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Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I am very pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) has secured this debate. As he said, I had an Adjournment debate on 26 April
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last year regarding Peter Francis, in which my right hon. Friend and I dealt with the events that had occurred on the council. What occurred in Mr. Peter Francis’s case was unhappy to say the least. It was shabby, and a discredit to the local authority. It was right that he was awarded some £650,000 by the employment tribunal for unfair dismissal and disability discrimination. There is absolutely no justification whatever for what happened to Mr. Peter Francis. Of course, the council gave in on the very day on which the tribunal was due to meet, as my right hon. Friend said. It is also right that attention should be given to the other people involved, as has happened today.

There was a great deal of controversy—it lay, to a great extent, with the case of Peter Francis—surrounding the way in which the neighbourhood renewal fund was being applied. I know that the fund has now been discontinued, but when it was in operation, it was meant to help the more disadvantaged and deprived parts of the borough. However, in Walsall, it was spread much more widely. It was not used as it should have been used, and that is largely the reason behind the controversy over Peter Francis, and behind the shabby and unacceptable manner in which he was treated and dismissed.

I do not want to deal again with the case of the chief executive. I am sure that my right hon. Friend and I agree that we have every confidence in the new chief executive, and the council is now demonstrating some very welcome new departures. However, it is not only the former chief executive who should be criticised; it is also the political control of the council and the way in which the council operated at that time. There were certain periods during which the council gave the impression of being more like an authoritarian state than an English local authority. Those were very unhappy times, and I hope that they will never be repeated, whoever controls the council.

As I have said, those events were a discredit to the local authority, and they certainly did not reflect well on those who were responsible for running the council. I hope that there will now be new opportunities for the council to act in a very different way. I shall welcome the intervention of the Minister on all these matters, which are causing such concern in the borough.

2.48 pm

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) on securing this debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) on his contribution. I thank them for the serious way in which they have pursued what I accept are serious concerns, and I recognise the determination with which they have done so for some time.

As my right hon. Friend will know, the cases of those to whom he referred in his speech as the Walsall four have all been drawn to a conclusion through various processes. In one instance, a case has been withdrawn. There have also been compromise agreements, and settlements in relation to the employment tribunal. I had not heard of Mr. Teesdale before this afternoon,
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but if my right hon. Friend will give me further details of that case, I should be interested to see them.

I made the point about the four cases because the relationship between a local authority and a member of staff is fundamental a matter relating to that officer’s contract of employment with the authority. Legally speaking, Ministers have no remit to intervene in the day-to-day management responsibilities of a local authority. There is also established provision, which Mr. Francis used, under which individuals whose treatment under contract falls below the level at which it should be can take such cases to an employment tribunal—and, ultimately, perhaps to the courts.

I have pursued these concerns for some time and I have checked back in preparation for this afternoon’s Adjournment debate. Correspondence has been frequent and discussions with Ministers have already taken place. I believe that there was a meeting in November 2006 with my predecessor, now the Minister for the Environment. Furthermore, as the then Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith), said in response to the debate of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North on 26 April last year, she was ready to offer another meeting, once the reports discussed during that debate had been received.

At that time, the report of the district auditor was particularly awaited. As the then Under-Secretary said, it was the most appropriate way of uncovering and examining the relevant issues of public concern and then ensuring that the council took any necessary remedial action. Let me say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South that that report was carried out, as he knows, by the district auditor. That person, as my right hon. Friend acknowledged, does not have a vested interest and has, indeed, a statutory role to play, carrying out his function under part 3 of the code of audit practice. In my experience, our district auditors do their job under statute with great diligence.

The report has now been published—it was issued in September last year—and the main conclusion was that in the particular case of Mr. Francis,

The auditor further stated that his

A further linked inquiry was being undertaken at the time. It was an independent inquiry, although set up at the instigation of Walsall council. It was designed to complement the district auditor’s work and laid greater emphasis on some of the systems that the council had in place—another area of concern for my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South. That inquiry was undertaken by the former chief executive of Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council, Douglas Bradbury. When he had concluded, a decision was taken, because of the linked areas of inquiry with the district auditor’s work, that both reports should be published together, which they were in September.

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Given the shortage of time, I will not go into the detail of the issues that Mr. Bradbury’s report covered. Suffice it to say that it concluded that although the council had the necessary disciplinary agreements and whistleblowing procedures in place, they were not always correctly or consistently followed. Both reports highlighted, as did my right hon. Friend, an insufficient awareness across the council of the nature of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005.

Let me try to spell out briefly, in a way that I hope will provide both my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South and my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North some reassurance, the actions that have followed the recommendations of these two reports. Both were sent to all members of the council. Both were made public on 10 September last year and debated in public at a full council meeting. The council also put in place a detailed plan to deal with the concerns that had been identified. That plan was shared with the Audit Commission and approved by the council towards the end of September.

Importantly, the council set out and is now pursuing clear arrangements to ensure that action in the plan becomes action in practice, and so that all the actions for improvement are given priority. Each has a named individual responsible for its implementation, and the relevant cabinet portfolio holder is also identified. Ultimately, the chief executive is the implementation manager responsible for ensuring that the action is pursued, and the council’s audit committee has oversight of it. My right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend can therefore trace it through and be clear about who is accountable for any progress, or lack of progress.

When my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend raised the matter last year, the district auditor had not reported. My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon, the then Under-Secretary, said that she would meet them once it had been published. I extend them a similar invitation today. I understand that my right hon. Friend has previously met the district auditor, but not since—

Mr. George: I have not.

John Healey: Then I am misinformed. If he has not, but wishes to do so to discuss the content of the auditor’s report and the weaknesses that he believes it contains, and if he and my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North, would find it useful, I will facilitate and attend such a meeting. I am also willing to approach
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Mr. Bradbury, if my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend wish me to do so. I can ask whether he, too, would be prepared to meet them to explain the work that he undertook in his inquiry and the recommendations and findings in his report, and deal with any questions or concerns that they have about the content and conduct of the inquiry.

Mr. George: I am sorry to intervene, because I have the greatest respect for the Minister, but what he has said—or what his civil servants have said—is a bit like taking a penalty shot and hitting something at a 45° angle. It is all true, but it completely misses the point. I shall willingly accept his invitation, but I would love to bring along Peter Francis, Liz McDonald, Mark Kemp and David Parish. Maybe they could give a version that is markedly different from the reports that were commissioned. I ask my hon. Friend not to simply close his eyes and have a nice little meeting. I hope that he will examine the matter seriously, because it is about the integrity of British local government, which has been gravely damaged by what happened in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North.

John Healey: The integrity and propriety of British local government is the remit and role of the district auditor; that is an element of what he is meant to consider. My right hon. Friend has a lot of experience in the House, and he will understand that individual employment contract matters are not something that I, as a Minister, can properly look into in detail. I started my contribution by saying that there are established procedures through which that can be done, and all four individuals whom he mentioned have pursued, in different ways, the legal avenues available to them.

Let me finish by saying that in the last debate on the subject, mention was made of an ongoing police investigation and the involvement of the Crown Prosecution Service. I understand that that investigation was concluded shortly after the debate last April, and the police determined that no further action was necessary. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South said, there have been real achievements in Walsall since 2002. It would be wrong to ignore them, but clearly he and my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North have questions resulting from the two inquiries and two reports. As I have said, if they wish to pursue those questions with and through me, I am happy for them to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o’clock .

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