HC Deb 23 July 1985 vol 83 cc886-92 4.37 pm
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend sections 137 and 142 of the Local Government Act 1972. I will deal first with the historical background and then with the present situation and the details of the Bill.

Up to 1972, local authorities were governed by the doctrine of ultra vires, and they were not permitted to do anything not specifically allowed for by statute. This meant that in some circumstances they were put in the embarrassing position, for instance, of not being able to repair a canal bank until they had come to the House for a general powers Act. In 1963, local authorities were given a very limited power to spend money on some projects not specifically allowed for by the House. In Committee at that time, Sir Cyril Black said that he hoped that local authorities would confine expenditure to necessary and modest projects, and would not make it an occasion for spending money merely because they had the power, unless there was some compelling reason for the expenditure.

Those were prophetic words because in 1972 Parliament decided to experiment and give local authorities the power to devote a 2p rate to anything of benefit not necessarily to all the residents of the local authority but merely to some. Parliament felt justified in making that experiment because there was at that time a consensus about what local authorities should be about, namely, professional full-time officers supervised by part-time elected councillors providing services of a direct and practical kind which all residents of that local authority would be deemed to enjoy or hope to enjoy at some future time. Since 1972, that consensus has broken down with the appearance of young full-time hard Left Labour politicians who, denied power in the national arena—often because they voice extremist policies—have turned town halls into an alternative state. They have tried to build up a coterie of tight-knit groups, which are often dependent on the town hall. Such groups often work in a self-supporting circle.

I should like to quote the example of a constituent. Councillor Ben Stallman is a Liberal and I do not support everything that he says but, for many years, he worked satisfactorily for Barnsley borough council, which was Labour controlled. As soon as he became a Liberal councillor, he was hounded and finally forced to retire on grounds of ill health. I believe that he was denied his statutory rights. It is interesting that Barnsley borough council employed Mr. David Blunkett, now the Labour leader of Sheffield city council, and that the late Fred Lunn, Labour leader of Barnsley district council, was employed by Sheffield.

The expenditure that such local authorities have engaged in is so well known that I do not need to go into detail. I have here a sheaf of paper detailing the grants that the Greater London council has made in the past year. The list includes £50,000 for the Troops Out movement, £2,000 for Song for Peace, £1 million for the biased free newspaper, The Londoner, and £8,000 for the Peace Year statue. All of these cases are well known. Some of those groups would he more risible than anything else if there were not such a sinister purpose behind them.

Babies against the Bomb is well known, but it is interesting that the people who received a grant for the English Collective of Prostitutes have the same address as Women Against Rape. Mr. Tony Kerpel, the former leader of the Opposition on Camden borough council, has supplied me with information about organisations such as Lesbians and Policing Project. The women's committee of Camden council sponsored a visit of relatives of terrorists held in Armagh prison.

Such activities are not confined to London. The Labour group on Liverpool city council attempted to allocate £250,000 for a day of action—letting every member of the work force off work to demonstrate. The Lothian Clarion, a free newspaper which is paid for by the rates, drew the following response from a judge: it was impossible to avoid the conclusion that the article was calculated to promote the election of Labour candidates. Political corruption is not confined to financial matters. There has been violent intimidation of councillors in Lambeth and Camden, and the extensive co-opting of self-appointed community representatives on those councils.

The difficulty, when framing legislation, is that many Conservative-controlled councils use sections 137 and 142 of the Local Government Act 1972 to spend money on worthwhile projects. My Bill would therefore provide that all ratepayers and residents be given locus standi to take a council to court if they believe that it infringed the Bill.

It would be unlawful for a local authority to do anything which promotes support for or opposition to any political party or its policies, contributes to its funds, or does anything to help any other body to do those things. It is impossible to frame watertight provisions, but my Bill would give the courts a handle with which to intervene on behalf of local residents, with a view to depoliticising town hall spending.

The Bill would amend section 137, so that money could be spent on behalf of all or most inhabitants rather than all or some. It would provide that no person could be co-opted on to any local government committee and retain a vote. In Camden, the ruling Labour group has co-opted more people on to committees than there are opposition Conservative councillors. My Bill would make it lawful, upon application by a member of a local authority, for a police constable to be brought in to maintain order. Only the mayor has such authority under public order legislation, and he is often as politically intimidated as anyone else. It would be incumbent on a local authority to keep a register of every application by bodies that receive grants that would contain the names and accounts of those bodies—exactly as companies are expected to do under the Companies Acts.

My Bill would give redress to ratepayers. It would give them a right to ask the courts to intervene. It would depoliticise town hall spending and break the corrupt political links. I had hoped that the Government would have acted by now, having seen what is happening at grass roots level. We desperately need, in the Queen's Speech, notice of action. It is impossible to provide a watertight guarantee, but at least my Bill is a step in the right direction.

4.46 pm
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

The speech of the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) ranged rather wider than the outline of the Bill suggests. The hon. Gentleman's speech is symptomatic of the hysteria that now afflicts most Conservative Members when considering any expenditure under sections 137 and 142 of the Local Government Act 1972. The same hysteria is reflected in the lunatic fringes of Fleet street. I shall go potty if I hear any more about Babies Against the Bomb — an organisation that received about £300 from the Greater London council three years ago. It seems to be the only reason that Conservative Members can find to abolish the GLC. It is a rather strange case on which to predicate major changes in local government.

The use of the phrase "political corruption", which the hon. Gentleman used in respect of local government, is grotesque. The Prime Minister and her colleagues seem to apply the term to any individal or organisation with which they disagree—and the number of such cases is growing these days. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would hesitate before using the word "corruption" in the context of local government, given the Government's involvement in such recent scandals as De Lorean, Johnson Matthey Bankers and Lloyds. If the hon. Gentleman is so interested in political corruption, I suggest that he look around him, as he is surrounded by past-masters of the art.

The hon. Gentleman is a well-known Right-wing maverick. He supported the Opposition in many divisions in regard to the abolition of the GLC. As a former employee and a member of the GLC, he knows how the system at county hall works.

Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the hon. Member to accuse hon. Members of corruption, as he clearly did in the hearing of the House?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman made any personal allegations.

Mr. Banks

The hon. Gentleman knows full well that decisions on sections 137 and 142 are made in committees. Bearing in mind the readiness of Conservative-controlled boroughs such as Westminster and Bromley to take the GLC to court at the drop of a hat, I should have thought that, if the GLC had been involved in anything remotely corrupt, it would be exposed quickly. The hon. Gentleman also knows that the district auditor is located in county hall so, if the hon. Gentleman's former friends at county hall have complaints, they can nip along the corridor and raise them with the district auditor.

Politicians in local government, especially at county hall, are subject to constant surveillance. Indeed, they are subject almost to harassment by a battery of vicious malevolent hacks working for newspapers such as the Daily Mail, The Sun, the Daily Express and The Times. They would all very much like to expose anything corrupt in county hall, but they cannot find anything corrupt for the simple reason that there is nothing to be found.

Contrast the open way in which decisions are made in local government with the closed, secretive and manipulative world of Cabinet government. I know why the hon. Gentleman and so many of his colleagues are obsessed—the reason is GLC expenditure under section 142 on the public awareness campaign. We used that campaign to alert Londoners to the great dangers of abolition of the GLC, and, of course, it has worked wonderfully well. It has exposed the Government's wicked vendetta against the GLC. Frankly, that is what annoys the Prime Minister and her erstwhile letter writer who seeks leave to introduce the Bill.

The total cost, under section 142, to Londoners of the public awareness campaign was £6 million. It was necessary to expend that money to inform Londoners, given the one-sided pro-Government version of abolition put out by the Tory propaganda machine of Fleet Street and compounded by the deceitful and misleading campaign of environment Ministers.

The Tory Government spend well over £100 million each year on advertising, much of which is dedicated to putting over a party political version of the truth. If we add to that the £60 million spent by British Telecom on advertising privatisation and the millions of pounds spent by the National Coal Board on advertising in its effort to break the miners' strike, the money spent by local government in its efforts to protect jobs and services for the people pales into insignificance. The Bill should be seen in that context.

Section 137 empowers all local authorities to raise the product of a 2p rate. In London that produces £38 million. That is a lot of money, but the rate has not changed since 1972. Currently the GLC provides £12.6 million to 628 voluntary and community groups under section 137, which represents 25 per cent. of the GLC's funding to such organisations. The balance is provided under other statutory authorities.

The broad categories of groups under section 137 funding are advice and counselling, monitoring and information, family services, young people, planning and environment, health, housing, settlement and social care, cultural community resources, education, ethnic minorities and training and employment. Yet all the hon. Gentleman can come up with is a few old proposals like Babies Against the Bomb and the English Collective of Prostitutes.

The largest proportion of the GLC's section 137 funding is devoted to employment generation initiatives. Of the projected £38 million that the GLC has raised for 1985–86, £26 million has been allocated to industry and employment programmes, of which £4.8 million will be devoted to the GLC training board project and £18.6 million to the Greater London Enterprise Board.

During the debate on abolition, Ministers said that boroughs would have the resources as well as the powers to take over the funding of projects currently funded by the GLC under section 137. It was pointed out to the Government that section 137 is itself used by the boroughs where there is no other statutory power to spend money. Therefore, abolition of the GLC will effectively result in a reduction from a total of 4p to a 2p limit for the boroughs. Obviously, where authorities spend up to their limit under section 137—and that includes most of the inner London boroughs — that would effectively decimate the money spent on the voluntary sector and on employment and training initiatives. The Government already have sweeping powers to control section 137 under the Local Government (Interim Provisions) Act 1984. That is further evidence of their determination to centralise power and to eliminate local democracy.

The hon. Gentleman is anticipating the Widdicombe inquiry, which is currently examining discretionary spending by local authorities. The House would do well to await its findings. Such a Bill as outlined by the hon. Gentleman would be based on all the maliciousness that now characterises the Tory Government's attitude to local government, and it is one of the most uncorrupted and efficient systems of local government in the world. Hon. Members on both sides of the House would do well to take some pride in the system of local government that we have in this country, rather than carp and mount the malicious attacks that we have seen in recent years.

The Bill is untimely, unnecessary and unworthy. I ask the House to refuse the hon. Gentleman leave to introduce it.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and Nomination of Select Committees at Commencement of Public Business):—

The House divided: Ayes 131, Noes 123.

Division No. 286] [4.55 pm
Ashby, David Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling)
Aspinwall, Jack Holt, Richard
Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H. Hordern, Sir Peter
Atkinson, David (B'm'th E) Howard, Michael
Baldry, Tony Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Hubbard-Miles, Peter
Beggs, Roy Hunter, Andrew
Bellingham, Henry Irving, Charles
Benyon, William Jackson, Robert
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Jessel, Toby
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Jones, Robert (W Herts)
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine
Buck, Sir Antony King, Roger (B'ham N'field)
Budgen, Nick Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)
Carlisle, John (N Luton) Latham, Michael
Cash, William Lawler, Geoffrey
Chapman, Sydney Lawrence, Ivan
Chope, Christopher Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Colvin, Michael Lloyd, Ian (Havant)
Conway, Derek Lord, Michael
Coombs, Simon McCrindle, Robert
Corrie, John MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)
Couchman, James Maclean, David John
Crouch, David McNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury)
Currie, Mrs Edwina McQuarrie, Albert
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Maples, John
du Cann, Rt Hon Sir Edward Marland, Paul
Fairbairn, Nicholas Mates, Michael
Fallon, Michael Maude, Hon Francis
Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey Mawhinney, Dr Brian
Fookes, Miss Janet Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Forth, Eric Moynihan, Hon C.
Fox, Marcus Mudd, David
Gardiner, George (Reigate) Nicholls, Patrick
Gorst, John Nicholson, J.
Greenway, Harry Normanton, Tom
Griffiths, Sir Eldon Onslow, Cranley
Grylls, Michael Oppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs S.
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Ottaway, Richard
Hampson, Dr Keith Page, Sir John (Harrow W)
Hanley, Jeremy Page, Richard (Herts SW)
Hargreaves, Kenneth Pawsey, James
Harris, David Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Heathcoat-Amory, David Portillo, Michael
Henderson, Barry Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down)
Hill, James Powell, William (Corby)
Hind, Kenneth Powley, John
Prentice, Rt Hon Reg Taylor, Rt Hon John David
Proctor, K. Harvey Terlezki, Stefan
Pym, Rt Hon Francis Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)
Raffan, Keith Thurnham, Peter
Rathbone, Tim Tracey, Richard
Rhodes James, Robert Viggers, Peter
Rost, Peter Walden, George
Rowe, Andrew Walker, Bill (T'side N)
Shelton, William (Streatham) Wall, Sir Patrick
Shersby, Michael Warren, Kenneth
Silvester, Fred Watts, John
Sims, Roger Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)
Skeet, T. H. H. Wiggin, Jerry
Spencer, Derek Wood, Timothy
Stanbrook, Ivor
Steen, Anthony Tellers for the Ayes:
Stern, Michael Mr. Teddy Taylor and
Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton) Mr. Piers Merchant.
Sumberg, David
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Dubs, Alfred
Ashdown, Paddy Duffy, A. E. P.
Ashton, Joe Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham) Eadie, Alex
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Eastham, Ken
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Evans, John (St. Helens N)
Barnett, Guy Fatchett, Derek
Beckett, Mrs Margaret Fisher, Mark
Beith, A. J. Flannery, Martin
Bell, Stuart Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Benn, Tony Foster, Derek
Bermingham, Gerald Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald
Bidwell, Sydney Freud, Clement
Boyes, Roland Garrett, W. E.
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Godman, Dr Norman
Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E) Golding, John
Caborn, Richard Gould, Bryan
Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M) Gourlay, Harry
Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y) Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)
Carter-Jones, Lewis Hardy, Peter
Cartwright, John Harman, Ms Harriet
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) Harrison, Rt Hon Walter
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.) Haynes, Frank
Corbett, Robin Heffer, Eric S.
Cunliffe, Lawrence Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall)
Cunningham, Dr John Home Robertson, John
Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly) Hoyle, Douglas
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l) Hughes, Dr. Mark (Durham)
Deakins, Eric Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Dixon, Donald Hughes, Roy (Newport East)
Dormand, Jack Hughes, Simon (Southward)
Janner, Hon Greville Pendry, Tom
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside) Penhaligon, David
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Pike, Peter
Kennedy, Charles Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Lamond, James Redmond, M.
Leadbitter, Ted Sedgemore, Brian
Leighton, Ronald Sheerman, Barry
Lewis, Ron (Carlisle) Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Lewis, Terence (Worsley) Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)
Litherland, Robert Skinner, Dennis
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Lofthouse, Geoffrey Soley, Clive
McCartney, Hugh Steel, Rt Hon David
McDonald, Dr Oonagh Stott, Roger
McKay, Allen (Penistone) Strang, Gavin
Maclennan, Robert Straw, Jack
McNamara, Kevin Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)
McWilliam, John Thorne, Stan (Preston)
Madden, Max Tinn, James
Marek, Dr John Torney, Tom
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Wainwright, R.
Mason, Rt Hon Roy Wareing, Robert
Maynard, Miss Joan Weetch, Ken
Meadowcroft, Michael Welsh, Michael
Michie, William Wigley, Dafydd
Mikardo, Ian Winnick, David
Millan, Rt Hon Bruce Young, David (Bolton SE)
Nellist, David
O'Brien, William Tellers for the Noes:
Park, George Mr. Jeremy Corbyn and
Parry, Robert Mr. Laurie Pavitt.
Patchett, Terry

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Edward Leigh, Mr. Piers Merchant, Mr. Richard Hickmet, Mr. Michael Brown, Mr. Robert B. Jones, Mr. Michael Forsyth, Mr. Peter Bruinvels, Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory, Mr. William Cash, Mr. Tony Baldry, Mr. Michael Fallon, Mr. Peter Lilley, Mrs. Angela Rumbold and Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark.