HC Deb 22 October 1975 vol 898 cc456-8
1. Mr. Canavan

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland whether he is satisfied with the operation of local government in Scotland.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. William Ross)

The new local government system has been in operation for only six months. It is far too early to attempt to reach firm conclusions about it. I am satisfied that members and officials are carrying out their responsibilities effectively in the face of difficulties presented in the early stages of the new system and by the present economic situation.

Mr. Canavan

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the great concern about the vicious rises in rents and rates, while some of the new local authorities spend money like drunken sailors on extravagant schemes such as cheap mortgages and rent allowances for overpaid officials, trips abroad and empire building, while open democracy is threatened by the exclusion of the Press from meetings? Does my right hon. Friend back the call by Labour Members of Parliament and local Labour Party branches for an independent inquiry into the affairs of the Central Regional Council?

Mr. Ross

Inquiries into such matters are not related to the statutory duties of the Secretary of State. Pay and the home loan scheme are matters for negotiation between the local authorities as employers and the National Joint Council. Indeed, these matters follow from the negotiations which took place earlier in the year. The home loan scheme was related to reorganisation. Guidance was sent out in respect of the scheme by the National Joint Council just over a year ago. The implementation and administration of that scheme is a matter for local authorities which have autonomy in such matters. I am not required and have no right to approve such decisions. This is where the vigilance of ratepayers comes in. I am not required to give approval to every executive act of a local authority, thank goodness.

Mr. Galbraith

As well as the concern about financial matters to which the hon. Gentleman referred, there is also concern about the apparent growth in the size of the bureaucracy. Will the Secretary of State say to what extent the number of local officials is now larger than it was before reorganisation?

Mr. Ross

We have moved from a system whereby there were about 240 local authorities to 65 with different functions. We are making inquiries into the growth of the number employed, but at this stage we do not have the figures. I have emphasised to the local authorities the need to exercise considerable restraint on increasing the manpower of these services, as I am conscious of the difficulties.

Mr. Reid

Is the Secretary of State aware of the growing view in Scotland that the reform of local government was hopelessly back to front and that Scotland is in danger of becoming the most over-governed nation in Western Europe, with elections to community councils, districts, regions, the Assembly, the Parliament at Westminster and possibly even the European Parliament? Does he conclude that the proper model for a Scottish Government is an Assembly with broad strategic powers, and all-purpose district authorities and community councils with strengthened powers?

Mr. Ross

This matter was raised during discussions on the Local Government Act. The hon. Gentleman should be conscious of his own responsibilities. The Local Government (Scotland) Act was passed without a Division on Second Reading. The hon. Gentleman's leader was in the House at the time, but said nothing on Second and Third Readings.

Mr. Lambie

Is my right hon. Friend prepared to make a statement on the negotiations between his officials and the representatives of the local government associations on the need for a supplementary rate support grant to allow councils to reduce the ever-increasing rates?

Mr. Ross

I know nothing about such negotiations. My right hon. Friend the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, is meeting local authorities fairly soon to discuss some of these matters. Many of these aspects have been covered and others will be covered in answer to a later Question. It would be wrong to assume that it was feasible to carry out some of the suggestions now being made.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

Given that the financial implications of local government are now causing the greatest concern, will the Secretary of State confirm or deny reports in today's newspapers that the Secretary of State for the Environment intends to peg rates in the coming financial year for England and Wales? Given the hammering now being suffered by Scottish ratepayers, does the right hon. Gentleman propose to peg rates in Scotland in the year ahead?

Mr. Ross

I do not think that there is any question of pegging rates. We are talking about how to contain expenditures. We can take action on money provided by the Government but we have no independent power as regards the raising of finance through the rates. At that point difficulties arise. We are holding negotiations and meetings with the local authorities to improve the situation. I am sure that local authorities are equally anxious to curtail the rates as far as possible.

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