HL Deb 11 February 1985 vol 460 cc27-31

4.9 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (The Earl of Avon)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer that is being given in another place to a Private Notice Question. The Question was as follows:

"To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will make a Statement about meetings and other contacts between officials of his department and Councillor Salinger or other councillors of Haringey Borough Council and the disclosure to Councillor Salinger of the Secretary of State's assumption about the finances of a borough council".

The Answer was as follows:

"There has been no impropriety. The Guardian headlines are flatly wrong in suggesting either that Councillor Salinger has been given information refused to councils or that I misled the House. The majority parties of the rate limited authorities are refusing to negotiate with the Government about their rate limits. I have made it absolutely clear that in these circumstances I am prepared—indeed, legally bound—to take account of information from elsewhere including, of course, from elected councillors of whatever party. It was in that context that one of my officials telephoned Councillor Salinger on 5th February because he understood that the councillor might have relevant factual information to provide. In Haringey's case I have not needed to make any assumptions since all the figures required to calculate their rate limit have been supplied to me at various times by Haringey Council themselves.

"Therefore, the suggestion that I have privately revealed assumptions made in calculating Haringey's rate limit is entirely false. There have been meetings between Ministers or their special advisers and Conservative members of Haringey Council, one of which officials attended. In accordance with the normal conventions for such meetings they recorded factual information and commented on its technical relevance".

That concludes the reply.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement that was made in another place. But does not the Minister understand that the Statement will be viewed as adding nothing less than insult to injury? Why does the Secretary of State choose to treat rate-capped authorities with such contempt?

In the Statement the Minister went out of his way to point out that there had been no impropriety. Does not the Minister accept that there is a direct conflict between what the Secretary of State has said in another place and what has been said by Councillor Salinger? Is it seriously denied that not only this Tory councillor in Haringey, but other Tory councillors in similar minority positions, have been supplied with information refused to Parliament? The Minister must be aware that the Secretary of State has refused to give to Parliament the assumptions that apparently have been discussed by Councillor Salinger and his officials. Will we now be told in how many of the other rate-capped authorities there have been leaks of information to Tory minority councillors, while the council has been denied the selfsame information?

Is the Minister aware that Councillor Salinger is reported in today's Guardian to have told John Carvel that this was not his first meeting with Department of the Environment officials? How can this be squared with the statement by the Secretary of State last Wednesday, 6th February, at column 990 of the Official Report that: There is no truth in any suggestion that I have made available details of the assumptions. It would have been improper for officials to have had meetings of that sort with minority members of the council". How does the Secretary of State square that statement with statements that were made by Councillor Salinger at a meeting of Haringey Council last week when he said: All I know is that I keep in touch with Ministers and their officials and they give me the answers"? At a later stage he said: During the course of conversations I had with Mr. Dunabin…. There is a direct conflict. Either the Secretary of State has been misleading the House, or Councillor Salinger has been misleading not only his council but also the House as well. Can the Minister comment on the part being played by Mr. Peter Davis, the political adviser to the Minister of State, Mr. Kenneth Baker, in contacting and co-ordinating Tory opposition group activities in Labour-controlled rate-capped authorities?

Does the Minister understand that we have a situation here in which there is grave disquiet that there is a conflict of evidence that has been given to the House between Councillor Salinger and the Secretary of State? Does this not indicate the nature of the vendetta being carried out by the Secretary of State against local government in general and rate-capped councillors in particular? Is this the type of activity that the Secretary of State had in mind when last week he set up his committee to investigate standards in public life and in councils? Will the Secretary of State now make serious endeavours to understand the burden that his legislation is placing upon councils with enormous burdens, like Haringey, which I know very well, and treat rate-capped councillors with the respect and honesty they deserve and which has been missing so far?

Lord Diamond

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for repeating the Answer to the Private Notice Question. We on these Benches take the view that a Minister acts with ministerial propriety until the contrary is proved. But there does seem to be a certain amount of conflict of evidence here which causes some questionmarks. It is not absolutely clear from the noble Earl's repetition of the Statement whether the Government are saying that there was no ministerial impropriety or whether they are saying that there was no official impropriety. I should be grateful for clarification of that point.

What I really want to ask the Government is whether they think that the facts are sufficiently clear to allow the matter to rest, or whether they think that some kind of further clarification, some kind of further independent examination of the contrary allegations, is justified.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords and particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, and I hope to help him in my responses to the noble Lord, Lord Graham. I hope that at the end of my remarks he will conclude, as I have concluded, that there is no need to pursue this matter any further.

The opening sentence of the reply was: There has been no impropriety", and that is at all levels. Where I think that the noble Lord, Lord Graham, is going wrong is when he says that the Tory councillors have been given information. It is quite the other way round. It is the Government who are seeking information from them. That is the basic difference between myself and the noble Lord, Lord Graham. What we are seeking from them is nothing improper and nothing improper has occurred. What we are looking for is facts which, as a result, can help our own figures.

My right honourable friend has always made it clear that he was happy to discuss with any council the calculation of its rate limit if it comes with a proposal for a different limit in the light of its own individual circumstances. To put it simply: we propose and they may counter-propose. The Secretary of State met Councillor Salinger at a meeting at Conservative Central Office on 1st February, and there is surely nothing odd about that. At that meeting the councillor expressed concern about Haringey's position. The Secretary of State took due note of his concern and did not divulge any information about the calculations of their RL. It was that meeting, at which Mr Peter Davis was present, which led to the telephone call—and, incidentally, it was a telepone call—last Tuesday.

Has any civil servant initiated discussions with minority councillors? At no points have civil servants entered into negotiations with minority councillors about rate capping. Where information has been provided by such councillors, civil servants have, of course, checked its factual accuracy so far as possible—for example, in respect of Haringey's Alexandra Palace Fund, on which the initial notification to my department came from minority councillors and not from a majority group or council officials.

I have said that I have said nothing to Convervative members on Haringey Council which justifies an accusation that I told them of assumptions made in calculating Haringey's rate limit. That statement is correct. I also said that it would be improper for officials to have had meetings of that sort—that is, in which assumptions were divulged with minority council members. That has not happened. My right honourable friend has not misled the House.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I may be forgiven for being tempted to ask specific questions about what is, after all, my home town. I shall resist that temptation except to say that I know Councillor Salinger, I know Councillor Meehan, the Leader of the Council, and I also know Mr. Gale—and I know them all to be honourable men. It appears to me that there is a conflict of evidence between what they say and what the Secretary of State says. I shall read with great attention the wording of the particular denials which the noble Earl has read out on behalf of his right honourable friend.

Is not the real issue that only for Haringey, and only as a result of the article in today's Guardian, can the calculations be made on which the rate-capping has been based? We can make that sort of calculation for no other rate-capped authority than Haringey, and for Haringey only as a result of the revelations in today's Guardian. Will the noble Earl not agree that, if those calculations can be made for Haringey, some special information must have been available to Haringey and not to other boroughs, and should not that information be available to all rate-capped authorities?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, as far as I understand it, Haringey still does not know the assumptions. What Haringey has managed to do is to work out the figures. Mr. Gale telephoned in December and produced a very good projection of £2.175 million. He actually said at that time that the figure might be between £2.170 million and £2.180 million. On being told that that was about right, he went even further and produced his figures. However, he still does not have the assumptions behind the Secretary of State's workings.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Why not, my Lords?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I think I touched on that. I said earlier that it was we who proposed, and we are waiting for the counter-proposals.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his frankness, but he has left me very uneasy. He will recall that the charge we made was that the Minister was seeking information from Conservative councillors. The Minister has said that Conservative councillors have gone out of their way to make information available to the Minister upon which certain assumptions can be made. I think that one needs to be very careful before any Government decide to treat with individuals or the whole of a minority group on a council. The majority group on a council represents the council, and I am very disturbed to learn that this Minister and his department see nothing wrong in seeking information which is refused by the majority—that is, the council—from a member of the minority party.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I agree with what the noble Lord says about information, but at one stage he used the word "treat", and with that I cannot agree—we do not "treat". Nothing improper has occurred. Some minority groups are rightly disturbed about the effects of a majority group's policies. Where the minority group provides information, the Secretary of State has a legal duty to take account of that information, and that is what has happened.

Lord Shepherd

My Lords, if the Secretary of State has a legal duty, would it not have been more prudent if the Secretary of State had seen these councillors at the department and not at Conservative Central Office?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, on these occasions I think it is normal practice not to have political meetings within one's department. I think it was absolutely right to have the meeting at Conservative Central Office.

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