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Column 814committee which can put council policy into practice, without any further discussion. All Cabinet decisions have to be ratified by law through this House. That is a major difference. It is right that all elected councillors should have a say in the policy of the authority before it becomes law in the council.
Mr. Trippier : I do not know how far we are able to stray on this particular point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, before you rule us out of order. The most specific point that I can make to the hon. Member for Newham, North- West (Mr. Banks) is that in local government the whole council is responsible for the executive decisions. In national Government, the Government are a separate executive.
Mr. Trippier : I was only going to reply briefly, before you ruled me out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the greatest advantage we have at the moment is the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, especially in view of the remarks that he made over the weekend.
However, I will now reply to the point raised by the hon. Member for Truro. Main council committees, as the hon. Member for Newham, North-West will agree, normally consist of more than 10 members. The rules at least provide for members from an opposition group to be represented even on very small committees. The amendment would make it difficult or impossible for some councils to set up small committees to deal, for example, with urgent matters. Those of us who have served in local government know that there have to be committees or sub-committees set up for that precise purpose. If, for example, there were two minority groups with more than 10 per cent. of members, such small committees, under the terms of the amendment, would have to consist of at least five councillors from the majority party for them to retain a majority. I suggest to the House that that would be excessively bureaucratic.
I remain unconvinced by the thrust of the amendment. However, having given the undertaking to the hon. Member for Truro that I will look with great interest at the example he gave to see whether it will be caught by the Bill, I hope that he will withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Matthew Taylor : I have listened with care to what the Minister said. Given that he has undertaken to look at the specific example I gave and see whether the difficulties I illustrated are likely to arise, I do not wish to press the amendment. I understand the Minister's concern about the terms of the amendment. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
subject to subsection (1A) below'.
(1A) no regulations may be made under this subsection except in circumstances where, in relation to an individual authority, that authority has not, within twelve months of the passing of this Act-- (
(a) considered proposed revisions to its Standing Orders, having regard to the content of guidance issued by the Secretary of State ; (
(b) made such revisions to its Standing Orders as it considers reasonable as a result of such consideration.'.
Mr. Howarth : Amendment No. 148 is consequential upon amendment No. 147. We are seeking to amend clause 17, which gives the Secretary of State power to regulate and, subject to such variations as may be authorised by regulation, to impose on local authorities the duty to adopt certain procedural standing orders. The amendment seeks to delay that process, so that if the Secretary of State has issued some suggestion or guidelines about what should be contained within the standing orders of any given local authority or group of local authorities and they do not comply within 12 months, the Secretary of State can make a regulation for them to do so.
The amendment arises because we have argued consistently that too much compulsion is placed on local authorities to do things that, in most cases, are not necessary. Earlier this evening, in a debate on another group of amendments, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) made the point that local authorities generally were being expected to do many things and to comply with many changes as a result of some Government-perceived abuses by a handful of local authorities, mostly in the London area. To some extent, I agree with my hon. Friend.
As the Minister knows, I served on a local authority for about 14 years and we never moved outside our own standing orders. We had perfectly adequate standing orders with which we complied for the most part. If anybody breached those standing orders, it was pointed out to him and dealt with effectively. From time to time we amended them, as circumstances changed.
There is nothing unique about that. The majority of local authorities have adequate standing orders that enable them properly to carry out the duties and responsibilities of a council. We do not see why the vast bulk of those local authorities should be compelled by the Minister to carry out various changes to their standing orders, as determined by the Minister.
It is particularly rich that this Secretary of State, who spends more time in the courts than almost any Secretary of State in history answering for the irregularities of his Department, should be forcing local authorities to change their standing orders to meet some as yet unspecified regulation that the Government may wish to apply.
Column 81610.45 pm
The clause is not necessary but, given that it exists, if the Secretary of State wants to take those powers, why does he not say to the local authorities, "Here are some suggestions. You have 12 months to consider them. If you have not considered them after 12 months, I have reserve powers to do something about it"?
We do not like this compulsion, which is neither necessary for most local authorities, nor useful. It is deeply offensive to the vast bulk of local authorities and I urge the Minister at this stage, if he is serious about wanting to do something, to accept our amendment as it will give him those reserve powers without having to take draconian steps at the beginning of the process rather than waiting 12 months to see what happens.
Mr. Trippier : I should have guessed that the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) would be selected to move the amendment because he is always so nice and reasonable about everything. I am delighted that he referred to his local authority of Knowsley so many times in Committee. It is not very surprising to many Conservative Members that Knowsley has not had much trouble with its model rules as it has only one Conservative member on its council. I do not suppose that he could have done much about the opposition--
Mr. Trippier : I apologise. It seems that there are now four. We must have won one or two council by-elections since I paid my last official visit there. It is certainly a high percentage increase. It may well not be necessary to implement and to make statutory the model rules and I shall not be too hard about that point. However, I draw the House's attention to the fact that the Widdicombe committee recommended that the clarification and strengthening of standing orders might take the form of statutory provision. As we explained in the White Paper, "Conduct of Local Authority Business"--it is there for all to see--the Government would prefer voluntary guidance to be prepared by the local authority associations and the relevant Government Departments. That is already in hand. A working party of representatives of Government Departments and the local authority associations is at present preparing revised draft model standing orders. As we explained in the White Paper, we believe it is right to take powers to enable a statutory core of standing orders to be prescribed should that be judged desirable. The Government consider that core standing orders should cover various topics such as--these were discussed at the meetings to which I referred--the right of the minority party to put a matter on the agenda of the council or one of its committees or sub-committees ; and provision to give chief officers the right to advise orally or in writing on any matter coming before a council or its committees for decision provisions to limit the powers of councils to suspend their standing orders. Clause 17 would provide a power to require these on a uniform, national basis. I have looked carefully at the amendment proposed to clause 17 and it seems to me that its general objective is to leave the question of the adoption of standing orders entirely on a voluntary basis. Seemingly that is what the hon. Member for Knowsley, North is suggesting. I hope to convince the hon. Gentleman that we
Column 817are approaching the matter on that basis but feel it right that there should be a power to enable a statutory core to be prescribed if necessary.
I hope that the amendment will be either withdrawn or rejected. Amendment negatived.
Amendments made : No 114, in page 24, line 13, at end insert-- (1A) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1) above, regulations under this section may require such standing orders as are mentioned in that subsection to contain provision which, notwithstanding any enactment or the decision of any relevant authority or committee or sub-committee of a relevant authority, authorises persons who are members of such an authority, committee or sub-committee--
(a) to requisition meetings of the authority or of any of their committees or sub-committees ;
(b) to require a decision of a committee or sub-committee of the authority to be referred to and reviewed by the authority themselves or by a committee of the authority ;
(c) to require that a vote with respect to a matter falling to be decided by the authority or by any of their committees or sub-committees is to be taken in a particular manner.'.
No. 115, in line 17, leave out from appropriate' to end of line 20.
No. 235, in line 25, leave out regional, islands or district council' and insert local authority'.-- [Mr. Gummer.]
Amendments made : No. 236, in page 25, line 9, leave out or joint committee'.
No. 126, in line 13, after omissions ;', insert--
(a) in relation to a local authority in England and Wales, has the same meaning as in the Local Government Act 1972 ; and
(b) in relation to a local authority in Scotland, has the same meaning as in the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 ;'.-- [Mr. Gummer.]
.--(1) The following provisions shall be substituted for paragraphs 6 to 11 of Schedule 4 to the Local Government Act 1974 "Expenses of the Commissions 6.--(1) Each of the Commissions shall be treated as if they were a specified body for the purposes of sections 78 and 79 (revenue support grant) of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 ("the 1988 Act"), and those sections shall accordingly have effect with the following modifications. (2) Before making a determination under section 78 of the 1988 Act, the Secretary of State shall, except in the case mentioned in paragraph 8 below, take into account estimates of the expenses of each Commission together with any observations thereon made and submitted to him in accordance with paragraph 7 below.
(3) The Secretary of State may also take into account any other information available to him as to the expenses of the Commissions, whatever its source.
Column 818(4) A determination under section 78 of the 1988 Act shall not be invalid merely because the requirements of paragraph 7 below were not complied with.
(5) For the purposes of section 78(7) of the 1988 Act, each Commission shall be treated as if they were also a notifiable authority.
7.--(1) Each Commission shall prepare an estimate of the expenses which they will incur in the forthcoming financial year with a view to submitting it to the Secretary of State.
(2) Each Commission shall send copies of the estimate to such representatives of local government as the Secretary of State directs for consideration by those representatives.
(3) Any observations by those representatives shall be submitted to the Commission within one month of the receipt of the Commission's estimate, and it shall be the duty of the Commission to take any such observations into consideration before submitting their estimate of their expenses to the Secretary of State.
(4) Each Commission shall, not later than such date in any year as the Secretary of State specifies in writing to the Commission, submit their estimate of their expenses for the forthcoming financial year to the Secretary of State together with copies of all observations made under this paragraph by the representatives of local government or, if none were made, together with a statement of that fact. 8. Where a Commission fail to submit an estimate of their expenses for the forthcoming financial year under paragraph 7 above, the Secretary of State may, for the purposes of a determination under section 78 of the 1988 Act, assume those expenses to be such as he sees fit."
(2) Any thing done before the passing of this Act which corresponds to a thing authorised or required to be done by any provision of the paragraphs 6(2) and (3), 7 and 8 substituted by subsection (1) above and done for the purposes of sections 78 and 79 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 shall be treated as validly done under that provision and those sections shall have effect accordingly. (3) The foregoing provisions shall have effect for the financial years beginning on or after 1st April 1990.'.-- [Mrs. Virginia Bottomley.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Mrs. Bottomley : The Government have tabled four new clauses to part II which completes the package of reforms to the local ombudsman service outlined in the White Paper in response to the Widdicombe report. All these have the aim of making the local ombudsman more effective and efficient.
In Committee, measures were debated to improve compliance with the recommendations of the report. We now seek to introduce further provisions by means of new clauses 23A, 24 and 26 together with the consequential amendments Nos. 119 to 122 to give effect to the White Paper's outstanding proposals. These concentrate on the administrative details of the service and provide new arrangements for funding the English and Welsh commissions, new consultation arrangements with local authorities and other bodies within jurisdiction, to replace the representative body, an additional power for the commissioners to give advice and guidance on good administrative practice and a power for the Secretary of State to appoint advisory commissioners.
Mr. Soley : We covered this matter in some detail in Committee, so I will not traverse the ground again. At some stage we shall have to examine the functioning of the local authority commissioner because, useful and good
Column 819though the work is, it is important, as we pointed out in Committee, given that it deals with local government affairs, for saying that local government should have some say in the financing and organising. Nor must we undermine the role of councillors, which was one of the strongest points we made in Committee. I also pointed out then that if the same standards that applied to local authorities were applied to private business we might have better services from private business for customers, and towards the people who work for those businesses. For the moment I will not debate the matter further.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
.--(1) The representative body for England and the representative body for Wales designated under section 24 of the Local Government Act 1974 are hereby dissolved and accordingly that section shall cease to have effect.
(2) After section 23 of that Act there shall be inserted the following section--
"Annual reports for representatives etc. 23A.--(1) For the financial year ending in 1990 and for each subsequent financial year, each of the Commissions shall prepare a general report on the discharge of their functions and shall submit it--
(a) to such persons as appear to the Commission to represent authorities in England or, as the case may be, authorities in Wales to which this Part of this Act applies, and
(b) in the case of such authorities as are not so represented, to those authorities.
(2) The report shall be submitted as soon as may be after the Commission has received the reports for the year from Local Commissioners under section 23(11) above, and each Commission shall submit copies of those reports, together with their own report. (3) Each Commission shall arrange for the publication of the report submitted by them under subsection (1) above and of the reports of which copies are submitted by them under subsection (2) above.
(4) Before arranging for the publication of a report under subsection (3) above the Commission concerned shall give a reasonable opportunity for the representative persons and authorities to whom the report was submitted to comment on it.
(5) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (4) above, comments made by the representative persons and authorities by virtue of that subsection may relate to particular classes of authorities to which this Part of this Act applies.
(6) Where the Commission for Local Administration in Wales consist of only one Local Commissioner, section 23(11) above and subsection (2) above shall have effect with the necessary modifications.".'-- [Mrs. Virginia Bottomley.]
Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.
.--(1) In section 23 of the Local Government Act 1974 (appointment and functions of Commissions for Local Administration) there shall be inserted, after subsection (12), the following subsections--
"(12A) Each of the Commissions may, after consultation with the representative persons and authorities concerned, provide to the authorities or any of the authorities to which this Part of this Act applies such advice and guidance about good administrative
Column 820practice as appears to the Commission to be appropriate and may arrange for it to be published for the information of the public. (12B) The representative persons and authorities concerned are- - (
(a) for the purposes of subsection (12) above, such persons appearing to the Commission to represent authorities in England or, as the case may be, authorities in Wales to which this Part of this Act applies, and in the case of such authorities as are not so represented, those authorities ; and
(b) for the purposes of subsection (12A) above, such of those persons and authorities as the Commission think appropriate." (2) In section 21 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1975 (appointment and functions of Commissioner for Local Administration in Scotland) there shall be inserted, after subsection (4), the following subsection--
"(4A) The Commissioner may, after consultation with such associations of local authorities as appear to him to be appropriate, provide to the authorities to which this Part of this Act applies such advice and guidance about good administrative practice as appears to him to be appropriate and may arrange for it to be published for the information of the public.".'.-- [Mrs. Virginia Bottomley.]
Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.
.--(1) Section 23 of the Local Government Act 1974 (constitution and functions of Commissions for Local Administration) shall have effect with the amendments specified in subsections (2) to (4) below.
(2) In subsection (1), at the end, there shall be added the words "but each of the Commissions may include persons appointed to act as advisers, not exceeding the number appointed to conduct investigations."
(3) In subsection (3), after the words "Parliamentary Commissioner" there shall be inserted the words "or an advisory member". (4) In subsections (4), (5) and (6) the word "Local" shall be omitted.
(5) In Schedule 4 to the said Act, in paragraph 3 (remuneration), at the end there shall be inserted the following sub-paragraph-- [Mrs. Virginia Bottomley.]
Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.
Where a local authority fails to take action to remedy the injustice to the person aggrieved and to prevent similar injustice being caused in the future the local commissioner shall have the power to institute legal proceedings against the local authority on behalf of the complainant who has suffered injustice and to seek from the court damages and the recovery of any costs involved in both the initial investigation and any subsequent proceedings.'-- [Mr. Nicholas Bennett.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
The purpose of this new clause is to ensure that if a local authority ignores the findings of the ombudsman where a case of injustice has taken place, the local ombudsman should have the power to institute legal proceedings against the local authority on behalf of the complainant
Column 821who has suffered injustice, and seek from the court damages and the recovery of any costs involved in both the initial investigation and any subsequent proceedings.
The new clause arises out of an intervention that I made on Second Reading and from subsequent correspondence with the Minister of State concerning the case of Mr. and Mrs. Quinn, constituents of mine who used to own a property in Coventry. When they wanted to sell the lease of a fashion store which they owned there for £37,300, the Coventry city council insisted on buying it for £20,000, although my constituent had a buyer at £17,300 more. Later the council sold the same property for £51,000 and the ombudsman ruled that the city council had been guilty of maladministration and had lost my constituents £17,300. Two ombudsman reports found the city council guilty, yet it refused to act. Its leader, Mr. Jim Cunningham, said that although the Minister had said that he might have to change the law to force recalcitrant councils to abide by the rulings of ombudsmen, it would not alter its decision. I understand that the Government have taken no subsequent action.
I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to a leading article in the Coventry Evening Press , which said that the council had been found guilty for a second time of
"a spivish piece of sharp practice By cocking another snook at the Ombudsman's findings the council has shown itself markedly unfit to criticise the worst excesses of private enterprise sanctioned under the Thatcherism it claims to despise."
I do not agree with that last comment, but if local authorities continue to ignore the findings of the ombudsman he should be given teeth. My new clause would give him the right to bite councils if they cocked a snook.
Mr. Wallace : In general I endorse the aims of the new clause. For local councils wilfully to ignore the recommendations of the ombudsman is a denial of justice, especially for the individual. There should be some authority to enforce a judgment for damages. I part company with the new clause in that it seeks an award of costs against the local authority for the initial investigation and subsequent proceedings. I would not object to an award of costs incurred by the complainant, but if I were a poll tax payer in a local authority that had been found guilty of maladministration I would think it very rich indeed if I had to cough up for what was essentially a transfer between two public bodies. To seek the award of such costs would be unfair to the poll taxpayers, but for individual rights--
Mr. Nicholas Bennett : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the generality of taxpayers should not have to pay for the refusal of a particular local authority? If anyone has to pay, it should be the poll tax payers in that local authority, who could then make judgment on that local authority at the next election.
Mr. Wallace : It is a transfer from one public body to another. It would bear much more heavily on individual poll tax payers in a local authority than it would if it were paid for through the generality of taxation. Nevertheless, the extent to which the new clause asserts the importance of individual rights encourages me to vote in favour of it.
Column 822constituent. If he did press it to a Division, he would not only have to vote against his own Government but he would have to consider the possibility of imposing exactly the same conditions for the Government ombudsman. If he did that to his party he would be pulled down to see the Whips, who would box his ears and tell him not to be so silly in future. That is what the Conservative party does to hon. Members who stray from the party line.
There is a case for saying that the views of the ombudsman must seriously be taken into account, and in almost all cases they are. The important point is that the courts exist to be used properly and the electorate is the final judge. If the Government or any Conservative Member were serious about the new clause, they would insist on it applying to the Government ombudsman. There would then be arguments about whether the taxpayers should pay for that. There is another problem for Conservative Members who support the new clause. One day there might need to be an ombudsman to redress some of the grievances in the private sector, and perhaps--just perhaps--some of those Members would have to pay for that.
Mr. Gummer : I am not sure that the House will feel that that last intervention served much purpose except to divert attention from the seriousness of the case which my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) has raised. I am unhappy when a local authority refuses to accept the impartial decision of the ombudsman. It is just as wrong if it is a Conservative authority as it is if it is a Labour authority. That is why in the next few days I am taking action to bring home to a Conservative council near Coventry a similar circumstance. It was not as serious in terms of money and perhaps more excusable in terms of the decision, but it was still a refusal to accept the independent adjudication of the ombudsman.
The case that my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke raises is one which I think nobody but the purblind supporters of a particular circumstance could possibly defend. There is no doubt that Coventry owes this couple £17,500. On two occasions that has been the adjudication. I do not believe that my hon. Friend expressed the case with his usual sharpness because he missed out the important aspect. The local authority sold the property, which it had insisted upon buying, at a price £17,500 less than had been negotiated, to the very people with whom the sale had been negotiated. Therefore, what happened was that my hon. Friend's constituent arranged a sale for his wool shop at £17,500 more than the local authority paid him, only to find that the local authority sold that shop on to the very people to whom it had agreed to sell in the first place. In other words, the matter was clear and significant. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Coventry city council stands condemned by the ombudsman, condemned by its own local paper and I think condemned by any right-thinking person. I am sorry that it has taken that step, because Coventry is a great city which does not deserve such a decision.
I must ask what would happen if I either supported the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke or if I were to find another way of making the decisions of the ombudsman enforceable by law. A large number of authorities are accustomed to solving such problems during the discussions. Labour, Liberal and Conservative
Column 823authorities often realise, part the way through discussions, that on balance they should have made a different decision or dealt with the problem in a different way. Perhaps they still maintain that they were right, but to gain the support of the community they feel that they should handle the matter differently. That happens so often and to such great effect in hon. Members' constituencies, and is for the benefit of their constituencies, that I am loath to move towards the proposals in the new clause. Every time that the local government ombudsman started his discussions he was met with a very legalistic response because the local authority would know that it might end up being forced by law to do something. That is the real issue.
Mr. Soley : The Minister has come round to the point that I suggested he would--it is a nonsense suggestion. His earlier comments, incidentally, were largely creative literature about Coventry, as any reading of the debate in Committee will tell him, but will he bear in mind that his party's councillors supported the Coventry council in Committee?
Mr. Gummer : The hon. Gentleman has already perpetrated that inaccurate statement and he must withdraw it. It was Conservative councillors who brought the issue before the general council, otherwise the council would not have discussed it. The council divided and the Conservatives voted against the decision of the council. The hon. Gentleman is not right and he must not repeat statements that are wrong. He has done it before and he has been shown to be wrong.
Mr. Gummer : The Conservative party on the council insisted that the matter be brought before the general council when they voted against the council. It is no good trying to ignore what happened. Even if the Conservatives had supported it lock, stock and barrel it was wrong and it should not have happened. Similarly an action by Hinckley and Bosworth, next door to that council, is wrong and should not have happened. That council should also accept what the ombudsman has said.
I hope that the House will note that, throughout this discussion, I have been willing to criticise Conservative as well as Labour councils, but that Opposition Members, as usual, have a partial view of the truth. The Coventry council, whatever party may run it, should not have disobeyed the proposition of the ombudsman. It cheated a small business man of £17,500. It has been found to have cheated on two separate occasions and I am sorry that the citizens of that city have been presented to the outside world in such a manner.
Mr. Nicholas Bennett : Leaving aside the smart Alick remarks of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), who is not interested in the case of individual people who have received such treatment, in future will the Department of the Environment--