HL Deb 22 October 1981 vol 424 cc850-4

3.49 p.m.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement which has been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. The Statement reads:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a Statement about the judgment given yesterday in the High Court in respect of my decisions last January to abate the rate support grant payable to eight London boroughs. Six of these authorities—the London boroughs of Brent, Camden, Hackney, Hounslow, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest—challenged my decisions on the following four grounds:

  1. (i) that the Rate Support Grant (Principles for Multipliers Order) 1980 was ultra vires;
  2. (ii) that I misdirected myself in law under Sections 48–50 of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980;
  3. (iii) that my decisions were decisions to which no reasonable Secretary of State could have come;
  4. (iv) that I failed validly to exercise my discretion to abate grant under Sections 48–50 of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980 on the grounds that after enactment of the powers and before reaching my decision, I failed to listen to representations from the authorities concerned.
"In respect of the first three of these grounds the court found as follows: firstly, that the Multipliers Order was not ultra vires and is therefore valid; secondly, that I did not misdirect myself in law as to the nature of my powers under Section 48–50 of the Act; thirdly, that my policy was not unreasonable, and that my decision was a decision which I was entitled to reach, subject, however, to their ruling on the fourth ground of the challenge.

"On that ground, the court rules that, although there had been extensive discussions and consultations over a period of almost a year prior to the enactment of the Act, I should have been prepared to hear any new representations after enactment before reaching my decision. The court's decision turned in particular on two late approaches made by or on behalf of the authorities, approaches which in their judgment the court referred to as having 'something of the air of legal manoeuvre'. Notwithstanding this, however, they ruled that I should have been prepared to hear those representations and that I had therefore not validly exercised my discretion. On that ground alone my decision to reduce the grant of these authorities was quashed by the court.

"The court did, however, say that it is of course open to me, after considering the authorities' representations, now fully documented, to reach any decision I consider right and which is within the terms of the 1980 Act and the Multipliers Order.

"The judgment itself runs to nearly a hundred pages of foolscap. The House will appreciate that the Government will have to study its terms carefully before deciding what their response will be. I shall keep the House informed when these decisions have been made."

My Lords, that ends the Statement.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, may I thank the noble Earl for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State in another place. I must confess that I found the Statement a very ungracious Statement bearing in mind the fact that the Secretary of State has been found guilty of unlawful conduct in a court of law. I should have thought that in the circumstances he would have come to the House with a very different Statement from the one which the noble Earl has just repeated to us.

The fact is that the Secretary of State had failed to observe the rules of natural justice in that he fettered his discretion in refusing to listen to the representations of the local authorities concerned after the passing of the Act, despite the fact that he received a plea to do so from the leader of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities last December asking him at that late hour to receive the further representation from the local authorities concerned. The Secretary of State had acted again like the political commissar which he has often been accused of being.

As the noble Earl said, it is imperative that the Secretary of State should keep an open mind on this matter, and the court suggested that he could still do what he wished to do if he set about it in the right way. But the fact of the matter is that if the money had been paid over by the Secretary of State in January it could not now be reclaimed. The wording of the Act precludes this. It would seem quite wrong for the Secretary of State to rely upon the position arising from his own illegal act to retain this money within his department, and that his immediate act on the receipt of this judgment should be to pay out the monies which he has withheld.

In any case, I would hope that this judgment would act as a deterrent to the Secretary of State from pursuing his current witch hunt with various overspending local authorities. Indeed, I would hope that he would realise, in the face of this judgment, the fallacy of his intention of proceeding in the new Session of Parliament with legislation aimed at fettering the powers of local authorities to raise whatever rate they feel necessary for the proper maintenance of local authority services within their own areas.

It is the duty of local authorities to run the services within their own areas in the way which they see fit, and in the way in which the local electors within a particular area wish a service to be carried out. I think that the proposal to fetter the power of local authorities is a most retrograde one, and one which we from this side will oppose tooth and nail when it comes to this House, if it still does after the reopening of Parliament. In the meantime, I hope that the Secretary of State will give serious consideration to what is the right and proper judicial view for him to take now in view of this judgment, and that he will decide that the monies which he has improperly withheld should be paid.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, could the noble Earl explain why this Statement is necessary at all in the first place, and, secondly, why it was necessary to couch it in terms which suggest that the Secretary of State's decision was entirely justified? Particularly on the latter point, in view of the criticism made by the Court of Appeal that he did not listen to representations made after the enactment had taken place—that is, that he relied on a decision he had reached really before the enactment was made—is it not dangerous for the Secretary of State to indicate that he will reach exactly the same decision when he has not yet considered the representations?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, first to answer to the two questions posed to me opposite regarding the judgment and regarding money, the Government are considering their response, and I can therefore not comment on either. The noble Lord, I know, would not have had time to read the full 100 pages of this judgment, and I should like just to read out a small portion of page 89. It is as follows: Further we are satisfied that the Secretary of State in formulating his policy:

  1. (i) did not act unreasonably;
  2. (ii) was entitled to adopt a broad policy, not paying attention to the detailed circumstances of individual authorities;
  3. (iii) did act in a way consistent with the purpose of the 1980 Act when eventually enacted;
  4. (iv) did not create a retrospective effect beyond that contemplated by the 1980 Act;
  5. (v) acted properly in terms of discussions, negotiations, and openness to representations until 1980".
The sting is in the tail; but it is a very small tail and, for the rest, the judgment is very much in favour of everything that the Secretary of State did.

Spending by local authorities has been a platform of this Government since we came into office, and overspending by local boroughs, particularly in London, has caused a lot of the problem.

Baroness Wootton of Abinger

My Lords, would the noble Earl give way for a moment? Is it proper to read out a portion of a document which is too long to read in full, and a portion obviously having been selected, when the final conclusion was that the Secretary of State did act unlawfully?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, as I said, the Government are considering their response to the judgment. What I read out was in order to illustrate to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, that the percentage of the judgment is not against the Secretary of State.

Lord Davies of Leek

My Lords, may I—

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, may I just go on to reply to the other noble Lord before we go any further. So far as I know, the Statement was in anticipation of the fact that it might be asked for. Had it not been made, no doubt the noble Lord would have asked for it. To the second question I have to give the same response, that the Government are considering their reply.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, I am sure the noble Earl is, as always, anxious to be fair to the House. May I ask him now to read out the passages which are critical of the conduct of the Secretary of State? Is it right, as is reported to be the case, that Lord Justice Ackner said that he, should have kept his mind at least ajar", which was a very attractive expression, and that, he should have been, but was not, ready to hear anything new"? Did the judgment say that? Please, let us have the whole picture.

The Earl of Avon

I would willingly read all the 100 pages, my Lords. I am delighted that the noble and learned Lord has found just about the two sentences which are critical.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

Not at all, my Lords; let us have both sides.

Lord Davies of Leek

I had intended to intervene, my Lords, but the point I was going to make has been made.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, in so far as this is a matter where a Minister of the Crown has been almost savaged by a court of this land, may I ask whether the noble Earl thinks it appropriate to make it his business to inform the Home Secretary, who has a passionate and sincere interest in law and order, that even a colleague who attempts to break the law or to bring the law into disrepute is as bad as anybody else whom the Home Secretary condemns?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am sure that when the noble Lord has read the judgment he will wish to rephrase that question.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, when the Government make their further statement on this matter, may I ask whether they will be dealing not only with the case in point but with the whole question of relationships between central and local government? Is it not the case that over the years, one central Government after another have taken away powers from and sought to control local government, and will not the Government themselves reconsider their whole position in this matter?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am sure that when this matter is raised again, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, will raise that point. But I would stress that central Government in this case do not want to put restrictions on local government and are trying not to do so; it is only the ones who do not abide by the guidelines who get into trouble.

Lord Leatherland

Were the guidelines restrictive in any way, my Lords?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, only to a very limited extent.

Lord Sandys

My Lords, I think it would be for the convenience of the House that we return to the consideration of the Laboratory Animals Protection Bill.