§ 3.32 p.m.
§ Baroness Cox rose to call attention to problems which have arisen in certain local authorities and to the policies pursued by them; and to move for Papers.206
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in opening this debate, I should like to offer a phrase which will serve as its motto or theme. The phrase is res ipsa loquitur. Things do speak for themselves in the subject that we are debating this afternoon. Sadly, there is abundant and telling evidence that in a growing number of local authorities there is cause for great concern. My difficulty lies in summarising the nature and extent of that concern and I am therefore very grateful that so many noble Lords have put down their names to speak, because they can put substance into the outline which is all that my opening speech can attempt to provide.
§ I begin by identifying the main burden of our concerns. First of all, a number of local authorities have been inefficient and profligate and have caused financial problems which are reaching crisis proportions, as was shown by the report of the Audit Commission that was published last week. Secondly, some authorities are promoting policies that are outside the remit of local government as it has traditionally been understood. Moreover, they are spending vast sums of money on these policies—money which could be spent on improving local services. Thirdly, some of these policies are offensive to local citizens and employees and violate their philosophical and religious convictions. Finally, some authorities are operating in ways that are essentially undemocratic and designed to overthrow Britain's democratic institutions.
§ Before I move on to the disturbing catalogue of evidence that supports these allegations, I must put those charges into perspective by mentioning two important caveats which should forestall some of the responses from those who find such evidence unpalatable or embarrassing. First and foremost, I cannot emphasise too strongly that the authorities against whom these charges are brought are in a minority. The majority of authorities, whether Conservative, Labour or Alliance, are still run in the best and most honourable traditions of local government; namely, to provide local services in the interests of all citizens and to be publicly accountable for the way in which they conduct their affairs.
§ Nevertheless, those authorities which give cause for concern represent a substantial minority and they have grown alarmingly rapidly. Names such as Brent, Haringey and Liverpool have become household words, those authorities having achieved notoriety through their outrageous policies. Others are less well known. Not all of them are in the inner cities; some are in leafy suburbs such as Ealing, or in the provinces such as Derbyshire and Bristol. They number around 22. They represent about 6 million people, or 13 per cent. of the population of England, and between a quarter and one-third of all those who live in Labour controlled areas. Moreover, their numbers have increased since the local elections last May and can be expected to grow as moderate Labour councillors are replaced by supporters of the hard line far Left.
§ This brings me to my second caveat. Those rogue councils are often just dismissed as the loony Left. I cannot stress too much not only the inappropriateness but also the danger of thinking in those terms. The political activists who dominate those authorities are not irrational, erratic or marginal, as the word "loony" 207 implies. They are very effective political operators, pursuing strategies which endanger the roots of democracy. They are of the Left but not the moderate, democratic Left which characterises the traditional Labour Party that I used to support, which still commands my respect and I am sure the respect of all parts of your Lordships' House. Rather, they are the hard-line, undemocratic, revolutionary, socialist Left. It is imperative that we recognise, admit and seriously consider the implications of their influence on local government. Unless we do so, we allow a canker to grow in the midst of our body politic and it may endanger not only local government but the future of our entire democracy.
§ Let me now turn to illustrate the nature of some of our concerns. With regard to inefficiency and profligacy, your Lordships will be aware that the Audit Commission tells a sorry tale of financial mismanagement and irresponsibility. Yet, grim as it is, that report is only an expurgated version of the original. I should like to press my noble friend the Minister to offer some kind of reassurance that the full version will be made available, because it must be in the public interest for the full facts to be made known.
§ That report argues that in some London authorities financial mismanagement is on so serious a scale that urgent action is needed to avoid calamity. Money per se is not the answer. Inefficiency, excessive waste, creative accounting and other malpractices must be stopped if London is to avoid degenerating into a cycle of decay which, once established, will be immensely difficult to reverse. That report is a sober warning and merits urgent consideration, and I am grateful to those noble Lords who will discuss it further.
§ Looking beyond that report, one alarming aspect of financial mismanagement is the way in which some local authorities deliberately choose policies that are designed not to provide the best possible services to help local people but rather to create massive debts and political confrontation. This cynical attitude is shown in Labour Briefing, which is the internal bulletin of a significant section of the Labour Party in local government.
Labour councils should spend all the money they can lay their hands on now … from now on every battle—over ratecapping, over privatisation—is in deadly earnest".
Of course some of these councils realise that their policies are not very popular with the local people, so they are spending yet more of their ratepayers' money in employing public relations firms to mend their image. Brent Council has awarded a £16,000 contract to a PR company which has already received over £142,000 from the Left-wing Basildon council in order to promote its image. A letter from a firm called Union Communications, which happens to advertise in Marxism Today, claims:
We have already shown Basildon Council how to put 10% on the Labour vote.
This brings me to my second theme, policies outside the remit of local government. Financial mismanagment is not the only problem. Even more serious is the breach of longstanding conventions of the proper functions of local government.
Traditionally local government is concerned with local services and does not use the ratepayer's money to try to influence or to interfere in matters of national government. But the Trotskyist Socialist Worker Review states clearly that much of the activity of some councils is,
at the level of changing ideas rather than providing material improvements for the local people and many of these ideas are to do with national issues of defence and foreign policy.
For example, in an authoritative study called It Costs a Bomb, David Regan, Professor of Local Government at the University of Nottingham, describes how some authortities have spent at least £10 million on activities promoting anti-defence propaganda under the guise of nuclear-free zones. But we are talking not just about £10 million. Some authorities also provide facilities and staff with the sole or primary task of furthering anti-nuclear activities. Sheffield led the way with the appointment of Mr. John Coleman, local CND secretary and Communist Party member, as nuclear-free zone officer.
§ Nuclear-free zone activities by local authorities are legion. They include publicity and propaganda campaigns with posters, road signs, banners, flags and booklets, the establishment of so-called peace shops and even the use in West Yorkshire of a peace bus which tours the county with propagandist films and literature. In addition, many of these authorities subsidise unilateralist organisations such as CND directly with cash or indirectly with free or subsidised use of council property and help from council staff, as when Sheffield's peace officer organised CND's annual conference in Sheffield.
§ So in many diverse ways these authorities share one common denominator, the promotion of the view that Britain should unconditionally discard all nuclear weapons and bases. In this, they are undermining national defence policy and Britain's role in NATO. Equally disturbing is the fact that many of these authorities also fail to fulfil their statutory civil defence responsibilities, thus allowing their anti-nuclear policies to take priority over their own citizens' safety.
I return briefly to one or two examples of local authority activity which exceed the traditional role and functions of local government—the adoption of partisan positions in foreign policy, such as giving explicit support to organisations such as the ANC, SWAPO and Sinn Fein. The ANC flag has flown over Brent Town Hall, Ealing has flown the SWAPO flag and last October London Labour Briefing announced that Sinn Fein councillors,
will be officially received, either by full council meetings or by the Labour Group, in the following Boroughs: Haringey, Lambeth, Hillingdon, Ealing, Southwark, Hackney, Camden, Islington, Brent, Hammersmith.
§ These examples lead into my third area of concern, which is the pursuit of policies that are offensive to many local citizens and employees. Pride of place, I suppose, must go to those authorities which have hit the headlines with their so-called positive images policies, which actively promote homosexuality and attack the idea that heterosexuality is normal. This causes particular offence when the policy is promoted in schools and playgroups with children as young as three, four or five years.209
§ I must stress that I am not against responsible teaching which reduces victimisation of groups such as homosexuals, but, like the parents of Haringey, I strongly oppose some of the positive images policies and the teaching material recommended for use in schools. For example, the book called The Milkman's on his Way, by David Rees, with its graphic details of sexual intercourse between a 17 year-old boy and his male adult lover, has details that are so explicit that they make one wonder whether the book should be classed as pornographic, apart from any consideration of its appropriateness in the age of AIDS.
§ I urge your Lordships to look at this book. I shall make excerpts from it available in your Lordships' Library to enable you to do so. Will your Lordships please remember, while you are looking, that the Inner London Education Authority recommends this book for young people—as young as 15—and that it was obtained by a girl aged 15 from the children's section of Haringey library?
§ Perhaps I may remind your Lordships that when parents in Haringey attended a council meeting to express anxiety about their children being subjected to such influences, they suffered violent verbal and physical abuse. They were spat at and urinated upon. In that meeting those who put views contrary to the council policy had their microphones switched off. When parents argued that in this country they have a right to religious freedoms, a councillor retorted that people have died for their religious faith and perhaps they should die too. Those parents have subsequently received death threats to their own children over the telephone. These examples presage the theme of antidemocratic behaviour, to which I shall return in a moment.
§ Before doing so, I wish briefly to touch on another problem in local authorities which pursue policies that many find offensive, whether they are positive images or so-called anti-racist policies. Their interpretation and implementation have achieved notoriety in cases such as the treatment meted out to Ray Honeyford in Bradford, Jonathan Savery in Bristol and Maureen McGoldrick in Brent. The cruel irony is that these policies, which sound so laudable, are used to create tension and disharmony. They also infringe the liberties of local people. For example, authorities such as Brent are now committed to requiring all employees, teachers and school governors to attend compulsory heterosexism or racism awareness courses. But not only must they attend; they must also pass if they are to sit on appointments panels, presumably to ensure that all new staff will be ideologically acceptable.
§ This Orwellian situation poses grave moral problems for citizens who do not agree with these policies. Should they comply or not? If not, they run a real risk of being hounded out of their posts, as we have seen. Alternatively, they may just leave, and it is surely no coincidence that in Brent it was recently reported that there are over 170 teacher vacancies. As a citizen of the "people's republic of Brent", I find little comfort in the prospect of the advent of 177 special advisers on racial equality in schools—known locally as the race spies—for whom the council has applied for Section 11 funding.210
I find even less comfort in the knowledge that it is intended that these advisers will work in close collaboration with Professor Chris Mullard of the University of London Institute of Education, who has written:
the only argument that white society understands is force, violence and power"—
all the time I was writing Black Britain, I found not solace, comfort or tolerance, but tension, a disturbing desire to break, smash and riot, to bellow: 'Whitey, one day you'll have to pay!".
I should like to ask my noble friend the Minister if he would consider drawing those facts to the attention of his right honourable friend the Home Secretary as, in any consideration of the funding of that outrageous policy, which is extremely unpopular locally, those aspects should be taken into account.
§ Another cause for concern, and one which has been expressed in your Lordships' House, is the use of local authority money to undermine the police. Of course, legitimate criticism of the police must be taken seriously. The police themselves deserve credit for having done so. But vast amounts of anti-police propaganda, produced and disseminated at public expense, are totally unacceptable. Examples such as the grossly biased anti-police video and posters, Policing London: The Reality, which were produced for schools, youth clubs, community centres and trade union branches, have already been mentioned in your Lordships' House. Unfortunately, they are only a small part of the picture.
§ The London Strategic Policy Unit has a police monitoring and research group which publishes regular issues of Policing London and leaflets containing anti-police cartoons. One shows a policeman assuring an Asian that he will take his complaint "very, very seriously"; the next cartoon shows the policeman sitting back with a broad grin and the complaint in the waste-paper basket.
§ Such gratuitous attacks on the police are not limited to London. Residents of Manchester regularly receive glossy and comparably biased magazines produced and distributed at public expense. The effect of that sustained denigration of the police will be to create hatred and violence, of which the tragedy of PC Blakelock's death is one manifestation.
Once respect for the authority of the police is destroyed, our society is one step nearer to the breakdown of the consensus which must underpin democracy and one step nearer to a revolution. To show that I am not in the realm of fantasy, I shall quote from a policy statement last year from Labour Briefing:
against the racist and anti-union violence of the police, and the threat posed by the armed forces, workers must counterpose demands for the disbanding of those armed bodies of capitalist repression".
Those who support Labour Briefing are not just fringe mavericks. They include Members of Parliament such as Tony Benn, Eric Heffer and Tony Banks, prospective parliamentary candidates such as Russell Profitt and many local councillors.
§ Before I leave the theme of the use by a local authority of public money for propaganda, I must make brief reference to the Widdicombe report and its recommendations designed to inhibit the excessive use 211 of public money for party political propaganda. Taken as a package, they could be helpful and are to be welcomed. But there is also a need for wider proposals to curb partisan political propaganda of the kind that I have been discussing and for mechanisms to allow individual citizens to have an effective right of challenge. That is a point which my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway will take up.
§ My final theme is the undemocratic behaviour of some local authorities whose practices flagrantly violate established conventions. For example, Southwark has packed its committees outrageously with about nine Labour members to one opposition member, although the balance on the council is about two to one. That is a mockery of democracy. Other violations of traditional procedures include the appointment of explicitly political advisers, paid out of public funds; contracting out work on political criteria; and the tactic of keeping election manifestos virtually secret until after the elections. For example, people in Brent and Haringey described how it was virtually impossible to get hold of the Labour Party manifesto before the election. One person obtained a copy three months after the election and then only by dint of numerous telephone calls and three letters. When some councillors in those local authorities argue that their policies are justified by public endorsement of their manifesto, their arguments sound rather hollow.
As I draw to a conclusion, I return to the phrase with which I began: "These things speak for themselves." I regret to say that if time permitted I could give many other telling examples, all with the message that, in a sizeable number of local authorities, the honourable traditions of local government are being broken and local democracy is being violated. That is serious. But far more serious are the intentions of any of those who abuse local government in that way. They are political extremists who hold no brief for democracy, either local or parliamentary. That they are intent on its overthrow is shown by an extract from the Labour Briefing policy statement which states:
Our commitment is … to go beyond Parliamentary politics, and to mobilise in mass action to challenge, combat and break the repression and violence of the capitalist state machine".
They are prepared to be ruthless in that process. Just how ruthless was shown once gain by Labour Briefing when it gloated over the IRA bombing at the Tory Party conference with the quip:
What's four dead Tories? A start".
I shall never forget Bernie Grant describing the horrendous violence which killed PC Blackelock as the police getting a "bloody good hiding". We should not forget that after the next general election Bernie Grant and many others in those local authorities are likely to be elected to another place. Prominent among them is Ken Livingstone who was quoted in City Limits last April as saying:
If I went on telly now and said Kinnock's a scab and Healey should be de-selected, everyone in London Labour Briefing would give me a big kiss. Can you imagine what Lenin or Mao would have done with those sort of self-indulgent creatures? Killed them. And whilst I'm opposed to capital punishment, I can see why.
I sometimes think that I am becoming paranoid. I rather wish that I were. The problems which concern
me would then be mine alone and I could, in a sense, relax. But just as I welcome that thought, a new and disturbing development occurs: in reality my concerns are confirmed. They are that in our country there are political extremists of the hard-line totalitarian and fascist Left (I should be equally worried if they were of the totalitarian fascist Right) who are engaged in the subversion of our democratic society. They are working in areas where they can be most effective in sowing the seeds of revolution—whether that be ideological as in education, or political as in local government.
§ Democracy, by its very nature, is precarious. It depends upon good faith. It is always vulnerable to manipulation by unrepresentative minorities of political activists. If as a nation, we do not take steps to curb the kinds of violation of local democracy which this debate will highlight, we shall run the risk of allowing those who are explicitly committed to its destruction to have their way. The stakes they are playing for are high. The evidence is before us. It speaks for itself.
§ I beg to move for Papers.
§ 4 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Skelmersdale)
My Lords, what a damning categorisation that was with which my noble friend Lady Cox opened this important debate. I congratulate her on framing the guidelines for this afternoon so carefully and so clearly. To some people, I suppose it would come as a surprise, but not to anyone who reads the papers or indeed listens to debates and questions either here or in another place.
Another thing that strikes me immediately is the timeliness of this debate. Not only is it less than a week since the Audit Commission published its report on the management of London's authorities but it is also in the week when the Labour Party is debating its policy towards local government at its conference in Leeds. If the Opposition take as much notice of this debate as I can assure my noble friend that the Government intend to, then we may be able to cure some of the ills that have swamped some local authorities and are threatening to engulf more and more.
I must preface my remarks today by acknowledging the great and honourable traditions of local government. I also pay tribute to the devoted—and unpaid—public service rendered to communities up and down the country by the majority of local councillors. The tragedy is that their reputation and the honourable traditions of local government are being tarnished by the activities of a minority of equally dedicated but misdirected people.
Let me briefly remind the House of the sorts of things some councils are doing in the name of local democracy and supposedly in the interests of the people they were elected to serve. In Manchester, the council has set up a police unit, with a reported budget of £195,000, which produces an expensive glossy magazine, Police Watch. What does it do? It just criticises the police in order to put them in an unfavourable light. The same council's nuclear-free 213 zone is said to cost £95,000. Taken together, that is over £¾ million a year which could be spent on the homeless.
Since Ealing Borough Council changed political control last May, almost 1,000 new council jobs are said to have been created; for example, a police unit co-ordinator at £18,000 a year and the head of a race equality unit at £20,000 a year. The council has apparently had to rent a new building to accommodate all these new staff. Just think what else the council could have used this money for.
The London borough of Brent has a national reputation. It is now advertising for a range of new posts: race advisers, women's advisers, gay advisers. I can only assume from listening to my noble friend that this did not go down very well locally. The council, you see, has also had to employ a public relations firm to boost its poor image. This is more than a convenient political quip to the people of Brent. They are the ones who have to pay—not only the vast sums involved in employing these specialist advisers but also, it is reported, £1,000 per month to the public relations firm and £10,000 for its publicity.
Haringey, as my noble friend spelt out so clearly, is seeking to promote homosexuality in its schools. The wishes of ordinary, decent parents count for nothing. In some areas, grant-aid is said to be in jeopardy if recipients do not follow the council's policies. We all know how they do it. My noble friend has spelt it out and I have no doubt other noble Lords will bring their knowledge to bear.
In March 1986 the Liverpool district auditor sent a report about the city's finances to every Liverpool city councillor. That report was utterly damning. That seems to be one of my currrent phrases, but it is justified, I am afraid. It described the poor performance, the appalling style, the inefficiency, the ineffectiveness and total disregard for value for money displayed by the city council. It painted a picture of carelessness on the part of councillors about the management of the council's affairs. It made clear that in Liverpool it is the council which comes first, second and third, and the effective delivery of services to citizens comes last of all. I could multiply these examples but it would depress me. I am sure it would depress the House too.
Enter the seventh cavalry, with a flourish of trumpets made up of leaks! I mean of course what the Opposition has in mind to stop these abuses and to regulate the antics of their hard Left colleagues. I have the blueprint here. The Labour Party has circulated a paper outlining its ideas for reforming local government in England and Wales. Believe it or not, its plan is to give these outrageous councils more powers and more money; and to remove the existing controls on their activities.
Let me briefly highlight some of its proposals. Local authorities would be given a general competence to act in areas not expressly proscribed in statute. As a bonus, it is hinted that they might also be given control of wider remits—the health service and the drawing up of elaborate strategies for the regional economy. The London boroughs might get control of the police. Imagine the consequences of putting the leadership of some of these boroughs in charge of the police.
214 To encourage some councillors to continue their political crusades, it is proposed to give them salaries commensurate with those of government Ministers. Not only this, but personal liability for their public spending decisions would be removed. They will be free to compete with the private sector in the provision of any services they choose. There will be presumably local authority garden centres, local authority building firms, local authority entertainment centres. In passing, should I put a proposal to my right honourable friend to have a garden centre in Green Park, I can only assume I would get full vocal support from the Opposition. I hope this will not remain party policy after the discussions in Leeds.
Looking at the party's paper, it is difficult to know just what is being proposed in local government finance. I hope the noble Baroness, Lady David, will spell it out for us. But it seems clear that the proposals would give local authorities no incentive at all to restrain their expenditure. With our knowledge of certain local authorities we can imagine the likely spending bonanza that would ensue. If past experience is anything to go by it could mean in some authorities more gay and lesbian clubs, more nuclear-free zones, more anti-police propaganda and fewer services for ordinary men, women and children. One begins to wonder when these authorities will have time to turn their minds to their real task—that of providing services for the people in their localities.
It is also proposed to abolish the mechanism which the Government have used to tackle the worst spending excesses of local authorities: rate limitation. But what about the ordinary ratepayers? If authorities selected for rate limitation next year were allowed to spend as they would like, there would be rate increases of upwards of 50 per cent. and even 100 per cent. That would not be good news for ratepayers. In overall terms, rate bills next year in the 20 selected authorities will be £60 million less than the total bill for this year. That means £60 million more in the pockets of the ratepayers.
But—I seem to hear noble Lords opposite cry—the rate limits you are setting will lead to massive cuts in services. The answer is quite clear: they have not in the past and they need not in the future. What the Opposition does not say is that rate-limited councils are typically the worst offenders when it comes to waste and inefficiency. Look at Brent, for example, where rent arrears run to a staggering 63 per cent. of total rent collectable in a year; or Lambeth where the Lambeth Walk laundry costs ratepayers £8 a wash, but customers pay only £1.50. Lambeth Walk is leading the ratepayers a merry dance.
I could go on with these examples of gross inefficiency, but there is no need to do so. The Audit Commission's latest report has highlighted to a disturbing degree just how wasteful some of the inner London boroughs are. It contrasts the wasteful and incompetent way in which eight Labour-controlled London boroughs run their affairs with the rather better performance of a second group of other London local authorities with similar problems under a variety of political control.
On average, the eight boroughs in the first group spend £7 per week per household more than those in 215 the second group. Yet the Audit Commission shows that the services they provide are no better and often worse. Their refuse collection is no better that those of the other councils but it costs them 20 per cent. more per household. It takes seven weeks longer on average to relet houses or flats requiring minor repairs. They spend a staggering £5,700 a year more for every child in residential care. How can they manage to spend so much more?
One way they do it is by following the exhortations in the Labour Party's paper—they employ more staff. They employ a third more staff per resident than the other boroughs and twice as many staff per resident as the most deprived metropolitan authorities outside London. One of these authorities was found to have over 100 committees, sub-committees and working parties of members. It is bureaucracy gone mad. Of course they blame the Government's grant and capital control systems. Yet, as the Audit Commission has shown, other authorities in very similar circumstances can cope well and live within the guidelines. Why cannot they? A number of authorities have sought to get round the government controls on capital and current spending by means of creative accounting. The Audit Commission's report also pointed out that in a number of London authorities expenditure is outstripping income by a long way. Some authorities have been covering the gap by various dubious devices. The Government deplore the use of creative accounting devices which leave ratepayers facing a huge bill in future years, regardless of local election results. It is reckless and imprudent. It mortgages the future so that people do not have to face up to reality now. If one wanted to be emotive about it—and I do not—one could call it buying votes on the never-never. At least the Opposition's document appears to recognise the problem. It says;The sensible solution is to recognise that capital expenditure under deferred purchase arrangements has already taken place.Quite what that means remains to be seen. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, will tell us when he comes to wind up.
I am delighted that the Labour Party are discussing the future of local government; but their proposals seem to me to have one fatal flaw. They do not address the relationship between the people who pay for services, the people who receive them, and the people who vote. The absence of any effective relationship is at the root of many of the problems of local government today.
The Government have been concerned about the growing abuses in local government for a long time. Our concern is mirrored by ratepayers and businesses and we have been getting on with doing something about it. Early in 1985, we set up an independent committee of inquiry to look into a wide range of practices and procedures in local government—the Widdicombe Committee. The committee's report—which was published in June last year—contains a substantial package of proposals designed to safeguard and strengthen the democratic process. The Government have not reached any firm conclusions on these proposals. We believe that it is essential first to consider the views of those most affected—including the people in local government 216 who would have to administer the changes. All local authorities and other interested parties were asked for comments by the end of last year. We are now analysing the report and the responses to it before deciding on the best way to strengthen local democracy.
I hope that this debate will produce many views. I can assure the house that my right honourable and honourable friends will scrutinise them with the same care that they are giving to the written responses. But let there be no mistaking that the Government take very seriously the threat posed to local democracy by the antics of some local authorities. This threat is spreading. It is a threat—I agree with my noble friend—which we cannot ignore.
The Government are also firmly committed to preventing profligate behaviour by local authorities. Since its introduction in 1985–86, rate limitation has meant enormous savings to ratepayers—and not only those in rate-limited authorities. Other authorities have exercised greater restraint to avoid being selected for rate limitation. They realise only too well that it is not in their real interests.
The Government have also been undertaking a review of the present capital control system. We have decided against introducing major legislation on this in the current session of Parliament because we believe that the system of local authority capital control is now best considered alongside the proposals in Paying for Local Government for the wider reform of local government finance. There are obvious advantages in introducing changes in the arrangements for current and capital together.
We are committed to implementing far-reaching reforms of the system of local government finance. The proposals set out in our Green Paper are designed to restore local accountability and thereby enhance democratic local government. However, the behaviour of a small number of local authorities has to be stopped without delay. We have already acted to end an abuse relating to advance and deferred purchase schemes. These are borrowing schemes masquerading as expenditure. They transfer expenditure from the year when work is done to an earlier or later year. If indulged in on any scale, deferred purchase stores up massive problems for ratepayers in the future regardless of future election results.
We shall also be introducing legislation to promote more competition in the provision of local authority services. Competition is essential to securing efficiency. This legislation is not part of some anti-local government campaign. It forms part of our determined drive to increase the competitiveness and efficiency of the whole economy. Local government accounts for about a quarter of public expenditure. Its efficiency is crucially important for the health of the economy.
However, competition is no good unless it is fair competition. A growing number of authorities are abusing the contractual process. Some indulge in political posturing; for example, by banning contractors who have worked at nuclear missile sites, or have transported workers across picket lines, or have links with South Africa. Others do all they can to 217 make it hard for contractors to compete. They say how much contractors must pay their staff, and they lay down other conditions of employment. As I said when I had the honour, on behalf of the Government, to respond to one of the debates on the Loyal Address, local authorities are not the courts.
These kinds of practice have nothing to do with the contractors' ability to carry out work or supply goods, or with an authority's duty to its ratepayers to obtain value for money. They are merely an attempt by authorities to impose their own social policies on firms who wish to do business with them. Some authorities have also developed all kinds of other anti-competitive practices. They reject lowest tenders without good reason. They offer work in ways designed to make it unattractive to contractors. We shall deal with practices like this in the legislation.
I have not enjoyed making this speech, but the picture that I have painted of what is going on in some authorities—and I stress in some authorities—is a fair and accurate one, and depressing. In some authorities the extremism and the profligacy are very depressing indeed. The whole local fabric is being undermined. Do not think that I am saying this only because the authorities concerned have different politics from mine. The Audit Commission is entirely independent. It makes the point clearly enough, goodness only knows!
Let us hope that the Audit Commission's words, coupled with the continuing discipline of the Government's controls on local authority expenditure, will serve to concentrate minds on efficiency, economy and good management rather than political posturing and opportunism. That would go a long way towards tackling the real problems which undoubtedly exist. Where there are real abuses, the Government are not hesitant to use legislation to stamp them out. However, there is another remedy. Local voters know what is going on in their own areas. If one message is to go out from this House this afternoon, it is that enfranchisement is the best weapon of all. My message—I hope our message—to people up and down the country is: "use your vote."
§ 4.19 p.m.
§ Baroness David
My Lords, I must at once say how much I agree with what the Minister has said. We want people to use their votes. I must, of course, congratulate the noble Baroness on her fluency which is extreme. The noble Baroness attacked councils as being anti-democratic. However, I must confess that I found her speech anti-democratic, because if these councils are doing things which are so bad and so unpopular then it is up to the electors to use their votes and to find people they prefer. In this I agree with the Minister.
Listening to the noble Baroness on the two subjects of education and local government I always find that she is very extreme indeed. I must not use the word "unbalanced", but there is a marked contrast between her speeches on these subjects and those she makes on nursing and the health service, which seem to be extremely sensible.
I am worried by the tone of the debate so far this afternoon. I do not like it at all. Those noble Lords 218 who were present on Monday for the debate on the urban priority areas will appreciate that so far the tone and atmosphere of this debate have been very different.
I should like to remind the House of the appalling problems with which some of these councils have to deal. Anyone who listened to the debate on the urban priority areas on Monday, which was opened by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, will know that there is a real crisis in our inner cities. The noble and learned Lord said:But let us never, at any stage during this afternoon's debate, forget that the shadow of that decline and decay hangs over the nation at large, introducing into what is on the whole a happy and sunny place a very dark and dangerous shadow".—[Official Report, 2.2.87; col. 14.]At col. 15 the noble and learned Lord went on to say:I suggest to your Lordships that we should forbear from a fine slanging match at the expense of either Labour or Conservative governments in their efforts to solve the problem …".I hope that other speakers this afternoon will pay heed to that because the situation is too serious and too alarming for political capital to be made out of it. "Politicking" (I think that such a word now exists) is not suitable and not right.
If we look at the councils in the Commission's Groups A and B, we find Brent in Group A. In my speech I shall refer almost entirely to the Audit Commission report, on which I thought that this debate would probably be based. The Minister said that Brent was Labour-controlled, but it was not Labour-controlled until May last year. Therefore a great many of the matters which have been complained of were certainly started when the authority was under Conservative control. Brent had the highest turnover of senior officers leaving in the three years to late 1986: 77 per cent. In Group B, which are the "better" authorities, if that is the right word to use we find Greenwich and Newham, which are Labour-controlled. Therefore blanket condemnation of Labour councils will not wash.
I must make it absolutely clear at once that we on this side do not wish to defend inefficiency, waste or incompetence. I am very glad to have heard the Minister say that it is a small minority of councils which come into that category. We support good management, but good management alone will not solve the grave problems faced by these councils. Nor can central government be let off their responsibility for many of the difficulties that local government has had to face over the last seven years. The bad relationship between the two—and that applies not just to those few minority councils—has not helped.
It would be fair to say that the problems and pressures in Group A, the target group, are much more severe than they are in the other two groups. The Government's own measure of relative need—grant-related expenditure—shows the following for the two largest services for inner London authorities: social services is 9 per cent. higher than it is for the other London authorities and 76 per cent. higher than it is for those outside London. The differences are even greater in respect of housing: over 100 per cent. greater than it is in the other London authorities and a massive 645 per cent. greater than it is in those 219 authorities out of London. This in itself is not conclusive because GREs themselves are flawed and reflect government policy decisions as well as need. However, the Government could hardly be accused of bias in favour of the target group of authorities.
The target group have greater council house stocks per head of population; their population is more ethnically diverse. The proportion of children in one-parent households is 16 per cent. higher than it is in other London authorities and 58 per cent. higher than it is in the outside London group. Homeless households are 40 per cent. higher in the target group than is the case in other London authorities.
I believe that it is right to take these facts into account and that it is inappropriate simply to compare expenditure levels or unit costs of the three groups and deduce that any differences are entirely the consequences of management structures or the fault of politicians.
Another factor that we must examine is the very high cost of both commercial buildings and housing in London. All public bodies suffer from this. In the London area rent per square foot of office space is on average £14 and it is £6 per square foot in the regions. A consequence of high commercial rents is a general rise in property prices. The very high cost of housing means an upward pressure on wage costs, which are 12 to 18 per cent. higher in Greater London than they are in England as a whole. This means that there is difficulty in attracting good officers to work in London. At the moment London is a net loser of key staff because variations in pay levels between London and the rest of the country do not adequately reflect the higher cost of living in London. Not only housing but high travel costs have to be taken into account. The Economist, in an article last October, concluded:Local government pay is practically uniform across the country and local government officers are much higher up the pay ladder outside London and much lower down in London. A job which might be regarded as relatively easy and pleasant, such as running the housing department in the City of York, attracts much the same basic salary as the difficult job of running the housing department for the inner London borough of Haringey".The Audit Commission Report says:local government salaries and conditions make it difficult for inner London authorities to compete with the private sector or less stressful authorities in the provinces. … This is particularly true in the information technology field, where senior council staff in London are paid around one-third below the rate necessary to attract the very best qualified people, as the jobs demand".Of course these people in the finance field are just the sort of people the councils need for managing their budgets and their financial problems.
Many of the problems faced by local authorities in the capital are also faced by district health authorities. They have the same high-cost problems and they have to deal with very similar social problems. They exhibit the same kind of cost differentials with the rest of the country as the local authorities. If one takes the basic costs of each acute patient treated, the costs in London per 1,000 residents are a minimum of 24 per cent. above the English average. If one examines the cost of domestic services—cleaning and porters—one sees that all but two authorities have costs over 24 per cent. higher than the English average. This information 220 comes from the DHSS published performance indicators for district health authorities.
Alternatively, let us look at the costs of the Metropolitan Police, the only force in England and Wales which is directly and solely responsible to the Home Secretary. Police costs in London are substanially higher than those in the rest of England, including the inner city areas. If one compares police costs on a per capita basis—that is a common basis of comparison and one often used by the DoE and the Audit Commission to compare local authorities—the Met. might well be condemned as grossly inefficient, for its costs are almost two and a half times greater than those in the rest of the county.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, will the noble Baroness give way? In making her calculations, I hope that she will bear in mind that the Metropolitan Police Force is responsible for the capital and has numerous national responsibilities, including, as we heard during Question Time today, inquiries in other parts of the country. It is not fair to compare its costs with those of other police forces.
§ Baroness David
My Lords, of course I must accept what the noble Lord says. However, I still think that it is odd that the Metropolitan Police premises are four and a half times as costly as those in other parts of the country and that expenditure on civilian staff is six times as much. I should have thought that that was indicative of overstaffing. One suspects that those would be the conclusions drawn up if the discussion had been about local authorities. If it were argued that the per capita presentation of the figures is misleading due to the sheer size of the Metropolitan police and the special functions it performs, we might take as our measure the cost of clearing up serious crime. Outside London police forces spend on average £1,969 for each crime cleared up. In London the figure is £7,269. In spite of the additional cost, performance there is markedly less good.
If the Audit Commission were producing a report on the police, the next stage might be to calculate the waste of resources implied. If the Met. spent only twice what it spends on the rest of the country for each crime solved, that would save over £400 million. The Commission might then urge the Met. to improve its efficiency to achieve this target and suggest that the savings can be used to increase the number of crimes solved, or to cut police numbers. However, I shall not continue with that matter and hope that the point is made.
I want to speak of the DHSS supplementary benefit offices. They have a very direct bearing on local authority costs, particularly housing costs. This is because of the administration of housing benefit and the problems of rate and rent arrears about which the audit commissioners had something to say.
The Greater London Citizens Advice Bureau, in a survey of DHSS offices in London, said:The system for administering supplementary benefit has virtually collapsed.The collapse of the service of paying SB to over 1.3 million people in London dependent on it, has important consequences for local authorities. It is another indication of the special problems faced in 221 London because of the concentration of unemployment and poverty.
I should like to read a few of the findings of that survey because I think they are important. They are as follows:Almost 75% of DHSS local offices failed frequently or very frequently to assess and pay benefit within the statutory 14 days; …There were frequent errors in assessment and calculation of benefits in 38% of the offices surveyed; …88% of DHSS offices do not have sufficiently trained staff …66% of DHSS offices have a backlog of claims waiting to be processed; …It is easy to understand the difficulties that this causes to the social services and the inevitability of build up of rate and rent arrears.
If claimants are very short of money they cannot be blamed for spending the available money on food and warmth (particularly if there are children and old people who have to be cared for) and deferring paying the rent. I hope that by reference to the health service, the police and the DHSS service I have shown that the high costs which are faced by London local authorities are not unique.
At this moment I wish to say something about ILEA. The noble Baroness made some references to it. I asked Mr. William Stubbs, the Chief Education Officer of that authority, to tell me what he thought about what the Audit Commission had said. I received the following letter this morning and I think that it should be quoted:The first point to make is that apart from a formal reference to the Authority in paragraph 2 as the Authority which serves the inner city, it is noteworthy that there is no other reference to the Authority in the document. That is no accident. The Audit Commission looked carefully at the Authority and what it was doing and were satisfied that it was seeking to tackle the serious problems facing the inner city. It would be misleading, therefore, if critics of the Authority were to see this document as evidence of mismanagement in the ILEA.In paragraph 4 (of the Commission report) there is a reference to the qualifications of young people where the document, after drawing attention to the decline in job opportunities in Greater London, goes on to say 'This is particularly serious when around half the 95,000 leaving school in inner London every year have no 'O'-level or equivalent CSE passes.' John Banham, the controller, confirmed with me that the reference to inner London school leavers is an error and it should have been a reference to Greater London, in other words, to the area covered by the ILEA and the other 20 local education authorities. The number of young people currently leaving school in inner London each year is 24,000. Of these 20% leave school without an 'O'-level or a CSE qualification. I understand that the Commission were attempting to draw attention to the number who have no passes at Grade A-C at 'O'-level or CSE grade 1. As you will know, that is a restricted definition of success in examinations but even on this criteria, the percentage of young people obtaining such passes in ILEA establishments has increased over the last three years from 31.5% to 33.9%.You will know full well of the social problems facing us in inner London and of the initiatives that the authority has taken to meet these needs ranging from special support to schools for children for whom English is a second language, to the establishment of special teams of inspectors whose task it is to bring about an improvement in the achievement of young people in designated schools.All of this, of course, needs to be seen in the context of our impending budget difficulties where the Government is seeking approval from Parliament for a reduction of some £125 million in the Authority's budget. That is scarcely likely to accelerate our drive to improve the quality of the education service.That is the end of the letter from Mr. Stubbs but I think it is important to get the matter put straight.
222 The Audit Commission report is rightly critical of much that the councils do or do not do. The report suggests that efforts are now being made. Paragraph 41 states:But the Commission and its auditors have been convinced that some, at least, of the authorities in Group A now recognise the need for change in the way their affairs are managed.I saw Mr. Banham last week and he told me that discussions are going on with the authorities concerned and there is willing co-operation and constructive action being taken. He approved of the decentralisation going on in Islington. There are very substantial reductions in rate and rent arrears and in housing voids. The AMA is in the process of setting up an efficiency and best practice unit, which it is hoped will be really useful to its members.
Mr. Banham did not make light of the difficulties that these authorities have to face; namely, the quick turnover of staff, the posts vacant and the problems of attracting officers to London, about which I have already spoken. There is also the quick turnover of members referred to in paragraph 44:Excluding Lambeth, in the boroughs in Group A less than 20 per cent. of members has more than four years' experience. There is therefore a dearth of experienced councillors.I would suggest that annual elections can help to give continuity to the councils. I was delighted that aldermen were abolished in 1974. But I suppose their existence did give continuity and some practical experience to the councils. If councils are replaced totally every three or four years as a result of elections, then there could be a large group of new and quite inexperienced councillors. I think that it a pity.
One cannot help speculating that the antipathy to local government which this Tory Government seem to have, resulting in less and less decision-taking being at the local level, constant changes in the way finance is provided, and a constant rundown of the services that a good councillor wants to see for his area, may well have driven good and experienced councillors from being prepared to stand for election.
Local government has been downgraded. Speaking as a councillor for many years, I am extremely sad about that. The report does not let the Government off the hook. It criticised the present system for distributing block grant to local authorities and controlling capital expenditure in an earlier report. I am not going to quote the whole of the report but parts of paragraphs 55, 56 and 57. Paragraph 55 states:… "Suffice it to say that, in the Commission's view, the existing systems are wasteful and inefficient—and have given rise to many of the creative accounting devices referred to earlier. Like tax avoidance, creative accounting will always exist so long as there is such a complex system of central planning and control.In paragraph 56 the report states:But London faces some particular problems, associated with the combination of relatively high rateable values, and the withdrawal of grant from authorities spending above GRE—which has the effect of penalising ratepayers for the spending decisions of councils over which they have little (if any) influence … under the present system, deprived London authorities can receive less grant per person than less deprived authorities outside the capital. For example, the residents of Hackney which is arguably the most deprived borough in the country received some £200 per household less in rate support grant last year than Manchester, which has lesser problems and does not face the extra cost of the London labour market. The difference would have meant almost £15 million in extra grant to Hackney in 223 1985–86 … Expenditure on housing improvements in London needs to be increased, yet capital allocations for housing to local authorities in Greater London have fallen from £1.5 billion in 1979–80 to under £500 million last year; and London's share has fallen from 35 per cent. to under 30 per cent.As the local authorities are taking heed of the commission's findings, so I hope will the Government. The report spells out the underlying problems: high welfare dependency and generation intervals of 15 years or less; youth unemployment of 70 per cent. or more; high crime rates, much of it drug-related; uneasy relations between the police and a disaffected and largely unemployed under-class, with no stake in the development of the society in which they live. Unless these problems are solved the future for our cities can only be horrific. It must not be allowed to happen.
It is a huge sociological problem. The Audit Commission sees effective management as the key to preventing it happening. It will help of course, but it will not be enough on its own. There must also be a wider understanding by the Government of what they should do and what their actions in the past have caused to happen. I hope sincerely that the Minister in responding to today's debate will be able to say that the Government too are paying attention to the criticisms levelled at them in the report; and that if the councils are making a real effort to make improvements the Government will help them and will propose some reforms themselves that will end this horrible confrontation that has bedevilled relations between central and local government for some years.
§ 4.42 p.m.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, first I should like to welcome the fact that we are having this debate. Our enthusiasm for it is perhaps a little greater than that of the noble Baroness who has just sat down, and for perhaps rather predictable reasons. I did not find the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, antidemocratic. That is a curious argument. If we are to say that if we attack a local authority it is being antidemocratic, what happens when we are attacking the elected government of the day? It seems a strange argument at first sight, but no doubt the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, will come back to this point when he responds to the debate at the end of our proceedings today.
First of all, the common ground. It was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and indeed by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, that there are indeed many worthy councillors—Labour councillors, Conservative councillors, Alliance councillors—and many first-rate local authorities. But what we are talking about today, as the noble Baroness rightly said, is a minority, but undoubtedly a growing minority, of local authorities.
I, like her, do not like this term, the "loony Left". It is a silly phrase. It conjures up in one's mind some of those cartoons from Cummings in the Daily Express where one had those bewhiskered and bearded people, wearing sandals of course, or carpet slippers, and always wearing rather scruffy pullovers. I do not think there is much relationship between that and Mr. Ken Livingstone, Mr. Ted Knight and Mr. Bernie Grant. 224 They deserve to be taken seriously. We take them seriously on these Benches, and I suspect that Mr. Kinnock takes them even more seriously.
The objectionable behaviour of the minority of local authorities that we are talking about falls, I think, into three categories: first, their financial irresponsibility—touched on, of course, in the report of the Audit Commission—which is leading a number of them close to bankruptcy; secondly, their contempt for the principles of democracy, and their efforts to suppress minority rights and often majority rights.
The third category is their gross and continuing abuse of power; their determination to appoint officials on the basis of their political beliefs rather than their capacity to do the job; their efforts to spend large sums of public money on political propaganda (efforts which are, I may say, continuing); and their use of public money to support a wide range of Left-wing extremists from so-called police monitoring groups to the front organisations of the Provisional IRA. Incidentally, I find it quite extraordinary that we have elected representatives of the people of London who are prepared to provide a platform for men and women who are acting in the interests of people who murder British soldiers and policemen.
I propose to touch on each of these issues and discuss briefly how I think we should deal with them. First, then, the question of their financial record. As the noble Baroness, Lady David, said, no one should underestimate the real difficulties which would face any local authority in an inner-city area, however moderate that local authority might be. As the Audit Commission said in its report published last week, there are disturbing parallels between some parts of inner London and some parts of the South Bronx in New York and the Southside of Chicago. There is poor housing and education; high unemployment; a very high—disturbingly high—level of crime, a substantial proportion of that drug-related; and an exodus of jobs and the better off to the suburbs. It is exactly the frightening situation that we have seen in the United States and which was touched on in the debate on Monday initiated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman.
It is a daunting situation. What it requires is a genuine partnership between central and local government. What unhappily we see is remorseless confrontation. We have certainly made clear on these Benches our criticism of the Government—and did so on Monday—so far as their policies towards the inner cities are concerned. But it is only fair to say that no government of any political persuasion would be able to tolerate the behaviour of the hard Left local authorities we are talking about today.
Consider for a moment the record of the eight boroughs mentioned in the Audit Commission's report: Brent, Camden, Hackney, Haringey, Islington, Lambeth, Lewisham and Southwark. Their expenditure, says the Audit Commission (I think most of us found its report to be a persuasive and extremely fair-minded document) is double that of similarly deprived areas after allowing for the extra costs associated with employing people in London. There is a cash gap of £400 million in prospect for next year—as much as 40 per cent. of the revenue 225 expenditure in some of those boroughs. And there are over £700 million of deferred purchase arrangements: in effect, a huge burden of short-term debt overhanging these councils.
Unless some form of urgent action is taken the position of these councils is going to become unsustainable. There is a real risk—Mr. Banham referred to this only a few weeks ago—of the collapse of public services affecting some of the most deprived people in our community.
In almost every area of these councils' activities there is waste and mismanagement. Rent arrears, as we know, are spiralling out of control. For the eight boroughs I have named, their rent arrears are now, on an average, 20 per cent. of their annual rent rolls compared with under 7 per cent. for a group of local authorities in equally disadvantaged areas, most of which, if not all, are Labour controlled.
Their re-letting policy is equally dreadful, as the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said at the beginning of the debate. It takes no less than an average of 20 weeks—20 weeks!—to re-let a council property in these London boroughs. These are boroughs where councillors spend a great deal of their time talking about the problems of homelessness, yet preside over a situation where, as a result of their own incompetence and obsession with matters which have nothing whatever to do with local government, the situation is getting even worse. The management costs per dwelling, because of this deplorable inefficiency, are twice as much in those boroughs in inner London as they are outside.
There are many explanations for this extraordinary contrast between records. Let me give your Lordships' just two. First, the Audit Commission says in paragraph 45 of its report:Members often find it difficult to distinguish between their roles as politicians, employers and trade unionists. It has proved extremely difficult to secure changes in the face of trade union opposition, often supported by members, and attempts at any kind of performance review all too often result in demands for extra services, which are countered by claims from the trade unions for additional staff and salary regradings. As a result, auditors' reports are peppered with references to industrial relations difficulties".In giving just one example from one of the boroughs concerned, the Audit Commission says this:The Council has a no redundancy policy for its employees. Such a policy might be expected to lead to harmonious industrial relations but in fact this is far from being the case. Staff operate a policy of no cover for vacancies, sickness and so on. Staff in the public libraries have also imposed minimum staffing numbers. When numbers on duty fall below levels set arbitrarily by the staff side, libraries are closed to the public. During 1984–85 there were numerous days when area offices of the Social Services Department could not open to the public".That is what is going on in one inner London borough after another, and it is a disgraceful story.
There is another reason, I think, why the situation is as bad as it is, and that is the frivolous attitude of so many of the councillors towards their responsibilities. Let me quote just a few items appearing on the agenda of a full meeting of Lambeth council, one of the councils referred to by the Audit Commission, which was held just before Christmas: a petition against the attendance of male councillors at meetings of the women's rights committee; address by representatives of the National Union of Eritrean Women; 226 disbandment of Aberdeen Women's Committee; address by Sinn Fein councillors; and Lesbians and Policing.
I think that gives one a flavour of what it must be like to have the privilege of being a member of the local authority in Lambeth. It is silly, it is pointless, it is damaging; and all it does is to bring local government itself into disrepute.
I turn now, if I may, to a second issue which was identified at the beginning of my speech; that is, the contemptuous disregard for democracy which is shown by many of these councils. Opposition councillors are often denied, as a matter of policy, information which they require in order to carry out their responsibilities as elected members of the council. It is true that sometimes it is possible to challenge the cruder manifestations of this policy in the courts. That was done, as the House may recall, in the Hackney case where the Divisional Court intervened decisively. But of course Opposition councillors have to take a massive risk. They have to finance their own action when they go to the courts, knowing that the full resources of the local authority may be used against them and that if they initiate the action they may have to pay costs, not only in the Divisional Court but in the Court of Appeal and even, should it go so far, in your Lordships' House.
Quite apart from that, when one goes, as I went, to a meeting of the local authority in Lambeth two years ago—it was its rate-fixing meeting—one is deeply depressed by the spectacle. I was for six years the leader of the Labour majority group in Essex. We had our differences of opinion there, but I had never seen anything quite like the Lambeth meeting. A calculated effort was made to deny the opposition the right of free speech, and the mayor, who presided, took no action whatever to defend minority rights. One hears disturbing reports that this is going on in one council chamber after another. It is, I think, an exceptionally sad story.
Lastly, if I may, I will turn to the gross abuse of power by those authorities. First, there is the desire to politicise council appointments. I raised this issue last November in the debate we had on the gracious Speech. I point out that in its last annual report the Audit Commission said this about some of the inner London authorities:Relations between members of the authorities and their senior officers are not universally on a sound footing. Senior appointments are not always made on the basis of the ability to do the job.Indeed, that is certainly true. In many authorities, of course, not the slightest effort is made to disguise their objective, which is to appoint political zealots to key council posts. Let me give your Lordships just two examples of what is happening. In its most recent report—the noble Baroness, Lady David, referred to these figures although her interpretation was perhaps, slightly different from mine—the Audit Commission drew attention to the quite extraordinary turnover of senior officials in London boroughs. Some of the vacancies have arisen because officials have been arbitrarily dismissed solely because there has been a change of political control in the authority itself.
That is quite extraordinary. Ten years ago that would have been regarded as inconceivable. It is as 227 though, with a newly elected government in this country, the first thing Ministers did was to dismiss all the Permanent Under-Secretaries and the Deputy Under-Secretaries in Whitehall. In other cases, officials have moved because of the relentless harassment to which they have been subjected.
I would ask your Lordships to consider these quite extraordinary figures for the period to late 1986. During that period 39 per cent. of Haringey's senior officers went; in Southwark, 57 per cent, of their senior officers went; in Camden in was 69 per cent. That is in a period of just three years. And, of course, with that record of officer harrassment many key jobs in the authorities concerned have been left unfilled for months. The Audit Commission says that there are no fewer than 32 jobs in the top three tiers which are vacant in these boroughs and also 15 chief officer posts vacant, where the pay is in the region of £25,000 a year.
There is also a shortage of skilled accountancy and computer staff, so that several of the boroughs concerned have failed to file their full accounts for the last financial year, which they had to do by last September. Last December the Audit Commission said that a number of them had still failed to do that. That is bad enough. What is worse is the manner in which many authorities—far more than the eight to which I have referred—attempt to fill the vacancies that do arise. They ask many applicants for the positions involved to indicate their sympathy for the objectives of the council. That is how it is described. What it means of course is the political views of the dominant party group on that council. Sometimes the approach is even more blatant. Fo the first time in local government history there is now heavy public appointments advertising in the columns of one party newspaper, Labour Weekly.
In one or two special cases—for instance, where an appointment is being made as a special adviser to the leader of the council—I think that is perfectly legitimate. But let me give some examples of what is being done at public expense. Stirling District Council bought advertising space in Labour Weekly to advertise a vacancy for a recreation officer; Sandwell did so for the head of a school music department; Kilmarnock for a parks manager; Manchester for a chief emergency planning officer; my old Labour authority of Harlow for a development officer and a computer officer; and Edinburgh for a principal assistant to their veterinary surgeon. I do not know how many veterinary surgeons are likely to read Labour Weekly—a fairly modest number, I should have thought.
It is just conceivable, I suppose, that one of the objectives is to pump a lot of money into Transport House funds. I think that the House and the Government should ask themselves, whatever party newspaper or political party is involved—that is absolutely irrelevant—whether there is not something wholly objectionable about subsidising political parties by these methods. Quite apart from anything else, it gives an extraordinary advantage in some cases to an applicant who says, "I am writing in response to your advertisement in Labour Weekly." It could not be much clearer than that (could it?) where his political 228 sympathies lie. And, of course, as we know, a number of public appointments are unhappily made on just that basis at the moment. As I said, it is deplorable, and my views would be the same whichever political party was involved in this practice.
Quite apart from that, I want to make one or two points which I have raised previously in the House, as some Members may recall, about another form of abuse of power by local authorities. My noble friend Lord Kilmarnock and I warned the House—it was, I think just after the last general election—of what would be involved if the Local Authorities (Expenditure Powers) Bill were to be passed in the form in which it then was. We said that if that small government Bill went through, its unintended effect would be to allow the local authority in Islington to spend £100,000 of public money on a free sheet produced by the Islington News Co-operative who were political supporters of the majority party in Islington. I fear that the Government chose to ignore our warning despite the support we received from the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Rawlinson. When we put forward amendments to the Bill which would have prevented that happening, the Government voted us down by 105 votes to 57. The Labour Opposition in this House, to their credit, abstained, and indeed four Labour Peers joined us in the Lobby.
What was the result? Islington set up a newspaper at public expense which went bankrupt after £100,000 had been spent on it—and that in one of the most deprived boroughs of London. Who were the unlikely allies of the Left wing councillors of Islington who voted against us? They were the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, and, surprisingly, the noble Lord. Lord Skelmersdale. I very much hope that when the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, speaks tonight, he will express the deep regrets of his department for the extraordinarily foolish advice given to the House on that occasion. But now it is happening again. I hope that this time I shall engage the attention of the Department of the Environment with more success.
Islington council has now decided to invest £250,000 of its employees' superannuation fund in the formation of a new Left wing Sunday newspaper in London. I should declare an interest. I am a director of a national newspaper myself. Having said that, I wish this new newspaper nothing but good. I am bound to say however that I wonder why £250,000 of superannuation fund money is being put into this project. No superannuation fund manager in the country would dream of pumping money into a new and so far unpublished national newspaper. The risks are too great. It is once again being done explicitly for party political reasons. This is wholly objectionable, and I very much hope that the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, will look into the matter and see what comfort he can give us at the end of the debate.
Finally, after this catalogue of deplorable decisions by a significant number of local authorities, I come to the central question: what are we going to do about it? The Minister has indicated to us that we shall get at some stage a Widdicombe Mark II Bill. I concede at once that this may have some limited value. But there is a danger that the statute book will become 229 increasingly cluttered with obscurely drafted controls on local government which also prove to be largely ineffective. There is the additional problem, as we know from our debates on Widdicombe Mark I, that these have the secondary effect of damaging many worthwhile voluntary organisations.
If Parliament wants once and for all to deal with extremism in the council chamber—and I think there is common ground in all parts of the House, including the Benches to my left—it has a stark choice. The first option is to attempt to impose a further morass of detailed controls which will, I predict, be ineffective. How, for instance, does one deal in a statute with Tammany Hall appointments in the town hall? I know of no way in which a statute can be drafted to make that sort of conduct illegal. Alternatively, we can take action to make it impossible, or very nearly impossible, for extremist Left wing minorities or any other form of extremist minority to impose their will in local government.
When Mr. Ted Knight ruled in Lambeth, presiding over one of the nastiest extremist regimes in the history of London local government, he had the support of precisely one out of every three of the people who had voted in Lambeth in the previous local authority elections. More than 60 per cent. voted either for the Conservative Party or for the Alliance. The noble Baroness rightly referred to Brent which we remember for the squalid persectuion of Miss McGoldrick—one of the most odious incidents that many of us remember in the last 12 months or so. At the last local elections—I recall the enthusiasm of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, in telling us of the need to ensure that everybody goes out and votes—the people of Brent did go out and vote and they voted against the present majority party in Brent. Forty-six per cent. of them voted for the present Labour so-called majority, but that 46 per cent. of the vote was translated into over 65 per cent. of the seats.
On the Inner London Education Authority which is constantly attacked in this House, and often rightly so, the Labour Party obtained 47 per cent. of the votes and they got 77 per cent. of the seats. This has nothing whatever to do with democracy. This is a caricature of representative democracy. But quite apart from that, by putting into office militant authorities who grossly abuse their power, they are bringing closer the day when there will be still further massive movements of power from local communities to government departments in Whitehall.
Therefore, the choice before us is clear. If we do not want that, if we are tired of this country having the most centralised administration in the Western world, and if we want to re-establish responsibility and tolerance in many council chambers, then we have to introduce proportional representation in local government. Without that, the present tyranny of extremist minorities will continue and the reputation of local government will be still further grievously damaged.
§ 5.11 p.m.
The Earl of Halsbury
My Lords, I hope that I may have your Lordships' indulgence if I speak in a somewhat philosophic and reflective vein this evening 230 about aspects of government, both central and local, which have been my preoccupation during the 44 years when I have had a ringside seat in your Lordships' House at party politics, without taking part in them as, for the most part, a public servant and the servant of each party in turn at one time or another.
Bertrand Russell, once asked what sort of society he would want to live in, replied:One inspired by love and guided by knowledge".I do not know that I can inspire anyone by love. But I shall try to guide some by knowledge if I can. From Sigmund Freud I learnt the difference between what he called the manifest dream content and the latent dream thoughts of which a generalisation into the field of sociology would lead one to speculate about the difference between what we think or assert we are doing and what we are actually accomplishing.
For example, if one takes a demoralised and purposeless group of youngsters and forms them up into a football club, one ends by increasing their morale and their self-reliance. However, the overt occasion will be the winning of a football match. One does one thing, and one achieves another.
I have found confirmation of this in Malinowski's "Argonauts of the Western Pacific". The exchange of much prized cult objects between partners on different islands is the motive for undertaking ocean voyages whose functional side effects are the promotion of inter-island trade. From the Siuai of the Solomon Islands I learnt that competitive feast giving, in order to humble a social rival who is the guest of honour at that feast with which he can never hope to compete, is the psychological motive for pig-raising and other agricultural activities in a community which had otherwise little sense of purpose.
I want to borrow one other detail from psychological studies. A factor which is common to all the schools is that we all suffer from an inexplicable sense of guilt for something which we do not understand but which produces a sense of anxiety and which culminates in aggression. Aggression and violence are always beneath the surface of our species
Putting all these thoughts together, I have for a long time pondered on what parliamentary government actually achieves as opposed to what we claim to imagine that it achieves. Does it express the will of the people? Have the people a will in any self-consistent or sustained terms? Of course there is a volatile entity called public opinion. However, that shifts and wavers from day to day. Polls on any subjects one cares to mention make that very clear.
I have finally come to the conclusion that the latent function of our parliamentary democracies and local governments is rather different from what we suppose. Consider any government at half term. It was elected from two to two and a half years ago and it hopes to win an election again in two to two and a half years' time. So hoping, it is unlikely to exasperate its subjects to the extent that they would prefer rebellion, civil war and violent commotion to waiting a couple of years and kicking it out in the cold. It has an essentially pacificatory role in a society over-prone to spontaneous outbursts of aggression. We do of course get them. We were debating those as part of our inner city problems on Monday. But they are at worst small 231 localised outbreaks, lacking the destruction and volcanic violence of the French and Russian revolutions.
Acceptance of this view saves me from cynicism about party politics. I accept them as part of our social pattern. On the surface, a general election may appear to be no more than a political All Fools Day whose intellectual or ideological content is not to be taken seriously. But in spite of that, it does achieve something valuable; it pacifies.
The continuity of the process of government is the task of the Civil Service, which pursues a steady course no matter how many political U-turns its successive masters may make. Politicians and their officials represent a symbiosis between two quite different kinds of organisms. I have noted that when a government is in office too long, the symbiotics seem to merge rather than to preserve their identity as such. The result is complacency from which much trouble may issue.
In contrasting central and local government, the concept of safe seats for one party or the other, with safe boroughs or municipalities, plays a rather different role. A Member of Parliament in the other place, no matter how safe his seat, must expect to spend about half his career in opposition, divorced from the civil servants who would have partnered him if he had been in government. By contrast, in a safe borough the same party will be in power for year after year. The distinction between councillors and local government officers will get more and more blurred as they move into a complacent partnership. This is the point at which they are ripe for infiltration by the type of maggot that we heard about from the noble Baroness.
To this another factor must be added. A Secretary of State and his Permanent Secretary are both professionals engaged whole time. However funny the caricature in "Yes, Minister" may be, Sir Humphrey Appleby does not in fact get his own way as easily or as often as that amusing series portrays. In local government, councillors are part-time amateurs. I use that word in no derogatory sense. We all admire the sporting amateur who does it for fun more than the professional who does it for money. Thank goodness there are men of public spirit who will spend their leisure in local government rather than in self-amusement. I am not saying that "amateur" is in any sense a derogatory word. However, it does have connotations of being a part-timer. Whole-time officers can make rings round them. Other things being equal, the professional will always win.
In local government, the field is set for large-scale complacency in a way that it is not in central government. One form this can take is neglecting real problems in order to go play-acting at the solution of imaginary ones or those totally outside the scope of local government power.
In local government, the big issues, the ideological issues that divided Government and Opposition at Westminster, are really quite irrelevant. What powers have local governments to alter the direction of foreign policy; to negotiate with the IRA; to impose sanctions on South Africa or to decide on the level of armaments requisite for defence? No powers at all! But what fun 232 for them to pretend they have, or to wander off into proclaiming such and such an area a nuclear-free zone; or setting up centres for lesbian and gay rights while leaving the streets unswept and the garbage uncollected; or becoming stooges for the Soviet-inspired CND; et hoc genus omne and all that.
These reflections come from many years of observation. As I told your Lordships at the start, I have been outside party politics all my life, looking inwards towards them and trying to understand what is really happening as opposed to believing people's claims as to what is going on. One conclusion of sociology is that no closed society can paint its own portrait; only an outside observer can do that. One of the early Marxists—I cannot remember whether it was Marx or Engels—said that the task was not to understand society but to change it. I think that anybody who tries to change anything as complicated as society without trying to take the trouble to understand it ought to be locked up. It is in that spirit that I have tried to address your Lordships this afternoon.
§ 5.20 p.m.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords. I always enjoy listening to the noble Earl who has just resumed his seat, and I always regret having to follow him because I enjoy his speeches so much that I find it astonishingly difficult to disagree with anything that he has said. However, I am relieved of that difficulty in respect of the noble Baroness, Lady David, on the Front Bench opposite.
She began her speech with a rather strange comment on the splendid opening speech of my noble friend Lady Cox. She congratulated her, in I thought somewhat acidulated terms, on her fluency, but the congratulations apparently stopped there. I shall reciprocate if I may by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady David, on her loyalty, the loyalty which a lost cause so often evokes. As the noble Baroness has already heard from this debate, her attempted defence of a number of Labour controlled local authorities has not apparently aroused any echo in any other part of your Lordships' House. Indeed, I should like to adopt and to try to follow much of what was so splendidly said by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, perhaps I may just finish that reference and then I shall happily give way. I would wish only to make one exception which will not wholly surprise the noble Lord. I refer to his concluding paragraph. On the other hand, I can tell him that I am rather happy about it because I have a longstanding bet with one of my colleagues that noble Lords who speak from those Benches will drag in proportional representation on any subject you like; and the noble Lord's concluding observations have put me one up on that bet. Now I shall give way to the noble Baroness.
§ Baroness David
My Lords, perhaps I may remind the noble Lord that I said that we on these Benches condemn waste, inefficiency and incompetence.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, I do not imagine that those are very unusual sentiments. It is on the whole unlikely—I put it no higher—that the noble Baroness would have said in terms that those on her Bench were in favour of waste, however much the practical record of their party in government may contradict that. But one does not expect even so frank a person as the noble Baroness actually to come to the Dispatch Box and admit it. But I shall follow up a little what she has just been saying.
She charged my noble friend Lady Cox, and as I understand it by implication my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale, with having expressed anti-democratic sentiments. That is a very odd comment indeed. Surely the essence of democracy is that we are all free and justified in criticising those who have been elected with the very practical view of trying to replace them by somebody else. There is nothing whatever antidemocratic in criticising the conduct, the behaviour and the policies of people who have been elected to power. Indeed, what is anti-democratic is to try to deny that right, as has happened, as the noble Baroness knows, in certain countries that have established dictatorships. Therefore that was a very odd comment.
Another very odd line of argument which the noble Baroness saw fit to adopt was this. She sought to defend the high spending—the high spending in actual terms and the high spending in relation to their population—of the eight London boroughs referred to in the Audit Commission's report on the grounds that they were in London and that London prices and London costs were higher.
§ Baroness David
My Lords, I did not do that. I said that there were greater pressures and greater problems in those eight boroughs than there were in the others. I did not condone the waste and the unnecessary spending.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, I accept that the noble Baroness said that there were reasons for the waste and the unnecessary spending. I quite agree. But what the noble Baroness did not do—and this is the point that I am coming to—was to have in mind what the Audit Commission said on page 4 of its report. The eight boroughs are listed in Group A. They are compared in their expenditure per head of the population and in the number of staff they employ in relation to population, with those in Group B, eight boroughs also in London. Therefore the attempt to defend, which when the noble Baroness looks at Hansard she will see she made, these high levels of spending on the basis that these are London boroughs falls down entirely when they are contrasted, as the Audit Commission contrasted them, with the eight boroughs in Group B which are also in London.
§ Baroness David
My Lords, I am sorry to keep interrupting the noble Lord but I fear that he did not 234 pay quite enough attention to what I said. I said that those eight boroughs in Group A had problems and pressures greater than those in Group B.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, the noble Baroness may have said that but the Audit Commission said the contrary. I think that most of your Lordships will be more inclined to pay attention to the careful studies made by the Audit Commission in its carefully reasoned report than to the mere assertion of the noble Baroness at the Dispatch Box. The Audit Commission goes on its way to point out that the boroughs in Group B have problems similar to those in Group A. But the noble Baroness appears entirely to have ignored that. When she studies her speech in Hansard, and still more her helpful interventions just now, she will realise that she has given the whole case away.
Rather to my surprise, the noble Baroness did not take the normal Labour Party line—not at any great length at any rate—that all that was needed was to pour masses of money into these difficult areas and all would be well. She made some reference—and I welcome another intervention by her if she so wishes—to the need for financial support and additional resources. But she made pointedly less reference to this aspect of the matter than was made from those Benches in the debate we had on Monday, which of course dealt with very closely related matters.
The debate on Monday related to the very real sufferings and hardships of many people who live in these areas of social disadvantage and poverty. This debate deals with the question of how best those difficulties can be dealt with. In the face of local government mismanagement such as we have already heard about this afternoon, it becomes extraordinarily difficult for those areas ever to recover since every discouragement is put in the way, sometimes deliberately, of those who try to restore the prosperity, the vigour and the wellbeing of the areas, which happen to be—and I stress to your Lordships that this is very important—on the whole areas of great hardship and social difficulties.
It obviously does not make sense—and here again I call in aid the Audit Commission—to pour money in when the areas are mismanaged. On this occasion I shall quote paragraph 9 on page 4 of the Audit Commission report:Some London authorities have argued that higher spending reflects greater needs, and that these can only be tackled with more resources and that increased government grant and extra borrowing alone were required. However, increased investment only makes sense if it can be managed effectively: one of the lessons of the past is that 'throwing money at the problem' all too often simply means more waste".That, of course, is the very nub of the problem we are debating.
In that same context, I should like to refer to some observations made on Monday by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. I have given him notice that I intend to refer to his remarks. In dealing with the problems of people living in these areas, he said that many would be happy to forgo tax cuts or, indeed, face higher taxation in order to help them. It is exactly the pouring of money into such areas that the Audit Commission has pointed out will be futile, at any rate while they are managed in this 235 way. It reflects great credit on the hearts of those who take the line that the answer is to forgo tax cuts and, indeed, to increase taxation on those who are earning in order to help in such areas. It reflects rather less credit in respect of their heads.
In this context I cannot help remembering the rough and tough comment of that great man, the late lamented Ernie Bevin, about his colleague George Lansbury. He said:The trouble about poor George is that he is always letting his bleeding heart run away with his bloody head".It is the fact, of course, that simply to go for increased taxation in order to pour money into the areas of difficulty will only accentuate our national financial difficulties. It hardly needs arguing that that is precisely what successive Labour Governments did, and we can all recall the consequences.
It is only by encouraging wealth creation, by stimulating the processes of production, by encouraging enterprise and by getting the wealth created that resources can be created in order to do what we all want to do in those areas. It would be wholly retrograde and wholly counter-productive to follow the lines which, I am sure with great sincerity, the most reverend Primate recommended to the House as recently as last Monday.
So much has now been said about mismanagment by these local authorities that I can spare your Lordships a great deal of the material I had assembled. However, I should like to put this point forward for consideration. If you are an elected authority, responsible for the wellbeing of an area of social distress, unemployment and poverty, surely, your first duty is to encourage enterprise and initiative—private enterprise or public enterprise, whatever sort you like—to set up businesses and installations and to operate in those areas. Surely, you should give every conceivable encouragement to those who can give employment. That is the first duty of any local authority of whatever political colour responsible for such an area.
Not even the noble Baroness, in her loyal speech, was able to suggest that these local authorities were doing anything of the kind. On the contrary, it is clear that people are being greatly discouraged from moving into these areas. That is a tragedy. Again, in Monday's debate, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, in a very fine speech, suggested that these areas needed partnership—a partnership, as he spelled out, involving private enterprise, central government and local authorities. But what appeal to partnership exists in the kind of behaviour seen from these local authorities? What sane, responsible entrepreneur who has any regard whatever for the interests of his shareholders would consider setting up an enterprise in today's circumstances in Manchester, Liverpool, Brent, or in many of the other places mentioned?
The prospect in those places is of high rates—of rates certain to go higher unless they are rate-capped. They are areas where enormous financial liabilities for the future are being accumulated as a result of borrowing.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, I will give way in a moment. I have a little list, as someone once said in an opera, and perhaps the noble Lord's intervention will be even more effective if I complete the list before giving way.
These areas also have local authorities which are unsympathetic to enterprise, difficult over planning applications, unsympathetic to employers and which create an atmosphere—moral as well as economic and social—that does not attract people to live there. Would the noble Lord like to intervene now?
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. Not for the first time has he, like noble Lords on the same Benches, told the House that the level of rates charged in a number of authorities is acting as a deterrent against employers seeking to locate their businesses in those areas. Will the noble Lord comment on a study commissioned in 1985 by the Department of the Environment which was undertaken by Cambridge University? This is what the study said:That main conclusion of this report is that we are able to find little if any influence of rates on the location of jobs.".If that is an objective study, as I believe it to be, having been commissioned by the DoE, how does the noble Lord square his prejudices against the facts?
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, if the noble Lord were himself responsible for a business in which I was a shareholder, is he telling me that he would look round the country when deciding where to locate his premises and would then deliberately choose to locate the business in an area of high and rising rates? Will the noble Lord tell me that!
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, I am an owner and controller through being a director of my local Co-operative society. I can tell the noble Lord that when we examined the effect of rates on our business—a study that covered a range of politically coloured authorities—this was found to play very little part in deciding where to locate. I suggest that rates do not form a major, if any, consideration by employers or entrepreneurs in locating their businesses.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, that intervention has not strengthened my enthusiasm for the intelligent management of the Co-operative movement.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, it must be quite obvious—and I have a certain amount of industrial and commercial experience—that if you are free to choose a location for your premises you will first of all consider the level of rates, in respect of which you will have no vote whatever in local elections. Also—I do not know whether the study mentioned by the noble Lord goes as far as this—you will look into the future. If you go to an area which has been borrowing heavily (as these local authorities we are discussing have been doing) and building up large accumulations of money that has to be repaid in coming years, you will know that you are sticking your neck into a rate trap.
237 The proof of the pudding, after all, is in the eating. One need only see how new enterprises are flourishing and growing in what someone nicely called the M.4 valley—the area of high employment, prosperity and low rates which spreads westward from London, parallel with the M.4, towards Gloucestershire—whereas, as is universally agreed and bemoaned not least by the noble Lord himself, people are not setting up enterprises in the very areas we are discussing tonight. As I said, I believe that no sane businessman would take lightly the decision to set up his new enterprise in an area which is run in the way that these areas are being run unless, of course, he received a government grant to do so.
Let not the noble Lord delude himself. It is not only the rates, important though they are. It is not only a question of future rates, important though they are. It is not only the possibility of future bankruptcy of the local authorities concerned, which, for some of them, is not far away. It is also the question of the whole atmosphere with which he did not deal—the atmosphere of a local authority hostile to employers, a local authority that takes an adverse view of employers and that creates difficulties by delaying grants of planning permission. It is really no use the noble Lord quoting all the reports that it amuses him to read. You have to see the plain fact; that new enterprises are not alas (and we would all say alas) being set up in these areas. They are being set up in the Milton Keynes, the Swindons, all these areas in the south of England. In almost any other debate it is the noble Lord himself who is always complaining about that and the fact that employers are not setting up enterprises in these other areas. I can never claim to satisfy him—my ambition never vaults so high—but I think I can claim to have established that his intervention, agreeable as it always is, is really quite pointless and, if I may say so, quite ineffective.
Let us take Manchester which, as already mentioned, is spending half a million pounds a year on anti-nuclear propaganda. It has set up a nuclear-free zone unit of five full-time people at a cost of the best part of £100,000 a year. It is spending £269,000 in subsidy on a new Left wing newspaper, News on Sunday—£269,000 of the ratepayers' money. If that does not satisfy the noble Lord, it is building a gay centre for £118,000. Who is going to be encouraged to go to an area that spends ratepayers' money on the encouragement of actions which, though technically legal in private between consenting adults, are still what most people—including, I think, even most occupants of the episcopal Bench—would regard as sin. Others find such actions disagreeable, and in the light of modern developments, dangerous. When local authorities are doing that, can you really say that they are doing their best to attract industry, to attract enterprises, and to attract people to come and provide employment, the well-paid employment, which they and all the people whom they represent so sorely need?
It is the same in many of these areas. There is the disagreeable party political use of public funds; there is the appointment, which has not been mentioned, by the chairman of Ealing council of a personal assistant who happens to be a Labour councillor in an adjoining authority at a salary of £14,000 a year. What good is that man going to do for the inhabitants of Ealing, or indeed for the council of which he is a member?
238 There is employment in unnecessary jobs such as the peace officer in Lambeth; the party supporters appointed all over the place; the police committees in areas that have no police responsibility. Police committees are set up simply with a view to harassing the police and to mobilising support among those who are anti-police.
Mention has been made of the disorganisation in these authorities, of the departure of many senior officers. There are, as I understand it, in the eight boroughs about which we are talking, some 15 top level chief officer posts vacant at the moment, either because the former incumbents have been forced to go or because other officers of that standing are understandably unwilling to work with councillors who they know will behave in this way.
If your Lordships want a final example, may I remind you of the advertisement recently issued by the borough of Brent for a chief education officer—a chief education officer, it should be noted—in which it is specifically stated, "Job sharers, lesbians and gay men welcome". That, for the man who is to be responsible for education! Can one be surprised if people are not anxious to move themselves into an area where their children will be submitted to education so organised?
With high deficits—high and growing deficits—inefficient administration breaking down, high rates, politicisation of officials, departure of officials, it really is a very sorry story. It is quite clear that these areas are not going to recover unless changes take place. There are only two possible changes. One is that the electorate will begin to understand—the noble Baroness may think that it is anti-democratic—and may decide to remove the present councillors and replace them with more responsible people of any party. Or, before long, the Government will be bound, in the interests of the people concerned, to appoint commissioners and take charge. It is really intolerable that in this country of ours, this basically prosperous country of ours, numbers of our fellow citizens should be condemned to hardship and humiliation mainly because of the incompetence and corruption of the local authorities in whose areas they live.
These authorities have, however, done one good turn which they may not wholly appreciate. They serve as a warning to us all. The authorities involved in these discussions cover 13 per cent., as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has told us, of the population of this country. They will almost certainly return largely Labour members of their own colour. That colour is very, very red. This is confirmed by the adoption of a hard Left candidate by the party opposite for the Greenwich by-election. If, by any chance, the party opposite were to gain power, these people would be a very influential and powerful element in a government very different, your Lordships must face, from the types of government which were presided over by the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, or Mr. Callaghan. It will be a dangerously Left government. What these local authorities are doing is to give us all a warning of the danger of such a government. The red flags on the town halls are a red warning to us all.
§ 5.48 p.m.
§ Lord Taylor of Blackburn
My Lords, I have listened with great interest to the speakers who have spoken 239 before me during this debate. I am grateful—and I mean this most sincerely—to the noble Baroness, Baroness Cox, for initiating this debate. In looking at the wording of this debate I feel that the title is wrong; it is long as well. I feel that what we have been tending to do is to concentrate on London and perhaps one or two other authorities outside London. This is not a reflection of local government as I know it and as I knew it. It would be right and proper for you, my Lords, to gather some of my background and then you will understand why I am saying the things that I intend to say.
I entered local government in 1954 as a very young man because I felt a lot of things were wrong in local government. A lot of people were participating in local government who I felt were not making the right contribution. They were not lefties; they were not the loony left. In those days they were the loony right, the National Front and their kin. That is the reason why I went in to local government. I went in there because I was brought up in a Christian background and I felt that these people were repugnant to all the things I stood for. I said that on numerous occasions to various groups and was challenged that if I thought in that way I should put my preaching into practice and allow my name to go forward. So I allowed my name to be put forward in the party and was proud to represent it in the contest at which I was fortunate enough to be elected.
When I took my seat on the council I found there a very mixed bag of people. At that time I was very grateful for the aldermanic bench and people who were able to say to me, when I brought forth some of my young man's dreams, "Just sit back and listen for a while. Take it easy and watch what goes on. You will then realise that what you are advocating probably will not happen in your time. You cannot do everything at once. Things will come in due time". I learned a great deal from those people.
I also learned that local government presented an opportunity to serve. Let me make quite clear that it was voluntary service in those days. There was no attendance allowance, no travelling allowance, no telephone or secretarial allowances. We went into local government because we felt that we could give something to the people whom we represented, with whom we worked, with whom we played and in many cases with whom we went to school and grew up. We felt that we were part of that community. That was the prevailing spirit in local government.
I was also taught that local government implied a partnership between the local authority, industry and commerce. There was also a complete partnership as regards education. Although some of your Lordships may find it a little astounding, I became a member of the education committee and shortly thereafter was elected chairman. In my day one could attend a meeting of the education committee as a member of the public and not know which members were Socialist, Tory or Independent. That was the prevailing spirit. Ours was a good and progressive education authority. We took the public with us in our reorganisation plans. We constantly addressed public meetings and listened to what people had to say, subsequently amending plans because of ideas that 240 had come forward. That was part of the partnership—a partnership such as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, was speaking about last Monday, and one to which we want to return.
I was brought up to believe in such a partnership. I was proud to be a member of a local authority that believed in such a partnership. We were representing a town once dedicated to producing industrial textiles, but where the textile industry had died; yet because of that partnership we managed to keep unemployment down to about 3 per cent. If the aldermen of those days knew to what pass we have come today they would be absolutely shocked. We were able to encourage new industry to take the place of the old textile mills because the industrialists had confidence in us and we had confidence in them. We were able to lease land to them at a very nominal rent and so encourage the labour force to remain. That is how the town grew.
There were also regional organisations. There was regional planning and we worked closely together in the region. I had the privilege of serving under the noble Lord, Lord Sefton, when he was Chairman of the North-West Planning Council. Planning and making policy is the function of local government. Once that policy has been determined then the officers of the council should be allowed to carry it out. It must not be done for them. That is the trouble with many of the London boroughs today. I do not wish to enter into those arguments because that is not my forte, but I must make it quite clear that I deplore absolutely some of the things that are happening in the London boroughs; indeed I cringe at them. I am sure that the party of which I am a member in this House would certainly not lend itself to what is going on in some of the London boroughs. We do not wish to be associated in any way at all with their actions. If we are quite honest, we should be very worried about many of the things that are said and done in the name of the Labour Party. We do not want to be members of a party that acts in that way.
Putting the matter in proportion, I am glad that such people are in the minority. There are many people in local government who have views and concepts similar to those I have expressed. Let us give them credit and not keep on knocking them. I am afraid that from time to time debates of this nature in this House do seem to knock local government. But there are many good people in local government who are working under great stress because central government—which should be a strong and influential part of the partnership—seems to be knocking them more than ever. The speech of the Minister at the beginning of the debate criticised local government in this way. I hope that some of his Conservative friends in local government will read his speech. I am sure that they will be shocked at some of his remarks. They worry me a great deal.
Let me turn to some of the measures that we as the legislature are imposing on local government. The 1986 Education Act gave me great pleasure. I was proud in that much of that legislation derived from a report of a committee that I had the honour to chair. I was proud of the new partnership and pleased with the new government in schools. But there were financial implications for local government. When the cost is reckoned in about three years' time it will work 241 out at about £10 million a year, but legislation compels local authorities to act. We make very little allowance for that in the rate support grant. In fact there is nothing about it in this year's rate support grant; I am sure that when he comes to reply the Minister will confirm, that. We impose such legislation on local government and then say "You cannot do that sort of thing. You must keep your rates down." I agree that we all want to keep down the rates. It is a very popular measure. At least I thought it was popular.
Let me tell your Lordships a story. Some time ago when I was chairman of a certain finance committee we had to increase the rates by sixpence in the pound, which in those days was a lot of money. My friends on the Conservative Bench—and I can say that because outside the Chamber we were great friends—proposed a decrease of threepence and produced an alternative budget showing how that could be done. What happened! Six weeks later at the elections they lost nine seats and we gained nine seats. We were increasing the rates; they were bringing them down. That is how the public think. There has been much criticism this afternoon about certain Left wing councillors, but after all they have been elected. They have been elected following the Representation of the People Act. That is how they have won their seats.
However, let us not talk further of the past or the present but of the future, because that after all is of most importance. If local government in this country is to move forward, we must encourage the right sort of persons to stand at the elections. We must have the right kind of policies to allow those people to stand for election. What is more, if we find them taking steps that should not be taken, we should be strong enough to tell them that they are pursuing the wrong course, no matter how unpopular we may be.
So first comes the person—or one can reverse the order and get the policy right first. When this has been done, I think that the right sort of councillors will get elected—this is important—people who will devote themselves to looking after the interests of those whom they represent and not get too much involved with international policy that they cannot control. I should love to declare my little patch in my garden a nuclear free zone and put a little ticket outside saying, "If anyone bombs, please don't drop anything on me", and so would my neighbours, but we know that that sort of thing is useless. We need to be sensible, we want to stick to the things that we are good at and we want to do the things that we are good at.
It was a sad day for the country when county boroughs went out of existence. In my opinion county boroughs were the cream of local government. They were able to do a great deal. They knew the feelings of the man in the street because they were close to him. They were able to interpret the wishes of the man in the street and to put those wishes into practice. It was sad when reorganisation came and they no longer had the functions that they had hitherto had when the district councils came in. We cannot go back, but we can look to the future and try to get the right people to serve.
§ 6.1 p.m.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, has spent the whole of his life outside 242 politics looking in. I do not have that advantage. I became a committed Conservative at the age of 15, and I have been inside politics ever since 15 years after that. I am therefore aware of what must seem my prejudices. I have started off this afternoon's exercise by trying as best I can to set them aside; and I believe that I have succeeded. But I still find that there is a coincidence between the end of the political spectrum of some of these authorities and the level of extravagance and waste. I do not doubt that my noble friends at least will concur in that.
However, I ask them to set that aside for a moment for two reasons. The first is simply that the audit report has shown that it is possible to have relatively sensible policies and a relatively efficient management in a relatively Left-wing authority. That is clear to me; and I do not doubt that noble Lords on the Opposition Benches would find it equally clear that it is possible to have relatively unacceptable policies and relatively inefficient management in an authority that claims to be Conservative. Therefore it is clearly neither the first nor the only reason for the phenomenon at which we are looking.
The second reason for which I think we should set aside this impression is a philosophical and constitutional one, which I think is rather more important. It is this. What we are looking at, whether we like it or not, is supposed to be a piece of democratic machinery. The principal strength of this country is that it is a democracy. We believe that the expressed will of the people shown in the ballot is the only acceptable authority for the Government of this country, whether it is national or local. The majority of electors, acting as individuals, have an absolute right to choose who shall manage their public affairs. The choice of who governs is in the hands of those who are governed. They are the electorate and at intervals they have a chance to reverse their choice, not only in the long run but in the medium term.
A local electorate therefore gets the policies that it is prepared to vote for. If it has voted for them and if they are not contrary to law, as some decisions appear to be; or morality, as some decisions appear to be; or the essential interests of the nation, as some decisions appear to be; it is not for us to say them nay. The electorate must be presumed to vote for what they see as their interest. If they do not, democracy is nothing; and, since you cannot fool all of the people all of the time, they must be presumed to return by and large authorities who do represent those interests.
The political battle consists only in persuading them what those interests are, and they will eventually see through any sham. In spite of this, those elected representatives in many places seem to be pursuing policies that are not only contrary to what we think of as good sense and the public principles of good administration, but what everybody must see is against common sense and the eventual good interests of the electors themselves.
§ Lord Mayhew
My Lords, the noble Lord is arguing that the majority of electors get the people and the policies that they vote for: but he must surely know that the majority of electors get the people and the policies that they have not voted for.
§ Lord Elton
I can best save your Lordships' time by asking the noble Lord to read in Hansard tomorrow the speech of my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter.
My Lords, it results in what anyone can see is a gross extravagance as well, and it is the extravagance—double extravagance—of pursuing too many objectives of little worth compounded with the extravagance of pursuing all objectives by means of huge and unnecessary expense. It is this extravagance that offends the observer because he feels that the elector ought not to commit it. But the elector is not an auditor. That is the job of the Audit Commission, and very well the commission does it. The electorate does not vote for balanced books for their own sake. The elector does not vote for value for money for its own sake—nor does the principle of democracy say that he ought to. The principle of democracy says—and it is this principle that we are here to advance—that the elector must vote for what he sees as his interest. That is exactly what he does, with the results that we have heard exposed and which we will I am sure hear further exposed this afternoon.
The interest of the voter is starkly simple and depressingly selfish, I fear, there may be twinges of conscience, there may be gestures towards the less fortunate; but, by and large, what the voter wants is to get as much as he can and to give as little as possible. The light of altruism is the merest flicker in the polling booth. If one has a system where the majority of those who vote contribute very little or nothing at all to the cost of local services, that majority is going to vote to spend, spend, spend; it is not going to grudge extravagance, and it is not going to grudge spending to please a silly few because it is not their money that is being spent.
We are, as I said, looking at a piece of democratic machinery. It was designed to ascertain with all its imperfections—I forgive the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, for not repeating them on his second intervention—what the electorate sees as its interests and to implement them by means of good government. But the machine has broken down.
My Lords, whatever you think of the elected authority in, for instance—and it is only "for instance"—Liverpool, it cannot be said to be either good government or as serving its electorate, even if they were communist to a man, when it has destroyed for a decade any prospect of inward investment, which alone can rescue it from unemployment, squalor and decay. Yet in such places votes are repeatedly cast in favour of decay.
The reason for this is quite simple. The majority of those who are entitled to vote for that sort of authority pay nothing for what it does, but they do get something from what it spends. The jobs have gone; directly or indirectly, the municipal handout remains. It makes no sense to vote for employment if you do not believe that it will come—at least until it is too late. It does make sense to vote for any benefit, facility or predilection of your own regardless of the cost of providing it because you do not contribute to that cost. When the majority of the electorate has neither a financial interest nor any children at school, disaster stares the school-child in the face. Nor does it seem to be wrong to spend other people's money in a political campaign 244 to keep in office the golden goose that is laying the eggs; hence the abuses which the noble Lord, Lord Harris, so admirably listed.
What has gone wrong with the linkage between the casting of the vote and the cost of the result? When my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale, echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady David, says to the electors "Use your vote" that is what they are using it for, so something else must be wrong. If that discontinuity between cause and effect had a constructive purpose; if it were designed or even had the accidental effect of transferring wealth from the rich to the poor, it would be defensible. There would be those who would argue hotly against it, but they could argue a reasonable case. It was not designed for that purpose, and it often has the opposite effect. An elderly widow pays exactly the same when she is living on her own as does her neighbour with a working family of 10 living in a similar house. That can be neither moral, economic, nor political justice.
The value of those houses is fixed by procedures that are, to many, arcane and baffling and have usually been applied a long time ago. Of those who vote for local councils, 57 per cent. pay no rates. Everything for which they vote comes to them free. Others have their rates rebated, and as a result for every 100 people entitled to vote in local authority elections 34 pay the full rate—340 people in every 1,000 foot the bill with a little help from a further 90 for the whole of the domestic rate expenditure of our local authorities. But not all the people who provide the money have a vote. It is true that 430 people provide a great deal of money but that is only 36 per cent. of rate income; 38 per cent. is paid by the owners of commercial and industry property, and the remaining 26 per cent. by public facilities and local government. There are no votes there. Those individuals who pay have little control over the vote and contribute less than a controlling proportion of the rates.
That is the first distortion. The second distortion is economic. Not only do business premises carry different values—I do not wish to tempt the noble Lord, Lord Graham, to his feet again; I think that I can rest on the arguments put forward by my noble friend on the Privy Counsellors' Bench—in different parts of the country, but local authorities levy different rates upon those businesses. The businesses have no say in electing those who tax them. They have no say in policy. Here we have that well-known enemy of democracy, taxation without representation.
Nor does it stop there. Because the whole of local authority rates income amounts to only about 50 per cent., on average, of what those local authorities spend, the remainder comes from the taxpayer via central government. The method of distribution is hideously complex; very few people understand it altogether and not many understand it in part. It is the inevitable cause of an annual political row of growing and horrific proportions.
It is agreed, I think, that control of the whole of public expenditure is an essential part of the function of central government. It is also agreed that to preserve local democracy, central government should not control, further than they have to, the distribution between different services by local authorities of the money they hand out.
245 The result of all that is the farcical situation which we now have: those who pay the domestic rate are heavily outvoted by those who do not; those who pay the business rate have no vote, and central government provide half the money and have no say in the distribution of the spend between one service and another. There is a discontinuity of responsibility which extremist politicians can and do exploit. My noble friend Lady Cox pointed out, in a speech not only of clarity and brilliance but of great historical and constitutional importance, that they use it to subvert democracy.
It is not just that there is no democratic control of expenditure; it is that in most of the ways in which we look at it there is no control at all, except by means such as rate capping which merely inflame the disaster this arrangement makes inevitable anyway.
The urgent matter for your Lordships' consideration is not the fascinating and horrifying catalogue of injustice and mismanagement revealed in the Audit Commission report; it is how to restore democratic accountability to the town and city hall. The recipe for that is spelt out in the Green Paper Paying for Local Government. I shall not repeat the arguments for it; they are on the record of debate on the day of publication, Tuesday, 20th January last year, both in your Lordships' House and in another place, and also on the record of an interesting debate on a Motion by my noble friend Lord Marshall of Leeds on 26th March last year. I shall say only, because I want to spare your Lordships a little time, that it provides for an equitable and predictable business rate; for a central government contribution distributed to restore the imbalance about which we heard so much on Monday, between North and South; and for every elector to have a direct and simple financial interest in the efficient management of sensible local authority programmes, no matter what their political party.
I have set aside my prejudices. I believe that we must find such a solution. It is a consultation paper. There has been thought. There will be refinement. As the noble Baroness said (I try to agree with her when I can), complexity is the enemy of justice and understanding. Let the new system be simple; let it be fair; and above all let it enable the voter see what are the consequences for him of his vote, and let those consequences measure up to the performance of the people whom he elects.
I believe that that is of critical and urgent importance. I should like to urge Her Majesty's Government to pursue that policy with vigour and speed, no matter what their electoral difficulty. There is little time for further reflection. It is becoming very late.
§ 6.17 p.m.
§ Lord Morton of Shuna
My Lords, I hope that your Lordships will forgive the temerity of a Scot coming into this debate, but the terms of the Motion appear to allow it. I am encouraged by the fact that the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, is also coming in as a Scot. I am also encouraged because the Audit Commission report refers to the near-term steps and suggests what they should be. What it boils down to is: follow Glasgow. That is said in paragraph 39 over and over again. It is clear, as any of your Lordships who have been in 246 Glasgow will see, that the rehabilitation of the east side of Glasgow has been tremendous. Over the past few years Glasgow has revitalised an area of considerable dereliction.
It is interesting to see how it was done and how the Audit Commission recommends that it should be done in London. It was done by pouring in central government money through the Scottish Development Agency. The Audit Commission suggests:There need to be powerful local organisations to organise the effort—not least within the public sector—and to drive it forward. In Glasgow, this role was played by the Scottish Development Agency".That was an agency which this side of the House understood that in 1979 and 1980 the Government wanted to get rid of. The then Secretary of State fought very hard, fortunately successfully, to retain it. But it is by co-operation, not the fighting that seems to go on now between central government and local government, that the way forward exists.
Apart from that, my purpose in speaking is to draw attention to the financial mismanagement which occurs not only on the Left of the political spectrum. In Lothian region, which of course includes Edinburgh, until 8th May last year there was a Conservative minority administration which managed to rule with the assistance of three Alliance councillors. In March 1986, with the assistance of their Alliance allies, they put through a budget, as they had to do, and fixed a rate which was marginally lower by one-fifth of a penny than the rate they had fixed for the previous year. This they did no doubt in order to be able to accuse the Labour opposition of being profligate in its policies for the election which was to happen in May. But they also did it in the knowledge that their budget for the previous year was so far ahead of government requirements that a £25 million clawback was already required.
It is interesting to see how this budget was achieved by the Tory administration. First of all, they brought in all the available balances—£14 million—spending, in the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, all the money they could lay their hands on. It is not perhaps quite the same as selling the family silver, but it is the same sort of approach and it is a practice which it is interesting to see the Audit Commission deplores. It certainly does not make it easy for the following administration.
The second method of holding the rate down was to make a wholly unrealistic budget for wage increases already allowed or to be expected. By this means the Tory administration saved, or at least said they saved, £4 million compared with what any realistic accountant would have told them was a reasonable estimate.
The third method was perhaps an even more surprising example of creative accountancy. Each year the transport undertaking had run into deficit and the council had of course budgeted for the deficit. But not this year. The administration gently omitted to budget for the deficit. Is this an outrageous policy, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale? It seems at least financially irresponsible.
It was therefore fairly obvious in March 1986 when the budget was announced that the Tory administration did not expect to be the administration after May and have to pick up the bits. That could 247 have been told them by the opinion polls. It is even more interesting to see what they did in March and April. Your Lordships may recall the debate over the western relief road for Edinburgh. It was a road vehemently opposed by almost all the conservation societies in Edinburgh. It was opposed by Edinburgh District Council. It was strongly supported by the Tory administration and by the Alliance. Cynics in Edinburgh referred to it not as the western relief road but the "Councillor Gorrie relief road".
Apart from Councillor Gorrie's Liberal interests, West Edinburgh happens to be a Conservative seat in Parliament with a majority which could be described as miniscule, being under 500. So when the Lothian Region (Edinburgh Western Relief Road) Order Confirmation Bill was discussed by this House on 8th and 15th April last year, from this side of the House various of my noble friends spoke in favour of Motions by the noble Earl, Lord Perth, and the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, neither of whom would perhaps be well-known as Socialists, to put the approval of the Bill back until after the election, because the Labour Party was fighting as the opposition party on a commitment to cancel the western relief road.
That was strongly opposed by the Government. It is interesting to note that the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, was arguing strongly that it was just a waste of money to approve this road if in three weeks' time it was going to be cancelled. It is interesting also to see that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, and the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, all voted against the delay of three weeks.
The Bill having been approved, the administration went ahead and signed contracts. On 30th April and 6th May 1986, two days before the election, they signed contracts. There could not have been any financial disadvantage in delaying signing the contracts until 9th May. It would not have made the slightest difference to building a road. The price would not change but if the Tories lost the election there would be compensation to be paid for breach of contract. So it was.
The election resulted in a much worse disaster for the Conservatives in Lothian than even we on this side of the House dared hope for. The contract was then cancelled as soon as possible, but the cost to the ratepayers of the Tory administration signing these contracts was surprising: £3.3 million. On any view that is an outrageous piece of behaviour. When a minority council is within weeks of an election, when it was warned by various noble Lords in Parliament, when it was warned by the opposition in the council, for it to sign these contracts in the knowledge that that must put costs onto the ratepayer if it should lose strikes me, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, as an outrageous financial policy. That is exactly what it was.
There were certain cynics who suggested that the reason for this might be that the companies or those who owned the companies were well known for their contributions to the Conservative Party's funds, but perhaps that is going too far. It is surprising that no challenge was made by any auditor to this form of behaviour or to this waste of £3.3 million, especially when the auditor challenged expenditure of £ 113,000 248 by Edinburgh District Council in publicising its reasons for its dispute with the Secretary of State on money levied.
It is even more surprising, I suggest, that the Secretary of State should take the leader of that Conservative administration and appoint him to a paid post in Lothian New Town. So if there are to be complaints about jobs for the boys, they do not all sit on the one side of the House.
§ Lord Morton of Shuna
It was a fairly big one. The result of all this, my Lords, was that the new Labour administration had to dig the ratepayers out of the hole. If it did not increase its expenditure over the previous levels of expenditure of the Tory administration, the rates in Lothian would rise by 30 per cent. That is the result of poor administration. Perhaps it is not fair wholly to blame the previous administration for this. Some of it rests with the Secretary of State. He has this year approved an increase in guideline expenditure for the Lothian region of over 11 per cent. As noble Lords will recollect, Lothian region may not have the highest levels of unemployment. However, having lost British Leyland at Bathgate, Golden Wonder Crisps at Broxburn, and various coal mines, it is certainly not well off.
One would expect on an increase in guideline expenditure that the grant level would increase at the same rate. Not a bit of it, my Lords! The Secretary of State increases the grant payable to Lothian region by 1.5 per cent. and somehow the ratepayer has to meet the difference, which I estimate to be 9.5 per cent.
It is very interesting to see the increases in allocation of grant per head of population. Perhaps Lothian is being penalised for having voted Labour. In 1984 Fife had a level of grant per head of £223; now it is £259. Dumfries and Galloway had £228; it is now to be £295. Tayside had £231; now it is to be £261. Lothian had £226 in 1984–85. There has been slight inflation since. It is now to be £227—an increase that is so minuscule that it is hardly noticeable.
The way that central Government claw-back provisions work is even more remarkable. If a local authority in Scotland spends £1,000 more than the guideline it has to pay more than £1,000 back to the Government. Therefore if the Lothian local authority budget this year to bring the police up to establishment, as the Labour administration would like to do, they will have to pay not only the police but also the Government the additional cost of so doing. Again, if they run a programme to assist on the AIDS problem—and your Lordships will recollect that Edinburgh has a very severe AIDS problem—for every £1,000 that they spend on AIDS at the Government's encouragement, they have to pay an extra £1,000-plus to the Government. The same applies to meeting the share of the financial losses on the Commonwealth Games. Nobody could accuse either Lothian Regional Council or Edinburgh District Council of causing the sanctions-related boycott of the games which caused the financial loss.
These are the kinds of activities which have led to Lothian being attacked by the Government for being spendthrift. It plans to spend precisely 2 per cent. More 249 than the Tory administration spent last year. Is that spendthrift? It is lower than the rate of inflation. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, suggested—if I followed him correctly—that the difficulties about finance were caused partly by taxation without representation and that they might be improved by community grant. I did not quite follow all his argument. Was the noble Lord suggesting that one should vote in proportion to the contribution one made either to local or central government funds? If so, it would give a surprising result.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, indeed it would. It was not what I was proposing. What I was proposing was set out clearly in the Green Paper Paying for Local Government. I have a summary which I shall hand to the noble Lord when I leave the Chamber. However, the principle is that whatever arrangement one has, the marginal cost must be contributed to by the person who votes for the service. The effect of your vote must affect your pocket. If it is necessary to give some people money, which they can keep if it is not spent and contribute if it is, that is another question. But the principle is that your vote must be felt in your pocket.
§ Lord Morton of Shuna
My Lords, I am very much obliged to the noble Lord. I thought perhaps he was going to argue that a company like Guinness, having now absorbed Distillers, should have a vote in proportion to its contribution to the central Exchequer, which would be surprising. However, the community charge proposals—which have reached a stage further in Scotland than in England—would not be the answer to the ratepayer. In Lothian 60 per cent. of the rates come from commercial and industrial properties—a figure fairly similar to those quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Elton. Under the principle of the Bill being discussed in another place, increases in the rate which is to be set for commercial and industrial properties nationally is to be linked with inflation. That means that 40 per cent. of the rates has to meet all the other variants. If one had a situation where the community charge was in operation, it would mean that the ordinary ratepayer or voter in Edinburgh, far from paying the £230 which the Government say would be the average community charge for Scotland, would have to pay something like double that amount. Do the Government suggest that that method would be appropriate?
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I have not fully understood the noble Lord. However, he interrupted his speech in order for me to give an explanation. I am not sure that the noble Lord is looking at the same system as I am which is the one which applies in England. If he is, there are three elements: the central block grant (which will get a new name), and both the business and private contribution. It is not simply a net difference between the two figures.
§ Lord Morton of Shuna
My Lords, I am dealing with the part covered by rates, not by the central grant. The real difficulty in local authority finance has been caused by the decrease in the proportion of local authority finance which has been coming from central government. In Edinburgh and the Lothians it has decreased from just under 60 per cent. to just over 40 250 per cent. That is the reason for the increased costs on the ratepayers. That is the cause of the difficulty.
As I said at the beginning of my speech, it seems to me quite clear—as the Audit Commission has recommended—that the way forward is that which applies in Glasgow. That is a city which has had the good sense to elect no Conservative Member of Parliament. Perhaps this course may be followed later this year or next. The way forward is by following the example given by the Scottish Development Agency.
§ 6.38 p.m.
§ Lord Chalfont
My Lords, I must begin by offering an apology to the House, which I have already offered to both Front Benches and to the noble Baroness. I shall not be able to stay for the end of the debate. I know that this is not a popular activity in your Lordships' House but on this occasion I was anxious to take part in this important debate. I hope that the House will forgive me, therefore.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for providing the opportunity for this short debate. In the few minutes at my disposal I wish to take up one of the categories which was of concern to the noble Baroness in her speech. It is a phenomenon which is beginning to poison and corrupt the political life of this country. It is the problem of a violent, undemocratic and racially intolerant minority which is using the power base of local government to dismantle the very foundations of the parliamentary democracy for which we stand in this House and in the other place and which is the precious inheritance of most of our fellow citizens. The noble Baroness said that she feared she might be becoming paranoid. I fear that she is not. Even if she were, the noble Baroness may wish to recall Henry Kissinger's famous remark that even paranoids have real enemies.
I wish to make it clear that I do not intend to try to turn this debate into a party issue of any kind. The people about whom I am talking are as much the enemies of the Labour Party as they are of the rest of us although they tend to use the word "Labour" a very great deal in the furtherance of their political aims. However, in the literature and rhetoric of these same people names such as Kinnock and Hattersley feature very large in the litany of hatred and contempt. Indeed, one of the principal targets of the people about whom I am talking is Dr. John Cunningham, the very man who was heard on the radio this morning explaining in reasonable terms the Labour Party's plans for the reorganisation of local government. He is one who comes in for most of their abuse. I believe that it is important for anyone who cares for the political institutions of this country, as I believe that everyone present in your Lordships' House tonight cares, that we should know exactly who these people are and what they stand for.
The focus of their activity—I might almost call it conspiracy—is an organisation known, from its main policy publication, as Labour Briefing. It is a group which has the support of about one in 10 of the people who were elected as Labour councillors in last year's local government elections. One in 10 is a fairly substantial minority. Its own conception of its power-base is very clear. From the manifesto which was 251 contained in the editorial of the pilot issue of Labour Briefing for July and August, 1986, I quote:Briefing's base, traditionally, has been in Local Government, and this will remain an absolutely central priority for us. Where we have control or influence over Local Authorities, we will continue as before to use this to defend our local communities, refusing to bow to pressure or threats to make cuts".There is nothing very sinister in that so far, some people might say, just radical bloody-mindedness.
This group claims to number several Labour Members of Parliament among its supporters. However, its opinion of the labour Party as a whole is summed up in another quotation from the publication to which I have just referred. In that manifesto the following words appear:for black people, women, youth, lesbians and gay men up against a Labour movement under the thumb of a right-wing bureaucracy there is an obvious need for a focus … to mobilise the Trade Unions and the Labour Party",etc. These are the people to whom I want to draw attention in this debate: a small group of people—admittedly small—exploiting local government as their political base, openly contemptuous of those elected to Parliament, even those elected under the banner of the Labour Party.
What are their aims? Immediately following the local government elections last year, Labour Briefing held a closed conference at the Polytechnic of Central London. It is very instructive to study the briefing paper which was prepared for that occasion. If one wants to know or form a view of the aims of any organisation it is a good thing to read their own literature—to read what they say and what they say they want to do. Perhaps the key passage, and the one which encapsulates their aims best, is contained in paragraph 7 of the document. Incidentally, this document is supposed to be secret but it is nice to know that the leaking of secrets does not go all one way! As I say, paragraph 7 of the document contains a key statement already referred to by the noble Baroness. It states:Our commitment … is to challenge, combat and break the repression and violence of the capitalist state machine".Stripped of this turgid jargon, what that means is revolution. Those of us who have studied revolutionary philosophy and tactics over the years will not be surprised when we find a little further down the list another passage also quoted by the noble Baroness, but I think that it is worth quoting again to get its full flavour:against the racist and anti-union violence of the police, and the threat posed by the armed forces, workers must counterpose demands for the disbanding of these armed bodies of capitalist repression and their replacement by workers' militias and community self-policing".There is nothing mealy-mouthed or equivocal about that: get rid of the armed forces, get rid of the police. Where have we heard the phrase "workers' militias" before? To me it has a familiar totalitarian ring about it.
Having got rid of the police and the army, what you may ask, is left to protect the fabric of a stable and civilised society? Well, of course, the judges and the courts of law; but Labour Briefing is going to take care of that too. It says that similar demands must be made for the replacement of the bosses' courts, the judiciary 252 and the Civil Service hierarchy with elected accountable figures.
Of course, it is not enough simply to dismantle the apparatus of the state to achieve a successful revolution. That we all know. From any study of Marxist-Leninist tactical doctrine we must first create a "revolutionary situation". How do we do that? The existing values, traditions and loyalties of society must be undermined and transformed. In that context we have another quotation from the manifesto for the Labour Briefing publication:the new paper will take up and develop debate on sexual politics and the politics of the family, challenging the tenets of bourgeois morality and working towards coherent and liberating alternatives".Once again stripping away the turgid jargon, that simply means undermining the values of the family and overturning traditional standards of decency and sexual morality.
The whole process to which these people are committed is summed up in the final paragraph of the manifesto. I think that it is worth quoting in full and that it ought to be engraved not only on the walls of the Conservative Central Office but also on those of Transport House. It says:the goal must be to break the Labour Government and the Labour Movement from any alliance with the bankers and the institutions of British capitalism and to create the kind of mass working class organisations and mass action that can smash the system itself and its repressive machinery and replace it with a workers' government committed to a socialist programme".Your Lordships will have noticed one theme running through this programme so far. It is the theme of class hatred, the familiar tool of Left-wing totalitarian revolution everywhere in the world. However, the aim of this classic blueprint is not simply to pit class against class, but if one reads their literature and listens to their speeches, one finds that they also want to create enmity and hatred among and between as many sections of the community as possible—men against women, homosexuals against heterosexuals, the young against the old—and of course they want to fashion and sharpen the most potent and sinister weapon of all, racial hatred.
One of the commonest words in the lexicon of revolutionaries in this country at the moment is "racist". Like the word "peace" in another context, it has been hijacked by extremists to mean precisely what they want it to mean, no more and no less. Almost everybody of whom they wish to disapprove or destroy—the police, the army, the Government—are racist. Yet I wonder who are the real racists.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, briefly introduced to your Lordships' House Professor Chris Mullard, a prominent figure in the anti-racist movement. Profesor Mullard runs a unit which is collaborating in a publicly-funded research project with local authorities in a number of towns across the country. For reasons of time I shall not detail them all. The aim of the project is to transform the whole curriculum of schools in these areas. Should anybody wish to speculate on what form that change will take, let me repeat the passage quoted by the noble Baroness from Professor Mullard. He said:The only argument which white society understands if force, violence and power.".253 I hope that your Lordships get the full flavour of that: it is not society as a whole, not capitalist society, but white society. I think that we do not need to look very much further for the roots of racial hatred. But there is a further significance in the activities of people like Professor Mullard. Whenever anyone attempts to sound the alarm bells about the activities of these revolutionaries and subversives who have made their base in local government in this country, the reply of a great number of people, many of them sincere and well meaning, is: "Ah yes, but you are only dealing with a tiny minority, and you are grossly exaggerating their importance and their influence". I heard that remark in one form or another several times in your Lordships' House, even in this debate.
Let us remember one thing of crucial importance. It is principally in the hands of local government, as things stand at the moment, that the quality of our state education system rests. These are the people who are responsible for the education of thousands of our young children, many of whom are from ethnic minorities. This is the intellectual diet upon which they are being raised: a diet of hatred, contempt, envy and racial intolerance. That is the significance and the importance of these people and a measure of the danger which they represent.
In closing, I should like to say this to those who claim that this is just a tiny, unimportant minority, a kind of archipelago of totalitarianism in a great sea of tolerance, decency and respect for the law, I say just one thing to those who advance that view—I mean it in no apocalyptic or daunting sense, but merely to place matters in some kind of context—in 1910 there were fewer than 10,000 politically active Bolsheviks in Russia. A tiny fraction of 1 per cent. of the population. Ten years later that country was in the grip of a totalitarian dictatorship from which it has never emerged and shows no sign of doing so. In my view we should never underestimate the power of ruthless and dedicated minorities.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps he can add to the service he has done to the House. He has quoted extensively from a manifesto. I understand from my noble friend Lady Cox, that it is subscribed to at least by Mr. Wedgwood Benn. Is there any means by which we can discover who else subscribes to it? I think we ought to know.
§ Lord Chalfont
My Lords, with the indulgence of the House, perhaps I can say that there is published in the document a full list of people whom these people claim as their supporters. The noble Baroness quoted some of them this evening. The list is very much longer, and I think the noble Lord would find it extremely interesting.
§ 6.54 p.m.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, it is always a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, and on this occasion in particular to be able to listen to his prophetic and profound warnings. My noble friend Lady Cox (with that sensitive touch which we all so greatly admire) used a broad brush on a very wide canvas. But the bold deft strokes leave a vivid 254 impression of the measure of her own misgivings and her own concern. Having listened to this debate, it is apparent that her misgivings and her concern are the concern of all noble Lords because even certain speeches from the Benches opposite did not challenge the basis of those misgivings of the basis of that concern—as I understand it.
My noble friend Lady Cox has asked me to deal with just one matter of this concern. It is perhaps a dull subject and I hope I shall not make it even duller, but it lies at the very heart of the matter of our debate. The point was touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, when he said, as I took down his speech, "action to prevent extremist minorities to enforce their will upon local government". I agree with every word that was said by the noble Lord. Perhaps we may pause for a moment because this matter lies at the heart of this debate if one is not going down the road to appoint commissioners which one hopes would be the action of last resort. It may be inevitable but it is an action of last resort. Perhaps for a moment we may consider together the existing regime of enforcement and any remedial measures at present proposed in terms of means of effective enforcement. As pointed out by other noble Lords in terms of practical realities, and before one starts to consider means of enforcement, one has to get down to the guts of the problem; namely, the practical realities. In terms of practical realities, we have, in constitutional terms as pointed out by my noble friend Lord Elton, a revolution. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, pointed out that it was a revolutionary situation in which certain local authorities are in a situation where the tentacles of subversion (and it is nothing more nor less than that) have reached out to destabilise not only the classroom but the schoolroom and the council chamber, and also family life. This fact was acknowledged in the most remarkable and moving speech of the noble Earl, Lord Longford, on the Second Reading of Lord Halsbury's Bill. Indeed, on that occasion this point was also acknowledged by other noble Lords.
The reality is also that the pursuit of these policies not only exposes the ratepayers to indignities, to abuse, to violence, and to financial exploitation, but it also erodes parental control and puts the moral welfare of our children to hazards, as was explained in some detail by my noble friend Lady Cox.
In all this the national press is very much to be congratulated on bringing the fears, fury and frustration of ratepayers who have been subjected to massive abuse of rates, to the attention of the public. It is all too apparent—is it not?—that reserve powers vested in central government are wholly unable to cope with this situation? It is all too apparent—is it not?—that there is no effective individual enforcement machinery available at this time as we debate this Motion? The question is: what is to be done about it? How do we deal with these extremist, recalcitrant minorities?
With respect to my noble friend the Minister—and I am sorry that he is not in his place—it is absolutely no use him saying "Use your vote" in a circumstance such as this. It is a total irrelevance, as was pointed out by my noble friend Lord Elton. The reasons given by my noble friend Lord Elton require no repetition. I 255 hope that when my noble friend the Minister replies he will dissociate himself from the attitude that this in any way can be cured by voting under the existing system. It is an irrelevance, and a serious irrelevance.
The fact that it was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady David, is neither here nor there, because, with the greatest respect to her, I am not so concerned with what she says, I am concerned with what is said from my own Front Bench. I stress the matter that a totally different point of view ought to be taken in this regard.
The proliferation of these pressure groups at local levels has received adverse comment in Widdicombe, Research Papers, volume 4, page 109. It was recommended that adjustments should be made. But what adjustments? How shall they be made? How general? How specific? What measures of enforcement? When? As the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont says, urgently. Of course it is urgent, but when? What? How? Questions such as these demand a quick and satisfactory resolution. I again seek comfort from what was said by my noble friend Lord Elton on the question of urgency. In a specific and limited context, exactly the same questions arose on the Bill of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury.
We now know—and it is plain for all to see—that the present regime is worse than useless to cope with the situation that we have as we debate today, now. Therefore, where do we go from there? What is on the table? What is proposed? As I understand from the speech of my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale on the Second Reading of Lord Halsbury's Bill, what is proposed is, first, that the Government do not support the measures of enforcement proposed; that is, that an aggrieved ratepayer should have direct access to the civil courts to restrain a breach of a statutory prohibition.
That principle was built into Lord Halsbury's Bill. It was carried by your Lordships' House. It was strongly supported by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, as both apposite and viable. It could afford an effective means of enforcement. Of course you revert to the tradition that this is a non-political situation in which a ratepayer of any political persuasion can take the law into his own hands—albeit with legal aid, which is readily available for such purposes—and enforce the law himself. The Government have set their face against this, as yet. The hope is that at the end of this debate they may reconsider.
However this proposal is of course inconsistent with the two proposals of the Government. It is understood from my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale's speech—and I refer to nothing else; it is in Hansard and available for all your Lordships to see—that there are two proposals, but neither affords any effective means of enforcement whatsoever.
The first is to amend the Act of 1972 to curtail the area of discretion that is available and exercisable by a local authority. This is partly in implementation of Widdicombe. The second proposal is to introduce a code of practice under Section 4(1) of the Act of 1986 to provide a sort of benchmark against which local authority decisions as regards expenditure on publicity, other than political publicity, should be made.
256 Why do these afford no effective machinery for enforcement? First, as regards amending the Act of 1972, the facility for a local authority to seek a declaration which arises in that context is tardy, cumbersome, and wholly ineffective. And there really is no effective sanction in seeking to surcharge a councillor or a former councillor who is a man of straw and in some way connected with the type of organisation to which the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, referred years after the event. The whole thing is a total nonsense. It is wholly unrealistic. It stems from an age when there was another ethos in local government. The whole machinery there requires total reappraisal.
As to the second proposal, the code of practice, thanks to the courtesy of my noble friend the Minister I have been given a copy of it. It is a code of recommended practice for guidance only. I hesitate to say this in front of my noble friend Lord Elton because this is the matter on which I divided the House against him. But it was settled—the reference is at Volume 471, cols. 823–847—when the lack of legal status of the code of practice introduced under Clause 4(1) was established in your Lordships' House on a Division. What is the use of that in terms of legal enforcement? The Government must think again.
How are we going to enforce? What are we going to do? If we are going to resort to a code of practice and have some effective means of enforcement, first of all we have to redraft the code to extend its application beyond mere expenditure on publicity and take in the other abuses. I need not repeat them. Your Lordships have dealt with them, or most of them.
Secondly, we have to introduce primary legislation to do one of two things. There is no other way of dealing with this, and yet no one seems to have suggested it. One either has to afford direct access to the civil courts to the aggrieved ratepayer to restrain breaches—along the lines proposed in Lord Halsburys' Bill and already accepted by your Lordships' House, but rejected by the Government so far—or one has to take a new look at judicial review and enlarge its scope to provide that, where it is apparent to the court that the code of practice has not been taken into account in reaching a decision, the decision of the local authority shall be deemed to have been unreasonable. This is a wholly requisite provision for it is settled law that a local authority shall take into account a mandatory provision in a code of practice. But if it is breached it may not be made the subject matter of appellate proceedings, nor indeed, by the most recent decisions of the Appellate Committee of your Lordships' House, may it be made the subject matter of judicial review.
It is possible that a combination of both these measures could be considered, again using the words of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, as, "action to prevent extremist Ministers enforcing their will on local government". Or, if resort is not had to a code of practice as a means of enforcement (as would appear to be the case with the draft code that has been put before us), then one could amend the Act of 1972 in implementation of Widdicombe. One could curtail the area of discretion exercisable by a local authority so as to enable regulations to be made which can be scheduled to the Act as part of primary legislation or to be introduced as secondary legislation under a statutory instrument.
257 This is a simple, straightforward approach by which central government ordains what is and what is not within the province of local government and how such ordinance may be enforced. Such a simple, straightforward approach is surely preferable to achieve the object, on which I think there is common ground in your Lordships' House. It is also preferable to the ultimate sanction of appointing commissioners.
My Lords, too much time has gone: I will conclude. I was going to say something about parent power that does not exist, but I shall not say it. What it comes to is this, is it not? as a practical reality the concern of my noble friend Lady Cox is that there is no effective enforcement to inhibit the abuse of rates and that none as yet has been proposed. That is the terror. Her concern is entirely well-founded, and if your Lordships' contributions to this debate should lead—and I hope they will—to the establishment of some new regime, some new dimension of legal enforcement, then my noble friend in moving this Motion will have rendered a signal public service.
§ 7.12 p.m.
§ Lord Orr-Ewing
My Lords, I should like to add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for her admirable opening speech. I remember her making a similar and equally impressive opening speech on, I think, the Education Bill. It produced exactly the same reaction from the Front Bench opposite—rather a viperous and personal attack on her, and a plea that she was representative of only a very small section. She is representative of a very large section of the community. She represents an awful lot of sensible mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, all of whom have votes. I am glad that she spoke as she did.
I thought it was sad, in view of what the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, said, that there was no instant sympathy or agreement that these excesses by the hard Left are condemned, I hope, by the Labour Party Front Bench. We have still to wait for that. They nibble at the problem. They sack a councillor in Liverpool and think they have solved the problem. We are waiting for a condemnation of the hard Left, but so far we wait in vain.
I am going to be short in my speech because I had hoped that we might be rather more advanced by this time. I have a commitment, but I shall not forsake the House. I shall come back, as is my duty, for the winding up speeches but I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I am absent for an hour or so.
In my short speech I should like to cover three main points. I believe that these ideas are mentioned and also supported in Widdicombe, which I have studied again. The first concerns the co-option and voting rights on local government, particularly in the committees where, after all, most of the decisions are made. They may be endorsed by the full council later but it is in the committees that the decisions are made. The second point concerns the rejection of competitive tenders for purely political purposes, even though they are very much cheaper and more effective than the jobs done by local authorities' own direct labour forces.
On co-option, Widdicombe was firm and unbending. He said that legislation should be 258 amended, and I think it is appropriate that we should remind ourselves of these things because we are expecting a local government Bill to come before Parliament perhaps towards the end of this month. I have to give notice that if many of us think it is not firm enough or does not deal with these matters, we shall be pressing amendments and I hope that we shall have a great deal of support from the Cross-Benches and the Alliance Benches and from the genuine democrats sitting on the Benches opposite, because they cannot like the things that are going on. It is very bad for their image in the country.
Widdicombe says in Summary 6 of a very large number of recommendations:(i) decision taking committees and sub-committees may consist only of councillors; and in particular only councillors may vote on such committees".Secondly, it says:(ii) local authorities may invite advisers to attend meetings of decision taking committees, on such terms as they may determine but without the right to vote".Thirdly, it says:(iii) the names of advisers should be made publicly known, together with the terms of their attendance".That seems to be eminently sensible and in fact everyone giving evidence to Widdicombe endorsed that, wherever they sit in Parliament. So I hope there will be no objections if that is introduced into the forthcoming Bill. One has to remember at the moment—
§ Lord Orr-Ewing
My Lords, a reference was made to it in the Queen's Speech, which said that a local government Bill was coming forward. Did the noble Baroness not read that?
§ Baroness David
My Lords, of course I listened to the Queen's Speech but I do not know of any Bill that is coming forward in the very near future to deal with this matter.
§ Lord Orr-Ewing
My Lords, it said "in this Session". Of course it may not come into this House first. I have made inquiries and I understand that "in this Session" means that it will be coming fairly soon. All major Bills come in during the first few months. I shall be happy to hear that will happen, and perhaps we may hear from the Front Bench in the winding up.
One-third of a committee can be co-opted. It is very surprising, because I know numbers of people, friends and others, who unselfishly serve on local government and they tell me it is really rather shaking, after a local government election, to come to a committee and suddenly find sitting opposite you two or three hard Left characters who have not had the confidence of the electorate—you have defeated them in the votes. There they are sitting, with the right to speak and the right to vote and even the right to form a quorum. So some of their sympathisers absent themselves—no doubt after claiming their expenses—and they sit there and they vote. This is an utter distortion of democracy and I am sure the Government would have great support if that were to be attended to.
259 Of course I recognise, as does Widdicombe, that on specialist committees such as education committees it is wise to have teachers and other educationists who can sit in and who can be asked to contribute, but not to vote and not to help form a quorum. The same applies on police committees, where it is often useful to have a magistrate. Of course there are exceptions, but let the rest be dealt with.
I think that is all I want to say on that matter. But one point arises from this. Surely the practice—and again Widdicombe supports some action on this—of an elected councillor being employed or having a sinecure job with a neighbouring council should cease, particularly at the senior staff levels. It is not fair that a highly political character who is chairman of some highly political committee in one council, as an elected councillor, should on a neighbouring council have a full-time job and be highly paid for that job. That is a bad approach, and I hope that matter will be included in the forthcoming Bill.
During the passage of the last local government Bill many of us spoke about these issues and we kept being assured in terms of, "Well, there is not much time to do it in this one; we will have a code of conduct"—as my noble friend has just said, not very effective—"we will try to deal with it when the final Widdicombe report comes forward." I hope that the final Widdicombe report is going to deal with some of these malpractices and some of these dishonesties. I am told that it is not due until the end of February, but we have simply got to tackle it and if members of the Labour Opposition are as genuine as they say they are I am sure we shall have their support.
Secondly, and briefly, I want to draw attention to malpractices with regard to tendering for local authority construction work. This has been going on for some time and I am sorry to say that it is spreading and not decreasing. Most if not all local authority construction work could be carried out by the private sector, yet some councils insist on tying up ratepayers' money in the creation of vast and inefficient direct labour organisations. They then award contracts to these DLOs in the face of lower outside bids in many cases, on the grounds that this is necessary in order to protect the initial investment they have made.
I have two examples. Bristol City recently awarded a £600,000 contract at the Royal Portbury Dock to their DLO, even though private contractors had submitted considerably lower bids. The lowest tenderer was £60,000 under that. The port engineer recommended acceptance of this bid, but he was totally overruled by his political masters. Harlow District Council—and an earlier speaker said that it was his area—awards contracts to its DLO if its tender is within 9.7 per cent. of lower private sector bids. How can you waste ratepayers' money like that? Surely it must be wrong to allow this to continue. They totally disregard the potential saving to ratepayers and taxpayers.
Equally pernicious is the rejection of bids by renowned construction companies often with worldwide export business on purely political grounds, because they have mended a road at a missile site or because they have done a repair or built a mess at 260 some other military site. They are ruled out from the tendering and this only occurs in hard Left-dominated councils.
I have drawn attention to the co-option practices. I have drawn attention to the manner in which elected local councillors are given lucrative jobs in neighbouring councils. I have drawn attention to the rigging of tenders, which is just as pernicious as the rigging of ballots, and the Audit Commission's report, which we have been discussing so much, has highlighted innumerable examples of more waste and malpractices. I urge the Government to tackle those matters in the local authority Bill which is shortly to be introduced. They can count, I believe, on the support of genuine democrats wherever they may sit in this House or in another place.
§ 7.22 p.m.
§ Lord Donoughue
My Lords, I also wish to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for this debate and to apologise to the House in advance if it happens that I cannot be present at the end. That will depend on the time. I am sorry about that, particularly because it is such an excellent debate and seems so well timed against the background of the Audit Commission's report, so giving us the opportunity to discuss our local government problems in the context of some facts and figures and not simply based on the familiar rhetoric and ideology.
It is, sadly, I must admit, very easy to be negative and critical on the question of local government. I understand the temptation of some noble politicians opposite to exult in the extravagances, failures and occasional lunacies of a small minority of London local authorities controlled by the Labour Party. I understand because I have been a Camden ratepayer for over 20 years, and your Lordships will appreciate that that is a painful and character-forming experience.
From close contact, I have observed inefficiencies and extravagances—some hilarious and some appalling. I think also that all of us who have been politically active in this inner city are aware of the basic problem, the political problem, of the lack of accountability which is set out in the report and which has been mentioned by several noble Lords.
It is true that too often councillors in inner London boroughs are taking expenditure decisions when they secure their political support from people who benefit but do not pay. In that respect, I agree with a number of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Elton. Too often the councillors cultivate minority activist groups at the expense of the needy community. As we all know, the heart of the political aspect of this problem is a mixture of low political participation and the structural nature of politics in the inner city. To some extent, that is for our political parties to resolve. They have to try to create healthy local politics and to restore democratic participation in local government. We should recognise, however, that it is not easy for this House, nor for any government, to prescribe remedies to a locality, though I sometimes wonder whether proportional representation would not be helpful.
261 I also think, following the previous speaker, that some suggestions in the Widdicombe report are very pertinent as are the statements of the noble Lord, Lord Elton. So we have a problem which we, on this side, recognise and indeed suffer from and pay for, politically and financially, as well as in other ways.
Two factors, it seems to me, are clear. They are stressed in the excellent Audit Commission report and are available for action. One is that continuous carping about local government simply will not help. I thought that what my noble friend Lord Taylor said rang very true. It does not help if people go on and on about what is wrong in a small area of local government. I had the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, in mind, and I am sorry to see that he is not in his seat because I sometimes feel that he is in danger—I say it in a friendly way—of bringing the noble art of bias and partisanship into disrepute.
The Audit Commission said:The situation will not be improved by yet more public criticism".Secondly, the commission said that the most constructive progress could be made by strengthening local government management and that,The need is for outstanding management of each of these problems".I think that we can make progress in each of those directions.
Neither management nor money alone, as people constantly say, will solve the problems. But no progress will be made without more of each. So the Audit Commission is in one area saying to the Government, "Actually, put up or shut up." What is required is help to put up some improvements in local government management.
One management solution being floated in some quarters in respect of inner London is to eliminate the elected representatives of the delinquent boroughs and to replace them by commissioners; in other words, to convert inner London into a kind of greater docklands. That is conceivable in an emergency and only on a temporary basis, but I would assert that it is absolutely wrong in principle and that imperfect democratic local government—and, after all, it does contain the machinery for its own self-improvement—is better than efficient but unaccountable bureaucracy. Anyway, I know of no evidence that unaccountable bureaucrats have more imagination and sensitivity to handle the terrible social problems which characterise these communities than do elected members, and probably the reverse. I hope that the Government will not be tempted down that path.
What is urgently needed is improved management capability in these boroughs. The Widdicombe report has within it very relevant proposals and the Audit Commission also sets out several excellent proposals which I think many of us would support. I draw from the Audit Commission the suggestion of streamlining local organisations. There are probably too many councillors in total. It is true, I believe, that councillors should be concerned with broad policy strategy rather than getting involved in all the details, and that allowances should be flat rate and not on a bonus system per committee. The statement that we should strengthen the position of chief officers is absolutely 262 true. The specific suggestion to set up a joint working party of the Audit Commissions's staff and the representatives of those inner London local authorities is very practical in that they would then be able to agree both how to survive the immediate financial problem which is very acute and, in the longer term, make progress on their management problems. I think that those proposals should be implemented very quickly.
I note the criticism by the commission of the Government for failing so far to reform the grant distribution system and the system for controlling capital expenditure. We look forward to seeing what is finally done in those areas. However, I think the boroughs need even more immediate help to strenghten their management. I especially have in mind dealing with the very practical problems of vacancies and of inexperience among officers.
Turnover, as we know, is damagingly high. Five of the main boroughs mentioned suffered over 50 per cent. of senior staff leaving within three years of joining. Given the scale of these local authorities, their financial and staff organisations and the services which they are supposed to provide, it is not possible for them to be conducted efficiently in such a situation of high staff turnover and staff inexperience. We must accept that that situation will continue unless something urgent is done. The officers are faced by an excessive burden of committee work and by apparently insoluble social problems. It is not surprising if officers move to more congenial nearby authorities where work is more attractive and satisfying, or if bright young officers go immediately to those authorities.
As regards councillors, certain noble Lords have mentioned the problem of inexperience. I am not sure whether the inexperience of some inner London councillors is a bad thing which needs to be remedied or a consolation on the basis that they might do much more damage if they were more experienced at it. However, I can say that the shortage of experienced officers is a wholly bad thing and that something should be done about it.
I should like humbly to make a small suggestion here. There should be a crash programme whereby local authorities most in need are loaned experienced staff from other local authorities which are more favourably placed and also from central Whitehall departments. The Government might initiate such a programme immediately and, in doing so, use the expertise of other bodies with knowledge of local government—such bodies as CIPFA and the Audit Commission itself.
I do not think that such an emergency programme is enough in itself. We need much more. We need the other reforms proposed by the commission and in Widdicombe. We need more resources in localities where the need is greatest. I should also say that we should never allow the incompetence of a minority of councils to justify depriving those most in need of help.
Certainly, we need a reciprocal and positive approach by those councils to any such action. We need those councils to react positively to any measures to help strengthen their management. I believe that 263 there is already some evidence of more realism—not repentance, but realism—among certain of those councils.
Without more experienced officers, being made available immediately, the result will be a financial disaster, especially bearing in mind the enormous debts such boroughs carry. The pain of that disaster will be inflicted, not on the members of the councils, but on the already deprived and under-privileged citizenry of those boroughs.
On a far more general point—the question of tone which was mentioned by my noble friend Lady David—I should like to urge some noble Lords opposite to be less negative in their attitude towards local government. Our system of local government did drift into extravagance in the previous decade. But as a system of government, it has long been a matter of pride and we should continue in general to view it as such. As Tony Crosland rightly said, the party is at last over.
The areas of delinquency are well identified and very few. They should not be exaggerated or even (as one sometimes feels they are) almost nurtured to be exploited as propaganda. There are not many of them. I was delighted to see in the report that Greenwich is not one of those most maligned. The problem is small scale, though very important. It does not justify the alarming drift into centralism which we have recently witnessed and of which we have further promise with the growing nationalisation of education and so forth.
I find it particularly puzzling and ironic, as it would be to any professional historian, to see the onward march of the men from Whitehall led by a Conservative Prime Minister. I think that this growing suppression of the independence of British local government is of constitutional concern, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, has said elsewhere. In our constitution we do not have formal checks against the overweening power of central government or a legal system with a tradition of defending local and individual rights again the central state. One reason why they have not been needed historically has been the existence of an independent local government which diffuses the power of the state. Within the broad framework of national law, local governments have implemented their own policies, based upon local electoral will.
I sense now a new tendency—unpleasantly militant—of Whitehall to view local government as subject states of central government and expected to follow the central party line. If they are governed by different parties and policies, they are viewed as pariahs; if they are obstinate in their local independence, it is felt that they should be abolished.
Many noble Lords opposite know from their own experience and their great contributions the value of independent local government. By that I do not mean their right to be profligate at the expense of others. But it is not in our interests to deride and demoralise local government.
I should like to conclude by urging the Government to be more constructive in their general approach to these issues and, in particular, to move urgently to strengthen local authority management in the specific 264 ways suggested in the excellent Audit Commission report, by myself and by other noble Lords in this debate.
§ 7.37 p.m.
§ Lord Beloff
My Lords, with all due thanks to my noble friend Lady Cox, this has been a disappointing debate as a debate, although individual contributions will read well in Hansard. I say that because we have not brought together sufficiently the fact that we are really dealing with two quite separate issues.
The first of those issues was highlighted by my noble friend Lady Cox. If the noble Baroness, Lady David, had followed that up, not by denouncing my noble friend as an extremist without showing that any of the facts which she advanced were in the least questionable, but had rather said, "Let us try together to come to terms with this particular crisis; we on our side of the House will certainly denounce unequivocally the abuses which have been put before us and noble Lords on the other side of the House must be ready to question the Government as to how far it will help local authorities whose own conduct of affairs is beyond reproach", then there would be a possibility of a partnership. I do not think, however, that that possibility was advanced by the way this debate was begun from the other side of the House.
I feel that it may be that the loyalty of the noble Baroness, Lady David, to which my noble friend. Lord Boyd-Carpenter referred, includes the acceptance of the model provided by the leader of her party, Mr. Kinnock. If Mr. Kinnock had been willing at some stage to say, "I and my party have nothing to do with this kind of thing; we are as opposed to it as anyone else", it would have made a difference. I think it was too much to expect from a general who leads his army from behind, the Duke of Plaza-Toro of British politics. It would have been important not perhaps because it would have affected Mr. Bernie Grant or any of these people—they are, as the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, pointed out, working under a different system or for different objectives—but it would have stopped other local authorities coming under Labour control from feeling that they could with impunity do much the same kind of thing. Although it is true that, in the sense of major abuses, we are dealing with a minority, we are seeing some of the facets of what has been described spreading to other local authorities.
§ Baroness David
My Lords, perhaps I may intervene for a moment. I think that the noble Lord has not read everything that my right honourable friend Mr. Kinnock has said; and if he reads the end part of my speech this afternoon he will see that I was very anxious to have co-operation between central and local government; that I was dismayed by the way things were going; that I was not happy with some Labour councils; and that I hoped that there might be some substantial changes and that these changes were already happening. I am quite sure that my noble friend Lord Underhill will follow up these points when he replies, but I think that the noble Lord is being a little unfair.
§ Lord Beloff
My Lords, for someone who has called the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, an extremist, the charge of unfairness is hard to make stick.
§ Lord Elwyn-Jones
My Lords, will the noble Lord deal with the intervention of my noble friend instead of offering mere abuse?
§ Lord Beloff
My Lords, I should have thought that the noble and learned Lord would agree that I have been accused of unfairness. I am not convinced that that case can be made out. I shall read the noble Baroness's speech to see whether I have misinterpreted her. I can only say that the most impressive speech from the other side of the House was made by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor; but I believe that the noble and learned Lord was not in the Chamber at the time. The noble Lord began by saying that of course we must react in a hostile fashion against this kind of thing. He began in that way and that is what I hoped the noble Baroness would do. However, as it is late, I think it would be wrong to go into personal arguments of this kind because other important things should be said.
I was about to refer to other local councils. The noble and learned Lord will be particularly interested to note that the first council I am going to discuss is Brighton, which has just passed under Labour control. What has happened? Nothing on the scale of Southwark or Lambeth but £66,000 of public money is being spent to employ a public relations firm to make the council's case against rate-capping. In a city which has no history of bad relations with the police we have a totally unnecessary police committee. We have a women's committee; and looking at Brighton beach, the women of Brighton seem to be in very good shape. I hardly think that they need a committee. The whole litany is beginning even in Brighton, which is not a notably disadvantaged city.
I shall give one other example only because I happen to have a minor personal concern with it. For some time some people have felt that it would be admirable to have a museum of the history of the British Empire and British Commonwealth. It was hoped—and it was right to hope, and noble Lords on all sides of the House have always said that we should hope—that any new cultural enterprise of this kind would not be in London and that it should be used to attract tourists, foreigners and our own people to a provincial city. The obvious provincial city for a museum of the British Empire was Bristol, the city from which John Cabot sailed at the beginning of Britain's overseas enterprise, the city which rose to greatness on commerce with the empire. Having come under Labour control, Bristol, for so far as one can make out purely ideological reasons, has rejected the idea of having this museum and it will no doubt go to some other city. It may in the end have to come to London which I think would be a mistake and a blow.
So the problem is not entirely confined to the authorities which have figured in this debate. That is why I feel it is important that it should be stated over and over again by the leaders of the party which controls these authorities that what they are doing does not correspond with party policy.
The other equally important issue concerns what is going to happen if the councils which we have been discussing go bankrupt. This has been faced by spokesmen for the Labour Party. Dr. Cunningham has 266 said that they will not be bailed out, But of course they will be bailed out, if not by a Labour Government then by a Conservative Government. No government will allow important parts of the capital city to be in a position in which they cannot provide the ordinary services for their citizens. After all, New York went through this, as was pointed out in the Audit Commission report, and New York was bailed out. It was bailed out by New York State and by the Federal Government. It was unthinkable that in New York which to many people is the entrance to America, government services would totally collapse.
Therefore it is important that we should give more thought than perhaps we have to the steps that would be taken if this were to happen. One can talk about the appointment of commissioners. Here I would agree with the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, that it would not be a long-term solution but something would have to be done if the ordinary salaries and wages of important units of local government could not be paid.
Above and beyond all that is the question that was raised in the very impressive speech of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Blackburn, and echoed in a way by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue. We had a system of local government which made possible a partnership between local government, private industry, central government and voluntary organisations. That was the ideal and most people would like to go back to it. How one goes back to it, or how one produces a new version of it—a matter which does not merely affect the so-called delinquent authorities but affects local government as a whole—is a different subject, one which has come in and out of our debate but which would more properly be discussed when, as I hope, the Government not only allow us to debate the Widdicombe Report but also give us at least an inkling of what they propose to do about it.
§ 7.49 p.m.
§ Lady Saltoun of Abernethy
My Lords, first I must apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, to whom I am very grateful for having introduced this debate this afternoon, and to the speakers who are to reply. I have to leave here at 8.15 for a dinner engagement and due to the length of time that the debate is taking I shall not therefore be able to remain for the closing speeches. I shall of course read them carefully tomorrow and I hope that your Lordships will forgive me.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and, I am sure, most of your Lordships, I am the first to admit that most local authorities carry out their duties in a responsible manner. However, your Lordships will all have heard the list given by the noble Baroness of the activities of the minority which do not—and how deplorable are those activities, be they political, subversive of law and order and the defence of the realm, or educational, and will have noted the cost of them.
I should like to add a few words to what the noble Baroness said about the sex education that those local authorities are forcing on children of a very young age, which, as your Lordships will have heard, is not only divorced from any moral framework but denigrates 267 family life and heterosexuality and glorifies homosexuality; poisoning their minds as well as endangering their health and future happiness. The noble Baroness referred to material available in the Library. Included in this material is a copy of The Playbook for Kids About Sex, which is aimed at very young children indeed.
This is not a party political matter. I ask any of your Lordships who have not already looked at that material to do so and to consider whether they would have wished their own children or grandchildren to be subjected to such indoctrination at a very young age. What would be their feelings were their child or grandchild to arrive home with The Playbook for Kids About Sex or The Milkman Calls? I think noble Lords will be appalled.
Some of us are, or have been, fortunate enough to be able to educate our children privately, but we are the lucky few. It therefore behoves us in this House to use what power we have to ensure that the vast majority of parents less fortunate than ourselves do not have to stand impotently by and see their children being corrupted, with no right to withdraw them from these pernicious classes. As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, explained, they have no effective remedy through the courts. The code of practice and the parent power to enforce it on which the Government are relying to remedy this evil are mere paper tigers and quite useless. If the Government realise this and now, quickly, take really effective steps to prevent this monstrous abuse of local authority power, they will earn the gratitude and respect of almost every parent in the country.
Apart from what I have just said, most parents who can afford to, and many who cannot except at great sacrifice to themselves, are educating their children privately because they want them to leave school literate and numerate; and because too many state school-leavers are almost unable to read, write clearly, spell, use the English language correctly, or do simple arithmetic. Some who have the time, ability and determination but cannot afford fee-paying schools, are trying to educate their children themselves at home, at least in the primary stages.
A month or two ago I watched a television programme about some of these parents and the difficulties they had with some local authorities who made things difficult for them, although parents have a perfect right to do that. I hope the Government will investigate this kind of local authority harassment and take steps to prevent it.
§ 7.54 p.m.
§ Viscount Mersey
My Lords, I too should like to thank my noble friend Lady Cox for introducing this debate. I should like to concentrate on the nuclear-free zones and the serious damage that this does to our civil defence. Following that, I should like to broaden the argument to include the international aspect of these nuclear-free zones.
Underlying everything that I say is a grave usurpation of the power of Her Majesty's Government. No man can serve two masters, yet we 268 are asked to serve many: first, our own Government; secondy, the European Community; and, thirdly, the various local authorities who have policies opposed to both national and European government. It is all too easy to laugh at nuclear-free zones, and previous speakers have done so, but I feel that the movement is too serious and widespread for mirth.
It is led by Manchester City Council, as my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter has already said. I have here a poster from that council, which is rather large, stating that it is a nuclear-free zone. Following Manchester's example, we have a considerable number of local authorities—in fact, 173—which have declared themselves nuclear-free zones, as have four Scottish regions and 143 district councils. In fact, 66 per cent. of us now live in nuclear-free zones; 66 per cent. of us now face the problem of trying to serve more than one master. My noble friend Lady Cox has already made that point, as did the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich.
I should like to take the consequences of that just a little further and show that the end result would be anarchic. Central government's power could be reduced to that of President Gemayel in the Lebanon, whose authority extends little further than his own back yard. Outside the yard roam bands of Druze and Shi'ite Moslems, Phalangist and Marinite Christians, the PLO and the Islamic Jihad. If we do not check our extreme Left local authorities, we steer towards a Lebanese chaos.
I reinforce the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, to show how extreme some of these authorities are. West Yorkshire County Council writes:We condemn our own government, whether Conservative or Labour".The council is less worried about the cost of Trident than about the cost of Tornado aircraft. As it points out, the Tornado is the more expensive of the two.
The council condemns Vickers for building the Chieftain tank. I have the document here. It is called West Yorkshire Peace Information, Fact Sheet 1. One section of this document is headed:Vickers and the Chieftain Tank".Under this heading it states that,Vickers [workers] build this tank; they too know well what else they could do".The leaflet continues that they could build,a new economy metal press for cheaper and better cars" … small scale brewery plants for better beer … rebuilding Britain's piers".Your Lordships will note that "piers" is spelt with an "i". I know that it is funny, but this extremist literature is dangerous to all parts of the House. This is, I hope, a bipartisan speech.
West Yorkshire is not, as your Lordships can see, just asking for a nuclear-free zone. It goes further than that. It is asking for an arms-free zone. It will only be satisfied with the abolition of our armed forces. If we dismiss these policies of the loony Left we do so at our peril.
I should like to spell out what has happened in the civil defence field which is led by Manchester, but my illustration is from London. Until 1983, the Government only asked local authorities to make 269 plans for civil defence. However, realising that the nuclear-free zones were not making plans the Government imposed specific emergency planning requirements on local authorities. These are the 1983 Civil Defence Regulations. They included, in London's case, the duty to build five emergency control centres. The regulations were laid on the table in December, 1983.
Now, three-and-a-half years on, some local authorities are still not complying with them. The method of non-compliance is ingenious. It is best illustrated by the GLC's original reply. The GLC regarded government regulations as too vague and wrote back in these terms:Please state the most likely nature of a nuclear attack and the possible range of attack, specifying yield of weapon, whether ground burst or air burst: if air burst; height of burst. Whether more than one weapon might be used: if so, their respective characteristics. Numbers of weapons to be delivered per raid, number and frequency of raids, accuracy of delivery. Is an attack using an underwater burst in the Thames Estuary envisaged, and what effect might it have with regard to (1) tidal surge toward London and (2) specialised effects of wet fall out?As noble Lords must realise, such questions are quite unanswerable by the Home Office and probably unanswerable even by the Kremlin. They mask the general nuclear-free zone attitude that any attack would be nuclear and so devastating that there just is no point in planning for it. It reminds me of the pacifist forecast of 1939 that Germany would drop a quarter of a million bombs on London each and every day and that the whole city would become uninhabitable in six months. Events between 1939 and 1945 proved the pacifists wrong.
Fortunately we are not at war today, but this has allowed the GLC and its successor body, the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority, to embark on the longest filibuster I have ever come across. Not that I have anything against the successor authority. The point is that the GLC, before abolition, set up a group—still in existence—called the Greater London Area War Risk Study, known by its acronym of GLAWARS. On it serve Dr. Anne Ehrlich, Dr. William Gunn, Dr. Stuart Horner, Dr. Peter Sharfman, Dr. Frank von Hippel and an American vice-admiral called John Marshall Lee. They are still engaged in answering an unanswerable question, to wit: "How can we plan the civil defence of London without the Russians first telling us how many bombs they are going to drop, when, where and of what type?"
The GLC letter I quoted from is three-and-a-half years old now. It was written by a Mr. Peterken, but it surely emanated from the highest level—Mr. Livingstone. It is topical that a leading member of Mr. Livingstone's nuclear policy group and his personal civil defence adviser was none other than Mr. Duncan Campbell.
Under the 1983 regulations the Government have reserve powers to take the necessary civil defence measures themselves if the councils fail so to do. They can send in commissioners; they can construct the necessary buildings and send the bill to the local authority concerned on the grounds of culpable negligence. However, government have never used these powers and I must ask my noble friend on the Front Bench, why on earth not.
270 I will ask him further to list the local authorities who have not fully complied with the 1983 Civil Defence Regulations. Since I fear that the list will be long, I think it best to put that down as a separate Question for Written Answer after this debate. I should like to ask him now, however, why government have not been tougher with these people and why the Home Office describes this monstrous filibuster by London, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford, Cambridge and Southampton not as a filibuster at all but by a euphenism new to me, called "creative compliance". Creative accounting I have heard of, but not creative compliance.
Moving now to the international scene, one of the odder nuclear-free zones is that proposed around the pop star Madonna. CND recommends that a 50-kilometre nuclear-free circle be created around wherever she sings. My response to that is that we should immediately dispatch her to Murmansk because then the Russians, who are so keen on nuclear-free zones themselves, must suit the action to the word and sail their entire fleet of nuclear submarines 50 kilometres out to sea!
It is, as I have said all along, all too easy to be risible about a very serious subject. How can it be that the great and good British people can so easily condone this militant lunacy? I believe that the answer is not national but international, and that the whole nuclear-free zone movement has been skilfully engineered by Marxists worldwide. They have succeeded in New Zealand. The secretariat of the NFZ movement, which is in Manchester, has so far organised three international conferences: the first in Manchester itself; the second in Cordoba, Spain; and the third last year in Perugia. Delegates from all the 1,700 nuclear-free zones of the world met there. They demanded inter alia the dismantling of all nuclear weapons. I repeat: it is not the business of local government to decide questions of national defence.
There are some interesting examples of town twinning. Noble Lords will be all too familiar with innocuous signs such as, "Petworth, twinned with San Quirico D'Orcia". That is harmless enough, but it is ominous that Hull has twinned with Rotterdam and that both ports have become nuclear-free zones, because it is this sort of twinning that helps to organise the NFZ international network. It is even more ominous that the Leeds local authority has twinned with Donetsk when there is no local authority in Donetsk to twin with. Similarly, Manchester has twinned both with Karlmarxstadt in East Germany and Puerto Cabezas in Nicaragua.
I feel sure that those types of twinning were engineered by the Soviets. They have nothing to lose from nuclear-free zones since they have such a preponderance of conventional forces. Indeed, I have evidence that it was the Soviets who invented the nuclear-free zone way back in 1956. I quote:For the Soviet Union the creation of nuclear-free zones in Europe is an important part of the struggle for strengthening peace.That was written in 1956 and was published by the Novosti Press in 1986. It is a Russian publication.
I would say, following that, that I have until now regarded the "reds under the beds" speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, as a little bit alarmist, but 271 really not any more. Now I find him a realist, as indeed I find my noble friend Lady Cox. I cannot but construe the whole international nuclear-free zone movement as a carefully orchestrated communist attack on the Western democracies. There are even 13 nuclear-free zones now in the United States, including Chicago.
The Russian booklet I quoted from has a foreword by Mikhail Gorbachev: He writes:The creation of nuclear-free zones is a positive phenomenon of international life reflecting the will of ordinary people to promote peaceAs Mandy Rice-Davies once said, "He would say that, wouldn't he?" I remind noble Lords of what Mr. Ernest Bevin said nearly 40 years ago:I am convinced that the Soviet Union will not deal with the West on reasonable terms in the foreseeable future.That includes local authorities.
§ 8.8 p.m.
§ Lord Bellwin
My Lords, I was rather amused at some of the observations of my noble friend Lord Mersey. As to nuclear-free zones, I thought the subject was best summed up for me by the comments of a fellow Leeds Loiner, when I said to him, "Well, what do you think about nuclear-free zones?" and he said, "Eeh, I've never heard owt so daft in my life." That just about sums it up for me. I have never heard anything so ludicrous. Can you imagine, God forbid, the wave that came over from Chernobyl and as it came towards the nuclear-free zone of Manchester it said, "Left turn, we've got to bypass this bit because they've got a sign that says 'nuclear-free zone'?" What a lot of nonsense, really.
I was rather sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady David, made the remarks she did at the end of her speech about what my noble friend Lady Cox had said. Actually, I thought it was a splendid speech and it so needed saying. If that was extreme—and I hope I heard wrongly when I heard the word "unbalanced"; Hansard will tell us tomorrow—if that was extreme and unbalanced, then the vast majority in your Lordships' House are extreme and unbalanced. Maybe I am uncharitable and I heard wrongly. If I did, I will be the very first to apologise.
Listening to the debate, all I can say is—and I know the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, will nod his head when I say this—poor local government! I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Blackburn, and he talked about how it used to be in his time. That was my time too. The reality is that it has all changed completely. I have spoken to fellow members from all sides of the council on which I served for many years as Leader and chairman, and they say, "You are so lucky not to be in it now. Look at the people who are in it now."
Yet there are some very good people in it now. I know them and they are good fellows but they are being swamped—that is the only word I can find for it. If we try to delude ourselves by thinking, "Well, they are only a few", we do such people a great disservice. I know so many of the good people and the noble Lord Lord Underhill, knows that I know many of them and count them as friends—who are still in local government. They are sick at heart about this situation. That goes for those at the very heart of the 272 leadership—good people who are concerned only for those who elect them to office and who want only to have local services carried out in the most efficient way possible. That is what local government is about. That is what the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Blackburn, described. I like to think that it is what my tenure of office was all about. Certainly I tried to make it so.
I should like to comment on one or two of the specific statements that have been made in the last two or three hours about the local government scene. I thought that the dissertation on democracy and voting made by my noble friend Lord Elton was quite splendid. I shall look forward to reading it. What he said needed saying; in all fairness it had to be said.
One myth relates to the idea that central government, having taken so much away from local government in grant, have thereby disadvantaged them. May I remind your Lordships of something? I remember very well how over the years when I was serving in local government the rate support grant percentage fluctuated from 66 per cent. to 56 per cent. and back to 61 per cent. It was a measure of what the government of the day—whatever government—thought should be a contribution from the taxpayer rather than the ratepayer. It was a point of view on what could be afforded at the time. I vividly remember the serious trouble caused by Circular 45/76—your Lordships can see that the number is emblazoned upon my heart—when Denis Healey, under pressure from the IMF, had to say to local government that it must reduce its costs across the board by 3 per cent. in one year. It is dramatic to have to do that in one year when you have already established your budget. Yet that was done by local government.
Certainly there had to be some cut in capital programmes which contributed towards it, a measure which was not all that smart on reflection, but that was the kind of relationship that existed. Local government said, "If governments are there they have to govern. We hate what they are doing like heck but the fact is that they are the government of the day and it is important that they should govern". So local councillors waited for the day that there should be another government in office but, while that government was there they tried their best to work within the parameters that had been set down. By and large that is the spirit that prevailed in local government.
In 1979 that spirit changed. One of the factors influencing that change was the advent of many people of the kind we have been mentioning today. Yet I who have the future of local government at heart say again, "Don't let us belittle local government, because if we do we shall regret it; its absence would harm us very much". Local government matters. Do not belittle it. Let us talk in practical terms of what we can do for it.
During the debate on Monday there was much discussion of services. I am reminded of the words of the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, spoken when he was in another place. He said that these people used the language of democracy to destroy democracy. How telling a phrase. The fact is that they talk about providing services and say, "Look at the poverty, look at the conditions we have and yet you deny us money to remedy them". Some of your Lordships will have heard me ask on Monday—and I say it again 273 now—"How can you leave houses empty, not repair them and provide only wretched services because you say you cannot afford to maintain them, when in the same breath you spend not a million or two but tens, even hundreds of millions of pounds on the kinds of projects that we have been hearing about today?" They cannot have spending priority. Is that why these people were elected to office? Surely not.
I know what can be done. The report of the Audit Commission mentions a potential saving of £2 billion—that is, £2,000 million—to be achieved by simply doing things properly and cutting out inefficiency and waste. One must be willing to say that if the private sector can provide a better service it should be allowed to provide a better service. If people are in work, it does not matter whether they work for the private sector rather than the public sector. The fact is that it will be done more effectively and more cheaply. If it could be said that all that extra spending produced a better level of services, one could argue that that was a valid point of view, but, sadly, it has not produced a better level of services. That is the greatest indictment of all. It has not produced a better level of services.
I listened carefully to what I thought was a very good speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, whom I have not heard speak before in your Lordships' House, and I should like to hear him speak more often. He asked why more senior staff could not be recruited. My head was almost coming off in frustration as I listened to him. Where has he been this past year or two? Does he not know what happened last week in Lambeth when NALGO advised the council officers not to go to work with the elected members because the officers can no longer stand the incompetence, inefficiency and waste. The union supports the view of the officers. It is a Conservative approach. What business has anybody to talk about the politics of council officers? We come back to the politicisation of officials and advertisements for vacant posts in the press which state that only officers like minded to the party in power need apply. That is another indictment of the worst type.
Years ago I remember saying to officers in Leeds, "You are so marvellous to us when we are in office and so awkward when we are in opposition", to which they replied, "But we are professionals and trained to support the members. We are apolitical". I put a great deal of the blame upon the officers' own associations for failing to speak out loudly and say, "Our members will not be allowed to be subjected to this treatment". This has happened to senior officers in Liverpool. I have seen the chief executive, who was one of the most respected officers in local government—respected by everybody—become a cipher because of what they did to him in Liverpool. Such things are everywhere in that and other authorities. It is dreadful. It is no wonder that there are unfilled vacancies. What officer in his right mind will go there? People run away fast. That is part of the tragedy that is happening.
Not for the first time, but I hope in a good spirit, I want to take issue with something concerning the effect of high rates that was said earlier tonight by the noble Lord, Lord Graham. I mentioned something about this on Monday. I believe that employment, 274 jobs, work must be put into areas where the worst problems exist. That is a basic ingredient on which everything else feeds. Housing is important but employment is absolutely critical, as is the physical environment.
The noble Lord always speaks sincerely and I respect what he says. I hope that I, too, always speak with sincerity. However, I must tell him that I have spoken to many estate agents who have been given the job of trying to find new locations for business people, new offices and new factories. Only recently I saw an article in the press which confirmed what they told me. They say, "As soon as we mention that we have premises available and speak of Haringey and some other places, the people run away and will not go near them." Why should they? I do not want to make a big political meal of this subject because I feel too sad about the whole thing to want to do that. But you cannot get away from a few facts comparing Lambeth and Wandsworth, which have about the same populations. Noble Lords will say, "Not again" but, yes, again, because it is relevant.
Lambeth has 4.22 bureaucrats per 1,000 population and Wandsworth 2.28, about half. As to expenditure on renovation of council dwellings, Lambeth spends £202 per dwelling and Wandsworth £768 per dwelling—marvellous, one might say; one would think it would be the other way round. In Lambeth the spending overall since 1979 has increased by 15 per cent. and in Wandsworth it is gone down by 18 per cent. Average household rates in Lambeth are £524 and, in Wandsworth, £294. In some parts the street is divided between the two councils, and one can imagine living on the wrong side of the street. To take empty properties, Lambeth had 2,000 and Wandsworth 280—it is that dramatic. As to council staff, there were 10,500 in Lambeth and 5,000 in Wandsworth.
If your Lordships go round the two places they will see which is better and which looks better. That is because one is run properly and one is run badly. It is run badly by people who are amateurs. They drive out their officers. They have 100 committees and subcommittees. When I was leader in Leeds I had 11 committees and a few sub-committees, certainly no more than a handful, and that authority was treble the size of this one. What are they all doing? They are all turning up at meetings. I leave your Lordships to come to your own conclusions about this. The hour is late and much of what I had intended to say I will not say but will keep for another time. I am sure that there will be another debate.
The great cry of local government was: keep local government local. How much money was spent on such campaigns? As was asked earlier, if they want to keep it local, what are they during with a South African policy, a Polish policy, an Irish policy, a Nicaraguan policy and an anti-nuclear policy?
I know that I share with the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, who is president of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, of which I was at one time vice president, a great sadness about this. I say to him, to noble Lords on the Opposition Benches and to everyone who is interested in the matter, please let us see what we can do and let the local authority associations speak up themselves. I know that they 275 have inhibitions because the Left wing is strongly entrenched, but let them at least try. If in the end they do not succeed, your Lordships know what will happen, and this can come from any government. The Labour Party may say that they will let it all rip and spend with no restraint when they get into government, but your Lordships know that it will only be a matter of time before the IMF will be back in, inflation will be roaring and interest rates will be high—it will be a case of déjà vu; we have seen it all before. Then what will happen to local government? The centre will erode more and more and in the end it will be as it is in certain countries on the Continent—albeit there is a federal system there—where compared to this country local government is nothing. That is what will happen here.
To those who still have a love for what local government is and can be and who can influence it, I say, please let us do this ourselves, there is still time if we like. But, if we turn away and try to belittle what is happening by saying, "It's only a few, it ain't important", what a price we shall pay.
§ 8.25 p.m.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, like other Members of the House who have spoken I am grateful to have the opportunity of making a contribution in what is considered by all of us to be a vital sector not only of the economy but of democracy. I am sad that although the first part of the Motion refers to the problems, few remarks have been addressed from the Government Benches about ways to deal with the problems. Criticisms of the solutions to the problems there have been, and many justified, but from my experience I believe that many Members have no idea of the nature of the problems.
I follow the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, with great respect because he and I come from the same school, not only socially and economically but in regard to our activity in local government. I listened carefully to what he had to say. I also listened carefully to other Members in your Lordships' House who have stood for elections and won them. I do not take too kindly to those who have not stood for and been successful in gaining public office coming here and lecturing me and others about how democracy ought to be run.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, began by bemoaning the fact that there were local authorities, probably Labour—especially undemocratic and hard line on the far Left—who were not following what she has traditionally understood to be the remit of local government, and the fact that we were bucking longstanding conventions. I have news for the noble Baroness. In the short period of 25 years since I first stood for office and was successful in becoming the leader of a local authority, the conventions and traditions have changed out of all proportion because the nature of the task facing not only Labour authorities but all of us has changed out of all recognition. If the noble Baroness and her friends really believe that, because of the nature of this Government, 25 years later the conventions and traditions—traditions which I should say for 100 years before 1960 were reasonably well-balanced—could 276 not have changed, I venture to suggest that she is not living in the real world.
The noble Baroness and her colleagues believe that they are doing not only their cause but also the policies that they stand for good by exposing the behaviour of some local authorities and giving details in the House. I have more faith in the electorate. They listen carefully and understand what is being said in your Lordships' House, not least because of television.
I have news for the noble Baroness and her friends. The attack on Labour local authorities tonight is a very familiar theme. The illustrations may change and the individuals may change but the general attack on the undemocratic, hard line and far Left was peddled assiduously in the passage of the abolition legislation. The electorate were told in the run-up to the local elections and the elections for ILEA what to expect. They were not deluded. They understood exactly what was said. They also had their own store of experience in the localities. When they were given the opportunity to vote on the GLC—denied by the noble Baroness and her friends in London—there were substantial gains for Labour, particularly in Brent. I will deal with Brent and the change in policy in a moment.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, excuse me. I will give way in a moment.
On this issue the noble Baroness and her friends have made a great fetish of the fact that the activity of Labour councils needs to be exposed and that ipso facto the people will determine that they want to turn them out. Despite a campaign similar to the one that we have heard today, in 1984 and 1985 the people of London, in the ILEA election, and people throughout the country listened carefully to what was said in this House and determined accordingly.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, the noble Lord has boasted about two authorities—Brent and the ILEA. Is he aware that in both areas the majority of citizens who voted, voted against the Labour Party? The only reason that a Labour majority exists is the electoral system which he and some of his noble friends support.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, the majority of citizens who voted, voted against the Alliance and against the Conservative Party. The point that the noble Lord makes, not for the first time tonight, about changes in the electoral system is a fair one. Despite a determination by others to tell the voters what to do, in 1986 we increased our vote in Enfield, Brent and other places. The electorate had its own store of experience.
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, unusually, is not in his place. The noble Lord wanted to congratulate the national press because it had done a great deal for which he and his supporters had cause to be grateful. It had given publicity to all local authority dereliction. I shall give the House an illustration of how the national press, which the noble Lord praised, has acted. A determination was made by 277 the Press Council this week on a headline in the Sun newspaper which stated, "Vile book in school". I shall give an extract from the findings in this case which is familiar because it has been peddled by those who hold a view contrary to mine:According to the evidence before the Press Council the book was held by ILEA at a teachers centre, not in schools, and was not available to pupils. The authority has said it should only be used with older pupils in particular and exceptional circumstances after their parents had been consulted. Under the main headline, 'Vile book in school' the Sun said it was being made available to junior schools by education officials, and in another headline reported, 'Pupils see pictures of gay lovers'. The paper itself chose to reproduce across four columns a picture captioned 'Perverted … a page from the book showing Jenny in bed with her gay dad and his naked lover', thereby giving the picture and its caption far wider dissemination than otherwise it might have had. Although the story did not say so, there is no doubt that the book was available to London children through other channels than schools and the ILEA. However, the misleading but clear implication of the headlines was that the book was then in use in London junior schools and had been seen by children there. The complaint against the Sun is upheld".There has been a welter of cristicism of council actions. Those who oppose my views are entitled to make that criticism. Why do they not occasionally draw attention to illustrations such as the one I have given? Why do they remain silent when some of the evidence upon which they have rested their case is shown to be shallow? I could give the House many other illustrations about the way in which all authorities are being deliberately and mercilessly maligned by an unfriendly press.
A great deal has been said about the hard Left. More than one speaker has drawn attention to the Labour candidate in Greenwich. They must believe it is a bonus to say that she is of the hard, far Left. So be it. I do not say that she is or is not. If your Lordships ask the people of Greenwich to pass an opinion on a candidate that you have labelled, do not be surprised if the result is not to your liking. But do not then say that the test was not a true one. Whether she is of the hard Left or the far Left, she is the Labour Party candidate in the London borough of Greenwich.
I have no doubt that other Members of the House who have yet to speak are far better qualified than I am to draw the attention of the House to what they believe to be derelictions by that council. The people of Greenwich will make a determination in the light of all they see and hear.
The noble Baroness drew our attention to race spies. That was another glib, easy, distorted description of what had happened. She knows better than anyone that the Conservative and Alliance-controlled Brent council decided to engage 180 teachers with special responsibilities for race. I repeat that it was the Conservative and Alliance-controlled council which took that decision. It produced a scheme and submitted it to a Conservative Home Office. It was approved. There was no criticism or argument. It was only when Labour won control that it was decided to implement the policy with which everyone in Brent at that time agreed.
Although there may be arguments about how the scheme has developed, it is sharp practice mercilessly to beat a council such as Brent and the many other inner London authorities which have indescribable conditions and problems with which to deal. We have been talking about the problems of inner London and 278 other inner city areas but there have been few illustration. I wonder why the noble Baroness, who talked about problems, did not talk about homelessness. That is a big problem in inner London which has 30,000 homeless families. Why did she not talk at length about the housing problem?
§ Baroness Cox
My Lords, the main point which I made on several occasions was my anxiety that so many resources and so much local authority money were being diverted from those problems in areas where the suffering is greatest towards matters which, I think, worry many of the citizens who live there. They see that as an abuse of the resources. It is because I care about problems such as homelessness and the others which occur in areas of high social deprivation, that I care so passionately about the distortion and diversion of funds in other directions.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, let us try to quantify the amount of money involved. Manchester City Council has been used more than once as an illustration of a hard Left council which wastes money on equal opportunities, a race unit and gay and lesbian grants. It is suggested that such money would make a big difference. Those budgets amount to 0.25 per cent. of its budget. In a workforce of 28,000 people, 26 people are involved in equal opportunities. I make no complaint about Members opposite who, given the opportunity, would not pursue certain policies, but I strongly object to the way they have sought to smear not merely the authority which is doing a difficult job but Labour per se.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, the noble Baroness will have an opportunity to speak when I give way in a moment. Glib phrases are used. We are told that not all Labour-controlled authorities are bad; that it is only a minority; and that there are many good Labour-controlled councils and councillors. But the intention is to smear Labour local authorities.
§ Baroness Cox
My Lords, the noble Lord will forgive me for intruding once again, but I must put the record straight. I made as my first and most important caveat the fact that we are talking about a minority. I specified the figures and proportions of that minority. I said that we were talking about approximately 22 councils. They represent about 13 per cent. of the population of England and between one-quarter and one-third of those who live in Labour-controlled areas. That is not a loose, cheap jibe; that is accurate quantification. It is a substantial minority.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, we have moved from "minority" to "substantial minority". I stand by what I said, the intention of both this debate and the illustrations used to support it has been to smear the good name of Labour in local government. The people of this country will, perhaps not too far in the future, have the opportunity to express an opinion. Unlike the noble Baroness and her noble friends when faced with the unit of local government that they 279 disliked because it was not prepared to do everything central government said—that is, the GLC—their solution was to abolish it, get rid of it. Their solution was not to go to the electorate nor to provide the voters of London with an opportunity to say whether they wished to see the GLC abolished, changed or whatever. That was not the solution of the noble Baroness.
Perhaps I may very quickly draw to the attention of the House the reason for the problems which are being faced, in my view. Noble Lords opposite have said that we shall not solve the problem by throwing money at it. This Government will never be accused of throwing money at the problem because since 1979 they have withdrawn money in the face of mounting problems in many local authorities. In Brent, for instance, the total grant which was lost between the level in 1981 and that in 1986 was over £40 million. I wonder what the noble Baroness and her friends were thinking they would like to do in 1984 and 1985. I wonder what this Labour-controlled authority would now like to do. In Haringey, the reduction is £62 million; in Islington, £55 million; in Lewisham, £46 million. That is the enormous size of the task.
There is an increase in the problems, never mind housing. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, is not here. He prayed in aid the excellence of Wandsworth and contrasted it with other local authorities. Let us look at what the Wandsworth council is doing; one of the bêtes-noires of noble Lords opposite was the high number of empty properties in Labour-controlled authorities. In Wandsworth today there are 900 empty properties, but 190 families for whom £1 million a year is being paid in bed and breakfast accommodation. I would share the incredulity of anyone: how on earth can that happen? If it is happening in Wandsworth—and there are good reasons for it—one should begin to understand that it is not so easy for other authorities to do what Wandsworth is apparently trying its level best to do. That is the size of the problem.
When one looks at the castigation of councils per se, they are keeping houses empty, 23 per cent. of the councils stock is empty; 4 per cent. of government housing is empty, but it is 6 per cent. in the private sector. There is never a complaint about the properties which could house people and which are owned by people other than councils.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, would the noble Lord permit me to ask him to read the debate on Monday, when there was considerable concentration on the subject?
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I did not hear all that debate but some of it and of course there was a concentration. However there is an inability to recognise that, if councils are responsible for 2½ per cent. of their stock being empty, something must be said about other sectors of the housing market.
I realise that time is getting on but I want to make a point about the rates to the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. The point which he wanted to impress on 280 the House was that anyone who is faced with high rate levels will look elsewhere for a place to establish his business. He ought to see the queue of people who want to rent property in the London boroughs of Camden and Greenwich and Southwark. The rates there, we are told, are far too high and should be reduced. If indeed one is simply looking at the position from the point of view that employers will not bring their work where rates are high, he needs to be able to reconcile a contradiction.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, will the noble Lord allow me to say that the whole complaint during Monday's debate was that people were not bringing their businesses to those areas where people were suffering but were concentrating them in the areas like the so-called M.4 valley. If the noble Lord will study the matter a little more carefully, he will see that one of the discouragements—and it is only one, because there are many others—if you are starting afresh and have no particular local connections, to bringing your business into those areas is the simple calculation that you are going to pay high rates already and you will certainly have to pay more next year because that local authority has been borrowing and some time it will have to pay the money back.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, the noble Lord makes the point that with rates go rents and in general the Labour government or Labour councils are not responsible. Into the equation of the problems in inner London and London itself goes the level of rents. That of course is a manifestation of the capitalist market and not the manipulation of a Labour government or Labour authorities.
I must respond to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord On-Ewing, who drew the attention of the House to the undemocratic practices in local government which he wants to see abolished. I wonder what he would say about the London borough of Enfield, my own borough, where in 1986 the majority was reduced and the true proportion of seats that were won ought to have resulted in a basic committee structure of 10 to 7. That was the proportion, with marginally more than seven entitled. Yet they have insisted on a majority of 11 to 6, plus, of course, the ex officio voting of the mayor and deputy.
Let no one on the other side castigate us on this side either for undemocratic practices or even, as the noble Lord said in one of his throwaway lines, for the rigging of tenders. The noble Lord, who will shortly be back in his place, will read what I have said and will know as much as anybody else about the manner in which non-Labour authorities and private contractors are very experienced at rigging tenders and making sure that the local authority pays heavily for their services.
So far as I am concerned, this debate has served a very good purpose. As noble Lords will realise, I have got a lot off my chest and I think other members of your Lordships' House will have got a lot off theirs. The debate has served a good purpose, but at the end of the day, whether the Opposition like it or not and whether the Government like it or not, the people of this country will decide. The first test will come at 281 Greenwich in three weeks' time and I am looking forward to the result with absolute confidence.
§ 8.47 p.m.
§ Baroness Faithfull
My Lords, I feel that I must offer my credentials in view of the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, asked a rhetorical question: which of us on this side knew anything about local government.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
Which of the noble Baroness's noble friends had been elected to local government.
§ Baroness Faithfull
My Lords, I have not been elected to local government. I have worked in local government as a junior, as a middle manager and as a chief officer. Therefore I speak to your Lordships' House today with very deep feeling as one who has been an officer in local government. Like many noble Lords, I think we would be the poorer without good local government. I believe profoundly in local government.
I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for initiating this debate because I wish to speak on one department and then perhaps lead on to general principles afterwards. I am speaking of the role of social services departments and particularly in relation to the recommendations made in the Widdicombe report. The reputation of the social work profession has, I suggest, been dented of late due to some sad and unfortunate cases of child abuse; not only child abuse, but other areas such as the reported poor state of some (perhaps only a few) old people's homes. Nevertheless, I wish in your Lordships' House to pay tribute to the unsung, sensitive and skilled work done by the majority of social workers in the statutory, voluntary and private sectors. I pay tribute to the DHSS for the setting up of a social services department inspectorate and to the local government ombudsman dealing with cases of maladministration.
What is missing is a professional standard-setting body in the area of social work; that is, a social work council. In Chapter 6, paragraph 683 of the Widdicombe report it is written:We do not believe that it is practicable or desirable to exclude councillors from management issues. Nevertheless, we draw a distinction between the direction of general management policy and day-to-day management intervention. Councillors while retaining overall local responsibility for the delivery of service should seek to leave the day-to-day management of this service as far as possible to officers.In Chapter 3, paragraph 54, the Widdicombe report states:Our overall objective is to make recommendations for the conduct of the local authority business widely accepted and attuned to political reality and the effective delivery of services".I underline the words "effective delivery of services". Local government councillors have a right to expect a sound service from social workers—indeed from all their officers—as do the councils of voluntary organisations. The public and others whom social workers serve have a right to an effective service. Furthermore, those colleagues with whom social workers are in partnership have a right to expect effective co-operation.
282 The doctors have a General Medical Council. The nurses have the General Nursing Council. Social work is the only one of the health and welfare professions which entail a practitioner-client relationship which is not subject to a code of professional conduct or to statutory regulations of training practice. A social work council would have three roles: the accreditation of social workers in concert with the Council of Training and Education in Social Work; the setting of professional standards; and the exercising of a disciplinary function.
The setting up of such a council is supported by the British Association of Social Workers, the Association of Directors of Social Services, the Social Care Association, the Council for Education and Training in Social Work, and the National Council for Child Care Voluntary Organisations. The setting up of such a council would help to fulfil the recommendations of the Widdicombe report and in the field of the welfare services would work towards an effective social work service on which councillors and the public would rely.
The noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, and the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, have talked about the past. Those of us who have served in local government either as councillors or as officers look back—as we are bound to—on the days of the past. Chief officers, indeed most officers, never let anybody know what their politics were. When I came into your Lordships' House no one had any idea to which political party I was attached. I never let anyone know. It was my business to serve whichever party was in power. However, this depended on two factors: first, that the officers were professional people trained to do their job and knowing what they were doing in the professional field; secondly, that the councillors quite obviously were political—they belonged to a political party—but their star was what was best for the people of the city or the county in which they were councillors.
I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to say, when the Widdicombe report recommendations are being considered, that he will discuss with his noble friends the setting up of a social work council.
Finally, with all the procedures and all the structures in the world nothing will improve unless we as people have the right integrity and feelings towards those we serve.
§ 8.55 p.m.
§ Lord Charteris of Amisfield
My Lords, I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, is to be congratulated on having initiated this debate. She did it democratically. I believe that she is speaking of the real world.
The noble Baroness and other noble Lords have thrown a spotlight into some dark and murky places. It is very much in the public interest that Her Majesty's Government should have a long, hard look at what has been disclosed. At least to my ears, in no sense did the noble Baroness make a general attack on Labour councils. Again to my ears, I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Graham, was using his great eloquence to defend a matter that was not being attacked.
283 My small contribution will be extremely short. It concerns what is being done by certain local authorities in the field of education. As has been said, we are dealing only with a minority but a minority large enough to cause a great deal of concern. The kind of example I have in mind is the establishment by the Borough of Haringey, with a quarter of a million pounds of ratepayers' money, of a lesbian and gay unit, one of whose objects is to establish a curriculum from nursery through to further education which is designed to be anti-sexist and to promote positive images of lesbians and gays. The philosophy which is being pumped into the children is that to be homosexual is as normal as to be heterosexual. It is implied that it is as evil and misguided to be a heterosexual as to be a racist.
This kind of pernicious nonsense is not confined to London boroughs. I should like to bring your Lordships' attention to a sex questionnaire which was used in secondary schools for sex education in the Manchester area. It is one of those questionnaires designed for those who are not particularly literate. It is a matter of ticking boxes rather than trying to put one's thoughts on paper. Some would say that it is rather like the new GCSE examination.
The questions dealt with are homosexuality, and heterosexuality, pregnancy, birth control and so on. It is all pretty unsavoury. However, the questions about homosexuality are specifically designed to make homosexuality appear entirely normal and not—as it is—restricted to about 10 per cent. of the population.
Here is an example. The question is asked:How many boys or men have sex with other boys or men?There are only three possible answers allowed to those being examined on this question. One is 80 per cent.; the second is 50 per cent.; and the third is 90 per cent. When it comes to asking the same question about girls or women the three possible answers are 90 per cent., 75 per cent., and—getting a little more reasonable—50 per cent.
In all these questions there is nothing at all to connect sex with love and precious little to connect it with procreation. The thrust of such sex education is simply how to enjoy one's sexuality to the full, and the emphasis is on separate individual gratification rather than on an interpersonal act. The only taboos are: do not get pregnant and do not get VD. No doubt, up-to-date editions will also say, "Try not to get AIDS".
It is not only adolescents who receive this treatment. Very young children are also subjected to it. The noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, has already referred your Lordships to The Playbook for Kids about Sex, and I thought that noble Lords would like to see it. It is an ILEA-sponsored book published using public money. Among its other obscenities this book sets out to teach young children the joys of what in my unregenerate youth was called "self-abuse". They are taught how to do it sitting on the loo, riding a rocking horse and, as a final obscenity, with a teddy bear. In my view this revolting book is misnamed. it should be called Masturbation on the Rates.
I do not know for certain what motives impel people to produce this ghastly material but I am certain of two 284 things. The first is that the effect of such teaching cannot be anything but wholly bad for the children to whom it is taught. It cannot fail to destroy for them the security of family life, and to destroy security in young children can only leave them seriously disturbed and wide open to any bad influences around them. They will be ripe for the drug pusher and ripe for the agitator. The second certainty is that this material is pushed out by those very councils which are dominated by the extreme Left and of which the avowed intention is to destroy our democratic institutions. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the object of the exercise in pushing out this ghastly material is to make children so disorientated that the ground is prepared for that revolution of which the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, spoke.
In his speech winding up the debate on the Bill of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, spoke of strengthening the code of practice in respect of local authority publicity. I understand that the noble Lord also said that the Government's intention was to bring forward legislation to strengthen the legal status of the code.
I conclude by saying that I very much hope that there is legislation, because I think that it is essential and I think that effective legislation is essential. By itself a code of practice would be about as much use to stop this menace as a barbed wire fence with "no admittance" notices would have been in stopping the advance of Rommel and the Afrika Korps in those far off days in the desert war.
§ 9.5 p.m.
§ Lord Mayhew
My Lords, it is a tribute to the number and variety of misdemeanours of the delinquent councils that after five and a half hours of debate in which a mass of information has been produced about the misbehaviour of these councils, the noble Lord, Lord Charteris, can still come forward with new evidence which commanded the alert attention of the House and which—dare I predict it?—will command the attention of the tabloid newspapers tomorrow.
This debate has thrown up a vast amount of thoroughly disturbing information. However, it has been short on analysing how and why these abuses happen and what the remedy for them is. One significant fact which no one has mentioned is that Brent, Haringey and the rest, and also the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, have one great vital interest in common: not to challenge the existing electoral system. Indeed though they have no communication with each other on these lines, they are a silent alliance in defence of a phoney, outdated, unfair, undemocratic system which is at the basis of this problem which we have been discussing.
I am glad to see that the noble Baroness, Lady David, has returned to her place because I find some of the few remedies suggested in this debate a little puzzling. I understood the noble Lord, Lord Elton, when, addressing the electors of these delinquent boroughs, he said: "Use your vote". However, this same slogan was used by the noble Baroness. I was wondering for whom was she asking the electors of these boroughs to vote.
§ Baroness David
My Lords, if the noble Lord will give way I believe that the electors in any borough should have the chance to vote their council in or out. Therefore it is up to the electors of the boroughs of which the noble Baroness was complaining to vote out these councils if they are being so iniquitous.
§ Lord Mayhew
My Lords, I am most grateful for that very clear and interesting answer. I think that the fact that the official spokesman for the Labour Party in the House of Lords is recommending the electors of these boroughs to vote against the Labour Party will be of great interest in particular to the electors of Greenwich.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I am not certain whether the noble Lord was asking me what I was asking the electors. He understood that it was to vote in accordance with the dictates of their pockets, and that one has to make the system work so that that is the case.
§ Lord Mayhew
My Lords, I quite understand the attitude of the noble Lord. He wishes the electors to vote Conservative against these councils. But as I understand from the official spokesman of the Opposition the electors of these delinquent boroughs are being urged to vote against the delinquent councils.
§ Lord Mayhew
Lady David's eloquent appeal to the electors is to vote either for or against the delinquent councils. This is the only practical course that I have heard from the Opposition Benches in this debate. It is a fact that there is only one electoral system in the world which could confer so much power on such unrepresentative people. No other election system in the world can do so.
I challenge the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, to outline for us an electoral system which would get more unrepresentative people in power than the first-past-the-post system as practised in this country. It is a scandal. It is at the back of all this. It is not difficult in a traditional Labour area for a small group of extremists to seize control of the management committee, to select themselves as candidates, to fly the Labour flag and to win the necessary 20 to 25 per cent. of the electorate to their cause.
My Lords, what do they say? They say: "Vote as you have always voted. Vote for the party led by Mr. Kinnock and Mr. Hattersley and Mr. Healey." They do not say: "Vote for Trotsky". Their election literature which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, remarked, usually comes after rather than before 286 polling day, does not stress the works of Karl Marx. With our electoral system it is perfectly possible for a small group of extremists to do what they have done in Brent and Haringey, and are doing in more and more councils; namely, in Oxford and in Brighton. It is spreading simply because it is in the common interest of the Conservative party, of the Labour party, of Brent and Haringey, of these other places to continue with a bogus electoral system which is wholly undemocratic and allows these people to take power.
I am not saying that to change the electoral system is a total remedy—not at all. But I am saying that if the Government had taken what I believe to be the feeling of your Lordships' House, that we should have proportional representation in local government, if they had taken the feeling the House and actually legislated, it is worth considering what would have happened in these delinquent councils. Undoubtedly, there would have been more Conservative and more Alliance councillors, and fewer Labour councillors. Unless the Labour party won 50 per cent. of the votes, in which case they are entitled to a majority on the council, there would not have been a Labour majority on the council.
In addition, it would have been more representative because there would have been more minorities represented. There would have been more women, more independents, more members of the ethnic communities. That is a certain following of electoral reform as I believe this House wants it. But even that is not the most important change. Much more important would be that the elector would get a choice between different candidates of the same party.
If the Labour party won 50 per cent. of the votes in a ward with six seats, it would win 50 per cent. of the seats; namely, three seats, So, there would be six Labour candidates competing against each other for three Labour seats.
It may be argued that the Labour candidate who offered the greatest privileges to the gay community, who was more active and knowledgeable about creative accounting, who believed most in political appointments, would get more votes than the moderate Labour man representing the views of some noble Lords on the Labour Front Bench. But I do not believe that at all. I think you would find these Labour councils trimming their sails to the wishes of the electors which they have no need to do now, and which of course they do not do. These things are perfectly plain but no one on the Conservative Benches seems willing to discuss it, and no one on the Labour Benches seems willing to discuss it. Brent and Haringey are not going to raise the subject at all. It is a conspiracy of silence between the reactionaries of Left and Right, and of Brent and Haringey.
It is mainly the Conservative party and the Conservative Government who maintain the scandals in Brent and Haringey. God's gift to the militants, that is what the Conservative party are. Listening to them today, they were knowledgeable. They gave us a lot of facts about militants, about Trotskyists, and so on. But it was perfectly plain from all their speeches that they had never had to face up to a battle with militants in a union branch, on a management committee. It is all second-hand, remote stuff.
§ Baroness Cox
My Lords, if I may intervene for one moment, I have actually sat around committee tables and fought at committees with what I would call the hard-line far Left for nine years. I have written about those experiences, so it is public knowledge that I have had first-hand experience, and I have been physically attacked by them as well.
§ Lord Mayhew
My Lords, I should like to say that I too for perhaps 30 years of my life inside the Labour movement have been fighting this. This is not something new. The year 1968 was the first time I complained about specifically Trots in the Labour Party. It has been going on a long time. It is when in a union branch, a management committee on a Co-op, that you handle it there that you get to know about the subject, not when you are round a council table with them. I must not take too long, my Lords; I shall give way one more time.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I only ask him to give way, which I seldom do, because it was suggested that people speaking from these Benches had no experience of subversive activities. I have had years of experience trying to counter communist infiltration of the trades union movement. If I had not had that experience, I would not have made the speech that I did.
§ Lord Mayhew
My Lords, I certainly withdraw my remarks so far as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, is concerned. Perhaps I should not go too far now into the question of the motivation of the Conservative Party and the Labour Party in resisting electoral reform, which is the main solution.
I hope when the Minister replies that he does not use the old, hackneyed arguments. I hope he will not use the argument that proportional representation creates coalitions, because of course that does not apply in local government. I hope that he will not use the terms frequently used in the past by Ministers in this House about proportional representation; namely, that the first-post-the-post system is simple, familiar, and traditional.
I hope he will not use those arguments and those adjectives. If he does, I remind him that these, as research in Hansard will show, are exactly the same arguments used by Conservative Peers 160 years ago in defence of the rotten boroughs of that time. It was humbug then, and it is humbug now when it is used on behalf of the rotten boroughs of the 20th century.
There is only one reason why the Conservative Party resisted electoral reform 160 years ago and why it is resisting electoral reform today. The reason is quite plain. Water does not flow uphill, and MPs do not 288 support reforms likely to lose them their seats. As evidence of this, I have the honour to be the president of the Alliance Action Group for Electoral Reform, and last year we wrote to a number of noble Lords asking their support for electoral reform.
One noble Lord replied—well known and respected by all of us, and I will preserve his anonymity with my life—as follows:Thank you for your letter. As someone who was returned to the House of Commons on a minority vote for 30 years, I am opposed to any form of electoral reform.There is no humbug about that. We all know on both sides of the House that what the noble Lord says corresponds with an important political reality, and that is why the Conservative Party refuses it. It is not the national interest, not because it does not think it would help towards solving our problems in local government, but because it is not in the interests of the Conservative Party. That is the long and short of it.
Finally, I must say that the electoral system is not the only reason for the problem we have been discussing today. There is another profoundly important reason for it, and that is the creeping political corruption of the Labour Party. That is an important reason. The old Labour Party, in the days when there was first-past-the-post, could be trusted with huge majorities in local government. I recall with respect and affection the Labour Party people who dominated the Woolwich borough council during the more than 20 years that I was one of the Woolwich Members of Parliament. They were representative; they were radical; they were active; they were responsible: in every way a contrast to the rabble of Labour councillors who now dominate the successor organisation, the Greenwich Borough Council. As I say, they were a complete contrast.
No one doubts that the moderates in the Labour Party such as Mr. Kinnock, the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, and others would like to crush what has been called the loony Left. But what do they do about it? There has been a meaningless handful of expulsions. There have been some cosmetic changes in the Labour Party's constitution. There have been some long and windy speeches. And the problem is growing. Not only has it not been solved but it is increasing. I must say with complete sincerity that I believe the moderates in the Labour Party have either got to clean up their party or leave it. That is what they should do. They should not stay there giving an air of respectability to political elements which they know perfectly well are subversive of parliamentary democracy.
In conclusion therefore this debate, as I say, has been filled with colourful stories of the misdemeanours of the delinquent councils, but the main blame for failing to eradicate this evil rests squarely on the Conservative Party and on the Labour Party.
§ 9.21 p.m.
§ Lord Underhill
My Lords, I am certain that the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, will excuse me if I do not follow him along the path of proportional representation. We have debated that before and I am prepared to debate it again on the right occasion, but, frankly, not tonight—
§ Lord Underhill
Yes, my Lords; and I hope the noble Lord will not draw me into it now because he might regret having done so. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said that local government is tarnished by a small minority. Without that qualification, frankly, he would have been in danger, and this debate would have been in danger, of giving serious offence to thousands of Labour councillors up and down this country who are providing what they think is the best service possible for their communities. My noble friend Lady David made clear the points on which we dissociate ourselves, as an Opposition, from certain events.
On a personal note, perhaps I may say that I am now in my 57th year as a member of the Labour Party. During that period I have been proud of the Labour Party's achievements in local government, of its pioneering efforts and of its social achievements. I am still proud, basically, of what we are doing in local government, as the elections this year will prove. That view is shared by my daughter, who happens to be chairman of an important county council social services committee. I am certain she would resent some of the things that have been said tonight.
The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, talked about the "recent creeping corruption" of the Labour Party. Those are very, very dangerous words—
§ Lord Underhill
The noble Lord referred to the creeping corruption of the Labour Party. I shall deal with the position of the so-called Left of the Labour Party very shortly. What we must be careful about is not to encourage a denigration of local government and the integrity of councillors. The noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, asked us not to belittle local government. That is one thing we are in danger of doing in this debate. The actions of some local authorities I may disagree with. But if one got the whole chapter of their local government work one might get a different picture. We might find that in many of their services they are good and progressive. Indeed, they might be better than other areas. That has been stressed by a number of speakers. At the end of the day, the public will decide by the ballot box what they want. I am sorry that there should be any Member of your Lordships' House who would imply, by his or her speech, the denigration of the use of the ballot box. I hope we shall never get to the situation where we believe that we can solve these problems by putting in commissioners.
290 The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred to London Labour Briefing. I wonder how many noble Lords gathered from her remarks that it is an official Labour Party publication. It is not. It is a Trotskyist journal. She referred to the Trotskyist Socialist Worker Review. That is, I believe, a journal of the Socialist Workers Party which, again, is a Trotskyist sect.
For 50 years I have had three aims—to make more democratic socialists, to expose what I regard as the shocking philosophy of the Conservative Party, which disagrees with all the things that I believe are fundamental, and to fight Trotskyist groups who have tried to use the Labour Party. Anyone who knows politics knows that the only way Trotskyist groups can function is to batten on the parent Labour Party, and that is what they have been trying to do. It is we who have been fighting them. We do not leave and run away and then have to make up our minds which section of the Alliance we are really supporting. We are still fighting and I believe that we are gradually winning our battle with the Trotskyist elements, which I agree are trying to capture certain elements of the Labour Party.
I dare say there are noble Lords who could talk about what they know of the influences of Right-wing groups on Tory policies. They might say something about the Young Conservatives—I believe that the age there goes up to 35 or even beyond—who are a dangerous body inside the Conservative Party. As an individual, I might echo some of the warnings given in the Metropolitan Police about the insidious Masonic influences on some Tory establishments.
The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, referred to certain outrageous local authorities. I must ask him, because he is the responsible Minister of the Crown, which are the outrageous local authorities. It is his job as a Minister to secure consensus between central and local government and to do what he can to ensure that local government functions correctly.
Is the Lothian region, on which my noble friend Lord Morton of Shuna gave an exposition today, an outrageous local authority? From what my noble friend said, I should have thought so. I have a list here of some 10 shocking acts—I will not say achievements—by the Berkshire County Council which in 1985 was regained by the Conservative Party. Is that an outrageous local authority? Or will the Minister pick and choose as to what he regards as an outrageous local authority? The noble Lord made a statement and I hope he will explain it to us.
I think all noble Lords, whatever their views, must have been impressed by the points made by my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton. His exposure of some of the cheap publicity that is given to certain actions by some local authorities was very good. Also, he reminded us once again that in 1979 the rate support grant was 61 per cent. and in 1986–87 it had dropped to 44 per cent. Local authorities throughout the country have lost £17 billion by government action since 1979. We shall shortly be discussing the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, when we come to the Scottish rates Bill, and your Lordships will soon have before you two other local government Bills 291 which seem to indicate gross ministerial mismanagement—and we are talking about mismanagement today. May I ask the noble Lord to confirm that if a council does something for which it has no legislative power, then that is a matter for attention by the district auditor?
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred to death threats. If there are death threats, that is shameful and I believe that the whole House will condemn that. But if there are death threats of which the noble Baroness is aware, they should surely be exposed outside this Chamber and evidence should be provided. That is the course which should be followed.
The noble Lord the Minister referred to Labour's local government policy. He must have a mole somewhere, since this is being discussed at the Labour Party local government conference at Leeds. It is a pity that he will not be there, because he would hear some first-class, responsible people in local government discussing what is best for local government in this country in the best possible way. I myself attend meetings of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. As the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, has said, I am its president. I hear the discussions of a very small minority of what one would classify as the Left. The discussions always concern what is best in the interests of the people of this country in terms of local government policy.
I agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, when he said: "Please use your vote". I hope that no one will denigrate that statement. I should like to echo the views of various noble Lords who have commented on Widdicombe. There will be an opportunity to discuss that report in your Lordships' House.
Both the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, referred to the latest report of the Audit Commission. It is on that report that I originally wished to concentrate. In paragraph 1, the commission makes clear its concern about the cost and quality of services. It then goes on to state that the commission's paper refers to the nature of problems facing inner London authorities. Paragraph 1 states:Unless their magnitude and causes are understood and the serious consequences of neglect more generally appreciated, the Commission will have failed in its duty as an independent watchdog over local government management and finance".In paragraph 2 the commission says:Members and officers in the boroughs in question face a desperately difficult situation",and it asserts that the inner London and four outer London boroughs include,some of the most deprived in England and Wales on almost any indicator of social and economic deprivation".I am certain that my noble friend Lord Graham will remember the visit that he and I made to Hackney. We spent a whole day there before the Abolition Bill, and I think that we were both appalled by the state of deprivation in the borough of Hackney.
The report sets out some of the appalling problems of unemployment, particularly among the ethnic minorities, and it points out the terrible problems of 292 housing, homelessness and other aspects of deprivation. Some of these points were covered by my noble friend Lady David.
In the debate in your Lordships' House on Monday, although I was not present to hear the closing speech of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, he said that the commission's report,draws attention to the wasteful and incompetent way in which eight boroughs in London are conducting their affairs".—[Official Report, 3/2/87; col. 116.]However, in paragraph 5 of the commission's report it is stated:This catalogue of problems is so serious as to be difficult to comprehend by those who have never lived in the rundown inner city area.That is the opinion of the Audit Commission.
My noble friend dealt with the question of staffing and I shall not deal with that. However, the commission indicates in its report some of the problems that inner London boroughs face as regards the problem of adequate and efficient staffing.
My noble friend also referred to what the commission said in paragraph 11 of its report about the increased costs of the Metropolitan Police compared with other areas. She also referred to the increased costs of London district health authorities as compared, again, with other parts of the country. The question of the Metropolitan Police was referred to by the Audit Commission in paragraph 11. The commission referred to it in order to illustrate that,Local authorities are not alone in incurring higher costs in London".
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, perhaps I may intervene on this matter. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, dealt with the point earlier. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, is making a totally false point. Is the noble Lord aware that the Metropolitan Police provide national services? The local authorities we are talking about do not provide national services. The noble Lord is not comparing like with like.
§ Lord Underhill
My Lords, I am referring to the report of the Audit Commission. If the noble Lord wishes to criticise the commission for making this comment, that is a matter for him.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, will the noble Lord say to which paragraph 11 he is referring. I have a paragraph 11 on page 4 which says,excluding police, fire and education services".
§ Lord Underhill
My Lords, provided that the House will give me a few more minutes in which to speak, yes I will. I am referring to paragraph 31 of the report.
Despite some of its criticisms of management, the commission seems to have some understanding of the problems that face inner London and in my view extends some sympathy to the authorities in the inner London boroughs. What does the Minister say? I refer not to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, but to the Secretary of State. What does he say? I have before me a cutting from the Guardian from soon after the Audit Commission report was published. I quote:We are not going to rescue them, so they will have to consider how to get themselves back into a state of solvency.… They got into this mess, they must get themselves out of it".293 That seemed to me to be a helpful attitude! He criticises the authorities but that is the attitude of the Secretary of State who is responsible for the progress of local government.
In paragraph 7 of the report I find this:Local authorities often lack the powers and resources to tackle these problems. But it is not for the Commission to propose policies for the solution to the 'Inner City' problems, nor to comment on government policy towards Inner Cities generally or London in particular. But it is clear that faced with such challenges, the management of local services in London cannot afford to be less than outstanding".Reference has been made by one or two noble Lords to the possibility of bankruptcy. I understand that the Controller of Audit, Mr. John Banham, wrote to Margaret Hodge, who is chairman of the Association of London Authorities, as recently as 15th December. He said:At no time did I suggest there was any possibility of local authorities in London or anywhere else becoming technically bankrupt. Indeed I made the point explicitly that borrowing ratios in local government—that is, the proportion of debt in relation to the value of authorities' capital assets—was relatively modest by private sector standards".Those are the words of the man who is in charge of the Audit Commission.
The Commission reminds us in paragraphs 55 to 57 that it has already publicised its views on the present system for distributing block grant to local authorities and controlling their expenditure. In view of the time I shall not repeat those views. In fact, my noble friend quoted extensively from paragraphs 55, 56 and 57. This section is headed: "Reforming the systems for distribution grant and controlling capital expenditure".
Noble Lords may recall that in the debate on Monday—reported in col. 80 of Hansard—the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, stressed the problem facing Hackney. He mentioned that the Docklands, with a population of 50,000, has been receiving, since the Docklands Development Corporation was formed, some £60 million per annum; whereas Hackney, an inner London council with three times the population, has been supported by only £12 million per annum, and that has been taken away by changes in the rate support grant and penalty. That is not a statement made by this side of the House but by the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, whose knowledge of local government and whose general standing in local government we all respect.
So important did the commission regard its views on the necessity for improvements and changes in the distribution of rate support grant and controlling capital expenditure that it actually made this point again in the very final paragraph of its report, in paragraph 61:However, it is nearly three years since the Commission warned that failure to reform the grants distribution system and to strengthen local accountability would lead to an explosion of creative accounting; and it is two years since the Commission pointed out the waste and inefficiency generated by the present systems for controlling capital spending. No action has yet been taken on either front by government. The consequences are apparent to the most casual observer. A less than urgent response to the problems of Inner London could have even more serious results.That was not stated by the Leader of the Opposition but is the last paragraph of the Audit Commission's report.
294 The question might be asked: what is being done about it? I have a document from Southwark giving that council's response to the Audit Commission's report. Southwark states that it is attempting to work closely with the district auditor but the achievements are not reflected in the report of the commission. Acting on the suggestions of the district auditor, Southwark has drawn up detailed action plans for every service and set up officer strategy teams to develop work in identified priority areas. These and other achievements have been recognised by the district auditor in his draft management letter to the Southwark Council dated 24th December, 1986, which explains why the Audit Commission was unable to present a more balanced picture as regards Southwark Council.
I also have a copy of the letter prepared by the chief executive of Lewisham—not the leader of the Lewisham council but by the chief executive of Lewisham—which he has sent to other chief executives of councils identified by the commission. The chief executive questions the position from his professional standpoint. He questions the validity of some of the commission's methodology. He complains that the report does not examine the variation within the groups. Most importantly, it fails to set out where there is a greater variation within groups than between groups.
Time is passing, and I should like to ask whether the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, has seen the reply by the Association of London Authorities which I have here. It is a very constructive reply to the Audit Commission. I should like to know whether the noble Lord the Minister has seen it and what his observations are upon it. The eight London boroughs have accepted a suggestion put forward by the commission to set up a working party with the commission to tackle the problems. The ALA points out its willingness to sit down with the commission in a constructive manner and see what can be done. Those points do not suggest a complete disregard of the commission and a disregard of some of the problems that have to be faced.
We have pressed time and again from these Benches for the need for consensus between central government and local government—something that has fallen down pitifully over the past few years since this Government have been in office. I hope that this working party with the commission will get down to work and that it can tackle the serious problems which have been brought forward by the commission.
§ 9.45 p.m.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, before I forget the noble Lord's last point, I must say that I agree with him wholeheartedly; I hope that the working party will get down to work with the commission, and I hope that local authorities will follow the commission's advice, using the district auditor, or whoever is appropriate, in each particular case. I must congratulate my noble friend Lady Cox for the quality of this debate. I can, however, understand my noble friend Lord Beloff's point; but I see he is not here so I will not continue with that. I do not therefore propose to make a second speech. However, I shall do less than justice to the House if I do not pick up just a few points.
295 Both my noble friend Lady Cox and I in our opening speeches paid tribute to the majority of authorities. I rather think from a comment that the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, made that this was the saving grace of both our speeches. I repeat that message now but sadly there are authorities which do not fit this norm. My noble friend's account of a meeting in Haringey was hardly an account of responsible behaviour. It is because of the few, not the many, that we have had this debate today—a point that I thought my noble friend in introducing this debate made perfectly clear.
My noble friend commented—as did many of your Lordships—on the Audit Commission's report. She referred to the point—raised by my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing at Question Time on Monday—about an earlier draft of the Audit Commission's report. The final version is measured, clear and the more forceful for its careful impartiality. I cannot say whether earlier drafts of the paper were or were not any more forceful than the published indictment of the management of eight London boroughs. The House will be aware from press reports that the Audit Commission discussed drafts of the paper with the authorities concerned, and with their associations.
The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, frequently tells us that he is honoured, and I am sure he is honoured—I would be in his position—to be President of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. I rather wonder whether the Association of Metropolitan Authorities was in discussion with the Audit Commission before they issued the published version of their report. I suspect that it would be profitable to ask the associations themselves, and indeed the London boroughs, what exactly went on before the report was published. Certainly the Audit Commission—
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, I speak as President of the Association of Labour Authorities. If in fact the implication is made that somehow or other the integrity of the Audit Commission, who are the sole masters of their own report, has been in any way affected by representations that have been made to it—that is the integrity which means the honesty of the report—then the Minister ought to say so. I find it somewhat astounding that the opportunity which was taken by the ALA, in the light of a whole range of destructive comments that were made before the report was published, took the opportunity and apparently persuaded the Audit Commission to revise some of the words that they were going to include. Is that not sensible in the light of events?
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Graham, has a favourite trick of putting words into people's mouths that they did not actually say. I was not casting any aspersions whatsoever. The definitive version of the report, as I made quite clear both at Question Time on Monday and just now, is the one that we all have, and that is published.
The noble Baroness, Lady David, attacked my noble friend Lady Cox, as an extremist, and criticised her for speaking as she did. I found my noble friend both concerned and sincere. She believed every word she spoke. She sought to convince us that many local 296 authorities have such bad conditions in their boroughs that of course they spend more. But the answer lies in Exhibit 2 on page 3 of the Audit Commission's paper where it is shown that 11 London councils come high in relative housing deprivation, and not merely the eight which were the major subject of the report. That means that three housing authorities are much more efficient.
My noble friend Lady Cox also raised the subject of partisan publicity produced by some councils. As she pointed out, we have implemented the proposals of the Widdicombe report to prohibit party political publicity and we intend later this Session to take steps to reinforce the law in this area. We also intend to put forward a proposed code of practice on local authority publicity to deal with partisan political material. Here, the main problem is that the statutory powers of local authorities give them a wide discretion to spend money on activities that are only tangential to their functions. This discretion enables them to encroach on areas which are primarily the responsibility of national government; for example, foreign and defence policies. They are then able to publicise their activities and put forward with impunity their bizarre views and policies.
We asked the Widdicombe Committee in its main report to consider the discretion that is available to local authorities. As I have said, we are now considering its conclusions and recommendations. We shall certainly take into account the views expressed today by your Lordships in deciding how to take these matters forward.
As I understood her theory, the noble Baroness, Lady David, tried to use the costs of the Metropolitan Police to prove the Government's financial mismanagement. The noble Baroness cited some cost comparisons for the police in the regions and in the Metropolitan Police Force. The Government do not disagree with the figures—indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, referred to evidence, as it were, in the Audit Commission's report, so of course we do not disagree—but we disagree with their presentation in the earlier response to the Audit Commission's report.
There are good reasons why the costs of the Metropolitan Police are higher. It is widely recognised that civilian staff in London perform tasks which are carried out for provincial forces by local authority staff. Higher catering costs reflect greater operational feeding needs for the Metropolitan Police Force in policing demonstrations, whereas provincial forces make more use of self-catering. Other examples reflect the fact that the Metropolitan Police figures include value added tax. Those of other forces do not, as well as excluding payments received for services such as security at the Palace of Westminster, other responsibilities of diplomatic protection and so on. So I suggest that there is a very wide difference indeed.
I thought that arguments about efficiency and democracy in the speech of the noble Baroness were totally demolished by the noble Lord, Lord Harris. The noble Lord chided me for following the party line in 1982 on his party's amendments to the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. Like political parties, governments are composed of human beings and human beings have a remarkable facility 297 for being either right or wrong. I cannot remember the details but I must have persuaded myself either that the noble Lord was wrong (which I very much doubt) or that his method of attacking the problem was wrong.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, this is a serious point. The noble Lord is speaking not only on behalf of the Government but on behalf of the Department of the Environment. It was his department which, through the lips of its Minister, urged the Chamber to reject the amendment. If in fact that amendment had been carried, this abuse of power in Islington would not have occurred. I asked the Minister earlier—and I repeat the question—whether he was prepared on behalf of the Department of the Environment (and not in terms of himself) to offer its apologies to this House.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, I intend to look very carefully into what the noble Lord has said. I am not particularly interested, and I do not expect that he is, in the background of our debates in 1982, or indeed in our voting records, but if he is correct then I shall make an apology.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris, reminded us of the long list of abuses that led to the setting up of Widdicombe Committee—sending out papers too late; ignoring the rights of minority groups; the increasing confusion between the respective roles of councillors and officers. We remain concerned. I note the noble Lord's comments on the value of legislating in this area. The Government are still making up their mind on the responses of the Widdicombe Committee. We regard this debate as a set of such responses.
The noble Lord, Lord Morton of Shuna, raised the question of what one might almost call the creative accounting of Lothian council, but he explained his point very well. As a Scotsman he will be a lot more familiar than I am with the particular examples that he reported. However, I should make it clear that the Government's concern is about the growth of questionable practices in local government wherever they occur. I did not find many examples of Conservative councils or indeed hung councils in that position, but I shall read the debate with interest. I certainly do not intend to make a tally.
§ Lord Morton of Shuna
My Lords, if the noble Lord the Minister accepts the point that I was endeavouring to make, can he explain why the Government chose to appoint the Tory leader of that Lothian council to a paid post in a new town? It seemed odd.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, I am not familiar with the case, as I said, but I will of course look into this matter.
The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, spoke, as he put it, in a philosophical mood. Not unusually, I found it a brilliant analysis, but he did not make the point that I have made before and have not yet heard argued down—although, since this speech seems to be going the way that it is, it surely will be in about three seconds 298 flat—that there is no such animal as local government. What we have are 431 local authorities who operate 100 per cent. under statute law. They are not government.
Several noble Lords spoke of the rights of challenge. Not surprisingly, I think, the first to mention it was my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway. While judicial review procedures offer an effective means of challenging a local authority that has exceeded its powers or otherwise acted unreasonably, I recognise the concern expressed by my noble friend that it does not offer a perfect solution. In particular, any member of the public contemplating initiating such action would need to consider carefully the cost involved.
The Widdicombe Committee looked into this matter. One of its recommendations is that there should be a new power of financial assistance to complainants. The Widdicombe report recommends further that any elector or ratepayer should be deemed to have sufficient interest to seek judicial review of an action taken by his authority, and that the district auditor should have new powers to prevent in advance any unlawful expenditure by local authorities.
In passing, perhaps I may say that I know Mr. Widdicombe has been particularly interested in today's debate.
I can tell my noble friends Lord Orr-Ewing and Lord Campbell of Alloway that I am well aware that there are questions as to whether the code of practice that the Government are proposing is an appropriate means of dealing with the misuse of local authority publicity powers. We shall no doubt debate this matter at length when we consider the Bill in which it is contained. Suffice it to say now that local authorities must have an appropriate degree of flexibility and discretion to carry out their functions properly. Legislation must be drafted to ensure that. I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Charteris.
My noble friend Lord On-Ewing spoke about a local government Bill. At the moment, I can count three local government Bills, two of which have seen the light of day and one of which has not. The Bill about which he talks has not yet seen the light of day. The Government have made no announcement about legislating on Widdicombe apart from making a commitment to reinforce the 1986 Act with regard to codes of practice.
I believe that the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, has misunderstood the Education Act. Under the new arrangements for the control of sex education, the governors will be able to decide those teaching materials to be used in the classroom and those not to be used. No local education authority will be able to impose its views on the general content and organisation of sex education in schools against parents' wishes.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Mersey that some local authorities' attitudes towards civil defence are curious, to say the least. Some councillors pretend that civil defence is solely military defence. It is not. Civil defence covers lorries carrying chemicals which overturn, floods and any civil emergency. I shall take up with the residuary body the point which he was talking about.
299 My noble friend Lady Cox and the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, expressed differing views of the appointment by the London Borough of Brent of race advisers in schools. The posts form part of a proposal made to the Home Office to replace a number of posts which had previously received grant aid but which were found not to have specific responsibility for the needs of children of Commonwealth origin. The stated aim of that proposal was to tackle under-achievement among black children. There is ample evidence of such under-achievement. I am sure that I do not need to underline the damaging effects which that has on the children affected and, in the longer term, on the society in which we live.
On that basis, the Home Office gave its approval in principle to the plan. Subsequently there have been suggestions that Brent may intend that those posts should form part of a wider so-called anti-racist initiative. The grant is not available for such initiatives. I shall take up the matter further with my right honourable friend the Home Secretary if on reading the Official Report I find that I need to.
My noble friend Lady Faithfull spoke as a former local authority officer. She produced a refreshing and thoughtful view of what many operators and users of local authority welfare services would like to see. Would that some other noble Lords had seen fit to give such an analytical view.
I was interested to hear my noble friend's proposal for the establishment of a social works council. That proposal clearly merits careful consideration, but as I understand the position the parliamentary subcommittee of the Association of Directors of Social Services, which has prepared a draft document on the subject, has not yet adopted final proposals, and the Government have therefore not yet been asked to take a formal view. In those circumstances, it would be premature to comment.
The noble Lord, Lord Charteris, talked about the Playbook for Kids about Sex. I am advised that the book is published by Sheba Feminist Collective and not by the ILEA. It is intended to be given by parents to their children and not for use in schools. The Department of Education and Science is not aware of the book being used in schools in any area, although there have been reports of its distribution in Haringey. That is one of the issues on which the most recent DES letter to that authority has asked for an urgent explanation.
It was hardly surprising that the noble Lords, Lord Harris and Lord Mayhew, could not resist majoring, as it were, on proportional representation. We have heard about it before and the noble Lords have heard answers from many people before. As has already been said this evening, it is remarkable how often they manage to drag in this subject. This is not a debate about PR. The remedy for the Bernie Grants and Ted Knights of this world does not lie in proportional representation; it requires a system in which those who are entitled to vote are encouraged to do so. When 30 per cent. of the electorate votes and 70 per cent. ignores the issue, we do not get democracy, we get petty tyrany.
300 Finally, I am most surprised that the sentiment with which I ended my opening speech has caused so much comment. I mean, of course, "Use your vote". I regard that as the very cornerstone of democracy. My noble friend Lord Elton was, I thought, a bit "méchant", to use a word in French which does not quite translate as "wicked". I understood him to say it would not work, the problem being that the percentage of the electorate who vote in local elections is comparatively low. I understand that my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway expressed a similar view rather more forcefully. A reason why voting in local elections is low—
§ Lord Elton
Would my noble friend permit me to correct him? He may describe me as "méchant" with any translation he likes and I will not object. The point I was making was not that the turnout was low but that the motivation was low and the motivation of those who voted was divergent from their real interest.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, I do not think my noble friend the Minister was present but I was trying to point out that it is quite irrelevant to say "Use your vote" under the existing system, and that certain remedial measures—I shall not go into them, my noble friend will read them in Hansard—must be introduced. I am most grateful to my noble friend; he has already gone a very long way to meeting my concerns. All I am saying is that until you revise the regime it is idle and irrelevant just to say, "Use your vote". That is all.
§ Lord Skelmersdale
My Lords, the 9th of May comes earlier than anything else going on in the local authority world at the moment. That is why I said, "Use your vote".
I would say to my noble friend Lord Elton—I am like British Rail tonight; I am getting there—that a reason why voting in local elections is low is because of the gap between those who pay and those who vote. Yes, I quite agree: that is why the Government are committed to implementing far-ranging reforms of the system of local government finance. Our proposals are designed to restore local accountability and thereby enhance democratic local government.
I was amazed to hear the noble Lord, Lord Graham, say that only elected people understand democracy, but the principle of democracy to which he himself appealed was that it is the electorate which knows best and it gets rid of those it has elected as soon as they forget that.
We shall sweep away domestic rates, which are paid by less than half the adult population and are a thoroughly discredited tax. In their place we shall introduce the community charge, which will be paid by all adults. This will spread the burden of paying for local services more fairly. It will also establish a direct link between paying for local government and voting in local elections. No longer will profligate local authorities be able to push their spending up and up, while relying on the votes of those who do not have to meet the cost.
301 As the House will know, a Bill to implement the Green Paper on reforms in Scotland is making good progress in another place. We in England and Wales are very close behind, but unless people use their vote there is still the likelihood of local authorities continuing on in the way all your Lordships have complained about this afternoon. People must be persuaded—I say it again, my Lords—to use their vote.
§ Viscount Mersey
My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, I asked him if he could answer tonight why the Government have never used their reserve powers under the Civil Defence Regulations 1983 with those local authorities which failed in their duties. He did not answer that point. Therefore, I think the best thing for me to do is to put that down as a Question for Written Answer along with the seond Question which I shall also put down for Written Answer and which I mentioned in my speech. That will ask for a list of all the recalcitrant local authorities.
§ 10.10 p.m.
§ Baroness Cox
My Lords, this has been a long and immensely informative debate. I should like very warmly to thank all Members of your Lordships' House who have taken part. I should like to thank my noble friend the Minister for his generally encouraging reply. For example, I was particularly pleased to note that he has an open mind on questions of such importance as individual challenge and enforcement. I know that my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway would like to share my appreciation on that point.
As the debate has progressed your Lordships have provided an accumulative body of evidence to show just how disturbing the developments are which have been occurring in those authorities which have been the focus of our discussion here today. Of course I understand the views expressed by some noble Lords opposite who have put a different complexion on the debate. The only point to which I take serious personal exception was the accusation by the noble Baroness, Lady David, that I am anti-democratic. It is because I care so passionately for democracy that I spoke with such fervour.
I believe that nobody who has spoken—except perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton—has regarded the evidence we have heard as anything less than cause for very serious concern. As I said at the outset, these matters about which we have heard speak for themselves. Much of that evidence at times arouses mirth, but in general it has tended to arouse indignation. But it has been well said that indignation is not a category of political action. I hope that all people, whatever their political affiliation, who care about the future of local government and of our democratic institutions will take this evidence very seriously.
I also hope that all will respond in whatever ways are appropriate—politically and democratically—to protect the honourable traditions of local government and to preserve the democratic institutions which are the sine qua non of a free society. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.