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9.14 pm

Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West): I trust that, at some stage, the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) will ask himself why, at the most recent local elections, the people of Scotland decided to get rid of the few Conservative-controlled councils that remained.

I have mixed feelings about today's debate. Along with, I think, hon. Members on both sides of the House, I wish that it had not been necessary: I wish that there had been no sign of mismanagement in any Scottish local authority. Again along with hon. Members on both sides, I think,

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I believe that any misconduct on the part of local government, or indeed central Government, should be dealt with appropriately and fully.

Like others, I emphasise that the majority of elected representatives, whether they are Members of Parliament or councillors, are honest and hard working, and that it is in no one's interest for a cloud to hang over the conduct and credibility of elected representatives. Unlike one or two earlier speakers, I well remember how, in the last Parliament, many hon. Members felt that our reputation was being tarnished by sleaze and suspicion generated by the conduct of certain members of the then Government party, particularly their appalling practice of accepting cash for questions.

I do not believe, and I do not think that the public believe, that there is anything to be gained from using the debate to score cheap party political points. If we are completely honest, we must say that every political party that is represented here tonight has had, at one time or another, to investigate allegations of misconduct among its own members and elected representatives--and rightly so. The public expect the highest standards of conduct from those who hold public office. It is important for us to demonstrate tonight that our common objective is to uphold those standards, and to praise and give credit to those who have conducted themselves so well for so many years.

Mr. Hayes: I respect much of what the hon. Lady has said about ensuring that the highest standards are upheld, but what tangible proposals has she for putting that in place? The Secretary of State mentioned a commission for complaints and a new code of conduct, but what about other statutory measures?

Ms Squire: I shall refer later to some of the actions that the Government have already proposed and, indeed, taken. First, however, let me praise the swift action taken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in relation to North Lanarkshire and East Ayrshire councils.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda): Will my hon. Friend reflect on the fact that the present system of local government, and the present structure that controls it in this country, were set up by the Conservative party? During their 18 years in office, the Conservatives passed more local government Bills than any other Administration, and what exists now is a result of their Government.

Ms Squire: My hon. Friend makes some relevant points.

It demonstrates the determination of the Secretary of State that he has not only acted swiftly in respect of two councils, but taken the opportunity to review the operation of all direct labour organisations in Scottish local government. He has ensured that external auditors go through the books of each and every one of them to reveal whether there are any further causes for concern. In reply to the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), let me say that this Government have already published a new ethical framework for Scottish councils and are endeavouring to ensure the highest standard of conduct.

Opposition Members have said quite a lot about culture. I clearly remember some aspects of a culture where people were desperate to retain jobs in the public sector.

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They were desperate as they saw tens of thousands of jobs in the mining industry, in the heavy engineering sector, in the steel industry and in manufacturing destroyed by the previous Government, who must accept some responsibility for making councils feel that the priority had to be to try to maintain some reasonable level of employment in local authorities.

This Government have already demonstrated their commitment to ensuring that councils are efficient and provide quality and best value services. The Secretary of State has issued a notice to councils over concerns and instructed them to come back with a rationale. He will look at what they have to say and issue the necessary directions. Every council in Scotland will be required to introduce a new code of conduct for councillors and, as has been mentioned, the independent commission is already examining the future relationship between a Scottish Parliament and local government.

Despite the impression that may have been given by some Opposition Members, I want to mention some of the excellent actions that have been taken by councils in Scotland, particularly the council that I deal with as a Member of Parliament, Fife council. To use the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty), it has been innovative, enterprising and efficient in many respects.

Let me cite one or two examples. In the budget-setting exercise for the financial year 1997-98, Fife council undertook the largest consultation exercise of any council in Scotland. It involved all of its council employees, hundreds of community groups and local residents. The council also held more than nine public meetings to discuss directly with the people of Fife how they thought that the council's expenditure could best be spent.

The council decided not to wait for further action from central Government but immediately to take seriously the work of the Nolan committee; it has already adopted the national code of conduct for elected members. It has shown its determination to develop an integrated, one-stop approach to local services. I recently had the pleasure of opening the local services office in High Valleyfield in my constituency; the council had directed money there to provide such a local service.

Fife council and other councils should be applauded for the action that they have taken on so many matters--such as providing education, especially pre-school education, and on domestic violence--[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) scoffs. Perhaps she finds it difficult to accept that Labour-controlled councils can provide first-class services to the people whom they represent.

I am looking forward to developing new ways of working--which could be one of the positive consequences of today's debate--in ensuring that we change the face of politics in both central and local government, in building a positive and constructive relationship between local government and the Scottish Parliament and in demonstrating the House's commitment to giving the people a voice that will be heard--in contrast to the way that the voices of the many were ignored, for 18 years, by the few in the previous Government.

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9.25 pm

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): I am ashamed that today's debate is necessary and, from his eloquent speech, I rather suspect that the Secretary of State is also ashamed that such a debate is necessary. Although he was careful in dealing with the specifics of the motion on the Order Paper, he was also careful to distance himself from the culture of Labour in local government in Scotland.

I am ashamed because the once good name of Renfrewshire and Paisley--which is my home--has been tarnished by the behaviour of some of the elected representatives. I care about what happens to the people of Paisley and Renfrewshire. Although I should like to say that they do not deserve their local government, I cannot say it. They deserve their local government because they persist in voting for Labour, and sometimes for the Scottish National party.

I remember Paisley and the villages around it as a prosperous and proud area. The hon. Member for Ayr (Ms Osborne) was wrong--although she had no way of knowing it--in saying that Conservative Members know nothing about local government in Scotland, because I do. My father was a member of Renfrewshire district council for almost 20 years--for the whole of my early life. However, those were very different days.

Ms Osborne: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, especially as I--as a Paisley buddy myself--seem to have something in common with her. If she will tell me her father's name, it may be that I knew him.

Mrs. Laing: I must, because of time, make some progress.

Those were very different days--I am talking about the 1960s and 1970s, so I very much doubt that the hon. Lady knew my father; but that is not really the point--when the object of seeking election was to serve the local community, not to line one's own pockets or to get jobs for one's friends and family.

I am not suggesting--Labour Members will agree with me--that simply electing more Conservative councillors in Scotland will make the difference. I can think of several decent old-style Labour, SNP and independent councillors who, although I would not agree with their policies, were decent people doing their best for their own local community. Indeed, a member of my family was a prominent Glasgow Labour councillor for many years. Today, however, I would not embarrass him by asking him what he thinks about the necessity of this debate or the behaviour of his successors. He, too, must be ashamed of them.

Many senior Labour Members must be ashamed of the way in which their supporters have been behaving for many years in Scotland. However, we are debating not old Labour--which, however wrong in its economic and social policy, had principles--but new Labour, which has no principles, no beliefs, no standards, no discipline and no decency. New Labour is only out for itself. The new Labour party in the west of Scotland is rotten to the core. Labour Members know that, which is why they are embarrassed. I do not know why the Secretary of State is laughing--it is not funny. It is certainly not funny for the people of the west of Scotland who have to live under the domination of Labour local government.

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I have every sympathy, however, with the people who try to combat sleaze in the west of Scotland. I am thinking of the hon. Member for Paisley, North (Mrs. Adams) and the late hon. Member for Paisley, South who, we should not forget, fought hard against the sleaze that he encountered daily in his constituency.

How amusing it was to hear the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) criticising my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) for not having intimated to the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire (Mr. Graham) that he might mention his name in the House tonight. What difference would it have made? We have not seen the hon. Member for West Renfrewshire for nearly a year. The people of West Renfrewshire are not represented in the House because of Labour sleaze in the west of Scotland.

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