Local Government, Planning And Land (No 2) Bill
As amended (in the Standing Committees), considered.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I raise with you the matter of the selection of amendments for Report, particularly with regard to new clauses 22, 23 and 24 and amendments Nos. 234 and 235? I have, of course, written to you about this matter, and naturally I accept the ruling of the Chair. These amendments are of considerable importance in Wales. They relate to the vexed question of second and holiday homes, which regrettably has been a subject of unfortunate incidents which in recent months have been condemned in all parts of the House.On 20 December, my hon. Friend the Member for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas) and myself attended a meeting at the Welsh Office to discuss the methods by which the House might address itself to how some of the problems in Wales might be overcome. It was suggested to us that the Housing Bill, which was then before Parliament, and the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill were two possible avenues. As a consequence, my hon. Friend tabled amendments to the Housing Bill, but they were not selected because, we understand, this was deemed to be a more appropriate subject for a planning Bill, and such a Bill was before Parliament. It is for that reason that we have tabled these amendments. We referred to our intention to do so during the Second Reading debate on 5 February, as reported in column 338 of Hansard. Unfortunately, no member of my party and no hon. Member from Wales served on the Committee. Of course, my party has no opportunity of moving amendments in another place either. There is a feeling in Wales that Parliament should address itself to these matters at the earliest opportunity. They are extremely serious, and if they are delayed for another year or two it could have drastic consequences. Of course, this issue goes beyond Wales. There have been prob- lems in the Lake District, and just before Christmas a planning appeal involving Poole council related directly to this question. Although I realise that it may not be possible to include these amendments for today's discussion—presumably, amendments Nos. 234 and 235 will be discussed later—I ask whether it is possible for you, Mr. Speaker, to reconsider your selection.
I am obliged to the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) for the way in which he has raised his point of order. He rightly said that we have been in correspondence on this matter. He will be aware that I am deeply conscious of its importance. No one can live in Wales without being conscious of the importance of these issues.Naturally, I spent a long time considering the selection of amendments for this Bill, just as I did when I originally considered the amendments of the hon. Gentleman and his colleague the hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas). I gave the matter further consideration when I received his letter. I do not want to raise false hopes that I will be able to select the amendments at a later stage, but, of course, I shall look at this again, as the hon. Gentleman has invited me to do.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In your wisdom, you have not selected new clauses 26, 27, 28 and 29, in which I have a particular interest, presumably because in your judgment the contents of those new clauses do not fall within the long title of the Bill. I am in no way querying that.However, we are now faced with a difficulty, because we have a Bill in which quite a number of clauses—without the amendments or anything else—fall outside the provisions of the long title. For example, the first line of the long title refers to the relaxation of "controls over local government". But quite a number of the clauses do exactly the opposite and, in fact, increase controls over local government. I should like to give one example. I shall not bore the House, although I could give dozens of examples. Part VIII does the exact opposite. The only reason why I raise this question now rather than later is that I have always understood that the contents of a Bill had to fall within its long title. I submit that quite a lot of this Bill does not do so.
All that I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that I am satisfied that everything that I have selected is in order. I say nothing about those amendments that I have not selected, because obviously the House does not ask me to give reasons why I have selected one amendment and not another. However, I shall, of course, consider what the hon. Gentleman has said.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. In case there is any misunderstanding, may I say that I do not complain about your selection of amendments. My point relates to the contents of the Bill as it has been presented to the House. I am querying whether many of the existing contents of the Bill come within the long title.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the long title is a description of the Bill. It does not completely decide the scope of the Bill. He had better work that out over a cup of tea in the Tea Room.
New Clause 1
Annual Balance Sheet, Etc
'(1) Every local authority who in any financial year undertake construction or maintenance work, whether under works contracts or by way of functional work or both, and every development body who in any financial year undertake construction or maintenance work by way of functional work, shall prepare the documents mentioned in subsection (2) below not later than 30th September in the financial year following that year.
(2) The documents are—
(3) The balance sheet must show a true and fair view of the state of affairs of the local authority or development body, at the end of the financial year to which it relates, in respect of each description of construction or maintenance work undertaken by them in that year.
(4) The revenue account must show a true and fair view of the financial result of the local authority or development body having undertaken, in the financial year to which it relates, each description of construction or maintenance work to which it relates.
(5) The statement of rate of return must give such information as is necessary to show
whether, in respect of the financial year to which it relates, the local authority or development body have complied with section 12(1) below.'.—[ Mr. Fox.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this we may take Government amendments Nos. 46 and 49.
This new clause is needed to replace the present clause 9(1), which is defective, and which was rightly criticised in Committee as being insufficiently specific. The new clause makes it clear that authorities that run direct labour organisations will, like the private commercial firms with which they will be in competition, have to produce annual balance sheets and annual accounts which show
of their trading situation and financial results. The notion of a true and fair view of their performance is a new one to most local authorities, but it is a familiar requirement in the Companies Acts in the private sector and it is familiar in the public sector to managers of nationalised industries and new town development corporations. Now that we are setting up direct labour organisations with separate trading accounts it seems only sensible that, so far as possible, those accounts should be kept on bases that make easy comparison with private contractors. This new requirement is, of course, restricted to the DLO accounts. It does not imply a wholesale change in the conventions under which the generality of local authority accounts are kept, and it does not imply any change in the role of the local government auditor. It simply means that DLOs—operating, we hope, in a businesslike and commercial way and in a competitive and commercial environment—will keep their accounts in a commercial fashion which enables their performance readily to be judged. The two Government amendments are related to the new clause. The first is a paving amendment to remove clause 9(1), which the clause replaces. The second is consequential, to include the clause in the list of the accounting clauses in this part of the Bill which are not to be allowed to prejudice the general provisions of the local government Acts under which the local authority accounts are regulated."a true and fair view"
We welcome the fact that the Government have tidied up the language. There was very reasonable criticism in Committee of the type of language used with regard to direct works organisations. It was unclear. The proposed language is clearer than the original wording, and for that we are very grateful. We have no intention, therefore, of opposing the clause.There is one thing that I should like the Minister to explain very briefly to the House. Subsection (4) of new clause 1 contains the words
We are much opposed to the fact that certain clauses in the Bill cover such things as gritting, snow clearing and maintenance work. How detailed do the Government expect the annual balance sheet to be? A good deal of local government manpower could be involved in making an annual statement dealing with each individual item of snow clearance, or whatever it might be. Surely a blanket item could be put in relating, for example, to snow clearance for the whole year. I am sure that the Government will welcome the fact that I am seeking to ensure that local government manpower should not be employed needlessly in giving too detailed descriptions of the sort of work that has taken place."each description of construction or maintenance work to which it relates."
I have to express some misgivings about the new clause and the thinking behind it. I had a meeting last weekend with some of my county councillors from Avon county council, and with district councillors from Wansdyke district council and Woodspring district council.They raised the matter of the new clause and their misgivings about the Government's policy for the control of direct labour organisations generally. In essence, they were saying that they were loyal supporters of the Government, that they were doing their best to carry out Government policy, that they were cutting local authority expenditure, that they were economising on staff, that they were doing their utmost to keep down their rates, but that they had strong feelings that the Government's policy in the new clause—and in the Bill as a whole—involved loyal local authorities getting the stick, as it were, along with other local authorities which were deliberately trying to defy the Government and to wreck their policies. They feel that the new clause and other clauses in the Bill involve new controls and regulations being imposed on local authorities, and that the Government are using a blunt instrument rather than a sharper weapon against the few who are deliberately trying to undermine Government policy. I do not go all the way with this view, but these feelings are strongly held and they are sapping the morale of Conservative-controlled councils which are doing their untmost to be loyal to the policies of the Government. The Government should take these feelings extremely seriously. I accept that public expenditure has to be controlled and that local authority expenditure is a very large part of it. I also accept that the Government have gone some way in the new clause—and others that will be discussed later—to meet the misgivings expressed by the local authority associations. But it seems to me that the arguments put forward in particular by the Association of District Councils—of which I am one of the vice-presidents—have not been adequately dealt with so far by my hon. Friend. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to deal with some of these points, and in particular with the point that is being made that the new tendering arrangements will mean substantial changes in the accountancy methods that local authorities will have to employ, and that this will mean additional staff having to be employed. I believe that these are arguments of substance that the Government have not so far entirely met. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to reassure me and the House on these and similar matters.
I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean) that we have had a continuing dialogue with all the local authority associations. We found it impossible to answer to their satisfaction certain questions about the Bill, but as the Bill progresses I hope that my hon. Friend will realise that in all we are seeking to do we are trying to be fair and reasonable.I shall restrict my remarks to the new clause. The other matters, such as tendering, will be covered in later amendments. If the hon. Gentleman's own local authority is as efficient as he has indicated, I can only suggest that what we are proposing here will not make any difference to it. I cannot believe that any hon. Member would oppose having sensible accounting procedures as the norm. I thank the right hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes) for his kind remarks about the changes that have been introduced in the new clause. We are at this moment talking to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy in order to achieve exactly what he wants—the simplest possible system of accounting. I give him that assurance.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 2
Right Of Councillor To Opt For Financial Loss Allowance
'(1) In section 173 of the Local Government Act 1972 (attendance allowance and financial loss allowance) at the end of subsection (1) (right of member of local authority who is a councillor to receive attendance allowance) there shall be added the words "unless a notice under section 173A below is effective in relation to him".
(2) The following section shall be inserted after that section:—
"Right to opt for financial loss allowance
173A.—(1) If a councillor gives notice in writing to the local authority of which he is a member that he wishes to receive financcial loss allowance, he shall be entitled, subject to and in accordance with the following provisions of this section, to receive that allowance instead of any payment by way of attendance allowance to which he would otherwise be entitled.
(2) A notice under this section is referred to in this section as a 'financial loss allowance'.
(3) If a councillor gives a financial loss allowance notice to the local authority not later than the end of the period of four weeks from his election as a member of the authority, he shall be entitled to receive financial loss allowance for the performance of any approved duty since his election, whether performed before or after the giving of the notice.
(4) If a councillor who has not given the local authority a financial loss allowance notice in accordance with subsection (3) above gives them such a notice not less than three months before the beginning of a financial year, he shall be entitled to receive financial loss allowance for the performance of any approved duty performed not earlier than the beginning of that financial year.
(5) A financial loss allowance notice shall continue to have effect until the councillor ceases to be a member of the local authority or until a notice under subsection.(6) below takes effect, whichever occurs first.
(6) If not less than three months before the beginning of a financial year a councillor who has given the local authority of which he is a member a financial loss allowance notice gives them notice in writing that he withdraws that notice, he shall be entitled to receive payments by way of attendance allowance, instead of financial loss allowance, for the performance of any approved duty after the beginning of the financial year following the giving of the notice.
This section does not extend to Scotland".'.—[ Mr. King.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.The clause is in response to an amendment that was tabled in Committee. It has the support of all the local authority associations. Its effect is that it will now be possible for the option of financial loss allowance to be possible as well as attendance allowance. It will apply to England and Wales but not to Scotland, because the Confederation of Scottish Local Authorities decided that it did not wish to have that option. For that reason, it was not imposed on those authorities. I want to make it clear that if a councillor receives one of the new special responsibility allowances under clause 20 of the Bill it will not affect his right to claim financial loss allowance under the new clause. Councillors in positions of special responsibility will have duties over and above the approved duties normally recognised by their councils for allowance purposes. Special responsibility allowances will relate to those additional duties; they will therefore be separate from any financial loss or attendance allowance that a councillor is entitled to claim. Financial loss allowance is not taxable, unlike attendance allowance. For that reason, the change may involve a certain amount of cost to the Exchequer. The Government will therefore in due course be observing the effect of giving the option. The Committee felt that it was a sensible option to allow. I know that the right hon. Gentleman on the Opposition Front Bench are in favour of it. I am therefore pleased to be able to introduce it.
My right hon. Friend knows that I am interested and concerned about this matter because of my previous service on the Greater London Council. There, I experienced the very heavy work load of a board chairman. The work load there is not too dissimilar to the work load of a Back-Bench Member here. I am concerned that authorities such as the GLC should be taken into account, and I hope that the Minister can assure me that some element of general expenses, above the financial loss allowance, will be available to councillors in this case. I hope that when the new attendance allowances are introduced the increase will be substantial, because they seem to have fallen well behind what is at present required.
I shall detain the House for only a moment to welcome the Government's proposal. The Government have met the wishes of the Committee, and I express my gratitude to them. Almost everyone who has served on a local authority makes a financial sacrifice by doing so. They will continue to make sacrifices, but, thanks to this clause, in many cases the sacrifices will not be as great. We should welcome the clause on behalf of the many thousands of men and women who serve in local authorities.
Everyone who has served on local authorities recognises that there is a financial loss. I was not clear on the point of tax-free allowances. How can they be balanced against the losses of earnings of councillors? Many considerations have to be taken into account, such as the councillor being in a different tax bracket, and so on. Will my right hon. Friend clarify that point?
The new clause does not extend to Scot- land. The Minister said that that was because COSLA did not wish it to be extended to Scotland. I accept that. Nevertheless, it is unsatisfactory, and I am surprised that COSLA took that view. For a considerable time, COSLA has been dissatisfied with the present system of attendance allowances. I had discussions with COSLA when I was Secretary of State and I had sympathy with many of its points.Under this clause there is a straight option for individual councillors. Therefore, no councillor could possibly be worse off, but certain councillors could be better off. If the Government would agree to a revision of the present situation and come up with a solution that would be acceptable to COSLA. I understand that it would be sensible to leave the clause as it stands. But it is unlikely that the Government will make a wholesale revision of the system in Scotland, and make Scottish councillors better off than English councillors. But if that does not happen, Scottish councillors will be worse off than English councillors if the clause is not extended to Scotland. I am not critcising the Government, because if they have had advice from COSLA they obviously feel disposed to accept it. I hope that COSLA will reconsider the matter. It would be a considerable mistake for councillors in Scotland not to have this option. I repeat that no one could be worse off, but many people could be better off.
I listened with interest to the remarks of the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan), but I am sure that he does not expect me to comment. In some ways I have shared his surprise, but the Government have accepted the information and advice of COSLA, and it is now a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. As the right hon. Gentleman said, this clause merely extends an option to individual members.My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glyn) raised the issue of financial loss allowance. It is an option. The individual member then has to persuade the Inland Revenue that he has suffered a loss. There is a ceiling on the loss that he can claim. At present it is £14, as opposed to the attendance allowance of £13, so it is not open-ended in that respect I hope that I have clarified my hon.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for clarifying that point. Friend's point.
I understand the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne). We are reviewing the question of the attendance allowance, and the circumstances that he raised will be covered in our consideration of the matter.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 3
Suspension Of Provision For Liability To Progressive Surcharge In Respect Of Unused Office Etc Property
The Secretary of State may by order direct that section 17A (surcharge in respect of unused property) and 17B of the 1967 Act (supplemental provisions as to section 17A) shall cease to have effect.
If an order is made under subsection (1) above, the Secretary of State may by order again bring sections 17A and 17B of the 1967 Act into force.
(3) An order under this section may make such incidental, supplemental and consequential provision as appears to the Secretary of State to be expedient for the purposes of the order.
(4) The power to make such an order shall be exercisable by statutory instrument.
(5) A statutory instrument containing such an order shall be subject to amendment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.'.—[ Mr. King.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.This clause involves suspension by order of the surcharge on empty commercial property. It was discussed in Committee, and I announced then that we would introduce a new clause. In effect, this is a dead letter. The local authorities support the introduction of this measure and, as it has already been discussed in Committee, I hope that the House will agree that it does not need further amplification. I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 4
Rating Of Unoccupied Property
'(1) Schedule 1 to the 1967 Act (rating of unoccupied property) shall be amended as follows.
(2) In sub-paragraph (1) of paragraph 1, for the words "three months" there shall be substituted the words "the standard period".
(3) The following sub-paragraphs shall be inserted after that sub-paragraph:—
"(1A) In this Schedule 'the standard period' means three months or such other period as the Secretary of State may by order specify.
(1B) An order under sub-paragraph (1A) of this paragraph may specify different periods in relation to different classes of hereditament.".
(4) The following sub-paragraphs shall be substituted for sub-paragraph (2A) of that paragraph:—
"(2A) Subject to the provisions of this Schedule, the amount of any rates payable by the British Gas Corporation in respect of a shop, room or other place by virtue of this paragraph shall be the specified proportion of the amount which would be payable if the Corporation were in occupation of it and it were being used by the Corporation wholly or mainly for the sale, display or demonstration of apparatus or accessories for use by consumers of gas.
(2B) Subject to the provisions of this Schedule, the amount of any rates payable by an Electricity Board in respect of a shop, room or other place by virtue of this paragraph shall be the specified proportion of the amount which would be payable if the Board were in occupation of it and it were being used by the Board wholly or mainly for the sale, display or demonstration of apparatus or accessories for use by consumers of electricity.
(2C) No reduction shall be made under section 48 of this Act in respect of any rates payable by an owner by virtue of this paragraph.
(2D) In this paragraph 'the specified proportion', in relation to a hereditament, means such proportion (not more than the current ceiling) as may be specified for the purposes of this paragraph by a resolution of the rating authority for the rating area in which the hereditament is situated; and different proportions may be so specified in relation to different classes of hereditment and in relation to hereditaments in different parts of the rating area.
(2E) Subject to sub-paragraph (2F) of this paragraph, in sub-paragraph (2D) of this paragraph 'the current ceiling' means the whole of the amount of rates which, disregarding section 48 of this Act, would be payable by the owner if he were in occupation of the hereditment and, in a case to which sub-paragraph (2A) or sub-paragraph (2B) of this paragraph applies, if the hereditment were being used as mentioned in that sub-paragraph.
(2F) Subject to sub-paragraph (2G) of this paragraph, the Secretary of State may from time to time by order vary the proportion of the amount mentioned in sub-paragraph (2E) of this paragraph which is to be the current ceiling for the purposes of this paragraph.
(2G) No order under sub-paragraph (2F) of this paragraph may so vary that proportion as to make the current ceiling exceed the whole of the amount mentioned in sub-paragraph (2E) of this paragraph.
(2H) Different proportions may be specified under sub-paragraph (2F) of this paragraph in relation to different classes of hereditament and in relation to hereditaments in different rating areas."
(5) In sub-paragraph (3) of that paragraph, for the words "any period of three months during which the hereditament has been continuously unoccupied" there shall be substituted the words "whether the hereditament has been continuously unoccupied for the standard period".
(6) In sub-paragraph (4) of that paragraph—
(7) The following sub-paragraph shall be inserted after that sub-paragraph:—
"(5) In sub-paragraph (4) of this paragraph 'the new house period' means six months or such other period as the Secretary of State may by order specify.
(6) A statutory instrument containing an order under this paragraph shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.".
(8) In paragraph 2 of that Schedule for the words "three months" there shall be substituted the words "the standard period".
(9) The following paragraph shall be inserted after paragraph 4 of that Schedule:—
"4A.—(1) Subject to the provisions of this paragraph, section 40 of this Act shall also apply in relation to any relevant hereditament to which it did not apply when it was last occupied if—
(2) The notice is a notice in writing to the rating authority tht it is intended that the hereditament shall be wholly or mainly used for charitable purposes (whether of the charity which owns it or of that and other charities).
(3) Subject to sub-paragraph (4) below, section 40 of this Act shall cease to apply to a hereditament by virtue of this paragraph on the expiry of a period of two years—
whichever is the later.
(4) Section 40 of this Act shall cease to apply to a hereditment by virtue of this paragraph if the trustees—
(10) The following definitions shall be substituted for the definition of "relevant period of vacancy" in paragraph 15 of that Schedule:—
"relevant period of vacancy", in relation to a relevant hereditament means any period during which the hereditament has been continuously unoccupied, beginning with the unoccupied rating day and ending with the day preceding that on which the hereditament becomes or next becomes occupied or ceases to exist; and
"unoccupied rating day", in relation to a relevant hereditament, means—
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.This is the other new clause that deals with the issue of empty property rating. I announced our proposals in Committee. The new clause gives the Government greater flexibility, in that we can make an order to review the maximum level at which empty property rating can be set. There was general agreement that this was the right way to move. The previous Government were concerned about the issue and they issued a circular calling for action. We are giving effect to the proposals in that circular. The new clause deals also with an anomaly in respect of gas and electricity showrooms, and it gives relief to empty properties acquired by charities.
I welcome the new clause, but it is extremely complicated. I have read it many times, and I hope that it will have the desired effect. Statutory undertakers seem to come first, and I am pleased that charities are covered. Will a statutory instrument be presented to the House on the Government's decision? Is it the Government's intention to deal expeditiously with the matter? Many owners of empty property who are desperately trying to sell those properties are having to pay penal rates and they should be given relief as soon as possible. I am really fishing. I do not understand the whole of the verbiage in the new clause. I trust that it is the intention to act quickly in this matter.
I have a small query to raise. This is a complicated matter. Subsection (3)(1B) provides that
Will the Minister explain what is meant by "different classes of hereditament"? Does it refer to the classes used in planning law? What does the word "classes" mean in this context? Presumably the Minister cannot make an order for some houses for six months and for others for three months. Will he explain what it means?"An order under subparagraph (1A) of this paragraph may specify different periods in relation to different classes of hereditament."
Referring first to the point made by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross), the answer is that it will be by order laid before the House, we hope this autumn, and will come into effect in April 1981.
The clause also covers new properties remaining unoccupied. That is an important point. I thank the Minister for dealing with that issue.
It will be introduced by order.Turning to the point made by the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell), "different classes" does not apply to domestic housing. The "different classes" might be commercial as opposed to industrial. It is an attempt to apply different classes to different areas because different considerations might apply.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 5
Expenditure Of Greater London Council
Schedule [Expenditure of Greater London Council] to this Act shall have effect.—[ Mr. Fox.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this we may take Government amendments Nos. 136, 151, 218, 231, 281 and 286.
The purpose of the new clause and these amendments is to integrate the capital expenditure of the Greater London Council with the controls of part VIII of the Bill over prescribed expenditure, while at the same time allowing the GLC to continue to seek the approval of Parliament to the council's capital expenditure under the annual Money Bill procedure.We have been impressed by arguments by the council itself and by hon. Members on both sides of the House to the effect that the GLC's position differs from that of other local authorities in three important ways. First, its borrowing and expenditure on capital account have already been subject to parliamentary control, through the annual Money Bill procedure, for the past 100 years or so. Secondly, the council's budget and the amount of its borrowing are both exceptionally large. Its expenditure on capital account is about £400 million a year. Thirdly, London itself is of unique strategic importance in the United Kingdom. On the other hand, it would not be right simply to exclude the GLC from the new capital expenditure controls, because the Money Bill procedure controls only "expenditure on capital account". This does not cover capital expenditure charged to revenue—about £30 million for the GLC in 1978–79—or the acquisition of capital assets by means such as leasing. The Bill aims to control all capital expenditure by local authorities, no matter how such spending is financed. The Government have reached the conclusion that the right course is for the GLC's capital expenditure to continue to be controlled through the annual Money Bill system but for the Money Bill arrangements to be brought in line with the control that is to be applied by the Bill to all other local authorities' capital spending. These proposals, therefore, are designed to do two things: first, to remove the GLC from the scope of part VIII of the Bill, but, secondly, to alter the London Government Act 1963 in such a way that control over the GLC's capital spending is brought into line with the discipline that is to apply to local authorities generally. In particular, they give the council power to switch the provisions in the Money Bill between services and permit a specific control to be exercised over projects of national or regional importance.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 6
(1) Subject to the provisions of this section, any of the following authorities, namely—
may make byelaws—
(2) No authority mentioned in subsection (1) above shall have power to make byelaws under that subsection in relation to pleasure boats or vessels operating—
(3) Subsection (2)( c) above does not preclude a local authority making byelaws under subsection (1) above in relation to pleasure boats or vessels operating on any canal or inland navigation which they themselves are required or empowered to manage or maintain.—[ Mr. Fox.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this we may take Government amendments Nos. 225, 285 and 287.
In presenting this new clause and these consequential amendments to the House, I am fulfilling an undertaking that I gave to Standing Committee D during its consideration of paragraph 2 of schedule 6 on 19 February. That paragraph was included in the Bill following the Government's review of central Government controls over local authorities because they would have removed the need for local authorities to submit byelaws to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department every time they wished to fix rates of hire for pleasure craft under section 172 of the Public Health Act 1875.Following publication of the Bill in January 1980, however, we received representations from numerous holiday boating firms and other inland waterways interests about the detrimental effect which unfettered or, indeed, any controls over rates of hire would have on the boat hire business. They also drew attention to the fact that those provisions would enable local authorities to make byelaws to regulate pleasure boats and vessels let for hire on waterways and waters controlled by other bodies, such as the British Waterways Board and navigation authorities, and argued that their circumstances could not have been envisaged when the original Act was passed. Following consideration of these representations, we came to the conclusion that we should amend the Bill to preclude local authorities from having any powers to fix rates of hire for pleasure boats. In our view, there were no grounds for refusing to treat the boat hire industry like any other business enterprise and to leave the fixing of rates of hire to be determined by free competition and the normal market factors of supply and demand. We also concluded that the Bill should be amended to preclude local authorities from exercising their remaining powers to regulate pleasure boats under section 172 of the Public Health Act 1875 in respect of boats on waters where such boats could already be regulated by the British Waterways Board or by any water, navigation or harbour authority. As the House will appreciate, it would be unnecessary and undesirable to allow local authorities to exercise this power where another authority already has adequate power to ensure public safety. That led me to undertake to introduce suitable amendments to implement these proposals, and that I am now pleased to do.
I entirely share my hon. Friend's desire that there should be the maximum freedom for boat owners and renters to use our waterways as they choose without too great a degree of regulation. I am sure that many local authorities have far too much to do with being involved in impeding people's use of their boats for pleasure and navigation.However, I should be glad of further clarification on one narrow point. Some years ago I had something to do with local authorities and boats. There is the problem of large concentrations of boats depositing large quantities of sewage in still waters with consequential pollution and nuisance to those who either sail the waters or live in the vicinity. I should like to be clear that my hon. Friend adheres to the policy that pleasure boats are to be required to have suitable toilets installed and that it will still be within the power of local authorities or, as need be, other navigation authorities—such as the Broads authority, the British Waterways Board and other water authorities—to ensure that boats comply with the minimum requirement of providing toilet facilities so that they do not foul up the water and damage the pleasure and environment for other people.
I welcome the new clause. However, I should like my hon. Friend to clear up one small point, because the clause is somewhat complicated. It seems to give and to take away powers at the same time. Will my hon. Friend confirm that it does not restrict local authorities on water safety? There are a great number of unnecessary accidents. For example, there is a very live water safety committee in my constituency. I should like to be assured that the new clause will not restrict its activities.
I endorse the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Sir A. Costain). In my constituency there are large stretches of waterway. It is obvious that we should continue to ensure that there are adequate provisions—which I am sure exist in other Acts—to prevent the pollution of water by boats. I do not think the provision will impede existing powers. We are only removing unnecessary restrictions on boat owners, which would have been very difficult to impose.
I reassure my hon. Friends that nothing in the new clause will worsen the situation as regards sewerage and the provision of toilet facilities. I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Sir A. Costain) that nothing in the provision will impinge on existing safety regulations. I also note the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glyn).
Question put and agreed to.
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 8
Off-Licences: Special Provisions To Cease
(1) Part VI of the 1964 Act (licensing in new towns) shall cease to have effect in relation to the licensing of premises in new towns by way of a justices' off-licence.
(2) References in Part VI of the 1964 Act to licensed premises and to a justices' licence shall be construed accordingly.
(3) In consequence of subsection (1) above, the following provisions of the 1964 Act shall be omitted, namely, sections 112(1)( a)(ii) and ( b)(ii) and in section 112(5) the words "or licensed premises".
(4) Nothing in this section affects the operation of section 111 of the 1964 Act as respects an application made before the date on which this section comes into force or made at the licensing sessions next held after that day.
(5) Where the Development Board for Rural Wales is responsible under the Development of Rural Wales Act 1976 for the development of a new town, this section and section (Power to end Special Licensing Provisions) below shall apply as if the Board were the development corporation for the new town.—[ Mr Guy Barnett.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this we may take new clause 9—Power to end special licensing provisions.
I have been encouraged to put forward these provisions as similar clauses appeared in the original draft in the other place. However, they were subsequently excluded from the Bill presented in this House on the ground that the Government needed to shorten the Bill so that it could pass through all its stages in this Session.However, the Government cut out of the Bill several provisions which are non-controversial and which would be welcomed in certain places. That is certainly true of these new clauses. In principle, the Government are in favour of these amendments to the law. In addition, the New Towns Association asked me to present the two new clauses, and it speaks of unanimity among new towns. The two new clauses would make a number of changes to the system laid down in the Licensing Act 1964 for the provision of licensed premises and off-licences in new towns, which is at present administered by new towns licensed premises committees. New clause 8 provides for the removal of the off-licences jurisdiction of licensed premises committees and enables it to be restored to the licensing justices. 4.45 pm New clause 9 will enable the Secretary of State—in this case the Home Secretary—to abolish a licensed premises committee by statutory instrument on the joint application of the committee and the development corporation concerned. The abolition of a licensed premises committee would restore the full jurisdiction to the licensing justices. At present, the licensing committee for a new town must remain in being until the development corporation is dissolved. Under section 108 of the 1964 Act, a committee is established for each new town with the duty of deciding what licensed premises the new town requires. Under Becton 109 the committee submits proposals to the Secretary of State, specifying the places where licensed premises should be established, what type of licence should be authorised to be held at them, and supplementary provisions dealing with facilities and amenities to be provided at those premises. Such proposals must be advertised and are subject to confirmation by the Secretary of State under section 110, following—if objections are received to the advertised proposal—a hearing or public inquiry. In many ways, this proposal is an anachronism. The trend is for grocers and other non-specialist retailers to sell intoxicating liquors. The clause restores the control of off-licences to the licensing justices, and removes control from the licensing committee's jurisdiction. As the Government have some sympathy for the new clauses, and as the new towns find them acceptable, I hope that the Government will agree to them.
I think that the hon. Gentleman has said it all. His analysis of what happened to the clauses initially was right. The more one looks at the background, the more one finds that there is no argument in favour of opposing the new clause. Everybody supports the proposal, and I warmly commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 9
Power To End Special Licensing Provisions
(1) If a development corporation for a new town and the committee constituted for the new town under section 108 of the 1964 Act jointly apply to the Secretary of State for him to make an order under this section, he may make such an order.
(2) The power to make an order under this section shall be exercisable by statutory instrument.
(3) On an order coming into effect, subsections (4) to (6) below shall apply.
(4) If under section 108 of the 1964 Act a committee was constituted for that new town only the committee shall cease to exist.
(5) If under section 108 of the 1964 Act a committee was constituted for that and another new town—
(6) Sections 111 and 112 of the 1964 Act shall cease to apply to the new town, but without prejudice to the operation of section 111 as respects an application made before the date on which the order comes into effect or made at the licensing sessions next held after that day.
(7) In this section and the foregoing section "the 1964 Act" means the Licensing Act 1964.—[ Mr. Guy Barnett.]
Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 10
In section 249(5) of the Local Government Act 1972 after "royal borough" where it first occurs insert "or any parish or community having by grant or royal prerogative the status of city and any parish or community entitled by such grant to be called or styled a royal town", and after the further references to "royal borough" in that subsection and in section 249(6) insert "or parish or comunity as aforesaid.".—[ Mr. Nelson.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this we may take amendment No. 288, in title, line 18, after 'council', insert:
'to empower certain further authorities to confer honorary distinctions'.
The purpose of the clause is to restore to a number of ancient cities and royal towns the power to confer honorary freedoms on people of distinction or on those who have rendered eminent service to the communities in which they live. Under section 249(5) of the Local Government Act 1972 that power was restricted to London boroughs and districts having the status of a city or borough. It thereby excluded those cities which were designated as "parishes" or as "communities" under the Act but which retained the status or style of cities or royal towns by way of grant or Royal Proclamation.Thus, in the case of Chichester, a city with a population of 22,000, a city council and a mayor, there is no legal power, as there had been for centuries before, to confer freedoms. Seven cities and royal towns are affected by my new clause. They are Bangor, Caernarvon, Chichester, Ely, Ripon, Truro and Wells. I am pleased to advise the House that my new clause enjoys the support of all those hon. Members within whose constituencies those cities fall, and that that support comes from three political parties. The power to confer honourable freedoms is inexpensive but gives great pride and pleasure to those who give them and to those who receive them. In my own case of Chichester, it is well known that for some time the city council has wished to confer this honour on the Royal Military Police, whose training barracks are in the city and who have contributed so conspicuously to the local community and to charitable causes in the district. It is desirable that those cities should have the right to recognise such service or distinction, especially as they previously exercised that right. Some have continued to do so, unaware they they are no longer legally empowered to grant freedoms. Amendment No. 288 is a consequential amendment to the long title. I hope that the House will accept that there is a good case for this modest change in the law. It will give great pleasure to many of my constitutents, as well as to others. The freedom of the city does not grant many privileges. However, if regiments are given the freedom to enter cities, they are entitled to march with bayonets fixed, drums beating and flags flying. That is certainly an honour that I hope will be bestowed on the Royal Military Police in Chichester.
I take issue with the hon. Gentleman. This is a significant honour. The misery of having to muffle drums, and of not being allowed to fix bayonets when entering a city of distinction is a misery that should not be underrated.
I do not wish to pick an argument with the hon. Gentleman, as I fear that I shall lose his support for the new clause. I readily concede his point. There is a good case for changing the law. I thank those hon. Members who have supported the new clause. I earnestly hope that the House will join me in supporting it.
I support the clause, which was so eloquently moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) in the cause of soldiers marching with fixed bayonets and drums through our historic cities. The regiments do this in Bury St. Edmunds and they have had the right to do so for almost 800 years. In 1973 we sensibly continued that right. Therefore, it would be churlish of me to do anything other than welcome the prospect of similar marvellous civic occasions being conducted in Chichester, Ely and other places.I declare an interest, in that I am an honorary freeman of the City of London. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester said that there were not many privileges conferred with the honour. That is correct. As far as I can make out, the main privilege is that of being asked to contribute to an almost endless succession of good causes which one simply cannot refuse. Therefore, there are duties as well as rights. I wish to make only one serious point. I understand that the Government will accept the new clause. If there is to be a right to make people honorary freemen, for heaven's sake let it be used sparingly. Nothing is worse than an almost indefinite number of elderly ladies and gentlemen feeling that at the end of their time on the local council they are bound to get the freedom of their borough. That devalues the honour. I believe that it should be held as an honour that is sought after. I believe that it should go to such admirable bodies as the Royal Military Police, and, in in my case, the Suffolk Regiment. It would be unwise for local authorities to give it to everyone. Naturally, Parliament would not wish to restrain the judgment of local authorities, but they would be very wise not to devalue the honour by chucking it around too liberally. Power is important, but is best used sparingly.
The mayor of the city of Ripon has written to the Government urging them to accept this new clause. Ours is an ancient city with charters going back to Alfred and Athelstan, and in 1604 it was made a Royal borough. The rights that these charters conferred and the dignity of the city were confirmed in 1974 in a further Royal charter. Very unnecessarily, and possibly inadvertently, the Local Government Act 1972 excluded these seven authorities—which are, in effect, third-tier authorities because they were subsumed within a larger district—from retaining the privilege of granting freedoms. Therefore, this is an opportunity to correct that. It is a cherished honour. It is the ultimate accolade that a city can give to people who have given it distinguished service. It is right that it should be used sparingly, and in our case in recent years it has been given only to the Royal Engineers, the RAF and two distinguished citizens.
I agree for once with the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) that this is a great honour. In the Royal borough of which I have the honour to represent the major part, we make sure that this honour is a great privilege. It is given to regiments, very distinguished citizens and members of the Royal Family, and it is not given lightly.My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) said that it was important that it should not be assumed that, just because one has had a long period of service on a local council, one should automatically get the freedom. Looking back on historic records on the granting of freedom in the Royal boroughs, I find that it has always been restricted to very distinguished people and to regiments in the area. I am certain that the residents do not mind—in fact they enjoy—hearing the bands play in Windsor, and that they are not at all frightened by the sight of fixed bayonets. I am sure that the House will agree that the new clause should be accepted, provided that the honour is restricted to those who really deserve it.
I shall be very brief. I agree entirely with what other hon. Members have said. In the seven years during which we have arguably not been allowed to create freemen, we have used the privilege very sparingly. In my case only the RAF Hospital in Ely and the Anglian Regiment have been recipients of the honour. I hope that the Government Front Bench will be sympathetic and compassionate.
I listened with interest to my hon. Friends the Members for Chichester (Mr. Nelson), for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) and for Ripon (Dr. Hampson), and to the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud). The Government recognise that there is a strong case for this category to have the additional power. We endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds that this is not something that should be treated lightly. It is a peculiar and attractive honour which should convey particular respect and honour on its recipients.I should not wish to suggest that the new clause should be opposed, but I must draw the attention of the House to the fact that there are two printing errors. It says
It should read "by grant under the Royal prerogative." Later it says:"by grant or royal prerogative."
It should read "called and styled a Royal town." If those two errors can be corrected in the next printing of the Bill, the Government will be pleased to accept the new clause."called or styled a royal town."
Question put and agreed to.
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 13
Availability Of Reports Discussed At Local Authority Meetings
(1) In the first line of section 228(1) of the Local Government Act 1972 the words "and local authority committee" shall be inserted after the word "authority" and before the word "shall".
(2) The following subsections shall be inserted after subsection (1) of section 228 of the Local Government Act 1972—
'(1A)—(a) Copies of any reports being discussed at local authority meetings and local authority committee meetings, and which are considered during any part of such meetings to which the public are admitted shall be made available to the public present;
(b) any such reports covered by paragraph (a) above shall be open to the inspection of any local government elector for the area of the authority and any such local government elector may make a copy of or extract from such reports.
(1B)—(a) any member of a local authority or a local authority committee may inspect and make a copy of or an extract from any interim report, memoranda, letters or other documents relating to any matter on the agenda of the local authority committee;
(b) any such interim report, memoranda, letters or other documents covered by paragraph (a) above concerning any item taken in any part of the agenda of the local authority or local authority committee from which the public have been excluded, shall be subject to the same confidentiality as that part of the agenda.
(1C)—(a) any local government elector for the area of a local authority may inspect and make a copy of or an extract from any interim report, memoranda, letters or other documents relating to any item that appears on the public part of the agenda of any local authority meeting or local authority committee meeting, unless the local authority committee has ordered that any such interim report, memoranda, letters or other documents shall not be open to the public;
(b) The local authority committee may only make such an order as referred to in paragraph (a) above on the grounds that public access to the interim reports, memoranda, letters or other documents would be an invasion of personal privacy or detrimental to the public interest, but not on the grounds that such public access would be politically embarrassing for the council or any member of the council."
(3) The 1960 Public Bodies (Admissions to Meetings) Act shall apply to meetings of local authority sub-committees as well as to meetings of local authority committees and meetings of the local authority itself.—[ Mr. Allan Roberts.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.The new clause does five things. Generally, it concerns open government in local authorities. I imagine that all believers in local government believe that local authorities should practise open government. The new clause also commends itself to those like myself who want to see revitalised local democracy, more powers for local government and freedoms restored to local government. If we want to give local government a significant role in society, that government should be as open as possible so that the electors and their elected representatives can participate fully in the decision-making process and enable the local authorities to be truly democratic. First, the new clause gives electors the right to inspect the committee minutes after a committee meeting has taken place. At present anyone can attend a public meeting of a local authority committee, but if he is ill or at work and unable to attend the committee he does not have the right, in law, to inspect the minutes of that committee the next day. The clause safeguards matters that are taken during private sessions on the agenda, because of confidentiality. One would not expect those minutes to be available the next day. If it is right that the public can attend a committee meeting, surely they should have the right to inspect the minutes the next day. Some local authorities allow this and some refuse. This new clause would make it a right in law. Secondly, the new clause gives local government electors the right to see copies of reports that are discussed in the public part of the agenda, while and as they are being discussed. Again, some good local authorities make these reports available to the public, but there is no right for the public to have them. People can sit at the back of a public committee meeting entirely in the dark, not knowing what is going on because they do not have the right to those documents. Thirdly, the clause gives councillors free access to interim reports and internal memoranda. Fourthly, it gives electors the right to see interim reports and memoranda for the public part of the agenda. This is very important if the public and the councillors are to see what is taking place. Elected members and the public are often presented with a report produced by a local authority's management team—a group of chief officers—the differences of opinion between the chief officers and the other officers in that Department having been thrashed out and a compromise reached. All that the elected officers and the public see are recommendations based on the compromise. They have no access to the process of argument. If the public and councillors had access to interim reports and memoranda they could truly participate in the debate. 5 pm This clause would open up local authority sub-committees to the public. At present, by setting up a sub-committee a local authority can exclude the press and public. That ploy is used by many local authorities to circumvent Parliament's intention in the Local Government Act 1972 that committee meetings should be open to the public. When I was a member of the city of Manchester authority we had a secretarial and services sub-committee of the policy committee which consisted of all members of the policy committee. It met in private to decide what receptions and functions the council should engage in. Planning applications have to be on a public register and open to public scrutiny, but local authorities often have discussions in development sub-committees that the public cannot attend. Such practices bring local government into disrepute. The clause would not destroy the right of a councillor to move a motion to the effect that there be a private committee session because of confidentiality. Finally, the new clause would give councillors free access to local authority interim reports and internal memoranda. I wish to give an example of a property acquired by the Greater London Council, where I believe that there has not only been maladministration but fraud in connection with contracts for modernisation and improvement of properties acquired. No. 19 Topsam Road, SW17 was acquired by the GLC in January 1977. The history of that house, which is one of at least 12 similar cases, illustrates the underhand practices that occur over letting contracts. It shows why documents relating to the purchase of houses, and their subsequent improvement, should be open to inspection by councillors and the public. Councillor Ken Livingston has been denied access to documents and interim reports regarding that property by GLC officers. After purchase, the house was referred to the housing department for survey. The survey stated that the property was vacant and could be let; that there was nothing wrong with it, and that no work needed doing. The survey stated that the premises could be let at once, that the fixtures and fittings were all there, and that the house appeared to be in perfect order. The house was then referred to the survey department of the housing department. The result of that survey showed that the condition of the bath and wash-hand basin was good and that the general condition of the house was good. It stated that the property had been modernised and redecorated internally and externally and was available for letting. The property was then referred by the housing district officer to the works manager, Mr Joseph Clayton. That section issued an order for replastering, fitting a bath, fixing internal services, redecorating and a considerable number of other works, which the other department's surveys said were not required. Mr. Dick Canning, the district housing officer of the local authority, together with another chartered surveyor, visited the property and submitted a report to senior officers of the GLC which stated:
Mr. Canning inspected the property after £4,000 worth of unneceesary works had been ordered. He was suggesting that there had perhaps been double dealing or fraud. No action was taken. Mr. Canning decided to resign and take the matter to an industrial tribunal, seeking constructive dismissal. The tribunal could not find in his favour over constructive dismissal but considered that he had good reason to suspect fraud. Mr. Fred Jackson, a senior officer of the local authority, appeared before the tribunal and denied that the accusation of fraud had been reporteed to him. Mr. Dungate and Mr. Hemming, other officers from the housing department, claimed categorically that there was a meeting with Mr. Jackson specifically to discuss the accusations of fraud, and I have evidence to that effect. It is disturbing that public money can be dissipated in that way, and that a works management department of a large local authority, with apparent impunity, can order unnecessary work. It is also disturbing that when local authority officers try to draw the attention of senior management to discrepancies no action is taken. To cap it all, local authority councillors are denied access to documents and internal memoranda that would reveal the truth of the accusations. The new clause would release such documents, and local councillors, who are accountable to the public for local authority expenditure, would know the truth. I have evidence of four other cases, and indications that there are at least 12 others. It is scandalous that the GLC should try to hide possible fraud in letting such contracts and deny access to documentary evidence to local councillors who wish to see whether the accusations are true. The GLC would not be able to do so if the new clause were accepted."So far as I am aware there is no laid down standard of what is lettable, but a sum of nearly £4,000 seems to me to represent rather more than an acceptable difference in professional judgment."
I cannot comment on the case to which the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) has drawn attention, but I have sympathy with much of the new clause. Subsections (1A) and (1B) of section 228 make a lot of sense. Councillors are often the last to know of matters about which they should properly know. They cannot be defenders of the public if they do not have a full range of weapons to enable them to exercise that responsibility.The authority from which I came holds few meetings in private, and I believe that those that are held in private would meet with the hon. Gentleman's approval. However, I recognise that other authorities continue to meet in private when they could and should meet in public, where their affairs could be given much greater attention and involve their own electorate. I have some doubt about the proposal in subsection (1C), to allow the electorate access to documents that form part of the background to reports before a council or one of its committees. There will be many occasions—perhaps so many as to put a question mark over the way in which the clause may operate—when the nature of the matter involved, regardless of whether it would come under the exceptions in subsection (1C)(b), would restrict and restrain those dealing with the council in its ordinary business. I am not sure that we should encourage that. The motivation behind the new clause is eminently sensible and I hope that even if the clause has some defects, we shall find some way of meeting the points that I have made.
I agree with almost every word of the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire). It is right that reports of any description should be available to all councillors. That is one of the basic essentials of local government.I was a councillor for many years and I know the difficulties involved if, say, a councillor who is not a member of the housing committee wants a copy of a report that is to be submitted to that committee. If the report contains anything contentious, the councillor is often told that he cannot have a copy until the committee has considered it. That still happens in a number of councils. I strongly agree with the proposals in subsection (3). It has been the technique of some authorities that believe in secrecy to set up sub-committees in order to get round the 1972 Act. That happens frequently. An analysis of the number of sub-committees in existence today compared with those that had been set up before the 1972 Act would show that the number has risen in almost geometric proportions. On some councils, particularly rural county councils, all the council work tends to be concentrated in the hands of only half a dozen people. A powerful central block of councillors try to keep to themselves and the officers a considerable amount of information. Hampshire county council meets only quarterly and has decided that even that is too often. It is to cut out one meeting a year. It says that it is taking that action in order to save public expenditure and claims that it is obeying the Government's instructions on public spending. We call Hampshire a one-party state and it is rapidly developing a one-party state procedure. It is essential that councillors should have access to reports and it is absurd for members of the public attending a committee meeting not to have documents in front of them to enable them to follow the proceedings. It would be like allowing the public into our Galleries but not providing them with copies of the Order Paper. It is right that documents should be available to members of the public who attend meetings and they should be available the next day to those who cannot attend. However, I share the doubts of the hon. Member for Hornchurch about the wisdom of the new clause extending to interim reports and memoranda. There are many issues on which confidential reports have to be made by officers, and not only when the public would be excluded from the discussion anyway. Even on issues of general public debate, initial reports often cover delicate matters. I agree that reports should be made available to councillors, but I am not sure that they should be made available to members of the public before a matter has been considered by a committee. Once a committee has made a decision, the reports should be available, but if we followed the suggestions in the new clause, officers of a local authority would, for obvious reasons, be so careful in writing their reports that they would be meaningless to the councillors. It is the job of officers to advise councillors. If they have to be careful because they know that what they say in an interim document may be splashed all over the place. we may end up with useless reports. I support four-fifths of the new clause, but I have grave doubts about subsection (1B).
I share the view of the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) that councils are unnecessarily restrictive and that they ought to make much more information available to the public and to councillors who are not able to be present at certain meetings.I think that I put into the 1972 Act the clause that the new clause seeks to amend, and I recognise that councils have got round it by setting up endless sub-committees. As a result, a statutory duty placed on councils to make more information available has led, in some cases, to less information being made available. I would have agreed with the new clause if the hon. Member for Bootle had confined it largely to subsection (1A). He gets into trouble on subsection (1B), where he suggests that interim reports and memoranda be made available. The result of that, in many cases, would be that officers drawing up such documents, which may necessarily be consultative and indicate a series of options, would, if they knew that the reports were to become public and that the various options could blight all sorts of properties, dry up in the candour with which they introduced the documents to the councillors. It would inhibit the generation of the information that councillors require. It seems that the hon. Member for Bootle must have recognised the difficulties that he was getting into while he was drawing up his new clause, because he has inserted subsection (1C), setting out the reasons that councils would be able to use for not doing what the hon. Gentleman wants. A council has only to resolve that publication would be
and the documents need not be published. A council that does not want to publish documents will say that publication would be"an invasion of personal privacy or detrimental to the public interest"
and it would be judge and jury in its own case. The Mid-Suffolk district council discovered recently that when the Housing Bill becomes law shortly it will give council tenants a statutory right to buy their homes and to take the gardens that go with them. The council decided at the last minute that it had better get hold of some of those gardens for future development. The result has been eviction notices for more than 800 council tenants, who have been told that if they do not surrender their gardens before the Housing Bill becomes law they will be sued for possession in the county court and evicted. That is absurd. The decision was taken on the nod at the full council meeting where the public were present, but it was fully debated only in committee, when the public were not present. That is the sort of practice that brings local government into disrepute, and it is something of which the House must take account. I do not intend to go into the merits of that case. I mention it merely to illustrate that there must be more exposure. However, all of us who have had anything to do with local government recognise that a local authority is not like the House of Commons. It is an executive body and has to deal with a range of subjects, such as personnel matters, salaries and executive matters concerning planning permissions, which can confer substantial financial gains or losses on various people. Because of their sensitive character, such matters cannot always be hawked about and debated in public. There has to be, in an executive authority as opposed to a legislative and deliberative authority, a measure of confidentiality. The present law does not go far enough. Since I had some part in framing it, I am happy to say that. If the hon. Member for Bootle had confined himself to subsection (1A) he might have attracted some support from the Government Benches. In the event, I do not believe that the Government can possibly accept the clause as it stands. I hope that when he replies my right hon. Friend can give some encouragement to the House that we can go as far as subsection (1A) of the new clause."detrimental to the public interest"
I rise to support the new clause. I agree that it may need redrafting. I hope that the Government will be able either to assure us that it is unnecessary and that powers exist to enforce this sort of open government by local authorities or that they will accept it, even after some redrafting.I do not intend to repeat the arguments already advanced for the new clause. I agree with all of them. I also agree with the reservations expressed about subsection (1B). Some further safeguard may have to be given over internal memoranda. I doubt whether many internal memoranda are entitled to more confidentiality than is given under subsection (1C). Reference has been made to matters concerning personnel, and private matters that I understand would be covered under (1C). The phrase
is so wide that a local authority would be able to suppress anything. The clause will obviously need redrafting. I believe, nevertheless, that the principle is right. In addition to the arguments already advanced, I recall Walter Lippmann saying that in terms of government the public was too often in the position of the deaf man in the back row of the stalls who did not know what was going on on the stage, and only saw figures vaguely crossing this way and that. That is true of a certain number of local councillors. I do not say that it applies to all local councillors, but it applies to some. They have a strong case in arguing that things are decided on documents without their being fully aware of what is happening. There are two classes of document that I want to add to those already mentioned. Local authorities seem to engage increasingly in commissioning reports on this, that and the other. I am not sure that it is a practice of which I approve. I know of many examples of expensive reports being commissioned by local authorities. Not all the reports are made available, in total, to councillors. They should be. Local authorities negotiate and sign all sorts of agreements. I have examples of agreements that were not made available to all councillors and certainly not to the public for many years after they were negotiated. The Government, I hope, are trying to encourage more freedom in local authorities and also to encourage more open government and to keep local councillors better informed. Unless the Government can say—this may be possible—that there is a statute covering the points made in the new clause, I hope that they will accept it. If the Government say that there is a statute, or some part of a statute, that would achieve what the mover of the new clause wants, I hope that they will take the opportunity to draw the attention of local authorities to such a statute. I believe that it is too often ignored."detrimental to the public interest"
We have had a most interesting debate on what I recognise is an important new clause. The comments made from both sides of the House reflect and anticipate, in a sense, the reply that I am bound to give on behalf of the Government. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) said, discreetly, that he thought the new clause might require a little redrafting. Parts of it obviously raise problems. It would be impossible for us to accept the new clause as it stands. This is in no sense the Government parading the usual answer, saying "Jolly good effort, but it is technically wrong" and then forgetting about it and not doing anything.There are serious issues involved. I do not want to try to interpret the motives of the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) and his concern about the case that he raised. I cannot comment on that. The hon. Gentleman, in his emotions over that case, may have rushed too far in the new clause. I would only say, as a number of hon. Members have remarked, that if he had stopped earlier in the new clause there would have been wide support for the proposals that he makes. The Government's view that there should be discretion and freedom within local authorities has been correctly interpreted. That should be combined with greater accountability to the electorate. Many of the issues raised under publication of information are designed to cover not merely information for electorates but information for councillors and help in interpreting much of that information. To modify further the Lippmann metaphor, it may be possible to see the figures clearly as they march across the stage, but the full significance of their entrances or exits are not fully understood. That is part of the area that the Government are keen to tackle. I must say bluntly that I could not recommend the House to accept the new clause. We are concerned, however, to study methods of improving a number of areas that the hon. Member tackles. I should like to clarify the present position. The first point in the new clause deals with the inspection of minutes of committee meetings. There is an anomaly. The public have a right of admission to council and committee meetings, but only the minutes of council meetings are required to be open to inspection. That is obviously an anomaly. On the question of availability of council and committee reports, the law at present makes no requirements as to the availability of such reports, and this would create new duties for local authorities. On the question of access of councillors to documents, at the moment the councillor has a common law right to inspect such documents as may be reasonably necessary to enable him properly to perform his duties as a councillor. I accept that this is a matter for legal interpretation. The Government would expect that right to be exercised in the widest possible manner. Broadly speaking, a councillor, as a member of an authority, should have wide access to documents within that authority to enable him to discharge his proper responsibilities. The proposal that the hon. Member for Bootle has put forward falls down in a number of respects. The statement in subsection (1C) that
goes too far. We are concerned to have reasonable accountability and reasonable information. We are also concerned about the economic cost and efficiency of local authorities. I think that the House would feel that the proposal goes too far."any local government elector for the area of a local authority may inspect and make a copy of or an extract from any interim report, memoranda, letters or other documents"
In normal times, whenever they may be, when a Labour Government are in office, there are not such financial constraints on local authorities and the proposal could be accepted from an economic point of view with certain equanimity. Is the Minister aware of the way in which these financial pressures have changed the whole approach to documentation? In the Stoke-on-Trent authority, all reports are now typed on A4 size paper and then, with the advanced technology now available, are reduced to half that size. That saves an enormous amount of money. Only a certain number of copies are produced for councillors. I hope that if the Minister accepts part of the new clause and makes it possible for a more generous distribution of the documentation he will make the appropriate adjustment in the rate support grant or block grant.
I wondered how long it would be before Stoke-on-Trent reared its familiar head. I welcome the hon. Member back to our discussions, since we enjoyed his contribution in Committee.The issue of cost arises. One must examine the implications of such a new clause. In a county council area, is it adequate for documents to be available only in the county hall? The problem of distribution to more distant parts of the county is important. The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell) referred discreetly to another aspect. The new clause makes no mention of protection for council officials against the law of defamation. If an internal report is made available generally officers will not present a frank report based on their best confidential advice because they have no cover. The hon. Member for Bootle said that there was clear evidence of maladministration. The local government ombudsman has the power to investigate and obtain documents for an investigation into maladministration.
The Minister says that there is a common law right to inspect documents. Does that apply to Scotland? Perhaps his neighbour on the Front Bench, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, will know—or perhaps he will not.
The answer to the second part of the right hon. Gentleman's question apparently is "No". I shall seek advice.Hon. Members have said that the proposal relating to proceedings being open to the public might lead to proliferation of sub-committees. Hon. Members might think that the new clause covers that, but it does not. Sub-committees are not covered. That provides another palpable loophole and another incentive to create yet more sub-committees.
I accept that the wording of the new clause does not cover the point, because we are approaching the realm of sub sub-committees. The wording could be revised. In principle, are the Government in agreement with the proposition that meetings of sub-committees should be open to the public on the same basis as meetings of committees?
The Government are sympathetic, but a council is not like Parliament. It has executive and personnel functions, and a number of different responsibilities. It is not merely a debating chamber or legislature.Our policy is to ensure greater accountability and more open government at all levels. The general public will no longer accept tablets handed down from on high, whether from the Government or councils. There must be fuller discussion of controversial issues. I am sorry that I cannot accept the new clause. However, the Government are sympathetic to the first part of it. It would be wrong, and contrary to our policy, to take action without fuller consultation with the local authority associations. It might be said that vested interests will not wish to respond. In my discussions with local authorities I have found a recognition of the need to improve arrangements. We should like to consider these matters further and see whether we can bring the proposals before the House later. I am not talking of the possibility of introducing amendments in another place, because we need more time for discussion than that would allow.
I welcome the spirit in which the House has debated the new clause. The three parties have welcomed its intention. Doubts have been expressed about the wording. Before I came to the House I was a social worker and city councillor; not a lawyer. I hope that the Government will be true to their word and draft a provision that is technically and legally accurate and that meets the view expressed by all sides. I, too, am sceptical about local government response. We heard the true voice of local government vested interest in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Cant). I hope that the Government will stick to the Minister's undertaking. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.
New Clause 19
Compensation For Loss Of Office, Etc Pursuant To Part Xvi Of Act
The following paragraph shall be inserted after paragraph ( d) in subsection (3) of section 259 of the Local Government Act 1972 (Compensation for loss of office)—
"(e) the provisions of Part XVI (Urban development) of the Local Government Planning and Land Act 1980 or of any order made or direction given thereunder;" and, accordingly, in relation to any regulations required to be made in pursuance of such paragraph (e) of subsection (3) of the said section 259—
(i) in subsection (1) of that section for the words "such body or such Minister" there shall be deemed to be substituted the words "such urban development corporation"; (ii) the reference in the said subsection (1) to any provision of that Act or of any instrument made thereunder shall be deemed to be a reference to any provision of Part XVI (Urban development) of this Act or of any order made or direction given thereunder; and (iii) subsection (4) of that section shall not have effect.—[Mr. Neil Thorne.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this we may dis- cuss new clause 20—Compensation (Part XV).
The purpose of the new clause is to ensure that anyone who is at present in the employ of a predecessor authority shall be compensated for loss of office if he is not appointed to the staff of a new urban development corporation. This has been the common practice in recent years in any local government reorganisation, and similar provisions should be made in this case.Frequently, local authorities are anxious to second staff for such development projects which might not at first attract urban development corporation designation. Good staff will not be encouraged to accept the flexibility and challenge offered unless they know that their jobs will be available when they return. It would be a shame if they were reluctant to take up the challenge, particularly as local government staff are often seconded for a considerable time, and promotion is sometimes gained thereby. Naturally, when such staff need to return to the job that they left it is inappropriate for them to return on the original basis. I hope that the Government will support my new clause.
New clause 20 is important. I suspect that the Government are attempting to shuffle out of responsibilities which they have as a direct consequence of the Bill. In a nutshell, the responsibilities relate to the rights of public servants who are employees of the New Towns Commission or of development corporations and who are liable to suffer redundancy as a direct consequence of clause 15.The Government and Parliament have a responsibility to such public servants. I shall seek to show that the responsibility can be properly discharged only by the payment of compensation to people who are put in a worse position as a result of the Bill. That can be done by the payment of what is known as the Crombie code to all those adversely affected. The code originates from 1947, when the then Government had to make compensation provisions for redundancies as a result of nationalising industries, and as a result of local government reorganisation. The existing code, which dated from 1888, was thought to be too generous. The Crombie committee was, therefore, set up by the Treasury to make recommendations for a new code. The recommendations of that committee were accepted, and they provided the framework of a code of compensation that has survived, in essentials, ever since. The code applies only in cases of statutory intervention. That is an important point, to which I shall later refer. The code was applied, for instance, to the massive local government reorganisation undertaken by statutory intervention, as it was to the reorganisation of the National Health Service. That was another piece of statutory reorganisation. The code's latest application is in the GLC housing compensation regulations of 1980. I understand that about 90 orders have been laid, covering 10 to 12 Government Departments. For the new towns, it is pertinent to mention that the Crombie code was applied to those who suffered loss as a consequence of the transfer of new town housing to local authorities, which was made possible by the New Town Amendment Act 1976. The Secretary of State makes the regulation with the consent of the Minister for the Civil Service, who acts as arbiter ensuring, among other things, that Departments do not outbid each other in the award of compensation. I shall not detain the House with a lengthy recital of the details of the code, but I think I should mention two important aspects. The code involves three stages, each with its own qualifying conditions. They are resettlement, long-term compensation and retirement. The basic principle is to relate the compensation in each case as precisely as possible to the loss that an individual sustains as a consequence of a statutory change made by the Government and Parliament. Therefore, though its terms are reasonably generous they are related strictly and stringently in each case to the circumstances of the redundant person. It is not—and I repeat "not"—a golden handshake. I consider next whether the Crombie code terms are applicable under the Bill. Does the Bill constitute the kind of statutory intervention that is liable adversely to affect the career prospects of individuals currently employed by development corporations and the Commission for the New Towns? I argue that the answer is "Yes" on two counts. The first is that in clause 110(2) there appear the words:
that is of land—"The power of disposal"—
Those words, in effect, override words contained in the New Towns Act 1965, section 18(1), to the effect that disposals by corporations may take place."by virtue of this section may be exercised notwithstanding anything in the 1965 Act".
The House knows why the Government wish to supersede those words. It is because of their stated objective of selling off new town assets without any regard to purposes connected with the development of the new town. That may be done to reduce the public sector borrowing requirement or to repay the taxpayer some of his forced investment—as it was recently described by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment—or for any other purposes which the Minister may consider or which may occur to him at some future time. The point is that the law is being significantly changed to facilitate the disposal of new town industrial and commercial assets. Such disposal can have only damaging effects on the career prospects of those presently employed to manage those assets. Clause 111 permits the Secretary of State to reduce the size of a designated area of a new town by order. It is not possible to do that now. I do not pass any judgment or express a view on the wisdom of that provision, but it will, as in the previous case, significantly alter the parameters in which new town employees are employed—to their possible detriment. 5.45 pm Both those powers can, and certainly will, lead to less available work in many new towns, and therefore to redundancy among those who took up appointments in the new towns. When I asked a question about this the Minister for Housing and Construction replied on 22 May in a written answer."as they consider expedient for securing the development of the new town in accordance with proposals approved by the Minister … or for purposes connected with the development of the new town:"
With respect, that will not do. The situation of the staff about whom I am talking is parallel to that of housing staff who were affected by the 1976 Act and who receive Crombie code compensation. If it is argued that currently employed staff never had long-term security because it was never envisaged that the development corporations would last for more than about 15 years, the same argument must apply to housing staff. If it is argued that the housing staff redundancies were not foreseen and that something had to be done urgently, the same argument must apply in this case. An issue arose as a result of the reappraisal of the new towns programme by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) in 1977 and the redundancies that flowed from that, but there could not be any question of Crombie code compensation on that occasion because there had been no statutory intervention, which acts like a trigger in the operation of the code. It was unfortunate that nothing could be done except to apply existing management redundancy terms. This case involves legislation and I maintain that the Government have no alternative, in equity, but to extend Crombie code cover to those staff whose careers will be adversely affected by this legislation and by this piece of statutory intervention. In my search for a suitable form of words to cover the case and to provide an appropriate new clause I came across the words contained in schedule 18, paragraph 6(2) and (3). Those words apply to the employees of the Land Authority for Wales. Why are those employees treated in that way, while the employees of the new towns are not? It is clear that the Government have not turned their backs on the Crombie code, or they would not be using it for the Land Authority for Wales. I do not see how I can interpret the answer given by the Minister for Housing and Construction. He said to me on 30 June:"New town legislation has always provided for the dissolution of development corporations, and so the terms of the Crombie code are not applicable to their staff."—[Official Report, 23 May 1980; Vol. 985, c. 361.]
If employees of the Land Authority for Wales get it, surely new town employees should get it also."It is the view of the Government that the existing day-to-day management redundancy terms should be applied."—[Official Report, 30 June 1980; Vol. 987, c. 438.]
I have listened with interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) and to the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Barnett). In answer to the hon. Gentleman, I have to say that we do not believe that the numbers of careers affected and the numbers of redundancies will be of the scope that he imagines. That has a considerable bearing on what I wish to say about these new clauses.Both the new clauses propose the making of regulations to protect the interests of staff made redundant or who suffer loss or diminution of emoluments. The first concerns those affected by the setting up of the urban development corporations on Merseyside and in London. The second is concerned with the disposal of assets in new towns and reductions in their designated areas. The Government do not believe that such regulations are necessary. In the first place, there are very few staff who are likely to be affected by these developments. In Merseyside, there is little, if any, overlap between the functions of the new urban development corporation and the existing local authorities. In London, the shadow UDC is actively exploring ways of ensuring that it is able to make use of appropriate skills whenever and wherever they are available, including the docklands development organisation. In the new towns, similarly, few, if any, staff will be affected by the proposals for disposal of assets and reduction in designated areas. Secondly, there are already in existence terms that provide for the payment of compensation to staff employed in local government or the new towns who may be made redundant or lose their employment in the interests of the efficient exercise of management functions. We believe that these powers are adequate to cover any redundancies that may arise and that no further powers are necessary. From that, I hope that the House will realise that the best practices that are followed now, and have been followed for some time, will apply in this case. I cannot accept the suggestion that the Government are trying to shuffle out of their responsibility in this matter. The history of Crombie was recited to us by the hon. Member for Greenwich. The Government do not see the need for the Crombie code today, as there was a need in the past, given that good management compensation terms are now available to cover most groups of employees. In the case that the hon. Gentleman cited, that of the Land Authority for Wales, he will accept that it was some time ago when that concession was given. We are talking about any future decisions in these matters. The people employed in the docklands development organisation could transfer back to the Greater London Council, or, alternatively, would, like the contract staff, have a good chance of being recruited. I am sure that note will be taken of that. The Government will resist both of the new clauses.
The House has listened to the most unsatisfactory reply that I have heard in almost any debate during a Report stage. I attempted to advance views, which are sincerely held by the individuals involved, to show why they should be properly compensated. It it not an argument for the Minister to use that there may be only a few individuals involved. If one man is being unjustly treated, that is a serious matter. The Minister should know that when the housing transfer took place, relatively few people qualified for Crombie code treatment. Nevertheless, they were justly treated. What I was arguing was that the situation of these people differs in no way from the situation of those who were made redundant as a consequence of the housing transfer.The Minister referred to normal day-to-day redundancy terms, as I did, but surely he knows that the redundancy terms to which he referred are significantly inferior to the Crombie code terms, which are designed to compensate an employee for the loss that he sustains as a consequence of legislation. Also, I am surprised that the Minister regards the Crombie code, because of my recital of its history, as out of date. He is inaccurate about the Land Authority for Wales. The provision is in the Bill in order to protect the employees of the Land Authority for Wales in the future. What I am asking is that the Government should go away and consider this matter carefully and, if necessary, meet the employee organisations which are directly involved, with a view to seeking a proper solution to this serious matter. The Minister has given me no arguments at all to show why the Government should refuse to accept the responsibility which I believe that they have.
I confess that I am rather disappointed by the reply of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, because in Committee he was usually extremely helpful. In this case, we should not overlook any of the people concerned who have been involved in working for predecessor authorities. I believe that my hon. Friend mentioned the joint docklands committee. I might be misinformed, but I understand that the chairman of that body has been replaced under the new organisation. Therefore, there is already one case in point in which someone has lost his office as a result of the new proposals.It seems wrong that we are not looking after these officials because of the bad will that this will create for the future. We must think of the future and of any other similar happenings that may take place. We should not want to find that we could not get adequate staff to provide the service required. I hope that before the Bill goes to another place the Minister will undertake to look again at this matter, so that when it returns here he can assure us that it will contain the power to compensate officials properly by some other means, if it is not to be done through the new clause. It is only on that basis that I am prepared to withdraw the new clause. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.
Mr. Speaker listened with care to what the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) said on the his point of order earlier this afternoon, and he has asked me to say that he has selected for debate new clause 22.
New Clause 22
Local Discretion In Defining "Material Change Of Use"
The following subsection shall be inserted after subsection (3) of section 22 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 (meaning of "development"):
"(3A) A local planning authority may in any local plan prepared by that authority under Part II of this Act designate the whole or part of the area to which that plan relates as an area in which the use for any other purpose of any building previously used as an only or main residence shall be treated for the purposes of this section as involving a material change in the use of the building.".—[Mr. Wigley.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to take new clause 23—Change of use of an only or main residence—and new clause 24—Change of use of only or main residence in National Parks and area of outstanding natural beauty, etc. We may also take the following amendments:
No. 234, in schedule 11, page 134, line 36, at end insert—
"1. The following paragraph shall be inserted after subsection (3)(a) of section 22 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 (meaning of "development"):—
'(aa) The use for any other purpose of any other building previously used as an only or main residence involves a material change in the use of the building.'"
No. 235, in page 134, line 36, at end insert—
'1. The following subsection shall be inserted after subsection (3) of section 22 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 (meaning of "development"):—
"(3A) The use for any other purpose of any building previously used as an only or main residence shall be treated for the purposes of this section, as involving material change in the use of the building.".'.
I am very grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the fact that this matter has been facilitated, because it is of considerable concern.I have been catapulted into the debate rather more quickly than I had anticipated when I raised the point of order, but I shall take the maximum opportunity that I can, in case I lose it later. The question of second homes and holiday homes is a vexed one. In certain parts of Wales it is very vexed. I hesitate to say that it is a burning issue; unfortunately, it has caused incidents of arson over recent months in Wales. No hon. Member would condone that sort of approach; none the less, the fact that there are people who are driven to that sort of end illustrates the depth and strength of feeling that exists in certain areas on the question of holiday homes. The reason for this may not be appreciated fully by hon. Members who represent urban areas, although those who represent rural areas will probably have come across it. In an area such as Gwynedd, my area, there are about 7,600 second homes, according to the latest figures that we have had. There are also about 5,000 families on the waiting list for local authority housing. It is often asked "Why do not those people who are looking for housing buy the homes that become second homes when they can buy them on the open market?" The reality is that, because of the levels of wages and incomes in the area, which are anything between 15 per cent. and 30 per cent. below the United Kingdom average, it is imposible for people earning ordinary wages to compete with people from the richer cities who want to buy holiday homes. Those people from the richer cities may be from Manchester, Liverpool or Birmingham. They may well be from Cardiff. Therefore, one is not saying that it is a problem of people coming only from England into Wales; it is a problem of people coming into rural areas. The problem exists in a severe form in the Lake District, so much so that that district has been forced to take steps itself to try to combat the problem. The fact that it has taken steps that may not have a formal legislative background illustrates the need for the House and the Government to approach the problem constructively and to find a solution. Interestingly enough, there was an instance only last December of a planning application being turned down in the Poole area. An appeal was upheld when Poole council had refused an application for planning permission on the basis of a change of use. I believe that that instance concerned holiday flats. The question to which my colleagues and I tried to square up on this issue is how we can find a constructive and practical solution that will give the maximum degree of freedom at local level. It is patently clear that some of the houses that become second homes and holiday homes would not be inhabited otherwise. Some of them may be on the tops of mountains, or in woodlands. Others, however, are in the centres of villages, and even towns. When there is a high level of second homes in such areas in Gwynedd one sees the devastating effect on the social, cultural and economic life of the community. The community can change overnight in its nature, and for large parts of the year the village can be totally dead. 6 pm The figures for the Dwyfor area, in my constituency, show that in 1977 in the village of Beddgelert 30 per cent. of the houses were second homes. The figure is probably higher now. In the village of Llanengan virtually half of the houses—46·6 per cent.—are second or holiday homes. We know of instances in other areas where the figure is almost 100 per cent., and some villages have changed almost entirely to second homes. It is possible that the problems are worse in the villages that have moved half way towards second homes than in those villages that have changed entirely to second homes—but it is sad to see a village that has changed entirely. In the village of Llanbedrog, which has been a thriving community, 33 per cent. of its housing stock is second homes. How can the housing stock of an area be managed in a way that gives priority to the needs of people to have first homes, before allowing any residual stock to be sold as holiday or second homes? Most would agree that a priority for any civilised community should be to ensure that every family has a roof over its head. Over and above that, if there is housing stock in excess it could be used in different ways—and holiday homes may be one of those uses. The holiday industry is important in such areas as Gwynedd. But the first priority should be to ensure that people have first homes before the houses become second homes. How can that be achieved? There are a number of ways in which the problem can be approached. One way that has been advocated but which would not appeal to the Government is that local authorities should buy more of the housing stock in those areas and rent the houses to people on the waiting list. That suggestion has been experimented with, and houses have been bought in areas such as Dwyfor and Arfon during the past four or five years. The amount of money needed for that meaningful solution to the overall problem is immense. Given the thrust of Government policy in the other directon for selling council houses, I do not imagine that I shall receive a favourable response to that suggestion from the Government Front Bench. An alternative way of approaching the problem would be to get a determination on the use of the housing stock at a local level. The way proposed in these belt-and-braces new clauses and amendments which use different forms of words for the same objective—we do not mind which one is pressed, provided that there is movement in one direction—is that the change in use from a house that is a first home—a primary or main home—to a second home—not the main or primary home—should be treated as a material change in the use of that building. There are precedents for trying to distinguish between first homes and second homes. The Housing Act 1974 draws that distinction in payment of grants. There is a similar distinction in one of the Finance Acts. We are not breaking new ground by suggesting that there should be a distinction between a main residence and those used for other purposes. We would like local authorities in the areas concerned to be able to take a decision on any specific change of use. A planning application should be submitted on a house that changes from being a primary house, lived in all the year round, to a holiday or second home. If that house is on the top of a mountain, or in an area where the reason for the community's existence—such as a quarry, which has closed—no longer applies and the houses are in excess of requirements, and if there is no valid reason for that house being needed for a first home, the local authority will be in a position to know that. It would not be unreasonable for it to say that that house could become a holiday home. Likewise, in areas where there are large demands for first homes from the indigenous population, the local authority could draw the line and say that there should not be a material change of use for a specific building. There are several ways of doing that. New clause 22 asks for local discretion in defining material change of use. We try to do that in a slightly different way in new clause 23, by adding to the end of section 22(1) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 the words:
In new clause 24 we have recognised what the Government themselves recognised in this year's Housing Bill, namely, that there are problems in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, etcetera. "Etcetera" is the word that appears in the Housing Bill. The Government recognised that in some such areas council houses should not be sold. Therefore, the Government have already moved towards acknowledging the existence of the problem. New clause 24 provides the same definition that the Government have deemed appropriate in the context of the Housing Bill, and applied it to section 22 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. That will bring in the need for a change of use application. The amendments have the same purpose, but approach the problem in a different way by adding new words to existing provisions. The problem is a real one. Given the developments that we have seen in Wales over recent months, everyone in Wales, of all political parties, looks to Parliament to show an initiative to meet the problem. The problem has a special Welsh element, but it is not confined to Wales. There are hon. Members from other areas who feel strongly about this issue—and they are Members of all parties. I hope that tonight the Government will show that they are aware of the existence of the problem and are willing to move in a direction that will give reasonable control, so that the emotions that we have seen recently will cool down. If they do that, people will see that a constructive and realistic answer can be forthcoming from Parliament, and that Parliament is not oblivious of the problem or unwilling to tackle it."(including the use for any other purpose of any building previously used as an only or main residence)".'.
I am delighted that Mr. Speaker changed his mind and allowed these clauses to be debated. The hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) is to be congratulated upon raising the subject under the Bill. It concerns my constituency, and I know that if my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) were here he, too, would wish to speak about the matter.The solution that has been suggested is one that has been suggested from the Liberal Bench on previous occasions. The Government must act in this area. We understand—the hon. Member for Caernarvon was fair on this matter—how the build-up of second homes in Wales, in my constituency, in the West country and elsewhere, has taken place. It is quite legitimate. As an auctioneer I have sold property in the past for very little money—property such as coastguard cottages, which I sold for as little as £1,000 or £1,500. The people who bought those cottages spent a great deal of money on them, both in bringing services to them and in modernising them. In many ways they have done a service to the community. Those times have changed. For example, when that happened on the Isle of Wight, the population was 92,000 and going down. It is now approaching 120,000 and going up, and house prices have gone through the roof. Certainly, nowadays one cannot buy many properties for under £15,000 or £16,000, and they are properties that used to sell at £600 or £700 when I first went to the Isle of Wight nearly 30 years ago. Understandably, feelings are building up, in that people see themselves priced out of the property market and unable to get a home from the local authority because the waiting lists are getting longer and the housing investment programmes have been cut by successive Governments—indeed, almost cut to ribbons by the present Government. I am sure that the Government must be aware of this fact, but the warning must be given that, unless it is seen that some action is being taken to prevent a continual build-up of the second home saga, people not only in Wales but in parts of England will start to take the law into their own hands. Therefore, the hon. Member for Caernarvon has put a valid point before the House. Another problem is that village communities are virtually disappearing. I remember canvassing in the village of Brook during a county council election. I went along a terrace of eight cottages, of which only one was occupied permanently. I imagine that the average age of the people in that village is now about 70. Hardly any young people are left. The only time at which there are any number of people there is during the months of July, August and September. If the Government cannot accept the approach that has been suggested they should at least give an indication that they will bear it in mind and try to do something about it. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, this problem has already been dealt with in taxation. Capital gains tax is paid on second homes. I think that I am also right in saying that some recognition has been given to this in the Housing Bill, in that council houses in rural areas which are purchased by tenants must first be offered back to the authority. Therefore, the Government have already taken this matter on board. They will have to do more if feelings are not to run too high and action be taken which we might all regret. I do not want to see a return to squatting, but I suggest that that is what ultimately will happen if we do not tackle the problem of second homes. I strongly support what was said by the hon. Member for Caernarvon, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give a constructive answer to the suggestions that have been put forward.
I hope that in the remarks that I shall make the hon. Members for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) and Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) will not think that I am minimising the problem or the sensitive situation that exists in many parts of the country. I fully understand the deep concern of many of our constituents, and I shall certainly make sure that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction is aware of what has been said.Of course, in many areas our planning laws are specific. As I am sure all hon. Members know, a change in the use of an only residence or a main residence which resulted in the house or flat ceasing to be used as a single dwelling would, under current planning law, already normally be a material change of use requiring planning permission. The new clauses would go further—the hon. Gentleman accepts that—by providing that a property that had been a single dwelling and remained a single dwelling would nevertheless need planning permission, because it ceased to be the only or main residence of its occupier. I think that I interpret the hon. Gentleman's contribution correctly. I cannot support the new clause. It would represent an unacceptable intrusion by the State into the housing market and a major extension of the role of the planning system. The hon. Gentleman's intention is to bring second homes within planning control, but the new clause would go much further than that. For example, it would bite particularly hard on landlords of privately rented property, who could find themselves liable to enforcement action if a new tenant were not using the dwelling as his only or main residence. The clause would also introduce anomalies, in that, although it might not prevent a house from being bought as a retirement home for immediate use, it might prevent someone from buying a house shortly before retirement with the intention of retiring there in due course. I mention those only as examples of the difficulties. There is, however, a still more fundamental objection to the clause. It would introduce into planning legislation a new concept which I consider would be completely unacceptable. In effect, it would delegate to local planning authorities the power to amend the provisions of section 22 of the 1971 Act. It would mean that a local authority's provisions in a local plan would bring within planning control activities which, in the country as a whole, Parliament had decided should not require development or planning permission. 6.15 pm The hon. Member for Caernarvon drew a comparison with certain national parks. He was right in saying that in the Lake District—I think also in the Peak park—certain measures have been taken where new housing is designated for local people. Although those two national parks have taken that action, they have not as yet been challenged in court. It is perhaps open to doubt whether they are acting legally. Where a particular development is environmentally acceptable in some areas but not others, the situation can be dealt with by the use of development orders under section 24 of the 1971 Act. These are subject to parliamentary procedure. I do not consider it acceptable that local authorities should, in effect, be given the power to amend Acts of Parliament, or that such a fundamental incursion into the rights of individuals to use and dispose of their properties as they wish should be delegated in that way to local planning authorities. The hon. Gentleman was very fair and accepted that there was no way in which the Government would be in the business of buying up more homes. Indeed, in planning terms as well, our policy is to reduce public sector activities as far as possible. I regret to have to tell the hon. Member that what he has suggested is out of place in a Bill of this kind, the prime aim of which is to reduce controls. Indeed, it contains a number of measures, which we shall eventually discuss, to speed up the whole planning process. I take note of the strong feelings that have been expressed. Certainly, the Government will watch very carefully any further developments in this area.
I am sorry that the Minister was not able to go further than he has tonight. Frankly, it is not enough to watch developments. Developments are already taking place in Wales. There have already been 40 incidents of arson. I would have thought that what has already happened would be enough to make the Government realise that this problem must be tackled now and that it is not one to be watched in the future. As I have said, it is not a problem just in Wales.I believe that there are certain times and circumstances—I believe that the Government accept this as well—when one needs regulations. This is one of those times. One does not want regulations for their own sake; one wants regulations and controls because a problem exists. A problem exists in the county of Gwynedd because 4,000 or 5,000 families cannot get homes. From the response that we have had tonight, the message that will go back loud and clear is that no answer will be forthcoming from the Government to these problems. Frankly, that will be greeted with considerable dismay in my area. I believe that the Government should and could have gone further in what was said tonight. Had they done so, it would have helped to defuse the problem. In closing the door on any possibility of moving in the direction that I have suggested—I regret to use these terms—they are fanning the flames, which is highly regrettable and irresponsible. I use that word advisedly, because their response will aggravate the problem rather than solve it. As the Minister has said, the Lake District has taken the law into its own hands because of the nature of the problem. It may or may not be acting ultra vires; it has not been challenged in the courts. That is my understanding of the position as well. Surely that underlines to the Government the strength of feeling that exists in responsible local authorities in areas such as the Lake District. In Wales, in addition to the rural problems, we have the linguistic and cultural dimension. If in areas such as the Lake District people are taking the law into their own hands, surely the Government should be making a better response than they have tonight to these problems. When opening the short debate I mentioned Poole. The local authority there has raised the question whether there is a material change of use when a block of flats become holiday flats rather than accommodation that is used all the year round. There again we see responsible people who recognise the reality of a problem in their own area and who feel that something needs to be done about it. The Government's attitude tonight is that they will do nothing about the problem. That is the message that I shall have to take back to Gwynedd—that the Government intend to do nothing about the problem. I shall ask Opposition Members—I hope that they will be joined by some Conservative Members from rural areas—to respond by dividing the House.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State responded very sympathetically to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley), and it is not fair for the hon. Gentleman to pursue the charge that he has made against the Government. We all admire and respect the ingenuity with which he has been able to raise a serious matter under the Bill. As an old and experienced hon. Member he knows perfectly well that the issue that he is raising is a housing issue.The problems that the hon. Gentleman described are present in my own constituency. I understand them perfectly well. I agree with him that they are very serious problems. But, as I have already indicated, he has used his ingenuity in order to raise the matter in the context of planning law. Until his last-minute appeal to Mr. Speaker, it was not thought that he would be successful in raising the question on the Floor of the House. It is unfair for the hon. Gentleman to say that the Government have totally rejected consideration of the problem. It is unfair for him to suggest that we are fanning the flames. He was perfectly entitled to raise the matter in the way that he did, but he seems in some ways to have been exploiting the difficulty that we face. Technically, he has been able to raise a serious housing issue in the planning context of the Bill now before the House. In these circumstances, it is not fair for him to allege that there has been a total rejection of his proposals. We have sought to respond sympathetically and to explain, why, technically, we could not accept the amendments.
I hear what the Minister says. On 20 December, just before Christmas, my hon. Friend the Member for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas) and I had a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Wales—the hon. Member for Conway (Mr. Roberts)—to explore ways of tackling the problem. Two ways were suggested at that meeting. One was by amendments to the Housing Bill, which was then going through Parliament; the other was by amendments to this Bill. Both were regarded as possibilities. It is for that reason that these amendments have been brought forward today. If the Government speak with one voice in one place and with another voice in another place, that is not my fault.We tabled amendments to the Housing Bill. We were given to understand that it was more of a planning problem than a housing problem, and we were told that the amendments would not be called. Now that we have tabled amendments to this Bill, the buck is tossed back the other way. Our argument is that the Government can respond, even though they may not accept the technical wording of the amendment or even our approach to the problem. They can still respond, because the Bill is going through this House and the Housing Bill is going through another place. The Government could say that they are willing to consider the matter in relation to either of the two Bills. I do not mind which one it is, provided that something is done about it. It is because the Government are not prepared to meet us here and have no intention of meeting us on the other Bill that I have accused them of being complacent. How am I to explain that attitude in my constituency? What message am I to take back to the people who are concerned with the problem and who are living with it from week to week? It is of concern not only to the families who do not have homes but to the people who have second homes. A satisfactory solution to the problem must be found, but from what I understand, no answer is forthcoming from the Government. They have nothing to offer as an alternative way forward. If they did, I should be only too willing to withdraw my words of accusation. I hoped that the Government would provide a glimmer of light, but there is none. It is no use the Minister's accusing me of using inflammatory language. It is an inflammatory problem. I am living with it in my constituency. I have constituents who have been taken into custody by the police for the activities that have taken place in the last few months. This is a very real problem, and no answer whatever has been forthcoming from the Government Front Bench. That is why I get annoyed about it. I am still hoping that the Government Front Bench will say that they will look at the problem, if not in terms of this Bill, then next year. I am hoping that they will consider the possibility of some other form of legislation that would ameliorate the problem, perhaps by making legal the kind of step taken in the Lake District and elsewhere. Will the Government give any assurance at all that they will consider any other approach to the problem?
The hon. Gentleman knows something of how government works and the problems involved. The amendments were tabled late last week, on the Report stage of the Bill, at a time when there were already a considerable number of other amendments on a major policy issue.The hon. Gentleman put his point perfectly fairly. We shall consider the matter. I shall have discussions with my right hon. and hon. Friends in order to see what further suggestions can be made. That is the positive way to approach the matter. It needs discussion across Government, because a number of issues are involved. It needs preparation; it cannot be done by a fairly late amendment to a Bill. The hon. Gentleman was ingenious and correct in getting the amendments before the House, but it was hardly fair to describe the Government's conduct as outrageous because they had not produced a complete policy to deal with the problem. Having given the hon. Gentleman that assurance. I hope that he will regard it as a reasonable response to his request.
I am grateful to the Minister for that response. The reason why there were no amendments tabled in Committee was, of course, that my party was not represented on the Committee; in fact, there were no hon. Members from Wales on the Committee dealing with the Bill. That is the simple reason, presumably, why the problem did not raise its head before. I put forward the matter on Report in consequence of discussions that we have had with branches of Government. But if the Minister is willing to enter into meaningful discussion on a cross-party basis, to try to find a way of answering the problem, I shall be prepared to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
I used the phrase "across Government". There are a number of different aspects to the problem.
I take the Minister's point. Obviously it would have to be across Government, because there are different Departments involved. I assume that there would be an opportunity for other parties to make their representations, in the hope that, not in this parliamentary year but perhaps in the next, there may be progress towards achieving a solution to this vexed problem.I am happier now that there is some light that I can take back to the area. If I needed to raise my voice, it was in order to get that assurance, and not to aggravate the problem. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.
Relaxation Of Ministerial Control Of Authorities
I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 2, line 30, leave out subsection (5).
With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments:
No. 2, in page 2, line 31, after 'effect', insert
'(but not before January 1st 1982)'.
No. 224, in page 123, line 39, leave out Schedule 5.
We now come to the main body of the Bill. The first two amendments and the later amendment are not tabled in order to persuade the Government that they ought to take more interest in, or to have more sympathy with, the allotments movement. We were grateful in Committee for the fact that the Minister of State and the Government responded to several suggestions that we made to stay the hand of the Government in repealing certain enactments. We therefore start this short debate not at cross purposes with the Government, because they believe, as we do, that the allotments movement is one that ought to be fostered and encouraged.The House needs to be reminded that the genesis of the Government's intentions in this respect, as in many others that were sought to be repealed, comes from the oft-trumpeted cry of the Government, and particularly the Secretary of State, that it was their intention to leave everything to local people because the local people know best. I have no doubt that a great many people in the House would subscribe to that maxim. The question that was raised time and again in Committee was whether local authorities could be trusted to act in the local and national interests on allotments. The rationale of schedule 5 and clause 1 is that local authorities can be trusted, but trusted against the background that they would accept the obligation under section 23 of the 1908 Act. That obligation is
The country must grapple with the question of whether, against the legislative safeguard and assertion that local authorities are under an obligation to provide a sufficient number of allotments, the record shows that they have. 6.30 pm The picture as to the size of the allotment movement is patchy. One of the reasons for our sadness has been the inability of the Government and local authorities to monitor fully and faithfully the extent to which there is an allotment movement. In 1969 it was estimated that there were about 560,000 allotments covering 60,000 acres of land. By 1977, the number had declined to 498,000 allotments covering 50,000 acres. Every year during the 1970s the country lost 72,000 acres of land as a result of development and road building. It is not possible to leave either to local authorities or to the Government on a loose rein an obligation to provide a sufficient number of allotments if that is the yardstick against which we measure. I ask the Government to stay their hand on the repeals listed in the schedule, and speed up the updating of the recommendations of the Thorpe report. The Government submitted to the Committee proposals for the repeal of 10 Acts which they felt were superfluous to the task of local authorities and the Government. I remind the House that in Committee the Government decided to drop one of the repeals that were sought. We argued strongly about that, and the Government conceded that they were willing to grant the repeal. The Government resisted all the other amendments. The amendments include questions of how money that is obtained from the disposal of allotment land should be used. We say that it should be used to improve and extend the allotments. The Government believe that that should be left to the discretion of local people. The Under-Secretary of State must consider, in the context of what I believe is a terrorising climate that the Government are visiting upon local authorities in their determination to cut, slash, revise and repeal—given the opportunity that this repeal would allow to sell allotment land—a temptation to sell some land. Having sold the land, and diminished the amount of land available for allotments, the local authority may then decide to use the money for other purposes. In Committee we were told that there is a legal obligation within the legislation for the provision of allotments, but without legislative safeguards—the schedule does away with the legislative safeguards—the legislative obligation is simply paying lip service to the law. In Committee we said that we were unhappy that section 54 of the 1908 Act was to be repealed. That provides a statutory obligation to keep separate allotment accounts. The Government consider that there is no need in the 1980s for an authority to keep separate allotment accounts. That sits rather strange with a Government who later, in clause 2, insist upon local authorities not only keeping accounts but publishing them and making information as widely available as possible. So much for open government. On the one hand, the Government are professing to open the books and to train the searchlight on town halls, but, on the other they intend to remove the present safeguards. That is not only retrograde; it is hypocritical. The Government are saying that experience has proved that some of these legislative safeguards are seldom, if ever, used and that, therefore, they can be repealed. That overlooks the fact that the reason why these safeguards are seldom used is often simply that they are there. One does not dispense with a watchdog simply because it has never been called into action, and one does not repeal legislation simply because no one has had the need to use it. Often it is a powerful safeguard simply because it exists. It is the duty of Parliament to ensure that the minority interests—allotment holders are minority interests—are protected. Whose job is it to encourage the allotment movement? Who has the job of making better use of waste land and getting better value out of our land? Who has the job of encouraging recreational gardens? I turn now to the gravamen of the Opposition amendment. We are not saying that there is not a need for the repeal of some aspects of the allotment legislation. The Thorpe report was commissioned by the Labour Government in the 1960s, and it was published in 1969. It is not to our credit, nor is it to the credit of the Government, that it has taken about 10 years for the Thorpe report to be re-examined. The Minister told the Committee that the Government were minded to look seriously at the question whether now was the time to update the Thorpe report and bring forward legislation in a suitable form. The Minister said:"to provide a sufficient number of allotments."
If there is not an open door, at least the Government are sympathetic to the need for comprehensive legislation. But the Minister went a little too far when he told the Committee that this radical reforming Administration were looking at the matter seriously. We want the Government not only to look at it seriously but to give us a commitment that they will legislate. We think that it is better to wait a little longer, to bring the Thorpe report's recommendations out of the 1960s into the 1980s, to take on the main thrust of the Thorpe report and to legislate along a number of lines. For example, one of the Thorpe report's recommendations—there are over 40 such recommendations—is to abolish the term "allotments" and to replace it with the term "leisure gardens". I do not think that there could be any exception to that. It wants to create established and non-established sites, to oblige authorities to provide established leisure gardens at the rate of half an acre per thousand population and to register leisure gardens with the Department of the Environment so that we may know precisely the size. It wants each local authority to have a strategic plan to develop and to improve leisure gardens. It wants to improve communications and participation between authorities and gardeners and it wants gardeners to accept their obligations. Incidentally, recommendation No. 42 suggests that a leisure gardens authority."At present we are considering comprehensive legislation to take in the Thorpe report. There has been in the background of the Government's thinking for some time what is called a recreational gardening Bill."—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 12 February 1980; c. 46.]
A number of people—one might call them small, but I know that the Minister would not say that they were unimportant—have taken a great interest in this matter. I received a letter from the editor of The Racing Pigeon in which he said:"should be permitted, if it so desires, to set aside special areas of land for the keeping of pigeons or small livestock".
I use that as an illustration. I accept that there are many people outside the House whom the Government wish to assist. They await the outcome with a great deal of interest. In view of the welter of new regulations and requirements being imposed on local authorities, we want the Government to take more time to get the matter right. We cannot believe that councils are desperately waiting for these repeals to take place. They can be patient a little longer. The amendments will give the Government the opportunity to take a little more time and to do the job right. It is in that spirit that I commend the amendments to the House."As you may know, a number of allotments, particularly in the North, are used by racing pigeon fanciers to keep their thoroughbreds, usually with friendly relationships with the other allotment users. We are therefore concerned with the new Local Government, Planning and Land Bill".
The first public office that I held was that of chairman of the allotments sub-committee of Southampton corporation. This debate takes me back a few years. When I was first appointed to that exalted position I felt that I was in for a fairly quiet life, but I was wrong. I do not know whether any hon. Member here has served on the allotments committee of any council, but I can say that such committees often generate great passion, disagreement and interest.Why do many councils have separate allotments committees? It is because they and ordinary people regard allotments as very important. I am not happy about changing the name from "allotments" to "leisure gardens". Many people today have allotments not for leisure but to save money. With the cost of food today, someone who has an allotment can save himself a substantial amount of money. During the past few years we have built high-rise flats. Allotments have provided flat dwellers with the opportunity not only to get out and have a leisure interest but to save money. Allotments are under threat for two reasons. First, in many of our large cities where allotments are needed most there is a shortage of land. Any council looking for land tends to look first at allotments. It does not look at the parks, because they are areas of natural beauty. If a council took a piece of parkland on which to build there would be a tremendous outcry from the public, but people do not take the same general view of allotments. 6.45 pm Secondly, councils are now looking at allotment land as revenue-raising potential. For example, if they change their planning permission within their own machinery from allotment to building land, they can sell it and make a considerable sum of money, which can help their revenue. In view of the squeeze that is being levied on local authorities by the Government, local authorities are looking for every penny that they can find, and I suspect that many of them will have their eyes on allotments. I have had many representations, as have others, I am sure, from allotment associations and individuals who use and maintain allotments to do my best to save them. I should be opposed to any proposal that would weaken the position of allotment holders or associations. I believe that the Government should be able to act as an appeal body against a local authority's decision to take away or change the use of an allotment. We should keep every possible safeguard, because allotments will become even more important in future. For example, I think that allotments will grow in importance for people who live in high-rise flats. On the other hand, allotment land will be looked at with greedy eyes by authorities which may think that they can make money out of them by using them for other purposes. I support any amendment that will safeguard the position of allotments and allotmenteers.
I support everything that has been said by the hon. Members for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) and Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell).The hon. Member for Edmonton waxed eloquently at length in Committee on the subject of allotments, and he has repeated his performance today. Indeed, he has covered everything that needs to be said. I think that, largely due to his persuasive powers, the Government made an important concession in Committee when they agreed that the proposed repeal of section 8 of the Allotments Act 1925 should be taken out. I understand that authorities that now wish to sell allotment land will still have to obtain ministerial consent. That is a protection, and we are grateful for it. As the hon. Member for Itchen said, this comes at the end of the line. Of the other nine repeals, I suggest that five or six at least weaken the position of allotment holders. We know that it will be not the authorities greedily looking for allotments to sell but authorities that are desperate to raise funds which will say "Where else can we look? What can we do to save the situation"? As I suggested in Committee, chief officers will come forward with recommendations to sell allotments. Although they may come up against the Minister at the end of the line, I think that they may find ways around that problem. There is to be the repeal of section 22 of the Land Settlement (Facilities) Act 1919, which talks about the appropriation of allotment land for other purposes. Under that guise a chief officer will no doubt be able to suggest ways in which allotment land can be used without having to apply to the Minister for consent to dispose of it. He will be able to use it for other purposes—for example, leasing. I agree that this proposal weakens the position of allotment holders. I beg the Government to think again. They have a legitimate reason for withdrawing it. The Thorpe report has been lying around for about 10 years. Why not remove the whole schedule and say "We agree that this has caused great concern in the country. We feel that we ought to listen to the views of the many people who have made representations. Therefore, we shall take out this provision and consider whether we can come back with a smaller Bill in order to improve their lot"? It is important to encourage allotments. The hon. Member for Edmonton gave some figures. If we had figures that were up to date we would probably find that there was a long waiting list for allotments. Many people are desperate to get an allotment, and there is a need to provide more. The Western world may have a surplus of food, but that will not last. The projections for the world population in the years 2000 are frightening. In the next few years more people will need to grow more food for themselves. That should be encouraged. We should not take a step that would take us in the opposite direction. It should be a priority to encourage those who grow their own food. That priority will be urgent by the 1990s. I beg the Government to think again and to accept one of the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Edmonton.
I declare a family interest in an allotment. That form of recreational activity is useful and important. Allotments are particularly important, because some people are not fortunate enough to have large enough gardens in which to grow vegetables or to provide useful recreational activity.We are increasingly looking at hard accounts. We may be on a plateau of productivity. The quality of life will become even more important. That view is held by many hon. Members—if not the majority—and by the majority of the population. The Government of the day—whatever their political colour—are responsible, and must not do anything to diminish the opportunities for qualitative activities such as gardening. Indeed, such opportunities should be increased. Although I welcome the Bill's amended form, it still represents a threat. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell) and the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) made it clear that land given to gardeners many years ago may become a source of speculation by hard-pressed local authorities. If planning permission is given, such authorities can make money overnight. If land is held for future housing development—alas, no longer possible—or for any other reason, it may temporarily be allowed to be used for the purpose of allotments. However, the proposed scheme may be cut back, and the local authority may see a way of making easy money. The Bill contains pressures that will encourage local authorities to do that. Those who were members of the Committee are only too familiar with the fact that the Bill would put pressures on local authorities to dispose of such land. How much more attractive is it not merely to dispose of the land but to make a big profit, by granting planning permission? Many useful areas of allotment land are close to densely populated areas. People can get to allotments without difficulty. They can travel by foot or on a cycle, and they can carry tools or produce to and from their homes. That qualitative aspect is important. However, those same sites are often the very ones that local authorities wish to dispose of. The existing safeguards are not good enough. I support the amendment, because the existing legislation is not doing its job. The example that I shall quote to sustain that accusation comes from the London borough of Croydon. The secretary of the London Association of Recreational Gardeners has put together some material and sent it to me. He draws attention to the shocking case of Croydon. That borough has seen a lot of recent development, has a well-planned communications centre and so on. The association says that the intentions of the existing Act are not being realised. Its secretary says:
The words "in the first instance" are underlined. The letter continues:"The intentions of this section of the Act were very clearly stated by Minister Tom King during the debate on the Bill in Committee 'D' on February 14th (Col. 102) when he said in respect of allotments account surpluses that 'it remains a legal responsibility on Councils that their first priority is to use proceeds of sales of allotment land, in the first instance, for allotments purposes'."
"There is much evidence in the files of this Association that section 32 of the Act, as it stands, is being considerably abused. The treatment of considerable surpluses from the sale of statutory allotment land in the London borough of Croydon is probably the worst example we have on record, a case where a Council, with the collusion of the Secretary of State for the Environment, has transferred of the order of £250,000 per annum from the Allotments Account to the general rate fund annually and has done for at least five years. Estimates prepared in 1974 for outstanding allotment requirements totalling £62,000 … have never been implemented.
To back up his accusations the secretary included an interesting letter from the Department of the Environment, which was addressed to the director of finance of the London borough of Croydon. It states:We submit that this practice is far from being in keeping with the intentions of this Section of the Act and in view of Tom King's statement it appears that communications within the Department of the Environment are, to say the least, inadequate."
One London borough is doing that. Some hon. Members may think that that borough is relatively enlightened. If that is happening in an enlightened borough, one wonders what might be happening elsewhere. The London Association of Recreational Gardeners has sent a considerable amount of evidence to show that the existing Act is being circumvented. It points out that, although at least one London borough is putting large sums of money into its general revenue account, it is not replicating existing allotments. If that is so, the law should not be weakened but strengthened. The amendment does not strengthen the law; it merely maintains the status quo. It will still allow Croydon to act in the way claimed by the association. I have every reason to believe that the association's claim is correct, and the case for strengthening the Act is overwhelming. The case for maintaining the status quo can hardly be less. I am sure that the Under-Secretary has received both formal and informal representations since the end of our Committee proceedings. In view of the clear evidence, I hope that the Government will consider maintaining the status quo. If the status quo is maintained, the Department can still write its letters to the directors of finance, and it can still give permission to any local authority to put these sums into the general rate fund, if it so wishes. Perhaps the Department will wish to encourage that. If it does—and this is a fundamental of parliamentary democracy—those moneys must be kept separate in the local authority's accounts. Let it be transferred, if the council wishes and if the Secretary of State permits it, but if that is done it must be seen to be done, and only by accepting the amendment will that be so."I am directed by the Secretary of State for the Environment to refer to your letter of 24 January 1977 and to say that, in pursuance of his powers under Section 54(1) of the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908, he consents to the transfer of a sum of £266,969 (being accrued revenues in the Allotments Account) to the General Rate Fund for use in connection with any of the statutory authorised functions of the council."
I wish to say here and now that I propose to use the word "allotment". I resent any idea that the phrase should be "leisure garden" or any other euphemism. Most of us are sick of Government legislation in which something is called something else in order that it may be messed around with to the detriment of people.The allotment legislation was passed in 1908, 1919, 1922 and 1925 during years of high unemployment and low productivity. To bring in legislation now that will weaken the allotment movement when we are going through a time of the same high unemployment and low productivity which caused sensible Governments in the past to bring in legislation whereby people who had insufficient work were given allotments would be a grave mistake. I am a great fan of allotments, and unlike the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell) I have never sat on an allotments committee. Heaven knows, since I have been a Member of Parliament enough people have asked me to intervene on their behalf with the allotment committee. I believe that an allotment is socially, economically and ecologically a good thing. Although I accept that the Government, in cutting rate support grant, are trying ever harder to give local authorities options whereby they may raise money which they previously expected to receive, and in fact received, from central Government, I do not believe that the average local councillor is pleased to have this sort of hot potato put into his hands. I shall tell the Government Front Bench what will happen. The sale of allotments will be an immensely unpopular act. When one local authority sells allotment land, at the next election the Opposition will say "Vote for us, and in the time-honoured British political tradition we will reverse what the last lot did." Let us face it, that is what British politics are about. It is all a matter of "Vote for us and we will undo what the last lot did." Then the next lot will do the same to the last lot. I warn the Minister that if this lot are allowed to sell allotments they will lose their seats and the next lot will promise to reverse that, by which time the cost will have gone up and the next lot will will be able to say "Look how badly that lot looked after our local authority finances. We will sell allotments again." The famous two-party system whereby one lot undoes what the last lot did will be perpetuated in local government. The Government should look again at the amendment of the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham), calling for delay of the enactment at least until early 1982. It is an eminently sensible suggestion. I am not sure that the Government can go on appointing committees, not looking at their reports and ignoring their recommendations. That has been done three times in the last 10 days. I have had to point out to various Government Departments what the Rothschild report says on one matter and what the Warnock report says on another. Governments set up committees because it is a useful way of buying time. In this case the Thorpe report has been around for 11 years and we are asking for a two-year moratorium so that it can be looked at again with care. Our constituents will be sorry to see that there are only two Conservative Back Benchers here for this debate. There are only three on the Labour Benches, and two on the Liberal Benches. I should have thought that the allotment holders of this country deserve more.
Wait until the vote.
I shall await the vote with interest. My point is simply that I am in favour of the amendment and I shall support it wholeheartedly.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that any hon. Member who votes against the amendment will be voting, in effect, to liquidate or give permission for the liquidation of, allotments for hard cash which should be provided by other means?
I accept that.
The first round of this debate was in Committee, and I should have been warned that on Report we would have a similar debate.I was astounded to hear the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) talk about liquidating allotments. We are simply seeking to remove a few controls that we think are unnecessary. I shall give a few examples. Local authorities must make an annual report to the Secretary of State and he must make an annual report to Parliament. That is one of them. The Secretary of State must consent to making a grant or advance to the co-operative allotment society. Rules made by local authorities for the management of their allotments must be confirmed by the Secretary of State. If anyone can see in the removal of that the liquidation of allotments, he is using rather intemperate language. As the Minister of State made clear in Committee, the Government accept that in no sense must this be seen as an attack on allotments or allotment holders. The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell) referred to his own service on the allotments committee of his local authority and he said that local authorities were mindful of the need to provide allotments. Councillors are far closer to those who want allotments and those who work them than we are. If the only hope of maintaining a viable allotment organisation in this country rests on the interest of Members of Parliament, we are in a parlous state. I cannot think of any subject which should be more the concern of local representatives or is more suitable for being handled locally than that of allotments. I repeat that the Government recognise the value and importance of allotments as a source of recreation and food. That is why we accepted an amendment in Committee which meant the retention of section 8 of the Allotments Act 1925. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) scored a victory on that occasion, and he has now returned to the battle hoping that the Government will not continue their policy of removing unnecessary controls. I am afraid that his victory ended with his achievement in Standing Committee. Because of the anxiety, we retained the provision to require local authorities to obtain the Secretary of State's consent to the appropriation or disposal of statutory allotment land—not only disposal but also appropriation. That was seen as the key safeguard of the interests of plot holders.
I was not a member of the Committee. Did the amendment accepted by the Government refer only to statutory allotment land?
That is my undestanding. If I am wrong, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.I hoped that that provision would allay the understandable fears of the allotment movement. The provision of allotments is essentially for local authorities, which are best able to judge local needs and how to meet them, with the minimum of interference from Whitehall. They should decide what proportion of their resources they are prepared to allocate for allotments, bearing in mind the availability of land and the demands on available financial resources. The Government are sympathetic to the broad thinking underlying the Thorpe report that the existing legislation on allotments should be tidied up. Allotments—or dare I call them leisure gardens—should not be tucked away in a remote corner but should be regarded as a valuable recreational resource which local authorities should be free to provide in much the same way as they provide other recreational facilities. The Government do not, however, accept that the detailed rules and restrictions that Thorpe envisaged are appropriate in the 1980s, although tenants should be protected from dispossession without reasonable cause. We intend to give the matter detailed consideration when the opportunity permits. The report has been around for some time, and I know that that assurance will not satisfy everyone. We do not accept that this legislation weakens the Government's powers. It was only after the fullest consideration that we decided that the controls could be dispensed with without causing problems. The proposals in the Bill are designed to get rid of certain controls that the Government exercise over the activities of local authorities in relation to allotments. They have no other purpose.
Item 7 in schedule 5 reads:
Local authorities, because of financial restrictions, may, for instance, wish to move the sanitation department to allotment land and sell off the vacant land. With respect to the hon. Gentleman, appropriation remains."Land Settlement (Facilities) Act 1919 (c. 59) 7. Section 22(1) (consent to appropriation of land)."
I note what the hon. Gentleman says.The proposals in the Bill are designed to get rid of controls which we believe serve no useful purpose. The DOE circular in 1974 gave councils a blanket consent under section 32(2) of the 1908 Act to apply allotment money to other purposes, where they considered it to be surplus to requirements. The hon. Member for Newham, South gave the example of Croydon. However, financial protections remain. In Committee we more than met the anxieties expressed.
I hope that the Minister agrees that the example I gave is correct. The figures show that I am not exaggerating. The hon. Gentleman says that financial safeguards still remain. Does that mean that at a later stage in the Bill the Government will agree to there being an obligation on local authorities to maintain separate accounts, even though they do not need the permission of the Minister to sell land? An obligation on councils to maintain separate accounts would not be onerous and would protect ratepayers and allotment holders alike.
I believe that local authorities will automatically keep separate accounts. We are not removing the necessity for the Secretary of State to be notified, and I do not accept that local authorities will behave in the way implied by the hon. Gentleman's question. We believe that local authorities can be trusted to run their allotments. The restrictions under the 1908, 1919 and 1925 Acts will still apply, and it will be extremely difficult for local authorities not to keep separate accounts if they are to remain within the law.I repeat that the Government firmly believe that the removal of controls will not cause the hardship suggested. In Committee we agreed to retain the provision that the Secretary of State has to be notified before disposal of land. We believe that we have done more than enough to meet the anxieties. I invite the House to oppose the amendment.
The Minister has increased our anxieties. In Committee we read more into his words than we should, and therefore we did not press other amendments. He said that he was minded to look at the possibility of more comprehensive legislation based on the Thorpe report. We believed that that review would be tied to some time scale and not put off until next year, some time or never. I do not accuse the Minister of misleading us. However, he expressed anxiety about any damage that may be caused to the allotment movement. We wish to spur on the Government to provide legislation in the next 18 months.The hon. Gentleman said that the Government were merely removing a few controls, which he suggests are superfluous or minimal. Why, therefore, carry through the legislation? Why go through these traumas if the Government are serious about acting on the Thorpe report in the next two or three years? The anxiety may be unnecessary, but many people are concerned about the legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) gave a good example of what can happen even under the present legislation. It is possible for money from the sale of allotments to be transferred to a general rate fund. The transfer of £264,000 was not only desired by the Croydon local authority but endorsed by the Department of the Environment. We are not suggesting that there was skullduggery, but local authorities may decide to use such windfalls in ways other than for allotments. People not only need a champion to question the diminution of allotments in Croydon, Newham or Southampton; they need to be assured that, if land is sold to make a profit and they lose, say, 200 allotments in one area, the same number will be provided in another part of the town. We are not saying that local authorities ought to provide more allotments, though my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South and the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) rightly pointed out that it is not merely a question of maintaining the existing number of allotments, because there is a need for more and there are waiting lists. We are not suspicious of the Government's general sympathy with the allotment movement, but the repeal of the various Acts makes many people uneasy about what may happen. In the past councils may have been happy to maintain an allotment programme, but the Government have changed the climate. The Secretary of State is telling councils to look at their staffing levels, rates and income. Any council that wishes to respond meaningfully is bound to look at the possibility that there may be some land that is not in demand and could be sold. Many hon. Members have served on councils and we do not impugn the integrity of councils. But we all know that a chief officer, under pressure from the centre and from the chairman of the finance committee, may produce a paper on where an extra £1 million can be found or saved. One of the options could be that allotment land that had been running down should be run down completely and sold, with the money perhaps being reinvested in other land.
Is it not more tempting than that? In order to make sure that the community gets the maximum amount of money from the disposal of any land and in order to please the Secretary of State as much as possible, will not a council seek advice on the maximum planning gain and population density that could be achieved from that land? Has my hon. Friend noticed that there are many councillors, particularly from planning, estate agency and other professions, who are so public spirited that they give up their time to serve on councils where they can give such useful advice?
My hon. Friend has made an interesting point. I am sure that before disposing of land a council will take soundings about the likely alternative use, the zoning of the land and whether it could be rezoned for industry or housing. It may even be worth more as public open space than as allotment land.The allotment movement knows that when the Government and a local authority are of a like mind and an opportunity to dispose of land is presented, consent from the Secretary of State is almost
Division No. 386]
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Grant, John (Islington C)||Roberts, Ernest (Hackney North)|
|Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)||Grimond, Rt Hon J.||Rodgers, Rt Hon William|
|Beith, A. J.||Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)||Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)|
|Booth, Rt Hon Albert||Harrison, Rt Hon Walter||Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford)|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy||Skinner, Dennis|
|Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)||Haynes, Frank||Soley, Clive|
|Campbell-Savours, Dale||Heffer, Eric S.||Spearing, Nigel|
|Cartwright, John||Homewood, William||Spriggs, Leslie|
|Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S)||Howells, Geraint||Steel, Rt Hon David|
|Crowther, J. S.||Johnson, Walter (Derby South)||Stoddart, David|
|Cunliffe, Lawrence||Kerr, Russell||Stott, Roger|
|Davidson, Arthur||Lamborn, Harry||Strang, Gavin|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)||Leighton, Ronald||Straw, Jack|
|Davis, Clinton (Hackney Central)||Litherland, Robert||Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley|
|Davis, Terry (B'rm'ham, Stechford)||McCartney, Hugh||Thorne, Stan (Preston South)|
|Dixon, Donald||Maclennan, Robert||Wainwright, Richard (Colne Valley)|
|Dormand, Jack||Marks, Kenneth||Welsh, Michael|
|Douglas, Dick||Mitchell, R. C. (Soton, Itchen)||Wigley, Dafydd|
|Douglas-Mann, Bruce||Newens, Stanley||Willey, Rt Hon Frederick|
|Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth||Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon||Winnick, David|
|Eastham, Ken||O'Neill, Martin||Young, David (Bolton East)|
|Evans, John (Newton)||Park, George|
|Foot, Rt Hon Michael||Penhaligon, David||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Foster, Derek||Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)||Mr. Joseph Dean and Mr. George Morton.|
|Freud, Clement||Price, Christopher (Lewisham West)|
|Graham, Ted||Race, Reg|
|Alexander, Richard||Colvin, Michael||Hawksley, Warren|
|Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne)||Cranborne, Viscount||Heddle, John|
|Atkins, Robert (Preston North)||Crouch, David||Henderson, Barry|
|Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset)||Dean, Paul (North Somerset)||Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael|
|Beaumont-Dark, Anthony||Dorrell, Stephen||Hogg, Hon Douglas (Grantham)|
|Bell, Sir Ronald||du Cann, Rt Hon Edward||Hooson, Tom|
|Benyon, Thomas (Abingdon)||Dunn, Robert (Dartford)||Hordern, Peter|
|Berry, Hon Anthony||Eggar, Timothy||Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)|
|Best, Keith||Elliott, Sir William||Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)|
|Biggs-Davison, John||Eyre, Reginald||Johnson Smith, Geoffrey|
|Blackburn, John||Fairgrieve, Russell||Jopling, Rt Hon Michael|
|Body, Richard||Faith, Mrs Sheila||Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine|
|Bottomley, Peter (Woolwich West)||Farr, John||King, Rt Hon Tom|
|Brinton, Tim||Fenner, Mrs Peggy||Lamont, Norman|
|Brooke, Hon Peter||Finsberg, Geoffrey||Lawson, Nigel|
|Brown, Michael (Brigg & Sc'thorpe)||Fletcher-Cooke, Charles||Lee, John|
|Bruce-Gardyne, John||Forman, Nigel||Le Merchant, Spencer|
|Bryan, Sir Paul||Fox, Marcus||Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark|
|Budgen, Nick||Garel-Jones, Tristan||Lester, Jim (Beeston)|
|Cadbury, Jocelyn||Gorst, John||Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)|
|Chapman, Sydney||Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)||Lyell, Nicholas|
|Clark, Hon Alan (Plymouth, Sutton)||Hampson, Dr Keith||Macfarlane, Neil|
|Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)||Haselhurst, Alan||MacGregor, John|
academic. If the Secretary of State is anxious to ensure that a local council is enabled to raise money, he will approve the disposal of the land and the use of the revenue for other purposes.
We are sorry that the opportunity of delay for perhaps 18 months that is contained in the amendments to enable the best parts of the Thorpe report to be given legislative flesh has not been taken. The Minister has given a negative response to the House and to the allotment movement. In the best interests of allotmenteers and, in so many ways, the country, we have no alternative but to press our amendment to a Division.
Question put, That the amendment b e made—
The House divided: Ayes 73, Noes 129.
|McNair-Wilson, Michael (Newbury)||Percival, Sir Ian||Thomas, Rt Hon Peter (Hendon S)|
|Major, John||Price, David (Eastleigh)||Thorne, Neil (Ilford South)|
|Marlow, Tony||Raison, Timothy||Townend, John (Bridlington)|
|Mather, Carol||Rees, Peter (Dover and Deal)||Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexleyheath)|
|Maude, Rt Hon Angus||Renton, Tim||Viggers, Peter|
|Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin||Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon||Waddington, David|
|Mellor, David||Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey||Wakeham, John|
|Moate, Roger||Rossi, Hugh||Walker, Rt Hon Peter (Worcester)|
|Morrison, Hon Charles (Devizes)||Sainsbury, Hon Timothy||Walker-Smith, Rt Hon Sir Derek|
|Morrison, Hon Peter (City of Chester)||St. John-Stevas, Rt Hon Norman||Waller, Gary|
|Murphy, Christopher||Shelton, William (Streatham)||Ward, John|
|Needham, Richard||Speed, Keith||Warren, Kenneth|
|Nelson, Anthony||Speller, Tony||Watson, John|
|Neubert, Michael||Spicer, Jim (West Dorset)||Wells, Bowen (Hert'rd & Stev'nage)|
|Newton, Tony||Squire, Robin||Wheeler, John|
|Normanton, Tom||Stanbrook, Ivor||Whitney, Raymond|
|Onslow, Cranley||Stanley, John||Winterton, Nicholas|
|Page, Rt Hon Sir R. Graham||Stevens, Martin|
|Page, Richard (SW Hertfordshire)||Stewart, John (East Renfrewshire)||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Parris, Matthew||Stradling Thomas, J.||Mr. Robert Boscawen and Mr. John Cope.|
|Patten, John (Oxford)||Tebbit, Norman|
Question accordingly negatived.
Duty Of Local Authorities To Publish Information
I beg to move amendment No. 4, in page 3, line 3, leave out subsection (1).
With this we may take Government amendments Nos. 5, 7 to 13, 16 and 17, and amendment No. 18, in page 4, line 28, at end insert:
'(15) Regulations shall not be made under section 2 of this Act where—
(a) the Secretary of State has approved a code of practice setting out information recommended to be published by all local authorities; and (b) the Secretary of State is satisfied that local authorities are complying with that code of practice.
(16) Before approving a code of practice under this section the Secretary of State shall consult such associations of authorities to whom this Part of this Act applies as appear to him to be concerned.'.
I apologise for the fact that, due to the protocol on the drafting of amendments, the clause is more difficult to read. It has been re-drafted in response to representations that were made to the Government in Committee, to which we were pleased to respond, on the question of a code of practice. We were anxious to see whether we could follow that spirit. I believe that the amendment, together with the other various detailed changes, makes it clear that there should be a code of practice.I had to make it clear to the Committee that it would be necessary to have the power to make regulations to ensure necessary compliance with the code. There has been close collaboration with the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives on the preparation of the draft code of practice. This has been published, copies are available in the Library, and consultation is now taking place. There is, I believe, wide agreement on both sides of the House on the need—the issue arose in our earlier debate—for information for the public and for councillors on the work of local authori- ties. The Government believe that there is considerable scope for improvement, not necessarily in the amount, but in the quality of the information that is published by local authorities, and in the use that can be made of comparative statistics and information not only for the benefit of the public but to help councillors better to discharge their responsibilities. The matter was discussed at some length in Committee. Opposition Members pressed us hard on the code of practice, and I am glad that we were able to respond. I hope that the House will feel that the amendment correctly discharges the undertakings that I gave to the Committee in this respect.
I welcome warmly the developments that have taken place since the Committee stage. I am certain that at that time a code of practice was in the mind of the Government. We satisfied the Minister and his colleagues that if progress was to be made in the publication of statistics it was essential that the people primarily involved in providing them and having responsibility for them should be consulted. In the next series of debates I shall be pressing that the trade unions and the TUC should also be consulted.This is another manifestation of the Government's desire to take with them the people at the sharp end. The Secretary of State has talked about what he has been able to do in shedding staff in his Department, but the situation is different for local authorities nearer the ground. The proposition has a measure of agreement. The code of practice has been agreed, but the local authorities have not written a blank cheque. Local authorities such as Enfield have been invited to comment. They will give the Secretary of State their observations in the next two weeks. I am certain that local authorities believe that the publication of information with league tables and comparisons cannot be other than a good exercise. The problem will arise in finding resources to produce the information. The Association of District Councils has suggested amendments today but, of course, it is too late. However, the House should hear what the association has said. It is unhappy on two counts about the revised clause 2 tabled by the Government. It states:
The fact that a responsible body such as the Association of District Councils says that after five months' work does not auger well for the future. There is much suspicion and mistrust about the Government's true intent in the code. The suspicion is that the figures will be used falsely to equate undermanning and efficiency. If local authorities manage to reduce manpower it will be assumed that they are more efficient. That is not necessarily so. The Secretary of State uses the detailed authority manpower watch statistics as justification for his attitude. Commenting upon the statistics the Secretary of State said:"First, the new clause specifies in some detail the content of the 'code of recommended practice'. This is contrary to the concept of the voluntary code and gives the code the appearance of a statutory document from the outset. Secondly, the fall-back power to make regulations is too widely drawn and gives the Minister virtually unfettered powers to require publication by all authorities. If all but a small handful of authorities comply with the code the Minister would still have to make a blanket regulation covering all authorities to enable him to deal with the odd case of default."
7.45 pm The manpower watch statistics are central to the problem. Let us examine what the statistics reveal. The House has heard what the Government think about authorities that fail to reduce manpower. Let us examine the London borough of Barnet, in which the Prime Minister takes an interest. The statistics show that for the year-end quarter of March 1980 Barnet was able to reduce its full-time staff by 74, or 1 per cent. One might say that 1 per cent. is not bad, but it is not enough. In the same period Barnet increased its part-time staff by 249, an increase of 6·1 per cent. If the definition of a full-time worker is somebody who works more than 30 hours a week, how can one say that increasing part-time staff by 249 and reducing full-time staff by 74 is a reduction? Barnet have been striving might and main to reduce manpower."In virtually every case I investigated the arguments against such reductions amount to no more than the specific pleadings of organised pressure groups who greatly exaggerate the consequences of the requests that we have made … It is the attitude of these local authorities that now threatens the traditional relationship of voluntary co-operation between Central and local government. The councillors running these authorities should have no doubt about the Government's commitment to achieving the public expenditure reductions which are central to its economic strategy."
It is an increase.
I agree. Statistics are often meaningless.The borough of Bexley has made a reduction of 48, or 0·9 per cent., but has increased part-time staff by 116. Kensington and Chelsea has reduced its full-time staff by seven but increased its part-time staff by 35. Blaby has made a reduction of one full-timer but has increased its part-time staff by 20. Bracknell has reduced its full-time staff by 12 and increased its part-time staff by 21. Cheltenham has reduced by 12 and increased by 17. I could go on. The statistics are illuminating. They show the impossible task of local authorities, particularly those which have cut staff year after year. People who have been good councillors, in the sense of cutting waste and providing a good service at the lowest cost, are told by the Secretary of State "We want even more." As a result services will be damaged. Berkshire, Chichester, Bromsgrove, Chelmsford, Hereford, Leominster, Malvern Hills, Melton, Northampton and Weymouth did not supply any statistics. Some refused to supply the figures, and some were unable to produce them in the time available. The Secretary of State must reflect on the fact that he has placed an intolerable burden on local authorities, not only by demanding manpower statistics but in terms of the range of other information that he wants authorities to produce. Authorities are under pressure from many quarters. They are under an obligation to reduce and control public expenditure. They are under an obligation to increase the rates to pay for increased services. If they do not increase services, they will be in trouble with the local people. Authorities are under pressure from the ratepayers' movement, which wants to reduce services in order to reduce rates. Authorities are in the dilemma that if they reduce manpower to satisfy the Secretary of State they will add to the increasing burden of unemployment. I understand that the Secretary of State gives credence to the myth that administration, per se, is bad and is the prime target that should be attacked in reducing manpower. Administrators in hospitals and councils, rating staffs, wage clerks and cashiers are essential for an efficient service, and yet they are coming under pressure. The Minister of State referred to consultations with the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. For the life of me I cannot understand, with the welter of information that is available, why authorities must go through the purgatory of having to produce even more statistics in order to satisfy the Secretary of State. I do not think that that will satisfy the public. At the moment members of the public who are interested, or able, can get access to a lot of information without its costing the local authority a penny. Yet, in asking for the information, the Government assert that they are anxious to minimise the additional administrative burden on local authorities. No reference has been made, however, to the additional costs that authorities must meet for printing and for additional staff to keep the statistics. The grave reservations expressed by local authorities are shared by the Opposition. It is essential that the Government should exercise great caution when they insist that local authorities produce this information besides producing the annual report that is part of the scheme. I repeat that the scheme is a reasonable one, but—as with so much of the legislation produced by the Government—it is ill thought out. There has been a lack of consultation and there is, of course, the dilemma of local authorities under pressure to find money. That is ironic, because credence has been given to the possibility that the Government will hive off the collection of statistics from local authorities. I refer to a recent report in The Guardian—a journal about which there was comment in Committee. The article was written by David Hencke. His name featured more than once in our debate on 5 June. Mr. Hencke wrote that there was a possibility that the Government would hive off the collection of statistics. An organisation called SIFTA was mentioned. It was said that SIFTA might undertake the collation of statistics on education, the social services and housing. If it is already undertaking this task the Government have an organisation capable of doing what they say local authorities must do.The Guardian report quoted the chief officer of SIFTA, Mr. Hepworth, as saying that if his organisation did the job it would require freedom to present the information without being tied to political control. He said
Is there an inference there that Mr. Hepworth wishes to make it clear that if his organisation were solely responsible in future no information would be published that could possibly have been coloured by possible contact in that way? We are prepared to recognise that the Government have attempted to meet the views of the Committee, but I believe that the Minister of State should think most carefully about the speed with which he proposes to produce these league tables of authorities, because a great deal of damage might be done. Ratepayers may well be persuaded that the less money spent the lower would be the rates and the fewer would be the staff, and that, ipso facto, that would equate with efficiency. The Opposition are far from satisfied that that would be the position."We would need the freedom from Ministers to provide the public with the best information available."
My amendment No. 18 is grouped with the Government amendments and I wish to refer to it as a background to those Government amendments.Of course, I support the proposal that local authorities should publish suitable information to their electorates about their activities. There was a long debate in Committee as to what form that publication should take. The idea was advanced that it would be most satisfactory if a code of practice was published. I think that principle was accepted by my hon. Friend the Minister of State and that he has attempted, by his amendment, to include it in the Bill. I accept that it is necessary for the Government to have reserve powers to require authorities to comply with the code of practice in the event of its becoming clear that some authorities refuse to comply with the code. On the other hand, it seems to the Association of County Councils and to the Association of District Councils that the Government amendments do not follow that approach and that they are, therefore, not within the spirit of the undertaking given in Committee. Though the amendments purport to introduce a voluntary code, they appear to give the code the status of a statute. It seems to the Association of County Councils that the Government amendments would give the Secretary of State an absolute right to decide the detailed content of the code without—and this is important—seeking the agreement of the local authority associations. The Government amendments appear to enable the Secretary of State to enforce, by a single initial regulation, any code subsisting from time to time, whether it be the original code established at the time the regulation was made, or a subsequent or new amended code. The Government amendments also enable the Secretary of State, in particular, to amend in detail the statutory obligations of local authorities in this respect without obtaining any further approval from the House. If the interpretation put on the Government amendments by the Association of County Councils is true, the amendments will extend and enhance the powers originally sought. On the other hand, the association believes that the amendment that I am putting forward is all that is necessary to provide the Government with an added statutory back-up power in the context of seeking to work to an agreed voluntary code. It believes that amendment No. 18 will be much more in keeping with the spirit of the undertakings given in Committee. I hope that my hon. Friend has been able to consider my amendment carefully. It will be satisfactory if he can convince me that the fears I have expressed about his amendments are ill-founded. If he is unable to convince me—or even himself—of that, I hope that either now or at a later stage consideration will be given to the inclusion of amendment No. 18 instead of the amendment proposed by my right hon. Friend.
It is difficult for hon. Members who were not involved in the Committee proceedings to appraise clause 2 and the various amendments that have been tabled. Clearly clause 2 would be radically altered by the amendments.The Minister of State referred to the code of practice and indicated that a copy of it was available in the Library. I hope that not many hon. Members go to get it because there are no more copies left. That is unfortunate because hon. Members are entitled, when dealing with a Bill of this type, and when a code of practice is referred to in it, to have copies in order to see what is implied. 8 pm I observe that in paragraph 1 of the code of practice three interesting and clear statements are made:
one would certainly applaud that—"(1) The purpose of the exercise is to give ratepayers clearer information about local government activities"—
"(2) to make it easier for electors, ratepayers and other interested parties to make comparisons of and judgments on the performance of their authorities.
They are all very laudable aims. All hon. Members would welcome increasing participation in local government elections. If this code of practice seeks to achieve that end, it is only to be welcomed. The rest of the code of practice deals with items such as the nature of the rate demand note. However, I am concerned, and, if I heard him rightly, so is the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison), about what is implied if the code is accepted as it presently stands, even though it is called a draft code of practice, and what it really means in terms of the way in which local authorities proceed hereafter when the Bill becomes an Act. Will they be prevented from disseminating information that is not covered by the code of practice? I can only assume that that is not so. But to what extent will the Secretary of State consider it appropriate to intervene? I recall an occasion when I was in local government on which we sought to give council tenants—rentpayers—the maximum information about why their rents were to be increased in the way that they were increased and to the extent that they were increased. That necessitated the compilation of a piece of information which included a statement of the then Government's policy that gave rise to those rent increases. It was then argued by some—and I can envisage situations in which the present Secretary of State could face a similar attitude—that the statement was political rather than a statement giving factual information. It is extremely difficult to differentiate between the two. If at local level we wish to sway a body of ratepayers to the belief that a particular set of circumstances arises from a Government decision in an Act of Parliament, to my mind that is not political. However, I am sure that the Minister of State can remember the hoo-hah at the time of the Housing Finance Act because local authorities that wished to explain the actions that they were taking arising from that Act were seen by many Conservatives in local government and national government as doing political acts in disseminating information that arose from that legislation. The Minister of State may recall that at that time one had to issue notices to quit to certain tenants at the same time as indicating to them increases in rents. Many tenants receiving such notices were considerably alarmed about the real implications and intentions of councils. I am sure that the Minister agrees that it is essential that local councils have a free right to give whatever information is possible and is considered relevant to their ratepayers. A number of other things are not covered in the code of practice. Any hon. Member who has been a councillor has probably done the same as I have in declaring interests as a member of a local authority. For me, that meant declaring which firm was at the time employing me. Clearly I had no direct financial interests in the sense that a building contractor would have when seeking to tender for contracts within his local area. I am not casting any aspersions on contractors as a body of people. A contractor may have on his staff, in a very senior position, a person who is a member of the local authority as a councillor. In my view, the public are entitled to the fullest possible information about the activities and interests of council members, whichever political party they represent. The public are also entitled to maximum information about ownership of land and buildings. Some local authorities, particularly those in whose areas developments are likely to take place in the foreseeable future, would seek to give maximum information to the electorate in their area. I should like an assurance from the Minister of State that there is nothing in this code of practice that would prevent a local authority from giving that sort of information. It is also necessary to ensure that in no way will the code of practice prevent local authorities from giving the true information as to why their statistics on nursery school education for the previous two years indicate a marked decrease in the number of nursery places for the two following years because there has been a change arising from Government policy—whichever of the major parties is in power—in the sphere of public expenditure cuts. Therefore, at local government level, when talking to the electorate about the provision of resources, it seems to me that we are likely to get involved in the delicate question of what is political information and what is general information for the electorate. I am very sceptical about the whole clause. I very much regret that it is in the Bill because I am quite sure that Governments, whether they be Conservative or Labour, have had nothing to worry about in relation to the activities of local government in informing their electorates about the various problems that have existed in local administration. I feel very tempted to force a Division on this matter. However, there are other important matters to be debated this evening, so it may be appropriate not to do that. I hope that the Minister will give an assurance that the code of practice is not a recipe for muzzling local authorities which seek to maximise the information they give to their electorates.(3) to help councillors make a judgment about the work of their authorities."
I understand that this part of Bill does not apply to Scotland. I do not know whether it is a good or bad provision, but I want to know why it does not apply Scottish authorities. I hope that the Minister will hoist in that question. A great deal of what has been said, both in the debate and in Committee, appears to apply to Scotland as much as it does to England.I am as much in favour of open local government as I am in favour of open national government. The electors should have as much information as can reasonably be provided and which they can digest and understand. I suspect that at the moment the electors have rather more information than they can take in. Nevertheless, it may be that this is a useful amendment. One of the difficulties faced by local authorities in keeping down their staffing levels arises from the innumerable new functions that are being ladled upon them. One of the main ways to cut public expenditure is to cut out certain functions altogether. I shall give one concrete example of that. The Orkney island council was asked, as part of the Government's campaign to cut public expenditure, to make a complicated return about crofting. Orkney is a crofting county, but there are practically no crofts left. I believe that the number is about 20 to 50. Because it is listed as a crofting county, the island authority was sent an immense request for information. It was only with some difficulty that it was prevented from taking on extra staff to deal with the request. The Government should be careful about demanding information or encouraging other people to demand it. On the question of dissemination, it is impossible to distinguish between factual information given by local authorities and the political gloss that may be put upon it. On the subject of increases in housing rents, for example, local authorities will say that they are due to central Government. I want the information kept down as far as possible to a narrow band of purely factual statements that can be checked. Once we go beyond that, we create a great deal of work for local authorities. I do not think that that would give the public all that they want. If they wish to delve into these matters, the right method would be to go to their local representative and ask him to raise the matter with the local authority. There is a case for dissemination of facts and figures about rates, expenses numbers of staff and the ex- penses of various operations in local authorities. I am somewhat sceptical about comparisons, It is extremely difficult to make comparisons between one authority and another. I think that we all agree that we want to give local authorities as much freedom as possible. If they are willing to pay for extra functions they should be allowed to do so, even if other authorities feel that those functions are not necessary for them. We should not compare one authority that is prepared to take on functions such as leisure and archaeology with another local authority that does not want to do the same or thinks that they can be undertaken by some other organisation. Such comparisons would not be of great validity. I wish to be assured that the information will be kept to within as small a compass as possible, and made as factual as possible. One of the main ways to enable local authorities to save on staff—and I agree with the Government that that is necessary—is to stop putting new functions on them. I trust that this amendment will not lead to an increase in staff, which could quite easily happen.
I do not wish to detain the House for too long. I support these amendments and clause 2, which deals with the power of the Secretary of State to insist on the form of publication of local government information. I declare an interest, as I am still a county councillor and very much involved in local government. My views differ from that of my authority. My county supports the Association of County Councils, which has expressed reservations about the powers in this part of the Bill and also in the amendment, although it sees certain advantages in the proposed code of practice.8.15 pm My council is extremely critical of one item, namely, the manpower watch figures, which have already been produced voluntarily for the Minister. I disagree with the need for the figures to be produced. Although such information is essential and it is right that everybody should know the figures for local authorities, I hope that when my right hon. Friend the Minister replies to the debate he will be able to remove some of the fears felt by local authorities. Some of the fears are well founded because the figures that are being published are somewhat misleading. I wish to give two examples of that. The first follows on from a point made by the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) from the Opposition Front Bench at the beginning of the debate on the question of half staff and staff. There is a conversion figure and a formula for working out the relationship between half staff, part-time staff and full-time staff, but there are anomalies in that system. I understand that in some areas, especially rural areas, that anomaly shows up. There may be a variety of hours worked by staff, and there may also be cases where some part-time staff work considerable amounts of overtime. The second anomaly that shows up clearly in the figures that have been produced concerns operations that involve people from the Manpower Services Commission. Certain people on a county council payroll are there under the youth opportunities programme, and they are not included in the figures asked for by the Minister or in the Government's statistics, but if those people are on STEP projects, which are also under the auspices of the Manpower Services Commission, they are included in the figures. That anomaly gives rise to certain reservations about accepting the figures that are produced. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to assure the House that when drawing up his requirements under these amendments he is open to suggestions to improve the method of collection of the statistics and to make the results better and fairer between one authority and another. I wholeheartedly support the principle that the figures should be known. They can be useful when comparing authority with authority, but I hope that no one will ever suggest that the statistics on their own should be used to criticise or to support one authority against another. No two authorities are alike. I say that from my experience as a county councillor. We still have some growth in Shropshire, mainly because of the new town of Telford. Unlike most authorities, the school population is not falling but increasing. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will appreciate that that produces statistics that run contrary to those of many other authorities. Although I believe that the figures are necessary and should be produced, local anomalies should be printed and explained. I hope that the proposal in the amendments to give the Secretary of State the necessary powers to ensure that the facts are published will be approved. I hope that the authorities and the electors will benefit from them. I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to assure us that he is prepared to listen to the detailed criticism that may be made from time to time by various local authorities about the form in which the details are published and about the way that they are collected. I hope that the draft code of practice, when it is discussed with local authorities, will lead to an improvement in the statistics that are published. I believe that they are desirable, but there is a long way to go to make them as worth while as they should be.
I had hoped that the code would be a voluntary measure. If it is not to be, I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend could assure me that he does not expect the GLC to be responsible for the Inner London Education Authority. The ILEA is a separate body for the purposes of this clause. It is virtually autonomous. It precepts separately from the GLC and it is separate in its public accountability. If, therefore, it is so separate, it seems to me entirely wrong that we should expect the GLC to take on this responsibility on its behalf. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to put that matter right.
I can say straight away to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) that I shall consider the point he raised, which has not been raised with me before. I shall bear it in mind.The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) and my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Hawksley) both discussed the problems of the joint manpower watch figures and the difficulty of making effective comparisons. There is an interesting lesson to be learnt from the joint manpower watch. The figures, which after discussion it was agreed should be published, have been collated for a considerable time. The aggregate figures have been published. There has been no discussion or complaint about the fact that the figures were not on the right basis, or that they did not give a sufficiently accurate reflection of the issue of part-timers, which the hon. Gentleman fairly raised. Part-timers may be 10-hour part-timers or 30-hour part-timers. That is an absolutely valid point. Now, at last, urgent discussions are going on between the associations and my Department, because, now that they are being published by individual authorities, people are looking at the figures. Previously, no one really bothered about them, because they were aggregate and fairly meaningless. An interesting point was made to me by a distinguished councillor over the weekend. He said "Now that they are important, we must get them right". Yet these figures have been sent in by every local authority to the local authority conditions of service advisory board. It has been collating them and publishing the aggregates. All this time, there has been considerable uncertainty as to whether the basis was right. I make no apology for the joint manpower watch and the publishing of figures for individual authorities. I make no judgment on what the level of staffing should be in any authority. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin rightly said that there was a tremendous range of different responsibilities. Anyone who looks at the list of local authorities will know that they range from the GLC, the largest, with a population of 7 million, to two—I think that Nairn might be one—with a population of 9,000. The level of staffing will vary. I say that people should not be frightened of publishing the facts. Councillors and leaders of councils should be prepared to defend their judgments and not hide behind a fog of confusion and obfuscation by saying "We cannot publish the figures, because they would be misleading or misunderstood". At least the publication of figures on a quarterly basis by individual authorities shows what is happening within those authorities. I accept that there may be difficulties in making comparisons between authorities, but at least one is able to tell the trend. Therefore, what has happened with regard to the joint manpower watch is an interesting illustration of the need to have effective statistics. The hon. Member for Edmonton said that if one were able to argue about statistics the statistics would be valueless. I hope that that is not a plea for concealment. I am sure that it is not, because the hon. Gentleman gave a general welcome to the proposal. There is a need to get the statistics on as fair a basis as possible. The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about league tables.
Obviously, I did not make my point clear. Of course, one is entitled to use statistics in an argument, but if one argues about the validity and the dates of the statistics one will never get on to the real argument, which is to use the statistics in argument.
That is a penetrating thought, and it is one of the difficulties that we must overcome. There are real problems in this regard, but I hope that no hon. Member considers that that is an argument for not attempting to do it.The hon. Gentleman talked about league tables. He introduced the concept, not I, and I am very sceptical about it. It is very difficult to talk about league tables in many of these areas. One can talk about comparative statistics, but I well understand the problems associated wth the league table argument. My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison) referred to amendment No. 18, which is in his name. it states that:
and,"Regulations shall not be made … where —(a) The Secretary of State has approved a code of practice"
The second part of the amendment states that:"(b) the Secretary of State is satisfied that local authorities are complying with that code of practice."
That part of the amendment is covered in clause 2(12), because it now reads:"Before approving a code of practice … the Secretary of State shall consult such associations of authorities to whom this Part of this Act applies".
I give my hon. Friend the absolute assurance for which he asks, that we shall seek to get the full agreement of the associations to the code of practice. I very much hope that that will be possible. There is a difficulty—I shall be quite frank about this with my hon. Friend— with regard to the approach. I had to make it clear in Committee—in my judgment, these amendments honour the undertaking that I gave in Committee— that we would adopt the code of practice approach. However, it is necessary to have the regulations to ensure essential compliance with that code of practice. We shall make those regulations as limited as possible. That must be our position. It is qualified, because the Secretary of State may make regulations only if in his opinion it is necessary to make such regulations in order to ensure that authorities so publish the information. My hon. Friend has made it clear that he wishes the information to be published. There is nothing between us on that. There is the qualification with regard to the regulations, but I am afraid that that is as far as I can go on the first part of the amendment. On the second part, I give him the assurance that we are seeking to reach agreement. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne) did not see the code of practice before. It was circulated on 6 June. If adequate copies are not available, I shall ensure that more are made available. I hope that this is an issue on which hon. Members are prepared to make their comments. There is absolutely no question of our seeking to circumscribe or limit the publishing of any information by local authorities. Our concern is merely to achieve a certain minimum standard. As the hon. Member asked whether this would in any way prevent local authorities from publishing any other information, I give him the absolute assurance that it will not. 8.30 pm The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) raised a very pertinent point, asking why the clause did not apply to Scotland. Before I answer that question I should like to answer his last question about Scotland, which seems to have thrown the whole Scottish Office into a major dither. The answer that I have been given is that the law of diligence in Scotland gives a common law right of access to councillors for a specific document, but apparently it cannot be used to fish for information. That is probably not the clearest answer that the right hon. Gentleman has ever received, but I am told that he will receive further information by letter, if that is agreeable to him. I have taken note of the right hon. Gentleman's question about the clause's not applying to Scotland. The matter will be considered and further thought will be given to his proposal. I entirely accept the right hon. Gentleman's comment about the need to avoid extra cost. It is not intended to impose a vast new bureaucratic exercise. A certain amount of this information—in certain areas, far too much information—is produced, but often in an undigestible form, or not in a readily comprehensive form, either for councillors or for electors. Part of our concern is to direct attention to ways in which information might be produced rather more meaningfully. I have some interesting figures to which I should like to refer, without giving the names of the authorities. In looking at a rate demand or at an abstract of accounts of a local authority, a ratepayer may see that his authority spent £100,000 last year in its planning department and has a certain level of staffing in the department. That does not mean anything to him. It is very difficult for a ratepayer to know whether that is good, bad or indifferent. I have here the figures for two district councils in the South-East of England with almost identical population figures. They appear to be very similar authorities. One employs 20 planning staff; the other employs 44 planning staff. The first authority, on another analysis, receives 25 per cent. more planning applications than the second authority. Those figures do not provide an absolute answer; they do not prove anything. The answer could be either way. It might be that the first authority is grossly understaffed and is taking a very superficial attitude towards planning applications, or it may be that the second authority is doing its work in the right way. It is not possible to reach an instant judgment, but in the mind of an alert elector or councillor it raises the question whether a disparity of that sort should be investigated. I have figures for two shire counties, practically adjacent to each other. In the library service, one authority employs one person per 6,000 books; the other employs one persons per 3,000 books. There may be all sorts of reasons for that disparity, but it still invites questions at which intelligent councillors should be looking. Why is it that one of our major metropolitan districts spends £18,000 per annum per 1,000 population on leisure activities, whereas another—which seems to offer rather good leisure facilities— spends only £7,000? I am not making a judgment. Information presented in that sort of way enables councillors to see whether they are getting value for money and whether functions are being discharged in the most effective way. I have another comparison between two shire counties. One spends £2,320 per year on each child in care. The other county—which I have not known to be in disgrace for its handling of the probblem—spends £1,100 per year. Illustrations of that sort are worth looking at. They do not provide the answers, but they ask some questions."Before issuing a code or making any such regulations the Secretary of State shall consult such associations of authorities to whom this section applies as appear to him to be concerned".
I wholly agree with what the right hon. Gentleman says. His Illustrations are very much to the point, and should make people think. Most ratepayers and others get their information through the local paper, the local radio and so on. Will comparative figures of this sort be available to the local radio and the local paper? Is it intended to produce some sort of digest, which can be used by the local radio and the paper?
That is part of our consideration of the most effective ways in which these figures should be published. Burying them in an abstract of accounts which may appear six months after the end of the financial year may not be the best way of dealing with the matter. The joint manpower watch has given rise to considerable interest in the local press, where the numbers of people employed in local authorities have attracted a lot of attention. That is one of the areas in which we wish to examine the best way of providing information.
Those figures are still meaningless, because although one authority may have children in care at one cost and another authority may have children in care at a different cost, the first authority may not provide central heating in its childrens' homes and the second one may. One authority may provide secondhand bicycles in its children's homes, whereas another authority may buy decent bicycles. I was a member of a children's committee for a long time, and I was aware of the parsimonious attitudes of some councils, particularly councils in Liverpool at that time.
I was careful to say that I make no judgments on these figures. On examination, a council may find that there are good reasons for the difference, and there may be other cases where it is difficult to identify the good reasons.I am sorry to have spoken for longer than I intended in giving these illustrations, but they help to explain the importance and the background to our thinking on this clause. In Committee there was a general welcome for this approach, although there were some differences on points of detail. In that spirit, I commend this amendment to the House.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendment made: No. 5, in page 3, leave out lines 17 to 19 and insert—
' (2A) It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to issue for the purposes of this section a code of recommended practice as to the publication of information by such authorities about the discharge of their functions and other matters (including forecasts) which he considers to be related.
(2B) A code may be prepared either by the Secretary of State or by some other person at his request.
(2C) The Secretary of State may from time to time revise or request some other person to revise the whole or any part of a code.
(2D) A code may specify—
(a) that publication be made in periodical reports or in any other specified manner;'.—[Mr. King.]
I beg to move amendment No. 6, in page 3, line 22, at end insert—
' In addition the Secretary of State shall consult any trade union or staff association appearing to him to represent employees on the various negotiating bodies for local authority workers and shall consult the Trades Union Congress.'.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Due to the speed with which these amendments have undoubtedly been prepared, may I point out that my name has inadvertently been attached to this amendment, while it is correctly detailed on many other amendments? I do not wish the House to be under any misunderstanding. I regret to disappoint Labour Members, but I feel sure that their disappointment will be limited.
There is no intention of "robbin' squire" in this case.This amendment is a further attempt to achieve what we sought to achieve in Committee. We support the principle of the code of practice and the general intention—if it is to inform the ratepayers. However, we feel that employees who are properly statutorily identifiable because they negotiate wages—particularly the TUC—are entitled to special consideration. I know that the Minister of State is likely to say that, although he is not prepared to insist that the consultation is statutory, consultation with the TUC has taken place. I am grateful for having been informed that that is so, but the TUC and the unions would like the formal opportunity to consult. It is a matter of regret, but a matter of fact, that the TUC local government committee has decided that member unions would be justified in not co-operating with the joint manpower watch in circumstances where the information supplied by an authority could be used as a basis for implementing Government expenditure policies that are aimed at slashing manpower levels. NALGO has advised its branches that it has been authorised not to co-operate in the passing of joint manpower watch data to central Government or local government organisations. If that is the kind of mood that has been engendered—I am not blaming anyone for it—if antagonism has been created between the unions and the Government, surely we should recognise not only that the unions will be pacified but that they could do their proper job of ensuring that the work that their members have to do, particularly in town halls, is done with a good heart and spirit. It is in that spirit that I commend the amendment.
As the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Graham) said, he moved a similar amendment in Committee. He will get a similar answer to the one that he received in Committee.First, we are anxious to have the fullest consultations with the TUC and representatives of the organisations representing employees in local government. Those consultations have been taking place. We have had a number of views, including NALGO's views, on this matter. We have asked a number of bodies, including trade unions, to respond to the draft code of practice, of which we have sent them copies. We have had some constructive comments from the unions and we are awaiting further views on the draft code of practice and the consultation document. We want to maintain those consultations. The issue is not whether there should be consultations but whether they should be written into the Bill. We are not writing consultations in and we have not named any body in the Bill in that respect. However, we are committed to consultations. About 80 organisations have responded to the original consultation document, so wide consultation is taking place. For that reason, it would be wrong to single out the TUC as the body to be written into the statute for consultation. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall want to consult the TUC and others and will be interested in their views.
I am heartened by that response. In Committee there was no prospect of consultation. I do not suggest that it was not in the Minister's mind, but we did not have it as a reality. We have now moved on. There has been consultation. My colleagues and friends in the trade union movement will be either satisfied or dissatisfied with this opportunity. If they come back to us and indicate that the relationship can be improved, we shall certainly seek another opportunity to raise it.In view of the Minister's assurance that the Government intend to continue consultation with the TUC and others, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
No. 7, in page 3, line 23, leave out
' subsection (3) above, regulations under this section may authorise'
' subsection (2D) above, a code may specify'.
No. 8, in page 3, line 35, leave out from beginning to 'steps' in line 36 and insert—
' (5) A code may specify'.
No. 9, in page 3, line 38, leave out subsection (6).
No. 10 in page 4, line 1, leave out subsection (7).
No. 11, in page 4, line 7, leave out from 'Where' to 'to' in line 10 and insert
'a code specifies information as to the cost of the discharge of any of the functions of authorities, it may specify how the cost is'.
No. 12, in page 4, line 10, at end insert—
'(8A) More than one code may be issued under this section, and different codes may deal with—
(a) different classes of information; (b) different kinds of authority or the same kind of authority in different circumstances or different areas; (c) different manners, forms or occasions of publication.
(8B) The Secretary of State may make regulations requiring authorities to whom this section applies—
(a) to publish any description of information specified in a code; (b) to publish the information in the manner and form, and on the occasions, specified in the code.if in his opinion it is necessary to make such regulations in order to ensure that authorities so publish the information.'.
No. 13, in page 4, line 19, after 'Before' insert 'issuing a code or'.
No. 16, in page 4, line 23, at end insert—
'(12A) Publication specified or required by virtue of this section may be to the public in general or to any section of it, depending on the terms of the code or regulations.'.
No. 17, in page 4, line 24, leave out subsection (13).—[ Mr. King.]
Meaning Of "Works Contract"
I beg to move amendment No. 19, in page 4, line 34, leave out 'under' and insert—
'(in this Part of this Act referred to as a "maintenance agreement") under—
(i) section 5(3)(c) of the London Government Act 1963 (agreements between Greater London Council and other London authorities for the carrying out of works of maintenance by one party in connection with land or buildings for the maintenance of which another party is responsible), or (ii)'.
With this we may take Government amendments Nos. 20 and 21.
These are technical amendments. They are needed to clarify uncertainties which were pointed out in Committee. We promised to bring forward amendments as necessary. They merely ensure that, where authorities have a number of powers available to them under which they may do work for each other, the treatment of such work under this part of the Bill is consistent.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendments made: No. 20, in page 4, line 39, leave out from 'section' to 'or' in line 40.
No. 21, in page 4, line 40, at end add—
' (aa) an agreement under section 18(4) of the London Government Act 1963 (agreements between Greater London Council and other London authorities with regard to metropolitan roads); or'.
No. 22, in page 5, line 13, leave out 'are delegated to' and insert—
'fall to be discharged by'.
No. 23, in page 5, line 14, leave out 'delegated'.—[ Mr. King.]
Limitations On Power To Enter Into Works Contracts
I beg to move amendment No. 24, in page 6, line 9, after ' not insert '(a)'.
With this it is convenient to take amendment No. 25.
Again, these are technical amendments to do with tendering policy. They are designed to ensure that the Secretary of State can lay down competition requirements either by reference to the value of individual projects, or on a sample basis, by reference to a proportion of turnover in any particular category.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendment made: No. 25, in page 6, line 11, at end add:
(b) enter into a works contract whose value is equal to or less than the prescribed amount unless they have complied with such conditions as may be prescribed by regulations made by the Secretary of State.'.— [Mr. King.]
I beg to move amendment No. 26, in page 6, line 30, at end insert:
My comments are also applicable to amendment No. 27. The amendments were promised in Committee. They substitute a small executive discretion for a large one, and restrict the Secretary of State's powers to making regulations to change the number of tending invitations to be required at each competition from three to any higher or lower number that practical experience suggests necessary.'and
(d) specify for the purposes of subsection (3)(c) above a number of persons different from three'.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendment made: No. 27, in page 6, line 31, leave out subsection (5).—( Mr. Fox.]
Meaning Of "Functional Work"
I beg to move amendment No. 28, in page 7, line 2, leave out clause 6.
With this it may be convenient to take the following amendments:
No. 29, in page 7, line 3, leave out 'or maintenance'.
Government amendment No. 30.
No. 31, in page 7, line 19, leave out 'or maintenance'.
No. 32, in page 7, line 28, leave out 'or maintenance'.
No. 33, in page 7, line 31, leave out clause 7.
Government amendments Nos. 34 to 36.
No. 37, in page 7, line 42, at end insert:
'provided that such regulations shall not specify functional work whose estimated cost under subsection (2) above is less than £100,000'.
No. 38, in page 7, line 42, at end insert:
(3B) No regulations made under this part of the Act shall in respect of general highway works or works of new construction other than general highway works require a local authority or a development body to invite offers under subsection 4 of this section, in respect of any amount of such works, which in the estimation of the authority or development body will not exceed £250,000.'.
No. 39, in page 7, line 42, at end insert:
'(3A) No regulations made under this part of the Act shall in respect of works of maintenance require a local authority or a development body to invite offers under subsection 4 of this section in respect of any amount of such works of maintenance where the value of the works is between £10,000 and £50,000, which exceeds 10 per cent. of the total estimated value of such works to be undertaken by, for or on behalf of that local authority or a development body, in any financial year.'.
Government amendments Nos. 40 to 43, 47 and 48.
No. 60, in page 17, line 13, at end insert—
'(3) Notwithstanding anything in subsection (1) above, in this Part of this Act "local authority" does not include any authority which employs less than 100 employees on functional work.'.
The amendment goes to the heart of a major issue covered by the Bill, namely, direct works departments. Amendments Nos. 28 and 33 were tabled in order to achieve a clause stand part debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas) and I were not members of the Committee, but we have read through the Hansard reports. It was noticeable that, although some amendments to clause 7 were debated, there was no clause stand part debate. It is surprising that there was hardly any debate on clause 6. It is therefore important to facilitate that opportunity on Report so that the issues may be thrashed out in greater detail.My area is similar to many areas in Wales, England and Scotland in that the direct works departments of local authorities have more than one function. Obviously they must undertake the necessary work, and are responsible for road maintenance and construction. They must ensure that jobs are done. However, direct works departments fulfil another responsibility for which there is no alternative. They maintain a balance in the employment pattern in their areas. When contractors are employed, they often come from outside the area and use outside labour. That is sad. In global economic terms, that cannot be beneficial to our economy. It must cost more to bring in outside people than to employ local people. It is a "diseconomy" to the economy of the district if people are on the dole because others are being brought in from outside. Not only must responsibilities vested in local authorities be fulfilled, but, on a local level, one must be able to plan manpower employment. Clearly if a local authority has the responsibility of maintaining its own direct works department it will look ahead and plan its work more effectively in order to utilise the labour at its disposal. Therefore, in areas such as mine there would be a great disadvantage in having a rundown of direct works departments because they are the one means of giving employment at a time when factories are closing all around us. That is the general background to our amendments, but specific issues arise. Some of the amendments are probing amendments, but we are concerned about whether there will be any implications in the rundown for the highway authority undertakings of routine road maintenance. If there is, that will be highly regrettable. This is something that contractors coming in from outside on a once-off basis cannot plan so well. They do not know the geography or the geology of the area, and in the long term they will not do as satisfactory a job. The other question I wish to raise arises in the context of clause 7 and the controls that will be laid down by central Government in relation to the powers being taken away. If detailed controls are given to central Government for small levels of expenditure or on small projects —we specify a limit of £100,000—it will be wrong and bureaucratic. It will mean that local authorities must undertake costings and detailed bureaucratic work, which is totally contrary to the spirit of the Government's proclaimed intention of giving local authorities greater freedom in decision taking. We all agree that local authorities should take decisions on the basis of the best information that they have. From my experience in industry, I know how information can be proliferated merely for the sake of proliferating it, and that does not help anyone. For those reasons, we feel very unhappy about the provisions in clauses 6 and 7 and we believe that they should be probed more deeply before they are allowed to become part of the Bill.
The hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) is right to raise this matter. The instincts of the Opposition are to go along with him in his amendments, particularly that which proposes to delete "maintenance". The hon. Member also made the perfectly valid point about labour being brought from outside into an area where there is acute unemployment. That is something with which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) and I are familiar on Merseyside. It is not limited to Wales.I wish to concentrate on the amendments standing in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends—Nos. 38 and 60—which are being taken with this group. I hope that the Government will accept these modest amendments, either in principle or in spirit, because in no way do they detract from the Government's intention of making direct works organisations accountable. The aim of my amendments, which is supported by the County Councils Association, the District Councils Association and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, is to prevent unnecessary bureaucracy. That should commend itself to Ministers. I turn to amendment No. 38 and the figures in this part of the Bill. I notice that the many Government amendments to the clauses do nothing to alter the figures. The Bill allows £100,000 for highways and sewerage works and £50,000 for other new works. Those figures were set down by the DLO working party of 1975, five years ago. There has been a tremendous change in the value of money since 1975, and inflation will enlarge the gap day by day, week by week and month by month. Amendment No. 38 endeavours to set more realistic figures. The associations are also concerned about emergency works. The Bill not only covers direct building for housing or direct works on the construction of highways. It includes such matters as snow clearance, which is a costly item for councils, particularly in Scotland and the northeren counties. When it has snowed heavily overnight, councils do not have time to obtain tenders from three contractors to shift the snow. They need a department available throughout the year for such work. A more realistic limit would be £250,000. A direct works department is of significance in other emergencies. Any hon. Member who represents a coastal constituency is aware of the damage caused to sea walls through flooding. Lives are at risk, and immediate action is required. The work cannot be put out on competitive tender to private enterprise. I doubt whether private enterprise would even be interested. Our amendments would be of direct and significant help to many county councils and metropolitan authorities. The Association of Metropolitan Authorities states with regard to the Bill:
The Secretary of State for the Environment makes much of local government manpower figures. It is sad that he is not in the Chamber to hear that. The Bill will increase manpower not for a useful purpose but merely to further the views of the Government on open competitive tendering. On the figures alone, I seriously commend our amendments, which are supported by three local authority bodies, two of which are Conservative controlled. The Government's proposals will have a detrimental effect. I particularly ask the Government to update the figures, which are based on 1975 calculations. Amendment No. 60 is based on the de minimis principle. It would exclude from the operation of the Act authorities that employ fewer than 100 people on functional work. The working party of direct labour organisations stated in its final report in August 1978:"There are administrative expenses involved in the tendering procedure—it is estimated that a threshold of £100,000 will result in an additional 170 employees in England and Wales. A reduction of the threshold to £50,000 would result in an additional 750 staff simply to administer the tendering procedures. The estimated additional cost to local government of employing these staff would be £1·7 million and £7·5 million respectively."
That is why we have put down that amendment. There is evidence, particularly in many rural areas, that contractors are not prepared to carry out routine building maintenance at a reasonable cost. The district council has no alternative but to rely on direct labour, otherwise the work would not be done. 9 pm The Association of District Councils, which represents the smaller authorities that will be most directly affected by our amendment, has supplied some startling figures. In the association's opinion, a work force of up to 100 would be a reasonable size. On the basis of the December 1979 manpower watch data, 126 district councils in England and Wales would be excluded. The ADC has provided an annex that shows that 44 authorities employ fewer than 50 employees. It is absurd to bring the rigid bureaucracy of the Act to bear on authorities with only a few employees engaged in this work. The amendment will do no harm to the principle that the Government wish to establish. In a typical metropolitan authority, contracts with a combined value of £16 million a year will be over £250,000 each, compared with an overall budget on new works of £20 million. The limit of £250,000 clearly allows sufficient work to go out to competitive tender. The exclusion of authorities with fewer than 100 employees would not damage the principle of competitive tendering which the Government are trying to establish. Our amendments are not probing amendments. They are serious and they have the full weight of the three local government organisations behind them. It would be in the interests of any Government who are concerned with saving money and with manpower watch figures to accept the amendments."We appreciate that for smaller DLOs there is a danger of imposing an elaborate checking organisation which will cost more than it is worth."
I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will give serious consideration to the points that have been made in the debate so far. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services for having spent many hours in consultation with the local authority associations, but I have no doubt that the Government amendments go only a little way to meeting the justifiable misgivings of the associations. I agree with the Government's aims, but, like the right hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes) and the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley), I am doubtful about the methods being employed.I subscribe to the view that direct labour organisations should be properly accountable, that inefficiency should be exposed, that there should not be disguised or unfair competition between direct labour organisations and local small firms and that where accounting methods are slack they should be tightened up. However, we must take into account the fact that those situations do not apply in all local authorities. Many Conservative-controlled authorities believe that they are loyally carrying out the Government's policies, but they are deeply disturbed about the new bureaucracy which they believe is being imposed on them in part II and other parts of the Bill. I ask the questions that have been asked already. Are all these new regulations really necessary to achieve the objective that the Government have in mind? How much additional work will be involved in local authorities changing accounting methods which they already believe to be satisfactory? What are the staff implications? I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to satisfy the House on those matters. I do not intend to repeat the arguments that have been made, particularly at this hour of the night. I wish, however, to highlight what seems to me the main theme of the criticisms by the Association of County Councils and the Association of District Councils, of which I have the pleasure to be one of the vice presidents, and by other local authority associations. They are saying, in essence, that substantial changes will be involved in their accounting procedures and that this will mean additional returns and additional staff. I want to refer briefly to what seem to be two of the most important points. The first is tendering limits. I do not propose to weary the House with the details, which have been gone over before, but it seems to me that the limits proposed are almost bound to lead to additional costs of administration, on professional services and on tendering expenses. Is my hon. Friend sure that he must have the limits laid down to achieve the objective that he has in mind? Frankly, I doubt it. I ask him to have another look at the suggestions made by the Association of District Councils, contained in one of the amendments that we are discussing, to see whether it might be possible, in the proposals that have been made, or in proposals on similar lines, to have the adequate control that he needs without the additional bureaucracy that I feel will be involved. The second example that I give refers to the small labour forces, particularly in district councils in rural areas such as mine in the South-West. It is surely right and cost-effective for these local authorities to have small labour forces to deal with emergency and essential work when the sewerage system suddenly breaks down or when building maintenance work has to be carried out after a storm. It is probably not in dispute that these small labour forces in the smaller local authorities are cost-effective and should be retained. As I understand the Bill in its present form, they will have imposed on them the full weight of the returns and the accounting procedures that may well be appropriate for larger local authorities. I hope that my hon. Friend will have another look at this matter. Although the Government have gone some way to deal with the misgivings expressed in the amendments, I do not believe that they have gone far enough. I shall find it difficult to support the Government on these issues unless my hon. Friend is able to be sympathetic and more responsive to the points that have been put from both sides of the House. In my view, the aims and objectives which the Government, entirely properly, have in mind could be achieved with less cost and less trouble to local authorities, especially those that are efficient and support the Government's policies, and with less of a bureaucratic machine than I fear is being set up by this part of the Bill as it stands.
As a former employee of a direct labour employment department and chairman of a direct labour organisation for a local authority, I must say something in support of amendments Nos. 38, 39 and 60. The Government's attitude to direct labour is doctrinaire and dogmatic. If they had included in the Bill a clause providing that no local authority should negotiate tenders with private enterprise companies, there might have been a case for what they suggest. However, there is nothing to stop local authorities from long-term contract negotiating with Costain, Wimpey, or anybody else. Only local authority direct labour departments are being placed in that position.The amendments are important for a number of reasons. Direct labour organisations give construction workers continuity of employment. In areas such as Merseyside and Manchester, continuity of employment in the industry is needed. The £250,000 is a limited sum. It is a modest figure. Nevertheless, it would help to establish continuity of employment. We must move towards a system of decasualisation in the industry. It is scandalous that construction workers are constantly in and out of work. Direct labour organisations help. Unfortunately, the big building companies no longer take on many apprentices. This seed corn of the industry now comes from the direct labour organisations. If they are allowed to run down because of the Government's dogmatic and doctrinaire attitude, one of the most valuable assets that we have in training skilled youngsters for the future of the construction industry will be eliminated. We could end up with no skilled craftsmen if nothing positive is done. I know all the stories about direct labour organisations overspending, but the Minister must admit, if he is honest, that a number of big construction companies overspend. All types of agreements have to be made to meet overspending. That is legendary in the industry. There are plenty of examples. What do the direct labour organisations do in the big cities? They have built some of our best flats and houses. The Manchester direct labour organisation, in particular, has a fantastic record for house building. In my own city we have built wonderful flats. They are the best. I do not refer to the ones that had to be pulled down. I am speaking of the ones that are still there, and will remain there, because they were not built with profit as the only motive. They are a good product for the people of the area. Direct labour organisations have also built schools, houses, fire stations and all kinds of public buildings. I recognise that the key to a good DLO is its management. That is true of any organisation. Private enterprise companies with lousy management can do nothing, and poor management of a DLO means that it cannot do its job properly. Conservative Members say, for doctrinaire reasons, that irrespective of whether management is good or bad measures must be taken to undermine the concept of the DLO. That is not good enough. I agree that DLOs must be made efficient, that they must have good accounting and that they must operate as local government construction companies. That is what we should aim for, and that is the view of the Labour Party as put forward in our document "Building Britain's Future". 9.15 pm We do not support DLOs that are inefficient. We are not talking in those terms, and never have done. There is, of course, room for improvement in the efficiency of certain DLOs, but to eliminate them merely for their own sake, for doctrinal reasons, is wrong. The Government, however, are trying to do that. I turn to the matter of maintenance. I wish to see maintenance work in Liverpool done by a good, efficient DLO. That maintenance has been done in the past by such an organisation, though I know that there is room for improvement. I was chairman of the Liverpool DLO, and I used to have arguments with the lads on these matters. Should we really seek to get rid of good, efficient DLOs and allow the ladder-and-barrow cowboys to come in and take over? What kind of a product would our people get if that happened? We have already seen the result of the type of modernisation that has taken place in the vast working-class areas of the country when the ladder-and-barrow merchants have come in. The condition of some of the buildings was better before the cowboys touched them. People have said to me "Our buildings were marvellous before the cowboys came in to modernise them. Look at them now." The cowboys were not proper craftsmen. That is happening in Liverpool, where the Liberal council is undermining the DLO. [Hon. MEMBERS: "Where are Liberal Members now?"] They are not here to undermine anything at the moment, so interested are they in this matter. That is what is happening in Liverpool, and the Liberal-controlled council is to some extent supported by the Minister's political colleagues there. We do not want those cowboys doing the maintenance and repair work. They do not do it properly. A good DLO with real craftsmen and skilled workmen gives a good product to our people. Of course, there are overheads that do not occur in private enterprise, but it is right that there should be sickness benefit and decent conditions for DLO workers. All private enterprise companies in the construction industry should follow the lead given by the DLOs in that respect. I was delighted at what was said by the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley). I do not disagree with a word of his statement. It was extremely good. The hon. Gentleman and I both speak the Welsh language—I speak it in a much more limited way than he does—and I found his ideas, apart from the issue of nationalism, first class. I agreed with him entirely. I hope that the House will support us, although I fear that Conservative Members will not do so. If there were more Members like the hon. Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean), matters would be different. This matter is of great importance, because there are many Tory local authorities that have good efficient DLOs, and they are arguing the same case as I have been arguing. I hope that a sufficient number of Conservative Members will support the amendment for it to be carried.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to follow the speech of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), because I remember him when he used to work for a private firm of contractors in Liverpool. I also remember him when he ran the direct labour organisation in Liverpool. I take no fees or anything else from the contracting industry. If I have any interest to declare at all, it is that I have a sufficient quantity of shares in a firm in Liverpool to cause me to do so.We have heard the ordinary arguments put forward. Let us deal first with the question of labour relations. I defy the hon. Member—I hope that he will rise to contradict me—to show me that the direct labour employees of the Liverpool corporation are on any better terms than the employees of the private firm that I represent. There are five Members of Parliament who have worked for my company. They can vouch that its terms are equal to or better than those of DLOs. Also, the larger or middle-sized firms train as many apprentices and are able to train them better because such firms get a greater variety of work. The hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) used all the usual tactics of saying how local authorities must have a team of men so that if it snows on Tuesday the borough engineer or the controller can pick up the telephone and say "Charlie, there's a snowdrift down the valley. Go and clear it." It is so easy. The chief executive and the people who run things like to have a gang of men. They do not like to have to go through the formalities. As long as they have a gang of men doing nothing, so that they can remove snowdrifts, they are all right; they can do it. But what are those men doing in the meantime? The hon. Gentleman argued that if authorities put work out to tender they must have a great bureaucracy to prepare the tender, but is he saying that a DLO will not get out any estimate or prepare any costing, and, without knowing about costs, will say" Charlie, go and paint those 50 houses. I don't care a hoot what it costs "? If DLOs are to be efficient, they must have a costing system, and a costing system is related directly to an estimating system. Equally, the argument is frequently used that there are no contractors in the area to do the maintenance work. I remind hon. Members that what used to be the War Office—I never know quite what it is called now—used to have a day work schedule. It was able to get camps maintained by local contractors by simply ringing up and referring to a day work schedule, which was tendered once a year against competitive tenders. In such circumstances local contractors are able to build up their organisation to cope with the sort of demands they get, but if they have not got that sort of contract they cannot build up an organisation. One gets the chicken-and-egg attitude. There is no contractor available to do the work when one wants it done because one does not give it to him when one has it to give to him. Thus, the orgainsation that is necessary is not built up. Equally, what is often overlooked on this point is that as long as one uses only a DLO, one is at a disadvantage. I am not saying that councils should not have a small standby force. In my opinion, it ought to be what the larger property companies have—a small standby force of people who are generally foremen and who are capable of repairing the odd lavatory when a crisis arises and Mrs. Jones says "I can't wait. Come and repair my lavatory." They tend to have those sorts of persons around. It need be only a small number. They could act as foremen to supervise the work. We must realise and appreciate that if we want an efficient organisation, and if we want to use our manpower to the best of its ability, we need versatility—and the contractors are able to give us that. Not only do they work for the local authority; they supply services to the local community. Therefore, not only does the local authority benefit by having small contractors available to carry out maintenance work and build small projects; they provide an opportunity for those who own their own homes to draw on an existing organisation. They are able to spread the work load and make the work more interesting. I know a number of skilled men who, in times of depression, have felt that they might be better getting a job with a local authority that will employ them come hail, rain or snow. At the time when there was no wet weather pay in the building industry there was a strong argument in favour of that. But conditions in the building industry have changed. It is no longer the casual occupation that the hon. Member for Walton knew when he was an apprentice. It is a more stable organisation. Top-level men are now able to, and want to, join that industry. They are anxious to join contractors' organisations because they have much greater scope. They could eventually be elected to the board. I can tell the hon. Member for Walton that on the board of the small Liverpool company to which I referred, with a turnover of £3 million a year, all but one of the directors started as an artisan or foreman and rose to board level. They could not do that in a direct labour organisation. That is why they want to join a private firm. They are people of ambition. The hon. Member for Walton could not get on that far in a direct labour organisation. He had to come here for what little success he has. I hope that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will resist the amendments. They should do that if contracting organisations are to become more efficient in the building industry.
I think that it is time that we returned to the debate on direct labour. One thing that is characteristic of the Bill is the vagueness of the wording. The Bill does not give any figures about capital works. It says "the prescribed amount"—that is, the amount prescribed by the Secretary of State.In Committee the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment said:
The Minister used the term"I accept that tendering is a difficult area to get right. On the one hand, we have to make sure that direct labour organisations are regularly tested in fair competition across the whole range of their operations. Equally we have to make sure that private contractors—big, medium and small—get a fair chance of winning local authority work."—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 21 February 1980; c. 178.]
Will that testing be regular? It will not according to the Bill. Every capital project of any significant size will have to go out to tender. Will the competition be fair? One main flaw in the Bill, and in the assumption of the Government, is the comparison between a municipal enterprise and a private enterprise. They work under entirely different sets of disciplines, rules and regulations. One has to envisage the restraints imposed on a direct labour organisation—having to work within the confines of a local authority committee structure, the financial provisions of that authority, the standing orders, being reliant upon another department even to recruit its personnel, and restricted in areas of performance. In other words, it is able to tender for capital works only within its city boundaries. 9.30 pm As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heller) said, direct labour organisations are committed to a decasualised labour force, bringing with it a stable work force and stable working conditions. Apprentice training has always been in the forefront of direct labour organisation policies. My own authority of Manchester is renowned for its contribution to the training of apprentices into skilled craftsmen and even craftswomen. There are even projects where sheltered accommodation for the elderly is built solely by apprentices who have been trained under the supervision of officers. Where can that be found in the private sector? If the profit motive is imported into direct labour organisations, schemes such as I have described will be discontinued, because no longer will such projects be undertaken, for the simple reason that they are non-profit making. As a result, many school leavers will not be afforded a training and many youngsters will join the dole queues. Manchester takes on about 150 apprentices, but there are 2,000 young people knocking on the door and we cannot afford to give them jobs. DLOs have commitments with regard to the disabled. Here again, my own authority has a 5 per cent. employment level for registered disabled persons. That ranges over 25 classified disablements. All of the people are employed in beneficial and productive work. Such a scheme is rewarding and has far-reaching benefits, but, like apprentice training, it costs money. DLOs must stick strictly to the letter when it comes to safety, health and welfare, superannuation schemes, and so on. Those are the social benefits of DLOs, but social benefits are costly. If DLOs are required to tender for every contract, without being able to negotiate at least one in three, the social content in the tender will be cut drastically. In other words, it will not be possible to take on apprentices. They will be unable to have a decasualised labour force or take on the disabled. Unlike the private sector, where men can be hired and fired with every new building project, where new bonus schemes can be introduced, which has the length and breadth of the country in which to tender, where in an economic decline work can be bought and suicidal tendering can be indulged in, where lump labour can be used, where apprentice training can be cut, and where moral responsibilities to the disabled can be ignored, the DLOs must meet their responsibilities without a rolling programme of work. As a result, the role of direct labour must be limited. The Government are seeking to impose further limitations on organisations which are already restricted by local government laws, byelaws, and statutory provisions. To subject DLOs to an overriding obligation to compete for every project and to show a profit defeats the whole object of having a department that provides a service. It was never the intention that DLOs would be profit-making sections. The profit motive does not apply to other local departments that provide a service. The prime function of providing a service is completely ignored when value for money or profit appraisals are considered. Profit appraisals disregard the enormous social benefits, all accountable costs in competitive tendering and carrying out the role of a model employer, which are of benefit to the ratepayer. Those factors are ignored by the critics of direct labour. There are many critics of DLOs, especially when they are successful. I refer to capital works. Manchester has had a massive slum clearance programme. It has provided the work and sites for major house building projects. Manchester direct labour department won most of these contracts in competitive tendering mainly because during the relevant period the private sector was operating in the more lucrative areas. Being successful in competition, the department was allowed to negotiate contracts of comparable size. Today we are in a completely different ball game, and with the cutback in new house building and other Government financial restrictions the construction industry is at a low ebb. The private sector will be grabbing all the public sector work that it can lay its hands on. The Bill will enable it to do so. In the present economic climate, in which suicidal tendering is the order of the day, contractors can put in ridiculous tenders with which a direct labour organisation cannot compete. If the Government's intention is not to allow DLOs to negotiate any contracts, the whole nature of DLOs as a municipal enterprise, providing social benefits to the community, will have to be fundamentally altered, or DLOs as we know them today will be forced out of existence. The figure for capital works of £250,000 is only updating an unrealistic figure of £50,000 that was agreed five years ago. It is really the distinction between major and minor works. If the Government would concede this figure, more items of minor work could be carried out than at present. That, in turn, would compensate for the loss of the major capital works because of the Government's insistence that every contract of any real consequence will have to be tendered for. As has been pointed out, the disastrous effects of negotiated tenders in new-build must be common knowledge to most local authorities. In Manchester we have some huge monstrosities, which have been system-built, leaving many a scar. The same sort of thing can be seen in other cities and towns throughout the country. The intention to contract out maintenance work—which the amendment also covers—will mean a greater use of subcontractors, but the contractors on maintenance will not be interested in the everyday repairs. They will not want to give a 365-days-a-year service. They will not want to be called out on emergencies. They will be after the more lucrative maintenance items, such as programmed repairs, the house painting of whole estates, re-roofing and re-wiring. They will want the cream, and the mundane jobs will be left for the direct labour sector. Private contractors will not hesitate to cash in on this aspect of maintenance activity. This was epitomised in the tendering for schools and colleges recently in Manchester. After the recent reorganisation of Roman Catholic schools in the Manchester area, Xaverian college became the responsibility of the direct works department. The direct works department estimated a sum of £22,750 as the cost of painting the college. The lowest tender received from a private painting contractor was £97,480; the highest was £106,250. But unbeknown to the painting contractors, the painter who had previously been responsible, before reorganisation, was asked for his price, and it was £22,700. If this portion of the Bill goes through, once again the building and maintenance section will be open to monopolies, cartels and so on. It will be the death knell of the smaller direct labour organisations, and once again the public will be taken for a ride."regularly tested in fair competition".
I have never heard a worse case put for a direct labour organisation. The hon. Member for Manchester. Central (Mr. Litherland) makes it sound as though a direct labour organisation is part of social welfare—a glorified employment office. But that is not the purpose of a direct labour organisation, and it is nonsense for anyone to suggest that any council should have an organisation that is set up regardless of the costs that it is likely to involve itself in.The hon. Gentleman talked about training apprentices. Is he not aware that private builders are possibly the biggest trainers of apprentices? [HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."] Hon. Members may say "Rubbish", but it cannot bear examination that the only people training building apprentices are direct labour organisations.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware—I am sure he is not, but I shall tell him—that there have been many occasions in my constituency when the only employer appointing apprentices in the building trade was the local authority?
That may be so, but I was responsible for closing down the direct labour organisation in Birmingham when I was chairman of the housing department. I believed that that was the right thing to do.
The hon. Gentleman made a categorical statement that private sector builders are the largest employers of trainees in the building industry. Surely the House is entitled to hear figures to justify that claim, because I think it is nonsence.
No one who understands the building industry can suggest that without direct labour organisations there would be no apprentices.
Answer the question.
With respect, may I say that in the city of Birmingham there are at least four builders who have over 20 apprentices each. The direct labour organisations in Birmingham had four apprentices at the last time of counting.The hon. Member for Manchester, Central mentioned the cost of contracts. Surely Manchester city council cannot have been so badly run that when it put contracts out they were costed by its department. To suggest that a builder was able to get away with charging £90,000 for a £20,000 contract says a great deal about the costing department of the city of Manchester. Under a Labour-controlled or Conservative-controlled council such a thing would not have been able to happen in Birmingham. With regard to cost analysis, in Birmingham we worked on cost plus—the most dangerous of all fallacies. It seems a good idea to agree to build a house, repair a block of flats or decorate a building on a cost basis. But what is a cost? It depends upon all the costs of an organisation. The hon. Member for Manchester, Central suggested that on top of a normal building and decorating practice we should load all the factors of decasualisation, all the good things about social benefits and all the talk about training apprentices. The result would be that something that should cost £10,000 would cost £20,000. If a private builder is given a contract on the right basis, and if he tenders for a contract for £40,000 or £400,000, that is the sum of money that he will receive. When I inherited the direct labour organisation in Birmingham, it was said that a building would cost £100,000 against a private builder's tender for £20,000. If, because of mismanagement, the job cost £250,000, the ratepayers had to pay. This clause is not intended to do away with direct labour organisations as such. It intends to bring them under a proper, sensible control. Conservative Members are confident that, if Socialist councils are left to run riot with direct labour organisations, we shall end up with hugely expensive, inefficient organisations, and the ratepayers will pick up the bill. The cost will escalate, fewer people will be employed, and less work will be done.
The illiterate speech that we have just heard was a good example of the way in which Conservative Members talk about the building industry.The building industry has a magnificent record. Under private control it has hundreds of thousands of workers on the dole, huge stockpiles of bricks, and few people being trained for skilled work. Many of the buildings erected by private contractors cost far more than was intended, and many have serious structural and architectural deficiencies. That, in essence, is the record of the private sector of the building industry. For Conservative Members to defend that situation and to criticise direct labour organisations is extremely cheeky in view of the position of the private sector of the building industry. It is about time that we discussed the real reason for clauses 6 and 7. The real reason for these clauses is that the profit that can be screwed out of the building industry in our present economic situation is low. The private sector has to get its hands on the maximum amount of profitable work that is available when the Government are cutting public expenditure as they are. Therefore, they have to take away from the public sector a substantial slice of its business to maintain the profits of Costain, Wimpey, and the other large building contractors. [Interruption.] Of course, people are employed in the private sector, but we need to increase the amount of building work, not to shift a small proportion of it from the public to the private sector. I want to follow the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) about the consequences of restricting the activities of direct labour organisations. One way in which direct labour organisations will be affected is by part-time casual employment in the building industry being substituted for full-time employment. The building industry is riddled with part-time casual employment. The major contractors are responsible for that situation. They like to employ people on piece work—doing particular jobs on the basis of sub-contracting. That has led to large numbers of people being unemployed for long periods or being on supplementary benefit. One consequence of these clauses will be that those who have been directly employed full-time in the public sector will be forced, if they wish to remain in their trade, into the private sector to maintain any degree of job security. They will also have to go through long periods of unemployment or under-employment to satisfy their new task masters, and the State will have to pay for that privilege. The State will have to keep those people on supplementary benefit or unemployment benefit during the periods when the industry is not employing them. The cost of shifting people from the public sector to the private sector will be substantial, and the Government have not dealt with these arguments.
I am doubly grateful to the hon. Member for giving way, as I have been in the Chamber only for the last quarter of an hour of the debate. Perhaps he will be aware that in the Midlands some local authorities that have direct labour forces have recently come under the control of the Labour Party. There are people in my constituency who have been employed by the Sandwell authority in its direct labour department for many years, exercising their skills and crafts in the building industry. They have been dismissed entirely on the ground that a closed shop has been brought in. Is that the way to treat these people in the public sector? I have a responsibility to these constituents.
That raises questions that are more appropriate for the Employment Bill. In some direct labour organisations there is a closed shop, and I do not object to that. I am not clear whether the hon. Member is saying that some individuals have been dismissed because they would not join a trade union. If that is so, I would want to look at the fine print of the membership agreement to see whether the hon. Member's claim is soundly based before making any further comments. I cannot say any more without further information.Amendment No. 38 seeks to impose a limit below which direct labour organisations could effectively go about their business without having to go out to contract. That is absolutely necessary. Why should every tin-pot repair to a house or school be subject to this bureaucratic procedure? That is the issue in question tonight. The limit that has been placed on the procedure in the amendment is extremely modest. I would like to see that limit increased in line with inflation over a period. Changes would be necessary over the years if that limit were effectively to remain as it is now. Clearly, we would have to change it in order to reflect changes in the retail price index. The threat to the direct labour organisations is extremely serious. Many hundreds of people throughout the country will be thrown out of work deliberately by these clauses and many will not get jobs in the Private sector because of the pool of unemployment. Ministers have a heavy responsibility, because they will put people into the dole queues at a time when it is extremely difficult to get jobs in the construction industry. I hope that they do not sleep well at nights when they think of that prospect. I believe that the clauses are damaging and irrelevant to the problems of the construction industry.
I have found this debate very interesting because on numerous occasions several hon. Members have referred to their experiences in local government. I served for a number of years on a local authority in a major city, and over the years it has become increasingly obvious that the issue of direct works organisations in the building trade is highly contentious.Conservatives talk about competition, but because this element of competition was introduced into the building industry by a Labour Government, they are suspicious. The Bill puts obstacles in the way of direct works departments, designed to ensure that they are not successful and cannot compete in doing first-class jobs. The Government are probably spending hundreds of thousands of pounds in their campaign against direct works departments. They say they have the ratepayers' interests in mind, but I believe that they are spending that money in their own interests. It has been suggested that the building industry is stable. The opposite is true. It is the most unstable industry in the country. There are bankruptcies week in and week out. In my constituency numerous firms have gone bankrupt and disappeared almost overnight. The local authority is left with the job of picking up the pieces. Without a direct works organisation it is difficult to complete a job that is left unfinished. Private builders can hold local authorities to ransom. They can demand any figure, and local authorities have to agree in order to complete the job. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Sir A. Costain) talked of local authority commitments as if one man and a wheelbarrow would be sufficient for the maintenance work. Manchester has about 100,000 council houses, which require maintenance by an organised labour force. If a work force is employed that is familiar with the estates and the buildings, it is more efficient, which leads to improved maintenance. Apprentices have been mentioned. I have been chairman of an education committee. The college of building is located in the centre of Manchester. Had it not been for Manchester's direct works organisation sending apprentices to that college, it would have closed down. The private sector did not send apprentices there. They had very few apprentices to send. It may be different in Birmingham, but an across-the-country examination will confirm what I have said. I should like to quote from report No. 10/1975. It is a report of a meeting held on 24 July 1975. It concerns the memorandum—
It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
That, at this day's sitting, the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.—[Mr. Brooke.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The report concerns the memorandum of evidence for the Lay-field committee of inquiry on local government and finance. Inter alia, it states:
That has been said by a distinguished body, which is supported by both Labour and Conservative Parties. Owner-occupiers provide evidence in favour of direct labour. The owner-occupier sees the benefit of direct labour. One often sees an owner-occupier undertaking do-it-yourself work. If a man decides to paint his house, he cuts out the middle man. As a result, he will get a first-class job, and he will save a lot of money. Direct labour was introduced to do exactly the same thing. Many local authorities do not believe that middle men should be paid when labour can be directly organised and engaged. Conservative Members cannot deny that they use direct labour when they carry out work. Local authorities have often suffered from jerry building. Cowboys turn up. For years, men worked on the lump without any moral responsibility to the local authority. That was disgraceful. Local authorities had to pick up the bill months later, when the contract had been completed. The men could not be found to correct some of the awful work that they had done. The subject of additional tendering is mind-boggling. If a massive army of estimators is used for tendering, enormous numbers of technical staff will be employed. Buildings and financial support will be needed. As a result, further costs will be incurred. Ratepayers will not want that, because it will not make the job any cheaper. Conservative Members often put their hands on their hearts and say that they are interested in making jobs cheaper. Such tendering will not do that. An organisation controlled by a local authority can achieve good standards in construction work, which will reduce the legacy of maintenance work. Maintenance bills are often a direct result of shabby building, of which there are scores of examples in many major cities, including Manchester. Direct labour provides a check on prices and sobers up the private sector. I was told recently about work carried out in a hospital that comes under an area health authority that has no direct works organisation. The recommended list of private builders tendered for about £14,000 for the most minimal adaptations. It worked out at £77 a square foot to build one wall, put a roof on it, and provide a toilet and lighting for a waiting room. I bet that the prices would not have come out like that if there had been a direct works organisation. My hon. Friends and I have nothing to be ashamed of. We know that people get value for money from direct labour organisations. Conservative Members may titter and chuckle, but they know that they are pursuing this matter in the interests not of ratepayers but of private builders."The Association which represents local authorities at both county and district level in London and in the six metropolitan, areas outside London, which between them serve a total population of nearly 20 million people, firmly believes that the properly regulated and controlled use of directly employed labour by local authorities in the fields of new construction and building maintenance brings substantial economic and financial benefits both to local authorities themselves and to the community at large."
As the hon. Member for a constituency in which there is a successful direct works department in Harlow new town, which is run by the Harlow district council, I wish to say a few words on the issues raised by the amendments.The Government have claimed at various times that local authorities should be locally controlled and that there should be less bureaucracy, less red tape and less outside interference. But the clauses that we are considering provide for exactly the opposite. Serious problems have arisen in many of the houses transferred by new town development corporations to local authorities. Those properties require considerable expenditure on repairs and the matter is being discussed by new town local authorities and the Department of the Environment. It is important to point out that the houses that are subject to those faults were built not by direct labour but by contractors. I am not criticising all contractors, but we should recognise that the apparent cost advantages that are sometimes claimed by contractors are illusory, particularly when the quality of work is inferior. Some of my hon. Friends have already referred to the problems with which the lump presented us. In many new towns, we are facing the legacy of those problems, which were not created by direct works departments. I do not believe that there is any justification for the clauses, even from the Government side, except as a gift to private contractors. That is the motivation behind their introduction. Many private contractors have suffered enormously from reductions in public expenditure forced on local authorities by the Government. In the new towns, large contractors have done very well as a result of the large public schemes that have been conceived by previous Governments, but which the present Government are not prepared to countenance. The bureaucracy to which these clauses will give rise will increase the cost to the public without any advantage to those who foot the bill. I do not see that there is any reasonable argument for placing restrictions on efficient direct works organisations. I believe that, for these reasons, we should most certainly support the amendments before the House.
We are discussing a multitude of amendments. I should like to bring the House back to them. A block of five, Nos. 28, 29, 31, 32 and 33, put down by the hon. Members for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) and for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas), are effectively wrecking amendments that would remove from the scope of the Bill more than 90 per cent. of all direct labour organisatons' activity, including virtually all operations of major significance. They cannot be accepted by the Government.A modest Government amendment, No. 30, is put down in response to a suggestion in Committee that certain arrangements for one council to do work for another, under section 18 of the London Government Act, were not properly dealt with. This is technical. A further Government drafting amendment, No. 34, again put down in response to discussion in Committee, clarifies clause 7(2), which has been the source of much misunderstanding. It makes it clear that DLOs will have to declare in advance the basis on which they intend to charge for their services. That is an obvious and fundamental requirement if they are to operate on a trading basis. We are working out a code of practice for the local authority associations and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, which will give further clarification and help to councillors who need it. Amendments Nos. 35 and 36 are again Government drafting amendments as foreshadowed in Committee. They have the same effect in relation to functional work as amendments Nos. 24 and 25 in relation to contract work. In amendments Nos. 37, 38 and 39, to which the right hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes) spoke, we come to the major issue, the tendering limits. I shall return to this question in a moment. I shall first finish my description of the amendments before the House by mentioning amendment No. 60, which also deals with an important matter. This amendment seeks to establish a de minimis level and excludes from the provisions of this part of the Bill authorities with only small direct labour organisations. I turn now to amendments Nos. 37, 38 and 39. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Widnes for the reasonable way in which he put them forward. The Government suggested in Committee, as a basis for consultation, new proposals for a possible regime for regulating DLO tendering. We have since listened to the arguments from various quarters both for relaxation and for tightening of the proposals. We have decided to make two changes to the February proposals. The first deals with highways work. We have always accepted that there are special problems in connection with winter maintenance, snow clearing and the like. The work is, in essence, unpredictable, as hon. Members have indicated. Authorities need to keep men and plant on standby. We have, therefore, decided to exempt all such work from the need for competition. Otherwise, for highways work we stick to our proposal that all highways work worth more than £100,000 should go out to tender. Secondly, on sewerage work, we have decided that, in view of the considerable interdependence between routine sewer maintenance and the emergency service provided by sewer gangs, there should be a single category to embrace both new sewerage work and sewer maintenance of all sorts. We shall require all work in that category to be exposed to competition if it is estimated to cost more than £50,000. That is a more stringent requirement than we first proposed for new sewerage work, but it is a significant relaxation in respect of maintenance work. 10.15 pm We shall make no other changes. New work, apart from highways work, will be subject to tender automatically once a project exceeds £50,000 in value. In addition, one-third of DLO turnover in this category, again excluding highways and sewerage work, will be exposed to the test of competition. Maintenance work will be free from the requirement for competitiion only in so far as it is worth less than £10,000. All the limits will be subject to revaluation in the light of changing building prices.
Are the Government saying that in no circumstances can a local authority enter into a negotiated tender with a private enterprise company? Alternatively, are the Government intending to allow local authorities to continue to negotiate tenders with private enterprise companies?
Various other matters are to be discussed. If there have been successful agreements between local authorities and the private sector, our proposals should not interfere with efficient workings.
Why does the provision apply only to direct labour organisations? That proves beyond doubt the dogmatic and doctrinaire attitude of the Government. Only direct labour organisations will suffer.
The hon. Gentleman is forgetting what direct labour organisations were set up to do. Before he becomes too excited, I suggest that he should wait until we put the tendering practices into operation and see how efficiently the organisations of which he is so proud perform. We are not saying that there will not be work for direct labour organisations. To listen to some hon. Members, one would think that that was our intention. All we are saying is that they must be accountable, as is the private sector.The amendments seek to impose requirements which are significantly less stringent than those upon which we are resolved. Efficient authorities with effective DLOs will be able to face competition of the type that we envisage. We are satisfied that the arrangements will spare authorities the burden of excessive tendering on small, essentially repetitive work. At the same time, we shall ensure that the prices of substantial projects are properly tested in competition. I think that that is acceptable on both sides of the House. Private building firms, particularly the small and medium-size firms, will be given a fair opportunity to compete for public sector work. The amendments should be rejected.
Has the Minister heard of the Bramwell report, which some years ago was adopted by a Conservative Government, under which direct labour departments and private contractors were allowed to tender for one contract and, on the basis of a successful tender in open competition, were allowed to negotiate another two contracts? Why are the Government moving away from that system when it has been so successful?
We have examined all the issues carefully. We came to conclusions which are written into the Bill. We are satisfied that we have found the best solution.I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean) about bureaucracy and accountability. What I shall say about the final amendment will please him in relation to the smaller DLOs. We are satisfied that in our negotiations with the CIPFA we shall find a simple procedure which will not involve the increase in staff of which some people are fearful. I am glad to have the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Sir. A. Costain). My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) was right to state that more training is done in the private sector than by local authorities. It is no good Opposition Members shaking their heads, because I have figures from the training boards. In the private sector there is one apprentice for every 12 employees, whereas in the local authority sector there is one apprentice for every 18 employees. My hon. Friend, therefore, was entirely right. I move now to amendment No. 60. I must advise the House to reject this amendment, which would effectively allow about 230 authorities of a total of 550 entirely to escape the provisions of this part of the Bill. We have, however, considered the matter of de minimis exclusion with great care, as we promised in Committee, and we agree that there is a point at which an undertaking becomes too small to draw the full benefit from the new accounting and management systems provided in the Bill. We think that that point comes when the number of operatives falls below 30. We shall therefore table amendments in another place to enable such authorities to be exempted from all the provisions of this part of the Bill.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that there is no provision in the Bill to prevent local authorities from giving work to their DLOs even if those organisations are not the lowest tenderers? Will he also give an assurance to the House that if that practice takes place on a grand scale he will require local authorities to advise the Secretary of State which contracts they are giving to direct labour when DLOs have not put in the lowest tender?
There are powers in the Bill to prevent that kind of abuse.Opposition Members must not see in the Bill an attack upon DLOs. We maintain that efficient DLOs have nothing to fear, but for far too long the others have been a drain on the ratepayers. It is about time that there was close accountability. The previous Labour Government spoke in terms of introducing certain measures in this context. They were just as worried as we are about certain excesses that were taking place. I advise my hon. Friends to oppose these amendments.
I am reassured by what my hon. Friend said on two points. The first concerns tenders and the second and more important point concerns small labour forces. Do I understand from what my hon. Friend said that there is a firm commitment on the part of the Government to introduce a de minimis rule that will allow smaller local authorities to employ a small number of people on emergency work without having to go through all the rigmarole? Is that correct?
My hon. Friend is right. It is our intention to exclude any DLO with fewer than 30 workers from these strictures. Local authorities will not have to set up a new organisation.
I have listened carefully to the Minister. My hon. Friends all said that the amendments that we were moving were modest and that they were desired by all three local authority associations. The Minister has not seen fit to concede even those modest amendments. The hon. Gentleman has given nothing to the House. Even on the de minimis principle it is clear from the attitude of the Government that this has nothing to do with free competition among authorities. It is a matter of malevolence towards building departments and direct works departments. The fact that the hon. Gentleman would not concede even the modest points that we raised is proof of that. When we come to amendment No. 38, we certainly intend to divide the House.
This has not been such a good debate. Many points have not been covered, and if we follow the advice given by the Government we shall follow what is, to a large extent, dogma.It is somewhat disingenuous of the Minister to say that this is not an attack on DLOs. It most clearly is an attack. If, in a competitive tendering system, there are private sector companies up against the wall putting in tenders that are well below what they would put in in a normal marketing situation, authorities will be forced to take those tenders. That will be the reality if there is an ongoing era of the sort of depression that we have seen in the building industry. As a result, there will not be the work for DLOs and we shall see the rundown of them. Inevitably there will be a substantial erosion of these departments. The real question is whether DLOs are always run as effectively and efficiently as they should be. Some of them are not so run, and it is right that those should be strengthened. But what we get from the Government's proposals does not achieve that. Whereas inefficient DLOs put an additional cost on the ratepayer, when private building contractors get into difficulties they put off labour and the cost goes on to the taxpayer. Apparently, that is quite legitimate but the other cost is not legitimate. The advantage of having a DLO on a substantial scale is that one can have planning of the manpower that has the skills to undertake the work rather than the present hotch-potch of having thousands of skilled men unemployed and no ongoing planning in the construction industry. That is the overwhelming argument. It is not an argument for having inefficient DLOs. It is an argument for having well-organised departments. I was rather encouraged by the Minister when he said that amendment No. 28 would wreck 90 per cent. of the Government's intentions. It nearly persuaded me that it would be worth pressing it. It is important, however, that we project from this debate the fact that the Opposition Benches were putting forward constructive amendments which would have been adding to and making more effective the work of DLOs and that the Government have come out against those amendments. For that reason, I am prepared not to press amendment No. 28 but to support amendment No. 38.
Amendment made: No. 30, in page 7, line 8, leave out 'or agreement' and insert ',agreement or requirement'.— [ Mr. Fox.]
Regulation Of Functional Work
Amendments made: No. 34, in page 7, line 36, leave out from 'work' to end of line 37 and insert
'of any description unless they have first prepared a written statement—
No. 35, in page 7, line 38, after 'regulations', insert '( a)'.
No. 36, in page 7, line 42, at end insert and
(b) specify other conditions with which a local authority or development body must
Division No. 387]
|Alton, David||Foster, Derek||Price, Christopher (Lewisham West)|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Graham, Ted||Race, Reg|
|Atkinson, Norman (H'gey, Tott'ham)||Grant, John (Islington C)||Richardson, Jo|
|Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)||Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)||Roberts, Ernest (Hackney North)|
|Beith, A. J.||Harrison, Rt Hon Walter||Rodgers, Rt Hon William|
|Booth, Rt Hon Albert||Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy||Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)|
|Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)||Haynes, Frank||Skinner, Dennis|
|Campbell-Savours, Dale||Heffer, Eric S.||Soley, Clive|
|Cartwright, John||Homewood, William||Spearing, Nigel|
|Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S)||Howells, Geraint||Spriggs, Leslie|
|Crowther, J. S.||Lamborn, Harry||Stoddart, David|
|Cryer, Bob||Lamond, James||Stott, Roger|
|Cunliffe, Lawrence||Leighton, Ronald||Strang, Gavin|
|Davidson, Arthur||Litherland, Robert||Straw, Jack|
|Davis, Terry (B'rm'ham, Stechford)||Maclennan, Robert||Wainwright, Richard (Coine Valley)|
|Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)||Marks, Kenneth||Welsh, Michael|
|Dixon, Donald||Mikardo, Ian||Wigley, Dafydd|
|Dormand, Jack||Mitchell, R. C. (Soton, Itchen)||Winnick, David|
|Douglas, Dick||Morton, George||Woolmer, Kenneth|
|Douglas-Mann, Bruce||Newens, Stanley|
|Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth||Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Eastham, Ken||Park, George||Mr. Hugh McCartney and Mr. John Evans.|
|Foot, Rt Hon Michael||Penhaligon, David|
|Alexander, Richard||Dorrell, Stephen||King, Rt Hon Tom|
|Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne)||Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James||Lamont, Norman|
|Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset)||Dover, Denshore||Lawson, Nigel|
|Beaumont-Dark, Anthony||Dunn, Robert (Dartford)||Lester, Jim (Beeston)|
|Benyon, Thomas (Abingdon)||Eggar, Timothy||Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)|
|Berry, Hon Anthony||Elliott, Sir William||Lyell, Nicholas|
|Best, Keith||Fairgrieve, Russell||Macfarlane, Neil|
|Biggs-Davison, John||Faith, Mrs Sheila||Mac Gregor, John|
|Blackburn, John||Fenner, Mrs Peggy||McNair-Wilson, Michael (Newbury)|
|Body, Richard||Fletcher-Cooke, Charles||Major, John|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Forman, Nigel||Marlow, Tony|
|Bottomley, Peter (Woolwich West)||Fox, Marcus||Mather, Carol|
|Brinton, Tim||Garel-Jones, Tristan||Maude, Rt Hon Angus|
|Brooke, Hon Peter||Gorst, John||Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin|
|Brown, Michael (Brigg & Sc'thorpe)||Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)||Mellor, David|
|Browne, John (Winchester)||Hampson, Or Keith||Moate, Roger|
|Bruce-Gardyne, John||Haselhurst, Alan||Morrison, Hon Charles (Devizes)|
|Cadbury, Jocelyn||Hawksley, Warren||Morrison, Hon Peter (City of Chester)|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Heddle, John||Murphy, Christopher|
|Chapman, Sydney||Henderson, Barry||Needham, Richard|