HC Deb 29 April 1971 vol 816 cc857-68

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

10.42 p.m.

Mr. John Smith (Lanarkshire, North)

I am happy to be able to raise the subject of the unreasonably short time which local authorities have been allowed in which to make representations to the Government following their White Paper on Local Government Reform in Scotland. Circular 8/1971 of the Scottish Development Department invited local authorities to submit observations on the Government's proposals by in any case 30th April, 1971". Before that injunction, the Department suggested that the local authorities might consult one another.

I want to complain about the shortness of time allowed. The White Paper was issued in February, the circular was issued on 26th February, 1971, the submissions have to be made by tomorrow. The timing of this debate is happy, because it will allow the Under-Secretary to withdraw the instruction on timing before it has run out. They are allowed only 60-odd days to comment on the most sweeping changes in Scottish local government since 1929.

It is trite to say that these changes are massive. The purpose of the reform is sweeping changes. I do not suggest that the Government should start discussing the basis of the reform again. There is some merit in their taking a firm decision on certain aspects. But the Government are running the risk of forgetting the great need to take local authorities and communities with them in these changes. Unless there is some flexibility and co-operation, particularly over some of the details, Scottish local government reform may start in an atmosphere of hostile public opinion which will not do it much good in the future. That is one of the views which many of us take about the Government's White Paper and its parallel in the circular which I have mentioned.

There are some significant paragraphs in the White Paper. In paragraph 89 we see: The time has arrived for a firm prospectus and programme on which to plan, and the Government have now provided them. The paragraph also says that the structural proposals which the White Paper contains are … intended as a prescription for action and not a basis for negotiation. In paragraph 60 the Government say: The boundaries may be altered slightly after consultations with local authorities and other interested parties, which will start shortly; but the general structure, and the number of regions and districts, are not open to adjustment. Many people have felt that that is an extraordinary statement from a Government that has issued a White Paper proposing such sweeping changes. I suspect that it is another example of a practice that is becoming prevalent among Government Ministers of being bold for boldness' sake and making superficially bold decisions in what they think to be the public interest. They believe that all that is necessary to run the country is the firm hand and the declaratory statement that they will not be moved. It is unfortunate that this sort of thing has crept into Government statements. They will rue the day.

It is extraordinary that the Government have chosen to be so dogmatic in a White Paper. As Lord Hughes pointed out in another place in the debate on Scottish local government reform, the Secretary of State … wanted to get back to the concept that a White Paper was a statement in the structure of which the Government had made up their mind but on the details of which they were prepared to have further discussions."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 23rd March, 1971; Vol 316, c. 822.] One of the details in these proposals is in regard to the number of districts and that surely is a matter on which the Government should be more flexible. It does not behove the present Secretary of State to take the line that these proposals are firm before the local authorities have had an opportunity to deal with them. They should surely know where they stand. I am told by a reliable source that on 1st May, 1970, the Secretary of State, before he attained his present office, said that he would like to see 60 or 70 districts. I understand that the proposal in the White Paper is for 49 districts. If he can change his mind between May, 1970 and the advent of the White Paper, it indicates that there is room for some radical adjustment.

The present Secretary of State said in Falkirk—and I am informed of this from a Conservative Party source—at a Conservative local government conference that the Government proposals would be published early in 1971 in the form of "a White Paper with green stripes". I do not think that he had football in mind when he made that statement. It is clear that what he was saying to Conservative Party followers was that there was a certain amount of flexibility and that the White Paper would fall half way between a Green Paper and a White Paper. The current White Paper could hardly be described as having green stripes; there is not the slightest hue of green about it. Only minor boundary adjustments are being thought of by the Government in these submissions.

The organisation of districts is something on which the Government should be flexible. I can see that they do not want to recast the regions, but when it comes to districts and local feelings, there is room for a great deal of negotiation. For example, in my constituency there is great feeling in the burgh of Bishopbriggs that in regard to one district joining with another there should be opportunity for adjustment. As I understand it, again from the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, in the House of Lords debates on 23rd March, 1971, he expressed great disappointment that the Glasgow district was so big. It appears likely that Bishopbriggs would not have been in the Glasgow district had the election gone the other way. If the matter can be as marginal as that, one administration putting it in a district and the other leaving it out, the Government ought to be careful. They ought to listen carefully to representations from Bishopbriggs and the surrounding boroughs.

Leaving aside local loyalties, there is a respectable case for saying that the Glasgow district is far too big. In other parts of my constituency—I do not make a special feature of this, but just mention it—in the district of Motherwell and Wishaw, there is considerable local feeling that, for example, the villages of Gartness and Salsburgh should not be in that district but in Airdrie, that Westcraigs should be included in West Lothian, and that Hart-hill should not be left in two districts but in District No. 38. These boundary adjustments mean the movement of whole villages from one area to another, but I hope that this is something which will not be foreclosed by the Government's decision.

The most extraordinary feature of the Government's decision to name 30th April is what prompted the picking of this date. It was not some crystal-ball intuition that I was to have an Adjournment debate the day before. I wonder who had the bright idea of announcing that the closing date would be four days before the municipal elections. Local authorities are not at their best then or in the weeks preceding an election. Whoever happens to be in power, that is a firm planning truth. It would have been wiser for the Government to have put the date after the elections. I cannot see what the hurry is, because the legislation will not become effective until the Parliamentary Session of 1972–73.

There is a respectable argument for saying that it should become effective earlier. If the Government were legislating more quickly, I see that they had to get a "push on" when it came to the submissions. But considering we are not to have legislation until 1972–73, it would be reasonable for the Government to extend the period of submissions to 30th October, or 30th September, to give a few more months for local authorities to have discussions with each other.

These discussions are taking place in my constituency and burghs are meeting each other. But they should not have to come up with proposals under the threat that they will not be properly considered if submitted after 30th April.

The Government say, "You have had a long time. You have been thinking about local government reform for some time. It is high time you knew where you stood." There is a certain truth in that and local authorities would understand that. But the new factor is the White Paper. One might put forward certain ideas in relation to the Wheatley Report and then realise, when the Government publish the White Paper, that they will not be feasible politically. Therefore, one has to rethink one's position in terms laid down in the White Paper and hope that one will be able to persuade the Government to go along with one, perhaps on a limited scope.

Having read the correspondence passing between some local authorities and the Secretary of State for Scotland, it is not appreciated in St. Andrew's House that many local authorities are trying to fit in with the concept of the White Paper, which in many areas involves a substantial amendment of the Wheatley Report. The White Paper is a new factor, and much more than 60 days ought to be allowed to local authorities. Surely they ought to be allowed a little more time to decide on proposals for the future of the communities in which people are to live.

Some hon. Members may think that the Government ought to be more flexible about the regions, as I am sure does the hon. Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour). I am not making a plea as extreme as that. I leave the extreme points to come from the Minister's supporters. I make a moderate plea that there ought to be more flexi- bility regarding the districts. If the Government want to carry people with them, they should not be so high-handed. They are being high-handed in settling a deadline when the legislation is not to be effective until 1972–73, a year later than in England. The Government are in grave danger of having their White Paper considered as being rigid and dogmatic. In these circumstances, I ask the Minister either to extend the time limit or to make it clear that some consideration will be given to local authorities which have made an earnest attempt to make constructive proposals.

I ask the Minister to clarify one thing which is puzzling some local authorities. In the House of Lords debate an Amendment moved by Lord Hughes was accepted by the Government. The Amendment added to the Government Motion taking note of the White Paper the words: but does not consider that the associations of local authorities should be denied the opportunity of suggesting amendments."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 23rd March, 1971, c. 815.] There is doubt as to what that means. Were the Government intending to indicate a change of policy, meaning that there would he more flexibility for representations?

I ask the Minister, not in any party political sense, but in the sense that we all hope that local government reform can be achieved with some speed and accepting that there will have to be some firm Government decisions, not to be over-firm and not to be either superficial or unnecessarily dogmatic about it but to give evidence of the Government's good faith by extending the period. If the Government cannot make this little gesture, we do not have much hope of concessions when it comes to discussing the Bill in 1972–73, when hon. Members table Amendments.

I ask the Government to tone down the rigid terms of the White Paper and not to accentuate them as the circular has done.

10.47 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Development, Scottish Office (Mr. George Younger)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lanarkshire, North (Mr. John Smith) on his luck in securing an Adjournment debate. I thank him for raising this very important point in so constructive a manner. There are undoubtedly people in many parts of Scotland who have been concerned about the procedure for making representations following the White Paper. I am glad to have this opportunity of seeking to allay some of the fears to which the hon. Gentleman has given expression. I will try to answer all the points he raised.

We must start, as did the hon. Gentleman, from the position that we are agreed, and virtually everyone in Scotland is agreed, that we want to get on with local government reform and do not wish, nor do people in local government wish, a further long and prolonged period of uncertainty. This is why we have decided that we must get all the details of this question clarified and straightened out in time for us to legislate in the Parliamentary Session 1972–73. I think that that is a generally accepted position and I want to explain why I think that what we have put into the White Paper and the comments which we receive upon it is consistent with this aim and why it should not cause any difficulties for those who may wish to make any comments or suggestions in the light of the White Paper.

Of course we must not forget to acknowledge that it is Parliament in the last resort which passes the legislation reforming local government. If Parliament were to reject or modify some or all of the proposals, the Government would have to act accordingly. If anyone were to persuade the Government before legislation was introduced that we had overlooked some cogent or important factors or that the proposals in themselves were faulty and could not be implemented as suggested, we should, as any Government would, accept such advice if we were convinced that it was correct and well founded, and we should have to accept the consequences on the legislative programme. However, we cannot possibly embark on such a vast and complicated piece of legislation such as that while trying to frame contingency plans for what could and should be done on the basis that all sorts of possibility might arise.

Therefore there is a case for the Government's saying that for planning purposes this is the pattern which we think will come about. That is why the Government felt that in the White Paper they had to give a fairly firm blueprint—or, perhaps, a white print, whichever is the more correct word to use in this strange language of White Papers which we have—so that the immense amount of detailed planning which has to go on during the months ahead can go ahead in a framework which people can understand. That is what we have tried to do. This is in no sense intended to be some steamrollering exercise or an exercise in arrogance on the part of the Government. It is simply a matter of willing the means to what, I believe, is a generally agreed end.

So the hon. Gentleman's complaint boils down to this—that within the timetable necessary to prepare legislation with a view to its introduction in the Session 1972–73, he thinks that it was not necessary to set such an early deadline as 30th April for local authority comments on boundaries. I hope to show in the few moments I have tonight that he is not as well founded as he would think in that contention.

One of the main ingredients in any planning for such a vast reform of local government as that of boundaries must, generally speaking, be known. Of course, one can plan to a very great extent if one knows that the boundaries are generally fixed; in some details boundaries within boundaries may be altered one way or another either now, or later, perhaps, this year, or, indeed, during the passage of legislation—we cannot rule that out; but, generally speaking, one must have a fairly firm basis of boundaries to plan the necessary details which have to be worked out.

Mr. John Smith

What worries some of us is what is meant by "slight" adjustment. For example, would the movement of, say, a community the size of Bishopbriggs, of 20.000 people, from one district to another be "slight" or would it be ruled out?

Mr. Younger

I do not want to categorise what would be slight or not slight. What I am prepared to say is that in the White Paper it is made quite clear that minor changes are very much for consideration. What is also made clear—I hope to say a little more about this if I have time—is that any proposed changes based on completely new evidence or new factors, on some of which the hon. Gentleman touched, obviously must be looked at and considered by the Government. I think that that point is covered by the White Paper.

We have, for instance, to go ahead fairly soon with the business of drawing up the electoral areas for the new local government units. A vast number of new electoral divisions have to be drawn up, probably about 2,000, over the length and breadth of Scotland. This is bound to take a great deal of time. The preliminary work on it must be started fairly soon. It is no use trying to define electoral boundaries within authorities while the boundaries of the authorities themselves may be in a state of flux. We must get some finality in boundaries. Any delay in this would very much hold up the programme of getting legislation ready by the Session 1972–73.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the White Paper was issued on 16th February, and on 26th February the circular was sent to local authorities, enclosing a suggested definition of the new local authority areas and inviting them to submit comments. Authorities were given over two months, till 30th April, to make comments and to send in written suggestions. I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman that this time limit was unreasonable. The boundaries outlined in the circular did not come to local authorities out of the blue.

Sir John Gilmour (Fife, East)

Would my hon. Friend be kind enough to say how many local authorities have put in their submissions up to this date?

Mr. Younger

I cannot give an exact figure, but a very considerable number, and we do not know of a very large number of representations which still have to come in. Certainly, as far as we know, there is no evidence of representations that there has been too short a time to make them.

Mr. Ian MacArthur (Perth and East Perthshire)

I understand that there is at least one local authority which, because of the terms of the White Paper, requires to engage in consultation with neighbouring local authorities, and this has taken quite a long time. That local authority has not yet completed its own representations following that consultation, and an extension of time would perhaps be helpful to enable it to put forward its representations in a responsible way.

Mr. Younger

If there is a local authority in such a position, I suggest that it puts in a general statement of reservations, or a general opinion, and puts in it the fact that it is subject to consultation with other local authorities nearby, if that is what it wishes to do.

I do not think that this deadline of 30th April is expected to mean that everyone has to put in every last detail, every sentence and every point, by first post on 30th April. What is required is a general statement of reservations, if there is such a thing, by that date. I think that all local authorities which wish to do it are doing it, and if any of them are not doing so, I am sure that they will find a way of letting us know and I am sure that they will not be in this case.

The date of 30th April is not in the nature of a final cut-off point for local authority comment. It was made perfectly clear in the circular that where written observations showed that it was necessary or desirable, the Secretary of State would arrange local discussion to give the authorities concerned an opportunity subsequent to 30th April to develop their views. We do not want this to be regarded as an absolute deadline beyond which no reservations, conditions, comments or further considerations can be considered.

But we hope that people will generally make their positions known by that date, so that at least we can narrow the areas where there is or is not finality. I hope that what I say is of some help to the hon. Gentleman and those others who may be concerned about the position.

We have to get down to finalising ideas on boundaries not much later than July or thereabouts of this year if the other steps in the legislative timetable are not to be prejudiced. We might have given a little more time for initial comments, but this would have been at the expense of the time available for the follow-up discussions. It is a question of balance, and where local authorities have said absolutely that they cannot meet our deadline we have indicated that we are prepared to allow a short overrun What we want to do is to deploy the time available to the best advantage of the authorities themselves.

There are many genuine worries about this matter, and I hope that what I have said will be of at least some reassurance to those who are worried. But I should say again that it is not as though this whole business of the boundaries has come out of the blue at everyone. We have to remember that we have been talking about local government reform for over seven years, and the process of consultation has gone on right through that period on all sorts of different basis.

We had the original White Paper in 1963, and one scheme, not all that different, emerged at the end, with full consultation at local and other levels. Then we had that put in cold storage. Then we had the Wheatley Commission, which took an immense amount of evidence from all sorts of public and other bodies over many months. That Commission produced its Report, which was studied, discussed, argued and debated by all sorts of people, and the previous Government asked for representations in the light of that Report. They had received those representations, as far as I am aware, and were on the point of issuing their own White Paper, or so we were told, when the election intervened.

The new Government decided to have consultations again with the main local authority associations. So, once more, everyone had a chance of a personal confrontation with the Ministers responsible, and of putting their views yet again. As a result, we now have the White Paper. In spite of all that, we still have, as is said in the White Paper, a vast amount of consultation to undertake on matters other than boundaries. There is a vast amount of detail about the functions and duties of community councils, and what is to happen to the existing functions of some local authorities which may disappear, and so on, not to mention the legislation which comes later on and all the discussion there will be on that.

The hon. Gentleman said that there were no green stripes in the White Paper. Although there may not have been green stripes in paragraph 60 and the reference to actual boundaries, the whole of the rest of the White Paper—not to speak of green stripes—was coloured brilliant green, with all sorts of matters requiring further consultation—community councils, functions, electoral divisions, numbers of councillors, methods of running councils, and so on. All these matters will come up for a vast amount of discussion and consultation. It seems to me that this ties in very much with what the Secretary of State said, namely, that there would be ample scope for discussion of the details later on.

This vastly complicated and difficult reform, which has been so much talked about for so long, can never be put through with everyone agreeing on what is done. We all recognise that, however good and however much consultation we have, there will always be some people who may, quite properly and genuinely, feel that the ultimate solution is not one with which they can agree. We cannot avoid that. But what we cannot be accused of, or our predecessors or the Government before that, is not having provided in all a period of consultation about these matters which should, I feel, satisfy the most disputatious and contentious of people. Everyone can feel that his views have been fully heard, even if his own particular representations may not be accepted in every case.

Mr. John Smith

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Does he not realise that the publication of the White Paper indicated for the first time the present Government's views, and that that is just about the most important factor in this whole business? In the light of that, many local authorities have had to rethink and say that, if they cannot have—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twelve minutes past Eleven o'clock.