HC Deb 20 January 1970 vol 794 cc451-9

The Ministers designated in section 1(5) of this Act shall keep under review the operation by local authorities and public bodies of the powers given to them under this Act and shall lay before Parliament annually a general report upon such operation, its involvement of municipal trading and work by direct labour and its employment of persons with skill and expertise therein.—[Mr. Graham Page.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

Again I protest at a Bill of this importance coming on in the early hours of the morning. The last Bill was said to affect at least 20 million people and we were called upon to debate it between midnight and two in the morning. This Bill affects every local authority in the land and through them every ratepayer. This is not the right time to debate a Bill of this importance.

2.0 a.m.

However, I move the new Clause to require the Minister—and who the Minister is, is designated in the Bill—to put an annual report before Parliament of the working of the Bill when it becomes an Act, and of the operation of the powers given to local authorities under the Bill.

As the Joint Parliamentary Secretary said in the Second Reading debate the Government and the local authorities accepted the recommendation of the Burton Committee that there should be early legislation enabling local authorities to co-operate in bulk purchasing. As a result, the Bill is now before the House. But the implementation of that recommendation raised problems and doubts which the Joint Parliamentary Secretary mentioned in his Second Reading speech and which we have since debated very thoroughly in Committee. The hon. Gentleman said: To allay any other fears, I should add that this is not a greater charter for the extension of municipal trading. I should not mind making the case for that again on an appropriate Measure, but all that the present Bill does is to enable services which local authorities are now empowered to provide to be shared among the categories of recipient which I have mentioned."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th November, 1969; Vol. 792, c. 48.] There he dealt with one of the doubts which he admitted had been raised in the minds of hon. and right hon. Members and the public, namely, the question of an extension of municipal trading.

A little before, the Parliamentary Secretary dealt with another doubt. He said: It will not be possible for a local authority building department, or, to take the example in its worst form, the form which might alarm some people, a direct labour department, to start building new housing or for a hospital board, or something of that kind. I dare say that some of my hon. Friends will regret that that is so, but what we are doing at this stage in this minor Measure is what the local authorities wanted, what was recommended, and what the study group thought would be wise."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th November, 1969; Vol. 792, c. 48.] In that he dispelled the fear that the Bill was intended to extend direct labour work by local authorities.

Also the hon. Gentleman referred to the other concern by hon. Members, namely, whether there would be sufficient expertise to carry out the difficult job of bulk purchase by local authorities and the distribution of the goods, and he said: As the review body report points out, savings can be achieved not only by purchasing in bulk but as a result of purchasing by those who are specialists. That is almost equally imrortant."—[OFFICIAL. REPORT, 24th November, 1969; Vol. 792, c. 43.] He came back to it again in his winding up speech, because a number of hon. Members mentioned it. He said that bulk purchase will yield its dividends only if it is in the hands of an expert organisation, or expert personnel… I hope that as a result of this Measure…departments and experts will be able to provide their expertise over a wider field."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th November, 1969; Vol. 792, c. 110.] Those three points are basic to this Bill. It is not intended as a Bill to extend municipal trading. It is not intended as a Bill to extend direct labour. It is intended that the work should be carried out by experts, so that the ratepayers have some confidence in the operations being carried out by the local authorities which desire to take powers under this Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Peter Walker) referred to two of these points when he said: The Parliamentary Secretary has endeavoured to make clear two of the non-objects of the Bill. First, it is not to extend municipal trading. Secondly, it is not to allow an extension of activities by direct works departments in new building. We welcome that assurance, and we shall move Amendments in Committee to give what we regard as necessary greater certainty on that point."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th November, 1969; Vol. 792, c. 49.] We moved Amendments in Committee in an endeavour to write these matters into the Bill. I am not unsympathetic with the argument of the Parliamentary Secretary against such a course of writing these items into the Measure as, in some way, statutory obligations on local authorities.

The hon. Gentleman said that we should not be too grandmotherly to local authorities or try to give them too precise statutory directives on the management of their affairs. However, we are here giving substantial new powers to local authorities, and Parliament will, through the appropriate Minister, wish to be kept informed on the operation of those powers.

To try to keep track of this sort of operation by letters to the Minister, by way of Parliamentary Questions or even by Adjournment debates is too piecemeal. We do not get the full picture by those means. We may ask Questions about the effect of these operations in our constituencies and so on, but if the Minister had to make a formal report each year—I would not mind if it was bi-annually, if that were thought more appropriate or if less work would be involved—hon. Members could decide, from reading that report, if the operations were going well or badly and if amendments to the powers should be made.

The new Clause would, therefore, make this not a statutory obligation on local authorities—I said that I was sympathetic to the Parliamentary Secretary's argument—but a statutory obligation on the Minister, who would be obliged to give Parliament this information. Mainly it would be, as the new Clause suggests a general report upon such operation… but in particular it would be a report directed to the three points that have caused hon. Members considerable concern during the passage of the Bill; that is, the questions of municipal trading, of direct labour and of skilled personnel.

I particularly stress the last one. We must keep under review the whole question of the supply of expert and skilled personnel to deal with these operations. The success of the whole project will depend on the people who operate it. There may not be a sufficient number of trained people for this task, and the Government will have to see that there is training to enable people to run this operation.

Our qualified support for the Bill is based on the assurances that have been given by the Government over these three points, but we want those assurances to be statutory by there being an obligation on the Minister.

Mr. Carol Johnson (Lewisham, South)

I take the opportunity of discussion of this new Clause to raise a matter of some importance to local government employees likely to be affected by the Bill.

The mover of this Motion made clear that the new Clause deals by implication with the work of staffs of local authorities in carrying out the provisions of the Bill and new powers conferred on local authorities. It is rather strange that no reference appears to have been made during the passage of the Bill to its likely effect on staffs. I therefore ask my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Wales, to give some indication of what she estimates will be the effect of the Bill on staffs. The Explanatory Memorandum of the Bill when first introduced stated that it was not expected to produce any increase in local authority staffs and in the long run it should produce a reduction. If so it is rather surprising that the usual compensation Clauses to deal with redundant staff have not been included in the Bill. I believe that a new Clause was tabled in Committee but it was ruled out of order.

In view of all these circumstances and as I am informed that there is some anxiety among local authority staffs about the effect of the Bill, it is important that my hon. Friend should take the opportunity—the last one—to make clear whether or not there is any possibility of a significant reduction in staffs as a result of the Bill. If there is, she should give some assurance—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harry Gourlay)

Order. The hon. Member is going rather wide of the new Clause. I hope that he will confine his remarks to it; otherwise the Minister will not be able to reply to his remarks.

Mr. Johnson

The Clause asks that an annual report should be submitted by local authorities and public bodies of the powers given to them under this Act and shall lay before Parliament annually a general report upon such operation, its involvement of municipal trading and work by direct labour and its employment of persons with skill and expertise therein. This applies to the people about whom I am speaking. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give an assurance that if this should lead to redundancy she would regard it as her responsibility to see that their position is adequately protected.

Mr. Peter Emery (Honiton)

We regret that the hon. Member for Bethnal Green (Mr. Hilton) is not able to be with us tonight. Because of illness he is not able to be present. I know how much he has had to do with this Bill in its earlier stages. Credit should be paid to him for all the work he has done. We are sorry that he is not able to participate in this final stage on something on which he has worked for many years.

I am not so worried about an annual report as I am about municipal trading and direct labour. I hope that the Bill will not lead to any major or specific increases in this field. I do not see any reason why it should. It is not intended for that purpose although some hon. Friends may be over-nervous about that aspect. However, I believe there is something to be said for asking the Minister whether he can review progress made under the Bill in achieving economies.

There will be some resentment among some ordinary plain Conservative councils which do not want to change and do not see the benefits which the Minister will urge in circulars suggesting that they should combine and use more advanced methods for procurement and supplies. If in the first few years the Minister is able to review the working of the Bill when enacted and some of the benefits secured under it, it will persuade more local authorities to accept the Act. It has been reported to me that the A.M.C. already thinks that perhaps it went too far in the support it gave to the Bill. This is a shame. I urge the Minister to consider this matter and use whatever influence she can to ensure that there is no retrenchment.

2.15 a.m.

An annual report by the Minister to Parliament would enable the public to see how Government service supplies departments were saving money and what they were achieving for the taxpayer. It would not be a major task. It would not involve many man-hours. I urge the Minister in a non-partisan manner that an annual report would be helpful. She may say that more thought must be devoted to the matter and that something might be done in another place. If that is her attitude, I shall be happy, but I believe that there is something to be said for the view that an annual report would help in securing greater acceptance of the Bill when enacted and in encouraging a greater number of local authorities to use these powers, thereby ensuring greater efficiency in local government procurement.

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

I thank the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) for his reference to my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green (Mr. Hilton), whose absence from the closing stages of our debates on a Measure which he, in effect, initiated we all regret.

The hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) made what I rather hope might be his Third Reading speech in advance.

Mr. Graham Page

There can be no Third Reading debate.

Mrs. White

I do not suppose the hon. Member will be surprised when I say that we are not particularly enthusiastic about the Clause. As the hon. Gentleman explained with great clarity, the Bill is in a sense a minor one. It does not extend the existing powers or functions of local authorities. It merely enables them with greater freedom to co-operate will one another in the interests, as we hope and believe, of economy and efficiency.

If we took the Clause fully and literally in all its aspects, the fears of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. Carol Johnson) about redundancy would be groundless—quite the contrary. Even if an annual report to Parliament was not so detailed as to give particulars of what little jobs of maintenance were performed by direct labour or what purchases of tea or milk were made for the sale of refreshments to the public, it is clear that a considerable number of people would have to be employed. The information would have to be sorted and collated if a proper review based on statistical evidence were to be presented. Without that basis, I do not see how one could responsibly report to the House, particularly in this matter.

I do not feel that a Measure of this kind really calls for a report of the nature suggested in the new Clause. I do not want to be misunderstood about this. I agree that it may well be of value for the Departments concerned to keep an eye on how this works out in practice, and particularly, as the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) emphasised, how far the special objects of the Bill are being achieved; namely in showing that we obtain the benefits of more modern methods of procurement, bulk purchase, and using specialists to obtain various supplies.

We would be very sympathetic to a general obligation to keep an eye on it. That is very different from a statutory obligation to make an annual report. We would certainly try to meet the desires of the House to keep the working of the Measure under a general review, and, in particular, if an occasion arose perhaps an Adjournment debate would be a very suitable opportunity after a year or two's working of the Act to ventilate such a matter. We would certainly keep that in mind.

My hon. Friend raised the matter of the reference to staff in the original Explanatory Memorandum. I am sure that he will not misunderstand me if I say that the general obligation now that when legislation is introduced one must make a manpower estimate as well as a financial estimate sometimes perhaps strays into the realm of pious hope. It seems to me that this is a fairly cautious suggestion that in the long run we should achieve some reduction in local authority staffs, but I am assured that many local authorities, far from being likely to have redundant staff, will have the difficulty of recruiting suitable, adequate, experienced and well-trained staff for the purposes suggested in the Bill.

Whereas it is probable that in the long run local authorities, and perhaps the smaller authorities in particular, may require fewer people to deal with these matters, any such reduction is unlikely to be immediate or to cause apprehension. We think that it can be met in any case by normal wastage, and we do not believe that any situation is likely to arise in which the sort of arrangements suggested by my hon. Friend would be necessary. I hope that he and those whose interests he very properly draws to the attention of the House will feel that there is really no cause for alarm. We certainly do not think that there will be any need to be concerned about this.

For the reasons I have given, while we have a certain sympathy with the suggestions made, we cannot recommend that the House should accept the new Clause.

Dr. M. P. Winstanley (Cheadle)

Can the Minister go a little further into the difficulties she outlined in preparing a report of this kind? I am sure that the House appreciates her arguments about a detailed report. But much of the information is already available. What is wanted is to have it in tabulated form, aggregated between all the authorities. Would she be prepared to bring together all the information now collected by individual authorities and add it all up for Members, so that we do not have to do it for ourselves?

Mrs. White

The hon. Gentleman must realise that it is not just a case of general information about direct labour, for example, or municipal trading as affected by the Bill. It would mean that separate sets of statistics would have to be prepared by every local authority which undertook any of the activities permitted by the Bill. That would be a pointless exercise unless the statistics were studied, collated and the rest. One can collect statistics for the sake of collecting them. They are no use unless they are analysed and explained. Since the Bill does not extend the functions of the local authorities, I repeat that the Government do not think that the game is worth the candle.

Question put and negatived.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

In announcing Mr. Speaker's final selection of Amendments, it would help the House if I described the way in which I understand the Government, with the Opposition's agreement, would wish their own Amendments to be grouped. The selection is as follows: Government Amendments Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 9, with which may be discussed the Amendment to Amendment No. 9; Government Amendment No. 12, with which may discussed Amendments Nos. 4, 5 and 10: Government Amendments Nos. 7 and 8, followed by Government Amendment No. 11, with which may be discussed the four Amendments offered to it.

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