HL Deb 10 May 1984 vol 451 cc1057-72

6.7 p.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Gray of Contin)

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

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Gray of Contin.)

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 7 [Separate accounts of expenditure by local authorities under Section 83 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973]:

Lord Ross of Marnock

I think I expressed my intention of suggesting that we leave out Clause 7. It is not that I object to the clause, rather that I should like the Government to give us some information about it. For generations we have had this power in Scotland to spend up to two pence in the rates on various matters that a local authority considers conducive to the good of the town and in respect of which it has not been the custom or the requirement to keep separate accounts. As far a I know there has been little or no complaint about it. If there is any complaint about anything that local authorities do in Scotland the time to voice that complaint and do something about it was last Thursday. Judging by the results of the local elections in Scotland last Thursday, I do not see any justification for the Government to take a more grandmotherly approach to Scottish local authorities. In Edinburgh, Tories lost seat after seat after seat and eventually lost control of the council. Then in Glasgow—that place where they had high hopes—there is less than a handful of Tories left (I think it is four or five) out of a council of 66.

So they had a complete wash-out in Scotland, apart from a little consolation where they regained on redistribution a Tory seat around Troon, which I have never considered to be a hotbed of revolution.

Why should we have this clause in? Somebody discovered that councils have a separate account in England and as I have said before that is the worst possible reason for putting a thing into Scotland. I know that under this power a tremendous amount of good is done by local authorities. If there is something outrageous that they are going to do, but which is not illegal—and I point out that this does not in any way render anything that they have done illegal—but which some people perhaps may consider outrageous, there is usually a debate about it. The local papers are full of it and we can rely upon the local press to publicise those things. I know, for instance, from my own involvement with the National Trust of Scotland that the contribution of the local authorities to the work of the National Trust is invaluable in the monies that they provide. I wish that the local Member of Parliament who raised this and persuaded the Government to pass it had spoken about the contribution which the Stirling District Council made to the National Trust in respect of information and the very fine centre that we have built at Bannockburn.

I deplore the Government's acceding to this point. I am not going to object to it because if there is more information made available to some Nosey Parker then, so be it. But I should like to hear the Government's justification as to why—and they passed the 1973 Act and we have had local government Acts in every single Session of Parliament since 1979—they wait until the Committee stage of this particular Bill and accept a new clause from someone whose experience of Scottish local Government is fairly limited; and why, for the worst possible reasons, we have this clause.

6.12 p.m.

Lord Gray of Contin

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, for speaking in this debate on whether the clause shall stand part of the Bill because it gives us an opportunity to put the case for what we are doing in the Bill by the addition of this new clause. The purpose of the clause, which was added to the Bill during its Committee stage in another place, is to require local authorities to include in their accounts a separate account for expenditure under Section 83 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. It may be that some noble Lords are not completely aware of the contents of Section 83 of the 1973 Act. I shall just mention that that is the provision which enables authorities to spend up to the product of a tuppenny rate on expenditure which in their opinion is in the interests of the area and its inhabitants and for which statutory powers do not otherwise exist.

There was already an equivalent provision in English legislation requiring English local authorities to keep a separate account for their payments under this power. While we do not have detailed information about the uses to which this power is put in Scotland, recent research has shown that the main expenditure under the power is to enable local authorities to give assistance to industry. However, the power is also used for purposes which are politically controversial.

Given the wide scope of the power, it seems important that there should be provision for a separate account to be kept, as is the case in England and Wales. The clause would force authorities to be more systematic in their account of the expenditure under this power, setting it out clearly for the public to see. At present, local authorities do not appear to be spending the full amount that they could under this power. The first financial year for which we asked for information from the authorities about their expenditure was 1982–83; and the returns to the questionnaire dealing with this year suggest that authorities in total spent about £1.5 million under this power. This is about one-half of 1 per cent. of the total amount which local authorities spent in that year.

This clause when it was introduced in Committee was welcomed by both sides and represents a useful extension of open government as well as requiring Scottish local authorities to provide the same amount of information in their accounts as do English authorities on their expenditure under this broad, general power. I am surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, actually has reservations about it. I know that he is particularly interested in matters pertaining to local government and I should have thought that anything which is going to be of assistance to the general public to see exactly how money is spent by local authorities would have been welcomed by him. I hope that I have been able to explain to him the reasons why the Government think that it is right that Scotland should have this power which is already available in England and Wales and I hope, in view of that explanation, that he might be prepared to agree to Clause 7 of the Bill.

Lord Ross of Marnock

To say that it was welcomed in another place is an abuse of words. It was not objected to—apart from I think one Member who voiced considerable objections, mainly to the speech with which it was introduced by the Member for Stirling. I too would have objected strongly had I been there in respect of that because it was of a very selective nature. It was interesting that the Minister of State should say that of recent days or somehow or another it has been used for political purposes. I think that Stirling made a contribution to the march for jobs. Well, in view of the situation in Scotland, I can well understand local authorities making a contribution towards something that they think should be highlighted—the need for more jobs in Scotland.

It might not be pleasant for the Government but the whole point is this. The 1973 Act which is now being amended was passed by a Tory Government. They did not think that it was necessary then that it should be done. I want to know why it is necessary now. One of the first local government Bills promoted by the Government after 1979 was to free the local authorities from certain restrictions vis-à-vis central government. I should like to know why at this point of time they should think that this is necessary. No one will ever use it. I am perfectly sure of that. The Minister of State himself says that the local authorities in Scotland do not use to the full the tuppenny rate. Is he going to encourage them to use it or to discourage them? I ask this bearing in mind his general attitude to rates I do not object to it but I do not think that it has really been justified that we should make this slight change. I do not object to it myself but I do not welcome it.

Clause 7 agreed to.

Clause 8 [Inspection of local authorities' accounts]:

Lord Ross of Marnock moved Amendment No. 33:

Page 6, line 43, after ("interested") insert ("and authorised by the Secretary of State")

The noble Lord said: This amendment relates to Clause 8 which is again an open government clause. The rubric reads:

Inspection of local authorities' accounts.".

The wording of the subsection to be substituted begins:

At each audit under this Part of the Act …".

That is, at a particular time, there is going to be an availability for inspection—and inspection by "any persons interested". These

persons interested may inspect the accounts to be audited and all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts relating thereto and make copies of all or any part of the accounts and those other documents.

The later part of Clause 1 will deal with another amendment. What I am interested in are the words, "any persons interested". It does not read "any ratepayers", but "any persons" so that someone could come in from outside, somebody who is probably just interested. How you define "interested" I do not know; for anyone can say that in their own opinion they are interested on any particular point. They could be pursuing a vendetta against some councillor, for that matter, and serving some personal end in respect of it.

I think there ought to be some sort of limitation on this, bearing in mind that this is the time of year when local authorities are busy and when they want to get on with other business such as looking forward to meetings with the Secretary of State or the Minister of State about guidelines and everything else. But they have got to hold things up for about 15 days. There could be a regular stream of people coming in doing this. I suggest that there ought to be a certain limitation, and that we might say,

"any persons … authorised by the Secretary of State".

I know that this power is available in England. When we ask what limitation is to be put upon it we are told that it is left to the courts to decide whether or not anyone is abusing the right, as they well could abuse the right in respect of both their presence and how often within the 15 days they are there, and so on.

Once again, this is something which has been brought in because "they have got it in England". I do not necessarily object to it, but I am interested in the definition of "any persons interested". It could be somebody from the States. I do not know whether other former Ministers get the same sort of thing as I get—two letters a week from people studying something that happened in Scotland, who ask whether they can come and see me. They are obviously writing books. They could go and see all the accounts of all the local authorities in Scotland. It would be interesting, even if they do not make a deep study of the matter. But what is involved? Why use these words, "any persons interested"? Why not say "any ratepayers interested"? That is my concern. I do not suggest that the words I use are the right ones, but if the Government would have a look at it and see whether they could find some more limited phrase to give this right to people in the area, I would be very happy about it. I beg to move.

Lord Grimond

I do not object to this very strongly, either. Certainly I think a ratepayer may well have the right to inspect the accounts. In fact, I thought he had, but if he has not then I agree that this is reasonable. There is a very small point here. Over the last two or three years there have been constant additions made to what local authorities are bound to do, and at the same time the Government constantly complain that they take on more staff and spend more money. As I say, this is a very small matter but it is cumulative; and it will add to the work of local authorities.

If the words of the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, come true people may come pouring across the Atlantic to look into the accounts of local authorities. I dare say this is one of the noble Lord's usual colourful explanations to draw the Committee's attention to the dangers which might arise, but it is true that over the last few years there has been a cumulative "drip, drip, drip" of new responsibilities and new duties put upon local authorities; and then at the end of the day the central government say that they are spending too much. I must point out that it is central government which exceed their expenditure targets, not local government.

So while I do not object to it, I think it should be put on record that this is a small and probably justifiable extra duty which is being given to local authorities. I do not object to it, but I think we should bear the possible danger in mind.

The Earl of Kintore

I certainly thought that a ratepayer had the right to see the accounts. I had these accounts with my rate demand this year.

Lord Gray of Contin

Clause 8 represents what we consider to be a welcome extension of the existing public right to inspect local authorities' accounts. At present the Scottish public may only see the abstract of their local authority's accounts. In England their counterparts may see all the supporting papers relating to those accounts. Clause 8 extends to Scotland the rights enjoyed in England for many years. The effect of the noble Lord's amendment is to require anybody who wishes to inspect their local authority's books to obtain the approval of the Secretary of State. My right honourable friend will be flattered that the noble Lord wishes to confer such power on the Secretary of State, but I am afraid I must disagree with him on this occasion and resist his amendment.

The proposal has a number of flaws. First, it is clearly designed to deter people from exercising their rights under the clause. Secondly, it is clearly inappropriate for the Secretary of State to exercise judgment on this matter. For example, what criteria should he apply? How would he justify exclusion? Thirdly, it actually constitutes a restriction of public rights as compared with the existing arrangements. At present the public can inspect at least the abstract of accounts without any approval from St. Andrew's House or anywhere else. Under the noble Lord's proposal, they would require my right honourable friend's authorisation even to do that.

I consider that this is an advantage to the people of Scotland. They will be able to see the supporting papers to the accounts if they so desire. The noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, asked how we could define the sort of person who would be entitled in this way. It virtually means what it says: any interested person can have access to these accounts and to the papers supporting them. This includes ratepayers and electors, but it does not restrict access to those categories. The suggestion that young people who might be doing a thesis on the subject would have the power to inspect these papers is perfectly correct. There is nothing which prevents them from doing that at the present moment in England, and it is not intended that they should be excluded so far as Scotland is concerned.

The noble Lord, Lord Grimond, suggested that it might put additional work on the local authorities and that it was really increasing their functions. That is not the case. What it is doing is merely giving members of the public the right to see the supporting papers rather than just the abstract of the accounts. I do not anticipate that this is a privilege for which there are going to be regular queues outside every town hall in Scotland in order to study the papers supporting the abstract of the accounts, but I do suggest that it is a right which is available in other parts of the United Kingdom and I have no doubt there are those in Scotland who will welcome it and make use of it. With that explanation, I hope that perhaps the noble Lord will accept what I have said and withdraw his amendment.

Lord Ross of Marnock

I do not regard this as a privilege, by the way: I regard it as a right, and I think that the Minister of State would probably wish to withdraw what he said about this being a privilege. It is a right. I do not object to it, but I would ask: how have we managed to live without it for all these years? I have seen no great bands of people protesting to local authorities in respect of this. When the Minister says, "Don't worry; there are not going to be many people using it, but it is there", I am still not satisfied with the phrase "any persons interested".

The noble Lord who rose from the Back-Benches is probably right. It is the local ratepayers who are really interested. Your Lordships will remember the definition of "interest" in repect of the land. Having an interest in the land really meant that, whether as land superior, feuer, owner or occupier. This is far too broad to my mind—and why should we give an interest to somebody who probably knows nothing about it? I am thinking for example of the 15 open days for inspection.

Secondly, am I right in thinking that the Secretary of State has to produce an order in relation to the procedures such as the times at which this will be available and the limitations upon the right in respect of which vouchers and everything else can be produced? An answer to that would be helpful, if we were to have another look at it later on.

Lord Gray of Contin

Yes, I can confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, that there is a regulation-making power so far as this is concerned. Subsection (2) states: regulations as to the period in which accounts may be inspected and as to informing persons about their rights of inspection and objection". So there is a regulation-making power.

Lord Ross of Marnock

Is this an affirmative resolution or a negative resolution?

Lord Gray of Contin

If the noble Lord will bear with me, I am almost sure that it will be a negative resolution. But perhaps I may write to him and confirm that point.

Lord Ross of Marnock

We are not yet finished with this clause and the noble Lord may be able to get the information. So far as I recollect, it is the negative procedure. But in view of the discussions that we have had, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6.32 p.m.

Lord carmichael of Kelvingrove moved Amendment No.34:

Page 6, line 45, leave out from ("thereto") to end of line 46.

The noble Lord said: The purpose of this amendment is also to get information from the Government and, from what my noble friend Lord Ross has said, the government are aware we are not trying to prevent local people or anyone else from finding out what has been done by an authority. We feel that there should be some restriction on who has the right to do this. The position becomes clear when one considers what the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, said about the gradual increase in the duties of local authorities. There is an increase of half an employee here and a quarter of an employee there, with a gradual building up, and the Government always assume that the extra duties can be absorbed.

This amendment takes away the right of people to,

make copies of all or any part of the accounts and those other documents.

At present, people are able to go into local authority offices and take copies of Ordnance Survey maps or plans for the area, and in certain local authority engineering departments there is a little section set aside for people to take copies. But the Ordnance Survey, through the local authority, levy a charge for this, and there is no question in the clause as it stands that there will be any charge made for making these copies.

In one of the major cities in Scotland it would need only half a dozen people to bring things almost to a standstill. For example, where do they make copies? Do they make them there and then, or do they take the plans away to the local library and put 5 p or 1 Op in the machine every time they want a copy? Alternatively, will there be machines provided? This is a small but important point. Once people have been given the right to inspect, they should also be given the right to take notes or to make some sort of permanent record of what they have seen in order to aid their memory.

But the papers will be incredibly voluminous if they,

make copies of all or any part of the accounts",

and it may take days for half a dozen people in one of the large regions of Scotland to make copies. That may sound a frivolous argument; but someone could cause great disturbance to the running of a local authority. I hope that the Minister will consider what I have said and perhaps admit that a little tightening up for the sake of local authorities, and even of ratepayers, may be necessary before this clause is accepted. I beg to move.

Lord Gray of Contin

I think that I shall be able to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, on the points which he has raised. But first, lest I forget—not that the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, could ever allow me to forget!—I can confirm that his recollection that the regulation-making powers are by negative resolution, and my own recollection which was the same, were correct and that they are by negative resolution.

The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, would remove a right which currently exists. As it stands, the clause provides that members of the public may make copies of all or any part of the documents that they inspect under the rights to be conferred by the clause. A similar right to take copies already exists in England, and the Scottish public already has the right to take copies from the abstract of accounts. The only local authority accounts document that they may at present inspect is the abstract of accounts. The noble Lord's amendment would therefore remove all these rights, both old and new.

It may be that the noble Lord is concerned that local authorities will face huge photocopying bills as a result of the provisions of the clause. If so, I can put his mind at rest. The clause confers upon the public only the right to make the copies and does not place upon local authorities a duty to supply these free of charge. In publishing parlance, it is simply a waiving of copyright rather than a licence to demand free books. Local authorities will be free to make reasonable charges for any copies that the public may make on their photocopiers.

It will be left to local authorities to make arrange-ments appropriate to the area. For example, the arrangements made by an urban authority may be quite different from those which would be appropriate in a rural area. As noble Lords opposite were preaching to me a week ago today, the people at local level frequently know best how to take care of these matters, and we think that they are the most appropri-ate people to make the local arrangements. With those explanations, perhaps the noble Lord would consider withdrawing his amendment.

The Earl of Selkirk

I wonder whether I may ask my noble friend a question. The words, make copies of all or any part of the accounts strike me as possibly being an awful nuisance to the staff. If people are to be able to walk around making copies of anything—which I interpret these words to mean—is that not going too far; or will it be left to authorities to decide what should reasonably be made available for people to see? I am looking at this from the point of view of nuisance to the staff. Every now and again there are real busybodies who put their fingers into all sorts of irrelevant places and I wonder whether it is necessary to leave the clause as open as that.

6.40 p.m.

Lord Gray of Contin

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Selkirk for raising that point, but I would remind him that this is a facility which has been available in the past in England and I am not aware of any great difficulty which has been found as far as the English authorities are concerned. While accepting that, regrettably, life being life, there are busybodies around and we are all faced with them from time to time, I think they are very much in the minority.

The Earl of Selkirk

I hope so.

Lord Gray of Contin

Certainly, this has not been the experience elsewhere. I think it is an added facility which the Scottish public can now have, so that they will be allowed to take copies if they so desire. I think this is an improvement, and that it will be operated by local authorities and used by the public with a reasonable attitude. Obviously, a member of the public would not be allowed to be unreasonable and oppressive in demands, but again this depends on the circumstances in each case. However, the 15-day period for inspection which is to be proposed for the regulations governing access will put a limit on the number of documents it would be possible to produce and inspect.

I hope that my noble friend would agree with me that this is something which we should not keep from the public. Local authorities should have nothing to hide, and if members of the public seek to take copies I really cannot see that there should be any great objection to it.

The Earl of Selkirk

My noble friend uses the word "unreasonable", but that does not appear in the Bill. I do not know how the local authorities can prevent people being unreasonable. I just wonder if they need some degree of authority to do that. If a person is thoroughly unreasonable, he can sit about in the office all day watching the people working while making copies. I wonder whether some word is not required of a slightly restrictive character.

Lord Gray of Contin

Perhaps I may say to my noble friend that there is already a right in the 1973 Act to take copies of abstracts. If some totally unreasonable person were to try to insist that he was provided with a wholly unreasonable number of copies every day of the week for a fortnight, then I think the local authority would be not unreasonable in refusing to make this facility available. As with many minor things, this has to be interpreted with a degree of reasonableness by all concerned.

Lord Ross of Marnock

I wonder whether the Minister has ever looked at some of the judgments given by Her Majesty's judges in Scotland in respect of the interpretation of statutes. They are governed by the words that are there. There is nothing about "unreasonable" or "reasonable" or limitation of any kind.

It is a different matter in respect of abstracts of the council. It is all backing-up papers, vouchers, receipts and everything else. I wonder if this facility is available in the Scottish Office in respect of the national government. I could think of spending a fortnight there enlightening myself on all sorts of things in respect of receipts, accounts, vouchers and everything else applicable, it may well be, to Ministers. I do not think we know enough about Ministers and their expenses. The Scottish Office Ministers are a different matter from English Ministers. They can determine whether they are based in Edinburgh or whether they are based in London. It is amazing what goes on. The same thing applies in respect of civil servants travelling between London and Edinburgh. You could have a fascinating time if you were interested in things like that, and I feel that that is why there really ought to be something put in.

In another place when this was discussed it was pointed out that this was not a matter of reasonableness or anything else; this was a matter for the courts as to whether anyone was being a nuisance in respect of what they were asking. That is not quite good enough. According to the Minister, we are going to have a chance to see it because he is going to produce regulations. I hope they will cover the extent and detail which may be allowed under this. Within those regulations it may well be that there will be power to get closer to the fact of debarring people from making use of this. I am not very happy about them making a copy. The Minister says it may well be different for rural areas and for urban areas. One can imagine somebody sitting down with a pen copying out a long account which will take sometime. Yet there is nothing to stop them, as far as I can see. On the other hand, there is nothing here that says charges can be made for making copies available.

The Lord Advocate will know that, under more recent legislation in respect to civic government and all things about licences and people getting copies of them, there was a charge made (and if I remember rightly, the charge was left to local government) such as would cover their administrative costs. There is nothing here about that at all. I should have thought that, since there has been recent experience of this same kind of thing in respect of people getting copies, this might well have been covered.

The fact of the matter is that these are clauses which were accepted in Committee by Back-Benchers. I do not think the Government paid enough attention to them. They will have a little more time between now and the next stage of the Bill, and then time before the next stage again, and I am sure that my noble friend Lord Carmichael will be pressing the Government on this and on other points, so that they look into the practicalities and the effect on the actual work of local government, which has to continue while they meet this latest drip of demands upon them, as the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, rightly said.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

Before the Minister replies, I detect that we are a little short in the Chamber of recent or current local government experience. I think this is a point which the Minister really should look at. There are certain people who are barrack-room lawyers who pursue their local councillors with points that they want to investigate. I thought, along with the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, that there was already good access. I have always provided all the papers that constituents of mine (I am no longer a councillor) have wanted, and they have doubtless copied them, but 1 do think that they should copy them at their own expense and I do think it should be indicated in some way that they should not use the copying machine in the department where they are looking up matters. There is usually only one copying machine there, and they could hold things up.

This does need to be rather more precise. It is not a very practical way of putting it. Having said that, perhaps the Minister can look at just how this should be phrased. The access is essential, and there is no reason why they should not have copies, but that might mean that the copying machine would be blocked for half an hour, greatly to the detriment of ratepayers' business.

The Earl of Perth

Together with others who have spoken. I think there is a worry here when we read that one has the right to make copies. I know the noble Lord, Lord Gray, said they should not be unreason-able, but who is to judge that? It would be much better to have another look at this and see whether somehow—even if it is only by saying "within reason" or something like that—we can qualify what is here at present; otherwise, I can see the busybodies being very troublesome.

Lord Gray of Contin

I can appreciate the concern which has been expressed by noble Lords and by the noble Baroness. The situation is that no limit is placed upon what can be copied. It is up to the local authority. Expenses will again be a matter for the local authority. The local authority will be bound to allow a member of the public to take a copy, but there is no question of the local authority having to provide that copy. It will be up to the member of the public to take the copy and to pay the local authority for it, if they use a copying machine.

When this matter was discussed in another place, the Minister pointed out that it would not be practical to specify a limit on the number of documents which might be requested, although it is worth noting that the proposed 15-day inspection period imposes an upper limit on the volume of paper that it would be possible to produce and inspect during that time. Ultimately, again it would be a matter for the courts to determine in the event of a dispute. Once again, the question has already been tested in the English courts. Public access provisions have been in operation for some time in England. The courts in England have held that it would be possible for a request to be so oppressive as to amount to an abuse of rights; but again that must be a matter for the circumstances and merits of each application.

The noble Lord has suggested that we should leave out from the word "thereto" to the end of line 46. I could not accept the amendment in its present form. However, I know that this matter is causing concern on all sides. It is not a party matter. If the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment, I shall look at the matter again before the next stage to see whether there is a form of words which will achieve the desired objective. With that assurance, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Wilson of Langside

If the noble Lord the Minister is to look at the matter again, would he undertake to have regard to the circumstance that the matter has already, apparently, been the subject of litigation in England? Surely we should be legislating in such a way as, as far as possible, to keep the citizen out of the hands of the lawyers and to keep him out of the courts, which have a great many other things to do.

Lord Gray of Contin

I accept the point which the noble and learned Lord makes. However, in the event of a serious dispute a decision will ultimately have to be taken somewhere. The court would seem to be the appropriate place for that decision to be taken. However, when I look at the matter again I shall certainly bear in mind the noble and learned Lord's suggestion.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

I am most grateful to the Minister for agreeing to look again at the matter. He mentioned that great concern has been expressed on all sides of the Committee. It should be emphasised that nobody wishes to stifle the right of people to know what is happening. The noble Lord should also consider whether there will be confidentiality. Will it be possible, for instance, to inspect bills of quantities which local authorities accept from builders for, say, civil defence shelters? There may be long queues of people waiting to take copies of bills of quantities of that kind. That might be a new phenomenon, but it could happen. There is a great deal to be looked at, particularly since the advent of the modern copying machine. May I ask the Minister whether there is any question of reasonable hours being involved? Must this be done at particular times? The noble Baroness referred to rural areas where there may be only one copying machine. If members of the public were to use it throughout the whole of the period that it was available, it would not be possible for local authority officials to use it for, perhaps, very important business. This matter needs to be looked at. We do not wish to limit the rights of people, but care must be taken to protect the rights of local authorities. They, too, have rights.

Lord Gray of Contin

I am grateful to the noble Lord. Most of the points he has made will be resolved at local level by local authorities. I shall look again at the question, but I must make it clear to the noble Lord that I am taking the matter back without commitment. I may find that I am unable to find a form of words which is preferable to that which already exists. However, I give the Committee the assurance that I shall take the matter back and look at it in order to see whether the wording can be improved.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

I hope that the Minister will be able to improve the wording. We shall have another opportunity to look at the matter. Having received those assurances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Whether Clause 8 shall stand part of the Bill?

6.57 p.m.

Lord Ross of Marnock

This has proved to be an important clause which is worthy of a few words. Remembering what happened last Thursday, it is right that we should give expression to those few words. We have been promised that the words "any persons interested" will be looked at again. The Minister has also said he will look again at the words: and make copies of all or any part of the accounts and those other documents". Time and time again the Minister has said that this is a new right. On one occasion he called it a privilege. He said that it will be there for only 15 days, so things will not be too bad; if there is chaos for 15 days, we can live with it.

One of the duties of local authorities is their duty in respect of civil defence. Many people are interested in civil defence, from the point of view of being not helpful but unhelpful about civil defence. They will want to know as much as possible about it, the expenditure involved and what would happen if there were to be a nuclear attack on this country. May I ask the Minister whether the words "and those other documents" include documents which relate to matters of considerable importance from a defence point of view? Will any limit be imposed because of confidentiality? Many of the documents will include the names of certain people. They may be councillors or members of staff. Other matters may be included which affect ratepayers. The rights of tenants also have to be considered. One of the rights of tenants, if they do not receive satisfaction over speed of repair, is to carry out the repairs themselves and to be reimbursed by the council. This means that they will need to supply receipts and accounts. I am sure that a great number of people, believing that something was not done by the person whose name appeared at the head of a sheet of paper but that it was done in some other way, would insist on seeing the accounts in respect of any particular job. I am very glad that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate is not in Perth today. He might be able to tell us whether it will include the invitation to see particular receipts for (in respect of a do-it-youself job, say) the cost of the wood, the glass, and anything else. All that may well come into this provision.

It may be quite wrong of the Minister of State to suggest that only a few people will be interested. With this new right, and with what may happen as a result of it in respect of repairs—with people doing this work themselves and then asking for certain sums of money (and there are to be certain limitations in respect of that aspect)—there could be quite a queue of people visiting within the 15-day limit. It might be that local authorities will have to open additional offices.

As to the Minister's suggestion that this is not going to cost local authorities anything very much, I believe he is probably quite wrong. I believe that I am right in thinking that COSLA, while not objecting to the clause, are, like me, not overweeningly welcoming it. One of the points they made was that this could cost them money in respect of staff work. I shall be very glad to have the Government's view on this.

Lord Gray of Contin

I am glad that the noble Lord is not objecting to this clause because I believe he would agree with me that it is extending to the public a right which they did not previously have in Scotland and which they do have in England. While I would agree with him that the fact this right exists in England is not necessarily a reason for legislating just so that we have everything the same in Scotland as we have in England, as this right is available in England, I believe it is proper that we should be making it available in Scotland.

Obviously a balance has to be struck between the public interest in full disclosure of information and the need to protect the individual's rights. That balance will depend very much on the circumstances of each individual case. Ultimately, in the event of a dispute, it would be for the courts to decide. Although the legal systems in England and Scotland are not the same, it is worth noting that this issue has arisen in England, where there is long experience of the operation of wide public access. The decisions of the courts in England suggest that the balance between the public interest in disclosure and protecting confidentiality is different for public access as compared with auditors' rights. There is greater assumption in favour of confidentiality where public access is concerned, but obviously it depends on the merits of each individual case.

The second question which the noble Lord, Lord Ross, asked concerned information regarding, for example, civil defence, or any other information that might be of a highly confidential nature. That again would depend on the individual case, but obviously classified information could not be made available. Indeed, I doubt very much whether anyone would expect that classified information would be made available to them. Certainly classified information would not be made available to members of the public. Otherwise, it very largely depends on each case being judged on its merit. In the event of a dispute, then the court would have to be the judge.

Lord Ross of Marnock

Will the noble Lord give me the information I sought on whether he expected any increase of scrutiny of these accounts arising from the new right given in respect of the tenants' right of repairs—the right to do repairs themselves and send the bills to the local authority? Would those bills be subject to the same scrutiny?

Lord Gray of Contin

Yes, the noble Lord has a perfectly fair point. Again, this would be a matter for each individual case to be decided. There might be special circumstances in which a member of the public would have a justifiable interest in the costs in which a private tenant was involved in respect of a certain type of repair. But the individual concerned—the member of the public—would have to be able to convince the authorities that he had a reasonable need to have that information. It would then be decided at local level. If it could not be decided at local level and there was a dispute, it would have to be resolved by the court.

Lord Ross of Marnock

Is the Minister now telling me that the phrase about which we spoke earlier, "any interested party", is one that will be decided upon by any local council? That is what he is saying. Is even this decision about "any interested party" one that can be ruled out by the decision of a local council, with there being an appeal to the courts in respect of it? This is very different from what he said earlier.

Lord Gray of Contin

With respect, I do not think it is different from what I said earlier. The noble Lord has now reverted to the question of what type of person would have right of access. The answer I gave earlier, and which I repeat now, is that the right of access would be the same as that which presently exists in England. That is, not only that a ratepayer or an elector has a right to examine, and in this case take a copy of, the papers which are there in support of the abstract of accounts, but that any particular individual who wishes to seek more information about the accounts of a particular local authority has a right to go to the local—

Lord Grimond

Will the noble Lord allow me to interrupt? If that is so, does the word "interested" add anything at all? When the noble Lord is looking at the redrafting of this clause, will he consider leaving out the word "interested"? As far as I can see, he has now made it so broad that anyone engaged in research of any kind can go to a local authority and ask to see the accounts. If that is so, the word "interested" seems to be unnecessary.

Lord Gray of Contin

Yes, I will look at that again. I take the point which the noble Lord makes. Presumably his argument would be that if an individual was not interested then he would not seek to look at the accounts anyway, and therefore the word may be superfluous. I will certainly examine this again. If it is possible to improve the wording then we shall look into this at the next stage.

Lord Ross of Marnock

I asked the Minister specifically about the new rights under the tenants' rights and the right of a ratepayer, or any other interested party, or any party, to ask to see vouchers, accounts and all the rest. I hope that the Minister will read the words he used, because it is those words to which I took objection. He seemed to imply that the local authority could decide whether they would show these documents to a particular person, and as to whether that person had a right to see them.

It may well be that I misheard the Minister. It may well be that the words he used were injudicious. It may well be that all of this will be covered in the regulations which we shall see but which we shall not have a chance to deal with because under the negative procedure it will be left to another place to deal with them. But by tomorrow the Minister will have had a chance to read what he said, and when we return to this Bill next Thursday I am perfectly sure that he will put us right in respect of anything that he said that should not have been said. But I do not seek to pursue this point at the present time.

Clause 8 agreed to.

The Earl of Caithness

I beg to move that the House do now resume. In moving this, it might be for the convenience of the Committee if I state that we shall not be resuming the proceedings on this Bill for an hour, until nine minutes past eight o'clock.

House resumed.