HC Deb 21 June 1989 vol 155 cc394-431

Order for Third Reading read—[Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.]

7.13 pm
The Minister for Local Government (Mr. John Gummer)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Government see this as the last of a group of Bills which reform local government, to strengthen it for what will be an increasingly important role for it to play. There has been a tendency for Opposition Members—when there are many of them here—to claim that the Government are less than enthusiastic about local government, and for Conservative Members to point to the extreme examples of the destruction of local government by extremist Labour councils. Neither of those assessments properly represents the whole spectrum of local government. It is the duty of the House to recognise that local government plays a crucial role in the government of the United Kingdom—a role that cannot and ought not to be replaced by any other part of Government.

Secondly, the extremist exceptions rather than the general run of good and well-managed councils have tended to be the focus of attention. The purpose of this Bill is to strengthen the ability of local councils to carry out their role of protecting the people for whom they are responsible and to enable them to provide properly the services that are necessary.

For this reason, we started with the measures that derive from the Widdicombe report. We did not go as far as the committee wanted us to in imposing restrictions on what is known as twin tracking; we were less radical than the committee would have had us be. As most members of it were local government people of real understanding, none of our proposals can undermine local government in the way that the Opposition sometimes suggest that they do.

We sought to strengthen the independence of officers and to ensure that they are seen as non-party political figures. It would be a cause of great sadness if we allowed the efforts of the past 100 years to be overcome. In the middle of the 19th century and thereafter local government officers established their independence at a time when in Birmingham, for instance, Conservative authorities dismissed officers because they were Liberals and Liberal authorities dismissed officers because they were Conservatives. However, we got over that; we grew up and differentiated clearly between the party-political role of elected people and the independent advisory role of officers. That distinction is a crucial part of democracy in Britain—

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)


Mr. Gummer

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment.

It was to establish this independence that the Widdicombe committee suggested its reforms which, in large measure, and with certain improvements—in the sense of having softened some of the proposals—we have introduced here.

We have witnessed a remarkable transformation in the Opposition's attitude to the Widdicombe measures during the passage of the Bill. In the early stages of the committee, they tabled a range of amendments which would have removed all our requirements and undermined the entire proposal—including the part that referred to chief officers. Many of these amendments were so close to being wrecking amendments that they were not selected for debate.

On Report, a new attitude was expressed. The Opposition now accept that the restrictions on the political activities of chief officers are acceptable and reasonable—

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

We always did.

Mr. Gummer

It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to say that. If it is true, were the Opposition amendments which were tabled to remove these restrictions tabled with his agreement? If the Opposition always agreed with these restrictions, why did they table the amendments? Why do they not say publicly that it was wrong for the chief executive of a Welsh local authority to be the chairman of the local Labour party at the same time?

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside)

Will the Minister acknowledge—he must be aware of this, having examined the evidence given to Widdicombe—that the Labour party placed on record, before Widdicombe reported, its belief in precisely the proposals that were contained in amendments in the names of Labour Members last week, proposing that the restriction should apply to chief officers and their deputies? I know that is so because I gave that evidence to Widdicombe.

Mr. Gummer

That makes nonsense of all the amendments that were tabled in Committee. It suggests that originally, while that may have been the position, pressure from—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. I hope that the Minister is not now seeking to open a debate on amendments that were neither selected nor debated in Committee.

Mr. Gummer

I would not dream of doing that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Now, on Third Reading, we have in the Bill clear distinctions between party political activity and independent advice. Those distinctions should be supported by Members in all parts of the House. They are now more clearly supported than they were at the time of the Committee deliberations. So different is the position that many of us were surprised to hear what was said on Report, but we welcome those who have reformed.

If it is right for chief officers and assistant chief officers to be independent politically, it must also be right for those other officers who give advice to the council, who deal with the public and who are representative of the council. That is what Widdicombe suggested and what we are doing.

Mr. Tony Banks

Widdicombe looked at the whole matter of so-called political abuse and could find no evidence to support the various wild allegations that have been made by the Minister and his hon. Friends. If it were a matter of looking at individual officers in local authorities and seeing what they did, and then deciding whether they should be excluded from political activity —because of their position and the advice that they gave —there might have been a meeting of minds on the issue. But the Government have not taken that approach. They have taken the crude approach of salary level without any reference to the functions of the officers concerned.

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman was present for much of the Committee deliberations, but obviously he was not listening if that is what he thinks happened. The Widdicombe committee investigated these matters and suggested that there should be an absolute bar on all local government officers of principal officer level or above. The salary figure merely reflects the level at which that recommendation applies throughout the country.

But we have softened that suggestion by removing the absolute bar and enabling people to appeal to an adjudicator so that he will specifically take into account the type of job done by the individual, which is precisely the point that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) made. I am sad that there was not a meeting of minds. There was no meeting of minds because of the closed minds of Opposition Members, compared with the open minds of Members on the Government Benches.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire. West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Bill will do much to restore the credibility of local government and of some of its officers? Great damage was done to the whole of local government when Derbyshire county council appointed a former Labour MP, who survived in his job for only nine months. That extremely expensive job training scheme did great disservice to the whole system of local goverment in that a chief officer said that he would not work for a Conservative administration.

Mr. Gummer

Hence a sadness which could have been overcome in Committee. If the Labour party takes the view that we are told it takes, why did not Opposition Members condemn the appointment of Mr. Race—[Interruption.] Why do they want to exclude Mr. Race by supporting the political restrictions on chief officers? They cannot have it both ways.

We wish to ensure that there is a real distinction between those who seek to serve the public party politically and those who seek to serve the public independently in local government. Both are honourable callings, but they are different and there should be no way in which they could be confused. That is the British principle. It may not be the German or French principle, but it is the British one. It has been hard fought and we should be supporting it.

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton)

The Minister continues to make wild statements and sweeping references about people who advise councils. Will he now spell out the category and numbers of people involved? The amendments that we tabled in Committee were designed to elicit that information from the right hon. Gentleman. We are still waiting for it.

Mr. Gummer

The criteria are not only in the Bill, but we extended the Bill at the hon. Gentleman's request with an amendment which showed that those criteria specifically apply to the terms under which the adjudicator would make individual and group decisions. The hon. Gentleman asked for that to be done and we have done it.

Another way in which the Bill strengthens local government—the first being the way in which it gives real strength to the independence of officers—is that it clarifies the opportunities and powers by which local authorities are able to assist economic regeneration.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke)

Concern is being expressed by my hon. Friends and others about councillors, being members of authorities, who owe rent as council tenants or rates as ratepayers. Has my right hon. Friend yet had a chance to think about how we might tackle that problem to ensure that when the community charge comes in next year those councilors—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Are those matters within the scope of the Bill?

Mr. Bennett

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker. They come under Widdicombe—[HoN. MEMBERS: "No."] Will councillors who do not pay the charge be brought to account and—

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Having already committed the offence of misleading the House into believing that certain things, such as councillors who may or may not owe money, come within the scope of the Bill, is it in order for the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett), having been called to order by you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, then to go on to pretend that such matters come within the scope of the Bill? All those who were members of the Committee know that that is not mentioned anywhere in the Bill.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I must admit that a Bill which contains 164 clauses and 11 schedules is not one that I grasp instantly. However, I find it difficult to discover any reference to these matters in the Bill, and I trust that we shall not have any further references to them in this debate.

Mr. Gummer

I was saying—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that hon. Members, including Ministers, will allow the Chair to make some observations on a matter that is before the House.

Mr. Gummer

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thought that you were sitting down.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I can well understand the Minister not being certain whether I was sitting down or standing up. I assure him that I was on my feet.

Mr. Gummer

I share that problem with you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and therefore I not only apologise but sympathise. I do not regard the point that has arisen as being part of the Bill. That was the reason, no doubt, why you did not allow a certain amendment to be selected and as the Bill stands there is no reference to that subject. But I am sure, as a matter of general principle, that those who seek to enforce the law should themselves regard the law. It is more difficult to ask people to pay bills if one does not pay them oneself.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)


Mr. Gummer

We must get off that subject. I do not wish to court other than the pleasure of Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I will not give way.

Another way in which the Bill supports and strengthens local government is the way in which it increases the clarity with which we are able to use local government powers to encourage economic regeneration. That has been widely supported and is now thought in general to be a useful provision.

The Bill also changes the capital finance scheme so that, in future, more reasonable account can be taken of the needs for capital spending of local authorities, and also their resources. Up to now, there has been a problem because the rules have been laid down so that local authorities with large capital resources have had to have capital allocations similar to those of local authorities with small capital resources. That has militated against directing capital allocations to those with the greatest capital needs. The proposals in the Bill will strengthen local democracy because local authorities with real needs will no longer be unable to get the capital allocations necessary simply because the system makes it so difficult for them to do so.

This Bill also provides additional strengthening for local authorities because of the changes that it makes to local authority companies. It is crucial that the public should know what is going on. The accountability of the electorate is a central part of general democratic accountability. There has been insufficient accountability to the electorate by local authorities for their companies. It has not been clear whether the companies are arm's length organisations or merely a convenient way of carrying out local council decisions through a company structure. In future, that will be made clear and will strengthen accountability.

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West)

I welcomed the announcement last Wednesday when the Parliamentary Under-Secretary said that the Government had already exempted from part V of the Bill registered housing associations, which was news to us. Will the Bill be altered in another place to bring that into effect?

Mr. Gummer

That is correct. It is a pleasure for Conservative Members to hear the hon. Gentleman welcome that move. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also accept that, on several occasions during these debates, we have sought to meet one or two—not all, I agree—of his suggestions.

I hope that it will be clear to the local electorate exactly how local authorities organise themselves. If they have an arm's length company, it will be a company. However, if it is not arm's length it will quite properly be seen as part of the local authority's capital structure.

The Bill also strengthens local authorites through the housing finance arrangements. Up to now, the accountability of local authorities has been extremely difficult to unearth because of the way in which the housing is arranged. Some local authorities have taken money from their housing account and used it on the general rate fund. Other local authorities have taken money from the general rate fund and generally supported council tenants with their rents, regardless of whether those tenants were in need. That has made it difficult for the local electorate or tenants to know whether the housing was properly and efficiently run and whether they were getting value for money. The new housing finance arrangements will strengthen local accountability. The Bill will certainly give considerable strength to local authorities by enabling local councils to deal with renewal areas and renovation grants so that they can concentrate the help on those in need, instead of spreading it across larger numbers of people.

In all those ways, the Bill sets out to be earnest of this Government's support for local councils and local authorities throughout the country. It strengthens officers' independence, cuts away at the politicisation of the independence of advice, gives greater clarity to the discretionary spending of local authorities, brings capital financing much closer to the needs of local authorities, ensures that local authorities' companies are properly controlled and clearly states what sort of companies they are. Its housing finance arrangements ensure that the local authorities' way of dealing with their income is clear to the electorate and their tenants. Above all, it ensures that aids and help are directed to those in need, both through its capital finance changes and in the way in which it deals with housing, renewal areas and renovation grants.

When the Bill is enacted it will be the third of the triumvirate of Acts which will revolutionise the basis on which local authorities operate in this country. There is no easy answer to the problems of local democracy, and no wholesale reorganisation has ever achieved the wonderful results which people seek. We need a new basis upon which local authorities can become better enablers, facilitators and servants of the communities which they are elected. Local authorities will be able to perform those functions all the better because of the passing of this Bill.

7.37 pm
Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton)

If there is one matter on which we agree with the Minister, it is that there is a difference of attitude between Opposition Members and Conservative Members on the care and development of local government. At least we believe in local government whereas the Minister's contribution suggests that the Government are bent on its demise.

With this Bill, the Government reach their half century of legislation undermining the basic tenets of local democracy. The time is fast approaching when the batsmen of this game of cricket—those people responsible for the demise of local government—should all be sent back to the pavilion and out of the game. In last Thursday's election, the electors gave an overwhelming vote of no confidence to the Prime Minister, and I am sure that that will be repeated to other Ministers, including the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Council tenants and other owner-occupiers who are buying their homes face ever-increasing mortgage rates. On 24 May, interest rates rose to 14 per cent.—the tenth jump in borrowing costs since last summer. This Bill deals with housing. It is significant to note that in the past 12 months people have had to find £40, £50 or £60 per week extra for mortgage repayments. The sum of Tory economic policy has been to make the people who can least pay, pay more. People who got on their bikes to look for work in line with Ministers' suggestions are fortunate if they can afford to purchase a bike shed to live in because of the policies of this Tory Government.

The poll tax bears no relation to people's ability to pay. We do not want the usual tired intervention from the Minister about people in top income brackets paying 15 times as much towards local government costs as the poorest.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

As far as I can see, the Bill contains nothing about the community charge. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will stick to what is in the Bill.

Mr. O'Brien

I think that if we examine the Bill we will find that there is a reference to the community charge as introduced by the Minister. However, I take your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I refer to the Scottish part of the Bill involving legislation which deals with the poll tax.

It is true that the colleague of the Secretary of State for the Environment, the Secretary of State for Social Security, does not believe that there are any poor people. We know perfectly well who has had the greatest benefit from the recent Budgets—Tory supporters who are well off and do not have to worry about inflation.

This is a sorry patchwork of a Bill, a hotch-potch of a Bill. It might as well say, "Whatever the Secretary of State does is deemed to be right and whatever local government does is deemed to be wrong." Local government is always wrong, whether it is in partnership with the private sector to attract business investment and create real jobs or employing an accounts clerk who puts a political poster in his window at home. Local authorities and people who work in local authorities just cannot win.

The Bill gives the Secretary of State for the Environment more than 120 new powers. Perhaps when he cannot get to sleep at night, instead of counting sheep he counts the powers that will accrue to him from the Bill. He can decide by regulation what constitutes political activity or how much a local authority can spend on economic development, or what falls within and what falls without the housing revenue account. The Prime Minister has often said how important it is to trust the people, and that the Government intend to trust the people more and more, but we do not hear much about that nowadays. On the evidence of the Bill, the Prime Minister is saying that we should trust the Secretary of State. Like many people outside this House, we feel that we cannot trust the Secretary of State—he is far too busy taking power away from democratically-elected and accountable local authority councillors and concentrating it in the hands of central Government. That is a result of the Bill.

Part I involves civil liberties and reshapes local government, at least until after the next general election. The Minister has talked at length about the so-called twin-tracking, citing every example as though it were automatically a significant abuse. We do not believe that that is necessarily so. Almost all the examples that the Minister gave involved people at chief executive or chief officer level. We accept that the head of an authority's paid service, its chief officers and its deputies, should not be serving as councillors in another authority and a new clause that we moved in Committee would have ensured that that did not happen. The Minister has not answered the arguments that we put in Committee about the injustice of the proposed restrictions on political activity. He has not even told us what those restrictions will be, although on the basis of the Government's White Paper we can hazard a guess that they could cover everything but the right to belong to a political party, so people employed in local authorities will be prevented from undertaking any activity involving community matters.

We can also guess when the House is likely to have the chance to debate the regulations. Our experience has led us to assume what many Tory Members will have realised —that we shall be debating the regulations on the future of local government at midnight or 2 o'clock in the morning. That is when the Government always introduce regulations to control local government.

Mr. Allen McKay

I understand that the starting point for disqualification is a salary of £13,500. As a result of these regulations, many colleagues in the fire service who have helped me will not be able to do so or even put up a window poster. The Government's measures will thus be an abuse of people's civil liberties because they will be denied the right to belong to a political party just because they earn that amount or more.

Mr. O'Brien

My hon. Friend is correct, and I shall draw attention to that later.

When the Government allow us to debate these regulations, if we are lucky we shall have one minute of debate per page. When we debated the poll tax regulations, we dealt with 89 pages in 90 minutes. If the Government talk of democracy and freedom of speech, the House is entitled to a better opportunity to discuss these matters, which are important to local government. So much for the parliamentary process, if this is the way the Government treat the future of local government.

The Minister has repeatedly referred to the Government's generosity in providing for an adjudicator, although the amendments that he introduced on Report do not address the civil liberties issue. He said: I suspect that large groups of people will be excluded because of the nature of their activities. Many individuals will also be excluded."—[Official Report, 13 June 1989; Vol. 154, c. 780.] We are talking about the rights of ordinary people who work in local authorities to participate in politics and to be the active citizens of whom the Prime Minister speaks so highly.

Under clause 18, a local authority is not just a county, district or London borough council. The phrase includes fire authorities, transport authorities and waste disposal authorities, not to mention the national parks boards. According to the Government, it is acceptable for the chairman of the London residuary body to be a prominent Tory and for the chairman of the Yorkshire regional health authority to be an active Tory and a one-time Tory candidate. It is hypocritical of Conservative Members to vote to suppress the right of local authority employees to play an active part in a political party—especially as senior posts are appointed by the Government—when a fireman of firewoman will not be able to act as treasurer of his or her local Tory party or Labour party because of these restrictions.

What about education staff who are not teachers, lecturers or principals? What about Soulbury advisers, who generally earn more than £13,500, and youth and community service workers? As we saw in Committee, the Government who so blithely take away the rights of council employees are happy for an officer in the Department of Social Security to speak at a National Front rally. To add insult to injury, that civil servant could appeal, as of right, to a tripartite panel including a trade union representative. Only those local government officers caught by the salary restriction can appeal to the adjudicator. We understand that there will be no one adjudicator for England and Wales and, so the Minister says, one for Scotland. Will the Minister spell out the nature of the political restrictions and the groups of people likely to be exempted? People in local government want answers to those questions. It is grossly unfair to leave thousands of them in suspense simply because the Government will not answer our questions.

I want to spend a little time considering the role of local authority councillors. Double standards apply to them as compared with Members of Parliament.

Mr. Gummer

The House would benefit from a little clarification. The hon. Gentleman and I agree about the political activities of chief officers and chief executives. He said that he was not in favour of them serving as elected members of other authorities. He did not say whether he believed that they should not have political affiliations. Will he publicly state that he does not think that a chief executive should also be the chairman of a local political party?

Mr. O'Brien

The Labour party submitted evidence to the Widdicombe committee. Those who serve in local government, like those who serve in this House, are entitled to some freedom. They are entitled to please themselves in certain matters. Unlike Conservative Members, we believe that there should be freedom for the individual, including many of those working in local government.

Mr. Gummer

Is the House to conclude, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman thinks it perfectly proper for the chief executive of a local authority also to be chairman of the local Labour party?

Mr. O'Brien

It is obvious that the Minister was not in the House last night when many Conservative Members were campaigning for freedom of speech in colleges, polytechnics and universities. The House suffered more than 40 minutes of their rhetoric. Tonight the Minister is saying that there should be no freedom for those in local government. How hypocritical can the Government be?

Mr. Gummer

It is clear that the hon. Gentleman thinks it perfectly proper for the chief executive of a local authority, who is supposed to advise all parties within that authority, also to be chairman of the local Labour party. The public will be astounded by that and the Society of Local Government Chief Officers will be appalled.

Mr. O'Brien

The public will recognise that the Opposition stand square in everything that we do. In contrast, last night Conservative Members campaigned for freedom of speech in colleges, polytechnics and universities, but tonight they do not want freedom of speech for people in local government. Those are the facts on which the public will judge this debate. They will understand that the Tory view of freedom for the individual is that it is right for some but wrong for others.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

Many chief officers and chief executives of local authorities hold strong political opinions. Whether or not they keep their opinions secret is surely a matter for them. I served for some considerable time as a councillor and as chairman of a major committee of a major local authority. I had very good professional advice from chief officers, regardless of their political views. I was happy for chief officers to be members of the political party of their choice—not necessarily the Labour party—because I felt that they were exercising their democratic rights.

Mr. O'Brien

When I served in local government we never asked the officers about their political views; we asked for professional views on certain issues. The Government want chief officers to outline their political views before obtaining a position.

Both in Committee and on Report we discussed at length the need for a proper system of remuneration for local authority representatives. The Government would prefer local government to be run by wealthy and retired people. Councils would become elite clubs. Perhaps the Secretary of State envisages councils that meet once a year to hand out contracts, having been given no doubt a good meal. The Opposition attach greater value to local government. Members of Parliament are paid a salary, and those who struggle to live on that salary can line their pockets with lucrative directorships and consultancies. The Government, who have a 100-plus majority, ignore the need for a proper, practical system of remuneration for councillors.

Mr. McLoughlin

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about remuneration. Does he agree that many councils could make it easier for people to attend meetings and not lose money if they held meetings in the evenings? Many councils refuse to do that.

Mr. O'Brien

The hon. Gentleman shows his lack of experience. If councils meet in the evening, the officers have to be present. They then take time off in lieu. If they are not at their desks during the day, they are letting down the community and in many instances also their colleagues. Evening meetings are not necessarily good for a local authority.

Under the Bill, councillors could face a £1,000 fine if they fail to declare their direct and indirect pecuniary interests in the form prescribed by the Secretary of State. There is a threat to local authority representatives of a £1,000 fine if they do not declare their interests. There is no doubt that we support accountability and value for money, but councillors already have to register their interests and declare them at meetings when necessary. They can then be barred from speaking and voting and may be required to leave the meeting.

In contrast, Members of Parliament have simply to declare an interest and may then carry on with business as usual. They are not subjected to a £1,000 fine. It is no good the Government and Conservative Members saying that it is the Opposition's responsibility to bring forward appropriate measures. If the Government are really concerned about probity in public life, they should seek to set this House in order and to put the matter straight before they begin to criticise local government.

Consultation is another important issue. Whenever a contentious issue arises, the Government promise that they will consult local authority associations. When they are feeling especially generous, they say that they will also consult the relevant professional bodies. We are not convinced one bit by the Government's protestations on the issue. The Government's new clause on Members' interests was brought forward without proper consultation and at the expense of other key amendments, which had been promised in Committee. Where is the amendment specifying the criteria that the adjudicator will use in hearing appeals? Where is the promised amendment on the question of when the adjudicator will hear appeals? Where is the promised fitness standard for houses in multiple occupation? What guarantee is there of meaningful consultation on the range of issues that the Bill pretends to address? The Government's attitude to consultation is the same as their attitude to Parliament —a cross between "Nanny knows best" and outright contempt.

The Bill, with all its clauses and schedules, provides once again only for the privileged as opposed to the under-privileged. As a result of the spurious, false and devastating attitude shown in the Bill and by Conservative Members towards local government, we shall be voting against Third Reading, and we ask Conservative Members who have any respect for local government to join us in the Lobby.

8.2 pm

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

As the first speaker to follow the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), I should note—and I am sure that it was noted by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government—that no reply was given to his clear challenge.

Mr. Gummer

I received a clear reply. The Labour party is committed to the principle that the chief executive of a local authority can be the chairman of a local party.

Mr. Nicholson

Indeed, my right hon. Friend did not receive the assurance he requested. That is a point that will be remembered about the speech of the hon. Member for Normanton.

I welcome two of the changes made on Report. Declaring an interest as a consultant for the Association of British Chambers of Commerce, I welcome the concession on amendments and the role played by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) last week in ensuring that people who provide their services voluntarily as directors and secretaries to local authority controlled companies will not be regarded as associated with the parent authority by virtue of that connection alone. I welcome the amendments tabled by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley).

I also welcome the power introduced on Report, as proposed in the Widdicombe report, to set up a register of local authority members' interests. I tabled a written question on the subject some weeks ago and I can confirm that people in local authorities welcome the protection against the possible abuse of powers. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government made the matter clear last week when he distinguished the considerable powers, especially in planning matters, that local authority councillors have from those of Members of Parliament.

I welcome the general thrust of part I of the Bill on which the hon. Member for Normanton has concentrated much of his attention this evening. In recent weeks, I have become aware that twin tracking has crept in even in areas such as Somerset, both in my own constituency and nearby. To be fair, it is an area where possibly valuable use may be made of the right of appeal to the independent adjudicator, and I welcome that role. However, to use the argument that my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) used in the debate on the Self-Governing Schools Etc. (Scotland) Bill last night, it is most important that certain protections should exist, even if the abuse is not currently widely prevalent. We need that protection.

I will give an example to show why that protection is necessary. I note that the Democrat party, or whatever it has decided to be called now, is not represented in the debate. I guess that in southern England the Democrat party is now in a terminal state and I observe, therefore, that in the south-west the Labour party may have passed its electoral nadir. If the Labour party is likely to gain county and district council seats from the Democrat party, we need to be prepared and protected against the use and abuse of twin tracking to which, as shown in the speech by the hon. Member for Normanton, the Labour party is still very much committed.

No speech of mine on this Bill would be complete without a reference to housing. I note that the hon. Member for Normanton referred to housing only in passing. I will speak briefly on the subject because I want to pursue my objectives with my right hon. and hon. Friends by diplomacy. Without claiming any particular virtue, because I may be wrong in my concern on this issue, I must say that, apart from the amendment moved so ably last week by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), which was well supported by those who spoke in the debate, I am the only Conservative Member to raise that particular concern during the Bill's progress. When considering my right hon. Friend's proposal and the Government's counterproposal, I hope that there can be some meeting of minds on the subject in another place. However, I must emphasise that the proposal affects only the margins. We are considering perhaps only dozens of homes per constituency in national parks and similar areas.

I have made it clear all along that my concern has been for those seeking rented accommodation, whether council, private sector or housing association, in the urban areas of constituencies such as mine. I have spoken to the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Mr. Trippier), about this. I do not especially care whether it is the Genghis Khan district council or the St. Francis of Assisi housing association that provides the homes. They are needed at a cost that the tenant, the taxpayer and the community charge payer can afford. I leave that thought with my hon. Friend. However, I believe that he recognises that need and that he also recognises that the position has been made more difficult over the past year by the increase —for which we all understand the reason—in house prices, especially in the south, as a result of which those who originally would have bought into the private sector are now obliged to seek rented accommodation.

Finally, I welcome the measures in the Bill on home improvement grants and renewal areas. I look forward to seeing the ways in which they will help some of my constituents who own their own homes, but whose homes were not traditionally built so that my constituents are now facing problems with resale and mortgageability. I am not referring to the BISF housing that was spoken about in Committee and about which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State was so helpful.

I hope that the Bill will be the foundation for a new, positive and constructive concordat between local government and central Government. I hope that following this Bill and the major Local Government Finance Act 1988, we will allow the waters to settle over the 10 years of what has been an extremely turbulent relationship between central Government and local government over the sharing of powers. I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench know the difficulties that some of those contests have caused to those who seek to serve our party in local government. I support the Bill.

8.10 pm
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North)

I had not intended to comment on the speech made by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) because I always found him to be a reasonable and fair member of the Committee who always had interesting things to say, but when he declared his interest as a consultant to the Association of British Chambers of Commerce—a fine organisation, in my experience, and I have no bones to pick with it—it occurred to me that there was a strong element of hypocrisy in the hon. Gentleman rising to declare his interest and to thank the Government for the concessions that they have made in that direction, while supporting the provisions in the Bill that would take civil liberties away from many people who work in local government. Can the hon. Gentleman not see that there is a direct parallel between the power that he is exercising as a Back-Bench Member of the governing party and the powers being taken away from ordinary individuals who do not seek to peddle any influence, but simply to serve their political beliefs and to serve in local government? I am sure that it was unintentional, but it was hypocritical and mirrored the stinking hypocrisy of what the Government are doing.

Mr. David Nicholson

I do not accept that point at all. Would the hon. Gentleman have preferred me not to declare my interest? In doing so, I was paying a tribute to the role played in this matter by his hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett).

Mr. Howarth

I was anxious not to make a direct attack on the hon. Gentleman and prefaced my remarks by saying so. I was simply saying that the hon. Gentleman has the freedom to stand up in the House of Commons and to declare an interest in the Association of British Chambers of Commerce. I respect the fact that he made such a declaration. However, he was able to do that at the same time as the House is taking democratic rights away from members or would-be members of local authorities who happen to serve in local government.

The Government seem to have got themselves in an extraordinary mess. They have not sat down rationally and said, "What are we to do about local government? What reforms are necessary? What shall we do about housing policy? What are the problems and how should we proceed?" The Government seem to indulge in policy making not by rational analysis but by the pursuit of prejudice. That prejudice permeates every part of the Bill and all that the Government have done in the past two to four years or in some cases their whole 10-year period in office. That is what I find most alarming and that is why in the long run—it is already starting—the electorate of the British people will decide that they should like something more rational than a Government who operate purely on blind prejudice instead of by serious consideration of any given set of problems.

What we would have liked to see in the Bill, but which does not appear, is a systematic, logical and coherent look at the powers and functions of local government in a modern society. We would have liked consideration of all the things that are happening in housing policy and an objective look at the housing needs of the country. But no, there was nothing of the sort. What we got instead were lurid examples from the Minister of State. I notice that he is not in his place—no doubt he has something else to do.

The basis of the provisions on twin tracking did not proceed from any great national outrage or even national concern about what was happening in local government. They proceeded because of a handful of examples of which the Minister of State painted a lurid picture and on the basis of which he then sought to justify his legislation. At no time in our Committee discussions of the relevant clauses did the Minister of State ever give any rational or thoughtful justification for what the Government were doing. It came down to the half dozen individuals in local authorities around the country who the Minister of State, or those who were winding him up, felt should be controlled by legislation. It is extraordinary that a Bill should be placed before Parliament merely because certain people—including the Minister of State—are concerned about what is happening in half a dozen places because of half a dozen people who happen to be local government officers and who happen to serve on local authorities at the same time.

The Bill does not proceed from a consideration of the real problems. It reflects the prejudice not only of the Under-Secretary of State and the Minister of State, but of those other members of the Government who are more vocal and who paint an even more lurid picture than those Ministers do.

I want to speak mainly about the provisions relating to housing. I sat through three and a half months of deliberations on the Housing Act 1988 as it passed through the House and came back from the House of Lords. I recall rising on Third Reading to say that the then Minister, the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave), knew—as did his civil servants and the Secretary of State that the Bill was irrelevant and would make no difference to any of our housing problems. I spoke again last week on a clause which made exactly the same point about this Bill. The 1988 Act has made no difference whatever to our housing problems. The Ministers know, as their Back Benchers, civil servants and all the experts know, that that Act has been a complete and utter flop. So what did the Government do? Having once legislated on the subject, instead of saying, "Perhaps we got that a bit wrong and should now look at it this way", they are piling on more legislation which is even more defective and which is adding to the problems created by their previous legislation. I hesitate to think where we shall end up. Bad legislation will probably be added to and added to again until ultimately we have a morass of appalling housing legislation.

What does this legislation actually do about the country's housing problems? Over the past 10 years the amount of investment in our housing stock, irrespective of tenure, has reached record low proportions. I grant that the Government have made some alterations in the way in which improvement grants are to be administered and that they have marginally improved the way in which the capital allocations to local authorities are to be administered. I hope that my constituents will see some benefit from that because I am obviously concerned that there should be some benefit for areas such as Merseyside.

There is no strategy, no framework and no logical approach in the Bill to putting right the major problems of our aged housing, such as the problems that have been stored up because of the system-built techniques of the past. We have major problems of disrepair in our local authority stock because of historical difficulties over repairs, which were largely if not completely to do with resources. The Bill does nothing about the disrepair problem nor about the straitjacket of tenures which is almost unique in Europe and is not to the benefit of those in housing need.

The financial provisions which are supposed to help people are so unequal that tenants get stuck in a tenure type. Any pretence that there is choice in the system goes out of the window. The Government cry freedom, but choice in housing is circumscribed. There is no equality between tenures, nor even within a tenure type. Housing finance should have been reformed. Instead of going along that road, the Government are placing even greater penalties on council tenants. The inevitable consequence will be rent increases because the Government have to make part IV of the 1988 Act work. To do that they have to make council housing ever more unpopular. Unfortunately, that is what it is all about. They have made a mistake and now they have to make somebody pay for it.

What does the legislation do about providing for the homeless? The answer is that it does nothing. We can walk through any major city, not least the capital, any night of the week and see the appalling spectacle of young people sleeping in cardboard boxes under railway arches. Yet we are almost at the end of the 20th century, not in Victorian or Dickensian times.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that Third Reading is not an occasion to debate what might or ought to have been in the Bill. We are debating what is in the Bill.

Mr. Howarth

I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have strayed, but I think that I have made the point effectively.

The Government have got themselves into a mess on housing. They have offered no solutions to the real problems. They have merely piled predjudice on existing prejudice. The Bill is cheap, shoddy and useless.

Mr. Tony Banks

Like the Secretary of State.

Mr. Howarth

As my hon. Friend says, it is like the Secretary of State. The Government will pay a sorry price not just for the legislation but for all that it represents and all that goes with it.

8.22 pm
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West)

I welcome the Bill. Having listened to the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) one would think that everything was fine in the garden and that there was no need for legislation on the conduct of local authorities. Part I of the Bill has already had quite an effect on some local authorities in regard to representation on committees.

The hon. Member for Normanton told us that basically the Bill said that anything that local government did was wrong and anything that the Secretary of State did was right. If that were the case, we would have needed only a one-clause Bill. In fact, we have a Bill with 164 clauses. We believe in local authorities and in the structure of local government. We want local government to operate fairly under the law.

Some local authorities are deliberately excluding opposition parties from committees. That cannot be justified by anyone, and no one should attempt to justify it, whether it be a Tory or a Labour authority. I want reassurance from my hon. Friend the Minister on clause 15 and the duty of a local authority to allocate seats to political groups.

My hon. Friend may not know that since the county council election in May, Derbyshire county council still refuses to allow any Conservatives to sit on the police authority. I want an assurance from my hon. Friend that when the Bill becomes effective that will not be possible. A Labour-controlled county council should not be able to say that no Conservatives will serve on a police authority. That assurance is important for my constituents and for the people of Derbyshire.

Mr. Christopher Hawkins (High Peak)

I wish strongly to support what my hon. Friend says. It is a disgrace that a police authority does not represent all political parties and all the people. That is the function of the authority.

Mr. McLoughlin

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is important that everyone should have confidence in the operations of the police committee and the police authority.

Mr. O'Brien

In view of the comment by the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Hawkins), will the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin) confirm that the views of Tories and other parties can be represented through magistrates who serve on those committees as co-opted members?

Mr. McLoughlin

I am amazed by that intervention. The hon. Gentleman is seeking to justify that there should be no elected representatives of minority groups on a police authority. That is absolutely disgraceful. We are talking about elected members of a county council. The intervention by the hon. Member for Normanton portrays the attitude of the official Opposition. He tells us that the Opposition believe in the role of local government. Yet they are justifying the refusal of a local authority to allow minority group representation on a particular committee. I am amazed because I would have thought that there was common ground on that. Obviously there is not. I thought that it was a minor, uncontroversial point, but clearly it is not. Therefore, I am glad that I made it and I hope that I get reassurance later from my hon. Friend.

I also seek reassurance on schedule 1, page 147, line 29, which refers to national parks committees. Derbyshire county council appoints eight people to the Peak Park national planning board. Only one is a Conservative. I want an assurance that there will be greater sharing of the representation.

Mr. George Howarth

This is pathetic.

Mr. McLoughlin

The hon. Gentleman says that it is pathetic. May I point out that of the eight people appointed by the county council, only one lives in the area of the national park? I do not think that that is a good way of having local representation on the planning board. Can the hon. Gentleman tell me of any other planning authority in the country where a person can serve on the planning authority without being a resident in the area that is covered by that authority?

Mr. Hawkins


Mr. McLoughlin

I shall give way to my hon. Friend because we share the same difficulties.

Mr. Hawkins

Again I wish strongly to support my hon. Friend. He has brought up a most important point that I have raised in the House several times. There are a number of national parks where there are very few residents. It is right that a national park is seen as a national asset and that people from outside the area of the park should be on the planning authority. The Peak district national park has a very large population, and it is the planning authority controlling people's day-to-day lives. It is the major planning authority in many areas of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin). It is greatly resented that there are so few local representatives on that board.

Mr. McLoughlin

My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Hawkins) explained his position on the representation on the board. We both share national park areas and we both know how important this issue is to our areas. I hope that when the Bill becomes an Act it will not be possible for such a small minority representation to be given to opposition parties, and that there will be a fairer distribution.

I do not disagree with everything that the Labour party is saying about local government. This is one area in which I would depart from my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson), because I agree with the Labour party about something that it has announced in one of its policy documents. The Labour party did quite well in the county council elections in May. The Labour party is so horrified about the antics which its councils get up to in local government that, understandably, it wants to abolish the county councils. I agree with it on that.

Mr. David Nicholson

I believe that what inspires those Opposition parties, who are hostile to county councils—I believe it is also true of the Liberals or whatever they call themselves—is that they would like to establish a structure of regional government. Will my hon. Friend tell me from which regional capital he would like his constituency to be governed?

Mr. McLoughlin

My hon. Friend tries to send me down an avenue which, I am sure, Madam Deputy Speaker, will cause you to call me to order. I do not support the setting up of regional councils, but I would like to see devolvement down to district councils. I believe that district councils are far better and far more accountable to their local areas.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

Does my hon. Friend agree that a perfect model already exists in outer London boroughs—most of them, incidentally, Conservative controlled?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

Order. The hon. Gentlemen are now concerning themselves with matters that are not in the Bill.

Mr. McLoughlin

I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker, for drawing me into line. I was a little worried that we might get drawn down that particular road.

A number of points in part I of the Bill should really have received the almost total support of the House. It is with great regret I say that that they have not. I believe that the structure of local government, and local government operating under certain guidelines, is important for the future of local government. We do not need any lectures about the future of local government and its importance. I go along with the future, the structure and the importance of local government. I do not go along, however, with its abuse.

I was surprised when the hon. Member for Normanton rejected my idea that councils should sit in the evenings. He said that, if councils met in the evenings, the chief officers would not be at their desks the next day, because they would have to take time off in lieu. However, if the councils meet in the day time, those same chief officers will be away from their desks and not available to the public. Some district councils already meet in the evenings and some meet in the mornings. I do not see any difference in the kind of service that they provide to the public. More district councils and county councils meeting in the evenings would mean that many people could stand for local government election who are currently barred from doing so. It is a great shame that there is not a clause in the Bill which positively encourages that to happen.

I warmly welcome the Bill and hope that it gets a Third Reading.

8.33 pm
Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West)

The Bill is entitled "Local Government and Housing Bill", but our debate on housing, as happened the last time round when we discussed what became the Housing Act 1988, has become marginalised and buried in the rest of the detail of the Bill. After embarking on the major debate on housing last week, we were interrupted by, admittedly, an important debate on dog registration. Just before that debate on dog registration, however, there was a brief debate on shared ownership in rural areas. I believe that the Secretary of State's comments then reveal how out of touch and far off the ground he really is. The Secretary of State was keen to emphasise the principle of shared housing. He said: we should allow shared ownership housing in certain rural areas to be retained as low-cost housing for future generations of local people."—[Official Report, 14 June 1989; Vol. 154, c. 1032–33.] He also agreed that we need a way to retain shared ownership housing as low-cost housing once the beneficiary has moved on.

In the Secretary of State's efforts to persuade us that the Government were making arrangements for the passing on of low-cost housing, he produced a sheet of sample calculations which he said would show a typical case. The only problem was that, in real terms, the typical case that he presented was based on a house price exchange value of £174,900, which can hardly be described as a low-cost house. Under that scheme, the new resident's 40 per cent. share would be at least £69,960. The Secretary of State has a fundamental problem. Committed as he is to market values, it is not easy to square basing everything on market values with subsidising and supporting low-cost initiatives. There is an essential conflict between the market and, as at last the Secretary of State is beginning to acknowledge —under pressure from his Back Benchers in rural areas—the need to treat rural housing as a social policy in Britain. People need decent homes in which to live at prices that they can afford. I believe that that comment was echoed by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson). It showed that the Secretary of State has no concept of how to square a theory of the free market with the need of people for housing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) said that here is another Housing Bill—for example, parts V, VI, VII and VIII and 59 clauses—that does not address the issues of homelessness, the absolute shortage of housing for families, house price inflation, and people's problems in having paying their mortgages. It does not improve the chances of people renting a council house, if they are not already in one, but rather it intends to ring-fence. The Minister said that that would strengthen local authority housing. The word "strengthen" should be replaced by the words "squeeze and strangle", because that will be the reality. We can see how that ring-fence account will, as we spelt out last week, include some housing benefit—the rebate payments too—and, that therefore, some of the poorer tenants will have to pay the rent of the poorest through the housing benefit system. Council rents will be forced up and people will be priced out of the right to rent. They will then have to move out of the expensive council housing and into the private deregulated sector in which the landlords have far more power as a result of the 1988 Act to gain repossession and then put up the rents to what the Secretary of State has referred to throughout as "market levels".

In the middle of the debate last week the Secretary of State had the effrontery to make under clause 71 a major statement. He introduced his capital value rents formula, which will again force up rents. He did not grant us the courtesy of a proper statement at the Dispatch Box and at the proper time; he tagged it on to his comments in response to clause 71. His message to council tenants was "Buy or get out, because you will not be able to afford to rent." The only option will be to move into the private rented sector. The Government have been exposed in their attempt to deny people the right to rent. People will not be allowed to rent; they will be priced out by the market. It may come as a surprise to Conservative Members that some people choose to live in council housing. Every week, people visit Opposition Members in an effort to move into council housing. Some of us remember council housing as a dream means of getting out of the appalling and highly priced private rented sector of the past into a decent and affordable home with an inside lavatory and bathroom.

Mr. Martin M. Brandon-Bravo (Nottingham, South)

It is not often that I have any kind words to say about my Labour-controlled Nottingham city council housing department, but in all fairness to it I must ask whether the hon. Gentleman is saying that a well-run local authority housing department, where there is proper and reasonable maintenance and all the other things that the hon. Gentleman would seek, with a housing revenue account that is in balance, not subsidised, like Nottingham's will be forced falsely and unnecessarily to raise its rents as a result of the Bill. The inquiries and the assurances that I have received show that that will not be the case and that the formula exists only for those councils who, in some way or another, are trying to draw in subsidy in order to charge falsely low rents. Rents in Nottingham do not require that subsidy, so the council will not he forced unreasonably to raise its rents.

Mr. Battle

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. What he says is a remarkable contrast to those Conservative Members whom I have heard refer to council housing as evil empires. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments about Nottingham. He is willing to acknowledge and boast about the situation there. However, I advise him to re-read the Secretary of State's statement because he is introducing capital value rents. Four years ago the Secretary of State said that every council rent in Britain should be at least £35 a week. He has now produced a formula which will nudge rents in that direction.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Trippier)

The hon. Gentleman should have listened more carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo). It is clear that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was talking about a formula to be used in calculating the new housing subsidy which will play a major part in balancing the equation with regard to the ring-fencing of the housing revenue account. In the specific circumstance referred to by my hon. Friend, it is highly likely that rents will remain exactly the same. It is even possible that in his authority, or in some others, they will fall. Surely the hon. Gentleman will not use the scaremongering tactics that we are so used to from the Labour party to suggest that rents will increase substantially. He will look pretty stupid if the rent demands that go to tenants do not substantiate that suggestion.

Mr. Battle

In time the truth will out. We have heard the same on property price values, mortgages and private sector rents. The same arguments were put forward for the Housing Act 1988. It was said that private sector rents would not go up, but they are doing so. The Minister's colleagues in the Department of Social Security know that and they are watching them with interest.

The Minister may be able to stand at the Dispatch Box now and pledge that rents will not necessarily go up. We shall have to wait to see what happens, but since the Secretary of State said that he would base rents on capital values, what other option is there when the average value of property is rising? Conservative Members want to finish off council housing. That is the real agenda. The Secretary of State is on record as saying that councillors should not manage local authority housing.

We should reflect on the roots of council housing. Where did it come from in the first instance? My city of Leeds had the highest number of back-to-back houses-172,000. There were unique reasons for that, not least that the fields were sold off in strips for house building and houses were built along the river. The blocks were then connected and the midden block with the toilet facilities was connected to the drains of the local inns and pubs round about. In other words, corners were cut on sanitation. The result was typhoid and tuberculosis.

Then we had public health legislation which suggested that there should be public housing to give people space, light and sanitation. That was the real history of public housing. The private landlords failed to deliver and everybody suffered. What surprised the councillors—they were not loony Left councillors at the turn of the century —was that the tuberculosis germs did not observe the city boundaries and remain in the poorer areas downtown, but rather moved up the hill on the wind. At that point they decided to introduce legislation to build council housing.

The Government are seeking to price out the public housing sector and send the tenants back to the landlords, weakening conditions and tenants' protections against eviction and repossession. We are entitled to ask why they are so determined to re-run history. Why are they so determined to put the clock back?

The Government have promised a major amendment on standards in the other place. We could not debate that amendment on Report, but a 10-point habitation standard was spelt out. Before the Minister tells us that we were asking for gold taps and the rest, let me say that housing standards were set in the 1930s and we need new standards now to take us into the next century.

The 1986 English house condition survey showed that there has been little improvement in disrepair in recent years. At best the situation is static. There are still well over 1 million unfit houses and houses in a serious state of disrepair. Our housing stock, whether private or public, should not be allowed to deteriorate.

The Minister might do worse than to look at a report published by the Royal Institute of British Architects which says that the Government's drive to get value for money and to achieve private sector funding totally disregards achieving the required standard cost in use or long-term maintenance…The increase in the number of households has not met with a corresponding increase in house-building. An ever-increasing number of people are being forced into poorly-built or badly-converted accommodation. We have a long way to go on home improvements before the Government adopt a system of standards. The standards that we set out in the other place should be welcomed and would go some way to tackling the backlog. It remains to be seen whether the Government are committed to improving housing or whether this is simply another tag on to a local government Bill.

The Government may be having second thoughts on the National Health Service, the poll tax and the water proposals. I urge the Government to think again on these proposals in the Local Government and Housing Bill. Some of us remember that in 1983 the Tory party's election manifesto said: Our goal is to make Britain the best housed nation in Europe. That rings hollow now, not only in the light of the Government's significant failure in Europe but their failure towards the nation's housing, witnessed by the hundreds of thousands of people in Britain who are homeless or likely to be homeless because they currently live in overcrowded conditions with no hope for the future.

8.49 pm
Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

I want to make a few brief remarks about a subject which was debated in this House last week, and which I think received as much if not more publicity than anything else that has been debated on this Bill and on which I believe the Government intend to introduce further amendments later on in another place—that is the subject of dogs.

For a long time I have favoured a registration scheme, but no longer.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I ask the hon. Gentleman to speak to the Bill, which has nothing to do with dogs.

Mr. Marlow

But, Madam Deputy Speaker, clause 138 states that a charge may be imposed in respect of anything…which is done by any relevant authority. That is the text to which I refer.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman may intend to amuse the House, but I insist that he keeps to the subject of the Bill.

Mr. Marlow

You put me in great difficulty, Madam Deputy Speaker. Can I perhaps try another text?

Madam Deputy Speaker

I think that you better had.

Mr. Marlow

Clause 7, on page 10 of the Bill, states: Every appointment of a person to a paid office or employment…shall be made on merit. One of the paid offices that would most merit being made by local authorities would be that of a dog warden. Any dog warden so appointed should be appointed on the basis of merit.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is prepared to amuse us with a very lively speech, but I am serious in suggesting to him that other right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak to the Bill, and he must do likewise.

Mr. Marlow

I hear what you say, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Briefly, I believe that my right hon. Friend is quite right in seeking to bring forward amendments at a later stage in another place, which he suggested the other day. There has been a lot of talk about registration on this subject, and I believe that the powers that my right hon. Friend is going to give to local government with regard to this particular nuisance will solve the problem that we are all seeking to solve. I believe that that is the right way to proceed. It gives powers to local people to insist that those powers are used, and it will at a later stage enable the country to be rid of a great nuisance which has been afflicting us and affecting us for a great deal of time. I believe that on this issue my right hon. Friend has got it right.

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

I shall come straight to the point. I do not like the Bill. It is like the Secretary of State—brutal, graceless, and almost a complete waste of space. Typical of its kind, it is yet one further turn of the screw in what appears to my right hon. and hon. Friends and me to be the liquidation of local democracy and accountability.

The Bill is also an unholy mess. Any right hon. or hon. Member who sat through the Committee or Report stage will realise just how much of a mess it is. It is the legislative equivalent of a blunderbuss. The only coherence that seems to run through its clauses is one of unalloyed nastiness to local councillors, councils and council tenants. In its generality, the Bill will deprive tens of thousands of council officers of their civic rights. I suspect that that provision will be tested elsewhere, in the European Court of Human Rights. The Bill will also deprive a significant number of councillors of their ability either to earn a living or to remain councillors. It seeks to extend further into the day-to-day running of local authorities the choking embrace of centralisation, giving ever more powers to the Secretary of State and the faceless grey gnomes of Marsham street.

Mr. Trippier


Mr. Banks

I was trying to be complimentary.

I am still waiting for a clue from the Minister as to the political activities that will be off limits to council officers earning more than £13,500 per year. We do not even know how that figure will be calculated, and whether it will include allowances, bonuses or overtime.

The ban on political activities takes no heed of the work that council officers do in giving advice to elected councillors and to the public, and decisions about those activities will be left to the adjudication officer, who will have to exercise the judgment of Solomon. The House is entitled at least to a clue as to the matters that the adjudication officer will take into account when deciding whether or not a council officer's work places him in the category of being a political eunuch.

It is typical of the Government to set a cash limit democracy with a price tag of £13,500 or more. It is typical of a Government of free market spivs to understand much about money but nothing about values.

The Government say that they are taking this action with the backing of Conservative Members to end so-called abuses in local government, but their evidence is anecdotal. Even Widdicombe, after all the inquiries, could not come up with hard evidence of political abuse in respect of appointments. Much of the anecdotal evidence that Ministers trot out is largely culled from the pages of Right-wing tabloids written by grubby and mendacious hacks.

One appreciates how hypocritical the Bill is, coming as it does from a Government who cannot refrain from abusing power. I refer, for example, to political appointments to public bodies, which are full of Tory stooges these days. The great and the good have been replaced by the stooge, the hack and the lickspittle—all of whom subscribe to Tory values. Such people pack every body to which Ministers have the power to make appointments.

The phrase used by the Government is "Jobs for the boys in local government." Perhaps you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will pardon that sexist phrase. Perhaps it does not bother you, but it does bother me. Such an accusation defies logic. In terms of giving jobs to the boys, local government is like a bunch of political virgins by comparison with this Government of sybarites. When it comes to jobs for the boys and political abuse, no one can teach the Government anything. Nothing in local government remotely approaches the level of political abuse that the present Government practise in public life.

The Government demand a whistle-blower in the town hall. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House—many Conservative Members have served in local government—agree that our local government system is remarkably free of corruption by comparison with those of other countries, and by comparison even with our own Civil Service. Yet there are to be no statutory whistle-blowers in Whitehall, where there would be a considerable amount of work for them to do—in respect of everything from the overpricing of Ministry of Defence contracts to the Property Services Agency and the out and out corruption of the common agricultural policy. The hypocrisy of the Bill is of staggering proportions.

Ministers speak of the need for impartiality in council officers, but that comes from a Government who have done more than any other in living memory to politicise the Civil Service—to the point where the Government's own information officers protest about the way in which they are used to do party political dirty work on the instructions of Ministers and of No. 10 Downing street. One need only think of Bernard Ingham. Who would retain him once the present Government have gone? My right hon. Friend the next Prime Minister would be mad to retain Mr. Ingham, who has been behaving like a deputy Prime Minister for so long. In view of the things that information officers were getting up to over the Westland letter, how can Conservative Members talk of the abuse of political power in the town halls? How can they talk like that when we can point to their own terrible record?

Conservative Members have mentioned ratepayers' money being used for council newsletters and publicity campaigns. That is a bit much, coming from a Government who spend some £150 million a year of taxpayers' money on politically motivated, party-politically inspired campaigns under the guise of public information.

Finally, let me deal with the aspect of the Bill which will directly affect my people in Newham, especially council tenants. The combining of the rate fund subsidy, rate rebate subsidy and Housing Act 1980 subsidy places that single subsidy wholly within the control of the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State has tried to argue that the inconsistency between the rents of one authority and those of another was an overwhelming argument for them to be evened out. Despite what the Minister has said, we know what will happen. The level will rise rather than fall. I shall be the first to apologise to the Minister if that does not happen, but history points to rents going up rather than down.

There is a simple reason why one local authority should have lower rents than another. Some authorities, at the instigation of their residents, decided to build houses for rent at an early stage. That was a wise investment decision. They did not know that the Secretary of State would come along and expropriate, without compensation, their prudently acquired capital assets. I should like to see what Conservative Members would say if a Labour Government decided to expropriate private resources and assets without compensation. Indeed, I should very much like to see a Labour Government do precisely that.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Banks

I knew that my good friend the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) would be on my side, but I suspect that we should be in something of a minority as we are now.

Mr. Nellist

An honourable minority.

Mr. Banks

Honourable, indeed, but a minority none the less. One day I should like to be in the majority—one does not always want to lose gloriously.

Public housing was first built and let out for rent to supply a need that could not be met in the market place. Even in Victorian times, homes were needed for the working-class families of those who drove the trains, worked the docks and built the sewers; yet London then, as now, was a high-demand area, so the philanthropists of that age built housing for low rents. Now nurses, cleaners, social workers and teachers cannot afford to buy property in London, and it seems that soon they will not be able to rent it either, because they will always be squeezed out of the market by richer people.

What has become of the Government's economic policy? Countless people are attracted to London by the prospect of work, thus creating a high-demand area, but those are the people least able to afford the higher rents or house prices produced by the Government's proposal to allow rents to reflect house prices—for that is what this proposal amounts to.

Council housing was meant to step in and break the force of the market—to ensure that people were allocated homes according to need rather than ability to pay. That was one of its essential objectives—to ensure that poverty in housing was not passed from one generation to another, and that the poverty of the parents did not mean that the children had to live in squalor, in overcrowded conditions without basic amenities. With this one proposal the Government are twisting the original pure aims of council housing—to house those in greatest need—into a grotesque reflection of that grotesque animal, the house purchase market. No one who has watched with horror the spiralling prices of the past two years—up to August last year, when it became less and less possible for anyone on a modest income to buy the smallest broom cupboard—which displaced people in the cheaper areas such as Newham could possibly wish this to happen to council rents.

The movement of rents towards capital values has an even more dangerous impact on areas such as my borough of Newham, where incomes are lower than the average. Housing benefit is received by 67 per cent. of council tenants in Newham, and 60 per cent. of those tenants are on full income support. The people of Newham suffered significant losses as a result of the changes in the social security regime in April 1988. There were 7,800 transitional payments and, as we all know, only certain categories were entitled to receive transitional protection.

The proposal to move rents towards the market place takes no account of the poverty trap being created and deepened by the significant increase in rents that is likely to ensue. It presupposes that tenants in high-demand areas are likely to be in work, with the benefit of wage increases. What about people on fixed occupational pensions? What about single parents dependent on a mixture of maintenance and low-paid work? What about the unemployed who want to take a job—any job—but find that they are worse off because rents are so high and wages so low? They might be willing themselves to take the risk of being worse off for a time, but can they risk that for their families?

Rent arrears are related purely to poverty and to the level of rents. Despite what we are told about local authorities not collecting their rents, in 1987–88 Newham collected more than 100 per cent. of its rent roll. Rent arrears dropped in that year by 5.6 per cent., but following the massive drop in incomes and the increase in rents that was forced through by the Government, rent arrears inevitably increased in Newham, as elsewhere in the country. In Newham the increase was 30 per cent. It is to the credit of the people of Newham that the increase in rent arrears—from 5.6 per cent. to 30 per cent.—was not far worse, because the level of poverty to which the people of Newham have been reduced by the benefit changes is absolutely appalling.

Council housing had an honourable beginning. Among the Victorian philanthropists Octavia Hill was a person whom we might have expected the Victorian moralists of today to admire. It is sad to see that council housing has come to a sordid end, mauled by lesser men who do not understand what they are doing. If they did, their sins would be unforgivable.

The Bill is petty and mean minded. It has been put together by a megalomaniac whose only concern seems to be control of local government, without regard to individual merits or faults. I ask my local government colleagues to hang on. In two years' time they will be free from the clutches of this vicious, nasty, mean-minded Government because a Labour Government will set local government and local democracy free. I look forward to the day when I shall greet them from the Government Benches where I shall hold a place of honour, although unfortunately I shall probably still be at the back.

9.6 pm

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

I should like to comment on what was said by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) towards the end of his speech. It contained few facts and it is a great pity that he grievously misquoted a great figure. Miss Octavia Hill opposed the building of council houses. She said that London county council was wrong to build council housing—that there were other ways of providing housing for people. She believed that housing associations ought to do it. If the hon. Gentleman had ever bothered to read her very interesting and important writings, or the biography written by her nephew, he would know that she said that the classic mistake was to mix up the collection of rents and the collection of votes. It is an outrage that the hon Gentleman has had the cheek to misrepresent that great lady.

Mr. Tony Banks

The hon. Gentleman is quoting her sister.

Mr. Hughes

I shall not even try to answer the hon. Gentleman because I want to make some serious points.

My experience in local government, and of serving on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill, has led me to believe that the Labour party collectively does not understand that there is an important difference between councillors and officers of the council. The Labour party has sought to smudge the dividing line in all the amendments that they have tabled and in all the arguments that they have used. The Opposition have proved beyond any shadow of doubt that it is they who have poisoned the well and made it necessary for the Government to introduce this measure.

It is not surprising that some of the clauses in a 164-clause Bill have not been discussed. As far as I can remember, clause 145, which came out of Committee as clause 155, has not been discussed at all. That is the clause which relates to race relations and the code of practice.

I congratulate the Government on producing clause 155 which will do so much to widen the scope of the Commission for Racial Equality and the Department of the Environment in laying down codes of practice. I apologise if some hon. Members have heard my arguments before but I think that they bear repeating, particularly in the light of some of the remarks in the Chamber during the early hours of this morning.

I do not believe that we know the size of the problem of racial abuse. Some tenants who face harassment report it only when it gets out of hand. Clause 155 will enable a much clearer picture to be produced. The report published last year by the Commission for Racial Equality, entitled "Living in Terror", states that it is not enough to have a vague notion of certain estates where harassment is a problem. When a code of practice has been produced, authorities will need to focus more clearly on the estates where it is happening and ascertain clearly when and where incidents occur. Local authorities should work out a plan of action. They should talk to their tenants, find out where the abuse is coming from and why it happens and decide what to do about it.

I will quote the London borough of Newham, which the hon. Member for Newham, North-West knows much more about and which has been mentioned several times in connection with these matters. Every hour there is an abuse of a black household, and one in four black residents in Newham faces abuse over a 12-month period.

Abuse is not restricted to inner London or to the London borough of Newham. Far too many cases of racial abuse in the London borough of Harrow are reported to me. The problem needs to be tackled, and I am genuinely delighted that the Government have produced clause 155, which will enable them to go further than they could last year. Last year, during the passage of the Housing Bill —now the Housing Act 1988—the Government wanted to go further but were restricted by the long title of the Bill. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave), who was then the housing Minister, said in Committee: I am signalling that the Government are considering the possibility—positively, we shall want to cover all housing…I give a commitment today…to put the CRE in a position to produce a code with all the implications referred to by my hon. Friend." —[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 15 March 1988; c. 1626.] The Minister was referring to me. I am very grateful to the Government for sticking to their word.

I recognise that it is not easy to put together a code of practice that will work. It is not easy to find out the source of the serious racial abuse to which I have alluded. It is not easy to work out the best solution. Now we have started a process whereby we can start looking seriously at these things and make sure that we do something to help the many black and Asian people who suffer abuse daily on housing estates, in private housing and in owner-occupied property.

Secondly, I wish to discuss the housing revenue changes which seek to prevent councils using ratepayers' or community charge payers' money to underwrite rent arrears or to subsidise artificially low rents. The Labour party has suggested that we are overrating the problem and that it is not happening. I should like to prove that the Bill is necessary and that something has to be done by alluding to what was said by the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien) in the Standing Committee considering the Local Government and Housing Bill.

In the cities it is just not Labour councils that make rate fund contributions"— So do Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster, Harrow, Barnet" —[Official Report, Standing Committtee G, 18 April 1989; c. 936.] The hon. Gentleman was challenged about this, but stuck to his guns.

Let us look at the facts behind the hon. Gentleman's allegations. He said that Kensington and Chelsea makes a rate fund contribution. That is not true. Figures produced by the Department of the Environment show a blank in this area; that council makes no rate fund contribution.

The hon. Gentleman sought to put Barnet and Harrow in the same league as Labour councils, which I shall mention in a moment. In Committee, the hon. Gentleman was told that Barnet made a £20,000 rate fund contribution. What we did not know at the time was that Harrow's contribution was much bigger—£24,000, hardly a significant sum.

Mr. O'Brien

What about Westminster?

Mr. Hughes

Granted, Westminster made a contribution of more than £2 million. I do not comment on Westminster council; it seems to comment on its own problems enough—

Mr. O'Brien

It is a Tory council.

Mr. Hughes

So it is alleged.

I want to talk about councils which are milking the system—councils in London which are misusing their power in two ways. Let us examine some examples of the budgeted rate fund contributions to the housing revenue account in 1989–90. Camden contributed £39 million, Hackney, £27 million, Islington, £46 million, Lambeth, £32 million, Southwark, £23 million and SLD-controlled Tower Hamlets, £24 million. Brent council contributed £9 million.

Alongside some of these rate fund contributions goes the inability, in some cases, to collect rate arrears. Southwark is the winner in this league, with arrears of £19 million. How can these people say that they seek to make a genuine contribution to good housing in their areas when they run their housing revenue account so badly and milk the ratepayers for a problem that does no good for the provision of decent housing?

In the context of the combination of the housing parts of the Bill with those which implement the Widdicombe report, it is interesting to consider the case of the vice-chairman of Lambeth's housing committee, Miss Josie Byrne. In her case, what the hon. Member for Newham, North-West describes as the gutter press has done a good job. On 8 June she was reported as owing £2,000 in rent arrears, having claimed £20,000 in expenses as a councillor during that year. Magically, within days of the report, she discovered that she could repay those arrears. The Today newspaper did a good job in exposing this classic example of the Labour party's misuse of its position to run council housing empires which can be described—I have done so before—as evil.

The Bill will ensure that every council concentrates on running council housing well and on making a contribution to good housing, so that housing will not be merely a political toy of the Labour party.

I welcome the Bill.

9.18 pm
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I agree with the first part of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes). He deplored racial abuse and attacks. I and all my right hon. and hon. Friends agree with that. The sort of poisonous rubbish that was heard in an outburst last night from the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman) disappointed a number of Conservative Members—I do not know whether a majority—and outrages all Opposition Members. We on the Labour Benches are wholly opposed to racism in all its manifestations. Whether that stance is electorally popular at any given moment makes no difference. We have made our principles clear and we shall stand by them all our lives, in the House and outside it.

This is in essence a thoroughly bad Bill which again shows the malice which the Government feel towards large sections of the community, such as council tenants. One of the Bill's main purposes is greatly to increase council rents. That is the purpose behind the ring-fencing of the housing revenue account. The Secretary of State's statement last week again showed how right we were when we talked of large rent increases to come. They will not come all at once. They will come over a period, but there will be substantial rent increases because the objective of the Government so far as possible is to bring council rents to the level of market rents in the privately rented sector.

Another aim of the Bill is substantially to reduce the existing public sector, which has been reduced substantially already. Normally when we say that Conservative Members laugh and say that that is not their aim. I remind the House of what the Secretary of State said on Second Reading, when responding to an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks): First, I hope that the hon. Gentleman has advised such people that they should have exercised the right to buy and that they can still do so, thereby avoiding the trap of paying rent for a lifetime and ending up owning nothing".—[Official Report, 14 February 1989; Vol. 147, c. 175.] In other words, the right hon. Gentleman wants a substantial reduction in council dwellings arid no replacement by new building. In my borough there has been no new council house building for 10 years, and the same applies to most parts of the country.

Council tenants are to be punished because they wish to remain in that position. The Government say in effect to them, "If you do not like what we are doing, and if you do not like substantial rent increases, the remedy is in your hands. Buy the dwelling." Labour Members say that there will always remain a need for a sizeable public rented sector. There will always be a large number of people—a minority, but a large number nevertheless—who will not be in a position to buy their dwellings, and they have every right to decent accommodation. That can come only from the public sector and genuine housing associations.

Another aspect of the Bill which we find offensive is the part of the ring-fencing of the housing revenue accounts which is designed to ensure that housing benefits, rebates, for poorer council tenants come from the higher rents of other council tenants. The poorer elements will subsidise the even poorer ones, and that is totally offensive to us. The relief of poverty should come of course from central Government. Why should some council tenants pay much higher rents to ensure that those who are less well off are assisted by those higher rents?

The Government refuse to recognise that there remains an acute housing shortage. If it is said that that is only propa ganda on the part of Labour Members, consider what was said on Second Reading by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson), who also spoke today. He said: Last Saturday, half my surgery cases had come to me because of housing problems. That was the highest proportion I had encountered in my 18 months as a Member of Parliament. I am finding that it is increasingly difficult to accommodate the housing needs of my constituents—for example, young people, perhaps with a baby, who are living with their parents."[Official Report, 14 February 1989; Vol. 147, c. 220.] I think I see the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) nodding in agreement with that sentiment. At my surgeries, on the first and last Saturdays each month, the majority of my constituents who come to see me do so over housing problems. The majority of letters that I receive from my constituents are about housing matters. That shows that this is not Labour propaganda or mischief-making. As I said, many people are desperately in need of housing, but as a result of Government policy, with no new council houses being built, we are witnessing a substantial decrease in the public rented sector.

Our fellow citizens in acute housing need are being penalised. That is why we are so opposed to the Government's housing policy. We make no apology for the fact that we believe that we have a duty and responsibility to voice the concern and anger of our constituents with housing difficulties who, as I have said at other times, have as much right to decent accommodation as any hon. Member. If they cannot buy a home because they are on small incomes, why should they be unable to obtain adequate rented accommodation? Why should they be punished?

I am also totally opposed to discrimination against those people employed in local government who, because they earn £13,500 or more, will no longer have the right to be elected to another local authority. That undermines civil liberties. I accept that there can be abuse from time to time; there is no aspect of life, I suppose, in which abuse does not sometimes occur. However, that is no reason why everyone who falls into that earnings bracket should be penalised. I do not wish to defend the indefensible, and if abuse occurs on either side it is wrong. However, I do not want to take away people's democratic rights. As I said only last week, one of the main functions of the House is to defend people's civil liberties.

From time to time Conservative Members make remarks about civil liberties. However, I doubt whether a single Tory Member will tonight rebel against the taking away of the democratic rights of large numbers of people. Perhaps it is wrong to suggest that this would happen to large numbers of people, but the figure does not matter. The important point is that they will no longer be entitled to exercise their democratic right because they happen to work in local government. That is basically wrong. This policy change comes from a Government who have given jobs to all their sympathisers and supporters up and down the country. In the past 10 years, people have been appointed merely because they are members of the Conservative party or closely connected with it.

The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup—I am sure that Government Members know to whom I am referring—recently said that the way in which the Government conducts their press office is corrupt. How right he is. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West referred to the role of Mr. Ingham. I doubt whether there has ever been a Government chief press officer who has so abused his position, and with the direct encouragement of the Prime Minister.

Mr. Brandon-Bravo

The House is often given the impression that the only twin tracking which this Bill seeks to eliminate is the kind of outrageous abuse seen in some London boroughs and, occasionally, in Liverpool and one or two other places, but I believe that the abuse is more widespread. In the last county council elections two employees of Nottingham city council were successful. I wish them good luck in their Labour seats on the county council. Will the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) comment on the fact that the Labour city council has given consent not just for normal leave to attend to their duties at county hall, but has said that they can have as much time off as they like to carry out whatever length of duties on however many committees of the county council? That permission was granted on the ground that the city would be proud for them to do so. Surely that cannot possibly be right.

Mr. Winnick

Even if the hon. Gentleman were right—

Mr. Martlew

I was a county councillor for 15 years and I was given as much time off as I liked to carry out my duties, which included two years as chairman of the county council. I worked for a company in the private sector.

Mr. Winnick

My hon. Friend's intervention effectively answers the point raised by the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo). My hon. Friend also implied that those in the public sector should not be given worse treatment than those in the private sector. Even if the hon. Member for Nottingham, South were right, there is no reason to take away everyone else's political rights because of alleged abuse. There is no justification for that.

The Bill helps to explain the deep feeling of revulsion that was demonstrated in last Thursday's vote. Many people believe that the Government have abused their office and that they are completely out of touch with the lives of millions of ordinary people and with the matters that affect them—council rents, the poll tax and many other measures. If Conservative Members do not understand that deep feeling of revulsion, which has brought about such great Labour success in the European elections, I suggest that they study the Bill and much of the other legislation passed in recent years, because it explains only too well why people have come to the conclusion that enough is enough.

9.30 pm
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

I was somewhat surprised when the Minister said that one of the main objectives of the Bill was to strengthen local government. He used that phrase several times. Either he does not understand what "strength" means because he has the wrong dictionary, or he is taking too much note of the current political advisers at the Department of the Environment. The Government are pushing through legislation which curtails the activities of local government and local government employees, but they are doing the opposite with their own Departments. More political appointees are working in Government Departments than ever before, dealing with matters such as water privatisation and the regulations that will result from the Bill. No other Government have done this to such as extent. We all know the amount of money that the Government are spending on publicising their programmes under the vague notion of public information. Yet when a local authority does the same such information immediately becomes political.

This is another Bill in a long chain of legislation to shackle local government. Ever since they were elected in 1979, the Government have said that they would give freedom to local government, but all that they have done has been to put shackles on local government with legislation such as this and with financial restrictions. The Minister fails to recognise that democracy and freedom in local government are important to many who serve in local government as officers and to local councillors, whether Conservative, SLD or Labour. The Government should recognise the importance of local government.

Because of the way the Bill has been timetabled, last week we had only two days to debate Report stage. It would have been better to have three days, because we could then have had a shorter Third Reading debate. The difficulty with the debate on Third Reading is that we cannot refer to the amendments, whether Government or Opposition, we had insufficient time to debate last week. We can refer only to the Bill as it stands.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) said last week that the debate on some important issues was a sham because there was not sufficient time to discuss them. We all know that on Wednesday evening a major debate on the dog registration scheme took place in the early hours of the morning. I hope that the other place will reconsider that issue, because the Government got it wrong. Many other items put into the Bill by amendments and new clauses forced through by the Government have not been properly debated.

My hon. Friends have already mentioned the problems of ring-fencing. The main purpose of some aspects of the Bill is to force people either to buy their council homes or to opt out and thus enhance the private rented sector. Another purpose is to encourage the growing business expansion scheme. While the Bill might, in certain areas, deal with certain problems, it is nevertheless the wrong way to try to solve the housing problems. Rather than giving tax incentives, the Government should make the necessary funding available to deal with the problems.

The current difficulties in both the public and private housing sectors will not be solved by the Bill. The Government are not prepared to allocate sufficient funds to deal with the problems. We are arguing for funds not just for the public sector, but also for the private sector, which suffers from the same problems. The unavailability of land has led to a deterioration of housing standards. The Minister has only to look around his constituency and the neighbouring constituencies in north-east Lancashire, such as mine, to appreciate the problems of decline in the private sector. People cannot improve their homes because their value is so low that they cannot obtain loans. The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) mentioned defective housing. There are problems with Spooner houses in my area. They are of a wooden frame structure —not all that old—and because of problems with the ties the gable ends need to be rebuilt. Those who bought their council houses in good faith under the right to buy cannot afford to repair them. Building societies will not lend them any additional money because of the low value of their houses. I hope that the Minister will seriously take on board the problems with housing in north-east Lancashire.

I wish briefly to discuss part I of the Bill and the implications of Widdicombe. They have rightly been dealt with already at some length because the Bill goes far beyond what is required to deal with the minor problem of political involvement by certain key officers. The Bill is a serious erosion of people's rights and civil liberties and of democracy. It moves in the wrong direction and the Government are treading a dangerous path. The arbitrary figure of £13,500 is nonsense and the Government should think again.

Even more important, the Bill gives yet further powers to the Secretary of State to act through regulations. We have been given no idea what will be contained in those regulations, especially the provisions relating to council employees. Will canvassing be forbidden? Will they be prevented from putting up election posters? It is wrong that, time and again, half-baked legislation is pushed through the House without the Government providing crucial information. When the Government introduce regulations they do not allow sufficient time for debate. Of course, they do not want them to be debated, but if they have to be debated they make sure that that happens at a time when they will not receive any publicity. Not only do the Government not believe in local government democracy—they do not really believe in parliamentary democracy.

The Association of District Councils has expressed concern about economic development and discretionary expenditure by local authorities, which is covered in part III. It says: The Association wishes to ensure that restrictions to be included in Regulation are kept to a minimum and do not inhibit sensible, constructive and imaginative initiatives. Again, the association is referring to proposals that will be introduced through regulations, and which are not specified at this stage. The association makes the point that the proposal could result in around 40 per cent. of the 333 non-metropolitan district councils being prevented from giving crucial help to start-ups of small and medium businesses, as they do at present.

Another crucial concern is the companies owned by local authorities and run by local authorities. The Minister is well aware of what I believe is valuable work carried out with Lancashire Enterprise. Many aspects of part III give rise to serious concern about whether the local authorities will be able to continue to provide money and to do all that they wish for such developments.

The Minister for Local Government spoke of the Bill "strengthening" local government. I believe that it will weaken the powers of local government. It could be his swansong as a Minister at the Department of the Environment. Year after year, we have had Bills on housing or local government. Every year, when the Government come back with the next Bill, a different Minister comes forward. Some Ministers have gone sideways, some have gone upwards and some have just gone. Let us hope that whether he goes upwards or not, the present Minister will go and that the Minister who takes his place will look at local government in a more positive and constructive manner.

9.41 pm
Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

In the past 10 years, a decade of this Government, we have had 50 Bills on local government. Like the others, this Bill does nothing to widen genuine local democracy and local choice for working people. The twin areas of greatest concern in the Bill are the proposals leading to further substantial rent increases for tenants and the draconian restrictions, about which my hon. Friends have spoken, on the freedom of council workers to participate in political activity. We understand that about 70,000 council workers will be affected, but we do not yet know. The regulations to enact that aspect of the Bill will, undoubtedly, come some months hence in the dead of night. We shall have an hour and a hairs debate, as we had a couple of weeks ago when we discussed 96 pages of poll tax regulations.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) intervened when my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) was speaking, again along the theme of so-called jobs for the boys. He made unsubstantiated allegations about councils in London and the council in Liverpool. He was on very thin ice. He supports a Government half of whose supporters are not just Members of Parliament, but have one, two or 10 other jobs, who often pick up thousands of pounds a year for each of those jobs and for whom Members' wages become pocket money. In the last Parliament, the former right hon. and learned Member for Hexham, Mr. Geoffrey Rippon, was a Member of Parliament, a Queen's counsel and a director or chairman of 45 companies. I will never know how he ever had time to come into this Chamber. The voting record of many of those Tory Members is 10 per cent., 12 per cent. or 15 per cent. In the words of the good book, the hon. Member for Nottingham, South should take the beam out of his own eye before worrying about the mote in somebody else's eye. When it comes to twin tracking, Tory Members in this Tory Government have got it down to a fine art.

We do not know whether exactly 70,000 council workers will be affected, but we understand that it is those who are at present working for local authorities who will be prevented from holding office in political parties, from canvassing at elections—and we can understand that after Sunday's Euro results—or even from commenting publicly on matters of party political controversy, including through letters to newspapers. We can imagine the scenario when a council worker, just as the member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Sutton Coldfield some years ago, has a knock at the door from two Special Branch officers because of a letter written to a local newspaper. That is what the Bill will introduce.

As drafted, the Bill gives the Secretary of State—a single individual—the power to prevent 70,000 people in this country from exercising their democratic rights. The Bill is fundamentally anti-democratic. It will not only apply to those people who earn more than £13,500 per year —incidentally, we understand that that figure will be frozen for the future so that more and more people will be caught year after year—it will also apply to many lower-paid council workers who give advice to the council or to its committees or who talk to the media.

The Government are taking the road of Stalin. While ostensibly criticising the lack of democracy in China, Cuba and eastern Europe, they are taking precisely the same powers politically to determine the opinions that this country's working people can hold or, if they do not hold opinions favoured by the Government, the jobs that they are allowed to hold.

I turn now to the clauses relating to housing. The Bill is called a housing Bill, but it does nothing for the housing crisis that has developed in the past 10 years. There has been a 17 per cent. fall in the completion of new houses over that period from 244,000 down to 202,000. Local authorities have a 75 per cent. fall in their completions. Furthermore, at today's prices, local authorities have seen their investment budgets cut from £5,000 million in 1978–79 to £1,000 million in 1988–89. One million council houses have been sold, but over the period 1983 to 1987 the waiting list for those council houses grew by 70 per cent. from 0.75 million to 1.25 million people. Yet this Bill does nothing to redress the problems either of the people who want a house or of those who want their home repaired, improved or modified in some way.

Shelter estimates that 150,000 single young people are homeless in this country. In central London, where this Parliament is situated, over 40,000 young people sleep rough. That is a topic to which I intend to return on an Adjournment debate when I shall refer also to the Vagrancy Act 1824.

Like the Housing Act 1988, this Bill does not mention homelessness, but it will cause it—[Interruption.] I am doing my best to ensure that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, can hear what I am saying even if Tory Members are patently not interested in the homelessness of young people or of any other age group, especially the Minister who seems to have much better things to do than to listen to a speech about homelessness. Perhaps I could have his attention for a moment or two.

Part VI will cause homelessness. The housing finance sections of last year's Housing Act did nothing to help. That legislation was an enabling Act. In my six years in this madhouse, I have become less and less worried about enabling Acts and I can see more and more merit in giving a future Labour Secretary of State for Industry an "Industry Bill" to give him the power to nationalise companies and then, at 10 o'clock at night, night after night, I can see no problem in bringing forward the names of the companies that will be taken into public ownership. I have learnt from Bills such as this that enabling legislation gives Ministers powers which are then enacted in future orders.

As my hon. Friends have said, part VI deals with the ring-fencing of housing revenue accounts and receipts from council housing rents to stop cross-subsidisation with the general rate account. In 1987–88, £122 million nationally went from rents into the general rates account and £382 million went in the other direction, from councils' general rate fund accounts towards keeping down rents. I am quite happy for the Government to bring in a law to stop Tory councils from making profits out of council tenants and to stop them from transferring profits from rents into the general rate accounts.

The Government have not, of course, given the major reason why rent and housing revenue accounts have been affected and why rents have doubled in the past few years. The reason is the Government's cut in rent subsidies.

The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes), whose attention I am seeking to gain, attacked cross-subsidisation and said that it represented bad running of the housing account and that it was the equivalent of milking the ratepayers.

You have been here longer than I have, Madam Deputy Speaker. You can remember that prior to this Government every Government accepted the general premise that support of the poorer sections of the community was a charge on national Governments, not on individual local authorities. It was central Government that had to bear the burden. That premise was established by the battles of councils such as Poplar, and tested in later years by Clay Cross and Liverpool.

The Bill will force councils to fund rent rebates from housing revenue accounts. In Coventry that means that two thirds of council tenants who get housing benefit will have that funded by the one third who do not get housing benefit. That will mean massive rent rises in Coventry and for 5 million council tenants nationally. Rents will rocket to such an extent that the Government's true aim in the Bill will come about and council tenants will be forced to try to buy their homes so that they may get public subsidy —that is, mortgage interest tax relief, which amounts to £5.5 billion nationally, or they will have to accept that their homes be sold to another landlord.

This is where all the legislation starts to be tied together. The Housing Act 1988, which brought in so-called tenants' choice, was extended by the Rent Office (Additional Functions) Order 1989, laid in February and debated on 21 March. It will take effect when part VI of the Bill gets Royal Assent. Part VI will force tenants to consider selling their houses to another landlord, probably a private landlord. When they do so, they will lose the protection of council rents. Their rents will become market rents. If the market rents are different from what the council's rent officer says that the council is allowed to pay, they will lose housing benefit.

I want to give a few examples. Recently we have had 300 cases in Coventry, some of them in my constituency. For a first-floor flat in Hugh road the asking rent is £35 and the market rent assessed by the council rent officer is £23. For a first-floor rear room in North street, just outside my constituency, the asking rent is £51.96 and the assessed market rent is £31. For board and lodging accommodation in Warwick road, in the constituency of the junior Education Minister, the hon. Member for Coventry, South-West (Mr. Butcher), the asking rent is £100.42 and the assessed market rent is £60.

What the 1988 Act, the rent offices order and this Bill, taken together, mean is that my council, in the last example, where the asking rent is £100.42, can claim 97 per cent. of the housing benefit from the Government on the £60 of assessed rent for which it pays housing benefit. It can claim nothing on the £40.42 of the asking rent which is above the assessed rent. The council has two choices. If it does not pay the person claiming for private accommodation the extra money, the result will be that the person will be made homeless. Let us not forget clause 138, as it was when the Bill went into Committee; it discharges all local authorities from having any duty to provide housing. People will be made homeless by the provision. The council's alternative is to pay the extra housing benefit and get nothing from the Government. What will the Minister do? What will his gaffer, who is sitting next to him, do? He will rate-cap Coventry. Coventry would be going outside the regulations. It would be paying housing benefit that the legislation says it should not pay.

I have gone into some detail on the examples because the matter has not been referred to so far in the debate. Hundreds of people in Coventry and tens of thousands nationally could be made homeless because of part VI of the Bill. Councils will not want to risk being rate-capped by the Secretary of State. The Bill does not provide for the building of more houses or for the release of houses for people to rent. It does nothing about the appalling and tragic waste of life on building sites. It is not about housing. It is about further privatisation, shoving up rents and removing the democratic rights of council workers. It is a thieves' charter. The Secretary of State is stealing the democratic rights of 70,000 council workers, and he is stealing too the housing benefit and the very accommodation of tens of thousands of tenants in council and private sector housing. The House should treat the Bill with the contempt that it deserves by kicking it out on Third Reading.

9.54 pm
Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside)

In the early hours of last Thursday I thought that the longest day had become 14 June, but as today's debate has worn on I realise that this is really the longest day of the year. Coverage of the Bill by the media last week concentrated on dog registration. Much as I have a commitment to that subject and care deeply about it, I hope that the coverage of today's proceedings by the media tomorrow, especially the BBC, which did not cover the debate last Tuesday at all in "Yesterday in Parliament", will acknowledge that what is happening to people's democratic and civil rights, to economic and industrial investment in companies, to the capital investment in our infrastructure and to rents and housing, have some importance even if those who frequent the portals of the Palace of Westminster do not always feel that those matters impinge on them immediately. One day some of those issues will catch them up.

The Minister has an ironic sense of humour which I did not know he had until we were in Committee and he started cracking little jokes. On 28 February, he said: We are introducing the Bill because of our commitment to democracy. In the same debate, he said: I am committed to local government".—[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 28 February 1989; c. 95.] In his cheeky little way, he said that again tonight—that he supports local government. Like Dracula offering a blood transfusion, he offers local government a quick way out of what was previously accepted by all parties as local democracy. The purpose of the Bill is clearly to undermine our commitment over generations to the kind of local political democratic system that people have respected.

When the Bill was first introduced, it was described as the 50th Bill dealing with one or more aspects of local government. The Government boasted that it would be their last major local government Bill. I can promise the House that local government is not dead and that it will fight back against the Bill, as it has fought every other major measure introduced by the Government. There is life there, and we shall support our colleagues in local government in retaining and maintaining their commitment to their local electorate.

Only one thread unites the disparate and miscellaneous elements—albeit they are important—encapsulated in the Bill. That is the Government's obsession with replacing representative political democracy with the laws of the market place. The Government are intent on market forces dominating all our lives. That is not the free market, but a distorted and specially manipulated market that will ensure that the Government's values and ideology are implemented in place of those decided by local people for local people. That is why we are opposing a whole range of measures in three major areas.

First, there is the restriction on basic civil democratic rights. The Government believe that we can have impartiality only if people hide their true political feelings. We believe that independence and impartiality can never be achieved by suppressing the expression of honest political opinions. Democracy can never be safeguarded by undermining basic democratic rights. If, as we said last week, those rights have to be sustained by appeal to the institutions of Europe, people will have to take that road in order to secure, as was described in the House on Monday night, the freedoms that the Government are only too prepared to take away.

It is obvious that anyone who seeks to take away the democratic rights of more than 130,000 people—the rights to speak or to canvas on behalf of a political party—cannot believe in democracy. The Government cannot take away existing rights and replace them with restrictions and at the same time claim that they believe in democracy. That is simply not possible. [Interruption.] I understand why those Conservative Members who are braying believe in doing that. If one does not believe in representative political democracy, and if the laws of the market place and the value of one's bank balance are more important than people obtaining their will through the ballot box, one will feel contempt for those institutions and practices which implement that democracy. That is why Conservative Members jeer and show contempt for such rights.

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.