§ 10.2 am
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 16 at end insert—'(3A) The power in subsection (1) above shall not restrict the use of any other statutory provision under which a local authority may provide information to and may undertake activities with local government and other bodies outside the United Kingdom.'.The Bill had a constructive Committee stage. It was one of those rare parliamentary occasions when much co-operation and light, instead of heat, was exchanged. I do not think that the Report stage should delay us too much. However, I want further assurances from the Minister and the Bill's promoter, the hon. Member for Broxstowe (Mr. Lester), who is to be congratulated on introducing the Bill and steering it thus far.
Amendment No. 2 ensures that the new power is to be without prejudice to the existing powers. It raises an issue of considerable concern to practitioners in the overseas section of local government and is arguably the most important of the amendments. It would ensure that the creation of the new power—which we all welcome—does not close off the possibility of using other powers of a more general nature which may have been available to local government.
Local authorities have had to be inventive in the past in making use of general or discretionary powers when undertaking overseas assistance. They have also been exceedingly inventive in using those powers for domestic arrangements. They have been innovators and have sought to push forward work that has now gained wide official approval, using powers such as section 137—as amended—and section 142, on the powers to give information, of the Local Government Act 1972. The reason for the Bill is that, in the past, the Audit Commission has been concerned that no distinctive power existed. It rapidly became clear that a gap existed in the law, which the Bill seeks to fill.
It would be unfortunate if existing schemes and activities were disrupted by legal advice to local authorities to the effect that such work should, in future, be undertaken solely under the power contained in the Bill. Local authority lawyers and district auditors have occasionally been forced into a restrictive view of the powers of local government to secure against possible legal challenges. Amendment No. 2 provides the answer to those fears by making it clear in the legislation that the new power should not restrict the use by any authority of any other statutory provision, under which information may be provided to local government or other organisations outside the United Kingdom or activities may be undertaken with them.
It is clear that, in most cases, the authorities will undertake the new activities under the powers contained in the Bill. The amendment essentially concerns existing activities that could potentially be needlessly brought within the consent provision. It would be helpful if the 1351 Minister would explain what the position will be in relation to projects undertaken under the discretionary powers after the Bill's passage. It would also be of assistance if he could state that he will be willing to discuss both that process and the general issue with the local authority associations involved.
§ Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe)
I welcome the remarks of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) and the way in which he opened the debate. Many of us regard him as being beneficial when he is in light mood, rather than creating heat. Today must be a special day for him as I know of his profound interest in whales. I understand from the newspapers that a number of whales trapped in Scapa Flow have been rescued from their fate worse than death. They have now been released into the open sea. I am sure that we all share the pleasure that the hon. Gentleman must feel and admire him for his campaigning on behalf of whales.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
I wish to associate myself with the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the rescue of the sperm whales in Scotland. In a world in which so much distressing news assails us in the newspapers, that news has brought a bit of light and pleased everyone involved with the plight of whales. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will return to the subject next Friday when I have an Adjournment debate on the resumption of commercial whaling by Norway.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
I hope that the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) will not seek to anticipate what will happen next week.
§ Mr. Lester
I never seek to anticipate anything—it takes me long enough just to get around each 24 hours. I share the feelings of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West and I thought that it was worth raising the subject of the whales as I know of his interest in them.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has handled the Bill for the Opposition. The issue is not one of dogma, but involves the basis of the Bill. We genuinely seek to reassure local authorities that we have no desire to restrict the powers that they may have. The Bill was introduced as we detected that there was a grey area—some authorities regarded themselves as having the power, some authorities were not sure whether they had that power and many authorities felt that they did not have it. The Bill clarifies the position to show that the authorities have a clear power.
Local authorities have been inventive—often, to represent the degree of internationalism within specific local authorities. If people genuinely want to help, they look to see how best they can do so. One reason for drafting the Bill as we have was to give such authorities a clear power. The general authorisation that my hon. Friend the Minister has already undertaken gives the authorities an unfettered power so that no one can breathe over their shoulder other than through the use of the de minimis provision.
§ Sir Michael Marshall (Arundel)
In Committee I raised some of the anxieties of my local authorities—Arundel district council and West Sussex county council. I am glad to confirm that, in the light of what is perceived as progress on the measure, there is a feeling that those anxieties have been overcome.
1352 I applaud my hon. Friend's work in clearing up these matters and tell him that the number of inquiries that the British Association for Central and Eastern Europe has received from local authorities wanting to pursue active schemes under this measure has greatly increased.
§ Mr. Lester
I am delighted to hear that. I should like to task my hon. Friend with the responsibility, through the Inter-Parliamentary Union, for spreading news of the Bill and making sure that its consequences are widely appreciated and used.
We have no argument with the local authority associations; indeed, we wish to reassure them. I am assured by the parliamentary draftsmen that the local authorities do not need this provision—there is no legal requirement for it—but if the authority associations can prove, as we have asked them to, that they need further reassurance on any particular matter I am sure that we would be prepared to discuss it with them.
Baroness Flather has undertaken to steer the Bill through the House of Lords. I am delighted about that; she is a very able lady. She came to politics from local government and she understands it. I have no doubt that she will as sympathetic to the Bill's intentions in the Lords as we have all tried to be here.
§ Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)
We have already discussed some of these concerns in Committee. It would be a great tragedy if the Bill took away powers that local authorities currently enjoy. I hope that my hon. Friend will make it absolutely clear that the power in question is not necessary and that there is no possibility of powers being removed from local authorities.
§ Mr. Lester
Absolutely. We have a reasonably good audience here today, so perhaps I may describe the power that seems to be causing the difficulty. Under section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972, local authorities already have the power to twin with local authorities anywhere in the world. They also have the power to promote the interests of the inhabitants of their areas, which means that they can send delegations from and to major conurbations. But they do not have the power—and they have never had it—to transfer technology or the tremendous range of technical experience that our local authorities have. The know-how funds exist and many European countries are starting to set up a basic local authority fabric. That is the purpose of the know-how funds and it is widely appreciated.
We discovered that the technical aspect was not covered by law, which is why this Bill has been widely considered since it started out. The Bill enables local authorities in Great Britain to provide assistance in respect of matters in which they have skill and experience to bodies—not necessarily local authorities, but bodies preparing to become them. We are talking about bodies outside the United Kingdom carrying on or attempting to carry on the activities of local government.
§ Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)
Does my hon. Friend agree that although it is essential that local authorities should be encouraged to develop good trading links and know -how links with towns abroard, we should also bear it in mind that that would be no excuse for junketing or abusing their powers?
§ Mr. Lester
I think that we dealt with that in Committee. No one wants this beneficial power to be 1353 misused and, besides, junketing is often no more than a matter of judgment on the part of the editor of the local newspaper. I have made international visits over the years; all of them have benefited those in the places that we visited and those who took part in the trips. In some of the towns in which I am trying to encourage local authorities to get involved, the accommodation is hardly five star. We are talking about pioneering conditions which many of us would like improved. So I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that what she describes is the last thing we want. I am sure that the same goes for local authorities.
This is not a very controversial area, but it may still need to be clarified. I am assured that it does not need legal clarification, but I am sure that the Minister, who has rather better legal advice than I have, will shortly give us his opinion. Meanwhile, I have no doubt that we can make further amicable progress with the Bill.
§ Mr. Matthew Carrington (Fulham)
I do not want to detain the House long discussing a probing amendment which clarifies what is already in the Bill. In as much as it does so, it is welcome. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) for what he said about the interpretation given to him by the parliamentary draftsmen of its effects on the Bill.
I am worried about one aspect of the amendment and I should be grateful if the Minister would deal with it. I regret that I was not on the Standing Committee, but I have followed the Bill's progress carefully. I am worried that the amendment might reverse one of the Bill's principal effects, which is to ensure co-ordination of effort in local authority activities when helping overseas bodies to develop, particularly in eastern Europe. Such co-ordination is vital. If local authorities from this country are to assist nascent democracies in eastern Europe, they should do so as part of a United Kingdom entity. We do not want them to find ways around, or innovative interpretations of, existing statutes which already give them powers. As the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) said, they have done that successfully in other areas in the past. If they found ways of operating outside the scope of this Bill they might be able to undertake activities that would conflict with the assistance being offered by local authorities working in conjunction with this Bill, with the approval of the Secretary of State. That approval is the key. It ensures that, for instance, Lambeth borough council cannot rush off and set up a local government structure in some town in Hungary, modelling it on Lambeth itself, with all the attendant corruption.
§ Mr. Pickles
I beg your pardon, Madam Deputy Speaker. Does my hon. Friend accept that Lambeth is precisely the model that these new countries want to dispense with?
§ Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North)
A number of local authorities in eastern Europe are well ahead in the development of contracting out and in their philosophy of service to the customer—ahead of Lambeth council, that is. I submit that Lambeth council could learn a lot if the technology transfer were in the other direction.
§ Mr. Carrington
My hon. Friend makes a strong point which suggests that perhaps we should have a Bill to enable Lambeth to take advice from local authorities in Hungary, although that takes us a long way from the subject of the debate.
§ Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)
The Bill should have a degree of reciprocity, but perhaps for that we would need to seek the leave of the Hungarian Parliament rather than this one. The issues of criteria and monitoring the value of schemes are important because the last thing that we want is duplication by local authorities or by parties on a local authority. It is conceivable that two parties on a local authority would seek to provide schemes and that would not be in anybody's best interests. That is why we need control and monitoring.
§ Mr. Carrington
My hon. Friend's valid point reinforces my argument. Not many overseas local authorities would think that they had a great deal to learn from Lambeth. The danger is that a sharp-suited salesman, perhaps trained in the old GLC, would rush out to persuade local authorities——
§ Mr. Tony Banks
I am quite happy to lock on to the debate about such matters, although it will not get us very far. I should be far more suspicious of a sharp-suited man from the PSA in view of the considerable amount of corruption there during the time that the Conservative Government has been responsible for the activities of the PSA. The hon. Gentleman should be cautious about attacking Lambeth borough council because much Government departmental fraud and corruption could bear some critical examination.
§ Mr. Carrington
The hon. Gentleman is right to criticise people who wear sharp suits. People dressed like that always raise suspicions.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
I am suspicious about the validity of these arguments in relation to the amendment. Hon. Members must address the amendment.
§ Mr. Carrington
I am grateful for your direction, Madam Deputy Speaker. My point is not about sharp suits, but about Lambeth persuading local authorities to take actions that are against their better judgment.
Model local authorities are legion and Wandsworth is an especially good example. It could set up in a neighbouring local authority in Hungary an efficient and cost-effective system that would deliver the required services. Because the two authorities were close there would be tremendous conflict. Therefore, the Secretary of State's involvement is vital to ensure that the good model is used overseas and the bad model is not. The amendment may allow a council such as Lambeth to act in contravention of Government policy and best local government practice. Perhaps the Minister could reassure me about that.
§ Mr. Pickles
Hon. Members will note from my size that it is some years since I was able to fit into a sharp suit. I 1355 apologise to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) for missing the early part of his speech, but I had the opportunity to listen to the debate in Committee. I have received assurances that the measure will not restrict the powers of local authorities.
Many taxpayers and ratepayers feel that this is not the sort of activity in which local authorities should engage. Councils are under financial restraint and it is a brave councillor who announces that his authority is about to embark on such work. Government blessing for many of the schemes is needed to legitimise them and to demonstrate that they are in the interests not only of local residents, but of the wider community. I hope to speak later in the debate about how the schemes could be extended to help local firms and communities.
§ Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)
Does my hon. Friend think that it would be useful to have the ever-vigilant eye of local residents watching what is being done and how money is being spent? Every penny spent abroad to assist developing countries should be spent as carefully as money spent at home.
§ Mr. Pickles
That is important. Many local people will have experience of the countries that the legislation will affect, but most will not. However, even that experience may not enable them to make value judgments on schemes. Local people should be given judgment criteria and the Bill suggests that that should be provided by the Secretary of State. The Bill does not give the Secretary of State the power to say what must be done, as some local authorities suggest. Councils may engage in certain activities, provided the residents and the councils think that they are good. It is an enabling power, rather than one that forces councillors to follow a specific course.
§ Mr. Lester
I would not want anyone to get the wrong idea. The Bill will give authorities power to act as agents for the spending of money that is not provided by charge payers. That is one of the key measures in the Bill. Local authorities have a tremendous range of experience, but it would be wrong for charge payers to fund overseas schemes. Money will be provided from the know-how funds, the Overseas Development Administration, and European and United Nations funds, but local authorities are able to provide the best technical assistance. There is a de minimis provision, but it is so small that it would not affect any charge payer's bill.
Local authorities are being granted an important freedom to look at projects before they make a bid for money from the know-how funds. The legislation is not designed to give charge payers or council taxpayers a shock by saying that local authorities will suddenly take on the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
§ Mr. Pickles
Of course, my hon. Friend is correct. I am sure that he readily accepts that, while local authorities will be the agents for funds that will come mainly from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, there will be some cost to local authorities. The Bill is about stopping——
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. We are not discussing the Bill as a whole: we are discussing an amendment.
§ Mr. Pickles
I apologise. I was about to speak specifically to the amendment which relates to the powers of the Secretary of State.
§ Mr. Jenkin
The concern to which the amendment, in conjunction with the rest of the Bill, gives rise is whether we are in danger of allowing local authorities to undertake activities of a quasi-commercial nature, which the officers or the councillors might purport to be breaking even or even making a profit for the local authority, but which might subsequently result in substantial liabilities for the authority, which would be taken up by the charge payers.
Without wishing to antagonise the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), I have to say that we all know local authorities that undertake ambitious schemes that subsequently do not match the financial expectations. Do the Bill and the amendment provide safeguards against incompetence or failure adequately to assess the situation of a potential project?
§ Mr. Pickles
The assessment comes in partnership between the Government and local authorities, and recognises the needs of the countries that it is designed to help. In other sectors, local authorities may wish to use existing powers in conjunction with new powers and we need to be certain that those powers are not restricted. The intention is to clarify the law and ensure that local authorities have confidence, but, in doing so, we should not take powers away. That is the central point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) may think that the Bill will suddenly open the floodgates and that councils of various political persuasions will be trading throughout the world, but the simple answer is that that will not happen.
§ Mr. Nigel Evans
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the greatest fears of many residents—I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) for clarifying the point that the money will be Government money and that councils will be acting as agents—will be about what the local authority is doing spending the time of its officers and councillors on assisting other countries when there are problems in their council area? People will feel that councils should be devoting all their time and energy to clearing up the local problems, rather than messing around abroad. The very fact that projects will go to the Government for approval will enable the assistance to be given. Without the approval of the Secretary of State, the assistance might not be given because local authorities would be afraid to get involved.
§ Mr. Pickles
I am grateful. My hon. Friend has made: a number of useful contributions to the debate on the amendment. He has aired the concerns that many members of the public will have. The debate will assure them that that is not the intention of the Bill. It will enable work to be done in partnership. I look forward to my hon. Friend's contribution later in our proceedings when we can underline many of the points that he has made so well.
§ Mr. Bowis
If we are speaking in terms of sharp suits, perhaps I can refer to the elegant curves of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). The debate is following the good lines set out by the debates in our useful Committee stage. With the amendment, the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) has allowed us to debate again a point that we debated in Committee, to see whether it can be clarified further.
We are talking about the balance that we need to strike between the enterprise, initiative and enthusiasm of local 1357 authorities that are willing to give their expertise to parts of the world that need it and the need for the control and sensible use of resources, which is where the Secretary of State comes in.
The Bill has that balance right, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) confirmed in his intervention. It is important that we get that balance right, because nobody wishes to restrict local authorities to such an extent that they say, "We cannot be bothered if they are not interested in what we have to offer. We wanted to offer this, but they say no, so we shall give up and go to somebody else." Equally, we must take account of the total of resources and the way in which they can and should be used.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
Does my hon. Friend agree that a local authority, by offering technical know-how and assistance, may gain enormous benefit for its locality by opening up trading links, and that trading links with newly developed eastern European countries can be of enormous benefit to the local businesses of that borough?
§ Mr. Bowis
My hon. Friend is right. I am not sure of the extent to which the Bill will advance trading links, except that the more that local authorities have links abroad under the auspices of the Bill, the more likely it is that when they go abroad with their expertise, they may be accompanied by local business men. That would be an offshoot, but it cannot be written into the Bill.
§ Mr. Carrington
I did not wish to intervene again in the debate on the amendment, but I must make it clear that the point is that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) has made clear, if a local authority is giving assistance, through whatever way, to some other local authority, it will lead to trading links, if only because that other local authority will look to this country for support services, computer services, software services and others. There will be true economic benefits, as well as the principal purpose of the Bill, which is to spend aid money.
§ Mr. Bowis
That is correct. The benefit may flow back to the specific locality that has been giving assistance or to the country in general.
I am conscious that Madam Deputy Speaker would prefer us to stick closely to the amendment. The key is the role of the Secretary of State and of monitoring and the need to avoid the problem of duplication, along the lines mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Carrington). We must also ensure sensible prioritising. Many councils, such as Wandsworth, may have good schemes and experience to offer, but the priority in terms of national spending and national advice may require that one or two of those be selected for this as opposed to subsequent years, and that, again, is where the Secretary of State comes into the reckoning.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) gently prodded the question of what she called junketing and what we in Committee called jollies. We looked for guidance to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West. He has great knowledge and experience, which he shared with us. He could take us round the world in a silver car, with the chairman in the 1358 boot—or was it the other way round?—no doubt from county hall, or to the Nicaraguan airlines office. I say this with great benevolence.
§ Mr. Banks
For the sake of the record, I should inform the hon. Gentleman that I was the only chairman of the Greater London council who never made a visit abroad. It was not so much that I did not want to do so but that I felt that, as the GLC was threatened with abolition, if I went abroad something nasty would happen to it in my absence.
The House is perhaps not the best place to discuss trips abroad. We have not many lessons to teach people in terms of abstinence. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) would no doubt have said about House of Commons visits abroad, if he had been here in his usual place, "They never go fact finding to Greenland in the middle of winter".
§ Mr. Bowis
I am sure that we shall be visiting Greenland next. I was not criticising the hon. Gentleman. Had it had the opportunity at the time, I would have recommended that the entire GLC was sent off to a remote desert island where it could give advice to the local monkeys. London would then have been a happier place sooner than it eventually became one. Let me leave that subject on the happy note of unanimity across the Floor of the House.
My hon. Friends the Members for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and for Brentwood and Ongar spoke about local opinion. We want to ensure, of course, that local opinion supports the various measures that are undertaken. The main funding will be recouped from national and international sources, but there will be some on-costs. If, for example, a council officer is seconded to carry out work in another country, some sacrifice will be made by the local community. It is important that the local community gives its full support to such work or there could be resentment.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe said, we want to ensure that we avoid the flavour-of-the-month mentality. I am sure that at the moment any project involving Bosnia or Somalia would have the wholehearted support of a council, while similar projects for Cambodia or Bulgaria would not. On the other hand, perhaps we should be sending people to those countries. By the time that Bosnia is in a position to accept help, it may not be headline material and another sad part of what was Yugoslavia may have come to the fore.
I support the amendment.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robin Squire)
It has been said that the powers that local authorities already have to provide assistance overseas may be endangered by the Bill. Indeed, it has been suggested that such powers make the Bill unnecessary. For reasons that I shall explain, the Government believe that authorities do not have such powers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) would be saying fortissimo, that is precisely why the Bill is before the House. There is no reason why authorities that are already undertaking activities for which they believed they had powers—that is, prior to the passage of the Bill—will be prevented from continuing them when the Bill takes its place on the statute book. The Bill will give them formal, legal powers.
1359 The amendment, which was moved by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), is designed to introduce a without-prejudice clause. The argument for it is that, by providing a specific power to give overseas technical assistance, the Bill will remove local authorities' existing ability to undertake such work on the basis of discretionary powers, such as section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972, or of other specific powers such as the power under section 33 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 in respect of the promotion of economic development.
That is one concern to local authority associations that was not discussed in detail in Committee. The reason for that is that while stressing that the Government remained unconvinced of the need for such a clause, I agreed to review the matter if the local authority associations gave us further information. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West then properly withdrew his amendment.
My officials met officials from the associations, both immediately after the Bill's consideration in Committee and earlier this week, and the associations will let us have the necessary further information in time for the Bill's consideration in Committee in another place.
I shall restate my undertaking. I shall review the case for a without-prejudice clause seriously as soon as the associations are able to produce the further information that they have promised. In the meantime, it may be helpful if I set out as clearly as possible why, on the basis of the information that is to hand, I am opposed to a without-prejudice clause.
Section 137 of the 1972 Act permits an authority to incur expenditure which in its opinion is in the interests of, and will bring direct benefit to, its area or any part of it, or to all or some of its inhabitants. However, that power is limited. First, an authority may not rely on the section for a purpose on which it is authorised to incur expenditure by any other power, whether the power is conditional or unconditional. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the direct benefit to the authority's area, or any part of it, or to all or some of its inhabitants must be commensurate with the expenditure incurred under section 137. I do not see how incurring expenditure in providing advice and assistance to overseas bodies can be of any direct benefit to the inhabitants of an authority's area, let alone a benefit that is commensurate with the amount spent.
Section 33 of the 1989 Act gives authorities the power to take such steps as they consider appropriate for promoting the economic development of their areas.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
The Minister is taking up the point that was made by the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Carrington). It is a matter that could lead to a legal argument. If, for example, information or assistance had been provided under section 137 and there was a spin-off in terms of contracts coming back into the area of the local authority that had provided that information or assistance, it could be argued that there was a direct benefit to the people living in the area controlled by the authority. Section 137 gives an open power to local authorities, and it would always be possible to find a lawyer to argue that there was direct benefit to the local authority as a result of assistance given to an overseas authority.
§ Mr. Squire
The hon. Gentleman highlights why we need the Bill, which clarifies and spells out the relevant powers of local authorities. We are discussing a narrow but important point and I reiterate my willingness to listen to the massed ranks of lawyers, if such a body can be imagined, as they advise me whether a without-prejudice clause is necessary.
§ Mr. John Whittingdale (Colchester, South and Maldon)
Does my hon. Friend agree that section 137 has been used by socialist local authorities to divert ratepayers' funds to help a wide variety of extremist, lunatic fringe groups? It is perhaps not surprising that there is a degree of suspicion on the part of the ratepayer whenever the section is mentioned. One of the benefits that will stem from the Bill is the recognition that the involvement of local authorities in overseas assistance is entirely legitimate and welcomed by the Government.
§ Mr. Squire
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Were we to develop it, we would take ourselves back over much of the history of the past 15 years or so. Fortunately, all the signs are that local authorities in general are much more responsive now than they were during the time to which my hon. Friend directly and properly referred. He is right, however, to suggest that there is a balance to be struck. In recognition of that, the Bill introduces some restraints and restrictions so that council tax payers, as they will be in a week's time, will have the knowledge that they will be properly protected.
§ Mr. Jenkin
The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) made an interesting intervention. He highlighted the possibility that local authorities might seek a contractual relationship with local authorities in eastern Europe to provide services, or to manage services, in the areas covered by those authorities. My concern is that there are not sufficient checks and balances to ensure that such work is undertaken on a commercial basis. Would that work, under the Bill, be acceptable trade in which a local authority might engage?
§ Mr. Squire
Most of the activity that is covered by the Bill would be funded, in effect, by one or more know-how funds; in other words, the Bill does not provide funding. Where that is not the position, upper limits are spelt out that apply to the moneys that a local authority will be able to incur over and above the sum that is being funded by one or other of the know-how funds.
I was referring to section 33 of the 1989 Act. There are various restrictions on the power contained in that Act and the regulations made under it.
§ Mr. Jenkin
I apologise to my hon. Friend; I am grateful to him for giving way again. We all know of occasions when it emerges that local authorities have taken part in what has subsequently been regarded as unlawful trade. I thought that that was the point raised by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West. I am still not clear whether the Bill interferes with the rights of, or restrictions on, local authorities. Does it change the nature of the rules that might allow local authorities effectively to trade h counterparts in eastern Europe? Will my hon. Friend comment on that?
§ Mr. Squire
The Bill would state in law what was previously believed to be the law, under which a number of local authorities were carrying out activities—until one of the flotilla of lawyers, to which the hon. Member for Newham, North-West referred, drew attention to the error. The important point is that to the extent that local authorities are involved overseas, the Bill makes it clear that it must be in areas in which those authorities have expertise. They must genuinely be able to demonstrate that they have that expertise within their own ranks. I think that that is probably the best assurance on restraint that I can offer my hon. Friend.
I find it impossible to imagine how the power under the 1989 Act, which permits an authority to take steps to assist in the setting up of a commercial undertaking in the authority's area, and the creating of opportunities for employment in that area, can be said to give an authority power to provide an overseas body with advice and assistance. Surely the point of the Bill is that there is a serious doubt about the legitimacy of using the existing power for overseas technical work. The Audit Commission has taken the view that there are no existing powers for technical assistance—otherwise, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin), there would be no need for the Bill. It is difficult to envisage the purpose of a without-prejudice clause relating to certain powers, when there are substantial grounds for doubt that those powers exist.
However, to meet the concern of the local authority associations that small-scale technical assistance work arising out of, and incidental to, other links with overseas communities—such as the traditional town twinning with which hon. Members will be well acquainted—should not require consent under the Bill, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State proposes to give a general authorisation for such work below an approved threshold, which is twice such expenditure in the previous financial year or that planned for the current year.
I will deal briefly and succinctly with the points made during the debate. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West cannot tempt me down the road of discussing the Property Services Agency this morning. I urge him to await the outcome of the current inquiries and not to believe everything that he reads in The Guardian—indeed, particularly everything that he reads in The Guardian.
The hon. Gentleman asked me two questions. The first related to what would happen to the existing powers under section 137 when the Bill is enacted. The short answer is nothing; they will continue. As I have made clear, existing powers under that section cover technical advice and assistance.
The second and important question was about what happens to work already under way as a result of a local authority's interpretation of section 137. Again, the answer is nothing. That work is currently taking place in the absence of clear powers, but my right hon. and learned Friend is ready to offer sanction for such work during the passage of the Bill, should that prove necessary. Once the Bill is enacted, work already under way will continue under the Bill's provisions. The hon. Gentleman and some of my hon. Friends rightly raised the legitimate concern that existing work might be threatened, but I am happy to assure them that that is not the case.
My hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Carrington), without necessarily knowing it, hit the bullseye when he spoke about Hungary. You know, 1362 Madam Deputy Speaker, that any reference to persons outside this Chamber would be out of order, so I certainly would not make one. However, hon. Members may be interested to know that among those advising me this morning, and not located many miles away, is a visitor from Hungary. He has been following our activities as part and parcel of the Department's work with Hungary and other countries. I am certain that he would have been fascinated to hear our comments this morning. I am also certain that he would conclude, as did my hon. Friend, that although Hungary has little, if anything, to learn from Lambeth, Lambeth may have a significant amount to learn from Hungary.
§ Mr. Squire
It would be tasteless to take up the hon. Gentleman's comment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Fulham, echoed by my curved hon. Friends the Members for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) and for Battersea (Mr. Bowis)—but who am I to speak?—spoke of the importance of striking a balance between a reasonable check on the activities of local authorities and not snuffing out the good, creative ways in which local authorities are already assisting so many other countries, especially in central and eastern Europe. I assure my hon. Friend that it is not our intention to do the latter and nothing within the Bill would do that. On the contrary, I hope that the Bill will bring the opportunities and advantages available to the attention of those local authorities that are not yet involved in this important work.
A without-prejudice clause is unnecessary, would achieve nothing, and would reintroduce an element of confusion into an area that the Bill would sort out and clarify once and for all. In the light of my undertaking to consider the matter further, I hope that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West will withdraw his amendment.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
I am very much encouraged by the Minister's response. Both he and the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) said that the amendment was unnecessary. There are still matters that need to be resolved, but from what the Minister said I understand that the local authority associations will continue to talk to him about them. It is for those associations to demonstrate that a without-prejudice clause is required. I feel confident that if they can do that to the Minister's satisfaction, the necessary amendments will be introduced in another place.
The Bill has all-party support. All those involved in it understand that there is no intention to limit the ability of local authorities or to make the position more difficult for them, but, on the contrary, to facilitate what has been happening and to encourage further developments. I take what the Minister said as an encouraging sign that if there is an omission from the Bill that would frustrate the activities to which we have been referring, he will rectify that.
I am still a little concerned about the questions surrounding section 137 of the 1989 Act, which was, perhaps, passed in happier times. It is a broad section which gives very wide powers. The Minister did not mention section 142 of that Act, which relates to the provision of information. That is also widely interpreted by local authorities, as it was meant to be, and it can be used for the provision of information overseas. The hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Carrington) said that such 1363 activities should be generally co-ordinated. The hon. Gentleman can afford to be elegantly dressed. While he was speaking, I took the precaution of checking the Register of Members' Interests, and can understand how he can afford to shop at the best tailors in Savile row, and no doubt he does.
Much needs to be done in terms of co-ordination, and no doubt the Secretary of State will be able to do it. One must commend many local authorities of all political persuasions—I am not as biased as some Conservative Members—for their pioneering work, and the Bill acknowledges that and encourages and facilitates that process.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman used the amendment to make a ritual attack on Lambeth. I well understand why he might be suspicious of sharp-suited sales persons. Knowing that he is an adviser to the Saudi International bank, I well understand his concern, given the amount of corruption and palm-greasing that goes on in the area in which he no doubt gives a great deal of advice in the middle east. If the hon. Gentleman is suspicious of a sharp-suited sales person, perhaps he would not be quite so suspicious of a sharp jellaba-dressed gentleman wearing a gold Rolex on his wrist.
The hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) mentioned the Greater London council, which is appropriate because we are just approaching the week in which, on 31 March, we will mark the seventh anniversary of its abolition—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] That was an entirely predictable response from the Conservative Benches and would not be the response elicited from the great majority of Londoners. I am far more concerned about them than ideologically fixated Conservative Members.
§ Mr. Robin Squire
As that is such an illustrious anniversary, and in response to the hon. Gentleman's point, in at least the past four or five of the seven years since the GLC's abolition, I have not—as a London Member of Parliament—received one letter from anyone asking me to recreate that monstrosity.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. Before the debate continues, I point out that it is not appropriate to hold either a celebration or a wake.
§ Mr. Carrington
I do not want to pursue the abolition of the GLC, but it does raise the interesting point of whether the hon. Gentleman considers that it would be appropriate for the Inner London education authority to give advice under the terms of the amendment and clause. One effect of abolishing the ILEA is universal agreement across all parties that the ILEA's education provision was wasteful and poor, and did not achieve good standards. However bad some boroughs are, the education that they provide now is better—even in the worst of them—than that provided by the ILEA.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. That point is entirely irrelevant. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not pursue it and that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) will not respond.
§ Mr. Banks
It is unfortunate, Madam Deputy Speaker that your stricture was not applied a little earlier before the hon. Gentleman completed his intervention. It would, of course, be impossible for a now-defunct body to give advice to anyone. As someone who received his education under the Inner London education authority, I thought that it was a wonderful authority. Were the ILEA to be extant, it would give excellent advice.
A strategic authority such as the Greater London council could have given tremendous advice in eastern Europe.
§ Mr. Banks
You old spoil-sport, Madam Deputy Speaker—I said that affectionately, rather than with any reference to chronological order.
London does not have a strategic authority now, but when we have a Labour Government one day soon, one will be established. I was not so much taking a walk down memory lane as pointing out that a strategic authority for London could give advice in many areas. The powers that I mentioned with regard to emergency services have passed to the London fire and civil defence authority, which gives advice overseas and has sent teams to disaster areas to apply the techniques learned under the London county council, the GLC and the LFCDA. That is precisely the kind of advice and assistance embraced by the Bill.
The waste disposal authority that took over from the GLC can give information and pass on some of the high technology devised in London to cope with waste disposal from such a large conurbation. Such information would be invaluable and would no doubt be welcomed by authorities in eastern Europe, for example.
§ Mr. Banks
I mentioned them for the benefit of those who did not have the pleasure of sitting on the Committee with the hon. Gentleman. I hope that I am passing on a little light, but not a great deal of heat. In eastern Europe, standards of waste disposal have been appalling in countries such as Albania and Romania. A London authority could teach them a great deal.
§ Mr. Bowis
It goes wider than that, because international agreements would be needed to solve some of those problems. The hon. Gentleman set up various arguments and then knocked them down himself. Strategic authorities that have a purpose, such as the LFCDA arid the authority that brings together waste disposal in various boroughs, are covered by the Bill and can give advice. The hon. Gentleman has demolished his own argument for the need for other strategic authorities, which would be merely wasteful monstrosities and a burden on taxpayers.
§ Mr. Jenkin
As to waste disposal, some large private sector companies in this country and throughout the European community are extremely good at providing advice. The Bill needs to guard against excessive crowding out of private sector activity by the excessive ambitions of the public sector as embodied by local authorities. The best lesson that eastern Europe can learn from the abolition of the GLC is that it should rid itself of unnecessary tiers of government.
§ Mr. Banks
I hope that that will not be a lesson that they draw from the abolition of the GLC. I hope that they will draw the lesson that if a country has a constitution, it will not be possible for someone to walk in and abolish a directly elected and democratic body, merely because the Government of the day, particularly the Prime Minister of the day, does not happen to like it. That seems to me to smack more of the Stalinism and totalitarianism from which they have just escaped. If she could be dug up, I suppose that the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) would probably go over and give advice to some of the beleaguered democracies in eastern Europe and tell them how to restore Stalinism. They might like it.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman is, so to speak, taking off again. Can I bring him back to the amendment?
§ Mr. Banks
I could not resist the temptation, Madam Deputy Speaker. I blame the hon. Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) entirely for provoking me. I can resist everything except temptation.
When the GLC was in being, it worked in concert with the private sector over waste disposal. Correy, the waste disposal company, worked closely with the GLC. One saw its barges going up and down the Thames. The hon. Member for Colchester, North needs to understand a little more of the history of that period of abolition that preoccupied the House for such a long time.
I tabled all these amendments at the request of the local authority associations. The Minister has assured us today that the discussions with the local authority associations will continue and that in the event of their being able to demonstrate beyond peradventure that there is a difficulty, he will introduce the necessary amendments in another place. I am delighted to hear that Lady Flather is to be responsible for taking the Bill through the other place. She has great sensitivity when it comes to both overseas development and local authorities. As I am happy with the Minister's assurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
With this, it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 8, in page 2, line 8, at end insert'or,(c) a parish, town or community council within the area of any local authority as specified in this section.'.
§ Mr. Banks
These amendments test the intention of the Bill to limit its scope to local authorities and the bodies derived from them, as set out in clause 1(7) and (8). Parish, town or community councils are currently excluded from the Bill.
Under the know-how fund technical link scheme, however, proposals have already been received from several parishes. These include Castleton parish council in Derbyshire, in concert with the Peak District national park. Their prospective partners are Skala and Ojcow national parks, both of which are in south Poland. Dulverton parish council in Somerset, in conjunction with the Exmoor national park, have prospective partners in Poland and the Czech Republic. Everyone can immediately see why both Poland and the Czech Republic should be involved with parish councils; they lie in the area of national parks. Interest has been shown by other parish councils—in the Grampian region, Kent, Lancashire and South Yorkshire.
From this recent display of interest, it will be clear that parish councils are anxious in many cases to offer overseas assistance. By definition, parish councils are very small. Even the largest employs only a few members of staff. What they lack in staff expertise, however, is more than compensated for in enthusiasm and a direct involvement in the community.
In line with the general desire to devolve powers and to involve people down to the lowest level—subsidiarity being the term with which we are most familiar in this place—it is a little puzzling that the sponsor of the Bill and the Minister have not so far shown any great interest in extending the scope of the Bill in that direction. The active involvement of local communities, probably drawing directly on the enthusiasm and expertise of parish councillors and the community, is to be welcomed.
It would help if the hon. Member for Broxtowe and the Minister were to agree to consider further this question, in the light of the interest from parishes in the Government's scheme. We have heard about the upsurge of interest. Areas of involvement in which parishes have expertise have been indentified. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will give favourable consideration to the amendments.
§ Mr. Lester
The request for inclusion of this amendment in the Bill is similar to the previous one. I have nothing against parish, town or community councils. My overall view, however, as someone with previous experience of local government, is that it is hard to see how a parish council could employ technical staff and therefore be able to offer technical assistance overseas.
The illustrations given by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West are borne out by my research. Quite by accident I came across such a scheme. Marlborough town council has linked up with Gunjar in the Gambia. I would add, by the way, that Marlborough is a small and attractive town. The town council plays only a part in that role. However, it takes over to Gunjar a team of people, all volunteers, who add classrooms to schools and do all sorts of worthwhile work in the Gambia.
Marlborough has assisted in the most positive way that I can describe. A young man from that community wrote to me. I did not know him from Adam. He said that he would like to come to this country to study hotel and catering skills and asked whether I could help him. I wrote 1367 to a college in London that specialises in teaching those skills. Much to my amazement and gratitude, the principal of that college wrote back to me and said that, as I had asked, he was prepared to give this young man a scholarship. I was very grateful to him.
The problem then arose of what to do next. I had neither the resources nor the facilities to house that young man in London while he pursued his scholarship. He then informed me that there was the Marlborough link scheme. Very generously, it took on the cost of maintaining him in this country. It also assisted him by providing him with work experience in a local hotel in Marlborough. He has returned to his country with a sheaf of qualifications and recommendations. He is a very enterprising young man. I hope that those qualifications and recommendations will lead to his being quickly ensconced as the manager of one of the new hotels that are being built in the Gambia and providing services in that hotel of a quality that will encourage many people and, I hope, many of my hon. Friends, to go there for a holiday. In that way we shall assist in developing a very small country, but one which is important to us.
I use that example to show that town councils can be part of something that is worth while. I do not believe, however, that they need the powers of the Bill to do what they have already achieved through the link scheme. It may be, however, that in future they will need that power. I have no particular reason for excluding authorities of that size from the provisions of the Bill, if their exclusion is seen in any way to be to their disadvantage. Nevertheless, the local authority associations will need to make more of a case, in terms of the Bill, to bring about that type of beneficial interchange and exchange.
I am conscious of the fact that town councils can be fairly large bodies. One town council, Brackley, serves a population of 59,000 people. If we compare that with anything in the third and the developing world, we see that it is a substantial authority. Therefore, I do not wish to prevent any local authority with the necessary capability from participating, by means of the Bill, in the interchange that we are trying to promote.
I hope that those remarks will reassure the hon. Gentleman that in no sense are we negative. In every sense we are positive. We are trying to obtain the maximum that we possibly can from the Bill in order to promote these various interests.
§ Mr. Carrington
It worries me when I find myself in some measure of agreement with the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). We differ on most matters, including matters sartorial. However, he has an extremely valid point on this amendment in that I cannot see a reason for excluding town councils from the legislation.
I understand that there may be a few instances where a parish council would be able to give advice or, indeed, would be advised to give advice—if that is not too convoluted a phrase. I can see circumstances where it may be possible that such advice would be sensible and where we would not wish to exclude a body, however small, from the ability to make use of the legislation or be able, under the auspices of the Secretary of State, to come in as part of a complete restructuring advice package that is being given to an area of some foreign country. One can imagine a situation where a whole structure of local government might be set up with advice from an equivalent local 1368 government structure in the United Kingdom. In such cases, one would not wish to exclude the bottom tiers of councils from being able to participate in that. I understand the concern that too small a council might have to use a disproportionate amount of its resources to be able to give advice. With few officers or, in some cases, no officers at all, such councils may take on things which are impossible for them to deliver in the final analysis. At the beginning, they may go in with enthusiasm, determination and good ideas, but then time passes, the project slows down and things become more difficult. Finally, the Secretary of State may have to bail out the parish council which is giving the advice and that may cause an enormous problem. The Bill contains sufficient safeguards to ensure that that will not happen.
If a parish council takes on something that is patently too large for it to be able to undertake, that is too complex or, indeed, that is not done in partnership with a larger authority that would give support, the Secretary of State will have the power to refuse permission for the council to get involved. Therefore, the purpose of the amendments must be welcomed.
The Bill may already include parish councils; I am not clear on that. If that is the case, the amendments are unnecessary, and that is also welcomed. We need to clarify the exact position of small councils because the advice that they can give could be worth while for the development of countries, especially those in eastern Europe.
§ Sir Michael Marshall
I support my hon. Friend's argument. When we were discussing this matter in Committee, I got the impression that it was difficult to foresee circumstances in which parish or town councils might come forward. Recently, Bognor Regis town council in my constituency carried out an exercise—this is an interesting example for my hon. Friends and Labour Members—using automatic vote-counting machinery for a local referendum. Under present legislation, such automatic vote-counting machinery cannot be used in the United Kingdom for the normal processes with which we are all familiar. At that level, it is possible to experiment.
In this specific case, the manufacturer of the equipment provided it as a trial. Observers came from different parts of the world, including the different part of the world called the Home Office. It was an extremely interesting example of something to which, I suspect, we shall have to bend our minds before too long—whether we should be using automatic vote-counting machinery. It could have been used in this case to give know-how to visitors.
We have been talking about taking know-how outwards. With such experiments, it is possible to give some practical experience which would be of value to the sort of countries that we have in mind under the terms of the Bill. In view of what has been said about the Bill, I am not sure whether we need to carry the amendment. Certainly, it raises a proposition that is worthy of consideration. Perhaps it might be re-examined in another place, if not here.
§ Mr. Robin Squire
As the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) said, the purpose of amendments Nos. 7 and 8 is to extend the provisions of the Bill to allow parish, town or community councils to provide advice and assistance to overseas bodies with regard to any matter in which they have skill and experience. At present, the Bill does not give them that authority.
1369 The Government are entirely open to argument on this point. It has been said that, throughout the discussions and the passage of the measure, we have been at pains to take into account the views of the local authority associations on all aspects of the Bill and accommodate their wishes, if at all possible. When officials and my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) met the associations on a number of occasions before Christmas, the question of including parish, town and community councils was raised by the associations, but was not pressed hard. My hon. Friend told the local government side that parish councils do not employ technical officers and the local government side did not pursue the matter further at the time.
On that basis, my hon. Friend and I concluded that it seemed unlikely that parish, town and community councils had much to contribute to the provision of technical assistance abroad, not least because many of them are small with limited resources. I should add, slightly tongue in cheek, that it may seem a little odd that associations should now wish to have parish powers extended in that direction when they have resisted extensions of parish powers a little closer to home than the subject of the Bill.
My serious and unqualified commitment is that if the associations can demonstrate that some parish, town and community councils have the ability to provide technical assistance to overseas bodies, I will certainly reconsider the matter. Of course, I should need to consult separately my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Wales. My commitment has been conveyed by my officials to the associations. I understand that the associations have undertaken to provide further information to enable the matter to be reconsidered before the Committe in another place. On that clear undertaking, I hope that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West will feel able to withdraw amendments Nos. 7 and 8.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
How I have yearned to hear a Minister come to the Dispatch Box, say that the Government are entirely open to argument and, on this occasion, mean it. It is a step forward for civilised behaviour and good government.
I welcome the Minister's assurances. The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) demonstrated that there are examples of activities in the local authority structure which the Bill is beginning to highlight and we are gathering more information all the time. The hon. Gentleman referred to Marlborough, which, as a town council, is its own parish council. Effectively, it is a parish council with a mayor. The need to extend the Bill is clearly demonstrated. The hon. Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall) gave a further example. As the knowledge of the Bill permeates through the local government structure, I suspect that hon. Members on both sides of the House will be able to discover more examples tucked away in their own areas.
If one looks at the Bill, one will find that parish, town and community councils are excluded. It is good to know that the Minister is prepared to listen to arguments. I suspect that the arguments will come from his own side as well as from the local authority associations. The hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Carrington), whose support I greatly welcomed, referred to our shared lack of sartorial tastes. That is because I have the taste but not the money and he enjoys the opposite condition.
1370 Parish councils will be undertaking ventures in co-operation with other authorities. I gave examples of parish councils which were involved with national parks. Clearly, parish councils, by definition, do not have the resources to enable them to spare staff, as it were. However, a great deal of expertise has been built up in rural areas. It would be a shame not to allow it to be passed on to areas of the world where it is obviously very much needed.
I accept what the Minister said. It is good to know that on this occasion the Government are working with an open mind and are prepared to listen. Under those terms, and with the assurances that he has given me, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendments.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Order for Third Reading read.11.29 am
§ Mr. Lester
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
When I made my peroration on Second Reading, I suggested that by passing the Bill, the House would light one thousand candles in various parts of the world in which light could be cast on local communities by their linking with such communities in this country. During the Committee stage and since, I became convinced that that was an accurate analogy. Those of us who seek to encourage the forces of light rather than the forces of darkness will see that the Bill is perhaps one small way in which we can help to develop that concept.
Colleagues have mentioned local opinion. I should have thought that in any locality, opinion would be in favour of a more integrated and closer world, and the sharing of information and assistance in a way that narrowed the gap between those of us who live in privileged societies in the privileged world and the rest.
All my parliamentary and personal experience has convinced me that one of the truths of life is that the maximum human contact that is designed through good will to assist is essential to move things forward to counter the negative processes which are all too apparent to us in different parts of the world. Ethnic cleansing, the breaking of contact, the manufacture of nationalistic feelings of which we have many experiences in history, and the encouragement of hate, disgust and those forces that I am sure that no one in the House remotely encourages, are all too obvious.
Therefore, it is important that legislation such as my Bill, which seeks to encourage the best of our standards in a particular walk of life, are used to maximum effect. Some of us have come through local government to the House and, therefore, have a particular affection for it. We recognise that local government is the sinews of our democracy and that, unless we have the bricks with which to build democratic values and a democratic society, we cannot impose one from the top.
Equally, local government is highly relevant to our daily lives. For many people in many parts of the world, what is achieved in their locality is infinitely more important than what might be done in their national parliament or any international body. I have given one example of that today. It is important to one community of 20,000 people in the Gambia.
I am a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Currently we are examining Boutros Boutros 1371 Ghali's document "Agenda for Peace", which sets the big scene for the world and the way in which it will develop into the next century. As part of that, I recently visited Cambodia—a tragic country which I know well. I have tried in many ways in the House to influence Government policy to help Cambodia's people to emerge from a dark passage of their history.
In a short time, there will be elections in Cambodia. It is essential that we assist the people with technology, which the United Nations has already done. Cambodia is turning to local authorities, including in Britain, for people to go out to Cambodia and man the election booths and electoral offices. Cambodia wants to convince its people that the election involves a secret ballot—something of which they have no experience—and that it will be run to the highest standards so that they can accept the result. That is important.
Cambodia is turning to us to send 50 people from all our local authorities who are prepared to join 950 people from other parts of the world to ensure that the election is run properly. The election could be crucial. We could have another Angola or we could move forward into a wholly different situation. That is a simple example of where standards that we have established and seek to maintain could be put to immediate practical effect.
One of the essential elements of "Agenda for Peace" is what we call preventive diplomacy. It is far better to prevent a dispute or a breakdown in society. One official from the Foreign Office or one ambassador is much cheaper than a battalion or an international rescue attempt, such as we have seen in Somalia. The Bill offers one further thread in that ability to prevent trouble and assist with preventive diplomacy.
The amount of money that we devote to preventive diplomacy is minuscule. It includes the know-how funds, which are essential. The Foreign Office budget represents only 1 per cent. of public expenditure. As "Agenda for Peace" suggests, diplomacy is the real way in which we defend our values and standards and share in giving assistance to other countries. So 1 per cent. of public expenditure seems a small amount to devote to that priority. That is not the issue with which we are dealing today, but all of us in the House should ensure that the means exist to play the full part that we can play because of Britain's history.
Britain is the only country in the world which is a member of the Security Council, the Commonwealth and the European Community. That is a unique combination which no other country has. That is to say nothing of our historical links through the Commonwealth with many other parts of the world. We can give much in terms of diplomatic skills and funds such as the know-how fund. We can share the skills of our local authorities wherever in the world they are most needed.
We have concentrated a great deal on the know-how funds as the means of assisting countries in eastern Europe. Indeed, we see daily how desperate Russia is for assistance. I am 110 per cent. behind that effort. Having provided the means for the implementation of the measures in the Bill, we need to grow the powers and ensure that the assistance is accepted. We need to propagate the knowledge in the relevant countries that the service is available.
It may reassure some of my colleagues who mentioned their anxieties about local government and local opinion that the initiative usually comes from the recipient 1372 country. People turn to our local Foreign Office staff and say that they desperately need help on a certain matter. The Foreign Office makes a list from which local authorities make a bid to carry out the project. The Foreign Office ensures that the local authority is not only expert in that matter, but is able to make the link.
I said on Second Reading that many towns, cities and counties in Britain were linked to places in other countries. It is helpful if a link already exists and people have already got together for other reasons. In giving technical assistance and offering help, it is essential not only to provide assistance but to monitor it and continue to support it. In many cases, people have been offered help and advice and left to get on with it. So many things in this life require constant monitoring and assistance.
The town clerk in Harare, which is twinned with Nottingham, can pick up the telephone and speak to the chief executive of Nottinghamshire county council and say, "Michael, I have a problem. How can you assist?" The chief executive can immediately respond by sending a further officer or by offering advice on the telephone. Much can be achieved by such a human link.
Interestingly, other Commonwealth countries operate similar systems. I was particularly interested in the Federation of Canadian Municipalities international programme, whose symbol isTogether we can change the world"—what a good symbol, because apart we can destroy the world, which I am afraid is happening in too many parts of the world. In terms of the benefit to British people, one of its findings is interesting. It says that the programmes that it has already establishedhave had a very positive impact on the Canadian municipalities involved, particularly in terms of professional growth. An improvement in the morale of Canadian municipal staff involved in the exchanges, and a shift in their attitude to how their city functions is beginning to be seen.It further commented on the link between Burkina and Quebec:Managers who have gone to Burkina have found lessons to be learned. In Quebec, one gets used to a standard of life, to good working conditions. Seeing the situation in Bogande gives one some humility. One also learns much by the way people there have retained the strong human warmth, in their business relations as well as their day-to-day life, something we have lost a little of here.There is a two-way process, which can only be to the benefit of the local community. I am sure that all my colleagues will agree that we must build on that example.
Where do we go from here? One wants to look to the future. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Commonwealth should start to see how it can link our local authority associations with those in other parts of the Commonwealth. That is a natural link. Sadly, many parts of the Commonwealth are still undeveloped and local authority associations may not exist. I hope that one of the sponsors of the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd), who is a member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, will be able to make such a proposal for consideration at the association's international conference and, I hope, at the Heads of State conference. It would help to unite and assist the Commonwealth to develop and propagate the principle that together we can change the world.
I want my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall), who is president of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, to use the beneficent effects of the IPU to be big brother in the kindest and most helpful way to the many 1373 little brothers in local government. I hope that, through his good offices, he will be able to make the rest of the international community aware of the many talents that British local government can offer in building a single world.
I am sure that no sane council tax payer would begrudge such measures of assistance or would take the line about junketing and all the negative attitudes that people tend to mention.
Eastern and central Europe are covered by a fund that is already established. I should like it to be enlarged and used as effectively as possible, but my interest is in countries that have less than those in eastern and central Europe, which are covered by the Overseas Development Adminstration. I hope that we can encourage officials and the very able ODA Minister to take account of the Bill under the technical link scheme, because the Bill is the most cost-effective means of offering assistance. Instead of the ODA using international consuultants, the Bill is a more direct practical link. The ODA may need to change its thinking, which sometimes takes a little time. The de minimis provision of our overseas aid budget is very small, but, cumulatively, the small amount that a local authority can spend under the Bill and, with ministerial encouragement, under the general authorisation could do an enormous amount of good. It would be helpful if my friends at the ODA began to think positively about how the relevant local authorities will be asked to offer assistance.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
Does my hon. Friend agree that, although it is essential to give as much help and assistance as possible to overseas countries, it is important that they have to pass the litmus test of being a democratic system in order to receive financial aid? That is one of the criteria that were first suggested by the Foreign Office.
§ Mr. Lester
That should not be the first litmus test, because much of what we are doing is to enable such countries to establish democratic systems. The only way in which we can genuinely serve communities throughout the world is under a democratic system. We must be a little careful in thinking that we have the only democratic system. There must be accountable government at any level where Governments should be accountable to the people that they serve. How countries achieve that object is very much a matter for them. The thrust of the Bill and of my speech is that we are trying to export our high standards, and democracy in this place is one of our highest standards.
I hope that this small Bill will have an enormous and profound effect. I am most grateful to all those who played a part in drafting it, in developing it and in crafting it in Committee: Opposition Members have been constructive and supportive; Conservative Members have revealed their intimate knowledge of the subject; the Government have been very supportive; and the Local Government International Bureau and members of local authorities shared the best of their knowledge and experience. I thank in advance Baroness Flather, who was commended by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), and who I am sure will do a marvellous job in the House of Lords.
1374 I hope that before we adjourn for the summer recess all those who played a part in drafting the Bill will take the same joy and fundamental sense of purpose from their role and that the Bill will be given Royal Assent before the summer recess.
§ Mr. Pickles
I congratulate by hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) on his initiative in promoting the Bill. My hon. Friend was luckly to come high in the private Member's ballot. I do not know whether he came first or second. He could have chosen a controversial subject and achieved a lot of national publicity. It is entirely consistent with his distinguished record that he should choose to promote a Bill which will do good both on the local government scene and, more important, on the international scene.
The world has changed a great deal over the past few years. The great founding fathers of modern local government would be surprised to find British local government offering advice and assistance to countries many miles from these shores. Those engaged in local government activities are surprised to find that many of the problems and challenges faced in Britain by those seeking to deliver good local administration are almost exactly the same as the problems faced in Africa and in the former eastern bloc. It is important that we enable local councils to share their experiences and to point to good practice to ensure that democracy flourishes in other countries. Democracy now exists from Stettin to well beyond the Urals. It may not be the kind of democracy that is readily recognisable by the good councillors of Brentwood District or of Epping Forest District, but it is a vibrant and developing democracy.
The powers in the Bill are built on good local government practice. There has been a gradual build-up of information. The Bill is important in clarifying and codifying practices that are developing. We need to ensure that in years to come, district auditors, whether sharp-suited or not—my experience of district auditors leads me to believe that they are unlikely to be sharp-suited—will not be able to rule these matters outside the competence of local authorities. As we are all aware, the principal function of a district auditor is to arrive on the battleground long after the battle has been won and lost and noisily to bayonet the wounded. We need to ensure that local authorities have the power to avoid such problems.
In Committee and on Report, hon. Members have expressed the worry that the Bill will open the doors to junketing. I have been very critical of junketing. We must make it clear that the advice offered is largely technical and practical. It is principally designed to ensure that the officers and practitioners of the council have the opportunity to share their experience with people from other countries. I make a prediction. The clanking of the mayoral chain will not be heard as a result of the powers that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe seeks to give local government.
The new powers will develop in the way in which the twinning powers of local authorities have developed over the past 50 or 60 years. When I first became a councillor, I listened to a moving description of the patient and painstaking way in which links were built between this country, France and Germany between the two world wars 1375 and of the way in which, after the conclusion of the second world war, those links were patiently and gradually built up again. Local authorities, along with the local communities, were prepared to make enormous efforts to forge links. Families from across Europe and beyond have grown up together. Schoolchildren have become familiar with the customs of this country, and our schoolchildren have become familiar with customs of other countries. There have been exchanges of cultural events and exchanges of trade events.
The links are directly relevant to the Bill. As I know from my constituency of Brentwood and Ongar, the schoolchildren from abroad who visited my part of Essex in the 1950s and 1960s are now adults of some importance in local industry, in local councils and in local business. They are familiar with Essex and we are familiar with the parts of the world from which they came. Naturally, when we think in terms of trade, of cultural exchanges, or of advice, we look to the people whom we have known for most of our lives. The Bill will start an important movement because the friendships and professional advice proposed in the Bill will serve this country well. We should not be too starry-eyed. The aims of my hon. Friend from Broxtowe are good and decent, and will bring democracy. The Bill will also help to promote the interests of this country. The development of democracy and economic growth in the countries concerned will have a direct bearing on our economy.
What do the newly emergent democracies want? I have had the opportunity to offer advice to colleagues in other lands. What strikes me most forcefully about eastern Europe is the fact that a whole generation has disappeared in terms of leadership. The people who run local councils and local democracy have had no experience of such work. They are generally people on the fringes of society. Many were imprisoned under the former regimes. They now find that, having stormed the barricades, they have to deal with many of the difficult practicalities that come with running a modern local council. I welcome the Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe on making a valuable contribution to local government. I look forward to the Bill being given Royal Assent this year.
§ Sir Michael Marshall (Arundel)
I am glad to have the opportunity to follow my hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) and for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), because I intend to address a number of the points they raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe rightly took us into the wider international dimension which lies behind the Bill. He is somewhat modest in speaking of it as a "little" Bill. The legislation has the potential to create an important extension of the development of the democratic process in many parts of the world.
I will outline some of the aspects of the legislation from my standpoint as president of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe asked me what the IPU could do in taking the process forward. I will outline what is happening at present and consider briefly how the process may go further. I will deal first with specific examples of local government activity within parliaments and within the IPU. One of the most striking examples, of which a number of hon. Members have experience, is the fact that delegations from many 1376 countries, especially the newly emergent democracies in central and eastern Europe, relate strongly to the constituency visits and to discussions at local government level. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar said, we are dealing with a generation of people who have no experience of such structures.
I slightly disagreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar when he said that he saw multi-party democracy only in the officer context. I do not want to ignore the role of councillors in providing the sort of crash courses and assistance needed. I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that such work can be undertaken by people with worried looks and heavy frowns, not those wearing chains for ceremonial purposes, but links are being forged by parliamentary visits, particularly of those coming to this country from the newly emerging democracies.
The IPU stands for the peaceful resolution of conflicts and the development of representative institutions—two processes that are intermingled—and is able to take the process wider still. The IPU can help in deploying the interests of local government at the elected level as well as the interests of Parliament and national Government at a higher level.
Cambodia has been mentioned. It is a good example of the way in which the partnership is beginning to emerge. I had the chance to meet Dr. Boutros Boutros Ghali a few weeks ago specifically to discuss what can be done to assist in the electoral process in Cambodia. I am sure that it will be appreciated that trying to co-ordinate the work of 118 Parliaments—not just one's own Government—is an enormous task. It is not easy, and we are still in the early days.
There is a worry over Cambodia. In Angola, while the electoral process was generally seen as free and fair, it was challenged simply because the presence of overseas observers was limited. There were not enough people on the ground to prevent the sort of challenge to the outcome by opposition parties and others. That is why the United Nations has overall direction of the Cambodian elections and is seeking to assist at every level and particularly—as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe said—in the process of overseeing the polling stations which are often in remote areas.
The process is not confined merely to local government officers and councillors. The request has gone out to Members of Parliament to undertake such work, which is arduous and in some ways seen as lower down the scale of work normally undertaken. However, the needs are such that the appeal has gone out on the wider spaces. I am proud to see that a number of hon. Members have considered the matter carefully—and I believe that some will come forward to assist the process, and possibly camp up country to participate in it.
Last week, I had the chance to visit the Romanian Parliament and address the Chamber of Deputies. We had perhaps underestimated the way in which that Parliament is moving towards a wider multi-party spread than we had previously thought. The Romanian Speaker will visit this country soon and will, I know, hope to have the opportunity of discussing with you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and your colleagues, the activities of the Chair in the way in which our parliamentary organisations are currently structured. In Romania, debates quickly turn to issues of local government and how it should be organised. Discussions then bring into play the way in which such 1377 activities can be underpinned. The various possibilities include not just the know-how fund and the opportunities provided through the British Association for Central and Eastern Europe, but the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is doing important work in ensuring that party organisations have a chance to grow and develop. The current project list is widely drawn, although I suspect that it does not go as far towards local government as many hon. Members would wish. That is precisely why the Bill is so well timed and can act as a catalyst in taking the process forward.
I will not seek to rehearse the discussions that we had in Committee, but I am worried about one or two aspects of our proceedings this morning. Some of my hon. Friends—including, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin)—seemed to believe that the process could displace commercial activities. I believe that it will have the opposite effect. My experience of county councils shows that they are organised to provide the know-how on road building and management for many parts of the world, not just central and eastern Europe, but Africa and Asia. In doing so, they bring British civil engineering interests into the various consortia. Specific commercial opportunities are provided by the work that is encouraged by the Bill.
Looking to the future, there are ways in which the process can be accelerated and taken wider to bring together a partnership of local government, councillors, the House of Commons, the other place, Government and commercial interests in schemes that have validity in a world with ever-increasing needs. I do not know what the local authority organisations are currently doing, but here may be a case for creating some sort of international organisation of local authorities to exchange ideas. We cannot simply assume that it should be a purely British effort.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe referred to work being done by the Canadian municipal organisations. In Committee, I asked my hon. Friend the Minister whether he had any other examples of the work being done in other countries. My research suggests that there is not much information on that subject, and I have the impression that the work in that sphere is limited.
In my response to the Bill, which I trust will become an Act, I will ensure that we take the process forward and draw it to the attention of the 118 Parliaments so that they take back to their local authorities the suggestions made. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, through his work on the Bill, has started the process. I hope that it will be not only irreversible but worldwide.
§ 12.7 pm
§ Mr. Whittingdale
I will make a brief speech. I do not want to detain the House long and I am aware that other hon. Members wish to speak.
I was unable to be present for the Bill's Second Reading, but I read the debate carefully, and the subsequent Committee stage. I join my other hon. Friends in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) on introducing the Bill, which appears to have won wide support on both sides of the House.
1378 The collapse of communism and what has happened in eastern Europe in the past couple of years is the most exciting event during my lifetime. I went to eastern Europe in 1983 and saw the state of poverty and the expressions of despair. I never thought that the collapse of communism would happen so quickly or come so soon.
With the collapse of communism come new problems, both economic and political. It is essential that we in the west give every assistance that we can to the people in eastern Europe to make the transition to an economic free market and political democracy. This country has been at the forefront in giving economic assistance through the know-how fund and other institutions, such as the European bank for reconstruction and development, the British Council and, most recently, the foundation set up by Baroness Thatcher, with which I had a small connection before becoming a Member of Parliament.
Such efforts must be matched by political assistance. My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Sir M. Marshall) mentioned the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is doing good work in helping embryonic political parties in eastern Europe. The Conservative party has also been providing those parties with help on campaign techniques and political skills. It is essential that we should help not merely national political parties, but local ones.
When I made a brief visit to eastern Siberia with Baroness Thatcher, we stopped to refuel at Bratsk. She was greeted by a delegation of local dignitaries, who turned out to be the hierarchy of the Irkutsk communist party. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe said that the essential requirement for functioning democracy is accountability, but I believe that that delegation had no accountability to the people of Irkutsk. I suspect that its members were accountable only to the Kremlin.
It is extremely important that we should give all the help that we can to the countries of eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and other parts of the world to develop properly functioning local democracy. That is why I welcome the creation of the technical link scheme by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and why I give my full support to the Bill.
We have a long tradition in this country of town twinning links which have been set up to improve international relationships and promote friendship with other European countries. Essex, my area, is twinned with the region of Picardy. Maldon is twinned with Cuijk in Holland, a link established 14 years ago by the then mayor, Ron Daws. Since then, there have been regular exchanges between the two towns.
Colchester is twinned with Wetzlar in Germany and with Avignon, and has developed friendships with the towns of Siena, Zwolle, Tarragona and Tortosa. All these places are in western Europe. They provide valuable links, but we need to look further. We need to encourage towns such as the ones in my constituency that I have mentioned to develop links with towns and villages in eastern Europe and beyond, so that we can pass on to them our experience and skills and help them to develop their own forms of local democracy.
I welcome the Bill and I hope that towns across the country will take advantage of it, so that in due course Colchester will be twinned not just with Wetzlar but with Vladivostok, and Maldon not just with Cuijk but also with Cracow. This Bill will enable them to do that, and I give it my full support.
§ Mr. Bowis
I had not realised until now that my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale) was responsible for sending our Former noble leader to Siberia. I salute my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) for introducing the measure and for all that he does for the developing world east and west of the iron curtain. Occasionally, we have to mix our envy of his endurance of the tropical sun with admiration for what he achieves on these countries' behalf.
The Bill meets the concerns of local authorities about the possibility of finding themselves acting ultra wires. I will want to continue to monitor their concerns about currency fluctuations affecting the implementation of their plans. Given the uncertainties of currencies like the rouble, we do not want to find that a council that has sent staff somewhere runs out of money before the scheme has got under way. That problem needs to be treated with sympathy by the powers that be.
I entirely endorse the point about countries that a re not yet democracies. My hon. Friend mentioned Cambodia, for instance. I recall being in Namibia in the run-up to what the United Nations deemed were free and fair elections. There I met an electoral registration officer from Somerset, offering his expertise. I should like that to happen in more parts of the world, such as Palestine.
I would encourage local authorities to use for this purpose officers who have just retired. They have the requisite expertise, and using them will not deprive communities of that expertise. I think particularly of the former chief executive of my former council of Kingston—recorded as Wandsworth in the Official Report of the Committee proceedings—Bob McCloy, who has done so much for Bulgaria.
As for the financial benefits to local authorities, Wandsworth council has been selling its advisory services to many parts of the world, especially eastern and central Europe. Last year, that brought in £100,000 for the benefit of the community. That sort of activity should be further developed.
The Bill goes a long way towards bringing benefits to the recipient countries—and to the donor countries. Our councils can often learn something from the procedures and practices of the towns abroad to which they go. That is why we should endorse the Bill and wish it well. I wish Baroness Flather every success in taking the Bill through the other place, and I congratulate my hon. Friend once again on taking the measure through to the statute book.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
Because time is short I will briefly offer my sincere and wholehearted congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) on bringing in the Bill. The clarification that it affords is well overdue. The world is becoming like a global village; we must reach out and help those in need.
Of course we must help emerging democracies, but I must emphasise that know-how funds should primarily be given to countries that are already democracies. Advice is also badly needed. When I was in Yugoslavia before Christmas monitoring the elections it became clear to me how much that country need good advice on how to run elections. I will not go into the political shenanigans that were going on, but there was a genuine need to understand how to carry out free and fair elections.
1380 The Bill is welcome because it can serve as a vehicle for developing trade links, too. In a week of great tragedy for Warrington, I have heard that the borough council there is doing magnificent work developing trade links in the form of technical expertise with eastern Europe, especially Czechoslovakia—to the tremendous benefit of local businesses.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member For Broxtowe on a splendid effort.
§ Mr. Carrington
I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester). He has piloted the Bill through with considerable skill. The Bill is timely because it will be of general application—and specific application to eastern Europe, an area with which we have great historical and cultural ties. Its attitudes to democracy can be expected to be similar to our own and its structures will benefit enormously from being able to call on the expertise of British local government.
It is impossible to run a functioning system of democracy without that democracy permeating to the lowest levels of society, and working effectively there. It must permeate all activities in the public domain, as well. That is the area in which this country has a great deal to offer others.
That assistance must be given at other countries' request, however, not at our insisting. Only they know what they need for their democracy. We can provide the extra technical assistance to enable them to achieve their self-defined democratic goals, and that is what the Bill does. Hence, I strongly support it; I congratulate my hon. Friend and I look forward to the Bill's successful passage through another place.
§ Mr. Nigel Evans
I am grateful to have the opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) on his important Bill. It is tempting to say that we should of course automatically give countries in need of assistance the help that they need. Not so; when canvassing one's constituents, one often hears them say. "We have our own problems here. The money you spend on overseas assistance should be spent on this country." I do not share that view. Emerging democracies are fragile flowers which need oxygen to survive. If we, through our work here, can give them part of our oxygen, they will grow and blossom.
In the past, I was sceptical. I was on West Glamorgan county council for six years and made it clear from the start that I would not go on any foreign trips. During my time there, I did not take any such trips although there were opportunities to do so. The discerning electorate will be able to see whether local authorities are abusing the privileges that the Bill will grant them to assist emerging countries. They will know whether the system is being used or abused.
The Bill will banish the jolly-junket image and every pound will be invested properly to assist emerging overseas democracies. When I was a councillor in West Glamorgan, many of the areas that I represented were twinned with other towns and villages. Some of the boards and banners in our towns and villages suggest that it would be easier to state the places that they are not twinned with. However, twinning gives valuable two-way information. We, as well 1381 as the countries that we are assisting, will benefit from contact. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe and have great pleasure in supporting the Bill.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
I associate the Opposition with all that has been said about the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) and his excellent Bill. We are delighted at its progress and wish it fair wind in another place. When I listen to the hon. Gentleman in Committee and in the House, I realise what a thoroughly decent person he is. He has the distinction, the badge of merit, of being one of the first Ministers to be sacked by Mrs. Thatcher when she became Prime Minister. That was because he is such a thoroughly decent person.
I was interested to hear that the hon. Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale) accompanied Lady Thatcher to deepest, darkest and ice-bound Russia and that she was greeted by members of the local Communist party. They recognise a good old Stalinist when they see one and if they ever wish to restore Stalinism, Baroness Thatcher will be an excellent person to take over and consult.
We have had many clashes in the Chamber over the role and functions of local government: we gently touched on a few of them today. Many Conservative Members have local authority backgrounds. I am a passionate believer in the role of local government, which has been sorely undermined since 1979 by many Conservative policies. The Prime Minister recently spoke about the need for partnership between local and central Government and about the need to move away from the acrimonious past. We all say, "Hear, hear" to that, but we want to see action by the Government; otherwise what the Prime Minister said will remain mere words. So many powers have been taken from local government and it has been so sorely undermined that not just words but Government action are needed to remedy all the past attacks. Without that, I am afraid that our local democratic structure will remain fragile.
There is much to be proud of in what is left of local government in terms of its structures, democracy and traditions and, in terms of what we have been debating,—its expertise. It is little wonder that east European and other countries have turned to our local authorities for assistance in the areas that hon. Members have mentioned in this short Third Reading debate. Long may those requests come in and long may we be able to extend that expertise, tradition and everything else that is good about local government to countries elsewhere, and especially in eastern Europe, that are struggling to enjoy the light of democracy.
Local authorities need to do a great deal to assist emerging democracies. The hon. Member for Broxtowe was correct when he said that we must not say, "We will assist you only when you are a fully fledged democracy." One could argue that our democracy is not as fully developed as we want it to be, and we have had many generations of practice. It is a little much to expect emerging democracies in eastern Europe to make an enormous leap in a short time. They need help and encouragement, and that is precisely what the Bill is about.
1382 Governments must do more. I was delighted by what President Clinton said about the G7 and its role in helping President Yeltsin in Russia. In the same context, I was not happy to hear what our Foreign Secretary said in Washington—that policies to assist would simply not be justified at the moment because of the economic position in Russia. We need to assist at both national and local level.
The hon. Member for Broxtowe said that he hoped that the Bill would receive a fair wind in another place and that it would receive Royal Assent before the summer recess. I am confident about that. I somehow feel that the Maastricht Bill will not reach the statute book as speedily as the hon. Gentleman's excellent measure.
§ Mr. Robin Squire
I suspect that I shall be the last Member in the debate to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) on his good fortune in winning the ballot, on choosing the Bill and on his skill in guiding it through its various stages today and in previous proceedings. I also congratulate hon. Members who have taken part in our proceedings. Anyone reading the reports of the Second Reading and Committee debates will be struck by the depth of expertise displayed by all hon. Members. That reflects well on the House.
The Bill has the strong support of Government and local government. I am pleased that it is strongly supported in all parts of the House. Its purpose is to clear up the confusion that exists over local authorities' powers to provide technical assistance overseas.
The needs of such assistance, and local authorities' capacity to provide it, were brought home to me last week when I attended and spoke to the Council of Europe's Standing Conference of Local and Regional Authorities annual conference in Strasbourg. Progress in some of the east European countries—Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic—is encouraging, and they are gaining local government experience and skills rapidly. I believe that the assistance of our authorities and other western European authorities has played a significant part in this.
All this modest but self-evidently useful and good work has been put in jeopardy by the doubts that have arisen over local authorities' powers. The only way to remove those doubts is by primary legislation and that is why the Government, and the local authority associations are so grateful to my hon. Friend for agreeing to take on this Bill. Indeed, one of the features of the whole history of the Bill has been the close co-operation and constructive dialogue between central and local government. I might add that this is one example of many which illustrates the improving relationship between us, which the press and—dare I say it—even at times, Labour Members seem unaware of, or choose to ignore.
The Bill is a short and relatively simple measure—a "minor" piece of legislation. It will not grab headlines, but it will enable our local authorities to help communities of all sizes in other parts of the world. It will help in the provision of vital assistance to eastern Europe, but it will also help in the wider world. Who can look at the television pictures coming out of Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Angola without wishing that there was something, however small, that we could do to help the ordinary people of these countries? Local government matters. It matters here in Britain. How much more important it must 1383 be in countries struggling to achieve the basic level of stability and organisation necessary to begin to save and improve people's lives. In passing the Bill, hon. Members on both sides of the House will be doing something that allows our country to make a positive contribution to the world we live in and to help those of our fellow men and women who are so much less fortunate than ourselves. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill read the Third time, and passed.