Draft Relevant Authorities (General Principles) Order 2001

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Mr. Waterson: My hon. Friend is absolutely on point as usual. One could refer to the schedule as the Doncaster principles. They are designed to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted in terms of Labour local government.

I commend to the Committee an excellent little publication by the Conservative Councillors Association entitled ``Council Watch'', which I think is available at no charge, except possibly to members of the Labour party. Its subtitle talks of putting a spotlight on Labour and Liberal Democrat local government. The publication is replete with documented examples—I do not intend to go into them in detail—of malfeasance, misfeasance and negligence by Labour and Liberal Democrat-controlled councils. [Interruption.] I hear trumpetings from the Liberal Democrat undergrowth.

Mr. Andy King (Rugby and Kenilworth): I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is helping in any way by using the debate as an opportunity to score party political points. The Conservatives should remember only too well the authorities in which they were held to account for corruption. The levels of corruption of Conservative councils and councillors is in direct percentage reduction to the numbers that have been reduced over the years.

Mr. Waterson: I do not think that that is correct. The hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled to contribute to our debate, but I hope that any future contribution of his is more readily understandable.

Let us talk about Congleton, which is under Liberal Democrat control. There, according to the document:

    ``Cllr Linda Short resigned as the Leader of the Council after she and her husband, Cllr Malcolm Short, had allegations of misconduct and breaking the National Code of Conduct upheld by an Independent Investigator''.

Let us remind ourselves of the London borough of Haringey, where

    ``councillor Lord Toby Harris ran up a staggering £15,062 in taxi expenses for the council year ending April 2000''.

I suspect that that that is a rather larger sum than the annual earnings of many of his local residents.

Returning to the Liberal Democrats, disgraced Sheffield councillor Bob Watson has been told by his Liberal Democrat colleagues that he can stand for re-election, despite having been sentenced to 180 hours of community service for embezzling £846 from a local working men's club. Those are not the highest standards of behaviour in local government by any stretch of the imagination. Let us look at Labour-controlled Birmingham.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): As you know, Mr. Illsley, it is unusual for a Government Whip to make a contribution, but it is difficult, as one of the Members of Parliament for Doncaster, to listen to the hon. Gentleman reading out a list, but failing to comment on the fact that any Labour councillor in Doncaster who has faced charges of any kind has been immediately suspended from the Labour whip and from holding office in the Labour party organisation. However, the leader of the Tory party in Doncaster, councillor John Dainty, who is facing serious corruption charges, has not had the Tory whip removed from him and is still leader of the Tory party there. Has the hon. Gentleman anything to say about that?

Mr. Waterson: I deduce from what the hon. Gentleman says that those charges have not been substantiated. I do not want to comment on them, and I am not sure about the extent to which he should do so. However, he might remind us of the mounting number of Labour councillors who have faced serious charges in Doncaster. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is the person who should speak in a debate about standards in local government.

Mr. Fabricant: I find it hard to say this to my hon. Friend. Is he aware that during the four years in which Lichfield district council was Labour controlled, the leader of the district council was successfully prosecuted by the police for theft and corruption? At no time did he resign the Labour party whip, nor was he made to do so.

The Chairman: Order. May I remind the Committee that we are debating the principles that apply to local government? We are not here to debate examples of local authorities or individual councillors who have transgressed in the past. I must ask hon. Members to return to the principles in the draft order.

Mr. Waterson: Of course, I am the first to recognise your ruling, Mr. Illsley. However, it is difficult to debate the principles in a vacuum. Presumably, the Government have felt a pressing need to introduce 10 commandments—apart from their natural urge for tidiness and bossing people about—but what has brought us to these particular principles? Surely it cannot be the fact that they have constantly been observed in Labour and Liberal Democrat local government, or in local government generally. There must be reasons for it.

Although I was coming to the end of my examples, it is difficult to discuss the issue without looking at chronic examples of corruption, incompetence, negligence and maladministration in Labour local government. However, having heard your ruling, Mr. Illsley, I shall, of course, abide by it. I can only commend to the Committee the document ``Council Watch''. Every case in it is totally documented. The only apology that I would make is that I do not believe that the example of Lichfield, quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), is even in the book, which suggests that a new edition will be called for very soon.

We all know what has driven the Government's agenda for local government. It is a fear of old Labour in local government and the sort of corruption, ineptitude and poor administration that has been endemic in many councils, be it Harlow, Doncaster or Haringey. One can take any number of examples and double or triple them, because that is the nature of Labour local government.

These are excellent principles, as are the original 10 commandments. I am sure that the vast majority of those in local government and seeking office in local government in the forthcoming elections, whenever they may be, will take them in their stride, because that is how they choose to run their lives as well as their careers in public service. However, a considerable minority still do not adhere to them, and to that extent we support the principles. I shall certainly not invite my hon. Friends to divide the Committee.

4.49 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I, too, am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley. Bearing in mind your ruling of a few minutes ago, I shall avoid the temptation to dwell at any length on the remarks of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) about the publication ``Council Watch'', which I note, in glancing at it, has a foreword by him. No doubt he played a major part in producing the document. I suspect that, rather bizarrely, it will contain no reference to Conservative councillors. I wonder whether he takes the view that no examples of corruption, incompetence or maladministration by Conservative councillors can be found in living memory. I should be delighted to supply some well-documented examples involving Conservative councillors and councils, if he assured me that they would feature in the next edition of ``Council Watch''. I suspect that I shall receive no such assurance.

The hon. Gentleman has made the point that it would be foolish of any of us to deny that there had been examples in local government of involvement in corrupt activities, of incompetence or of maladministration. We would all recognise that lapses have occurred from time to time in local govt, just as in national government, and no doubt at higher levels. However, I believe that in this place we try to impose on our local government colleagues rather higher standards than we have tended to impose on ourselves. I am interested by the current attempt to impose on people who want to serve in local government a set of principles that we have not yet tried to adopt.

As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the principles are important and deserve to be accepted. However, I have two matters to raise with the Minister. First, I want to amplify a point that he made. The Minister made it clear that the principles did not conflict with human rights legislation. I should be grateful for more detail about that. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, article 3(2) of the order states:

    ``Only paragraphs 2 and 8 of the Schedule to this Order shall have effect in relation to the activities of a member that are undertaken other than in an official capacity.''

The implication is that principles 2 and 8 will apply to all a councillor's activities, not just to duties carried out as an elected representative on a council. That gives rise to many questions about the impact of the measure on people's lives outside politics.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): The hon. Gentleman will be aware that one of the fundamental principles of the Human Rights Act relates to fair hearings. Is he satisfied that the order provides for fair hearing procedures under the Act? Furthermore, with a view to upholding the principles, would there be a proper appeal against any misjudgment?

Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point because it leads me to where my argument was headed. If principles 2 and 8 will apply to all the activities undertaken by a councillor, whether he or she is on official duty or not, we must ask how judgments will be made. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the code of practice already sets out procedures whereby a councillor convicted of a criminal offence may lose his right to serve on the council or be disbarred for some time. However, under the order, the interesting situation could arise in which a person is neither found guilty nor innocent, but is in some sort of halfway house because his actions were deemed not to comply with principles 2 or 8. That could create all sorts of problems.

My second point is that the principles are intended to inform the code of conduct. I am delighted that there will be a new model code of conduct and that local councils will be required to develop codes based on the guidance issued by the Department. We have already had an opportunity to look at the sort of advice that the Minister and the Department are offering councils to assist them in drawing up those codes of conduct. The advice makes it clear that it is intended to apply to members

    ``whenever they are involved in conducting the business of the authority.''

That is contrary to what the Minister said regarding principles 2 and 8. I should be grateful if the Minister clarified that conflict. I note that section 4 of the draft code states:

    ``A member must not in his official capacity or otherwise commit a criminal offence or conduct himself in a manner which could reasonably be regarded as bringing his office or authority into serious disrepute.''

That brings me back to the point raised by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). How will a judgment be made about a particular activity, which might have been deemed by a court not to be a criminal act, but which, it is alleged, brings the authority into disrepute? Such questions take us back to human rights legislation.

I shall give one final example to illustrate where there is still confusion. Section 7 of the draft code refers to the requirement for one member of a council to report another member to the Standards Board for England, in the event that the first councillor believes that the second councillor has been involved in conduct that means that he or she has failed to comply with the code. There will be an absolute requirement on councillors to report another councillor to the standards board for behaviour that he or she believes breaches the code.

That begs certain questions. What evidence must the first councillor have in order to make such a report? Whistle-blowing and the issues surrounding it must be tightly regulated. We need to be clear about the standards of evidence and proof that are required. Otherwise, one councillor may believe that another councillor has breached the code but may be unsure whether to report the situation. However, if he does not, the first councillor could be in breach of the code. It is a case of ``heads you lose, tails you lose''.

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