Orders of the Day — Local Government and Housing Bill

– in the House of Commons at 4:11 pm on 14th February 1989.

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Order for Second Reading read.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Before I call on the Secretary of State for the Environment, I may tell the House that a number of right hon. and hon. Members have written asking to take part in the debate, and others may wish to do so. I do not propose to impose a 10-minute limit on speeches today, but I ask right hon. and hon. Members to make brief contributions, so that all those who wish to participate in the debate may do so.

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury 4:21 pm, 14th February 1989

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

The Bill contains a series of reforms, and I will discuss each in the order in which they appear in the Bill.

The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) will probably perform his usual trick and say that this is the 50th local government Bill since 1979. That is a good round number on which to complete the process of local government reform. The Bill completes the new regime for local authorities that we promised at the last general election, and I hope that we can leave it to work for many years—nay, decades—to come.

The first part of the Bill enacts the remaining recommendations of the Widdicombe committee that we have accepted. We have no written constitution. Instead, in central Government, we abide by certain conventions that the Opposition, quite rightly, make sure we observe. Civil servants do not take part in political activity. We have accounting officers who make sure that Ministers keep within financial rules, and the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office make sure that we do not engage in wrong financial practice.

You, Mr. Speaker, ensure that we safeguard the rights of minorities in the House, to be heard and to be represented on Committees. You also make sure that only those entitled to vote in this House do so. For decades, local authorities followed the same principles voluntarily. I very much regret that over the last 10 years, a minority of local authorities—most of them Labour-controlled, but not entirely—have flouted those same conventions, and that it is now necessary to legislate. But it is. We must ensure the same integrity in local government affairs that we ourselves practise, centrally and in this House.

First, we will establish a post of monitoring officer, whom all councils will be required to designate—not unlike the accounting officers in Government Departments. That person will have a duty to report to the council on any proposal or decision that may be illegal, in breach of a code of practice, or likely to result in maladministration or injustice. We gave a similar role to the finance officer in respect of council expenditure under the Local Government Finance Act 1988.

Secondly, we intend clarifying the roles of elected members and officers. There was a time—not that long ago—when no self-respecting senior council officer would dream of taking part in any public political activity. His or her job was as a neutral professional adviser to the council, and that is where their loyalty lay—not to the majority party of the day. No senior civil servant is allowed to take part in public political activities, and no civil servant can be a Member of this House.

Most local authority officers still hold to that principle. However, it is a sad fact that some of them have sunk to providing advice as a senior officer in one authority, while expounding their political views in the council chamber of another authority. To put it the other way around, is it right that politicians should, at the same time, take a job in another council as a subsidy for their political activities? How can a member of the public rely on that officer's impartial advice?

The Bill ends twin tracking in three bands of restricted posts—first, chief officers and their deputies; secondly, other sensitive posts identified by each council on the basis of statutory criteria; thirdly, other staff earning £13,500 per annum or more, who—if they are not in sensitive posts—will be able to apply to an independent national adjudicator for exemption.

Mr. Eric S. Heller:

Is not the right hon. Gentleman being absolutely hypocritical? Over the years, many chief officers have been ardent supporters of the Conservative party—as have some senior civil servants. The Government take the view that to be a Conservative supporter is non-political. Others take the view that if one is political, one stands by one's own party. When I became chairman of a Liverpool city council committee, I was told by the chief officer that I could not do this, this and this. I asked him whether it would be against the law, and was told no. Therefore, I told that chief officer, "We will do this, this and this—and I shall take the consequences." We often get advice from chief officers that is pure Toryism—nothing else.

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

When I first became a Minister, I was told that I could not do this, this and this—and I have always abided by those conventions. Fond though I am of the hon. Gentleman, and much though I admire him, I am extremely glad that he is not a civil servant in my Department, advising me at the same time as he is performing his parliamentary duties.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party

Recently, the chief officer of Westminster city council told that council and its Tory group, "You should not do this, this, and this." He advised them that it would not be wise to sell off the council's cemeteries for 5p a piece, and suggested that to do so might be asset stripping. Despite that advice from Mr. Brooke, the chief officer of Westminster city council, the Tories went ahead and sold off the council's cemeteries for 15p. The people who bought that land resold it for £1·2 million.

In other words, the chief officer was correct to give the advice that he did. It is now suggested that that land could be sold for £5 million. If Westminster city council wants it back, it will cost its ratepayers a great deal of money. Why does the Secretary of State concentrate on attacking Labour councils, and introducing measures in the Bill for that purpose, instead of getting stuck in to Tory Westminster city council and dealing with its activities?

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I am not responsible for the activities of any particular council. If a chief officer wishes to advise his council on what is right and proper and what is not, the Bill facilitates the process that the hon. Gentleman seeks. I cannot think what more he could want.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) in a newspaper article, called the Bill an unacceptable attack on human rights". What nonsense. Does the hon. Gentleman think that it is an attack on human rights that civil servants cannot stand for parliamentary election? How would the Opposition like it if a deputy secretary in my Department were also a Conservative Member of this House? That is an intolerable thought. So we are mirroring, as far as possible, the very rules that apply for the Civil Service.

Photo of Mr Terry Fields Mr Terry Fields , Liverpool Broadgreen

As part of this attack on democracy and the disfranchisement of 70,000 people working in the Civil Service, the right hon. Gentleman has set an arbitrary figure of £13,500 a year as the salary of those who will be disfranchised. How does he reconcile that with the fact that the majority of Conservatives in this place receive more by way of handouts, dividends and so on than by way of their salaries?

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

The hon. Gentleman does not understand the meaning of words. "Disfranchisement" means that one cannot vote. All civil servants and all council employees can vote. The Civil Service is divided into three categories—those who cannot take part in public political activities, those who can stand for council elections and those who are totally free. We are suggesting the same treatment for employees of councils, allowing the maximum number of them—not a total prohibition—who are not in politically sensitive posts to continue political activities.

We are treating council employees better than civil servants in this respect, so the hon. Gentleman's argument is groundless. If Opposition Members press their opposition to these clauses, I do not think they will find it goes down well with their constituents. The people who are most shocked by twin tracking are those who have to pay the bills to meet the salaries of those who do it.

The Bill also provides for a maximum of three staff to be attached to political groups on the council. We are now persuaded that it can be helpful—and indeed desirable—for councillors to have access to a research assistant, as is commonplace in Governments of both parties, who is able to get information, liaise with officers, obtain papers and so on. We shall be placing stringent safeguards on their use to make sure that no conflict occurs.

As I said, this House insists on the essential principle of free and fair political debate. Opposition Members have the right to put their points of view on the Floor of the House and in Committee. There is no such right for minority groups on local authority committees. In some cases, the majority party has taken too much discretion over the appointment and membership of committees. Some have excluded opposition parties altogether from key decision-taking committees. Decisions have been forced through with no public debate.

The Bill will require appointments to committees to be made pro rata to the balance of political parties on the council. It also provides that only elected members, as opposed to co-optees, will be able to vote on executive committees, the single exception being Church or other representatives where they make a major contribution to education. I am sure that the Opposition will agree that we should not be able to co-opt voting members on to our Standing Committees in this House, and the same goes for elected councillors.

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

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why it is acceptable—indeed, legally required in some aspects of local government—to have statutory co-optees who can play a prominent role, but he is taking an entirely different view to other local government activities? Why is an exception being made of magistrates, who will retain their ability to attend, and vote on the decisions and activities of, police committees?

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

If we trace the history of education back through the 1944 Act, we find that it was provided largely by the Church, and many of the assets involved are Church assets. The history of this matter, which can be explored at great length in Committee, leads one to the belief that it is right that those whose assets and help is much involved in public education should be allowed still to play a part in the decision-taking process.

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

The right hon. Gentleman is not explaining the point. If it does not cause problems in education or in respect of police committees, what is the justification for taking an entirely different view in other areas, where external and co-opted expertise can make a valuable contribution to the decisions of local government committees?

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

Nobody is complaining about expertise. That is certainly available. This is about people voting in committees when they have not been elected. The logic of the hon. Gentleman's question suggests that he will be moving amendments to exclude Church representatives and magistrates from voting on council committees. If he seeks to do that, he must argue his case and see how it stands up.

Part II of the Bill strengthens the hand of the Commissioner for Local Administration—the local government ombudsman—by setting specific statutory deadlines by which local authorities must respond to reports and by requiring that any decision not to comply with a local ombudsman's recommendation can be taken only by the full council.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Bennett Mr Nicholas Bennett , Pembroke

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 431 which appears on the Notice Paper today concerning the Quin family, constituents of mine who have been swindled out of £17,000 by Coventry city council, which forced them to sell the lease of their property back to the council and promptly sold it to another company for a profit of over £30,000? Will he include in the Bill powers for local authorities to be forced to take notice of the findings of maladministration by the ombudsman against them?

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

My hon. Friend has every right to seek publicity for any case where he believes injustice has taken place, but I think that he would hesitate with me to make it possible for the reports of an ombudsman, whether local or national, to be, as it were, imposed on the authority. The authority—whether the Government or a council—is politically responsible, and it must take the responsibility and make its decisions. Publicity is the weapon of the local ombudsman, and we shall make sure that he has access to publicity in his findings.

Part III of the Bill gives local authorities a specific economic development power, which they have long sought and have not had before. Local authorities' efforts to boost the economic regeneration of their area are made under a confused ragbag of powers. The new power will give these powers a simpler statutory footing and will oblige authorities to draw up an annual programme of activity in consultation with the local business community.

Part III also clarifies the scope of the discretionary spending power contained in the old section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972. In future, spending under section 137 can take place only if the benefits accrue directly to the area or its inhabitants, and that benefit must be commensurate with the level of expenditure. We will also clarify the rules on where section 137 cannot be used because authorities have other powers. We will therefore change the "free twopenny rate" limit in section 137 moneys to a per capita limit in accordance with the unlamented demise of the domestic rating system.

Part IV of the Bill establishes the promised new framework of control over local authorities' borrowing and capital finance. The present capital control system has few friends. It has not delivered the Government's spending plans and it has led to the wrong distribution of spending between authorities. The new system changes the system from control of capital expenditure to control of the sources of finance. Local government has preferred the control of credit for a long time. That is what we are offering.

Under clauses 44 and 45, we will issue credit approvals to control the amount of credit that an authority can borrow. We shall be setting provisional limits three years ahead. It is right for the Government to control that as part of their management of the national economy, as I think the Opposition acknowledge.

Photo of Mr Martin Redmond Mr Martin Redmond , Don Valley

I am interested to learn that the Government want to control local authorities. Does the Secretary of State agree that the House ought to be in a position to control the Executive? If so, will he seek to remove much of the regulation, and the powers that such regulation will give him, from the Bill?

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I am glad to have the hon. Gentleman's support, as I believe I have the Opposition's support, for the control of local authority borrowing—or capital—but I do not follow the second part of his question. I always thought that the House had the powers to control the spending of the Executive. The present difficulty is that the House seems to want the Executive to spend more rather than less.

Local authorities will be free to decide to supplement their capital spending by spending from usable capital receipts and also revenue from the community charge. Clause 39 defines credit arrangements to include devices by which local authorities have obtained benefits in advance of paying for them—the so-called creative accounting devices.

Local authorities are now generating capital receipts at a rate of £4 billion a year. Receipts from the right to buy are involuntary, but I am glad that authorities have also come to realise the benefit of divesting themselves of surplus non—housing assets. They have more than trebled, from £350 million to £1,100 million, in the space of five years.

Receipts do not necessarily fall where the need to spend is greatest. The more that authorities spend them, the less there is available for needy councils to borrow, because it is the total spend that is currently controlled. Our solution is simple. Clause 49 provides that part of capital receipts should be set aside to reduce authorities' indebtedness. Most local authority assets are financed by borrowing, and that borrowing stands at £45 billion. It is only right that, when the assets are sold, some of the proceeds should go to reduce the borrowing. We are not taking local authorities' receipts; we are simply saying that some of their receipts should be used to repay their debt.

I am aware that not all local authorities have welcomed the provisions for debt redemption. Whether their community charge payers will be of the same view is quite another matter. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I have therefore decided to take action now to deal with two potential abuses, to ensure that nothing untoward happens to the accumulated receipts of local authorities in the period before the discipline and financial accountability of the community charge take effect.

First, we are taking administrative action to secure that capital receipts cannot be used before the start of the new system to pre-fund acquisitions or works which will take place after the end of the next financial year. This is achieved by revisions to the block borrowing approval and the general consent to the use of capital money. Secondly, we propose that the debt redemption rate applicable in the new system to disposals of stocks and shares and similar investments should be at the higher rate which we propose for capital receipts from sales of council housing. That will remove any temptation for housing receipts to be converted into non-housing receipts by being applied to the purchase of equities.

These measures will take immediate effect. To have consulted in advance would have precipitated a flood of money into prefunding arrangements, as happened in 1985 when we announced changes in the prescribed proportions. Details are being sent today to all authorities, and copies have been placed in the Library of the House. I do not believe that either measure will have any adverse effects on the legitimate capital programmes of local authorities, but the block borrowing approval and the general consent will apply only for the remainder of this financial year and my right hon. Friend and I will be consulting on what should replace them. During the consultation period, as at any other time, local authorities will be able to apply for specific approvals or consents if any unintended consequences of the measures do arise.

Photo of Mr Ron Leighton Mr Ron Leighton , Newham North East

The Secretary of State has been very generous in giving way, which is appreciated.

Why should not these matters be left to be decided locally? If the Secretary of State insists that local authorities pay off debt, they will save some interest. It is more than possible, however, that investing money from the sale of council houses would earn them more in profit than the interest that they would have saved by redeeming debt. For example, they could put the money into building new housing to save bed-and-breakfast costs, which would represent a better business deal.

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

The hon. Gentleman knows full well that Governments, inluding the Government of which he was a member, have always considered it necessary to control local authorities' total capital spending. He may argue that we have controlled it too tightly, but I could argue that in the 1970s the Labour Government controlled it a good deal more tightly. That is not to say, however, that the mechanisms of control should not be provided, and that is what the Bill does.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

Has the Secretary of State forgotten that in 1980 the same Tory party that now governs the country told local authorities that they would be able to spend their capital receipts on housing? Has he also forgotten that the London Boroughs Association and the Association of District Councils—both Conservative-controlled—are opposed to his proposals?

Will the right hon. Gentleman also tell us whether money will be taken from a house subject to a compulsory purchase order and put into debt repayment?

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

In 1980, the hon. Gentleman and I probably under-estimated the enormous success of the right to buy, and did not anticipate that local authorities would now be receiving about £4 billion a year in capital. His party's Government could not turn a blind eye to the economic effects of sums of that size, any more than this Government can.

Photo of Mr Robert Jones Mr Robert Jones , Hertfordshire West

My right hon. Friend said earlier that he wished to encourage local authorities to repay their debt, and I certainly support that. But will he clarify the position of local authorities that use their capital receipts to finance internal lending, and therefore to avoid additional debt? Will they be able to continue doing that?

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

They can do as they will. If they avoid internal lending, it is, in many respects, equivalent to repaying debt. What we will control is the amount of new borrowing. Authorities with high receipts and high spending power from those receipts will clearly be less in need of new borrowing than others.

My officials will continue to monitor local authority expenditure carefully during the months ahead, and I shall not hesitate to take further action if necessary.

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

May I ask a question relating to the reply that the Secretary of State gave the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones)? Is he saying that, in the event of internal transfer of the use of capital receipts by local authorities, such a transaction will be excluded from the Bill?

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

If a local authority sells an asset, it will have to use the prescribed proportion to repay the debt—either 50 per cent. or 75 per cent. It will be able to use the balance to invest in spheres other than that from which it came. There is no control over the vires.

Part V of the Bill introduces a statutory framework for local authority-controlled or influenced companies. The Widdicombe committee recommended that local authority companies should be set up only where there was specific enabling legislation, but we do not wish to do anything to prevent beneficial local authority involvement in companies.

Photo of Mr Peter Thurnham Mr Peter Thurnham , Bolton North East

Will my right hon. Friend put a proper Conservative stamp on this part of the Bill by ensuring that, when local authorities compulsorily purchase a property. they pay the full market value? Perhaps he will bear in mind the firm promise given to the Bolton, Bury and district landlords association that the present injustice in the legislation would be put right in the Bill, so that landlords would be given every incentive to provide homes for rent?

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

An amendment will be moved in Committee to deal with those points. I am sorry that the provision is not already in the Bill: it simply was not drafted in time.

Part VI provides for the reform of local authority housing finance. We have three objectives: to improve the financial discipline of councils and their accountability to their tenants, to ensure that the money provided by the national taxpayer goes where it is really needed and to encourage council rents, over time, to come to bear more resemblance to the real world. Councils will not, with some exceptions, be able to transfer money between the housing revenue account and the rest of their funds, and vice versa. This is called ring fencing.

Broadly speaking, only landlord expenditure will be charged to the housing revenue account. Expenditure on facilities shared with the wider community, or on such social services as wardens for sheltered housing, will either be outside the ring fence or receive a contribution across it. As a result, both tenants and charge payers will get a clear picture of the services they receive and the charges they pay for them.

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I have given way to every hon. Gentleman who sought to intervene. However, if I continue to do so, I shall speak rather longer that I had intended.

Photo of Mr Jeff Rooker Mr Jeff Rooker , Birmingham, Perry Barr

The Secretary of State's generosity is extremely helpful to hon. Members on both sides of the House. He mentioned ring fencing. Who will bear the cost of maintaining housing waiting lists which are not solely for the purpose of the tenants but involve the wider community, such as owner-occupiers who may find themselves homeless? It would be unfair if the cost of maintaining the housing waiting list were taken solely from the housing revenue account.

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

A number of costs—and that may well be one of them—should be outside the ring fence and borne by the wider community, particularly when they have a wider social implication beyond the management of the housing stock. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the precise dividing line should be the subject of consultation and discussion in Committee so that we fix it in the right place.

Photo of Mr Gerry Steinberg Mr Gerry Steinberg , City of Durham

I do not often intervene in the speeches of the Secretary of State, but my understanding of the ring fence is that the housing revenue account would not be able to subsidise the general rate fund account and the general rate fund account would not be able to subsidise the housing revenue account. However, if the housing revenue account is in surplus, will that surplus be allowed to be added to the general rate fund?

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I am coming to that. If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall explain it precisely.

Clause 68 provides for the new housing revenue account subsidy which replaces three subsidies: the present housing subsidy, the subsidy paid by the Department of Social Security towards rent rebates and the support given towards housing expenditure through the rate support grant. We will be consulting the local authority associations, but the main elements of the new system will be an assessment of what each authority needs to spend on management, repairs and debt service; and an assumption, as at present, about the amount of each authority's rent income.

The subsidy, from the taxpayers, will be paid to meet the difference between the assessed need to spend and the notional rental income. Efficient authorities will be able to balance the ring-fenced account and provide a good standard of service at a reasonable rent. But inefficiency, rent arrears and waste will not be subsidised by the national taxpayer or the community charge payer. In answer to the hon. Member for the City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg), where the rent income exceeds the costs, the subsidy will be reduced by a corresponding amount. Therefore, there will be no gainers and no losers. Where there is a loss on the housing revenue account, the taxpayers will make up the difference; where there is a surplus, the taxpayers will take the credit. It is perfectly fair and balanced.

Like its predecessors, the new subsidy must contain a mechanism for affecting rents. Therefore, I propose to say a few words about rents, if only to stop the Opposition claiming that we are about to double or treble council house rents. If people believed that, the result would be a doubling or trebling of right-to-buy sales. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to avoid anything as democratic as that. However, it is not true.

Photo of Mr Tony Marlow Mr Tony Marlow , Northampton North

My right hon. Friend is well aware of the fact that some councils have a very bad reputation for collecting rents. If they do not collect those rents, they have to get the money from somewhere. My right hon. Friend says that it will not come from the general taxpayer. I presume that it will not come from the general community charge payer, so is it going to come from the other rent payers within that local authority area?

Photo of Mr John Fraser Mr John Fraser , Norwood

People complain that some local authorities have very large rent arrears. Does the Secretary of State appreciate that some local authorities have huge rent arrears which are probably irrecoverable? One of the difficulties of rate capping and penalties is that, if local authorities write off irrecoverable rent arrears, as any commercial business would do, that counts as expenditure. If the Secretary of State presses ahead with his reforms, would it not be right to have an amnesty for irrecoverable rent arrears and to start with a clean slate?

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

The hon. Gentleman's point hardly arises from the Bill, but some Labour authorities in very difficult parts of London have remarkably good records in avoiding rent arrears, while others have equally bad records. It is a question of management and councils could make great improvements up to the level of the best. The way in which the power in the Bill is designed gives them an incentive to do so. As for the allowances made for irretrievable rent arrears in the process of rate limitation, the hon. Gentleman should await the final details of our decision on that.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Bennett Mr Nicholas Bennett , Pembroke

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the councillors' code of conduct should include recommendations about councillors who owe very large sums in rent and rates arrears? The vice-chairman of the Lambeth borough housing committee—the hon. Member for Norwood's own borough—owes more than £2,000 in rent and rate arrears, having collected £28,000 in council allowance.

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

Such things are most regrettable, but I have to remind my hon. Friend that hon. Members have owed similar amounts of money to the Refreshment Department.

The present pattern of council house rents has no logical justification. In the first place, much council stock was built many years ago, when costs were low. Under present practice, councils carry their properties on their books only at the cost of servicing their historic debts. Those whose rents cover only historic debt charges plus maintenance are keeping rents unrealistically low. Rents also differ between councils according to their political prejudices, with differing subsidies paid from the rates. Rents ought to have some regard to the size and quality of a house or flat, to the local environment and so on. Some authorities already allow for that in setting rents between dwellings, but others pay far too little attention to it.

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman when I have finished this point.

The results of those muddled arrangements are no longer acceptable. People cannot make sensible judgments about where to live, or in what tenure sector. Where the resultant rents are low, they have been yielding insufficient resources to provide for repairs, replacement and improvement.

The Bill will take the anomalies out of the present arrangements. For example, since we published our proposals last summer, we have consistently said that in setting council rents more account should be taken of what a property is worth.

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

We are not talking about sudden massive rent increases; we are talking about rents which progressively reflect more closely the relative worth of different council houses, without hidden subsidies from the rates or from a system of accounting which bears no relationship to the real world. My proposals would mean that, over time, there would be a gradual elimination of the wide variation in rents between neighbouring authorities, which has more to do with history or political opportunism than with the efficient provision of a housing service. Rents will begin to move towards a reflection of the varying costs of housing—in terms of size and quality, and of amenity.

Those authorities which have already followed sensible rent policies will not be greatly affected by these arrangements. The result will be wider choice, fairer competition and a better, more accountable service to council tenants.

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I said that I would give way to the hon. Gentleman.

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

I thought that the Secretary of State was going to plunge on to the end of his speech. May I bring him back to the point that people have lived on certain estates for so many years that they have covered the historic costs of those estates? Will they now be able to live there free, since they have already paid for the places in which they live? The Secretary of State said that there will be a move to market rents over a period of time. What period of time is he talking about?

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

First, I hope that the hon. Gentleman has advised such people that they should have exercised the right to buy and that they can still do so, thereby avoiding the trap of paying rent for a lifetime and ending up owning nothing.

Secondly—what was the hon. Gentleman's second point?

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

How long does the Secretary of State envisage it will be before we move towards market rents?

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I never said that we were moving towards market rents. I said that we were moving towards a closer relationship with a property's value. That is a very different matter, as I made quite clear. If the hon. Gentleman had listened instead of jumping up and down, he would have heard that I carefully avoided any reference to market rents.

The last major reform in the Bill is the reform of the system of help that is provided for private owners and tenants in poor-condition property. This occurs in parts VII and VIII, together with the clauses in part IX and schedule 8.

I am delighted that we have increased home ownership to more than two thirds of all households. We now need to concentrate our efforts and the sizeable sums involved on owners who cannot afford to put their properties right. It is a bad use of scarce resources to assist people who can improve their houses without assistance. Resources should be targeted on the properties that are unfit and on the people who cannot afford the cost of essential work.

The Bill provides for a new basic standard of fitness. If a property falls below that standard on any single item, it will be considered unfit and a local authority have have a duty to act on it either by renovation or clearance. We intend to amend the Bill so that, where clearance is the reasonable course, market value compensation will be available to those displaced. Where renovation is preferred, local authorities will be required to see that the property is brought up to standard, often with grant aid but sometimes without it, if the owner or tenant can afford to do so.

The Bill provides for help with a range of other types of work designed to prevent a slide into serious disrepair or to make conditions more comfortable for the occupant. That help will be discretionary, and grant will again be subject to a test of the owner's resources.

This will enable us to give more generous help to those least able to afford the costs of necessary work—not just people on income support or housing benefit, but those on higher incomes too. Local authorities will also be empowered to provide and subsidise agency services that assist elderly and lower income households.

Photo of Mr John Hannam Mr John Hannam , Exeter

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he has reversed the proposition in the 1987 consultation document, which was that owners of properties being adapted for disabled people should not be subject to a resource test? He now proposes that they should. Will he reconsider the matter? I hope that he will accept that adapting houses for disabled people does not necessarily increase their value, as ordinary adaptations might. If the owners of such properties were subjected to a means test, that would ran counter to the general care-in-the-community and independent living proposals and adversely affect disabled people.

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I should not like to misinform my hon. Friend, and I would prefer to ask my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government to answer that point properly in his wind-up speech. I should hate to give the wrong answer.

We intend to introduce amendments at an early stage to enable authorities to provide three other important variants on the renovation grants provided in part VIII. They will provide for mandatory and discretionary grants to assist people who are disabled with adaptations to their homes; an entirely new minor works grant that will enable local authorities to fund insulation work and other minor works of repair and improvement that might enable an elderly person to remain in his or her home; and support for owners of houses in multiple occupation and the common parts of mansion blocks.

A more concerted effort is needed to improve housing where whole areas are run down. Part VII of the Bill rationalises the existing machinery for promoting area improvements. We shall introduce, again on amendment, measures to enable authorities to repair and improve whole groups or terraces of houses, based on the enveloping and block repair schemes that have had such a beneficial effect in many areas.

The rest of the Bill contains miscellaneous provisions—none of great significance. That also goes for clause 124, which is the enabling power for my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts to authorise library authorities to charge for certain facilities, while protecting the free lending of books. We do not intend to let local authorities extend the use of charges to other than a few minor services, so Opposition Members can relax.

Photo of Mr Tony Marlow Mr Tony Marlow , Northampton North

My right hon. Friend is aware of a significant problem in local government. He also said that this was the last Bill that he would bring forward. He will be aware that the RSPCA has highlighted the problem of stray dogs and the increasing problems of filth and disease that they cause in our environment. Will my right hon. Friend give the House an undertaking that he will bring forward measures—if not in the Bill, by another means—to enable local authorities to tackle this seething pestilence now affecting our urban areas in particular?

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I did not say that this was the last Bill ever. I said that it completes the reforms that we set out at the beginning of this Parliament. I note what my hon. Friend says about the menace of stray and dirty dogs and I share his extreme concern. However, I do not think that the matter can be included in the Bill, nor am I clear what legislative measure is required. The question is what to do about the menace—there is no difference between us as to its existence.

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I said that I had given way for the last time. I must continue.

The Bill completes the framework for local government into the 1990s and beyond. Accountability will be enhanced, efficiency improved and the available public sector resources targeted where they can be of greatest benefit. Already, there are encouraging signs that local authorities are responding to the new competitive era, tackling restrictive practices and bringing their services into line with what their customers and electors want. The Bill will give further encouragement to the progressive elements in local government that are reforming and regenerating it from within. I commend it to the House.

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment 5:07 pm, 14th February 1989

At least I can begin by agreeing with the Secretary of State on one point—that this is the 50th local government Bill in a decade of Conservative Government. That in itself is an admission of the Government's failure to get their local government policies right. Presumably, the Bill comes to the House on the principle, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

In presenting those 50 Bills, Conservative Secretaries of State have presented at least 50 different views—not only to Parliament but to the people of this country—on how to tackle some of the most deep-seated problems in our urban communities and rural areas. The fact that, after a decade of Conservative Government, we still have those problems shows the slow learning abilities of successive Conservative Ministers. The Bill has all the hallmarks of its successors, or rather predecessors—[Interruption.]—and its successors too, no doubt. It contains the flawed, partial and dogmatic judgments of the Secretary of State. The Government have reached their half century of local government Bills without any sense of celebration in local government—in fact, quite the reverse. These measures are the latest in a major series of attacks on the freedom, the flexibility and the democratic accountability of local government.

The Bill is a ragbag of bureaucratic, nitpicking, central controls, the principle theme of which is, yet again, to give the Secretary of State further powers to impose his flawed judgments on local communities and their elected councils. The Bill incorporates a series of disgraceful attacks on specific groups in the community—on council tenants, whom it proposes to tax, on first-time home buyers and on users of community services. The proposals are intended to force up rents and end schemes for assistance to first-time home buyers at a time when they are at their most vulnerable. The Bill gives the Secretary of State wide-ranging powers, despite what he has said today, to impose charges for local authority services. It even contains an attack on the democratic rights of thousands of local government staff. Council house tenants will be forced to subsidise the poll tax and housing benefit. That is the implication of the ring-fencing of housing revenue accounts. The Government intend to force the less well-off in society to subsidise the least well-off, and to subsidise the very well-off, too.

The height of a housing and homelessness crisis is not the time to announce restrictions on the availability of home improvement grants. Many families hoping or planning to modernise and improve their homes will have their hopes crushed by these proposals. The promises and assurances of four successive Secretaries of State about the freedom of councils to use capital receipts from the sales of their own assets are reneged on by these proposals. The enforced repayment of councils' borrowing will mean a major loss of capital investment opportunities to provide housing, economic development, and recreational and leisure facilities.

There are further proposals to restrict the freedom of councils to promote local investment and economic development. The skills and ingenuity of the City of London are to be denied to local government, although they are freely used for the rationalisation of industry and commerce with consequent job losses. They are allowed in that application but not to help local authorities to be more effective in tackling local problems.

There is even a proposal in this legislation to allow the Secretary of State to create a political vetting office in Whitehall in respect of the activities of local government officers. The message to local electors in county council elections is: "Don't vote for a Conservative party intent on undermining and destroying local democracy and creating further financial burdens for those people who can least afford them."

Photo of Mr David Nicholson Mr David Nicholson , Taunton

Would the hon. Gentleman describe the Widdicombe report, which the Bill principally implements, as undermining local democracy?

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

I am coming to that very point, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will listen carefully.

The Secretary of State began by trying to sell the Bill as a solution to, and indeed an attack on, so-called twin-tracking and other alleged abuses at town halls, and as an effort to make local government more accountable to local people, but in most of its provisions the Bill does exactly the opposite. It increases Government control and gives the Secretary of State wide powers to use regulations not in the Bill, rather than primary legislation, to make local government toe central Government lines regardless of local people's preferences. Those are the principles running through the Bill.

The Secretary of State says that the legislation will stop what he and others have described as "jobs for the boys". Let us examine what the Widdicombe inquiry, which the Opposition welcomed when it was established, actually had to say about these matters. That is the only hard evidence on which to base any conclusion. The Widdicombe committee said: Local authority employees therefore are not significantly over-represented among councillors. In fact, it is an attack on the civil liberties of thousands of council employees to support the proposals in this Bill. Not only will they be banned from serving as councillors on any local authority, but they will be banned from involvement in a range of political activities to be decided by the Secretary of State by regulation.

It is not just a matter of saying that people cannot stand for office. They may also be prevented from holding office in political parties, commenting publicly on matters of party political controversy, canvassing in local elections, and other activities. Moreover. the politically restricted posts will not stop at chief executives, chief officers and their deputies, for which there is a case—anyone earning £13,500 or more per year will be caught by the proposals.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party

Does my hon. Friend agree that double standards are being operated by the Tory Government and their supporters, who will undoubtedly file into the Lobby tonight to support this Bill although more than 150 Tory Back Benchers have moonlighting jobs as well as being Members of Parliament earning £24,000 per year? The right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), with four extra jobs, comes readily to mind.

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

Though not regularly to the House.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party

It is a scandal that people who are making money on the side are telling those in local government that they cannot democratically serve the electors in their area because they have a job with another local authority? If the Government want that to apply to people in local government, why do they not apply it to their own Back Benchers?

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is right. The Bill is replete with proposals which show the two-faced nature of the Government in these matters. The Government will say that people can apply to be exempted from these restrictions and the Bill says that the Secretary of State may appoint a person to consider such applications and appeals, but it is not mandatory for him to do so. As drafted, the Bill will give one person—the Secretary of State—power to remove the civil liberties and democratic rights of a wide range of local government workers. It diminishes rather than enhances local democracy.

Photo of John Maples John Maples , Lewisham West

The hon. Member is being somewhat disingenuous. What happens is not that someone who is a local government officer decides to get elected to a council somewhere else and the Bill stops him—what happens is that people are elected to one council and then given jobs by another council to enable them to conduct their politics for free.

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

That is not what the evidence in the Widdicombe report showed. It is obvious, I hope, that people employed in local government will bring their experience to bear on matters of local government policy in their work as councillors, but that is equally true for other people who are allowed to be councillors. Farmers bring their experience and interests to bear, as do builders, industrialists, architects, lawyers and estate agents, to name just some of the people with working backgrounds which might be thought, like local government itself, to raise conflicts of interest.

In the Labour party's evidence to Widdicombe, we recognised that there was a level at which inescapable conflicts would arise. We accepted that that was so, and we said that we thought it inadvisable for people at the level of chief officer and above to be councillors in neighbouring authorities. The proposals in the Bill go way beyond that and way beyond the conclusions that Widdicombe reached.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government)

I will put a very simple case. If the hon. Gentleman, like me, had children at school in the state sector and wanted to ask advice from a local government officer about the education of his children, would he be entirely happy if that local government officer was a well-known, Right-wing, Conservative member of another local council whose views on education were deeply offensive to the hon. Gentleman? Surely any ratepayer has the right to believe that when he consults a local government officer he consults an independent person arid not somebody actively involved in politics.

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

I have had the experience that the Minister described, but it was on the other side of the political spectrum. I did not object to the fact that I was advised about education by someone who was a prominent member of another political party. Why should I? We are supposed to be living in a. plural, democratic society.

The Widdicombe report was published in June 1986. Paragraph 6.29 on page 1 1 1 says: Local authority employees therefore are not significantly over-represented among councillors. Paragraph 6.33 says: We believe that senior officers should not be politically active, and as a consequence should not be councillors. Accordingly we shall be recommending that senior officers should be statutorily disqualified from being councillors". The proposals, however, do not apply to senior officers. A local government employee who is earning as little as 13,500 cannot be described these days as a senior officer. The proposals apply to the middle and junior ranks of local government administration. Ministers know that very well indeed.

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

As my hon. Friend was asked for an example by the Minister, I will remind him of one not a million miles from the House. When the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) was a senior officer of the Greater London council, he was also the chair of a committee of his own council. He was also a Member of Parliament for a time as well as a senior officer of the Greater London council. The Labour party did not make a fuss about that and the Labour Government certainly did not consider introducing legislation to prevent it.

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

My hon. Friend is right.

The Government's response, to the Widdicombe report was published in July 1988. In paragraph 5.20 of their response the Government said: The Government share, however, the almost universal doubts expressed about the Committee's proposal that the relevant group should be defined as 'Principal Officer' and above. This level is generally criticised as being too low for a blanket ban on political activity. It would affect some 70,000 staff many of whom, especially those in technical posts, may have little or no contact with members. That was the Government's response to the Widdicombe report less than a year ago. They said that such a blanket ban was unacceptable, yet they have written exactly that ban into the Bill. What has changed since the Widdicombe committee investigated these matters and reported? In line with that, there were many more critical comments in the Government's response to the Widdicombe report.

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

No, not for the moment.

I will give a practical example to illustrate what will happen to people. Councillor Simon Oelman is a 28-year-old councillor in Greenwich. He has been a councillor for about three years and he is the vice-chairman of the health and environmental services committee. He is an estates officer with Southwark borough council and earns just over £12,000 a year. He is in the £12,000 to £14,000 per year group. His pay rises by approximately four annual increments, so he is not yet paid more than the lower limit in the Bill—but in a couple of years he will be. If he were doing the same job outside London, his pay would come nowhere near that ceiling. That is also nonsense. The Bill will apply differently to officers doing the same work in different authorities, depending on location.

Councillor Oelman is allowed by Southwark 12 days' paid leave per year for council duties. Nine months ago he was a Civil Service executive officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food where he was allowed 18 days paid leave and 18 days unpaid leave for his council duties, so he was given better treatment as a Government employee than as a local government employee.

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

No, not at the moment.

What kind of justice is that? What kind of rationale can possibly explain that kind of nonsense? The Secretary of State says that the Bill is necessary. If it is necessary for councillors and local government officials, why was it not necessary when Councillor Oelman worked in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food?

Photo of Mr Richard Holt Mr Richard Holt , Langbaurgh

I take the hon. Gentleman's argument. Does he therefore disagree with Middlesbrough borough council, whose personnel officer was elected a county councillor and immediately given complete sabbatical leave indefinitely?

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

On balance, on most occasions I would far sooner agree with the Labour-controlled Middlesbrough council than with the hon. Gentleman.

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

The Secretary of State's proposals are nonsensical, discriminatory and perverse in their application. The Government are aiming at the wrong target. They should be introducing legislation to encourage more people to offer themselves as candidates for local government service. They should not be discouraging them, as these proposals do.

Hon. Members:

Give way.

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


Part III deals with economic development. The Bill introduces a specific power to prevent local government from becoming involved in some of the economic development work that it now does in a bid to boost jobs locally, especially in the inner cites and urban areas. The powers outlined in clause 25 seem reasonable at first sight, but again the detail will be left to regulations imposed by the Secretary of State so Parliament will have little, if any, proper time in which to debate and scrutinise the proposals. The Bill treats economic development and local authority companies as totally separate issues, despite the efforts of local authority associations of all political convictions to convince the Government otherwise. Desperately needed local jobs often depend on both, and a serious of unanswered questions remain about those aspects of the Bill—as they do about the Secretary of State's proposals regarding capital receipts.

Local authorities are likely to have less than six months to plan for the radical new system to control their capital finance that part IV of the Bill foreshadows. Under the current control system, local authorities are free to spend all their capital receipts, over time, to finance capital expenditure on new building repairs. The only restriction is on the pace at which their capital receipts are spent. Under the new system, however, councils will be forced to use their capital receipts—75 per cent. of housing capital receipts and 50 per cent. of other receipts—to repay loans.

That means that the Government have reneged on the promise given by a previous Secretary of State, that receipts would be available in full, over time, to finance additional capital expenditure. He said: The receipts are and will remain the property of local authorities. They can spend them in future years"— [Official Report, 19 December 1984; Vol. 70, c. 308.] That is what Lord Patrick Jenkin said in December 1984 to the House. That was the commitment that he gave and the promise that he made to local authorities when the controls were introduced. That promise about accumulated receipts was recognised in the Government's 1986 Green Paper "Paying for Local Government". Paragraph 6.40 says: Local authorities have been given the assurance that this amount will be available in full over time to justify additional capital expenditure. That is the kind of promise and commitment that has been given to this House and then ratted on time and again by Conservative Secretaries of State for the Environment.

We even have the bizarre proposal in clause 5 requiring local authorities to appoint a "monitoring officer"-what the Secretary of State, in his press release, called a whistleblower. The press release said: The Bill will stop councils appointing political henchmen to key officer posts, whose independence is vital. It also enables Chief Executives to blow the whistle on suspect decisions. So there is to be a kind of statutory sneak—no doubt a hangover from the Secretary of State's experiences as a fag at Eton.

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) was my fag at Eton.

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

It is interesting to contemplate the business before the House this week and the direction in which the Secretary of State and his right hon. Friends are facing: they are facing in all directions at once. In the Official Secrets Bill it is made abundantly clear that there is no public interest duty—none at all—and no room for any whistleblowers in the Civil Service. The Government do not feel the need even to let people deploy, as a defence, the fact that they believe that something criminal or against the national interest was happening. In the case of the Official Secrets Bill, that is ruled out as a defence for civil servants. Yet in local government, where committees meet in public, where the membership of committees is published, where the press are admitted, and where there is already far more openness, it is felt necessary to appoint someone with a statutory duty to blow the whistle.

In the very same week in which all this is going on, the chief executive of Westminster city council has just been paid £1 million for not blowing the whistle. How does the Secretary of State explain all this? How can he explain to his hon. Friends, whom he will invite to go through the Lobby with him tonight, that there should be a statutorily appointed person to blow the whistle when he is taking no action on the Westminster city council debacle? Clearly, the Secretary of State is facing every way at once. It is a classic example of the Government's naked hypocrisy that in the very week in which they are legislating these proposals for local government officers they are taking an entirely different view in respect of their own people, civil servants and Tory councillors in Westminster.

Photo of Mr Robert Adley Mr Robert Adley , Christchurch

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for not being here at the beginning of his speech. I was on a Select Committee.

As a Westminster ratepayer, I rather share his view about the recent activities there. I hope that he can find it in his heart to agree with me that one good thing about the Bill is that it should enable us, for the first time, to set up a register of councillors' interests. There is a great deal of concern about planning activities and, in particular, about the interests of councillors either as consultants or as professional advisers to planners. Does the hon. Gentleman share with me the hope that through this legislation we can beef up the existing safeguards?

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

I certainly share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the goings-on in the neighbourhood of his constituency in Dorset—if those are the events to which he is referring—among developers, planners and Conservative councillors. But they already have a duty under the law to register their interests. In any case, it is only proper that they should register any interest as well as declaring it when involved in any decision.

As the Secretary of State is so concerned about the public interest in this matter, may I ask him whose interests are being served by the Conservative Lady Porter, the leader of Westminster city council, paying El million to keep the departing chief executive quiet? Whose interests are being served in that case? I put it to the Secretary of State that the interests of the Tory party are being served at the expense of the ratepayer.

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

When Mr. Reg Race parted company with Derbyshire county council, no doubt he received his compensation entitlement under the Superannuation Act 1972. I understand that that is all that has been offered by Westminster city council. The only difference is that Derbyshire county council will not tell us how much it paid, whereas Westminster will.

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

I almost regret to say that I do not think there is any chance that Reg Race will keep quiet about what went on in Derbyshire, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman, since I have here a copy of the contract that has been drawn up between Lady Porter and Mr. Rodney Brooke, that Mr. Race did not sign any contracts like this. He did not make any commitments like this commitment not to say anything about what has been going on in Westminster city council all this time.

The Secretary of State has always been all too eager to criticise, abuse and insult local councillors, particularly those on Labour authorities, but in the case of the Tory Westminster city council he is paralysed into inactivity and silence. He averts his gaze, although if he looks out of his window in Marsham street he can see Westminster city hall in Victoria street. Perhaps he dare not even open the windows in case the stench gets into his office.

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


These matters are treated with great levity when the Tory party is involved, but the Tories take a very different view of much more minor activities in many of the Labour London boroughs. At a dinner recently a civil servant was asked, "Do civil servants ever really tell jokes?" He replied, po-faced, "No, it is too risky, and it is not necessary—we simply observe Ministers and report the facts."

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

Does my hon. Friend agree that, if any Labour-controlled local authority were being run in the corrupt way in which Westminster city council is being run, virtually every Tory Member of Parliament would be calling on the Government to ensure that the administration of the area was placed in the hands of someone from the central authority? Does he agree that, even apart from the cemeteries and the hush-money contracts to which he alluded, Lady Porter has shown herself to be totally disqualified not just to be the leader of a local authority but even to be a member?

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

I agree with my hon. Friend. I repeat that the Secretary of State has duties and responsibilities to the ratepayers of Westminster. He should either act to set up an extraordinary audit or institute a public inquiry into what has been going on there.

He rushes to judgment elsewhere, but if even one of his rich and influential Tory friends seems threatened the Tory establishment closes ranks with a louder clang than the slamming of the gates of hell. That is what has happened in the case of Westminster city council. It is a scandal, and the Secretary of State should act to put an end to it.

As for the housing aspects of the Bill, the Government's policy and the attitude of the Secretary of State are a national disgrace. The right hon. Gentleman may remember saying to the House: Everyone should be able to afford a home, and we will continue to ensure that no one need be homeless because he cannot afford a home. There are problems, but they are not the result of a lack of resources or an overall shortage of housing."—[Official Report. 10 February 1987; Vol. 110, c. 183]? That was two years ago. Since then, the housing situation has continued to deteriorate for millions of our fellow citizens.

There is a stark contrast between the Government's aims and objectives and proposals in the Bill. Policy, generally, is intended to end the role of local government in housing. The reality of housing misery for millions of families and the disgraceful inefficiency with which the Government spend taxpayers' money on housing, as set out in the recent Audit Commission report, ought to shame the Secretary of State, as should the complete omission from the Government's expenditure plans, published in January, of any reference to homelessness or waiting lists. Those words do not appear anywhere in the blue book, Cm. 609, because the Government want to pretend that the problems do not exist.

The Government maintain that pretence at a time when there are 10 times as many people homeless as there were when "Cathy Comes Home" troubled the nation's conscience two decades ago. At the latest count, some 116,000 families are homeless. Meanwhile, the number of available lettings continues to decline and the number of new council homes has dropped by four fifths, while the use of temporary accommodation has jumped by six times in six years. Homelessness has been increasing over a long time, across all types of authority, in different regions, under all types of political control and with widely varying housing policies. The Government's responsibilities are the root cause of all that.

Let us consider what has happened to mortgage payers. Last year, the average advance in Great Britain was £36,164. In January 1988, the average net monthly payment was £290.76. It had increased by £81.29 by January of this year. People looking for a home to rent or to buy are crushed between the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who says that he has no sympathy, and the Secretary of State , who says that he has no intention of allowing local authorities to build more houses to meet those needs and problems.

I will give the Secretary of State an example from my constituency surgery a few days ago. A married couple and their child came to see me. They had bought their council house six year ago but had finally had to give it up. They simply could not afford the mortgage repayments any longer. When the Secretary of State came to Copeland borough in my constituency he made it clear that Copeland did not need to build any more council houses. Where does that leave that family? Where can they go? To whom can they turn for help? That is a dramatic example of the human misery resulting from the Government's housing policies.

The Audit Commission report, which was most timely, included a graph illustrating the rise in homelessness under the Government's policies. The Audit Commission said that the cost implications of the escalating use of bed and breakfast are serious. The true gross cost, including authorities which do not complete statistical returns, may well be in excess of £90 million for 1986–87, and in 1987–88 the true cost in London alone was £125 million.

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

The hon. Gentleman did not tell us that the Audit Commission report also said that if some authorities, mainly Labour, got their houses back into circulation more quickly, by cutting the repair time to two and a half weeks, there would be 20,000 houses available for rent. The hon. Gentleman referred to a selected point; he should give us the rest.

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

The hon. Gentleman will not be disappointed, because I am coming to exactly that point in a moment.

At the end of September last year, more than 11,000 homeless households had been placed in bed-andbreakfast hotels by local authorities. In some authorities, families face the prospect of months, or even years, living in hotel rooms. It is now widely accepted that bed-and-breakfast hotels provide generally the worst standard of accommodation at the highest cost, and that conditions in these establishments are totally unsuitable for family life.

A family has to live in one room without chairs or tables for meals, sharing bathrooms and toilets, often on different floors, used by many families at the same time. Parents have no privacy. Children have nowhere to play or to do their homework. Families' health, particularly that of children and pregnant women, clearly suffers. These problems are compounded if families are placed in a hotel away from their home area since access to schools, social services and medical care is disrupted.

The problem of large numbers of families placed outside their home areas is concentrated in London, where around 70 per cent. of households—more than 5,000 families—in bed-and-breakfast are placed outside their own borough. The financial costs of keeping homeless people in bed-and-breakfast hotels are very high. The estimated annual cost of keeping a family in bed and breakfast accommodation in 1986–87 ranged from just over £5,000 in non-metropolitan districts to £11,000 in London. The precise costs vary. We must compare that with the average cost to a local authority of building a new home at about £7,500 per annum, a far more cost-effective, efficient and better solution for everyone and a far more caring approach for any Government to want to take—that is, any Government but the present one, with the present Secretary of State.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) referred to vacant properties. It is a recurring myth for Conservative Members to lay the blame for these problems at the door of local government. As the Audit Commission points out, the highest vacancy rate of any tenure group in England, at 6 per cent., was a Government Department, not a local authority. The Audit Commission made the point that the Government, if they really cared about these matters, would literally—to use an apt phrase—get their own houses in order instead of wasting the taxpayers' and ratepayers' money. It is true that 2·5 per cent. of local authority dwellings remain unoccupied, but we should compare that with 2·7 per cent. of housing association dwellings and 4·1 per cent. of private sector dwellings. Local government has the best record. I agree that it is not necessarily an acceptable record, but it is a better record than that of Government Departments or housing associations.

Again, the Audit Commission says that the Department of Environment should take the initiative in seeking means to ensure that where such properties are vacant, and not for sale, they are made available for leasing to local authorities and housing associations. One way of encouraging better use would be for the accounting systems of all public sector landlords to show clearly the costs of maintaining void properties. Here we have an indication of the double standards of Government; at present the Ministry of Defence and the Metropolitan police systems of finance do not show the cost to the ratepayer and the taxpayer of keeping houses empty. In addition, public bodies should bear the true cost of leaving properties vacant and should repay the financial benefits of bringing them into use.

There is much more to talk about in the Bill and there is much more of it that we oppose. I have made the point once, but I make it again, that we fundamentally oppose the new housing finance proposals which will require council house tenants effectively to pay an additional tax to subsidise the poll tax and housing benefit. That is a major departure from the policy followed by all previous Governments. [Interruption.] The Minister of State says that he does not understand that. I should like to think that I have got it wrong, but I assure him that I have not because that is the view of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy and of all the local authority associations, and it is a direct consequence of the proposals in the Bill.

Against that background, it is a disgrace that the White Paper should show that gross capital expenditure on housing is set to fall. In 1988–89 there will be a fall of 19 per cent—almost one fifth-compared with the financial year 1987–88. In 1989–90 and 1990–91 there will be further falls, and it is projected that by 1991–92 the existing total gross capital expenditure on housing will have been reduced by 27 per cent. How can the Government justify that manic obsession with reducing public investment in housing at a time when so many families desperately need help?

Even the voluntary organisations feel threatened by the proposals in the Bill, and the changes in the law which will threaten their funding. The Secretary of State is well-known as being an admirer of the American system of local government. He should look at what the Sunday newspapers were saying last weekend about the depths of decline in social policy in the city of New York. If the right hon. Gentleman so admires the American approach to local services, he should learn from what is happening to people in the inner cities and urban areas of too many towns and cities in America.

After 10 years of continuous office and an uninterrupted barrage of legislation on local community affairs, the Secretary of State can have no excuses. I regret to say that there is no evidence that he and his ministerial colleagues have learnt any lessons at all. We have no confidence in the Secretary of State wanting to understand the real circumstances faced by millions of his fellow citizens. His attitudes are as ugly as his proposals—neither are acceptable in a fair and civilised society.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Finsberg Mr Geoffrey Finsberg , Hampstead and Highgate 5:51 pm, 14th February 1989

The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) referred to the situation in America. It is significant that he picked on New York, which has been a problem city for decades. I noted that he made no reference to the successful redevelopments in the inner-city part of Boston, which would be a credit to any local authority. In the same way that the hon. Gentleman was somewhat selective over his quotations from the Audit Commission, so he was in his comparisons of New York and of American local government in general.

The Bill falls into two parts—housing and local government. I hope that the Bill will bring to an end the injustice, which has been growing more noticeable in the past 20 years, in the balance between the ratepayer and the council house tenant. The ratepayer has been asked to pay a larger and larger proportion of the cost of local authority housing, while far too many local authorities have taken no notice of the advice from the district auditor and have set their rent levels well below any sensible figure. What is proposed will in the long run prove to be much fairer and much more acceptable to council tenants.

If rents go up, I believe that the council tenants have every right to demand that the maintenance of their properties is improved. In my constituency, the London borough of Camden is a byword for incompetence and the neglect of tenants. That local authority's main excuse is that it has no money to do the work. It overlooks the fact that it has £14 million of rent arrears, that it paid more than £1 million for bed-and-breakfast accommodation that was never occupied, and, as a direct result of a failure to set the rate just over two years ago, it lost £2 million. The district auditor criticised it strongly, but did not have the courage to act. There was £17 million that could have been used to repair council properties.

The tenants who contact me are desperately angry at the conditions under which they must live. My advice to them is that they would certainly be better off buying their accommodation under the right to buy if it were not for the fact that 2,000 cases in Camden are beyond the statutory period and that valuations are deliberately inflated. When, on my advice, those tenants go for redetermination of those values, reductions of more than 10 per cent. are almost always achieved. They would be better off, too, under my right hon. Friend's proposals on co-operatives or in being managed by a private landlord or by a housing association. The last choice of any sensible tenant would be to be managed by a local authority such as that in the London borough of Camden.

I believe that my right hon. Friend is right in what he is proposing. I was certainly glad that he killed the canards that have been passed around by the Opposition that council rents will quintuple, or will rise by any other multiplier. Certainly, my right hon. Friend did not use the words "market forces" or "market rents", although the hon. Member for Copeland implied that he did.

I want to say to the hon. Member for Copeland that I agree that this is the 50th local government Bill. When local government was in its prime and was being run by men like Hayward, Griffin, Cunningham and Norman Pritchard, the legislation that we have had to introduce would never have been needed. All those were honourable men who put the interests of their constituents ahead of party political dogma. The tragedy is that such men no longer exist. My right hon. Friend and his predecessor have, therefore, had to introduce over and over again fresh legislation to fill—

Photo of Mr Bob Cryer Mr Bob Cryer , Bradford South

Why did the Government abolish the GLC?

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

It was abolished because it had become one of the most corrupt local authorities in this, country. As I have said on more than one occasion, if anyone like Ike Hayward had still been around, the last leaders of the GLC would never have been allowed even through the back door.

My right hon. Friend and his predecessor have been forced over and over again to bring in legislation to block loopholes that they thought no decent person interested in local government would have attempted to use. I also do not regard some of the tricks proposed by the City as having been in the interests of the ratepayer or of the taxpayer. I have always believed that it is right to do what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is doing, which is, when possible, to repay the national debt, and, as my right hon. Friend is suggesting, to repay some local authority debts out of capital receipts. There is nothing wrong with that; indeed, the very reverse is true. I welcome the forward thinking that my right hon. Friend has introduced into this legislation.

On the question of twin tracking, there are so many examples of Labour council advertisements for senior officer posts indicating that they are expecting the applicants to be sympathetic to the political aims of the local authority. We have just got rid—if that is the right word—of a director of social services in the London borough of Camden, a Mr. Kodikara. He was a most incompetent chairman of the social services committee of the London borough of Hackney. He remained a Hackney councillor. He has now gone with a golden handshake, some furniture and, more importantly, a contract for unspecified work at an unspecified price, and nobody can discover why that happened or what the figures are.

I do not accept what the hon. Member for Copeland said. The mere fact that somebody is an officer, well below principal rank, does not mean that he will not tender advice or take decisions on matters where he allows his political judgment to run ahead of his professional judgment. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has had second thoughts about what the Widdicombe Committee said and about the first reactions to that report. I believe that the original response to Widdicombe was not in accord with the evidence from around the country. My right hon. Friend has shown how flexible he is and how he listens to facts when they are given to him.

Staff, whether in local government or in the Civil Service, should be appointed on merit and not because their face fits or their political views fit. If the Bill goes any way towards restoring that once firm principle I shall be delighted.

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

Does the hon. Gentleman believe that those strictures should apply to Government appointments on quangos or within the Civil Service? Does the hon. Gentleman believe that Lord Chalfont and Lord Rees-Mogg have been appointed on their ability or because their faces fit and they subscribe to the Tory party cause?

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

Alas, the hon. Gentleman confuses the Civil Service and public bodies. They are totally different and therefore what he says is irrelevant. I would not want any civil servant to display political views or to hold any office. If such people wish to be politicians, in common with the hon. Gentleman and me, it is their choice, but they should cease to profess their independence, stand for election and take their chance.

The Bill also talks of achieving political balance on committees and the like, which will prevent advice being given to one party only. That practice operated in Camden where the Labour party created a leader's co-ordinating committee. Officers gave advice to that committee, but no member of the opposition was entitled to be present. That is the wrong way in which to proceed.

It appears that the policy of the Labour party in local government has been to get rid of opposition members on boards of school governors—I am reminded of my hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt)—and the like. For that reason the proposals that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health has introduced to get rid of local authority representation on district health authorities are absolutely right. Camden, for example, has refused over and over again to share representation on the local health authority. If that council wants a one-party system, frankly, there should be a no-party system. In the past I have made it clear to friends on Conservative-controlled councils that proportional representation on DHAs and the like should be available to the opposition parties. I am glad that the Bill will ensure that that correct policy is followed.

Photo of Mr Bob Cryer Mr Bob Cryer , Bradford South

If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about advice being shared among political parties, does he agree that the many advisers employed by the Government, including, for example, Mr. Peter Luff—he is paid £24,000 a year indirectly by his employer and the company is being investigated by that employer, the Department of Trade and Industry—and the information provided by those advisers, paid for by the taxpayer, should be shared among the opposition as well?

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

It is easy for the hon. Gentleman to smear individuals. I would rather have advice from Mr. Peter Luff than from the hon. Gentleman.

I welcome clause 124 which makes clear exactly what can be charged for in libraries. As my right hon. Friend has said, there never was any intention of charging for the basic core services. I also welcome clause 134 which winds up the Town Development Act 1952. When I was a Minister at the Department of the Environment I decided that that Act had served its purpose and had no real value any more—little was done under that Act from 1980 onwards. At the time it did a good job, but it is right that it should be wound up as it has no further function.

I appreciate that the principle of the Bill will be unacceptable to Opposition Members. I would not expect anything else, as it is their job to say that it is unacceptable even if, in their hearts, they know that there is a lot of merit in it. The Bill will be welcome, however, to people outside who are sick and tired of the perversion of local government. They have witnessed the Labour party's destruction of all that was decent and honourable in local government.

It is almost 40 years since I first entered local government by defeating the late Lord Greenwood. In those days local government was honourable on both sides, but today I fear that it has been put into disrepute by the activities of far too many people whom I do not believe the hon. Member for Copeland likes to acknowledge as members of his party. The Bill will do something to get rid of that element and I welcome it.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth , Knowsley North 6:05 pm, 14th February 1989

I shall confine my remarks primarily to housing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) has covered our concerns about other parts of the Bill.

A great deal needs to be done about housing, and it has not been addressed in the Bill or by previous legislation. It has been said that we have reached a half century of local government measures, but since the Government have been in power only five pieces of legislation have specifically dealt with housing. Despite that legislation we have not made any progress. The major problems of housing have not been addressed by the Bill, and they were not addressed by the Local Government Act 1988. The Government have refused to engage in any dialogue about those problems and have refused to recognise them.

Given that the Government have been in office for 10 years, it is interesting to note what the people given responsibility for housing in the Department of the Environment have done during that time. It is 28 months since I was elected to the House and it is remarkable that there have been three different Ministers of State and goodness knows how many Under-Secretaries of State since then. I have studied recent publications by the housing press and have noticed the considerable amount of space that has been devoted to pictures of Lord Caithness—he is the Minister of State in the other place. He always appears in various housing journals with a trowel in his hand, laying bricks. The hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Mr. Trippier) makes a weekly appearance in some magazine or other wielding a spade and cutting the first sod. He was kind enough to do so on a development in my constituency the other week.

I have devoted some time to considering what various people have done in their various posts during the past 10 years and I believe that I have tumbled on the answer. I believe that the various housing posts within the Department of the Environment represent an employment training scheme for members of the aristocracy. They join the Department to do some work on housing, although they never achieve anything and then go on to do other things.

It is worth considering what has happened to some people who were at the Department of the Environment. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten) was Minister of State, Department of. the Environment when I was first elected, but after his training programme in that Department he was dispatched to another Department to resolve the problems of homelessness. He did not. of course, build any more houses as he was sent to that Department to build more prisons. The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) was an Under-Secretary at the Department of the Environment when the 1988 Act went through the House. She did not complete her course of training and became the first victim of the landlord-tenant regulations set out in that Act when she was evicted from the Government; and so it goes on.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) served some time within that Department and had direct responsibilities for housing. Perhaps as a foretaste of the Bill, he left that Department of his own accord, presumably prior to his training being completed, to build a ring fence around the Six Counties of Northern Ireland. I could go on.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth , Knowsley North

I was not going on to deal with Patrick Jenkin. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) will mention him when he winds up for the Opposition.

Perhaps we could consider the fate of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He was responsible for the Housing Act 1988 when it was in Committee. He has been sent off to rule the world. I understand that he has been advising Secretary-General Gorbachev about the advantages of a secure tenancy over an assured tenancy, although I do not know how that applies to Mr. Gorbachev.

There has been a considerable throughput of Ministers but no action. None of the major problems that they inherited because of an aging housing stock has been addressed. The dilemmas and problems have grown worse without any realistic action being taken.

I should like to examine the opportunities that have not been addressed by the Bill, suggest some ideas that the Government might like to consider as the Bill goes through Committee, on the basis that we need to do something about some of housing's major problems.

How can we look at housing finance, which the Bill does in a very partial way, without considering the problems created by having a dual-track system—there seems to be a lot of reference to that—within the subsidy arrangements for housing? We have mortgage interest tax relief that can technically be unlimited. The only limit is on how many people fall into the qualification provisions. That ceiling can go up and up and has indeed been steadily raised because of the number of people who are coming into owner-occupation and taking out mortgages.

Yet at this time last year we witnessed a sharp reduction in housing benefits, which has certainly been felt in my constituency and elsewhere. The subsidy system needs to be sorted out because clearly there is no targeting of mortgage tax relief on one side, where people qualify for it by simply having a mortgage; yet on the other side targeting has lopped off hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of those eligible to claim housing benefit. The Government might have considered introducing a single housing benefit related to people's needs for housing and their means. That will really help those in housing need, who may be on a low income or dependent on state benefits, to acquire housing suitable to their needs. But no, the Government have not looked at that at all.

We hear a lot of talk about rents being allowed to find the market level. We heard that about the Housing Act, and in the Secretary of State's speech today. But what is a market rent? How does one determine a market rent, in an area such as Merseyside, where property values are falling in some parts? With what does one compare it? How does one determine a market rent in an area like mine, where rents are already very high? Indeed, the previous Minister of State, who is now a Minister of State at the Foreign Office, conceded in a meeting with councillors in my constituency that rents were already relatively high. Yet they must increase even more as a result of the Bill.

I do not quite know how the Government will sort out all these things. If they are serious about doing something for the homeless, why do they not consider some of the possibilities in the short-life movement? What we really need, of course, is a long-term solution to homelessness, but the crisis is on us now. In London and other cities there is a large short-life, community-based housing association movement. If the Government want to do something about homelessness, they could go to these community-based associations and say, "We will give you mini-housing association grant money." Even in central London it usually costs about £20,000 to £25,000 to bring a new unit of accommodation into use for the homeless. Why not let associations get on with mini-HAG schemes and bring some of the property that is awaiting repair on stream, and thus do something about the problem?

An incidental by-product of that is the reduced cost of these schemes. Whereas it costs about £15,000 a year to keep a homeless family in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, less than £1,000 a year in subsidies will keep a homeless family in short-life accommodation. That eminently sensible suggestion is worth looking at, but there is nothing in the Bill to suggest a solution to the problems of the homeless. It is another missed opportunity.

Why does the Bill not address the problem of disrepair and the extent to which much new build in the private and, to some extent, in the public sector, adds to it? Why do the Government not look now, for example, at the space standards that are being built to now? Why do they not look at the standards of materials used in the public sector and by housing associations, and certainly in the private sector, as a result of the new financing regime? Why do they not look at standards of materials and construction techniques, with an emphasis on setting reasonable standards?

We already know about the sorry saga of disrepair, with £20 billion a year being needed, but not spent, to bring the stock up to scratch. It is probably a much higher figure now. Why do not the Government look for ways to stop making that problem worse? I know well that much of the housing being built—the Minister will have to concede this if he looks at it carefully—will be a major problem in 20 years' time. It is shoddily built.

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that one of the curses of local government today is that high-rise, mass-density developments that were built in the early 1970s are causing much of the need for refurbishment? The local authorities are throwing money at them as if that is a solution. Demolition is the only way forward. These are big housing blocks, and there is a multiplicity of them.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth , Knowsley North

The hon. Gentleman mentions the problems of high-rise flats. I recognise that demolition is the problem. A 21-storey block of flats called Stourbridge villas, where I have lived, is being demolished in my constituency. But that is not always the answer. If some high-rise blocks were refurbished they would provide satisfactory accommodation for certain people. It is not correct to say that all those blocks should be pulled down, because we shall not be able to replace those units fast enough. Local authorities should be given resources, where appropriate, to improve properties, to repair lifts and stop damp penetration.

The major point is that, unless the Government do something about standards in the construction industry, what is being built at the moment will cause major problems of disrepair in 20 to 30 years' time. The Government of that day, of whatever colour, will have to provide billions of pounds to put the problems right, in both the private and public sectors.

Instead of attacking local government, which is the main thrust of the Bill, why do the Government not look at the possibility of building up partnership arrangements? They already have schemes such as Estate Action, where the Government are tentatively dipping their toes into the water. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment visited the Tower hill part of my constituency, and I give him credit.

In Tower hill, the local residents, the local authority and the Government, in the form of the Estate Action programme, have together carried out major improvements to the estate, and its layout and general environment. But why do the Government not take that idea further and say, "Okay, it is a good idea to involve the community in this type of urban renewal, but we shall also provide the capital"? Instead of money being provided to improve the periphery of estates, improvements could be made to the inside of properties, many of which are riddled with damp and have other problems, too. That would be a major step, but it has received no consideration.

Successive Ministers have failed to address Britain's housing problems. They have been hidebound by dogma that is neither relevant nor appropriate to the problems that we face. Unless the Government are prepared to listen to sensible suggestions about how to solve the real problems, their legislation will fail to make any contribution to housing and will probably end up making matters worse.

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam 6:20 pm, 14th February 1989

It is hard to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg) who seems to have been in local government even longer than I have, which is for the majority of my life. The rot started—the two factors have nothing in common—when I joined local government in 1967.

I wanted local government's role to be clearly defined in the Bill. Twenty years ago, at the beginning of my service in local government, local government throughout Britain was run on sensible and efficient lines, whether the councils were controlled by Labour or any other party. Between 1970 and 1980 I regret that there was increasing abuse of local government procedures, privileges and finances, which, in the main, have occurred in Labour-controlled councils.

The Bill's objective is to return local government to the practices once prevalent everywhere, based on service to the local community rather than for personal political gain. As the Minister said, we are trying to give local government back to local government.

I can remember the time when a local council's chief officer was not only respected but someone about whose political affiliation no one had a clue. I doubt whether he even voted. Those days have long since gone. Yet the Opposition are constantly looking for hidden agendas. They cannot look at a Bill without seeing conspiracy behind it.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

Since the hon. Gentleman is criticising local authorities and has mentioned chief executives, will he take this opportunity to condemn Westminster city council which, under the leadership of Lady Porter, has been run in a disgraceful and corrupt way and has been involved in a hush-money contract?

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) must have an opportunity to respond.

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) sounds like a continuous tape, going on and on. The words are the same, only the player is different. I give way to my right hon. Friend the Minister.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government)

In answering the point made by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), will my hon. Friend ask whether Opposition Members wish to deny the chief executive money that he has paid, legally and properly, into a superannuation fund, and whether they would care to cast their minds over the fact that the only case about which they ever talk is the one that has just been mentioned, whereas my hon. Friend could no doubt keep the House here all evening with cases of proven misuse?

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

I thank my right hon. Friend for those words of guidance. Before I became a Member of the House, a chief executive of a former metropolitan county had a similar experience and, like the chief executive of Westminster council, he took the money to which he was entitled. It is the system that is wrong. I shall refer later to an hon. Member who was in local government.

There is nothing hidden or conspiratorial about the Government's intentions in the Bill. The Government have forced local government to he efficient and responsible. If the Labour party want a form of twin tracking, let it be the twin tracks of efficiency and responsibility. The Bill is a response to proven abuses and needs and it helps to put above board the activities of those centrally involved in local government. The Opposition's stance makes it clear that such a Bill would never see the light of day under a Labour Government. The Bill is overdue and abundantly necessary and deserves the whole-hearted support of the House.

The Government have already implemented some of the Widdicombe report's recommendations on political propaganda on the rates. That matter came before the House in June 1988 and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the Member for Southampton. Itchen—no "h" dropped—(Mr. Chope) explained to me that I was wrong to ask how councils such as those in Sheffield and Derbyshire could issue newspapers which to me were propaganda on the rates.

How can Derbyshire county council which says that it stands by its services go on to say that county councillors have pledged that cuts in services and jobs will not be adopted by the county council at any time in the foreseeable future and at least until 1993 according to the council's leader? How can that be the right way to run a council? How can that be permitted under legislation? The Government have been soft on such propaganda on the rates, and there is more.

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

I am not the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend, but I shall willingly give way.

Photo of Mr Martin Redmond Mr Martin Redmond , Don Valley

The hon. Gentleman talks about councils spending money on propaganda, but they have a right to inform the people whom they represent. Will he say something about the millions of pounds that the Government spend on propaganda advancing their case instead of putting the facts to the people?

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

The hon. Gentleman, who travels on the train with me, will be able to make his own point in his own way in his own time.

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

I am sure that my hon. Friend knows that strict rules apply to Ministers and their Departments. In the four years that I was a Minister I spent most of my time being utterly frustrated as a result of being unable to issue facts to counter some of the fiction coming from the Opposition.

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his assistance.

Sheffield city council put out a leaflet entitled "The Community Charge"—the one and only time that it called it that. It usually refers to it as we all know, as the poll tax. In the well-known Sheffield News, which is nothing short of a propaganda sheet paid for by the city's rate-payers for the benefit of Sheffield's Labour party—

Photo of David Clelland David Clelland , Tyne Bridge

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is this relevant to the Bill that we are discussing? Propaganda on the rates was dealt with under previous legislation.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

A Second Reading debate is wide, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) will, with all his local government experience, be able to return to the Bill.

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

I am obliged to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your guidance. We are discussing implementing the second part of the Widdicombe report, which also dealt with propaganda on the rates. If Opposition Members catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am sure that they will be able to make their speeches without my assistance.

The wonderful Sheffield News says: 'Poll Tax is the sort of tax which gives taxes a bad name'. But councils will be legally obliged to collect it. The Redcliffe-Maud report entitled "Conduct in Local Government", Cmnd. 5636 published in 1974, opposed any relaxation of existing rules and considered extending to employees of any authority the disqualification from membership of an authority anybody who holds office in, or in the gift of, that authority. It did not make any such recommendation, but it made the following comment, which is worth listening to, because the hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond), the former leader of Doncaster council, is present and he was around at the time of Redcliff-Maud: Any officer, whether senior or junior, whose work is in any way connected with the decision-making process of his authority and who contemplates seeking election to membership of the authority of the other tier should consider very carefully whether such membership would prejudice his ability to serve, and be recognised as serving, his own authority loyally and impartially as an employee. Sadly, the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) is not here so I understand that it is bad form to speak about him, but 1 suppose that worse things have been said about him. He referred to the question how many councillors were twin tracking, and he quoted from Widdicombe. Widdicombe said that, according to its research, about 16 per cent. of councillors in employment and 10 per cent. of all councillors were employees of other authorities. It went on to say that there were many authorities where significantly more than 10 per cent. of councillors were twin trackers and others where significantly fewer were. It also said that there was a more common phenomenon with 13 per cent. of all councillors being councillors of two or more authorities.

I put two hands up. I was a member of South Yorkshire county council and Sheffield city council at one and the same time. I found no conflict at all. I was in opposition on both councils. My head was repeatedly kicked in, night and day. Many is the time that I have sent letters to Her Majesty's Government saying that there is something wrong with local government and it should go back to where it was when I first joined it.

The Widdicombe report is the report of the committee of inquiry into the conduct of local authority business. I really was a poacher there because I gave evidence to it as leader of the opposition on South Yorkshire county council. We were short-changed by the controlling group of that now defunct authority. There was no way that we had an opportunity to sit pro rata in the membership of committees. There was no way at all that we could operate within the standing orders of the council, because, if we found a way of getting round the standing orders, the standing orders were changed. It was easy: if the rules do not fit, change the rules.

This happened in Sheffield city council. [Interruption.] Well, I came into the House with the rules that were already there. The one thing that I have learnt from hon. Gentlemen is that the House operates with rules, and they try to break them at every opportunity.

Photo of Mr Robert Jones Mr Robert Jones , Hertfordshire West

Does my hon. Friend remember Councillor George Senior of Sheffield saying, "We mean to obstruct the law in every way; that is what we are about"? He said that about the direct Labour opposition to parts of the Local Government Act 1974 at the time, but is that not also true of their attitude to everything else?

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

I thank my hon. Friend for that guidance. I have listened to that from hon. Gentlemen. They say that they take no notice of the law that we make, to paraphrase.

The Widdicombe report was published in June 1986 and it provides a comprehensive analysis of the way in which local authorities are operating at present. The report made a large number of recommendations designed to strengthen democratic procedures within which local government operates. The Government's response, as the hon. Member for Copeland noted, was published in a White Paper in July 1988, and the Government have already acted on some of the recommendations.

I am aware that other hon. Members wish to speak in this debate, so I shall confine my speech in the main to the Widdicombe part of the Bill.

Section 2 of the 1986 Act prohibits local authorities from publishing or assisting others to publish material. I have given an example of this. I listened to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), so no doubt his friend Councillor Jones will now have more information on which to work.

It is a fact that this cross-pollination, twin tracking—whatever it is called—is rife here, but it is also rife in places such as Sheffield. It was rife when South Yorkshire county council existed. The leader of Sheffield council swapped places with the leader of Barnsley council. The two of them worked with the two authorities. The former chairman of housing on Sheffield city council was employed by South Yorkshire county council. I was deputy chairman of the residuary body that closed it down, and I wanted to see where Councillor X sat. They said that they had closed his office because he was never there. It was a joke, a farce; and by way of compensation they gave the deputy leader of South Yorkshire county council a full-time job as deputy leader of the council; he was a teacher and he went as a full-time member of the county council, on a full salary, but with no timetable.

That is what went on in local government. Surely it cannot be right that a highly paid officer in a council should have someone else doing his work.

Photo of Mr Martin Redmond Mr Martin Redmond , Don Valley

Councillor Lunn, to whom the hon. Gentleman referred as leader of Barnsley, did a damn good job for the people of Barnsley. If the hon. Gentleman is seeking to condemn twin tracking, will he also condemn those hon. Members who have good salaries for the consultancies and directorships they have secured?

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

I am rather disturbed that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned the name of the person concerned. I have not used the name of any councillor in this place. The man died some while ago, and it besmirches his memory for an hon. Gentleman to bring up his name. I have not mentioned any names. If the cap fits, let the hon. Gentleman wear it. [Interruption.] I am not struggling at all.

A former right hon. Member of the House, Albert Booth, when he was defeated in the election, arrived at South Yorkshire county council as an official. He was one of the technical directors of the South Yorkshire passenger transport executive. We all know that there are good salaries here and compensation for loss of office. I think that there is also a pension, if my memory serves me correctly. He came to be interviewed for a position and one of the first things I asked him was whether, if a vacancy occurred anywhere in a safe Labour seat, he would take it. He said that he would not. He left for the 1987 election. He took early retirement, and he finished up with two pensions. That is all right, is it not? That is legitimate, because he came from the Labour side.

Let me carry on with some of the rocky horror stories. The leader of Bradford city council was employed as an anti-privatisation adviser to Wakefield city council. A quarter of Glasgow's city councillors were employed by their own regional council. In Camden, at one time, 48 per cent. of the Labour councillors were dependent, directly or indirectly, on councils in their area.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Bennett Mr Nicholas Bennett , Pembroke

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, who has very wide experience in local government in Sheffield and on South Yorkshire county council. Would he like to comment on the fact that this is still going on; that, in spite of the fact that this Bill has been published and twin tracking is to be outlawed, only last week the London borough of Hackney shortlisted for its deputy chief executive post Councillor Linda Bellos and Councillor Fred Taggert, both Left-wing Labour members of Lambeth borough council, and appointed Councillor Fred Taggert to that post? What confidence can Conservative and Liberal members of that council have that that individual, as an independent deputy chief executive, will give them unbiased advice?

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing that matter to my attention.

When I was leader of the opposition on South Yorkshire county council, one of my most difficult jobs was obtaining impartial advice from chief officers. It is extremely difficult when one knows that, sometimes, whatever one says goes through a direct pipeline to the ear of the leader of the council. No confidence can exist in that situation. It is most upsetting, but it was even more upsetting to find that, during a by-election for the council, one of its chief officers was delivering Labour party leaflets in the ward concerned. That is scandalous and totally wrong. Whatever may be one's political affiliations, they remain private when one marks a ballot paper or even works behind closed doors, when there is no way that anyone else can snoop. But it is a different matter for a chief officer to be seen on the streets of Sheffield during a by-election, delivering Labour party leaflets. That must be stopped somehow. There must be a cut-off point.

It would be wrong of me to say that I do not know of a Tory who holds high office in a council. [Laughter.] The hon. Member for Don Valley laughs.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am genuinely sorry to interrupt the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick), but your immediate predecessor in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and even Mr. Speaker himself, made the point that, although there is no time limit on speeches, right hon. and hon. Members should remember that there are many who wish to speak in the debate. The hon. Member for Hallam has already spoken for 21 minutes. I do not believe that he is bringing his remarks to a close—he has no need, as there is no time limit. I remind you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that only two Back Benchers have so far spoken—and my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) kept his contribution very tightly within 10 or 15 minutes.

Photo of Mr Paul Dean Mr Paul Dean , Woodspring

The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who I know hopes to catch my eye, gives me the opportunity to say that many right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House wish to speak in the debate.

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

If anyone in this place blows a lot of wind, the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) is the leading culprit.

The Local Government Act 1988 acted on Widdicombe's recommendations. It allows local ombudsmen to consider complaints from the public, and gives powers to the district auditor to stop potentially unlawful expenditure. However, it does not allow the district auditor to tell a council if he considers that such expenditure is wrong. Where such expenditure is a matter of political judgment, the district auditor will say, "I do not wish to know." In the miners' strike, funding was provided by a council to the miners. When I complained about that practice, I was told that it was a political decision and that the district auditor could not enter into that political arena.

The South Yorkshire county council's fares policy sucked money out of local authorities, and the only thing left to show for that is a memory of cheap fares. There are no improved roads or a police station. When I told the district auditor that it was wrong, he replied, "You can take it to court and fund that action, and we shall see what is the outcome. I have neither the time, the inclination, nor the funds to take legal action against an authority—when all it needs to do is increase its rates."

I close on a most interesting point.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

We wondered when you would reach it.

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity later to criticise my speech. Opposition Members have that privilege and treat in store—but I could almost recite the Opposition's speeches. The Opposition will say that nothing should be altered because everything is all right as it is—everything is wonderful and marvellous. The hon. Gentleman who makes all the noise will say that the Government have got it wrong—but I have never heard him say that anyone has it right.

Mr. Winnock:

To whom was he paying that tribute?

Photo of Mr Irvine Patnick Mr Irvine Patnick , Sheffield, Hallam

Sadly, I cannot recollect the name of the hon. Gentleman's constituency. When I do, the hon. Gentleman will get the full width of my tongue.

The Bill will restore to local government some of the benefits that others have taken away. Twin tracking, the appointment of political officers, the appointment of political devotees, and the funding of various organisations from the petty cash of local government and their financing by ratepayers' money, will all cease.

Some of the organisations that have made representations on the Bill see in it certain imperfections. I am convinced by the words of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, that amendments, alterations and improvements will be made. The Bill will put local government back where it belongs, and will allow it to be run by people whose only role will be to give genuinely impartial advice and guidance. They will not be on the payroll of another organisation or council whose intention is to stop elected representatives doing what they want. Impartial advice is needed in local government, and that is something that we shall ensure is available when we return proper powers to local government.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government, Housing and Transport) 6:45 pm, 14th February 1989

The Secretary of State used measured terms to describe the Bill—which he tried to suggest was non-controversial. However, the Bill commands precious little support among those in local authorities who are in the best position to understand its impact. In particular, it commands precious little support among Conservative councillors and those among them who have commented on it.

The chairman of the housing and works committee of the London Boroughs Association asks for a year to get over the last Bill that the Secretary of State introduced. The Association of County Councils, in the reasonable expectation that examination of the Bill will be guillotined—for we may have a shopping list, but we shall not be able to examine closely the prices and the quality of the goods—comments: It is to be regretted that they"— that is, the Government's proposals will not receive the parliamentary scrutiny that they deserve. The Bill contains many provisions that should have been dealt with separately and at length, and in greater detail than we shall have an opportunity to do.

The attack on local government in recent years, and the continual movement of power to the centre, worries many people of all political persuasions. Among them are people who, in the past, have not taken a great interest in politics. They may discuss politics and vote, but they have not actively campaigned on the streets. Those people are now genuinely concerned about the drift of power to central Government, that is once again, being written into legislation. The Conservative-controlled Association of District Councils—hardly a hotbed of Trotskyist interest—comments: It is difficult to tell what precisely is envisaged, but the net effect would appear to be more power to the Secretary of State, and even less freedom for local authorities. That is contrary to the comments of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick).

The Association of County Councils comments: The Association is concerned that so many important aspects of the Bill's provisions are left to be dealt with by secondary legislation and that there is to be such an increase in the powers of the Secretary of State. The first to feel the brunt of the Bill's attack on local authorities will not be councillors but their employees, as they find their freedom to participate in the political party or body of their choice abolished. In a democracy, and for all the soft words of the Secretary of State, the decision to deprive people of their right to campaign, and to take part in the political process, is of critical importance. No one should be denied that right without the matter being given deep thought, and without deep regret being felt—because that right is the basis of the society that all right hon. and hon. Members are here to defend.

The Bill will bring about 70,000 or, if one believes the ACC, 90,000 or more, local government officers under the wing of Ministers and their representatives and deny those officers the basic right of political activity. Although in some cases they will have the right to apply to get those liberties back, it is wrong that we should force 70,000, 90,000 or even 10,000 people to have to beg for their rights under that sort of system.

The Secretary of State has constantly pushed for leaner, more professional councils. But among those whom we shall be taking out of any involvement in politics and council work will be many who are experienced and best able to take part in activities that would benefit local authorities and council groups.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government)

If one of the supporters of the hon. Gentleman's party wanted advice from the local social services department in, say, the London borough of Brent, does the hon. Gentleman think that that supporter would be entirely comfortable with the fact that the assistant director there was the controversial chairman of the planning committee in Ealing? What if one of his party's supporters wishing to obtain some advice went to the equal opportunities adviser in the London borough of Hackney, only to find that she was the former controversial leader of the Labour party in the London borough of Lambeth? Would it not be more suitable if those places were filled with people who were independent and were not part of the party political machine? Electors would feel more comfortable in asking for their advice, would they not?

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government, Housing and Transport)

The proposals in the Bill go far beyond tackling a few examples such as those. If more limited changes were proposed—for example, if the proposals affected only chief officers and their deputies—we would support them. The Bill goes far beyond the action that we feel needs to be taken. There may be occasions when councillors from one party must consult people whom they believe to have strong political persuasions of another sort. In most cases the advice being sought would not involve politics, and where it did, there would not be many cases where the person seeking advice could not also turn to others, perhaps to more senior officers, for further advice.

The Minister has set the arbitrary salary level of £13,500. That, coupled with the broad brief to bring in anyone else as the Minister thinks appropriate, goes way beyond what is acceptable in a democratic country in which every individual should have the right to take part, and be heard, in the democratic system. That is at the very basis of the political system that we are here to defend.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government)

It is not an arbitrary figure. The sum of £13,500 was recommended by the Widdicombe committee, which said that there should be an absolute ban on all political activities and that there should be no right of appeal. The Government have introduced a right of appeal over and above that independent Widdicombe recommendation.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government, Housing and Transport)

Time is short. I hope that we shall have time to go into that and other matters in Committee. It is clear that there is not enough time to deal with the many issues raised by the Bill.

The Government are encouraging local authorities to make greater use of the private sector. Many PR companies advise local authorities and the public on new legislation. The Government are not acting against them in the way that they are acting against council employees, yet those PR companies can employ councillors and even have Members of Parliament as their directors. No restriction is being placed on them. Is that not as good an example of twin tracking as the Minister gave?

Would the Minister even attempt to deny that councillors are able to work for private companies and gain financially from information acquired during the execution of activities in their publicly elected posts? He cannot deny it, yet he will not act on that form of abuse.

It is unsatisfactory that there is no definition of "political activity" in the Bill. It is left to the Secretary of State to define. What is a controversial speech? The Conservative research department brief on the measure refers to speaking or writing publicly on matters of party political controversy. Would an employee who was also a school governor not be able to speak publicly on opting out but only on school meals? Would such a person not be able to speak about race relations but only on the colour that the school corridors should be painted? Or do the Government believe that they should not be school governors at all because holding such a post brings one into the sphere of political controversy?

On 2 February Parliament and the press examined the Official Secrets Bill restriction on civil servants and the refusal of the Government to introduce the "whistle-blowers" for whom their Back Benchers had called. On the same day, the Secretary of State for the Environment published a measure giving councils the duty to appoint a monitoring officer to report to councils any contravention of the law by the council or its employees.

Criticism of much of that came from Conservative Members. For example, the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), when referring to the measure before the House today, said when we were debating the Official Secrets Bill: I read in The Daily Telegraph of last Monday Whistleblower law to break Left's grip'.It seems that the Government, through their new Local Government and Housing Bill—I have no doubt that if I or The Daily Telegraph have got it wrong we will be corrected—will seek to appoint what The Daily Telegraph, I am sure, wrongly characterises as whistleblowers'empowered to speak out against illegal or unfair actions as part of a campaign to raise standards of local government'. What they think is sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander".—[Official Report, 2 February 1989; Vol. 146, c. 477.] It is not necessary to elaborate on that telling point made by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills. While the Government are prepared to keep the public informed in the arena of councils, where they are not in political control, in Whitehall, where they are in political control, public servants are to be restricted from revealing information in the public interest. The hypocrisy of that is clear.

I do not oppose everything in the Bill. Indeed, it is so wide-ranging and it contains such a shopping list of items that it would be impossible to disagree with it all. I welcome the proposals on proportionality. My party is at the forefront of fair methods of representation, so it would be strange if I did not support that aspect.

There are peculiarities in what is proposed. Does the Bill completely rule out councils devolving planning decisions to a more local level, or, as Tower Hamlets has done, conducting experiments with community councils? Would it not be more appropriate still if elections gave proportional representation to people's views, instead of the Government trying to fiddle after Rome has burned, as the Minister seems to be doing?

My party supports the ban on voting by non-elected members, but the Secretary of State must explain more clearly why that should not apply beyond the areas the Government seem to have in mind. For example, why should it not apply in schools or to magistrates?

There are various items with which we might agree, but the bulk of the Bill remains an attack on councils and council tenants. The introduction of ring fencing is one of the most insidious moves yet made by the Government against councils. It is an attack on council tenants going beyond anything the Government have achieved so far.

The Guardian, which admittedly, is not always on the side of the Government, wrote in an editorial on 3 February: Two out of three of the 4·3 million council tenants in the country are so poor that, despite seven separate cuts in benefits in the last eight years, they remain eligible. That leaves the other one-third, many of whom are earning only just above the poverty line, under the threat of paying higher rents to subsidise the unemployed, disabled people and the elderly. Homelessness is on the increase, yet the last people these measures will assist are the homeless and the poor.

Let me turn back to the words of Conservative members of the London Boroughs Association: The proposals relating to rent rebate subsidy are also of major concern to our members. Housing benefit is intended to relieve poverty and is thus rightly part of the national social security system. We therefore feel that it would be inequitable for the responsibility for financing housing benefit payable to council tenants to be transferred to local government…this change could prejudice and would certainly complicate any future attempts to reform the system for relieving poverty"— [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] The "Hear hears" to those views from a Conservative-controlled association are all from the Opposition side of the House; Conservative Members remain silent.

The phrase "The poor subsidising the very poor" is one that we have heard again and again and will continue to hear throughout the passage of the Bill, but the Government do not wish to listen. The Institute of Housing says: it is morally wrong that better off council tenants should be paying through their rents, for the welfare benefits given to other tenants. Private and Housing Association tenants are not being placed in this position. The Bill will place tenants renting from a local authority in the difficult position of having to pay for a hidden extra, and will remove money that could be used for repairs.

On the shopping list is a radical alteration in the welfare system, which warrants a debate and a Bill of its own and should not be part of a more general Bill on local government reform.

The Audit Commission has said: merging rent rebates in the housing subsidy will serve to obscure both the cost of housing benefits and the true profitability of public housing. The proposals would also, in the Commission's view, be a source of continued friction with local government and unrebated tenants. It would be preferable to maintain rent rebate subsidy as a separate element, calculated on rebates granted. If Government considers that with such an approach it is unacceptable that the whole of the HRA surpluses should be retained locally then the problem should be separately addressed. Quite so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) argued for fair rents during the Committee stage of the Housing Bill 1988, and I intend to do the same. Rents should be affordable. The Government say that they agree with that, but they have not revealed how they intend to achieve it. There must be a mechanism to ensure that rents are affordable for council tenants who do not receive rent rebate.

How does the Secretary of State respond to the criticisms of the Association of District Councils that no figures have been produced to show how the new system will work, or what its national or local effects will be? The Minister cannot be telling us that no such figures have been drawn up. Surely he would not introduce a change of such significance without at least having a look at the likely effect on councils—or is it that he dare not tell the Conservative-controlled ADC what will happen to all too many of his Conservative councillor colleagues, and explain to them how they will explain it to the electorate as the costs of the change begin to come in?

Where are the estimates and projections to prove conclusively that the system will work? I hope that the Minister will come forward now, before the Bill goes into Committee—but I suspect that he will not do so even then. The figures will emerge in dribs and drabs when the Bill has gone through, and no doubt the Minister will come up with some excuses.

We can, however, discover a little of what is happening from the Conservative research department brief that I mentioned earlier headed: The Local Government and Housing Bill…Prepared for: Second Reading debate in the House of Commons. It is also headed "Confidential". On page 15, it asks: What is the Government's policy on council rents? Shortly after that, we see the nub of the answer: The Government wil be making a more detailed statement on council rents in the near future. In other words, they ain't going to tell us just yet. Perhaps there is a clue in question 3: How will the new system affect council rents in the short term? The answer is: In the first year the level of exchequer subsidy will reflect the amount paid under the old system the previous year. Any increases in rents will therefore be gradual." There is the answer. There will be increases, but they may be gradual. They will be like a Chinese torture, and hurt people slowly rather than all at once.

Photo of John Battle John Battle , Leeds West

Two years ago, the Secretary of State went on record as saying that he thought that a fair market rent for council tenants was at least £35 a week.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government, Housing and Transport)

Conservative Members will be interested to know that. No doubt they will put it in their local literature come election time.

My comments have not by any means covered all the Bill's provisions; there has not been time, because it is a hotch-potch Bill that should not be before the House. But my warnings will echo around council chambers, whether Conservative-controlled, Labour-controlled, Democrat-controlled or balanced. Councillors and local authority employees of all parties share my fears.

Photo of George Young George Young , Ealing Acton 7:04 pm, 14th February 1989

The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) has relied extensively on briefings supplied by the Conservative research department for his inspiration—no doubt because the Liberals were unable to provide any of their own. He and the hon. Members for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) and for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) have all described the Bill as yet another sandbag with which to clobber local government. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) developed that theme in his article in The Sunday Times two days ago, and in the publication "Governing London" the leader of the Association of London Authorities describes the Bill as yet another wave of vitriolic anti-democratic legislation. The Association of Metropolitan Authorities says that it is an affront to civil liberties. As one who has served on and strongly believes in local government, I wholly disagree. I regard the Bill, on the contrary, as a necessary if painful step down the road of restoring the integrity of local government, curbing the abuses that have brought it into disrepute and thereby helping it to become once again a thriving, relevant democratic institution in which people are proud to serve.

I see a parallel between this legislation—and that on local government which preceded it—and our legislation on trade unions. Both have addressed institutions born in the late 19th century to combat the weaknesses of a system dependent on unbridled market forces, and to improve the living standards of the less well off. Both have honourable traditions and achievements, now taken for granted, but in the 1970s both began to lose their way. On the one hand, they started to lose touch with those whom they represented; on the other, they began to stray into areas where they had no business to be and, indeed, to challenge the mandate of national Governments.

That, in turn, precipitated legislative reform from a Conservative Government—reform recognised to be necessary by many Opposition Members. We recognised the need to reform the trade unions before the need to reform local government, because many of the abuses within local government manifested themselves only in our first and second terms of office. The trade union legislation, further down the track, has not, as our opponents said that it would, destroyed the movement, but has made it more accountable. It has stopped most of the indefensible practices and has created—if I may use the jargon—a new mood of realism, and a new breed of leader who accepts that the world has changed and that different attitudes are now required. I believe that that is in the long-term interests of the movement.

The same applies to local government. Again, a new mood of realism is beginning to break out, and a new type of leader—particularly of Labour authorities—is now emerging. The new leaders accept that the world has changed: they are pragmatic rather than dogmatic. Ted Knight and Derek Hatton have been disqualified, the former leader of the GLC is now the restrained hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), and Margaret Hodge of Islington is going straight.

Those changes were not volunteered by the parties concerned. Indeed, the most bitter battles that the House has seen in the past 10 years have been on the field of local government. Those changes and improvements have been secured by legislation—legislation of which this Bill is an important part. But we are not quite there yet. The Bill contains many missing pieces of the jigsaw.

First, there are the proposals for capital receipts. I was astonished to see, in the briefing made available by the LBA, the statement: Capital receipts should be made available to the generating authority this is not a briefing on the Electricity Bill— without a reduction in its basic credit approval. That would be wholly inequitable and, incidentally, to the disadvantage of many London boroughs.

The London Boroughs Association wants the Secretary of State to ignore the fact that some boroughs generate substantial sums in capital receipts while others do not. The former are clearly able to discharge their obligations without having to borrow more easily than the latter. To give credit approval without taking account of the resources available to local authorities, far from being a matter of "simple justice", as is claimed in the briefing, would make existing inequities permanent. I hope that we shall hear no more of that argument, which would make the problems facing the homeless in London far worse. It is clear from the briefing that the Association of District Councils does not take exception to that provision.

The most controversial proposals in the Bill relate to the housing revenue account and were touched on by the hon. Member for Truro. There has been a great deal of muddled thinking about the proposals to use surpluses on the housing revenue account to help pay for housing benefit. One school of thought, represented in the briefing from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, was against any surpluses from the housing revenue account. It states: The AMA is opposed to ring fencing—believing local authorities should be free to exercise their own discretion. But it is also opposed to profits being made on HRAs. My right hon. Friend will have the figures, but I suspect that a good many Labour-controlled authorities will have a surplus on the H RA and use it to keep down the rates. I see nothing wrong with having a surplus on the housing revenue account. If the housing stock was built some time ago and is in good condition and the debt has been paid off, it would be absurd to charge £10 per week for a four-bedroomed house in Windsor occupied by someone earning a good salary at Heathrow airport. Such a rent would contrast very oddly with rents on nearby properties built more recently, which would be three or four times that level perhaps for something much worse. We should start by asking what is a reasonable rent and if the totality of those rents less the financing and management costs generates a surplus, let us debate what should be done with the surplus.

At the moment that surplus can be used to keep down the rates. That seems far less defensible than using it to pay housing benefit. Opposition Members make the criticism that the proposed regime will result in the poor subsidising the poorest. They gloss over the fact that many council tenants are not poor. Under the present regime that Opposition Members seek to defend, the so-called poor are subsidising those who are not poor—the ratepayers.

Given that surpluses are legitimate, I see no reason why they should not go towards the cost of housing benefit locally. To say that the cost of meeting poverty is the responsibility of central Government and not local government is to play with words. Central Government could easily introduce negative grant-related expenditure for housing and remove from local government the surpluses on the HRAs. They could then transfer it to the Department of Social Security which would apply it to housing benefit. In that way central Government would relieve poverty.

The proposals in the Bill short-circuit that cumbersome manoeuvre and transfer the surplus directly into the local HRA. The briefing from the Institute of Housing, which dislikes the proposals in the Bill, suggests an alternative procedure which has exactly the same effect. One has to look rather carefully behind the rhetoric about the poor subsidising the poorest. The proposals are then perfectly defensible.

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

If the housing revenue account has never been used sensibly, it is because central Government have always interfered in it. The hon. Gentleman mentioned people living in properties for which the historic costs have already been covered. If one were putting together a sensible project, those people should benefit from that through reduced rents, but they are forced to pay higher rents because central Government insist on that. If local authorities try to get round that they lose grant. Where is the fairness in that?

Photo of George Young George Young , Ealing Acton

I see no justice in charging cost rents for properties on which the debt has been paid. In many cases the cost rent would be £10 or £15 per week, when such a property could produce a rent based on replacement costs or on rents in comparable areas. Such rents would generate a surplus which could be ploughed back into housing. Cost rents are a totally indefensible subsidy to the people who happen to be living in such houses. They produce an indefensible disparity between properties built in the 1920s and those built in the 1980s. A property built in the 1980s may be less desirable than the one built in the 1920s, but under the system that the hon. Gentleman seeks to defend the rent for the newer property would be six or seven times higher. One could not begin to defend such a system to the person living in the more recently built property.

At some point, responsibility for housing benefit should be removed from the DSS and transferred back to the DOE. The interaction between the new capital regime and housing benefit is crucial. If housing associations and the private sector are to seize the opportunities available to them, a generous housing benefit regime will have to underpin the rents that emerge. If responsibility for housing benefit rests with the DSS, why should it do battle with the Treasury to get higher housing benefit when it is responsible for pensions, the disabled and so on? An integrated approach would require housing benefit to be transferred back to the DOE where it rested about seven years ago.

I turn briefly to parts VII and VIII on improvement grants. The previous regime was difficult to defend, when well-off people who did not need the money received improvement grants, and when there was some evidence that the availability of grants simply fed through into house prices. Those days are no more. In practice, improvement grants in many areas are, in effect, means tested, so I am not too upset about recognising that in statute. It will be easier for the Department to argue for more resources for improvement grants when the new targeted regime is in force, but there is more to renovating the stock then simply making grants available. A necessary partner is the availability of professional, impartial advice, particularly for the elderly owner-occupier. I hope that there will be many more schemes such as those pioneered by the National Home Improvement Council where public money joins private money to make a demonstrable impact on an entire area.

I hope that we shall also remove a particular abuse possible within the existing regime. Someone who is eligible for a grant can get a quotation from a reputable builder and submit it to the local authority with his grant application. The local authority will base the grant on the quotation, so long as it considers it reasonable. The applicant can then get his brother-in-law to do the job more cheaply, and although the applicant has then spent less than the quote he is still entitled to the original grant. At the moment it is quite possible to get the work done and make a profit. I hope that that will be stopped and that there will be some incentive to ensure that publicly funded improvement work is carried out by reputable firms. I have looked briefly at clause 112 and I am not convinced that it goes quite far enough. It may need to be explored further in Committee.

With regard to clauses 25 to 29, I was pleased to see that the National Council for Voluntary Organisations welcomes much in the Bill—the retention and clarification of section 137, the provision that voluntary organisations should provide written statements of their use of local authority money and the specific powers in clauses 25 to 27 to fund economic development activity. Again, some points of concern should be dealt with in Committee. The clauses to which I have referred do not explicitly cover voluntary agencies engaged in economic development. 'The drafting refers to public undertakings, and it is not clear that the Bill covers voluntary organisations.

There is also some concern in London at the proposal to change section 48 of the Local Government Act 1985. I shall not explain the problems in detail, but, in a nutshell, difficulties will be caused to the London borough grant scheme if projects funded under section 48 have to be funded by section 137 which is often heavily oversubscribed. I have a particular interest in that as I gave generous undertakings on behalf of the Government about section 48 when the Greater London Council was being abolished and obviously do not wish to be a party to breaking them now.

Finally, I welcome the provisions to ensure neutrality in senior appointments. In Ealing, when the Labour party took control in 1986, the chief executive was, in effect, dismissed the following week. Two other directors left after about a year because of political interference. Now none of the original chief officers remains, although one has retired. At least one of their replacements would find it very difficult to work under an administration of a different complexion because of his political views.

I am a strong believer in the principle of a professional, impartial team of local government officials because it provides continuity and enhances public confidence in local services. The ban on political activity will enhance that objective. Fourteen of Ealing's Labour councillors are employed by neighbouring boroughs and six employees of the borough are councillors on other Labour councils. The Bill will clarify the distinction between elected politicians and non-elected officials. It will strengthen the independence of officers and ensure that members have sound professional and impartial advice. Incidentally, I note that this part of the Bill has been welcomed by the mangerial trade union, FUMPO—I do not know what that stands for.

In conclusion, I do not see the Bill as Opposition Members describe it, as a further step in the marginalisation of local government or as a step towards centralisation. I see it as a necessary prelude to the restoration of public confidence in local government. In that spirit, I commend it to the House.

Photo of Mr Tom Pendry Mr Tom Pendry , Stalybridge and Hyde 7:20 pm, 14th February 1989

May I say at the outset that I do not intend to give way because I wish to make progress by completing my speech as quickly as possible so that other hon. Members can participate in the debate. The Front Bench spokesmen have not set a good example—we heard 45 minutes from the Secretary of State and then 45 minutes from my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), so we have already had a 90-minute match. I must say, the second half was much better than the first.

I wish to confine my remarks in the main to parts I and II of this monstrous Bill, which directly attacks democracy by limiting the number of people who are permitted to play their rightful part in running local communities. First, I must declare an interest—I am a member of the National Union of Public Employees, which has about 400,000 members in local government, many of whom will be affected by the legislation.

First, however, I wish to express some of the fears of officers and councillors of my local council, Tameside borough, about part V of the Bill. It is good to see the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Mr. Trippier) here, because he knows precisely the kind of council that I am talking about. I hope that when he winds up the debate he will refer to some of the points that I shall make.

Tameside borough council took the advice of the Prime Minister when, in March of last year, in her glossy "Action for Cities" document she urged local authorities to set up a partnership with industry and to generate and help to create a new lively environment in which to live, work and prosper. Tameside council set up a partnership with local industry and began operating joint ventures with the private sector designed to promote investment and economic activity in the borough.

The council had in mind particularly establishing a joint venture company, with the council having a minority interest, to undertake a rolling programme of land development, house building, training and other initiatives. The concept of such a programme is that a percentage of profits made from profitable land development can be ploughed back into developing land that may not provide the normal market return, building low-cost housing and funding training and other initiatives.

Under the proposals, it appears that local authorities will be prevented from taking minority interests in companies unless they fall within a specified category. Although it is proposed to permit an authority to take a minority interest in a joint venture land development company, it can retain that interest only so long as the company retains an interest in the land. For obvious reasons, such a proposal could inhibit the use of a joint venture company for the sort of rolling programme that I have outlined. Tameside council feels that that is a real obstacle to the sort of initiatives that it and other councils wish to take.

Generally, the proposals will further restrict a council's ability to act commercially in partnership with the private sector in economic development. I hope that the Minister will consider more carefully the implications of part V of the Bill before rushing ahead with it in its present form. The Government seem to say that they do not want to inhibit such joint ventures, but if the regulations are introduced in line with the proposals, they will make partnerships much more difficult to construct. I am sure that many local authorities will be discouraged from participating.

Other parts of the Bill are equally badly drafted and need revision. Some have already been spelt out by my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland and other hon. Members. I am particularly concerned about many of the proposals that will give more power to the Secretary of State through regulation, and less to the House of Commons.

This is merely the last in a long line of Bills—there have been 50 since 1979—increasing the power of the centre. I disagree with the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young): not only does the Bill lessen the powers of elected parliamentary representatives—even worse, it rides roughshod over local authority members and further restricts the number of citizens who can play a role in running and shaping the local communities in which they live.

Bearing in mind the constraints on my time, I shall deal in the rest of my speech with the implications for local democracy of parts I and II of the Bill. The provisions show, more clearly than ever, how the Government differ from their predecessors. I well remember when, in March 1973, I introduced a motion in the House aimed at allowing the election of most public servants to the office of councillor, thus allowing the community to benefit from their sense of public service, knowledge and practical experience. Clearly, the purpose of the motion was to seek a change in the qualification laws which then debarred an estimated 2·5 million to 3 million local government workers from standing for their local authorities—about 11·8 per cent. of all employees in England and Wales at the time.

During the passage of the 1972 Local Government Bill, the then Minister, the late Graham Page, made some commitments. He said: I do not believe that, at a certain level of employment or in a certain area of employment by local authority, if an employee stands as a member, there is any serious chance of failure of integrity or lack of probity. As has been pointed out, there are many occasions where a person employed in private undertakings becomes a member and he may be just as suspect. There is a wide area where the employee of the local authority cannot possibly be said to he suspect if he becomes a member."—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 10 February 1972, c. 1492.] On Report, he went on to say: My own feeling about it is that we are being extremely hypocritical if we exclude all employees of the local authority and do not exclude others who have, perhaps, a greater interest in the affairs of the council".—[Official Report, 17 July 1972; Vol. 841, c. 213.] I am sure that we can all hazard a guess at the people to whom he was referring.

In the 1973 debate in this Chamber, which I initiated, the then Minister gave a major commitment on the Floor of the House. He promised an all-party study to look into matters relating to membership of local authorities, with discussions including local authority associations, staff organisations and other interested groups. What became of that promise?

Even the Redcliff-Maud report of 1974 stated bluntly that the key proposal before us today was wrong. The report's conclusion was that the concept of a dividing line for the selective removal of disqualification of employees was an illusion. I feel that it is not so much illusory as ludicrous. The Government are not only at odds with the 1970–74 regime, but with in-depth studies carried out since. At the same time, they have ensured that about 70,000 local government employees will be added to the list of those ineligible to stand for local government.

How can it be right, for example, for a refuse lorry driver in Wandsworth, working for a private company called Team Waste, to be allowed to stand for the council, be elected and influence decisions, while his counterpart in Lambeth cannot?

Let us suppose that a local government blue collar worker, such as a school caretaker in a large community school, earned £13,000 in 1989 and was elected to his council. The following year, due to the increased community use of his school, he earned £13,600. Would he have to come off the council? He certainly would not be allowed to stand for re-election, even though he might be a very effective councillor by then. Another example is the county roadworks foreman working for his local authority who, because of adverse weather conditions, works all the hours possible and takes his earnings over the £13,500 level. Would he, too, have to resign? Could he stand again in 1991 if his earnings dropped below the magical figure due to a mild winter?

The snooper whom the Secretary of State appoints to oversee this ludicrous situation will certainly have to be an unscrupulous autocrat. Will council employees have to present their wage slips to this particular commissar before they can stand for their local authority or before they are allowed to go on the streets to canvass in a local election? This legislation is another example of how the Centre for Policy Studies has got the Government's legislation all wrong.

With this Bill, the Government have launched into the next stage of an ideological crusade against local authorities and those who work for them. If only half the energy that they expend on controlling the activities of democratically elected councils were spent aiding efficient and responsible authorities such as my own by giving them partnership or programme area status, they could help authorities to tackle the many and varied problems in my part of the world instead of hampering them still further by this kind of punitive legislation.

Photo of Mr Robert Jones Mr Robert Jones , Hertfordshire West 7:30 pm, 14th February 1989

I want to begin by following on a point. made by the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor), who unfortunately is not with us. He quoted from the Association of District Councils' brief and called it in aid of his contention that the Bill was about centralised control. The sentence he quoted was: the net effect would appear to be more power to the Secretary of State and even less freedom for local authorities. That quote in fact came from a section referring only to part IX of the Bill. The remaining parts of the Bill scent to be broadly welcomed by the Association of District Councils, and I think it only fair, as vice-president of the Association of District Councils, that I should take this opportunity to quote the whole of that sentence. It begins: It is difficult to tell precisely what is envisaged but". That, of course, is the difficulty, because one can well understand why local authorities want at this stage each and every detail of how the legislation will work to he made available to them but, of course, the House must be free, through its Standing Committee system, to review the legislation and to debate precisely these points so that the legislation comes back to the House as a whole and so that it can be properly implemented in law. I do not believe that the main bulk of the legislation in the Bill itself should have all that detail. It would be quite wrong; it would be inflexible and very difficult to alter in the future.

The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) began by referring to the 50 Bills that have been considered during the lifetime of this Conservative Government. He fell short of describing it as "the golden age of local government", but of course, that is exactly what we are seeking to achieve. That golden age of local government, a second golden age, can be achieved only if we have local government of integrity and efficiency, and this legislation, like so many other pieces of legislation, has been designed with that in mind.

I have served on the Standing Committees on the vast majority of local government Bills since I entered the House in 1983, and I suppose that it is a sign of the times that I now find my self reviewing legislation that I voted for in the first place. There is nothing wrong with that, because it means that one learns from experience and makes sure that anomalies which turn up from legislation, or things that councillors—particularly Labour councillors—get up to in some of the London boroughs in particular, can be dealt with as and when they arise. As I said in an intervention earlier, there are Labour councillors who are out to get through every loophole in the law, and these things will of course have to be reviewed from time to time.

Photo of Mr Paul Boateng Mr Paul Boateng Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

Does the hon. Member view with equanimity the activities of the Conservative-controlled Westminster city council? Is he happy with the situation in which Lady Porter is able to give a massive payoff to her ex-chief executive in order to keep his mouth shut? Is that a matter in which the Secretary of State ought perhaps to intervene as soon as possible in order to defend the interests of the hard-pressed ratepayers of Westminster?

Photo of Mr Robert Jones Mr Robert Jones , Hertfordshire West

If the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) had been here for the last three hours, like myself and my hon. Friends, instead of drifting in for five minutes, he would be aware of the fact that that subject has been raised before, and he would also be aware that what he and his hon. Friends are suggesting is that the chief executive of Westminster city council should be deprived of what he has paid for in his contributions to his pension fund. I think that would be wholly wrong, but it would be typical of the Labour party's attitude to individual rights.

Photo of Mr Robert Jones Mr Robert Jones , Hertfordshire West

I will not give way again to the hon. Gentleman. I have just dealt with his point.

Local government is far too important to simply drift along. It employs 3 million people and is responsible for one quarter of all public spending. That means that it has to be efficient and has to be demonstrated as being accountable. That is why I and my hon. Friends supported the community charge and the rate-capping legislation. We are one-nation Conservatives, who do not believe in throwing the ratepayers of Socialist boroughs to the wolves who are so uninterested in value for money.

Many points in the Bill have been considered in detail in the speeches of my hon. Friends, but there are some which have not been covered, and I should particularly like to refer to those. First, there is reference in the Bill, and rightly so, to controls over arm's-length and semi-arm's-length companies operated by local authorities, but there is no mention whatever of what I view as one of the biggest scandals of all—the Municipal and Mutual Assurance Company. Any of my hon. Friends, and, I dare say, Opposition Members who have taken up constituents' cases with that company, will have found that it does not pay out even when there is every justification. Of course, there is no reason why it should, because it is mutual, it has a captive market and it has money coming automatically from the local authorities. It has absolutely no reason to be interested in the public perception of it, and that is why it treats constituents of mine and of other Members like dirt. That needs to be dealt with.

I should also like to make one small reference to the doctrine of proportionality that has now come into the Bill. I think, broadly speaking, that it is right and proper, but I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to bear in mind the consequences of this action in places such as Hertfordshire, where the Labour-controlled county council has said that it wishes to eliminate all school governors who are not members of the Conservative, Labour or Alliance parties. I think that would be a great pity, because there must be a role on outside bodies, particularly school governing bodies, for people with no political affiliation or people whose political affiliation is not known or has been prevented from being disclosed. That is a Committee point which I think my right hon. and hon. Friends should consider.

Another point I feel strongly about, although it is a very minor issue, is the reference to the Welsh titles of districts. Of course, overwhelmingly English-speaking districts in Wales have to have their titles in both English and Welsh, education has to be conducted in English and Welsh, and many of their officers have to be fluent in both. If that is the case in overwhelmingly English-speaking districts, why in overwhelmingly Welsh-speaking districts should they not have to abide by bilingualism as well? That seems to me to be perfectly fair.

I also support the one reference in the Bill which is not really about the Department of the Environment or local government at all. It is the one giving powers to the Audit Commission to look at the Health Service. I said in an Adjournment debate almost a year ago, talking about value for money: One reason for health authorities not grasping these opportunities, except sporadically or under direction from central Government, is the absence of a parallel system to that of the Audit Commission. I believe that investment in a series of best practice units enabled to look at each health authority and make recommendations for action would repay itself many times over."—[Official Report, 28 January 1988; Vol. 126, c. 602.] The then Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) kindly said that she would look at that point, and I must take this opportunity of welcoming what the Government have announced in their White Paper and for which we shall be legislating in the Bill. The principle of Audit Commission work will be extended into the Health Service. I am sure that it will be very useful indeed.

The Bill has so many parts in it that it is almost impossible to deal with it in a Second Reading speech without going on ad nauseum, but I should like to say that I have served 11 years in local government; I have served on Conservative-controlled authorities, Labour-controlled and independent-controlled authority. All the councillors in those authorities were respected, irrespective of their party, for their integrity and commitment to the community. Sadly, that has been swept away in some local authorities, particularly in London. For that reason, and many others, I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Mr Gerry Steinberg Mr Gerry Steinberg , City of Durham 7:39 pm, 14th February 1989

Whenever we see the latest Bill with "Local Government" on the cover, we know that it will be a thoroughly malicious and pretty distasteful measure that will deprive local people of a few more of their rights to run their own affairs. We also know that we can expect that any new housing Bill will embody the same depressing philosophy, with some variation of the theme of destroying the power of local councils to provide good, cheap housing for those who require and want it.

Will the Minister confirm or deny when he winds up the debate whether, where no housing subsidy is payable to a local authority and the housing revenue account has a credit balance, that balance can be transferred to the rate fund? If that is so, it will mean that the ring-fencing proposals in the Bill will be one-way ring fencing.

Even social security has not been quite so heavily legislated against as local government and housing. In every year since 1983, there have been local government Bills and housing Bills as the Conservative party has thought of progressively worse things to do to local government and housing. There have been 15 bad Bills in only five years, but this year there is something new: the Local Government and Housing Bill—two evils rolled into one, or vindictiveness squared. I am sorry to have to say that the Bill lives up to that potential.

This two-subject Bill is a product of the Government's desire to cut down on meaningful discussion. No doubt their thinking went something like this: "Why have two Bills? Why have two Second Readings? Why have two Standing Committees? We can push it quickly through Parliament with only one of each." The fact that the Government have created a 144-clause, 11-schedule, 187-page monster in the process is probably all the better. In that way, there is always the possibility that the public might miss something.

What nobody can miss about this Bill, however, is that the desire for minimum debate has provided us with a real junk yard of a measure. The average junk yard is usually stacked full of assorted bits of debris bearing absolutely no relation to each other. The only reason that they are together is because of the whim of the owner of the junk yard. The Local Government and Housing Bill is no different, except that in place of the broken fridges and old bath tubs there are restictions on co-opting on to committees and the cuts in improvement grants. All this unrelated ideological debris from the Secretary of State for the Environment has something else in common with the junk yard. It, too, is mostly old, tatty and useless.

The Bill is dangerous in many ways. That much we have grown to expect, although not to accept, from the Conservative party. Like some of its predecessor local government Bills, however, this one goes further than that. It seems to be a growing trend— a test of political virility, almost—for each new local government Bill to carry something that is sinister along with much that is just dangerous, as though that were not bad enough on its own.

Last year, for example, there was the nasty clause 29. That was bad enough, but it was only one clause and it was almost so stupid as to be unenforceable. However, the 1989 sinister quotient has gone up to a whole part—one fifth of the entire Bill. Part I has serious implications for the civil liberties of thousands of people. Because of the shortness of my allotted time—[Interruption.] I am told by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) a maximum of 10 minutes—it is mostly on that part that I wish to concentrate.

Part I mounts a sweeping two-pronged attack on the rights of councils and their employees. The second prong of the attack is the denial to councillors of adequate facilities to govern. I shall turn to that point in a moment. The first prong of the attack is even worse. Anyone who works for any council on a salary of £13,500 or more will be breaking the law if he or she indulges in political activity of any kind. The Secretary of State was kind enough to explain to the press why he thought he needed such a colossus of a restriction. It would, he said, stop councils appointing political henchmen to key officer posts, but the absurdly low starting point takes in far more people than that.

The average wage for a secretary in London, for example, is not much less than £13,500 a year. Does a 22-year-old draughtsman on £14,000 a year in the engineers department of a local council count as a key officer post? Will he have to let an exemption officer, whom the Secretary of State may appoint, decide whether he can join Friends of the Earth, for example? I suppose that we ought to be grateful that people working in education, at least, are to be exempted automatically from the ban, but I have to tell the Secretary of State that his enormously magnanimous gesture might not mean much. Thanks to the policies of his colleague at the Department of Education and Science, I have yet to meet a schoolteacher who earns more than £13,500 a year.

As if ashamed of even this little concession, the Bill quickly throws another outrageous clause at us. Clause 2(3) provides that one does not even have to earn £13,500 a year to be politically victimised if one is involved with the media, or if the public might reasonably infer that one is in a position to influence things—even if one is not actually in such a position.

All that shows the appallingly wide extent of the Secretary of State's reforms, an extent that seems to be wildly out of proportion when compared with the problems—if any problems exist at all. The proposed restrictions will cover 70,000 people who are working in local government, the immense majority of whom are in posts of no sensitivity whatsoever. Their politics, if they have any, have never given any ratepayer a moment's concern. Their democratic freedoms should not be restricted so needlessly. Seventy thousand people is over 15 per cent. of all local authority, non-education salaried staff. If that number of people were all raving revolutionaries, the country would have been in chaos a long time ago.

There is another dimension to the arbitrary and sweeping nature of the proposals. I have already talked about numbers and salaries. There is no doubt that the Bill goes much too wide in that direction, but what about the political dimension? What will the Bill actually ban the 70,000 employees from doing? The simple answer is that we do not know; we have not been told. At least on the numerical side, the Bill lays out exactly how sweepingly awful it will be—it says clearly who will be affected—but politically, the only thing that restricted persons are explicitly forbidden to do is become a councillor or a Member of Parliament. The rest come under the catch-all subsection (5) of clause 1, which says that each affected person will have to obey such requirements as may be prescribed…by the Secretary of State.' No hint is given of what the requirements might include. I consider that to be an outrage to the authority of this House. When such an important human freedom as the right to participate fully in democracy is being discussed, we should know exactly what we are voting on. We must know just how far the Government propose to curtail freedom. I call on the Government to declare just what they propose to do with the powers that they are asking for this evening. Meanwhile, in the absence of any such guidance, I shall assume that they intend to adopt the proposals that were published last summer in their response to the Widdicombe report.

That may be too narrow an assumption. The number of politically restricted people in the Bill goes far beyond the original proposals. Perhaps the nature of the Government's restrictions will also go far beyond the original proposals. Even the original proposals were bad enough. Nobody in the restricted group would be able to hold office in any political party, speak or write publicly on matters of controversy, or even canvass in local elections. The last of those restrictions is particularly ludicrous. Somehow, I cannot see British local government being brought to its knees by a 22-year-old trainee draughtsman handing out leaflets in the high street. But the draughtsman might well be brought to his knees by the knowledge that he was less of a citizen than his exact counterpart who happened to work for ICI.

Anybody wishing to stand for a council or for Parliament would have to leave his job. This might have prevented the hon. Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) from ever reaching a selection committee, let alone the Government Front Bench. In her previous incarnation she was a social worker—a job she held right up to the election—and, given her undoubted talents, she would almost certainly be earning more than £13,500 a year by now. Whether the hon. Lady worked for a local authority or for a health authority, the point is that at least eight of her colleagues on the Benches opposite and many Members on this side came here by a path that will now be closed under this Bill.

The Local Government and Housing Bill shows us once again how badly the Government suffer from the sledge-hammer-and-nut syndrome. This one is not quite in the league of the abolition of an entire tier of government just to get rid of Mr. Livingstone—now my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East—but it does its best. Seventy thousand people are to be neutered to deal with the impartiality requirement in respect of, at most, 10,000 senior officers, most of whom are far too professional to be political anyway. What is worse, 70,000 people are to be prevented from being councillors in order to deal with, at most, 1,000 twin trackers, as they are called—and that is throughout the whole country.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that an element of malice is involved in this legislation. Nobody is claiming that local government is perfect. Indeed, in scope, one or two of its more serious misjudgments even begin to rival those of central Government. The trouble with this Bill is that it does not deal with those. Would it have stopped Westminster city council selling its cemeteries and its housing stock to developers?

The other trouble with this Bill is its double standards. For example, if Brent borough council were to engage a secret police force, keep closed files on all its ratepayers and refuse to release key committee minutes, or if Lambeth borough council's leader were to surround himself, at public expense, with a kitchen cabinet of flunkies and were to employ news manipulators on the Bernard Ingham model, and if all this came out, there would certainly be a case for legislation. But Brent and Lambeth are not responsible for those blows against democracy; somebody else is, and what an irony it is when one considers that the person who is responsible is also the person who sees fit to preach from on high about what local councils may and may not do.

Photo of Mr David Nicholson Mr David Nicholson , Taunton 7:54 pm, 14th February 1989

I shall not follow the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) in his rather lurid attacks on the first part of the Bill, although I shall say something about that in a moment.

In this huge and complex Bill there is much to welcome, but I want later to reflect the concern of my own Conservative-controlled local authority in Taunton Deane and, no doubt, of the local authorities of a number of my hon. Friends, regarding aspects of the housing parts of this Bill. Going by comment outside, those parts are seen to have limited sex appeal but are extremely important for the future of our society. I will not go so far as to describe them as a curate's egg—first, because we have heard rather too much about eggs recently, and, secondly, because my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who will reply to this debate, is a far greater expert on ecclesiastical matters than I am.

I should like to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister of State on his blitzkrieg in Somerset last week. I understand that his thoughtful response made an excellent impression on Taunton's councillors, who raised with him the concerns to which I shall refer later. He also, rightly, chided the overspending Somerset county council for its missed opportunities and for the burdens it has imposed on business and domestic ratepayers.

The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), who led for the Opposition, indulged in a variety of selective statistics, selective anecdotes and scare stories. I think that my hon. Friends the Members for Hampstead and Highgate, (Sir G. Finsberg) and for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) and, indeed, the Minister of State in interventions, largely answered the rather exaggerated points made by the hon. Member.

I come now to the Widdicombe clauses of this Bill. I welcome the implementation of so much that was in the Widdicombe report. The hon. Member for City of Durham denied that there were large numbers of revolutionaries in local government, but he completely missed the point. The purpose of the measure that he is so angry about is to eliminate from political activity council officials who are in positions of some responsibility to the public. This would not need to apply to a private sector organisation, but it does apply to the public service. Twenty years ago, I myself was a civil servant for a short time. I certainly had to subscribe to those principles and I believe that they are right.

We can argue in Committee where precisely the line should be drawn. There may be some points to be debated, but in principle the Government are right, and the fact that these measures from the Widdicombe report are included in the Bill shows that this Government are committed to protecting and promoting decent, fair and democratic local government—and that too is being denied at times by the Opposition. I believe that most local authorities—my own, certainly—will welcome those passages of the Bill. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) in his place because, in an article at the weekend, to which the Secretary of State referred, he acknowledged that there have been "instances arousing public disquiet", with which this legislation is designed to deal. We are grateful for that.

The decline in the standards prevailing in local government since the late 1960s has a close influence on the decline of the major party opposite, the Labour party in that period and the parroting of Labour party criticism of this Bill by the SLD spokesmen simply shows how far the Liberal party has shifted to the Left. I hope that this will be noted by the electors of Richmond and by the people voting in the county council elections this spring.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

They will vote Labour.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Bennett Mr Nicholas Bennett , Pembroke

Why should voters in any county council elections vote Labour or Liberal when those parties have just agreed a pact?

Photo of Mr David Nicholson Mr David Nicholson , Taunton

We shall see. The Labour and Liberal parties have been exchanging voters for the last 10 years.

I turn now to housing, which, in fact, was the subject of my maiden speech, 18 months ago, on the Second Reading of last year's Housing Bill. Again, there is much to welcome in the Bill and in recent relevant announcements. I have in mind the statement last week by the Minister of Housing, the noble Lord, Lord Caithness, on low-cost rural housing, for which I have been pressing for some time, and which is of considerable significance to parts of my constituency. It is again an indication of a responsive Government that they are stepping up measures to provide low-cost housing, where it is needed, in sparsely populated rural areas. That is very welcome.

I welcome also the improvement grant provisions in the Bill. It is encouraging and important that the improvement grant system should be revised and restructured. The English house condition survey of 1986 provided evidence of the need to target help in this respect. In England alone, half of all households lacking basic amenities, one third of those in unfit properties. and over one quarter in properties in disrepair, had annual net incomes below £3,000 in 1986. That shows just how much of a link there is between low income and poor housing. Therefore, the Government are right to proceed down the route of means-testing.

I have two questions for the Minister on this. Does he envisage that local authorities, such as the two in my constituency, which cannot at the moment provide discretionary improvement grants, will be enabled to do so by the provisions of the Bill for the categories of householders who need help? Secondly, can the Minister say where the line will be drawn regarding low income? There are plenty of people on low incomes who do not qualify for income support but who should qualify for these grants.

My local authority and my Conservative councillors in Taunton are very much concerned about the capital provisions in the Bill. I repeat what I have said before: what is sauce for the inner-city goose is not necessarily sauce for the shire-county gander. These concerns are shared by other efficient and socially concerned district councils, usually Conservative-controlled. They are worried about their ability, after 1990, to fulfil their statutory housing duties.

I wish to quote from a resolution by Taunton council last autumn. It was proposed by the leader of the council, Mr. Meikle, and seconded by the chairman of the housing committee, both of them highly respected local government members. They are concerned at the implications which will arise after April 1990, on the supposition that the tenants of a local authority have opted to remain with their local council as their landlord, it cannot be good government…not to be able to spend proper sums on the repair and renewal and improvement of the housing stock…This must imply a need for capital injection over the future years. The consultation paper…makes it impossible for many authorities to achieve this objective. As a local authority which from before 1979 has promoted the national legislation in housing, notably the sale of council houses, …we now see as almost a certainty that councils like ourselves, who have built up large capital receipts, will have our 'permissions to borrow' cut back".[Interruption.] This is not all joy for the Labour party. The council's concern is made sharper by the contrast with Labour councils.

My council says: these same areas mainly Labour Party dominated have done everything in their power for nine years to slow down the sale of council houses, thus purposefully preventing themselves from building up capital receipts from which they could have now benefited. It would appear yet again that district councils may lose resources because of a small minority of left-wing councils nationwide. With regard to the contrast between reasonably efficient district councils and some of the inner-city Labour-dominated councils, I am happy that the Government have not gone as far as some of my hon. Friends feared they might last autumn and shifted capital resources from rural or semi-rural district authorities to the inner cities. We are grateful for that.

The right-to-buy figures give a telling contrast. About a month ago, I asked my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State what proportion of council housing stock, as at 1 January 1980, had been sold under the right to buy legislation in various authorities. In Somerset, the proportion ranges from 18·7 per cent. to 26·5 per cent.; in Devon from 20·6 per cent. to 25·5 per cent.; in Dorset from 17·9 per cent. to 30·5 per cent.; and in Wiltshire from 17 per cent. to 24·2 per cent. I contrast those with the figures for certain London boroughs. In the London borough of Camden it was 2·6 per cent.; in Islington 3·4 per cent.: in Lambeth 1·5 per cent.; and in Southwark 3·5 per cent.

There is an extraordinary contrast. It militates against the Labour party, but it also shows the difficulty for certain Conservative authorities, which have implemented the right to buy, in meeting needs from the waiting list.

Photo of Mr David Nicholson Mr David Nicholson , Taunton

I am anxious to finish so that l may accommodate the hon. Gentleman.

My local authority has disposed of its land so it cannot carry out new build or offer land to housing associations for building. The number of council properties in its ownership fell from 8,504 in April 1987 to 8,243 in April 1988. The number is expected to fall by 400 or 500 each year for the next two or three years while the number on the waiting list, which is realistically composed, has risen steadily. Last Saturday, half my surgery cases had come to me because of housing problems. That was the highest proportion I had encountered in my 18 months as a Member of Parliament. I am finding that it is increasingly difficult to accommodate the housing needs of my constituents—for example, young people, perhaps with a baby, who are living with their parents.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about housing problems in my constituency, which I think are paralleled by the problems in the constituencies of many of my hon. Friends. We are talking about a totally different administrative activity or political motivation than exists in many Labour-dominated conurbations. I welcome much of the Bill. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) is to follow me but, in view of the time restriction which he has imposed on his hon. Friends, I shall not keep him any longer from his speech or his dinner.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West 8:07 pm, 14th February 1989

It takes a little manipulation, certainly on this side, for everyone to get in, but I am glad to have been able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I intend to make sure that the next Conservative Member does not have to suffer me for very long.

I find it strange that the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) should say that the Labour party and the Liberal party have changed and that that is why local government has changed. He does not recognise for a moment that there has been any change in the political complexion of the Conservative party. There has not been such an authoritarian, Right-wing Conservative Government since the war, so it is not surprising that there has been a marked change in the attitude of people involved in local government. They have been forced on to the defensive to try to defend jobs and services against the most appalling attacks made upon them personally as councillors and collectively as councils. The hon. Member could do his case more justice if he recognised that there have been major changes on his side which have created all the problems in local government today.

I dream of the constituency problems of the hon. Gentleman. It would be wonderful for me to have the problems that he has in Taunton. If he thinks that a few housing problems are beginning to creep into his constituency, he should come to Newham, where 80 per cent. of my constituency cases relate to housing. The local authority that I represent in Newham has seen its bed-and-breakfast payments go up from £52,000 in 1983 to about £5·5 million today. We cannot solve our housing problems in Newham without massive central Government support, but we do not receive that support. All that we get is abuse and attack from central Government. The hon. Gentleman will not know the way of the world unless he comes to the inner cities of London, Leeds and Manchester.

Photo of Mr David Nicholson Mr David Nicholson , Taunton

One point that I did not mention but which was extremely relevant is this. I do not know the figures for Newham, but in many of the Labour-controlled boroughs in inner London and elsewhere there are large numbers of council properties that are vacant for long periods or are not effectively used, and large numbers of vacant privately owned properties. We hope that the private rent legislation will revive such properties. That is why there is a problem in the hon. Gentleman's area and elsewhere in London.

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

The hon. Gentleman knows that the largest number of vacant properties in London is in the private sector, and they are mostly houses waiting to be sold. With property prices as high as they are in London, there is no way that anyone will rent out those properties—because the sort of people who could pay the rents could afford to pay the mortgages. In those circumstances, the idea that people will come off the housing waiting list and move into those private properties is palpable nonsense even for the hon. Member for Taunton.

The hon. Member for Taunton mentioned the proportions of housing stock sold by local authorities and quoted a number of very low percentages in London boroughs. The hon. Gentleman should know the state of some of the stock in those boroughs. Newham has 110 tower blocks, and there is no great rush of people waiting to buy a flat 20 storeys up in a tower block in Newham. That is another reason for the proportion sold being low. Those blocks were built in the 1960s and 1970s by the private sector and some of the building standards were appalling. The builders included Taylor Woodrow—and also Anglian which has now gone bankrupt. Taylor Woodrow is a well-known supporter of the Conservative party and inflicted jerry building on the London borough of Newham.

There are words that one is simply not allowed to use in this House: "lying", "cheating" and "hypocritical". Those are words that one could not apply to hon. Members without being disciplined. However, I would say that those words are most appropriate in respect of the Government's policies towards local government. It is lying, cheating and hypocritical for the Government to say that the Bill is all about improving local government and restoring the standards of local government. This Government have done more than any other to destroy the standards of public service, both at a national and at a local level. The Bill is but the latest line in the voluminous epitaph currently being written on the tombstone of local democracy.

The Government's clinical dismembering of local democracy has proceeded through a number of stages. It has proceeded through propaganda and abuse, which is echoed through the gutter press. It has proceeded through financial assault upon local authorities' affairs, forcing local authorities anxious to defend jobs and services into high rate levels. They can then be attacked by central Government as being profligate and spending too much money. Those authorities can then be financially penalised through rate capping and other financial devices. Another alleged way of improving local government is to abolish it. That seems to be the Government's attitude. We have now reached the point where the civil rights of councillors and officers are to be seriously curtailed.

The assault on local government by the present Government has been unmatched in the past 100 years. I believe that the motivation is simple. It stems from a malignant intolerance of opposition, which actually starts at No. 10 Downing street and works its way through. The Prime Minister believes that she cannot be wrong. Because she believes that, anybody who opposes her—whether from the Opposition or one of her right hon. or hon. Friends—must by definition be wrong. The Prime Minister is a natural autocrat and surrounded, of course, by a bunch of sycophants, many of whom have betrayed everything in which they once claimed to believe.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott , Hackney North and Stoke Newington

The hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) is one.

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

The hon. Gentleman has not actually practised sycophancy, he is a natural sycophant. I am not, therefore, pointing the finger specifically at him. It is the Government Front Bench that I am thinking about now.

I have read the comments of the Secretary of State for Education and Science. I believe that he is one of the most arrogant men in this House. The Secretary of State for Education and Science is one of the few people I know who can actually strut sitting down. He attends the Young Conservatives conference—the Tory party equivalent of the Hitler youth—and talks about the bully boys in local government who he claims are somehow thwarting the Government's ambitions to get schools to opt out of local education authority control. That level of hypocrisy is breathtaking, and it comes from a Government who harass, threaten, intimidate and insult elected councillors. Having sat through virtually every local government Bill and order since 1983, and many of the Committees—I hope that if the Committee of Selection draws my name out tomorrow I shall be a member of the Committee on this Bill—and having watched the Government and Conservative Members, it appears that they will change every rule and plumb every depth to achieve their political objectives.

I remember the Prime Minister in 1979—she had not actually reached her St. Francis of Assisi stage then— saying that the next Conservative Government would take Whitehall off the back of town halls. Fifty local government Bills later, can any Conservative Member say that that has been the direction of Conservative party policy since 1979? Can any Conservative Member honestly say that what we have seen since 1979 has been Whitehall being taken off the backs of the town halls?

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

The hon. Gentleman may recall that the Department of the Environment in 1979 to 1981, with my noble Friend Lord Bellwin, removed about 90 restrictions from local government. It was because local authorities such as the GLC ratted on their obligations that further legislation became necessary. They brought it upon themselves.

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

I gave way to the hon. Gentleman because he gave way to me. I wish that he had been here at the beginning because he would surely recognise that this Conservative Government are further to the Right than any since the war. They are an authoritarian, centralising Government who believe that the Prime Minister cannot be wrong. If the Prime Minister says that it must be done, Conservative Members will do it. If the Prime Minister wanted to add an eighth day to the week, she would get a majority in the Division Lobby. Conservative Members are not independent accountable Members of Parliament—they are just a bunch of followers, time-servers and sycophants who will give the Prime Minister anything she wants, including the destruction of local democracy that we have seen since 1979. All the problems of local government stem from the policies of central Government. The Bill is yet one further attempt to dismantle local democracy and accountability. I look forward to being on the Committee to argue the case in more detail than I have today.

Photo of Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes , Wimbledon 8:18 pm, 14th February 1989

It is almost three years since I took the Widdicombe report on holiday. It is not a light read, either in fact or in content, but I welcome the Government's courage in bringing forward the vast bulk of its proposals.

The House now has the opportunity to set a new pattern for the conduct of local authority business into the future. I do, however, have a more personal interest in seeing this most important matter coming before the House. In 1984 I set up a working party to examine apparent abuses in local government. The result was the publication of "The New Corruption", which the Secretary of State for the Environment of the time, now Lord Jenkin of Roding, acknowledged both in this House and on public platforms as a major factor in the setting-up of the Widdicombe committee. In addition to the pamphlet, a portfolio of evidence was submitted to the Secretary of State for consideration.

I should like to record the particular interest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), who made a typically worthy contribution to the debate earlier. He was then the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment. He endorsed the project and monitored its progress and his well-known fair-mindedness was a constant encouragement at a time when local government was not considered a politically exciting issue. At that time those living in the shires or the leafy suburbs did not have a clue what we were talking about. I fear that that is still true.

The background to this debate is well known. The election of the Tory Government in 1979 precipitated the predictable clash with the trade union movement, and, less predictably, confrontation with forces in local government, which were increasingly hostile to the philosophy of the incoming Government. I can say for the benefit of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) that the role of local government was described in a "London Labour Briefing" of February 1982 as a weapon in the class struggle'. It was also described in a Greater London council publication of April 1984 as an efficient means of redistributing resources". That role was under threat, and as the emotional level rose, so did the stakes. The Government questioned the propriety of the actions and the funding of council campaigns, and the councils hit back. By the time of the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan counties, no less than £15 million of ratepayers' money had been swallowed up by the campaigns to prevent the demise of the mega-councils. That represents more than the total amount spent by all the political parties in the 1983 general election campaign. To some extent Patrick Jenkin became a victim of the system he attacked.

I have no wish to revive the old party political hobby horses about the questionable causes to which ratepayers' funds were committed. We could all trot out familiar phrases, but the "propaganda on the rates" issue was largely tackled by the Local Government Act 1986 following Widdicombe's interim report. I welcome the fact that the thrust of that report has been continued in part III of the Bill.

We should not forget that for many hitherto politically unaware people it seemed that an almost alien creed had been superimposed on the traditional structure of local government, whether run by traditional Labour or Tory councils. To have a red flag flying over the town hall in Islington a few hundred yards from my house was a cultural and a political shock. It educated me and many of my colleagues who sharpened their political teeth in Islington.

"The New Corruption", so named to draw a distinction between that and the old-style personal financial corruption, was written from a particular political viewpoint. Many of the malpractices identified, however, could have been perpetrated in the future by parties diametrically opposed to those around in the 1980s which were able to set in place an apparatus, fully funded by the ratepayer, to challenge central Government. The long-established convention of properly run local government, serving a particular community, was under threat. I hear some mutterings from the Opposition Benches and lest anyone should doubt the force of my argument I refer to the Fabian Society tract "Managing Local Socialism", which was published in 1986 and which quoted my work with approval.

Legislation—necessary only because of the misconduct of various councils—must be put in place to restore a proper framework. As the cry, "Yes, Minister" has become a catchphrase, now is the time to say "No, councillor". I congratulate the Secretary of State on producing the Bill hard on the heels of so many other radical changes in the structure and funding of local government. It is recognition of the fact that the operation of the new system will be prejudiced in the absence of a proper ethical grounding.

I shall confine my remarks to the first three parts of the Bill in so far as they derive from the Widdicombe report. Perhaps the most important part of the Bill is the recognition given to the status of the chief executive, described somewhat coyly in the Bill as the: head of the authority's paid service". He may also be designated as the monitoring officer. Amidst all this jargon is the core of the thinking behind the Bill—the necessity for someone in an authority to be able to blow the whistle if prima facie malpractices are identified, without risking the sack.

The chief executive needs and deserves the protection of the Bill and from this rightly privileged position much else flows. The traditional political neutrality of him and his colleagues is established by their appointment on merit alone. Furthermore, their designation as holding "politically restricted posts" will disqualify them from seeking elected office. After all, no reasonable observer would think it right for senior local government officers to be politically active elsewhere. The ludicrous practice of what I described as "cross-employment"—that description has now been overtaken by two less elegant ones, "dual tracking" or "twin tracking", which have a transatlantic ring about them—will be brought to an end. No longer will an officer in one council be able to sit as a councillor on a neighbouring council with the inevitable conflict of interests that have been pointed out by many of my hon. Friends. If a politically sensitive appointment is judged appropriate and is made on merit, everyone knows about it and it is all in the open.

Many other measures are long overdue. Why should co-opted members on committees have the right to vote? Why should the political balance on councils not be reflected in the make-up of committees? Of course party caucuses can have deliberate meetings, but why on earth should decisions ever be made in camera? All those issues, which would seem ordinary common sense and fair play to the man in the street, are now addressed in the Bill.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott , Hackney North and Stoke Newington

It will not do to criticise, by implication, Labour councils without thinking carefully of the practices of some Conservative councils. I served for four years on Westminster city council which was in the habit of taking crucial decisions in camera—it still does. What is more, whatever the alleged iniquities of Labour authorities, now and in the past, we have never stooped to peddling cemeteries at 15p apiece.

Photo of Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes , Wimbledon

I can give joy to the hon. Lady, because all my remarks apply equally to all councils whatever their political persuasion and equally to any alleged cases of malpractice by Tory or Labour-controlled councils.

To put the mind of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West at rest, and so that I do not appear sycophantic, there are two areas in which I believe the Government are being unusually timid—one does not usually apply that adjective to this Administration. First, I refer to the updating of the national code of local government conduct, which is covered in clause 23. If the purpose of the code is to encourage councillors to avoid conflict of interests, I am at a loss to understand why it should not incorporate a compulsory register of non-pecuniary as well as pecuniary interests. That would stamp out many abuses whereby funds have been voted to particular organisations in which councillors have an interest, perhaps as paid workers. In the past complex networks had been built up amounting almost to a sub-culture rather than genuine voluntary service.

Photo of Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes , Wimbledon

I anticipated the hon. Gentleman because I shall call in aid the evidence given to the Royal Commission on the standards of conduct in public life by the Society of Labour Lawyers, no less.

The second area in which the Government appear to have been timid relates to standing orders. Given the widespread and well-documented manipulation of standing orders in various councils, I am somewhat dismayed that according to clause 16 the Secretary of State "may" require authorities to adopt certain procedures.

Why not have a compulsory element to protect the interests which after all are there to protect minority parties? Copies of my booklet will be available—

Hon. Members:


Photo of Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes Dr Charles Goodson-Wickes , Wimbledon

Perhaps not in the Vote Office; but they will be available from me, if the hon. Gentleman cares to cross my path. I shall even peg it at a level of £2·25. In these days of low inflation, I shall gladly peg the price and hon. Members can line up for it.

With those reservations, on which I shall value the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I applaud his further move towards better financial and political accountability in local government. As the community charge is a major step towards that end, so these measures will largely confine abuses to local government history, along with the embattled ratepayer who has financed them. I am confident that the previous experience of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government in Smith square, Church house and Brussels will allow him to fight successfully his latest battle to strengthen the democratic process.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North 8:30 pm, 14th February 1989

The restriction on many local government employees standing for election to serve on another authority is yet another and major undermining of basic civil liberties by the Tory Government. Just over five years ago, there was the Government ban on union membership at GCHQ. Today, the Government propose to take away the ability of many people serving in local government to exercise their right to stand for election to a local authority or, indeed, to the House.

I understand that, although the Bill does not cover teachers—I hope that the Minister will refer to this when winding up—it is reported in at least one newspaper today that some Conservative Members believe that teachers should be included. I also understand that the Government are considering some sort of compromise in Committee, whereby head teachers would be caught by such a ban.

It is certainly not for this Government, of all Governments, to talk about jobs for the boys. The Government have filled every conceivable type of public appointment with their supporters and sympathisers. Without exception, all the quangos, for instance, have been packed with those who have close connections with the Tory party. When it comes to appointments to these and other bodies, the basic criterion is clear. The words of the Prime Minister are well known: "Is he or she one of us?" That is the only criterion that counts. The use of prime ministerial and ministerial patronage has been as extensive and corrupting under this administration as the sale of honours by Lloyd-George.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Bennett Mr Nicholas Bennett , Pembroke

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Can he tell us what was the criterion used by the Labour Government when they appointed Lord Wigg to be chairman of the Horserace Betting Levy Board, or Lord Thomson of Monifieth to be chairman of the IBA, or Lord Aylestone to be chairman of the IBA before him? Numerous other Labour Members were created peers and made chairmen of quangos. What was the criterion used there?

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

The hon. Gentleman, if he wishes, can go into the Library and look up all the appointments that were made by the previous Labour Government and those made by this Government. He will find that certain appointments were indeed made by the Labour Government of Labour supporters and former Ministers. That has never been unknown in previous Administrations. I am not denying that it happened under Labour. Clearly it did so. But it has gone much, much further under this Government. That is the very point.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

I shall not give way again.

The very point that I am trying to make is not that political appointments by a Government were unknown, but that under this Government they have become so extensive and corrupting. It is interesting to note that the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), the former Conservative Leader and Prime Minister, said very recently in a debate on the Official Secrets Bill that the press office at 10 Downing street is being run in a corrupt way. We all know that the influence of Mr. Bernard Ingham is far greater on the Prime Minister than that of any member of the Cabinet.

The parts of the Bill that deal with housing finance are no less offensive than the matters that I have just raised. The clauses are meant to discourage many council housing tenants from staying with a local authority, because of the much higher rents that will undoubtedly be charged.

We rightly accuse the Government, although they deny it, of being in the business of doing away with the National Health Service or bringing about the position where only the poorest and most chronically sick are likely to use the service. But what cannot be brought about outright in the NHS, for purely political reasons, of course, will be achieved far more quickly with the public rented sector. The Government have made it perfectly clear in the White Paper and the consultative document that they do not believe that local authorities should be in the business of council house building. That is the big divide between the two sides of the House.

The Government also strongly believe that the number of rented dwellings in the public sector should be substantially reduced. It is hoped that in due course, with the regular and substantial rent increases that will undoubtedly occur if the Bill becomes law, only the poorest in the community are likely to remain as council tenants. Those people are not likely to be taken in as tenants by private landlords or even by housing associations. That is the role of the local housing authorities, as the Government see it. It is quite different from what has been established over many years.

To a large extent, what I have just said is borne out by the consultative paper "New Financial Regime for Local Authority Housing in England and Wales". Paragraph 14 of the paper brings to the attention of tenants their right to exercise an option to buy a property, or what is described as a "tenants' choice". It is saying, in effect, that the Government want to see this brought about. In plain English the message could not be plainer. The Secretary of State did not deny, although he accused us of some exaggeration, that the sort of rent levels that he would like to see are those described in the White Paper and the consultative document. Therefore the message is, "If you do not like what is happening, agree to buy or vote yes to a private landlord taking over your property."

That is much like the blackmail used over housing action trusts. Council tenants have now been allowed to exercise a vote, against the Government's original wishes, as a result of the Government accepting the Lords amendment, but the blackmail used by the Secretary of State is, "Well, if you do not agree to going into a housing action trust, it is quite likely the funds will not be available from Government for your property to be brought up to modern standards." That is blackmail. We are concerned not just about the abuse of patronage but about the use of blackmail and other such tactics, which Ministers use when they are anxious to get their way.

I served on a local authority before originally becoming a Member of the House, and I know that those who serve on local authorities do so because they have a feeling of duty and responsibility, although of course there are some exceptions. In my view, that rule certainly does not apply to Lady Porter and the manner in which Westminster city council is being run in such a corrupt way.

The hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) asked what was wrong with the contract of the chief executive who is retiring from Westminster city council. What is so offensive about it is clear. As my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) said, there is a clause saying, in effect, that the chief executive has a duty not to reveal anything of what has taken place. Clearly if he does so, the contract will be broken in the eyes of the leadership of Westminster city council who drew up the contract. That is what we find so offensive.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

As my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) says, that is what we think is so disgraceful.

I do not happen to believe that there is anything wrong in the way in which local authorities have used the existing discretionary powers for contributions to be made for council housing, especially because of the substantial reduction in subsidies for local authority housing since this Government have been in office. To ring fence the housing revenue accounts of authorities in the way set out in the Bill must cause large rent increases. That of course is the major purpose of the exercise.

The change in the funding of rent rebates is equally offensive. Although the Secretary of State tried to deny it, it means in effect that the housing benefit for the poorest council tenants will be paid for by other council tenants through much higher rents. In other words, the relatively poor will subsidise the poorest in the community. It has always been accepted—by Tory Administrations as well—that assistance for the relief of poverty should come from national sources, but under the Bill it will come from council tenants who are not in receipt of benefit. That is certainly wrong. It will undoubtedly cause much hardship to those who have to bear the burden.

There are many other matters in the Bill which cannot be dealt with in a 10 or 12-minute speech on Second Reading. For example, capital receipts will be used for loan purposes, and not, as promised by a previous Secretary of State, for housing.

I cannot deal with all the issues because many other hon. Members still wish to speak, but let me say finally that Britain faces an acute housing crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people are desperate for accommodation. I make no apology for repeating this: just a short distance down the road, five or seven minutes walk away at most, tonight as on previous nights, no matter how cold it is, people are sleeping in cardboard boxes. They are by no means all tramps. Many have come to London to find work. In some cases, although not all, they have found a job but simply cannot find any accommodation, and there is nothing in the Bill that will allow them to do so.

There are many other people, as we know, living with their young children in bed-and-breakfast or hostel accommodation in the most squalid conditions in which no one in a country such as ours should be allowed to live in the 1980s. There are many others, including some of my own constituents, not living in such bad conditions, but living with their parents or in-laws in overcrowded accommodation.

The reason is understandable. We all know it. The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) said that most people who come to his constituency surgeries have housing problems, and the same applies to me and my hon. Friends. Those constituents cannot afford a mortgage, even when the mortgage interest rate is not so high. They cannot afford the privately rented sector. They cannot pay market rents. If they could afford them, they would almost certainly be owner-occupiers. Therefore, they are faced with that dilemma of finding adequate accommodation at a rent they can afford.

Earlier, a Conservative Member spoke with pride about the number of council dwellings that have been sold. What about the number of council dwellings that have not been built? This year it is likely that the number of council dwellings completed in England and Wales will be no more than about 12,000. That means tremendous hardship and misery. That is why the Bill has no relevance to Britain's housing crisis; why the Bill is so offensive in all its clauses; why the Bill will bring no relief to the people to whom I have been referring; and why the Opposition have every justification for voting against it.

Several Hon. Members:


Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

Order. I understand that the Front-Bench spokesmen will seek to catch my eye at about 10 minutes past 9, so 28 minutes of debating time remains for Back Benchers. I hope that we shall have brief speeches.

Photo of Mr Richard Holt Mr Richard Holt , Langbaurgh 8:42 pm, 14th February 1989

It is interesting that I should be selected by you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to speak after the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). He and I served on the London borough of Brent council from its inception in 1963–64. I have to go back to those days to find the start of the decline in the relationship between central and local government.

I am pleased to see that proportional committees will be established by the Bill. I am particularly in favour of that because, after the London borough of Brent elections in 1963, 31 Labour councillors and 29 Conservative councillors were elected. At the first inaugural meeting of the council, the hon. Member for Walsall, North was one of those who fervently supported the fact that all 10 aldermanic benches went to the Labour party, thus distorting the electorate's wish by packing the committees. It has taken the Government 25 years to catch on to that and to introduce legislation to ensure proportional representation on the committees.

That was the beginning of the slide into argument between central and local government. The political editor of the Local Government Chronicle recently said in an article about me that I had the widest, longest and broadest experience in local government of any hon. Member. As I have worked my way through different authorities I have seen the changes that have taken place. Over the past 25 years, Labour-controlled local authorities have sought to confront the Government and so the situation in which we now find ourselves has been inevitable.

I have criticised the Government because they are still tinkering with the problems. We are told that this will be the 50th Act of its kind. Until somebody recognises that the real problem is that Britain has too much local government, we shall always have debates and legislation that does no more than tinker with the problem.

Why is it necessary for an electorate to have a town council, a district or borough council and a county council which can all levy a rate? On top of that, there are the Government and the European Assembly. There are far too many tiers of local government. However, that does not apply throughout the country, because outer London boroughs do not have an upper tier or even a lower tier. For all its faults—this may be a political argument—Brent, one of the outer London boroughs, was at least a homogeneous unit without the conflicts that we now have as a result of so many local authorities.

The people of Skelton in my constituency are up in arms because the town council has increased the rate this year to 2p. That is a massive increase by any normal standards, but perfectly allowable under the Bill. The Government have failed to accept my advice on this and on previous occasions that there should be a limitation on the amount of money that town councils can raise through their precepts. The Government have done nothing. Just four years ago a Conservative Government abolished the limitation on the amount of money that parish and town councils can take.

That increase is on top of a projected rate of 299p in the pound for my constituents in Cleveland next year. It is said that that is only a 6 per cent. increase, but it is 6 per cent. on a high base. It is 299p for the county and we have yet to hear what the district rate will be. Already we know one of the towns is charging 2p.

People talk about unemployment problems and the generation of employment in the north-east, but is it any wonder when the entrepreneurs and business men from Japan and elsewhere come to Britain and, before they manufacture a thing, they see the dead weight of the rate burden from three tiers of local authorities which they will have to bear? It is far too much.

What is all the money being spent on in Cleveland? That is a good question, because many people cannot find out. But they may be able to find out how much it cost to employ Vincent Hanna and his circus for a few lousy months last year while he was trying to put a gloss on the activities of the people involved in the Cleveland sex abuse case. What a shambles that was. There were two doctors, one out of his or her mind and the other nearly so, bringing havoc to the people of Cleveland, and the local authority trying to cover that up left, right and centre by spending money which we have not had the opportunity to debate in the House despite my requests on no fewer than 12 occasions. At the same time, Cleveland county council put up the rates for all those who live there.

I urge the Government to look again at the construction of local government.

After all, we now have the urban development corporations—creatures of this Government brought in because of the stagnation and waste of time of local authorities, which have failed miserably in the north-east of England to rise to the challenge of their responsibilities. Only now are we beginning to get some regeneration on Teesside. The last bulletin of the Teesside chamber of commerce talked of the boom times now ahead as a result of the Teesside development corporation, not as a result of the dead hand of the local authorities. So why do we need so many tiers of local government? Perhaps it is in order to find jobs for some of the Labour councillors and county councillors.

Let us look at the twinning there is in the Cleveland area. How can we justify a personnel officer on full pay employed by Middlesbrough council being seconded completely and fully, without any duties and responsibilities left, to work as a full-time county councillor for the Cleveland county council? To add salt to the wound, it has been necessary to recruit a replacement because of the work not being done by the full-time councillor as a consequence of that decision.

We have too many layers of local authority. We have leisure and social services being looked after by everybody. And what calibre of people are we bringing into local government as a consequence of all this? Perhaps my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has not read the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette of about two weeks ago, which reported that two county councillors had to be separated because they were physically fighting in the library of the town hall, and the police had to be brought in. I hesitate to use the word gentleman. One of those males was a member of the police committee and the other was a justice of the peace. How can we expect our young people to be given guidance and leadership by Cleveland county council when people of that sort are councillors? I look forward to the day when there may be some strictures by the central Government regarding whom we can and cannot have in local government representing the people.

We have someone on Cleveland county council who was elected to represent the town of Lofthouse in my constituency. He was the local vicar, and he scarpered; we are not quite sure with which lady. Consequently, the people of Lofthouse have been virtually without a county councillor for the past two years. I believe that he puts in a token attendance at county hall in order not to be disqualified under the current legislation. The Labour party would be terrified of having a by-election in that town because the Conservative party, which now controls the town council, would undoubtedly win the seat. Why is there not some legislation to ensure that those elected as councillors and county councillors do the job properly and are not employed elsewhere?

I am surprised and sorry that we do not have any limitations on the financial earnings of councillors and county councillors. Perhaps by doing away with twin tracking we shall do away with the concept of being an officer of more than one authority, but we shall not have done away with the duplication of people who are both councillors and county councillors, and in some cases town councillors.

Then there is the way in which allowances can be boosted. In Middlesbrough one does not have to be on a committee to obtain the allowance for any night. A councillor can go along to the committee room and if any councillor on his side is missing he can substitute for him and draw the allowance. He is there for two or three minutes and then he leaves. That is all that is necessary.

I drew to the attention of the House some three or four years ago the situation in Middlesbrough under the standing orders of the council, which enable any councillor to hold a ward surgery in his own home. It does not matter if nobody turns up; he can still claim the full allowance. He can sit at home with his slippers on, watching television, and claim the full allowance. That is the sort of abuse to which the Government have yet to address themselves. So I hope that this is not the last of the Bills that the Government will be bringing forward but is merely a step further along the road.

Photo of Mr Richard Holt Mr Richard Holt , Langbaurgh

I will willingly give way if the hon. Gentleman wants to come in. Does he want to come in or not?

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

Order. l am here to deal with that.

Photo of Mr Richard Holt Mr Richard Holt , Langbaurgh

I appreciate that you are there, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but if the hon. Gentleman wants to interrupt I will willingly give way. If he does not, will he shut up?

Photo of Mr Bernie Grant Mr Bernie Grant , Tottenham

Will the hon. Gentleman, instead of giving us a fictitious situation, give us a concrete example of a case in which abuse has occurred in Cleveland county council or any of the other councils that he has named? Let him name names.

Photo of Mr Richard Holt Mr Richard Holt , Langbaurgh

I have already told the House that two county councillors were fighting. It is a matter of record. I have said that under standing orders one can claim for a surgery carried out in one's own home. That, too, is a matter of record. So I do not have to name names.

The politicisation of county councils occurred almost immediately after the war. Prior to 1950 almost every councillor in the country was an independent. After 1950 the Labour party started to fight as a party, and later on the Conservatives caught up and commenced to do the same. The Labour party has sought whenever possible to get round the legislation of the day and to circumvent the activities of central Government. It is regrettable that local government is not what it was and that the people who are going into local government are not what they were. Certainly, that is true in many instances of the officers who serve in local government today. We shall not be able to turn the clock back. How can we when the Derbyshire county council appoints a man such as Race, who has no experience or knowledge whatsoever, as its chief officer? That is what we are up against.

There are innumerable instances of abuses by local government, particularly Cleveland county council, which is without a doubt among the most profligate in the country. Regrettably, I do not have time to go into details of all of them tonight, but there is one thing I would like to draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, because I believe that she may have the ear of another hon. Member.

Cleveland county council is for ever screaming and moaning that it has not enough money to mend the roads, the potholes and the pavements. Yet, according to this year's report of the council, it has underspent its allocation by a quarter of a million pounds. If it had any organisation whatsoever, if it was in any way capable, I should not have my constituents complaining to me about the roads, while the funds generously given by central Government are lying wasted and unspent. I would not mind if it were the first year, but I believe that it is the second or perhaps the third year running that the same situation has prevailed. So there is much that can still be done to make local government more efficient. Another example is the advertisement for a chief cleansing engineer placed by Cleveland county council in the most recent issue of the Sunday Times. That quarter-page advertisement must have cost 25 to 30 per cent. of the engineer's annual salary.

Local authorities under Labour control, and serving areas represented by Labour Members of Parliament, moan and groan about the Bill. I am moaning and groaning because it does not go far enough. It is time to review local government's duties, responsibilities and financing.

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

I very much regret that my plea for very brief speeches has fallen on deaf ears.

Photo of John Battle John Battle , Leeds West 8:58 pm, 14th February 1989

In the time available to me, I shall point, as other right hon. and hon. Members have done, to those parts of the Bill dealing with housing. When debating the Housing Act 1988, we warned that that landlords' charter would lead to market rents—meaning high rents. Even the Government's consultants are warning local authorities to be wary of the large-scale transfer of council estates because tenants do not perceive it as an improving step. The Government now have a big problem. The shift to private-sector landlords will not happen, unless this Bill results in pricing people out of council housing and into purchasing their own council property—with the benefit of a subsidy, which will be cheaper than paying rent—or into insecure private rented accommodation.

The Bill's effects on housing finance will mean higher rents. I invite the Minister to spell out the Government's figures of the rents that people will have to pay as a result of the changes that the Bill makes. Will he confirm or deny the claim made by the Secretary of State for the Environment two years ago, that market rents for council housing ought to be at least £35 per week? If so, many council tenants will be interested to know that. The ring-fencing proposals could lead to rent rises of about 20 per cent.

The public expenditure White Paper that the House debated last week showed that the number of houses built by local authorities will drop from 15,000 this financial year to 6,000 by 1991–92. The Economist commented on the White Paper: Social housing will be hard to find and far more costly to rent. That is the message from the new statistics in the white paper's chapters devoted to the environment department.

I do not have time to go into as much detail as have other right hon. and hon. Members, but the proposals affecting housing benefit will mean that some tenants will, through their rents, be paying the housing benefit of other council tenants. Conservative Members suggest that there is nothing wrong with that arrangement, but why is it that only those receiving housing benefit are being denied a share of the national cake? Why are the Government not reconsidering the housing assistance that is given in the form of mortgage tax relief? It seems that tax reductions and relief are given only to the better off in our society, and that it will be the poor who are forced to rely on the local state—back to the traditions of parish relief. How will the people face up to the level of poll tax that their local authority will have to impose on them also, in order to assist the poor in their area?

I can, surprisingly, welcome one provision in the Bill, and about which I ask the Minister for more detail. I refer to clause 130 and to schedule 8(3), which contain a hint that powers to check up on houses in multiple occupancy will be included. It appears that local authority powers in respect of houses in multiple occupancy will be amended. The schedule's contents are minimal, but could provide an appropriate peg. I shall be interested to know whether the Government have any intention of writing into the Bill realistic and practical proposals for dealing with multiple occupancy housing. Six out of 10 of an estimated 334,000 houses in multiple occupancy are in a serious state of disrepair, and four out of five lack a satisfactory means of escape from fire. I invite the Government to expand further on their intentions in that regard.

The hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) openly states his belief that, despite there being 50 local government Bills since 1979, there is still too much local government. I wonder how much he speaks for his right hon. and hon. Friends. I believe that the Bill's intention is to put the final cap on local government.

In an interview in Today published on 25 February 1988, the Prime Minister presented her vision of Britain in the year 2000. She envisaged that it will herald a golden age for Britain, and a new Elizabethan age of enterprise and advance. She refers with admiration to the great days when wealthy merchants built libraries, art galleries, schools and civic buildings, and to the burghers who built and ran the large cities of Britain. Perhaps she sees the re-emergence of the business man or financier, who may chair the local health authority and the city's urban development corporation, and serve as president of the chamber of commerce, as well as being a leading Tory in the community.

That person will hold the power that is currently held by local government. I imagine that in the year 2000 that person will arrange a dinner to which will be invited other business personalities, and on that occasion the tenders which will provide for what remains of the basic city services will be opened and divided up. That will happen once a year, and it will be the end of the road for local government.

Is that the reduction in the activities of local government that the Government want to achieve? We are bound to ask that question in view of some of the comments of Conservative Back Benchers. However benevolent those merchants and business men may be, they will be unelected and unaccountable locally.

I remind the House of what the Widdicombe committee said in chapter 3 of its report, entitled The role and purpose of local government. Widdicombe suggested that the threefold purpose was pluralism, participation and the need for a responsive local government. The report said: The case for pluralism was again influential in the 19th century when modern local government and the popular franchise were introduced. For Lord Salisbury, whose 1886–92 administration created county councils…these two phenomena were of linked significance. Salisbury proposals for local government were based on a fear not of centralising monarchs but of the centralising tendencies of a popular franchise. In his view, the enfranchisement of the working class would make welfare politics the central electoral issue, and lead inexorably to the rise of a powerful administrative state. This could be avoided only by the creation of new local authorities whose value as counterweights would be realised `by diminishing the excessive and exaggerated powers' of central government. Do the Government still agree with that basic principle of local government as set out by Lord Salisbury?

Widdicombe continued: More recently precisely the same arguments, if less politically stated, are to he found in the Reports of Redcliffe-Maud. Wheatley and Layfield … eg … 'By providing a large number of points where decisions are taken by people of different political persuasion' … it acts as counterweight to the uniformity inherent in government decisions. It spreads political power. Will the Minister explain how the Bill spreads political power? It centralises political power by diminishing, if not eliminating, political opposition. That is built into the measure. Are the Government taking seriously those remarks of Widdicombe in introducing the Bill? We need to be convinced that the Government are not going in the opposite direction. If we cannot be convinced on that score, then it seems that this, the 50th Bill on local government since 1979, will be read in the future as an epitaph for local government.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith 9:07 pm, 14th February 1989

This is a centralising Bill which undermines and demoralises local government. It is yet another step by the Government in destroying local democracy as we have known it in this country for so many years. The Government do not trust local electorates and, for that reason, they seek to emasculate local authority democracy. Councillors, both Tory and Labour, will resent the broad thrust of the Bill. The Government intend to restrict the right of officers to speak or write publicly on controversial issues, to canvass or to hold office in a political party. The Home Secretary and the Prime Minister tell us that we should think in terms of active citizenship, but the Bill means that we cannot he active citizens in the way that they want us to be.

One of the most telling interventions by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) was to the effect that many hon. Members, including one on the Government Front Bench—I can think of two—would not have found their way into this House in the way that they did if the Bill had been law. Nor would those two Ministers have been able to become councillors and do their job in local authorities elsewhere.

In an intervention the Minister said that the only objections that the Opposition could dig up about Tory councils related to Westminster, but he was fundamentally wrong in more than one respect. Our objections are based not merely on the amount paid to Mr. Brooke of Westminster council, but on the fact that he has been given a contract that binds him to silence—he has been bought with £1 million. The Minister knows that the document involved exists because my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) has brought it to the attention of the House and of the public.

The Conservative party cannot lecture anyone on the behaviour of councillors, and the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) of all people has no right to do so. He could start lecturing Members of Parliament about some of the activities that he described, but if we start to do that, do we not also undermine this place? Suppose that we accuse Members of Parliament of not coming here, of not doing their job, of losing their tempers from time to time—of fighting and waving the Mace above their heads, indeed, for is that not a right? Are we to follow that up by saying that Members of Parliament must not be allowed to serve in this place?

Photo of Mr Richard Holt Mr Richard Holt , Langbaurgh

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

Perhaps I may take the argument a little further before the hon. Gentleman is so unwise as to intervene.

We are not talking only about Westminster council. Horsham council has the audacity to use an empty council house as property and office for the local Conservative party. Portsmouth councillors are stripped of their authority because they acted as estate agents dealing with planning and housing matters without the right to do so, and indeed gave preferential advantages to people which led to their being disciplined. Nottinghamshire county council is also Tory-controlled, as is Harrow council. A Harrow Member was worried about what was happening in his neighbouring authority, where a Conservative councillor accepts that he was paid a quarter of a million pounds for assisting a planning application by Sainsbury's—which was successful.

It does not stop there; it extends as far as Bradford, and beyond into central Government. Who would think that Bernard Ingham is not paid by the taxpayer, and is used in an entirely inappropriate manner? Who has ever believed that health authorities are not stacked by the Prime Minister with her supporters? Who believes that the Ministry of Defence does not have Conservative supporters put in place at public expense? Has anyone seen the new National Health Service video, paid for by the taxpayer? The video is supposed to be shown to staff in all the hospitals—at considerable public expense—and who is the star of stage and screen who opens it? It is none other than the Prime Minister. That is the way in which the Government use taxpayers' money, yet some Conservative Members say that councils should not behave in a similar way.

What happened on the Housing Bill? Particularly nasty information has been put out by the Government and by Conservative councils, paid for by the taxpayer, which is known to be misleading and false and which has caused acute anxiety and distress to elderly people who do not want their homes to be transferred over their heads through a rigged voting system. This is the Government who try to tell people that councils are behaving badly, but if they are indeed behaving badly perhaps they are just following the Government's lead.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

I do not want to give way to the hon. Gentleman, because by making a very long speech he managed to prevent hon. Members on both sides of the House who wanted to speak from doing so.

The difference between us and the Tory party is not that we think it a good idea to swap stories about one local authority versus another, good or bad, but that we believe in leaving it to the judgment of the electorate. Let the ballot box decide at local government elections. Let the people decide. The Government do not believe that. They believe that local people are not to be trusted to exercise their judgment and vote out councillors who behave badly, whether for fighting, financial mismanagement or whatever. The Government believe that that can be achieved through centralised control. That is the difference between our approach and that of the Government.

When we are asked to restrict councillors and officers, why not restrict them from participating in the private sector? Given that there will be more privatisation why do we not take a tougher line on local government officers who serve on, take over or set up private companies? What about dual interests there? In Rochester upon Medway, where there is a Conservative council, the entire housing staff are doing a management buy-out of all council housing in the area. Who is issuing the advice leaflets? It is the housing staff who are advising people about the circumstances of the deal and how it is to their advantage to accept it. Never mind whether the deal is to their advantage—the leaflet is not neutral but a clear attempt to influence their decision and it ought not to be allowed.

Photo of Mrs Peggy Fenner Mrs Peggy Fenner , Medway

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

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

I challenge the Minister to say categorically that no local authority disposing of its property should have the officers who are taking over the property advising people about the advantages of the transfer. That should be done by independent bodies.

Photo of Mrs Peggy Fenner Mrs Peggy Fenner , Medway

The hon. Gentleman recently paid a visit to my constituency. I can tell him that the tenants in my constituency will have a ballot on the proposal. I can also tell him that since the management takeover of the local bus company there has been one complaint in two years, which is far less than when the service was run by the National Bus Company. It is not for the hon. Gentleman to tell my constituents what to vote for. They have voted four times for a Conservative local authority and three times for a Conservative national Government.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

I can tell the hon. Lady that I shall probably return to her constituency. I can also tell her that the tenants will vote against the proposal as 300 of them turned up at the meeting at which I spoke. They object to the way in which the council is ramming it down their throats with a blatantly misleading leaflet which refers to a contract that does not exist. There is no contract. The leaflet says that the contract will give tenants the same security that they had before, but there is no such contract anywhere. If the hon. Lady went to a solicitor and said, "I have been advised to sign this and to vote for it, but I have been told that the contract does not yet exist," would the solicitor advise her to sign? Of course not, but that is what the hon. Lady is advising her constituents to do. If they are so unwise as to vote for a Conservative council again—I suspect that they will not be tempted to do so next time—they will pay a high price in areas where the people have been cornered in the way that her council is trying to corner its tenants. I want a guarantee from the Minister that where council officers are involved in such deals the advice that is distributed is independent.

We do not have to turn to the Labour party's views on these issues. The last time that I used the Association of District Councils as an example, I got it into trouble with the Prime Minister's office. Officials were ringing up and saying, "Don't give all that stuff to the Labour party as they keep using it against us." To the credit of the Association of District Councils, it was more interested in local government than in the Tory party, although it is controlled by the Tory party.

My next quote comes not from the ADC but from another Conservative-controlled organisation, the London Boroughs Association. The word that crops up over and over again in the LBA's briefing document about the Bill is "restrictive". It continually refers to the restrictive implications of the Bill. Talking about the balance on committees, the association says that it is concerned that as presently drafted independent members may not attend any meetings except full Council meetings. It does not think that the matter is properly dealt with in the Bill.

On economic development, the document continues: The Association is anxious that no undue restriction should be placed upon local authorities' new powers to participate in economic development and will be represented on a working party which is being set up by the Government to explore these issues.

On discretionary spending, the association says-this is a powerful little quote: Moreover, the offset of money given to voluntary bodies will severely limit the ability of local authorities to support voluntary groups serving the needs of the local community". So much for the Government's concern for the local sector.

The association says of credit approvals: It is a matter of simple justice that an authority which generates capital receipts should have the use of them without incurring compensating reductions in its borrowing powers and this is vital to maintain the incentive for authorities to promote the Right to Buy and other disposals of stock.

On Clauses 56 to 62, the association says about companies in which local authorities have interests: The Association is very concerned that, as drafted, the provisions will inhibit the ability of local authorities to become involved in local initiatives and will restrict such companies by imposing inappropriate local authority financial procedures.

The way in which the Bill deals with housing issues—to which a number of hon. Members have referred—is catastrophic. The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) was whining away about his constituency's growing housing problem. I have been saying for some time that the rural housing problem is becoming like that of the inner cities. Local people have not been able to buy or rent and are being driven out. In areas such as Taunton local people—sons and daughters who are in the economic work force—are having to take holidays lets in winter and then be made homeless in the summer because their homes are needed for holiday homes. The hon. Gentleman knows that that is happening in Taunton and in a whole swathe of places across southern Britain, yet he goes on backing the Government, blind to the fact that almost everything that they have done has made matters worse.

What have the Government done recently? The Minister has issued a couple of leaflets from the Department of the Environment saying that he will help rural housing associations. The Government talked initially of the housing associations having 600 new homes or flats throughout England, but housing associations hardly exist in some areas of rural England. Another Minister became worried—one could see the panic setting in—and put out a leaflet saying that house building had taken off better than ever, but did not mention the slump of the 1908s or the fact that next year is projected to be disastrous. Everyone knows why that is so—it is because of interest rate increases this year and last.

Private sector housing will not be able to make up the gaps in the public sector. If public sector housing is cut from 70,000 units in 1979 to about 15,000 next year, the private sector will be unable to make up the difference, especially if interest rates are then banged up as well. Of course, housing will get into trouble. It is a case of too little, too late. Let the London Boroughs Association say it again, because it says it so well. [HON. MEMBERS: "It is Tory."] It is a Tory authority, and I am sure that Conservative Members would agree with it if they could.

The LBA document says: Clause 49 stipulates that a proportion of the local authority's capital receipts must be set aside for the redemption of debt"— even if the authority is not in debt, apparently. A private company operating like that would go bankrupt after a few years because it could not invest. The Government would not impose that on a private company, but the Secretary of State is quite prepared to impose it on local authorities.

A good Conservative organisation, the London Boroughs Association—it, too, provides an abundance of good quotes—says of capital receipts: In particular it is likely to curtail local authorities' capitalised repairs programmes and make it harder for them to bring empty sub-standard dwellings back into letting. The Conservative party keeps going on about empty council houses, but the Audit Commission report says that the Government are culpable because they do not give local authorities enough money to deal with the problem. And the Conservative London Boroughs Association says precisely what I have just said—that it will not be able to bring back empty, sub-standard housing into use.

The association does not leave the matter there. It continues—this was the subject of my intervention in the Secretary of State's opening speech—by saying that local authorities have amassed an estimated £8 billion in unspent receipts. When the right to buy was introduced in 1980, councils were assured by the Tory Government that they would be able to keep the receipts which accrued from sales, but a year later the promise was broken. The spending of receipts was restricted to 50 per cent., and the controls have become progressively tighter so that now only 20 per cent. can be used. 'The Government propose to increase it to 25 per cent., but that is not as generous as it may seem, because it is limited to a declining amount. However, we shall return to that in Committee.

The key quote here is the following: The increased central direction of local authority spending is to be deplored. Local authorities should be permitted the freedom to decide their spending priorities and to use their own capital receipts for reinvestment in their stock.

I happen to disagree with the way in which most of the local councils represented in that document are running their affairs, particularly their lack of interest in housing as a whole, but we on this side defend their right to be local councillors, to stand in elections, to put their case and to win or lose. It is the Conservative party which does not believe that. That is the crucial point that many people in all political parties who seek to serve the community will remember.

Ring fencing will be disastrous for rents, and the Government persistently refuse to say what a fair rent is. Here we have perhaps the most interesting aspect of today's debate—the other shift of policy by the Secretary of State. There were shifts of policy in the news releases put out by the Department of the Environment on house building and rural housing, but the most significant shift came when the Secretary of State actually said for the first time that he did not think market rents were appropriate for councils.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

If the Secretary of State is saying that he is still going for market rents and that all councils are to pay market rents, he is saying that rents will go up exactly as my right hon. and hon. Friend have said.

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I have never said that council rents should go to market rent levels and have not said that today. The hon. Gentleman is quite right—I made it quite clear that they were not going to market rents.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

The Secretary of State has made it very clear that in his view there must be market rents. If he wants to look at what he said, he should look at the White Paper of November 1987, which says that subsidising council tenants will push them into the dependency culture—and if he will not subsidise them, who will pay the rent? Why did he also put in the Bill that the rent assessment committee must take into account a market rent before setting a rent for the new assured tenancies? The Government have fallen into the trap of recognising—as, to be fair, the last Housing Minister, the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave) recognised—that their housing policy was on course for disaster because they could not tackle the difficult problem of housing finance, and they keep ducking it.

What happened? Let us talk about that. The Government have actually said that rents have been set too low. They picked out the GLC and said that. I had a couple at a press conference in this House only a week ago—Mr. and Mrs. Green of Folkestone—who are now paying a rent of £52 per week out of joint pensions of £130 per week. Let hon. Members think about that—40 per cent. of one's net income going in rent. Forty per cent. of anyone's net income going in housing costs, whether for rent or sale, has to be a disaster. That is why in that case the wife said, "I feel like walking into the sea," and her husband said, "I suppose we shall end up in bed and breakfast." That is what I mean when I say that the Government are causing distress and anxiety to all the people. Yet the Government said that rents were too low.

The Government say that they intend to help people by means of housing benefit. I agree with the London Boroughs Association, which says: If council rents are required to rise to market levels,"— that shows that the Conservative party recognised that the Secretary of State wanted market levels— it is essential that the Department of Social Security permits housing benefit to be paid at this level and makes available the necessary public expenditure to cover the cost.

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

The hon. Gentleman is wilfully fantasising. Housing benefit covers the rent, whatever it is, provided that the person qualifies by virtue of his income. We are not moving to housing market rents and we have no intention of doing that, so the hon. Gentleman can stop saying it.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

The right hon. Gentleman ought to have a few words with Conservative party members. He should say that to the London Boroughs Association, which says that council rents are required to rise to market levels. He should also change all the instructions that he has given and answer the following question. How does he intend to revive the private rented sector if he does not allow it to charge market rents? That has always been his central argument. He has always said that the private sector must be allowed to charge market rents.

The Government say that they must abolish the Rent Acts, that it will be easier to evict tenants and that landlords will obtain a greater turnover. If councils or housing associations charge significantly lower rents, an enormous number of people in the private sector will try to get into the public sector, but they will find that the public sector has been cut. There will then be ghettos. That is why the Secretary of State and his hon. Friend the Member for Taunton are in trouble. The problems of the city areas will apply in rural areas as well.

Photo of Mr David Nicholson Mr David Nicholson , Taunton

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

No, I am afraid that I cannot give way. Time alone prevents me.

I am sure that the Government will want to deal with the problem and I must leave it to them. Unless the Government face up to the problem, they will be unable to solve it. The Secretary of State's muddle about whether he is in favour of market rents or whether he is against them will not and cannot be solved until he deals with the subject of housing finance.

The other problem that the Government have created is the one that they have visited on housing associations. In their panic to do something about the lack of supply of good, low-cost housing for rent or sale, they have decided to expand the housing associations. They spent the first half of the 1980s clobbering them, but now they want to help them. The Government have told housing associations to take over council properties and to build more properties. The housing associations are now running into management problems which they did not face initially when they were local and small. The Government are now urging them to become large and national, which means that they are further away from the people whom they represent.

To whom will the hon. Member for Taunton and other Back Benchers go when they find that they cannot go to their local councillors and instead have to go to the headquarters of a housing association in the north of England because the housing association in their area has been taken over? Who will hon. Members write to then? At the moment they can write to their councillors and the tenants can kick out the councillors if they do not like the job that they are doing, but they will be unable to kick out a housing association with headquarters further afield. I have a great deal of time for housing associations, but the Government have undermined some of the basic assumptions on which the success of the housing association movement was built—not least, management and rents.

The iniquitous proposal that local tenants should subsidise other local tenants through housing benefit is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland said earlier, wicked. Let us consider what would happen if the same were done with mortgages. What would happen if it were said that people in one area should subsidise the mortgages of other people in that area, instead of it being done on a national basis? Hon. Members can imagine the outcry. They are prepared to do that not with housing associations or with the private sector, but only with the council sector.

What will happen to the homeless? Under clause 128 councils are not required to keep a housing stock. I presume that they will all be able to do as Horsham does—pass all empty council houses over to the Conservative party for use as offices. Perhaps that is the aim. There is no real action here. We shall want to look at this aspect more closely in Committee. I hope that there will be some movement on it from the Minister because it was a report of his own Department on houses in multiple occupation which showed the seriousness of the problem in the private sector. There is no real movement there, and we need a lot more movement before anybody outside will believe that the Government are serious about their efforts in that respect.

What does Clause 132 do? Amazingly, it actually winds up the home purchase assistance scheme for the first-time buyers. The Conservative party wants to take help away from first-time buyers. If the Government are having so much trouble helping first-time buyers, why do they want to wind the scheme up now? Why do they not expand it and help those first-time buyers instead of clobbering them? There is no reason or justification for what they are doing.

The charges for local authority services are an indication of everything that is wrong with the Government's thinking. They do not believe in community. People will have to pay a charge to have their dustbins emptied, they will have to pay for their leisure and recreation, and they will have to pay for library services. They will have to pay for everything. If we go down that road, we go down the road that leads to real public squalor and private affluence—the road that leads to ghettos. In undermining local democracy, the Government are creating a crisis in rural and urban areas of this country—a crisis that, sooner or later, people will feel so dramatically that they will hate the Government for the legislation being brought forward today.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government) 9:37 pm, 14th February 1989

I thought that the reason for our having spent so much of this debate discussing the Widdicombe clauses was that the Labour party saw those as the most important clauses in the Bill, but I discovered during the speech of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) that the reason was that, when hon. Members opposite started to discuss the rest of the Bill, they could proceed only by fabrication and by misleading the House.The hon. Gentleman still failed to accept what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had said about market rents. He failed to understand that there is a distinction between a subsidised rent, where people are helped to meet the cost, and a market rent, which is considerably higher than that. He felt that we were taking away democracy when, in fact, what we are doing in this Bill, as part of our local government programme, is giving democracy back to local authorities—primarily, of course, through the community charge, which will provide accountability where accountability has not existed before.

But perhaps the saddest aspect of this debate is that we have failed to hear from the Opposition why they think it proper that people whose job in life is to give advice—independent advice—should also be able to play a party political role in some other council. For the world outside, the argument is obvious. I have never heard anyone suggest that it is not reasonable to make this distinction. Indeed, the Labour party is happy to have the distinction when it relates to civil servants. There has been no proposition that civil servants should be able to represent a constituency in Parliament and at the same time advise Ministers in a Department. Why not? It is for two good reasons. The first is that it is impossible for people to be independent on the one hand and party political on the other. The second is that it is unacceptable both to the people they advise and, indeed, to the people they represent.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. One at a time, please. The Minister is not giving way.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government)

I will be happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman when I get to the point—

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that if the Minister does not give way, he must not persist.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government)

The hon. Member for Hammersmith has already taken my time after promising not to—

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. The hon. Gentleman well knows the rules. The Minister said that he would give way later, and no doubt he will.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows better than that.

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

No, I do not. On a point of order, M r. Speaker. I gave way seven or eight times during my speech, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) gave way. Why should the Minister get away with these allegations and not give way?

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

That is not a point of order. It is up to the Minister concerned and up to any other hon. Member whether or not he gives way.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not persist. The Minister has said that he will give way, and no doubt he will.

Photo of Mr Bob Cryer Mr Bob Cryer , Bradford South

He has no Christian humility.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government)

I shall give way in my time, and not when the hon. Gentleman seeks it. The reason is that the hon. Gentleman's colleague went over his time and did not give a fair share to this side of the House. That is why I am not giving way to the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government)

No, I am not giving way.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) said in an article in The Sunday Times

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. I am well aware that this is a controversial Bill, but we have proceeded in good order so far. We must continue in that way.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During the time when your deputies were in the Chair, they will know that hon. Members on both sides gave way to interventions. The Secretary of State gave way, as did my hon. Friends. Why is it that only the junior Minister will not give way?

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

The hon. Gentleman knows that I have no authority to cause a Minister to give way. It is up lo him.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government)

The hon. Gentleman asked me to wait when I asked him to give way. I am asking the same courtesy of him.

The hon. Member for Brightside said in an article in The Sunday Times that there is a clear distinction between those in a job for many years playing an active part in politics and a situation where a post is clearly created for an individual to help him or her pursue political activity. I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government)

I shall give way to the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) when I come to him, and then I shall be happy to give way to the hon. Member for Brightside.

I agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Brightside. I should like the hon. Gentleman to do me the courtesy of answering the point. There is a clear distinction between these things, but that does not mean that both of them are not wrong. It seems to me that it is wrong to have a job in local government, which is created as a sinecure, in order to do a job as a council leader elsewhere, and that it is also wrong to have party political affiliations of a public kind which make it impossible to carry on one's job as—

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government)

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to finish a sentence, I will give way, but when I finish the sentence. Although I said that I was asked by the hon. Gentleman to wait before he gave way to me, he has not given the same courtesy to me. The fact that the hon. Gentleman's speech was such a shambles is obviously the reason why he wishes to intervene.

The fact of the matter is—

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government)

I shall finish my sentence.

The fact of the matter is that it is not acceptable that a Socialist or Liberal ratepayer should have to go to an officer who is a known, public, elected Tory Member of the next-door council. I do not believe that that is acceptable for Tories, and it is similarly unacceptable for Socialists.

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

The hypocrisy of the Minister knows no bounds. The hon. Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley)—who is now a Minister in the Department of the Environment—as a Conservative Member of Parliament was appointed a member of the Medical Research Council. The hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mr. Moynihan)—who is now the Minister for Sport—as a Tory Member of Parliament was appointed a member of the Sports Council. What is the Minister really saying? Does he not accept that that is twin tracking in the public sector?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government)

All I am asking the hon. Gentleman to accept is a rather lighter regime on local government officers than there is on civil servants. The fact that he will not accept that lowers him in the House's sight and in the sight of ordinary and decent people. The truth is that we thought that these provisions would be attacked by hon. Members, such as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields). We knew that he would attack them, because he is the unacceptable face of the Socialist party. We did not expect hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Copeland to back this sort of job for the boys. We believed that there was still some honour left in the Labour party, but we have seen tonight that there is none. [Interruption.]

Photo of Mr Terry Fields Mr Terry Fields , Liverpool Broadgreen

On a point of order, Mr. Chairman. Is it in order for the pipsqueak on the Government Front Bench to impugn my political credentials, which have nothing to do with this debate or this House, except when they concern my commitment to my constituents? The right hon. Gentleman is out of order.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

What the Minister said was not out of order. It was perfectly parliamentary.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government)

We had an interjection from the hon. Member for Broadgreen, when he told the House whatever he was mandated by his local Labour management committee to say. He suggested that it was all right that Mr. Hatton was paid by the neighbouring council of Knowsley. That was the burden of his remark. Evidently, it is all right that the London borough of Hackney—[Interruption.]

Photo of Mr Terry Fields Mr Terry Fields , Liverpool Broadgreen

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In defence of Back Benchers, you are always fair and just. In this particular instance, I would ask you to look at Hansard tomorrow to see what I actually said. I never mentioned Derek Hatton or Knowsley council. I talked about the Arthur Daleys among Conservative Members.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Provided what is said in this Chamber is in order, I cannot intervene. The hon. Gentleman will have a chance later on to put his point of view.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government)

I would imagine that the hon. Member for Broadgreen would want me to refer to that, because otherwise what he said was partial and one-sided. He referred to one side of the argument without mentioning the fact that what he was proposing was, in fact, the justification of Mr. Hatton, both in his capacity as the leader of the Liverpoool city council and as someone paid by the neighbouring Knowsley council. That is what the hon. Gentleman put forward—[Interruption.]

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett Opposition Spokesperson (Local Government & Poll Tax), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Derek Hatton was never the leader of the Liverpool city council—in my view, thank goodness. As the right hon. Gentleman has suggested, it would be unthinkable for people to go to a Conservative councillor who served as a senior official in a council—like the assistant director of the housing department in Sheffield who serves as a Conservative councillor in north-west Derbyshire. Does the right hon. Gentleman feel, however, that it was inappropriate for people to go to him as a Minister when he served as chairman of the Conservative party?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government)

I do not think that there has ever been any doubt that I am a Conservative, either when I was chairman of the Conservative party or now as a Minister. I believe that it is just as inappropriate for a Conservative councillor to serve as a paid administrator in a neighbouring council as it is for a Socialist. I make no distinction between the two.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. We cannot have three hon. Members on their feet at the same time.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government)

No, I shall not give way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Acton outlined clearly the problems that arise in a borough when there is a change of party and, as a result, a large number of experienced and good officers feel that they have to leave. This is a serious matter and it is one that those of us who live in the London borough of Ealing take seriously.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Minister of State (Department of Environment) (Local Government)

No, I shall not.

My hon. Friend expressed concern about home improvement grants being paid at a level based on the original estimate, and not on the actual cost of work.