HL Deb 24 February 1994 vol 552 cc724-6

3.26 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in the light of the Earl of Arran's statement on 1st February (H. L. Deb., col.1183) that, if the allegations of the District Auditor in respect of Westminster City Council are proved true, they will "unreservedly condemn the actions of the councillors responsible", they stand by Baroness Blatch's statement of 1st July 1991 (H. L. Deb., col.770) that Westminster City Council's proposals on housing "appear to be sensible and… do not conflict with government policy".

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, the district auditor's investigation into the allegations in relation to Westminster Council is not yet complete. He has made it quite clear that his findings are provisional. He has given the councillors and officers concerned an opportunity to respond to his provisional findings, and has indicated that there may be an oral hearing. Until those proceedings are complete, it is quite wrong to prejudge the issue.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that detailed reply. Will the Minister join me in criticising Conservative Members in another place and a Member on his own side in this House who have attempted to denigrate the role of that extremely distinguished district auditor? Is the Minister aware that before the 10 people involved were asked to meet the district auditor, they were told that they were entitled to be accompanied by a legal adviser? Only one chose to follow that course. Is it not time that we accept that the district auditor is a man of high professional standing and character who is doing a job as a public servant and who, therefore, cannot answer for himself?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, the district auditor carries out duties as laid down by law. Those duties are to be found in the Local Government Finance Act 1982 and in the Code of Audit Practice for Local Authorities and the National Health Service in England and Wales. I have no reason to believe that the district auditor has not carried out those duties according to the law.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, does my noble friend's answer mean that each and all of those councillors against whom the district auditor appears to have made quite serious allegations will have an opportunity to defend themselves and, if possible, to clear themselves of those charges?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, those against whom accusations have been made have a right to reply. They may do so in writing by 29th July or orally by 28th February.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, is there not something profoundly unsatisfactory about a procedure which allows district auditors in those circumstances to name names, often in the most denigratory sense, when Section 30 of the Act to which my noble friend referred states that a report must not be published without the consent of those named in it? Is there any evidence that any of the people named in the district auditor's preliminary report consented to the publication of that report?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, what was published was a statement. The district auditor published a note of provisional findings and views. Copies of those documents were made available to the council, to six of the objectors and to the 10 respondents against whom he had made provisional findings and about whom he held adverse views. Those were made by him totally in accordance with the law.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, is it not highly desirable that we should abstain from coming to conclusions before the proceedings are at an end, because some of us have grave disquiet about the matter?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, my noble and learned friend is absolutely right.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that it would have been a good thing if the advice of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, had been taken when other auditors' reports have appeared in respect of other cities and authorities in the country? Is he further aware that many of the difficulties that have arisen in the matter (and which fall directly within the Local Government Finance Act 1992) were actually pointed out by me and other Members on this side of the House to the Government at the time that the legislation was passed? However, the Government chose to ignore our advice on some of the difficulties which we knew at the time would arise.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, has raised both points recently in the House. I believe that they were adequately replied to.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether there is any statutory authority for making so-called "provisional findings" which on the face of it do not appear to be quite so provisional in the form in which they were produced?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, the findings have been made according to the law as it stands. It would require the law to be changed for them to be produced in any other manner.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, will the incidents which arise out of the right-to-buy policy prompt the Government to reflect with urgency on the need for a socially adequate housing policy for all areas of the country?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I do not think that I can reply to that without calling into question the Government's impartiality in such matters.

Lord Clark of Kempston

My Lords, if the matter does fall within the law, is it not about time that it was changed in view of the unfairness of the allegations and the fact that the people so charged have not had a chance to refute them?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I must tell my noble friend that changing the law is a matter for this House and another place.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, we are grateful that the noble Viscount has reaffirmed that the district auditor acted in accordance with the law and quite properly. He should not in any way be criticised for what he has done. The allegations are not unfair; they are allegations. However, to move on to a perhaps less contentious subject, is the noble Viscount satisfied with the information that the Government have received, especially in the light of my noble friend's Question regarding the statement of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in July 1991? Further, are the Government satisfied that they were receiving proper information from Westminster City Council about the proposals that the council were in fact acting upon?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, that Westminster City Council provided information to the department of my noble friend Lady Blatch as was required by law.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I do not want to detain the House much longer. However, I must point out that I received two different Answers. I am not suggesting that there is any dubiety in the matter; but, at the very least, when one reads both Answers one can see that there is a great deal of ambiguity in them. Does the noble Viscount agree that they are almost totally different?

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, I have nothing further to add.

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