§ 'Nothing in this Act shall prevent the publication of material or any other action, by a local authority in exercise of its functions under the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985'—.[Mr. Straw.]
§ Brought up, and read the First time.4.10 pm
§ Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
I hope that the new clause is not controversial and that it will be supported even by Liberal and Social Democratic party Members. They voted in support of the Bill receiving a Second Reading, although the Association of Liberal Councillors opposes it. There is some division there and we are not sure what they will do this evening. I hope that they are able to support the new clause and that the Minister will. It would enable the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 to take precedence in law over this Bill if it is enacted.
The Access to Information Bill was introduced by the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) and had all-party support. It started life in 1980 when we considered the Local Government, Planning and Land Bill, to which I tabled amendments, which enshrined most of what the access to information Act provided. This is probably the first time—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I understand that his name is not attached to the new clause. Perhaps the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) would move the motion formally.
§ Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)
Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
§ Mr. Roberts
I shall not start again, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As I was saying, it was in those debates in 1980 that the words, "Ken Livingstone" were probably first uttered in the Chamber. He was then a mere opposition councillor on the GLC and we were opposing the excesses of the Conservative-controlled GLC, under the leadership of Sir Horace Cutler, which was trying to keep information secret.
Opposition Members from London and I were able to reveal accusations of fraud in the GLC which had been covered up, but which could not have been covered up if the access to information Act had been in place. Indeed, I believe that the Act is so significant that it would probably have prevented the web of corruption surrounding the Poulson affair.
We now have this rather nasty little Bill which might destroy at a stroke all the good work done by the hon. Member for Hornchurch and others. It defines publicity asany communication, in whatever form, addressed to the public at large or to a section of the public".318 That definition will include an enormous amount of material. Making documents available, as required by the access to information Act, would probably constitute publication as defined in the Bill. It seems clear that that is what the Government intend.
In Committee the Government published an outline of a code of practice to be issued under clause 4, which included a distinction between paid and unpaid publicity. Included among the latter were council and committee reports, consultation documents, press releases, press conference statements and media interviews. If the Bill is not amended, the intentions of the access to information Act will be frustrated. The Bill will take precedence over that Act and a council will not be able to make committee reports and background papers available if they appear "to be designed to affect, or can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect, public support for—
(a) a political party".
A secretive council could use the Bill as a loophole to get around the access to information Act and refuse to release documents, on the ground that they are or might be political. The council would make subjective decisions about what was political, and it could suppress information to which Parliament rightly wanted the public and the press to have access. An open and conscientious council could face serious problems. If it is to fulfil the requirements of the access to information Act to release minutes, reports and papers, it will have to censor them to avoid falling foul of the Bill. This is a censorship Bill of the worst kind.
The problem extends to background papers and research documents. If a research exercise shows that Government policy has increased homelessness—any research into homelessness is bound to prove that as an academic fact rather than as a political opinion—or if increased home ownership is shown to be the result of Government policy, which is probably unlikely, it could be interpreted as capable of reasonably being regarded as likely to affect public support for a political party. The fact that the research was properly conducted, honest, true, informative rather than persuasive, and conducted by people who are not necessarily members of a political party would not matter—it would still fall foul of the Bill. The council would then be faced with a choice between refusing to make the paper available to the public, which would fly in the face of the access to information Act and leave the press and the public without the underpinning of a policy, and censoring the research to make it acceptable, which cannot be acceptable in a democracy.
The new clause would subordinate the Bill to the access to information Act, thus preserving the openness and accountability of local government. I could quote the hon. Member for Hornchurch when he introduced his Bill, but I shall not do so. Rather, I shall appeal to right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to support the new clause as a means of ensuring that an Act of Parliament that has all-party support is not destroyed or undermined by a censorship Bill which, far from extending and developing freedom of information and getting the public involved, will control, constrain and censor local government.
§ Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)
It is expected of me to say something about the new clause. The hon. Member 319 for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) and I dealt with aspects of this matter at various stages of what became the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985. I have tabled an amendment, which we are to consider later, which addresses itself to issues similar to those discussed by the hon. Member for Bootle, so I shall not detain the House for long now.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will make it quite clear why the Government propose to resist the new clause, if they do. If the Government do not accept the new clause, many people of all parties will be worried by the possibility even of the release of agenda items and minutes which are thought to be freely and openly available under the access to information Act being restricted by the Bill. In fairness, I know from correspondence with my hon. Friend the Minister of State that the Government do not intend that. I am sure that my hon. Friend will underline that view, just as I am sure he accepts that our anxiety is legitimate. The access to information Act is important. It was a small step along a route to which we shall, I hope, join other Acts. I do not wish to see its effects watered down.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
I suppose one of the reasons why the Government have come out with the code of conduct in the Bill is that for the past five years they have been getting away with blue murder. They have overreached themselves. The Prime Minister has run the Cabinet and dominated it in an autocratic fashion, and got her own way, so that if anybody murmured anything to her that she did not like she kicked him out and replaced him with somebody suitably wet—wet in the sense that he will bend the knee to her. As a result of that background and environment, the right hon. Lady felt pretty safe in saying that she would go one step further and tell local councillors to keep their mouths shut. She does not want people spending money to speak against the Government, and she feels that if she can control the Cabinet, she will ensure that she can control County hall.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. In the case of the Greater London council, the Prime Minister shut its mouth by chopping off its head.
§ Mr. Skinner
That is all part of the scenario that led up to the Bill. My hon. Friend is right. Getting rid of the GLC and the metropolitan councils was all part of the right hon. Lady's strategy of chopping away a little bit more from the freedom of the country and the individual. This is yet more trampling on civil liberties. With each year that has gone by the Prime Minister, with her toadying Ministers, has been able to encroach a little further on individual freedoms in local government.
Is there any wonder that in the autumn and winter of 1985 the same Prime Minister has been able to tell another toady that she has put into the Department of the Environment, "This time you will stop them from opening their mouths. I am fed up with having anti-Tory propaganda from the local authorities." It has been suggested that all this is being done to curb local government expenditure, but that is nonsense. The Government use that principle to kid the public. It is a scandal that, following a cut in rate support grant from 62 to 46 per cent. this financial year, local authorities are being threatened and have been stopped from objecting to 320 such cuts. The domineering Prime Minister is carrying out what almost seem like Fascist tendencies to stop her opponents from telling the truth.
The real scandal is that when the Bill received a Second Reading only a few weeks ago we saw the appalling sight of the Liberals—the so-called defenders of freedom and liberty —walk into the Tory Government Lobby and vote to curb the natural desires of local authorities, and Liberal councillors, to say their party piece. What a black day that was for the Liberals and the SDP. I sit on this Bench and hear all the stories, and I know that the truth was that the Liberals' so-called friends in the SDP told them what to do. [Interruption.] This tame Liberal—the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes)—who is trying to heckle—
§ Mr. Skinner
—did what he was told to do and, like Manuel, followed Basil into the Lobby. They should be ashamed of themselves. There is another one here, the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft), trying to heckle me. They are supposed to be quiet, yet they accuse me of heckling.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will return to the subject of the new clause.
§ Mr. Skinner
It is about freedom, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will tell you another thing. If the Prime Minister was in power for long enough, she would shut your mouth as well. That is how far she would be prepared to go. Some people are laughing in the Strangers' Gallery—to which we should not refer. Instead, I tell hon. Members that the Prime Minister knows no bounds when it comes to getting her own way. If ever there was an example of where this Tory Government have gone a little too far, it is in saying to local authorities, "We shall stop your from speaking out." All the surveys have shown that on this issue the Government have gone too far.
Some people from a local authority came to see me today because they were concerned about the Bill. I told them that if the so-called code of conduct went through, when it had the force of law they would not be able to speak about this matter. Some other people from Derbyshire county council spoke to me at 2.30 pm in Committee Room 9. They had come down to complain about poverty in Derbyshire. I told them that when the Bill becomes law, the Prime Minister will have gagged councils. I gave them some advice in the name of freedom and civil liberty. I told them to arrange another meeting on poverty and the disabled, and that if they came down we would meet them. I told them that it was their duty to ignore the code of conduct and dare to challenge the Tory Government, because they should not be allowed to get away with it. I hope that every local authority member will not take a blind bit of notice of what happens today. They have a duty to speak up for all those old people and the disabled for whom they are trying to provide services.
What has happened today is not much different from what happened on the days last week when we discussed Westland plc. The principle is autocracy and a 321 domineering Prime Minister gagging people and trying to shut up opponents. The Tory Government have been doing it for six years, and I hope that sufficient Tory Members will walk into the Lobby against the Bill.
I know that the Liberals have changed their minds. They have been told in no uncertain terms what to do today by the Liberal councillors. I hope that everybody who values freedom, including the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), who introduced the access to information Bill, will stop this vile process of trying to prevent local authorities from speaking out on behalf of the people who gave them a mandate to speak.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes
Obviously, my alliance colleagues are doing quite well to merit such a large section of the speech made by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). We can always tell how well we are doing, because the better we do, the longer the hon. Gentleman goes on about us.
I shall speak specifically about the new clause, which is more than the hon. Member for Bolsover did. I do so as the third of the triumvirate that helped to get the Local Government (Access to Information) Act on the statute book. The other two are the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts), who tried three years ago, and the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), who succeeded a year ago after my attempt two years before. The massive effort and support put into that Act by local authorities to make town halls accountable—something that the Government always seek to make councils do—would be thwarted if in any way the Act's provisions, even in the smallest particular, were counteracted by the Bill.
The Government should unequivocally say that they entirely accept the new clause. They must accept that they may have been ambiguous at best—if it were worse, they would not admit it—in making it appear that there would be a conflict and that the Bill would restrict publicity of documents and the like and might be contrary to that Act.
Access to information will be extended to local authorities on 1 April. The Government intend the Bill to be on the statute book before that because there are other clauses of the Bill that relate to that date. It is vital that the Minister who is to reply to the debate should clearly say that the Government will accept a new clause and that there will be overriding support in favour of public access to information on what takes place in town halls, irrespective of any other clauses in the Bill.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
It is ironic that the first Bill introduced to the House by the Prime Minister when she was a private Member was a Bill to increase access by the press to local authority meetings. It seems that power genuinely corrupts because the Prime Minister is now anxious to restrict access to information being put out by local authorities to the people they represent. One can assume that it is the holding of office that has caused the enormous change in her attitude.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) was correct in his analysis of the Government's feeling and philosophy about the Bill. I wish he had been on the Committee because he could have enlivened some of the sittings. My hon. Friend might be interested to know that 322 the Minister for Environment, Countryside and Local Government, who is sitting languidly at the Dispatch Box, had difficulty with his own party on a number of issues. All the extreme elements of the Conservative Back Benches in Committee were trying to make this draconian Bill worse than it already is.
§ Mr. Forsyth
The hon. Gentleman is posing as the champion of freedom of access to information. Will he tell us how often he spoke against the practices of the Greater London council where the Labour group is driving more and more decision-making behind closed doors and into private sub-committees dominated by the Labour party?
§ Mr. Banks
There is far more openness in local government than in central Government. We have just seen an example of the way in which Ministers can keep things quiet and deny information to the House when the House actually needs that information. That is the sort of Government we are dealing with. The Government want to be secretive all the time. They want to fiddle the books and cook the figures. We are dealing with a Government of petty crooks.
§ Mr. Holt
I realise that the hon. Gentleman has limited experience in local government. If he had as much experience as I have, he would know that the GLC and many other local authorities delegate full powers to subcommittees and even lower bodies to spend vast sums of money. None of the decisions is subsequently ratified and such decisions are often taken on the word of a chairman.
§ Mr. Skinner
Is my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) aware that the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) does not have much time for local government because he runs a local bookmakers?
§ Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not want something to appear in Hansard that should not be there. I though I heard the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) say that he is dealing with a Government of petty crooks. I realise that he has some 323 experience in that area—he must have with the GLC—but I do not think that it is right to use such terms in the House to describe my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench, even though we may criticise them from time to time.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I deprecate extravagant language, but a general accusation of that sort is just in order.
§ Mr. Holt
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am sure that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), with his constant interruptions and lecturing to the Chair, is the last person who would seek to mislead the House or tell lies. However, before he makes statements about what I do, he should check, because I do not run any betting shops.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. We have had a perfect illustration of the fact that we should return to the subject of the new clause.
§ Mr. Banks
The hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) has got the wrong odds.
The Bill defines publicity asany communication, in whatever form, addressed to the public at large or to a section of the public".An enormous amount of material is included under that definition. It seems unbelievable that council and committee reports, consultation documents, press releases, press conference statements, media interviews, and so on, should be caught up in the codes of practice. I cannot believe that that is really what the Minister wants to happen. If he does, it is an absolute disgrace that the Government, having put local government in an economic straitjacket, now want to stuff a gag in its mouth.
We in local government have great pride in the openness of the system. No other system is subject to so much public and press scrutiny. I must add that no other system is subject to so much vile abuse from Tory Back Benchers and Ministers. The GLC has been subject to a great deal of vile abuse from the media hacks of Fleet street and the neanderthals on the Back Benches of the Conservative party. There is an example of that in the Daily Express today. The quotation refers to the full GLC meeting, which I chaired:Red Ken Livingstone was slammed last night for planning to give away more than £100 million to 'loony Left' groups before the Greater London Council is scrapped.That is an outrageous lie. I do not know the pervert who wrote that. All I can say is that he was either stupid or drunk. Conceivably, he was both. That is the sort of thing that local councils, particularly the GLC, have to put up with. We are open in everything that we do and have no reason to feel guilty or concerned about accusations made by the Conservative party that we are secretive. All matters decided in the GLC eventually go to a full council meeting. That is where they can be challenged and voted on.
I cannot believe that the Minister is not prepared to accept this new clause. If he does not accept it, he will have struck a blow against accountability and democracy in local government.
§ Mr. Meadowcroft
I want to comment on some of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) when my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) was unavoidably out of the Chamber. The hon. Member for Bootle drew the attention 324 of the House to the question whether I and my colleagues would vote in a particular way on Report and Third Reading. It is perfectly proper to give a Bill a Second Reading on the basis that one would want it to go to Committee to be examined clause by clause and line by line to see if one can support it on Third Reading. If the hon. Member for Bootle looks at the Committee record, I do not think he will find a single Division in which I and my hon. Friends were not in the same Lobby as the Labour Members. We were entirely consistent in our voting in Committee.
In Committee, it was interesting to see whether the Government would be found in the same Lobby as us when they were opposing their own rebels, which happened on several occasions. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) here. He is the only one of those rebels who fought throughout the Committee who is here. Those Conservative Members made legitimate points about the Bill. One might have expected to see the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) here to continue that fight today.
§ Mr. Meadowcroft
That is a very good question. There are many other good questions—[HON. MEMBERS: "What is the answer?] Wait a minute. The House is so impatient to hear that it often does not get the answer.
The answer is that many other improvements to the Bill were proposed in Committee, which we tried to get through. However, we failed. There are also various amendments on the Amendments Paper for discussion on Report. All of us take these matters seriously, and at the end of the Report stage we shall all consider whether the Bill should be given a Third Reading.
I should like to deal with the substance of the new clause. The issue is important, and reflects the dilemma posed by the Bill. On the one hand, we have the permanent purple patch oration of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who went into a diatribe about the attacks on local government perpetrated by the Government. The fact is that this restrictive Bill is now before the House and has been fought through Committee precisely because of the abuses in local government. Every accusation that the hon. Member for Bolsover brings against the Government for their actions towards local government one could level at Labour-controlled local authorities because of their actions in restricting free speech and manipulating and abusing the systems of local government, against the wishes of the minorities on those councils.
§ Mr. Allan Roberts
The hon. Gentleman said that., after he and his colleagues had heard the debates on Report, they would make up their mind whether to support the Bill on Third Reading. Is he speaking for Liberal Members here in the Chamber or for the alliance? Will they tell Social Democratic party Members what they intend to do, or are they making up their own minds?
§ Mr. Meadowcroft
The demands made on Second Reading by representatives of the alliance were set out 325 carefully, and can be read in Hansard. We shall consult our colleagues in both parties, and there is no secret about that.
Let me return to the substance of the new clause, which is crucial to the debate. We have a particular difficulty, because we are outside the dogfight. Liberal Members and those in the Liberal party throughout the country wish to enhance the powers of local government, but we do not want to see the abuses that we have seen in local government in recent years. Those abuses are getting worse, more devious and more manipulative. Therefore, one wants to try to curb such abuses. When we look at the Bill and the amendments on Report, we must ask whether those abuses will carry on. We must ask: can the Bill fulfil its intention? Will the abuses that the Bill wants to attack be prevented? Will the things that the Government do not intend to stop be stopped by the Bill? That is the dilemma. The new clause illustrates that dilemma.
The hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) got his Local Government (Access to Information) Bill through Parliament. Labour members in local authorities who want to abuse their position and the control that they have will be able to get round the Bill simply by putting into council documents, which may be subject to the Local Government (Access to Information) Act, things that they want to put out as propaganda. Therefore, the Government are in a dilemma. They can see that there is a loophole if they make the Bill subservient to the access to information Act. The Government have never referred to that point. They have not said whether the things that they want to stop will be stopped by the Bill, or whether the things that they do not want to stop will be allowed.
I hope that the Minister will try to deal with the problem of whether it is possible to get around the intentions of the Bill by things becoming available through the access to information Act which otherwise would not have been available.
§ Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)
It is important that a comment is made after the speech by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft). He must recognise that when such a Bill is before the House, one must vote against it. Even after all the Committee sittings, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has fully appreciated that the Bill suppresses fundamental liberties, as has been said by many hon. Members. I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the debate, but I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). The Bill suppresses the right of elected councils to communicate legitimately with their electorate.
There may be the odd abuse, but no abuses have been brought to my attention yet. There has never been any question of the Labour party being in favour of councils using money to support Labour party candidates or promote Labour party issues. The evidence of the Labour party to the Widdicombe report is clear—
§ Mr. Strang
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman read the evidence. The Widdicombe report was opposed by the Labour party, and the Bill goes further than that 326 report. I am referring to the Labour party's original official evidence. I do not want to go over the matter again, because we went over it time and again in Committee.
§ Mr. Meadowcroft
I take seriously what the hon. Gentleman says about the Bill striking at people's fundamental freedoms. If those freedoms and the conventions that sustain them have been abused time and again by those who are supposed to protect them in local government, it poses a great problem to the legislative Chamber, which must consider whether it should try to tighten up on those freedoms to avoid such abuses. The question is whether the Bill does that. Does the new clause help? The hon. Gentleman does not help his case by suggesting that all is sweetness and light in Labour local authorities, because it is not.
§ Mr. Strang
I should like to think that all Labour authorities were perfect, but I would not claim it. I do not want to be drawn again on the matter. Legislation is already on the statute book which has a bearing on these matters. It limits the right of local councils to spend money on what they want.
I am glad to see the Under-Secretary for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram), in the Chamber because there was no Minister from the Scottish Office in Committee. For that reason, there was a tendency for many people in Scotland, certainly the media, to overlook the significance of the Bill for Scottish people and elected Scottish councils. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the councils all made representations.
Major rights that have been taken for granted by the councils are now to be removed. I shall give two examples. The Under-Secretary's regional council, which is controlled by the Conservative party, supported by its allies in the alliance, put through every door in Edinburgh a leaflet explaining the implications of the Government's Transport Act and saying what damage it would do to our local bus services. Such actions will be suppressed under the Bill.
We have a major campaign in the north of Scotland about Dounreay. My view is clear, but whatever view one takes on the development of civil nuclear power in Dounreay, it is of enormous importance to the people. Surely, in a pluralist democracy the councils should be allowed legitimately to communicate with their electors and with the wider Scottish community to express their attitude to that development.
The island councils must be allowed to campaign on issues that are important to them. One tends to think of Shetland and Orkney as being part of Scotland, but they have a different history and culture. Shetland has its own legislation governing the development of oil and the Shetland island council must be able to put to its people its views on important matters.
The new clause takes us into a new area. It is all about the availability of information to the people. I have been speaking about Scotland because I was conscious of the fact that I was the only Scottish Opposition Member on the Committee but, of course, the Bill applies to the whole of the United Kingdom. We have always taken it for granted that councils should be able to communicate freely and to campaign on issues such as poverty and unemployment.
We know what the Government are doing. Government documents are becoming more and more biased. It makes 327 me sad when I see some of the documents that are produced by civil servants in the name of the Government. I quoted a civil defence document in Committee and will not quote it again; it was about civil defence and the farmer—a grotesque political statement which had nothing to do with an objective view of the issue.
Such use of the Government machine for propaganda purposes is likely to increase under our authoritarian Prime Minister in the run-up to the election. At the same time, the Greater London council produced an excellent document outlining the implications of a nuclear attack on London. It was an objective statement produced by objective scientists. It was not a peace movement document. [Interruption.] I am sorry that the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) is laughing about it. I think he will find that even the Home Office and the experts from whom the Government seek advice recognise that that was simply a print of a speech made by a Home Office civil servant, which the council made more widely available to the people of London.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
My hon. Friend is correct. The document to which he paid credit was based entirely on Government publications and statements, and nothing else.
§ Mr. Strang
That is why the Bill is such an outrage. Later, we may go into the details which were referred to in Committee.
§ Mr. Strang
I gave way to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) because I was referring specifically to London and he is a GLC member. That was the exception.
There can be no fudging about the Bill. It is a brutal, authoritarian measure which will suppress the fundamental rights of elected councils to communicate legitimately with their electorate, with the Government and with the wider community.
§ Mr. Ted Garrett (Wallsend)
I was not on the Committee, but we have to consider the fact that many councils in areas of high unemployment have a difficult task in putting to the people problems arising from the activities of central Government, whether it be a Tory Government or a Labour Government. Like many other hon. Members, I served on a local authority for many years. A long time ago we issued leaflets and communicated with the press; councils employed press officers to help in that task. That policy was not challenged until recently.
If a council is under Socialist control—I am not talking about the far left or the right but just about a council controlled by the Labour party—invariably it faces a hostile local press similar to the national press, which leans towards the establishment, of which the Conservative party is part. Therefore, it is important that a reasonable case should be presented to the electorate; I emphasise that it should be a reasonable case.
In the north-east, a reasonable case has been presented on shipbuilding, on transport, on the rights to claim social security benefit and on the way to claim rent rebate or rates allowance. All that will cease if the Bill has its full impact. 328 Any reasonable person—I hope the Under-Secretary of State will be reasonable—who reads the Bill will recognise that we will be subjected to a form of tyranny because the public will not be told the facts about the problems they face, as seen by their elected representatives. That is why I feel so strongly about the Bill.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mrs. Angela Rumbold)
I think I understand why the new clause has been tabled. I am less certain that I understand some of the more colourful contributions in its support. I shall try to deal with some of the points that have been raised.
I think the new clause has been put down because there is general concern that material that is published by local authorities to do with the workings of their committees and of their members might unwittingly be caught by the Bill. It is my clear understanding that what the Bill is attempting to do, and I hope will do, is to prevent local authorities from publishing any material in whole or in part which appears to be designed to affect, or can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect, public support for a political party.
We are talking here about something slightly different in the context of the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 that was so aptly and eloquently introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) last year. Many hon. Members will know that not only was it welcomed by the House as a whole but that I played a small but interested part in supporting it. So there is no possibility that I could stand at the Dispatch Box and not understand the fears that are encapsulated in the new clause.
I do not believe that the Bill says what Opposition Members believe it says. Perhaps a misunderstanding has arisen because of the wording of an outline code of practice which is available to hon. Members in the Library but which was also circulated before Christmas to all hon. Members who were serving on the Committee. It included a paragraph about unpaid publicity, including council and committee reports, consultation documents, etcetera. It went on to include press releases, press conference statements and media interviews. This outline of the code of practice was intended to be no more than an outline. and it will be subjected to a considerable amount of consultation, much of which is already being undertaken.
Within the existing document there are some phrases which could quite rightly be caught by clause 2 of the Local Government Bill which I trust will shortly become an Act. They may well fall into the category of being reasonably regarded as likely to affect public support: for a political party—the sort of thing described by my hon. Friends where some council leaders and chairmen of committees have gone out following a meeting and have issued overtly political press releases. That sort of thing is undesirable and is not part and parcel of the proper workings of local government.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
I find it strange that the Minister should be surprised that people in local government, elected councillors, act politically. Politics are not confined to this House. Is the Minister's mind open to the removal from that outline or draft code of the reference to council committee reports, consultation documents, press releases and press conference statements?
§ Mrs. Rumbold
I should like to continue.
When we are talking about this section of the code of practice, I am certain that we are talking about matters which came within the provisions of the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985. These provide for public access to council meetings and to meetings of committees and sub-committees. There is a definite move towards openness in local government. These provisions allow public access to the agendas, reports and minutes of all meetings—publications which fall well outside the remit of this Bill.
The 1985 Act will open to public inspection background papers on reports of council meetings, sub-committee and committee meetings, and all those papers which, in the opinion of the officers of any local authority, it would be right to disclose as matters of interest to the general public who require such papers to ascertain whether certain matters of interest to them are being dealt with openly and freely by their local council. I hope that that goes a long way to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch.
I should like to pick up a point made by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft). There must be a clear understanding about the provisions of the Bill that relate to the public availability of agendas and the general proceedings of a local authority. All matters that relate to the functions of local government and which are proper processes for local government are put on paper and will be available to the general public.
As the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) said, many local authority members are quite clearly associated with political parties. It is a different matter if a member or leader of a local authority deliberately uses money from his authority to make political points and if he issues press releases that are of an overt political nature. That would rightly be caught by the provisions of the Bill, and that is the purpose for which the Bill has been brought forward.
§ Mr. Skinner
Is the Minister aware that the ordinary man and woman in the street, on reading an account of what she has said, will ask why it is that a Minister of this Government can be transported free of charge from one oak panelled room to the next to make overtly political speeches on behalf of the Conservative party? Ministers of the Crown do that every day in this country and abroad, but an elected representative of a local authority, who just happens to be a member of the Labour party, cannot speak up for his constituents and make a political speech. There are double standards—one standard for a Minister of the Crown and one for the local authority representative. It is a scandal.
§ Mrs. Rumbold
I love it. The hon. Gentleman would be better advised to stick to his accounts of Fawlty Towers and John Cleese and Basil Fawlty than to try to pick me up on something about which it is clear he knows absolutely nothing.
§ Mr. Beith
Does the Minister not realise that a press release or council document which might be circulated to a large number of people is the sort of document which a parish council would circulate in pursuance of its contention that the closure of a railway station, or a DHSS office, or something of that kind, would be detrimental to its area? It is difficult to avoid the fear that such a publication might be construed as tending to reduce support for a political party, the one that happens to be in power, whether it is the Conservative party, the Labour party or the alliance, or whatever. There is real anxiety at that level of local government, where party politics plays a very small part. A purely local campaign conducted by a parish council on behalf of its residents might be caught by these definitions.
§ Mrs. Rumbold
The matters to which the hon. Gentleman refers will come up for discussion when we debate functions. He will find some responses to which he will be interested to listen.
There has been a suggestion that there is such a thing as unpaid publicity; that is, where a local authority can find ways to say that publicity that was coming out from it had not incurred the direct transfer of cash, but that funds had been provided seemingly indirectly. That would also be caught by the Bill if it were information coming from the local authority itself, because the local authority would either directly or indirectly be funding that publicity.
I reiterate that it is only overtly political publicity that will be caught by the provisions of the Bill. All truly straightforward publicity on matters that are dealt with legitimately by local authorities, and all the papers that relate to local authorities, to which access by the public is available and which are not anything other than straightforwardly informative, will be outside the provisions of the Bill.
§ Mr. Garrett
The Minister is quite properly reciting what shall and what shall not be. If she believes in the fundamental liberties, does she not see that there is now a move for the first time towards some form of censorship, something that we have not had since the 1939–45 war? Some faceless person will decide how that form of censorship will operate within the guidelines that the Minister is suggesting. Is it not a dangerous step to suppress a fundamental liberty? It is that which is causing me concern, and I hope that it is causing the Government concern.
§ Mrs. Rumbold
I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, although I am not sure whether I agree with his fears. There are no words in the Bill which will prevent proper and honest information being given by a local authority to its electorate, provided that it is not of an overtly political nature. There is no reason why such an authority should be overtly political, and there is no reason why any information should not be couched in perfectly reasonable terms and accepted as such by the general public.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
The Minister is more capable than most of expressing extreme policies in the most reasonable language. As a Chelsea supporter, I must say that there is much about her that commends itself to me. She probably learnt her language down at the shed end. In view of what she has just said, would the GLC's welfare benefit project, which produced 150,000 responses and about £11.5 331 million of unclaimed benefit out of the £100 million that the Government estimate is lost in London alone each year, be caught by the Bill?
§ Mrs. Rumbold
That would depend on the way in which the GLC's benefit fund was set up, and on the way in which those provisions were related to the public. I am not sure that it would, but it is possible. It would depend on how those provisions were couched.
It would be far fetched for the House to assume that the new clause is necessary. The Bill is worded clearly enough, and I therefore ask the House to resist the new clause.
§ Mr. Allan Roberts
I should like to seek the leave of the House to respond briefly. We are not happy with the Minister's explanation. She said that the new clause is unnecessary but she did not say that it would do any harm. We think that it is necessary, so perhaps it should be included just to make sure that the assurances that we have been given are enacted. There are many examples of assurances given by Ministers, but things often turn out differently, which is what we fear in this legislation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) asked whether the GLC's welfare rights campaign would be caught by the legislation. The Bill says that if something is not the function of a local authority, that authority cannot campaign on it. It does not have to be political, overtly or otherwise. If it is not an authority's function, even though it is to the benefit of the people whom the authority serves as an elected body, it cannot campaign on the issue.
There is nothing overtly political in monitoring the police, but only a police authority can spend money on monitoring the police. In the same way, money cannot be spent on welfare rights if that is the function of another body. Therefore, matters that are not overtly political are caught by the legislation.
What is overtly political in the minds of one group of people is not overtly political in the minds of another. I do not think that campaigning on peace and nuclear-free zones is overtly political; it is reasonable common sense. But there are hon. Members who think that it is overtly political. However, to recruit unemployed people in my constituency to the Territorial Army, as the Sefton council does, is overtly political. But that might not be caught by this legislation because it is all a matter of subjectivity.
Once we start legislating for censorship and trying to define what is and what is not political, what someone can and cannot say or can and cannot publish, one is on the slippery slope towards making local democracy and local government in Britain operate in the way that it had to operate in Franco's Fascist Spain and the way that it is forced to operate today in Jaruzelski's Poland.
§ Mr. Roberts
The ratepayers of Sefton pay for the recruitment campaign for the Territorial Army. The ratepayers of Sefton and other local authority areas pay for the Conservative council's campaigns in favour of the sale of council houses. They are overtly political campaigns. I always remember the Prime Minister's maiden speech in 1960, when she said: 332The public has the right, in the first instance, to know what its elected representatives are doing." —[Official Report, 5 February 1960; Vol. 616, c. 1350.]That means publicity and expenditure.
The Liberals have not made it clear whether they are in favour of the legislation. The truth is that they are against it but the Social Democratic party is in favour of it. That is because they are hooked on the same prejudices as the Tory party. What are now radical Left-wing Labour councils were previously controlled by Right-wing Social Democrats. We have thrown them all out in places such as Islington. In Liverpool the Liberals are in alliance with a group of people who were on the right of the Labour party whom they are supposed to have fought for years. It is those Social Democrats, who ran councils such as Islington, Manchester, Liverpool and elsewhere—Rightwing Labour people—with whom the Liberals are now in alliance. They do not like the new policies of the new radical Labour councils. I remember the Liberals criticising junketing in Manchester—one lot boozes while the other pays—and now that the council has got rid of all the junketing, it is being criticised for getting rid of the traditions of Manchester.
§ The Minister for Environment, Countryside and Local Government (Mr. William Waldegrave)
I was under the impression that the Opposition Front Bench did not much care for the policies of the Liverpool council either.
§ Mr. Roberts
The Opposition regret that the Government have not accepted the new clause. We regret the Government's policy of local government cuts and their enforcement. We regret their privatisation policies. If democratically elected councils do not want privatisation, it is enforced. Then the Government chose to abolish those councils that happen to be strong and Labour—the metropolitan county councils and the GLC. Now we have a policy of censorship in local government—the policy of telling democratically elected local councils, whether Labour, Conservative or Liberal, how they can and cannot spend the revenue that they raise locally, what they can and cannot say and can and cannot campaign on. In other words, honest debate and opposition have no place in the elective dictatorship of the Prime Minister's Government.
§ Question put and negatived.