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8.42 pm

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): The motion is a false attack on the Government. It attempts to smear anyone who happens to wear a Labour ticket in a local authority. As other hon. Members have said, by imputation, anyone who serves in local government is smeared by the Conservatives. That is entirely consistent.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) pointed out, the Conservatives attacked Scottish local government during debates on their Local Government Bill in an attempt to destroy the credibility of local government by making its structures ineffective. The result was that the people of Scotland rejected the Conservatives thoroughly at local government level, and then at national level.

Now the Conservatives are picking on a difficulty in a local authority that should not have arisen, as we all agree. It should have been found out through the proper structures and controls, but it is not enough to sustain the Conservative motion, which calls for an independent inquiry. In our amendment we commend the actions of the Secretary of State.

It was clear that the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) was using a hollow lance in his attack on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. It was quickly

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shattered because my right hon. Friend had taken an honest, open and pre-emptive approach to the problem and had shown Labour's willingness to innovate in local government in line with our ambitions and the built-in errors of past structures. I am happy to commend my right hon. Friend's speech and to support the amendment.

People seem to think that every time a councillor travels or goes to a conference it is a junket. I spent 13 years in a local authority, 10 of those years as a leader. Much of the travelling that I did and many of the conferences and seminars that I attended during that period were for the purpose of disseminating best practice.

I commend the work of ADLO--the Association of Direct Labour Organisations--which was formed to resist the attacks of the Conservatives who introduced an environment of compulsory competitive tendering in which it was impossible to take into account many factors that were relevant to the recipients of local authority services. Those factors could not be counted as part of a good service provided because of the method used, which focused on the bottom-line finances and the bidding. ADLO found ways of innovating and was a leader in the discussions on best value that will be used by the Government to provide better local authority services.

Perhaps some of the trips taken by some councillors should be monitored and the councillors disabused of the notion that they can travel abroad for a jaunt, even when the trip has no great relevance to the local authority. However, that should not introduce an atmosphere of no conferences in the local authority. Councillors and officials must be encouraged to travel, to meet, to study and to learn from each other so that best practice travels across Scotland.

Local government should be judged at many levels. There is a level of competence, a level of vigilance and a level of corruption. Those who know North Lanarkshire and the authorities that made up North Lanarkshire and East Ayrshire would say that there was a great deal of competence in many areas in those authorities and that they would stand up to scrutiny beside the best local authorities in the United Kingdom and in Scotland.

The local authorities may have fallen down in vigilance. The explanation offered by the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Welsh) for other parts of Scotland was that they adopted a system used by a local authority that was not a district authority. Perhaps that method was inappropriate and the local authority lacked the fine tuning and did not have the spy glass on the right indicators to show early enough that something was going wrong. That can be dealt with by increasing vigilance.

There have been innuendos in the tabloids that corruption was going on. The example was given of a labourer who was employed as a crossing patrol man. I was amazed by the suggestion, offered by the Opposition Front Bench, that that person had earned the equivalent of £17,000. My understanding is that he was a labourer, and that if he worked all the hours he could work as a council official at his normal rate of pay he could have earned £17,000 on any job.

It happened that the council could not get anyone to fill the position of a crossing patrol man and therefore allocated to the job those people who were available--labourers. Perhaps that was wrong, but that is the explanation--not that the person was employed for a year and earned £17,000 as a crossing patrol attendant. I was

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amazed to learn that that man could take his family to Gran Canaria, buy a car and refurbish his house on £17,000 a year. I should like him to come and look after my finances, because I cannot do that on my salary. I do not believe that there is room for serious accusations of corruption in that case.

I shall not go over what my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Ms Osborne) said, but there are many excellent councils that are innovative, enterprising and efficient. If one examines local authorities in Scotland, in 90 per cent. or more of the service delivery areas, all three adjectives apply.

In my local authority area the anti-exclusion policy in local authority schools is beginning to win back pupils from that dark area where they drop out of school and into other habits. The early intervention and early literacy schemes that I have visited at Inchyra nursery in Grangemouth were the best that I have seen, and I have looked at education throughout the UK and across the continent, especially in France. Those schemes are excellent and are making great inroads in Grangemouth.

In special needs education and the attempt to raise educational achievement for all pupils at all levels, Scottish local authorities are leading the way. When there was a Tory Government for 18 years, English local authorities would not have got into some of the difficulties that they experienced if they had followed the example of the many innovative and enterprising local authorities in education in Scotland.

There has been housing reinvigoration in the town of Grangemouth--a large overspill for Glasgow--which was probably built in a way that was not suitable for the long term when people's aspirations rose. The innovation of changing the tenure mix, top-downing flats and putting people into decent houses was commended by none other than Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, who was happy to be photographed with the tenants, local authorities and me during the last Government. There are many such examples. I am sure that there are examples in Angus and where the Liberal Democrats have influence.

I agree totally with the point made by another former councillor--my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr--who said that most people from all political parties join local authorities to serve the public and to do a good job to the highest standard. That applies to all the Conservative councillors with whom I served when I was leader of Stirling council for 10 years. There were not any SNP councillors because we had taken them all out--which is why we controlled the council.

Mr. Salmond: There are now.

Mr. Connarty: Yes. In fact, the Conservatives created two seats in the north that were taken by the SNP, but the majority for Labour in the Stirling area is higher than it has ever been because people realise that public service drives the councillors. I do not think that we ever fell out over which party was best unless it was an election year and we wanted to be judged by the electorate. For most of the time, in the quadrennial cycle, we worked together for the benefit of the public.

What did the Tories do? The last Government abandoned the use of housing plans. We sent detailed assessments of need to the Scottish Office, but they were

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put on a shelf and the Government did not respond to them. That is why many of the things that went wrong in housing were allowed to go wrong.

I mentioned corruption. I have a little local difficulty in that area. I find only one part of the Conservative motion interesting. It says that we require:

I intervened on the hon. Member for Angus, but he did not take up my point. We have a little local difficulty in our area. We had a little difficulty when the SNP controlled Falkirk council and an SNP provost, Sandy Crawford, was sent to gaol. That is looking back in history, but we have local difficulties now.

An ex-SNP councillor from my constituency, Jamie Rae, was involved from October 1990 to January 1995 in criminal acts for which he was sent to gaol. He faced 23 charges over that period. I have the evidence with me today, which has been returned by the police. Between 12 May 1993 and the end of March 1994, he defrauded the local authority of £2,545 in false claims for housing benefit for someone who was not resident at the house at 20 School road, Redding in my constituency.

There are also fraudulent mortgages, including the sad story of Jamie Rae's own uncle who was defrauded out of his house at 20 School road. He thought that he had signed an application for a housing grant but he had actually signed a document that allowed Jamie Rae to take the money when his house was sold and a mortgage of £37,000 was raised. I have a letter from the lawyer, Graham McLachlan, which was returned by the police. It says quite clearly:

That is the same councillor. He was gaoled, and what did we find upon his release? On 28 May 1998, that person was accepted back into the Scottish National party. I would like the leader of the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), to stand up now and tell us that he will kick him out. He is the kind of person we do not want in local government. I would like the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan to do the honourable thing now and say that he will throw Mr. Rae out of the SNP.

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