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New Clause 3

Volume 23: debated on Tuesday 4 May 1982

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Appointment Of Committees

In the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, after subsection (5) of section 57 (which governs the appointment of committees), there shall be inserted the following subsection:

'(b) In appointing a committee under subsection (1)(a) above the authority shall have regard to the qualifications of those members appointed and to the composition of the authority.'."

Brought up, and read the First time.

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The principle of the new clause is simply that after a democratic election has taken place the rights of Opposition parties should be protected and the composition of committees should reflect as far as possible the composition of the council concerned. In short, majority parties should not act as though minority parties in opposition did not exist by excluding them from committees.

The new clause does not apply in three sets of circumstances. First, it does not apply to policy and resources committees, because they are advisory committees and differ from others in certain respects. Secondly, it cannot apply to the majority where the majority of councillors are independents because it would not be possible to resolve what would or would not be representative. Thirdly, it does not apply to sub-committees.

The hon. Gentleman has described three sets of circumstances in which the new clause would not apply. Where are those exclusions provided for in the new clause? My understanding of the new clause may be deficient, but I certainly cannot see how all those exclusions are covered.

The new clause is drafted in such a way that it does not cover those three sets of circumstances, but it most certainly covers circumstances in which a council deliberately excludes minority parties when appointing a committee.

No. I have answered the hon. Gentleman's question. I must continue. The clause is drafted in such a way that it does not cover those three sets of circumstances.


In at least one council in Scotland that has attracted public attention, when appointing a committee—for instance, the housing committee—to exercise power on behalf of the full council, Kirkcaldy district council did not allow any councillors from opposition parties to be appointed.

It is highly desirable that the rights of minority parties should be recognised. Kirkcaldy district council consisted of 23 Labour councillors, one Communist, three Conservatives, four Scottish National Party members, two from the ratepayers, two independents and one Liberal, but there were no opposition councillors at all on the housing committee.

In February last year, in the Standing Committee on the Local Government (Scotland) Bill, the Under-Secretary of State said:
"I believe that the position in this one authority is frankly unacceptable to the House, that it is a scandal and that we cannot accept it. The issues raised go far beyond party politics. It is basic to democracy that oppositions and minority groups should have rights. That is in the interests of all political parties."—[Official Report, First Scottish Standing Committee, 24 February 1981; c. 644.]
The Under-Secretary was not alone in expressing that view. I have here a statement from the Dundee Courier in which the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Mr. Gourlay)—and I have given him notice that I would raise this matter—expressed himself on 9 May 1980. He said of the situation in the district council that it was
"a departure from the democratic process in the House of Commons, which is regarded throughout the world as the Mother of Parliaments. It is laid down quite clearly that membership of committees must accurately reflect membership of the bodies in the House. The move by the district council brings us somewhat nearer to the type of dictatorship we fought during the last war."
He went on to say:
"Not only do they take the chairmanships and memberships but even dictate who the opposition spokesmen will be. That is not the kind of democracy that I would like to be a party to. I hope that commonsense will enventually prevail."
In fairness, I should mention that the position of that particular council may well be changing, but there have been other councils in Scotland where the representation on committees has been unfair and unrepresentative. It seems that the rights of minorities should be protected. After all, if opposition parties are not allowed representation on committees not only are they denied freedom of expression but they will be unable effectively to represent the interests of their constituents.

Above all, the principle that there should be freedom of expression was expressed very well by John Stuart Mill when he said words to the effect that if all mankind minus one were of one opinion and only one person were of the contrary opinion mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one man than he would be in silencing mankind.

I hope that the Minister will look at this problem in conjunction, if necessary, with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and that the rights of oppositions and minorities will be properly protected.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. About an hour ago it was mentioned on television that one of the British ships, HMS "Sheffield", had been destroyed in the South Atlantic. Has the Prime Minister indicated whether she intends coming to the House tonight to explain precisely what happened?

As soon as there is any such information it will be given to the House.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. While it may be that such information will be given in due course, the alarm, concern and distress that exist as a consequence of the massive folly that is occurring demand that there should be an immediate statement in the House. Surely it is necessary that the Prime Minister should come to the House and tell us precisely what has occurred, so that the House can give a firm indication of the need for a cessation of hostilities on the initiative of this Government and the need for far more urgent attempts to negotiate.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think you will agree that the Government have the power to do everything. They have the power to interrupt business, suspend business, promote new business. I put it to you that the sinking of HMS "Sheffield" is so serious, is such a dramatic and tragic event, that hon. Members on both sides of the House really want to hear a statement from the Ministry.

As you will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the sinking was announced on television at 9 o'clock by the Ministry of Defence. Therefore, it must know the facts. Members are entitled to hear those facts without waiting until tomorrow, when the situation will probably have worsened. I think that you might convey this message to the proper quarters.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Leader of the House is present. He understands the feelings of the House and the necessity to make a statement before the House adjourns. It would be almost a contempt of the House for us to adjourn tonight without a statement being made. Surely we do not have to wait to read the newspapers or listen to the news in the morning. We require the Leader of the House to tell us as quickly as possible when the Defence Minister is going to be at the Dispatch Box, and we certainly expect a statement tonight.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that it would be a great mistake if the House were to panic. This great and ancient nation has been through many wars and struggles and it does not need a debate and a statement every five minutes because a ship has been sunk. Let us back those who are fighting and not let them down by panicking here.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. John Biffen)

The loss of HMS "Sheffield" and recent events reported from the Falklands very properly excite the deep concern of the House. Throughout the whole of the Falklands episode the Government have sought to keep the House informed in as comprehensive a fashion as possible for the convenience of the House. The situation concerning the loss of the "Sheffield" is still not totally clarified, but, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has said that he wishes to make a statement first thing after Questions tomorrow, I am certain that he will then be in a position——

—to give the House the most up-to-date information that is available, which is consistent with the tradition of informing the House as well as having regard to sheer practicalities.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The House will not adjourn in the near future, as those of us debating the Local Government and Planning (Scotland) Bill know only too well. There will be plenty of time tonight and early tomorrow morning for a statement to be made as we continue to consider the Bill. I am sure that all those who are considering it would more than welcome the intervention of the Secretary of State for Defence in our proceedings to make the appropriate statement.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's observations have been duly noted by the Leader of the House. We are now dealing with new clause 3.

Further to the statement made by the Leader of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Individual Members of Parliament, like the rest of the public, are given information of a grave event over the television that perhaps will affect the lives of hundreds of our young Service men. Obviously there is knowledge in possession of the Ministry of Defence. The Leader of the House has said that tomorrow is the time for a statement, but statements can be made by the BBC and the press can make comments tonight. The House has the responsibility of safeguarding the lives of our young men. We have heard the Government's response. What possible condition exists to justify the right hon. Gentleman's statement that tomorrow is the day to make a statement and not tonight when we are all assembled and when the nation expects a statement from a Minister, so that we all know who is responsible, what is to occur and what fresh initiative will take place before further lives are lost?

The hon. Gentleman knows that none of these matters is for the Chair.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is not a matter of panicking. When the Conservative Party won the last general election it stated in its manifesto that the House and no other body should be at the centre of the nation's affairs. For too long during this "episode", as the Leader of the House describes it, other institutions such as the television have been at the centre and the House has been peripheral to what is going on. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes) has said, the business of the House has been arranged tonight to go on for quite a long time. The Leader of the House, on reflection, might agree that to defer a statement until tomorrow morning is unnecessary. I am not asking for an immediate statement now, but it must be possible for a Minister to come to the House before midnight to inform the House, as the Government are pledged to inform it in statement after statement, of the latest situation as the Government know it. If they do not do that, they will be going back on constant pledges from the Dispatch Box to keep the House at the centre of this information and not to let people pick it up from television, newspapers and other such organs.

10.15 pm

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you know, I am as concerned as anyone about matters of local government in Scotland, but at a time when, quite apart from the number of Argentines who lost their lives yesterday, news has now come through that a substantial number of British Service men must have lost their lives, it is quite inappropriate for the House to continue to debate affairs such as recreational, sporting, cultural and social facilities in Scotland or the peculiarities of the composition of certain committees of a local district council in Kirkcaldy. Rather than proceed with the debate in this type of atmosphere, I put it to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the house should adjourn until such such time as the Prime Minister comes to make a statement.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There is a precedent—there must be many of them. A few years ago after a bomb attack and danger to a member of the Royal Family when a policeman was injured, the Minister concerned came before the House and interrupted a debate at which I was present to make a statement about what had happened. Having seen one of the news reports tonight, I know that the spokesman for the Ministry of Defence made a public statement on this matter and was televised doing so. As Ministers are in charge, and as the Prime Minister said today that there has been political control over the task force, would it not be appropriate for a Minister of the Crown to come before the House to answer for what has happened and to give us a statement and information.

I am sure that all these matters have been noted by the Leader of the House.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is really not acceptable that the Leader of the House should abuse his inexperience in his present office not to fulfil his responsibilities to the House of Commons. There has been a disaster in the South Atlantic engineered by him and his party colleagues, and the least he can do in fulfilment of his duties to the House of Commons is to summon his senior colleagues to explain the present position at the Government Front Bench. May I say in addendum that it would also be necessary for the leaders of my party to attend that post mortem since they were originally party to this whole lunatic exercise in the South Atlantic.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Our city of Sheffield has great contacts with this particular ship. I should like to advance what my colleagues have said and ask that the House be adjourned, and that the Prime Minister should come here and give us whatever news there is. It is disgraceful that we should have to learn from outside what is happening when we have been elected to come to the House and learn whatever is happening. Therefore, I ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to ask the Prime Minister to come to the House and tell us what has happened to that ship.

We have the Leader of the House present and we are debating another matter.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I respectfully appeal to hon. Members on the Opposition Benches for a moment of calm? Is it not absolutely clear that in a military engagement it is inescapable that there will be casualties on both sides?

Is it not also impossible for a campaign of that nature to be conducted by question and answer across the Floor of the House? Would it not be much more appropriate for us to proceed with the normal business of the House so that a considered statement can be made in the House tomorrow?

I very much wish to assist the House in making progress this evening in the way in which it feels most congenial and orderly. I appreciate that in all parts of the House there is deep concern over the recent news. There is great anxiety that the matter should be fully ventilated in the Chamber. Some feel that it must happen this evening. I believe that the majority feel that the most appropriate occasion would be for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to make a comprehensive statement tomorrow afternoon with all the available information that he will then have. I believe that chat would be a gesture consistent with the traditions of the House and with the nature of the situation.

I hope that those who feel that it is necessary for a statement to be secured this evening will realise that there are good, sound arguments for believing that the House would be better served by having a statement tomorrow when the additional information will be available.

Order. We cannot debate the matter now. We are debating another matter and I have called Mr. Allan Stewart.

With new clause 3 we are considering Government amendments Nos. 90 to 92. These amendments bear on the operation of the option now to be available to councillors to choose between the receipt of financial loss allowance and attendance allowances——

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the House to continue to debate Scottish affairs when we cannot apply our full minds to the business? It is grossly unfair to expect Ministers to do justice to the job. It is equally unfair to expect the Opposition to argue the important points that we wish to deal with. It is not a case of being hysterically anti-British or anti-Scottish. Nor is it terribly British or Scottish to continue to debate matters that are of less importance than what is happening in the South Atlantic. If we continue it will be grossly misunderstandood by the friends and relatives of those who may have died.

It is important for the House to proceed in as good tempered a fashion as possible. My arguments have not been entirely persuasive to a certain section of the House. Minorities have rights as well as those who, I believe, constitute the majority. If it will help, I shall convey to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence the opinions expressed in the hope that he might be able to come to the House for what I am sure will be understood to be a brief holding statement, since the main statement must take place—[Interruption.] I am trying to help and to accommodate what I believe are genuine feelings. It might be as well if there were in the Chamber a degree of gravity consistent with the situation.

I shall convey to my right hon. Friend the sentiments expressed, in the hope that he will come to the House before very long.

With new clause 3 we are considering Government amendments Nos. 90 to 92. These amendments bear on the operation of the option that is now to be available to councillors to choose between the receipt of financial loss allowance and attendance allowance for the performance of an approved duty— [Interruption]. We are indebted to the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes), and I am delighted that he is present.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry, but I am having great difficulty in hearing what the Minister is saying. As on this occasion he is referring to me, it would be helpful if I heard him. Perhaps we can just wait a few moments, or perhaps he can speak up.

I have no difficulty in hearing the hon. Gentleman, so I hope that we shall have no difficulty in hearing the Minister.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that the hon. Member for South Ayrshire can hear me now. I was saying that the House is indebted to him for his suggestion——

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I ask the Minister to go back to the beginning of his remarks, because it has been extremely difficult to follow him? It would do justice to his case if he were to start at the beginning of his remarks, because we would then be able to follow the argument.

I am happy, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to do so. I was saying that, with new clause 3, moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), we are considering Government amendments Nos. 90 to 92. I shall begin by referring to those amendments before dealing with new clause 3.

These amendments bear on the operation of the option now to be available to councillors to choose between the receipt of financial loss allowance and attendance allowance for the performance of an approved duty. As I said, we are indebted to the hon. Member for South Ayrshire for his suggestion in Committee that the detailed administrative arrangements currently set out in subsections (2) to (6) of new section 45A of the 1973 Act as introduced by clause 52 should be prescribed otherwise than in primary legislation. The provision in its present form follows the corresponding English legislation in the 1980 Act and the detailed administrative procedures prescribed are basically to facilitate taxation arrangements.

We have, however, looked at this carefully in the light of the hon. Member for South Ayrshire's suggestion, and we have concluded that there is no good reason why this sort of administrative detail should not be dealt with by regulations. The amendments now before the House give effect to that. It will be noted that there is already a power in section 50 of the 1973 Act to enable my right hon. Friend to make any necessary regulations.

I hope that hon. Members will agree that the amendments give an added flexibility to the operation of the clause and will, of course, avoid the need to amend primary legislation if, for example, the detailed provisions in subsection (2) to (6) should become obsolete. On that basis, I commend the amendments to the House.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West on raising an important topic in new clause 3 and on the way in which he moved it. The topic is a general one—the rights of minorities to representation on committees in Scottish local authorities. As my hon. Friend said, public attention was focused on the issue by what happened in one district council, where the incoming ruling group excluded minority parties from major committees.

My hon. Friend quoted not only myself but the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Mr. Gourlay) as saying how deplorable that action was. I am sure that that was the view of the House. This House depends on representation and reasonable speaking rights for minorities. Therefore, there is no doubt about the public concern over what happened in Kirkcaldy.

It is, however, a relatively isolated incident. I can quote from my own regional authority. A number of hon. Members from the Strathclyde region are present. I know that the Labour group in Strathclyde has been meticulous in ensuring representation of and information to the minority parties. Therefore, I do not think that we are considering a major problem that affects local authorities as a whole.

10.30 pm

However, my hon. Friend has raised a major point of principle and one of public concern. I am happy to confirm acceptance of his suggestion that we should consider this with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. We have drawn the matter to its attention and are awaiting its reactions. On the basis of that assurance, and my full sympathy with my hon. Friend's point of principle, I hope that he will feel able to seek to withdraw new clause 3.

I know that many of us on the Labour Benches do not feel much like continuing the debate. Many of us feel with my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. McKelvey) that we should have adjourned until the statement had been made. However, as we have decided to continue, then continue we must. The democratic process of examining new clauses and putting points that have to be made on Government amendments still has to go on.

In discussing new clause 3, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) and the Minister were wrong about Strathclyde region with regard to one committee. Like Glasgow district council, the Strathclyde region, although allowing minority groups on most committees, does not allow the general representation clause to be carried through on the policy committee. That committee is clearly in the hands of the Labour controlling group and no other party has a say. That is the position that the Cabinet is in. The policy committee decides the policy for the region as a whole. It ought to be entirely in the hands of the controlling party. Other parties should not be allowed representation on that committee. In that case, the Labour-controlled Strathclyde council is right.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West does not allow for that in his new clause. In essence, it says that any committee must be represented in the way that he is suggesting. Therefore, although I have some sympathy for the general point that he is making—that committee should have representation from all parties—I do not think that his new clause, as worded, is sufficient. It must take account of policy committees that are rightly in the hands of the controlling party.

Amendments Nos. 90, 91 and 92 have been tabled in response to representations made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes). I congratulate him on them, because the provisions in the amendment are much simpler and more flexible. That is desirable, so there is no difference between the two sides of the House on these amendments.

I understand what the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) seeks to do in new clause 3. I shall not go into its merits because, again, there is little argument between the two sides of the House. Nevertheless, I am not enthusiastic about putting restrictions in a local government Bill on how local authorities should behave over the appointment of their committees.

The Minister has fairly said that in the vast majority of cases there is no problem at the moment. I am not keen on disturbing that just because it is felt that in a particular case or area something has happened that is not completely desirable. I shall not go into that in detail because, as the Minister said, there will be discussions with CoSLA. Despite what the hon. Gentleman says, I believe that the clause is defective. In my view, it does not do what he said it does.

However, I shall say no more, particularly as our attention has been diverted by other matters. If there is to be consultation, no doubt the Minister will tell us what it has produced, and we can then consider the matter. I hope that, on that basis, the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the new clause.

In view of the Minister's assurance, I shall be happy to seek to withdraw the new clause. However, I wish to point out to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) that what he said is covered by section 57(1)(a) of the 1973 Act, and that the new clause does not cover policy and resources committees.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.