HL Deb 07 July 1980 vol 411 cc847-50

2.43 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what action they are taking with local authorities who are giving cash support to the British Olympic Association from the local rates.


(Lord Bellwin): My Lords, local authorities have certain powers to undertake expenditure of this kind, but before doing so they must satisfy themselves that they are acting within their powers. The Government have no power to intervene in these particular decisions; nor is there specific action for us to take against the authorities concerned. I hope that local electors and ratepayers who disagree with what their elected local authorities are doing will continue to make their feelings known to them.


My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. In view of Her Majesty's Government's efforts to cut public expenditure and the fact that most of these councils have increased their rates this year, would he not agree that the money might better have been employed on buying some new school books? Secondly—and what is probably more important—could my noble friend comment on the fact that payments of this kind at the moment are ultra vires and, therefore, would members and officers of these local authorities be liable to a surcharge?


My Lords, it is for local authorities themselves to decide their own priorities. But the electorate should be left in no doubt that authorities which give cash to support the Olympic team are giving that preference over other demands on resources. Some may feel that this is a strange priority, when those authorities complain about difficulties which they claim to be having in reducing their expenditure. As to the second part of the question, I cannot comment on an issue which is currently before the courts. However, it is surely right to say that it is for each local authority in the first instance to satisfy itself on the legality of its actions.


My Lords, will the noble Lord bear in mind that the imports from the USSR into the United Kingdom, and the exports to the USSR from the United Kingdom, have gone up significantly in comparison with a similar period last year?


My Lords, with respect, I feel that that has nothing to do with the Question.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that national ratepayers' associations up and down the country, and certainly one with which I am closely connected, utterly condemn this action and consider, as a matter of principle, that it is utterly wrong for councils to use money for this purpose, because it does not directly assist the ratepayers; indeed, to the contrary it means an added burden to the rates?


Yes, my Lords; I am aware of the feelings expressed by my noble friend and there are many who would concur with them.


My Lords, would the noble Lord not agree that any ratepayer who feels aggrieved has power to ask the district auditor to investigate these payments?


Yes, of course, my Lords.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend this question on policy: Would he inform the House what right is possessed politically for Labour-controlled boroughs or councils to use ratepayers' money to thwart—which is what it amounts to—a facet of the foreign policy of Her Majesty's Government? Have they any remit from central Government that they may act in this manner?


My Lords, there is in fact a power under Section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972, which enables local authorities to incur expenditure up to the product of a 2p rate in any one year on purposes which are in the interests of their area or any part of it or all or some of its inhabitants, or on contributions to certain funds. Whether this applies to Olympic donations is a matter for the local authority to consider in each particular case.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord the Minister a question which, although it may not be directly related to the original Question, has a bearing on it, on a subject which I am sure is concerning many Members of your Lordships' House and the public? If any of our athletes who have decided to go to Moscow are maltreated in any fashion, can they claim any protection from our Embassy people in Moscow?


With great respect, my Lords, I fear that that is very far from the Question. I should have thought that any kind of assistance, to which the noble Lord refers, is that to which any person at any time going to another country would be entitled to expect.