Local Authorities (Political Expenditure)

– in the House of Commons at 5:10 pm on 5th June 1985.

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Photo of Mr Roy Galley Mr Roy Galley , Halifax 5:10 pm, 5th June 1985

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision relating to expenditure by local authorities for political purposes.

The object of the Bill is to ban the use of ratepayers’ and taxpayers’ money for politically motivated propaganda. Local authorities have a duty to inform the public about their services and to provide proper information services about their areas. Such activities have always been regarded as valid.

Before the reorganisation of local government in the early 1970s, considerable anxiety was expressed in a series of reports that the information activities of local authorities were too limited. Provision was then made in the Local Government Act 1972 to allow the development of a range of information services. There was a considerable development in publicity activities by local authorities after 1974. In recent years, however, those activities have grown enormously and extended beyond the scope of giving information to the dissemination of party-political propaganda.

Since 1980, we have seen a series of political campaigns by local government, many of them opposing Government policy on matters relevant to local government. They have included the abolition of the metropolitan county councils, rate limitation, the extent of council house sales, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and many other topics. There have also been campaigns on matters unconnected with local government —nuclear disarmament, the miners’strike, the future of some industries, immigration controls, and so on.

In promoting such campaigns a wide variety of normal advertising techniques have been used, including leaflets, posters, stickers, advertising space on hoardings, the national and local press and, to a limited extent, radio and television. Such diversity makes it exceedingly difficult to identify all expenditure on political activities, but some figures are available. As so often happens, the worst offender in regard to wasteful expenditure has been the GLC. Its current "awareness campaign" anticipates expenditure of £10 million over about three years. That sum is greater than the total expenditure of many district councils. West Yorkshire county council has spent approximately £600,000 campaigning against the abolition of metropolitan county councils, and the West Midlands county council has spent approximately £500,000. Large sums of money are now being spent on opposing the Transport Bill and on a plethora of other party political activities.

Justification for such activities is often based upon sections 111, 137 and 142 of the Local Government Act 1972. Those sections are widely drawn and do not include any control over party political propaganda of the type that we have seen recently.

There have been a number of court cases on those matters and so far none of them appears to have succeeded in curtailing the use of taxpayers’ and ratepayers’ money for those ends. Although expenditure under section 137 of the 1972 Act is limited, it is possible to justify considerable expenditure under section 142.

The lack of clarity in the relevant statutory provisions presents considerable difficulties to auditors in accounting for such local government expenditure. There is no adequate provision in law to distinguish between the dissemination of party political propaganda and the supply of unbiased information, which was clearly envisaged when the 1972 Act was passed. The Bill seeks to remedy that defect.

Apart from the supply of information, there are other matters of anxiety. Voluntary organisations outside the local authority structure are often used in campaigning by local authorities. Funds are often passed to them for campaigning. There is also a problem with the involvement of local authority staff in such campaigns as part of their day-to-day work. Staff can be pressured into participating in such activities when they wish to retain freedom of thought and action in party political matters. There are also instances of the establishment of trust funds controlled by political parties for party political ends.

A new height of outrage has been reached recently by the West Yorkshire county council with its biased approach. It has allocated ratepayers’ money for highway maintenance in areas on the basis not of need or fair treatment but of the political representation of those areas. All those matters could be dealt with in a Bill banning the use of ratepayers’ money for such political purposes.

There is clearly a requirement for local authorities to provide newsletters and newspapers to give information. If such publications were produced, the Bill would provide for equality of treatment between all political parties where political comment was seen to be proper.

There is plainly a major problem of definition in drawing the dividing line between what is information and what is politically motivated propaganda. There is a precedent, which the Bill could use, based upon the Independent Broadcasting Authority's code of standards and practices. That code expressly prohibits advertise-ments which are directed towards any political end, local or national, and which are not impartial on matters of political or industrial controversy or current public policy, local or national. That definition has worked well for the IBA, and it would form the basis of the definition in the Bill.

In our democratic society, reasonable people object to the use of public money for political purposes. There are sound reasons for their objections. The task of local government is to provide local services. In many instances, the publicity material produced has little to do with the provision of those services. Much of the recent publicity has flouted the long-held convention that public funds should not be used to gain party political advantage. Such expenditure involves the diversion of resources from the provision of services to the community. It is wrong to use scarce resources for party political propaganda when they should be used to provide services.

It is disgraceful that some councils claim that they have insufficient money to provide public services when they divert a great deal of money towards gaining political advantage. Such party political propaganda means that public debate is diverted from Parliament. Extra-parliamentary activity on that scale tends to undermine the role of Parliament. What further offends ideas of fair play is that the information in so much of the publicity material is often based upon unsubstantiated allegations and is rarely grounded in fact. It is designed to play upon the emotions and arouse unjustified fears.

The time has come to prevent the use of public money on party political objectives. The political debate must be encouraged, but when people wish to put forward party political views they should raise funds to do so. To steal money from the public to further political objectives is a national disgrace, and it must be ended as soon as possible. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Roy Galley, Sir Paul Bryan. Mr. Marcus Fox, Mrs. Jill Knight, Mr. Gary Waller, Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock, Mr. John Butterfill, Mrs. Edwina Currie, Mr. Michael Brown, Mr. Geoff Lawler, Mr. Tony Favell and Mr. Derek Conway.