HL Deb 14 June 1978 vol 393 cc425-32

7.52 p.m.


My Lords, it is 17 years since I entered your Lordships' House, and until tonight it has never fallen to my lot to try to take through the House a Private Member's Bill. I can assure your Lordships that it is not my intention to make tonight's proceedings a habit; that is, to take Bills through two at a time.

I beg to move that this Bill he now read a second time. This is a Private Member's Bill introduced in another place by the honourable Member for Luton East, Mr. Ivor Clemitson, with all-Party support. Before I explain the purpose of the Bill, I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Serota. It is in no small measure due to her admirable work as Chairman of the Commission for Local Administration in England that the local ombudsman system has established itself so well in such a short period of time. Unfortunately, the noble Baroness is unable to be in her place today. Your Lordships will be glad to learn that she is recovering well from her recent accident. I should also like to mention a former colleague of mine in the Health Service in Scotland, Mr. Robert Moore, who performs these functions in Scotland and who, from a background both in local authority and health service work, is proving a very acceptable local ombudsman in Scotland.

The Bill amends Part III of the Local Government Act 1974 which provides for the investigation of complaints of injustice sustained because of maladministration by local and other authorities in England and Wales. Its purpose is to empower the authorities, subject to investigation by the local commissioner, to incur expenditure in making a payment to or in providing some other benefit for a person who has suffered injustice previously of their maladministration.

The statutory responsibility for deciding what action to take in the light of a local commissioner's report finding injustice arising from maladministration rests with the authority concerned. The form of action needed to remedy the injustice clearly depends upon the nature of the injustice suffered, and so remedial action varies accordingly. In some cases the authority and the local commissoner may agree that the proper remedy is a payment to the claimant. However, the Local Government Act 1974 makes no specific provision enabling such a payment to be made. In these circumstances, authorities may seek the approval of the Secretary of State under Section 161(1) of the Local Government Act 1972 to make an ex gratia payment. But the Secretary of State's approval does not make such payments lawful: it merely removes the expenditure from the purview of the district auditor. The fact that it should be unlawful for authorities to incur expenditure to remedy injustice which they themselves have caused, and admit, is clearly an anomaly. This Bill seeks to rectify that anomaly.

This is a short Bill, and I will give a brief general description of its purpose. It may be helpful if I mention two specific points. Clause 1(2) states that expenditure incurred by local authorities under the Bill will not count as relevant expenditure for rate support grant purposes. I understand that this limitation was included in the Bill in the light of advice from the authorities in another place, that in accordance with their Standing Order No. 91 it was not possible for a Private Member to introduce a Bill, the main purpose of which was to create a charge on public funds. However, a Money Resolution was subsequently tabled by the Government and approved in another place on 11th May. I therefore propose to introduce an Amendent at a later stage to delete Clause 1(2) and thus make expenditure incurred by local authorities under the Bill count for rate support grant purposes. The Government's approved Money Resolution will enable this Amendment, if agreed by your Lordships' House, to be endorsed when the Bill returns for further consideration in another place. I understand that this change has the support of the local authority associations.

It is generally agreed that the Bill should extend to Scotland, and I propose to table the necessary Amendments during the Bill's later stages to secure that end. It is rather interesting that the previous Bill which I moved started off as a Scottish Bill and then became a Great Britain Bill. This one starts as an England and Wales Bill and has Scotland tagged on to it.

My Lords, may I sum up. This is a short, non-controversial but commendable piece of legislation. It gives effect to a recommendation of the Commission for Local Administration in England to the Secretary of State for the Environment. I understand that the Bill has the support of the statutory body which represents the authorities which are subject to investigation. It is also very welcome that the Government have given their valuable support to implement this measure. I therefore commend the Bill to the House and hope that your Lordships will give it a Second Reading.

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


My Lords, I think it would be for the convenience of the House if at this stage I expressed the Government's view on this Bill. First, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Hughes for introducing the Bill and for explaining so clearly the nature and purpose of the measure. I well remember that the first Bill I ever assisted in from the Front Bench was with him. That was over two years ago and concerned health and safety at work; and a very good seminar he gave me as to how to present Bills and how to deal with them. I am very grateful to him.

I should also like to endorse what my noble friend said about the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, as Chairman of the Commission for Local Administration in England. I am also very pleased to know that she is recovering from her recent accident. I have had the opportunity from time to time of discussing the work of the Commission with my noble friend Lady Serota, and I know how important the qualities of a deep understanding of local government, hard work and tremendous tact are in this particular job. All these she has in admirably great supply.

I am very glad to confirm the Government's support for this Bill. In the Government's view, it is absolutely right that the authorities concerned should have this discretionary power to make payments to remedy the injustice they have caused.

My noble friend has explained that under the present arrangement an authority may seek the approval of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, under Section 161(1) of the Local Government Act 1972 to make an ex gratia payment. This arrangement has proved unsatisfactory for a number of reasons. For example, it requires my right honourable friend to decide on a case of which he has far less direct knowledge than either the authority or the local commissioner. Then his involvement in a local ombudsman system, which is otherwise wholly independent of Central Government, is also an anomaly. The present position could, on occasions, cause difficulty between central and local government. There is often quite enough without adding to it.

My noble friend has indicated his intention to introduce Amendments to provide, first, that expenditure incurred by local authorities under the Bill shall count as relevant expenditure for rate support grant purposes—which he explained so clearly and admirably that I shall not add to what he said—and, secondly, that the Bill's provisions should extend to Scotland as well as to England, and Wales. It is quite impossible, at the moment, with the progress of business through the House, for us to forget Scotland. We have not done that, and Scotland will now be included in the Bill. I should like to confirm that the Government wholeheartedly support these proposed Amendments.

The Bill will, in effect, take the place of the existing unsatisfactory arrangements to which I have just referred, and its financial implications are therefore unlikely to be significant. Expenditure on ex gratia payments to complainants in England and Wales, in the first two years' operation of the local ombudsman system, amounted to only about £5,000 and £4,000 respectively. It is the Government's view that local authorities' expenditure under the Bill should count as relevant expenditure for rate support grant purposes. It will be expenditure out of the rate fund incurred by local authorities in the course of their normal activities; and rate support grant is a general grant in respect of rate-borne expenditure. This is, therefore, a point of principle, but, from the figures which I have just given, your Lordships will appreciate that it is unlikely to be a matter of financial significance.

In the Government's view it is also right that the Bill's provisions should extend to Scotland. Indeed, on 17th February, an Instruction was approved in another place that their Committee on the Bill should have power to extend the measure to Scotland. However, the necessary Amendments were not then tabled and I am therefore pleased that my noble friend now proposes to introduce them during the Bill's later stages in your Lordships' House. I will certainly make the notes on clauses available to any noble Lords who would like to read them. I should like to thank the Promoters of the Bill in another place, and my noble friend Lord Hughes for moving the Second Reading, and I commend the Bill to the House.

8.2 p.m.


My Lords, from these Benches, I should like to give another warm welcome to a Private Member's Bill so ably proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Hughes. There are very few comments for me to make from these Benches, because so many of the points which were obscure have been clarified. But I should like to draw the noble Baroness's attention to one problem about which the House may be in some doubt, because I hold in my hands the only copy which is apparently available in the Palace of Westminster of the Commissioner's report for the year ended 31st March 1977. I hope that I have the correct report in my hands. It comes from the House of Commons Library.

There is one paragraph in the report of the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, which, with the permission of the House, I should like to quote, purely for record purposes, should your Lordships have been unable to obtain a copy. It is paragraph 10, in which the noble Baroness refers to problems of seeking redress, and she says this: Where such total redress is not possible, a cash payment in recognition of the inconvenience suffered may be appropriate. In seven cases in my area during the year, money was paid to the complainant by the authority. This was either a specific sum such as a grant, or an ex gratia payment to cover expenses that the complainant had incurred, and in recognition of the inconvenience and distress caused by the authority's mistake. I must record my concern that, in one case where a local authority positively wished to make a payment to a complainant, who, because of the authority's maladministration, had not applied for a home loss payment in time, the Department of the Environment refused to grant the necessary sanction under Section 161 of the Local Government Act 1972 to allow such a payment.". That stresses the difficulties which have occurred up till now, and this short Bill will enable matters to be put right.

8.5 p.m.


My Lords, I have the feeling that brevity would be most acceptable this evening, not because this is not an important measure, but because of the time. May I also add my thanks and congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, for introducing this Bill which, from these Benches, I wish to welcome very warmly. It goes a long way towards curing a lacuna which is wrapped up in an anomaly, in that I am sure it was never the intention of the Legislature that this kind of payment should not be within the terms of local government.

Fortunately, in the authority of which I was a member for some years, there was only one case of maladministration, as it were, proved against the authority, and we had to go through the extremely vexatious, troublesome and tiresome business of applying to the Department for permission to pay a sum in interest, because a payment to a person had been deferred through one cycle of council meetings. There was all that trouble for a comparatively small sum. It is important, too, that noble Lords should remember that some authorities—I am sure none with which I have been associated, and, I hope, none that anyone else can think of —through exasperation at a finding of mal- administration against them which they do not support, might use this lacuna as an opportunity of not paying money to someone who is properly entitled to it. So I am sure that, in every way, this Bill, though a small one, is very important and I think that it will go a long way to curing hardship, anomalies, difficulties and vexatiousness.

Having said that, I do not believe that all in the garden of the ombudsman is beyond complaint. I think that before long a definition should be found—I have not succeded and neither has anyone I know—of the word "maladministration". This causes difficulties at local government level and I suspect that it causes uncertainty to the ombudsman. In particular, I know that lack of a definition causes great difficulties for local government officers, in determining what is maladministration. Furthermore, of course, it might—I do not suspect that it would—encourage members of the staff of the ombudsman occasionally to go on fishing expeditions to extend the area of possible maladministration.

So I hope that the Government will at some point consider whether it is possible to give a reasonably accurate definition of the word "maladministration", as local government is in difficulty at times m that the area of maladministration does not come within the area of statute law or common law, but comes in the rather vague area of administrative law. Lack of certainty in this field does not help those people seeking the assistance of the ombudsman, local government or the ombudsman. Having made those small reservations, may I, on behalf of these Benches, welcome the Bill, and also welcome very greatly the Amendment which I understand is to be made to Clause 1(2).

8.9 p.m.


My Lords, if I may first reply to the points just made by the noble Lord, Lord Evans, I doubt very much whether it would be possible or helpful to attempt to define the word "maladministration" in a piece of legislation. Personally, I should very much prefer to leave the identification of maladministration in the hands of such a person as my noble friend Lady Serota. I am certain that she might have as great a difficulty as any of us here in defining "maladministration" as a word. But I am also certain that she has no difficulty in recognising maladministration when she comes up against it. I am equally sure that she does not send her people out on fishing expeditions. There are enough people coming to her, without her having to go out looking.

The noble Lord, Lord Sandys, quoted an example in a report by the Commissioner, and that illustrates why the Minister himself is anxious that this should be left with the authority, which is in a better position to make a determination. It will consider the matter on the merits of the individual case, whereas civil servants, who have to work within rules, perhaps find it a little more difficult to show that degree of compassion which in some cases will be necessary. There was another case of a similar kind where refusal was given by the local authority in the first case, but the local authority felt that they had been wrong in their attitude, that they had indulged in maladministration and were anxious to remedy it. They kept at it and eventually they got the first decision from the Department reversed. For these reasons, this is very much a case where the people in what used to be called the Town Hall will know better than the people in Whitehall.

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


My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn until twenty minutes past eight o'clock.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.12p.m. until 8.20 p.m.].

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