HL Deb 14 March 1956 vol 196 cc439-43

5.35 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill has already passed through another place without opposition and with facilities given by Her Majesty's Government. Its purpose is to regularise the spending of rate money both on the entertainment of visitors and on the making of courtesy visits and attendance at conferences by members of authorities and their staff. The present position is that these powers have been given, by a number of Private Acts of Parliament, to some of the larger county boroughs, but where boroughs and other authorities do not possess such powers visitors can be given hospitality only through the use of the mayor's fund; and if people go abroad they have to do so at their own expense, a rule which naturally severely limits the type of person who can go.

I do not believe that the passing of this Bill will result in an orgy of joyriding at the ratepayers' expense. That has not been the experience in cases where these powers have been granted. A certain amount of travel for the purpose of making contacts, both in this country and abroad, is no doubt of educative value, but in the case of some of our greatest resorts it may also pay a considerable dividend. It is natural that mayors and other representatives of foreign countries should visit us to study our institutions, and it is a very good thing if, following those visits, tourists arrive; but the process must obviously be a two-way process. I am sure your Lordships will realise that relationships already exist between various towns in this country and towns in Europe, particularly in France, but I know that, so far as British local authorities are concerned, these efforts have been handicapped by the limitations of the present law.

Two safeguards are provided against abuse of these powers. First the district auditor has power to surcharge unless the expenditure is reasonable. Secondly, an even more important safeguard is that any expenses paid under this Bill will have to be reported and will be subject to public criticism. Your Lordships will know that there has been a great deal of criticism of the rise in rates in recent years, and nearly always the explanation is that Parliament has passed some enactment which lays a further burden on the ratepayer. That excuse cannot be advanced here, and I imagine that the public will be very watchful of any expenditure of this kind. The Bill has the support of the County Councils Association, the Urban District Councils Association and the Rural District Councils Association; and the Association of Municipal Corporations is sympathetic to it. With that brief explanation I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Gage.)


My Lords, in view of the fact that this Bill has passed through another place and the necessary financial Resolution has been agreed, I have only to say that Her Majesty's Government have no objection to offer which would affect the further progress of the Bill if that should be your Lordships' pleasure.


My Lords, can the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, tell me whether in Scotland, in present circumstances, it is not possible for a local authority to allow expenditure of this nature if Section 339 (I am speaking from memory) of the Local Government (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Act is operated?


My Lords, I do not know whether I can answer the specific question which has been addressed to me, but it is in my mind that in Scotland we have a fund—a fund which is not in existence in England or Wales—from which we meet the expenses of our delegations visiting other countries.


If the noble Lord is referring to what is known as the "Common good" fund, I wonder whether what he has said is quite accurate. The power is there, I think, for a local authority to take monies from the "Common good" fund but I think—and the noble Lord probably knows this—unless the "Common good" fund money is used for the specific benefit of the citizens of the city concerned the power is limited. Surely the alternative, therefore, is to try to get permission to spend under the particular section of the local Government (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Act.


My Lords, may I add one word to what I have already said? I think I inadvertently used the word "British." The Bill, of course, applies only to England and Wales. It does not apply to Scotland. I did not have the temerity to enter into the affairs of that country.


Is the noble Viscount right there? Clause 1 (2) is in these words: There shall be paid out of moneys provided by Parliament any increase attributable to the provisions of subsection (1) of this section in the sums payable out of moneys so provided sunder Part 1 of the Local Government Act, 1948, or under the Local Government (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Act, 1954. So, apparently, it does apply to Scotland.


I would point out to the noble Lord that Clause 1 (1) begins: In England and Wales, the council of any county, county borough, metropolitan borough or county district may … and then the clause goes on to explain how they may make payments. I think that the reference of the noble Lord just now is to a Money Resolution, which I am afraid is a matter a little too technical for me to speak upon without further notice.


Would the noble and learned Viscount who sits on the Woolsack try to elucidate the matter?

5.43 p.m.


My Lords, I can only give my idea; but speaking from recollection—which I do not pretend is certain to be correct—I should have thought that my noble friend Lord Gage was right and that the governing words of the Bill are the first words in Clause 1: In England and Wales, the council of any county, county borough and so on. Then the power to pay is set out. There is the question of how far that will be dealt with out of the National Exchequer. Subsection (2), which the noble Lord has in mind says: There shall be paid out of moneys provided by Parliament any increase attributable to the provisions of subsection (1) of this section in the sums payable out of moneys so provided tinder Part I of the Local Government Act, 1948, or under the Local Government (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Act, 1954. I should have thought that those were the Acts that governed the equalisation funds in the respective countries. Therefore, when you refer to the power of payment by Parliament you have to refer to the whole of the governing provisions of the equalisation grant. I should have thought that that is the probability in the matter. I am not sure if I speak for the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. I do not know whether he or I—probably it is he—have the greater right to speak for Scotland. But I have no doubt that the noble Lord will inform the noble Lord, Lord Greenhill, at the earliest possible opportunity whether my view is right.


My Lords, it had not been my intention to intervene in the debate on this Bill, but if your Lordships will excuse me for a moment there are just one or two words I should like to say, rather by way of giving warning than as serious criticism of the Bill, for I am sure we all agree with the principles of this measure. I trust that people in charge of conferences and other such parties will not greatly increase the number of these conferences. A large number of them, I feel, do not serve any valuable purpose whatever, except, as has been said already, that it is useful to make contact with people. Whether it is right to make contact with too many people at the expense of the local rates or at the cost of money supplied by Parliament is a matter which I am prepared to doubt. The second point I would make is this. I hope that this will not have the result that more councillors will be brought to London for conferences in Whitehall. On this point I can speak with some experience. I was for a short time a member of the Civil Service and I found it was always far more advantageous to myself and to the cause for which I was working if I paid a visit to the local authority concerned, rather than brought five or six councillors from the local authority to London to meet in Whitehall. Those are two small warnings that I wish to give now that expenses money is to be made available in this way.


My Lords, I also should like to say a word or two on this Bill. The noble Viscount, Lord Gage, put the case very clearly; but the noble Viscount speaks—as he has every right to do—for Sussex, a county which is close to London and therefore close to the place where many conferences are held. Now that this expense will fall on the taxpayer, I think it should be borne in mind that there are many counties which are many miles away from London, not by any means so close as Sussex. The taxpayer must realise that there are such places as Westmorland and Cumberland up in the North—though Scotland, I notice, has tried to draw a little line of economy across this. We do not want to spend public money if it can be avoided; nor is it public policy to do so at this time. Provided that it is understood that there will be no overspending, I see no objection to the Bill.


My Lords, I should like to make one remark with regard to the matter which has been raised by my noble friends opposite. I think Her Majesty's Government would entirely agree with what they say. If it were felt that there would be squandering of public funds and joy-riding about the country I should certainly not have stood here and said that the Government had no objection to the Bill.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.