HC Deb 09 January 1985 vol 70 cc763-4
1. Mr. Amess

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what progress has so far been made in his inquiry into the use of sections 137 and 142 of the Local Government Act 1972 by local authorities.

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Kenneth Baker)

I hope to be in a position shortly to advise the House of the details of the intended impartial inquiry into these and other issues.

Mr. Amess

I wish my right hon. Friend and all other hon. Members a very happy and successful new year. However, is my right hon. Friend aware that a growing number of my hon. Friends are becoming impatient at the Government's seeming slowness in introducing legislation to curb the wasting of ratepayers' money by local authorities on political propaganda? Is my right hon. Friend also aware of the seeming inability of district auditors to act in the matter, because of their very narrow remit?

Mr. Baker

I thank my hon. Friend for his good wishes for 1985. I am sure that we shall need them all.

The spending of money by councils on political propaganda is scandalous. My hon. Friend's own council spends money in that way. The Greater London council has already spent about £10 million and the metropolitan counties £3 million. As many hon. Members will know, Westminster city council has won the first round of a court case against the Inner London education authority, which wishes to spend £750,000 of ratepayers' money. The case is going to appeal.

This is an area of some clouded views. If the court case does not resolve the matter, we do not preclude legislation.

Mr. Conway

Has my right hon. Friend's Department consulted the Government Law Officers on this matter? If such consultation takes place, will he direct the attention of the Law Officers to the placing of advertisements by local authorities in organs such as the Labour Herald?

Mr. Baker

Yes, we have consulted the Law Officers, and I shall certainly draw to their attention the point that my hon. Friend has raised.

Mr. Mark Carlisle

Is it not a complete disgrace and an absolute abuse that local authorities such as the Labour-dominated Warrington borough council should use ratepayers' money for the support of striking miners, especially when many of those ratepayers are, through no fault of their own, unfortunately unemployed?

Mr. Baker

There is no doubt that certain Labour-controlled authorities are using their powers under section 137 in a way never envisaged in the original legislation. That is why there is to be an impartial inquiry into that abuse and many others as well.

Mr. Tony Banks

Will the Minister tell the House how much taxpayers'money was spent on bringing out the Conservative party propaganda leaflets entitled "After the GLC" and "After the Metropolitan County Councils"? Was the material based on the Central Office handout just released by the Department of the Environment?

Mr. Baker

The two admirable leaflets which the hon. Gentleman is holding up are not political propaganda. They contain an explanation of the main points of the Government's proposal. It is well precedented for Governments to produce such leaflets of explanation after Second Reading. It was done in the case of the Telecommunications Bill and of the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill. The cost was about £9,600, which would not buy even half a page in the Daily Mirror.

Mr. Straw

While the power of local authorities to spend money for information purposes is closely regulated under legislation passed by the Conservative party in 1972, is it not true that central Government have a wholly unfettered power to spend taxpayers' money, and that it is the Government who have spent money scandalously, in support of abolition proposals which have not been approved by the House, of their tendentious defence policies and of privatisation?

Mr. Baker

The conventions regarding the spending of advertising money by the Government are well known and have been observed by successive Governments. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have acted within the conventions that successive Governments have followed.