HC Deb 08 February 1996 vol 271 cc530-43 7.13 pm
Ms Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham)

I beg to move amendment No. 5, in page 4, line 5, at end insert— '(1A) The relevant body may publish the information in accordance with a Code of Practice issued by the Secretary of State under section 2(2) of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 6, in page 4, line 8, leave out from '(3)' to end of line 9 and insert 'The relevant body'.

  • No. 7, in page 4, leave out lines 14 to 25.
  • No. 1, in page 4, leave out line 19 and insert
'distributed to a number of separate dwellings in their area at least equal to the circulation of the newspaper(s) printed for sale and circulating in their area, in which the information would otherwise be published in accordance with subsection 2 above; and'. No. 2, in page 4, line 25, after 'to', insert 'at least 80% of.

Ms. Armstrong

We have reached Report stage of the Audit (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. We had a series of interesting debates in Committee and we have brought these amendments to the House in an attempt to make the Government see sense.

The amendments address the issue of how and where local authorities will publish their performance indicators. Last year was the first year in which performance indicators were published and we learned many lessons from that experience. It is one of the reasons why the Bill is before the House this evening. However, I believe that we have learnt more lessons than are addressed in the Bill, so we are seeking to amend it.

Amendment No. 5 seeks to approach the issue in a different way. Local authorities are obliged to publish their performance indicators properly so that the majority of local people can read and understand them. They should not be complicated and they should be easily accessible. I am sure that every hon. Member shares that objective. The information must reach as many people as possible and be easily understood. Tonight we are debating the mechanism which will achieve those ends. I do not believe that the Bill has got it right, and that is another reason why we have tabled the amendments.

Amendment No. 5 seeks to give the Secretary of State power to issue a code of practice to prescribe the way in which local authorities must publish performance indicators. In other words, the Secretary of State will have the power to issue a code of practice so that he can be absolutely sure that local authorities are not using oblique methods in an attempt to avoid meeting the objective. We have taken methods of practice from other pieces of legislation, which we believe will better achieve our aims, and applied them in this case.

Under section 3 of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980, the Secretary of State may make regulations to enforce the provisions of such a code of practice. There is an existing code which ensures that the objective is met. I am sure that the Minister knows all about it so I shall not take up the time of the House tonight by going through it. However, I believe that the current provisions in the Bill will not meet the objective.

The provisions of the 1980 Act were introduced by the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), when he was Secretary of State for the Environment, to ensure that local authorities published the information that the Government thought necessary at that time. That included information to accompany local tax demands, annual reports, staffing levels, information on planning applications, information on land holdings and so on. The amendment would bring performance indicators under a similar regime.

I appreciate that performance indicators must be published separately and that specific attention must be drawn to them. However, as I understand the code of practice, that would not be a problem under existing legislation. The provisions of the 1980 Act specifically permit any such Code to be prepared by some other person on behalf of the Secretary of State. any such Code to specify the steps which authorities are to take to inform the public of the availability of the information". In Committee, the Minister interpreted the wording of the Opposition amendment as requiring authorities to distribute the information to every household and business. He thought that it would put authorities at risk of legal challenge and would be too hard on local authorities". He was anxious that authorities did not abuse the publication of performance indicators to produce partisan material in a local authority publication.

We pointed out in Committee that if local authorities did that, they would be breaking the law as set out in the Local Government Act 1986. Notwithstanding that, the Minister sought to make it one of his concerns.

The Minister objected to our amendment asking authorities to distribute the information to every household and business as he thought that would be too difficult. The Bill requires authorities to "take all reasonable steps" to ensure that a free newspaper is distributed to each dwelling and business. That could be equally onerous and create other difficulties.

We discussed the problems involved in the distribution of free newspapers in great detail in Committee, so I shall not do so today. However, the wording of the Bill may lead to demands that some local authorities are unable to meet.

The amendment would permit a wide range of practice in publishing performance indicators. We are asking the Government to reconsider the matter. If the amendment were agreed, the Government would retain every possible means of preventing abuse. I know that the Minister is concerned to stop abuse and to ensure that local authorities are not tempted down that road. The amendment would give him the necessary powers, so he and his right hon. and hon. Friends should be reassured that it is not an attempt to make sure that people do not find out about performance indicators, but to give more people access to them.

Clearly, a code should be used to encourage best practice and to give authorities maximum flexibility in the publication of performance indicators. It could also incorporate such safeguards as requiring a statutory notice in a paid-for or free newspaper publicising the authority's arrangements for distribution of the material and telling the public where additional copies were available.

Taken with the Bill as presently drafted, the amendment would present authorities with a menu of options for publishing performance indicators in accordance with a code of practice that would permit own newspapers, leaflets, the use of a paid-for or free newspaper or a combination of those options. It is our responsibility to give local authorities the opportunity to develop means that are appropriate to their areas and meet the objectives set out in the Bill.

It is also important to provide for diversity. In Committee we discussed the diverse nature of local authorities. Although one newspaper may be distributed throughout an entire city area, that is not always so. In order to uphold the proper relationship between central and local government, there should be a balance between diversity and the adherence to a minimum national standard. The amendments give the Government the opportunity to achieve that balance.

The other amendments in the group would put amendment No. 5 to into effect. Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 aim to delete the distribution conditions for free newspapers so that they are treated in the same way as paid-for newspapers when placing a statutory performance indicator advertisement.

In Committee, there were two main concerns with the Bill's provisions permitting the use of a free newspaper for the statutory publication of performance indicators. First, clause 5(4) places the burden on authorities to ensure that a free newspaper is distributed to dwellings and businesses. The Bill sets a test of reasonableness, but that is not much help to authorities that might need to test the circulation claims made by the publishers of a free sheet. The Minister acknowledged: The local authority, in deciding which free newspaper or other newspaper to select, must be reasonably satisfied that the paper is delivered throughout that area."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 23 January 1996; c. 48–9.] As I have already said, that cannot be assured throughout the country as the distribution and availability of free newspapers is variable. The Bill is likely to deter authorities from using a free newspaper for the statutory advertisement and could effectively vitiate the purpose of clause 4.

Secondly, the Bill puts paid-for newspapers at a market advantage. Contrary to the Minister's words, no distribution condition applies to paid-for newspapers. A paid-for newspaper with a very small circulation would suffice for the statutory performance indicator advertisement, but a free paper has to meet a very stiff test of being delivered throughout the authority's area.

The Bill leaves whole issue confused and does not meet our objectives. As it incorporates a minor barrier to free trade, the Bill does not seem consistent with the philosophy and the policy that the right hon. Member for Henley purports to support. The Government seek to make the performance indicators more accessible to the electorate and the council tax payer, but they have drafted the Bill in such a way as to make that objective much more difficult to attain. The amendments give the Government a way through and I hope that, even at this late stage, they will consider rethinking the wording of the Bill.

Mr. Peter Griffiths (Portsmouth, North)

I shall not detain the House for long, but I want to express my complete support for what the hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) has just said. In particular, I agree with her request that the Minister look at this whole matter again. I also agree with her that the Government have not got it right at this stage. Fortunately, however, there will be discussions in another place which will give the Government time to ponder their previous decisions and what has been said tonight. They will also be able to reflect on what is said in another place before the Bill finally reaches the statute book.

7.30 pm

I am speaking on my own behalf this evening, but I also want to echo the concerns expressed to me by Portsmouth city council. Just to show that mine is not a party political point, I might add that, over the past few years, the council has been controlled by all the main parties in succession. So I am describing the view of the city.

Portsmouth city is disturbed by what was intended to be an extension of freedom and widening of opportunity. Whereas in the past it was specified where notices had to be published—in paid-for newspapers—the widening of choice to include free advertising, give-away newspapers was meant to give local councils greater say in how they distribute information. In Portsmouth, however, this idea does not produce more competition or choice. There is only one paid-for newspaper, and that paper also owns the free, give-away newspaper. So the city has no choice but to use the services of that newspaper—and it does not take kindly to that.

I hope that I will not embarrass the hon. Member for North-West Durham if I say how strongly I agree with what she said about local authorities being able to publish their own broadsheets. Portsmouth has an excellently printed and published broadsheet which gives information about all the council's activities in an entirely proper, non-political way. It has done that under the control of successive parties. Certainly, it would be illegal if the city council presented the information in such a way as to advance the interests of one political party. That is against the law; it would have serious repercussions, including— rightly—the surcharging of those responsible.

The information can be published by the city of Portsmouth and be attractively presented, on art paper, for instance. It can be illustrated with charts and diagrams. It is of course possible to pay for such services in newspapers, but the cost has to be borne by the city's funds. I am quite sure that Portsmouth is not the only place capable of producing a satisfactory statement that includes performance indicators and tables, and of guaranteeing distribution to every door. After all, the council already distributes information about elections; it distributes the registration forms necessary for voting. It puts them through front, side and back doors—when that is necessary, such as in houses in multiple occupation. This is probably the most efficient distributive system imaginable.

Portsmouth is also capable of varying the size and type in which the information is presented. Statutory notices in Portsmouth's evening newspaper—from the Queen's harbour master to mariners, for instance—are typed in small print because they need to be read by only a handful of master mariners. But the whole idea of publishing performance tables for the public is that they should be read by the man and woman in the street, not the expert on local government. They are for people who want to know what is going on and who welcome a format that is clear and easily understood.

It is possible to do all this by paying a newspaper, but that is very expensive. I therefore suggest that the ideal wording for the clause would be along the lines that local councils should be "responsible" for the distribution of the information. The Bill should not specify how they do it; they should simply be responsible for getting the information to every door, in the manner of their choosing. If, in so doing, they break the law: so be it— they must take the consequences.

The problem remains that, in the absence of competition, the cost of advertising and printing performance tables of this size and on this scale runs into thousands of pounds. That is a heavy burden; hence, I hope that the Government will consider allowing efficient local authorities to produce their own broadsheets in their own way. That will allow them to present information to the very people who will, in time, express their views on the performance of their councils. That is the most democratic way to go about the job.

I have a great deal of sympathy with amendments Nos. 1 and 2, which the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) may discuss later. Given that there is an all-party consensus on the matter, perhaps the Government will now treat it with care and consideration.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

I am delighted to follow that speech, which seems to show that there is concern in all parties about the wording of the Bill and the Government's way of trying to ensure that performance indicators are given wider publication than hitherto.

The Bill is somewhat lopsided as between the way it treats paid-for newspapers and those which are free. I want to speak, not so much along the lines of the previous two speeches, which have dealt generally with the widening of the ways in which these performance indicators are made known to the public, but more specifically about what I believe are faults in the wording of the Bill which mean that, in practice, the Government will not achieve their aims.

It is clear that any publication in any paid-for newspaper, however small its circulation, meets the requirements of this Bill. On the other hand, if publication is done in free newspapers, then, as the Minister said in Committee, that will meet the requirements of the Bill only if the free newspapers are available to be distributed throughout an entire area. That may happen in some inner-city or inner-town areas, but it will certainly not happen across large parts of the country. That is why the clause is inadequate as it stands.

In my area, the Newbury Weekly News is the main paid-for newspaper. It covers a large part of the district, but certainly not all of it. It makes no attempt to cover a significant part of the eastern end of the area. So if publication is to be, as it has been hitherto, in the Newbury Weekly News, it will be positively difficult to get hold of the performance indicator information in large parts of the district.

There are also free newspapers in the area covering large parts of it. Between them they may have a larger total circulation than the Newbury Weekly News. Still, they do not attempt to cover the entire area.

Equally, the Newbury Weekly News has a small circulation inside north Hampshire, so technically it would be possible for Basingstoke and Deane council to publish its performance indicators in the Newbury Weekly News—and only there. That would mean that the indicators were published to a large number of people with little interest in them and a small number of people with a considerable interest in them, and leaving out a large number of people with an interest in them but not living in the circulation area of the paper. That is the kind of difficulty that the current wording would produce. The two amendments that I have tabled would, to a large extent, overcome that difficulty.

The Bill should maximise the circulation of performance indicators. In practice, in many areas including my own, the wording of the Bill would make no change to the present situation. In other words, district councils would have to publish their performance indicators in the local paid-for newspapers, because there are not sufficient free newspapers to ensure coverage of the whole area. The Minister made it plain in Committee that many areas would see no change. That might mean that circulation was smaller than it could be, and people who live in those areas might get worse value for money in the information they get about their district councils. We might gain better value for money by ensuring publication in free newspapers that perhaps cover only part of the area, rather than publishing in a paid-for paper which could cover a smaller area.

The Minister made the point that, if councils are forced to publish in paid-for newspapers, the information is at least available to everyone in the area. That is partly true, although in some districts paid-for newspapers may be quite difficult to obtain. People sometimes have to travel some way into the circulation area of a newspaper. However, free newspapers are also, in almost all cases, available in the local town, if someone is determined to get hold of a copy. So the Minister's point falls, because the free newspapers are as available to those determined to get hold of them as paid-for newspapers.

Amendment No. 2 makes the point that, as far as possible, the papers containing the relevant information should be distributed to businesses. The Bill, as it stands, suggests that, unless all the business areas are covered by the free newspapers, the publication will still have to be in paid-for newspapers. The amendment would increase the chance that district councils had the opportunity to publish in free newspapers, even if those free newspapers did not cover every business in the area.

The point of the Bill must be to widen councils' opportunity to publish information in free newspapers as well as in the paid-for newspapers. The Bill does not do that at present. If the Government accepted my amendments, the Bill would do what they want it to do.

Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East)

There is clearly a huge cross-party consensus on this subject. The overwhelming majority of hon. Members believe that local residents have a right to have delivered, through their letter boxes, a proper analysis of what services their councils provide and how well they do so in comparison with others. That is what the performance indicators are all about. The Audit Commission's various publications are clear and simple to understand. They usually have bar charts so that people can see how their local authority is performing against a comparable local authority serving a similar area.

I wish to speak especially in favour of the amendments which would introduce a real code of practice. Whereas the vast majority of the 450 local authorities operate reasonably honourably and straightforwardly, a small handful of completely corrupt, dogmatic and arrogant local authorities will abuse any system that is placed in their hands. For that small minority, a real code of conduct is necessary. It will come as no surprise to the House to know that my personal experience of what happens in Brent prompts me to speak forcefully about the need for a code of conduct. The Opposition are offering the Government more powers: that must surely indicate the depth of concern that we feel.

I shall give a couple of examples of the way in which Brent council manages, in effect, to avoid the commitment to reporting their performance indicators to their local electors. Like many local authorities, Brent is not well served by local papers any more. The local papers that we have do their best, but the money is not there, compared with 25 years ago when I was first elected to a local authority. They no longer have long-standing members of staff or a substantial staff who are able to report what is going on in detail. Those papers have had to make so many economies and they are far too reliant on handouts from local authorities.

7.45 pm

In my own local authority area, the council has chosen to report performance indicators by giving the local free sheet a special deal. The paper appears with a wrap-around bit, like the wrapping around fish and chips, which one immediately discards and moves on to the real fish in the middle. The long-standing local paper, which has been published for more than 100 years, does not get the benefit of that deal because it is often slightly critical of the local authority.

If the council buys the service, it is able to dictate the format of what is provided. When, once a year, I get my copy of the Brent Recorder—which Brent council has paid to report the performance indicators to every household in Brent—it thuds through the letter box. I pick it up and instead of the usual colourful cover there is what looks like half a dozen pages of Hansard—dull, dead type that nobody would bother to read unless they had a severe case of insomnia. I can hear what happens all over Brent. The paper thuds through the letter box, and that is followed by a scrunching-up noise which works its way through the borough as everyone tears up the so-called performance indicator report and dumps it in the bin so that they can read the contents of the real newspaper. Other than people such as myself, who pore over the report to see where the corruption and fraud have been hidden, nobody else in Brent has any interest in it whatever.

The council is prepared to discharge its duty to report in that most minimal way, but it can find thousands of pounds to produce a nice glossy magazine with colour photographs and endless pictures of the leader of the council. Given what he looks like, that is not necessarily a good idea. The magazine contains wonderful stories about the joys of living in Brent, which imply that everyone in Brent is living on some wonderful tropical island where nobody ever has to work and everyone has a life style like the old Greek gods.

People in Brent pick up that rubbish every few months and they cannot believe the descriptions of the town that they see around them, with garbage in the streets, and so on: we never see a street-sweeper because, as the performance indicators show, that is not Brent's strong suit. The magazine is an attempt to bypass any real duty to report the performance indicators that Parliament has required, with agreement, to be made available so that local residents can monitor their council's performance.

Brent has two local papers—the Kilburn Times and the Willesden and Brent Chronicle, which are part of the same group. Because they report things such as the ombudsman's reports, they are under constant pressure from the local authority. The system cannot operate if the council puts completely unacceptable pressure on well established local newspapers not to report anything that the council does not want reported. I have found it especially offensive that the chief executive of the council has written to each local department head to tell them not to advertise in those papers because they write critical stories about the council.

There are bound to be critical stories about the council. If out of 32 London boroughs, a council spends less on education and social services than every other borough, it will occasionally get a tad of criticism. If, out of the whole of south-east England, including Greater London, Kent, Surrey, and East and West Sussex, a third of all complaints to the local government ombudsman are about one council, that will occasionally get into the local press. I should like to see the code of conduct that we are putting into the Government's hands improved to stop intimidation of the press.

Many local newspapers are always struggling. The threat is issued that advertising will be withdrawn if they print unfavourable stories. That makes a mockery of any suggestion that there can be fair and honest reporting for local people about the performance indicators that the Audit Commission has produced, which no one questions are good guides to relative performance.

The process can be taken one stage further. The current chief executive at Brent, a guy called George Benham, circulated a memorandum—this is no wild, manic rumour of the sort that might be read in Socialist Campaign Group News—to all departmental heads in the borough. I should explain that they are called business units now. There are about 140 such units. I write to what used to be the director of education asking, "Can you get little Johnny into a school?" The reply refers to "the customer". We are dealing with little Johnny, not a customer, and little Johnny wants to go to a school.

We have business units with advertising budgets. George Benham writes to the units telling them, "Mr. Livingstone keeps attacking the council." The atmosphere is fetid. He, George Benham, suggests, "It would be useful if Mr. Livingstone were not invited to any function at which councillors might be present. Mr. Livingstone's presence is embarrassing to them." That is the climate in the borough. It is one that puts pressure on local newspapers not to report issues such as performance indicators.

What happens if an authority gets away with what I have described year after year? I reflect on the past five years. There was a Conservative minority administration, which still hangs on by a casting vote. It has managed to hang on to power. It is helped if it can manipulate information. If an authority gets away with that for five years, it becomes extremely arrogant.

The ombudsman is undertaking an investigation. Indeed, 17 investigations are being undertaken by the fraud squad, the ombudsman and the council's internal audit. That is going some when there is a Tory group of only 33. Some of the investigations are multiple. Some councillors are being investigated by the fraud squad, the ombudsman and the internal auditors. Everything is being examined from £75,000 grants being handed out in exchange for support in a local government election down to the small stuff such as local builders being employed to clean a councillor's windows. All this stuff builds up.

At the same time, arrogance increases. There is the example of the AdShop. The issue was discussed in Committee and I was grateful when I was not criticised for raising it. There was no word of support for Brent council from anyone on the Government side. When I reported activities taking place in Brent, no Conservative Member was prepared to stick his neck out by saying, for example, "I am sure that's not true," or to say one word in defence of Brent council. I congratulate the Minister and Conservative Back-Bench Members on their perspicacity and good sense.

I return to the AdShop. A business unit showed a loss of £400,000. Amazing things were going on. The staff decided that they wanted a meeting. It was thought that it would take an hour. It was decided that everyone should fly to Schiphol international airport at Amsterdam. The VIP lounge had been booked for the staff meeting. Of course, after the staff meetings, the rest of the day was available. These happenings are not reported too well when there is the level of intimidation that I have described. We are offering the Government a code of conduct to enable them to clamp down on abuse. If the code were implemented, local reporting would not be stifled.

When these matters were raised in council, the committee chair concerned was approached by a reporter from the Willesden and Brent Chronicle, Miss Kamala Hayman. His response was, "If you publish any of this, I shall take you out of the back of the town hall and break your legs." What chance is there of honest reporting of performance indicators when a leading member of the Conservative administration, in front of witnesses at a full council meeting, turns on a young woman reporter and says, "I am going to take you out of the town hall and break your legs"? I rest my case.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford)

The nicest thing about listening to the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) was to note that the tables had been turned on him. I remember reading the Londoner and gnashing my teeth—that is probably an appropriate description—at the gobbledegook and biased propaganda. When I reflect on the propaganda, as the hon. Gentleman describes it, that emanates from Brent council, it is almost always eminently fair, straight and above board. If the hon. Gentleman feels that he is living in the Bahamas, perhaps we should get a psychiatrist to help him.

I understand the thinking behind the amendments. At one stage I was tempted by amendment No. 5. We share a common objective to ensure that local authorities publish information about performance that is unbiased and informative. The Bill achieves that by providing that publication must be subject to independent editorial control. I understand that the approach of Opposition Members might be used to the same ends. However, my memory does not have to go back too far to when I was in local government.

That leads me to baulk at what they propose, which would land local government and the Government with more regulation. There would be more intervention. We would need yet another code of practice. That would have to specify what information would be included and what might or should not be included. How could we deal with editorial bias? Would we need a stand-alone document, which would mean more expense for local authorities? I do not think that anyone in this place wants that level of interference.

The Government's approach is preferable. Local authorities and Parliament will be in no doubt about the publication requirements and will not face the possibility of changes to those requirements from year to year.

Ms Armstrong

The amendments offer a range of options. If an authority were using the most expensive option, it would fall foul of value-for-money and other regulations that are already in place. We are offering a menu of options to enable each local authority to choose the most effective and appropriate approach in its area. That gives force to the amendments. I urge the Minister to think again. If the amendments are agreed to, the options set out in the Bill could still be implemented by a local authority if that were appropriate.

Sir Paul Beresford

The hon. Lady has outlined why there was temptation at an earlier stage, which I am now resisting.

I suspect that amendments Nos. 6 and 7 are tied closely to amendment No. 5. At the same time, they are surprising. The removal of the distribution requirement flies in the face of arguments previously advanced by Opposition Members and would worsen the various situations highlighted in Committee by the hon. Lady, especially that regarding her father. Local authorities would be given complete discretion on distribution and they could satisfy the requirement simply by using a free newspaper that had only a limited distribution. That would undermine opportunity for those who wish to seek a newspaper and to seek the information within it.

Amendments Nos. 1 and 2, tabled by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), adopt a different approach to distribution. I understand the hon. Gentleman's reasons for tabling amendment No. 1, but it strikes me as being impractical. How do we assess the number of people who will be reached by a paid-for newspaper? Amendment No. 2 is more onerous than the existing clause in respect of business premises. The amendment would force local authorities to reach 80 per cent. of the business community, whereas the current wording leaves such matters to the judgment of the authority.

All the amendments illustrate a misunderstanding of the meaning behind clause 5. That leads me to stress two points from the outset. First, the publication provisions are no more than minimum requirements. That answers my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths). It may be that, given its local circumstances, an authority believes that some additional publication over and above the minimum requirements would represent value for money in terms of effective accountability and communicating with its citizens. That was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North.

If my hon. Friend reflects on the words of the hon. Member for Brent, East and those of some of the authorities that he and I would care to name for having the expertise to get round legislation and codes of practice, for example, he will understand the Government's thinking. In such cases, it is open to an authority to provide such additional publication—for example, including performance information in its own in-house journal delivered to its citizens—and we believe that it would be right for it to do so, particularly in Brent.

Secondly, there is a simple principle underlying these minimum requirements: whatever forms of publication are chosen by an authority, information about its performance, as measured against the Audit Commission's indicators, is at least available throughout its area in a publication that is wholly independent of the authority. We attach the utmost importance to that information being readily available to all who wish to obtain it, and in a context where an authority cannot seek to put its own gloss on the objective measures of its performance. The hon. Member for Brent, East made that point.

8 pm

The Local Government Act 1992 requires publication of an authority's performance information in a newspaper circulating in its area. Such a newspaper is available in shops in the area; it is thus available to anyone who chooses to purchase it, even if they have to travel some distance to do so, as is the case in some rural areas. Such a newspaper is also edited independently of the authority, and the requirement to publish in a newspaper circulating in an authority's area therefore satisfies our underlying principle.

We now believe that, in the light of the representations that we have received from the Audit Commission and local government, this underlying principle can equally be satisfied in certain cases by publication in free newspapers delivered to dwellings. These cases are where the free newspapers are wholly independent of the authority concerned, and where the free newspapers are distributed throughout the authority's area.

Where a free newspaper is wholly independent of the authority, it is edited independently of that authority just like a paid-for newspaper. Equally, where free newspapers are distributed to dwellings throughout the authority's area—the situation that the distribution requirement in clause 5 seeks to describe—these newspapers can be seen to be generally available, even though they might not be available in the shops. I have deliberately referred to free newspapers in the plural; if an authority chooses to go down the free newspaper route, it is immaterial whether availability throughout its area is achieved through one or several such newspapers. We therefore seek in clause 5 to extend the ways in which an authority can fulfil the minimum publication requirement.

There remains the established way of using paid-for newspapers. We are now seeking to introduce a new option, as requested by local authorities, of using free newspapers in the circumstances that I have just described, where the use of such newspapers would be consistent with our underlying publication principle. The modest increase in flexibility as to how the minimum publication requirement can be fulfilled is all we seek to achieve.

I trust that Opposition Members will feel that they can now accept the assurances that I have given and withdraw the amendments.

Ms Armstrong

I am not entirely content with what the Minister said. I hope that the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) is right and that the matter will be dealt with in the Lords. I do not wish to press the issue at this stage for that reason, and therefore I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

  • Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
  • Order for Third Reading read.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time—[Mr. Knapman.]

8.3 pm

Mr. Livingstone

One could probably talk about Brent until 10 o'clock without a note, but as I raised most of my points on Second Reading, there remain only a couple to which I wish to draw the attention of the House.

The Bill is a missed opportunity. We all welcome the steps forward in social services and the chance to have joint investigations and so on. I make a plea only that the Minister makes it clear to the Audit Commission that we would like it to start with Brent, because out of 32 London boroughs, Brent spends the least on social services, although there is massive need in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) that is as bad as anything in the east end. I hope that the Bill will allow us to examine that. In any investigation about Brent, what we see is major neglect. An independent assessment was made of social services—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that on Third Reading he must refer only to what is in the Bill.

Mr. Livingstone

I hope that the Minister will ensure that we have a rapid investigation of the social services department of Brent and the studies and joint studies that have been mentioned, and that the Bill will give the Audit Commission the power to get involved. The closest that we have come to any comparative investigation was last year. An independent expert in social services was brought in, and discovered on examining the case files in the register of children at risk that 10 per cent. of all the files were illegible. How can Brent social services department be functioning adequately? I hope that we shall hear from the Minister that he shares that concern. Nobody can be proud of that record. How can one defend children at risk when in 10 per cent. of cases one cannot even read the files?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is trying hard, but he is not being successful. He must stick to what is in the Bill, or I shall have to rule him out of order.

Mr. Livingstone

I made that point because the powers already exist, and I want them used in Brent, which, of all social services departments in Britain, has the most urgent need. I do not believe that any hon. Member would be other than horrified to discover that the constituents whom they represent had to suffer in such circumstances. How does one create such a complete air of neglect? The comparative studies that are now possible and the strengthening of the Audit Commission in social services must give it the ability to step in. Even if it cannot take control, it can at least draw attention through the new powers to areas were one borough council is performing dramatically worse than others.

As I mentioned in Committee, the question of reporting should have been in the Bill. I shall not repeat on Third Reading everything that I said about it in Committee, but this is a tremendous missed opportunity. I hope that the Bill will be strategically amended in the other place to strengthen the powers that will be given to the Minister. If it is, I hope that the Government will the accept the proposals, because what we have is not adequate.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) made it clear that we are not happy with what we heard from the Minister. If the Bill is amended in the other place, he will have the support of the House to use tougher powers to stop the abuse of the system of reporting on performance indicators. If cannot be right if those indicators are reported in such a way that nobody is interested in looking at them.

Who would produce an election address of just solid, turgid type? No one would read it. We have nice pictures of ourselves. We have pictures to illustrate local topics. We have graphics. If a council refuses to use those options and just produces dense acres of type, people will not plough through it.

I hope that, when the Bill goes to the other place, Government amendments will be tabled to strengthen it along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham. If he did that, he would have the support of the Opposition and, I suspect, the Liberal Democrats as well.

8.8 pm

Ms Armstrong

I do not wish to detain the House for much longer, but hon. Members should be reminded that the Government were given an opportunity to clarify their wish to use the Audit Commission more effectively to secure probity and the delivery of high-quality services in local government.

The Bill deals with two fairly minor matters. It proposes that the social services inspectorate should be able to work with the Audit Commission to inspect whole social services departments, an important new power which I welcome. I have always considered it nonsense that no power to ensure both effectiveness and value for money is enshrined in legislation. I also welcome the Government's recognition that the current regime for the publication of performance indicators does not meet its objectives. However, I still do not think that the Bill has got it right.

The Government have not faced up to the problems that local government has asked them to tackle. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) talked about Brent and, on Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) spoke of the delay in solving Lambeth's problems, which was due partly to the fact that the auditor had not the necessary powers and partly to a lack of consistency. In Committee, we had a short debate about the importance of consistency among district auditors, and ways of ensuring that were suggested. I am sorry that the Government did not take the opportunity provided by some of our amendments.

On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras also mentioned Brent and Westminster. He pointed out that in those boroughs, as well as in Lambeth, the public could not feel confident about the way in which matters had been handled, and that the district auditor had continually been thwarted. It is our responsibility to ensure that government at every level is as open, honest and responsive to local people as the House can make it. I am sorry that the Government did not tackle that issue in the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third Time, and passed.

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