HL Deb 13 May 1981 vol 420 cc556-7

2.48 p.m.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether it is legally permissible for local authorities to issue political propaganda at the expense of their ratepayers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Bellwin)

My Lords, local authorities have wide powers under Section 142 of the Local Government Act 1972 to arrange for the publication within their area of information on matters relating to local government. Whether these powers may have been exceeded in any particular case is a question which can be decided only by the courts.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that certain socialist councils have been issuing political circulars through the post, while notifying their ratepayers of massive rate increases? Further, is he aware of the manifesto that was issued by Walsall Council, which to my mind is a blatant attempt to subvert democracy? Does my noble friend not agree that the duty of the local authorities is, where possible, to maintain the level of services and of course to upgrade them, but not to spend the ratepayers' money on political propaganda?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, in my view some of the publications are indeed deplorable, but the question of whether they exceed the authorities' powers is really for the courts to decide. With regard to Walsall Borough Council, I should have thought, with respect, that the actions to which my noble friend refers come within the context of the next Question that I understand he has down on the Order Paper.

Lord Blyton

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that any defalcation in relation to local authorities which publish political matters is not a question for Government interference? A ratepayer has the right to appeal to the public auditor, and the auditor, upon auditing the books, will determine where there is a case and it will be taken to court and decided. Noble Lords should not be so biased against socialist organisations, because the Tories do the same.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I thought that that was the answer that I had given: that at the end of the day it is for the courts to decide.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, why should the Minister suggest that this is a matter likely to be taken before the courts when Section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972 gives local authorities the power to spend up to a rate of 2p in the pound on any objective which the local authority considers to be in the interests of the people in the area? If they consider it to be in the interests of their people to issue information which the noble Lord or his friends may think has a political bias—or even if it is a Tory authority doing it and the socialists consider it politically biased—is that not within the powers that Parliament has conferred upon local authorities?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, it is not within the powers of local authorities to spend ratepayers' money in a manner which the district auditor may decide is unreasonbable. That would be for the district auditor to decide. From the mass of correspondence which we in the DOE have received from ratepayers incensed by many of these publications, I think the noble Lord should accept that the answer that I gave in the first place was correct and sums up the position as it is.

Lord Leatherland

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the ratepayers are also frequently very incensed at the fact that they do not receive sufficient information about the activities of their councils? Are not councils to be praised for circulating as much knowledge about their activities as possible?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, it is not information about which people complain but the political propaganda which is very blatant. This Government more than any other are determined to ensure that more information of a meaningful kind is given to the ratepayers and to everyone concerned.

Lord Parry

My Lords, would the Minister not accept that, while democracy is vested in the law, the ultimate sanction is with the voter in the area; and if this propaganda was issued prior to an election and the voters voted for the party which issued it, then it would seem to carry the sanction of democracy?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, this does not get away from the point that I made a few moments ago; that there are certain user of ratepayers' money which could be considered to be unreasonable, but that is a matter for the district auditor to act upon should he so feel and then for the courts to decide.