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Local Government (Widdicombe Report)

Volume 100: debated on Wednesday 25 June 1986

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6.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he proposes to issue the Government's response to the Widdicombe report on local government practices and procedures; and if he will make a statement.

12.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment when he proposes to publish the final report of the Widdicombe committee on local government.

15.

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what response he has received to the publication of the main report of the Widdicombe committee on local government.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mrs. Angela Rumbold)

I refer the hon. Gentlemen and my hon. Friend to the answer given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Rowe) on 19 June.

Why have the Government been so quiet about the publication of the report, given the enthusiasm with which they set up the inquiry? Is it because the Widdicombe report has tackled the problem of one-party domination in local councils, has supported democracy in local councils and has made constructive recommendations on how to strengthen them? Will the Government recognise that not only must they consult, but that there must be an early debate in the House and that they must act on the recommendations?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman believes that the report has been received quietly. It received wide coverage in the press and was welcomed widely by many people in local government. The report has responded fully to the concerns across party political lines that local democracy has been somewhat under threat in a few councils. As a result we have a good report, which contains about 88 proposals, which present a balanced and interrelated package. We shall have serious consultation on this matter.

Is it not true that the proposals to ban people of the rank of principal officer and above from effective political activity is the gravest attack on employment civil liberties since the banning of trade unions at GCHQ? Is it not true that the practice of party representatives attending council group meetings is almost as widespread in the Tory party as it is in the Labour party? The proposed ban is causing grave concern and disquiet. Will the Minister ensure that those aspects of the Widdicombe proposals which try to separate party politics from elected local government are rejected? If not, will she be consistent and demand the removal of the chairman of the Tory party from the Cabinet?

I do not accept the later part of the hon. Gentleman's question. The report will be subject to the fullest and widest consultation among all the parties concerned. On his earlier point about principal officers and above not being allowed to sit on local councils, I remind him that no civil servants are allowed to be Members of this House.

Did my hon. Friend notice the warm reception given to the report in The Guardian editorial? Will that encourage her to seek early legislation to deal with the worst excesses of political corruption, which still cause consternation in local government?

I understand my hon. Friend's anxiety about the worse excesses of political corruption. I read the warm response to the publication in The Guardian. I repeat that the package of 88 recommendations deserves sensible consideration and consultation before the Government take action.

Does the Minister support the idea of ending one-party policy committees on local councils? If so, how will that apply to the London borough of Newham, where all 60 councillors are Labour and there is no opposition? Why is it different for central Government as opposed to local government? If we open policy committee meetings in local government, why not open them in central Government and allow the Opposition into Cabinet meetings?

The House will not be in the slightest bit interested in my views on the report. My Department will be happy to receive the views of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) on the report in due course.

Will my hon. Friend commend the members of the Widdicombe committee on an excellent job — at first sight — which demands much attention before we can make detailed comment? Will she note that the House would appreciate a full-scale debate in advance of the Government producing their proposals on Widdicombe, so that hon. Members can add their input to the important debate on the health of local government?

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks and draw his attention to the response of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne the other day, when he thanked Mr. David Widdicombe and his fellow committee members most sincerely for their report and commented that the committee's study had been thorough and that the report was impressive in the extent of its coverage and the scope of its findings.

As for a debate on the report, that is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

Will the Under-Secretary accept that the sort of language that she is using and the fact that she is responding to the question lead us to conclude that Widdicombe will be quietly sidelined by the Government, probably because it offers no justification for the wilder allegations of the Conservative party about the state of affairs of local government in this country? For example, does the Under-Secretary accept the comment of Mr. David Widdicombe in his foreword:

"There is a solid base of normality in local government"?
Will the hon. Lady realise that we cannot accept not only the retention of personal surcharge, but its expansion to cover elected members in Scotland? We also cannot accept the proposal of Mr. Widdicombe's committee that chief executives should have extended legal powers over democratically elected councillors.

Widdicombe is disappointing because it has failed to address itself to the opportunity with which it was presented to strengthen and enhance local democracy in Britain.

The hon. Member has made the point well that, whatever my lack of seniority, there is considerable uncertainty about the responses of Opposition Members and my hon. Friends, which points to the need for serious consideration through consultation. I hope that that will be achieved in the responses of hon. Members and the many outside organisations and individuals who are interested in local government.