HC Deb 24 February 1964 vol 690 cc185-97

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That for the purposes of any Act of the present Session to enable local authorities in Scotland to develop, and assist in the development of, land and to empower such authorities to set up certain capital funds and renewal and repair funds, to borrow by means of bonds and to allow discount for early payment of rates, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of moneys provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the provisions of the said Act in the sums payable out of moneys so provided by way Exchequer Equalisation Grant under the enactments relating to local government in Scotland.—[Mr. Noble.]

10.12 p.m.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

I wonder whether we may hear from the Treasury representative exactly what is involved in this Money Resolution. It is interesting that we should have a Money Resolution at all, because the Bill, I understand, is a Private Member's Bill, with which it is usual that no money is involved. Therefore, we look with some suspicion to the names behind such a Bill and when the Government come along, very conveniently, with a Money Resolution and Queen's Recommendation is signified, we have more than a suspicion that it is a Government rather than a Private Member's Bill. We are entitled to know exactly how much money is involved.

We remember that on the original Bill, which got a Second Reading on the nod—so to that extent we have had no explanation of the Bill—it was stated that Local authorities are not expected to incur significant extra expenditure under this Bill, though it may lead to a slight increase in Exchequer Equalisation Grant.… The possibility of an increase in Exchequer equalisation grant is covered by the last line and a half of the Money Resolution. My concern, however, is to know from the Treasury representative—I do not see one present, but I see the Secretary of State for Scotland and two Under-Secretaries, and so we may well be able to get some unexpected answers—exactly how much money is involved in relation to the other purposes which are mentioned, for example,

to develop, and assist in the development of, land and to empower such authorities to set up certain capital funds and renewal and repair funds.… How much is involved? Is it correct that the financial effects as the Bill led us to believe on Second Reading, is that significant extra expenditure is not expected to be incurred, which, I dare say, means that the extra expenditure will be insignificant? Can the Government guide and assist us?

We have heard rumours that consequent upon the dropping of another Bill by the Government, there is the possibility of certain other purposes being woven into this Bill. They were not originally in the Bill and, to my mind, they may well change the Bill altogether.

Indeed, this Money Resolution is not related to the Bill as we see it. It may relate to the Bill as the Government probably hope it may be if we save the face of the Secretary of State for Scotland and bring in some other measures. I am not going to embark on the merits of doing this in this way. I may be quite wrong in thinking this is going to he done. All I can do, in keeping myself in order, is to find out whether or not the possibility of amending the Bi I will be frustrated by the terms of the Money Resolution. For a Private Member's Bill the terms of the Money Resolution are very wide indeed, and certainly would not lead anyone to believe that they are related to an expenditure increase which is insignificant.

I want to read the Money Resolution: That for the purposes of any Act of the present Session to enable local authorities in Scotland to develop, and assist in the development of, land.… As far as I can see, the Bill relates to local authorities erecting any building or constructing or carrying out works

on land fo7 the benefit or improvement of that area. I do not think that that necessitates a Money Resolution as wide as that which we have, to develop, and assist in the development of, land". That, I would assume, would mean land which is possessed by some other person than the local authority itself.

This is more reminiscent of a Bill which is not before the Committee, a Bill which did have a Second Reading, a Bill which was quietly dropped. The hon. Member for Bute and North Ayrshire (Sir F. Maclean) will know the Bill I mean. I wondered whether it was the intention of the Government, when they framed this Money Resolution, to draw it in such a way as to enable them to introduce Amendments and new Clauses to the Bill in such a way as completely to transform the Bill which was given a Second Reading on the nod and to make it do something entirely different.

I think it might well be argued that the Money Resolution does not entirely fit a Private Member's Bill which the House was so kind to on that Friday afternoon that it allowed it a Second Reading without any discussion at all. I am very chary of Money Resolutions which are so unusually wide as this on Private Members' Bills.

It says: …to develop, and assist in the development of, land and to empower such authorities to set up certain capital funds and renewal and repair funds… The power to do that does not involve very much expenditure beyond just setting up a fund. It goes on: …to borrow by means of bonds and to allow discount for early payment of rates, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of moneys provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the provisions of the said Act in the sums payable out of moneys so provided by way of Exchequer Equalisation Grant under the enactments relating to local government in Scotland. Will the Secretary of State, who, I see, is taking voluminous notes, tell me first of all how much he expects to be spent in the developing of land; secondly, how much he thinks will be spent in assisting in the development of land? Thirdly, will he explain the difference in these two terms? Just what is involved? Developing land—does that mean a local authority developing its own land? Assisting in the development of land—does that mean assisting private persons in the development of land, subsidising landowners in the provision of—I know not what, since "development of land" is a very wide term indeed. One could embark on all sorts of things under the term of the Money Resolution.

We are so accustomed to complaining about the restrictive nature of Money Resolutions which prevent us from making Amendments in Committee that we are more than surprised to find a Private Member's Bill being accorded a Money Resolution at all and getting a Money Resolution which is as wide as this one. I feel entitled to ask whether the Money Resolution has been drawn specifically in this way to enable the Secretary of State for Scotland to allow the hon. Member who sponsored the Bill—he is not even here tonight—to see what its fate will be in relation to the Money Resolution. Apparently, the hon. Gentleman is confident about the Government preparing the way and providing the financial wherewithal to enable his Bill to live. We should be told whether it was the Government's purpose deliberately to draw the Money Resolution in this way in order to enable the Bill to be amended and enlarged.

It means that the Bill will not be the one which was given a Second Reading. It will not be the Bill which the House agreed should go to the Scottish Standing Committee. It is a little unfair and stretching the rules of the House after a Bill has received a Second Reading on the nod, after the House has agreed to send it to a Committee, for the Government to have in mind so to change it that it is a different Bill altogether. A very important point of principle may well arise in relation to that.

That does not mean that I disagree with whatever dark or bright purposes the Government may have in mind about the future expenditures under the Bill. However, at this stage all we can ask, while remaining in order, is whether or not it was the Government's intention to draw the Money Resolution so wide for that purpose, whether they can now tell us how much it is likely to cost, what is the amount of money which is being authorised for payment, whether it is still insignificant, as was originally stated or whether the Secretary of State can put a figure to it which will be significant and indicative of the Government's intentions.

10.23 p.m.

Mr. Archie Manuel (Central Ayrshire)

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) that the Money Resolution seems to be drawn fairly widely and that its terms give scope for vast expenditure. It is peculiar that a Money Resolution in connection with a Private Member's Bill should be drafted in this way. I would emphasise that we are merely doing our duty as Scottish Members by probing and trying to get clear answers about the intention of the Money Resolution and why it has been so very widely drawn.

I would ask the Secretary of State whether the Money Resolution is drawn in the terms that he originally thought it would be when the sponsor of the Private Member's Bill got the assurance of the right hon. Gentleman that it would have Government backing. At that stage in the history of the Bill, was this the Money Resolution which it was envisaged would apply to it? This is a very important point. There were statements in the Press at the weekend, and they have been repeated today, to the effect that the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Hendry) will use the Bill as a vehicle to bring into being, with the blessing of the Government, certain amenity provisions which were contained in a Bill which has now been dropped. We should be told frankly if this is the course that the Secretary of State intends the Bill to take.

The Resolution states: …for the purposes of any Act of the present Session… These Acts will be continuing for many other Sessions. Then there are the words: …to enable local authorities in Scotland to develop… What sort of development is envisaged? Does it apply, for instance, to the extension of burgh boundaries? Does this mean assistance in connection with housing or industrial development, such as the financing of local authority industrial estates? It also says: …and assist in the development of, land… If a local authority needs land for development, will this provision enable it to extend into a neighbouring county, for instance, for the development of housing or industry?

We should also know what figure the Secretary of State has in mind as the annual on-cost. Or is this merely a blind, unlimited power for local authorities in certain areas in order to assist in the development of land? When the Resolution refers to …and assist in the development of, land… one imagines that this may mean ownership other than local authority ownership.

That needs careful examination, for some hon. Members opposite are very keen to inflict means tests before public money is given to certain constituents, though not to others. They believe in subsidies ad lib to some constituents but when it is a question of help for those in poorer circumstances they say that great care must be taken. That applies to rent schemes, for instance, since the local authorities are not, according to the Government, fitted to decide on these for themselves and must have the Secretary of State to tell them. Is this the sort of thing to be tackled through the Money Resolution?

The Bill is not very clear about what is meant by "capital funds". There is a reference to this both in Clause 1 and in Clause 2. I hope that the Secretary of State will tell us how this fund will be set up. What control will there be over it? Will it he operated at the discretion of the local authorities?

The Money Resolution refers to sums payable out of moneys so provided by way of Exchequer Equalisation Grant… We seem to be committed to the principle that if any money is needed the shortcomings will have to be made up out of the Exchequer equalisation grant. Or alternatively, that this grant will be used for purposes other than those for which it has been used in the past. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will clarify the position. Has the right hon. Gentleman in mind any limiting sum? Has he considered that aspect of the matter?

I welcome any move to give local authorities more power than they have at the moment. We have not had an opportunity to discuss the Bill in detail, but we hope to do so on another occasion. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will tell us whether the powers of local authorities are to be extended by the Bill.

10.33 p.m.

Miss Harvie Anderson (Renfrew, East)

I do not intend to detain the Committee for long, but I wish to take this opportunity of expressing considerable misgivings, which I have made known to my right hon. Friend, in connection with this Bill.

I appreciate that it is not in order to discuss the terms of the Bill, but the Money Resolution gives me no cause to feel reassured. It seems to me that there is a lot of substance in what the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel) said, in that the annual oncost, which would appear to be possible as a result of this Bill, is an unknown quantity. It seems curious that at a time when I should have thought hon. Members on both sides of the Committee were concerned about the rate burden on the community as a whole, and in particular on certain sections of it, we should appear to be accepting something which places an additional burden on the rates, but which is not apparent from the terms of the Money Resolution.

From my considerable experience in county council work, anything which is permissive almost certainly proves dangerous. The extent of this permissive aspect of this Measure seems rather greater than most. I appreciate that it would be out of order to refer to the terms of Clause 2, but they are the basis of the fears which this Resolution confirms. I hope that my right hon. Friend will take additional caution in adding to the rate burden which is excessively heavy in many areas, including the one I have the honour to represent, where assessments have increased so dramatically in recent times. I hope that we can have some reassurance that this Resolution is not the blank cheque which to many of us it appears to be.

10.36 p.m.

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

We are very glad to see two of the sponsors of the Bill present in the Corn- mittee. It was asking too much of the Committee to put before it a Money Resolution when the sponsors could not be present. Had it not been for my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross), this Resolution would have been considered without and sponsor of the Bill being present. That is a disgusting way in which to treat the Committee. With his customary vigilance my hon. Friend saw the dangers of the Money Resolution. Thanks to that, we are able to discuss them in the presence of the sponsors.

I presume that the Government have more or less taken the Bill over and are providing the money. The Government will decide what amendments will be accepted, not the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Hendry). The Government will now decide what will happen to the Bill. What a mess the Scottish Office has been in! To begin, this Bill was a Government Bill, but they did not know if they could get it into the time-table and they wanted to impress the electorate. They backed all the horses in the race, because one is bound to win and there will be a second and a third. What a hopeless muddle for the Government! After 12 years they come at the last moment, two months before the election, to cash in in this way. The interesting thing is that the Secretary of State believes that they will do so. He is telling the electors that they will do a lot better now, but if they know how the Government have dealt with the matter up to now they will doubt it.

The Resolution is exceedingly wide; so is the Bill. It speaks of money to enable local authorities in Scotland to develop land. I find that the definition of the words is: a local authority may, for the benefit or improvement of their area, erect any building and construct or carry out works on land. What does that mean? What is it intended to cover? One can think of hundreds of different kinds of buildings. The local authority is given power to erect them subject to the approval of the Secretary of State. There is no limitation on the development of land. A short time ago we discussed a Money Resolution allowing people to paint their garden gates or plant trees. That was under the Countryside and Tourist Amenities (Scotland) Bill. this power is now to be incorporated in this Bill.

The hon. Lady the Member for Renfrew, East (Miss Harvie Anderson), who made a speech and then rushed out of the Chamber, is right in saying that this is a blank cheque. We are asked to vote money to set up certain capital funds from which money will be lent for certain purposes, and I see little protection for these capital funds in the Bill. I reflect on all the protection being put into the Housing Bill for money being advanced to modernise housing and to provide decent housing accommodation. When I compare the position with that under this Bill, I am staggered that we should be asked to accept this Financial Resolution. Tomorrow morning in Committee I shall be engaged in discussing page after page o safeguards for the taxpayers' money. I see few safeguards here.

This is one of the most astonishing Financial Resolutions it has ever been my lot to examine—and I have examined probably as many as anyone. It is a most unusual Resolution, wider than any I have ever seen, and I am surprised that the Treasury ever agreed to it. I do not know what the Estimates and Public Accounts Committees will say of it. The Treasury must have been out when it was drafted. Before we accept it we need much explanation of what it means. It must have many hidden meanings, because it has brought the Secretary of State here to answer; he cannot trust the task to an Under-Secretary. He can leave an Under-Secretary to deal with education, sitting on the Front Bench for 10 hours, but tonight we have the Secretary of State, two Under-Secretaries, one Scottish Whip, a P.P.S. and the sponsor of the Bill. These cohorts are brought forward to push through this Financial Resolution.

Compare that with what happened on the Succession (Scotland) Bill when one Under-Secretary sat on the Government Front Bench in solitary splendour. There must be something very important in this Resolution, and that makes us all the more anxious to probe into what it covers. The language includes the phrase

to develop, and assist in the development of, land and to empower such authorities to set up capital funds…". There is no limit—and the Bill is no better. I await the Secretary of State's explanation with interest.

10.45 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Noble)

It is always interesting—and that is, I think, why there is tonight such a large representation from the Scottish Office on the Treasury Bench—to listen to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) probing, as tic calls it, the mysteries of Money Resolutions. But perhaps I can leave him tso his due place in the queue and now say a few words that I hope will help the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross). I find it slightly odd in view of the two previous occasions on which I have dealt with Money Resolution that the usual complaint that the Government have drawn them too narrowly has now changed to one that we have drawn this one much too widely.

Let me take up a point made by the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew, East (Miss Harvie Anderson). As the Committee will probably have noticed, this Money Resolution was on the Order Paper a considerable time ago and was drawn for the Bill as it is printed. Several hon. Members have asked whether or not a significant amount of money is involved. I wish I could give the Committee that information, but I cannot, because, as I understand it—

Mr. Cyril Bence (Dunbartonshire, East)

An open-ended commitment.

Mr. Noble

It is not an open-ended commitment, because in every case where money could be spent it is spent subject to the agreement and authority of the Secretary of State—

Mr. Ross

The whole point is that what Amendments can be in order depends entirely on the Money Resolution. The whole point of our previous criticisms of Bills that have been for the good of Scotland is that we have been prevented by the Money Resolution from improving them. Here is a Money Resolution that is so wide that anything could be done, and we want to know if the right hon. Gentleman is to save his face by resurrecting a Clause in a Bill that he had occasion to drop and put it into this Bill.

Mr. Noble

The Committee is right to hope that Money Resolutions will be drawn widely so that Amendments and suggestions can come from both sides—

Mr. Ross

It is unusual for them to come from that side.

Mr. Noble

It happens from time to time, and the hon. Member should not complain if the opportunity is available. The hon. Gentleman asked whether the power to develop land was an important part of the functions of the Bill and, therefore, of the Money Resolution. As far as I am able to anticipate, the only money that will be necessary under the Money Resolution will be in connection with Clause 4 of the Bill, which is the development of land to which the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire referred, but about which the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East was more helpful because he had actually read the Clause, which makes it slightly simpler to know what the power is.

Clause 4 (1) is identical with Section 2 of the Local Authorities (Land) Act, 1963, which at present applies only to England and Wales. This is a power that local authorities in Scotland wanted and is, I think, entirely suitable for a Bill such as this. But it is difficult to anticipate what money may be needed. I suspect that the amount will be very small, because it is a power of last resort. Local authorities can do almost all things they want to do under other legislation. I therefore imagine that the amount would be very small, but it is quite impossible to estimate it, because it depends on what the local authorities want to do, and whether I agree to their doing it—

Mr. Manuel

In connection with the better understanding that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) had—I suppose in comparison with what I said—Clause 4(1) is loose enough to mean a burgh extension, if it was to improve the area.

Mr. Noble

My reading of Clause 4(1) is that it could not be used for a burgh extension or for ordinary housing purposes.

Mr. Ross

"Any building".

Mr. Noble

My information is that it would not be used.

Mr. Ross

We are not interested in what it would not be used for but what it could be used for. [Interruption.] We are in Committee, and if the hon. Gentlemen opposite want their Money Resolution they should keep quiet.

Mr. Noble

The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel) asked whether the Resolution was drawn in terms orginally planned. I have answered that. I think that it could be used for a small industrial estate, and this could be of advantage to small burghs which have not got these powers already. This is a possible use. The estate might be only one factory, but it could be useful for that purpose. It certainly is not a new use of Exchequer grant. The grant has been used in these ways before and I noticed that the hon. Member welcomed the general principle of giving local authorities more power.

I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrew, East need be too worried about this. It is, as I have said, a power of last resort. I do not envisage Clause 2, which particularly seemed to worry her, as one in which any money will be called for from the Exchequer, because these funds will be set up by local authorities with my consent and I do not think that there will be any likelihood of any large extra rating for that purpose. I certainly do not regard the Bill as giving a blank cheque to local authorities or anybody else.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East, apart from being staggered, was possibly pleased—I am not certain how he viewed it—that this was unlike the last Money Resolution about which he objected that a private individual might be able to paint his garden gate, because the Resolution was too wide. That difficulty—if it was a difficulty for him—has disappeared with this Money Resolution, because this is entirely a power to local authorities. Under Clauses 5 and 6, if they so wish, they can develop their land with other people and put up buildings in a building scheme. But I would not regard, and I do not think that any local authority would regard, the painting of a garden gate as either useful or coming within Clause 5 or Clause 6. This worry, therefore, is safely out of the way. I hope that the Committee will agree that the probing by hon. Members and my hon. Friend has brought out all the facts which it is possible to bring out. The sum is likely to be small, but I cannot guarantee to the Committee what it will be.

Mr. Willis

I quoted the case of painting a garden gate only because there was no indication at all of the type of work that could be done. When we are three months from a General Election, and having seen hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite in action, I would not be surprised at anything that a Money Resolution covered.

Mr. Thomas Fraser (Hamilton)

Would the Secretary of State say whether the sum to be spent under the Money Resolution will be increased and whether it will be increased greatly by bringing into the Bill Clauses 3 to 8 of the Bill which the right hon. Gentleman dropped last week? I understand that local authorities are empowered to incur certain expenditure under those Clauses. Will not that increase the expenditure under the Money Resolution?

Mr. Noble

It is difficult, if not out of order, to discuss what may happen, but when we were discussing the Money Resolution of the Bill which has now been dropped the Committee will remember that very little money was expected to be spent by local authorities under these Clauses. I therefore do not think that the hon. Member need worry on that score.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolution to be reported.

Report to be received Tomorrow