HC Deb 09 October 1946 vol 427 cc295-302

Order for Second Reading read.

9.6 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Westwood)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This short Bill, for which I ask a Second Reading, is a result of a request which was made to me by the County Councils Association to enable them to face up to their financial responsibilities under modern conditions. There were difficulties at the beginning, but ultimately I was able to get 100 per cent. agreement as between the County Councils Association and the Convention of Royal Burghs.

The Association of County Councils in Scotland, which was founded in 1894, exists to meet the needs of county councils for coordination of policy, consultation in their common interests and discussion of local government affairs. It includes among its members all the county councils in Scotland. It is in close and constant touch with Government Departments, who regard it as the normal channel of consultation with county councils in all matters of local government concern. It accordingly forms a very vital part of the structure of local government in Scotland. It is clearly unnecessary to point out that the volume and scope of the Association's work has grown enormously since its inception. Not only have the responsibilities of the local authorities been multiplied and extended; but the county councils have had to take over an increasing share of these responsibilities. In 1929, for example, there were transferred to the county councils all the duties of the former education authorities, parish councils and district committees, and many of the duties of the town councils of small burghs.

In these circumstances, and keeping in mind the fall in the value of money, it is not surprising that the provision made in 1894 for financing the Association's work is no longer adequate. The County Councils Association (Scotland) Expenses Act, 1894, enabled the constituent councils to subscribe to the funds of the Association up to a maximum of £30 per annum; and to pay the reasonable ex- penses of representatives, not exceeding four in number from any one council, attending meetings of the Association. In recent years, the Association's funds have been eked out by contributions made by the constituent councils as education authorities—that was made possible because of the 1929 Act—under the authority of a minute of the Scottish Education Department issued in 1934 in exercise of powers under the Education Acts; and by contributions made by the county councils under Section 16 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1929, which enables local authorities to make payments for schemes of public utility This situation is clearly unsatisfactory as far as the Association of County Councils is concerned, and when the Association recently decided that its work made necessary the appointment of a full-time staff, the case for amending legislation putting its financial affairs on a proper basis became urgent. Discussions were accordingly entered into by the Association with the Convention of Royal Burghs and with my own Department, and I am glad to say that the Measure now submitted represents an agreed solution of the problem.

Clause 1 fixes the maximum sum which the Association can spend in any one year at a figure not exceeding the produce of a rate of one-twelfth of one penny on the rateable value of the whole of Scotland outside the four counties of cities. It then provides for the apportionment of the expenditure which is actually incurred within this maximum among the constituent councils. One-third of that expenditure is to be spread evenly over the whole country, excluding the cities to which I have referred, and dealt with in the same way as educational expenditure. This is because all county councils and the town councils of all burghs, large and small, are interested in the work of the Association in relation to education. The balance of the expenditure is then spread over the whole country, exclusive of the cities and also of the large burghs—which are generally speaking in the counties only for educational purposes—in such a way that the burden in the landward area in terms of a rate is double the burden in the small burghs. The reason for this differentiation between the landward area and the small burghs is that the latter are included in the counties for certain purposes only, and their interest in the work of the Association is therefore less than that of the landward area.

Clause 2 of the Bill enables the constituent county councils to pay the expenses of not more than six members, instead of the four provided for in the 1894 Act, in attending meetings of the Association, and directs that the cost incurred is to be dealt with by each council in the same way as the share as the Association's expenses which is allocated to that council. This increase in representation will in practice affect only one or two of the largest county councils. Clause 3 enables the Association to make arrangements for the superannuation of its staff which, as has been explained, is now employed in a wholetime capacity. Clause 4 is the interpretation Clause. Clause 5 prescribes the short title of the Bill, repeals the old Act of 1894, and provides that the Bill will operate from the beginning of the current financial year.

9.14 p.m.

Commander Galbraith (Glasgow, Pollok)

As the Secretary of State has so ably explained, this Bill is to provide legislation to enable the county councils to raise the amount of their contributions to the Association of County Councils. That Association, as the Secretary of State very rightly said, fulfils a most important function, and one which is, indeed, vital to local government in Scotland. It provides a focus for the opinion of county councils, and without it, that opinion could not be focused. It provides also a means by which the Secretary of State may very quickly inform himself of the opinion of the county councils on any subject whatsoever, and that without having recourse to the very burdensome procedure of having to consult those councils individually.

It seems to me that today there is even a greater importance to be attached to this Association, in view of the very great powers which the central Government are taking unto themselves. As a result it seems essential that the county councils and the opinions of the county councils should be represented by some body of great weight and authority and enabled to speak with a single voice to the Government. I believe that it is of the very highest importance to the good government of this country that the voice of the county councils should be made known to the Government and should be strongly pressed when that is required. In those circumstances I can see no alternative whatsoever but to give authority to the county councils to raise their contributions to such an extent as will provide the Association of County Councils with sufficient funds to enable them to carry out their functions efficiently. I should just like to put one question to the Secretary of State. Could he tell the House what is the total amount which will be raised by this sum of 1-12th of a penny in the pound of the rateable valuation?

Mr. Westwood

I cannot give a reply to that point off hand, but the information will certainly be available on the Committee stage.

Commander Galbraith

I am thankful for that answer. I have put forward the views of hon. Members on these benches and I hope that in view of the importance of this Association to local government the House will see fit to pass this Bill on Second Reading with unanimity.

9.17 p.m.

Mr. McKinlay (Dumbartonshire)

I am glad that the Secretary of State has been able to report 100 per cent. agreement between the County Councils Association and the Convention of Royal Burghs. I agree that the Convention of Royal Burghs is more a subject for subscriptions from an antiquarian society than from a local government body. The Secretary of State may have been in some hurry to make his carefully prepared but far from lucid statement. He might inform us how the Counties and Cities Association stands in relation to those consultative bodies. I spent many weary hours as a member of a local authority, attending the County Association and such like bodies, and I do not know what the financial structure of the Counties and Cities Association is. That however is not what brought me to my feet. I agree, as do most of my hon. Friends, that Scottish business is being used rather as a soya bean to pack out the Government's pudding to the end of the Session, so that we shall be taking Scottish Bills in Committee on the Floor of this House; but more of that anon. The Secretary of State was good enough to draw the attention of the House to Clause 2 but, if I may say so, he merely mentioned that there was a Clause 2 in the Bill and carefully sidestepped any explanation of Subsection (2) of that Clause. I should like to draw attention to this and, if possible, receive an explanation from the Secretary of State of just exactly what all this jargon means. Clause 2(2) reads as follows: (2) The expenditure incurred by a county council in making payments under the last foregoing Subsection shall be divided into two parts, the first bearing to the second the same proportion as the sum allocated to that county under paragraph (a) bears to the sum so allocated under paragraph (b) of Subsection (2) of the foregoing Section; and Subsections (3) and (4) of that Section shall apply to the said two parts as if they had been allocated to that county under the said paragraphs (a) and (b) respectively". I do not know whether one gets the answer to this in the fruit market or the fish market but I think it is treating the House lightly for the Secretary of State to omit such an explanation from a very carefully prepared statement such as he always gives us. Why should he boggle at that? Can we not have an explanation? [Interruption.] Well, perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Mathers) can give us an explanation, but at the moment I am asking the Secretary of State for Scotland for it. We want to know exactly what is meant by this Subsection. It is no use saying that that is a matter for the Committee. I should be very pleased if the Secretary of State, before we give a Second Reading to the Bill, could explain exactly what it means.

Mr. Henderson Stewart (Fife, East)


Mrs. Jean Mann (Coatbridge)

On a point of Order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. Can we not have an explanation of the Subsection to which my hon. Friend has just referred? We have a Bill in front of us, a part of which we find it impossible to understand. Can we not have the explanation?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

No doubt an explanation will be given in due time.

9.22 p.m.

Mr. Henderson Stewart

I was about to say that I thought this was a Bill of which the House could readily and unanimously approve. The Secretary of State must feel a certain amount of ironic pleasure in presenting the Bill. He has not always thought too kindly of the County Councils Association or of its constituent members. In the 14 years I have been in this House I have heard him speak rather critically about them. He now realises that the Association is really a valuable body. It has offered him—

Mr. Westwood

I should be very interested, after my long association with administration in Scotland, to have any evidence that I have ever criticised the County Councils Association, as such, in the work it has been doing on behalf of Scotland.

Mr. Stewart

It would take a bit of research, of course, but it should be comparatively easy to provide such evidence. I always understood that the right hon. Gentleman regarded the county councils as on the whole very reactionary bodies. He has said that time and time again, and the Association representing those bodies has fallen also under the same condemnation as reactionary. Now, the right hon. Gentleman is giving them greater powers, greater finance, greater liberty and greater potentiality of influence upon himself, his Department and his successors. I am all for it. I represent a county area and I have, therefore, very close and constant association with the county council and also with the County Councils Association. I can only say that if the right hon. Gentleman had listened in the last year to the County Councils Association upon, for example, the question of housing, with greater care than he did, we should have more houses today than we have. It is a comfort to me to feel that under the Bill the Association will have more influence upon the Secretary of State than it has had in the past. That change can do nothing but good. On this occasion I am happy that it should happen—it happens so seldom nowadays —that I am in the pleasant position of being able to say "Hear, hear" to what the right hon. Gentleman is doing.

Mr. Speaker

The Question is, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

Mr. McKinlay

On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not an act of great discourtesy on the part of the Minister that, having had a question addressed to him, he should deliberately ignore it?

9.24 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Thomas Fraser)

I should have thought that the question asked by my hon. Friend was essentially a Com- mittee point, and not one to be asked or answered on the Second Reading. I have always understood that we discussed the principle of a Bill upon the Second Reading. If that is so, the House has to discuss the plan of the Bill, and whether or not the County Councils Association should be enabled to raise more money from its constituent members to enable its work to be carried on. Hon. Members have agreed that that should be done. My hon. Friend read out Clause 2 (2), referred to it as jargon and asked what it meant. It merely means that each county council pays the expenses of its own delegates to the Association. The cost is allocated among the burghs, large and small, and the landward area in exactly the same proportions as the counties' share of the expenses of the Association. That is what it means, but if however my hon. Friend is not satisfied that that is what it means or that it does not mean anything at all, he will have an opportunity of putting his Amendments on the Order Paper so that the matter may be discussed in the Committee stage. I should have thought there was no doubt at all about its being a Committee point. Indeed I did not think there was any Debate to reply to, and I honestly thought that it would be wasting the time of hon. Members if I got to my feet and further discussed this Bill on which no difference of opinion has as yet been expressed.

It is true that opinions have been expressed. The hon. Member for East Fife (Mr. Henderson Stewart) said that my right hon. Friend had referred to these bodies as reactionary bodies in the past, but that does not mean that he proposed the abolition of these bodies, and my right hon. Friend questions whether he ever referred to the County Councils Association as a reactionary body. Many of us have referred to the British Parliament and the British Government in past days as being reactionary. We did not propose however that Parliament should be abolished. In the same way many hon. Members, especially on this side of the House, will on many occasions have described the County Councils Association and the Convention of Royal Burghs as being reactionary and out of touch with public opinion and so on, but nevertheless I am satisfied that all of them are perfectly ready to give a blessing to a measure that proposes to enable this association of local authorities in Scotland to raise sufficient moneys from its constituent member; to allow it to carry out its work. That is what this Bill proposes to do, and I hope that hon. Members who have participated in the brief discussions we have had on Second Reading will take the opportunity of looking into the Bill very closely between now and the Committee stage so that we may have the benefit of any opinions they may care to express as to how the Bill can be improved at that time.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for Monday next.— [Captain Michael Stewart.]