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Duty Of Local Authorities To Publish Information

Volume 987: debated on Thursday 3 July 1980

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

7.30 pm

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:
    "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."
    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:
    "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."
    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.

    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
    "We would need the freedom from Ministers to provide the public with the best information available."
    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.

    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:
    "(1) The purpose of the exercise is to give ratepayers clearer information about local government activities"—
    one would certainly applaud that—
    "(2) to make it easier for electors, ratepayers and other interested parties to make comparisons of and judgments on the performance of their authorities.
    (3) to help councillors make a judgment about the work 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.

    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:
    "Regulations shall not be made … where —(a) The Secretary of State has approved a code of practice"
    "(b) the Secretary of State is satisfied that local authorities are complying with that code of practice."
    The second part of the amendment states that:
    "Before approving a code of practice … the Secretary of State shall consult such associations of authorities to whom this Part of this Act applies".
    That part of the amendment is covered in clause 2(12), because it now reads:
    "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 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.

    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.

    Amendments made:

    No. 7, in page 3, line 23, leave out

    ' subsection (3) above, regulations under this section may authorise'

    and insert

    ' 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.]