HL Deb 21 July 1983 vol 443 cc1253-69

3.26 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Bellwin)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Bellwin.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The Lord ABERDARE in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Expenditure powers of local authorities:]

Lord Kilmarnock moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 15, at end insert— (" () In exercising its powers under section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972 or under section 83 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, in so far as those powers exist only by reason of this Act, it shall not be lawful for a local authority to provide financial assistance (whether by grant, loan or guarantee) to any body whose composition is restricted by constitution or by practice to representatives of one or more political parties nor to assist organisations or activities calculated to promote a political cause.").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment I do not want to go back over what I said at Second Reading; but I should perhaps briefly explain why we think it is necessary that political expenditure should be excluded from the increased powers that the Bill would give authorities under Section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972 and why we propose this new subsection as the vehicle for achieving this.

The principal aim of the Government is to make it possible for local authorities to contribute to urban development schemes out of the so-called 2p rate which allows a council to spend up to 2p in the pound rate on anything which it thinks is in the interests of its area. But though this is a general power it is limited to purposes other than those for which the authority already has powers and cannot be used to top up expenditure under other powers. There has therefore been some doubt whether urban development expenditure out of Section 137 money is legal. The Bill seeks to clarify this point. The trouble is that the Government have devised a blanket formula which will create as many problems as it solves. It opens up the possibility—and indeed the likelihood—of abuses which are at present precluded but would be legalised by the Bill.

It is at present at the very least doubtful whether it is proper for local authorities to use the 2p rate to contribute to the support of such bodies as the London Labour Leaders' Group, a quasi-local authority association whose membership is restricted on a party basis. It is even more doubtful whether, as the law stands, it would be legal for the London Borough of Islington to make premises available out of public funds to the Islington News Co-operative for the purpose of publishing and distributing a free newspaper with a party political bias, or to make that co-operative a £20,000 grant to match an £80,000 loan from the Greater London Council. But the borough solicitor was in no doubt that they would be able to do precisely this, and much else besides, as soon as Parliament has passed the Bill we are now considering in Committee.

The argument was advanced in Standing Committee D in another place in the last Parliament that district auditors already have the responsibility of seeing that local authorities act reasonably and properly—I stress "reasonably and properly"—under Section 137. But there are considerable difficulties here. The Local Government Act 1972 requires that the district auditor must first be of the opinion that an expenditure is unlawful, and he is bound to be reluctant to take a case to court unless there is a provision in a statute or in the general principles of law that makes it expressly unlawful.

The anxiety which I am expressing is felt not only on these Benches. Some of the noble Lord's honourable friends felt exactly the same way in Standing Committee. One of them—and I paraphrase—applauded Mr. George Cunningham, the then Member for Islington South and Finsbury, who had moved the amendment, and said that an attempt should be made to tighten up the definition of permissible expenditure to exclude the support of political organisations with the use of ratepayer's money. Another of the noble Lord's honourable friends in another place said that over the past few years there had been a marked increase in the funding of political causes by local authorities, particularly in the London area, and that the district auditor was not on firm enough ground to act as an effective curb.

A line taken by some Members of the Standing Committee was that the remedy lay with the electorate; the "ballot box argument", if you like. I must apologise for repeating now what I said at Second Reading. We would accept that argument after—but only after—the introduction of proportional representation for local authority elections along the lines recently proposed in your Lordships' House by my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich. Pending this, we feel that some safeguard must be introduced into the current Bill.

A further objection was raised in the Standing Committee concerning interpretation of the words, promote a political cause". which are the last words in the amendment now before the Committee. I am prepared to concede that we might improve on this at Report stage, particularly if the noble Lord the Minister will bring to the attempt the resources and ingenuity at his disposal. The essential point I wish to establish here is that there is a very great difference in the eyes of most normal people between support from the rates for campaigning and propagandist activities—and I would not distinguish here between a GLC campaign in favour of the CND and a Ministry of Defence campaign against it, if both were funded by public money—and schemes designed to promote employment and industry on a nonpartisan basis for the benefit of the community as a whole.

I would further suggest that it is not beyond the wit of man. and much less beyond the wit of your Lordships' Committee, to identify this difference in statute law. On these grounds, if the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, is not disposed to accept this amendment as it stands, then I invite him to join with me and like-minded noble Lords in an attempt to improve the amendment before Report stage. He would be meeting not only our wishes but also those expressed by many members of his own party. If, on the other hand, the noble Lord the Minister is going to tell me and my noble friends that, while he sympathises with the principle, this is not the time or the place to give effect to it, then we shall expect to hear very positive proposals from him as to the time and place at which the Government propose to legislate against such abuses of ratepayers' money. I beg to move.

Lord Spens

I put my name to this amendment for slightly different reasons from those of the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock. I did so because I believe that Section 137 gives very important powers to local authorities—particularly in the fight against unemployment. The powers allow an authority to help local businesses to start up or expand, and they are handled by chief executives who have their ears to the ground and who know about businesses and about the need for them. I remember that two years ago, I was so enthusiastic about this power that I suggested that instead of a 2p rate there should be a 4p rate in this respect.

I believe that this power could usefully be confined to the lower level of councils, such as district, borough and parish councils. I understand the worries of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, about the use of this power by the GLC, and I agree entirely with her. Anyway. I do not believe that that level of local government has its ear sufficiently to the ground to know how to use this particular power.

The point of this amendment, as I see it, is to protect that power from abuse by some local councils. I do not want such abuse to become so widespread that it will give the Government a chance to say that the whole power should be abolished. I believe I am right in saying that, when we discussed this particular section in the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 1982. there was a moment when the noble Lord the Minister suggested that the total of the rate for this purpose should be reduced from 2p to 1p. That seems to be an indication of the fact that there is a danger of the Government trying to use this as an excuse for abolishing the power altogether. I should just like to quote an opposite indication which was given by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, two days ago—and I see him sitting on the Front Bench. The noble Lord said: But that is no good reason for certain local authorities moving outside the general bounds of good management and it is the Government's job to set down those general bounds". [Official Report. 19/7/1983; col. 1043.] I suggest that this amendment would help the Government to set down those general bounds.

Lord Bellwin

The noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, made a very good forecast of what he expected me to say, because I am going to say exactly what he anticipated—although I believe that I should explain why. Before doing so, I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Spens, that, as he knows, a 4p rate would place £77–6 million in the hands of the GLC; and £38.8 million under Section 137 is already a lot of money.

The noble Lord made a very important point when he spoke about the abuse of this power—as indeed of any other very important section of any legislation—leading in the end to pressures for action to be taken which is wider than perhaps a Government might wish. Surely the answer to that point is that the whole of local government itself has to say. "Enough is enough". I am one of those people who, being ever optimistic, hope that this is what we shall see happen in the future, because I believe that local government is not at all happy about some of the things which are taking place in its name. I hope that local government itself will do something about that.

I quite understand and agree with the feeling that lies behind this amendment—but having said that, I must ask the Committee to reject this addition to the Bill. The noble Lord's amendment is, quite properly, drafted simply to apply to the scope of the present Bill. It would apply to grants, loans and guarantees made under Section 137 in connection with land acquisition and building work. I ask your Lordships to note carefully that it would apply to land acquisition and building work. It would not affect the generality of use of Section 137, and I will deal with that factor in a moment.

This amendment is identical to that put down by the former member for Islington South and Finsbury when this Bill was being debated in another place prior to the general election. The arguments advanced by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Secretary still hold good and, in response, I must rehearse them today to the Committee. There can be no room for doubt about the Government's attitude to the way in which some authorities are using Section 137. I had strong words to say on that matter during Second Reading. Yet, as has been said, Section 137 is a most useful provision. It enables authorities up and down the country to carry out useful expenditure in circumstances where they have no specific powers. In particular, in some cases, it authorises the valuable social programmes of expenditure on urban programme and urban development grant schemes.

But, as we have been told and as we know, there are cases where some local authorities have stretched the previously accepted conventions. I said during Second Reading that we are aware there is a problem here and are considering whether steps to deal with it are called for. But I have to say again that this Bill is not the place to take that action and I do not consider that the noble Lord's amendment represents a satisfactory way of dealing with this issue.

The Committee is invited to consider applying to the limited area of expenditure authorised by the Bill the restrictions contained in the amendment. We are also asked to approach this in a particular way. I fully appreciate why there is a wish to prohibit the use of Section 137 to assist party political organisations or political causes. But legislation has always adopted a careful approach in its references to political matters.

I should like to repeat a point made by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary. While we cannot give authoritative rulings on the interpretation of the statutes, it is our view that expenditure on purely party political purposes cannot satisfy the tests required by Section 137 as it is drafted at present, and it is open to a ratepayer or to the auditor, even now, to approach the court in respect of a particularly bad case of a politically-motivated grant.

To import into Section 137 a prohibition of grants and loans to politically-motivated bodies gets us into problems of definition, to which I have to say the noble Lord has not produced an answer. As it happens, I am far from sure that the amendment would prevent authorities from incurring many of the examples of expenditure which are rightly criticised. Few, in fact, are related to expenditure on the acquisition of land or the execution of building works for the benefit of an area. Let us be quite clear: this is the sole extent of the present Bill; and while more generally under Section 137 there are undoubtedly grants going to bodies of a political colour, it is likely to be extremely difficult to prove that their membership is restricted to representatives of political parties. How is "restricted in practice" to be interpreted? What are "representatives" of political parties? What are "activities calculated to promote a political cause"? These are very imprecise terms, and they illustrate the great difficulty of moving away from convention to specific legislation.

There is also the other effect of the amendment to which I have to draw the attention of the Committee. If the noble Lord's amendment were accepted, we would find ourselves in the position that one area of activity under Section 137 was qualified in the manner contained in the amendment while the rest of Section 137 would not be so qualified. The inference might well be taken that there was no prohibition of political expenditure other than in the limited context of the present Bill. Similarly, there would be the same inference to be drawn in relation to other discretionary powers of local authorities. The burden of proof placed on auditors or ratepayers in seeking to challenge a provocative case of expenditure, either under Section 137 or another power, would be heavier if Parliament had by implication seemed to suggest that politically-motivated expenditure was possible in those other circumstances.

So, finally, let me say again that the Government are by no means happy with the uses to which some local authorities are putting the proceeds of their twopenny rate. We recognise indeed the mounting anger in the country against those mischievous authorities which are by their abuses putting an ever greater burden on their ratepayers. Nor are we complacent about these problems. The authorities involved should not assume—and I hope the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, will note this—that the Government do not have the will or the ability to rectify the problem. I am bound to say that this Bill—essentially a technical measure—is not the right vehicle through which to tackle these problems. In view of that, I would invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

I do not doubt, and I am sure many who are apprehensive about the situation disclosed by my noble friend will not doubt, that the Minister and his colleagues are seriously concerned about what has been happening in a number of London boroughs and elsewhere, where the activities of the extreme Left, which has taken control of those local authorities, have done grave damage to the reputation of English local government. I do not doubt, and I am sure nobody else does, the noble Lord's general condemnation of such behaviour. But the question he has to answer is a rather different one: what is he going to do about it?

The noble Lord and I had the opportunity to discuss a not dissimilar question some little time ago concerning the London Borough of Southwark. What the London Borough of Southwark had done, in order to demonstrate their disapproval of the military base at Greenham Common, was to say that any public works contractor who carried out work at Greenham Common and secured a Ministry of Defence contract there would be debarred from securing any contract with the London Borough of Southwark. A debate took place in this House. The Minister made a very forceful speech in which he indicated his deep disapproval of the behaviour of Southwark. He indicated that he would discuss the matter with the Office of Fair Trading, and he indicated that the Government were keeping a very close watch on these developments.

What has happened since? The Office of Fair Trading said it had nothing to do with them or that they could not take action, or something of that sort, and the situation remains as it was when this matter was discussed in your Lordships' House; namely, a statement by the Minister—wholly sincere, I do not doubt—condemning the local authority concerned for what, in my view, was clearly unlawful action, quite apart from any other considerations, but no action by the Government themselves to take account of this very serious development.

Now we come to what the London Borough of Islington is going to do with the noble Lord's Bill. Have no doubt: it is this Bill they are waiting to see put on the statute book so that they can spend up to £100,000 of public money on a Left-wing newspaper which is going to be created in the London Borough of Islington. I have in front of me a document giving the view of the Islington borough's solicitor which was submitted to the Employment Grants and Financial Assistance Sub-committee of that authority on 18th April this year. I propose to quote it, because I think it will indicate to the Committee the situation which we are in reality debating in terms of my noble friend's amendment. In paragraph 1 it says: These observations are written before a package of assistance has been worked out. but officers met on 7th April representatives of the Co-operative". That is the Islington News Co-operative, the body that has been established in order to publish and distribute this give-away newspaper. They explained their financial requirements and other sources of funding, though without exact figures I believe the Co-operative's request to the council is comprised of four elements:

  1. "(a) a loan towards the acquisition of 322 Upper Street;
  2. (b) a loan towards the cost of the refurbishment works;
  3. (c) a grant towards either the cost of acquisition or the cost of works or both; and
  4. (d) a grant towards working capital required".
That gives a general indication of what the cooperative is trying to get from the London Borough of Islington.

We now turn to this particular Bill and its relevance to what the Islington News Co-operative is endeavouring to achieve. Under a subheading in paragraph 4 of the solicitor's note, the document reads as follows: Grant towards cost of acquisition or costs of work, or both: There is at present no statutory power to make such a grant. Section 137(1) of the Local Government Act 1972 does not apply because comparable power to make a loan exists in the shape of Section 3 of the Local Authorities (Land) Act 1963. As I have advised members previously, this legal difficulty is a recent one, accidentally engendered by the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982, which was intended to extend the ambit of Section 137, and is about to be remedied by the Local Authorities (Expenditure Powers) Bill currently in Parliament. If and when this Bill is passed, then, subject to what is said generally about Section 137 and local authorities' powers generally, there would be power under Section 137(1) to make such a grant, and it is fairly clear from the information provided by the Co-operative that some funding under this head would be required. That is a substantial document, and if the Minister would like to see it I will gladly make it available to him.

So it is clear that Islington News Co-operative is to exist and will obtain its financial assistance from the London Borough of Islington entirely because of the passage of this Bill. That is the legal advice made available by the council's principal legal officer. Since the Bill did not proceed quite as briskly as the council had hoped, so far no public money has been made available to the co-operative.

Now we may ask a different question. There is no doubt that Islington is a left-wing local authority, as most of your Lordships know, and one could expect this of it. But is there any other reason why Islington local authority is keen to have this give-away newspaper? The answer is, Yes. The council has been having a feud with the Islington Gazette. The Islington Gazette, unlike this free newspaper which the council intend to publish at public expense, is a normal weekly newspaper relying on its income from sales and from advertising. I shall not go into the whole background of this dispute because it would take far too long. I know that the Minister is well aware of it. When the Labour Party again secured power in Islington in May of last year a decision was made by members of the authority to instruct its officers, and indeed the members of the authority itself, to have no contact whatever with representatives of the only newspaper circulating in the London Borough of Islington. The reason was that there had been an industrial dispute caused by the closure of a sister newspaper in the group owned by the Islington Gazette and as a result there had been a strike in a number of other newspapers in that group including the Islington Gazette.

The dispute came to an end, by and large, in May of last year; but, notwithstanding that, the instruction has continued. No officer of the London Borough of Islington has been allowed to answer any question from a journalist working for that newspaper; no committee chairman will speak to a representative of that newspaper; no council advertising has been allowed in that newspaper save for a few statutory notices where the council has been advised that it would be taking a considerable risk were it not to publish them in the columns of that newspaper.

I think that is an outrageous abuse of power by a local authority. That view is shared by the Press Council, I am glad to say, which has severely criticised the London Borough of Islington for its action. The council has also been severely criticised in a report by the local government ombudsman. There is some indication—but no certainty—that the council, as a result of the unremitting pressure it is getting from the local government ombudsman, may change its blacklist policy, at least to some degree, but there is no certainty.

That is the history of the row over the Islington Gazette and it is primarily for that reason that the council is now deciding to publish a newspaper at public expense. It has two aims in mind. The first is to serve a useful role in providing a propaganda arm for the majority party on the Islington borough council. The second is to try to put the weekly newspaper out of business. That is the objective and there is no doubt about that whatever. Moreover, by publishing a free newspaper it will be able to offer extremely competitive advertising rates compared with a commercially produced newspaper.

As I have made clear, it will only be able to do this because of the passage of this Bill through this House. Therefore, what I am hoping to hear from the Minister today—and if not today, on Report and if not on Report, on Third Reading—is not simply a wholly sincere statement condemning such abuses of power—I am sure we will hear that and will welcome it—but much more. We shall want a positive indication that firm action is to be taken.

When I was a Minister I did exactly what the noble Lord has also done on a number of occasions; that is, to explain how in fact an amendment is wholly inappropriate and unacceptable in the form in which it is drafted. But I hope that the Minister will agree that what is called for here is something quite different. What is needed is some indication that the Government are prepared to look at the language of this short Bill and consider whether action can be taken before the Bill finally leaves the House so that we prevent a further abuse of power taking place in Islington. If he does not I must make it quite clear that we will fight this Bill at every stage, otherwise we shall be permit- ting a local authority, which has won itself one of the worst reputations of any local authority in London, to continue its campaign of persecution against a newspaper that it does not like and to do it at public expense.

3.59 p.m.

Baroness Birk

May I intervene before the Minister replies? I listened very carefully to what the Minister said in reply to the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, and I must confess that I agree wth almost everything he said. We have to get right back to the beginning of what this small Bill is about. It is to clarify a doubt which arose on whether local authorities would be in legal difficulties if they used Section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972 for urban grant development. With that doubt remaining numbers of local authorities of all political complexions are concerned about continuing with work which is extremely important to the development of the economy and, indeed, to employment.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, when promoting the amendment, largely concentrated his attack on what is happening in Islington. But he said that the pressures had resulted in a change in his attitude and, as he has probably seen in the Guardian this morning, the ban has now been lifted. Publicity, knowledge of what is going on, the right of ratepayers to make their voices heard and as the Minister said action that can be taken by auditors, are all ways in which in our democracy public opinion can make itself felt. I am not pretending that there are not abuses with which most of us would fundamentally disagree; but what I am certain about is that this Bill is not the right vehicle to deal with them.

The noble Lord said that if the Government did not like the amendment they could bring forward something else. It is clear that the Government have rightly taken the view that they cannot bring forward anything else which would fit properly into this piece of legislation. The situation remains as the Government say. How does one define political? Also how does one define what is and what is not an abuse? It is a matter of judgment. The Bill is concerned only with land transactions and economic development. It does not cover many of the alleged abuses to which the noble Lords have referred and to which reference was made on Second Reading.

If this amendment were approved, it would completely change the nature of the Bill from the technical and clarifying piece of legislation which it is at the moment to an ill-conceived attempt to deal with an ill-defined problem. We should not promote such legislation. Legislation is difficult enough anyway. But it is absolutely and entirely wrong to allow something like that to go through with one's eyes open. Had there been a way to meet the point, I am sure that it would have been done in an amendment, but there is no way to do it and it should not be done.

I support what the Minister has said in this area. Incidentally, very often a great deal is made of what are perhaps a small number of abuses by authorities. One should come down to earth and realise that of the £38 million budget under Section 137, to which the Minister referred, £24.9 million is devoted to industry and employment; £3.3 million to ethnic groups; voluntary community groups get £4.9 million (and this includes the citizens advice bureaux), and the grant to Gay organisations, about which much was made on Second Reading, totalled £23,000—which, to be realistic, considering the numbers in the population, is not terribly untoward. If we kept our eye on that point, and considered what is being given to industry and employment, and put things in their right perspective, it would be very much better. We on these Benches also feel that it would be much better if this Bill went through as it is and any other problems that arose were discussed in their proper context.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

Before my noble friend replies, may I briefly associate myself with the observations made by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk. I find myself in very substantial agreement with them. I agree that there is a serious question of abuse. But in the long run surely it is publicity, public opinion and the electors themselves who should if possible be left to seek to remedy this abuse. In the short term specific legislation along the lines of this amendment is unwelcome in so far as it is designed to restrict payments to political parties, because this involves a degree of overlap with the existing machinery by which such matters can come before the courts and be challenged.

As regards restricting payments to politically motivated bodies, surely that is inappropriate, as it gives rise to serious questions of definition and perhaps a veritable mare's nest of litigation. Lastly, this amendment, although a valuable vehicle for an informative and most interesting speech from the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, is outside the intendment or the Short Title of this Bill.

4.4 p.m.

Lord Bellwin

I recognise absolutely the great depth of feeling with which the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, spoke. One has to respect that. It is a great bitterness that is felt by many people. First, I am sure that the noble Lord will be pleased to know, with reference to the article in the Guardian, which I too had intended to mention, that we understand Islington has withdrawn its ban on the Islington Gazette. That must be a good thing if it is true. I hope that it is, as I am sure does the noble Lord.

This Bill truly is about the acquisition of land or the execution of building works for the benefit of the authority. Of course I shall ask the noble Lord to let me have a look at the document to which he refers. He knows that I will do that. But I do not offhand see quite how what this Bill is proposing would have the results to which he refers. Nevertheless, I would want to see the document. But at the end of the day I have to fall back on what I said before. The noble Lord says that it is all right our saying that we shall do something about it, but what will we do. If it was that easy, something would have been done long ago. There is a problem with the issues of definition.

This Government above all have so often been accused of trying to curtail the powers of local authorities, and so on. That is just not true. We are reluctant at all times to do that. The fact is that it is a question of the extent of the pressures that build up. My noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway said what is needed is publicity, and so on. Yes, it is; but what is also needed is the condemnation by local government itself on every possible vocal and written occasion. Local government has to face up to what is happening. However, that is for another time and not for today.

I ask the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, seriously to consider withdrawing his amendment. He knows what the feeling is. This Bill is about enabling local authorities to get on with things. I am sure that the noble Lords, Lord Kilmarnock and Lord Harris of Greenwich, must want to see that there is this facility for local authorities. Every day that we delay makes the matter more difficult. It is not what we should be doing.

Lord Kilmarnock

I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate on the amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, suggested that my amendment was too narrow to be fully effective. From what he said, he appears to be contemplating a wider attack on local authority powers along the lines that were feared by the noble Lord, Lord Spens. I thought I heard him uttering rather threatening noises in that direction. That seems to me to be a very good reason for limiting the damage through the present Bill before your Lordships' Committee. The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, said that there is no way of doing it. I must say that I would not accept this. If the amendment is defective in the way suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, before I decide whether or not to withdraw it I should like to ask him whether he is prepared to meet us after the Committee stage of this Bill in order to discuss the matter constructively on the lines suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich.

Lord Bellwin

So far as this Bill is concerned I think that the noble Lord knows that we would not be willing or able, (a) to accept the amendment or, (b) to try to put into it another amendment along the lines of what he is saying. The problem as a whole is there for discussion and for consideration. I shall gladly meet both the noble Lords, Lord Kilmarnock and Lord Harris of Greenwich, to talk about that outside in other contexts. But so far as this Bill is concerned there is in my view an imperative to get it on to the statute book. The longer we delay doing so, we are holding up work which everybody in the Committee wants to see take place. I think that we should get on with it.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

It was a most remarkable statement that the noble Lord has just made. The Bill arrived in this House only on Monday for Second Reading. Is the noble Lord saying that he will oppose any amendment to this Bill at any stage before he has read the terms of an amendment? Is that what he is saying?

Lord Bellwin

We are talking here about scope. The noble Lord will not draw me on that. The fact very simply is that we are talking about these amendments. I said that if there are any other amendments on similar lines the same thing will apply, and that is really where I stand.

Lord Kilmarnock

I think that I understood the noble Lord to say that he is prepared to meet us to discuss the whole matter in general terms, but not within the scope of this Bill. I do not wish to delay your Lordships' Committee, and there is another amendment to be considered. So on this occasion I beg leave to withdraw the present amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

4.10 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich moved Amendment No. 2:

Page 2, line 17. at end insert— ("() The power conferred on a local authority by this section shall not apply to expenditure unless that expenditure has been approved by the local authority and by the Secretary of State.").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move this amendment standing in my name. It is a short amendment. Its terms are self-explanatory. I am particularly glad that at the moment we have the Leader of the House in the Chamber, because I am bound to say that the statement made by the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, indicating that he was prepared to reject any amendment before he had considered its terms, was one of the most remarkable I have heard made by a Minister in this House or elsewhere—

Lord Bellwin

I really must ask the noble Lord to withdraw that. It is not what I said. It is not what I intended, and it is wrong of him to say that I did.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

Will the noble Lord then explain what he did intend? If I have inadvertently misrepresented him I will of course gladly withdraw, but, as I understood it, he was wanting to indicate to us, indeed he did indicate to us, that it was so vital to get the Bill on the statute book quickly, as fast as possible. Urgent work remained to be done. It was at the very least a quite clear implication that if he was not going to take objection in principle to any amendment put down, he would approach it in an extremely negative spirit. If I have got him wrong, I will gladly withdraw.

Lord Bellwin

I cannot keep getting up to repeat the same thing again and again. I think that what I have said was clear enough. I look around me and it seems that most of your Lordships appear to think that it was so. I do not think that I should expand on it.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

I shall now come to the terms of the amendment, because we will be coming back to this on Report stage—I should not leave the noble Lord in any doubt on that matter—and we will be coming back to it on Third Reading as well, in the form of amendments. What we have to say to him is that of course the Labour Party agrees with him on this matter because we are discussing the behaviour of a Left-wing local authority. So it is hardly surprising that when he looks for comfort from the Labour Benches he gets it. Of course he does. What we are concerned—

Lord Mishcon

If the noble Lord will give way for one moment, I should like to say that this Front Bench happens to stand for fairness. Therefore, it was in the interests of fairness that we made a protest to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, in regard to his version of what the noble Lord the Minister said. We were quite clear what he said. It had no politics in it at all. There were merely equity, justice and fairness in the protest that we made together with the noble Lord the Minister.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

I take note of what the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, has said, but I shall look with interest tomorrow at the Official Report to see what the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, said. If inadvertently I have done him an injustice, of course I withdraw what I said. I think that we know one another well enough to say that. But I wish to draw this matter to his attention, and I hope that the Whip on duty on the Government Front Bench will take note of it as well. I know of very few precedents for a Bill receiving a Second Reading on Monday, having its Committee stage on Thursday, with a suggestion that it is going to have to be, or should be, or deserves to be, on the statute book by the following Wednesday. That, as I understand it—again, I hope that I am not misrepresenting the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin—is what he seemed to be at least suggesting.

Noble Lords opposite should be aware that when this matter is eventually put to a vote, as of course at some stage it will be, the Government Whips will find the Labour Party going into the Lobbies in support of the Government's position on this question. But they should also have no doubt that what they will be doing—and I say this in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, to whom, as always, I listened with close attention—will be allowing the London Borough of Islington to spend up to £100,000 of public money for purposes which I have described. That is not simply my view; it is the view of the chief legal adviser of the London Borough of Islington; and I shall gladly be making the document concerned available to the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin.

I hope that it be will possible for us to have a harmonious and agreeable meeting before the next stage of the Bill, by which time the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, will have had the opportunity of reading the document. Then, no doubt, he will be in a position to advise the House at Report stage whether the extracts that I have read today are in accordance with the advice that he receives from his own department. But I repeat that noble Lords opposite should know quite definitely what they are doing. In this case in Islington this is the way in which £100,000 of public money is going to be spent if the Bill goes through in its present form. The amendment which I now propose—I do not intend to push it to a vote today because I hope we shall be meeting the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, before the next stage of the Bill—would seek to restrict this.

I ask the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, and other noble Lords opposite, as well as indeed noble Lords in other parts of the Chamber, if Islington gets away with this, what do they think will be going on in some of the other London boroughs? What do they think will be going on in the London Borough of Southwark. What will be going on in the London Borough of Greenwich? What will be going on in the London Borough of Camden? Once they have some statutory cover of this kind on the basis of the legal advice made available to the council in Islington by its principal legal adviser, there is a likelihood of large sums of public money being spent for these purposes.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, says that there is a solution to that. The solution is that we will leave it to the electorate. But of course it will be years before there are any more local government elections in Islington, or Camden, or Greenwich, or elsewhere. Even then it does not necessarily do them much good, because most of the people in Southwark voted against the present majority party in Southwark and a lot of good it did them! They still have a local authority behaving in a wholly unreasonable fashion over the Greenham Common contracts.

So all I would say to the Government and their supporters is that, if this matter eventually comes to the vote—and I very much hope that it will not—they will undoubtedly have a number of members of the Labour Party supporting them in the Lobbies. But they should realise that the last time they had the Labour Party in their Lobbies was on 2nd August last year, when the Labour party was just as vigorously supporting the then Government spokesman, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, when he was telling the House that we should resist an amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, himself (though eventually he sought to withdraw) which would in fact have made trade unionists contract in rather than contract out of the political levy. We know what developments there have been in Government thinking since then.

I would just repeat that I hope that we shall be able to discuss this matter with the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin. I recognise his problems. I know perfectly well that of course he wants to get the Bill through as quickly as possible. But I must say to him quite clearly that I very much hope that he will agree to talk to us if only on the basis that his mind is at least open to argument when we do in fact meet him.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

Before the noble Lord sits down, I should like to ask whether he accepts that I wholly share his concern. I wholly share it and in no way seek to denigrate it. Will he accept that where we differ is on the question of whether this Bill is an apt vehicle for the amendment which is proposed? But this in no way detracts from the concern which I think we both share.

Baroness Birk

I want to speak only very briefly to this land amendment, part of the upshot of which I think was not explained by the noble Lord, Lord Harris. It means in fact that every transaction regarding land which comes within the clause would have to go to the Secretary of State. It really is the most ludicrous and outrageous suggestion.

On grounds of efficiency alone, it is wrong and absolutely impossible. There would be a huge backlog of applications. For quite different reasons, we on these Benches would not go along with more legislation, and an amendment that gave the Secretary of State even greater power, when, in regard to so much previous legislation, noble Lords on all sides of your Lordships' House—including, from time to time, those in the noble Lord's party, when they are present—have argued against the erosion of local government power by central Government. This amendment should be thrown out immediately.

Viscount Ridley

I am sure that the whole local authority world will be delighted to see the end of this amendment, whether at this stage or any other stage. It means an enormous increase in bureacracy, and is bound to result in a great deal of diminution of freedom of local government. I hope that the Government will resist it. The amendment has not been explained by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and I hope that it will not be. I do not think it will get him very far.

Lord Mcintosh of Haringey

Some of us had mixed feelings about the previous amendment. It was a badly drafted amendment to the wrong Bill. However, it represented the view, which many of us have held—my former colleagues in local authorities will confirm that I have always held it—that local authorities should not support party political activities. To that extent, there was some justification for the previous amendment. In contrast, the present amendment seems one of unalloyed wickedness. I am not surprised that it should be moved by Lord Harris. The noble Lord has been a centralist all his life, whether inside the Labour Party or outside it. I am, however, surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, should have put his name to it, because I thought that he was a libertarian.

We have here a proposal from the Government in a simple Bill to remove an anomaly from the application of Section 137 of the Local Government Act. I remind the Committee that Section 137 and its predecessors in previous Local Government Acts have been some small sign of independence of local authorities from permitted expenditure and the ultra vires laws ever since local authorities started. They have been the occasion when local authorities have engaged in their most creative and worthwhile new ventures. Anything that seeks to diminish Section 137 and diminish the powers of local authorities to act totally independently of central Government under the section should be resisted.

This Bill is designed to remove an anomaly that was not expected when the last Local Government Act was enacted. It is designed to recognise the fact that support for local activities can just as well take the form of support for acquisition of land and for building on land as for giving grants in other ways. There is no difference in principle between them. To seek to have that power referred to central Government and to allow central Government into Section 137 of the Local Government Act seems to me, as I have already remarked, an act of unalloyed wickedness. I hope that the Government will resist it.

Lord Bellwin

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, said he hoped we would have a harmonious and agreeable meeting. He makes it harder for me to have a meeting that will be harmonious and agreeable by the way he always goes on at me. Nevertheless, as he well knows, I shall do my best with him when the time comes.

I am rather sad to see this amendment, which is totally out of touch with everything that one is seeking to do. By his remarks the noble Lord, Lord Harris, obscures to some extent some very real concern. I am sorry that even my noble friends and the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, have felt it necessary—I understand why—to miss the point that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, is basically making. That is his considerable concern for what is going on.

All I can say in repeating why we cannot accept the amendment is to express my hope that no one in local government (I weigh my words carefully) will believe that for ever one can go on watching abuses of Section 137 of the kind that are taking place at the moment. It is not the Government that should be doing something about this—and something must be done. It is local government itself that must do something about it. I appeal to those in local government to make sure that something is done. There is no way in which we can accept the amendment.

Lord Kilmarnock

Will the noble Lord accept that the amendment under discussion was favoured by his honourable friend Sir George Young in Standing Committee in another place when the matter was last discussed?

Lord Bellwin

I cannot comment on that. I do not know. I hear what the noble Lord says.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

I was about to remind the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, of that point. I can understand the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Mcintosh of Haringey; and I congratulate him upon the degree of indignation that he managed to get into his speech. I wish that a little part of that indignation had been directed at the anti-democratic behaviour of his political colleagues in Islington; but, as we noted, it was not.

Lord Mcintosh of Haringey

If the noble Lord will forgive me, I think I stated clearly that throughout my time in local government I have been against expenditure by local authorities for party political purposes, and I am now. I thought I had made that clear.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

Indeed. What I had hoped that the noble Lord would join me in doing was to condemn the examples I have given of what the Labour councillors at Islington have been doing. Of course, the noble Lord's position on the general abuse of power is well known. I have been indicating, like my noble friend Lord Kilmarnock, the disgraceful behaviour of the Labour Party in the London Borough of Islington. Further examples of this have been given. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, has indicated his concern, not only this afternoon but on the last occasion that we had the opportunity to discuss the matter. At that time we were discussing what the Labour Party was going in Southwark. It was behaviour defended on that occasion by the Opposition spokesman in your Lordships' House.

I do not propose to press the amendment today. I find it a little surprising that the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, was so antagonistic towards it, given the different words used by Sir George Young during discussion in Standing Committee in another place. One would normally assume that Ministers of the same Government in the same department would at least have a common approach to matters of this kind. Sir George Young indicated that he would look at the matter carefully, but the Bill then died and we did not get any further with it in the last Session of Parliament. I look forward to an early meeting with the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, in the next day or so. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Remaining clause agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment: Report received.