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11.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes): The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) has made serious allegations. When we saw that he had succeeded in getting an Adjournment debate on the abuse of planning controls, we tried to speak to his office to see what it was he wanted to raise.

Mr. Wardle: I did not get that message, and I apologise for that. It has always been my practice to help when I can, and I am sorry that there was no reply to the Minister's communication. I saw her sitting on the Front Bench before the debate started, and I wondered whether I should nip over and give her an outline of my concerns. I apologise that she has not had one.

Ms Hughes: No, I have not had one, but I was not criticising the hon. Gentleman. Having heard what he had to say, I wondered whether he deliberately did not want to inform anyone in advance, as the nature of his allegations was very serious. I have some speaking notes about enforcement of planning decisions, planning conditions, section 108 and all the rest of it, none of which is relevant to the points that he has raised. I shall, however, try to make some helpful responses.

The hon. Gentleman made serious allegations about planning abuse and councillors' impropriety. As I think he will agree, he was talking less about abuse of planning controls than about alleged criminal activity, bribes and corruption. He gave details of the circumstances of the allegations, and, indeed, named individuals. I know that, given his experience of raising such matters over many years, he will understand why I cannot comment on such allegations on the Floor of the House.

The hon. Gentleman said that he had talked to the Serious Fraud Office and had been told that for various reasons this was not an appropriate case for the SFO to consider. The complainant has been directed to the civil court. I agree with what the hon. Gentleman seemed to be saying: that does not appear to be a terribly appropriate remedy for someone in such circumstances. The hon. Gentleman did not say whether the allegations had been forwarded to the police, or whether the police had commented. He suggested an independent review by the council. Someone outside the allegations would have to

9 May 2001 : Column 244

initiate such a move: DETR has no powers or resources to investigate the matter, because the allegations are of criminal activity, corruption and so on, and a Government Department cannot undertake investigations of that nature. I can think of no avenues to explore on the spur of the moment, but if I think of any that have not occurred to the hon. Gentleman, I shall reply to him.

As the hon. Gentleman may know, the Local Government Act 2000 introduced a new ethical framework for local government, setting out a series of principles relating to issues of the kind that concern him--honesty, integrity, propriety, responsibility and so on. Developed from that set of principles is a code of conduct put together by the Government, the Local Government Association and other interested parties. It includes both the code applying to local councillors and the parallel code applying to officers. The code will require councillors to declare membership of organisations, and freemasons are listed as one such organisation. Under the Act, every council will also be required to have a standards committee. It will not be an investigatory committee, but it will be required to ensure that the council concerned has a robust ethical framework; that it is applying, if not the model code of conduct that the Government recommend, its own code based on that model; and that that code is enforced.

There will also be a national standards board, appointments to which I have just completed. The board will be chaired by Anthony Holland, the former chair of the Northern Ireland Parades Commission, who has a robust reputation in the context of such matters. It will have a body of inquiry officers who will undertake investigations of matters such as this--any matters concerning alleged impropriety, dishonesty, wrongdoing or bringing the reputations of councillors or local government into disrepute. It will have power to investigate, to adjudicate and to impose sanctions.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman--and the Government strongly agree with him--that this is a time for openness in public life, and for transparency. The vast majority of councillors--I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares this sentiment--do an excellent job in a spirit of strong public service, and are honest and decent. The minority who behave wrongly and corruptly do a great disservice to the vast majority of upstanding people on our councils. That is why we introduced that framework: not because local government is riddled with corruption--far from it--but to provide a transparent and robust mechanism to protect the representations of the vast majority of decent councillors.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter. I will see whether other avenues are open to the people concerned. I know that the hon. Gentleman is standing down at the forthcoming election and that he is held in high regard for his efforts to bring serious matters to the attention of hon. Members. On behalf of the House, I wish him well for the future.

Question put and agreed to.



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