HC Deb 22 January 1986 vol 90 cc332-85
Mr. Straw

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 2, line 15, leave out 'publish' and insert 'incur expenditure on the publication of.'

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss also the following amendments: No. 17, in clause 4, page 3, line 24, leave out 'local authority publicity' and insert 'the incurring of expenditure on publicity by local authorities'.

No. 22, in clause 6, page 4, line 30, after 'to', insert 'the incurring of expenditure on.'

Mr. Straw

The hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) said that the crucial issue in the Bill was, who pays? The question whether ratepayers' money should be used to pay for political propaganda is a foil for the good intentions of the Bill.

The Bill does not just seek to control so-called political propaganda on the rates. It also seeks to control, as can be seen clearly from the outline draft code, what councillors may say and think in committees when no cost is imposed upon ratepayers.

The amendments are intended to give the Government an opportunity to bring the Bill into line with what they say is its purpose. An examination of previous debates on the Bill will show that the hon. Lady the Under-Secretary put forward what was, in a sense, a pioneering ten-minute rule Bill before the measure. She said on 16 May 1984: The only restraint that I wish to impose on the section is on using money raised through taxes and rates for party political purposes."—[Official Report, 16 May 1984; Vol. 60, c. 370.] That was the mischief that the hon. Lady was aiming at, and she has acknowledged it.

The Prime Minister used similar words during the debate on the Loyal Address on 6 November 1985: We are therefore introducing this Session a Bill along the lines proposed by the independent Widdicombe Committee to ban the use of ratepayers' money to finance political propaganda."—[Official Report, 6 November 1985; Vol. 86, c. 23-4.] When the Secretary of State moved the Second Reading of the Bill on 18 November 1985, he said: The Widdicombe inquiry recognised that it was implicit in the present law that local authorities should not spend public money on party political matters, but it recommended that that implicit prohibition should be given statutory effect. The Government agree with that view." —[Official Report, 18 November 1985; Vol. 87, c. 42.]

If the Bill only gave effect to what Ministers have said it should, there would not be much argument between the parties. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) said, in its evidence to the Widdicombe inquiry the Labour party, no more and no less than any other political party, believed that party political propaganda should not be paid for out of ratepayers' money.

The Bill goes wider than that. The crucial trigger to enable the Government to use the Bill to censor and gag opponents is contained within clause 2, the first line of which states: A local authority shall not publish any material". That reveals the true intentions of the Government. The Opposition amendment seeks to delete "publish" and insert words which mean that local authorities should not incur any expenditure in publishing material. According to the Government, that is the mischief that they are seeking to deal with.

It is time that the Government faced up to the massive oposition which the Bill, as presently drafted, has run into from members of Conservative groups. The Association of District Councils, which is Conservative-dominated, opposes the Bill in exactly the same terms as the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Association of County Councils.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

The chief officers.

Mr. Straw

The hon. Member has mentioned chief officers, but I am talking about councillors such as Councillor John Morgan, who is a Conservative councillor and who opposes the Bill. Councillor Tony Hart, the Conservative leader of Kent county council, wrote to the Secretary of State on 30 December to say that he was very worried about the contents of the Bill. Mr. Hart kindly sent us a copy of the letter in which he states: It is imperative that the Bill as drawn up should be amended in order to avoid new controls which would be imprecise and possibly raise major problems of definition. Mr. Hart went on to say that the council appreciates that the task of finding words that will stop abuse but permit ordinary good practice to continue would not be easy.

In Mr. Hart's judgment, all good practice would be banned by the Bill. Those careful words from Conservative councillors show the deepest misgivings, which are made worse by the publication of the draft code of practice. The Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, which is not political, believes that the Bill as drafted is unacceptable and will, in its words, prove a recipe for extensive litigation.

There has already been considerable discussion about double standards. As long as the Bill remains in its present form, with a restriction on publishing rather than on incurring expenditure, the Government will not only be charged with, but will be guilty of, double standards.

I wrote to the Prime Minister on 7 January to ask her how she had the gall to allow a draft code of practice to be published which seeks to gag councillors not when they incur expenditure but gratuitously when they speak. I asked how the Prime Minister could do that, when the Cabinet Office's own code of guidance for Ministers and Government press officers, while it deals with so-called unpaid written publicity—we accept that it is bound to incur some expenditure when it is written—in no sense deals with what Ministers and Government press officers say at press conferences. It is now notorious that if the code was in operation and the Government injunctions on local authorities applied to central Government, Mr. Bernard Ingham, the Prime Minster's chief press officer, and many other press officers would have been contravening the code daily.

Mr. Tony Banks

Paid for by the taxpayer.

Mr. Straw

As my hon. Friend rightly says, paid for by the taxpayer.

The code prohibits comments that are not objective. Comments should not be over-simplified or personalised, should at no stage be seen as politically controversial and should not directly attack the policies or opinions of other political parties or groups.

It would seem that these days Government press officers are not particularly bothered about attacking other political parties, but they are interested in attacking other political groups—their so-called ministerial colleagues. Not a day does by without one ministerial press officer—at the behest of a Minister, as the press officers do not act on their own account—using the lobby system and their freedom under central Government conventions to attack another Minister. That happens not merely on the subject of Westland, but on other matters.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) for drawing my attention to a matter which exposes the Government's double standards. Bradford city council has written to all the Labour and Conservative Members who represent that great city to express its deep anxiety about the Bill's implications on the council's day-to-day work of representing the electorate. That representation has the support of councillors from all parts of the political spectrum. Councillors are worried that their day-to-day work will be affected. They mention representations about poor railway services. If they raise that matter to the level of controversy, the councillors would be inhibited by the code.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West has also drawn my attention to the intentions of the local authority in the Under-Secretary's constituency. The Government are seeking to gag political opponents. Right-wing Conservative councils, such as Merton council in the Under-Secretary's constituency, are seeking to gag their staff. I have, courtesy of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West, a copy of an extraordinary code of conduct about communications with the media by which not only are council chief officers to be gagged but cleaners, caretakers and teachers.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am anxous to hear the debate. The hon. Gentleman should address the House and not turn his back on the Chair.

Mr. Straw

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I caught it from the Secretary of State for the Environment the other night.

Mr. Tony Banks

My hon. Friend does not have to worry about his back.

5.30 pm
Mr. Straw

That is right.

The code of conduct says: No person employed by the Authority in any capacity or for any period should make to the media any communication in which there is an indication that he or she is an employee of the Authority without explicit written permission from the individual's Chief Officer. That is just for starters. The Under-Secretary sheds crocodile tears in her anxiety about free speech, so let us see what she has done to oppose her authority which is gagging its employees.

The Government, no more and no less, seek to snuff out opposition. The Bill is not about controlling expenditure. Were it so, the Government would accept the amendments.

I come now to the interesting matter of the Liberals, and their squirming and worming as they decide during the debate—as if its outcome were not plain—how they will vote.

It is important to remind the House how the Liberal Members sought to vote in favour of the Bill when it came before the House on 18 November 1985. The reasons that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) gave should go down in the history books. He was explaining to the House why Liberal Members would vote in favour of the Bill. They were going to vote in favour of the Bill—I quote directly—because clauses 2(1)(b) and 3(1) and 4 are appalling and extreme. They would vote in favour of the Bill because clause 4 is horrendous and because it is arbitrary. They would vote in favour of the Bill because clause 2(3)—

Mr. Beith

The hon. Gentleman is not quoting. That is a paraphrase.

Mr. Straw

It is not a paraphrase. The deputy leader of the Liberal party says that it is a paraphrase. It is not.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The House spends an increasing amount of time referring to documents and arguing whether the words used are a quotation or a paraphrase. If we are assiduous, we will all have the relevant columns of Hansard. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not mislead the House by suggesting that those were expressed as the reasons why we would vote in favour of the Brill on Second Reading. On the contrary, those were our objections to the Bill which we wanted dealt with during the Bill's passage if we were to sustain our support for it. Elsewhere, as I shall quote if the hon. Gentleman does not, we gave our reasons for supporting the Bill on Second Reading. It is elsewhere. It is not in that part of Hansard.

Mr. Straw

Was I paraphrasing or making it up? Would I make up what is patent on the face of the Official Report?

I have searched for any positive reasons why the Liberals are in favour of the Bill. If one takes the view that a Bill is appalling, extreme, horrendous, arbitrary and dangerous, then the brain's normal processes might lead one to vote against the Bill, but I am not a Liberal and I do not know how they work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) said, rather generously, that the matter arose because the Liberals were on one side and the members of the SDP were on the other. That is not true. Part of the parliamentary Liberal party voted in favour of the Bill, but those Members are opposed by all the Liberal councillors in the Association of County Councils who have been in the van in opposing the Bill. Councillor Tony Greaves, of Hebden Bridge, who runs the bunker at Hebden Bridge—[Interruption.] We know more about Councillor Tony Greaves than the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mrs. Hughes) does. Councillor Greaves agrees with us more often than he agrees with the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey. Councillor Greaves is on Lancashire county council and we keep track of his voting record.

In a Lancashire county council debate, Councillor Tony Greaves, the leading Liberal councillor—it does not lie in the mouths of any Liberal Members who are worried about their reselection to deny this—backed the Labour group's resolution not just against what the Government are doing but against the more moderate recommendations contained in the majority Widdicombe report.

There was one revealing passage in the speech of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey, if I can turn it up.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The hon. Gentleman has not prepared his speech.

Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman says that I have not prepared my speech. I have, but I have inadvertently pulled out the flag that I had marking the pearls that came from the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Hughes

It might give the hon. Gentleman a moment to find his place if I were to remind him about the unanimity that there appeared to be and that he admitted in Committee on 10 December when I asked him whether the Labour party was then taking a view consistent with the evidence that it gave to the Widdicombe inquiry. He said: Pity about the question, but the answer is yes. M) hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) seems worried, but there is no need. In its evidence, which was approved by its national executive committee, the Labour party stated that it had always agreed that ratepayers' money should not be used for explicit party political purposes, for example, in support of named candidates or in support of a Labour group or of a Conservative group. Information money should properly be used to support and explain the policy of the authority as a whole". —[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 10 December 1985; c. 157.] That view and the alliance view were consistent. The Labour party, however, did not vote consistently when the matter came to the House, whereas the alliance did.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The intervention had little, if anything, to do with the amendment.

Mr. Straw

To return to the amendment, it relates to the fact that the Bill goes much wider than the Widdicombe report.

Mr. Simon Hughes


Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman said, "Yes." We opposed the Bill on Second Reading because it goes much wider than even the majority Widdicombe report. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to find the other things that he said in Committee. He said: Without stretching your patience too far, Miss Fookes, I shall say for the record"— the hon. Gentleman did not stretch only the Chairman's patience, but that is by the way— I shall say for the record that the parliamentary parties here"— that is, the Liberals and the SDP— believe that party political advertising on the rates should be prohibited, as Widdicombe suggested. That view is not shared by our council group, which is an autonomous body within the party." —[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 10 December 1985; c. 159.]

Liberal councillors apparently believe that it is OK to spend ratepayers' money on party political propaganda, because those are the words that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey used. We know that the Liberals are—I was going to say fair-minded, but that would be too generous—

Mr. Meadowcroft

Electorally progressive.

Mr. Waldegrave

The hon. Gentleman has now confused me. As he has proved that the Liberal party is in favour of propaganda on the rates, which I remember him saying he was against, my conclusion is that he should vote with us in the Lobby tonight.

Mr. Straw

No, the answer is that the Minister must vote with us in the Lobby.

Mr. Hill

Let us all go into the same Lobby.

Mr. Straw

That may happen. This group of amendments is intended to bring the Bill into line with the recommendations of the Widdicombe report and with what Ministers said was its main purpose.

Mr. Tony Banks

I support the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw). As he said, if the Government seriously want to do what they say they want to do, they will accept these amendments.

The amendments give me the opportunity of drawing to the attention of the House once again the total hypocrisy of the Government's position on publicity and information. If it is put out by the Conservative party in government, by definition it is information. If it is put out by Labour-controlled local authorities, it is, according to the Government, propaganda. That is the attitude of the Government to all matters—one of hypocrisy and double standards.

Let us take as an example the enormous amount of taxpayers' money spent by the Government on putting out their propaganda through various Government Departments, which the Government describe as information. Some of the press and publicity departments are enormous and their budgets are going up all the time. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) tells me that the Government now spend £23 million on publicity. We would call it propaganda, for that is what it is. It is pushing the policies which the Government espouse. Labour Members find those policies objectionable, divisive and clearly aimed at trying to sustain the Conservative party in power.

If a local authority tries to tell the truth about central Government policies, that is branded as propaganda. All I can say is that when the Government stop telling lies about local government, local government will stop telling the truth about the impact of the policies of central Government.

The questions that I put down recently to various Ministers about the money spent in their Departments on press publicity show that the amount spent by the Government doubled between 1984–85 and 1985–86. It is difficult to get the complete figure, which is running at over £10 million in 1985–86—this is Government propaganda paid for by the taxpayer—because, despite my asking the Minister of Defence on 6 December to state the amount of money spent by his Department on propaganda, I am still awaiting a reply, although it has been promised to me in frequent telephone conversations with the Minister's office. I can only assume that once again it is trying to cook the books, as we know the Secretary of State for Defence has been so ready to do.

Let us look at some of the percentage increases in Government Departments over the period 1984–85 to 1985–86. They show that the Department of Employment's publicity budget increased by no less than 300 per cent. in that period, while the Welsh Office increased its spending by over 250 per cent. in twelve months.

All this, we maintain, is propaganda put out by the Government and paid for by the taxpayer. If the Government aim to restrict the local authorities' ability to start telling the truth, they should do something to limit their own capacity to tell lies at the expense of the taxpayer.

Mr. Meadowcroft

This amendment is not particularly significant, despite the efforts of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) to make it so. It seeks to temper the Bill, and to that extent it is valuable, but it seems to us to pose a quite arbitrary and unsustainable distinction between the work of a local authority and that which can be divided out as separate expenditure. If an attempt were made to separate out the particular expenditure, that in itself would introduce a dangerous element into the whole debate, because it would mean that a local authority which was seeking to undermine the conventions and to abuse its rights as a local authority could have a separate fund and say, "Ah well, because it did not come out of that it is part of the generality of local government and so does not fall foul of the Act." There is no part of local government on which expenditure is not incurred. If staff are employed on a particular part of local government work, expenditure is clearly incurred. No work is carried out without staff time. The amendment, therefore, seems to impose a highly artificial and arbitrary distinction between paying for and being part of the generality of local authority work. I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.

5.45 pm
Mrs. Rumbold

Amendment No. 1 seeks to substitute the words incur expenditure on the publication of for the word "publish" in the first line of clause 2(1). As the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft) has just said, the substitution would to some extent be rather spurious for the intention of the Bill and, indeed, for its actual operation. It would muddy the waters.

I know that the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) has written to the Prime Minister, and I also know that a letter is on its way to him, which I am sure he will read with immense interest.

Mr. Straw

Has the hon. Lady a copy of it?

Mrs. Rumbold

I am afraid not. I am sure that it will be published immediately.

To support his arguments for this particular amendment, the hon. Member for Blackburn lined up nearly everybody of whom he could think—all the local authority leaders of all political persuasions. He told the House that nearly everybody on the Government Benches and on the Opposition Benches would be persuaded to support not the Bill, but the amendment. He said that these people had written in large numbers. It is perfectly true, because we have all had letters from local authority associations and others expressing concern.

I suspect that much of the concern has been expressed partly because of the contents of the outline of a code of practice which said that publicity would include paid publicity, including paid advertising in the press, on radio and television, leaflets, campaigns, exhibitions, etc.

Much of the alarm has been aroused by local authority members who have perhaps been advised by their officers that this would be exceedingly difficult for local authorities to carry out and might entail a great deal of expenditure, and many other things that are somewhat alarmist.

I remember the Local Government (Access to Information) Bill which, we now assert firmly, has wide support throughout the country. I have to tell the House that the wide support consisted of an absolute barrage of letters from local authorities, and especially from their officers, telling me and, I am sure, all my colleagues that the Bill would be exceedingly detrimental and would incur such massive expenditure that local authorities would need a greatly increased block grant from the Government in order to cope with it. Yet, now that it is on the statute book, it appears widely accepted as a splendid piece of legislation, which it is.

I must refute the hon. Gentleman's argument that, simply because there appears at the moment to be opposition, that is a good reason for the Government to accept his amendment. His amendment adds nothing to the sense of the Bill. I feel that, were it to be accepted, it would be nothing—

Mr. Straw

The hon. Lady says that she objects not to what councillors say, but to councils spending ratepayers' money on party political propaganda. Why, then, is the Bill not addressing itself to that and that alone?

Mrs. Rumbold

That is exactly what the Bill addresses itself to. Publishing will incur expenditure of ratepayers' money. Publishing in any form is likely to incur some expenditure, however indirectly, of ratepayers' money. For that reason, I believe that the Bill is perfectly adequate. I especially support the Bill. As the hon. Member for Blackburn pointed out, I introduced a modest ten-minute Bill on the matter, which suggests that I anticipated that the Government would ultimately, and sensibly, introduce a Bill of this type. I ask the House to reject the amendment.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Straw

I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 16, leave out 'can reasonably be regarded as likely to' and insert 'it is probable will'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 6, in page 2, line 28, leave out 'can reasonably be regarded as' and insert 'it is probable that it is'.

Mr. Straw

In one sense this is a technical matter. but it is also important. Clause 2(1) is the trigger for the rest of the Bill. The tests established in the clause are the key tests of the Bill. Clause 2(1) states: A local authority shall not publish any material which, in whole or in part, appears to be designed to affect, or can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect, public support for— (a) a political party".

There are two legs to the test. We have argued about the principle of the Bill, but within the context of the principle I understand why the Government have introduced the test whether material appears to be designed to affect … public support". That test is objective, but from a relatively objective test we move to one that is worrying and potentially wide-ranging in its scope. The test whether material can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect, public support for— (a) a political party could open a Pandora's box. Anything that a local authority does could be classed as being reasonably … likely to affect, public support for … a political party".

Yesterday I went to Southampton to launch the Labour party's higher education charter. I was in the foyer of the city hall of that great city when I noticed that the council had shown great initiative. The council is seeking to do something about potholes, holes in the road, and broken lamp posts. The council has issued postcards, which are plain business reply postcards on one side with "oops" on the other side. The postcard states: A Post Card from you means action from us. Please fill in using BLOCK CAPITALS. It asks for details of the repairs that are needed, such as for potholes in footpaths, missing road nameplates and broken street lights. That is sensible action for a local authority to take. I am sure that the Minister acknowledges that there is no party political intent. Authorities must have a system of recording complaints, and it is better to receive them in that form rather than on scraps of paper resulting in dissatisfied ratepayers. That action has been taken by a Labour-controlled council, but it was not designed for political purposes. If the campaign is successful, it could be taken as being reasonably … likely to affect, public support for … a political party".

If a council does something good, that is likely to affect public support for the party. If the council does something bad, that could equally be reasonably regarded as likely to affect, public support for … a political party".

I am grateful to the Minister for answering my correspondence in detail about how the courts would seek to interprete the test. In his letter, the Minister states: In essence it is a test of remoteness just as in negligence liability lies in respect of all damage which is reasonably foreseeable.

That took me back 20 years to the endless hours that I spent in my tort lectures. However, I am not reassured. Many of us who are lawyers are not reassured by the Minister's assertion that the test is one of remoteness. I do not believe that remoteness would be an issue. Of course, local authorities could do something that could be so remote from political support that the action would be out of court. But, in the case of the Southampton postcard, the question of remoteness does not arise. The council is directly responsible for the postcard. If the council does well out of the campaign, it will gain political support, so remoteness is not an issue.

The man on the Clapham omnibus could reasonably believe that, although the council did not intend to affect political support, its action could reasonably be regarded as likely to affect political support. In this context, reasonableness is a wider-ranging test and is not of the Wednesbury type, which, in administrative law, is a test of unreasonableness where public authorities are allowed a wide discretion to be reasonable and the courts intervene only when they have been unreasonable.

We seek to substitute the test with one of probability, which is a concept well known to the courts. Although it does not depart from what the Government wish to achieve, it provides a more objective and fairer test than that in the Bill.

We understand the problems of drafting legislation, but it is the duty of the House to improve legislation when we violently object to its purpose. I hope that the Minister will accept the amendment in that light.

Mr. Simon Hughes

As the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) said, in Committee we had a substantial debate on terminology. The debate had a political layer and a legal layer. The Committee accepted that the wording in the Bill implies a reasonableness test. That allows for the maximum possible interpretation by the courts of what they could interfere with or intervene in.

The reasonableness test has been established in many cases following the Wednesbury case, to which the hon. Member for Blackburn referred. The Wednesbury case asserted that reasonableness could be tested by whether someone could reasonably act in a certain way. It is not a balancing exercise, but an evaluation of an action, giving the benefit of the doubt to the person making the decision to act.

In Committee we considered that the test in the Bill would extend a principle of administrative law to a new area, which could involve an enormous amount of litigation. Local authorities would be uncertain about the practical reality of what would appear to be a catch-all phrase. Because of the opinion expressed in Committee, the Minister said that he would ask his officials to reconsider the phrase.

Clearly, no Government amendment suggests a better definition. The Minister accepted that definition was difficult. Several amendments were tabled, of which two have been selected, in an attempt to give effect specifically to the Widdicombe committee's recommendations. Paragraph 229 of its report states: An express prohibition of expenditure calculated to advance the interests of a political party could well have a moderating effect on the scale and style of campaigns. That wording is not legalistic.

6 pm

If the Government are unwilling to accept the amendment, one of the problems will be that, instead of there being on the face of the literature a sign of its likely effect, there will be a much wider definition. The Widdicombe committee intends that we put into statute what possibly already exists in the common law. I hope the House will accept that that will not happen if the clause passes into legislation unamended.

The danger is that this is the sort of argument that can detain people in the High Court for hours, if not days, because it revolves around substantive and important traditional matters of legal definition. I hope that the Government will reconsider the matter, because of its practical implications. Even if they have not yet found a precise substitute which is closer to Widdicombe's recommendations, they have the benefit of advice which they did not have in Committee.

All hon. Members will have received a joint statement by the three local authority associations—the county, district and metropolitan councils—which specifically comments on the present state of play. It states: Widdicombe appreciated the difficulties of translating this statutory prohibition into legislation. The question is what is the best test of whether publicity is 'party political'? Clause 2 seeks to apply tests of intent … and effect. We believe this is fundamentally wrong, unworkable in practice and would lead to prohibitions well beyond the Widdicombe recommendation. The paragraph entitled "A Lawyer's Paradise" states: Widdicombe … stated that 'We wish to avoid new controls that will be imprecise, or raise major definitional problems, and are aware that it is easier to identify a problem than to encapsulate that problem in a legislative formula. The councils' response to that Widdicombe quotation was: Clause 2 is so imprecise, with so many words and expressions needing subjective evaluation, that it looks like a charter for extensive litigation.

The amendments seek to replace the test of reasonableness, as the county councils' objective assessment has evaluated it, with a test of probability. Will the Government admit that they have not yet done what they said they intended to do when they began legislating, which is to implement the Widdicombe recommendations?

Although there has been much mirth periodically at the expense of this position, I must repeat that from the outset we in the alliance have stood full square behind the Widdicombe majority report. We said that we thought it right to legislate for Widdicombe's recommended prohibition. We also said that we needed a definition that would go that far and no further. When the legal and political opinion of groups representing all political parties, all groupings of political parties, and all the major groupings and societies of officers in local government, with all their years of experience, is that the clause, if it is unamended, will result in uncertainty, excessively wide interpretation of its original intention, and endless litigation, it must still be unacceptable.

I hope the Minister will say that, although he could not get his officials to come up with a satisfactory amendment, he recognises, as he did previously, that it is necessary to re-amend the clause, and that the selected amendments, at least one of which was tabled by my hon. Friends and myself, are at least a better stab at the objectives of Widdicombe than is the Government's definition. It is a matter of both political and legal judgment, and of the Government's honesty with the electorate in doing what they said they would do. I hope that the Government will concede that right and that justice, and that the best solution to the difficult legal problems is on the side of the amendments. I hope that the Minister will accept them and say that they are better than what we started with.

Mr. Tony Banks

It is interesting to hear a lawyer warning the Government about the dangers wihin the Bill rather than licking his lips at the thought of the fat fees that he and his colleagues in the legal profession will undoubtedly demand from local authorities and others if the Bill is enacted without amendment.

The Widdicombe inquiry, which was aware of the advantages of local authority publicity, recommended that there should be an express statutory prohibition of local authority publicity of a party political nature. All hon. Members will agree with that statement because it is unexceptionable. It does not propose a new restriction on local government, because at present the publication of party political material would contradict central principles of administrative law. It would be either improper or irrelevant, so there is no need for this further strengthening.

We accept that the Government intend to improve the Bill by proposing an amendment which deletes the reference to a body, cause or campaign identified with, or likely to be … identified with, a political party. However, there is no real change to the heart of clause 2(1) or the Bill. The crucial phrase refers to banning material which … can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect, public support for— (a) a political party". That inflicts a test of such severity that it goes well beyond a statutory declaration of existing law.

The amendments that we have tabled seek to redress the balance in clause 2(1) and (2)(b), so that material would be banned only if it were probable that it would affect political support. Even if the amendments are accepted, the Bill will represent a lawyers' paradise.

The existing tests will almost certainly prevent local authorities from issuing publicity about proposed Government legislation, provided that the legislation has been the subject of political disagreement between any two parties. It is extremely difficult to think of recent legislation which has not been extremely controversial.

The type of publicity that local authorities have circulated, which draws attention to the impact of Government legislation on their local communities, was explicitly defended in the Widdicombe report as a proper and fitting use of public money. The Government's motive for introducing the clause in its present form could well be to avoid the effects of having an informed public, which is what we have said throughout.

The Government are out to gag local authorities to prevent them from telling the truth about the impact of Government policy. The Government say that we live in a free society where information is available, but I do not accept that. Our society is relatively free compared with many others, but if our democracy is based on the freedom of soft pornographers, such as Murdoch, to print the trash, filth and daily lies in The Sun and, increasingly, in The Times, and the sort of stuff that we read in the Daily Star and Daily Express, it is extremely shallowly based. We do not live in a society where access to information is unhindered and free. This is one of the most closed societies in Europe. We live in a society where information is filtered through either the Government or their agents in Fleet street—the puppet Tory press of Fleet street—so local authorities are attempting to redress the information imbalance.

The Bill will prohibit an authority from publicising a rates cut, or a decrease or an increase—if that were ever to happen—in its HIP allocation. The effects of these policies on Labour local authority services would be open to challenge, as would a Conservative council that issued information to promote council house sales or selective education.

As long as I am a Member, I shall refer to the Greater London council as it exists and when it has passed on, temporarily. The GLC is involved in a range of publicity campaigns drawing attention to certain benefits aimed at improving the environment or the lot of Londoners. There have been campaigns aimed also at drawing the attention of Londoners to the effects of Government policies. The "Fares Fair" policy, which was so popular with Londoners, would not be allowed to operate under the Bill because it was controversial. A Conservative group need only object to the policies and the GLC, once again, would be dragged into the courts.

The welfare benefits project would be banned because the Greater London council is not a welfare social services authority. The GLC would be prevented from mounting a campaign drawing to the attention of tens of thousands of Londoners the social security benefits that they are entitled to claim, but are not claiming. The Government have told us that about £100 million a year goes unclaimed in benefits in London. The GLC's welfare benefits project has each year enabled about £11.5 million of that unclaimed money to be put into the hands of some of the poorest people in our community who so desperately need it.

Streetwise Kids, civil defence, advertising of concerts and the cultural activities at the Royal Festival hall and programmes drawing attention to the evils of pavement parking and the need for strategic planning are all campaigns with an element of controversy, because they are opposed by the Government or by the opposition within the council. These campaigns would fall foul of the Bill, particularly this clause. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), who, I understand, has given up his legal practice, has warned us it will be a bonanza for lawyers. In his profession, many people are waiting to ring up the pound signs on the tills. This will mean a real killing for lawyers at the expense of taxpayers and ratepayers. If the Minister is serious about ensuring that the Bill does not provide a lawyers' paradise, he should accept the amendments.

Mr. Beith

I should like to address to the Minister the question that I addressed to him in the context of the words that the amendment seeks to alter. The clause refers to material which … appears to be designed to affect, or can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect, public support for— (a) a political party".

How can the normal activities of any parish council not be so regarded? It is in the nature of the activities of parish councils to write letters, publicise grievances and circulate material, all of which is designed to affect the activities of other bodies, because they have so few powers and responsibilities of their own. Therefore, they criticise what other people do. The consequence of that is not so much the fear of other parts of the Bill and of other amendments, but the anxiety that they will become attached to a cause that is identified with a particular political party. Often, the cause will be supported by several political parties. They appear to be staunch critics of the Government of the day or perhaps of the political party that controls another local authority in whose area they are situated. It may be a Conservative county council—if there are any left in future years—or the party in power at Westminster that is criticised. One way or another, they will finish up criticising a political party which is in power merely because of the grievance they raise.

If the Alnwick town council raises, as it has done on several occasions in the past two years, the subject of the inadequate number of police on the beat in the town and the rise in crime, it will appear to some reasonable people to be casting doubt on the effectiveness of the Government's declared policy on law and order and crime reduction. I consider myself to be a reasonable man, and I do not think it is an unreasonable conclusion that that might affect the political support for the party that forms the Government.

6.15 pm

Another parish council may complain about the reduction in railway services from Chathill or Widdington, or some other station in my constituency. It may be regarded by a reasonable person as casting doubt on the commitment of the Government of the day to our railway system, which other people rightly question.

It seems to me almost impossible for parish councils to carry out their normal activity of speaking up for the needs of their areas without appearing to be acting in a way that may reasonably be regarded as likely to affect public support for the political party that forms the Government of the day, or controls the local authority that provides the services about which they are speaking. It is in that context that I am worried about the words in the Bill. I am sympathetic to the idea that they might be amended. I hope that, although the same issue comes up in other areas, the Minister will discuss its relevance in this context as well.

Mr. Stan Thorne (Preston)

I am in some difficulty, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I appreciate the context in which my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) moved the amendment, but I can foresee problems over the situation that is already portrayed on television—an advertisement by Preston designed to attract additional investment into the Preston area. That is a very good thing, of course, because investment is likely to attract more jobs and make various other improvements in the local economy.

When one looks at that advertisement, and at advertisements of the kind that other authorities might put out, it seems to me that they will have, and I certainly will have, some difficulty. This is probably purely a matter for lawyers to debate, and the rest of us might as well keep silent. The clause states: A local authority shall not publish any material which, in whole or in part, appears to be designed to affect, or can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect, public support". If the amendment were accepted, the clause would read: A local authority shall not publish any material which, in whole or in part, appears to be designed to affect, or it is probable will affect, public support". I accept that my hon. Friend, a highly intelligent barrister, must know the difference between those two sentences, but I am damned if I understand the difference between them. I am anxious to ensure that local authorities are not deprived of the opportunity to disseminate informative material to the people in their areas, because in my view that is a fundamental responsibility of local authorities.

We have argued about education, as I said in Committee. We have sought to inform people about education in our areas. The amendment will not help a local authority to decide, because it will not be able to publish any material that "it is probable will" rather than that it can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect public support.

Mr. Simon Hughes


Mr. Thorne

I understand that I am to receive the advice of a legal expert.

Mr. Hughes

I can only suggest what I think is the agreed answer. There is concern about the clause as it stands because only one or two people need to take that view and the material will be outlawed. With the probability test, the general view of as many people as one would wish to consider must be assessed. Therefore, the view of one or two people could be enough to force what we are talking about into the category of illegality. If the measure is changed, the general view of the population will have to be weighed up. I think that that will have a much safer outcome.

Mr. Thorne

Having heard that, all I can say is, God protect us from the lawyers. The clause does not suggest in any form that, on the one hand, we are selecting the views of a minority of people, and, on the other hand, that a majority might make their wishes clear on particular issues. I do not know how a lawyer can reach that conclusion. Are we talking purely about semantics?

Something in these words baffles a mere Back Bencher like me. The clause states: A local authority shall not publish any material which, in whole or in part, appears to be designed to affect, or can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect, public support". Can you help, Mr. Speaker? Where does the clause refer to the opinion of a few people rather than to that of a large number of people? You, too, are baffled, and I am not surprised. However, we have the legal experts with us, and they have found a remedy. I hope that the Government can provide a more sensible solution—I say this with due respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn—than I have heard so far.

Mr. Waldegrave

The debate began in its usual way with the alarmist tendency of the Labour party led, on this occasion, by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who made a moderate and understated speech. He said that democracy in local government and civilisation, and so on, were at an end—a speech familiar to all those who participate in these debates. I face the slightly deflating task of saying that I fear that nothing so exciting is afoot. I want to tread rather quietly, because I may get into trouble with some of my hon. Friends if I say too much.

The Government have to steer a middle course. They have to outlaw the worst abuses, although they know that certain actions, of which many Conservative Members disapprove, will still be legal under the Bill's definitions. I shall briefly go a little wider than the amendment, which is the heart of the Bill.

The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) gave an example of something that he claimed might be excluded. By no sensible construction of the Bill would that be excluded. I want to give a slightly more major example of something which I believe will be totally legal under the Bill. Bristol has the misfortune to have a Labour council. At most weekends I work to rectify that by trying to remove that council. Not many hon. Members would describe Bristol city council as a very Right-wing Labour council. It includes some pretty radical members. The council has produced an annual report which some of my colleagues in Bristol, who are working to get rid of the council, would say was glossy and unnecessarily expensive. They would like its presentation to be different and for different policies to be presented. I can find nothing in that report that the Bill would prohibit. It is a perfectly good account by a council trying to take various measures for its area and people. Of course, it does refer to some of the wrong things—in my party's view—that the council wants to do.

The report was produced by Mr. Robertson. He did not describe himself as the "Labour leader of Socialist Bristol" or similar nonsense—he described himself properly as the leader of Bristol city council. Mr. Robertson described the various measures that he would have liked to undertake had the Government not prevented him from doing so. For example, he would have liked to spend more capital, but Government restrictions on capital expenditure, which I have defended in the House, stopped him from doing so.

I find nothing in the document that would be outlawed by the Bill or would in any way be unacceptable under its provisions. It is well within the traditions of the type of local government supported by all hon. Members who support local government. That is not to say that I do not want to get rid of the city council as soon as possible and replace it with a proper Conservative council. This would save ratepayers' money. It would result in a different balance of policies. I must make it clear that we are not in the business of trying to prevent the type of activity described by the hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Thorne)—for example, where a sensible council is trying to attract inward investment. Of course we are not trying to prevent that, and the Bill does not do so.

The annual report could have done what the Militant Tendency council did in Liverpool — use banner headlines saying, "Socialist council in Liverpool", and make party political attacks on the Liberal party, and party political attacks on the Conservative party. That would rightly be put in jeopardy by the Bill.

Mr. Beith

In so far as the document refers to the disappointment of the leader of Bristol city council at the various things that he has not been able to do because of Government constraints, might it not lead—however objective and calm its tone—a reasonable Bristol citizen away from supporting the Conservative party, which is the Government to whom reference is made in that very objective way?

Mr. Waldegrave

I shall come to the legal argument why that is wholly fanciful. I think that someone who did not know the politics of the area would not know the council's policy after reading the document all the way through. I have no doubt that that would cause great offence to some of the wild boys in the Labour party. They would think, "What a waste. This fellow Robertson has put out an objective document which has not infuriated the opposition parties and shown what a splendid Socialist he is."

I shall not go too far in praising Mr. Robertson, because I am trying to get him out of office as soon as I can. Indeed, I pay tribute to Mr. Robertson and his senior officers, who are exceedingly good and responsible persons. Those officers have advised Mr. Robertson how to put his case fairly without coming within 100 miles of the jeopardy of the Bill or of breaking the traditional conventions.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

The Under-Secretary of State has received a letter from Bradford city council, where the Conservatives are the largest group, but are not in control. That council has passed a resolution against the principles of the Bill. The letter was prepared after extensive consultation. It cites a number of campaigns conducted by the council in the past year or so which it claims would be within the terms of the Bill. Will the hon. Gentleman give a specific assurance that the campaigns to which the letter refers would not come within the Bill's provisions? Will he give a clear and categorical assurance to Conservative councillors and others in Bradford who are extremely worried about the Bill's provisions?

6.30 pm
Mr. Waldegrave

I have received letters from a number of Conservative councils, including the Royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea, to which I pay rates, as I do in Bristol. I have received letters from Bradford and other authorities. It would be wrong for me to try to become even more of an amateur lawyer than the ex-lawyer from the Liberal party, the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), and to give free counsel's opinion on particular campaigns. I have brought with me one example of the sort of material that will be perfectly all right on any sensible interpretation of the Bill.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) seeks on every clause to raise the issue of parishes. In due course we shall come to the appropriate clause and be able to deal with the issue. I hope that I shall be encouraging to some extent when we do so.

I shall explain why I do not think that the amendments are right, in as steady and clear a way as I can. I shall start with the Liberal amendment, No. 25, which reads: or calculated to advance the interests of". That is unclear and seriously defective in two respects. In the first instance—I thought that I had persuaded even some Opposition Members to accept this argument in Committee—it is no good merely inserting the words "advance the interests of a political party". Some of the most damaging party political material that is put out by a council might be knocking copy that is directed to another party.

The modern advertising industry is becoming better and better at producing knocking copy. Many Members will remember the excellent advertisement for the deux chevaux Citroen, which claimed that it was faster than a Porsche. We were told that a deux chevaux travelling at 60 mph could overtake a Porsche being driven at 55 mph. Given that the advertising industry is becoming better and better at producing knocking copy, "advance" would be an inappropriate word. I suggest that "calculated" is an intention word. It is a word which draws in the assessment or intention of the council in a complicated and obscure way involving words that are not familiar to the law. I do not think that that amendment is worth considering.

I turn to the amendments of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), Nos. 2 and 6. First, let us remind ourselves of what we are doing. It makes me nervous in one sense, but encouraged in another, to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) has entered the Chamber at a time when I am talking about the law. I shall be nervous to do so in front of him, but—

Mr. Stan Thorne

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I understand that the Minister has told the House that he is replying to the Liberal amendment. We are not discussing a Liberal amendment. Instead, we are discussing amendments Nos. 2 and 6, neither of which has been submitted by the Liberal party.

Mr. Speaker

That is correct.

Mr. Waldegrave

I beg the pardon of the House. I thought that before responding to the two amendments of the hon. Member for Blackburn I would take up some other aspects of the issues that they raise. This is an important debate and I think that it would be unfair to the Liberal party if I were not to mention the amendment that it has put before us.

Mr. Thorne

Further to my point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Minister is saying that he does not want to be unfair to the Liberal party. In fact, he is being unfair to you, Mr. Speaker, as you have selected amendments Nos. 2 and 6 in this instance and no others.

Mr. Speaker

That is correct. The Minister, like everyone else, must address himself to the amendments. It is reasonable, however, for him to answer the questions that have been asked by Liberal Members during the course of the debate.

Mr. Waldegrave

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. I shall address myself to the amendments of the hon. Member for Blackburn in everything that I have to say from now on.

Clause 2(1) prohibits a local authority from publishing any material which in whole or in part appears to be designed to affect, or can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect, public support for—(a) a political party". This test is applied to the nature of the material that is published, and that factor must be central to our approach. The test should not be applied to the motive of the local authority. The test is not whether the authority intended to affect public support; nor is it the effect of the material which is the consideration of whether it does affect public support. Nothing has been said this afternoon that has caused me to think that we were wrong in our judgment. It would be impossible to introduce a test that involved the measuring of motive and effect. A local authority might have a number of different motives and intentions. It is often impossible to prove effect, although great books have been written on why it is that certain shifts in voting patterns have occurred in particular elections.

The tests that are set out in clause 2(1)(a) and (b) are objective tests that are justiciable. The courts will have to form a judgment on the nature of the material, in the light of all the circumstances of the case. The test in paragraph (a) is directed to the nature of the material to determine whether it was intended to have an effect on public support. That test has been at the centre of our approach. In other words, it is whether it can be inferred from the nature of the material that it was produced for a party political purpose. The words that are at the centre of the amendment—

Mr. Beith

The Minister has imported into his paraphrase of the words in the clause the very concept of intention which he said previously was inappropriate and could not be worked into the clause. He has used the words "intended to" in his description of the contents of the clause. It is clear that intention is not featured in the clause.

Mr. Waldegrave

The hon. Gentleman misunderstands me. The court would have to judge and estimate whether the material could reasonably be regarded as likely to affect public support. It would not be necessary to consider the intention of the council at the moment that the material was produced. It is the material itself that will have to be judged. I think that that test provides the only hope of going forward.

The next crucial passage is: can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect, public support". The policy is that local authorities should be responsible for the ordinary consequences of their actions, especially when they produce publicity. It is a difficult and important area. The test remains an objective one that is addressed to the nature of the material, and that is considered in the light of its likely consequences. I apologise to the hon. Member for Blackburn for going through the argument slowly, but it is important to have it set out clearly on the record.

The hon. Member for Blackburn suggests that we substitute it is probable that it is for can reasonably be regarded as", and that is still an objective test. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he introduced the amendment. It is not a wrecking amendment or a stupid amendment. He is trying genuinely to improve the Bill, and I am trying to argue why the amendment should not succeed. Amendment No. 6 provides an objective test that is based on the nature of the material, but turns on probable consequences rather than on likely consequences.

It is at this point that we part company. We part on the intention behind what we are trying to do, and not on the law. It is clear that the hon. Gentleman's test is a narrower one than that which has been put forward by the Government. We are debating whether it is probable that less material will be caught on the basis of its probable consequences than is likely to be caught on the basis of its likely consequences. There is a dispute between us about the width of the coverage and the capacity to win a case in court. We have considered whether the proposed narrowing would be in order, and we do not believe that it would.

The hon. Member for Blackburn is right about reasonableness — a concept which I introduced in Committee in the wrong place. The administrative law concept has no direct relevance in determining whether material can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect public support. The purpose behind the "can reasonably be regarded" qualification is to prevent a contravention, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, when the possibility of its affecting public support is too fanciful or too remote. The hon. Member for Preston and others have been trying to alarm us on that ground. They have chosen rightly to test what we are doing. In effect, they have asked, "What if one or two people produce a story that something is bound to have an effect on support for a political party?" That would not be sufficient in court. That level of remoteness will not do.

The question whether material can "reasonably be regarded" is one which local authorities will have no difficulty in answering. I do not make that assertion lightly, because such judgments are made every day. Every day local authorities use the power in section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, which is headed Subsidiary powers of local authorities". That power gives statutory force to the common law doctrine of ultra vires. The courts have held that a corporation does things for which there is express or implied authority and whatever is reasonably incidental to them. That is using exactly the same sense of "reasonable" as that which is used in the Bill. It is a concept of reasonableness with which the law is very familiar and I do not believe that it will have any difficulty in applying it. During this debate and subsequently it may be sensible to make absolutely clear the sort of legal judgments on which the Bill has been based to still some of the anxieties that have been expressed.

I hope that I have given reassurance on the legal meaning of the provisions in the clause, although I must acknowledge that, like the hon. Member for Preston, I am not a lawyer. I hope that I have been able to reassure my hon. Friends that we shall not narrow the test in the way that the hon. Member for Blackburn suggests. That would involve too much narrowing, and on that ground there is a dispute between us on policy. If the amendments are pressed to a Division, I shall have to ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to oppose them.

Mr. Simon Hughes


Mr. Speaker

As this is the Report stage, hon. Members can make only one speech. The hon. Member therefore cannot speak again.

Mr. Hughes

An hon. Member can speak again if he has the leave of the House.

Mr. Speaker

Does the hon. Member have the leave of the House?

Hon. Members


Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 192, Noes 255.

Division No. 43] [6.40 pm
Adams, Allen (Paisley N) Freud, Clement
Alton, David Garrett, W. E.
Anderson, Donald Godman, Dr Norman
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Gould, Bryan
Ashdown, Paddy Gourlay, Harry
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack Hamilton, James (M'we1l N)
Ashton, Joe Hamilton, W. W. (Fife Central)
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Hardy, Peter
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Harman, Ms Harriet
Barnett, Guy Harrison, Rt Hon Walter
Barron, Kevin Hart, Rt Hon Dame Judith
Beckett, Mrs Margaret Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Beith, A. J. Haynes, Frank
Bell, Stuart Heffer, Eric S.
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh) Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall)
Bermingham, Gerald Home Robertson, John
Bidwell, Sydney Hughes, Dr Mark (Durham)
Blair, Anthony Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Boothroyd, Miss Betty Hughes, Roy (Newport East)
Boyes, Roland Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Bray, Dr Jeremy Janner, Hon Greville
Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E) Jenkins, Rt Hon Roy (Hillh'd)
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) John, Brynmor
Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E) Johnston, Sir Russell
Brown, R. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne N) Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith) Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Bruce, Malcolm Kennedy, Charles
Buchan, Norman Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil
Caborn, Richard Kirkwood, Archy
Callaghan, Rt Hon J. Lambie, David
Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M) Leighton, Ronald
Campbell, Ian Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Campbell-Savours, Dale Litherland, Robert
Canavan, Dennis Livsey, Richard
Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y) Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Cartwright, John Loyden, Edward
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) McCartney, Hugh
Clarke, Thomas McKay, Allen (Penistone)
Clay, Robert MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor
Clelland, David Gordon Maclennan, Robert
Clwyd, Mrs Ann McNamara, Kevin
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.) McTaggart, Robert
Cohen, Harry McWilliam, John
Coleman, Donald Madden, Max
Conlan, Bernard Marek, Dr John
Cook, Frank (Stockton North) Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Cook, Robin F. (Livingston) Martin, Michael
Corbett, Robin Mason, Rt Hon Roy
Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Maxton, John
Craigen, J. M. Maynard, Miss Joan
Crowther, Stan Meacher, Michael
Cunningham, Dr John Meadowcroft, Michael
Dalyell, Tam Michie, William
Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly) Mikardo, Ian
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l) Millen, Rt Hon Bruce
Deakins, Eric Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)
Dewar, Donald Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Dixon, Donald Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Dobson, Frank Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Dormand, Jack Nellist, David
Dubs, Alfred Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G. O'Brien, William
Eadie, Alex O'Neill, Martin
Eastham, Ken Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Edwards, Bob (W'h'mpt'n SE) Owen, Rt Hon Dr David
Evans, John (St. Helens N) Park, George
Fatchett, Derek Parry, Robert
Faulds, Andrew Patchett, Terry
Field, Frank (Birkenhead) Pavitt, Laurie
Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn) Pendry, Tom
Flannery, Martin Penhaligon, David
Foot, Rt Hon Michael Pike, Peter
Forrester, John Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Foster, Derek Prescott, John
Foulkes, George Radice, Giles
Fraser, J. (Norwood) Randall, Stuart
Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald Redmond, Martin.
Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S) Straw, Jack
Richardson, Ms Jo Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
Roberts, Allan (Bootle) Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)
Robertson, George Thorne, Stan (Preston)
Rogers, Allan Tinn, James
Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight) Torney, Tom
Rowlands, Ted Wainwright, R.
Ryman, John Wallace, James
Sedgemore, Brian Wareing, Robert
Sheerman, Barry Weetch, Ken
Sheldon, Rt Hon R. Welsh, Michael
Shore, Rt Hon Peter White, James
Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood) Williams, Rt Hon A.
Short, Mrs R.(W'hampt'n NE) Winnick, David
Silkin, Rt Hon J. Woodall, Alec
Skinner, Dennis Wrigglesworth, Ian
Soley, Clive
Steel, Rt Hon David Tellers for the Ayes:
Stott, Roger Mr. Lawrence Cunliffe and
Strang, Gavin Mr. Mark Fisher.
Adley, Robert Cormack, Patrick
Aitken, Jonathan Cranborne, Viscount
Alexander, Richard Crouch, David
Amess, David Currie, Mrs Edwina
Ancram, Michael Dicks, Terry
Arnold, Tom Dorrell, Stephen
Ashby, David Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.
Aspinwall, Jack Dover, Den
Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H. du Cann, Rt Hon Sir Edward
Atkins, Robert (South Ribble) Dykes, Hugh
Atkinson, David (B'm'th E) Emery, Sir Peter
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Evennett, David
Baldry, Tony Eyre, Sir Reginald
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Fallon, Michael
Bellingham, Henry Favell, Anthony
Bendall, Vivian Fenner, Mrs Peggy
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh) Fletcher, Alexander
Benyon, William Forman, Nigel
Best, Keith Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Bevan, David Gilroy Forth, Eric
Biffen, Rt Hon John Fowler, Rt Hon Norman
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Franks, Cecil
Body, Sir Richard Fraser, Peter (Angus East)
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Freeman, Roger
Boscawen, Hon Robert Fry, Peter
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Gale, Roger
Bowden, A. (Brighton K'to'n) Galley, Roy
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Gardiner, George (Reigate)
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde)
Bright, Graham Garel-Jones, Tristan
Brinton, Tim Goodlad, Alastair
Brooke, Hon Peter Gow, Ian
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Gower, Sir Raymond
Bruinvels, Peter Grant, Sir Anthony
Bryan, Sir Paul Gregory, Conal
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon A. Griffiths, Sir Eldon
Buck, Sir Antony Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)
Bulmer, Esmond Grist, Ian
Burt, Alistair Ground, Patrick
Butcher, John Grylls, Michael
Butler, Rt Hon Sir Adam Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)
Carlisle, John (Luton N) Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Hampson, Dr Keith
Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S) Hanley, Jeremy
Carttiss, Michael Hannam, John
Cash, William Harris, David
Chalker, Mrs Lynda Harvey, Robert
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Haselhurst, Alan
Chapman, Sydney Hawkins, C. (High Peak)
Chope, Christopher Hawkins, Sir Paul (N'folk SW)
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th S'n) Hayes, J.
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S) Hayhoe, Rt Hon Barney
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Hayward, Robert
Cockeram, Eric Heathcoat-Amory, David
Colvin, Michael Henderson, Barry
Conway, Derek Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Coombs, Simon Hickmet, Richard
Cope, John Hicks, Robert
Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L. Needham, Richard
Hill, James Newton, Tony
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Nicholls, Patrick
Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling) Norris, Steven
Holt, Richard Oppenheim, Phillip
Hordern, Sir Peter Osborn, Sir John
Howard, Michael Ottaway, Richard
Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A) Page, Sir John (Harrow W)
Howarth, Gerald (Cannock) Page, Richard (Herts SW)
Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldford) Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil
Howell, Ralph (Norfolk, N) Parris, Matthew
Hubbard-Miles, Peter Patten, Christopher (Bath)
Hunt, David (Wirral, W) Patten, J. (Oxf W & Abdgn)
Hunt, John (Ravensbourne) Pawsey, James
Irving, Charles Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Jessel, Toby Pollock, Alexander
Jones, Robert (Herts W) Porter, Barry
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael Powell, William (Corby)
Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith Powley, John
Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine Prentice, Rt Hon Reg
Kershaw, Sir Anthony Proctor, K. Harvey
Key, Robert Pym, Rt Hon Francis
King, Roger (B'ham N'field) Rathbone, Tim
King, Rt Hon Tom Rees, Rt Hon Peter (Dover)
Knight, Greg (Derby N) Rhodes James, Robert
Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston) Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Knowles, Michael Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas
Knox, David Ridsdale, Sir Julian
Lamont, Norman Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm
Lang, Ian Roe, Mrs Marion
Lawler, Geoffrey Rossi, Sir Hugh
Lawrence, Ivan Rowe, Andrew
Lee, John (Pendle) Rumbold, Mrs Angela
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh) Ryder, Richard
Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Lester, Jim Sayeed, Jonathan
Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Stamf'd) Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Lightbown, David Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham) Sims, Roger
Lord, Michael Skeet, Sir Trevor
Luce, Rt Hon Richard Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Lyell, Nicholas Soames, Hon Nicholas
McCrindle, Robert Spence, John
McCurley, Mrs Anna Spencer, Derek
Macfarlane, Neil Squire, Robin
MacGregor, Rt Hon John Stanbrook, Ivor
MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire) Steen, Anthony
MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute) Stern, Michael
Maclean, David John Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st) Stokes, John
Madel, David Taylor, John (Solihull)
Major, John Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Malins, Humfrey Thurnham, Peter
Malone, Gerald Townend, John (Bridlington)
Maples, John Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Marland, Paul Twinn, Dr Ian
Marlow, Antony Viggers, Peter
Marshall, Michael (Arundel) Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Mather, Carol Waldegrave, Hon William
Maude, Hon Francis Walker, Bill (T'side N)
Mawhinney, Dr Brian Warren, Kenneth
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Watson, John
Meyer, Sir Anthony Watts, John
Miller, Hal (B'grove) Wiggin, Jerry
Mills, Iain (Meriden) Winterton, Nicholas
Mitchell, David (Hants NW) Wood, Timothy
Monro, Sir Hector Yeo, Tim
Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Morris, M. (N'hampton, S) Tellers for the Noes:
Moynihan, Hon C. Mr. Tony Durant and
Mudd, David Mr. Michael Neubert.
Neale, Gerrard

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

I am sorry to raise this matter again, but I have just been notified—I do not know whether the information is correct but I am told that it is—the Prime Minister is giving an extensive briefing to the Lobby regarding the matter on which we asked for a statement today. I know that you, Mr. Speaker, hold no responsibility for statements, but is it right that, when we have asked for a statement to be given to the House regarding the Westland affair which has been widely reported in the press, the Prime Minister should give a briefing to the Lobby at 7.15? The House has not been given any information. If the argument from No. 10 is that there will be a statement from the Prime Minister—which is likely to be the case—it will mean that we shall have a statement after the Lobby has been notified at 7.15 today. The briefing will be widely reported on radio and television and it will appear in tomorrow morning's newspapers. That is quite wrong. The Prime Minister is yet again showing her contempt for this House.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman must not seek an opinion from me on these matters other than to say, and I repeat yet again, that I believe it is always right that this House should have first information on these matters.

Mr. Winnick

On a further point of order. Is it possible for you at least to let No. 10 know what you have just said? The briefing is due to take place in 20 minutes. I ask that the Prime Minister should come to the House before she briefs the Lobby.

Mr. Speaker

That is not my function. I cannot do that, but perhaps there are others who can.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker.

It may or may not be that the Prime Minister is briefing the press. The truth is that there is to be a briefing at No. 10 on these important issues. The point that my hon. Friend has raised, with which you have agreed, is that this House is being treated rather shabbily. Things are happening behind our backs. We are all anxious to have clarification and certainty on these matters. We are not being given that opportunity; others are.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)

There has been much criticism of an impending briefing. That criticism might be wholly misplaced because the briefing may be a background briefing. Opposition Members may laugh, but they are not entitled to make assumptions about the nature of the briefing. If the briefing is simply a background briefing, there can be nothing objectionable about it.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. Briefings go on every day. I have no knowledge what the briefing is about.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

In view of what the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) has just said, I am more alarmed than I was before. Earlier today we pressed the Leader of the House for a statement, if possible, this evening. As you will know, the House is abuzz with rumours—that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has been to see the Prime Minister, and that the Law Officers have issued an ultimatum concerning their own position unless certain actions are taken by the Prime Minister. In the circumstances, I do not think we can wait until tomorrow. We need a statement tonight.

Mr. Speaker

I know nothing of these matters.

Mr. Beith

Mr. Speaker, now that the Leader of the House is present—he came in while the exchanges were taking place—is it possible to give him an opportunity to clarify the situation? It cannot be satisfactory to you or to Members of the House that the intimation that a statement is to be made tomorrow by the Prime Minister should be gained from tapes or Ceefax, which is how I gained the information a few moments ago. In the circumstances, it would be better if the Leader of the House could tell us whether, in view of the information that is to be given to the press, the statement might be brought forward and made later tonight.

The Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)

Earlier this afternoon I said that the question of a statement would be a matter for consideration through the usual channels. That is exactly how the matter stands, and I have nothing to add to what I said this afternoon.

Mr. Waldegrave

I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 2, line 18, leave out from 'party' to end of line 20.

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 33, in page 2, leave out lines 19 and 20 and insert— '(b) a body whose purpose is to promote a political party'.

Those who were in Committee on the Bill will know that one of the principal debates was on the worries of some voluntary organisations. These worries were outlined to me when I met Mr. Peter Jay of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and some of his officials. They respected the Government's right to seek to undertake a policy of limiting the use of ratepayers' money for party political purposes. They argued that, inadvertently, we might have made great difficulties for some of the voluntary organisations which by tradition have had some support from some local authorities. This is a serious matter, and I acknowledged this in Committee.

We have given a commitment to try to meet this problem. It is difficult to differentiate between the legitimate anxieties of the legitimate voluntary organisations and the way some local authorities have sought to set up bogus or front organisations through which to carry cut party political activities at the expense of the ratepayer.

After discussions with the NCVO and others and having reconsidered the matter internally, we changed the original wording of clause 2(1)(b) so that it read: a body whose purpose is to promote a political party". That was to make it quite explicit that we were not trying to prevent organisations that might occasionally put forward views that coincided with the interests of a political party, but that we were concerned with those involved with party political campaigning. That original amendment was welcomed as a step in the right direction by some others who were worried, including, to some extent, the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw). The amendment was welcomed, for example, by the National Association of Local Councils, which wrote on 8 January to an official in my Department. I shall of course make the letter available to anybody who is interested to see it. It said: The undertaking given by Mr. Waldegrave in his speech to the Standing Committee to look again at Clause 2(1)(b) of the Bill meets this Association's points on Clause 2 of the Bill. If the Bill were amended in some such way as the form of words indicated by Mr. Waldegrave I believe that the difficulties we foresaw for parish and community councils on Clause 2 of the Bill would disappear. 7 pm

I have thought about this matter further. It is never wise to stand too firmly on the drafting ideas that one produces quickly in Committee to try to meet an anxiety—these matters should be considered coolly. I have concluded that it would be better law, clearer and would in no way diminish the real purpose of the law if we removed clause 2(1)(b) altogether. We have here a Morton's fork. Either clause 2(1)(b) has substance, in which case I am advised that the courts will be likely to construe it as delimiting rather than widening the effect of clause 2(1)(a), or it has not. It is possible that clause 2(1) would be construed in such a way as to give some effect to clause 2(1)(b) but there is a danger that, to give effect to clause 2(1)(a), they would have to take a narrower view of clause 2(1)(a) if real meaning is attached to clause 2(1)(b). If, however, clause 2(1)(b) does not bite, it does not bite and the legislation would be cleaner without it.

After thinking about the matter very carefully, I have concluded that it helps some of the anxieties and makes cleaner and clearer law to delete clause 2(1)(b). I shall ignore the argument about the rubric of clause 2(1), for which I had hoped to persuade some that we had a strong case, but without clause 2(1)(b), it would read: A local authority shall not publish any material which, in whole or in part, appears to be designated to affect, or can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect, public support for— (a) a political party". I know that some of my hon. Friends are worried about front organisations. I draw their attention to clause 2(3), which states clearly that local authorities cannot do party political things or fund anyone else to do what they cannot do themselves. I have had legal advice which I greatly respect on this matter and I am assured that the intention that we are carrying through here is carried through by the combination of the new clause 2(1) with 2(3).

I am grateful to my hon. Friends for their support of my newly formulated 2(1)(b), in one sense because I drafted it, but the danger is that we shall thereby narrow the Bill as there will be tremendous arguments in the courts about what the purpose of a body is. It is much clearer to leave the intention of the Bill on the face of the Bill by deleting clause 2(1)(b), the result of which is to remove any hint of narrowing such as I have mentioned. Clause 2(1)(a) will then have its full and natural scope. We are left with a clear statement of general principle, which I argue is better law.

Mr. Michael Forsyth

I am grateful for this opportunity to speak to amendment No. 33, which another eight of my hon. Friends who were members of the Committee support. I was also grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for explaining the change with regard to clause 2(1)(b), but I am still puzzled. In Committee, on 12 December, he said: The definition in clause 2(1)(b) goes too wide although it was not intended to do so. I do not have an amendment to put to the Committee, I have only a form of words. The form of words is that which appears as amendment No. 33. In justification to the original clause 2(1)(b)a body whose purpose is to promote a political party"— my hon. Friend the Minister said: That aims more directly and with a more effective shaft at the front organisation, which although it may be disguised as a general research committee for housing in the wider world or whatever, is an organisation for the promotion of the Liberal party, the Labour party or the Conservative party. It is an important matter to get right and I hope that some of the worries that were voiced this evening have been dissolved."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 12 December 1985; c. 275-76.]

I agree that it is extremely important that we get this right. There is a danger that, far from the clause being weakened by the inclusion of an alternative clause 2(1)(b), which is what amendment No. 33 would be, it would be weakened by not having anything at all. If, for example, a housing organisation called the Stirling housing action group was set up in my constituency, funded by the local authority, established by the chairman and officers of the local Labour party and explicitly determined to promote the policies of the Labour party and to highlight what they believed to be the deficiencies of Government policy, I would find it much easier to argue in court that their literature was designed to affect, or could reasonably be regarded as likely to affect, public support for a body whose purpose was to promote a political party than I would find it to argue that such a body could be reasonably regarded as likely to affect public support for a political party.

In the former case I have only to demonstrate the act of putting leaflets through letter boxes or campaigning, as it can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect support for that organisation, the aim of which is to promote a political party. I would find it much more difficult to argue that putting leaflets through letter boxes could reasonably be regarded as affecting support for the Conservative party because support for the Conservative party would be determined by a range of issues—perhaps divisions in the party or other issues that have nothing whatever to do with housing. Support for the organisation, however, can be readily determined and measured.

My hon. Friend the Minister said that there was a safety net in the form of clause 2(3) which says that a local authority cannot fund organisations that would produce such material, so we have no worries in that respect. I freely confess that I am no lawyer. Clause 2(3) says: A local authority shall not give financial or other assistance to a person for the publication of material which the authority are prohibited by this section from publishing themselves. By removing clause 2(1)(b), we remove the prohibition on local authorities from supporting material that is published by such bodies and organisations. Should it not be the other way round? Does not removal of paragraph (b) make it easier for the local authority to fund such an organisation, by allowing the local authority to argue that the Stirling housing action group is publishing material that is designed to better the conditions of housing in Stirling? It is not publishing material that can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect, public support for— (a) a political party because that is a much wider argument. Therefore, the council could argue that it was entitled to give financial or other assistance.

Is there not at least an argument—I appreciate that one could equally argue in the opposite direction—that without clause 2(1)(b) it will be easier for local authorities to fund such organisations and, with only clause 2(1)(a), it will be harder to stop these front organisations from campaigning in the way with which we are familiar?

I followed the Committee proceedings carefully and I understand the difficulties of framing such legislation. However, it seems rather odd that we should have started with the view that it was essential to have clause 2(1)(b) as it was drafted, although rightly the Committee recognised that it might have caught one or two others, and that my hon. Friend the Minister should have suggested to the Committee an alternative to clause 2(1)(b), but we now find that it was not necessary to have any clause 2(1)(b). That is a remarkable change in position.

My hon. Friend the Minister told the House that voluntary bodies and other organisations gave some support to the alternative to clause 2(1)(b), which forms the text of my amendment No. 33. I can understand why, because it meets most of the points made by those voluntary organisations. My hon. Friend said that the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) had expressed some support. I do not have the Official Report of the Committee, but no doubt the hon. Member for Blackburn can answer for himself. However, I seem to recall him arguing in Committee that the alternative suggestion on clause 2(1)(b) was better but not good enough and that it would still limit activity.

I use the hon. Member for Blackburn as my supporter because, if he thought that clause 2(1)(b) as it was redrafted and as it now forms the text of my amendment would have an effect, that makes my case more eloquently than I can. My hon. Friend argued that he had the support of the Opposition, but, on my recollection of the debate, that is not correct.

I appreciate the considerable worries about the way in which the modern Labour party, the new Left, will use every conceivable loophole and breach every conceivable convention in local government to further its political ends. Therefore, it is essential that we do not operate on the basis of good faith from the Labour party in local government, but recognise it as a reason for closing every avenue. For the life of me, Morton's fork and the legal arguments notwithstanding, I cannot see that amendment No. 33 would weaken the effect of clause 2(1)(a).

Mr. Simon Hughes

Of the two options, I welcome the Minister's rather than that of the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth). The House will recollect that, as has been correctly said, the Minister's first stab at redrafting in the heat of the debate is what has now appeared in amendment No. 33. The view expressed by my colleague and me on behalf of the Liberal party, by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), the voluntary sections and others was that clause 2(1)(b) was one of the most dangerous and most undesirable parts of the Bill.

7.15 pm

I applaud the Minister for confirming that it is better not to have clause 2(1)(b) than to have a variety of it. That improves the Bill. The Minister has received representations about this, although the amendment was tabled only yesterday, and organisations have had only 24 hours in which to respond. Therefore, he will be aware that the amendment does not meet all the concerns of the voluntary bodies but it is a move in the right direction. It takes out one of my four major concerns about the Bill and returns us to the principle that we are dealing with party political influence and not with the influence of organisations around the periphery of political and electoral processes.

I hope, as thousands outside do, that this will be the first of several such important steps to get the Bill right before it becomes law. I fear that it may not be.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth). We have taken as our reference point in tabling the amendment the proceedings in Committee and the speech of my hon. Friend the Minister there. I am referring to the seventh sitting of the Committee on Thursday. 12 December, part I, cols. 275 and 276. The Committee acknowledged that the Minister was in some difficulty with regard to the scope of the original wording of the clause, and there was discussion from both sides of the Committee. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Minister both in Committee and today that he felt that he was not bound by the words that he was drafting on the spot. Nevertheless, he went on to say that whatever happened, although he was not committed to the words of the amendment exactly, he would not move away from their "intent or common-sense meaning". He was referring to the words of amendment No. 33.

My hon. Friend went on to say that he felt that the amendment which he had drafted on his feet, or perhaps with some legal advice beforehand—and which we have picked up in amendment No. 33— aims more directly and with a more effective shaft at the front organisation, which although it may be disguised as a general research committee for housing in the wider world or whatever, is an organisation for the promotion of the Liberal party, the Labour party or the Conservative party. It is an important matter to get right and I hope that some of the worries that were voiced this evening have been dissolved. Conservative Members were anxious about the whole series of debates about the amendments before my hon. Friend the Minister made his speech. He dissolved our worries by his alternative suggestion, and he said that he hoped that the Opposition would withdraw their series of amendments on the assurance of the form of words that I have given today".—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 12 December 1985; c. 275-6.] That form of words has now been withdrawn completely. Somewhere along the line my hon. Friend—I impute to him the best of motives—has considered, with his legal advisers, whether, whatever the form of improved words for clause 2(1)(b), the effect would be better if it were taken out altogether. He has concluded that we would still be able to trap the organisations about which we are all concerned if that happened.

I asked the Minister to go back to the original Bill as drafted. Some legal adviser wrote clause 2(1)(a), but decided that it would not capture some of the front organisations that the Government and the Minister are concerned about and that we needed the additional form of words for clause 2(1)(b).

Mr. Robert Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

How does the hon. Gentleman know that that is what was said?

Mr. Brown

I think that it is unlikely that words are thrown into a Bill for the sake of it. Someone considers the policy objective of the Government. Parliamentary draftsmen recognise that the Government want to deal with local authorities using public funds and ratepayers' money to promote political parties as well as with front organisations that also support political parties. One presumes that the legal advisers, having that policy objective before them, considered clause 2(1)(a) and decided that it was not strong enough, and that there must be an extra form of words. In Committee the Minister recognised the arguments from hon. Members and in letters from outside bodies, saying that clause 2(1)(b) was too wide and was trapping organisations that he did not intend to trap. After taking legal advice, he returned to the drawing board and considered an alternative form of words, which I find acceptable.

Mr. Wareing

I know that the Government are not known for conceding to outside opinion, but could it not be that on this occasion, because of the agitation of voluntary organisations which considered that clause to be too sweeping, the Minister responded positively to that pressure? That could be the reason why he wants to withdraw the subsection.

Mr. Brown

Yes, of course. In Committee my hon. Friend talked about a campaign which his wife was associated with. He said: It would be odd if the Bill's provisions meant that if her campaign was successful she would have to desist from any further activity. I doubt whether she could convince the Labour party or the Liberal party on such a sensible matter and if she convinced only the Government she might be in danger". The definition of clause 2(1)(b) is too wide, although that was not intended. The Minister accepted the point of the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) and the representations that were made at the time of the Committee. He then said: I do not have an amendment to put to the Committee. I have only a form of words. Although I have discussed it with my legal advisers, I want to make sure that it is correct. I am not committed to these words exactly. That implies that some form of words would be brought before us, not a complete removal of the words. The Minister went on to say: I will not move away from their intent or common-sense meaning." — [Official Report, Standing Committee A, 12 December 1985, c. 275.] A complete withdrawal of clause 2(1)(b) without an alternative form of words means that the Minister is moving away from their common-sense meaning. For those reasons, I support the amendment.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Southampton, Itchen)

I also support amendment No. 33, and I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for selecting it, notwithstanding the fact that it is starred. In Committee, on 12 December 1985, the Minister clearly analysed the problems with which the Committee had to deal. He said: I shall recap the tripartite structure of the argument against the abuses that we believe exist. First, we had to stop local authorities publishing material that might affect a political party—clause 2(1)(a). Secondly—clause 2(3)—we had to stop local authorities giving money to other bodies to do what the councils were not allowed to do themselves. Thirdly, we had to prevent an intermediate phenomenon: a publication in support of—or, presumably to damage—what might be called in common sense language a front organisation that may dress itself up as a campaigning organisation, but is not one. Such an organisation may trade on the high prestige of a great voluntary organisation, but is not one itself.

By supporting the removal of clause 2(1)(b) the Government are going back on dealing with two of the three problems. We shall not deal effectively with the problem of the front organisations, which everybody has agreed must be dealt with. I do not think anyone is in any doubt about how far Socialist-controlled local authorities are prepared to go to bend the law and avoid the legal consequences, but perhaps I can quote from the Southern Evening Echo regarding what happened in Southampton city council: Southampton city council is to spend £200"—

Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley)


Mr. Chope

Every penny counts in Southampton. Southampton city council is to spend £200 on publicising the fact that it wants to raise £200.

The council is banned from directly donating money to the War on Want Women in Nicaragua Appeal. The article states that it may only incur expenses for people living in its own area. It had wanted the £200 to buy recycled paper for the appeal. Now it has found a way round the ban. £200 will instead be spent on publicising the fact that a container is to be sited in the Civic Centre entrance hall for the collection of writing materials to send to the impoverished Latin American country. That is an example of the way in which local authorities under Socialist control will go to any lengths to spend ratepayers' money on their particular pet causes instead of leaving ratepayers to decide whether they want to make donations to such causes.

When dealing with some of the other concerns expressed in Committee, the Minister, in column 290, said that the proxy, indirect organisations such as those so cleverly advised by Lord Gifford, are dealt with in the Bill. He also said: Any conference designed for party political ends, however indirectly supported by the local authority, is covered by the Bill."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A 12 December 1985; c. 274-90.] I hope that the Minister will assure us that those two areas will still be covered by the Bill.

I should like to cite one example. If Southampton Now, which is a monthly magazine published at ratepayers' expense in Southampton publicising the work of the city council, was to include a full page—not an advertisement—setting out something about Militant or CND, it would not be a party political advertisement in the sense mentioned in clause 2(1)(a). In my opinion, it would be an advertisement that would be likely to affect public support for … a body, cause or campaign … likely to be … identified with, a political party.

Mr. Michie

Which one is CND identified with?

Mr. Chope

Most people would identify CND with the Labour party and the Communist party. I know of no Conservative Member who supports CND.

Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

There is only one Member of Parliament on the national council of CND, to my knowledge, and he is a member of the Liberal party.

Mr. Chope

I am prepared to discuss whether the Liberal party supports CND outside the Chamber but I shall confine my assertions to the Labour party and the Communist party.

Mr. Michie

I want to ensure that the hon. Gentleman gets it all in perspective. I take part in CND marches and, although I try to avoid it, I occasionally see a Tory group against the bomb. I assume that is not part of the Labour party.

Mr. Chope

In these issues it is very dangerous to believe all the slogans that one sees. Perhaps members of the Labour party or of the Communist party will carry banners saying that they are members of the Conservative party campaigning against nuclear disarmament. That has happened in the past.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to assure us that the front organisations will be dealt with as effectively by the Government amendment as they would have been before.

7.30 pm
Mr. Straw

Coming from Wandsworth, I think that the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Chope) is the last person in the House who is entitled to lecture Labour authorities on their conduct. Having looked carefully at the publicity by Southampton city council and compared it with the stuff that Wandsworth puts out at ratepayers' expense, I believe that Southampton is closer to established convention than ever Wandsworth is. The hon. Gentleman and Ministers know that Conservative Wandsworth daily breaks the conventions, using ratepayers' money. The hon. Gentleman has not once had the decency to acknowledge that that has been going on or to criticise his local authority. If ever a man practised double standards, it is the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman gave ludicrous examples, such as what he said about Militant. It defies imagination, particularly in view of what has happened in Southampton, but if Militant were to take space in Southampton Now, of course that would come within the ambit of clause 2, as amended.

As for CND, as my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) said, it is not associated with a political party. Its members are drawn from people in a number of political parties, and from people in no political party. Whether or not the hon. Gentleman agrees with CND, it is a gross slur on that organisation to suggest that it is a party political body.

I should like to deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) because, unusually, he prayed in aid what I said in Committee. Serious concern was expressed by many voluntary organisations about the likely effect of clause 2(1)(b), which they believed was unintended and gratuitous, and arose from the concern of Ministers to hit front organisations. I do not necessarily agree with that, but I accept that that is a legitimate concern in the context of the Bill. The wording that was used went much wider than that.

I remind the hon. Member for Stirling that the National Council for Voluntary Organisations can hardly be held up as a front organisation for anybody. Its patron is Her Majesty the Queen, its president is Sir John Hedley Greenborough KBE, its chairman is Peter Jay and its honorary treasurer is Randal Haigh. It represents a wide range of voluntary organisations, almost all of which—not even covertly—have no party political association.

Those of us who were members of the Committee know what happened. Many people, including Conservatives and the NCVO, made representations. I am not so vain as to believe that it was hon. Members' representations that made the difference—it was the representations of voluntary organisations outside. The Minister finally accepted that the Bill was likely to have an unintended effect.

The hon. Member for Stirling said that we regarded the wording originally proposed by the Minister in Committee as better than the wording in the Bill. That is true. Like the Minister and other hon. Members, we needed time to look at the Bill. Everybody made that point in Committee. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations wrote to me on 21 January, saying: our legal advice is that the form of amendment proposed by William Waldegrave before Christmas in Committee would not be sufficient to overcome our concerns. The NCVO said that, having looked carefully at the effect of the clause.

Mr. Michael Forsyth

I remind the hon. Gentleman of what he said in Committee when my hon. Friend the Minister proposed as his alternative to clause 2(1)(b) the text that is now amendment No. 33: I am grateful to the Minister for taking on board the representations from the NCVO and for being so concerned about the matter. In the light of what the Minister has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw amendment No. 17".—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 12 December 1985; c. 275.] The hon. Gentleman was satisfied with the amendment as it then was and prayed in aid the NVCO. Why is he now changing his position? If my hon. Friend the Minister is right—he argues that amendment No. 33 would weaken the Bill—why is the hon. Gentleman, as a Member of the Opposition, not supporting my amendment, as his purpose in Committee was to try to weaken the Bill?

Mr. Straw

If the hon. Gentleman survives in his seat, one day he will be in opposition. I wish him all the best when he achieves that happy position. There are many benefits of opposition, not unalloyed. When the hon. Gentleman is in opposition, he will appreciate the tactics that any Opposition have to adopt. There is no great secret. He has only to compare our amendments with the Minister's. We considered the Minister's amendment to be an improvement, but it did not meet our objections. I do not think that there is an enormous difference between what the Minister said he was thinking of in Committee and what he has now proposed. I am surprised that the matter has caused so much argument. I believe that it is better to leave the subsection out altogether because it will remove the dubiety.

I reassure the hon. Member for Stirling, if he still has any worries, that we still regard the Bill as wholly objectionable. We have been trying to explain our objections. The clause covers anything that is published instead of expenditure, and includes words such as or can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect". The clause will severely and gratuitously affect local authorities, which is why Conservative authorities, not the madmen in Wandsworth but decent Conservative leaders—

Mr. Chope

One of my regrets is that I could not fulfil the obligation of representing my constituents in Southampton, Itchen as well as continuing to look after my council ward in Wandsworth. I have not been a councillor in Wandsworth for the best part of three years, but I stiff pay my rates there as I do in Southampton. I regard Wandsworth council as one of the very best in the country.

Mr. Straw

I wish I had not given way. I have not learnt anything. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to complain about my description of Wandsworth councillors as madmen, but he did not demur from that at all.

This is a thoroughly objectionable Bill. It will put decent Conservative authorities, such as Kent, led by councillor Tony Hart, in a straitjacket, whether clause 2(1)(b) is included or not. We shall continue to object to it. Conservative Members express genuine concern about front organisations. If they read subsection (3), they will. see that there is no possibility of a front organisation getting away with funding by the back door to do things that the local authority is prohibited from doing. Under the Bill local authorities will be prohibited from carrying out a great deal of publicity. No front organisation or even bona fide voluntary organisation will be allowed to do anything.

Mr. Michael Forsyth

Does the hon. Gentleman accept the argument which has been put forward, that if the Government were to accept amendment No. 33, which I tabled, it would seriously weaken the Bill? If he accepts that, why does he not support it? Or does he, like me, think that if amendment No. 33 were accepted it would strengthen the Bill?

Mr. Straw

Faced with that choice, we prefer amendment No. 4. In Committee we were faced with a different choice.

Mr. Waldegrave

If we had introduced the doubt which, on having taken further advice, I believe our proposed amendment produced, it might in some circumstances have strengthened the Bill, but I was advised that in other circumstances it might have weakened it. That was the nature of the doubt. It would have meant much more complex legal arguments. I was advised that some real and imaginary cases might be construed as weakening the Bill. It was for the removal of doubt both ways that we took this course.

Mr. Straw

I accept entirely the point the Minister is making. Our view in Committee was that the amendment, which is now amendment No. 33, would modify the Bill and bring it closer to its original purpose. Having been presented with the choice today, our view is that the effect of amendment No. 4 is to bring the Bill much closer to its original stated purpose. Since there is also legal doubt about the effect of amendment No. 33, it seems sensible, when faced with that choice—in politics one has to choose—that our choice should be amendment No. 4.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

I apologise for not being present at the beginning of the debate, but I was at a meeting of the Select Committee on Defence, which is conducting a very important inquiry.

I support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth). The Bill, if amended as my hon. Friend the Minister suggests, will not stop political publicity by local authorities, which is its purpose as set out in the long title. The Bill will merely ban councils from publishing material which is designed to affect … public support for … a political party".

Therefore, publicity which is not designed "to affect … support" will not be stopped. What constitutes a political party is undefined by the Bill. Would a single-issue campaign fighting an election, for instance, the Campaign to Abolish the GLC, which has fought GLC elections in the past, be regarded as a political party?

Even unamended by the Minister, the Bill is too weak. It merely bans councils from publishing material which is designed to affect … public support for … a political party". Groups like CND, whose campaign claims not to support a political party, could still receive money. The Minister's amendment will ensure that the Bill will not prevent councils giving grants to bodies which conduct campaigns and publish propaganda, even though within the terms of clause 2(1) they may not be political parties as such.

Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West)

Can my hon. Friend give me guidance on whether a group such as Broad Left, which by its very nature comprises the adherence of a number of political parties, such as the Communist party, the International Marxist Workers' League, the Labour party and so on, could be given money by a local authority and get away with it?

7.45 pm
Mr. Leigh

My hon. Friend has made a fair point, which leads me straight on to my next point. Of course the Broad Left may be supported.

I have today obtained a leaked document from the GLC. You will be glad to hear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the GLC leaks even more than do certain Government Departments. The note is headed: Note of the Voluntary Sector Forward Funding Sub-Group held on Friday 10 January 1986 at 2.30 pm in Room 136. Ms. Valerie Wise was in the chair. The minutes, which I am willing to show to other hon. Members, detail the GLC's plan to spend millions of pounds of public money which should rightfully be returned to ratepayers on abolition of the GLC. The minutes show that the money will be given to "umbrella" groups. We learn that there are to be 400 arts grants, 150 ethnic minority committee grants, 53 women's committee grants, and 11 extra staff are to be drafted into the arts department to write reports. Those are all Left-wing groups.

Mr. Tony Banks

The hon. Gentleman has experience, limited though it may be, of the GLC, because he was a member at one time. It is not worthy of him to dismiss that device as a means of funding Left-wing groups. The fact is that after the abolition of the GLC a large number of arts groups and voluntary organisations, many of which he would support, will go to the wall because they will not have money to fund them. This is a practical way of trying to preserve them. It is not to propagate the views of the Labour party.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. The debate is getting a little wide. Remarks must be related to political parties.

Mr. Leigh

I am grateful for the intervention of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). I shall deal with his remarks in a moment.

The minutes to which I was referring explain how the wording of reports is to be fiddled to bring the section 137 element of the grants down below the limit at which the Secretary of State needs to be consulted. How much is involved? My information is that it is about £70 million, although Valerie Wise says that it will be £25 million. A senior GLC officer, questioned by the Campaign Against Council Corruption, was unable to deny that the higher figure was incorrect. All we know is that the GLC has £200 million splashing about and that it intends to spend all of it before abolition.

What has that to do with clause 2(2)(b)? Many of the groups to be funded under the operation exist purely as propaganda fronts for the purpose of promoting political parties of the Left. I do not say that of all of them, but of many of them. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West said that the money is to go to respectable organisations to tide them over after abolition. Doubtless that is the case in some instances—

Mr. Tony Banks

In most.

Mr. Leigh

—but what of the others? What will the Institute of Race Relations, as one of the umbrella groups, do with the cash that it receives? To which other groups will it pass the money? I see that Tony Bunyon sits on the GLC sub-group which is masterminding this massive handout. He is also a member of the editorial committee of the Institute of Race Relations, a Marxist think-tank linked to the Transnational Institute, itself an acolyte of the Soviet propaganda machine.

Millions of pounds are to be handed by the GLC to Left-wing campaigning or propaganda organisations. What is to prevent those organisations, for years after abolition, from using the cash for political publicity purposes whose only real aim is to support the political parties of the Left? Only the provisions of this slim Bill stand between the British public and the onslaught of a multi-million pound publicity blitz. I believe that the Bill will fail in its task. It should not be weakened. It should be strengthened.

Mr. Gerald Bowden (Dulwich)

In an intervention, my hon. Friend the Minister said that amendment No. 33 would in some ways strengthen the Bill, but in other ways weaken it. I hope that he will take the opportunity to amplify what he meant by that remark and perhaps give examples of where the Bill will be strengthened and where it will be weakened. It is not beyond the wit of parliamentary draftsmen to ensure that the weaknesses are obliterated and the strengths left isolated.

I fear that by not enacting something in the terms of amendment No. 33 the Bill will be seriously weakened. It will leave a great gap in the law, which will allow all sorts of improper propaganda vehicles to be driven through it. My local authority, Southwark, will take every advantage of the freeway. Therefore, I add my voice briefly to urge the Minister to reconsider amendment No. 33. If the amendment is not passed, the Bill will be weakened and the ratepayers who might have expected some benefit from the Bill will he disappointed.

Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

I support the views expressed by my hon. Friends. I am still not entirely clear about the Government's explanation of the amendment. Perhaps I might put to my hon. Friend the Minister a question that arises out of a speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) at our Committee's 10th sitting, at column 397. In his speech my hon. Friend revealed some quite incredible matters about my constituency. My hon. Friend told us that, following the good endeavours of the Campaign Against Council Corruption, Basildon district council responded to an advertisement in Marxism Today and decided to employ a PR company called Union Communications, at a cost to the ratepayers of £150,000. The Campaign Against Council Corruption wrote to the PR company and received the following response: You ask about Union Communications. Basically we are a small team of professional journalists, PR and design people who have come together to offer to trade unions and Labour local authorities a communications service that beats anything the Tories can lay their hands on. We believe we are succeeding. We have not worked as yet with any CLP's though we would be happy to do so except in so far as when we work for a local authority we invariably get involved with the CLP and help their own PR work. We have shown Basildon council, for instance, how to put 10 per cent. on the Labour vote. Inevitably the CLP was involved and we had to show them what to do. What I and my constituents in Basildon are worried about, following the opening remarks of the Minister, is whether the Government amendment—

Mr. Michael Forsyth

I had forgotten about this organisation. Perhaps I could update the House on its latest antics. One of its directors was responsible for the advertisement that appeared in the Daily Telegraph, calling for 70 patriotic Scots to subscribe £1,000 to the Save Gartcosh Campaign. Obviously, Union Communications is helping the Labour party in Scotland rather than in Basildon now.

Mr. Amess

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those remarks. Hon. Members will be aware that it was Union Communications that took those scurrilous advertisements in The House Magazine last year and printed letters by the previous Secretary of State for the Environment which were totally inaccurate. When the Minister is summing up, perhaps he would tell me whether the Government amendment will stop the sort of nonsense that my constituents in Basildon have to put up with.

Mr. Robert B. Jones

I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the debate. Like my hon. Friend. I was in the meeting of the Select Committee on the Environment. — [AN HON. MEMBER: "About Westland?"] Many subjects are covered in the Select Committee on the Environment, but fortunately Westland is not yet one of them.

My hon. Friend the Minister should take note of what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) because he talked about precisely the situation that I would expect from the well organised network of Labour councils that exchange information and techniques. The Minister need only go back to our experience following the passage of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980, to the direct Labour provisions, and to the convention called together by the various Socialist authorities opposed to that legislation. He should read the remarks made at the opening of that convention. I planned to obstruct the law in every possible way, and it set its finest legal minds the task of finding loopholes in the legislation. That is precisely what happened, and the Minister and his colleagues on the Front Bench had to come back to the House on two occasions to tighten up that legislation.

We will now experience precisely the same thing in terms of propaganda. Money will be handed out to front organisations and used for advertising to promote Left-wing causes. Various bodies, such as multi-party organisations of the Broad Left, will find a loophole in the legislation. As it stands, the legislation is far too weak to achieve the purposes which the Minister intends, and he will have to come back to the House to present more legislation. In the meantime, millions of pounds of ratepayers' money will be squandered in propping up the Labour party.

Mr. Waldegrave

The views of my hon. Friends, and in particular of my hon. Friends from the county constituencies, must be heard with respect, because they are largely in the front line of a lot of the abuses about which the House has been hearing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Chope) said that Wandsworth council came into this matter. I think that it was George III who, when told that General Wolfe was mad, said, "I wish he would bite some of my other generals". If the councillors in Wandsworth are mad, I wish that they would bite some of our other councillors. If they did so, we would not need to spend a considerable amount of time arguing about savings in low-spending councils. I should like to see what would happen if the Wandsworth regime were to be imposed on some of the other allegedly low-spending councils, but I must not get into that argument.

The nature of the tightrope that we are walking has been made evident. My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) has to deal with an extremely odd council, a naively party political organisation in the way in which it presents itself. I suspect that a ratepayer could take it to court under the existing law in a case as blatant as that. Under the law that we are passing—[Interruption.] The matter of access to the courts worries my hon. Friends. We debated that in Committee. How the civil law works is a matter of real concern, but it is not a matter for this Bill.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden) that if we pass legislation that is inherently doubtful and has a phrase in it which legal advisers say could be construed in several different ways, it might well be construed by a court to have a certain meaning. The courts are not allowed to read our debates; they have to look at the words in front of them. They may decide that Parliament must have meant, by putting in certain words, that there was some limitation on clause 2(a). When I originally drafted the Bill, I did not believe that that is what those words meant, but I have been advised that in certain circumstances the words could mean that. In certain circumstances, they could have another meaning.

Inherently doubtful law is bad law, and we should avoid it. As we all know, in Committee and on Report, where one is trying to put a frontier in this new area, there are bound to be difficulties. It is difficult to write law in this matter. All the front organisations referred to by my hon. Friends the Members for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) and for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth), who opened the debate, will be more straightforwardly caught by clause 2(3), which says: A local authority shall not give financial or other assistance to a person"— a person means a body or convention, a legal person— for the publication of material which the authority are prohibited by this section from publishing themselves.

The CND point is more difficult. Let us for a moment put aside CND. There are certainly Conservative pacifists. I do not want to get into an argument about CND, which in its leadership seems to be an organisation of the Left. It is possible to imagine a group of Conservative Quakers, for example, with pacifist views. If such an organisation, or one that was wholly non-party political, put forward views about defence, it would be wrong if it were funded by local authorities.

That is a matter of limiting the funding under the functions and comes later in the Bill, where we limit the spending. We have had some argument about this. We do not want to stop the poor little parish councils doing some sensible things, but it will limit the area of discretion of their spending on publicity to bring it much more closely into line with their functions. It would be wrong if a Labour Government came into power and abolished the nuclear deterrent. Such a Government would not do that, because the Labour party at that point would have changed its attitude about the matter. If at that time a Conservative council like Wandsworth mounted a campaign for the reintroduction of Trident, that would be wrong. It would be a wrong use of local government resources, by Conservatives or anybody else. That seems to be met, not so much in this part of the Bill, but by saying that that is stepping outside the proper functions of local authorities.

8 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) said, not in an unpleasant way, that I had said that I would not depart from the words in the Bill, yet I had now abolished them. I defend myself by saying that the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes know what was going on at that moment in Committee. I had shown a willingness to make a change, which caused the hon. Member for Blackburn to withdraw various amendments. I want to put it clearly on the record that I in no way intended to trick the hon. Gentleman into withdrawing his amendments and then return with a measure which went back to the original intention. That would have been dishonourable. I did not take that as meaning that if we could achieve the objective of removing the NCVO and still get the front organisations—which I am advised we have done—I would not find other ways of doing that.

My hon. Friend did not accuse me unkindly, but I can assure the House that I am aware that my hon. Friends would like me to go a great deal further in many respects. We cannot go a great deal further without catching all sorts of organisations that we do not want to catch, so we must find a compromise. I believe that we have found it, and I urge hon. Members to accept the amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Boyes

I beg to move amendment No. 5, in page 2, line 25, after 'party', insert 'save where such a person is a member of the authority publishing the material'.

This is a squalid Bill or, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) said: In almost every respect, this is a wretched Bill. —[Official Report, 18 November; Vol. 87, c. 57.]

It is also an unnecessary Bill produced by a nervous but calculating and bitter group of people. The Government's policies have been exposed for what they are—cynical and destructive.

The Bill has been produced simply because local authorities have used legal, well established and acceptable means to defend themselves and the people whom they represent. They have scored important victories in convincing people of the merit of their arguments. Local authorities have done no more than explain to their electorate the consequences to their services of the Government's actions. Major campaigns have been mounted against rate capping and the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan counties.

In paragraph 221, Widdicombe says: Local Government has an important and well established voice on matters affecting its responsibilities. It is important at all times, but perhaps particularly in times of wide political differences, that our political system should accommodate the free expression of opposing views, and we have said that it is right for local authorities to be able to explain their view on controversial matters affecting them. In the recent context that includes issuing information about abolition and rate-capping. In paragraph 235 Widdicombe says: Under its conventions, the government of the day is entitled to provide information about its proposed legislation and its likely effect; it seems to us only equitable that bodies affected, in this case local authorities, should have the right to provide information in reply. That way the public can be sure of being fully informed. The Bill is particularly contemptible for a number of reasons but I shall mention two in particular. Local authorities have done no more than the Government do —in fact, the Government are often extremely party politically oriented in some of their publicity—except that the Government appear to have an unlimited budget for their spending on advertising.

The Government asked Mr. Widdicombe to chair an inquiry into local authority publicity and, after he had received a substantial amount of both written and oral evidence, spent hours of deliberation and analysis and produced an interim report. In another act of political spite and vindictiveness, the Department of the Environment has ignored many of his findings and gone way beyond them in the Bill. The Widdicombe report was clearly a big disappointment for the Government, but having given the inquiry team a task to carry out, it is a disgrace to go so far beyond its findings. I shall illustrate that most vividly.

Clause 2 identifies two points to which local authorities, and ultimately the courts, have to have special regard in deciding the legality of any publicity material. The first of those, subsubsection (2)(a), states: particular regard shall be had to whether the material refers to a political party or to persons identified with a political party". I emphasise the words or to persons identified with a political party". I want to examine what that means in reality and consider the difficulties that it will raise for both members and officers of local authorities.

I have served on two tiers of local government and I have been a senior officer on a third tier. I am quite aware that certain councillors are viewed as being particularly important both by their colleagues and by the citizens that they represent. For example, the mayor of Sunderland will be invited to literally hundreds of functions during his year in office. He will make an almost equal number of speeches, and because he is the proud holder of his position and representative of the council, he will want to praise its achievements and mention its problems. But, according to the Government, he had better not be quoted in a council publication. What nonsense.

What if the mayor is simply photographed outside a building—a house or a small factory unit—built by the local authority for the benefit of some of its electorate and then the photograph is reproduced in the local authority newsletter, magazine or whatever? That in itself will be an offence, yet I would argue that it is correct that such pictures should be published.

Other councillors, as well as mayors, play an important part on local authorities, either by the force of their personality or their position—for example, the leader of a council or the chairman of a major committee. When I was an assistant director of social services my department would be responsible for the building of a new resource. Under this Government building new resources, even essential ones, has become an historic event for many local authorities due to the cuts and penalties imposed on local authorities, but let us assume that a local authority has built a new resource and then got either a local councillor or the chairman of the social services committee to open it. Under the Bill it would be an offence to publish any picture of the building and the councillor opening it in the regular council publication. Having been elected by the electorate upon a Labour party ticket, such a councillor would be identified with a political party. But the electorate, as we all well know, would much prefer a picture with people on it than a building alone. If anyone doubts that such pictures are much more interesting to the electorate, they need only examine the pictures in any newspaper.

How would the courts deal with such a matter, particularly when another factor has to be taken into consideration? A person identified with a political party might be interpreted in the courts as someone so identified in the minds of the electorate. An example could be a councillor who gets substantial media coverage for his political views. What happens when that councillor gets publicity in his role as a councillor?

There is also the case of the hard-working, efficient councillor who has no inclination for publicity, who makes his points in such a way that they are not attractive to the press. Could that councillor carry out the odd official function and have his picture in the council newsletter without that being an offence? That shows how ludicrous and ridiculous the Bill is.

What will the position be on official reports and in particular the annual accounts of a local authority? Often the leader or appropriate chairperson will sign a foreword or an introduction to a report. That adds interest for the electorate and shows that that publication does not come from the bureaucrats but from the elected representatives. If David Blunkett from Sheffield council were to sign a report, would that be different from a report signed by the leader of a smaller council which did not make national headlines?

Many local authorities will face these contradictions and problems. That is why the lawyers are rubbing their hands with glee. So many cases will have to be tested in the courts. The Opposition amendment will clearly exclude references to council members while retaining the ban on knocking copy against national figures. We believe that Widdicombe intended that.

Mrs. Rumbold

First, rather cheekily for someone who has so recently come to the Dispatch Box, I congratulate the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) on his first appearance there.

The Bill in no sense tries to stifle the right and proper work done by local or national politicians. It does not ignore the fact that local government has politicians in the same sense as Parliament. Therefore, when the Government examined the provisions, we took particular care on the nature of publicity and how and whether publicity should be prohibited. We examined the definitions of how and whether that would occur. We also looked at the content of the Bill. As I said earlier, the content of the publicity is the acid test of whether or not it will come within the Bill.

The examples mentioned by the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington were effectively countered by my hon. Friend the Minister for Environment, Countryside and Local Government when he showed how the Labour-controlled authority in his constituency could produce an annual report signed by the leader of Bristol city council. That report contained references to what the city council had achieved and mentioned in the accounts that the city council could not, because of Government contraints, carry out the policies that it would have preferred. My hon. Friend was not saying that those were not proper and sensible references to the local authority's work and its function. I can say without fear or favour that it is acceptable that a member of a local authority should have his name on a document —as the leader of Bristol council had —provided that he is not publishing material which could be interpreted under the Bill as designed to canvas support for a political party.

In the same way, I do not believe that, under the Bill, politicians in local government or in Parliament, when speaking on their own behalf, can be caught under the Bill. An individual member of a local authority might be caught under the Bill if he was speaking on behalf of the local authority in a material sense and was likely to be reported in published material making points that could be interpreted as politically persuasive.

On every test that can fairly be used on the Bill, the amendment is unnecessary. I therefore ask the House to reject it.

Amendment negatived.

8.15 pm
Mr. Squire

I beg to move amendment No. 7, in page 2, line 32, at end insert— '(4) Nothing in this Act shall prohibit a local authority from publicising any provision service or facility made by the authority provided that—

  1. (a) any such publicity shall refer only to the relevant provision service or facility as being policies of the authority itself and shall not describe them as the policies of any group or party that may make up the authority wholly or partly and,
  2. (b) the authority takes all reasonable steps to ensure that any such publicity is presented in such a way as to promote the authority itself and not any political party. (5) Subject to the provisos in subsection (4) above a local authority may publicise any provision service or facility made by any other authority responsible for its area and the provisos in subsection (4) shall be construed accordingly.'.
We happy but small band of brothers and one sister have been sitting here for nearly five hours and have heard a succession of amendments whose starting point is the belief that the Bill as currently drawn is not sufficiently clear and will provide a veritable lawyers' paradise. As hon. Members know, the joint submission from the three local authority associations specifically says that clause 2 is so imprecise, with so many words and expressions needing subjective evaluation, that it looks like a charter for extensive litigation. I share those fears and the purpose of the amendment is to try to clarify the clause.

We will all be aware now that the overall aim of clause 2 is to stop councils spending ratepayers' money on party political propaganda, either directly or by front organisations. I fear that, as drafted, the clause will stop a number of other activities which hon. Members would want to continue.

For the benefit of my many hon. Friends present, I give the example of a Conservative council which may wish to encourage tenants to buy their houses under section 41 of the Housing Act 1980. Under that Act, councils are obliged to publish information explaining the right to buy in simple terms. The Bill would not prohibit that, but a council may decide upon an active policy of encouraging tenants to exercise their right to buy. Obviously such a policy could be effective only if it was publicised as a policy to encourage tenants to buy. Such a policy would be pointless if the tenants did not know about it. The council would have to publicise the policy and the publicity for the benefits of the right to buy or of owner-occupation might be regarded as likely to affect, public support for—

  1. (a) a political party".
That might happen under clause 2(1). The opposition might therefore be able to prevent publication of that policy.

If a Labour council adopted an extensive community grant giving policy—whether one agrees with that or not—that would be the policy of the council and the people's redress would, as ever, be via the ballot box. As long as the policy was in operation, the council might be prevented from publicising it. Yet as long as that was council policy, it is clearly preferable that it is publicised as such. It is preferable because the more the electorate know about such a policy, the better can they hold councillors accountable at the next election. If the policy is not publicised, that can only benefit those in the know. The only beneficiaries will be those organisations connected with the council or councillors. The public will not know of such a policy and will be unable to take advantage of it by applying for grant.

The Bill will have the opposite effect to what the Government intend. The front organisations, so to speak, will be aware of the policy, whereas the public will not. If a council has a policy, it is desirable that the public should be aware of it.

I give a further example—hon. Members will rapidly understand why I suggest it. Local government elections in London are due in May. A party—it does not matter which—may decide that if it wins the election it will promote an open government public participation policy which goes beyond the requirements of my Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985. For example, it may wish to extend the Act to working parties or adopt Leeds standing order 65 which grants access to any document, not just agenda items, and it may wish to grant the public speaking and questioning rights. If the opposing party disagrees strongly, the issue becomes an election issue. If the party that wants to introduce such policies wins the election, it could introduce the policies, but could it publish them? If the Bill, as drafted, becomes law, I doubt it.

Clause 2(1)(a) prohibits the publication of any material which can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect, public support for—

  1. (a) a political party".
The council would have an open government public participation policy that it could not publicise.

I have given those three examples. I shall not give more, although I am sure that other hon. Members could give further examples. The Bill catches things that it should not catch, and, I suspect, was never designed to catch.

The amendment would avoid that difficulty and allow councils to publicise their services and amenities without mentioning any political party. The publicity could say, for example, "Bromley council urges all tenants to take up their right to buy for the following reasons," or, "Lewisham council has a community grant scheme which we urge all local organisations to read carefully to see whether they are eligible." The council could use ratepayers' money to publicise only its policy. It would be up to the parties to use their time and money to point out that those policies were the policies of a Labour or a Conservative-controlled council. That is the reasonable split for which we should be aiming in the legislation.

I shall deal briefly with my proposed new subsection (5). Anxiety has been expressed that a further consequence of the Bill as drafted is that it would prevent local authorities corporately, or their members individually, from com[...]menting upon matters of legitimate public interest or promoting new methods on matters where the authority is not the responsible authority. Alcohol and drug abuse are examples that spring to mind. I can well understand that many local authorities might wish to play a considerable part in any campaign on those matters, to issue public comment and to assist the county council's policy. It is the county council which is responsible for health matters. The campaign would fail if district authorities were unable to take part in any such campaign.

Similarly, it might be difficult, under the Bill's present wording, for local authorities to promote crime prevention measures because responsibility for such matters does not lie with them. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has spoken to me on these subjects and I know that we agree about much of the Bill. If there is some drafting error in my amendment—like all hon. Members, I stand to have my drafting corrected—I hope that my hon. Friend will none the less accept the thrust of what I say and agree that it will be possible to pursue the matter in another place.

Mr. Straw

I beg to move, as an amendment to the proposed amendment, at end add— '(6) Subsections (4) and (5) above apply to publicity material issued by a voluntary organisation where the publicity is issued—

  1. (a) with the use of financial or other assistance given to the voluntary organisation by a local authority; and
  2. (b) the publicity is issued in pursuance of the aims and objectives of the voluntary organisation.'.

The Opposition agree with almost everything that the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) said. I hope that that does not undermine a fine career. He has always spoken up for local authorities and for freedom of speech. We congratulate him on the freedom award that he won recently. The hon. Gentleman made an important point. I hope that the Minister will treat it with the seriousness that it deserves, notwithstanding the fact that we support it.

The amendment brings voluntary organisations within the ambit of clause 2(4) and (5). We have spent considerable time discussing voluntary organisations, and I do not need to stress again their importance to local communities. They are legitimately funded by local authorities. We believe that local authorities should not be prohibited from publicising their services and that voluntary organisations should be included in that provision.

I hope that the Minister will treat the matter seriously and not say that the amendment is unnecessary. Ministers should realise that anxieties are felt on both sides of the political divide about the operation of the Bill as drafted. If the amendment were accepted, it would go a long way to removing those anxieties. If the Minister cannot accept the amendment, will she consider and raise the matter in another place?

Sir Kenneth Lewis

I am interested in the Bill and I support the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire). I do not know what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will say. I hope that she will make some sympathetic noises in favour of the amendment. As with all amendments that come from the Back Benches, it is easy for Ministers to say that an amendment is not properly drafted. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch accepts that that possibility exists. If that is the case, my hon. Friend could obtain some help and perhaps have the matter dealt with in another place.

I favour the amendment because I believe that local government must publicise what it does, whichever party is in office, because if it is doing something good it is worth telling the public. One party may publicise an activity that it supports. I see no point in that support being hidden under a cloak. It is as well to tell the electorate about it. I also believe that it is fair to those who work on a programme that the electorate should know about it. If the activity is opposed by the other party, the fact that it has been publicised will mean that the opposition will also obtain some publicity.

I should hate to see anything in the Bill which would put a blanket over the ability of local authorities to inform electors and others in an area who are affected by local services. The Bill would then result in overkill.

Some people—not perhaps my hon. Friends on the Front Bench—might say that the trouble is that what we are out to stop is the publicising of the most crazy things that happen in local government from time to time and that have happened rather more frequently in the past year or two, where those in charge of councils go berserk, spend money on things that the public would never support, and do so without giving any advance notice of their intentions. To me, that is all the more reason why these plans should be publicised.

8.30 pm

I do not believe that publicity for crazy programmes of one sort or another is of benefit to whichever political party indulges in it. I have an idea that had we not done away with the GLC, the electors would have done away with it, simply because they were fed up with the publicising of so many crazy activities which had cost them money. They would have refused to support such nonsense any longer.

Even if the amendment is not exactly word perfect, we ought to accept the spirit of it. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to make sympathetic noises in favour of it.

Mrs. Rumbold

I understand and appreciate the concern that led my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) to put down the amendment. I would do him no injustice if I said that his concern sprang from a very real knowledge, acquired over many years, of work in local government and so arose from his practical experience and his anxiety to ensure that in bringing the Bill before the House we draw up legislation which does not inadvertently act contrary to good practice in local government. His intentions are good.

In moving the amendment, my hon. Friend gave a number of examples with which I should like to deal. He asked us to suppose that it was Government policy, as indeed it is, to allow council tenants to purchase their houses. How, he asked, would a local authority tell its electors that such a policy existed? What about the efforts made by the council to inform the electorate of tenants' rights to purchase council-owned property under a Government policy which the council itself had adopted? Provided that the information is couched in terms which are straightforwardly advisory and informative, setting out clearly the rights of individual tenants as dictated by Government policy and adopted by the local authority, and provided that that information contains nothing that is offensive under the Bill, it is absolutely right that those people should be informed of their rights. It would not be contrary to the intention of the Bill for the local authority to make available in libraries or elsewhere such information as part of its policy, and to use this way of informing the electorate of the rights of council tenants.

Mr. Squire

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has just said. My concern is that what she has said so far implies a whole series of decisions which will require a council ultimately to guess whether court action will follow. My amendment tries to lay down that, in broad terms, provided the authority makes no mention—in the particular example about housing — of being a Conservative authority, it ought to be able to proceed in the knowledge that it will not, in all probability, face that charge.

Mrs. Rumbold

I think I understand what my hon. Friend says. I do not believe that at present a local authority officer, when composing a notice giving tenants information about their rights, would do more than advise councillors that the best way of proceeding would be to give strictly factual information. At the present time, were a responsible local authority in charge, it is most unlikely that a responsible officer would do other than advise his council that it would be best to give such information in a strictly factual way and not embroider it with political adjectives or slogans.

It is only because some authorities litter such information with flowery political messages that the Bill has been introduced. I do not believe that, even under present local government legislation, we would have had to introduce this Bill if it were not that some authorities have taken liberties to the extent that we have seen.

Some time and care will have to be spent on preparing such information. Authorities which try to push information into the sphere of political propaganda will certainly and properly be advised by their officers that such action would be covered by this Bill when it is finally enacted, in the same way as officers have to advise councillors of their duty under the law in many other respects when they are taking decisions.

Another of my hon. Friend's examples related to local authority members campaigning in an election. One party may say that it intends to have open government within the authority, if it is elected, and that there will be freedom of access for the public. Members may make that part of their campaign. Perhaps the opposition has been foolish enough to tell the electors that if opposition councillors are elected they will do exactly the opposite—that there will be no freedom of access, that everything will be done in secret and that the electorate will have no further opportunity to say a word about policy. I put that in terms of the ridiculous.

Were the party which had campaigned on the freedom of access ticket to be subsequently elected, it would put that particular policy through the council. Its elected members would vote on it as council policy. Once it had been adopted as council policy, the council would have every right to put out information to its electorate, telling people that they were welcome to observe council meetings or to attend committee meetings on such and such a date, and if they wished to inform themselves about certain matters on the council's agenda, and so on, that information could be made available. These provisions already exist in the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985. People can purchase council minutes if they so wish or copies of any publications put out by the council. I do not believe that there is anything in the Bill to prevent those activities from being carried out. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch will accept my reassurances.

Subsection (5) of the amendment could extend local authority publicity powers and allow local authorities to produce persuasive or informative publicity about any service or facility provided by the local authority or, as my hon. Friend pointed out, if it were a district authority, by the county council authority. My hon. Friend gave the example of publicity about a campaign mounted by a county council's social services authority, giving information about how to counter drug abuse.

He asked whether it would be possible for the district council to assist with the distribution of such material. I believe that the material must be considered in the context of the way in which it is published, and my hon. Friend accepts that point. We would not wish to impose unreasonable restrictions on a local authority's information processes. There is a case for considering the scope of section 142, to see whether something could be done to accommodate the fear that is expressed in subsection (5) of the amendment. If that is possible, we will undertake to do so, but I would prefer not to accept the wording of my hon. Friend's amendment.

Having spoken at some length on that part of the amendment, I should like to welcome the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Stamford and Spalding (Sir K. Lewis) for the thrust of the Bill.

The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) asked us to consider the amendment to the amendment. We have discussed at length the ability of voluntary organisations to publish material which is issued in pursuance of their aims and objectives. If such material is prohibited under clause 2, it should not be published at the ratepayers' expense. I do not believe that the amendment would enhance the Bill. I ask the House not to accept the amendment.

Mr. Squire

It is not my intention to delay the House long. There are many amendments ahead of us.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for her latter comments. I am glad that she will consider whether the thrust of my amendment could be introduced elsewhere. As her statement on the first part of the amendment could hardly been more clear cut, I can scarcely press for an opening there. I urge my hon. Friend to bear in mind that there are voices shouting alarm. I should be grateful if she would reconsider the matter.

Mrs. Rumbold

indicated assent.

Mr. Squire

I am glad to see my hon. Friend nodding assent. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

8.45 pm
Mr. Boyes

I beg to move amendment No 12, in page 2, line 35 at end insert— '(aa) in subsection (1) delete the words "on application".'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 32, in page 3, line 4 leave out 'the authority' and insert 'local government and matters affecting an authority's services within its area'.

Mr. Boyes

I hope to detain the House only briefly. I am aware that there is an important debate to follow.

Section 142 of the Local Government Act 1972 has basically two powers—a general publicity power, and the power on which I wish to concentrate my remarks, which is a more specific power under subsection (1). The amendment seeks to delete the words "on application" from subsection (1). Section 142(1) states: the services available within the area of the authority provided either by the authority or by other authorities or by government departments or by charities and other voluntary organisations, and other information as to local government matters affecting the area. People must have access to such information "on application."

The Government are making a vital and fundamental change to section 142. Local authorities' general publicity is to be restricted to information relating to the functions of the authority instead of information on matters relating to local government. This vital change will have serious repercussions for local authorities, which are attempting to carry out serious policies on behalf of the people they represent. I shall give two or three relevant examples of the services carried out by local authorities which would probably be curtailed by the change.

The clause is totally unacceptable. To invent a "Colemanballs", it is miles outside the intention of the Widdicombe report, which recommended that section 142 should be unchanged so that a local authority could continue to provide information on matters related to local government. By restricting publicity, clause 3 is directly opposed to the Widdicombe recommendations.

The Government's proposals are not only opposed by the Opposition and the local authorities, but they are contrary to the spirit of the Widdicombe report, paragraph 134 of which states that the role of local authorities goes further than the simple delivery of specific statutory services. Certainly we would not wish to take a narrow view. Local authorities can make a valuable contribution to the welfare of their area and to the development of national policies that are of direct consequence to their responsibilities.

Paragraph 221, which I have already quoted this evening, states: local government has an important and well established voice on matters affecting its responsibilities. Publicity campaigns, including issuing press releases against Government policies, on important issues of grave concern to local authorities and to the welfare of inhabitants would be stopped by clause 3(1).

My constituency has very high unemployment. One person in three is out of work, and the local authority wants to encourage investment and the creation of jobs. However, as one of the functions of a local authority may not be to deal direct with economic development initiatives, there are genuine doubts whether publicity aimed at attracting industry and commerce to the area would be permitted.

Sunderland, Seaburn and Roker and other parts have important tourist attractions. One of my greatest pleasures is to get on a train on a Thursday night or Friday morning to get out of this place and back up to a more civilised, beautiful area. My colleagues in local authorities want to expand and extend their tourist industry. If it cannot be demonstrated that that is one of the authority's functions, what will be the consequences for it following the changes to section 142?

Dover district council opposes the Channel tunnel. Clearly that is not one of its functions, but I would defend its right to explain the environmental consequences of the tunnel for the area. Indeed, I would go further. The building of the Channel tunnel will have serious repercussions for industry in my area. An area of high unemployment may become one of even higher unemployment. The consequences of the change will mean that if authorities provide information, they will contravene the Bill when it becomes law.

Widdicombe made it clear that he wanted section 142 to be left unchanged. The Government, having asked him to consider publicity in local authorities, have found his report unacceptable, and have introduced a series of clauses well outside the spirit of the Widdicombe report.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Leeds, North-West)

My amendment is related to a long discussion that we lad in Committee. It raises some important aspects with which we never got to grips. In Committee Conservative colleagues and I argued whether the word "conscience" was effective. We were worried that Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament literature and the Leeds booklet on nuclear-free zones would still be permissible under the council's provisions for an emergency planning committee, which is now renamed the peace and emergency planning committee. There is also a unit to go with it. Assuming that my hon. Friend the Minister is right in saying that such publicity would be prevented under the Bill, the clause, if it is not amended, could be too restrictive in many important ways. They have been brought to my attention by councils and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy.

Regarding information relating to the functions of the authority", what is the position of a district council that wishes to publish information, for example, on drugs? As the majority of our cities are in shire districts, could they publish information on matters such as homelessness, vandalism in the city, drug dependency, and alcohol abuse, which are not functions for non-metropolitan district councils? Fire hazards and safety matters are county matters. Could cities such as Leicester, Nottingham, Portsmouth and Southampton advertise anything about education or social services, which are county matters? So long as the words relate to the functions of the authority there is grave doubt whether such councils could proceed with some of their valuable campaigns.

I would not claim that my amendment was perfect, and my hon. Friend may say that it goes back too far to the original wording. If genuine local government functions are county functions by definition but operative at district level, the local government body concerned should be able to activate campaigns and publish information about those functions. The previous wording was local government matters affecting the area. That is broad brush, and includes almost anything that we consider in the House. I have tried to make my amendment more specific about matters that are operative within a district's area.

My amendment refers to matters affecting an authority's services within its area. In Committee we did not discuss private legislation. Many councils have extended their functions by bringing to the House local private Acts. That needs to be examined. I hope that my hon. Friend can make the position clear regarding authorities that have powers under such Acts which enable them to provide services not covered by the general law—in other words, not within the scope of their normal functions.

Although I have always argued for the wording to be tough and tight to prevent publicity on CND matters and nuclear-free zones, I have become convinced that the clause may exclude some areas where services are involved which are not at present among the functions laid down by general legislation.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I ask the Minister to look positively at both amendments. They deal with a substantial criticism of one of the new elements introduced by the Government. The points have been put simply, and I wish to reaffirm the strength of the view of those affected that there is no need to tamper with section 142 of the 1972 Act.

Amendment No. 12 provides the only method left to us to ensure that section 142 remains as close as possible to what it had been. As the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson) said, the purpose of section 142 is to make sure that publicity can be given to matters that are relevant to the administration of local government in any particular area. A good example is the statement on the Channel fixed link. Clearly, the Bill will have nothing to do with the powers of local district councils or the Kent county council, but there is substantial interest in it because it will affect the functions of all the county councils. What happens will affect transport and housing functions, and the like. I respect the honest intent behind both the amendments to find a way to meet some of the Government's concerns. I share the concern about section 142. I want to ensure that we allow publicity on matters affecting Government services.

It is ludicrous to imagine that local authorities exist only to perform a limited set function and to say nothing about anything else. They are there as the sole responsible elected agencies and authorities to speak for local interests, the local area and local needs.

Mr. Madden

That is why the Government do not like them.

Mr. Hughes

Often, when Government do not take sufficient account of local needs, local authorities have to make more noise. The more the Government ignore them, the more noise is made. It is only now that the Government have decided that they cannot any longer tolerate this series of criticisms. That says nothing about local authorities, which vary in political colour and control. It says something about the deafness of central Government to local authorities.

I ask the Government to stick with Widdicombe, to stand by the result of the interim report and to wait for the later, fuller report, if they want to go further, but certainly not substantially to restrict the effect of the good and well-functioning section 142, about which there is no substantial complaint. Both amendments should be accepted by the Government.

Mr. Roy Galley (Halifax)

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson) made some valid points, and I should like to support him, perhaps from a slightly different standpoint. Substitution of "services" for "functions" and the other parts of his amendment may assist in the interpretation of the Bill. It may well cut both ways, but substitution of that word may alleviate fears on both sides of the House.

We need to go a little further. Will the use of the word "functions" in this part of the Bill clearly prevent local authorities from diverting public money to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and other such bodies? My hon. Friend the Minister of State said in the debate on clause 2(1)(b) that we must make clear law. He suggested that the concerns raised earlier during that debate would be dealt with when we consider those parts of the Bill relating to "functions."

It is clear from the Bill as it stands that use of the word "functions" will prohibit expenditure by local authorities on foreign affairs, on defence matters and on support for one-sided nuclear disarmament and for strikes. Sheffield city council doled out considerable amounts of money to support striking miners. The Bill as it stands might not prohibit local authorities from giving money to particular unions to support strikes, and I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would give me some information about the legal advice that he has been given.

Mr. Michie

The hon. Gentleman's comments are like a red rag to a bull, and red is the right colour. Sheffield city council did not support the strike financially. Obviously, in principle it supported the strike, but finance went to families in need. That makes a lot of difference.

9 pm

Mr. Galley

That is a matter for interpretation. The use to which that money was put is still a matter of interpretation. Some of ratepayers' money was diverted to a particular cause with political overtones.

Social security is not a matter for a local authority. Will this Bill as it stands prohibit the use of ratepayers' money if a local authority publishes a tendentious and biased information leaflet on social security? These are still matters about which Conservative Members are properly concerned. If this wording is to remain, we need to be more clear about what are "functions". I think that the word "services" would be better, because it would relate to the actions of a local authority in providing services in its area under the terms of amendment No. 32.

Clause 4 refers to the code of practice. It may be possible to define fairly closely what are and what are not the functions and/or services of a local authority. This would achieve greater clarity.

Obviously, the Bill as it stands will result in contentious litigation and a vast amount of argument. I hope that it is possible to make the legislation clearer.

Mr. Waldegrave

I shall try to be brief, as I always want to co-operate with hon. Members.

The worries expressed have been reasonable. We must take care to ensure that we have not got ourselves into difficulties. We have not gone so far in the Bill as to worry the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) in the way that he purported to be worried. Local authorities have a specific power under section 144 of the Local Government Act 1972 to attract tourism. They have a "function", which they can publicise. Any planning authority in the area of the end of the proposed Channel tunnel must be concerned with the legislation. Many of the matters which at first sight might be expected to cause problems need not worry us.

The amendment widens the clause too far. We understand that there is a policy dispute between the Government and the Opposition. This clever amendment is the reverse of our intention, which is to make expenditure on information relate more closely to what local authorities actually provide for their citizens.

There is a fundamental, interesting and ancient argument between the Government and the Opposition over whether local authorities are like little sovereign governments, or whether they are providers of services. I am glad that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) is in the Chamber, because I was brought up to believe that Berwick-upon-Tweed remained, until recently—perhaps it still does—in a state of war with Napoleon.

Mr. Beith

With the Russians.

Mr. Waldegrave

I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. That was tolerable as one of those ancient, antique and enjoyable anomalies that we have in the United Kingdom. However, we are moving too near to using that precedent on more serious matters. We are nearly "at separate peaces declared" because of local authorities' actions. This does not damage the United Kingdom in any way, but it brings the concept of local government into disrepute and ridicule. Sometimes, it unfairly impinges on national party political matters.

I know that there would be a tremendous uproar from the other side if there were a Labour Government who had a different defence policy and if, by the swing of the pendulum, there were Conservative local authorities everywhere, as there usually are in those circumstances, which began campaigning with huge posters all around London for the reintroduction of Trident, and so on. I have no doubt that there would be the most frightful caterwauling from the other side. Our principle is that information must be brought back to some relationship with local authority functions, because local authorities have no functions other than those in the statute.

To some extent, my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson) and for Halifax (Mr. Galley) were putting both sides of this case and pointing out the tightrope. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West rightly said, "Let us not open up such a loophole that we have major problems again." My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax was worried about CND.

There is a worry at the back of our minds—it was brought to our attention by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West—about what parish councils can do in relation to the services of other local authorities. We shall look again at this aspect. It is a difficult matter. I assure my hon. Friends that we shall not open up too wide a loophole, and that we shall consider this and perhaps introduce an amendment in another place to meet the legitimate concerns that have been put to the House.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Boyes

I beg to move amendment No. 13, in page 3, line 5, at end insert—

'(1A) In the said sections 142, after subsection (2) insert— (2A) It is hereby declared for the avoidance of doubt that for the purposes of this Act, section 137 of this Act is a function of a local authority. (1B) In the said section 88, after subsection (2) insert— (2A) It is hereby declared for the avoidance of doubt that for the purposes of this Act, section 137 of this Act is a function of a local authority.".'.

The purpose of the amendment is to put into statute what is already established in case law. As presently drafted, the Local Government Act 1972 enables local authorities to publish information on matters relating to local government under section 142(1) and 2(a), and the Bill would limit section 142 information to the functions of the individual local authority. A district council has no social services function, and accordingly it would not be able under section 142 to publish information on, for example, advice for the disabled.

Many of us are concerned about limiting the ability of local authorities to explain to the people their rights to receive the services and materials which a social services department has to offer. I was an assistant director of a social services department, and I was aware of the full array of services and materials that it had to disburse. The department's concern was that it could not always deliver the services and provisions to the increasing number of individuals who wanted and needed them. That department would not have objected to any other tier of the local authority in its area, or to any voluntary organisation, explaining its functions.

If section 137 is itself a function of the authority, as we propose in the amendment, the authority will spend money under that section on information on social services, for example, and will incur further expenditure on the provision of that information under section 142. The statute has already been agreed upon in a number of cases that have come before the courts, most recently in R. v. District Auditor for Leicester Ex Parte Leicester City Council, in September 1985.

I look to my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Thorne), who this afternoon showed himself to be extremely interested in the legal process. I have read his qualifications in "Dod's Parliamentary Companion" and I am sure that with his previous interests and those which he has now he will be able to explain to me fully what my last sentence means. I confess that I read it from a brief. If he is unable to do so, I am sure that the Minister for Environment, Countryside and Local Government. with all his disciplines, will be able to do so.

The purpose of the amendment is to achieve something quite simple. We wish to put on the statute book that which has already been determined in case law. As section 137 has been subject to legal scrutiny in a number of instances, it would appear appropriate to take the opportunity of clarifying its status in the Bill. This would help both the courts and the district auditor. It should be stressed that the amendment does not seek to change the law. Its purpose is to give it the merit of being enshrined in statute. The amendment to section 88 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 would serve to make Scottish law consistent with English law.

Mrs. Rumbold

As I understand it, the amendment would provide for an explicit declaration that, for the purposes of the Local Government Act 1972, section 137 would be a function of the local authority. The amendment would cause an equivalent amendment to be made to the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. It was made clear in Committee that the Government's view is that section 137 is a function for the purposes of section 142. Looking at the matter from that perspective, we do not consider that the amendment is necessary. If a local authority undertakes some form of economic development, or any other development that is authorised by section 137, it can produce information about it under the amended section 142, because that relates to the functions of a local authority. I accept, however, that this may need to be examined. We must ensure that there is no difficulty about the interpretation of the Bill. If, therefore, it is thought that this matter ought to be examined further, it will be looked at again in another place.

9.15 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes

I speak only to encourage the Minister to do what she has hinted she will do. The Widdicombe report said that the roles of various sections of local government law could usefully be clarified. We must ensure, for example, that section 137 is not seen as allowing publicity, but we must ensure that it is seen to be an important right for local authorities to spend money upon what they choose. It must also be confirmed as a function of local authorities. I hope that when the Bill reaches another place the Minister will allow an amendment of this kind to be incorporated in the Bill. That would be helpful. I believe that the Widdicombe committee would wish that to be done. I urge the Minister to continue along this path until a proper end is reached that incorporates words similar to these.

Amendment negatived.

Back to
Forward to