HC Deb 17 February 1966 vol 724 cc1654-9

9.38 p.m.

The Minister of State for Scotland (Mr. George Willis)

I beg to move, in page 2, line 17, at the end to insert:

(6) Any decision under the said subsection (8) (as amended by this Act) to remove any disability imposed by the said section 73 may be modified or revoked by the Secretary of State.

During the Committee stage of the Bill we had considerable discussion concerning the length of time for which dispensations given by the Secretary of State should last. It became clear that we had omitted from the Bill powers for the Secretary of State to modify or revoke any dispensations given by him, and I promised to table an Amendment on Report to correct this. This is the Amendment, and I hope that the House will accept it.

Mr. Gordon Campbell (Moray and Nairn)

We are glad that the hon. Gentleman has been able to find a suitable form of words to deal with the point which was raised during our discussions in Committee. We accept the words which have been suggested as filling the gap which we discovered.

Amendment agreed to.

Motion made, and Question proposed. That the Bill be now read the Third time.

9.40 p.m.

Mr. Campbell

In Committee, we raised a number of points, on which we had a full discussion. Now that the Bill is likely shortly to receive its Third Reading I want to make some general comments upon it. It was introduced as a minor Measure, to make possible certain improvements of an administrative nature. There were two in particular. The first, as we understood it to be explained by the Government was to give a councillor or local government official a defence in court if he were charged with failing to disclose an interest in a case which could be only a technical breach of the 1947 Act and could have no substance.

The relevant parts of the Bill are Clause 1(1) and Clause 2(1). In Committee, doubt was expressed whether this provision was necessary in Scotland, and whether the wording introduced as a defence would make the position any clearer. The Government stated that this was the intention.

The second administrative improvement enabled the Secretary of State to give a wider dispensation to councillors to speak or vote, in certain circumstances, if they were disabled by having a financial interest. We recognise that the present system, under which there is a separate dispensation for each item considered at a meeting, and for each councillor, could lead to an unnecessary and time-wasting repetition of applications, but we do not think that the power of the Secretary of State need have been extended so widely as it is in the Bill in order to overcome this difficulty. In particular, we would have preferred a time limit rather than an indefinite period.

We hope that the Government will use the new provisions of the Bill for the purpose which they stated on introducing it, namely, to improve the administrative position in carrying out the 1947 Act. It is apparent from what I have just said, however, that Clause 1(5) could be used for much wider purposes—for example, to alter entirely the principles and practice of the past 20 years or more in Scotland for granting dispensations, by granting dispensations, without a time limit, to whole categories of persons throughout Scotland, regardless of the position in each council, when, in the past, decisions to grant or not to grant have been taken in the light of the proportion of councillors on each council who were disabled.

If whole categories were given dispensations in this way there would be a major change in the present practice. Hitherto, applications for dispensation have been considered in the light of the question whether only two or three persons in a council were disabled, or whether there were a considerable number—the question often being whether more than one-third of the councillors were so disabled. We consider that if such sweeping changes are contemplated, or seem necessary, the Government should bring the matter to the House of Commons.

Those major changes of principle should be considered here, on their merits, at the time. When we put this suggestion forward in Committee the Minister of State appeared to recognise the need for further parliamentary debate if such a question came up, and it seemed that this change was necessary in Scotland. We consider that this would be the correct procedure.

9.45 p.m.

Mr. Willis

There does not seem to be much that I need to reply to in the remarks of the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. Gordon Campbell). We have had long discussions on the first point with which the Bill is concerned, namely, the insignificant or remote pecuniary interest. The Bill puts Scotland in the same position as England. We think that it would be advantageous to all local authorities. The local authority associations think so, too, and because of this we are quite happy with it.

On the second point, about the possibility of changing the practice and principles already operating in Scotland, under Clause 1(5), we have had considerable discussion about this also. While it is true that that makes it possible to alter the practice in Scotland, I pointed out during the Committee stage that, clearly, before acting under this subsection, the Secretary of State would consult the local authority associations—the counties, the cities, the county councils, the small burghs and the rest. He would not, of course, use the power wrongly—

Mr. Campbell

I understand that he would consult the local authorities through their associations, but our point was that ratepayers and electors and other persons in Scotland who are concerned with local government ought to get their opportunity, through their representatives in Parliament, also to comment.

Mr. Willis

It is certainly doubtful whether the Secretary of State would take any action until there was a demand for it. That demand would be expressed in the usual way, through public speeches, by questions to my right hon. Friend in the House, by deputations, representations and the rest of the democratic procedures which enable a Minister to judge public opinion, at which point he would, as is customary—I know of very few occasions when the Secretary of State does not—consult the local authority associations and assess the volume of opinion for anything which he might think of introducing.

The hon. Gentleman made the point, as he did also during the Committee stage, that if a category of people was given a dispensation throughout Scotland, we might give a dispensation to the only person on a council requiring a dispensation. I think that I told the hon. Gentleman at that time that the present position is very anomalous.

If there is only one person on a council of 27 members with an interest, perhaps as a municipal tenant, he must neither speak nor vote. If, however, there are more than nine councillors who are municipal tenants—or a sufficient number to alter the majority within that council—they are given powers to vote and to speak. In other words, the anomaly at present is that, precisely when the person is unable to influence the council, he is told that he must on no account speak or vote. However, when a group of persons reaches a number able to influence the decisions of the council, they are given a dispensation. Does not that strike the hon. Gentleman as a little anomalous and make nonsense of his argument?

I am sure that, if he thinks over this, he will realise that this is an indefensible position, but it has to be accepted in order to allow councils to carry out their work—

Mr. G. Campbell

What I am saying is that this is a subject on which, as the hon. Gentleman said, there are different opinions. People can say that it is anomalous. On the other hand, it has been going on for a considerable time. It ought to be considered separately on its merits if the whole practice is to be changed, with views put defending it and opposing it. I am not concerned with its merits at this stage.

Mr. Willis

I answered that earlier by saving that in this case, about which the hon. Gentlemen opposite were most concerned, we have been consulting the local authority associations. I reported the results of those discussions and we are still consulting the associations on this matter.

I promised, in Committee, to consult the local authority associations concerning a declaration of the full interests of councillors, the suggestion having been made that these interests should be registered in a register to be kept by councils. In the short time that has elapsed between the Committee stage and now we have not been able to carry out these consultations thoroughly. However, we did approach the counties and county burghs and neither of them were happy about the suggestion. We therefore took no action and did not put down any Amendments. Clearly, we did not have sufficient time to consider the matter, although our preliminary inquiries showed that there was no great support for the suggestion.

9.51 p.m.

Mr. Alasdair Mackenzie (Ross and Cromarty)

I understand that the Bill is designed to remove certain anomalies. Having listened to the discussions in Committee it is fair to say that the Bill is concerned more with the South of Scotland than the area which I represent. This is due largely to the fact that in the Highlands we have no party politics in local government. Councillors are elected because of their knowledge, experience and understanding of the problems of the area, and the question of party politics does not arise.

I can understand why the question of interests held by councillors—particularly from the point of view of remote or insignificant interests—is a difficult matter to decide. In the Highlands councillors must be given a certain discretion in deciding whether or not they have such remote or insignificant interests in the business before the council. That does not mean that councillors in the area are not aware of their obligation to disclose any financial interests they may have in council business.

We must remember that a great deal is expected of councillors. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find people with the necessary qualifications to undertake this work, particularly in constituencies such as mine. Councillors must spend much more time these days in local government activities and it is, therefore, important that nothing is done which would give prospective councillors the impression that their work is not of extreme importance. We must also ensure that there is no suspicion that councillors hold their positions because of pecuniary interests.

As far as I can judge, the changes proposed will have the tendency to remove any such suspicions, and while this is, perhaps, the most unimportant Measure which has been before the Scottish Grand Committee during the last 14 months, it will do some good and, on behalf of my party, I support it.

Mr. Hugh D. Brown (Glasgow, Provan)

The Minister said, in connection with Clause 1(5), that he would seek the support of the local authority associations. "Support" was the word he used. I take it that my hon. Friend really means that he will consult opinions, and will not necessarily allow the decisions of the various associations to determine what his action will be in that respect?

Mr. Willis

The short answer is, "Yes".

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.