HL Deb 05 April 1990 vol 517 cc1600-3

4.46 p.m.

Lord Reay rose to move, That the draft code laid before the House on 20th March be approved [14th Report from the Joint Committee.]

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the draft National Code of Local Government Conduct be approved. This code of conduct has been laid by my right honourable friends the Secretaries of State for the Environment, Wales and Scotland under Section 31 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989. The code is for the guidance of members and there are no criminal sanctions attached to it. Nevertheless it sets the standard of conduct which members of local authorities will be expected to uphold, and against which they will be judged by the public and their fellow councillors. I am pleased to report that approval to the draft code was given by the other place on 3rd April. I would now hope that your Lordships' approval will also be forthcoming.

A code of conduct for councillors was originally proposed in 1974 by the Prime Minister's Committee on Local Government Rules of Conduct, chaired by Lord Redcliffe-Maud, which was set up in the wake of the Poulson corruption scandal. It was intended not only to set clear standards in areas of uncertainty, but also to increase public confidence in the integrity of local government. The draft code which they put forward forms the basis of the existing National Code of Local Government Conduct which was agreed by the local authority associations in England Wales and Scotland, and issued as a joint departmental circular in 1975. This code was warmly welcomed by the Royal Commission on Standards in Public: Life, chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Salmon, who described it as an "admirable document".

The code was looked at again by the Widdicombe Committee which concluded in 1986 that while the code served a valuable purpose in encouraging proper conduct by councillors, it needed clarifying and updating. The Government agreed this conclusion, and accordingly set up a joint working group with officials and representatives of the local authority associations to revise the code. The draft code which is before the House is largely the fruit of their endeavours, modified as appropriate by subsequent comments received from the local authority associations. I am glad to report to your Lordships that the new code has been generally welcomed by the local authority associations and is regarded as an improvement on the 1975 version.

In modifying the code we have, so far as possible, tried to retain the general format and style of the 1975 code. The main changes have been to the section dealing with non-pecuniary interests which has previously caused problems for councillors involved with public bodies and voluntary groups, which have been prevented from speaking on the very subjects about which they have experience and expertise. The code now enables councillors in this situation to speak, and sometimes to vote, provided they have declared the interest. This parallels more closely the law on pecuniary interests.

The new code also provides a procedure for councillors to "self-dispense" themselves in certain circumstances, enabling them to speak and vote where they would otherwise be required to withdraw. These criteria are similar to those used by the Secretary of State in deciding whether to give statutory dispensations to speak and vote where councillors have a pecuniary interest.

I should mention that it is the Government's intention to make the necessary orders under Section 30 of the 1989 Act that will require councillors, on accepting office, to declare that they will be guided by the code, to come into effect on 3rd May for the new intake of councillors. We also intend commencing Section 32 on the same day so that the complete package of reforms intended to enhance the status of and give greater prominence to the code will be in place for the forthcoming local government elections.

Finally, I mention very briefly the statutory register of members' pecuniary interests, since although we are not debating that today, it concerns the same general issue of members' conduct. We intend introducing the necessary regulations to enable the new statutory requirements to come into effect on 1st October. We have always made clear that the register would be introduced somewhat later than the new code. The register can be introduced at any time, while the code must be in place by 3rd May so that the newly-elected councillors can declare their acceptance of it. For the register we need to consult not only on the policy, which we have done, but also on the drafting of the regulations, which we shall do.

Turning once again to the draft code, I have no hesitation in commending it to your Lordships.

Moved, That the draft code laid before the House on 20th March be approved [Nth Report from the Joint Committee].—{Lord Reay.)

4.50 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, we on this side of the House are very well satisfied with the appearance of the code, and I understand from our contacts with the local authority associations that they are satisfied that the code, so far as it goes, serves the purpose intended. The Minister is quite right in alluding in the history of these matters to the sad situation of some aspects of local government in the early 1970s. He also mentioned the Widdicombe Report. I have read very carefully the report of proceedings in another place, as the noble Minister will no doubt understand. Many of the questions I would normally have raised have already been raised by my honourable friends in another place.

There is one point on which I think the Minister should say a word or two. That is the register of interests. We on this side of the House see both the code and the register as part and parcel of the same nexus. Therefore, although the Minister has made out a case for wanting to get the code working in practice before 3rd May, so that it binds the incoming councillors, the register of interests, with its divisions into pecuniary and non-pecuniary columns, is something that can wait. We would like the Minister to say just a little more about the consultation he is going to have to ensure that this result comes about.

I should like to direct the Minister to paragraph 9 of the code, where we are talking about pecuniary interests which can be just as important, and non-pecuniary interests which can be just as important. It says there, as the Minister knows: Private and personal interests include those of your family and friends, as well as those arising through membership of, or association with, clubs, societies and other organisations such as the Freemasons, trade unions and voluntary bodies. I should like to say to the Minister that we believe membership of a masonic lodge ought to be a declarable interest. It is an honourable estate and something which many people in this country are proud to belong to, but I believe that because of the nature of Freemasonry it is something that ought to be known publicly.

The other point I want to raise is that the code talks in terms of members of local councils who fail to declare a pecuniary interest or who give false or misleading information for the register. Apparently they are liable on conviction to a fine of up to £1,000. I wonder whether the Minister can tell us why such a punitive cost is not visited upon Members of the House of Commons or of the House of Lords. Why should local councillors carry the burden? Of course, they must act honourably, declare interests and comply with certain criteria. That monetary penalty, however, does not appear anywhere as being applicable if a Member of either House transgresses. Those are the two points on which I should be grateful for the views of the Minister. I certainly accept, as he has said, that there is unanimity across the political spectrum that the code and the register are necessary, and are welcomed in 1990.

4.53 p.m.

Lord Reay

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, asked me about the register. In that regard we intend to lay the necessary regulations before the Summer Recess, after we have consulted the local authority associations. We see the question of the register as being a separate issue from that of the code, and we want to have further discussions.

The noble Lord also referred to non-pecuniary interests and asked whether they should be included in the compulsory register. In our view, it would not be appropriate to include non-pecuniary interests. They are much more diffuse, and it would be impossible to provide a definition sufficiently robust to give grounds for making failure to register a criminal offence. The noble Lord referred to the code of conduct and penalties for a breach of it in respect of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. I do not think that it would be proper for me to say anything about that. That is a separate matter which is for the Houses themselves.

On Question, Motion agreed to.