I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I think we are all agreed that this is a relatively modest but nevertheless important Bill, which has three important aims. The first is to clarify, for people working in local government, the effect on them of some legal provisions which are of many years' standing and which, by general consent, embody an important principle. The second is to bring the penalties for offences against these provisions up to date. The third is to introduce some minor reforms which will usefully reduce and simplify the considerable volume of routine work to which these provisions now give rise, in the offices of both local authorities and of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government.
In moving this Motion, I am much encouraged by the welcome which my Bill has received generally, and by the constructive debate which took place on it in this House on Second Reading on 13th March and during its Committee stage this week. I feel that our debates will have served to ventilate an issue which is important in the life of many people in local government. They will also, I think, have helped to bring out some of the uncertainty which has all too commonly surrounded Section 76 of the Local Government Act, 1933, and the related provisions. I hope that they will have helped to clear up some of this uncertainty.
I was particularly glad, for example, to hear in Committee this week my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General's opinion that appointment to represent a local authority in a charitable or social organisation does not by itself create a pecuniary interest within the terms of the existing law. My pleasure at this is not occasioned merely by my right hon. and learned Friend's confirmation of the fact that my Bill does not, after all, require amendment to cover this point. I realise that this very point is one which—as the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) said in Committee—does affect quite a number of people and which, in the past, has been the subject of some perhaps meticulously cautious advice on this point. I know from experience that learned clerks of councils are fairly avid readers of HANSARD.
Perhaps I might also mention the reference made in Committee about the wording of Clause 1 (1). There are to be discussions with both my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and the Parliamentary Secretary, who has also been most helpful throughout. I understand that the various local authority associations will be brought into the discussions.
I do not think that there is any need for me at this stage to rehearse in detail the provisions of this modest Bill, but I should like briefly to set them in their broader context, which is that of the ability of local government today to maintain its invaluable traditions of disinterested and devoted service. As with all institutions, the foundation of local government rests with the people who serve it, whether as elected members or as permanent officers. Today, when the responsibilities of local government are increasing—when the problems facing it are becoming more complex—the need for people of the highest calibre is paramount.
But local government has to compete for such people with all sorts of other bidders—some of them very powerful and, I have no doubt, more congenial bidders. We must try to see that it remains an effective competitor in this vital market. One small contribution towards maintaining this effectiveness is to see that statutes first drawn many years ago do not give rise to unnecessary awkwardness or difficulty as the conditions in which they operate change with time. I trust I am not being too sanguine if I hope that my Bill may make some contribution in this way. I wish, once again, to express my gratitude to all those, within and without the House, who have contributed towards its reaching this stage.
All hon. Members who took part in the Standing Committee discussion on this Bill will wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Sir H. Ashton) and the Government spokesmen who have taken part in it because this is a complicated Measure and it will be recalled that during our proceedings we had to get the Law Officers to help us. I am glad that many of the anomalies which my hon. Friend has outlined have been removed by this small, modest, but, nevertheless, extremely important Bill and that a certain number of misunderstandings which have existed in this sphere have been cleared up. The Bill makes the position much clearer and while I have certain reservations, I do not wish to disclose them at this point because it would be improper for me to discuss anything except the contents of the Bill. Any remaining anomalies can, if necessary, be dealt with in another place, but they are not of substantial interest or importance. They are minor matters.
I hope that the House will give its Third Reading to a Bill to which a lot of thought has been given by hon. Members on both sides. Here I would pay tribute to hon. Members opposite, who have been more than helpful in using their considerable experience for the benefit of what is a useful and worthwhile Measure.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Sir H. Ashton) on introducing a Bill which, as he and my hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Dr. Alan Glyn) have said, deals with a difficult problem. There is general consent that the principle of the existing provisions of Section 76 of the 1933 Act is an important one, and one that we would hesitate to breach. It implies that where there is real abuse, the sanction must be relevant to the seriousness of the abuse. At the other end of the scale, and it is that with which we are now mainly concerned, there has been considerable anxiety amongst local councillors, and the officers who have to advise them, lest some apparently extremely insignificant interests—interests that few people would consider as likely to influence a man's decision on a wider matter—were covered by Section 76, and put the councillor concerned at risk of the penalties provided.
As my hon. Friend has said, this modest Measure aims at giving a little clarity and comfort on this point to councillors. If I may say so, it can only be a modest Measure, without breaching a basic principle which I am sure that none of us would wish to do. As my hon. Friend the Member for Clapham has said, at his instigation the Committee had to consider whether, in providing a largely subjective test, we had not made it almost impossible to enforce the law in regard to serious abuse, but my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General has made it clear that this matter will be considered in another place after we have consulted the local authority associations which, from the very start, have been closely associated with the principles behind the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford has spoken of the devoted and disinterested service given by the vast majority of councillors. We are here principally concerned with the disinterested part of that service rather than the devotion. We hope that this Measure will make clear to councillors that they need not fear where their interests in a particular matter are insignificant and unlikely to influence anyone in making a decision. I congratulate my hon. Friend once again on introducing the Bill, and on the trouble he has taken to do so so ably. I hope that the House will give the Bill its Third Reading.