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Local Government and Housing Bill

Order for Third Reading read--[Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.]

7.13 pm

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. John Gummer) : I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Government see this as the last of a group of Bills which reform local government, to strengthen it for what will be an increasingly important role for it to play. There has been a tendency for Opposition Members--when there are many of them here--to claim that the Government are less than enthusiastic about local government, and for Conservative Members to point to the extreme examples of the destruction of local government by extremist Labour councils. Neither of those assessments properly represents the whole spectrum of local government. It is the duty of the House to recognise that local government plays a crucial role in the government of the United Kingdom--a role that cannot and ought not to be replaced by any other part of Government.

Secondly, the extremist exceptions rather than the general run of good and well-managed councils have tended to be the focus of attention. The purpose of this Bill is to strengthen the ability of local councils to carry out their role of protecting the people for whom they are responsible and to enable them to provide properly the services that are necessary.

For this reason, we started with the measures that derive from the Widdicombe report. We did not go as far as the committee wanted us to in imposing restrictions on what is known as twin tracking ; we were less radical than the committee would have had us be. As most members of it were local government people of real understanding, none of our proposals can undermine local government in the way that the Opposition sometimes suggest that they do.

We sought to strengthen the independence of officers and to ensure that they are seen as non-party political figures. It would be a cause of great sadness if we allowed the efforts of the past 100 years to be overcome. In the middle of the 19th century and thereafter local government officers established their independence at a time when in Birmingham, for instance, Conservative authorities dismissed officers because they were Liberals and Liberal authorities dismissed officers because they were Conservatives. However, we got over that ; we grew up and differentiated clearly between the party-political role of elected people and the independent advisory role of officers. That distinction is a crucial part of democracy in Britain--

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) rose --

Mr. Gummer : I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment. It was to establish this independence that the Widdicombe committee suggested its reforms which, in large measure, and with certain improvements--in the sense of having softened some of the proposals--we have introduced here.

We have witnessed a remarkable transformation in the Opposition's attitude to the Widdicombe measures during the passage of the Bill. In the early stages of the committee, they tabled a range of amendments which would have

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removed all our requirements and undermined the entire proposal--including the part that referred to chief officers. Many of these amendments were so close to being wrecking amendments that they were not selected for debate.

On Report, a new attitude was expressed. The Opposition now accept that the restrictions on the political activities of chief officers are acceptable and reasonable

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland) : We always did.

Mr. Gummer : It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to say that. If it is true, were the Opposition amendments which were tabled to remove these restrictions tabled with his agreement? If the Opposition always agreed with these restrictions, why did they table the amendments? Why do they not say publicly that it was wrong for the chief executive of a Welsh local authority to be the chairman of the local Labour party at the same time?

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside) : Will the Minister acknowledge--he must be aware of this, having examined the evidence given to Widdicombe--that the Labour party placed on record, before Widdicombe reported, its belief in precisely the proposals that were contained in amendments in the names of Labour Members last week, proposing that the restriction should apply to chief officers and their deputies? I know that is so because I gave that evidence to Widdicombe.

Mr. Gummer : That makes nonsense of all the amendments that were tabled in Committee. It suggests that originally, while that may have been the position, pressure from--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker) : Order. I hope that the Minister is not now seeking to open a debate on amendments that were neither selected nor debated in Committee.

Mr. Gummer : I would not dream of doing that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Now, on Third Reading, we have in the Bill clear distinctions between party political activity and independent advice. Those distinctions should be supported by Members in all parts of the House. They are now more clearly supported than they were at the time of the Committee deliberations. So different is the position that many of us were surprised to hear what was said on Report, but we welcome those who have reformed.

If it is right for chief officers and assistant chief officers to be independent politically, it must also be right for those other officers who give advice to the council, who deal with the public and who are representative of the council. That is what Widdicombe suggested and what we are doing.

Mr. Tony Banks : Widdicombe looked at the whole matter of so-called political abuse and could find no evidence to support the various wild allegations that have been made by the Minister and his hon. Friends. If it were a matter of looking at individual officers in local authorities and seeing what they did, and then deciding whether they should be excluded from political activity--because of their position and the advice that they gave--there might have been a meeting of minds on the issue.

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But the Government have not taken that approach. They have taken the crude approach of salary level without any reference to the functions of the officers concerned.

Mr. Gummer : The hon. Gentleman was present for much of the Committee deliberations, but obviously he was not listening if that is what he thinks happened. The Widdicombe committee investigated these matters and suggested that there should be an absolute bar on all local government officers of principal officer level or above. The salary figure merely reflects the level at which that recommendation applies throughout the country.

But we have softened that suggestion by removing the absolute bar and enabling people to appeal to an adjudicator so that he will specifically take into account the type of job done by the individual, which is precisely the point that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) made. I am sad that there was not a meeting of minds. There was no meeting of minds because of the closed minds of Opposition Members, compared with the open minds of Members on the Government Benches.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Bill will do much to restore the credibility of local government and of some of its officers? Great damage was done to the whole of local government when Derbyshire county council appointed a former Labour MP, who survived in his job for only nine months. That extremely expensive job training scheme did great disservice to the whole system of local goverment in that a chief officer said that he would not work for a Conservative


Mr. Gummer : Hence a sadness which could have been overcome in Committee. If the Labour party takes the view that we are told it takes, why did not Opposition Members condemn the appointment of Mr. Race-- [Interruption.] Why do they want to exclude Mr. Race by supporting the political restrictions on chief officers? They cannot have it both ways.

We wish to ensure that there is a real distinction between those who seek to serve the public party politically and those who seek to serve the public independently in local government. Both are honourable callings, but they are different and there should be no way in which they could be confused. That is the British principle. It may not be the German or French principle, but it is the British one. It has been hard fought and we should be supporting it.

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton) : The Minister continues to make wild statements and sweeping references about people who advise councils. Will he now spell out the category and numbers of people involved? The amendments that we tabled in Committee were designed to elicit that information from the right hon. Gentleman. We are still waiting for it.

Mr. Gummer : The criteria are not only in the Bill, but we extended the Bill at the hon. Gentleman's request with an amendment which showed that those criteria specifically apply to the terms under which the adjudicator would make individual and group decisions. The hon. Gentleman asked for that to be done and we have done it. Another way in which the Bill strengthens local government--the first being the way in which it gives real

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strength to the independence of officers--is that it clarifies the opportunities and powers by which local authorities are able to assist economic regeneration.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke) : Concern is being expressed by my hon. Friends and others about councillors, being members of authorities, who owe rent as council tenants or rates as ratepayers. Has my right hon. Friend yet had a chance to think about how we might tackle that problem to ensure that when the community charge comes in next year those councillors- -

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. Are those matters within the scope of the Bill?

Mr. Bennett : Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker. They come under Widdicombe-- [ Hon. Members :-- "No."] Will councillors who do not pay the charge be brought to account and--

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Having already committed the offence of misleading the House into believing that certain things, such as councillors who may or may not owe money, come within the scope of the Bill, is it in order for the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett), having been called to order by you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, then to go on to pretend that such matters come within the scope of the Bill? All those who were members of the Committee know that that is not mentioned anywhere in the Bill.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I must admit that a Bill which contains 164 clauses and 11 schedules is not one that I grasp instantly. However, I find it difficult to discover any reference to these matters in the Bill, and I trust that we shall not have any further references to them in this debate.

Mr. Gummer : I was saying--

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I hope that hon. Members, including Ministers, will allow the Chair to make some observations on a matter that is before the House.

Mr. Gummer : I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thought that you were sitting down.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I can well understand the Minister not being certain whether I was sitting down or standing up. I assure him that I was on my feet.

Mr. Gummer : I share that problem with you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and therefore I not only apologise but sympathise. I do not regard the point that has arisen as being part of the Bill. That was the reason, no doubt, why you did not allow a certain amendment to be selected and as the Bill stands there is no reference to that subject. But I am sure, as a matter of general principle, that those who seek to enforce the law should themselves regard the law. It is more difficult to ask people to pay bills if one does not pay them oneself.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone) rose

Mr. Gummer : We must get off that subject. I do not wish to court other than the pleasure of Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I will not give way.

Another way in which the Bill supports and strengthens local government is the way in which it increases the clarity with which we are able to use local government powers to

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encourage economic regeneration. That has been widely supported and is now thought in general to be a useful provision.

The Bill also changes the capital finance scheme so that, in future, more reasonable account can be taken of the needs for capital spending of local authorities, and also their resources. Up to now, there has been a problem because the rules have been laid down so that local authorities with large capital resources have had to have capital allocations similar to those of local authorities with small capital resources. That has militated against directing capital allocations to those with the greatest capital needs. The proposals in the Bill will strengthen local democracy because local authorities with real needs will no longer be unable to get the capital allocations necessary simply because the system makes it so difficult for them to do so.

This Bill also provides additional strengthening for local authorities because of the changes that it makes to local authority companies. It is crucial that the public should know what is going on. The accountability of the electorate is a central part of general democratic accountability. There has been insufficient accountability to the electorate by local authorities for their companies. It has not been clear whether the companies are arm's length organisations or merely a convenient way of carrying out local council decisions through a company structure. In future, that will be made clear and will strengthen accountability.

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West) : I welcomed the announcement last Wednesday when the Parliamentary Under-Secretary said that the Government had already exempted from part V of the Bill registered housing associations, which was news to us. Will the Bill be altered in another place to bring that into effect?

Mr. Gummer : That is correct. It is a pleasure for Conservative Members to hear the hon. Gentleman welcome that move. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also accept that, on several occasions during these debates, we have sought to meet one or two--not all, I agree--of his suggestions.

I hope that it will be clear to the local electorate exactly how local authorities organise themselves. If they have an arm's length company, it will be a company. However, if it is not arm's length it will quite properly be seen as part of the local authority's capital structure.

The Bill also strengthens local authorites through the housing finance arrangements. Up to now, the accountability of local authorities has been extremely difficult to unearth because of the way in which the housing is arranged. Some local authorities have taken money from their housing account and used it on the general rate fund. Other local authorities have taken money from the general rate fund and generally supported council tenants with their rents, regardless of whether those tenants were in need. That has made it difficult for the local electorate or tenants to know whether the housing was properly and efficiently run and whether they were getting value for money. The new housing finance arrangements will strengthen local accountability. The Bill will certainly give considerable strength to local authorities by enabling local councils to deal with renewal areas and renovation grants so that they can concentrate the help on those in need, instead of spreading it across larger numbers of people.

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In all those ways, the Bill sets out to be earnest of this Government's support for local councils and local authorities throughout the country. It strengthens officers' independence, cuts away at the politicisation of the independence of advice, gives greater clarity to the discretionary spending of local authorities, brings capital financing much closer to the needs of local authorities, ensures that local authorities' companies are properly controlled and clearly states what sort of companies they are. Its housing finance arrangements ensure that the local authorities' way of dealing with their income is clear to the electorate and their tenants. Above all, it ensures that aids and help are directed to those in need, both through its capital finance changes and in the way in which it deals with housing, renewal areas and renovation grants.

When the Bill is enacted it will be the third of the triumvirate of Acts which will revolutionise the basis on which local authorities operate in this country. There is no easy answer to the problems of local democracy, and no wholesale reorganisation has ever achieved the wonderful results which people seek. We need a new basis upon which local authorities can become better enablers, facilitators and servants of the communities which they are elected. Local authorities will be able to perform those functions all the better because of the passing of this Bill.

7.37 pm

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton) : If there is one matter on which we agree with the Minister, it is that there is a difference of attitude between Opposition Members and Conservative Members on the care and development of local government. At least we believe in local government whereas the Minister's contribution suggests that the Government are bent on its demise.

With this Bill, the Government reach their half century of legislation undermining the basic tenets of local democracy. The time is fast approaching when the batsmen of this game of cricket--those people responsible for the demise of local government--should all be sent back to the pavilion and out of the game. In last Thursday's election, the electors gave an overwhelming vote of no confidence to the Prime Minister, and I am sure that that will be repeated to other Ministers, including the Secretary of State for the Environment. Council tenants and other owner-occupiers who are buying their homes face ever-increasing mortgage rates. On 24 May, interest rates rose to 14 per cent.--the tenth jump in borrowing costs since last summer. This Bill deals with housing. It is significant to note that in the past 12 months people have had to find £40, £50 or £60 per week extra for mortgage repayments. The sum of Tory economic policy has been to make the people who can least pay, pay more. People who got on their bikes to look for work in line with Ministers' suggestions are fortunate if they can afford to purchase a bike shed to live in because of the policies of this Tory Government. The poll tax bears no relation to people's ability to pay. We do not want the usual tired intervention from the Minister about people in top income brackets paying 15 times as much towards local government costs as the poorest.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker : As far as I can see, the Bill contains nothing about the community charge. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will stick to what is in the Bill.

Mr. O'Brien : I think that if we examine the Bill we will find that there is a reference to the community charge as introduced by the Minister. However, I take your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I refer to the Scottish part of the Bill involving legislation which deals with the poll tax.

It is true that the colleague of the Secretary of State for the Environment, the Secretary of State for Social Security, does not believe that there are any poor people. We know perfectly well who has had the greatest benefit from the recent Budgets--Tory supporters who are well off and do not have to worry about inflation. This is a sorry patchwork of a Bill, a hotch-potch of a Bill. It might as well say, "Whatever the Secretary of State does is deemed to be right and whatever local government does is deemed to be wrong." Local government is always wrong, whether it is in partnership with the private sector to attract business investment and create real jobs or employing an accounts clerk who puts a political poster in his window at home. Local authorities and people who work in local authorities just cannot win.

The Bill gives the Secretary of State for the Environment more than 120 new powers. Perhaps when he cannot get to sleep at night, instead of counting sheep he counts the powers that will accrue to him from the Bill. He can decide by regulation what constitutes political activity or how much a local authority can spend on economic development, or what falls within and what falls without the housing revenue account. The Prime Minister has often said how important it is to trust the people, and that the Government intend to trust the people more and more, but we do not hear much about that nowadays. On the evidence of the Bill, the Prime Minister is saying that we should trust the Secretary of State. Like many people outside this House, we feel that we cannot trust the Secretary of State--he is far too busy taking power away from democratically-elected and accountable local authority councillors and concentrating it in the hands of central Government. That is a result of the Bill.

Part I involves civil liberties and reshapes local government, at least until after the next general election. The Minister has talked at length about the so-called twin-tracking, citing every example as though it were automatically a significant abuse. We do not believe that that is necessarily so. Almost all the examples that the Minister gave involved people at chief executive or chief officer level. We accept that the head of an authority's paid service, its chief officers and its deputies, should not be serving as councillors in another authority and a new clause that we moved in Committee would have ensured that that did not happen. The Minister has not answered the arguments that we put in Committee about the injustice of the proposed restrictions on political activity. He has not even told us what those restrictions will be, although on the basis of the Government's White Paper we can hazard a guess that they could cover everything but the right to belong to a political party, so people employed in local authorities will be prevented from undertaking any activity involving community matters.

We can also guess when the House is likely to have the chance to debate the regulations. Our experience has led us to assume what many Tory Members will have realised--that we shall be debating the regulations on the future of

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local government at midnight or 2 o'clock in the morning. That is when the Government always introduce regulations to control local government.

Mr. Allen McKay : I understand that the starting point for disqualification is a salary of £13,500. As a result of these regulations, many colleagues in the fire service who have helped me will not be able to do so or even put up a window poster. The Government's measures will thus be an abuse of people's civil liberties because they will be denied the right to belong to a political party just because they earn that amount or more.

Mr. O'Brien : My hon. Friend is correct, and I shall draw attention to that later.

When the Government allow us to debate these regulations, if we are lucky we shall have one minute of debate per page. When we debated the poll tax regulations, we dealt with 89 pages in 90 minutes. If the Government talk of democracy and freedom of speech, the House is entitled to a better opportunity to discuss these matters, which are important to local government. So much for the parliamentary process, if this is the way the Government treat the future of local government.

The Minister has repeatedly referred to the Government's generosity in providing for an adjudicator, although the amendments that he introduced on Report do not address the civil liberties issue. He said :

"I suspect that large groups of people will be excluded because of the nature of their activities. Many individuals will also be excluded."--[ Official Report, 13 June 1989 ; Vol. 154, c. 780.] We are talking about the rights of ordinary people who work in local authorities to participate in politics and to be the active citizens of whom the Prime Minister speaks so highly.

Under clause 18, a local authority is not just a county, district or London borough council. The phrase includes fire authorities, transport authorities and waste disposal authorities, not to mention the national parks boards. According to the Government, it is acceptable for the chairman of the London residuary body to be a prominent Tory and for the chairman of the Yorkshire regional health authority to be an active Tory and a one-time Tory candidate. It is hypocritical of Conservative Members to vote to suppress the right of local authority employees to play an active part in a political party--especially as senior posts are appointed by the Government--when a fireman of firewoman will not be able to act as treasurer of his or her local Tory party or Labour party because of these restrictions. What about education staff who are not teachers, lecturers or principals? What about Soulbury advisers, who generally earn more than £13,500, and youth and community service workers? As we saw in Committee, the Government who so blithely take away the rights of council employees are happy for an officer in the Department of Social Security to speak at a National Front rally. To add insult to injury, that civil servant could appeal, as of right, to a tripartite panel including a trade union representative. Only those local government officers caught by the salary restriction can appeal to the adjudicator. We understand that there will be no one adjudicator for England and Wales and, so the Minister says, one for Scotland. Will the Minister spell out the nature of the political restrictions and the groups of people likely to be exempted? People in local government want

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answers to those questions. It is grossly unfair to leave thousands of them in suspense simply because the Government will not answer our questions.

I want to spend a little time considering the role of local authority councillors. Double standards apply to them as compared with Members of Parliament.

Mr. Gummer : The House would benefit from a little clarification. The hon. Gentleman and I agree about the political activities of chief officers and chief executives. He said that he was not in favour of them serving as elected members of other authorities. He did not say whether he believed that they should not have political affiliations. Will he publicly state that he does not think that a chief executive should also be the chairman of a local political party?

Mr. O'Brien : The Labour party submitted evidence to the Widdicombe committee. Those who serve in local government, like those who serve in this House, are entitled to some freedom. They are entitled to please themselves in certain matters. Unlike Conservative Members, we believe that there should be freedom for the individual, including many of those working in local government.

Mr. Gummer : Is the House to conclude, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman thinks it perfectly proper for the chief executive of a local authority also to be chairman of the local Labour party?

Mr. O'Brien : It is obvious that the Minister was not in the House last night when many Conservative Members were campaigning for freedom of speech in colleges, polytechnics and universities. The House suffered more than 40 minutes of their rhetoric. Tonight the Minister is saying that there should be no freedom for those in local government. How hypocritical can the Government be?

Mr. Gummer : It is clear that the hon. Gentleman thinks it perfectly proper for the chief executive of a local authority, who is supposed to advise all parties within that authority, also to be chairman of the local Labour party. The public will be astounded by that and the Society of Local Government Chief Officers will be appalled.

Mr. O'Brien : The public will recognise that the Opposition stand square in everything that we do. In contrast, last night Conservative Members campaigned for freedom of speech in colleges, polytechnics and universities, but tonight they do not want freedom of speech for people in local government. Those are the facts on which the public will judge this debate. They will understand that the Tory view of freedom for the individual is that it is right for some but wrong for others.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle) : Many chief officers and chief executives of local authorities hold strong political opinions. Whether or not they keep their opinions secret is surely a matter for them. I served for some considerable time as a councillor and as chairman of a major committee of a major local authority. I had very good professional advice from chief officers, regardless of their political views. I was happy for chief officers to be members of the political party of their choice--not necessarily the Labour party--because I felt that they were exercising their democratic rights.

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Mr. O'Brien : When I served in local government we never asked the officers about their political views ; we asked for professional views on certain issues. The Government want chief officers to outline their political views before obtaining a position. Both in Committee and on Report we discussed at length the need for a proper system of remuneration for local authority representatives. The Government would prefer local government to be run by wealthy and retired people. Councils would become elite clubs. Perhaps the Secretary of State envisages councils that meet once a year to hand out contracts, having been given no doubt a good meal. The Opposition attach greater value to local government. Members of Parliament are paid a salary, and those who struggle to live on that salary can line their pockets with lucrative directorships and consultancies. The Government, who have a 100-plus majority, ignore the need for a proper, practical system of remuneration for councillors.

Mr. McLoughlin : I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about remuneration. Does he agree that many councils could make it easier for people to attend meetings and not lose money if they held meetings in the evenings? Many councils refuse to do that.

Mr. O'Brien : The hon. Gentleman shows his lack of experience. If councils meet in the evening, the officers have to be present. They then take time off in lieu. If they are not at their desks during the day, they are letting down the community and in many instances also their colleagues. Evening meetings are not necessarily good for a local authority.

Under the Bill, councillors could face a £1,000 fine if they fail to declare their direct and indirect pecuniary interests in the form prescribed by the Secretary of State. There is a threat to local authority representatives of a £1,000 fine if they do not declare their interests. There is no doubt that we support accountability and value for money, but councillors already have to register their interests and declare them at meetings when necessary. They can then be barred from speaking and voting and may be required to leave the meeting.

In contrast, Members of Parliament have simply to declare an interest and may then carry on with business as usual. They are not subjected to a £1,000 fine. It is no good the Government and Conservative Members saying that it is the Opposition's responsibility to bring forward appropriate measures. If the Government are really concerned about probity in public life, they should seek to set this House in order and to put the matter straight before they begin to criticise local government.

Consultation is another important issue. Whenever a contentious issue arises, the Government promise that they will consult local authority associations. When they are feeling especially generous, they say that they will also consult the relevant professional bodies. We are not convinced one bit by the Government's protestations on the issue. The Government's new clause on Members' interests was brought forward without proper consultation and at the expense of other key amendments, which had been promised in Committee. Where is the amendment specifying the criteria that the adjudicator will use in hearing appeals? Where is the promised amendment on the question of when the adjudicator will hear appeals? Where is the promised fitness standard for houses in

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multiple occupation? What guarantee is there of meaningful consultation on the range of issues that the Bill pretends to address? The Government's attitude to consultation is the same as their attitude to Parliament--a cross between "Nanny knows best" and outright contempt.

The Bill, with all its clauses and schedules, provides once again only for the privileged as opposed to the under-privileged. As a result of the spurious, false and devastating attitude shown in the Bill and by Conservative Members towards local government, we shall be voting against Third Reading, and we ask Conservative Members who have any respect for local government to join us in the Lobby. 8.2 pm

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton) : As the first speaker to follow the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), I should note--and I am sure that it was noted by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government-- that no reply was given to his clear challenge.

Mr. Gummer : I received a clear reply. The Labour party is committed to the principle that the chief executive of a local authority can be the chairman of a local party.

Mr. Nicholson : Indeed, my right hon. Friend did not receive the assurance he requested. That is a point that will be remembered about the speech of the hon. Member for Normanton.

I welcome two of the changes made on Report. Declaring an interest as a consultant for the Association of British Chambers of Commerce, I welcome the concession on amendments and the role played by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) last week in ensuring that people who provide their services voluntarily as directors and secretaries to local authority controlled companies will not be regarded as associated with the parent authority by virtue of that connection alone. I welcome the amendments tabled by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley).

I also welcome the power introduced on Report, as proposed in the Widdicombe report, to set up a register of local authority members' interests. I tabled a written question on the subject some weeks ago and I can confirm that people in local authorities welcome the protection against the possible abuse of powers. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government made the matter clear last week when he distinguished the considerable powers, especially in planning matters, that local authority councillors have from those of Members of Parliament.

I welcome the general thrust of part I of the Bill on which the hon. Member for Normanton has concentrated much of his attention this evening. In recent weeks, I have become aware that twin tracking has crept in even in areas such as Somerset, both in my own constituency and nearby. To be fair, it is an area where possibly valuable use may be made of the right of appeal to the independent adjudicator, and I welcome that role. However, to use the argument that my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) used in the debate on the Self-Governing Schools Etc. (Scotland) Bill last night, it is most important that certain protections should exist, even if the abuse is not currently widely prevalent. We need that protection.

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I will give an example to show why that protection is necessary. I note that the Democrat party, or whatever it has decided to be called now, is not represented in the debate. I guess that in southern England the Democrat party is now in a terminal state and I observe, therefore, that in the south-west the Labour party may have passed its electoral nadir. If the Labour party is likely to gain county and district council seats from the Democrat party, we need to be prepared and protected against the use and abuse of twin tracking to which, as shown in the speech by the hon. Member for Normanton, the Labour party is still very much committed.

No speech of mine on this Bill would be complete without a reference to housing. I note that the hon. Member for Normanton referred to housing only in passing. I will speak briefly on the subject because I want to pursue my objectives with my right hon. and hon. Friends by diplomacy. Without claiming any particular virtue, because I may be wrong in my concern on this issue, I must say that, apart from the amendment moved so ably last week by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), which was well supported by those who spoke in the debate, I am the only Conservative Member to raise that particular concern during the Bill's progress. When considering my right hon. Friend's proposal and the Government's counter-proposal, I hope that there can be some meeting of minds on the subject in another place. However, I must emphasise that the proposal affects only the margins. We are considering perhaps only dozens of homes per constituency in national parks and similar areas.

I have made it clear all along that my concern has been for those seeking rented accommodation, whether council, private sector or housing association, in the urban areas of constituencies such as mine. I have spoken to the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Mr. Trippier), about this. I do not especially care whether it is the Genghis Khan district council or the St. Francis of Assisi housing association that provides the homes. They are needed at a cost that the tenant, the taxpayer and the community charge payer can afford. I leave that thought with my hon. Friend. However, I believe that he recognises that need and that he also recognises that the position has been made more difficult over the past year by the increase-- for which we all understand the reason--in house prices, especially in the south, as a result of which those who originally would have bought into the private sector are now obliged to seek rented accommodation.

Finally, I welcome the measures in the Bill on home improvement grants and renewal areas. I look forward to seeing the ways in which they will help some of my constituents who own their own homes, but whose homes were not traditionally built so that my constituents are now facing problems with resale and mortgageability. I am not referring to the BISF housing that was spoken about in Committee and about which my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary of State was so helpful.

I hope that the Bill will be the foundation for a new, positive and constructive concordat between local government and central Government. I hope that following this Bill and the major Local Government Finance Act 1988, we will allow the waters to settle over the 10 years of what has been an extremely turbulent relationship between central Government and local government over the sharing of powers. I am sure that my

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right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench know the difficulties that some of those contests have caused to those who seek to serve our party in local government. I support the Bill. 8.10 pm

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