HC Deb 17 July 1972 vol 841 cc275-85


3.0 a.m.

Mr. Graham Page

I beg to move Amendment No. 980, in page 70, line 17, leave out 'their functions' and insert 'such of their or another authority's functions as fall to be discharged by them'. This is an Amendment which puts beyond doubt the power of an authority acting under an arrangement made under Clause 101 to employ staff for the purpose of discharging the function which is the subject of the arrangement.

We found that Clause 112 fails to cover the case where, for example, a district council is discharging a county council's function under Clause 101. The district council will need to employ staff for this purpose. The Amendment ensures that what I call the agent authority has the necessary power to employ the staff for that purpose.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Carol Johnson

I beg to move, Amendment No. 539, in page 70, line 23, at end insert— (3) In the appointment of officers under subsection (1) above a local authority shall, so far as is compatible with efficient performance of their functions, ensure that preference in making senior appointments is given to officers already employed in the service of a local authority. Although this is an important point, I can put it to the Minister quite shortly. The Minister will be well aware of the great anxieties and apprehensions that exist among many local government staff about their future prospects under the large-scale reorganisation provided for by the Bill. Those fears and apprehensions have not been lessened by the rumours currently circulating that the Government hope that there will be an attraction to some of the new top appointments of people from commerce and industry. If this be true, the Minister will understand and agree that that is likely to undermine considerably the morale of staff. NALGO considers it important that it should be made clear that nothing in the Bill is designed or intended to block normal promotion prospects for existing staff.

The Amendment is intended to establish a rule of practice that normal promotion to senior office will go to serving officers unless there is a very strong and exceptional case arising in particular circumstances for bringing in an outsider to maintain or achieve efficiency. That seems to me to be a very reasonable provision to incorporate in the Bill and I hope that the Minister will find it possible to accept it.

Mr. Graham Page

The hon. Gentleman said that this was an effort to protect normal promotion, but the Amendment goes much wider than that. It would require all authorities, when making senior appointments under Clause 112, to ensure that they give preference to officers already employed by any local authority. It is a very wide provision and would be very restrictive on local authorities in making their appointments.

I appreciate that the top posts in local government have, over the years, become quite attractive to people from outside. One of the main reasons for this is that the traditional departmental structure is breaking down and that new approaches to management are being adopted, and this attracts and may necessitate the employment of some outside the present local government service. Perhaps there is some force, therefore, in the argument that competition for senior posts in local government is attracting candidates from a wider field than in the past and that one ought, therefore, to protect those who are already in the service.

But it is a good thing that there is this competition. If the community is to be served well, local authorities should appoint the best man for the job, quite irrespective of his background. It would be contrary to the community's interest to give preference to a serving local government officer if he were not as well fitted for the job as someone from outside. Indeed, normally he has a great advantage over anyone from outside because he has a great knowledge of the job and of local government service which anyone coming from outside would not have.

I am quite sure that there will be advice to the new authorities from the Staff Commission about the employment of existing local government officers in the new authorities and I do not wish to derogate in any way from what advice may come from the Staff Commission on that subject. Although I am quite sure that normally local authorities will give every consideration to an appointment of someone who is already in the service, I would think it quite wrong to make a statutory restriction to limit local authorities to that choice, and only that choice, when they make appointments. I must resist the Amendment.

Mr. Denis Howell

I am extremely sorry to hear that reply. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. Carol Johnson) for being absent when he moved his Amendment. This matter gave us a great deal of concern in Committee. I asked the Under-secretary of State, who dealt with it, whether he could give us comparable statistics about whether civil servants lost their jobs when various Government Departments were merged. Of course civil servants did not lost their jobs.

We have had amalgamation in the Ministry of Defence. We have had a mammoth amalgamation in the right hon. Gentleman's Department of the Environment. We have had amalgamations in other Government Departments. All the time the civil servants have very properly made sure that their position has been protected. The Civil Service unions have been anxious to do that. That being the case, it is monstrous that similar provision is not being applied to local government staffs. I do not think that when mergers of this sort were taking place any trade union would allow them to go ahead without provision similar to that for which my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South is asking.

I listened carefully to the Minister's reply. Of course the public wants to get the best service. Nevertheless, we are dealing here with people who are in post and we are dealing with mergers between local authorities. It is straining the argument to breaking point to suggest that when two or three people are being considered for one post, from that of a chief officer to one of the subsidiary positions lower down the scale, an occasion will not arise when none of those people is found to be acceptable and it is proposed to bring in somebody from outside. In my view, the number of occasions when in such circumstances there would be justification on grounds of merit for bringing in somebody from outside would be infinitesimal—at least, sufficiently rare as to be worth taking the risk that on a very rare occasion the authority concerned might well dispense with the outside appointment in the interest of fair play.

Civil servants very properly protect their interests in this way. I am sorry that the Minister has not been armed with the information for which we asked in Committee and which might have convinced us a little more about this matter. The question is one which seriously concerns NALGO people, as many of us know from correspondence we have had from all over the country. I do not know that my hon. Friend will feel disposed to withdraw the Amendment. In the circumstances, I cannot advise him to do so.

Mr. Graham Page

The Amendment relates to the general power to employ staff. It has nothing whatever to do with reorganisation. The question of reorganisation is dealt with thoroughly in another part of the Bill so that redundancies do not occur on reorganisation.

Mr. Denis Howell

If I have misunderstood the position and the right hon. Gentleman is assuring us that this is post-reorganisation and does not include both, I think that it would be right to pursue the matter at a later stage. As I had read it, and as I think that my hon. Friend had read it, we assumed that it related to the reorganisation and the post-reorganisation phase. We are obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for putting us right. In those circumstances we can return to the matter later and I am happy to leave it there.

Amendment negatived:

Amendments made: No. 620, page 70, line 24, leave out from beginning to "shall" in line 27 and insert:

"Subject to subsection (4) below, any enactment or instrument made under an enactment which requires or empowers all local authorities or local authorities of any description or committees of local authorities to appoint a specified officer".

No. 621, in page 70, line 29, leave out subsection (4) and insert:

The reference in this section to committees of local authorities does not include a reference to any committee of which some members are required to be appointed by a body or person other than a local authority.

(4) Subsection (3) above does not apply to the following officers, that is to say—

  1. (a) district surveyors and deputy district surveyors of the Greater London Council appointed under section 75 or 80 of the London Building Acts (Amendment) Act 1939;
  2. (b) chief education officers appointed under section 88 of the Education Act 1944;
  3. (c) chief officers and other members of fire brigades maintained under the Fire Services Act 1947;
  4. (d) inspectors of weights and measures appointed under section 41 of the Weights and Measures Act 1963;
  5. (e) agricultural analysts and deputy agricultural analysts appointed under section 67(3) of the Agriculture Act 1970; and
  6. (f) directors of social services appointed under section 6 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970;
and it is hereby declared that subsection (3) above does not apply to public analysts appointed under section 89 of the Food and Drugs Act 1955 or to any other person appointed by a local authority to perform a specified function.—[Mr. Graham Page.]

Mr. Blenkinsop

I beg to move Amendment No. 540, in page 70, line 29, at end insert: (a) section 110 of the Local Government Act 1933 (medical officers of health and senior sanitary inspectors). I suggest that with this Amendment it will be convenient to the House to discuss Amendment No. 541, in page 343, line 40, column 3, Schedule 30, after 'except' insert 'section 110'.

My hon. Friends and I regret that this crucial issue is being discussed at this time of the morning. I declare an interest, in that I was President of the Association of Public Health Inspectors and am now, in common with many others, a vice-president of that body.

The Amendment seeks to restore the requirement for the appointment of a medical official of health and what we today call the chief public health inspector but what is described by the 1933 Act as the senior sanitary inspector.

Under the Bill, it will no longer be a requirement that a medical officer of health must be appointed by local authorities. There is every intention that the work that medical officers of health have done will continue to be carried out, no doubt by qualified persons. We have no adequate information about the arrangements the Government intend to make to take the place of the provisions they are deleting.

Although I called attention to this matter in Committee, we have not yet got the full statement of the Government's intentions with regard to the reorganisation of the National Health Service, under which we are assured that provision will be made. It is a scandal that we should be asked to agree to this provision to get rid of this qualified post we have known in the past without our having full knowledge of what is to take its place.

3.15 a.m.

This is a matter of some concern. Certainly local authorities have anxiously raised this matter with many of us. There is the question of the provision that is to be made for the registration of communicable diseases, which at present is the duty of the medical officer of health, and we do not know in precise detail how that is to be carried out in future. It would be wrong for Parliament to dispose of this Measure without having the complete and detailed information as to what is to take the place of the existing provisions.

No one can say that the Government have not had sufficient warning about this. They have had it repeatedly, but I am still not satisfied that we have the complete knowledge that ought to be in our hands. We are somewhat powerless at this time of the morning to do very much about it, and I think it is something of a public scandal that we should be required to deal at this time with this vital matter that affects the health of people in our towns.

The second item in this Amendment is the public health inspector. Again I think it is shocking that we should be dealing with this situation in this way, with the inevitable handful of people left in the House to deal with it. [Interruption.] Some hon. Members may treat this matter lightly and think that it is of little or no importance, but I do not. Nor do I believe that people outside would do so if they knew the true situation. The public health inspector in the past has been an independent officer who has had the right of protection by and appeal to the Minister. This protection is to go, although the situation has not changed.

There were cases not long ago of an acute division between the duty of the public health inspector to express his honest opinions, to give honest independent advice to his council and to make such public statements as he thought right, and the position of certain of the council members. This is precisely the situation against which it was intended that the public health inspector should be protected. Not long ago a situation arose in South Shields where there was clearly some danger of conflict of interests. This is no new situation. That is why the provision was written in.

Even under the revised terms of this Amendment, various officers are to be retained, but not the public health inspector. I believe this is a threat to the interests of the public. The Government say that the intention is to give greater freedom to the local authority. What kind of credence does one give to a Government who have insisted on imposing on local authorities all kinds of new crippling powers? What hypocritical nonsense that is. This is a matter of extreme concern.

The Association of Public Health Inspectors has raised this matter, and, on its behalf, I have raised it both in Committee and in correspondence with the Minister. All the representations have been brushed aside by the Minister as of no consequence. This is quite unsatisfactory.

What is more, the regulations governing the type of qualifications required before a public health inspector may be appointed are to go, apparently. The Minister says that it is all right to leave it to the general good will and understanding of independent local authorities in the future, and that they can be relied on to do the right thing. But, as far as I can see, there will be nothing in the law to prevent their securing the service of a cheap alternative to a health inspector if they so decide. There are quite a number of people whose qualifications do not meet the standards required by the guild and by the examining board but who might well be used by some authorities which, perhaps, cared not enough about standards and which might find someone willing to perform these duties at a rather lower rate.

These are serious matters, and it is incredible that the Minister should brush them aside. It is all very well to want to ensure proper freedom for local authorities—I wish they would ensure it in many respects where that is right and necessary—but there are certain matters in respect of which there should be complete protection of the public and, at the same time, independence and backing for officers of this kind who have a duty to perform which may, and in practice sometimes does, bring them into conflict with their employers.

We shall not be satisfied unless the Minister is prepared to consider the matter again in another place. Presumably, that is the only thing that can now be done, unless he will accept the Amendments now. It is a matter for deep anxiety when a body of this kind—the same goes for the medical officers of health, but I am speaking now of public health inspectors in particular—a body of highly qualified men on whom we all rely in so many ways for basic standards of health in the environment, finds the whole position of its members endangered or threatened. That is how I see it. Even to a small degree, it would be serious, but this is no small degree. It is a real threat, and I again protest at our having to discuss such an important matter at 25 minutes past three in the morning.

Mr. Graham Page

There is nothing in the Bill which lays down that local authorities shall not appoint a medical officer of health or a senior sanitary inspector, but it seemed from the argument advanced by the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) that he thought that there was a prohibition to that effiect in the Bill.

Mr. Blenkinsop

No, of course not.

Mr. Page

The hon. Gentleman's argument in favour of the Amendment is that local authorities have important responsibilities for public health and that, to discharge those responsibilities properly, they need highly qualified staff. I do not believe that the only way to ensure that these requirements are met is to put all authorities under a statutory duty to appoint medical officers and public health inspectors, and to prescribe the qualifications for each.

It is unnecessary to put local authorities under a duty to make the appointment of these officers any more than it is necessary to put them under a duty to appoint a town clerk or a treasurer. Local authorities are responsible and competent bodies and can be relied upon to appoint the staff they need with the appropriate qualifications to help them to discharge their functions. If the authorities cannot be trusted to appoint the right sort of staff, surely they should not be trusted with the wide and important responsibilities which they have for so many services.

The aim of Clause 101 and Clause 112 is to remove as many as practicable of the existing statutory controls in relation to the internal organisation of the local authorities so that each authority can adopt the management structure at member and officer level which best suits the circumstances of that authority. We propose to carry out those intentions. We believe that except in cases where the Secretary of State shares a responsibility, we should not dictate to local authorities what their management structure should be and what officers they should employ. I must resist the Amendment. It goes against the whole philosophy of the Bill.

Mr. Denis Howell

That was an extremely disappointing reply. The Minister made the best of a bad job. He did not attempt to explain why the appointment of a chief education officer is provided for but not the appointment of a medical officer of health. On the Minister's own argument, why cannot the local authorities be left to be responsible and decide for themselves if they want a chief education officer? It is obvious that the earthy people of Curzon Street realise that they must have the appointment of their chief officer written into the Bill. They are not standing for any nonsense from Horseferry Road.

The situation relating to the inspectors of weights and measures is even more incredible. On the local authority on which I serve—and this applies to most localauthorities—the weights and measures department are to be found operating under the authority of the medical officer of health. The ludicrous situation therefore is that there will not be a statutory obligation to have a medical officer of health but there will be a statutory obligation to have a chief weights and measures officer. Can anything be more inconsistent?

The appointment of a medical officer of health or a chief sanitary officer is not the result of any quirk or accident or foible. It was because, through a long tradition, those officers above all had to deal with a great deal of vested interest which might be found, for example, in bad landlords who did not want orders made in respect of their premises relating to their unsanitary nature. We must have, in health more than in any other local authority service, officers who pre-eminently feel that their independence and integrity is sanctified by the law of the land. We want to hear the argument for removing that protection.

Certainly, the right hon. Gentleman has not advanced any case for its removal. It is not as if landlords have improved as the years have passed. Rather, the contrary is the case. Rachmanism in one form or another is probably more rampant throughout the land today than it has been for many years. A Conservative hon. Member shakes his head. He might intervene to give us evidence to the contrary. All the evidence possessed by those in large cities supports what I have said.

3.30 a.m.

I am sorry to say, especially since we introduced the fair rent proposals when we were in Government, that the complaints about landlords imposing increased rents without doing the necessary work for which a fair rent would be justified are increasing. In my constituency in the past few days I have heard of two or three more cases of very old people on whom landlords have served notice of increased rents which the tenants do not feel to be justified. It is a great source of comfort to know that the chief medical officer or the chief public health inspector can be asked to conduct an impartial investigation. Although the rent tribunal procedure and the fair rents proposals give a measure of protection, it is nothing like adequate.

We are extremely disappointed with the Minister's reply. He has not tried to justify the removal of the statutory pro-

Division No. 298.] AYES [3.33 p.m.
Blenkinsop, Arthur McElhone, Frank Swain, Thomas
Concannon, J. D. Mitchell, R. C. (S'hampton, Itchen) Thomas,Rt.Hn.George (Cardiff,W.)
Davis, Terry (Bromsgrove) Oakes, Gordon
Deakins, Eric Roper, John TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Hannan, William (G'gow, Maryhill) Silkin, Rt. Hn. John (Deptford) Mr. Ernest Armstrong
Howell, Denis (Small Heath) Skinner, Dennis and Mr. John Golding.
Johnson, Carol (Lewisham, S.)
Allason, James (Hemel Hempstead) Gummer, Selwyn Scott-Hopkins, James
Atkins, Humphrey Hall, Miss Joan (Keighley) Sharples, Richard
Baker, Kenneth (St. Marylebone) Hill, John E. B. (Norfolk, S.) Shaw, Michael (Sc'b'gh & Whitby)
Berry, Hn. Anthony Hornsby-Smith,Rt.Hn.Dame Patricia Shelton, William (Clapham)
Biffen, John Jones, Arthur (Northants, S.) Soref, Harold
Bowden, Andrew Kinsey, J. R. Speed, Keith
Bray, Ronald Knox, David Spence, John
Brinton, Sir Tatton Le Merchant, Spencer Stanbrook, Ivor
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath) Longden, Gilbert Trew, Peter
Carlisle, Mark Maddan, Martin Vickers, Dame Joan
Chapman, Sydney Marten, Neil Waddington, David
Clegg, Walter Mather, Carol Walder, David (Clitheroe)
Cockeram, Eric Moate, Roger Walker-Smith, Rt. Hn. Sir Derek
Crouch, David Morrison, Charles Weatherill, Bernard
Fidler, Michael Murton, Oscar Woodnutt, Mark
Fortescue, Tim Page, Graham (Crosby)
Gibson-Watt, David Raison, Timothy
Goodhew, Victor Redmond, Robert TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Gower, Raymond Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon Mr. Hugh Rossi
Gray, Hamish Roberts, Wyn (Conway) and Mr. Marcus Fox.
Green, Alan Scott, Nicholas

Question accordingly negatived.

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