HC Deb 19 November 1986 vol 105 cc551-2
4. Mr. Coombs

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the operation of the Local Government Act 1986.

The Minister for Local Government (Dr. Rhodes Boyson)

The Act prohibits local authorities from spending ratepayers' money on party political publicity. We shall bring forward proposals this Session to strengthen its provisions.

Mr. Coombs

Will my hon. Friend look carefully at the use of the magazine Labour Weekly as a medium for advertising posts in local government by a large and increasing number of Labour-controlled local authorities? Does this contitute a contravention of section 2(3) of the 1986 Act? If it does not, when he considers the Government's response to the Widdicombe report will he take steps to ensure that it is outlawed in future?

Dr. Boyson

I have looked at the question of advertisements from Labour authorities in Labour Weekly. Indeed, I have a vast list of them for the past year. Obviously, on one hand, if many people apply and are appointed, so that in that sense those advertisements are value for money, people will doubt the objectivity of local government service. On the other hand, if the advertisements do not result in appointments they are a waste of ratepayers' money and the authorities are subsidising a political magazine. I must draw the attention of the House to the degree to which this has gone on. On 15 August 1986 Wakefield district council advertised in Labour Weekly for a political adviser for the sole direction of the leaders of the Conservative and alliance groups. In America they talk about deep throat, but here we have open throat.

Mr. Hardy

Does the Minister recognise that if the Government wish to introduce or amend local legislation, they would be better advised to deal with inadequacies such as the one which in the previous Act transferred land in my constituency to the ownership of another authority? Will he make it absolutely clear that the Government will not return to their original intention by seeking to prevent any responsible local authority from ensuring that its electors have access to proper information so that they can be fully informed? Is that not a reasonable position in respect of which the Government should not interfere?

Dr. Boyson

I agree that objectively to provide information on what a local council is doing is part of that council's job. However, if councils — as I believe has been the case in certain areas — get involved in party political propaganda or partisan material, that is an entirely wrong use of ratepayers' money.

Mrs. Roe

In the light of the working of the Local Government Act 1986 and the recent remarks by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the misuse of local government, will my hon. Friend investigate the system of co-opting non-elected representatives to council committees?

Dr. Boyson

This matter is dealth with in the Widdicombe report, and we shall be receiving representations on it until the end of this year. There has been a long tradition of co-option on education committees in England and Scotland. That co-option is being put at risk because on Labour authorities many trade union and Labour representatives who lost their seats are being included to provide majorities on committees. That puts at risk the entire co-option system in local government.

Mr. Straw

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his new appointment. Is he not aware that the present Local Government Act already provides draconian powers to gag local authorities from criticising this Government? These powers are so draconian that in Bedfordshire they were used to stop an all-party campaign against the Government's proposals to place a NIREX disposal site at Elstow? The hon. Gentleman complains about Labour Weekly being used by Labour authorities, but what is the difference between that and Conservative authorities using The Times?

Dr. Boyson

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I am looking into that matter and I shall write to him, because support for a legitimate local government function is entirely different from propaganda.

Anyone who cannot see the difference between Labour Weekly and The Times is very shortsighted. I note that, like myself, the hon. Gentleman wears glasses, but I suggest that he consults my oculist.

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