HC Deb 11 July 1973 vol 859 cc1506-8
9. Mr. David Stoddart

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will introduce legislation to provide that the financial interests of local authority members and officers are announced at each annual meeting of the council and recorded in the minutes of such meetings.

The Minister for Local Government and Development (Mr. Graham Page)

I would refer the hon. Member to the reply I gave on 29th June to a Question on this subject from the hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Bishop).

Mr. Stoddart

Does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that this is a matter of great urgency? Is he not aware that the public are concerned about graft in local government? Does he not agree that it is urgently necessary for him to take some action, if not by the method that I suggest then by setting up a public register that is open to the public, so that the great majority of people in local government, who are absolutely straight, are not maligned and do not come under suspicion because of the actions of a few? Will the right hon. Gentleman take this matter seriously and take urgent action to set up such a register?

Mr. Page

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the matter is taken seriously. I cannot do better than repeat the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who recently said: I am still studying the part relating to local government. For obvious reasons, it may not be possible to make a statement on this matter for a little while. We have just discussed the question of public bodies."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd May 1973; Vol. 855, c. 1463]

Mr. Evelyn King

Has my right hon. Friend considered the practice that is prevalent in many local authorities under which, for private reward, planning officers or their assistants draw up plans on which they are afterwards asked to pass judgment? Is not that improper? Will my right hon. Friend, as his predecessors have not always done, accept that his Department has some responsibility for laying down standards for what is decent and indecent, and will he issue those standards to local authorities so that they know what is proper practice?

Mr. Page

I do not think that it is the duty of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State to lay down rules for the employment of the staff of local authorities, but the consideration of this subject will cover the interests of officers as well as members.

Mr. Loughlin

Does the right hon. Gentleman recollect that the answer from the Prime Minister was given to me a short time ago? Is not the Department itself seized of the urgency of this situation, and would it not be better to deal with the matter before the new local authority set-up comes into operation? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a neighbouring authority to mine has just set up a land committee, the chairman of which is Mr. Hyett, a builder, and that the vice-chairman is his foreman? The situation lends itself to suspicion on the part of the general public. Is not there a great degree of urgency about the matter?

Mr. Page

I should not like to comment on any particular case of which I do not have the whole facts. These matters are all under consideration, and I appreciate the urgency of them.

Mr. William Clark

Does my right hon. Friend not agree that, in view of the talk about Members of Parliament declaring their interests, there is added urgency in the suggestion of the setting up of a public register for people serving on local authorities? Surely the general public must realise that if Members of Parliament have to declare their interests and local authority members do not there is discrimination against Members of Parliament?

Mr. Page

Indeed, but members of local authorities can and do declare their interests, subject to a general notice in writing. It is true that the register is not open to the public—we discussed this matter on the Local Government Bill—but they can register their interests there. Under the law as it stands, local authority members are required to disclose any pecuniary interest they may have in a matter currently under consideration and must not take part in the proceedings unless permitted to do so by the Secretary of State.

Mr. Oakes

Whatever the Prime Minister may have said, did not the Government have the opportunity to put this matter right in the Local Government Bill, and did they not refuse to do so? Is not one of the principal causes of complaint the fact that a councillor can declare an interest in a register kept with the town clerk, which is not available to the Press? Will the Government consult local authorities urgently, with a view to producing a White Paper urgently and legislation before the new authorities come into being next April?

Mr. Page

I have always thought that this is a subject for all-party discussion and not for the Government to decide on their own. We are certainly considering the form of discussion, and what should be brought before such a discussion.