HC Deb 10 February 1982 vol 17 cc957-9
4. Mr. Booth

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will seek to amend the law in order to clarify the rights of local authorities other than the Greater London Council to limit fares and sustain transport services.

Mr. David Howell

No. I am not convinced that legislation is necessary.

Mr. Booth

Does the Secretary of State recall that the advice from the Government, including that of the Solicitor-General, when the Lords judgment was debated in the House was that the judgment affected only the Greater London Council? Is not the damage caused by the Conservatives of Bromley in bringing the action likely to affect many other areas? If the Government's advice that the Lords judgment affects only the GLC is sound, will the Secretary of State repeat it now and write to metropolitan authorities throughout the country to explain that that is the case?

Mr. Howell

I shall be meeting the Association of Metropolitan Authorities tomorrow. If there are problems that trouble its members, they will no doubt be raised. The association has not yet raised with me the question of legislation. What concerns the association and, indeed, people throughout the country is the need to achieve a sensible balance between the burden on ratepayers and the level of fares. It is only when one departs from common sense that difficulties arise.

Mr. Alton

I accept the need for balance. However, will the Secretary of State advise district councils, particularly in places such as Merseyside, where five district councils are trying to work out their budgets for the coming year and do not know what level of rate they should levy, how to find their way out of this quandary?

Mr. Howell

That is a matter for metropolitan and transport authorities to work out in making their budgets. Representatives of the association will be seeing me tomorrow. If there are problems, these will be raised. I have not so far been pressed on the need for legislation. The need, as I have already stated, is to achieve a balance between the ratepayer and the fare payer.

Mr. Fry

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the recent problems of the GLC show that the methods of providing public transport support are not satisfactory? Does he further agree that the time has perhaps come for a thorough investigation into methods of sustaining public transport to avoid the sort of embarrassing situation in which both he and GLC ratepayers found themselves in recent months?

Mr. Howell

There is another question on the Order Paper relating to the GLC. I shall deal with this matter at that time.

Mr. Christopher Price

Why is the Minister so grossly discourteous to his own Prime Minister on the issue? Does he not realise that during the passage of the 1969 legislation the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) totally approved of the principles outlined by the then Government that the GLC should be allowed to subsidise London Transport? Does he realise that the right hon. Lady's honour is at stake?

Mr. Howell

It is the reputation of the memory of the hon. Gentleman that is at stake. The Government have always made it clear that a reasonable level of subsidy is acceptable. That is reflected in our transport supplementary grant. We have also made it clear that propositions that would lead to a tripling of the rates and a tenfold increase in the rate element for public transport in any authority is absurd and unfair. It penalises those least able to protect themselves.

Mr. Alexander

Does my right hon. Friend believe that, since the recent judgment, the law is clear? Does he recall a reference in the judgment to local authorities owing a fiduciary duty to their ratepayers? Is he aware that this has confused many local authorities? If my right hon. Friend agrees that there is confusion, does he think that early legislation might resolve the matter?

Mr. Howell

The Lords judgment related particularly to legislation affecting the GLC. There is another question on the Order Paper on that matter. The fiduciary duty has always existed and remains. If the metropolitan counties now have difficulty interpreting it, they will no doubt raise the matter tomorrow at our meeting. The question of legislation affecting metropolitan counties outside the GLC has not been raised.

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