HC Deb 17 July 1972 vol 841 cc244-69


Sir Tatton Brinton (Kidderminster)

I beg to move Amendment No. 246, in page 64, line 19, after 'may', insert: 'and if directed by the Secretary of State, shall'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

With this Amendment we are to take Amendment No. 306, in page 66, line 25, at end insert:

(14) In any case where a district council contains within its boundaries the whole of the area of any borough, urban district, or rural district which immediately prior to 1st April 1974 discharged functions allocated by this Act to county councils, it shall be competent for that district council to request the council of the county in which it is situate to make arrangements under this section with the district council for the discharge of all or any of those functions by the district council, and in the event of the county council refusing such a request or offering to make arrangements unsatisfactory to the district council, that council may appeal to the Secretary of State who, if satisfied that the request is reasonable and that the district council has adequate staff and resources to enable it to discharge the said functions in an efficient manner, may direct the county council to comply with the request in such manner as he may think fit.

(15) Any such request as is mentioned in subsection (14) above may be made before 1st April, 1974 or thereafter.

Sir T. Brinton

I should like to express my thanks to Kidderminster Borough Council, the town clerk, Mr. John Evans, who is to retire shortly after 25 years' service for his help and advice and to his designated successor, Mr. Norman James, for drafting these Amendments. If the Minister is prepared to accept the Amendments or something on these lines, many districts will have cause to be thankful to both gentlemen.

The object of the Amendments is to provide a means of appeal by districts which might feel that they have been unfairly dealt with by county councils under the new arrangements for agencies for carrying out certain functions which are within the powers of the county councils but not of the district councils. The Government's attitude towards the agency powers envisaged in the Clause were made clear by both the then Under-secretary for the Environment and the Minister for Local Government and Development in Committee. The then Under-Secretary said: I do not at all wish to suggest that the implementation of the arguments which are being put forward leave no rôle for the districts. This was during discussion on transportation and parking. He went on: In my judgment, it leaves a very real rôle for the districts through the working of our agency provisions under Clause 100…we should certainly see it as one of our principal purposes to study the oportunities for the districts to play a real part. Certainly, there are many districts which are very well able to do so and it would be a great shame if they did not continue to do so. It would be our purpose in administering the framework which we have, and as we see it evolving, that the districts, where they are capable of doing so, should play a very real part". He made clear the Government's intention that the agency provisions should be used and developed as fully as possible.

The Minister defined the Government's concept of agency arrangements and made it clear that he was not talking about delegation. He said: …we have cast aside the idea of delegation…there should be arrangements under Clause 100 between the different kinds of local authorities for the carrying out of each other's functions".—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 29th February, 1972; c. 2020–94.]

1.30 a.m.

This made it clear we are not talking about delegation but something rather less than that. Subsection (5) makes it clear that the financial power will still remain with the senior authority. In those circumstances one must admit that the districts are, even under the Clause as it stands, not being offered anything very concrete and certainly nothing comparable to the full granting of powers which have been asked for in Committee under various headings, and which will no doubt be the subject of further Amendments.

Mr. Maddan

As I understand it the Clause allows agency arrangements to be made by counties and districts and also by districts with counties. Would my hon. Friend explain that he wishes his Amendment to apply to both circumstances?

Sir T. Brinton

I have not envisaged that it would be necessary to protect county councils against the district councils by providing them with a right of appeal, since in general districts would only be likely to ask the county councils to act for them where they were incapable of acting themselves, whereas there are many cases, and this is my principal point, where there will be powerful districts which contain within their borders former authorities which exercised very wide powers indeed, right up to those of a county borough and which will in future under the Clause be entirely under the power of the county council, which will have the right to decide what powers they shall exercise. I do not find this satisfactory.

The Government obviously did not find it satisfactory either because when they were tackled under various heads of discussion in Committee they constantly had recourse to Clause 101 as it now is, as an excuse for not granting any broadcast powers. I can see their point to some extent. If it is said that all districts may be library authorities, for example, we are potentially bestowing that power on some districts which do not wish to exercise it and are incapable of doing so. The Government have provided for differential scales of function by districts through the Clause but in doing so they have left the decision in the hands of the county councils, one of the two interested parties in any such arrangement. The county council attitude is unknown. It must be a matter for questioning for any district council as to what view its relevant county council will take on the division of powers.

It may be that those hon. Members who have read the county councils' circular have drawn from it the conclusion, which I did, that the tendency was to ask the Government to cut down the powers given to district councils rather than to expand them. Districts fear that if the decision is left solely to the county councils then agency arrangements will be at the minimum level rather than the maximum. This is the real fear and it is not unjustified. Who should decide how far the agency arrangements are going? I submit that it should not be the county councils. They are a party to the agreement, they are half of the bargain. If any dispute arises are we to allow one side of the argument to have a power of decision, rather like cunning old Fury in "Alice in Wonderland"? There must be some court of appeal.

The Government have suggested that it will be sufficient merely to provide guidance about how agency agreements should work. It is necessary that some guidance should be provided, but supposing it is not sufficient. What will happen if a big and powerful new district finds itself deprived of powers which have been exercised by its constituent parts for many years and is unable to persuade an obstinate county council that it is capable of continuing to exercise them? It must then be up to the Secretary of State to settle the issue.

It may be argued that this would entail an enormous volume of work, and I accept that this work must be undertaken very urgently. If it is not settled immediately, the skilled and professional staff will go off in search of fresh fields and the districts will no longer be capable of carrying the extended powers.

This is a burden which will have to be shouldered only once by the Minister because once the pattern is fixed it is likely to endure. If the Minister cannot accept the Amendment as it stands, I hope he will at least accept the principle that he will act as arbiter. Unless there is some prospect of the exercise of real powers, there is bound to be a feeling of frustration at district level that they are being pushed down to a position of relative unimportance. I believe that the districts deserve and want reassurance and I ask the Secretary of State to give it to them.

Mr. Oakes

We on this side of the House support Amendment No. 246. For a limited period of time the Secretary of State should have some say in holding the balance between the district council and the county council. More is involved than the mere powers of the authority and the pride of the authority. Jobs may well be involved and the Bill will create a major disruption for many local government employees during the transition period. They cannot just up roots and go to another job. It would surely be sensible for them to remain in their present jobs, at least for a limited time, as agents for the new authority.

The classic situation is that between Plymouth and Devon authorities. It would be monstrous if Devon County Council exercised in Exeter the functions of a county council but denied Plymouth functions under Clause 101. It would be a monstrous decision, but, if that council were to make it, under the present Clause 101 this House and the Minister could do little or nothing about it.

What this Amendment seeks to do is to give power to the Minister to hold the ring, to hold the balance, and to be able—I repeat, for a limited period, and we on this side would accept that this could not be a permanent arrangement, for that would go against the root of the Bill and we would not expect the Government to accept that—to say to the county council "These are functions for which you shall make agency arrangements with the district council"—whichever is concerned.

We on this side of the House fully support the hon. Member for Kidderminster in this excellent Amendment.

Mr. Raphael Tuck (Watford)

On a point of order. This Amendment No. 246 would appear to be meaningless unless it is taken in conjunction with Amendment 306.

Hon. Members

It is taken with it.

Mr. Tuck

It is? I beg the pardon of the House.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Peter Walker)

Let me say first of all that right the way through with this reorganisation Bill we have expressed two basic principles, first, that we consider it will be in the interests of local government to organise sensible agency agreements, and I must confess, with regard to the intervention made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Maddan), that I think there is scope for agency agreements in both directions and not necessarily in just one direction. Therefore, any Amendment or change should take account of that factor.

Also, secondly, we have tried to impress that whatever one's views of local government reform itself, if one is to have the two levels in local government, then from the time this commences they should work together in a spirit of cooperation, not of hostility and rivalry. I am very anxious to see—and it was one of the reasons we wanted to see each function with one set of authorities or the other—that we avoid the sort of hostility which, I think, has done damage to local government in the past.

I am well aware of the sentiments and feelings expressed lucidly by my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Sir T. Brinton) and the hon. Gentleman the Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes) on this topic. Therefore, I have given careful consideration to this, and I believe that there is scope for doing something in the nature of arbitration for a limited period. I do not want to enter the situation where constantly in local government there is a potential threat by any authority in local government, "We will take this to the Secretary of State and appeal that this function or that should operate on an agency agreement."

Therefore, what I should like to suggest to the House is that, firstly, the two Amendments go rather wider than my hon. Friend presently envisages. For example, they cover the position of London boroughs and the GLC—not basically a matter for reform by this Bill—and would create uncertainties in those particular spheres. They would also create a system which would not require proper consultation. These are weaknesses in detail of the Amendments.

I know that what my hon. Friend is concerned with is the spirit of the Amendments. Therefore, I should like to suggest to the House that the Government will endeavour to see in their Lordships' House a new Clause moved to provide a system whereby, in the event of an agency disagreement, the matter can be referred to me prior to 1st April, 1974. This means that if after the new authorities are elected next spring agreement cannot be reached either upon the need for an agency agreement or upon the terms of an agency agreement, there will ultimately be a right to refer this matter to the Secretary of State who will then arbitrate. I hope that every effort will be made by the authorities concerned to reach agreement. It will be to their benefit to do so, and there is plenty of time.

1.45 a.m.

Mr. Rees-Davies

One great problem with town planning is the question of time. There has to be consultation between the district authority and the council, and this can take months. I am in whole-hearted agreement that my right hon. Friend should put a time limit on it, but if the reference has to be made before 1st April, 1974, that does not give a long time for consultation before the deadline. Might he extend that period?

Mr. Walker

No, I am strongly opposed to extending the period. I think it allows plenty of time. The district boundaries will be known definitely by the autumn of this year, and from that time onwards those primarily concerned will be aware of the functions for which they wish to operate agency agreements. The question of whether a district is capable of carrying out a function, or whether a county considers it should have an agency for a particular function, should be fairly quickly concluded. There will be a period of virtually 12 months during which authorities can refer to me, and I will arrange a system within the Department by which these matters can be swiftly and effectively dealt with.

First, I hope that all authorities will endeavour to reach agreement. Second, if they do not reach agreement either on the need for an agency arrangement or on the terms, they will be able to refer the matter to me. Third, this will apply to the functions specified in Clause 101 of the Bill and will not apply to functions which do not come under agency agreements, and I think both sides of the House agree on that. Fourth, I am anxious that we should obtain the best possible advice on the matter and I shall, therefore, be consulting the local authority associations and others with a view to sending a circular to local authorities giving the broad principles upon which agency arrangements should be made. Within the broad concepts of that advice decisions will be made on any matter referred to us. Finally, I do not want there to be uncertainty amongst the staff and others, and that is why the arrangement under the new Clause I hope to introduce in the other place will be limited to the period until 1974.

I hope on this basis to come to a satisfactory arrangement which will meet the anxieties expressed by my hon. Friend, who I hope will be able to withdraw the Amendment.

Mr. Raphael Tuck

I appreciate the spirit in which the Secretary of State has spoken, but I feel a little unsafe and would rather have teeth put into the Clause now than a promise that something might be done in another place. The district has no right to call for an agency. The whole matter is left entirely to the whim of the county council. The Clause, which looks impressive at first blush, is a milk and water scheme, weak and one-sided. The county council does not do the work but if it delegates it can make whatever conditions it pleases.

The Amendment puts teeth into the Clause and gives the district council power to call for the discharge of functions which the district has hitherto discharged, if it is the same area. The county council is not bound to agree or accept the request. It may refuse, and only then can the district council appeal to the Secretary of State. In considering the appeal, the Secretary of State must satisfy himself that the request is reasonable and that the district council has adequate resources and staff to enable it to discharge the particular functions in an efficient manner before he directs the county council to comply with the request in such manner as he may think fit. It is then that the council must act if the Secretary of State requests it to comply.

What could be more reasonable than that? What could show more conclusively that the district council has adequate staff and resources to enable it to discharge the particular functions in an efficient manner than the fact that in the past it has carried them out with efficiency and distinction?

I urge the Minister seriously to reconsider accepting the Amendments now rather than having them put forward in another place.

Mr. James Scott-Hopkins (Derbyshire, West)

I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said. I am grateful to him for going as far as he has done. I agree entirely that there must be a time limit to end the uncertainty which may arise over this matter.

As my right hon. Friend has already answered other points I would have made, I have only one question to ask. That concerns the agency agreement which might be arrived at between district and parish councils further down the line. This was touched on earlier but has not been referred to since then. It does not come into the wording of the Amendments. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be in a position to be the arbiter again should there be a dispute between a district council and a parish council in such matters as, for instance, the running of a market. I should like my right hon. Friend's assurance that that will be the other part of his function and that the same time limit is set on that as well.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)

I welcome the way in which the Minister replied to the Amendment. I hope that in the other place consideration might be given to the exclusion clause in Clause 101(8) which excludes a great number of very important powers which are at present administered by county boroughs and probably not by district councils and, in that sense, introduces a new element into the weighting of the powers between the central county and the district council.

Some county boroughs which will become district councils or parts of district councils have in the past exercised these powers and will find a situation in which they will now be treated as the district councils in the past have been treated by the county councils.

Here there will also be an area of tension developing before the implementation of these proposals. Therefore, for the limited period which the Minister envisaged, it may be as well if there is also a right of appeal even in relation to these powers which are excluded from the agency arrangements in Clause 101.

I hope that when the Minister drafts the new Clause he will give consideration to allowing a right of appeal even in these areas where agency powers as such are not permitted under the Bill.

Mr. Peter Blaker (Blackpool, South)

I welcome the concession which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has given. It is certainly my impression that there has been a general feeling across the country that the functions given to the district councils by the Bill have been less than many people have hoped for. I concede that the Government have gone some way to increase them since they started. But it is fairly strongly held in my part of the country that more powers should be given to district councils.

This was the feeling which lay behind the desire of many people for a metropolitan area in Lancashire. The Secretary of State knows my views on this matter, and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell). We have discussed it with him on a number of occasions. The Secretary of State has turned down the proposal and I do not propose to go into that at present. But I accept that the grounds on which he has turned it down, in the context of central and north Lancashire, as it will be in the early years of the new system, had some force. It is against that background that I particularly welcome what my right hon. Friend has said.

I should like to make a couple of suggestions about the way in which my right hon. Friend should exercise his discretion and the way in which the Clause he intends to introduce in another place should be framed. I think it is fairly clear that the sort of authority for which the Clause will be particularly beneficial is likely to be the large urban authority, possibly a county borough, which has a substantial population and a long history of successful local government. Other areas which are likely particularly to benefit from this concession are those which differ substantially, at least in some respects, from the bulk of the county of which they form part. I think it is true to say that many of those areas will be areas like my own, namely seaside resorts.

When a town takes in, as Blackpool does, 8 million visitors a year, it is bound to have special problems which are totally different from those which affect the rest of the county. For example, the Blackpool illuminations involve four different departments of the county borough. It is not clear to me exactly what rôle some of those departments will play in future. It may be necessary to have an agency arrangement to deal with that problem; indeed, I think it is bound to be necessary. Such an arrangement is bound to be necessary too for other activities of resorts—for example, car parking and traffic management. The needs of a resort are totally different in these respects from those of an inland town of similar size. As a third example, its needs concerning Sunday closing are totally different from those of other areas.

In welcoming my right hon. Friend's concession, I do not assume that the new Lancashire county will be unreasonable. I think it will realise that it is in the interests of the whole county that all parts of it should flourish. These have, however, been real anxieties about the way in which the Bill has been framed until now. I believe that the new Clause envisaged by my right hon. Friend will go a long way to allay those fears.

Mr. Arthur Jones

I welcome the intervention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and particularly the circular which he proposes to have prepared concerning the spirit of the two Amendments. There has, I think, been great difficulty not only among those who served on the Standing Committee but also in the House and outside on the problems and difficulties that we saw in the agency system. I still see difficulties in that respect.

I think that the Bill set out to be definitive concerning functions—clear functions being allocated to the counties on the one hand and to the districts on the other hand—but when from time to time the plea for agency arrangements was made in Committee one began to see a blurring of the philosophy underlying the Bill. It may certainly help now if arrangements between certain counties and district councils can be formulated. In this respect, I have seen Clause 101 as a contradiction to the philosophy behind the Bill but I hope we shall now be enabled to see more clearly exactly where the definition of various local government purposes lies.

A whole series of quotations from the Committee proceedings could be given. My hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Sir T. Brinton) read one which I regarded as particularly significant. Has my right hon. Friend in mind the whole range of powers, some of which we discussed in Committee, including highway powers, which will be defined between the counties and the districts?

2 a.m.

It is difficult to arrive at a fair and equitable conclusion. We all recognise that my right hon. Friend may be placing himself between the millstones of the various local authority associations. A letter from the County Councils Association dated 28th June states: The Association are seriously concerned because these changes involve the allocation to district councils of functions which in the Association's view require the wider areas, population and resources of a county…In the Association's view, it is imperative that there should be no further whittling away of the functions of the new county councils…Nor should there be introduced any fresh provisions for splitting functional responsibility which would be likely to lead to further unwelcome built in friction between the new counties and the new districts, and to confusion in the minds of the public who are being served. I know that my right hon. Friend recognises the genuine difficulties. This is why I welcome the Circular, which will give a clear definition of purpose to my right hon. Friend's intent.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

The greatest criticism of the Bill is that it is county-orientated and takes no account of the large cities. The quotation from the letter written by the County Councils Association emphasises that point.

I welcome what the Minister has done. There has been some loosening of the original allocation of functions between counties and districts. I urge the Secretary of State to have another look at the exclusion provisions in Clause 101(8). A few district councils are so strong—I have in mind some of the former county boroughs—that they will be capable of looking after education services and social services. I see no reason why in this limited number of cases agency arrange- ments should not be made for education and social services. However, that is specifically excluded by the Clause. I hope that when the Minister makes Amendments in the other place he will reconsider this question.

Mr. Rees-Davies

I welcome what my right hon. Friend said and am particularly glad about the circular which will state how my right hon. Friend proposes to operate the Clause. Places such as Blackpool and the Isle of Thanet have special problems which need to be dealt with locally. In matters such as highways, consumer protection, illuminations, street cleansing, local car parking and traffic needs, tourist amenities and catering facilities there is a special expertise in tourist areas. The County of Kent, although an admirable county, does not have the same appreciation of those requisite facilities as does local expertise in the Isle of Thanet.

With regard to weights and measures and food and drugs, we have built up over a long period a complete expertise and a proper staff to carry out those functions efficiently. It is this type of thing which I hope the Minister will recognise requires the exercise of his discretion. The only reason for my intervention in this debate is to underline that I look forward to agency arrangements whereby the council will delegate those matters to the local authority. This can be done by 1st April, 1974. It must be either agreed or referred to before that date.

If there is a proper understanding between a large county such as Kent and an area such as the Isle of Thanet—and there is an exact example in the case of Lancashire and Blackpool—we shall be able to get a satisfactory delegation of those powers by way of agency which will secure an admirable settlement of these matters and may assist the Government when they deal with one or two of the other more difficult matters later in this Bill.

Mr. Denis Howell

I wish to make one or two general remarks and to raise a constituency matter about which the Minister for Local Government and Development wrote to me, which he tells me can only be dealt with by this Clause. It seems to me that it can be dealt with not only by this Clause but by the Amendment with which the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Sir T. Brinton) is dealing—the question of the loss to Birmingham of its smallholdings as proposed by the Bill.

May I first say one or two things of a general character. I welcome what the Secretary of State said, although I am a little more doubtful than some of my hon. Friends and some hon. Members opposite about the time limit which it is proposed to impose. Whilst it is true that the bulk of the decisions will need to be determinedrapidly—I am with the Secretary of State so far—and certainly by 1974, councils come and go and they change their political complexion, and I wonder how the Secretary of State would intend to relate the changes which take place under our democratic procedures from time to time to the general question of the reserve powers that he should have to deal with such a situation in the event of dispute. I hope the Secretary of State will give attention to that point.

This has been an extraordinary debate, taking place in the small hours of the morning, when the Secretary of State has thought it right to come here—we are delighted to see him here so early in the morning—in order to show the importance that he attaches to the representations, which he clearly knew were coming not only from both sides of the House but from all parts of the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. R. C. Mitchell) was quite right when he drew attention to the fact that this matter is one of great concern on a matter of major principle. I would go a little further than my hon. Friend who said he thought it showed that the whole of the Bill had been orientated towards counties. What this debate shows is that this Bill is fundamentally misconceived, that the case we made out time and again on Second Reading and ad nauseam in Committee, that the only sensible form of government nowadays is to have all-purpose authorities, has been truly made out in the debate.

What the Secretary of State is conceding and what his hon. Friends are urging upon him is that the present arrangements proposed by this Bill are nonsense in terms of modern local government, and these new proposals have now got to be written into the Bill albeit for a short period. I do not wish to press that unduly, but I think it worth putting on record.

Through the hon. Member for Kidderminster, I congratulate the town clerk of Kidderminster, Mr. John Evans, who gave great help and advice in the cause which now comes before us in the form of the present Amendments. I have had the pleasure of knowing Mr. Evans over a long time now, especially when I was a Minister, and I have always been extremely impressed by his sense of dedication to the cause of local government as well as to the town of Kidderminster. If he is now retiring, he is retiring on a famous victory, on which, I hope, the hon. Gentleman will convey our congratulations to him.

I turn now to the matter of the Birmingham smallholdings. The situation is unique. I am sorry to have to raise it without much notice, but the Minister for Local Government and Development sent me a letter only this afternoon telling me that he could not carry out the undertaking in the form given by the hon. Member for Tavistock (Mr. Michael Heseltine) when speaking for the Government in Committee.

The Birmingham smallholding undertaking is an extraordinarily interesting development. It exemplifies all that is best in local government. The smallholdings were started immediately after the First World War by a famous Member of Parliament, Mr. Jesse Collings, who wanted to give people coming back from the war the opportunity to establish themselves in a smallholding or an agricultural business. Millions of £s of Birmingham ratepayers' money have been poured into the development of the smallholdings since they were started in 1920. Many young men have been enabled to establish themselves in business as a result, and many Birmingham townspeople have been attracted to agriculture and a love of the countryside through the existence of the smallholdings.

Obviously, a city like Birmingham cannot find land for small holdings of this kind within its own boundary. It can operate the scheme only if it possesses land outside which it can use for the purpose. Birmingham people—both sides of the city council, I must tell the Minister—feel very angry that, following the taking of so many other services from Birmingham, this unique example of smallholding enterprise covering many hundreds of acres, which, for the first time after 50 years of ploughing money in, is about to show a profit or is just beginning to show a profit because of careful and economical management, is now to be taken from the city and we are to have no opportunity to continue to own it.

The Minister told me in his letter—I had a much more encouraging response in Committee—that the problem could be dealt with only by some sort of agency arrangements under Clause 101. Virtually at midnight—he had been out all day and I could not reach him—I consulted the town clerk of Birmingham, and he expressed great dismay at the Minister's letter. Although he recognises the steps which the Minister has taken to try to meet the case, both he and I feel that those steps are inadequate. Birmingham will be put into the position of supplicant at the table of Staffordshire County Council.

It is an outrageous proposition that the Birmingham smallholdings, with the history I have outlined and which have achieved so much, should be taken from the City of Birmingham and handed over to the Staffordshire County Council and that Birmingham may then, by Staffordshire's leave, be allowed to continue to manage the smallholdings which it will no longer own.

I appeal to the Secretary of State and the Minister to look at the matter again. There would be no great repercussions throughout the country. This is a unique situation, and we are asking for a unique remedy.

2.15 a.m.

I hope that the Secretary of State will agree to look at the matter again because it is one upon which the whole city council is united. Rightly or wrongly the city feels a degree of resentment about the treatment it has received, particularly on boundaries and the question of the small-holdings which should be given careful consideration. As far as I know, no one in Staffordshire has ever sought to take the smallholdings away from the city. I hope this point can be re-examined because the present position is totally unsatisfactory for Birmingham. It is only a constituency case but it proves the Secretary of State's point. If in such a situation Staffordshire were not as cooperative as many of us would hope then his reserve powers would be needed, and to that extent we are grateful to the Secretary of State for meeting the point.

Dame Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for making the very helpful suggestions tonight for helping a number of cities, including Plymouth. There are about 15 cities which are quite capable of running their own affairs for a long time. What worries me is that many of us have set up good organisations as a result of the Seebohm Report's recommendations. A city like Plymouth has very different problems from those of other cities. We are worried that we shall not be able to carry on the excellent work. That is one reason why I deprecate subsections 8(e) and (f). It would be welcome if these provisions were to be reconsidered in the House of Lords.

Plymouth is a city and a port and it is expanding its business in the tourist industry. We are about to have a roll-on roll-off ferry between Plymouth and Roscoff in Brittany, and we shall expect even more people to come to the area, and we therefore need the facilities. It would be helpful if some of the agencies were dedicated to Plymouth.

I raised the question of the fire services in a speech recently. These and the port services are particularly important. If, therefore, agreement cannot be reached between the county and the district, perhaps the point could be borne in mind. There are vast differences between certain areas. That particularly applies to Plymouth which is the major industrial area, except for Bristol, in the South-West. It has considerable problems which are not compatible with those usually dealt with by the county.

Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)

My excuse for speaking in the debate is that I want to strike a slightly discordant note. I am a reluctant supporter of the Bill. I believe that in an ideal world we should have the unitary principle, but I recognise that there were compelling reasons related to the public's acceptability which led my right hon. Friend to go for what is in the Bill. I am reluctant to see any greater diversion from the unitary principle than is absolutely neces- sary, and I do not share the view that we want to find new ways of transferring powers to the districts.

I have much sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers). I suspect that there was a good case for Plymouth being a separate authority, the decision has gone the other way and to go to great trouble to try to modify that decision will not help. The County Councils Association made some serious points in its letter dated 14th July, in which it objected to these proposals. The first objection, perhaps an essential one, is that what is proposed in the Amendments is that agency arrangements should be forced on one or other of the authorities. There is a good case for a voluntary agreement about agency arrangements if both authorities think there is a better way of doing things by transferring a power. That makes good sense, but it is a bad principle that one authority should be forced to hand over the operation of particular services to another.

I also share to some extent the Association's view that the right of appeal to the Secretary of State runs against the idea, which my right hon. Friend has often talked about when describing the Bill's purposes, of getting away from Whitehall and out into the local areas. The purpose of the Amendments is to give one more power to my right hon. Friend, and we should be very reluctant about giving him more powers, however excellent may be his use of them.

Thirdly, there is a kind of desire to hark back to the old system. The Bill was meant to bring about a great reform of local government, but from time to time we wonder whether it has not already become a little watered down, and whether the Amendments, and the Amendments to come about libraries, highways and so on, are not all further attempts to water down this reform. If we approach this big piece of legislation with the desire to undo the principles which are meant to underlie it, we are in danger of wasting our time. I suspect that we have made too many concessions already, and I am not very keen to see this new one. I am not persuaded that it will produce a more efficient set-up. I do not like the idea of compulsion, which it seems to me will, as the Association claims, make for friction in an area where above all we do not want more friction. Therefore, I am rather reluctant on this subject.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will enlighten us now or at a later stage on how authorities revoke agency arrangements which might be made before 1974. I am not clear what the arrangements for revoking or terminating agency arrangements are generally under the Bill, and I should be interested to know what might be done. Obviously, if an agency arrangement is rammed down the throat of the local authority over the course of the next year it would be, to say the least, very interesting to know, how the process could be unscrambled.

Mr. Carol Mather (Esher)

I welcome the proposals of my right hon. Friend the Minister for the agency agreements, and the persuasive way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Sir T. Brinton) moved the Amendment.

District councils in my constituency have felt a great deal of concern about the functions they would lose. They were also worried because the words in the White Paper were somewhat at variance with the words in the Bill. This will go some way to satisfy their anxieties.

There has also been great anxiety over the question of functions and the fact that if they are lost the local councillors and officers will not have a worthwhile and responsible job. Therefore, I welcome the proposals, which will go some way to allay that anxiety and improve the Bill.

Mr. Charles Morrison

I support what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison). The further we get away from the unitary principle and the nearer we get to the present division of functions in local government the more pointless the reform of local government is. I am fearful that we are continually making concessions which hark back to the present system. We seem to be basing our judgment on what some hon. Members might consider to be a fair division of functions between different types of local authority rather than taking decisions based on what is right in the light of the democratic needs and of the efficiency of local government.

I regret that my right hon. Friend has said that he will make a further concession in this case. Under the Amendment—although the new Clause to be introduced in another place may not be quite the same—in Wiltshire every district will be able to claim, although the claim may not be approved by the Secretary of State, from the county some functions which at present they carry out and which are not delegated to them in future. This confirms that we are harking back to the existing system and if we continue to do that I wonder what the point of the Bill is.

Mr. Peter Walker

I am surprised by the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Charles Morrison). The proposals I have suggested in no way take away the responsibilities of either counties or districts for particular functions. We are purely concerned here with agency arrangements which both counties and districts have agreed are desirable for the effective continuation of local government. We are not considering taking away any responsibility for functions. We are talking either about disputes which might take place on the terms of an agency arrangement or about the desirability of such an agency arrangement taking place.

I give as an example of the kind of case where it would be desirable for such an arrangement to continue the excellent teams which certain local authorities have built up for the reclamation of derelict land. To see these teams, perhaps due to broad decisions of a county council, dissipated and broken up when they could be continued very well on an agency basis would be a great mistake.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) referred to this as forcing local authorities to do things. After the new local authorities have their powers from 1st April, 1974, the new Clause to be introduced in the House of Lords will not apply at all. My hon. Friend's judgment, in effect, is that to have no method of arbitration would create less friction than having some method. It is a matter of viewpoint and neither of us can prove he is right.

On balance, I believe that agreement will be more easily reached if there is knowledge that there is an arbitrator working on the principles to be outlined in a circular based on consultation with the local authority associations. That is not forcing the local authorities to do anything. The Secretary of State will not have the power to intervene and say, "You will or will not make an agency arrangement". He will have power only to say that if districts feel they have a capacity which would enable them to carry out on an agency basis a particular function and terms cannot be reached with the county, he can arbitrate. I believe on balance that that will decrease rather than increase friction, and that is my motive.

Mr. Raison

My right hon. Friend has raised a doubt in my mind. He suggests that agency arrangements would lapse in 1974, which I take it is not the case. Can he really expect an authority to exercise responsibility against the will of the authority to which responsibility attaches? That is a very unfair situation.

2.30 a.m.

Mr. Walker

I disagree with my hon. Friend. The basis of sending the circular would be to outline the terms on which agency arrangements would be advantageous to local government, and such arrangements would be supported by the Secretary of State only if certain of the functions could be carried out more efficiently as a result. This will diminish the overall friction.

The point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) does not come within the Clause. It will not apply to arrangements between parish councils and districts. In the past, parish councils have not had the power as of right to take such agencies, though districts have been able to give it to them. It is therefore a different situation.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that he will look at the question, because it raises one or two grave problems for parish councils for the future?

Mr. Walker

I will certainly look at it but, in all fairness, I must make it quite clear that I would not envisage a system whereby a parish council could as of right suggest agency powers being given to it.

The exclusions under the Clause will remain, and my new Clause will not attempt to alter them as they now exist.

I should like to consider the matter of the Birmingham smallholdings, and I will contact the hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Denis Howell) knowing that this is a subject about which Birmingham is very concerned. It might be dealt with in a number of ways, such as orders relating to property disposal, but we will look at the various ways in which it can be examined.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Blaker). I know the interest of Blackpool and a number of seaside towns in this question.

As to the concept voiced by the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. R. C. Mitchell) and his suggestion about county domination, I am in the happy position that the county thinks that I have not given it enough powers while the district thinks I have given it too many, so I think I have it about right.

Sir T. Brinton

In view of the Minister's assurance, if my supporters, of whom there are 48, are content to abide by it, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Graham Page

I beg to move Amendment No. 601, in page 64, line 21, leave out from 'committee' to first 'or' in line 22 and insert 'a sub-committee'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

With this Amendment it will be convenient to take the following Government Amendments: Nos. 1049, 1044, 1050, 1051, 602, 604, 1052, 605–613, 1053, 614–618, and 1054.

Mr. Page

I am delighted to say that the Amendments from No.601 to 618 do not raise any issue of substance. They clarify the drafting of Clauses 101 to 106 by saying that "committee" means "committee", and that seems an obvious and reasonable thing to do. They introduce a simple form of words to cover both committees which are appointed by the council and those which are established under various statutes.

The whole point of it is that a subcommittee of the council may not be called a sub-committee of the committee that appoints it; it is a committee of the committee that appoints it. That encouraged me to consider what Gilbert might have said if he had thought of it first: When a sub committee's sitting in committee of committee, It's a council sub-committee you'll admit; So that each sub-sub-committee is a substitute committee, That a substantive committee has commit. I might have added: Oh what pretty little ditties One can sing of joint committees and so on, but I had better not do so at this stage of the night. When the draftsman has been tidying up a number of Clauses like this, the House ought to accept the tidying up. There is no substance in any of the issues.

Amendments Nos. 620 and 621 are concerned with Clause 112. Its aim is to bring to an end as many as practicable of the present statutory requirements on local authorities to appoint certain specified officers. However, we found that in carrying out that admirable aim Clause 112 failed to make a distinction between the existing requirements which we wanted to abolish and which obliged an authority to appoint a named officer to discharge a certain function of the authority, and those requirements which we ought to retain and which oblige an authority to appoint an officer who is given specified statutory powers and duties in his own right. This is the difference between a town clerk—and we want to abolish the statutory need to appoint a town clerk—and a registration officer for electors who is appointed to do a specific duty. The remedy is simple. It is to remove a few words from Clause 112(3).

All the Amendments from No. 1049 onwards are tidying-up Amendments dealing with the definition of "local authorities" where in some places that expression means existing authorities and in others future authorities. The definition of "relevant authority" and the reference to joint boards and joint committees need a little tidying up. The Amendments also bring certain membership disqualifications together instead of scattering them around the Bill.

Amendment No. 1049 deals with the appointment of committees and tidies up drafting.

Clause 101 already empowers authorities and committees to arrange for their functions to be discharged by officers and Amendment No. 1044 merely extends that power to sub-committees unless the council otherwise directs, or is so directed by the committee which established the sub-committee.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made:

No. 1049, in page 64, line 23, leave out from 'authority' to end of line 26.

No. 1044, in page 64, line 31, at end add: 'and whereby virtue of this section any functions of a local authority may be discharged by a sub-committee of the authority, then, unless the local authority or the committee otherwise direct, the sub-committee may arrange for the discharge of any of those functions by an officer of the authority'.

No. 1050, in page 64, line 32, leave out subsection (3) and insert: '(3) Where arrangements are in force under this section for the discharge of any functions of a local authority by another local authoriy, then, subject to the terms of the arrangement, that other authority may arrange for the discharge of those functions by a committee, sub-committee or officer of theirs and subsection (2) above shall apply in relation to those functions as it applies in relation to the functions of that other authority'.

No. 1051, in page 65, line 2, at end insert:

'(4A) Two or more local authorities may discharge any of their functions jointly and, where arrangements are in force for them to do so—

  1. (a) they may also arrange for the discharge of those functions by a joint committee of theirs or by an officer of one of them and subsection (2) above shall apply in relation to those functions as it applies in relation to the functions of the individual authorities; and
  2. (b) any enactment relating to those functions or the authorities by whom or the areas in respect of which they are to be discharged shall have effect subject to all necessary modifications in its application in relation to those functions and the authorities by whom and the areas in respect of which (whether in pursuance of the arrangements or otherwise) they are to be discharged'.

No. 602, in page 65, line 4, leave out 'of'.

No. 603, in page 65, line 36, leave out paragraph (c) and insert: (c) sections 2(2) and 3(4) of the Police Act 1964 (police committees).

No. 604, in page 65, line 42, after 'committees)', insert: (g) section 7 of the Superannuation Act 1972 (superannuation of persons employed in local government service, etc.).

No. 1052 in page 66, leave out lines 15 to 22 and insert: '(11) In this Part of this Act "local authority" includes the Common Council, the Sub-Treasurer of the Inner Temple, the Under-Treasurer of the Middle Temple, a joint board on which a local authority within the meaning of this Act or any of the foregoing authorities are represented and, without prejudice to the foregoing, any port health authority'.—[Mr. Graham Page.]

Mr. Carol Johnson

I beg to move Amendment No. 537, in page 66, line 19. at end insert: (12) Where an action has been brought against an officer of a local authority in respect of an act done by him in the discharge or purported discharge of functions delegated to him under this section and the circumstances are such that he is not legally entitled to require the delegating authority to indemnify him, that authority may nevertheless indemnify him against the whole or any part of any damages and costs which he may have been ordered to pay or may have incurred, if they are satisfied that he honestly believed that the act complained of was done in the discharge of those functions and that his duty required or entitled him to do it. This is a matter of some importance to local government officers but at this late hour I will try to be brief. Clause 101 confers upon a local authority power to delegate any of its functions to officers of the authority. A provision of this character is a necessary and desirable feature. However, it seems that in its present form the Clause needs something else added to it if the officers to whom powers are delegated are to carry out their delegated duties without fear or favour and without risk of interference beyond the policy-making stage from members of the authority.

It is essential, therefore, to include some statutory protection for their actions. This explains, and I hope justifies, the Amendment. The Amendment is one which stands on its merits, but if this does not convince the Minister I also plead a precedent for such a provision and a precedent to which I believe he will pay serious attention. He is no doubt familiar with the Town and Country Planning Act, 1968, Section 64 of which deals with the delegation of planning functions to officers of local authorities. Subsection (6) of that Section gives an indemnity to such officers in the same terms as those used in the Amendment. I do not think that the Minister would argue that there is any essential difference between the position of officers who exercise delegated powers under Clause 101 of the Bill and that of officers acting under the Town and Country Planning Act, 1968. I hope therefore, that for those reasons the Minister will find it possible to accept the Amendment.

Mr. Graham Page

I can give the hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. Carol Johnson) the assurance that this Amendment is unnecessary. We know of no occasion on which there have been any proceedings against an officer on these grounds where mens rea—the guilty mind—has not been a necessary proof on behalf of the prosecution. It is not an absolute offence and it is not necessary to provide for the officer in the way envisaged in the Amendment. The hon. Member gives as a precedent a Section in the 1968 Town and Country Planning Act. That was a very special occasion when we were appointing inspectors to undertake decisions in planning matters without resort to the Secretary of State. I think I am on the right Section.

2.45 a.m.

Mr. Johnson

Section 64 of the 1968 Act refers expressly to the fact that A local planning authority may delegate to any officer of the authority the function of determining…the following applications…".

Mr. Page

I had in mind a special occasion when we were giving a completely new power to local authorities to delegate planning decisions to their officers where the officer had to take the decision entirely on his own responsibility. In that case the provision was included out of an abundance of caution. Looking at it now from a legal point of view, I think it was unnecessary, and I think it is unnecessary to include the provision in the Amendment. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the legal advice I have had is to the effect that the Amendment is unnecessary and that the officers are fully protected without it.

Mr. Johnson

In view of that assurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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