§ 3.2 p.m.
The Earl of Caithness
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
§ Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(The Earl of Caithness.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House in Committee accordingly.
§ [The LORD ABERDARE in the Chair.]
§ Clause 28 [Prohibition on promoting homosexuality by teaching or by publishing material]:
§ On Question, Whether Clause 28, as amended, shall stand part of the Bill?
§ Lord Simon of Glaisdale
I apologise to the noble Lord, but for the sake of those of us who had to leave the Chamber before the end of the proceedings yesterday, may we know whether any amendments were accepted other than the Government's amendments?
The Earl of Caithness
It may help the Committee if I confirm that only the two government amendments were accepted.
§ Lord Simon of Glaisdale
I am very much obliged. I apologise to the noble Lord for interrupting him.
§ Lord Willis
It is a pleasure.
I am sure the Committee will be relieved to know that I do not intend to give an instant television rerun of the speech that I made yesterday nor of the arguments that I put forward then. I propose to be brief. This is an issue, however, on which I think that we must put down our markers; and I propose to do just that. Before doing so, I want to take issue with someone whom I never thought in my life to take issue with; that is, my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby. I was astonished to hear his remarks yesterday toward the end of our discussions on this Bill when he said that the country, and particularly the young people of the country, would be laughing their heads off because of the elderly Peers who were discussing the subject of homosexuality.
With respect to my noble friend, I have to say that this Chamber has not only the right but the duty to discuss homosexuality, and not only that subject but also the Norfolk Broads, salmon fishing in Scotland, animal rights, the situation in Afghanistan, and anything that comes before it. A great many noble Lords happen to think that this is a very important clause which should receive the full attention of the Chamber. I should like to thank noble Lords who spoke on each side of the argument for the seriousness with which they approached the subject.
I have to tell my noble friend further that most of the people who wrote to me were young people. They are not out there laughing; they are weeping. Most of the people whom I have seen are not homosexuals and they are saddened by the way in which this Bill has been voted upon in this Chamber. That does not detract from my gratitude to all noble Lords for the seriousness with which they have approached this discussion.
There is just one main point that I should like to stress. I strongly object to the stigma given to homosexuals and homosexuality in this clause. I do not think that my objection can be better expressed than it was by the noble Lord, Lord Soper, when he said it was going to create an oppressed and distressed minority who may be forced into the kind of excesses that we all resent and do not want to see. To name homosexuals and only them in this clause is dangerous and misguided. As I said yesterday, I think that this is the first step on the road to an intolerant society.
I am rather proud of what this Chamber has done in the past 20 years to create a tolerant and understanding society. Yesterday I was saddened because I thought that a step backwards had been taken. Therefore, I intend to press this objection. As I say, I think that this is the moment to put down markers. If our view is defeated today, so far as I am concerned the fight will go on.
§ Lord Ritchie of Dundee
My Lords, I should like to take this opportunity to speak briefly to this amendment because I did not have a chance to do so yesterday and I believe that this is the right move to make. In raising the subject in the way in which it has been raised in this clause of the Bill I feel that we have opened a Pandora's box of troubles, and revealed a great deal of explosive, emotional material which it would have been much better not to release.
I should like briefly to say that I presume the objectives of the Government when introducing this clause were twofold: first, to restrain local authorities from the kind of indiscretions about which we have all read and which we have no doubt deplored; and, secondly, to protect schoolchildren from undesirable propaganda. However, those objectives must be achieved without inhibiting counselling in schools and any help or advice that may be necessary, without increasing fear and hysteria and without increasing the risk of censorship of any kind.
I do not believe that this clause achieves those objectives. As regards counselling in schools, perhaps I may read to the Committee the balanced words that appeared in the report of Her Majesty's Government's inspector entitled Health Education from 5 to 16, published in the series "Curriculum Matters" in 1986. The passage is not very long and I beg the Committee to listen to it attentively, as I am sure will be the case. This is what HMI had to say:Given the openness with which homosexuality is treated in society now it is almost bound to arise as an issue in one area or another of a school's curriculum. Information about and discussion of homosexuality, whether it involves a whole class or an individual, needs to acknowledge that experiencing strong feelings of attraction to members of the same sex is a phase passed through by many young people, but that for a significant number of people these feelings persist into adult life. Therefore it needs to be dealt with objectively and seriously, bearing in mind that, while there has been a marked shift away from the general condemnation of homosexuality, many individuals and groups within society hold sincerely to the view that it is morally objectionable. This is difficult territory for teachers to traverse and for some schools to accept that homosexuality may be a normal feature of relationships would be a breach of the religious faith upon which they are founded. Consequently, LEAs, voluntary bodies, governors, heads and senior staff in schools have important responsibilities in devising guidance and supporting teachers dealing with this sensitive issue".That is what I wish to say in relation to counselling in schools.
With regard to fear and hysteria, we have to be very careful at this time because of the terrible threat of AIDS. The homosexual community is in danger of some very unpleasant scapegoating.
With regard to the censorship issue, a certain amount has been said about the threat to Shakespeare's sonnets and Plato's Symposium. This I believe is nonsense. I do not think that such works are likely to disappear from our library shelves. I can say the same of Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde—although I may say in passing that I remember a time as a boy when the name of Oscar Wilde could not be mentioned in the house.
The danger is that where a theatre in the provinces is financed by a local authority it might well withdraw its support for one or another of the plays that have been written, perhaps recently, on this subject for fear that it would expose itself to action from some 996 individual who considered that it was an infringement of the law. I am talking about such plays as "Breaking the Code" or "The Normal Heart". Why could not the whole issue have been handled with discretion as recommended in the HMI report that I have read out.
Powers are given to the Secretary of State in the Education Act 1944, where it states:If the Minister is satisfied, either on complaint by any person or otherwise, that any local education authority or the managers or governors of any county or voluntary school have acted or are proposing to act unreasonably with respect to the exercise of any power conferred or the performance of any duty imposed by or under this Act, he may, notwithstanding any enactment rendering the exercise of the power or the performance of the duty contingent upon the opinion of the authority or of the managers or governors, give such directions as to the exercise of the power or the performance of the duty as appear to him to be expedient".In view of that, why is it necessary for us to make a new law which threatens to give rise to so many troubles?
A great many people in the country were looking to this Chamber yesterday, to this august assembly, to produce a decision which was wise, impartial and balanced, and I am afraid that we did not. In order to preserve the high reputation of this House, I beg the Government to think again. I support this Motion.
§ 3.15 p.m.
§ The Duke of Norfolk
I listened to the whole of the debate yesterday and I felt at moments that it became very highly charged. I was amazed that the noble Lord, Lord Soper, should have said that he detected a smell of fascism in the clause. I was amazed when the noble Lord, Lord Willis, said that it was chilling, and the wind of intolerance. He said even today that there was a feeling of casting a stigma upon homosexuals. That is not the case with regard to this clause.
Normally our children develop into heterosexuals, ideally to become a father or mother of a family. The religions of our country—Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Mohammedan and Humanist, which perhaps is not a religion but a philosophy of life—underwrite this nuclear unit of mankind to reproduce our species of mother and father. The religions support that mother and father as being an ideal unit for man to go on breeding.
However, some local authorities have been promoting homosexuality by teaching it in state maintained schools. This is a gross abuse of their duties and a breach of trust to the parents whose children are put in their charge. A vast majority of parents, not only those who are happily married but also those left after marital breakdowns in charge of one-parent families, all hope that their children will grow up as heterosexual mothers or fathers. I believe that this is also true of parents who are homosexuals or lesbians. It would be trite to add that otherwise our human race would tend to become extinct.
Clause 28 does not seek in any way to censor or restrain the liberties granted to homosexuals and lesbians. It contains no such words. There is no attempt to persecute them or relegate them to second-class citizenship in any way. The clause does not 997 contain a word to curtail the publishing of books, plays, films or videos, which stand on their own artistic merit provided that they are not used as a cover plan to hide the primary aim of the sinister corruption of youth by promoting homosexuality. This is an excellent clause and although it is largely concerned with education I find nothing incorrect in its occurring as part of the Local Government Bill. It fits very neatly if one adds it to Section 2 of the Local Government Act 1986. I fully support that this clause should stand part of the Bill.
§ Lord Jenkins of Putney
If the noble Duke were to give a little further attention to this clause, he might have more doubt about it than he has given us to understand that he entertains at present. It is a clause which, as he says, on the face of it seems possibly of minor importance. But one should be warned immediately when one considers the rubric of the clause, which states:Prohibition on promoting homosexuality by teaching or by publishing material"."Publishing material" is the dangerous part of this Bill. One can conceive what is happening on the question of teaching. However, when we enter the area of publishing we are immediately in very deep water. We are beginning to enter the area of censorship. We threw out censorship 20 years ago when the Lord Chamberlain decided that the duties that he was carrying out were against the public interest; he made up his mind that the duties carried out during the previous 50 years were against the public interest. Now we have seen the wheel turn.
There was a joint parliamentary committee 20 years ago drawn from all sides of the House. It decided unanimously that we should no longer entertain censorship of drama. At 11 o'clock last night I moved an amendment to re-affirm what the Government have been saying all along: that this clause does not have the effect which all people in the arts fear that it has. I asked him to say that this clause re-affirms that, and to support it, but he would not. Therefore we had at that late hour to divide the Committee. Those of you who were present will know what happened. The Government had 33 votes; we, alas, could muster only 20 at that hour. We lost by 13 votes through lack of organisation. In reality I believe that this clause in its present form ought not to become part of the Bill. It is therefore my hope that my noble friend's Motion that the clause should not stand part will gain widespread support this afternoon. If we should be defeated again I should like to give a word of advice to those who have seen in the clause the dangers which have so far escaped the noble Duke. If he were to consult one or two of his friends on that side of the Committee who have more personal and close experience of the arts, for example the noble Lord, Lord St. John—no, it is not Stevas—
§ Lord Jenkins of Putney
I beg the noble Lord's pardon and I am sorry that he is not here to correct me himself. However, I am sure he would not mind me saying that he would and does find in the clause 998 objections which have escaped the noble Duke. I hope that we shall have a chat with each other to see whether there is not more danger in the clause than the noble Duke thinks.
It is a thoroughly bad clause. It is retrogressive in every way. It is a clause which should be thrown out. Some of my noble friends have said that it smells of fascism. Personally, I think that is pitching it a bit high. Nevertheless it is a thoroughly nasty attempt to reintroduce by the back door something which in this society we thought we had got rid of for ever. Now it is coming back. I do not like the way it is coming back and I am sure that on thinking about it Members of the Committee will decide that they do not like it either.
§ The Duke of Norfolk
Let me say to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, that I have great experience of the arts. I was an actor when I was young. My daughter Marsha Ryecart is an actress now, married to Patrick Ryecart, an actor. Another daughter is married to a great broadcaster and I have no doubt that I know as much about the arts as does the noble Lord.
The Archbishop of York
I am sorry that I cannot draw on such a history, but I believe I owe it to the Committee to explain why I feel that I must vote against the clause. I must apologise that I have not hitherto been able to take part in any of the debates. I have other things to do, but I have read very carefully not only the Second Reading debate but also the whole of the debate on the Bill introduced by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, in December 1986. I was fascinated when reading the debate to see that I was constantly being referred to in my absence as having written to the noble Earl to say that I disliked centralism and I therefore would not support his Bill. So I beg leave to explain my objections and my belief that this clause is the wrong way to deal with what I recognise is a very serious problem, but that legislation of this kind is far too blunt an instrument. In saying that I echo what the Minister said in winding up the debate on the Bill introduced by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury.
First, let me make it clear that before the whole debate started in 1986, I had already gone on public record as speaking out against the policies which were alleged to have been put into effect by certain local authorities. I have no wish at all to encourage what some people, some local authorities and some teachers have been doing which I regard as excessive and stupid. Of course like everybody else I want to protect children and young people, but what I object to in the Bill is the method proposed. I object to it because I believe it introduces a dangerous precedent in the control of ideas by central government. This, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, has been saying, touches on the issue of censorship, but I believe it is broader than censorship.
If we establish the principle that central government can say what ideas may or may not be promoted, I believe that we have increased the 999 powers of central government to a dangerous extent. That is why I believe that the fundamental issue on the clause is that of civil liberty and the relationship between the individual and government.
It is easy to pass a clause which deals with a smallish, relatively weak and, for the most part, pretty unpopular group of people. They are a group of people who we all recognise can behave and have in the past behaved with quite extraordinary foolishness. I simply do not know why the homosexual lobbies go on putting out literature which is bound to inflame the kind of feelings that have been running through Parliament. But it is easy to be caught up in dislike of that and to fail to see the longer term implications of what we may be doing if we pass the clause.
It is easy to say of ourselves—and legislators and governments always do—that we should not dream of extending this principle to other people and to other circumstances. But once the principle is established that government can control the ideas which are taught and published, then we cannot tell how those who will follow us will use those powers which we shall have put on the statute book. But there is an obvious objection here. Do not central Government control some ideas already? What about religious education? The Government maintain the principle of religious education and agree that it is a vitally important area of life. However, it seems to me that in the current legislation they are falling over backwards not to dictate the content of it but to keep the content in the hands of those who are closest to the issues or who have some responsibility for them.
We have also very properly on the statute book legislation about racialism, sexual discrimination and such like. One may say that that again is an attempt to control ideas. Yes, of course, the Government have a stake in public attitudes. Bishops especially have a stake in public attitudes. But where we legislate about these matters we root the principles of our legislation very firmly in generally accepted principles and in this case in basic human rights. It seems to me that on that level it is right that the Government should excercise some control over ideas. But whatever Clause 28 is about, it is most certainly not about defending basic human rights.
I regard the clause as dangerous and unnecessary. The educational aspects of it can, as has frequently been said, be taken care of in the Education Reform Bill. If a small group of local authorities sometimes goes over the top in pressing the claims of minorities, it is in my view a far lesser evil than to introduce the principle of government interference. I am very surprised that the Government do not see this point.
§ 3.30 p.m.
§ Lord Mason of Barnsley
I rise to give encouragement to Her Majesty's Government to enact Clause 28 as amended; that is to provide that local government shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or homosexual activities. The clause has overwhelming public support. Secondly, there are many thousands of worried 1000 families in Britain today who have been concerned about the publicity and the growth of homosexual practices. The recent Harris Poll has shown that 83 per cent. did not approve of schools teaching that homosexuality was on a par with heterosexuality, only 9 per cent. said that they did, and 43 per cent. disapproved of homosexual relationships between consenting adults. That is the concern at this stage. There is great national concern that homosexuality is being financially promoted to the detriment of normal family relationships. Part of our duty in this House is to ease those anxieties. The more it is publicised, as it is now, the greater the concern.
I do not doubt for one moment that those so-called looney-Left Labour councils, mainly in London, have been responsible for the parliamentary pressure to curb the promotion of homosexual activity. They abused their powers. They took no account of the views of the majority of ordinary people. They launched and financed programmes to aid and abet homosexuality, lesbianism and other minority causes until they became the laughing-stock of the nation and gave the Labour Party an image of weirdo protectionists to the detriment of its national appeal. I believe that someone had to restrain that growth before the promotion became widespread, encouraging every Labour council to do the same.
I say this with great respect to your Lordships' House, unaffected by the harsh wind of politics outside—and I came in from the cold only a few months ago. Under the reselection system of Labour councils those minorities apply pressure well beyond their electoral strength. Councillors will be bound to bend the knee. "Do as you are told, or else" is the theme that determines their reselection. So inevitably all the Labour groups and councils will gradually be pressurised into promoting homosexual activity. That is the danger and I believe that it is real. That is why I shall not be opposing the Government's efforts to curb the promotion of homosexuality.
There is no need for any witch-hunt and none is intended. Homosexuals will still be able to live their form of orthodox or normal life. There is no intention of banning or condemning their way of living. The clear intention is to stop the use of public money— ratepayers' money—in promoting and financing homosexual activity. One council —not one of the looney-Left in London—set up sub-committees for homosexuals and lesbians and then appointed what it called Sexual Orientation Training Officers. It spent thousands of pounds setting up gay centres. No doubt, due to the Government's cutback on local authority spending—
§ Lord Mason of Barnsley
In a minute—those councils will be cutting back home helps for the disabled and the service for meals on wheels. I for one do not agree with that idea of priority, and neither should Labour councils. It is not my idea of socialism. Indeed, I am totally opposed to spending public money on promoting and encouraging homosexual and lesbian relationships, particularly as 1001 happy family units, thereby in the eyes of our young people making our proper established family institution look odd or queer. I shall now give way.
§ Lord Willis
The noble Lord mentioned a particular council. Will he name it? Will he then say how much it spent on promoting homosexuality, or how much of the total money was spent in counselling services for people with problems.?
§ Lord Mason of Barnsley
I know that my noble friend has some strength in his argument about counselling services. I listened to him yesterday when he mentioned two London boroughs. Between them they spent £260,000 on one year to promote homosexual activity.
§ Lord Mason of Barnsley
The noble Lord read them out. It was for promoting homosexual activity. If they were doing that at a time of government cutbacks, what services were being lost to the ratepayers? Many thousands of ratepayers have been tolerant. I read the leading article in the Observer on Sunday. Of course it was against Clause 28. It wound up by stating:In the interests of justice, tolerance and above all common sense. Clause 28 must be dropped".Many thousands of ratepayers have been tolerant. They have had no champion to fight their opposition to the financial promotion of homosexual activities. To them there is no justice in their money being spent in this way; to them it is simply common sense to allow homosexuals and lesbians to live in their own way and not be projected as something special. It is common sense to them that the money available—that is, ratepayers' money—could and should be better spent on improving the lot of the ordinary poor, homeless and unhappy people. The priority should be to give them an opportunity to enjoy a much happier life and not place homosexuals on a pedestal and as an example of or in pretended family relationships.
Since this clause was inserted in the Bill in another place there has been a considerable howl of protest by homosexual and lesbian groups to kill it. Also the arts circle, if I may describe it as such, wants to preserve its rights to promote homosexuality in writings, scripts and theatre. Many people believe that that permissiveness has also gone too far. A permissive society can enlarge only as fast as people are prepared to accept it. People are free to buy books or to go to the theatre where lesbianism or homosexuality might be portrayed. What about those who do not wish to be involved in any of these sexual activities? How helpless they feel when it is portrayed on a screen in their front-room. They feel concerned that the permissive society is expanding and they have no means to stop it.
Also these homosexual protesters—many have been egged on by the artists and no one can deny that—were answered by Robert Kilroy Silk in his 1002 column in The Times last week. He was against Clause 28, but towards the end of his article he stated:it … has to be said that many homosexuals bear a heavy responsibility for the current nasty atmosphere and for the future threat. It is they who have deliberately and provocatively adopted a militantly high public profile, who have flaunted their sexuality, who have aggressively paraded their lifestyle and who seem to enjoy the resultant shock and relish the public distaste.They are entitled to do this. There is no doubt about that. But when they do it they should not expect to be liked, loved, or even respected as a result".Many commentators have been drawing our attention to the concern about the high profile of the raucous minority of homosexuals. In the Yorkshire Post Bernard Dineen said:Amend Clause 28 by all means to make sure it cannot be used for persecuting homosexuals. But the fear is phoney. The real danger is of the public being persecuted by noisy groups which represent nobody but themselves.And once again the main sufferers will be those homosexuals who get on with their lives quietly and are embarrassed by the shrill exhibitionists who profess to speak for them".There is a lot of truth in what they say. We do not want Clause 28 to become a bigot's charter, but there is no doubt that the bigots and militants of the homosexual groups have assisted this backlash against themselves. Therefore the raucous minority of homosexuals must learn to live with this clause and the Act.
The majority of homosexuals will not be affected. They will go on quietly and unashamedly living in their own way, adopting the view of the mass of the British people as this furore settles down; that is to live, just as it should be.
§ Lord Grimond
The most reverend Primate made some very important points in his speech, principally on the extreme delicacy and complications of the matter on which the Committee is proposing to legislate; and, secondly, on the danger of setting precedents. He dealt very candidly with the position of Christianity, which has a special position in this country and which might be held to be a doctrine imposed on the country by the Government. There are many atheists who might object to the privileged position of Christianity.
I am not sure that I follow the most reverend Primate's point about human rights, because it could be argued that children and parents have a human right to attend schools at which homosexuality is not promoted.
Leaving aside those matters, which we could debate for a long time, there is a real danger of establishing precedents in this matter which could be quoted in quite different contexts. I have no doubt that there has been abuse by certain education authorities. I have no doubt that the Government's motives are entirely pure, and that if these amendments were left in their hands little damage would be done, but it is time that some protest was made against the growing habit of legislating whenever something is raised in the press. However local, however trivial, if there is enough publicity the cry goes out, "The Government must legislate". I doubt whether legislation is the solution to many of these ills. There is insufficient evidence as to how widespread the trouble is. It is not known how many 1003 local authorities are involved, or what effect any abuse of this matter has had in education so far.
Further, there will be great difficulties about the word "promote", whatever the Government may say. When this is quoted in different contexts it is going to be difficult to say what is the promotion of homosexuality and what is their explanation of what it means. Does the teaching of In Memoriam promote the idea that homosexuality may be a good thing?
I draw the Committee's attention to the fact that homosexuality in education is a matter of considerable difficulty and delicacy, as the most reverend Primate said. Many of the best teachers in schools and universities have been homosexual to some extent and in some ways. I do not mean by that that they practised homosexual acts. Many noble Lords may have been at schools and universities where the teachers were there partly because they had a particular interest in boys if they were men, or girls if they were women. I do not think I am saying anything that is not widely accepted.
Doubts have been expressed before now as to whether single-sex schools are the ideal medium in which to bring up children. I do not imply that the Government intend to raise such matters in the Bill. Of course they do not. There is some doubt as to whether these matters are suitable for a local authority Bill at all. All I say is that once this path is opened up people cannot be prevented from going down it. They will say, "In the Local Government Bill it is made illegal to promote homosexuality. It must be illegal in other contexts too". That will be quoted in all sorts of contexts and throughout education. I do not believe that it has been demonstrated that this is the right way to tackle the abuses which we may all agree exist. Nor do I think there has been sufficient evidence about the degree of abuse or the numbers involved.
Therefore, I ask the Government to take this matter away and reconsider it. Although the Government maintain that they have not changed their attitude, it is fairly clear that they have. At one time this was not the method favoured for dealing with such matters. No harm would be done to the reputation of this Chamber, to education in this country or to local authorities if this clause were withdrawn and the matter were reconsidered.. Possibly if the necessary safeguards were to be introduced they should be introduced in another way.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
The noble Lord, Lord Grimond, and the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, both suggested that this clause was the wrong method for dealing with what I think both of them conceded to be a real problem. The Committee will have noted that both the most reverend Primate and the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, did not advocate any alternative method of dealing with the situation. In a limited but important number of boroughs a situation exists where the local authority is seeking to promote homosexual ideas in schools—indeed, involving some persecution of 1004 heterosexual orientated teachers—and also by activities in support of homosexual organisations elsewhere.
Most people in this country, in this Chamber and outside, regard that as a very serious matter. After all, it is a fact that young males at a certain stage of life—that is, soon after puberty—in many cases have a homosexual element or tendency in them which the vast majority of them succeed in restraining, to their credit. But if attempts are made deliberately to emphasise that side of their nature and to suggest that the homosexual way of life is just as good as ordinary married life—indeed, perhaps better, as my noble friend says—it is fairly certain that some of those young people will be led to adopt a homosexual orientation which they would not otherwise have adopted. That is the basic problem.
With very great respect both to the most reverend Primate and to the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, I ask whether they are suggesting that the government of the day have no responsibility, and that they should simply leave so-minded authorities to indulge in what most people regard as very damaging work on young people in particular. Are they suggesting nothing should be done about that?
§ Lord Grimond
I have listened with great attention to what the noble Lord has said. I fully agree that his arguments have force, but I should like to point out that there are many other things which ought not to be taught in schools. It is doubtful whether we are going to legislate against any teaching running through all the Ten Commandments and much more. Further, I also draw attention to the speech of my noble friend Lord Ritchie of Dundee, who pointed out that the Secretary of State apparently already has powers to deal with these matters.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
The noble Lord's argument seems to be the odd one that because there are other evils, as of course there are, this one should not be dealt with, when it can be dealt with by the proposals which the Government are adopting. That is a very defeatist line for the noble Lord to take—a defeatist line even for a distinguished leader of the Liberal Party.
The Archbishop of York
Perhaps I may take up the point about teaching in schools and quote from the statement of the Minister during the debate on the Bill of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, 18 months ago. He asked why there should be a Bill of this kind in schools, and he added:at the very time that those same authorities are about to cease to have a direct role in determining the kind of sex education to be offered in schools".My point is that because the whole educational scene is changing in relation to schools, this particular clause is unnecessary. In relation to other young people who one hopes are of an age to be more resistant to propaganda—some of them incidentally being ratepayers—it seems to me proper that there should be opportunities for them to learn about their condition through information which local authorities have the right to supply.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
I am grateful to the most reverend Primate for that intervention. I think there are two answers to it. On the second point about the supply of information, I read nothing into this clause that would prevent the supply of relevant, balanced information if somebody asked for it. As regards the new relationships in schools, I do not follow him. As I understand it, there is nothing in the Education Bill—now at present passing its peaceful way through another place—to deal with this particular point. Therefore, we come back to the fact that those who would take this clause out of the Bill without offering an alternative are saying to our fellow countrymen, "Yes, we know there is an evil here which may do harm to the lives of quite a number of young people".
§ Baroness Seear
The noble Lord said that no alternative has been offered. The noble Lords, Lord Grimond and Lord Ritchie, said that the powers to deal with this matter already exist in the Education Act 1944. Will the noble Lord please answer that?
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, is grateful to the noble Baroness for intervening on his behalf and giving the answer which he conspicuously failed to give to me. However, it is surely obvious and obvious to the noble Baroness that if there is power in the 1944 Act, no Government having that power would put itself to the trouble and difficulty of introducing further and new legislation. That would be nonsense.
If the noble Baroness having intervened would be good enough to listen, she will appreciate that nothing in the Education Act 1944 can possibly deal with the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities other than in schools such as they are doing and such as this Bill deals with. Therefore, we still come back, despite the gallant effort of the noble Baroness, to the fact that the issue on which the Committee will have to vote in due course is whether we are prepared to leave what is happening in a certain number—and I do not want to exaggerate—of boroughs, schools and outside schools. For example, Camden has just advertised four £15,000 a year jobs for its lesbian organisation. Are we prepared just to leave that? It is no good the noble Baroness trying to pretend that powers exist. It is obvious commonsense that no Government which had powers would take the trouble to legislate to acquire them. It is not an argument that needs to be treated very seriously.
That is the issue for the Committee. I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Willis, that this is a very important clause. However, I respectfully disagree with him when he said that its effect is to impose a stigma on homosexuals generally. There is nothing in the Bill which inflicts a stigma on anybody. It may well be that the agitation, the very considerable exercise of public comment and representations, and the stirring up of interest in this subject which agitation against this clause has brought about, could be creating something of a stigma; but it is not created by the clause. One should confine oneself to the simple issue of whether or not we are prepared to allow ratepayers' money to be used to promote homosexuality.
1006 There is only one other point. Several Members of the Committee have referred to the dangers of censorship, and I share their antipathy to that in general. This is not censorship in an extreme sense. It does not inhibit any expression of opinion except at the expense of ratepayers. Any other person is entitled, so far as this Bill stands, to advocate homosexuality if they want to do so. This is simply confined to preventing public money—money of local authorities and ratepayers—being used for this purpose.
On the broader issue, we of course have other forms of censorship. One Member of the Committee referred to the Race Relations Act. There are certain matters calculated to stir up racial feeling which it is a criminal offence for anybody to utter. I believe that most Members of the Committee feel that this is a proper provision. However, it is censorship. There is no getting away from the fact that it is censorship. If Members of the Committee accept that the evils of stirring up racial troubles are properly censored and censored in the true sense of the word, then many Members of the Committee may feel that the more modest refusal to allow young people to be corrupted on behalf of the ratepayers is a very sensible provision, and I hope the clause will stay in the Bill.
§ Lady Saltoun of Abernethy
As one who was deeply involved in the birth of the Bill of my noble friend Lord Halsbury (now enshrined in Clause 28 which we are debating), I should like to make three or four points. The fears that have been expressed so vociferously in the press and in this Committee regarding the availability of such books as the works of E. M. Forster, Colette, Marcel Proust, and so on, in public and school libraries; the plays of Oscar Wilde at the theatre; films like "Death in Venice" in the cinema and "Billy Budd" and suchlike in the opera repertoire are totally without foundation. These fears have, I believe, been sown and industriously nurtured in the minds of many people who are deeply concerned with the arts by a very small but vociferous minority who wish that the abuses that this clause is designed to put a stop to should continue. However, I am persuaded that such fears are totally unfounded.
For example, if a public library were to stock books about homosexuality or written by homosexuals among a wide variety of other works and lend them to those who inquire for them, it could not possibly fall foul of this clause. However, if the librarian in that library were asked by a 12 to 15 year-old, for example, to recommend some suitable reading, and were to guide that child to books portraying homosexual relationships as being preferable to heterosexual ones, then I believe he would fall foul of this clause. I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady White, who was very concerned with this matter yesterday evening, is not in her place; but I hope that if she reads what I have said, that will be of some comfort to her.
Again if a maintained school were to put on a production of "The Importance of Being Earnest" it could not possibly fall foul of this clause, but if that were done as part of an effort to glorify 1007 homosexuality as practised by Oscar Wilde it would be in trouble. If a local authority were to commission a playwright of acknowledged merit to write a play the clear purpose of which was to encourage homosexual practices, that authority would be in trouble. However, if in the course of teaching Greek literature a teacher introduced her pupils to the beauties of Sappho's poetry that would not be affected; but if in the course of sex education the poems of Sappho were to be used to glorify lesbianism that would not do. It is like that.
Secondly, and this follows, counselling will not be affected. Responsible counselling cannot be affected because objective discussion is not promotion. Unbiased counselling is not promotion. Provision of unbiased reading matter is not promotion.
My third point is that opponents of this clause say that it is unnecessary—or some of them do—because the local authorities engaged in perpetrating the abuses that this clause seeks to clobber have realised the errors of their ways and are no longer doing so, so I have heard. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, has just given us an example which shows that that is not true. We are told that those authorities have bowed to the wishes of the majority of parents. I am sorry, but I believe that that is absolute rubbish. They have only mended their ways, where they have done so, in rather a hurry since the Bill of my noble friend Lord Halsbury passed through this House, unopposed, last year. If we do not enact this clause there is nothing whatever to stop those authorities going back to their bad old ways. If they have genuinely mended their ways, I do not know why they should object to this clause.
My fourth point is that we have been told by many Members of the Committee—the noble Lords, Lord Soper, Lord Willis, and others—that this is the beginning of a pogrom against homosexuals. Nobody wants to start a witch-hunt against homosexuals in this country, with the exception of course of a few maniacs; but there are always maniacs who will start a witch-hunt against almost anything. This is not the first step along the road to concentration camps and the gas chambers.
Indeed, I suggest that the support for the safeguarding of children which is enshrined in Clause 28 and annoyance at the excesses of some members of the homosexual fraternity, with the spending of ratepayers' money on them, are so strong throughout the country—85 per cent.—that if this clause is not passed an anti-homosexual backlash is not only possible but quite probable. I believe that the clause will actually prove to be a safeguard.
As we have heard, a MORI poll shows that 85 per cent. of the people of this country are looking to us in this Committee today to pass this clause. Do not let us disappoint them.
§ 4 p.m.
§ Lord Kilmarnock
A great deal has been said about the arts with which I largely concur. I simply want to touch briefly on one point which has been raised only in passing by my noble friend Lord Ritchie of 1008 Dundee. I refer to the public health aspect of the clause.
I read what the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said last night, reported in Hansard, col. 893:We believe that care, counselling and health education in relation to AIDS or other diseases are fully covered by the present formulation in subsection (2)".However, he prefaced that remark with his own personal opinion—"We believe". I want to test him on a particular case, if I may. I have here a letter from Dr. Farthing, one of the doctors at the forefront of the AIDS campaign at St. Stephen's Hospital in Fulham. He wrote to me as follows:Many of my patients have expressed concern that this could be interpreted by local governments to mean that it would be illegal to give grants to such establishments as the Lesbian and Gay Centre…and possibly also be illegal to grant licences for public houses that are frequented by gay men or that specifically cater for gay men. From my point of view as a doctor caring for patients with AIDS, I feel it would be a very unfortunate thing if the Bill was to be interpreted this way and such establishments were closed. It seems to me that it is largely because there are such social centres for gay people that we have been able so successfully to promote 'safe sex" in this risk group. It is now well documented that safe sex practices have been widely adopted by the homosexual community, but unfortunately the same has not been achieved for IV drug abusers where such communal centres are not possible. Organisations like the Terrence Higgins Trust have a travelling safe sex road show that goes from one gay club to the next".In fact to a certain extent the Government fund the Terrence Higgins Trust. I do not remember the exact amount of the grant for this year, but surely it would be absurd if that activity by a homosexual agency which has played a great part in combating AIDS were to be interfered with by the measures contained in this Bill.
Therefore, I ask the noble Earl whether he will perhaps firm up the remarks that he made last night, slightly strengthen his phraseology of "We believe" and state categorically that it is the Government's intention that activities of that sort, which are a legitimate part of the crusade against AIDS (if I may call it that), will not be interfered with by anything contained in this Bill. Unless he is able to give me that assurance I shall have to think very seriously about tabling an amendment on Report.
§ Lord Bellwin
Let me say how fascinating it is to notice that of all Members of the Committee who spoke yesterday, and indeed today, whichever point of view they may have taken, not one has yet said other than that he wishes to see tolerance of homosexuality continuing. That is very much my view. If that is what society decides it wants, then I support that and I am content to go along with it.
I very much admired the speech that the noble Lord, Lord Willis, made yesterday. I disagreed with much of it but no one can doubt his sincerity or that of all Members of the Committee who have spoken on the subject. However, I want to join hands with my fellow Yorkshire compatriot, the noble Lord, Lord Mason. It may be strange to do that from the opposite side of the Committee but his was a theme which to me is very important and one that so far has not been sufficiently clarified in the debate.
We have heard one side of the story and we are all sympathetic to it: namely, that people who believe in 1009 following the homosexual way of life should be permitted to do so without let or hindrance, and no one objects whatever to that. However, they do not leave it at that. They take it much further. Indeed, the extent to which they denigrate heterosexuality is a matter for real concern.
I give only two quotations because I am aware that time is moving on and others wish to speak. I quote from an item in the Daily Telegraph, It appeared a few months ago and I have a copy if anyone wishes to read it:Homosexual council staff in the London Borough of Camden may soon be going away for a weekend at the ratepayers' expense to discuss the evils of heterosexism in the workplace. Plans have been drawn up by the council's homosexual unit which says in a report 'The contents of the weekend would be around internalised oppression and how to cope with heterosexism at work'".It goes on to say:According to the unit which has been given a budget of £124,000".We are told that that is not much money in relation to the totality spent by the council. Well I am one of those old fashioned fellows to whom £124,000 is still £124,000. I can think of a good deal that I could do with £124,000 in providing services for people.
§ Lord Willis
Will the noble Lord give way? Is he aware that the story he has just mentioned about Camden was denied by Camden council? It wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph denying it, and the letter was not published.
§ Lord Bellwin
I hear what the noble Lord says, and he may well have a point. It is a point which he wishes to push and he may well be right; but I am not satisfied. I would need confirmation at first hand.
§ Lord Bellwin
It is not that I doubt the noble Lord, and he knows that. I could stand here and take a whole half-hour giving quotations and examples, but that is not what the Committee wants and, for that matter, it is not what I want.
I can give many more examples; in fact, I will depart from that quotation and give some others. My next quotation is in written form from Haringey council, which put out the following resolution:We will oppose heterosexism in all its forms. Local councils need to take a public stand of opposition to heterosexism as promoting one sexuality as a superior one.".This is the only other quotation I shall give. It is from the Gay Liberation Front manifesto. It states:We, along with the women's movements, must fight for something more than reform. We must aim at the abolition of the family. The end of the family will benefit all women and gay people".Have we gone mad altogether? I feel very much that this is the kernel of the whole argument. It is naive in the extreme to suppose that the homosexual community wants only to be allowed to go its way. If that were so, there would be no need for Clause 28 and we would not have it. The fact is that the issue of teaching and promoting such behaviour as a way of life in schools is something that is anathema to many people.
The noble Lord, Lord Mason, was right when he said that hundreds and thousands of people and 1010 parents all over the country are worried very much that the teaching of such matters will affect their children. Those who listened to the debate on the Bill put forward by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, could not have failed to be impressed—I believe this feeling was right across the Chamber—by some of the emotive speeches made to express the concern of parents. We are told by the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, that this is not a subject about which we should legislate. If we do not legislate to protect the parents of children who go to schools where this kind of behaviour is being promoted, if Parliament does not legislate, who will?
I pleaded that the local authority association should be the organisation to take up this issue for the protection of its own reputation. I suggested that it should speak out and say something, but not a word have I heard other than some private objections. When I speak to my erstwhile colleagues in local government about this matter they tell me how much they deplore what is done in this way, but they do not actually do anything about it. They pass no resolutions; they publicly make no comment in any official way. Therefore it comes back (as it always does) to government, and local government is clobbered because somebody has to try to remedy the situation, which it should have done and has not done.
That is really what this matter is about. Clause 28 has nothing to do with tolerance of homosexuality; it has nothing to do with freedom to publish instructive pamphlets; it has nothing to do with loving relationships and it has even less to do with literature which portrays sexual deviation. It has solely to do with teaching and preaching by local authorities in schools and elsewhere within their purview. I believe they have no right to use public funds to promote controversial doctrines which are offensive to the majority of people.
§ Lord Bellwin
The amendments yesterday were about watering down this clause, and today we are deciding if there is a need for it at all. So far as I am concerned there is a very great need for it and I hope the Committee will support it and not the amendment.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Lord Peston
This has been a very long debate. I sat through the whole of the debate yesterday, as did the Minister, who is also sitting through all of the present debate. It seems to me that the debate has been excellent in the sense that it has simply demonstrated how unsatisfactory is this clause. It has simply not been thought through.
If the Committee likes to remind itself, yesterday we really had two debates. There was the debate which attracted 270 Members of the Committee, and that debate lasted until dinner time. After dinner there were some 50 or 60 noble Lords who slogged it out on the detail of the amendments. Regretfully, because the printed record of the latter is not yet available, many Members of the Committee will not be aware of what then happened.
1011 One certainly tried to amend the Bill and to make sense of it; one tried valiantly. Nonetheless, it became apparent that the clause is nonsensical. I sat here yesterday looking at the faces of the Members of the Committee opposite. One only had to look at the protagonists of this clause to appreciate that they fully realised how unsatisfactory it is. In any other Bill a clause as defective as this would have been taken away, but the protagonists of this clause persist no matter what.
Why do they persist? The answer has to be the concern with homosexuals, because that is really what this issue is about and nothing else. Any clause, no matter how imperfect, no matter if it is almost uninterpretable or dangerous, is better than none. It also emerged yesterday without any doubt, and as a result of interventions on the other side, that there really is a new censorship in the offing and a genuine threat to the arts.
I for one very much wanted to be convinced by the Minister. I sat here listening and hoping that he would convince me. He tried several times to reassure me and others that there was nothing to worry about. Each time the Minister tried to do that, one or other of his colleagues spoke and then the Minister responded to save the situation. In the end there could be no doubt at all that the position is precisely as I have described it. There can be no doubt that here there is a genuine problem of censorship and restraint. That is the issue that cannot be avoided.
In connection with that point, I heard yesterday from at least one noble Lord, and indeed also today, what to me at least is an extraordinary and a rather shocking statement. That is that homosexuals flaunt their homosexuality; they are uppish and they are pushy; they have brought this situation upon themselves. I heard that yesterday and today. I hope Members of the Committee will remember the context in which that kind of remark used to be made and the kind of persecution that followed from it. There is no avoiding that conclusion despite the way in which some noble Lords yesterday objected to being accused of association with elements with which, on reflection, they would not wish to be associated.
I should also like to say to the Minister, having today heard one or two Members of the Committee who support him, that with that kind of support I do not believe he needs any enemies.
In particular, the logic of the problem concerns me a great deal. The view on the intentions of the local authority, according to the Minister, would then enable inferences to be drawn about, for example, its library purchase policy or its support for the theatre. The Committee can proceed from its view of its intentions to its view of what the local authority does in those areas. Yesterday the Minister seemed to be quite clear about that. It also seemed to be the case—it certainly was not shown not to be the case—that the policies of the local authority in respect of its library purchases and support for the theatre might be regarded as evidence of its intentions. Indeed, I do not quite see where else one can get evidence of its intentions.
1012 What lies behind this debate, bearing in mind the point 1 made at Second Reading and which has been made today; namely, that so many of the examples put forward turn out not to be the case? Far too many of them are untrue for anybody to be at all satisfied with what is being argued. This is simply reflecting the worst elements of the media. I for one cannot see at all why a government with such a large majority in the other House should give in to such a lowering of civilised standards. I find it inconceivable that so many noble Lords voted yesterday to countenance the vulgarity and barbarity of this clause.
There are some questions which I should like to raise. The first goes to the nub of the philosophy that lies behind the clause, and it concerns the nature of homosexual relationships. As I understand it, the purpose of the clause is to make it illegal to promote a homosexual relationship as if it were a family relationship. Certainly several noble Lords have argued that that is how they visualise it. The question I have to ask myself—and I have all along—is this: what is the relevant argument here? Is it scientific, is it logical, or is it ethical?
Is it being said that the proposition that a homosexual relationship is a family one is scientifically incorrect? Is that what is being said? Therefore, are we being asked to legislate to prevent local authorities from falling into scientific error? Or is it being said that the proposition is illogical in the sense of being self-contradictory; and then we are being asked to legislate to preserve analytical purity at the local level? Or is it being said that the proposition is unethical, and therefore the purpose of the law in this case is to raise the moral standards of local authorities? It is my view that simply to consider these questions is to show total lack of intellectual underpinning for what the Government are about here.
Yesterday I asked the Minister two questions and I must say that I was really rather shocked by the answers he gave. I shall ask them again, especially as he has written to me since yesterday to clarify what he said. He may wish to take the opportunity when he comes to reply to say again what his view now is in regard to my questions. I shall repeat my questions and also say why I ask them. I asked him for an assurance that if the clause were passed into law no books would have to be withdrawn from libraries as a consequence. Secondly, I asked him whether we could be assured that no teacher, librarian or other local authority employee who is explicitly homosexual—who says, "I am a homosexual, no more no less"—would be in danger of being fired.
My view was that if the noble Earl could have answered "yes" to those questions and could have said that neither of those dangers existed, which indeed I expected him to say, there was no worry. But he did not say that. If he is unable to answer and to say that no books will be forcibly withdrawn as a result of the clause and that no one is in danger of losing his job because he is a homosexual, I have to say that this clause will be a book banner's, if not a book burner's clause, and more important it will become a blackmailer's charter.
§ Lord Beloff
I was hoping not to have to intervene again; but after the speech we have just listened to, with its farrago of insinuations which repeat some that were made by the noble Lord and his colleagues yesterday, I feel that I must come back to express the genuine anxieties on this side of the Committee about the campaign that is being waged against this clause.
The noble Lord was honest enough to tell us yesterday that he was opposed to the clause standing part of the Bill, so it is not altogether surprising that his efforts to amend a clause which he was anyhow going to oppose did not find great favour with the Committee. But what I object to is the misuse, to begin with, of history. We have heard a good deal about the road to fascism. This is, as noble Lords will be aware, totally remote from what is in the intention or the language of the clause. If one wished to pursue these matters in relation to homosexuality, it would be possible, as a professional historian, to point out the very important role of homosexuality in the origins and conduct of the Nazi movement. We do not do so because we are not here to attack homosexuality, and we expect the same honesty from our opponents.
Some noble Lords on the Benches to the left of the Woolsack were stern, particularly yesterday, on the matter of censorship. I can understand that people who have just entered into a pretended family relationship—I mean of course in the political sense—find it difficult to avoid attacking the use of a phrase like that in legislation. But again there is no evidence that anything in this Bill can or would involve censorship in any respect in which censorship does not already exist through laws, as has been pointed out, against racial abuse, obscenity and so forth. It is this constant raising of prejudice that has worried more than anything else those on this side of the Committee.
There is another point which puzzles me even more. I refer to the extraordinary indifference which some noble Lords appear to have about the interests of children. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, told us last night—many noble Lords were no longer present—about a lesbian couple who lived with a five-year-old child of one of them. The noble Lord was worried that if the clause were passed it would effect their sensibilities and through that the future of the child.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
I am grateful to the noble Lord. At no stage did I say that I was worried that it would affect their sensibilities. What I was worried about was the child. Noble Lords may have their own view about the propriety of a homosexual couple living together and about the propriety of a homosexual couple having a child. What there can be no doubt about is that the interests of the child must be paramount. This clause makes it impossible for teachers to tell the truth to a child about the acceptability of its own family.
§ Lord Beloff
I am sorry if I misrepresented the noble Lord. I would hate do that. I am delighted to know that the interests of the child are paramount. My view is that to make it possible for homosexual couples without any form of conscience to inflict an 1014 example of this kind upon a growing child is cruelty to the child. That I think is what worries the rank and file of parents throughout the country.
People talk about London as though this only happens in London. That is not true. I had a telephone call from a man in Leicester who was unknown to me. He said, "I am a believing Christian. I am ringing you up in order to ask you to make sure that this clause is passed. I have young children and I am frightened about what may happen to them if this propagation of homosexuality is not halted". We on this side of the Committee care first and foremost about children. We care about the perpetuation of the heterosexual normal family as the basis of civilised society here and in other countries. We are not going to be intimidated by a lot of chatter about alleged dangers to culture or the theatre, all of which are untrue and even if they were true would be of second-rate importance beside the maintenance of the moral basis of our society.
§ 4.30 p.m.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
I shall not follow the argument of the noble Lord. I trust that the Committee will not wish me to follow the tone in which the argument was put.
I believe that those of us who sat through nearly eight hours of debate yesterday and one and a half hours of debate today will have drawn three conclusions. The first concerns the sincerity of the passion felt on both sides of the argument and the strength of the passion felt on both sides of the argument. My noble friend Lord Mason will not expect me to agree with what he said this afternoon, but I recognise the sincerity of what he said and the passion with which he said it. I hope that he will recognise the sincerity of the views that I am putting forward. However. I must say that I speak on this matter purely in a personal capacity.
The second matter that is conspicuous is that 95 per cent. of the passion in support of the clause and against the amendments put forward yesterday was a passionate concern for the rights and interests of children and young people. That in particular must be recognised for its sincerity. That leads me to the first conclusion: when one looks at the clause it is clear that, if we are to respect fully the feelings of noble Lords—and I believe that these feelings come from all sides of the Chamber—some way must be found of protecting the interests of young children without the disadvantages in the clause that have been pointed out. I understand that my noble friend Lord Longford at a later stage proposes to move an amendment to do precisely that—to confine the matter of the clause to children and young people. I think that we ought to consider seriously such an amendment. It may well be possible to find a form of words that will be effective, that will provide a valid defence and that will be worthy of the Committee's support.
The third conclusion that must follow for anyone who has attended the whole of the debate concerns the total failure of the proponents of the clause and of the Government to put forward any sort of workable amendment in relation to adults. At every 1015 stage when we have looked at the attempts of the clause to deal with the promotion of homosexuality to and by adults and at publishing material about homosexuality or purporting to homosexuality, the arguments put forward by the proponents of the clause have fallen on the merits of the case. As we approached midnight last night it became almost embarrassing how, on every occasion that we sought to query the effectiveness or the intention of the clause in relation to adults, the argument collapsed.
Let us take the argument on censorship. Both the Minister and many noble Lords have said that there is no question here of censorship. The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, without any contradiction said that artistic merit was not to be a valid defence of any publication against a charge that it was promoting homosexuality. Many artistic works of all kinds throughout the ages certainly have promoted homosexuality as an acceptable sexual relationship and, indeed, as an acceptable "pretend"—whatever that means—family relationship. On the arguments of the noble Lord, those would be subject to censorship and the local authorities that published them would, on the basis of the clause, be liable to attack if they did so.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
If the noble Lord wishes to quote me, perhaps he will be good enough to do it accurately. I said that, where a publication was intended to promote homosexuality, the fact that it was expressed in fine literary language was not a defence.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
The danger will be apparent to the Committee.
As to the remedies to be sought against local authorities, the Government were unclear whether a judicial review was an appropriate procedure. The Minister said that the remedy appeared to be civil rather than criminal. He therefore left open to any well intentioned or ill intentioned individual or group of individuals the possibility to take action against the local authority in the light of the clause. That may or may not be the right thing to do. When individuals or groups of individuals seek to take action against a local authority, however misconceived in law that action may be, the first reaction of the local authority—and particularly of councillors who are afraid of surcharge—is to seek to back down and find means by which to change their ways in the face of a threat of action that may not be justified. Therefore, a serious effect of the clause may be self-imposed censorship.
Whenever we question the implications of the clause for libraries, theatres and films, as my noble friend Lord Peston has said very effectively, there are no clear answers as to what are the statutory responsibilities of local authorities. There are therefore no clear answers to the question of how 1016 those statutory responsibilities can be reconciled with the need to include the representation of homosexuality in its right place in our literature or arts and the threat of being accused of promoting homosexuality.
Much more important, on the issue of civil rights the Government were unable to give any clear answers to the questions raised by my noble friend Lord Gifford—questions that have now been raised in an effective and moderate speech by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York. If the Government fail to reply to the points of the most reverend Primate they will have forfeited what remains of the respect due to the attitude that they are putting forward. When it comes to relating the clause to adults none of the problems raised from all sides of the Committee about the wording and intent of the clause has been overcome by the arguments. No adequate response has been given to them.
I have already conceded that the case is different when it comes to the law in regard to children. I respectfully suggest that some way must be established to withdraw that part of the clause relating to adults and to find an appropriate way of dealing with the problems relating to children. If it is the Government's view that it is proper for a clause about the promotion of homosexuality to children to be included in the Bill—and I find it difficult to see how that can be, first, because it is not in the Long Title and, secondly, because it relates to children, not to local government, and it would go more appropriately in an education Bill—then I respectfully suggest this. They should accept that the clause should not stand part but with an undertaking to come back at the next stage with a clause that can be justified, made workable and which relates to children. If that is not the case, it is my personal view that the clause has so many dangers, inconsistencies and unwanted extensions to its application that it is not deserving of the Committee's support.
The Earl of Caithness
Perhaps it might be right that I should follow the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey. Our debates yesterday showed how much we differ in our views on this clause. We now have the chance to stand back from the detail of the amendments and view the clause as a whole. As we do so. I think it is right to remind the Committee what we think this clause is about, why we support it and why we do not think it causes problems.
We start from the position that Parliament has entrusted local authorities with many specific powers and some very general powers. These powers, particularly the general powers, can be used for a wide variety of purposes. The local authority has a wide discretion in what use it makes of the powers. We do not therefore want to trammel those discretionary powers of local authorities, but there can come a time when the use made of them is inappropriate. Parliament then has the right, and I believe the duty, to tell local authorities that they are making such an inappropriate use of their powers that they should stop doing so.
We have such an occasion here today. A few local authorities have decided that they have a role in 1017 promoting homosexuality. They consider, in other words, that they ought to indulge in some social engineering in order to produce a structure of society more in tune with the beliefs of the controlling groups of those councils. I think that the British public does not consider that it is the province of local authorities to indulge in this form of social engineering. The Government agree with this view and that is what the clause declares.
We have been treated to so many claims about the damage which this clause could do that I think it might help the Committee if I attempt to say what I think this clause and this debate are not about. As the Committee would expect, these views reflect the Government's considered legal advice. The clause is not about stopping local authorities providing services to homosexuals. Some local authorities have tried to ensure that the services provided by the councils serve the needs of homosexuals as much as the needs of the community. There can be no objection to such an aim. As I said yesterday, this Government are opposed to discrimination.
This clause is not about making local authorities into petty censors of the arts. As we have repeatedly said, no local authority will be affected by the clause in its support for the arts, if its aim is simply to provide the inhabitants of its area with access to a full range of literary and artistic work.
I have to say to the most reverend Primate that this clause is not an attack on human rights. It says nothing at all about what any individual may or may not do. It is not about creating a stigma, which the noble Lord, Lord Willis, was concerned about. It is solely concerned with saying that certain public bodies may not use their discretionary powers for certain purposes. I tried to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Willis, yesterday that this clause is not about limiting the personal support and counselling services which a local authority may provide or support. We all recognise that many individuals need help and guidance at crises in their lives, so I would say to the noble Lord. Lord Kilmarnock, that nothing in the clause need affect what a local authority does in this field.
Noble Lords have not raised the point, but the clause is not about banning the employment of homosexuals by local authorities. Like all public bodies, local authorities should be, and I am sure are, equal opportunity employers.
What then is the clause about? As I said at the outset, some local authorities have taken it upon themselves to try to change the public attitude to homosexuality by supporting campaigns and undertaking policies to promote homosexuality. This is what the Government think is objectionable and they are inviting Parliament to declare that local authorities should not do so. It may perhaps help the Committee if I try to give an example. I am not claiming that such examples are widespread, nor am I claiming that huge sums of money have been devoted to them. But I am sure that noble Lords would agree that even the expenditure to which the noble Lord, Lord Willis, referred yesterday is too much. Even a small expenditure carefully targeted on 1018 impressionable people can have an effect totally out of proportion to that expenditure.
The example I should like to take, because it seems to epitomise much of the problem, is a "Lesbian Strength and Gay Pride" week which three London boroughs sponsored last summer. We find a wide range of facilities being pressed into service to provide events specifically for homosexuals and clearly aimed at supporting a campaign to promote homosexuality which affronts many people, as my noble friend the Duke of Norfolk and the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, reminded the Committee earlier this afternoon. This shows the need for a provision to be widely based in contrast with the narrower base of the amendment moved by the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, and the noble Lord. Lord Henderson of Brompton, yesterday, or indeed the request by the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie of Dundee, to limit matters to the Education Act of 1944.
Most worrying of all the items on the brochure is a display of press cuttings, commentary and photographs of the battle for positive images of lesbians and gays in schools. I do not attempt to pass any artistic judgment on the other films or performances. It may be that individually such items are well worthy of inclusion in a programme of any local authority for the support of the arts. But I would assert that a local authority which deliberately chooses to support a package made up solely of such items is endeavouring to promote homosexuality and has gone beyond what the community at large would regard as the proper task of the local authority. A week's exposure to propaganda of this kind could have an insidious and unhappy lasting effect on some impressionable young people.
Likewise, we have seen some authorities, particularly in London, trying to influence the teaching given in schools so that this element of social engineering is repeated there, as my noble friend the Duke of Norfolk said. Parliament has, of course, taken away the local education authority's direct role in controlling sex education of all kinds in the schools. But we have seen how, by manipulating materials made available to teachers, some local authorities can attempt to exercise by influence what they cannot now achieve by direct instruction.
This clause is not therefore part of some campaign against homosexuals. It is a necessary measure to restrain the activities of a small minority of councils which have gone too far in using their discretionary powers.
I turn now to the question of whether our prescription has undesirable side-effects. We have considered all along that the mischief has lain in some local authorities using their discretionary powers for improper purposes. The legislation that we have supported has, therefore, been dealing with the purposes of the local authorities rather than simply what they do. This has, I believe, been imperfectly understood by some of those who have criticised the clause. We are not trying to say that local authorities shall not undertake certain activities, but that they shall not undertake any activities for certain purposes. It is because we have concentrated on the purpose of the local authority that we think that the 1019 clause cannot cause difficulties in the ways in which Members opposite were attempting to claim.
I have however indicated two areas in which I think that the drafting may be worth further consideration and I have undertaken to come back to the House at a later stage on the wording of the second part of paragraph (a) and, in response to my noble friend Lady Cox, on paragraph (b).
The noble Lord, Lord Peston, repeated the questions which he asked me yesterday. The point I was trying to make in relation to libraries was that everything will depend on the local authority's intention. I apologise if I did not make that clear yesterday when I answered the noble Lord directly. But any of your Lordships who have read what I said in the Official Report and will read tomorrow in the Official Report of the debates later in the evening, will be left in no doubt that that is what 1 was trying to say to the Committee.
Before I conclude, perhaps I may draw the Committee's attention to the very fine speech which my noble friend Lady Cox made yesterday in which she drew Members' attention to some of the nastier examples of what local authorities have been doing. It would be wrong for me to repeat them now. In trying to summarise what I have been saying, I have found no clearer statement than that put out by the spokesman for the Opposition in another place when this clause was debated in Committee there. He said:It is not and never has been the duty or the responsibility of a local authority or an education authority to promote homosexuality. The Labour Party does not believe that councils or schools should promote homosexuality".My Lords, we are simply inviting Parliament to say the same.
§ Lord Hatch of Lusby
The noble Lord the Minister has entirely failed to answer the kernel of this question which was put forward in. in my view, a very fine speech this afternoon by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York. For those of us who have sat through this debate, both this afternoon and yesterday afternoon, a great deal too much has been said in favour of or against homosexuality. That is not the issue. Nor is the issue what the wording of this clause should be.
The central issue is whether or not central government should interfere in the personal lives of people and in the activities of local authorities. The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, repeated this afternoon the point that I took up with him when we were debating Clause 17. It is for the people to decide. It used to be claimed by members of the Conservative Party that they were opposed to central government interfering in the personal choice of people. I should hope that there are still members of the Conservative Party who hold that principle, because that is what this clause is about. This clause is reducing the civil liberties of the people. It is reducing the civil liberties of the people to determine in their own localities what their elected authorities should do.
Surely we should trust the people in their localities. Surely it is sufficient to say that if a local authority offends the electors in its area then our constitution 1020 gives those people the opportunity of turning it out. That is what this clause hinges on.
It is no good the Minister saying that the clause will allow this or disallow that. He is not the judge, nor can he answer the questions that my noble friend Lord Peston has put. He cannot answer those questions because he is not the judge. This is bad law because it is imprecise. It does not define some of the most important words that are used in the Bill. It is imprecise about the meaning of the words "promote", "homosexuality" and "acceptability". The Minister is not in a position to say whether any book will be withdrawn or whether any person in the teaching profession will be dismissed because of this law.
This clause when it becomes law will open the way to witch-hunts. Perhaps no one in this Chamber will wish to or will engage in a witch-hunt, but we all know that there are people and organisations in this country and outside who would do so. I understand that there are already organisations in the United States which are preparing to finance prosecutions if this clause is included in the law when it is passed.
It is the opening of the way to a reduction of civil liberties that is the central issue here. It is the interference by central government in the responsibilities of local authorities that is the issue in this clause. It is not a question of whether one supports or opposes homosexuality. I believe that we all agree that there should be sex education in schools. The Government themselves have supported that. Any teacher who takes part in any form of sex education, if this clause is left in the Bill, will feel vulnerable to prosecution, not from Members opposite or from anyone in this Chamber but from the groups who can use this clause in order to victimise those whom they wish to stop educating and informing children when they are not indoctrinating or promoting anything.
Lord Campbell of Croy
I wish to reinforce one point. In so doing I can provide continuity with the past in this Chamber, because some years ago I was the spokesman on the Opposition Front Bench during a day of debate on this subject. At that time we had two sexual offences Bills before us. Today we are considering one clause. It may be thought that to have taken two sex Bills in one day was too much even for this Chamber with its notable capacity for expediting business.
I wish to support very strongly a point made by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. Young people at an impressionable age though basically heterosexual can be led into homosexuality even if it is for a temporary period. This can cause great confusion to them, upsetting their lives, their careers and their prospects of marriage.
That was the principle which was accepted by the House in 1976. If my memory serves me right, that occurred on 14th June of that year when most of the noble Lords who spoke in this debate today were not Members of this Chamber. That principle was accepted then and noble Lords voted out one of the Bills but passed the other sexual offences Bill through all its stages, thereby showing their tolerance for 1021 homosexuals but showing that they were not prepared to accept the advertisement or promotion of homosexuality.
§ 4.56 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether Clause 28, as amended, shall stand part of the Bill?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 202; Not-Contents, 122.1023
|DIVISION NO. 1|
|Abinger, L.||Fitt, L.|
|Aldington, L.||Foley, L.|
|Alexander of Tunis, E.||Fortescue, E.|
|Allenby of Megiddo, V.||Fraser of Kilmorack, L.|
|Allerton, L.||Gainford, L.|
|Arran, E.||Gainsborough, E.|
|Atholl, D.||Galpern, L.|
|Attlee, E.||Gisborough, L.|
|Auckland, L.||Glenarthur, L.|
|Bagot, L.||Goold, L.|
|Beaverbrook, L.||Grantchester, L.|
|Belhaven and Stenton, L.||Gray of Contin, L.|
|Bellwin, L.||Greenhill of Harrow, L.|
|Beloff, L.||Gridley, L.|
|Belstead, L.||Grimthorpe, L.|
|Bessborough, E.||Haddington, E.|
|Blatch, B.||Halsbury, E.|
|Borthwick, L.||Hampton, L.|
|Boyd-Carpenter, L.||Hanworth, V.|
|Brabazon of Tara, L.||Harmar-Nicholls, L.|
|Bramall, L.||Harvington, L.|
|Brougham and Vaux, L.||Havers, L.|
|Buckmaster, V.||Henley, L.|
|Burton, L.||Hesketh, L.|
|Butterworth, L.||Hives, L.|
|Caccia, L.||Home of the Hirsel, L.|
|Caithness, E.||Hood, V.|
|Campbell of Alloway, L.||Hunter of Newington, L.|
|Campbell of Croy, L.||Hylton-Foster, B.|
|Carnegy of Lour, B.||Ilchester, E.|
|Carnock, L.||Johnston of Rockport, L.|
|Charteris of Amisfield, L.||Kaberry of Adel, L.|
|Chelmsford, Bp.||Kearton, L.|
|Chelwood, L.||Kimball, L.|
|Cocks of Hartcliffe, L.||Kinloss, Ly.|
|Coleraine, L.||Kinnaird, L.|
|Colnbrook, L.||Kinnoull, E.|
|Constantine of Stanmore, L.||Knutsford, V.|
|Cork and Orrery, E.||Lane-Fox, B.|
|Cowley, E.||Lauderdale, E.|
|Cox, B.||Lindsey and Abingdon, E.|
|Croft, L.||Lloyd of Hampstead, L.|
|Cross, V.||London, Bp.|
|Cullen of Ashbourne, L.||Long, V.|
|Davidson, V. [Teller.]||Lucas of Chilworth, L.|
|De Freyne, L.||Luke, L.|
|De La Warr, E.||Lurgan, L.|
|Deedes, L.||Lyell, L.|
|Denham, L. [Teller.]||McFadzean, L.|
|Derwent, L.||Macleod of Borve, B.|
|Dilhorne, V.||Malmesbury, E.|
|Dulverton, L.||Manton, L.|
|Dundee, E.||Mar, C.|
|Elibank, L.||Margadale, L.|
|Ellenborough, L.||Marley, L.|
|Elliot of Harwood, B.||Marshall of Leeds, L.|
|Elliott of Morpeth, L.||Masham of Ilton, B.|
|Elphinstone, L.||Massereene and Ferrard, V.|
|Enniskillen, E.||Merrivale, L.|
|Erroll or Hale, L.||Mersey, V.|
|Faithfull, B.||Middleton, L.|
|Fanshawe of Richmond, L.||Milne, L.|
|Ferrers, E.||Milverton, L.|
|Ferrier, L.||Monckton of Brenchley, V.|
|Monk Bretton, L.||Sherfield, L.|
|Monson, L.||Simon of Glaisdale, L.|
|Moran, L.||Skelmersdale, L.|
|Morris, L.||Slim, V.|
|Mottistone, L.||Somers, L.|
|Mowbray and Stourton, L.||Stanley of Alderley, L.|
|Moyne, L.||Stodart of Leaston, L.|
|Munster, E.||Stoddart of Swindon, L.|
|Murton of Lindisfarne, L.||Strange, B.|
|Napier and Ettrick, L.||Strathcona and Mount Royal, L.|
|Norfolk, D.||Sudeley, L.|
|Nugent of Guildford, L.||Swansea, L.|
|O'Brien of Lothbury, L.||Swinfen, L.|
|Onslow, E.||Swinton, E.|
|Orkney, E.||Terrington, L.|
|Orr-Ewing, L.||Teviot, L.|
|Oxfuird, V.||Teynham, L.|
|Pender, L.||Thomas of Gwydir, L.|
|Plummer of St Marylebone, L.||Thorneycroft, L.|
|Pym, L.||Thurlow, L.|
|Rawlinson of Ewell, L.||Torphichen, L.|
|Renton, L.||Trafford, L.|
|Ridley, V.||Trefgarne, L.|
|Robertson of Oakridge, L.||Trumpington, B.|
|Rochdale, V.||Ullswater, V.|
|Rodney, L.||Vaux of Harrowden, L.|
|Romney, E.||Waldegrave, E.|
|Sackville, L.||Ward of Witley, V.|
|Salisbury, M.||Whaddon, L.|
|Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly.||Windlesham, L.|
|Sanderson of Bowden, L.||Wolfson, L.|
|Sandford, L.||Wrenbury, L.|
|Savile, L.||Wyatt of Weeford, L.|
|Seebohm, L.||Wynford, L.|
|Selkirk, E.||Yarborough, E.|
|Shannon, E.||Young, B.|
|Amherst, E.||Glenamara, L.|
|Annan, L.||Gloucester, Bp.|
|Ardwick, L.||Graham of Edmonton, L.|
|Aylestone, L.||Grey, E.|
|Banks, L.||Grimond, L.|
|Barnett, L.||Hampden, V.|
|Basnett, L.||Harris of Greenwich, L.|
|Beaumont of Whitley, L.||Hatch of Lusby, L.|
|Birk, B.||Hayter, L.|
|Birkett, L.||Henderson of Brompton, L.|
|Blackstone, B.||Hirshfield, L.|
|Bonham-Carter, L.||Houghton of Sowerby, L.|
|Boston of Faversham, L.||Hughes, L.|
|Bottomley, L.||Hunt, L.|
|Briginshaw, L.||Hutchinson of Lullington, L.|
|Bruce of Donington, L.||Hylton, L.|
|Callaghan of Cardiff, L.||Irvine of Lairg, L.|
|Campbell of Eskan, L.||Irving of Dartford, L.|
|Caradon, L.||Jay, L.|
|Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L.||Jeger, B.|
|Carter, L.||Jenkins of Hillhead, L.|
|Chitnis, L.||Jenkins of Putney, L.|
|Cledwyn of Penrhos, L.||John-Mackie, L.|
|Cottesloe, L.||Kennet, L.|
|Craigavon, V.||Kilbracken, L.|
|David, B.||Killearn, L.|
|Davies, L.||Kilmarnock, L.|
|Davies of Penrhys, L.||Kirkhill, L.|
|Dean of Beswick, L.||Kissin, L.|
|Delacourt-Smith of Alteryn, B.||Lawrence, L.|
|Diamond, L.||Listowel, E.|
|Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L.||Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B.|
|Dowding, L.||Lloyd of Kilgerran, L.|
|Elwyn-Jones, L.||Lovell-Davis, L.|
|Ennals, L.||McCarthy, L.|
|Ewart-Biggs, B.||McGregor of Durris, L.|
|Falkender, B.||McIntosh of Haringey, L.|
|Falkland, V.||McNair, L.|
|Fisher of Rednal, B.||Manchester, Bp.|
|Foot, L.||Milford, L.|
|Mishcon, L.||Shackleton, L.|
|Molloy, L.||Shaughnessy, L.|
|Monkswell, L.||Simon, V.|
|Montagu of Beaulieu, L.||Soper, L.|
|Morton of Shuna, L.||Stallard, L.|
|Mulley, L.||Stedman, B.|
|Nicol, B.||Taylor of Mansfield, L.|
|Ogmore, L.||Tordoff, L.|
|Oram, L.||Turner of Camden, B.|
|Parry, L.||Underhill, L.|
|Peston, L. [Teller.]||Wallace of Coslany, L.|
|Phillips, B.||Wedderburn of Charlton, L.|
|Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.||Wells-Pestell, L.|
|Prys-Davies, L.||White, B.|
|Raglan, L.||Wigoder, L.|
|Rea, L.||Williams of Elvel, L.|
|Ritchie of Dundee, L.||Willis, L. [Teller.]|
|Robson of Kiddington, B.||Wilson of Rievaulx, L.|
|Rochester, Bp.||York, Abp.|
|Seear, B.||Zuckerman, L.|
§ Resolved in the affirmative, and Clause 28, as amended, agreed to accordingly.
§ 5.8 p.m.
§ Clause 29 agreed to.
The Earl of Caithness moved Amendment No. 120BA:
After Clause 29. insert the following new clause:
§ ("Additional powers for auditors of local authorities etc.
§ —(1) After section 25 of the Local Government Finance Act 1982 there shall be inserted the sections set out in Schedule [Sections to he inserted in Part III of Local Government Finance Act 1982] to this Act.
§ (2) In section I6of that Act (auditor's right to obtain documents and information) for the words " for the purposes of the audit", in each place where they occur, there shall be substituted "for the purposes of his functions under this Act".
§ (3) This section and that Schedule shall come into force at the end of the period of two months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.
§ (4) This section and that Schedule shall extend to England and Wales only.").
§ The noble Earl said: in speaking to Amendment No. 120BA, I should also like to speak to Amendment No. 120F. The new clause and schedule empower—
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
Perhaps I may interrupt the noble Earl. The microphones are not working and we are having difficulty in hearing him.
The Earl of Caithness
This new clause and the new schedule empower auditors to take early action to secure the compliance by authorities with the law governing their financial affairs. These provisions arise from widespread dissatisfaction over the long delays in auditors bringing proceedings where authorities have disregarded or deliberately flouted the law. The surcharge cases which arose from the late rate-making in 1985 have illustrated just how long such an action can take to be resolved. The auditor is still progressing his inquiries in four London boroughs nearly three years after the event.
Where, as at present, action is taken after the event, I am sure that the Committee will agree that it is important that everyone should have the chance to have their case heard and the matter properly investigated. If that involves oral hearings and 1024 appeals in the courts, the matter will be more prolonged but it is in the interests of justice. Meanwhile such delays are costly. They cause frustration to those who wish to see action taken to redress wrongdoing and to bring those responsible to justice. They are a source of continuing uncertainty to those directly involved. We believe that it is partly as a result of that protractive and costly procedure that the auditors have sometimes appeared reluctant to exercise to the full their existing powers.
In considering audit procedures the Widdicombe Committee acknowledged those criticisms. The provisions in the amendments derive from the committee's recommendations that the audit service should be empowered to apply legal remedies more quickly to stop a local authority incurring unlawful expenditure or loss. We consulted widely on the Widdicombe Committee's report and we also consulted local government and the accountancy profession on our specific proposals in this area. The responses of those bodies that indicated agreement to their views being made public have been placed in the Library.
The general effect of the amendments is to enable the appointed auditor of an authority to act directly to issue an order to prevent the authority from incurring unlawful expenditure or loss or from entering an unlawful item of account. Auditors will also be able to make an application to the courts for judicial review of a decision or failure to act by an authority which would have an effect on the accounts.
I do not submit that substantial breaches of the law by authorities—and it is against such that these powers are addressed—are a frequent or widespread occurrence, but we have seen how the attempts of certain authorities to defy and evade government expenditure controls have led to the erosion of sound financial management practices. As a result, several of those authorities are courting financial disaster. Some of the practices employed are grossly imprudent and others are apparently illegal. Where there are significant breaches of the law in prospect, whether of statute or common law fiduciary duty, these provisions will equip the auditor to deal with them quickly and to ensure that the authority's finances remain on a proper and lawful footing.
I believe that these amendments extend the scope of the existing audit legislation in an important and sensible way. In giving auditors the power to challenge unlawful actions at an early stage, we can reduce the risk of authorities getting into difficulties as a result of spending illegally or incurring unlawful losses, and also reduce in the future the need for long and difficult surcharge cases. I beg to move.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
The degree of astonishment that I felt when these amendments were tabled has now been compounded by the brevity (and undoubted clarity) with which the Minister puts them forward. There is now proposed—and after the second Marshalled List the amendment was starred on the third Marshalled List—a new schedule which is well over two pages long on a totally new subject.
1025 With barely 24 hours' notice we are expected to absorb the import of that schedule and to treat it at Committee stage with the seriousness which it undoubtedly deserves. We are expected to have prepared amendments to the many features to which we may object and to agree that that is a proper parliamentary procedure for a Bill which has already passed through the House of Commons and comes to us in the middle of its consideration. I put to the Committee that this method of proceeding is totally unacceptable. The Government ought to be ashamed to put to the Committee at this stage of its proceedings a schedule of such length and complexity.
I have already spoken about this matter to my noble friend the Chief Whip. I appreciate that it is a matter for the usual channels but the very least that can be done in compensation for this outrage to our procedures is that there should be at least another half-day given to the Bill at Report stage. I warn the Government that if there is no flexibility toward that modest demand, we shall have to find other ways of ensuring that we perform our responsibility as a revising Chamber in this matter.
It is not merely a matter of the timing; it is a matter of the appropriateness of these amendments for this Bill. The Widdicombe Committee, which was asked by the Government to consider these matters, reported on the role not only of auditors but also of the chief financial officers of local authorities. The legislation concerning chief financial officers is not coming before this Chamber in this Bill but is going before another place in another Bill. Yet the whole of the Widdicombe Report's argument about financial controls on local authorities deals quite properly and necessarily with the role of the auditors and of chief financial officers together because they are complementary.
We are being asked to consider not only something which is very complicated and very late but also something which is partial and which even at the best of times and with the best of motives cannot be treated adequately by this Chamber as part of a piece of legislation. One hesitates to use a word such as "outrageous" but the combination of those two factors together with the brevity with which the Minister has introduced the new clause and schedule are an outrage to our procedures. I protest about it in the strongest possible terms.
Having said that, needless to say it will not be possible for me to deal in detail with the content of the schedule and I must reserve my position and that of my noble friends for a later stage. I can assure the Minister that there will be a large number of necessary amendments. However, it is possible and necessary to say a few words about the origin of this new schedule and to consider not only its appropriateness in this Bill but also whether it flows from the facts that have been presented by the Minister.
As the noble Earl said, the Widdicombe Committee recommended that there should be changes in financial controls for local authorities. However, the changes that it recommended were in 1026 no way the same as those that are now being put forward by the Government in this schedule.
First of all, Widdicombe said that there should be greater powers for the reports of the district auditors to be circulated and made public. Secondly, it said that the power of surcharge, which is at present in the hands of the auditors, should be transferred to the Audit Commission. Thirdly, it said that the Audit Commission should have the powers to seek interim injunctions, which would deal to a large extent with the problems of timing of financial controls to which the noble Earl referred, and powers to seek to get expedited hearings for writs of mandamus against local authorities in cases of the kind of abuse to which the noble Earl referred, although he did not give any useful detail.
It is noticeable that in paragraph 9.45 of the Widdicombe Report there is reference to the fact that auditors can, and already do, intervene at an early stage when they think there is something badly wrong with a local authority's finance. The report refers in particular to the action of the auditors with regard to the accounts for the City of Liverpool in the financial year 1985–86. The auditors sought a certificate of wilful misconduct against the authority and succeeded, without the delays to which reference has been made, in ensuring that the city council came to heel on financial matters.
However, the formal powers of auditors to intervene are only a last resort. Any sensible auditor will, as so many of them do, make informal representations to a local authority long before the stage is reached of using formal powers or going to court on a question of wilful misconduct. That is what the auditors do and that is why their work has been so effective. But even if there were defects in the powers of auditors—and that has yet to be shown—why are the Government choosing a totally different route from that recommended by the Widdicombe Committee? Why are they refusing to give the powers that they claim are necessary to the Audit Commission rather than to the district auditors?
This is no mere matter of administration because the powers that the Government are now seeking to give to the auditors are powers, in the view of the Widdicombe Committee—with which I agree—that will imperil the relationship between elected members of an authority and the district auditor. If they are going to have an effective, complementary role in controlling the expenditure of a local authority, they must have a degree of mutual self-confidence and respect that will be damaged only by the powers now envisaged.
Finally, the legal implications of the new schedule are horrifying. Councils are already well accustomed —far too well accustomed in the view of many of us—to take legal advice before they take any step. The reason for that may be in their own hands. It may also be in the hands of a Government who are continuing to impose new restrictions on local authorities. But legal expenditure in seeking to verify or otherwise the validity of some item of expenditure has greatly increased in recent years.
1027 What is the prospect now before us? It is that there will be a dispute between the auditors and the local authority in which the local authority will take legal advice, the auditors will take legal advice and we shall have litigation between the auditors and the local authority. That is an insane prospect. It is one that can give pleasure only to the legal profession. It cannot give pleasure to the ratepayers, who are responsible for the local authority's side of it, or the taxpayers, who are responsible for the Government's side of it. For that reason alone the prima facie case for an issue that has been thrust in so untimely a manner before us cannot be sustained.
This schedule deserves much more careful attention and much more rigorous examination than it can possibly receive this afternoon. It will certainly receive that at a later stage. I very much hope that, even if the noble Earl is unable to reply to the specific points made, he will consult his noble friends and the usual channels and seek to ensure that we have an adequate opportunity for debate on this at a later stage.
The Earl of Caithness
I fully accept my share of the responsibility for putting down this amendment. The reason I thought it right to put the amendment down was that I remember being in Opposition when clauses and schedules of this size were put down at a late stage. I always felt that the earlier I saw them the better. I thought that Members opposite would prefer me to put it down, late though it is, at Committee stage for immediate comment than to wait for Report stage. I always felt in Opposition that that was the right thing for the Government to do.
I apologise for the amendment being so late. However, as the noble Lord is fully aware, there has been much consultation. It is indeed that consultation that has led us to redraft the provisions of the schedule and has accounted for some of the lateness. I apologise to him. I was trying to be helpful. I realise that it was short notice for an amendment and a schedule of this size but I felt that the noble Lord would prefer me to put it down as quickly as possible rather than the day after the Committee stage had finished.
The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, is absolutely right in saying that the auditor has powers to challenge—indeed he has under the Local Government Finance Act 1982—anything illegal and which causes a loss or deficiency, including unlawful expenditure. But when the auditor can act is a time-delayed event, because it happens after the accounts have been finalised and the full picture has emerged. It is then that the discussions and the letters that arise take place and are sent from one party to the other and, if necessary, the oral hearings take place before the courts step in.
What we thought was right, having considered what Widdicombe had to say about it, was that in view of the length of time to which I referred in my opening speech—here we are some three years after the event with the court cases still going on—the auditor ought to be able to say at an earlier stage to the local authority that the actions it is likely to be 1028 taking are probably illegal or against its fiduciary duty. There is then a period of seven days in which the auditor has to come up with reasons.
The reason that we have given seven days is that quite clearly experience has shown that some local authorities hide things from the auditors until the very last minute. Therefore if the auditor has to act very quickly—and do not forget that at the end of the day we are talking about a possible surcharge on the councillors—surely it is right that we should permit him to act quickly and then give him the appropriate seven days in which to look at the full facts. At the end of those seven days matters are taken a stage further. If the councillors—the local authority—do not accept the advice of the auditor, the matter can go to the High Court.
The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, asked why it is the auditor rather than the Audit Commission? The Widdicombe Committee felt that the powers for pre-emptive action should lie with the Audit Commission whereas the amendment places the power with the auditor. Our provisions accord with the view of the commission and with many of those who commented on Widdicombe or on our consultation document on these proposals.
There are obvious practical difficulties in giving a power for swift action to a commission which normally meets once a month. A moment ago I highlighted a situation when quick action was needed. Those apart, we recognise how difficult it would be for the commission, made up as it is of a balance of interests including active politicians, to retain its unity in making decisions to take action against councils. It is the auditor who must assemble the evidence and we believe that it is the auditor who is best placed to decide whether a case exists to invoke statutory sanctions.
Widdicombe also recommended that the power to restrain a local authority from incurring unlawful expenditure should be exercised through seeking an injunction. The amendment provides for the auditor to be able to act directly to issue a prohibition notice. This follows the suggestion put to us by the Audit Commission and has, we believe, advantages over the Widdicombe proposal. In many cases the need for litigation would be avoided and the auditor would be able to take immediate action where there is urgency. I also believe that by placing these new powers with the auditor we enhance his authority and standing as the person responsible for overseeing and certifying the regularity and propriety of local government expenditure.
I conclude by saying that I appreciate the feelings of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey. I have no wish to stifle debate. The sheer fact that we have managed to table these amendments during the Committee stage has led to a useful exchange. I look forward to a much more detailed discussion on the points that I am sure he will raise at a later stage.
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
Before the matter is put to the vote, let me thank the Minister for those last remarks. I assure him that it is always my policy to attack governments, this Government in 1029 particular, and not individual Ministers. Will he be good enough not only to bring the attention of his noble friend the Chief Whip to what he and I have said, but to do so personally and to thrust it into his hand? The case has never been more clearly put than it was in his own words for extra time on Report than the two days which were allocated before this new clause was put down.
The Earl of Caithness
I see the Opposition Chief Whip there and in that case I tread even more carefully than I would normally when it comes to discussing the usual channels. Of course I hear what the noble Lord says. I shall discuss it with my noble friend the Chief Whip. I commend the amendment to the Committee.
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ Schedule 3 [Local government administration]:
Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 120C:
Page 37. line 27, at end insert—
("( ) Subsections (2) and (3) shall he omitted.").
§ The noble Lord said: With Amendment No. 120C I should also like to speak to Amendment No. 120D. These amendments both refer to the role of the commissioner for administration, who is known to most of us as the local authority ombudsman. We are seeking to take the opportunity of the Bill—and I argue that it falls fairly within the Long Title—to make improvements in the provision for local authority ombudsmen, the way in which their business is initiated and the way in which it can be conducted and made effective.
§ On reflection it might be for the convenience of the Committee if I speak also to Amendment No. 120E. Amendments 120C and 120D arise because of the regrettable unwillingness of a minority of local councillors to refer matters which are raised with them, such as allegations of maladministration by their local authority, to the local authority ombudsmen. Evidence has been produced by Justice, the British section of the International Commission of Jurists, that some 20 per cent. of councillors resist the idea that they should refer matters to the local authority ombudsman and are found unhelpful by their constituents in doing so.
§ As a local authority councillor I was very pleased to refer matters raised with me by my constituents to the local authority ombudsman. It required extra work from me because I had to give additional evidence in support of the claim, but it was easier to do that than to find my way through the vast bureaucracy of the Greater London Council, as it then was, to seek redress directly. The Greater London Council, when a report from the ombudsman found that allegations of maladministration were justified, was never in my experience unwilling to take action as a result. There may be other councillors and other councils in different parts of the country that have different experiences on that latter point. That is the reason for Amendment No. 120E.1030
§ What is proposed is that there should, if necessary, be a direct power of reference to the local commissioner, to the local authority ombudsman, and we believe that that will expedite and strengthen the hands of local authority ombudsmen and strengthen the power of constituents to question the judgment and administration of local authorities in the areas in which they live.
§ Amendment No. 120E is on a similar point, but it relates to the fact that unfortunately there is good evidence—this often gains a lot of publicity in the press—that local authorities, even when maladministration has been found, do not effectively or at all take action to remedy it. There have been well-publicised cases when electors have been forced to go back to the local authority ombudsman or to make further public protests and have suffered substantial delays in putting matters right because local authorities have not been helpful in that regard.
§ In case anybody should think that we on these Benches are uncritical supporters of local authorities and local government in all circumstances, I believe that the amendments give the lie to such an allegation. We are concerned not only for the rights of local authorities, but much more with the rights of local authority electors. It is possible that in such a complicated matter with such complicated amendments the Minister will find fault with the detail of the amendments. He may even find fault—I always worry when I see a frown on the face of the noble Viscount, Lord Colville—with the placing of the amendments in the Bill. All I ask at this stage, if he feels as I do that there is justification behind the spirit and the impetus of these amendments, is for him to undertake to see whether it is possible to give effect to them in a better way. I beg to move.
The Earl of Caithness
The noble Lord has argued very persuasively in favour of the two original amendments, Nos. 120C and 120D, which would provide members of the public with direct access to the local commissioner for administration instead of having to refer complaints through a member of the authority concerned. I understand his concern that we should not put unnecessary obstacles in the way of individuals wishing to complain to the local ombudsman. This was also the concern of the Widdicombe inquiry into the conduct of local authority business, which also recommended that complainants should have direct access to the local ombudsman.
Naturally I hope that the majority of councillors who receive complaints from their constitutents will do all they can either to get the matter resolved or to pass the complaint on to the local ombudsman, even if it is one with which they disagreed. Indeed it was in the hope that councillors would be able to resolve some complaints to the satisfaction of all parties without having to involve the ombudsman that this stage was originally included in the procedure.
Nevertheless I can see that some complainants may be deterred by having to take their complaint to a local councillor, perhaps because they do not know the name of their councillor, because he is from the wrong political party or just because they associate 1031 all councillors too closely with the authority against which they are complaining. I am unable to give any commitment at this stage, but if the noble Lord is prepared to withdraw Amendments Nos. 120C and 120D, I promise to consider the matter further before the next stage.
Turning now to Amendment No. 120E, I have some sympathy with the noble Lord's concern about local authorities which have refused to comply with the findings of the local ombudsman and have failed to provide a satisfactory remedy where injustice has been found. Since the local ombudsman service was set up in 1974 there have been 135 such cases in England and Wales, representing about 6 per cent. of investigations where injustice has been found. Although this is a relatively small proportion of cases, there is no doubt that these failures cause a particularly marked sense of grievance for the complainants concerned and tend to undermine the credibility of the system as a whole. I therefore accept the need to try to improve the rate of compliance.
The amendment would deal with this problem by giving complainants the right to apply to the court for a satisfactory remedy. This was another of the Widdicombe recommendations and one which we are currently considering. It would, however, involve a radical change in the whole concept of the local ombudsman as an informal investigatory procedure. If local authorities know that the findings of the ombudsman may be enforced by the courts they are likely to be much less forthcoming and co-operative in investigations and the whole procedure would take on a more formal and quasi-legal character. Complainants might find the process more intimidating and for that reason judicial enforcement of remedies would be undesirable.
Nevertheless, the Government are examining alternative ways of improving the rate of compliance. The Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration has suggested that it should have a role in calling recalcitrant councils to account. That is an interesting not to say novel idea and we shall be responding to the Select Committee very shortly.
In the meantime, I hope that the noble Lord will agree with me that, in view of what I have said, it is perhaps inopportune to say much more. I give the noble Lord the undertaking that as soon as we have replied to the Select Committee I shall provide him with a copy of it because it embraces many other points connected with it.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
I am grateful to the Minister for his remarks on Amendments Nos. 120C, 120D and 120E. I realise that they go towards meeting what I am asking for in different degrees. However, on the basis of his assurances in respect of Amendments Nos. 120C and 120D, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment No. 120C.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment Nos. 120D and 120E not moved.]
§ Schedule 3 agreed to.1032
The Earl of Caithness moved Amendment No. 120F:
After Schedule 3, insert the following new schedule:
("Sections to be inserted in Part III of Local Government Finance Act 1982.
§ Power of auditor to issue prohibition order
§ 25A.—(l) The person who is for the time being the auditor in relation to the accounts of any body whose accounts are required to be audited in accordance with this Part of this Act may issue an order under this section (in this Part referred to as a "prohibition order") if he has reason to believe that the body or any officer of the body—
- (a) is about to make or has made a decision which involves or would involve the body incurring expenditure which is unlawful; or
- (b) is about to take or has taken a course of action which, if pursued to its conclusion, would be unlawful and likely to cause a loss of deficiency; or
- (c) is about to enter an item of account, the entry of which is unlawful:
§ (2) a prohibition order is one—
- (a) which is addressed to the body or officer concerned;
- (b) which specifies the paragraph of subsection (1) above which is relevant and the decision, course of action or item of account to which the order relates;
- (c) which specifies the date on which (subject to subsection (5) below) the order is to take effect, being a date not earlier than the date of service of a copy of the order in accordance with paragraph (a) or, as the case may be, paragraphs (a) and (b) of subsection (4) below; and
- (d) which requires the body or officer concerned to desist from making or implementing the decision, taking or continuing to take the course of action or, as the case may be, entering the item of account in question.
§ (3) Where two or more auditors are appointed in relation to the accounts of any body, the power to issue a prohibition order may be exercised by the auditors acting jointly or by such one of them as they may determine; and, in relation to such an order, any reference in subsections (4) and (5) below to the auditor is a reference to the auditor or auditors by whom the order is issued.
§ (4) A copy of a prohibition order—
- (a) shall be served on the body to which, or to an officer of which, it is addressed; and
- (b) in the case of an order addressed to an officer, shall also be served on him; and
- (c) may be served on such other person or persons as appears to the auditor to be appropriate.
§ (5) A prohibition order shall not have effect unless, not later than the end of the period of seven days beginning on the date of service referred to in subsection (2)(c) above, the auditor serves on the body concerned and on any officer on whom a copy of the order was served under subsection (4)(b) above, a statement of the auditor's reasons for the belief referred to in subsection (1) above.
§ (6) Any copy of an order or statement which under this section is to be served on an officer of a body shall be served on him by addressing it to him and by delivering it to him or leaving it at, or sending it by post, to the office at which he is employed.
§ (7) A prohibition order may at any time be revoked (but not varied) by the person who is for the time being the auditor in relation to the accounts of the body to which or to an officer of which the order was addressed.
§ Effect of and appeals against prohibition orders
§ 25B.—(1) So long as a prohibition order has effect, it shall not be lawful for the body concerned or any officer of that body to make or implement the decision, to take or continue to take the course of action or, as the case may be, to enter the item of account to which the order relates.
§ (2) A prohibition order—
- (a) takes effect, subject to subsection (5) of section 25A above, on the date specified in the order in accordance with subsection (2)(c) of that section; and
- (b) continues to have effect, subject to any order or decision of the High Court on an appeal under subsection (3) below, until revoked under section 25A(7) above.
§ (3) Not later than twenty-eight days after the service under section 25A(5) above of a statement of reasons relating to a prohibition order, the body concerned (but not any officer of that body) may appeal against the order to the High Court in accordance with rules of court.
§ (4) On an appeal against a prohibition order under subsection (3) above, the High Court may make such order as it thinks fit for the payment by the body concerned of expenses incurred by the auditor in connection with the appeal.
§ (5) Any expenses reasonably incurred by the auditor in or in connection with the issue of a prohibition order shall be recoverable by him from the body concerned.
§ (6) In this section "the body concerned", in relation to a prohibition order, means the body to which, or to an officer of which, the order is addressed.
§ Supplementary provisions as to prohibition order
§ 25C.—( 1) In any case where—
- (a) before a prohibition order is issued, a body enters into a contract to dispose of or acquire an interest in land, and
- (b) before the disposal or acquisition is completed, a prohibition order takes effect as a result of which it is unlawful for the body to complete the disposal or acquisition,
§ (2) No action shall lie against an auditor in respect of any loss or damage alleged to have been caused by reason of the issue of a prohibition order which was issued in good faith; but nothing in this subsection affects the right of a court to award costs against an auditor on an appeal under section 25B(3) above.
§ Power of auditor to apply for judicial review
§ 25D.—(1) Subject to section 31(3) of the Supreme Court Act 1981 (no application for judicial review without leave) the auditor appointed in relation to the accounts of a body may make an application for judicial review with respect to—
- (a) any decision of that body, or
- (b) any failure by that body to act,
§ (2) The existence of the powers conferred on an auditor under this Part of this Act shall not be regarded as a ground for refusing an application falling within subsection (1) above (or an application for leave to make such an application).
§ (3) On an application for judicial review made as mentioned in subsection (1) above, the court may make such order as it thinks fit for the payment by the body to whose decision the application relates of expenses incurred by the auditor in connection with the application.").
§ The noble Earl said: I have already spoken to this amendment. I beg to move.
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ Clause 30 agreed to.
§ Schedule 4 agreed to.
§ Clause 32 agreed to.
Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove moved Amendment No. 121:
Page 30, leave out lines 8 to 14 and insert—
("(3) Before undertaking or promoting any study under this section the Commission, having regard to the needs and financial resources of local government, shall consult and reach agreement with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on the work to be undertaken and the financing thereof and shall consult such associations of employees as appear to it to be appropriate.").
§ The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 121 as set out on the Marshalled List. As it stands, the clause requires prior consultation before undertaking studies to allow for value for money in local authority work. The effect of the amendment, which strengthens the clause, is to require the commission to have regard to the views and financial resources of local authorities, and to reach agreement with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. We believe that it should be carried out not on an individual authority basis but on a general basis—on the basis of the work to be undertaken and the financing thereof.
§ The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities fully acknowledges the importance of value for money, as do all local authorities. However, it has pointed out that it is basically the responsibility of a local authority to satisfy itself of the efficiency of its arrangements to secure good value and that the provision of services exist. Authorities have different arrangements for achieving that. The Government do not dissent from that view but they would emphasise the benefits of arrangements to disseminate and share the experience. Again, that is a matter with which local authorities and the convention would agree. They would also agree with the fact that an outside agency can frequently bring a fresh perspective to a problem and can frequently be helpful.
§ One of the difficulties is that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has made the fair point that any value-for-money study creates costs in the form of fees and charges made by consultants and by the fact that an outsider has been brought in and a revaluation must be carried out. That costs money. It confirms the importance of having effective arrangements for the passing on of information of general application and capitalising on existing work wherever possible; so that it is not a case of one job being done for a local authority but no lessons being learned by another. The convention has expressed the hope that the commission for local authority accounts in Scotland and the Audit Commission will in the future consider joint projects or programmes where they seem appropriate. I believe that the proposed slight alteration to Clause 33(3) would meet those points. I beg to move.
§ 5.45 p.m.
The Earl of Dundee
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, for his explanation. As I understand the proposed amendment, it would have a number of effects, not all of which I assume are intended. First, it would remove the requirement on the account commission, before undertaking or promoting any value-for-money study, to consult associations of local authorities, and it would instead require the commission to reach agreement with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on any proposed study. It is certainly true that in present circumstances CoSLA is the one association of local authorities operating in Scotland. That need not always be so and it is therefore undesirable to specify so precisely in statute that it and only it should be consulted.
It is also the case that by requiring the commission to reach agreement with CoSLA the amendment 1035 would give CoSLA the right of veto on any proposed value-for-money study. That is surely going too far and would put CoSLA in a position that I find difficult to believe it would want. It would then be liable to all kinds of sectional pressures. For example, what if one authority, or one tier of an authority, wanted to avoid a particular study at all costs and another was an enthusiastic supporter? I think CoSLA already finds itself in that kind of difficulty often enough and it does not need this amendment to increase its difficulties. Apart from that point, it is surely wrong in principle that CoSLA, representing as it does the local authority interests, should be given so much power in the matter. I do not think that that would be desirable.
As a general point, I am also unhappy about putting forward vague phrases in legislation such as:having regard to the needs and financial resources of local government".What, for example, would the accounts commission make of that? From what perspective would it have regard to these matters? The perspective from which we start in proposing these value-for-money powers is to assist local authorities in meeting their needs and operating within their financial resources in the most effective way. As a result, I think that this phrase in the amendment is misleading.
Secondly, the effect of the amendment would be to remove any obligation on the accounts commission to consult those bodies other than local authorities whose accounts they audit. Thus, if the amendment were to be adopted, the accounts commission could embark on value-for-money studies in all the police and fire joint bodies, the various river purification boards, the Forth and Tay joint bridge boards, various valuation committees and other bodies, without consulting those bodies or taking account of their views at all. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, would not wish to produce that particular threat.
However, regarding the substance of Clause 33, the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, is absolutely right to emphasise the need for agreement and co-operation between the accounts commission and local authorities. I do not believe that this amendment would help in that respect; I think that it would be counter-productive. As a result, I should like to ask the noble Lord whether he would be able to withdraw the amendment at this stage.
§ Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove
I thank the Minister for his reply. I can understand the point he made about the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities being the only existing body and that there may be others in the future. I am sure that that position can easily be overcome by providing for such other bodies as the Secretary of State may wish to consult. However, the Minister made a meaty reply and there are a number of issues that I shall wish to digest. I shall take the matter away and in the meantime beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ The noble Lord said: It would perhaps be convenient to take Amendment No. 123 with Amendment No. 122.
§ Amendment No. 122 really deals with the powers of the commission and the fact that as it stands in this Section 97B the commission could ask for the information on a blanket basis and could ask for rather too much information. The hope is that the Minister will take this away and look at it and realise that selective information is probably all that the Audit Commission would genuinely require.
§ In addition, the bodies should not be compelled to provide information which would be provided voluntarily in any case if the local authority felt that the information required by the Audit Commission was totally justifiable. In other words, the commission has obligations as well, and one of its obligations should be to justify why it requires certain information.
§ Amendment No. 123 really emphasis the point that the power of the commission to compel the provision of information which is justifiable in their terms, if this is not supplied, would involve the potential creation of a criminal offence in a local authority. That is rather too much power to give. I can hardly believe that the Government really intend that that should be the outcome of their demanding the rights within those terms. Therefore I hope the Government will look at this amendment, as I am sure they have done, and give a favourable reply. I beg to move.
The Earl of Dundee
With the leave of the Committee, like the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, I should like to speak to Amendments Nos. 122 and 123.
The effect of these two amendments, if adopted, would be to negate the principle of Clause 33. The proposed new Section 97A places a duty on the accounts commission to undertake or promote studies with the object of improving the economy, efficiency and effectiveness in the provision of services by local authorities and by certain other bodies. We cannot place that obligation on the commission and then deny it an important part of the means to carry out its duty. Nevertheless, I would readily concede to the noble Lord that it will be better for the accounts commission to proceed in the exercise of its value-for-money functions where possible with the agreement and co-operation of local authorities. To some extent it would be fair to say that if it needs to brandish the proposed new Section 97B at local authorities it will have failed in its task. While the commission will be able, under our proposals, to require the production of information on documents, it cannot require local authorities to pay heed to its subsequent reports and recommendations. So it is desirable that so far as possible these matters proceed by agreement.
However, that is not to say that a back-up power will not be helpful. In the first place, the existence of such a power in the background will often encourage local authorities or their officers or members to think twice about refusing access to information or documents. It should lead them to consider critically what their reasons for refusal are. There is an analogy 1037 with Ministers' powers of direction in relation to nationalised industries. These powers are rarely if ever used except with regard to mundane issues such as forms of account; but the fact that they exist as a long stop has the important effect of encouraging co-operation and reasonableness on both sides.
Moreover, I hope the Committee will note the safeguard that is built into both the subsections of this Section 97B. In subsection (1) it is made clear that the information the commission may ask for is only information that it may reasonably require for the discharge of the functions under this part of the Act. In subsection (2) there is the safeguard that anyone failing to provide information so required will only be liable to penalty if he is acting without reasonable excuse. Quite rightly, the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, expressed the fear that rather too much information might be demanded if one were not careful. I hope that what I have just said may go some way in giving him reassurance to the contrary.
It seems important that while we are not only asking a body to take on certain new work but actually placing it under a statutory duty to take on that work we cannot deny it such powers as it may require to carry out the duty effectively. That is what the proposed Section 97B does, and it does it with what we think are the right kind of safeguards.
§ Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove
I am very glad to have heard the Minister's reply. If the commission and the local authority takes his point of view "reasonable" should he the watchword of both sides when they are dealing with the matter. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 123 not moved.]
§ Clause 33 agreed to.
The Earl of Caithness moved Amendment No. 124:
After Clause 33, insert the following new clause:
§ ("Commutation of smallholdings payments.
§ Any annual or other periodic payments under the terms of any settlement in respect of amounts payable under section 27 of the Land Settlement (Facilities) Act 1919 which, apart from this section, would fall to be made to a county council or district council by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or the Secretary of State may be commuted by him into a single payment, either by agreement with that council or, in default of agreement, by an order made by him in that behalf.").
§ The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 124.
§ This new clause will enable agriculture Ministers in England and Wales to commute into a single payment, either by agreement with the individual councils or in default of agreement by order, payments made under the Land Settlement Facilities Act 1919 for the losses they incurred in first establishing smallholding estates after the First World War.
§ Under successive smallholding legislation local authorities have been empowered to provide farms for people who have some training or experience in agriculture but who lack the considerable financial resources needed to farm on their own account. Under the Land Settlement (Facilities) Act 1919 smallholdings were intended for the settlement of 1038 demobilised ex-servicemen, and as part of this policy the losses in providing these holdings were to be borne by the Government. The current method of calculation was introduced in 1926 and is known as the "1926 Settlement".
§ This was a series of agreements between the Minister of Agriculture and individual councils for the payment of a schedule of prefixed amounts to be paid in half-yearly instalments on a diminishing scale. These payments represent the amounts by which each council's smallholdings loan charges consisting mainly of repayments of loan principal and interest exceed its net annual income for each year until the forecast annual losses have been extinguished.
§ It is generally recognised that commutation of these payments would be an administrative convenience to central and local government; otherwise in some cases payments would continue until the year 2003. Primary legislation is however necessary to remove the restrictions in the Act which oblige Ministers to take the half-yearly payments. Section 64(1) of the Local Government Act 1985 provided the necessary powers to commute the payments due to the GLC and MCCs but the scope of the legislation did not allow this to be extended to other councils. I understand that commutation of the payments will only take place after full consultation with the appropriate local authority associations and the individual councils.
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ Clause 34 [Abolition of duty on dog licences]:
§ On Question, Whether Clause 34 shall stand part of the Bill?
§ Lord Irving of Dartford
A licence of 37p, collected from only 50 per cent. of dog owners costing the Treasury £3.5 million to collect, is clearly nonsense. However, as my noble friend Lord Houghton indicated in his report in 1976 on dog warden schemes, an increased and properly managed licence could form the soundest way of ensuring a proper system for the control of dogs.
In abolishing the licence, as Clause 34 does, the Government leave us with no satisfactory method of dealing with the serious problem concerning the control of dogs which will still remain. In abandoning the licence, the Government are abandoning the system which they introduced into Northern Ireland and which is running successfully there. Veterinarians, farmers, environmental health officers, major welfare organisations (like the RSPCA), charities and local authorities have all campaigned for that for a long time as being the most sensible way of dealing with problems concerning dogs. If anything, the Government are taking a step backwards as the money now collected from the existing dog licences, albeit a minor amount, at present goes to the local authorities and that will no longer be available.
There are two factors which I believe should be taken into account. The first is that unless there is a method of clearly identifying the owner, the enforcement of legislation, particularly of the by-laws which the Government have recently promulgated, 1039 will be almost impossible. Secondly, the Government's view that problems can be dealt with by the requirement that every dog must have a collar is invalidated by the fact that in a house where there is multiple occupation, that does not clearly indicate which occupant owns the dog. The Government have said that local authorities can choose to provide a dog warden service, as any other local service; but local authorities—and I am a member of a local authority—are under great financial pressure and the competing claims on funds makes it impossible to deal with these problems in that way.
In moving the amendment, we are seeking to discover the Government's intention as to what they propose to do about the problems of dog control. At the Committee stage in another place a similar amendment moved by a Conservative member was narrowly defeated by 17 votes to 14, so there is clearly much concern about the problem on both sides of the Committee.
There are many aspects of the problem. First, there is the need to re-unite stray dogs with their owners as quickly as possible and to reduce the harrowing slaughter of thousands of dogs a year. Secondly, there is the need to achieve reliable certification by veterinary surgeons in relation to vaccination, worming and the encouragement of spaying. Thirdly, there is a need for reliable registration of pedigree dogs for showing and breeding purposes. Fourthly, there should be the ability in the case of cruelty to dogs to identify the owner of the dog for the purposes of the protection accorded in the Dogs Act 1933. Fifthly, there should be a means of enforcing legislation relating to the protection of livestock and in respect of attacks by dogs on postmen and others and of the new by-laws relating to the fouling of public places. These can only be enforced and monitored by dog wardens. Finally, the clear identification of dogs and owners is necessary in the event of a rabies outbreak.
If the Government abandon the licence and refuse to fund a dog warden service, how do they propose to deal with these problems? Representatives of JACOPS, which is the Joint Advisory Committee on Pets in Society of which my noble friend Lord Houghton is president and I am chairman, is an umbrella organisation which has in membership almost every organisation concerned with the welfare of animals and particularly dogs. The RSPCA, the British Veterinary Association, environmental health officers and local authorities have been discussing these matters in a working group between the Department of the Environment and the Home Office. A system of registration has been discussed although I must emphasise that no firm proposals have been made for such a scheme.
There are several ways in which registration could be achieved. One is that there could be an initial one-time charge for registration. That will be carried out by the local authorities, who would issue a disc and form particulars of a register to be maintained nationally. The scheme could be self-financing. The initial charge for registration would raise enough money to install the register and also provide enough money to enable local authorities to maintain dog 1040 warden schemes. There would need to be a statutory requirement to register and we illustrated what this might be on the amendment on the Marshalled List.
I want to emphasise that none of us has taken a decision about that and the matter is under discussion. Therefore I wish to revert to the general question of dogs. It is clear that there is need for a new Dogs Act to embrace the nearly 30 enactments over 150 years which are at present on the statute book. There is need to hand over the powers currently held by the police for dealing with stray dogs—and the police do not really want the power because they do not have the staff to carry it through—to local authorities. We would prefer to have a dog licence which could raise the money to provide dog wardens to carry out this work. However, I submit that the Government should not wash their hands of the problem and expect local authorities to foot the bill from their already overstretched resources. We need some indication of the Government's intention of dealing with this problem seriously or we shall be forced to divide the Committee.
§ 6 p.m.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
I believe that it is quite ludicrous of the Government—though it makes economic sense not to collect the 7s.6d at the cost of well over £1—to run away from the problem which exists in town and country regarding dogs. The Government boast about tackling the problem of aggressors 8,000 miles away successfully, opposing the might of the NUM—all sorts of things that have altered the face of Britain—and yet they have completely run away from the simple fact of the dog owner, who they think is a powerful, economic or political force. That is absolutely rubbish! More people in this country resent the mess that dogs make and the damage they do than would resent some effort at control. I hope that the Minister is listening carefully instead of scribbling on his prepared brief because the damage is self-evident to everybody in this Committee. We have the extraordinary problem of not thousands but hundreds of thousands of dogs a year being destroyed. I have seen a figure quoted of 1,000 a day from responsible organisations. There is the appalling business of people giving presents at Christmas, and a fortnight later when the responsibility of looking after the dog becomes apparent, they are taken to the vet to be destroyed (if the owners are semi-reasonable) or simply thrown out into the street. There are even cases of dogs being thrown from cars which are travelling along motorways at 70 miles an hour. That is a well known scandal and obviously something must be done about it.
The case in the country is even stronger. It has been well known for years that one cannot keep stock if one is farming near an urban concentration or a big town because of the problem of stray dogs running about. It is very difficult now because people are coming out to the country miles away from the town and letting their dogs run loose quite happily in the middle of lambing ewes or calving cows or any other form of stock. I believe it is totally irresponsible of the Government to put a clause in this Bill which will 1041 abolish the licensing of dogs in order to save money. The problem is very great.
Noble Lords have put forward ideas. The new clause puts forward good ideas. Something must be done. It is up to the Government to produce very solid arguments as to why they are doing nothing and to change their minds and give either the local authorities the chance to deal with the problem, (as suggested in the next amendment) or bring forward their own proposals. They are shirking their duty in not doing anything about the menace we have concerning the growing army of dogs. There is no question of that and I hope the Minister will be able to give a considered reply instead of a straight rejection.
The Earl of Selkirk
I support what the noble Lord, Lord Irving, has said in broad outline. It is too easy for the Government simply to say that they will get rid of the dog licence. I accept that there is no defence of the existing licence; but I have heard the argument that if you licence dogs, you must licence horses and maybe cats. That is really not an argument at all. I do not want to take up time. What I should like to be sure of is that the Government are open to suggestions and prepared to argue about it. There is a big responsibility here. I do not know if it is true, but there is said to be something like 6 million dogs in this country and maybe 300 or 400 strays at any one given time, and probably 50,000 to 100,000 are put down each year.
We in this country are said to be fond of dogs. We have to deal with this matter centrally and I should like to have an absolute assurance from my noble friend that he is prepared to listen to arguments. As has been said, and as I have seen, cars have stickers which read,Dogs are for keeps, not just for Christmas".That is not just incidental; it is a campaign that has been introduced because it is necessary. I hope that my noble friend will be able to meet us to some extent.
§ Viscount Massereene and Ferrard
I referred to this matter on Second Reading so I shall be brief as I do not want to repeat myself. I cannot understand the attitude of the Government on this matter. As I pointed out, all the countries in the EC have dog licences and some countries charge as much as £20. I also pointed out that Northern Ireland has had a scheme for five years. The licence fee is £5 and they have dog wardens which have proved to be successful.
There is cruelty to dogs in this country with thousands of people in urban areas buying dogs but with no experience of owning them. As we heard from my noble friend Lord Selkirk, the dogs are abandoned when their owners get tired of them and they are sometimes thrown out on motorways. On Second Reading I gave examples of great cruelty to dogs. A young man roasted his dog in an oven because it made a puddle. He received a suspended sentence—he may have done a month inside—but he ought to have been given more than that.
Apart from cruelty to dogs there is also the difficulty that I and other noble Lords have experienced with sheep and livestock being worried 1042 by dogs. Livestock have been killed or maimed by stray dogs. One cannot always blame the dogs because they are maddened by hunger, having been abandoned. There must be some control.
As regards the fee, as I pointed out I cannot see why this should not be £10; though perhaps old age pensioners should be excluded and, of course, working dogs, guide dogs and sheep dogs. With such a fee the local authorities would have a considerable amount of money. The Government would have to arrange a scheme through the local authorities and give the authorities the amount collected from the licences. It should not go to the Treasury. However, there must be a better way so that all the proceeds of the dog licences could go towards paying for wardens.
With regard to discs, the best method is that used for greyhounds, where the number is tattooed on the ear. I have one or two greyhounds—in fact, my wife has them, not me—and that method is always used with racing greyhounds. In fact, I am not too keen on racing greyhounds and much prefer racing horses, but that is beside the point. I ask the Government to explain why they do not want dog wardens and why they do not want dog licences. That seems to be a most extraordinary point of view. I repeat, nearly every other country in Europe has dog licences. As my noble friend Lord Selkirk said, and as I said on Second Reading, there are 6 million dogs in this country and that means that there are a great many people who own dogs. The Government must do something to take note of the opinion among dog owners.
§ 6.15 p.m.
§ Lord Somers
I support everything said by the noble Lord, Lord Irving. The problem of dogs has been with us for a long time, particularly stray dogs on the road, which are a menace both to themselves and to motorists. Something must be done about it.
We are all agreed that the present system is absolute nonsense. If a man has only one arm you do not improve the situation by cutting off the other. Therefore, I suggest that the present licence should be retained until we have something better on the statute book. I drafted an alternative form but hesitated to table an amendment in Committee because it contained an alteration of fee, and I understand that we are not able to do that. However, we might get round that by simply saying that the fee shall be whatever the Secretary of State decides.
An important point is that the licence should be obtained before a person buys a dog. In other words, the buyer must produce a licence before he gets his dog. At present the situation is absurd because a dog owner waits for 18 months or so—I do not remember the exact period—before paying anything. During that time the situation may change. He may become tired of the dog and let it go, which is often the case. Therefore, we must tighten up the situation.
I also make exceptions for working dogs, such as shepherds' dogs, guide dogs for the blind and hearing dogs for the deaf. Naturally, the owners of those must not be charged.
1043 My proposal is that the dog should wear a small disc on its collar, not more than three-quarters of an inch in diameter, with the year of the licence stamped on it and the owner's address. The dog can therefore be immediately identified. I hope to produce a draft amendment before we reach the Report stage. Meanwhile, I hope that we will not leave the coast completely clear by removing the present system.
§ Lord Dulverton
I congratulate Members on all sides of the Committee who have introduced this amendment. To abolish dog licences and to hope that the local authorities will provide and finance the operations of dog wardens without further ado indicates a strange misconception of the problem and of the situation. I regret most deeply this attitude of a government which I wholeheartedly support and which I had hoped and thought would have known better.
Arguments have been raised, some of them in another place, mainly based on such considerations as the abatement of nuisance and the damage that can be caused by uncontrolled and uncared for dogs. All those arguments are realistic. The spectre of rabies also has been referred to. I wish to raise another aspect. While supporting the arguments that have been advanced for a realistic fee on acquiring a dog, which the existing fee of 37p clearly is not, I wish to focus on the humanitarian aspect.
I declare an interest there both as a council member of the National Canine Defence League and as one who has loved and valued the companionship and the good service of dogs from a very early age, as many Members of the Committee have.
I believe it is a hackneyed phrase of Kipling:Give not your heart to a dog to tear".Yet many of us do; and because of the love that we can give to a well-trained canine friend, and on the other side, the love, forgiveness and service that they can return to us, it was a very deep-feeling phrase that Kipling invented. Equally I say, "Do not tear the heart of your dog but train him to merit a good position in your heart". Every year these potential friends and allies of man are rejected, starved, maltreated or literally thrown into the ditch by those who have too thoughtlessly acquired them. I could tell horrifying stories of the maltreatment that goes on but I am not going to take up the time of the Committee. The stories would curdle the blood if I were to tell them. Some owners acquire their dogs without the means or the intention of developing the mutual care and trust that dogs can and do give if properly treated and trained.
In some ways statistics are a bore, but I will give some. It is estimated that there are 6 million dogs in the country, less than half of which are licensed. It is also estimated that 500,000 of them roam our streets creating various nuisances. Each year 200,000 of them are literally kicked out of the door by their owners. In addition, 80,000 strays are destroyed each year.
On the other side of the picture there were 1,200 road accidents involving stray dogs. A footnote to that comes from the Department of Community 1044 Medicine at Manchester, which puts the figure for dog-associated accidents at 54,000. My labradors would not have caused those accidents because we have an understanding together and they are trained. Each year 10,000 head of livestock are killed or maimed by dogs. If you give open licence to people who thoughtlessly acquire dogs or puppies, these awful figures will rise. If people really want them and really value them, then, in the context of present-day values, they will willingly pay a fee, whether it is £10 or more, which will much more than cover the cost of collection.
If Members of the Committee think back on the figures, there are 6 million dogs and, taking a £10 licence, if only half the owners pay the fee that will be £30 million. That, it is to be hoped, will finance measures to provide dog wardens and so on. If people are not prepared to stump up that much, they do not really want a dog. They acquire one totally irresponsibly and so will not care for it. It is as plain and as simple as that.
Of course there are the obvious exceptions such as guide dogs for the blind and the shepherd's marvellous sheepdog, and they possibly deserve special consideration. I say this as a former Master of Foxhounds to registered packs of hounds; my noble friend Lord Kimball is sitting in front of me and he may echo that possibility. I believe that a scheme could be worked out.
If you really want a dog, a tenner is nothing, and if you balk at that you clearly do not value your dog. It would cost much more than that to feed it. Without licences the numbers of uncared for, maltreated, sometimes tortured dogs and their unwanted puppies will add enormously to the fearful total of starved, maltreated and criminally uncared for dogs that also become nuisances. Those figures will rise drastically.
I hate to say so, but this is an issue which the Committee in its combined wisdom—and I know in many cases Members' own sympathy for the subject we are discussing—must insist upon even against Her Majesty's Government in this instance. I know the Committee will give consideration to what we have all said and I confirm that I wish to support this amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Irving.
§ Baroness Phillips
I should perhaps warn the Committee that if the verdict goes against what some people would like then we may see dogs lowered on ropes over the top of the balcony! They are much less bother than humans.
I wish to support what has been said in Committee so far and to emphasise that the onus is on the Government to explain the £3.5 million that it costs to collect the dog licence fees. There are many figures thrown about—6 million seems to be the flavour of the month. We heard that there were 6 million homosexuals yesterday and today we learn that there are 6 million dogs. It conjures up a fascinating and a tidy picture. Simply to say that because collection costs £3.5 million that is a reason for discarding the licence altogether is not really worthy of the Government. As the noble Lord, Lord Dulverton, said, those who love their dogs— happily they are the majority—spend a lot of money feeding them and 1045 they would not begrudge a registration fee, call it what you will.
It is important that we should be able to identify the dogs. If you live in inner London it is practically impossible to get out of your car without stepping into some of the residue left by animals which are mainly turned out by their owners. If there was a proper registration system there would be a much more responsible approach and it would be much easier to follow up the cases of cruelty that have been enumerated. I should like to see the Government give way on this: that would be a very generous and noble gesture.
§ The Earl of Onslow
I hope that the Government will not give way on this; otherwise we shall be having canary licences, goldfish licences, pet bird licences. Thank goodness the Government are actually saying that they are going to take some controls off the backs of the people. That is what Conservative Governments are supposed to do, rather than imposing them. It is quite ridiculous to think that a dog licence is going to have the slightest effect on the way that people maltreat one form of animal or another. Those who are going to behave irresponsibly and cruelly will behave irresponsibly and cruelly; those who do not behave irresponsibly and cruelly will go on looking after their dogs properly.
§ Lord Somers
May I interrupt the noble Earl? Has he really examined the situation and found out what the difficulties are, because I have never heard such nonsense in my life?
§ The Earl of Onslow
The noble Lord, Lord Somers, is entitled to his opinion. I may be talking nonsense: I may even be talking sense, and I hope that it is more likely to be the latter than the former. However, I still congratulate the Government on removing one form of impost from people's backs. The only thing that is more sensible than taking off an impost is taking off an impost that actually costs more money to administer than it brings in.
§ Lord Monson
I cannot agree with the noble Earl at all, because he would no doubt soon suggest abolishing the television licence. That would be just as logical.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, I cannot get over the irresponsibility of the Government in putting forward this clause. After all, the Government some years ago raised the cost of the dog licence in Northern Ireland to £5 without any ill effects whatsoever; in fact quite the opposite. Surely what is good enough for one part of the United Kingdom is good enough for every other part? Abolishing the annual dog licence rather than increasing it to what is no more than the cost of dog food for one week will give the green light to those irresponsible yobs—one can only call them that—who give their children puppies for Christmas almost as toys and when the dear kiddies have tired of them—as happens all too often, I am afraid—put them (the dogs, not the children) into the car, drive to a motorway and throw them out of the window. 1046 Every animal rights organisation knows of tens of thousands of such incidents, and indeed we have just had some figures given from the government Back Benches. That being so, if the Government see this clause as a cynical means of obtaining the votes of genuine dog lovers, I can only suggest that they are barking up the wrong tree.
§ The Earl of Onslow
Did the rise in the cost of the dog licence in Northern Ireland have any effect on the treatment of dogs there?
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Lord Houghton of Sowerby
I am glad that the debate is livening up. The difference between a debate in this Chamber on animals and a debate on the affairs of human beings is that human beings can crowd into the galleries and listen to what we are saying, and sometimes interrupt what we are saying. However, when we are talking about animals they are absent from our midst. I think that we ought to bring them in. For this debate the steps of the Throne should be crowded with dogs. We could sit them all down, see whether they have been properly trained and ask them what they have to say. It would be an experience. A few years ago I gave an address in Worcester Cathedral on Animal Sunday. After I finished all the animals trooped in, headed by a donkey. They received a blessing. It seemed to make them happier, somehow.
Leaving that humorous vision aside, I feel that not only this government but previous governments have had for some time a kind of mental block on this subject. They have been astonishingly immovable on the matter. When I first came to the House in 1974, I said that I would devote myself to animal welfare because there were so many people to talk about the problems of human beings and so few to talk about the problems of animals. I would be one of the few. In due course when noble Lords met me they asked how my animals were doing. I thought that the time had come to take an interest in video recordings or homosexuality or other subjects which were plaguing the minds of people. However, animal welfare is still my abiding interest in this Chamber and I hope to see something done in this field as eventually after 10 years I saw something done in 1986 regarding experiments on laboratory animals. That was a great achievement.
Why is it that no government have done what is so frequently done in relation to other problems? I refer to getting those with interests around the table to see whether there is a common approach to a problem so that measures can be agreed which the Government can consider implementing to the extent that a change in the statute law is required. We have never had that opportunity.
I began an inquiry in 1976 on behalf of the Joint Advisory Committee on Pets in Society and produced the first comprehensive report on the dog problem for many years. While I was at it the Labour Government appointed an interdepartmental committee to do the same thing. Those two reports came together and there were remarkable similarities 1047 between the findings of them both. They both supported the retention of the dog licence fee as an indication of the stake which the dog owner was prepared to make in his companion animal and as a symbol of his personal interest in the welfare of animals.
However, I do not begin with the dog licence fee, although when one talks about dogs one nearly always gets on to the dog licence fee within the first few minutes. I start with the dog. It is the dog that is the problem. If one considers first of all how best to organise, manage and regulate the presence of the dog as a companion animal among our people, one sees that there are more dogs in human habitations than any other animal and that they are closer to human beings than any other animal. Certainly they are more numerous.
The dog in society is really part of the companionship of human beings. They are everywhere. They are in our homes and in other people's homes. We are inseparable. Some people make enormous sacrifices for their animals. Many people have lost their lives trying to save their dogs. It is quite moving to find that tenants of accommodation where dogs are forbidden will leave that accommodation rather than be parted from their dog. These are noble sentiments in human beings, yet the Government seem to be so indifferent in these matters.
When the reports came out they lay fallow for some time. One can understand that. It was 1977, a general election was approaching, and there was not much encouragement to do anything. Then the present Conservative Administration came to power in 1979 and inherited the problem. It has been the duty of this Government to attend to the matter throughout the whole of their period of office. They have had other priorities.
I understand about legislative priorities. Most governments have a legislation committee and a future legislation committee. The legislation committee deals with legislation of the Session. The future legislation committee deals with the business of the future. Ministers crowd around to claim time. They want a Bill. They have a Bill of some urgency or they have a Bill in the pipeline. It will be produced in due season. The planning of a whole Parliament must take place. I know the pushing and shoving that goes on between Ministers to get a place in the legislative programme. It is quite legitimate to have a claim on the time of Parliament for something which a Minister's department feels is desirable to bring forward. But nothing has happened to produce any legislation about dogs.
The Public Accounts Committee began to take critical notice of the dog licence fee remaining at its old level and becoming uneconomic to collect. It repeated the criticism that the system was absurd and that the present arrangement was neither a tax nor a fee but just a nuisance. So the Government have felt that it was easier to get rid of the licence fee and do nothing else than to do a great deal more and decide on a licence fee. That was the easy way out.
The proposal in the clause before us is not 1048 accompanied by any programme of dog control or regulation by local authorities. Nothing has been decided about what it should be like. Legislation is needed to implement some of the recommendations for local authorities to take powers which at the present time do not exist or are in the hands of the police. These matters have not been attended to. The Government have said, "Drop the licence fee and let local authorities find their own level", and presumably find their own money.
We know about the problems of local authority finance at the present time. We know all those difficulties. But we still have the dog problem. There is nothing more scandalous—and the position will become even worse—than to see pictures on television at Christmastime of the callous way in which people indulge their fancies in living animals and then want to throw them out within a few weeks because the children are tired of the animal, because it cannot be properly house-trained or because the children begin to make mischief with it. Something happens and out they go. If we neglect children, it is a crime. If we neglect a dog, it is not a crime unless there is cruelty to the animal.
There is a clause to abolish the licence fee before the Committee. We say that the licence fee should not be abolished until we have decided what else to do. This is the purpose of the debate. Will the Government for once in a way now tell us a little more honestly and comprehensively what they have in mind to do about the dog problem in future?
The people interested will be the dog societies—and there are plenty of them—the local authorities, the police and the environmentalists. All these people gave evidence both to me and to the interdepartmental committee. Out of the evidence to my informal inquiry and to the interdepartmental committee inquiry, came pretty well identical conclusions. If a conference was set up and we began to try to work something out, we might make some progress. The only occasion when consultation has taken place between the dog welfare interests and departments that I have known was when officials of the departments came along recently to discuss a proposed registration scheme. If there was a severe outbreak of rabies in the country it would change the whole attitude of the public towards the place of dogs in society. The public would be greatly scared and anxious if this country experienced rabies on the scale endemic in some Continental countries. Happily, we are clear of that. Care, discipline and observance of the rules keep us free. I appeal to the Government to be forthcoming and to say that there should be a round table conference to try to work out a scheme acceptable to the Government and agreeable to those who have to do a good deal of the work, the societies in particular.
I end on this note. As I have told noble Lords before, the Labour Government left the dog licence fee unaltered because at the time it was feared that many more dogs might be turned out on to the streets and somebody would have to deal with them or even destroy them. The people who destroy unwanted and stray dogs now are not the Government or local authorities but the voluntary societies, which are in business to stop cruelty to animals. It is the welfare 1049 element that is involved in this unhappy end to many thousands of dogs that either should never have been born or should be in the hands of loving people and enjoying a happy existence. If there were a strike of the voluntary societies and they said, "No more euthanasia here of your stray dogs. You must get rid of them yourself and, if there is undue cruelty, we shall prosecute you", war could be declared on cruel dog owners. One day there may be militants in the animal welfare movement, and one day perhaps I shall be one of them. Let us compel the country to face the dog issue more directly than it has done hitherto.
The problem can be averted if the Government will respond. We are not far apart. We all want to do something about dogs, we want to regulate their position in society and we want to do away with the nuisance that they constitute on pavements, in parks and in public places. We want dogs to have their proper place in society. This is possible. Indeed, Northern Ireland has shown how possible it is. They said that the real problem in Northern Ireland arose from dogs disorientated by the violence straying about in parks and killing sheep by the hundred. They said that it was the farmers in Northern Ireland who wanted the regulation of dogs. We have farmers in England too and we have different requirements in urban areas particularly. What is the element in Northern Ireland that has proved successful that would not succeed here?
I hope that the Government will consider this seriously. Let us bring an end to our differences and to the apathy of Government and the frustrations of animal societies and those interested in canine welfare. We may then make some progress. I hope that the Government will respond to the appeal in a forthcoming spirit.
§ 6.45 p.m.
§ Lord Harvington
I wish to say a word to cheer up the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, particularly in regard to his comment at the beginning of his speech about dogs and going to Church. Our dog goes to Church every Sunday and has done ever since he was a puppy. He causes no trouble and behaves himself extremely well.
I turn to a serious point. Some years ago I was chairman of the National Sheep Breeders of Great Britain. The anxiety that dogs caused us by worrying sheep was very great. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will realise that to abolish the dog licence does not exactly help that point. I shall doubtless support the Government, but I hope that something will be done. Having seen my noble friend the Secretary of State for Wales recently, I am sure that he would echo my every word. The worrying by dogs on sheep farms is great. Something ought to be done to strengthen the hands of the police and to ensure that the worrying by dogs and the spoiling and ruining of pedigree flocks is taken in hand.
§ Viscount Ridley
The late Lord Goddard, when he was Lord Chief Justice, used to tell a story of how he had before him in court a man accused of sexual relations with a dog. When in due course the chap was found guilty by the jury the Lord Chief Justice 1050 said, "I had great difficulty in deciding how to make the punishment fit the crime in this case". When asked what he finally decided to do, he said, "I fined him £10 and I endorsed his dog licence". I realise that that penalty will no longer be open to the courts if the clause is passed.
I hope that the clause is passed. I do not believe that any amount of licensing will have the slightest effect one way or the other on the awful things that dogs may not do or do in Church or out of it. Furthermore, a registration fee as suggested by other noble Lords would seem quite unenforceable. I should have thought that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will have quite enough trouble steering through Parliament a poll tax on humans without starting on a canine one.
§ Lord Carter
I am pleased to have the chance to support the amendment, and to explain why I added my name to it.
This matter is of great importance to farmers, and has been made clear. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, referred to the problem of farming on the edge of a town. If I may declare an interest, we farm right up to the edge of the gardens of a town in the Midlands. As one would expect, we are unable to keep any livestock anywhere on at least half the farm, which is something of the order of 300 acres. We are pestered by stray dogs running across the farm and problems are caused to other farms. in the neighbourhood by sheep worrying, and so on. Any system of control that would help to reduce the problem must be supported. It seems to me that the registration of dogs is sensible, and a compromise needs to be worked out so that it should be self-financing if the fee is fixed at a reasonable level. That will provide the opportunity for an adequate dog warden service. Registration is designed to stop irresponsible ownership of dogs.
Another area which I should mention is guide dogs. Here I declare an interest because a member of my family works with a guide dog. It would be easy to exempt guide dogs from the proposed registration system because all guide dogs in the country, as I am sure Members of the Committee know, are registered already. All that would need to happen is that they would be exempt from the proposed licence fee.
The other section of the community which has been mentioned is one to which I should perhaps refer again, the postal delivery workers. I was surprised to see that within 10 years the number of postal delivery workers who have been bitten has increased by more than one-third. In 1976–77 there were just under 4,000 attacks; in the year to March 1986 the figure was almost 6,000. Sadly one in 20 postal delivery staff can now expect to be bitten by a dog in the course of work. I think all the speakers—
§ The Earl of Onslow
Perhaps I may ask the noble Lord, if he will permit me, whether they are licensed or unlicensed dogs which bite postmen?
§ Lord Carter
Interventions become more and more eccentric as the debate goes on. With the notable exception of the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, all the 1051 speakers in this debate have impressed on the Government that they should reconsider their view. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, indicated at Second Reading that the Government were sympathetic to this problem. I hope very much indeed that the Minister will accept the arguments which have been put.
§ Baroness Blatch
There is no doubt that all the problems outlined by most of the speakers this evening are very real. What we have to discuss tonight is whether the licence, be it the continuation of the licence at its present rate or putting it up to £5 or £10, will sweep away all those problems. It is my view that it will never sweep them away. We shall still see cruelty to dogs, sadly, which is a punishable offence anyway.
Also determining the ownership of dogs is a problem. I come from a part of the country where dogs are born in back alleys and in the wild and they roam around estates with no owner. Who becomes the owner of those dogs? They are fed at back-doors by various people and kept alive in that way. That is a problem which will not be resolved by continuing the dog licence.
The other matter which bothers me about the suggestion to increase the licence fee is this. I am afraid that there is a more cynical side of me. I do not believe that a £5 fee is economic. I am not even certain that £10 is sufficient to tackle some of the problems which have been outlined during this debate.
We shall start with a plea, I suspect, from the other side of the Committee about exemptions: exemptions for old people, for people on social security, for one-parent families and so on. Before we know where we are we shall have a layer of bureaucracy across the country trying to administer a tax which will either have to go up or enjoy a higher and higher degree of subsidy. Therefore I believe that in this sense the licence fee is unworkable and still does not solve the problem.
There has been brought to my notice only today the case of a rather poor person in Oxfordshire who was found guilty not very long ago of not having a licence for his dog. He refused to pay the fine and was imprisoned. Such was the state of this gentleman in prison that the prison warders themselves, I understand, clubbed together to pay the fine for him. They thought how absurd it was to see this gentleman in prison alongside other criminals. Is that what you want to see if people default on paying the £5 or £10 licence fee, or 37½p for the licence? I am not so sure that it is.
We may all salve our consciences and feel good if we go away from here tonight having said that there will be a licence or that the licence will continue and it will be £5, £10, £15 or whatever is the going rate. What is the economic rate for hiring, first of all, the bureaucrats and, secondly, the wardens, the people to identify who is the owner of a dog in a house? Who exactly is the owner of a dog in a house—the son, the daughter, the mother, the father—when it comes to taking action?
My last point is on priorities. I agree with much of 1052 what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. Cruelty to children is criminal and people jump up and down about that. Perhaps when it involves dogs people do not get so excited. I am not so sure that that entirely holds true, but there might be an outcry if very large sums of money and precious resources in this country were suddenly to be switched to this issue when we have much more pressing problems with drugs, alcohol abuse, cruelty to children and so on. All those areas are pressing for more resources and more attention from our police. What would people say if they were suddenly to switch their attention to this issue?
This does not entirely sweep away or answer the difficulties of cruelty to animals or of people unwisely buying dogs as presents at Christmastime for their children; a week later they abandon them. I am not convinced by anything which has been said tonight that paying £5 or £10 to purchase a dog will somehow make people more responsible. I am very bothered about a solution to the problem using this method. What we should be doing here and now is supporting the Government in their abolition of the licence.
Then there are those in local areas who have a particular solution. I am reminded of a holiday I had in Washington about eight or nine years ago when I found that stray dogs were rounded up by the local authority. They had to be claimed from the compound; if they were not claimed, they were put down. That might sound pretty cruel, but it made families who had dogs and cared about them very much more responsible about whether they were going to let them stray untagged and without care.
I hope the Committee will reject this amendment and support the Government in their attempt to tackle the problem. Then it will be for local authorities to determine a solution for their areas.
§ Lord Gisborough
I should like to support the many points made in favour of the amendment. I shall try not to repeat too many of them. I should like to see some form of registration, because, referring back to the sheep killed by dogs, most of the dogs do not have collars and therefore cannot be identified. I believe that a registration system would help.
There is also an increasing number of illegal dog fights. Registration could be a help in trying to trace the owners where these fights are found to be happening. Pedigree protection is another point which registration would help. I remember years and years ago going with a friend to buy a beagle. When we asked for the pedigree, the chap who was selling the dog said that we could have any pedigree we liked as long as we told him what we wanted. Registration must help in that way.
Another point is that if rabies should ever come to the country a system of registration could be of value in trying to combat it. In Newcastle I understand that there are a considerable number of strays and attacks on children. We have heard of the stray problem from many people, and many towns look forward to receiving revenues from realistic dog licences so that they can employ a proper dog warden system, which would be the alternative to registration. If the Government do not wish to introduce registration or increased dog licences, they should make certain that 1053 the legislation relating to the use of collars is enforced with bigger fines for those people who ignore the law. They should encourage the spaying of bitches. I do not know how they could do that but if one is to avoid an outbreak of unwanted dogs, something drastic must be done. Possibly the answer is to increase the licence to £10, to be paid on acquisition. Apart from funding the dog wardening system, this would make owners think twice before they bought a dog. When they had it they would respect it more if they had to pay a proper fee.
We should bear in mind that many of the worst cases are not bought dogs, but mongrels which are picked up or given to people. That would be an initial step towards reducing the dog population. Of course inevitably there would be exceptions and we can think of many of those.
Many organisations would support a registration scheme including the RSPCA, the vets, the Pets Society, the Country Landowners' Association and the NFU. They would all help to try to produce a better dog policy. The present licensing system is undoubtedly absurd. I hope that the Minister will at least come forward with some new suggestions for strengthening the present system or will at least do something if he wishes to avoid waiting for the amendment. The licensing scheme in Northern Ireland seems to have been successful; why could we not have it here?
§ 7 p.m.
§ Baroness Strange
I wish to say a few words in favour of abolishing the dog licence altogether. It is so wonderful to think of abolishing any kind of tax, could it not just stay that way? I must admit that I have an interest to declare as I am the owner of a dog which came from a police pound. I found her on the last day of her life when she was about to be put down. She is very dear to me and I have had her for eight or nine years. Dogs are only kept for one week in police pounds.
If an enormous licence has to be paid to keep a dog poor people will not be able to afford it. Very often old age pensioners and poorer people rely very much on the friendship and love of their dogs and this measure would bring great deprivation to them. The dog has been man's oldest friend. As regards stray dogs no one would pay their licences anyway because either they would be wild stray dogs or they would belong to people who did not pay licences.
I once wrote a little poem in a child alphabet which went as follows:A for Anubis, the dog of the tomb,Who gazes, prick-eared through the oncoming gloom,O Ancient Egyptians, how wise that you knew,Death has no fears when your dog waits for you".
§ Lord Stodart of Leaston
It is 25 years ago that I went as a very junior Minister to the Scottish Office and some 15 years ago that I went to the Ministry of Agriculture. On each occasion as I think is the habit—many other Members of the Committee will no doubt be able to confirm this—on my first day in those places the Permanent Secretary, the Sir Humphrey of his day, said, "How do you do? How nice to have you." Then on each occasion he said to 1054 the Private Secretary as he went out, "Get his in-tray filled quickly."
Rather curiously on each occasion into my in-tray, both in 1963 and in 1970, came a paper on dog licences. Therefore, I feel that I must congratulate the Government for at least biting on this bullet, but I also wish to say that I do not propose to support them.
§ Lord Crickhowell
I wish to bring the Committee a little nearer to the present and to tell my noble friend who has just sat down that the practice of bringing to the Government papers on dog licences has not grown less as time has passed. I have lost count of the number of occasions when Cabinet committees were convened and busy Ministers gathered to discuss interminably this particular proposition.
The truth of the matter is that the Government have now put forward their present proposal because all those interminable discussions by successive governments over very many years—we are dealing with one of the oldest taxes in existence—have failed to deal with the evils that have been described to the Committee today. I listened to the description of the evils but I have not heard any convincing argument put forward for the suggestion that increasing this tax and continuing the licence will actually get rid of the evils. It is not the cost or the payment that is the problem; it is of course the enforcement of the provision.
We heard from one Member of the Committee that the number of dogs biting postmen had increased. Those I imagine are about the most easily identified dogs of all. Most postmen actually get bitten on front doorsteps and presumably it is perfectly easy to identify the owners of the dog. Yet apparently nothing has been done to deal with that problem.
At present we have a law which specifies that dog owners must attach their name and address to the dog's collar. That is the law that we find so difficult to enforce at present. The fact that we pay 37 pence or £10 for the licence does not make the smallest difference to the difficulty of actually policing the requirement of having a name and address on a dog's collar.
My name was called in aid as one who would be concerned about sheep worrying and animal worrying in the countryside. I certainly am concerned about that, but I fear that the proposal that is before the Committee in the form of this amendment will not do very much to alleviate that particular evil. The reality of the issue is that we must find a method of enforcing the law and not simply put up a tax.
It has been suggested that the payment of a £10 licence fee will make people care more for their dogs and stop them buying dogs which they do not intend to care for. I find that argument very unconvincing. The parent who goes into a shop at Christmas and pays for a dog will be just as likely to pay for the licence fee at that particular moment. But there will be a great many other owners who, when it comes to renewing the licence fee—or those same families later on when they are short of money and they have to find another £10 for the licence fee—far from caring for the dogs will be the first to throw them out. Far from reducing the number of strays I fear that we 1055 shall increase the number of strays and that we shall find a very large number thrown out of houses and adding to our difficulties.
The truth of the matter is that successive governments have wrestled with this problem. They have always been reluctant to increase the licence fee because of the hardship that it will cause to many and because once one gets into the business of exemptions one enters a jungle and a maze from which there is no escape. It is through having considered it for so long and so often that the Government have come to the conclusion that this is not an efficient and effective way either of collecting a tax or of protecting dogs. Moreover it is because of that consideration that they have I am sure reached the right decision in deciding to do away with it altogether.
§ Lord Monson
Does not the noble Lord agree that anyone who can afford to buy dog food can afford to buy a £10 dog licence?
§ Lord Hesketh
I am sure that nearly all the Members of the Committee were expecting me to be collating a very short list of Members of the Committee who supported the Government. In fact I was surprised that the list became longer after a ringing endorsement from the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, and the noble Earl, Lord Onslow. Then I thought that I was going to be able to add the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stodart of Leaston, to my list but unfortunately he cruelly let me down at the last hurdle.
The discussion on this clause has demonstrated, as did the debate on Second Reading, the strength of feeling of the Committee when any issue comes before us which might be held to affect the control or welfare of animals. When the issue concerns dogs—which have such a special place in our society—that feeling and concern is even more marked. And in this—I would concede—the Committee has reflected the feelings of the overwhelming majority of the population of this country.
But, if I may, I would suggest to the Committee that in considering the nature and purpose of this clause, strong feelings—however commendable and worthy in themselves—are not necessarily the best guide towards reaching the right conclusion. We should look at what the clause says and what it does. Perhaps more important—and I think many of those who have spoken today would agree—we should look at what it does not do.
The clause before the Committee together with the repeals in Part IV of Schedule 6 to the Bill, would abolish the dog licence, first introduced in this country in 1796 as a tax on dogs. It also sets out as a consequence the circumstances in which a person shall be presumed to keep a dog for the purpose of Section I of the Protection of Animals (Cruelty to Dogs) Act 1933. That is necessary because the present definition refers to licensing. The need for the consequential amendment to the 1933 Act illustrates what I believe to be a fundamental misunderstanding by many people.
1056 It is the hard, irrefutable fact that the dog licence does not contribute to or affect the very wide range of legislation which covers dog control and welfare. A subject often referred to this evening—by my noble friends Lord Massereene and Ferrard, Lord Dulverton and Lord Harvington and by the noble Lords, Lord Mackie and Lord Carter—was livestock and sheep. Even with comprehensive legislation to afford protection for farmers there are still terrible problems in that area.
I feel that my noble friend Lord Crickhowell put his finger on the problem of enforcement. Abolition will not weaken in any way the requirement, for example, that dogs should wear collars and discs showing the owner's name and address when in a public place. However, the noble Lord, Lord Irving, dismissed that on the grounds of complications involving multiple occupation of residences. I am not entirely sure that I accept that argument. The clause will not affect the powers of local authorities to introduce dog control measures where they believe that to be appropriate. It will not affect the law relating to livestock worrying. I could go on. However, I believe that I have said enough to establish my point.
In putting the clause forward the Government are simply seeking to remove an unnecessary, inefficient and expensive anomaly—no more and no less. Members of the Committee who oppose our proposal would, I am sure, concede those points. They are indeed irrefutable. The case against seems to me to be based upon a number of assumptions, and I hope I shall be able to deal with those.
First, there is the assumption that the range of legislation to which I have referred should be reviewed and perhaps modified. I am by no means sure that those who hold that view are agreed upon what modifications are necessary. However, I must stress the obvious point once again. The Bill being considered by the Committee does not purport to amend the laws on dog control and does not do so. Whether or not there is a case for a major review—and I am doubtful that it is necessary—this is hardly the occasion for it, although in accordance with the commitment given in another place we have considered extending to all local authorities the powers to deal with strays currently reserved to the police and a limited number of authorities. As my noble friend Lord Belstead indicated during our debate on Second Reading, the need or otherwise for such a review should not stand in the way of the minor and realistic piece of good housekeeping which we are now proposing. Perhaps—here I speculate —the argument is that the laws are fine but that they are not properly enforced and the conclusion is drawn that a higher licence fee would provide the resources for better enforcement.
That is the second assumption that I should like to examine. It would of course be possible to increase the current licence fee of 37p per year. Such an increase could be made by an order under Section 36 of the Local Government Act 1966. That would certainly meet the criticism made by the Public Accounts Committee that the tax costs more to administer than it yields. But the Committee may wish to consider further possible consequences.
1057 Many—perhaps most—responsible dog owners would be very willing to pay £5 or £10 for a licence. It is indeed true that even that would be a small amount to pay compared with the total cost of keeping a dog. However, those responsible owners are not the problem. They are unlikely to cause suffering to their pets or allow them to stray or otherwise become a nusiance.
But what of the other less responsible owners who were mentioned by my noble friends Lord Ridley and Lady Blatch? They are hardly likely to be willing or take the trouble to pay an increased fee. Even if they did so. it would not make them any more responsible in their behaviour. The result is likely to be more costs for the responsible and a tendency towards an even higher level of evasion by the irresponsible. Moreover, some people have expressed concern that that course will lead to an even greater number of strays if dogs are abandoned to avoid the tax.
Those who advocate a higher fee accept that there would need to be exemptions for the blind, for the elderly, for those with working dogs and perhaps for those in receipt of social security payments. The potential list could be extended. The complexities of the system would become very great and it would be correspondingly more costly to operate.
If the fee were to be increased, how should the net revenue of such a scheme be used? Should it be used to enforce dog control measures? But why should that service be financed by a particular tax? Why should the reponsible pay to deal with the actions of the irresponsible? Should the proceeds be devoted to dog control purposes or should they simply go into the general revenues of local authorities? On the latter point. I simply observe that problems caused by dogs vary from locality to locality.
As regards localities, a number of Members of the Committee mentioned Northern Ireland, including the noble Lords. Lord Irving, Lord Monson and Lord Houghton of Sowerby and my noble friend Lord Massereene and Ferrard. Since 1983 there has been a licence fee of £5 in Northern Ireland. There has also been a mandatory dog licensing scheme operated by district councils. Although the general view is that the arrangements have worked well, I understand that the number of stray dogs impounded by the authorities has remained roughly constant. However, the special arrangements for Northern Ireland were introduced against a background of problems which was recognised by the report of the working party on dogs in 1976 as being more serious than those in Great Britain.
I have already referred to the fact that problems arising from dogs vary from area to area. I remind the Committee that there is comparatively a very high level of livestock in the Province. Thus there is no reason why those provisions should be regarded as a precedent. The Government have put forward what they consider to be the right solution for Great Britain.
The noble Lord, Lord Carter, and my noble friend Lord Crickhowell mentioned postmen who are bitten by dogs. I am sure that the Members of the Committee will be interested to know that one of the Ministers of the department met yesterday with 1058 representatives of the union of communication workers to discuss that very problem. Perhaps the most galling fact about postmen who have been bitten is that the first line of defence after a complaint is made is a letter which is written by the postmaster pointing out the complaint to the householder. The same postman who has been bitten must deliver the letter.
§ Lord Hesketh
The Committee may also reflect on the fact that governments of all persuasions have—except for the abolition of the ½p—chosen to leave the licence fee unchanged since 1878. I suspect that they have been influenced by the considerations to which I have referred.
Finally I should like to deal with the question of registration of dogs, which it is assumed will contribute greatly towards solving the problem of dog control. That matter was brought to the attention of the Committee by the noble Lord, Lord Somers, and my noble friend Lord Gisborough. A national register of all dogs has been advocated, with a unique identity number for each dog—a Swansea licence centre for dogs, as the idea has been dubbed. One version suggests that the identity number would then be put on the animal's identity disc, which, I remind the Committee, must already be worn in a public place. The purpose of that defeats me. If the dog has a disc with the owner's name and address, why have a number? And if it is a stray without a disc, what is the value of the register?
The more sophisticated version of the idea, with commendable logic, recognises that weakness in the proposal and proposes that dogs should be permanently identified with their unique number, either by being tattooed or being implanted with a microchip from which the unique number could be read. I question whether such a proposal would be acceptable to the population at large, particularly when the implications are thought through. The creation of the database, the design of computer systems with a network of terminals throughout the country to input data, the requirement for people to notify the central record of changes of address and dog ownership, the procedures for dealing with queries—all those things add up to a massive and expensive bureaucracy. Costs, including the costs of tattooing or implanting would be very considerable, although no costs have been estimated by the proponents of the schemes. I doubt whether there could be exemptions for more needy owners.
Above all we should consider how such a scheme would be enforced. Should an owner not register his dog and choose not to have his dog tattooed or implanted, what would happen? Would dog wardens be empowered to stop an owner who was peaceably taking his or her dog for a walk in order to check that the animal had been tattooed or implanted?
I have said nearly enough. There are just two more points that I wish to make. The first is that at the start of the debate the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, asked why, if the Government can send a fleet 8,000 miles, they cannot deal with the problem of dogs. Personally I strongly feel that it is far easier 1059 to direct a fleet to sail 8,000 miles than to try to deal with the problem of dogs.
The noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, asked whether the Government would listen. Of course the Government will listen. The difficulty is that the problem itself is very hard to tackle. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, in a way summed up the problem by saying that a dog and a man have a very special and unique relationship and that the problem is not the licence but the dog. I entirely agree with him. Many solutions have been proposed and discussed in this debate but clearly something that has not been given a resounding endorsement is the dog licence itself.
I have said enough. It remains only for me to remind the Committee of what I believe are the three salient points. We have a ridiculous, unenforceable tax which it is neither necessary nor sensible to. increase. The tax does not relate to dog control Law nor affect it. As I have tried to explain, the registration of dogs would be complex, expensive and, I believe, equally unenforceable. The sensible conclusion is to carry out this minor piece of housekeeping which the Government propose.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
I wonder whether the noble Lord would give us a further explanation of one phrase in his speech; namely, when he said that the Government have the right solution for Great Britain. What is it?
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
As my name is on this amendment perhaps I may suggest to the Committee and to my noble friend Lord Hesketh in particular some answers to the points raised in defence of the Government's proposed abolition of the dog licence, which in my opinion hold very little water indeed.
The first point was raised by my noble kinsman Lord Onslow, who asked, "Why not register cats?" That is a stupid response to the problem. It is like saying that cats and dogs are the same. It is like saying that he and I are the same—but I shall not go down that road any further. It is the sort of remark that I might make.
Secondly, the point was made by my noble friend Lady Blatch, who seems to have given up the hunt—no, I now see that she has returned to the chase—and by my noble friend Lord Hesketh that there is a distinction to be made between dog control and welfare on the one hand and licensing on the other, and that the two aspects are different in law and in practice. That is nonsense. The practice of welfare cannot work without control, and control costs money. The next amendment, Amendment No. 124A, that we have suggested—and it is only a suggestion—would provide that money.
There is a growing tendency at the moment for the Government to ask local authorities—and indeed health authorities—to provide the same services as hitherto but to take away the funding. That was a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, and my noble friend Lady Blatch. The Government's attitude to dogs is entirely similar. Moreover, when it comes to the law, why should one make the 1060 unfortunate, overworked police responsible for catching and collecting strays? Amendment No. 124A would relieve the police of that burden—or do the Government want to keep the police occupied, say, by bringing in stray dogs from my farm?
The next point was made by my noble friends Lord Crickhowell and Lord Ridley as well as by my noble friend on the Front Bench and concerned enforcement. It is said that owners will not pay. They will pay because there will be enough money to enforce payment. When the licence only costs 37½p no one bothers to enforce payment—it does not pay to do so. The argument that owners will not pay is a ridiculous one. Its weakness was clearly pointed to by the noble Lord, Lord Monson; namely, why not apply the same principle to the television licence? It is about as sound as that.
The next point was also made by my noble friends Lord Crickhowell and Lady Blatch, who raised the question of bureaucracy. Have the Government considered having a once-and-for-all fee with the name of the owner of the dog on the document? That would cut down a great deal of bureaucracy and probably stop—though perhaps not entirely—the practice of buying a dog at Christmas and throwing it away at Easter.
The Government have made much play with the fact that, despite their intention to do away with the dog licence, the laws relating to the control of dogs and the nuisance that dogs cause—and indeed laws relating to the cruelty that can be inflicted upon them—will nonetheless remain. That point was made by my noble friend Lord Belstead at Second Reading. He also made the point that he would respect any views that noble Lords might put forward which indicated that the system of such control is in need of overhaul. It is certainly in need of overhaul, as my noble friend Lord Selkirk made clear. That is the crunch point: the system needs overhauling.
While I entirely agree that a 7/6d licence is totally out of date, in these two amendments we suggest a method of dealing with the problem. I very much hope that the Government will listen rather than force the Committee to make them listen by producing a detailed scheme at Report stage. If they do that, at least this matter will not have to go to Cabinet. Like the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, I hasten to add that at this stage we are only asking the Government why they wish to abolish the licence, and pointing out a possible alternative course of action the details of which will be spelled out at Report stage if the Government cannot make up their mind to come up with something better.
§ Lord Irving of Dartford
I know that the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, has in practice wound up the debate. I want to confine my remarks to one or two comments because I do not wish to keep the Committee away from dinner.
I am bound to say that I have seldom heard a more negative reply to a debate, which indeed was not as sensitive as the reply given by the noble Lord the Leader of the House at Second Reading. It contained not one constructive contribution toward dealing with the enormous problems of dogs which were revealed by many Members on both sides of the Committee tonight.
1061 As regards the question of Northern Ireland there appears to be a contradiction. On their own reckoning the Government have said that the system works well in Northern Ireland. The organisations which are most clearly in touch with the problem in Northern Ireland say that it is more than that. It has been very successful indeed. So there is a contradiction. The Government are prepared to operate the system in Northern Ireland but not to operate it here.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said that that will solve none of those problems. Of course it will not solve all of them, but, in providing a dog warden service, it is clear that one of the responsibilities of dog wardens would be to educate people in responsible dog ownership. In time, educating people in schools and other places will help to bring about an entirely different state of affairs. Tonight there has been revealed the scandalous situation that 1,000 dogs are being destroyed every day.
I do not believe that the noble Lord answered the question about identity of ownership. True and proper identification will enable action to be taken under the law in respect of the worrying of livestock, the attacks on individuals that were mentioned, the fouling of pavements, which is aesthetically unacceptable to most people including many dog owners, and indeed cruelty to animals themselves. Those problems cannot be dealt with unless there is a clear indication of the identity of the owner of the dog. It would be unfortunate not to test the feeling of the Committee tonight. I must therefore press the issue and put it to the vote.
§ 7.29 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether Clause 34 shall stand part of the Bill?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 95; Not-Contents, 78.1062
|DIVISION NO. 2|
|Ampthill, L.||Elliot of Harwood, B.|
|Arran, E.||Elliott of Morpeth, L.|
|Auckland, L.||Ferrers, E.|
|Beaverbrook, L.||Forester, L.|
|Belhaven and Stenton, L.||Fortescue, E.|
|Beloff, L.||Glenarthur, L.|
|Belstead, L.||Gray of Contin, L.|
|Blatch, B.||Gridley, L.|
|Bolton, L.||Grimthorpe, L.|
|Borthwick, L.||Harvington, L.|
|Boyd-Carpenter, L.||Havers, L.|
|Butterworth, L.||Henley, L.|
|Caithness, E.||Hesketh, L.|
|Campbell of Croy, L.||Hives, L.|
|Carlisle of Bucklow, L.||Home of the Hirsel, L.|
|Carnock, L.||Hylton-Foster, B.|
|Coleraine, L.||Johnston of Rockport, L.|
|Colnbrook, L.||Kenilworth, L.|
|Constantine of Stanmore, L.||Kimball, L.|
|Cottesloe, L.||Kitchener, E.|
|Cowley, E.||Knutsford, V.|
|Craigmyle, L.||Long, V.|
|Crickhowell, L.||Lyell, L.|
|Croft, L.||McFadzean, L.|
|Davidson, V. [Teller.]||Malmesbury, E.|
|Denham, L. [Teller.]||Margadale, L.|
|Dundee, E.||Marley, L.|
|Elibank, L.||Marshall of Leeds, L.|
|Merrivale, L.||Sanderson of Bowden, L.|
|Mersey, V.||Sandford, L.|
|Milverton, L.||Sherfield, L.|
|Monk Bretton, L.||Skelmersdale, L.|
|Mottistone, L.||Stanley of Alderley, L.|
|Moyne, L.||Stockton, E.|
|Munster, E.||Strange, B.|
|Murton of Lindisfarne, L.||Swansea, L.|
|Nelson, E.||Swinfen, L.|
|Norfolk, D.||Swinton, E.|
|Onslow, E.||Thomas of Gwydir, L.|
|Oxfuird, V.||Trafford, L.|
|Pym, L.||Trumpington, B.|
|Reay, L.||Ullswater, V.|
|Renton, L.||Vaux of Harrowden, L.|
|Ridley, V.||Ward of Witley, V.|
|Rippon of Hexham, L.||Windlesham, L.|
|Rochdale, V.||Winterbottom, L.|
|St. Aldwyn, E.||Wynford, L.|
|Airedale, L.||Kilbracken, L.|
|Allenby of Megiddo, V.||Kinloss, Ly.|
|Barnett, L.||Listowel, E.|
|Beaumont of Whitley, L.||McCarthy, L.|
|Blease, L.||McIntosh of Haringey, L.|
|Brooks of Tremorfa, L.||Mackie of Benshie, L.|
|Burton, L.||McNair, L.|
|Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L.||Mason of Barnsley, L.|
|Carnarvon, E.||Massereene and Ferrard, V.|
|Carter, L.||Meston, L.|
|Cledwyn of Penrhos, L.||Monkswell, L.|
|Cocks of Hartcliffe, L.||Monson, L.|
|Colwyn, L.||Morton of Shuna, L.|
|Craigavon, V.||Mountevans, L.|
|Davies of Penrhys, L.||Murray of Epping Forest, L.|
|Dean of Beswick, L.||Nicol, B. [Teller.]|
|Dulverton, L.||Northfield, L.|
|Ellenborough, L.||Parry, L.|
|Elwyn-Jones, L.||Phillips, B.|
|Ennals, L.||Pitt of Hampstead, L.|
|Ezra, L.||Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L. [Teller.]|
|Feversham, L.||Prys-Davies, L.|
|Gainsborough, E.||Raglan, L.|
|Gallacher, L.||Ritchie of Dundee, L.|
|Galpern, L.||Robson of Kiddington, B.|
|Gisborough, L.||Savile, L.|
|Graham of Edmonton, L.||Seear, B.|
|Grey, E.||Selkirk, E.|
|Hampton, L.||Somers, L.|
|Hanworth, V.||Stodart of Leaston, L.|
|Harris of Greenwich, L.||Stoddart of Swindon, L.|
|Hatch of Lusby, L.||Strabolgi, L.|
|Henderson of Brompton, L.||Tordoff, L.|
|Houghton of Sowerby, L.||Underhill, L.|
|Hylton, L.||Williams of Elvel, L.|
|Irving of Dartford, L.||Winchilsea and Nottingham, E.|
|Jeger, B.||Winstanley, L.|
|Kearton, L.||Wise, L.|
§ Resolved in the affirmative, and clause agreed to accordingly.
§ 7.37 p.m.
§ [Amendments Nos. 124A to 126 not moved.]
Lord Dean of Beswick moved Amendment No 126A:
After Clause 34, insert the following new clause;
§ ("Planning control.
- (a) a binding contract for the development had been entered into by a development corporation, before the transfer date applicable to that development corporation; or
- (b) a development corporation had disposed of the land before that transfer date.
§ (2) In this section, 'transfer date' shall mean the date specified in the order made in respect of the development corporation by the Secretary of State under section 41(1) of the New Towns Act 1981.")
§ The noble Lord said: I realise that we have reached the appointed hour for dinner. I shall therefore be as brief as possible. The Town and Country Planning (New Towns) Special Development (Amendment) Order 1985 keeps intact planning consents given to new town development corporations under Section 7(1) of the New Towns Act 1981 by conferring them upon the successor body, the Commission for New Towns. Previously the planning consents became void on the demise of the developing corporation. The order also enables the commission to pass on these consents to other developers, and these arrangements apply in all new town areas where development corporations are wound up after the coming into force of the order—that is, 15th November 1985.
§ The objections to the order are that it represents a significant diminution of new town local authorities' planning powers and that it excludes the interests of local people who would otherwise have an opportunity to participate in the planning process. Prior to the introduction of the order it had been thought that all approvals for development under section 7(1) which had not been acted upon by the development corporation would effectively lapse on their abolition. However, the order perpetuates these consents indefinitely and the local district council is unable to control the development of land as had been anticipated. Thus the order enables the commission to operate as its own planning authority and reduces the role of the local authority to that of a consultee. It is worth emphasising that affected districts had every expectation of assuming the role of planning authority; an expectation encouraged by the Government's constant reference to their desire for new town local authorities to be "normalised".
§ The order ensures that the development of land in new towns remains outside the normal planning process. Outside new towns the development of land is controlled in principle by a structure plan, approved by the Secretary of State; by a local plan adopted after public participation and complying with the structure plan and by planning decisions made in public by elected representatives on the basis of publicly-known applications and granted subject to appropriate conditions. It is argued that the specialness of new towns ceases with the wind up of the development corporations and therefore so should special restrictions on the normal freedom of the public and their elected representatives to control the development of their area in accordance with current policies and circumstances.
§ The Commission for New Towns is also an inappropriate body to make decisions on planning matters, particularly given the broad nature of the approvals which the Secretary of State had given to development corporations under Section 7(1) which covers large areas of land with a variety of final uses. Unlike the development corporation—which has wide terms of reference primarily aimed at the 1064 creation of a balanced and viable community and a local board to ensure that local interests are not overridden—the commission has a narrow brief geared to the managing and selling of property built by the former development corporation. It also has no local board and normally has only a small local presence.
§ In short, the special new town planning regime should come to an end with the winding up of the development corporation and that from then on the development of land should be subject to the usual planning process.
§ The amendment would restore the situation that existed prior to the 1985 order. It is a commendable amendment. I hope that the Minister will give it serious consideration because it gives power back to the local authorities. That is not a lot to ask for bearing in mind the powers that the Bill will remove from them when it becomes an Act. I beg to move.
The Earl of Caithness
The effect of the amendment so ably moved by the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, would be to remove powers given to the Commission for the New Towns in 1985 under an amendment to the Special Development Order 1977 which provides a framework for planning approvals for new towns. Under Section 7(1) of the New Towns Act 1981, the Secretary of State may, after due consultation, approve development proposals put forward by new town development corporations. Prior to 1985 whenever the Commission for the New Towns took over the remaining responsibilities of a development corporation, it was unable to carry through outstanding development schemes which had already received Section 7(1) approval apart from those schemes which were already in progress, where binding commitments had been entered into or where the development corporation had disposed of the land prior to the transfer date. This seriously restricted the ability of the commission to complete the task of rapidly and effectively rounding off development in the towns it inherited.
The Government therefore concluded in 1985 that the commission should be given the power to inherit and carry through Section 7(1) approvals obtained by former development corporations. This restored to the commission powers which it had previously held prior to 1977.
I am aware that there has been some local authority opposition to this extension of the commission's power. In our view, the arguments in favour of the extension remain valid. It is particularly important to ensure that, as the development of a new town comes to an end, the confidence of investors in the continuing availability of land for development, including housing, is maintained. It is also essential to safeguard public investment in infrastructure which would not be fully utilised if developments, which had been previously approved, did not go ahead.
We do not accept the view that the Commission for New Towns is an inappropriate body to exercise full power. It will be implementing developments previously drawn up by the development corporation and approved by the Secretary of State. There is no reason to think that the commission, in exercising 1065 these powers, will have any less regard to the interests of the local community than the former development corporation. The effect of the amendment would be seriously to impede the process of rounding off developments in the new towns and I hope that the Committee will reject the amendment.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
I shall be very brief because I am sure we shall all benefit from an earlier night than we have been having recently. I do not think that the answer is satisfactory. If I cast my mind back, local authorities that had new towns within their areas were always led to believe (and it has never been denied) that they would eventually assume the powers of the new town authorities.
I do not know whether the Minister will answer me now or whether he will think about it at a later stage; but he says that the powers were given back to the new commission. Can he tell those few Members of the Committee present when he expects the necessity for those powers to be withdrawn and placed with the local authority? That would be nothing but an interminable recipe for conflict. I believe that as time passes the friction will become worse because people who arc elected at local level to deal with such matters as planning in their area will expect to be allowed to get on with the job. If the Minister tells us that it is not a permanent situation—that the local authorities can live with some hope that they will be given the total planning responsibilities for their areas that would be well received; and the Government's intentions, too, would be well received.
The Earl of Caithness
The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick. raises an important point. I do not necessarily agree with him; but before I comment more fully, this is something that I should like to consider in a little more detail and I shall write to the noble Lord.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
On that basis, I shall withdraw the amendment. However, I give notice that if the answer is not satisfactory to the areas involved I shall probably come back at a later stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Remaining clauses agreed to.
§ Schedule 6 [Repeals]:
§ [Amendment No. 126B not moved.]
§ Schedule 6 agreed to.
§ House resumed: Bill reported with amendments.