HC Deb 10 February 1966 vol 724 cc638-44
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

As the House will know, it is the practice for Her Majesty's approval to the establishment of Royal Commissions to be announced by the Prime Minister. I have, therefore, the privilege of informing the House that the Counsellors of State, acting on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen, have approved that Royal Commissions be appointed to undertake a comprehensive review of local government in England and Scotland respectively.

I will announce at a later date the names of the chairmen and members, together with the terms of reference of the two Royal Commissions.

As regards Wales, proposals for the reorganisation of local government are already at an advanced state of preparation and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State intends to present a White Paper in due course.

The decisions I have just announced will, of course, have far reaching effects on the present arrangements for reviewing and revising local government organisation in England. For the convenience of the House my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government will now make, with your permission. Mr. Speaker, a further statement, and will answer hon. Members' questions, on these aspects of the Government's decisions.

Mr. Heath

Does the Minister recall that on another occasion he said that a Royal Commission is an institution which takes minutes and wastes time? In these circumstances, why is he setting up Royal Commissions to deal with this urgent and important matter of local government reform which will inhibit any changes in local government of any major kind during the years the Commissions are sitting, while the findings are being considered by a Government, and while the legislation is passing through the House?

On a serious point, will he not give consideration to the question whether Royal Commissions for dealing with matters of this kind is not an out-moded piece of machinery and whether there should not be a new form of machinery constructed to which, if outside members are required, they should be seconded from their occupations, paid full time to give full attention to these matters and reach conclusions speedily in a limited time so that the Government would give consideration to them? These are urgent matters which the Government apparently consider require attention and they should have machinery to deal with them of a sort which has not been used in this case.

The Prime Minister

In the quotation which the right hon. Member rightly attributed to me I said, on 7th September, 1964, about a particular proposal by the then Government for dealing with a proposal, that I thought it would take too long to deal with it by a Royal Commission. On that particular proposal we have now legislated and it has become law. A Royal Commission would have taken too long on that particular proposal, which could be dealt with by the House.

Certainly, if my right hon. Friend felt that on the local government question there would be delay we would not have proposed Royal Commissions, but we feel that so much information has been collected on a rather partial and local basis that it is essential to have decisions taken and that Royal Commissions will actually speed procedure.

The suggestion that, in a matter of this importance, rather than having a part-time Royal Commission one should ask the members to devote their full time—with possible implications of payment— has been put forward on many occasions and I certain would not rule it out. I think it worth considering, without commitment.

Mr. Grimond

Will the Prime Minister assure the House that, although he is not in a position today to announce the terms of reference of the Commissions, they will include a decision on local government finance and possibly some democratic form of regionalism? As there will be widespread anxiety about delay, can he say how long he thinks it will be before the Commissions report? Do I understand that in the meantime all the tentative proposals for local government reform—there has been a White Paper on Scottish local government for some time—will be held in abeyance and there will be no change while awaiting the Reports of the Commissions?

The Prime Minister

It is our view that this will be the speediest method of dealing with the situation rather than dealing with it by a partial method. As to the terms of reference, I cannot see how the Commissions could go into the question without touching on the question of finance and other issues.

As to the status of reports which have so far been made and the procedures so far followed, I thought it would be more convenient to follow the usual form of announcing the Queen's gracious permission to have set up Royal Commissions and suggesting that my right hon. Friend should follow with a rather fuller statement because, as he is in closest touch with the individual inquiries which are going on, it is better for him to answer. Most hon. Members in touch with this matter in their own areas could put questions to my right hon. Friend—[HON. MEMBERS: "When?"] Now, if hon. Members will allow him to do so.

Dr. David Kerr

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that, although we appreciate that there are certain difficulties about Royal Commissions as a method of investigating this very complex problem, we none the less welcome them as far superior to the rushed chaos which was represented by the London Government Act of the previous Administration? In view of the possibility of causing chaos by rushing things too much, would my right hon. Friend please note that chaos was prevented in that case only by the fact that most authorities under that Act were elected as Labour-controlled authorities?

The Prime Minister

Without expressing any view on that issue, which was fully debated in the time of the last Government, I think that the House will see the arguments for the Royal Commissions better when my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government has made his statement.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not want to stop questioning for the moment. I hope, however, that the House will note the Prime Minister's statement that this is to be followed by another statement by the Minister of Housing and Local Government on the implications of the Royal Commissions. Questions for the moment are on the Royal Commission itself.

Sir G. Nicholson

The Prime Minister would help the House a great deal if he would say how often he thinks that the Royal Commissions will be able to meet. Will it be more than once a month? Will it be once a fortnight?

The Prime Minister

Mr. Speaker, I am wondering whether I took the right course this afternoon. This is a new experiment which I thought would be convenient to the House—that I should make the formal announcement and the responsible Minister, who is in close touch with the problems, could answer detailed questions. Perhaps it was right. Perhaps it was wrong. I thought that it would be for the convenience of the House.

I feel, without wanting in any way to foreclose questions, Mr. Speaker, that if my right hon. Friend could make his statement some of the questions right hon. and hon. Members have would be more properly addressed to him. I am not running away from the questions. I should be delighted to answer them, but I think that they would be better addressed to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. G. Campbell

On a point of order. Naturally, I wish to fit in with what the Prime Minister and you suggest, Mr. Speaker. However, as the Minister of Housing and Local Government has no responsibilities in Scotland it will be impossible for him to answer questions which Scottish Members may wish to put to him and which can, therefore, be put only to the Prime Minister.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Further to that point of order. If the House were to agree and you, Mr. Speaker, were to give your approval, I wonder whether we should hear the statement of the Minister of Housing and Local Government straight away and whether you would permit questions to be put which might be answered either by the Prime Minister or by the Minister of Housing and Local Government, according to their relevance.

Mr. Speaker

That would be rather confusing, I think. I must respect the claims of Scotsmen.

Mr. G. Campbell

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. As a White Paper on the Reorganisation of Local Government in Scotland was published more than two years ago, and as a great deal of work has been done on it, both by the local authority associations and by the Scottish Office, why has this work now been held up and why should it be necessary for Scotland to start again at the beginning?

The Prime Minister

I have been in the closest discussion with my right hon. Friend on this matter. I assure the House that we should propose this only if we felt, as we do, that we shall get more authoritative and speedier decisions in the Scottish matter than if we follow the existing procedure.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Since in many ways local government in Scotland is rather different from that in England, is not there a case for a special Royal Commission for Scotland?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. I think that the case is unanswerable and that is why, in my statement, I said that there was to be a separate Royal Commission for Scotland.

Mr. Higgins

In view of the Labour Party's election promise that it would give early relief to ratepayers by transferring more of the cost of public services from the rates to the Exchequer, would the Prime Minister give an assurance to the House that this will not be delayed by the statement he has made this afternoon? Further, would he refute the suggestion made by the Minister of Housing and Local Government that it is impossible because of the economic situation? Is it not totally irrelevant to the economic situation?

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is suspiciously like a speech. It is the kind of question I thought would have arisen on the second statement.

The Prime Minister

Since the question has been asked, I hope that I shall be allowed to answer it, Mr. Speaker.

First, I think that the hon. Gentleman is talking about my right hon. Friend's speech at Hull. That referred to a different matter, not to rates. The hon. Gentleman must not be impatient. I have read the speech. I know exactly what my right hon. Friend said.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is a rating relief Bill now going through the House. There is a second Bill, as my right hon. Friend has said many times, in preparation on the question of relations between central and local government finance, dealing specifically with the point made during and before the election. The hon. Gentleman must not think we shall be satisfied even then. We are already giving a great deal of thought to the longer-term problems of rating.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

The Prime Minister stated that there will be two separate Royal Commissions. Just how separate will they be? Will there be arrangements for liaison between the two of them? Does the Prime Minister appreciate that the special arrangements in Scotland have not always been advantageous to Scotland?

The Prime Minister

The basis of separation between them will be, roughly speaking, the River Tweed—[Laughter.]—and the rest of the Border, of course. With regard to liaison between them, which I think is a very serious and important point, whenever there have been inquiries proceeding—Royal Commissions or any others—where there was a need for co-ordination, that has been ensured. I can certainly tell the hon. Gentleman that everything necessary will be done, I am quite sure, to see that the two Commissions have whatever liaison is appropriate on matters which cross the Tweed and the rest of the boundary. Hon. Members can certainly count on that. However, since the systems of local government and the problems are so different, it is right to have separate Royal Commissions.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. Crossman. Statement.