HL Deb 18 October 1966 vol 277 cc14-27

3.8 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. One of the primary objects of the Bill is to introduce an impartial procedure for investigating complaints made by people who claim to have sustained an injustice in consequence of some administrative action taken by a local authority. The expression "action" is intended to cover any action, and the term "local authority" is intended to include committees and officials of local authorities. This Bill is not an attack on local authorities, and I should like to make that quite clear at the outset. I am most anxious to encourage local government. My aim is to remove some of the grounds for criticism.

From correspondence which I have received since the First Reading of my Bill, it has become quite clear to me that there is a great variety in the type of complaints. Often people feel that they have suffered an injustice and they can find no remedy, and many letters have been sent to me from people with a very real sense of frustration. Some of the complaints have been high-lighted recently in programmes on television. There was the case of the man whose house began to fall down shortly after he had purchased it. Although it had been approved by the local authority inspector, the local authority did not accept any responsibility. In fact, no one would accept responsibility in that case. There have been cases concerned with various aspects of compulsory purchase. I am sure that those who arranged the television programmes to which I have referred tried to ensure that a fair hearing was given to all concerned, but I am not sure that "trial by television" is necessarily the best way to carry out an impartial and objective inquiry. The intention of Part I of my Bill is to set up an Ombudsman at regional level to investigate complaints, but before I come to discuss the details of my Bill it might be helpful to your Lordships if I were to provide some historical background.

The idea of an Ombudsman has been advocated by Liberals for a good many years, but I am anxious to approach this matter from a non-Party political angle, so far as possible. In 1961 a Committee set up by Justice, with Sir John Whyatt as Chairman, produced a Report called The Citizen and the Administration—the Redress of Grievances. The Report dealt mainly with complaints about administrative acts or decisions of Government Departments. It proposed the creation of a Parliamentary Commissioner similar to the Ombudsman in Sweden and Denmark. The Committee, relying on the experience of the Scandinavian countries, made the interesting point that not only would the functions of the Ombudsman be a help to correct abuses suffered by individual citizens; the Ombudsman might also come to be regarded as a valuable and impartial defence against unjustified attacks against individual civil servants who could not defend themselves. I think that that is quite a good point.

In an Appendix to this Report the Committee stated that they had found that the administrative processes in local government followed a similar pattern to those in the Central Government. While it was not practicable for the Whyatt Committee to indicate the volume of complaints of maladministration against local authorities, they said: The opinion was expressed by several persons of experience in public affairs, whose responsibility and judgment in these matters command respect, that there was probably a serious amount of maladministration in local government and certainly considerably more than in the Central Government Departments. It is impossible to say how far these opinions are justified, but the fact that they are held by responsible people is in itself of some significance". Some Members of the House of Commons have estimated that 75 per cent. of the complaints which they receive are of a local nature, rather than complaints which come within the responsibility of Government Departments in Whitehall. I would say that my own experience when in the House of Commons confirms this view. It was for this reason that I decided that there was a strong case for setting up some procedure for examining complaints in the realm of local government.

I was interested in a letter in the Observer of Sunday last, written by Mr. Paul Rose, Labour Member for the Blackley Division of Manchester. He spoke out strongly in favour of an Ombudsman to investigate local government and various aspects of it. He said this: Far from weakening the elected representative, who has no power to call for documents and minutes, the presence of the Ombudsman in the background would provide a powerful weapon in reserve. The part-time local councillor has neither the facilities nor the power to explore injustice in depth, just as the M.P. is severely limited in his quest for justice on the part of the Government agencies. Later, Mr. Rose said: Personally. I find that three-quarters of the matters dealt with at my own advice bureaux come within the province of local rather than national government, and these are decisions which intimately affect the lives of ordinary citizens in a variety of ways. I for one would welcome the creation of local or regional Ombudsmen to supplement the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner. My Lords, that is the opinion of Mr. Rose.

Returning to the historical background, after the 1964 Election the present Government introduced a Bill to appoint a Parliamentary Commissioner to investigate complaints against Government Departments, the complaints being limited to those referred to the Commissioner by Members of Parliament. The Bill fell to the ground with the Dissolution of the last Parliament, and the subject was not mentioned in the Queen's Speech at the opening of the present Parliament. I gained the impression that there was little or no prospect of such a Bill being brought forward in this Session, but I came to the conclusion that even if a Government Bill setting up a Parliamentary Commissioner were to be re-introduced it would be necessary to go ahead with this Bill of my own. It is no easy matter to draft a Private Member's Bill and those who have experience of this will no doubt sympathise with me in this respect. I have tried to avoid some of the obvious pitfalls, but I hope that the Bill will be judged on its merits rather than on technicalities.

When I obtained the First Reading of my Bill on July 6 of this year, I was still uncertain as to whether the Government intended to proceed with the appointment of a Parliamentary Commissioner. Subsequently, however, the Government Bill, which is now before another place, was published, and on August 4, somewhat to my surprise, I heard the announcement—that was before the Government Bill had received a Second Reading in another place—that Sir Edmund Compton had been appointed the first Parliamentary Commissioner. I think that is an excellent appointment and do not question it for one moment. When the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack made the announcement on August 4, I asked this question: May I ask the Lord Chancellor whether the proposed functions of the Parliamentary Commissioner will include dealing with complaints relating to local authorities, many of the complaints being of that nature?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 276 (No. 49), col. 1477; 4/8/66.] The noble and learned Lord replied as follows: …it is not proposed that complaints against local authorities shall be included. The Bill has been published. There is a Schedule which contains a list of all the Government Departments who must be covered and a provision whereby by an Order the Schedule can be enlarged. Your Lordships will be aware that this is the first time that there has been an Ombudsman in a country with a population of a size anything like this. We must prevent him from being overwhelmed to start with."(col. 1480.) I entirely agree that Sir Edmund Compton's task should not be made more difficult by an excess of work at the outset, and I have this very much in mind.

In reply to other questions which noble Lords put to him on August 4, the noble and learned Lord confirmed that complaints could be sent to Sir Edmund Compton only by Members of the House of Commons. If some member of the public believes that he has suffered an injustice and decides to write to a Member of this House and there appears to be a case for investigation, the Member of this House will have to write to a Member of the House of Commons and ask him to be good enough to pass the complaint on to Sir Edmund Compton. This is a somewhat unusual procedure, but no doubt this is a matter which can be discussed when the Government Bill comes before this House.

Whatever the channel of communication may be, it is clear that complaints of a local nature will not be considered by the Parliamentary Ombudsman, since such complaints are at present excluded by the definition in the Schedule. This creates a real dilemma for those who wish to see something done about complaints relating to local authorities, local government committees and their officials. I do not think that anyone wishes to overwhelm Sir Edmund Compton with a flood of complaints. It may well be contended that it would be a mistake to add to the list at the present stage, and for this reason it may be argued that any amendments to increase the list in the Schedule should be resisted. As a consequence, it might be years before anything is done about complaints of a local nature.

On the other hand, if the Schedule were expanded, it might complicate unduly the work of the Parliamentary Ombudsman. He would not be able to deal directly with these local complaints. He would have to employ deputies in various parts of the country to undertake inquiries on his behalf. He would have to adopt, I think, the following procedure. A complainant would write to a Member of Parliament. The Member of Parliament would write to Sir Edmund Compton. Some local deputy Ombudsman would be asked to act on his behalf. The deputy would make the inquiry and report back to Sir Edmund Compton, who would report to the Member of Parliament, who would then report back to the complainant. It seems to me that this would be a very roundabout procedure.

My aim is to try to short-circuit this. I am inclined to agree with the leading article in The Times this morning which suggests that the procedure as proposed in the Government's Bill might make investigation of local complaints rather more difficult. I have come to the conclusion that there is a strong case for setting up regional Ombudsmen. Obviously, there must be some coordination between any such persons and the Parliamentary Commissioner. At the least there must be consultation, and it may well be that some closer link could be laid down. We have not yet had an opportunity of considering the Government's Bill in this House, and it has not yet passed through any of its stages in the House of Commons, although, by coincidence, the Second Reading of the Parliamentary Commissioner Bill is taking place in the Commons to-day. However, I wish to make it clear that I am against any unnecessary duplication or overlapping of duties.

I now come to the detailed provisions of the Bill, which I will deal with as briefly as possible. I do not care very much for the expression "Regional Commissioner for Administration". It has a somewhat authoritarian sound, whereas the purpose of the Ombudsman is to look sympathetically into complaints and, if a real injustice exists, to try to bring about a remedy. But the title is not important; it is the functions that really matter. I suggest that there should be one Commissioner for each of the economic planning regions. My only reason for choosing these particular regions is that they are the only regions, so far as I am aware, that are defined by Statute. Maybe some other boundaries might be more appropriate. That is a subject on which I should welcome constructive criticism at Committee stage—and I hope that we shall reach Committee stage.

As to staff, I do not consider that there need be any very large staff. I envisage the appointment of one person as Commissioner, with a couple of secretaries, and two persons to act as investigators, who would call on the person making the complaint, make a courtesy call on the local town clerk and perform any other necessary duties, at the request of the Commissioner, with a view to ascertaining whether there is substance in the complaint.

The Whyatt Report referred to the suggestion that local authorities should appoint a "complaints officer". The Committee expressed the view that this suggestion was worthy of further study. I think this is quite a good idea, but, unfortunately, the local authorities where the need is greatest tend to be the least willing to appoint a complaints officer. I think that any attempt by Parliament to compel local authorities to appoint an official as a complaints officer would fail. To be successful, this must be carried out voluntarily. But where a complaints officer was appointed, this might lessen the work of the Ombudsman, which would be all to the good. On the other hand, a complaints officer could never have the powers available to an Ombudsman, since a complaints officer would be an official employed by the council. Much of the work expected of a complaints officer could, in fact, be done by a conscientious local councillor. Perhaps it is fair to say that I am not overlooking the valuable services rendered by citizens' advice bureaux. But they also lack the powers which are sometimes necessary in order to get to the bottom of a complaint.

Clause 3 of my Bill defines the kind of matters which would be subject to investigation. It excludes cases where there is a right of appeal or reference to a tribunal or where there is a right of action at law. In such cases, the Ombudsman would be limited to informing the complainant of his rights, save in very special circumstances referred to in the proviso to Clause 3(2).

It may be asked whether the regional Ombudsman would be overwhelmed with trivial complaints. I do not think that this will necessarily be so. If my Bill becomes law, I suggest that the following procedure would have to be followed by anyone who thought that he had suffered an injustice. First of all, he would have to find out the address to which to write. This would he made available at every local post office. He would then have to set out his complaint in writing and send with it a postal order for 5s. This is not a large amount, but I do not wish to prevent anyone from making use of this remedy by imposing a larger fee. I believe that if anyone was prepared to go to the trouble of writing out what was worrying him, finding out the address to which to write and getting a postal order for 5s., it is probable that his feeling of injustice was genuine. The conditions I have outlined would help to cut out trivial complaints. I do not think anyone would go to all this trouble unless he felt that he had a genuine grievance.

Clause 4 provides that the Ombudsman must give notice of a complaint to the clerk of the local authority concerned, and he must allow the authority an opportunity to reply. It also provides that the Ombudsman may, if he deems it appropriate, refer a complaint to the Council on Tribunals. Clause 5 gives the Ombudsman the power to call for documents, and Clause 6 provides that he shall send a report to the Minister, and also to the clerk of the local authority to which the complaint refers, when he has made an investigation. As to ultimate sanctions, he would in the last resort be entitled to publish a report, and, if he thought fit, apply to the High Court by way of Case Stated. I do not expect that this power would often be used, but it might be very valuable. Clause 7 provides that, except for the purposes of making a report as provided for in this Bill, any information gained would be treated as confidential.

That is a broad outline of the provisions in Part I of the Bill. I think it would remedy something that is lacking in the Government's proposals. Having quoted already a Labour M.P., may I call in aid a view expressed in a report entitled Let right be done, published in January of this year by the Inns of Court Conservative Association. The first paragraph on page 12 reads as follows: Perhaps the greatest initial deficiency in the system of a Parliamentary Commissioner is that it is clearly not envisaged that he would cover cases of maladministration in local government. Yet it is in this field that many people think that there is the greatest need. We consider that any real solution must be applicable to a wider field than merely central Government Departments. For those who accept this view, the only question is whether to attempt to amend the Government Bill or to deal with the matter by a separate Bill. I have chosen the latter course. While I look forward with interest to the report of the debate in the Commons on the Parliamentary Commissioner Bill, I do not think it will alter my view that a separate procedure is required for complaints relating to a local authority.

I have an additional reason for advocating a separate Bill. I think this would be an appropriate occasion for introducing one or two other reforms. These are set out in Part II of my Bill. There is a fairly widespread feeling that too much is done in secrecy. Some local authorities try to overcome this by inviting the Press and the public not only to full meetings of the council, but also to meetings of committees, except where they are dealing with confidential matters which might be an embarrassment to the individuals concerned. But not all councils are so enlightened. The Press can sometimes be very helpful. The Whyatt Report states that the influence of the Press may be considerable. In one of the county boroughs covered by their survey, the Whyatt Committee found that it was the practice of the Press to attend all meetings of the council and practically all meetings of its committees. As a result, there was a well-informed public opinion which helped to prevent wrong decisions and to remedy them when they occurred. I wish that this was more widely practised.

The object of Clause 8 of my Bill is to tip the scales in favour of the Press and the general public. At the present time, the Press and the public cannot be present at a meeting of a committee unless a special resolution is passed. By virtue of the clause which I have proposed, it would be the other way round. There would be a right of access unless there was a specific resolution excluding the Press and the public. This would still give the right to a local authority committee to meet in private if it thought it desirable, but the normal practice would be to allow the public and the Press to be present. In some cases, where all members of the council belong to one Party, there is a tendency for decisions to be made either at the Party caucus or in committee, while the decisions taken in a meeting of the full council provide only a rubber stamp for the decisions taken beforehand. Clause 8 of my Bill would go a little way towards overcoming this.

Clauses 9 to 12 deal with the declaration of pecuniary interests and the keeping of the record book of such declarations, and the making of this book available to inspection by electors. These clauses could no doubt be discussed in greater detail in Committee. I do not believe that there is much corruption in local government in this country, but there is considerable suspicion of corruption.

The Bill introduces at least three proposals: the first is to set up a procedure for dealing with complaints at a regional local level; secondly, an attempt to ensure that there is less secrecy in local government and, thirdly, an alteration in the law relating to declarations of interest. In other words, I am fostering at least three babies. Some of your Lordships may have reservations about certain aspects of the Bill, but I sincerely hope that you will not go so far as to throw out all three babies with the bath water.

To return finally to the main theme, if and when the Government Bill setting up a Parliamentary Commissioner reaches this House, we shall be in a better position to consider whether there is likely to be any overlapping. I think that can be managed. On the other hand, if my Bill were to be put on one side, I fear that the whole subject of complaints of a local nature would be placed very far down the list of priorities, and that it might be many years before anything were done about it. I am hoping, therefore, that this Bill will pass through all its stages in this House, with such Amendments as your Lordships think fit. I hope that it will be considered by the House of Commons, and that in due course it will reach the Statute Book.

I have received a large number of complaints, but I have not quoted from any of them. I am anxious to overcome injustice; I do not want to create an injustice by quoting cases without having investigated them. I do not want to do an injustice to those against whom complaints are made. It is clear that an impartial investigation is needed. I am convinced of this, and with that conviction I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Wade.)

3.32 p.m.


My Lords, it is with regret that I must say that I oppose this Bill in principle and in detail. I say "with regret", because, as some of your Lordships know, my natural inclination is to oppose Government Bills, particularly Bills from the present Government, but I am always inclined, if I can, to support Private Members' Bills. But not, I am afraid, in this case. What does this Bill do? It seeks to set up a new body of officials. They are not called officials, they are called Regional Commissioners for Administration. But in fact, they would be officials. The first question we have to ask ourselves is this: Are these officials really necessary? I think it is up to the noble Lord, Lord Wade, to prove that they are necessary. He has not gone any way at all to showing the necessity for them, except on the ground that some people will always consider that they are suffering from an injustice. But before your Lordships agree to this new body being set up, I think we ought to know how large the problem is, and the noble Lord has given us no indication of that whatsoever.

I would remind your Lordships—and the noble Lord has made this quite clear—that in this Bill we are not dealing with illegal actions by a council or its officials. We are dealing with something which is called maladministration, whatever that may mean in this connection. I should have thought that maladministration was usually a matter of opinion as to whether things were being well administered or not. But there is no definition in the Bill. This seems tome to be a great lack in the Bill, even if your Lordships accept it, because the Commissioners will not know how wide they can go in their findings, or with what subjects they are to deal, and it is likely that the Commissioners will take different views in different parts of the country.

What is the present procedure? What happens now, not when something illegal is being done, but when somebody thinks he is being hard done by as a result of some action by an official or a council? What usually happens is this. In the first instance, he either goes or writes to the town hall, and he gets an answer, verbal or otherwise, from an official. My experience is that, by and large, officials do all they can to explain matters; they are helpful, particularly if somebody goes to see them, and they do their best. I quite agree that there may be cases—indeed there are cases—when the official is so bound up in a particular scheme, so much in favour of a particular council scheme, that he may perhaps not give quite enough attention to the complaint. That can happen.

What happens in such a case? Supposing the man goes away still with his sense of injustice, as a rule he then goes to his local councillor. My experience of local councillors is that they are only too willing and anxious to help somebody who may be going to vote for them at some future election: it is the sort of thing for which they are always on the look out. It may be that in some cases the councillor he goes to see is interested in a particular council scheme, and the man still thinks he has not got justice. Then, as the noble Lord, Lord Wade, said, the next stage is, of course, very common: the man writes or goes to see his M.P. And those of your Lordships who, unlike myself, have been in another place know how much of your time has been taken up with dealing with questions of this sort. Subsequently, with a sense of injustice still burning because the M.P. happens to agree, after his inquiries, with the official and the councillor, the man then goes to the newspapers, usually his local newspaper. If all these four find that there has been no injustice, is it likely that a Commissioner will find that there has been? I simply cannot see the point of these Commissioners, and it has not been explained to me.

The second question at this particular moment of time is very important. Who is going to pay? The Commissioner must essentially be a man of considerable ability, learning, and so on, and he will not work for nothing. There will be a high salary—there is bound to be If he is a lawyer he will probably want an adviser on local government on his staff. If he is not a lawyer he will probably want a legal adviser. He will want offices, which are pretty expensive these days. He will want a secretarial staff, and to our cost we know that however small a staff is when it starts, it grows and grows. Somebody has to pay for this. As the Commissioners would be appointed by an Order in Council, I take it that the wretched taxpayer would be meeting the Bill. It is not quite clear, but I imagine that he is the man who would be paying, just at the moment when the last thing one wants to do is to put any more expense on to his shoulders.

We then come to what the Commissioner is going to do. The first thing he will do is to have an investigation. Investigations cost money. He may want professional witnesses in front of him; he may want other witnesses in front of him—he probably will. The local council will undoubtedly want somebody to represent them on the investigation. Who is going to pay for this? I take it that, in so far as the Commissioner will ask for witnesses who have to be paid, the taxpayer will pay. In so far as the local council want to be represented the ratepayer will pay. Ratepayers are also taxpayers, so they will both be "soaked" at this moment when we are all worried about the amount ratepayers have to pay.

We then come to Clause 4. If a Commissioner is not satisfied with his investigation, he can refer it to the Council on Tribunals. Somebody has to pay for this. There will be a mass of paper; the Council on Tribunals may want evidence, maybe professional evidence, and somebody has to pay for that. If all that does not satisfy the Commissioner, we then come to the really big money—an application to the High Court. I imagine that will have to be paid for, if the Commissioner is successful perhaps by the taxpayer, if he is unsuccessful perhaps by the ratepayer.

What is the High Court going to decide? We are not dealing with illegalities here; we are dealing with a man who has a sense of injustice and we are going to ask it to make an Order to put the injustice right. But supposing the council and the officials have acted within their powers, what is the High Court going to do except to say that the local authority has acted within the powers given to it by Parliament? Of course, if something illegal has been done that will doubtless come up by a different route some time before.

May I just go back to one small point on Clause 5? I raise it now because we are dealing with what the Commissioner has to do. Clause 5 says that the Commissioner may require any Minister, officer…or any other person…able to furnish information or produce documents relevant to the investigation to furnish such information or produce any such document. We are working without precedent in this matter. As I understand the position—I may be wrong, but doubtless I shall be corrected if I am—if the Minister, in the public interest, pleads before the High Court that the public interest does not allow him to produce documents in accordance with the precedent and with certain Acts of Parliament, the Minister may withhold that information or those documents. Here, as I read this clause, no Minister, even in the public interest, is going to be allowed to withhold anything. I cannot believe that is right. I hope I am wrong in my reading of it, but if I am not then, of course, that would be a Committee point.

A NOBLE LORD: Hear, hear!


Though it would be a matter of considerable importance.

Then we come to Part II of the Bill. About this I shall only say that it has nothing to do with Part I; it is really a separate Bill and I do not intend to discuss it. Briefly, this Bill sets up a new body of officials who, in my opinion, are entirely unnecessary, and we have not been shown anything to the contrary. It sets up new organisations in various parts of the country; it will be a burden on the taxpayer and the ratepayer, at this particular moment when he is carrying about all he can and nothing further should be put on his shoulders. I think the Bill, particularly at this moment, is ill-conceived. I have no idea what view Her Majesty's Government take of this Bill, but my advice to your Lordships is not to give it a Second Reading.