Previous Section Home Page

Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton) : The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) has relied extensively on briefings supplied by the Conservative research department for his inspiration--no doubt because the Liberals were unable to provide any of their own. He and the hon. Members for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) and for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) have all described the Bill as yet another sandbag with which to clobber local government. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) developed that theme in his article in The Sunday Times two days ago, and in the publication "Governing London" the leader of the Association of London Authorities describes the Bill as

"yet another wave of vitriolic anti-democratic legislation." The Association of Metropolitan Authorities says that it is "an affront to civil liberties."

As one who has served on and strongly believes in local government, I wholly disagree. I regard the Bill, on the contrary, as a necessary if painful step down the road of restoring the integrity of local government, curbing the abuses that have brought it into disrepute and thereby helping it to become once again a thriving, relevant democratic institution in which people are proud to serve. I see a parallel between this legislation- -and that on local government which preceded it--and our legislation on trade unions. Both have addressed institutions born in the late 19th century to combat the weaknesses of a system dependent on unbridled market forces, and to improve the living standards of the less well off. Both have honourable traditions and achievements, now taken for granted, but in the 1970s both began to lose their way. On the one hand, they started to lose touch with those whom they represented ; on the other, they began to stray into areas where they had no business to be and, indeed, to challenge the mandate of national Governments.

That, in turn, precipitated legislative reform from a Conservative Government--reform recognised to be necessary by many Opposition Members. We recognised the need to reform the trade unions before the need to reform local government, because many of the abuses within local government manifested themselves only in our first and second terms of office. The trade union legislation, further down the track, has not, as our opponents said that it would, destroyed the movement, but has made it more accountable. It has stopped most of the indefensible practices and has created--if I may use the jargon--a new mood of realism, and a new breed of leader who accepts that the world has changed and that different attitudes are now required. I believe that that is in the long-term interests of the movement.

Column 206

The same applies to local government. Again, a new mood of realism is beginning to break out, and a new type of leader-- particularly of Labour authorities--is now emerging. The new leaders accept that the world has changed : they are pragmatic rather than dogmatic. Ted Knight and Derek Hatton have been disqualified, the former leader of the GLC is now the restrained hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), and Margaret Hodge of Islington is going straight. Those changes were not volunteered by the parties concerned. Indeed, the most bitter battles that the House has seen in the past 10 years have been on the field of local government. Those changes and improvements have been secured by legislation --legislation of which this Bill is an important part. But we are not quite there yet. The Bill contains many missing pieces of the jigsaw.

First, there are the proposals for capital receipts. I was astonished to see, in the briefing made available by the LBA, the statement:

"Capital receipts should be made available to the generating authority"

this is not a briefing on the Electricity Bill--

"without a reduction in its basic credit approval."

That would be wholly inequitable and, incidentally, to the disadvantage of many London boroughs.

The London Boroughs Association wants the Secretary of State to ignore the fact that some boroughs generate substantial sums in capital receipts while others do not. The former are clearly able to discharge their obligations without having to borrow more easily than the latter. To give credit approval without taking account of the resources available to local authorities, far from being a matter of "simple justice", as is claimed in the briefing, would make existing inequities permanent. I hope that we shall hear no more of that argument, which would make the problems facing the homeless in London far worse. It is clear from the briefing that the Association of District Councils does not take exception to that provision. The most controversial proposals in the Bill relate to the housing revenue account and were touched on by the hon. Member for Truro. There has been a great deal of muddled thinking about the proposals to use surpluses on the housing revenue account to help pay for housing benefit. One school of thought, represented in the briefing from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, was against any surpluses from the housing revenue account. It states :

"The AMA is opposed to ring fencing--believing local authorities should be free to exercise their own discretion. But it is also opposed to profits being made on HRAs."

My right hon. Friend will have the figures, but I suspect that a good many Labour-controlled authorities will have a surplus on the HRA and use it to keep down the rates. I see nothing wrong with having a surplus on the housing revenue account. If the housing stock was built some time ago and is in good condition and the debt has been paid off, it would be absurd to charge £10 per week for a four-bedroomed house in Windsor occupied by someone earning a good salary at Heathrow airport. Such a rent would contrast very oddly with rents on nearby properties built more recently, which would be three or four times that level perhaps for something much worse. We should start by asking what is a reasonable rent and if the totality of those rents less the financing and management costs generates a surplus, let us debate what should be done with the surplus. At the moment that surplus can be used to keep down the rates. That seems far less defensible than using it to pay housing benefit. Opposition Members make the criticism

Column 207

that the proposed regime will result in the poor subsidising the poorest. They gloss over the fact that many council tenants are not poor. Under the present regime that Opposition Members seek to defend, the so-called poor are subsidising those who are not poor--the ratepayers.

Given that surpluses are legitimate, I see no reason why they should not go towards the cost of housing benefit locally. To say that the cost of meeting poverty is the responsibility of central Government and not local government is to play with words. Central Government could easily introduce negative grant-related expenditure for housing and remove from local government the surpluses on the HRAs. They could then transfer it to the Department of Social Security which would apply it to housing benefit. In that way central Government would relieve poverty.

The proposals in the Bill short-circuit that cumbersome manoeuvre and transfer the surplus directly into the local HRA. The briefing from the Institute of Housing, which dislikes the proposals in the Bill, suggests an alternative procedure which has exactly the same effect. One has to look rather carefully behind the rhetoric about the poor subsidising the poorest. The proposals are then perfectly defensible.

Mr. Tony Banks : If the housing revenue account has never been used sensibly, it is because central Government have always interfered in it. The hon. Gentleman mentioned people living in properties for which the historic costs have already been covered. If one were putting together a sensible project, those people should benefit from that through reduced rents, but they are forced to pay higher rents because central Government insist on that. If local authorities try to get round that they lose grant. Where is the fairness in that?

Sir George Young : I see no justice in charging cost rents for properties on which the debt has been paid. In many cases the cost rent would be £10 or £15 per week, when such a property could produce a rent based on replacement costs or on rents in comparable areas. Such rents would generate a surplus which could be ploughed back into housing. Cost rents are a totally indefensible subsidy to the people who happen to be living in such houses. They produce an indefensible disparity between properties built in the 1920s and those built in the 1980s. A property built in the 1980s may be less desirable than the one built in the 1920s, but under the system that the hon. Gentleman seeks to defend the rent for the newer property would be six or seven times higher. One could not begin to defend such a system to the person living in the more recently built property. At some point, responsibility for housing benefit should be removed from the DSS and transferred back to the DOE. The interaction between the new capital regime and housing benefit is crucial. If housing associations and the private sector are to seize the opportunities available to them, a generous housing benefit regime will have to underpin the rents that emerge. If responsibility for housing benefit rests with the DSS, why should it do battle with the Treasury to get higher housing benefit when it is responsible for pensions, the disabled and so on? An integrated approach would require housing benefit to be transferred back to the DOE where it rested about seven years ago.

Column 208

I turn briefly to parts VII and VIII on improvement grants. The previous regime was difficult to defend, when well- off people who did not need the money received improvement grants, and when there was some evidence that the availability of grants simply fed through into house prices. Those days are no more. In practice, improvement grants in many areas are, in effect, means tested, so I am not too upset about recognising that in statute. It will be easier for the Department to argue for more resources for improvement grants when the new targeted regime is in force, but there is more to renovating the stock then simply making grants available. A necessary partner is the availability of professional, impartial advice, particularly for the elderly owner-occupier. I hope that there will be many more schemes such as those pioneered by the National Home Improvement Council where public money joins private money to make a demonstrable impact on an entire area.

I hope that we shall also remove a particular abuse possible within the existing regime. Someone who is eligible for a grant can get a quotation from a reputable builder and submit it to the local authority with his grant application. The local authority will base the grant on the quotation, so long as it considers it reasonable. The applicant can then get his brother-in-law to do the job more cheaply, and although the applicant has then spent less than the quote he is still entitled to the original grant. At the moment it is quite possible to get the work done and make a profit. I hope that that will be stopped and that there will be some incentive to ensure that publicly funded improvement work is carried out by reputable firms. I have looked briefly at clause 112 and I am not convinced that it goes quite far enough. It may need to be explored further in Committee.

With regard to clauses 25 to 29, I was pleased to see that the National Council for Voluntary Organisations welcomes much in the Bill--the retention and clarification of section 137, the provision that voluntary organisations should provide written statements of their use of local authority money and the specific powers in clauses 25 to 27 to fund economic development activity. Again, some points of concern should be dealt with in Committee. The clauses to which I have referred do not explicitly cover voluntary agencies engaged in economic development. The drafting refers to public undertakings, and it is not clear that the Bill covers voluntary organisations. There is also some concern in London at the proposal to change section 48 of the Local Government Act 1985. I shall not explain the problems in detail, but, in a nutshell, difficulties will be caused to the London borough grant scheme if projects funded under section 48 have to be funded by section 137 which is often heavily over-subscribed. I have a particular interest in that as I gave generous undertakings on behalf of the Government about section 48 when the Greater London Council was being abolished and obviously do not wish to be a party to breaking them now.

Finally, I welcome the provisions to ensure neutrality in senior appointments. In Ealing, when the Labour party took control in 1986, the chief executive was, in effect, dismissed the following week. Two other directors left after about a year because of political interference. Now none of the original chief officers remains, although one has retired. At least one of their replacements would find it very difficult to work under an administration of a different complexion because of his political views.

I am a strong believer in the principle of a professional, impartial team of local government officials because it

Column 209

provides continuity and enhances public confidence in local services. The ban on political activity will enhance that objective. Fourteen of Ealing's Labour councillors are employed by neighbouring boroughs and six employees of the borough are councillors on other Labour councils. The Bill will clarify the distinction between elected politicians and non-elected officials. It will strengthen the independence of officers and ensure that members have sound professional and impartial advice. Incidentally, I note that this part of the Bill has been welcomed by the mangerial trade union, FUMPO--I do not know what that stands for.

In conclusion, I do not see the Bill as Opposition Members describe it, as a further step in the marginalisation of local government or as a step towards centralisation. I see it as a necessary prelude to the restoration of public confidence in local government. In that spirit, I commend it to the House.

7.20 pm

Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde) : May I say at the outset that I do not intend to give way because I wish to make progress by completing my speech as quickly as possible so that other hon. Members can participate in the debate. The Front Bench spokesmen have not set a good example--we heard 45 minutes from the Secretary of State and then 45 minutes from my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), so we have already had a 90-minute match. I must say, the second half was much better than the first.

I wish to confine my remarks in the main to parts I and II of this monstrous Bill, which directly attacks democracy by limiting the number of people who are permitted to play their rightful part in running local communities. First, I must declare an interest--I am a member of the National Union of Public Employees, which has about 400,000 members in local government, many of whom will be affected by the legislation.

First, however, I wish to express some of the fears of officers and councillors of my local council, Tameside borough, about part V of the Bill. It is good to see the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Mr. Trippier) here, because he knows precisely the kind of council that I am talking about. I hope that when he winds up the debate he will refer to some of the points that I shall make.

Tameside borough council took the advice of the Prime Minister when, in March of last year, in her glossy "Action for Cities" document she urged local authorities to set up a partnership with industry and to generate and help to create a new lively environment in which to live, work and prosper. Tameside council set up a partnership with local industry and began operating joint ventures with the private sector designed to promote investment and economic activity in the borough.

The council had in mind particularly establishing a joint venture company, with the council having a minority interest, to undertake a rolling programme of land development, house building, training and other initiatives. The concept of such a programme is that a percentage of profits made from profitable land development can be ploughed back into developing land

Column 210

that may not provide the normal market return, building low-cost housing and funding training and other initiatives.

Under the proposals, it appears that local authorities will be prevented from taking minority interests in companies unless they fall within a specified category. Although it is proposed to permit an authority to take a minority interest in a joint venture land development company, it can retain that interest only so long as the company retains an interest in the land. For obvious reasons, such a proposal could inhibit the use of a joint venture company for the sort of rolling programme that I have outlined. Tameside council feels that that is a real obstacle to the sort of initiatives that it and other councils wish to take.

Generally, the proposals will further restrict a council's ability to act commercially in partnership with the private sector in economic development. I hope that the Minister will consider more carefully the implications of part V of the Bill before rushing ahead with it in its present form. The Government seem to say that they do not want to inhibit such joint ventures, but if the regulations are introduced in line with the proposals, they will make partnerships much more difficult to construct. I am sure that many local authorities will be discouraged from participating.

Other parts of the Bill are equally badly drafted and need revision. Some have already been spelt out by my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland and other hon. Members. I am particularly concerned about many of the proposals that will give more power to the Secretary of State through regulation, and less to the House of Commons.

This is merely the last in a long line of Bills--there have been 50 since 1979--increasing the power of the centre. I disagree with the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young): not only does the Bill lessen the powers of elected parliamentary representatives--even worse, it rides roughshod over local authority members and further restricts the number of citizens who can play a role in running and shaping the local communities in which they live.

Bearing in mind the constraints on my time, I shall deal in the rest of my speech with the implications for local democracy of parts I and II of the Bill. The provisions show, more clearly than ever, how the Government differ from their predecessors. I well remember when, in March 1973, I introduced a motion in the House aimed at allowing the election of most public servants to the office of councillor, thus allowing the community to benefit from their sense of public service, knowledge and practical experience. Clearly, the purpose of the motion was to seek a change in the qualification laws which then debarred an estimated 2.5 million to 3 million local government workers from standing for their local authorities- -about 11.8 per cent. of all employees in England and Wales at the time. During the passage of the 1972 Local Government Bill, the then Minister, the late Graham Page, made some commitments. He said : "I do not believe that, at a certain level of employment or in a certain area of employment by local authority, if an employee stands as a member, there is any serious chance of failure of integrity or lack of probity. As has been pointed out, there are many occasions where a person employed in private undertakings becomes a member and he may be just as suspect. There is a wide area where the employee of the local

Column 211

authority cannot possibly be said to be suspect if he becomes a member."--[ Official Report, Standing Committee D, 10 February 1972, c. 1492.]

On Report, he went on to say :

"My own feeling about it is that we are being extremely hypocritical if we exclude all employees of the local authority and do not exclude others who have, perhaps, a greater interest in the affairs of the council".--[ Official Report, 17 July 1972 ; Vol. 841, c. 213.]

I am sure that we can all hazard a guess at the people to whom he was referring.

In the 1973 debate in this Chamber, which I initiated, the then Minister gave a major commitment on the Floor of the House. He promised an all-party study to look into matters relating to membership of local authorities, with discussions including local authority associations, staff organisations and other interested groups. What became of that promise?

Even the Redcliff-Maud report of 1974 stated bluntly that the key proposal before us today was wrong. The report's conclusion was that the concept of a dividing line for the selective removal of disqualification of employees was an illusion. I feel that it is not so much illusory as ludicrous. The Government are not only at odds with the 1970-74 regime, but with in-depth studies carried out since. At the same time, they have ensured that about 70,000 local government employees will be added to the list of those ineligible to stand for local government.

How can it be right, for example, for a refuse lorry driver in Wandsworth, working for a private company called Team Waste, to be allowed to stand for the council, be elected and influence decisions, while his counterpart in Lambeth cannot?

Let us suppose that a local government blue collar worker, such as a school caretaker in a large community school, earned £13,000 in 1989 and was elected to his council. The following year, due to the increased community use of his school, he earned £13,600. Would he have to come off the council? He certainly would not be allowed to stand for re-election, even though he might be a very effective councillor by then. Another example is the county roadworks foreman working for his local authority who, because of adverse weather conditions, works all the hours possible and takes his earnings over the £13,500 level. Would he, too, have to resign? Could he stand again in 1991 if his earnings dropped below the magical figure due to a mild winter?

The snooper whom the Secretary of State appoints to oversee this ludicrous situation will certainly have to be an unscrupulous autocrat. Will council employees have to present their wage slips to this particular commissar before they can stand for their local authority or before they are allowed to go on the streets to canvass in a local election? This legislation is another example of how the Centre for Policy Studies has got the Government's legislation all wrong.

With this Bill, the Government have launched into the next stage of an ideological crusade against local authorities and those who work for them. If only half the energy that they expend on controlling the activities of democratically elected councils were spent aiding efficient and responsible authorities such as my own by giving them partnership or programme area status, they could help authorities to tackle the many and varied problems in my part of the world instead of hampering them still further by this kind of punitive legislation.

Column 212

7.30 pm

Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West) : I want to begin by following on a point made by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor), who unfortunately is not with us. He quoted from the Association of District Councils' brief and called it in aid of his contention that the Bill was about centralised control. The sentence he quoted was : "the net effect would appear to be more power to the Secretary of State and even less freedom for local authorities."

That quote in fact came from a section referring only to part IX of the Bill. The remaining parts of the Bill seem to be broadly welcomed by the Association of District Councils, and I think it only fair, as vice- president of the Association of District Councils, that I should take this opportunity to quote the whole of that sentence. It begins :

"It is difficult to tell precisely what is envisaged but". That, of course, is the difficulty, because one can well understand why local authorities want at this stage each and every detail of how the legislation will work to be made available to them but, of course, the House must be free, through its Standing Committee system, to review the legislation and to debate precisely these points so that the legislation comes back to the House as a whole and so that it can be properly implemented in law. I do not believe that the main bulk of the legislation in the Bill itself should have all that detail. It would be quite wrong ; it would be inflexible and very difficult to alter in the future.

The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) began by referring to the 50 Bills that have been considered during the lifetime of this Conservative Government. He fell short of describing it as "the golden age of local government", but of course, that is exactly what we are seeking to achieve. That golden age of local government, a second golden age, can be achieved only if we have local government of integrity and efficiency, and this legislation, like so many other pieces of legislation, has been designed with that in mind. I have served on the Standing Committees on the vast majority of local government Bills since I entered the House in 1983, and I suppose that it is a sign of the times that I now find my self reviewing legislation that I voted for in the first place. There is nothing wrong with that, because it means that one learns from experience and makes sure that anomalies which turn up from legislation, or things that councillors-- particularly Labour councillors--get up to in some of the London boroughs in particular, can be dealt with as and when they arise. As I said in an intervention earlier, there are Labour councillors who are out to get through every loophole in the law, and these things will of course have to be reviewed from time to time.

Mr. Paul Boateng (Brent, South) : Does the hon. Member view with equanimity the activities of the Conservative-controlled Westminster city council? Is he happy with the situation in which Lady Porter is able to give a massive payoff to her ex-chief executive in order to keep his mouth shut? Is that a matter in which the Secretary of State ought perhaps to intervene as soon as possible in order to defend the interests of the hard- pressed ratepayers of Westminster?

Mr. Jones : If the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) had been here for the last three hours, like my- self and my hon. Friends, instead of drifting in for five minutes, he would be aware of the fact that that subject has

Column 213

been raised before, and he would also be aware that what he and his hon. Friends are suggesting is that the chief executive of Westminster city council should be deprived of what he has paid for in his contributions to his pension fund. I think that would be wholly wrong, but it would be typical of the Labour party's attitude to individual rights.

Mr. Boateng : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jones : I will not give way again to the hon. Gentleman. I have just dealt with his point.

Local government is far too important to simply drift along. It employs 3 million people and is responsible for one quarter of all public spending. That means that it has to be efficient and has to be demonstrated as being accountable. That is why I and my hon. Friends supported the community charge and the rate-capping legislation. We are one-nation Conservatives, who do not believe in throwing the ratepayers of Socialist boroughs to the wolves who are so uninterested in value for money.

Many points in the Bill have been considered in detail in the speeches of my hon. Friends, but there are some which have not been covered, and I should particularly like to refer to those. First, there is reference in the Bill, and rightly so, to controls over arm's-length and semi-arm's- length companies operated by local authorities, but there is no mention whatever of what I view as one of the biggest scandals of all--the Municipal and Mutual Assurance Company. Any of my hon. Friends, and, I dare say, Opposition Members who have taken up constituents' cases with that company, will have found that it does not pay out even when there is every justification. Of course, there is no reason why it should, because it is mutual, it has a captive market and it has money coming automatically from the local authorities. It has absolutely no reason to be interested in the public perception of it, and that is why it treats constituents of mine and of other Members like dirt. That needs to be dealt with.

I should also like to make one small reference to the doctrine of proportionality that has now come into the Bill. I think, broadly speaking, that it is right and proper, but I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to bear in mind the consequences of this action in places such as Hertfordshire, where the Labour-controlled county council has said that it wishes to eliminate all school governors who are not members of the Conservative, Labour or Alliance parties. I think that would be a great pity, because there must be a role on outside bodies, particularly school governing bodies, for people with no political affiliation or people whose political affiliation is not known or has been prevented from being disclosed. That is a Committee point which I think my right hon. and hon. Friends should consider. Another point I feel strongly about, although it is a very minor issue, is the reference to the Welsh titles of districts. Of course, overwhelmingly English-speaking districts in Wales have to have their titles in both English and Welsh, education has to be conducted in English and Welsh, and many of their officers have to be fluent in both. If that is the case in overwhelmingly English-speaking districts, why in overwhelmingly Welsh-speaking districts should they not have to abide by bilingualism as well? That seems to me to be perfectly fair.

Column 214

I also support the one reference in the Bill which is not really about the Department of the Environment or local government at all. It is the one giving powers to the Audit Commission to look at the Health Service. I said in an Adjournment debate almost a year ago, talking about value for money :

"One reason for health authorities not grasping these opportunities, except sporadically or under direction from central Government, is the absence of a parallel system to that of the Audit Commission. I believe that investment in a series of best practice units enabled to look at each health authority and make recommendations for action would repay itself many times over."--[ Official Report, 28 January 1988 ; Vol. 126, c. 602.]

The then Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) kindly said that she would look at that point, and I must take this opportunity of welcoming what the Government have announced in their White Paper and for which we shall be legislating in the Bill. The principle of Audit Commission work will be extended into the Health Service. I am sure that it will be very useful indeed.

The Bill has so many parts in it that it is almost impossible to deal with it in a Second Reading speech without going on ad nauseum, but I should like to say that I have served 11 years in local government ; I have served on Conservative-controlled authorities, Labour-controlled and independent- controlled authority. All the councillors in those authorities were respected, irrespective of their party, for their integrity and commitment to the community. Sadly, that has been swept away in some local authorities, particularly in London. For that reason, and many others, I commend the Bill to the House.

7.39 pm

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham) : Whenever we see the latest Bill with "Local Government" on the cover, we know that it will be a thoroughly malicious and pretty distasteful measure that will deprive local people of a few more of their rights to run their own affairs. We also know that we can expect that any new housing Bill will embody the same depressing philosophy, with some variation of the theme of destroying the power of local councils to provide good, cheap housing for those who require and want it.

Will the Minister confirm or deny when he winds up the debate whether, where no housing subsidy is payable to a local authority and the housing revenue account has a credit balance, that balance can be transferred to the rate fund? If that is so, it will mean that the ring-fencing proposals in the Bill will be one-way ring fencing. Even social security has not been quite so heavily legislated against as local government and housing. In every year since 1983, there have been local government Bills and housing Bills as the Conservative party has thought of progressively worse things to do to local government and housing. There have been 15 bad Bills in only five years, but this year there is something new : the Local Government and Housing Bill--two evils rolled into one, or vindictiveness squared. I am sorry to have to say that the Bill lives up to that potential.

This two-subject Bill is a product of the Government's desire to cut down on meaningful discussion. No doubt their thinking went something like this : "Why have two Bills? Why have two Second Readings? Why have two Standing Committees? We can push it quickly through Parliament with only one of each." The fact that the

Column 215

Government have created a 144-clause, 11- schedule, 187-page monster in the process is probably all the better. In that way, there is always the possibility that the public might miss something. What nobody can miss about this Bill, however, is that the desire for minimum debate has provided us with a real junk yard of a measure. The average junk yard is usually stacked full of assorted bits of debris bearing absolutely no relation to each other. The only reason that they are together is because of the whim of the owner of the junk yard. The Local Government and Housing Bill is no different, except that in place of the broken fridges and old bath tubs there are restictions on co-opting on to committees and the cuts in improvement grants. All this unrelated ideological debris from the Secretary of State for the Environment has something else in common with the junk yard. It, too, is mostly old, tatty and useless. The Bill is dangerous in many ways. That much we have grown to expect, although not to accept, from the Conservative party. Like some of its predecessor local government Bills, however, this one goes further than that. It seems to be a growing trend--a test of political virility, almost- -for each new local government Bill to carry something that is sinister along with much that is just dangerous, as though that were not bad enough on its own. Last year, for example, there was the nasty clause 29. That was bad enough, but it was only one clause and it was almost so stupid as to be unenforceable. However, the 1989 sinister quotient has gone up to a whole part--one fifth of the entire Bill. Part I has serious implications for the civil liberties of thousands of people. Because of the shortness of my allotted time-- [Interruption.] I am told by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) a maximum of 10 minutes--it is mostly on that part that I wish to concentrate.

Part I mounts a sweeping two-pronged attack on the rights of councils and their employees. The second prong of the attack is the denial to councillors of adequate facilities to govern. I shall turn to that point in a moment. The first prong of the attack is even worse. Anyone who works for any council on a salary of £13,500 or more will be breaking the law if he or she indulges in political activity of any kind. The Secretary of State was kind enough to explain to the press why he thought he needed such a colossus of a restriction. It would, he said, stop councils appointing political henchmen to key officer posts, but the absurdly low starting point takes in far more people than that.

The average wage for a secretary in London, for example, is not much less than £13,500 a year. Does a 22-year-old draughtsman on £14, 000 a year in the engineers department of a local council count as a key officer post? Will he have to let an exemption officer, whom the Secretary of State may appoint, decide whether he can join Friends of the Earth, for example? I suppose that we ought to be grateful that people working in education, at least, are to be exempted automatically from the ban, but I have to tell the Secretary of State that his enormously magnanimous gesture might not mean much. Thanks to the policies of his colleague at the Department of Education and Science, I have yet to meet a schoolteacher who earns more than £13, 500 a year.

As if ashamed of even this little concession, the Bill quickly throws another outrageous clause at us. Clause 2(3) provides that one does not even have to earn £13,500

Column 216

a year to be politically victimised if one is involved with the media, or if the public might reasonably infer that one is in a position to influence things--even if one is not actually in such a position.

All that shows the appallingly wide extent of the Secretary of State's reforms, an extent that seems to be wildly out of proportion when compared with the problems--if any problems exist at all. The proposed restrictions will cover 70,000 people who are working in local government, the immense majority of whom are in posts of no sensitivity whatsoever. Their politics, if they have any, have never given any ratepayer a moment's concern. Their democratic freedoms should not be restricted so needlessly. Seventy thousand people is over 15 per cent. of all local authority, non-education salaried staff. If that number of people were all raving revolutionaries, the country would have been in chaos a long time ago.

There is another dimension to the arbitrary and sweeping nature of the proposals. I have already talked about numbers and salaries. There is no doubt that the Bill goes much too wide in that direction, but what about the political dimension? What will the Bill actually ban the 70,000 employees from doing? The simple answer is that we do not know ; we have not been told. At least on the numerical side, the Bill lays out exactly how sweepingly awful it will be--it says clearly who will be affected--but politically, the only thing that restricted persons are explicitly forbidden to do is become a councillor or a Member of Parliament. The rest come under the catch-all subsection (5) of clause 1, which says that each affected person will have to obey such requirements

"as may be prescribed by the Secretary of State."

No hint is given of what the requirements might include. I consider that to be an outrage to the authority of this House. When such an important human freedom as the right to participate fully in democracy is being discussed, we should know exactly what we are voting on. We must know just how far the Government propose to curtail freedom. I call on the Government to declare just what they propose to do with the powers that they are asking for this evening. Meanwhile, in the absence of any such guidance, I shall assume that they intend to adopt the proposals that were published last summer in their response to the Widdicombe report.

That may be too narrow an assumption. The number of politically restricted people in the Bill goes far beyond the original proposals. Perhaps the nature of the Government's restrictions will also go far beyond the original proposals. Even the original proposals were bad enough. Nobody in the restricted group would be able to hold office in any political party, speak or write publicly on matters of controversy, or even canvass in local elections. The last of those restrictions is particularly ludicrous. Somehow, I cannot see British local government being brought to its knees by a 22-year-old trainee draughtsman handing out leaflets in the high street. But the draughtsman might well be brought to his knees by the knowledge that he was less of a citizen than his exact counterpart who happened to work for ICI.

Anybody wishing to stand for a council or for Parliament would have to leave his job. This might have prevented the hon. Member for Surrey, South- West (Mrs. Bottomley) from ever reaching a selection committee, let alone the Government Front Bench. In her previous incarnation she was a social worker--a job she held right

Column 217

up to the election--and, given her undoubted talents, she would almost certainly be earning more than £13,500 a year by now. Whether the hon. Lady worked for a local authority or for a health authority, the point is that at least eight of her colleagues on the Benches opposite and many Members on this side came here by a path that will now be closed under this Bill.

The Local Government and Housing Bill shows us once again how badly the Government suffer from the sledge-hammer-and-nut syndrome. This one is not quite in the league of the abolition of an entire tier of government just to get rid of Mr. Livingstone--now my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East--but it does its best. Seventy thousand people are to be neutered to deal with the impartiality requirement in respect of, at most, 10,000 senior officers, most of whom are far too professional to be political anyway. What is worse, 70,000 people are to be prevented from being councillors in order to deal with, at most, 1,000 twin trackers, as they are called--and that is throughout the whole country.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that an element of malice is involved in this legislation. Nobody is claiming that local government is perfect. Indeed, in scope, one or two of its more serious misjudgments even begin to rival those of central Government. The trouble with this Bill is that it does not deal with those. Would it have stopped Westminster city council selling its cemeteries and its housing stock to developers?

The other trouble with this Bill is its double standards. For example, if Brent borough council were to engage a secret police force, keep closed files on all its ratepayers and refuse to release key committee minutes, or if Lambeth borough council's leader were to surround himself, at public expense, with a kitchen cabinet of flunkies and were to employ news manipulators on the Bernard Ingham model, and if all this came out, there would certainly be a case for legislation. But Brent and Lambeth are not responsible for those blows against democracy ; somebody else is, and what an irony it is when one considers that the person who is responsible is also the person who sees fit to preach from on high about what local councils may and may not do.

7.54 pm

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton) : I shall not follow the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) in his rather lurid attacks on the first part of the Bill, although I shall say something about that in a moment.

In this huge and complex Bill there is much to welcome, but I want later to reflect the concern of my own Conservative-controlled local authority in Taunton Deane and, no doubt, of the local authorities of a number of my hon. Friends, regarding aspects of the housing parts of this Bill. Going by comment outside, those parts are seen to have limited sex appeal but are extremely important for the future of our society. I will not go so far as to describe them as a curate's egg--first, because we have heard rather too much about eggs recently, and, secondly, because my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who will reply to this debate, is a far greater expert on ecclesiastical matters than I am.

I should like to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister of State on his blitzkrieg in Somerset last week. I

Column 218

understand that his thoughtful response made an excellent impression on Taunton's councillors, who raised with him the concerns to which I shall refer later. He also, rightly, chided the overspending Somerset county council for its missed opportunities and for the burdens it has imposed on business and domestic ratepayers. The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), who led for the Opposition, indulged in a variety of selective statistics, selective anecdotes and scare stories. I think that my hon. Friends the Members for Hampstead and Highgate, (Sir G. Finsberg) and for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) and, indeed, the Minister of State in interventions, largely answered the rather exaggerated points made by the hon. Member.

I come now to the Widdicombe clauses of this Bill. I welcome the implementation of so much that was in the Widdicombe report. The hon. Member for City of Durham denied that there were large numbers of revolutionaries in local government, but he completely missed the point. The purpose of the measure that he is so angry about is to eliminate from political activity council officials who are in positions of some responsibility to the public. This would not need to apply to a private sector organisation, but it does apply to the public service. Twenty years ago, I myself was a civil servant for a short time. I certainly had to subscribe to those principles and I believe that they are right.

We can argue in Committee where precisely the line should be drawn. There may be some points to be debated, but in principle the Government are right, and the fact that these measures from the Widdicombe report are included in the Bill shows that this Government are committed to protecting and promoting decent, fair and democratic local government--and that too is being denied at times by the Opposition. I believe that most local authorities--my own, certainly--will welcome those passages of the Bill. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) in his place because, in an article at the weekend, to which the Secretary of State referred, he acknowledged that there have been "instances arousing public disquiet", with which this legislation is designed to deal. We are grateful for that.

The decline in the standards prevailing in local government since the late 1960s has a close influence on the decline of the major party opposite, the Labour party in that period and the parroting of Labour party criticism of this Bill by the SLD spokesmen simply shows how far the Liberal party has shifted to the Left. I hope that this will be noted by the electors of Richmond and by the people voting in the county council elections this spring.

Mr. Soley : They will vote Labour.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett : Why should voters in any county council elections vote Labour or Liberal when those parties have just agreed a pact?

Mr. Nicholson : We shall see. The Labour and Liberal parties have been exchanging voters for the last 10 years.

I turn now to housing, which, in fact, was the subject of my maiden speech, 18 months ago, on the Second Reading of last year's Housing Bill. Again, there is much to welcome in the Bill and in recent relevant announcements. I have in mind the statement last week by the Minister of Housing, the noble Lord, Lord Caithness, on low-cost rural housing, for which I have been pressing for some time, and which is of considerable significance to parts of

Column 219

my constituency. It is again an indication of a responsive Government that they are stepping up measures to provide low-cost housing, where it is needed, in sparsely populated rural areas. That is very welcome.

I welcome also the improvement grant provisions in the Bill. It is encouraging and important that the improvement grant system should be revised and restructured. The English house condition survey of 1986 provided evidence of the need to target help in this respect. In England alone, half of all households lacking basic amenities, one third of those in unfit properties, and over one quarter in properties in disrepair, had annual net incomes below £3,000 in 1986. That shows just how much of a link there is between low income and poor housing. Therefore, the Government are right to proceed down the route of means-testing.

I have two questions for the Minister on this. Does he envisage that local authorities, such as the two in my constituency, which cannot at the moment provide discretionary improvement grants, will be enabled to do so by the provisions of the Bill for the categories of householders who need help? Secondly, can the Minister say where the line will be drawn regarding low income? There are plenty of people on low incomes who do not qualify for income support but who should qualify for these grants.

My local authority and my Conservative councillors in Taunton are very much concerned about the capital provisions in the Bill. I repeat what I have said before : what is sauce for the inner-city goose is not necessarily sauce for the shire-county gander. These concerns are shared by other efficient and socially concerned district councils, usually Conservative- controlled. They are worried about their ability, after 1990, to fulfil their statutory housing duties.

I wish to quote from a resolution by Taunton council last autumn. It was proposed by the leader of the council, Mr. Meikle, and seconded by the chairman of the housing committee, both of them highly respected local government members. They are concerned at the implications which will arise after April 1990,

"on the supposition that the tenants of a local authority have opted to remain with their local council as their landlord, it cannot be good government not to be able to spend proper sums on the repair and renewal and improvement of the housing stock This must imply a need for capital injection over the future years. The consultation paper makes it impossible for many authorities to achieve this objective. As a local authority which from before 1979 has promoted the national legislation in housing, notably the sale of council houses, we now see as almost a certainty that councils like ourselves, who have built up large capital receipts, will have our permissions to borrow' cut back".

[Interruption.] This is not all joy for the Labour party. The council's concern is made sharper by the contrast with Labour councils.

My council says :

"these same areas mainly Labour Party dominated have done everything in their power for nine years to slow down the sale of council houses, thus purposefully preventing themselves from building up capital receipts from which they could have now benefited. It would appear yet again that district councils may lose resources because of a small minority of left- wing councils nationwide." With regard to the contrast between reasonably efficient district councils and some of the inner-city Labour-dominated councils, I am happy that the Government have not gone as far as some of my hon.

Next Section

  Home Page