|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 220Friends feared they might last autumn and shifted capital resources from rural or semi-rural district authorities to the inner cities. We are grateful for that.
The right-to-buy figures give a telling contrast. About a month ago, I asked my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State what proportion of council housing stock, as at 1 January 1980, had been sold under the right to buy legislation in various authorities. In Somerset, the proportion ranges from 18.7 per cent. to 26.5 per cent. ; in Devon from 20.6 per cent. to 25.5 per cent. ; in Dorset from 17.9 per cent. to 30.5 per cent. ; and in Wiltshire from 17 per cent. to 24.2 per cent. I contrast those with the figures for certain London boroughs. In the London borough of Camden it was 2.6 per cent. ; in Islington 3.4 per cent. ; in Lambeth 1.5 per cent. ; and in Southwark 3.5 per cent.
There is an extraordinary contrast. It militates against the Labour party, but it also shows the difficulty for certain Conservative authorities, which have implemented the right to buy, in meeting needs from the waiting list.
Mr. Tony Banks rose --
Mr. Nicholson : I am anxious to finish so that I may accommodate the hon. Gentleman.
My local authority has disposed of its land so it cannot carry out new build or offer land to housing associations for building. The number of council properties in its ownership fell from 8,504 in April 1987 to 8,243 in April 1988. The number is expected to fall by 400 or 500 each year for the next two or three years while the number on the waiting list, which is realistically composed, has risen steadily. Last Saturday, half my surgery cases had come to me because of housing problems. That was the highest proportion I had encountered in my 18 months as a Member of Parliament. I am finding that it is increasingly difficult to accommodate the housing needs of my constituents--for example, young people, perhaps with a baby, who are living with their parents.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about housing problems in my constituency, which I think are paralleled by the problems in the constituencies of many of my hon. Friends. We are talking about a totally different administrative activity or political motivation than exists in many Labour-dominated conurbations. I welcome much of the Bill. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) is to follow me but, in view of the time restriction which he has imposed on his hon. Friends, I shall not keep him any longer from his speech or his dinner.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : It takes a little manipulation, certainly on this side, for everyone to get in, but I am glad to have been able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I intend to make sure that the next Conservative Member does not have to suffer me for very long.
I find it strange that the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) should say that the Labour party and the Liberal party have changed and that that is why local government has changed. He does not recognise for a moment that there has been any change in the political complexion of the Conservative party. There has not been such an authoritarian, Right-wing Conservative Government since the war, so it is not surprising that there has been a marked change in the attitude of people
Column 221involved in local government. They have been forced on to the defensive to try to defend jobs and services against the most appalling attacks made upon them personally as councillors and collectively as councils. The hon. Member could do his case more justice if he recognised that there have been major changes on his side which have created all the problems in local government today. I dream of the constituency problems of the hon. Gentleman. It would be wonderful for me to have the problems that he has in Taunton. If he thinks that a few housing problems are beginning to creep into his constituency, he should come to Newham, where 80 per cent. of my constituency cases relate to housing. The local authority that I represent in Newham has seen its bed- and-breakfast payments go up from £52,000 in 1983 to about £5.5 million today. We cannot solve our housing problems in Newham without massive central Government support, but we do not receive that support. All that we get is abuse and attack from central Government. The hon. Gentleman will not know the way of the world unless he comes to the inner cities of London, Leeds and Manchester.
Mr. David Nicholson : One point that I did not mention but which was extremely relevant is this. I do not know the figures for Newham, but in many of the Labour-controlled boroughs in inner London and elsewhere there are large numbers of council properties that are vacant for long periods or are not effectively used, and large numbers of vacant privately owned properties. We hope that the private rent legislation will revive such properties. That is why there is a problem in the hon. Gentleman's area and elsewhere in London.
Mr. Banks : The hon. Gentleman knows that the largest number of vacant properties in London is in the private sector, and they are mostly houses waiting to be sold. With property prices as high as they are in London, there is no way that anyone will rent out those properties--because the sort of people who could pay the rents could afford to pay the mortgages. In those circumstances, the idea that people will come off the housing waiting list and move into those private properties is palpable nonsense even for the hon. Member for Taunton.
The hon. Member for Taunton mentioned the proportions of housing stock sold by local authorities and quoted a number of very low percentages in London boroughs. The hon. Gentleman should know the state of some of the stock in those boroughs. Newham has 110 tower blocks, and there is no great rush of people waiting to buy a flat 20 storeys up in a tower block in Newham. That is another reason for the proportion sold being low. Those blocks were built in the 1960s and 1970s by the private sector and some of the building standards were appalling. The builders included Taylor Woodrow--and also Anglian which has now gone bankrupt. Taylor Woodrow is a well-known supporter of the Conservative party and inflicted jerry building on the London borough of Newham.
There are words that one is simply not allowed to use in this House : "lying", "cheating" and "hypocritical". Those are words that one could not apply to hon. Members without being disciplined. However, I would say that those words are most appropriate in respect of the
Column 222Government's policies towards local government. It is lying, cheating and hypocritical for the Government to say that the Bill is all about improving local government and restoring the standards of local government. This Government have done more than any other to destroy the standards of public service, both at a national and at a local level. The Bill is but the latest line in the voluminous epitaph currently being written on the tombstone of local democracy. The Government's clinical dismembering of local democracy has proceeded through a number of stages. It has proceeded through propaganda and abuse, which is echoed through the gutter press. It has proceeded through financial assault upon local authorities' affairs, forcing local authorities anxious to defend jobs and services into high rate levels. They can then be attacked by central Government as being profligate and spending too much money. Those authorities can then be financially penalised through rate capping and other financial devices. Another alleged way of improving local government is to abolish it. That seems to be the Government's attitude. We have now reached the point where the civil rights of councillors and officers are to be seriously curtailed.
The assault on local government by the present Government has been unmatched in the past 100 years. I believe that the motivation is simple. It stems from a malignant intolerance of opposition, which actually starts at No. 10 Downing street and works its way through. The Prime Minister believes that she cannot be wrong. Because she believes that, anybody who opposes her--whether from the Opposition or one of her right hon. or hon. Friends--must by definition be wrong. The Prime Minister is a natural autocrat and surrounded, of course, by a bunch of sycophants, many of whom have betrayed everything in which they once claimed to believe.
Ms. Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) : The hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) is one.
Mr. Banks : The hon. Gentleman has not actually practised sycophancy, he is a natural sycophant. I am not, therefore, pointing the finger specifically at him. It is the Government Front Bench that I am thinking about now.
I have read the comments of the Secretary of State for Education and Science. I believe that he is one of the most arrogant men in this House. The Secretary of State for Education and Science is one of the few people I know who can actually strut sitting down. He attends the Young Conservatives conference--the Tory party equivalent of the Hitler youth-- and talks about the bully boys in local government who he claims are somehow thwarting the Government's ambitions to get schools to opt out of local education authority control. That level of hypocrisy is breathtaking, and it comes from a Government who harass, threaten, intimidate and insult elected councillors. Having sat through virtually every local government Bill and order since 1983, and many of the Committees--I hope that if the Committee of Selection draws my name out tomorrow I shall be a member of the Committee on this Bill--and having watched the Government and Conservative Members, it appears that they will change every rule and plumb every depth to achieve their political objectives.
I remember the Prime Minister in 1979--she had not actually reached her St. Francis of Assisi stage then--
Column 223saying that the next Conservative Government would take Whitehall off the back of town halls. Fifty local government Bills later, can any Conservative Member say that that has been the direction of Conservative party policy since 1979? Can any Conservative Member honestly say that what we have seen since 1979 has been Whitehall being taken off the backs of the town halls?
Sir Geoffrey Finsberg : The hon. Gentleman may recall that the Department of the Environment in 1979 to 1981, with my noble Friend Lord Bellwin, removed about 90 restrictions from local government. It was because local authorities such as the GLC ratted on their obligations that further legislation became necessary. They brought it upon themselves.
Mr. Banks : I gave way to the hon. Gentleman because he gave way to me. I wish that he had been here at the beginning because he would surely recognise that this Conservative Government are further to the Right than any since the war. They are an authoritarian, centralising Government who believe that the Prime Minister cannot be wrong. If the Prime Minister says that it must be done, Conservative Members will do it. If the Prime Minister wanted to add an eighth day to the week, she would get a majority in the Division Lobby. Conservative Members are not independent accountable Members of Parliament--they are just a bunch of followers, time-servers and sycophants who will give the Prime Minister anything she wants, including the destruction of local democracy that we have seen since 1979. All the problems of local government stem from the policies of central Government. The Bill is yet one further attempt to dismantle local democracy and accountability. I look forward to being on the Committee to argue the case in more detail than I have today.
Dr. Charles Goodson-Wickes (Wimbledon) : It is almost three years since I took the Widdicombe report on holiday. It is not a light read, either in fact or in content, but I welcome the Government's courage in bringing forward the vast bulk of its proposals.
The House now has the opportunity to set a new pattern for the conduct of local authority business into the future. I do, however, have a more personal interest in seeing this most important matter coming before the House. In 1984 I set up a working party to examine apparent abuses in local government. The result was the publication of "The New Corruption", which the Secretary of State for the Environment of the time, now Lord Jenkin of Roding, acknowledged both in this House and on public platforms as a major factor in the setting-up of the Widdicombe committee. In addition to the pamphlet, a portfolio of evidence was submitted to the Secretary of State for consideration.
I should like to record the particular interest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), who made a typically worthy contribution to the debate earlier. He was then the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment. He endorsed the project and monitored its progress and his well-known fair-mindedness was a constant encouragement at a time when local government was not considered a politically exciting issue. At that time
Column 224those living in the shires or the leafy suburbs did not have a clue what we were talking about. I fear that that is still true. The background to this debate is well known. The election of the Tory Government in 1979 precipitated the predictable clash with the trade union movement, and, less predictably, confrontation with forces in local government, which were increasingly hostile to the philosophy of the incoming Government. I can say for the benefit of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) that the role of local government was described in a "London Labour Briefing" of February 1982 as
"a weapon in the class struggle".
It was also described in a Greater London council publication of April 1984 as
"an efficient means of redistributing resources".
That role was under threat, and as the emotional level rose, so did the stakes. The Government questioned the propriety of the actions and the funding of council campaigns, and the councils hit back. By the time of the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan counties, no less than £15 million of ratepayers' money had been swallowed up by the campaigns to prevent the demise of the mega-councils. That represents more than the total amount spent by all the political parties in the 1983 general election campaign. To some extent Patrick Jenkin became a victim of the system he attacked.
I have no wish to revive the old party political hobby horses about the questionable causes to which ratepayers' funds were committed. We could all trot out familiar phrases, but the "propaganda on the rates" issue was largely tackled by the Local Government Act 1986 following Widdicombe's interim report. I welcome the fact that the thrust of that report has been continued in part III of the Bill. We should not forget that for many hitherto politically unaware people it seemed that an almost alien creed had been superimposed on the traditional structure of local government, whether run by traditional Labour or Tory councils. To have a red flag flying over the town hall in Islington a few hundred yards from my house was a cultural and a political shock. It educated me and many of my colleagues who sharpened their political teeth in Islington. "The New Corruption", so named to draw a distinction between that and the old-style personal financial corruption, was written from a particular political viewpoint. Many of the malpractices identified, however, could have been perpetrated in the future by parties diametrically opposed to those around in the 1980s which were able to set in place an apparatus, fully funded by the ratepayer, to challenge central Government. The long-established convention of properly run local government, serving a particular community, was under threat. I hear some mutterings from the Opposition Benches and lest anyone should doubt the force of my argument I refer to the Fabian Society tract "Managing Local Socialism", which was published in 1986 and which quoted my work with approval.
Legislation--necessary only because of the misconduct of various councils-- must be put in place to restore a proper framework. As the cry, "Yes, Minister" has become a catchphrase, now is the time to say "No, councillor". I congratulate the Secretary of State on producing the Bill hard on the heels of so many other radical changes in the structure and funding of local
Column 225government. It is recognition of the fact that the operation of the new system will be prejudiced in the absence of a proper ethical grounding.
I shall confine my remarks to the first three parts of the Bill in so far as they derive from the Widdicombe report. Perhaps the most important part of the Bill is the recognition given to the status of the chief executive, described somewhat coyly in the Bill as the : "head of the authority's paid service".
He may also be designated as the monitoring officer. Amidst all this jargon is the core of the thinking behind the Bill--the necessity for someone in an authority to be able to blow the whistle if prima facie malpractices are identified, without risking the sack. The chief executive needs and deserves the protection of the Bill and from this rightly privileged position much else flows. The traditional political neutrality of him and his colleagues is established by their appointment on merit alone. Furthermore, their designation as holding "politically restricted posts" will disqualify them from seeking elected office. After all, no reasonable observer would think it right for senior local government officers to be politically active elsewhere. The ludicrous practice of what I described as "cross-employment"--that description has now been overtaken by two less elegant ones, "dual tracking" or "twin tracking", which have a transatlantic ring about them--will be brought to an end. No longer will an officer in one council be able to sit as a councillor on a neighbouring council with the inevitable conflict of interests that have been pointed out by many of my hon. Friends. If a politically sensitive appointment is judged appropriate and is made on merit, everyone knows about it and it is all in the open. Many other measures are long overdue. Why should co-opted members on committees have the right to vote? Why should the political balance on councils not be reflected in the make-up of committees? Of course party caucuses can have deliberate meetings, but why on earth should decisions ever be made in camera? All those issues, which would seem ordinary common sense and fair play to the man in the street, are now addressed in the Bill.
Ms. Abbott : It will not do to criticise, by implication, Labour councils without thinking carefully of the practices of some Conservative councils. I served for four years on Westminster city council which was in the habit of taking crucial decisions in camera--it still does. What is more, whatever the alleged iniquities of Labour authorities, now and in the past, we have never stooped to peddling cemeteries at 15p apiece.
Dr. Goodson-Wickes : I can give joy to the hon. Lady, because all my remarks apply equally to all councils whatever their political persuasion and equally to any alleged cases of malpractice by Tory or Labour- controlled councils.
To put the mind of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West at rest, and so that I do not appear sycophantic, there are two areas in which I believe the Government are being unusually timid--one does not usually apply that adjective to this Administration. First, I refer to the updating of the national code of local government conduct, which is covered in clause 23. If the purpose of the code is to encourage councillors to avoid
Column 226conflict of interests, I am at a loss to understand why it should not incorporate a compulsory register of non- pecuniary as well as pecuniary interests. That would stamp out many abuses whereby funds have been voted to particular organisations in which councillors have an interest, perhaps as paid workers. In the past complex networks had been built up amounting almost to a sub-culture rather than genuine voluntary service.
Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham) : Give an example.
Dr. Goodson-Wickes : I anticipated the hon. Gentleman because I shall call in aid the evidence given to the Royal Commission on the standards of conduct in public life by the Society of Labour Lawyers, no less.
The second area in which the Government appear to have been timid relates to standing orders. Given the widespread and well-documented manipulation of standing orders in various councils, I am somewhat dismayed that according to clause 16 the Secretary of State "may" require authorities to adopt certain procedures.
Why not have a compulsory element to protect the interests which after all are there to protect minority parties? Copies of my booklet will be available--
Mr. Tony Banks : In the Vote Office?
Mr. Goodson-Wickes : Perhaps not in the Vote Office ; but they will be available from me, if the hon. Gentleman cares to cross my path. I shall even peg it at a level of £2.25. In these days of low inflation, I shall gladly peg the price and hon. Members can line up for it. With those reservations, on which I shall value the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I applaud his further move towards better financial and political accountability in local government. As the community charge is a major step towards that end, so these measures will largely confine abuses to local government history, along with the embattled ratepayer who has financed them. I am confident that the previous experience of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government in Smith square, Church house and Brussels will allow him to fight successfully his latest battle to strengthen the democratic process.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : The restriction on many local government employees standing for election to serve on another authority is yet another and major undermining of basic civil liberties by the Tory Government. Just over five years ago, there was the Government ban on union membership at GCHQ. Today, the Government propose to take away the ability of many people serving in local government to exercise their right to stand for election to a local authority or, indeed, to the House.
I understand that, although the Bill does not cover teachers--I hope that the Minister will refer to this when winding up--it is reported in at least one newspaper today that some Conservative Members believe that teachers should be included. I also understand that the Government are considering some sort of compromise in Committee, whereby head teachers would be caught by such a ban.
It is certainly not for this Government, of all Governments, to talk about jobs for the boys. The
Column 227Government have filled every conceivable type of public appointment with their supporters and sympathisers. Without exception, all the quangos, for instance, have been packed with those who have close connections with the Tory party. When it comes to appointments to these and other bodies, the basic criterion is clear. The words of the Prime Minister are well known : "Is he or she one of us?" That is the only criterion that counts. The use of prime ministerial and ministerial patronage has been as extensive and corrupting under this administration as the sale of honours by Lloyd-George.
Mr. Nicholas Bennett : I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Can he tell us what was the criterion used by the Labour Government when they appointed Lord Wigg to be chairman of the Horserace Betting Levy Board, or Lord Thomson of Monifieth to be chairman of the IBA, or Lord Aylestone to be chairman of the IBA before him? Numerous other Labour Members were created peers and made chairmen of quangos. What was the criterion used there?
Mr. Winnick : The hon. Gentleman, if he wishes, can go into the Library and look up all the appointments that were made by the previous Labour Government and those made by this Government. He will find that certain appointments were indeed made by the Labour Government of Labour supporters and former Ministers. That has never been unknown in previous Administrations. I am not denying that it happened under Labour. Clearly it did so. But it has gone much, much further under this Government. That is the very point.
Mr. Nicholas Bennett rose--
Mr. Winnick : I shall not give way again.
The very point that I am trying to make is not that political appointments by a Government were unknown, but that under this Government they have become so extensive and corrupting. It is interesting to note that the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), the former Conservative Leader and Prime Minister, said very recently in a debate on the Official Secrets Bill that the press office at 10 Downing street is being run in a corrupt way. We all know that the influence of Mr. Bernard Ingham is far greater on the Prime Minister than that of any member of the Cabinet. The parts of the Bill that deal with housing finance are no less offensive than the matters that I have just raised. The clauses are meant to discourage many council housing tenants from staying with a local authority, because of the much higher rents that will undoubtedly be charged.
We rightly accuse the Government, although they deny it, of being in the business of doing away with the National Health Service or bringing about the position where only the poorest and most chronically sick are likely to use the service. But what cannot be brought about outright in the NHS, for purely political reasons, of course, will be achieved far more quickly with the public rented sector. The Government have made it perfectly clear in the White Paper and the consultative document that they do not believe that local authorities should be in the business of council house building. That is the big divide between the two sides of the House. The Government also strongly believe that the number of rented dwellings in the public sector should be substantially reduced. It is hoped that in due course, with
Column 228the regular and substantial rent increases that will undoubtedly occur if the Bill becomes law, only the poorest in the community are likely to remain as council tenants. Those people are not likely to be taken in as tenants by private landlords or even by housing associations. That is the role of the local housing authorities, as the Government see it. It is quite different from what has been established over many years.
To a large extent, what I have just said is borne out by the consultative paper "New Financial Regime for Local Authority Housing in England and Wales". Paragraph 14 of the paper brings to the attention of tenants their right to exercise an option to buy a property, or what is described as a "tenants' choice". It is saying, in effect, that the Government want to see this brought about. In plain English the message could not be plainer. The Secretary of State did not deny, although he accused us of some exaggeration, that the sort of rent levels that he would like to see are those described in the White Paper and the consultative document. Therefore the message is, "If you do not like what is happening, agree to buy or vote yes to a private landlord taking over your property." That is much like the blackmail used over housing action trusts. Council tenants have now been allowed to exercise a vote, against the Government's original wishes, as a result of the Government accepting the Lords amendment, but the blackmail used by the Secretary of State is, "Well, if you do not agree to going into a housing action trust, it is quite likely the funds will not be available from Government for your property to be brought up to modern standards." That is blackmail. We are concerned not just about the abuse of patronage but about the use of blackmail and other such tactics, which Ministers use when they are anxious to get their way.
I served on a local authority before originally becoming a Member of the House, and I know that those who serve on local authorities do so because they have a feeling of duty and responsibility, although of course there are some exceptions. In my view, that rule certainly does not apply to Lady Porter and the manner in which Westminster city council is being run in such a corrupt way.
The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) asked what was wrong with the contract of the chief executive who is retiring from Westminster city council. What is so offensive about it is clear. As my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) said, there is a clause saying, in effect, that the chief executive has a duty not to reveal anything of what has taken place. Clearly if he does so, the contract will be broken in the eyes of the leadership of Westminster city council who drew up the contract. That is what we find so offensive.
Mr. Bernie Grant : Disgraceful.
Mr. Winnick : As my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) says, that is what we think is so disgraceful.
I do not happen to believe that there is anything wrong in the way in which local authorities have used the existing discretionary powers for contributions to be made for council housing, especially because of the substantial reduction in subsidies for local authority housing since this Government have been in office. To ring fence the housing revenue accounts of authorities in the way set out in the Bill must cause large rent increases. That of course is the major purpose of the exercise.
Column 229The change in the funding of rent rebates is equally offensive. Although the Secretary of State tried to deny it, it means in effect that the housing benefit for the poorest council tenants will be paid for by other council tenants through much higher rents. In other words, the relatively poor will subsidise the poorest in the community. It has always been accepted--by Tory Administrations as well-- that assistance for the relief of poverty should come from national sources, but under the Bill it will come from council tenants who are not in receipt of benefit. That is certainly wrong. It will undoubtedly cause much hardship to those who have to bear the burden.
There are many other matters in the Bill which cannot be dealt with in a 10 or 12-minute speech on Second Reading. For example, capital receipts will be used for loan purposes, and not, as promised by a previous Secretary of State, for housing.
I cannot deal with all the issues because many other hon. Members still wish to speak, but let me say finally that Britain faces an acute housing crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people are desperate for accommodation. I make no apology for repeating this : just a short distance down the road, five or seven minutes walk away at most, tonight as on previous nights, no matter how cold it is, people are sleeping in cardboard boxes. They are by no means all tramps. Many have come to London to find work. In some cases, although not all, they have found a job but simply cannot find any accommodation, and there is nothing in the Bill that will allow them to do so. There are many other people, as we know, living with their young children in bed-and-breakfast or hostel accommodation in the most squalid conditions in which no one in a country such as ours should be allowed to live in the 1980s. There are many others, including some of my own constituents, not living in such bad conditions, but living with their parents or in-laws in overcrowded accommodation. The reason is understandable. We all know it. The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) said that most people who come to his constituency surgeries have housing problems, and the same applies to me and my hon. Friends. Those constituents cannot afford a mortgage, even when the mortgage interest rate is not so high. They cannot afford the privately rented sector. They cannot pay market rents. If they could afford them, they would almost certainly be
owner-occupiers. Therefore, they are faced with that dilemma of finding adequate accommodation at a rent they can afford. Earlier, a Conservative Member spoke with pride about the number of council dwellings that have been sold. What about the number of council dwellings that have not been built? This year it is likely that the number of council dwellings completed in England and Wales will be no more than about 12,000. That means tremendous hardship and misery. That is why the Bill has no relevance to Britain's housing crisis ; why the Bill is so offensive in all its clauses ; why the Bill will bring no relief to the people to whom I have been referring; and why the Opposition have every justification for voting against it.
Several Hon. Members rose--
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker) : Order. I understand that the Front-Bench spokesmen will seek to
Column 230catch my eye at about 10 minutes past 9, so 28 minutes of debating time remains for Back Benchers. I hope that we shall have brief speeches.
Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh) : It is interesting that I should be selected by you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to speak after the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). He and I served on the London borough of Brent council from its inception in 1963-64. I have to go back to those days to find the start of the decline in the relationship between central and local government.
I am pleased to see that proportional committees will be established by the Bill. I am particularly in favour of that because, after the London borough of Brent elections in 1963, 31 Labour councillors and 29 Conservative councillors were elected. At the first inaugural meeting of the council, the hon. Member for Walsall, North was one of those who fervently supported the fact that all 10 aldermanic benches went to the Labour party, thus distorting the electorate's wish by packing the committees. It has taken the Government 25 years to catch on to that and to introduce legislation to ensure proportional representation on the committees.
That was the beginning of the slide into argument between central and local government. The political editor of the Local Government Chronicle recently said in an article about me that I had the widest, longest and broadest experience in local government of any hon. Member. As I have worked my way through different authorities I have seen the changes that have taken place. Over the past 25 years, Labour-controlled local authorities have sought to confront the Government and so the situation in which we now find ourselves has been inevitable.
I have criticised the Government because they are still tinkering with the problems. We are told that this will be the 50th Act of its kind. Until somebody recognises that the real problem is that Britain has too much local government, we shall always have debates and legislation that does no more than tinker with the problem. Why is it necessary for an electorate to have a town council, a district or borough council and a county council which can all levy a rate? On top of that, there are the Government and the European Assembly. There are far too many tiers of local government. However, that does not apply throughout the country, because outer London boroughs do not have an upper tier or even a lower tier. For all its faults --this may be a political argument--Brent, one of the outer London boroughs, was at least a homogeneous unit without the conflicts that we now have as a result of so many local authorities. The people of Skelton in my constituency are up in arms because the town council has increased the rate this year to 2p. That is a massive increase by any normal standards, but perfectly allowable under the Bill. The Government have failed to accept my advice on this and on previous occasions that there should be a limitation on the amount of money that town councils can raise through their precepts. The Government have done nothing. Just four years ago a Conservative Government abolished the limitation on the amount of money that parish and town councils can take.
That increase is on top of a projected rate of 299p in the pound for my constituents in Cleveland next year. It is said
Column 231that that is only a 6 per cent. increase, but it is 6 per cent. on a high base. It is 299p for the county and we have yet to hear what the district rate will be. Already we know one of the towns is charging 2p.
People talk about unemployment problems and the generation of employment in the north-east, but is it any wonder when the entrepreneurs and business men from Japan and elsewhere come to Britain and, before they manufacture a thing, they see the dead weight of the rate burden from three tiers of local authorities which they will have to bear? It is far too much.
What is all the money being spent on in Cleveland? That is a good question, because many people cannot find out. But they may be able to find out how much it cost to employ Vincent Hanna and his circus for a few lousy months last year while he was trying to put a gloss on the activities of the people involved in the Cleveland sex abuse case. What a shambles that was. There were two doctors, one out of his or her mind and the other nearly so, bringing havoc to the people of Cleveland, and the local authority trying to cover that up left, right and centre by spending money which we have not had the opportunity to debate in the House despite my requests on no fewer than 12 occasions. At the same time, Cleveland county council put up the rates for all those who live there.
I urge the Government to look again at the construction of local government.
After all, we now have the urban development corporations--creatures of this Government brought in because of the stagnation and waste of time of local authorities, which have failed miserably in the north-east of England to rise to the challenge of their responsibilities. Only now are we beginning to get some regeneration on Teesside. The last bulletin of the Teesside chamber of commerce talked of the boom times now ahead as a result of the Teesside development corporation, not as a result of the dead hand of the local authorities. So why do we need so many tiers of local government? Perhaps it is in order to find jobs for some of the Labour councillors and county councillors.
Let us look at the twinning there is in the Cleveland area. How can we justify a personnel officer on full pay employed by Middlesbrough council being seconded completely and fully, without any duties and responsibilities left, to work as a full-time county councillor for the Cleveland county council? To add salt to the wound, it has been necessary to recruit a replacement because of the work not being done by the full- time councillor as a consequence of that decision. We have too many layers of local authority. We have leisure and social services being looked after by everybody. And what calibre of people are we bringing into local government as a consequence of all this? Perhaps my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary has not read the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette of about two weeks ago, which reported that two county councillors had to be separated because they were physically fighting in the library of the town hall, and the police had to be brought in. I hesitate to use the word gentleman. One of those males was a member of the police committee and the other was a justice of the peace. How can we expect our young people to be given guidance and leadership by Cleveland county council when people of that sort are councillors? I look forward to the day when there may be some strictures by the central Government regarding whom we can and cannot have in local government representing the people.
Column 232We have someone on Cleveland county council who was elected to represent the town of Lofthouse in my constituency. He was the local vicar, and he scarpered ; we are not quite sure with which lady. Consequently, the people of Lofthouse have been virtually without a county councillor for the past two years. I believe that he puts in a token attendance at county hall in order not to be disqualified under the current legislation. The Labour party would be terrified of having a by-election in that town because the Conservative party, which now controls the town council, would undoubtedly win the seat. Why is there not some legislation to ensure that those elected as councillors and county councillors do the job properly and are not employed elsewhere?
I am surprised and sorry that we do not have any limitations on the financial earnings of councillors and county councillors. Perhaps by doing away with twin tracking we shall do away with the concept of being an officer of more than one authority, but we shall not have done away with the duplication of people who are both councillors and county councillors, and in some cases town councillors.
Then there is the way in which allowances can be boosted. In Middlesbrough one does not have to be on a committee to obtain the allowance for any night. A councillor can go along to the committee room and if any councillor on his side is missing he can substitute for him and draw the allowance. He is there for two or three minutes and then he leaves. That is all that is necessary.
I drew to the attention of the House some three or four years ago the situation in Middlesbrough under the standing orders of the council, which enable any councillor to hold a ward surgery in his own home. It does not matter if nobody turns up ; he can still claim the full allowance. He can sit at home with his slippers on, watching television, and claim the full allowance. That is the sort of abuse to which the Government have yet to address themselves. So I hope that this is not the last of the Bills that the Government will be bringing forward but is merely a step further along the road.
Mr. Holt : I will willingly give way if the hon. Gentleman wants to come in. Does he want to come in or not?
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I am here to deal with that.
Mr. Holt : I appreciate that you are there, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but if the hon. Gentleman wants to interrupt I will willingly give way. If he does not, will he shut up?
Mr. Bernie Grant : Will the hon. Gentleman, instead of giving us a fictitious situation, give us a concrete example of a case in which abuse has occurred in Cleveland county council or any of the other councils that he has named? Let him name names.
Mr. Holt : I have already told the House that two county councillors were fighting. It is a matter of record. I have said that under standing orders one can claim for a surgery carried out in one's own home. That, too, is a matter of record. So I do not have to name names.
The politicisation of county councils occurred almost immediately after the war. Prior to 1950 almost every councillor in the country was an independent. After 1950 the Labour party started to fight as a party, and later on
Column 233the Conservatives caught up and commenced to do the same. The Labour party has sought whenever possible to get round the legislation of the day and to circumvent the activities of central Government. It is regrettable that local government is not what it was and that the people who are going into local government are not what they were. Certainly, that is true in many instances of the officers who serve in local government today. We shall not be able to turn the clock back. How can we when the Derbyshire county council appoints a man such as Race, who has no experience or knowledge whatsoever, as its chief officer? That is what we are up against. There are innumerable instances of abuses by local government, particularly Cleveland county council, which is without a doubt among the most profligate in the country. Regrettably, I do not have time to go into details of all of them tonight, but there is one thing I would like to draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under- Secretary, because I believe that she may have the ear of another hon. Member.
Cleveland county council is for ever screaming and moaning that it has not enough money to mend the roads, the potholes and the pavements. Yet, according to this year's report of the council, it has underspent its allocation by a quarter of a million pounds. If it had any organisation whatsoever, if it was in any way capable, I should not have my constituents complaining to me about the roads, while the funds generously given by central Government are lying wasted and unspent. I would not mind if it were the first year, but I believe that it is the second or perhaps the third year running that the same situation has prevailed. So there is much that can still be done to make local government more efficient. Another example is the advertisement for a chief cleansing engineer placed by Cleveland county council in the most recent issue of the Sunday Times. That quarter-page advertisement must have cost 25 to 30 per cent. of the engineer's annual salary.
Local authorities under Labour control, and serving areas represented by Labour Members of Parliament, moan and groan about the Bill. I am moaning and groaning because it does not go far enough. It is time to review local government's duties, responsibilities and financing.