HC Deb 18 December 1968 vol 775 cc1394-7

3.56 p.m.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the appointment and functions of a Parliamentary Commissioner for the investigation of administrative action taken by local authorities in Scotland. By coincidence, it is reported in today's Press that the Government of Northern Ireland intend to set up a Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration in in Northern Ireland. It is no part of my purpose today, however, to suggest that needs in Scotland similar to those in Northern Ireland have motivated me in bringing forward my proposal to the House. The purpose of the Bill is more limited, namely, to enable Members of Parliament more effectively to influence the administration of local government in Scotland.

It is widely acknowledged that the advantages of the Ombudsman procedure, of which we have now had some experience at the central Government level, are that it is simple, free, rapid and informal. For what the House will agree is the modest cost of £139,000, in the Estimate for the current year's expenditure, we have been able, I believe, to raise the standard of administration and to offer remedies to individuals who have suffered injustice at the hands of the central Government. However, this advantage cannot, under the Parliamentary Commissioner Act, 1967, be extended to individuals who believe that they have suffered a wrong at the hand of local authorities.

I believe that it is the experience of most Members of Parliament that the majority of cases coming to them in which constituents express grievances do not concern the administration of the central Government. The Ombudsman has shown in his report that the standard of central Government administration is high. Only about 10 per cent. of the cases which he has considered and over which he has had jurisdiction have led to an adverse report being brought in.

Nevertheless, the same might not be true if the Ombudsman's jurisdiction were extended to cover local authority matters. This is not to cast any reflection on the standards of probity and diligence of members of local authorities, who are unpaid and give their services in a part-time capacity.

None the less, there are many cases with which Members of Parliament have to deal in which a regional Ombudsman could be of great service, for example, in education. Local authorities' decisions to exclude a child from a particular school may give rise to great heartburning and concern. Planning cases resulting in compulsory purchase orders may likewise give rise to a sense of grievance. In the exclusively local authority function of housing allocation, the operation of a points system may give rise to charges of maladministration. Similarly, in the operation of the local authority welfare services, such as the provision of home helps, there is frequently a sense of grievance.

It may be asked why I have sought to apply the Bill only to Scotland. I do not intend to suggest that Scotland's needs are in any way greater than those of the rest of the country. I do not believe that the standard of local administration in Scotland is in any way below that of the United Kingdom as a whole, but there are good arguments for introducing such a Measure in Scotland. It is a compact administrative entity with its own traditions and local government set-up and it is highly suitable for an experimental innovation of this kind.

I have some support from my noble Friend, Lord Shackleton, who, during the debate on the Parliamentary Commissioner Act in another place, acknowledged that when we got round to considering how to bring local government under the scrutiny of the Ombudsman it would be appropriate to do it by means of regional commissioners.

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is difficult for the hon. Gentleman to address the House under the Ten-Minute Rule if a series of conversations is going on all over the House.

Mr. Maclennan

As Lord Shackleton said, it is doubtful whether a single Commissioner, least of all the proposed Parliamentary Commisioner, who would report to Parliament, could cope with all the complaints which would flow in a country of 50 million people about local authorities.

The time is ripe for an experiment in the extension of the scheme and the establishment of a new regional Parliamentary Commissioner. It may be asked why the Commissioner should be responsible to Parliament in a matter essentially concerned with local government. But the public rightly view the Member of Parliament as being in a sense the watchdog of the whole of public administration and not just over the administration of central Government. There is much common sense in that. The Member of Parliament is in many cases able to be more detached from the issues confronting the local authority whose activities are under scrutiny than it would be possible for any local government representative to be.

It may also be asked whether it is appropriate to bring forward such a measure at this time, when the Royal Commission on Local Government in Scotland, under Lord Wheatley, is about to make its report. But the problem of maladministration in local government will persist whatever recommendations are made. It is inconceivable that legislation would be forthcoming as a result of these recommendations within a short time. Consequently, there is much to be said for gaining experience of the operation of a regional commissioner prior to the Government's considering how they intend to implement the recommendations of the Wheatley Commission.

There is, finally, the question whether the proposal is practicable. Objection may be raised that when there is a multiplicity of local authorities such as we have in Scotland the procedure would be highly complex. This can best be answered by the experience of other countries. In New Zealand, which has recently announced its intention to extend the jurisdiction of its Ombudsman, consultations are going ahead with local authorities on how best to introduce legislation along these lines. In Finland, which has had long experience of the Ombudsman procedure, every level of public administration has been under scrutiny since the Ombudsman was established—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he is introducing his Bill under the Ten-Minute Rule.

Mr. Maclennan

I draw my remarks to a close, Sir, by citing the example of Denmark, where the Ombudsman can also consider public administration at every level, and Norway, which has passed a Bill, to become effective on 1st January, 1969 to implement precisely similar proposals.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Maclennan, Miss Herbison, Mr. Willis, Mr. Hugh D. Brown, Mr. Dewar, Mr. Eadie, Mr. William Hamilton, and Mr. Mackintosh.