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Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland) : Does the Secretary of State accept that the effectiveness of his proposals for the transfer of responsibility to regional arts boards cannot be judged until some time has passed, and that it will be judged by the extent to which they increase access to the arts and help to redress the metropolitan bias of arts funding, to which the Arts Council has drawn attention in the national strategy for arts and media? The right hon. Gentleman's desire to achieve stability, in view of the uncertainties flowing from five Secretaries of State or equivalent Ministers in rather fewer years, is desirable. It is not possible to close down the debate in the manner that he described at the end of his statement, for substantial parts of the country lack facilities that will be required to be built up and, in practice, his proposals might require to be looked at with flexibility which should not undermine the certainty that he seeks to achieve.
Does the Secretary of State also recognise that the effectiveness of the structural proposals will be undermined if funding is not placed on a more secure basis than the autumn statement provided, that triennial funding is to be preferred to annual funding, and that a separation of structure from funding cannot be total?
Mr. Brooke : The hon. Gentleman's question about effectiveness is obviously well targeted. I agree that the test of the decisions that I announced today, in line with previous policy under previous Ministers, will be the extent to which the arts flourish. The success of the arts organisations in the response that they evoke from the nation is the critical criterion.
One of the disadvantages of the uncertainty of the past couple of years, when decisions were quite properly and deliberately delayed, has been not properly to test the ability of regional arts boards to handle the issues concerned. Of course the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we will consider the manner in which they handle responsibilities now that that uncertainty has been removed. On the hon. Gentleman's question about the absence of facilities in certain parts of the country, one of the attractions of the national lottery--again I refer to what I said earlier about its not being a substitute for public expenditure--is that it will be possible to envisage capital projects that are clearly one-off events and are not instead of anything that might be happening at the relevant time. I have said that we will obviously keep matters under review. I was seeking to say that we will not pull up the system by its roots during the life of this Parliament, because that would be the worst possible development in terms of uncertainty.
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) : I invite my right hon. Friend to comment on one respect in which the moneys that were announced today will be spent, and that is the extent to which the Arts Council is or is not entitled to appoint its own members to the boards of artistic
Column 1130companies. I appreciate that my right hon. Friend cannot comment on a specific example, but may I none the less cite one?
I refer to a constituent, Dr. Mary Malecka, who used to sit on the board of the Haymarket theatre in Leicester. She received a letter saying that she was no longer able to do so. That letter came not from the Haymarket theatre but from the Arts Council. To what extent is the Arts Council risking going beyond its statutory position in doing that, and is it in the interests of artistic freedom that we should allow it such licence?
Mr. Brooke : My hon. Friend was kind enough to say that I would not be able to comment on the specific constituency case that he mentioned. I will certainly consider the circumstances that he addressed.
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : Is there not a danger that there will be less money for London arts, ethnic minority arts and disabled persons arts? What does the Secretary of State mean by the Arts Council "privatising" client assessment? Does that mean that it will hire private detectives at great cost to snoop on drama groups and artists? Should not the Government make extra funds available to the arts in advance of the national lottery?
Mr. Brooke : The Arts Council will, of course, make decisions about its allocation of funds to the regional arts boards on the basis of the responsibility that those boards have. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, also as a London Member, will share my pride in the reputation that the London arts board has built up since its inception. As for the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I am conscious that, from time to time, we enter the wilder forms of conspiracy theory, but I do not think that what the hon. Gentleman has suggested is likely to occur.
Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East) : I thank my right hon. Friend for using this opportunity to end the uncertainty in arts funding and for confirming that the Arts Council will continue to support the great British arts institutions--ballet, theatre, music and opera. What effect will my right hon. Friend's statement have on popular bodies such as the Bournemouth symphony orchestra, which successfully performs in not just one but several regions in this country, as well as internationally ? Will it be entitled to grant aid not just from its own regional body but from any of the others ?
Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford) : In welcoming the Secretary of State's statement we have to congratulate him on its clarity and the speed with which he made the decisions since his recent appointment. More than any right hon. or hon. Member, the Secretary of State knows about the vitality of the arts throughout the Province of Northern Ireland. He will know also that we in Northern Ireland, as United Kingdom taxpayers, contribute to the national Exchequer in the same way as other citizens of the United Kingdom, and that therefore, in some respects, we have an interest in the national Arts Council. However, There is a feeling in Northern Ireland that the national arts institutions that tour the United Kingdom do not go to Northern Ireland
Column 1131to the same extent as they go to other parts of Great Britain. That raises the question whether it is wise to retain a separate arts council in Northern Ireland.
I wish that the Secretary of State had given some attention in his statement to whether it would now be better for Northern Ireland to have a regional arts board, just as other regions in Great Britain have regional arts boards, so that we could have shared more equitably in national institutions' tours of the United Kingdom. The Secretary of State said that the national lottery might be used to fund the arts. If it is intended to keep the Arts Council in Northern Ireland as a separate institution and not to allow it to become part of the network of regional arts boards, will the national lottery be used to finance the separate Arts Council in Northern Ireland as well as the Arts Council in Great Britain?
Mr. Brooke : The right hon. Gentleman was kind in his initial remark, and asked two specific questions. I have many reasons for regretting that I no longer serve the Province, and the issue of the vitality of the arts in Northern Ireland is one of them. I am greatly encouraged when I go round and see the national companies and touring companies which, perhaps because of my previous tour of service in the Province, know me and show their enthusiasm for touring. I shall do everything that I can to encourage them.
The distributor of funds for the arts will clearly take Northern Ireland into account, but it would be wrong for me to say how that will be done. The matter of the Northern Ireland Arts Council is one for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and I shall draw his attention to the interest in the matter shown by the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor).
Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) : I understand that my right hon. Friend's Department publishes guidelines for client selection. Will he give priority to the touring that he mentioned in his statement? It is important that those in the regions are able to see the well-proven popular shows performed in other parts of the United Kingdom, particularly the cities, that they may not otherwise be able to afford to travel to see. That issue must take priority over funding minority interest events, which not many people would go to see even if they could afford to do so.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Does the Minister agree that art reflects society at any given time? The arts of the 1990s will probably reflect the slump throughout the decade. Is the Secretary of State aware of the fact that he cannot rely on business paying too much money into the arts, because every hour of every day, three businesses go under the hammer and bankruptcy proceedings are taken out against them? Is he also aware that, if he uses the national lottery to finance the arts, he will be calling on working-class people in villages where pits are being closed and, with them, brass bands--which are part of the culture of those villages, in some cases, the only art form--to buy national lottery tickets so that other people in the metropolis can go to the ballet and the opera?
Mr. Brooke : I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's main thesis. The amount of money, in real terms, spent on the arts is now 44 per cent. above what it was when the Labour Government left office. As for business sponsorship of the arts. I reiterate what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) that the amount of sponsorship continues to rise in absolute terms, partly because the network of sponsors is steadily spreading. I have said before from the Dispatch Box that I regard brass bands as part of our national heritage, and have spoken of my interest in their future. However, the decision whether to buy a national lottery ticket is a matter for the individual. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is wrong to suggest that the proceeds from the tickets would necessarily go to metropolitan arts. They will be allocated by the distributor, whoever that may be, on a national basis. They are not intended as a substitute for public expenditure.
Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North) : The Welsh Arts Council is currently funded directly by the Arts Council of Great Britain, which is an anomaly, as other organisations such as the Welsh tourist board are funded directly from the Welsh Office. During the examination of the structure of the Arts Council of Great Britain, will the possibility of direct Welsh Office funding for the Welsh Arts Council be considered? If that is not the current intention, when is such consideration likely to take place?
Mr. Brooke : The decisions today relate to the balance of responsibility between the arts councils and the regional arts boards. Therefore, they have no direct impact on the Scottish and Welsh arts councils. However, it will be appropriate to consider that issue in future, and I do not rule it out.
Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : The Secretary of State said that the national lottery was not meant to substitute for Government expenditure on the arts and sports. Will he today give a firm guarantee that there will be no national lottery substitution for public expenditure on arts and sports funding in any way during the course of this Parliament? I want that guarantee today.
Mr. Brooke : I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying ; he and I have had many gracious exchanges over the years, and I should be grateful if he would allow me to finish my paragraph. The national lottery will not be a substitute for public expenditure
Column 1133Therefore, it is important that those who allocate the funds should not do so to recipients normally funded through public expenditure.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : It seems unfortunate that we have lapsed back into the practice of having important arts statements on Fridays. National Heritage questions were held earlier this week, and it seems that today's important statement should have been made then--there is no reason why it should not have been. I notice that the Secretary of State is missing an important event--the Association of Business Sponsorship of the Arts awards at the national theatre. However, he will arrive there in time for a light buffet at 12.30 pm, but the statement means that I shall not get there for either event, so perhaps he will give my apologies to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, who I know will miss me sorely. Will there be a period of public consultation on the issue of the organisational changes? Will the Secretary of State give the House a guarantee that he will speak to the Leader of the House so that we may have a full debate on the Floor of the House on today's important statement about the future organisation and funding of the arts in Great Britain? We should not merely have to rely on a statement slipped out on a Friday, which almost leads us to believe that the Secretary of State felt ashamed of what he was saying.
Mr. Brooke : The hon. Gentleman's final observation is totally wrong. By helpfully reminding the House that the ABSA awards are taking place today, which he might have attended, as might the hon. Members for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) and for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd)- -
Mr. Brooke : The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) particularly regrets not being present. That in itself is a sign of how inconvenient it has been to have the statement on a Friday. I acknowledge that inconvenience, but we were determined to have the statement before Christmas. This is not a consultative exercise. The decisions have been announced as decisions ; they have been pressed on us for a significant length of time by the interested parties, who have wanted a firm decision to be taken. Of course there will be an opportunity to discuss them ; and I should certainly welcome an arts debate, whatever form it took.
Question again proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Dr. Liam Fox : It may help if I reiterate what I was saying before the commercial break. It is all too easy for people in the United Kingdom to ask why they should help the emerging east European countries, given that we are in difficult economic circumstances ourselves. I offered an anecdotal example of a hotel in Prague. Similarly, on a recent visit to Budapest I stayed with some of my hon. Friends at a hotel where we came across what we thought was some sort of fringe, alternative-medicine clinic. It turned out to be a mainstream clinic in the health service of Hungary. It is all too easy for us to take our facilities for granted, but those with experience of east European economies, local government and medical services realise how fortunate we are in the United Kingdom. Some people say that the east Europeans got themselves into this mess and should get themselves out of it. But the people who are the victims of oppression in eastern Europe cannot be held accountable for the fact that state socialism was the intellectual hiccup of the 20th century. We have a duty to help these people, on whom socialism was imposed by those who came before.
East European nations greatly need our financial help and the expertise that we can give them. They have suffered 80 years of oppression and of violations of their human rights--80 years in which every little bit of their self-reliance was knocked out of them. Some parts of the United Kingdom may exhibit victims of the welfare state mentality ; how much more do the victims of the former Soviet Union suffer from that mentality? All their self-reliance was knocked out of them, systematically and over decades.
Unfortunately, we have not been able entirely to eradicate this mentality from Opposition Members, even if we have managed to rescue east European countries from it. Those countries have no experience of democratic institutions. We take our whole culture of democracy for granted : they have no experience of it. It is not a matter of tinkering with their systems to improve them : some of these countries have no system or structure in place to improve upon. If they are to remain stable and to develop economically and politically, they urgently need our help.
Even if we do not help these countries for philanthropic reasons, there are advantages for us in other areas. It will be to out long-term advantage if there is a stable European economy, both east and west. We shall be looking for export markets in these countries, so we might as well help them develop the expertise to move to free markets, by means of our know-how funds and so on. They need the political development which brings political stability.
We are all well aware of what decades of political instability in Europe have meant for defence expenditure and for our fears about security. We should not forget our military security merely because the immediate threat of the cold war has passed. We must not forget that the potential for instability remains. The same number of weapons are still deployed against us, so it is all the more important to maintain the political stability that leads to military security.
There is immense good will towards the United Kingdom on the part of east European countries, middle
Column 1135eastern and African countries, and former empire countries that are now part of the Commonwealth. We do ourselves down if we believe that we do not have something to offer them, given our historical experience and our expertise.
I caution some hon. Members who talk of imposing our culture on these countries. I believe in the triumph of the west ; our values, our market economies and our democratic credentials are being taken over worldwide. But there are dangers in trying to impose our culture on other nations. We must teach them our values, but we must also allow them to develop them in a way compatible with their culture. That is more sustainable in the long term than trying to impose a single model on them--an attempt that has sometimes failed in the past.
What do these countries need? They could do with a little political understanding. The German example is worrying. Parts of the west German political establishment did not exhibit tolerance for the problems of the east for very long. We will not solve the problems of eastern Europe or other developing countries in a short time. The process will require a great deal of patience. In the meantime, we must display our political maturity to the full. Hon. Members and people in the United Kingdom at large would benefit from travelling more widely and learning for themselves how far behind us these countries are.
These countries need financial help. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is the institution that has been set up to provide funding. Developing countries also need professional knowledge, and some of our know -how. The environmental aspects of the know-how funds are important. Anyone who has travelled to eastern Europe knows how far behind us its countries are in terms of consideration for the environment. The environmental debate in this country is at a far higher level than in theirs. Environmental horrors are widespread in eastern Europe. We must therefore match our expertise to these countries' needs, and I commend my hon. Friend for attempting to do that by means of this Bill.
There are always risks in Bills of this kind, but they have been well avoided in this case. There is the risk, for instance, of treating town hall officials and politicians as if they are mini-foreign offices running their own foreign policy. Public money has been wasted too often in the past. There have been public interest abuses in local government, and those abuses must be stopped. So the transfer of expertise must be limited to legitimate functions of local Government. This Bill achieves exactly that. The Bill contains two important safeguards. Clause 2 gives the Secretary of State the final say. All foreign office implications must ultimately be sanctioned by central Government, and local government must not be allowed to use a Bill of this nature to further minority aims. I therefore congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe on clause 2.
Clause 4 makes it quite clear that the process is not about transferring money from the United Kingdom to other structures abroad : it is about transferring expertise. I hope that those listening outside the House will take note of that. It is important to differentiate between the functions of central and local government : the functions of the former include overseas aid for the developing
Column 1136countries of eastern Europe and beyond ; the functions of the latter include providing the expertise that local government has built up over many a year.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this important Bill. It is perfectly in tune with his other contributions to this subject over the years, and I believe that it will be valuable to all who wish to help these developing countries to emerge from a dreadful period of their history to join the free family of nations. 11.49 am
Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. Until I came in at 10 o'clock I had no intention of speaking and was not aware that the Bill was being given its Second Reading. For some time I have believed that the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) should speak from the Dispatch Box for the Government on overseas development because he knows more about that than any other Conservative Member.
The Bill addresses many of the issues that I was able to identify when I was an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman on overseas development. I have since moved to agriculture, but I still follow overseas matters. I had to leave that brief because of the arrangement between the other place and this House in terms of answering questions. If I had remained in that post I would have tried to be on the Standing Committee dealing with this Bill. The Bill is about overseas development and about how this country can transfer expertise and skills, which we have in abundance, to other local authorities or to simpler bodies in various parts of the world. Some of my colleagues and I prepared a document that revamped and amended Labour's historic approach to overseas development and contained a section dealing with the transfer of skills. We intended to use local authorities in precisely the way the Bill envisages. That policy initiative resulted from the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) and myself in various parts of the world. In many countries we discussed the problems of acquiring the expertise and skills that are necessary to enable local government to be properly managed. We often drew the simple conclusion that if our public health official, housing manager or social services officer responsible for disablement or for elderly care had been available, it could have resulted in a major transformation in the delivery of services. The quality of service might not be as sophisticated as that which is available in the United Kingdom, but delivery could have been transformed. The Bill opens the door to creating such opportunities.
Experience is required in building surveying and in the establishment and enforcement by surveyors of building regulations. Such expertise is required in the most deprived parts of the world and in parts of the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe. Our local authorities have such expertise, especially in building surveying and in the introduction and enforcement of regulations. As we all know, building standards are low in many parts of the world.
Hon. Members have spoken about environmental management, a subject in which Britain is on a learning curve. We have already developed skills in such management which should be transferred, especially to
Column 1137central Europe where there are major environmental problems and where, perhaps inevitably, there will be an environmental disaster. There is some criticism in Britain of the management of publicly owned housing, but, in the main, it is about the resources that are available to local authorities. In principle, the systems for local housing management are good, even if the funds are not always there to oil the management arrangements. In many parts of the world where housing projects have been completed under overseas development schemes, we could provide management teams. When I held the development brief I discovered that when the major donors completed projects they did not always leave behind a management system. The schemes often went to rack and ruin because of the lack of a revenue-supported management system.
Perhaps an argument against such a system is that it draws funds away from the original capital project. However, we could approach local authorities in third-world countries to see whether they are prepared to transfer managerial resources to secure continuity in the management of donor schemes. Whether they are British donors is irrelevant.
Direct labour organisations have varying support in the House, but perhaps today we can unite on the principle. Regardless of one's political views about the necessity for DLOs, some local authorities operate them very efficiently. Perhaps some people could be transferred abroad to help establish similar organisations to carry out public works.
The Bill is about a two-way process. I have spoken about what we can give, rather than about transferring large amounts of aid which often, unfortunately, may not reach the targets or the expectation of the local project. The other benefit derives from people leaving the United Kingdom, perhaps on six or 12-month contracts. I have not read the Bill in detail or spoken to the hon. Member for Broxtowe about it, but, if he thinks as I do, he probably envisages people leaving here under contract to carry out a piece of work and then returning. He probably also envisages a flow of people from other countries to the United Kingdom. Perhaps in future we may have a Pole, a Ukrainian, an Estonian and a Lithuanian working in the housing, health or social services departments in Workington or Carlisle or elsewhere in Cumbria. People may be brought in to gain experience of how local authorities can be managed efficiently and to learn about the delivery of quality services. Such an interchange of people will help international relations.
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) : The House will look kindly on the warm and generous words that the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) had for my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester), which reflected not only on the merits of my hon. Friend's Bill but on him personally.
In an excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) referred to some unpronounceable town in Hungary that is twinned with Chorley. That struck a particular note with me. If one drives, as I often do, past Rutland Water and through the small village of Whitwell, one cannot help but notice a large sign proclaiming, "Whitwell--twinned with Paris".
Column 1138One might ask how such a tiny mouse of a town could be twinned with such an elephant of a European capital. That came about because the parish council, which is very internationalist in its outlook, wrote to the mayor of Paris explaining that Whitwell lay at the heart of England and wished to twin with an important capital on the European mainland. The council received no reply. It wrote again, and still no reply came. On the third occasion, the council's letter included a paragraph stating, "If we receive no reply within five weeks, Mr. Mayor, we shall assume that you have agreed to our proposal." The sign was erected in the fifth week and has remained there ever since.
The sense of municipal pride and the effectiveness of our local administration has gone from peak to trough over the past 100 years, but in many respects has reached a peak again. In many of our towns and cities, we can see monuments to the effectiveness of Victorian local government-- splendid buildings that were imaginatively designed and planned, well laid out, and of a structure and beauty that have endured more than a century.
In the years after the last war, some of that went horribly sour. Local government became inefficient, and some of its planning and other decisions were detrimental. In the past 10 years or so there has been a dramatic turnround in the quality of local government administration and in the professionalism with which it addresses its tasks. Since the somewhat unconservative reforms of 1973--which attempted to abolish the county of Rutland but have not altogether succeeded--a debate has raged about the future of local government, and its entire detail is now being studied by an excellent royal commission.
During those years, many councils were charged with detailed statutory obligations and developed valuable expertise. In the past 20 years, the House--in the Acts that it has passed--has obliged local government to take on more and more duties. In doing so, local government has developed a professional approach to the conduct of its duties that is exemplary.
At the same time, we have witnessed the collapse of many aspects of government, particularly in what were the iron curtain countries. Our own councils re-examined the way in which they conducted their affairs and-- urged by Conservative Administrations--decided to privatise where that was deemed possible, to contract out services, and to bring greater efficiency to the charge payer and greater attentiveness to the sensibilities of those who must pay a local tax.
In the past few years, our Government have urged the former communist countries to adopt our methods of government--to look to a free enterprise system, and to try to copy or mimic the way that we conduct our business. No sooner had we done that than we found that our councils are almost forbidden by law to share their expertise. Those who want to give Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and other countries the benefit of their experience must take a small step beyond the law.
Nothing could be more galling to those able to offer that expertise. Nothing could be more irresponsible on our part than to have urged all those in the west to share the benefits of our system with the emerging democracies of the east, only to put a barrier in their way as soon as they wanted to do so.
Those aspects of our body politic that have been privatised, such as water companies, are free not only to advise but to invest in the emerging democracies. Regional
Column 1139water companies and British Gas are very internationalist in their outlook and are lending much expertise to those who are so desperate for the benefits that they can offer.
That cannot be done easily by local government, which is why I welcome my hon. Friend's excellent Bill. The hon. Member for Workington mentioned several of the ways that we can help which I had in mind. For example, many of the emerging democracies have no basis of law in governing the development and ownership of property. British local councillors and council officers who are expert in planning and building control could visit those countries, or invite them to send representatives to our country, to help them at the very start of the long process of redevelopment. Our experts can help them to understand how properly to develop their cities and infrastructure and to establish a proper framework of property ownership and development.
That will be of crucial importance if firms are to be able to invest with certainty and to manage their risk--and not construct a factory only to find that someone else owns it, or that the rules governing the supply of water and electricity and the disposal of sewage are unclear. That is one area in which our councillors and officials, with their great expertise, can be of great use, and I encourage that practice in all respects.
My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe mentioned the conduct of elections. Nothing can be more important to the emerging domocracies than that democracy should survive, that those who participate in the democratic process should have faith in it, and that the process should endure in a way that enjoys the trust of the electorate. Every Member of Parliament has witnessed the efficiency with which the voting papers tipped out of the ballot boxes on election night are counted in a way that we fully trust. As the piles mount up, one knows that the votes have been properly counted. The conduct of elections is another area where local government expertise can be applied with great benefit to the emerging democracies of eastern Europe.
Environmental control is another important issue. As the economies of emergent democracies develop and speed up, waste disposal and, where possible, recycling will be of utmost importance. As the economies of eastern Europe began to crumble, many of the safeguards and standards that we take for granted were swept aside. We know from documentary programmes and from our own studies the ease with which waste was poured into beautiful waters. We probably cannot imagine the extent to which other waste may be piling up in areas that we have not yet identified. Waste disposal and recycling are done very well in this country, and our local councils should be free to explain the most modern methods to countries that are desperate for such instruction. The same applies to community care and social services : since the war we have benefited increasingly from a growing welfare state, and the countries that we are discussing will soon be crying out for the same facility.
We are made miserable by watching on our television screens, from the comfort of our armchairs, the suffering of people confined to asylums. We can offer our expertise, however : we can help other countries to care for such people in the best possible way. If we deny those countries our expertise we shall be denying them a basic human right, which would be unforgivable.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford) pointed out earlier, we should not
Column 1140assume that the Bill applies only to eastern Europe. We may not be able to predict where it will be of benefit in the future, but we know that it will allow our councils to travel to any part of the globe--albeit, under the sensible clause 2, with the permission of the Secretary of State, to ensure that the process is properly monitored and does not use public funds when that is inappropriate. Moreover, the Bill will not be a one-way street. Perhaps we now have the advantage of knowing a bit more than some other countries, and being able to apply our expertise ; but, as they visit us and we visit them, we shall gain the ability to benefit from their experience. I commend the Bill, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe.
Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford) : I join hon. Members on both sides of the House in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester). I am proud to sponsor his Bill ; I do so not only through conviction, but because of my deep interest in Commonwealth matters, which is expressed chiefly through my membership of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I viewed today's debate with some trepidation at the beginning of the week, knowing that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe was besieged in a Bombay hotel. I wondered whether it might be possible for him to arrange to telephone his speech to the House ; it was with enormous relief that we received the message that he was able to fly back to London. I echo the tribute paid by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) to my hon. Friend's contribution to overseas matters during the many years in which he has been a Member of Parliament--years that have passed as quickly as the years that I have spent in the House, and, I trust, as enjoyably. It will be difficult to match my hon. Friend's knowledge and ability in the future.
My hon. Friend has used his privileged position--he came first in the ballot, on which I congratulate him--to clear up a technicality : modest as ever, he used that very phrase. I join other hon. Members in praising him for choosing such an important but low-profile subject, rather than trying to introduce legislation that would make headlines and bring him publicity. The Commonwealth--and, indeed, the Commonwealth of Independent States--will be particularly grateful to him.
My hon. Friend, with his interest in Commonwealth matters, will know that, although Commonwealth parliamentarians range from those who represent a million or more in India to those who represent a hundred or fewer in the Cook islands, and although they have a huge variety of responsibilities and interests, a recurrent theme when they gather is the problem of seeking advice. How, for instance, can a distant country tackle the problem of refuse disposal cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), or that of coastal defence and protection?
We regularly bend our minds to the question of election monitoring and election structuring, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) pointed out. Not having recourse to a direct line of advice leads to a feeling of powerlessness : as my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford) said, in the past we
Column 1141have had to assist in oblique ways. I am very pleased that we are now seeking to use all our expertise to solve other countries' problems.
My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State may be able to clarify the question of election monitoring. In this country, election monitoring--or election structuring--is carried out by the returning officers, who are part of local government but who do not necessarily include only one local authority in their bailiwick. The returning officer for my constituency, for instance, is responsible for two district councils. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the matters relating to election advice that were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East will be covered by the Bill, and that they will not fall between two stools?
Reference has been made to the "export potential" of the Bill, and the possibility of mutual benefit--benefit to the recipient authority in the form of advice, and benefit to this country in the form of possible orders for equipment, software and so forth. We must be proactive in this regard. It is one thing to enable a technicality to be removed ; it is another to maximise the opportunities presented by the Bill. Other agencies, apart from the Overseas Development Administration--for instance, the European development fund and various United Nations agencies--can be used at no great expense ; but how are they to be harnessed, and how can we ensure that they know what expertise is needed? How is local government to know what opportunities are available?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, and I am glad that the House is giving the Bill a fair wind.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : On behalf of the official Opposition, I welcome the Bill and say that we shall give it our wholehearted support. I join hon. Members in all parts of the House who have congratulated the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) on securing pole position in the ballot for private Member's Bills. I say that with more than just a slight twinge of jealousy. As others have said, the subject is a most appropriate one for the hon. Member for Broxtowe, for he has great interest and knowledge of overseas affairs. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) spoke for all my hon. Friends when he said that we should have liked to see the hon. Gentleman speaking on overseas development matters at the Dispatch Box.
The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) reminded the House that the hon. Member for Broxtowe has just returned from an eventful Commonwealth Parliamentary Association visit to India. According to newspaper reports-- which I understand from the hon. Member for Broxtowe became a little lurid in the telling--bricks were thrown at the delegation, thus leading to that classic newspaper headline in this country "MPs stoned in India." That confirmed the very worst suspicions of uncharitable voters about the conduct of Members of Parliament while abroad.
We welcome the Bill. It underlines the great contribution that can be made by British local authorities to development abroad. It is interesting to note that a consensual atmosphere has permeated this Second
Column 1142Reading debate. That atmosphere extends outside the House. The hon. Member for Broxtowe has consulted extensively with various local authority associations, all of which--Conservative dominated and Labour dominated--have welcomed the Bill. Nevertheless, I shall raise later a few worries that they have. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure them. If he cannot reassure them today, I hope that we shall be able to deal with them in Committee.
The hon. Member for Broxtowe said that local government provides the genuine sinews of democracy. I say "Hear, hear" to that--and "Hear, hear" again. I am a passionate believer in local democracy and local accountability. I served as an elected member of two local authorities from 1970 until 1986. I might have served longer than that if the Conservative Government of the day had not abolished the authority upon which I happened to be serving at that time, the Greater London council, of which I was the chairman.
I have to say, in this consensual atmosphere, that there are those of us on this side of the House who feel that, since 1979, Conservative Administrations, far from welcoming the
contribution--both in this country and abroad--that local authorities can make, have been at war with them by restricting their autonomy, by continually undermining their accountability to their local electorate and by limiting their resources, while placing ever more responsibilities, which previously were central Government responsibilities, on local authorities and then denying them adequate funds to carry them out, thus leaving them--it is an old trick but it never fails to work--completely in the firing line when they cannot deliver the standard of services that they would like to provide.
Mr. Banks : We had something to celebrate in those days, I might add. If I remember rightly, at that time the rate support grant was running at around 60 per cent. of local government expenditure. Now it is down to about 40 or 41 per cent. In those days, there was an awful lot for local authorities to be pleased about. I do not suggest to Conservative Members that local government can have complete liberty over its finances. Central Government must always set the broad parameters. Central Government always have done and always will do. What we have seen, however, is the continual change of those parameters and of the duties and responsibilities of local government under Conservative Administrations since 1979.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robin Squire) : I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, who is ifull flow, but, to put the historic record correct, since he was a local authority member in the 1970s, he may or may not recall that, when it came to detailed capital expenditure, every single detail of large swathes of local authority expenditure had to come to the Department of the Environment to be examined and pored over by accountants, engineers and architects, thus doubling or tripling the work. That includes the time when the hon. Gentleman's party was in government. We did away with that when we came to power in 1979.