HC Deb 12 April 1978 vol 947 cc1405-9

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Fred Silvester () Manchester, Withington

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require in certain circumstances the enforcement of compensation recommended by the Commission for Local Administration. There is before the House a Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Luton, East (Mr. Clemitson) which seeks to remove one of the impediments which prevent local authorities from meeting a suggestion for compensation made by the local government Ombudsman. I support that Bill, but it unfortunately does not meet the case where the local council refuses to remedy an injustice. Such cases are few, but not quite as rare as the statistics would have us believe. I can perhaps illustrate this by relating what happened in a specific case.

I refer to a Mr. Harris who lives in Manchester. He applied for an improvement grant to convert an old house into two flats. He is not a wealthy developer. He was simply doing this as a one-off exercise out of his own savings. Manchester City Council gave Mr. Harris his first permission in May 1972, but the case went on for such a long time that by March 1974 Mr. Harris was required by his bankers to sell the property because they would wait no longer.

The effect of the council's behaviour was expressed very clearly by the Ombudsman who referred to the way in which the council kept changing its mind. Mr. Harris, he said, had started with provision for a chute and was asked to provide a stairway. He made provision for a stairway and was then advised to provide Council"— This went on for two years. When the local government Ombudsman was eventually approached, he had some difficulty because this was at the beginning of his operations. The important thing is that when he concluded his report he found a case of injustice proved and he went on to say: Had it been open to me to have regard for what happened in the days of the former Council"— that is before 1974— I believe that some strong criticism could have been justified. In the event the city council wrote back to say that it had improved its procedures but that it would offer Mr. Harris nothing, even though he had suffered loss of capital, of interest on the capital and of professional costs. The Ombudsman wrote back and pressed for at least some contribution to the professional costs. He said, In my opinion some action is necessary to dissolve the individual injustice The council refused and the Ombudsman decided not to press the matter further.

Mr. Harris cannot afford to take the matter to court. Local publicity, such as it was, was not enough to make the council change its mind. I cannot raise the matter with the Department, as the Minister knows, because he wrote to me and said the Secretary of State has no powers of intervention or inquiry in matters of this kind. I cannot raise the matter in the House because I should be out of order. So where do Mr. Harris and those like him go? The solution lies in recourse to the House by some means, and that therefore means to a Minister answerable to the House.

In his report the Commissioner for Local Administration raised this matter, but of course he came up against the opposition of the body which represents the various councils. In response to the suggestion that there should be the power of enforcement it said that the suggestion canvasses the idea that Local Commissioners should have power to enforce remedies, or that there should be other machinery to enforce remedies. However, all ombudsmen systems in England and Wales keep to the principle that the reports only refer to cases of maladministration. Responsibility should rest with the responsible body charged with the service…. It is regarded as fundamental that the present system should continue whereunder a local Commissioner suggests a course of action to remedy an injustice, leaving the final decision to the individual authority. The effective sanction is public opinion. A similar view was expressed by one of the commissioners, Mr. Cook, who said: My reports are made publicly available…. Thus the teeth are the teeth of public opinion. Unfortunately these teeth do not always bite. There are cases—they are not large in number, but they will grow over the years—where local publicity has not been enough, partly because there is not nearly as much local publicity as accompanies matters dealt with by the parliamentary Ombudsman, and partly because this House is more sensitive to publicity than are many councils.

In his report Mr. Cook, the local government Ombudsman, in spite of his feeling that he should have no powers, was eventually forced to make the following statement. Every year he has one or two of these cases, and this statement was in one of his reports dealing with a case in Beverley, in which the council had taken no action. He said: The Local Government Act 1974 provides a procedure whereby a citizen can have his or her grievance subjected to impartial investigation and report. There must be ause for concern where the implications of such a report are not fully heeded, thus in effect setting aside an avenue of redress that Parliament has provided". So the "setting aside" of that "avenue of redress" is what has given rise to this Bill. Its object is to provide that where a council takes no action as a result of a local government Ombudsman's report, the local government Ombudsman or the complainant should have the power to refer it to the Secretary of State.

I quite understand that this will be treading on various toes of local autonomy, and in order to limit that I am suggesting that in the first instance, at least, this power of referral should apply only where cases of maladministration arise from matters which receive specific Government grant. It is surprising how widespread that is, however, and it will cover most of the cases I have in mind.

When we created the Ombudsman the object was to see that the need to remedy a personal injustice was raised above the convenience or embarrassment of the State. That was what it was all about. In spite of that, the claim that local authorities must be autonomous is being erected as a barrier. Once again personal injustice is subjected to bureaucratic theory. It must stop, and my Bill is a step in that direction.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Fred Silvester, Mr. Tony Durant, Mr. Tom Arnold and Mr. Ivan Lawrence.

  1. LOCAL GOVERNMENT ACT 1974 (AMENDMENT) (No. 2) 49 words