HC Deb 25 March 1986 vol 94 cc881-904

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 2, line 16, leave out , or can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect,".

The Minister for Environment, Countryside and Local Government (Mr. William Waldegrave)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 3.

Mr. Waldegrave

I do not have much enthusiasm or pleasure in moving the motion. The amendments remove the concept of publicity material and publicity campaigns which can reasonably be—likely to affect public support for a party.

10.15 pm

The Government's view on this has been made quite clear throughout the debates in the House, in Committee and in another place. We believe that the removal of these words seriously weakens clause 2.

As the House will recall, prior to these amendments the prohibition of party political publicity fell into two parts. Local authorities were to be prohibited from publishing material which appears to be designed to affect public support for a political party and from publishing material which on a reasonable view—the Clapham omnibus test, if you like—would be regarded as likely to affect such public support.

The second limb of the test supplemented the first. One of the most disquieting developments that we have seen in recent years is the effort and resources which some councils are intent on devoting to the production of campaigning and publicity material which, while it may not apparently be designed to promote a political party, would nevertheless be so taken by any reasonable person.

The second leg of the prohibition in clause 2(1) tackled this problem. It follows therefore that the amendments made to clauses 2 and 4 of the Bill in another place are not acceptable to the Government.

However, the Government believe it essential for the Bill to receive the Royal Assent before 1 April to ensure both the enactment of the date for a rate provision for the next financial year and, given the limited time available before the Easter recess, to ensure that there is no question of unintentionally making some of the Bill's provisions retrospective.

For these reasons, we do not propose to invite the House to disagree with the Lords amendments to clause 2. The position, as my hon. Friends will be quick to point out, is far from satisfactory. It is true that the Bill as amended is a much needed improvement on the present position where there is no express prohibition on party political publicity. For this reason, the Government have decided that further legislation should be introduced next session to restore the effects of the Lords amendments to clause 2. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment announced this recently.

Amendment No. 2 deals with a much smaller issue, the removal of the word "particular". This again we regret. It was a common-sensical definition which seemed to make sense, but I am not going to ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to reverse the Lords amendment. We will have to return to this in the autumn. I have to urge my hon. Friends, although I know that this is not palatable to them—and I can tell them it is not palatable to me either—to accept half a loaf in order to get something on the statute book, and in due course we will have to return to the matter.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I have a submission from the National Union of Journalists, Forth valley branch, saying that it is concerned about the proposed Local Government Bill which is currently progressing through Parliament. It says: We feel that the Bill could seriously affect information being given to the press by local authorities. We would therefore offer our support to any moves against the Bill which you may be considering. That is signed by Tim Harper, secretary of the Forth valley journalists.

For the sake of time, I put it in question form. Do local papers have anything to fear in their relations with local authorities in the gaining of information? It may make it easier if the Minister were to interrupt.

Mr. Waldegrave

I am delighted to do so. I believe that I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks. No newspaper has anything to fear from this matter. I believe that the worries—I understand them because this is a sensitive area in which to be legislating—are ill-founded.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

I rise with some regret because I was looking forward to seeing the Bill go forward unamended. I believed very much in the spirit of the Bill and that we were going to cane those Labour authorities which were wasting ratepayers' money throughout the country. I had hoped very much that the Bill would do that.

It depressed me when I read yesterday's Leicecter Mercury dated 24 march, which said: Thank you. The Local Government Bill, which gags Local Councils freedom of speech is likely to become law. However, Leicester City Council and Leicester people have played an important part in securing major amendments. We would like to thank those in Leicester who joined the Council's campaign to defend local democracy—Voluntary groups, residents associations and all members of the public who wrote or phoned us to express their support. It had the audacity to say:

Leicester City Council … trying to work for you. Ratepayers living in Leicester have to pay for that propaganda promoting the Labour party. I object to that. I had hoped that the Bill would stop people from printing party political propaganda on the rates. I understand the position in which my hon. Friend the Minister finds himself. Because he has to get the Bill through by 1 April, because the House of Lords is not sitting much longer and because it is difficult to get their Lordships all into the right Lobby more than four times a year, we are faced with material which, if it is designed carefully, will be published on the rates to persuade people in Leicester to support the Labour party. The amendment is a severe letdown to my constituents.

On 19 June 1985 the Labour party in Leicester introduced a political unit whose purpose was basically to monitor the way in which Conservative Members of Parliament reacted in the city. It was also to allow £137,000 to be spent on stopping Leicester from being rate capped. But Leicester was rate capped, so our money was wasted. The political unit was to increase

public awareness of the need for the City Council to regain powers such as control of education and social services lost to it in the 1974 local government reorganisation. Why should we have to pay to have such propaganda shoved up our noses? I object to it. I object, too, to the equality unit which the city council established which at a cost of £20,000 per annum tells people why it is good to have the Labour party running the local authority. The council set up a racial awareness course costing £37,000 initially and £28,000 per annum. What has that to do with the city of Leicester? The council established creche facilities at £41,900, a trade union officer at £10,000 a year, an anti rate-capping unit at £150,000, a contract compliance unit to ensure that contracts had nothing to do with the South African Government and a public relations unit which was supposed to work for us but which works instead for people who do not pay rates. Those who fund the rates and who put money into the city do not have a voice, whereas those who do not pay have.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

Has my hon. Friend made any calculation of either the number of additional houses which could have been built or the number of young people who could have been trained if all that money had not been wasted by the local authority in the way that he described but had been spent in socially helpful and useful ways?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. If the hon. Gentleman goes down that road he will be out of order. He must stick strictly to the amendments before the House.

Mr. Bruinvels

The essence of my hon. Friend's intervention is that the council was wasting ratepayers' money on promoting the Labour party rather than helping the people who live in the city and who have to pick up the tab at the end of the year. Many houses could have been repaired with those exorbitant, wasted funds, yet the council deliberately chose to keep 12,000 houses throughout the county unoccupied so that it could claim there was a housing crisis in the city of Leicester. That was a dereliction of duty. The city council was elected to give value for money. It was not a Conservative council, so I suppose it did not try to give value for money, because it was spending money that did not belong to it.

Only last week, for instance, the Trades Unions Congress women's conference came to Leicester. Instead of the local authority charging the TUC £1,250 for hosting the conference, it gave the facilities free because it was its Labour party friends from London who were coming to Leicester. If any other organisation, including the ex-service men of Leicester, had tried to hire the De Montfort Hall, it would have had to pay. Why is the city council using such propaganda? Why are the Government doing away with the appropriate clause in the Bill? If some people in Leicester have a different view from that expressed by the city council, why should it not be promoted?

The council is wasting money, with the latest edition of Leicester Link, promoting Labour party propaganda and spending about £3,000 on promoting what the Labour group on Leicester council feels about Nelson Mandela. Why should the ratepayers, the citizens of Leicester, have to pay £3,000 to be told what the city council reads and feels about the struggle—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is making a Second Reading speech on the principles of the Bill. I invite him to direct his attention to the narrow provisions of the amendment and to speak to that.

Mr. Bruinvels

The narrow part is that political propaganda on the rates is to be allowed, and I object to that. We are trying to get that clause reinserted in the Bill. I and a number of my hon. Friends feel let down by the fact that political propaganda is to be allowed to continue.

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

The hon. Gentleman may have newspapers coloured red. I have here the Ratepayer Reporter for Westminster, and it is coloured blue. It is full of writings by Lady Porter and has pictures of the Secretary of State for the Environment. There are two sides to this argument.

Mr. Bruinvels

It does not matter which party puts out the propaganda, it should not be allowed, and I object to paying for it. Wherever it happens, the residents are right to call in the district auditor to look at the way in which propaganda is put out. That is why we need this clause and do not need to have the Lords amendment thrust upon us, because we cannot get a large number of their Lordships together in another place to sort out this amendment. That is a tragedy for citizens, who rightly feel abused.

When I listened to the Minister of State and the Secretary of State for the Environment, I believed that we could hope to save money for the citizens of Leicester and for the citizens in other local authorities. I thought that the Minister had made himself clear when the Bill was introduced that we were to stop this kind of propaganda on the rates. In Leicester this year the rates bill has gone up by 80 per cent. That is killing jobs and denying businesses the opportunity to expand. The Labour party says, "We are doing this to help you." Who is it helping? Business is at a trickle, a number of people have no chance of promotion and we are in a nasty situation. It is a rates blow, and I am worried about that.

Leicester city council spent £20,000 telling me and other residents that it was working for us. That seems quite incredible and out of line with what we want to see—proper control of our rates. It is propaganda. We pay the bill, but it appears from what my hon. Friend has said that we will have no say. I am bitterly disappointed. Propaganda is rife in Leicester. My constituency is talked about and I am warned on the back of the Leicester Link of February 1986 about what will happen if an international airport at Evington is allowed. There is also advertising in the national papers. That is a scare tactic by the Labour council, but we have to pick up the bill. Any expense of this sort is totally irresponsible.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying from the amendment. If he does not stick closely to the words of the amendment and what it means, he will have to resume his seat.

Mr. Bruinvels

We on the Government side are trying to stop propaganda from being put on the rates.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must direct himself to the Lords amendment that has been tabled.

Mr. Bruinvels

It reads: or can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect, We are talking about the Bill and about propaganda. I want to address the matter of the £150,000 that is being spent campaigning against rate capping. In that campaign the Labour party says, "We are working for you." The Labour party spent that money after the council was rate capped, and that was a disastrous dereliction of duty by the city council. Having spent £150,000 to try to stop the council from being rate capped, even though the citizens of Leicester were crying out to he rate capped, it was not possible—despite the amendments that I want to see inserted—for the council to be rate capped.

10.30 pm
Mr. Michael Forsyth (Stirling)

The amendment changes the test so that it will be possible for local authorities to indulge in political propaganda which, while not promoting a party, may have that effect on the electorate.

Mr. Bruinvels

Exactly, and that is why last Sunday in the city of Leicester there took place a ceremony at which the Welford road recreation ground was renamed Nelson Mandela park. Throughout the area the Labour party had on display stickers promoting the change, and we must pick up the bill, amounting to £13,650—more waste of the citizens' rates.

It is clear that all the campaigns—be they on behalf of gays, CND, the prevention of terrorism or—[Interruption.] against the police, will be allowed, and that is a tragedy for my constituents. Similarly, the city council is trying to establish a twinning arrangement with Nicaragua, claiming that the Labour party there has strong international links with the city council. Why should we citizens have to pay £7,000—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I warn the hon. Gentleman that I shall have to ask him to resume his seat unless he relates his remarks to the amendment.

Mr. Bruinvels

The amendment weakens the Bill, and that worries me.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We are not discussing the Bill. The hon. Gentleman had better resume his seat. Mr. Benyon.

Mr.W.Benyon (Milton Keynes)

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) is wrong in thinking that the amendment removes clause 2 in its entirety. It simply ensures that the provision corresponds more closely to the recommendations of the Widdicombe inquiry. It is essential in these matters to proceed slowly and with consensus, or we will get it wrong.

The Lords are simply asking us to try this out and see what happens, and we should take their advice. I believe, from my experience in local government, that clause 3, which the Lords have left untouched, is the important provision.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would you please explain to me what is going on?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I warned the hon. Gentleman several times, after which I directed him to resume his seat.

Mr. Benyon

I urge hon. Members to agree with the Lords in this proposal.

Mr. Robert B. Jones (Hertfordshire, West)

My hon. Friend referred to his experience in local government. Did he serve on an authority on which militant Left-wing councillors were spending ratepayers' money trying to unseat Conservative Members of Parliament?

Mr. Benyon

I live in the area of a very Left-wing Labour authority. Through my letter box comes the sort of material to which my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East referred. The amended clause will prevent that material from appearing in that way. But if I am wrong, there will be an opportunity to change the measure. To go against the recommendations of the Widdicombe inquiry would be counter-productive in the present situation. We must proceed slowly, and if what is proposed turns out to be wrong, we can then have another go at it, as the Minister explained.

Sir Peter Blaker (Blackpool, South)

I support the objective of the Bill in preventing local authorities from abusing the system by indulging in political propaganda on the rates.

I should like the Minister to explain, when he replies to what I hope will be a brief debate, why he accepts the Lords amendment with reluctance. I represent, as hon. Members will know, a town that specialises in the holiday trade. The local authority has expressed great concern about the original wording of the clause. My hon. Friend will know that it was true historically that local authorities specialising in tourism have done much to support the infrastructure of tourism. They have built swimming pools, sea defences and other physical manifestations of the tourist trade. Local authorities have also supported tourism in their areas—I believe this is true throughout the United Kingdom—by publicity for the tourist attractions of their towns.

This aspect of the Bill has caused anxiety to the Blackpool council and, as my hon. Friend will know, much more widely among the local authority associations. They have taken the view that the original clause went too wide and was in danger of limiting their ability to publicise the tourist attractions of a town.

Perhaps my hon. Friend will explain on winding-up, why he believes that this concern, which is widely shared by the holiday towns, is misplaced. That is the inference of what he says. Does he think it necessary to restore the clause later in this Session? Can he give an assurance that, if it is done, local authorities specialising in tourism will not be handicapped in publicising their attractions?

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate)

I doubt whether anyone would question my credentials concerning my experience and knowledge of Left-wing councils.

My hon. Friend is in a very difficult position in having in his Bill, which has come back to us from another place, words placed in by former permanent civil servants, who are, there, usually out of touch with reality. We have to be in touch with reality. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes (Mr. Benyon) said that he wished to proceed by consensus, I can think of nothing worse than consensus. It is usually the lowest common denominator. I have listened carefully to what was said by the Minister. He gave one of the clearest undertakings I have heard at this stage of a parliamentary Session that we will, rather than may, have to return to this matter in the next Session with a further Bill. I understand this issue well. I have been under attack in my constituency for a long time, from this sort of political rubbish. Those hon. Members on both sides of the House who have served in local government know that neither major political party would have indulged in it six years ago, let alone 10 or 20 years ago. We are faced with it now.

We must rely on two things. First, we must rely on a clearly growing anxiety among responsible people in all three major political parties. Although it may be said that publication of various muck sheets may be of assistance to the Labour party, I doubt whether the Labour party wants to see this sort of publication, which is gradually displacing moderate councillors by militant councillors. I do not believe that the Labour party wants this, although it may be too scared to say so publicly.

We need to act in a realistic and practical fashion. One would have wished to see the Widdicombe report published in full much more swiftly. "Mark 1" of Widdicombe, in the majority report. It sets out the real problem, saying that it is not yet certain how it should recommend that publication be dealt with.

Mr. Christopher Hawkins (High Peak)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, but why is it in order for him to talk about the weakening effect of the amendment and for my hon. Friend the Minister to say that he regrets that the amendment weakens the original intention of the Bill when it is not in order for my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) to make the same point?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is a matter for the Chair. The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) was really making a Second Reading speech and not applying himself to the exact terms of the amendment.

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg

I was specifically talking about amendment No. 2, leaving out the word "particular". I could talk to all three amendments, but it is convenient to save time and talk to one. Obviously, I could speak for longer, but I shall resist the temptation.

It was the majority report of the Widdicombe committee that led to the Bill and the amendments before us. I ignore for this purpose the minority report which, frankly, was not even worth the paper that it was printed on. I am glad that no one has referred much to that.

I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister replies he will make it clear that one of the main reasons that he adduced for not asking us to reverse the amendments was, first, the retrospection issue, and secondly, the pledge that he gave that further legislation will cover the real anxieties—I do not need to stress that—that all of us have. What is proposed tonight will not be detrimental to democracy provided that we return to it in the next Session.

I am prepared to accept what my hon. Friend the Minister has said.

10.45 pm
Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Has not one element been left out? Should not my hon. Friend have been saying to the House that unless we agree to the amendments tonight we shall not get the Bill by 1 April? Failure to do that means that my hon. Friend the Minister cannot keep his promise to us and do what we all want this evening—to stop all the nonsense of political propaganda. Should not we soon end our speeches tonight and allow the Bill to go through so that my hon. Friend the Minister can keep his pledge and do what we all want in the next Session?

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg

I find it difficult to agree with my hon. Friend completely. Will it suffice if I say that I too wish to see the Bill on the statute book as rapidly as possible?

Mr. Michael Forsyth

I had the pleasure of serving on the Committee which considered the Bill and, along with a number of colleagues, I spent most of my time arguing that the Bill was far too weak. It was something of an unpleasant surprise to discover that for technical reasons we are placed in a position tonight where we have to accept these ridiculous amendments from the other place which will fillet the Bill and weaken it in a dramatic manner.

It seems to me that the nub of amendment No. 1, which limits the ban on political material to material which appears to be designed to affect support for a political party, thereby excluding the wider test of material which can be regarded as likely to affect public support for a political party, neuters the Bill.

I say to those colleagues who believe that we still have a Bill which is helpful in the period until we have another, that certainly on my reading of the Bill it would allow any local authority to continue supporting the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. It will allow local councils to provide financial support for political pressure groups provided the money has not been earmarked for specifically political purposes. It will allow indirect funding of left-wing newspapers like Labour Weekly and New Socialist through advertising.

I know that hon. Gentlemen are in favour of public funds being used to help the Labour party, but those of us who believe in democracy and a free society are totally opposed to that.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not want to mislead the House. He knows very well that he can make a better argument than the one he is putting forward now. He knows very well that it is on record on many occasions that the Labour party is not in favour of using ratepayers' money to support the Labour party or any other party. What is more, exactly that phrase was used in the Labour party's official evidence to the Widdicombe committee of inquiry.

Could the hon. Gentleman explain what he means by the suggestion that it is somehow the intention of local councils indirectly to support papers like Labour Weekly and New Socialist?. That is not the purpose of those councils.

Mr. Forsyth

It seems that the Labour party's policy on this matter is rather like its policy on council housing—it says one thing in public and does another in practice.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Answer the question.

Mr. Forsyth

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will endeavour to answer the question. If hon. Gentlemen are opposed to the use of public money to support political campaigns, for political purposes, why do they not vote against these Lords amendments tonight? The effect of these amendments is to allow local authorities to do that. I know that the Labour party has a problem in controlling some of its more extreme councils, which are busily using the loopholes in the law to carry out practices which I am delighted to hear the Opposition Front Bench condemning here tonight.

Mr. Barron

The hon. Gentleman has been asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) to give a specific answer. He mentioned Labour Weekly and said that local councils supported it. Could he tell us exactly how?

Mr. Forsyth

If the hon. Gentleman wants me to answer the question of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) he should not interrupt me in the middle of doing so. The situation with regard to Labour Weekly is this. Certain councils, such as my own, Stirling, and many others advertise consistently in Labour Weekly posts for officers; they receive no replies and they have been consistently criticised by district auditors. Colleagues are mentioning other councils—Manchester, Walsall, Sheffield. No doubt the hon. Gentleman can collect the names afterwards. I fear that I may be straying from the purpose of the amendment if I continue to list the many Labour councils that are doing this.

If the hon. Gentleman is in any doubt about the danger in these amendments and if he believes that the Lords amendments which we are being asked to consider are not dangerous, I refer him to an advertisement which appeared in Marxism Today by an organisation called "Union Communications", saying that it can be of help to local authorities. Anyone inquiring gets a letter back from one of the directors which says:

You ask about Union Communications. Basically we are a small team of professional journalists PR and design people who have come together to offer the trade unions and Labour local authorities a communications service that beats anything the Tories can lay hands to. We believe we are succeeding. We have not worked as yet with many CLPs, 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. The point about this and other activities in the Labour party is that it is possible to carry on propaganda activities that can influence and improve the Labour vote without producing material that can be shown to be deliberately designed for that purpose. The amendment will weaken the test that would have caught such activities, and thereby open the floodgates to what the hon. Member for Blackburn has condemned, but which is rife within his party. Although Opposition leaders may condemn such activities, they are incapable of controlling the party. The Bill is needed in its original form to help them, and save them from their extremists.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

So far, the hon. Gentleman has concentrated all his remarks on the activities of Labour boroughs. There has already been an intervention about today's release to many hon. Members living this side of the river—a publication from the Tory-controlled City of Westminster. Does he believe that a publication that on its front page says "Rates down, services up" and inside speaks about the savings from the abolition of the GLC, which are arguable in the light of recent figures, is designed as likely to affect political support for the Conservative-run City of Westminster council? He should not criticise one party without admitting that his party is equally guilty.

Mr. Forsyth

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but, as is always the case with his party, he wants to have it all ways. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about material that he says could be regarded as likely to affect public support of a political party, why is the hon. Gentleman supporting the Lords amendment? It would have the affect of removing that provision from the Bill, so allowing material produced by any council, whether Tory or Labour, to be designed to affect that. I have not seen the publication, so I shall not make an instant judgment, but it is extraordinary for the hon. Member to be complaining about something that in Committee he consistently did everything in his power to prevent being included in the Bill.

Mr. Robert B. Jones

I have had the chance to study the document to which the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) referred, and I agree with the hon. Member. Is this not an illustration of the point that my hon. Friend is trying to get across? If the Labour party were allowed to get away with producing such material, the inevitable consequence would be that Conservative and alliance authorities would be forced to follow suit, and that is the dangerous thing about having such an amendment to the Bill.

Mr. Forsyth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It was evident in Committee that we did not approach the matter from a partisan point of view, but from a desire to have the best practice in local government, so that political parties did not use public money to their own advantage.

I have a leaflet called "Working for Local People". The hon. Member for Blackburn seems keen to have examples, and I am keen to provide them for him. The leaflet is produced by Hackney borough council and is being widely distributed in the borough six weeks before the local elections. There is nothing in here that suggests that it is deliberately promoting the Labour party. However, its timing and intent are obvious. It is intended to influence the results of the local government elections.

Mr. Simon Hughes


Mr. Forsyth

The hon. Gentleman will no doubt have an opportunity to make his speech against the amendments. Let me make mine.

This type of propaganda material, which has been produced by the Labour party in Hackney in order to influence the results of the local authority elections, would not be caught by the Bill as amended by the House of Lords. When the Bill left this House, it would have been caught because it would have been caught by the fact that it was likely to affect the voting intentions of the electorate.

The key issue in judging whether material is party political is its effect on the people, not the motive or intention of the publisher. The intention is quite irrelevant. I have to say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I very much regret that we are in a position tonight where we are being asked not to reject the amendments.

I understand that there is a timing problem, that the Bill as it stands is required to come into effect on 1 April and that it will not be possible to change that, because it is not within the rules of order for us to do that in the House. Why could we not have had a one clause Bill to amend the Bill itself and change the date on which it came into effect? How is it possible for there to be such rank incompetence in the Department of the Environment so that we can spend hours and hours arguing for this in Committee, use considerable effort making the case for it in our constituencies, and at the end be robbed of the impact of it? I do not blame my hon. Friends at the Department of the Environment, but I hope that some heads will be rolling in the Department because the advice that the Minister has been given is thoroughly inadequate.

One of the curiosities is that the noble Lord Elton in another place reminded the House of the procedural difficulties and of the fact that it would not be possible for there to be amendments other than those relating to Lords amendments which have been made in the House of Commons. Therefore, it is clear that Ministers were aware of the procedural difficulties, but on the technical point of amending the relevant clause that sets the date they were left badly advised. I think that that is most unfortunate.

I welcome the assurance of my hon. Friend the Minister that we will get a Bill in the next Session to put matters right. I hope that not only will the effects of the clauses be restored but that we will also see tougher action to deal with some of the abuses which would certainly have not been covered by the Bill in the first place. I also hope, as we are obviously going to have a local government jamboree Bill, that he will take the opportunity of dealing with unfair contract terms and with the problems of competitive tendering.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

I should like to speak briefly and simply say that I wish that hon. Members would accept the Lords amendments. I do not think that the words which are being proposed to be left out make the slightest difference to the wording of the Bill. At the end of the day, there is a whole line of House of Lords' cases which clearly show that when the judges are asked to accept whether a matter is political they make up their minds on the particular facts on that particular occasion and these words will not make the slightest difference to that.

I do not think that anybody has fought harder than myself with regard to surcharge disqualification, political expenditure and so on but I urge the House to accept the amendments because they do not make any difference one way or another.

11 pm

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

That is exactly the point that I was making. We have had a lot of debate about the effect of the amendments rather than the amendments themselves. Hon. Members seem to be getting hot under the collar, but I cannot see why we should be so arrogant as to believe that people are dunderheads and cannot see through anything that local authorities may be doing, or that the effect will not show up in the ballot box.

The problem is that many Government Members are seeking to put local government in a straitjacket. They forget that local government is the result of the democratic process, and they seek to condemn it. Without the amendment, the subsection reads: A local authority shall not publish any material which, in whole or in part, appears to be designed to affect … public support for a political party. That is a straightforward subsection that will do exactly what people say that the Bill should do. But with the addition of the words: or can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect, we enter another arena. The matter would end up in court time and time again. Who will interpret "reasonably" regarded as likely to affect"? Who will make the decision? Will it be the Minister? If so, the decision will be politically one-sided. Will it be the courts? The Bill will do no more than provide a livelihood for the lawyers who will discuss the matter in court. In accepting the Lords amendment we will not alter the intention that lies behind the Bill, and I see no reason why it should not be accepted.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

I welcome the notice that my hon. Friend gave, in addressing the Lords amendment, that he will bring another Bill back in the autumn. As he will have guessed, my hon. Friends and I are not in agreement with the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay). Anyone who believes that the deletion of the words will have no impact on the likely outcome is not putting his mind to the analogy with the law of libel, in which it is not the apparent design behind what a man says that counts but the effect. That is regularly judged in the courts, and that could well be the case if we accept the amendment.

Mr. Simon Hughes

In a libel case, a jury decides. In this case, the decision will not be made by a jury.

Mr. Walker

I am not a lawyer, but lawyers make a living out of finding out what the problems are, what the words mean and what Parliament intended—

Mr. Waldegrave

My hon. Friend need not be unduly intimidated by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). He has Lord Denning on his side.

Mr. Walker

I was not aware of that. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.

I have sometimes had the opportunity to sit in courts and listen to cases that were of interest to me. One thing that has become clear to me is that lawyers do very well by picking on words, defining their meaning and asserting what was intended by Parliament when Parliament inserted the words. The spirit of the law is considered as well as the letter of the law. The spirit of the law, when the Bill left this House, was, I believe, very clear. The Lords have substantially altered the spirit of the law, and we are very concerned. There will still be evidence of propaganda material being produced by authorities of one political colour or another, but that is not what matters. What matters is that this House had determined that public money should not be used in this way. The authorities that largely exploited this activity were Labour authorities. Equally, it is true that authorities of other political colours, some of which were Conservative authorities, saw what was going on elsewhere and said, "This is unfair. That is not the way in which we expect the law to be enforced, or money to be spent, but if others are doing it and getting away with and making it work effectively to their advantage, we should be fools not to follow their example. If that is how the law stands, it is right to do so."

It is all very well for Members of the Conservative party to say that public funds should not be used for purposes of that kind when that does not happen in neighbouring councils, but Dundee district council, which is adjacent to my local authority, constantly used public funds before 1979 in ways that the Government of the day, either Conservative or Labour, did not intend.

My right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench have admitted that if these amendments are accepted the Bill will be substantially weakened. Therefore I welcome the fact that they say that they will come back to this matter. For that reason I shall not make the long speech that I had intended to make, although some of my hon. Friends still may say that I should do so. I welcome the assurance of my right hon. and hon. Friends that this will happen, and I know that it will happen.

Mr. Derek Spencer (Leicester, South)

No amount of ministerial promises will save me one penny on my rates bill in the city of Leicester. We have arrived at a lamentable state of affairs, this should not have happened. In 1835 the Royal Commission on municipal corportations referred to the corporation of Lecester and said: During the election of 1826 the Corporation of Leicester expended £10,000 to secure the success of a political partisan. From 1826 to 1986, as we are on the brink of the city council elections, the wheel has turned full circle. What progress have we made?

The Royal Commission of 1835 said: There prevails amongst the inhabitants of the incorporated towns a general dissatisfaction with their municipal institutions … a discontent under the burthens of local taxation, while revenues that ought to be applied to the public advantage are diverted from their legitimate use … and squandered. That was in 1835. It is still going on now, and it will continue to go on. Please, let us do something effective about it.

Mr. George Park (Coventry, North-East)

I understand the frustration on the Conservative Benches. Over the years they have become accustomed, with their huge majority, to pushing all sorts of crazy schemes through this House, so when there is a hiccup they become very frustrated. When they say that they are concerned about what they generally describe as "propaganda", what they may really be afraid of is that if responsible local authorities are not denied the opportunity to explain to their electors why the rates are at a certain level, the reasons advanced by those local authorities may register with the voters and to that extent may influence the outcome of elections.

Conservative Members of Parliament cannot have their cake and eat it. If they ask local authorities to explain why they are spending a certain amount of money, they should allow those authorities to explain the situation from their point of view. It seems that Conservative Members consider that anything that comes from a local authority, especially if it is a Labour one, must be classed a propaganda, but councils concerned, as all responsible people are, that there should not be any waste of money, whether it is in local or in national Government.

Conservative Members do not realise that in pursuing the original content of the Bill, despite what their Minister has said to them, they may well blunder into a quagmire of lawyers' expenses which will involve them in spending money in far greater quantities than the amounts about which they are complaining now.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

The House will be relieved to know that I do not intend to detain it for long. I have studied the Bill and I cannot see any references to radioactive waste, therefore, I shall be able to contain my remarks to a few minutes.

I recognise the difficulty which faces the Minister, and I appreciate the assurances he has given for the future. He still has work to do. The Minister will have heard the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) in which he suggested that the words contained in Lords amendment No. 1, which they wish to delete from the Bill, did not matter one way or the other.

In the Standing Committee, of which I was a member, the Minister went to great lengths to show that those words are important and significant. Committee colleagues and I tabled amendments because we did not think that the original Bill went far enough, but my hon. Friend the Minister reassured us. We agreed with the Bill as originally drafted before it was emasculated by the other place.

The Minister stressed that the words in the Lords amendment or can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect, were important. It is important for the House to have had an assurance from the Minister that we will have the opportunity in the next Session—presumably by means of another Bill—to have the words which may be deleted put back. Thus, the effect which the Minister wished to achieve with regard to local authority wastage and political propaganda would be achieved.

There is a problem for my own local authority with regard to the Bill as it will go onto the statute book. I am afraid I do have to refer to a constituency issue. The Humberside county council, a hung county council, is opposed to the possible special development order which may be presented by the Minister to dispose of nuclear waste in the area. Presently, the county council is distributing a newspaper to all households in the county of Humberside setting out its opposition to the proposal.

If the Bill were to go through without the Lords amendment, I would be able to say to my county council that it passes the test and that no Department of the Environment Minister can accuse it of wasting ratepayers money for political purposes designed to affect a political party. I am worried that if the Lords amendment is agreed to and the Bill then receives Royal Assent the county council officials—

Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

The hon. Member says that the newspaper would not be regarded as in any way affecting a political party. That might be true in Humberside, but it would not be true in parliamentary elections where there were parties for and against a matter in and outside the Chamber. The newspaper would be just as likely to affect parliamentary as well as local elections, so would then fall foul of the Bill.

11.15 pm
Mr. Brown

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I am dealing with the Bill as it will affect the county of Humberside in the coming weeks and months. At this moment county council advisers are wondering where they will stand regarding the campaign, which all three parties want to wage and which has the support of ratepayers who wish their rates to be used for it, as a result of the Bill reaching the statute book in the form envisaged by the other place. I regret that we are invited to agree to the deletion of those words. I had hoped that they could be used as a complete defence of the Labour-controlled council. I have made it clear that in my view the council has clearly passed the test of the Bill as it was originally drafted. I am absolutely convinced that it will pass the test even if we agree to the Lords' amendment, but its advisers are in a quandary about their advice in the light of the Lords' amendment. I deeply regret that the Government have found it necessary, for reasons that I wholly understand, to give way to the other place.

We should deliberate for a few moments on the wider constitutional issues which arise from this little incident. We are accountable to our electors, and have heard the cry from all political parties in the House down the decades, certainly throughout this century, that the other place must give way ultimately to the democratic wishes of this House. It appears that we are in grave danger—Opposition Members, in particularly, will agree—of getting ourselves into a constitutional mess, if increasingly we accept amendments from the other place which fall foul of the democratic process.

I do not need to detain the House for much longer. I regret that we have found ourselves in this position. I hope that the Government have learnt some lessons from this sorry essay, and that we can look forward to a strong Bill next year which will receive the full support of the majority of hon. Members in this House and will be well regarded in the other place.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I never thought to hear a Tory complain that the Lords were passing amendments. The hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr.Brown) should refresh himself about the availability of measures introduced by Liberal Governments, if he feels that amendments should be overturned or Parliament dealt with.

More pertinent to the amendment, I do not follow the hon. Gentleman's key point about Humberside county council, that there is a genuine and widely felt fear that the provisions may affect local authorities in which members from all political parties and no political party wish to combine to campaign on a particular issue. It is the hon. Gentleman's contention that the campaign about nuclear waste which the council is instituting will be made more difficult to sustain under the Bill with the Lords amendment than without it. I cannot understand the force of his argument. It seems manifest from the way in which the decision was reached that it could not be claimed that the material that the council was producing was designed to affect public support for a political party. However, it could reasonably be regarded by someone else as designed to do so, and it is on that distinction that the Lords' amendment turns. The exclusion by the Lords of those words appears to make it easier for Humberside to sustain its case as it in no way sets out to support a particular political party and was fighting a campaign which all parties on the council agreed upon. Any reasonable man, like my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft), with characteristic reasonableness might conclude that it would affect support for a political party. However, if that is a test, I do not think that the council in the constituency of the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes would suffer that difficulty and he should therefore be supporting the Lords amendment.

I was amazed that Conservative Members should seek to claim as some did, that the indulgence of Conservative-controlled councils in measures which would be caught by this clause even in its amended form was some recent, sudden response to the things that we have seen Labour-controlled councils do. I was grateful to the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) who revealed how far back that kind of corruption in local government goes.

I do not believe that hon. Members can reasonably claim that the Westminster city council, provoked by the imminent fear of overturn, either by the alliance or the Labour party at the next municipal elections, has produced and sent out a news sheet which many hon. Members received this morning, a copy of which I have brought into the Chamber, called the "Ratepayer Reporter". This is full of pictures not of the Lord Mayor, an independent figure, but of the political leader of the council, Lady Porter, pictured in several places with the Secretary of State cutting the red tape. The paper is full of claims that the abolition of the GLC will result in cost savings for the ratepayers in the city of Westminster.

Mr. Dickens


Mr. Beith

I will not give way. That point of view is at least argued in the House, and the "Ratepayer Reporter" continues to claim such delights for the people of Westminster as the provision of a new jaccuzzi and steam bath in the Seymour leisure centre.

Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because I pay high rates in Westminster and I must say that the "Ratepayer Reporter" does not compare in any way with papers put out by Labour-controlled authorities in the north-east. It is much more costly to produce, contains more political pictures and pictures of Ministers, but above all, it reports on its back page information about pets, firework displays and councillors running around in scanty clothes for charitable purposes—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must relate his remarks to the amendment. We must get back to the amendment.

Mr. Beith

The point that I want to put to the Minister is that I am satisfied, although I do not know whether he is, that this news sheet put out by the city of Westminster would fail the test with the Lords amendment included in the Bill. That is the crucial point for hon. Members to realise.

Mr. Dickens


Mr. Beith

That news sheet is designed to affect public support for a political party. It does not depend for its offence against the provisions of the Bill on someone reasonably regarding it as likely to affect support for a political party. It is clearly intended to affect support for a political party. That is not a new phenomenon in the city of Westminster, as it has been producing material like this—

Mr. Dickens

Will the hon. Member give way?

Mr. Beith

No. I am trying to address an important point to the Minister. I would like the Minister to say whether he feels that the wording of the Lords amendment bringing in the rest whether a reasonable man would regard it as likely to affect support is necessary to catch the "Ratepayer Reporter" within the provisions of the Bill. I am satisfied that, with the Lords amendment, the leaflet will be a caught but it must surely bring home to the Minister the complications that he has created by the wording of the clause. He must be satisfied that the words that the Lords want to remove are not necessary in order to treat such documents as condemned by the Bill.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I have lived in Westminister for 20 years and have never before seen a paper such as the one to which the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) referred. It is the first and, I suspect, the last of its kind. The hon. Gentleman should have taken the time to read The Londoner, which was published by the GLC at £750,000 a shot—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member must relate his remarks to the amendment.

Mr. Greenway

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed should have react The Londoner, which is a permitted publication and which will continue to be one if the Lords amendments are carried, and he would then have shared, my concern about the abuse of public money by the GLC.

The members of the Labour and Liberal parties are laughing behind their hands. They are holding their hands to their breasts like nuns and saying that they are whiter then white, but, at the same time, they are arguing that the Lords amendments will not change, clause 2 in the way we fear. If Labour and Liberal Members do not share that fear, why do they not vote against the Lords amendments? The argument has been put time and time again, but they still attempt to split hairs. Neither party has proved anything. They way in which Liberal and Labour Members laugh behind their hands leads me to challenge their sincerity. I do not believe that they want to do anything to stop party political propaganda on the rates. They believe that their parties have profited from it, and they want that to continue. That is why they want these amendments to be accepted.

I was glad to hear my hon. Friend the Minister say that legislation will be introduced on this subject. I ask him to take a fresh look to ensure that the amendments are dealt with properly. Will he say that again and underline it in red? My hon. Friends needs to say that repeatedly.

I do not doubt that the Lords amendments weaken clause 2 seriously. They therefore damage the Bill and weaken its basic intention—to stop party political propaganda on the rates. It is necessary to stop that propaganda, because it is an abuse of democracy of public money and of our way of life. There is no doubt that, unless that material is stopped, the position will worsen and the abuse of public money will increase. One need only look at the party political propaganda generated at public expense in recent years to see the steep increase in the amount churned out.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

My hon. Friend said that in 20 years he had seen only one copy of that newspaper. I have lived in Lambeth for one year and I receive party political literature every day.

Mr. Greenway

I made my comment as a citizen of Westminster, referring to Westminster city council. My hon. Friend is right—that is the rule in neighbouring authorities. It happens all the time. That is why I am justified in saying that, in trying to defend that propaganda, the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), for whom I have a high regard, is laughing behind his hands, metaphorically speaking.

The GLC spent something like £100 million of ratepayers' money by one device or another attempting to save itself from abolition. Would the clause as it stands with Lords amendments have prevented that from happening as the Bill was then drafted? I do not believe that it would.

11.30 pm

I believe that it is important to dismiss the Lords amendments. In the last few weeks £5,000 of public money has been donated to Ealing CND. I believe that the Lords amendments will enable that sort of abuse to continue.

The money was given to Ealing CND to promote a camaign—totally spurious, of course—to turn Ealing into a nuclear-free zone, a fatuous idea. If that sort of donation had been repeated across the London boroughs, it would have cost London ratepayers about £160 million or £170 million, and that would be just to put just one side of the question. If money had been spent on putting both sides of the question, it would have cost London ratepayers about £500,000. My argument is that it was wrong for the GLC to give Ealing CND £5,000, and to spend £81,000 on CND activities across London, as it has in the last 12 months, and it would be equally wrong to give that sort of money to those who promote the opposing argument.

Until legislation effectively prevents that kind of gross abuse of public money, the House cannot be satisfied that it has done its democratic duty by the nation. I look to the Minister to reassure me that he meant what he said, and that a Bill will be introduced early to overcome the Lords amendments. I ask the Minister to say why this cannot be done in a one-clause Bill immediately after Easter.

Mr. Dickens

Speaking as I do from the safety of the GLC nuclear-free zone, I wish to make a few remarks before allowing other hon. Members to finish the debate.

Having listened to all the contributions, particularly those of hon. Members who have crowded into the Chamber at this late hour to take part in the debate, I think that hon. Members seem to have grasped the idea that ratepayers do not want money to be used for political propaganda. It does not matter if the local council is Conservative, Labour, alliance or controlled by other odds and sundries. The general ratepayers do not want their rates used for political propaganda, full stop.

The Bill has in it a test that has been made a little tougher by the Lords amendments. It does not satisfy us by a long chalk. If the test is too firm, a local authority may wriggle to one side of the black or white. If the test is less rigid, as we seek, we would from this moment onwards scotch spending on political propaganda.

The House of Lords has amended the Bill. We do not have legislation at the moment. If we do not pass the Bill as amended by the Lords, we shall not get a Bill on the statute book, which we all seem to want, by 1 April. The Minister has said that, in the next session of Parliament, he will bring forward a measure to restore the provision which most hon. Members want. As we have been given that assurance, surely we shall represent the ratepayers better by voting for the Government's Bill, even if we are cross about the way in which it has come back to the House. We can hold the Minister to his pledge to amend the Bill. That is what the ratepayers want and that is why I shall support the Government tonight.

Mr. Christopher Hawkins

I shall be incredibly brief; I do not want to make a speech but merely to ask a question about a matter which affects my constituency and Derbyshire as a whole. I raised it on Second reading when my hon. Friend said that he hoped that the Bill would prevent the problem. Derbyshire county councl has been forcing all schools in my constituency to return their stationery to the county council to have it overprinted with CND slogans saying: Derbyshire supports nuclear free-zones. Almost all the teachers and governors I have met, whether Labour, Conservative, SDP or Liberal, have objected to the misuse of education for party political propaganda. I was assured by the Minister and by two Secretaries of State that one of the purposes of the Bill was to stop such a practice. Can my hon. Friend tell me whether we have stopped that practice? If not, why not?

Mr. Robert B. Jones

It will not have escaped my hon. Friend's notice that his hon. Friends are very concerned and angry about two issues—the weakening of the Bill and the way in which the decision of the House has been pre-empted by incompetence by one or more of the Department's officials.

The first depends on the difference between the two wordings, whether something is "designed to affect" or whether it can reasonably be regarded as likey to affect. In the first case, design is much more difficult to prove. For example, if a peice of literature was put out, financed by a local authority, which said, "Vote Labour" or "Vote Conservative", clearly that would be designed to affect, and rightly would be caught by the law, as indeed it would be by other legislation already in existence.

The law would also cover a case in which it was possible to prove that there was a conspiracy by the leaders of an authority, whichever political party was involved, to influence an election by putting out over a period literature which was likely to lead to a greater number of votes for that party. Design would be much more difficult to prove. Of course, it could be proved if available to the court was literature such as the extract from the Marxist group presented earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth).

We have spent much time talking about the Westminster Reporter. That would not be caught by the legislation, because it could not be proved to be designed to affect public support. However, it could be regarded as reasonably likely to affect support, and that was the wording that the Lords tossed out. Over many years we have seen a growth of political propaganda on the rates. That is why the Widdicombe committee was set up, such propaganda started in recent times when authorities like Walsall produced a newspaper that went rond the borough and carried various political points.

The practice has escalated and needs to be dealt with, but I am not convinced that the Bill, given the way that the Lords have amended it, will catch anything unless it is absolutely blatant. I am sure that that is why my right hon. Friend and his colleagues on the Front Bench disagreed both in the other place and in the Committee with a wording that would have led to the Bill being along the lines of the Lords amendment.

What can we do about this matter? I agree with my hon. Friend the Minister. Because of the timing, he has a pistol at his head, because he needs to get the Bill through to ensure that no retrospective effect arises from the 1 April date contained in another part of the Bill. Although my noble Friend was quite clear about the possible trap when he spoke in the debate in another place, no one thought to do anything about it. That is why we are in this situation. When my hon. Friend replies to the debate, I expect him to say something about action that has been taken against those whose imcompetence has led us to this position.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The arguments advanced by some hon. Members on the Government side for not opposing the Government are twofold. First, it is said that the Minister has a technical obstacle and the Bill must be given a fair wind in order to meet a 1 April deadline. As the first speaker quite rightly said, that is irrelevant to all parts of the Bill except the rate setting part which is not governed by the amendments at all.

The Minister conceded when the Bill was before the House last time that clause 1 is, first, not binding on local authorities and, secondly, is unlikely to be the material event affecting local authorities this year. Most local authorities have already set their rates and those who have not now have the experience of the court decisions that followed the decisions of the district auditor in Lambeth and Liverpool.

I rebut the argument that the Government need to give in for technical reasons of a timetable and will not accept, simply because they do not have time to accept, the challenge issued by the Lords. If the Government do not like what the Lords want, they should say so and not pretend they are being strong while being weak. The Government say that they intend to put in another Bill to be introduced in the coming year the things that the Lords have taken out of this Bill. That is a severe breach of what the Government said they intended to do when they set up the Widdicombe committee. That committee was set up to report. If the Government had followed the interim report, they would not have found themselves in nearly as many difficulties as they have been in since.

I hope that what the Minister of State said at the beginning of the debate does not confirm the suspicions that many of us have—that the good work of the Widdicombe committee is already subject to the prejudgment of the Department of the Environment, and that the Government do not intend to pay any heed to the conclusions of the Widdicombe committee, but will do what they intend to do with their minority support in the country and their somewhat distorted minority support in the House.

If the Government believe it wise to put on the statute book legislation like that which was originally in the Bill in this or in the next Session of Parliament, I hope they will think again. I should like to say something about part II and the clause and these amendments.

11.45 pm

Amendments Nos. 1 and 3 which stand in the names of my hon. Friends and I were all-party amendments in the Lords. There is, clearly, a difference between publicity and publicity material which, on the one hand, appears to be designed to affect political support and which on its face manifests a certain intention and, on the other, a test which is far more subjective and which the Lords amendment seeks to remove.

While it may hve been bad enough to have gone far beyond Widdicombe, as the Government have, one hopes that the arguments will have persuaded them to agree that the objective test is preferable. The Widdicombe committee made the position clear when it said: We wish to avoid new controls that will be imprecise or raise major definitional problems … the content of the material is the best test. The content, not the intention, the committee said.

The House should accept this series of Lords amendments—and should do so with grace—not only because they have logic in that they represent more closely the intentions of the Widdicombe committee. The Government should back down from their position of seeking to have it both ways, on the one hand pretending to fly in the face of logic and reason while, on the other, trying to gain support for a view that will temporarily let them off the hook tonight. If the Government do not change their view on this matter, they will have greater opposition next year, when politically they will be more embarrassed than Westminster city council has embarrassed them tonight.

Mr. Straw

The Conservative party has a substantial built-in majority in the other place—[Interruption.]—on paper. We are discussing these amendments tonight because the Conservative party in that House was unable to sustain its majority when the Bill in its original form was debated there.

When the Labour party proposed these amendments, support for them came from Independents, Liberals, SDP peers and from a small number of Conservatives, including Lady Faithfull. The amendments were passed in the other place mainly because Conservative peers decided to stay away because they could not stomach some of the draconian contents of the Bill.

Conservative Members in this House must remember those facts when they judge the Bill as it is proposed to be amended and when they decide whether it would be appropriate to have in the next Session of Parliament legislation designed to overturn a measure which will have gone through the due process of enactment in this Session.

I agree with the hon. Members for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) and for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) that the test which would be removed from the Bill and which would be replaced by the test or can reasonably be regarded as likely to affect would to some extent go further than the original test. If that were not the case, we should have nothing about which to argue.

It would go further than Widdicombe proposed, and because of that the other place decided to remove the second test. But, as the hon. Member for Milton Keynes (Mr. Benyon) and the right hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) pointed out, even with the removal of that second test, the Bill will still be a powerful weapon against any local authority which, in the view of a ratepayer, sought to spend ratepayers' money on party political progaganda.

The Bill, as amended, will say that a local authority shall not publish any material which, in whole or in part, appears to be designed to affect public support for a political party. That is an objective test. It cannot be evaded by Committee reports or by legal jiggery-pokery. The courts will apply common sense in deciding whether material appears to be designed to affect public support for a political party.

Mr. Robert B. Jones

Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the legislation as it stands would catch the Westminster Reporter?

Mr. Straw

Yes I do. I believe that the amended measure would catch the Westminster Reporter. Nobody reading it through—I know that the hon. Gentleman has not had a chance to read it through, as we have on these Benches—certainly if he were a judge, could doubt that such material appears to be designed to affect public support for a political party. There is no other purpose in publishing material of that kind.

To reassure Government Members who worry that the Bill will end up too weak, the Opposition as well as local authority associations believe that the measure contains substantial powers against local authorities. Conservative, Liberal and Labour councils are represented on those associations. The right hon. Member for Blackpool, South, whose local authority is Conservative, spoke earlier of its concern and that of many other authorities about the legislation. There is no doubt about that.

The Bill, even as amended, will still restrict local government in many respects, far more than Government are restricted in their publicity. The test of intent, taken together with the ruling of the Divisional Court in the Lambeth and Liverpool cases, which gives great power in practice to council officers to give advice, will mean that many activities and statements of local authorities which were previously acceptable will be wholly excluded.

Some hon. Members may have read in newspapers reports of Glasgow city council being advised to exclude any reference to Government policy in its publications because that was thought to be outside the Bill.

The last thing that I shall say to the Minister—I hope that he will be given leave to reply to the debate—is that we understand, and have been given good evidence tonight if we did not understand before, the pressure on Ministers from the bovver boys on the Conservative Back Benches and from the boot boys in the Cabinet, such as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

I hope that Ministers will not heed the siren voices from their Back Benchers and from within the Cabinet, but that they will give the legislation a chance to work. We did not write this measure, but we hope that Ministers will wait to see which side of the House is right before they return to the House with hasty legislation to overturn decisions that were made six months previously.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Earlier this evening at about 10.30 pm, you asked me to resume my seat. I seek your guidance and information about the reason why I was asked to resume my seat, especially as I was referring to problems in my own constituency in Leicester. We have heard the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) talking about Westminster city council and the publication of propaganda in his area. I do feel rather deprived, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I was trying to represent my constituents and talk about the expenditure of £370,000.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I explained to the hon. Gentleman that he was making no reference to the amendments before the House.

Mr. Bruinvels

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. If the hon. Gentleman wants to challenge the Chair, there are ways of doing it, but not now.

Mr. Christopher Hawkins

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I respect your power in these matters, but if you check Hansard tomorrow you will find that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) was—

Mr. Deputy speaker

Order. Mr. William Waldegrave.

Mr. Waldegrave

With the leave of the House, I should like to reply to a number of points that have been made. I am not sure whether I can do justice to some of them in the few minutes that I have.

There will be a general consensus that the least satisfactory part of tonight's debate has been the somewhat unctuous performance by some Opposition Members—the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) took the biscuit with the Westminister council publication. I have not seen that. How childish that they have managed to find one Conservative council publication which may or may not be excluded by the Bill against the mass of material from Labour councils. Is the Liberal party saying—it is just possible—that there is only one party in Britain which never puts a foot wrong. I can assure the House from my experience in Bristol that that is not so. That is a dangerous game to play.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) asked about tourism. The local authorities have the power, going right back to before 1948, to publicise tourism. There is a specific provision in section 144 of the Local Government Act 1972, so I can set his mind at rest on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Hawkins) asked about sloganeering. I shall write to him, but it is worthwhile to draw his attention, and perhaps that of his ratepayers, to the judgment of Mr. Justice Glidewell on the fact that local authorities have the power to give information but not to sloganeer. That was what limited the power of the GLC last year.

The basic point at which we must look tonight was made clearly and powerfully by my hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes (Mr. Benyon), for Stafford (Mr. Cash) and for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens). We have half a loaf here; something to get on the statute book. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) misunderstands the timing point. It is not mainly to do with the date for a rate provision, but rather that, if we go beyond 1 April the publicity provisions will be retrospective, and severely so.

My hon. Friends the Members for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) and for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones) made powerful and well-argued speeches. They said that it would have been much better not to be in this position. I shall not shelter behind the fact that officials' heads will roll. It is the responsibility of Ministers to see that we get legislation right and we did not do so. We were then faced with considering whether the matter could be corrected.

At first we thought that there was a precedent of a one-clause Bill—the Pirates (Head Money) Repeal Bill of 1850—but unfortunately, despite its promising title, it did not provide us with a precedent. Therefore, there was a real difficulty.

My hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) and for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels), before he was unfortunately cut short, asked whether we are now clearly committed to returning to the matter in the autumn to restrengthen the Bill. It will disappoint Labour Members, but I can tell my hon. Friends that we are so committed. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made a clear statement to that effect the other day.

Mr. Benyon

This is an absolutely vital point as far as the local authority associations are concerned. Is my hon. Friend saying that he will do this regardless, will not actually see what happens, how the Bill works out, before taking that decision?

Mr. Waldegrave

My right hon. Friend's commitment to strengthen the clauses weakened by the Lords is clear, but obviously, when we come to the drafting, we must take into account what has happened.

I will just draw attention once more to a powerful point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, West, because it is the heart of this whole matter. This really relates to the rather childish points being made from a sedentary position by hon. Gentlemen. It may well be that there are Conservative authorities tempted to go outside the conventions, and if there are I can well understand why, under pressure from Liberal and Labour authorities, they are doing so. That is the evil that we want to stop. We want to prevent our people from having to behave as badly as their people. That is the basic purpose of this Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 3 agreed to.

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