HC Deb 11 November 1980 vol 992 cc233-57

Lords Amendment: No. 4A, in page 3, line 8, leave out "and".

Mr. King

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 4B to 4F and Lords amendments Nos. 5 to 8.

Mr. King

These amendments deal with the publication of information. Amendments Nos. 4A to 4F and amendment No. 6 extend the provisions about publication of information to Scotland and to certain types of authority, including police, fire authorities and the Inner London Education Authority.

In addition, amendment No. 7—new clause A—extends the provision to certain other types of public body, including new town development corporations, water authorities and passenger transport executives. This was in response to representations made on each side of the Committee, when the point was made that the merits of the case for publication of more meaningful information should not be restricted to local authorities and that there was a strong case for extending this to other public bodies as well.

I hope, therefore, that these amendments will be supported on each side of the House.

Mr. Michael Latham (Melton)

Will my right hon. Friend say what is envisaged with regard to police committees? We already have very full reports under the Police Acts.

5.15 pm
Mr. King

These are only enabling powers, and it will be a matter for discussion in this respect to see what might be the most appropriate form, if any, of further information. But, obviously, in legislation of this kind it is desirable that they should be included in case at a later stage there is an argument for such publication of information. It would be only after discussion with the bodies concerned, and there is no intention at the moment to move on that particular provision.

Amendment No. 5 is the paving amendment for amendment No. 8, which places some restriction on the power of the Secretary of State to require the publication of what we call short period indicators. Hon. Members who have studied the clause will know that it deals mainly with the publication of information annually and that it is our intention to encourage the publication of certain other information more frequently than annually. For example, the joint manpower watch, which is operated by local authorities at present, is operated quarterly and quite sensibly so, because it is not possible to identify trends meaningfully or to take any sensible action about trends in manpower if the figures are available only annually.

To overcome some concern among local authorities that we might be asking for a plethora of different items, and that we would be asking for very frequent publication, we have made clear that we have listed the four items in which we are interested—manpower, planning, housing and land—and that otherwise it will not be possible for the Secretary of State to ask for more frequent publication than annually of any other items unless he comes to this House and by affirmative resolution, gets the support of the House for obtaining such further information. Whatever views hon. Members may hold about affirmative orders, that is a sure protection against a casual decision by some Minister that it might be interesting to get a little more information about this, that or the other matter. He would have to get an affirmative order from the House.

That is a significant improvement and I know that it is one which local authorities have found to be of some reassurance to them.

Mr. Ted Graham (Edmonton)

I shall speak first on amendment No. 7 and I intend, after I have had a response on that, to deal with amendment No. 8.

As the Minister quite rightly points out, amendment No. 7 seeks to extend the scope of the application of the powers in the original clause 2 to force, request, direct or order—whatever may be the term to be used in the legislation—local authorities to publish information.

Already the Government have seen fit in clause 2 to lay these obligations on county councils, district councils, the GLC, the London boroughs, the City of London and the Isles of Scilly. Now the Government are intent on adding to that list development corporations, the Commission for the New Towns, water authorities, urban development corporations, passenger transport executives, London Transport Executive—what the Minister in another place called a collection of bodies.

I should like the Minister to be a little more explicit concerning the case that was made in another place for adding what local authorities—I shall say more about that in speaking to amendment No. 8—say that they are willing to do in this particular matter. The Minister has said that, in effect, he is responding to representations made by, among others, Labour Members in Committee. Frankly, I am not too certain that we were urging the Minister to extend the list of bodies upon which are to be laid the obligations and duties in this matter. We took a very sceptical and caustic view of the necessity for calling upon local authorities at present to spend their money and their time, and the time of their officers, in making available a great deal of that which, as we shall say when we discuss the next group of amendments, is already available.

The Minister in another place talked about widely supported objectives throughout a range of bodies in the public sector. Of course, he gave the game away by referring to many public bodies which already have adequate power to make this information available. He said: having consulted the various individual organisations concerned, we should take such broad enabling powers as this new clause seeks to provide. I want the Minister of State to tell the House that, in effect, all of the bodies that are listed have said not only that they are willing to do what the Minister orders them to do but "We want you to order us to do that which the original clause 2 lays down."

Is the Minister of State saying that this additional range of local authorities and public bodies are saying "Please bring to bear some power and force, and insist that we do this in addition to the publicity that we already give to our activities"? For instance, water authorities are already giving some information in their billings and demands for water rates. Is the Minister saying that they have said "Lay upon us a duty to conform in such manner as you prescribe with additional ways of making information about our activities available"? Is the Minister saying that the London Transport Executive has said to him that, in addition to the posters carried on buses about a range of matters and in addition to its annual report which is made available, it wants the Government to tell it that it has an obligation to do more?

The Minister in another place said that the various individual organisations had said that they were prepared to have these broad enabling duties laid upon them.

We now come to the nub of the matter and the Government's great difficulty. The Minister in another place said: one of the purposes of this is to make reasonably straightforward comparisons between one authority and another in the case of local authorities"—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 October 1980; Vol. 413, c. 129–32] Ministers in this House have said that they genuinely believe—and I believe in their genuineness—that ratepayers want to know how much is being spent by neighbouring authorities on a range of matters, so that, when they compare what their council is spending, they have some yardstick by which to judge and criticise their council.

My authority of Enfield has the two neighbouring authorities of Barnet and Haringey, one of which is Conservative-controlled and the other Labour-controlled. Does the Minister believe that the straightforward comparison—as suggested by the Minister in another place—of a number of functions would be helpful? For instance, £149 per head is spent on education in Barnet. Enfield spends £146 and Haringey spends £176. Does the Minister believe that the possession of those statistics by ratepayers in those three authorities, without the additional gloss explaining the various factors present in the three authorities, and a straightforward comparison of statistics will be helpful?

Then there is the comparison between library services. Per head of population, Barnet spends £7, Enfield spends £6, and Haringey spends £11. The figures for social services are Barnet £34, Enfield £30 and Haringey £65.

Does the Minister believe that the simple regurgitation of statistics will be helpful to ratepayers in any of those three places without the provision of a lot of background concerning the age of the population, whether there is an undue proportion of elderly people or children, and whether there is an adverse ethnic mix which will cause the local authority to spend more? There are factors such as the age of housing, the percentage of industry, the percentage of open space, the number of people who are housebound, and the question of how wide is the net of voluntary help. All of that needs to be understood before one can validate the statement by the Minister in another place that all that we want is a straightforward comparison.

Mr. R. B. Cant (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

Although my hon. Friend is relating his remarks to this very narrow amendment, is he not launching, a massive indictment of the grant-related expenditures of the new block grant, about which we spoke in Committee and which make the present multiple regression analysis in respect of rate support grant look like childs play?

Mr. Graham

I am prepared to take my hon. Friend's word for that. What we have is the nonsense of the Government claiming the relaxation of controls, setting the people free and giving local government the opportunity to determine its own affairs, but at the same time and in the same Bill, by virtue of the financial stranglehold which they will be imposing in relation to rates and capital allocations, they are laying upon local authorities a duty to provide this additional information, which will make nonsense of that freedom.

Already we are seeing some of the problems. In the Education Act a duty to provide certain information concerning schools and acedemic records was laid on authorities. The Enfield Gazette of last weekend said: In a report to the sub-committee, Mr. Hutchinson"— the education officer— said if the Department of Education model were followed, the council would have to produce a booklet of about 250 pages each year. This is nonsense. People are interested in education and want more information about social services. They want to hear more in relation to accountability of the range of additional bodies. However, the Government have got completely out of balance. They have a desire to force authorities to make known to the public what they are doing, but at the same time they are making it impossible for local authorities to carry out their remit.

Therefore, before we agree to Lords amendment No. 7, I hope that the Minister will be able to justify these additional authorities having to carry these extra imposts.

Mr. Dobson

I should like your assistance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or possibly the assistance of the Minister. Am I right in thinking that the Minister moved the whole group of amendments?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Perhaps I can help the hon. Member. When we have these groupings, the Minister moves the first amendment and speaks to the others. I then put from the Chair the amendments as we come to them in the list of Lords amendments.

Mr. Dobson

I can assume therefore, that except in reply to anything that is said in the debate, the Minister has done all the speaking that he intends to do on the whole group of amendments.

Mr. King

I shall reply.

Mr. Dobson

In view of the representations made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) and myself, and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw)—who is temporarily absent—I am rather surprised that the Minister chose not to refer—at least not in my hearing, and I have been present throughout the whole proceedings this afternoon—to one solitary syllable of these amazing amendments.

There was not a shred of apology for the way in which these amendments have been presented to hon. Members who are trying to do their job. I do not know whether this is characteristic of the way in which the Bill has gone through Parliament. If it is, I find it a very cavalier treatment of the House and those whom we are trying to represent.

We have an enormous Bill, an enormous number of amendments and amendments to amendments. The Minister is aided by another Minister, a Parliamentary Private Secretary, a cast of thousands at the Department of the Environment and by no fewer than nine persons in the communal coffin behind the Chair. The Minister has his advisers as near to hand as possible. Back Benchers are reduced to trying to find out for themselves the effect of the proposed amendments that were sprung on the House yesterday. It is difficult for us to do so. I must protest. I repeat my protest about the cavalier treatment that we have had from the Minister.

5.30 pm.

As I attempted to explain when pursuing a point of order, my main concern lies with the Inner London Education Authority, which is referred to by name in no fewer than four places in this series of amendments. I do not understand why these late amendments have to be introduced. Did the Department forget about ILEA until it reached this late stage in the game? I think that it was Lady Bracknell who said that to lose one parent was unfortunate but to lose two was carelessness. It seems that we lost ILEA on no fewer than three occasions. That must amount to gross negligence on the part of the Minister and his advisers.

I have not had the opportunity to consult the GLC member and the ILEA member in the area that I represent. I have not had the opportunity to consult ILEA at officer or member level to ascertain the impact of these amendments. ILEA may have felt that it was caught by the Bill already. Presumably the Minister and his officials took that view before late amendments were tabled. Alternatively, ILEA may have thought that it was not caught. The result of this trivial piece of paper containing the amendments that we are now discussing will be to catch it.

Mr. King

The hon. Gentleman talks about late amendments and seems to suggest that the Government printed them on Monday, did not go through the House of Lords and merely produced them as their amendments. The hon. Gentleman is holding the corrigendum on the Lords amendments that came from another place. A number of the amendments were tabled more than a month ago. There has been discussion in another place over a considerable period. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion that this is a quick print-off by the Government of a few amendments that no one else has ever seen is inaccurate.

Mr. Dobson

I regard that intervention as even more insulting to the House than what has gone before. I find it difficult enough to do my job in this House and to read the reports of debates and the papers that come before me. I see it as no part of my duty to go through all the ramblings of the geriatrics at the other end of the building.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That is definitely an unparliamentary remark. I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw that remark.

Mr. Dobson

What it boils down to—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. A withdrawal is appropriate.

Mr. Dobson

I withdraw whatever it was that I said that was out of order. In the time available to me since these papers came before the House, I have found it impossible to assess the impact of the amendments on my constituency. Whether the Opposition Whips like it or not, I propose on all matters in the corrigendum that refer to ILEA to seek to divide the House.

Mr. Hugh D. Brown (Glasgow, Provan)

I suffer from the disadvantage that I was not a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Bill.

Mr. Latham

That is an advantage.

Mr. Brown

I hope that I shall have the tolerance of the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland when I raise matters of which I have not given him notice.

In my brief perusal of the documents that I have amassed within the past half hour, I find that we are discussing issues of considerable importance in Scotland, namely, the way in which the code will be produced, local authorities being obliged to give information on manpower and services, and who will draw up the code, the second issue being a bone of contention in Scotland.

The House considers Bills that include Scotland at its peril. Originally clause 2 did not apply to Scotland. The result of the Lords amendments is that the clause will apply to Scotland. In requiring information from local authorities on manpower and services, the Government are introducing a gimmick. The Government, certainly in Scotland, do not have as much statistical information from local authorities as I think they are entitled to receive. However, the reasons for requiring the codes seem to be outrageous.

We tried long and hard to establish some element of acceptability in making comparisons of costs of repair and maintenance in local authority areas when dealing with housing subsidies. We found it almost impossible to obtain any information from authorities. They were not unwilling to provide it. The difficulty arose because of the variation of practice between local authorities.

How can we make meaningful comparisons between police authorities? I represent an area that is classified by the Strathclyde regional council as an urban area suffering massive deprivation. How do we make a comparison between the cost of providing the police service in such an area and the cost of so doing in a residential area in another part of the country where the police presence is not nearly so demanding and certainly less costly? The Government are placing, for doubtful reasons, further obligations on local authorities that will add to costs at a time when they are trying to reduce local authority expenditure.

I ask the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland to say whether he is likely to use the powers that are being sought. Will he proceed in a relaxed way, seek voluntary compliance and ignore the almost hysterical approach that is being adopted by some Conservatives in Scotland, who seem to think that the attack on bureaucracy is the answer to all our economic problems?

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

I must add my protest to those that have already been made about the cavalier way in which the Government have treated the House in producing the corrigendum which appeared only yesterday. The fault may not lie with the Government. It may be the fault of the printer. I do not mind whose fault it is. If the Government had wanted to show some sympathy for the House, they could have accepted the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) and agreed to deal with these amendments tomorrow. That would have given us a better chance to consider them. It is disgraceful that the Government should have acted in this way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown) talked about the difficulty of making comparisons between police authorities I agree that it is difficult to do that.

Recently, I was with Hampshire county council. It boasted that it had increased the number of police officers by 65. It said that that was good, because it was in line with Government policy on law and order. When I probed further, I discovered that Hampshire county council had increased the number of police officers by 65, but had reduced overtime to such an extent that it represented a reduction of more than 65 in the number of police officers. As a result, the council was worse off than before. Such figures would not appear on any comparison. Only the number of policemen would appear on the table.

If I had had more time to look at the Bill, I might not have had to ask my next question. I refer to amendment No. 4C. It seeks to leave out It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to and to insert The Secretary of State may". If amended, the Bill will read: The Secretary of State may issue for the purposes of this section a code of recommended practice". According to the original provision, the Secretary of State would have had to issue a code of practice that embraced all the authorities covered by part II of the Bill. The same code of practice would apply to the Inner London Education Authority, to district councils, to the GLC and so on.

The Lords amendment seeks to alter the wording to "may". Does that involve any change? Does it mean, for example, that the Secretary of State could issue a code of practice that applied only to the Inner London Education Authority, or only to a county council, and not to the other bodies mentioned? If I had had a chance to look through the Bill more carefully, I would probably know the answer. I hope that the Minister will help.

Mr. Ronald W. Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

Will the Minister elucidate amendment No. 4D further? It is extraordinary. I was under the impression that under the London Government Act 1963, ILEA gained the powers conferred by the Education Act 1944. I understood that every subsequent Act had been amended. I thought that ILEA appeared in all those Acts. I cannot understand why a special amendment is needed to take care of ILEA's functions in accordance with the Education Acts 1944 to 1980. I am worried about the purpose of the amendment. Even the wording is odd. It states: In relation to the Inner London Education Area functions conferred on education authorities by the Education Acts 1944 to 1980 shall be treated for the purposes of this section as conferred on the Inner London Education Authority". The Inner London Education Authority is the authority in the inner London education area. If we confer functions on the authority, we shall confer them not on the area but on the authority. I do not understand the preamble. I have become suspicious. At first, I looked at the amendment and thought it not unreasonable. However, the more I re-read it, the more I see that there may be some harm in it. I hope that the Minister will explain its purpose. Am I wrong to think that ILEA has always been covered hitherto by the Education Act 1944 and by that Act, as amended, up to and including the Education Act 1980? If not, has not much of its work been ultra vires? It has carried out the functions required by the Education Acts 1944 to 1980. Why does the whole thing have to be wrapped up in meaningless words? If we are conferring additional powers on ILEA why do we not say so in a simple way?

5.45 pm
Mr. Straw

Despite the Department of the Environment's great resources and the expertise of its officials, the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services and the Secretary of State have made a series of staggering blunders from beginning to end. They began when they introduced a major constitutional Bill in the House of Lords. That resulted in such opposition from Conservative peers as well as from Labour peers that the Bill had to be withdrawn.

Such ill consideration was given to the Bill that it had to be amended repeatedly in Committee, on the floor of the House and in the other place. As a result, we are faced with 94 pages of amendments and four pages of corrections to those amendments. The Minister has presided over the biggest mess in our legislative process since the war and over one of the largest and most iniquitous Bills ever produced, yet he has had the cheek to come to the House and to suggest that we have no reason for our complaints. We have complained that we have had only 24 hours in which to read the corrections and in which to understand them.

It is characteristic of the conduct of the Minister and of the Secretary of State that blunders and misjudgments have been made and that they have failed to work out in advance the policy that they wished to see incorporated in the Bill. In addition, they have both acted in a manner that shows great contempt for the conventions of the House.

I was always taught that one advantage of an unwritten constitution was that it was flexible. I was also taught that an unwritten constitution could work only if it was held in respect by its legislators. The conduct of the Minister and of the Secretary of State has shown that the conventions of this House, as regards the publication of amendments in good time for hon. Members to consider them and in relation to many other issues, are no match for those who wish to ride roughshod over its interests.

A lesson can be drawn from the saga of this Bill. Many of our conventions, which exist for the benefit of all hon. Members, need to be incorporated into Standing Orders. If that were done, we should not have to rely on the grace and favour of Ministers. I accept that some Conservative Ministers have had the grace to back down, to accept that they had broken our conventions and to give way to the wishes of the House. However, there are others—including the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services who is sitting on the Front Bench—who show no such grace.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Ripon)


Mr. Straw

It is not rot. It is absolutely true. If it was not true the Minister would have stood up and acceded to the proposals made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). He would have agreed to further debate tomorrow. It is no good saying that this has nothing to do with the Government. This is the Government's legislation and it is their job to ensure that it is in order. It is no good suggesting that we should have followed every dot and comma of the debates in the other place. How are we to know the results of those debates until they have been concluded? How are we to know the Government's attitude to the Lords amendments?

Mr. Cant

While my hon. Friend is on that philosophical and constitutional point, will he concede that the Opposition made something of a tactical blunder when they insisted that the Bill should have begun in this Chamber? Does not he agree with those who suggest that if the Tory Lords from the shire counties had tackled the problem of the block grant—An HON. MEMBER: "It is too late now." It may be too late now, but perhaps we should be allowed a little time in which to reflect on our possible errors. Had the Opposition not been persuaded by the Government that the Queen's Speech could not be further delayed and that the rate support grant had to be introduced on 21 November, we might have seen united opposition from the counties, district councils and metropolitan authorities. That would have saved us from the nonsense of allegedly simplified, but really more complicated, financial procedures.

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend's speculation on the alternative course of history is interesting. However, even if the Tory Lords from the shires had had 12 years and not 12 months to consider the principles raised in the Bill, they still would have come down in favour of this Government, despite all their huffing and puffing. When faced with a Conservative Government, the other place is a toothless bulldog. It is a toady.

Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)

Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that within the past 12 months on two major Bills the other place has demonstrated the reverse? It has gone against the Government on items of major legislation.

Mr. Straw

I do not accept that. Noble Lords have to prove that they are doing something for their money.

Mr. Frank Dobson

Not a lot.

Mr. Straw

That is right. However, they make those gestures and occasionally they make pinpricks or dents in legislation—in the tanks that this Government are driving through the rights of people in this country. Had their noble Lordships really been determined to oppose the Housing Bill and this Bill they would have followed the advice of the present Secretary of State when in opposition and thrown the Bill out, as they did in respect of the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill. It is a mark of the ultimate loyalty of the other place to a Conservative Government that, when the chips are down, they will support them whatever they may do. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Cant) should need no other evidence than the response of the Association of County Councils to the new policy imposed by the Government. If that association—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is straying wildly, first in his criticisms of the other place, and now in dealing with pay policy. May we get back to the amendment?

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

I do not want to mislead my hon. Friend, but how does he believe that noble Members would have reacted had they had only 24 hours to discuss the amendments?

Mr. Straw

I do not wish to speculate. I visit the other place so rarely that I am not in tune with their Lordships' sense of convention. I dare say that they would have objected even more strongly than we have and that Government Ministers, being noble gentlemen, would have conceded the point and allowed a delayed debate the following day.

Returning to the substance of the amendments, I accept that there is information that local authorities may wish to publish, which could be a benefit. For example, I have here schedules of the value of works carried out by the direct labour department of the borough of Blackburn, which show conclusively how much of a saving that department has made for the people of Blackburn in the 12 years from 1967 to 1979. I shall be happy to provide the detailed figures to anyone who is interested. On 25 housing schemes it has saved £937,020 and on 41 other Capital works schemes it has saved £969,194.

Local authorities should be encouraged to supply as much information as possible to ratepayers. However, we all know that There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and information cooked up by the Secretary of State. His intention is not to provide ratepayers with information that may assist them but to damn those authorities which, with good reason and with the backing of their electorate, have been high spenders and provided adequate social, educational and housing services.

In the code I believe that the Secretary of State would seek to lay enormous emphasis on expenditure per head and little or no emphasis on the service that should be provided to the community in order to meet demand. That is why I am deeply suspicious of the motives behind part II of the Bill and why I believe that it will be of no service to local government or local democracy.

I am also concerned about amendment No. 4C. As the Bill stands, if Parliament agrees to the publication of information, the Secretary of State has a duty to lay down a code of procedure. Even greater uncertainty is now being introduce. The Secretary of State no longer has a duty but merely a discretion. What lies behind that change?

Finally regarding the Inner London Education Authority, although I now represent Blackburn I was once deputy leader of that authority and know a little about its operations. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) is right. The Inner London Education Authority was always included in the Local Government Acts that applied to education authorities. Under the London Government Act it merely took over the powers and duties previously exercised by the education department of the old London county council. I, too, am deeply suspicious of the Government's motivation in including the Inner London Education Authority.

Mr. Ronald W. Brown

Also, in amendment 4B at subsection (j) police committees are included. The Police Act 1964 is quoted. However, the Metropolitan Police are not included. The Inner London Education Authority has been mentioned, but the Metropolitan Police, who are responsible to no one in local government, are left out.

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend is right. Had the term used been "police authority", the Metropolitan Police would have been included.

If the omissions are innocent, why were they not spotted earlier? Is it another printing error? Why have these four categories now been included? Until we have a satisfactory explanation, we shall remain highly suspicious of the Government's intentions.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)

I share some of the suspicions of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), but I intend to vote with the Government on the clause. The publication of information by local and statutory authorities is a good thing.

I have many reservations about the way in which the Bill has been introduced. The fact that their Lordships have had to draft 265 amendments is an indication that the Bill's passage has caused concern, and not only in another place, but in local government, too. People in local government feel that the Government have treated them arrogantly. The Secretary of State is well aware of the concern of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and of local government associations.

It is ironic that we are considering a clause dealing with the publication of information, when certain information regarding the Bill was received only in the past 24 hours. I do not know whether that was caused by printing errors or blunders. Even if, as the Minister says, it is purely because of printing errors, he should still accept that there is insufficient time for us to consider the information and come to a reasonable conclusion on many of the propositions that we are being asked to discuss.

6 pm

I support the Government on the publication of information, but I am concerned about the pistol that is being held to our heads. We are told that we must pass the Bill because of the pot of gold that is at the end of the rainbow. We all know that we are being subjected to pressure to get the Bill through as quickly as we can, because if we do not approve the Lords' amendments tonight the money that is to be provided for Opposition parties could be jeopardised. Hon. Members are being told by their Whips that because of the pressure being applied by the Government to get the Bill through we must abide by their wishes. That is indicative of the arrogant way in which the Bill has been handled from start to finish.

If we consider the Government's record towards local government, we must think back to 1973, when the worst disaster that ever befell local government was enacted by the House. Surely it behoves us to have a little more humility in considering a measure that will have equal repercussions for the whole of local government.

In many ways the Bill will bring about the mutilation of local government. We shall no longer have local government at local level, but merely administration. The Secretary of State is arrogant, stubborn and dogmatic—and they are only his good points. Many feel that his absence today—he has not even bothered to turn up to justify a major piece of legislation—is typical of his arrogance.

Mr. Cant

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Secretary of State did not attend a single meeting of the Standing Committee on the Bill throughout the two and a half months that it sat?

Mr. Alton

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. The Secretary of State's absence is another indication of the cavalier way—that expression has been used by other hon. Members—in which the Government have treated the House and the democratic processes by foisting on us legislation that is resented by local government, many noble Lords and many hon. Members.

Mr. Graham

By leave of the House, I should like to refer to amendment No. 8. I shall be inviting my hon. Friends to reject it as an expression of their dissatisfaction with the Government's attitude.

Amendment No. 8 had its genesis in another place. In moving the amendment on Report, Lord Mackay said that it was the Government's response to the manuscript amendment tabled by Lord Ridley, who had said that the purpose of his amendment was to ensure that there should not be too wide an extension of requirements on authorities to publish information at short intervals without reference back to Parliament. If that was the object of the original amendment, something seems to have gone wrong, because amendment No. 8 is a big extension of the Secretary of State's powers over local authorities in the provision of information.

At the time, it was said that the Government amendment smacked of instant legislation and, on reflection and in consultation with the local authority associations, that view is confirmed. The Government have made a great deal of the collaboration and co-operation that they have received from the local authority associations. I have been assured by the associations that they have co-operated fully with the Government in the production of voluntary codes of practice for the supply of information. We should bear in mind that the AMA and the ADC cover 100 per cent. of local authorities.

We all know that there has been co-operation, because the code of practice dealing with rate demand notes and the supporting information has been published and will be acted upon by local authorities next April. A code of practice for annual reports and financial statements is well under way. But, before we go further, let me assure the House that there is nothing new in all this. What is enshrined in the codes of practice has been carried out by local authorities for many years. The majority of local authorities already supply to their inhabitants a wealth of information about their activities. This is picked up by the local press in part from council minutes and in part from documents and publications available in local libraries and newsletters put through letter boxes.

Why is it necessary to take further control over local authorities in this sphere? The question is of particular relevance when one considers the long title of the Bill, the first line of which states: An Act to relax controls over local government". In leaving amendment No. 8 as part of the Bill, can we say in all honesty that we have relaxed controls over local authorities?

In any event, two of the matters dealt with under the amendment, namely, information about employees and on planning aplications, are already well under way. Indeed, on the first item it has been part of local government and central Government policy for some years to produce information, first on an annual basis and, more recently, on a quarterly basis, without any requirements for compulsory powers over individual authorities. At a time of public expenditure cutbacks—and we have a vivid illustration of them only a week ago with the moratorium on housing capital expenditure—does it make sense to cause local authorities to spend money in producing statistics that may be of little value to anyone except the gatherers of numbers? The Government seem determined to use statistics as a drunken man uses a lamp post—more for support than for illumination.

In all my experience of local government, I have never known there to be a shortage of information available for either elected members or the public. I suggest that if any legislation is required it is in a completely different direction—to force people to read the information that is already put out by their local authorities at considerable expense.

Amendment No. 8 is not required and the Secretary of State has sufficient powers under clause 2 to obtain his objectives for basic information to be provided by local authorities about their functions and activities. I shall be asking my right hon. and hon. Friends to oppose the amendment.

Mr. King

By leave of the House, I shall reply.

The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) earlier made most strident objections to the amendments and he accused me of cavalier behaviour. I have apologised to the House. An unfortunate error was made but not by the Government. As soon as we discovered that certain amendments were missing from the printed list, the matter was immediately drawn to the printers' attention and the amendments were published.

I know that the hon. Gentleman could say that the Government have the power to change the business of the House. He made a righteous speech in defence of the House and our constitution, and there is a convention that a weekend should be allowed to elapse before Lords amendments are considered, but the hon. Gentleman worked for the previous Labour Government as a political adviser, and I am checking how many times they put Lords amendments to the House without even 24 hours' notice. If I am wrong, I shall withdraw, but I suspect that that happened.

We produced a corrigendum of mainly technical errors, but the Government that the hon. Gentleman supported put Lords amendments to the House at short notice on a number of occasions. I have apologised to the House. What happened was unfortunate, but it has not made our proceedings unworkable. It is not treating the House in a cavalier manner. If I thought that substantial amendments had been sprung on the House without its knowledge, I should consider that situation. The amendments to which the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) referred were moved in the House of Lords on 6 October. I think that he withdrew his remarks, but they indicate how little contact he has maintaned with the progress of the Bill.

I pay tribute to members of the Labour Party in another place for the constructive way in which they debated the Bill. It may upset the hon. Gentleman to know that it was a member of his own party who proposed the inclusion of ILEA in the amendment in the other place. Members of the Labour Party in the other place put in a considerable amount of time on the Bill. They were far from geriatric in their approach. The work of the revising Chamber was carried out with great distinction both by my noble Friends and by the noble Lords on the Opposition side.

I hope that I have not misled the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) in suggesting that there had been representations from local authorities, water authorities and other bodies seeking that these powers be imposed on them. I am glad to say that considerable numbers have made it clear that they accept that this is a proper exercise of power by the Government but that they prefer and hope that the voluntary approach can be made to work.

I was pleased to hear the remarks of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton). I believe that we reached agreement in Committee. No one was against the publication of more information. Only those with something to hide could possibly resent that. We are opposed to bureaucracy in the sense of overbearing demands for unnecessarily elaborate information. I trust that all hon. Members would expect this House, the Government, local authorities and other public bodies to be prepared to publish meaningful information.

The phrase "straightforward comparison" was picked up. There has been some bandying about of the question of how one can make a meaningful comparison with anyone, anywhere. I can understand, in the give and take of debate, that hon. Members will make that point. One cannot compare a metropolitan district with a shire county. There are different types of metropolitan districts. There are inner London and outer London boroughs. I do not accept, however, that it is impossible to make any meaningful comparisons of cost information, personnel information, information on procedures and levels of performance between 454 different authorities in the country. It can be an additional aid to management and a tool for councillors in trying to assess fairly the performance of their own authority. I hope that those who favour greater accountability will recognise the merit of what I say.

Mr. Cant

This is an extremely important point. I have intervened already in the debate to explain the difficulty that has arisen with grant-related expenditure. All the statistical evidence that has become available since the Standing Committee met supports the view of those who say that many of these comparisons are less than meaningful. If one looks at primary and secondary schools in terms of grant-related expenditure, one gets an enormous number of variables and 37 different sets of weightings. In the exemplifications undertaken by the Department there is a 10 per cent. variance in expenditure in different areas. I am all for information. I believe, however, that the Minister is trying to pull a little wool over our eyes, and is trying to mislead, unless he can show that there is some magic, statistical technique to make these statistics more meaningful.

6.15 pm.

Mr. King

I should not wish to debate the grant-related expenditure assessment now, although I appreciate that the matter may come up later in the proceedings. I say only that this is a tool that is used in industry and in comparisons between firms. It is a well-established practice, which managements find useful in assessing the performance of their own companies. I accept that there are pitfalls. The matter will need handling with care. There are, however, areas in which it can be valuable. I welcome the widening of the debate. The matter has not been previously much discussed.

The publication of comparative information does not answer any questions, but it might start to ask a few that are worth pursuing, to see whether reasons can be found to account for what seem to be surprising divergences. One simple statistic is the cost of running a planning department. The average cost, among what would seem to be similar types of authorities, varies between £2,000 per 1,000 electorate and £8,000 per 1,000 electorate, with the average coming out at £4,000. One authority may be under-provided for, while another is grossly extravagant. One can, nevertheless, start to ask questions and investigate further if one's authority happens to be an £8,000 authority. I should have thought that councillors in that authority would want to ask more questions.

I should like to deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Provan (Mr. Brown). The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities declined the invitation to prepare codes of practice. These have been prepared in England by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy and by the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, but the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities thought that this was a proper role for the Government. I understand from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State that this is now in preparation by the Government. There will be discussions with the convention. It is the intention in England that the codes of practice should be introduced on a voluntary basis. I hope that further discussions will help to resolve any tension that the hon. Member for Provan feels may exist on the matter.

The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell) asked whether there would be different codes of practice for different types of bodies. The answer is "Yes".

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

It is not a question whether there is any difference. Has the Minister the power to pick out one of the items in the list relating to the code of practice for one authority and not do it for the others?

Mr. King

There is no great trap involved. The codes of practice are voluntary procedures. It is possible that ILEA is like no other body. I should have thought, however, that all education bodies would tend to fall within the same broad remit for the sort of information that is meaningful about their performance.

Mr. Dobson


Mr. King

The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) asked why ILEA had suddenly been mentioned and whether this was a sinister move. I assure him that it is not. The extension of the clause to cover ILEA is necessary because, under existing statutes, the education function in inner London is conferred on the GLC, acting through the special committee known as the ILEA. For ILEA to be able to publish information about discharging functions in accordance with the code of practice issued under clause 2(2), it is necessarily formally to confer those functions on ILEA.

The hon. Member for Blackburn asked why the duty had been replaced by the permissive power under amendment No. 4C. The Government's firm intention is to issue codes of practice covering the provisions of information for ratepayers and local electors. However, we have not yet taken a decision on the other types of bodies included in the extension to the clause that was passed in another place. For that reason, we thought it appropriate to make the power permissive, since we shall not seek to introduce a code of practice for some of the bodies.

The hon. Gentleman was interrupted by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch, who spotted the point about the Metropolitan Police. The authority for the Metropolitan Police is the Home Secretary. It is not appropriate to include the Home Secretary in clause 2(2), although his intention is that the Metropolitan Police shall abide by the; principles in any code of practice that might be prepared for the guidance of other police authorities.

Mr. Straw

The Minister heard me correctly. The Home Secretary is the authority for the Metropolitan Police area, and in that sense is no different from any other police authority. If the term "police authority" had been used in the amendment, the Metropolitan Police would have been included. Why is it not appropriate to impose a statutory duty on the Home Secretary, in his capacity as police authority?

Mr. King

It is not normal in legislation to take powers for one Minister to lay a duty on another Minister. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has authorised me to say that his intention is that the Metropolitan Police shall abide by the principles in any code of practice that might be prepared for the guidance of police authorities. The Metropolitan Police will not be exempt, but the legal position is different from that of other authorities.

I made an outrageous allegation, which I should not have made if I had not been able to substantiate it. I told the hon. Member for Blackburn that on occasions his Government did not give the House all the notice that might be expected. I speak with the kindest spirit. His Government introduced the Community Land Bill. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was working with the Government on 11 November 1975, but they produced 186 Lord amendments. The House was invited to disagree or amend 29 of them, and the Amendment Paper was available only on the morning of the debate.

Mr. Graham

In view of the unsatisfactory nature and inadequacy of the reply, I invite my hon. Friends to unite in their detestation of the many aspects of clause 2 and to vote on Lords amendment No. 8.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 4B, 4C, 4D, 4E, 4F, 5, 6 and 7 agreed to.

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