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Mr. Patnick : I am obliged to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your guidance. We are discussing implementing the second part of the Widdicombe report, which also dealt with propaganda on the rates. If Opposition Members catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am sure that they will be able to make their speeches without my assistance. The wonderful Sheffield News says :
" Poll Tax is the sort of tax which gives taxes a bad name'. But councils will be legally obliged to collect it."
The Redcliffe-Maud report entitled "Conduct in Local Government", Cmnd. 5636 published in 1974, opposed any relaxation of existing rules and considered extending to employees of any authority the disqualification from membership of an authority anybody who holds office in, or in the gift of, that authority. It did not make any such recommendation, but it made the following comment, which is worth listening to, because the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond), the former leader of Doncaster council, is present and he was around at the time of Redcliff-Maud :
"Any officer, whether senior or junior, whose work is in any way connected with the decision-making process of his authority and who contemplates seeking election to membership of the authority of the other tier should consider very carefully whether such membership would prejudice his ability to serve, and be recognised as serving, his own authority loyally and impartially as an employee." Sadly, the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) is not here so I understand that it is bad form to speak about him, but I suppose that worse things have been said about him. He referred to the question how many councillors were twin tracking, and he quoted from Widdicombe. Widdicombe said that, according to its research, about 16 per cent. of councillors in employment and 10 per cent. of all councillors were employees of other authorities. It went on to say that there were many authorities where significantly more than 10 per cent. of councillors were twin trackers and others where significantly fewer were. It also said that there was a more common phenomenon with 13 per cent. of all councillors being councillors of two or more authorities.
I put two hands up. I was a member of South Yorkshire county council and Sheffield city council at one and the same time. I found no conflict at all. I was in opposition on both councils. My head was repeatedly kicked in, night and day. Many is the time that I have sent letters to Her Majesty's Government saying that there is something wrong with local government and it should go back to where it was when I first joined it.
The Widdicombe report is the report of the committee of inquiry into the conduct of local authority business. I
Column 197really was a poacher there because I gave evidence to it as leader of the opposition on South Yorkshire county council. We were short-changed by the controlling group of that now defunct authority. There was no way that we had an opportunity to sit pro rata in the membership of committees. There was no way at all that we could operate within the standing orders of the council, because, if we found a way of getting round the standing orders, the standing orders were changed. It was easy : if the rules do not fit, change the rules.
This happened in Sheffield city council. [Interruption.] Well, I came into the House with the rules that were already there. The one thing that I have learnt from hon. Gentlemen is that the House operates with rules, and they try to break them at every opportunity.
Mr. Robert B. Jones : Does my hon. Friend remember Councillor George Senior of Sheffield saying, "We mean to obstruct the law in every way ; that is what we are about"? He said that about the direct Labour opposition to parts of the Local Government Act 1974 at the time, but is that not also true of their attitude to everything else?
The Widdicombe report was published in June 1986 and it provides a comprehensive analysis of the way in which local authorities are operating at present. The report made a large number of recommendations designed to strengthen democratic procedures within which local government operates. The Government's response, as the hon. Member for Copeland noted, was published in a White Paper in July 1988, and the Government have already acted on some of the recommendations.
I am aware that other hon. Members wish to speak in this debate, so I shall confine my speech in the main to the Widdicombe part of the Bill.
Section 2 of the 1986 Act prohibits local authorities from publishing or assisting others to publish material. I have given an example of this. I listened to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), so no doubt his friend Councillor Jones will now have more information on which to work.
It is a fact that this cross-pollination, twin tracking--whatever it is called--is rife here, but it is also rife in places such as Sheffield. It was rife when South Yorkshire county council existed. The leader of Sheffield council swapped places with the leader of Barnsley council. The two of them worked with the two authorities. The former chairman of housing on Sheffield city council was employed by South Yorkshire county council. I was deputy chairman of the residuary body that closed it down, and I wanted to see where Councillor X sat. They said that they had closed his office because he was never there. It was a joke, a farce ; and by way of compensation they gave the deputy leader of South Yorkshire county council a full-time job as deputy leader of the council ; he was a teacher and he went as a full-time member of the county council, on a full salary, but with no timetable.
That is what went on in local government. Surely it cannot be right that a highly paid officer in a council should have someone else doing his work.
Mr. Redmond : Councillor Lunn, to whom the hon. Gentleman referred as leader of Barnsley, did a damn good job for the people of Barnsley. If the hon. Gentleman is seeking to condemn twin tracking, will he also condemn those hon. Members who have good salaries for the consultancies and directorships they have secured?
Mr. Patnick : I am rather disturbed that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned the name of the person concerned. I have not used the name of any councillor in this place. The man died some while ago, and it besmirches his memory for an hon. Gentleman to bring up his name. I have not mentioned any names. If the cap fits, let the hon. Gentleman wear it. [Interruption.] I am not struggling at all.
A former right hon. Member of the House, Albert Booth, when he was defeated in the election, arrived at South Yorkshire county council as an official. He was one of the technical directors of the South Yorkshire passenger transport executive. We all know that there are good salaries here and compensation for loss of office. I think that there is also a pension, if my memory serves me correctly. He came to be interviewed for a position and one of the first things I asked him was whether, if a vacancy occurred anywhere in a safe Labour seat, he would take it. He said that he would not. He left for the 1987 election. He took early retirement, and he finished up with two pensions. That is all right, is it not? That is legitimate, because he came from the Labour side.
Let me carry on with some of the rocky horror stories. The leader of Bradford city council was employed as an anti-privatisation adviser to Wakefield city council. A quarter of Glasgow's city councillors were employed by their own regional council. In Camden, at one time, 48 per cent. of the Labour councillors were dependent, directly or indirectly, on councils in their area.
Mr. Nicholas Bennett : I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, who has very wide experience in local government in Sheffield and on South Yorkshire county council. Would he like to comment on the fact that this is still going on ; that, in spite of the fact that this Bill has been published and twin tracking is to be outlawed, only last week the London borough of Hackney shortlisted for its deputy chief executive post Councillor Linda Bellos and Councillor Fred Taggert, both Left-wing Labour members of Lambeth borough council, and appointed Councillor Fred Taggert to that post? What confidence can Conservative and Liberal members of that council have that that individual, as an independent deputy chief executive, will give them unbiased advice?
When I was leader of the opposition on South Yorkshire county council, one of my most difficult jobs was obtaining impartial advice from chief officers. It is extremely difficult when one knows that, sometimes, whatever one says goes through a direct pipeline to the ear of the leader of the council. No confidence can exist in that situation. It is most upsetting, but it was even more upsetting to find that, during a by- election for the council, one of its chief officers was delivering Labour party leaflets in the ward concerned. That is scandalous and totally wrong. Whatever may be one's political affiliations, they remain private when one marks a ballot paper or even works behind closed doors, when there is no way that
Column 199anyone else can snoop. But it is a different matter for a chief officer to be seen on the streets of Sheffield during a by-election, delivering Labour party leaflets. That must be stopped somehow. There must be a cut-off point.
It would be wrong of me to say that I do not know of a Tory who holds high office in a council. [Laughter.] The hon. Member for Don Valley laughs.
Mr. Winnick : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am genuinely sorry to interrupt the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick), but your immediate predecessor in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and even Mr. Speaker himself, made the point that, although there is no time limit on speeches, right hon. and hon. Members should remember that there are many who wish to speak in the debate. The hon. Member for Hallam has already spoken for 21 minutes. I do not believe that he is bringing his remarks to a close--he has no need, as there is no time limit. I remind you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that only two Back Benchers have so far spoken-- and my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) kept his contribution very tightly within 10 or 15 minutes.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean) : The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who I know hopes to catch my eye, gives me the opportunity to say that many right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House wish to speak in the debate.
recommendations. It allows local ombudsmen to consider complaints from the public, and gives powers to the district auditor to stop potentially unlawful expenditure. However, it does not allow the district auditor to tell a council if he considers that such expenditure is wrong. Where such expenditure is a matter of political judgment, the district auditor will say, "I do not wish to know." In the miners' strike, funding was provided by a council to the miners. When I complained about that practice, I was told that it was a political decision and that the district auditor could not enter into that political arena.
The South Yorkshire county council's fares policy sucked money out of local authorities, and the only thing left to show for that is a memory of cheap fares. There are no improved roads or a police station. When I told the district auditor that it was wrong, he replied, "You can take it to court and fund that action, and we shall see what is the outcome. I have neither the time, the inclination, nor the funds to take legal action against an authority--when all it needs to do is increase its rates."
I close on a most interesting point.
Mr. Patnick : The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity later to criticise my speech. Opposition Members have that privilege and treat in store--but I could almost recite the Opposition's speeches. The Opposition will say that nothing should be altered because everything is all right as it is--everything is wonderful and marvellous. The hon. Gentleman who makes all the noise will say that the Government have got it wrong--but I have never heard him say that anyone has it right.
The Bill will restore to local government some of the benefits that others have taken away. Twin tracking, the appointment of political officers, the appointment of political devotees, and the funding of various organisations from the petty cash of local government and their financing by ratepayers' money, will all cease.
Some of the organisations that have made representations on the Bill see in it certain imperfections. I am convinced by the words of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, that amendments, alterations and improvements will be made. The Bill will put local government back where it belongs, and will allow it to be run by people whose only role will be to give genuinely impartial advice and guidance. They will not be on the payroll of another organisation or council whose intention is to stop elected representatives doing what they want. Impartial advice is needed in local government, and that is something that we shall ensure is available when we return proper powers to local government.
Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro) : The Secretary of State used measured terms to describe the Bill--which he tried to suggest was non- controversial. However, the Bill commands precious little support among those in local authorities who are in the best position to understand its impact. In particular, it commands precious little support among Conservative councillors and those among them who have commented on it.
The chairman of the housing and works committee of the London Boroughs Association asks for a year to get over the last Bill that the Secretary of State introduced. The Association of County Councils, in the reasonable expectation that examination of the Bill will be guillotined--for we may have a shopping list, but we shall not be able to examine closely the prices and the quality of the goods--comments :
"It is to be regretted that they"--
that is, the Government's proposals--
"will not receive the parliamentary scrutiny that they deserve. The Bill contains many provisions that should have been dealt with separately and at length, and in greater detail than we shall have an opportunity to do.
The attack on local government in recent years, and the continual movement of power to the centre, worries many people of all political persuasions. Among them are people who, in the past, have not taken a great interest in politics. They may discuss politics and vote, but they have not actively campaigned on the streets. Those people are now genuinely concerned about the drift of power to central Government, that is once again, being written into legislation. The Conservative-controlled Association of District Councils--hardly a hotbed of Trotskyist interest--comments :
"It is difficult to tell what precisely is envisaged, but the net effect would appear to be more power to the Secretary of State, and even less freedom for local authorities."
That is contrary to the comments of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick).
The Association of County Councils comments :
Column 201"The Association is concerned that so many important aspects of the Bill's provisions are left to be dealt with by secondary legislation and that there is to be such an increase in the powers of the Secretary of State."
The first to feel the brunt of the Bill's attack on local authorities will not be councillors but their employees, as they find their freedom to participate in the political party or body of their choice abolished. In a democracy, and for all the soft words of the Secretary of State, the decision to deprive people of their right to campaign, and to take part in the political process, is of critical importance. No one should be denied that right without the matter being given deep thought, and without deep regret being felt--because that right is the basis of the society that all right hon. and hon. Members are here to defend.
The Bill will bring about 70,000 or, if one believes the ACC, 90, 000 or more, local government officers under the wing of Ministers and their representatives and deny those officers the basic right of political activity. Although in some cases they will have the right to apply to get those liberties back, it is wrong that we should force 70,000, 90,000 or even 10,000 people to have to beg for their rights under that sort of system.
The Secretary of State has constantly pushed for leaner, more professional councils. But among those whom we shall be taking out of any involvement in politics and council work will be many who are experienced and best able to take part in activities that would benefit local authorities and council groups.
Mr. Gummer : If one of the supporters of the hon. Gentleman's party wanted advice from the local social services department in, say, the London borough of Brent, does the hon. Gentleman think that that supporter would be entirely comfortable with the fact that the assistant director there was the controversial chairman of the planning committee in Ealing? What if one of his party's supporters wishing to obtain some advice went to the equal opportunities adviser in the London borough of Hackney, only to find that she was the former controversial leader of the Labour party in the London borough of Lambeth? Would it not be more suitable if those places were filled with people who were independent and were not part of the party political machine? Electors would feel more comfortable in asking for their advice, would they not?
Mr. Taylor : The proposals in the Bill go far beyond tackling a few examples such as those. If more limited changes were proposed--for example, if the proposals affected only chief officers and their deputies--we would support them. The Bill goes far beyond the action that we feel needs to be taken. There may be occasions when councillors from one party must consult people whom they believe to have strong political persuasions of another sort. In most cases the advice being sought would not involve politics, and where it did, there would not be many cases where the person seeking advice could not also turn to others, perhaps to more senior officers, for further advice.
The Minister has set the arbitrary salary level of £13,500. That, coupled with the broad brief to bring in anyone else as the Minister thinks appropriate, goes way beyond what is acceptable in a democratic country in
Column 202which every individual should have the right to take part, and be heard, in the democratic system. That is at the very basis of the political system that we are here to defend.
Mr. Gummer : It is not an arbitrary figure. The sum of £13,500 was recommended by the Widdicombe committee, which said that there should be an absolute ban on all political activities and that there should be no right of appeal. The Government have introduced a right of appeal over and above that independent Widdicombe recommendation.
Mr. Taylor : Time is short. I hope that we shall have time to go into that and other matters in Committee. It is clear that there is not enough time to deal with the many issues raised by the Bill. The Government are encouraging local authorities to make greater use of the private sector. Many PR companies advise local authorities and the public on new legislation. The Government are not acting against them in the way that they are acting against council employees, yet those PR companies can employ councillors and even have Members of Parliament as their directors. No restriction is being placed on them. Is that not as good an example of twin tracking as the Minister gave?
Would the Minister even attempt to deny that councillors are able to work for private companies and gain financially from information acquired during the execution of activities in their publicly elected posts? He cannot deny it, yet he will not act on that form of abuse. It is unsatisfactory that there is no definition of "political activity" in the Bill. It is left to the Secretary of State to define. What is a controversial speech? The Conservative research department brief on the measure refers to
"speaking or writing publicly on matters of party political controversy."
Would an employee who was also a school governor not be able to speak publicly on opting out but only on school meals? Would such a person not be able to speak about race relations but only on the colour that the school corridors should be painted? Or do the Government believe that they should not be school governors at all because holding such a post brings one into the sphere of political controversy?
On 2 February Parliament and the press examined the Official Secrets Bill restriction on civil servants and the refusal of the Government to introduce the "whistle- blowers" for whom their Back Benchers had called. On the same day, the Secretary of State for the Environment published a measure giving councils the duty to appoint a monitoring officer to report to councils any contravention of the law by the council or its employees.
Criticism of much of that came from Conservative Members. For example, the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), when referring to the measure before the House today, said when we were debating the Official Secrets Bill :
"I read in The Daily Telegraph of last Monday
Whistleblower law to break Left's grip'.
It seems that the Government, through their new Local Government and Housing Bill--I have no doubt that if I or The Daily Telegraph have got it wrong we will be corrected--will seek to appoint what The Daily Telegraph, I am sure, wrongly characterises as whistleblowers empowered to speak out against illegal or unfair actions as part of a campaign to raise standards of local government'.
What they think is sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander".--[ Official Report, 2 February 1989 ; Vol. 146, c. 477.]
Column 203It is not necessary to elaborate on that telling point made by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills. While the Government are prepared to keep the public informed in the arena of councils, where they are not in political control, in Whitehall, where they are in political control, public servants are to be restricted from revealing information in the public interest. The hypocrisy of that is clear.
I do not oppose everything in the Bill. Indeed, it is so wide-ranging and it contains such a shopping list of items that it would be impossible to disagree with it all. I welcome the proposals on proportionality. My party is at the forefront of fair methods of representation, so it would be strange if I did not support that aspect.
There are peculiarities in what is proposed. Does the Bill completely rule out councils devolving planning decisions to a more local level, or, as Tower Hamlets has done, conducting experiments with community councils? Would it not be more appropriate still if elections gave proportional representation to people's views, instead of the Government trying to fiddle after Rome has burned, as the Minister seems to be doing?
My party supports the ban on voting by non-elected members, but the Secretary of State must explain more clearly why that should not apply beyond the areas the Government seem to have in mind. For example, why should it not apply in schools or to magistrates? There are various items with which we might agree, but the bulk of the Bill remains an attack on councils and council tenants. The introduction of ring fencing is one of the most insidious moves yet made by the Government against councils. It is an attack on council tenants going beyond anything the Government have achieved so far. The Guardian, which admittedly, is not always on the side of the Government, wrote in an editorial on 3 February :
"Two out of three of the 4.3 million council tenants in the country are so poor that, despite seven separate cuts in benefits in the last eight years, they remain eligible. That leaves the other one-third, many of whom are earning only just above the poverty line, under the threat of paying higher rents to subsidise the unemployed, disabled people and the elderly."
Homelessness is on the increase, yet the last people these measures will assist are the homeless and the poor.
Let me turn back to the words of Conservative members of the London Boroughs Association :
"The proposals relating to rent rebate subsidy are also of major concern to our members. Housing benefit is intended to relieve poverty and is thus rightly part of the national social security system. We therefore feel that it would be inequitable for the responsibility for financing housing benefit payable to council tenants to be transferred to local government this change could prejudice and would certainly complicate any future attempts to reform the system for relieving poverty"
[Hon. Members :-- "Hear, hear."] The "Hear hears" to those views from a Conservative-controlled association are all from the Opposition side of the House ; Conservative Members remain silent. The phrase "The poor subsidising the very poor" is one that we have heard again and again and will continue to hear throughout the passage of the Bill, but the Government do not wish to listen. The Institute of Housing says :
"it is morally wrong that better off council tenants should be paying through their rents, for the welfare benefits given to other tenants. Private and Housing Association tenants are not being placed in this position."
Column 204The Bill will place tenants renting from a local authority in the difficult position of having to pay for a hidden extra, and will remove money that could be used for repairs.
On the shopping list is a radical alteration in the welfare system, which warrants a debate and a Bill of its own and should not be part of a more general Bill on local government reform.
The Audit Commission has said :
"merging rent rebates in the housing subsidy will serve to obscure both the cost of housing benefits and the true profitability of public housing. The proposals would also, in the Commission's view, be a source of continued friction with local government and unrebated tenants. It would be preferable to maintain rent rebate subsidy as a separate element, calculated on rebates granted. If Government considers that with such an approach it is unacceptable that the whole of the HRA surpluses should be retained locally then the problem should be separately addressed."
My hon. Friend the Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) argued for fair rents during the Committee stage of the Housing Bill 1988, and I intend to do the same. Rents should be affordable. The Government say that they agree with that, but they have not revealed how they intend to achieve it. There must be a mechanism to ensure that rents are affordable for council tenants who do not receive rent rebate.
How does the Secretary of State respond to the criticisms of the Association of District Councils that no figures have been produced to show how the new system will work, or what its national or local effects will be? The Minister cannot be telling us that no such figures have been drawn up. Surely he would not introduce a change of such significance without at least having a look at the likely effect on councils--or is it that he dare not tell the
Conservative-controlled ADC what will happen to all too many of his Conservative councillor colleagues, and explain to them how they will explain it to the electorate as the costs of the change begin to come in?
Where are the estimates and projections to prove conclusively that the system will work? I hope that the Minister will come forward now, before the Bill goes into Committee--but I suspect that he will not do so even then. The figures will emerge in dribs and drabs when the Bill has gone through, and no doubt the Minister will come up with some excuses.
We can, however, discover a little of what is happening from the Conservative research department brief that I mentioned earlier headed :
"The Local Government and Housing Bill Prepared for : Second Reading debate in the House of Commons."
It is also headed "Confidential". On page 15, it asks : "What is the Government's policy on council rents?"
Shortly after that, we see the nub of the answer :
"The Government wil be making a more detailed statement on council rents in the near future."
In other words, they ain't going to tell us just yet.
Perhaps there is a clue in question 3 :
"How will the new system affect council rents in the short term?" The answer is :
"In the first year the level of exchequer subsidy will reflect the amount paid under the old system the previous year. Any increases in rents will therefore be gradual."
There is the answer. There will be increases, but they may be gradual. They will be like a Chinese torture, and hurt people slowly rather than all at once.
My comments have not by any means covered all the Bill's provisions ; there has not been time, because it is a hotch-potch Bill that should not be before the House. But my warnings will echo around council chambers, whether Conservative-controlled, Labour-controlled, Democrat-controlled or balanced. Councillors and local authority employees of all parties share my fears.