HC Deb 05 December 1972 vol 847 cc1260-70

11.18 p.m.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

I welcome the opportunity to discuss a matter that is causing some concern in Scotland—the manner in which the Advisory Committee on Local Government Boundaries has handled its business. The committee was established by the Secretary of State for Scotland to give him independent advice on ward boundaries for the first elections in 1974 following the passage of the Local Government (Scotland) Bill, which is now before the House.

In the confusion and apprehension that exists amongst many local councillors who find difficulty in perceiving what their future rôle is to be, I realise that the judgment of Solomon may be required to help and satisfy all shades of opinion. Indeed, I accept that in some measure the advisory council might well have an impossible task. I do not think that that weakens my case; in fact, it strengthens my view that the committee has approached its work in a ham-fisted way.

I do not attack the integrity of the individuals serving on the committee; I have no doubt that they were chosen from people removed from a day-to-day involvement in Scottish political life. In some ways they failed to avoid the pitfalls that are inevitable when dealing with the highly sensitive question of ward boundaries because of their innocence; one is almost tempted to say because of their naiveté.

Because the subject of the review is the subject of legislation it would be improper and out of order for me to discuss the detail of the council's proposals, but I shall in general refer to the manner in which the proposals for the Aberdeen district of the North-West Region were approached.

On 22nd February 1972 the Scottish Home and Health Department wrote to the County Clerk of Aberdeenshire, the Town Clerk of Aberdeen and the Clerk to the Aberdeen District Council about local government reform in the first elections. Enclosed were draft electoral proposals on which comments were invited. The letter contained a significant comment: The primary objective of these proposals is to achieve parity of representation on the basis of existing electoral boundaries. The letter went on to say: It may also be possible to devise a different pattern of representation which will provide improved parity for the indicated number of original and district councillors without the creation of new boundaries. It is important to note that in the letter the word "without" is underlined. The emphasis, therefore, is strictly on the retention of existing electoral boundaries. Furthermore, the letter is clearly aimed at local authorities and councillors. Nowhere in the letter is there any mention of outside bodies to be consulted.

The local authorities consulted their officials. I have the greatest regard for the work done by officials of local councils, who give unstinting application to the needs of their areas. The proposals received the unanimous approval of Aberdeen Town Council. The town council was, therefore, astonished to receive a letter dated 1st August 1972, again from the Scottish Home and Health Department, an abstract of which reads as follows: The Committee also considered warding proposals for the city which had been submitted to the Department by the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Central Office. The Committee favoured the proposals submitted by the SCUCO as they produced a better division of the electorate than the proposals submitted by the Corporation. Aberdeen Town Council at that stage registered its protest at this. Discussion of the relative merits of the submissions must await another time, but the relevance to the present discussion is that this is the first time that a political party comes into the picture. One can well imagine the suspicions that aroused. It transformed a relatively tranquil official investigation into the setting of ward boundaries into a highly charged political matter.

Immediately I was apprised of the situation I made extensive inquiries to determine which, if any, other political parties had made submissions and which, if any, had been invited to make proposals. I found none, but what I did find was very great resentment at the intervention, indeed the interference, in Aberdeen's affairs by the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Central Office. This was particularly marked because its proposals contravene the injunction that existing boundaries should be retained. This happened in several cases.

On 21st October 1972 I wrote to the Secretary of State, having allowed time to pass to enable me to make a thorough investigation of the position. When I contacted the Secretary of the Scottish Labour Party—Mr. Peter Allison—he was astounded that no invitation had been sent to him to submit the Labour Party's analysis of the electoral position. He wrote to Mr. Middlemiss, the signatory of the various communications from the Scottish Home and Health Department, to protest about the lack of consultation. The reply that I received from the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland and the reply that Mr. Allison received from the secretary to the advisory committee were virtually identical.

The Secretary of State's defence is that copies of the draft proposals—which are the initial proposals of 22nd February—were sent to the Scottish Office of the Labour Party, and this was passed on in a communication dated 8th March 1972. Mr. Allison, however, is quite certain that having received this communication he telephoned Edinburgh and was told that the views of political parties were not required until the local authority had submitted its views. In fact, since August—when we had the latest proposal from the advisory committee—there has been no communication with the Scottish Labour Party, although the local authorities have been advised that the SCUCO proposals had been submitted. The only contact with the Labour Party has been on the question of lack of consultation raised by the Scottish Labour Party.

In a letter to me dated 20th November 1972 Mr. Allison made it clear that the correspondence of 8th March had no covering letter with it. All previous correspondence on local government reform had enclosed specific invitations to submit the views of the Scottish Council of the Labour Party. Clearly the impression was given that the material sent was for information only.

Frankly, this cavalier treatment is not good enough. If political parties have to be brought into discussions on local government reform, all should be treated equally. Once a political party became involved centrally—especially one supporting the Government of the day—special and particular care should have been taken to see that other opposition parties were made explicitly aware of their rights and of the possibility that they could submit their own solutions. Otherwise, piecemeal suggestions and piecemeal proposals can only lead to piecemeal solutions, and these will fail to achieve satisfaction and will leave a bad taste behind them.

I can think of no better way of concluding my speech than by reading the final paragraph in my letter to the Secretary of State of 21st October, which says: Presumably the Advisory Committee was set up to avoid possible charges of gerrymandering in the setting up of boundaries for local government seats. Clearly this charge can now he made, and I urge you to decline to accept the advice of the Advisory Committee until all interested bodies have had an opportunity to study the problem and make their own analysis. It is disappointing that the advisory committee should have handled this issue so badly. The Secretary of State must now make strenuous efforts to repair the damage and restore confidence.

11.28 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs and Agriculture, Scottish Office (Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith)

I congratulate the hon. Member on taking this opportunity to raise the question of the operation of the advisory committee on local government electoral boundaries in Scotland. I am glad that he has taken the opportunity because there have been—and this has come through in his speech—certain misunderstandings about the functions of this committee and the way in which the whole matter has been approached.

I welcome this opportunity to try to put some of the record straight. I refute at once the remarks of the hon. Gentleman in relation to any suggestions of gerrymandering on the part of this com- mittee. I can assure him that those are totally unfounded and unwarranted. The House will appreciate this when I explain the background. I apologise for going into the background in considerable detail because it is important for those who read the report of the debate outside to understand precisely what has taken place.

I should like first to clarify the purposes and functions of the advisory committee. It was appointed earlier this year by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to give him impartial and independent advice on the electoral areas that will be required for the purpose of the first local government elections to be held in 1974 after the Local Government (Scotland) Bill has been passed. It was agreed in our earlier consultations with local authority associations that because of the limited time available before these elections are held it would be necessary for the Secretary of State to fix the new electoral areas at his own hand after consultation with the existing authorities. The alternative, which could have been followed, was to defer the first elections till the new Local Government Boundary Commission had carried out a comprehensive review of every district and islands area and had submitted recommendations to the Secretary of State. Clearly, because of the time factor, that was unacceptable.

The hon. Gentleman was right to draw attention to the fact that we are dealing with a matter of great sensitivity. Simply because of that, and the fact that it does give rise to political controversy, the Secretary of State concluded that it would be essential to appoint an independent committee, which could consider quite impartially not only the draft proposals worked out by the Department in consultation with the local authorities concerned but also any relevant observations or alternative proposals received by the Department. It was important to ensure that the membership of the committee reflected not only impartiality but also at the same time experience in local government.

I completely refute what the hon. Gentleman said about the "innocence" of those who formed the advisory committee. It was a totally unwarranted slur on their characters and experience. I remind the House of the membership of the committee. The chairman was a distinguished member of the Bar—Mr. C. K. Davidson, Q.C. As members of the committee we had a retired town clerk—Mr. R. F. Pollock—and also a retired electoral registration officer—Mr. Peter McKechnie—both men of considerable integrity in local government affairs and of considerable experience of the matters they were discussing. It is wrong to describe them as "pure innocents".

The task of the committee was essentially to consider proposals for the new electoral areas on their merits and having regard to certain criteria which I shall mention in a moment—and, after that, to make recommendations to the Secretary of State.

I move on to describe the way in which the committee approached its task. It tackled it in two stages. The first, which is just completed, consisted in considering any draft schemes submitted to it by the Department in respect of each proposed district and islands area—a very large task, because it involved about 50 schemes. The committee has had a series of meetings and has given the most careful and detailed consideration to the proposals before it. Where the Department has received alternative suggestions—and this is important—these also have been taken into consideration as being relevant to the whole exercise.

The stage now reached is that revised draft schemes giving effect to the committee's recommendations have been prepared in the Department and will very shortly be sent out to local authorities, which will be asked to make them available, with illustrative maps, for local inspection. At that stage it will, of course, be open to any interested person or organisation to submit objections or observations to the Department. Sufficient time will be allowed to enable everyone concerned to study the draft proposals and to put in any observations.

Mr. Robert Hughes

I wonder whether, at this stage, the hon. Gentleman can tell us whether the report mentions that the committee submitted proposals from any outside body, particularly a political party, against the wishes of the local authorities.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

At the moment I am not in a position to say, because the proposals of the committee have not been published and it would be premature for me to do so, but they will be published very shortly and the hon. Member and others will then be able to see them.

The advisory committee will then have to tackle the second stage of its task, namely, to re-examine the draft schemes in the light of any relevant observations received by the Department and to submit final recommendations to the Secretary of State, whose decision on each scheme will be intimated as soon as possible after the Bill has received Royal Assent, and implemented in directions under Schedule 2 (2) of the Bill. I apologise for going through this procedure in so much detail but I think it important to put it in perspective.

I turn to a point the hon. Gentleman made in relation to the criteria used by the advisory committee in considering draft schemes. It was important that certain criteria for determining the electoral areas should be established at the outset and applied both in consultations between the Department and the existing local authorities and subsequently by the advisory committee. Those criteria were the subject of discussion by the local authority associations and were outlined in the letter that the hon. Gentleman quoted and that was issued by the Department to individual authorities in February 1972.

I want to mention two of the criteria that are important and that arise in the context of this debate. The first is parity of representation. It was made absolutely clear to the local authorities that the Secretary of State attached overriding importance to this criterion. The second was that the new electoral areas should be defined with due regard to local community interests and, wherever possible, by reference to existing administrative or electoral boundaries.

I accept at once that in some instances it has proved impossible—this will be clear to the hon. Gentleman when he sees the schemes for the whole of Scotland, but I am sure that with his experience of local government he already realises it—to satisfy all the criteria, because they are not always compatible. But my right hon. Friend has made it clear that he attaches particular importance to achieving a reasonable measure of parity. It is important if each member of a council is to represent approximately the same number of electors—and that is naturally the aim that one must have in mind.

I turn to the practicalities of the Aberdeen situation and to the consideration that the advisory committee has given to the alternative proposals submitted to it for electoral areas in other districts. Although the Secretary of State has been informed of the progress made by the advisory committee in carrying through this first stage of its task he has at no time in any way sought to influence the committee's deliberations. It is important that that fact should be realised. Of course, it would be improper for him to do so in any way. The committee must be left—and it has been left—to consider independently the proposals submitted to it and it has been free from any kind of pressure, politically motivated or otherwise.

Looking to the future; the Secretary of State will come into the procedure when the committee submits its final recommendations to him in the summer of next year. I cannot emphasise that too much. If that were not the case there would be no purpose in setting up the advisory committee. My right hon. Friend has strictly observed the independence of the committee that he appointed.

Secondly, while it is true that the letter sent to all political parties and organisations on 8th March stated that the draft proposals enclosed were being made available to the organisations as a source of information and for reference, it is also true that no party organisation was specifically invited to comment on the proposals at that stage. Equally, it is untrue—and it was unwarranted of the hon. Member to have said it—that in the instance of the Aberdeen proposals this was the first time that the political parties had been brought into the picture.

They were brought into the picture equally at that early stage, on 8th March, when the draft proposals were sent to all the political parties in Scotland, and not only the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. They were all brought into the picture at that stage without any difference among them.

However, in the event a considerable number of observations and counter-pro- posals were made by local party organisations. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party Central Office. In fact, the observations which came in were from the local constituency associations in Aberdeen, and they made proposals and comments in relation to Aberdeen. Certain observations were received from the hon. Gentleman's party in relation to West Aberdeenshire, and other observations related to other parts of Scotland. In addition, my Department also received observations from minority groups on local councils, community associations, and even private individuals.

There was nothing unique about the situation alleged by the hon. Gentleman. He implied that it might have applied to Aberdeen alone. Observations were drawn from other areas and from other sources than simply that of the Conservative Party, which might have been the impression left by the hon Gentleman—

Mr. Robert Hughes

I accept the hon. Gentleman's statement of fact, but the proposals emanating originally from local Conservative constituency associations were submitted through the central office. That suggests a degree of co-ordination, with the central office asking for comments. Once that became known to the advisory committee it should have made sure that there was no misunderstanding on the part of the other parties.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

There was no misunderstanding. Indeed, the Labour Central Office in Scotland sent in formal objections to what was happening on behalf of Aberdeen. I see no difference in analogy between the two cases. The hon. Gentleman complains about the fact that something may have come through the Conservative Central Office. Through its own central office the Labour Party made representations about Aberdeen. There was nothing unique in what happened.

As I said earlier, the views expressed from all these different sources were laid before the advisory committee, so that it should be informed of any observations received in the Department which had a bearing on the draft schemes under consideration. In this respect, views submitted by local constituency associations of the Conservative Party in Scotland were treated in exactly the same way as were any other comments received in the Department; they were simply passed on to the advisory committee.

The third point to make is that the advisory committee's conclusions in this case will not be made known until the revised draft schemes are issued to local authorities later this month. It would be premature for me to anticipate this intimation tonight. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that in reaching its decision the committee took fully into account the representations made by Aberdeen Corporation in support of its own proposals and in criticism of the alternative proposals submitted on behalf of the local constituency associations of the Conservative Party. The members of the committee were equipped to evaluate the two sets of proposals fairly and with due regard to the practical considerations involved.

I mention finally the fact that we have reached only the half-way stage. Once the revised proposals have been issued to local authorities and advertised locally, there will be a further opportunity for all the interests concerned to consider the problem and submit their views or counter-proposals. The draft schemes will later be re-examined in detail by the advisory committee in the light of all the comments received before final recommendations are submitted to the Secretary of State.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that the advisory committee has a difficult task to carry out in the limited time available and that it is doing so impartially and without regard to political considerations of any kind. Its task is merely to evaluate the proposals placed before it and to recommend to the Secretary of State those proposals which appear to it to satisfy the criteria laid down, the most important of which is parity of representation.

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman should now await the publication of the draft schemes later this month. He will then have an opportunity to submit observations to the Department and these will be referred to the advisory committee for its consideration, together with any other relevant comments that are received at that stage. Aberdeen Corporation, too, will have an opportunity to take any further action that it desires and to make representations.

I refute again any allegations of gerrymandering. I believe that this committee has carried out its task in an entirely proper and correct way. There has been no interference by the Secretary of State in the working of the committee. I assure the hon. Gentleman that proposals from the local Conservative Party association are treated in the same way as are proposals from the Labour Party. There can be no charge of malpractice in the operation of this advisory committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.