Previous SectionIndexHome Page

9.46 pm

The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration (Mr. David Curry): I agree with the quotation that the hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) used, about all power being a trust--but it is a trust that must be exercised indiscriminately. It is irrelevant whether we like people or not, and whether they are on our side or on somebody else's side. It is irrelevant by what process they have arrived at their positions. What matters is that their rights should be defended without favour and without colour.

When the hon. Lady says that we have a trust by virtue of having been elected via the ballot box--in other words, that we have obtained our jobs by a unique method--I agree with her. But equally, it is part of our trust to ensure that, when people stand charged with serious misconduct, they have the right to defend themselves as far as the law will permit.

When people are proved wrong beyond reasonable doubt--those are the terms in which the verdict of a court is expressed--they are condemned, and pay the price. So I agree with the hon. Lady that, when wrong is done and proven beyond reverse, it should be condemned, and I would be the first to condemn it.

I wish to make one thing clear to the hon. Lady, because I do not want her to suffer from any misunderstanding. We may well have arguments about parts of the subject before us, but I want to define carefully where they lie, and also where there is no argument.

My right hon. Friend and I have no argument about the role of the auditor. The auditor was acting according to statute accepted by the House--and, as a matter of record, introduced by the Government. I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not impugn the auditor's integrity or the auditor's method.

I do not impugn the Audit Commission--to which the auditor is in a sense responsible, because appointments are made by it. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have done our best to ensure that the Audit Commission is reinforced by the quality of the people who serve it, and in the range of activities that it can perform.

I will not accept an accusation that I want to level charges against the auditor, against him personally or in respect of his function. I should also like to make it clear that I do not do so in relation to the process, of which I am conscious there have been criticisms. We know that there are criticisms, because we have heard them. I do not believe that it is right, in the course of this debate and this investigation, that we should bring into the discussion the question of the procedures. Such a discussion would not be right, and I do not intend to bring it into dispute between us.

What is clear is that six people have been named in the auditor's report. The auditor has upheld the objection to the accounts in relation to those six people. The same section of the statute under which the auditor has issued

14 May 1996 : Column 864

his certificates provides for appeal to anyone aggrieved by the decision. That provision is available to anyone who is aggrieved, whether they are aggrieved about charges levelled against them or about the fact that the auditor may not have pursued some of the charges that were made. That provision is laid down clearly in the statute.

Notice of appeal has been lodged. It is therefore apparent that further legal process will take place. It is self-evident that that legal process could endorse the auditor's conclusions in their entirety--that is one possible outcome--in which case the councillors and the officials will stand condemned. They will merit that condemnation, and they will receive it from the Government, as they will from all the others who will no doubt level it.

It is equally self-evident that the court could disagree with the auditor, because there are exceedingly complex issues of interpretation of the law and of interpretation of motive at stake. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are not prepared to judge that outcome.

In a debate that has ranged from, occasionally, the banal to the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke)--who reminded us of the gravity of the social circumstances and problems in Westminster that we must tackle and of the real nature of Westminster, which penetrates beyond College green--some very curious arguments have been levelled. I have already stated that I do not seek to impugn the auditor, and I place that very clearly on the record.

One curious argument that has been made is that there is some moral variety in this matter, and that it is all right for one to act in some ways if it is done publicly. So, if one does something that is wrong but it is done openly, that misgovernment al fresco is all right; but if one does something else, it is absolutely wrong.

I again agree with the hon. Member for North-West Durham--which is rather embarrassing for both of us, because there are a great many issues on which we agree--that, when we seek to get a system of honest, fair local government that is run on a basis of probity, everyone is part of the democratic process. A great many hon. Members on both sides of the House have experience of local government, although I am not one of them, and they know the importance of ensuring that that first level of democracy is one in which people can endow their trust and for which they can show respect. We all know that there have been difficulties and problems, that those have to be cleaned up, and that it is in the interest of everyone who votes to do so.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) spoke about the difference between speeding and serial killing. That was hyperbole, and I at least give him credit for choosing perhaps the two greatest extremes possible. His comments seemed to introduce a note of exaggeration into the debate that does not help the genuine cause of those who are concerned about good government.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) made one point which I should like to clear up for him. He said that somehow all the webs came back to the Department of the Environment.

I wish to make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that he is absolutely wrong in this regard. We receive from Westminster, as we do from all authorities, annual HIP

14 May 1996 : Column 865

submissions which include strategy statements. They contain descriptions of housing practices. There was never any suggestion in Westminster's HIP submissions that the council used its policy on council house sales for improper purposes.

It is equally true that, since 1952, irrespective of party, Governments have given general consents for voluntary sales into owner-occupation. The consents apply to all local authorities, not just Westminster. It is for each local authority, acting reasonably and in accordance with the law, to decide whether to sell. Routine statistical returns to the Department do not reveal the details of locations or purchasers. That applies to all authorities.

Mr. Betts: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Curry: No, because the hon. Member for North-West Durham did not give way, and I have only five minutes to cover some wide ground. The hon. Gentleman will undoubtedly wish to return to the matter, and I shall be willing to do so.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras repeated his frequently made charge that we rig the system in favour of Westminster. If what I am about to describe is rigging, it shows a degree of incompetence on my part which I repudiate. In every year since 1991-92, the changes in SSA per head for Westminster have been less favourable than for the average of London authorities. If that is rigging, it is an extremely idiosyncratic form of it. The fact of the matter is that the SSA for Westminster increased by 19.5 per cent. in 1991-92, but the inner London average was 22.6 per cent. In every year up to the most recent year, exactly the same phenomenon is repeated.

Under the damped need assessments--the calculation used by the last Labour Government--Westminster did a great deal better than it has done under the Conservative Government. So that again is a curious form of rigging. I do not wish to accuse the Opposition of rigging in favour of Westminster, because that really would be incompetence on their part, but the figures show that the pound-per-head need assessment for Westminster when the Labour Government were in power was £487, compared with £454 for Tower Hamlets, £453 for Hackney, £343 for Manchester and £327 for Liverpool.

The differential between all those authorities and Westminster is narrower now than when the system invented by the Labour Government was in operation. So if that is rigging, it is a curious form of it. It would have been a curious thing for a Conservative Government to do, but it was done not by them but by the Labour party. The Labour party's system shows that, even when Labour intends to target, it cannot manage it.

If the system is so wicked, one wants to know what the Opposition would do about it. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras speculates. He says that perhaps a Labour Government will change to a grants system. When he talks to Labour party conferences, he makes it up as he goes along. The hon. Member for North-West Durham prevaricates. Every article that she writes about the new framework for Labour consists of about 700 words of strictly nothing. It is written in elegant prose, but it is devoid of content.

14 May 1996 : Column 866

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras goes around the country telling councils how much they would get if they received the same level of grant as Westminster. What he omits to say--this is the important point--is that, if we dished out grants per capita, we would have the most unjust, unfair, anti-social and perverse system of grant distribution that any Government could deliver. Unless grants follow need and deprivation, and unless they are designed to enable councils to tackle the real problems which face them, we will not have a system which can be defended.

I meet dozens of local authorities year on year. Both Labour and other local authorities come to talk to me. In the force of circumstances, it is mainly Labour authorities that come to see me. Not one says that I am rigging the system for someone else. They do not say that we have got the whole thing upside down. They say that they understand that we are trying to run a system that distributes grant according to need. They want changes because they want a system that benefits them rather than other councils. There is not a single council that does not come along with objective ideas that just happen to benefit the particular requirements of that council. That is all part of the game, and I accept that.

What I will not accept from the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras is the idea that I sit thinking of how I can rig the system for one council or another. I do not do it; I have never done it; I will not do it. If I tried to do it, it would become so obviously transparent that every council that came to my office would start with that accusation. Not one council does. The hon. Gentleman is unique in his obsession.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:--

The House divided: Ayes 267, Noes 288.

Next Section

IndexHome Page