HC Deb 15 March 1995 vol 256 cc899-900
23. Mr. Barry Field

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment in what circumstances councillors can be surcharged.

Mr. Robert B. Jones

Under sections 19 and 20 of the Local Government Finance Act 1982, the auditor has powers to declare items of account unlawful and to recover, by surcharge of those responsible, any financial loss sustained by the authority as a result of illegal action or wilful misconduct by officers or members of the authority.

Mr. Field

Has my hon. Friend heard that some of the wishy-washy Liberal Democrat councillors on the Isle of Wight are telling their electorate that they cannot possibly refuse to grant a licence for an open-air pop festival on the island this summer because they might be surcharged? Does he agree that, like the leader of their party, they have a pathological dislike of any difficult decision and that that reason is almost as much balderdash as one of their manifestos, and is completely untrue?

Mr. Jones

It certainly sounds like a Liberal cop-out to me. I am sure that my hon. Friend will put those councillors and, for that matter, their electors in touch with the legal advisers to the local authority concerned, who will be delighted to confirm that only illegal action or wilful misconduct would result in a surcharge, which therefore seems unlikely in the case that he raises.

Mr. Betts

Does the Minister accept that, if councillors engage in corrupt practices, they can be subject to criminal processes and surcharged? If he and his colleagues have evidence to support the allegations made today by the right hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) about corruption in Labour authorities, is he not surprised that far more councils have not been surcharged over the years? Does he believe that the majority of Labour councils are corrupt, as the right hon. Gentleman alleged? If so, what evidence does he have to prove that?

Mr. Jones

Certainly they are incompetent; I do not know whether they are corrupt. The hon. Gent should note that among those providing evidence for investigation into councillors are some of his hon. Friends.

Mr. Thomason

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the distribution of housing improvement grant for the purposes of gaining party political advantage, as alleged in the case of Birmingham city council, could be surchargeable?

Mr. Jones

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), who has been campaigning strongly on that issue, has drawn attention to malpractices in Birmingham which must be investigated. I look forward with interest to the results of those investigations.

Mr. Barnes

Twenty-one councillors in Clay Cross in my constituency were surcharged in the early 1970s, before the passing of the legislation to which the Minister referred. They were surcharged not on grounds of corruption but for political decisions that they took. Ten of those were surcharged a total sum of £2,300, which could be done only by charging them jointly and severally. People in my constituency are therefore keen to see that what is going on in Westminster and Wandsworth involving millions of pounds is properly dealt with under the law and that the surcharging provision applies.

Mr. Jones

The hon. Gentleman clearly was not listening to what I said. I specifically mentioned the case of wilful misconduct, and the hon. Gentleman knows that breaking the law deliberately is wilful misconduct. The surcharge that he mentioned arose as a result of a conviction. The hon. Gentleman proves, as many of his colleagues have done time and again, that the Labour party could not be trusted with an independent judicial system because it does not believe in the process of the courts and of finding people guilty or innocent as a result of a judicial process. Labour Members want to hang, draw and quarter people without going through any of those processes.