From time to time, I receive representations about alleged corrupt practices in local government. Most recently, of course, I received a copy of Professor Black's report on Monklands district council.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. In the light of Professor Black's report of malpractice in Monklands and of the fact that Labour has totally failed to take care of its own affairs and put its house in order, what action will my right hon. Friend take to ensure that at long last people in Monklands will renew their faith in local government?
I have carefully considered Professor Black's report. On the basis of its contents, I have concluded that, in principle, there is now a case for initiating a statutory inquiry. It will concentrate on the allegations that the council has failed to comply with its statutory obligation under section 7 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 to appoint staff on merit. I will announce further details in due course.
It was my distinguished predecessor, the right hon. John Smith, who first called for an inquiry under section 211. I am shocked that the Government have delayed such an inquiry for this length of time. I recall that, shortly after my by-election, the anniversary of which is this week, I met the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) who was then the Minister with responsibility for local government. That was before he fell on his pickaxe. He pointedly refused to institute an inquiry into the activities of Monklands district council. My constituents would expect nothing less from the Secretary of State for Scotland than his resignation. [Interruption.]
Order. I will hear the hon. Lady who, although she has not long been in Parliament, is an experienced politician. I am sure that she will put a question when she has said what she wishes to say.
I am grateful, Madam Speaker. My constituents are unhappy about the extent to which they have been used as a political football in the House. On their behalf, I ask the Secretary of State for Scotland: will he now resign, because he is failing to look after the interests of all the people of Scotland?
Well, I understood that the Labour party wanted me to set up an inquiry under section 211 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. I asked the hon. Lady during the by-election, when she said that she had evidence and was going to send it to me, to let me have it so that I could consider it. That arose from the Labour party's earlier inquiry. I also asked the late John Smith to send me the inquiry; neither she nor he did so. As a result of Professor Black's report, however, we have further information that we have considered carefully and that has led me to the conclusion that I have just announced.
Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the fact that there is nothing terribly unusual about Monklands? Most Labour councils in west Scotland behave exactly in the way that Monklands has behaved. Will he therefore bear in mind the possibility of 211 inquiries into other councils—for example Dumbarton and Renfrew?
If my hon. Friend has evidence that he would like to send to me that might justify such a matter, I shall of course consider it. Perhaps one of the things that is different about Monklands district council is that, in February 1994, 81 Labour Members signed an early-day motion
That this House deplores the actions of certain honourable Members in claiming that there has been impropriety of various kinds by elected members of Monklands District Council".
That seemed to be their conclusion after their earlier inquiry. The circumstances now, however, seem to be different.
Will the Secretary of State not accept that, while no one will take seriously Labour's attempt to abdicate its responsibility for Monklands, there is a question as to why the Secretary of State has taken two years to take the action that he has announced today? Is it the case that it was the policy of past and present Scottish Office Ministers deliberately to allow the Monklands position to fester for political advantage, just as it was the Labour party's policy to try to sweep it under the carpet?
That is quite wrong. I have been aware of certain allegations for some time, but I am obliged to consider the position in its statutory context, as I have made repeatedly clear to the House. I am now of the opinion that it is appropriate to initiate an inquiry of the sort that I have announced.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, year after year, there are many requests for inquiries into different local authorities, and that he and his staff can consider only the evidence that they have, before they can make a decision on whether there is adequate evidence? Was it not the absent evidence, especially the evidence collected by the Labour party, that could have brought forward this inquiry if it had been made available?
Let me first welcome the belated announcement by the Secretary of State that he will now have that statutory inquiry into Monklands district council, for which, as my hon. Friends have said, I, the late John Smith and many others have been calling for some time. May I regret that it was slipped in here today in the answer to a question, although that is the usual sleekit way that we expect these things to be announced from the Tory party today? Will he not admit, however, that he has now been stung into doing this inquiry, which he should have instructed at least two years ago, by the decisive and determined action taken by the Leader of the Opposition and the Scottish Labour party last week?
While the Secretary of State for Scotland was interested only in scoring party political points about the fears, apprehensions and worries of the people of Monklands, it was left to the Labour party to call for Professor Black's independent inquiry. In contrast to the dilly-dallying of the Secretary of State and the Scottish Office, we took clear and decisive action on it within 24 hours. While the Tory party plays at politics, the Labour party takes action.
A few minutes ago, the hon. Gentleman was complaining because I was not answering a question; now he is complaining because I have answered a question. On 4 March 1993, the Labour party's inquiry into Monklands concluded:
The Committee has carried out its remit with integrity and sensitivity and would anticipate that the recommendations form part of a concerted effort to restore credibility and to renew confidence in the local Party in Monklands…There will be a continuing interest from the Scottish Executive to ensure the smooth and effective operation of the Party in Monklands".
That was its view on 4 March 1993. Its view seems to have changed a little since then. It is a great pity that it did not send me the evidence that I have repeatedly asked for in the compilation of that report. If it had, we could have had the inquiry a long time ago.