HC Deb 30 May 1956 vol 553 cc278-84
The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Hugh Molson)

I beg to move, in page 5, line 11, at the end to insert: (3) Where, not less than two months before the beginning of any financial year, the Minister on an examination of arrangements proposed to be made under the last foregoing subsection by a local authority in England or Wales, not being the council of a county or county borough, is satisfied that arrangements so made are likely to be effective and notifies the local authority that he is so satisfied, then from the beginning of that year until a notification by the Minister to the local authority that he is no longer so satisfied takes effect, the expenditure of the county council in respect of the cost of arrangements, or of contributions, made by the county council under the last foregoing subsection shall not be chargeable on the area of the first mentioned authority. A notification by the Minister that he is no longer satisfied as aforesaid shall take effect at the end of the financial year in which it is given or, if it is given during the last two months of a financial year, at the end of the next following financial year. This is an Amendment to give effect to a promise which I made in Committee. The hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) pointed out that there were cases in which ratepayers might have a reasonable ground of complaint if they were precepted by the county council for road safety purposes. Where a non-county borough or urban district in England or Wales incurs expenditure on its own scheme for road safety information and road training and does not therefore need to participate in the county scheme, it seems unjust that it should be precepted for the benefit of the county. I said in Committee that we were satisfied that there was a point of substance in that view, and the Amendment gives effect to the undertaking which I gave.

Mr. Skeffington

I beg to move, as an Amendment to the proposed Amendment, at the end to add: This subsection shall not apply to the administrative county of London. I hope that the Committee will realise that in moving this Amendment I do not desire to put London in a separate category for any other than practical reasons. As the Joint Parliamentary Secretary's Amendment is now drafted, it would have an unfortunate effect in the case of the London County Council—a body unique in the structure of English local government. There is no area within the boundaries of the London County Council which is not in fact already covered by one of the 28 Metropolitan borough councils or the Common Council of the City of London.

Circumstances could easily arise where every one of the 28 Metropolitan boroughs and the Common Council of the City of London were engaging in road safety propaganda of one kind or another. Each of those authorities could therefore get the special sanction which it is proposed to confer upon them under the Joint Parliamentary Secretary's Amendment. The result would be that the largest local authority in the country— indeed, in the world—would have no funds with which to conduct its own road safety propaganda. I am informed that that is the legal position, and that there would be no way under existing law whereby the county council could finance any road safety propaganda.

It is obvious that a body like London County Council might feel it desirable to undertake road safety activity in connection with the 440,000 children in its schools. Under the Minister's new Amendment it would have no resources to do that work. Because London County Council, being a precepting authority of this kind, is in an exceptional position, we hope that the Minister will sympathetically consider my Amendment. It is clear that any action which the county council took would equally benefit any one of the 28 Metropolitan boroughs or the Common Council of the City of London. In London, any of the work done by the L.C.C. would undoubtedly benefit the whole of the county but, as the Joint Parliamentary Secretary's Amendment now stands, London County Council would have the greatest difficulty in paying for any work which it wanted to do.

5.15 p.m.

I understand that the Amendment has the support at any rate of a number of the Metropolitan borough councils, if not all of them, and there is no rivalry among the authorities in London on this matter. In the past the county council has always been able to make very satisfactory arrangements for joint activities of this kind with the boroughs. I am advised that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary's Amendment would put the county council in a particularly embarrassing position. If some boroughs undertook safety work and some did not it would mean levying a special rate. I hope that on these purely practical grounds the Minister will be able to make an exception in the case of London County Council.

Mr. Molson

I am sure that we have all listened with interest and some degree of sympathy to what the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Skeffington) has said on behalf of the London County Council. I fear, however, that I cannot advise the Committee to accept his Amendment. I say that for three reasons. The first is that the principle put forward in the Standing Committee, and which commended itself to the Committee, is one which is obviously equitable and which ought to be of general application. I do not feel that a special exception should be made in the case of London County Council.

The second reason is that, on the whole, the Metropolitan boroughs are in a better position to operate effective road safety schemes in their areas than is the more remote London County Council. I am glad to have this opportunity of paying tribute to the extremely effective work being. done by a number of Metropolitan boroughs. Thirdly, we have received representations from the Metropolitan Boroughs Standing Joint Committee supporting the principle embodied in my Amendment.

The hon. Member's Amendment would put London County Council in an exceptional position. London County Council's present contribution to road safety now consists only of a £60 subscription to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and a further subscription last year of £2,370 towards the cost of the training and exhibition centre at ROSPA House. Although the Royal Society would feel the loss of that subscription, it would not be unreasonable for the Metropolitan boroughs, which under this Amendment would be able to contract out of an obligation to pay a precept, themselves to undertake that responsibility. In view of the attitude which has been taken by the Metropolitan boroughs, it would be better for us not to accept the hon. Member's Amendment.

Mr, Skeffington

I have listened to what the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has said: it was a very discouraging answer for London County Council. It has pursued a number of safety activities in past years. There are also great possibilities in connection with more than 400,000 schoolchildren. The Government Amendment will deprive it of the opportunity of carrying out this sort of work. I hope that the Minister will think again about this matter.

Furthermore, it is not my information—the Minister's information may be later—that all the Metropolitan boroughs subscribed to the point of view which he has now put forward. I understand that that was not so in the case of Westminster, and Lambeth and others. I would ask the Minister to have another look at this matter, because the Government Amendment will place the London County Council in a very unfortunate position. It will not be able to take much part in this very necessary propaganda work in future if it has no funds with which to do so.

Mr. Ede

Can the Minister tell us exactly how far he has got with his communications with the Metropolitan borough councils? From the answer which he has made he seems to assume that all the Metropolitan borough councils would agree to carry on the work. If they do the activities of the London County Council in this subject would be brought to an end at once. I do not know how far, as the local education authority, it would he able to deal with instruction in road safety to children in schools. It might be able to, or it might not. It certainly would not be able to do so as the road safety authority if all the borough councils availed themselves of the opportunity given them in the Clause.

Let us assume that the two borough councils mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Skeffington) do not come in. In that case the London County Council remains the road safety authority for them, and may spend money within their borders—but it must be very careful not to charge any of that money to the other twenty-six councils, or to the county council. We shall then have one of those amazing and awkward things, namely, a special expenses rate, levied upon the one or two or more boroughs—not reaching the total of twenty-eight—which have not come into the scheme. That would be a very unfortunate result for any local authority to have to face. The Minister might enlighten us as to how far that point of view has been considered, and what is the real effect of any communication which he has had from the Metropolitan Boroughs Standing Joint Committee or the Metropolitan boroughs separately.

Mr. Molson

As a result of the discussion which took place in Committee we got in touch with the Metropolitan Boroughs Standing Joint Committee. That Committee speaks for the Metropolitan boroughs as a whole, and we really cannot enter into discussions with individual Metropolitan boroughs when they have this Standing Joint Committee to represent them. It was when we were considering how to give effect to the promise which I made to the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) that we discussed the matter with the Committee. It informed us that it supported the Amendment.

I am quite willing to give further consideration to the points which have been raised by the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) and the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Skeffington), but I must make it quite plain that, as at present advised, I do not think we shall alter the view which we have formed. I made what amounted to a promise on behalf of the Government, and we must carry out that promise. I see great difficulty in making a special exception to the general provisions of the law in favour of the London County Council. I have already indicated that up to the present time—I am not in any way reproaching the London County Council in this matter—excellent road safety propaganda is carried on in London, and it is the work of the Metropolitan boroughs. Up to the present time the activities of the London County Council in this respect have been extremely small, although the subscriptions which it has made to the Royal Society have been valuable.

Therefore, I do not think that, from what I have heard today, there would be any justification for accepting the hon. Gentleman's Amendment to the proposed Amendment, which I think would introduce an anomaly into the law. In view of what has been said, however, I gladly undertake to look at the matter again, and if I am convinced about it there is still, fortunately, an opportunity of effecting an Amendment elsewhere.

Mr. Skeffington

I do not want to be unduly importunate, but I would point out that, because of its peculiar structure and status, the London County Council is already an exception in a great number of other local government matters. The whole system of precepting in London is different from that in other areas. It has its own special powers in a number of respects. It is a housing authority, which other county councils are not. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will not feel that because my Amendment to the proposed Amendment would make the London County Council an exception in this respect, that is the end of the matter. The London County Council is bound to be an exception, because of its artificial creation in 1888 out of other existing counties and because of its special position as capital of the Commonwealth. I hope that the Minister will bear that fact in mind in reconsidering the whole matter.

Amendment to the proposed Amendment negatived.

Proposed words there inserted.

Further Amendment made: In page 5, line 15, leave out "the last foregoing subsection" and insert: subsection (2) of this section."—[Mr. Watkinson.] Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.