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Wandsworth Council: District Auditor's Report

3.11 p.m.

Lord Dubs asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Minister of State, Department of Environment (Viscount Ullswater): My Lords, the matters raised in the district auditor's report are for the local authority. Under Section 6 of the Local Government Act 1992 the council is obliged to publish the existence of a public interest report; it is obliged to consider the report at a meeting of the full council within four months; and it must publish a summary of decisions taken in the light of the report. The Government have no role to play.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, whether or not the Government have a role to play, is it not monumentally embarrassing that their favoured local authority, Wandsworth Council, has been found to be behaving unlawfully; that it has been neglecting its statutory duties to the homeless and all this at a time when a Government Minister, Sir Paul Beresford, was either chairman of its housing committee or leader of the council? Surely the Government have a bit more than that to say about this issue.

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, the accountants themselves say:

The next sentence goes on to say:

    "Wandsworth has obtained advice from counsel which disagrees with this view of the law".

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Also in the report the auditors said:

    "We have found no evidence to indicate that the council's voluntary sales policy was adopted for an improper purpose or took into account any irrelevant consideration".

Baroness Young: My Lords, can my noble friend say how many Labour authorities are being investigated by the district auditor, or indeed are under investigation by the Labour Party itself?

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, I believe that my noble friend will be interested in one particular statistic. Since 1979 district auditors have been compelled to publish an unprecedented 17 public interest reports into mismanagement and incompetence in Lambeth Council.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, I hope that here we are on common ground. Will the Minister agree that malpractice in local government, or anywhere else, should be rooted out whenever it is properly proved? It must be properly proved. In that context will the Minister now repudiate the remark made by the chairman of the Conservative Party who said that Labour local government tends to be corrupt?

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, that is rather a long way from the Question on the Order Paper. I do not believe that the noble Lord is standing at the Dispatch Box saying that Labour authorities always behave entirely properly.

Lord Molloy: My Lords, does the noble Viscount agree that what has happened in Wandsworth has received massive publicity? When the Government are satisfied that they have made a thorough investigation into the behaviour of that council, will they then also announce that the remainder of the London borough councils, local councils and indeed British local government entirely, are in no way at the same low status and have not committed grave offences, almost crimes, like Wandsworth Council? Does the Minister agree that other councils deserve to be exonerated?

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord is giving a completely different interpretation of what the auditor said. It is entirely for the auditor to take whatever action he considers necessary after the full council has had an opportunity to look at the report. No accusations have been made that there has been financial loss.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, as the noble Viscount has just disclaimed any responsibility by the Government, does he not believe that the Conservative Party might well follow the example of the Labour Party and institute an investigation for its own good name?

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, that is entirely what a district auditor is for. He has taken that course on complaint from a couple of people in Wandsworth and issued his report accordingly.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, I declare an interest as someone who has lived for 27 years in Wandsworth and in Battersea, the former constituency of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. I have found Wandsworth to be an incredibly well run local authority. If my opinion is not

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very important, does my noble friend agree that it is a fact that, whatever national trends have been, time after time the Conservatives have been re-elected at Wandsworth with increasing majorities? Is not the proof of the pudding in the eating?

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, my noble friend is right. Wandsworth council was won from Labour in 1979. When Labour last ran Wandsworth it set the highest rates for inner London.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, in his reply to my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel, the noble Viscount refused to repudiate the remarks made by the chairman of the Conservative Party. Is the Minister aware that some of us are extremely perturbed by that because the remarks condemned all Labour local authorities as being corrupt? I hope that the Minister will reconsider his reply and repudiate that view put forward by the Tory Party chairman.

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, I am answering the Question on the Order Paper on behalf of the Government. I am indicating that in this instance it is for the district auditor to take whatever action he considers necessary and that it is not a matter for the Government.

Lord Richards: My Lords, the Minister is answering for the Government. Perhaps I may ask him this question: does the Minister believe that all Labour local authorities are corrupt?

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, if the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition would like to table that question, I will not only do my best to answer it, but I shall bring forward with it quite a lot of evidence.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, perhaps I may try to return the House to the Question on the Order Paper. Is it not the fact that this particular auditor's report is provisional? Is there not something which offends natural justice in that proceedings between a provisional and a final report can drag on for months and months?

Viscount Ullswater: Yes, my Lords. I indicated in my original Answer that the report must be considered by the full council within four months. The auditor will then consider the council's responses and decide whether to take any further action.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, like the noble Lord opposite, I too have lived in Wandsworth for 30 years or more. Perhaps I may tell the noble Lord—

Noble Lords: No!

Lord Jenkins of Putney: I am sorry, my Lords. Is the noble Viscount aware that the rosier view of Wandsworth Council given by the noble Lord opposite will be disposed of at the coming local elections?

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, the Conservative majority rose to 30 in the May 1994 elections whereas it was held by a mere one vote in 1979. The noble Lord has the great benefit of having the second lowest council tax in London.

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Inland Revenue: Location of Offices

3.19 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Why taxpayers living in London and the South of England have their affairs dealt with by Inland Revenue offices in Wales and the Midlands, to the inconvenience of those taxpayers.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): My Lords, successive governments have followed a policy of dispersing government jobs from London and the south east to areas of the country where accommodation costs are lower and where unemployment is high. Relocating PAYE work has been part of that policy.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, does not my noble friend realise that it is a very great convenience for the taxpayer if the tax office which deals with his affairs is close enough for him to be able to have conversations and personal contact with staff there? If you happen to live in the south of England and find that your tax affairs are dealt with from, for example, Walsall, you are driven to conducting your business by correspondence only rather than by personal contact. Is not the convenience of the taxpayer and the facility of the working of the system very important?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, most of us prefer to keep the taxman at sufficient arm's length so that we deal with him only by post. Perhaps I may advise my noble friend that there is a network of tax inquiry centres throughout the country, including in London and the south east, where people can have their inquiries dealt with directly. I am a little surprised, however, that my noble friend does not seem to approve of the policy, given that it started in 1959 when he was a distinguished member of the Government, first, as Minister of Pensions and National Insurance and then as Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

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