HC Deb 29 February 1968 vol 759 cc1897-909

10.25 p.m.

Mr. Archie Manuel (Central Ayrshire)

I beg to move. That this House, while approving of the Secretary of State for Scotland's proposal to amalgamate the police forces in Ayrshire, urgently calls upon him to reconsider the provision that the treasurer shall be the town chamberlain of Ayr, contrary to the views of the county council of Ayr and the burgh of Kilmarnock, who take the view that the treasurer's duties, including the payment of the police, could be carried out with greater economy and efficiency at the Ayr County Buildings where there is an organisation, a staff and other facilities for doing so. My hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) and the hon. Member for Bute and North Ayrshire (Sir F. Maclean) support me in the Motion. The hon. Member for Bute and Ayrshire has, unfortunately, been called abroad, otherwise he would have been here tonight.

There are three police forces in Ayrshire—the County of Ayr Police Force, the Burgh of Kilmarnock Police Force, and the Burgh of Ayr Police Force. Ayr County Council has since 1946 been completely in favour of the amalgamation of the three forces. So has the Burgh of Kilmarnock. Ayr Burgh Council has strongly opposed amalgamation—first, in 1946, when it refused to join the County Council and Kilmarnock Burgh Council in a voluntary scheme for amalgamation; secondly, in 1948, when it objected to the Secretary of State's proposals for amalgamation and successfully raised an action in the Court of Session on a matter of procedure; and finally, in 1966 when it again refused to amalgamate voluntarily.

Between then and now there have been letters between the Scottish Office and the three police authorities. On 8th March, 1967, Ayr County Council received a letter from the Scottish Home and Health Department noting that the County Council had agreed in principle to the amalgamation, but intimating that Ayr Town Council was not willing to join the County Council and Kilmarnock Town Council in the preparation of an amalgamation scheme under the voluntary provisions of Section 17 of the 1956 Act. The letter also stated that the Secretary of State was satisfied that, in the interests of efficiency, the three forces should be amalgamated and he therefore proposed to make an amalgamation scheme.

Amalgamation is not the difficulty today. This hurdle has at last been surmounted, although not so satisfactorily as we would have liked, because of the opposition of Ayr burgh. However, that hurdle has been surmounted and it is what would appear to be a lesser matter concerning the treasurership of the new authority which is the bone of contention.

Ayr County Council and Kilmarnock burgh are agreed that the treasurer of the new police authority should be the County Treasurer. On 19th April, 1967, a letter received from the Scottish Home and Health Department stated that as no voluntary scheme for amalgamation had been submitted to the Scottish Home and Health Department under Section 17 of the 1956 Act as amended, the Secretary of State proposed to make a compulsory amalgamation scheme under Section 18 of the Act. The letter enclosed, in pursuance of Section 17, a copy of the proposed scheme and asked for any objections by the County Council to the scheme or any feature of the scheme.

On 29th June, 1967, a letter was sent by the County Council to the Scottish Home and Health Department forwarding the County Council's observations on the terms of the proposed scheme. In connection with paragraph 18 of the proposed scheme the letter said: For economic reasons and administrative convenience, the Council are of the opinion that the County Treasurer should be the Treasurer to the Joint Committee. The Treasurer's Department has readily available the facilities to absorb the additional work involved in taking over financial responsibility for the two Burgh Forces in addition to the County Police Force, particularly in view of the recent installation of a computer which it is intended will take over in due course much of the financial work arising from the administration of the police service. One would readily agree, if one were unbiased, that the County Council in the large administrative buildings which are situated in Ayr is very well equipped to do this job.

Following that letter there was no reply, but on the 24th October, 1967, there was a letter received from the Scottish Home and Health Department referring again to the proposed Ayrshire Police Amalgamation Scheme, 1967, and intimating, as there were no objections to the scheme outstanding, despite the letter that had been received, the Secretary of State intended to make the proposed scheme by Order as provided for in Section 18 of the Police (Scotland) Act, 1956.

On the 17th November, there was a letter sent to the Scottish Home and Health Department from the County Council expressing the County Council's disappointment at the Department's handling of the matter and making further representations about the post of treasurer. There were letters sent on that date also to each of the five Ayrshire Members of Parliament, asking for their support in the rejection of the Order in its present form, with the object of securing the necessary amendment to Article 19—that was embodying the treasurership of the scheme—to allow for the appointment of the county treasurer as treasurer of the proposed joint committee.

The County Council is quite satisfied that, in the interests of all concerned, the county treasurer should be the treasurer of the proposed joint committee for very obvious reasons, which they reiterated and amplified in a brief they sent to the five Ayrshire M.P.s on the situation. This is as follows: A financial department, the size of the County Treasurer's Department, can more readily and more economically absorb the additional work arising from the merging of the Forces of Ayr and Kilmarnock, with an establishment of 112 uniformed personnel and 18 civilians, and 119 uniformed personnel and 21 civilians, respectively, with the County Police Force which has an authorised establishment of 378 uniformed personnel and 85 civilians. In fact, the County Treasurer has indicated that he can take over the additional duties with possibly one additional assistant only and no increase in accommodation, particularly in view of the recent installation of a computer which it was intended would take over in due course much of the financial work connected with the administration of the police service. In addition, discussions were at that time taking place of a proposal for the compilation of crime, accident and other County police statistics on the County Council's computer. The County Treasurer's Department already carry out the financial work arising from the Joint Police Wireless Scheme which operates on a County basis. It would seem that, at a time when local authority and central government expenditure is being scrutinised to achieve savings wherever possible, the administration of the financial duties, arising from the new combined area should be carried out by the most economic means possible. I could quote some more, but my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire and the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) hope to put forward their points of view. On the facts before us, I do not think that we shall find the hon. Member for Ayr too unsympathetic to the case I am trying to put.

The Motion explains exactly what we want. I do not want to bring forward any further reasons, and I think that I have made a good case arising from the brief sent to me. It is wrong for the Scottish Office to force additional expenditure on the three local authorities by appointing the burgh chamberlain of Ayr as treasurer to the joint police committee when the treasurer of the Ayr County Council could carry out the duties much more economically.

The Government are at present exhorting all local authorities to conserve capital expenditure as much as possible, and to be economical in their work involving current expenditure. If they mean those pleas to the local authorities, they should heed the uneconomical decision they have taken about the appointment of the treasurer for the new body. For the life of me, I cannot see why the Order contained the provisions about the appointment of officials. There may be some reason, legal or otherwise, but it seems to me that it would have been sound common sense and good reasoning to bring forward the order with the power Li it for the newly constituted body to make the appointment itself, with its knowledge of the area and the people who would have applied and been suitable for the job.

10.37 p.m.

Mr. George Younger (Ayr)

I thank the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel) for the reasoned and careful way he presented the argument. I have no dispute with him on the facts as he presented them.

I am perhaps in the fortunate position that I can approach the question from a totally impartial point of view, in that I represent almost exactly equally part of the county of Ayr and the burgh of Ayr. I have been very carefully into the matter, which has been about for a very long time, and have carefully examined both sides of the argument. I am very glad to have an opportunity to make a few comments on the general question.

It must be seen against the background of the long-standing question in Ayrshire whether the three police forces should be amalgamated. All three authorities—Kilmarnock burgh, Ayr county and Ayr burgh—very rightly have a high opinion of their police forces. Each force is extremely fine in its way, and it is right for the people concerned to be very proud of them. The crime rate and record of detection of crime in Ayrshire are fortunately very good. There is no doubt that this is the result of good police work by the police authorities concerned.

In every year since I have been Member for the division, Ayre burgh police have been able to produce an annual report showing a decrease in the amount of crime in their area. That is something that not so many authorities can claim. So it is not surprising that there is genuine local pride in the local forces and that there has been considerable resistance over the years to the idea of amalgamating them into one.

That brings us to the current situation. It has been decided under the Police (Scotland) Act to amalgamate these forces. Indeed, this Order has already gone through and I understand that the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) may cover that point. I want to concentrate on the crucial question as I see it.

First, to what extent were the debates of the Ayr County Council about the wisdom of separating the post of clerk to the new authority and the treasurership properly aired early on in the discussions of the form of amalgamation? The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire has quoted the letter of 29th June sent to the Scottish Home and Health Department forwarding the County Council's observations on the terms of the proposed scheme. He pointed out that in the letter the County Council made the point of suggesting that the two posts should be within he same authority.

What conversations or discussions or dialogue were there between 29th June and 24th October, when the final letter came from the Department and which has also been quoted? It would be helpful to those who have misgivings if we could know what went on between these two dates and whether a genuine case was made by the County Council. If so, I hope that the Minister of State will be able to explain how he came to his apparently firm decision of 24th October that the scheme as in the Order should go through.

I must give it as my opinion, for what it is worth, that this Motion should not be accepted, and I am sorry to differ from the hon. Gentleman in this respect. It is fair to say that any going back at this stage, even if that were possible—and I presume some method, however complicated, could be found—would put back the amalgamation which I think it is fair to say all three forces are itching to get on with. Even those who may have had reservations about it—and there were many of them—feel that, in the interest of the members of the forces and all the people concerned, it is necessary to know where they stand and to get on with the job of making their excellent forces into one outstanding force. So my first reason for not accepting the Motion is that it is too late to go back and we should recognise that position.

Secondly, I cannot really agree, although on the surface it looks good sense, that in practice the proposed arrangement will turn out to be more expensive than the arrangement suggested of having both officials in the same authority. To have them -both under one roof would appear to be cheaper, but, having looked into the likely details of how this will work, although there may be minor adjustments—there is obviously a little more distance between where the two gentlemen will work, and so on—I believe there is not a case for saying that there will be a lot of extra expense as a result of this arrangement.

My third point brings me back to where I began. It has been a matter of concern to all three authorities that they were to lose their independent and highly valued police forces. There is surely something to be said, even at the expense of a little speed and efficiency, for an arrangement which will give everyone concerned the feeling that they are taking part in a genuine partnership in forming the new joint police force.

The proposed arrangement will give the people in Ayr burgh, who have been most concerned about losing their police force, of which they are so justly proud, a feeling that the new authority is a real part of them. This will help to get the new authority off to a good start. There is no question of criticism of the people involved. All the officers are of the very highest standing and all called upon to act in any capacity would do their work outstandingly well. We have passed the point where this can be rescinded. The most important thing, from the point of view of the policeman on the beat, is to get on with the job and make these three police authorities into one of the finest forces in Scotland, which I confidently expect it will be.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

I apologise to the House for raising this matter at such a late stage during a week when we have been occupied with other important business. It has been an exacting time. I will not labour the objection of the Ayr County Council to the one phrase in this Order. I agree with the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) that the main purpose of the Order has the approval of every sensible person in Ayrshire. We wish the amalgamated police force every success and hope that it will be an efficient force in carrying out its duties, especially on a Saturday night, when the hon. Gentleman is the most popular person in Ayrshire.

This Prayer has been signed by two Labour Members and a Conservative, the hon. Member for Bute and North Ayrshire (Sir F. Maclean). This is the first time in history that this holy trinity has prayed together. We represent the people of Ayrshire and not the hon. Member for Ayr. He may represent the burgh of Ayr, but the outer areas and the landward areas of his constituency, including the burgh of Prestwick, are now included in the County of Ayr.

It is true to say that we represent the majority of the people of Ayrshire, and that Ayrshire County Council is the most important body. What we disagree with is the paying of the police by Ayr burgh. When the amalgamation was effected, it should have been done efficiently and the Secretary of State should have made a good job of it. Unfortunately he has not, and, as he is also an Ayrshire Member, he will have to pay extra on his rates, to some extent, as a result of this lapse in allowing this function of paying the police to operate in another building. It is obvious, from the point of view of organisation of the staff, that this new police force should be in one building under one authority.

We have reason to criticise the way in which this matter has been handled by the authorities in the House. As soon as the Order was placed on the Table, the trinity—the three of us—proceeded with our Prayer. We waited patiently for this matter to be brought before the House for consideration before becoming operative. Unfortunately, due to some mysterious process, the Order was not debated. The 40 days—a matter which you, Sir Eric, will understand—lapsed on Sunday, so the Order became operative before we had an opportunity of exercising our rights. That is all wrong, and I hope that this flaw in our machinery will be noted.

When a county council asks its Members to take up a matter in Parliament and those Members take the appropriate action, an opportunity should be given for debate before it is finally decided. But this has been decided by diktat, perhaps not premeditated, by the Secretary of State for Scotland who, on reading these speeches, will realise that an error has been made.

I do not know how that error is to be rectified. I do not know whether the Ayr Town Council will take up an intransigent attitude towards what is essentially a reasonable proposal for administration, because the people living in the burgh of Ayr have everything to gain by having an efficiently administrated police force. Unfortunately, running a police force in one building and paying it in another is not conducive to efficiency.

It is difficult for me to think how it can be done as the Order has been passed by this House without our consent, but I hope that some way may be found to remedy this injustice so that we get an efficient police force in the county of Ayr.

10.53 p.m.

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

I apologise for my appearance tonight, but I have no intention of turning a Nelson eye on the circumstances we are debating.

We all agree that we would like to see an efficient police force operating within the County of Ayr. Therefore, although I will make some comments about the past, for the future we want to examine the position as it stands.

It is not for me to say anything about the authorities of the House or the procedures, although, looking back on the Act that gave certain powers to the Secretary of State concerning police amalgamation, perhaps there could be improvements. If we had to do it all over again I suppose that we could make improvements in the light of what we have learned.

Looking at the position as it stands, we would in the long run tend to disrupt the harmony, albeit not perfect, which has been echoed tonight, by having further public inquiries and further representations which I am assured would be made. In addition, I am not convinced that the marginal loss of efficiency, if it is proven, would not be more than counterbalanced by the losses that we would sustain by reopening the whole question.

Ayr burgh has gone to considerable expense on the assumption that this Order would go through, as it has, and would not be revoked or modified in any way. We have to put this in the scales against the allegations which the county is making—and it has been a well argued case—about the difficulty of operating the system with the treasureship of the committee being in the hands of the burgh, as distinct from the county, where the county clerk is also the clerk of the Committee.

Mr. Manuel

This is news to me, but I accept it as gospel. My hon. Friend said that Ayr burgh had gone to considerable expense to adapt itself to the change. I do not: know whether he is referring to buildings. He must be, because I do not think that the burgh had the facilities before. Do I take it that, despite the possibility of a Prayer, the Scottish Office endorsed and authorised expenditure by Ayr burgh for this purpose? If it did, it was quite wrong.

Dr. Mabon

Perhaps I had better start at the beginning. I started with the present position, and was trying to see what we could do for the future.

We all recognise—and my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) said this—that this is not a county takeover. It is a combination of the three police authorities, and it is equitable, as has been the case elsewhere, that the so-called fruits of office should, as far as possible, be shared among the authorities, provided that this arrangement does not unduly affect efficiency.

In the case of Perth and Kinross, there is an amalgamation scheme under which there is a similar division of office to that under this Order.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

That is a bad example.

Dr. Mabon

It may be, but I could venture the opinion—and it is purely my opinion, not that of the Secretary of State—that Perth and Kinross get on better together than do Ayr burgh and the county. But that is, of course, a question of degree, because they both get on quite well in different ways. A pattern for this arrangement is in existence. The Secretary of State cannot lay down that this is a wrong pattern, and therefore disqualify it from being used in an Order such as this.

The other thing—and this is the important point to the discussion—is that we have a long history—I shall not go over it—of the demand to have a united force. It is the case that the proposed amalgamation scheme, after discussion with the three authorities, was sent to the various authorities, including the county clerk, on 19th April. After a considerable time, and quite rightly, the county clerk, on the instructions of his authority, wrote to the Secretary of State on 29th June saying that the County Council was not opposed in principle to the proposed amalgamation, but it wished to make certain observations and representations concerning certain articles in the scheme. One of these points—but it was not the sole one—was the central one that we are discussing, namely, that the county treasurer ought to be the treasurer of the joint committee.

The various observations and representations made by the county were put to both Ayr burgh and Kilmarnock with the intention, once the observations had been commented upon by these two authorities, that the Secretary of State would then consider amending the scheme where there was agreement among the three authorities concerned. I am happy to report—and no one dissents from this—that Kilmarnock, the burgh of Ayr, and the county of Ayr, agreed on all matters of substance in the Order, except this one point.

The interesting thing to note is that, Ayr burgh having made it clear on 28th September that it could agree with everything except this one point of substance, the matter remained like that, and no formal objection had been made. If a formal objection had been made under the Act, there would have had to have been a public inquiry. By the time Ayr County Council responded on this point, the time had long since passed when, under Statute, it was possible to make an objection. Ayr County Council were formally informed of the position by the Secretary of State on 24th October, 1967, and it was pointed out that amendments to the proposed scheme were those that had been agreed by the three authorities, those which clarified the meaning but did not alter the intent, and those rendered necessary by the passage of time and the passage of new legislation.

The point of objection which remained was the point of substance which the Secretary of State could do nothing about in the absence of formal objection by Ayr County Council. Perhaps we should have made the procedures tighter, more precise and better known to all the authorities concerned. They could have invoked their rights at different times. This was open to Ayr County Council, but they did not exercise their right at any time, and while I would not completely blame them, nevertheless they are in the last resort the responsible authority.

Ayr borough has spent money, some £3,200, I am told, on the calculating machine required. We have some know ledge of what is proposed by the treasurer of the Joint Committee. He is an official of considerable ability and will do his best to ensure that he discharges his office and responsibility to the committee economically as he can. His relations with the clerk to the committee are good, and I think that every attempt will be made by officials concerned to make the scheme work.

Mr. Younger

May I come back to one small point. Was it known to his Department, to the County Council and the other authorities, that the point at issue was whether the clerk and treasurer should be in the same building? What efforts were made in the time between 19th April, 1967, and 24th October, 1967, to reconcile this? I understand that the letters to the Councils from the Secretary of State asking for observations made no request for the County Council's observations on whatever the Town Council said in reply. I do not know if this is correct or not, but would it not have been helpful to have had the County Council's observations at this stage, thus helping to crystallise views?

Dr. Mabon

I think this is the central point, and if all the parties concerned had been aware of the timetable and when they could invoke their rights of objection, we would not have been discussing this tonight. It would have been resolved in some other way. Sincere efforts were made to get a concensus of opinion, but I do not think one can get 100 per cent, agreement in a case like this. This is perhaps where misunderstanding has arisen, to be fair to the county. But, to be fair to the Secretary of State, the time having passed when formal objection could be heard, he could do no more honourably than to hear the three authorities. If a Kilmarnock burgh official had been proposed as the Treasurer, the argument about efficiency would have been formidable, because then the two officers would have been in burghs some miles apart, but in this case the two officers are adjacent, admittedly in two different buildings, but in the same town.

It is right that this should have been aired. I hope that, in any further steps towards police amalgamation, all the parties will know their rights and the timetable involved. Nevertheless, it would now be wise if all those concerned agreed to make the best of the situation. We will not lose much on the efficiency argument. Certainly everyone should try to get over it. Irrespective of the different views about the Order, like all hon. Members I wish the amalgamated force every success. I am sure that it will be in the best tradition of Ayrshire forces, which have a high record and are well respected in Scotland.

Question put and negatived.