HC Deb 20 October 1966 vol 734 cc481-8
Mr. Oscar Murton (Poole)

I beg to move Amendmnet No. 7, in page 4, line 44, to leave out subsection (2).

Perhaps I might, first, deal briefly with the background to the Amendment. Subsection (2) of Clause 4 replaces, with amendments, subsection (4) of Section 3 of the Local Government Act, 1958. Under the 1958 Act, general grants, like rate support grants under the Bill, were payable in aid of the revenues of the recipient authorities generally. In fixing the annual aggregate amount of the general grants the Minister was—and is—required to take into consideration, among other things, the rate of relevant expenditure as defined by the Act. To discover what is relevant expenditure for the purposes of general grant it is necessary to look at Part I of the First Schedule of the 1958 Act.

This says that, subject to certain exclusions specified in Part II of the Schedule, relevant expenditure is expenditure falling within any of the paragraphs in Part I of the Schedule, as, for example, expenditure incurred by local education authorities as such, expenditure incurred by or on behalf of local health authorities within the meaning of the National Health Service Act, 1946, in respect of the carrying out of the functions of such authorities, whether under that Act or under any other enactment, expenditure on fire services, expenditure incurred in carrying out any of the functions specified in subsection (1) of Section 39 of the Children Act, 1948, and so on. There are a number of them.

These matters specified in the various paragraphs of Part I of the First Schedule have one thing in common. They are all functions which had been grant-aided before the coming into operation of the 1958 Act.

There were other features also which made them generally of a kind. Thus, under the Education Act, 1944, and the National Health Service Act, 1946, the appropriate Ministers were given an overall national responsibility for the service concerned; under the Fire Service Act, 1937, a duty was imposed on fire authorities to make provision for fire fighting purposes, and the Home Secretary was empowered, after consultation with the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, to make regulations prescribing efficiency with respect to a wide range of matters, and under the Children Act, 1948, children authorities were required to carry out their functions under the general guidance of the Home Secretary. In much the same way, the activities of local authorities under the Town and Country Planning Acts which were grant-aided were subject to the approval or control of the Minister.

The other items in the original Schedule either were matters where a definite duty existed, as on the part of registration officers under the Representation of the People Act, 1949, or on the part of the local authority under Section 21 of the National Assistance Act, 1948, or the matters were relatively minor ones in regard to the actual amount of money spent, but where the Government were anxious to encourage the activities of local authorities.

These were all matters, therefore, where a measure of Government control was, if not inevitable, at least to be expected as the normal concomitant of specific grants; furthermore, in regard to the more important services the appropriate Minister already had a statutory function to supervise in one way or another the activities of the local authorities concerned.

The provisions of subsection (4) of Section 3 of the 1958 Act were, therefore, not particularly surprising and, in the context of the general grant under that Act, related to the limited range of matters giving rise to relevant expenditure, were not particularly objectionable.

That has been rather long, and I apologise for it, but that is the background I have sought to prove, that up to that time the situation was what one might call under control. But under the present Bill the position is altogether different. The scope of "relevant expenditure" is extended to cover expenditure on the whole range of local authority services—except housing, which is separately supported by subsidies—and the trading services.

This change brings within the functions giving rise to "relevant expenditure" a whole range of functions which have not heretofore been subject to any detailed control by central government, where local authorities have been treated as responsible bodies competent to discharge their own functions and to exercise their responsibilities in their own right. Yet subsection (2) of Clause 4 of the Bill would empower the appropriate Minister to make regulations for prescribing standards and general requirements in relation to any function of a local authority —that is to say, not merely functions where the power of control already exists, not, indeed, only those functions which will give rise to relevant expenditure for the purposes of the new grants, but any function—housing, trading services, functions obtained by local authorities by local Acts of Parliament; indeed, everything.

This is an altogether unjustifiable invasion of the independence and autonomy of local authorities, and is quite unjustified by anything that it is proposed to do under the Bill. When the Government of the day put forward their proposals which were later embodied in the grant provisions of the 1958 Act—I would remind the House that it was a Conservative Administration—the White Paper, Cmnd. 209, published in July, 1957, said, in paragraph 5 on page 4: A main aim of the proposed changes has been to increase the independence of local authorities in the raising and the spending of their money so far as it is practicable to do so From 1951 onwards it was a declared objective of Conservative Governments to simplify and reduce departmental control, on the view that 'local authorities are responsible bodies competent to discharge their own functions and they exercise their responsibilities in their own right'". 7.30 p.m.

In so far as the grants under the present Bill are the successors of those under the 1958 Act, it must be commented that it is a strange way to increase the independence of local authorities—which was one of the aims of the 1958 legislation—by giving Ministers, as this Bill does, new powers to make regulations prescribing standards and general requirements where no controls have previously existed.

In my view, this is a grave step backwards from the more enlightened legislation of a former day. In their White Paper of February last, entitled Local Government Finance in England and Wales, Command 2923, the Government stated that in their view: … the paramount need is not so much to encourage or assist the development of particular services as to ensure that the total cost of all services does not place an impossible burden on ratepayers and in particular on householders. This is a very laudable intention, but I would submit that it is one which is bred out of expediencies because of the Government's own economic policy, which has made it vitally necessary to shield ratepayers, even if it is only to a limited extent, from the impact of increasing costs and the annual cumulative build-up of servicing a loan debt which is at an historically high interest rate.

The aim of the new system offers no ground for conferring new powers to impose new controls over services which have previously been the responsibility of the local authorities. Doubtless it will be argued that as all local authority expenditure, except expenditure on housing and the trading services, is to come into the calculation of the aggregate grants to local authorities, all local authority expenditure is grant aided and therefore the Government have an interest in how it is incurred.

In the context of the new grants, and bearing in mind the amount of additional money which the Government are proposing to put in, this argument will not stand up. Paragraph 13 of the Government's White Paper of February sets out the grants paid in 1963–64: £287 million for specific grants, £587 million for general grant and £146 million for rate deficiency grants—a total of £1,020 million. No doubt that sum has increased and will increase again this year. What extra money are the Government offering which can be regarded as justified all of these extra controls?

Paragraph 16 of the White Paper gives the answer when it says: … something approaching £30 million… in the first year. That is less than 3 per cent. of the grants in 1963–64— … approximately £60 million in the second year, £90 million in the third, and so on. Additional grants of this order are insufficient to justify claiming an unlimited power to determine the standards and general requirements of the whole range of local government functions.

If the Government feel the need for some power to regulate the activities of local authorities, in my opinion that power should be confined to functions for which a Minister has a national responsibility, as in the case of education and the National Health Service, or where Parliament: has specifically conferred some measure of control or oversight of some particular service. The present provision is altogether too sweeping. It is an open denial of the guiding principles laid down by the Local Government Manpower Committee, which incidentally was appointed by and reported to a Labour Government, that: … local authorities are responsible bodies competent to discharge their own functions… and who … exercise their responsibilities in their own right… It is not justified by the circumstances, it is not necessary for the protection of the public, and it is an offence to local authorities who are doing their best to provide proper services for their area and who usually know very well what it is that their ratepayers want.

Mr. Allason

As a vice-president of the Association of Municipal Corporations I wish to say that it resents subsection (2) and hopes that it will be removed from the Bill. It is a further extension of centralised control by the Government over local authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Murton) has indicated that the Government might try to use the £30 million, by which they say they are going to increase the grant annually, as an excuse for their need to have control over the whole aspect of local government expenditure.

This is not so. The beauty of the general grant system is that the money goes to a local authority, whether or not it spends it. There is a duty upon a local authority to provide essential services, but over and above that if it wants a marble town hall then it does it at its own expense, not at the general expense of the taxpayer. The argument that a small increase in grant to local government is being made is no excuse for exercising grand-motherly supervision. These are jobs voluntarily undertaken by local government, which under subsection (2) the Government are seeking to supervise.

The Government should only seek to supervise these if it is a matter affecting the national interest, and the national interest does not enter into this. It is not a question of any increase in national expenditure, there is no national service involved. This is interference for the sake of it. It is a further extension of the good old Socialist principle, that "the gentleman in Whitehall knows best".

Mr. MacColl

I could have understood this Amendment if it was merely directed to a part of the subsection, to those elements of expenditure which were not in the existing grant. But it is an extremely wide Amendment if it says that these powers should go in respect of all local authority expenditure under the grant. In other words it is repealing even the provisions in the 1958 Act.

I find myself shot at from different angles because in Committee I was fighting very hard to make a point that we had powers under this Bill, and general powers in the matter of education. Then it was being said that this was all a plot to cut down the amount of expenditure on school meals and milk, which was quite untrue. This is not involved. I am very surprised to find that the attitude which has been taken by the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Murton) has been put forward by the party opposite. When the hon. Gentleman the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason) said that this was an A.M.C. point I could see that. I could see the case for saying that any local authority would feel irritated by this sort of power but I cannot believe that anyone else would.

I am certain that the great body of ratepayers would think that it was a good thing that there should be adequate supervision if money was being paid out. The existing position is that the powers to regulate standards have been used in the realm of education to deal with such matters as sanitation, safety arrangements for school buildings, qualifications for teaching staff and the maximum size of classes. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science feels very strongly that those are necessary. I cannot believe that any impartial person would say that there was something dastardly and Socialist about wanting to ensure reasonable standards of sanitation, safety and teaching qualifications. I know of no case in which other authorities are likely to want to use these powers. There is certainly no general lust to rush in with regulations in every field of local government.

All that this does is to give the power to make regulations which are subject to the negative procedure. Although the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead may feel that it is a triviality, we are for the first time extending this grant to virtually every aspect of local authority expenditure. That is very important and generous, and it should be emphasised.

As we are going into the field of grant in this way, it does not seem unreasonable that we should have a residuary power to ensure that the standards are maintained. No sensible Government would go out of its way to have a whole pile of regulations applying to every small aspect of local government services. I therefore feel that the House would be unwise to accept the Amendment.

It is true that there are other powers in other Acts. The last Government thought it desirable, in spite of that, to include the provisions about general expenditure. If we are to cover under the new rate support grant the whole of local authority expenditure, with the exception mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, most people would think it only common sense and responsible administration to take these powers. It is not a curtain opener for a devastating onslaught on the freedom of local authorities, and I do not think that any responsible local authority would think for a moment that it was.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. MacColl

I beg to move Amendment No. 8, in page 5, line 20, to leave out subsection (5).

This Amendment is consequential on Amendment No. 3, in Clause 1, page 2, line 27. It is also a paving Amendment for the Amendment in Clause 4, page 24, line 30. It removes the various definitions of joint boards from the substance of the Bill and puts them in the interpretation Clause, Clause 34. This will make it easier for people to understand the Bill. It is a purely drafting Amendment.

Amendment agreed to.