HC Deb 25 March 1981 vol 1 cc946-7
Mr. Rifkind

I beg to move amendment No. 10, in page 5, line 41, leave out from "Council)" to "for" in line 44.

The amendment removes from the Bill the paragraph in clause 10 that seeks to increase the membership of the Scottish Valuation Advisory Council from 15 to 16. I agreed in Committee to reconsider whether such an increase was necessary. I am able to say that on further reflection I feel able to maintain the present overall size of the council without making any pro rata reduction in the number of members nominated by COSLA. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram) for his suggestion that we should consider the matter again. I am glad to have been able to meet his argument.

Mr. Dewar

This is a minor matter, but it is an interesting case of quango-bashing. The Scottish Valuation Advisory Council is undoubtedly a body of some use. In Committee we considered the rating system for hostels, and one of the reasons for inaction that was ingeniously produced by the Minister was that it would be necessary to take the advice of the council. There is no doubt that it has a useful life in front of it. I am curious to know why it has been decided to cut off the extra member before he gets to the starting gate.

We were told in Committee, in column 164 of the Official Report of 27 January, that the cost of the council varied between £146 and £332 per year, depending upon its activity. I do not imagine that the Government have reached this decision on the ground of economy. We have seen a desirable expansion in its numbers cut back. We know that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram) complained bitterly about any increase in numbers as a general matter of principle. In a letter to me of 18 March the Minister claimed that he had responded positively to his hon. Friend's representations. I do not know whether one responds positively by retreating. In any event, the Minister gave no reason for his decision, and he has given no reason today.

The Minister said in Committee that a large majority—not an overriding majority"—[Official Report, First Scottish Standing Committee; 27 January 1981, c. 166.] should be local authority members. That is an interesting use of language. It seems that we shall now have six local authority members in a council of 15 members. If that can be described as a large majority—not an overriding majority", it is an interesting use of the English language by the Minister that I find novel and somewhat puzzling.

It is a pity that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South is not in the Chamber to enjoy his triumph. However, I cannot think that he wants to go down in history as the author of this major legislative change. When autobiographical fragments are written later in life, I do not think that he will want the reduction in the size of the council from 16 to 15 members to be recorded as his proudest moment. If it is merely to please the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South and give him the erroneous impression that his activities are useful, I shall be sorry. I hope that there is something a little more substantial behind this retreat, and the Minister owes us an explanation.

Mr. Rifkind

I am happy to respond to the hon. Gentleman's kind invitation. He will recall that the main purpose of the clause which was considered and approved in Committee was to reduce the representation of the local authorities on the council from eight to six. The background was that until now local authorities have had a majority of the representation on the Valuation Advisory Council of eight members out of a total of 15.

When the council was first created there was an argument for that because there were several different local authority organisations and there was no particular significance in the fact that they added up to an overall majority. Since local government reorganisation, however, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities represents all local authorities and it seems undesirable that any one organisation should have, by itself, a controlling power, even on an advisory council. Therefore, it seemed more sensible to have a figure of approximately six out of 15, which still allows COSLA the largest single representation, but does not leave it with a majority.

It was the Government's original intention to increase the size of the council from 15 to 16 to allow as wide a spread as possible amongst the other interests that could be represented on the council. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram)) and other hon. Members pointed out that that might not be necessary, both because of the reduction in COSLA's representation and because the responsibilities of the council had been reduced rather than increased.

We gave consideration to the representations, and they seemed to be valid. As I have occasionally been accepting amendments from the Opposition, there is no fundamental reason why I should not occasionally accept an amendment from one of my hon. Friends.

Mr. Dewar

I remain totally unconvinced by that explanation. It is an interesting variation of the theory of fair shares for all, but I suppose we shall have to be satisfied with this rather thin argument. I think that the only reason why the amendment has been accepted is that when, in years to come, the grandchildren of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram) ask him what he did in the great economic depression he will be able to point to the amendment as his life's work. It is an extraordinary gesture, but as it is not a matter of enormous importance I do not intend to divide the House.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I should make it plain to the House that we are on Report and that hon. Members who wish to speak twice should seek the permission of the House, apart from the Minister and hon. Members who are moving amendments.

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