HC Deb 23 March 1981 vol 1 cc764-7

The Secretary of State shall publish an annual volume of local government financial statistics within 12 months of the end of the financial year in question".—[Mr. Dewar.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Dewar

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The clause has no hidden subtleties. It has the immense advantage of saying exactly what it means. Therefore, there is every hope that the Secretary of State will be able to deal with it sympathetically and adequately. At least he will understand it, and so will I.

There is a sad lack in the provision of local government financial statistics for Scotland. There is published every year the "Scottish Abstract of Statistics", but this is something of a catch-as-catch-can bumper book of goodies. Those who consult it will find that it covers social work, employment, education, social security, law enforcement, and anything one cares to mention. What is not in the range of publications available to MPs or to anyone else interested is a specialist publication covering local government finance specifically.

The English have every year "Local Government Financial Statistics", and obviously that is of considerable assistance to them. The Welsh have a splendid publication. This is the fourth year in which it has been produced. It is "Welsh Local Government Financial Statistics". It runs to over 90 pages. It covers almost every conceivable aspect of what would be, for us, rate support grant, housing support grant, outturn figures, housing capital allocations—the whole complicated labyrinthal jungle of local government finance through which some of us, as amateurs, attempt nervously to thread our way.

I am merely suggesting to the Minister that it would be excellent if, even five years late, we caught up with what the Welsh are already doing and produced for Scotland this range of facts and figures. I commend that idea to the right hon. Gentleman with the thought that at least it would be likely to cut down the number of written questions that I, for one, table to him and which have to be dealt with by his long-suffering officials, and that therefore, there might be a considerable offsetting saving in public funds if there were to be an adequate annual publication of the kind that I am recommending to him.

Mr. Norman Hogg

I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), because I believe that there is a strong case for the new clauses, given that we have publications for England and Wales but not for Scotland, notwithstanding the "Abstract of Statistics" which is published annually.

There is an increasing interest in local government finance. Over the past few months, those of us who have been involved in the work of the Select Committee and of the Standing Committee on this Bill have had that demonstrated to us by the number of representations from external organisations and organisations within local government. I am impressed by the amount of interest that is shown in this area.

There is a great deal of interest in local government services. That has been increasing not least because of the impact of Government policy on local government services. It would help immensely if we had an annual return of figures published in a form which could be easily read by those who have an interest in these matters.

Also, the drawing of comparisons between authorities would be facilitated if we had such a publication. There is also the interest of the employees of local government, who are concerned to ensure that the service compares favourably as between one authority and another. Such a publication would be of interest in negotiations over pay and conditions of service. It is important that there should be the widest information available to those engaged on that on both sides of the negotiating table.

Ratepayers and tenants in the wider community have a right to know, and if there is a strong case for publishing such figures, it is on the argument of the right to know. Conservative Members said a lot about that before the present Government came into office, but they have not said so much about it since then. The public have a right to know how public money is being spent. A publication of the kind sought by my right hon. Friend the Member for Garscadden would be a help in that direction.

Mr. Younger

I appreciate what the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) had in mind when tabling the new clause. I agree with him and with his hon. Friend the Member for Dunbartonshire, East (Mr, Hogg) that there is a need for information to be published timeously and in a form in which we can most easily use it.

It has been mentioned that the "Rating Review" is an extremely useful document that we are all used to using, and the Scottish Office co-operates closely with the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy on the provision of data for inclusion in the "Rating Review".

1.15 am

As the hon. Gentleman knows, section 118 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 provides that the Secretary of State may require all local authorities to make returns of specified information and the Secretary of Slate is required to lay before Parliament a summary of the information that he collects. That is a useful power, but, unfortunately, due to the difficulties that local authorities have been working under since reorganisation, none of these publications has come out since 1974–75. The assembly of information, however, has now been brought forward for the intervening years and information for the years 1975–76, 1976–77 and 1977–78 is complete. A single volume of financial statistics covering all three years will be published shortly.

I hope that that will go some way to putting right the backlog. I agree that we should try to get publication on a regular and timeous basis in future. However, I should be slightly nervous about writing into a statute a provision to the effect that it would have to be published within 12 months of the end of a financial year. It may seem to be a rather low aim to think that it might be difficult to produce it within 12 months of the end of a financial year, but it is not uncommon for local authority information to be outstanding as late as October or November following the end of the financial year, bearing in mind the printing and other difficulties involved in bringing together information from 65 different authorities. It is quite possible that with the best will in the world, information would not be quite available within 12 months of the end of the financial year. I accept the spirit of what is involved in the new clause. It should be the aim of the Scottish Office and the local authority to provide the information or to produce it within a year from the end of the financial year, because otherwise it becomes increasingly less useful. But I am afraid that I cannot accept the new clause as drafted, for the reasons that I have spelt out.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel that it is worth his while to withdraw the new clause now in the knowledge that we shall shortly publish figures for three of the intervening years and that I accept the spirit of trying to ensure that in future figures are produced regularly and timeously if possible within one year.

Mr. Dewar

I do not wish forcibly to feed the right hon. Gentleman with the new clause. I do not intend to pursue the matter. The Secretary of State deserves a gold star for effort. He has appreciated his one hundred and fourteenth problem of the evening. We are grateful for the fact that on this occasion he appears likely to do something about it.

We cannot all be proud of the fact that in 1981 we shall be soon be receiving the statistics for 1975–76 and the two subsequent years. But, for these small crumbs of comfort much thanks. I hope that in future we shall be able to get nearer the annual publication that we ask for in the clause. It is a genuine point and there may have been difficulties, but local government reorganisation is now behind us. I presume that the statistical departments are well established and embedded in their annual rounds and I should not have thought that it was beyond the ingenuity of that mighty organ of government, the Scottish Office, to produce the statistics reasonably timeously. With those remarks, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave withdrawn.

Further consideration of the Bill adjourned.—[Mr. Younger.]

Bill, as amended (in the Standing Committee), to be further considered this day.