HC Deb 02 April 1976 vol 908 cc1824-58

1.47 p.m.

Dr. Edmund Marshall (Goole)

I beg to move, That this House reaffirms its belief in the importance of local government, but recognises the need for more widespread acceptance of the principles of local democracy. The attention of the House now turns from industry, which is one key sector of our national life, to local government, which I consider to be of equally significant importance.

Yesterday was the second anniversary of the reorganisation of local government in England outside Greater London, and perhaps it is opportune now and not too early for the House to consider how the reorganised structure is settling down and how well it is serving the general public.

I shall not venture to comment on the situation inside Greater London, where reorganisation took place more than a decade ago. I hope that some of my hon. Friends who represent the Greater London constituencies will have the good fortune, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to catch your eye in order to fill in that gap in my argument. Nor shall I refer to Wales, where reorganisation was simultaneous with that in the rest of England, or to Scotland, where reorganisation occurred only in May last year. However it may be that some of the general points in our discussion will have relevance to those parts of the Kingdom.

One of the fears expressed widely at the time of reorganisation was that the new authorities would be too remote from the public whom they served. It was considered in some quarters that local democracy would be endangered because decisions would be taken in far-away places by people with little knowledge of the localities affected by those decisions.

It was always my belief—and this remains so after two years of reorganisation—that the strength of local democracy in face of this alleged danger depended completely on the quality and the effectiveness of the local representatives on the new authorities. By comparison with our system of parliamentary representation, it is highly exceptional for any local government ward outside London to have an electorate greater than one-third of the average parliamentary constituency, and in most cases they are much smaller than that. A councillor has to travel nothing like the distance covered by a non-London Member of Parliament in the course of his parliamentary duties, and if we in this House are expected to be able to maintain effective democratic representation it is proportionately easier for local government representatives to do likewise in their own spheres.

Local government reorganisation drastically reduced the number of local authorities and the total number of councils, but it also introduced new counties which are geographically more compact than the old counties. In some metropolitan districts it brought the administration of important local government services closer than before to many of the public. The threat of remoteness in local government was present before reorganisation, and while the picture certainly varies greatly from one part of the country to another it is a threat which can be completely offset by councillors who have the political skill and who are, above all, energetic in keeping closely in touch with those whom they represent.

A great deal therefore depends on the calibre of the members elected to the new local authorities. This can be amply demonstrated by the situation in my constituency, which is in the unusual position of overlapping no fewer than four of the new counties, two of them metropolitan and two of them shire counties. In each of these counties there is a district council which covers parts of my constituency. Therefore, whereas before local government reorganisation six local authorities were serving my constituents, after reorganisation that number grew to eight.

In the reorganised structure where there are good councillors who attend to their duties conscientiously, holding well-advertised and regular "clinics", the public are tending to get good service from the new authorities. The people can have confidence in their democratic representatives. In other areas, however, there are councillors who seem to think that all that is required of them is to attend council and committee meetings, and they make no attempt to contact the public in their wards.

Consequently the average citizen in these areas can be unaware of the identity of his councillors even if they happen to live just around the corner. He has little idea of where to turn if he is confronted with a problem relating to the local authority. He might endeavour to make inquiries at the council offices, and that can mean a considerable journey, particularly at county level. If he gets no satisfaction from the officials, as is sometimes the case, his next move generally is to the Member of Parliament, however much his problem is entirely within the discretion and jurisdiction of the local authority and not of the national Government.

At my own regular surgeries and in my constituency correspondence, I now find that I receive far fewer complaints relating to local government in the areas where there are effective councillors than in others where the councillors might as well be non-existent as far as the public are concerned. Very often when a constituent raises with me a local authority problem and I ask whether he has contacted his local councillors, he is surprised when I tell him who the councillors are, because he may well know them as people but is unaware of their public rôle. There seems to be a greater failure of communication with the electorate in this respect in those areas where a lot of the councillors are independents.

The problem of the non-availability of the councillor presents the greatest difficulties in the shire counties at county level. There, education and the personal social services are county functions and people need to be able to get in touch easily with their personal representatives, but the wards may well be large and scattered, particularly in rural areas. Public confusion about the two tiers of local government is markedly greater in the shire counties than in the metropolitan counties. Whatever may be the quality of different local councillors, it is important that we in this House should reassert that the public must realise and accept that the responsibility for discharging local government functions rests with those councillors.

A moment ago I referred to my practice of telling constituents who bring local authority problems to my attention that they should take them to their councillors. I know that many hon. Members, on both sides, take a different view from that and are ready to take up local authority problems on behalf of constituents by writing direct to local authority officials themselves. I suggest, however, that we should all think very carefully about that situation. It seems that every time a Member of Parliament takes up a purely local government problem he is helping to undermine the rightful position of the appropriate local authority representative and indirectly is undermining the authority of local government as a whole.

If local government is to be controlled locally, we must accept the democratic authority of local representatives without undue interference from "Big Brothers", whether they come from Whitehall or from this House. There is a widespread misunderstanding of the proper role of local government in this respect. Perhaps a large section of the public is genuinely unable to distinguish between national and local government responsibilities. However, there is at least as large a section which seems to think that local government is in all respects subordinate to national Government and Parliament and that on all questions on which a local authority has jurisdiction there is some right of appeal to Westminster and Whitehall.

At a public meeting in my constituency I was told by a member of the teaching profession that he regarded local councillors as the equivalent of prefects in the school of public life. The adult staff of the "school" were Members of Parliament and Government Ministers. I have found that same mistaken attitude among many other people in the community who ought to know better, including solicitors, members of parish councils and even, curiously enough, some members of principal authorities. This attitude fails to grasp the real significance of local government—namely, that decisions reached democratically by local authorities, within the proper exercise of their powers, are generally final and that people must accept the position of the local authority in those matters.

Equally, there are people who accept the constitutional independence of local authorities but who still seem to think that Members of Parliamen have more influence—" influence "is a very general term—than local councillors with those local authorities. I have even heard it said that, while people will accept local authority decisions as final, they still regard their Member of Parliament as having more weight than a local councillor in making representations to influence those decisions. Sometimes they believe that a letter from an MP is more likely to ginger up the officials in the council offices than an inquiry from a councillor.

The validity of that attitude varies according to the capabilities of councillors and the different practices of different authorities. I regret that it is often true that local government officials will take more notice of a Member of Parliament than of an elected member of their own authority. Wherever that situation exists, I believe it to be bad for local democracy. I am not suggesting that local government officials should always ignore legitimate inquiries from Members of this House, but I contend that all local government officials should give at least as good a service to their local councillors as to anybody else.

That leads to the whole question of the relationship betwen officials and elected representatives in local government. Over the years, many local government officials have acted in the belief that they ran the local authorities while councillors were people who came and went and were generally to be regarded as nuisances to be tolerated to provide the semblance of democracy. After careful consideration, I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that before reorganisation a few of the clerks and chief officers of the smaller authorities acted as little tin gods in the place of their authorities.

Mr. Cyril Smith (Rochdale)

Not only the small authorities.

Dr. Marshall

Reorganisation may have helped to reduce the likelihood of that kind of situation, but it has created other dangers which now put the elected councillor at a disadvantage compared with the full-time officials of his council. The size and complexity of some of the new authorities make it difficult for part-time councillors to be as well informed as the full-time officials about the business of their councils. Furthermore, the widespread application of the recommendations of the Bains Report has in one form or another taken more of the day-to-day decisions in the administration of local government away from elected councillors.

An inexperienced councillor may now have as much difficulty as a member of the public in pursuing the details of a personal problem through the administrative framework of the new authorities. I believe that senior local government officials should be more ready to accept personal inquiries from councillors and spedily to obtain helpful replies for them. Every person in local government service must, in the interests of local democracy, accept that his authority is run by the councillors, not the officials. That same principle also needs to be accepted by large sections of the public.

However, one may then ask whether councillors elected to many of our larger local authorities, particularly county and metropolitan district councils, are now in any position to exercise their full responsibilities for running those authorities. They are elected on a part-time basis, as I have indicated. Many of them have to take considerable time off from full-time employment to attend to their public duties. Often that is employment which they dare not relinquish as a whole but in which they have probably sacrificed the prospects of promotion because of their public service.

This problem has certainly grown since reorganisation, and it has hardly been offset by the provision of attendance allowances for councillors engaged on local authority business. The way in which the monthly payments of allowances to councillors are regularly tabulated, like league tables, in many newspapers—whose motives are not always beyond question—is detrimental to the whole cause of local democracy. The way in which it is snidely put across that members who claim the largest expenses are somehow not playing the game right is wrong and harmful to the whole situation in local government. If local democracy has any value for us at all—many Press men are the first to champion the cause of democracy—we must be prepared to pay for that democracy in money terms and to regard the remuneration of local representatives as normal practice.

However, I do not think that anybody can expect effective democratic representation to operate in county and metropolitan district councils on the part-time basis that we now have. I have no doubt that members of county and metropolitan district councils should be regarded as full-time councillors if they are to do their job properly and should be paid a full-time salary. That may mean fewer councillors, because we probably could not afford as many as we now have.

That being so, I suggest that a system of single-member wards at district level should be applied wherever practicable. I cannot understand the advantage of the system of three-member wards in metropolitan districts, except that it enables local elections to be held in every ward every year. I believe that such multiple representation serves only to confuse the public even further about the identities of their councillors.

As in Parliament and county councils, a system of full-time metropolitan district councillors with single-member wards would be more conducive to effective local democracy. If the general public more widely accepted the key role of councillors in local government, not only would they make more use of those councillors but there would be greater interest in local elections.

As we approach the district council elections throughout England, outside Greater London, in five weeks' time, it is opportune to remind the public that here is the opportunity for local democracy to come alive. As we all know, local elections are too often ignored by a majority of the public, by people who, when local problems later arise, resort to action groups, to residents' and ratepayers' associations, in an attempt to air their complaints. This is the time, as the local elections approach, for the constitutional representations to be made through the existing councillors and the prospective candidates in local government.

The only people who can be rightly regarded as public representatives in local government are the duly elected councillors. No local pressure groups of any kind can ever claim to represent the general public in the same way as councillors. Ratepayers' associations come in all shapes and forms but generally I find that they are all misnamed, since it is the councillor who has the unique right to represent the ratepayer in local government. The active members of a ratepayers' association generally speak for no one but themselves.

The ratepayers' associations have become more numerous and more active in the last two years as the result of the nation-wide disquiet with the whole system of local government finance. I do not wish in this debate to embark on a discussion of the present rating system—we have had that many times in this House already—or of possible alternatives to it. In any case, the all-important report of the Layfield Committee is still awaiting publication.

However, for the purposes of our debate today I believe that it is very important for local democracy that local authorities should, as far as possible, be self-financing and able to raise sufficient funds through the revenue powers legally accorded to them to meet their own expenditure in total. The present rate support grant system, with all its complexity, has harmed local democracy in that it has blurred the distinction between national and local government responsibilities for financial matters, and it has distorted the principle of the piper and the tune. Whatever system of local government finance may be devised in the future, I hope that it will be possible for local authorities to stand on their own financial feet, beholden to no national paymaster and able to govern locally in the best interests of their electors.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich, East)

Is my hon. Friend arguing that each individual local authority ought to stand on its own feet? If he is, how does he face the situation, which some of us know only too well, of the local authority with a very low level of income which usually has the major problems that require high levels of spending?

Dr. Marshall

I accept that point in so far as that will depend on whatever system of income is devised, but in all cases I would accept that there would be some authorities which are more wealthily endowed than others, and that in such situations there would have to be some kind of national equalisation fund; but I would not wish it to go further than that.

Mr. Cyril Smith

They have to stand on one and a half of their feet.

Dr. Marshall

That may be a lot better than at the present, when they may have only little toes to stand on.

Perhaps I may attempt to draw together my remarks. I believe that local government needs to be truly local, truly democratic and exercised with a strong social conscience. All our policies and suggestions for change in local government have to be tested in the light of those three general objectives. I do not believe at present that those objectives are sufficiently recognised, in the first place by the general public but also by many local government officials and some local party-political leaders, and even perhaps by some Members of this House and by some of the policy-makers in Government Departments.

The key person in local government in all respects must be the councillor, and his position needs to be strengthened in the interests of local democracy. The present financial system in local government needs radical replacement by some new system which will enable a much greater degree of local financial independence within the constraints of democracy. Given improvements along those general lines, I believe that local government can be made much more healthy and strong than it is at present, that it can be brought into greater public esteem and that it can serve the whole local community more effectively.

2.16 p.m.

Mr. Cyril Smith (Rochdale)

I confess, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that in the hope of being fortunate enough to catch your eye, as I have been, I have been looking around the Benches and wondering whether I ought to deliver my remarks from the Opposition Front Bench and the Dispatch Box. I find it very strange that on a major item about a major subject—local government—the official Opposition are unable to have a representative on their Front Bench, at least to take an interest in the debate if not a part in it. Perhaps, therefore, as I am the only Member on the Opposition Benches this afternoon, I should make it clear that I speak from the Liberal Bench and not on behalf of Conservative Members. Indeed, perhaps their absence is not surprising when we are debating the matter of local government. Realising that they are responsible for the reorganisation of local government and all that has taken place as a consequence, perhaps they would have red faces if they were here this afternoon to take part in a debate about the present state of local government. Perhaps to that extent their absence can be excused.

I should like to compliment the hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) on raising the matter and on the motion that he has moved. I regret that I cannot agree with everything he said. I imagine that that will not surprise him. However, I strongly support the substance and the terms of the motion. Indeed, I could not but help thinking that perhaps the hon. Gentleman's past training, as opposed to his present experience, has helped him in some way towards drafting the motion, as against the speech that he made in support of it.

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that local government! must be truly local and truly democratic. I cannot go along with him entirely on his views about local councillors. For example, it is easy to be critical of the councillor who does not play as large a part as another does in dealing with constituents' problems. I speak as someone who served for 23 years as a member of a local authority. It is easy to be critical. Different councillors pursue their interests in local government in different ways, just as different Members of Parliament pursue their interests in national Government in different ways. I have known some town councillors who have made little contribution to the town as a whole but a great contribution to their ward, and others who have made an excellent contribution to the affairs of the town as a whole but little to those of their ward. We are all different individuals, and to that extent our contributions will vary, and we ought not necessarily to place more importance on or give greater credit to one kind of service as opposed to another.

I take the view that a councillor is a key man in local government, but I do not think he is a key man as opposed to officials. I have always looked upon local government as being a team of people comprised of both officials and councillors, with neither being superior to the other, be it the official superior to the councillor, or vice versa. In my experience in local government, I always tried to ensure that I worked with officers rather than that officers worked for me, or that I worked for them. I always took the view that my principal job was to try to evolve policy and that the job of the officer, within broad lines, was to implement that policy. One accepts that there is overlapping between the two and that on occasions it is not clear who is determining policy, who is administering it, and so on.

I do not agree with the hon. Member for Goole about employing full-time councillors. I am not sure whether the payment of councillors is a good thing. I have some reservations about it. I have always passionately believed that no man or woman should be debarred from serving on a council for economic reasons. Every man and woman should have the right to serve on a local authority and I compliment the Government for having introduced that right in the Protection of Employment Act. Equally, it is right that if such a person loses money from serving on a council he or she should be able to recoup that loss without question or publication. But if such a person is drawing an allowance for attendance, I am not sure that I feel the same about the publication of that allowance as does the hon. Member for Goole.

Perhaps there are subtleties about the way in which allowances are published in some newspapers, but it is not improper for members of the public to be aware of what they are paying to the public people who serve them. That is why I strongly supported the Register of Interests of hon. Members. I have declared all my sources of income, and it would not worry me if I also had to disclose the amounts I received from those sources. When we enter public life we know the conditions. No one makes a person stand for membership of a council or for membership of this House. Once elected, a person should not be afraid to be subjected to public scrutiny if it is proper and does not involve his private and personal life.

I do not know how the hon. Member's proposal for one-member wards would lead to the extension of the principles of local democracy. If one reduces the number of public representatives, as the hon. Member advocated, one may reduce the amount of public democracy rather than increase it. I do not understand the logic of the hon. Member's argument, or how it ties up with his motion.

One of the major problems of local government—or government which is more directly concerned with local populations—is that it is being taken further away from the people rather than being brought to them. I have grave reservations about local boards, such as health and water boards, which are selected rather than elected. I hope that the Government will find it possible, in the space of their life to democratise bodies such as health and water boards and to bring them under some form of elected representation, rather than selected representation. Some of us would go further and abolish the county council structure. We would devolve more powers from Westminster and create a system of local government, which would include water and health boards.

The reorganisation of local government was brought about by a Tory Government, and they should never be allowed off the hook. Reorganisation has not been a happy experience. There has been a vast waste of public money as a result of it, or perhaps it would be better to say that it has not prevented a vast waste of public money. Before reorganisation there were 1,390 councils and now there are 422, but the staffs employed by them have increased by 110,000.

One of the problems, not only of local government but of the whole British economy, is that we are becoming over-administered. It is time seriously to assess how we use the manpower available and consider early retirement for men, and a reduction in the working week. Making better use of the labour available and giving people more leisure is perhaps the way to solve our unemployment problem

Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham and Heston)

All hon. Members will be disturbed by the staffing figures that the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) has quoted. Some of us would be even more disturbed if he could tell us how much ratepayers will have to pay of the total emoluments drawn by certain councillors.

Mr. Smith

I cannot divide up the figures, but in 1960 local authority spending was £1,715 million, whereas this year it is £10,600 million. I do not know how much of that sum is for emoluments and how much is for other things.

There are interesting examples of the sort of salaries being paid in local government. I am not sure whether it is fair to quote the figures for local authorities without knowing all the facts, but at first glance they make interesting reading. For instance, Barnet Council has advertised for a secretary at £4,000 plus. Islington is offering £8,000 a year for a chief Press officer to head a team of 16. Waltham Forest has the following hierarchy dealing with committees—four assistant committee secretaries, four committee secretaries, four senior committee secretaries, two principals, one chief committee secretary, one assistant borough secretary and one borough solicitor and secretary. That makes me wonder what it is all about, and what the reorganisation of local government has been about.

There are one or two exceptions. Liverpool, which has had a strong Liberal influence since reorganisation, has reduced its rates, reduced the size of the housing waiting list, increased its grants to voluntary organisations, and encouraged the full use of its schools by the community. Adur, in Sussex, which has Liberal government, has reduced its rates and reduced the number of its staff.

Those are exceptions. I suspect that the Minister could say things about those authorities which would put them in a less favourable light. Because of their freshness of approach they have been able to do things that other authorities which were merely the result of the take-over of a previous authority, could not do.

The great problem of local government is public apathy. Council elections, with turn-outs of less than 20 per cent., must cause anxiety to people who are deeply concerned about the future of democracy and people's right to express themselves in a proper democratic way. The way to turn the tide and bring back interest in local government is not to use some of the methods suggested by the hon. Member for Goole, such as full-time councillors and one-ward councils, but to return power to the people, and that can be done only by breaking local government down to its smallest units instead of trying to build it up into its largest units, which has been the tendency over the past 10 to 20 years.

The motion talks of the need for more local democracy. We must ensure that bodies that administer services for the public—I refer again to health and water authorities—are elected and answerable to the people. When they are answerable, it is no good if they are so remote that the people to whom they are answerable are not even aware that they exist. They must be economically viable, but close enough to the people for the people to feel that they have an interest in them. It is vital for democracy that we look at local government again and create a system that people feel cares for them and about them.

2.32 p.m.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich, East)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) on having chosen this subject. Those of us who had local government experience before we entered the House often feel that our colleagues without that good fortune and privilege do not always understand or appreciate the problems of local government. That feeling was reinforced this afternoon, because as soon as the magic words "local government" were heard in the Chamber there was a mass exodus of the four Conservative Members who were present, who almost did themselves an injury in their anxiety to get out of the Chamber before the debate began.

My hon. Friend has invited the House to reaffirm its belief in the importance of local government. As the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) pointed out, the absence of any representative of the Conservative Party leads us to believe that the Conservatives are showing not their belief in the importance of local government but their complete contempt for local government. It is strange that we have no Opposition Front Bench speaker present, not even the self-appointed Prime Minister of London, after all the attacks from the Opposition Benches in the past year or so on local authority spending.

Both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Rochdale have commented on the complexities of local government and the fact that ordinary people no longer identify with it, either because it has been removed further and further from them or because they do not understand what is now in many areas a very complex system. I take the Inner London situation as an example. Most people do not appreciate what powers are exercised by the borough councils, what powers are exercised by the Greater London Council, what the rôle of the Inner London Education Authority is, how the Metropolitan Police are administered, where the Thames Water Authority comes into the picture or what the area health authority does. It is a great mass of bureaucracy which the ordinary electors do not begin to understand. Moreover, the Metropolitan Police, the water authority and the health authority are no longer subject to any genuine democratic control.

All these various agencies and bodies pursue their separate plans, with little attempt to interlock one with another, although decisions taken by, for example, the water authority can have a major impact on local government. There is a massive shuffling of paper from one tier of local government to another and from one authority to another, with large numbers of staff monitoring what other parts of local government are doing. There is a duplication of responsibility. People with local government experience elsewhere come to London and do not understand why borough councils are housing authorities when the GLC is a housing authority. They do not understand why both the boroughs and the GLC operate parks, why they are both highway authorities and why both engage in support for the arts. There is tremendous duplication and overlapping of powers and responsibilities in London local government.

I am making no direct or indirect attack on the GLC, but it is hard to understand a situation which the GLC, the alleged strategic authority for Greater London, is messing about mending council tenants' back fences and trying, often very badly, to put washers on taps in hundreds of thousands of council homes. There is a terrible blurring of responsibility. The GLC's rôle as strategic authority is not being carried out because of the confusion with all its other, much more local, responsibilities.

What we want is not so much reorganisation of local government—although the message I receive from many parts of the country outside London is that less than two years' experience of reorganised local government does not encourage many people in local authorities to continue with it in its present form. There is an increasing demand for a rethink about the system bequeathed to us by the Conservatives, but I do not think that the elector is so encouraged by the slogan of reorganisation. I think that he would be encouraged by a slogan of simplification of local government.

Although it is not our job to debate devolution today, I believe that many people would accept a regional tier of government, taking into democratic control the ad hoc water and health authorities and many other ad hoc non-elected bodies, a regional tier covering land use planning and many other responsibilities, such as industrial location, on a much wider basis than the metropolitan or shire counties now do.

But if we had a regional tier most of us would say that there was no case for three tiers of local government, no case for a regional tier, a county tier and a district tier. Most of us would argue that the logical approach was to have a regional level and below that a level of most-purpose district authorities providing the personal and local services that the average elector looks to his town hall to provide.

That is the pattern towards which we should work. I accept that it cannot be done overnight and that there would probably be a revolt in many places if we tried to reorganise local government again very quickly, but we should know where we are trying to go, and that is the sort of pattern that attracts most people.

Perhaps I may in passing take a sideswipe at the City of London. I hope that it will not be too long before a Labour Government take their courage in both hands and decide to do away with the nonsense of having a totally separate local government unit for 5,000 or so residents of the City of London.

Mr. Russell Kerr

Rather fewer.

Mr. Cartwright

I believe that there are rather fewer actual residents, but there are about 8,500 business voters,

My hon. Friend the Member for Goole commented on the responsibilities of councillors. He said that they are, as it were, the linchpin of the democratic local government process. I expect that my hon. Friend accepts that councillors have had a brutal Press over the past two years or so. Perhaps the lower level of rate increases this spring will mean that councillor-bashing will not be conducted at quite such a high level and as severely as at this time last year. However, it is still continuing at a high level in some areas.

I agree with the hon. Member for Rochdale that matters such as the attendance allowance system have done a great deal to exacerbate bad feeling towards local authority members. It seems that that system has combined the maximum annoyance to ratepayers with the minimum of recompense for local authority members who have suffered financial loss.

That system has allowed a small minority to claim quite substantial sums when they may not have suffered any real loss of income. But we now have a situation in which many people are substantially worse off even after they have received their attendance allowance, the allowance being taxable. That is because we have not ensured that the allowance keeps pace with the rate of inflation.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment established a working party last year to examine the system. He has been remarkable coy about revealing the results of its inquiry. I understand that there are difficulties, but in fairness to our colleagues in local government it is important that something clear-cut is said before too long about the future of the attendance allowance system. I very much hope that the Government will return to a system of fair, adequate and proper compensation for loss of income rather than continue with the system which has existed for the past two years.

I must disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Goole if he suggests that we should have full-time councillors. That is a negation of the idea that local government should enable local people to elect their neighbours to represent them on local authorities. Once we elect local full-time politicians, we depart from that principle.

Dr. Edmund Marshall

Is my hon. Friend in disagreement with the idea of remunerating Members of Parliament?

Mr. Cartwright

That is a different situation. The electorate seeks to elect full-time Members of Parliament, although it is not always successful in doing so. There are Members who manage to do very well in other spheres of activity in addition to their parliamentary duties. However, for local government we look to those who have solid and substantial roots in the community, those who share the experience of their neighbours and who are in a strong position to administer local services.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the councillor plays an important rôle in guaranteeing and safeguarding local democracy, but I believe that there is a rôle for a stronger element of public participation and involvement in the administration of local authorities. Some interesting experiments in neighbourhood councils have taken place in the past few years. However, I do not want to see a statutory framework of neighbourhood councils at this stage. If such a framework were established, it might suck neighbourhood councils into local govenment bureaucracy and change their whole nature.

If we had a statutory layer or level of neighbourhood councils in the present system, we might place the district councils in an uncomfortable sandwich, a position in which they were sat upon from above by the counties and pushed from below by the neighbourhood councils. There is not necessarily a case for a statutory level of neighbourhood councils, but it is that sort of voluntary involvement in local services that is of great importance.

We should be encouraging local authorities to get more public participation. For example, we should be encouraging joint management schemes on council estates so that council tenants are involved in managing and running their estates. We should be encouraging pensioners and those drawing benefits from social service departments to be involved in monitoring these services and to feed back information to the authorities about the services that are provided. We should experiment in many ways with the wider involvement of the public in local authority affairs. Such involvement would be to the good of local government. It would strengthen its democratic base rather than weaken it.

I turn briefly to another factor which is uppermost in the minds of all those who are engaged in the running of local authorities—namely, the immediate financial prospects. We should recognise the way in which local councillors have come to terms with what has been an abrupt change in the financial climate. They have succeeded in reducing what in some areas were high levels of real growth. There were growth rates of 10 per cent. in some services in some areas. They have now been brought back to virtually a standstill situation.

We should recognise that that has involved some tough decisions being made by local authority members who ran for office and who were elected to improve services in their areas. Many were elected on that basis, and it was their whole compulsion and involvement in local government. They have had to accept voluntarily a standstill situation. They have made a considerable contribution towards solving the nation's economic problems.

In some areas the cut-back has led to considerable difficulties. For example, in my constituency there is the Thames-mead new town. Londoners move into the area from all over the Greater London area. They expect a certain level of provision of social services, recreational facilities and all the other local services. As a local authority, it is not so easy for us to say "We are sorry, we cannot provide the services for which you are looking as we are in a nil growth situation".

Nor is it easy to cut back on services in other areas of local government expenditure so as to generate the resources that are needed to meet a large incoming community. We must recognise that, even though the Government are saying that there must be nil growth overall, there are still areas in which central Government decisions are generating a demand for more and more local government staff. The chronically sick and disabled persons legislation, the safety and health at work legislation and consumer credit legislation, for example, have placed upon local government in the past couple of years additional burdens which have yet to have an impact on staffing levels.

We should pay tribute to the way in which local government has faced some tough decisions on local priorities in the changed financial situation. The motion calls for a recognition of the need for more widespread acceptance of local democracy. The relationship between local authorities and central Government is of great importance. There is a tendency for all political parties in Opposition to say that they believe in local democracy, in giving more power to local government and in making Whitehall interfere to a lesser extent. When, however, a former Opposition party takes office, it finds for a number of reasons that it must introduce more and more Whitehall interference in what actually happens in local town halls. That is particularly true regarding central Government finance.

On the other hand, I tend to disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Goole when he implies that a high level of central Government financial support for local authorities undermines their financial democracy and independence. I do not think it desperately matters whether rate support grant is at 65 per cent. of local council spending, 70 per cent. or 75 per cent. as long as it is on a block grant basis and the local authority has complete freedom to decide how it will allocate the money.

What interferes with local Government autonomy is the indivdual financial control of things like the housing cost yardstick which some of us in this Chamber suffer from year after year and things like the loans sanction, when one has to go to the Department and argue about an individual project. There is a case for rather less detail of this sort. In the sphere of housing, priorities vary a great deal from one local authority area to another depending on circumstances. I cannot see why we should not be looking at the possibility of making a block allocation to housing authorities, leaving them to decide their priorities on new constructon, rehabilitation of existing property or loans for house purchase. I should like to see local priorities and local decisions taken where resources of that sort are allocated.

Looking at the terms of the motion before us. I agree that the state of local authorities in England is perhaps rather better than some of us might have expected this time last year. They have come to terms well with the sudden slamming on of the financial brakes. Despite all the attacks made on local authorities, not least in this House, we still find that ordinary people are willing to come forward to serve their fellow men in communities on local authorities. The importance of local government is one of the major foundations of our democratic structure.

2.52 p.m.

Mrs. Millie Miller (Ilford, North)

As I gaze at the now completely empty Opposition Benches I recall the echoes of a day or two ago when they were filled with hon. Members braying over and over again for cuts in public expenditure, not least in local government. Now that the opportunity arises for them to discuss the problems and the nature of local government, they find they have commitments elsewhere and cannot be with us to support local government along the lines that my hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) has done in his motion today.

I am sympathetic to the wording of the motion but doubtful about the terms in which my hon. Friend proposed it to the House. My hon. Friend, the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Cartwright) and I have shared the experience of service in inner London local government. We shared the experience of membership of the London Boroughs Association and of the Association of Municipal Corporations, right up until the time when we were elected to this House. Our interpretation both of the motivation of people entering local government and of the drive behind the whole machinery of local government is a quite different one from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Goole, possibly because he comes from an area outside London, where life may well be more leisurely and pressures not so great.

I shall follow on from where my hon. Friend left off, on the whole question of the approach to local government, and say, as I have said before in this House, that the atmosphere between central and local government has improved in particular since this present Government set up the Consultative Council for Local Government Finance. I am very much aware, from the heart-rending experiences which the AMC suffered under the previous Conservative Government, who were driving us nearer and nearer to making local government part of a corporate State, that this exchange of views, knowledge and experience between central and local government has in many ways been responsible for the reduction in tension that has allowed local government to make its own decisions when the need to restrict public expenditure came about.

Having been in local government since 1945 and experiencing the ups and downs of changes of successive Governments throughout that time, I know only too well how a change of political control can upset the ambitions of local government to make the services in their area the best that they can offer. It is depressing and frustrating to know that one's plans to make conditions better, particularly for the most disadvantaged in local authority areas, are to be held back because national expenditure on local government matters has gone out of fashion for the time being.

This means that where central Government is imposing restrictions it is coming up against the heartfelt wishes of people who have submitted themselves for election in their areas to produce better and better conditions. Now, local authorities are having to restrict their wishes. We are also in a post-reorganisation position. I say feelingly that reorganisation in the rest of the country has generally followed the pattern in the Greater London area.

I want to follow up the points made by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith), who has temporarily left the Chamber, and say how strongly I support his view that local government units should be smaller, not larger, with more representatives and not fewer. I say that from the experience of having served for a number of years on the second smallest of the metropolitan boroughs of London, where the electorate was about 50,000 and the number of elected members was small, but could, because of its local roots, keep in touch with the electorate.

Local people expected to know their local councillors, and it was possible for them to know them. It was also possible for almost anybody who was elected to walk to the town hall instead of having to travel for a considerable distance to reach it. It was not very difficult to get to the seat of local government, and women, particularly young women with families, were not completely precluded from taking part in local authority work.

My hon. Friend seems to have been infected by the reasons that were given for the reorganisation of London government or local government in the rest of the country. He has fallen into the trap of thinking that if one has fewer members they will be of better calibre. The original proposal put forward by the Herbert Committee on London Local Government was that if we reduced numbers to a third we therefore made them better. This was advanced 10 years later, in the reorganisation for the rest of the country.

Dr. Edmund Marshall

I did not make myself clear. I was not suggesting that we might have to consider reducing the number of members of metropolitan district councils if we paid them a full-time salary, but that if there was such a reduction it was not necessary to reduce them to a third of their present number, because one could also, by having single-member wards, have smaller wards.

Mrs. Miller

That might be a practical possibility. Since I do not follow my hon. Friend in advocating full-time paid councillors, it becomes irrelevant. I agree so much with my hon. Friend the Membr for Woolwich, East that the essence of local government is that it is composed of people who, in their spare time, are concerned with serving their community. This country is fortunate in the amount of voluntary service that is given over a wide range of activities, not merely in local government but in the tremendous number of voluntary societies which, in their way, are providing part of a local government service.

The method of electing councillors and keeping them in touch with their neighbours and with local problems at the same time as they are occupied outside their authority or within it, as working people, has a great deal to commend it. The tragedy of local government in the post-war years has been that there have been two sessions of reorganisation. The first was in the early 1960s, when the Conservatives determined to destroy the London County Council by reorganising the London area.

All the machinery was set in motion, all of the plans for reorganisation were made, when there was a change of Government. In 1964 it fell to a Labour Government to pick up the machinery that the Tories had introduced and try to make it work. All these years later there are still problems within the London boroughs. Most of those boroughs are breaking down their organisations into small district organisations to try to overcome the problems forced on them by reorganisation. Ten years later the same thing happened again. Without investigating in any way the results of their reorganisation in Greater London, the Tories decided to embark on reorganisation in the rest of the country. They reintroduced a system that was severely criticised in local government and by Labour Members.

Having done so, the Tories lost the next election and Labour was left, once again, to administer a system with which it disagreed—not only in local government but in the health and water services. Both of these latter services should be democratically administered by those elected to serve an area. The greatest benefit that can come from our encouragement of local government would arise if we asked the Government, bearing in mind the upheaval that has already been caused, carefully to monitor the ways in which both reorganisations have worked out and the ways in which reasons advanced for the reorganisations have worked out in practice. When a reasonable time has elapsed—I hope it will not be too long—the Government should come forward with proposals that will encourage people to stand for local government office, which will encourage the kind of greater independence that has already been referred to, particularly in respect of local authorities financing their services.

I hope that when the Layfield Report is received it will contain ideas that will relieve the rating system in some way, without necessarily abolishing it, and will enable local government to finance itself by methods other than the rating system. I hope that by these methods, by Government help on a block basis, locally elected members can make their own choices for their areas. In that way I believe we shall see an increasing interest among those who stand for local government office.

That alone will not be enough; we have also got to get the Government to spread the message that local government is an integral part of the government of the country, albeit at a local level. We must help encourage more people to understand the services—I agree that they do so only rarely—so that they will not only want to see their locally elected representatives, but will want to take part, by voting, in the machinery of local government.

3.5 p.m.

Mr. Tony Durant (Reading, North)

I intervene with some trepidation, because I understand I am the only hon. Member on the Conservative Benches to have been present during this debate. I apologise for missing the opening, but I have been at a meeting with the chief executive of my local council, so perhaps that qualifies me to take part in this discussion. This is a subject on which I have a debate myself next week. I shall then be concentrating on local government finance, but today I can have a dry run.

Planning is one of the key parts of local government. I do not think we spend sufficient time considering its overall impact on society. The local government reorganisation attempted to make clear which levels of local government would deal with planning matters, but the situation became confused and there is now overlapping between district and county councils, which both deal with planning matters on quite a large scale. Any future look at local government must define clearly the division between the powers of these councils.

We should also think more about regional planning, not just housing estates but transport, jobs, factories, housing and the whole environment, so that we have a system that is more viable than the present hotch-potch that exists in many areas.

Many planners spend too much time in their offices and not enough time out and about. It is easy for planners to say that a bad area has bad housing—though they do not know what that means—and that therefore it should be knocked down and rebuilt, with the residents being put back in the new properties. Someone will then suggest that access will be needed to the new development and the planners will decide to drive a road through the area. They forget that, in that area, there are human beings who will suddenly find their environment broken and smashed and the society which they have got used to—the pubs and the shops—taken away.

When I watch the programme "Coronation Street" on television, in the opening sequence the camera starts off at the top of high-rise flats and moves down to Coronation Street. I sometimes wonder whether the people in Coronation Streets are not happier than those in the smart high-rise flats. At least they know each other, and have an environment worth living in. Planners sometimes forget that the net product of planning is human beings and homes. We are too fond of creating concrete jungles that leave people without the things they need, including the pubs and the shops. I am living through this in my own constituency, which is perhaps why I feel so strongly about it.

I am sorry that I missed the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall). I understand he talked about the need for fewer councillors. He may be on the right lines. At the moment, there are so many councillors, particularly in district councils, that a number of them get frustrated because they have no constructive work to do. It would be an advantage to have a smaller number of councillors, able to do more detatiled work.

There has been slight exaggeration about the results of the Conservative local government reorganisation. Both sides of the House agreed that something must be done, and there had been many reports on local government, including the Redcliffe-Maud Report, and much pressure for change. We cannot criticise the previous Conservative Government for doing something about local government, but we can criticise the product. It is too sweeping to say that all the troubles are due to local government reorganisation. Certain parts of the reorganisation were not carried out as they should have been. There has been much false talk about this.

3.11 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Gordon Oakes)

My hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) has raised an important subject this afternoon, and I can congratulate him on raising it. Never before in its long history has our democratic local government system faced such difficulties and such bitter criticism, much of it unwarranted and hysterical.

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) was the only Opposition Member present until the entry into the Chamber a few moments ago of the hon. Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant), and I echo what he and my hon. Friends said. In view of the wave of hysterical criticism from Opposition Benches of rates and overmanning, it is astonishing that no Conservative Member except the hon. Member for Reading, North has set foot in the Chamber during the debate.

I naturally tend to agree with much of what the hon. Member for Rochdale said about reorganisation. I had a long experience in local government, as he did, before coming to the House. I must take him up on Liverpool. He asked whether I had visited Liverpool. I have been there frequently. In fact I was born there, but I lived there only a day or two before going to Widnes. I was educated at Liverpool University.

Although the hon. Gentleman, understandably, praises the Liberals for what they have done in Liverpool, the figures show that the rate in Liverpool has been kept down not by the perfection of Liberal administration but by the receipt in 1974–75 of £48.6 million from central Government funds. For 1975–76 that figure was increased by nearly £10 million to £58.94 million, an increase of 21.1 per cent. That is what kept down the rates in Liverpool.

I feel saddened when I look around Liverpool after two years of Liberal rule. It is a city of stagnation in which decisions have not been taken. It is sad to see a great city lacking good calibre local government control, of whatever party, unable to take big decisions.

I accept, as my hon. Friend the Member for Goole said, that many people turn to their Members of Parliament for help with problems which are within the responsibility of local authorities on which they should have gone for help to their local councillors or officers. In their turn, Members of Parliament frequently write to Ministers—especially to me—about similar problems instead of going to their local authorities with constituents' complaints. There is, it is true, a disappointing lack of knowledge about Government services in general, who is responsible for what and whether it is central Government or local government.

Ignorance, apathy and misunderstanding are bad enough, but when they are associated with prejudice and deliberate misrepresentation, the health of democratic institutions is endangered. We have had far too much criticism of local government recently. Much of that criticism has been unfair and misdirected. This afternoon I want to be somewhat unfashionable and praise local government, not blame it.

Local authorities today provide an enormously wide range of services to meet the needs of the community. Some services which used to be provided by local authorities have been transferred to other national agencies, often with not particularly spectacular results, but the range and quality of local authority work has nevertheless continued to expand. This is obvious when one considers, for example, the enormous expansion since the Second World War of education, the social services and housing, to mention but three.

Those services have expanded because the public have demanded wider and better services. Local authorities have responded to these pressures which have been exercised on them not only by their own electors but by successive Governments of both political persuasions.

There is nothing to be apologetic about. Are we to be ashamed of raising the school leaving age, of aiming to improve the welfare services, of building more houses or more roads, or of helping the chronically sick and the disabled? These are all aspects of higher living standards and, provided we can afford them, they are proper and desirable aims.

Services have to be paid for, however, and we live in a period of rising prices and rising wages. Rates have risen, and, in recent years they have risen sharply. This has led to very hostile criticism of local government expenditure. Coupled with this was the disastrous reorganisation of local government engineered by the Conservative Party. People who had grown accustomed to and proud of their native town suddenly found that the headquarters was in another place miles away and that the new authority had been re-christened. Indeed, a popular theme song for the last Government's efforts would be "Far-away places with strange-sounding names".

Mr. Durant

Does not the Minister agree that there was pressure for local government reorganisation? As I said in my speech, we can argue about the project but we must accept that there was a demand for some change. We had the Maud Report and other Reports. Will the Minister accept that this was so?

Mr. Oakes

Of course; we set up the Maud Committee. The Committee reported, suggesting a system of local government which was totally at variance with what the Conservative Government did. They wanted at all costs to preserve the counties, even to create counties where there had been none before. I am convinced that it was a political matter. We moved amendment after amendment in the House. We suggested unitary authorities, with possibly a regional framework of government. We were in Opposition and we lost. We were, I believe, supported by hon. Members from the Liberal Benches in nearly every one of those proposals. The blame for the reorganisation cannot be put on us or on the Maud Report. It must be put squarely on the shoulders of the Conservative Party, who fiddled with the Maud Report to what they thought would be their own political advantage, although it turned out very differently in the elections after the setting up of the authorities on 1st April 1974.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Cartwright) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mrs. Miller) both spoke of regional councils and said that if regional councils were established there should not be a third tier—or, if we include parish councils, a fourth tier, or again, if this House is included, a fifth, or, if Europe is included, a sixth tier. People would then be voting every other week. The discussion of the setting up in the fairly distant future, as it would be, of some regional tier of government is inevitably bound up with the discussion of devolution—devolution to English regions and so on—and I hope that later in the year there will be extensive discussion about the point.

To try to reorganise local government yet again on its second birthday would be worse than doing nothing at all. It would create the greatest confusion in local government and the greatest confusion in the minds of the public, and tremendous cost would also be involved.

Therefore, I think that we should go slowly on this. We should consult widely on it. We should find out what people want. If we evolve a better system as a result, let us get it right. But let us not hurry the proposals or gerrymander them in any way in our efforts to create a structure of local government suitable to local needs in the second half of the twentieth century.

Inevitably money comes into any debate on local authorities or on local government generally. Local authorities have been hit by inflation and the demand for better services more severe than others, for a number of reason. In the first place, local authority services are labour-intensive, and wages in recent years have been rising steeply. Secondly, local authorities are responsible for massive construction works. Much of this is normally and properly paid for out of borrowing, and interest rates have risen steeply too.

We cannot hope in present circumstances to find additional money for local government in 1976–77. We have therefore had to call for a standstill in local government spending. To achieve a standstill, authorities will have to take a long, hard look at all their present policies. They will have to define their priorities rigorously and ensure that every penny is spent to best effect. Even given the maximum attention to priorities and efficiency, a standstill will still have unpalatable implications for services.

In broad terms, the outlook for 1977–78 and beyond is for a very small reduction in current expenditure for two years, with some movement in 1979–80 back to the level of expenditure planned for 1976–77. There will need to be a continuation of the sort of constraints associated with the standstill in current expenditure already announced for 1976–77. Nevertheless, we have received the fullest co-operation from local authorities in acceptance of the need for Government policies.

At this point I should like to pay a warm tribute to the responsible attitude of the local authority associations and of individual authorities which are doing their best to meet the conflicting pressures on the one hand for restraint and on the other hand for the maintenance of services. Far from criticising them, I for one acknowledge the unselfish way in which they have responded to the Government's call for restraint to help speed our national recovery.

This applies to councils and councillors of all political persuasions, but especially to Labour councillors. I was once one, and I know that a Labour candidate goes into local politics with a burning desire to provide more and better services for his electors. That is usually his motive force in going into the work. While others may fight simply to keep the rates down or for local social prestige, his basic aim is to meet various needs, and that requires expenditure. So it is indeed a double sacrifice for Labour councils to meet their own Government's demands for severe restraint. But they have done it, and I am proud of them and so should the nation be.

Local government services are provided by people—by members and officers—and both have been the target of criticism, even abuse, during recent months. Almost all of it has been unwarranted. One target is the total manpower employed by local authorities. In round terms, and excluding the police and some other categories, local authorities in England and Wales employ a total of some 2,400,000 people. But many of these are part-time, and if the figures are adjusted to full-time and full-time equivalents then the total is just under 2 million. Of course, this figure has been growing since the war. It has been growing for the reasons I have indicated—the pressure for more and better services, backed by Government encouragement and sometimes legislation.

On this aspect, let me make three comments. First, the great bulk of local authority employees are people actually engaged on the provision of services. All big organisations need their back-up and administrative support, but those who attack an alleged army of bureaucrats need to look at the returns of local government employment, which are now being made available on a quarterly basis through the joint staff watch operated by central and local government in co-operation. From these figures it is apparent that more than half of all local government employees are teachers, school-meals staff and other people working in schools, while two-thirds of all local government employees are accounted for in education and the social services. These are not bureaucrats. A teacher, a groundsman, a cook and a health visitor are not "bureaucrats ". They are people providing services and in daily contact with the community and helping it.

Secondly, local authority associations are fully committed to the principle that the current economic climate requires a standstill, not only in expenditure but in total manpower. Again, we have received the fullest and most responsible co-operation in this field. Thirdly, local government—both employers and employees—has staunchly observed not only the current pay policy but also the social contract which preceded it. This has been a powerful contribution to the success of our incomes policy.

Members of authorities are attacked on other grounds. On the strength of a few highly publicised and uncharacteristic instances, members are accused of drawing vast sums in allowances. We have had the allowances arrangements under review and it is a difficult matter. But the facts show that the overwhelming majority of claims are responsibly based, reasonable in amount and modest in relation to the enormous amount of time which members devote to public works.

Let me put the matter in perspective. Many councillors devote almost a full week's work to council business, especially if they are leaders or committee chairmen, regardless of their party. The maximum amount which a councillor may claim for attendance allowance is £10 per day. After tax this only amounts to £6.40p. Therefore, if he worked every day of the week he would draw only £32. How many jobs in industry or outside, pay a working wage of less than £32? Critics of allowances should realise that many thousands of councillors are losing money—and a lot of money—by their devotion to the service of their fellow men.

My hon. Friends asked about the Government's inquiry. It is taking longer than we expected, for a number of reasons, not least that the Government's pay policy had to be taken into account. We also are considering it in conjunction with other Departments. In other words, we are considering the payment to councillors in the light of the payment to other people who serve the public. We are considering whether there should be an extension of the financial loss allowance, an increase in the attendance allowance for councillors, or some other system. We are having a wide review I hope that it will be settled soon because some people devote their lives to public service and are losing a considerable amount of money by doing so. I have come across some nasty cases where social security payments and other factors are involved in which people have been penalised very sharply for serving the public.

Mr. Cyril Smith

I hope that the Minister will not persist with his comparison a few moments ago when he asked how many workers were working for a basic wage of £32. He seemed to be comparing take-home pay with basic wages. The £32 received by councillors is after tax. Workers in industry pay tax as well.

Mr. Oakes

I agree with the hon. Member. I was referring to the take-home pay of people in positions of responsibility comparable with council chairmen. Very few of them take home less than £32 in their packet, and anyone who is devoting himself to working for the council is losing heavily by his actions.

Some newspapers, local and national, take great delight in presenting stories about local government in such a way as to imply that every councillor is corrupt and incompetent and that he is in it only for what he can get out of it. The very reverse is the truth. What the stories are really achieving is the destruction of faith in local government as a democratic institution without saying what might go in its place. A bureaucratic tangle of a prefectoral system instead—is that what they want—or dictatorial rule from Whitehall which occurs to me to be implicit in the Tories' repeated cheap promise to abolish domestic rating without saying what would replace it other than 100 per cent. funding from the Government?

We have received the Layfield Report—an enormously bulky document—and it is with the printers now. There has been an industrial dispute at Her Majesty's Stationery Office, but we hope to produce the Report at an early date.

Mr. Durant

I appreciate that the Minister cannot give a date. However, when the Report is available will the Government provide an opportunity for it to be discussed in general, or will they react to the Report and produce a Bill? First, will there be discussion, and, following that, will there possibly be a Bill?

Mr. Oakes

We must get the Report published first. When it is published there will be extensive discussions both in this House and outside. We cannot deal with the basis of how local government is to be funded and paid for without extensive discussions. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall not produce a Green Paper which says nothing, a White Paper which says less and a Bill which says nothing at all. We do not intend to go about it in that way. We shall have extensive discussions both inside and outside the House.

As a nation, we are grappling with enormously difficult economic problems. We are attempting to solve those problems while maintaining our standards of living and the vigour of our domestic democratic institutions.

In this effort we are receiving the fullest and most responsible co-operation from local government with the establishment of the Consultative Council on Local Government Finance and other joint exercises, including the staff watch, to which I have referred. I should like to pay my tribute, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North, to that Consultative Council. The local authority associations discuss in full detail with the central Government some of their problems. We likewise put before them what we have done, or what we intend to do, and our reasons for it, and they give their responses. It is all to the good of democratic institutions of government, both local and national, that consultation of that kind should take place.

It is high time to stop knocking local government. Local authorities are an essential part of our whole democratic machinery of government and they have been doing, and are now doing, a splendid job in most difficult circumstances. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment said in Manchester recently "The party is over." So be it. Let us now say that the partnership has begun.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House reaffirms its belief in the importance of local government, but recognises the need for more widespread acceptance of the principles of local democracy.

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