HC Deb 12 February 1968 vol 758 cc1101-12

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

11.9 p.m.

Mr. James Dance (Bromsgrove)

I welcome this opportunity of protesting most strongly at the very unfair burden of some £6,672 being imposed on the ratepayers of Worcestershire. The expenditure of this sum was abortive as a result of the complete change of policy of the Minister of Housing and Local Government.

For clarification, I must go into the whole history of how this expenditure was incurred. I fear that it is rather lengthy. Section 28 of the Local Government Act, 1958, which received the Royal Assent on 23rd July, 1958, imposed a duty on county councils to review the organisation of county districts and rural parishes and make proposals for changes with a view to effective and convenient local government.

The review could not be started until the external boundaries of the county had been settled by the Minister after reports from the Local Government Commission, nor could the county council touch the Boroughs of Halesowen, Old-bury and Stourbridge, which were in the West Midlands Special Review Area. Nevertheless, the county council had preliminary thoughts about the problem in 1959 and was fairly well advanced when the Ministry issued Circular 35/62 on 2nd October, 1962, dealing with the county reviews. In that circular, the Ministry said: It is important for the future of local government that each county council should tackle this task with determination, and should propose changes wherever they consider this necessary to secure effective as well as convenient units. By that time, the external shape of the county had been fixed and the county council was able to start in earnest on its own review. It employed extra staff —one administrative officer and one draughtsman—specially for county review work from 1963–64 to 1965–66. The proposals had to be in the stereotyped form laid down in Circular 36/62 and this involved a large printing and mapping bill. I have some of the documents with me. The cost of the whole exercise was about £6,675.

The county council submitted its proposals to the Minister on 3rd November, 1965.

On 10th February, 1966, the Prime Minister announced in the House of Commons that a Royal Commission on Local Government in England would be set up and that the Minister of Housing and Local Government, then the right hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Cross-man), followed that by announcing that the Local Government Commission for England would be wound up. The right hon. Gentleman went on to say: Under the Local Government Act, 1958, each county council is required, once the work of the Local Government Commission is sufficiently advanced, to undertake a review of the county districts in their area. I intend to deal with county reviews already submitted to me, but I shall have to consider further what is to be done in the case of reviews not yet completed. In answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), the right hon. Gentleman said: ' I have, naturally, discussed the county reviews with the County Councils Association and I have told it that the three reviews which are near readiness will continue. One has come to me already, namely, Shropshire. The two which are nearest—they are both near to inquiry—are Cornwall and Worcestershire. They will continue. That is definite. I will have the others looked at to see how near to completion they are, because I quite agree with the right hon Gentleman; I do not want this work to be lost or stopped. The last thing I want is to see a freeze. I have been asked how long. I would say that the Royal Commission can do its work in not much more than two years. That is our view. I will explain why in a moment. I think that it can be done. Then the legislation will immediately follow, I hope. In this period I think that we have plenty of work to do. We have a mass of decisions already to implement in Orders. I intend, wherever an inquiry has been held, to continue this to the point of decision and of Order. There is, therefore, a great deal of work which will go on. Minor reviews and adjustments can continue exactly as they have done during the existence of the Commission."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th February, 1966; Vol. 724, c. 644–6.] On 7th March, 1966, the Ministry notified the County Councils Association that the Minister proposed to discontinue the submission of reviews after 31st August, 1966. The Department wrote: The Minister would also like to ensure, so far as possible, that work on reviews which have largely been completed is not wasted. An inspector of the Ministry held a local inquiry from 1st to 16th June, 1966. At the inquiry, Bewdley Corporation fought a proposal to reduce it to a rural borough, but most time was occupied by investigating Kidderminster Corporation's representations that the proposal did not provide for an enlargement of its boundaries by the absorption of Bewdley Borough, Stourport urban district and parts of Kidderminster rural district and the defence of this territory by the local authorities concerned. The county council did not incur any outside legal expenses at that inquiry, but several of the county district councils spent large fees on legal representation.

Meanwhile, the Minister announced his decision on the Shropshire Review. He had confirmed practically all the proposals, which included the conversion of several ancient municipal boroughs into rural parishes and the amalgamation of some rural districts. The Order for Shropshire followed and the changes have now come into effect.

On 10th August, the right hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Greenwood) became Minister of Housing and Local Government. The inspector, in a report to the Minister dated 16th September, 1966, recommended the reduction of Bewdley to a rural parish and the dismissal of Kidderminster Corporation's representations about enlarging Kidderminster, and in the main supported the county council in everything where there had been any contention.

While the county council was awaiting the result of the inquiry, the Minister introduced on 27th October, 1966, the Bill which was to terminate the county reviews. On the Second Reading, on 23rd November, 1966, he repeated that his predecessor had decided, where a county review had been completed, that all the work put into it should not be put on one side but should be considered on its merits. He also made it clear that the four members of the Government Commission who lost their jobs on its abolition had been paid compensation, though they had no claims which were enforceable at law. This Bill did not worry the county council because it appeared that their own proposals were safe, but time passed by without any word from the Ministry until a senior officer of the Ministry wrote on 13th March, 1967, that the decision should be fairly soon now and certainly in time for any proposals accepted by the Minister to be brought into effect by 1st April, 1968. But this was followed on 3rd May, 1967, by an announcement in the House of Commons by the Minister that it had been decided to make no decision on the county reviews which had been submitted to the Ministry, whether or not an inquiry had been held, except to give effect to those proposals which had been generally agreed locally and were urgently needed.

As the county council's major proposals had been resisted locally, he wrote on 19th May, 1967, that the only one he thought qualified for approval was an agreed extension of Droitwich Borough, which was being expanded under the Town Development Act 1952, into Droitwich rural district involving a matter of about 293 acres and 15 people.

If the Minister argues that the county review did achieve this small change it should be pointed out to him that a similar result could have been achieved by the county council making an Order under Section 141 of the Local Government Act, 1933, for confirmation by him, as it did over the expansion of Redditch a year earlier, without any cost at all.

The Minister's announcement was totally unexpected and contained no hint that any compensation would be made to this county council or to the few other county councils who had carried out their statutory duty. Indeed, the Bill which received. Royal Assent on 10th May, 1967, still recognises that the county council was under a legal duty to submit proposals to the Minister and the Minister, by the same token, is still under a legal duty to come to a decision on them, not merely shirking making a decision at all. As the county council was totally unaware that the Minister would fail to come to a decision at all, it obviously could riot safeguard its position under the Bill by pressing for a Clause which would have indemnified them financially.

The clear pattern of recent legislation is that if Parliament undoes something, such as where it authorises the revocation of a planning permission, the person who undoes the thing has to pay compensation to the victim. The same consideration should apply when a Minister, by an administrative action for which he has no statutory authority, stultifies the action of someone who has carried out his part of a statutory duty.

Cancellation charges have always been paid to a frustrat[...] contract. By putting this right the Minister would not commit himself to heavy expenditure of public funds. Only four other counties are concerned, Cornwall, Warwickshire, Herefordshire and Bedfordshire. They seem to be in a similar position. Of these only Cornwall, in addition to Worcestershire, has gone as far as a public inquiry. To my mind, it is quite clear that it would be unfair to ask our ratepayers to pay this, large sum.

On 19th December, last year, I asked the Minister whether he would reconsider this decision not to make a grant to Worcestershire County Council in view of the fact that the expenditure was rendered abortive by his change of policy. I received the following reply: No. My right hon. Friend could not accept that when a change of circumstances makes a piece of work abortive the authority concerned should be reimbursed the cost of it. In any event, the expenditure was not wholly abortive as the Droitwich Order now before the House gives effect to one of the county council's proposals."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th December, 1967; Vol. 756, c. 358.] I consider this most unfair, and a very unsatisfactory Answer. I have dealt with the question of Droitwich in saying that this could have been effected, without any expense at all, by the county council making an Order under Section 141 of the Local Government Act, 1933. The county council's contention is that it could be quite possible for the Minister to make a special grant on the same principle as he makes grants to local authorities for such things as removal of oil pollution from beaches, which presumably does not need statutory sanction.

It appears that the Minister has made this situation into the good old bookmaker's joke, "Heads I win, tails you lose". Should the county council's exploratory work be productive of an acceptable solution, the county council is prepared and agreeable to pay the expenses incurred. On the other hand, should the county work be rendered abortive by the Minister's changes of policy, the Minister still expects the county to pay. This is most unjust. Whichever way one looks at it financially, the council is bound to lose. Not only is there a question of expenditure incurred by the county council, but local authorities within the county have also incurred expenditure in preparing their opposition to the county council's proposals.

I therefore hope that the Minister will think again and will see that justice is done by removing this unfair burden from the ratepayers of Worcestershire. I know that my hon. Friends from the county would like to add their comments to what I have said, particularly in dealing with more local matters, and I can only hope that their persuasiveness will make it quite certain that the Minister does change his mind.

11.24 p.m.

Sir Talton Brinton (Kidderminster)

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Dance) for giving me an opportunity of saying one or two words in support of what he has already said. I will not recapitulate the argument that he has put forward on behalf of the county as a whole. The expenditure throughout the whole county is, as he said, about £6,675. This falls, in any case, for the county precept on to the local authorities within the county. I should like to underline something else that he has said.

There is a very substantial expenditure by the local authorities. I can give three examples. The Borough of Kidderminster, which put forward certain proposals, spent £1,870. The urban district of Stourport-on-Severn spent £4,458 in round figures. This is not a very big place, with a population of 20,000 or so, and a corresponding number of ratepayers. Such an expenditure is very serious indeed for a medium-sized, one might almost say a small local authority. In addition, Bewdley Boro, another very small authority, spent £773. This is a total, for these three areas of £7,100—more than the entire county spend on its case.

If it was argued that this was extravagant, I would only remind the Minister of how vitally important these proposals are to the local authorities. They can alter the whole complexion of local government throughout an area for all time, and it is fair that their views should be put forward with expertise and with the proper sort of legal representation. This was what caused most of the extra expenditure.

I support my hon. Friends in urging the Minister to look again at the heavy expenditure caused to small authorities arising from a Ministerial requirement for a county review which has been rendered entirely in vain and empty by another Ministerial decision. They have gone to all this trouble and expense for nothing. Will the Minister please think again?

11.25 p.m.

Sir Gerald Nabarro (Worcestershire, South)

My constituency is the largest in geographical area in the administrative County of Worcester and it embraces five local authority areas: the urban district of Malvern, the Borough of Evesham, the rural district of Evesham, the rural district of Upton-on-Severn and the rural district of Pershore.

Not only is the amount of £6,500 referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Dance) here entailed, but a very substantial sum in aggregation has been spent by these five local authorities in investigating the circumstances for the redrawing of boundaries. I suppose that in my constituency alone a sum of £20,000 has already been spent by these five local authorities, all of which has fallen on the shoulders of the ratepayers. That is in addition to their proportion of the £6,500 which found its way ultimately into the county council precept for the local authorities in my constituency. Therefore, the sum spent in total on behalf of my constituents is well over £20,000.

I make only one point. That is the revocation by the succeeding Minister of the quite definite undertaking given by the then Minister of Housing and Local Government, which ought to be repeated during this debate. The Minister was the present Leader of the House and he was quite emphatic and unequivocal in what he said. Referring to the three local authorities, he said: One has come to me already, namely, Shropshire. The two which are nearest—they are both near to inquiry—are Cornwall and Worcestershire. They will continue. That is definite."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th February 1966; Vol. 724, c. 645.] Of course, the Worcestershire County Council took those words at their face value and quite literally. It therefore carried on. The revocation took place a few months later, by which time it had incurred all this expenditure, and I think it not unreasonable that anex gratiapayment should be made to the administrative county of Worcester to offset at least a substantial part of these expenses.

11.28 p.m.

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

May I, first, be permitted to thank all the hon. Gentlemen who have spoken on the very concise and clear way in which they have put their case. It has made by task easier in answering, even if what I have to say is not so acceptable. I am afraid that I shall give little joy to them, but that is not to say that subsequently I should not like to consider carefully what they have said to see whether there is anything else that we can do. However, as at present advised and on the case I hope to make in the time at my disposal, that is not very likely.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro) and the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Sir T. Brinton) have referred to sums which were in addition to those mentioned by the hon. Member for Broms-grove (Mr. Dance). Therefore, I will not say much about them, because they are outside the scope of the debate. However, the fact that these large sums were expended—the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South referred to a sum of £20,000, which is larger than I would have expected, though I do know, having professionally, in the past, taken part in many of these inquiries, that they do become an expensive exercise—indicates one element which was taken care of in the present Minister of Housing and Local Government's statement in 1967, changing, I admit, what had been a policy decision, namely, not to proceed where the county's proposals were in certain cases hotly disputed.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government, in making the change, said: I shall be announcing final decisions shortly on the county reviews now before me and here too my approach will be to give effect only to those individual proposals which are generally agreed and urgently needed in advance of any wider reorganisation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd May, 1967; Vol. 746, c. 89.] I can tell the hon. Member for Bromsgrove and the other hon. Members who have spoken that there would have been no need for this embargo if there had been general agreement among local councils. Although on the whole the county's proposals were moderate, some, for example, the one to put Bewdley into another rural district, were hotly contested and, from the point of view of the contestants, rightly so.

The situation changed with the knowledge that the Royal Commission was proceeding more rapidly than we had hoped and we had the undertaking that the report was likely in the autumn of this year. When my right hon. Friend the now Leader of the House made his statememt all he could say was that it was expected that the Royal Commission would take about two years. The fact that it is making such excellent progress has created a new situation and it was in the light of that that the Minister decided on the policy announcement to which reference has been made and part of which I have read out.

I want to come to the important con stitutional problem which arises here. It has always been held by administrations of both parties that if there is an acute change in the circumstances needing a change in policy it does not follow, and cannot follow automatically, that the Minister making the change incurs financial liability for expenditure which may have been undertaken by all parties, in good faith, before the announcement of the change.

I am glad that the hon. Member has raised this, because it gives me an opportunity of putting the other side of the coin. It would be a novel constitutional doctrine if when, except in exceptional circumstances, a Minister felt bound in the interests of good government to change a decision that necessarily guaranteed that all abortive expenditure would be met. I submit that these circumstances are not, to that degree, exceptional, although they may bear harshly on some ratepayers.

We feel that it would be futile to undertake a considerable change in the county when the Royal Commission is making such good progress. In the case of the uncontested part of the review proposals for Droitwich we were able to proceed by Order to implement the recommendations. That Order is now before the House. I do not agree with the hon. Member who said that there was no virtue in doing it in the way we have, because the circumstances necessitating this change were known to those at the inquiry, and representations could have been made about them.

The other point I feel I must make is that the proposals were submitted to the then Minister on 3rd November, 1965, long before the statement to which the hon. Member for Bromsgrove referred, which was on 10th February, 1966. I gather that most of the expenditure had been incurred before the statement was made. This could affect the possibility of anex gratiapayment. If a local authority, or other body, had been encouraged or induced to undertake a course of action by a Minister who then changed his policy, there might be aprima faciecase for some payment.

In this case, as the hon. Gentleman said in his interesting opening speech, the county was under a statutory duty to carry out this survey. 'There is all the difference in the world between making anex-gratiapayment—as has been made occasionally to local authorities who have undertaken specific work at the request of the Ministry and then, because there has been a change of policy, that work has been rendered abortive—and making a payment for something which the counties have to do under the 1958 Act. All this expenditure—or at any rate the major part of it—having been incurred before the proposals were presented, I do not think it could be said that there is the same obligation.

I do not want to put too much weight on this argument, but I want to get it on record so that the public can get the picture in perspective. The hon. Gentleman referred to a figure of £6,600. This is a modest requirement. The county has not strained to put in every item. It has been extremely reasonable, but, weighed against the resources of this rich and powerful county, this sum represents about one-tenth of 1d. rate. I am not saying that the county council was wrong to try to get £6,600 out of the Government, but I am saying that, spread over the county—I am not dealing with the other sums because they are outside the debate—this is not quite such a burden as might be expected.

I thank those hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. It would be a new constitutional principle if, when there was a change of policy because of new circumstances—and the new circumstances here are the speed with which the Royal Commission has got on with its job, and the fact that we hope to have its report in the autumn—also there was a contested decision; and the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South knows how fully it was contested—the Minister concerned were to be responsible for the authority's costs. If this were so, a Minister would feel reluctant to change policy—which would often be a disadvantage to the country—or it would put on the central Government responsibility for expense which it ought not to have placed on it.

I have taken careful note of everything that has been said in the debate. It will be understood that I am not holding out any promise that there can be a grant in this case. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has put the facts on the record, and given me the opportunity to reply.

Question put and agreed to

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Twelve o'clock