and made available to them as promised.

I shall pick up on some of the other points that were raised. A question was put to me about the role of the fire authorities. It is our view that it will be for fire authorities to determine and set policies arid standards for prevention and emergency response. We think that that is the right way to proceed.

On the question of whether a failure to implement proper local consultation would be judicially reviewable, yes, we think that it would be, but such decisions would relate to individual cases and circumstances and, of course, they would be a matter for the courts and thus outside our determination. However, it is our view that a failure to consult in line with what is deemed to be proper consultation—no doubt recommendations and guidance will be made available on what such consultation might look like—would feature as a part of that consideration.

Yes, this is linked to the Bain report, but it has been included in this Bill because it is also linked to our aim of ensuring that these freedoms and flexibilities are exercised at the local level so that decisions affecting local circumstances are made as locally as is practicable and sensible given the nature of the service.

Turning to the question of resources, fire authorities will be expected to use the flexibility afforded by the repeal of Section 19 to deploy their existing resources more efficiently. But many authorities have raised issues about resourcing in their responses to our consultation and we shall give careful consideration to those points.

I appreciate that I may not have answered all the questions that were put to me—in particular those raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham—but I repeat my undertaking to check on the issue of the draft guidance. I shall do all that I can to ensure that all those contributing to this debate and who wish to read the import of that guidance are able to do so. When we consider the matter again on Report, those who seek to contribute at that point will be better informed.

Baroness Maddock

Perhaps the Minister cannot give me a response to a question that I put to him—namely, how is this to fit in with the White Paper on the reform of the Fire Service and how will it fit in with future legislation? I am somewhat surprised by some of the Minister's comments given that the point that the draft guidance was not able to be considered was such a controversial point when the Bill was considered in another place. It may be that this was something which was to have been dealt with by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. If that is the case, perhaps that is why we have not been given a truly satisfactory answer.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

As ever in ministerial parlance, the White Paper will be published shortly. It will be significant and no doubt the policy will be explained within the overall context of that White Paper. After all, this is something which has been considered as a desirable development so that local fire authorities are able to make decisions for themselves based on their assessment of local fire risks and taking into account all the pressures on the Fire Service. So we see this as a positive and modernising development.

I welcome the support that has been expressed for this proposal. I repeat my undertaking that, in regard to those questions that we have not dealt with as adequately as we would have liked, and in particular on the issue of the non-arrival of the draft guidance in the Library—even though I am advised that it is available there—I shall return to these matters and ensure that all those who have expressed concerns are satisfied.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister for that reply. We still do not know whether the draft guidance has been placed in the Library. However, we were sent a large bundle of paper earlier in our Committee proceedings. At that point we understood that we had been given the total available paperwork attached to the Bill. It is clear that that bundle was not complete.

The only point I wish to make is that life is quite difficult for the Opposition. I appreciate that it is not for the Government to make our lives easier, but equally it is not for the Government to make our lives more difficult. It would have been easier if we had been in receipt of everything which had been made available.

Sight of the guidance will be extremely helpful in light of the questions that I have put to the Minister. I do not think he responded to my question asking whether this is to be statutory guidance, that is, guidance that will have to be followed, or whether it will be permissive. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that point.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

It will not be statutory guidance; it will be permissive.

Baroness Hanham

That, too, will be an interesting point which we shall certainly have to return to on Report. I say that because the matters which are now to be devolved raise issues such as the number of fire-fighter posts to be cut and the potential for closing fire stations. In light of the fire strike we have just been through, those issues will be inordinately controversial and potentially combustible. No doubt we shall have a considerable debate on it. However, I shall not press the matter any further today since there is little more that we could usefully pursue at this point.

For the moment I withdraw my opposition to the Question on whether the clause should stand part of the Bill, but it is likely that we shall return to this.

Clause 120 agreed to.

Clause 121 [Repeal of prohibition on promotion of homosexuality]:

On Question, Whether Clause 121 shall stand part of the Bill?

Baroness Blatch

For the convenience of the Committee I shall speak to the Question whether Clause 121 shall stand part and also to Amendment No. 221F, which is not in the grouping. However, in order to address the whole issue, I shall speak to both.

As I look around the Committee I predict that we are now coming to a most controversial aspect of the Bill; that is, Clause 121, inserted by the House of Commons, to repeal Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. In view of the accusations made against me yesterday by the Minister, which I contend were completely unfounded, I shall make it clear that on these amendments, my primary concern is appropriate sex education for school-aged children.

As I said at Second Reading, in matters of controversy Parliament has placed a number of legal constraints and safeguards on local authorities and schools. We do not allow teachers to promote a particular political party view. Section 407 of the Education Act 1996 sees to that. And local authorities are restrained from party political expenditure by Section 2 of the Local Government Act 1986. There are also elaborate statutory provisions governing the way in which religion is handled in schools.

The reasons for these provisions regarding politics and religion is that they are sensitive and controversial subjects. Parents want schools to be sensitive to the beliefs of the home. Of course young people must study political issues, but parents do not want to see schools promoting the views of one particular party; and of course young people should learn about religious belief, but again, teachers must not manipulate children into belief.

Given the controversy surrounding homosexuality, we clearly need similar provisions governing its treatment. Homosexuality is, at the very least, a controversial subject—and I suspect that this debate will bear that out. This touches on the heart of the matter, because those who want to promote homosexuality are often those who refuse to accept that it is even controversial. They refuse to accept the validity of the opinions of those who take a different view. They regard homosexuality as a good thing and they want this view to be reflected in the classroom. Alternative views are written off as outdated, bigoted, homophobic or even hateful.

But I believe most people think that if homosexuality is to be addressed in the classroom, then it should be taught as a controversial issue. It should certainly not be promoted. The key word in Section 28 is "promotion". Is it ever acceptable for a local authority to promote homosexuality to children, whether in a classroom, a youth group or anywhere else?

Before I spoke against the repeal of Section 28 on 6th December 1999, I went to the Library to look up the word "promote". Some allege that the word is confusing. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the definition as, to move forward, advance or raise to a position of honour, dignity or emolument, to raise to a higher grade, to prefer". I think that is crystal clear. If a person handles the subject of homosexuality in a classroom or a youth group in such a way as to raise it to a position of honour or preference, that is promoting homosexuality.

I have certainly seen classroom material which can be regarded as promoting homosexuality in this way. I shall come to this in a moment.

In July 2000, your Lordships voted to retain Section 28. The vote followed a passionate debate. On one side of the argument we had the Government, gay rights groups and a number of children's charities. On the other side, led by my noble friend the late Baroness Young, were many Churches, denominational groups and representatives of the major religions, along with—and most significantly—parents up and down the country who expressed their views in the many letters received on this subject. I supported Lady Young. I thought her arguments were right then and I think her arguments are still right today.

Section 28 protects children. It is children—not gay rights—that ought to be our primary concern.

Earl Russell

I am most grateful to the noble Baroness. However, I am genuinely having difficulty in understanding what she is saying. Is the attempt to raise homosexuality to equal respect, in her eyes, to promote it, or is it not?

Baroness Blatch

I said that if it was taught in schools, it was to be taught as a controversial subject, not as a preferred lifestyle. I think that I made that clear in linking myself and my understanding of the definition given in the dictionary. I am sorry if the noble Earl is having difficulty, but perhaps by the time I reach the end of my speech on the amendment, the noble Earl may be more enlightened.

Section 28 protects children. As I said. it is children rather than gay rights that ought to be our primary concern. Section 28 is an effective law. Before the Scottish Executive repealed Section 28 north of the Border, it was used in a legal action to stop the use of a highly pornographic leaflet in a youth group attended by people as young as 12 years of age. The youth group and those who produced the leaflet received funding from Glasgow City Council.

Section 28 has been useful in England as well. It undoubtedly restrains local councils which might otherwise fund materials or individuals to promote homosexuality. Even Peter Tatchell has complained about the "self-censorship" effect where local authorities refuse to fund certain projects for fear of breaching Section 28.

Section 28 has been effective. The vast majority of councils are not recommending flagrantly inappropriate materials for use in schools. I mentioned some of those that are in the debate held at Second Reading on 3rd April, at col. 1539, and I shall not rehearse them again at length. But perhaps I may briefly remind the Committee of some of the details. They do help to show why such protection is needed.

Brighton, East Sussex, Hampshire, Croydon and Wirral councils all recommend a teachers' pack which requires children to role-play being homosexuals and lesbians. Brighton, East Sussex and Gloucester recommend Beyond a Phase, which includes a classroom video that tells 13 year-old children that to obtain sexual satisfaction they should, try experimenting with other boys and girls and see who you feel most comfortable with". Gloucestershire County Council claims that the pack is in line with government guidance, which claims to give teachers more flexibility in how they wish to educate their children about sex.

I know that most school teachers are far more sensible than the particular education officials who recommend these resources. The vast majority of teachers would believe that these materials are inappropriate. But we know that some teachers have an axe to grind because some advisory teachers clearly believe that the materials are appropriate. That is why they recommend them.

Hard-pressed teachers, especially those new to the profession who are struggling to find time to prepare for classes, will look at these nicely produced lesson plans and rely on them, trusting that if they are recommended by their local authority, then they must be acceptable. That is why we need Section 28.

The vast majority of councils take heed of Section 28. The fact that some councils breach the section is not an argument for scrapping it, any more than the fact that some people break the speed limit is an argument for scrapping speed limits. The problem is wider than just the promotion of homosexuality. The sex education exemplified in the resources I referred to is inappropriate for a host of other reasons.

That brings me to my Amendment No. 221E. At Second Reading I quoted from Taking Sex Seriously, a copy of which I have here with me today. Indeed, I have taken photocopies of one page, an activity page, which is being passed to each Member of the Committee. The document is subtitled: Practical Sex Education Activities for Young People". I should say that this document was found for me by the Library and I have no doubt whatsoever that other noble Lords would be able to access it.

The pack is clearly designed to be used with young people. There are photocopiable worksheets to be handed out. There are many detailed lesson plans. Anyone who thinks that I may be concerned about nothing should look at this document, which is advocated for use with children from the age of 11 years. All I can say is that it is a disgrace.

One lesson plan requires the teacher to initiate a discussion with pupils on the "full range" of sexual activities. The teacher is given a list of examples to read out to, get the group thinking along the right lines". The list includes sadism, masochism, partner-swapping, anal intercourse, multiple partners at one time and other activities which, to be frank, I simply cannot read out. However, noble Lords will see what I am talking about. It is against the rules for me to provide the entire document, but it will be made available to noble Lords at the end of our session in Committee. However, I can promise noble Lords that it does not make for happy bedtime reading.

Given the alarming growth in sexually transmitted diseases and the other problems associated with promiscuity and early sexual experience, is a teacher-led discussion on group sex really getting children "thinking along the right lines"—or by discussing partner-swapping, or sado-masochism, or the other medically dangerous practices which I dare not read out?

No, it is not. I doubt whether I have seen a more irresponsible or reckless teaching pack in my life. Even this year, some local authorities such as Wirral, Croydon and Hampshire are still recommending this document. That is even more surprising given the fact that the publishers have printed a less extreme version of the pack called Safe and Sound.

It has been suggested by some that Taking Sex Seriously is merely a teacher training pack, but it sets out detailed activities for children, including "buying condoms for homework". So the claim that it is merely for teachers and not children is clearly wrong. But if it were only for teachers, it would mean that teachers are being trained in how to give the kind of wholly inappropriate lessons which I have described.

The last time we debated Section 28, the Government promised tough guidance which would protect children from inappropriate material. The Government issued that guidance in July 2000. The recommendations from councils to which I have referred all date from after July 2000.

Clearly the guidance is not strong enough. As a matter of fact, some of the appalling resources are declared to be in conformity with that guidance. Having read the guidance, I think that it is sufficiently vague and contradictory that one could find in it a quotation to support practically anything under the name of sex education.

I believe that the protection of Section 28 is still needed, but so is tougher legislation which gives more power to parents so that, whether the issue is homosexuality or heterosexuality, parents have a greater say in what is taught to their children. Additional remedies should be given to parents—remedies that solve problems at a more local level, the level of the school. Parents are best placed to know what is appropriate for their children. Guidance from central government can never be as good as the close involvement of responsible parents in the education of their children.

Amendment No. 221F would help to ensure that parents had a much better idea of and say in what their children are taught. It would require the Secretary of State to produce a code of practice within six months of the Bill's enactment. That code of practice would be much more specific and practical than the rather general departmental circular. It would have to establish a mechanism for consulting parents about sex education in their children's schools; it would require full disclosure to parents of materials to be used in any education addressing sex or sexuality; it would require disclosure to parents of details of third parties who go to schools to teach about sex or sexuality; and it would place restrictions on the activities of such third parties.

Legislation specifically envisages guidance on sex education. Section 351(6) and (7) of the Education Act 1996 makes that clear. Although local authorities no longer have other duties in relation to sex education, they can still exercise functions that affect sex education. New subsection (6), proposed in my amendment, provides that local authorities must have regard to the code when exercising those functions.

The code would be a powerful weapon in parents' hands. If a school failed to consult parents about sex education, any parent could use the code as the basis for making a complaint to the school. The school would then have to explain why it refused to consult parents in accordance with the code of practice issued by the Secretary of State. Parents could also use the code to ask to see the classroom resources used in sex education.

Such a code of practice would be useful because, in extremis, if a school conducted sex education in a way that was clearly outrageous, a parent could instigate judicial review. In such a case, the code could be cited as evidence that the school's actions were unreasonable—the test for successful judicial review.

Consultation with parents relates specifically to sex education as defined in Section 403 of the Education Act 1996. However, the code also addresses the situation in which issues of sex or sexuality are purposely discussed under other parts of the curriculum, outside normal, formal sex education. That is necessary because at least one health authority advises schools to circumvent the statutory provisions by teaching sex education through national curriculum subjects such as English. Camden and Islington health authority has published a teaching pack called Colours of the Rainbow. The pack provides detailed lesson plans. It claims to be, Exploring issues of sexuality and difference", and advises teachers: It is possible to include many of these issues within the national curriculum areas, which means that pupils will not be withdrawn by their parents. The requirements for the sex education curriculum resulting from the 1993 Education Act allow parents to only withdraw their children from any part of the school's agreed sex education curriculum". That is licence for circumvention: a deliberate attempt to bypass the wishes of parents and to subvert the will of Parliament. My amendment would ensure that such techniques did not put the education in question beyond the reach of the code of practice. In fact, the code of practice would represent a stronger way to implement several parts of the Government's guidance on sex and relationship education issued in July 2000.

Some of the most inappropriate sex education has often been given by third parties who go into schools. Such people may work for a local health authority or voluntary organisation. They may often be more used to working with adults than with children. People who are not professional teachers can often make misjudgments about what is appropriate for children. Paragraphs (2)(b)(ii) and (2)(c) of my amendment deal with third parties who come into schools to help teach sex education. The code of practice would have a strong influence on local authorities. It would also give power to parents by requiring better consultation and improved disclosure. The code would encourage the sort of partnership that the Government want to forge between parents and schools.

In conclusion, many of us want Section 28 to be retained. But in addition to Section 28, new safeguards are needed to tackle inappropriate heterosexual material and that promote strong co-operation and partnership between schools and parents. I know that the Minister will not agree with me about Section 28, but he should agree with my amendment, Amendment No. 221F, because it gives effect to the good practice highlighted in the Government's circular. I beg to move.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Palmer

I fully support the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. As she pointed out, her amendment is all about the protection of children. I do not believe that a single member of the Committee would be against that principle.

In previous debates, we have heard right reverend Prelates refer to Section 28 as a stabilising benchmark. During our debate on 7th February 2000, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield explained how he had spoken to teachers in his diocese about Section 28. It was through that consultation that he discovered how Section 28 was regarded. Despite the politically correct view that we normally hear from teachers' unions in support of repealing Section 28, there are clearly teachers who take the opposite view and who value the protective effect of Section 28.

If those teachers work in maintained schools, the local authority is their employer. Perhaps they feel that Section 28 prevents the local authority from placing undue pressure on them to toe the politically correct line. Perhaps they feel that it protects their freedom of conscience.

Many parents certainly place their trust in Section 28, judging by the enormous number of letters that we all receive whenever this issue raises its ugly head. Parents seem to view the issue in straightforward terms: they understand that Section 28 forbids the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities; so they support it.

Parents know that it does not forbid objective discussion of homosexuality. My dear friend the late Lady Young used to cite the circular that accompanied Section 28, which stated that expressly. That is a fundamental point of principle. Parents know that it does not prevent teachers from answering questions—nor should it—but that it prevents local authorities from using their powers to encourage a kind of brain-washing approach to homosexuality. Under that approach, young people are told that there is nothing wrong with homosexual activity and that anyone who thinks differently is homophobic—whatever that means—and should be ignored.

In Scotland, we have special reason to note the value of Section 28. I remind the Committee that in 2000, the Scottish Parliament was in the throes of repealing Section 28. A nurse instituted judicial review against Glasgow City Council, which the noble Baroness mentioned briefly. The nurse was concerned that a most grotesque and graphic little booklet about homosexuality, complete with photographs of many of the activities listed, was being used with a youth group. The group that produced the booklet was funded by Glasgow City Council. The youth group itself also benefited from council subsidy. Although the court action had to be aborted because Section 28 was deleted from Scottish law, the nurse's action succeeded in having the booklet removed from circulation, and in drawing attention to the extremes to which some people will go in the use—in my view and that of many others, abuse—of local authority money.

Shortly after the repeal, the Scottish Executive and its education quango, Learning and Teaching Scotland, produced guidance for teachers on the subject of health education. Included in that guidance was a list of materials recommended for use in sex education. Many of the materials on that list were simply appalling. As the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, mentioned, the worst was Taking Sex Seriously, which introduces young people to practices about which most adults have never even heard.

So bad were the materials that they made newspaper headlines in the national and local press. Eventually, a petition of about 12,000 signatures was handed to the Scottish Parliament. The petition called for the Executive to withdraw its list of recommended sex education materials. The education committee of the Scottish Parliament examined the materials and agreed that there was a problem. Eventually, the chairman of Learning and Teaching Scotland conceded that some of the materials should never be used in schools and said that it would quickly be reviewing its recommendation.

How I pray that, once again, England can learn from Scottish mistakes. That all goes to show what happens when the restraining effect of Section 28 is lifted. It demonstrates that there are people in positions of influence in education and elsewhere who are willing to recommend the most appalling sex education materials for the use of young people in this country.

I remind the Committee that in a privately funded poll, more than 1 million Scottish voters asked for Section 28 to be retained. Section 28 provides a safeguard, a protective influence. It should not be repealed; it must be retained. I fully support the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch.

Earl Russell

In any civilised country, the prime responsibility of government must be to ensure that people live in peace with each other. Before developing that message further, I should like to offer apologies on behalf of the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, who must leave us because she is to deliver a lecture. We will miss her contribution and wish her well with the lecture.

Keeping the peace is something that must at all times be the responsibility of government. Indeed, it is the reason why we have government. If we are to attempt to keep the peace in schools, we must demand a certain minimum degree of respect for every child in that school who is prepared to show such respect to the other children.

I think here of the experience of my children when they were at school in the United States. Because language in current use in the playground has a playground quality in all countries and towns, they had to be taught this principle: to use language with a degree of respect. For example, words such as "nigger" were words liable to provoke a breach of the peace. They had never heard the word before; they were surprised to discover that it had such innuendoes; but, when they did, they were ready to accept that.

That is a perfectly reasonable model for the discussion of homosexuality in school. I have no objection to the proposition of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that it is controversial. Many things are controversial. But between controversies, we can aim at a certain basic, equal respect.

Here, I come to the ambiguity in the word "promote". I beg the pardon of the noble Baroness, but that bewilders me; it has from the very beginning of our discussions on this subject and does so no less after her reading from the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. There are two senses in that entry, which I regard as distinct. One is, in effect, teaching an equality of respect. Frankly, I see nothing wrong in that. If the noble Baroness does, I should be interested to know why. The other is teaching that it is a superior form of lifestyle.

Anyone who attempts to teach average teenagers that they ought not to take an interest in the opposite sex shows a degree of Utopianism that puts Sir Thomas More in the shade. That is about as complete a waste of time as one could imagine. So in one sense of the word "promote", such activity is useless; in the other, it is trivial.

Perhaps I may turn to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, in the context of his Amendment, No. 222.

Baroness Blatch

That is not being discussed at present.

5.45 p.m.

Earl Russell

I know; I do not intend to discuss the amendment, merely the word "promotion". That appears in the side note to the amendment. Of all people, the noble and learned Lord is a person to whom I listen with the greatest respect on the meaning of words placed in legislation. His amendment uses the word "encourage"; the side note uses the word "promotion". Is the noble and learned Lord responsible for the side note as well as the amendment? If so, what meaning does he attach to the word "promotion"? That could influence me greatly.

As the noble Baroness has constantly said, we are concerned with children. But some children may be of homosexual inclination. Being a child of any minority inclination or description in any school playground is a dangerous occupation. We have had some tragic reminders of that during the past two weeks. So anything that does not encourage equal respect for all the children in the playground is capable of being dangerous.

If the noble Baroness had included in the amendment an attempt to prohibit in the playground or teaching the use of language that describes homosexuality as an abomination equally with what she is attempting to prohibit, that would have made a great deal of sense to me. That would have demonstrated the equality of respect that can be combined with the keeping of the peace. I have listened to her for quite a long time. I have not heard a single word from her that suggests that any such use of language by a teacher in class or in the playground should be prohibited. So I wonder whether she is conceding the equality necessary to keep the peace in the playground.

The original Section 28 also refers to a "pretended family lifestyle"—I think I cite the words correctly. I remember the story of the single parent Member of Parliament who listened with her daughter to the broadcast of Michael Portillo's conference speech at a fringe meeting in 1993 which attacked single parents. The daughter turned to her mother and said, "But, Mum, we are a family, aren't we?". What should that MP have replied to her daughter? In my view, she should have taken her definition of a family from St Augustine. It is a definition of a state but, in my view, it fits the family equally well: An assemblage of reasonable beings united by a common agreement as to the objects of their love'. That is a clear and moving definition. To me, it is capable of fitting a heterosexual or homosexual union equally; but it does not fit all of either.

The advice from my party is that we have no sympathy with Amendment No. 221F. I have no argument with that except, like Section 28 itself, in the local authority matrix, which no longer applies to the conduct of sex education at all. So we have a curious case of "Matrix Reloaded". It is an artificial production. It is also a considerable attempt to fetter discretion.

When one is engaged in teaching, or in speaking in this place, if one responds to the mood of the moment one often says things that one did not know one was going to say a minute earlier. I was an example of that when I spoke to the first amendment we debated today; I did not know that I was going to open my mouth on it when I came in. That happens equally when I am teaching. If I were to be teaching under a set of guidelines as that proposed in the amendment—I shall bow to the Division Bell.

[The Sitting was suspended for a Division in the House from 5.50 to 6.00 p.m.]

Earl Russell

I shall not detain the Committee for much longer, but I would like to draw attention to the fact that there is no proposal from the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, to extend an equivalent code of practice to other subjects. I would welcome an explanation of why not. I would not much enjoy teaching history according to this sort of prescription about the need to obtain parental approval. In particular, I would not much enjoy doing it in Northern Ireland.

In that context, I think one has to consider that the power of parents cannot, any more than the power of government, be allowed to be totally arbitrary and unchecked. If one looks at the history of teenage homelessness over recent years, one sees far too many effects of the power of straight parents over gay children. It can become a form of oppression and should not be totally unchecked.

Finally, I ask the noble Baroness the question with which I began. Does she regard teaching an equal respect for homosexuality as promoting it? By that I do not mean teaching that it is absolutely all right. I am asking: will she agree to competition on a level playing field? Will she agree to it having the same respect which I willingly and happily give to the Conservative Party? Does she regard that as promoting it or not? I hope we will have an answer.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld)

The Question is—

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, rather helpfully said that we would take Amendment No. 221F and stand part together, and so we are, in one debate.

Baroness Blatch

Yes. It is the same subject.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

It is the same subject. I am happy to respond but I also appreciate that other Members of the Committee may want to speak.

Baroness Hanham

I have been slightly taken off my feet by this. I have listened very carefully to what my noble friend Lady Blatch has said. I have a great deal of sympathy with what she has promoted and put forward today. One of the most difficult aspects of education that anybody has to handle is sex education.

My memories of Clause 28 are that it was introduced for the very specific reason that some local authorities had decided not only to promote teaching on homosexuality but to promulgate it and put it on a higher plane than any of us would have expected. Whether or not that continues to be a problem because of Clause 28, I do not know. Whether it has been reduced by Clause 28 seems to me almost certain.

I remain most concerned about how education takes place against that background. There is a great level of tolerance these days towards the activities of adults—people who have had an opportunity to decide what they want for themselves and know what is right for themselves. Nobody is interfering in that in any way.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, asked for a level playing field and, as I understand it, my noble friend's amendment would ensure precisely that. It is a level playing field for the sort of sex education that any parent—any good parent—would want their children to be taught.

Some of the material that my noble friend has mentioned today—the only material that we were allowed to see fleetingly—would have been found quite shocking by a lot of adults. It is the sort of material that you would expect to find on the top shelf in a bookshop, in a rather lurid magazine, not in the slates of a school. Whatever the outcome of this debate, it must ensure that, to some degree, parents have more than a passing interest in what their children are taught in this respect.

I support the amendment.

Baroness Hamwee

The Minister is looking to the Front Benches. We are very happy to have let my noble friend Lord Russell speak for us. It is a ma tter of party policy to support the repeal of Section 28; it was moved by my honourable friend Edward Davey in another place. We support its repeal not just as a matter of party policy but, as I think will be clear on the part of many of us, with heartfelt support.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

We expected that there would be amendments to Clause 121, which repeals Section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986 as inserted by Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. I shall refer to it as Section 28 from now on for brevity because this is how it has become known colloquially. The Opposition—the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in particular—gave notice that she would pursue this course at later stages of the Bill.

Having said that, I am very disappointed to see these amendments on the Marshalled List. The repeal of Section 28 was, after all, supported by an overwhelming majority in another place. It is worth stressing that that support came from all sides of the House. Members from the party opposite spoke admirably about the need for repeal.

There is a clear sense that the time has come to remove this piece of divisive, unpleasant and nasty legislation from the statute book. In another place, the provision to repeal Section 28 was voted in by 19 to 2 in Committee. The amendment to remove repeal was defeated by a ratio of 5:1 at Report.

I was encouraged by the general tone of debate on this matter on Second Reading. In this House, too, most spoke in favour of repeal. Since then, some of the points raised in the debate have become the subject of cordial correspondence between my noble friend Lord Alli and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. I am also aware that my noble friend Lord Rooker has corresponded on the matter.

I note that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, signalled their intent to oppose Clause 121 standing part of the Bill. I will address that later, setting out the broad reasons—although they are well rehearsed—for repeal.

Amendment No. 221F seeks to place a duty on local authorities to have regard to a new government code on sex education. It is, in our view, unnecessary, because we believe we already have in place a robust framework of protections.

The amendment has at its heart the role local authorities play in sex education. It is based on a misconception that local authorities still determine what is taught in schools. They do not. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, expressed her concerns at Second Reading. My noble friend Lord R ookees letter focused in particular on those matters. However, it seems to have had little effect, and I will repeat what was said earlier for the benefit of the Committee.

Local authorities no longer determine sex education. The framework for sex and relationship education in schools has been strengthened since we last debated the repeal of Section 28 in your Lordships' House during the passage of the previous Local Government Bill. This point is fundamental, and we need to be absolutely clear on it. The Learning and Skills Act 2000 amended the Education Act 1996 to remove local authorities' principal responsibilities. What is taught is now the responsibility of head teachers and governors. Repeal of Section 28 will not change this in any way, shape or form.

LEAs of course recommend materials to schools to facilitate sex education. The noble Baroness remarked on that and produced some evidence to that effect. However, LEAs are already under the duty through Section 351(6) of the Education Act 1996, as amended, to have regard to the Government's sex and relationship education—SRE—guidance in any input they have. The responsibility for determining whether any such materials are used and how they are used is entirely for teachers and governors, not local authorities. It is important that we all understand this basic position before I move to some of the more detailed points.

The amendment covers other important issues to which we should turn. First, the matter of consulting parents on the nature of sex education and the material used to facilitate this learning. This amendment seeks to introduce new mechanisms for consulting parents on the nature of sex education, schools' written statements and on the material used to facilitate learning. This leads me to wonder whether the noble Baroness has listened to any of the previous debates on this issue during the course of the Bill.

The amendments in 2000 mean that head teachers and governors are under a statutory duty to have regard to the SRE guidance. This has been in place for some time and has been widely praised, not least by Members of the party opposite in another place. The SRE guidance specifically addresses parental involvement.

I have referred to Conservative Members in another place supporting the guidance. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said of the guidance: It is written extremely well and sets out the subject in great detail in a reasonable and balanced way".—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee A, 13/2/03; col. 554.] I thought that was a pretty good endorsement from a Member of the Opposition for that important publication.

The guidance says it is essential that schools work in partnership with parents who should be regularly consulted on sex education in schools, particularly when the contents are being reviewed, and that parents' wishes should be reflected in schools' policies. Schools should discuss and take on board any concerns raised by parents with regard to materials. These arrangements are between schools and parents. Section 28 has no relevance and no bearing on it.

If it comes to personal endorsement, I have received the letter from my local secondary high school where my two elder children go, inviting me to comment or inviting us to consider whether we think the sex education is appropriate. Where parents are unhappy with sex education in schools, they can withdraw their children from the elements not covered by the national curriculum. However, the fact is that less than 1 per cent have chosen to do so. We see that as an overwhelming endorsement of the robust framework that is now in place.

Baroness Blatch

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Will he accept that that is very difficult if, without notice, the drama teacher uses drama lessons for sex education? Will he also accept that it is difficult if the history teachers uses history for peddling sex education? We know this happens, and this makes it nearly impossible. I nearly read out from "Colours of the Rainbow" where they advocated hiding sex education in other subjects in the national curriculum because that was a way of making it difficult, if not impossible. for parents to withdraw their children from sex education.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

Obviously, it is important, and the guidance makes it clear that teachers should be able to deal openly and honestly with issues relating to sex and sexual orientation. But they must have regard to the guidance, whether they be drama teachers, history teachers or whatever. The level of complaints about this is minuscule.

Earl Russell

If the Minister will forgive me, will he accept it is very difficult to teach either history or drama without reference to sex? Both of them have a history.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I have never been a history teacher; I am not sure that my history master at school talked a great deal about sex in our lessons, but it was not something that could be ignored. However, the noble Earl, who is a very fine lecturer and academic. knows this much better than I, and I accept entirely what he says.

The DfES has had no complaints in the past 12 months about the way in which the guidance has worked. At Second Reading, the noble Baroness made several references to sex education in Brighton and Hove schools. That is something about which I know a fair bit, given that I have three children there. I contacted the council this very day and asked whether it had received any complaints following the well reported speech made by the noble Baroness at Second Reading. It has had no complaints since, and it had had no recorded complaints for the previous three years. If what the noble Baroness said about the quality and type of material was widespread across the school and teachers were using it as extensively as seems to have been suggested in some of the noble Baroness's comments, I would have expected something. There was nothing there.

In any event, the repeal of Section 28 will have no effect on the framework. Parents are already sufficiently involved in the process of determining sex education. I am not sure what mechanism the noble Baroness has in mind, but I remind those opposite that suggestions made in another place about balloting were firmly criticised for opening the floodgates to divisive campaigns. We should have no truck with that approach.

The amendment would also make available to parents details of those other than teachers involved in the provision of sex education in schools. We believe that aspect is also unnecessary. The current framework already extends, as I said, to such individuals. The suggestion that anyone can just wander into a school and provide sex education to schoolchildren is simply absurd.

The SRE guidance recognises that there are other individuals, such as health professionals, social workers, youth workers and peer educators, who can play a valuable role in sex education. The guidance is clear on the framework within which they must operate and that parents should be informed of the role that they play. Paragraph 6(2) says that people entering school to help deliver sex and relationship education must be made aware of the school's policy and programme and should abide by it. Parents should also be aware of the involvement of the wider community.

The guidance also says that it would be inappropriate for any professional to promote a particular sexuality. As I said. teachers and governors are ultimately responsible for determining the content of sex education in schools. That includes sex education provided by those other than teachers.

On the matter of the framework that applies to those providing sex education to children, the noble Baroness raised concerns at Second Reading about the possible effect of the amendments to the Sexual Offences Bill relating to exemption from prosecution for child sex offences. Noble Lords will be aware that the amendments were successfully introduced at Third Reading of the Sexual Offences Bill. For the avoidance of doubt, the amendments would not prevent those providing sex education from facing prosecution if they caused or encouraged the activity constituting an offence or the child's participation in it. If those providing sex education distribute sexual material to a particular child or children for their own sexual gratification incite or cause the commission of a child sex offence, they would not be protected from prosecution by the exemption.

Finally, this amendment also seeks to make such a code the basis of any legal challenge. However, the framework that I described already exists in statute. Sections 403, 404 and 405 of the Education Act 1996, as amended in 2000, set out that framework. There are several tiers in place that allow external scrutiny, to ensure that school sex education policies are appropriate. Parents must be consulted; Ofsted has a statutory responsibility to inspect personal and social and health education; and parents can complain directly to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. Ultimately, parents are already able to seek judicial review.

As I said earlier, fewer than 1 per cent of parents have withdrawn their children from sex education since the provisions of the Learning and Skills Act 2000 came into effect. As I also said earlier, the DfES has received no complaints in the past 12 months on the framework. That is a clear endorsement of the framework that we have in place. It is successful, and parents are broadly content with it.

The noble Baroness's amendment is unnecessary, and I hope that she withdraws it. As to the wider issues relating to Section 28, one of the strong points that the noble Baroness made was that it had already been effective in some way. Well, if that is the case, I very much regret it. My own view is that it has not been the case because, actually, I do not think that it did anything to tackle the imagined issue that the noble Baroness had in mind that it served so admirably to do. Certainly, when I was leader of my council in the late 1980s, the coming of Section 28 worried us a great deal because we made grants available to gay and lesbian organisations that provided a range of highly beneficial advice.

We decided to ignore the effect of Section 28. It had no bearing on our policies. In fact, we even passed a motion and resolution opposing it. The wrath of the government did not fall upon our head, and I am glad that that was the case, because we were right. It was a nasty, divisive piece of legislation that had no practical effect other, I think, than to stir up homophobia and make people who, perhaps, already felt vulnerable in their community to feel even more so.

I hope that we finally knock this on the head this time round. I do not believe that the amendment is at all necessary. I hope that the House takes a different view from that which it has expressed in previous years on the issue.

Baroness Blatch

I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving a full answer, although he seemed surprised that we addressed the two amendments together. Given that they were on the same subject, it seemed appropriate and for the convenience of the Committee to do so.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, for making that point. I am grateful to her for bringing the two issues together.

Baroness Blatch

I thank the noble Lord. To the noble Earl, I say that the best way that I can answer the particular question is to say that it is one thing for a teacher to say, "Homosexuality is wrong" or to say, "Some say that homosexuality is wrong, and some say that it is right"—in other words, introducing the idea that, like politics or religion, it is a controversial issue. One need only read the papers from the past week to know that it is indisputably a controversial issue. It is another thing for a teacher to say that homosexuality is equal to heterosexuality. That is probably what is behind the noble Earl's question. That would be taking sides, as a teacher, and saying, in other words, "There are some who think this and some who think that, but I think that it is equal to heterosexuality". Taking sides in that way would be a form of promotion.

Earl Russell

There are valid senses in which I would say that the Conservative Party is equal to the Liberal Democrats. Has the noble Baroness any objection?

Baroness Blatch

Given the policy differences between us, I probably would have some objection.

I shall move straight on to that issue. I am not sure about this, but I think that, on my amendment, Amendment No. 221F, the noble Earl said, with the endorsement of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that he wanted "no truck" with it. I do not think that that was the noble Earl's language, but, whatever he said, the point was, "We want nothing of it". If they want nothing to do with a code of practice that would cover proper consultation with parents and strengthen it and give information on the manner in which sex education is taught, the materials used in sex education and the use of third parties in schools, there is a serious difference between us. It would be hugely helpful for teachers and would protect children in schools.

The noble Earl also asked, "Why not other subjects?". In their wisdom, the Government thought it necessary in law to do something about the teaching of politics. They thought it necessary in law to do something about how the subject of religion is handled in schools. It is not uncommon to link politics, religion and sex education. They are highly sensitive and controversial subjects, and it is right that teachers and schools—and governors—should be helped to see their way through what I regard as a minefield.

I would expect us, in the interests of the health of young people, positively to discourage under-age sex and certainly not to introduce children, as part of sex education, to some of the practices set out in the document Taking Sex Seriously. I was not allowed to let the Committee see the document, but I shall read the preamble to a practical exercise for children from the age of 11 upwards. I shall not read out the list of activities. I will leave that to Members of the Committee to read themselves.

The document advises teachers to explain the purpose of the exercise and to ask people to move into groups of three and give them a bundle of strips of card or paper. It then says: Ask them to think about all the different sexual activities two people can do together. Ask them to write each one on a separate strip of card large enough so it can be seen if put up on the wall. Tell them they can put down whatever they think of and that it is best if they do it in a specific way. E.g. rather than just 'oral sex'— I hope Members of the Committee will forgive me here and bear in mind that this is for children of 11-plus— they might put 'sucking a man's penis' or licking a woman's clitoris'. (Some examples of sexual activities are given below. You may need to give a few examples to get the group thinking on the right lines". I, as a parent, would not wish my children to be in a classroom engaging in that practical activity. I will do what I can, as long as I have breath, to give parents a shot in the arm and give them the right to do something about that kind of sex education in schools.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I do not want to prolong the debate, but will the noble Baroness accept that there are adequate procedures and processes in place for parents to object, if they feel that that sort of material was being used inappropriately in schools? We believe that there is a proper process in place, that the guidance is robust enough and that parents can use it if they object. Does she also accept my earlier point that parents have the right and the facility to withdraw their child from non-national curriculum-based lessons that relate to sex education? If people are genuinely offended by that sort of material, they have ample opportunity to complain and to withdraw their children from its effect.

Baroness Blatch

First, that leads me nicely on to the very point I was about to make. Secondly, I have already spoken about the difficulty that parents have in withdrawing their children from that class of sex education that is not within the national curriculum because they do not always know when it is being taught. I have given examples from a document I have quoted twice and am about to quote for the third time of how schools are officially advised and given ways of circumventing the law.

On the Minister's specific point, only as recently as 2003, Brighton and Hove Council strongly recommended what I have just read out from Taking Sex Seriously. It was also recommended by Croydon Council, Hampshire County Council and East Sussex. The proposals for children of 11-plus were strongly recommended in 2003 by Brighton and Hove Council, Croydon Council and Hampshire County Council. The Minister may think there is a robust system in place; the truth is that councils can quite officially and legitimately—these are photostats of the actual documents from those county and borough councils—recommend this kind of inappropriate sex education for their children in school, and they can get away with it.

The noble Lord should have a better idea and should be advised rather more accurately by his officials as to how some of this sex education, which I regard as wholly inappropriate—I know I would be supported by many parents. if they knew these documents existed—was being officially recommended by local authorities.

The noble Lord said that the level of complaints about sex education was minuscule. I have already given one reason why that might be—parents do not always know. It is a brave child who will go home and tell their parents the sort of things they have been hearing in school. When I spoke at the outset to the amendment, I made it clear again and again that the majority of schools, governors and teachers are not breaching Section 28, but that even if a minority is, we should do something about it.

The argument that it is only a minuscule number of parents is not a reason for abandoning the need to protect children, even a minority of children, from inappropriate sex education. The Minister and noble Lords have opposed me and my late friend Lady Young for years. If the issue had not been inserted into the Bill, I should not be talking about it. Those noble Lords always argued that Section 28 was an irritant. It clearly is, because everyone is so rattled about it. Clearly, it has had some effect. For that, I am grateful.

The noble Lord rather ridiculed the attempt by my colleagues in another place to introduce the notion of balloting. The Government have done that in the Bill. They have Section 117, which allows balloting with no restrictions on the kind of subjects that could be the subject of such a ballot. One can ballot parents about the quality of any kind of service in the authority. The noble Lord clearly does not know his He has to look it up to see what I am talking about.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Bassani of Brighton

No, I am aware of them—polls.

Baroness Blatch

Polls are a form of balloting. Local polls reflect the views of people in local communities as to what they think about public services. This, I remind the Minister, is a public service.

If Clause 28 has been effective—the Minister said—he very much regrets it. I have to say that, if the noble Lord is saying that, if Clause 28 has been successful in protecting children from sex education—

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I absolutely object to that inference from my words. I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw it now.

Baroness Blatch

If I have got it wrong, I certainly will profusely apologise to the noble Lord, but I heard him say: If it has been successful. I deeply regret it". I shall check Hansard tomorrow to see whether I am wrong about that. I will do more than that—

Lord Bassam of Brighton

Let us pursue this matter.

I am conscious of the time, and I want to see the debate completed. I was not in any way suggesting that there was regret from me. My point was that I did not see that Section 28 was at all relevant to the issue of ensuring that there was adequate child protection. I would not want the inference drawn that the noble Baroness was certainly on the point of drawing. It is not accurate.

Baroness Blatch

I totally accept what the Minister has just said. I hope that, when the noble Lord hears the tape of what was said today, it will prove to have been a slip of the tongue. I heard the noble Lord say that, if it had been effective, I very much regret it". I was going to say that, if that is the case, it says more about the Minister than it does about me and the intention behind my amendment.

I end where I started: my concern is the protection of children, so that they receive appropriate sex education. I shall carefully read what the Minister and other noble Lords have said. I shall do what I can to empower parents to make a judgment about sex education and its appropriateness, whether it is homosexual and/or heterosexual sex education.

What I have read in those documents, which are still being recommended by local authorities, is wholly unacceptable. I shall do all I can to fight to see that they do not survive in the education system.

Clause 121 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 221F not moved.]

Lord Brightman

moved Amendment No. 222: After Clause 121, insert the following new clause—


(1) Subject to the general principle that the institution of marriage is to be supported, a local authority shall not encourage, or publish material intended to encourage, the adoption of any particular sexual lifestyle.

(2) This section does not prohibit the provision for young persons of sex education or counselling services on sexual behaviour and associated health risks."

The noble and learned Lord said: I am conscious of the time and I shall be quite brief. The purpose of Amendment No. 222 is to satisfy both those who support the repeal of Section 28, and those who fear that the repeal of Section 28 would encourage the adoption of a homosexual lifestyle. I emphasise that I am not taking sides in any debate about homosexual lifestyles, I am trying only to satisfy both sides during the legislative process in which we are now engaged, to lay the matter at rest in this House and to avoid the kind of conflict which we have had between the two Houses on the previous occasion. I have no other purpose in mind.

The amendment is also worded to satisfy those who fear that the repeal of Section 28 might undermine the institution of marriage. The amendment which I have tabled begins with the words: Subject to the general principle that the institution of marriage is to be supported".

Those words are taken verbatim from Section 1 of the Family Law Act 1996, which calls for, regard to the following general principles— (a) that the institution of marriage is to be supported". No objection can therefore properly be taken to the opening words of the amendment.

The amendment continues, a local authority shall not encourage, or publish material intended to encourage, the adoption of any particular sexual lifestyle

Homosexuality is not mentioned. The amendment therefore contains nothing which can be offensive to homosexuals.

At the same time, the wording of the amendment disposes of the fear of some that the bare repeal of Section 28, without any embellishment, might be interpreted as encouraging local authorities to promote homosexuality.

I submit that there are at least five reasons why the Government might feel able to accept this amendment: first, it does not change one word of the Bill; secondly, it cannot cause offence to anyone; thirdly, it removes the misgivings of those who may be fearful of the unintended consequences of removing Section 28; fourthly, it is supportive of the institution of marriage; and, fifthly, it avoids the possibility of a conflict between the two Houses in the middle of an extremely heavy legislative programme.

I cannot expect the Government to accept this amendment at this stage. All I ask is that it may be examined with some sympathy and that the Minister may give me the privilege of meeting him between now and Report stage to discuss the implications of the amendment at greater length than I think is really appropriate at this hour today. If such a meeting could be held, I would welcome the presence of my noble friend Lord Northbourne, who has worked with me on this amendment.

I have two small points with which to end. First, I have not invited the Committee's attention to subsection (2) of the proposed new clause. It states: This section does not prohibit the provision for young persons of sex education or counselling services on sexual behaviour and associated health risks". I must also deal with the point put to me by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. If I have understood it correctly—and I may not have heard it right—he was inviting attention to the difference between the heading of my amendment, "Promotion of particular sexual lifestyles", and the content which refers to encouragement. If I have that right, I can answer it in two ways. First, I had the advantage during the interval while there was a Division to seek a little advice. I am told that the heading of a section is not a part of a Bill and is not debated.

Secondly, when I table an amendment, I always leave it to the Public Bill Office to write the amendment in. I beg to move.

Lord Northbourne

I have put my name to this amendment and I should like to speak to it briefly. It is a great pleasure to listen to my noble and learned friend Lord Brightman and to the skill with which he explains exactly what he and I are trying to achieve.

Section 28 has generated a great deal of heat over the past few years—a great deal more heat than light, it has to be said. The amendment is intended as a compromise, as my noble and learned friend explained. I support it because I think that this endless debate on homosexuality is distracting our society from the really serious issue of what we believe sex is for and what part sex should play in relationships between adults if we want to have healthy and happy families and a happy and healthy society in the 21st century.

Until we have some consensus between adults on this issue, it is really almost pointless to try to discuss what we should be teaching our children. The amendment provides a formula which should be reasonably acceptable to all parties and should take the heat out of the argument. I therefore commend it to the Committee.

Earl Russell

Blessed are the peace-makers—but they take appalling risks. I congratulate the authors of the amendment on having taken those risks. I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, for his explanation of the words "promote" and "encourage", which taught me everything that I hoped to hear.

I have two queries to put to the noble and learned Lord and I will be very heavily influenced by his answers. First, I look at subsections (1) and (2) of his proposed new clause. Does he accept, in effect, the provision of the 39 Articles that the Church shall not so expound one place of scripture that it shall be repugnant to another? Does he accept that the use of health education should not be taken to indicate a superiority of one way of life over another? It could otherwise be a very heavy postern gate through which a whole army could creep. I do not think he would wish that, any more than I do.

The other point I should like to ask him about is whether he would consider a slightly less monopolistic provision for marriage. I do not think I need in this company to say anything about my own attitude to marriage but having had—before cancer reduced their number—two sisters-in-law who chose to live as permanent partners, I cannot bring myself to subscribe to anything which says that marriage is automatically superior to any other long-term loving relationship.

I remember one occasion when my wife and I were entertained after a public lecture by a couple, both recently emerged from exceptionally unhappy first marriages. They were creeping their way towards a real commitment to each other. Over dinner, they fell into a discussion, encouraged by our mood of celebrating the silver anniversary of our engagement, and they discussed what would constitute a real commitment between them. After considering about a dozen possibilities, they decided that the moment of commitment would be when they ceased to have two separate subscriptions to their main historical journal and took out a single joint subscription.

I met that couple last week. They are still together and happier than they ever were. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in some of our philosophies.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, is right to see this as a peace-making attempt. Whether it entirely achieves that, I am not sure, nor am I convinced. The amendment seeks to place a broad duty on local authorities to prevent them—with the exception of supporting the principle of marriage—promoting any particular sexuality across any of their functions. I take particular note of the noble and learned Lord's provision which would ensure that this would not obstruct local authorities in their responsibilities for sex education and sexual health.

I have already covered in detail the fact that the main responsibilities now fall on schools and that we believe we have in place an adequate framework of protections when those responsibilities are properly exercised. I should also say that the spirit of this amendment with regard to sex education closely reflects that of the SRE guidance, which in paragraph 1.21 states that, children should be taught about the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and for bringing up children"— but— that there are strong and mutually supportive relationships outside marriage". Also at paragraph 1.30, it states that, teachers should be able to deal honestly and sensitively with sexual orientation, answer appropriate questions and offer support. There should be no direct promotion of sexual orientation". I think that most noble Lords in the room could sign up to those two paragraphs and live happily with them. I hope we all could.

As regards the position of children and education, we feel that the amendment is unnecessary; but it is no less unnecessary in relation to other functions, and it could be harmful. The Bill builds on other measures introduced by the Government to give local authorities the powers and freedoms they need to be effective community leaders.

Local authorities know the role they are expected to fulfil. They should be acting responsibly. They should not be promoting any specific lifestyle choice, but they should be able to provide services that meet local needs and support all members of their communities. I say that with added feeling since I probably live closest to one of the largest gay communities in the UK. Kemptown is extremely well known for being that. It is part of the colourful nature of Brighton and Hove that makes it a very diverse and eclectic place.

We argue that local authorities should be able to provide those services to meet local needs. That includes the local needs of all members of our communities in an inclusive term. We think that the amendment could unnecessarily undermine their ability to do so. I would hope that for that reason—and I certainly respect the spirit in which the amendment has been moved and supported—that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Blatch

Before the Minister sits down, could he explain what there is in the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, that would undermine the local authority's ability to provide services to people in its community, which he has just explained?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

This is not a brilliantly close textual analysis. The first of the two subsections states that, a local authority shall not encourage, or publish material intended to encourage, the adoption of any particular sexual lifestyle". I would have thought that that would be open to various and wide interpretation by the courts. I do not know. Brighton and Hove City Council. for example, offers its support to a local Gay Pride venture that happens annually. That support takes various and different forms. I should have thought that that clause could quite possibly be used to challenge that support. I do not know. I would not want to form a judgment on it. I am not a lawyer. But I could see that that could happen. I do not think that there are many who would argue that the local authority should not have a role in enabling Gay Pride events to take place on its streets. If the amendment is put in place, I can see a potential problem for local authorities, such as my own, which plays host to a Gay Pride event. That is my judgment; that is my view.

Lord Brightman

I am grateful to Members of the Committee who have spoken in this short debate. Perhaps I may emphasise that my only purpose is by amending the Bill to prevent, in the course of a heavy legislative programme with not much time left, any further argument about Section 28. That is what I am striving to do. The amendment may not fit awfully well with our legislation, but it cannot possibly do any harm. It does not alter a single word of the Bill. The reference to "the institution of marriage" is taken straight from existing legislation and therefore cannot possibly be objected to. I mentioned that the Family Law Act 1996 refers to, regard to the following general principles". The first is, that the institution of marriage is to be supported". To repeat those words is therefore totally unnecessary; but it does no harm and may satisfy some doubters. Again, as I say, all I am trying to do is to prevent another clash in the House and endless waste of time.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, put two questions to me. I am sure there is nothing between us on the first one. On the second one, I hope that he will accept that the amendment only repeats what is already on the statute book. I do not think I can say more except to hope that possibly I might—I do not know—be able to agree with the Government some form of wording that I could introduce that could conceivably prevent any further discussion about Section 28. In the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 222A not moved.]

Clause 122 [Orders and regulations]:

Lord Bassam of Brighton

moved Amendment No. 223:

Page 74, line 18, at end insert— ( ) No—

  1. (a) order under this Act which, in exercise of the power under subsection (1)(b) to make incidental or supplementary provision, amends or repeals any enactment contained in an Act, or
  2. (b) regulations under this Act which, in exercise of that power to make incidental or supplementary provision, amend or repeal any such enactment,
shall be made by the Secretary of State unless a draft of the statutory instrument containing the order or regulations (whether containing the order, or regulations, alone or with other provisions) has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.

The noble Lord said: Amendments Nos. 223 and 224 have been tabled to reflect the recommendations of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. They make certain that orders and regulation-making powers in the Bill are subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. They are entirely in line with what that committee recommended.

We have had a number of debates on the issue. I acknowledge that there is a further amendment in the group—Amendment No. 226. My only comment and observation on that is that it goes further than the recommendations of the DPRR Committee. I would hope that the noble Baroness, as I am sure she will, will not move her amendment and will acknowledge that fact. We are happy to oblige the DPRR Committee because we think it is right. We hope that the amendments will find support with the Committee.

Baroness Hanham

My amendment, Amendment No. 226, is in this group. It is intended to draw attention to the considerable power under Clause 122(1)(b) and to ensure that anything done under that power would he done under the affirmative procedure. For tonight's purposes, I do not propose to move it any further.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I beg to move the amendment.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

moved Amendment No. 224:

Page 74, line 21, leave out from -instrument" to "shall" in line 22 and insert "that—

  1. (a) contains an order or regulations under this Act, and
  2. (b) is not subject to any requirement that a draft of the instrument be laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament,"

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld)

If Amendment No. 224 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 225 due to pre-emption.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 225 and 226 not moved.]

Clause 122, as amended, agreed to.

Clauses 123 to 126 agreed to.

Schedule 6 [Minor and consequential amendments]:

Baroness Blatch

moved Amendment No. 226A: Page 101, line 41, at end insert—

"Local Government ( Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 (c. 30)

In Schedule 3 to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 (control of sex establishments), in paragraph 2 after "sex cinema" there is inserted ", a lap dancing club"."

The noble Baroness said: This is the last amendment of this stage of the Bill and I shall be very brief. One of the problems of the Grand Committee procedure is that it is not possible to be in two places at the same time. This is an amendment that my noble friend Lady O'Cathain would have spoken to but she has to be active on the Water Bill. I seek to move Amendment No 226A on behalf of my noble friend. The amendment seeks to amend the meaning of "sex establishment" as contained in paragraph 2 of Schedule 3 to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982.

At present, a sex establishment includes a sex cinema or a sex shop. This amendment seeks to add the group of so-called lap dancing clubs to the definition, therefore bringing the licensing of such establishments within the provisions of Schedule 3 to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act.

The reasoning behind this amendment is straightforward. At present, the licensing of so-called lap dancing clubs is dealt with by way of application for an entertainment licence under the provisions of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982. Part I and Schedule 1 to that Act relate to the licensing of public entertainment and Part II of the Act and Schedule 3 to the Act relate to sex establishments.

The introduction of this amendment has been prompted by the recent rapid growth in so-called lap dancing clubs which are now presented as executive entertainment but are in fact no more than high-class "strip joints". The entertainment at these clubs is provided by women, who dance on stage or individually for a particular client and progressively remove their clothing. Some licensing authorities have applied special conditions to entertainment licences to the effect that only partial nudity is allowed but this particular provision is becoming increasingly rare. I understand that there are also conditions that are sometimes applied that relate to the distance to be kept between dancers and clients and also to restrict the touching of any of the dancers by the clients.

My noble friend is convinced that when the 1982 Act was passed it was not envisaged by Members of the Committee that entertainment licences would be granted for such explicitly sexual entertainment. Additionally, there have been recent media reports to the effect that a particular lap dancing club in Tottenham Court Road has been investigated by the local vice squad as there was a suspicion that it was being used as a "front" for prostitution activity.

Additionally, I understand that when members of the public wish to object to the granting of a licence for a lap dancing club they find themselves restricted to the usual planning criteria that are applied to other applications. These relate to whether or not there will be a noise disturbance to residents from the premises or an increased risk of litter or public order offences. Clearly, the issues that lead local residents to object to a lap dancing club will very seldom relate to these specific grounds. They are much more likely to centre around the considerations that can he given by a local authority when an application is made for a sex shop licence; that is, the character of the relevant locality and the use to which other premises in the vicinity are put.

Therefore, it would seem eminently sensible to bring the licensing of lap dancing clubs within the remit of Part II and Schedule 3 to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982. This simple amendment would achieve that legitimate aim. I beg to move.

7 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I find myself saying for the second time today, I think, that I simply cannot accept the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness. I think we have reached a stage with the Bill at which we cannot give the full and proper consideration that the proposed new clause demands. I think it probably requires further preparation.

The amendment itself is flawed because it does not contain a definition of lap dancing. Without such a definition, the amendment could lead to considerable confusion. Putting that aside, I think that it would also take some time to establish whether local government and other interested parties would welcome such a proposal. Perhaps the noble Baroness has done work on that. Perhaps she has sought the views of the Local Government Association. Perhaps the officials in that organisation have a view on whether the proposals would be helpful in the regulatory regime which local government operates in this sphere. There are also the two issues which go together of cost and regulatory impact.

For those reasons, the Government do not support the amendment. I am also afraid that we cannot agree to introduce our own amendment within the confines of the Bill. However, I accept the sincerity with which the issue has been raised. The Government's view is that more work is required on the proposal before it is in anywhere near a perfect state. There would have to be much more detailed consultation with those in the local government domain who operate in this field.

Baroness Blatch

I will leave it to my noble friend to read what the Minister had to say. I think she will be disappointed both that the case was not accepted and that the Minister has not actually said on what grounds he does not accept the case for considering lap dancing clubs as analogous to sex shops. They are analogous in the way in which they practise. As I said, neighbours of lap dancing clubs who want to complain about them are restricted to complaining on grounds which are not actually relevant to the particular grounds of complaint. Those grounds would be analogous to those applying to sex shops.

The Minister argues that accepting the proposal would be difficult because the Bill must be passed. It is a simple amendment which could be accepted. He accuses my noble friend of saying that the amendment is flawed because it has no definition—but the amendment is about redefining.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I did not accuse; I was simply trying to aid discussion. It was not an accusatory observation. I really think that the noble Baroness should come down from the rather confrontational language that she sometimes uses in these situations.

Baroness Blatch

The Minister is unusually touchy today.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

No, I am not.

Baroness Blatch

The Minister said that the amendment was flawed because it did not contain a definition. But the amendment is redefining lap dancing clubs. That is the point of the amendment. That is the point that he missed. The intention is to redefine lap dancing clubs and put them into the same category as sex shops. I think that it is a perfectly simple amendment and would be extremely responsive to those who are concerned in the community. I will leave it to my noble friend to make a judgment about the response that the Minister gave. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

moved Amendments Nos. 227 and 228:

Page 103. line 24, at end insert— ( 1 A) In subsection (3), for "(9A)" there is substituted "(9AA)".

Page 103, line 30, at end insert— (4) After subsection (9A) there is inserted— (9AA) The power of the Secretary of State to make an order under paragraph 5G of Schedule 9 shall be exercisable by statutory instrument, and no such order shall be made by him unless a draft of it has been laid before and approved by, resolution of each House of Parliament."

On Question, amendments agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 228A to 228D not moved.]

Lord Bassam of Brighton

moved Amendment No. 229:

Page 109, line 22, at end insert— 53A In Schedule 13 (minor and consequential amendments), in paragraph 80 (amendments of section 143 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988)—

  1. (a) sub-paragraph (1) is omitted, and
  2. (b) in sub-paragraph (2), for "that section" there is substituted "section 143 of that Act (orders and regulations)"."

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 6, as amended, agreed to.

Schedule 7 [Repeals and revocations]:

[Amendments Nos. 230 to 230A not moved.]

Lord Bassam of Brighton

moved Amendment No. 231: Page 114, line 39, column 2, after "paragraphs" insert "80(1),

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 7, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 127 [Commencement]:

Lord Bassam of Brighton

moved Amendments Nos. 232 to 234:

Page 75, line 26, after "9( I )," insert "24(1), ( IA) and (4),"

Page 75, line 26, after "50(1)" insert ", 53A"

Page 75, line 30, at end insert—

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 127, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 128 agreed to.

Bill reported with amendments.

Committee adjourned at six minutes past seven o'clock.