HC Deb 13 February 1967 vol 741 cc43-53

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [8th February]: That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Salop (No. 2) Order 1966 (S.I., 1966, No. 1529), dated 6th December 1966, a copy of which was laid before this House on 12th December, be annulled.—[Mr. Biffen.]

Question again proposed.

11.58 a.m.

Mr. Jasper More (Ludlow)

As has already been mentioned this morning, this Order is a Measure of great importance not only to Shropshire Members but also to all those interested in their local government affairs. It makes decisions which could create large precedents. It is deplorable that, on a matter of this importance, only one Labour back bencher should have come to listen to the debate. There are, after all, apart from all the Ministers which the Prime Minister has created, about 250 back benchers who are supposed to support Government policy, yet only one has turned up this morning. Although he doubtless represents a very respectable constituency, I do not believe that it is anywhere near Shropshire.

It is even more deplorable that we should not have with us a single member of the Liberal Party. It is even more so, considering that at 10 a.m. the Liberals were here in force to give rather synthetic applause to a Bill directly concerned with local government. So we on the Conservative benches are left to bring to the notice of the House and of the Parliamentary Secretary the important matters with which the Order deals.

Before the debate was adjourned on Wednesday, I raised a number of points of detail before going on to the main question of principle. I referred to a specific matter which has become of great importance in my constituency. This relates to the provisions of paragraphs 57 and 59, which have to do with local government officers. The Order is to reorganise local government boundaries and authorities, and it is surely no part of the intention of those who frame Orders such as this, nor of the sponsoring council—Shropshire County Council in this case—nor of Parliament that we should, as a result of anything we are doing under a local government Order, do personal injury to any local government official. But I bring to the notice of the House what has actually happened under the Order which preceded this one—the Salop (No. 1) Order.

The Parliamentary Secretary knows the details. It concerns a local government official with many years service and an unblemished record. I have a letter from the gentleman explaining his present position as a result of the first Order. He says: I am now out of work without any source of income and it appears my pension has also gone. This situation has arisen in spite of the efforts of many people. The Minister himself has, I know, done his best to protect the interests of this individual, as have the county council and his Member of Parliament.

It has been said by some people that the official in question may, in certain circumstances, have been unwise. It has been alleged that a certain council may in certain respects have been unreasonable. But what is quite clear is that throughout no one has acted in any way illegally. Nevertheless, this is the result, and I ask the Parliamentary Secretary two questions which should be faced before the House agrees to pass the Salop (No. 2) Order.

First, seeing that this situation is ultimately the responsibility of Parliament, can some special measure be introduced to give this individual officer his rights? Secondly, before we pass this Order, can we have an assurance that paragraphs 57 and 59 are drafted in such a way that this sort of thing cannot happen again? I do not pretend to be expert on the details but I suspect that the root of the difficulty is in paragraph 57(5) where occurs the phrase, … duties reasonably comparable to those in which he was engaged … It seems that that is the phrase which has given rise to the case I have referred to. I would like the hon. Gentleman's assurance that, under this Order, we shall not have a repetition of what I can only call this disgraceful case.

Sir Gerald Nabarro (Worcestershire, South)

Will my hon. Friend also add to that the important principle, in seeking an assurance from the Parliamentary Secretary, that if this Order is passed the principle enshrined therein will not then be translated to the adjoining county of Worcestershire and that the same depredations will not occur in the ancient borough of Evesham, where all this Parliamentary nonsense began?

Mr. More

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary has taken note of what my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro) has said, because, much as we regret what has happened in Shropshire, we would hate to think that the same thing could happen to local government officers in Worcestershire or any other counties which may be involved.

The Parliamentary Secretary will know that the main objections to the Order have come from the smaller boroughs, of which I have three in my constituency—Bishop's Castle, Ludlow and Bridgnorth. Before saying anything else, I pay tribute to the record of achievements of these boroughs and the councillors and local government officers who have administered their affairs in the past. Even in very recent times, they have all proved that they are entirely capable of administering their boroughs in the spirit of the times.

A civic society has recently been formed in Bishop's Castle and it has gone to immense trouble to preserve the character of this very beautiful borough by street improvements and the prevention of eyesores and the general objective is to keep what might be called Bishop's Castle's "Character".

In the borough of Ludlow, I was invited a few months ago to the opening of a group of houses at the bottom of Corve Street, dating from the 15th or 16th century, which had been in a very derelict condition. Thanks to the initiative of the borough, the houses were purchased by the borough and repaired, beautified and made habitable for four families. That is an excellent example of what a small borough can do.

This is no less the case in Bridgnorth, which is nearer the industrial areas of the West Midlands. It has shown a most worthy initiative in adapting itself to the needs of the modern age. We have had complete clearance schemes of some of the poorer houses in the town, space made for car parks and so on. In fact, we have in these three boroughs administrations of the highest quality.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen), moving this Motion last Wednesday, referred to the prospects of the borough of Oswestry, pointing out that it already had a population in excess of 10,000 and was likely to grow further. It is precisely the same with Bridgnorth, which is situated within easy access of the great industrial areas of the West Midlands and is growing at a high rate. Unless artificially checked, this growth will inevitably continue, which is one reason why this is a very poor occasion to decide to abolish its borough status.

The three boroughs I have mentioned have formally asked that this Order be opposed. The same request has not come to me from the three rural districts that I represent. But it is remarkable that the same request has come to me from the urban district council, part of which lies within my constituency. That should be put on record.

What is it really that Parliament is facing in connection with this review? My hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry has already stated the problem. This county review was undertaken under the Local Government Act, 1958, and under terms of reference which were certainly relevant to the problems and conditions of that time. The review was carried out with great conscientiousness by the Salop County Council and by the review panel which we appointed—I say "we" because I myself happen to be a member of the Council.

The review was, naturally, a painful process. I do not think that the visits of the reviewing panel were relished by the small boroughs who knew the fate that was likely to be in store for them. Although I was not present myself, I can picture some of those embarrassing mornings on which by question, answer and discussion is was made fairly clear what might be in the minds of the reviewing panel, and then they were taken out to lunch by their prospective victims. We know that sort of thing has to happen. At any rate, it all came back to us in the county council, where it met with a lot of opposition. Nevertheless, it was passed by the Salop County Council, and it came to the Minister. We assumed that it would go through. I will not say that the small boroughs had been converted to this, but to some degree they had been resigned to it.

The whole thing has been changed by the statement of the Minister of Housing and Local Government that we are to have a Royal Commission. The more one looks at the situation as it is today, the sillier it seems to go through with the Salop (No. 2) Order.

The Salop (No. 1) Order, apart from the specific case to which I have referred, did not do any actual damage. It drew into one area what was then designated the Dawley new town area. It is true that the Government, by giving consideration to enlarging that new town, has again thrown doubt on the wisdom of putting through that Order, but the Order has not done any actual harm.

When we look at this new Order, the situation surely is very different, because Shropshire is facing the prospect, when the Royal Commission reports, of having not one major reorganisation but two major reorganisations—and this may also be the fate of Worcestershire, the county of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South, and, I understand, Cornwall and possibly one or two other counties.

Assuming that the Minister accepts any of the evidence given by the local government authorities, can the Government really say how the proposed Shropshire reorganisation will "tier in". In local government we talk about the first tier, the second tier, and so on. How do the Government visualise these rural district councils, which are being created under the Salop (No. 2) Order, entering into any acceptable scheme of local government reorganisation?

Are areas, varying from the borough of Shrewsbury, with 50,000 inhabitants, to the rural district of Clun and Bishop's Castle, with 10,000 inhabitants, to be under the same tier authority? Will there be a tier below them? What tier is it visualised will be above them? If the tier above them is to be not larger than the present county of Salop, is it visualised that these are the right sizes for the lower tiers? Has the Minister taken into account the fact that some parishes have parish councils and others have not? These questions are all important, and we should have answers to them before the Order is passed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry asked two very pertinent questions. The first concerned economics. It has been argued all through that by reorganising local government in this way we can get a more economical form of local government. Does the Minister really accept this? Is he really prepared to say that by merging these councils, as is proposed, local government will become any cheaper?

The second argument that is put forward in favour of re-organisation of this kind is that the councils will get better officials because they will have larger areas and will therefore be able to pay bigger salaries. Is this argument sustainable? Let us consider again the case of Clun and Bishop's Castle. We already had a rural district of Clun, with a population of 8,000 or 9,000 inhabitants. Under this Order we have added to it the borough of Bishop's Castle with some 1,200 inhabitants, so the total population comes to just over 10,000. Is it really suggested by the Minister that the addition of 1,200 ratepayers will make all the difference between getting better officials to look after this new area? Is it really suggested that the administration will be more economical?

The argument against the proposal, which has not been sufficiently stressed, is, of course, that of local interest. I was appalled this morning to see the Members of the Liberal Party turning up solemnly to bring in a Bill in favour of democratic elections for regional areas. I observe that they have already lost all interest in local government, because none of them is here. I am glad that we have one Labour back bencher with us this morning. No doubt he is waiting for the Adjournment. It might put the hon. Gentleman out of his misery if I assure him that we will keep this debate going until 12.30.

The point about democratic interest is that to keep the interest of people we need to keep local government small. I read in the rural district's monthly journal a rather interesting analysis of recent local government elections. A correspondent had worked out that the average vote figure in the boroughs and urban districts in recent years was 41.6 per cent., of the electors. I should like to cite once again the case of Bishop's Castle, which is, after all, England's smallest borough. In the last borough election over 80 per cent. of the voters turned out. That reflects considerable credit on the borough and proves what I have said, that it is by keeping local governments small that we keep democratic interest. Has sufficient regard been paid to that, and is it proposed to bring that into consideration with the second reorganisation which, apparently, we have to face?

If the Government have second thoughts—and there appears to have been a certain amount of second thoughts about another local government Order, and it is not clear what the Government want to do about all this—we have to face the factual question of what alternative there is, because, obviously, these arrangements have already advanced a considerable distance. A possible alternative to putting through this Order now is to try to organise what might be called a local government holding operation by which there would be, when necessary, a joint administration of rural district councils and boroughs.

If the Minister pooh-poohs that and says that it is not possible, my answer is that it is possible and has been happening in the small borough of Bishop's Castle and the rural district of Clun for two or three years. The same clerk has been looking after the borough and the rural district. Thanks to the excellent abilities of the official in question, this arrangement has worked very well and very happily and there seems to be no reason why it should not be continued. If it can be done in the one case, why can it not be arranged, with the aid of the Ministry, in the two other cases, which are the outstanding cases in my constituency, and possibly also in Oswestry? I put that forward as a practical suggestion. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South will tell us about one of the proposed local government areas in his constituency.

Sir G. Nabarro

As I understand the position, it would be strictly out of order for me to talk about the ancient borough of Evesham under the Salop (No. 2) Order. I should like your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but that is my interpretation. Although I have a very powerful case for Evesham, I shall have to repose in patience for a long while until a Parliamentary opportunity occurs for me to talk about it in order. If I followed the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. More), I might be tempted to stray from the path of good order and incur the wrath of the Chair for talking about Evesham, Worcestershire, whereas the Order relates only to Shropshire. Having made my point, I resume my seat.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)

The hon. Gentleman is perfectly correct.

Sir G. Nabarro

Thank you, Sir.

Mr. More

I know my hon. Friend sufficiently well to know that he would never stray outside the paths of strict order in this or any other discussion. However, I think that it is a fact that in his county there is a proposed rural district which would have a population of much less than that of Clun and Bishop's Castle. Faced with this prospect, the Minister might sharpen his attitude towards this proposal and consider whether it is sensible to allow the Salop Order to go through and to set a precedent. If the Government agree to this Order, they will have to agree to everything which comes from every county. Unless a line is drawn somewhere, it will be impossible to guarantee that we do not have extraordinary absurdities in our local government.

An elaborate and detailed answer is required to this Prayer. The case of the official which has arisen under the Salop (No. 1) Order is a matter which touches almost the honour of Parliament and we should not let this Order go through until that has been satisfactorily cleared up.

12.25 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. James MacColl)

I owe it to the hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) to take this opportunity to answer some of the points which have been made, especially as the opportunity for praying against this Order will cease on Wednesday. We have had a fairly long discussion of it and I shall reply as succinctly as I can.

I can tell the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. More) that paragraph 57, which deals with staff, is the normal form. That to which he referred was a special case and does not arise on this Order. The gentleman concerned was able to go to arbitration and he lost on arbitration.

My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Fowler) asked about elections. I am advised that the procedure for elections under this Order was approved and agreed by everyone concerned. It is for a county to make any alterations in arrangements for areas and representation.

We left the market under the control of the borough because we thought that the borough would prefer that. If, with his great influence in the area, the hon. Member for Oswestry thinks that it is wise to advise the borough to surrender the market to the rural district, we would not interfere. We left the market with the borough because we were trying to be helpful and not to interfere with something in which the borough had a long and ancient interest. Certainly we would want to meet whatever was required.

Mr. Biffen

The issue arises because the market is administered under Corporation Acts and not under the Food and Drugs Act. That is the heart of the difficulty. I cannot understand the Parliamentary Secretary's gratuitous reference to my influence in the district. This is a matter of the law.

Mr. MacColl

We have not had any representations from the district or the borough to alter the arrangement. We included this provision out of an anxiety to be helpful.

When he moved the Prayer, the hon. Member for Oswestry spoke of Ministerial intransigence. Again I underline that it is not Ministerial intransigence. This is not the Minister's invention, but is a proposal put forward by an elected local council, the county council, which is not only responsible for it, but which acts on the advice of a circular sent round by the Conservative Government in 1962. That circular said: The Minister thinks it right to indicate at this stage that he will not be prepared to endorse recommendations which in his opinion have given too little weight to the importance of securing districts of sufficient size in population and resources to be fully effective". Those were the instructions given to the county council by the last Govern- ment and the county council prepared the scheme under that guidance.

Not only was the scheme subsequently examined by my right hon. Friend, but an inquiry looked carefully into the problems of Oswestry and reached the same conclusions which the county council had reached—that the distinction between the borough and the rural district was expensive and did not reflect a great separation of interests and that the two would be better coming together. In the words of the county council: All things considered, we have come to the conclusion that this is a case when it would not only be uneconomic to maintain two separate administrations serving concentric areas but against best interests of the whole area. That was the view taken by the people on the spot. It was the view taken by the impartial inspector and it is the view taken by two of my right hon. Friends who have looked at the matter. For those reasons, I hope that the House will not accept the Prayer.

Mr. Biffenrose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am unable to accept the Closure.

Sir John Langford-Holt (Shrewsbury)

I wish to address the House for a very few moments only. I was going to speak a little earlier, but I will try to say now what I intended to say then, although clearly I am out of time. I would like to thank the Minister for having placed the maps about which we had some discussion last week at our disposal. He will be happy to know that I have used them and found them of considerable interest.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The Question is, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Salop (No. 2.) Order 1966 (S.I., 1966, No. 1529), dated 6th December 1966, a copy of which was laid before this House on 12th December, be annulled.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

On a point of order. May we be quite clear about this? Is it essential for you to put the Question as we reach half-past Twelve? Under our new procedure, are you not at liberty to adjourn the debate on a Prayer of this sort, as it has already been adjourned once before? We are all a little doubtful about morning procedure and this does seem a little peculiar.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The position is that unless there has not been adequate time for debate the Chair must put the Question. The House has discussed this for an hour and a quarter; it is a Prayer and, therefore, I am proposing to put the Question.

Mr. More

On a point of order, this is an Order affecting not only Shropshire Members, but other Members. With respect, I would point out that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury (Sir J. Langford-Holt) has not been called to speak in this debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is not necessary to the ending of the debate. The Question is—

Sir J. Langford-Holt

I apologise for interrupting again, but this Order affects my constituency. It affects four constituencies, the Members for three of which have been called. I am now on my feet and you have said that adequate time has been given to the discussion of the Order. May I put it to you, with all humility, that adequate time under those circumstances cannot have been given?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The normal maximum time for praying is an hour and a half. The Chair on this occasion is deciding that, as an hour and a quarter has been given, the Question must be put.

It being half-past twelve o'clock, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question pursuant to Standing Order No. 100 (Statutory Instruments, &c. (procedure)).

Hon. Members


Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER'SOpinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the Proceedings stood deferred pursuant to Order (Sittings of the House (Morning Sittings)).