Orders of the Day — Local Government Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:29 pm on 3rd March 1987.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Peter Bruinvels Mr Peter Bruinvels , Leicester East 8:29 pm, 3rd March 1987

I was interested in what the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) said about rate capping. As I am someone who believes very strongly in rate capping, obviously we would disagree widely on the need for it. But it is an uneviable position for any constituency Member of Parliament to have rates levelled at 80 per cent. as happened in Leicester last year and, as is, I understand, to happen in Ealing in this coming year.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to look at the way in which creative accounting has been used to deflect the wishes of the community. I know that the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) genuinely represents his own constituents, but I can say that my constituents felt let down when one year there could be rate capping imposed and in the next year, to recoup it, it was possible to whack in a tremendous increase of 80 per cent. and now, in local government election year, with the use of creative accounting, deferred payments and general liaison with the banks and other financial institutions, it has brought forward a 4·9 per cent. rate rise. Anyone in the House can understand why that is. In local election year it is obviously a great opportunity to get the most votes out of the electorate.

I would say to any hon. Member that if a local authority wishes to put the rates up to such a high level it should be fair and put that proposal in the manifesto. It is all very well for local authorities to say that they have a mandate to do this or that. However, in my own local authority only 30 per cent. of those who voted Labour pay rates in full. That is a significant fact. That is why, when community charges are introduced at a later date, it will be important to give the electorate a proper say in the running, administration and the levying of rates in their area. I look forward to that with great enthusiasm.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) that we must all stand for what is to be paid in local expenditure. It is necessary to have regular monitoring. That is why this Bill is so important. I do not deny, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State knows, that I am disappointed that the Bill does not embrace propaganda on the rates or, at this time, competitive tendering. He, like me, has been active in the Right wing of the Conservative party and sees it as an important principle that we should get value for money. We should have the opportunity to compete fairly and we should certainly monitor the expenditure, which has been going crazy, like Topsy, in many ways. Local government expenditure has got out of hand. The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) made that very point.

Every local authority wishes to act in a responsible way but proper checks to prevent any abuses by local authorities; any devices brought forward to advance and defer purchase schemes, and payments to get round the present capital expenditure control system, must be particularly important now. Creative accounting and the using of reserves must be stopped. I believe that matters have got out of hand.

We should look at the typical local authority of Leicester and the extravagance taking place there. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is fully aware of the fact that at the moment there is no control over whether a local authority such as mine is twinning with Nicaragua or appointing a twinning officer at more than £13,000 a year. That is paid for by the rates with no consultation or advance notice that it is to be done.

There is no control over the creation of nuclear-free zones. There are more than 170 such zones in the country. That was not part of any mandate. It never appeared in any election address. Local authorities should stand ashamed of such partisan and political propaganda. There were no undertakings to do those things.

In my own area, because the Leicester Tigers, a well-known rugby team, went to South Africa to take part in special sporting competitions, the name of the park the team uses in Leicester, known as the Welford road recreation ground, was changed overnight to Nelson Mandela park. There was no consultation and no one spoke to Nelson Mandela to find out whether he approved. That was vindictive and spiteful. The local authority was trying to kick those good ambassadors for Leicester who were playing the best sport in the land. The team had people such as Dusty Hare and Paul Dodge, well known international players, but because of that visit they are to be kicked, effectively, in the crotch—after the game—and they are to be penalised.

My hon. Friends know that section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972 gives many additional powers to local authorities to levy a rate, but it must not be in a partisan way. We must have accountability of councillors. The GLC, Lambeth councillors and others have been fortunate to have surchages levied on them for what they have done. Some of them cannot even stand for office at the moment. I think that that is correct. If one breaks the law, one must face up to the fact that one could be surcharged and lose one's position as a councillor.

There is also the issue of the misuse of inner area programme funds. In my area the Labour-controlled authority never admits that, for every £1 spent, 75p comes from the Department of the Environment. One sees great big signs saying, "Your local council working for you." That money goes to the council's pet project.

The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay), who is sitting on the Opposition Front Bench, is a fair man. He cannot approve of a partisan approach such as that. I am sure he wants to see, as we all do, finance given to help the entire community and not just one part of it. In my constituency there are more than 26,000 members of the ethnic community and because of that a large amount of the funds goes to the ethnic community. I am becoming almost a threatened species by not being a member of the ethnic community. We want to see a fair distribution of those additional funds to the entire community, not just one part of it. The fact that my Labour opponent may come from the ethnic community has nothing to do with it. It is interesting that the money can be misused in a way that might almost be said to be buying votes. That is unacceptable, and that is why a local government Bill has been brought in and is to be welcomed.

We hear a lot about the housing investment programme. In Leicester I believe that it may be misused to help pay for the pet projects and poodles of the Labour-controlled council. I cannot accept that there is a housing crisis in Leicester. I listened to the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) talk about the hoarding of land. He condemned it, and so do I. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to come to Tithe street, in Leicester, East. He should come and see the areas owned by the council which it has not redeveloped, and ask, what is the purpose of that? I suspect that if the council developed it into a nice area and brought more jobs into the city along with new developments, housing developments and housing associations plans, people might come in, take over the projects and vote Conservative. I have a suspicion that that is why those areas have deliberately been allowed to run down. I am not exaggerating. Those are the facts of life.

That is why clause 7 and schedule 2 are to be welcomed. There will be a land register and it will show those empty areas. It is disgraceful that the council in Leicester can be campaigning for additional funds to build more council houses when there are 947 empty houses at present and 77 of them have been kept empty for more than a year. If that land was on the register and my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of the Environment were given the power to dispose of it, we could have proper buildings and proper jobs and we could stop some of the bellyaching we get from the council, which deliberately keeps those parts of the city run down for political purposes.

I am interested in the education provision of the Bill. There is no doubt in my mind that additional funds are available to help, yet again, the ethnic community, but they should help the entire community. There are music grants available under section 11 of the Race Relations Act 1976 to teach ethnic music. I see nothing wrong with that, but we should have all sorts of music. There should be more music teachers to teach the entire community. Why should ethnic groups have priority? Any additional help under the Bill that can be given to both the ethnic and non-ethnic communities must be welcomed.

We should look at the county council's education policy and see it justify a proper education policy for the entire community. Perhaps there could be more religious education. That could be paid for from the rates. That is more important today than the "go gay" policies we have in Leicester. At least religious education would promote family life, which is important now when normal people are treated as abnormal and people living outside wedlock are being encouraged and those living within wedlock are being treated as exceptional and rather strange. That is a sad fact of life.

It is important that the Bill comes before us today, because housing developments will be encouraged. I am sad that we cannot deal with propaganda on the rates at the moment. However, I can tell my constituents and anyone else who feels let down that more is to come soon. I have every confidence about that. In the meantime, the Widdicombe committee has reported. Anyone who believes that there is political or partisan propaganda on the rates must use the district auditor. When my hon. Friend the Minister replies, I am certain that he will refer to that. If the controls are tougher, and if the district auditor's address is publicised more regularly, we can catch out those councils which are abusing ratepayers' money. Thousands of pounds are spent every year on propaganda. That is a scandal and the councils will be brought to order over that.

When my hon. Friend the Minister of State introduced the Bill, he referred to competitive tendering. I appreciate that we are not to have that at the moment. However, even my local authority in Leicester is operating a restraint on trade. Organisations which have dealt with South Africa or have a nuclear interest — and there are plenty of companies with defence interests in Leicester which obviously have a nuclear dimension—are being denied their rights to take on contracts. The council insists that companies use the direct labour organisation. I do not knock everyone who works in a direct labour organisation, but it would be the jewel in the crown if we could bring in competitive tendering to ensure the best tendering and the cheapest work and so do away with the amazing questionnaires which small businesses in Leicester guarantee that they do not have time to fill in and compromise their positions.

This is a good Bill which will help to bring councils to check. We have nothing to be ashamed of. The Bill will control public expenditure and stop councils and councillors cheating. Hopefully, local authorities will be more responsible. I would never knock all local authorities because some have done their best. However, the council in Leicester must pull up its socks quickly. My hon. Friends will have the powers in this Bill. The Bill is not a retrograde step and it is not regressive. It will ensure that local authority ratepayers have an absolute say. I welcome the Bill and look forward to its becoming law. I also want to see competitive tendering and the outlawing of propaganda on the rates brought in as quickly as possible.