Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Salmond: Does the hon. Gentleman seriously seek to demean a debate about the conduct of the Labour party in North Lanarkshire, East Ayrshire, Glasgow and in many councils across west and central Scotland by talking about an individual case involving someone who transgressed and has paid his debt to society? Any party in the House would have members such as that. Is he saying that that is what the debate is about? If so, it shows the desperation of the Labour party in Scotland.

Mr. Connarty: That intervention shows the paucity of the hon. Gentleman's argument about good local government. The money taken from the council has never been paid back. The money taken from my constituents, who paid the housing benefit charges, has never been returned by that individual. It is in a bank account somewhere. It is important to raise the matter here because the motion refers to ethical local government. We can deal with competence and vigilance, but the

16 Jun 1998 : Column 222

leader of the SNP must deal with corruption and get that person out of his party. I contend that that person would never be allowed back into the Labour party; can the hon. Gentleman say the same about his party?

In considering this debate, I would like the Secretary of State to look seriously at finding a way of stopping such individuals from standing for local government when they have clearly defrauded money from the public purse--from their own constituents--and not returned it. That matter is very important to my constituents.

On the general approach to local government, I believe that this is a false and not very well-researched debate; it seems to have come from newspaper cuttings rather than from original ideas. I notice that the hon. Member for Woodspring, who led for the Opposition, has returned to the Chamber. I point out to him that police are called so often to Renfrewshire district council because SNP members put down motions that would never be accepted in the House--for example, "The provost is a liar--discuss." That is the sort of motion that they debate. When they are ruled out of order, they march up and down the council chamber banging on the table. In fact, they climb on the table in Renfrewshire district council chamber and refuse to leave when they are ordered out. That is why the police are called. That is what the SNP is offering the people of Scotland as an alternative at present. SNP Members should be ashamed of trying to use that in this debate.

Mr. Salmond rose--

Mr. Connarty: The hon. Gentleman should sit down. If he cannot do the honourable thing, I shall not let him intervene. On the general approach to local government, it is important that we deal with the facts and the problems.

Mr. Salmond: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Should we not move the debate from individuals to subjects such as Ferguslie Community Business in Renfrewshire? Has the hon. Gentleman ever heard of that?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I have already appealed for temperate language in the Chamber. We must be careful. Hon. Members have protection in the House, but it is perhaps unfair in a debate such as this, when we are considering local government in general, to refer to individuals by name. We should try to keep to the terms of the motion. I think that the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) has made his point and should move on. My ruling applies to every hon. Member: I ask that the debate remains at a certain standard.

Mr. Connarty: Thank you very much, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I made a point of using only evidence that was allowed in court and on the basis of which someone was found guilty in order to stress that we need ethical local government. That means that every party must deal with its members who break that ethic and the rule of no corruption in the harshest fashion or be judged unfit to put up candidates in local government elections.

Dr. Fox: Far be it from me to defend the Scottish National party, but this debate is about the ethical conduct of the Labour party in local government in Scotland simply because it is by far the largest party. Throughout the debate, we have discussed the way local government

16 Jun 1998 : Column 223

is being run. The hon. Gentleman referred to being able to take effective action. Does he honestly believe that what has happened to Pat Lally in Glasgow amounts to effective action?

Mr. Connarty: The hon. Gentleman has mentioned another name and you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have admonished us about for using individuals' names. I shall not be impolite to you by taking up the hon. Gentleman's point.

The motion and its terms are quite clear: it is about ethically sound local government. I commend the fact that the hon. Gentleman has drafted the motion in such a way as to allow that subject to be discussed. It is important to say clearly that, while we can work on incompetence and deal with vigilance and the structures for vigilance, corruption is just not acceptable in any part of local government. That is why I made those points.

In winding up, I move to the general approach to local government. I believe that local government has a very good record in Scotland--despite the fact that errors were made before I entered local government that people would quote to me as being reasons why it was not something in which one wanted to be involved. I am glad that I did not take that advice and instead became involved in local government. We found that Labour candidates were able to take Scottish nationalists out of the council because they were able to win their seats.

I believe that I followed the hon. Member for Angus in that I represented the same seat in the council after taking it off his successor, who was an SNP councillor. We did not do what we did on the basis that we wanted to abuse them. We wanted to replace them and to do better than them, not necessarily to drag them down or attack them. That has been the basis on which most councillors have gone into councils.

If things go wrong, one of the reasons is that because of their size and structure councils can suggest--even Government can suggest--that councillors should remove themselves by going into some sort of think tank, including general policy committees and strategic committees, leaving the council officers to get on with delivering services. If councillors get the structures right and if the reporting mechanisms are correct they can, possibly, take that course, but I would argue that the involvement of as many councillors as possible and as many individual contacts as possible between officers who deliver services and accountants to evaluate the quality of those services and the cost of them, along with the performance and quality of those who are responsible for the delivery of the services, can benefit local government.

I would worry if we ever moved to a super-councillor concept--a few councillors to look after everything and the rest having no function. We must give local Government some dignity. That means that we must be more supportive as a Government. We must be more interrogative and there must be more scrutiny, but we must be more supportive. Our approach must be positive. We must try to correct errors and to give those involved good structures, good advice and good, firm rules setting out how councillors should go about things. We should then support and encourage them.

I worry that people do not turn out to vote. I am involved in a by-election in my constituency. It is the first one this year. If 32 per cent. of the people turn out to

16 Jun 1998 : Column 224

vote, I will be seriously disappointed. However, I believe that that was the average turnout in the English local government elections.

Dr. Fox: It was lower.

Mr. Connarty: So it was less than 32 per cent. That is even worse.

Perhaps the problem is that the Government--previous Governments and even the present Government--have not given local government proper value and have not talked it up to make people realise that it is an important matter. It is public service. I was a teacher who worked on a half-time contract for 10 years so that I could be a councillor on a Thursday and Friday and on most evenings when I was not in school. That was my choice. I was lucky to have another salaried person in the house, which enabled me to do that. Many people are not in that position. I am not saying that I was necessarily of the calibre that we have been discussing, but people of high calibre should be attracted to give public service at local authority level.

I think that the Government should seriously consider abolishing the Widdicombe rules, which is the United Kingdom equivalent of Berufsverbot. Individuals in certain positions in a local authority area cannot stand for any political position. They cannot offer to serve. It was an honourable tradition and not a much abused one where those who were professionals served. Often local government officers served in other local authorities. That is more difficult now because of the size of local authorities. However, I believe that offence was caused to those who were willing to give public service. We should consider ways of releasing professional talent and bringing it back into local authorities. We should kick out the motion and support the amendment.

9.2 pm

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): At one point, the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) suggested that this was a false debate. Far from that being the case, we initiated the debate to put the spotlight on the behaviour of many Labour local authorities in Scotland and to introduce appropriate scrutiny, which is an important democratic function. The hon. Gentleman suggested two local authorities. I think that we might suggest one or two more than that.

The debate has produced a particular and welcome advantage because we have given the people of Scotland a foretaste of what the Scottish Parliament may hold in some of the exchanges between Labour Members and Scottish nationalists in the Chamber this evening.

Next Section

IndexHome Page