§ 11.9 a.m.
§ Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde)
I beg to move,That this House calls upon the Government to allow election of most public servants to the office of councillor, thus allowing the community to benefit from their sense of public service knowledge and practical experience.The purpose of the motion is to seek a change in the qualification laws which, it is currently estimated, debar 2½ million to 3 million local government workers from standing for election to their local authorities. In June last year it was estimated that 2,340,218 local authority employees in England and Wales were debarred from standing for their local authorities. This represents about 11.8 per cent. of all employees in employment today. One estimate was that one person in seven was ineligible to stand for local government as a result of the Local Government Act 1972. Whichever figure the House accepts, I am sure it will be agreed that it represents a hefty slice of the electorate and I am happy to see that the Minister responsible is present here today on the Government Front Bench.
During the Committee and Report stages of the Local Government Bill the right hon. Gentleman showed genuine concern for the problem. I was not privileged to be a member of the Committee but I shall be reminding him, as he would expect, of the pledges and promises that he made on those occasions. Before I do so, however, the House should understand his difficulty.
The present position is designed to prevent a clash of interests between a person's duty as an elected representative and his personal interest as an employee of an authority. The House should bear in mind that principle when discussing the motion. Equally, however, I hope the House will recognise the importance that we in this country attach to our democratic institutions. I do not think any of us can say that local government is so fluourishing and so healthy that we can afford to have as many as 2½ million to 3 million people excluded from local government decision-making. This country is about to embark on a new and challenging period in the history 1629 of local government. I hope to prove that the best possible candidates will not be able to serve as councilors on these new authorities. I hope to show also that many experienced councillors who are badly needed by these new authorities will be excluded from eligibility.
Therefore, it is right that the Government should consider releasing as many people as possible to stand and take their full responsibility in running their local districts, counties or other areas. A good thing about the House of Commons is that teachers have their advocates here, and no doubt many hon. Members will participate to put the teachers' point of view today. Except for some teachers, the Local Government Act 1972 extends considerably the field of disqualification, far beyond the provisions of Section 59 of the 1933 Act. That is something we must regret. Section 80(1)(a) above of the 1972 Act seems to disqualify a large number of people. Lecturers in colleges of further education and all polytechnics who at present are qualified to stand for election will no longer be in that category. Many of these men and women are giving excellent service. I am told by one of my hon. Friends from Leeds that there are two distinguished councillors in Leeds who will be debarred in this way because they will not be able to serve on the new counties and metropolitan districts.
The same principle extends further still to water boards and to fire and ambulance services. Many employees will be excluded. There are many other bodies with links with local government which will fall into this category. I am not telling hon. Members anything new. Every hon. Member could cite examples of many of their constituents who fall foul of Sections 80 and 81 of the Act and will know of many capable people who would like to serve on local authorities but are not allowed to do because of their employment. Many hon. Members should be taking part in the debate raising cases on behalf of their constituents.
I wish to refer to one of my constituents and to illustrate the problem which will face many such people. I refer to Alderman John Cook, chairman of the housing committee in the borough of Dukinfield in the county of Cheshire. For about 20 years he has served on 1630 the local authority but his crime is that he is a teacher by profession. Although Dukinfield borough was formerly an accepted district and he was able to stand for election and play a full part in the running of his town, he now finds that it is part of a district of a metropolitan county and the district takes on education functions. He is faced with a cruel dilemma. At the age of 61 he must decide whether to retire prematurely as a teacher and serve the community, as he enjoys doing, or not to stand for the council and carry on as a teacher. Why should fine public servants like the John Cooks of this world have to face that dilemma? It is probably not surprising that John Cook has decided to retire at the age of 61 and to stand at the new district election because he feels that he has a contribution to make. I am sure that every hon. Member could give examples of the kind I have cited. We cannot afford to lose the expertise of these men and women.
What progress are we likely to make today? Only the Minister can tell us and it is right that he should be present. I am pleased that he is with us. There is a genuine affection for him among the Opposition because he listens to arguments and is prepared from time to time to concede that his original statements were perhaps the result of a bad brief. Let me remind the House nevertheless what the Minister said in the past. He faced the problem realistically and honestly but he cannot deny that we have given him time. Over a year has elapsed since he made his promise during the Committee stage of the Local Government Bill. The whole House will be joining me today in asking him for a progress report.
Perhaps I may quote the remarks of the Minister, and I apologise if I do so at length. He said in Committee:I do not believe that, at a certain level of employment or in a certain area of employment by a local authority, if an employee stands as a member, there is any serious chance of failure of integrity or lack of probity. As has been pointed out, there are many occasions where a person employed in private undertakings becomes a member and he may be just as suspect. There is a wide area where the employee of the local authority cannot possibly be said to be suspect if he becomes a member."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D, 10th February 1972; c. 1492.]1631 Later the Minister said in the House:What I am looking for is somewhere to draw a line, at which point it would be sufficient to say, 'Yes, this person may stand and serve as a member of the authority by which he is employed, but when any matters arise on the terms and conditions of his employment he should disclose his interest, not speak, and not vote'. If we can find the right division there, we may have achieved something. But I tell the House frankly that at present I have not carried the local authorities with me, and I have not, therefore, endeavoured at this stage to draft provisions to bring that into effect.— I ask the House to appreciate that there are problems here, that we wish to retain the general rule, that we wish to find some reasonable line of demarcation, and we wish to take the local authority associations with us in thinking out the right provisions.My own feeling about it is that we are being extremely hypocritical if we exclude all employees of the local authority and do not exclude others who have, perhaps a greater interest—I make no reference to topical cases, but they immediately come to mind—in the affairs of the council and may well be influenced more greatly than employees of the authority would be. I ask the House to leave it to us for a further period and not to delay the Bill by asking for a further 20 Clauses in it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th July 1972; Vol. 841, c. 213–14.]I would say that that was about right.
I agree that the Minister probably needed time when confronted for the first time with a case of this magnitude. It is probably right also that local authority associations should be carried along where possible, but there should not be a brake on the proceedings. Twelve months later, however, there has been a change in the local authority associations, and the complexion and possibly the outlook of the authorities has changed. So what is the position? What kind of negotiations have taken place, and what has been their response?
In a positive mood, I should like to suggest that there are areas in local government where employees in certain designated grades are far removed from decision-making and far beyond suspicion. An example is the manual workers in local government whose pay and conditions are negotiated at national level, far removed from the local scene—school caretakers, school groundsmen, home helps and park keepers, for example. Then there are the miscellaneous grades of the administrative, professional and technical services in local government—school clerks, town hall clerks, school 1632 welfare assistants and so on. All these, I suggest, could be removed from the ambit of this section.
There is a strong argument—I think that some of my hon. Friends will argue this—that no line should be drawn at all and that the pecuniary provisions in the Act are adequate safeguards. For obvious reasons, I would be unhappy—this is a personal view—at the prospect of principal local government officers being eligible, but the line should not be drawn too far below principal officer level.
It is surely not beyond the wit of even the present Government—certainly not beyond the wit of the Minister—to draw such a line. But if it proves too difficult to draw that line, I would rather see, as I hope the House would, no line at all and allow the good sense of the British people to come into play. If estate agents and building contractors are allowed to stand, I do not see why local government employees should be excluded.
Perhaps the pecuniary safeguards need strengthening; that is the best way of dealing with this problem. The chance of these people influencing matters which affect their own lives in a personal way is almost non-existent. To deny local authorities the services of thousands of capable people, especially at this time in the history of local government, is something that the House would regret.
The Minister must therefore be forthcoming when he replies to the debate. I hope he will be bold and imaginative. If he is, he will gain a number of friends on both sides of the House, because I believe that the majority of hon. Members feel that something must be done in the way I have suggested. At the same time, he will be striking a real and telling blow for democracy itself.
§ 11.24 a.m.
§ Mr. Thomas Cox (Wandsworth, Central)
I warmly welcome this debate, as I am sure will everyone else who takes part in it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) has quoted some of the inconsistencies and I wish to follow this with the examples of some people I know personally who are involved in local government. All of us would agree that the kind of examples that my hon. Friend gave show that there are two laws about the qualification of 1633 people to stand for local authorities, and they are based solely on where one lives. The unfortunate lack of many suitable people coming forward for local government work is something that we should certainly try to change.
I am sure that those hon. Members who were in local government before they came here would agree that local government encourages many talented and hard-working people, irrespective of party. We are also aware of the many difficulties that they have to face, in spite of which they do an excellent service for the community.
The first thing to which we should give attention is the lack of opportunity. As my hon. Friend said, over 2 million people are debarred by one reason or another from standing for election to local authorities. At elections, certainly for the very large London boroughs—I am sure that this applies in many other parts of the country—all parties find difficulty in getting sufficient numbers of people as candidates. We should be trying net just to make up the numbers but to see that the candidates have ability and genuinely wish to take part in the day-to-day affairs of their communities.
Among those with problems are teachers, especially in the inner London boroughs. In recent years—this is supported by both main parties at County Hall—teachers have been co-opted on to the Inner London Education Authority, and have had a perfect right to take part in all its decisions. The GLC candidate whom my party is supporting in the elections next month has until recently worked for ILEA. Therefore, she has been forced to give up her job so as to be eligible to stand—because inner London members automatically become members of ILEA. Had she been co-opted on to ILEA even though she worked in the area, this would have been acceptable. Because she is standing as a candidate in her own right, she is forced to give up her job.
Wandsworth Central is bordered by the Mitcham constituency, whose education authority is under no obligation to ILEA. Had she been living just five yards across the road in Mitcham, she could have gone on working as a teacher and still served as a member of both the GLC and ILEA. Where is the consistency here? One can 1634 cite many other examples, especially in the teaching profession.
In local government a person cannot serve on the authority for which he works although he can serve on an adjoining authority. We all know that in London and other areas there is a great deal of co-ordination between borough councils. Many of them follow a similar policy on major issues. This applies to the inner and outer London boroughs over the Layfield Committee Report. This report will affect many of the boroughs through motorways, housing development and employment opportunities. In South London there will be a great deal of coordination between adjoining boroughs. A person who could usefully serve on the co-ordination committee which is to be set up will be debarred if he is employed by one of the authorities.
Under present law a person working for an authority is debarred from becoming a member of that authority irrespective of the kind of job he holds. It can be the craftsman who works in the building department, the electrician or the motor mechanic. Yet a businessman, the local estate agent or shopkeeper, who could be very interested in some of the undertakings upon which an authority may embark, would be perfectly entitled to become a member.
This shows the stupidity and inconsistency which exists in local government. We talk in glowing terms about participation by the public in the affairs of the community. There are many who would willingly play an active and constructive part in community affairs but who are debarred because of these rules, while those with possible financial interest are not so debarred. This must cause a great feeling of resentment in the minds, not only of those involved, but of the electorate who must find this policy incomprehensible.
There are many people who work in public services and who obviously have political interests. Certainly they have local interests. I would like to think that we shall start to consider their rights and opportunities for taking part in local affairs. I cite the case in my constituency—and this applies to other areas—of the neighbourhood policeman. People say that we cannot allow a policeman to take part in local political affairs of this nature. Why? One of the best things 1635 that has taken place recently in the police force has been the development of the neighbourhood policeman. He comes into contact with the community in his area. People get to know and trust him. There is a feeling of community friendship and understanding.
There was a case recently, not in my borough, when there was a great deal of discussion about a proposed traffic development scheme. Because this neighbourhood policeman thought that it was part of his job to see what was being discussed, he went along to the meeting which had been called to discuss the development and sat at the back of the hall. Local councillors and officials were there outlining their proposals and listening to the comments of residents. Everyone was putting forward their ideas. After a while one of the councillors noticed the policeman and suggested that because he knew the area his advice should be sought.
The policeman put forward suggestions as a result of his local experience and I am pleased to say that they were eventually accepted. This is just one example. We all know that a local policeman comes into contact with the social problems of an area, such as housing and education. I do not like to use the word "immigrants", but in areas where there are people who were not born in this country the local policeman is valuable and he is known and trusted. We should think of extending the rights of police officers, many of whom have political opinions. I know this because I often discuss these views with them and they are not all sympathetic to my party. We should remember this when considering extending participation in the work of the community.
§ Mr. Ernle Money (Ipswich)
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the police. Does he not agree that there is an equally strong case in respect of teachers?
§ Mr. Cox
Yes. The hon. Gentleman may not have been present when I began my remarks. I mentioned in particular the problem of the teacher who is a candidate in the GLC elections but who is in difficulties because she works for ILEA. I have hope that the House will consider these things.
As a House we discuss and pass much legislation affecting councillors. I feel 1636 that local authorities take little note of the kind of facilities available to councillors for undertaking their work. We are all aware that the allowances that can be claimed are totally inadequate. We have only to look at the GLC to realise this. My hon. Friend the Member for Southwark (Mr. Lamborn) is, I believe, a member of the GLC and I am sure that if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, he can elaborate on this.
Many talented people who go into local government stand for only one term and then leave. They often leave because the allowances are totally insufficient to make up for the loss of earnings suffered. We know that unless a person has a business—and this can present problems—or works for a public concern which grants paid leave of absence, he experiences great difficulty in undertaking his duties as a councillor. We should also look at the day-to-day expenses of a councillor.
A good ward councillor will receive 15 to 20 letters a week. We all know as Members of Parliament that very few people send us stamped addressed envelopes. It is not too bad for us because we have pre-paid postage facilities, but the local councillor has to meet this expense from his own pocket. During a year it can amount to a sizeable sum of money. Equally, unless one is a chairman of a committee one is granted no telephone allowance. This certainly applied when I was a member of a London borough council. Again, a councillor can involve himself in considerable telephone bills. These are the things I hope the Minister, in conjunction with local authorities, will consider. I suggest that yearly amounts should be paid to all councillors to cover postage and telephone expenses. It is very unfair to face them with such problems as well as loss of earnings, which can be considerable.
My hon. Friend referred to council members who may have business interests and can therefore afford to lose money, but they may find at the end of the year, that they have been heavily involved in financial sacrifices as a result of being members of local authorities. This is wrong.
I have referred to some of the financial injustices involved, but I believe also that councillors have a duty to be available not only at the town hall but principally 1637 to the people they represent. In many boroughs the wards which councillors represent have very large populations. Many of them in my borough have electorates of about 12,000 people. Regardless of how conscientious councillors may be—and many of them carry out council duties on five or six eveninigs each week and partly on Saturdays—they cannot be expected to spend each Sunday knocking on people's doors, introducing themselves and asking people whether they have any problems etc.
The facilities for people to meet councillors are generally very poor. Both political parties have offices where advisory services are available and at which local councillors also attend. My constituency is fairly compact, but I can appreciate the great difficulties of Members representing rural areas in which electors may have to travel long distances to see their councillor.
Although my constituency is compact, people may have to make two bus journeys to see a local councillor. This involves not only cost but a lot of time, with people having to wait for buses. A journey of a couple of miles to see a councillor may take people three-quarters of an hour and when they arrive the councillor may have left, thinking that there was no one else to see him. I should like local authorities, with the encouragement of the Minister, to set up advice centres in shopping centres at which councillors could be present.
Many people in London will be seriously affected by the proposals of the Layfield Committee, yet they are in great doubt about what they are. I have asked Questions in the House about the cost of the Layfield Report—its over £10. I hope that a cheaper edition will become available in the near future so that people will be able to find out what is proposed for their areas.
I want local councils to set up advice centres in shopping areas so that people can go there and find out about the services which are provided as well as proposals for such things as motorways and housing developments. Local councillors could be in attendance at these centres one or two evenings a week and on Saturdays, and people would be able to seek advice on issues which concern them. Such a service should be paid 1638 for, not by the councillors, but by the local authority, and local councillors, irrespective of party, should be able to attend. If adequate publicity were given to such a service, a great deal of use would be made of it.
I reject the argument which unfortunately some local authorities put forward that if they want to do anything which affects people locally all they need do is to put a notice on a lamp post or in the local Press and that is the end of their obligation. Many people do not see such notices. Many people do not buy local newspapers. People who perhaps see a notice on a lamp post may think that it has no significance for them and they will be unaware of the proposals. The setting up of neighbourhood advice centres run by local authorities which local councillors could use would go a long way to solving the difficulty.
The strength of local government is based on the efforts of thousands of people in all the political parties who devote a great deal of time and effort in endeavouring to develop the community in which they live in the way in which they think it should be developed. No one questions the sincerity of their views or the attempts which they make to ensure that the areas which they represent are developed properly. I am opposed to the idea of having professional councillors because that might well encourage the wrong sort of people to come into local government work. But we should not abuse the rights of individuals who wish to become councillors.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde has drawn the inconsistencies of this matter to our attention. I hope that the House will support his motion and what I have said about making adequate facilities available to councillors and allowing them to claim expenses which they incur in endeavouring to serve the community, which I am sure we, as Members of Parliament, warmly applaud.
§ 11.47 a.m.
§ Mr. James Allason (Hemel Hempstead)
I strongly support the views of the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central (Mr. Thomas Cox) about the difficulties of councillors, and particularly the loss of earnings which they suffer. He has echoed very much the 1639 views of the Association of Councillors, of which I have the honour to be cochairman.
The hon. Member spoke of the heavy financial sacrifices which councillors make. They may suffer not only loss of earnings but loss of promotion, because if an employee becomes a councillor and wants to take up to five afternoons a week off to carry out, quite properly, the duties laid on him as, say, chairman of a committee, it must militate against his promotion in the firm. The problem can partly be solved by paying councillors, but that raises difficulties about how much they should be paid and whether they should have carte blanche to decide the number of hours in the week they wish to devote to council business.
The hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central spoke of the situation in urban areas, but in rural areas such as that which I represent the position is even worse. I visualise that the chairman of a new district committee will spend at least half his working week in driving round the countryside, holding conferences, and ensuring that he understands his job. It is difficult enough to find sympathetic employers. Is it not fair to say that if local government is the employer it ought to behave perfectly in this manner?
To some extent we are in danger of giving local government employees better conditions for service as councillors than we give to others, if we find it possible to allow them to stand for those local authorities employing them. I would be interested to hear what the situation would have been if the lady had been living in Mitcham rather than in Wandsworth, Central and continued employ-with ILEA and to what extent ILEA would be prepared to give her—as it is now—time off to an unlimited extent. Perhaps I might have intervened in the speech of the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central about that situation.
However, I think there is a danger that we might find the local government employee spending the whole of his week on his business as a local government councillor rather than on his business earning his living as an employee of local government; and when we have payment of councillors, that will in turn create 1640 further difficulty in their dovetailing their duties.
I am not sure that I am enthusiastic for the argument in respect of all local government employees. On the other hand, there can be little objection to employees who are more remote from the local authority—such as teachers and policemen—acting as councillors.
The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) said that we must except senior local government employees for obvious reasons. If we exempt the town clerk and the other principal officers, what about those who are immediately below them? What about those who are working in the town hall and who have access to rather confidential papers about what is going on, perhaps about what the majority party is proposing to do without having yet informed the minority party? Again, there might be confidential matters which the majority party is considering doing and which it has not yet sprung on the town hall staff. I think there are dangers in including the senior echelons of town hall staff, and I am not sure we should include them. Even the typists there have access to matters which are confidential.
There are difficulties in giving carte blanche to all local government employees. At the same time it is possible to reduce the present restrictions very considerably, and to that extent I welcome the motion.
§ 11.54 a.m.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)
The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason) and I were recently both speakers at a conference of the Town Planning Association and the views he expressed in that conference were very different from those I put forward. It is therefore pleasant this morning to find that we are in a greater measure of agreement than we were two or three weeks ago.
Now I offer my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) not only on his good fortune in securing first place in today's debates but also on his choice of subject, because it is important and affects many hundreds of thousands of people and raises important matters of principle. It affects a large number of people who are members of my own trade 1641 union, the National Union of Public Employees. That union and I have obviously an interest in this matter.
The present arrangements are excessively restrictive. Large numbers of people are debarred from public service since they are employees of local authorities in the areas in which they live, and as local authority responsibilities for providing services develop—and develop they will—so more and more people will suffer from this ban. It seems to me unwise and inappropriate. I hope that as the years pass increasing numbers of people will not suffer from this disqualification.
I was rather astonished by one comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wandsworth, Central (Mr. Thomas Cox), that perhaps one argument for removing the ban is to ensure that we have an adequate supply of people willing to serve on local authorities. My own experience over the last six months is that there is not a shortage of people willing to serve on the local authority. However, I take his point that we ought never to be in a position where people are compelled, or have their arms twisted, to serve on local authorities, and in so far as this ban assists that situation to arise, it is best removed.
I hope that I shall be forgiven for quoting my own experience because I think it is relevant. Before I came to the House I was very much involved in local government. I was employed by the West Riding County Council as a schoolmaster. Whilst I could not serve on the county council, I was able to serve and did serve on my own district council. At the same time, for about 10 years I was my district council's representative on the divisional educational executive. The West Riding, being a large authority, delegated a great deal of work to the divisional educational executives for various areas of the county. Thus, though I was a schoolmaster I was an elected representative able, with a certain amount of educational responsibility to serve on a local authority. I believe that my educational qualifications and experience were of some relevance to the work of the divisional educational executive. There were one or two other people on that executive who were employees of the West Riding County Council. One was another teacher and one or two others 1642 were school caretakers. I do not think that there were ever any grounds whatsoever for criticism or complaint involving those people employed by the local authority.
The reorganisation of local government means that the divisional educational executives will disappear, and thus all those who are currently employed in county areas and now able to serve upon educational executives will not be able to make a contribution to the work of their educational authorities. It means that a great deal of experience and ability will be lost to local government.
It has been suggested that if a person wants to continue to serve on a local authority he must change his job or move his home, perhaps just across the road, or only a few hundred yards away. I do not regard that as a very sensible suggestion. It is certainly not appropriate in the northern part of the country where family roots tend to go deeper and mobility to be a little less. I do not suggest for a moment that people should change their jobs or move their homes to qualify themselves for councillor service. The argument that people should not be allowed to serve in their area is not a very good one.
It would certainly be most inappropriate in my own area where shortly we shall be having the metropolitan system of local government. This will be established by next year. The district council will be responsible for the personal services such as housing and education. These will be administered by the district council. There will be three times as many opportunities for people to serve on the district council as there will be opportunities to serve on the metropolitan county council. Those people who argue that the employee of the district council cannot serve on the district council but has opportunity to serve on the county council are overlooking the fact that the opportunity for service on the county council is very much less than that which is available in the metropolitan district.
In my constituency of 130,000 people, for example, we shall have 30 metropolitan district councillors but only 10 metropolitan county councillors. Thus the opportunity for employees of the district council to serve on the county authority are very limited. But at the 1643 same time, many of the councillors who wish to continue to serve are, perhaps, more concerned with the personal level of activity for which the district council is responsible, rather than with the wider function of the county authority.
My hon. Friends have quoted individual cases. I shall not burden the House by quoting too many of those, but I know of three school caretakers in the South Yorkshire county, who have given considerable public service over a long time, who would have been able to make a great contribution to the work of the district authority but who will not now be allowed to do so. Indeed, the wife of one of them is interested in politics. If she helps to clean the school of which her husband takes care, for two or three hours a week, she is then an employee of the local authority and is unable to serve on that authority.
These three men have long records of service. They have an honest and good reputation, a great deal of local knowledge and considerable common sense, and they enjoy much public respect. But they are not allowed to serve, even though their neighbours would be willing to elect them. Those men and all other district council employees, be they teachers or manual workers, are unable to serve.
The Government believe that this limitation is necessary in order to avoid corruption. I do not underestimate the need to maintain the high standards of British public life. Generally our standards are already very high. They have to be maintained at that high level. But this prohibition will make no serious contribution to improving the existing satisfactory standards.
My experience suggests that the prohibition is irrelevant and unnecessary. However, we are right to be concerned about standards, particularly in view of one or two incidents and experiences in recent months. But the rule is generally irrelevant. A local authority employee is entitled, for example, to be a member of a party-political organisation. He is clearly entitled, within his party-political activity, to seek to influence a local policy of his party and the decisions which the councillors of his party will be making. I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with party-political activity. It is entirely honourable.
1644 But if a local authority employee can influence decisions within his local party, it seems wrong for us to say that he cannot take part in decision-making in an open and elected forum. If a person's neighbours wish him to serve on a local authority, we should bear in mind that they know what his occupation is and whether he is an employee of that authority. Knowing the nature of his employment, if they still wish him to be a member of their local authority they should not lose the right to elect him. They should be allowed to decide.
It may be that among the would-be district councillors will be a schoolmaster seeking promotion. If he were elected, that person and his councillor colleagues should be very wary indeed about his particular committee involvement. When I served on the divisional education executive, I always refused to serve on staffing committees, believing that I was right not to do so. I took no part in staffing matters until after being selected as prospective parliamentary candidate for Rather Valley. Then my colleagues assumed, for one reason or another, that I would not be interested in professional promotion. In that last year or so before I became a Member of the House, I did a little work on staffing matters. I found reason for a little horror, and I rather regretted that I had not involved myself on staffing matters a little earlier.
People can be trusted to act responsibly and not to involve themselves in the affairs of the council in which they may have a personal interest. A school meals employee should not be a regular attender at kitchen and catering committees of the authority, unless such a person is present at those meetings by virtue of occupation rather than election. In the same way, I see no reason why a superintendent of a public swimming baths cannot serve on the local authority. It might not be appropriate for him to be a regular member of the committee administering the baths, although there is no reason why he should not attend in his occupational capacity, without a vote, merely to act as a consultant.
If people need advice—this will rarely arise—they can be given advice by the chief executive of their authority. I doubt whether they would need advice very often, but such advice could and 1645 should always be given by the chief executive, to guide people in their particular involvement in the work of their authority. Whether or not they receive that advice, they will know on what sort of committee they ought to serve and those on which they ought not to serve.
I see no reason why a council tradesman employed on repairing houses should be prohibited from discussing questions such as the welfare of the elderly or the improvement of the refuse collection system. To say that a council tradesman is likely to be guilty of malpractice or corruption in some way is a grave abuse of the ordinary men and women of Britain.
§ Mr. Jeffrey Archer (Louth)
Would not a person chosen to represent a county council or a local council be in an invidious position if told that he could serve on nine-tenths of its committees but could not serve on a particular committee? In making up my mind on such a point, I should certainly want an all-or-nothing system. I should not want a local councillor to be told "You cannot serve on the baths committee, because you might be personally involved on the subject of baths, but you can serve on the housing committee".
§ Mr. Hardy
It would be very rare for anyone to need to be told by the chief executive or the leader of the council that he ought not to serve on a particular committee. Most people involved in public life are sensitive about their involvement and would obviously themselves decide that they ought not to serve on a particular committee because of their occupation.
On the new metropolitan district and county councils being established, it is obvious that people will not be able to serve on all committees and all subcommittees. It will be a matter for the individual then to make sure that he serves on committees to which he can make a contribution and in which he has no personal involvement.
In addition to the good sense and good taste of the vast majority of people, and apart from the ballot box, which is important, there is already one form of public protection which we have to a great extent ignored in the arrangements established. Most public employees are members of the appropriate union. If 1646 they served on a local authority their actions and decisions would be known to the unions of which they are members. It would not be in their interests to conduct themselves badly, for that would then be quickly and generally known to their unions. The unions and their members have a keen and clear interest in ensuring that members' conduct is beyond reproach. The difficulties which would be created by corruption on the part of a member of the National Union of Public Employees, for instance, could be most severe upon the union. Therefore, the unions have a serious interest in ensuring that high standards are maintained. The membership of the unions and the daily contact they have with their colleagues is a defence against improper practice and corrupt action.
Employees of a local authority are usually well aware of what is happening in that authority, and corruption on the part of an employee of the authority who served as a councillor would be very quickly exposed. Therefore, I see little likelihood of such an employee serving with less than complete integrity.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde, I had hoped that a more flexible arrangement would have developed following the Committee stage of the Local Government Bill last year. That it did not follow has been a real disappointment to many people. It has caused a great deal of unhappiness and frustration among people who could have made a real contribution to public life, and I hope the Government will be prepared to reconsider the matter in a sensitive way.
The teachers and manual workers and all the others employed by local authorities now banned from service will be able to see the continuation of elected service from shareholders in property companies, from local building contractors, from local estate agents, from local employees of organisations engaged in civil engineering, from landowners and so on. I do not suggest that these people are automatically corrupt or that they would be tempted to become guilty of dishonesty or unreasonable action, but they stand to gain far more from their work on the council than any public employee could ever gain. So long as they take no part in a decision on a 1647 matter in which they have direct financial interest, they are acting within the law. I believe that a greater degree of flexibility could be afforded to those employed in local authorities.
Nothing so far has been said about the proprietor of an industrial or commercial undertaking in a local authority area who may have a real and vested interest in securing the lowest level of expenditure in the local authority to keep down costs. If we take the question of qualification a little wider we should be concerned about the corruption of economy as well as the corruption of expense. If a person serves on a local authority to make sure, to serve his own business, that that authority does not spend money, one could ask questions about motivation. In my own area when the colliery owners were in occupation their senior people served on local authorities. Some were very good men, but their basic aim in serving on the local authority was to make sure that the rates were the lowest possible, which was not necessarily in the public interest. They were eventually removed from power, but such a situation is not prohibited and could reappear.
The fact that this does not happen today is due to public taste, and I believe that the public can be left to decide the issue. The general body of people are not easily fooled or beguiled and any local authority employees who abuse their position in terms of personal gain will get what they deserve either from their party or from the electors. I do not believe that such a person could get away with the sort of activity which has been reported in recent months.
This is not the time to debate corruption in public life, but it seems to me that the restrictions which have been imposed under Section 80 of the 1972 Act are a little like shutting the stable door after a herd of wild horses has gone galloping through. I wish to make no charge about lack of probity by any individual, but if a local authority is composed of representatives of business and commercial interests any influence from that sort of activity will greatly exceed that which can be exercised by a local authority servant.
Given the real mechanisms of protection that already exist, I believe it 1648 to be possible and right for a local authority servant to be allowed to be a local representative if his neighbours desire it. I consider that the Government have not given sufficient thought to the wisdom and sense of people who are responsible for making the decisions.
When I was chairman of a local authority planning committee, I was aware of the dangers of secret decision-making and we decided to conduct our business in a very open way. We rarely asked the local Press to leave the council chamber, but we frequently asked them not to report part of the proceedings. This occurred whenever delicate matters were to be discussed, and the Press acted with perfect propriety. While people might have said that we were foolish or stupid, they could never suggest that we were corrupt. The reason that we had a reasonable image was that we allowed the local newspaper to take an active watching part in the proceedings.
The existence of a good local newspaper is a protection against abuse. A good local newspaper does not exist to attack or to protect or to defend a local authority. It exists to report and to inform. Through the years those who own and are engaged in the work of local newspapers gain a great deal of knowledge about local affairs. They are well aware of the decisions and policies of local authorities, and if there is any abuse or corruption or anything unsavoury or sordid the local newspaper will quickly get to know it and find ways of revealing it. Therefore, we should ensure that open government is practised at local level.
The sort of restrictions of which we are complaining today need not apply. I thought that the Government had decided to pursue a policy of open government—and indeed in 1970 they proclaimed this to be their aim. I suggest that they should give a certain amount of trust to the people in local government, allow it to be open and to remove some of these restrictions, which are very injurious indeed.
There is one further matter which I should like the Minister to examine. I with to draw attention to the Local Government Chronicle published this morning in which there is an article dealing with disqualification under Section 59 of the 1933 Act and Section 80 of the 1972 1649 Act. According to that report, if a person managed to evade detection for six months after his election when he should have been disqualified, it would be impossible for any action to be taken. The article refers to the case of Bishop v. Deakin. If a local government employee who is elected to that authority can persuade the head of his department not to report him to the returning officer and can get away without detection for six months, his position will be little different from that about which we are complaining today. If the article is correct, the law will need to be adjusted at an early stage. I suggest to the Minister that the situation described in the article needs to be tightened up and that wide amendments are needed to improve matters generally.
If the Government wish to assist the community and want to maintain high standards of public life, the present restrictions should be removed. This would make a great contribution to improving and maintaining high standards. Local authority employees would be allowed a greater degree of participation, and the greater the participation that is permitted, the more the interest will be in our society. It is in that development of interest that society is best served. I believe that that greater interest will provide a real protection to which the public are entitled.
However, I believe that in the present situation, where by the 1980s or 1990s we are likely to see one person in five prevented from serving on a local authority, we are not making the best contribution. It is wrong to say that a council plumber cannot serve on a local authority, particularly if the chief executive of that authority can retire and on retirement can become the very highly paid director of a company with which his authority has had dealings. That does not seem to be the best arrangement to reduce corruption. Nor is it a wise decision to say that a school cleaner cannot serve on a district council when someone who may have an interest in land in the area worth millions of pounds is allowed to serve on the local council.
The sort of people who are prepared to serve on local authorities generally are not motivated by greed. If they are, they 1650 will not serve for long because the remuneration offered to them is not attractive. There is the possibility of boredom. Some people, however, are prepared to serve even through hours of boredom in order to make a real contribution to the needs of their neighbourhoods. There are some people who believe that men and women who join local authorities do so to satisfy a lust for power. However, we see the power that local government has had since 1970. It is clear that it is ebbing away rapidly and that any lust for power will not be satisfied in local government.
Then we are told that some people join local authorities so that they may be called "Councillor", attend civic dinners and enjoy a little pomp and dignity. I do not suggest that there are no people of that kind, but from my own experience in local government, which is very extensive, I know that the proportion of people with motivations of that kind is very small.
I believe that we should allow the best form of leadership to emerge in our local communities and that the present arrangement reduces the possibility of good leadership emerging. My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde deserves great commendation for raising this subject and I hope that the arguments which have been advanced today will persuade the Minister to bring about the necessary change at a very early date.
§ 12.21 p.m.
§ Mr. Jeffrey Archer (Louth)
I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) on bringing this matter before the House. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason), I found that when listening especially to the speech of the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central (Mr. Thomas Cox) I agreed with very little in the first half and spent the entire time taken up by the second half saying "Hear, hear". For that reason I intend to divide my short speech into two parts in order that both the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde and the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central may see how two-faced I am.
I should be worried about the election of local council employees to their own councils for two reasons. I happen to 1651 have served on the Greater London Council. I enjoyed that service immensely. I discovered that on the council there were two extremely able people who were local councillors in London. It occurs to me that if an employee of the Greater London Council wished to perform any kind of local government service, he would be able to serve as a local councillor. I assume that it would be possible for a person working for the Greater London Council to do that. In other words, anyone with a great desire to serve as the hon. Member for Wandsworth Central put it, is not debarred totally from doing so. All that he has to do is to move up one or down one accordingly.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that possibly there is a shortage of good people serving on local councils because of this restriction. But unlike the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy), I am not in the glorious position in my area of finding that the standard of local councillors is all that high, with hundreds of people virtually queueing to be elected. On the contrary I find that the standard is going down and that it is necessary to go out searching for people who may have voted for one's party in the hope that they may be persuaded to stand at local council level because they are so able. I am sure that the same is true in Socialist constituencies. We ought to try to get on to our local councils the most able people. We should not be satisfied with people who merely go to Conservative fetes and Labour rallies.
There are two or three questions that I would like to have put to the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central and the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde. One major problem that must arise is caused by the confines of the building containing the local council. It is a small community. People see each other every day.
If a local council employee serving on the local council ought really to have the sack, it might not be easy to get rid of him. This can be argued from many angles, of course. If an unscrupulous person decided that having been elected to the council he would no longer work as hard in his local council employment simply because he had become a councillor, it might be very hard to sack him simply because he was serving on the council.
1652 I am equally worried about the position of someone like a town clerk. I happen to come from a background of belief that there still has to be an attitude of discipline and leadership in any form of society. It cannot be easy for a town clerk to deal with a subordinate who at the same time is a member of the council, my argument being that again an unscrupulous person might take advantage of his position and say to his town clerk "Do not forget that at the end of the day I am a member of the council. I shall be taking part in reaching a decision on this matter. You can go and jump in the lake."
§ Mr. Kenneth Lomas (Huddersfield, West)
No one has argued from the Opposition benches that town clerks and borough engineers should serve on local authorities. Basically, we are concerned with employees of local authorities, not with people who hold official jobs.
§ Mr. Archer
I listened carefully to the speech of the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde. He made that point quite clear, and I accept it totally. My argument is that a person in authority might find it hard to deal with someone working for the council in a subordinate capacity who was also a member of the council.
I do not agree with the argument about people not wanting to call themselves "Councillor". The hon. Member for Rother Valley may be interested to know that I get into great trouble as a Member of Parliament for not addressing councillors correctly. It is amazing how many of them take their positions terribly seriously. Perhaps it is good that they do. It may mean that they have fought to get to their present positions and that they think them worth while and worth preserving. I am not knocking their attitude.
§ Mr. Hardy
There is nothing to prevent the wife or husband of a public employee becoming a member of the 1653 authority concerned. Surely the argument of the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Jeffrey Archer) about a person taking advantage of election would apply to such a case, yet there seems to be remarkably little evidence of abuses of this kind where the spouse of a local authority worker is a member of the authority.
§ Mr. Archer
I take that point. I must make it clear that I am not suggesting that there will be a vast number of people taking advantage of any change in the position. I suggest, however, that a decision of this kind would put a town clerk or any other official in authority in an invidious position if, when making a decision, he had to remember that one of his subordinates was a member of the council which employed him. That is my point.
§ Mr. Money
It is not often that I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Louth (Mr. Jeffrey Archer), but has he borne in mind the existing curious situation in which any employee of a council may be co-opted as a member of the council's committees though not elected? That hardly seems a democratic situation.
§ Mr. Archer
I must confess that I was about to come to that point. In my view it is a dreadful weakness in the system. I was about to say that co-opting is a way out and to put the other side of the argument to the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central, who referred to the police force and almost defeated his own argument by relating the incident where a policeman in attendance at a committee meeting was asked his opinion, which was found to be sound, and it was thought what a pity it was that he was not on the council. That made one immediately think that the good council, in a situation in which it needed advice from the local policeman, would call him in to give advice. Is not that what co-opting is all about?
§ Mr. Ernest G. Perry (Battersea, South)
Policemen can be co-opted on to the committees of a local council, particularly the road safety committee, to give advice. They abstain from voting, but they are co-opted to advise such committees.
§ Mr. Archer
That is first class. I am having many interruptions. I hope that 1654 if HANSARD is ever printed, anyone reading it will be able to work out who is making this speech. I am moved by the sight of Opposition Front Benchers rushing to the back benches in order that they may appear to hon. Members as normal human beings for the purpose of interrupting me. I noticed that it was the other way round when the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde opened the debate. Having completed his opening, he immediately rushed to the Front Bench to prove his status. However, when he saw me rise he immediately rushed to the back benches. No one knows better than the Labour Party about being in the right place or standing in the right position to be co-opted.
I am not totally convinced that my argument contains flaws. If there is any doubt, it is better to err on the side that helps, and does not hinder, the town clerk. Of course, I may be wrong.
Hon. Gentlemen have fairly pointed out that we cannot prevent the estate agent, the engineer or the builder being a member of a local council and taking advantage of his position. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central that such people are few and far between. Long may that be so in this country. But dishonest men whose aim in life is to get on and to corrupt a council will find a way in spite of any restrictions we put up. In the kind of democracy in which we live and which we cherish, without sacrificing part of that democracy such people will nevertheless find a way. To compare such individuals with the other type of person who wants to get elected to a local council is unfair. The type of person who hinders public life—fortunately he is in a small minority—will always find a way of hindering it if he thinks that it will help his own financial reward.
I now come to the part of my speech which I hope will have the Opposition purring and saying "Hear, hear" without rushing between the Front and back benches.
§ Mr. J. D. Concannon (Mansfield)
I am sorry to make this intervention but I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has given way. He has referred to builders, estate agents and the like. It might be thought from his tone that 1655 estate agents and builders on local councils do corrupt things. All that we have endeavoured to stress is that, even with the best intentions in the world, estate agents and builders are bound to get information that puts them in a class different from other people. We do not say that they are corrupt. They perform a great service on local councils. However, by the nature of things they are bound to get information that puts them streets ahead of anybody else in the area on certain issues. We are trying to balance the issue with the poor old lollipop lady and people of that nature who cannot get any information which could help to advance them in the world. It seems basically impossible.
§ Mr. Archer
I apologise. To have three Whips interrupting me in one speech makes it a great day for me. I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. My view of estate agents has been coloured slightly by the statement in the Press two weeks ago that the most respected and loved people in our society were solicitors and doctors and the most hated were estate agents and Members of Parliament. I take the point. But if we are to stop certain people serving on a council—I realise that the hon. Gentleman does not want to do it at that level—almost everyone will have to fill in an extremely long form.
I return to the point about discipline and town clerks. I think we are all agreed that a town clerk must have authority over the people under him. If these people wish to serve on councils, there are other councils on which they can serve. But that is very difficult, as the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central pointed out, in a large district where travel is almost impossible.
I turn to the question of pay. I served on the Greater London Council from 1966 to 1969. I was only 25 years of age. I thought at that time that the most wonderful thing in the world was to serve one's local community and not be paid a penny for doing so. I was in the privileged position of being financially well off and therefore did not 1656 give the matter a second thought. However, my little eyes were opened during the three years I served on that council. The views expressed by the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central would have been totally alien to me six years ago. Now I totally agree with everything he said.
I should like to give an example from my side of the council chamber, so to speak, but I think that it would be equally true if the Labour Party were to win the GLC elections. Sir Desmond Plummer, the leader of the GLC, works as hard in his job as any Minister of State in the Government. The amount of paper work and responsibility for London is equal to the responsibility taken by any Cabinet Minister. If that burden were to be placed on Sir Reginald Goodwin—I am trying to be as nonpolitical as possible—the position would be the same. I know both men well. I served under one as leader of the council, the other being the leader of the opposition. They are two of the nicest men I know. I therefore looked from a distance at both men and the work that they did. It would be ridiculous for either of them to attempt any other job. Therefore, I ask the Minister to consider carefully the points made by the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central regarding expenses. He pointed out that living in a compact constituency was expensive.
I know councillors living in the north of Lincolnshire who travel 100 miles to Lincoln to serve on the county council sometimes twice or three times a week. They do it because they love the job. I do not entirely agree with the hon. Member for Rother Valley that some of them immensely enjoy being county councillors and, having reached a certain position in local life, believe that that to be worth while.
We have a ridiculous situation. I can say this to you, Mr. Deputly Speaker, because you know Lincolnshire as well as I do. It is usually the rich and the retired who serve on our local councils. Without disrespect to any council in England, that is not a criterion for either intelligence or worthiness to serve on a local council. I have no disrespect for the retired colonel or for the lucky person who is born with so much money that he can give his time freely. It is a tragedy, however, that those should be 1657 the top two categories for serving on local councils.
We should be able to bring into local councils our most able people. They should be able to be recruited without being concerned about finance. If a person realises that at the end of the year he will be between £500 and £1,000 worse off—I suggest that that is an honest figure because account must be taken of how much a person would have made if he had not decided to give service; it is not simply the cost of travel, the cost of telephone calls and the cost of stationery and secretaries—he might be influenced by the amount of money he could have earned and decide to make more money for himself.
I have no doubt that in the past it has been a pleasant tradition that service was done without any reward. I have no doubt that we live in an age when it would be pleasant if that were still possible. However, I am converted totally to the views of the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central on this matter. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to be more realistic about service at local council level. I ask him to make it possible for our most able people to serve. Let us have, as a Conservative Government, a reputation for being radical and not for living in the past. Let us have a reputation for bringing to our local councils and to our community the finest people in the land.
§ 12.41 p.m.
§ Mr. Harry Lamborn (Southwark)
Like the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Jeffrey Archer) I have been—and I am still—a member of the Greater London Council. I am also a member of the Inner London Education Authority. I have been a member of both bodies since they came into existence under the London Government Act.
I do not intend to deal with the financial ability of those who wish to serve as members of such bodies. I shall refer briefly to the matter which the hon. Member for Louth appeared to find most difficult, namely, discipline within an authority if an employee serves on the council. I cannot understand why that should present a problem to local authorities. For example, the health services committees within the London executive councils deal with matters of indiscipline or complaints against members of the 1658 medical profession, yet 50 per cent. of the members of health services committees are engaged in the medical profession. They are people who have a far greater vested interest.
Many consultants serve on hospital boards. They are appointed as serving members on the boards of governors. I am a governor of two teaching hospitals. It has been useful to have the advice of professional people as full members of the board, who play their part in every facet of the work of the hospitals.
§ Mr. Lamborn
The hon. Gentleman is correct. I could elaborate on many other such cases. However, the hon. Member for Louth appears to be concerned with the odd case where it might be possible for a member of the council, in relation to his responsibilities as an employee of the council, to be placed in a position which could cause difficulty. In many other similar situations the same consideration does not apply.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) on bringing his motion before the House. We are now moving from the stage of local government into what might be called regional government. There will be authorities which are far more embracing. The disqualification which will be placed upon members working within the authorities will be equally wide and all-embracing.
It is as well to call in aid the experience of the London area. The London Government Act has been operational since 1965. There will shortly be developed in other parts of the country large regional authorities. In 1967, a lady who was a member of the Conservative Party was elected a member of the Greenwich Council. It was found that as she was a district nurse she came under the department of the medical officer of health. Under the Act, although one would think that a district nurse was far removed from the inner counsels and influences of the medical officer, she had to resign her seat on the Greenwich Council.
1659 The following year, being public-spirited and wanting to play her part in the community, that lady stood for the Greater London Council. She was duly elected to represent the borough of Greenwich on the Greater London Council. However, when her position was considered it was found that the medical officer of health for the Greenwich Borough Council was, in a part-time capacity, the principal school medical officer of the Inner London Education Authority. The lady concerned had been elected a member of the Greater London Council. As she was elected to represent an inner London borough in the greater London area she automatically became a member of the Inner London Education Authority.
This lady, having first tried to serve the borough council and then the Greater London Council, had for a second time to resign. She was unable to offer what I have no doubt could have been valuable service for the benefit of the community. There was only one happy thought that I could draw from that episode. At the subsequent by-election the electors changed their minds and a colleague of mine was elected. That example illustrates the great extent to which people wishing to play a part within the community are prevented from doing so.
Hon. Members have spoken of the valuable part played by co-opted members of local authority committees. Local health authorities have always co-opted members of the local medical committee, members of nursing organisations and members of the local dentists' organisations, all with a direct interest in the health services of the borough. They have none the less been co-opted by councils on to these committees because of the part which they can play. Doctors could always be elected as members to a local health authority. At the time when I was chairman of the old London County Council, one of my greatest embarrassments was that there were about five elected doctors on the committee and I was receiving professional advice from every quarter of the chamber.
The Inner London Education Authority has conducted an experiment over the past few years in extending representation to bring in representatives of 1660 the teachers. There are three teachers appointed as full members of the committee, representing primary, secondary and further and higher education. In my experience this has been a useful development of great benefit to the council, and the bringing of such expertise has been a great success. On the other hand, under the new legislation the disqualification will go far wider so that even lecturers at polytechnics will be excluded. In this way, although we shall be establishing large all-purpose authorities covering a wide area and administering a broad range of activities and services, we shall at the same time see a narrowing in the range of people who may be elected.
Members of the community who serve on local authorities—I speak here from what I know of the Greater London Council—are likely, through the nature of the services administered, to have an interest, sometimes a great personal interest, in the matters dicussed. I believe that members have always acknowledged this and exercised their functions with great restraint. Before I was elected to the House in May last year I was a director of a large cooperative society which had many interests in properties coming within the orbit of the Greater London Council. When such matters arose, I, as other members similarly placed would do, declared my interest and took no part in voting or in the debate. Generally speaking, a member with an interest can play only a small part in any matter covered by his interest, and that in itself is a disqualification.
Many members of the Greater London Council have interests in property in the Greater London area. In view of the wide powers of the Greater London Council as the strategic planning authority, they have a direct interest, a far greater interest than the dustman or the nurse to whom I referred can have, in many matters of great moment coming before the council.
I urge the Minister to look again at the situation which has developed. A great number of people are now excluded. Action ought to be taken to bring in the good service of the many who are now prevented from making a valuable contribution to the life and affairs of their local community.
1661 I turn now to the matter raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wandsworth, Central (Mr. Thomas Cox) and the hon. Member for Louth, namely, the financial loss suffered by members of local authorities. We are reaching a stage—the hon. Member for Louth illustrated this well—when there is not so much a shortage of candidates to stand for election, but the social groove, as it were, from which one can draw people to serve on bodies like the Greater London Council is becoming narrower. I was a member of the London County Council prior to the Greater London Council coming into being. At that time there were discussions with the Government of the day about allowances under the new authority. I regret that the discussions between County Hall and Governments of both parties have not led to a fruitful outcome. The promises held out of steps which would be taken to make it financially possible for people to serve as members of the Greater London Council have not been fulfilled.
As the hon. Member for Louth said, the chairmanship of a major committee at County Hall entails a responsibility at least as wide as, if not wider than, that of a back-bench Member of the House. Unless action is taken, the number of people who can find it possible to serve will become smaller, and we shall have to call far more on retired persons and those with incomes which enable them to afford the time. It would be disastrous if as a result local government, not only in London but elsewhere, with the creation of the new large regional authorities, could not be served by people representative of community as a whole.
I very much hope that the Minister of State will give thought to this matter. I know that it has been raised with various Ministers by both the leader of the Greater London Council and the leader of the opposition. Both those gentlemen, in endeavouring to fulfil their responsibility to Greater London, have appreciated the great restriction placed on the range of persons with the right knowledge and experience who could otherwise make themselves available to serve.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde on giving the House an opportunity to debate this important subject today. Unless action is taken on many of the matters which 1662 have been raised, the future of local government, particularly in the large regional authorities, will be in grave danger.
§ 1.0 p.m.
§ Mr. John Farr (Harborough)
I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) on his initiative in introducing this important subject for discussion today.
Most hon. Members who have spoken so far have drawn on a personal fund of knowledge from their constituency experience on this matter of great importance which deserves full consideration by the House. We all have examples to cite of first-class local authority servants of the highest calibre, in whatever grade they may be employed by a local authority, who we feel could probably be of great service to the community if they were elected as local councillors. But under the existing regulations this is forbidden. In the counties the position is to be made worse. At the moment a man who lives in one urban district can serve as a member of an adjacent area but as from April next year the position will be much worse, because many of these urban and rural districts will be consolidated one upon the other, which will effectively disbar from membership or from becoming candidates for membership of the new consolidated authority a number of councillors who are at present serving.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House are anxious to secure the best possible service we can for our communities. But on reflection I would feel more able to accept the motion so ably moved by the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde if it included words to the effect that public employees could be members of a local authority, provided it was not a first-or second-tier authority in the area in which they reside. I will tell the hon. Member my reasons for that conclusion in a moment. First, I refer to what the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Jeffrey Archer) said a moment ago about the enthusiasm of candidates for becoming local authority councillors. I understood from him that in certain parts of East Anglia and Lincolnshire he has not found a note of enthusiasm or a very high calibre of candidate for these positions.
§ Mr. Jeffrey Archer
I was not suggesting that I had not found a high standard. Outside of the retired and wealthy the 1663 standard is low because the right people cannot be found.
§ Mr. Farr
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for clarifying that point. It does not affect the point that I intended to make, which is that in certain parts of the country there is great enthusiasm for these new district councils. In Leicestershire and many parts of the Midlands, Conservative and Labour candidates positively jostle one another to be adopted by their parties to stand for these new authorities, whether county councils or district councils. The high calibre of candidates in the Midlands, particularly in Leicestershire, is by no means confined to retired or wealthy persons. I am glad to say we had candidates for Leicestershire County Council from both major parties, active working men and women, who will be a first-class asset to the authority, whether they are Conservatives or Socialists.
§ Mr. Archer
If one looks down the list of candidates one finds impressive men. What is tragic in public life today is that they serve for one period and one period only and when they discover the disadvantages of the system they never serve again.
§ Mr. Farr
I will not permit myself to be interrupted again by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth. He had a fairly chequered speech. He seemed happy to be interrupted by no fewer than three Opposition Whips. I am not prepared to let him do a hat trick on me.
I have not found the same situation as he has described. In Leicestershire there are many people who have not spent a lifetime in, but are in the midst of, a lifetime of public service. These are people from both parties including very good and active Liberal Party representatives. Their interest in local government affairs is by no means a passing one.
I will give my reasons for the conclusions I have reached, namely that public employees should not stand for a council or represent a council in the area in which they reside. I refer, first, to local government officials. As I said earlier, we are lucky to have a high calibre of service from local government officials whether they are on the top rung of the ladder or the bottom, whether they are engaged in maintaining local council roads, or are the driving force of the 1664 council headquarters. I want it to remain that way, but I do not believe that it will if we are to have employees of the council also elected as members of the council.
I will give one or two examples of the disquiet that I would feel if that position were to come about. One hon. Member opposite referred to council economies. He said that council employees were conscious and proud of the fact—and justly so—that they were members of a union and conscious that they would have to behave very well because the union members would be keeping tabs on them. What will those union members say if their council representative, who is also an elected representative, supports a move in council by the other elected representatives to effect economies by staff reductions? He must be muzzled on that, to say the least, and he could not go along with it. Surely, he would have to abstain. But it places him in an invidious position. If several councillors were placed in such a position in reflecting on possible staff redundancies, enforced or otherwise, it would put them in a difficult position.
§ Mr. Philip Whitehead (Derby, North)
How is that different from the builder who declares an interest and withdraws from discussion or voting in a matter of a contract and who is not debarred in any way from standing or serving on the council?
§ Mr. Farr
I regard that as a proper way of doing things, provided that, with a specific contract under discussion, and if the builder has submitted a tender for the contract, he takes no part in the discussion but declares his interest. That is the correct way of doing things. But let me give another example. Suppose that a local authority is preparing a scheme for slum clearance or a new street lighting scheme. At the moment when the local authority elected representatives have such a scheme placed before them for consideration, they know that it must be drawn up completely impartially by employees of the council who are in no way concerned with what the electorate thinks of it. They are doing what they think is economically and physically best for the area. But if one or two employees of the council are also elected representatives, there is a possibility that, if one of those 1665 employees is elected for a ward where street lighting is poor or there is a considerable amount of rebuilding to be done, any plan submitted by council employees to the full council will not be entirely impartial. Rightly or wrongly, the councillor concerned with his ward will do his best to get his street lighting improved or his houses demolished and rebuilt—[Laughter.] The hon. Member may laugh, but in future such councils may not be able to accept plans submitted for their consideration as being entirely impartial, as they can at the moment.
§ Mr. Lamborn
Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that any councillor elected for a particular ward, whether he was a council employee or not, would have a vested interest in seeing that his ward was dealt with before any other? This always happens because of local pressures from one's electors.
§ Mr. Farr
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has quite got the point. Of course every councillor will do the best for his ward, but the preparation of plans at the moment is done by public employees who have no electoral responsibilities and are entirely impartial. If that position were to change, it would make things very difficult.
It was suggested that there was no reason why police representatives should not serve on local councils. I do not agree with that at all. The local or district policeman, provided that he can be called in from time to time for consultation, is far better not to be politically identified with one party or another. There are many anxious old ladies in my constituency who would not go near the village policeman if they knew that he was a Socialist councillor, for example. They would have grave fears. No doubt hon. Members opposite know old ladies in their constituencies who would not go near the area or village policeman if he were known to be a Conservative councillor. They are far better left in an anonymous political position.
An additional drawback is that policemen frequently change around. They do not stay in a police house for very long. In parts of the Midlands, they are often in an area for only four or five years before, as a deliberate part of police policy to give them greater experience, 1666 they are moved to an entirely different sector. If elected as councillors, they would not be able to give much continuity of service.
Finally, there is nothing at the moment, as has been said, to prevent a school teacher who is an employee of the local education authority from serving on a rural or urban district council, and there will be nothing to prevent him or her from serving on the new district councils. That is as it should be, but I would not like teachers to be eligible to be directly elected to the first-tier authorities or the new county councils.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde on his initiative in having this interesting debate. I go along with him all the way when he says that we cannot afford to lose the valuable service of these public servants, but their experience must be confined to serving as elected representatives in areas other than those in which they reside.
§ 1.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)
Before I take issue with one or two of the things said by the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr)—I am sorry to do so, because I have a high regard for him—I should like to agree with him in extending warm congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Hendry) on his initiative in bringing forward this subject for debate.
I wish marginally to stretch what will be a very short speech by explaining that I have a particular personal reason for those congratulations. My hon. Friend, as a long-time member of the National Union of Public Employees, has had to fight and argue the case for that union and for the many people in public employment who are entirely disbarred from serving in public life as they would wish.
Also, my hon. Friend is married to the charming and efficient chairman of the education committee in the county borough of Derby, which covers my constituency. Her experiences are in some ways an illustration of the difficulties of able people in the prime of life in attempting to give public service.
I would agree with the hon. Member for Harborough that there is disbarment in more than one sense. He and his hon. 1667 Friend the Member for Louth (Mr. Jeffery Archer) have said that the disbarment of financial diseconomy, the disbarment of knowing that one will be worse off after a year or two in public service at local or metropolitan county level, is in some ways as serious as the subject that we are more properly discussing—that is, the actual disqualifications under the 1933 and 1972 Acts.
I entirely agree with what was said about the effects of that disbarment. It goes much further, of course, than simply saying that a man may be disinclined to serve after he has discovered precisely what financial hardships will be involved. There are other things which keep people in the prime of life out of local government. Not all firms are willing to allow their employees to take the time off which is necessary. Even the largest firm in my constituency sometimes appears to show more misgivings than I feel it should about allowing some of its able employees to serve on the committees of the Derby County Borough Council.
But we are really talking about the disbarment of two and a half million people. Some of my hon. Friends have set the number at one in seven while others have said that it is one in five. I will not quarrel with their mathematics but will simply say that the position is worse than it appears, because those two and a half million come out of the population of working age.
I agreed with the hon. Member for Louth, except that he chose to make the point only in terms of the financial disbarment and not of the disqualifications under Section 80 of the 1933 Act, when he said that this system left a disproportionately large number of retired colonels and people of independent wealth sitting on councils. Of course I do not suggest that in Lincolnshire, Derbyshire or anywhere else is there a gerontocracy. It is not the case that the retired and the wealthy have a complete stranglehold on local government. But these people can serve without any sort of bar, while working people tend not to be able to.
All the disqualifications operate against working people and people of working age. If we are to have a real cross-section of the population involved in local government, and if they are to 1668 be people in the prime of life, we should look again at Section 80 of the Local Government Act. My one regret about the motion is that it is a motion and not a Private Member's Bill. Had my hon. Friend had good fortune in one of the other ballots for one of the few Fridays which, under the niggardly arrangements for private Members' time, are given for legislation, I am sure that he would have wished to bring forward a small amending Bill to slice away some of these wide disqualifications.
The motivation behind Section 80 of the 1933 Act is a profound distrust of the democratic principle. One of the odd things, since we are now a hundred years into effective local government as we know it, about the principles which govern local government is that they show that distrust for the democratic principle. They say that it is all very well for a teacher to be co-opted on to a committee and a county council but that it would be dreadful if he were elected to serve on it. The hon. Members for Harborough and Louth have both suggested that co-option is all right but that election is wrong. The elective principle in industry as well as in local government is one which we should be pushing much further. I hope that the Minister in replying to the debate will suggest that there is some degree of rethinking by the Government to extend the area of those able to serve in local government.
The position of teachers highlights the problem. In my area it was previously possible for a teacher to serve on a local authority only if he or she were prepared to give up his or her work not only in the county borough but in the surrounding area of the county council, which might cover an area of 60 miles by 40 miles. Within that area a teacher could not work for or serve on the county borough. This was because there was a cross-membership of perhaps one or two —no more than that—on the co-ordinating committee of the county council and the county borough which dealt with educational matter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde will correct me if I am wrong but I think that his wife would have been debarred under those terms had she not chosen to travel 40 miles a day to work outside the Derbyshire area so that she could continue to work in 1669 local government. This is an absurdity. As a result of the new top-tier authorities, we are facing a situation in which in some ways there will be an enormous accretion of power to local government.
In my experience, observing local government at county borough and county council level—I represent a county borough but live in the county council area so I have seen something of both and have been a candidate in both types of election—it always takes time for the incoming party to settle in. This is quite irrespective of party. Derby is one of those fortunate areas where control changes quite often. We are not a one-party state and are probably healthier for that. It takes a good deal of time for the chairmen of committees and for councillors to get a grip on the activities of the council. This is not because they are being deliberately frustrated by permanent officials but because of the complexity of the work. Just as a Minister is not very effective in his first year of office because the civil servants have been there long before him and will be there long after he goes, but if he perseveres and remains in post he becomes very effective in his second and third years, so it is in local government.
Because of the increasing complexity of local government with the coming of the new top-tier authorities we ought to open the way to elective office to the widest possible range of people. If I have one quarrel with the hon. Member for Harborough it is that he was concerned only to stress the problems, the areas of difficulty. I can quite see the point which he and his hon. Friend the Member for Louth make about the town clerk and those working directly under him. I am sure that we would all accept that point. But we are talking about a much wider range of people.
We are saying that, as a simple point of common justice, it seems quite wrong that the property developer, the estate agent, the builder, the man who may be deeply involved with big contracts for the authority can serve as a member of it while the employee of the authority cannot. I have no quarrel with the business men serving. I believe that the "honour" system works pretty well. Most people declare an interest and withdraw from a debate if they might be financially involved.
1670 Yet the fact remains that the dustman cannot serve, local authority officials cannot serve. All authority employees down to the lowest level, to the "lollypop lady", cannot serve. Teachers and lecturers cannot serve. This is fundamentally undemocratic, unfair, anti-egalitarian. We should not be excluding two-and-a-half million people from proper participation in public life at at time when they have been needed as never before.
§ 1.24 p.m.
§ Mr. Gordon Oakes (Widnes)
I add my congratulations to those already given to my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry), not only on his excellent speech but also because this was a wise and apposite choice of motion. My hon. Friend and I share many things in common. Soon I shall be joining him as a result of the operation of the Local Government Act 1972 in that small but happy band of Cheshire Labour Members of Parliament.
§ Mr. Pendry
I am sorry to have to disillusion my hon. Friend, but as he is coming into Cheshire I am going into Manchester.
§ Mr. Oakes
I shall be replacing my hon. Friend in that small but happy band of Cheshire Labour Members of Parliament. We are at present in the throes of local government elections and my wife is a candidate for the Cheshire County Council, joining the other political wives about whom we have heard today. For some months now all political parties have been selecting candidates. It is true that there has been an over-abundance in some areas with the result that there have been agonising and painful decisions to take about who should be the standard-bearer for a political party.
I agree with the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Jeffrey Archer) that in many other areas the reverse has been the case. It has been difficult to find candidates of sufficient calibre to represent their party in these elections, particularly at county council level. The hon. Member's area of Lincolnshire may well be rather like mine. One of the greatest difficulties is the distance between the administrative centre of the new authority and the home or electoral area of the councillor.
1671 Another considerable difficulty is the fact that most county councils hold meetings during the day. As a result of those two factors it can be difficult to find candidates. My hon. Friend the Member for Wandsworth, Central (Mr. Thomas Cox) was the first to raise the point about payment for councillors. My hon. Friend the Member for Southwark (Mr. Lamborn) raised it clearly and an eloquent plea was made by the hon. Member for Louth, who appealed to the Minister to look into the question of the payment of councillors or the adequate reimbursement of expenses.
We have waited a long time for the Government to announce their decision under the Local Government Act 1972 about the level of remuneration to be paid to councillors. We have all pressed the Minister about this and I remind him that next Wednesday is nomination day for the county council elections. This matter has still not been settled. There has been no announcement from the Government.
Given the existing background, it is a matter of astonishment that over 2,500,000 people are debarred because they are employees of a local authority. This is basically a re-enactment of an old and probably archaic doctrine that an employee must ipso facto be suspect in occupying an elected position of trust because he might be motivated by self-interest rather than public interest. Many examples have been given of the way in which this archaic principle operates unfairly. I shall not add to them but instead would like to look at the philosophy behind this principle, which is the philosophy behind Section 80 of the 1972 Act.
The present local government set-up came into being about 100 years ago. At that time the only parallel that the Government of the day had between the local government employee and his relationship to the elected member was the relationship between the civil servant and Members of Parliament. That principle has carried on since the nineteenth century. We have to consider whether it is still valid. Should we be so contemptuous of public employees as to assert that if they were members of local authorities they would be so motivated by self- 1672 interest that it would be safer not to allow them to serve?
Are we not being contemptuous of the electors—because, after all, they ultimately choose their councillors—if we suggest that they should not even be given the right to decide whether a public employee is a fit and proper person to represent them as a councillor? If there was any suggestion that an employee might abuse his power as a councillor, the provisions covering direct and indirect pecuniary interest, which are carefully safeguarded in the legislation, would apply and would protect the community. If the Government were to accept the principle behind the proposal, I have no doubt that the provisions relating to direct and indirect pecuniary interest could be extended to cover influence. There is no reason why 2½ million people should be disqualified from serving on councils. Let the Government consider devising a formula whereby these people can serve on councils while still protecting the community.
Since the debate in Standing Committee D, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde, the Bains Report has been published dealing with the structure of management in local authorities. It lays great emphasis on the view that a local authority should be regarded as a corporate entity and should not be a conglomeration of different departments brought under one corporate head. District and county councils should be thought of as corporate entities.
The other main thread in the Bains Report is the correct argument that the distinction between policy and adminisstration which has been drawn for so long in local government is false and entirely artificial. The report suggests that the edges of this distinction should be blurred much more than they are. Members of local authorities quite rightly interfere in administration. If a councillor asks a housing manager why Mrs. X has not been given a transfer from one house to another, he is, rightly, dealing with administration rather than policy. If a local authority engineer gives advice about a road scheme or the priority between schemes in his department, he is, in effect, interfering with policy, and he has every right to do so.
On the basic philosophy of whether public employees ought to be allowed to 1673 serve as members of councils and decide policy matters as well as administrative matters, the Bains Report, although it does not say so specifically because this was not within the terms of reference, favours the idea that local authority employees should be able to serve on the councils by which they are employed.
As many hon. Members have said, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy), the 1972 Act makes the position far worse. Under Sections 80 and 81 of the Act, virtually all employees are debarred from sitting on councils, no matter how tenuous the link between the employing authority and the council concerned. Far from improving the situation and reducing the total of 2½ million people debarred from membership of local authorities, the Act has increased the number and made the position much worse.
Is it not utterly ludicrous that, by a special provision put in that Act last year, a bus driver, active in politics and keen to serve his community, should be debarred from serving as a county councillor merely because the county is remotely concerned with the governing of the public transport executive of the area? What possible harm could he do if he were to serve the community? What harm would the community suffer as a result? Are we not being contemptuous of the public by saying that they should not be given the right to choose that bus driver as their councillor, well knowing his occupation and trusting him to the full? He could not, because of his position, abuse the power given him as a councillor.
I ask the Minister for Local Government and Development, with whom I share many long and happy hours every Tuesday and Thursday morning in the Committee considering the Water Bill, what will be the position of water board employees and existing river authority employees under Section 80(2)(b) of the 1972 Act. That provides that an employee on a joint board or joint committee shall be debarred from serving on the local authority. I envisage a vast army of potential councillors being wiped away by the operation of the Water Bill, because it allows both county councils and district councils to be repre- 1674 sented on the boards concerned. Therefore no employee, however junior or remote from the decision-making of the council concerned or of the regional water board, which will be a vast body, could serve on any local authority because local authority representatives will be serving on the joint board concerned.
§ Mr. Farr
Is it not a fact that if the Water Bill becomes law the position of a number of local authority employees will change because the responsibility for sewage disposal will go to the new regional water authorities? Does not that mean that certain categories of employee will be ineligible from standing for a council?
§ Mr. Oakes
I do not think so. If they were on drainage work they would cease to be employed by the local authority; they would be employed by the regional water authority. The authority to which they seek election may have a seat as a county council or as a district council. They will be debarred from serving even if, at the moment, they served one authority but work for another water board or drainage board. As a result of regionalisation they will be debarred even from the authority on which they are at present serving.
It is not as if the Government or the Minister for Local Government and Development were unaware of the situation. As long ago as 1958 Lord Boyle, then a Member of this House, said, as reported in col. 1297 of the OFFICIAL REPORT for 7th May 1958, that there was an urgent need for a review of the disqualification of teachers and that that review should take place. In 1964 the McNair Report indicated that teachers should be allowed much fuller participation in public and local affairs than the then Local Government Act allowed them.
In 1970 the Maud Report recommended liberalisation of the law of disqualification. That report was echoed in my own Government's White Paper on local government reorganisation. In 1971 the Conservative Government produced their White Paper. I admit that the contents of their White Paper, particularly paragraph 49, were far more cautious on representation by employees of local authorities than, perhaps, our White 1675 Paper had been, but even the Conservative Government's White Paper, in paragraph 50, said:The Government would be prepared, however, to consider proposals on detailed points relating to the present law as to disqualification.We have not even had the concession of consideration of proposals on detailed points of the law of disqualification, and the new Act is now the law and the new authorities will soon be upon us.
In 1972 the right hon. Gentleman himself in Standing Committee, although, I admit, he adhered strongly to the principle against employees serving on local authorities, said that he would like to see whether there could be changes to relieve some of the 2½ million people at present disqualified from service on local authorities. He made one of his famous jokes which we enjoy so much in Committee when he said that the figure was likely to be "reduced", his officials had told him, to about 3½ million as a result of the application of the 1972 Act.
Finally we have the Bains Report, which again seeks to do away with the artificial distinction between policy and administration and which can be used by both sides as a reason for inactivity; the demarcation lines can be used either by a member or an official as an excuse for not doing anything.
The Government could be said to have done less than nothing. They have extended the principle of disqualification in their current legislation on water, and possibly through their legislation on the National Health Service they may make an extension by the very severe nature of Section 80(1)(b) which denies the right of a person to serve on an authority even if that authority is but tenuously linked with the board which he is serving as an employee.
Every Member of the House, no matter on which side he sits, can think of people in his constituency, whether Conservative, or Labour or, possibly, Liberal, who work for local authorities, as teachers or as clerks, and who are very keen political supporters, are very conscious of local affairs and are, as teachers are particularly, an intelligent and articulate group in the community and want to serve the public. We find that the public are denied having such able people represent- 1676 ing them. The public are denied even the choice of those people as councillors because of their occupations.
I can think immediately of three people in my own area who are thus debarred, two of them belonging to my own political party. I can also think of several teachers who belong to the Conservative Party. There is one gentleman of my own party who was a school welfare officer. He is now a highly successful manager of entertainments for the local authority. He is also the very distinguished chairman of the local bench of magistrates. That was his escape route, as it were, which he took to serve the community, as he so dearly wanted to do. However, the local authority is deprived of a first-rate councillor, a man who no doubt would have been the leader of the council had he been allowed to sit on the council. I can think of another person, a friend of mine, a bus driver who became an inspector, who also became a magistrate, an able, articulate man, a good trade unionist and a good party man, whom we would all have liked as a councillor, who would have made a first-rate councillor.
There is another example of a man in Lancashire serving as a county councillor, who is seeking re-election, not to the county council but to the Knowsley district of Merseyside. He works for a water undertaking. He will not know where he is under the new Bill. If he is elected, as he is likely to be, to that authority, he may have to give up that seat, if Knowsley is one of the authorities in the Merseyside area which finds itself with a seat on the North-West Regional Water Authority. So there is uncertainty even for people who are seeking election at the present time. I am sure that every Member of the House could think of dozens of examples like that.
We on this side think it is wrong that over 2½ million people in a democratic country should be debarred from being chosen as councillors by their fellow citizens. We think it wrong that in the crucial sector of local government the community should be denied their undoubted talents, abilities and devotion and the opportunity to serve their areas. I know that the Minister is sympathetic and is worried that so many people are disqualified at present. I would say to him that the Government cannot for 1677 ever ignore the iniquity of the present law on disqualification.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde has done a great service by bringing forward his motion today, a service not only to local government employees but to the nation as a whole, and by airing the glaring fact, which is often forgotten that so many people are denied the opportunity of functioning in our democracy.
§ 1.46 p.m.
§ Mr. Ernle Money (Ipswich)
It seems to me that the case which has been put forward both by the hon. Member for Staly bridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) and the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes) is one in which in common sense and in equity has strong grounds which it would be very hard indeed to resist on any basis.
Because I know that there are other important matters to come before the House I shall speak briefly, but I would ask my right hon. Friend whether the time is not coming when we should look not at the old worry—that vested interests might affect local government—against which many of the constitutional protections of local government have been built, but at a completely different type of topic, which is whether local government, as it stands, is sufficiently democratic, is sufficiently local, and is sufficiently effective. I have always opposed the retention of this piece of extra caution, because I regard it simply as extra caution, even to the extent of not being able to support my right hon. Friends in the Lobby when the Local Government Bill was going through the House. Now, when there is a spotlight on local government, when there is appreciation of just how much can be done, I hope that we shall end that restriction, which has meant, as hon. Members have said over and over again, the cutting off of, potentially, some of the best councillors from election. It is a very undemocratic restriction for the individual. I will give two reasons. The first is the endless instances which we have heard quoted in the House today of how extremely frustrating that restriction is for the individual. The second is, from the point of view of the local government unit itself. There are services and advice which could be brought into local government by many people who fall 1678 into the categories of this restriction, and which are of such importance that we do a considerable harm to ourselves and to the efficiency of local government if we do not bring them in.
I was very impressed by some of the remarks made in the debate, particularly by the hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central (Mr. Thomas Cox).
I pass now to two particular questions, one of general application and one specifically concerning my constituency. I have always felt that one of the greatest pieces of nonsense on this matter, when happily we are coming into much more of a consensus period regarding education, on the basis that it should be left to local people to decide their own wants and needs, is to cut off from those who have given their lives to education the ability to be of some assistance to a local authority, although we have been fully prepared in the past to co-opt them for giving special service to committees.
As I put to my hon. Friend the Member for Louth (Mr. Jeffrey Archer), that was a situation of having delegation rather than election, which is always undesirable. There are specific cases where the knowledge built up by those who serve a local authority in a professional capacity could be of the utmost advantage to that authority in a democratic capacity.
I give one specific instance. For a considerable time people have been pressing my local authority—without success—for the appointment of a housing welfare officer in the borough of Ipswich. Right hon. and hon. Members will know only too well how much of the time of a Member of Parliament is taken up with housing problems. They will know how heartbreaking so many of these problems are and how they have to be referred back to the local authority. They will know how often the answers from the local authority housing committee or its officers, given with the best will in the world, are simply stock answers of the kind that one almost expects before reading them. Had the borough of Ipswich the benefit of a housing welfare officer, this would make an enormous difference to my constituents. I have been pressing the local authority to make such an appointment.
If some of those who serve on the local authority, for example in its social 1679 service department or in other ways, were able to stand for election to the council and to put democratically to the council their very strong feelings on various subjects, this would be far more effective than such people feeling inhibited in some way because they are not democratically elected representatives but merely servants of the authority. They could express their disquiet over what they conceive as a major difficulty in the system.
It seems absolute nonsense, and a total restriction on how efficiently local government can work, that even if someone feels very strongly as a result of the considerable knowledge that he has built up, he cannot stand for election to a local authority, put that knowledge to the benefit of the authority and put forward his solutions to the problems about which he feels strongly merely because in the 19th century we worked ourselves into a certain frame of mind. I believe that this House was then suspicious of the emerging powers of the county and county borough councils.
I have listened carefully to some of the remarks made today, particularly by my hon. Friends, whether these sanctions are necessary. My hon. Friend the Member for Louth, who is normally the most persuasive of people, had not even managed to persuade himself. The terms in which he spoke sounded full of self-doubt. It may be that it was the unusual position of finding himself pursued by three Opposition Whips rather than his own Whips which put him in his particular frame of mind. Nevertheless, the sort of doubts which he expressed, and those expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr), seem so much the type of concern that can be dealt with essentially by the good sense and reasonableness of the British people.
It has been pointed out continually in the House that no one has to vote for a local government employee, any more than he has to vote for anyone else. The facts have to go down on paper, and the candidate will not exactly pass himself off as being something else.
§ Mr. Jeffrey Archer
It would be farcical to pretend that people think deeply about local elections. With local 1680 authorities today, the problem is that we cannot get enough interest. A 20 per cent. poll in Wandsworth, Central would be a good poll. That is not the problem. The problem arises before the name is put up, not when it is put up.
§ Mr. Money
I must be a little careful because, to my horror, I find that my wife is standing for election to my county council. I should be at risk if I said too much. But I do not quite follow my hon. Friend's argument. As I understood it, what he was suggesting was that there would be some form of restriction on the normal relationship between the chief executive officer and the members of a council. The converse to that is that before people elect any employee of an authority, it must be clear to the authority that this will be the situation. That is a risk it must take. It will be equally clear to the electorate that they have the right to say, "We shall not vote for him because it would create a difficulty as far as he or the council are concerned." They take that into account in the same way as they take into account whether there will be advantages or disadvantages in electing people to this place. I am sure that it was on the basis of my hon. Friend's distinction that the electors of Louth sent him here, and not in the hope that he would be able to get them special seats for some of the theatrical performances in which he is involved.
There are two basic restrictions here. One is the declaration of interest, which we have always had in the House and which has always, by and large, worked well. One gets the odd scoundrel who tries to avoid it, but by and large it is effective. The second restriction is the good sense of a person elected to a county council in deciding whether he serves on a particular committee. Here the sanctions of the local Press are quite strong enough.
Against the possible risk, there is a far greater risk, as has been hinted at throughout the debate. That is that by failing to get the best possible service in the sense of the election of the best possible members to a local authority, we shall be damaging the whole fabric of a local authority and what it can do for its people. Unless we get the best, the great adventure upon which my right hon. Friend the Minister has embarked 1681 regarding the new county councils—something which is of major significance and importance for our people—will start off at a disadvantage, which will become more substantial, at a time when certain categories of people who are badly needed on local authorities are not forthcoming because of their professional and business commitments.
§ 2.0 p.m.
§ The Minister for Local Government and Development(Mr. Graham Page)
I join with others in congratulating the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) on introducing this subject, and on giving the House an opportunity to discuss a matter which—although, as the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes) reminded us, has been discussed over many years—is still a very live issue. It is a matter of current interest because we are entering a challenging period in local government and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money) said, it is something of a great adventure in a new era of local government. Therefore, we should look at the matter fundamentally—although I do not think quite as fundamentally as my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich wishes. I shall return to that point a little later.
I am grateful for the thoughtful and constructive contributions which have been made so far, and I look forward to studying those speeches carefully in print and to taking some action. That is another matter which I shall come to in a moment.
The principle that a local government employee shall not be entitled to sit as a member of his employing authority is not, as the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) said, a distrust of the democratic principle of local government, nor is it contemptuous of local authorities, as the hon. Member for Widnes said. We must recognise that it is a principle of long standing and has been treated as fundamental to the integrity of public authorities. I would not go all the way with my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich who said that we should look at the matter fundamentally and tackle it root and branch to see whether we need any sort of principle of this kind. Its basic purpose is to draw a clear line of separation between the elected member who is responsible for the main decisions taken 1682 on behalf of those who have elected him and the officer whose task it is to advise the elected members and to execute the policies decided by them.
The main need for this distinction, as the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde pointed out, is to prevent a clash—or even the appearance of a clash—between the public responsibility of those elected members who take the decisions and the private interests of those who execute them.
I take issue with the hon. Member for Widnes in his reference to the Bains Report. It is true that Bains put forward a structure for local government based on the corporate entity, but he does not go so far as to say that there shall no longer be a distinction between policy and administration. In the main that is not an anomaly or an anachronism. I think that we must retain that sort of distinction, even though we bring the two closer together in their deliberations and in the administration of local government.
The rule holds in parliamentary life as well as in local government in the exclusion of civil servants and other holders of offices of profit from this House. If we abolish that fundamental principle in local government, we must think about it in other forms of public service, such as that in this House.
§ Mr. Arthur Bottomley (Middlesbrough, East)
We have already changed the principle by entering the Common Market. In Sweden, for example, local authority employees, except the chief executive officer, can be elected to a local authority. What will be the position now that we are members of the Common Market? Do the Common Market countries permit all to stand for election?
§ Mr. Page
The right hon. Gentleman is encouraging me to stray far beyond the wording of the motion, which is already wide, but he highlights the fact that in looking at the principle there are other considerations, and we should not hurriedly change the principle in local government without thinking of repercussions in other spheres.
It is true that over the years there has been a change in attitude, and indeed a change in the law, in the application of the principle of debarring a person from 1683 serving in a local authority if he has some interest in the subjects dealt with in local government. We know that at the beginning of the nineteenth century the attitude was that a man was debarred from serving on a local authority if he had any contractual relationship with the local authority. That attitude lasted throughout the nineteenth century until the 1930's, when there was a change of attitude in accepting that in contracts with local authorities declaration of interest and refraining from speaking in a debate on the subject was sufficient.
We have heard many times in this debate, particularly from the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy), that that sort of declaration by an elected member should be sufficient to protect the public in the case of an employee of a local authority who stands for election. This may be so, and I considered this matter in the proceedings on the Local Government Bill which became an Act in 1972.
I should like to dispose of two points which do not come within the motion but to some extent relate to whether local government employees would be able to serve. I refer to the questions of the attendance allowance and the time of day when councils meet. I or my right hon. and learned Friend hope to make an announcement about attendance allowance as soon as possible. On the question of the time of day when councils meet, we decided not to insert any statutory provision in the 1972 Act but to leave this to the good sense of councils. This affects the possibility under existing law of a person serving in a neighbouring council. There is the question of the journey to the council as well as the question of the time of day at which the meeting is held. Although the 1972 Act extended the area of local government service, it perhaps has made it more difficult to cover that area.
The principle behind this proposal—if not all the anomalies—has been vehemently supported by the local authority associations. When I consulted them they stressed the need to sustain integrity in public life, as they put it, and not to weaken it. One thing we must recognise at once is that it is not the fact of employment in local government that disqualifies 1684 the prospective candidate. It is the relationship of employer with employee; it is the employment by the authority in which he wishes to serve. From some comments made in this debate one might be led to think that it was merely the fact that the person was employed in local government which prevented his serving as an elected member. But local government employees are not normally disqualified from membership of local authorities other than that in which they are employed. For example, a county council employee would be qualified to stand as a member of a district council and vice versa. Similarly, at present a county borough employee who lives outside the county borough may be a member of the authority for the area in which he resides.
The hon. Member for Widnes said that the 1972 Act had increased the disqualifications. I do not think that is so when the matter is balanced out. I know that in some respects it may have increased disqualification, but in others it has opened the opportunity for wider service in local government by those employed by local government.
Reorganisation on the basis of the two spheres of authorities everywhere is equivalent in practice to an extension of the number of local employees who are able to serve as members of local authorities because the county borough employees who live within their towns at present are disqualified from standing for any local authority. In future, everyone will live in an area where there are two spheres of authorities and therefore will be able to serve one of them.
The measure of this extension is shown by the fact that about a third of the population in England outside Greater London at present live in the county boroughs and are thus completely disqualified if they are employed by the local authority in whose area they live. The proportion of local government employees who are thus enfranchised by the Government's proposals in the 1972 Act must be something of that order.
As the hon. Member for Rother Valley said, the opportunity is limited by the fact that there are fewer seats within the county councils to spread amongst those who want to take part as elected members, and on the other side it is also reduced by the consolidation of existing 1685 local authorities into the districts under the 1972 Act, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) pointed out.
That is the background against which the various proposals were made in the course of our previous debates on this matter, and they could be judged against the situation first that we are dealing with a principle of basic importance in the integrity of public life, and that is how it is accepted at the present time, and, secondly, that reorganisation has in practice greatly extended the opportunities for local authority membership, in balance taking one reform against the other.
As regards the comments which I made during our debates on the Local Government Bill and which the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde did me the honour of quoting, when I consulted the local authority associations after those comments in Committee I found that the main associations and the Greater London Council were all dead against any relaxation. In their view it is impossible to draw a valid line of distinction between employees who are remote from the council and those who are not—the sort of distinction that I was hoping we might find. They also drew attention to the other arguments against relaxation. They said that considerations of discipline and staff loyalty should be taken into account, together with their effect on the internal administrative relationships; for example, should a junior employee, no matter where he is employed, be a member of the council.
One does not require much imagination to see that there may be difficulties here. One can visualise the sort of situation which could arise if, say, the deputy surveyor to an authority should also be chairman of the highways committee. His unfortunate superior, the surveyor, would have some difficulty in running his department in those circumstances. That is an extreme case, but even if the deputy surveyor were debarred from being chairman of the highways committee one could hardly prevent him from taking a leading part in some of the other committees like the finance committee or the policy committee.
It was pointed out to me, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason) has done today, that 1686 there is a problem of the use by the individual as a member of confidential information reaching him as an officer and vice versa. There is also the problem that membership of the council is increasingly achieved through party membership. Party politics, rightly in my mind, enter into much of council business and certainly into the election of councillors. There are possibilities in that of clashes between party loyalties and official allegiance.
The disqualification rules take on an added importance in the highly political atmosphere of local government these days. One can readily imagine the position of the leader of the minority group on the council who also happens to hold a junior post on the council staff.
Perhaps I ought to deal with one of the very interesting matters raised by the hon. Member for Rother Valley, who referred to the case of Bishop v. Deakin. The hon. Gentleman was good enough to pass the magazine to me. I have had an opportunity to see where the reporter has gone wrong in that article. He has not observed the difference in the section as it appeared in the 1933 Act, under which that case was decided in 1936, by the simple device of dividing the 1933 Act section into two separate paragraphs, (a) and (b), and saying that in the case of (a)—that is where a person has acted when disqualified—the prosecution could be brought within six months of acting. We then put in a separate paragraph to the effect that if he claims to be entitled to act that six months does not apply. So that in continuing to act or to claim to act on the council he would be caught now under the 1972 Act.
§ Mr. Page
Keeping the Bishop v. Deakin law gave other opportunities for catching the councillor who was disqualified.
I ought to put on record the position of teachers. There have been a number of matters raised about the disqualification of teachers. At present they enjoy a rather privileged position under the law of disqualification. They are exempt from 1687 the provisions of the 1933 Act disqualification sections by various pieces of amending legislation, and we tried to embody those in a better, consolidated form in the 1972 Act.
Teachers may become members of county districts, representatives on county education sub-committees and on divisional executives. They can be co-opted on to education committees, libraries committees, national health committees and children's care committees. The law does not distinguish between teaching and non-teaching staff. Perhaps when I used the word "teachers", I should have said "educational employees" or some phrase of that sort. In theory, and in practice in the case which the hon. Member for Rother Valley mentioned, people like groundsmen, canteen staff and school caretakers could be co-opted on to all the committees that I have mentioned.
The 1972 Act preserved the existing exemptions for teachers, and Section 81(4) made it clear that a teacher employed in a school maintained or assisted by a county council could become a member of a district council although that district council nominated members to the county education committee. The same is true of county council membership in metropolitan districts, despite employment in a school maintained or assisted by the metropolitan district council.
Again there is an exception made for London teachers. We preserved that in the 1972 Act so that teachers could stand for the Greater London Council and for the London boroughs, with the exceptions which have been mentioned concerning the Inner London Education Authority.
§ Mr. Money
One category which my right hon. Friend has not dealt with so far and which is bound to come into question in the next few months with the major reforms that my noble Friend the Paymaster General is considering for local museums is the museum service. Will their special position be taken into account when the question comes up of what type of new provincial museum there is to be—whether it is a hybrid one composed of first tier and second tier in many cases—so that their special services will not be lost to both authorities?
§ Mr. Page
If any further legislation is required on that matter it will be given 1688 consideration in the course of that legislation. I cannot hold out any prospect that, without legislation, we could make any alteration in the general rules which I am applying and trying to explain. There will be cases under the 1972 Act outside the teaching profession, and so on, where, unless we provide by legislation the new arrangements regarding museums and libraries, as well as water and area health authorities, we shall find more local authority employees caught by the disqualification rules. I will bear in mind the point mentioned by my hon. Friend about museums and libraries.
I should like to complete the point about teachers as questions have been asked regarding teachers in polytechnics. Directors, deputy directors and chief administrative officers of polytechnics are appointed by local education authorities and are therefore disqualified under the 1933 Act. All remaining staff are appointed by the director and thus are exempt under that Act. That discrepancy occurred accidentally as a result of model Articles of Government for Polytechnics prepared by the Department of Education and Science.
The relevant section of the 1972 Act uses a slightly different formula. It disqualifies any person for being elected as a member of an authority if heholds any paid office or employment appointments to which are … made … by the local authority or any committee or subcommittee of the authority… or by any person holding such office or employment.That different formula has the effect of removing most of the anomalies now applying to teachers in polytechnics and colleges of further education, but some anomalies still exist. I do not hide the fact that there are anomalies which may require future legislation.
§ Mr. Page
It has removed the anomaly regarding directors, deputy directors and chief administrative officers of polytechnics, who were disqualified before, but not their staff.
Mention was made of employees of passenger transport executives. Outside 1689 London the effect of the Local Government Act 1972 is that any person who is for the time being a member, officer or servant of, or an officer or servant of a subsidiary of the passenger transport executive for an area which is coterminous with the area of a county is disqualified for being elected or being a member of the council of that county. There is no objection to the executive's employees being members of the metropolitan district councils.
Under the London Transport Act 1969, employees of the London Transport Executive can become members of the Greater London Council even though the council appoints the members of the LTE. The intention of the 1972 Act is to preserve that special position.
The hon. Member for Widnes pointed out that a slight difficulty has arisen because of the wide wording of Section 80(1)(a) of the 1972 Act. This difficulty can be overcome by careful attention to the manner of the appointment. I am sure the House does not want me to go into those details, but I repeat the difficulty can be overcome.
The hon. Member for Widnes asked what would happen about those people who are employed by the regional water authorities and possibly by the area health authorities. I must leave this matter to discussion on that legislation. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will raise it in the proceedings on the Water Bill. Certainly the position needs to be considered.
Put shortly, the rule is that an employee of a local authority must not at the same time be a member of that authority or of one of its committees. Expressed in that short form it is logical but when we look at the details there are innumerable anomalies.
Having made a number of points in favour of this general principle and having, I hope, confused the House as much as I have confused myself over trying to explain the anomalies and thereby shown that there are serious anomalies in the whole principle, I should not wish to be taken as suggesting that the situation is in any way perfect or that a comprehensive study would not serve a useful purpose. There are arguments for and against.
The hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central (Mr. Thomas Cox) and other hon. Members have suggested that the effect of 1690 the rules is to deprive local government of the assistance at member level of a large number of experienced and capable people. That is a valid point. Even if we went a long way in altering or modifying the rules, I think that those senior officials who could normally be expected to have the greatest ability would probably have to remain disqualified.
There are a number of discrepancies and anomalies in the detailed application of the rules. Over the years teachers have, rightly or wrongly, been given a certain degree of exemption from the general disqualification. However, it could be argued that if teachers are given that exemption, it should also be extended to nurses, who were mentioned by the hon. Member for Southwark (Mr. Lamborn), and, indeed, anyone in the health service partly employed by the local authority.
The education exemption also applies to various employees who are not teachers, but that only creates more anomalies. Some people are disqualified for service on more than one authority because they are employed by a joint board which has representatives from several authorities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough wanted to introduce the further complication that a local government employee should be allowed to become a member of a council, but not of the local authority where he resides.
The whole subject is complicated. It is clear that if any change could receive general acceptance it would need legislation to give it effect. We could not rush legislation through the House in time for the elections in the spring. Nor could I have got agreement amongst all those so deeply concerned with this matter—local authority associations, staff association, and so on—in time for those elections even if I had hastened over the matter during the past year.
There will be no elections in 1974, so there is some time to study the matter before it takes effect at any elections. The Government favour setting up a full all-party study—I stress that point—because that is how we conduct matters relating to membership of local authorities. That would be a study in all three countries. At present the Local Government (Scotland) Bill is in Committee and that legislation, if enacted, will not come into operation 1691 until 1975, and we would prefer to have this study after the new system has had time to settle down. We shall be discussing this proposal both in substance and in detail with the local authority associations. We shall be doing so, in particular, because they will be taking a new form. Local authority associations may be amalgamated to form one new association and will take the form of a new structure of local government. The discussions will include staff bodies and all other interested organisations. They will cover the form, timing and terms of reference of a body to study the matter in detail.
I hope that that suggestion will commend itself to the House. I offer my sincere congratulations to the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde, who contributed so much to the debate.
§ Mr. Thomas Cox
In view of the comments that have been made by hon. Members on both sides of the House about the expenses and financial involvement of members of local authorities in carrying out their duties, can the Minister give any indication of the possible thinking in his Department on these matters?
§ Mr. Page
I cannot give an indication of possible thinking. There has been very deep thinking. I said earlier that my right hon. and learned Friend was intending to make an announcement on the attendance allowance as soon as possible I realise that those who are standing for the spring elections will have no warning of the remuneration they may receive, which will commence in April 1974. We will try to make the announcement as soon as possible.
§ 2.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Ernest G. Perry (Battersea, South)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) on introducing this subject. We are now faced with the problem of a complete change in the structure of local government. That applies not only to local government but to all the services which local government supplies. For example, there is a Bill before the House about water resources. That Bill shows that there is a necessity for some change in the structure of the many facets of local government.
1692 I thank the Minister for his statement. His approach to the problem shows how flexible he can be. He is prepared to talk and to go into every facet of the problem. He will come to a decision only after interested parties—that applies not only to the political parties but to all those concerned with local government—have had their say, so that the best conclusion can be drawn.
I declare an interest as I have been sponsored in local elections and for election to this House by the National Union of General and Municipal Workers since 1934. I sat on the old Metropolitan Borough Council of Battersea and the London Borough Council of Wandsworth from 1934 to 1971, except for the six years which I spent in the Services. One of the blessings about local government service is that if a person is removed for reasons such as those which resulted in my absence his membership of the authority continues all the time that he is away. That is how our elected councillors and aldermen are treated. That is the atmosphere which has developed in local government. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman's speech will be welcomed by the staff, the unions and the three political parties.
There are problems in local government which exist in inner London which do not exist in other areas. That applies particularly to staff. Of the administrative staff of the local authorities in inner London, not 25 per cent. live in the borough in which they work. They commute each day from the borough in which they live. They spend on average 35 to 40 hours in the borough in which they work and they live somewhere else. Problems arise when people work in one borough and live in a different borough.
That is why we should try to examine the problem and consider whether the people who live in a borough—for example, local government servants, teachers, social workers, meals on wheels deliverers, dustmen, road sweepers and all sorts of people—can offer a contribution to some form of local government. Such people have a contribution to make, particularly if they live in the area in which they work.
I do not question the dedication of the majority of our local government civil servants. However, when a person 1693 leaves the place where he works and does not take part in its social or civic life, that place tends to be forgotten. It is thought about only for six or seven hours a day, and there is not much interest in the area apart from that time. That is one reason why the Minister should consider whether people who live in an area should have the right to sit on the local authority.
The selection of those who will sit on a local authority and the determination of their function is of prime importance. In my 34 years of experience of local government I have met council insurance agents, estate agents, builders, suppliers of building material, plumbers and many other professional and trades people. In 95 per cent. of all cases they are honest, trustworthy and reliable people. If a chap is an estate agent or in the building business, it does not mean to say that he is not concerned with the community's wellbeing. I should not like it to go from this House that we suspect anybody who could be interested in a council contract. There is no reason why a member of a council who has given many years of council work for nothing should not be considered for a contract. The deciding factor should be the contract price and the quality of the work. There is no reason why any member of a local authority, providing the proper ethics are maintained, should not be able to take advantage of a council contract.
In my experience in Battersea and Wandsworth council members have frankly stated that they have a pecuniary interest and have walked out of the chamber. It is to their credit that 90 per cent. of the people who serve the community are people like that. It is a sad reflection that some members of local authorities fall by the wayside. That does not happen to only one political party. There was the sad experience which Wandsworth suffered three or four years ago when a member of the council was sent down for six years. That sentence was reduced on appeal to four years. Whenever a person is connected or confronted with that sort of thing, he will be hesitant to malign other councillors and people sitting on local authorities. We must be careful about bending the rules so as to let certain people become councillors. I agree with the 1694 right hon. Gentleman that we do not wish to make an open door.
Some hon. Members have questioned the purposes for which people seek election on local councils and authorities. Some people want to have "councillor" in front of their name. I well recall someone in Battersea who was elected a member of the council from a very small ward. Within a week he had a big brass plate on the door—"Councillor C. S. so and so". Within three months he had taken it down. Somebody had put a brick through the window. He found that he had too many telephone callers and callers at the door. He took his plate down to keep such people away. There are many people who seek to work for a local authority who, after realising how much time and work it entails, are not so enthusiastic. That is one of the reasons for a large turnover.
In my opinion, when people spend many years in local government service—I speak here of all political parties—they deserve some sort of recognition. I had not intended to be specific, but I should like to add to what the hon. Member for Louth said in referring to the leader of the majority party on the Greater London Council. I have known Sir Desmond Plummer since the late 1940s when he served with me on the London Executive Consultative Council. With him, dedication to duty is paramount, just as it is with Sir Reginald Goodwin.
I wish to mention one other gentleman, whose father served with me on the old Battersea Borough Council and who himself served on that council from 1945–46. I speak of the present chairman of the Greater London Council, in my opinion, the first citizen of London. He is a practising solicitor, and the amount of time he has devoted to public service must have affected his income considerably.
I put that case to the right hon. Gentleman as an example. There are many people in the professions—solicitors, barristers and so on—I include myself, too, as I shall explain in a moment—who are prepared to give of their time, many hours a week, without any expense allowance or loss of earnings allowance. They cannot claim it. I served on a local authority from 1934 until I came to the 1695 House in 1964. I was an insurance agent, paid on commission. I liked local government work—I make no complaint—but I spent an enormous number of hours on public work, and I could not have any loss-of-earnings allowance because such an allowance cannot be determined in the case of a commission agent. This is one of the anomalies of the system. It may happen—this is not generally so, but it is possible—that someone employed on a fairly low wage or salary can be better off doing work on his local authority than he would be if he were actually working. On the other hand, people in the professions and those in my position are worse off because, although we like what we do, there can be no allowance. As I say, the present chairman of the GLC is an example. I know it to be true in his case.
In many Government services, not local government services, we allow servants of those services to sit on management bodies. This is so in the hospital world, on hospital management committees and regional hospital boards. People closely connected with the service sit as members. I do not complain that doctors and consultants sit on these bodies. We make no differentiation there. I do not know what the conditions are, or whether they are able to claim loss of fees. However, it seems to me that a breach in the rule has been made. I note what the right hon. Gentleman said about the London Transport Executive and the Greater London Council. It seems to me that we have, shall I say, bent the rule a little, and I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to have that aspect of the matter borne in mind when the study is undertaken.
Contact with the local community is of paramount importance in local government. Many employees of local authorities who go about their own area—rent collectors and the like—know the problems and know what the community feels about them. Could not these people give useful service on the local council? They are often active in the local community, and I feel that they ought to be considered for membership. Such people as estate agents and builders can be members of their local authority and declare their interest. Why should not the rule be bent a little for those who are employed by a local authority?
1696 I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his flexibility today. He has been flexible already on the Water Bill, and I welcome that, too. I urge him to consider the matters which have been raised today, and once again I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde for initiating the debate.
§ 2.44 p.m.
§ Mr. Pendry
I do not disguise my disappointment at some of the Minister's observations, or, rather, at his silence on certain matters. I was lavish in my praise of him when I spoke earlier, and, although I do not go back on a word of it, I regret that he was not as bold and imaginative as I had hoped. I am sure that not even he could say that he displayed either of these characteristics in his speech.
None the less, the Minister's statement towards the end of his speech ought to impress us—it certainly impressed me—inasmuch as we now know that the Government favour an all-party study. That, at least, has come out of the debate. I thank all hon. Members who have spoken. It has been a constructive debate, with some good humour in it. On that note, having in mind the Minister's assurance that an all-party study will take place before the next round of elections, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.