Power to Provide Advice and Assistance

Orders of the Day — Local Government (Overseas Assistance) Bill – in the House of Commons at 9:34 am on 2nd July 1993.

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Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 1, line 16, at end insert— ("() Before giving any general authorisation under section (3) above, the Secretary of State shall consult with such persons appearing to him to represent local authorities as he thinks appropriate.")

Photo of Mr James Lester Mr James Lester , Broxtowe

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

With this, it will be convenient to consider Lords amendment No. 2.

Photo of Mr James Lester Mr James Lester , Broxtowe

We have now reached the final stages of the passage of the Bill. I am particularly grateful that their Lordships' House has made a contribution to it. I should like particularly to record my thanks to Baroness Flather, who took the Bill through the House of Lords, and to Lord Graham, who spoke for the Opposition in the same constructive and helpful spirit that we have witnessed throughout the Bill's stages hitherto.

The amendments complete the Bill. They seek to reinforce the basis on which the Bill was drafted. Local authorities, perhaps with some justification, were rather suspicious of the Bill's requirement for the Secretary of State's approval. In fact, none of us who support the Bill intended to restrict the existing powers of local authorities to have cultural exchanges and to promote the best interests of their members, but the Bill clearly defined new powers.

In a changing world, all democratically elected bodies have a part to play. As I said, local authorities were concerned about the requirement in the Bill for the Secretary of State's approval. That was always a fall-back position and was never intended to be anything else. In Committee, we had wide discussions on how best to promote and remove the dead hand of bureaucracy from the various measures that we hope will flow from the Bill. It was decided that we could do so through a general authorisation, which has been drafted for two reasons.

First, I would not have been associated with the Bill unless it really achieved greater links between local authorities world wide and especially the transfer of needed help and advice to the developing world. Indeed, the whole purpose of the know-how funds, which were established to help eastern and central Europe, would have failed if we were not able to give local authorities the clearly defined power to play their full part.

Secondly, I know from my experience of working with the Department of the Environment that it has more than enough to do without trying to police the many different links that the Bill will encourage. The last thing that it would want is to be inundated with inquiries, and the last thing that local authorities want is to suffer from the dead hand of bureaucracy because that is not the way to water what I believe will be a new and flowering garden.

The amendments make it clear that the general authorisation is an important element in setting out the parameters whereby local authorities can operate. Basically, the general authorisation as discussed so far gives powers to go ahead with schemes that have been funded by the know-how funds and which, clearly, the Foreign Office have already approved. It gives the powers to go ahead where there is no cost to the local charge payers because a local authority or another body in the other country can fully fund the advice that it is seeking. Perhaps most important, the general authorisation gives the freedom to spend a certain amount of money even before the schemes reach fruition.

The figures discussed in the original authorisation draft were based on population. Without staff-related costs, which are an important component, the suggestion is that a local authority of 250,000 to 400,000 people would spend £80,000 independently and freely. That would be sufficient for the authority to make a worthwhile contribution even before it entered any bigger schemes. The same applies up and down the scale.

We want to reassure local authorities that we are on their side. The amendments would ensure that local authorities were consulted about the general authorisation before it is produced, to ensure that the greatest possible agreement is reached. One cannot be more helpful than that. I am prepared to recognise that previous Administrations have not always been famous for consulting or working with the grain—if I may use that expression—of the rest of society. In this case, however, we are including in the Bill something which Opposition parties often demand. The fact that the Department of the Environment will consult local authorities about the general authorisation before it is published will ensure that it is drafted in such a way as to command the widest possible agreement.

After consultation, the Department of the Environment will issue general guidance to local authorities on how they can utilise the new right and power.

Photo of Mr Hartley Booth Mr Hartley Booth , Finchley

Will the general authorisation clarify the position? What happens if, for example, Edinburgh, which happens to be twinned with Kiev, or if another town twinned with an eastern Europe town, wants to send a group of special advisers there for some years at a cost of several hundreds of thousands of pounds? Will the guidance note ensure that we are not inadvertently getting involved in huge extra public expenditure?

Photo of Mr James Lester Mr James Lester , Broxtowe

There is no possibility of our allowing huge extra expenditure, for the simple reason that the amount covered by the general authorisation is not sufficient to do so. Equally, I cannot imagine any local authority wanting to move in that direction at charge payers' expense because it is prohibited. If it were to take place—and my hon. Friend paints a very alarming picture—it would have to be through the know-how fund, which means that the Foreign Office would have had to approve it because it would be paying. Alternatively, it could happen if Kiev, for example, suddenly found "gold in them thar hills", asked Edinburgh or some other city to send its officials and said that it would fund the project.

If my hon. Friends have any suspicion that the intention is to create junketing or the usual things that we hear about, I beg them to put it from their mind. As the Bill states, it is intended to enable local authorities in Great Britain to provide advice and assistance as respects matters in which they have skill and experience to bodies engaged in local government anywhere in the world.

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The transfers that took place both ways, before we discovered that they were illegal, involved relatively small numbers of people. The example that I cited on Second Reading was that of my own county council in Nottinghamshire, which is linked under the know-how fund with a city in Czechoslovakia where it helped to establish the fire brigade, mainly because the city had none but was surrounded by incredible potential risks due to its industrial production. As a result of that initiative, the Czech lands government have adopted the procedures taught to that town for the whole of Czechoslovakia. Firemen there have received a British training, which has meant great overall improvements.

On Third Reading, I said that the growth in the number of people involved in transfers means that we also benefit. Local authority officials who have had the opportunity to widen their horizons and interests come back as better men and women because they have acquired a much wider understanding of what the world is about.

Under Lords amendment No. 2 the guidance will mean an increase in the number of local authorities wanting to play a part in the exchange of advice, assistance, skill and experience. Because of the way in which they operate, if local authorities are issued with guidance they will be more likely to understand what is on offer and be willing to play a part. The two amendments improve the Bill's acceptance and scope and will encourage more local authorities to participate.

It may be of interest to my colleagues and all those interested in the international concept of Britain's role if I say a little about what happened at the recent International Union of Local Authorities' conference in Toronto. Those who recall my Third Reading speech will know that it was the International Union of Local Authorities' conference, which I attended in 1970, which partly inspired me to take on the Bill, so it is ironic that we are talking about the subsequent conference, which was held in the same place.

I had already suggested the idea that one way in which to proceed was for the Commonwealth to give an example. In the Commonwealth, there are local authorities on every continent, the gap between the rich and the poor, and a common link. It would be useful if the Commonwealth could give a lead in showing eastern and central Europe how the scheme could work. I am pleased to say that at the conference Commonwealth delegates from all over the world came together and the idea received widespread support.

The suggestion now before the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth is that we form a Commonwealth local government forum which would have as its tasks encouraging and developing democracy at local level, facilitating the exchange of experience among local government practitioners within the Commonwealth, promoting a programme of worshops specifically designed to strengthen the practice and institutions of local government and assisting with capacity building in countries where the strategic development of local government is a high priority. Our local authority organisations could give such guidance and the Government could join in.

It is lucky that the head of the International Union of Local Authorities in Africa is the mayor of Kampala. He is very much seized with the idea that the Commonwealth countries of Africa should come together and facilitate the exchange of ideas. Before anyone tells me that we should beware of such a development, I shall read part of the letter that the Local Government International Bureau has written to the head of the Commonwealth secretariat. It says that the scheme is intended to be a practical development which will be a business-like mechanism for doing essentially practical work. I am delighted to say that the Canadian Federation of Municipalities. which already has a worthwhile scheme, is very encouraged and is working with its own parliamentarians, some of whom have been here recently, to help and to promote the idea. I remember telling the chairman of the CPA that when our delegation goes to Cyprus this year it should raise the matter at the conference and should give it a push forward.

I have given a small example of how the Bill can produce a reaction from many people who can release their energies to help to develop all the ideals for which the House stands. I hope that we all realise that the Bill has been a worthwhile project. It is generally supported. We now want to release the energies of a new sector of people in places far and wide to the benefit of all.

Photo of Miss Emma Nicholson Miss Emma Nicholson , Torridge and West Devon

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate and to support my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester). The Bill is one of the most worth while that I have heard debated on a Friday for a long time. I am happy to have the chance to support it. I pay tribute to the Bill's promoter in the other place, Baroness Flather, who suffered a personal tragedy and so had to defer her promotion of the Bill. It was wonderful to see her back recently in her usual sparkling form. She tabled the amendments in the other place that we are now discussing.

I beg your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I have to go to my constituency this morning. Our adopted son is unwell and I need to go home to see that he is all right. My absence will not be a result of any lack of desire to hear the totality of the speeches. The Bill is close to my heart and to the heart of my constituency. That will please the Minister because he has family links in my constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe has pointed out the benefits that will be achieved in widening the scope of the know-how fund. I have had the opportunity to see how excellent the know-how fund has been in operation. Immediately the fund began, I visited Poland where I was invited to meet excellent and eminent members of the United Kingdom world of financial management and to discuss the way in which they were offering their services to emergent local and central Governments. As I drove to the dinner party, I was given the guest list and I saw that all the names were Polish.

When I arrived, I asked where the people from the City of London and from local and central Government were. My host said that they had given me the guest list. It turned out that all the Polish names were the names of sons and daughters of people who came to the United Kingdom between 1937 and 1939. They worked for the merchant banks, for local government and for central Government. All their names ended in "ski" and they told me that in London they have a club called the Ski Club which is for the sons and daughters of the Polish emigrés, who are now fully fledged members of the know-how fund and who are working out ways in which our organisations can assist Governments overseas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe has already covered the know-how fund. I intend to talk about local government initiatives that are already up and running. Their effectiveness will be enhanced and underwritten by the swift and successful passage of the Lords amendments. The Minister knows that I have two district councils in my constituency. The one in the north is Torridge district council and it has a technical twinning arrangement with Gaborone in Botswana. It is a model of the work that my hon. Friend has described to the House.

I shall describe how such arrangements have been working quietly and effectively in recent years. The relationship led to the opportunity for written advice and guidance to be given on a number of topics. The district council has been able to offer practical placements within the authority in connection with university courses being undertaken by Botswanan students in the United Kingdom. That is the first triumph of the relationship which was created by the chief executive, Mr. Richard Brasington, as a result of his experience of Africa before he became chief executive. Students already at universities here have been able to learn hands on about the district council's work in my constituency.

The relationship would be more meaningful and would be strengthened if the Bill were passed. Torridge district council has participated in numerous forums to discuss the Bill especially at the Local Government International Bureau. The carefully worded clauses will be most helpful for our district council in its efforts to provide proper guidance and assistance to emerging local governments in the developing countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa where our systems of local government are held in the highest regard and are seen as the example to copy.

Photo of Mr Matthew Carrington Mr Matthew Carrington , Fulham

I applaud wholeheartedly what my hon. Friend's local authority is doing. It is exactly what is intended under the Bill and deserves as such to be highly commended. I should appreciate my hon. Friend's thoughts on one slight worry. Lords amendment No. 1 imposes an obligation and a duty on the Secretary of State to consult. Would that not cause a local authority additional delay in providing the vital assistance which it has provided in the past? Would it not add another hurdle for that local authority to overcome which would make it even more difficult for it to assist people than was previously the case?

Photo of Miss Emma Nicholson Miss Emma Nicholson , Torridge and West Devon

Perhaps I should refer my hon. Friend to the comments of Baroness Flather when she moved the amendments that we are discussing. She explained to Lord Graham that the amendments would strengthen the process of consultation and she said: By putting it on the face of the Bill the Government want to flag the consultation process and make sure that the final outcome is achieved in fullest consultation rather than in any kind of one-sided way."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 June 1993; Vol. 546, c. 1286.] That is the important point.

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Photo of Mr James Lester Mr James Lester , Broxtowe

The point about the consultation is that it will be with the Local Government International Bureau. Once the general authorisation is completed following that consultation, the freedom for Torridge and any other authority to operate will be enhanced. The consultation is important at a national level in the drafting of the general authorisation. Local authorities will then operate under that general authorisation much more freely.

Photo of Miss Emma Nicholson Miss Emma Nicholson , Torridge and West Devon

I welcome that explanation from my hon. Friend. I want to expand, from personal experience, on points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe and those by my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Carrington) about consultation being hampering and not helpful.

I had the honour to be the official observer from this House in the multi-party elections in Zambia. The former high commissioner to the United Kingdom from Bangladesh and I were given northern province to look after. For three weeks we hauled ourselves all over northern province which is half the size of England, but has considerably fewer roads.

If you recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Government of Zambia thought that they were going to win. I do not want to heighten the hopes of Her Majesty's Official Opposition by that rather challenging statement because it is clear that the Opposition are not going to win here. However, the Zambian Government thought that they were going to win. They were so optimistic that they committed the folly of inviting outside observers. As a result, they lost profoundly because the Zambian people and the Zambian local authorities knew how they should behave.

When I entered a very important local authority head office in Zambia, I saw Government electoral material fiercely displayed all over that office. I could say only that that was not correct. I told the people there that that was not how local authorities are meant to behave. I said, "As you are aware from your links with local authorities in the United Kingdom, local authorities are meant to be strictly neutral."

Against all the odds and with no power, I was able to have posters of that kind taken down in many local authority headquarters. I would not have been able to do that if I did not have the example of local authority behaviour in this country.

I do not believe that consultation will do anything other than strengthen and enhance the process. I am glad to report to the House and to my hon. Friend the Minister that Torridge district council's links with Gaborone and Botswana have led to tentative first steps towards a link between the Association of District Councils in England and Wales and the Botswana Association of Local Authorities. Those burgeoning links would, in the view of our chief executive, be assisted by the clarifications implicit in the Bill.

I hope that, before too long, there will be multi-party elections in Malawi. Broad brush approaches to democracy are wonderful as banner-headline statements.

However, it is the detailed work on the ground that implements democracy. We have already seen that the life President of Malawi, despite an overwhelming vote against——

Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South

Order. The hon. Lady really cannot tour the world in respect of democratic elections in relation to the Lords amendments that we are considering.

Photo of Miss Emma Nicholson Miss Emma Nicholson , Torridge and West Devon

Perhaps I can complete that point within your terms of reference, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The guidance required under the amendments in respect of local authority work internationally is of critical importance in terms of foreign policy. How can local authorities be expected to know the full details of the overwhelming majority against the life President and the way in which the elections will have to be carried out?

The last time that I was in Malawi, the mayor of Blantyre was the most important person that I met. His power is very great. He operates his local authority powers in such a way that the people in his large district will be able to adopt the full democratic process. That is perhaps more important than whether he can immediately be recognised from the face of the Bill. That is an example of Torridge district council's work and it shows why the issue is so important.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe rightly dwelt on the ways in which the know-how fund experience will be enlarged at ground floor level. He referred to sub-Saharan Africa and I hope that I have enlarged and strengthened his point. However, the Bill refers to countries outside the United Kingdom. Therefore, there is no need to focus solely on eastern Europe or on sub-Saharan Africa.

As hon. Members are aware of this, I want to refer to the common economic development strategy which Torridge district council has set up with the Finistere conseil general. That is a link with a county outside the United Kingdom. It is a link with a fellow European Community member. It is a regional link between Torridge district council and a part of northern France. Finistere conseil general and Torridge district council have now set up superb links. The social twinning links already existed and that is not the purpose of the Bill. Nor is it the purpose of the guidance in respect of the amendments. Indeed, Baroness Flather referred to that in the other place.

Agricultural and tourism diversification plans and other forms of economic diversification are being established. Such links and common economic development strategies between members of the European Community would be greatly enhanced as a result of the Bill.

Torridge district council also established links following a visit by a party from Pays de Landivisiau and the Pays du Haut Leon in 1991. It was wonderful to watch the agreement being signed. Such links are fully within the EC's policy and they are strengthened and enhanced by the Bill. I have a copy of the development strategy with me and I should be glad to show it to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe because I am sure that he would be pleased to see it.

Torridge district council also links with a German town and the department of economic promotion in Landratsamt Bergen. That is another economic twinning opportunity arid it will also be enhanced and strengthened by the Bill.

It is critical that proper guidance and consultation are obtained between the Department of the Environment and the Foreign Office in all matters affecting such links. There has to be some overall undertaking of the political, diplomatic and economic problems of the countries with which such relationships are being set up. The Foreign Office, particularly now that it has strengthened the economic side of our embassies and high commissions, has unrivalled knowledge of the countries that will receive assistance. Therefore, I most strongly support the two amendments. Once again, I congratulate the sponsor of the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, in the largest possible terms, on his wonderful initiative in bringing the Bill forward in the first place.

Photo of Mr Matthew Carrington Mr Matthew Carrington , Fulham

The House will know that I am a strong supporter of the Bill. Indeed, I spoke about it on Third Reading and on the various amendments. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) on having piloted the Bill so far and on ensuring its successful passage through the other place. I add my congratulations to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson). I am sure that the whole House hopes that her adopted son makes a full recovery and that he is in fine fettle when she arrives home.

I have one or two concerns about the amendments. They are concerns about detail and they raise questions which I hope will elicit explanations about the way in which the amendments are proposed to be operated. I worry about our passion for consultation. Consultation is a wonderful thing. It is important in ensuring that everyone who is to take a decision or be involved in an activity is on side, that everyone understands the implications of what is happening, that they are talking to the same agenda, and that all the wonderful phrases in business talk are implemented and produce the desired result. However, consultation is also an opportunity for people to sit around a table and waste inordinate amounts of time trying to consult and sort out the final vestige of dispute and to reach consensus when what is actually needed is a decision. Often, what is needed is someone who will cut through the red tape, examine a certain activity or proposal and say that it is correct or incorrect.

I worry that Lords amendment No. 1 will tie down my hon. Friend the Minister and make him spend endless hours talking to people to try to get the right result. I understand that the consultation is with the generality of local authorities, whether through a local authority association or through other bodies representing local authorities. However, I will give an example which is close to my heart in that it affected my borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.

Some years ago, the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham was a leader in local authority finance. The borough was a major participant in the financial markets—to such an extent, indeed, that it was the major player in the swap markets for some years—to the extent of gambling £6,000 million of the then ratepayers' funds on the swap markets. The London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, in its wisdom, thought that it understood the swap markets and that it would exercise its ability to manipulate those markets to the general benefit of ratepayers in the borough and make a substantial return. Unfortunately, as history relates, the borough lost a very considerable amount of money on the swap markets. That money did not have to be paid by the ratepayers, because we eventually ended up with a very protracted series of court actions which ruled that those financial transactions were ultra vires.

The London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham demonstrated for all to see that it was financially incompetent in the swap markets. However, other boroughs entered into activities in the swap markets in an extremely efficient, competent and correct manner. They used the swap markets in the way in which the swap markets are intended to be used—that is, for hedging the interest rate risk that local authorities have to undertake in the normal course of their business. There was no doubt that some financial activities that were undertaken by other local authorities were correctly undertaken.

Immediately, in one example, we have a conflict between local authorities that are competent in financial management and those which are incompetent in financial management. One can readily see that, as a result of that, if there were to be genuine consultation with the bodies representing local authorities in the generality, there might be a conflict in those bodies over whether they believe that local authorities should be able to give advice to local authorities overseas on how to management their investments and how to manage their activities on the world capital markets, if that were appropriate in the particular case.

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I am concerned that we might end up with a very protracted, inconclusive negotiation which would delay the whole process of resolving what general permissions and consents my hon. Friend the Minister would give to local authorities and would ensure that the wonderful activities that are undertaken, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West, by Torridge council are delayed. I am sure that that council is very well managed, is highly competent and employs highly professional staff. Those staff would not be able to offer their financial expertise to councils overseas because of my hon. Friend the Minister's understandable worries about other local authorities such as my own borough of Hammersmith and Fulham wishing to enter into the same activities. That might cause difficulties in drawing up general consents, and I would be concerned about that. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would explain how he proposes to ensure that unreasonable delays do not occur as a result of the amendment.

I am also worried because the amendment lays down a statutory duty to consult. I am not a lawyer, and I do not pretend to understand the finer points of judicial review, but it seems that where a statutory duty is laid down on a Minister and is written on the face of a Bill, in cases of dispute it opens up the opportunity to challenge whether the Minister consulted in the right way, consulted all the people whom he should have consulted, and took proper notice of the advice that he was given in that consultation process.

I am a little concerned about whether some of the activities that the amendment imposes on the process to enable the beneficial effects of this legislation to come into effect somewhat over-egg the process and make it overly complicated, and whether on balance it might have been better to leave it to the common sense and good will of the Minister and the people in the local authorities and local authority organisations in deciding what activities should be undertaken.

The amendment also raises questions about how long the consultation process can take, because one can imagine that such a consultation process could be protracted. One does not have to take account simply of my example about financial management to see that there may be many disputes about the appropriate activities of local authorities and which local authorities should be able to engage in certain sorts of advice and activities.

If the consultation process takes too long, I can imagine a situation in which a local authority will be on the point of entering into what would be fundamentally a commercial transaction. It will be a local authority going to, say, eastern Europe under the aegis of the know-how funds and it will get paid for its expertise and the work that it does. One hopes that it will make a profit on the work—it will not do it simply at cost. It will certainly not make a loss.

The local authority may well be in competition for the contract to advise the overseas body, so time may be of the essence in terms of whether it can sign the contract to get the business. If the negotiations to provide the general authorisation become too protracted, the general authorisation might not be available to be issued because of the statutory requirements of this amendment and might not be able to be issued sufficiently speedily to enable the local authority to sign the contract that it wishes to enter into in the time frame set up by the other people trying to get the contract as well.

I am worried that the whole process may be too protracted and delayed. However, it is absolutely right that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be required, under amendment No. 2, to give guidance to local authorities throughout the exercise of powers that he thinks appropriate. It is important that specific guidance will be given to local authorities as some of them may think that it is a wonderful opportunity not to be bogged down in the boring minutiae of local government in the United Kingdom and that what they will be doing is foreign travel, staying in fancy hotels and dealing with glamorous international life in giving international advice to foreign local authorities. Some officers in local government may be attracted to that, to the detriment of their local council taxpayers.

One can imagine that the leader of a council might well decide that his or her real objective in life is not to run the council that he or she was elected to run but to assist the development of eastern Europe and that he or she might spend too much time on that. I hope that the guidance given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will ensure that the activities undertaken by local authorities will be commensurate with their ability to undertake those activities and that no activities undertaken will be to the detriment of council taxpayers who, after all, have first call on the expertise and skill of the officers and councillors elected to represent them and to look after their interests.

The criticisms that have been made about the amendments are small compared with the enormous benefits that the Bill will produce and I certainly would not wish to throw out the Bill for the sake of concerns about the amendments. I hope that the problems that I foresee—the administrative problems, the problem of delay and the problem of getting into too much detail and spreading the consultation too wide, to the detriment of decision-taking—can be addressed and that we can be reassured that my fears are not real.

Photo of Mr Matthew Banks Mr Matthew Banks , Southport

I am sure that the House will join me in wishing my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) a safe and speedy journey. We all hope that her son is returned to good health as soon as possible.

Before I address the Lords amendments, I should like to congratulate Baroness Flather and my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester). For many years, my hon. Friend has taken an interest in overseas assistance to lesser developed nations and I have no doubt whatever that he will be remembered for this Bill in years to come.

The political and economic regeneration of the former communist countries in eastern Europe will be helped considerably by the Bill. However, as my hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe and for Torridge and Devon, West suggested, the Bill should not concentrate solely on eastern Europe. It should enable local authorities to provide assistance to countries throughout the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

The absence of legal clarity and authority has necessitated the Bill. For many years, local authorities have been involved in ensuring that assistance is given to lesser developed countries. However, until today and this Bill, there has not been the opportunity for clarity, which I hope that the amendments will provide. The amendments will facilitate a better working of overseas assistance and a check against some of the excesses, which amendment No. 3 will tackle.

Amendment No. 1 will strengthen the position of local authorities in undertaking much needed and desired overseas assistance as a whole. I welcome such activities by local authorities. Many schemes—my hon. Friends have already drawn attention to some of them—are currently being undertaken under the general discretionary powers available at present. Unfortunately, those general discretionary powers do not have anything other than fairly questionable legal backing. The amendment gives local authorities greater autonomy in providing assistance through the concept of general authorisation. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Carrington) on some of the points that he raised a few moments ago.

The Bill provide a watertight legal framework in which local authorities can operate. It is an excellent addition to the current arrangements and will prevent costly and bureaucratic delays because local authorities will no longer have to approach the Secretary of State before proceeding. While it is important that there will be a consultation process initially to ensure appropriate general guidance, when that general guidance is laid down there will be a broad watertight framework in which local authorities can operate. Consent is not needed for schemes that have already been approved by the European Community, Government Departments and other international organisations.

I represent a constituency which is part of the borough of Sefton. My hon. Friends have already alluded to the activities of their local authorities. While my local authority has been twinned with a number of areas in Europe for many years, since the fall of the Berlin wall my local authority has taken steps to twin with Gdansk in Poland. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take note of the importance that I attach to the general guidance ensuring that those local authorities that undertake overseas assistance do so in a way that will have a direct benefit for the countries, as well as possibly for the local authority officers who may travel abroad for an extended period, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe suggested. That is vital because otherwise overseas assistance may simply become nothing more than a set of civic duties in which the major of a borough goes overseas without any consequent benefit for the overseas countries.

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I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already approved several educational exchanges and cultural links. I hope that when the general guidance is in operation it will ensure that his duties are less onerous in this respect and that it will be clear what local authorities can do without seeking his guidance. Local authority associations saw no need in principle for the Secretary of State to give his consent to individual schemes because, as they said in a briefing, local authorities are responsible, democratically elected bodies acting within the law and accountable to the electorate. However, the local authority associations welcome the general authorisation to proceed without recourse to the Secretary of State.

I commend Lords amendment No. 1 for introducing consultation. It will lead to greater co-operation between local government and central Government. It would be good to see such development across the board. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister could clarify exactly to whom the wording in the amendments refers. Amendment No. 1 says: the Secretary of State shall consult with such persons appearing to him to represent local authorities as he thinks appropriate. Does the amendment refer to local authority associations alone or to other groups? Why are parish and community councils not included?

The amendment says, "as he thinks appropriate." In what circumstances would my hon. Friend the Minister consider it inappropriate to consult local authorities? Greater definition and assurance needs to be provided in that respect, but otherwise the amendment is most worthy and has my full support.

Lords amendment No. 2 is crucial for the protection of local authorities. I hope that it will prevent them from being drawn, perhaps unwittingly, into potentially compromising, dangerous or corrupt alliances especially if they considered specifically granting money for particular schemes of overseas assistance, which, of course, they will not be allowed to do. For example, a local authority such as Lambeth or any other council might be involved in a project that breached national security and provided access to information that could be dangerous in the wrong hands.

Photo of Mr Matthew Carrington Mr Matthew Carrington , Fulham

In mentioning Lambeth, my hon. Friend raises another troubling possibility that he might wish to consider. Lambeth might win a contract overseas to advise a local authority in, say, an innocent country such as Poland or Czechoslovakia on how to avoid fraud and corruption in local government. If Lambeth won such a contract, my hon. Friend the Minister would be worried. But if Sefton, the local authority of my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Banks), won such a contract, that would be perfectly acceptable. There should be clear guidance on which local authorities can give assistance on what.

Photo of Mr Matthew Banks Mr Matthew Banks , Southport

My hon. Friend makes his point in his own way. It is particularly important to have an extended process of consultation with local authorities to ensure that the general guidance is watertight. To take an example from the past, it would have been inappropriate for a local authority to seek to establish links with a Romanian council when not necessarily the Government but perhaps Members of Parliament in the United Kingdom wished to see the back of Mr. Ceausescu. It would also have been inappropriate for Merseyside police to teach Serbian city riot police urban warfare tactics when the United Kingdom Government and Members of Parliament were seeking to end relations as civil war brewed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Fulham is entirely right to wish to ensure that the general guidance is watertight. The Secretary of State will be able to provide advice on the pros and cons of a certain project. I hope that when the general guidance has been agreed and is in print he will be happy so to do. That would be less onerous than the present arrangements. We must be assured that the general guidance prevents abuses of the current arrangements.

In recent years, I have been involved in overseas assistance to sub-Saharan Africa. My hon. Friend the Member for Fulham was right to pursue the argument because I am sure that if watertight arrangements preventing the expenditure of large sums were not established, money which went overseas might not necessarily be spent as wisely as we would wish. Indeed, it would be dangerous for any local authority to be given the opportunity to spend money in certain countries in sub-Saharan Africa where money disappears and where the Overseas Development Administration provides tangible aid rather than cash handouts.

I have tried to cover the two Lords amendments briefly. The Bill will be widely welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Overseas assistance can be provided by not only Her Majesty's Government but by local authorities. I hope that the Bill will be an important enabling measure.

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

It is a great pleasure to see the Bill back in the House. I shall be brief because I know that other hon. Members are keen to speak. I had the opportunity to attend all the debates on the Bill except the Second Reading. It would be foolish of the House to underestimate the value of the Bill. When it becomes an Act, it will lay for a considerable time the groundwork of our co-operation in a technical sense between local authorities.

The Bill came about because there was uncertainty in the law, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Banks) lucidly explained. Such is the importance of the work that will be undertaken by the know-how funds that I was pleased that the Government agreed to authorise some of the schemes even before the Bill was enshrined in law. By the time of the Second Reading, 20 schemes had been approved. In May, 15 additional schemes were approved in anticipation of the Bill's becoming law.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Southport, I have noticed many of the schemes and much of the activity that takes place in eastern Europe and I look forward to seeing many more schemes being established in the developing world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

There is a growing trend in local government to co-operate globally. Local government officers who entered the service a few years ago would not have dreamt that such co-operation could exist even among relatively small authorities. In my constituency, I have two local authorities—Brentwood and Epping Forest district councils. Both those authorities have considerable experience of dealing with other authorities in all parts of Europe. Recently the Brentwood borough returning officer went to Cambodia to help supervise part of its election.

The Bill is best described as one which clarifies technical twinning. It builds on the twinning arrangements that have existed between local authorities for a number of years. It provides for a modern twinning, which offers practical assistance and help to local authorities that share similar problems.

Some of my hon. Friends have expressed worries that mayors may jet-set around the world on junkets. I respectfully point out that that kind of behaviour is already lawful and that lord mayors can engage in that kind of activity. I will be brave enough to predict, however, that the Bill will make it extremely unlikely that we will see any junketing.

The Bill is about offering practical assistance. Many countries, particularly those in central and eastern Europe, are starting a process to try to find a way to establish representative democracy within their communities. They also must tackle the difficult problem of dismantling much of the existing burdensome bureaucracy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Carrington) expressed worries about unknowing overseas councils being advised by councils such as Lambeth or Hammersmith and Fulham. I suspect that such is their infamy that it is extremely unlikely that any community in the world would be gullible enough to take advice from them. I read recently that a hitherto unknown tribe had been discovered in Borneo, I believe, that was clothed in tree bark and carried a stone round as a god. Clearly, those are the only kind of people gullible enough to listen to Lambeth council. I hope that my hon. Friend, in his winding-up speech, will undertake to ensure that a copy of Hansard is sent immediately to those unfortunate people.

What is particularly good about the two amendments is that they demonstrate a willingness by the Government to consult and listen to local government. I do not share the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham about delays. The general consents are meant to speed up the process, not slow it down. The fact that consultation is, to use the words of my noble Friend Baronesss Flather, "flagged up" in the Bill is an important statement about the partnership between local and central Government.

That partnership has been subject to strains and stresses in recent years; too often, it has been an unequal partnership, conducted with all the reason and care of a lobotomy being performed by a chain saw. We have good reason to see the Bill as establishing and codifying that relationship, and I hope that it will be built upon.

Lords amendment No. 1 relates to consultation before the general consent is given, and what is pleasing about it is that it will take place between the local authority associations and the Government, at the strategic stage, before the ideas are fully codified. From discussions with representatives of the various local government associations, I know how pleased they are about the level of co-operation between themselves and the Government.

The idea behind the consultation is not to cut through red tape, as my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham suggested, but to avoid red tape being placed in the way of the local authorities and their schemes. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will make it clear that, under that process, it is intended that few applications will have to be made through Whitehall.

10.45 am

Lords amendment No. 2 seems very reasonable. We must bear in mind that most of the schemes will be ones that we come across jointly, in both central and local government. The Local Government International Bureau has a fund of expertise because of experience that it has gained from a number of years of overseas co-operation. It would be unfortunate if the Department of the Environment, which has expertise in local government but not in overseas assistance, were to try to second-guess or shadow the work of the Local Government International Bureau.

I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to assure the House that the kind of consultation and co-operation suggested in the Bill will take place, and that the advice offered to overseas local authorities will be joint advice, given by local government associations and central Government.

There must be a degree of certainty about such local government activity. For the reasons already eloquently expressed by my hon. Friends, however, local authorities are accountable to their charge payers. Those authorities must be able to demonstrate that what they are doing is reasonable and worthwhile.

I commend the two amendments to the House and have much pleasure in supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe on this valuable and important Bill.

Photo of Mr Keith Mans Mr Keith Mans , Wyre

I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words in support of the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester). He has done the House a service by introducing the Bill, and I am pleased that it is close to gaining its Royal Assent.

As a number of my hon. Friends have already said, the Bill is most useful. I see nothing wrong in encouraging links between local authorities in this country and those elsewhere in the world. It is clear from the debate that not only eastern Europe but many other parts of the world will benefit from the experience that we have gained from decades, if not centuries, of local government. That experience enables us to provide the technical know-how that is so important to various nations across the world, especially in eastern Europe.

I must admit that I had not thought of councils such as Lambeth advising anybody. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) dealt very well with such a possibility. When one looks at some of our local councils, one sees that we must be careful to ensure that our reputation for local government is not damaged. For example, if certain of the inner-London councils were to give advice to eastern Europe, that would be damaging to everybody.

It is important, in respect of both the amendments, that we have consultation and guidance between central Government, in the form of the Department of the Environment, and local government, to ensure that we get the best advice about how to proceed. I have been impressed by the range of activities that are already undertaken across the globe, and the range of links between our local government authorities and those in many other parts of the world.

I hope that, as a result of Lords amendment No. 1, the consultation process will include much of the information and knowledge that we have built up over the years. I note that the councils of Strathclyde and Birmingham are already extensively involved in overseas schemes. I hope that that experience can he brought to bear in the consultation process.

The guidance offered must be of a fairly general nature. It should not he too prescriptive. For example, on the Traffic Calming Bill, which I introduced a year and a half ago, there was considerable discussion about how much guidance the Department of Transport should give local councils in coming up with various traffic calming schemes. After much discussion, it was felt that the guidance in that case should be of a general nature to allow individual authorities to come up with their own ideas within that general framework, allowing them maximum opportunity for developing those ideas.

I should like to have similar guidance under this Bill. It is important that local authorities are given enough discretion to come up with their own ideas, provided that those fit into an overall general model.

My hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Carrington) mentioned the speed with which the guidance and consultation exercise takes place. That is a bit of a worry. Although the Traffic Calming Bill was enacted two months after Royal Assent, the guidance on it took another 12 months to be issued. I hope that it will not take as long in this case and that the consultation exercise, at least initially, will be relatively brief so that councils can get on with the matters that will be so useful, particularly in eastern Europe.

In that respect, I have more confidence than my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham appears to have about co-operation between central Government and local government. We always see where it has not worked well, but we do not always see the majority of cases in which co-operation is effective between chief executives, individuals at the Department of the Environment, and individual councils. That co-operation is working all the time and, generally, it is highly successful.

I am reasonably confident, therefore, that, provided that the consultation and guidance exercise is carried out reasonably quickly, it will act as a spur to local authorities, give them the necessary background information, and result in this initiative getting off the ground quickly.

I am therefore very much in favour of both the amendments and hope that they go through relatively quickly.

Photo of Mr Roy Thomason Mr Roy Thomason , Bromsgrove

Like other hon. Members I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) on introducing the Bill. It is a timely and appropriate measure and I support the Lords amendments before us.

It is appropriate that I should briefly intervene in this debate as I was, for many years, a member of the board of the Local Government International Bureau as well as being chairman of the Association of District Councils. I was, therefore, much involved in early consideration of issues relevant to the Bill. I was extremely concerned at the initial lack of responsiveness shown by Ministers' reluctance to consent to schemes that involved local government talking to eastern Europe, in particular. With other colleagues from the world of local government, I often lobbied Ministers at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department of the Environment to press on them the good work that it was possible for local government to do in disseminating best practices and encouraging local democracy in eastern Europe and other parts of the world.

It was, therefore, with great delight that I noted that Ministers listened to representations made by local government. They have given every encouragement to the development of schemes disseminating best practice and information. I was worried that, initially, other Governments were encouraging their local councils to establish contacts and I felt that it was important that British local government should work with foreign Governments because we have something special to offer.

There is much criticism of the relationship between central Government and local government in this country, and of how local government operates, but we should be proud of the work undertaken by men and women who sit on councils throughout the country and of their achievements. We should be proud of their contribution to community life over the years. Naturally, bad examples exist and my hon. Friends have rightly referred to those. Nevertheless, the majority of those who serve in local government undertake a difficult task very well. It is important that other nations are made aware of our experiences.

I welcome the amendment proposing consultation, which is the essence of the thinking behind the Bill. The Government listened to local government in working out schemes and went on to listen to their concern about limiting powers. They have, therefore, supported my hon. Friend's measure and consulted, throughout the Bill's passage, with local government associations and the Local Government International Bureau. I pay tribute to Ministers' work in that respect.

It is important that the general authorisation will be wide enough to avoid excessive scrutiny, because we do not want every scheme to be placed on a Minister's desk and studied in detail. I hope that, as a matter of course, it will include all know-how fund schemes and that de minimis rules will apply so that small schemes can be proceeded with without undue delay or the bureaucracy of formal consideration at departmental level.

I hope that, within certain limitations, local government staffing costs will be excluded in calculating the value of schemes, because it is difficult to quantify the work that may be done in committee and clerking time in considering such measures, and the assistance that is given within an authority in working out and progressing a scheme. I accept that it should not be seen as an excuse for some authorities to engage considerable numbers of staff devoted specifically to developing international work.

I welcomed approaches made in the late 1980s by members of local government in eastern Europe, a number of whom I met. They were seeking ways of understanding the development of their role. I met councillors who did not understand the basics of democratic principles; how they should open a dialogue with their electors; or what sort of relationship they should have with the management of local government. All those concepts were strange to them. They had no idea how they operated.

We need not only to disseminate information on the operation of democracy at ground floor level but to help with the development of local government associations so that they can establish the dialogue to which I referred earlier, which allows local and central Government to talk together. Councillors also need assistance in management to ensure that democracy is not discredited by inefficient management. I hope that the schemes will assist in that way, too.

I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to say that the guidance issued under amendment No. 2 will be clear and will encourage the development of the important links already being established.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

First, I congratulate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) on taking the Bill through the House. We have had a full and considered debate and he and other hon. Members, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson), have explained the benefits of the Bill and the contribution that it can make. The tearing down of the Berlin wall and the disintegration of the Warsaw pact led to greater opportunities for local authorities here to share their experiences with countries in eastern Europe and elsewhere. My hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West gave an account of what the chief executive of Torridge district council, Mr. Brasington, is doing. That shows that a contribution is being made not just in eastern Europe but throughout the developing world.

My hon. Friends the Members for Fulham (Mr. Carrington), for Southport (Mr. Banks), for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), for Wyre (Mr. Mans) and for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) made useful contributions to the debate. I hope that I shall be able to deal with them before I am interrupted by the traditional Friday morning 11 o'clock point of order sound bite.

Amendment No. 1 requires the Secretary of State to consult local government representatives before giving a general authorisation. In practice, that will mean consultation with local authority associations.

11 am

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner , Bolsover

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister was right for once. As you are probably aware from reading this morning's newspapers, there has been a further disclosure. The Minister of State Home Office, the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd), has been referred to as the fourth Minister making representations on behalf of Asil Nadir. A day or two ago the Attorney-General refused to give us additional information. Does the Attorney-General intend to come to the House today to tell us exactly how many other Ministers, perhaps Treasury Ministers, are involved in making representations on behalf of Asil Nadir in return for the money that he has given to the Tory party? Will a statement be made?

Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South

The Chair has had no request from any Minister to make a statement on anything.

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has raised that matter on his own behalf and not on behalf of a national newspaper. May we have—

Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South

Order. There cannot be anythng further to that point of order because I have ruled that there have been no requests for statements on anything.

Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South

Order. I make it clear that I will not accept any further points of order asking whether I have had any requests for a statement, because there have been none on any issue.

Photo of Dr Lewis Moonie Dr Lewis Moonie , Kirkcaldy

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I crave your indulgence. The Scotsman has today leaked in detail the Government's White Paper on local government reform for Scotland. We await that White Paper with interest and it is highly controversial. Have you been informed about the leak and, in view of it, do the Government intend to advance the publication of the White Paper so that hon. Members may have a chance to see what The Scotsman has already seen?

Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South

Madam Speaker has made it quite clear that official documents should first be presented to the House and has deprecated the leaking from any source of any form of documentation that should first be presented in this Chamber.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

Before we were interrupted by English and Scottish sound bites, I was dealing with the amendment which requires the Secretary of State to provide local authorities with guidance about the exercise of the Bill's powers.

We have made it clear throughout that we intend to consult local government on the content of the general authorisation and issue guidance on the working of the Bill. Some of my hon. Friends asked for assurances and undertakings that there would be common sense guidance and consultation. I am happy to give that undertaking. The guidance and consultation will be with all local authority associations, including the National Association of Local Councils which represents parish and town councils as well.

The relationship that has developed during the passage of the Bill clearly demonstrates the generally close working relationship between central and local government. The debate has been full and detailed. My hon. Friends have raised some pertinent issues and the amendments have been properly balanced and examined. I commend them to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 agreed to.