Local Audit and Accountability Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:35 pm on 28th October 2013.

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Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government 4:35 pm, 28th October 2013

My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. There was a box-ticking culture, and local authorities were often spending an enormous amount of time on increasing their scoring as opposed to delivering decent services for local people.

Protection remains in place for whistleblowers and to prevent Enron-style conflicts of interest. We need to remember that the Westminster homes scandal was uncovered not by the Audit Commission, but by an outsourced auditor from Touche Ross. There is no reason why private sector auditors cannot be independent and fiercely robust. Reserve intervention powers will remain to tackle systemic failures such as those at

Doncaster, working with the local government sector, but they are the exception that proves the rule. There will be a continuing role for both Members of Parliament and Ministers to use their public voice to challenge local government when bad decisions are made—that is called democracy.

The second provision in this Bill will protect the local press from unfair local competition. Where local newspapers thrive, local democracy thrives. Local newspapers not only inform residents of what is going on, but play a vital role in exposing local waste, mistakes and corruption, and, thus, in holding councils to account. When councils put out their own glossy free sheets to compete with local newspapers, local democracy is the loser. Tackling that abuse was a key pledge in not just the coalition agreement, but the general election manifestos of both parties.

In 2011, Parliament previously strengthened the local government publicity code, but a small number of councils have intentionally ignored it, with Tower Hamlets being a case in point. Ofcom has found it guilty of breaching broadcast rules for political advertising, but no power exists to tackle its political propaganda sheet, and local auditors have recently refused to intervene. Such actions are not just a misuse of public funds; they are, ultimately, harmful to local democracy and the independence of the free press. They are also further evidence of a worrying pattern of divisive community politics and mismanagement of council staff and resources by the mayoral administration. So provisions in the Bill will ensure that we will act when Parliament is ignored. Yes, this is central intervention, but it is being done to protect the free press and deal with the serious abuse of power. Even in a localist system, there is a role for central Government to set an ethical framework and maintain checks and balances on local government to prevent corruption. Without such backstops, there would be a siren voice for a return to top-down inspections or to set a quango such as the Audit Commission.

The third and final provision in the Bill will close a legal loophole and ensure that all councils’ bills will be set so that they are fully accountable to local taxpayers. Some unelected bodies are setting a levy on council tax bills with little or no accountability for local voters—from waste disposal authorities and integrated transport authorities to crematorium boards. We will ensure that the direct democracy provisions in the Localism Act 2011 allow council tax referendums to apply also to that quango state.

The Bill has already been scrutinised in the Lords, where the Government listened to a range of views and made a number of minor amendments. Subject to the will of the House, we intend to make the Bill even stronger. We will modernise the archaic rules on parish polls, for example by allowing longer voting hours and postal votes. Perhaps our most significant proposal is to give people the right to film, blog or tweet at council meetings. Some councils would prefer meetings to be held behind closed doors, but the public has the right to see decisions being taken and how the money is spent.

A private Member’s Bill promoted by Mrs Thatcher introduced the right to attend council meetings back in 1960, and that in turn built on a law introduced by the Liberal Government of 1908, so this is truly a coalition of minds. It is right that we should now bring her legacy up to date for the digital age. We have previously amended secondary legislation to open up councils’ executive meetings and have encouraged councils to open up their full council and committees. Many have refused, however, citing health and safety, data protection or just standing orders. Tower Hamlets said that such a change would lead to “reputational damage”. Well, yes, it probably will when people see what is going on in their council chambers. There have even been cases of the police being called to threaten bloggers with arrest. We will therefore make the necessary changes to primary legislation to allow full councils and committees to be open as well.

Our argument is that the coalition Government are scrapping the top-down red tape of Whitehall inspection and micro-management. That will save taxpayers’ money and help to devolve power, but it must go hand in hand with local transparency and accountability. We must ensure an independent free press and scrutinise and challenge bad decisions by councils. Individual taxpayers and the new wave of citizen journalists must be let in to conduct their own scrutiny. We are localising audit and scrapping protection, while ensuring that there is protection against the bad old days of municipal corruption. In short, the Bill will deliver greater openness, stronger local democracy, accountability and significant savings for the taxpayer. I commend it to the House.