HL Deb 16 March 1982 vol 428 cc520-2

2.50 p.m.

Lord Bellhaven and Stenton

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 whether the Greater London Council have acted within the law in spending ratepayers' money on a half-page advertisement in the London Standard of 16th February attacking the impartiality and integrity of this House in its judicial capacity.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, Ministers have no authority to interpret the law: that is a matter for the courts. It is in the first instance the district auditor's duty to consider whether, in spending money on this advertisement, the GLC have acted within their powers.

Lord Bellhaven and Stenton

My Lords, in thanking my noble friend for that reply, may I ask him whether he is aware that my Question refers particularly to the cartoon on the right-hand side of this advertisement, which reads: London Transport apologise for the Law Lords' decision: normal extortion will resume shortly"? Can my noble friend tell the House whether this sort of attack on the judiciary, at the expense of ratepayers, many (if not most) of whom are outraged by it, is legal? Can he say whether the London Transport Board agreed to the cartoon? And can he say whether the GLC are obliged to reveal publicly how much money they are spending on this campaign?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I am sure there must be very few in your Lordships' House who are not sad that the very high reputation that local government enjoys in this country should be so brought into what I consider disrepute by this type of, as I would consider, frankly, deplorable, some would say contemptible, type of publication. But as to the points that my noble friend specifically asks in detail of course the GLC (indeed, every authority) has to make available knowledge as to what it spends on everything. That has to come out sooner or later in the form of an annual report. Beyond that, this is obviously something which is running and which will go on running, I am unhappy to say; but as to the responsibility for it, at the end of the day, as I say, only the courts can decide whether it is other than legal, and only the district auditor, to whom anyone can refer anything, can decide whether it should be submitted to them.

Lord Blyton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in a democracy the Law Lords are just as entitled to be criticised as anyone else, as are their decisions? Is he further aware of the euphoria and the praise from the Benches opposite for Sir Freddie Laker, who lost £230 million because he reduced the fares across the Atlantic? Did not the Greater London Council reduce the fares in London for more people than ever Freddie Laker carried?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, with respect, I do not think there is any way in which these two situations are comparable; and the fact is that the ratepayers of London are the ones who are footing the bill for this kind of publication.

Lord Ellenborough

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that the sum of a quarter of a million pounds of ratepayers' money has in fact been allocated by the GLC for political advertisements, such as the one referred to by my noble friend Lord Belhaven, in several newspapers, including the Morning Star? Is he also aware that the leader of the GLC, Ken Livingstone, in answer to a question at a council meeting on 9th March, stated that sums of around £150,000 have already been spent on such advertisements, including the distribution of a million leaflets? Is my noble friend aware that this sum of a quarter of a million pounds, in addition to the half million pounds being squandered on Ken Livingstone's news sheet The Londoner and several other items, of which I have a list, means that a total of £1 million is being spent to further this man's highly dubious aims, and that this is causing immense anger on the part of many ratepayers in all parts of London?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, of course, I understand what my noble friend is saying. I was not aware of the exact figures, and I am sure they will be of interest now that he has exposed them in this way.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the growing practice in this House of asking Questions about matters which fall within the province of local authorities, including Questions about the detailed spending of individual local authorities and speeches that are made by individual leaders of local authorities? Should not the noble Lord and the Government as a whole, and the Leader of the House, take measures to discourage these Questions, whatever one may think of the merits of the particular matter under discussion now?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, the Leader of the House will certainly speak for herself, but I would not have thought that there was anything at all wrong in any Member of your Lordships' House raising anything at all that they felt ought to be put as a Question. I really see no harm in that.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, would not the Minister agree that all round this Palace of Westminster there are caricatures of eminent judges and eminent members of all parties which might be on the borderline of being hurtful, and that the caricaturing in our national press of political figures is almost a part of our establishment, so to speak? Would he not agree that what has really happened this afternoon is that something which in some people's eyes might be harmful, like all caricatures are, but which in other people's eyes is humorous has been used as a hook to make a political point against the political persuasion of the present elected body of the Greater London Council?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I had not noticed that the noble Lord himself had at any time been slow in coming forward to make any political point he wants, either by way of Question or in any other way, and no one really objects to that because that is how it is. But I think that the main objection to what many consider to be the offensive nature of the particular matter to which my noble friend has drawn attention is twofold. One is that it is being paid for by ratepayers, many of whom very bitterly resent that it is so, and secondly—the first point I made—that the general standards, the integrity, the levels of local government, really are being brought into disrepute.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, would the noble Lord not agree that there is a considerable difference between, on the one hand, an allegation of lack of impartiality and lack of integrity and, on the other, drawing attention to the unclear position that has been left by a judgment which even the Ministers are unable to clarify in so far as they just cannot tell us what figure is reasonable and what is not reasonable?

Lord Bellwin

No, my Lords. First of all, I would not agree; secondly, I think we are moving away from the original Question that was asked and the original caricature and, indeed, the wording of it which was brought to our attention in the original Question.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, would the noble Lord the Minister accept that some of us, in whatever part of this House we may sit, regard an attack upon the independence of the judiciary as being an attack on democracy itself?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon.