HC Deb 22 July 1958 vol 592 cc359-62

Lords Amendments agreed to: In page 19, line 17, leave out subsection (2).

In line 27, leave out "the foregoing subsection" and insert: subsection (5) of the foregoing section".

Lords A tnendment: In page 19, line 30, leave out "unless" and insert: Provided that, except where the objection is one made by a local authority to a proposal that the area of the authority should cease to be a separate area of local government, or should become a county district, the Minister may dispense with an inquiry if".

Mr. H. Brooke

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

This is a matter of some substance and importance, and I hope that the Amendment will commend itself generally to the House. There was some discussion on the point in our earlier debates and it was raised again in another place. The Clause, as it left this House, provided that, where a local government commissions' proposals for any area had been objected to by one of the local councils, the Minister must hold a local inquiry unless he is satisfied that he is sufficiently informed as to the matters to which the objection relates. Throughout all our previous debates, I made it clear that the Government intended this discretion to do without an inquiry solely to cover the odd case where the only objection was on a quite minor and clear issue which had already been gone into fully and dealt with in the commission's published report, and on which a formal inquiry would be a waste, of everybody's time. Doubts were expressed, both here and in another place, whether this was really sufficient and whether there ought not to be a statutory safeguard against the disappearance of a local authority contrary to its will, without any public inquiry at all.

I want to make it crystal clear that it was never the intention of the Government that anything of that sort should happen, contrary to the will of a local authority, without there being a public inquiry. Nevertheless, it seemed right to put the matter beyond doubt. The Amendment will guarantee an opportunity for a public local inquiry to any local authority—I stress that it is any local authority, whether a county, a county borough, a non-county borough, or an urban or rural district—which is threatened with loss of its separate identity or status and objects to that loss.

The Amendment was welcomed in another place, and I hope that it will be equally welcomed here. It has been intimated to me that it is welcomed in the local authority world.

The Amendment is not intended in any sense to imply that, outside the cases where elimination of an existing local authority is involved, the power to do without an inquiry into objections should be used freely or will be used freely. The Government still stand by what I and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary said during the earlier stages of the Bill. The power to do without an inquiry is to be used only in the exceptional cases which I described broadly a minute or two ago.

If we accept the Amendment it will secure by Statute that there must be an inquiry in those cases in which I know some hon. Members on both sides of the House were anxious that the law should guarantee that an inquiry must be held.

Mr. Mitchison

The Amendment represents a compromise. The right hon. Gentleman will remember that as early as 13th March, in Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) moved, and others of us supported, an Amendment which was intended to remove this power altogether. It is, in fact, a power to act on being satisfied without any possibility of inquiry as to the grounds for the Minister's satisfaction, and we pointed out to the right hon. Gentleman that this was obstinacy, tyranny and a number of his habitual vices. He turned us down, merely saying that we could trust him to act reasonably.

We did not like that at all, and we are very glad to see that, having firmly refused at that stage to put anything into the Bill, the Minister has now put something into the Bill which will preserve local authorities from extinction without inquiry and will not enable him to strike them off the map by being satisfied that he knows quite enough about them to ensure that they should be struck off. Perhaps there is something to be said for a compromise in the matter. At any rate, I am glad that we have something of what we asked for instead of the stark denials with which we were met in Committee.

Question put and agreed to. [Special Entry.]

Further Lords Amendment agreed to: In page 20, line 14, after "district" insert: or, as the case may be, of any of the boroughs to be amalgamated".