HL Deb 12 July 1961 vol 233 cc252-61

8.28 p.m.

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.


My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Lindgren I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into a Committee on the said Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Stonham.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD AIREDALE in the Chair.]

Clauses 1 to 6 agreed to.

LORD MORRISON OF LAMBETH moved, after Clause 6 to insert the following new clause:

Reports on payment of expenses and allowances

". It shall be the duty of the appropriate committee or clerk of each local authority to report, not less than quarterly (in the public agenda and report of the council), the payments of expenses and allowances to members of the council and co-opted members of committees."

The noble Lord said: I beg to move the Amendment Which stands in my name, and perhaps I ought briefly to explain its purpose. What I want is for local authorities, or public authorities, to be required periodically, not less frequently than once a quarter, to report to the council the claims which have been made by each member of the council, and for there to be a rough classification of the heads under which each member of the council makes that claim. It is perfectly true that a local government elector can go to the council offices and effectively demand the right to see particulars of the various claims, but it is rather a labour for him if he is going through them all, and there will be very few electors who will take the trouble to-day. It is quite true that, by the same means, a local newspaper could go—indeed, a few of them have done so—but, in the main, there is not much trouble taken about it. Therefore, I think this requires to be made mandatory, and to be part of our effective law.

It may be argued that it is not quite right for councillors' receipts under these local government expenses to be divulged to the public, possibly to cause controversy about them, but I think that would be an ineffective argument. The salaries of Ministers of the Crown are widely known, and the salaries of Members of the House of Commons are widely known—it is £1,750 a year. It is also widely known that your Lordships receive three guineas a day attendance allowance so long as you attend. Therefore, we are in the light of day; everyone knows the recompense or expenses which are allowed; and I do not see why that should not be so with local authorities.

On the whole, we can be proud of our local government: it is straight, honest and upright. But there have been a few cases in various parts of the country where either there has been criticism or the district auditor has surcharged—and not all cases have reached a final conclusion. I admit that I am a Puritan in local government. I like British local government not only to be upright, but to appear to be upright. Therefore, I think it is desirable that there should be discouragement of members of local authorities, even though there are few who go wrong, overcharging or charging illegitimately either as against expenses they have not incurred, or against expenses which it is not reasonable to charge. I think this matter should have statutory provision. It is true that the local authority itself can do what I ask in this Amendment it should be made to do. I have no doubt there are some who do it, but there are many who do not, and I think they should all be required to do it. There have been, as I have said, a few cases of abuse, and I think that, if this Amendment were carried, it would discourage members of local authorities from being naughty in this respect, because the light of day would be shed upon expenses claimed and paid.

It is true that there is another difficulty. It may be said that surely the clerk to the authority, or the treasurer, as the case may be, can examine these claims, and if he has reason to feel that they are illegitimately made he can question the member about it and, if necessary, refuse to pay. But chief officers of local authorities do not like to get into controversy with members of the council, who are their masters in matters of this sort. Therefore, I understand the general practice is that no check is made on the legitimacy or accuracy of the claim. The only thing that can happen is that the district auditor may surcharge, and then the member concerned can, if he so wishes, appeal to the Minister against the decision of the auditor.

I hope very much that this Amendment will commend itself to your Lordships' House. There are no Party political aspects about it whatever. It is a question of good administration and of doing everything to keep our administration upright. It is not an undue interference with local government. We need not be afraid of this as an affront to the local authorities, or as an interference with their autonomy. Because, as I have said, in the case of Ministers, Members of the other place and Members of this place, everybody knows what we get, and there is no reason why that should not be so in the case of local authorities. Therefore, I earnestly trust that my noble friend Lord Stonham will see his way to accepting this Amendment, and that the Government will feel that they can give it their blessing. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— After Clause 6, insert the said new clause.—(Lord Morrison of Lambeth.)

8.33 p.m.


My noble friend Lord Morrison of Lambeth has declared himself a Puritan in local government. I must confess I have always tended to look on him rather more as a Cavalier than a Roundhead; but in this particular matter we must all have sympathy with his objective, and that is that, when public money is spent on expenses properly incurred by representatives of local authorities, and indeed by other bodies mentioned in this Bill, then the public should have the right to know how the money is spent and by whom it has been received. However, I must confess that I cannot see, if my noble friend's Amendment were accepted, how the public would know any more about it than they do now, because, as my noble friend has said, it is open to anyone now to go and inspect the register or the accounts on payment of one shilling. Indeed, small provincial newspapers, such as those which I direct in South Wales, do that regularly; and how delighted the citizens of Swansea are, for example, when they read in their local newspapers precisely how many pounds, shillings and pence each member of the Swansea Council has received by way of expenses in a given period! Any newspaper, as my noble friend suggested, can do the same.

My noble friend's Amendment in fact says that: It shall be the duty of the appropriate committee or clerk of each local authority to report quarterly on the payment of expenses. That would be on the agenda and reported to the council; but the members of the public would not know anything about it unless they happened to attend the council meeting or unless the reporter of the local newspaper reported it. This can be done now. The other point is that the present regulations do permit of the publication of the minutes of the council on expenses in far greater detail than my noble friend has asked for in his Amendment. Therefore, particularly in view of the fact that under the 1948 Act the Minister had power to make regulations in this precise matter, I cannot see that what my noble friend asks for is really necessary or is going to convey any more information to the public than they already have the right to obtain. In those circumstances, I hope he will not regard the Amendment as strictly necessary and that he will not press it.

EARL JELLICOE Perhaps I may add a word. I, like the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, have considerable sympathy with what I take to be the broad aim underlying Lord Morrison of Lambeth's Amendment—namely, to close a possible loophole in our local government accounting machinery which may lead to abuses in certain isolated cases, and thus prevent any erosion of the standing of local government in this country. I am sure that that, as an aim, is something which we all share. But that said, I must say that I share most of the inhibitions which the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, has about this particular Amendment. In the first place, there is the point which he has made and to which the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, also referred, that under present arrangements local authorities do keep records of payments to their members, and these records are open to inspection by the local government electors. As I understand it, that requirement is laid upon local authorities. I think the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, suggested that they did it only if they felt inclined to do so.


No; it is an obligation. There is an obligation to have them open to inspection by an elector, if that is what the noble Earl wants.


Yes. Well, let that rest. There is, as we agree a clear obligation at the present time. There is a slight technicality Which I found a little difficult in the noble Lord's proposed Amendment. His clause refers to reports being made not less than quarterly (in the public agenda and report of the council)… I am not clear exactly what he has in mind there. Except in certain specialised contexts, I understand that the council "receive" reports from their committees and their officers, rather than "make" them, and the agenda seems scarcely the suitable vehicle, at least to me, for the publication of information of this sort. As I say, though, that is only a slight technical difficulty. But I suggest to your Lordships that there is more than a technical difficulty standing in the way of accepting this Amendment, with the aim of which we all agree. I do not think that we should take a step of this sort without careful consideration and consultation with the local authorities' associations, and there has not been the chance for that.

Finally, I would draw the noble Lord's attention to the fact that under Section 117 of the Local Government Act, 1948, the Minister has power to make regulations providing for the publication in the minutes of the body concerned, or otherwise, of the details of payments of allowances. His existing powers seem quite wide enough to permit my right honourable friend to make regulations of the sort the noble Lord seems to have in mind. I do not think, in view of the arguments advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, that further regulations are needed, but we share the aim of the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, and in the light of his remarks I will naturally bring the points which he has made to my right honourable friend's attention with reference to his existing powers under the Local Government Act. In the circumstances, I would add my voice to that of the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, and hope that the noble Lord will not press his Amendment to-night.


I am in a little confusion over this matter. We have, on the one hand, an argument from the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, that so many means already exist for the public or Press to see the expense sheets that no action is necessary. Then we have a statement from the Government Front Bench that the right honourable gentleman will have his attention called to the matter and that he will still consider the propriety of using his powers to make regulations on this matter. I am not sure that I know where I am.

As between the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth and Lord Stonham, I can only say that your Lordships' House have always paid great deference to admitted experts. No one in the world knows more about local government than the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, and I very much hope that great attention will be paid by Her Majesty's Government to anything which the noble Lord has to say on this subject.


Before the noble Lord replies, I should like straight away to give him the assurance for which he has just asked.


The Parliamentary Secretary was a little more progressive in this matter than my noble friend Lord Stonham who I thought did not move much further. It may be that my drafting is wrong. I admit that I drafted it out of my own head.


This is a Roundhead not a Cavalier Party.


I never quite understood the difference. But the drafting could be put right on Report stage, if the Government would help in redrafting. My noble friend says, and the Minister agrees with him, that already a local government elector can go and get information. My answer is that about one in a million may go—and that perhaps for an unworthy purpose. But good luck to them, if they go! Some newspapers pick it up, but they have to dig it out. Surely the better thing to do is to have a quarterly report in which it is all served up ready for any citizen to be able to discuss it and make his criticisms. Surely this is a very different thing from the existing somewhat hole-and-corner method of going to the town hall or county hall and digging it out.

I am rather sad that my noble friend Lord Stonham, for whom I have a high regard, should be rather resisting a furtherance of publicity for money received out of public funds. That is a sad state of affairs, which almost shocks me. I admit that the Minister has put an argument, as did my noble friend, that this could be done by an amendment to regulations, but I should like the Minister to be more forthcoming about amending the regulations. I do not think that we ought to get the consent of the local authority associations to do it. That is quite wrong. By all means consult them about the drafting, if you like, so that they can consider it; but do not ask them for their consent. It is a sheer question of public interest, and it is the duty of Parliament and the Minister to protect the public interest.

My own view is that the best way of doing it would be by regulation. I explained earlier on what I want. I want the payments to each councillor to be returned and the classification made between one subject and another. There is a great deal to be said for amending the regulations, which would have the advantage of not delaying this Bill, which would perhaps cause some inconvenience to my noble friend and his honourable friends in another place. But I think we are entitled to a more forthcoming and sympathetic consideration from the Parliamentary Secretary. The Government probably had a sight of this Amendment by Monday afternoon and they have had time to think about it. If I were the Parliamentary Secretary in this situation, I would advise him to "chance his arm" and be a little more forthcoming. I am sure that the Minister would not throw him over or ask the Prime Minister to fire him. This is so obviously right, in the public interest. I want to make it more difficult for people not to play the game, and not to make it relatively easy, with not much risk—though, as I have said, I do not think there is much abuse, Therefore, before I agree to withdraw my Amendment, I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will give me a little more encouragement about dealing with this by way of amending the regulations and I hope that my noble friend can do so, too.


That is precisely the reason why I have risen to my feet. I am impelled by my noble friend's view that I have shocked him and that I supported any kind of secrecy in this matter. I tried to make it clear that in my private capacity, in the newspapers in which I have an interest, we give publicity to these matters, because it is highly desirable and necessary. I wish to make only two points to my noble friend. The first is that the regulations which have been referred to by the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, say that everybody shall keep records of all payments to members made under Part VI of the Act 'of 1948, indicating the amounts paid to each member and the heads under which they are paid, and that such records shall be open to inspection at all reasonable hours by any local government elector for the area of the body. These are conditions which now exist.

The point which my noble friend is asking the noble Earl to consider is: in what way can this information be conveyed more readily to the public of whom, as my noble friend says, perhaps only one in a million bother TO go and find out the present situation? If the noble Earl could convey to his right honourable friend that we think that there should be some consideration of changing the regulations, I think that what we have in mind and my noble friend's point would both be covered, and he would be able to withdraw his Amendment with much better heart.


I find it difficult to resist the siren song of the noble Lord, Lord Morrison of Lambeth, but I feel that it would probably be wise for me to be a little careful about following him along the primrose path he has sketched out. However, I should like to say this. First, of course, he is quite right in saying that there is no Party point here. Secondly, again I emphasise that, so far as the aim is concerned, we are all agreed that it is merely a practical point of the best way to go about it in the light of the Parliamentary timetable and our general desire to get this Bill, which is helpful in many other ways, safely on the Statute Book. What I should like to say to the noble Lord is that not only will I bring this matter to the attention of my right honourable friend, as I have already said, but I will represent to him the views which have been expressed not only by the noble Lord, but also by the noble Lord who is sponsoring the Bill this afternoon.


I am obliged to the noble Earl and to my noble friend. I am glad that my noble friend and I are in agreement that it is desirable for this to be done, and that the noble Earl opposite understands that to be so. The noble Earl has spoken with perhaps a slightly greater degree of sympathy and understanding of my point of view, and therefore I hope he will present the matter to the Minister in the most favourable light that he can. It is the case that the great bulk of local authorities do not report these matters to the council, and it is a way of drawing attention to the payments made, which are not criminal in themselves, and are wrong only if they go wrong. It is right in principle that this should be done: and so is the Bill. But a council chamber is a good way of getting publicity if people want to find out. These reports can be seen in all public libraries, and it is desirable that this should be done. On the understanding that the noble Earl, while entering into no form of undertaking, will explain the situation adequately, and not without sympathy, to his right honourable friend, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Remaining clauses agreed to.

House resumed.

Bill reported without amendment.