HC Deb 16 June 1976 vol 913 cc557-70

Queen's Recommendation having been signified—

Motion made, and Question proposed, That, for the purposes of any Act of the present Session to provide for the transfer to district councils of dwellings and associated property of new town corporations, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of grants made by the Secretary of State to district councils for the purpose of relieving any financial burden imposed on them by schemes providing for such transfer.—[Mr. John Silkin.]

4.12 p.m.

Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)

I celebrate that notable victory for the constitution by asking the Minister to say a word or two about the Money Resolution. It appears to relate only to Clause 9 of the Bill, which is concerned with grants to district councils. It does not, apparently, relate to clause 8, the other financial clause, which has to do with the transfer of debt and subsidies from the corporations to the local authorities. Nor, apparently, does it refer to Clause 12, which relates to compensation for people who lose their jobs as a result of the transfer. Nor, apparently, does it relate either to Clause 13 or Clause 14, the first of which deals with the staff of the New Towns Staff Commission and the second of which increases the maximum number of members of development corporations, who will, I understand, receive a fee for their work.

Why does the Money Resolution relate only to Clause 9? If I remember rightly, the comparable resolution before the Committee stage went wider. Much more important, we are entitled to ask how much money is envisaged under the Money Resolution. The background to politics today is inevitably the size of public expenditure. I know that we cannot pin down the Minister to completely accurate figures, because that is impossible, but we are entitled to ask him to give us a notion of how much money we are talking about.

There is also the important question of how long the expenditure will continue. We sought to limit the period under which grants under Clause 9 can be paid because we were not keen on the notion of a blank cheque in perpetuity.

There is another oddity on which I should like some explanation. The Explanatory and Financial Memorandum which accompanied the Bill when it received a Second Reading states in paragraph 18: The provision in Clause 9 for transitional grant will be offset by reductions in the amount payable to development corporations by way of grant under section 42(2) of the New Towns Act 1965. It appears to say that money that is paid in the form of grants to local authorities when they take over housing schemes will be matched by a reduction in the grant from the central Government to the development corporations.

On the face of it, there seems to be no need to increase the amount of money made available. We are talking merely about transferring money from one programme to another. It may be that, under the principles of Government or Treasury regulations, that is not good enough and there has to be a separate authorisation, although there is an offsetting saving. Will the Minister say whether there will be a net increase in public expenditure as a result of Clause 9, or whether the money will simply go to local authorities instead of to the new town development corporations? It would be helpful to the House if the right hon. Gentleman would answer these significant points.

4.16 p.m.

The Minister for Planning and Local Government (Mr. John Silkin)

I remind the House that a Money Resolution was introduced before the Second Reading of the Bill which went far wider than Clause 9 although it included Clause 9. The Money Resolution that we are considering today does not totally take the place of the Money Resolution which was passed before Second Reading. It merely supplements it in one respect only, and that is Clause 9.

The reason is fairly simple. The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) will recall that he moved an amendment to Clause 9, which was partly probing and partly more serious, on the subject of financing the transfer as between development corporations and district councils. He will also recall that my hon. Friends the Members for Harlow (Mr. Newens) and Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) took his point and questioned the wording then in the Bill. The questioning crystallised around the phrase "undue burden".

I think, Mr. Speaker, that with your usual tolerance you might perhaps rule me slightly in order if I refer to Clause 9.

Mr. Speaker

I should not have noticed had the Minister not drawn my attention to it.

Mr. Silkin

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. To deal with Clause 9 and the Government amendment to Clause 9, it was necessary to widen the Money Resolution. In Committee, the Opposition moved an amendment and my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow wished to move an amendment, which the Chairman ruled out of order because the Money Resolution was too tight. We have introduced a supplemental Money Resolution so that we may discuss the question of the financial burden that will arise under Clause 9. And in due course we shall consider the Government amendment and also Amendment No. 19 to be moved by the hon. Member for Aylesbury.

Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)

There are considerable misgivings in Cwmbran New Town and in the Torfaen District Council, in which Cwmbran is situated, as to whether the funds are adequate to meet the cost of the transfer. Is the Minister making it unequivocally clear that sufficient funds from the State will be available to ensure that no undue burden passes to the Torfaen District Council on the transfer of housing from Cwmbran New Town?

Mr. Silkin

The difficulty is that the issues are fundamental to the two amendments of which I have spoken. The purpose of the Money Resolution is merely to allow us to discuss those amendments and, hopefully, to decide upon them. If as a result we were to say that the Money Resolution should not be passed, we would not be in a position to discuss the important matters raised by the hon. Member for Aylesbury and which are probably out of order here but would be in order on the amendments which we shall discuss later.

Mr. Raison

I am not sure whether this discussion is out of order or in order. The Minister seems more inclined than Mr. Speaker to dispose our rules of order.

I shall be grateful if the Minister will refer to the two specific points I have raised. We are entitled to ask what sum of money is at stake. That is the point of a Money Resolution. I should be grateful if the Minister could comment on the Financial Memorandum on the original Bill, because it seemed to imply that there was no additional public spending but merely a transfer of spending from the new towns to the local authorities.

Mr. Speaker

Before the Minister replies, may I say that I understand that this discussion would be better and more in order if it were pursued when we come to Amendments Nos. 14 and 19. If the Money Resolution does not go through, we shall not be able to deal with those amendments. To that extent, this is also a paving Money Resolution.

Mr. Hal Miller (Bromsgrove and Redditch)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask you to consider that the original Money Resolution extended further than Clause 9? My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) was asking questions relating to other clauses.

Mr. Speaker

That part is clear. The House has approved the original Money Resolution, and we are now discussing the one that is before us.

Mr. Raison

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Amendment No. 19 reads: leave out 'determined by him with the consent of the Treasury' and insert 'of seven years'. It deals with the period of time during which grants can be paid. Would we risk being out of order if we widened the debate to discuss the topics I have raised?

Mr. Speaker

I do not want the debate to be widened now. I was suggesting that the hon. Gentleman will be able to pursue his arguments when we conic to Amendment No. 19. That is my suggestion, which I think is based on good advice.

Mr. Ian Cow (Eastbourne)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not the case that the Money Resolution is fully debatable by the House and that the order of business is that before we can come to the consideration of the Bill we should consider the Money Resolution, upon which there can be a Division if the House so wishes? Will you confirm that it is in order to debate the resolution? The matter is important, and I understand that you are not seeking to restrict debate.

Mr. Speaker

Not for the first time, the hon. Gentleman is correct. It is a debatable motion. The House has to make up its mind upon it.

Mr. Silkin

As I was saying about four points of order ago, this is really the opening of the sort of discussion which hon. Members want to hold and it is right that they should do so. I am sorry the hon. Member for Aylesbury seems to think that I am dictating the rules of order.

Years ago, when I was Deputy-Leader of the House, it was a common rule of order that when a Money Resolution had been passed by the House a supplementary resolution was introduced to allow an amendment to be discussed fully. That procedure enables the Bill to be changed.

It is extraordinary that hon. Members should wish to debate the matter that will give them that freedom. If they do not want that freedom and do not want to discuss it or to change the Bill, all I can say is that all those hours that we spent in Committee were in vain. The issue is better discussed on the amendments. It is not relevant to the supplementary Money Resolution, which enables us to discuss those amendments.

4.26 p.m.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

I find myself in respectful disagreement with the Minister when he implies that it would be better not to have a debate on the resolution at this stage.

Mr. John Silkin

The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) misinterprets me. If hon. Members want a debate, by all means let us have it, but at least let it be on the right point. The point of the resolution is to allow debates on Amendments Nos. 14 and 19. That is all.

Mr. Gow

With respect to the Minister, may I say that the resolution authorises the expenditure of sums of money which are not quantified? Does the right hon. Gentleman dissent from that proposition?

Mr. John Silkin

The resolution only authorises that if the House decides to approve either the amendment standing in my name or that in the name of the hon. Member for Aylesbury. Until we have examined those matters, we shall not know.

Mr. Gow

The Minister is prejudging the issue, because at this stage the only issue before the House is the Money Resolution. I support the pertinent observations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison). Without an assurance from the Minister about the sums of money that are involved, it is not right for the House to agree to the resolution.

It has been confirmed by Mr. Speaker that the resolution is debatable, and I have some questions for the Minister to which we should have answers before we discuss the Bill. Why is no financial limit mentioned in the resolution? Frequently, when we are debating a Money Resolution a limit is imposed. It is clear from the wording of Clause 9 that if the House agrees to the resolution we will hand over to the discretion of the Minister the payment of public money and the House will once again do something which it should be reluctant to do. If we agree to the resolution without any limit, we shall be surrendering to the Executive the control over public expenditure which should be exercised zealously by the House. I find it unconvincing that the Minister is not able to give an estimate of the payment which is envisaged under Clause 9.

Was the sum of money which is envisaged by the Minister under Clause 9 taken into account when the Budget estimates were presented to the House on 6th April and when the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the public sector borrowing requirement? It is not good enough for the Minister to say that this is not a matter which is of legitimate concern to the House. It should be of the greatest concern when the House is investing power to spend unlimited amounts of money without the Minister coming back for our approval.

I hope that before we agree or divide on the resolution the Minister will say how much is involved and whether provision for this unspecified sum was taken into account by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Budget.

4.30 p.m.

Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)

I pressed my right hon. Friend so that I might obtain clarification, but his reply tended to obfuscate the issue rather than make the position clearer. That was no doubt due to my obtuseness and not to any lack of clarity on his part.

We should know a little more about the amount involved. I represent a constituency with a small local authority, Torfaen, and a large new town, Cwmbran, which is likely to expand considerably. There is a possibility that the housing assets of that substantial new town can be transferred to the local authority. It is, naturally, a matter of deep concern to all my constituents that my right hon. Friend should ensure that the sum he receives is large enough to avoid any burden falling upon the ratepayers when they assimilate the housing assets of the new town.

The relevance of that to the debate is that there is the possibility that the Minister will have discretion as to whether he gives monetary relief to the local authority when it takes over the assets. The Bill makes it clear not only that he may ensure that sufficient funds are distributed but that he may do it wholly or in part. If that is so, we are discussing the very substance of the matter when we talk about how much money he will have.

What hope have my constituents that their anxieties will be relieved when we take over the formidable task of administering this vast amount of housing? I express my unease on their behalf and hope that we may have some assurance that the funds being asked for will be adequate to enable my right hon. Friend not to feel that he is boxed in at any time in assisting the Torfaen District Council to take over the assets. The council very much desires to exercise democratic control. My constituents have been urging over many years, through me, that the new town should come under the control not of a development corporation but of a duly-elected local authority which would be able to administer the housing within its own area.

Does the resolution enable my right hon. Friend to be satisfied that he will not feel inhibited? If he is inhibited, I can well understand that my local authority, like many other local authorities, would draw back from taking over the housing.

The importance of making certain that sufficient funds are being voted is reinforced by the fact that there are within the Bill residual powers for the Minister to dragoon local authorities into taking over housing assets which could be a heavy financial responsibility. When ratepayers in all areas are sensitive to increases in expenditure, it is important that we should take no action which could add to the burdens of the ratepayers, anxious as they may be to assume their democratic responsibilities of administering the houses in the area.

Therefore, I trust that my right hon. Friend, who will know the anxieties that there can be in a South Wales valley over such issues, will give us an indication that he is satisfied that he will not be inhibited by a shortage of funds from ensuring that a transfer of housing assets will not mean new and heavy burdens for the ratepayers and their elected representatives who will be receiving those assets.

4.35 p.m.

Mr. Hal Miller

It might be for the convenience of the House if the Minister assisted us once more by explaining that this Money Resolution is supplementary to that which was passed earlier.

Mr. John Silkin

That is exactly what I said 20 minutes ago.

Mr. Miller

I was trying to have it confirmed, because it seemed to me that some hon. Members had not appreciated that the resolution is to enable us later to discuss Amendments Nos. 14 and 19 but that the sums involved have already been passed on a Money Resolution. The right hon. Gentleman might explain exactly what those sums were. We have had no figures mentioned, nor has the right hon. Gentleman answered the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) about the extra costs for the New Towns Staff Commission and the other matters mentioned in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum. That would help many hon. Members to realise exactly what is involved.

4.37 p.m.

Mr. John Cope (Gloucestershire South)

It might help some hon. Members, but not me, because the point I wish to raise is directly related to the Money Resolution and I think that it would be out of order to raise it on Amendment No. 14 or Amendment No. 19.

I should like first to take up the matter raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) when he said that the House would have no further opportunity to approve or otherwise any sums which might be paid out under the Money Resolution. I understand that that is not strictly so. As the years go by, the House will have the opportunity year by year to approve the Estimates in which the sums involved in the clauses in question and permitted by the Money Resolution will appear.

It is true that the House has got into the habit of not looking very closely at most of the Estimates. It is an exaggeration to say that the Estimates procedure has fallen into disuse, but it is no longer a very severe brake on the spending of the Administration, either in total or a small figure such as this. Nevertheless, further opportunities of returning to this point will offer themselves over the years.

Mr. Gow

It is clear from Clause 9 that the Secretary of State … may … make grants to the council"— the council concerned— of amounts and for a period determined by him with the consent of the Treasury". Therefore, all that has to happen if we pass the resolution is for the Secretary of State to agree with the Treasury and, lo and behold, the House is presented with a fait accompli, subject only, as my hon. Friend points out, to an annual debate on the totality of Government spending which has become so massive that we need to be very jealous of our duty to the people to be zealous about scrutinising the right hon. Gentleman's expenditure.

Mr. Cope

My hon. Friend is quite right de facto, but I think that I am correct de jure. Since he is a lawyer and I am not, that gives me a little pleasure.

The point I wish to make concerns the difference between the wording of the Money Resolution and the wording of Amendment No. 14. The Bill originally said that the Government would pay by grant for "an undue financial burden". The amendment suggests that the Government will meet by grant "a financial burden", omitting the word "undue". But the Money Resolution proposes to relieve "any financial burden". Therefore, there is a difference not only between the amendment and the Bill as it stands but also between the amendment and the Money Resolution.

Let us in this context take the analogy of a horse. An undue burden placed on a horse is such a burden as will cause the horse to collapse immediately or very shortly after the burden is imposed or as will wear out the horse. A burden placed on a horse is a normal burden which it is able to carry for a good time, such as a man or equipment. But "any burden" placed on a horse implies almost anything from a piece of straw upwards.

Therefore, if the amendment is carried and the Bill goes through as amended, the Secretary of State will be able to relieve any burden imposed on a local authority, such as that represented by the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse), if the burden is difficult for the local authority to bear. On the other hand, if the wording in the Money Resolution is followed, any costs of any kind will be covered if they are incurred as a result of the transfer between the new town and the local authority.

It seems to me that there are a number of areas of cost to be considered. There is the area of highest cost as represented by the Money Resolution, for which we have had no figure or even what the Americans call a "ball park" figure. We have not even had from the Government a wild guess at the kind of figure with which we are dealing in the Money Resolution, nor, so far as I am aware, have we had any estimate of what the amendment might cost. When at a later stage we discuss the relevant amendment, no doubt, it will be in order for the Minister to give us that information. It might not be in order for him to give the first figure, but so far as I know we have had no estimate of the cost of the Bill as it stands. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will consider these matters before we pass the resolution.

4.43 p.m.

Mr. Mark Carlisle (Runcorn)

Since we are having a wider-than-normal debate on the Money Resolution, I should like to ask the Minister a question which in normal circumstances I would ask him when we dealt with the amendments.

As I understand the situation, the purpose of the Money Resolution is to remove the word "undue" from the provision related to the relief of financial burden in respect of district councils. I was not a member of the Committee, but I am delighted that the Money Resolution has been amended in that way. I hope it means that the Department has been good enough to consider the short speech which I made on Second Reading, when I mentioned the second-generation towns and the effect of the provisions on constituencies such as mine.

In that debate I mentioned the increased burden for the ratepayers in regard to the transfer of assets relating to Runcorn New Town. That transfer would have involved an increase of 9p on the rates. Will the Minister confirm whether the amended money resolution will enable the Government to look in the widest possible terms at the financial burden on local authorities which take over second-generation new towns where houses have recently been built at high interest rates and where they are taking over liabilities rather than taking over, as it were, a large amount of rating income, as happens in some of the older generation of new towns?

4.45 p.m.

Mr. John Silkin

It is always the penalty in this House, when one is generous to an Opposition and says "We shall take into account what you have said and try to meet you", that sooner or later they will come along in another form and use their best endeavours to prevent altruistic and generous ministerial suggestions being put into effect.

This is the situation that arose following Committee stage. The hon. and learned Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) made an effective speech on Second Reading and voiced the fears of which my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) might have been aware had he been present for that debate. Indeed, the point was underlined by a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House. The matter was also raised in Committee by the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris).

The difficulty that faced us was that the House had already passed a Money Resolution and indeed it appears that Opposition Members are now threatening to take advantage of my altruistic motives. If they want to go into the Division Lobby against their own Front Bench, no doubt they will do so. I must tell them, however, that I regarded this as a fair point which I thought should be examined and remedied.

It was impossible in the circumstances in Committee to introduce an amendment to exclude the word "undue", and I am sure that the hon. and learned Member for Runcorn and my hon. and unlearned Friend the Member for Pontypool will understand the point. [Interruption.] Yes, my hon. and "unlearned" Friend, who will know that I am unlearned, too. I thought that it was difficult to allay legitimate fears on both sides of the House without altering the Money Resolution. The hon. Member for Bromsgrove and Redditch (Mr. Miller) got the point 20 minutes after I had made it. We are saying that we cannot discuss this matter unless we have a slightly different Money Resolution that will enable us to deal with amendments Nos. 14 and 19.

There are some points which I can perhaps dispose of at this point in the proceedings. I do so on the strict understanding that the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) will not raise them again unless he is dissatisfied with my answer. The hon. Member asked about the number of staff required. How can I say how much compensation will be paid to staff? That is the reason for having a staff commission—namely, so that it may ascertain those matters.

I was also asked how much money was to be paid to the staff commission in terms of fees. My reply is that we do not know on how many occasions it will meet. The members of the commission are paid a daily rate. Brilliant though my powers of prophecy may be, they are not as brilliant as that. Therefore, I cannot predict on how many occasions the commission will meet.

I was also asked what would be the relevant financial arrangements between the development corporation and the district council at the moment of transfer, looking at the situation today. Of course, we cannot give that information.

I have done my best to meet those hon. Members who do not like the word "undue". Indeed, I explained on another occasion to my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) that I could not understand what a "due burden" was. I said that it was one of the things we would be looking at. In order to do that, we need a supplementary Money Resolution. That is all there is to it.

If the House wished to divide and the Opposition were to win the Division, the only effect would be that the amendments—which, after due consideration, we have introduced in order to be of assistance—would be out of order.

Mr. Raison

Will the Minister answer a point which I put to him twice, which seems to me to be entirely relevant to the Money Resolution and not particularly relevant, in a sense, to the amendments? In the Financial Memorandum on the Bill as it was at Second Reading, it was stated that: The provision in Clause 9 for transitional grant will be offset by reductions in the amount payable to development corporations by way of grant under Section 42(2) of the New Towns Act 1965". In other words, it appeared to say that there would not be a need for any extra public money. Can we have confirmation whether this is so? If it is so, can we be told why we need a Money Resolution? This is entirely germane to this debate.

Mr. Silkin

It is also germane, when one thinks of it, to the original Money Resolution, on which it was not raised. Of course, when transfer takes place the grant will go down to the development corporation because the houses will be transferred. There may be cases where, those houses having been transferred to the district council—it will not happen in every case—the district council might be put to financial hardship. That is what all the debates in Committee were about.

I dare not risk being ruled out of order by talking at this stage about the excellent Amendment No. 14 in my name, but if that excellent amendment were to be passed—or even were it not to be passed—the Secretary of State could, with the consent of the Treasury, say that such and such a district council would suffer from financial hardship as a result of a transfer. It might or might not happen, but if it did he could say "Let us have a look at it and see whether we can do something to help".

The hon. Member for Aylesbury has a somewhat rigid mind on these things and may be able to think of some rigid wording. If he can think of some rigid wording to meet that case in the 29 or so new towns which have been created over a period of perhaps 50 years, he has mistaken his vocation and should be a parliamentary draftsman.

Mr. Gow

Is the Minister really telling the House that neither he nor his Department can make any estimate at all of the amount of money which will be required under this transfer, either during this financial year or next? Is he asking for a blank cheque?

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That, for the purposes of any Act of the present Session to provide for the transfer to district councils of dwellings and associated property of new town corporations, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of grants made by the Secretary of State to district councils for the purpose of relieving any financial burden imposed on them by schemes providing for such transfer.