HC Deb 13 February 1967 vol 741 cc301-14

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. loan L. Evans.]

12.55 a.m.

Mr. James Davidson (Aberdeenshire, West)

My reason for seeking to raise this rather broad subject on the Adjournment is twofold. I am worried, and I know that many others are worried, by the fact that more and more boards and committees are continually being set up which not only seem to be non-accountable to the electors, be they comprised of members of committees of local authorities, directors on the boards of large companies, or members of statutory boards or the public committees set up by the Government, but which are taking important decisions affecting thousands of people and large sums of money, often making these decisions far away from the places where the decisions will take effect, decisions which are very often contrary to the wishes of the people who are the nominal electors and who are, incidentally, the people who provide the money to carry out the decisions—the ratepayers, the taxpayers, the private investors, or the suppliers of the raw materials for manufacturing processes.

"He who pays the piper calls the tune" may be true for the consumer of a commodity where there is still some element of choice, as, for instance, in a well-stocked "sweetie" shop, but far too often there is no real choice and often the ratepayer or taxpayer or investor who pays the piper never even hears the tune. This is particularly true of Scotland under a system by which power and wealth are concentrated in the South of England.

This in turn attracts many of those with ambition, brains, qualifications, or money to invest, away from the remoter regions to the Metropolitan area. Inadequate transport in Scotland and distance from the centre of the spider's web is another cause of depopulation and of the vulnerability of all types of industry north of the Border.

The trend towards centralisation in the London area has become a vicious circle. The greater the concentration, the greater the pull and the greater the ill-effects of congestion, remote control and bureaucracy, and the greater the powerlessness of the citizen. It seems to be generally accepted in Government and commercial circles that all ideas and decisions must originate in London, that all roads and ambitions must lead there, that everything at some stage must pass through the overloaded filtration plant of the Metropolis.

I make no apology for raising a subject which is no more a criticism of the present than of any other Government of the last 20 years; nor for making criticisms which are difficult to answer because of their general nature. I appreciate that the Government have established development areas in an attempt to redress the imbalance to which I have referred. I know that the Parliamentary Commissioner Bill is an attempt to provide the citizen with a new weeping wall, but as two sides of the wall are out of bounds—the local government side and the Ministerial decision side—its usefulness will be rather limited. I know that some decisions affecting Scotland are taken in Edinburgh.

In order to give the Minister something more specific to answer, I should like to give some examples of the kind of conflict to which I am referring, although I fully appreciate that local authority decisions are outwith his jurisdiction. However, I would like to give a few instances in which individuals, or groups of citizens, have found themselves powerless against local authority committees. It might be argued that the electorate has the opportunity at local government elections to remedy the situation, but under the present system of local government in Scotland—particularly in rural areas—so few men and women have the time and money to serve on local authority councils that freedom of choice and opportunity is largely illusory, in spite of the dedication of many councillors. In one old people's home I know the patients can see the doctor only when the matron considers that they really need to do so.

Mr. Speaker

What the hon. Member is now raising seems to be a matter for local authorities rather than the Minister.

Mr. Davidson

With your permission, I am raising the issue of the conflict of the private citizen with public committees. I accept that this is not the Minister's responsibility—

Mr. Speaker

I am aware of what the hon. Gentleman seeks to raise, but he can raise only something for which the Minister is responsible—some Minister, any Minister.

Mr. Davidson

I accept your Ruling. I was hauled into a dispute between a hotel and a local authority, but perhaps this is also something into which I should not go. Whether it is a local authority committee, a statutory board or committee set up by the Government, this is still a matter of conflict between the private citizen and a public committee and a matter which should be brought to the attention of the House.

I will pass on to the position of the private citizen versus statutory boards I am certainly not the only Member of this House who has been informed that the Government cannot interfer with the decision of a statutory authority. Once the members of a board have been appointed to whom are they answerable? For example, neither the Hydro-Electric Board, the Coal Board, the British Railways Board, the Scottish Tourist Board, the Highland Development Board, nor any Rural Development Board, when it is set up, is apparently answerable to the electors, directly or indirectly.

None of these is listed in Schedule 2 of the Parliamentary Commissioner Bill, under authorities subject to investigation. Yet the electors are the people providing the cash for boards to carry out their functions. There are many people who feel, as I do, that because coal is nationalised and the industry is run by the National Coal Board, coal should cost the same throughout the country, but there seems to be no way of pressing this view upon the board. The argument used is that those close to the source of supply should benefit thereby. But on the basis of that argument, both whisky and electricity should be cheaper in the north of Scotland than anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

Two identical dwellings in the same county and at the same altitude and latitude can be faced with an immense difference in the capital cost of connection to a main electricity supply, just because of an accident of geography, or the whim of the appropriate hydroelectric board. As for the Board of British Railways, and the Transport Users' Consultative Committee, the private citizen is by now well aware that his views, in conflict with the Board, are as effective as a pea-shooter against a tank. The T.U.C.C. is simply a valve to allow him to let off steam. The way that members of the T.U.C.C. vote on any particular closure is not even publicly disclosed.

In the case of the closure of the Dee-side Line, in my constituency, a year or two ago we engaged a firm of business consultants to see what could be done to make the line pay, but British Railways refused to divulge the key figures, although they had originally agreed to do so.

The sum of £360 was raised, partly by contributions from Ballater Town Council and the Deeside Tourist Association, and partly as a result of a public appeal for funds. The district traffic superintendent of British Railways at Aberdeen indicated to the committee and to the consultants that he would co-operate with the consultants and supply them with any information they might require. However, when half way through their survey, the consultants were informed in 1964 by the district traffic superintendent that British Railways were not prepared to amplify in any way the figures given in the heads of information supplied to objectors before the T.U.C.C. and in the Beeching Report. The actual words used in the final paragraph of the letter were: … the British Railways Board is under no obligation whatever to provide financial justification for a proposed withdrawal of a passenger train service, either to the T.U.C.C. or to individual objectors. Under the provisions of the Transport Act, 1962, the T.U.C.C. can only hear objections on the grounds of hardship, and questions on the financial aspects of the case are not within their remit. In these circumstances, I very much regret that the Board is not prepared to amplify in any way the figures given in the Heads of Information … and the further breakdown in revenue and expenditure which is given on Pages 100 and 101 of the Reshaping Plan. I must protest very strongly that British Railways, being owned by the public and under obligation to them, must be prepared to justify their actions. There was good reason in this case to believe that the figures given for the Deeside line in the heads of information and the Beeching Report were seriously inaccurate, but without further information from the Railways Board this could not be proved. Naturally, the inference drawn was that the board's case would not stand up to critical examination. It was significant that the figures in the heads of information did not appear to tally with those in the Beeching Report.

Application was made for local representation to the Scottish Economic Planning Council. It was refused on the ground that the decision was to be made "from a non-parochial viewpoint". In effect, this meant that British Railways' opinion was taken but that the business consultants' report, made at the expense of local residents, including myself, was never shown to the members of the Scottish Economic Planning Council before that council advised the Minister.

As for the more recently proposed closure of the Strathmore line—the direct route between the largest city in the North of Scotland, Aberdeen, and Scotland's main commercial centre, Glasgow—neither the North-East nor the Tayside consultative group was conferred with. The Transport Committee of the. Scottish Economic Planning Council apparently gave advice without drawing on local opinion, and an official statement to the effect that the journey via Dundee would take no longer was not strictly true.

It appears that the public are kept in ignorance of the activities of the Scottish Economic Planning Council. Its agenda and minutes appear to be secret and the public have to rely on Press reports based on letters from Government officials. Press reports, for example, made no mention of the fact that the S.E.P.C. advised the Minister of Transport on the Strathmore line in July, 1966. It had been supposed that regional consultation would take place first on the lines of the Minister of Transport's White Paper, Cmnd. 3057, but not so. Aberdeen and the North-East will now almost certainly have to rely on one line, and the inferior one at that, for all rail traffic south.

One further point about the S.E.P.C. is that its members and those of the four regional groups, numbering about 125 in all, have been appointed by the Secretary of State, and not elected. Although the names of some women were put forward, none has been appointed. Whilst I would not care to see these bodies dominated by women, I suggest that they should at least be fairly represented.

Another example of impotence in the face of a decision by a statutory board was the recent refusal by the Air Transport Licensing Board to allow a Scottish airline to operate three direct routes between Scotland and the European Continent, mainly, it seems, because B.E.A. did not want competition, although that competition would have been via London and the Scottish airline would have operated direct from Glasgow. At this very moment, the international airport of Prestwick is entering the first round of a battle for survival against the massed forces of the London centralisation lobby.

I do not intend to give specific examples of the powerlessness of the private citizen in conflict with the boards of public companies, but it is, I think, generally accepted that the voting rights of the small shareholder are more imaginary than real. There is little that he can do to influence a company's policy or even to get somebody whose views he respects elected to the board. He is usually too distant or busy to attend the annual general meeting. Even if he did, he would have to convince the chairman that it was desirable to organise a postal ballot for election to the board.

In any event, the company's share capital is almost invariably concentrated—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member has to show that some sort of Ministerial responsibility is involved.

Mr. Davidson

I was taking this part of the subject, Mr. Speaker, also as part of my theme that the private citizen is powerless in conflict with statutory boards and corporate bodies—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I understand the hon. Gentleman's theme, but the general theme can only be developed as far as some Ministerial responsibility is concerned.

Mr. Davidson

I thought that, on the fringe, this was possibly applicable under the Companies Act. But I accept your Ruling, of course, Mr. Speaker.

I realise that the Minister cannot answer this problem tonight, but to those who are interested in the spreading of wealth and power by economic instead of by political means, in stimulating economic growth, which I am sure is a concern of the Minister's, and in finding an answer to the problem of automation and the theories of Karl Marx, I can recommend a little book called "The New Capitalists", by the American Professors Adler and Kelso. It provides an answer to the problem posed by the steady shift of power from labour to capital by the process of automation, and to the fact that economic growth seems no longer to bear any direct relationship to consumer demand.

To meet the problem of the impotence of the private citizen in Scotland in conflict with statutory boards, public committees and certain corporate bodies, we must give people greater powers of decision over their own affairs. The problem will become greater still if and when we enter the E.E.C. I hope that we shall enter the Common Market, but this problem in Scotland should be tackled before we do.

We need further delegation of authority from central Government to a regional level and, at the same time, an increase of powers at local level. There must be a Scottish Parliament for Scottish affairs taking decisions in Scotland, elected regional councils for regional centres, and local authorities of a practical size for affairs of a purely local nature. But, at each level, the committees and boards which are set up by government, whether national, regional or local, must be answerable to the electors—to ordinary people—unless we are to lose the rights and freedoms for which our forbears in Scotland have fought so hard.

1.12 a.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Dr. J. Dickson Mabon)

To seek to answer in an Adjournment debate an important subject of this kind is one of the most difficult tasks that I have ever had.

The entitlement of the individual citizen to reasonable treatment in his dealings with authority in its diverse forms and at its various levels is something which hon. Members in all parts of the House ought to safeguard, because every Government have a continuing responsibility to the extent that their powers allow. But when one looks at the profusion of Statutes that there have been in this century alone, not only by Labour Governments and Conservative Governments but even by Liberal Government, inasmuch as they can be recalled, with respect, there are Statutes persisting still which are subject to the same defects as have been continuing ever since. I admit that, because these have been errors in the past, no matter how they have emerged, that is no reason why they should persist.

May I take the point which the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. James Davidson) made in relation to the activities of local government for which Ministers are not responsible? On many occasions, Parliament has given to local authorities the allocation of houses, certain planning powers, certain matters governing the transport of children to school, and many other discretionary powers, far wider than many people in Scotland recognise.

Parliament has done that in the belief that local government is energetic and vigorous and that there is a great response of electors to the election of councillors and the activity of work in local government. I take the hon. Gentleman's point that it is growing more difficult to get people to stand for local elections in Scotland, as it is in other parts of the country. It is particularly true of some of the rural counties, and Aberdeenshire is no exception. I take his point also that there are those active in local government who are to be commended for what they do.

If his prescription for the ills which he has sought to highlight is more local participation, one has to face the problem that we have many uncontested seats in Scotland. The explanation and the remedy for that situation may be advanced by the Royal Commissions sitting in both countries. Certainly I hope so.

There is, I think, a study going on by the Maud Committee in England which may have some lessons for us in Scotland regarding the remuneration, be it on a full-time or a part-time basis, of councillors in this regard. Local democracy is very important and is very much concerned with the consultative committees which have been established by many of the nationalised industries. I shall not refer to the Parliamentary accountability of the nationalised industries, but simply to the work of the consultative committees.

The South of Scotland Electricity Board Consultative Council has 47 per cent. of its membership composed of representatives drawn from the local authorities. The North of Scotland Hydro Electricity Board Consultative Council has 50 per cent. of its representatives drawn from the local authorities. In the case of the Consultative Council of the Scottish Gas Board, 59 per cent. of the members are drawn from local authorities. I do not have precise figures for hospital boards and regional hospital boards in Scotland, but a high percentage of the membership is drawn from local authorities.

I take the point made by the hon. Gentleman. He is complaining that these persons are responsible only to their electors in the given wards, towns, or rural districts from which they are drawn rather than to the consumers of the area which is served by these nationalised boards. This is a very big topic of discussion. I do not think that there are any remedies peculiar to any one party in this matter. I think that this is a problem of democracy, rather than one of party doctrine, and we will just have to see how we can resolve it in various ways.

I doubt whether we can have direct elections for every statutory board and every consultative committee. I think that the people of this country would rapidly grow sick of going into the polling booths, unless of course we did it on the Americal model of pulling one lever to elect 200 persons to public office in one heave. This is a matter which I cannot go into on an Adjournment debate, other than to add a comment here and there on one or two matters.

The hon. Gentleman touched on the work of the Highlands and Islands Development Board and said that perhaps we ought to extend its area. But we have discussed this, both in Committee and since in Parliamentary Question and Answer. We certainly have in mind the idea that we might at some later stage include certain areas. Bute and Arran have been advanced very strongly, the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. MacArthur) has advanced the case for North Perthshire, and indeed the hon. Gentleman at one time advanced the case for West Aberdeenshire being within the Highlands and Islands area. But even if we were to extend the present area—and we do not intend to; at present we intend to stick to the six crofting counties which have problems of their own to try to resolve—it would bring up the question of the direct participation of local people in the working of the Highlands and Islands Development Board.

I think that the Board would be weakened if it were to draw its members from elected members in the Highlands and Islands, because I do not think that that part of the world has shown itself remarkably receptive to the ideas which might allow investment and progress to take place, and because of the very vested interests which would be taken on to the Board.

Mr. James Davidson

The hon. Gentleman referred to the area of remit of the Highlands and Islands Development Board and its relation to neighbouring counties. Perhaps he could in passing say something about the Cairngorms, which is a special case, because it is obvious that, geographically, the Cairngorms extend outside the area of the Highlands and Islands Development Board.

Dr. Mabon

I think that is obvious, and I accept it. There are many matters which will flow from the work of the Board which are bound to overlap into other areas. Bute and Arran is perhaps as good an example as the Cairngorms area. Many of the recommendations which the Board makes will come within the purview of other boards, for example, the tourist board, which is not a statutory body, but is a manufacturer's cooperative and has Government blessing. But it is not a statutory body, although it could become one, such as the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston) has advocated. There again, it will be difficult to find a tourist board which we could elect without depriving ourselves of a great deal of the expertise which we have only just acquired on the tourist board.

May I say, without disrespect, that this board was formerly drawn from people who, by definition, were not in the industry. They were do-gooders, and I mean no disrepect who meant to try to promote tourism, but they were not involved in the activities of tourism and this Government have taken an entirely different view of tourism, which we think has been quite undeveloped in Scotland. We think that this ought to be done by persons who are in the business of tourism, and that they ought to try to advance the interests of tourism.

Again, there is a danger in electing simply a tourist board and hoping we would somehow or other get the best results out of that, unless we have an administrative section along with the board—which would mean employing a large number of people we do not have to employ.

I do not want to go into some of the points about the National Coal Board, but I should like to touch on the subject of railway closures. I am glad that the hon. Member is willing to recognise that the structure of the 1962 Act was not brought about by the present Government. Indeed, I remember in this Chamber seeking with some of my hon. Friends to amend the Transport Bill of 1961–62 so that in addition to the S.T.U.C.C. there would be some council to take into account the social and economic consequences of many of the closures. All that Ministers in the present Government could do was to operate administratively so that there was an additional, non-statutory procedure to go through before these decisions could be processed in the proper way as laid down by Statute.

Of course the hearing of evidence of objectors is laid down by Statute as a public hearing, but not the proceedings of committees, and this again cannot be changed unless Ministers bring in amending legislation. This must be comprehensive and radical, and this has meant waiting for at least these two years before a Bill could be presented to Parliament. A great deal of work has had to be done on this matter.

The hon. Gentleman has been in correspondence first about the Deeside line, and he has been assured that the understanding of the Minister is that British Railways, Scottish Region, will not authorise the disposal of the track without obtaining the views first of the Secretary of State, and ultimately the consent of the Minister of Transport.

The Ministry has now defined the word "track" as being not just the track but also associated apparatus and buildings which would be necessary in the event of a decision to reinstate passenger services. This is very important.

I think it is fair to say about consultative groups that they have only just started to function. The North-East group and the Tayside group have not been slow in making their views known. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that these lines could be reopened at some later date if there was a clear economic reason why this should be done.

I think this is the best assurance one can give in the circumstances. I would hope we are through the worst of the Beeching proposals in Scotland, and, if I may say so, I think the Secretary of State has done remarkably well in his activities in relation to this with the Ministry of Transport. I am only sorry that the same vigour was not shown by the previous Administration in regard to earlier closures, some of which we cannot reprieve. But again we want to protect the tracks of many of these in case, as a result of group representations and representations from industry, we are able later to make use of these lines.

I think I can summarise the view of the Government on the hon. Gentleman's Adjournment in this way. We accept that the price of freedom in this country is eternal vigilance, not just on the part of Members of Parliament, or indeed of Ministers, who are essentially Members of Parliament, but also on the part of local councillors.

The Question having been proposed after half-past Nine o'clock on Monday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-six minutes past One o'clock.