HL Deb 18 February 1986 vol 471 cc579-610

House again in Committee on Clause 2.

[Amendment No. 8 not moved.]

Lord Winstanley moved Amendment No. 9:

Page 2, line 30, at end insert— ("(4) Nothing in this section shall prevent the exercise by a local authority of its functions under the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985.").

The noble Lord said: I do not intend to take very long in moving this amendment, because I think that the whole matter is fairly clear. This amendment should be looked at in association with a later amendment, though the two are not grouped. The later amendment, No. 22, says the same thing but states, "Nothing in this Act", and so on, whereas this amendment merely states, "Nothing in this section". The part which we are discussing deals with publications, which are material which is published and which offends and is regarded as political within the definitions which we have already laid down in this Bill. This amendment states: Page 2, line 30, at end insert— ("(4) Nothing in this section shall prevent the exercise by a local authority of its functions under the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985.").

I am probably as confused as everyone else. I have a vague idea that this is Information Year. Perhaps last year was Information Year or maybe next year is. But whether or not this is Information Year, I certainly believe—and I think that other noble Lords will agree with me—that we are now at a time when access to information is a popular cause embraced by all parties, in theory at least, both overtly and covertly.

I do not think I need say too much about the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985. save that that was, as noble Lords will remember, a Private Member's Bill which was piloted through another place by Mr. Robin Squire and at that time it received all-party support. There had been earlier versions of the same Bill, moved by other honourable Members of another place on other occasions, which were designed to do the same thing.

I think I am right in saying that all those Private Member's Bills, of which this is a part, stemmed from a very much earlier Private Member's Bill which was then piloted through by Mrs. Thatcher, MP. as she then was, and I think it was a Bill concerning the admission of the press to local authority meetings and so on. But, at any rate, the Bill has a parentage which ought to commend it to noble Lords opposite.

The Bill as we now have it defines publicity as, any communication, in whatever form, addressed to the public at large or to a section of the public". It seems to me that an enormous amount of material would be included under that definition—and making documents available as required by the Local Government (Access to Information) Act would of itself probably constitute publication. I should not have thought that it was the intention of the Government in producing this Bill to do anything that would interfere with the proper operation of the 1985 Act.

There was a great deal of discussion of this matter in another place at various stages of the Bill, and I do not think it would be for the convenience of the Committee if I were to quote from all the debates which took place, but I think that the situation has been left unclear and this amendment seeks to clarify it.

With regard to this subsection, we wish merely to say: Nothing in this section shall prevent the exercise by a local authority of its functions under the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985. That is an aim which I am sure will be shared by noble Lords in all parts of your Lordships' Committee, but whether it will be shared by noble Lords on the Government Front Bench I wait to hear. I beg to move.

8.45 p.m.

Lord Elton

If I may summarise the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985, which, as the noble Lord suggests, comes into effect on 1st April this year, in general terms it does three things. First, it provides for public access to council meetings and to meetings of committees and sub-committees; secondly, it provides for public access to agendas, reports and minutes of all meetings subject to certain specified exceptions; and, thirdly, it opens to public inspection certain background papers which relate to the subject matter of reports to council, committee or sub-committee meetings. The papers are those which, in the opinion of the proper officer, disclose any facts or matters on which an important part of a report is based and which had been relied on to a material extent in the preparation of that report.

The Act also provides that copies of the agenda for any meeting, any further statements or particulars, as are necessary to indicate the nature of the items included in the agenda, and documents supplied to council members, such as reports, if the proper officer thinks fit, should be supplied to the press on request and on payment of an appropriate charge.

That is what the Act does, and it is quite clear that there is a firm distinction between "publicity" as defined in the Local Government Bill, any communication … addressed to the public at large or to a section of the public", on the one hand, and internal papers primarily for use by the local authority or councillors, to which members of the public and the press who are interested can obtain access, on the other. The fact that these papers are open to public inspection does not mean that they are addressed to the public, or to a section of the public, and they therefore do not constitute "publicity" under the terms of this Bill.

The proposed new clause therefore seems to us to be unnecessary, but similar fears were expressed in the Commons, as the noble Lord has said, and it may be that your Lordships are concerned that local authorities might use the Clause 2 prohibition in this Bill as an excuse for not complying with the requirements of the Act for access to information. We are advised that such provisions are unnecessary, since the present Bill would not, in any case, apply to material made available for public inspection under the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985, as I have said. But, given the general anxiety on this point, we have it in mind to table an amendment at Report to clarify the matter. I hope that the noble Lord will be patient until then.

Lord Silkin of Dulwich

Before the Minister sits down, I wonder whether he can tell the Committee the position the other way round. If a local authority were minded to use its agendas or reports to it for the purpose of political propaganda, knowing that under the provisions of the 1985 Act the public will have access to that material, would the Bill bite upon it?

Lord Elton

From the mists of hypothesis I cannot quite conjure up a sufficiently concrete idea of what the noble Lord is suggesting. Is he suggesting that an agenda might be so termed as to be politically designed to influence support for a political party?

Lord Elystan-Morgan

The agenda or the reports that go with the agenda might be couched in such language that they comprised not agenda or reports but documents that were passed to the public, and so the mischief of the Bill would apply. Will the mischief of the Bill apply to that kind of document, or will such documents be saved by reason of the fact that they are agenda or reports?

Lord Elton

As I tried to make clear earlier, the agenda and reports and the material as generally described in the Local Government (Access to Information) Act would not be caught by the Bill because they are not published in the sense that the Bill means by published. I hope that that is sufficient answer to the noble Lord.

Lord Winstanley

I am most grateful to the noble Lord for the undertaking which he has given to the Committee. If I have understood his undertaking correctly, it is that he understands that the present situation is unclear and that the Government will bring forward an amendment or some process which will at least clarify matters. That is something for which I and, I am quite sure, other Members of the Committee will be very grateful.

The need for clarification is urgent and clear. It would seem to me that, in order to comply with its responsibilities and obligations under the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985, a local council might very well find that documents it was required under that Act to produce, to publicise and to circulate to people could in themselves be regarded as perhaps capable of influencing support of a political party one way or another. That could mean that local council officers might indeed feel that before they could fulfil their obligations under the Local Government (Access to Information) Act 1985 they might have to censor and amend and alter documents which would otherwise he published in full.

There is no question but that there is an urgent need for clarification. I am glad to have the noble Lord's assurance that that clarification will in due course be forthcoming. Whether or not your Lordships will accept what comes on that occasion remains to be seen, but in the meantime I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Whether Clause 2, as amended, shall stand part of the Bill?

Baroness Nicol

I apologise for coming in rather late on this debate and I hope that this point has not been clarified in my absence. I have been present for as much of the Committee as possible. I am very anxious about the definition of a political party. I do not know whether the Minister is satisfied that this can be clearly defined in the Bill. It seems to me that there is endless room for misinterpretation.

As an example, what about independents? Are they ever, when they group together, to be known as a political party? We have a council in our area in Cambridgeshire which until recently was dominated by independents, but they were clearly a party acting as such and could, had they so wished, have put out propaganda in their name; and it could not have been said to be for a political party.

What about ratepayers' groups? I am sorry to quote Cambridge again but we had a very active anti-planning group, the name of which I had better not quote. They managed to get some representatives on the council and had they so wished they could have published material out of the rates which could have been used to support them in their election. In fact, they made valiant attempts for that to happen. Would they then he a political party? Can the Bill in its present form make this clear?

We have already referred to the National Front taking the council to court for publishing anti-racist material. That may have been dealt with. I am not too happy about that part of the debate which I heard. I believe that if the Minister says he is going to look at it, hopefully we shall come up with something a little more watertight. There is also the question of an advertisement for equal opportunities which could be published by a council. Does that constitute political propaganda published by a party if it is known that that party supports equal opportunities?

I shall not go on too much about it but there are parties of the extreme Right and of the extreme Left which could benefit from the kind of thing we are doing unless matters are clearly defined. The National Front is easy to spot but others are not. They do get in one by one, and they do form groups. As we know to our cost, we see what Militant Tendency has done in some areas. Would that be a political party even though it was named as it is? I know it is not an easy problem but I think it is one that the Government must clear up. I hope that, if not now perhaps later, the Minister can give some satisfactory answer about his definition of a political party.

Lord Denning

Perhaps I may say one word. I have two or three times asked: what is a political party? No one has been able to give a definition. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, has given illustrations. Are independents a political party? Are ratepayers a political party? Is Militant Tendency a political party? Is the National Front? I am afraid it is impossible to define. I should very much like Parliament to do it but I am afraid that as it is it must be left to the judges. They I am sure would welcome guidance upon it because it is an almost impossible task without the legislature having given us its definition.

I am very anxious that the interpretation of the words "political party" should not involve the judges in political matters. If the Government could define "political party" it could help us a great deal but otherwise we simply have to leave it to the judges. As I say, you cannot define an elephant; you only know one when you see it. I only wish that something can be done between this and a later stage to help the judges in deciding what is or is not a political party.

Baroness Nicol

As it is Committee stage perhaps I may make just one more small point. Surely we do not want local authorities, or the possibly innocent ratepayers, to have to go along the path of involving the courts in order to get this definition. It is an expensive business. The difficulty is that having done it once for one group presumably they would then have to do it for every group that came along. I support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning. It is up to the Government. They are making this legislation and it is up to them to say now to whom they wish it to apply.

Lord Elliott of Morpeth

I wish only to comment on Clause 2 stand part. Having sat through the discussions on the various amendments, I feel particularly strongly on the last debate we had on Clause 2 which was on campaigns. My noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, when speaking to an early amendment, suggested that there would be many who would be looking for ways of driving holes through this piece of legislation. I have some experience in the North-East of England and I can think of no better way for holes to be driven through this proposed legislation than in the sphere of campaigns. I ask my noble friend to take very seriously the threat in this regard.

If campaigns are excluded from the rigours of the eventual Act they will give vast scope for so many people to seek ways of eluding the legislation. We live in an age in which public relations consultants appear to become more numerous with every succeeding year. Some of them are very skilful. We live in an age in which the machinations of those who produce propaganda seem to become ever more prevalent, and again ever more skilful. Campaigns could be a great danger to the proposed legislation and what it is intended that it should achieve.

I hope also that great care will be taken to examine campaigns by voluntary organisations. I should like someone to find out for me at some time what is a voluntary organisation. Is a voluntary organisation, for instance, the North-East Media Development Council, which is receiving a large sum of money at this time from the Tyne and Wear County Council—albeit in its dying days? Is the Trade Unions Studies Information Unit a voluntary organisation? It has received, again from Tyne and Wear County Council, 125,000. Is the Low Pay Unit a voluntary organisation? That body also has received £120,000. Such bodies can conduct campaigns that could be very damaging to the proposed law.

Lord Silkin of Dulwich

I rise partly to support what was said by my noble friend with regard to political parties, and by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning. When I read the words in question, I immediately turned to the various definitions to learn what is a political party, but I did not find any such definition. I remain ignorant, and the noble Lord who has just spoken increases my ignorance when he refers, quite rightly, to the mounting of campaigns. I ask myself this question: when does a campaign, or those who conduct it, become a political party?

We know, for example, that environmentalists have in the past started off as a voluntary organisation but at some stage have become a political party. At what stage they do so, and at what point in time they fall within the mischief of Clause 2, is not clear to me. That is something that ought to be clear in the Bill. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, rightly said, it is not a task that ought to be thrust upon judges because it inevitably involves some form of political judgment—and judges do not wish to be involved in political judgments, and quite rightly so.

While I am grateful for the undertaking given by the Government that they will reconsider various parts of Clause 2 before Report stage, I hope that they will look again at the point I made in regard to Amendment No. 5, which perhaps could more properly have been made in respect of Clause 2 stand part. I am bound to say that the very fact that at this stage of the legislation the Government have still not made it clear what this vital part of the Bill really means (and do not have that clear in their own minds, otherwise they would not be prepared to take this clause away and look at it again) indicates how extremely difficult it is to carry out a task whose origin, clearly, is blatantly political. In my view, Clause 2 is a perfect example of the difficulties into which one can get.

Baroness David

We have had a long discussion on Clause 2, and that is indicative of how difficult the Government have found it to word the clause in a way that is acceptable to any party in this Committee. We are glad of course that the Government have decided to look again at various problems that have arisen. We are even more pleased that the Committee has decided to accept the amendment that we put forward.

The sad point about all of this is that the relationship between central and local government is bad. That is what comes out of all our discussions. The trust between them has gone. On Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, said that the relationship between central and local government was in deplorable condition. That has emerged very clearly today. I hope that we can improve the situation before this Bill becomes an Act, because that will be very important for the future of the relationship.

A great many people in this Committee who have been involved in local government feel very strongly about that relationship. Widdicombe took a sensible view—and a very liberal one; the report supported local government. What we fear is emerging—particularly from Clause 2—is that support for local government is lacking in the present Government. I hope that after the discussions we have had today the Government will seriously consider the amendments that have been proposed and which Ministers have agreed to look at again. It might make for a better relationship all round if they will do so.

Lord Elton

Perhaps I may try to pull together the various points that have been made, in proposing that Clause 2 stand part of the Bill. I agree with the noble Baroness, and, with even greater felicity, with my noble friend Lord Sandford, that the relationship between central and local government is not what it should be. It is interesting—is it not?—that the differences between them seem to turn on money. It is the use of local authority money—which is, after all, electors' and ratepayers' money—that is at the centre of our discussions. We are all agreed that there are certain purposes for which that money ought not to be used. I believe we are all agreed also that it is not a bad thing that central government should be saying that that money should not be so used. At the moment, our arguments are about the "how" and not the "what" of the Bill.

The bad relationship between central and local government is mostly wedded to questions of finance on a much wider scale. In another debate earlier this Session, I brought to your Lordships the Green Paper on reform of local authority finance, for which it seems to me one of the strongest arguments available—and it is a compelling one—is that the whole way in which we finance local government at the moment throws local and central government into conflict. I do not think we can look for any clauses in this Bill to resolve that problem. I accept, however, that we ought to legislate in terms which are not provocative and should be aware of the bearing of the drafting that we use upon the people who are affected by the legislation.

Having said that by way of preface, I now turn to the first point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, and echoed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning. I pick it up at the point where the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, asked when does a campaign become a political party. I am not absolutely certain that I recognise the process of genesis which he describes. It seems to me that a campaign is an activity and that a political party is a group of people. It may be that what the people indulge in makes them become—

Lord Silkin of Dulwich

When the noble Lord reads Hansard I think he will see that the sentence began, "When does a campaign" and I changed it to, "When do those conducting a campaign".

Lord Elton

The noble Lord has neatly shot that rather small fox.

As to the question of a definition of a political party, of course I understand and recognise the anxiety of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, in particular, not to give the making of a political decision to the judges. I would not personally think that the decision as to whether a group of people were conducting themselves in a way which made them a political party was itself a difficult political judgment. When I say "difficult" I do not mean a difficult decision to make, but a decision which would put one in a difficulty as a result of having made it.

I must go back to what I thought was a delightful speech earlier this afternoon by my noble friend Lord Broxbourne who, with far greater eloquence and humour than I, pointed out to noble Lords opposite that the question of what is a political party is not answered in the Bill which the party opposite put on the statute book in 1967. The test is there. The test is, and I quote from Section 19(3) of the Companies Act 1967: For the purposes of this section a company shall be treated as giving money for political purposes if, directly or indirectly— (a) it gives a donation or subscription to a political party of the United Kingdom or of any part thereof". I am not aware of any definition in the definitions clause of that Act of Parliament of what is a political party. Therefore, if this is the difficulty I can only say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, that I regret it if we are placing the judiciary in a difficulty but it is one under which the judiciary has laboured with singular felicity for the past 19 years.

Lord Denning

I do not know that I have had to decide the question. It may be in the statute but I do not know of any case in which it came up.

Lord Elton

If the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, does not know of a case, I am almost certain one does not exist, but I should like to take advice on that. Having said that and, I hope, made my position clear, I commend the clause to the Committee.

Clause 2, as amended, agreed to.

Baroness David moved Amendment No. 10: After Clause 2, insert the following new clause:

("ILEA classified as a local authority.

. The Inner London Education Authority shall be treated as a local authority for the purposes of sections 137 and 142 of the Local Government Act 1972.")

The noble Baroness said: This matter probably should have been dealt with earlier but in the general rush of legislation and the busy-ness of last summer it was not. The Bill deals, among other things, with the restriction of local authorities powers under Section 137 and 142 of the 1972 Local Government Act. The debate on these powers on Clause 3 will show how the Government and Opposition parties have different conceptions of the role and nature of local government. These two general powers are central to that debate. Before Clause 3 is debated it is therefore important to be clear about what is, and what is not, a local authority and this amendment is designed partly to clarify that position.

As I said, by a strange act of omission, perhaps due to the limitation of debate in another place on the Local Government Bill 1985, the new Inner London Education Authority which comes into being on 1st April 1986 was denied powers under Sections 137 and 142 of the 1972 Act.

As regards Section 137, its use by the Inner London Education Authority has been somewhat limited in the past because the authority was constituted as a special committee of the GLC, and by agreement most of the available resource under Section 137 was disposed of by the GLC. However, the authority used the power for one particularly important social purpose. In certain areas of inner London suitable premises for the holding of meetings are difficult to find. Schools and other educational premises are often the only premises convenient to residents of the area. For many years the authority has made it a practice to permit tenants' associations, for example, free use of educational premises in these situations. The loss of revenue is charged to the authority's accounts under the provisions of Section 137, which authorises expenditure which in the opinion of a local authority is in the interests of its area or any part of it or all or some of its inhabitants.

9.15 p.m.

In its new, directly elected form, without the close relationship with the GLC, the Inner London Education Authority may well need a general power of this kind for what are modest purposes in financial terms and which would carry very significant benefits for small groups of residents living in the inner London area. It certainly needs it to continue the long standing benefit afforded to tenants' associations and which brings them into schools.

Also, without powers under Section 137 the new Inner London Education Authority would not be able to raise a 2p rate. With the demise of the GLC, this puts the only overall body for London at odds with the shire counties, where both the county councils and the district councils will still be able to raise a 2p rate. In an area such as inner London where there is a great need and where there is a shortage of money available for voluntary groups, do the Government agree that perhaps there are some voluntary organisations which it is appropriate for an education authority to fund?

I could quote one or two cases where help has been given through the GLC and where there is almost an educational input. For instance, it gave money to the Hotel and Catering Industries Training Board and to the Women's Computer Centre and Micro-System, both of which are involved in educational advancement in the field of technology. I should think we would all wish that to continue. It provides information and runs courses for women working with information technology, and there is also the Safe Women's Transport Group. Schemes are funded throughout London, and though such schemes do not have a direct educational link is it not appropriate for an education authority promoting courses at its adult education institutes to concern itself about safe transport for women course members? I may say that these schemes have been approved by the Secretary of State and therefore he has approved the spending of public funds on such schemes.

I move on now to Section 142. All the Inner London Education Authority's expenditure on information and publicity has been conducted since 1965 under provisions similar to what is now Section 142 of the 1972 Act. The authority has often used Section 142 to issue publicity. For example, it has made arrangements whereby on application the public may readily obtain information concerning the services available within the area of the authority which are provided either by the authority, by other authorities, by government departments, by charities or by other organisations. It has also arranged for the display of pictures, cinematographic films, models or the holding of exhibitions relating to such matters and has prepared, joined in or contributed to the cost of the preparation of pictures, films, models or exhibitions to be displayed or held as aforesaid.

A good example of this was the exhibition "Schools" which was held in the Royal Festival Hall in October 1984. This account of what goes on in secondary schools was visited by more than 30,000 people, including the Secretary of State for Education and Science and his junior Ministers. The authority is planning a second exhibition on primary education for 1987 and there must be doubt whether Section 111 is adequate for its purposes here.

With the passing of the GLC, the authority, which depended to some extent on the general inquiry service, will have to provide a larger facility. Many of the public's inquiries about local government in general can be expected to reach ILEA as the largest local authority in London. It is only logical that the authority's inquiry service should stock information about London's local government to issue to inquirers, just as the borough and other information services stock information about ILEA.

Though the authority used Section 142 for its recent publicity on electoral registration—I have copies of the publicity—there is doubt whether in future it could publish such information since electoral registration is not a function of ILEA but of the boroughs; yet of course the authority has an interest in registration as a directly elected body and as an educational body wishing to encourage responsible citizenship.

As is evident, the material is wholly neutral in tone—your Lordships cannot see it, but I have it and I can assure you that it is—but it is effectively presented to interest young people and their parents. If any Member of the Committee would like to see it later, I shall be delighted to display it.

If Section 142 is to be restricted to functions, ILEA needs Section 137 to be able to continue to assist the Home Office in that way and to do the other less than common but useful things which Section 137 permits. As well as the leaflet which ILEA circulated. I have one which the Home Office supplied and which was accompanied by the Home Office video. There is nothing to choose between them in the way of effectiveness.

I hope I have made the case that ILEA, as a big authority and the only one for the whole of London, should be granted those powers. I hope that the Government will give that a sympathetic hearing. I beg to move.

Lord Denning

My I suggest that under the law as it stands ILEA is able to perform not only all the activities which it is entitled expressly to perform but everything reasonably incidental thereto? It seems to me that all the illustrations which the noble Baroness has given are reasonably incidental to its activities. It might be undesirable to extend its powers to make it equivalent to a local authority under two sections of the 1972 Act which are widely drawn and which need a good deal of interpretation.

Baroness David

Is the noble and learned Lord suggesting that ILEA can do these things out of its own resources or out of resources under Section 111?

Lord Denning

I am not sufficiently familiar with the legislation, I am afraid, to answer that question. I would hope that it is out of its own resources or anything that it can legitimately acquire.

Lord Underhill

Can the noble and learned Lord explain exactly how he believes ILEA can meet the expenditure from its own resources and why he says that Sections 137 and 142 of the 1972 Act are not relevant and should not apply to ILEA? I know that he stated that, but can he explain it?

Lord Skelmersdale

In spite of the fact that my speech has been paraphrased in three short sentences by the noble and learned Lord, it is with some relief that I answer the noble Baroness, turning as we do from the Bill to the well travelled paths of the Local Government Act 1985. In this respect it is not as well travelled in this House as it was in another place where this issue was discussed.

The 1985 Act conferred on the new ILEA a number of local authority powers. In particular, paragraph 16 of Schedule 14 to the Act applied to the new ILEA powers under some 25 sections of the Local Government Act 1972. Your Lordships' Committee will note that that paragraph dealt not only with the new ILEA but also with the new authorities established by Part IV of the 1985 Act: that is to say, the new joint police authorities, fire and civil defence authorities and passenger transport authorities. The noble Baroness's amendment would create certain new powers for only one of the new joint authorities; namely, ILEA. I should add that none of them is a local authority.

The failure, as the noble Baroness sees it, of the 1985 Act to confer wider powers on ILEA was not a matter of inadvertence. In framing the abolition legislation the Government gave careful consideration to the position of the proposed new authorities. Schedule 14 to the Act represents the outcome of that consideration. Nor was this consideration exempt from parliamentary scrutiny, as I said.

Against that background, I turn now to the specifics of the amendment put forward by the noble Baroness. I shall deal first with those relating to Section 142 which have some relevance to the subject matter of the present Bill and then with those relating to Section 137, although the proposal to confer those powers really goes well beyond the scope of the present Bill.

Section 142 of the 1972 Act confers on local authorities general powers to provide information. As will emerge shortly, when your Lordships turn to consider subsection (1) of Clause 3 of the Bill, Section 142 powers are fairly wide-ranging. They are general powers which, in the Government's view, are appropriate to the situation of general-purpose local authorities, providing a range of services to the inhabitants in their areas. We do not, however, believe that it is either necessary or desirable to confer such powers on single-purpose authorities.

The fact that ILEA has not been given Section 142 powers will not in any way constrain its ability to put out any necessary information about its services. As the Committee will appreciate, the specific powers conferred on ILEA by the 1985 Act—and they are themselves wide-ranging—carry with them powers to do anything necessary to the discharge of those statutory functions. Such incidental powers are implicit in the statutory powers themselves; but, to make assurance doubly sure, Section 111 of the 1972 Act has provided that a local authority—and in that narrow respect that includes the new ILEA—should have the power to do anything, calculated to facilitate, or conducive or incidental to, the discharge of its functions". Clearly, therefore, the new ILEA will have fully adequate powers to make available information relating to all or any of its statutory functions. There is no need to give the authority the general local authority powers contained in Section 142.

The other section cited in the amendment is Section 137. This is, of course, the so-called "free tuppence"—the power for local authorities to incur expenditure up to the product of a 2p rate in any year—on things for which they have no specific statutory powers but which they judge to be in the interests of inhabitants of their area. This gives only the power to spend money, not, as I understood from a remark from the noble Baroness, to raise the money.

I will, if I may, deal with this limb of the noble Baroness's proposal rather more briefly, as the powers in Section 137 are of limited relevance to this part of the Bill, and because the general arguments against accepting the noble Baroness's proposal are broadly the same as those I have outlined in relation to Section 142.

I am sure that the Committee will recognise that Section 137—even more than Section 142—is a power which is particularly relevant to the needs of general-purpose local authorities. The latter section, Section 137, is sometimes regarded as an embryonic form of the power of "general competence" which some previous inquiries have suggested should be given to local authorities, and which is sometimes advocated by noble Lords opposite, particularly when they are on that side of the House rather than this. But that concept was essentially related to the position of local authorities providing a range of services, and serving the inhabitants of their area in a general sense. I do not believe that anyone could seriously advocate such powers—even in the limited form of Section 137—for single-purpose authorities.

To illustrate the point, the Committee might care to consider the difference between Section 137 powers in the hands of, say, a London borough council and ILEA. The London boroughs already have many statutory powers, and will have even more after 1st April of this year. The gaps in those powers, which they need Section 137 to fill, are relatively minor. By contrast, although ILEA will have some very major and significant powers, its range of powers will be fairly restricted. It would surely be odd, to say the least, to confer on such an authority the power to spend—albeit to a limited extent—on a whole range of other matters going far beyond the purposes for which the authority is established, and cutting across the powers of the London boroughs.

I am advised that when schools are not available for public meetings Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 would allow ILEA to hire other buildings for this purpose. And, yes, it is appropriate to advertise the adult education courses or any other provided by ILEA, and Section 111 would again provide this power. Nor is there any doubt about the primary school exhibition to which the noble Baroness referred.

In summary, it would be both unnecessary and inappropriate to confer on the new ILEA the powers proposed by the noble Baroness. That was indeed the view that Parliament took in passing, only some six months ago, the Local Government Act. Neither the facts nor the arguments have changed since that Act was passed.

The noble Baroness, Lady David, said that if Section 142 is to be restricted to functions, the ILEA also needs Section 137. I hope that I have been able to show her why this makes no difference in respect of the very narrow position occupied by the new ILEA. I therefore invite the noble Baroness not to pursue this amendment.

9.30 p.m.

Baroness David

I feel that I have been bombarded with words and I have been unable to take them in that fast. Therefore, I shall certainly have to read what has been said before I consider what to do at the next stage. However, I should like to emphasise that of a number of authorities that the noble Lord mentioned, the ILEA is the only directly elected authority for the whole of the London area. It is therefore in a very special position in that respect.

Educational matters cover a very wide area. I think that the noble Lord claimed that the ILEA would be able to issue necessary publicity under Section 111, which allows authorities to do anything which facilitates or is incidental to the discharge of their functions: that is a statutory declaration of a long-standing common law principle. However, in fact, I understand that Section 111 would be strictly limited to such things as job advertisement and statutory notices, and would not allow, for instance, the exhibition which has been mentioned. The noble Lord has said that it would, or that it would be able to do it under some other of its powers: but I shall have to read about that. I am not satisfied with the answer, and I shall certainly study what he had said in very much more detail. I suspect that I shall be coming back at the next stage of the Bill. However, for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 [Other restrictions of existing powers]:

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Airedale)

In calling Amendment No. 11, I have to point out that if the amendment is agreed to, I shall not be able to call Amendment No. 12.

Lord Winstanley moved Amendment No. 11: Page 2, line 31, leave out subection (1).

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 11 which stands in my name and the names of noble Lords and noble Baronesses from all parts of the Committee, from which the noble Lord opposite will deduce that this particular amendment has support from members of all parties in the Committee. It is a very simple amendment. It seeks merely to delete subsection (1) of Clause 3 of the Bill. Subsection (1) of Clause 3 is limited. It is described very clearly and briefly in the side note on the printed Bill as: Other restrictions of existing powers". In other words, it is a further move to restrict the powers of local government, and of course, as it says in the Bill, it relates in particular to the general powers to provide information. This part of the Bill refers to Section 142 of the Local Government Act 1972 and to Section 88 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, which give local government powers to provide information. I suspect that, in limiting the powers of local government still further, at present the Government have a rather more limited view of what ought to be the powers of local government than sometimes do those ratepayers and others who depend on local government. However, as to this matter, I think it is fairly clear.

The Government propose to remove those particular powers provided under those particular Acts and to substitute the provision that they can provide: information relating to the functions of the authority". What are the functions of the authority? That is the important matter. I think that this is where we shall differ. People who depend upon the authorities sometimes think that the authorities' functions or obligations ought to range rather more widely than they do now, certainly more widely than perhaps the noble Lord opposite thinks they should.

However, it seems to me that along this path lie great dangers, and I suspect that to leave the Bill unamended in its present form without the deletion of this particular subsection would, or might well, stop local authorities providing information on a whole number of matters which, according to the Bill, do not strictly relate to the functions of the authority but which are nevertheless of vital importance to the residents in that authority area and indeed also to central government.

I shall give one or two brief examples. At the moment the Government are rightly conducting their own campaign to improve the take-up level of various social security and other benefits. It is a campaign in which I and many other noble Lords and noble Baronesses have assisted and have worked very hard. The low level of the take-up of benefits in certain areas at a time when the need for those benefits is desperate is tragic. It is right that campaigns should be conducted.

To exclude local government from those campaigns would be absurd. They are placed in a position in which they can campaign, and often do. Indeed, bearing in mind that local government social services departments often have to provide help and assistance, or feel they ought to be able to provide help and assistance to people—which sometimes at the moment they cannot do because of their lack of resources—they will surely wish to take part in campaigns designed to promote the take-up of certain benefits.

Take, for example, single parent benefits. This is a group of people who are perhaps underprivileged in various ways, and who perhaps cannot be provided for altogether adequately by local government social services departments, but is effectively catered for by at least two national voluntary organisations which are in part assisted by local government. For local government to campaign to provide information designed to improve the take-up rate of benefits of one kind and another is surely desirable, but local government might be prevented from so doing under the Bill as it now stands.

Let us look at campaigns regarding road safety. I doubt whether road safety is strictly a function of local government, though I have no doubt that there are things local government does that are related to road safety. I should like to feel that local councils of whatever rank they may be—whether they be counties, boroughs, or whatever—are playing their full part in campaigns of that kind in their own areas.

In the extremely cold weather such as we have at the moment let us look at the utmost importance of campaigns with regard to hypothermia; providing information to elderly people as to how to keep warm, how to avoid getting cold, and providing information to local citizens as to what to do if they find an elderly person suffering from hypothermia. Nobody could say that that is a function of local government, but it is something local government ought to be doing. However, it is something that local government could not do if this clause remains unamended.

I note that the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, has a later amendment which removes some of the shackles from parish councils, and very properly. I do not think that we should discriminate in that way. If the shackles should be removed they should be removed from local government in general. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, that parish councils should be free to do a whole number of things which perhaps they feel now they are not free to do, but I hope that the noble Lord in his turn will agree with me that perhaps local government ought to be able to do some of these necessary social things which are not strictly within the functions of local government as defined in the Bill as it now is. I beg to move.

Lord Mottistone

I would briefly say that I shall come to this subject from a different point of view in Amendment No. 12. Amendment No. 13 is another one again.

Lord Denning

May I suggest that we leave the Bill as it stands and do not accept the amendment? Section 142, which is in wide terms, can give powers to provide information as to local government matters affecting the area. There is an unreported case which dealt with that. The judge, Mr. Justice Glidewell, drew the distinction between "information" and "persuasion". I am not sure that that is a very clear distinction.

As it is an unreported case, perhaps I may read from the Widdicombe Report, at paragraph 68. It is again all about the Inner London Education Authority. The report says: Westminster City Council sought judicial review of certain decisions of ILEA to publish material under section 142(2) on the grounds that in coming to their decisions, ILEA had taken into account an irrelevant consideration, namely their wish to persuade members of the public of the undesirability of the Government's proposal for rate-capping so that the public could bring pressure to hear on Members of Parliament to reconsider the maximum precept for ILEA". I fear that on a wide interpretation of Section 142 that was information as to local government matters affecting the area, and the judge, sensibly, managed to overcome that difficulty by drawing a distinction between "information" and "persuasion".

To avoid the undue width of Section 142 the Government have taken a wise course in restricting it to, information relating to the functions of the authority". I realise that that, relating to the functions of the authority". is again quite a difficult, wide phrase to interpret. We have to understand what are the functions and whether this relates to it. I agree that, but the alternative suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Mottistone is to restrict it to describing the services provided by the authority. That is too restrictive.

I should like this to be within the powers of a local authority to provide information as to the desirability or not of the Okehampton by-pass, for example, or whether we should have grammar schools or whether local authority housing should be available for purchase. We have had all these matters discussed in the courts and I think it is right that local authorities should be able to give information on all local matters relating to the functions of the authority. I should not wish to do what my noble friend Lord Mottistone describes. On the whole it is difficult.

I suggest that the Bill has the balance about right in saying, information relating to the functions".

Lord Hayter

There are still problems despite what the noble and learned Lord has said. I have here the example of an advice agency that sends out information in the city of Winchester. They could send out information about education grants in that city if it were funded by the Hampshire County Council, but not if it were funded by the Winchester District Council. Why is that? It is because Hampshire is an education authority and Winchester is not. On the other hand, the advice agency could send out leaflets upon house improvement grants if it were funded by Winchester District Council but not if it were funded by Hampshire County Council. Why? This time the roles are reversed and Winchester is the housing authority and Hampshire is not. That is the sort of nonsense that we on this side of the Committee feel we should try to remove by the amendments before us.

Another inference about Section 142 is that an agency cannot send out some of this information, but can supply it if it is asked for. That seems ridiculous. It is important that the advice agencies should be able to provide a flexible information service. In some situations perfectly legitimate and completely non-political publicity may be prohibited. The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, has already mentioned some examples, but I have an even better one. A district council having no social service or education powers will be prohibited from giving a grant to any voluntary organisation which it might have in its vicinity to enable it to print anti-drug leaflets for distribution in its area. The district council could not use Section 152 powers because it has no functions relating to drug abuse. It could not therefore use Section 137 because the anti-drug publicity was the main purpose of the grant. That sounds mad to me. Thus amending this clause should go a long way towards overcoming the voluntary sectors' concerns about it.

The local authority case has been put forward. The parish councils' case will be put forward and the Government have said that they sympathise with it. I hope it will be agreed that the voluntary sector is just as strong. From all points of view, the narrowing of Section 142 will result in less information and a less well-informed public. That is bad for the public and bad for open government.

9.45 p.m.

Lord Sandford

I should like to speak briefly to this amendment. That is not to encourage those who have moved it to press it to a Division at this stage, even if they were intending to do so, but in order to ascertain the mind of my noble friend on the Front Bench about Section 142 and, if necessary, to seek to change it between this stage and the next.

I found it difficult to enter with much enthusiasm into the lively debates we had on Clause 2 because I do not think it is a clause which, whether or not it is amended, serves any useful purpose. It is true that it will muzzle those local authorities which are now in the grip of the Militant Tendency and other extremists. I think my noble friend said at Second Reading there were some 13 in number. However, that is dealing only with the symptoms. It is no good merely muzzling those authorities while they are under the control of those kinds of people. Militant Tendency and extremists like them have to be got rid of altogether, lock, stock and barrel. We cannot be content with anything less than that.

When that is done, there will be no authorities left to abuse the use of these powers in the way that has been taking place. I should like to congratulate the party opposite on the start that they have made with Liverpool and encourage them to get on with the rest of them with all due despatch. That is the way to deal with that problem.

Meanwhile, we must do two other things. First, we must prevent this Bill from achieving what might be thought to be rather difficult, and that is making relations between central and local government even worse than they are already. Secondly, we have to safeguard the interests of the 400 or more local authorities which are not in any way involved in this abuse and have not been throughout the whole of this long period. I think we must look carefully at Section 142.

The Widdicombe Committee looked carefully at this matter. The conclusion to which they came is set out in paragraph 233 of their report: We propose that Section 142 of the 1972 Act should be left unchanged". That is quite categorical. It provides an acceptable and long established definition of the proper scope of local government publicity powers". With that firm conclusion, I should entirely agree. I think we all want to hear why the Government have departed from it. Unless they can satisfy us on that score, I think we shall have to look to the Government to come back with something which is by no means so restrictive as the present wording.

It is totally unacceptable to reduce the scope of Section 142 to the functions only of the local authority. As one report after another, all quoted in the Widdicombe Report, said, the scope of local authorities is far wider than the sum of their functions alone. I look forward to hearing what my noble friend has to say to that point, particularly what has led the government to depart so radically from the Widdicombe report on this point.

Lord Elton

The debate precipitated by this amendment has revealed a number of concerns among your Lordships as to why we think it necessary to adjust the scope of Section 142 at all. My noble friend Lord Sandford merely produced in the punchiest form the question that all your Lordships had at the back of your minds. As I tried to explain at Second Reading, we are seeking to clarify what in recent years has become increasingly a grey area. By substituting the words, "information relating to the functions of the authority" for the words, "information on matters relating to local government", we are clarifying the scope of the power under Section 142. A small number of local authorities have interpreted the phrase, "information on matters relating to local government" very widely indeed and in ways that could not have been Parliament's intention in passing the 1972 Act or the 1948 Act where they first appeared.

At that time there were well-understood and accepted conventions in local government which members and others applied as a matter of course to the activities of their authorities, including the production of publicity. The broad parameters of the law combined readily, with that essential substructure of convention; but unhappily that is no longer the case, at least in some local authorities. There are many others (I am glad to agree with my noble friend) where everything is as it should be. But it is clear that in the view of the others there is virtually no issue of political controversy which they do not take in some sense to be a matter relating to local government.

In these new circumstances, the effectiveness of what was in 1940 and in 1972 an easily recognised definition, and therefore an easily defined restriction, of the reasonable bounds of local government publicity has been substantially undermined. We need therefore to make it clear that Section 142 excludes such matters as foreign policy and defence policy, which do not relate to local authority functions. We need to do so because some authorities have taken the term "local government matters" to include foreign policy and defence policy.

That is the answer to my noble friend's question. We consider that it is entirely appropriate to make such a clarification. We recognise that in this respect we have a difference of judgment with the Widdicombe Inquiry. In paragraph 195, they considered whether to narrow Section 142 to exclude subject matters such as nuclear deterrence which arguably might have too tenuous a bearing on local government matters. Considering that on balance they came down against such a change, I accept, as my noble friend has said, that we are going further than their recommendations in this respect in considering that some adjustment is necessary. But I want to stress that the proposed change to the local authorities Section 142 powers is not intended to affect the legitimate information activities of the vast majority of local authorities. Most of them do not interpret the term "local government matters" in the way I have described.

I will turn to a couple of illustrative points that were made. The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, was concerned about whether it would be possible for a local authority to have a campaign to increase the take-up of welfare. I remind him that local authorities have social work departments and that that sort of thing is their province. I am advised that in any case authorities have also relied on Section 71 of the London Government Act 1963 for this purpose; so that this would not be cut off by what we propose. Similarly, local authorities are, in general, highway authorities and therefore road safety is a perfectly legitimate matter for them to proselytise upon under the terms of Section 142 as we propose to redraft it.

I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Hayter, who was concerned about advice centres, that under Section 142(1) a local authority can make arrangements for an advice centre to make available information about the services available within its area provided by the local authority, by other local authorities, by government departments, by charities or by voluntary organisations. That is the whole gamut. It is not changed by what we propose. So I can reassure him on that.

I now turn back to my honourable friend the Minister for Local Government, who agreed in another place that we should nevertheless consider further whether the drafting of Clause 3(1) is yet exactly right. We certainly wish to exclude matters which arc outside the proper sphere of local government. I do not know whether I can carry my noble friend with me on that but I think a great many of his noble friends and mine would think that the days in which it was proper to lavish public money on campaigns about foreign policy, when the public money came from the pockets of ratepayers, ought now to be behind us. We do think that is right; but we would certainly not wish to be too restrictive and so exclude matters which are the proper concern of local authorities.

The case that our proposals might unduly constrain parish councils, for example, has been powerfully made in another place already and I do not doubt that it will shortly be made here perhaps even more powerfully. It is clearly right that these councils should be able to continue to publish their newsletters referring to the services available in the parish, but provided by other tiers of local government. We have therefore undertaken to look again at the drafting in this respect. However, I should like to confirm my undertaking given during the Second Reading debate to bring forward an amendment to Clause 3(1) at Report stage for that purpose.

The undertaking to do that does raise some difficult issues. We do not wish to be over-restrictive about what local authorities may or may not do. Your Lordships have given some cogent examples of publicity put out by local authorities that we need to think about very carefully. I have only dealt with those by means of an obvious and immediate answer. I have to say, incidentally, that there are legal doubts as to whether local authorities do now have the power to engage in publicity activities in some areas which noble Lords might like to see them indulge in. We shall be looking very carefully at the drafting of Clause 3(1) to make sure that it does not go further than was intended, bearing in mind the very helpful comments that have been made during this debate.

I hope that the noble Lord recognises that Section 142 of the Local Government Act 1972 has been interpreted too freely by some local authorities and that its scope needs to be clarified. Equally, I hope I have persuaded him to await our proposals at the next stage, which will, I hope, serve both to narrow that use satisfactorily and, so far as possible, to allay the fears he has voiced that what we propose goes too far.

Lord Sandford

I wonder whether I may comment before the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, responds to what my noble friend has said. I am grateful to my noble friend for what he has said about his willingness to reconsider this: I am glad that he is going to do so. I do assure him that the present formulation he has chosen is about the most restrictive that could have been selected. If he is looking for a better phrase and is still determined to depart from Widdicombe—and I really think that Widdicombe's argument for leaving things as they are is very compelling, because the members of the committee knew as well as my noble friend did what has been going wrong in this area—and if my noble friend is looking for another phrase that would do the job better, the one used in the report itself, which referred to matters which are "the proper concern of local government", is one with which I personally should be satisfied and it is better than what is proposed at the moment.

Lord Elton

I am most grateful to my noble friend for his comments. I see that I am to have other helpful comments in a minute and I undertake to read them all with great care and draw them to the notice of my honourable and right honourable friends.

Baroness David

I should like just to ask the Minister a question. When he said he was considering some redrafting of Clause 3(1), was he referring just to parish councils or will he make it rather wider than that? We certainly should not be satisfied with an amendment which dealt only with parish councils. I very much support what the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, said. What he suggested would seem to be quite a possible amendment, although I have not fully considered it. Again, of course, this is a matter of trust between local and central government, and I think it would be a very nice gesture if the Government in this case could decide to follow Widdicombe and leave things as they are.

10 p.m.

Lord Elton

The noble Baroness has asked me to clarify my undertaking and I am very glad to do so. I undertook at Second Reading, and I again repeat my undertaking, to bring forward an amendment at Report stage to Clause 3(1) to deal specifically with parishes. I am also undertaking de novo at this stage to look at the rather wider issue raised by noble Lords on all three sides of the Committee in the last half-hour or so, to see whether we are confident that we have this right and whether there is some other phrase which might exercise both the degree of restriction that we think is required and the degree of liberty which other Members of the Committee think is necessary.

Lord Winstanley

I should like to say in conclusion that I think that the noble Baroness, Lady David, is being a little optimistic when she says that she hopes the Government will leave things as they are. No government ever leave things as they are and I doubt whether this one will do so. Nevertheless, in view of what the noble Lord has said, and the manner in which he has said it, in a moment I shall most certainly beg leave to withdraw this amendment. But I am glad that it has been thought about very carefully because the point is of immense importance.

The noble Lord, Lord Sandford, pointed very clearly to what is at the root of all our anxieties, which is that the Government are determined to limit the activities of a handful—or, if you like, two handfuls—of authorities who have misused funds and ratepayers' money in a number of ways. The Government are quite right in their determination to deal with that. But as the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, said, it would be tragic if we unnecessarily shackled hundreds of local authorities that have behaved in a perfectly proper manner over the years under parties of different complexions. I certainly wholly agree with him there that that would be a very great mistake.

I would also say to the noble Lord that we are not talking here only about local authorities. We are talking very much about voluntary bodies whom local authorities fund in this way. At a time when the Government have acknowledged not once, but over and over again, that we have become increasingly dependent on voluntary bodies of one kind or another in relation to benefits and welfare provision of one kind or another—this is something which we all acknowledge—the Government should be extremely chary of doing anything at all which could possibly interfere with the funding of voluntary bodies, which do such admirable work, by local government. I am very delighted to hear that this is being looked at again and I look forward with interest and with some optimism—but perhaps not as much as the noble Baroness—as to what we shall hear in due course. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Mottistone moved Amendment No. 12: Page 3, line 4, leave out ("relating to the functions of") and insert ("describing the services provided by").

The noble Lord said: I have two amendments down on different subjects and they are both probing. The first one, No. 12, adds to the debate which we have just had on Amendment No. 11. If I may, I will use that amendment to put some other ideas in my noble friend's mind for him to take into account as he goes on. I do not think it will be particularly palatable to those noble Lords who spoke on the last amendment.

The functions of a council are now so wide that it is hard to think of any area of national policy upon which they could not comment. My noble friend has mentioned foreign policy and defence policy. For example, the social services functions of a council may be used to justify campaigns about policing, immigration, refugees, health—all sorts of things that are not the affair of councils.

It is not the purpose of local authorities to conduct campaigns or even to comment on matters of national politics. It is the function of a Member of Parliament to represent local opinion and it is a profound constitutional shift for this function to be assumed by a council. Local authorities are the creation of Parliament and are set up to administer certain services laid down by Parliament at local level.

The expression "relating to the functions or seems to be inviting councils to stray into areas of persuasion rather than of pure information. Amendment No. 12 remedies that problem by restricting the information which councils may publish to a description of the services which they provide, with no possibility of the persuasive or campaigning element. When I spoke at Second Reading I said there was a difficult problem about how to cope with the 17, or whatever it is, councils that we all agree have strayed beyond their hounds. My noble friend Lord Sandford says that 400 councils have not. I beg to suggest to the Committee and to my noble friend that it is quite important that the 17 do not swell in number. Of course, we hope that noble Lords opposite will manage to curtail and control those extreme elements which they are tackling, as in Liverpool, but over the years we have to be sure that that is always so.

So I put to my noble friend that when he comes to look at Clause 3(1) he bewares of using "functions" for the very reason that it gives too much freedom to the people who do not need it. Perhaps the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Sandford is a good halfway point for the particular word that is used there. I beg to move.

Lord Winstanley

Before the Minister replies, perhaps I may say a very brief word. I was most interested in what the noble Lord said about it being the business of the Member of Parliament to deal with the local problems of local people. I just thought I would say—

Lord Mottistone

I did not say that. I said it was the function of the Member of Parliament to represent local opinion on the matters which are outside the scope of the local authority.

Lord Winstanley

I am most grateful to the noble Lord for correcting me. It is my recollection of activities in another place (and I am sure it is shared by noble Lords who I see around me who have worked in another place) that one spent an enormous amount of one's time dealing with problems of constituents that should in fact have been taken to local councillors but instead were brought invariably to the Member of Parliament. I just hope that the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, was not trying to—

Lord Broxbourne

The noble Lord recalls those agreeable days in the other place. I am sure that, good constitutionalist as he is, he always answered those letters by pointing out the true constitutional position as expounded just now by my noble friend.

Lord Denning

Perhaps I may suggest that this amendment ought not to be pressed in any way. It is far too restrictive of the powers of the local authorities and, as has been suggested, it would be much better for the Government to reconsider the whole matter and get it on a proper footing.

Lord Elton

I am grateful to my noble friend for his succinct but clear summary of his reason for moving this amendment. I think that in fact I have already put on record a great deal which is sympathetic to his point of view. I have explained that, like him, we do not think that the current definition of these powers is appropriate. My noble friend has chosen a way of circumscribing them which I fear may push the balance too far the other way.

We are in agreement with the conclusions of the Widdicombe Committee that local authorities are bodies limited by statute, and that they do not have a general competence and never have done. As the Widdicombe Committee said, it is right for local authorities to be able to explain their views on matters affecting them even where those matters are the subject of controversy.

I must therefore take issue with part of what my noble friend has said. I cannot agree that local authorities are mere providers of services and should not be allowed to conduct campaigns or even comment on matters of central government policy which—and this is important—affect the way they carry out their functions, so long as they do not do this in a party political way or in a way that would not comply with the normal standards of good practice which we intend to set out in a code.

My noble friend's amendment would, I fear, prevent local authorities from producing useful publicity. It would, for example, stop them from telling their inhabitants about any regulatory functions such as the level of parking fines. It might even prevent a local authority from justifying its service levels or explaining its plans for future provision of services, or the factors affecting its decisions. It would not be right to prevent local authorities from producing publicity of that kind, and it would not be in the interests of the ratepayers to which the local authority would be accountable.

My noble friend is aware of my anxiety to strike the right balance. He knows that I am not content with where we are. He will be pulling in one direction and my noble friend Lord Sandford will be pulling in another. Gradually, others of your Lordships will tally on behind each of them, and eventually, shortly before breaking point, I hope that I will be able to persuade your Lordships to adopt a reasonable position—and that I propose to do at the next stage.

Lord Mottistone

That is a splendid undertaking and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Mottistone moved Amendment No. 13:

Page 3, line 5, at end insert— ("( ) In section 142 of the Local Government Act 1972, subsection (2)(a) (power to publish information) shall have effect in its application to parish and community councils as if there were substituted for the words "the functions of the authority" the words "the services available within the parish or community provided by any local authority (including the council of the parish or community), or by government departments or by charities and other voluntary organisations.").

The noble Lord said: This amendment is of a somewhat different nature, as your Lordships will recognise. Again it is a probing amendment, and again I am most encouraged by that which my noble friend has already said both on Second Reading and just now. If the Committee will forgive me, I shall spell out why it is important for parish and community councils that there should be an amendment made to the Bill along these lines.

An important role of parish and community councils is the provision to their inhabitants of information about services, activities and events in the village or town. Normally that role is carried out in one or more of three ways: first, the production of a newsletter or magazine giving information about forthcoming events and news of changes to local arrangements; for example, a change in the opening hours of the Citizens Advice Bureau in the nearest town; secondly, production of a handbook about the area giving permanent information, such as the addresses and telephone numbers of public bodies, etc.; and, thirdly, the support of magazines produced by voluntary bodies, especially the churches, that contain public information. Varying methods are used, usually at very low cost, to distribute that information.

The effect of Clause 3(1)(b) as worded would be to reduce very much the parish council's power to spend money on the publishing of information. Instead of having the power to publish information on matters relating to local government, the power is restricted to publishing information about the functions of the parish council. This matters much more to parish councils than it does to major authorities because the large authorities can produce information documents and make them available for the public to collect from their offices. Very few parish councils have full-time officers and few villages have any places where, during the working day, documents can be collected by casual inquirers.

Effective distribution of information in parish areas requires a power in the council to be able to spend money on reasonable distribution arrangements. If parish councils are restricted to publishing information about their own functions only, most of the benefit of their information work will be lost. The amendment provides for parish and community councils to continue to have the power to publish information about the services of all local authorities and of other bodies that are provided in the parish. The proposed power complements for parishes the power that the Bill already leaves for them, of assembling such information. I beg to move.

Lord Denning

For many years I was president of the National Association of Parish Councils. I heartily support the amendment.

Lord Underhill

Before the Minister replies, perhaps I may raise one point. The amendment refers to the substitution for the words in the Bill, which are, the functions of the authority of the words, the services available". It may well be that the parish or community council would wish to publish information about services that are not available but should be available.

The amendment goes on to refer to services available provided by any local authority", but, again, it may well be that there are services that the parish council believes ought to be provided by, say, the county council that are not being provided. The amendment would prevent the parish council or the community council from doing that. As the noble Lord the Minister has promised to look at these matters—and we readily accept his undertaking—I hope that he will bear my points in mind when considering this amendment.

10.15 p.m.

Lord Elton

It is certainly no part of this Government's policy that the Bill should have an adverse effect on the legitimate publicity activities of parish, town or, indeed, community councils. I should like to acknowledge the valuable job that these councils do with their existing powers in publishing and distributing material about local services in their areas either by way of specific information in the form of a parish newsletter or on general topics such as school closures.

We have already undertaken to look closely at this matter to ensure that parish councils are not unduly constrained by our proposals and I have undertaken to bring forward an amendment at Report stage. I regret that it has to be Report stage but it is very difficult to get the amendment drafted because it will have to be a balanced response to a number of conflictng considerations. First, if, as my noble friend Lord Mottistone proposes, we are to allow parish councils to publish and freely distribute information about the local services provided by other local authorities, by government departments, charities and other voluntary organisations, we have to consider whether to give similar powers to the other tiers of local government. Or are we intending to make an exception of parish councils while preventing district councils from providing similar information? We shall certainly have to take great care in this matter.

On the other hand, we have to have regard to the reason we have decided to amend Section 142 in the first place, which is the need to ensure that local authorities' publicity does not go beyond what is properly the concern of local authorities.

I do not think I need go further on this theme. All I am saying is that we are aware of the difficulties. I will take careful note of the addition by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, to that list of difficulties and we will come forward with an amendment at Report stage.

Lord Mottistone

I am most grateful to my noble friend. I draw just one thing to his attention. Amendment No. 13, as opposed to Amendments Nos. 11 or 12, seeks to add a new subsection which relates particularly to parish and community councils. It might be possible to amend subsection (1) in such a way as to encompass everyone else's opinions and have another subsection which deals with local councils. I merely put that in my noble friend's mind.

Lord Elton

My experience of the noble Lord's patient assistance in the cable and wireless and data protection Bills leads me to suppose that any suggestions he makes on drafting should be given careful attention; and they will be.

Lord Mottistone

I thank my noble friend. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Orr-Ewing moved Amendment No. 14: Page 3, line 14, at end insert ("and the expenditure on such incidental publicity shall not exceed ten per cent of the expenditure on the main purpose.")

The noble Lord said: This is another probing amendment. I have two such amendments and I am now speaking to the first of them, Amendment No. 14.

Subsection (2) of Clause 3 is very welcome. It prevents councils from issuing publicity under Section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972, which is the section that allows councils to spend the product of a 2p rate on anything which in the opinion of the council is of benefit to the area. That is very widely interpreted. I remind your Lordships that for the London boroughs the product of a 2p rate is £38 million and nationally a 2p rate amounts to £120 million, so we are talking about big money.

Unfortunately, the Bill as at present drafted makes an exception to the ban on the use of Section 137 for publicity. It allows Section 137 money to be spent on publicity if it is ancillary to some other main purpose of expenditure.

Let us suppose that a local council is organising an exhibition. It might cost £100,000 to do that. It would be quite free, if it wished, to spend £1 million on publicising that exhibition and the cause which is being promoted. It is only reasonable, if we are trying to bring in some measure of sense, for the recalcitrant few to be subject to a limit. I underline that point, that it is not the 400 but the 17 or so; and that might spread if we do not take measures of this sort. Expenditure on publicity may be incurred directly by the council or money may be given to other people, to recipients of a grant. For instance, they might get a professional exhibition organiser to do the organising.

It is not clear in the Bill at present how much money may be spent on publicity in relation to the particular main purpose. It simply says that it should be incidental to the main purpose. This amendment therefore seeks to establish by statute a clear relationship which councillors and officers will know for certain when they decide to spend money. Without some clarity provided by the amendment an uncertain position will remain, which some councillors may be tempted to exploit and which may give rise to potential court cases.

Until there has been a case, no one can be sure just how much incidental expenditure can be incurred, and therefore we put 10 per cent. in this amendment. It may be that, when he comes to reply, the noble Lord, may feel it is not the right amount, or perhaps this is not the right drafting, but the principle seems to be a sound one and I hope very much that we shall receive support for the amendment from all parts of the Chamber. There must be some way of controlling the total amount for publicity on a project. I beg to move.

Lord Denning

In speaking to this amendment, may I plead for clarity in regard to the Bill itself? I have found the greatest difficulty in understanding it on page 3, subsection (2). I first had to go to sections 106 and 137 of the 1972 Act and then I had to read the Widdicombe Report, where I found on page 66: It should be made clear that section 137 … may not be used for publicity by local authorities". On the next page it continues: The exclusion of publicity from section 137 … should be so framed as not to prevent bodies funded under that section from issuing publicity to promote their own aims and objectives". I found the explanation for that on page 63; namely, that section 137 is being used too widely: It should be freed from involvement with publicity, by amendment to make it clear that a local authority cannot use it to incur expenditure on advertising of any nature whatsoever. The amendment should be framed in such a way as not to prevent bodies receiving grants … from issuing publicity for their own aims and objectives". I should have thought from what Widdicombe recommended that grants should not be made to voluntary bodies, and so on, for publicity, simpliciter. The grant should be made for their own aims, objectives and purposes; and in lump sums so to speak, not stating how much is to go to publicity or otherwise.

I do not find that very clearly spelled out in the section as it now stands in the statute itself. I am almost probing and should like an explanation of the section itself; but also, if the understanding of it by my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing is right, I certainly should support a restriction on the amount that local authorities can spend.

Lord Elton

The subsection to which the amendment seeks to add a restriction is a subsection to be added to section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972. That section permits local authorities to spend up to a specified amount on purposes for which they have no other authority to spend. The limit stands at present at the product of a 2p rate, which I concede is a not inconsiderable sum for some of the larger authorities—though in passing I would remind my noble friend that the GLC does not offer the best example of the likely product, given that it is the largest of the seven biggest authorities in the land and that all seven of them will cease to exist in less than a couple of months' time. But the principle is nonetheless important, even if the sums involved are a little smaller than those that have been mentioned.

I then come to a difficulty. Clause 2 already prohibits the publication, and therefore expenditure on the publication, of party political material either by a local authority directly or through an agent such as a voluntary organisation. That prohibition is not limited in its effect to expenditure under any particular power or the provisions of any particular section of any particular Act. It is general, and it will bite on this section of the 1972 Act as on any other. It is clear, therefore, that local authorities will not be permitted to use their powers under Section 137 to fund voluntary organisations for publicity which falls within the party political prohibition, and, further, that Section 137 spending is in general limited to the product of a 2p rate.

Our Bill further provides in subsection(2)(c) that a local authority may fund publicity under this provision only where that publicity is incidental to the main purpose for which the assistance is given. That is the only publicity that it can fund under the provision.

In considering the additional limitation which my noble friend's amendment proposes, we need to bear two things in mind. The first is that the publicity being funded is necessarily non-party political. The second is that many voluntary organisations are campaigning organisations by nature, and quite properly so. Their campaigning is hound to involve a significant element of publicity. I think of the Cancer Research Campaign, for instance, Age Concern or the Howard League. My difficulty then is this, and it is two-fold. (One of the difficulties my noble friend has kindly waved away.) It is, first, to wonder whether the choice of any proportion is a proper way to limit that activity, and, secondly, if it is, to decide what is it that makes 10 per cent. acceptable and 11 per cent. too much—or 15 per cent. and 17 per cent. or whatever.

My noble friend may think that our Bill lets in too many causes and keeps out too few, but I am sure that he will accept that there are a lot of good ones, and the disadvantage of what he proposes seems to me to be that it would hit the good as hard as the bad. Given that we have, I believe, excluded what we all want most fervently to exclude and what this part of the Bill is primarily directed at—which is to say, party political campaigns—and given the filter in the first subsection which means that the expenditure is ancillary to a non-political campaign anyway. I wonder whether my noble friend will consider his probing amendment in the light of what I have said and perhaps come back to me if I have not altogether allayed his fears.

Lord Orr-Ewing

I shall consider that. I concede that we do not want to inhibit the good for the sake of stopping the bad. Like other compromises all through the Bill, it is difficult to find a way to do what I want without causing some suffering to the good voluntary organisations. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Orr-Ewing moved Amendment No. 15: Page 3, line 21, at end insert— ("(3) The Secretary of State may by order set a limit to the total amount which may be spent by local authorities on publicity, and such limit may be set on a per capita basis or by reference to an amount of percentage of the rate, and the limit may be varied by order.")

The noble Lord said: This again is a short probing amendment. It seems to be sensible. There has been much discussion about whether a financial limit should be placed on the amount that councils spend on information. It is clear that the need for councils to publish information about the services available in their areas is small in relation to the overall amount spent on the services themselves, even if they seek to draw attention to benefits, as the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, said.

Again, some councils have proved time and again to be rather untrustworthy. At present there is absolutely no limit to the amount which they can spend on publicity. As recent events demonstrate, it is perhaps only a matter of time before some councillors take advantage of that. The Government may not feel that it is right at this stage to place a limit on the amount which may be spent on publicity, but it would seem sensible to take reserve powers to do so in case, as will almost certainly happen, some councils abuse the law. The amendment provides for such an eventuality. It would allow the Government to place a limit, if necessary, but it does not require them to do so. It seems sensible to give some fall-back powers to the Secretary of State. It is very much a reserve which one hopes will be used only where it is necessary, and perhaps not at all. I beg to move.

10.30 p.m.

Baroness David

We would object very strongly to this amendment. It seems to give the Secretary of State quite unnecessary—almost unlimited—power to control the publicity of local authorities. I should think that if we want to make the situation between central and local government even worse this amendment would be guaranteed to do that.

Lord Elton

I am grateful to my noble friend for bringing forward this idea, which is to give a power to the Secretary of State, which he would not have to use unless it was appropriate so to do, to set a financial limit on spending on information. We see a number of difficulties arising from this. Placing a crude limit on expenditure might mean that some local authorities gave priority to controversial publicity at the expense of more routine and necessary publicity. In other words, if they are hell-bent on doing what we do not want them to do, and if the only thing which restrains them is a ceiling, then they will use what they have under the ceiling for the purposes they want and of which we disapprove—if I may use the "we" in a not too partisan sense—and not on the things which we think they should.

My noble friend suggested therefore that the power might be a reserve power. I recognise that the requirement in this Bill for local authorities to keep an account of their publicity expenditure would mean that in future we knew more about the level of authorities' total expenditure on publicity, which would make it easier to set an appropriate level for them to observe once we knew what their existing level was. We might want to bear in mind the possibility of imposing a financial limit on local authority publicity spending at some time in the future. But I think—and the noble Baroness opposite will at least for once find something with which she agrees in a speech of mine—that this would be a matter of last resort.

I must refer to the reservation expressed by Mr. Peter Newsam on page 68 of the report. We are in another context—that of the Green Paper on rate reform, to which I referred earlier—seeking to retire central government from the direct control of a great deal of local authority activity. The British people know best and it is proper for Parliament to lay down general parameters and definitions of the acceptable; but the gentlemen in Whitehall do not always know best and we are reluctant to give them special powers when these are not necessary.

We do not think that it is apparent that they are essential at the moment. But we have the main Widdicombe Report coming along in the future. I think that at that stage we shall be bearing in mind the proposal of my noble friend in case it by then appears that it is essential to use it. But we should be reluctant so to do.

Lord Orr-Ewing

I have listened to my noble friend with interest and sympathy. I am not someone who wants to see a greater centralisation. However, the two advantages of giving the Secretary of State power, are first, that one does not have to bring another Bill forward, should it be necessary—and everyone has deplored the nine local government Bills that we have had already since 1979; secondly, it means that there is a fall-back position which I should have thought would possibly restrain local governments who were totally bereft of a conscience in these fields and who suddenly find that they have a lot of money and will spend it on some great campaign and huge advertisements. One has only to look at the way certain capitalist people are spending money on advertisements, not in our local papers but in our national papers, on take-over bids to see how much can be spent on a campaign.

I should have thought that it was worthwhile having a power in the Secretary of State's hands to stop that. But I am quite happy to leave that and withdraw this amendment and consider the matter at another stage of this Billl.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Whether Clause 3 shall stand part of the Bill?

Baroness David

Perhaps I may make one comment. We are not altogether happy about Clause 3, but we have expressed our reservations. What we do about the other parts of the clause depends very much on the amendments which will be brought forward by the Government at Report stage.

Lord Elton

The reservations are noted.

Clause 3 agreed to.

Lord Skelmersdale

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

House adjourned at twenty-five minutes before eleven o'clock.