HC Deb 27 March 1968 vol 761 cc1538-42

3.32 p.m.

Mr. Evelyn King (Dorset, South)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to permit the Parliamentary Commissioner to investigate the administrative action taken on behalf of local authorities. It is a coincidence that, through the agency of Mr. William Hardcastle, a news flash has just announced that some lady is so convinced of the injustice she thinks her local authority has done to her that she has chained herself to the railings of the town hall on the day I seek to introduce this Bill. Whether or not it supports my case, I know nothing of her. It is, however, relevant to what I have to say.

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is very difficult for an hon. Member to address the House against a background of conversation.

Mr. King

It is not irrelevant to what I shall say that an article in The Times on Monday carried banner headlines: Parliament no longer able to safeguard freedom. Today's Leader in The Times declares that the British people know themselves to be badly governed. —[Interruption.] I did not intend that as any party point. In a centre page article in the Evening News last night Professor Vaisey said that the constitution is working badly, that the bureaucrats attempt to take short cuts which are alarmingly illiberal. What I propose is not a cure for all these criticisms, but it is within the context of that sort of criticism. I think that we would be unwise to pay no heed to the increasing volume of criticism of that sort which comes to us, and I would add that in my view it is more urgent even than it was a year ago. Every hon. Member has a constituent somewhere who is troubled or who has a grievance. Generally constituents go to their Member only when they have tried every other channel and they have failed, and if their will is inadequate, or their voice is too weak, then they must and can only borrow ours, and ours must carry power.

I offer only the general observation that it has never been more necessary than now that the personal link between a constituent and his Member in Parliament should be recognised. On its strength and sympathy much depends, and where it never existed or has snapped, hope fades and Government fails. I assume that it is because many shared that view and wished to increase the ability of hon. Members to respond to grievances that this House passed the Parliamentary Commissioner Act of 1967, of which the Lord President of the Council said it provides a "new and powerful weapon" which we never before possessed. Of course misgivings were expressed. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Hogg) said Members would not sieve sufficiently what they received, that there would be a "flood of letters" and that a "mass of stuff" would come forward. It is to prophesy. In fact the Parliamentary Commissioner, accorded a staff of 61, has never used that staff, because insufficient cases have come forward. Speaking in 1967 Sir Edward Compton estimated that there might be 6,000 or 7,000 cases a year. In fact, in nine months there have been 1,069 cases, averaging about 1,300 a year, less than one-fifth of what was thought. There has been no mass of stuff. There has been no flood of letters. Two hundred Members have never presented a case.

We must not flatter ourselves by thinking that that was because there were an insufficient number of grievances. It is because, and only because, the Second Schedule of the Act defining the sort of case which the Parliamentary Commissioner could consider was too tightly drawn. There are about 500,000 civil servants open to investigation, and there are 2¼ million employees of local authorities into whose activities he is forbidden to inquire.

My case in short is that although the Lord President may think that it gives us a weapon which is new and powerful, he has given us one whose range is too short, and whose field of fire is too confined.

What I say to today has a respectable parentage on both sides of the House. The right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister speaking at Stowmarket advocated—and I am sure he will remember it—the extension of the Parliamentary Commissioner's powers to the field of local authorities. The Lord President said something very similar. Both I know also link with that the view that local authorities might well appoint, and indeed manage, their own ombudsman, or parliamentary commissioner, or whatever he be called. But whether or not this is a good thing and I have my doubts what is clear is that it has not happened. No local authority has done anything of that kind. I think that one or two local authorities have a public relations officer whose powers have been slightly extended, and it is part of my case that unless the House takes some action of the kind that I have indicated it will not happen.

It forms no part of my case that local authorities on the whole are prone to corruption—the reverse is the case. They are served by honourable and upright men. But having said that, it is unrealistic to suppose that among 1,450 local authorities, spending £3,000 million worth of public money much of it voted by Parliament, there is never neglect, or delay, or incompetence, or turpitude. That is not what my mail reveals. It would be tempting to quote scandals, and I intend to resist that temptation. But there are builders and developers who sit on committees. There have been unpleasant cases. There are building inspectors who take a bottle of whisky at Christmas, and perhaps a little more. And whether or not these things happen, it is certain that a large proportion of our constituents think they happen.

I remember that during the summer I ventured to write a 1,300 word article in the Telegraph. I was appalled, not so much by the volume of the correspondence that it provoked, but by the nature of the allegations that were made. I am happy to believe that many of those allegations would not have stood up to investigation, but what is important is that the people who made them were convinced that they would, and were convinced also that there was no adequate remedy.

Perhaps I might quote one case. I hasten to add that it did not occur in Dorset.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Some hon. Members are indulging in sustained conversation. It is not fair to the House or to the hon. Member who is speaking.

Mr. King

It was the case of an applicant who sought to remodel a building and made a planning application. It was unfortunate that the planning officer inspected the wrong building and then refused the application. Nevertheless, the refusal was persisted in, the local authority suggesting that, although the wrong building had ben inspected, had they inspected the right one, the result would have been the same. I have my doubts, but whether or not the result would have been the same, I defy any hon. Member to convince that applicant that he was treated fairly. This kind of case requires investigation.

Another, perhaps more distressing, case, that of a mother and child is now on my files. The child is to be separated from the mother and committed to the care of the local authority under a fit person order. I am not satisfied with the evidence upon which that was done, but I cannot know. Nor is there any easy method of forcing the investigation which I would like. It is relevant that there are 70,000 children in care. The responsibility is heavy.

Many people, and their number is growing, increasingly doubt the effectiveness of the democratic processes in which all of us believe, and they feel anger because they occasionally detect or think they detect injustice, and because they feel remote from a bureaucracy which, whether local or national, having once taken a decision, even if a wrong one, can be obstinate and immovable. Anything which we can do, any action we can take, to make them feel that this is not so and that there are real, strong links between Member and constituent, that we have power to expose injustice, wherever it occurs and however seldom it occurs—that is the action which we should take. In that spirit, I ask leave to introduce the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Evelyn King, Sir J. Foster, Mr. Bessell, Mr. R. J. Mitchell, Mr. Rossi, Mr. Dean, Mr. Grant, Mr. Murton, Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop, and Mr. Marks.