HC Deb 20 January 1975 vol 884 cc1163-87

Postponed proceeding on Question, That the Bill be now read a Second time, resumed.

Question again proposed.

10.13 p.m.

Mr. John Robertson (Paisley)

In view of the late hour, although I had not said half of what I wanted to say earlier when the proceedings were postponed, I will conclude now with an appeal to my right hon. Friend to consider some of the pleas which have been made.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Glasgow, Cathcart)

We have just had a very interesting debate on a vital issue—

Mr. Speaker

Will hon. Members withdraw quickly and quietly.

Mr. Taylor

I was saying that we have just had a most interesting debate on a vital issue to the economy. The issues in the debate were not entirely clear. Some thought that the question was whether the Government had conducted affairs properly. Some thought it was an issue of the future of the railways. Some thought it was a question whether we wanted to go into Europe by a boat or by a tunnel or by other means.

On this Bill the issues are absolutely clear. It is a Bill on which hon. Members will have to make a clear decision. There are some important issues of principle which cannot be ignored by any democrat.

In introducing the Bill the Secretary of State said that it was largely non-controversial in paving the way for local government reform in Scotland, which is to take place later this year. The Bill was looked forward to by many as a chance to show that local government could become more efficient and more responsive to the community's needs.

Fears have been expressed, mainly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, East (Miss Harvie Anderson) and by the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) to the effect that many are looking to local government reform with considerable apprehension. The changes which are proposed, however, are pretty minor. There are some changes in valuation procedure and in grants. What changes there are are broadly welcomed, but there has been near-unanimous agreement in the debate this afternoon that there is grave disappointment that the Secretary of State did not take a more fundamental step to change the rating system, which is becoming more intolerable and more unjust every year, and certainly in this year of local government reform will undoubtedly impose a heavy burden on the whole of Scottish ratepayers.

The hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Doig) who has long advocated rating reform, in an excellent speech, pointed out some of the problems facing us, and he will be bitterly disappointed, as I am, that no fundamental changes in rating have been proposed. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Sproat) said he thought that a golden opportunity had been missed, and so do I. My right hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, East pointed out the hardship which was becoming an increasing problem under the rating system. The hon. Member for Dundee, West requested a radical change in the rating proposals. If he is looking for a radical change there is no better place that he could look for it than in the Conservative manifesto for the last election. There we set out the fundamental change which we proposed.

It is unfortunate that in this significant Bill on local government reform the Government have done nothing to meet the fundamental problems of the rating system. We were at least expecting that they might have agreed to transfer the burden of teachers' salaries from the rates to the Exchequer, bearing in mind the Labour Party's evidence to the Layfield Commission and the suggestion that this should take place very shortly. This is disappointing, and it is a grave mistake that the Government have not taken the opportunity to make some change in the rating system at this time of local government reform.

The second main issue has concerned the question of the new powers which the Government are taking to give help to local authorities to deal with oil-related infrastructure spending. My hon. Friend the Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) said that Inverness and other areas which are not directly in the oil development line were facing substantial rises in rates because of the amount which they have had to spend on this infrastructure. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South was right in pointing out some of the deficiencies in the clauses dealing with this matter. Oil is not even mentioned. There is no specific obligation on the Government to do anything about this—only a permissive power. What must have shocked many hon. Members is the fact that only a figure estimated at £5 million in 1980 is mentioned as the likely total of this new grant provided by the Government. We shall want to know a great deal more about this in Committee.

The third major topic for discussion was the phasing out of specific grants for public transport, rates and PTEs, mainly the Greater Glasgow PTEs. The hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) was right to point out the crucial importance of rural transport, particularly when the price of electricity is increasing so dramatically.

In this connection we have several fears about the new proposals. First, there is a danger that as the money, instead of being given in the form of a specific grant, will be an overall grant which will be distributed to the local authorities, the special needs of particular areas with special problems will not be taken fully into account. Our second worry is that there is no statutory obligation for the Government to take this into account in assessing the total of the rate support grant.

We are also concerned that there may be a special problem in Glasgow. At present negotiations are in hand be- tween the Greater Glasgow PTE and British Rail which will result in the Greater Glasgow area having to carry a substantial amount to help British Rail, and we fear that this will not be taken fully into account in the rate support grant now that it is proposed to abolish this form of direct specific grant.

The fourth subject of discussion has been the proposal to set up a local government ombudsman. The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Dr. Bray) suggested that we might be overloading the commissioner with more work than he could reasonably handle. Other hon. Members have suggested that we are not giving him enough to do in the sense that some matters are specifically excluded from his purview.

My main concern in this connection arises out of Clause 24(7): The Commissioner shall not conduct an investigation in respect of any action which in his opinion affects all or most of the inhabitants of the area of the authority concerned. Precisely what does that mean? Does it mean, for example, that a complaint about overspending by a local authority—there are plenty of candidates for that in Scotland—a complaint about the standards of the cleansing service in one area in comparison with other authorities, or a complaint about a local authority's house transfer rules would not be a competent subject matter for the local government ombusman to look into?

Do the Government intend that the ombudsman should be allowed to look into the grievances of individuals and not into the effectiveness or reliability of local authority services in general? In my view, the latter could be one of his most useful functions. It has stood out a mile from our recent debates in the Scottish Grand Committee that the services offered in local authority maintenance of council housing, for example, would be a useful subject for the local government ombudsman to examine. Is it the intention that only individual grievances or group grievances will be put to him, not grievances about the efficiency of local government services generally?

The main topic, however, which has raised a great deal of heat has been Clause 19, just one clause in the Bill but a clause of fundamental importance and crucial for democracy. My hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) and for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) effectively demolished the rather timid case advanced by the Secretary of State. The truth is that Clause 19 is a shameful and unprincipled use of retrospective powers to relieve certain councillors of their obligations to their ratepayers.

It must have come as a shock to the Secretary of State that he had to rely for support on the speeches of the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Lambie)—the self-acknowledged godfather. I think, of the "Lambie" régime in Saltcoats—and of the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan), and, strange to say, the views of the Scottish National Party. I am sure that this latter support will make the Secretary of State even more unhappy about it than he would otherwise have been. I must say, having heard the speech of the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid), that I was shocked that a party which claims to be democratic should give its full support to a measure which will undoubtedly undermine support for the rule of law in Scotland and in Great Britain.

The Secretary of State did not attempt to justify the actions of the councillors of Clydebank and other burghs and cities, although I thought that the grunts and raised eyebrows of the Minister of State showed that he was desperately looking for some sort of justification. But we had certain cases put to us, principally by the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire. The hon. Gentleman and his Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire said that the Housing (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1972 was a piece of vicious anti-working-class legislation, thus giving the show away completely and revealing that Clause 19 is basically designed to bail out councillors who had defied the 1972 Act.

I remind the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire that not all working-class people live in council houses.

Mr. Lambie

Eighty per cent. do.

Mr. Taylor

Rubbish. The hon. Gentleman ought to know the figures. I am not talking about this hypothetically. I am certain that I represent more coun- cil tenants than he does, and I am well aware of their problems. I am well aware also that my constituents are as worried about support for the rule of law as they are about any other subject, and they certainly would not look upon the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire as a man whom they would wish to represent or champion them in any cause whatever. I would suggest to the hon. Member that the 1972 Act was in no way anti-working-class legislation. It was designed to remove a totally unfair situation in which everyone who lived in owner-occupied or private rented accommodation subsidised everyone who lived in a council house. We made it clear in our legislation that we were in favour of subsidies for those in need, but it is a particularly unfair situation where in some cases the poor are subsidising the more wealthy. That was utterly intolerable and something which had to be dealt with.

The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire said that the second argument concerned the loss of freedom to local authorities. The House passes Bills and regulations from time to time giving local authorities more power or taking powers away from them. However, if the hon. Member is really concerned with taking powers away from local councils or interfering with their freedom of action I hope that he will look at Schedule 2, where the Secretary of State is taking unprecedented powers to slash grants to local authorities where he considers their rate poundages to be unreasonably high. I hope we shall hear from the hon. Member on this point in Committee.

Has the hon. Member considered. I wonder, another question concerning the amount of money provided by the 1972 Act? He will be aware that the rent increase we proposed in our Act should be charged until an economic rent had been reached—and in many areas we are not far from that now—was an average of £26 per year. The hon. Member obviously thinks that this was totally unreasonable and unfair to the working class. I know that he has been away recently, so I wonder whether he is at present aware that we are currently considering in Standing Committee a Government Bill and there have been very few constructive propositions from the Government. The Bill will mean that local authorities can increase rents by up to £39 a year and, in addition, the Secretary of State is taking powers to increase this limit of £39. It cannot therefore be the amount which is concerning the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire. We get very few contributions from the Government because of the hatchet tactics of the Whips, which means that when we hear speeches from the Government back benches they rarely add to the light or sweetness of the occasion.

I wonder whether the hon. Member is concerned about hardship. I do not think he is because there has been almost a conspiracy of silence from the Government benches on the question of rent rebates. The result of our 1972 Act is that more than three out of every 10 council house tenants in Scotland are getting a rebate, and the average payment is more than £1 a week.

The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire also said that we should forget about the money because here we were dealing with men of principle who needed to be protected. He said it was possible that there would be a roll of honour for the councillors on Clydebank and others who had acted in this way in defying the law. Of course, we cannot consider these men as being in any way men of principle, because they abandoned the fight at the edge of the precipice and did not carry on to the bitter end, and I regard them as pathetic cardboard revolutionaries. They withdrew at the brink, and in the case of Clydebank left the ratepayers to pay the fines.

What has been the result? I put that question now to the Minister of State in the hope of obtaining more information. I was most interested at the way in which the Secretary of State in his rather tepid defence of the clause seemed to be almost anxious to persuade us that the ratepayers had lost a great deal of money. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the figure of £1.7 million—

Mr. William Ross

I did not.

Mr. Taylor

The right hon. Gentleman referred to that figure, and if he checks Hansard he will see that I am correct. He said that if we added on the amounts in respect of those local authorities where auditors' reports have not been sent in the total was about £4 million. He seemed almost to be looking round at the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire and saying "Look how clever I have been. The ratepayers are having to pay £4 million more and the tenants are getting off with £4 million." But I wonder whether that is the fact. Can the Minister of State tell us what has been the result of this little revolution by the councillors of Clydebank and elsewhere?

Looking at the facts and figures, I think that the Secretary of State has been engaged today in a desperate attempt to create a smokescreen to hide from the tenants of Clydebank and other areas the true result of the action of their councillors, which was allegedly taken in the interests of the tenants.

The Under-Secretary has kindly provided me with figures of rent increases since November 1973. The average rent increased by 62p in Aberdeen. In Dundee it did not increase. In Edinburgh it went up by 38p. In Glasgow, one of the cities which were rent rebels, it went up by £39.69—well above the average which was laid down in the Housing Finance Act. The result is that the average rent for a council house in Glasgow, at £171.28 a year, is the highest of any city in Scotland.

I turn from the major cities to the large burghs. In Airdrie there has been no increase since November 1973. The rent has increased by 52p in Arbroath, by 79p in Ayr, and by £43.44 in Clydebank, which is famous for its cardboard revolutionaries. Its increase was well above the maximum laid down in the Act. That happened because the council was late in applying the law. I wonder why the Secretary of State did not say a little about that.

Shortly after the Government came to power they imposed a rent freeze. That freeze, imposed in about last March, will not end until 15th May. Its result was that the rents of the rebel authorities such as Clydebank and Glasgow were frozen not at the levels they would have reached if they had obeyed the law but at the higher levels. My interpretation of the figures is that because of the defiance of the law by the rebel councillors in Clydebank and Glasgow, and no doubt in Denny and the other places, the tenants in them have paid and are paying more rent than they would have paid if they had conformed to the Conservative Act.

Mr. Robertson

Statistical nonsense.

Mr. Taylor

I hope that the Minister of State will tell us the facts. I can see from the smiles and raised eyebrows in one part of the House that I seem to have struck home with an important truth.

I hope that the Minister of State will tell the hon. Members for Central Ayrshire and West Stirlingshire and his other misguided colleagues that the councillors of Clydebank have brought disrepute on local government in Scotland. They have undermined the law and respect for the law. As a result of their allegedly trying to defend the interests of council tenants against the alleged vicious attack of the Conservative Party, those tenants are paying more in rent than they would have paid if the councillors had followed the law.

Mr. Canavan

Do not the hon. Gentleman and his party accept any responsibility for the farcical situation that arose over the Housing Finance Act? Does he not realise that it was he and his party when in Government who flouted the traditions of local government democracy in Scotland by introducing that vicious Act, against the wishes of the majority of the elected representatives of the Scottish people? He can check with the Town Clerk of Denny the statistics, which show that the people of Denny were no worse off as a result of the delay in implementing the Act.

Mr. Taylor

I have the figures for Denny, and shall be only too glad to give them to the hon. Gentleman. The Minister supplied them to me a few days before the debate. I hope that the Minister will tell the council tenants of Clydebank and Glasgow the facts and the truth. They will be interested to learn how they have been landed in trouble as a result of the actions of their councillors who claimed to be working for them. This is the direct result of the combined acts of irresponsible, law-breaking councillors and an inadequate Secretary of State, who compounded the felony by ensuring that we have this ridiculous situation.

The hon. Member for West Stirling-shire asked whether the blame was not to be placed on the Conservative Party for introducing the Housing Finance Act. It is obvious from his speech that he is not interested in the rule of law, and the working of Parliament and local authorities. His idea was that we should establish communes in local areas instead of normal local government councils and that the commune should have the right to say which advice from the Government it was prepared to accept. The hon. Gentleman must appreciate that the system in Britain is that Governments make laws and local authorities carry them out.

If the hon. Member is suggesting that we should have a system whereby local councils look upon the Government simply as a means of getting money and giving advice, he is suggesting a new kind of democracy. It is clear from his intemperate and extreme remarks that he, with his hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire and the new revolutionaries from the Scottish National Party, is not thinking of democracy in the way I and most Labour Members think of it.

Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)

Does the hon. Gentleman not realise that this Bill is not a case of true retrospective legislation? The provision in Clause 19 is not one which calls for the withdrawal of a decision which has been taken. It relates purely to reviewing certain facts and circumstances at a given date. There is no decision to be recalled by Parliament. The exercise of these powers will be a matter for the executive—that is, the Secretary of State. Does he not realise that he is wilfully exaggerating the position for party political purposes and is wronging the Scottish National Party?

Mr. Taylor

I have a high regard for the hon. Member because I know that he is an able politician. He is trying to cover up an appalling blunder and faux pas. He cannot escape the fact that if he and his party vote for this Bill they are supporting councillors who wilfully and openly broke the law.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

Will the hon. Gentleman answer my question?

Mr. Taylor

It is clear that this policy is being introduced retrospectively for the sole purpose of bailing out councils to whom a pre-election pledge was given. It is utterly shameful.

Will the Minister of State tell the council tenants of Clydebank and Glasgow how much they have been saved as a result of these working-class heroes, these paper revolutionaries? I have a feeling that, rather than saving the council tenants any money, they will end up making them pay more, as well as bringing disrepute on the good name of their local authorities.

The issue is not about money. It is not a question of what goes on the rates. It concerns a grave and important principle, affecting the whole basis of democracy. We are undoubtedly entering a period—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire will be aware that, while I have fought strenuously for many causes, it would be a novelty if I were, wilfully and openly, to incite local authorities to break the law. Even if I had been as irresponsible as the hon. Members for West Stirlingshire and Central Ayrshire, that would not be an answer to those concerned for democracy. [Interruption.] If you had heard the speech of the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would understand why he is agitated. When his constituents read what he said they will throw him out at the next opportunity.

We are undoubtedly entering a period of great strain for the nation. We know that severe unemployment seems inevitable and that falling living standards have been forecast by the Chancellor. We know that prices will undoubtedly be rocketing. Massive increases in local rates and higher taxes seem inevitable or round the corner. In that situation one thing which is inevitable and which stands out a mile is that many people will be faced with a situation which they find unacceptable, unjust, unreasonable and at times intolerable. There will be enormous temptation to display their anger and concern by hitting out in various ways and by ignoring the normal rules and practices which are the basis of democracy.

If we are to emerge from these troubled times with our democracy and freedom unscathed it is crucial that all our leaders in industry, the unions and commerce should demonstrate their total commitment to the law and not to disorder. They must demonstrate their commitment to reason and not to militancy.

The greatest obligation of all surely rests on our political leaders who make the laws and do their duty on the assumption that laws will be obeyed and respected. The Labour Party in Parliament and in the country has a shameful record on that issue in recent times. It is a record which now that it is in Government it will have reason to regret. It is already clear that the Secretary of State for Education and Science has had the message clearly and that the Secretary of State for the Home Department has been equally brave in his recent action. But they have been voices crying in the wilderness of Leftist irresponsibility, and they have been too late.

We remember the irresponsible support given by some Labour Members to the imprisoned dockers, to the strikes against the prices and incomes policy, to the Housing Finance Act and, more recently, to the so-called Shrewsbury martyrs. We remember the deafening silence—I accept that the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire has not been silent—from many of those from whom we expected more.

I feel that in some ways the Bill is the last straw. At a time when the nation is facing grave economic perils the time of Parliament is being taken up to pass retrospective legislation which appears to be solely designed to free a number of Scottish councillors from their obligations and responsibilities for breaking the law on housing finance. It is no less than a squalid post-election pay-off which should be rejected with contempt by the House.

I am appalled that the Secretary of State for Scotland should have succumbed to the pressure from the militant Left. He apparently lacks the backbone to stand firm against this intolerable use of retrospective powers. For that reason alone I believe that Parliament must reject of the Bill. It is yet another indication of the sad and shameful drift of the Labour Party from social democracy to the irresponsible doctrine of the extreme Left.

10.43 p.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Mr. Bruce Millan)

I shall come a little later to Clause 19. I shall deal first with a number of other matters that are contained in the Bill. First, I turn to the rating system generally. It has been much criticised today, as it tends to be at any time when we debate matters relating to it. Of course, the system has considerable disadvantages. That is why the Government have established the Layfield Committee to review the whole system of local government finance and to produce proposals as rapidly as possible.

I am not impressed by any party which makes the radical sounding noises in Opposition that we have had from the Conservatives in recent months. The Conservative Party has had ample opportunity to reform the rating system, and it has signally failed to do anything about it. I am particularly unimpressed by some of the proposals which we have had from the Opposition recently. There has been, for example, the abolishing of domestic rating altogether. But they completely failed to mention the money that would be lost by its abolition. Domestic rating would have to be made up in some way. Presumably that would be done by way of national taxation—income tax. Therefore, I remain absolutely unimpressed by anything that the Opposition have said today or at any other time about the rating system. The matter will be reviewed by the Government when we have the outcome of the Layfield Committee's deliberations.

Rates, like every other item of personal expenditure, are likely to be affected by inflation. For that reason alone there is likely to be a substantial increase in the rating burden for 1975–76. A number of hon. Members have drawn attention to what they consider to be extravagance by local authorities, particularly in staff salaries. Local government reorganisation is the product of the Opposition, and the Secretary of State is not involved in fixing local government salaries; that is a matter for the normal national joint council and negotiating machinery.

We have taken every opportunity—and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did this at the weekend—to remind local authorities that local government reorganisation must not be allowed to be an excuse for extravagance either in salaries or in any other aspect of local government expenditure. If hon. Members look at the rate support grant order for 1975–76, which has been published today and is now available, they will see that in calculating the relevant expenditure for rate support grant for 1975–76, far from encouraging extravagance, we urge the utmost economy in local authority expenditure, which should be kept to existing levels plus inescapable commitments. New commitments in staff or in any other respect should not be taken on by local authorities in the coming year.

If, despite these injunctions, local authorities behave extravagantly—and I do not accept that that is likely to happen on a substantial scale—the burden will fall on local ratepayers. The burden of additional expenditure resulting from ignoring the Government's injunctions will be met not by the Government but by local ratepayers, and I hope that they will put every pressure on local authorities to ensure that local expenditure is kept within reasonable bounds.

The Government have given the most generous rate support grant ever for 1975–76, with 75 per cent. of the reckon-able expenditure being met by Government grant, which is an increase of 8½per cent. on the figure for the previous year which we inherited from the Opposition. I take it amiss when the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) makes wild accusations about the Government being unmindful of the burdens on the ratepayers when he must know that we have made a settlement with local authorities. Domestic rating relief has been increased for 1975–76 from 17p in the pound to an annual equivalent of 24p in the pound, which is another considerable protection for the domestic ratepayer.

I do not pretend that there is not concern, and even apprehension, among domestic ratepayers. What I am saying is that the Government have taken action on these matters.

The transitional arrangements for particularly heavy burdens that may arise out of local government reorganisation are not covered by the Bill, as some hon. Members have thought. Provision will be made by an order under the 1973 Act as soon as we can assess the position. Transitional arrangements between regions are provided for in the rate support grant order.

Local government reform produces uncertainties, but there is no reason to defer any of the provisions in the Bill, and the same applies to what may happen when the Scottish assembly is established. That is completely neutral in relation to the Bill and the need to do certain things quickly in 1975–76.

I will not spend a great deal of time dealing with detailed arguments on the valuation provisions, which have been generally accepted. We can debate in Committee the appointment of valuation panels, and so on, and I shall always be willing to listen to what my hon. Friends and hon. Gentlemen opposite may say in Committee.

The transport grant provisions arise directly from the 1973 Act and are part of the movement away from specific grants towards support through the general rate support grant. It is part of a policy which, among other things, is designed to get the new regional authorities to look at the transport needs in their areas generally and to produce plans, which they are in a much better position to make than are the Government. The provisions are a counterpart of the increased devolution of responsibilities in several areas away from central government to local authorities. Hon. Gentlemen who continually urge us to do that must accept some of the consequences. They must not expect the Government to retain all their present powers.

I am glad that the oil provisions have been welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. The reason why oil is not specifically mentioned in the Bill is that we want to maintain an element of flexibility. The provision may be used for other purposes in future, although I cannot anticipate what they may be. Hon. Gentlemen have complained, on the one hand, about oil not being mentioned in the Bill and, on the other hand, about certain details of the circular which has been sent to local authorities. If everything is put in the Bill a rigid system results which cannot be altered according to changing circumstances. By doing it in this way we shall be able to listen to representations from hon. Members and local authorities about the way in which we intend to operate the scheme, and if we are not bound by a precise formula written into the Bill we can make changes.

The fact that it is not written in in specific terms does not detract from the obligation taken on by the Government—an obligation which the previous Government were asked by local authorities to take on but did not. I am glad that the Labour Government are making special financial help available to areas which have had to bear a particularly heavy burden of oil development.

The hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) and several other hon. Members asked what the amount of help was likely to be. A figure is given in the Financial Memorandum. That figure is a good deal higher than the hon. Member for Cathcart suggested, because local authorities are involved largely in capital expenditure. Therefore, the figure for help in revenue terms which is related to loan charges represents a substantial amount of capital expenditure. I shall not go into details of the percentage grant that might be available, but hon. Gentlemen will see from the rate support grant order that the 2p threshold mentioned in the circular has been dropped. The local authorities will welcome that.

A number of my hon. Friends mentioned the question of the local government commissioner. I am glad that these provisions, too, have been generally welcomed. To a considerable extent, they follow in principle the provisions we already have for the Parliamentary Commissioner, the Commissioner for the National Health Service, and, basically, the English local government commissioner.

There is a difficulty of definition, which my hon. Friend the Member for Mother-well and Wishaw (Dr. Bray) mentioned, for example, but policy is not a matter, basically, for the commissioner. He is to be concerned with maladministration, with individual complaints. Policy of a local authority is a matter to be decided by the local authority itself. I believe that there will be a considerable volume of work for the commissioner and that his appointment is a very important additional democratic element of complaints machinery, available to the individual elector and resident who feels that he has been badly treated because of local authority maladministration. The details are matters we can consider in Committee and on Report.

The provisions of Clause 19 have aroused the only controversy in the debate. My first comment is the simple one that these provisions are almost exactly the same in wording and intention as those which the Conservative Government included in the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. The Opposition Front Bench have been careful not to criticise the wording of Clause 19 because it has been copied from the 1973 Act.

We are entitled to know, because of the fuss made about Clause 19, why the Conservative Government changed the 1947 Act in the first place. We are entitled to know why they felt it was not working properly and decided to make the change which we ourselves are now proposing. We have not had an explanation today from the Opposition about it; nor did we get one when the 1973 Act was going through Parliament.

Indeed, the matter then was so unremarkable and uncontroversial that it was not even debated—although, wishing to be fair, I must admit that it may have fallen victim to the guillotine tactics of the Conservative Government. We are, nevertheless, as entitled now to ask these questions of the Opposition as they are to ask them of us.

I can only guess why the Conservative Government decided in the 1973 Act to change the 1947 Act. I guess that it was for very much the same reasons why we do not want to deal with a number of interim reports, arising from the Housing (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Act, simply by using the provisions of the 1947 Act. The 1947 Act is inflexible and does not allow the Secretary of State to take account of all the circumstances of the case. Just as Conservatives thought it sensible in 1973 to make that change in the law to deal with future cases arising under local government reorganisation in the wider and more sensible way, so we feel that it is not desirable to wait until 16th May 1975 for the new local authorities to come into operation. We want the additional flexibility which the Conservatives then sought, and we want it now. That is why the provision is in the Bill in its present terms.

There is another extraordinary feature of the Opposition's activities on the clause in relation to the 1973 Act. The 1973 Local Government (Scotland) Act which made the change came, of course, after the Housing (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1972. During the passage of the 1972 Act it was well known that certain local authorities, because of the depth of feeling by certain councillors, would be tempted not to implement the Bill. It seems to me extraordinary that after the 1972 Act went into operation the Conservatives, having foreseen the disastrous consequences they claim of getting people "off the hook", did not desist in making changes in the 1973 Act—particularly the change that we seek in Clause 19. I can only speculate that that occurred because Conservatives felt difficulty in dealing with the 1947 provisions.

Let us take the school milk episode, which came before the Housing (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Act. We all know that a number of housing authorities refused to make the changes. That was done not because of a mistake or inadvertence, but through deliberate defiance of the Act. What did the so-called tough occupants of the Scottish Office do then? The then Conservative Scottish Secretary of State has since departed the House, but some Conservative Members, including the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns, were in the Scottish Office at that time. I find it difficult to recollect the office which the hon. Member for Cathcart then held, but he was around somewhere at the time. What happened over school milk? The Secretary of State at the time, in a matter involving deliberate defiance of the law in the matter of school milk, did nothing at all about the situation.

When we look at the 1947 Act and the procedure which it embodied, we may think it extraordinary that the then Secretary of State did not do anything about the school milk issue. I do not know on what basis he justified himself, or the Lord Advocate, in taking no action about school milk defaulters, if I may put it in that way, but the fact remains that he took no action. That must have been rather uncomfortable for him. So much, then, for the tough guys at the Scottish Office. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) mentioned sending local councillors to gaol, and so on. But those tough guys did nothing about the school milk episode in 1971.

Let us come to the Housing (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1972. I shall not go into the merits of that Act—[Interruption.]—unless I am tempted. The background of the Act was that it was repugnant to very large numbers of local authorities. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) said, it took away from them power to fix their own rents, to which they, and we on the Government side of the House, attach considerable importance. I am not saying that that, by itself, is justification for defying the law, but feelings were very strong and were strengthened by the determination of the then Government to provoke conflict with local authorities.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

I hope that the Minister will try to redeem himself a little by going a bit further and saying that he opposes local authorities which break the law.

Mr. Millan

I thought that I had made that clear. I am not in favour of local authorities defying the law. I am not particularly in favour of central Government behaving with the insensitivity shown by Conservative right hon. and hon. Gentlemen concerning the 1972 Act. There were great problems of timing, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley (Mr. Robertson), and there was confusion about what the Secretary of State would do and whether he would send in a commissioner. Many local authorities believed that if they did not carry out the provisions of the Act, not that the rents would not rise but that the Secretary of State for Scotland would send in a local commissioner. But the then Secretary of State funked that, as well. We did not have any commissioners in Scotland, although that action was open to him.

A number of doubts about the interim reports have never been satisfactorily cleared up. The first interim report was made in September 1973. There were five months from then until February 1974. We saw no action by Mr. Gordon Campbell or the then occupants of the Scottish Office. The five months passed and nothing happened. Perhaps they were embarrassed by another factor in the situation that in most of the cases of default the auditors did not put in a default procedure at all.

The whole situation is erratic and patchy, and cannot be logically defended on principle. It was only in some cases that the auditors put in reports; in other cases they did not.

What will happen if the Bill is passed in its present form, as we intend, is that the Secretary of State for Scotland will consider all the outstanding default reports on the basis of the new provision in the Bill and on the basis of taking account of all the circumstances, and that will include the auditor's report concerning the Clydebank fines as well as all other auditor's reports. I am not able to say at this stage what decision my right hon. Friend will take on these matters. However, he will be able to take decisions in the light of the new provision and with regard to all the circumstances of the case—a situation into which hon. Members of the Opposition were only too happy and anxious to put their Secretary of State.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart is trying to have it both ways concerning money. He is trying to pretend that a large sum was lost to the ratepayers but, on the other hand, that people paying rents actually paid more than they would have done—[Interruption.] If no money has been lost, I am not clear why we should be surcharging anyone, because the surcharge is meant as a recompense, not as a kind of penalty or punitive charge. It is meant not to send people to gaol but to recompense ratepayers for losses which they have sustained. If, according to the hon. Gentleman, there have been no losses, there is no need to surcharge councillors at all—but the hon. Gentleman is quite inaccurate in what he has said on that matter. The fact is that certain burdens fell on the ratepayers. That is history. Even if one attempted to surcharge all the councillors concerned, to the last penny included in the auditor's report, the ratepayers would get virtually nothing, because one of the unrealities of the present situation is that one cannot get money out of councillors who do not have the money to pay if the surcharge is placed upon them.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

Will the Minister answer the straight question which I asked him? He must have information available to him. Am I wrong in thinking that the tenants of Clydebank might be paying more in rent now than they would have paid under the Housing (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Act?

Mr. Millan

The hon. Gentleman is wrong about that, as he is about a number of other matters, which it would be too tedious to mention now.

A great fuss has been made about a perfectly sensible, realistic provision, of a sort which the Opposition were only too anxious to write into the Local Government Act 1973. There was an element of humbug displayed by the Opposition tonight, not least by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart, who, at the time of the Education (Scotland) Act 1969, which abolished fee paying in local authority schools, was only too anxious to encourage

his Tory friends on the Glasgow Corporation to find ways of circumventing the express will of Parliament and the rule of law which had been expressed by Parliament in the 1969 Act.

Apart from a little difficulty about Clause 19, I am glad to know that this Bill has received a general welcome. It is an excellent, sensible Bill—not the least excellent, sensible provision of which is contained in Clause 19. I have great satisfaction in commending the Bill to the House.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 285, Noes 239.

Division No. 62.] AYES [11.12 p.m.
Abse, Leo Dalyell, Tam Harper, Joseph
Allaun, Frank Davidson, Arthur Harrison, Walter (Wakefield)
Anderson, Donald Davies, Bryan (Enfield N) Hatton, Frank
Archer, Peter Davies, Denzil (Llanelli) Hayman, Mrs Helene
Armstrong, Ernest Davies, Ifor (Gower) Healey, Rt Hon Denis
Ashley, Jack Davis, Clinton (Hackney C) Heffer, Eric S.
Ashton, Joe Deakins, Eric Henderson, Douglas
Atkins, Ronald (Preston N) Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) Hooley, Frank
Atkinson, Norman de Freitas, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Horam, John
Bain, Mrs Margaret Delargy, Hugh Howell, Denis (B'ham, Sm H)
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Dell, Rt Hon Edmund Hoyle, Douglas (Nelson)
Barnett, Rt Hon Joel Dempsey, James Huckfield, Les
Bates, Alf Doig, Peter Hughes, Rt Hon C. (Anglesey)
Bean, R. E. Dormand, J. D. Hughes, Mark (Durham)
Benn, Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood Douglas-Mann, Bruce Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N) Duffy, A. E. P. Hughes, Roy (Newport)
Bidwell, Sydney Dunn, James A. Hunter, Adam
Bishop, E. S. Dunwoody, Mrs. Gwyneth Irvine, Rt Hon Sir A. (Edge Hill)
Blenkinsop, Arthur Eadie, Alex Irving, Rt Hon S. (Dartford)
Boardman, H. Edelman, Maurice Jackson, Colin (Brighouse)
Booth, Albert Edge, Geoff Jackson, Miss M. (Lincoln)
Boothroyd, Miss Betty Edwards, Robert (Wolv SE) Janner, Greville
Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun) Jay, Rt Hon Douglas
Boyden, James (Bish Auck) Ellis, Tom (Wrexham) Jeger, Mrs Lena
Bradley, Tom English, Michael Jenkins, Hugh (Putney)
Bray, Dr Jeremy Ennals, David Jenkins, Rt Hon Roy (Stechford)
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Evans, Ioan (Aberdare) John, Brynmor
Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W) Evans, John (Newton) Johnson, James (Hull West)
Buchan, Norman Ewing Harry (Stirling) Johnson, Walter (Derby S)
Buchanan, Richard Ewing, Mrs Winifred (Moray) Jones, Alec (Rhondda)
Butler, Mrs Joyce (Wood Green) Fernyhouch, Rt Hon E. Jones, Barry (East Flint)
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P) Fitch, Alan (Wigan) Jones, Dan (Burnley)
Campbell, Ian Flannery, Martin Judd, Frank
Canavan, Dennis Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Kaufman, Gerald
Cant, R. B. Foot, Rt Hon Michael Kelley, Richard
Carmichael, Neil Ford, Ben Kerr, Russell
Carter-Jones, Lewis Forrester, John Kilroy-Silk, Robert
Cartwright, John Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin) Kinnock, Neil
Castle, Rt Hon Barbara Fraser, John (Lambeth, N'w'd) Lambie, David
Clemitson, Ivor Freeson, Reginald Lamborn, Harry
Cocks, Michael (Bristol S) Garrett, John (Norwich S) Lomond, James
Coleman, Donald Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend) Latham, Arthur (Paddington)
Colquhoun, Mrs Maureen George, Bruce Leadbitter, Ted
Conlan, Bernard Gilbert, Dr John Lee, John
Cook, Robin F. (Edin C) Ginsburg, David Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Corbett, Robin Golding, John Lipton, Marcus
Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Gould, Bryan Litterick, Tom
Craigen, J. M. (Maryhill) Gourlay, Harry Lomas, Kenneth
Crawshaw, Richard Graham, Ted Loyden, Eddie
Cronin, John Grant, John (Islington C) Luard, Evan
Crosland, Rt Hon Anthony Grocott, Bruce Lyon, Alexander (York)
Cryer, Bob Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife) Lyons, Edward (Bradford W)
Cunningham, G. (Islington S) Hamling, William MacCormick, Iain
Cunningham, Dr J. (Whiteh) Hardy, Peter McElhone, Frank
MacFarquhar, Roderick Phipps, Dr Colin Thomas, Jeffrey (Abertillery)
McGuire, Michael (Ince) Prentice, Rt Hon Reg Thomas, Mike (Newcastle E)
Mackenzie, Gregor Price, C. (Lewisham W) Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Mackintosh, John P. Price, William (Rugby) Thompson, George
Maclennan, Robert Radice, Giles Tierney, Sydney
McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C) Reid, George Tinn, James
Madden, Max Richardson, Miss Jo Tomlinson, John
Magee, Bryan Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock) Torney, Tom
Mahon, Simon Robertson, John (Paisley) Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.
Marks, Kenneth Roderick, Caerwyn Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Marquand, David Rodgers, George (Chorley) Walden, Brian (B'ham, L'dyw'd)
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Rodgers, William (Stockton) Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
Mason, Rt Hon Roy Rooker, J. W. Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Meacher, Michael Rose, Paul B. Ward, Michael
Mellish, Rt Hon Robert Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock) Watkins, David
Mikardo, Ian Rowlands, Ted Watkinson, John
Millan, Bruce Ryman, John Watt, Hamish
Miller, Dr M. (E. Kilbride) Sandelson, Neville Weetch, Ken
Miller, Mrs Millie (Ilford N) Sedgemore, Brian Weitzman, David
Mitchell, R. C. (Soton, Itchen) Selby, Harry Wellbeloved, James
Molloy, William Shaw, Arnold (Ilford South) Welsh, Andrew
Moonman, Eric Sheldon, Robert (Ashton-u-Lyne) White, Frank R. (Bury)
Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Short, Rt Hon E. (Newcasle C) White, James (Pollack)
Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw) Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford) Whitehead, Phillip
Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon) Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich) Whitlock, William
Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick Sillars, James Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
Murray, Ronald King Silverman, Julius Williams, Alan (Swansea W)
Newens, Stanley Skinner, Dennis Williams, Alan Lee (Hornchurch)
Noble, Mike Smith, John (N Lanarkshire) Williams, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)
Oakes, Gordon Snape, Peter Williams, W. T. (Warrington)
Ogden, Eric Spearing, Nigel Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
O'Halloran, Michael Spriggs, Leslie Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
O'Malley, Rt Hon Brian Stallard, A. W. Wilson, Rt Hon H. (Huyton)
Orbach, Maurice Stewart, Donald (Western Isles) Wilson, William (Coventry SE)
Ovenden, John Stewart, Rt Hn M. (Fulham) Wise, Mrs Audrey
Owen, Dr David Stoddart, David Woodall, Alec
Padley, Walter Stott, Roger Woof, Robert
Palmer, Arthur Strang, Gavin Wrigglesworth, Ian
Park, George Strauss, Rt Hon G. R. Young, David (Bolton E)
Parker, John Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Parry, Robert Swain, Thomas Mr. James Hamilton and
Perry, Ernest Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W) Mr. Laurie Pavitt.
Aitken, Jonathan Costain, A. P. Grant, Anthony (Harrow C)
Alison, Michael Crouch, David Gray, Hamish
Arnold, Tom Crowder, F. P. Griffiths, Eldon
Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne) Davies, Rt Hon J. (Knutsford) Grimond, Rt Hon J.
Awdry, Daniel Dean, Paul (N Somerset) Grist, Ian
Baker, Kenneth Dodsworth, Geoffrey Grylls, Michael
Banks, Robert Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Hall, Sir John
Bell, Ronald Drayson, Burnaby Hall-Davis, A. G. F.
Bennett, Dr Reginald (Fareham) du Cann, Rt Hon Edward Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury)
Benyon, W. Durant, Tony Hampson, Dr Keith
Berry, Hon Anthony Dykes, Hugh Hannam, John
Biffen, John Eden, Rt Hon Sir John Harvie, Anderson, Rt Hon Miss
Biggs-Davison, John Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke) Hastings, Stephen
Blaker, Peter Elliott, Sir William Havers, Sir Michael
Body, Richard Emery, Peter Hawkins, Paul
Boscawen, Hon Robert Eyre, Reginald Hayhoe, Barney
Bowden, A. (Brighton, Kemptown) Fairbairn, Nicholas Heath, Rt Hon Edward
Boyson, Dr Rhodes (Brent) Fairgrieve, Russell Heseltine, Michael
Braine, Sir Bernard Fell, Anthony Hicks, Robert
Brittan, Leon Finsberg, Geoffrey Higgins, Terence L.
Brotherton, Michael Fisher, Sir Nigel Holland, Philip
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath) Fletcher, Alex (Edinburgh N) Hooson, Emlyn
Buchanan-Smith, Alick Fookes, Miss Janet Hordern, Peter
Buck, Antony Fowler, Norman (Sutton C'f'd) Howell, David (Guildford)
Budgen, Nick Fry, Peter Howell Ralph (North Norfolk)
Bulmer, Esmond Galbraith, Hon T. G. D. Howells, Geraint (Cardigan)
Burden, F. A. Gardiner, George (Reigate) Hurd, Douglas
Carlisle, Mark Gardner, Edward (S Fylde) Hutchison, Michael Clark
Chalker, Mrs Lynda Gilmour, Rt Hon Ian (Chesham) Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye)
Channon, Paul Gilmour, Sir John (East Fife) Irving, Charles (Cheltenham)
Churchill, W. S. Glyn, Dr Alan James, David
Clark, Alan (Plymouth, Sutton) Godber, Rt Hon Joseph Jenkin, Rt Hon P. (Wanst'd & W'df'd)
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Goodhart, Philip Jessel, Toby
Cockcroft, John Goodhew, Victor Johnson Smith, G. (E Grinstead)
Cooke, Robert (Bristol W) Goodlad, Alastair Jones, Arthur (Daventry)
Cope, John Gorst, John Jopling, Michael
Cormack, Patrick Gow, Ian (Eastbourne) Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith
Corrie, John Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry) Kaberry, Sir Donald
Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine Morris, Michael (Northampton S) Shelton, William (Streatham)
Kershaw, Anthony Morrison, Charles (Devizes) Shepherd, Colin
Kimball, Marcus Morrison, Peter (Chester) Silvester, Fred
King, Tom (Bridgwater) Mudd, David Sims, Roger
Kirk, Peter Neave, Airey Sinclair, Sir George
Kitson, Sir Timothy Nelson, Anthony Skeet, T. H. H.
Knight, Mrs Jill Neubert, Michael Smith, Dudley (Warwick)
Knox, David Newton, Tony Spence, John
Lamont, Norman Normanton, Tom Spicer, Jim (W Dorset)
Lane, David Nott, John Spicer, Michael (S. Worcester)
Langford-Holt, Sir John Onslow, Cranley Sproat, Iain
Latham, Michael (Melton) Oppenheim, Mrs Sally Stainton, Keith
Lawrence, Ivan Parkinson, Cecil Stanbrook, Ivor
Lawson, Nigel Pattie, Geoffrey Stanley, John
Le Marchant, Spencer Penhaligon, David Steen, Anthony (Wavertree)
Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland) Percival, Ian Stewart, Ian (Hitchin)
Lloyd, Ian Peyton, Rt Hon John Stokes, John
Loveridge, John Pink, R. Bonner Taylor, R. (Croydon NW)
Luce, Richard Price, David (Eastleigh) Taylor, Teddy (Cathcart)
McAdden, Sir Stephen Prior, Rt Hon James Tebbit, Norman
Macfarlane, Neil Pym, Rt Hon Francis Temple-Morris, Peter
MacGregor, John Raison, Timothy Thatcher, Rt Hon Margaret
Macmillan, Rt Hon M. (Farnham) Rathbone, Tim Thomas, Rt Hon P. (Hendon S)
McNair-Wilson, M. (Newbury) Rawlinson, Rt Hon Sir Peter Thorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon)
McNair-Wilson, P. (New Forest) Rees, Peter (Dover & Deal) Townsend, Cyril D.
Madel, David Rees-Davies, W. R. Trotter, Neville
Marten, Neil Renton, Rt Hon Sir D. (Hunts) Tugendhat, Christopher
Mates, Michael Renton, Tim (Mid-Sussex) van Straubenzee, W. R.
Mather, Carol Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon Viggers, Peter
Maude, Angus Ridley, Hon Nicholas Wakeham, John
Maudling, Rt Hon Reginald Ridsdale, Julian Walder, David (Clitheroe)
Mawby, Ray Rifkind, Malcolm Walker, Rt Hon P. (Worcester)
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Roberts, Michael (Cardiff NW) Walker-Smith, Rt Hon Sir Derek
Mayhew, Patrick Roberts, Wyn (Conway) Weatherill, Bernard
Meyer, Sir Anthony Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight) Wells, John
Mills, Peter Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey) Whitelaw, Rt Hon William
Miscampbell, Norman Rost, Peter (SE Derbyshire) Wiggin, Jerry
Mitchell, David (Basingstoke) Royle, Sir Anthony Winterton, Nicholas
Moate, Roger Sainsbury, Tim Young, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)
Moore, John (Croydon C) St. John-Stevas, Norman
More, Jasper (Ludlow) Scott, Nicholas TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Morgan, Geraint Shaw, Giles (Pudsey) Mr. John Stradling Thomas and
Morgan-Giles, Rear-Admiral Shaw, Michael (Scarborough) Mr. Adam Butler.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).