HC Deb 06 February 1985 vol 72 cc957-71 4.45 pm
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Patrick Jenkin)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement.

In the debate on the Address on 7 November I said that I intended to set up an inquiry into various practices and procedures in local government. Following discussions with the Opposition parties and the local authority associations, I am now in a position to give further information to the House.

The terms of reference for the inquiry will be as follows:

To inquire into practices and procedures governing the conduct of local authority business in Great Britain, with particular reference to:

  1. a. the rights and responsibilities of elected members;
  2. b. the respective roles of elected members and officers; and
  3. c. the need to clarify the limits and conditions governing discretionary spending by local authorities
and to make any necessary recommendations for strengthening the democratic process. Within those terms of reference I am inviting the committee to pay particular attention to the following issues: ensuring proper accountability for decision-taking to elected members and to the electorate generally; and examining possible ways of strengthening local democracy within the existing structure of local government; clarifying the status and role of party groups in decision-taking; ensuring the proper participation and accountability of individual elected members in the decision-taking process; examining any problems of propriety which may arise from members' conflicts of interest, particularly where officers of one council serve as councillors of another; considering the merits of the development of full-time councillors; and the related issues of the use of members' allowances and the remuneration of councillors generally; reviewing the system of co-option of non-elected members; studying officers' relationships, particularly in view of their legal and professional obligations, with elected members and political groups; clarifying the limits and conditions governing discretionary spending, including the use of sections 137 and 142 of the Local Government Act 1972, and sections 83 and 88 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, for political purposes in local government, or in relation to bodies set up, and largely financed, by local authorities. Local government franchise, finance and structure will be outside the terms of reference.

In view of the growing public concern about the use made by some local authorities of their discretionary powers to engage in overt political campaigning at public expense, I am asking the committee to submit an early interim report on this question. As far as the report as a whole is concerned, I am asking the committee to aim to report within a year.

It is essential that the inquiry should be both impartial and effective in dealing with these difficult issues. The best way to achieve this is to establish a small committee of people of judgment and ability, headed by a chairman of known integrity. My right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales and I therefore propse to appoint a committee of four or five members chosen for the personal contribution which each can make to the wide-ranging subject matter of the inquiry.

I am glad to inform the House that Mr. David Widdicombe, QC, has indicated to me that he would be prepared to accept appointment as chairman of the committee of inquiry. Further appointments to the committee, of which I shall advise the House, will be made shortly.

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

The Secretary of State has just made a very important statement about local government, which plays a crucial role in our plural democratic society. It is important that the matters that he intends to have examined are examined as objectively and impartially as possible. I welcome the fact not only that the right hon. Gentleman consulted Opposition parties, but that he has placed particular emphasis on the need for impartial approaches on these very sensitive matters.

I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman several questions, arising not so much from the terms of reference, which my hon. Friends and I believe to be broadly satisfactory—I understand that that is the view of the local authority associations, too—but from some of the points of detail that he spelt out in the statement. Why did he refer only to conflicts of interest in respect of officers who seek to be elected to councils? There are other conflicts of interest in local government at present and they, too, must be examined, particularly when they involve business and commercial interests.

I hope that in taking account of those matters and appointing members to the inquiry the right hon. Gentleman will ensure that the interests of women in local government are represented on the committee of inquiry—

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)


Dr. Cunningham

If the stupid exclamation by the hon. Gentleman is anything to go by, I had better spell out what I think. We very much hope that one of the members of the committee of inquiry will be a woman.

Why does the Secretary of State feel it necessary to have the interim report, especially in view of the time scale? I ask him to assure the House that, if he feels that he must proceed with that—we would prefer him not to — the many more fundamentally important issues involved in his statement will not suffer as a result, and the role and functions of councillors, for example, the legal rights and obligations of officers and the work of local authorities, will not be squeezed out by overemphasis on the voluntary expenditure of local authorities, the discretionary use of sections 137 and 142. I remind the Secretary of State and the House that when those matters have been tested in the courts, the councils have always been exonerated in their use of such money, perhaps with one exception, which is still sub judice and on which I shall not comment.

I believe that many people involved in local authorities of all political persuasions, whether councillors or officials, will welcome the right hon. Gentleman's assurance that those matters are to be examined, as he described, in an impartial way. If that particularly important aspect of his statement is not adhered to, it is unlikely that there will be a successful outcome.

Mr. Jenkin

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's ready welcome for the inquiry. He said in his speech on the Loyal Address that that was the line he would be likely to take if he were satisfied about impartiality. I think that he has shown that he is.

I shall take the hon. Gentleman's final point first. I was gratefully reassured by my consultations with all the local authority associations. They welcome the inquiry and are fully prepared to co-operate with it. That is a very important matter. The hon. Gentleman also asked some detailed questions, one of which was about the conflicts of business interests. They were examined by the Redcliffe-Maud report, but they are comprehended within the phrase that I used about the individual accountability of councillors. I take note of what the hon. Gentleman said about the desirability of having a woman on the committee. I hope that the decision will be made shortly, but I ask the hon. Gentleman to wait until then.

With regard to the interim report, the hon. Gentleman must recognise that there is and has been rapidly mounting public concern over the misuse by some local authorities of their discretionary spending powers at the same time as—

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Secretary of State is speaking about an impartial inquiry, yet referred to the misuse of public funds. That must prejudice the impartiality of any inquiry.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Secretary of State must take responsibility for what he says, but he was asked a long question and he is now having to answer it.

Mr. Jenkin

Many people regard it as a misuse of public funds. I am prepared to accept that. It is because there are complex legal and political issues that I thought it right to refer the matter to the impartial inquiry. Legal cases demonstrate the complexity of the issues. That is why it is right to ask for an urgent interim report. However, I give the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) the assurance that that will in no way detract from the work of the committee, and I hope that it will report within a year.

The hon. Gentleman is not right to say that none of those matters has yet been resolved. The case of City of Westminster against the Inner London education authority was decided in the High Court. I understand that ILEA has now dropped the idea of appeal, so that judgment stands. However, the Greater London council case is being appealed. I hope very much that all those concerned with the wellbeing of local government will think it right to respond in due course if the committee decides to call for evidence that would be helpful to its members in reaching their conclusion.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, which some of us feel has long been due. Will the inquiry examine the problem whereby a local authority can give itself planning permission, thus sitting as judge and jury in its own court? It is a long-term problem, sometimes discharged honourably and sometimes not, and it exercises many people.

Mr. Jenkin

I should like to look at what my hon. Friend said. I had not thought of that problem as being within the purview of the committee, except in so far as it might reflect upon the propriety of the decision and the manner in which it is reached. The question of the details of planning law should be examined in another context.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

On behalf of my party, I join in welcoming the inquiry, the chairman as named and the Secretary of State's courtesy in fulfilling his obligation to consult spokesmen in Opposition parties about the terms of reference and appointments. I endorse the view that for practical reasons a woman on the committee of inquiry would be a good idea. There are women serving in local government, and they have particular needs. They should be taken into account for all sorts of reasons.

This is an important point. I hope that the Secretary of State accepts that consideration on conflicts of interest should be as wide as possible. All sorts of interests should be considered. I have one substantial regret, that the question of the franchise has been excluded. The Secretary of State's former PPS, the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Thornton), shares the view of many hon. Members that proportional representation in local government is the best safeguard against abuse by tyrant majorities — not elected majorities, but majorities of councillors—who are tempted through the grey area into indiscretion and malpractice. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) and others in Liverpool and elsewhere know full well the implications of such views. Proportional representation in local government, as Bradford demonstrates, would be a much healthier form of local government.

Mr. Eric S. Heifer (Liverpool, Walton)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We have again just heard reference to something that has appeared in the newspapers — allegations made in relation to people in Liverpool which have not been substantiated. No charges or court cases are pending against anybody. Under the circumstances, is it right that hon. Members should raise such matters in that way when we are discussing setting up an inquiry commission into local government?

Mr. Speaker

I must say again that I cannot be responsible for what hon. Members say in this place. If the hon. Gentleman seeks to put a question about his constituency I shall do my best to accommodate him.

Mr. Jenkin

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the committee and for the advice that he gave when I consulted him. It would be inappropriate for the question of the franchise to be referred to such a committee. I understand his views but that matter must be for another occasion.

Mr. Michael Forsyth (Stirling)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement of an inquiry, but will he act now and act quickly against those authorities, whose actions are nothing less than corrupt, which are allowing extremists in their midst to soak the ratepayers to fund miners, women's committees and every other trendy cause? To give one example, Fife region has spent more than £1 million on funding striking miners. Will my right hon. Friend accept that we welcome a detailed look but we want action against political contributions?

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot have questions following statements peppered with points of order. I shall call the hon. Gentleman to put his question and perhaps he will include his point of order in it.

Mr. Ewing

I know that you are fed up, Mr. Speaker, but I have an important point of order. You have just given a ruling to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) about what Members say in the House and their being responsible. Is it in order for hon. Members to use the privilege of the House to make statements about councillors being corrupt? The hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) is using the House to describe councillors as corrupt when he simply does not have the courage to go outside and make the same statement. He knows that those statements are simply untrue.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let us keep moderation in our language. It would be completely out of order to impugn the integrity of any hon. Member in the House and we should be extremely careful about what we say about those outside because they have no right of reply.

Mr. Jenkin

I am well aware of the strong feelings expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) and many people outside the House about some of the payments that have been made by local authorities. They raise complex questions of law and propriety. It would be wise for the House and the Government, before reaching a conclusion on this, to have the impartial advice of a group of men, and perhaps women, of integrity on those difficult matters.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that my constituency and Teesside as a whole will welcome his announcement, particularly, I imagine, lifelong Labour councillors, who hope that the committee will look into some of the practices on selection and deselection which are taking place in that area at the moment? In particular, I hope that my right hon. Friend will include in the report the activities of Middlesbrough councillors who are able to claim attendance allowances for themselves for so-called surgeries held in their own front room any evening of the week while they are watching television.

Mr. Jenkin

Members' allowances are well within the terms of reference of the inquiry but I have to disappoint my hon. Friend because I doubt whether the activities of local Labour parties in choosing their candidates will be.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that he is not proceeding with this inquiry on the presumption that anyone who is mentioned by his hon. Friends is guilty of some sort of corruption? How will the committee go about taking evidence and who will be allowed to give it? As it is clear that some of the matters to be discussed are matters of opinion and judgment rather than simple legality, will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that all the evidence provided to the committee of inquiry will be published in full? As the inquiry has obviously been in the right hon. Gentleman's mind for some time, why has he given only the name of the chairman of the inquiry? How shall we be consulted, for example, about who will be the impartial member nominated to represent Scottish interests?

Mr. Jenkin

I have made no assumptions whatever about any activities that may have been referred to in the House during the course of the statement, or outside, where many hon. Members are aware that there has been growing disquiet about a number of activities that have become apparent in local government. That is why we are having the inquiry. It will be for the committee to decide whether and how to call for evidence but the committee is not empowered to compel witnesses to appear. It will be for the committee to decide whether any evidence given to it is published or given in confidence. The hon. Gentleman may make his own inquiries, but there may be a number of people, perhaps serving council officers, who would like to feel that any evidence or help that they may be able to give to the committee would be treated as confidential. But it will be for the committee to decide how to conduct its affairs.

Mr. Christopher Hawkins (High Peak)

Is my right hon. Friend aware how welcome the inquiry will be in High Peak and in Derbyshire as a whole? Will he ensure that the inquiry investigates the decision of Derbyshire county council to force schools to overprint school stationery with anti-nuclear slogans?

Mr. Jenkin

That would be a perfectly good piece of evidence on which to seek to apply to the committee.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

The Minister is prejudging the matter.

Mr. Jenkin

I am not prejudging anything at all. I am merely saying that it is a matter on which it will be appropriate to give evidence to the committee.

Mr. Banks

Is the Minister aware that the reason local authorities and the GLC decided this morning to submit evidence to the inquiry is that local government has nothing whatever to hide, which is more than one can say for the Government. This will not be an impartial inquiry in that sense because the Government have already had their mind made up for them by their Back Benchers, as we have seen this afternoon. Will the terms of reference of the inquiry extend to the influence of freemasonry in local government, which we consider to be insidious and dangerous? Will the Secretary of State be accepting nominees for the membership of the committee of inquiry from the local authority associations?

Mr. Jenkin

The question of evidence of outside influences on members would, I should have thought, be germane to the question of the independence and accountability of members of local authorities. I have no doubt that, if there is an opportunity and the hon. Gentleman wishes to present evidence on freemasonry, the committee will welcome that. I consulted all the local authority associations, including the Association of London Authorities and the GLC, and I found unanimity for the view that it would be better not to have any serving councillor or serving officer of any existing local authority on the committee. In considering the membership I shall take close account of that advice. The hon. Gentleman must await the announcement of the further members.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Leeds, North-West)

My right hon. Friend's statement is welcome, particularly for people in the metropolitan counties such as west Yorkshire and Leeds, where we are already well on the way to seeing £1 million spent in political propaganda. Will he reassure people in those areas that the interim report will be speedy and that it will be the prime and sole concern of the committee initially and not just part of its general examination of all the other issues as well? We do not want to feel that my right hon. Friend is fudging the issue or that the committee will simply identify abuses. Can he assure us that the committee will produce positive recommendations upon which he will act? People in Leeds and west Yorkshire know that there is abuse.

Mr. Jenkin

It is my intention to ask for an urgent interim report. I assume that the committee will do its very best to fall in with my request. No doubt the committee will receive much evidence on these matters and will wish to take account of it—including evidence of the strength of many people's feelings on the issue.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

To demand from the committee an interim report on one narrow party political point will not help it to stand a chance of being accepted as impartial. Would it not have been better to allow the members of the committee to decide which issues they wished to tackle in an interim report? Secondly, if there is to be an interim report, could it not consider the problems of those many councillors who, as a result of the economic policies of the Government, have been made redundant after giving long service to local government and now find it extremely difficult to receive sympathetic treatment in relation to social security and unemployment benefit because of their duties as councillors? Would not that be a better topic for the interim report than the narrow party political issue that the right hon. Gentleman has dragged in?

Mr. Jenkin

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. There has been a general welcome both inside and outside the House for my intention to ask the committee to study a matter that is the cause of widespread public concern. No doubt the other matter could be tackled in connection with the question of the remuneration of councillors.

Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, North-East)

Contrary to what was alleged, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) has already widely published a pamphlet listing in detail the abuses to which he has just referred in brief summary. Is my right hon. Friend also aware that the representatives of about 95 per cent. of my constituents will warmly welcome his announcement? Their only anxiety will be to know how long it will be before the abuses about which they are concerned are brought to light by the committee. Can anything be done in the worst cases? Well over £1 million has already been spent by Fife regional council in helping people with jobs to stay on strike, and many unemployed people and pensioners in my constituency feel bitterly that their rates are being abused without discussion or vote in the regional council.

Mr. Jenkin

Those problems fall squarely within the terms of reference of the committee. It would be right to leave them to the committee. I assure my hon. Friend that we shall ask for an urgent interim report.

Mr. Ewing

Can the right hon. Gentleman give us an assurance in relation to the spending referred to under section 88 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act? Can he assure us that the purpose of the inquiry is not to stop such spending altogether but to define the parameters within which it may take place? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is an equal possibility that the inquiry might agree on wider rather than narrower parameters?

Mr. Jenkin

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no intention to ask the committee to consider the abolition of that section. Whether it should be redrafted to resemble the corresponding English section is a matter on which we should await the committee's advice.

Sir John Osborne (Sheffield, Hallam)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the education committee chairman in Sheffield has written to school governors and chairmen of governors, and has embarked on a publicity campaign directed at parents, blaming the Secretary of State for Education for failures in the education system? Would that be a suitable subject for investigation by the Committee?

Mr. Jenkin

The gentleman would be perfectly entitled to express his view as a private citizen, but perhaps he would not be entitled to spend ratepayers' money on so doing. That is the issue that is causing concern and on which the committee will be asked to judge.

Mr. Terry Fields (Liverpool, Broadgreen)

Surely the clue to the real purpose of the inquiry lies in the innuendos of the Secretary of State, Conservative Members and the whingeing Liberals? The inquiry is part and parcel of an attack on Labour-controlled authorities, prompted by the campaign that is to ensue in the coming months. Is not the Government's intention to mask the successes in Liverpool, where 200 jobs have been created and 2,268 council houses will have been built by May, while the Government and big business have done nothing? Should we not borrow a doctrine from the British Boxing Board of Control, which would diagnose the Secretary of State as being punch-drunk from last year's hiding and in no condition to take on Liverpool and other areas this year?

Mr. Jenkin

I am afraid that the affairs of the British Boxing Board of Control will not fall within the terms of the inquiry.

Mr. Derek Spencer (Leicester, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that those of us who served in local government before we came to this place are reassured by the setting-up of the committee? One of the fears engendered by our experience was that there was plenty of evidence that public money was spent on a basis of political partiality. If local government has nothing to hide, it has nothing to fear, and one can expect widespread submissions to the committee from every quarter.

Mr. Jenkin

My hon. and learned Friend's proposition was also put very firmly by all the local authority associations. I found that most reassuring. These matters could very properly be subjects for the inquiry.

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

We have witnessed the jackboot methods of the Ministry of Defence in the previous statement. If the Secretary of State for the Environment is to avoid the same charge, can he assure us that the composition of the committee will be truly impartial and generally acceptable to both sides of the House? Will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to pay tribute to the thousands of councillors of both parties throughout the country who give sincere and loyal service well beyond any recompense in terms of expenses and allowances? If the Secretary of State is worried about democracy and about proper financial accounting, surely he should set up an inquiry into the workings of central rather than local government.

Mr. Jenkin

I am entirely at one with the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the many councillors who give loyal service far beyond the call of duty. It is a matter of public record that the proposed chairman of the inquiry, Mr. David Widdicombe, stood as a Labour candidate for the constituency of Totnes in his youth. He has authorised me to say that he is not now a member of any political party. I shall certainly keep the questions of impartiality and balance in mind when appointing the other members.

The hon. Gentleman's last question is not relevant except in so far as it bears upon the conduct of business by local authorities.

Mr. Piers Merchant (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. Is he aware that it will be especially welcome to my constituents in Newcastle upon Tyne, who have laboured under the spending abuses of both Tyne and Wear county council and the Newcastle city council? Would it not be appropriate for the inquiry to take evidence connected with the donation of more than £300,000 by the county council in support of the miners' dispute and a similar donation by the Newcastle city council, the operation of the Newcastle city council priority area teams in spending large sums of money on political propaganda, and the noted increase in the past year in spending allowances for members of Tyne and Wear county council?

Mr. Jenkin

All those matters seem to be proper subjects for evidence to the committee. The interim report will be confined to the question of the use of local authority powers to spend ratepayers' money on political propaganda. Many of the other matters suggested by hon. Members on both sides of the House will fall entirely within the committee's terms of reference but would not be subjects for the interim report.

Mr. Hugh Brown (Glasgow, Provan)

The Secretary of State has made a very important statement. I make no complaint about the fact that there was no similar statement from the Secretary of State for Scotland. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is here, and I accept the convention, but it is never satisfactory.

What consultations have there been with Scottish interests? The Secretary of State was asked whether the committee would have a Scottish member. Would it not have been better to set up a sub-committee or a separate committee if, in the opinion of the Secretary of State for Scotland, there is a need for such an inquiry?

Mr. Jenkin

I assure the hon. Gentleman that there was full consultation with COSLA by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. I understand that COSLA is satisfied with the proposed terms of reference. It is within our contemplation that a distinguished Scot might be asked to serve as a member of the committee.

Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West)

Will the terms of reference permit the committee to consider the practice of local authorities that use pre-tender conditions and contract clauses to impose political views? I refer to councils that have barred from their tender lists contractors who have carried out operations at Greenham common and other military installations. Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to study Dr. Goodison-Wicke's book entitled "The New Corruption" which charts the enormous growth of such activities in local government? Will all of those issues be considered by the committee?

Mr. Jenkin

Contract conditions are specialised matters and hardly bear on the conduct of council business. I do not think that that would be within the terms of reference. However, it will always be open to anyone to make a suggestion as to how the terms of reference should be widened. Dr. Goodison-Wickes' pamphlet has been read widely in local government. Although it presents a particular view of the problem, it shows some of the grounds for concern that many right hon. Members have expressed.

Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)

In view of the Government's record of attacks on local government in the past five years and in view of the outrageous statements that Conservative Members have made today, is the Secretary of State beginning to form the opinion that the inquiry can be regarded as impartial only if he ensures that not one member of it has anything to do with the Conservative party?

Mr. Jenkin

I suspect that that might be difficult to achieve but I intend to ensure that the members of the committee are recognised for their impartiality and integrity. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman. The questions that have been put to me at the Dispatch Box today have served only to reinforce the wisdom of referring these issues to a committee of this type.

Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that West Yorkshire metropolitan county council, through its leader, recently issued a secret memorandum exclusively to Labour councillors asking them to suggest up to £50,000-worth of spending on road programmes in their wards? Does he agree that that is a legitimate cause for anxiety among many people who regard it as an erosion of the traditional values of local government? Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the terms of reference of the inquiry will be sufficiently wide to enable it to consider this and similar cases?

Mr. Jenkin

I can give my hon. Friend the assurance for which he asks.

Mr. Guy Barnett (Greenwich)

The Secretary of State will be aware that, for years, the responsibility borne and the business carried out by leaders and chairmen of committees has grown. Will the committee be competent to re-examine the proposals that were made by the Robinson committee on the possibility of paying leaders and chairmen of committees in view of the substantial responsibilities that some of them now have?

Mr. Jenkin

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

Perhaps my right hon. Friend could meet at least two of the Opposition's requests by appointing a Scottish woman. That would kill two birds, as it were, with one stone. My right hon. Friend has said that franchise, finance and structure will not be considered by the committee. Structure is being dealt with differently, but can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government are dealing with the financing of local government urgently? Can he also confirm that any recommendations that arise from the investigation into the financing of local government will appear before, or at least at the same time as, the recommendations of the committee of inquiry, so that the matter might be dealt with comprehensively?

Mr. Jenkin

I assure my hon. Friend that I have nothing but respect for Scottish women, as my mother was one. I also assure my hon. Friend that the finance study that I have asked my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment to undertake are well under way, but it will be some months before we shall be able to embark on public consultation. I see no overriding need for the work of the committee and those studies to proceed in tandem. They are addressed to important but different matters. However, I take my hon. Friend's point.

Mr David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

I especially welcome what the Secretary of State said about protecting people who give information from vindictive retaliatory action. Will he consider two issues that arise out of his decision yesterday to reject the Asda hypermarket application, which the police have announced today that they will investigate? Will he ensure that the committee investigates that matter? Secondly—

Mr. Terry Fields

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Alton

Will the Secretary of State examine issues raised by the "jobs for the boys" policy that is being pursued by councils such as Liverpool, in which political placemen are put in positions of power purely because their political faces fit?

Mr. Terry Fields

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot make a point of order just because another hon. Member has made a provocative statement.

Mr. Terry Fields

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall take the point of order after the Secretary of State's answer.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

Some of them are crooks.

Mr. Jenkin

The matter that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) has raised would be quite inappropriate for referral to the committee now. The appointment to councils of paid officials with party affiliations is a matter that the committee could consider, but I would not wish to argue that it would necessarily be appropriate. Many of the changes in the conduct of local authority business reflect fundamental changes in the nature of the business that is done and the nature of the societies in which councils operate. Far be it from me to suggest, by referring many of these issues to the committee, that the changes are necessarily wrong. On the contrary, it might well be that the law could catch up with the way in which many councils wish to conduct their business. In those circumstances, it is right that democratic freedoms, the rights of oppositions and fundamental freedoms should be preserved.

Mr. Terry Fields

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I must object most strongly to the language of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton). Such language is part and parcel of early-day motion 353 in which the hon. Gentleman impugns the integrity and honesty of people outside who are in no position to defend themselves. The hon. Gentleman talked about "jobs for the boys". We are creating jobs for the boys and girls of Liverpool, which he and his crowd cannot do.

Mr. Speaker

Every hon. Member must take responsibility for what he says in the Chamber. I cannot repeat that too frequently.

Mr. Heffer

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have been in the House for 21 years now, and important points of order of this type have always been listened to with care by Mr. Speaker. The hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) referred to certain people as crooks. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) said that the police are investigating an event in Liverpool. Is it not clear that when the police are investigating a matter it is not right for any hon. Member to make statements in the House impugning anyone who might be involved? It is certainly wrong for hon. Members to refer to people who might be involved, or who are being investigated, as crooks. Only after the investigations, legal action and a decision by the courts can such statements be made. On that basis, I trust that we shall not have any more of this, otherwise the hon. Members concerned should leave the House, make their statements publicly without privilege and face the consequences. I believe that they should withdraw their statements.

Mr. Alton

I leave it to the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) to make his own statement to the House.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The early-day motion to which the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) referred precedes the statement made by the Merseyside police this afternoon that they intend to investigate the matter. As far as the statements made in that early-day motion are concerned, the deputy leader of the Liverpool city council and a developer who wanted a £20 million development in Liverpool—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That has nothing to do with me. Let us seek moderation in our language in this place. That has always been our tradition. I never heard any accusation or use of the word "crook" referring to any hon. Member. If that happened, I would expect the hon. Member concerned—and I did not hear it—to withdraw the remark.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I made no mention of any hon. Member. I merely heard one Opposition Member refer to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) as a rat, and while he has certain unattractive—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I would not like that either.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

On the basis that every hon. Member should be opposed to corruption wherever it occurs, would the Secretary of State talk to the Leader of the House and his Cabinet colleagues and suggest, as there is continuing disquiet about the behaviour of hon. Members and the behaviour of lobbying organisations that operate in the House, and, to a large extent, finance lunches and dinners in some of the dining rooms of the House, that while it is appropriate for there to be an inquiry into allegations of corruption and malpractice in local government, it would also be proper for the House to prove that, while endorsing the inquiry, we are not living in a glasshouse and throwing stones at other people?

Mr. Jenkin

It may be within the recollection of the hon. Gentleman that such a study of affairs in the House led to the setting up of the Register of Financial Interests to which most hon. Members contribute, even if it is only one way. Obviously this would be quite outside the terms of the inquiry.

Mr. Derek Fatchett (Leeds, Central)

Given the extent to which Conservative Members have been prepared this afternoon to throw cheap political jibes and to prejudge the issues, would the Secretary of State reconsider his earlier comment that evidence will be taken in private in certain cases? Surely, if evidence is taken in private, cheap allegations can be made against individual councillors and officers without those councillors and officers having the right to reply to such allegations. All that, I argue, will lead to a judgment on the part of the public and those involved in local government that, far from being an impartial inquiry, the inquiry is already predetermined to come up with one particular decision.

Mr. Jenkin

There is no suggestion that the inquiry is predetermined. As I made clear in what was, perhaps, a rather lengthy answer to the hon. Member for Mossley Hill, there is no presumption whatever that the existing statutory framework is necessarily the right one.

On the question of evidence in private, this must be a matter for the committee. It would not be improper for the committee, if it considered this necessary in order to protect witnesses who might be serving officers or who may have other roles, to be prepared to hear evidence in private. But, of course, the membership of the committee will be a sufficient talisman of its ability to distinguish between what it should take note of and what, if there is no possibility of challenging it, it might do better to ignore.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Is not the real purpose of the Minister's inquiry to try to prevent the use of sections 137 and 142 of the Local Government 1972 Act by councils such as Leicester which are suffering from the ugliest and highest levels of rate-capping, so that they will no longer be able to inform their electors as to the awful results of the Government's rate-capping legislation? When the Minister says that information is proper but political propaganda is not, is he not defining information as that which he and the Government put out and political propaganda as that which is put out in the same way by their opponents in the honourable traditions of Her Majesty's Opposition?

Mr. Jenkin

All I can say—and I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman has studied the recent judgment of Mr. Justice Glidewell — is that this is a distinction that is drawn in the interpretation of section 142. I assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that this is by no means the central purpose of the committee's inquiry. The wide-ranging nature of the comments that have been made in all parts of the House indicates that the committee is, indeed, welcome and that it will have a wide range of issues to which to address itself. Indeed, I think that the members of the committee are in for a rather interesting time.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Does not the Secretary of State accept that since 1979 he and his Government have pursued a vendetta against local government and, in particular, a vendetta against those authorities that have sought to use existing local government legislation to the full to try to ameliorate some of the social and economic conditions in which they are placed?

The statement that he has made this afternoon and the observations of his hon. Friends suggest to me and, I believe, to many people outside the House, that this is not an objective inquiry at all, but a form of attack on those local authorities that are trying to use existing local government legislation to the full.

Does the right hon. Gentleman not further accept that implicit in the terms of reference that he has announced this afternoon is an attempt to curtail local government democracy in the country? I refer him to the section in which he states that there will be an inquiry into the propriety of members of councils being employed by another council. Should he not be considering the difficulties and the lack of democracy suffered by many local authority workers who are denied the right to stand for election to a local authority or to participate in local authority affairs? Finally, has the right hon. Gentleman consulted any trade unions on the matter?

Mr. Jenkin

The purpose of the inquiry and the terms of reference of the inquiry in general were welcomed by the local authority associations of all political persuasions. One issue on which there was no argument by those associations is that it would be right for the committee to examine the growing practice of officers of one authority being councillors of another. The obvious conflicts of interest which could, but do not necessarily, arise are matters that, rightly, should be subjected to such an impartial inquiry.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

Will not the Secretary of State accept that, despite his repeated assurances throughout the statement that it would be an impartial inquiry, the large majority of people who are interested in genuine local government, bearing in mind the Government's track record of the last six years, will view this as an attempt by the Government further to restrict local government? Would it not be far wiser to hold an inquiry into giving genuine freedom, power and finance to local government to meet the needs and requirements of the local communities who elect councillors?

Mr. Jenkin

There is no reason why the committe should not examine the giving of genuine freedom and power to local government. The only matter that I think it should not examine is local government finance, which is the subject of separate studies.

Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley)

Will the Secretary of State agree that often, during business in the House, when Parliament considers local government in terms of its democracy, its accountability and its finance, the old proverb springs to mind, "Physician, heal thyself"? Would it not be useful, therefore, if we had that pinned up on the wall as a reminder to ourselves?

Mr. Jenkin

I think that I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. If the affairs of all local authorities were as open and accountable as are the affairs of any Government of whatever party to the House of Commons and to the electorate, there would be fewer grounds for the disquiet that has arisen and for the general welcome that the inquiry has received.