HC Deb 11 December 1992 vol 215 cc1105-22

Order for Second Reading read.

9.38 am
Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe)

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

I shall tell the House why I have chosen to promote this Bill rather than one of the many other options that I had. After 18 years of balloting, I am still getting over the shock of coming first. I thought about what I could achieve and felt great joy as I did so, which was why I chose this Bill. I shall explain what the Bill is intended to achieve and how it fits in with my own political experience since I was first elected to a local authority almost 30 years ago.

The Bill gives new powers to local authorities in a rapidly changing world. It gives them powers to mobilise their expertise in the most practical and cost-effective way, to assist the people in many countries who can make best use of their undoubted qualities and inherent skills—subject to certain conditions. It is not, and it would never be, my intention to restrict or control the powers that local authorities exercise now; the purpose is to encourage a genuine sense of international interdependence, providing that the costs of such help fall on the taxpayer in general and not on local charge payers. Know-how, properly and continuously given, is at a premium if we genuinely seek to forge new alliances based on the democratic values that local and national government adhere to in this country.

The sponsors of the Bill, who come from all parties, have one thing in common: they are internationalists who recognise the importance of such links. Some of them are members of the Council of Europe, some of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, others of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, others of the all-party group on overseas development and others still of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Because of their experience in such groups, they recognise the importance of reaching out to narrow the differences in the world and to share knowledge and experience with the wider world, if we are to have any hope of defeating those who thrive on overt nationalism and ethnic differences, evidence of which is all too obvious today.

My first contact with the International Union of Local Authorities was a long way hack, in 1970 when I attended a conference in Toronto. I was a delegate representing Nottinghamshire county council—I was the chairman of its finance committee. I vividly remember the impact of our contacts and discussions at that conference. We recognised the problems that others face, the values of shared experience with developed and developing countries and the sense of a one-world community, although at that time many parts of the world were not part of that community. Still, we understood what could be achieved through contacts and knowledge.

My second relevant experience was in the early days of my second Parliament—my first had lasted only six months. As a keen European, I asked to be sent to the Council of Europe in 1974–75. I remember arriving in Paris and telling the leader of our delegation that I was a new member. He looked at me in a puzzled way, so I said, "Surely you know me, Sir John? I am a great friend of Kenneth Clarke." He said, "Well, I hope you pair with him regularly".

Shortly afterwards, I was made a member of the twinning committee. My hon. Friends who are members of that committee will know that it is part of the Council of Europe, and it is doing incredibly good work to give flags to local authorities that have shown themselves to be working for the wider European ideal. I remember being bitterly ashamed of the fact that only two applications had come in from the United Kingdom; many more had arrived from other member countries.

I remember returning from the meeting and going straight to my newly formed local authority, Broxtowe borough council, and pressing it to set up a twinning commmittee to seek links with other parts of the world. I am happy to say that that has been successfully done, the more so because it was decided to involve all parts of the community in Broxtowe. The local authority enabled others to join together. The result has been remarkable. We now have many links with Gütersloh in Germany; these include school children exchanges exchanging a bagpipe band for an oompah band, industry exchanges, fire brigades exchanges and police exchanges.

We had a moving experience on the 10th anniversary of our twinning. The German police paraded through the centre of my town beside our own policemen. In all these ways, our society has improved—in terms of knowledge, friendships and many other benefits.

I am glad to say that twinning has become far more extensive in western Europe, particularly among the more enlightened authorities. Many of them have links with eastern Europe and Africa. My right hon. Friend Baroness Chalker has encouraged this, as has the International Union of Local Authorities. The practice is criticised only by those who cannot comprehend the value to local interests of wider experiences and contacts. There are now more than 1,600 such links between this country and the wider world; and I have already said that it is essential that linking should go on between whole communities, not just local authorities.

I have had a great deal to do with the Foreign Affairs Committee. We have travelled widely and, together with the all-party group, we have twice promoted the one-world programme across Europe, linking north and south under the slogan, "Think globally, act locally". With the considerable help of the BBC, Channel 4 and others, in 1988 and again last year, we promoted the idea of the global village—of common values and of the great importance of an interdependent world.

I realised that the natural extension for me of such activities was the necessity for technical exchange, brought so sharply into focus by the end of the Soviet domination of central and eastern Europe. Countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania exhibited a desperate need to establish democratic local government, as did the Commonwealth of Independent States. The need to provide these countries with services never before sought was being hampered, despite the availability of money from the Foreign Office in the shape of the know-how funds. That enlightened policy of assistance was being hampered by a lack of legal clarity. It seemed that a private Member's Bill was needed to provide the relevant statutory powers.

So it was that I naturally used my number one position in the ballot to further this desirable aim. Local authorities have a vast fund of experience which is directly relevant. Previous contacts through twinning are helpful, certainly, but not essential. What is essential is subsequent continuity; local authorities can maintain contact and establish personal relationships based on trust. They can thus build a more meaningful human bridge from which both partners benefit.

If an initiative is begun with a local authority in another country it is possible to return and offer assistance when problems arise. Officers can go on exchanges, people from the other local authority can be brought over to look at the next stage of a project. That is a far surer way of delivering the necessary assistance.

Despite using examples taken solely from eastern Europe, I have no wish to place any geographical limitations on this scheme. As other parts of the world seek help through other agencies—the Overseas Development Administration, European development funding or United Nations bodies—the same ability to twin in a technical sense would be covered by the Bill.

I have a special sympathy for many countries in Africa. Ethiopia has been ravaged by war, tragedy and famine for a long time, but it now has an interim Government trying to do the right thing by their inhabitants, but desperately in need of know-how. The establishment of a know-how fund specifically to help that country is precisely the right way to mobilise the expertise of local authorities. That can link the major towns in Ethiopia and reach out to establish the essential fabric of democracy and service. The same applies to Mozambique, Angola and the black townships of South Africa where there is a desperate need for expertise and know-how.

When looking for flesh and blood examples to bring the matter into focus, one looks first at one's own locality. My county council has had links with Poland and Czechoslovakia which pre-date the overflow of communism. Those friendship links have given us a clear understanding of the needs and economies of cities such as Poznan in Poland or Kolin in Czechoslovakia. As a result of that knowledge, Nottinghamshire county council pressed for part of the Government's know-how fund to be specially earmarked for local authority technical links. When the scheme was established, the council bid successfully for three projects.

Kolin was assisted with local government structures and economic development. Kolin is a large town, but it is too small to market itself effectively and resource itself adequately to provide the range of economic development services that are provided in a county such as Nottinghamshire, which has been a catalyst in bringing together Kolin and its neighbours in mid Bohemia. It has provided advice for the provision of an economic development strategy and that project is proceeding.

Kolin is ringed by chemical plants, and we are all aware of chemical tragedies that have occurred in different parts of the world. An accident at one of those plants could have serious consequences and set back the recovery of the town. Nottinghamshire county council reviewed the fire service provision and paid particular attention to fire prevention and minimising fire risk. As a result, the Czech authorities have adopted Kolin as a model of good practice for their country. The project is still under way and a positive side benefit is business for manufacturers and traders in fire-fighting equipment.

We understand that, following a visit to the Home Office by Mr. Zeman, Czechoslovakia's Vice-Minister for the Interior, and Kolin's chief fire officer, the British model for national and local management operation and control of the fire service is likely to be adopted for the whole of Czechoslovakia. That is expected to result in further consultancy work for United Kingdom institutions, especially the Fire Service College at Moreton-in-Marsh.

The scheme in Ponzan is dealing with waste disposal and economic development. Any successful economy needs to remove its waste cleanly and effectively, and the shared experience of Nottinghamshire and Poznan is developing best practice. One of the ironies about so much of eastern Europe's centrally planned economy was that it did not provide very well for waste disposal, and pollution is now a serious problem in many parts of eastern Germany and central Europe.

Energy conservation and economic development are also being promoted in Poznan. In theory, the market economy should rationalise the consumption of scarce resources. However, even in western economies the market is distorted, especially in energy. Nottinghamshire county council has won many awards for its energy conservation schemes and achievements and has been asked by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to undertake this fourth know-how project. I could continue to speak about my county, but I should like to enlarge the debate.

Under the existing scheme, Bradford is represented in Czechoslovakia. Doncaster, Hull, Dorset, Berkshire, Scunthorpe and Southampton are all working in Poland. Hungary has schemes from Croydon, Chorley and Kent. In the Ukraine, Peterborough, Brighton and Barnsley are represented. Dartford is represented in Estonia and Islington is working in Budapest. St. Helens is linked with Vybong. The great benefit of those schemes is the relatively low cost, but the assistance and add-on value from the know-how transfer is almost immeasurable.

In drafting the Bill, I made every effort to consult and to carry the local authorities and their associations with me. I have tried hard to overcome any suspicion by local authorities that part of the Bill requires the Secretary of State's consent. There have been several drafts of the Bill. It is so simple and small that it should have gold edges to maximise its importance. Consultations continue and we are willing to consider helpful and meaningful amendments.

I am confident that changes in the Bill in the use of general consent procedures and de minimis provisions will not in any way hamper those local authorities that see real value in participating in this wide-ranging and important scheme. The Bill has had to have its scope widened to cover joint authorities such as fire, police, waste disposal and passenger transport. We have considered especially the request of the local authority associations to provide assistance to bodies in other countries that cover the same functions and services as United Kingdom local authorities. Therefore, there is no way in which we can minimise the ability to transfer.

I am delighted at the evidence of good will on all sides. My sponsors include Members of all the major parties and I understand that the Opposition support the Bill. I welcome that. Local government and those of us who are involved in it provides the genuine sinews of democracy. The partnership of local and central government, coupled with European initiatives and United Nations schemes, provides the warp and weft of a civilised society. We see at present the result of breakdown in society and the suffering that ensues for those who have no power to prevent it. That can happen in the heart of Europe, as much as in the wider lands of Africa.

By passing the Bill and showing a better way, the House will light thousands of candles. That will bring people together in service to their fellow citizens, which is the motivation of most hon. Members.

9.57 am
Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) on his success in the ballot. My hon. Friend's shock at winning is matched only by my shock at being called so early in the debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on rejecting more glamorous alternatives. His Bill could be described as technical, but it is important and has major ramifications for local authorities in Britain and those abroad which will be able to be assisted more by its provisions.

I have two main reasons for strongly supporting the Bill. First, it corrects an apparent ambiguity in the present law governing local authorities. Secondly, it will bring to greater public knowledge the possibilities that it contains. It will draw attention to the importance of the technical twinning scheme and to other ways in which local authorities in this country can benefit those abroad. I therefore welcome the publicity that will flow from the Bill's introducion.

Local government has a significant role to play in assisting development in other countries, and such work is particularly important in eastern Europe at this time. I cannot stress too much the importance of Britain and other countries in the west supporting the reform process in eastern Europe. One might ask why it is particularly important to support eastern Europe. After all, it does not provide our immediate neighbours and, to some in Britain, the countries of eastern Europe might seem almost irrelevant.

There are a number of reasons. There are simple reasons of national interest. It is undoubtedly in the interests of the people of this country to help to foster stable and friendly political institutions in eastern Europe. That has not always been the case. In fact, until recently one could describe the systems of such countries as stable up to a point, but distinctly unfriendly.

An even more dangerous possibility looms ever-present today—that of countries having political systems that are both unstable and unfriendly, and therefore highly unpredictable in their political and military development. To the extent that local authorities and other institutions in Britain can help the development of stability and of democratic processes in such countries, that is broadly to be welcomed.

A second form of development that could be described as being in our national interest, as well as in the interest of those other countries, is economic development. The more that countries in eastern Europe and elsewhere in the world can be encouraged to develop economically, and the more that we help in that process, the more the economy of the whole world will benefit—and that will benefit this country, particularly as our nation is so dependent on trade.

There is also the motivation of supporting in idealistic terms the development of democratic structures. They cannot be imposed from above but must develop from below, and they cannot just rest on undemocratic structures that are at the centre of a nation—the state structures—but must develop equally at a grassroots level. We would describe that as the local authority level. Whatever term or description one uses, they are those structures that serve the local provision of services to people in towns and villages throughout the world.

The development of that process can be underpinned and perhaps will develop specifically from know-how, human resources and expertise. We all know that many countries in the world, particularly those in eastern Europe, are desperately short of know-how and expertise. That is where we can provide immeasurable support.

The cost challenge of development in eastern Europe will be immense, and it would be unrealistic to imagine that this country alone could make such a significant contribution that a major part of the problem could be overcome by us alone. There are limited possibilities, purely because of the vastness of the problem. It is only right that international institutions should seek to give assistance. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the PHARE scheme will tackle some of the major problems of debt and investment.

The Government know-how fund, which I have always warmly welcomed—I believe that it contributes greatly to helping and developing eastern Europe—is specifically designed to support human resources, technical know-how and training. That can be matched most effectively at local level, through the technical twinning scheme. The scheme was small when it was started, but it has proved to be so successful and has contributed in such a uniquely useful way that it has grown fast. A number of go-ahead local authorities, some of which my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe mentioned, have already contributed a great deal and have shown the worth of that scheme.

My own local authority, Bromley, has knowledge and expertise, matched by many others in the country, which could be of practical help in, for example, waste disposal—which may be mundane, but it is important—and the way in which the police force deals with local problems. That is something in which police forces in eastern Europe have hitherto, perhaps, not been very skilled, or have not attempted.

There is also organisational, structural change—such as privatisation. In many eastern European countries, privatisation is a driving ideal after the experience of past decades. It is something which many local authorities in this country have also seen as new. It poses many challenges that have been successfully tackled by several leading local authorities in Britain.

Recently, my own local authority effectively privatised its housing stock—at least, through a complicated process, the housing has passed out of direct local authority control in its entirety. Perhaps a better example is what is being done with direct labour forces—which could certainly be matched in eastern Europe. Much of the expertise acquired in this country could be used to great effect abroad.

The Bill will encourage all those possibilities and the ideal of the further technical links that are so important. The earlier processes attempted in Britain hit snags. In many senses, they were technical snags. They were not problems with the application of the idea so much as with the ultra vires nature of the powers used. In fact, a number of district auditors—and more recently the Audit Commission—questioned the validity of local authority involvement in technical twinning schemes. The Bill therefore plays an important part in sorting out that dilemma and anomaly. I welcome that, because for a local authority to operate effectively, its powers and responsibilities, and the legal basis of them, must be clear.

To rely simply on section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972, as has been done in the past, to promote areas of spending and activity not encompassed by other areas of the law could be rather dangerous. That apart, it is quite controversial. During the 1984 miners' dispute, a number of local authorities sought, in their wisdom, to use their finances and resources to support various aspects of the miners' strike. They did so amid great controversy and widespread opposition from their ratepayers, because in many cases the authorities did not have any direct link with the dispute or mining, or have any mines in their areas. That put local government in bad repute. It will be much better to have a law that clearly defines, in simple and direct language, as the Bill does, what may or may not be done. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe on the way in which his Bill has been drafted.

It is the best sort of Bill. It is brief—which is certainly to be welcomed, clear, and simple in its objective. It will benefit both the providers—local authorities in this country—and the recipients, the local authorities in other countries that need our support and help so desperately.

10.9 am

Sir Paul Beresford (Croydon, Central)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) on the Bill. I have considerable experience of local government. My authority, Croydon, was mentioned earlier; I know that the current restrictions have inhibited it drastically, preventing help from reaching eastern Europe and other countries all over the world. The clarification provided by the Bill is very welcome, for a number of reasons.

As a member of a local authority, I have had to run around using the Local Government Act 1972 as a sort of cover in my attempt to assist overseas countries. The provision of expertise has been inhibited by the lack of available personnel for the task. Assistance is also needed within this country, for instance with the selling of contracts. I am thinking in particular of Wandsworth selling to Lambeth. In that instance, twinning, was obviously not desirable. Having bought the contract and the software, Lambeth had some difficulty in understanding the details and putting them into action; every other council in the country managed, but someone murmured something about difficulty with joined-up writing.

Particular emphasis has been placed on this subject since we began helping eastern European countries. It is important that the right expertise reaches developing countries. This has, of course, happened before, within the restrictions imposed by the current legislation. My personal experience of trying to help such countries as Russia—Moscow in particular—and Poland, especially Warsaw and Gdansk, has shown me the appalling lack of even basic local government structures in those countries. There is no simple, fundamental planning: they have no structure, no understanding of such matters, and they do not know where to go. Housing is an example of that. I was told by Moscow's deputy mayor that Russia had no banks or building societies to speak of; everywhere flats were in a poor state of repair; people wanted to purchase their homes, but they could not do so because they did not understand the procedures involved. Basic amenities that are taken for granted even by school children in this country were not available.

I realise, of course, that the main problem is the different system that operates in such countries, but they are trying to break out of that system—for instance, through use of the private sector. They are seeking to follow the example set by many local authorities in this country to obtain a better service, at a competitive cost, for the people whom they serve.

When I worked for Wandsworth council, I found it impossible to help a number of countries—apart from Russia and Poland, which I have already mentioned. We were unable to help Latvia and Estonia, for example, because of the restrictions imposed by the current legal framework; we were forced to resort to section 176 of the Local Government Act 1972, which involved the mayor and other leading council members and came under the general heading of official courtesy. Sending officials to Latvia and Estonia stretched the regulations somewhat.

Bridges between this country and eastern Europe can be built by forming links with British businesses. Opportunities are being sought but not fulfilled, and local government in this country may have to act as a catalyst, introducing services of a reasonable quality to the countries concerned and also bringing in useful foreign currency. In this connection, not only eastern Europe but Africa is relevant. Because of the restrictions that I have mentioned, Wandsworth council was forced to turn down invitations to visit Ghana and Tanzania and provide expertise, particularly private-sector expertise.

What has not yet been mentioned is the opportunity for British local government to earn money overseas. That opportunity is, of course, limited by the current legislation, but the Bill would largely overcome the problem. South Africa, which has sent two delegations to Wandsworth, is now trying to introduce competitive tendering to help the black community and the smallest businesses to provide local government services, and to overcome its current difficulties.

Wandsworth has had some intriguing contacts. New York, for instance, has asked for help with competitive tendering and privatisation, as have a number of other American states. Both New York and Hong Kong have sought information on housing management; Paris has asked for help with local government management and competitive tendering. The front-line competitive tendering council in France—Reims—is now using contracts sold to it by Wandsworth council, which is earning a few francs for this country. The story is the same in Canada, Australia and New Zealand: they are using competitive tendering and working with the private sector, and contracts are being sold.

It is interesting to return to some of those countries and find the contractors working as consultants, taking local government contracts and specifications from this country, attaching their own names and selling them. Fortunately, most of the countries concerned recognise that the contracts originated here: they return to this country, and further income is generated.

Japan and Taiwan are two more examples of countries that seek not only help with privatisation, but the expertise that we can offer in relation to local government management of computer systems. Norway and Sweden are doing the same. Commercial organisations outside local government are also seeking assistance: they have visited this country, and have invited local authority members and officers to go to their countries and provide expertise. The Bill will enable us not only to help eastern Europe, but to expand and bring ourselves extra income.

On the tube on the way here, I made a rough calculation of Wandsworth council's earnings last year as a result of its efforts in this regard. Operating under the existing restrictions, it probably made over £100,000; and, of course, it levies no community charge.

I have some qualms—although I am open to reassurance—about the possibility of flagrant junketing on the council tax. "Junketing" was the word used by a Labour member of Wandsworth council. Back in the days of the GLC, there was junketing on the rates: the GLC provided facilities for a small minority group of what were described as anti-racist Maoris from New Zealand. I could not see those people as distinguished members of any community. They had been rejected by the Maori community in New Zealand and by New Zealand local government, and had come here to find a home. The GLC met their need.

I hope that the Bill will put an end to such abuses. With a bit of luck, we may receive some advice later from our poacher turned gamekeeper.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I cannot recall the example that the hon. Gentleman gave, but I shall assume that it is accurate. He called it an abuse. I assume that, by that, he means an abuse in the sense that he disagreed with it, rather than an abuse of any legal powers that the Greater London council then had.

Sir Paul Beresford

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his suggestion, but I made an objection because I felt that it was an abuse of the law as it stood. It was not questioned; it was not presented to the auditor, for it was too insignificant to bother with. Nevertheless, it was an example. I could see no way in which we could call these visitors distinguished visitors. They were not entertained by the leader of the council, although that might nominally have been so. It was an insult to a country that is extremely friendly and has very close links with this country. It was also an insult to the Maori people of New Zealand.

Mr. Tony Banks

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for interrupting his speech again. I shall not enter into an argument about the points he has made. If necessary, I shall have the opportunity to do so later. I cannot, however, let him get away with saying that he thought that it was an abuse of the law. He knows that a legal opinion would have been given to the local authority by its officers with regard to any such proposal, They are sensitive to any matters that involve overseas expenditure. In the circumstances, the hon. Gentleman cannot suggest that the officers of the GLC connived with law breaking. I ask him to think very carefully about that and to withdraw what he said.

Sir Paul Beresford

I am raising a question rather than an allegation. It is an example that we need to bear in mind. I am sure that we shall receive assistance from the hon. Gentleman—as I have already said, a poacher turned gamekeeper—to ensure that the Bill covers that difficulty and makes certain that it does not arise again.

The Bill provides the opportunity for an overdue clarification of an extremely difficult area. Local government expertise could be paid for by the various bodies that are already waiting to take advantage of it. It also provides an opportunity to attract considerable income from overseas to this country. If one small council can earn more than £100,000 a year, the potential, if we multiply that sum by the 650 other councils in England and Wales, is considerable.

10.21 am
Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

I join others in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) for introducing the Bill. It is a worthy Bill and typical of my hon. Friend, in that it seeks to do good rather than to grab the quick headline. I applaud him for his approach. He and I were parliamentary neighbours in the 1983 to 1987 Parliament. At the time, I had the constituency of Nottingham, North. We fought together for the establishment of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers; we may hear more about that in the new year.

I am pleased to support the Bill. Frankly, I am astonished to find that it is necessary. I have no experience of local government—I bow to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford) and to other hon. Friends with local government experience—but the fact that the Bill is necessary makes it clear to me that the loophole must be removed. When we look back at the battles of the past decade between central Government and local government, we find that it remains as important now as it was then that local government should remain a pure creature of statute and that its powers should be clearly defined.

We live in a fast-moving world where the instant conveyance of communication has become part of everyday life. During his retirement speech, Ronald Reagan pulled out of his pocket a micro chip and said that it had done more for the progress of the world than he or any other politician had done. The instant communication of information is very much a part of the Bill.

As we seek to maintain our standing in the world and to influence progress in the world, we have to move forward just to stand still. I take my hat off to the progress made by the BBC world service in that respect, particularly its television service in Asia and Africa, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe alluded. Perhaps I may be allowed to digress for a moment to say that I hope that the BBC world service will not suffer as the debate on the future of the BBC continues next year.

We must seek to influence world events by allowing local authorities to pass on their advice and expertise. We must also remove any doubts that have been raised by the Bill. I became convinced in my youth of the need for educational exchanges. My father was the founder of the veterinary school at Bristol university, which now has an international reputation. It was the twinning of Bristol and Hanover that led to his invitation to lead a team of young veterinary surgeons to Germany in the post-war years. I accompanied him on one of those trips in the 1960s. I listened to my father, this mild and intelligent man, speaking in fluent German to those German students, impressing on them the need for an understanding of animals and referring to the anatomy of the horse, as envisaged by the artist Stubbs. As I did so, it became clear to me why there should be a consensus for peace. That consensus has lasted for nearly five decades. I hope that it will continue for at least another five decades. Cultural and educational exchanges are important to that peace.

I am concerned about the fact that local authorities face the threat of judicial review when they may have exceeded their powers. The ultra vires rule is essential. It provides a remedy against the abuse of power by local authorities. I was surprised that the inquiry's report into the Western Isles investment in BCCI proposed the scrapping of the ultra vires rule. I am pleased that the Audit Commission opposed the suggestion, as do I. That makes the Bill essential.

I am pleased that the scope of the Bill is global. I was also pleased to hear my hon. Friend say that that was his intention. He, too, will no doubt have an interest in Africa, particularly its population and development. I hope that some of the educational advantages that may flow from the passage of the Bill will address the population issue in both Africa and Asia, where assistance is needed.

The Bill is primarily targeted on eastern Europe. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) mentioned, the end of the cold war has brought about a new era in international relations in eastern Europe. But it is a fragile era and the events of recent weeks suggest that it is becoming even more fragile as backward steps are taken in eastern Europe. Every effort must be made by the House and the Government to bridge the gap between east and west. We must try to convey the ideas of innovation and the culture of the west, which have succeeded so well in recent years. An important element in building bridges with eastern Europe is the establishment by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of a know-how fund to convey our ideas to that part of the world.

I understand that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has agreed to revise the technical links scheme to cover the agreed costs of technical twinning projects. There are two views of twinning. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central mentioned the first view—junketing. Any twinning arrangement must have a sound and economic purpose. No one would support junketing of any kind. I do not want to enter into a discussion with the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) about what that might include.

The second view of twinning is the concept that we are addressing today: partnership between local authorities and the wider community. My borough of Croydon has forged such a link. In the post-war years it established the Croydon-Arnhem link. It was founded in 1946 by a Dutch journalist, Albert Milhardo, with the late Group Captain Cummings of Croydon and Alderman Lewis.

Initially it was a sporting exchange, fostered by a cup donated by the local newspaper, the Croydon Advertiser. Since the establishment of the link, 3,000 people have been to Arnhem, exchanging cultural, artistic and sporting views. The link has developed in a way that all would applaud. We have seen exchanges of the Multiple Sclerosis Society, and now the police are considering an exchange. Most important, in 1988 it moved from being a cultural relationship to a commercial one when we had the Arnhem cultural and commercial week. That was a great success, with exhibitions in the Whitgift school promoting the relationship.

The end of the year will see the establishment of the single market, which will provide a further incentive to explore the potential of twinning for the promotion of economic development. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central mentioned waste disposal information as the sort of area that can be developed during the expansion of the single market.

Perhaps surprisingly, I use the borough of Chorley as an excellent example of the type of exchange that will flow from the Bill. In 1990, Chorley established links with a Hungarian town called Szekesferhervar—I will let the Hansard reporter have a note of that later. Hungary is one of the most progressive countries in eastern Europe and the town to which I have just referred is 35 miles outside Budapest. It is an important production centre which has the largest aluminium processing plant in central Europe. Through the British ambassador, it conveyed the fact that it wanted cultural and educational connections as well as commercial and economic connections. It wanted to stress the economic side of any proposed links and settled on Chorley.

Chorley has a number of empty mills and has developed technology for incubation houses for hens. Outside the town there are many empty barracks, which, I am pleased to report to the House, are now filled with incubation units. That is a fairly humorous but excellent example of the transfer of technology. Such nuts and bolts technology at local level—or should I call it chicken and egg technology?—is so important.

Mr. Merchant

Will my hon. Friend use this opportunity to stress the provisions of clause 1(5), which ensures that the cost of such measures will be paid not by local authorities or residents but by the Government through the know-how fund and other sources?

Mr. Ottaway

I cannot confirm that, but if my hon. Friend says that that is the case I am sure that it is, which makes the Bill all the more important.

That transfer of nuts and bolts technology and advice is important and is at the heart of the Bill, which is why I support it.

10.33 am
Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

Like my colleagues, I should like to tip my hat to my very hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester). I remember from my earliest days in the House that he established with me his interest in foreign affairs when we were joint members of an Inter-Parliamentary Union team to Tanzania, where the need for legislation such as the Bill to improve local government became apparent many years ago.

For a long time I have supported the Government's activities through the know-how fund and have urged on them and other Governments of the western world some form of Strasbourg plan akin to the Marshall plan. I still feel that there is room for vast improvement in the amount of financial and know-how assistance that we give to the developing countries of eastern and central Europe as they struggle from being directed communist dictatorships into something approaching what we termed until recently a western economy and method of government.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), I am no expert on local government—we stand in stark comparison with my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford) or my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe. I have had some experience in recent years, as a member of the United Kingdom delegation to the Council of Europe, of the evolutionary process through which the central and eastern European countries are going. Later today, I am pleased to say, a visiting member of the Lithuanian Parliament is coming to my constituency to see how things work at the consistency level. It will be interesting to hear that representative's reaction to our debate.

There is hardly an area of governmental activity or life that local government does not touch on directly, so the Bill will help those evolving states. The movement from the centrally directed planned structure of the communist world to the western approach cannot but be helped by the establishment of local structure plans, local development plans, local environmental health systems, the building of local roads and even the provision of local housing. I say "even the provision" because we are moving on from the method whereby local government provides all local housing—a welcome step which perhaps can be adopted by the developing countries.

In introducing the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe briefly mentioned policing and the way in which he has established contact between his local police authority and a local police force and opposite numbers on the continent. There must be far more room for such contacts and such cross-learning, not confined merely to police forces and activities but including the broader concept of civil defence and the emergency services such as the fire services.

Personal services are being slowly introduced in all the developing countries of western and central Europe at enormous cost. One of the greatest difficulties that they have to overcome is the introduction of the concept of individual responsibility and the Government providing only the backdrop or safety net, such as we have in Britain, to enable individuals increasingly to look after themselves and their own families. It is crucial, therefore, that local authorities in those countries—town, village or some form of geographical area wider than that—can understand how they should structure local health administration, the provision of social services, the administration of social benefits and, looking to the future as, excitingly, those countries always are, the provision of ever better education to the young people who must grow up in a developing and changed world from that in which their parents grew up.

I remember visiting a hospital outside Prague and meeting a distinguished recorder; I think that his title was administrator of the local hospital. He was most apologetic for speaking such bad English, yet he spoke perfect English even though he had not spoken it for 40 years. He spoke to a group in impeccable English about not only general subjects of interest but specific and technical subjects of medical achievement. I remember asking him what we as politicians, with no great power but a little influence, could do to help him perform even better with his basic materials and hospital plant. He immediately said that if only he could be a regular reader of the British Medical Journal it would make all the difference in the world to him.

In the lowest level, know-how fund way, I spoke to a constituent who is a retired doctor but who still skims through that journal to keep up to date. From that moment to this, the retired doctor, instead of throwing away his copy, has forwarded it to the doctor in the hospital outside Prague. I hope that it is helping, even if in the simplest but inter-human way, to apply the know-how fund principle of assistance to the doctor and his colleagues who, I am sure, are benefiting.

That is an example of the personal side, but there is a hard-edged financial administrative side with which we can also be of assistance and on which the Bill would make it possible to give better assistance to evolving local authorities. Examples include the problems of how best to raise local revenue and, having raised it, how best to spend it; how to apply expenditure planning not only for the current year but for the future; how to establish budgetary responsibility and how to react properly to budgetary accountability.

We tend to take such ideas for granted, except in our more acid debates in the House or at local government level. We and most countries of the western world regard them as an accepted way of life, but, goodness gracious, that is certainly not so for evolving local authority organisations in central and eastern Europe.

Like other hon. Members, I have accented the way in which the Bill would assist people in evolving states in central and eastern Europe because of the extreme importance of their correct and proper evolution into democratic and economic freedom. They are part of our continent, but one must not overlook the parallel needs of other parts of the world, such as Africa and elsewhere, which are passing through dissimilar but equally pressing difficulties.

We are part of Europe and, as the Prime Minister said, we must be at the heart of Europe. It is appropriate that, as the future of Europe is being discussed this very day in Edinburgh, we are discussing ways in which we can help the future of local communities, towns, villages and whole areas in the evolving parts of Europe to become the free association of peoples which we wish to encourage.

I close by complimenting my very hon. Friend the hon. Member for Broxtowe on the Bill. I wish it well on Second Reading and through its later stages in the House and in another place.

10.43 am
Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

I also warmly welcome the Bill and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) on his good fortune. The Bill will legislate for much of what has been happening for a long time—the provision of assistance in so many ways by British local government officers and authorities for so many people elsewhere in the world.

I share the experience and conclusion of my hon. Friend and several other hon. Members, which is that British local government is widely regarded as pre-eminent throughout the world. Today, international demand for its advice and the benefit of its long experience is becoming almost overwhelming with the unprecedented establishment of so many new democracies following the collapse of communism in eastern Europe and the end of Soviet influence throughout the world. British pre-eminence in that respect is seen especially in the demand for impartial, objective and, above all, experienced advisers and observers during the holding of free and democratic elections. I am sure that it is such advice and assistance in the electoral process which my hon. Friend had in mind as one of the aims of his excellent Bill.

A growing number of hon. Members have been observing such elections in recent years. I did so in Nicaragua in 1990 with my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris), now the Minister for Transport in London. I also observed the Turkish referendum for the new constitution in 1982 and the peace processes in Angola, Namibia and Nepal as well as those in many of the countries that were formerly part of the Soviet empire in Europe.

The lesson of those and many other elections being held for the first time in many countries—especially those being held in nations that we still regard as rather primitive—is that to observe polling day itself does not provide a sufficient basis on which to judge whether the elections are free and fair. The entire period of the campaign must be observed to enable us to determine whether the election is free—for example, whether it is free of one party's domination of the media, free of any threats and intimidation in advance of polling day and free of the monopoly of the resources and assets of the former dominant party, usually the Communist party. That can take several weeks, which is an impossible time for us parliamentarians to spend.

In such circumstances, experienced British local government officers can make a crucial difference by advising, as well as monitoring whether a country has held free and fair elections and therefore qualifies as a democracy.

I am extremely privileged to hold one of the most exciting jobs in Europe, that of the chairman of the Council of Europe's committee for relations with European non-member countries. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) was until recently a very valuable member of the committee, which is responsible for dealing with the applications of all the newly independent states of central and eastern Europe to become full members of our parliamentary assembly.

In order to qualify, a country must satisfy our standards for multi-party pluralist democracy and abide by the rule of law on human rights as we define it under the European convention on human rights. It must have its laws and constitution analysed in depth by a member of the European Court and the European Commission and to have had fully observed free and fair elections.

To date, four countries—Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria—have become full members of the Council of Europe since the peoples' revolutions of 1989. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes was the rapporteur for Bulgaria's application for full membership and he did an excellent job. We have offered special guest status to a further 10 countries in recognition of their clear commitment to economic and political reform. That status enables them to send parliamentary delegations to Strasbourg, but not, of course, to vote. The special guest status countries are the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the three Slavic states of the former Soviet Union—Russia, Ukraine, Belarus—and the four Balkan states of Slovenia, Romania, Albania and Moldova. We hope that as Slovenia and Lithuania have held free and fair elections, they will become full members by February's part-session of the Council of Europe.

That leaves four other countries whose applications we are now considering. They are the two Caucasian states of Armenia and Azaberbaijan, and two other Balkan states—Croatia and Macedonia. Two other countries that clearly have not even got around to applying for special guest status at the Council of Europe because of their other preoccupations are Bosnia and Georgia, where there are civil wars. The Council does not want to know the new Yugoslavia of Serbia-Montenegro, in view of the clear denial of human rights for which they are responsible.

There are then the five Asian republics of the former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. They are countries with which hon. Members will be familiar, as they are with the pronunciation of their names. They are not part of the European continent, so they do not qualify as members of the Council of Europe although they were part of the Council of Europe when the Soviet Union had special guest status there. We are discussing the possibility of consultation agreements with them because it is important that our European heritage and all the standards we seek to uphold in democracy not only at national level, but at local level, should be encouraged in those countries.

Those countries are increasingly coming under pressure from one of the most fundamental Islamic influences to the south, which is very worrying. There is civil war in Tajikistan and in Uzbekistan between the democrats and Islamic fundamentalists. There is also the influence from the east of the last remaining evil empire—communist China.

The 10 special guest countries in the Council of Europe have access to all the collective expertise, advice and assistance acquired by member states of the Council of Europe. The Bill can only enhance that for local democracy.

I am glad that the local government side of the Council of Europe, the conference of local and regional authorities in Europe, is reforming itself into two representative bodies so that it can respond more effectively to the growing trend towards regional government in central and eastern Europe and so that it can give practical implementation to the well-known principle of subsidiarity, which I hope is very much on the agenda in Edinburgh today, on which the European charter of local self-government is based.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) and others have mentioned, the emerging democracies can benefit from the European Community's PHARE programme as well as from the know-how funds provided by this country and others. They can also benefit from the town twinning arrangements to which my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe referred. Those arrangements can do so much to increase knowledge and understanding between communities.

For those important reasons, the Bill is timely in encouraging British local government expertise to be more available. In so doing, it will help the new local democracies to survive the inevitable backlash arid disillusionment throughout the former Soviet empire in central and eastern Europe as people find that freedom does not bring instant democracy.

A document published this year by the Council of Europe illustrates perfectly the benefits and help that the Bill could bring to the emerging democracies. The document is a handbook for observers of local or national elections in emerging democracies. It is a veritable checklist of the basic rules to be followed by the teams responsible for advising on and monitoring free elections.

It lists the tasks to be undertaken in the run-up to polling day, on polling day itself, at the count and in the process of reporting back on the outcome of the election.

I mention the handbook especially because it was prepared by Mr. Keith Lomas who, until earlier this year, was the town clerk and chief executive of my borough of Bournemouth. The book is based on his considerable experience of having helped to organise the independence elections in Rhodesia, where he was based for three months, under the late Lord Soames in 1980. More recently he monitored the elections in Romania and Namibia on behalf of the United Nations. I am pleased to have the opportunity to pay tribute in the House to Keith Lomas and to his 20 years of dedicated service in the borough of Bournemouth. He has the British local government experience whose spread the Bill seeks to encourage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe referred to the help that his local fire service is providing in eastern Europe. I cite another example of a constituent of mine who is an officer in the Dorset fire service. He has been seconded by the Home Office to British dependencies in the Caribbean where he is to report on the efficiency of the local fire services on the islands. His report could be very revealing. There is no fire cover there because, in practice, there is no emergency fire service. The inhabitants of the islands are at total risk, as are all visitors and tourists who use the hotels, the public buildings and the tourist complexes. There is wide scope for further assistance to establish effective emergency fire cover for those for whom this country continues to have a responsibility. Such assistance could be provided under the Bill.

I very much hope that the Bill will be given a clear passage through the House and that the Government will give it full support. I look forward to the response by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment. There has never been a better time, since the establishment of our second empire one and a half centuries ago, for British local government to be a force for good local government throughout the world. There is great respect and a great demand for such a force. I hope that the Bill is given a clear passage through the House. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe on his good fortune and on his foresight.

10.56 am
Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

It seems that there will be a commercial break shortly after I begin my speech. I reiterate the thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) for introducing the Bill. It must be extremely tempting for an hon. Member who comes top of the ballot for private Members' Bills to go for something glamorous and to hit the headlines—although the experience of so many colleagues who have hit the headlines in the past couple of days may be a good reason for going for a discreet and timely measure.

One of the main reasons why I fully support the Bill was explained by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford). It is worrying to many of us that those who work in local democracy who want to help those outside their own immediate area by giving them expertise should be dissuaded from doing so by the current law. It is a matter of urgency that the House should change the law, because it cannot be right for us to expect those who want to help to cower, hoping that they will not be picked up under existing legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central, who is not here now, raised an important point.

There will always be those who ask why we should give such help in the first place. I am sure that all hon. Members who have travelled not only in the emerging countries of eastern Europe, but in the member countries of the Commonwealth and in other third-world countries will be only too well aware from their own experience why the Bill is needed. We need to help countries such as Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, which I have visited, and the countries of Africa such as Kenya, which I have also had the pleasure of visiting.

The town of Nailsey in my constituency was one of the first to twin with an east European town—Chrzanow in Poland, which is considerably easier to pronounce than some of those mentioned by my hon. Friends.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East mentioned some of the important respects in which our friends in eastern Europe are under-privileged, but perhaps it is the small things—the anecdotal evidence—that bring the point home to us. We all take for granted the facilities provided at hotels, including the sweets sitting on the reception table. While I was staying at a hotel in Prague, I watched with some amusement as two children, who had been standing outside waiting their chance, dashed through the revolving doors, picked up a bag of sweets and ran away along the nearest escape route. That sad story brings home the fact that people in eastern Europe do not even enjoy the minor privileges that we in the United Kingdom take for granted. The children were forced to stand there like little vultures.

It being Eleven o'clock, MADAM SPEAKER interrupted the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 11 (Friday sittings).

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