Orders of the Day — Local Government Bill

– in the House of Commons at 4:48 pm on 18th November 1985.

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Order for Second Reading read.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley 4:51 pm, 18th November 1985

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Government have presented this short Bill to the House to protect the interests of the ratepayer by strengthening local government law in a few important areas.

The present law was formulated in very different circumstances. It relied on the common acceptance of well-established conventions in local government—the convention that public funds should not be used for party political purposes and the principle that proper financial management was an essential responsibility of councillors and officers alike.

The traditional values of integrity and propriety hold good in the vast majority of councils, but in some authorities there are councillors who are determined to push the law to its limits—and even beyond—in pursuit of political confrontation. It is all too clear that they will not shrink from exploiting all the resources of our democratic institutions to promote their own political and personal ambitions.

The object of the Bill is to protect the interests of the electorate and of the ratepayer. The public are concerned about party political propaganda which has taken millions of pounds from the ratepayers' pockets. Equally, it is the Government's duty to stop the antics which only increase costs.

The main provisions of the Bill will not affect the day-to-day business of the vast majority of councils. Most authorities of all political persuasions conduct their business in an orderly and responsible manner, but a small number of councils have found the loopholes and marched through them. We must stop the abuses and provide new legal safeguards against the deplorable extravagances.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I will give way later. I should first like to launch the ship and get it out to sea.

I was making the point that most councils behave in an orderly and responsible manner, but a small number of them have found the loopholes and marched through them. We must stop the abuses and provide new legal safeguards against those extravagances. Rates were never meant to fund the personal ego trips of a handful of councillors who use their spending power at local level to create a springboard to further their own political careers at national level.

I must re-emphasise that the Bill merely reinforces the conventional rules of good practice that are the norm in the overwhelming majority of local authorities across the country. We are clarifying what most people believe the position to be.

I should like to quote from a leader in the Financial Times. It is not every day that we get a leader in the Financial Times congratulating us upon local government legislation. Therefore, the House will not blame me for drawing its attention to it. The report says: It is unreasonable to expect ratepayers to foot the bill for such political brinkmanship. The only pity about Mr. Baker's Bill to force councils to set a rate by the start of the financial year is that it has become necessary to legislate for common sense. That quotation brings me to the first clause of the Bill. Until recently, it would never have occurred to anyone that there might he a need to impose a statutory duty on councils to make a rate on or before the first day of the financial year. Councils behaved reasonably and sensibly. They accepted that it was in the interests of all parties—the council, its employees, the electors and ratepayers—to make a rate on time. But this year 30 councils decided to try to overturn Government policy by not setting a rate.

The councils hoped for a united front. In the end 13 of the 30 did not set a rate by 1 April. The united front had broken. After that date most councils got cold feet. It was supposed to be the great spring offensive. It petered out by Easter and came to a grinding halt by July. Militant generals in charge of that fiasco, hoping to die on a barricade, led their troops to an ignominious defeat in their own council chambers at the hands of moderates. That is why clause 1 is necessary.

If Opposition Members seek to say that clause 1 is not necessary, they will have to say why Scotland has managed to have the provision since 1973. If they find clause 1 so objectionable, why, when they were in power, did they not change the law relating to Scotland?

Photo of Mr Tony Marlow Mr Tony Marlow , Northampton North

As my right hon. Friend knows, some local authorities are not reluctant to break the law. What is to happen to those local authorities which do not set a legal rate by 1 April?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

In certain circumstances it may be physically impossible to set a rate, due to illness or something of that sort. Clause 1(3) allows for that, but I emphasise that that is not a let-out, and the obligation remains.

If a rate is made late deliberately, two consequences might follow. On application of an interested party, a court could require the council to fulfil the duty and could make an order of mandamus. In addition, the breach of duty would provide prima facie evidence of wilful misconduct, and the auditor, who is completely independent of the Government, might initiate action against the councillors for the recovery of any resulting loss of funds. It was the existence of a date—10 March—for the precepting authorities this year which led them to make their decisions by that date. It led to the celebrated and televised meeting of the GLC when it had to meet a date.

Photo of Robert Wareing Robert Wareing , Liverpool, West Derby

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment.

I now turn to the second clause, which deals with publicity. In February this year my right hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) set up the Widdicombe inquiry into the conduct of local authority business. We asked the inquiry to consider as a matter of urgency the question of political publicity, and it published its interim report on the issue in August. I am grateful to the committee for having performed that part of its task so expeditiously.

The report confirmed that some councils were producing material of a partisan nature that was published more for political gain than as a means of informing the electorate. The report says: In our view some of what has been done by certain local authorities goes beyond what should properly be done out of public funds. Some material we have seen is directly or indirectly party political, and some goes beyond what we consider to be the proper scope of local government advertising. The committee went on to say: Our general conclusion therefore is that there is a problem that needs to be dealt with. The Widdicombe inquiry recognised that it was implicit in the present law that local authorities should not spend public money on party political matters, but it recommended that that implicit prohibition should be given statutory effect. The Government agree with that view.

I will remind the House of the nature of the material that we have seen funded by rates. The GLC's Three out of four Londoners poster has been plastered over London's bill boards and in national newspapers this year. In the national press alone, the GLC spent £104,000 on that advertisement. It would have paid for the concessionary fares for a year of over 1,700 pensioned and disabled Londoners.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

In a moment.

In Tribune in July, Ken Livingstone—do hon. Members remember him?—boasted: The GLC has got more bill boards than any other advertiser in London and it has the best sites. He went on to say: We have done polling on a scale that the Labour party could not afford. The GLC did not hesitate to suppress polls which showed support rapidly ebbing away from the GLC. The GLC has spent well over £10 million on political campaigning, and that money should have been returned to the people of London.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

Will the Secretary of State say what particular group of pensioners or disabled people have not benefited from the GLC's concessionary fares? The expenditure by the GLC on advertising has not prevented it from spending money also on concessionary fares for pensioners. They all enjoy those fares in London. After the abolition of the GLC, those concessionary fares will be under threat.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

The answer is no. That intervention is up to the hon. Gentleman's usual standard. That money should have been spent on social needs, and he recognises that. The GLC has spent on bill boards, advertising, posters, hats, balloons and the rest of it to promote political causes. That is how money has been spent to serve the interests of Londoners.

The people of Liverpool have been deluged in a flood of political propaganda on the rates. It starts with the council's letter heading which blatantly states, "Liverpool —a Socialist Council". It published a leaflet this year saying, "Support Liverpool Labour Council." That was paid for by Liverpool ratepayers, many of whom are council workers, facing no pay this week due to Councillor Hatton's fixation with bringing down the Government.

The headline of the April edition of Liverpool News, a civic newspaper, said that there was the horrific prospect of a 220 per cent. rate rise and a loss of 6,000 jobs. That was the view in April, yet in November what do we find? The report produced by four treasurers from Labour authorities concluded that a 15 per cent. rate increase plus other measures would balance Liverpool's budget. The people of Liverpool were deliberately misled by their militant council's propaganda.

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for mentioning the grave situation in the city of Liverpool. If, at this late stage, the city council is moved or persuaded to act on the variety of options to balance its budget, would the right hon. Gentleman be willing to meet leaders of Liverpool city council to discuss its serious financial problems?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I must remind the hon. Gentleman that the financial problems with which the city of Liverpool is now faced are the making of the Liverpool city council. I have made it clear to the council that it must discharge its legal responsibilities, but it shows no sign of doing so. The city council was sent the Stonefrost report, which included ways in which the books could be balanced. It was prompted by the general secretaries of the trade unions and, indeed, was supported by the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham). The councillors' refusal to examine or act upon these proposals is at the heart of Liverpool's problems. I shall see the councillors only if they discharge their legal responsibilities, balance the books and set a rate which matches expenditure.

I will see the councillors only when they act legally and responsibly to resolve the financial crisis in Liverpool this year. It is their responsibility to resolve the crisis.

Photo of Mr Allan Roberts Mr Allan Roberts , Bootle

If the city council balanced its budget and met the Secretary of State, would he discuss its capital programme and his predecessor's letter? The letter gave some undertaking to assist Liverpool with its capital and house building programmes.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

When the city councillors restore themselves to legality, in line with others, we shall discuss other matters with them. I want to discuss with the councillors their vendetta against the co-operative housing movement, which has been waged with unremitting ferocity by the militant council, and the ways in which the private sector can assist with the housing problem in Liverpool. However, I emphasise what I said earlier—the crisis facing Liverpool is the making of Liverpool city council.

Photo of Mr Peter Bruinvels Mr Peter Bruinvels , Leicester East

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Leicester city council spent £594,200 between 1983 and 1985 on political poster advertising, including £67,000 on anti-rate capping, and that, this year, the council has budgeted for £377,300. Does he agree that this is a shocking abuse of ratepayers' money and why clause 2 is necessary and will be welcomed by the people of Leicester?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that Leicester city council has quite fruitlessly spent a great deal on a political campaign. Such money could have been better spent on social objectives in the city. As a result of the Rates Act 1984 we were able to secure a substantial reduction in the rates, which will help his constituents.

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

The right hon. Gentleman said that Liverpool city council has not considered the Stonefrost report, but the Labour councillors have studied it in great depth. That they have concluded that it is of no help is a matter of opinion, but it is not right for the Minister to say that Liverpool city councillors have not studied the report when they have, and carefully.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

That makes matters even worse. That report has been welcomed on all sides of the political spectrum. It offered several ways in which to balance the books. Its rejection shows an intransigence and a stubborness which cannot be in the interests of the people of Liverpool.

Photo of Robert Wareing Robert Wareing , Liverpool, West Derby

When the Secretary of State dealt with clause 1, he remonstrated about the situation in Scotland since 1974. I remind him that, under the Labour Government, the rate was fixed in Scotland and, as with authorities in England and Wales, Scottish local authorities were able to levy a supplementary rate. The right to levy a supplementary rate was abolished by the right hon. Gentleman's predecessors, not by the Labour Government. Present circumstances are not similar to what happened under previous Governments. Far from being able to meet increases in expenditure, which often result from factors outside local authority control, the council now levies a supplementary rate. Will clause 2 outlaw the sort of propaganda which appeared in the Merseyside County Extra in April 1981?

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

Order. Many hon. Members wish to speak and lengthy interventions are made at the expense of other hon. Members who wish to speak. However, the Secretary of State might wish to reply to the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) has made a false point. At no stage did any of the 13 councils, which did not set a rate by 1 April this year, say they were delaying to set a supplementary rate. Nobody welcomes the reintroduction of powers to set supplementary rates. When the rates have been set at inadequate levels, as in Liverpool, the procedure is straightforward. Interested parties can go to the courts. There is an application at the moment by a trade union against the city of Liverpool for the rate to be quashed and another rate set.

I wish to proceed to clause 2 and subsequent clauses on propaganda. I was making the point that for London and Liverpool there was ample evidence of the misuse of ratepayers' money. That was supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels).

Lambeth council has also indulged in a great deal of party political propaganda, on which it has spent £400,000. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) has a flat or house in Lambeth, and earlier this year, in Committee, he was constantly telling us about the vast waste of money. Again, instead of spending £400,000 to improve refuge collection in Lambeth, it was spent on banners, stickers and the rest of it.

Haringey has spent £300,000 on press and publicity campaigning. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) is one of the representatives of that area. I can tell him that Councillor Grant visited my Department last week to demand a blank cheque of taxpayers' money further to finance his council. There is no question that Haringey has deprived areas, but just imagine how many housing repairs on the Broadwater Farm estate that £300,000, which was spent on propaganda, would pay for.

We all view with disgust Councillor Grant's use of his council's publicity machine to spread his hostility towards the police, and I am astonished that the Labour party continues to endorse him as a parliamentary candidate.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman, and I shall not give way to him again.

Then there is Islington. Councillor Margaret Hodge, chair of the Association of London Authorities and leader of Islington, has called the Bill "totalitarian and oppressive." I think opposition councillors in her area would use exactly that description of her propaganda campaign. Indeed, in a MORI poll commissioned by Islington council in January this year, most respondents felt that the council spent too much money on its anti-Government publicity campaign. The response of Councillor Hodge to that was that the council still needs to do more to convince residents that we have their interests at heart. In other words, more propaganda is needed. Therefore, it is no coincidence that in July this year Islington advertised for a chief press campaign and publicity officer at £19,000 a year. The advertisement stated: Campaigning will be a major activity and flair and experience in this area will be very important. The council had to advertise the vacancy because the previous head of Islington's propaganda department resigned after he and his staff had written to Councillor Hodge complaining that they had been asked to tell lies during the campaign.

I remind hon. Members who still doubt the need for action in this area that, in total, at least £20 million has been spent on political advertising and propaganda since this Parliament began.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I have already given way several times. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give way again.

Clause 2(1) prohibits local authorities from publishing, or giving financial assistance to another person to publish, material designed to affect support for a political party or a body, cause or campaign identified with a political party. It sets out an objective test for authorities, and, in the case of challenge, for the auditor and the courts to use.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I regret that I shall not give way.

Clause 2(2) requires that in defining the scope of the prohibition one must have regard to whether the material specifically refers to a political party or to persons identified with a political party, or, if material is to be published as part of a campaign, to the effect that that campaign is designed to achieve. In other words, we are seeking to ensure that the law clearly recognises that material which might appear perfectly proper if taken in isolation could, in the context of a sustained campaign, clearly promote a broad party political message.

Photo of Mr Robin Squire Mr Robin Squire , Hornchurch

I support the principle behind the legislation, and my concern is simple and specific. Will my right hon. Friend consider today, or in future, substituting a definition which considers the question of the content of the material that is being produced rather than its intent or effect? Both of those latter categories are much harder to measure, and many more cases will end up in the courts than would otherwise be the case.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

The Widdicombe report dealt specifically with the tone and content of advertising, because often it is the tone and content which takes the particular advertisement over the top. We have enshrined the basic principles which the Widdicombe inquiry sought to achieve in clause 2, but later we allow for a code of conduct to be drawn up. I suspect that a code of conduct will be concerned with the tone and content of particular advertisements.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg , Grantham

My right hon. Friend has raised the question of a code of conduct, which is covered by clause 4. Is the code of conduct intended to have any consequences in law? If so, what are they? Will the code of conduct be brought before the House for our approval?

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

The answer to the latter point is yes. I propose to consult widely on the code with local authority associations and local government, and then to draw it up. I do not propose to go firm on the code until the Widdicombe inquiry has made final recommendations in the spring or summer of next year, because it has stated that it may have further comments on the code. I was envisaging a code somewhat similar to the Highway Code. However, I am prepared to consider what is the best way forward on this. A code of conduct against which councils can measure their attitude towards advertising and promotion is probably one of the best ways to proceed. There is no way that I shall slap a code down and say, "Take it or leave it", about which I think my hon. Friend is worried.

Clause 2(3) debars authorities from giving financial or other assistance to proxy organisations for the purpose of producing publicity material which would otherwise be prohibited by the clause.

I have no doubt that some Opposition Members are already dusting down their references to censorship. Those who oppose the measure are saying, "Let councils spend their money on political campaigns." I have no objection to political campaigning. All politicians indulge in political campaigning, but the costs should be borne by political parties, not ratepayers or taxpayers. The Bill will not interfere with any legitimate non-party based publicity activities. [Interruption.] As I understand it, the sale of council houses enjoys broad political support on both sides of the House. Therefore, it could not be considered to be party political. A distinction must be drawn between the legitimate dissemination of information on policy and functions and a party political diatribe at public expense.

Clause 3(1) amends the existing powers of local authorities to provide information under section 142 of the Local Government Act 1972 and section 88 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, making it clear that the power relates to the publication of material relating to services or to the functions of the authority. In the Government's view, that does no more than reflect more accurately Parliament's original intentions in passing the 1972 and 1973 Acts. It is no part of the duty of local authorities to spend ratepayers' money on such wholly non-local matters as defence policy or foreign affairs.

As the Widdicombe inquiry recommended, clause 3(2) amends section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972 and section 83 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 to stop local authorities from using those discretionary spending powers for publicity. But those powers are still available for assistance to voluntary organisations or public authorities where publicity is a necessary ancillary to their main activities.

Clause 4 enables me, in consultation with representative local government bodies, to issue codes of recommended practice, as my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg and I have been discussing. It also requires authorities to have regard to a code. I welcome the initiative already taken by some of the professional organisations concerned in that area.

Clause 5 requires local authorities to keep a separate account of their expenditure on publicity, and makes the normal provisions for inspection of the account by members of the public. The Widdicombe inquiry found that many councils had no idea of their total spending on publicity. The clause should go some way to improve authorities' accountability in that area of public concern.

Part III deals with the transfer of local authority mortgages. Hon. Members will recall that on 23 July my right hon. Friend announced that the Government would legislate at the earliest possible opportunity to prevent local authorities from disposing of their interest in a mortgage without obtaining the borrower's consent. Clause 7 prohibits a local authority from disposing of its interest in a mortgage without the prior written consent of the borrower. The ordinary council borrower at present risks finding that the mortgage has been transferred without his having any say in the matter. That cannot be right. Subsections (5) and (6), of clause 7 enable me to make regulations to ensure that borrowers are told everything that they need to know when they are asked to consent to the sale of their mortgage.

Clause 8 provides that authorities will not gain a capital receipt from a mortgage sale unless the risk is transferred to the buyer. For certain housing mortgages, the consent provisions are retrospective to midnight on the day that my right hon. Friend made his announcement. These mortgages were specified in a letter sent by my Department to all local authorities on that day. For all other mortgages, the provision will apply to disposals on or after 1 April 1986.

Clause 10 remedies an inadvertent defect in the Local Government Act 1985 so that there is no doubt over the eligibility of members of ILEA and council members of joint authorities for attendance allowances.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not give way. Perhaps he can raise his point later.

This is a short Bill dealing with a small number of matters relating to local authority practice and which, but for recent developments in a small number of councils, I would not need to bring before the House today. By convention, most authorities do not use public funds for political publicity. As a matter of good practice they set their rates before the beginning of the financial year. Any reasonable authority would seek each borrower's consent before selling his mortgage.

Unfortunately, the people of this country can no longer rely on the traditional conventions, nor on good administrative practice, to govern the decisions of some councils. Therefore, we need to strengthen the law in the interests of ratepayers and for the long-term benefit of local government as a whole.

Unlike many of the Left-wing councillors at the root of local government's current problems, I am in the business of strengthening accountability, thereby reinforcing our traditional democratic institutions at local level. This is one of the main reasons why the Government have asked the Widdicombe inquiry to consider in its main report whether the safeguards against abuse are adequate. Its task is complex and important and will no doubt have implications for the conduct of local authority business in this country at least to the end of the century. I look forward to receiving its report and recommendations early next year. In the meantime, the Bill deals with the matters that we believe to be of very great and immediate importance in the conduct of local authority affairs, and I commend it to the House.

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment 5:22 pm, 18th November 1985

This is the first parliamentary opportunity to congratulate the Secretary of State on his promotion to the Cabinet. It is a very important job, given the manifest problems faced by local authorities, the people who work in them and many communities throughout the country. I wish the right hon. Gentleman well, but given the experiences of his predecessor I fear the worst.

The right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin), who had a long and honourable career in office within a number of different Departments, demonstrated an integrity, courtesy and ability, at least in personal terms, to work with Opposition spokesmen, despite our deep clashes over policy. I place on record my appreciation of those aspects of the right hon. Gentleman's work.

I never like beginning a speech with an apology, but I should explain that because of a long standing engagement—the sixth Hamptons lecture organised by the Incorporated Society of Valuers and Auctioneers—I have to give a second speech this evening on the other side of London. I therefore hope the House will excuse me if I leave shortly after I have finished this speech, but I expect to be back in time to hear the conclusion of the debate.

The Secretary of State made a thin speech about a thick Bill. Predictably, this Conservative Government are taking the earliest possible opportunity in the new Session of Parliament to expand their attack on local democracy and freedoms. Yet again, we have a Local Government Bill, the twelfth since 1979, that will further restrict the free choice of all elected local councils from parish to county level—those of every kind of political control and those of no political control—to act in what they believe to be the best interests of the communities that elect them.

The proposals in the Bill again remove the judgment and discretion of elected authorities to speak out for their towns, cities, counties, districts or parishes and to oppose not just central Government but each other. The Bill prevents advice being given and facts being made available to voluntary bodies, trade unions, charities and even the professions.

Frankly, this Bill disgusts me. It is a tawdry little measure. It assumes that, in a plural democratic society, an elected local authority is simply an agent of Government carrying out a set of functions and not, as we believe and as millions of people of all political persuasions have always believed, that councils are elected to speak for their communities—their areas—and their hopes, fears and aspirations.

The Bill also disgusts me because, in common with all its Conservative predecessors, it demeans local government, diminishes its ability to represent and drags it further into the control of the central Whitehall web. The Bill is nothing less than an attempt to gag local government, to silence opposition, to censor debate and seriously to reduce the free flow of argument and ideas. As it stands, it ensures that councils cannot even publish information on the welfare of their areas. Communities are apparently to be denied the means of self-expression. Even worse, it seems that campaigns in support of people dying or suffering malnutrition, disease and poverty in other countries such as Ethiopia will no longer be legal—to such depths have this Government sunk!

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg , Grantham

The hon. Gentleman is saying that the Bill is a gag on freedom of expression. Is he really saying that it is proper for local authorities to use public money to make party political points and to wage a political, partisan campaign, because that is inherent in the argument he is now advancing?

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment

The Americans would have a word for what the hon. Gentleman has just said. He is way ahead of himself. If only he had the patience and courtesy to wait until I had got further into my speech, he would know how fatuous that intervention is.

Photo of Mr Richard Holt Mr Richard Holt , Langbaurgh

Answer the question.

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment

I shall come to the answer in a moment. The hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) should also keep his mouth shut for a little while.

Almost 200 years ago, in his inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson reminded the people that, although the will of the majority in a democracy would always prevail, to be rightful that will must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal right too, which equal law must protect; and that to violate such protection would be oppression. I am sorry that this Government continue to demonstrate that they are no respecter of such ideals.

This Conservative Government increasingly demonstrate that they cannot face up to the competition of ideas, argument and debate that are so essential in a healthy, free and robust democracy. Nor can we accept the way in which the Government have acted in fabricating a case for the main proposals in the Bill.

Photo of Mr Richard Holt Mr Richard Holt , Langbaurgh

The hon. Member likes to criticise the Government. Perhaps he will comment on what the Labour party is doing with Liverpool's leaders.

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman's intervention has anything to do with what I was saying, but if he is in any doubt about the view taken by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the Labour party and my colleagues and myself on the Opposition Front Bench about the situation in Liverpool. I cannot understand where he has been for the past three or four weeks.

The Widdicombe inquiry was established to present an independent, dispassionate view of fundamentally important issues affecting the health of local democracy. The Government insisted, wrongly in our view, on an interim report. We asked why at the time: what was the rush? Why hurry matters of such importance? We now know the reason. They wished to bounce legislation through Parliament before next year's vital nationwide local government elections.

The right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford, when Secretary of State for the Environment, gave the impression more than once that he had prejudged the issue, and in doing so had compromised the inquiry. I deeply regret that the present Secretary of State for the Environment has been even worse in that respect. His comments at the Local Government Chronicle dinner at the Cafe Royal in October. and subsequently in the media, have seriously damaged the work of the Widdicombe inquiry—so much so that, now aware of the seriousness of his error, he is trying desperately to back-track and to re-establish the credibility of the inquiry. Mr. Widdicombe felt so angered that he wrote to the press to restate publicly his committee's independence from the views of the Conservative party.

The hasty publication of the Bill and the fact that its proposals ignore most of what, Widdicombe has to say on the matters at issue are further evidence of the Government's determination to enforce their own opinions regardless of the evidence. As with the Rates Act 1984 and the Act to abolish the metropolitan counties and the GLC, the Bill lacks any sound principles or coherent arguments in its favour.

Photo of Mr Keith Hampson Mr Keith Hampson , Leeds North West

The hon. Gentleman insists that the Government are somehow flouting the rights of minorities and groups with views different from their own. We are faced with a load of propaganda for a certain viewpoint and not the even-handed distribution of money or the even-handed presentation of a case by councils. The hon. Gentleman has admitted that, but for the Bill he and the Labour party would be using existing powers to flood their councils and ratepayers with propaganda on the eve of the next election.

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment

I reject the hon. Gentleman's argument, as I said no such thing. I shall come to some of the details of the arguments for and against what the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned.

The Bill is a hotchpotch of disparate measures, badly drafted and hastily cobbled together. As it stands, it will be true to the Government's record because it will make very bad law. It brings together proposals on rating law, local government finance, publicity and information and allowances for members of new authorities. Part II demonstrates the Government's uncanny knack of uniting the whole of local government against them. From the National Association of Local Councils, representing over 11,000 parishes and town councils nationwide, through the districts, boroughs and counties, the condemnation of the Bill is unanimous.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations was cheated by the Government with false promises during the passage of the abolition Bill and was rightly angered by the damaging changes in the administration of the traditional urban programme, which will destroy the work of many of its constituent members. The council has once again expressed its deep anxiety at the likely effect of this legislation on the ability of local authorities financially to assist voluntary organisations throughout Britain.

The council is right to be alarmed. In the Bill, the Government continue to undermine and damage the effectiveness of service provision by local authorities and voluntary organisations by savagely reducing funding for information and campaigns about service provisions. In part II, the Government seek to deny a long-established reality, that local government is a political institution. The Widdicombe committee recognised that reality and concluded that it was acceptable, in principle, for local authorities to publicise controversial matters, whether political or not.

The report argues in paragraph 122 that local authorities have a long recognised and important contribution to make to political debate on matters concerning them. It states in paragraph 123 that they are "intrinsically political". That has always been true of local government in Britain whatever political party has been in government. The Labour party shares the view expressed by the Widdicombe committee and it is astonishing to hear the Conservative party, and apparently other political parties such as the Liberal party and the SDP, deny its validity.

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment

No, I shall not give way.

The only distinction that the inquiry made was between material issued in the interests of a local authority and that issued in furtherance of a single political party. As a number of hon. Members have asked me about this in interventions, it is clear that they have not read the evidence that was presented to the Widdicombe committee, in which the Labour party made it clear that it does not support party political propaganda paid for by local authorities out of the rates. That is made clear in the evidence to the committee and I repeat it now. Conservative Members have demonstrated that they do not understand what is at stake.

What damns the Government as duplicitous is that the report does not identify a single example of an explicitly party political advertising campaign by a local authority. Widdicombe does not identify one, and it is quite wrong for the Secretary of State or Conservative Members to suggest otherwise.

Another major prop in the Tory campaign for these powers of censorship was knocked away when the inquiry reported that there was no substantial evidence of public concern. That was another fabrication which was being used to support the proposals contained in the Bill.

In addition, council spending on publicity constitutes a small amount of total spending. The report claims that expenditure on controversial issues of publicity forms "a very small part" of such spending. The committee went on to express the views that local authorities had a valuable contribution to make on policy matters wider than those strictly related to their statutory functions and that councils themselves should decide on the level of their publicity expenditure. It considered that local government publicity strengthened the democratic base and open government.

In contradiction to these views and conclusions, the Bill addresses five issues considered by the Widdicombe inquiry and in four of them either ignores or contradicts its findings. In addition, the drafting of the legislation is likely to create an administrative nightmare.

The Opposition have no objection in principle to clause 1. As the Secretary of State said, it brings the position of rate-making authorities in England into line with that of those in Scotland and the position for precepting authorities in England. The Opposition will have some detailed questions to raise in Committee.

Clause 2 is supposed to ban political publicity. There are three possible tests for such political publicity: the intentions of the authorities, the nature and the content of the publicity itself and the effects of the publicity. Widdicombe plumped for the nature and content test and recommended that there should be an express statutory prohibition of local authority publicity of a party-political nature. It is clear that such material is already illegal under general administrative law. All that Widdicombe asks for is a declaration of the existing law.

The Government have ignored the committee and gone for both the other tests—intention and effect. Clause 2 prohibits material if it appears to be designed to affect, or can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect, public support for … a political party, or… cause". The second part of the clause 2 test is most damaging. The prohibition of material "likely to affect" support for a party is a subjective test which may effectively rule out any publicity on controversial issues.

Widdicombe repeatedly emphasises that councils should publicise their activities, including those which are controversial. Clearly, that is essential to democratic accountability. In paragraph 158, the Committee draws attention to the very considerable value in greater communication by local government". At present local authorities are empowered by section 142 of the Local Government Act 1972 to publicise matters relating to local government. Widdicombe considers that section 142 is an explicit recognition by Parliament—with which we would agree —that local authorities should be able to issue information on a broader range of issues than what is strictly necessary for their statutory functions. That opinion appears in paragraph 135. The recommendation states: the scope of local authorities' general powers to issue publicity should be as currently set out in section 142 (section 88 in Scotland)". There is no solace in that. It is fundamental to local government in the United Kingdom that councils are not merely the local administrative agents of central Government. Widdicombe endorses that view. One of the report's five underlying principles is: Local government is more than the sum of the particular services provided. The Government have completely disregarded the committee's views.

Photo of Mr Kenneth Baker Mr Kenneth Baker , Mole Valley

The hon. Gentleman claims that we are disregarding or going beyond the Widdicombe recommendations. The critical clause in the report about party political material says: We wish to rule out such practices as"— and it lists four such practices, one of which is publicity campaigns, the scale of which, given their political context, may have the effect of advancing the interests of a particular party even though the subject matter is not overtly party political. An express prohibition of expenditure calculated to advance the interests of a political party could well have a moderating effect upon the scale and style of campaigns. I do not think the hon. Gentleman's case is proven.

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment

I am talking about Widdicombe's comments on what local authorities are empowered to do under section 142 of the 1972 Act, which was introduced by a Conservative Government. The Widdicombe report makes it clear that it sees a proper and legitimate role for local authorities in publicity. I say that the Government are disregarding the committee's views on that.

As part of its proposals for tidying up the legal powers, the committee recommends that section 137—containing the limited residual general power in the 1972 Act—should be amended to prevent authorities using it to finance publicity expenditure. Again, the Government have gone well beyond the report. Clause 3(2) would prevent any body funded under section 137 from issuing publicity unless the publicity was "incidental" to the main purpose of the body. That would stop the funding of voluntary organisations whose main aim often is publicity. For example, it might prevent the funding of an anti-drug campaign or anti-heroin publicity by voluntary organisations which were helped with their funding by a local authority.

In clause 4 the Government have decided to ignore the strongly expressed wish of the Widdicombe committee for a self-regulatory framework. Worse, they have pre-empted the decision to continue working on a solution to the problem.

I could continue with detailed criticisms of crucial parts of the Bill, but I think that I have made enough points to draw the attention of the House to the fact that the Government have gone well beyond the Widdicombe interim report.

It is suggested and believed without thought by some Conservatives that these issues affect or have involved only Labour councils. How wrong they are. Conservative councils have fought hard and often bitter publicity campaigns on issues such as selective education. I think of Tameside, for example. Such activities would be banned by the legislation. Voluntary Action Westminster, funded partly by Tory Westminster city council and led by Lady Shirley Porter, has published material on the impact of the GLC's abolition on voluntary bodies. That would be banned by the Bill.

Fair Play for Children, the president of which is Archbishop Trevor Huddleston and which is funded in part by local authorities, publishes newsletters on, among other matters, the impact of Government cuts on play facilities. Such expenditure would be banned under the Bill.

Likewise, Tyne and Wear metropolitan county's "Save our Shipyards" campaigns to save Gartcosh steelworks—supported across the party political spectrum in Scotland—and campaigns on transport policy will be banned by the Bill. Community voices around Britain will be silenced.

The same might be true of campaigns involving information and advice on welfare rights, on co-operation with the police, cervical smear tests, contraception and even council house sales.

Councils will in general be unable to fund activities in areas where they have no function. That is what the Bill provides. If the Minister claims that what I am saying is wrong and that he intends to amend the Bill in Committee to make that clear, I shall be pleased. I hope that he will put that on the record, because it is not clear to the majority of legal opinion in local government.

Why is every local authority association opposed to the proposals? That is the acid test of the impact of the proposals on local authorities. I shall willingly give way to the Secretary of State if he intends to tell us that the Bill will be changed in Committee. He declines to intervene, and so concedes the argument that the catch-all provisions in clauses 2 and 3 will have that impact.

In addition, and ironically, Tory councils will not be able to finance campaigns for privatisation. Labour authorities will be unable to advise their electors why they oppose privatisation or even to publish their responses to a Green Paper.

Clause 2 will prevent publication of material critical of Government policy, while clause 3 forbids local authorities to publish material that is not directly related to their functions. Thus, councils of whatever political persuasion may not campaign against Government policy on wide-ranging issues such as nuclear waste disposal, the Channel tunnel or airport development unless they have specific functions related to them. That should make Conservative Members at least pause before they support these proposals as they stand.

What does "functions" in this context mean? It may be necessary for the Secretary of State for the Environment or for the Minister for Environment, Countryside and Local Government to spell out in Committee in the minutest detail exactly what "functions" means in the context of this Bill, if these problems are to be Overcome. We need an answer. I hope that the Minister for Environment, Countryside and Local Government will be able to give that answer when he responds to this debate. District councils, for example, may be unable to campaign against or publish information which opposes the proposals or activities of the county council which administers services in their area—for example, education, social services or refuse disposal. What now of parish or village opposition to school closures, or to the loss of bus services? What now of that Goliath of community politics, the Liberal party, which apparently intends to support the Second Reading of this Bill? I wonder what the Association of Liberal Councillors will make of that.

The Local Government Act 1972 makes provision for parish polls. A poll must be held on any question that is raised at a parish meeting, if at least 10, or one third, of those present demand it. According to the Bill, a parish council could not act to publicise or campaign on the result of such a poll if it were an issue that was unconnected with parish functions. That is a measure of exactly how ludicrous these proposals are.

Will local authorities be able to campaign and appear at public inquiries against afforestation or the siting by water authorities of reservoirs in their area? As the Bill stands, this is not clear. Would council campaigns in schools to help the police be allowed by authorities that have no police authority function? There are surely enough examples already to raise major doubts about the advisability of what the Government are asking the House to agree. Ironically, the Bill seeks to erode powers given to local authorities by a Conservative Government in their Local Government Act 1972. Whatever has happened to the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath)? Has he at last been silenced, too?

When it is returned to office, the Labour party will not just repeal these measures; it will enhance local government freedom by enacting a general power and competence which will allow all local authorities to act in the best interests of their communities.

We see again, in part III, the all too familiar Government habit of retrospective legislation, this time over mortgage sales by councils. Again, too, the Government are enforcing duties upon councils which do not apply to building societies. This is another example of the lack of even-handedness in this Government's approach to local authorities, such is their desire to control all aspects of the use by councils of their capital receipts.

It will be clear from what I have said that the Labour party is completely opposed to the central provisions of the Bill. Again, it exemplifies the deeply centralist and authoritarian nature of a Government who have had a dangerously corrupting influence upon public administration in Britain. There is the appointment of people according to the "one of us" syndrome—the promotion of people only if they suit the Prime Minister's proclivities. I suppose that the Secretary of State for the Environment is an example of the exception breaking the rule. At least I hope he is, but perhaps that is not a helpful thing to say about him so early in his career as a Cabinet Minister. There have been attacks on the independence of the Civil Service and repeated acts by Ministers have subsequently been ruled unlawful by the courts.

This Bill contains what is, by any test, a massive censorship of local opinion. The Government are planning a silent political spring in 1986. Local councils and communities will be permanently gagged by a Government who spend millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on propaganda. They will be gagged just at the time when about 23 million voters will have the chance to vote in local government elections. What a remarkable coincidence.

The timing of the Bill and its proposed implementation date, above all else, give away the intentions of this frightened Government. Elsewhere in Whitehall, election bribes are in preparation, but the Department of the Environment is leading the attack to silence the debate. The Bill is without precedent. It is contemptible. The House should reject it.

Several Hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

We got off to a late start and I see that 30 to 40 right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. Therefore, I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will try to make brief speeches.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Finsberg Mr Geoffrey Finsberg , Hampstead and Highgate 5:56 pm, 18th November 1985

This is a sad little Bill. It would have been unnecessary in the days of Herbert Morrison, or the founder of the Silkin dynasty or Bob Thomas of Manchester or during the long local government career of the father of the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham). No Labour leader would then have indulged in the kind of activity that has led to the introduction of this legislation. I support strongly what the hon. Member for Copeland has just said. If the Bill will prevent local authorities from spending money to promote privatisation, I shall be delighted, because that is not the function of local government.

In his closing remarks the hon. Gentleman said that he thought that the Bill was weak and that the courts had held that unlawful acts had been committed by Ministers. He will know that this applies to all Governments. May I remind the hon. Gentleman that Fred Mulley found himself on the wrong side of the courts on an education matter. The hon. Gentleman throws doubt upon the legal advice that is given to Ministers by their Departments under all Governments. This is happening far too often and needs to be examined very closely.

I welcome the Bill, as far as it goes. It is right for the House to accept that local government has a duty to administer Acts of Parliament as we pass them. I hope that this is not the last Local Government Bill that the Government will introduce. A clause needs to be added to the Bill making it clear beyond peradventure that it will be illegal for a local authority to spend money upon any function for which there is no statutory responsibility. This used to be the case before the local government law was changed. If one wanted to spend money for which there was no direct parliamentary authority, one went to the district auditor for a dispensation. That requirement ought to be reintroduced, though one should not have to go to the district auditor. I shall have a word to say about him later. However, the Government ought to make it clear that if there is no statutory responsibility there is no power under which money can be spent. I do not care whether posters, leaflets or preprinted cards are involved—anything that has a party political message must be caught by this legislation.

Throughout the country there have been the most blatant examples of why the Labour party does not need to spend a great deal of money on publicity. Its job is being done by Labour-controlled local authorities using the ratepayers' money. My right hon. Friend may say that the district auditor will look into that, but I believe him to be powerless.

There has been a great deal of nonsense this year involving GLC expenditure and activities, such as certain publications and posters over at county hall. Mr. Livingstone ratted on his deputy, Mr. John McDonnell. It is interesting to note that Livingstone was my opponent in Hampstead in 1979, and McDonnell in 1983. It is rather heartwarming to see thieves fall out. The tragedy is that they are falling out on ratepayers' money.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Finsberg Mr Geoffrey Finsberg , Hampstead and Highgate

I shall not give way as I am talking about London. I shall leave Merseyside to my colleagues—

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Finsberg Mr Geoffrey Finsberg , Hampstead and Highgate

I shall not give way. Mr. Deputy Speaker has said that many hon. Members wish to speak, so I do not propose to give way.

What has happened in local government? The GLC and the rate-capped boroughs all claimed that services would be slashed. They claimed that old people's clubs and libraries would be closed and that refuse collection services were at risk. We now know the extent of the lie. My hon. Friend cited Islington, where even the staff could not stomach the lies that they were being asked to tell. We know that the GLC is awash with money and that several hundreds of millions of pounds have been suddenly found. We all knew that the money existed, yet the GLC tried to argue that it could not fund its services.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider adding to the Bill a clause to stop the incestuous behaviour of Labour councillors. For example, why should the chairman of the social services committee of Hackney borough council suddenly have the job of director of Camden social services department? Why should a Brent Labour councillor become an employee of Camden borough council? Why should Mr. John McDonnell suddenly be thought the ideal person to receive £19,000 a year as policy adviser to Camden borough council?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Finsberg Mr Geoffrey Finsberg , Hampstead and Highgate

No, I shall not give way. With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, if I were driven, as I might be, to be personal about him, I should, of course, give way. I do not propose to give way for any other reason. I say that clearly, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because you have requested brief speeches.

I am disturbed that I can find no penalty in the Bill should a local authority fail to set a rate by the due date. My right hon. Friend mentioned only the penalty of going through the courts. With great respect, however good the case of private individuals, they will not go to the courts. Equally, I do not believe that a district auditor reference is good enough. The Bill needs to be changed to include instant disqualification for those who fail to set a rate by the appropriate date.

I hope that when my hon. Friend replies to the debate he will assure us that there are some teeth in the Bill. The district auditor is useless, toothless and he vacillates. For example, Camden failed to set a rate by the due date. It sent a letter to every ratepayer, signed by the leader of the council, on council stationery and with council-paid postage. Even a 2–year-old child knows that that must be illegal expenditure. Had the rate been set by the appropriate date, there would have been no need for that. Despite four letters to the district auditor, he will not tell me whether he proposes to act. We must wonder whether he is a sleeper in more senses than one.

I wish to heed your request to be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I ask my right hon. Friend to give further thought to the content of the Bill. I hope that he will say bluntly to his colleagues in Cabinet that, on reflection, he cannot expect the House to accept a Bill that does not make it automatically illegal to spend money on anti-nuclear zones, or that does not make it automatically illegal to spend money on anti-police activities, such as those conducted by the GLC, Camden and many other authorities, which have no statutory power to do so.

If my right hon. Friend is serious, as I believe him to be, he owes it to us to be forthcoming and to say, "Yes, I am satisfied that the House wants me to go further, and I shall do so when the Bill goes into Committee."

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Blaenau Gwent 6:06 pm, 18th November 1985

In almost every respect, this is a wretched Bill. I had thought that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg) was going to accept that, having listened to his first sentence, but apparently he wants to make it even more wretched. He will have his work cut out because it is difficult to envisage how it could be made even more contemptible.

We all recognise the real origin of the Bill—it is the result of the debate in the House and the country during the past 12 months. Although the Government have a majority, they were defeated on almost all the arguments. They are still smarting from those defeats and, rather than take them in a sensible, proper and dignified manner, they are introducing this so-called Local Government Bill. It might better be called the GLC (Abolition) Sour Grapes Bill. Indeed, we might recall, in the light of the Secretary of State's Shakespearean knowledge, the words: I am sir Oracle,And when I ope my lips let no dog bark So the Bill could be called the Let no Dog Bark Bill. Of all the Ministers who have risen to such eminence under this Government, he should have been the least willing to go along with those wishing to bring this Bill before the House.

If the right hon. Gentleman was seriously thinking of introducing measures to clear up the mess left by last year's legislation, he had plenty of opportunities to do so. Many local authorities are waiting for decisions from the Government. For example, there has been no sensible decision on the future of Hampstead heath, which is of great interest to many people throughout London. Ministers have been too eager to go ahead with this sort of Bill and have not applied their minds to important problems.

Nor have Ministers applied themselves to the financial aspects of local government generally or of this Bill in particular. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) gave figures in his reply to the debate on the Loyal Address showing what huge sums had been taken away from the inner cities. That action received no publicity but the small sums given by the Government machine were given great publicity.

Some of us do not qualify as representatives of inner city areas, but we are equally concerned about such transactions because we have to deal with the social and environmental consequences of 20 per cent. or more unemployment, which imposes a huge financial burden upon us. Far from the Government giving us assistance, they have been taking it away. In the Queen's Speech, the Government said that such transactions would continue.

Much publicity is given—the Government have plenty of facilities for doing so—to the expansion of youth development committees and youth training programmes. Under those programmes, the local authorities will pay most. As far as we can see, my constituency will contribute more to the youth development committee and the youth training scheme —an increase from £35,000 a year to £171,000—and more to the other training schemes —an increase of £7,000 to £58,000. We have checked this as much as we are able, and know that the total cost of youth training schemes will increase from £42,000 to £230,000—an increase of £187,000. If that goes through, it will make a considerable difference to the rate that we can bring in, just when the local authorities are having to contend with exceptional problems.

My council and the councils in south Wales and the valleys have supported these schemes because we believe that it is essential to provide every form of assistance, even though it is not perfect. Any help for young people and those in training schemes should be supported. The Government have proposed that the local authorities contribute far more than central Government, but that is masked. Once the Bill is through, if the local authorities were to draw too much attention to this fact, they would no doubt fall foul of the Bill's provisions.

Instead of introducing this squalid little Bill, the Government should have seen the real economic and social consequences of the legislation that they have passed in the past year or two, and done something to improve the situation. Instead, we have this wretched little Bill, which is concerned solely with an attack on long-standing established local authority rights.

The Government could set up a committee to discuss the matter, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) has proved, the-Government could have waited. Why did they rush forward? Did the Minister go to the Legislation Committee and say that the Government must get ahead with this measure, and as speedily as possible? I doubt whether he would have wanted a Bill such as this. Who was the Minister pressing for this measure? I dare say that it was the previous Secretary of State for Trade and Industry whom we discovered today in his new incarnation. I bet that he was there saying: "The Government must get ahead with the Bill. Have you seen the available figures and dates? The Government must have the Bill to stop what many Labour and Liberal councils have been able to say in the past". The Government have rushed the Bill forward as their first Bill to be introduced this Session.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg , Grantham

In his pronouncements on the Bill, is the right hon. Gentleman criticising the express prohibition that party political propaganda should not be financed out of public funds? Is he denying the part of the Bill that prohibits the conduct of a campaign that is likely to be partisan in its consequences?

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Blaenau Gwent

If the House is to embark on fresh measures to restrain local authorities and other bodies in the terms in which they can properly engage in general propaganda, we should do it carefully, look at it properly, set up a Committee to examine it properly, and await the report of that Committee. The Government should not come along at the beginning of a Session and insist on rushing the Bill through before the whole report is available.

What is more, the Government should make sure that they will not deprive local authorities of the rights that the Government exercise themselves. I can give a concrete example of this. A little while ago, what Tory Members would no doubt call "a load of progaganda for party purposes" was published. It is Cmnd. 9474 called "Employment: The Challenge for The Nation". It costs £3·75 and is stuffed with the old monetarist nonsense. It claims that unemployment can be dealt with solely by Conservative methods. The whole document is a statement of Government policy, paid for by the taxpayer.

Suppose local authorities in my area, which have much more experience of these matters than the Government, wish to put their case about training schemes, or want to answer the Government's immediate statement and point out that, in carrying through their new training scheme—we are eager to do that—we shall bear the heaviest burden of cost. Suppose that those local authorities get together with others to try to put across our case. All such activity would be abrogated if the Bill goes through in the form in which the Secretary of State for the Environment has had the insolence to present it to the House.

Of all Governments in our history, no Government have such a subservient and sycophantic press as this. I do not like to involve the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) in further difficulties, but he told the House much the same thing the other day, and he was right. The Government have the tamest press in modern British history. A whole range of newspapers, with few exceptions, are on their side. Occasionally, the Government get criticised by some local newspapers—that is why the Government want to get at them all the more. They want to stop the local authorities mobilising some of the local newspapers to put the case, as they often do, because they know the case much better than the editors of the Daily Mail or the Daily Express and the other trivial newspapers that try to pretend that they know something about the matter.

I know that Saatchi and Saatchi was paid by the Conservative party, but I see from the newspapers that it has now become the biggest propaganda organisation in the country. It has taken over many of the public relations firms and I dare say that it is still getting contracts from the Government. "Employment: The Challenge for The Nation", is printed in the Conservative colours and puts the Saatchi and Saatchi case, in some respects, even better than Saatchi and Saatchi could have done. That could have been the Government's motive.

There is one mistake to which I draw the attention of the House because I want to be fair. We have all been told by Government propaganda in every form that we must concentrate not on unemployment but on the employment figures. Every time a Minister speaks here or in the other place, that point is made. In the propaganda document put out by Conservative Central Office, page 7 tries to set out the matter. It says that of the 26·5 million in the labour force, over 23 million are in work and that this is not very different from the total in work 30 years ago. The Government hope that that will quieten people's anxieties and show that the number of people in employment is high.

On page 7 there is a chart, which the previous Secretary of State for Trade and Industry got in—perhaps that is why he has been demoted to another Department. Figure 5 shows how employment was higher in another period than it has been before or since. That period lasted for about a couple of years and employment rose to the highest ever level, on the Government's test. That was in 1978 and 1979 when, according to the posters paid for by the Conservative party, Labour was not working.

Some local authorities may wish to point out those obvious facts—the only part of the document that has given the game away—and reply to the rest of the document and the deluge of propaganda that pours out from the Government. Nobody knows better than the Secretary of State that the Government's and public institutions' use of publicity has increased enormously in modern times. Local authorities have increasingly engaged in that activity, and have won considerable respect from their communities by doing so. Of course, if they spread false and lying propaganda, as Saatchi and Saatchi did on behalf of the Conservative party in 1978 and 1979, eventually someone will come along and show, as I have this afternoon, what a bunch of deliberate lies it is. That is free argument. That is what democracy and free debate are about in Britain.

The Government are trying to interfere with that process of reply. They can see that, in the next two or three years, local authorities, just as they have joined together to oppose this Bill, will try to present to the communities the truth about what is happening—mass unemployment, its social evils and the poison spreading throughout society.

The Government should be ashamed of the Bill, but nobody should be more ashamed than the Secretary of State, who earned his place in the team by deserting his views on local government with shameless persistence during the past two or three years. I quoted Shakespeare earlier, but I quote again for the Secretary of State: Thou hast it now: King, Cawdor, Glamis all … and, I fear, Thou play'dst most foully for't.

Photo of Mr John Taylor Mr John Taylor , Solihull 6:23 pm, 18th November 1985

I welcome the Bill and support the Government in bringing it forward. In the west midlands, we have been subjected to much political advertising, not least from the West Midlands metropolitan county council. This has especially been the case in respect of the transport function. Much fear has been put into old-age pensioners about the prospects for their bus passes. There have been slogans on all our buses, many of them tendentious and unwarranted, but doubtless expensive. We even had the Prime Minister carried in effigy on a lorry. That misfired in Solihull high street, because people raised their hats as it went by.

The Bill's opponents have two basic misconceptions. Some have misunderstood in good faith, others much less so. The first is to confuse persuasion about policy—which is not on—with information about function and operation. The Government are following the Widdicombe report by saying that information about function and operation is permissible, but that endeavours to indulge in propaganda to persuade people about policy is not. The Bill is faithful to the provisional findings of the Widdicombe inquiry on that point.

The second misunderstanding is to perceive local authorities as parliaments writ miniature, with a general mandate from their electorates to engage in general discussion and opinion-forming on the widest possible range of subjects of their choosing. They are not. Local authorities—local government is a misnomer—are creatures of statute. They were put in place by statute—by Parliament—and they exist to discharge statutory functions. They are administrative, not governing, entities. Having said that, I readily concede that elected councillors have available a range of discretions within the statutory framework, and a good councillor does well to exercise those discretions as he believes is most suitable for his area, the community and the people. He should exercise those discretions within the framework, but not exceed those discretions or go outside the framework.

I do not come newly to the analysis that I have just expressed, nor do I come to it as one who was relatively recently privileged to be elected to the House. I held exactly the same view trenchantly for about 14 years as an elected councillor. The conclusion of my views on the Bill is as follows: first, that the so-called date for a rate provision commends itself to the House, because the alternative is confusion, danger and uncontrolled expense; and, secondly, that the propaganda rules, the code of practice and the accounting requirements will win the enthusiastic support of Conservative Members.

I am glad that the Government have introduced this measure. I support it, and I know that my constituents support it, too.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 6:27 pm, 18th November 1985

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State and his colleagues to their new positions. With the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), I wish them slightly better prospects than their predecessors had in political terms, although I share the fear of the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) that our expectations will not be fulfilled.

The setting up of the Widdicombe inquiry under the previous Secretary of State was welcomed by the Liberal party, as by other parties. The interim report published during the summer was also largely welcomed. The tragedy is that the Government did not heed the suggestion in the report that this Bill should reform the law, not add new restrictions. That will no doubt be the theme of deliberations in Committee.

The Government do not appear to have accepted a view that was pre-eminent in the inquiry's interim report—that local authorities are institutions which, in our constitution, are important and deserve to be upheld when performing their proper functions. The hon. Member for Copeland referred to the Liberal party as the party of community politicians. The Liberal party was given that name because it supported community-based politics, which is represented by the best areas of local government.

The Bill should deal with a clear abuse that I shall mention later, and at the same time enhance local government and the voluntary sector, upon which so many people rely. The tragedy is that, having understood the principle, the Government let it slip and have gone too far. Of course, there is an easy solution which I have already suggested to Ministers. None of the worst abuses would happen if they were brave enough to accept proportional representation in local government. A simple one-clause Bill would have remedied all the defects. But they are slow to learn and no doubt a measure such as that has to wait until later in the learning curve.

The Secretary of State's predecessor tried to take on local government and in the end was defeated by it. He could not deliver the goods. I hope that the present Secretary of State will now pay heed to the warnings of the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent and others and not give himself into the hands of the megalomaniacs of Marsham street and go OTT—which, he will appreciate, stands for "over the top".

I come to this debate from what can only be described as personal experience, and I admit to sharing to some extent a prejudiced viewpoint, as would anyone who, like me, has been resident for some years in the London borough of Southwark under increasingly Left-wing control—[Interruption.]—elected with 44 per cent. of the vote, although with 54 out of 64 seats.

The local authority there has often grossly disregarded the concerns of the people by spending money on publicity of a self-serving nature—money which people wanted spent on other things which would have been more useful to them, such as housing repairs, old people's homes and more adding to school provision by the education authority. The boroughs in my part of south London, together with Liverpool, are the principal reasons for this measure.

"Islington cares" is still the poster there—I was in the area yesterday—and goes on "care for Islington", although that should be an unnecessary exhortation. The authority should gain support by what it does rather than by what it says. Lambeth's £1,000 a day spent on publicity is excessive when there is so much else that the local citizens need.

Southwark's expenditure on its monthly newspaper, The Sparrow, is, I understand, in the Labour party's draft manifesto for 1986, to be increased to a weekly newspaper, no doubt planned to have as many pictures of Labour councillors and as few of other party councillors as there are now. When local ratepayers are asked implicitly to spend £30,000 on a youth festival—which, for those who attend, is primarily a recruiting ground for Militant, Socialist Worker and the Labour party; I have written to the district auditor on the subject —they rightly complain.

We must consider such abuses. My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright), who is the SDP spokesman on this matter, has had the same experience in Greenwich. Those abuses have caused the Bill to be produced.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My hon. Friend is attending a meeting, but will join the debate later. In any event, he is happy to leave this point with me because the experience is similar in both boroughs.

I want the Government to listen to the people in the know, who have made some important comments since the publication of the Bill. I want them to ensure that local government is not abused by over-reaction. While the Bill is intended to deal with abuse, the danger is that the Government will abuse local government in the result. We should seek to achieve a Bill, the sole effect of which is to ensure that abuses committed by a small minority of local authorities, which have given local government in some areas a bad name, are prevented.

The blame does not, however, lie entirely with local government. Since 1979, as this centralist Government have sought increasingly to blame local authorities and impose more central controls on them, they have tempted local authorities to fight back. By trying to throttle local government, this Government have induced abuse. The Government must take their share of the responsibility for that.

Parts III and IV of the Bill deal with finance. Part IV is a technicality, and we accept what is a good and short provision, while part III, which suggests that the consent of every mortgagor must be required to the transfer of a local authority mortgage out of local authority control, is impracticable. Although that provision might be fine in theory, it is not even fine in principle because, for example, private tenants are not asked for their consent when their landlords change. Although the Building Societies Association says that it might like such a provision, I understand that it agrees that there will be difficulties in practice. We appreciate that the provision is in the Bill to stop capital spending—to block a way that local authorities found to increase their money—but we hope that it will be deleted.

Clause 1, which is concerned with setting a rate by 1 April, though already existing in Scotland, is a something and nothing. It says that a rate shall be fixed by 1 April, but goes on, in subsection (3), to say that the provision shall not be construed as invalidating a rate made … after 1st April". Some councils will try to set a rate and not agree. They may try to fulfil their duty and not succeed. That may happen with one-party or multi-party councils. The district auditor, in all areas which have district auditors, has power to deal with the issue, and the Widdicombe inquiry is also charged with examining the matter. It would be better to wait for the full report, and then select a speedy remedy if there is unreasonable delay.

One solution may be to have an earlier rate support grant. Another, as the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg) said, may be to strengthen the hand of district auditors, who often appear to be slow or toothless tigers. Indeed, I am waiting for complaints to my district auditor to be dealt with. The Widdicombe inquiry may suggest ways of strengthening their control. The Audit Commission is excused from that rebuke because it is accepted generally that it has been an impartial critic of central Government and a friend to local government.

Part II of the Bill contains the central provision. It is right to have a separate account for local authority publicity, although I am intrigued to find that the Government do not have a similar separate account nationally. I raised that matter in written questions answered today.

There is all-party agreement, at any rate in the House, about out attitude to publicity of a party political nature. and I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Copeland remind the House that that view had been given in the Labour party's submission of evidence. Clearly, the same view is not held in some Labour local authorities. But what the Labour party says centrally and what happens locally are often far apart.

I urge the Government not to go beyond the principles in part II and trespass on other rights and responsibilities of local government. Clause 2(1)(b), clause 3(1) and clause 4 are appalling and extreme. Clause 4 is horrendous in that it allows the Secretary of State to issue different codes to different local authorities at his discretion. If that is not arbitrary, nothing is. That provision should be swept from the Bill at the earliest opportunity.

Clause 2(3) is dangerous because it threatens the integrity, campaigning ability and usefulness of voluntary bodies. That, too, should go. Where there is party political unanimity, as there is on a body such as the Association of County Councils, which is of the view that sections 142 and 137 of the Local Government Act 1972 should not be amended, that view should be accepted. Indeed, I urge the Minister to go further and say that whenever all parties on a local authority agree on a matter of publicity—they often have on questions such as abolition —that campaigning should be allowed to continue.

Many good suggestions have been made in the few days since the Bill was published. We expect the Government to respond intelligently and responsibly to them in Committee. They must not brush them aside, as they did with much of the expert evidence in respect of the Local Government Bill in the last Session.

It is clear from a detailed examination of clause 2 and its extension of the Widdicombe proposals that much of that provision will be not only a legislative minefield but unenforceable. People want quick remedies, but that provision as presently drafted will involve a long procedure through the courts.

The Minister for Environment, Countryside and Local Government, in his written answer today, told me that, in the last calendar year, the running costs of his Department's information directorate were £2,887,000, including the cost of paid publicity. If we want to limit publicity by local government, it is about time we considered how to limit publicity by public corporations, such as the London Docklands Development Corporation, and by Departments, too. Such expenditure is often party political as well.

The alliance believes that the principle of legislating to prevent local government from funding party political advertising should be accepted. If the Government hold to their present intention of going further and do not return to the principles of the Widdicombe interim report—we agree entirely with Mr. Newsam's memorandum—their support for the principle will be seen to be as prejudiced and subjective as the practices that the Government seek to prohibit.

Constructive and coherent amendments will be made in Committee. We shall make it clear what the Bill should look like. I hope that the Government will think again about the wisdom of appointing a Committee—all-party and no party—and then not taking the benefit of its advice. To over-react will be extremely damaging. We ask the Government to legislate for the principle but to cease to over-react because of their prejudices.

Photo of Mr Keith Hampson Mr Keith Hampson , Leeds North West 6:41 pm, 18th November 1985

All hon. Members will wait with enjoyment to see the way in which alliance Members will go. There must be a kernel of truth in the Government's case and little to be said on the Opposition side if this "vital matter of principle", as the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) would have it, is supported by only half a dozen Opposition Members.

The heart of the problem lies in the Widdicombe interim report, on pages 24 and 25, which clearly spell out that there are many constraints on the abuse of powers by local councils. In a give-away sentence, the report says: it is to be expected that these constraints will become better understood and will increasingly act as a moderating influence on local authorities. Some hope! The constraints are well known, especially by local authorities. They have not had any moderating influence—to the contrary. Some local authorities have done their best to avoid those constraints. Many of the hard Left-controlled urban councils have no intention of abiding by the various controls.

It is essential to ensure that local authorities spend money on publicity relating to their functions. It is essential to provide a code that establishes what is proper in terms of style and content. One must ask, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg), whether the code is to be effectively enforceable. It is essential that local authorities have identifiable budgets for their publicity spending.

There is no doubt that the public need to be more aware of the abuse by councils of funds for political campaigning, both directly and indirectly. Throughout Britain, including cities such as Leeds, there is not, as the hon. Member for Copeland said, a denial of minority views and a Government insistence on the establishment of their views but an attempt to enforce minority views on the rest.

The rate-capping campaign in Leeds has spent well over £100,000 directly and £60,000 has gone on "peace" activities. In addition, there are indirect subsidies and covert help. The leisure services department is used to make videos and the sports halls and other facilities are used free for campaigning. The public works department provides free scaffolding for campaigning groups. There are exhibitions of the council's activities and services which the council pretends are under threat by the Government. All these activities form indirect help for the council's direct political campaigning against the Government.

That is the direct spending by Leeds council—some of it is visible; some is not. In addition, there is the funding of the so-called voluntary bodies, which Labour Members have admitted are campaigning bodies. They too campaign against Government measures. They are sympathetic to the prevailing party in the council. That money does not go generously to help the public debate and to enhance public democracy, as Labour Members say—it often directly denies democracy. The political power of the majority caucus is being used to stifle public and democratic debate.

Photo of Mr Roland Boyes Mr Roland Boyes , Houghton and Washington

Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that, if a voluntary body goes out of existence because of Government measures—for example, when Tyne and Wear metropolitan county council is abolished—that voluntary body has every right to tell the people why it will not be able to provide the same services that it provided in the past? Surely there is nothing wrong with that. However, under the Bill, it would be considered wrong.

Photo of Mr Keith Hampson Mr Keith Hampson , Leeds North West

I am talking not about the funding of proper voluntary bodies, of which there are many, but about the hijacking of ratepayers' money so that it is fed to narrow partisan campaigning groups. That is insidious.

The published estimate of the cost of the "Leeds and the Bomb" pamphlets was £5,000 for publishing, but they were written in-house and there was no estimate of what that cost. Then there is the money which is being put into bodies that are not really voluntary organisations but are professional campaigning groups. If they were really voluntary, they would go out on to the streets to raise money, like charitable bodies. But their views are of such a minority kind that they would not stand a cat in hell's chance of getting off the ground but for the money from a politically biased council that enables them to hire professional staff. These groups have professional campaigning staff who are paid at the expense of local ratepayers.

Leeds city council spends a large amount on its campaigns. Indirect help is given to many groups. This includes money for Left-wing newspapers and £30,000 for the trade union and community resources centre, some of which was passed on to the "Troops out of Northern Ireland" campaign. The time and effort of local government department officials are used on behalf of anti-Government campaigns.

Perhaps the most insidious activity is the waving of Labour party cards by applicants for council jobs. There was the case of the assistant director of further education whose life was made so difficult that he resigned and went to another county. His replacement seems to be a blatant political appointment. He is the husband of a Labour county councillor. His promotion has been so rapid that he did not have time to take up his previous post of principal of a college of further education before he was promoted yet again. A £19,000 post for the new health services unit was advertised in blatant political terms in only a certain number of publications, including The Guardian. The person appointed is well known in the city as a sympathiser of the Left on the city council.

Photo of Mr Robert Jones Mr Robert Jones , Hertfordshire West

My hon. Friend referred to where the posts are advertised. Is he aware that many Labour authorities advertise all the posts in Labour Weekly? It is therefore hardly surprising that the applicants arrive waving their Labour party membership cards.

Photo of Mr Keith Hampson Mr Keith Hampson , Leeds North West

That is another example of what I call indirect assistance being given to Left-wing propaganda journals, newspapers and periodicals by the placing of advertisements which are of no value but which contribute to the revenue of those periodicals.

In Leeds there is increasing comment about the leader of the Labour group's so-called "Red Star" system. When shortlists for council posts are drawn up, red stars are put against those who are sympathetic to the Labour group's views and are therefore suitable to be considered for the post. That is a sad comment on the leader of the Labour group whose image is moderate, sensible and reasonable. Either he has become a pawn of the Left, or he is a more subtle politician of the Left than his image has so far conveyed. The Labour group will do nothing to support the Government's initiative on the city action teams or the campaign some of us tried to get over for Leeds. On the one hand, it is intensively partisan in the way that it handles some of its expenditure, but if there is money coming from the Thatcher Government, the group will not touch it.

Leeds has lost money that could have been used in the city on training and vocational education. The Open University was given money by the Department of Education and Science for an adult counselling scheme. That was first approved and then rejected in August by a council committee. Regional Manpower Services Commission money was rejected because it seemed to the Labour group that it was taking money from a Conservative Government whom it does not like. That is partisanship gone mad and totally to the detriment of the interests of the people of Leeds. It does not show the sense of responsibility that is expected from leading councillors in one of the great cities of the land.

There have been stories of the chairman of one of the council's sub-committees opening the mail of the deputy officer of the sub-committee. The Labour group is worried about the partisanship of the council officers. The great tradition that council officers should be bipartisan and serve all councillors is being replaced by a feeling that they should be at the service of the majority party.

One Labour supporter is so fed up with, or to use the word of the hon. Member for Copeland "disgusted" by, this growing practice that he has even told me that the council leader, George Mudie, has said that he will make the education director's life impossible. I have not checked that with the officer because I did not wish to place him in the embarrassing position of being accused of giving me the information when he did not. The standards in some of our great cities are deteriorating.

It is a tragedy of misinformation and abuse of which the public are not aware. The Government's intentions in this Bill touch only the tip of the iceberg. They are not to stifle democracy and head off local democratic debate, which is the charge from the Labour Front Bench, but to ensure that the public know what is happening and that democracy prevails.

Photo of Mr Terry Fields Mr Terry Fields , Liverpool Broadgreen 6:52 pm, 18th November 1985

The public must be wondering why we are spending today discussing this piece of nonsense when we have 5 million people unemployed, housing deprivation in the inner city areas, hospital closures, the education service in tatters, and social security cuts. The reality, and the more sinister implication of the Government's action, is that next year in the battle over rate support grant the Government will be taking other local authorities down the road that they have taken Liverpool, in an attempt to stifle proper democratic discussion and debate. The Government are seeking to muzzle local authorities for telling the truth about the Government's intentions.

Why do we need the Bill? The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said that the district auditor is a "toothless tiger", but in Liverpool that so-called "toothless tiger" is judge, jury and executioner. He is self-appointed and, as the Secretary of State said today, he is unanswerable to Parliament. He comes in, does his business and surcharges the council in Liverpool. Ultimately he has the power to throw council members into gaol. We have that fallback position. Liverpool's situation, to which the Minister refers time and again, is partly of the Government's making. That is evident in some of the reporting of the crisis in Liverpool.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) referred to the former Secretary of State for the Environment who sent a letter to John Hamilton, the leader of Liverpool city council. In it he said: I very much hope we can develop an effective and constructive partnership to tackle the needs of the people of Liverpool. … I can give you an assurance that I will do my very best to ensure that allocations to Liverpool next year under the Housing Investment Programme and the Urban Programme, taken together, will enable the Council to make positive progress in dealing with the City's severe needs". The Government go running to the papers with those statements. Despite all the statements from the Front Bench, instead of an injection of cash, since 1979 Liverpool has had £170 million in rate support grant removed, £24 million of further education grants removed, £69 million of housing subsidy removed and £96 million of housing investment programme removed.

In an attempt to tell the truth to the people of Liverpool, the council sent a notification to every household. It is now being muzzled and prevented from carrying out its democratic rights.

The background to the deprivation that is occurring in Liverpool has been repeated many times in the House. The Secretary of State referred to the Stonefrost report and used it to back up his arguments this afternoon. Misinformation always comes from the Government, and the Secretary of State did not mention that the Stonefrost report eloquently said that the problems affecting Liverpool were The Tory Government's politically biased rate support grant penalty system". and The inherited problems from the previous Liberal/Tory administration". We put out the facts on "Liverpool: a Socialist Council" headed paper to try to tell the truth to the people, because the Government are lying to the people of Liverpool affected by their draconian measures.

What is happening in Liverpool is the result of Government measures—the savage cuts in the money which is badly needed in cities such as Liverpool. Inevitably, the weak link gave way, and that is what has happened in Liverpool. It is a horror story of crimes committed by the Government.

We must remind people and tell them the truth about what is happening, because the Government are clearly not prepared to tell the truth about the 65,000 people who have lost their jobs since they have been in office, the 40,000 jobs that have been lost from the private sector and the 22,000 people on the housing waiting list. The public should know all that, but it is information to which the Government, with all their distortions and lies, are denying them access.

Stonefrost did not only propose a 15 per cent. rate increase, as the Secretary of State alleged. The report said that other measures would be necessary. Some were contained in a document from the Liverpool city treasurer. The Stonefrost report calls him a man of integrity and honour. Stonefrost does not suggest that the game would be over with a 15 per cent. rate increase. Capitalisation destroys the possibility of hundreds of people obtaining homes and means rent rises in excess of £6·50 into the bargain. That is the reality.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

I hope that my hon. Friend will accept from me that Maurice Stonefrost, who is the director general of the Greater London council, is a skilful local authority bureaucrat and a completely loyal staff member at County hall. He can only put forward officers' views. He would understand, better than anyone else, that it is the politicians, including those on Liverpool council, who must make political decisions, not the bureaucrats.

Photo of Mr Terry Fields Mr Terry Fields , Liverpool Broadgreen

That is correct. Hard decisions must be made and places such as Liverpool must wrestle with their problems to resolve them. We pay due regard to that. Nevertheless, it means that this Government, in setting the date as 1 April, make no allowance at all. The Secretary of State talked about it being physically impossible. For Liverpool city council, it is physically impossible to jack up the rates and rents, sack workers and stop building the houses that 22,000 people desperately need.

A propaganda war is currently taking place, and while we need some of the leaflets and publicity put out, we also have to explain to workers the hypocrisy of Tory Members. Those hon. Members and their friends in Fleet street, the five press barons who control practically the whole national press, spew out their lies and propaganda against the interests of ordinary working people. The so-called Labour paper edited and controlled by Maxwell is no friend of Liverpool or working people either. The responsibility for the problems we are facing rests fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the Government.

What the Secretary of State said underlines the case we have made repeatedly. He will not meet the city council. nor has he done so during his term of office. He has never set foot in Liverpool to see the scenes and the holocaust for which his Government are responsible. Liverpool will not go away. In their impertinence, Government Members believe that, with the passing of this Bill, Liverpool will ultimately go away. It will not go away, and even at this late stage I urge the Minister to meet the city councillors and thrash out the problem that is facing the people of Liverpool.

During the discussions in this House over the last few days, people have attempted to give us a history lesson, contrasting, for example, George Lansbury with Derek Hatton, Comrade Bernie Grant and Ted Knight. But those hon. Members do not tell the whole story, because Lansbury and the Poplar councillors went to gaol for their beliefs. That will happen to Hatton and company in Liverpool for their opposition to this Government, and they will be going to gaol on behalf of decent people who need the houses, jobs and proper services that this Government are denying. [Laughter.] The Minister may laugh, but he will be laughing on the other side of his face in a short time, because the people of Liverpool will see through the dishonesty and disgusting attitudes of this Government. Lansbury went to gaol and men and women in Poplar went to gaol and changed the law. Liverpool will battle with other local authorities which next year will be in Liverpool's position. We will battle not only to change the law, but to bring down this Government and to free Liverpool people and working people nationally from the absolute horror story of this Thatcher Government.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe , Broxbourne 7:04 pm, 18th November 1985

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg) has already said, this Bill is a product of its time. Ten years ago the House would not have needed to consider a measure of this sort. Since then, the nature of local government in this country, particularly in London, has changed completely. This change is exemplified nowhere more clearly than in the affairs of the GLC since 1981. Other local authorities both in and outside London—Lambeth, Hackney, Camden, Liverpool, and so on—are following the path that the GLC has beaten.

I am the only Conservative Member of Parliament who is still a serving member of the GLC and many of my constituents work in London. I welcome the fact that the GLC is to be abolished, but, even after abolition, the effects of GLC mismanagement of ratepayers' money will live on. We need to return local government to its proper functions, and to do that we must identify what has happened outside those functions.

The GLC has attracted much press attention since Labour took control in 1981. We are all familiar with the self-publicising of its leader, Ken Livingstone. However, much of its activity has received scant publicity, partly because the functions of the GLC are few and in the main impinge very little upon the day-to-day life of most Londoners. It is also because such press coverage as there has been has centred upon the more absurd Labour actions. Grants to groups such as Babies Against the Bomb have been ridiculed, and others, to the Liberation Movement for Colonial Freedom, for instance, have been portrayed as occasional aberrations in favour of pet Left-wing causes. They are, in fact, somewhat colourful decorations on what is a more substantial cake.

The Labour Left did not set out to take control of the Greater London council in order to preside over waste disposal, the fire service or the creation of the Thames flood barrier, and have the odd foray into the patronage of fringe elements. It saw the GLC as far more. It saw it as a vehicle to begin to change society, principally by acting as a large, publicly funded pressure group. At the same time, the GLC could act as a blueprint for a future Labour Government, both at national and local level. Before the elections of 1981, Ken Livingstone announced: Wherever there is an industrial dispute in London, we shall go down and support it…we will use the whole structure of the GLC to support trade unionists in struggle throughout London … and work with the trade unions to try to bring this Government down ahead of its time. No one can argue that the interests of local government are served by such remarks. All they show is contempt for the democratic process. That was emphasised by Ken Livingstone in a letter to committee chairmen on 2 April 1985:

It is basic GLC policy that London and Londoners need more control over their lives, not less. The activities of the Labour group over the last four years give a clear picture of what that control means. Two areas of activity serve to illustrate both Labour's objectives and the extraordinary use of ratepayers' money to further their cause nationally. The first is in the use of grant-aid to other bodies, both local authorities and self-appointed groups, and the second is in the development of industrial and financial policy beyond the notional scope of local government activity.

To Labour in London, local government is no longer about the administration of local services for the benefit of all. It is about acquiring a political power base, and the ratepayers' money that goes with it, to promote its own vision of society. Any discussion of recent difficulties between national and local government ignores this development at its peril. One element of the grants policy adopted by the Labour GLC since 1981 was the creation of a police committee—despite the fact that the GLC has no responsibility for policing in London. The police committee met for the first time on 13 July 1981, with the following terms of reference:

Matters relating to the policing of Greater London, law enforcement and public order therein, including links with other bodies concerned. In 1982–83 it had a budget of £848,000. By 1985–86 this had risen to £2,904,000. The majority of that money was used as grant-aid to 49 organisations throughout London. Despite the tone of the publicity which these grants have generated, the policy has not been to award aid in a random way to vague Left-wing causes. Grants were used to set up a network of groups which propagate the views of the London Labour party and simultaneously act to undermine public confidence in the police.

The main instruments for this have been the police monitoring groups. There are 21 of these self-appointed groups, operating in London, all funded primarily by the GLC and, on occasions, actively seeking grants from Labour-controlled borough councils as well. By 2 July 1985, the GLC had awarded these groups grants totalling £2,080,623—£23,000 more than the Labour party spent nationally at the last general election.

The theme of the GLC pronouncements is always the same—the so-called "democratic accountability" of the police, as enshrined by the GLC and now the Labour party. Support for the police is totally non-existent. The groups collect information about policing in their areas, concentrating in particular on complaints against policing strategy and individual police officers. Each group relays the information to the support unit of the GLC police committee. The groups shun official methods of dealing with the police. Nothing that they do in any way helps to tackle crime. Most of their actions simply make policing an even more difficult job than it is anyway.

The creation of a large network of activists, paid out of public funds, is a new development within the sphere of local government. It constitutes a new use of money spent under section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972, and serious questions are raised by that activity. It demonstrates that the section is now being used to fund activities outside the proper sphere of local government, and is being improperly used to reward or secure party political support.

Equally worrying has been the publication of the "London Industrial Strategy." It is a book of 633 pages, it covers 21 sections of the economy and is in general beyond the bounds of the GLC's competence throughout. Each chapter, covering a different industry, was assembled from the conclusions of several papers. Each includes a summary of its contents and a series of recommendations for action, many of which are well beyond the responsibilities of the GLC.

Taken as a whole, the strategy represents a model of a Department of Trade and Industry/Department of Employment policy that would be followed by a Left-wing Labour Government, and the work done on it has been financed by the ratepayer. One example serves to give the flavour of the document. The chapter dealing with vehicle manufacture is nothing but an attack upon the Ford Motor Company. Left-wing hostility to multinational companies is commonplace, but the GLC, with its huge resources and potential influence, represents a more considerable threat. Certainly nothing in the strategy would do anything for jobs in the industry. The GLC sums up its objectives by saying that to curb a powerful multinational, such as Ford, will require both direct action by workers and a range of Government interventions at national and European levels.

The GLC plans to provide resources and facilities for international meetings of Ford workers and trade unions, and the first steps have already been taken. A conference for trade union representatives from Ford plants throughout Europe and Brazil took place in Eastbourne in February 1984. That conference was supported by the GLC. Where does all that fit into the proper activities of local government? The GLC itself was not always so sure and frequently had to employ counsel to find out. By 26 June 1984 the GLC had spent £125,925 for that purpose alone since its election, and the chairman of the legal and general committee admitted that the GLC had not yet been charged for a further 25 per cent. of the work commissioned. One is left with the impression that the Labour GLC deliberately set out to use ratepayers' money to create a Left-wing national policy.

Most worrying was the production of a series of papers from the GLC on the theme of the food industry, which appeared some time before a pamphlet on the same themes was published by the Labour party headquarters at Walworth road. It is hard to believe that the two were not connected.

Abolition of the GLC will make no difference to the work that has already been done and still continues at County hall. A steady quantity of labour "policies in waiting" has emerged from County hall. It will be interesting to see how many resurface in the next Labour party general election manifesto. A substantial amount of political work has been done at ratepayers' expense, and there can be no doubt that it has been beyond the boundaries of local government responsibility.

If local government is to maintain its proper functions and the respect of ratepayers, much of the ostentatious political activity associated with London councils needs to be removed from the sphere of local services. The Bill will assist to do just that. Councils do not exist to provide minority activists with a platform to play politics with other people's lives. People have a right to see their rates used for the proper purpose—services that benefit all.

Photo of Mr Bill Michie Mr Bill Michie , Sheffield, Heeley 7:15 pm, 18th November 1985

It is very sad that once again the House is debating local government democracy, or the demise of it, and further restrictions on local government and decision-making. The Government are yet again bringing in further control and restriction on very important matters on which I shall speak later.

I am worried about the Government's haste. They have decided to rush through the Bill to silence local authorities and many other groups which dare to have an alternative view, or to express concern. I assume that the Government have chosen the present time because they feel that they will riot particularly like the outcome of the Widdicombe inquiry. I assume that the Secretary of State has already had a sniff of it and feels that something should be done before the full report is available to the general public and this House.

The inquiry and the findings so far have established some very important facts. As was said earlier, it is felt that the total spending on publicity by local authorities is a very small amount, and that the amount spent on so-called controversial political matters is even smaller. There is no substantial evidence of public concern on the issue of publicity.

It has been agreed that persuasion is not unlawful as long as it is consequential to the publication of information. It is well known that there are considerable legal constraints on local authorities regarding advertising, particularly on the question of what is political propaganda and advertising. It is significant that the inquiry report contained no single example of party political advertising being exploited by local authorities.

It has been accepted in principle that local authorities may publicise matters of political controversy, provided that the material issued is in the interests of a local authority itself. There is little doubt that local authorities are in a much better position than central Government to decide on the right level of their publicity.

Local authorities have made valuable contributions on wider policy matters than those strictly related to their statutory functions. How can the Government argue for more democracy, more freedom and more open Government, and yet at the same time introduce the Bill, which is a further restriction on local government, dictating to local authorities what publicity they can use and for what purpose? It must be right for local authorities to extend their communication to the electorate rather than to restrict it.

It has often been said that the present public perception of services in local government leaves a lot to be desired. Surely publicity from local authorities can bridge the gap and encourage more people to take an active part and interest in local affairs.

The Bill runs straight into the face of the current understanding of what we mean by greater participation by a greater number of people in our democratic structure. The Bill will create even more imbalance between the powers of local and central Government. Many people fear this part of the Bill on the ground that sooner or later central dictation will rule supreme, with little or no opposition from anywhere within the United Kingdom.

Many groups will be affected and feel restricted. I am certain that local newspapers and, indeed, national newspapers will feel that the restrictions go too far. Indeed in another country, under another regime, the only newspaper that would find this Bill attractive would be Pravda.

Even now, local authorities spend a very small amount of their budgets on publicity and many people, at least in my area, wish it were more. On the other side of the equation the Government, on their own admission, have spent £2·75 million of taxpayers' money on publicity stunts for their own policies on abolition, rate capping and the sale of council houses. Where is the justification for that? What is good for one is apparently bad for the other. Is it because Big Brother or, in this case, Big Sister knows best?

This Bill creates further minefields of chaos and absurdities in the relationship between central and local government. Who decides what publicity is necessary and indeed useful? Who decides whether councils or voluntary services should inform the public about the effect of local expenditure restrictions imposed by the Government? Will local authorities be allowed to publish information on welfare rights and guidance to the public on complaints procedures? Will local authorities be able to inform the public of the likely effects of the Transport Bill? Will it be illegal for social services and local authorities or voluntary groups funded by local authorities to run campaigns against drug abuse, to remind people of the importance of making surgical smears or indeed to explain to the public what local authorities are trying to do to sustain and create new job opportunities in areas of high unemployment?

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth , Mid Worcestershire

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if a political party wishes to promote its beliefs it is perfectly free to do so provided that it raises the funds from its own activities? What we are trying to prevent in this Bill is the use of taxation—ratepayers' money—for party political use. We argue that a political party should use its own funds to promote its own views.

Photo of Mr Bill Michie Mr Bill Michie , Sheffield, Heeley

I am sorry that I gave way.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth , Mid Worcestershire

I bet the hon. Gentleman is.

Photo of Mr Bill Michie Mr Bill Michie , Sheffield, Heeley

I am wasting my time. Parties raise funds for their own political propaganda. I am talking about information given to the public through the city council machinery. If we spent as much money as the Government spend on their propaganda, they would have something to grouse about. Local authorities and other bodies can give much information that is useful to the public.

In my constituency we have 18 to 22 per cent.—and rising—unemployment. Male unemployment is now 19 to 22 per cent. in Sheffield. That is unprecedented. It must be right for local authorities to try to help people in their desperate need to find jobs and to inform the public that the city council is aware of their situation and is trying its best to alleviate unemployment as far as possible.

Many projects and publicity campaigns have lifted morale and raised the level of public interest. Many of those campaigns have been, and still are being, considered by various Government Departments.

When the location of the Community trade mark office was being considered by the EC and the Government, in the full knowledge that the Government felt that the office should be in London, the people of Sheffield decided on a campaign for the office to be in Sheffield. This was not just a campaign by the Labour-controlled local authority—it was promoted jointly by the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire, Sheffield city council, Sheffield chamber of commerce, the university of Sheffield, the Assay Office, the Sheffield city polytechnic, Sheffield Members of Parliament and members of the European Parliament. Are we saying that such joint ventures will in future be scrutinised by the Government and be rendered illegal by the Bill? What about publicity to help or advise unemployed young people?

There have been highly successful publicity campaigns —with political overtones maybe—encouraging young people to join groups and unemployed centres and to have a much more constructive time rather than sitting about at home. Such activity has raised their level of interest and their optimism while a real job is being made available. Moreover, such action helps to take pressure off inner city services and raises the aspirations of many young people.

The Secretary of State for the Environment is studying an employment and environmental plan for the lower Don valley, Sheffield, which is the product of many years of work involving communications and publicity drawing together the public, trade and industry. The information gathered and published in the pamphlet "From the Ashes" is invaluable for the Government and should be recognised as such. It should not be regarded as a threat because it was inspired by the city council.

It is well understood that the Bill will affect all councils— not just Labour-controlled ones—that get off their backsides and try to fight for their areas and the people they represent. The main line electrification campaign, which was launched in Sheffield, was signed not by the leader of Sheffield city council alone—the leader of the Conservative opposition also signed it. It has the support and/or financial backing of 17 local authorities, including six Conservative-controlled ones—Bedfordshire county council, Charnwood district council, Kettering borough council, Leicestershire county council, Northampton county council and Wellingborough county council. I can imagine the Government's political inspector having a difficult job justifying an attack on such a publicity campaign for being political when the campaign is directed merely at trying to get the Government to do something.

This is a bad Bill. I cannot put it much better than the Sheffield Morning Telegraph. A headline in that newspaper of Saturday 9 November proclaimed: Bill Bears Hallmarks of Bad Law". The paper made it clear—I know this because I read it every day—that it has many criticisms to level at local government. The paper has previously commented favourably on the Government's attempts to curb some local government activities. The paper's attitude to this Bill is quite clear. It said: the proposed Local Government Bill which will ban party-political propaganda on the rates and force local Councils to set a rate by April 1st each year is yet another example of the Government's lack of coherent strategy on local government. Its own requirement of local government seems to be that it should do as it is told by central Government. And whenever local authorities fail to fall in line, new legislation is dreamed up to put more pressure on the town halls. The article says later: Legislation intended to stifle opposition to central Government is surely unacceptable in Britain. It is difficult to see how a Bill of this kind can possibly get through the House of Lords which has become the guardian of our unwritten constitution in recent years. The way to control local government is through the ballot box. I and, I am sure, my right hon. and hon. Friends agree. Although I see some merit in setting a rate by 1 April, I ask the House to reject the Bill.

Photo of Mr Piers Merchant Mr Piers Merchant , Newcastle upon Tyne Central 7:28 pm, 18th November 1985

In the increasingly complicated and fraught area of local government, it is good to see a thin Bill that has been drafted quickly and effectively to deal with a growing problem. I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on that.

I regret the need for yet more local government legislation, but I regret even more the circumstances that have given rise to it. Some people believe that the Bill lacks clarity or that it is insufficient to deal with the problem. I am confident, however, that the House will ensure that it is as tightly and accurately formed as possible, although I see no obvious inadequacies in it. The judgment of sufficiency is a matter for hindsight, and it is always open to the House to pass additional legislation if that proves necessary, as it may do. Whatever else, this is an important step which should dramatically improve the present position, and the sooner the Bill is passed the better.

Part II is by far the most important part of the Bill. There are two main victims of the misuse of public money for political advertising who must be protected. The first group is deprived and poor citizens, especially in inner city areas, whose money is being stolen by Labour politicians and wasted on propaganda. If those people wanted food, Labour politicians would say, "Let them eat paper." More to the point, those people want houses, and better schools, but they get unwanted newspapers, glossy freesheets, posters and campaigns. Resources raised to help those people are plundered and diverted in a direction which will not help them.

The second victim is the ratepayer—the thousands of people and businesses who fund local government and sacrifice their cash supposedly to help the less well off and to pay for essential services. Instead, their money is used unacceptably for entirely different purposes—political propaganda that they do not want, expect or endorse, and that is alien to the accepted consensus and tradition of local government. When local government has already strained ratepayers, loyalty too far, this extra initiative strains their loyalty past the limit.

I shall draw on my experience of the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It is only reasonable for ratepayers who pay the highest rates in the country at least to expect some attempt at value for money, and a sensible order of priorities. As for the businesses which are going bankrupt or throwing people on the dole solely because of the rates level—that has been well established—[Interruption.] Businesses—the best people of all—have shown through their accounts and figures that that is precisely what is happening.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

By whom has that been established? When will the hon. Gentleman put pressure on the Government to publish the Cambridge report on the relationship between rates and jobs? It showed that there was no correlation between high rates and a loss of jobs. It is time that the hon. Gentleman got some economic literacy around him.

Photo of Mr Piers Merchant Mr Piers Merchant , Newcastle upon Tyne Central

If the hon. Gentleman wishes, I shall publish the Newcastle report, which shows emphatically that hundreds of jobs in Newcastle have been lost directly as a result of high rates. Those figures come from the best possible judges—the employers and businesses.

Photo of Mr Richard Holt Mr Richard Holt , Langbaurgh

My hon. Friend said that Newcastle had the highest rates in the country. May I point out that Newcastle has the highest rate poundage and that Cleveland has the highest rate? Moreover, we have the highest unemployment. However many Cambridge statisticians may produce statistics, the plain facts are that in Langbaurgh, Hartlepool and Stockton, we have the highest unemployment and the highest rates.

Photo of Mr Piers Merchant Mr Piers Merchant , Newcastle upon Tyne Central

I would not wish to cross swords with my hon. Friend on the issue. I am sure that we can agree that we can produce almost unlimited statistics to prove the direct correlation between high rates and unemployment.

I wish to deal with the 1986–87 proposed budget of Newcastle city council, and its priorities. To pay for the retention of, for example, City News, which is the regular council propaganda sheet, and for the so-called priority area team newsletters, which are issued abundantly, the council is planning a package of cuts in other areas, which include stopping all weekend street cleansing, thereby adding more litter on the streets to the litter which will apparently he shoved through people's letter boxes, axing 15 teachers in middle schools, increasing the charges for meals on wheels or day centres, axing the learning support services in schools, or cutting emergency housing repair services. One of those options has become necessary because of the sums being spent to sustain City News. That list does not begin to take account of the areas of essential local government services which must be cut or removed entirely to maintain the costly public relations and press department, which does not appear to be a vital service.

Photo of Mr Robert Clay Mr Robert Clay , Sunderland North

Does the hon. Gentleman think that the publication of City News in Newcastle will be stopped if the Bill becomes law? Would the priority area team newsletters be stopped if the Bill became law? Will he list the other publications of Newcastle city council or Tyne and Wear county council which will be stopped as a result of the Bill becoming law?

Photo of Mr Piers Merchant Mr Piers Merchant , Newcastle upon Tyne Central

I have a selection of different publications which the city council produces, and which I am sure would be stopped if the legislation passed into law because of their contents. As for City News

Photo of Mr Robert Clay Mr Robert Clay , Sunderland North

Name the publications that would be stopped by the Bill.

Photo of Mr Piers Merchant Mr Piers Merchant , Newcastle upon Tyne Central

I shall refer to them in detail in a minute. I have samples of them with me. Many issues of City News would certainly not be permissible under the legislation. I cannot predict whether the content and aim of City News will be changed as a result of the legislation. It is up to the local authority to decide. To alter its impact or play down its political message to maintain it as a publication, which might be done, would not benefit the people of Newcastle, whom the council are supposed to look after, bearing in mind the other necessary services.

It is ironic that the authority complains that it has insufficient money with which to provide services, moans about the loss of grant, which it brought about by its own actions, and is angry at being rate-capped, for which it is also responsible, yet continues to spend large sums on producing papers, leaflets and campaigns and on running an unnecessarily large public relations unit.

It is also interesting that the authority which has set up the so-called priority area teams which are designed to concentrate resources on Labour wards, and which is at least supposed to help deprived people and areas, is spending much of that money purely on propaganda. Priority area teams produce their own individual ward newsletters regularly, which promote their Labour councillors, and run glossy campaigns in a highly partisan political way. One of the worst examples is in the Moorside ward. I have a typical leaflet with me, which is full of highly political statements. It is entitled "Back to work campaign", and states: Society is paying too high a price for Government policies. Mobilise the unemployed into campaigning. Increase public awareness of the problem of being unemployed. Draw attention to the effects of Government policies on unemployment, for example, privatisation, ratecapping, abolition of the county council. Those may well be the views of Opposition Members and Labour members of the city council, but they are not the views of Conservative Members or Conservative councillors on the city council. Therefore, it is party political propaganda. If Labour Members wish to publish it, they should do so, but financed by the Labour party or themselves.

Photo of Mr Piers Merchant Mr Piers Merchant , Newcastle upon Tyne Central

I have already taken enough interventions, and I wish to proceed with my argument in view of the time.

Last year City News dropped its usual title, replaced it with Campaign News, and spent £10,000 on a specific political campaign against the Rates Bill before it had been fully debated by Parliament. Therefore, it was obviously pursuing a highly party political campaign. the city council was widely condemned by all political parties, except the Labour party, and even by some Labour councillors. That is another specific example of money being spent on propaganda, which would not be permitted under this legislation.

Photo of Mr Piers Merchant Mr Piers Merchant , Newcastle upon Tyne Central

I shall not give way again in view of the time. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to contribute his views.

Last year people on Tyneside were furious when the Tyne and Wear county council diverted £250,000 of ratepayers' money to the NUM to support the miners' strike. Newcastle city council later followed suit with a smaller sum. The patience of ratepayers has been strained to the limit by the extra misuse of their money on propaganda, and they are witnessing a growing trend.

Photo of Mr Robert Clay Mr Robert Clay , Sunderland North

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Merchant) to say something that is blatantly untrue, and which he knows is untrue? The NUM did not receive donations from the Tyne and Wear county council. Donations were received by individual miners who were experiencing hardship, just as they received donations from many members of the public—

Photo of Mr Ernest Armstrong Mr Ernest Armstrong , North West Durham

Order. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Merchant) must take responsibility for the speech he is making.

Photo of Mr Piers Merchant Mr Piers Merchant , Newcastle upon Tyne Central

Perhaps at some stage the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Clay) will enlighten us on who ran and held the fund.

Photo of Mr Piers Merchant Mr Piers Merchant , Newcastle upon Tyne Central

That rather proves the point.

The patience of the ratepayers and people of Newcastle, as in many other parts of the country, has been strained to the limit by the misuse of their money on propaganda and, as I have said, they are seeing a growing trend. They rightly ask, "What on earth is a local authority doing using our money to try to persuade us to change our views or to influence our assessment of current affairs?" That is surely the reverse of the current relationship —that a local authority should be listening, not broadcasting, and should be carrying out the wishes of the local population rather than persuading that population to follow its wishes.

People look to Government to correct this perversion of the role of local councillors. The Bill does that, and the sooner it is in force, the better.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West 7:41 pm, 18th November 1985

Life in this House would seem very strange if we were not debating yet another interminable Local Government Bill or using Westminster to interfere in the affairs of democratically-elected local authorities. We are doing that yet again tonight. The Bill is just a continuation of the malicious campaign that the Government have incessantly waged against our town halls since 1979, and the ferocity of that campaign has been stepped up since 1983.

Support for the Bill by Conservative Members has been based on the usual amalgam of anecdotes, half-truths and bigotry that one has come to expect from the Conservative Benches. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields) said, this measure will not build or renovate any more houses, nor restore cuts in library services. It will do nothing for the social services. All those matters are affected by central Government policies, and the Government are responsible for the downturn, mass unemployment and deprivation in our inner city areas. It must have struck home to Conservative Members that there is a close correlation between high Unemployment and social and economic deprivation and the riots that we have witnessed in our cities. All those incidents have taken place in Labour local authority areas and in areas represented by Labour Members of Parliament.

Conservative Members will no doubt argue that if the money spent on information—they call it propaganda—had been spent on other things, those riots would not have occurred. However, they should read what Widdicombe says about the amount of money spent by local authorities on so-called propaganda. It is infinitesimal compared with the total budgets that local authorities command. Frankly, had none of that money been spent, it would not have made a jot of difference to the massive social problems facing our inner city areas.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth , Mid Worcestershire

How much did the GLC spend on its campaign against abolition? Will the hon. Gentleman estimate how many houses that would have built or how many people in need it would have helped?

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

I shall give the hon. Gentleman the exact figure. I prefer to trade in accurate facts, not vague generalisations. The total amount to 31 March 1986—and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall continue to spend up to that date—will be £7,676,779 out of a total budget of £2,000 million. Conservative Members should bear that in mind.

I accept that that money would have built some more houses, but how many more would be built with the £15,000 million that the Government are wasting on Trident? These arguments can be swapped backwards and forwards across the Floor of the House, and hon. Members can make of them what they will, but I know that even fewer houses will be built once the GLC is abolished. Had we been able to dissuade the Government from their disastrous course of abolishing the GLC, that £7 million would have been well spent. As it is, the money has been well spent on advising the people of London what they will lose when the GLC is abolished.

This Bill is about pandering to the whims of the authoritarian bigot who leads this country and the Conservative party. The Prime Minister, whose finger is on the Bill all the time, knows nothing of local government except that it always seems to be giving her trouble. It has never occurred to the right hon. Lady that the trouble might be caused by her policies. She seems to think that is a failure of her Ministers to get the message across and that somehow we should grow to like abolition and rate capping. She would like us to think that it will be good for us. Unfortunately, the Secretary of State's predecessor was found to be wanting in that respect, and now he is taking an early bath.

I had hoped that the new Secretary of State, who comes to us with something of a reputation—although he did a neat Brutus job on his former environment boss—would for once have defended local government, but he could hardly wait to bring forward this new attack on councils.

It has been claimed that Labour local authorities in particular have adopted a change of attitude towards central Government. Yes, they have. They have been forced to do so because central Government have completely changed the rules. No central Government since the war have, as the present Government have, used mass unemployment as an act of deliberate policy. No other central Government have cut the amount of money available for local government expenditure, nor have they constructed a local authority finance arrangement that is inexplicable to most and capable of allowing Ministers to fiddle on the advice of their civil servants. The Government have changed the relationship between central and local Government, and, in doing so, they have brought local government to the brink of chaos.

Conservative Members have said much about party political progaganda, but that really means facts, propaganda or campaigns with which they personally do not agree. Anyone who knows anything about local government knows that it is already illegal to have party political campaigning on the rates, and Widdicombe has produced no evidence to show that that has happened.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

It is nice to see the hon. Gentleman, because he has not been around very much this evening.

There is no way in which the GLC would have got away with party political campaigning on the rates given the number of times that it has been in and out of the courts.

It is all very well for the Government to say that the GLC has used ratepayers' money on propagandising, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) said, the Government have spent millions of pounds of taxpayers' money to put forward their policies. From the Opposition's point of view, the fact that the Tory party is in office and puts forward its policies based on its party political programme looks exactly like party political propaganda. I do not complain about that, because that is what democracy is all about. If we win an election, either at local or national level, we have a right—nay, a responsibility—to put over our policies to the electorate. I see nothing wrong with that. It is called democracy.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Dickens Mr Geoffrey Dickens , Littleborough and Saddleworth

Will the hon. Gentleman concede that there is no such thing as Government or local government money? It is ratepayers' and taxpayers' money that we are entrusted to spend in a sensible and responsible way. If a local authority decides to become, politically, a nuclear-free zone and spends millions of pounds on large posters telling everybody who motors through its area that it is a nuclear-free zone, is it erecting the posters for the benefit of low-flying Russian aircraft or, yet again, is ratepayers' money being spent in a wasteful political way? That is only one of many examples of waste.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

The hon. Gentleman has a great depth of knowledge about local government that all hon. Members will respect. There is nothing wrong with a local authority advocating a nuclear-free zone if it believes that a heightened awareness of the dangers of nuclear weapons is in the interests of its ratepayers. The Government spend millions of pounds advocating the use and retention of nuclear weapons. Why is it good enough for central Government to spend—as the hon. Gentleman so rightly said—taxpayers' money but wrong for local authorities to spend ratepayers' money?

Elected authorities must act as they see fit in the interests of the people they represent. As I said earlier, I not complaining about the money that the Government spend. I believe that they have a responsibility to do so if they believe that it is in the national interest. Equally, I believe that it is right for local authorities to do likewise if they believe that the policies being advocated are in the interests of their constituents. That is called democracy and it is about time that the Conservative party started to learn a little about it instead of trying continually to undermine it.

Photo of Mr Richard Holt Mr Richard Holt , Langbaurgh

Is the hon. Gentleman afraid to do so?

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

I shall not give way but I am certainly not afraid of the hon. Gentleman.

The modern Conservative party appears to believe in democracy only on its own terms. That democracy has to be set aside if it threatens Tory party interests. Conservative Members must realise that a pluralist democracy needs a strong local government presence. It needs a voice arguing, if necessary, against the policy of central Government. The voice of County hall has been loud since 1983, because local government has never before been under such sustained attack from central Government. That is true of town halls and county halls throughout the country.

The GLC's awareness campaign against abolition undoubtedly outraged the Prime Minister and her Ministers. Perhaps that is a major origin of the Bill. It was an extremely successful campaign. Indeed, the GLC swept the board at this year's advertising industry's awards. It will go down in history as one of the most effective campaigns ever seen in Britain, and I am very proud of that.

The campaign was necessary, first, because abolition was and remains an exercise in party political vindictiveness. It is wholly irrelevant to the efficient running of local government in London. Secondly, the campaign was needed to counter the downright lies, distortions and misinformation about the GLC that were put out by the Government's propaganda machines in Whitehall and Fleet street. We at County hall believed that it would have been a dereliction of duty to allow the lies of The Sun, the Daily Express, the Daily Mail and other gutter rags to create their image of the GLC in the minds of Londoners. We could not expect impartiality from the Government and we certainly could not expect objectivity from Fleet street. Accordingly, we provided both through our anti-abolition campaign. I believe that in doing so we have raised the level of consciousness in London. We have alerted Londoners to what they will lose after 31 March 1986. That is why more than two thirds of Londoners support the GLC and oppose its abolition, which the Government want to push through.

It is clear that the Bill is intended to try to blunt the political impact of the GLC and the metropolitan county councils, especially on the local elections that will take place in May 1986. I do not think that the Government will succeed. They have involved themselves in a cynical exercise. The Government set up the Widdicombe inquiry and expected it to find local authorities guilty on all counts. Ministers still refer to it as the inquiry investigating local authority abuses. The interim report of the Widdicombe inquiry did not deliver the goods that the Government were hoping for and expecting. They are effectively ignoring that report and proposing a pre-emptive changing of the rules.

That is what the Government have done at every turn. They hate opposition. If a council, such as the GLC, objects to Government policies, it is abolished. The Government are prepared to scrap elections and to change the rules when they find that their proposals are not acceptable. There is no doubt that in Committee the Secretary of State will be changing the Bill drastically to pick up all the details that he knows he has missed and that will be brought to his attention in due course.

If the Bill were enacted in its present form, it would mean the end of a wide range of public information campaigns, and my right hon. and hon. Friends have mentioned many of them. Some campaigns I agree with, and others I do not. If the Bill is enacted, Merton's campaign in favour of privatisation will be brought to an end. I am in favour of that campaign being halted in one sense, but if Merton thinks that the campaign is in the interests of its ratepayers, it is right to mount it.

There has been much talk about the money that is being spent by local authorities on so-called propaganda campaigns and publicity budgets. The budget of the City of Westminster, led by Lady Porter, has not been mentioned. Over the two years of her leadership, her publicity budget has increased from £108,000 to more than £500,000—almost a 500 per cent. increase. I have an example of Lady Porter's information sheet, which bears a handsome picture of her on the front page. The information sheet states: Westminster Action '85 … exclusive interview with Lady Porter. If Westminster city council cannot obtain an exclusive interview with its own leader, who can? Of course, the information sheet will be stopped if the Bill is enacted. It consists of an anti-GLC diatribe, and if that is what Lady Porter thinks is in the interests of Westminster, she has a right—nay, a duty—to put it out.

My right hon. and hon. Friends talk about and believe in democracy—[HON. MEMBERS: "Good".]—contrary to the weasel words of the Conservative Members. Democracy will be defended by them for as long as it serves their interests. When it threatens their policies or position, it will go out of the window.

Once again, the Government are prepared to destroy out of their blind fear and hatred of opposition. That is what lies at the centre of the Bill. The Bill is a sign of a bullying and stupid Government and it should be rejected.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh , Gainsborough and Horncastle 7:58 pm, 18th November 1985

I welcome the Bill, which is broadly in line with a ten-minute Bill that I introduced in July, which was passed on a free vote despite being ably opposed by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). The hon. Gentleman talked arrant nonsense when he spoke of £7 million of public money being petty cash.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh , Gainsborough and Horncastle

I am sure that the Labour party would have liked a budget of £7 million for the 1983 general election. If its membership were not declining, it would not have to rely on public money to support its campaigns. It is arrant nonsense for the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie) to say that Pravda would approve of the Bill. It is designed to prevent what happens in the Soviet Union—the people's money being used to peddle one political line.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West talked about Lady Porter. I voted against abolition. I resent my money being used for political campaigns, whether by the Labour party or by the Conservative party. That is not the function of local authorities and I resent such expenditure.

I do not wish to go over the ground that I covered in my ten-minute Bill or in my correspondence with the hon. Member for Newham, North-West in various letters to national newspapers. However, I must reiterate firmly that the purpose of local authorities traditonally is to carry out the functions laid down by Parliament, not to usurp those functions. Local government is the servant of Parliament, not its rival.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West talked about the consensus breaking down. That happened not because of Government actions. Government are not engaged in campaigns paid for by public money to convince the British people of the merits of privatisation of British Gas. The Government are not paying for campaigns to convince the British people that this Bill is a good thing. The consensus in local government has been broken by militants who believe in what they call the local state and who abuse the power and trust given them by Parliament to pursue political objectives of their own.

They seek to negotiate peace treaties with foreign powers; they hold talks with terrorist groups; they pretend, by the ridiculous charades of calling areas nuclear-free zones, to exclude such areas from the defence system properly laid down by Parliament for the protection of the nation; they set up police committees in places where they have no police responsibility; and they pour millions of pounds into the pockets of those whose sole object is to abuse the police and to drive a wedge between those whom we employ to uphold the law and large sections of the community whom the police protect. Above all. the cabals of new-style councillors have set up a monstrous propaganda machine on the rates.

The recent study by Professor David Regan details expenditure on anti-nuclear material. The GLC has spent £3 million in the Greater London area. Manchester has spent £500,000. Although the worst offenders are in the big cities, they are not confined to the big cities. Even in Lincoln Labour councillors are under the delusion that they live in a nuclear-free zone. Scunthorpe has produced a free newspaper. There is no such thing as a free newspaper, any more than there is a free lunch. The ratepayers have to pick up the bill.

The Left argues that preventing councils spending money on political advertising inhibits free speech. It is nonsense to say that preventing one-sided political propaganda, paid for compulsorily by ratepayers of all political opinions, threatens democratic freedoms. On the contrary, it strengthens them by offering protection against the monopoly abuse of position and power by whoever happens to win control of a town hall.

The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) quoted Thomas Jefferson. We all want to protect minorities. The Bill is aimed at protecting minorities from the tyrannies of whoever happens to control a town hall.

Photo of Mr Roland Boyes Mr Roland Boyes , Houghton and Washington

Has the hon. Gentleman read what Widdicombe said on page 37 of the report'? Commenting on the GLC's campaign to protect itself, compared with what other councils had done, he said: we do not see that it is wrong in principle.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh , Gainsborough and Horncastle

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Merchant) dealt with that fairly. A political propaganda pamphlet was produced and paid for by the rates. That is happening in London, Newcastle, Leeds and elsewhere. That is why we need the Bill.

In a few respects the Bill is deficient and I hope to see it amended in Committee. First, the Bill prohibits certain activities by councils, but provides no remedy should its provisions be broken. It leaves it up to the citizen who is aggrieved by his council to take action. Thus, the citizen must police and enforce the Bill. How is the citizen to do that?

Hon. Members have talked of district auditors being toothless wonders. That is well illustrated by the grubby little cultural festival of India affair. An attempt was made by the GLC leader to buy votes in Brent. That backfired badly and he tried to circumvent the provisions of the interim provisions legislation. He was caught lying about a breach of contract. There was a ham-fisted attempt at a cover-up, which embarrassed a respectable Hindu group. No blame could be attached to that group. A respectable company was financially embarrassed. Attempts have been made to complain to the district auditor, but it will take weeks, if not months, to investigate. In the meantime, the company is without its money.

The truth is that complaints to district auditors are ineffective in preventing abuses by councils. Indeed, many district auditors refuse to consider complaints until after the offending item appears in the accounts—up to a year after the event by which time the council has won the unfair political advantage that the Bill is designed to prevent.

A ratepayer can apply to the court for an injunction against the council that breaks the Bill's provisions. That means that most local residents who are not ratepayers cannot complain to the court. However, the Local Government (Interim Provisions) Act sets a precedent in empowering voters rather than ratepayers to apply to the court. The Bill should be amended in Committee to extend that provision to this legislation.

In addition, even those who have the right to sue rarely do so because of the prospect of ruinous costs if they lose. A council has ratepayers' money available to pay for its defence and to pay for the other side's costs if it loses. If no one is prepared to go to court to enforce the Bill's provisions, the Bill will have little effect.

A number of electors are ready to call Livingstone to account over the festival of India affair, but they cannot do so because of the risk that, if they lose on some technicality, the costs would cripple them. The council faces no such threat. Consequently, legislative provisions go unenforced. It would be a pity if this Bill met the same fate.

I urge that the Bill be extended to provide from public funds the costs of actions against delinquent councillors, subject to safeguards to eliminate frivolous cases.

In principle, the Bill will make a valuable contribution to our constitutional law and to the protection of our democratic system, subject to the small amendments that I have mentioned.

As Parliament is the creator of local government and the fount of its power and authority, it behoves Parliament to give the public the means to protect itself when that power is abused. If the Bill is suitably amended, I believe that it will achieve that.

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton 8:08 pm, 18th November 1985

Clause 1 provides for the setting of a rate by a certain date. That is relevant to Liverpool. The Secretary of State said that originally it was relevant to 30 other councils. He said that 13 did not set a rate, but in the end Liverpool was left on its own.

There has been much misinformation about Liverpool city council. The 30 councils which decided not to set a rate by a particular date were acting in line with the Labour party policy agreed in 1984 in a document called "The Defence of Local Democracy, Services and Jobs". That statement was carried by the conference almost unanimously. It said: Labour local authorities should not act as agents for central government, even if the resulting budget is out of line with Government policy … Non-compliance could lead to some Councils being unable to fix a rate. For others it could mean running out of money for essential services. I do not want to hear any more statements about Liverpool city council acting out of line with Labour party policies. That was Labour party policy, agreed at the conference. However, eventually Liverpool found itself fighting that battle alone. I want that to be put firmly on the record.

Some right hon. and hon. Members have referred to the Stonefrost report. Paragraph 2.1 is headed: How Liverpool City Council arrived at its present financial position. Paragraph 2(3) says: From 1981–82 to 1984–85 Liverpool's Grant Related Expenditure Assessment increased in cash terms by 8·5 per cent. compared with 14 per cent. for all Metropolitan Districts and 17 per cent. for all authorities. (4) From 1975–76 to 1978–79"— when the Liberal party, supported by the Conservatives, was in power— the City Council reduced its expenditure by 6 per cent. in real terms. This resulted in expenditure being 10 per cent less than it would have been had the City Council increased its spending in line with other local authorities. (5) The relatively low spending position of Liverpool in 1978–79 formed the basis of its spending target for 1981–82. Liverpool further reduced its spending towards that target. Paragraph 2.2 says: Based on these facts, the Council's case against the Government is that a major contribution to Liverpool's present financial position is the system of targets and penalties. That is said not by me but by the Stonefrost report, which has been referred to by so many right hon. and hon. Members.

There are differences of opinion about whether the Liverpool councillors should have accepted it. Liverpool councillors are not Militant-dominated. There are probably eight or nine councillors on the city council who support the ideas of Militant. However, there are 48 Labour councillors, of whom about 30 are members of the Roman Catholic Church. Many of them take part in community work for the Church. One of those councillors was killed while he was on holiday in Spain. I attended his requiem mass. The church was full of people because that councillor, Peter Lloyd, was a pillar of the local Roman Catholic community.

Liverpool councillors remain solidly together because they believe that the policies forced upon the city' by this Government have driven it into this position. This Government are responsible for the present crisis—not Liverpool councillors, or Mr. Hatton, or a small group of militants, or a crackpot group of people. Liverpool city councillors are therefore standing firm.

I wish to draw attention to a book whose title is "Liverpool on the Brink". It is written by Michael Parkinson, the director of the centre for urban studies at Liverpool university. I recommend that book to every right hon. and hon. Member. It explains how Liverpool has got into this position. It says: When the Conservatives took power in 1979 central Government was providing 62 per cent. of the city's net income and the rates over 37 per cent. By 1983 the Government's contribution had dropped to 44 per cent. and the rates had risen to over 55 per cent. That is what has happened in my city. It also says: From 1971 to 1985 total employment in the city fell by 33 per cent. in contrast to the national figure of only 3 per cent. And this brought heavy rates of unemployment. In fact, Merseyside has had the highest rate of unemployment of any English conurbation in every decade since the 1950s. That again is the background to the situation in Liverpool. The book also contains this passage: The Director of the Government's special Merseyside Task Force, Eric Sorenson, was asked by the select committee why so much attention had been paid to Liverpool's problems in recent years. He replied simply, 'Because they are worse.' I know Eric Sorenson. He is always on about Liverpool—

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

Yes. I am obsessed by the problems of the people of Liverpool. I am obsessed by the fact that on one council estate in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) 90 per cent. of the people are living on some form of Government benefit because they are unemployed. I am also obsessed by the fact that Liverpool people still have some of the worst housing in this country. It makes me sick to think that, if the Government had provided an extra £25 million to £30 million for Liverpool, there would have been no problem. However, this Government do not have one iota of compassion, or deep feeling, or understanding. Young people have no possible chance of obtaining employment.

Yes, I am obsessed and I do not deny it. I am obsessed because Liverpool people happen to be my people; I am one of them. When there was almost full employment, I worked alongside them. There were jobs in the shipyards and in the docks and on the big construction sites. Where are those jobs now? Luckily, there are still some jobs in the construction industry.

When the Liberal party was in power in Liverpool no council houses were built, but in the last two years the Liverpool city council, under the Labour party, has built 3,600 council houses. Those council houses were not in the pipeline before the Labour party took office, contrary to the argument of Mr. Trevor Jones.

I am pleased that the Secretary of State has said that he is prepared to meet us tomorrow. I hope that he will be prepared to meet Liverpool Members of Parliament. I am talking about Labour Members, because they requested the meeting. I hope that the Government will not stand entrenched in their position and that they will be prepared to meet the democratically elected representatives of the city of Liverpool.

The Government, quite rightly, feel that they must do something along the lines of what they were elected to do. But so, too, are the Liverpool councillors right to argue that they must fulfil their commitment to their electorate. Both bodies were elected by the people. God almighty, as rational, civilised people, they should be prepared to meet and discuss ways to overcome the problems.

I hope that such an attitude will arise out of tomorrow's meeting. If it does not, Liverpool will be faced with a serious problem. Although there may be some short-term advantage to the Government if the city is run down and the councillors blamed, in the long term the Government will suffer.

Photo of Mr Derek Spencer Mr Derek Spencer , Leicester South 8:21 pm, 18th November 1985

In the town hall in Leicester there is a monster with two heads.

Photo of Mr Derek Spencer Mr Derek Spencer , Leicester South

One of the heads is the information unit and the other is the contracts monitoring unit. That creature, which suddenly emerged in June this year, gives off a dull, Leftist monotone that stretches all over the city. It knows about as much of concern, truth and democracy as a bank robber knows of honesty.

Far from being interested in listening to and conducting a dialogue with other people, there is simply a uniformed barrage of propaganda laid across the city at public expense. Those two organs are aided and abetted by the so-called civic newspaper, the Leicester Link, which howls abuse at the Government on every conceivable opportunity—and it does so on the rates.

We had no sooner swept up the pamphlets about the anti-rate-capping campaign, we had no sooner removed the stickers from every park bench. public vehicle and lawn mower in every part of Leicester, than we were afflicted by a campaign against the Transport Bill.

The experience of Leicester on publicity is typical of many other places. In early 1983, a small unit in the chief executive's department dealt with publicity. It had a handful of staff with a comparatively small budget. By 1984, the staff had increased to 22. This year the unit has almost doubled its numbers and its budgeted expenditure, if it is not stopped, will be almost £250,000.

What has that to do with the Labour party's sudden preoccupation with and interest in truth and democracy? Why is there suddenly an interest which, two years ago, could not be found? How does it come about that the nearer we get to the next general election, the more the Labour party in Leicester appears to be overcome by a compulsive desire to tell what it says is the truth about the Tory Government?

Of course, it is not the truth. Those of us who witnessed local government before the Tory party was elected to power in 1979 know only too well the hollowness of the argument that the Tory party has brought about a change in the relationship between central and local government. Those of us who were in town halls before 1979 had already witnessed at first hand the sea change that was taking place under a Labour Government.

When Ken Livingstone was seeking to be elected as the parliamentary Labour party candidate in Hampstead in 1979—at that time he was the chairman of the housing committee of Camden council—he was distributing what the local newspaper called Livingstone's largesse. Tenants who saw fit to air complaints were sent away with public money to massage their problems in the hope that they might be induced to vote for Mr. Livingstone at the forthcoming general election.

While that was happening, a number of moderates on Camden council were prepared to look the other way. They put forward an acceptable face while Mr. Livingstone got on with his dirty work in a small time way, which subsequently, when he became the leader of the GLC, he was to implement on a much larger scale. Therefore, it is nonsense to say that there is something new afoot. It has been going on for many years. The lesson is that, unless something is done to stop it, it will continue unabated.

Let us consider what Leicester has had to put up with in relation to the Transport Bill. An open day was held, paid for with ratepayers' money, with balloons, stickers, carrier bags and so—on you name it, they had it—given away to try to cultivate a special community identity, or so it was described, for Leicester City Bus. How did that help people who wanted to get across the city? How did it help the elderly to be told that if the Transport Bill became law fares might be increased by more than 30 per cent. and the most essential services run down? That was typical of the misleading propaganda put out at public expense.

However, matters did not rest there. The place chosen to stage the open day was next door to a children's festival being attended by children from 17 schools. The open day had hot dog stalls, ice cream stalls, music festivals and the like to inveigle children and young people into what was nothing more than a political indoctrination session on the rates. That happens time and again throughout the country.

The latest excess relates to the activities of the low pay unit. I was sent a poster to put up at my place of work to recruit those who feel that they are low paid. If I put it up in my office, I would expect to be killed in the rush. I am asked to fill in a form stating my hours of work, how much I am paid, my overtime, and so on. If I need any advice, I must refer to the low pay unit. All that is at public expense. It has been distributed throughout the city without regard to the identity of the recipient.

Of course, the true objective of the low pay unit and the current campaign is not the welfare of the low paid. It is designed, quite nakedly, to attack the Government's social security reforms. The low pay unit and its cosmetic concern for those with low pay merely conceals the true nature of the exercise.

This Bill is necessary. If we want further evidence of that, it can be found in a newspaper put through my door in Camden this week. It advertises a public meeting to be run by the Camden council women's committee in conjunction with the Camden Labour party women's section on strip and body searches of Irish women. It is to be held in the Camden centre. The advertisement, at the bottom, says: If you would like to attend the meeting and need to pay for a sitter for a child, elderly sick friend or relative claim up to £2 an hour. Form from"— then it gives a telephone number, which I know from my service on the Camden council is that of the town hall. Such examples are commonplace in Camden, and they must be stopped.

My only question is whether the Bill is man enough for the job. I should have preferred to see a clause relating not to the functions of the authority but limited to the statutory duties placed on it. Anybody who has ever served as a member of a Labour-controlled local authority will know only too well that the Bill will be scrutinised. It will go before leading counsel in the Temple and every dot, comma, hyphen and syntax will be looked at from every conceivable aspect. If there is the slightest hole in the Bill, it will be crawled through before one can say "district auditor".

I welcome the Bill as a step on the right road. Like the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), I am obsessed by local government, but by the way in which its true purpose is perverted. Like him, I am upset. but I am upset by the way in which otherwise good men go on perverting it and then claim credit for doing so.

Photo of Mr Allan Rogers Mr Allan Rogers , Rhondda 8:31 pm, 18th November 1985

I have listened to the debate all the afternoon. A sad aspect of it is the way in which hon. Members' attitudes have been so polarised. For me, one of the saddest things is that there is no recognition, particularly by Conservative Members, that there is a place for local government and that it should be carried out by people who are elected locally and responsible locally, who carry out functions as they perceive them locally.

The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Spencer) was a glaring example of the polarisation, sweeping generalisations and objections on specific issues on which the Bill is based. The Bill derives from a few specific cases that have arisen within local government—I do not judge whether they are good or bad—from which the Government have come up with a spiteful and malevolent Bill that will do far more to destroy local democracy that can be seen at first. The spitefulness has taken the Government down a road that they will rue.

Another disturbing aspect of the debate is an obsession with one or two incidents, which are constantly being quoted by Tory Members. The GLC and the city of Liverpool have the right to inform their electorate in the way in which they have. However, because of the Government's political objections resulting from their losing the argument, they have come up with this tawdry and pathetic Bill.

I live in the constituency that I represent and not in London, like the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, South. I am disturbed by the insulting way in which the Government have introduced the Bill before the Widdicombe committee has reported. The Government had said that they would not act prematurely and would wait so that the Committee's recommendations in their Interim Report cannot be taken to prejudice their findings and broader judgements reached in the light of their appraisal of all the evidence eventually presented to them. Not only has this undertaking been broken, but the findings of the interim report have been largely ignored. The report concluded that it was acceptable in principle for local authorities to publicise matters of political controversy. The only distinction that was drawn was between material issued in the interests of local authorities and that issued in furtherance of the interest of a political party.

If the Government want to introduce such propaganda, they can do so. Therefore, local government should be allowed to do the same. If the Widdicombe committee is being so treated by the Government, it might as well resign. It is wasting its time, and should no longer be associated with such a transparent charade.

The Bill's proposals mean that local authorities will not be able to publish any material that opposes Government legislation, however vicious and unjustified. The public will be able to hear only the Government's case. By charging through with this legislation, the Government have shown that they know how indefensible their proposals are.

The Bill is redolent of powers that are used in Russia and South Africa to prevent the public voicing opposition to Government measures. I am amazed at the extent to which the Government are prepared to go to muzzle legitimate dissent by local authorities. That can be appreciated by reading the full text of clause 2, by which local authorities will not be allowed to publish any material that can affect public support for a party,

body, cause or campaign identified with, or likely to be regarded as identified with, a political party. Any group of people who want to oppose what the local authority may want to voice against the Government could set up a pseudo-political party with which they could be identified. If the Minister does not accept that point, perhaps he will tell me what the identification of a political party will be in the Bill. How long does a political party have to be in existence before it falls within the ambit of the Bill? Can one create an instant political party to prevent spending in a particular way?

The Bill shows the Government's hypocrisy. They claim that they have a code of practice for any publicity into which they enter, as if, by saying that, they prove that the code of practice is good. Besides the advertising for the sale of British Telecom, the Government have spent millions of pounds on politically controversial issues—a fact that has not yet emerged in the debate. Money has been spent on campaigns in favour of council house sales, on the defence policy, particularly with reference to cruise missiles, on the drafting in of reams of civil servants to the Ministry of Defence to propagate the Conservative party's views on nuclear weaponry, on local government financial controls and on various privatisation measures. If ever there were controversial party political issues, those are they. Whose money was used? The taxpayers' money has been used in the same way that the Government are trying to prevent local authorities from spending ratepayers' money. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) said on publication of the Bill, the Government's,

record of partisanship and the abuse of the public service for overtly political ends is unparalleled. No Government has used the Whitehall machine more to serve narrow party interests. Local government organisations are solidly against the Bill. Not all those organisations are controlled by the Labour party. The Association of County Councils, which can hardly be called a Labour party organisation, does not want legislative changes in local authorities' powers to provide information. The ACC believes that no change should be made to section 142 of the Local Government Act 1972 or to section 137 of the Act that empowers local authorities to incur expenditure for the benefit of ratepayers. The only change that the association would want is that all public sector advertising should be subject to the Advertising Standards Authority's code of practice. If a right is introduced for members of the public to object, it should be extended to all public sector advertising. I am pleased that the Minister is nodding. Perhaps that can be incorporated into future legislation. What about the statutory bodies outside the Bill, which can use resources to put forward their political viewpoint. Many of them do, including the gas boards, the water boards and the electricity boards.

The Bill is simply a vicious and spiteful attack on local government because the Government lost the battle against the GLC and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. The Association of County Councils has consistently opposed the proposal that the powers of local authorities should be subverted and brought under central control. In April 1982, the ACC stated that any changes in section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972 would represent a quite unnecessary and undesirable change from the present satisfactory operation … The Association … would not wish to see any diminution in the existing scope of S. 137. The reasons for this view are both constitutional and … practical … The new proposals will remove the ability of counties to act …and the new provision replaces a local perception of what is required by a national one. Once more we shall see the steady erosion of local democracy.

In a letter to the Under-Secretary of State—the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young)—the chairman of the executive council of the ACC said: An abuse of a discretionary power must certainly be capable of effective challenge"— no one doubts that— but the better channel for doing so may well lie elsewhere, possibly through the District Audit procedures and the powers of extraordinary audit. The present law curbs authorities that step outside it and use ratepayers' money for overtly political ends. The law should be exercised as it stands instead of removing a discretionary right of local authorities. That was acknowledged by the Under-Secretary of State and his Department. Why have the Government changed their mind? The only thing that has happened is that the Government have lost the battle with the GLC and the AMA.

Only a few years ago, the Under-Secretary of State said in answer to the ACC's submission: Local authorities are essentially political bodies elected on political mandates, and run by politicians, and their decisions are inevitablly political in nature. Political considerations must affect the balance of the individual decisions they reach—and that applies to Conservative councils taking decisions on privatisation as much as Labour authorities reaching conclusions on, say, the right to buy. Therefore, we cannot simply stop local authorities acting politically. Nor can we deal with the problem simply by limiting Section 137 … Section 137 is an important discretionary power for local authorities, but … it is just one of a number of discretionary powers which authorities are free to use and abuse, subject always to general legal constraints. The Government have changed their mind on that matter.

Clause 1 places a duty on local authorities to set a rate by a specific date. That is not unreasonable in itself. Indeed, it could be considered necessary for the proper planning of activities in local government. However, I question the Government's motives in introducing it. If they have such a consuming passion for tidiness and punctuality, will the Minister tell us why they do not implement a more rigorous timetable in announcing rate support grant settlements? For some time, they were produced in November, but lately there has been a slippage, and now there is no guaranteed date for announcing the RSG. The only guideline is that it is normally announced before Christmas. Any delay or uncertainty in announcing the RSG delays the county councils' budget process and reduces the time available to them to finalise the process.

Clause 7, which also worries me, deals with mortgages. Unlike some of my hon. Friends, I have some sympathy with the proposition, although I also have reservations. My reservations spring from the fact that the clause demonstrates, and is obviously motivated by, the Government's spite and maliciousness. The proposition that prevents local authorities from selling mortage portfolios without the consent of individual mortgagors would gain some sympathy in my area, because I represent a constituency and an area with almost the highest owner-occupancy in Britain. The south Wales mining valleys have about 75 per cent. owner-occupancy, which is surpassed by west Sussex. Therefore, I am well aware of the problems of selling leases and mortgage portfolios with—out the consent or knowledge of the occupiers. The problems of leasehold disposal are well known to hon. Members. But if this is such a desirable development, why do not the Government extend it beyond local government? Why do they not allow everyone to participate in this great freedom? Why not impose similar conditions on building societies, banks, finance houses and the rest of the Tory party's friends in this game? Will the Minister explain his intentions in this area?

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) said, this is a spiteful Bill. It is the response of a Government who have lost all the arguments during the past few years and who can think of no other course than this shabby, mean Bill.

Photo of Mr John Powley Mr John Powley , Norwich South 8:47 pm, 18th November 1985

Let no one be under any illusion about my support for local government. I would not have spent 10 years as a county councillor if I did not support local government. I spent 12 years on a district council, three as its leader, and I would not have done that had I not been a supporter of and a believer in local government. But how I wish that the local government scene today was similar to the scene when I entered it in 1967. In those days, one had great respect for one's colleagues—even one's opposition colleagues—on a local authority, because we were all involved in local government for the good of everyone in our local authority area. There was not as much party political partisanship as there is today. Local government was not manipulated for party political purposes as it is today. I very much regret the direction in which local government has gone during the 18 years that I have been closely associated with it. Many right hon. and hon. Members may share those sentiments.

There are several reasons for this politicisation of local government. The obvious one is that, because the Labour party has been in opposition for the majority of that time, it sees the local government base as its only base. A less obvious one —I have mentioned it previously in the House—is due to the new breed of local councillor, and the Local Government Act 1972 has been responsible for certain developments in that respect. I fear that some people who are now elected to serve on local authorities regard the interest of the area as secondary to their party political ambitions.

Unfortunately, many councillors are now paid by one local authority but are elected members of another. In other words, they are paid while taking up their full-time occupations in the area of the authority of which they are elected members. That has also led to the new breed of councillor.

A new way of operating councils has also developed. I have knowledge of authorities in which the policies determined by the controlling Labour group are not determined by the councillors. Hon. Members who have been involved in local government will know that party groups meet before council meetings to determine the policy that will be adopted on the issues of the day. I was the leader of the group on my authority and the members regularly met a couple of days before the council meeting. However, at our group, only the elected Conservative councillors were present, and only they made the policy decisions and, when we were the majority group, implemented them on the council.

I understand, however, that that is not the procedure with Labour groups. When they meet in a political context, their groups are considerably enhanced, and include trade union officials, representatives from the wards and members of general management committees. Decisions are then taken about what the council will decide. Thus, the decisions that are taken in the council chamber originate in the Labour clubs. That has brought about a new position in local authorities. Those taking the decisions do not have responsibility for the decision-making.

I have witnessed the way in which, over the years, moderate Labour councillors were eased out, because they implemented decisions that were to the benefit of the area without intense regard for the politics involved. They were pensioned off, as it were, in favour of intense political councillors, usually of the Left variety, who got elected to safe seats, while the more moderate councillors gradually disappeared because their policies did not suit the new militancy in the Labour party. That has undermined local democracy and accountability.

The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) rather gave the game away when he said that if the Labour party was in power it would abandon the present procedures and introduce new legislation which would, blatantly, allow politics on the rates. That was my interpretation of his remarks. It would mean that Labour groups in control of the council would be able blatantly to use ratepayers' money for party political purposes to get themselves re-elected. That is how the system could be exploited.

Such is my feeling for local government that I have regretted having had to vote for local government legislation since 1983. I was proud to be a member of the Rates Bill Committee, but I regret that the legislation was necessary. A Rates Bill would never have been necessary in the late 1960s under the old system of local government. The abolition of the GLC would never have been necessary. There was a great deal more sense and responsibility then. I regret that we have to pass this local government legislation.

We have to avoid exploitation of the rates. The leader of the council in Norwich—that fine city in East Anglia —is reported as saying: few people would defend ratepayers' money being spent on Party political propaganda. She said: No one has ever suggested that this council has operated in this way. How short memories are! In 1980, when the Government passed the Housing Bill to allow council houses to be sold to those tenants who wished to buy, my local authorities opposed the move to the end. A housing commissioner had to be put in. That political act by my local authority cost my constituents about £70,000. It was nothing but a party political campaign to oppose a law passed by Parliament.

No one could dispute the fact that the Clay Cross episode was another party political issue at the expense of the ratepayer. Is it a coincidence that my local authority spends money on its nuclear-free zone and that it spent money supporting the miners during the strike? Is it a coincidence that it mounts an open day just a week or two before local government elections to advertise and to impress the voters? That is nothing other than party political manipulation at the expense of the ratepayers.

To hear some Opposition Members speak one would think that in the Bill we are trying to make local government believe in behaving secretly. No one would believe that our committees and council meetings are open to the public. Those meetings can be reported openly as any municipal correspondent sees fit, showing what the local authority is doing and the policies in which it believes. There is nothing to hide. We want there to be no party politics of any colour on the rates issue. Let us return to local democracy for the people with a little less politicisation of local government.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike , Burnley 8:58 pm, 18th November 1985

I disagree with some of the points made by the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Powley). He believes that the lines pursued by a Labour council are party political but that those pursued by a Conservative council are not. I was a councillor 23 years ago in the urban district of Merton and Morden in south London. That was solidly controlled by the Conservative party. It was political to the extent that a capable man who had been on the council for over 20 years was not permitted to be chairman of the council because he was a member of the Labour party. All that council's actions were strongly political. It finally conceded, when it was to be wound up because of the London reorganisation in 1963 and 1964, and allowed him to be chairman for the penultimate year. It is fallacy to regard Tory councils as non-political.

The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg) tried to give the impression that the Labour party has changed considerably and is now a party of extremists. That is absolute nonsense. The present party of extremism is the Conservative party that happens to be in government. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate referred to local government under the rule of Morrison and other people of that era. He tended to give the impression that they were moderate. If Clem Attlee and Herbert Morrison were leading the party today and putting to the electorate the same programme as they did in 1945, the Conservative party that regarded Clem Attlee as a moderate would, because of the passage of time, be calling him an extremist.

Local government should have the right to defend services and publicise its activities. The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Spencer) referred to the leaflet on buses and transport in his area. I should like to refer to the leaflet published by Lancashire county council in defence of an important section of local government service. There was nothing in that leaflet that was untrue. It put a fair case to the people whom it represented and it was right that it should be able to do that. Now that that Bill is an Act, the passage of time will show that what Lancashire county council and many other bodies publicised in leaflets and what we pointed out to the electorate was true and not as the Government portrayed.

The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) tried to highlight complaints about the Greater London council. If the Government believed that those complaints were correct, why did they deprive the GLC electorate of an election? That is what matters; that is democracy. If the electorate agreed with the hon. Lady, it would have said to the Labour representatives controlling the GLC, "We do not want you. You are out." The Government did not want an election because the people would have voted for the Labour party and put it back into office.

In 1979, when the Conservative party was elected, it said that it wanted more freedom in local government. I find it amazing to recall that statement. As my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) said, this is the 12th local government Bill since the Government took office. We have seen measures to curtail capital expenditure and revenue expenditure. Local government has more shackles put on it every year that the Conservative Government are in office. It is time that we thought again. Many local councillors are becoming disillusioned because they cannot implement the services for which they campaigned and were elected to put into effect. A local council should be able to say to the hundreds of people who apply for improvement and repair grants that it cannot even accept the applications and that they cannot have a grant because the Government are not making sufficient money available. Why should the local authority accept responsibility for the Government's action?

If we cannot provide enough sheltered and residential homes for the elderly because of Government policy, why should not local authorities be able to tell the electors that that is the position and say to them, "Blame the Government, not us"?

The Bill is not just vicious; it is daft. Clause 2 provides: (1) A local authority shall not publish any material which, in whole or part, appears to be designed to affect, or can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect, public support for—

  1. (a) a political party, or
  2. (b) a body, cause or campaign identified with, or likely to be regarded as identified with, a political party."
If that is what the Government intend, it will mean that local authorities cannot publicise anything that they do. Whichever party is in control of a local authority—be it Conservative, Liberal, SDP or Labour—will try to implement policies for the benefit of the electors whom it represents. The councillors will want to be re-elected, but they will not be able to publicise what they have done in the council's annual report or in the leaflet that goes with the rates bill, because it will be seen as trying to gain support for the party in office.

At the last election, about 40 per cent. of the votes were cast for the Conservative party. The majority of votes were cast for the Liberal, SDP and Labour parties. Those parties took almost the same line in the Transport Bill Committee. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that more people were against the Transport Bill than were in favour of it. Why should we not, therefore, be able to say what we wanted to do?

I have mentioned the leaflet that was published by Lancashire county council. Of the 14 districts in Lancashire, 13 took part in the campaign. Only three authorities in Lancashire are Labour-controlled, but the others participated in the campaign to some degree. Local authorities have the right to defend the services that they have been elected to implement. They have the right to make people aware of what the Government are doing. If people disagree with what the controlling party on the local authority is doing, they will say, "We have had enough. We will put the other party in."

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike , Burnley

The Tory party, the Secretary of State and the Minister of State do not believe in local democracy or local government. The hon. Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman) from a sedentary position said that the Labour party lost the county election. Yes, it did, but the result was that it is still the largest party on the Lancashire county council.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike , Burnley

The county council election results in Lancashire were extremely good, because, when the new boundaries were drawn at the time of local government reorganisation, the Tory party designed the boundaries so as to prevent Labour from ever winning control of the county. The Tories put the Labour areas in the south of the county into Merseyside or Greater Manchester. They had to find somewhere else for Warrington, the only Labour area in the middle, because it might have made Lancashire Labour. They pushed Warrington into Cheshire. The result was a victory for the Labour party in the local elections.

The Bill is vicious. I hope that it is withdrawn or defeated on Second Reading. If not, I hope that it suffers major amendment.

Photo of Dr Ian Twinn Dr Ian Twinn , Edmonton 9:08 pm, 18th November 1985

The tradition of responsible behaviour in local government has broken down in some parts of the country. The Labour party has rejected the normal conventions of conduct in local government. In Edmonton, we look over the boundary at the behaviour of the leader of Haringey council, Bernie Grant, and we see the behaviour in local government that the Labour party condones. The Labour party has hijacked ratepayers' cash for party political aims. It is playing its own party political games with the taxpayers' money. We see the results of that in London and other cities. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) may say, "Bullshit". [Interruption.] My lip reading must be faulty. I am sure he did not say that and I withdraw that suggestion. The hon. Gentleman may have said rubbish or something like that. The truth of the matter is that that is what the Labour party is doing in local government.

I welcome clause 1 of this Bill, which imposes a duty to set a rate by 1 April. We have seen in London the consequences of councils not setting rates within a reasonable time. Not to set the rate in a reasonable time so that money comes in in a steady flow must be a form of madness or the result of the worst kind of cynicism about the public service. This year Southwark council lost an income of £500,000 through not setting the rate. The same thing happened in Lambeth and in other local councils.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg) that there is a great worry in London about the response to be gained from the district auditor. The district auditor seems to have no teeth, and he appeared to be unwilling to act swiftly against the councils of inner London when they were behaving irresponsibly earlier this year in setting a rate. I encourage my right hon. Friend to consider at the Committee stage giving this Bill some teeth to ensure that councils face a penalty for not setting a rate.

Part 2 of the Bill is the meat of the proposals and I am sure that all Conservative Members join in my welcome for the proposal to cut down what had been a terrible growth in advertising, pamphlets, so-called newspapers and brochures which now stream through our letter boxes in London and in other cities. The growth in advertising and political propaganda is out of control. As my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Powley) said, originally innocent powers have been usurped by the Labour party to be used for party political gain.

People who often face a life of political opposition in our inner cities in the Conservative party, the Social Democratic party or the Liberal party see money from their ratepayers being spent against the interests of those ratepayers to consolidate the position of one party which, as in the case of the London borough of Southwark, does not even have majority voting support from the electorate. Such propaganda is a most objectionable development in local government and is the spending of ratepayers' money for narrow party political interests.

Of course, this practice is not limited to local councils. It has spread much wider. It has spread to local voluntary groups, which are set up, often as front organisations, by the Labour party to spend more ratepayers' money to consolidate the position of the Labour party in particular areas. Perhaps I could mention two examples from the London borough of Southwark. I attempted, unsuccessfully, to become an elected member of that authority and have always followed its deliberations with great interest.

One of the organisations in the borough that I have always followed with interest is Southwark Entertainments. I do not know why Southwark council should spend ratepayers' money on running an entertainment business. In early November, it organised a bonfire and fireworks party in Peckham Rye in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden). The entertainment was widely publicised and a leaflet was put around the borough of Southwark encouraging people to go. It was a pleasant, attractive leaflet, printed in Labour party colours. Unfortunately, when it was opened it was found to be full of party political propaganda.

That was paid for by the ratepayers of Southwark. but that was not all. The grand finale of the bonfire night was not some beautiful display of, for example, a fairy castle in fireworks. It was a party political message in fireworks which lit up across Peckham Rye and across Dulwich. It shocked and angered parents who had taken their children to watch what was advertised as an innocent bonfire and fireworks party. Parents were extremely cross that party politics had been brought into something like that. It was the most cynical misuse of the ratepayers' money.

An example of indirect spending by Southwark was the allocation of money to the Southwark youth festival. The festival was sponsored by Southwark and was run by the youth trade union rights campaign. The campaign was so Left-wing that it was chucked out of the Walworth road headquarters of the Labour party by the Leader of the Opposition. That festival of pop groups was very interesting for those who went to it. It was not about pop groups; it was about naked party political propaganda on the rates. That is another example of the abuse of ratepayers' money by the Labour party.

I am pleased to support the measure and to think that it will be on the statute book by next May to stop the sort of misuse of ratepayers' money that we have seen in London.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 9:15 pm, 18th November 1985

I congratulate the hon. Member for Edmonton (Dr. Twinn) on an inadvertently entertaining speech. If he needs lip-reading lessons, I recommend my own teacher of lip-reading at the ILEA-financed City Literary Institute.

It has been a good debate. Many of my hon. Friends missed a peach of a speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot). If any of my hon. Friends were frightened before the start of the debate about the implications of the Bill, they will now, having sat through the speeches of Conservative Members, be scared to death. It is clear that what Conservative Members think is in the Widdicombe report exists only in their fevered imagination. In speech after speech we had the reiteration of the old adage of the Conservative party, "I am not political, I am a Conservative". In their view, the term "political activities" applies only to the Opposition.

This is the first occasion when the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave) has appeared as the Minister for Environment, Countryside and Local Government. He made a memorable winding-up speech in July. He is one of the handful of people who understand the rate support grant system, and his appointment as Minister of State is well-deserved.

The Bill falls into four distinct parts. The least controversial is part IV, which provides for the payment of attendance allowances to members of ILEA and elected members of joint authorities established under the Local Government Act 1985, which received Royal Assent only four months ago. Clause 10 corrects an omission in the Act and we shall, of course support it.

Part III provides that local authorities may transfer mortgages only with the written consent of the mortgagor, and effectively prohibits authorities from entering into mortgage deals where the person or institution buying an authority's mortgage book can at a later date transfer it back to the authority concerned.

We shall examine the proposals in detail in Committee but there are two points that must be made now. The first is that clause 7 has retrospective effect to 24 July this year. Retrospective legislation should never be taken lightly, especially where, by such provisions as these, Parliament makes unlawful acts which were previously lawful. Indeed, it was the very Secretary of State who announced the proposal, the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin), who, as a young and thrusting Back Bencher, warned of the dangers of retrospection in a forensic speech. He knows all about slippery slopes. He said: If it is still legitimate to quote Virgil in this House, Facilis descensus Averni, which can be roughly, but not inaccurately, translated as 'retrospective legislation is a damned slippery slope'. Let the House dig its heels in and say that it will have no more of it".—[Official Report, 2 March 1965; Vol. 707, c. 1264.] In this case—

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

—there is no justification for making the measure retrospective because the mischief with which this provision aims to deal is small.

Our second objection to this Bill is that it is another example of local authorities being treated less favourably than institutions in the private sector occupying a similar position. If local authorities are to be prevented from making transfers without the consent of the householder at the time the transfer is made, so too should building societies and private landlords.

Part I of the Bill of requires that rating authorities should make their rates before 1 April. The Scottish authorities and the precepting authorities in England, like the counties, already have statutory deadlines by which they must set a rate. These have worked well in the past. We did not oppose the establishment of those deadlines and we shall not oppose the principle of this part of the Bill. We shall, of course reserve the right to make detailed comments in Committee on the operation and drafting of the measure.

What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The Government must recognise, as the Audit Commission has powerfully pointed out, that they have an equally powerful responsibility to help the local authority budgetary process by giving local authorities far greater notice of Government decisions that profoundly affect them, including the rate support grant and HIP allocation. The time scale that the Government impose on local authorities undermines effective planning and leads to great inefficiency and waste of resources.

Part II of the Bill is innocuously described as "Local Authority Publicity". We had a rehearsal of this debate in May 1984 on a ten-minute Bill moved by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Mrs. Rumbold). then a humble Back Bencher and now translated to the august position, on which I congratulate her, of Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Environment.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

It may have been because of that debate. The hon. Lady's argument was well dealt with, in a witty and effective speech, by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) who mentioned the precedent set on 6 May 1782, when the House refused to pass Rumbold's Pains and Penalties Bill.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt , Bury North

The hon. Gentleman did not make it to the ministerial team.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

In the debate of 1984 the hon. Lady said: At present, a local authority may provide—by whatever means it considers suitable—information relating to the services that it provides for its ratepayers. I believe that that is absolutely right. She went on: Indeed, it is a fundamental tenet of good local government that councils should be required to explain openly the priorities that they set for local services. The only restraint that I wish to impose on the section is on using money raised through taxes and rates for party political purposes."—[Official Report, 16 May 1984; Vol. 60, c. 370.] If that was all that was at issue in this Bill there would be no argument. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland said earlier, the official evidence of the Labour party in the interim report of the Widdicombe inquiry used almost exactly the same words as the hon. Lady. The party said: The Labour party has always agreed that ratepayers' money should not be used for explicit party political purposes, for example, in support of named candidates or in support of the Labour group or the Conservative group. Information moneys should properly be used to support and explain the policy of the authority as a whole. This Bill goes far wider than anything that the hon. Lady claimed to have in mind, which is why all the local authority associations, including the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, oppose it.

This Bill makes a mockery of the recommendations of the interim report of the Widdicombe inquiry and unless fundamentally amended will undermine the freedom of expression of all local authorities and local councillors who dare to have views different from this Government.

Of the five members of the Widdicombe inquiry, two thought that the majority of members had gone too far. Sir Lawrence Boyle refused to sign the main interim report and Mr. Peter Newsam entered a note of dissent. However, even the Widdicombe majority recognised that local authorities have the right to express dissent. It said: particularly in times of wide political differences, that our political system should accommodate the free expression of opposing views … In the recent context that includes issuing information about abolition and about rate capping. In speech after speech we have heard Conservative Members denying the right of authorities, who are directly affected by the abolition and rate-capping measures, to express a view publicly on their opposition to those measures. The Widdicombe inquiry also rejected the ludicrous notion, contained in the Department of the Environment's evidence, that a distinction could be drawn between material of a political and a non-political nature. The committee explicitly endorsed the view of the then Conservative-controlled Association of County Councils which said: Local authorities are essentially political bodies elected on political mandates, and run by politicians. Political considerations must affect the balance of the individual decisions they reach—and that applies to Conservative councils taking decisions on privatisation as much as Labour authorities reaching conclusions on, say, the right to buy. Therefore, we cannot simply stop local authorities acting politically. The Government have ignored all that and, through clause 2, would prohibit the expression of political views by a terrifyingly wide provision. Clause 2 does not prohibit just the publication of any material that appears to be designed to affect … public support for a political party, but also prohibits any material designed to affect public support for a body, cause or campaign identified with, or likely to be regarded as identified with a political party. It gets worse. Clause 2 establishes a subjective catch-all test which, on the best advice that we have received, seems likely to prohibit authorities from entering the debate in any area of political controversy. By that test, material that can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect, public support for

  1. (a) a political party, or
  2. (b) a body, cause or campaign identified with, or likely to be regarded as identified with, a political party"
is also prohibited. The question that flows from this is, what will authorities be allowed to say? As the Association of County Councils correctly said, local authorities are political organisations. There is scarcely a single decision of any moment made by any authority in the land when the consequences of that decision upon public support for or against the political party in control of the council is not an important factor. Whether it is a matter of whether the opening hours of a public library should be reduced, or whether a bus stop should be moved, to the size of the rate increase, or the council housing programme, councillors ask themselves, "How will this decision affect public support for the political party of which I am a member?" Rightly so, for sensitivity to the electorate lies at the heart of the democratic process.

Photo of Mr Tony Marlow Mr Tony Marlow , Northampton North

Why does not the hon. Gentleman understand that local councillors are entitled to get on local radio and to stand up in council and to get their views into the press? They can put their political views across—they do not need bucketloads of ratepayers' money, which should be spent on services, to do so.

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

I am sick of seeing Lady Porter.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My hon. Friend says that he is sick of seeing Lady Porter's photograph. As a ratepayer in Westminster, he is entitled to be, because Westminster city council has put out hundreds of sheets of propaganda in support of the abolition of the GLC. It is entitled to do so.

We are not talking about oodles of money. The amount of money that local authorities have spent on what is alleged to be party political campaigning is tiny compared with the abuse of the Government and Civil Service machine in support of the partisan interests of this Government.

Widdicombe acknowledged that local authorities were fully justified in campaigning against abolition and ratecapping. Both were bipartisan campaigns. The Conservative group on the GLC opposed abolition and all of the local authority associations oppose the Rates Act 1984. However, in voicing their legitimate opposition to those policies, those authorities were bound to affect public support for the Government, irrespective of whether they wanted to. Opposition to the Transport Bill, which my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) mentioned, is another case in point. According to the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Spencer), what Leicester city council had to say against the Transport Bill is somehow in support of a political party and should therefore be prohibited.

Photo of Mrs Elaine Kellett Mrs Elaine Kellett , Lancaster

It was in Lancashire.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I know what happened in Lancashire—with the support of the Conservative group the council drew attention to the terrifying consequences of the Transport Bill. Are authorities to be denied the right to represent their people, because that seems to be the implication? Recently Birmingham city council campaigned to site the grand prix road race in its area, and it is now campaigning to host the Olympic games. Is it to be denied the opportunity to campaign in that way? The Minister shakes his head, but in doing so the authority uses its wide powers under section 142, which are about to be wholly constricted by the Bill.

The Government have ignored the Widdicombe committee in another respect. It was argued before the committee that section 142 should be restricted solely to giving information about local authorities' specific services, but the committee said explicitly that the present scope of section 142, enabling an authority to provide information on matters relating to local government", was not too wide, and should stand.

The report continued We think that local authorities should be entitled to inform those living in their areas of the consequences of proposed changes in or affecting local government. In the past, it is clear that the abolition of authorities, or boundary changes, have been regarded as legitimate areas of concern for local authorities. The fight put up by the little County of Rutland … (or in Scotland, Fife) is perhaps the best known example. Under its conventions, the Government of the day is entitled to provide information about its proposed legislation and its likely effect: it seems to us only equitable that bodies affected, in this case local authorities, should have the right to provide information in reply. Again, that is ignored. Section 142 is to be restricted solely to information relating to the functions of the authority.

Leaving aside arguments about the scale, tone and presentation of publicity, does the Minister not agree with Widdicombe that the new restriction on section 142 would have prevented local authorities from effectively voicing their opposition to rate capping or abolition, and would prevent them from voicing their opposition to any forthcoming controversial contents of their Green Paper on the reform of the rates? If not, what is the purpose of clauses 2 and 3, and why have they been drawn so widely?

Given the extent of the opposition from local authorities and all local authority associations, it was a surprise to hon. Members present to listen to the Liberal spokesman—throughout the debate there has not been a single SDP Member present. The speech of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) was extraordinary, even for him, in terms of the arguments he advanced in favour of the proposition with which he finally concluded—that he and the alliance would vote in favour of the Bill. It is surprising in two respects.

In the Association of County Councils, the Liberals have opposed the Bill. On 17 October 1985 the leading Liberal county councillor in Lancashire, a national figure, as the hon. Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman) will confirm, Councillor Tony Greaves, who runs the Association of Liberal Councillors, spoke and voted in favour of a resolution by Lancashire county council rejecting the majority report of Widdicombe and supporting the minority report.

I must tell my hon. Friends who missed the gem of a speech from the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey the arguments that he advanced in support of the Bill. He said that legislatively the Bill was a minefield, but that he would vote in favour of it. That was him at his softest. He then said that the Bill was dangerous and threatened democracy, but that he would vote in favour of it. He said that clause 4 was horrendous and arbitrary, but that he would vote in favour of the Bill. He said of clause 2, the centrepiece of the Bill, that it was appalling and extreme, but that he would vote in favour of the Bill. I warn my hon. Friends to beware of Liberal Members bearing gifts.

This Bill has been born not of principle but of malice and neurosis. It is Thatcher's revenge for the fact that, while the Government won the vote on rate capping and the abolition of the GLC and metropolitan counties, they spectacularly lost the arguments. Nothing lays bare the Government's motives more than their double standards and the contrast between the restrictions they are now to impose on the freedom of expression of local authorities compared with the increasing licence they have taken to abuse the Exchequer's purse in support of the narrow, partisan interests of the Conservative party.

A sum of £2·5 million was spent on publicising the right to buy. Was not that publicity designed to "affect public support for a political party"? Just before the last election, the Secretary of State for Defence established a whole unit of civil servants explicitly to campaign against CND and in favour of the Tories' defence policies. Was not that in favour of a political party? A total of £70 million a year is spent on what are euphemistically described as Government information services, which are increasingly subject to direct control by the Prime Minister's press officer, Mr. Bernard Ingham. Is not that massive sum spent in support of a political party?

What are we to make of an announcement in the Financial Times on Saturday—the Secretary of State missed this one—under the heading, "Government plans advertising jobs campaign"? It said: Three agencies have been invited by the Central Office of Information … to present suggested campaigns in three weeks' time … The rush to appoint an agency, according to the department, is to tie in with current related campaigns". No bones are made about the purpose of this expenditure by the British taxpayer. The report baldly states: The Government is to mount an advertising campaign to publicise its actions to counter unemployment". Is not that campaign plainly designed to affect public support for a political party? Is not it designed to persuade the British public that, far from having the worst unemployment record of any of the major industrialised countries, unemployment is going down rather than up? Is not that using taxpayers' money to mount the start of the Conservative's general election platform, and would not such a campaign be specifically prohibited under clause 2 of the Bill if a local authority tried to run anything like it?

The Government established the Widdicombe inquiry with the aim of "strengthening local democracy". What a mockery they have made of that aim and of the Widdicombe report. Democracy is about according rights to those with whom one profoundly disagrees, and rights are not rights unless they can be fully exercised. This Bill strikes at the heart of the most important right of all—the right to express dissent and the right to be heard doing so. It strikes at the heart of local democracy, and it must be opposed.

Photo of Mr William Waldegrave Mr William Waldegrave , Bristol West 9:37 pm, 18th November 1985

On behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I thank the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) for his kind words about my right hon. Friend's promotion. I should like to thank also the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) for his kind words about myself. I am sure that it is the quality of our opposition that has led to our dramatic rise. I also thank the hon. Member for Copeland for his generous words about my right hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin). They will be much appreciated.

After that things went downhill. The Opposition gave a most curious performance. There are two plans to their speeches—A and B. They shift from one to the other, depending on how they are doing. Plan A is to complain about the end of local government as we know it and the silencing of the voice of democracy—of Livingstone, Hatton, the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), and so on. It is argued that the great political campaigns are now at an end and that the voice of local democracy has been stilled. The hon. Member for Copeland, with his well-known enjoyment of the countryside, described it as a silent spring.

When that plan is not going well, the other plan is to say that it is all unnecessary because there is no political campaigning at all. The Opposition then argue that all this is nonsense, that the Bill affects nothing and it is quite unnecessary.

There is something of a contradiction between these two arguments. It is either the end of social civilisation as we know it for the 12th time or whatever, or it does not really affect anything because it is all quite unnecessary.

The hon. Member for Copeland developed that a little. He said that perhaps a little bit of a baby was born from these publicity budgets. Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Newham, North-West put paid to that, because he put the figure of £7,676,000 on his particular baby, and that seems to be quite a considerable baby. The hon. Members for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie) and for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) tried that line, too, and said that it is all de minimis; the councils do not spend very much. Luckily for me, the hon. Member for Newham, North-West, as always, was present—although he has slipped away now—and gave us the figures.

Much the same arguments were deployed about the other principal parts of the Bill, in particular the dates for a rate and mortgage sales. Apparently, on the one hand, they are unnecessary because all local authorities are responsible. On the other hand, they are said to be the most terrible infringement of local authority rights. Labour Members cannot have it both ways. The truth, as many of my hon. Friends said, is that most local authorities will be quite unaffected by the Bill, because they already carry out their affairs in a way that coincides with the traditions of the Bill. But, sadly—and the hon. Members for Copeland and for Blackburn probably already know this better than any other hon. Member because they have had certain discussions recently with their colleagues in Liverpool—sweet reason and consensus politics in some parts of the local authority world simply do not work. If the House needed a reminder of that today—and I do not think it does—the hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields) provided one. For some obscure reason, unknown to me, he was bitten, in terms of the factions of the Left, by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West, and that gives us hope for the future.

My hon. Friends the Members for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson) and for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) expressed the view that we have moved out of a world where traditional conventions work. That is sad, but true. Again, in admirable speeches, my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Merchant), for Edmonton (Dr. Twinn) and for Norwich, South (Mr. Powley) have emphasised that view.

It was possibly the saddest moment in the debate when my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South said that the old concept of public service in local government seems to be dead in so many authorities. He had gone into local authority in pursuit of public service, as had many hon. Members, but when he was saying that a voice from the Opposition said "How naive." If that is naivety, I pay tribute to it, because it is a spirit of service that has given local government its reputation. It is, of course, by trading on that reputation for impartiality that councillors want now to fight their political campaigns. In that cry of "How naive" there was a clear definition of what has gone wrong.

One of the least controversial aspects of the Bill concerns attendance allowances. Nobody seems to mind giving more money to those who serve on the ILEA—undoubtedly they deserve it. Then there is 'date for a rate'. I was glad to have the support of the Opposition Front Bench on this issue, and I have no doubt that its occupants will question me about the details. We believe it to be a sensible step to take. I tell my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg) and the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) that the proposals will strengthen from the district auditor, who will have to establish whether there has been a loss and whether that loss is wilful. In establishing whether the loss has been wilful, it will assist him greatly if the dates have been passed. This is a useful step.

As for mortgages—

Photo of Mr William Waldegrave Mr William Waldegrave , Bristol West

I think that, like the hon. Member for Blackburn, I should not give way. Otherwise, I shall run out of time, but—[interruption.]

Mr. Waldegraive:

Well then, I shall too.

Photo of Mr Christopher Hawkins Mr Christopher Hawkins , High Peak

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. The district auditor's teeth are fewer than many hon. Members realise. I raised with him the problem of Derbyshire county council printing school stationery containing a political slogan to the effect that the county council supports nuclear-free zones. It seems to be far worse to misuse education to subject children to propaganda than to use money for advertising. Will the Bill 'prevent Derbyshire county council from misusing education in that way? If it will not in its present form, will my hon. Friend consider amending it in Committee?

Photo of Mr William Waldegrave Mr William Waldegrave , Bristol West

Specific cases are better examined in Committee when there is time to debate them in detail. I hope that examples of the sort that my hon. Friend is talking about will be outlawed. The district auditor should not be dismissed. He carries out his duties separately and independent of Government. It became clear during the debate that some Labour Members consider him to be rather less toothless than do some of my hon. Friends.

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment

If, under a future Government, an inquiry into local government reorganisation recommended the abolition of the shire counties, is the Minister saying that they would not be able to campaign against that proposal?

Photo of Mr William Waldegrave Mr William Waldegrave , Bristol West

I did not take that to be my hon. Friend's example. I am sure that we shall debate these issues in Committee. If a campaign against a proposal to abolish the shire counties were carried out in a non-party political way, that would be perfectly proper. Labour Members seem to have missed the fact that the Bill is aimed at authorities using ratepayers' money for party political campaigns. There will be plenty of scope within the rules for local government to put across information about its concerns. Many of the campaigns that have come to our notice during the past year or so will be outlawed.

The Government are in agreement with the arguments of the hon. Members for Newham, North-West and for Blackburn on mortgages. When we were considering the abolition Bill, as it then was—the Local Government Bill—in Committee they said that mortgages should be transferable only to residuary bodies, which is fair enough. I do not think that the retrospective point is real. Transfers that had taken place by 23 July, when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made his announcement, will not be affected, and no one will lose any vested right. I am glad that that was welcomed by the hon. Member for Rhondda. I think that there will be some cross-party support for the principle.

The hon. Members for Rhondda and for Blackburn, in effect, say, "Why not extend the provision more widely?" That argument cannot be directed to building societies, because you could not compel someone to join a particular society. I am not sure that we should be too chary about saying that in this area the public sector should behave rather better than the private sector. That is an argument that we often hear advanced by Labour Members.

Despite what has been said by Labour Members, the steps that we are taking in the Bill are based on paragraph 228, and others, of the Widdicombe report. I shall not quote paragraph 228 in its entirety, but part of it reads:

We wish to rule out such practices as …(d) publicity campaigns, the scale of which, given their political context, may have the effect of advancing the interests of a particular party even though the subject matter is not overtly party political. I have no doubt that I shall face pressure from some of my right hon. and hon. Friends to go further than the Bill as it stands. The Government could have brought forward such proposals, but, instead, we have introduced in good faith what we believe to be a sensible plan of action that is based on the intentions set out in the Widdicombe report.

There is a certain irony in the sudden conversion of the hon. Member for Blackburn to the Widdicombe report. When it first became available, the hon. Gentleman did not care for it at all. He issued a press statement in which he claimed that it was weak in its analysis and potentially dangerous in its conclusions. I am glad that he has now come to the conclusion that it is a sensible basis for action. The right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) went a step further. In contributing to the debate he raised its tone by deploying some Shakespearean quotations. When I saw him in his place, with the hon. Member for Newham, North-West sitting behind him, and listened to the eloquence of his opening sentences, I thought: here's grace and a cod-piece; that's a wise man and a fool. As the right hon. Gentleman continued, he seemed to step further back in King Lear: Pat he comes, like the catastrophe of the old comedy". The right hon. Gentleman gave us quite a long account in describing the need to set up a committee. We set up a committee and it produced an 84-page report. The right hon. Gentleman, after quite a prolonged speech, ended with a slightly unfair and rather offensive attack on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I drifted back to Richard II, and thought:

I wasted time, and now time wastes me. The point about the voluntary organisations and the Birmingham grand prix seems to have been missed by the Opposition. That is understandable because they read only the briefs handed to them. The definition of political activity comes from the Companies Act 1985 which goes back to the Companies Act 1967, passed by a Labour Government.

There will be plenty of room under section 142 of the Local Government Act 1972 for local authorities to distribute proper information about their activities. They will be able to publicise the services offered by voluntary organisations which provide a bona fide service in their area. There is no need for simulated panic and horror stories. Birmingham's grand prix campaign will be safe under the Bill.

The Bill is aimed at the party political misuse of local government information. That is the reason for the uproar and caterwauling. If we were not hitting the target that we hoped to hit, not so many Labour Members would have attended today's debate—and only a dozen or so have attended anyway.

Honest Opposition Members—there are plenty of them—know that there is a real problem. For example, Ms. Margaret Pedler runs a Labour propaganda organisation called the local government information unit. She said that what we were doing was a disgrace because the Bill might make it more difficult for her propaganda to be funded from the rates. She said that we were using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. That lets the cat out of the bag. Who is this nut? I think that she is being offensive. She cannot surely be referring to the great and good Mr. Livingstone or the great and good Mr. Hatton. She has let slip that all sensible people on the Labour side know that there is a good nut to crack. One receives so many nods and winks on the matter from moderate Labour people that it is quite embarrassing.

I do not apologise for employing a sledgehammer rather than a feather duster to crack the nut. I am not sure that we would make much progress with Mr. Hatton, for example, with a feather duster. Perhaps the hon. Member for Copeland has been tickling him somewhere. These matters have to be dealt with clearly and decisively by the House. That is exactly what we are doing.

The other way of checking whether we are on the right lines is to discover who is against us. If certain dogs do not bark in the night, I think that we should go back to the drawing board to see whether we can make them bark.

We must study The Guardian. A Mr. Delaney wrote to The Guardian saying that this was disgraceful and frightening. We discovered that Mr. Delaney was one or other of the Mr. Delaneys of Delaney, Fletcher and Delaney, the advertising agency which publicises Ms. Margaret Pedler and her local government information unit. We were on the right track.

We now come to my colleague and friend Mr. Pannick, a fellow of All Souls college. He also wrote to The Guardian. We were on target because it was as surprising to find my colleague Mr. Pannick against us as it would be to find Mr. Leslie Rowse opining that there was something lacking in modern Shakespearian scholarship. He is not generally on our side. We are on the right lines.

I was worried because we had heard not a word from Mr. Livingstone. But, fear not, out came the press notices. He says that the Government will cause him serious problems. I do not think that we need to worry about that.

Those are the people who are against us. It is a pretty good collection.

Who are the people who are with us? Here the story becomes a little more difficult. The hon. Member for Copeland rightly spotted a matter of difficult definition: are the Liberals with us or against us? We know that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) has been a major contributor to this debate. He has been here all day, listening quietly. He will not be recorded in Hansard, but he is here in spirit. He took up his typewriter with its large type face, indicative of high office, wrote to the Prime Minister, and said: I enclose some material which I believe to be simply party political propaganda sent out at ratepayers' expense. Indeed, it is. It is a lot of nonsense. He continued: I believe this to be a highly improper use of public funds and I should be most grateful if you could let me know what action your Government intends to take to prevent further abuses of the Local Government Act. If he had been here, we could have told him. That is what the Bill is all about.

The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey was sort of with us and sort of not with us. He was like Mr. Gaitskell on one famous occasion, to which the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent was a contributor. He did not say yes and he did not say no. That was rather sad. We had hoped that the descendants of Gladstone and of those who drove corruption out of the management of money in national elections would have decided upon which side of this fence they would like to come down.

Several hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Rhondda and for Blackburn, said that the same conventions ought to govern central Government as govern local government. I do not wholly dissent from that point of view. I have here the kind of thing that is allowed at the moment under the convention that governs local government. One can issue a full-page advertisement of the Prime Minister's face, and produce badges which refer to rate capping, and to service-slashing, job-axing, money-grabbing Thatcher. That is Hackney.

I have here also an example of what is allowed under the conventions that govern central Government. My Department thought that it would look into this question of persuasion, and it published a pamphlet about the Rates Act. It is a very fine pamphlet. It is entirely true.

Photo of Mr William Waldegrave Mr William Waldegrave , Bristol West

The document that the hon. Gentleman is holding in his hand was not put though people's letter-boxes. It was placed in the Library of the House of Commons.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), to whom it is always a pleasure to listen and whose conviction and power of oratory has always impressed me, knows a great deal more about history and English literature than many other right hon. and hon. Members. He will therefore, I hope, allow me to make just a small historical discursus. In 1835 a Royal Commission found: In general, the corporate funds are but partially applied to the municipal purposes, such as the preservation of the peace by an efficient police, or in watching or in lighting the town, but they are frequently expended in feasting and paying the salaries of incompetent officers. It was a Conservative Government—that of Peel—with the same sort of radicalism as the present one that dealt with that matter. I am afraid that the House of Lords—as happened in those days but never happens now —made rather a fool of itself and tried to reject the Bill. But that was dealt with. Mr. Peel sent for the Duke of Wellington, and it was all organised. That was the famous turtle soup scandal. I believe that today we are dealing with the modern version of the turtle soup scandal. People have got their noses into the municipal trough. Our objective is to get their noses out. Just as Peel cleaned up the turtle soup and Gladstone the national elections, I have great pride in bringing before the House a Bill which is aimed at stopping this new municipal turtle soup corruption.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 285, Noes 176.

Division No.6][10 pm
AYES
Adley, RobertCope, John
Aitken, JonathanCormack, Patrick
Alexander, RichardCorrie, John
Amess, DavidCouchman, James
Ancram, MichaelCranborne, Viscount
Arnold, TomCritchley, Julian
Ashdown, PaddyCrouch, David
Aspinwall, JackCurrie, Mrs Edwina
Atkins, Robert (South Ribble)Dickens, Geoffrey
Atkinson, David (B'm'th E)Dicks, Terry
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Vall'y)Dorrell, Stephen
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset)Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.
Baldry, TonyDover, Den
Batiste, SpencerDunn, Robert
Beaumont-Dark, AnthonyDykes, Hugh
Beith, A. J.Eggar, Tim
Bellingham, HenryEmery, Sir Peter
Bendall, VivianEvennett, David
Benyon, WilliamEyre, Sir Reginald
Best, KeithFallon, Michael
Bevan, David GilroyFarr, Sir John
Biffen, Rt Hon JohnFavell, Anthony
Biggs-Davison, Sir JohnFinsberg, Sir Geoffrey
Blackburn, JohnFletcher, Alexander
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir PeterFookes, Miss Janet
Body, RichardForman, Nigel
Bonsor, Sir NicholasForsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Boscawen, Hon RobertForth, Eric
Bottomley, PeterFranks, Cecil
Bottomley, Mrs VirginiaFraser, Peter (Angus East)
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)Freeman, Roger
Boyson, Dr RhodesFry, Peter
Braine, Rt Hon Sir BernardGale, Roger
Brandon-Bravo, MartinGalley, Roy
Bright, GrahamGardner, Sir Edward (Fylde)
Brittan, Rt Hon LeonGarel-Jones, Tristan
Brooke, Hon PeterGlyn, Dr Alan
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl 'thpes)Goodhart, Sir Philip
Bruce, MalcolmGow, Ian
Bruinvels, PeterGower, Sir Raymond
Bryan, Sir PaulGrant, Sir Anthony
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A.Greenway, Harry
Buck, Sir AntonyGregory, Conal
Budgen, NickGriffiths, Sir Eldon
Burt, AlistairGriffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)
Butcher, JohnGrist, Ian
Butler, Hon AdamGround, Patrick
Butterfill, JohnHamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)
Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y)Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)Hampson, Dr Keith
Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S)Hancock, Mr. Michael
Carttiss, MichaelHanley, Jeremy
Cartwright, JohnHannam, John
Cash, WilliamHarris, David
Chalker, Mrs LyndaHarvey, Robert
Channon, Rt Hon PaulHaselhurst, Alan
Chapman, SydneyHawkins, C. (High Peak)
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th S'n)Hawkins, Sir Paul (SW N'folk)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)Hawksley, Warren
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)Hayes, J.
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)Hayhoe, Rt Hon Barney
Clegg, Sir WalterHayward, Robert
Cockeram, EricHeathcoat-Amory, David
Colvin, MichaelHeddle, John
Conway, DerekHenderson, Barry
Coombs, SimonHeseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Hickmet, RichardOppenheim, Phillip
Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.Oppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs S.
Hind, KennethOsborn, Sir John
Hirst, MichaelOttaway, Richard
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)Owen, Rt Hon Dr David
Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling)Page, Sir John (Harrow W)
Holt, RichardPage, Richard (Herts SW)
Hordern, Sir PeterPatten, Christopher (Bath)
Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)Pattie, Geoffrey
Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)Pawsey, James
Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldford)Penhaligon, David
Howell, Ralph (N Norfolk)Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Howells, GeraintPollock, Alexander
Hubbard-Miles, PeterPortillo, Michael
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)Powell, William (Corby)
Hunt, David (Wirral)Powley, John
Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)Proctor, K. Harvey
Hunter, AndrewRaffan, Keith
Hurd, Rt Hon DouglasRaison, Rt Hon Timothy
Johnston, Sir RussellRees, Rt Hon Peter (Dover)
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)Renton, Tim
Jones, Robert (W Herts)Rhodes James, Robert
Joseph, Rt Hon Sir KeithRhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Kellett-Bowman, Mrs ElaineRidley, Rt Hon Nicholas
Kennedy, CharlesRidsdale, Sir Julian
King, Roger (B'ham N'field)Rifkind, Malcolm
Knight, Greg (Derby N)Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)
Knowles, MichaelRobinson, Mark (N'port W)
Knox, DavidRoe, Mrs Marion
Lamont, NormanRoss, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Latham, MichaelRossi, Sir Hugh
Lawler, GeoffreyRumbold, Mrs Angela
Lawrence, IvanSackville, Hon Thomas
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Lennox-Boyd, Hon MarkSayeed, Jonathan
Lester, JimShaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Stamf'd)Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Lightbown, DavidShepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Lilley, PeterShersby, Michael
Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham)Silvester, Fred
Lord, MichaelSkeet, T. H. H.
Luce, RichardSmith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Lyell, NicholasSpencer, Derek
McCurley, Mrs AnnaStanbrook, Ivor
Macfarlane, NeilSteel, Rt Hon David
MacGregor, Rt Hon JohnSteen, Anthony
MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute)Stevens, Martin (Fulham)
Maclean, David JohnStewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Maclennan, RobertStokes, John
Madel, DavidTaylor, John (Solihull)
Major, JohnTemple-Morris, Peter
Malins, HumfreyThompson, Donald (Calder V)
Malone, GeraldThompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Maples, JohnThurnham, Peter
Marland, PaulTownend, John (Bridlington)
Marlow, AntonyTownsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Mather, CarolTrippier, David
Maude, Hon FrancisTwinn, Dr Ian
Mawhinney, Dr BrianVaughan, Sir Gerard
Maxwell-Hyslop, RobinWainwright, R.
Mayhew, Sir PatrickWakeham, Rt Hon John
Mellor, DavidWaldegrave, Hon William
Merchant, PiersWalker, Bill (T'side N)
Miscampbell, NormanWallace, James
Moate, RogerWard, John
Monro, Sir HectorWatts, John
Montgomery, Sir FergusWells, Bowen (Hertford)
Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)
Morrison, Hon P. (Chester)Wheeler, John
Moynihan, Hon C.Wiggin, Jerry
Mudd, DavidWood, Timothy
Murphy, ChristopherYeo, Tim
Neale, GerrardYoung, Sir George (Acton)
Neubert, Michael
Newton, TonyTellers for the Ayes:
Nicholls, PatrickMr. Ian Lang and
Norris, StevenMr. Tony Durant
Onslow, Cranley
NOES
Abse, LeoHamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)
Adams, Allen (Paisley N)Hardy, Peter
Anderson, DonaldHarman, Ms Harriet
Archer, Rt Hon PeterHarrison, Rt Hon Walter
Ashley, Rt Hon JackHart, Rt Hon Dame Judith
Ashton, JoeHattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham)Heffer, Eric S.
Bagier, Gordon A. T.Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall)
Barnett, GuyHome Robertson, John
Barron, KevinHughes, Dr. Mark (Durham)
Beckett, Mrs MargaretHughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Benn, TonyHughes, Roy (Newport East)
Bermingham, GeraldHughes, Sean (Knowsley S)
Bidwell, SydneyJanner, Hon Greville
Blair, AnthonyJohn, Brynmor
Boothroyd, Miss BettyJones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Boyes, RolandKilroy-Silk, Robert
Bray, Dr JeremyLamond, James
Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E)Leadbitter, Ted
Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E)Leighton, Ronald
Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith)Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Buchan, NormanLewis, Terence (Worsley)
Caborn, RichardLitherland, Robert
Callaghan, Rt Hon J.Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)Lofthouse, Geoffrey
Campbell, IanLoyden, Edward
Campbell-Savours, DaleMcCartney, Hugh
Canavan, DennisMcDonald, Dr Oonagh
Carter-Jones, LewisMcGuire, Michael
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)McKay, Allen (Penistone)
Clarke, ThomasMcKelvey, William
Clay, RobertMacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor
Clwyd, Mrs AnnMcTaggart, Robert
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.)Madden, Max
Cohen, HarryMarek, Dr John
Coleman, DonaldMarshall, David (Shettleston)
Conlan, BernardMartin, Michael
Cook, Frank (Stockton North)Maxton, John
Cook, Robin F. (Livingston)Maynard, Miss Joan
Corbett, RobinMeacher, Michael
Corbyn, JeremyMichie, William
Craigen, J. M.Mikardo, Ian
Crowther, StanMiller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)
Cunliffe, LawrenceMitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Cunningham, Dr JohnMorris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Dalyell, TamMorris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly)Nellist, David
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l)Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Deakins, EricO'Brien, William
Dewar, DonaldO'Neill, Martin
Dobson, FrankPark, George
Dormand, JackPatchett, Terry
Dubs, AlfredPavitt, Laurie
Duffy, A. E. P.Pendry, Tom
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.Pike, Peter
Eadie, AlexPowell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Eastham, KenRandall, Stuart
Edwards, Bob (W'h'mpt'n SE)Redmond, M.
Ellis, RaymondRees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S)
Evans, John (St. Helens N)Richardson, Ms Jo
Ewing, HarryRoberts, Allan (Bootle)
Fatchett, DerekRoberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
Faulds, AndrewRobertson, George
Field, Frank (Birkenhead)Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)
Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn)Rogers, Allan
Fisher, MarkRooker, J. W.
Flannery, MartinRowlands, Ted
Foot, Rt Hon MichaelSedgemore, Brian
Forrester, JohnSheerman, Barry
Foster, DerekSheldon, Rt Hon R.
Foulkes, GeorgeShore, Rt Hon Peter
Fraser, J. (Norwood)Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)
Garrett, W. E.Short, Mrs R.(W'hampt'n NE)
Godman, Dr NormanSilkin, Rt Hon J.
Golding, JohnSkinner, Dennis
Gould, BryanSoley, Clive
Gourlay, HarrySpearing, Nigel
Hamilton, James (M'well N)Stott, Roger
Strang, GavinWelsh, Michael
Straw, JackWhite, James
Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)Williams, Rt Hon A.
Thomas, Dr R. (Carmarthen)Wilson, Gordon
Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)Winnick, David
Thorne, Stan (Preston)Woodall, Alec
Tinn, JamesYoung, David (Bolton SE)
Torney, Tom
Wardell, Gareth (Gower)Tellers for the Noes:
Wareing, RobertMr. Frank Haynes and
Weetch, KenMr. John McWilliam.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 42 (Committal of Bills).