§ Mr. Teddy Taylor
I beg to move Amendment No. 13, in page 14, line 19, at end insert—'This subsection shall not apply in cases where reports relate to fines imposed by the courts on authorities'.This is a rather narrow amendment dealing with a major point considered in Committee. It relates to Clause 19, the most controversial clause in the Bill. That clause gives the Secretary of State powers, if he so desires, retrospectively to wipe out any surcharges to which a housing authority or its councillors may be liable. In Committee we had a long discussion about the merits of this clause. We took the view that it was an affront to democracy, particularly in the circumstances, when Scottish local authorities had defied the law. They had done this knowingly and with the support of elements of the Labour Party.
We suggested that in the circumstances, particularly in places such as Glasgow and Clydebank, the actions of the Labour Party had led to the undermining of law and authority. This is an action which the Labour Party will live to regret. We tried to discover the financial effect of the measures taken by some local authorities. We were astonished to find that, because of the delay in the implementation of the Housing (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1972, which was the basis of the illegal action, the tenants in Glasgow and Clydebank were paying a higher monthly rate than they would have paid if the councils had obeyed the law.
That was a strange situation, bearing in mind that some local councils had opposed the Act on the basis that the level of rents charged under the Act would impose severe hardship. On the other hand in an answer given to me by the Minister on 7th February he appeared to disclose that, despite the fact that tenants in Clydebank and Glasgow were paying more in rent, the total amount of money they had paid since the introduction of the Act was less than would have been the case if the Act had been strictly complied with.
These figures appeared to show the amount which ratepayers in those areas 1458 had lost in consequence. In Glasgow it seems that the sum involved up to the end of the freeze on 15th May was about £1.1 million and in Clydebank £100,000. Can the Minister clarify, once and for all, what amounts have been lost by these ratepayers as a result of the illegal action?
The amendment relates only to fines. We say that while we cannot accept some of the monstrous arguments put forward by the hon. Members for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Lambie) and Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth (Mr. Ewing) on the question whether the Secretary of State should have these powers, even if we were to accept those arguments—and I doubt whether we could—we see no justification why the ratepayers in any community should be called upon to pay the fines imposed on local councils because of their evasion and defiance of the law. This is the situation which could arise unless this amendment is approved.
Under the 1972 Act Clydebank could have increased the rents in October 1972. It did not do so. There was a great demonstration and defiance of the law. In February 1973 it was fined £5,000. At the time there was a great campaign conducted by certain elements in the West of Scotland. I understand that a substantial sum was donated from the fighting fund of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. I am sure that would not have pleased many people who gave money to this fund thinking that they were saving the shipyard and the jobs there. Instead some of the money was used to support rebel councillors in Clydebank. There were donations from trade unions such as the NUM which at the time was explaining that its members did not have enough to live on. It seems that this £5,000 was largely covered by voluntary donations from these worthy bodies.
On 8th November a default order was imposed with respect to the second phase of the rent increase. Once again Clydebank defied the law. A fine of £20,000 was imposed on 14th December 1973. By this time the effects of the Act were becoming clearer. Three out of every 10 tenants were getting rent rebates, the average rebate amounting to £75 per annum. At this stage even the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Fighting Fund and the National Union of Mineworkers had rather lost sympathy with the silly councillors of Clydebank who were making 1459 asses of themselves. So no voluntary donations were forthcoming. The sum of £20,000 had to be paid one way or the other. In January 1974 the council decided to pay, and there were no voluntary donations.
It would be the final insult to the ratepayers of Clydebank and of Scotland as a whole if there were to be any question of the fine imposed on the authority because of law breaking by 11 out of 21 of its councillors being paid from the rates. I therefore hope that the Minister will accept that this is a reasonable amendment.
We are moving into rather troubled times in which there will be a substantial increase in unemployment. We could argue about the reasons for this. There will be some civil disturbances as a consequence. We are moving into a very testing time for Scotland as a whole. In these circumstances, when there will be many temptations to break the law on the part of ratepayers who feel aggrieved and on the part of unemployed people who feel aggrieved, the obligation on the Government is to ensure that we have respect for the law.
However, the Labour Party has done the very opposite. It has encouraged defiance of the law, and in opposition not only did it encourage defiance of the law but it promised to sort it out—
§ Mr. Taylor
I wish the Minister of State had served on the Standing Committee and had heard the speeches made there by some members of the party of which he is a member. He would be just as ashamed as I am of some of the scandalous remarks made by some of his colleagues. If the hon. Member had heard the outrageous speech made by the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire I am sure that he would have wanted to dissociate himself from it, as did hon. Members on this side.
We want the Government to uphold the law and to promote a respect for it. Instead of that, elements within the Labour Party and some of their extremist allies encouraged defiance of the law and promised to sort everything out when the election—in which they hoped to be successful—was over.
1460 There is this provision in Clause 19. In Committee the Government succeeded after a furious battle in which we were grateful for the moral support of the hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. MacCormick). I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not here tonight. He made an outstanding speech in Committee. His speech had the support of every one of us on this side. Not only was his speech outstanding, but he had become convinced by the arguments which we advanced on Second Reading. Unfortunately, on Second Reading the Scottish National Party supported the Government. Between Second Reading and the Committee stage a change of mind occurred. This was a triumph for democracy. In Committee the hon. Gentleman pointed out that the Scottish National Party regarded it as shameful for the Labour Party and the Government to carry on in this scandalous way.
I am glad that tonight we have not one but no fewer than five members of the Scottish National Party who will stand up with the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party for democracy and for upholding the law of the land and not stand for those who are undermining the law, who are making an ass of the law, and who are bringing the law into disrepute.
I want publicly to say how greatly I appreciate the fact that a party which I have criticised in the House in the past has the guts to change its mind on an issue like this. Its members have the guts to see that they have made an error of judgment and principle. They changed their minds between Second Reading and Report and they now say "We were wrong. We are now prepared to stand for support of the law and for authority." At a time when everything is going wrong with the country—
§ Mr. Taylor
Not with the Tory Party. If the hon. Gentleman insists on making such narrow political points we shall not make any progress.
At a time when so many things are going wrong with the nation, it is encouraging to me as a democrat that the Scottish National Party, which has emerged as one of the leading Scottish political parties, is prepared to change its 1461 mind, to admit that it is wrong, and to stand firmly for authority. I thank it for so doing. I appreciate the fact that the Scottish National Party Members have turned out in strength to support this change of policy.
This is a very serious matter which goes to the root of the parliamentary process and respect for the law. Would it not be utterly shameful if there were any question of the ratepayers of Clydebank having to pay a £20,000 fine because of the scandalous and outrageous defiance of the law by 11 out of 21 councillors?
There has been a change of heart by the Scottish National Party. I hope that there will be a similar change of heart by members of the Labour Party, most of whom have respect for law and democracy as being the basis of their political convictions. Let us see a similar transformation and let us insert the amendment in the Bill. Then the people of Scotland, and indeed Britain, will look to the future with more hope and more optimism.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)
I speak against the amendment. It is a bad amendment, and it was tabled with a bad intention. It is plain from the speech of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) that its purpose is to sabotage, at least in part, Clause 19 of this excellent Bill. Throughout the passage of the Bill, hon. Members opposite have picked on Clause 19 and made it a class battleground. They opposed it with extremist language on Second Reading. They opposed it in Committee. Now they propose this squalid little amendment to get a bit more publicity for their type of class warfare.
I thought at first that the hon. Member for Cathcart was merely trying to ingratiate himself with his new leader so that he could get a wee bit of promotion over the head of the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith). But this ploy appears to have been unsuccessful. He scurried around trying to obtain statistics from all over the place. He accused the Minister of State of possibly misleading the House. Despite his juggled statistics and arithmetic acrobatics, it is clear that if anyone was mis- 1462 leading the House it was the hon. Member for Cathcart.
On Second Reading the hon. Member for Cathcart stated:because of the defiance of the law by the rebel councillors in Clydebank and Glasgow, and no doubt in Denny and other places, the tenants in them have paid and are paying more rent than they would have paid if they had conformed to the Conservative Act".—[Official Report, 20th January 1975; Vol. 884, c. 1170.]It is clear from the reply to the hon. Gentleman's Question on 7th February that that is not the case. The amount of additional rent payable from 1st October 1972 to 27th January 1975 by tenants in Glasgow would have been £125.25 and in Clydebank £125.25 if the Housing (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Act had been implemented in 1972. In fact, the additional rent payable was £111.52 and £104.92 respectively. Perhaps the hon. Member for Cathcart would explain who was misleading the House with statistics.
It is obvious that the hon. Member is merely attempting to resurrect the skeleton of the 1972 Act. I wonder whether he and his hon. Friends will ever learn the hard lesson. That battle has been fought and won. It is past. Yet, despite the fact that the Opposition lost it and we won it, they do not appear to have accepted the hard facts of life. They show no feeling of repentance.
They are displaying their usual intransigence and conducting this warlike confrontation. The whole purpose of the amendment is to try to force certain councillors to end up in gaol. They are not content with having the Shrewsbury pickets in gaol. They would like people such as Clydebank councillors to be in gaol, too. That is the sort of confrontation policies they are after by the amendment.
Although Conservative Members have been foolish and intransigent over this matter, at least they have been reasonably consistent—which is more than can be said of hon. Members of the Scottish National Party. The whole behaviour of the Scottish National Party over the Bill has been distinctly schizophrenic. That is one point on which the hon. Member for Cathcart might agree. On Second Reading the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid) supported Clause 19 and appeared to 1463 support it in its entirety. He said that in general he accepted it, when referring to the powers to be given to the Secretary of State. Yet in Committee, the hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. MacCormick) used words such as "obnoxious", "dishonest", and "an outrage", when referring to the same clause.
It would appear that, as usual—just as on education, defence and many other issues—the Scottish National Party has a different policy in different constituencies. If the constituency represented by a particular Member of that party was traditionally a Labour constituency, the party has a policy to suit the former Labour voters. If the particular constituency that a Scottish National Party Member represents was formerly a Tory constituency, that Member adopts a different policy to suit his electorate. Scottish National Party Members remind me of that character from classical mythology called Janus, who is often depicted by classical artists as having two or possibly four faces, facing in as many different directions.
I am sure, however, that the Scottish people will soon see through this two-faced or multi-faced attitude and be able to discern the differences between a party with consistent policies and a party which seems to consist of a tartan rag-bag of pseudo-politicians with pseudo-policies which contradict each other.
The truth is that Clause 19 as it stands can bring to a successful and welcome conclusion one of the sorriest chapters of the whole history of local government in Scotland. Hon. Members should welcome the clause as it stands and resist the amendment. Those who are opposing the clause are merely reminding the electorate of the strong-arm, jackboot tactics which were used as a result of the Tories' Rent Act of 1972, when they attempted to force Scottish councillors, against their will and against the wishes of the Scottish people, to implement a bad Act.
I commend the clause as it stands and I ask hon. Members to resist this horrible amendment.
§ Mr. George Reid (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)
I am grateful for the amount of attention which the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) and the hon. Member for West Stirling- 1464 shire (Mr. Canavan) have devoted to my party. The only trouble is that tonight both of them could have spent more time looking at the essential issue, which is the Clydebank issue. On Second Reading I said that Clause 19 was a realistic assessment of the situation. That is still my view.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I had to ask an hon. Member last night whether she felt quite well. I hope that I do not have to do the same again tonight.
§ Mr. Taylor
Is the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid) now saying that the Scottish National Party supported this on Second Reading and opposed it in Committee, and that he is now supporting it again? How can we treat the SNP seriously? After this, no one could take the SNP seriously.
§ Mr. Reid
My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll (Mr. MacCormick) made a characteristic speech which does not represent the views of the Scottish National Party. If the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) accorded to others the degree of freedom he claims for himself, he would have contributed more to our debate.
The controversy over this clause has led to some hon. Members taking extreme positions. Some hon. Members are interested only in getting their pound of flesh out of the situation at Clydebank. This is not a black-and-white political issue. It is one of the grey areas which have to be examined carefully. The Clydebank situation is a mess. It has arisen because of the intransigence of the Clydebank councillors.
The situation was brought about by the Housing (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1972, which was deeply resented by the people of Scotland and which was pushed through by an English 1465 Tory majority which had little consideration for the traditional housing practices north of the border. If there had been a Scottish Assembly in 1972, no piece of legislation such as that would ever have been enacted in Scotland.
Against that background, it is not surprising that memories should run deep. I do not say that that is any justification for defying the law. Feelings were strong, and the attitude of the Conservative Government contributed to that situation.
I do not wish to go too deeply into the question of political realignments. I am a social democrat. I hope some day to sit on the same benches as members of the Labour Party in a sovereign Scots Parliament.
Some hon. Members have voted in favour of a surcharge of £20,000 being placed on councillors. That would weaken local government and make people think twice about entering local government.
The situation in Cumbernauld is more interesting, because that issue has been put to local opinion. The local council held a referendum and asked the people whether they wished the council to go further or to stop, and it obeyed the decision of the people of Cumbernauld. It is a pity that that procedure was not followed in Clydebank.
§ Mr. Teddy Taylor
Does the hon. Gentleman realise that of a total of 10,000 potential voters only 516 people voted?
§ Mr. Reid
I agree that the number was small. However, the council agreed to abide by the results of that referendum.
I do not accept the Conservative amendment. An attempt has been made to squeeze the last ounce of cheap political advantage out of the situation. I can see nothing in the clause which does not allow the final decision to be made by the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State must have regard to all the circumstances of the case, and it seems reasonable that he should look at the means of the persons involved in deciding whether the surcharge should be imposed in full or in part—in other words, to review the situation properly at the local, grass roots level.
1466 We have heard a lot of humbug from Conservative Members. Their 1973 Act used virtually the same words and for virtually the same reasons because, in terms of surcharging, the 1947 Act imposed a straitjacket on any Secretary of State and there had to be some loosening of the bonds and restraints.
There has to be some regard for the individual in a corporate charge of £20,000. Above all there has to be some consideration of the ability of the individual to pay. At the end of the day, I wonder whether the hon. Member for Cathcart would go so far as to say that people's possessions should be sold in order to satisfy what is pure dogma on his part.
§ 9.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Reid
I am sorry that the previous amendment was not selected. When the Secretary of State is having due regard to the situation, they should be regarded too. However we cannot punish people; we cannot squeeze money out of them that they do not have. The right of individual councillors is the same as that of any criminal brought before a Scottish court. The court has regard to the means of the individual to pay. It is rotten justice if a Scottish councillor does not have the same right.
The Minister has conducted Clause 19 through this House in a quiet and responsible way. With the exception of my hon. and maverick Friend the Member for Argyll, he has the support of my party.
§ Mr. Lambie
I want to take up the arguments of the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid) and of my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan), urging the Government to resist the amendment. I want also to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on getting a better deal for his defaulting councillors than the Secretary of State for the Environment got for his in England and Wales.
In view of recent events in the Tory Party, I am surprised to hear Conservative Members criticising people who disobey the law. Both on the Floor of the House and in Committee I have been 1467 challenged to say publicly whether I thought at some stage that people should be willing to stand up and be counted on this issue. In my view, on a matter of principle which does not affect me as an individual but which affects groups of people collectively, I am prepared to stand up to oppose the law if I believe it to be a vicious law aimed at the people whom I represent and which was imposed on those people by a minority party and a minority Government in their own country.
As I say, in view of the recent history of the Conservative Party, I am surprised that the Conservatives have not changed their policy and decided to support the arguments which my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire and I have been putting forward continually during this debate.
After all, the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) would not have been elected leader of her party if it had not been for the fact that in the early part of the century women were prepared to stand up, to be counted and to break the law. They were prepared to oppose the Government. They were prepared to oppose the male chauvinist pigs who superimposed the law of the country upon them. They were prepared to come to the Central Lobby to take part in riots. They were prepared to go to Downing Street to take part in riots. They were prepared to go to prison. In certain conditions they were prepared even to die for what they believed.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) must recognise that a woman is now leader of his party because others were prepared to break the law. It may be that he does not recognise that fact because he has not got a job. But I am surprised that the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) has allowed himself to be led up the garden path. He has received a job, as a result of a democratic process in which people are prepared to stand up and be counted and are willing to break the law.
I put it to the Conservative Opposition that they should do the same as the Scottish National Party. They should say that the hon. Member for Cathcart no longer represents the view of the Conservative Party in Scotland, despite the 1468 fact that he still wears two hats when he goes canvassing. He wears his bowler hat in the Tory areas and his Keir Hardie cloth cap when he goes into the Castle-milk estate. In spite of that, he still does not have a seat in the Shadow Cabinet.
This is a matter of principle. The position is that 51 Scottish Members out of 71 support the clause. We cannot say that 52 Members support it because the hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. MacCormick) defected from the policy of the Scottish National Party. I believe that I am to blame for that. I taunted him and called him a Tory. He could not stand it any longer, so he had to make a speech to show that he really was a Tory. I am glad that the rest of the Tories in the SNP are supporting the Government on this issue.
As I have said, 51 Scottish Members representing Scottish constituencies out of a total of 71 support the clause. This is the majority opinion of the people of Scotland. It was just unfortunate that in 1972 the United Kingdom was ruled by an English majority. Scotland was ruled by a minority of English Tory Members who enforced their will and policies on the Scottish people. In the circumstances it is right that we should place the name of the SNP councillors involved in Clydebank and Cumbernauld upon the roll of honour along with Labour colleagues and people from all parties who resisted the attacks of the Tory Party.
I hope that the Government will resist the amendment and that we shall continue go forward sweeping the decks in Scotland.
§ Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)
I had not intended to speak tonight because this is the third occasion on which this matter has been debated during the passage of the Bill. I, for one, had sympathy with the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) in his fit of apoplexy tonight. I was rendered speechless, and then in the next moment I was moved to speak, due to the remarks of the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid) on behalf of the Scottish National Party.
Like other Members who served on the Committee we listened with great interest to the speech of the hon. Member for 1469 Argyll (Mr. MacCormick). The hon. Gentleman represented the SNP in Committee. I draw the attention of the House to what the hon. Gentleman said in Committee on 4th February 1975—namely:The clause gives the Secretary of State for Scotland the almost unheard of discretion of casting aside what has been the law. He can change the law as it applies to certain people. We all know our Scottish history. I suggest that the sort of powers that the Secretary of State will be given are similar to the disgraceful powers once wielded by the Lords of the Articles in the old Scottish Parliament.Apparently the hon. Gentleman knows his Scottish history better than some other hon. Members. He continued:It is not just a question of the discretionary powers that are to be given to the Secretary of State. There are other broad matters of principle involved.The hon. Gentleman said that it was not just a question of policy or grey areas, as the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire suggested, but a question of policy. He the said:Before moving on to those matters I am saying that it is particularly obnoxious that such discretionary powers should be given to a Secretary of State for a purely political purpose.He ended quite simply by saying:This is a dishonest clause, and, further, it is an outrage. It is anathema to anyone who has any feeling of natural justice. I strongly recommend all hon. Members who have decided to support this clause to reconsider and, to use the parody of the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Lambie), to remember that we are Scotsmen and that Scotland has always had, more than most countries, a high regard for the rule of law. Let us not destroy that high regard by destroying the whole basis on which laws are founded."—[Official Report, First Scottish Standing Committee, 6th February 1975, c. 108–10.]I and my colleagues have always stood firm on the question of retrospective legislation. We, too, opposed the Tory Housing (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Act, but we accept that the law passed by Parliament is the law of the land. Once Governments start changing the law in retrospect, we are on a slippery slope. I am sorry that the speech of high principle by the hon. Member for Argyll has been cast so lightly aside by the speech of his hon. Friend that we have heard tonight.
§ Mr. Hamish Gray (Ross and Cromarty)
I do not want to follow too closely the speech of the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Lambie). I heard that speech in Committee, I did not particularly like it then and I liked it even less tonight. He said that 51 Scottish MPs supported this proposal. That does not mean they are right. I would not mind if 70 were in favour of it. I still could not accept it.
I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) that we should always stand for the rule of law. If we do not stand for upholding the law, how can we expect people outside to do so?
§ Mr. Gray
The hon. Member may give give that example, but the point is that this law was passed, under a Conservative Government. Whether it was a good law or not is not relevant. It was passed by the House of Commons. It was wilfully disobeyed in England by the notorious Clay Cross Council and in Scotland by the equally notorious Clydebank Council. That was wrong. They broke the law. We must at all times be seen to uphold the law.
I was therefore bitterly disappointed in the speech of the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid). Although I disagree with the Scottish National Party on many issues, until now I had always thought that it believed in upholding the law. I was shattered to hear the hon. Member proclaim on behalf of his party—some of his hon. Friends would wish, I am sure, to dissociate themselves from him—that it was in favour of the action taken by the Clydebank councillors and others.
The people of Scotland will not easily overlook that kind of statement. No longer should the SNP move around Tory constituencies in the guise of Tories and Socialist seats in the guise of Socialists. As long as they uphold that sort of view, there is no mistaking the side of the House on which they should be sitting.
I was disappointed that the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire should have dissociated himself from his hon. Friend the Member for Argyll 1471 (Mr. MacCormick) because I, too, admired the latter's speech in Committee. It was a brave speech, against the party line which had been given on Second Reading.
§ Mr. Gray
The hon. Gentleman is correct. We did assume that, but the SNP seems to have variable opinions on this matter. We are not sure which is the party line. We shall see in the Lobbies tonight. The people of Scotland will no doubt note on which side they vote or whether they abstain.
In any event, I support the amendment and I hope that the House will seriously consider what it is doing. Let us from now on make it a rule to support the rule of law. If we do not like the law, we should try to change it by democratic methods.
§ Mr. Rifkind
I was fascinated by the suggestion of the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Lambie) that, because there had not been a majority for the Conservative Party in Scotland, in some way this made the Housing (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Act much less important than they would otherwise have been. On the same basis, no doubt he will have compassion for the people of England who, but for the Labour majorities in Wales and Scotland, would not have to suffer the iniquities of the present Labour Government. No doubt they will have the same sort of problems and our hearts go out to them.
It was perhaps appropriate that the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid) and the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire spoke with a single voice—[Interruption.]
§ It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
§ Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.1472
§ Mr. Rifkind
I was saying that it was appropriate that those two hon. Gentlemen should speak with a single voice. Both the Labour Party and the SNP seek to uphold the breaking of the law, disrespect for the law and support for those who would flout its observance. However, it shows that there is a difference of view among the members of the SNP. Indeed, the initials could stand for the phrase "Sorry No Policy".
I was impressed to see eight members of the SNP present this evening—[An HON. MEMBER: "They are Tories".] I thought that we were about to have a personal testament from each hon. Member in that party saying whether they agreed with the common party view or dissociated themselves from it.
It was unfortunate that there should be criticism of one of their colleagues who was not present, the hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. MacCormick). It is clear that in Committee the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, East (Mr. Henderson), as his party's Whip, was seeking to establish that the representatives of his party would support the policy of the SNP. However, no doubt the members of that party want to be all things to all people. The SNP has acted disgracefully in this matter and they will not be allowed to forget their behaviour.
The important point which is involved in this amendment is the question of principle. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire mentioned suffragettes. It is unfortunate that he should lower the glorious reputation of the suffragettes and try to bring them to the same base level as the people with whom we are dealing in this debate. There is one important and fundamental distinction between the action taken by the suffragettes and what was done by the councillors at Clydebank and Clay Cross. The suffragettes not only broke the law for a principle but were prepared to pay the consequences of that disregard of the law. They were prepared to pay the consequences and, furthermore, they did not expect to ask ratepayers and taxpayers to bear those consequences for them.
The basic objection to this provision and the purpose of the amendment is that those who sought to break the law should now be made to suffer as a result 1473 of their action. However, they are not prepared to take the consequences.
There is a clear option open to the gentlemen in question. We are not talking simply of defiance of the law, they eventually came before the court. It was made clear to them that, having taken the view that it was a matter of principle, it was then open to them to obey the law and if that happened no further action would be taken. Having made that declaration of principle, they refused to implement the law and were fined. They did not consult the ratepayers whom they represented, nor did they resign and submit themselves to re-election in order to discover whether they had the support of the ratepayers. Instead, they were prepared to go ahead in that situation for many months, and at the end of the day when they found that they were in difficulties they came to Labour Members and asked them to assist. They now expect ratepayers to get them out of the mess. We cannot be expected to have any respect for people who act like that.
It is wrong and improper for the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire to bring the suffragettes into disrepute by suggesting that there is a comparison. We are concerned not with the initial breaking of the law, however bad, but with whether people who break it are prepared to take the consequences. If they are, that at least proves their integrity and consistency. It proves that they are people of honour, prepared to suffer for a principle in which they believe. The essential difference is that the people to whom the hon. Gentleman refers are prepared to shout about principles but prefer to see other people suffering for them.
We hope, therefore, that the House will favourably consider this worthwhile and honourable amendment. I hope that the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson), who is a member of the legal profession, will contribute to the debate. It will be interesting to learn how one who seeks to uphold the law explains his position. Perhaps, like his hon. Friend the Member for Argyll, he is prepared to take an honourable course. If not, I shall be fascinated to hear his justification for an alternative course.
§ Mr. Gordon Wilson
I had not intended to speak in the debate until I 1474 saw the clownish behaviour of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) at the Dispatch Box. It was regrettable and beneath the dignity of the House that someone who would like to be a member of the Shadow Cabinet should behave so absurdly.
There has been a great deal of exaggeration in the debate. We are discussing an amendment, but we seem to have gone through the whole Second Reading stage of excitement, exaggeration and loud speaking. I should like to direct attention to the terms of the amendment and the clause.
First, I wish to deal with references to my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll (Mr. MacCormick). I do not agree with my hon. Friend's view on this matter although I agree with him on many other matters. But he made a substantial contribution to the debate in Committee, and I am glad that many hon. Members have paid tribute to it.
In a sense, we in the Scottish National Party are being condemned out of a position of weakness in the House. On the basis of the vote at the last election, we should be entitled to five or six members of the Committee which discussed the Bill. [Interruption.] Certainly we should be entitled to three. We are perhaps prepared to concede one more to the Conservatives, not on the basis of vote but because of the number of Scottish Members they have in the House. We are allowed only one Member in Scottish Standing Committees. It is as if the Government had been represented on the Committee considering the District Courts Bill by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Buchanan). By voting against the Government's district courts proposals, he might have been thought to turn round the whole of the Government's policy.
We are seeing the right of individual back benchers to indicate their views and stand by them in Committee even if on occasion they go against their own party. It is admirable that any hon. Member should do that. He should not be subjected to cat-calls from other Opposition Members.
§ Mr. Rifkind
If, as is the case, the Scottish National Party had only one representative on the Committee, why did 1475 it choose the one member of its party who disagreed with its policy?
§ Mr. Wilson
The hon. Gentleman is being a bit simplistic. The Committee was dealing with a number of aspects of local government. It may be said that there is only one controversial part, but the Bill stands as a whole and it is a substantial document of 63 pages.
Why, if the Opposition are standing so tightly and strongly by their own principles, have they abandoned an amendment which related to the general surcharge? They have made no attempt to follow the point which they made on Second Reading and in Committee. Yet they are prepared, when it comes to the question of a fine, that there should be a different standard from that which might apply to the general surcharge, although they took a different attitude when the matter first came up in debate. They cannot have it both ways, yet that is what they are trying to do by moving an amendment narrowed down to the question of any fine which may have been levied on a corporate body—the corporation of a local authority. In doing that they have conceded that it may be fair and proper for the Secretary of State for Scotland to be given some discretion over the size of the penalty or surcharge which might be made on councillors.
The Scottish National Party would not assent to the proposition that there should be no penalty or surcharge on councillors who stood by their beliefs. Councillors who do that should expect to find some surcharge levied against them.
Coming to the standard here and going back to the 1973 legislation, the general principle is, should that penalty be related to the circumstances of the offending councillors? I did not practise in the high court, like the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind), but my experience is that the sheriffs, magistrates or lower courts always pay attention to the means of persons brought before them. I am sure that had the Clydebank councillors, to take one pertinent example, been brought before the Court of Session, any fine levied upon them as a result of their non-observance of the legislation would have been related to their means as individuals. Instead, because it was a corporate decision, the court had no alternative but to insist 1476 upon the execution of the law and to impose a penalty which would force a substantial body such as a local authority to move on the issue, and eventually it succeeded in doing so.
But the penalty suitable for a local authority—I believe that the figure of £20,000 has been quoted—would not necessarily have been the penalty visited upon such councillors had they appeared individually before the tribunal concerned. That is the basis of the points which have been made by my hon. Friends in the debate.
Clause 19 provides that the Secretary of Stateshall have regard to all the circumstances of the case".That might include the circumstances of ratepayers in a locality and the need to dissuade people from breaking the law. That is one factor which should weigh strongly with the Secretary of State for Scotland when he makes his decision as a Member of the executive.
The clause goes on,including such information as may be available to him as to the means of any person against whom a surcharge might be made".That the penalty should be suited to the means of any person is an important principle. I should not like to see the lack of a discretion which would permit people to be hounded, perhaps to have their wages arrested over a long period, to have their furniture seized or to be made bankrupt. One result of the sequestration of assets is that a person cannot hold a tenancy. Therefore, it could mean the splitting up of families. The clause provides that the Secretary of State for Scotland should have discretion to fit the penalty to the means of the offender as well as to the circumstances of the offence and that both situations should be weighed. The ratepayers have it in their hands, as electors, to deal with councillors whom they think are reckless and irresponsible.
The clause provides that the Secretary of State is still empowered to make a surcharge in whole or in part, having taken account of the circumstances. I hope that he will take account of the circumstances and will decide to relate the penalty to the circumstances of the offence and the means of those councillors who took the wrong viewpoint.
1477 I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands that there is a strong degree of retrospection in this legislation. As I said on Second Reading, an attempt has been made to vary the regulations. No decision is being specifically recalled and had the Secretary of State or any other Minister attempted by legislation to recall a decision already made by a predecessor, be he of the same party or another party, I would unhesitatingly have asked my hon. Friends to join me in the Lobby to vote against such a proposal.
We are dealing here with a variation of criteria. The Opposition conceded in their 1973 Act that it is necessary for the Secretary of State to have some discretion. If they conceded that, then I ask them to concede it now and not waste the time of Parliament in a lot of political mud slinging about the Bill which they would do well to accept if they wish to be reestablished in Scotland as a credible political organisation.
§ 10.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Millan
The amendment is fairly narrow but it has caused the whole question of Clause 19 to be reopened. I said a great deal on Second Reading and in Committee about the clause and there is not a lot that I can add to that. As the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) said, the provision in Clause 19 is substantially the same as that which the previous Conservative Government put into their 1973 Act. That Act specifically changed the then existing 1947 legislation, and the change will be applicable from 16th May 1975 when the new authorities begin to operate.
In spite of all the fire and fury from the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) on Second Reading, in Committee and again this evening, we have heard no explanation from the Conservatives why the 1947 provision was replaced by the 1973 Act. The provision in that Act was considered so unexceptionable and was in such generally agreeable terms that it was not even debated. We must assume that the Conservative Government found that the 1947 provisions were too narrow and that they did not allow the Secretary of State sufficient flexibility to deal with surcharge reports which might be submitted to him.
1478 I made clear on Second Reading that the intention of Clause 19 was to import a degree of flexibility into the present situation. That will be available after 16th May this year for the new authorities and it will enable us to deal with the housing default orders which are before the Secretary of State.
There was no distinction drawn in the 1973 Act, and there will be none after 16th May 1975, between default orders generally and default orders in respect of fines. They are dealt with in exactly the same way. In the 1973 Act the then Tory Government did not see fit to make the sort of distinction about surcharges which Conservative Members now attempt to make. The 1973 Act went through the House at a time when there was considerable controversy and the possibility that certain authorities would refuse to carry out the duties being placed on them by the 1972 Act. Local authorities held dear the right to fix their own rents. Nevertheless the 1973 measure went through without any steps being taken to make the distinction between default orders that are being argued now.
There is an element of inconsistency—I use that word rather than the harsher words of "humbug" and "hypocrisy"—in what the hon. Member for Cathcart was saying. If he is so anxious to expose what he sees to be inconsistencies in the Scottish National Party, he might care at some time to explain the inconsistency between what the Tory Government did in 1973 and what his party is attempting to do now.
I am grateful for the support of the Scottish National Party, which voted in favour of the Second Reading of this Bill. There was a slight contretemps in Committee. I am glad to see that the SNP has now returned to the fold. The hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. MacCormick) has been mentioned. I suppose that there are black sheep in every family. However, he seems to have strayed away somewhere else this evening, fortunately for all of us.
I do not object to what the hon. Member said in Committee, because this is a matter on which hon. Members might well hold strong views. The fact remains that we are doing here what the Tory Government did in 1973. I shall not rehearse all the arguments about the 1479 1973 Act, except to say that it represented an attempt by the then Government to dictate to local authorities in a way which they found thoroughly unacceptable.
I will not say what the Secretary of State may do with regard to any of these default reports if the clause goes through unamended. This will be strictly for him to decide in the light of the circumstances, as the clause puts it. He will be able to take into account the fact that the law was defied and the circumstances of the case, including the means of the persons concerned. This is obviously an important consideration. We must have regard to the realities of the situation. To pretend that some of the surcharges could be met, with the figures involved—not only in Clydebank but elsewhere—would be to fly in the face of the facts. The councillors could not be surcharged in any realistic sense for the figures that are involved. That would not have happened under the previous Government any more than it would happen under this Government.
I have bad news for the hon. Member for Cathcart. The amendment is, unfortunately, erroneously drafted. I am sorry to add to the hon. Gentleman's burdens, because I know that it has not been a good week for him. He attempted to show that the effect of the councillors disobeying the law was that the unfortunate tenants concerned had to pay more rent than they would have done if the councillors had obeyed the law. The hon. Gentleman had about six attempts at tabling the right Question to produce that remarkable result. Unfortunately, when he eventually got the right Question he got, from his point of view, the wrong answer, because the answer demonstrated that he was completely wrong.
Tonight the hon. Gentleman was anxious to skate over that aspect of the matter and not to go into it in the great detail which attracted him at an earlier stage. Having made an error about that, it is a great pity that the hon. Gentleman should have made an error about the amendment. It would not have the effect that hon. Members have in mind. The amendment, with its reference to the subsection not applying, would have the effect of disapplying the whole subsection 1480 of the 1947 Act which imposes the possibility of surcharges. In other words, if the amendment were to be carried it would not be open to the Secretary of State to impose any surcharges where a fine is at issue. That is what the distinguished lawyers on the Conservative side of the House who have no doubt drafted the amendment will be writing into the Bill if they push the amendment to a Division and succeed.
Hon. Members may wish to reconsider the matter. It is a pity that our rules do not allow for a brief adjournment at this stage. Perhaps the hon. Member will wish to reconsider the amendment, which was misconceived in intent from the beginning, is misconceived in principle and is also, I am sorry to say, misconceived in drafting.
§ Lord James Douglas-Hamilton
The Minister is perfectly correct in saying that our wording may be defective. However, I can assure him that that could be easily put right by the next stage of the Bill.
The Minister informed my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor), whose excellent speech I have pleasure in supporting, that he was incorrect in suggesting that those tenants who paid rent in Clydebank were paying more as a result of the defiance of the law. The reply given by the Secretary of State confirms that every year the council house tenants of Clydebank are paying more than £17 extra as a result of the defiance of the law, because the rents had to be made up and they were put up much higher than they would otherwise have been. I mention this fact so that those paying rent in Clydebank know what the true position is.
I am glad that the members of the Scottish National Party made their position clear. It was somewhat discreditable of the Scottish Nationalist Members that they attacked their colleague the hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. MacCormick) in his absence. This means now that every time a Member of the Scottish National Party appears on a Committee he will have to say in advance whether his views represent those of his party. It is clear that we believed that the hon. Member was putting forward the policy 1481 of the Scottish National Party. He was not.
We strongly disagree with the principle in the clause that councillors who defy the law should be indemnified retrospectively. The essence of the clause is retrospective legislation. The Minister should accept that this let-off provision should not apply to the £20,000 fine imposed by the High Court of Justiciary on the Clydebank councillors for contempt of court. If the clause is accepted unamended, it will be the ratepayers of Clydebank who will contribute to the payment of the fine. It is unfair and
§ unjust to penalise ratepayers because certain councillors have defied the law.
§ Mr. Millan
I gather from the equivocal speech of the hon Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) that the Opposition intend to press the amendment. I do not know why I should be so charitable as to save them from themselves, but, in view of the nonsense that it would make of the clause, I must recommend my hon. Friends to vote against the amendment.
§ Question put, That the amendment be made:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 68, Noes 129.1483
|Division No. 99.]||AYES||[10.31 p.m.|
|Beith, A. J.||Hawkins, Paul||Mudd, David|
|Bennett, Dr Reginald (Fareham)||Hayhoe, Barney||Neave, Airey|
|Biffen, John||Hicks, Robert||Neubert, Michael|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Hooson, Emlyn||Rathbone, Tim|
|Bowden, A. (Brighton, Kemptown)||Howells, Geraint (Cardigan)||Rifkind, Malcolm|
|Brittan, Leon||Hunt, John||Roberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)|
|Brotherton, Michael||Hurd, Douglas||Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)|
|Buchanan-Smith, Alick||Hutchison, Michael Clark||Rost, Peter (SE Derbyshire)|
|Budgen, Nick||Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye)||St. John-Stevas, Norman|
|Carlisle, Mark||Irving, Charles (Cheltenham)||Shepherd, Colin|
|Clark, Alan (Plymouth, Sutton)||James, David||Sims, Roger|
|Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)||Kershaw, Anthony||Skeet, T. H. H.|
|Corrie, John||King, Evelyn (South Dorset)||Spicer, Jim (W Dorset)|
|Dean, Paul (N Somerset)||Lane, David||Stainton, Keith|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James||Latham, Michael (Melton)||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Fairbairn, Nicholas||Lawrence, Ivan||Steel, David (Roxburgh)|
|Fairgrieve, Russell||Le Marchant, Spencer||Stewart, Ian (Hitchin)|
|Farr, John||Lester, Jim (Beeston)||Stokes, John|
|Fletcher-Cooke, Charles||Luce, Richard||Taylor, Teddy (Cathcart)|
|Fowler, Norman (Sutton C'f'd)||Macfarlane, Neil||Tebbit, Norman|
|Freud, Clement||Marshall, Michael (Arundel)||Thorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon)|
|Gardiner, George (Reigate)||Mather, Carol||Townsend, Cyril D.|
|Gilmour, Sir John (East Fife)||Mawby, Ray||Viggers, Peter|
|Goodhew, Victor||Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin||Wainwright, Richard (Coine V)|
|Gray, Hamish||Mayhew, Patrick||Walder, David (Clitheroe)|
|Grieve, Percy||Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove)||Winterton, Nicholas|
|Grimond, Rt Hon J.||Moate, Roger|
|Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury)||Monro, Hector||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Hannam, John||Montgomery, Fergus||Mr. John Stradling Thomas and|
|Harvie Anderson, Rt Hon Miss||Morrison, Charles (Devizes)||Mr. Adam Butler.|
|Allaun, Frank||Dalyell, Tam||Harper, Joseph|
|Ashton, Joe||Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)||Harrison, Walter (Wakefield)|
|Atkins, Ronald (Preston N)||Dempsey, James||Henderson, Douglas|
|Atkinson, Norman||Doig, Peter||Hoyle, Doug (Nelson)|
|Bain, Mrs Margaret||Dormand, J. D.||Huckfield, Les|
|Bates, Alf||Douglas-Mann, Bruce||Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen, N)|
|Bean, R. E.||Duffy, A. E. P.||Hunter, Adam|
|Blenkinsop, Arthur||Dunn, James A.||Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln)|
|Boardman, H.||Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun)||Janner, Greville|
|Booth, Albert||Evans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen)||John, Brynmor|
|Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)||Evans, John (Newton)||Johnson, Walter (Derby S)|
|Buchanan, Richard||Ewing, Harry (Stirling)||Jones, Dan (Burnley)|
|Canavan, Dennis||Fernyhough, Rt Hon E.||Kaufman, Gerald|
|Cartwright, John||Flannery, Martin||Kerr, Russell|
|Clemitson, Ivor||Ford, Ben||Kinnock, Neil|
|Cocks, Michael (Bristol S)||Forrester, John||Lambie, David|
|Coleman, Donald||Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin)||Lamond, James|
|Cook, Robin F. (Edin C)||George, Bruce||Leadbitter, Ted|
|Corbett, Robin||Golding, John||Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)|
|Cox, Thomas (Tooting)||Gould, Bryan||Loyden, Eddie|
|Craigen, J. M. (Maryhill)||Gourlay, Harry||Luard, Evan|
|Crawford, Douglas||Graham, Ted||Lyons, Edward (Bradford W)|
|Cryer, Bob||Grocott, Bruce||McCartney, Hugh|
|Cunningham, Dr J. (Whiteh)||Hamling, William||McElhone, Frank|
|McGuire, Michael (Ince)||Parry, Robert||Stoddart, David|
|Mackenzie, Gregor||Peart, Rt Hon Fred||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)|
|Mackintosh, John P.||Perry, Ernest||Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)|
|Maclennan, Robert||Price, William (Rugby)||Thompson, George|
|McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C)||Radice, Giles||Tinn, James|
|McNamara, Kevin||Reid, George||Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)|
|Madden, Max||Robertson, John (Paisley)||Walker, Terry (Kingswood)|
|Magee, Bryan||Roderick, Caerwyn||Watt, Hamish|
|Marks, Kenneth||Rodgers, George (Chorley)||Wellbeloved, James|
|Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)||Rooker, J. W.||White, Frank R. (Bury)|
|Meacher, Michael||Rose, Paul B.||White, James (Pollok)|
|Mendelson, John||Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilm'nock)||Williams, Alan (Swansea W)|
|Millan, Bruce||Selby, Harry||Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)|
|Mitchell, R. C. (Soton, Itchen)||Sillars, James||Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)|
|Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw)||Skinner, Dennis||Wise, Mrs Audrey|
|Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King||Small, William||Woof, Robert|
|Noble, Mike||Snape, Peter||Young, David (Bolton E)|
|O'Halloran, Michael||Spearing, Nigel||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Ovenden, John||Spriggs, Leslie||Mr. James Hamilton and|
|Parker, John||Stallard, A. W.||Mr. Laurie Pavitt.|
§ Question accordingly negatived.