HC Deb 25 July 1967 vol 751 cc608-23

6.45 a.m.

Mr. Emlyn Hooson (Montgomery)

Two recent White Papers have attracted considerable discussion in the Principality of Wales, but nothing has attracted more hostile criticism than the Government's proposal to set up a Nominated Council for Wales, so it is right that the matter should be debated before the Recess. I am sorry that the Minister of State has been kept out of bed all night but I am sure that she will welcome the opportunity to make the Government's views clear.

I completely oppose any nominated council for Wales, and this view is shared by hon. Members opposite. Such a council is not new. Wales was governed by the Nominated Council for Wales and the Marches several centuries ago, and the redoubtable Bishop Roland Lee of Worcester, who probably hanged more Welshmen than anyone else—[AN HON. MEMBER: "He was very efficient."] He was certainly vicious.

In 1948 the then Labour Government proposed the setting up of a nominated council, and many views expressed in that debate were echoed in the Government's White Paper. Presenting the proposals, the late Herbert Morrison said: I think this scheme will prove to be acceptable to the general body of Welsh Members, but the fact is that we cannot think of anything better. We think this is the best expedient open to us and we should be most regretful if hon. Members took such an opposite view that we did not go on with this. We are unable, as have been Governments before us, to think of anything better than this; we think this is good."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th November, 1948; Vol. 458, c. 1275.] The best which the Government of the day could think of was this council responsible to the Minister responsible for Welsh Affairs.

The position has now changed. There is a Secretary of State, a Minister of State and an Under-Secretary of State for Wales and well-developed—though not sufficiently well-developed—Welsh Office. We congratulated the Government on setting up the Welsh Office as a major step forward, but why, therefore, is there any need for this Council of a kind usually reserved for backward colonies who cannot elect their own representatives? The Government have made no case in the White Paper for the Council. It says: Proposals have been made by various bodies and by some of the informal local government advisers that, as part of the reorganisation of local government, new machinery should be created at an all-Wales level. There is a widespread desire in Wales for a good deal of devolution. Opinions may differ as to the extent of devolution desirable. Opinions in this House vary about it, but there is a great body of opinion in favour. An all-Wales body is a body which represents Wales, but does the nominated Council represent Wales? How is it nominated and how will it differ from the Council set up by the Government in 1949 and abolished over a year ago as virtually redundant? There was a good deal of pressure from within the Government and certainly from the Labour Party for an elected Council for Wales. The Government have ignored a great deal of opinion on either side of the House in favour of an elected, rather than a nominated, Council, and the House has a right to know why this was rejected. The view expressed in 1948 was that the nominated Council should be accepted as something which could be developed into something elected and acceptable to the general body of people in Wales, but that view proved entirely unfounded.

It is suggested in the White Paper that the Welsh Council should have among its responsibilities: To provide a forum for the interchange of views and information on developments in the economic and cultural fields, and to advise on the implications for Wales of national policies. Why on earth do we need nominated people to do this? Wales has elected Members in this House. Other areas do not need nominated bodies to advise the Minister how people think, and on developments in the economic and cultural fields.

The next power suggested is: To assist in the formulation of plans for Wales, having regard to the best use of its resources, and to advise the Secretary of State for Wales on major land use and economic planning matters. Why is it necessary to have a nominated Council for a purpose of this kind?

The hostile reception for this plan has been fully justified. It would be a retrograde step for this nominated Council to be set up. This was an important White Paper. On all sides there is agreement that reform of local government for Wales is necessary. Most of the discussion on the White Paper is centred, not on the proposals for reform of local government, but on proposals for a nominated Council, and the minds of people of Wales have been taken from the valuable suggestions in the rest of the Report. I do not agree with it all, but it is a feasible scheme and a good basis for discussion.

I hope that the hon. Lady, the Minister of State, will be able to reassure the House that the Government ate not tied irrevocably to the idea of a nominated Council. It will hold back the idea of devolution of an elected body in Wales because all these councils build up vested interests and, once thrust upon us, they are difficult to remove.

Now we have a Secretary of State for Wales and we have had some administrative devolution. The next step should be greater administrative and legislative devolution. Where does this Council help in that process? The White Paper completely fails to make out a good case for this nominated body.

6.55 a.m.

Mr. Elystan Morgan (Cardigan)

congratulate the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) on his initiative in securing a debate on this matter which is of great interest and significance to Wales. The fervency with which the Liberal Party in Wales approaches Welsh issues since the Carmarthen by-election of 12 months ago is as welcome as it is understandable. This proposal for a nominated Council is a compromise between the views of those who would sweep away any all-Wales machinery and those who would firmly stand for an elected Council. However commendable compromise might be in the Anglo-Saxon context, harsh Celtic logicality regards it as rather monstrous and in this connection the compromise is a hermaphrodite creation. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree with me that no section of Welsh opinion has been jubilant in welcoming the establishment of this nominated Council for Wales.

Therefore, the Welsh Office has been caught in a crossfire from both sides, from those who feel that the establishment of such a Council is at best a superfluity or at worst a concession to dangerous nationalist feelings, and from those who feel that a nominated Council is an affront to Welsh nationhood. These two factions are now in unholy alliance attacking the new proposal.

Before mentioning the deficiencies of the nominated Council, it is only fair and proper that one should stress one ameliorative feature. This is not only common to the proposal to establish a nominated Council but runs through the whole rationale of the Government's published plans for the reorganisation of local government in Wales. It is the rejection of the temptation to consider that the north-west of Wales should be linked to Merseyside and the South-East to the Bristol and Severnside conurbation. After all, this is a plan which does regard Wales as one distinctive entity. That in itself is a minor victory, for certain academics have from time to time pressed the other view that there should be this splitting up of Wales and joining it after dismembering to various parts of England.

I urge upon the House the consideration that there are three very serious defects in the idea of a nominated Council for Wales. First, the Council is not representative of the people of Wales. I do not prejudge the calibre of persons who will be appointed. I am not saying that they will not be foremost in Welsh life, that they will not be typical of Welsh outlook or that they will not be dedicated to the welfare of Wales. I am sure that those who are nominated will be suitable, people of industry and integrity and well qualified in their fields to serve on an all-Wales body. But as appointed members of the body they will not be responsible to the Welsh people. They will not have behind them the vote of a single Welshman or Welshwoman to support their membership or mandate their actions.

Further, this nominated body will have to deal with elected bodies. Consider what would be the position if there were a Member of this House who had been nominated rather than elected to Parliament. What would be his authority? What would his status vis-à-vis the other Members of the House? A person looking at the development of Welsh institutions from 1945 would, I think, come to the conclusion that there was an inevitable trend of progressiveness from the publication of the first White Paper on Wales in 1946 to the establishment of the Welsh Office in 1964. But this nominated Council is not part of any such progressive pattern of development. In fact, we have come back full circle to the position which existed in 1949. There has been a reinstatement of the council which was abolished in 1966.

The second point I stress is that this is an advisory body, and, as such, it lacks real authority, executive or otherwise. Wales already has a plenitude of advisory non-authoritative bodies. Few nations can have had so rich a dowry. Advisory bodies have their place in the life of every community, but they run the gauntlet in a very narrow course. On the one hand, there is the danger that they may be so robust in their activity and have such influence in the life of the community that they trespass upon the democratic principle in that they are not responsible to the people whom they serve. On the other hand, there is the danger that they may so lack authority that their functions are nothing more than a charade.

From its establishment in 1949 to its demise in 1966, how many of the reports of the Council for Wales and Monmouth have been acted upon, how many were fully debated, how many have passed into obscurity, gathering respectable dust in some pigeon-hole in Whitehall?

Third—and this, I believe, is the true gravamen of the indictment against the nominated Council—it supplants a far more desirable and very necessary body, that is, an elected council for Wales. It is not in order now to discuss the proposals relating to local government reorganisation in Wales. I say only this. There are many in Wales who would wish to have seen a pattern of reorganisation of local government based upon 36 most-purpose authorities, with a higher tier of a regional body, and an elected one at that.

In the White Paper, arguments are articulated against such a body. The main argument was of the "heads I win, tails you lose" variety. It is said that, in so far as an elected body could have culled functions from both local and central government, such a reform would require extensive alterations in existing legislation". Again, it is said that, in so far as the local government functions are concerned, the main purpose of this reorganisation, after all, was to strengthen local government bodies in Wales. It would then not be proper for any functions to be taken away from the present pattern and consequently to weaken those very bodies.

It is only fair to remember that extensive alterations are anticipated by the plans which have been published in regard to local government reorganisation. Legislation will be necessary. Although the Government argue in the White Paper that the creation of an elected council would entail discussions on "wider issues", I submit that this would have been within their terms of reference in this context. They do not make the point that it would have been ultra vires for it to have considered this situation.

I also feel that the main criticism under this heading is that the Government have failed to show clearly in their White Paper that Wales has a distinctive character and composition as a land and nation and that it is right for it to have its own specific structure and Government. If Wales were nothing more than a region there might be force in the argument that any reform should be regarded as part of a wider study, but the case here does not rest upon regionalism; it rests on nationhood. When the Welsh Office was established in 1964 it was not argued that such a development should be part of a comprehensive study of the devolution of the powers of central Government; it was embarked upon as a wholly independent act. If the nationhood of Wales justified such action in October, 1964, why should the attitude have changed in July 1967?

Again, I consider that in the White Paper there was a failure to treat the arguments relating not only to central Government but local government—

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

Does not my hon. Friend agree that there is nothing self-evident in the proposition that nationhood automatically demands its own Parliamentary structure, and also that the social links, which may sometimes be very nebulous, with the national background may not coincide with the more practical links governmentally?

Mr. Morgan

It is too early in the morning to launch into a lengthy argument on the rights of nationhood. The justification for the creation of the Welsh Office, according to every declaration made by the Government, was the fact of Welsh nationhood. The creation of the Welsh Office was not put forward as part of a comprehensive plan but as a specific Welsh development, confined to Wales. If Welsh nationhood justified specific treatment in 1964, can it logically be argued that there should be no specific treatment in 1967?

There is also a failure to deal with the local government aspect of this development. The great danger that arises when—as in the case of this plan—there is created a tier of county councils and then of district councils is that such local government bodies often experience friction and jealousy. A pattern of 36 most-purpose Councils with a regional authority would have avoided this peril.

Not only do I regret the decision which the Government have arrived at but I also regret the failure to deal fully with the question of an elected council. It would have been proper in the White Paper to have shown the functions which could have been culled from the realm of local government and also central Government—functions such as police, fire and ambulance services on the one hand and, from central Government, functions relating to forestry, water resources and economic planning. Some attempt should have been made to assess the role which this Council could play in the life of Wales. I feel that it is a body which can inspire national feelings and aspirations. It could have been a focal point for the loyalties of people from all parts of Wales—people of different views and diverse languages. It could have been a unifying force in the life of a nation which is divided by so many factors.

Wales is much more than a geographical area which commends itself to the geometry of regional planners. It is a country and a national community and any body which is to serve it effectively must be vested not only with real power but be so constituted as to command the respect of the Welsh people. There is sufficient veneration for the functions of democracy in Wales and a proper pride in nationhood as to demand that such a body should be manned by people elected by the Welsh people and be responsible to them.

Some will say that a great and decisive battle has been lost, but I do not believe that. Nothing has yet been lost, and I stress the opening words of the White Paper: This White Paper sets out for public discussion the Government's proposals for reorganising local government in Wales. I urge the Government to reappraise their plan. It will take two to three years for legislation to be implemented in this connection and, meanwhile, a study of Welsh opinion on this vital point should be made. I am sure that the results would show how robust and adventurous is the feeling in Wales on this issue. Thereafter, a Government working party could be established to prepare a detailed plan for regional government in Wales, built around a system of an elected council, such a plan dovetailing into a new pattern of local government.

Eighty years ago, when Welsh local government was reformed, there were cries for a national body to serve Wales. Despite the virile national feelings of the time, these cries were ignored. Nevertheless, the spirit of nationhood in Wales grew stronger. At the turn of the century the Liberal Party both encouraged and exploited this spirit. Yet when the Liberals gained a huge majority of 365 seats in 1906, capturing all the seats in Wales, with one exception—it saw fit to betray the trust that had been vested in it by Welsh national feeling.

Mr. Hooson

If the hon. Gentleman knew anything about the history of this matter he would know that between 1906 and 1917 the Liberal Party tried to give first priority to Ireland, although every Bill was rejected by the House of Lords.

Mr. Morgan

As for history—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot now go into the history of the Liberal Party in detail.

Mr. Morgan

I am not castigating the Liberal Party for its failure to pass the necessary legislation but for never ever having attempted to carry it through, even in the days of its absolute strength in this House. I hope that the present Government, who have received the franchise of nearly two-thirds of the Welsh people and who hold five-sixths of the constituencies in Wales, will not fall into the same error, but will, when the time comes to implement their plans, give Wales an elected body of which the nation can be proud.

7.15 a.m.

The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Mrs. Eirene White)

A debate on Wales is welcome at any time, even at this time in the morning. We are naturally gratified that the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) should have come here and initiated a discussion on matters which are of great importance to the Principality, but, having been here all night, I rather hoped that when we reached this subject we would have a more constructive and less superficial speech from him.

The only advantage the hon. and learned Member has over the Conservative Party, which has not chosen to be represented here at all this morning, is that he is at least concerned with a possible body for the whole of Wales, whereas a few months before the last election the Conservative Party issued a map of its proposed regional government which split Wales, putting the whole of the North Wales littoral in with Merseyside and South-East Lancashire, leaving mid-Wales as another region, South and South-West Wales and West Monmouthshire as another, and East Monmouthshire with Severnside. The Liberal Party has not suggested anything of that kind.

On another occasion I should like to have an opportunity of discussion of the whole problem of local government in Wales, but I do not think this is an occasion to enter into a general discussion of the reform of local government. I only say to the hon. and learned Member and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardigan (Mr. Elystan Morgan) that of course we considered very carefully the possibility of 36 or any other number of all-purpose authorities in Wales and came deliberately to the conclusion that a pattern of that kind, whereas it might be suitable for other parts of the United Kingdom or for certain areas of Wales, would not be suitable for Wales as a whole because the resulting authorities would be far too small for many of the functions they would have to perform.

I do not want to go into full detail of the proposed pattern of local government as it is set out in the White Paper, but I confine myself to the final chapter of the White Paper which is concerned with the proposed Welsh Council. To some extent both hon. Members have been tilting at windmills. We expect that from the Liberal Party, but I was rather disappointed that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardigan should have fallen into the same error, because it is quite clear to anyone who reads the White Paper that the proposals of the Secretary of State concerning a possible all-Wales administrative body fall into two parts. This is made clear in paragraph 57, which says: It is proposed to take action in two stages. The first stage is the extension of the terms of reference and membership of the present Welsh Economic Council. Then it is made perfectly plain that further consideration will be given to possible subsequent developments.

This procedure, far from arousing hostile comment as has been suggested, in all quarters has received the commendation of those who are knowledgeable in this field. I quote from an article which appeared last week in the Local Government Chronicle by Professor Ivor Gowan of the University of Wales in which, discussing the proposal to deal with this matter in two stages, he says: This is an eminently reasonable suggestion and it is far more empirical and level headed than the extravagant comments which have come from one or two of the minor Welsh political parties. I am sure the hon. and learned Member will recognise himself in that context.

Mr. Hooson


Mrs. White

The immediate intention as described in the White Paper is in my view the only sensible one which could have been adopted at this stage for the very good reason that a fairly lengthy period is bound to elapse before the proposed new local authorities are actually functioning. With the length of time required to draft and pass the complex legislation needed, it can hardly be less than three years.

So what could be wiser than to extend somewhat the terms of reference and membership of the existing Welsh Economic Council, as proposed for stage one? From remarks made by the hon. and learned Gentleman, both on this occasion and in the Welsh Grand Committee in 1964, it is plain that he holds a very poor view of advisory bodies. He made in 1964 some extremely denigratory remarks about the former Council for Wales. I ask him to read again the very impressive foreword to the final Report of that Council, signed by its Chairman, Councillor Bccston, a mail who, incidentally, has unrivalled experience as an elected member in another sphere of activity.

Councillor Beeston pointed out that what the Government wanted was advice, not independent action, on the special needs of Wales. He thought that a guiding principle of the Council had been to back its advice with solid evidence and to resist the temptation to rush into resolutions formulated from inadequate study and discussion.

Mr. Hooson

Surely the hon. Lady has not dealt with the point made by the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Elystan Morgan). What were the achievements of the nominated Council?

Mrs. White

I was coming to that if I had not been interrupted. It will be within the recollection of all those who are knowledgeable about the former Council for Wales that it provided the basis and the stimulus for a very large number of important developments in Wales, not least the Welsh Office itself. I should have thought also that any hon. Member representing part of mid-Wales would have expressed a little gratitude for the Council's report on mid-Wales. There were also reports on depopulation, rural transport and the Welsh language, which most of us would have regarded as the forerunner of the Welsh Language Bill. The suggestion that the work of this Council, because it was advisory and based on research rather than slogans, was of little use is completely misplaced.

In that final statement on behalf of the Council, Councillor Beeston quite properly declared: It would in any event have been wrong for the Government to confer on a nominated Council powers of executive action over such a wide field. He was referring to the Council's terms of reference. All this is true mutatis mutandis of the Welsh Council proposed in the White Paper. If it is advice we are seeking, a nominated body is not only justified but for certain purposes it is essential because otherwise we would deprive ourselves of the knowledge and experience possessed by a wide range of men and women who would not or perhaps by nature of their occupations could not stand for election to an elected body.

We can all think of people of very great value in industrial and academic life who would be debarred from giving us the benefit of their knowledge, experience and advice if the only channel open to them were that of membership of an elected body, and therefore this contempt for nominated advisory bodies is entirely misplaced.

It is when one comes to executive action, including, of course, the spending of other people's money, that there is proper concern about representation and democratic control, and one could mention that on no more suitable occasion than the Consolidated Fund Bill.

With all our defects we have this control more or less satisfactorily at central government level and we have it at local government level as local government is now understood, but it is in between these two levels that we do not yet see the path altogether clearly. Administrative activity is bound to grow at points intermediate between Whitehall and the county and county boroughs which are the major authorities of local government.

The question to be resolved is what form the control of this intermediate administration should take. It can be seen either as the apex of local government or as a regional or, in the case of Wales and Scotland, a national extension of central government. Extension of central government which is itself based on democratic election is not undemocratic. One should clear one's mind of misapprehension and, if I might even say so, of cant on this point. What strikes an ordinary citizen as undemocratic is when a body is interposed; that is, when a body with executive functions is set up by central Government nomination to act in a particular area and which, by virtue of being nominated, is or can be unresponsive to local opinion. There are circumstances in which such a body is acceptable. A new town corporation is such an example where the nature of the case demands rapid and concentrated executive action more high powered than the normal organs of local government could control. When it has done its job there is a natural clamour for it to die away and for the town to revert to the normal processes of representative government.

But there are other bodies which are not ad hoc, but continuing, over which public opinion becomes restive, and one can fully understand why. For some of them at least straightforward election by itself might not be the answer. These are specialist bodies which need a specialist element, as well as a popular element, if they are to function effectively.

We have not yet worked out a satisfactory formula for this type of administration. It is touched on by Professor Gowan in the article to which I referred a few moments ago. In the context of an all-Wales body he refers to an elected body with a range of executive functions which would have nominated members on its committees.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is clear that we do not wish to set up any such body, however constituted, which would simply deprive the newly enlarged local authorities of some of their major duties. As he says in paragraph 48 of the White Paper: … it would not be consistent to strengthen the local authorities for the better discharge of their functions and at the same time transfer the most important of these functions elsewhere. Some adjustment of functions may, with experience, prove desirable, but I believe that any all-Wales body which may evolve will be primarily concerned with functions devolved from central Government. Some of these possible functions are referred to in the White Paper. The new transport authorities which the Minister of Transport is currently discussing and the proposed Countryside Commission are obvious examples. One can think of others. Devolution of this kind not only needs the complicated legislation which is referred to and which has been mentioned by both hon. Gentlemen who have spoken this morning, but it should be discussed in a United Kingdom context.

As I said in Colwyn Bay last week, at county and county borough level and below, I believe that the structure of local government set out in the White Paper is basically right for Wales and should stand, whatever is proposed ultimately for England and Scotland. But if one is talking about devolution from central Government, then surely it is sensible to see what general pattern is likely to evolve, and we can do this only when we have the reports of the two Royal Commissions for England and Scotland. We are, after all, part of the Government and administration of the United Kingdom.

Unless one is a complete separatist, which I understand neither hon. Gentleman to be, it is only sensible if we are talking about devolution from central Government to consider the proposal in the general context.

It is not only a matter of legislation, but there are quite complicated principles of finance which have to be worked out if one is pursuing a development of this kind. Whatever my hon. Friend the Member for Cardigan may say about the particularity of Wales, when discussing finance from the United Kingdom Treasury it is only sensible to discuss this in the context of the United Kingdom as a whole. Naturally, one would wish to adapt whatever resulted from this consideration to the particular conditions of Wales, but that does not mean that we can discuss it wisely in vacuo.

I believe that the development of this intermediate stage of administration which I have described is inevitable and I am sure that in time we shall work out a satisfactory pattern which will be without detriment to the newly enlarged local authorities. On the contrary, work which could be done for the local authorities on a co-operative basis, including such things as computerisation of financial and other records, staff training, bulk purchase and so on, may come under the aegis of such an all-Wales body provided in that case, of course, that the local authorities had representation. I would also hope that we could reduce the number of bodies dealing with some of our Welsh problems, not least in mid-Wales, by their absorption into an all-Wales organ. But this development will clearly take time and need very full consideration.

It would have been most foolish to have rushed into an elected Council without having clearly thought out first what we wanted to do. Neither hon. Gentleman has gone into any detail as to the functions which he thinks a body such as is being advocated should perform, nor has either made any suggestion about this important subject of finance. Only when one has considered these matters and thought them through logically and clearly can one decide how any such body should be composed and on what pattern the interests of central and local government, the specialists as well as the general public, should he represented and, not least, what the relationship of such a body to elected Members of Parliament for Wales sitting in this House might be.

It is very easy to make an emotional appeal which in turn arouses emotional opposition. I think that the path which we proposed to follow and which has been set out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales in his White Paper may give less scope for rhetoric, but I am certain that it is the statesmanlike way ahead for Wales.