Clause 29. — (AMENDMENT OF SECTION 119 OF THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT ACT 1948. 1948 c. 26.)

Local Government (Scotland) Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 9th November 1966.

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Photo of Mr John Mackintosh Mr John Mackintosh , Berwickshire and East Lothian 12:00 am, 9th November 1966

I beg to move Amendment No. 42, in page 21, line 12, at the end to insert: (4) In the said section 119, after subsection (2), there shall be inserted the following subsection:—'(2A) Allowances may be paid by county, town or district councils in respect of expenses reasonably incurred by their members in connection with the installation or use of telephones for the purpose of the performance of their official duties'. The Association of County Councils has written to me personally on this subject. I should like to make it clear that I do not put the Amendment forward because it did so. I am distinctly unhappy about the tendency which I have observed in the House for hon. Members to say that because they have fixed something up with an outside pressure group it should be settled and carried through the House. Hon. Members should act only on something in which they believe and which they would have raised in any case.

I have been doing some work on this issue, and so have a number of people interested in local government. Unfortunately, the work on the question of expenses and time as a restriction on people serving local authorities has not yet been published, but, as hon. Members know, the Maud Committee has been working on the question of personnel in local authorities and examining why elected members tend not to include certain broad sections of the community among their representatives.

9.30 p.m.

Similarly, in Scotland, Mr. Gerald France, of the University of Strathclyde has done work on this. He is now director of intelligence for the Royal Commission and the material is being processed. We cannot, therefore, give facts, but I assure the House that on all types of local authority there are broad bands of the community who do not seek to stand, who do not serve, and that when attempts are made to discover why, the reasons that come forward are partly those of time and partly those of expense. The order in which these reasons are given and are emphasised varies among different types of authority.

In this case, however, in county councils a tremendous amount of work is done by members who do not live near the county town and who wish to contact officials and have to do so by telephone. This speeds up their activities enormously, but it leads, especially if they are conscientious, to very large telephone bills. This is one of those unfortunate situations in which an elected member who does nothing has a small bill but the more one does, the more active one is and the more cases one fights and takes up, the more one's postal and telephone charges grow.

Therefore, although this is only a small matter, and I would like to have gone further and provided more adequate remuneration for those who serve on local authorities, and a fuller expense account, the Amendment would meet a genuine need. For this reason, I was glad to put forward the Amendment, with the support of hon. Members on the Liberal bench and the private support, although not the signatures, of some Conservative Members.

I appreciate that certain hon. Members may wish to probe a little and ask how the procedure would work. I would point out to them that this is a permissive provision. Secondly, it would have been possible to set out a procedure for keeping a book of telephone calls which were to be charged or a percentage of a telephone account or for striking an actual figure which would be met, but it would be a little unfair and presumptuous of us to prescribe to local authorities in this manner. They are elected authorities and should be allowed to devise their own rules about what they would regard as reasonable within the terms of the Clause. Unreasonable expenditure would, presumably, be taken up by the district auditor in the same way as unreasonable expenses on other local government items are examined. I therefore regard this as a reasonable if small point which would alleviate the burden on certain categories of councillors, particularly in the larger landward areas.

I recognise that there is an argument, to which, up to a point, I succumb, that most changes in local government should await Royal Commission Reports. On the other hand, it may be two or three years before we get a complete recasting of our local government system. Until then, the Amendment represents a reasonable small alleviation of the personal expense which councillors have to bear.

I should like from my own constituency, as, I am sure, other hon. Members would agree from their constituencies in which there are large areas, to pay tribute to the tremendous amount of work which many local councillors do at considerable cost to themselves in terms of time and of their own pockets. The Amendment is a small step that we could take to help them.

Photo of Mr Michael Hutchison Mr Michael Hutchison , Edinburgh South

I oppose the Amendment, as I told the Association, which wrote also to me, that I would. I do so on two grounds. This matter was never discussed on Second Reading or in Committee and I do not see why it should be raised now. I do not see why councillors cannot conduct their business from either the town hall or the county hall as the case might be.

We heard only this afternoon of the great increases in rates in Scotland. Many people in the nation as a whole are having to bear immense burdens of taxation and I am not at this moment prepared to add to that burden which is borne by those people. Hence I oppose the Amendment.

Photo of Mr Archibald Manuel Mr Archibald Manuel , Central Ayrshire

I have very much pleasure in supporting the case put by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) for this Amendment. I also was asked by the County Councils' Association—I may say, acting on behalf of all the local authority associations, including the Convention of Royal Burghs of Scotland—to support an Amendment on Report of this Bill, because, whether we like it not, the present position has caused decided annoyance to many local authorities who previously were able to give their councillors telephone facilities.

The law has been tightened up, and now the local authority which has a common good fund which it can draw out of can meet this perfectly legally, and without any quibble at all by Government auditors appointed to examine burgh and county books, but where there is no common good fund the councillors are placed in a comparatively worse position in trying to accomplish the quite onerous duties which now fall upon an active councillor.

I know, from the days I served as public health committee convener in Ayr County, previous to the hospitals being taken over, that that was onerous enough, but long before that, during my fourteen years' experience on the Burgh Council of Ardrossan, we had for many years no telephone facilities. I can remember quite vividly my early years as a councillor and coming home from my work on the railway, at a time when housing was a big, crying need in that district, and how there would be people to meet me on the steps of my home.

My wife and daughter, a big lassie now but only a little girl then, I did not see all night when I was interviewing those callers at my home. In contacting the burgh surveyor, the town clerk and the town chamberlain about the many queries I was getting, telephone facilities would have been invaluable to me.

I very often had to try to get changes of duty on the railway and to lose seniority in my grade, because if I shifted to another shift I might be stepping in front of someone of a higher grade in locomotive work, and so I had to forgo seniority with consequent financial loss. I had to make those changes of duty on the railway in order to do my local authority work.

There is no doubt at all that a telephone can be invaluable to a busy councillor. I do not think that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) would dispute this, even although he was comparatively nearer to the city chambers, possibly, when he was on the Glasgow authority—or possibly he had convenerships which endowed him with the possibility of being snowed under with a great deal of work. I believe that the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro), who is also an ardent local authority man, and did very good work in local government, can support some of the things I am saying.

I do not agree at all with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison), when he said they should meet their own expense. He says they can work from county hall. Is he thinking of a county like that of Ayr, and of councillors travelling from the landward parts of Ayrshire right from Skelmorlie, in the north, all the way down to Girvan, in the south, and saying this is a feasible proposition?

Photo of Mr Michael Hutchison Mr Michael Hutchison , Edinburgh South

Mr. Clark Hutchison rose——

Photo of Mr Archibald Manuel Mr Archibald Manuel , Central Ayrshire

Let me round this argument off.

Do not forget that the whole of these people, with the exception of a minority of retired persons, are also doing their daily work, and they may have to get days off to do their local authority work, especially if they have two meetings running together.

A councillor may get a day off from his employment once a month to attend his county council meeting, but where a telephone is of great benefit is in dealing with individual cases, trying to get anomalies wiped out, some injustice righted or something put right by an official who has his hand on the trigger.

Photo of Mr Michael Hutchison Mr Michael Hutchison , Edinburgh South

May I make it clear to the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel) that I am not thinking about Ayr particularly, but about the unhappy ratepayers and taxpayers. I do not want to add to what is already a heavy burden upon them.

Photo of Mr Archibald Manuel Mr Archibald Manuel , Central Ayrshire

I might point out to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison) that, later in my experience as a councillor, telephone facilities were provided by the burgh which I had the privilege of serving for 14 years. In the course of that time, I addressed many ratepayers' meetings in the area and never once was this question raised.

This comes ill from the hon. Gentleman. I do not know what local authority experience he has, but, if he is merely trying to lower the rate burden in this niggling sort of way which will not matter at all in the aggregrate, does he suggest that the same rule of thumb should be applied to local authority officials, large numbers of whom have telephones in their houses? I am not complaining about that, because many of them have to deal with urgent calls, and such people as sanitary inspectors, burgh surveyors, and so on, should be on call.

Does the hon. Gentleman exclude the many local authority officials who not only have telephones in their offices to do their jobs but also at their home addresses in order that they should be more competent to deal with the various matters that need attention in their local authority areas?

We should not be more skrimping and cramping in what we do for elected councillors than we are in the case of local officials. We should try and equip them in such a way that the best type of person from every walk of life and every individual party, if necessary, is attracted to serve on local authorities. An indirect result will be more vibrant, stirring elections, and more people will take an interest in local authority work. There is far too much deadness about local authority work all over the country. If we go along on this line, trying to be parsimonious in the way indicated by the hon. Gentleman, we shall not have the revivifying effect which we want to see in Scottish local government.

I do not know what my right hon. Friend will say in reply to this debate. He may go some way to meet us; I do not know. However, there are plenty of ways in which protective action could be taken to see that expenses are kept to a reasonable level. Telephone rentals could be paid, and there could be a limit of £1 a quarter placed on local telephone calls. There will not be huge telephone bills run up in connection with this provision.

It gives me great pleasure to support the Amendment. If it is accepted, I am quite sure that our action will be greatly appreciated by the large body of councillors serving in the various communities throughout Scotland. I hope that our efforts are successful.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfriesshire

There is a great deal of merit in what has been said by the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) and the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel). As a representative of a rural constituency, I know that considerable sums of money can be saved in local government work by using the telephone rather than using a car and charging car expenses, which amount to much more than the cost of a telephone call. For these reasons I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept the Amendment, provided that there are clear accounting recommendations so that there is no abuse of the system. If it is made quite clear to all councillors that they must not abuse this provision, it might in the long run be an economical move for the county councils concerned.

9.45 p.m

Photo of Mr William Baxter Mr William Baxter , West Stirlingshire

I hesitate to keep the House for any length of time, but I did not serve on the Committee, and I must be permitted to express my point of view.

This is a serious and difficult question, and I agree with the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro) that if it is necessary to supply telephones, their use must be restricted to some extent. This cannot be an open-ended commitment. It must not be thought that all telephone calls made by all councillors, be it district, town or county, will be paid for by the general ratepayers. I agree that calls made, and expenses incurred, on behalf of the community should be met by the community, but I think that my right hon. Friend——

Photo of Mr Alexander Eadie Mr Alexander Eadie , Midlothian

I do not want to interfere with the debate, but I want to put a question to my hon. Friend because I know that, like me, he has long experience of local government. He has 30 years' experience against my 20. Would he agree that if the House were to decide not to provide phones for councillors, we would probably be doing them a favour, because many of them——

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. This is more like a speech than an intervention. The hon. Member will have an opportunity of making a speech if he wants to. He must be brief now.

Photo of Mr Alexander Eadie Mr Alexander Eadie , Midlothian

Mr. Speaker, I know that you are right to call me to order, but I want to know whether, because of his vast experience of local government, my hon. Friend would agree that we would probably be doing councillors a favour if we did not provide them with phones, because they can be a nuisance and waste a lot of one's leisure time.

Photo of Mr William Baxter Mr William Baxter , West Stirlingshire

If the telephone is a nuisance, and it probably is, so is the motor car, but they are singularly necessary inventions in this modern society.

It is suggested that phones should be supplied to members of town and county councils and that they should be paid all expenses "reasonably incurred" in their use. This is a rather vague phrase. I agree that phone calls made on behalf of the community should be paid for by the community, but I do not want this to be violated to such an extent that every phone call has to be paid for by the local authority.

I ask my right hon. Friend to look at this with greater care than seems to have been the case so far, judging from the bald words of the Amendment. I think that we should write in a provision that telephones can be provided, but they must be used with some degree of care for the public purse. Here I agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison). We have a duty and a responsibility to show that we are alive to the saving of the pennies, because if a penny is saved, it soon becomes a shilling, and that shilling sometimes becomes a £. If we remember the old Scots maxim, we will do well not only on our own behalf, but on behalf of the people who sent us here. I believe that we have a responsibility to look after the interests of the community.

Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross , Kilmarnock

In moving the Amendment, my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) referred to the quality of, and the service given by, members of local authorities in towns, in county councils, and in cities throughout Scotland. I think that it is far too easy at times to mock their efforts and to under-rate their services. If we appreciate the kind of job they do, unpaid and pretty well unthanked, we begin to realise that we have to look with a certain measure of sympathy at an Amendment such as this.

I can well appreciate the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel). I have often said that fewer people call at my house to see me as a Member of Parliament than called when my father was a local councillor. That is an indication of the amount of work which councillors have to do. Our decision on this Amendment may affect how well they can do that work. Can they carry it out better if they can use the telephone to call the local offices? It is not just a matter of telephoning city halls.

I point out to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Clark Hutchison) that the offices of the county council for Lewis or Stornoway are in the county hall in Dingwall. It takes a long time to get there. For Skye, the county hall is in Inverness. In March this year the Court of Session ruled that it was illegal for a local authority to pay out of the rating account any expenses in respect of telephone calls made by councillors, but it could still be done in the City of Glasgow. I do not know whether Edinburgh does it or not, but it could and any of the Royal burghs could if they had a common good fund or a county council could if it had a fee fund.

It is justice we want here on the basis of is it right, would it be abused, would it be efficient for them to have the facility? If so, we should try to provide it. My hon. Friend mentioned pressure groups, but he must not call the County Councils Association a pressure group, although at times it may border on that. I confess that it may be that I have had a little to do with this because I saw all the associations, the County Councils Association, the Counties of Cities, the Convention of Royal Burghs, the District Councils Association. This topic came up and they asked whether something could be done about it, and done quickly.

The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Wylie) will remember that on an earlier Amendment I said that things can be done if there is a Bill through which they can be done. I hesitated for the reason mentioned by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South—that we were late on in the progress of the Bill—but I had pretty well made up my mind that I would do this when I saw my hon. Friend's Amendment. It is permissive. It leaves the question to local authorities. It is up to them to decide whether to introduce it or not. That is fair enough. I should be fair to Edinburgh Corporation. I think it was not all that keen on the proposal. I may be wrong, but that is in my mind.

If local authorities decided to pay all or part of councillors' telephone expenses incurred in the course of their duties as councillors, under this provision they would be able to do so. A number of local authorities already do it. I fancy that there would not be very much abuse. The telephone must be regarded as a normal facility. Particularly when we are trying to get efficiency into local government, it would be unreasonable for us to deny this, provided we are satisfied that there would be no abuse. I am satisfied that abuse would be prevented because any unreasonable payment would be reported by the auditor. On this basis, I am very glad to suggest that the House should accept the Amendment.

Photo of Mr Gordon Campbell Mr Gordon Campbell , Moray and Nairnshire

We are sorry that the Amendment has come before us so late, as it has deprived us of a full discussion in Committee. Nevertheless, the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) has pointed out that it is particularly valuable to members of county councils in widespread areas. There is no doubt about this, when distances of 20 or more miles are concerned, as well as the exceptionally long distances mentioned by the Secretary of State. Clearly, this would be helpful in those circumstances more than to any other authorities.

Where hon. Members have expressed doubt is on the question of accounting. Clearly, as the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. W. Baxter) pointed out, if this were to mean that the whole installation and bill of a councillor, including his private calls, were to be covered, that would not be acceptable to the House. I know that it would be objectionable to the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian. To this end, the words "reasonably incurred" occur in his Amendment.

The hon. Member told us that this would be looked after in any case by the auditors' inspection later. But this is what worries us and hon. Members opposite. This is something which we should have gone into at greater length if we had had more time. This is a reasonable expense in modern times. The use of a telephone over long distances can save money and avoid unnecessary meetings. This is something which should be covered in this way, provided that the possibility of abuse can be completely eliminated.

Amendment agreed to.