§ 3.40 p.m.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
My Lords, with the permission of the House, I will now repeat a Statement that has been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in reference to Clay Cross. I will use his own words:
"The situation there and elsewhere has arisen from the entirely unprecedented situation created over the past two years by the fact that the measures in the Housing Finance Acts were forced upon local government with unreasonable speed—indeed under the guillotine—and considerable lack of understanding.
"The House will be aware that this matter has greatly exercised those concerned with democracy in local government, particularly the national Conference and the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party.
"Because of our deep concern with the problem forced upon local authorities by the former Government's policies, decisions were taken by the Labour Party Conference when we were in Opposition about the question of the penalties involved for certain local councillors—financial liabilities, and penalties in terms of civic disqualification.
"It was the view of the National Executive Committee, and of the Labour Party Conference that efforts should be made to secure a reimbursement to the councillors concerned, in the case of Clay Cross only, for the financial liabilities that they have 1036 suffered. At no time was any commitment given that this would involve a charge upon public funds and we do not propose to do so. Indeed this proviso was made clear when we were in Opposition.
"It will be a matter for those associated with the decisions taken at the relevant conferences to consider how funds, not involving a charge on the revenue, can be raised for this purpose.
"We are committed to removing the civic disqualification which the Conservative Housing Finance Acts have involved. On this question we have to consider Clay Cross in a wider context.
"Clay Cross and one or two other councils decided on the policy of total non-implementation. A number of other local authorities, who finally implemented, did so only after a considerable delay. Their accounts are, I understand, now being examined by the district auditors in the course of their annual audits. The result of this examination may lead, though possibly on a limited scale, to further problems in different parts of the country which might involve the question of disqualification. Only when we see the full extent and magnitude of the problem will it be possible to make recommendations to the House. This we shall do.
"I and my right honourable friends have always made it clear that the law of the land, however unfair, however divisive, must be obeyed until it is repealed. My right honourable friend, who is now Lord President, made it absolutely clear at the Labour Party Conference last year. He said that,'… the N.E.C. could not possibly advise councillors to act unlawfully. We cannot …'And he went on to spell out the reasons why this could not be accepted.
"The matter was taken further by my right honourable friend who is now the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, when, as Chairman of the Party, he opened the Labour Party Local Government Conference at Birmingham in January. He said then:'The Labour Party has always taken the view, and I still hold it, that the way to get a bad law changed is to change the Government.'"The Government believe that the divisive effect on local democracy 1037 caused by the Housing Finance Acts should be resolved with fairness to all concerned, including those who reluctantly implemented the Act, and in a spirit which will diminish for the future the bitterness engendered by legislation whose repeal we shall shortly recommend to the House."
My Lords, that concludes the Prime Minister's Statement.
VISCOUNT COLVILLE OF CULROSS
My Lords, I am sure that we are very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, for repeating that Statement. I wonder whether I may make one comment and then ask a few questions. The noble Lord has repeated a Statement which seems to be almost entirely concerned with internal disputes among the Labour Party, and which says at an early stage:The House will be aware that this matter has greatly exercised those concerned with democracy in local government, particularly the national Conference and the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party.Does the noble Lord realise that this has probably exercised other Parties and other people in the country as much as, if not more than, those in the Labour Party, and particularly those who are concerned with the rule of law and the requirement that people should obey Acts of Parliament until they are properly repealed?
I would go on to ask a few questions. First, does the noble Lord's promise later in the Statement about the commitment to remove the civic disqualification mean that there will be legislation? Or is this a promise to act administratively under either the 1933 or 1972 Local Government Acts; and, if so, which? Will the Government make a further Statement, when they have decided whether they are going to act administratively, on what they have decided? If they are going to act administratively, will they bear in mind that where a surcharge bringing disqualification is to be, as it were, set aside by the Secretary of State, it can be done only if the Secretary of State thinks that the surcharge was incurred by somebody acting reasonably, or in the belief that his actions were authorised by law? We hope that there will be full reasons given if any disqualification is removed on that account.
Finally, if there is to be any reimbursement by individual members of the Labour Party, or by the Labour Party as 1038 a whole, would the noble Lord care to remind those who are minded to contribute of what the noble and learned Lord the Master of the Rolls said about Clay Cross? So far, his remarks have been reported only in The Times of February 1 of this year. He is reported to have said that each councillor had deliberately broken the solemn declaration that he had made on taking office to fulfil his duties faithfully as a councillor; each councillor had persisted in defying the law; they told officials to take no steps to put the Act into operation. He said that the result of this was to benefit the well-to-do tenants whose rents were not increased and injure the poor tenants who therefore did not get rebates, that their disqualification was automatic and that they were not fit to be councillors, and the sooner they were disqualified the better.
§ LORD WADE
My Lords, I should like to join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, for repeating this Statement. It would seem to me that there are two general principles underlying the Statement, and, as I understand it, the two principles are being observed. The first is that the law, however much certain persons may object to it, must be obeyed until it is altered. The second principle relates to penalties. There are many cases from the past where individuals, as a matter of conscience, have objected to particular laws and have become liable to penalties, but they have recognised that they must meet those penalties. On the second principle, that where penalties are payable because certain individuals as a matter of conscience object to certain laws, it has always been understood that those penalties would not be recoverable from public funds. The only question I wish to ask is whether anything that the noble Lord has said in the latter part of his Statement departs in any way from, or erodes, the two principles that I have just stated.
§ LORD SHEPHERD
My Lords, I acknowledge what the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, and the noble Lord, Lord Wade, have said. In regard to the noble Lord's specific question, what is in the latter part of the Statement in no way erodes the former part that there is no intention at all to recompense these councillors out of public funds. The 1039 noble Viscount referred to what was said at the Labour Party Conference and to what my honourable friends have said on a number of occasions. It was considered right to include these words as a consequence of the attacks that have been made, particularly on the Lord President and on his role in winding up a very emotional debate at the Labour Party Conference of last year—an emotional debate arising out of the sense of grievance of the Housing Finance Acts.
My Lords, in regard to civic disqualification, my understanding is that it could not be done under Section 2(30) of the 1933 Act. I took part in the Housing Finance Act of 1972. I cannot recall any provision by which this could be done administratively, but this has still to be considered. As I said in the Statement, we need to see what the general position is before a decision is made, and when it is made clearly we shall have to come to Parliament.
My Lords, in regard to the final remarks of the noble Viscount, warning, or seeking to warn, members of the Labour Party or any other organisation or individual who might wish to make a contribution, I would not defend any man for breaking the law; but there are many men and women of this country who break the law every day of the week and who receive a very small fraction of the penalty which these men will incur as a consequence of what they consider a conscientious act in Clay Cross. One needs also to consider that around that area there is high unemployment, low pay and deep poverty, and one needs to consider, without in any way approving or condoning the act of these councillors, the general circumstances under which they acted.