Local Audit and Accountability Bill [Lords]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This Bill is a natural progression of the coalition Government’s programme for reform. It decentralises power away from quangos to local people, it saves taxpayers money by cutting waste and red tape, and it replaces top-down inspection with local accountability and transparency.

The Bill will do three things. First, it will abolish the residual Audit Commission. We have already abolished its interfering and ineffective inspection regimes, such as comprehensive area assessment. We have successfully outsourced its local audit contracts, building on the fact that a lot was already outsourced. This Bill provides for the primary legislation to finish the job. There is an obvious question to ask at the outset: if companies and charities can choose their own auditors, why should councils be any different?……………

http://www.publications.parliament.uk

 

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I want to address three issues. The first is the Bill’s failure to acknowledge the fears for probity in local government, the second is its failure to address the structural and procedural breakdown of accountability and the third is the new code of practice for council newspapers.

We usually preface such debates by explaining our background in local government, and I am trying to address these matters completely objectively and without being partisan in any way. I do so as someone who has worked on the front line of a social services department, who was the head of policy of a London borough and who then became an elected member of the Greater London council, chair of finance and deputy leader before going back to being a bureaucrat in local government as the secretary—they now call them chief execs—of the Association of London Authorities, then the cross-party body of the Association of London Government. I have done my time, I suppose, over 25 years in local government.

There are fears for accountability and probity that the Bill does not seem to acknowledge or address. I wonder whether Members have seen the report published this month by Transparency International UK. Many of us will have worked with that organisation—which monitors corruption and probity, particularly in developing countries around the world—in the context of our countries of interest. I have, particularly on Kenya and other African countries.

The organisation monitors corruption in government throughout the world—establishing league tables, as some Members will recall—raises awareness of it and advises civil society and Governments on how to combat it. I urge Members to look at the report it has published this month, entitled “Corruption in UK Local Government: The Mounting Risks”. Let me quote the executive summary and some of its recommendations, which I will want to try to insert into the Bill as we discuss it in detail.

The good thing about the report is that it says there is not much evidence of corruption—but that is because what evidence there is, is anecdotal, although part of the problem is that not a lot of research has been done. The report found that although there was no agreement on the levels of corruption in local government, there was agreement across the board about the “disturbing picture” whereby

“the conditions are present in which corruption is likely to thrive”.

The report states that those conditions are

“low levels of transparency, poor external scrutiny, networks of cronyism, reluctance or lack of resource to investigate, outsourcing of public services, significant sums of money at play and perhaps a denial that corruption is an issue at all.”

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The report goes into some detail about the checks and balances for accountability and probity in local government and is critical of the previous and current Governments’ performance, which undermined some of the processes of transparency, particularly the awarding of public contracts, the overseeing of their implementation and the growing tendency to outsource provision and transfer personnel between public and private roles—the revolving door syndrome that occurs not only in central Government but has gone into local government. The report also states:

“Planning decisions remain highly discretionary and are vulnerable to corruption in several areas.”

Allegations and incidents have been recorded—not at any high level, but they exist—of bribery in local government, collusion, conflicts of interest and corruption-related fraud. Of course, we have also seen examples of electoral corruption prosecuted in Birmingham and elsewhere. The report refers to a number of changes in legislation, particularly this Bill, that undermine the climate, procedures and structures that would address corruption and protect us from it.

Let me go through some of the criticisms of this Bill and some of the other legislation introduced by the Government. Transparency International UK is concerned about the abolition of the Audit Commission, as there will not longer be a “back-stop” to provide support and work to protect against corruption. There will be

“no institution with wider powers of public audit to enable criminal investigations, which the Audit Commission used to have”.

There will be

“no institution to collect nationwide data on fraud and corruption or analyse trends”,

and:

“New external audit reports will not be adequately covered by the Freedom of Information Act”.

That point has been raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). The report also states:

“Local authorities will have a reduced internal capacity to investigate fraud and corruption, due to austerity measures”.

Those concerns will build up to create a climate in which there are fears for probity. The report also states:

“The responsibility for investigating and detecting fraud and corruption is being delegated to lower-level officers”

in local government. It continues:

“Audit committees are weakened and may disappear because there is no longer a statutory requirement for an audit committee to be a full committee in its own right…External auditors appointed under the new arrangements may face incentives to avoid undertaking investigations or raising concerns about suspicions of fraud or corruption.”

The report expresses its concern that:

“There is no longer a universal code of conduct to provide clarity to members serving on different public authorities and committees…There is no longer a requirement for members to declare gifts and hospitality and no legal requirement for either a standards committee or the monitoring officer to check any register of interests on a regular basis”.

Again, that is not addressed by the Bill. The report goes on:

“There is no longer a statutory requirement for a council to have a standards committee…There is no longer any obligatory sanction for members that violate the local codes of conduct”

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and there is an overreliance on party discipline as the main sanction. It states:

“Since the abolition of Standards for England, there is no longer a national investigations body for misconduct.”

As the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) mentioned, that means that some local authorities might struggle to appoint independent people

“of the appropriate calibre and legitimacy to perform the new role”

under the self-regulatory system of panels. The report says:

“The system relies too heavily on the new offence of failing to declare a pecuniary interest”,

and, of course:

“The ability of chief executives, financial officers and monitoring officers to hold elected members to account would be compromised by proposals to abolish their statutory employment protection.”

That all leads Transparency International UK to conclude:

“The Government’s changes, without apparent consideration of the consequences for corruption, are likely to have unintended consequences. The effect of the changes has been to create a situation in which corruption could thrive.”

The report is worrying and when the Bill goes into Committee, it might be worth inviting the organisation to address the Committee or provide evidence so that these matters can be properly discussed with it and its expertise can be drawn in to our consideration of the Bill, which is about local audit, and therefore probity, and local accountability, and therefore democratic accountability.

Some of the recommendations that Transparency International UK suggests could be built into the Bill are worth examining. The first states:

“Private companies, when operating services in the public interest, should be required to comply with the Nolan Principles.”

Secondly, the organisation recommends:

“Legal employment protections should be maintained for key anti-corruption officials, including Chief Executives and Monitoring Officers”.

Thirdly, it suggests:

“It should be a statutory requirement”

in this Bill

“for a local authority to have an audit committee as a dedicated full committee, with a specific remit to oversee corruption risk assessments and corruption investigations.”

It also suggests that now that the audit will be undertaken by private firms, consideration should be given to creating an auditors’ forum on corruption to bring together the private audit firms involved in local authority audit to share information, advice and good practice on the risks they identify in the audit role.

Transparency International UK also recommends that the Government should insist that the research function undertaken by the Audit Commission should continue somewhere within Government to give a clearer picture of the prevalence and scale of corruption in UK local government.

Again, although work has been undertaken by existing structures, such as the national fraud audit that has been taking place in some specific areas, there is no overall responsibility lodged with a specific body to undertake research at a national level.

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The report recommends that each local authority should have a nominated individual responsible for counter-corruption who conducts a regular corruption risk assessment and liaises closely with law enforcement authorities. I will not go through the remaining recommendations except for the final one, which states that as work now goes out to the private sector, it is critical that auditors should be allowed to assess the documents from significant private contractors that a local authority has used.

Chris Williamson: On that point, is my hon. Friend familiar with the PricewaterhouseCoopers citizens jury which showed that, when polled, the overwhelming majority of the British public favour public services being delivered by public authorities and by directly employed public servants? If services are to be externalised, the safeguards that my hon. Friend is describing would be the bare minimum that the vast majority of the British public would expect.

John McDonnell: There is a general worry about what happens after privatisation. My hon. Friend cited a number of examples—rail, energy and others. People are concerned about standards of probity and issues surrounding the exploitation of the resource. There are similar concerns in relation to local government and the use of the private sector. It is important, therefore, that we build safeguards into the Bill to reassure people. I am a great believer in direct provision by the local authority itself, but if there is to be contracting out or outsourcing, it is important that we reassure people that there is a legislative framework that provides safeguards to ensure probity and to counter corruption. Transparency International suggests that that should be built into the legislation. It is important that we listen to an organisation that has the relevant expertise.

The final recommendation deals with freedom of information, which has been raised a number of times in the debate. Transparency International recommends:

“Private companies, when operating services in the public interest, should be required to comply with the Freedom of Information Act with regards to those services.”

As a specific example, it states that

“audit reports from local authorities should be covered under the Freedom of Information Act or published directly as public documents.”

That is not a particularly challenging recommendation. It should be standard practice.

As Members consider the Bill further, I suggest that they read the Transparency International report “Corruption in UK local government—the mounting risks”, and invite the organisation to provide them with more detailed information and evidence. That might enable us to address some of the concerns that have been expressed and which we all hear from time to time in our constituencies. These may be anecdotal, but the information from Transparency International suggests that there is mounting national concern as well.

My second point is about examples in my own area. The Bill does not seem to address any of the structural or procedural concerns arising from the degradation of accountability within local government. I was hoping that the Bill would go further in ensuring full accountability and transparency in local decision making. To a certain extent I blame the previous Government for the structural

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problems that we now have in local government. I use my own local authority as an example. I would like to see amendments to the Bill that ensure full transparency of all decision making.

In my local authority, Hillingdon, we have a leader and cabinet system which has centralised powers in the hands of one person—the leader. The leader is able to use exclusive patronage to appoint all the other members of the cabinet, and that patronage then determines the lucrative business of the payments of himself—£65,000 a year for a part-time job, plus expenses—and of every other member of the cabinet, who receive £50,000 to £55,000 each. If any members step out of line, they are demoted. In recent weeks in my local authority, I have seen long-standing experienced senior councillors prevented even from standing again for the local authority.

Transparency International’s report expresses concern about cronyism in local government. In my local area I am witnessing the worst forms of cronyism where the leader appoints everybody, everybody is responsible to the leader, and there are financial consequences if people step out of line. In addition to that, there is nothing in the Bill about the decision-making process in relation to policy, which has also been centralised. In my local authority all decisions, no matter how minor, go through the leader’s office. If any officer loses the favour of the leader, they are out. If an officer provides unpalatable advice to the leader, that is enough for them to be shown the door. That is described among officers in Hillingdon as a reign of terror.

Whistleblowing is not an option for most. In Hillingdon, when people are asked to leave, they go under a compromise agreement, which includes a gagging order. I would like to see in the Bill an end to all compromise agreements in local government and an end to all gagging orders that are implied as part of those compromise agreements, because they prevent officers from providing independent advice or making public their concerns to all members of the council and to the general public.

I want to see the Bill also address the issue of secrecy. The cabinet system means that all major decisions in my area are made in part 2 of the cabinet agenda—that means in confidence and in secrecy. As an officer in the past, I have advised on what should be in part 2 and what should be in part 1 and in public. Decisions which I considered in the past should be made in open committee and information upon which those decisions are made are almost inevitably put in part 2 in Hillingdon—the confidential part of a cabinet meeting. I want to see a provision in the Bill which restricts the ability of members to avoid accountability by putting decision making into the secret part of cabinet agendas.

I shall give a couple of examples to show how ludicrous the practice has become. For the building of a new school in my area, a matter which I have raised in the House before, a consultant was employed to examine which site the school should be built on. It was controversial because the council wanted eventually to build on a country park—a green-belt field about which even the Mayor of London expressed his concerns. The consultant’s report on which sites were examined, all in council ownership, was put in part 2 of the cabinet agenda—the secret part. Even freedom of information requests were refused on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.

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We must address in the Bill how councils are allowed to interpret commercial confidentiality in a way that avoids accountability and avoids their providing even the basic information to local members of the public and also to opposition members. Let me give another example. On the same site there was a recent archaeological find of flints. The report from the archaeologist who discovered the flints was put into part 2 of the cabinet agenda on the basis of commercial confidentiality. It might have been commercially confidential 6,000 years ago, but not now. Eventually both reports were released, but not in a timely fashion.

The problem—I say this from a non-partisan point of view—is that an opposition councillor who seeks to reveal anything that is in part 2 of a cabinet meeting is threatened with criminal sanction, so people are fearful of releasing information from part 2. We should address that matter in the Bill. We need to define more clearly what is commercial confidentiality, and what criteria can be used for putting items into the secret part 2 of the agenda for a committee or cabinet meeting. I believe that is being abused, not necessarily for corrupt reasons, but perhaps for party political advantage or because individual councillors do not want to be held to account by local communities.

The Bill refers to audit and some elements of transparency as best it can, but it does not really address accountability and scrutiny. In my borough, scrutiny is virtually non-existent. Scrutiny committees are packed with a majority of party members loyal to the leader and can therefore be controlled by patronage. Scrutiny committees might have been an excellent idea some years ago, but in many local authorities, including mine, they have proved toothless.

There are real concerns about corruption. Advice needs to be provided to local authorities on how independent investigations should take place when allegations of corruption are made, but again that is not covered in the Bill. I will cite an example I raised in the House some years ago relating to the planning incentive grant introduced under the previous Government by the then Department of the Environment. If a local authority considered its planning applications within 13 weeks, it was given an additional grant from central Government, so it was in incentive to improve efficiency. In my local authority—this was proved, and the details published, as a result of what I said in the House—dates and signatures on documents were found to have been forged in order to bring planning application decisions within the 13-week period, even though many were taken later.

Those forgeries were exposed because fortunately one of the planning applications was submitted by a police inspector. He looked at the documentation and discovered that the dates had been changed. In fact, decisions on his application had been recorded as taking place even before council officers had met him to discuss it. After an investigation, a couple of officers retired from the local authority unsanctioned. Bizarrely, the leader of the section responsible for the planning process was then promoted. There is nothing in the Bill that provides real direction for local authorities on how to deal with such matters. It is extraordinary that these things still go on, yet we turn a blind eye to it by not relating the legislation to the real world of local government.

I could cite many other examples, including Southern Cross and the neglect of the elderly in my constituency, and non-monitoring as a result of the staff cuts that

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have taken place. Again, elderly people suffered but no one was held responsible. There was a refurbishment programme of an old people’s home—I raised this 12 months ago—which resulted in a year-long delay for elderly people being relocated to their homes. There was laundering of money via contracts to a builder. Again, there was an internal investigation that reported to part 2 of a cabinet meeting and there were no sanctions whatsoever against any officer. I wrote to the Secretaries of States of successive Governments on all those matters to call for an inquiry, but there was no response and no action was ever taken.

I am using my local authority as one example, but there are others across the country. My point is that the Bill seems to be irrelevant to what is happening in my local authority and many others across the country. It is irrelevant to the concerns about corruption raised by Transparency International and to our concerns about good governance and accountability at the local level. I hope that there might be an opportunity to amend the Bill and expand some elements of its remit to tackle some of the concerns that I, many of my constituents and many others across the country have. I hope that the Government are not fearful of grasping this nettle. Their main priority in the Bill should not be simply to let more contracts to the private sector; it should be to improve local audit and accountability. A key element of that is probity.

Let me turn to the proposal relating to local authority publicity. The all-party group on the National Union of Journalists, of which I am secretary, has been expressing concerns about some of the ideas raised throughout the consideration of this proposal. The NUJ represents members of the local press and media as well as local government officers working on the newspapers and journals published by local authorities. It is worth remembering, whatever has been said in the knockabout between the parties, that NUJ members working in local government abide by the same code of conduct as other journalists but, as local government officers, are not allowed to put forward party political views. Indeed, they could be sanctioned legally for doing so.

It has been argued that additional statutory powers are needed to strengthen the existing code of practice. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central said, there are existing powers for that and the Government could take action against local authorities that overstep the mark, but they have failed to do so. They have taken no legal action and there has been no judicial review whatsoever of any council newspaper. I find that surprising, given the outrage that has been expressed in this House and elsewhere.

Although many of us would like to see thriving local newspapers reporting what happens in council chambers and providing information to their local communities, in reality it is rare to find a single journalist even at full council meetings. I will circulate the information from the NUJ on just how many newspapers have gone to the wall over the past 20 years, how many jobs have gone in the industry and the impact that has had on quality journalism. The circulation of some of the papers that still exist is also very limited.

The council newspaper is therefore often the only way that local people can get some form of information on what is happening in the local authority. I have looked at this, as has the Communities and Local Government Committee and others, to see what impact

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council newspapers have had on the commercial viability of local newspapers, and no evidence whatsoever has been found. In some instances it is quite the reverse, with an element of synergy between the local press and the local authority in its publication of information. I am concerned that the proposed measure is unnecessary, because sanctions already exist. It will also undermine the dissemination of information by local authorities to their local communities. From the NUJ’s point of view, it could have as a consequence the loss of jobs at a local level, which we should all be concerned about.

There also needs to be some clarity. I have criticised Hillingdon council, but let me now try to defend it. It is currently seeking to ensure that the local community is properly informed on two key issues of local concern. One of them, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central mentioned, is the expansion of Heathrow airport, in which it is up against a large corporation that is sending out large amounts of information to the local community, most of which is inaccurate. It is only the local authority that is providing a balanced analysis of what is happening. The other issue is high-speed rail. I am anxious that Hillingdon council, or any other local authority, should not be debarred from ensuring that local people are kept informed about such pertinent issues, because it is absolutely essential that they are fully aware of the consequences if they are to exercise their democratic right and decide on the actions taken by local and national Government.

I would like assurances from the Minister that the activities of local authorities to inform local residents of matters such as high-speed rail or the expansion of Heathrow airport will not be curtailed by this legislation. I agree that putting press releases out is one thing, but if the local press has declined so badly, with a limited circulation and an inability to report on many issues, a press release will be inadequate. I understand the point the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole made about other mechanisms, particularly the internet, but not all people are connected, so they rely on the local authority journal that comes through the letterbox. I agree with what she said about having pictures of local councillors on every page, which I could possibly do without.

It is important that we in no way hamper the ability of local authorities to communicate with their residents. There may be opportunities for authorities to work together with the local press. I understand the point made about newspaper wrap-arounds, which have proved effective in some areas. That can assist greatly in communicating local ideas, but it does depend on the local newspaper’s circulation. Even the free sheets do not get everywhere, unfortunately. It might be possible—I would like the Government to look into this—to enable partnerships between local authorities and the local press whereby joint publications or similar could assist in the dissemination of local information.

Chris Williamson: Many local newspapers already print the council newspaper, thereby providing an income stream and additional source of welcome revenue for those newspapers, which are often under extreme financial pressure.

John McDonnell: I hate the word “synergy” but there is a potential for synergy between the local authority and some of the independent local press and publishers

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to disseminate information locally. One of the ideas that has come up is about local authorities participating in independent publishing companies—DCMS considered this previously—through joint ownership of a magazine or other communication that can go out to local residents. However, some flexibility from Government and amendments to the Local Government Act 2000 and the Local Government Act 2003 may be required to enable that sort of investment by the local authority in participating in independent companies.

There are constructive ways forward on this issue. If we take away the banter, whether it is about Hammersmith, or East End Life or whatever, we may arrive at a constructive way forward whereby local authorities can communicate with their residents and we can ensure that that is not used for purposes beyond good information dissemination and can protect jobs in the local authority and the local press.

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