§ Order for Second Reading rend.
§ 11.5 a.m.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
As the business of government extends itself more and more into the life of individuals, the need for Members of Parliament to concern themselves with the protection of the public grows. Traditionally, the function of the individual Member is regarded as being the exercise of some control over the Executive, and not to interfere in the business of local government established under statute in its day-to-day workings.
None the less I believe that there is a growing recognition and demand by the public that the Member of Parliament should play a rôle even in details of local government where they affect what might be described as the fundamental liberties of the subject. Whereas central government is subject to daily scrutiny in this House and the procedures of Ministers can be examined by us here, there are, I think, occasions when members of the public feel frustrated in their lack of recourse to remedies in their dealings with local government.
It has been said that the real burdens of oppressive bureaucracy are those inflicted by local government and not by those of the central Government. Indeed, the experience of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration set up under the Government's 1967 Act goes some way towards reassuring us that, for the most part, central Government operates efficiently and remarkably free from 1468 abuse. In all those cases which have been considered by the Parliamentary Commissioner, only some 10 per cent. have revealed abuses of administration of a kind which could be called maladministration within the terms of the Act.
Local government presents entirely different problems. Local councillors are subject to different and more immediate pressures in some cases than Members of Parliament. They may have to respond to the pressures of different sections or locales in their areas. Nor are they, like Members of Parliament for the most part, full-time in the exercise of their responsibilities; nor are they paid. Frequently they are overworked and sometimes they are inexperienced. Scrutinising the activities of their local qualified officials may present obstacles and difficulties which they cannot fully overcome. I think many of us have experienced the bafflement that certain local councillors feel in the face of the expertise of one of their officials, and even when they may feel that there is something wrong they cannot quite put their finger on what it is.
There are other reasons why the public may feel—and in my experience do feel—that the decision-making may wreak injustice or hardship upon them. The decisions of local councils can be taken in private, and the Press can be excluded from the deliberations. Nor does the central Government have the kind of day-to-day control over the activities of local government which might act as some check on abuse; the control of central Government is frequently statutorily limited to ensuring that local authority expenditure is broadly in line with national priorities.
To take one example, in the implementation of the Government's policy for the reorganisation of education on comprehensive lines, the broad lines of the Government's intention in Scotland were set out in Circular 600, but in the working out of the principle on the ground in terms of which pupils were to go to which schools, the details were left to be filled in by the local authorities themselves, and, provided that it was held to be educationally justifiable, a scheme could go ahead. There are many examples of this kind which one might cite.
1469 It may be asked why the Bill should deal only with Scotland. Are Scotland's needs in some way peculiar or greater than those of other parts of the country? My answer is that that is not so. To my knowledge, Scotland is governed at local level with as great probity and dedication on the part of its local councillors as in England. But I come from Scotland, and Scotland's needs are those which most greatly concern me. Moreover, I see some advantage, if one is instituting a new scheme of this kind, in trying it out in an area which is smaller than the whole of the United Kingdom and whose local government is more coherent and unified and is a recognisable traditional unit.
I have referred briefly on an earlier occasion to the types of case with which I believe a Parliamentary Commissioner for Local Government in Scotland might well have to deal—cases arising from the exclusive responsibility of the local authority, for example, in the allocation of houses, cases arising from the planning powers of the local authority where, for example, a principal road may result in someone losing a part of his front garden, or where the procedures of public inquiry may be thought not fully to have exhausted consideration of the rights and arguments in the case. Certainly, in education there is greatest concern on the part of parents particularly, for nothing affects more intimately the development of their families. Likewise in health and welfare, local authorities have great responsibilities entrusted to them by Parliament and may make determinations affecting the comfort of people in old age and in sickness.
The kinds of maladministration with which the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration has to deal vary enormously. What has been revealed by his activities in the first years of his work has been that, for the most part, these maladministrations are relatively slight. There are one or two standing examples in which his intervention has proved beneficial, which will, doubtless, go into the history books, and in which a major Government climb-down has resulted from his investigation, as, for example, in the case of the Sachsenhausen prison camp. But although his investigations have not, for the most part, revealed major areas of incompetence, 1470 corruption, bias or unfair discrimination, he has revealed the kind of irritation and injustice which, perhaps, is inevitable in a highly complicated society with an enormous bureaucracy at the top.
I apprehend that objection may be taken to the bringing forward of a Bill of this kind on two grounds. It may be argued that it is possible that local government will be reorganised following the report of Lord Wheatley's Commission. It has become fashionable in Scotland at least to talk of "Waiting for Wheatley" in this as in other fields. But the Government themselves have not waited for Wheatley, not, for example, in reorganising the social work services throughout Scotland in the Social Work (Scotland) Bill on the basis of the existing local authority structure. Nor have the Government hesitated to tackle the highly complex subject of planning in the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Bill, likewise on the basis of the existing units of local government.
I concede that it can be argued that, with the present multiplicity of local authorities, the task of a Scottish Commissioner for Administration might be regarded as inordinately heavy and, possibly, unmanageable. But I counter that argument by saying that the structure of local government compared with the great Departments of State is relatively simple. It is not difficult, as it is in the case of central Government, to determine where responsibility for a particular action lies within a local authority. The process of establishing the facts of any given case should, therefore, prove relatively simple. Further, it might be that local authorities which take refuge in the relative informality of their decision-making to cover up their intro-missions would take greater care to record fully the considerations leading to a particular decision and, likewise, the way they have handled its implementation. If that were so, it would be all to the good.
The second objection which may be taken is that the 1967 Act on which this Bill is based is unsuitable for the purpose of local government and that its techniques are inappropriate for the scrutiny of local affairs. It is true that one of the objectives of the 1967 Act was to strengthen the hand of the Member of 1471 Parliament in his control of the Executive, and that the rôle of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration rested on the twin constitutional doctrine of ministerial responsibility for the actions of their Departments and their accountability to Parliament for those actions. In that no such accountability to Parliament exists in the case of local government, the proposal that the Scottish Commissioner should, at the request of Members of Parliament, report to them, may seem to be an important constitutional innovation. But our constitution, unlike that of the United States, does not proceed from theory to practice, but rather from practice to theory.
What, in fact, is the practice? Members of Parliament are familiar with the whole round of complaints which they receive from their constituents about the activities of local government. How often each of us has received a complaint that a particular local authority has not dealt with a housing problem, has acted unfairly in applying its points system, or has unfairly discriminated against an individual? How often have we, as Members of Parliament, been forced to reply that this is a matter over which we have no control, from which we are statutorily excluded, and which is ultimately and finally a matter for the discretion of the local authority?
It is not the purpose of this Bill to remove the discretion of the local authority in these matters. It is rather to see that that discretion is exercised fairly and openly in the interests of the local electorate. The purpose of the present Bill is to build upon the foundation which this Government have well laid in establishing the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration.
I believe that it is not too early to evaluate the achievement of the Parliamentary Commissioner, nor is it the only experience of the work of the Ombudsman system which we have. Apart from the Scandinavian countries, to whose experience in respect of an Ombudsman with power to investigate complaints against local government I have earlier drawn attention, there are other common law jurisdictions which have followed the Scandinavian model.
In New Zealand, for example, there has been recent legislation to extend the 1472 jurisdiction of their Parliamentary Commissioner to education and hospital boards. In Canada, three provinces have instituted, apparently with success, provincial Ombudsmen. In the United States the State of Hawaii has enacted an Ombudsman statute and I am informed a number of large local sub-divisions of government have introduced an Ombudsman with statutory power. We are not in virgin terrain.
There is a natural temptation for a Scotsman to gang warily in a matter of this kind. But we must beware lest we are too timorous when so much has been done to extend the protection which Members of Parliament, by intervention, can give to their constituents.
No claim is made by me that the Bill would fill such a gap as might be completely filled by the provision of a Bill of Rights defining the rights of the citizen. That would be a constitutional innovation of much greater difficulty and would be longer in gestation period. Let us regard this Bill rather as being in the nature of a practical experiment. If it is found unhelpful, and I doubt that it will be, then the experiment can be discontinued. It would now seem sensible for the House, after two years' experience of how the system has operated, to consider trying to apply in local government the principles which have been successfully applied in central Government.
It is too much to expect that no grievances will arise in the conduct of public affairs. What is intolerable, in a just society, is that the aggrieved citizen should have no opportunity to have his complaint fully considered with fairness and impartiality and, if his complaint is found to be justified, to receive redress. I commend this Bill to the House, in the belief that there are areas of local administration where a citizen's rights can be abused without local redress.
§ 11.26 a.m.
§ Mr. George Younger (Ayr)
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing forward this Bill, and in giving us an opportunity for a discussion of local government and its relations with the people whom it governs. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not take it amiss if I make one or two criticisms about the form of his Bill. However, we are 1473 grateful to him for raising this important subject and for the way in which he has done so.
I should like to make two short but important points about why I consider the Bill not to be in the form in which I would wish to see it. I have always felt that if we were to have a Parliamentary Commissioner he ought in the first instance to have been allowed to look into complaints of administrative wrongdoing by local authorities in local government as well as in central Government. I still feel that if we are to have this function at all it is best done by one person, with the necessary staff to carry out investigations, and that that person ought to be the Parliamentary Commissioner. My own preference would have been to give to the present Parliamentary Commissioner the powers which are sought in this Bill.
The second constructive criticism which I wish to make—indeed, the hon. Gentleman himself accepted it—is that it would not be appropriate to have a separate local government Commissioner, or whatever he has been called, for Scotland. If we are to set up a separate Ombudsman to deal with local government, it ought to be on a United Kingdom basis, not on a basis of Scotland alone. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not disagree with that. No doubt he has brought this in as a Scottish Bill because that is where his interests lie. Possibly it started in his mind as a Scottish Bill, and so it has remained. Personally, I feel that if this is to be done it should be done on a national, United Kingdom basis.
There is one matter on which I am sure everybody will be in agreement. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not intend in suggesting this legislation to make a general condemnation—certainly I do not intend to do so—in any sense of the way in which local government has operated or the manner in which councillors and local government officials now carry out their jobs. In common with most other M.P.s, I have a great number of problems to deal with which are really entirely local government matters. I have always found that both local councillors and the officials on the councils are exceptionally helpful and most sensitive when one makes any 1474 requests of them for help and advice. I would place it on record—I am sure this will be echoed by all Members—the fact that we owe a great debt of gratitude for the help and advice which is so willingly given by local government officials whose sphere of activity is not ours, but who do not hesitate to help us.
There are two main sides to the matter we are discussing. First, there is the question why the representation of people's complaints against individual acts of local government is not being successfully achieved through the normal electoral process and normal contact between councillors and their officials and constituents, and what is the best way of achieving this. If we agree that the present system is not enabling the individual to get his complaints really successfully heard in a small number of cases, what could we do to put it right in the way of an Ombudsman?
The first thing we should realise is that it is not as easy to have an Ombudsman for local government as for central Government, because the decisions are taken in a completely different way. When we criticise administrative actions of central Government, we are dealing with a series of Ministries with their own organisation, headed by a Minister who takes responsibility for what the Department does. The actions he takes through his Department are identifiable and stem either from legislation or clearly recorded decisions of one kind or another.
But the actions of local government take place in a much more day-to-day and nebulous form. There are meetings of council committees and sub-committees, and full meetings of the council. Any of these may produce decisions, some of which are acted upon. Others are remitted from a sub-committee to a main committee, and then remitted again to the full council for ratification. All the time there is the problem of identifying exactly when a decision has been taken, and by whom, when one starts the process of asking whether there has been an injustice, and, if so, whether it should be investigated. Therefore, a fundamental objection to getting the problem dealt with in the way suggested is that the decision-making process of local government is not clear, as would be necessary for an ombudsman to function successfully.
1475 If a Parliamentary Commissioner for Scotland were established in the way proposed, I do not think that complaints should be forwarded to him through the Member of Parliament. That would be very negative and bad for local government. I feel very strongly that if there were an Ombudsman for local government the person through whom complaints would go to him would have to be the local councillor concerned, just as complaints must go to the present Parliamentary Commissioner through a Member of Parliament if they are to be taken up by him.
The more we look at the problems of how the proposal would work, the more we come to the age-old question that has been discussed for so many years here, that local government as we know it has become so out-of-date in our modern form of life that, through no fault of those involved in it, it is becoming more and more difficult for the individual to know who is really running his local council and for the local people running local government to feel that they are doing a useful and worthwhile job.
We must never forget that the present boundaries of local government bear no relation to the lives we now lead. All over the country people in their thousands and millions are living in one local authority area, working in another and perhaps enjoying their recreation in yet another. All over the country there are places where one has only to travel three or four miles to cross the boundaries of not just one or two local authorities but sometimes three or even more. There must always be boundaries between local authority areas, however big these areas become, but the main conurbations and community units in which we live are now totally out of relation to the boundaries of local government. That is why local government reform has been talked about for the past few years, and is still being talked about.
The consequence of the lack of relationship between local government areas and the lives we lead is the truly difficult situation of the local councillor today. The difficulties local councillors must surmount in their jobs should make us feel that they deserve a great tribute from us for doing their work as well as they do. They have a most unenviable 1476 task. Though local government becomes more and more complicated, and spends more and more of the money raised both in general taxation and local rates, we still expect the local councillors to do all the necessary work in their spare time, to spend millions of pounds on our behalf, to earn their living in their own jobs and, presumably, to carry on a normal social and family life. It is astonishing that we can find people who will still carry on this work, faced with so much difficulty and so little time in which to do it.
Even the lack of time pales into insignificance when we discuss the lack of facilities for the average local councillor to carry on his work. Some of us may complain at times about lack of facilities in Parliamentary life, but the local councillor, who admittedly represents fewer people than we do, still has his people to represent and it is almost impossible for him to take up their problems on the scale that most councillors would wish without some assistance. In most cases the local councillor has not the chance of even part of a secretary, and he has no office in which to work except his own home. He has no transport, unless he happens to be a car owner, which many councillors undoubtedly are. We ask far more than is reasonable of local councillors when we expect them to take up people's cases, even with the small number of constituents they have, to see 10 or a dozen people with problems a week, write three or four letters about each of those problems, or go and see two or three officials about them, and at the same time to carry on their normal lives, earn their liviing and attend numerous council meetings.
This brings us to the reason why we may feel that there is a need for an ombudsman to deal with these problems, and to the point the hon. Gentleman made so well, that the majority—I would say almost the vast majority—of cases brought to Members of Parliament are problems that really belong to local government. The reason for the need is that we cannot expect the local councillors to have the time or facilities to deal with the problems of their constituents, which they would very much like to do.
Another difficulty is the enormous number of people—no one will ever measure it—who have not the remotest 1477 idea who their local councillor is. I find this when a large number of people come to me with problems that are entirely local government matters. Almost always, the first question I ask is, "Have you seen your local councillor?" Almost always the result is a look of complete incomprehension. They do not know who their local councillor is or, usually, which ward of the town or village they live in.
This is not their fault. I am criticising neither the constituents nor the councillors. It would be a superhuman task for councillors to make themselves known to all their constituents, except in a few cases. This illustrates once again the great difficulty of relating the old-fashioned system of local government to modern conditions. Neither the facilities nor the conditions exist to enable the people to feel that they know their councillors, or for councillors to feel that they are able to represent their people as they should.
This brings me to another point referred to by the hon. Member—the absolute urgency of local government reform. If we could only get it really moving and have something in prospect it would not be necessary to create a special Commissioner to deal with these matters. We could wait to see how the new local government set-up was working. I hope that other hon. Members will agree with me that unless the new local government set-up meets the problems and needs which I have outlined this morning it will be no improvement on the old system.
We must ensure that in the new local government units the local councillor feels that he really counts. He must be well known to his constituents. He must have the facilities to do a proper job of work. He must be able to put the complaints of his citizens before his local authority, and he must have the necessary time and assistance to argue on behalf of his constituents from a position of strength and not, as is now so often the case, from a position in which he does not know enough to argue technicalities with the council officials and, in any case, has not the time to press home the cases of his constituents.
The Bill represents a good effort to have this important point discussed. If 1478 the new system of local government does not turn out as I hope, there may be a need in the future, for a Parliamentary Commissioner to be allowed to investigate local government affairs and individual cases of maladministration as they arise. In my opinion, however, this is not an appropriate moment to create a Parliamentary Commissioner for Local Government in Scotland, in the form suggested. In my opinion, we must have our sights firmly set on local government reform, and expect and require it to fulfil the needs which have brought about the introduction of this Bill.
I am becoming more and more concerned at the longer and longer delay in the production of the Wheatley Report. The last thing that I want is an incomplete Report, but every month—and it is going from month to month with depressing regularity just now—that we delay in this matter, and every six months that we delay thereafter in implementing such of its conclusions that Parliament may decide to implement, will make it more difficult to carry out all the reforms which are now going on. The hon. Member mentioned the Social Work (Scotland) Bill and the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Bill. These reforms are going ahead without the reform of local government. What a tragedy it is that these things are being brought in without the framework in which they can succeed.
That is the result of a dragging of feet for years, on what is admittedly the thorny problem of the reform of local government. I do not believe that the Bill will be necessary when local government is reformed. I believe most strongly that we can no longer afford to delay the reform of local government for the sake of the country, or of local government or of councillors, or—perhaps most important of all—of ordinary people who should be able to look to their councillors to fulfil their needs and not to have to resort to the system suggested in the Bill.
I hope that we will all agree that the hon. Member has done a great service in bringing to our notice a very difficult problem, but I also hope that his desire to put the situation right can be transferred from a Bill such as this, admirable though it is, to a desire to get local government reform moving forward as quickly as possible, because that is what we need.
§ 11.46 a.m.
§ Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, West)
The hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) has made a reasonable speech. I do not disagree fundamentally with many of the reservations that he has expressed about the form, content or objective of the Bill. It is easy to criticise the drafting of a Private Member's Bill. We have all done it. But we ought not to condemn a Bill on that count alone, and the hon. Member did not seek to do so. He was probably on just as unsure ground when he criticised the Bill for applying only to Scotland, because as long as we have a separate system of local government in Scotland we must have a separate Ombudsman for Scotland, assuming that the principle is accepted.
The hon. Member was right in his remarks about local councillors and local government in general. I do not believe that my hon. Friend remotely questioned—nobody in the House would do so—the incorruptibility or efficiency of the broad mass of councillors, given the limited facilities which they have at their disposal to do their work.
My hon. Friend must be congratulated in bringing forward the Bill, if only because it enables the House to consider the principle of creating an Ombudsman in any field, and to consider whether his work should be extended and, if so, in what way. The Government are to be thanked for introducing the principle of the Ombudsman. It was absolutely right to experiment in a limited field to see how the situation developed. It has not been an unqualified success. The Government would not claim that it has been. This is inevitable when we embark on unknown and unexplored territory.
The Government recognise, as we all do, that the safeguarding of the fundamental rights and liberties of the individual must never be lost sight of in this age where the big unit is becoming an increasingly severe problem, whether at the level of Government institutions or at the local level. Whether it be hospitals, regional hospital boards, management committees, nationalised industries, the police, or even business, with take-overs, large industrial units and trade unions—wherever we look the units of administration with which the individual has to deal are becoming bigger and bigger and therefore, by definition, more and more 1480 remote, so that the individual feels that his relationship with them is so impersonal that he cannot get at the people whom he thinks are doing him injustice. The individual has an ever increasing feeling of helplessness, of being weighted down by the complexity of the Governmental and other systems under which he has to live.
We see this as Members of Parliament in our post bags every morning. I suppose that there are more ulcers among Members of Parliament on average than among the rest of the community, and I think that this is largely due to the fact that we have to open a wretched post bag every morning with all these complaints knowing before we start that so many of them are not our responsibility. The ordinary citizen who writes to us does so partly out of frustration, because he has an inflated idea of what a Member of Parliament can do.
So often one gets people coming to one's "surgery" at the weekends or writing a letter and saying, "You are just the fellow to sort this out; my daughter-in-law wants a house". As soon as one hears that, one knows that one is lost and that one cannot do anything. But if one tells the constituent that he will say, "I will not vote for you at the next election; you are no good". That is the kind of problem which is extremely frustrating for both the individual and the Member of Parliament.
It is true that the tenacious Member of Parliament, the, if I may use the expression, bloody-minded Member of Parliament, can do much with a Ministry. He can write his formal letter, but that is just an opening gambit. He may then see the Minister and talk to him in language which I could not use in the House. He may get or threaten an Adjournment debate. He may get on to the local Press, and the local Press probably has a more important function than the Ombudsman my hon. Friend is suggesting. He may threaten the Minister with adverse publicity in the local and national Press, and the national Press, especially if it is anti-Labour Government, is quite willing to co-operate in that kind of exercise. He may also put Questions in the House.
There is much that an ordinary Member can do. Although I have said that the Government are to be congratulated on having introduced the idea of an 1481 Ombudsman, I viewed the experiment with mixed feelings, because I visualised, and it has not been denied by events, that there would be a slight element of blackmail of Members of Parliament, in that an individual constituent might say, "If you cannot dealt with it, I demand that you send the case to the Ombudsman". If the constituent does that, one is morally obliged to send it.
How often have Members of Parliament sent cases to the Ombudsman on the instructions of their constituents knowing full well that the Ombudsman would reply that the case was outside his terms of reference? I have had several examples of this nature. The annual report of the Ombudsman has borne this out and has shown that the vast majority of cases sent to him by Members of Parliament have been outside his responsibility. The Member has known this before sending the case, but he has to send it to satisfy his constituent that he has done all he can to deal with the problem.
The average citizen finds it difficult to accept that ordinary back bench Members have limited powers when dealing with the Executive and still less when dealing with local councils. Local government is very big business, dealing with hundreds of millions of pounds. If central Government is too remote for the individual to feel that he can have a proper personal relationship with it or with a Minister, there is a feeling of only slightly less remoteness when dealing with a local authority. How right the hon. Member for Ayr was to say that constituents coming to a Member's "surgery" at the weekend often do not know the name of their local councillor. They often do not know the name of their Member of Parliament, although there is probably more excuse for that.
It has to be remembered that the local councillor is unpaid and has to earn his living elsewhere. He has no postage or secretarial facilities. I sometimes wonder how we continue to get candidates to take up the work. I believe that the day is fast approaching when we shall have to think seriously about emoluments for local councillors. I know that this is a controversial proposal, but if we get bigger units of local government following the Reports of the Royal Commissions, the Wheatley Commission for 1482 Scotland and the Maud Commission for England, not only will the sense of remoteness between councillor and individual increase, but it will also be increasingly imperative to consider some kind of financial payments for councillors, who will be virtually full time.
Most chairmen of local authority committees are now virtually full time and much depends on their employers. When looking for candidates for local government, one of the first questions one asks is whether they can get away from their work. If the potential candidate would be a Labour councillor and has a Tory employer, the answer is often no, and vice versa, although not often vice versa. It is extremely difficult for able men and women to get sufficient time off work to do the kind of job expected of them in local authority work.
I want to quote an example to underline the problem which my hon. Friend has posed. I had an example in my own constituency when Fife County Council was planning to build high storey flats in Kincardine, mainly for workers to man the big new power station at Longannet. It was essential to build multi-storey flats because there has been much underground working in the Kincardine area and the number of possible sites was limited. The authority therefore had to build up rather than horizontally.
Certain people in Kincardine, quite properly from their point of view, objected to the proposal on aesthetic grounds. They said that it would destroy the character of the village. They went to the Scottish office of the Ombudsman in Edinburgh and asked whether it was thought that they had a prima facie case for referring the matter to the Ombudsman on the ground of the maladministration not of Fife County Council, but of the Scottish Development Department. They were told that they had.
Then then wrote to me. I knew very well that the Fife County Council had to get those houses up quickly, to get these extra jobs, and the new power station built at the earliest possible moment. It put me in a rather difficult position. I was being pressed by certain constituents to refer the matter to the Ombudsman and, if it were accepted by him, it would delay the building of the houses which the county council and the Scottish 1483 economy urgently needed to get this power station started.
I took the view that I had an obligation to my constituents to refer this matter. I did, with the result that the investigations held up the building of these flats, much to the embarrassment—and additional cost—of the ratepayers of Fife, and to the detriment of the whole project. Eventually the Ombudsman, after several months, came to the conclusion that there has been no maladministration, but time and money had been lost. Now Fife County Council is asking the Development Department to reimburse it for the additional expense that it was put to as a result of the investigations.
This is one of the difficulties into which we get as a result of the existence of the Ombudsman, as he is constituted now. The principle is sound. It is simply that the Ombudsman has power to go into Government Departments and presumably under this Bill to go into local government offices and look at papers. A Member of Parliament is not allowed to do this in Government Departments, still less in local authority offices. To that extent the experiment has been worthwhile. Another criticism which has been made, and which I would be inclined to make, is that this piecemeal approach might be wrong.
If we accept the principle of having an Ombudsman, or Parliamentary Commissioner, call it whatever we like, if we accept the principle of having someone in authority who can go much further than a Member of Parliament or a local councillor, why not cover a much wider area than central and local government? Apart from the Civil Service at central level and the local officials, the local councillors and the Members of Parliament are all elected and therefore the buck can stop with them. There are so many non-elected bodies where the Ombudsman is much more vitally concerned. Hospital administration is a very good example. Very often as Members of Parliament we get cases from constituents complaining about hospital administration of one kind or another.
It was decided, rightly or wrongly, when the National Health Service was initiated in 1947, that the bodies running the hospitals should be non-elected, and I am thinking of such bodies as regional 1484 hospital boards and hospital management committees. The power of a Member of Parliament is very limited in this area. The members of those boards and committees are not responsible to anyone. They are not elected by anyone, and often when we get hospital problems with which we cannot deal adequately, we cannot refer them to the Ombudsman, and there is no redress.
I have a very disturbing case before the Secretary of State concerning the police. The only people who can investigate the police are the police, and this is thoroughly unsatisfactory. I said earlier that Members of Parliament can threaten or promise an Adjournment debate. I have—I think threatened is the proper word—I have threatened an Adjournment debate on this problem because I want to blow it up. I want to show exactly what can happen in certain cases where the police are involved with the citizen, who has no redress whatever.
I do not know whether the activities of the Ombudsman could or should be extended into this area. There are also the nationalised industries, very big units run by people who are not elected. We have cases referred to us but the Ombudsman cannot investigate them. Instead, we are left to the Chairman of the Coal Board, or the area manager.
I want to say a few words about the prospect of reform for local government when we get the Royal Commissions' reports. I do not complain about delay, I would like them as much as anyone, but it is a highly complex matter and there are a lot of empire-builders in local authorities. I have some small burghs in my constituency and I know that if Wheatley recommends the abolition of small burghs what representations I will get from each of these burghs, where they debate for six months before deciding whether to build a public lavatory, or whether they can afford to build a public lavatory. Let anyone say that they are to get rid of these small burghs, and we all know what kind of representations we shall get. It is not only areas that are concerned, but there is also the question of how we are to finance local government, how we are to get councillors in the required numbers and of the necessary quality to man the bigger bodies. It is an enormously complex problem.
1485 It is not surprising that the Royal Commissions are apparently taking such a long time. If we get bigger authorities it will be more and more necessary to examine the principle to which my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) has referred in introducing his Bill. The problem of the relationship between the ordinary citizen and the bigger units of local government, in addition to the big unit of central Government, will become even more important and urgent. Whether we try to create additional machinery through which the ordinary citizen can ventilate his grievances, or have them investigated, is a different problem. We might need another Royal Commission on that. Having decided how to reform local government we might need another to decide on the rights of the individual and how to protect them and his freedom in the new local government set-up.
These are highly complex questions, and they cannot be tackled adequately by a Private Member's Bill. My hon. Friend is nevertheless to be congratulated for allowing us to ventilate some of these problems. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will reject the Bill—it will not get as far as the Parliament (No. 2) Bill. He will make the appropriate sympathetic noises; they are all experts at this kind of exercise, some more than others. He will get up and say that my hon. Friend has brought in a nice little Bill and we have had a nice little discussion, but it can go no further, that the Government are looking at it and keeping it under constant review. None the less I am obliged to my hon. Friend for raising the subject.
§ 12.10 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Norman Buchan)
I had intended to begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) on having initiated this debate, but in view of the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) I might be more in order in congratulating him on making my speech for me.
I had intended to say, as my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West forecast, that, while having every sympathy with the aims and objects of the Bill, I 1486 must recommend the House not to accept it. Despite the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West, I intend to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland and assure him that this has been a useful debate.
The subject raised by the Bill represents one of the major problems which we must examine in a modern democracy, for as democracy becomes more complex, so local government becomes more complex. There is never the same theoretical and continuing political consideration given to local government affairs as is inevitably given to national problems. I am glad, therefore, that we have today had at least a quasi-theoretical discussion of some of the problems facing local government.
I am pleased for another reason that this matter has been raised. Not only did my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland present his case in an admirable way, but I know how dearly he has been concerned with the whole question of the extension of democracy. His membership of the Latey Committee is a good example of this. This is not the first time that he has introduced private Members' legislation. In the past he has been successful, but I regret that I cannot advise the House to allow him to be successful with this Measure. At least he has marked the way to possible future developments.
In a modern democracy there are two basic problems. First, as democracy becomes more complex, there is great need for participation. Second, the need for protection becomes even more imperative. The Bill is more concerned with protection than with participation. However, a big problem is the need to humanise the decisions that are made, whether at national or at local level; the question of relationships between authorities and people, local and national authorities, and the need to ensure that justice is done. This concerns the whole basic protective element. People should get that which, in equity, they should have, and there should be an extension of those things which, in equity, they should get.
The concern of the present Government for the individual has been manifest in recent years. In many ways we have sought to protect the interests of the 1487 individual, both as consumer and citizen. For example, the Trade Descriptions Act will go far in preventing the fraudulent description of goods. Another sphere in which it is necessary to protect the interests of the citizen is housing, where we have introduced a whole new concept of the fixing of fair rents through rent officers and rent assessment committees.
The Government took the initiative in introducing the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner. It is as a result of that, no doubt, that we are today discussing the extension of that office. Within this problem, which is a protective one, we should not overlook the fact that the Ombudsman can never take the place of the elected representatives of the people. However, regretfully, I must advise the House against accepting the principle of the Bill at this time.
It may be useful for me to give an outline of the work which has so far been done by the Parliamentary Commissioner in Scotland, especially as I was myself involved in one case. The Commissioner may investigate any action taken by a Government Department or other authority to which the Parliamentary Commissioner Act applies.
The hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) spoke of the difference between the decision-making process in local government and that in national Government as a result of the various committees that exist in the two structures. The rôle of the Commissioner is concerned not with policy-making but only with the faults that occur in administration or as the result of maladministration. Thus, the powers of the Commissioner are designed for administrative action. They do not extend to the legislative or quasi-judicial functions of the various departments.
§ Mr. Younger
Is that absolutely correct, when one considers, for example, that sub-committees of local authority housing committees make administrative decisions about which persons should be allocated houses and so on? That was the sort of matter to which I was referring.
§ Mr. Buchan
I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman has in mind.
Inquiries in Scotland on behalf of the Parliamentary Commissioner are carried 1488 out on a part-time basis by Mr. J. A. Diack, who was formerly controller in the Scottish headquarters of the Ministry of Labour. Mr. Diack cannot receive complaints direct but, in conducting his inquiries, he has delegated to him the full powers of the Parliamentary Commissioner to interview Ministers and civil servants and to obtain documents. He also guides investigators from the Commissioner's office through the complexities of the Scottish administrative machinery.
In his first annual report—an extremely useful document, which we welcomed—covering the period from 1st April to 31st December, 1967, the Commissioner revealed that he had received 21 complaints of maladministration by the Scottish Office, six of which were rejected as being outwith his terms of reference. He had found no justification for the complaints in any of the nine cases on which he reported in that year. There were 16 complaints against the Scottish Office in 1968, seven of which related to matters which the Commissioner had no power to investigate.
In one of the nine cases on which he reported the Commissioner found that there were defects in administration. It concerned the refusal to authorise the full operation of a liquor licence for the complainer's hotel. The Commissioner decided that the complainer's applications had not been properly submitted to the Ministers, including me, and suggested that they should be resubmitted. This shows that by no means the least reason for having an Ombudsman is the help and guidance that he can give to Ministers, in addition to the protection which he can give to the citizen.
On the local government side we must consider to what extent there is an involvement between the Commissioner and the needs of local government and what he can do under existing local government machinery. I wish at the outset to pay tribute to the work that is done by many local councillors throughout the country. They are generally recognised as men of honesty and probity who work extremely long hours with frequently very little public recognition, though often with public complaint. Less publicity usually attaches to them and their work than to, for example, Members of Parliament. Local councillors have less 1489 personal satisfaction than hon. Members. We cannot pay too high a tribute to the many thousands of people who allow inroads to be made into their private and working lives, often at great personal and financial sacrifice, for the good of the community.
Local councillors must at times be depressed by the nature of the relationships that exist between them and the community; a kind of apathy of approach from the community to them. It is often said that people do not know who their local councillors are. Often the public do not realise the nature of the work they do. Usually a distinction is not made between the work of councillors and hon. Members. These things are bound to act as a spiritual disincentive to councillors. I wish, therefore, to pay a high tribute to the work they do in local government throughout the country.
Although council and committee work is probably the preoccupation of many councillors, not all councillors see this as their main work. Studies made by academic researchers, such as those in Strathclyde University, reveal that a large proportion of councillors see their main rôle as representing the interests of their constituents. To a large extent these interests involve grievances of constituents who want to know, for example, why they have not got a house, why their child must go to a certain school and why the corner shop is being compulsorily purchased.
The local councillor has an important function, just like the Member of Parliament, to see the appropriate official or convenor on matters of this kind. Frequently the local councillor can bat on his constituents' behalf just as well as any hon. Member, both at council level and with Ministers.
In addition, there is the question of special departments and officers. On the consumer side, for example, there are the citizens advice bureaux, often buttressed by voluntary organisations, perhaps with local authority backing. Increasing attention is being paid to the appointment of officers to deal not with the production side of local authority work—house building, roads, sewers, parks and so on—but with the people who have to use these services. There are not only technical but human aspects involved in the establishment of an officer to handle the 1490 relationships and the disruptions which this brings into people's lives. This kind of recognition of people doing this particular job deals with the other aspect of protection, the humanising aspect, which is no less important.
The Scottish Development Department, for example, has recently issued a circular about housing management, stressing the need for skilled housing managers with a close eye to the welfare aspects of their job. In the Report which I initiated on the social problems of delinquency in Glasgow, one of the interesting paragraphs deals with the potential rôle of the housing manager in assisting the whole social work set-up—the human relations aspect. This, also, will be of considerable value in dealing with the kind of complaints that a Parliamentary Commissioner might get.
In some authorities, suggestions have already been made that they should have a complaints officer of one kind or another. It is difficult for me to recommend increased expenditure in either manpower or resources from that point of view at the present time, but I think that there would be considerable value in controlled experiments of this kind by some of our larger authorities. Also, it must not be seen as a substitute for the normal diligent work of councillors. I confess, however, that I should welcome such an appointment on the initiative of local authorities having regard to the economic needs of the present time.
There are other organisations, too, which can help in this kind of way—tenants' associations, amenity associations and various trusts. Sometimes, too, the need is to provide information, not merely the normal information bureau kind of thing but information of the ways in which social problems can be met. In that respect, I know that the publication by the Government of the leaflet "The Short Step", which brought together all the social agencies and ways of dealing with the problem, is very useful in making people aware of their rights and benefits.
Reference has been made to the problem of local government. The management of local government, quite apart from the major reports, is in a state of flux. There have been not only the earlier Maud and Mallaby Reports on England, but our own report on the 1491 staffing of local government, looking at the position of the clerk as general manager for business, and so on. Clearly, quite apart from the major reorganisation which we are considering, changes are in any event taking place within councils. It may be that on reorganisation, the size of new authorities, the number of councillors in the new councils and other factors might dispose central and local government to think of a local government solution to this question.
My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland referred also to a number of instances in which a Commissioner or Ombudsman might be useful in dealing with particular cases. This was especially true of his earlier speech and today. My feeling is that, in the first instance, most of the type of cases and complaints outlined should, nevertheless, go to the councillor and are frequently solved in this way. I should not like to see a duplication of work done by the councillors in that respect, but neither, I would hope, does my hon. Friend, who would see them working in the same kind of way.
My hon. Friend also suggested that the imminent publication of the report on local government lent additional force to the creation of a Commissioner at the present time. I took his point that if we had it already it would be more useful in fitting in a future development. I do not know whether that is altogether the case. With the great mass of organisations—there are something like 200 Scottish local authorities—it would, I think, be better to await what most people who forecast suggest will be a considerable reduction in that number.
The question of foreign examples was also used, but it must be borne in mind that in most cases the foreign examples show a time lag between the first establishment of a Parliamentary Commissioner and his extension into this kind of field. In Denmark, the first Danish Ombudsman was appointed in 1955. It was in 1962 that his jurisdiction was extended to the officials of local authorities. In Sweden, an Ombudsman was first appointed in 1809 but not until 1957 was he given power to investigate local authority officials. I promise my hon. Friend that I shall certainly not wait 150 years before I take up some of the sug- 1492 gestions that he has made. The same thing is true of certain other countries.
It seems to me, however, that the arguments that were deployed at the time of Second Reading of the Parliamentary Commissioner Bill still apply. At that time, we thought it right that the local authorities should work out their own way of equipping their councillors with an officer or an office designed to remedy individual grievances. We hope that especially the larger authorities will continue to keep under constant review their methods of dealing with complaints and guard against any tendency to remoteness or indifference. I know how terrible the problem of remoteness can be in the individual case.
§ Mr. Maclennan
In the light of that suggestion which was made on Second Reading of the Parliamentary Commissioner Bill in 1966, can my hon. Friend say whether any authority in Scotland has subsequently set up or appointed a complaints officer?
§ Mr. Buchan
I do not know whether there has been a formal appointment of a complaints officer, but the strengthening of the citizens advice bureaux in other directions at least has proceeded reasonably satisfactorily I will look into the point and write to my hon. Friend about it.
That intervention raises the point of the extent to which my hon. Friend or I have consulted local authorities on this Measure. I hope that he would not consider that they do not want such a Bill, or that we should be imposing anything on them without discussion. Formal consultation would, perhaps, be a matter for my right hon. Friend if such a decision as this were to be brought forward.
There are also technical difficulties it the question of a Parliamentary Commissioner to deal with local authorities were to be seen in this way. During the discussions on the 1966 Bill, attempts were made by several hon. Members to have its scope extended to cover local authorities. Both the then Lord President of the Council, who is now Secretary of State for Social Services, and the Financial Secretary to the Treasury took the line that a Parliamentary Commissioner should appropriately deal only with matters which came within Ministerial control and, therefore, would be 1493 subject to Parliamentary investigation. This is one of the great problems of linking these two things in this way through the Bill. It was thought better that the other aspects should be worked out by the larger authorities themselves. I take the opportunity to repeat that suggestion now.
My hon. Friend's intervention was quite proper in asking to what extent the suggestion had been taken up. I hope that local authorities will look at the suggestion of the appointment of a complaints officer, call him what one will, where they can do this.
Much of the effectiveness of the existing Parliamentary Commissioner lies in the power of Parliament to investigate further the matters referred to the Commissioner for report. We have a structure for precisely that. Actions of local authorities, however, are the responsibility of the elected councillors and local authorities are, by law, independent of Parliament. No Minister is directly answerable to Parliament for their actions. It would, therefore, be difficult for Parliament to take any effective action on a report of maladministration submitted by a Parliamentary Commissioner for local government. I hope that I have dealt with most of the points which have been raised in one form or another.
My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland raised the question of many decisions being taken in private, but it is also true that full council meetings and meetings of some major committees must be held in public. Certainly, the vast bulk of major decisions are taken in public.
The hon. Member for Ayr saw the problem as basically a problem of relationship, as a question of how to deal with complaints through local government. He felt it was easier in the sphere of central Government rather than the local government sphere because of the existence in the former of a Minister who would take a decision. When and how are decisions taken? How do we get in local government to know these things? These were questions which he touched on. I thought that his deploying of the arguments about understanding was good, and I accept this completely. The answer to that is not, I think, quite so 1494 simple. It could not certainly be answered by setting up a Commissioner alone. It certainly goes much deeper; it reaches into our democracy much more deeply than that.
I would say in conclusion that I think that this debate has served a very useful function, and it will certainly help and guide us in our future consideration, when we shall have to consider with the forthcoming report of the Royal Commission, some of these points which have been brought forward. We want to consider what kind of machinery is most needed to ensure the investigation of grievances of individuals against local authorities and within society in general, and how they can best be dealt with. As I said, I am doubtful whether this should be by a Parliamentary Commissioner. I have suggested that it would, perhaps, be better done through an officer of the local authority itself, but I do not by any means rule out the extension of this eventually in the way my hon. Friend has suggested. What I would not like to outline is the kind of timetable which may be envisaged for that. However, I think that what hon. Gentlemen have said today and this very discussion itself will facilitate and sharpen consideration of the problem.
§ 12.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (North Angus and Mearns)
In accordance with the form forecast by the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton), the Minister has rejected this Bill, although I must say he did so graciously and reinforced himself by argument. Whilst he has rejected it, I hope that the hon. Member for Fife, West will take note that the Parliament (No. 2) Bill has been rejected, and I think he will have taken note that there is also down for consideration later today a Parliament (No. 4) Bill, and I have no doubt he will be in his place to make his contribution to the discussion of that other momentous piece of legislation.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The hon. Member must resist the temptation to discuss the Parliament (No. 2) Bill. We spent some time, I think, on that Bill.
§ Mr. Buchanan-Smith
I add only to that, Mr. Speaker, that it is hardly likely we shall spend the same amount of time on the Parliament (No. 4) Bill.
1495 I think that what was particularly interesting in the Under-Secretary's speech today was the summary which he gave of the work of the Ombudsman in Scotland. I think that all of us who have participated in this debate pay tribute to the work which has been done by the Ombudsman. I must say that personally I have found, with most of the cases I have brought forward, that I have had experience similar to that of the hon. Member for Fife, West. When one has had, under pressure from a constituent, quite rightly, to bring these matters forward, one has often done so in the knowledge of there being but a slender chance of the Ombudsman being competent to consider them, but in those cases which it has been competent for the Ombudsman to consider all of us will pay tribute to the work which he has done. I personally feel that there is great opportunity for the Ombudsman to supplement the work of the ordinary Member of Parliament, because the Ombudsman has far more resources than we have at our disposal to carry out detailed investigation, and in that respect he performs an extremely valuable function indeed.
The Under-Secretary introduced, as he very often does in his speeches, some element of philosophy, when he raised the question of the difference between protection and participation. He often in debate raises the whole plane of debate from practical problems immediately under discussion to a philosophical level.
Today we are discussing the protection of the individual in relation with local government and it is perhaps right to differentiate that from the problem of participation, but what I think is equally important to make clear is that if participation is good, the participation of the ordinary person, the ordinary ratepayer, the ordinary individual subject to local government—if the degree of participation there is good—the need for protection is to that degree very much less, and the more that we can promote participation the more we remove the need for such a high degree of protection.
On the question of protection I join in the tribute which the hon. Member for Fife, West paid to the Press, not only nationally but, in this case, locally even more. Because the local and the weekly Press circulates in the very area 1496 of the local town council or local county council, which is a limited area, the local Press performs in this context a tremendously important function, and it is the local Press even more than the national Press which plays such an important part in the protection of the public locally, and I would personally pay a warm tribute to what the local Press has done.
The Under-Secretary raised the question of complaints officers in local authorities. I think this is important, but I do not think it is any substitute for what the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) is suggesting. The weakness of the case for the complaints officer is that the complaints officer may be limited in what he can do because he is employed by the very council a complaint against which he is having to investigate, and so a complaints officer is not necessarily the best way in which the investigation of complaints should be done. In this respect I think that the hon. Member's proposals are much more effective and much more comprehensive.
§ Mr. Buchan
I agree absolutely with what the hon. Member is saying, but I should not like it to go out from here as implied, for example, that the Parliamentary Commissioner is hindered in any sense that he is paid by the Government when he is investigating and reporting. So I would not over-stress that aspect of the complaints officer as reducing the value of his purpose and function. I think his purpose and function would be valuable.
§ Mr. Buchanan-Smith
I entirely agree with the Under-Secretary, but I cannot see that the complaints officer would be in any way a substitute for what the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland has suggested. There is a distinction here between the Ombudsman and the complaints officer. The Ombudsman is, say, investigating a complaint against the Ministry of Transport; but he is not employed by the Ministry of Transport; he is completely free from that Ministry. The complaints officer might not be so free. There is that important distinction here.
The Under-Secretary finished with some points about local government reorganisation, and the one point which we 1497 are all very much interested to hear about was the very one upon which, perhaps predictably, he was vague, and that was the actual timetable. It is that in which we are interested and it is a topic to which I shall refer again later.
Like all other hon. Members I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland upon introducing this Bill because it has given us a good opportunity to debate a wide range of local government functions and a very important section of local government about which we must be concerned. Whilst congratulating him, though, I would just like to make two points of criticism, and I shall seek to do so as constructively as possible.
I got the feeling that what he would like to see would be a much greater centralised control of local government. I may be wrong about this, but I had the impression that he thought that one of the problems is that local government is not controlled sufficiently by the central Government and, thereby, by this House. That argument is wrong, because if we were to have too much control over local government we would immediately give less responsibility to local councillors and then we should be able to recruit to the ranks of local councillors only less able people, because people will not be attracted to local government unless they feel there is a responsible job for them to do. Instead of centralisation we have to think more of delegation and see that local councillors have full control over those matters which we delegate to them, and not subject them to great, detailed central control. Unless we do we shall not get the people of the right calibre we want for local government.
I certainly agree, as the hon. Gentleman does, that members of the public have grievances and complaints against local authorities and I agree with his suggestion that there should be a more efficient way of dealing with them, and to that extent I welcome his proposal.
Hon. Members have spoken this morning of the number of complaints which, as ordinary Members of Parliament, they get and which affect local authorities. I was under the impression that the greater proportion of the complaints which I received concerned local government. I made an analysis over a period 1498 and I found that only about one in four of the problems were concerned with local government. When such complaints come to us we realise that they are often problems which we have no jurisdiction to deal with, and the result is that the number of complaints becomes exaggerated in our minds. Many are complaints about housing. About one-third of my complaints related to housing. Complaints are not necessarily against maladministration by local authorities. Often a person will come to me as a last resort, when he has tried every other way to have his housing problem dealt with. Housing affects a person and his family in a big way, and it is only as a last resort that he comes to his Member of Parliament. We therefore tend to exaggerate the number of complaints which are beyond our jurisdiction and within that of the local authority. I join with my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) in paying tribute to the local authorities. There are eight local authorities in my constituency, two county councils and six town councils, and almost invariably both officials and councillors have been extremely sympathetic in dealing with complaints.
What must be done is to find out exactly what causes the complaints. Those that stem from inefficiency and maladministration should be exposed and put right. We must make sure, as the Under-Secretary said, that the complaints come through local councillors. The reason why this is not done is that people do not know who their local councillor is. A recent programme on Scottish television screened a large number of interviews with local people, who were asked whether they knew the name of their local councillor. Of those interviewed, 99 per cent. did not know with any degree of certainty. Many of the names they gave coincided with names of Members of Parliament in those areas. Although the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) may in modesty think that his name is not very well known in his area, television has proved this not to be so. As he said, criticism of the Front Bench is one way of getting publicity, and, so long as he continues to do this, he will have no cause to complain that he is not well-known within his constituency. People do not know who their local councillor is and come to their Member of Parliament, and this 1499 lack of contact with local government is most tragic. If people have no contact with local government and do not know what is going on locally, we cannot expect them to take an interest in what is going on nationally. Local government affairs such as housing, schools, old folk's homes and so on, affect everybody and people should take an interest in them.
The Under-Secretary stressed the need for participation. If participation is not good at local level, it will be more difficult to secure at national level. It will be a tragedy for democracy if people do not take a greater share in local and national affairs. People of higher calibre might be attracted to local government if they felt they had a bigger job to do.
This matter cannot be looked at in isolation from local government reform, but we must not wait for reform before considering the appointment of an Ombudsman for local government. Even if the reform of local government results in it being brought closer to people there will still be grievances and problems. In so far as the Ombudsman is doing a good job nationally, we must treat seriously and sympathetically any move for an Ombudsman for local government. In local as in national government the Ombudsman will have power and resources at his disposal beyond those of Members of Parliament or of local councillors, and this will enable him to investigate complaints more efficiently.
I agree with the Under-Secretary that a Parliamentary Commissioner for Local Government must not be treated as a substitute for the proper channels of complaint through a local councillor. He should be treated as complimentary and not as an alternative. As central Government is answerable through us, as local government is answerable through the councillor. It might be more to the point if we were to discuss an Ombudsman for statutory bodies which are answerable neither to Members of Parliament nor to councillors. The hon. Member for Fife, West made a strong point in suggesting that before the appointment of an Ombudsman for local government we should consider the appointment of an Ombudsman for hospitals and, possibly, police and nationalised industries.
Although I welcome the debate, the proposal is slightly premature, bearing 1500 in mind the Wheatley Commission and the forthcoming report on the reform of local government. It might be that the Bill would be short lived in the event of local government reorganisation, although, as the Under-Secretary said, the reorganisation of local government into larger units will of itself result in many complaints, and so produce an intolerable burden of work for a local government Ombudsman.
I am disappointed that the Under-Secretary was not more forthcoming on the date when the Wheatley Commission report is expected. He expressed the hope that it will not be long delayed and that the Scottish Office will consider its proposals as quickly as possible—
§ Mr. Buchan
Perhaps I might draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to a Written Answer given to the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mr. Gordon Campbell) on 15th April, in which my right hon. Friend said:The Commission is now in process of drafting its Report. I understand that while publication in the early summer is not now possible, the Report should be published later in the summer."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th April, 1969; Vol. 781, c. 230.]At any rate, the hon. Gentleman now knows an approximate date.
§ Mr. Buchanan-Smith
We have had these assurances in the past. I know about that Written Answer. However, the hon. Gentleman will recall that, a year or so ago, we were told that publication of the Wheatley Commissions Report was expected some time towards the end of last year. Many of us accepted that assurance and forecast from the Government and hoped that it would prove to be right, because so many matters are held up pending the publication of the Report. At the end of last year, we were told that it would be slightly later. Then, on 30th January, my hon. Friend the Member for Moray and Nairn was told categorically by the Secretary of State that the Report would be published in the early summer. As the hon. Gentleman has said, the latest information came on 15th April, when my hon. Friend was told that it will come in the late summer.
The publication of the Report is being pushed further and further back, and we are beginning to wonder whether we can 1501 accept the assurance that it will be published in the late summer or whether in fact it will be even later.
§ Mr. Buchan
I regret having to intervene again, but the hon. Gentleman's remarks are quite improper. An independent Commission has been set up, and it is quite intolerable for hon. Members ostensibly to put pressure on my right hon. Friend who is in no way responsible for the timing of the publication of any report, but in practice to put pressure upon that independent Commission. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not pursue this avenue of criticism. With the good will of the House, the Commission has been set up, and it should be left to get on with its business. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his remarks because, when the Government give forecasts of the likely date of publication, we do it with the best will in the world, but the matter is quite outside our control.
§ Mr. Buchanan-Smith
I have not asked the Government to put any pressure on the Commission. The hon. Gentleman has misconstrued what I said. I am asking, bearing in mind the information given to us in the past, whether we can take it that the latest information about publication is correct. If it is, we welcome it and we look forward to the publication of the Report in the late summer.
Once the Commission has reported, we shall require time to consider its recommendations, and no doubt we shall receive many representations about them. However, we hope that the forming of legislation will not be delayed too long.
Every hon. Member who has taken part in the debate has raised the question of the Wheatley Commission. Quite rightly, we are all concerned about it, and the people of Scotland are entitled to be concerned about it. The speed with which we can bring forward proposals for local government reform colours our approach to a Bill such as that which we are considering today. If the proposals are to be delayed, we want to see Bills such as this brought forward and considered. Whether we accept them depends upon the prospect of the Government making early proposals. For this reason, while I welcome the Bill, its prospects depend on 1502 our knowing when such proposals are likely to be made.
§ Mr. Buchan
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his last remarks, because they are putting direct pressure upon the Commission to speed up the publication of its report. That is quite improper. The hon. Gentleman has said that he does not wish to put pressure on the Commission, but his last remarks are in fact doing it. It is quite disgraceful.
§ Mr. Buchanan-Smith
I will not withdraw what I have said. Let me make my point clear yet again. I am asking the Government to give us accurate information. The only pressure that I am putting on the Government is to ensure that, once they receive the Report, action on it will not be delayed. If the hon. Gentleman is as sensitive as he appears, it makes me think that the Government are trying to hold back publication of the Report. This is what worries me, because it colours our approach to Bills such as this. Therefore, while there may well be a place for what it proposed by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland in our future legislation, now is not quite the right time in the present context. But it may be that it will be worthy of consideration again later.
§ Mr. Speaker
It is not customary, but the hon. Gentleman can speak again if the House gives him leave.
§ 12.56 p.m.
§ Mr. Maclennan
I intervene at the end of the debate with reluctance only because of the unfortunate note of acerbity which has characterised its concluding stages and because I would not like it to be thought that I shared in the views of the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith), who has given me such generous support, about the Report of the Wheatley Commission. I sought to make it clear earlier that I, too, looked forward to the reform of local government as 1503 going far to solve many of these problems. However, I believe that this Bill would have a useful effect as an experiment which could be carried on independently of any Report of the Commission.
I believe that this has been a useful debate, and I am glad that there has been an opportunity to deal with these extremely important questions in the constructive way that we have this morning.
My hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) flashed the amber light at me in a quite unmistakable way when he suggested that I could not look to the Government for their support. If I cannot accept with good grace all the reluctance of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, I am always sensible of the advice from the great experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West. As a consequence, I will not press the matter further. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Bill.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Bill withdrawn.