HC Deb 30 June 1995 vol 262 cc1145-221

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Chapman.]

9.35 am
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. As the debate is about the conduct of local government, and as there have been so many well-publicised problems and cases of incompetence and maladministration in local government in Opposition-controlled seats such as those in Birmingham and Islington, is it in order that it should take place without Opposition Members being present?

Madam Speaker

Those are matters that must be raised during the debate.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Has the Chair any power to flush out Opposition Members so that we can hear from them? The Opposition Benches are virtually empty.

Madam Speaker

Order. Let us see how the debate develops.

Mr. Clappison

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

No, there are no further points of order. The debate is about local government. It is not for the Chair to determine which hon. Members should be here. The debate must continue in the usual way.

Mr. Clappison

rose

Madam Speaker

Will the hon. Gentleman resume his seat until I have finished? If he has a real point of order with which I can deal, I shall hear it.

Mr. Clappison

I spy strangers.

Madam Speaker

I am not willing to accept that motion at this stage. A leading member of the Government is here, ready to start the debate.

Mr. Clappison

rose

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Bearing in mind the fact that this is a well-publicised debate—indeed, it has been subject to a number of criticisms—I should have expected the Opposition Benches to be fuller. Can you ensure, Madam Speaker, that the annunciators are working? That is important because, if they are not, some hon. Members might not be aware that the House sits at 9.30 am on Fridays.

Madam Speaker

I always check before I come into the Chamber that the annunciators are operating. Points of order are now over.

9.37 am
The Minister Without Portfolio (Mr. Jeremy Hanley)

I welcome the opportunity to have this debate because it is a debate on the conduct of local government in Great Britain, which is an extremely important subject. It is one on which I and my right hon. and hon. Friends have focused our attentions over the past few months, especially during last month's local elections. We highlighted the extra cost in council tax of living under a Labour or Liberal Democrat-controlled council.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that, only a matter of a few days ago, the Government made sure that Labour-controlled Norwich city council did not impose excessive council tax increases on the people of Norwich? Is not that the right way for the Government to proceed? Is not it a fact that the Labour councillors who attack Conservative measures are not protecting or helping council tax payers in Norwich?

Mr. Hanley

I wholly agree with my hon. Friend. There is no doubt that if Labour councils were left to their own devices, people would be charged even more than they are now. Even with capping, for band C properties Labour councils will this year charge £163 a year more and Liberal councils £112 a year more than the average for band C under Conservative-controlled administrations.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

In Ealing, the new Labour council immediately put up the council tax by 10 per cent. It said, spuriously, that it was £15 million in debt because of its predecessor, although it had inherited a balance of £12 million. It cut 300 jobs, closed old people's homes, sacked people who deliver meals to the elderly and sacked teachers. Now we discover that there is £17 million in the kitty and that the council is going to repay debts of £39 million that it incurred when it was last in control of Ealing. What a wicked and mendacious lot those people are.

Mr. Hanley

My hon. Friend—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. Before the Minister replies, I will set out how I intend the debate to continue. It is a serious debate.

Mr. Greenway

It is a serious point.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am sure that it is; I am not referring to the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway). I listened to the points of order to Madam Speaker at the beginning of the debate. The debate will now continue seriously and the Chair will not suffer any nonsense this morning.

Mr. Hanley

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Greenway

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. While I accept your ruling and the fact that you said in response to my incorrect sedentary intervention that you took my remarks seriously, I stress that I have made an extremely serious point about a subject that is infuriating my constituents, the constituents of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), who is present in the Chamber, and probably the rest of the country.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have already told the hon. Member for Ealing, North that I was not referring to his intervention.

Mr. Norman Hogg (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am reluctant to raise a point of order, but as you rightly said, it is an important debate about a serious matter. Why, then, have the Government brought along their master of ceremonies rather than the—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That is not a serious point of order either.

Mr. Hanley

It is certainly not, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall explain why I am here. I am here because I am a Cabinet Minister who sits on the ministerial Committee on Local Government, and because the issues have not been given a fair hearing. They are extremely important matters and we should turn the spotlight into the dark corners of town halls that are run by the Opposition parties. We exposed a catalogue of—

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Opposition Members are mocking my right hon. Friend, but is it not within your power to call upon the Leader of the Opposition to make a clear statement to the House about what he knew and when he knew it?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That is the end of the nonsense.

Mr. Hanley

I am grateful for your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I must say—particularly to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), who is a fair man—

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hanley

If my hon. Friend will allow me to make a little progress, I shall willingly give way. I hope that the community at large will see that my right hon. and hon. Friends are very keen to express their views on the subject. There have been precious few opportunities to deal with the conduct of local government in Great Britain. We have turned the spotlight into the dark corners of town halls that are run by the Opposition parties. During the local government election campaign, we exposed a catalogue of endemic waste, bureaucracy, mismanagement and, yes, even corruption. However, before I refer—

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hanley

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman and then I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown).

Mr. Rendel

Is the Minister telling us that his exposure of what has happened in Labour and Liberal Democrat-run councils and his capping of those authorities has led to the Conservative party's dropping to third place in local government?

Mr. Hanley

I shall deal directly with that matter.

I think that the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) will admit that, while we all know that democracy is an imperfect science, during local government election campaigns, concentration on the real issues is perhaps not at the forefront of many voters' minds. Today my right hon. and hon. Friends will remind the general public that, in their desire to vote as they wish in local elections—as they are perfectly entitled to do—perhaps about national matters—

Mr. Rendel

indicated assent.

Mr. Hanley

Yes, they are perfectly entitled to do that. However, there are other very serious issues that perhaps they did not concentrate on during the recent local election campaign. I look forward to hearing my right hon. and hon. Friends set out those issues today. I am sure that Opposition Members believe that it is an important subject and I look forward to their contributions also. I hope that they will answer some of the charges that my right hon. and hon. Friends will put to them.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

My right hon. Friend will be aware that last week the Government announced their capping decision in relation to Gloucestershire county council. Is he also aware that, although the Government have given a small increase to Gloucestershire county council this year, the council has cut school budgets by between 4 per cent. and 7 per cent? The budget of one rural school in my constituency has been cut by more than 20 per cent.

Is it not a disgrace for the people of Gloucestershire that the county council is running its affairs in that way? Is it not a disgrace for the people of Gloucestershire that the council has wasted £500,000 this year redoing its bills due to its failure to present a case on the cap, on top of the £500,000 that it wasted two years ago? The council wasted £1 million in shredded paper challenging the elected Government of the day. Would not that wasted £1 million go a long way towards helping the old people and the children of Gloucestershire?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Interventions should be brief and to the point.

Mr. Hanley

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. It is true that, throughout the local government campaign, Liberal Democrat councils and their leaders concentrated very much on the issue of education. I remember when the leader of the Liberal Democrats said that the local government election should be a referendum on education. The fact that only 15 per cent. of all councillors who were up for election had anything to do with education was neither here nor there.

Mr. McLoughlin

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Some time ago I raised a point of order with Madam Speaker and said that it was quite amazing that hardly any English Members of Parliament were present in the Chamber for a very important debate that has been long trailed. Therefore, I beg to move, That strangers do withdraw.

Notice having been taken that strangers were present, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER, pursuant to Standing Order No. 143 (Withdrawal of strangers from House), put forthwith the Question, That strangers do withdraw:—

The House proceeded to a Division.

Mr. Norman Hogg (seated and covered)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it right and is it in order for the public and the press to be cleared from the Galleries of the House of Commons on a day when we are discussing local government and, yes, some serious problems in local government?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I cannot help the hon. Gentleman. He may have his own views, but it is a matter for the House to decide.

The House having divided: Ayes 0, Noes 74.

Division No. 188] [9.45 am
AYES
Nil
Tellers for the Ayes:
Mr. Robert Hughes and
Mr. Alan Duncan.
NOES
Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset) Kirkhope, Timothy
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Knapman, Roger
Brazier, Julian Knight, Greg (Derby N)
Bright, Sir Graham Lamont, Rt Hon Norman
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Lang, Rt Hon Ian
Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Legg, Barry
Cash, William Leigh, Edward
Chapman, Sydney MacKay, Andrew
Clappison, James Maclean, Rt Hon David
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey McLoughlin, Patrick
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st) Maitland, Lady Olga
Davis, David (Boothferry) Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Deva, Nirj Joseph Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Merchant Piers
Duncan-Smith, Iain Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Dykes, Hugh Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Eggar, Rt Hon Tim Neubert, Sir Michael
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley) Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Paice, James
Forth, Eric Patnick, Sir Irvine
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring) Redwood, Rt Hon John
French, Douglas Rendel, David
Garnier, Edward Robathan, Andrew
Gillan, Cheryl Ryder, Rt Hon Richard
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair Shaw, David (Dover)
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Sims, Roger
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Stephen, Michael
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Streeter, Gary
Hanley, Rt Hon Jeremy Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Hawkins, Nick Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Hawksley, Warren Twinn, Dr Ian
Hayes, Jerry Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Heald, Oliver Whittingdale, John
Hendry, Charles Wilshire, David
Hicks, Robert Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Horam, John
Jack, Michael Tellers for the Noes:
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey Mr. Timothy Wood and
Jones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr) Mr. Simon Burns.

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I would like the debate to proceed as quickly as possible, but was it in order for the Government—having set the business for this morning—to deploy Government Whips in the calling of a Division and the telling of both Lobbies in an effort to clear the Galleries and to stop the press reporting the debate?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That matter is not for the Chair.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman is trying to mislead the House. The fact is that we need to flush out how few Labour Members are present.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That was not a point of order.

Mr. Charles Hendry (High Peak)

rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I make it clear to the House that I will have no further bogus points of order. This is a serious debate and it is about time that we got on with it.

Mr. Hendry

On a separate point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It had better be genuine.

Mr. Hendry

It is, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) rose to the Dispatch Box, I thought that he was going to apologise for saying on the radio this morning that the Prime Minister had lied to the House.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That matter is not for the Chair either.

Mr. Hanley

Before I was rudely interrupted, I was dealing with a point raised by the hon. Member for Newbury. The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) had said that the local government campaign should be a referendum on education. I was explaining that only 15 per cent. of all councillors had anything to do with education. The campaign led by the right hon. Member for Yeovil was a disgrace. Every Conservative education authority met the teachers' pay claim in full. The only people who have been playing political football with the teachers have been the Liberal Democrats, aided and abetted by the party that is on the same wing—the Labour party. Conservative education authorities met their claims in full. It will be interesting to see how many teachers there are this autumn. I believe that the number will not be as low as the scare stories put about by the Opposition.

Before I deal in detail with many of the disturbing stories that have appeared in the press and which Labour has found somewhat inconvenient, I shall address two points raised this morning, which Labour has been making consistently since 4 May. I have heard it said that the results of the local government elections suggested that voters rejected the better value of Conservative councils. That is nonsense. The small number of people who turned out to vote did not, regrettably, do so on local issues, but we proved that Conservative councillors produce better value and services. I have heard it said also that Labour's appalling record in local government was in some way endorsed by the electorate on 4 May. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even a cursory look at the figures shows that only 18 per cent. of all people entitled to vote in the local elections turned out to support the new "New Labour" party—the all-singing, all-dancing, all-image Labour party. That can hardly give great comfort to the Labour party. I do not call that 18 per cent. an endorsement. Instead, I call it damning with faint praise. I regret that many of the electorate stayed at home on 4 May. Those who cast their vote without considering the local implications will pay dearly under their new councils.

Local government is important to people. It is—

Mr. Hendry

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in one ward in my constituency the Labour party won with 18 per cent. of the electorate's vote? Does not that show that 82 per cent. of the electorate did not vote Labour? It makes rather hollow Labour's claim of victory.

Mr. Hanley

My hon. Friend emphasises my point. Over the next two years we must encourage those who stayed at home to concentrate on the real issues. The debate will bring out those issues, which were hidden during the local government election campaign by national factors.

Mr. Gordon McMaster (Paisley, South)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that in April, during the local government elections in Scotland, when a Conservative voter strolled to the polls and on his way stopped to buy a national lottery ticket, he was statistically more likely to win a cash prize than get a Tory council?

Mr. Hanley

The hon. Gentleman has made a jolly good crack. I look forward to his substantive speech. I was told earlier in the week that if the hon. Gentleman were to win the national lottery, he would still send out begging letters.

I much regret that local issues were not concentrated upon during the local government campaign. The media agreed with that. I much regret that some people will pay considerably more for local services, which will be put at risk under new Labour or the Labour-Liberal councils that have been imposed upon them.

As I said, local government is important to people. Indeed, it is vital. One fifth of all Government expenditure is spent by local authorities. Central Government support through the revenue support grant is roughly equivalent to 10p on the standard rate of income tax. It is vital, therefore, that we should concentrate on local government. It is not often that we concentrate on 20 per cent. of total Government expenditure in one debate.

The proper conduct of local government means that resources should be well used. It means also that priorities should be set according to genuine need. It means further that waste and bureaucracy should be cut. Political correctness should be kept out. Abuses of public money should be rooted out.

Mr. McLoughlin

My right hon. Friend is right that local government represents a vast amount of the public services that are provided. If extra money was made available during the year, especially for education, is my right hon. Friend aware that many of his right hon. and hon. Friends would wish to ensure that that money went straight into schools and not to local authorities? A number of us believe that some authorities have abused their position over the past years by not ensuring that moneys earmarked for education go into our schools. Will he take that on board during the discussions that will take place over the coming months?

Mr. Hanley

Yes. My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Many is the time that money given to Labour and Liberal councils for certain purposes has been plundered to serve other purposes. I hope that my hon. Friends will set out clearly during the debate what has happened, especially in councils where Liberal Democrats aided the Labour party in doing exactly what my hon. Friend described.

Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)

My right hon. Friend referred to political correctness. Does he agree that that is a feature of loony left councils that are run by Labour and Liberal Democrats, which the population finds most offensive? Is he aware, for example, that a registration certificate was refused to a child minder because she owned a golliwog? Is he—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Where?"] Is he aware that the "Ugly Duckling" has been banned because it has racist overtones? Is he aware—[HON. MEMBERS: "Where?"]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Interventions must be brief and to the point.

Mr. Hanley

I thank my hon. Friend. I am aware of those and many other stories. I hope that they will emerge during the debate.

The Conservative Government have made great strides in ensuring that the climate within which local government operates is one of efficiency and propriety, which substantially delivers our objectives. I pay tribute to my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of the Environment, which tries extremely hard to improve relations between central and local government. Nothing that we mention today is in any way designed to try to ruin the present relationship. Indeed, the very reverse is the position. Considerable progress has been made in building relationships between central and local government. We are trying to ensure that the Labour party recognises that inefficiencies are all too common. They are, of course, inconvenient when it comes to the new Labour image.

The Government have delivered a legislative framework that is designed to achieve gains in efficiency and to end abuses in local government. The establishment of the Audit Commission is among the most important of all the Government's initiatives. Recent Audit Commission reports have illustrated once again that the scope for efficiency savings in local government is far from exhausted. The commission's report on council tax collection last year showed that £100 million could be saved. Its report in January told us that during the six years after 1987, local authorities increased non-manual staffing by about 90,000. The commission reported that £500 million could be saved through the better management of staffing. We, the Government, know very well where savings could be made. Front line first is not the philosophy of Labour or Liberal Democrat councils. Jobs for the boys is much more to their liking. Cost cutting is not in their vocabulary.

Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hanley

Yes. I am sure, however, that the hon. Gentleman will speak later.

Mr. Robertson

On cost cutting, a conservative estimate of the cost to the country of introducing the poll tax was £14 billion. That money was wasted. Taxpayers' money went down the drain. Has not the right hon. Gentleman a word of apology to offer the nation for that waste?

Mr. Hanley

The hon. Gentleman may not have noticed, but we have had a general election since then. The Conservative party was endorsed. We introduced a system of raising local government money called the council tax, which has proved to be most successful. The poll tax is dead and gone. In the general election, the Conservative party was endorsed for that.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

Will my right hon. Friend remind Opposition Members that it was not Conservative councillors who recommended that the poll tax, as it was known—the community charge—should not be paid? That recommendation was made by Opposition councillors, councillors of the Labour party in Scotland and of the Scottish National party.

Mr. Hanley

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point.

Mr. Norman Hogg

It is not true.

Mr. Walker

It is true.

Mr. Hanley

The attitude of Opposition Members to savings in local government was set out clearly in their so-called policy document, which was issued in January. At the previous election, the Labour party wanted to abolish the Audit Commission. It clearly said so. Now it wants to give it a special, new responsibility to investigate the 10 councils with the lowest council tax levels, to find out why they are out of line. In effect, the Labour party is saying, "Why are you not spending more?" That is the only weapon that it is using in its war on waste.

There is an enormous flaw in Labour's cunning plan. The lowest council taxes have been levied by Conservative councils. If the auditors acted as Labour would wish, they would come up with one certain way of getting better services for lower taxes, and that is voting Conservative. Every Conservative council produces the very best value for the council tax payers.

In addition to the Audit Commission's work to promote efficiency, the Government established the Widdecombe inquiry. We acted under the Local Government Act 1986 and subsequent legislation to curb the propaganda that was being paid for through the rates.

Mr. Stephen

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in West Sussex, the Liberal-controlled county council and the Liberal-controlled Adur district council wasted tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money on saving their political skins from the recommendations of the boundary commissioners?

Mr. Hanley

My hon. Friend makes another point. I hope that my hon. Friends will make speeches and bring out such points. I do not know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether you have noticed, as we have here, that there seems to be almost a carnival spirit on the Opposition Benches. That is a most remarkable approach to these serious issues. We are talking about serious issues and about a number of patterns or trends in Labour councils.

The virus of political correctness, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) referred, has changed and spread. Political correctness is now more disguised. It avoids the obvious form of partisan politics. It has shifted to the politics of pressure groups and of radical minority groups. It peddles bogus or exaggerated grievances for its own political purposes.

That political correctness—that PC world—is inhabited by too many councillors of the Opposition parties. It began as a joke, it turned into a farce and it has now led to tragedy. Labour-run Hackney is a clear example—as clear an example as any. I accept fully that discrimination is unacceptable; I do not believe that anyone can question my record on that subject. I hate discrimination in all its forms and, like all Conservative Members, I loathe the positive discrimination that patronises women and members of ethnic minorities, and that is now embedded in the Labour party's selection procedures. Labour Members have gone quiet.

Four years ago, it was reported that Hackney council had banned staff from calling female colleagues "girls". That was not a joke; I am afraid not. It is an insinuation that people cannot deal in their relationships with others unless there is a rulebook to govern them. Last month, reports showed that Hackney was being forced to inquire into allegations that fraud was widespread in the council, because politically correct employment policies meant that no disciplinary action could be taken against employees from ethnic minorities who were involved, it is alleged, in benefit and grant fraud. It is a tragedy for Hackney residents and taxpayers alike, and it is clear that the political correctness virus is spreading.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that political correctness was responsible for the most appalling child abuse in Islington and that the leader of Islington council at that time was none other than the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge)? Does he agree that it is appropriate that she should give a full explanation as to how she could allow those poor children to be so tragically treated?

Mr. Hanley

I agree with my hon. Friend and I am sure that the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) will make her speech later. Indeed, this debate is an opportunity for her to explain the policies.

Mr. Dobson

As the right hon. Gentleman knows so much about Hackney, will he confirm that, as a result of the council's action against fraud, 110 staff have been dismissed or have resigned because disciplinary action was threatened, 24 of them have been successfully prosecuted, four have received prison sentences, and two have received suspended sentences? While we are on the subject of Hackney, perhaps he can explain how it has come about that the immigration department, a part of the Home Office, is in unlawful possession of 600 African names from the payroll in Hackney, in clear contravention of the Data Protection Act 1988? The Secretary of State for the Home Department has yet to explain that unlawful activity on the part of his staff.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order.

Mr. Stephen

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The occupant of the Chair does not need reminding. That was a long intervention.

Mr. Hanley

It was a long intervention, and I am certain that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras will make his speech a little later, but I rather took what he said as a plea of guilty. He is admitting that all those things have been happening in Hackney. It was a breathtaking acknowledgement that what we have been saying has been happening in Hackney over the years has actually happened. Belatedly, he is now trying to get his act together.

Mr. Dobson

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hanley

Certainly. The hon. Gentleman is rising like a salmon to the fly.

Mr. Dobson

I have never thought of myself as being as elegant as a salmon. The right hon. Gentleman levelled an accusation against Hackney council that it was not taking action against fraud, but it has been taking such action. If he had checked, and if he had been a Minister in the Department of the Environment, he could have been properly briefed that, for four successive years, the district audit or has commended Hackney for its action against fraud.

Mr. Hanley

I have nothing further to add to what I said earlier. I am absolutely certain that the Hackney case will come up during speeches by Conservative Members and, no doubt, by Opposition Members, but the hon. Gentleman seems to have lost his smile. He is looking a little angry. Perhaps the reason is not just that he is now hooked on the Hackney fly, but that he recognises that we shall refer to council after council today, and he will do no more than admit that illegalities, corruption, waste and mismanagement have been going on and that it is the council tax payer who has lost.

We have Birmingham, Greenwich, Humberside and Ealing, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) referred, and where the council intended to ask people applying to a youth centre what their sexuality happened to be. Why? The list goes on. In Avon, for example, the funding of the local scouts, as the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras knows so well, was withdrawn, and instead £2,300 was given in grants to the lesbian-bisexual women's group. That is just typical of the priorities that Labour councils have.

Mr. Dobson

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hanley

No, I will not give way. I will make a little progress.

Mr. Dobson

The Minister is lying.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Did I hear the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) say that the Minister was lying?

Mr. Dobson

You did and I withdraw, but the Minister was not telling the truth. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The occupant of the Chair is quite capable of dealing with these exchanges without the help of Back-Bench Members on both sides of the House. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras may think that that is sufficient, but I—

Mr. Dobson

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should not for a moment wish to embarrass you. I shall withdraw, but I shall spell out the truth in my speech.

Mr. Hanley

I should like to know what it is that the hon. Gentleman believes that I have said that he disagrees with.

Mr. Dobson

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hanley

I shall give way if the hon. Gentleman tells me exactly what it is that I have said that he believes so strongly has misled the House, because I certainly disagree. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The House must settle down. As I understood it, the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras has already withdrawn his remarks, so I do not know why it is necessary for him to explain them, but if the Minister wishes to give way, he will do so.

Mr. Dobson

He is not a Minister actually; well he is—Minister Without Portfolio. Both today and at the beginning of the local election campaign, he said that Avon council had withdrawn its £6,000 annual funding for the Scout Association. The fact is that that council gave £37,000 to scouts and guides in Avon in the year concerned.

Mr. Hanley

I was referring to a report in The Times, no less, the journal of record. [Interruption.] I hope that the proprietor of The Times will notice the way in which Opposition Members refer to that newspaper. That report appeared on 2 March 1995, so it is very much up to date. I assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I have chapter and verse on all the allegations that will be made here today. I am grateful. I can see why the Labour party started its local election campaign only two and a half weeks before polling day: it was embarrassed and ashamed of its record in local government.

I was mentioning some of the councils, such as Birmingham, Greenwich, Humberside and Ealing. How about Manchester, Kirklees, Newcastle upon Tyne and Nottingham, where a central equality unit monitors the work of all other departments, and where a helpline has been established to help the victims of wolf whistling? That is something on which a great amount of money should be spent.

Lady Olga Maitland

It is extraordinary that compensation should be given to victims of wolf whistling. I would be rather thrilled if I was wolf-whistled.

Mr. Hanley

One day the Labour party, with its political correctness and because it has reversed almost all its policies over the past 10 years, may set up helplines for all those who are the victims of not being wolf-whistled. No doubt it is but a matter of time under new Labour.

Mr. Dobson

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hanley

No, although I may do so later. [HON. MEMBERS: "Give way."] No, I want to continue my catalogue of Labour councils' irresponsibility.

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hanley

Not at this moment. I want to give a few more examples. [HON. MEMBERS: "Give way."] No, I intend—

Dr. Reid

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way on the subject of wolf whistling?

Mr. Hanley

Of course—we are dying to know why the hon. Gentleman and his party regard it as such a serious and heinous crime.

Dr. Reid

We do not regard it as a serious and heinous crime. The right hon. Gentleman is, due to past experience, a master on the question of sexual discrimination. Can he tell us the cost of the wolf whistling unit? Does it bear any relationship to the more than £50 million that he stupidly and foolishly cost the defence budget because of his rampant discrimination against pregnant women? Does not that put the issue into context?

Hon. Members

Answer.

Mr. Hanley

I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will agree that discussing the policy of the Ministry of Defence is hardly in tune with this debate. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman knows that I will willingly debate with him the Ministry of Defence or any other issue that he might care to name, but not on this occasion. I have so much more to tell him about Labour local authorities.

How about Southwark, Harlow and Hillingdon? What about Liverpool and Wakefield? I do not know whether my hon. Friends are aware, but all "Men at work" signs in Wakefield have been replaced, at vast public expense, with "People at work" signs—[Interruption.]—according to a newspaper report on 2 March 1995. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The House must settle down. This debate is rapidly becoming a farce. [Interruption.] Order. The House will settle down and get on with serious debate.

Mr. Hanley

I know that you and I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, greatly enjoy "Dad's Army". To quote one of the characters, "They don't like it up 'em." Labour Members deride us for exposing the activities of their Labour councillors.

Islington—the home borough of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair)—illustrates most painfully the dangers of political correctness. Islington council, under the then leadership of the hon. Member for Barking, was accused in an independent report of being so concerned about offending black or gay staff that it failed fully to investigate allegations of abuse in children's homes. That is a serious accusation, which should not be treated lightly. I hope that the hon. Lady will put her side of the case later. Indeed, I hope that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras will also refer to that disgraceful episode.

Political correctness to such an extreme has arisen directly from a culture of subservience to interest groups. Most prominent among the interests that Labour councils serve are the trade unions. This Government have legislated for compulsory competitive tendering in many areas of council service provision. Councils that have embraced that opportunity have delivered savings for taxpayers and quality services for customers. Labour councils have fought against that at every turn.

Indeed, on the very day that the right hon. Member for Sedgefield said that his was now a new Labour party, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) said, in a speech broadcast live and in its entirety by the BBC, "Don't worry brother, we're going to scrap compulsory competitive tendering"—

Mr. Dobson

Yes, we are.

Mr. Hanley

That proves that the Labour party puts the providers of council services ahead of those for whom those services are provided, as the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East said. In other words, the right hon. Gentleman is saying that he does not want the best value for money; he wants to ensure that the boyos get the jobs.

Mr. Dobson

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hanley

No, the hon. Gentleman will have his opportunity later.

We must remember that that was the same day, the same 24 hours, when the deputy leader of the Labour party said that there would be a new strikers charter giving strikers privileges the like of which were not seen even under Michael Foot.

We cured this country of what used to be known as the British disease—strikes everywhere. Working days lost through strikes are now only 1 per cent. of what they were when we took office. The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East is a carrier of the British disease and he wants to infect industry, the public and council services all over again. The reason why 40 per cent. of all inward investment in Europe comes to the United Kingdom—just one member of the European Union—is that we have cured the British disease, we give better value, we are able to improve exports, and those who come here get a good return for their money because of the industrial climate that now prevails and which the Labour party would put at risk.

Even today, as the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras has just confirmed, the Labour party remains committed to the abolition of CCT, despite the fact that a study from the Institute of Local Government Studies showed that CCT led to average savings of 7 per cent. of contract value, often combined with quality gains. Even the Labour leader of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, Sir Jeremy Beecham, wrote that compulsory competitive tendering has brought some cost effectiveness and genuine saving which might not otherwise have been achieved. That is to be thrown out in favour of the trade unions. It is not the new Labour party; it is the same old party that gives privileges to the unions. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras has confirmed that again today.

Mr. McLoughlin

Is my right hon. Friend aware of an answer that I received a couple of weeks ago from the Department for Education, which shows that, over the past seven years, the amount of money spent on school meals in Hereford and Worcester—which is under Conservative control—was £12 million, while in Derbyshire it was £115 million? Should not that money have been made available to build more new schools?

Mr. Hanley

I agree with my hon. Friend. I want all hon. Members to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate, so I shall not accept any further interventions from either side. [Interruption.] I am sure that hon. Members will wish to make their own speeches.

Why does the Labour party oppose the clear route to quality services at a lower cost? It is because its trade union masters tell it so. Is it any wonder that in the past two years, the Government have had to take action against 11 Labour councils for anti-competitive behaviour? Many councils use CCT well. Many councils take their decisions without kow-towing to trade union representatives. Many councils are not subject to the abuses of political correctness or bureaucratic excess in support of left-wing causes—but many others are, like Sheffield, where the leader has declared that his council is committed to keeping council services in-house whenever we can. Where those services are kept in-house, a pattern emerges of dominant Labour or Lib-Lab control, of trade union dominance in council affairs, of political correctness and of wasted spending on bloated self-justifying bureaucracies, even though the needs of many of the residents for front-line services are very great.

Of increasing concern to many people is that that pattern of misconduct in some parts of local government is growing, both in the number of councils caught up in such behaviour and in the seriousness of the consequences. The examples multiply. Labour and Liberal Democrat councils spend tens of thousands of pounds on promoting trade union activity among their own staff, in some cases at the same moment as they claim that they cannot fund teachers' pay settlements. Labour councillors in Mid-Glamorgan voted themselves a fourfold increase in their allowances. It was only when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister stung the Leader of the Opposition that this was real Labour, not the ad man's image of new Labour, that he had the wit to do something about it.

And another thing: criminal elements are trying to move in and exploit the failings of some Labour councillors. The Labour leader in North Tyneside said: criminals are trying to win influence in local politics". Nor, regrettably, is the corruption and malpractice within the Labour party confined to the activities of criminal infiltrators. Serious allegations and investigations into fraud and other forms of corruption have taken place in several Labour councils within the past two years.

At this time, the Labour party is conducting internal investigations into the conduct of its own members in no fewer than eight constituencies, many of them involving the conduct of councillors. That is from the party of which the only national policy is to demand independent public inquiries into every aspect of Government behaviour.

In four Birmingham constituencies—Ladywood, Perry Barr, Sparkbrook and Small Heath—a closed Labour internal inquiry is investigating allegations that up to £2 million of urban renewal grant has been used to buy votes in parliamentary selection contests. In Bradford, Manchester, Tower Hamlets, Leicester and Paisley, the Labour party is investigating its own activities behind closed doors. In three more Labour areas—Corby, South Tyneside and Bracknell—Labour members are suspended following serious allegations. For example, in South Tyneside the council has been torn apart by factions within the ruling Labour group. Labour councillors have accused their own colleagues of discriminating against certain wards in the allocation of funds.

In six Labour-run areas—Paisley, North Tyneside, Greater Manchester, Liverpool, North Shields and Tameside—police investigations are on-going. In Tameside, for example, Greater Manchester police are investigating £2 million of losses made by a company set up by the Labour council, the board of which was full of Labour politicians. The district auditor commented that their appointment had more to do with political affiliations than skill or expertise. Glyn Ford, a Labour Member of the European Parliament, said that the voters of Tameside deserved an apology. They have yet to get one.

The House will know that the very serious allegations that have been levelled against the Labour party in Monklands are almost breathtaking. Nepotism, discrimination in capital spending and failure to declare interests have all been alleged. Professor Black, who has prepared the report, has apparently passed on certain complaints to the Crown Office. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has acted to set up a statutory inquiry. The Labour party has failed to act.

Mr. Norman Hogg

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hanley

The hon. Gentleman may make his speech in his own time. He has had two years, if not three, to explain the position in Monklands.

Mr. Hogg

The right hon. Gentleman has been prattling on for 45 minutes.

Mr. Hanley

One of the reasons is the hon. Gentleman's interventions.

An internal inquiry was held in Monklands—

Mr. Hogg

rose

Mr. Hanley

I am not surprised that there are diversions coming from the Labour party when we mention Monklands.

Mr. Hogg

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is the worst speech that we have ever heard. It is perfectly obvious why this Minister has no portfolio. He is not—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That is not a point of order for the Chair.

Mr. Hogg

I was coming to the point of order.

Mr. Hanley

It is interesting, Mr. Deputy Speaker—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I understand that the hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mr. Hogg) wants to continue with the point of order because he has not got to the genuine point of order.

Mr. Hogg

The point of order is this. The right hon. Gentleman has attacked Opposition Members for creating diversions, but it was Conservative Members who called a Division on a very dubious point—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Everything that has taken place in the House this morning has been in order. If it had not been, the Chair would have ruled it out of order.

Mr. Hanley

I voted against the motion that was moved from Conservative Benches. I notice that the hon. Gentleman did not do so.

Mr. Hogg

I did not.

Mr. Hanley

Well, is not that surprising? Perhaps he supported it.

I had a small bet with a gentleman from the fourth estate that as soon as I mentioned Monklands, there would be a stream of interventions from Opposition Members. The Labour party had an internal Scottish inquiry on Monklands prepared in 1993. It took no action on it. Two and a half years ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) exposed some of the goings-on in Monklands. Yet in January 1993, the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) called it muck-raking. When my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Malone), in his then capacity as deputy chairman of the Conservative party, exposed the malpractices in Monklands in documented form, an unnamed Labour party spokesman described his attack as desperate and dismissed it out of hand.

As long ago as February 1994, 81 Opposition right hon. and hon. Members signed an early-day motion in which they described attacks on Monklands as smear tactics. Have those 81 withdrawn their defence of the indefensible? It seems not. Conservative Members will carry on exposing the corruption and malpractices of Labour councils.

Lady Olga Maitland

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hanley

No. I am sorry. I have said that I will not accept any more interventions, even from my hon. Friend.

The Labour party always cries smear, but unlike Labour Members, we shall not treat as proven that which is merely alleged. We shall not treat as systematic that which is unique. But we shall expose to full view the pattern of abuse of public money and public office that sadly has followed only too often and only too surely when Labour dominates council business and trade unions dominate Labour politics. That is the reality of Labour in power. It is a deeply unwelcome feature of local government.

The British people thought that Labour had banished the loony left. They heard the former right hon. Member for Islwyn, Mr. Neil Kinnock, decry Labour councillors for playing politics with people's lives. Yet that is exactly what Labour councillors do today. The same old Labour party in its new politically correct clothing is worming its way back, under cover of Labour dominance, into some of our urban areas.

The Conservative Government have created strong agencies that tackle malpractices by means of disclosure and propriety requirements for councillors, audit and reporting requirements, performance comparisons and requirements for competitive tendering. Conservative councillors are fighting abuse.

Liberal Democrats make pacts with Labour. The Labour party clamours for Lord Nolan to investigate every facet of public life except local government. The Government can be trusted to fight misconduct in local government wherever it arises. I only wish that we could say the same of the Labour party.

10.37 am
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

Given that the debate is about local government, one would have expected that, as no fewer than three Secretaries of State have responsibility for local government—the Environment Secretary for local government in England, the Scottish Secretary for local government in Scotland and the Welsh Secretary, whoever he may be, for local government in Wales—at least one of them could have dragged their weary limbs into the Chamber today. Instead of that, the debate has been opened by someone who, for the purposes of the debate, has the alias of Minister Without Portfolio, but is in fact the chairman of the Tory party—a party in the middle of a leadership campaign.

I suspect that we are all uncertain as to who may or may not win the first round of that election, whether there will be a second round and so on, but there is one thing of which we can all be pretty certain. The right hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) will not be doing his job for much longer. He stands up at the Dispatch Box as if making an appearance at the last chance saloon. He is making a last public performance. He is a cross between Dame Nellie Melba and Captain Oates before he walked out.

One could reasonably claim that the right hon. Gentleman is well qualified to open the debate because he was in charge of the Tories' last local election campaign. We have heard from the right hon. Gentleman that the public got it wrong. In some way or other, the fact that they voted Labour was all a mistake. It rather reminds me of Mark Twain, who said, "They tell me Wagner's music is better than it sounds." It looks as if the Minister is saying that the election results were better than the figures show. As result of the chairman of the Tory party masterminding the campaign in the local government elections this year, the Tories now control not a single council in Scotland—despite having gerrymandered the boundaries to keep control. The Tories did the same in Wales, and they control no council in Wales.

In this year's district elections, the Tories managed to hang on to control of just eight councils in the whole of England. We used to talk about the "Tory shires", but we discovered in the county council elections that that had been reduced to the singular Tory shire of Buckinghamshire. We can add that one shire county to the eight district councils and the five London boroughs which the Tories control.

The Secretary of State—sorry, the Minister Without Portfolio and chairman of the Tory party—talked this morning of 13 Labour local authorities where the police are conducting investigations.

Mr. Hanley

indicated dissent.

Mr. Dobson

What figure did he give?

Mr. Hanley

Six.

Mr. Dobson

That means that the Tories control about twice as many councils as the number of Labour councils that the right hon. Gentleman claims are being investigated.

Mr. Hanley

The hon. Gentleman is misquoting me. There are six police inquiries on-going—in Lambeth, North Tyneside, Bradford, Tameside, Paisley and North Shields. Those are in addition to the conviction which occurred recently in Derbyshire. I said that Labour was carrying out 13 internal investigations, which means that the Labour party must know that something is very wrong.

Mr. Dobson

Let me try to show the scale of the problem. Labour controls 230 local authorities. It is apparently conducting internal investigations into party matters in 13 of them, and the police are involved in six. Let me explain to the famous Minister Without Portfolio what is happening in the five London authorities that his party controls. The district auditor has said that the right hon. Gentleman's Tory friends are guilty—he has not said that there are allegations against them—of misplacing £31 million, and is investigating the fiddling of other moneys leading to a total of more than £100 million.

The district auditor, who was appointed by the Government, has said that Wandsworth council was breaking the law on homelessness and was losing money for the people of Wandsworth. There was rampant fraud in Bromley a couple of years ago, and my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) will no doubt point out that a great deal of fraud is being committed in Brent. Out of five Tory-controlled councils in London, four have been done over either by the district auditor or the police.

If the right hon. Gentleman is not content with that, I can add that the Tories have managed to get involved in Lambeth, where a Tory councillor and his Tory friend have just been found guilty of working a benefit fraud. If they had been Labour people, the story would have been all over the right hon. Gentleman's speech. Somehow, however, it did not get a mention.

Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, of the 33 Conservative councillors in Brent, five are being investigated by the police, two by the ombudsman and five by the district auditor, while six are facing internal investigations? I wrote to the chairman of the Conservative party to say that I was concerned about corruption in Brent, but the right hon. Gentleman took no action and suggested that I told the police. I did tell the police, who are doing a lot of work.

Mr. Dobson

I said that my hon. Friend would spell out in more detail what is happening in Brent.

Dr. Reid

I believe that the allegations of benefit fraud in Lambeth concern Tory councillors who were taking money under false pretences without doing any work. Does my hon. Friend realise that if they had classed themselves as "workers without portfolio" they would have been entitled to the money, despite doing no work?

Mr. Dobson

They would not have been the first Tories to take money under false pretences.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

I have tried not to join in the shenanigans thus far because I believe that there are some serious points to be made. However, I want to raise a serious point with the hon. Gentleman for the avoidance of doubt. I understand what he is trying to do by way of pointing to the 13 councils that are still Conservative-controlled. Will he clarify that he is not suggesting that all 13—including my local council, Spelthorne borough council—are, by definition, involved in any way in these shenanigans, as my local council would wish to have that cleared up?

Mr. Dobson

I shall come to that matter, but I wish to point out that I think that the bulk of councils and councillors of all political persuasions try their best to do a decent job for the people who elected them. It is preposterous for Conservative Members to suggest that any shortcomings are only on the Labour side and any virtues on the Tory side.

The Minister Without Portfolio started the Tory local election campaign with a wild collection of smears in a document which contained 79 accusations against the Labour party, nearly all of which we rebutted. I say "nearly all of which" because we acknowledged that one or two of the things said in the document were right.

The Minister accused Strathclyde council—presumably deviously and secretly—of conducting a referendum. Indeed it did, and 79 per cent. of the people of Strathclyde made it clear that they did not like the Government's proposals—

Mr. George Robertson

It was 97 per cent.

Mr. Dobson

I have made a transposition, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It turns out that 97 per cent. of the people of Strathclyde who took part in a referendum stated that they did not agree with the Government's crackpot idea of selling off Scottish water in the way in which English water had been sold off to the Tories and their mates.

Another typical example of the accusations contained in the document was that Birmingham city council had spent money on sending a leading and distinguished member of the council to South Africa. Indeed it had. At the invitation of the Foreign Office, the council had sent the Lord Mayor of Birmingham to take part in the supervision of the first democratic elections in South Africa. He was proud to go, and the city of Birmingham was proud to finance him. We should not get such cheapjack accusations from the Government.

The very first example in the famous list of the Minister was the false accusation that Avon council had cut off its grant to the local scouts. We investigated, and it turned out that the council was not paying £6,000 to the local scouts—it was paying £37,000. The right hon. Gentleman fell back by saying that it was "in a newspaper". Ministers speaking from the Dispatch Box should not base their facts on a newspaper, least of all a newspaper whose proprietor is Rupert Murdoch.

The trouble is that when the allegations are rolled out, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Murdoch newspapers roll in behind and publish them. The BBC, in its usual exercise of editorial independence, gives the allegations a further run out. Every accusation which was levelled against the Labour party during that campaign was effectively and immediately rebutted, to such effect that even the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and The Sun gave up on their campaign after a couple of days.

Lady Olga Maitland

On the subject of smears, will the hon. Gentleman join me in condemning the comments made by the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) when she was the leader of Islington council? When challenged about the appalling cases of the sexual abuse of children, she dismissed the allegations as "sensationalist…gutter journalism". The hon. Gentleman knows that that has been totally discounted, and that there were many serious cases. Some 32 children gave dreadful accounts of their lives, but the hon. Lady dismissed that as "gutter journalism".

Mr. Dobson

My hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) is here, and will no doubt deal with the matter herself. We in the Labour party have made it clear that it is wrong to molest children and wrong to permit children to be molested. However, our system is most unsatisfactory, and that is not all the fault of Islington council. Under the present system, with which the Government are apparently satisfied—[Interruption.] The mouth of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) drops open. Perhaps she will open her ears for a moment, rather than her mouth, and listen.

The fact is that a number of people were suspected of molesting or interfering with children in Islington, but we do not have in place a system whereby those people who are suspected of such offences can be logged and traced. It is not the fault of Islington council that some of those people may presently be working for other authorities and molesting children there. We have been pressing for an adequate system to make sure that such people are picked up so that if they leave the employ of one authority they are prevented from getting jobs with other authorities. Those matters are the responsibility of the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Social Services, but they have failed to take any action. There is no point in them blaming everybody but themselves.

As I have said, Labour believes that most councils, councillors and council staff do their best in difficult circumstances to help the people whom they are trying to represent. That applies whether the councils are Labour-controlled or in the hands of any other party. I suspect that, in his better moments, the Secretary of State for the Environment shares that view, which is why time and again during the election campaign he distanced himself from the smears that were being lobbed at the Labour party and Labour councils by the right hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes. The Secretary of State is not here today because he is not prepared to take part in such practices.

Mr. Stephen

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson

No, I will not.

The Labour party also acknowledges that things go wrong and that in local government there is incompetence, waste, favouritism, fraud, and theft, but it is not confined to Westminster council: it is all over. We do not say that it is just in Tory Westminster but acknowledge that it arises wherever there are large institutions. It occurs in local and central government and we now know that it occurs within the Metropolitan police and the armed forces and in private businesses large and small The questions that arise are: what is done to prevent it, how seriously is it taken, what is done to root it out if it is not prevented, and what action is taken to catch and punish wrongdoers?

If I understood him correctly, the right hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes apparently criticised the leader of North Tyneside council for saying that some criminal elements were trying to move into the political process there. If it is happening there, he was right to say it because until one acknowledges it, one cannot do anything about it. Why was that leader in the list of villains? He should have been listed as one of the people who had identified what was going wrong and who was determined to do something about it.

That is the difference between our party and the Tories. They call press conferences, issue generalised smears and ring up their friends in the gutter press and make blunderbuss accusations, but they never take any action. The Minister Without Portfolio and chairman of the Tory party was on the "Today" programme with me during the local election campaign. He came out with a list of accusations and I said, "Take them to the police." He never did.

Mr. Hanley

I did.

Mr. Dobson

Oh no you did not.

Mr. Hanley

Six this morning—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order.

Mr. Dobson

They had been put to the police long before the right hon. Gentleman raised them. The Tory party does nothing about those matters, but we believe that if we hear any evidence or any allegations, they should be investigated. If they are matters for the district auditor, they should be referred to him, and we do that. If they are matters for the police we refer them to the police. If they are matters relating to the internal affairs and rules of the Labour party, we investigate them ourselves. We publicly condemn wrongdoing wherever it occurs even if it is by Labour councils: we do not confine our criticism of wrongdoing to our political opponents.

Mr. Hanley

rose

Mr. Dobson

I shall give way in a moment. We do not defend fraud or theft; nor do we defend political gerrymandering, but the Tories do. Never over the past 15 years has a Minister uttered at the Dispatch Box one word of doubt or criticism about the activities of Westminster council. Until one does, we know that we cannot take the Tories seriously on this matter. They engage in cheap political pandering and I shall now give way to the chief political panderer.

Mr. Hanley

When did any responsible member of the Labour party, including its leader or his predecessor, know of wrongdoing in Monklands?

Mr. Dobson

I shall come to Monklands: I shall not try to evade it and my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), who is the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, will deal with it even more extensively at the end of the debate.

Mr. Hanley

Answer.

Mr. Dobson

I shall answer, but I shall do it in my own time in my own speech. No Tory Minister has ever said anything adverse about Tory Westminster council, and the wrongdoing in that council outranks that in all the other councils put together. The district auditor is currently considering the misapplication of funds in excess of £100 million, which was carried out knowingly by leading Tory councillors.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

That is what the Labour party says.

Mr. Dobson

No, it is what the district auditor says, not some clown from Dover—

Mr. Shaw

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dobson

No I will not.

Mr. McLoughlin

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) has just referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw). When one hon. Member refers to another, is it not a courtesy to give way to him?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) used the word "clown". Perhaps he would like to consider withdrawing it.

Mr. Dobson

I am taken aback by the idea that calling someone a clown is out of order. If it is out of order, I withdraw it immediately.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It is not parliamentary nor is it complimentary.

Mr. Dobson

I can see that you wish to defend the reputation of other clowns, Mr. Deputy Speaker. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The House must settle down and get down to the serious business that is before it.

Mr. Dobson

Before, apparently, the cap fitted. I was saying that the district auditor, not someone from the Labour party but an official who is appointed by, in effect, the Government and who is drawn from a City firm of accountants, says that Westminster city council has misapplied £21 million in the homes-for-votes scandal. He also says that it has deliberately, and knowingly, not collected £31 million in service and repair charges from leaseholders. He is investigating allegations that £7 million has been lost in shady property deals. We know that £3.5 million was lost buying back cemeteries that were then sold for 5p.

The cost of auditing this preposterous stinking stable in Westminster now amounts to more than £2 million. What have we heard from the Tories who criticise councillors for minor wrongs? Even those are wrong, but this is not minor stuff. The explanation for Tory Front Benchers not criticising Westminster city council is that Tory Ministers, past and present, have been in it up to their necks. They knew what the Tory councillors were doing: they were at the meetings when it was all planned.

Mr. Bill Walker

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am not a lawyer so I apologise in advance if anything that I say is not in order. I understand that this case is under some kind of judicial review. If that is the case, is there not a question of it being sub judice?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The Chair is not aware that it is under any judicial review whatsoever.

Mr. Dobson

Just to keep the hon. Gentleman informed, because his would have been a legitimate argument if what he was saying had been true, there is no current hearing. There has been a hearing; we are awaiting the outcome. It is therefore not sub judice under a ruling that has been previously given in the House, as I understand it. The next thing is—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. There appears to be some concern whether it is sub judice. I have given a previous ruling, but, based on what I have already heard, I will cause it to be investigated.

Mr. Dobson

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman, in those circumstances, will refrain from referring to it.

Mr. Dobson

I was about to move on to other aspects of the Westminster scandal, so I am happy to do so.

The matter that should be the subject of a judicial review, but sadly is not, is the fact that the Government have rigged the grant system in favour of Westminster city council and against the interests of people in every other part of the country.

The grant system was rigged with the knowledge of the current Secretary of State for the Environment, because his name appears in the minutes, which record that he recognised the political problems that would confront Westminster if the poll tax and the grants were not rigged in its favour. They were rigged in its favour so that Westminster could keep down its poll tax and council tax.

Westminster city council receives more grant from the Government per head of population than almost any other council, and far more than it is properly entitled to. You do not have to take my word for it, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You can take the word of the present chief executive of Westminster city council, who has now admitted on paper that the council is "double compensated" for the tourist and business traffic. That means that, to help to pay for the problems that arise from tourists and visitors coming into the city of Westminster daily, the council receives a large grant, but the grant is not offset by the more than £20 million that it receives each year in parking charges. As a result, Westminster city receives £20 million more than it should.

That is how Westminster benefits, and that is why its council tax is so low. It is not because it has a cheap and efficient council. The report of the Audit Commission—which no Tory can dispute, because it was set up by the Government and its members were appointed by the Government—shows that Westminster has the most costly refuse collection in Britain, twice as expensive as the next most expensive borough and twice as expensive as the neighbouring boroughs. It also has the most costly street cleaning system, twice as expensive as the neighbouring boroughs. I have to say to the Minister, who is so keen on compulsory competitive tendering, that both those are subject to compulsory competitive tendering and they remain the most expensive in Britain, so it shows that CCT is not quite as good as he reckons.

Westminster also runs the most expensive housing benefit administration in the country. It spends twice as much as Camden, which is next door, and is only two thirds as efficient. We have not heard a peep from the Tories about that. No one has said. "I agree; I do have my doubts about good old Westminster council. Perhaps we should have a look at it."

The Secretary of State was asked by some of the objectors to what was happening in Westminster to call a special audit, but he refused. All the effort has been left to local objectors and the district auditor, and now the Westminster Tories are trying to pillory and undermine the authority of that district auditor. Conservative Members are more likely to attack the district auditor than to attack Westminster city council.

I contrast that with Labour's attitude. When allegations were made about Birmingham, the appropriate matters were referred to the ombudsman, others were referred to the district auditor and others to the police. They were all referred to those proper authorities by Labour people or the Labour council or both. In our opinion, one needs to call in the proper authorities without fear or favour whenever there is any wrongdoing.

Let me take another example—Lambeth. Lambeth has a disgraceful record. It has not been sorted out; it should have been sorted out years ago. The Labour-controlled council set up an independent inquiry under a Queen's counsel, Elizabeth Appleby. Her report is awaited. However, in contrast, Ministers have taken little or no action regarding the position in Lambeth. They have preferred to have Lambeth festering away as a basis for anti-Labour propaganda than to take any action.

We say, and have said for a long time in all our documents, that the system for spotting and tackling fraud does not work properly, that it needs to be strengthened and that it is not being strengthened. We say no more than that. We have taken disciplinary action against councillors in Lambeth, but we believe that the general position in England is unsatisfactory.

The district audit service has proved that it is not coping with deep-seated fraud in many councils of all political persuasions. It needs to be toughened up, and we want that to be done. We believe that the Secretary of State should be put in a position so that, after an audit report, he can set up an inquiry and, if necessary, take action to put right matters that councils are failing to put right. That can already be done in a limited number of spheres in England, but the Government are not doing that and we believe that they are failing in their duty; they always want to be able to blame someone else. We want a tougher audit service, a tougher Audit Commission and more active Ministers.

Mr. McLoughlin

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clearing up the matter on which he has just expanded in relation to the greater controls that he wants. Can he tell us of any occasion when the Government have sought to take action against councils when the Opposition have supported such action? For instance, did the Opposition support us when we had to take action against Liverpool city council and sent in commissioners? The Opposition did not publicly support us.

Mr. Dobson

No Tory Member should level accusations of ineffectiveness against the Labour party in relation to Liverpool or make claims of Government effectiveness. If officialdom had been as good at sorting out the wrongdoers in Liverpool as the Labour party has been, we would all have been a damned sight better off.

As for Monklands, I remind those Conservative Members who are not from Scotland that in Scotland the Secretary of State for Scotland has certain general powers to intervene when he is not satisfied. It is now more than two years since the Labour party invited the Secretary of State for Scotland to exercise those powers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

Perhaps I may ask a simple question: in that case, did the Labour party suppress the evidence in its own report instead of letting the Secretary of State have it and thus allowing him to proceed much earlier?

Mr. Dobson

Lord Jim ought to be able to remember things a bit better than that, or else he should get himself clued up or improve his memory. The Labour party did set up an inquiry into things to do with the Labour party and Monklands council. That inquiry reported in March 1993 and, contrary to what the Prime Minister said in the House of Commons last week, the report was published.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

rose

Mr. Robert G. Hughes

rose

Mr. Dobson

No, I will not give way.

There were then inquiries by both the police and the Scottish equivalent of the audit service, and neither of them identified wrongdoing by individual members of Monklands council. Perhaps they should have done, but they did not. The appointed authorities did not identify wrongdoing.

The Labour party remained dissatisfied with the position and therefore persuaded the Labour-controlled Monklands council to establish the Black inquiry. The Black inquiry has reported and now, two years after he was first asked to take action, the slovenly Secretary of State for Scotland finally decides to exercise statutory powers.

I do not for one moment claim that some of the things that are alleged to have happened in Monklands are right. Some of them are obviously wrong, should not have happened and should have been stopped. If they are proved, action should be taken against the people involved. That is what Labour's approach has been throughout the country; it is our approach in Monklands and it is our approach in other parts of the country.

In response to all this, the Government have been both cynical and feeble. Our clear challenge to the Government today is to ask whether they will or will not join us in calling for a strengthening of the audit service capacity to deal with deep-seated fraud. Will the Government support our proposals for strengthening the Audit Commission? Will they support our call for the Secretary of State for the Environment to be given and to use new powers when there is repeated failure and wrongdoing in local authorities? At present, the Government interfere in every nook and cranny of local council activity, causing delay, expense, complication and confusion, but they never get anything right.

Leading with my chin, I now come to the matter of councillors' allowances and expenses. There has been a lot of adverse publicity about big increases in expenses. There used to be rules limiting councillors' expenses, but in effect the Government abolished them in England and Wales on 11 January this year when the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration said: Local authorities in England will have greater freedom to decide the level of councillors' allowances. Changes will include scrapping the ceiling"— that is the official document▀× on what leading councillors can be paid. The current system is too prescriptive and places an unnecessary burden on local authorities. We want to remove the upper limit on the level of allowances. We will require the payment of a basic allowance to all councillors. That is what the Government said.

On behalf of the Labour party, I said in response: We do not think the Government should simply relax the rules for councillors' allowances without proper consideration. We believe the Government should lay down strict rules covering the possible methods of payment. We went on to say, as we have said before: We believe that this matter should be considered by the Nolan Committee to ensure that the rules on councillors' allowances should command the widest possible support and the highest standards of conduct and least scope for impropriety. That is what we said in January. We meant it then, and we still mean it now.

If people are trying to find out why there have been big increases throughout the country, they should know that the people primarily responsible are those who once had rules in place but who have now taken them away. It is not the job of civil servants in the Box to shake their heads—

Mr. Robert G. Hughes

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you confirm that it is not the practice in this House to attack civil servants in the Box, who cannot answer back? That is a cowardly thing to do.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I confirm that it is the practice not to mention those civil servants.

Mr. Norman Hogg

We will sack them.

Mr. Hughes

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I distinctly heard the hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mr. Hogg) say that Labour planned to sack the civil servants. That is a direct attack on civil servants. It is disgraceful and the hon. Gentleman should apologise.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The Chair did not hear the remark even though the hon. Gentleman may have done. If any hon. Member made such a remark, I have no doubt that he will wish to withdraw it.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robert B. Jones)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I very distinctly heard and I am sure that all my hon. Friends heard the hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mr. Hogg) say that those public servants would be sacked.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

If that is the case, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mr. Hogg) will wish to withdraw his remark.

Mr. Norman Hogg

Of course, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My remark was made merely to bring a certain—[HoN. MEMBERS: "That is no excuse."] The hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw)—

Mr. David Shaw

It is not for you—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am trying to listen to what the hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth has to say. I cannot hear him if I have voices from the Conservative Benches bawling in my ears.

Mr. Norman Hogg

Of course I withdraw the remark entirely, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. McMaster

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is not the first occasion on which there has been cause for complaint about the behaviour of some of the civil servants in the Box, although up to now—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have already ruled on this matter.

Mr. McMaster

This is a genuine point of order.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Does it refer to civil servants?

Mr. McMaster

My point of order is this. The previous time when the matter was raised privately—I have asked parliamentary questions about this—I ascertained that special advisers could use the Box, but only with the permission of the Chair. These special advisers are at least semi-political appointments, paid for from the public purse. Will you confirm, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that if there is unacceptable behaviour in the Box, you can cause these people to be removed?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The rule remains. Civil servants must not be mentioned.

Mr. Dobson

While on the topic, however, there is a clear ruling from Mr. Speaker Weatherill that there may not be in the civil servants' Box anyone who is not a civil servant. On the previous occasion when the chairman of the Tory party took part in a debate from the Front Bench, it turned out that there was someone in the Box who was not from the civil service. I should be grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if you would arrange for someone to ascertain the circumstances on this occasion.

A number of Conservatives have attacked Nottinghamshire county councillors for increasing their allowances. I think that the Nottinghamshire county councillors are wrong and I welcome their recent decision to refer the matter to Coopers and Lybrand as consultants to advise them on what the level should be. I have to point out, however, that somehow or other, Tory Members and Tory newspapers did not notice that the Tory county councillors in Nottinghamshire supported and voted for the increases currently being ascribed only to the Labour party.

Perhaps I may even get the right hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) to get up and criticise someone. Does he think that the leader of the council in South Staffordshire should have his allowances increased by 1,000 per cent. from £360 per year to £4,000 per year? Does the right hon. Gentleman think that that is wrong?

Mr. Hanley

I have not heard of that. I will look into it through Ministers at the Department of the Environment.

Mr. Dobson

The right hon. Gentleman apparently cannot make up his mind whether a 1,000 per cent. increase is wrong. It may be because he has a sneaking suspicion that South Staffordshire council is controlled by the Tories and that it was the Tories who voted that increase through for their leader. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. I deplore what has happened in Nottinghamshire and I deplore what has happened in South Staffordshire as well.

As I said at the beginning, most councils and most councillors try to do a good job. I say with pride that most Labour councils do a good job, and that view is endorsed by the Audit Commission. In most cases, it is rather difficult to compare central Government services with local government services, although it is difficult to imagine any local authority being responsible for a shambles on the scale of the Child Support Agency.

There is, however, one ready example by means of which we can compare the performance of central Government and their quangos with local government—the state of the two emergency services in London. The London fire brigade is run by London councils; the London ambulance service is run by Ministers and quangos. The London fire brigade is a first-rate service; the London ambulance service is not. The London fire brigade meets its performance targets; the London ambulance service does not. The London fire brigade successfully computerised its call-out system; the London ambulance service did not. The London fire brigade has had success in improving its management structure and working practices; the London ambulance service has not.

The London fire brigade has more exacting targets. In its high priority areas, the first fire appliance is supposed to be at the scene of the fire or incident within five minutes. The fire brigade succeeds in 94 per cent. of cases. The target for the London ambulance service, which is run by quangos and Ministers, is much lower—50 per cent. of ambulances to get to the incident in eight minutes, but last year only 13 per cent. of them arrived within eight minutes. The ambulances and fire engines run on the same roads and are blocked by the same traffic, but they are run by very different people.

The London fire brigade's new computerised mobilising system means that 94 per cent. of calls are dealt with in 20 seconds. The average time taken for an appliance to leave a fire station after the address of the incident has been identified on the computer is 46 seconds. Just 46 seconds from the time that the fire brigade identifies where the fire is, the first appliance is out on the road.

New technology was brought in for the fire brigade without a hitch. That was achieved by local government at its best, here in London, with all its problems, and it was achieved by Labour-led local government. In contrast, the London ambulance service—led by Ministers and quangos—spent £7.5 million on a computer system which conked out in 1990, then spent £105 million on another computer system which conked out in 1992 on the first day that the service tried to bring it into operation.

The London ambulance service is a quangoid which that reports to another quango, which in turn reports to Madam Quango, the Secretary of State.

Mr. Wilshire

I wish to raise a serious point with the hon. Gentleman in what I hope is a non-partisan way. I agree with him that the London fire brigade is an excellent local government service. Interestingly, it is run by a joint body, not by one council. If I understand the hon. Gentleman correctly, he is agreeing that joint bodies are a perfectly acceptable, first-class way of running services. Is that right? If so, he is undermining one of the arguments for a greater London council to take charge of such bodies.

Mr. Dobson

That joint body has performed magnificently in comparison with the easy comparator, but other joint bodies in London have performed rather poorly.

Mr. Wilshire

They are Labour.

Mr. Dobson

Some of them were not, and they are improving now that they are Labour led.

According to the all-party Select Committee, which is chaired by a Conservative Member, the London ambulance service has suffered what it calls a steep decline in performance followed by a deliberate failure to report the extent of the poor performance, and has provided an object lesson in how not to manage a public service". That is what Tories said about the London ambulance service, and they blame the Secretary of State and other Ministers. So it is no good a friend of Ministers coming along here to tell us that local authorities cannot do a good job but that central Government always do a good job, because it is simply not true.

I am proud of the success of individual Labour councils. Each year we put together a tome listing good practice by Labour councils—it is 1.5 in thick this year. I take pride in the fact that my native city of York has led the way. It was the first to introduce citizens charters, long before the Government did that, and it introduced charters that work, charters that people are delighted with. What the council has done has been so popular that despite all the gerrymandering of the recent boundary changes, Labour managed to hold on to the new city of greater York.

Mr. Stephen

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the time and place for the public to pass judgment on their local councillors is at the local council elections? If so, does he approve of the practice of the leader of the Liberal Democratic party and his colleagues, who urge the electorate to vote on national issues because they know that the record of Liberal Democrat councils does not bear examination?

Mr. Dobson

The main thing that I think of in that context is Rochdale, with Liberals and Tories in an unholy coalition against Labour. If the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) thinks that Liberals are entirely consistent, he is off the wall altogether.

If the chairman of the Tory party will not take my word about the excellent performance of Labour councils, perhaps he will take the word of the Secretary of State for the Environment, who on Tuesday published a White Paper on housing. That White Paper was generally more notable for what it left out than for what it put in. For instance, it mentioned negative equity and repossession only once each in 60 pages.

However, the White Paper included many items recognising the achievements of councils. It commended Camden council for its high-quality housing benefit service. It also commended Camden, Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle and Enfield for joining in research projects with the Government on housing transfers. It also commended Reading on a successful hotline to help local people identify empty property. Newcastle, too, was praised for joint developments involving tenants, councillors, housing associations and developers, which have been of great benefit to the people concerned.

The White Paper also commended Thameside, which the right hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes vilified earlier, for the assistance and encouragement that it had given tenants who were underoccupying large flats to move to smaller ones. Just to show that I am not politically prejudiced, I shall add another example of help to tenants that was commended—the efforts of the Liberal council in Richmond, the area that the right hon. Gentleman represents. I understand why the Secretary of State for the Environment did not turn up today; he would have been embarrassed.

The section of the White Paper covering Wales was produced while the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) was Secretary of State for Wales. The housing and other developments carried out by Labour councils in Ebbw Vale, Llanelli, Swansea, Penarth and Bridgend were all commended. The Government will be hard put to it to praise a Tory council in Wales because there is none. All those represent the achievements of Labour councils, and they were carried out because the councils spring from local communities, know them, are dedicated to helping them and do help them.

We believe that there are shortcomings in some councils, and we do not want those to mar the record of the many. Councils have been attacked, and fraud has been committed in certain areas. Councils must try to find fraud-proof systems, root out fraud and catch fraudsters. They need more help from the Government, but they do not need continuous abuse heaped on them by the Tories, who often seem to be simply pursuing personal vendettas.

The Government must recognise that for every pound lost by local authorities through fraud, waste or mismanagement, £60 is lost by central Government. I do not suggest that we blame all Ministers for any fraud committed by or against their Departments. If we did we should criticise the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the £4.7 billion that was demonstrated to be being nicked from the Inland Revenue by the compliance activity last year. There are also estimates that £24 billion is lost through tax evasion.

If it is proper to attack Hackney council for benefit fraud committed against it, it is just as proper to attack the Chancellor of the Exchequer for tax fraud. What are Ministers doing about that? If we examine social security, it turns out that £650 million was fiddled last year; that is what the court cases show. Yet we do not criticise the Secretary of State for Social Security for what is going on in the offices, so it is not appropriate for him or anyone else to criticise local authority benefit offices that deal with the same sort of fraud. These sectors should be all of a piece.

I notice that the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) has gone now—[Interruption.] Oh, he is here; I apologise. He is moving around to confuse the enemy—but the enemies are mainly on his own side of the House. The hon. Gentleman comes up with constant complaints against Derbyshire and the Derbyshire police authority, or at any rate he used to—[Interruption.] "Hear, hear," they cry, and I suspect that the hon. Gentleman would have come to the House and demanded some explanations if a senior civilian employed by Derbyshire police had trousered £5 million.

I want to know why the police authority for London—the Home Secretary—did not come here to answer to the House when £5 million disappeared from the books of the Metropolitan police. Why does he not answer for that?

Mr. McLoughlin

The hon. Gentleman must not attribute words to me that have not been used. Can he give me a reference for a time when I have criticised Derbyshire police authority, which I am glad to say is no longer under the control of the county council?

Mr. Dobson

If the hon. Gentleman checks Hansard, I think that he will find that I corrected myself and said that it was in the past.

Mr. McLoughlin

No.

Mr. Dobson

If the hon. Gentleman has never criticised the Derbyshire police authority, I am surprised as he criticises everything else that is not Tory controlled in Derbyshire. However, I will accept his word for it.

That brings me to my final point. Tory Members—the Minister Without Portfolio said this again today—and Tory newspapers constantly demand that the Labour party should take action and investigate wrongdoings. We do investigate wrongdoings; we report them and bring them to the attention of the appropriate authorities, which have powers to investigate, to compel witnesses and to lay hands on papers. We refer any wrongdoing to the police or to auditors.

A political party, however—I will repeat this until I am blue in the face—does not have the right to investigate public officials. It cannot call council officials to order. Nor should it be able to call public officials to order. We do not want to live in a society in which a political party has rights and powers over citizens. That is exactly what people were glad to get rid of in the Soviet Union. In a democracy, political parties have rights only over their own members in relation to the rules of their party.

Whenever we need to investigate anyone breaking the rules of the Labour party, we investigate it. We have been rather more successful, as I have said, in tracking down wrongdoing than some parts of officialdom to which we have had to refer things in the past. In short, Labour acts in such matters. The Tories, however, do not. They have never taken one single step against the fraudsters in Westminster.

Mr. David Shaw

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman used the word "fraudsters". There has been no allegation of fraud in Westminster, even by the district auditor.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman did use the word "fraudsters". He may wish to reconsider. I am quite aware that he did not accuse anybody in the House.

Mr. Shaw

On a point of order—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have not finished with the last one yet. The hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) should not get so excited. There has been no accusation of any Member of the House. We must, however, at all times consider the character of the words that we use in the House.

Mr. Wilshire

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hear your ruling, but I wonder whether the fact that there is someone who was a member of Westminster city council at the time of the events concerned and who is now a Member of this House has any bearing on this problem.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

No names have been used and there has been no personal attack on anyone.

Mr. Dobson

I have sat in the House and heard the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) accuse people in Monklands of fraud.

Mr. Shaw

Yes.

Mr. Dobson

I thank the hon. Gentleman. That is because it is possible, within the rules of privilege of this House, even to call an honest man a fraudster, provided that he is not a Member of the House—and there are fraudsters in Westminster city council.

Mr. Shaw

Name them.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

If the hon. Gentleman is not careful, I shall be naming him.

Mr. Shaw

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If I have accused anybody of fraud in Monklands, I have had the guts to name them. Let the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) name—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Once again, the House must settle down. I ask the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) to get back to the serious debate.

Mr. Dobson

I have spoken for a long time and the time left does not permit me to read out the names of all the people who have been involved in fraud in Westminster, but the names are all there in the public documents published by the district auditor. If people do not think that what has been done is fraud, they are busily redefining the whole concept.

As I have said, the Tories do not take action against their own people in Westminster. Our concern, however, is that they do not even take action against Labour councils. They have not taken action against the continuing disrepute and disrepair of Lambeth. Until this week they had not taken any action in Monklands. Only the Labour party has taken action there. That is because the Tories are not interested in the standards of conduct in public life. They are always looking for cheap, short-term, party-political advantage. That explains why the chairman of the Tory party opened this debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I promised to investigate the situation in relation to Westminster. As I understand it, no aspect of Westminster council's affairs is sub judice. The auditor's final report is awaited; only when it is received could court action become appropriate.

In answer to the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. McMaster), so far as I can ascertain there is no party adviser on the official Box list.

11.35 am
Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

Thank you for that ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The only contribution that I wish to make about Westminster is in respect of what the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) said about there being something wrong with the street cleaning of Westminster. I gather that he objected to the costs. I would like to place on record that street cleaning in Westminster has improved tremendously in recent years. If the costs are suspect, they should be examined; but we ought not to condemn the quality of the product, because there is no doubt whatever that some years ago the Westminster streets were pretty awful. Today they are a great credit to this city and to the capital of the United Kingdom.

Lady Olga Maitland

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Westminster is an unusual case because it receives so many visitors and therefore has unusual litter problems?

Mr. Walker

There is no question about that. I represent what I believe to be the most beautiful tourist part of the United Kingdom, but I cannot deny that Westminster has many thousands more visitors than we have in the highlands of Perthshire and Angus. I wish that we could get many, but the truth is that London is still the Mecca for visitors to the United Kingdom.

I want to address the situation in Scotland. I shall begin in an unusual way. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras suggested that we Conservatives are interested only in narrow political advantage. I have always felt that real courage should be acknowledged and recognised. It may not help the hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell), but I would like to say that I hold her in very high regard because she showed tremendous courage in difficult circumstances in demanding that a proper inquiry be conducted.

Hon. Members know how difficult it can be when one asks for something to be examined in one's own party. It is never easy. Therefore, anything I say in this debate is not intended in any way to suggest that the hon. Lady has behaved other than in a manner that sets very high standards for the House. I commend her for what she has done.

That does not mean that I necessarily think that the Labour party in Scotland has a lot to bask in credit about, because the hon. Lady was rowing against the tide at the time. Anyone who has studied the situation in Scotland would know that my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) constantly drew attention to the shortcomings, as I shall describe them, of the councillors in Monklands. He was accused many times of being many things but, as the Black report demonstrates, all that he had to say was true.

The Labour party was undertaking what is commonly called a whitewash. I understand what the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras was saying—that the party could inquire only into its own rules—but he and I know that inquiries into any rules often disclose other things. What was absent from the points made by the Labour party in 1993 was that it did not in fact give the Secretary of State for Scotland the other evidence that was uncovered. That is the critical missing element.

I know that the Labour party has at times taken tough action with defaulters, and I commend it for that. I see no political advantage in always saying that the other side is all black and we are all white. However, if we care about incorrupt local government, and I believe that most hon. Members do, we must want the truth to come out, and the truth can come out only if the evidence is presented to the authorities—the Secretary of State, the officials responsible for the audit and the police, if criminal activity is involved.

It is sad—very sad, in fact—that there have been a number of instances over the years of councillors having transgressed.

Mr. George Robertson

The hon. Gentleman seems to have made an allegation and then wandered from the subject. May I tell him—this is not the first time I have said this—that in the first Monklands inquiry the Labour party set up into party organisation in the area, there was no evidence uncovered by the Labour party that was suppressed or withheld? The report said: The Committee would request that those who suggest that improper actions have been taking place should put these charges in the hands of the appropriate authorities or desist from making the allegations. For two years the Secretary of State had the power under section 211 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 to order a public inquiry if he was "of the opinion" that there was a breach of the statutory responsibilities of the council. He chose not to do so. There is no suppressed or withheld evidence in the hands of the Labour party. The real responsibility lies with the Secretary of State who took two years to set up an inquiry that he could have set up at the time.

Mr. Walker

The hon. Gentleman doth protest too much. If he thought that I was wandering from the point, he was not following carefully what I was saying. I am going to deal with the issue. He cannot have it both ways: if there was no evidence, how could the Secretary of State be in default? The Secretary of State can act only if he is given evidence—

Mr. Robertson

No.

Mr. Walker

The hon. Gentleman says no. He did not listen to the question that I put to the Secretary of State for Scotland yesterday. Had he done so, he might have understood the point that I am about to make. I said: Does my right hon. Friend agree that, year after year, there are many requests for inquiries into different local authorities, and that he and his staff can consider only the evidence that they have, before they can make a decision on whether there is adequate evidence? Was it not the absent evidence, especially the evidence collected by the Labour party, that could have brought forward this inquiry if it had been made available?"—[Official Report, 28 June 1995; Vol. 262, c. 885.] The hon. Gentleman is telling me and the House that there was no evidence—[Interruption.]I Will the hon. Gentleman let me finish? He doth protest too much. If he is telling me, as an honourable gentleman, that there was no such evidence, I accept his word as an honourable gentleman. However, he cannot question why the Secretary of State was unable to take action.

I know that I have written to the Secretary of State a number of times about the activities of certain councils and councillors which have concerned me. They have not always been councils run by the Opposition. I have asked for an inquiry to be initiated but have always been told that inquiries can be established only when there is evidence, because of the time and cost and everything else involved. I do not argue with that, because I would hate the Secretary of State and his officials to be in a situation in which, whenever allegations were made but no evidence was produced, some kind of an inquiry had to be set up.

I am not trying to make a narrow party political point. I had hoped that my introductory remarks proved that. I am concerned only that we get at the truth.

Mr. Robertson

What the hon. Gentleman says sounds reasonable. I have also heard it from Ministers in public and private that they can instigate a section 211 inquiry only if they have the evidence. I do not know whether among his documentation the hon. Gentleman has a copy of section 211 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, but what he is saying is not true. Yes, the Secretary of State will act if there is evidence, but section 211 states: If a complaint is made to the Secretary of State or any appropriate Minister that a local authority have failed to do what is required of them by or under this Act or any other enactment or the Secretary of State or that Minister is of opinion that an investigation should be made…he may cause a local inquiry to be held". However, Ministers were not content to say that there was no evidence so they could not act; Ministers, including the Minister of the Crown responsible for Scottish local government, repeated the allegations of financial and political corruption, of nepotism, favouritism and a whole series of other things. Therefore, they were "of the opinion", as it were, so the hon. Gentleman's case does not stand up and nor does that of the Ministers. They knew that there were allegations and that they had the power to do something, but they chose not to do anything for two years. Will the hon. Gentleman deal with that point?

Mr. Walker

The hon. Gentleman has made an accusation without presenting a single shred of evidence. Will he think through carefully what he has just said? He has made accusations against Ministers of the Crown without producing a single shred of evidence. If I were going to make a charge against anyone, I should certainly quote chapter and verse of the evidence. The hon. Gentleman doth protest too much. I have a feeling that he is trying to hide something and that is rather sad. He has not produced a single piece of evidence.

Mrs. Helen Liddell (Monklands, East)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I am also grateful for his kind remarks at the beginning of his speech. I draw his attention to a statement made by the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) on 16 June 1994 when he claimed that there was religious discrimination, jobs for the boys, corruption and financial irregularities in Monklands district council. Following those allegations, when I was elected Member of Parliament for Monklands, East—one year ago today—I sought an inquiry under section 7 of the Local Government (Housing) Act 1989. I was told at that time that there was no evidence to support an inquiry.

I have a dilemma which I hope the hon. Gentleman will be able to resolve. Something is wrong somewhere when a Minister of the Crown says in a by-election campaign that irregularities exist but after the by-election he denies that there is any evidence to support them. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give me some advice on that.

Mr. Walker

I give the hon. Lady the advice that I always give people when someone says something but does not then produce the evidence to substantiate that claim: I treat any such allegation with the contempt that it deserves, regardless of the source. I feel very strongly—as must every honourable Member—that the worst thing that can happen in public life is to have unsubstantiated and irrelevant charges made against one's integrity. That type of tittle-tattle and chat undermines the quality of public life and the standing of people in public life. Sadly, as Members of Parliament, we experience it all the time, and we should not practise it on councillors or anyone else.

I have no brief about from which side of politics such attacks may come. I believe that when one enters public life one accepts that one is living in a glass house and may be got at. However, one should not be subjected to unsubstantiated charges. The difference between the actions of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover and the activities referred to earlier is that my hon. Friend produced0020what he believed to be hard evidence.

That hard evidence has now been substantiated by the Black report. Everything that my hon. Friend said previously in the House has been substantiated. I have extracts from the Black report, but I shall not go through them now. I believe that the matter will be dealt with adequately and properly in the process to follow. That is the way it should be. It is pretty clear that there is something wrong and that something has been wrong for a long time.

Those of us who lived in sectarian, divided parts of Scotland before the second world war remember with horror what happened when individuals could not get jobs or were not socially acceptable because of their religion. People think that the problems of Ulster are unique, but they existed where I grew up as a laddie. I remember vividly how people of a certain religion could not get employment. One of the things that motivated me to enter public life was the ghastly and awful way that people behaved towards others of a different religion.

When the hon. Member for Monklands, East made her views known at the time, it was pretty clear that she would not necessarily receive the whole-hearted support of everyone. We both know how difficult it is when one tries to expose the truth and one is accused, for whatever reason, of damaging one's own alleged interests. I know exactly how the hon. Lady felt because I was put under similar pressures when I took a particular stand with regard to the Guinness saga.

We must get at the truth; we owe it to the hon. Lady to do so. I do not believe that the Secretary of State was wrong, as the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) alleged. I believe that the Secretary of State was right in taking the line that he took and I believe that his present course of action is correct also. One does not take such action for narrow political advantage; I make that point quite clear. A Secretary of State should not act unless he is satisfied about the evidence. The Secretary of State did not act in that instance because his legal advisers told him not to do so. That situation should not change, because we are all victims of untrue accusations at some time.

We must get at the truth in the Monklands case. Judging from what I have read in the Black report, I am sorry to say that that truth may be nasty and unsavoury and could well end in criminal convictions. That is the truth of the matter; there is no point in pretending otherwise. We will not help the councillors in Scotland—whatever their political persuasion—by pretending that the matter should not be dealt with. It is a cancer and it must be removed.

I know that Opposition Members agree. I am not criticising them, which is why I could not understand the line taken by the hon. Member for Hamilton. Nothing that I said today was an attack on the integrity of any Opposition Member. We all want the same—uncorrupt councils that provide good services. What matters is not their political colour but how well councillors do their job. I want councils in Scotland to be given more, not fewer, powers and greater control. The fact that they may not be of my political persuasion does not matter. What matters is removing corruption from local government. Instead of Opposition Front Benchers attacking our Ministers today, they should be saying, "We agree with the hon. Member for Tayside, North. Now is the time to set about cleaning out councillors who bring discredit to everyone else." Why are we having a sterile political debate in which the only point made by the hon. Member for Hamilton is that the Secretary of State sat on his hands? That is nonsense.

Mr. McMaster

It is the truth.

Mr. Walker

It is not the truth. I have the evidence.

I wish that the hon. Member for Hamilton would stop trying to score political points. I am trying to reach the stage where we can, whatever our political persuasion, feel proud of our councillors.

Mr. Norman Hogg

The hon. Gentleman is not doing himself any good by getting too excited. Two years ago, the late John Smith wrote to the Secretary of State for Scotland asking for the very inquiry that the right hon. Gentleman has now set up. Why did the Secretary of State wait two years?

Mr. Walker

I do not want to make any adverse comment about the late John Smith. I liked him, he was a friend and I respected him. I do not know all the facts, but I know that John Smith was asked to produce evidence. He was a distinguished Queen's counsel, so he knew better than anyone about producing evidence on which action could be taken. Do not let us introduce into this debate a distinguished former parliamentarian of whom we Scots were extremely fond.

Mr. Hogg

That is being unfair to me.

Mr. Walker

No. I am saying only that the late John Smith was asked for evidence and it was not forthcoming. I understand from the hon. Member for Hamilton that Labour's inquiry did not produce usable evidence. Labour Members, out of their own mouths, said that there was no evidence. I am not misquoting anyone, am I?

Mr. George Robertson

I shall make the point again, slowly. The powers of the Secretary of State for Scotland were such that he did not require evidence but required only an opinion on the part of the Minister concerned. The hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) was a Minister of the Crown. As my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) pointed out, he repeatedly and publicly made allegations about the conduct of Monklands district council that should have led to an inquiry. The early-day motion to which the Tory party chairman referred called for a public inquiry. The Secretary of State had the necessary power, so the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) cannot continue to hide behind the parroting about evidence when all that was required was an opinion, which the Government had.

Mr. Walker

Like the hon. Gentleman, I read the small print. He ought to know that the power is that of the Secretary of State, which is why I dealt exclusively with the Secretary of State's position. He made a judgment in the circumstances, and I agree with his decision. I am aware of the false accusations that have been made in other areas. If the hon. Member for Hamilton lives long enough to become Secretary of State for Scotland, he would not want to have to act in circumstances where he was not convinced that there was adequate evidence to enable him to have an opinion. None of us would want a Secretary of State to be in that position.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Does my hon. Friend accept that the Secretary of State must be seen to be acting reasonably in the exercise of his discretion? Does he accept also that after the Labour party's inquiry, when it was in a position to send information to my right hon. Friend, it declined to do so? It would have been helpful if it had accepted his invitation to send to him all the information that it had available.

Mr. Walker

My hon. Friend has summed up beautifully the very point that I was trying, not so beautifully, to put across to the House.

The Labour party says, and I accept what it says, that there was no evidence. How then can it possibly say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State behaved wrongly and improperly? My right hon. Friend was the man who had to believe that there were reasonable grounds, to use an example of the delightful phraseology that is employed in this place.

If anyone is trying to play political games today, it is not me. The hon. Member for Hamilton should think carefully about what he has to say, because it will be read carefully. He may well find that his words are used on some future date. We all have to live with what we said in the past. If the hon. Gentleman has an argument with my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), he should advance it to him. He should not condemn my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for doing his job properly, as I believe. According to the hon. Gentleman, there was no evidence. I accept that. It was pretty clear, however, that activities were taking place about which the hon. Member for Monklands, East was concerned. The hon. Lady is the only Labour Member, on the basis of her record, to emerge with credit.

12.2 pm

Mr. Stephen Timms (Newham, North-East)

I begin by commending the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who said that he refused to take part in the shenanigans this morning. To some extent, the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) took the same stance. They struck a different tone from the one with which the debate began.

In opening the debate, the Minister Without Portfolio engaged in pure party propaganda. He made the sort of speech that gives politics a bad name. People are disgusted, and rightly so, when politicians merely throw mud at their opponents. The right hon. Gentleman has been in this place long enough to know better.

I listened with dismay but with attentiveness to the right hon. Gentleman's speech, but in vain, for some hint of even-handedness, for some reference, even in passing, to the major scandals in local government—for example, those in Westminster and now in Wandsworth. Those Conservative-controlled councils were ignored by the right hon. Gentleman. With the collusion of Government, vast sums of public money have been used by the two Tory councils explicitly to further the sectarian interests of the Conservative party. That spending dwarfs all the other matters that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. Their actions are of an entirely different order of magnitude. In the case of Westminster, £21 million has been wasted, spent to boost the number of Conservative voters in key wards. That is well known.

The report of the district auditor in Wandsworth, which was published in March, is not so well known. There, too, however, substantial sums were wasted because the council broke the law to sell off council housing stock. That, and the waste of public money in Westminster, did not rate a mention in the Minister's speech. Instead, we had party politics at their rock-bottom worst. It demeans the right hon. Gentleman that he sinks so low to indulge in such tactics. It testifies to the decline of his party that he does so.

The truth about local government in Britain is that many councils are making real headway in tackling the most intractable problems of our age—frequently, as my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) said, in partnership with Government agencies. I am happy to say that that applies not merely to Labour local authorities. I have no difficulty in being generous, where it is warranted, to Liberal local authorities and to the few Conservative local authorities left. It does the right hon. Gentleman no credit, nor does it add to the credibility of his case, that he ignores the reality where it conflicts with the point scoring in which he wishes to indulge.

Local authorities are at the sharp end, tackling the problems. What is striking about the right hon. Gentleman's speech is that he could have found out that what he was saying was nonsense if he had simply asked one of his colleagues who has actually had dealings with Labour local authorities—one of them is sitting next to him. In addition, the right hon. Gentleman could have asked any one of the Prime Minister's rivals and rumoured potential rivals for the Conservative party leadership. All of them have been Ministers in the Department of the Environment, have worked co-operatively with Labour local authorities and know perfectly well that the picture painted by the right hon. Gentleman is simply untrue.

Those Ministers have worked with initiatives such as city challenge and have seen the effectiveness and, frankly, in a number of cases, the brilliance of some of the regeneration partnerships that local authorities around the country have assembled. The right hon. Gentleman should have asked them—his own colleagues—before he assembled the embarrassing tirade that he threw at us this morning. People outside the House know that such comments are untrue too. Worse than that, such a speech is an insult to the communities to which he has referred. He may believe that it is simply harmless muck-raking, but it is insulting to whole communities, and that is how it will be perceived.

I am pleased to say that, in my relatively short time in the House, I have heard few speeches as bad as that one, but I am intrigued to know how such a dreadful speech comes to be written. Yesterday's edition of the Newham Recorder—incidentally, the Newspaper Society's campaigning newspaper of the year—provides some insight on that matter. The dirt digging lying behind the right hon. Gentleman's speech also provided the material for an absurd article in the Daily Express a week ago about recent changes in Newham council's leadership.

I wish that I could show hon. Members the cartoon in the Newham Recorder responding to the claims in the Daily Express about Newham council—remember the Newham Recorder and its editor once sympathised with the Conservative party. The cartoon shows a thug with a glove puppet. The puppet is the crusader figure from the masthead of the Daily Express and the thug is labelled "Tory Smear Campaign".

The article begins: A newspaper smear on Newham council by the Tory Daily Express last week may be directly linked to Downing Street. Just days before the two-page article appeared I the reporter— was enthusiastically told by a former Conservative councillor that `Number 10's Policy Unit' had phoned asking if he could confirm the Unit's thinking of a left-wing shift in the control of East Ham Town Hall. The councillor could not do so of course. He knew—since he had served with many of those in power, albeit on a different side—that the claim was laughable. A few days later I received a call from the Express's Political Correspondent John Ingham who wrote the piece which suggested that East London politics shatters Labour's new moderate image. He did not deny he had been talking to the Cabinet's spin doctors. In fact he was taken aback with our knowledge of what had happened. The editor of the paper goes on to comment: When opinion masquerades as fact people can get hurt. If the purpose of the Express article was to discredit the Labour Party (which, of course, it was) they have also done a grave disservice to people living here. There we have it. The Government have the cheek to lecture us about propriety and yet the No. 10 policy unit, paid for by taxpayers' money, is used by the Conservative party to put together cheap party propaganda. That is an outrageous misuse of public money. The problem that we have in Britain today, and the right hon. Gentleman's speech spelt it out clearly, is that the Tory party does not understand the distinction between its interests and the national interest. The whole country is paying the price for that.

I wonder how the chairman of the Conservative party justifies his use of the No. 10 policy unit to put together party propaganda. I also wonder whether that was how the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) spent his time when he was running the unit in the mid-1980s, or whether it is only under the present incumbent that standards have fallen so low.

One of the Government's policies that has angered the Newham Recorder is the way in which the local government funding formula treats Newham. According to Government figures, Newham has the highest level of urban deprivation in the country, yet the standard spending assessment per head of population—that is, the amount of money that the Government say needs to be spent—is less than the SSA for Westminster. That cannot be right. One reason for that discrepancy is that Westminster receives more than £550 per head under the "other services" heading, while Newham receives less than half of that.

One major reason for that extra money was revealed by The Daily Telegraph last Saturday. Westminster receives that massive subsidy for all the tourists who visit the borough. However, as The Daily Telegraph said in its article, a Westminster council internal document shows that the council accepts that it is now vulnerable to the criticism that we receive double compensation. The reality is that the tourists who visit Westminster bring in large sums of money, which are spent in the local economy—not least on parking charges that go straight into the coffers of the city council.

Westminster is being compensated for its tourists, while in reality it is simply getting extra money. Other local authorities throughout the country—Conservative as well as Labour—have to suffer because of the way that the system has been raked. That is wrong. Westminster has been given large, additional amounts of money for the special tourist factor. It was introduced in the 1980s specifically to help Westminster, while other councils with far harder jobs to do are left having to make do with less. That is the way that the Government have treated local government and it is a disgrace.

Local government is at the sharp end of the toughest problems that our nation faces as we approach the new millennium. Councillors of all parties are working to resolve them. The Conservative party should be supporting their efforts, not hurling abuse. Urban deprivation and the need for regeneration, keeping life in our town centres, raising the standards in our schools, providing care in our communities, building partnerships to tackle drug abuse—those are vital tasks and they require partnership between central and local government, of whatever party. There needs to be co-operation instead of the cheap insults that have been tossed around this morning.

These matters are too important to be reduced to party footballs. Partnership and co-operation—that is the way forward. If the right hon. Gentleman had listened to some of his right hon. and hon. Friends, he would have known that. We do not want the sort of cheap jibes that we have heard this morning. They demean the right hon. Gentleman and they insult the rest of us. They damage the vital and essential work being undertaken by local authorities throughout the country—work about which the right hon. Gentleman should have found out before he spoke. Local authorities deserve our support, not our insults.

The British people are fed up with petty politics, from whatever side. They have concluded that this country needs national renewal. What we have heard this morning undermines the partnership and co-operation, the determination for change and the optimism that the country so desperately needs. The one thing that we have established this morning is that there will be no national renewal in Britain while the Conservative party remains in Government.

12.13 pm
Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)

The hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms), in his short time in the House, has earned himself a reputation as a serious man who understands local government. When he started his speech this morning, I thought that he would further enhance that reputation. However, the problem with his relatively short speech was that, although he made some serious points and rightly said that we had to discuss local government on a serious level and although he told off my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) for making jibes about Labour local government, if he reads the Hansard report of his speech, he will see that he was not above making the odd jibe himself. It is reasonable that, on a political level, we should point out the inadequacies of councils that are run by our opponents.

It came across to me this morning that the Labour party is very sensitive about local government. Indeed, the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) perhaps would not have spent his time away from Scotland on a Friday to attend the House had he not been worried about the enormous damage that is rightly being done to the Labour party's reputation inside and outside Scotland by the systematic abuse that has been going on in Monklands.

Many hon. Members come from a local government background and we certainly take the matter with a great deal of seriousness. The point has been made that thousands of councillors, of all parties and, indeed, some independent ones, do a splendid job. They give up huge amounts of their time—time that they could spend with their family or doing other things—because they care about the community that they serve. Nothing in today's debate should detract from that.

Conservative Members are entitled to say that there is a culture of local government that comes from the Labour party that is not enviable and does no good for local communities. In a spat earlier in the debate, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mr. Hogg) made some ill-judged sedentary comments about the civil servants in the Box. Knowing the hon. Gentleman, I am sure that he regrets those comments and did not mean what he said.

Mr. Norman Hogg

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The rule is that civil servants in the Box should not be mentioned. I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind.

Mr. Hughes

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman later. I wish to make a wider point that relates to my experience of the debate about the civil service in the House—not, of course, about the remarks that were made earlier.

The problem is that, in my direct experience, the Labour party in power does not understand the difference between politicians and those people who are employed by a council or by the Government as civil servants. So, if civil servants express a view with which Labour Members do not agree, Labour Members assume that the civil servants are on the side of the Conservative party.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central)

That is a stupid thing to say.

Mr. Hughes

It is no good the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) saying that. I have heard his colleagues make that assumption in the Chamber. I have heard people who represent—or rather misrepresent—civil service trade unions say it in debates, including debates that I have had to answer. That is their view. They do not understand the difference.

The hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) thought that there was nothing wrong with wanting to employ Reg Race, a former Member of Parliament, as a senior officer of the Greater London council. I was a member of the appointments committee. I hasten to say that I voted against the appointment of Reg Race. Reg Race told the committee that he had nothing to do with politics any more. He said that he was no longer interested in politics and that he did not intend to seek another Labour seat. We knew that it was not true. The beatific smile on the face of the hon. Member for Brent, East shows that he knew that it was not true. I am not surprised that he is leaving.

Certainly in London, we have seen systematic attacks on skilled and professional council officers for not being sufficiently sympathetic to the Labour party. We have seen many of those people hounded out of their jobs. Pressure has been put on people to obey the diktats of the Labour party. The people in those communities need professional officers giving professional advice.

Mr. Hogg

How does the hon. Gentleman explain the confusion that has been caused by Ministers appointing people who are described as special advisers? I have just picked a letter off the board which is from the Ministry of Defence, Whitehall, London telling me some good news, but it is signed by Crispin Blunt, a "special adviser". What is going on? Why do not Ministers write to Members of Parliament? Are not the Government confusing the position in the way that the hon. Gentleman is accusing local government of doing? The hon. Gentleman really ought to acquaint himself with what is going on.

Mr. Hughes

I am well acquainted with what is going on. The hon. Gentleman is seeking to mislead, and I have heard that line from the Labour party before. Special advisers have a particular position, just as they did during the time of the previous Labour Government.

Mr. Hanley

The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), for example.

Mr. Hughes

Indeed, the hon. member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) was in that position. There are a number of special advisers, but the hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth forgot to mention—as Labour people always do—that the taxpayers' money spent on special advisers is matched by the "Short money" paid to the Labour party to run its administration and research. All parties get that money, including the party in government, and the hon. Gentleman knows that that is true.

Mr. Hogg

That will not do. It does not matter about the money being matched. It is the principle that a Member of Parliament elected by his constituents is receiving a letter from a political appointee instead of from a Minister of the Crown when it is appropriate for a Minister to write to the Member. That is unacceptable.

Mr. Hughes

I am sure that a representative of the Patronage Secretary will pass on the hon. Gentleman's touchiness at being written to in that way.

My point has not been contradicted. I do not think that the Labour party understands the difference, and that has been proved time and time again in local government in London. What the Labour party in local government is too often about—not always, as the hon. Member for Newham, North-East correctly pointed out—is the exercise of power, rather than the representation of communities. Nothing could provide more evidence of that than the party's conduct in housing during the century.

No Conservative railed against the ridiculous and dangerous nature of mixing up the collection of votes with the collection of rents more than Octavia Hill, and she was right. I have always taken an interest in housing. I was a member of a local authority, and I then stood for Parliament in that Conservative stronghold of Stepney and Poplar against the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) who was a Secretary of State at the time.

When I stood for election there, I could not believe what I heard. Labour councillors were standing outside the polling stations saying, "Vote for me today and I will make sure that I do something about that council flat you have wanted." That was not an isolated incident—it was the naked use of power. Anyone who doubts that does not understand what was going on in Tower Hamlets at that time. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Barnsley, East is commenting, and he is supposed to have a view about local government. He obviously knows none of the history of local government in London, because it was a Labour Secretary of State who, during the time of a Conservative Greater London council, stepped in and abolished the housing committee in Tower Hamlets. Did he do that for fun or because he thought that it was a good idea? He knew that he had to do it because the whole thing was corrupt, and was being used as an instrument of power. [Interruption.] It is no good the hon. Member for Barnsley, East muttering. That is not a fantasy—it is a matter of fact. Everyone knows that that was the case.

It has been my view for a long time that, to a greater or lesser extent, such matters go right to the core of the Labour party's approach to housing. Labour Members want a return to mass council house building because of the political power that they know that that will deliver into their hands. Their view was, never mind about the people or the fact that Labour councils created states and empires which they could not conceivably start to run efficiently, for which they could not manage repairs and in which they could not do anything to help people. Matters were beyond their control and all that they cared about was the power that was delivered into their hands.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

The hon. Gentleman seems to be completely unaware that, for as many years as I have been involved with local government—that goes back some 15 years—the Labour party has been making it quite clear to all its candidates for local office that it is totally inappropriate for them to engage in the individual allocation of housing. Labour has made it utterly clear that if it ever happens in individual cases, that is clearly against Labour's guidance and rules.

Mr. Hughes

As the hon. Lady is talking about a period that goes back just 15 years, she is pleading guilty as charged. This matter has long been in the culture of the Labour party and, as she admits, it is only comparatively recently that the Labour party has stopped—

Mrs. Fyfe

rose

Mr. Hughes

I will give way in a second. The hon. Lady must contain herself. I know that she is embarrassed but she must be patient. It is only comparatively recently that, in the words of the hon. Lady, Labour stopped individual councillors making housing allocations. That has not stopped the power being used in a more general way.

Mrs. Fyfe

I think that the record will show that I said that I personally became aware of it when my experience began some 15 years ago. I do not know when the Labour party made the statement of principle. I am sure that it must go back longer than 15 years. The hon. Gentleman misunderstood what I said, and he is making a silly point if he thinks that there is any value in saying that so many years are involved. The Labour party has consistently told its members who are seeking election to local authorities that they must not engage in this activity. Does the hon. Gentleman realise that that is the case?

Mr. Hughes

I recognise that this is another way in which Labour sought to use its power and got caught. A Conservative Government came along and changed the rules to make the practice more difficult, and Labour realised that it could not go on in that way. I recognise that, and doubtless the Labour party also recognises it.

Mr. Livingstone

In this interesting tour of corruption, may I ask why the hon. Gentleman has not regaled us with his personal experience as a member of the GLC? We had to establish a committee to investigate the fact that Strongbridge housing association had been set up to benefit financially the then Conservative chief whip, Geoffrey Seaton. He was forced to resign from the council when we discovered that £74,000 that was to have been spent on repairs was unaccounted for.

Mr. Hughes

As the hon. Gentleman says, I was a member of the GLC at that time and Strongbridge close is in my constituency. Therefore I know about it. The hon. Gentleman knows that this matter has been through the courts and that the arguments there did not go the way that he and his hon. Friends had wanted.

Mr. Livingstone

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hughes

Of course I shall give way, but first I should like to finish the sentence. The hon. Gentleman also knows that on the GLC I voted in favour of that investigation being set up.

Mr. Livingstone

The hon. Gentleman says that the arguments did not go the way that we wanted. Does he recall that the Director of Public Prosecutions decided not to bring the case to court on the ground that the members were very old and might not live long? That was five weeks before the 1993 general election.

Mr. Hughes

I also recall that some other members took a great deal of money from the people who made the accusations. These matters can be put both ways. I am not attempting for a moment to justify such happenings. I am saying what everyone knows in his heart—that the Labour party housing empires did not work, except to people's disadvantage. They were instruments of power and were designed to be such.

Mr. Stephen

Does my hon. Friend recall that the abuse of power, particularly by Labour housing authorities, has been going on for at least 50 years? Does he also recall that a leading member of the immediate post-war Labour Government was quite brazen about it when he said, "We will build the Tories out of London"?

Mr. Hughes

That is right. Everyone in London—my hon. Friend was previously involved in London politics—knows that full well.

I want to make a couple of other arguments; the first about Monklands. I know that the subject arouses sensitivities on the Opposition Benches, but I want to say that, whatever the rights and wrongs of what happened in Monklands, the extraordinary thing has been what I regard as a campaign of intimidation run by the Labour party against those people seeking to uncover what is going on.

I do not count the hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) in that, because much of what I am talking about happened before she entered the House. If she had witnessed the way in which the Labour party ganged up on my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) when, quite rightly and almost singlehandedly, he was exposing what the Labour party was doing in Monklands, and the way in which the Monklands council treated the local newspaper when it was uncovering what was going on there, and indeed some local Conservatives and doubtless others as well, she would have agreed with me that it was shameful. We should acknowledge that we would never have known the truth about Monklands without the work that was done by those people and by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover.

Lady Olga Maitland

rose

Mrs. Liddell

rose

Mr. Hughes

I will, in all fairness, give way to the hon. Member for Monklands, East first.

Mrs. Liddell

I find those charges of intimidation astonishing, and I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman does the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) any good by saying that he is a man who can be easily intimidated—a man who was in court, not so long ago, because of an action relating to his attack on a woman photographer. If the hon. Gentleman has evidence of intimidation carried out by Labour party members, he must make that evidence available and he must name names and give dates. He must not become involved in unsubstantiated allegations.

Mr. Hughes

Let me give an example of what I meant. When it was known that my hon. Friend the Member for Dover was going to speak in a debate and might mention that subject, the Labour Benches would fill with the Labour party's thugs; they would fill up with the people who would shout him down, scream abuse at him and raise points of order. In at least three debates that I can think of, my hon. Friend was silenced, and the reason for that was that the Labour party was deeply embarrassed.

Mrs. Liddell

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Lady was not here at that time and did not witness it, but it was true.

Mrs. Liddell

I am very interested in the fact that the hon. Gentleman is worried about the intimidation of the hon. Member for Dover. He was obviously not in the Chamber on Wednesday of this week when I had to have the protection of Madam Speaker and, indeed, the hon. Member for the Dover came very close to being named because of his behaviour on the Back Benches. We all remember the statement by the former deputy chairman of the Conservative party about the yobboes on the Back Benches. Indeed, the hon. Member for Dover was happy to be included in that number.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. Before we continue this debate, may I say that I expect the highest standards of conduct from the House of Commons, and that I shall not look kindly on what I would describe as intemperate language, whether or not it falls within the definition of "unparliamentary"?

Mr. Hughes

My hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) rightly paid tribute to the hon. Member for Monklands, East. It is encouraging that she has obviously moved on quite a way from her opinion of a year and two days ago, when she regarded the allegations of corruption as tittle-tattle.

Lady Olga Maitland

On the subject of intimidation and cover-ups, is my hon. Friend aware that exactly the same was happening in Islington? The evidence came out in the White report, which devoted a whole chapter to missing files. That happened at a time when children were being sexually abused and the leader of the council was none other than the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge).

Mr. Hughes

My hon. Friend makes her own argument. I did not necessarily intend to draw attention to what happened in Islington or in Hackney, but it is quite serious, and I hope very much that my hon. Friend will draw attention to it in her speech. I wanted to suggest why that happened. I think that it results from the culture of some of those Labour councils, by which I mean that political correctness and unwillingness to investigate things that people could see were going on before their eyes—

Dr. Reid

Why does the hon. Gentleman connect that to Monklands?

Mr. Hughes

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will keep out; I think that we are talking about Islington now; I accept that I was not talking about Monklands. I accept that that would have been a silly point to make.

The financial corruption in Hackney and the dreadful stories about what happened to little children in the care of Islington council came about because of a culture. I recognise that the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) has moved on from dismissing the allegations as nonsense. The culture was such that people felt that they could not investigate those matters, because, in the Labour party, it would have been wrong to investigate them because that would have brought up views on sexism and racism which would have been thought to be wrong. That was what stopped those investigations and that is the point that the Labour party needs to address.

Mr. Illsley

Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that a certain sort of culture means that Labour councils throughout the rest of the country are hiding allegations of sex abuse or child molestation.

Mr. Hughes

I am merely referring to what has been made clear by the White report and to what happened in Hackney. I do not think that anyone disputes these points. I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman disputes them.

Mr. Illsley

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hughes

It might be better if I finished at least one sentence in response. I do not think that anyone has disputed the fact that those matters should have been investigated. I assume that the hon. Gentleman does not dispute that. He probably does not dispute that those matters would have been investigated if the councils involved had not been concerned that the investigations would mistakenly be thought to be racist or sexist. I imagine that he does not dispute that point because that is what everyone has found.

My point is simple. The Labour party has got deeply into those matters for reasons that I understand, especially in terms of an anti-racist stance. We all abhor racism and some of us have spent a great deal of time fighting such things. It is, however, easy to be misled. What has happened is that mistakes have led to certain things happening or being allowed to carry on. Both sides should accept that point and work out how to tackle the problem.

Mr. Illsley

I did not dispute the hon. Gentleman's point. I asked whether he was suggesting that, because of the culture to which he referred, the vast majority of Labour local authorities were failing to investigate allegations of racism, sexism or child abuse. Is the hon. Gentleman attributing that failure to other authorities?

Mr. Hughes

Like the hon. Gentleman, I have no idea about other authorities. We know, however, of two examples; who is to say that there are not others? It is more likely that such incidents would happen in a Labour or Labour and Liberal Democrat-controlled authority. Perhaps Labour Members should look at that point. Even in my own council of Harrow, there have been some changes to employment practice that could have led us along the road that I have been talking about, although I do not believe that they will.

I am not making allegations that such problems exist in other places. I suggest merely that if they have happened in two places, we should not wait until something dreadful happens or something dreadful is uncovered before we investigate whether a particular culture is causing the problems. Again, I do not think that the hon Member for Barnsley, Central and I disagree on that.

Mr. Illsley

The hon. Gentleman is making allegations.

Mr. Hughes

I am not making an allegation. I am concerned about the fact that the hon. Gentleman is so sensitive on this point. I do not understand why he is so sensitive. Perhaps he will tell us about that later.

We had an apology about Nottinghamshire county council from the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), as if the fact that a couple of Conservative councillors were carried along and voted for the staggering increase of 300 per cent., putting the total amount paid out to councillors in allowances at more than £500,000, made it all right. It does not make it all right; it is a disgraceful thing for those councillors to do. It is also clear, that without the campaign that has been run by my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell), who is sitting listening to this debate, the leader of the Labour party would not have acted.

Instead of ordering an expensive investigation and instead of hiring a firm of accountants to tell the council what would be a reasonable level, why does the council not just make a reasonable decision? That is all that it has to do—withdraw what is there and replace it with a reasonable sum. That is not difficult. It needs not to spend extra money, but to act reasonably.

Dr. Reid

Is not the real difference between the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends and the Opposition the fact that the Opposition are prepared to condemn corruption or wrong practices wherever they occur and whatever party carries them out, as has been exemplified by my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) and by the leader of my party whereas Conservatives talk endlessly in a party political fashion about corruption, but, as exemplified by the hon. Gentleman himself, they manage to forget about corruption by Tory Greater London councillors—and he has managed to make a speech without mentioning the hundreds of millions of pounds worth of corruption in Westminster. The problem will never be solved so long as the Government pursue it in a narrow partisan party political fashion. We stand against corruption wherever it is and whoever carries it out.

Mr. Hughes

That sounds very grand but very thin. The hon. Gentleman is an hon. Friend of people such as the hon. Member for Barking, who originally called the allegations about Islington council a sensationalist bit of gutter journalism". Is that the even-handed Labour party? It does not stack up with what the hon. Member for Motherwell, North said.

When the allegations about Monklands were first put to the late John Smith's office, it described them as: pathetic ߪ It just shows how desperate the Tories are". We have moved on from that, and we are being even handed.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes said, we condemn all corruption when it is brought to our attention, if it is there. We do not wait until it is proved.

Dr. Reid

Can we nail once and for all the lie that has been perpetrated outside the House and, unfortunately repeated inside the House by hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes)? The Monklands allegations were not dismissed in an early-day motion or elsewhere as merely a smear.

Mr. Hughes

No?

Dr. Reid

I know the early-day motion; I signed the damned thing. In it, 110 Members said that unless the Government were prepared to act and to investigate the allegations, they would be regarded as nothing more than a smear. The Government, with all the power of the state, the law, the Administration, the personnel and the money behind them, refused to do that, yet the Labour party, without any of those, did it twice. That is the difference between the hypocrites in the Conservative party who are protected up to Cabinet level—some people who have been up to their necks in fraud—and Opposition Members who have challenged—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I have two points to make, one more serious than the other. First, interventions should by their nature be brief, and that was far too long. Secondly, I cautioned the House earlier about intemperate use of language. I trust that the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) was not accusing the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) of lying. What he said was a little difficult to understand, and I am assuming that he was not making that accusation.

Mr. Hughes

I think that we can assume that now that we know some of the facts, the affair is no longer regarded as a smear campaign, as the early-day motion signed by the hon. Member for Motherwell, North suggested.

Hon. Members will be relieved to hear that I have now come to my last point. I strongly agreed with what was said by the hon. Member for Newham, North-East about the work being done by city challenge, especially now that the activities have been brought together under the single regeneration budget and people are competing for the money that the Government give out.

That is not an argument about the sums of money given out. Whatever the amount was, I would still want to see people bidding and competing for it. If we are honest, we will realise that under Governments of different colours, and probably councils of different colours too, some of the huge sums of money that have been poured out to pay for regeneration initiatives might as well have been poured down the drain. When one visits the areas concerned one asks, "Where was all the money spent? What did we achieve with it?" Partnerships must be put together. This is not a party political point, but local councils are sometimes much too reluctant, and have to be forced into partnership with business, the community and the voluntary sector. The role of councils should be to bring people together and the single regeneration budget forces them to do that. There is much more that they can do.

We shall not improve services, give people better value for money or bring communities together by the vandalism that the Labour party threatens—abolishing compulsory competitive tendering. People care about the output of services, not who performs them. They care not about who creates the service but about the service that they get.

Since the privatisation of the rubbish collection service in Harrow, I have not had one single complaint. I used to get loads when it was done by the council. I will probably get loads now that I have said that. People care not about the name of the company but about how the service is done. Hon. Members should bear in mind that people want value for money; they want services and they want them done efficiently. We have injected that principle into local government. The Labour party could never have done that. It lags behind our agenda. It thinks that it can adopt some of it, but it cannot adopt what it does not understand or believe in.

12.45 pm
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

Now that Labour is the leading party in local authorities, the Liberal Democrats the second party and the Tory party also-rans, it is nice to have a chance to say a few words on local government.

The obvious way for all three parties to treat the debate is to describe the worst excesses of local authorities run by the other parties in a desperate and, for the most part, fruitless attempt to prove that authorities run by one party are much cleaner, more honest and less corrupt than authorities run by other parties. It is no surprise that that is more or less how the debate was treated, especially by the Minister Without Portfolio and the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). Other hon. Members have been a little wiser.

The subject of the debate lends itself to a good, old-fashioned verbal brawl of the sort that all too many hon. Members seem to love, but which the electorate whom we are all supposed to serve regard as pathetic, childish and utterly unworthy of the people who are expected to govern the country. As the Liberal Democrat spokesman, I would have no difficulty in going down that road if I wanted to. It is interesting that none of the councils that have been mentioned so far is Liberal Democrat controlled. Many of the examples that I would use would be those cited by other hon. Members. However, it would be more useful to the House and the country if hon. Members bore in the forefront of their minds the wise old proverb that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

I am not suggesting only that members of one party who know that their party is prone to inefficiency and corruption in local government should not have a go at local authorities run by other parties. The fact is that in the eyes of electorate, none of us in the House has much right to look local councillors in the eye and complain about corruption. After all, the electorate have a higher regard for their local councillors than for their Members of Parliament. When one considers cash for questions, arms to Iran, the Pergau dam, salaries for lobbyists and the failure to ban tobacco advertising, hon. Members make themselves look like hypocritical idiots when they try to make out that corruption and malpractice is a scourge only of local government.

Be sure of this: we are all making ourselves a laughing stock in the eyes of local councillors who hear that we have spent today discussing corruption in their ranks, when they think that we ought to clean up our own back yard before we take it upon ourselves to criticise their behaviour.

Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham)

Does the hon. Gentleman not see the distinction between illegal and corrupt acts of local government and an honest disagreement in the House on a political matter such as the advertising of tobacco products? If he does not, I have no hope for him.

Mr. Rendel

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has no hope for me, but the people out there—his electorate—certainly believe that when, for example, political parties take money and change their actions as a result, it is at least comparable with anything that goes on in local government.

Nor is it only local councillors with whom we are making ourselves a laughing stock. Let us not forget that the average voter believes that local government is much less corrupt and less self-serving than national government. Apart from anything else, the general public can see that we lay down much more stringent rules for the conduct of local councillors than for ourselves.

Mr. Hanley

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman said that the Government have changed their policy because the Conservative party received money in the form of donations. That comment is not justified, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his accusation or provide proof.

Madam Deputy Speaker

That is not a matter for the Chair because the arguments adduced were what one might call generalised. It may be a matter on which the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) might care to expand in response to the point made, but it is not a point of order for the Chair.

Mr. Rendel

I am perfectly happy to repeat my point, which is that the electorate believe that such matters reveal that the conduct of Members of Parliament does not live up to the standards of conduct of local councillors. They believe it, and they are largely right to do so.

As I was saying, the general public can see that we lay down much less stringent rules for ourselves. As Madam Speaker pointed out in response to the point of order that I raised just before the BMARC debate, the restrictions on hon. Members taking part in debates on subjects in which they have a declarable interest are far fewer than the restrictions that we have chosen to impose on local councillors. Are we really so sure that hon. Members are so much more honest and honourable than local councillors? If hon. Members tried telling that to the average member of the public, they would soon find out just how low politicians, especially national politicians, have sunk in the eyes of the electorate.

Instead of using this debate for yet another dull and frankly rather useless attempt at point scoring, I believe that the public would prefer us to use the time to investigate how we can enhance our democratic processes, especially at local level.

Mr. Stephen

Has not the hon. Gentleman in fact spent the last three minutes political point-scoring and doing precisely what he complained of as being pathetic and childish?

Mr. Rendel

I made it clear that I was not making a point about any particular political party. I was making a general point about the way in which national politicians—I did not mention a particular political party—are viewed by the electorate at large.

If we are serious about cleaning up local government, we need to decide why corruption has arisen in the cases where it has come to light. What are the processes and procedures that have allowed corrupt behaviour to occur? What can we do to amend those procedures, so that we make it more difficult for corruption to arise and then go undetected?

In many cases—Monklands is an obvious example—corruption has been allowed to take hold because one political grouping has held the vast majority—in some cases, all—of the seats on a council and there has been no effective opposition. Of course, in a true democracy, we cannot legislate for the electorate always to choose its representatives from a mixture of parties. It may be that one party is so popular that it rightly wins every seat on the council but, let us face it, that is not the usual state of affairs in this country.

Instead, all too often, one party wins all or almost all the seats on the council despite having the support of less than half the electorate. Why is that? The answer is that we still run an antiquated, dilapidated and unrepresentative electoral system. We do so even on councils where we already have multi-member wards, which lend themselves to a proportional system of election.

Nor is it simply one-party rotten boroughs that are liable to corruption because of our first-past-the-post electoral system. Why was it that the scandal of so-called stable communities arose in Westminster? It was for the same reason, that the first-past-the-post system made it possible for comparatively small changes in the make-up of the electorate to have an entirely disproportionate effect on the make-up of the council as a whole. What would be the point of shifting a few hundred Tory supporters into marginal wards in Westminster if the make-up of the council was determined on a purely proportional basis?

If we are serious about the battle against corruption in local authorities, we must first change the system by which councillors are elected. In the eyes of the electorate, it is a test of how genuine the other two parties are in their protestations about corruption in local government if they are prepared to admit today that a proportional system of election to local councils would remove at least one of the underlying reasons why corruption can all too often thrive unchecked in Britain's local authorities.

We can take other measures also. Corruption thrives on secrecy, so we should open up councils wherever we can and bring their workings closer to the people. Planning is one area where corruption is most often suspected in local authorities. If the proponents and the opponents of any planning application have the right to join in the discussion about that application, it will be if not impossible, then certainly much harder for anyone to make an unreasonable decision for corrupt purposes.

When such a proposal is first put to traditional and perhaps hide-bound authorities that are not used to working openly with people, the normal reaction is one of horror. But where such procedures are put in practice in local authorities, the procedures rapidly become so popular that no one would dare to change them back again. Today I tabled a parliamentary question to the Secretary of State, asking him to name the authorities that have opened up their planning procedures in that way. It will be interesting to see whether the Secretary of State can give me that information and whether he has recognised the importance of the new procedures in countering corruption. If he can, it will be even more instructive to learn which more forward-looking councils have introduced that bulwark against corruption.

Mr. Wilshire

This is riveting stuff, but perhaps I inhabit a different planet from the hon. Gentleman. I was chairman of a council planning committee more years ago than I care to admit to the House. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the committee did not discuss planning concerns with applicants and objectors? If that is what he is implying, he lives in a different world.

Mr. Rendel

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman heard what I said. I was talking about discussions in open council during consideration of planning applications.

There are two simple changes that the Government could introduce at no cost to the Exchequer, which would help in the struggle against corruption. However, it is a struggle not just against corruption, but against inefficiency. Wherever corruption can thrive, inefficiency can thrive also.

Lady Olga Maitland

As to the hon. Gentleman's point about inefficiency, will he join me in criticising the Liberal-controlled Sutton borough council, which has failed to collect £1 million in uncollected rents? Does he not agree that that is disgraceful mismanagement?

Mr. Rendel

I am sorry, I obviously earned that attack by not wolf-whistling at the hon. Lady earlier. I have said several times during my speech that we are not here to single out particular councils for criticism—that could be done on both sides about parties controlling all sorts of different councils. We must find ways of removing the circumstances in which corruption and inefficiency can flourish.

Many other measures could be taken, as well as those that I mentioned. However, I shall leave others to explain them in the hope—over-optimistic though it may prove to be—that other hon. Members, and particularly the Minister in his winding-up speech, may recognise the British people's yearning for the constitutional reforms that our country needs so desperately.

Mr. Stephen

I was intrigued to hear the hon. Gentleman's suggestion about open discussion of planning decisions. With respect, it seems to be the sort of hare-brained idea that is typical of the Liberal Democrats. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that Liberal Democrat councillors will not discuss planning applications behind the scenes among themselves and with their officers?

Mr. Rendel

I am not sure where that question came from or how to answer. It did not seem related to my point about the importance of opening up council meetings to those making a planning application and objectors. The several councils that have introduced that practice have found themselves in a much better position, with decisions being accepted much more readily by all sides.

Corruption is an evil that can afflict councillors of all parties and of none. It is silly to pursue futile point scoring, which serves only to diminish the standing of the House. Instead of each of us trying to pretend that our own party, and only our own party, is free of the scourge of corruption, it would be better to unite in ridding our country for ever of the conditions in which corruption can thrive—at national level even more importantly than at local level. Then, we might at last hope to regain for the politics of our country some of the respect that the hypocrisy of recent times has cost us.

1 pm

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

The debate—most of which, happily, you missed, Madam Deputy Speaker—is officially about local government conduct, but it is probably inevitable that it will focus mainly on misconduct. Local government is held in low esteem throughout the country. If the turnout at local elections is any guide, nor is local government cared about much.

You were well out of it, Madam Deputy Speaker, and for your sake and that of the House I will resist the temptation to join the party political kickabout, unless I am provoked. In case any Opposition Member is tempted to have a go, I remind the House that I was a councillor for 11 years and a council leader for six years. My borough council in Spelthorne is still one of the 13. If anybody still wants to have a go, he is welcome to try, but I do not want to cause difficulties for you, Madam Deputy Speaker, by mixing it if that can be avoided.

If this debate is to make a positive contribution to the future of local government, we must look beyond specific examples of misconduct, however awful or partisan, and resist scoring points by apportioning blame, however much fun that might provide. We ought to consider why misconduct occurs and ask whether the House can do anything practical to minimise the risk of it recurring in future. I realise that such an approach will spoil the fun and may clear the Benches for the next 10 minutes. Hon. Members deserve a lunch break, so now is the time to take one and return to the theatre later.

The House can safely leave the formal investigation into allegations of partisan targeting of resources by Monklands district council, and into partisan cronyism when employing staff, to an independent inquiry. The House should consider what such allegations, true or false, tell us about the attitude of councillors to their roles and priorities.

Mr. Stephen

Does my hon. Friend agree that the same approach should be adopted in respect of Westminster city council, which awaits a legal determination of allegations against councillors and that it would be quite wrong to prejudge the outcome of that legal determination?

Mr. Wilshire

I am grateful to my hon. Friend as I can now tear up the next page of my speech. which dealt with precisely that point.

The Monklands allegations, right or wrong, tell me that whether things were properly or improperly done, too many councillors in Monklands, as elsewhere, have an obsession with power and with service delivery. Westminster city council is another example. Formal investigations into partisan housing policies are sensibly left to independent experts. We can therefore usefully move on to consider what that example tells us about councillors' attitudes and priorities. It tells me, as does the Monklands example, that too many councillors are having love affairs with power and service delivery.

What happens when local government focuses on the wrong things and gets its priorities wrong? What can we usefully do to get those involved back on to the strait and narrow? I suspect that any of us who have been practitioners in local government are only too well aware of how a love affair with power manifests itself. It is usually to be found in the form of special pleading for accountability. That reveals a blinkered understanding of what accountability really means.

It is true, as councillors claim, that accountability involves power over things. That can be described as accountability for something. It also involves duties to people, and all too often that is overlooked. If we have a fixation with what we are accountable for, we end up with a power complex. That leads to the making of ridiculous claims such as, "If we in local government do not continue to provide this service ourselves, our proper role will be undermined." Other councillors might say, "If somebody else provides this service, local government will lose control of it." We all know the language. The other side of the coin is that if a service has nothing to do with local government, then local government should not get involved in it. I am sure that what I am saying sounds horribly familiar to anyone who has examined local government and I hope that we all agree that the language to which I have referred is nonsensical.

What happens when a power complex is taken to extreme? The result is power over things—for example, services—and an attempt to have power over people. That is extremely dangerous irrespective of which party is involved. The result is serious misconduct. Two examples come to mind. There is social engineering, which I think is dreadful, and party political fixing.

The best current examples of social engineering that I know anything about are the results of some people's fixation with political correctness. We have heard a few examples already and I shall toss in one or two of my own. There is the wondrous example of Humberside—shortly to be abolished, thank goodness. The authority spent £10,000 on black dolls for play groups. That is absurd. Lewisham set up a special committee to help develop local government skills in South Africa. That is nonsensical. Hillingdon produced a dictionary of politically correct phrases. It then spent £50,000 on training staff to use that wondrous dictionary. That is not what local government is about, whichever party is involved. If councils indulge in those activities, it is no wonder that local government is held in contempt.

Even worse than social engineering, and that is party political fixing—

Mr. Dobson

Conservatism.

Mr. Wilshire

I have examples involving several parties, and others none, becoming involved in attempts at party political fixing.

Mr. Dobson

Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the district auditor is investigating allegations that Westminster city council spent £1.5 million of local taxpayers' money in furthering its electoral chances? Does he agree? If that is true, will he condemn it?

Mr. Wilshire

Of course. I can now tear up another page of my speech. The hon. Gentleman has made precisely the point that I was about to make. I was not intending to use the Westminster example, but I am happy to say that if that allegation is true and if the allegation that Birmingham city council was pushing money round the city in an attempt to woo the electorate to vote Labour—if either or both allegations are true—I condemn them both. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will condemn Birmingham as readily as he condemns Westminster. That is exactly the point that I am trying to make.

Mr. Dobson

Will the hon. Gentleman go back to his accusation against Humberside county council in relation to black dolls? How much did that council allegedly spend? The facts are that a play group at Hutton Cranswick applied to the council for help and was given a £300 grant towards the cost of repairing a water heater and the purchase of some toys, which included some black dolls.

Mr. Wilshire

We can have wonderful fun, as we have had before, tossing press releases, cuttings and other things about. All that I will say to the hon. Gentleman is, whether my figure or his figure is right, my point still stands: paying even 1 p to put black dolls into playgroups in the name of political correctness and to make a political point is wrong. It does not matter how much is spent—it is the principle that I am concerned about.

I shall return to the question of political fixing and try to resist further temptations to mix it with the hon. Gentleman. He provoked me and I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing myself to go down that track.

It is notoriously difficult to prove beyond all reasonable doubt allegations of party political fixing, but I will give just one example which does stand, and it will cheer Labour Members because it does not attack their party. The borough of Spelthorne, which is in my constituency, has just been referred to the Local Government Commission for a re-review because it still wants unitary status. We are passionately committed to securing that status, getting out of Surrey and returning to Middlesex, which is where we really belong, as a unitary council. Within days, however, of the announcement in this House that Spelthorne's status was again to be reviewed—and I hope that we shall succeed—Surrey county council launched a scurrilous campaign against it.

Why was that? There are some perfectly good reasons why one could run a campaign, scurrilous or not. One could do so because staying in Surrey could be good for my constituents—I respect that, although I would disagree that that is true in this case—or because Surrey services could suffer if Spelthorne left it. Again, that is an honourable reason, but I do not agree with it and could demonstrate why I am right and Surrey county council would be wrong.

Those, however, are not the reasons why Surrey county council has launched its campaign. It has attacked the Government review simply because the Surrey Conservative group can ill afford to lose its five Spelthorne county councillors. All that I can say to such an attitude is, "Shame on you." It is not worthy of local government, whatever party one comes from.

Mr. Rendel

Is it not at least possible also to accuse the Government of political fixing in taking out of Surrey what the hon. Gentleman has already told us is one of their 13 remaining councils in the hope that at least one or two councils will remain under Conservative control if they become unitary authorities and separated from the county?

Mr. Wilshire

That is a fascinating point, but I suspect that the proposal owes more to the fact that the Liberal group on Surrey county council is not keen to lose its one Spelthorne councillor. However, I shall let that pass as I want to move on.

When local government is obsessed with services, a part of what it should be doing is ignored and then so-called experts come along behind and start devising wholly unsuitable boundaries and structures. As I read it, local government does not exist to deliver services. It is entirely right that it does deliver some, but that is not why it exists. Local government exists to speak up for the needs of all local people in their communities and then to play a part—I stress that it is only a part—in seeing that those needs are met. The fact that local government is best placed to meet some of the needs is not in dispute, but if councillors become totally obsessed with services that they deliver themselves, trouble invariably follows.

Such trouble is all too familiar to all hon. Members. We discover that councillors of all political persuasions are adopting slogans such as, "Our services are ours—they are not central Government's and they are not the public's." They make silly comments such as, "Taking away our services will undermine local democracy," or "Altering boundaries will inevitably damage services." All of that is far too common and it is utter nonsense. If local government would just stop banging on endlessly about services, it would do a much better job and would be more respected by its communities. It would then become involved, in many different ways, in the totality of need and in all of people's aspirations, not just those in which they currently have a hand.

If hon. Members think that I am talking abstruse nonsense, I can tell them that councillors instinctively know that what I am saying is right. We have only to look at what happens when someone proposes the closure of a local hospital, for example. That sort of issue will always find its way on to a council agenda, yet the national health service has nothing to do with local government. Councillors instinctively understand that they should be involved in the totality of need.

Another point is that when councillors become obsessed with services, boundaries and structures are devised for the wrong reasons and then become wholly unloved by local people. I know that from first-hand experience. Unfortunately, I was a member of Avon county council. It was unloved when it was Conservative controlled, unloved when it was Labour controlled and unloved when no party controlled it. I and many others rejoice that it is to be abolished.

I have a long list. However, I note that one or two hon. Members are making frantic eyes at me and I get the message. Nevertheless, I am not quite sure whether it would do me any good to sit down right now, so I shall just make one or two more points—[Interruption.] The list is long enough for me to do so.

I want to discuss what we could usefully do about the list of problems. In a nutshell, we should end the obsession with service delivery. I shall confine myself to suggesting just one or two ways to do that. First, we should give local government a say in all local needs and services. I know that that runs counter to what is being said by the Department of the Environment, but I believe that we can switch the focus away from an obsession with local government services and towards the local community if we involve local government in everything that happens.

We should scrap the absurd system of two-tier local government, which is the ultimate example of local government based on service delivery. The sole justification for larger tiers is the need to create bigger areas for the delivery of certain services. That is rubbish.

We should overhaul local government finance. By giving grants to local councils we encourage the idea that somehow the services involved are local government services. The truth is very different. For example, education and the fire service are national, not local, services. The Government specify the standards for those two services; the pay for all staff is determined nationally and local variations are held to be wholly unacceptable to the public; and central, not local, Government get the blame when things go wrong. The reality is that the local government provider is only a provider when somebody else is a purchaser. If only we could get away from grants and move to purchasing services from local government, we could get rid of that obsession with service delivery. As a bonus, we would also get away from general formulae. Most of us would be pleased to see the back of standard spending assessments and other such formulae; they are a nonsense.

I hope that the whole House will accept that the conduct of local government all too often leaves much to be desired. I hope that the whole House will also accept that misconduct happens and that it is not confined to one party. A wonderful time can be had—and was being had before you arrived in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker—shouting "Yah boo" at each other. It makes us feel better and it provides a little light relief, but it does absolutely nothing to help local government.

The best way to help local government is to leave the formal inquiries to the experts, to work out what lies behind this conduct, to decide how to change things and then to put that into practice. I have tried to explain today how we might do that. I commend it to both the Government and the Labour Front-Bench teams, but I suspect that neither will have the courage to risk the aggravation that will follow if they try to put it into practice.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I am not in a position today to control the length of speeches, but I remind the House that many hon. Members wish to speak. If each one speaks for only 10 minutes, we still get through only six an hour.

1.19 pm
Mrs. Helen Liddell (Monklands, East)

This is an extremely important debate and I am sorry that the farce which began this morning's proceedings has substantially eaten into the time available for debate on a subject of considerable importance. I will go so far as to congratulate the right hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), the chairman of the Conservative party, on giving us an opportunity to have this debate as it allows me, as one of the Members of Parliament for Monklands, to put on record a number of facts which have been missing from the debate about the conduct of local government in Monklands.

Before I start, I draw attention to the fact that, despite the brouhaha at the beginning of the debate, the Government Benches are now almost empty. That depresses me as it leads me to believe that Conservative Members do not necessarily take this subject as seriously as they should. I have one particularly significant point to make. I notice that there are no Scottish National party Members present in the Chamber today. They made great sport a year ago of the conduct of local government in Monklands. The SNP has three councillors in Monklands, but I have yet to hear a statement from the Leader of the SNP as to what action he will take in relation to his party's councillors. It is not clear from Professor Black's report to which party the councillors guilty particularly of staffing irregularities belonged. Nevertheless, that situation is most regrettable.

I have been critical of my party, as the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) mentioned, because immediately following the by-election it should have acted as quickly as possible. However, I put on record my thanks for the support that I have received from my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson). Immediately following the publication of the Black report, I received a response from the leadership of my party and action is now being taken. That is important.

I also take this opportunity to thank Professor Black. In this context, it is appropriate to recount the circumstances which led to the Black report. I mentioned in my intervention in the speech of the hon. Member for Tayside, North that during the by-election in which I was elected to the House the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) made some damaging and hurtful allegations about the performance of people in Monklands district council in relation to religious discrimination. I shall refer later to sectarianism and the damage that has been done to my communities by the charges of sectarianism. I regret that the hon. Member for Eastwood is not here. I had expected that he would be. As a Minister of the Crown, he claimed that there had been sectarianism in appointments. Immediately after my election, I asked him to use that opinion as grounds for calling for an inquiry under section 211 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, but he turned me down, as I expected he would.

With the assistance of colleagues who are more senior and experienced parliamentarians than I am, I sought the legal advice of Scotland's premier lawyer, the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, as to what steps could legitimately be taken. As the council—together with my distinguished predecessor the late John Smith—had called for an inquiry into the activities of Monklands district council, I knew that the council would be anxious to see matters resolved.

As a result of the legal advice given to me by the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) and I met Monklands district council. I provided the council with the Dean of the Faculty's opinion as to whether it could proceed with an inquiry without fear of surcharge and remain within the law, and the council agreed that it could. It was therefore from the activities of Labour Members of Parliament and the council itself that the Black inquiry came into being.

I am grateful that we now see some belated movement on the part of the Government on a section 211 inquiry. Regrettably, the inquiry is not so far-reaching as I would wish. One of the main criticisms of Monklands district council during the by-election was about the imbalance of spending in relation to the eastern and western parts of the area. A number of sets of figures were put about relating to expenditure, but I was concerned that we were trying at that point to compare apples with oranges. The district council's figures took into account housing allocation and the figures from the four rebel councillors gave extracted council housing expenditure.

I asked the council to provide evidence as to its spending over a period. It produced evidence showing that £22 million had been spent in the western part of Monklands district, but that only £2 million had been spent in the town of Airdrie, which I now represent and—deplorably, in my view—less than £1 million had been spent in the nine villages that I represent. I was angered by that, and I remain angry. In his report, Professor Black vindicates the stand that I have taken.

I do not say that all the charges that have been made against the district council have been proven. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) for stating that, during the by-election, I referred to "tittle-tattle". The Minister, as well as the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) and—from a sedentary position—the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) have all referred to the fact that allegations must be substantiated.

I am grateful that the hon. Member for Harrow, West has allowed me to address this matter, as I can now give the full quotation of what I said during the by-election campaign. The quotation was reproduced this week by the political correspondent of The Economist in Scotland, Mr. Peter Jones, who was present throughout the by-election. The actual quotation was: I am not interested in tittle-tattle or gossip about the council, but give me solid evidence and I will act. I like to think that I have done so.

The issue of fraud has been raised by Members on both sides of the House, and there has been a fair amount of batting to and fro. It is extremely important to put on the record of the House that the Public Accounts Commission—which is respected by people of all political persuasions in Scotland—has given Monklands district council a clean bill of health. There were repeated allegations about Monklands district council in respect of planning applications, and that is one area in which we can hear charges against councillors. The planning department of Monklands has been vindicated, and I am glad of that.

Some of the allegations were amusing and absurd. Airdrie is an ancient royal borough, and a gentleman drew to my attention the husbandry in relation to paving stones in Airdrie. Over time, he said, the people of Airdrie had been proud of their paving stones and had made sure that they were not broken. The man had come across council workmen digging up paving stones, and had rushed to my office to allege that paving stones from Airdrie were being taken to Coatbridge, so that broken paving stones from Coatbridge could be installed in Airdrie. That was the level of some of the allegations. Some were substantial, but we must bear in mind that some of the allegations from small and close-knit communities can be bizarre. There is to be a section 211 inquiry—regrettably, not so far-reaching as I would have wanted—and we have now an opportunity to proceed.

I am anxious not to take up too much of the time of the House, but I must make a point on behalf of my constituents who have been besmirched by allegations of religious discrimination. It has been claimed that Catholic Coatbridge is being favoured over Protestant Airdrie. That is an appalling charge. It is also totally untrue. The right reverend Bishop of Motherwell, Joseph Devine, said only this week that the religious breakdown in the two towns is roughly fifty-fifty. People who are ill informed about Monklands and who make damning charges fail to take into account that I represent nine villages in which the substantial majority of people are Roman Catholics.

I have been critical of Monklands district council. The charge has been laid against its members that they favour Roman Catholics. I am a Roman Catholic, and the four rebel councillors who raised the charges initially against Monklands district council are Roman Catholics. There is a high proportion of Roman Catholics in the Labour party in the Monklands area, for the simple reason that there was considerable Irish immigration there throughout the 19th century. One of my reasons for being so angry about the charges of religious discrimination is that in our past there has been such discrimination and bigotry and much work has been done to try to get rid of them. Much of that has now been set aside by the charges unjustly levelled against people in my community.

I come from a community with a strong record of social service. My hon. Friends the Members for Hamilton and for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) and my distinguished predecessor John Smith often boasted that their alma mater, Dunoon grammar school, provided three leading Labour Members of Parliament. Argyll, which contains Dunoon, covers many thousands of square miles. The school that I attended has provided three current hon. Members—myself and my hon. Friends the Members for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) and for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan). Five hon. Members come from Monklands. In addition to those that I have mentioned, there are my hon. Friends the Members for Monklands, West and for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Cunningham). People in the area have genuine and passionate social concerns, and they have been drawn down into an argument about religious discrimination that is uncalled for and unjust.

I am critical of the Government and of Conservative Members who have used the people of my community as a political football. For two years we asked for a section 211 inquiry but could not get one. The Government repeatedly said that there was no evidence that would allow them to have such an inquiry. I have evidence that there was a concerted plot by the Conservative party to concentrate on Monklands because it contained John Smith's seat. I have a number of faxes headed: William Reid and Sons, Wireworkers Ltd, 162 Glenpark Street, Glasgow. When they first came to my attention, I wondered why a wireworking firm in Glasgow was interested in the affairs of my constituency. Reading on, however, I found a fax from Mr. John Love—a failed Conservative councillor in Monklands—to Miss Aileen McAuley of the Airdrie and Coatbridge Advertiser. It is dated 4 February 1994 and it is clear from its terms that there was an orchestrated campaign against Mr. John Smith. It states: Do you know if Smith has a surgery this weekend? I intend lobbying him on Sunday as he attends the Labour meeting at the Concert Hall, Glasgow but I would also have liked to attend his surgery for a confrontation. That fax intrigued me and I found another one from the same company, William Reid and Sons. I assume that Mr. I. W. Reid and Mr. A. R. Cameron are extremely generous directors.

Dr. Reid

He is no relation.

Mrs. Liddell

As my hon. Friend says, he is no relation. They must be very generous to allow Mr. John Love that opportunity.

There is another fax to a Miss Jacqui Lowe, who may be known to the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), who is present on the Trsry Bench. It seeks a copy of the relevant section of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 and states: also advise on line to be pursued. I have no wish to be sidetracked into legal arguments. That suggests to me that the Secretary of State for Scotland, who maintains a close link with the Scottish Conservative and Unionist office, was aware of all those activities and colluded in them.

I am worried that the Government will not act quickly in the section 211 inquiry. I am also worried that issues being raised with the Crown Office in Edinburgh will not be acted on expeditiously. A community of decent people is being used as a political football. I suspect that a Government who are as panicked as the present Government will seek to continue to use Monklands as a means of trying to smear a Labour party which has been determined to act, is now acting and will act with all haste.

I ask Members of the House that before they attack the people of Monklands they should bear in mind the fact that that community has come through a lot. I also ask members of the Press Gallery who are covering this debate not to be drawn into the shorthand and slanging match of alleged religious discrimination, sectarianism and bigotry in Monklands as it is inflammatory in the extreme. We have worked for generations to bring about a healing in that community and outsiders who have sought to exploit that community for their own ends do my constituents no good at all.

I hope that the situation will be brought to an end, and I hope that lessons for the conduct of local government—not only in Scotland, but throughout the United Kingdom—will be learnt from what has happened to Monklands district council.

1.35 pm
Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

It is important for us to be aware of the purposes of local councils. They are there to provide services efficiently to the electorate.

I often feel that, where there is a divide between the political parties, it exists because many Labour Members appear to suppose that the purpose of councils is to implement ideological ideas. They are there, in Labour's opinion, to implement political correctness; they are there, not to look after all the people but to look after its people. That is the difference between the Conservative approach and the Labour approach. The Labour approach is heavily orientated towards looking after its people, not all the people.

The Labour party has a record of looking after trade unions and councillors or relatives of councillors, as we have heard today. Lambeth, Islington and Monklands are all Labour councils; they all have serious problems, and there are examples in all of them of looking after their own people and not concentrating on looking after all the people.

Why do those councils go wrong? I cannot do any better than refer people to Leo McKinstrey, who used to be a Labour party bureaucrat. He is a former Labour party councillor who has been telling his story in the Spectator, The Sun and The Daily Telegraph. That story goes on and on. It draws attention to the way in which Labour has failed—and Mr. McKinstrey is an insider. It draws attention to the fact that Labour is obsessed with ideological methods of running councils, with political correctness and with looking after the trade union interest.

Mr. McKinstrey is a man who speaks from considerable experience. He has been active, not only in local Labour party work but in national Labour party work. The more one speaks to Labour councillors—or even, I am afraid, sometimes Labour MPs in the House of Commons—the more one discovers that many of them do not understand the concept of public service.

Many Labour politicians are aware of nothing wrong in the corrupt practices that exist in places such as Monklands. Only yesterday, across the Floor of the House of Commons, I was told by a Labour Member below the Gangway that only 68 employees out of 1,500 were family members, and that that really was not too bad—that it was not wrong. Many Labour people simply do not understand what is wrong when it is drawn to their attention.

I accept that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) said earlier that those matters should have been stopped. We all agree that they should have been stopped. The question we have to raise is whether Labour has the methods to stop them.

My argument is that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, who refers to clowns, should stop chucking around the invective and should concentrate on the hard work involved in stopping wrongdoing—[Laughter.] The hon. Gentleman may laugh and smile. At the end of the day, however, it is hard work that gets to the bottom of wrongdoing.

I take on board the point made by the hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell). Much has been made of the religious issue in Monklands and some of what has been said is excessive and over the top.

Mr. Dobson

By you.

Mr. Shaw

I have never referred to the religious issue. If the hon. Gentleman looks at my speeches, he will see that I have expressed concern at the fact that there have been allegations within the community and that many people in the community have been unhappy on a religious basis. However, the matter goes much further than religion; it goes to the heart of the way in which Labour councillors conduct their affairs and the opportunities that that gives for crooked people to get into the Labour party and to rise within it. That is what Monklands is about. It is about crooked people who have risen to the very top of the Labour party in Monklands and about how the Labour party's rules and regulations cannot get rid of them and do not sift them out. It is only now, after 20 years of complaints in the Monklands area, that Labour has had to take action. We never got any action before.

Mr. Merchant

Does my hon. Friend agree that the essential problem is the nature of the Labour party's political machine in areas of the country where it has had dominance for decades? Does he agree that the Labour party leadership is reluctant to take on the essentially corrupt nature of that machine, although it knows that it exists? That machine exists to perpetuate control and power rather than to serve the people of those areas. I know all about that from my experience in the north-east of England.

Mr. Shaw

My hon. Friend identifies the problem precisely. When I looked into aspects of Monklands, I found that there were Labour branches with small local memberships. Everyone questioned the records and where they were; no one knew where the membership records were. No one knew how people got elected to positions of power and influence which could enable them to select people to stand as councillors. We found that many of the local Labour party meetings were stuffed with people who came from the trade unions and that the trade unions were controlling how people got elected. There was very little democracy. The Labour party prides itself on democracy and openness, but the position in Monklands Labour party was completely the reverse.

This 20-year history has involved at least three inquiries by the police, following complaints. Sadly, there has not yet been enough evidence to lead to police prosecutions. This 20-year history has involved a Labour investigation after which the Labour party has been accused, probably quite rightly, of covering up many of the aspects that went wrong in Monklands. It has involved serious and substantial complaints which have still not been published.

Like Ministers, I invite the Labour party to publish all the evidence behind its report and to open the files. Labour should let us all have a look at the evidence made available to it. All the paperwork and complaints which I was told were being submitted to the Labour party inquiry have never been published. The inquiry, having started from a wide base, rapidly narrowed to being concerned with just one small organisational problem.

Dr. Reid

The question that the hon. Gentleman must answer for the people of Monklands, where he spent a considerable time, is: how is it that the police were at least willing to undertake investigations on the basis of the evidence that was available, although it did not prove sufficient; that the Labour party, without any resources of power, status, administration, legal protection or finance, was able to undertake an investigation; that Monklands council itself could set up an investigation; but that hon. Members such as the hon. Gentleman, who repeated the fact that the people involved were definitely crooks, with all the resources of the power of the state at their disposal, have not deigned over three years to undertake their investigations? Why could everyone else do that, even when it cost us politically, yet the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues could not? Can he answer that?

Mr. Shaw

I can answer it very precisely. The hon. Gentleman is someone of considerable experience of the world, politics and the environment outside the House, and he and I both know—certainly I, as a chartered accountant, know—that securing prosecutions requires a high level of evidence. That is the sad thing about Monklands—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the question."] I am about to answer it.

Every so often when someone goes in to investigate Monklands, the files and the paperwork vanish. In many cases affecting Monklands councillors, the paperwork has vanished. The police have had difficulty in pursuing the three investigations of which I am aware.

The Labour party is now telling us that not all its evidence is substantive enough to submit to the Secretary of State. Nevertheless, it felt able to criticise councillors in its report; at one point, it said that the council's personnel policies left the councillors open to criticism. So please submit the evidence behind that statement. If you made that statement, Labour party, let us have the evidence behind it. It would be incredibly valuable to the Secretary of State and would help the inquiry if the evidence that led you, the Labour party, to put that sentence in your report—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he is addressing me.

Mr. Shaw

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I should be only too happy to say to you that if the Labour party made that evidence available to you and you submitted it to me or to the Secretary of State for Scotland, we would all be grateful.

The fact is that the evidence submitted to the Labour party and assembled by it, which led it to criticise the council's personnel policies, has not been produced in public. All we have is a sentence in the Labour party report. No wonder the Secretary of State could not initiate an inquiry. The Labour party of Scotland refused to hand over the evidence substantiating that sentence.

After the Labour party inquiry personnel consultants were brought in and they criticised the council and its systems and procedures and recommended changes. About three industrial tribunals found against the council and its employment practices, too. There was also an ombudsman's report on the housing department, concerning housing allocations and the right to buy. But even the ombudsman could not get enough evidence together for the final criticism on the right-to-buy issue with which he was confronted; instead, he had to criticise the council and councillors because the files and paperwork had vanished. Why do so many people who go to investigate Monklands council find that the paperwork has vanished?

As well as the investigations by the police, the Labour party, the personnel consultants, the industrial tribunals and the ombudsman, there was also an investigation by a local newspaper. A girl journalist desperately tried to push the stories in her newspaper and get the message across about how corrupt the council really was. There were attacks on that journalist, and she suffered intimidation and vilification. She found it difficult, but she courageously continued, and received a journalism award for doing so.

All that forced the Labour party to accept that there would have to be a report. I pay tribute to the methods by which Professor Black's report came into being. Sadly, even then attempts were made to cover up, because the report considered only the previous five years. He was limited by his terms of reference. There are many matters that still have not been covered by Professor Black's inquiry or any other. There is much wrongdoing in Monklands that still requires investigation. In fact, Professor Black is now under attack by the very councillors who authorised his report. It is incredible that they should initiate the report and attack its outcome, which is entirely consistent with the criticisms of other reports.

The Labour councillors on Monklands district council have been suspended, but I have to apprise the House of the considerable anxiety in Monklands that seven of the Labour councillors are also magistrates. Seven of them are responsible for law and order in Monklands. I know that many people in Monklands are worried about whether law and order can he properly dispensed when seven local magistrates are councillors who have been criticised and suspended by the Scottish Labour party. That gives cause for real concern because those magistrates are involved in dealing with police work and all aspects of law and order in Monklands. Apparently, there has already been one problem with magistrates' expenses in Monklands.

Mr. Dobson

Does it involve one of them?

Mr. Shaw

It is also suggested that various people in the magistrates structure are jockeying for position. [Interruption.] Does the hon. Gentleman wish me to give way?

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The House knows my views about seated interventions. I am especially concerned when they come from an hon. Gentleman on the Front Bench, who should know better.

Mr. Shaw

The hon. Gentleman, as he said earlier, would like wrongdoing to be brought into the open. I am sure that he was not attempting another cover-up with his sedentary comment.

Mr. Dobson

It was not a comment; it was a question. I asked the hon. Gentleman whether there was any suggestion of fiddling expenses by any of the seven magistrates to whom he referred.

Mr. Shaw

If he wishes, I would be happy to give the hon. Gentleman full details. It is a matter of concern that the seven councillors who are magistrates and have been suspended by the Labour party are nevertheless able to fulfil their functions as magistrates.

When I told the House that there were some 20 relatives of councillors in the employ of the council, many Labour Members tried to rubbish what I was saying. I now accept that I could be regarded in some quarters as having erred slightly on the wrong side. The figure was not 20, or even the 40 that the evidence began to suggest. It turns out that there were 68 relatives of councillors employed on the council.

One newspaper in Scotland calculated that if people were employed by the council in the same proportion as councillors' relatives were employed, Monklands district council would have 328,000 employees. Such a state of affairs is unusual and incredible.

The practices that have been complained of have not stopped; they are still going on. In the past 12 months, concierge appointments that appear to involve bias as a result of Monklands councillors shifting things to their advantage or that of party members have been identified.

Page 16 of the Black report identifies many of the problems involving relatives of prominent Labour party members who are employed on the council. We find that there are gardeners who cannot use hoes but can sign application forms for Labour party membership. There are painters who will not climb ladders but can sign application forms for Labour party membership. There are corridor meetings at which councillors nodded approval and told officers to dismiss employees whom the councillors did not like because they were causing them problems in the local party.

Only last week, Monklands councillors made an obviously corrupt decision. They picked an ex-Labour councillor who was working for Strathclyde council and appointed him, at the age of 64, to a short-term post in a council that is being reorganised. The reason behind the appointment was clearly identified in an article on 24 June in the Daily Record. That reason is that he gets a promotion taking his salary from £40,000 a year to £71,000 a year. Not only does he get a £31,000 a year increase for his last year but he gets pension enhancements worth £500,000. That is a lot of money for a 64-year-old ex-Labour councillor.

Dr. Reid

I shall not correct everything that is wrong in the hon. Gentleman's speech—[HoN. MEMBERS: "You cannot."] I can. Monklands council did not employ that person—that is the first substantial mistake in the hon. Gentleman's speech. Secondly, that person ceased to be a member of the Labour party 26 years ago, and he was a councillor 33 years ago. I challenge the hon. Gentleman to repeat outside the House that it was a corrupt appointment. I happen to have investigated why the appointment was made and on what grounds, and I am satisfied. I challenge him to repeat outside the House that the appointment of Mr. David McKendrick was corrupt—we shall see whether the hon. Gentleman has the courage of his convictions.

Mr. Shaw

Can the hon. Gentleman claim that any legal action has been instituted as a result of the article in the Daily Record of 24 June? I am not aware of any such action, but he will tell me if I am wrong. As far as I can see, everyone has accepted the strange state of affairs whereby someone who, only a year before he retires, goes from a £40,000 a year salary to a £71,000 a year salary. Clearly, he suddenly developed a remarkable ability that was not recognised by Strathclyde regional council. In fact, his ability is so great that he has moved from a post below someone else to one above that person. Indeed, the person in the higher post applied for the £71,000 a year job but was turned down.

Mr. Livingstone

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Shaw

I shall give way one last time, but I have to watch the time.

Mr. Livingstone

Many hon. Members will be surprised that the hon. Gentleman takes such an interest in what happens so far away when there are nearer councils that deserve his attention. I am thinking especially of Brent, where a council officer who was managing a department was having an affair with the chair of the relevant council committee. Her department lost £600,000, but she has received very generous redundancy payments instead of being disciplined.

Mr. Shaw

The Conservatives have now taken control of Brent council, but many corrupt practices were started during the many years of Labour control.

I shall curtail my remarks. Many aspects of the Monklands case still need to be investigated. Although Professor Black started to examine the planning department, he has looked at only the final five years, whereas there are complaints and questions going back 15 years or more. There are in that planning department many allegations of a criminal nature that need to be investigated. For example, there are strange relationships with some property developers.

I have spoken before in the House about the £37,000 loan from a property development company to a company connected with the leader of the council's family. The loan was not from a bank or a solvent property company but from a property development company that was virtually insolvent and had never made a similar loan before. I believe that that special loan of £37,000 was for special services connected with planning on Monklands district council.

The leader of the council's business relationships should be investigated, and I challenge the Labour party to do that. The records are available at Companies House and the Labour party could investigate the matter if it would get off its backside and do so. KS Construction Ltd.—a company controlled by the council leader and his family—was wound up because it did not pay its creditors. Yet, although he failed to pay creditors and to repay a Government loan of £100,000, the Labour party re-elected that man to stand for Monklands district council. Why did the Labour party reselect a man who did that?

More information has recently come into my hands about KS Asbestos Removal Ltd., a company which has performed work for Edinburgh district council, Hamilton district council, Glasgow district council, Strathclyde regional council and Motherwell district council. KS Asbestos Removal Ltd. is controlled by the leader of Monklands district council. In a written document that has been sent to me, he claims that his company has 166 small contracts with Strathclyde regional council. We must ask: how can the Labour leader of Monklands district council be so successful in obtaining contracts with Labour councils when his other business interests constantly fail? For some reason, he is always successful with contracts with Labour councils but he is not successful in other circumstances.

I could go on. Evidence has been sent to me about problems with Motherwell district council and many other Labour councils in Scotland. Unfortunately, I do not have sufficient time to do that. I hope that there will be an opportunity to return to the problems of other Labour councils in due course.

2.1 pm

Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

From the farcical start of the debate, when Conservative Back Benchers tried to exclude the public and the press from the Chamber, to the end of the debate, when Conservative Members contrived to keep my hon. Friends the Members for Barking (Ms Hodge) and for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mr. Hogg) out of the debate, we have seen the Tory party on display.

This was never intended to be a debate about the conduct of local government because the chairman of the Conservative party opened the debate. There was no sign of the Secretary of State for the Environment; he did not even put his nose around the door. The Secretary of State came into the Chamber during the Division and spoke to the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), who is presumably wavering about how to vote in the Conservative party leadership election, which now takes up all the Secretary of State's time. It is not as if he is not in London. The Secretary of State for Scotland, who is a key player in today's drama, is close by in Westminster. I watched him on the green.

Mr. Hanley

He is on his way to Scotland at this minute.

Mr. Robertson

The Minister should check his facts. At 12.30 pm I saw the Secretary of State for Scotland on the green doing a live television interview. I bet it was not about Monklands district council or the conduct of local government; I bet the Minister anything that it was about the Tory leadership election. Today's debate was designed to divert attention from the turmoil inside the Conservative party.

Mr. Hanley

It was arranged before, and the hon. Gentleman knows it.

Mr. Robertson

Who knows when the conspiracy started. Who knows when the decision was taken on Thursday last week—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I made a point about interventions from one Front Bench, and I now must make the same point about interventions from the other Front Bench.

Mr. Stephen

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is not the debate about local government and not about the Conservative party leadership?

Madam Deputy Speaker

A passing reference to it may be permissible, but expansion on the point at great length is not.

Mr. Robertson

Last Thursday the Government knew that the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland would be winding up the debate for the Opposition, but the Secretary of State, who is responsible for local government north of the border, chose to play around with the Tory leadership campaign rather than make an appearance to listen to a debate about matters that are within his specific remit, and for which he has heavy and onerous responsibilities. Instead, the chairman of the Conservative party opened the debate. I wonder what he thought when he read Andrew Neil's comments in The Sunday Times: Only George Bush's choice of Dan Quayle as Vice-President ranks in stupidity with Mr. Major's choice of Jeremy Hanley as the Tory Party Chairman. I thought that that was a bit nasty and unfair—to Dan Quayle, who otherwise was a perfectly decent and honourable individual.

Why was not this debate on local government about the poll tax fiasco and its cost to the country or about council tax, which is constantly rising above the rate of inflation? Why was not the debate about the gerrymandering of council boundaries north and south of the border, with an arrogant display of partisan brass neck about which the Government never feel a moment of shame?

This debate was a purely partisan attempt to rubbish Labour's record in local government, which is why the Government fielded their third reserves on the Treasury Bench. The two Secretaries of State involved had the sense to desert this smelly and odious battlefield.

Many hon. Members referred to Monklands district council, and the chairman of the Conservative party did so with apparent authority. Recently, he even held a press conference on the subject. I wonder whether his knowledge is a matter of convenience or whether he has a deeper insight into the affairs of the council. Monklands includes the two large boroughs of Airdrie and Coatbridge. My hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) has nine substantial villages in her constituency. If the Conservative party chairman, unprompted, can name three of those villages, I shall give him a bottle of finest Scotch whisky. No? Can he name two?

Mr. Hanley

I wish that the hon. Gentleman would get on with it.

Mr. Robertson

Can the right hon. Gentleman name just one of those villages? The Government claim that Monklands is the key, exemplar council that illustrates everything about Labour local government, yet the right hon. Gentleman cannot name one village out of nine in Monklands, East. The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), might manage to scrabble together a couple of names, but the opening speaker in this debate—who is chairman of the Conservative party and Minister Without Portfolio in the Cabinet, and who is supposed to be authoritative about Monklands—cannot name one. That tells us something.

Mr. Hanley

Will the hon. Gentleman, instead of trying to make a cheap game of the debate, answer my accusations about the six police inquiries into Labour councils and about the 13 councils that are the subject of Labour internal investigations? Will he provide answers to my points, rather than play games?

Mr. Robertson

What point is the Minister making? My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) clearly stated that where there is wrongdoing, we condemn it—and that where there are suspicions, we demand investigation. We have taken action, so perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can say what the Government are doing about Westminster city council. We have heard not one word, apology or reprimand, or seen a slap on the wrist—yet the Minister goes on about Labour authorities that are actually doing something. He has exposed his ignorance of Monklands, with which the Government are so obsessed, and of the standards that should even-handedly apply to local government as a whole.

We greatly welcome Professor Black's report and view its conclusions most seriously. We are determined to act decisively and firmly, which is why we decided to suspend the whole Monklands district council Labour group within 24 hours of the report's publication. That decision was endorsed by our national executive committee on Wednesday, and the further decision was taken to suspend the Monklands district councillors who serve on the new North Lanarkshire council Labour group.

Let us be brutally clear. Professor Black's inquiry happened only because Labour persuaded the council to agree to the inquiry in the first place. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, East, who today has been a Member of this place for a year and a day. My hon. Friend tenaciously took on the many inactive Conservative Members who would make allegations but go no further, and those who said that there were no allegations to be made and that those that had been made should be spirited away. My hon. Friend took on both those forces. She deserves commendation and congratulation.

The inquiry was necessary only because the Secretary of State for Scotland refused to use his powers to order a local inquiry under section 211 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. He had been exhorted to use those powers for years by Labour Members, including myself and the late John Smith.

The Secretary of State demeans his office when he pretends that he could not have ordered an inquiry because the Labour party had failed to pass on evidence from its own internal inquiry. That is, first, as we have repeatedly stated, because the allegation that we have any information that remains unpublished or suppressed is completely untrue. Secondly, the Secretary of State has powers under section 211 that are so sweeping that they would have easily allowed him to order an inquiry. The right hon. Gentleman does not have to have evidence. A complaint would suffice. If the Secretary of State or the appropriate Minister is of the opinion that an investigation should be made, he can have an inquiry.

The Minister tells us that there were no complaints. The hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw), who has left the Chamber, tells us that he made complaints. Why did the Secretary of State not act? What about the matters that we directed from our inquiry in 1992-93? The Labour party had no power to make investigations. Why were those complaints not made available to the Secretary of State? Complaints were made, some in the House and some even by Ministers. Why was it only yesterday that section 211 was triggered in the House?

As I said, the statute states that a specific complaint is not needed. The Secretary of State merely needs to be of an opinion. Why was it that when the Government had an opinion, which they manufactured, paraded and were happy to repeat and exaggerate, it still took them 18 months to order an inquiry? The House deserves an explanation, but I doubt whether we shall get it from the Government Front Bench today.

All that was missing was the integrity and commitment to put truth before party point scoring. The Secretary of State for Scotland chose the low road in dealing with Monklands. That makes his announcement of an inquiry so feeble and unconvincing. We welcome the inquiry, because we want to get at the truth. The people of the locality deserve to know what the truth is. They deserve to have their faith in their local government restored as quickly as possible.

Ministers were willing—enthusiastic even—to ride the political tiger of the Monklands issue. They were completely craven, however, when it came to tackling it with the powers that they alone possessed. They hid behind calls for evidence that they knew we did not have, when that evidence was not necessary. They scored political debating points when the people of Monklands merely wanted the truth. They toyed and played with people's concerns and fears while turning a blind eye to sorting out the problem. But we—

Lady Olga Maitland

In the very short time that is left for the debate, may I have the hon. Gentleman's assurance that he will not turn a blind eye to the grotesque events in Islington? Twenty-six children were betrayed and the then leader of the council was the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge). The hon. Gentleman has ignored those events. Is he trying to engage in a cover-up?

Mr. Robertson

I shall tell the hon. Lady who is covering up. There was a conspiracy on the Conservative Benches to keep out my hon. Friend, who had been promised an opportunity to speak in the debate. She was kept out by a variety of privileged smears.

Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking)

I had hoped to be able to speak in the debate, to respond to the allegations that have been made. In point of fact, I have made a number of statements both in the press and on television and radio and did not need the cloak of privilege, which a number of Conservative Members have chosen, to defend myself. Furthermore, unlike members of the Cabinet—the Secretary of State for Health, who refuses to take responsibility for what is happening to the London ambulance service, the Secretary of State for Education, who refuses to take responsibility for rising class sizes, and the Home Secretary, who refuses to take responsibility for the running of prisons—I have accepted responsibility for many of the things that happened in Islington council, the bad and the good—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sorry, but the hon. Lady is now making what is virtually a speech rather than an intervention.

Mr. Robertson

I welcome my hon. Friend's intervention. The opportunity to make her point was going to be clearly and deliberately denied to her by the way in which the configuration of hon. Members went. I am glad that she made her point, which she did with great authority.

The Government were willing to play around and toy with the fears and concerns of people in Monklands. We are determined to act against anyone who has betrayed the public's faith in local government or in them. It is this sad, cynical Scottish Office team that will be condemned for its refusal to act sooner. In the absence of Government action, the Labour party set up the Black inquiry and, when it had reported, we acted. People outside the House will see that that is in stark contrast to the lack of action by the Tories on Westminster city council.

We are determined to see that action through. There will be no hiding place for any who fall woefully short of the standards that Labour expects from its councillors in local government. I should like to express a concern that I hope will not in any way seem partisan. I am told that the Crown Office is now saying that action on the cases referred to it by Professor Black, where the allegation involves criminal conduct, will take months and not weeks to deal with. That is not good enough. Concern is so great, interest is so high and the implications of some of those allegations are so grave that they must be dealt with with utmost urgency. Any delay will heighten public concern. After such a long delay, the people of Monklands deserve to have early answers.

I find it puzzling, confusing, but perhaps, not entirely surprising that the Prime Minister, who last Tuesday said something that was clearly untruthful about me in relation to the first Monklands inquiry, who has admitted that he was wrong and who must, therefore, have misled the House, has not had the integrity, the honour, the guts or the simple decency to come to the House or to me and to say that he was sorry for saying something that he now acknowledges and has clearly said. He may scrape through a leadership election next week, but he will not scrape through the boundaries of credibility in the country.

I make a point here with passion and emphasis. Labour believes in the highest standards in local and national Government and we are prepared to ensure that high standards are the common standard. In Scotland, where the whole system was changed this year, every single aspirant Labour candidate had to sign up to the most detailed code of conduct ever put in place by a modern political party.

We instituted a new tough selection procedure for candidates and, indeed, the number of independent rebel deselected candidates was proof of how tough that process had been. We now control 20 of the 29 councils in Scotland. We have embarked on the biggest ever consultation exercise with the public and we have introduced new guidelines on openness of procedure, fair allocation of committee places and representation on outside organisations.

That is not all. We will give, south of the border, to the Audit Commission, and north of the border, to the Accounts Commission, new powers to ensure that the high standards that we expect and aim for in local government are maintained and monitored. No Labour Secretary of State for Scotland will stand by and not use section 211 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act while there are allegations of malpractice and while local communities are bothered and worried by what is being said, especially by Ministers and senior politicians. No Labour Secretary of State for Scotland will ever trade in rumour and innuendo as some self-indulgent party propaganda exercise.

This debate has been a synthetic party propaganda stunt, which might have seemed a bright wheeze last week, but has dissipated as it has gone on. Now, it looks like what it is—a shabby, partisan own goal. We should have heard from the Government about the £700 million lost in an unwanted reorganisation of Scottish local government. We should have had an apology for the £14 billion lost in the poll tax debacle. We should have had humility from a Government who have gerrymandered local government north and south of the border, but who cannot gain control of even one of those gerrymandered councils.

The verdict on the Government and their local government policy came in April and May when they were virtually wiped out in England and destroyed in Scotland and Wales. That was the ultimate political test. There is another one coming and it will be just as devastating.

Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Throughout the debate, several allegations have been made against my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge). In normal circumstances, it would be possible for her to contribute to the debate and make her point. May I draw to your attention the fact that in a debate lasting five hours, Back-Bench Opposition Members have spoken for just 42 minutes, while four Conservative Back-Bench Members spoke for 104 minutes. That is grossly unequal. May I ask through you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the Government now waive their remaining 10 minutes to allow time for my hon. Friend the Member for Barking to reply to the allegations made against her?

Several hon. Members

rose

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I have already told the House—I do not know whether the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) was in the Chamber—that today the Chair has no control over the length of speeches. However, I specifically asked those hon. Members still waiting to speak to remember that there was great interest in the debate and to allow as many hon. Members as possible to take part.

Ms Hodge

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It concerns me that I have not had the opportunity to respond to allegations from Conservative Members, who are playing politics with the welfare of vulnerable children in the care of local authorities. It is an onerous duty on local authorities. That sort of playing politics is not worthy of any hon. Member and needs to be dealt with.

Madam Deputy Speaker

I have already explained that that is not a matter for the Chair. However, there are a number of other ways in which those matters can be raised. I have no doubt that the hon. Lady will take various initiatives to ensure that they are.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Is it the same point of order?

Mr. Barnes

You have already said, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you have no power to limit the length of speeches today. That is unfortunate on occasions such as this. It might become an even greater problem because there are now fewer Friday debates, so greater pressure might be put on those debates. Of seven Back-Bench speeches today, three from the Opposition Benches have averaged 14 minutes while four from the Conservative Benches—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I am well aware of that. I have a note of all times. I have already made the Chair's position clear. I now simply point out to the House again that there are other ways in which those matters can be raised, including the Wednesday morning Adjournment debates.

Mr. Norman Hogg

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Is it a different point of order?

Mr. Hogg

Yes, Madam Speaker.

This morning a considerable amount of time was wasted through a procedure that was perfectly in order being invoked by Conservative Back Benchers. They are no longer here, including the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes), who made a speech and immediately left. I hope that the Chair has taken note of that.

I put to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that it is disgraceful to hold to ourselves a procedure and privilege that entitles us to throw the people out of their own Parliament. There is something very wrong with any Standing Order—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) is shouting—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I have already heard enough to know that the hon. Gentleman is raising a matter that is not for the Chair. We must operate the rules as they exist. If he feels strongly about the matter, as no doubt he does, I suggest that he makes a case to the Select Committee on Procedure.

Mr. Hogg

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have already tried—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sorry. I have already dealt with that point of order.

2.24 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robert B. Jones)

It has been an interesting, lively and, for a Friday, somewhat heated debate. I am only sorry that it finished with a rather tetchy speech from the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), who knows better than that. I do not think that a debate on a major issue such as the conduct of local government should be reduced to a round of a "Mastermind" competition on the special subject of the villages of Monklands. Nor do I think that it is right for the hon. Gentleman to complain about the absence of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment when one of the most obvious absences from the debate has been that of the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke).

It is also pretty rich for Opposition Back Benchers to complain about the length of speeches by Conservative Back Benchers when one of the most obvious contributory causes of the shortage of time in the debate was the fact that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) rambled on for 20 minutes longer than my right hon. Friend the Minister Without Portfolio.

The Government have always recognised the value of good local government. It is, after all, an essential part of our democracy. It gives us all the opportunity to exercise some control over the level, cost and quality of a number of the key public services that we use. It provides us with an opportunity to shape our immediate environment.

I have been a councillor both in Scotland and in England. It is my strong view that good local government is essential. I know that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, as a former councillor—indeed, a senior councillor and chairman of an education committee—will also understand the importance of local government. Just as good local government can be of great benefit to the community, poor local government can do a great deal of damage. So it is hardly surprising that central Government take an interest in the conduct of local government.

Ms Hodge

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Jones

As my right hon. Friend the Minister Without Portfolio said, good conduct is not just about financial propriety. It also means delivering efficient, effective local government and setting priorities to meet local needs.

Over the past 16 years, the Government have done a great deal to promote good conduct in local government. Those reforms are paying dividends. We have heard a great deal about corruption, some past, some present and some yet to be proven, but historically, local government in the United Kingdom has been characterised by a tradition of propriety and public service. In general, prior to the early 1980s there was little concern about the way in which it conducted its business. That is not true in every case, of course. I remember corruption in Durham, Newcastle and south Wales authorities and, of course, in Wandsworth under the late Alderman Sporle. There was also widespread acceptance of the role of local government. Local authorities concerned themselves with—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. We are supposedly debating the conduct of local government. May I suggest that the conduct of the House could be improved?

Mr. Jones

Local authorities concerned themselves with commissioning services to meet the particular needs of their local communities. They did not venture into the preserve of national politics. There was effectively an informal convention between central and local government under which it was understood that economic, foreign and defence policy were the domain of central Government and central Government alone.

In the early 1980s that convention, and relations between central and local government in general, broke down. That was coupled with growing anxiety about the standards of propriety in local government. That process was a direct result of the rising influence of the extreme left in local government, particularly in inner-city areas, where the Labour party's control of local government was the strongest.

A small number of high-profile left-wing Labour local authorities began to present themselves as alternative governments. They increased their spending with little or no regard to the Government's fiscal and overall economic objectives. They even adopted their own defence and foreign policies. The consequence of that approach was a failure to concentrate on the quality of the key local services upon which residents, often those in greatest need, depended. There was also increasing concern about the way in which those authorities conducted their business. We had to respond to that challenge to our authority, and no Government could realistically have done any different. That is the background to the current financial regime.

We were equally determined to deal with public concern about the standards of propriety in local government, and that is why the Widdecombe committee was set up. That committee's recommendations have now been implemented. We are continuing our reforms, and one of the most recent was an attempt to deregulate allowances for local councillors. I was astonished that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras attacked the Government on that, as we were acceding to a request from Labour-controlled local authority associations.

We have laid down regulations that require local authorities to publish what they do about allowances so that local accountability can take over, and that is the right way to go about it. I welcome what the local authority associations are doing in publishing a code of practice, and the Government—and, I have no doubt, Opposition Members—will hold local authorities to the terms of that code.

What is significant about the Nottinghamshire case is not the Johnny-come-lately approach of the Opposition in condemning the high allowances that were voted through, but the fact that it required my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) and local people in Nottinghamshire to lead the campaign—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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