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Mr. Simon Hughes: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have come to the end of the substantive debate and we will now go through the formalities to deal with the remaining amendments on the Order Paper. Given Mr. Speaker's interest in trying to modernise our procedures and the struggle that the occupants of the Chair and Members have had throughout the day in trying to following the procedure, could I ask whether there is a way in which all the non-contentious business that comes back here can be processed at a logical time or without having to go through this House? A lot of material comes back to us, but only a certain amount causes any contention at all. Could that matter be referred to whichever parts of the system are looking at modernising our procedures so that those here--let alone those outside--can understand what is going on?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): The hon. Gentleman--who has long experience of this House--ought to know that it is not necessary to raise that matter on a point of order at this point of the proceedings when it is perfectly open to him to write to the Procedure Committee to ask that it consider these matters. From the Chair, I can only proceed in line with what is laid down.

Lords amendments Nos. 107 to 120 agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos 121 to 124 disagreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 125 to 129 agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 130 disagreed to.

Government amendment (a) to the words so restored to the Bill agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 131 to 134 agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 135 disagreed to.

Lords amendment No. 136 agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 137 and 138 disagreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 139 to 244 agreed to.

Government amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 245 agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 245, as amended, agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 246 disagreed to.

Government amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 247 agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 247, as amended, agreed to.

Lords amendment No. 248 disagreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 249 to 329 agreed to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That was not too bad, was it, Mr. Hughes?

Committee appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendments Nos. 14, 15, 25, 39, 41 to 43, 45, 46, 48, 49, 121 to 124, 135, 137, 138 and 246 to 248: Mr. Paul Boateng, Mr. Mike Hall, Mr. Nick Hawkins, Mr. Peter Luff and

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Angela Smith; Mr. Paul Boateng to be the Chairman of the Committee; three to be the quorum of the Committee.--[Mr. Mike Hall.]

To withdraw immediately.

Reasons for disagreeing to certain Lords amendments reported, and agreed to; to be communicated to the Lords.


Mr. Deputy Speaker: I propose to put together the Questions on the two social security motions.

Motion made, and Question out forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Social Security

Question agreed to.

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Council Chief Executives

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House to now adjourn.--[Mr. Betts.]

10.49 pm

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): I shall approach this subject by illustrating how the chief executive of Broadland district council, which covers part of my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), managed to achieve early retirement, a glorious pay-off and, for all I know, wonderful references. I raise it as a case study that requires Government action on two fronts: a public inquiry into this particular case, and an examination of the need to standardise the terms, conditions and powers of chief executives. The terms and conditions enjoyed by chief executives should safeguard their security of tenure--against political whims, for example--but they should not prevent a council from taking appropriate action where there is a clear need.

The individual concerned, Mr. John Bryant, banned elected persons from entering council premises outside of council or committee meetings, thereby interfering with the councillors' ability to carry out their duties on behalf of their voters. He negotiated his salary to disproportionate levels, given the size of the council, and became one of the best paid chief executives in England. There was no link to average earnings or inflation, as is the case with other groups of workers and constituents. He played a prominent role in his own work appraisal, and took on extra duties--at elections, and by monitoring affairs--to increase his earnings. He generally expanded his duties, and it was all done without council approval.

Mr. Bryant initiated a court case against the leader of the Labour group. That caused further court cases, and a court case is still pending that may cost the council tens of thousands of pounds. He made statements to the press without the council's approval. He brought the council into disrepute by attempting to control councillors, accusing them without foundation of breaking national codes, and in general took major decisions on his own, without recourse to elected members.

The zenith of Mr. Bryant's career came when he instructed that all the mail addressed to councillors at the council offices should be opened by council officers. Those officers could act on that mail if they felt it appropriate to do so, without disclosing that they had done so. Clearly, councillors did not like that and complained. Mr. Bryant said that he had the official approval of internal auditors. He stated publicly:

In other words, he was telling constituents that they should write to their councillors only at home, if they did not want their private correspondence to be opened. The Controller of the Audit Commission, Andrew Foster, wrote that

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I have had an influx of letters, from constituents and non-constituents alike, on those matters. One parish council clerk wrote:

The answer that she received stated that

My correspondent adds that district councils should have informed parish councils, which have been encouraged to keep their precepts down. She said that the pay-off of £275,000 did not set a good example, and pointed out that it meant that council tax would rise. Finally, she wrote:

I am sure that such events are rare. Broadland district council was led for a time by a Conservative-Liberal Democrat alliance, and is now run by a Conservative majority. In most circumstances, such arrogance would not have been allowed to flourish. Where there is transparency and partnership between elected representatives and non-elected officers, such events could not occur. That they have happened requires that the public have alternative ways to access council procedures and hold a local government accountable.

Although a source of leaked information has suggested that there were five serious counts against Mr. Bryant, there was no public disclosure, and it was not possible for me to access information. When I wrote to the Minister for Local Government and the Regions, the answer was again that such matters were between the employer and the employee, and that they could decide whether they were disclosed.

In a written question, I also asked whether the Audit Commission Act 1998 was appropriate to access the accounts of public bodies. The answer again was that it is the responsibility of each local authority to decide whether information on personal or contractual matters in a particular case is owed a degree of confidentiality, and to act accordingly.

I suggest that the events that I have discussed raise issues beyond the personal and contractual which, while a feature of the events, do not address the situation that set this whole sad affair into motion. For example, how are chief executives held to account in situations in which they practice autocracy, secrecy and bullying tactics, as in the case at Broadland? Dismissal of a chief executive is a cumbersome process and, as happened here, it is obviously easier to pay someone off than to have a proper investigation, which would happen in most employment situations.

In her letter of 10 May, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions also suggested that if I had any queries on value for money, I might approach the district auditors. Many councillors went to the district auditor because they were concerned

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about the credibility of financial information on particular matters. Despite Mr. Bryant's entreaties, the auditor declined to identify the councillors who had raised the matter with him. In a confidential report to the council, Mr. Bryant alleged that the councillors had breached the national code of conduct by going to see the auditor. I think that that allegation would have been laughed out of any court in the land.

Even more bizarrely, not being able to identify the councillors, Mr. Bryant wrote:

that is, identity--

He went on to invite the council to take action against the leader by removing her from the policy and resources committee, which they did. The irony was that the leader of the Labour group was on holiday abroad during the whole period. On legal advice, the Labour councillors called a special council meeting and moved the reinstatement of the group leader to the committee, threatening the council with immediate legal action if councillors pursued the improper course put to them by Mr. Bryant.

I submit that nothing short of an inquiry into the behaviour of the council in this affair will satisfy my constituents. We need disclosure of the total on-going costs and the details of the final settlement. How were they negotiated, over what best years were they attained and how much employee time was involved in all this public hoo-hah?

We must ask how to prevent this from happening again. I would love to see the document giving the details of the early retirement package, and I think the public would too. They are certainly demanding that in their letters to me.

At a time when we are democratising local government, with cabinet structures and more public scrutiny, does my hon. Friend agree that this case illustrates the need to define the role and accountability of chief executives? We need to initiate procedures for councils to use when the chief executive is seen to be failing.

Last, but not least, and most importantly, councillors and the public should have the right to access key information. Will my hon. Friend please act?

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