HC Deb 28 July 1982 vol 28 cc1188-91

Lords amendment: No. 9, in Page 39, line 10 leave out "subsection (3) below and to"

Mr. Allan Stewart

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, we may take Lords amendments Nos. 10, 11 and 16.

Mr. Stewart

The object of the amendment is to retain the power of a local authority voluntarily to reduce its rate when faced with action by the Secretary of State under section 5 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1966.

Mr. Millan

With respect, the amendments do more than that, and we are entitled to an explanation of their effect. They would retain section 108A of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 but would amend subsection (1).

I read the explanation of the amendments given by Lord Mansfield in another place and found it incomprehensible. He said that the new wording would allow a local authority to determine a new, and presumably lower, rate later in the procedure—we abhor, and voted against, the principle—but the amendment does the opposite.

At present, under section 108A a local authority can decide to modify its rate at any time before the Secretary of State informs it that the reduction specified in the report that the Secretary of State makes to the House has been made. Up to the point at which the reductions provided for in the report and approved by the House have been made, the local authority can modify its rate.

11.30 pm

The new wording that has been put in says that that can only be done up to the point that the report is approved by the House. That seems to be an earlier part of the procedure and therefore, far from the amendment allowing the local authority more time to make changes, it allows it less time.

I should like to know exactly what amendment No. 11, which the Minister did not mention, means. It changes section 108A of the 1973 Act, and I should like the Minister's explanation of what effect that change will have as it seems to be the opposite effect that the Minister in the other place said it would have. If that is so, it would seem to be rather undesirable even to the Government, and the Opposition find it abhorrent.

Amendments Nos. 9 and 10 make changes in clause 63, and we are entitled to some explanation of these as well. It was clause 63 which, as we understood it, made it clear that the new procedures provided for in the earlier stages of the Bill further to tighten up the power of the Secretary of State over the local authority and, in effect, to determine their rates for them over the heads of the elected local authorities, should not come into operation earlier than 1983–84. The only specific reference to that is in subsection (3) of clause 63, where the year 1983–84 is mentioned.

Amendments Nos. 9 and 10 remove subsection (3) of clause 63. I am not sure why they should do that and I am not sure that it follows from the rest of this group of amendments, but, if the Government are to do that, they must have on record the assurances, given on numerous occasions, that these powers will not be used in the current year, 1982–83. We have had specific pledges on that, but it is not yet clear that if we allow these amendments to go through, the Government will be able to use the new powers in 1982–83. That would be a major breach of faith and I am sure that that is not the Government's intention. We must have the Government's intentions on record.

I want a fuller explanation of amendment No. 11, and of its effect. I should also like assurances on the latter point arising from amendments Nos. 9 and 10.

Mr. Allan Stewart

On the last point made by the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan), I can give him the assurance that he seeks. It has already been given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and I am happy to repeat it.

Clause 63(3) was contingent on the repeal of section 108A(1), being intended to ensure that enactment of the Bill in the current financial year did not prevent the exercise by local authorities of the discretion of section 108A(1) in 1982–83. Clause 63(3) is no longer required now that section 108A(1) is no longer to be repealed. Removal of clause 63(3) is therefore provided in the amendment, together with a consequential amendment to clause 63(2).

We had thought when drafting the Bill that a power for the Secretary of State to redetermine the rate of an authority was incompatible with the power of the local authority to voluntarily reduce its rate. Therefore, we had made provision for the repeal of this power at the start the 1983–84 financial year. It was proposed that the Secretary of State should be able to use his new power, provided in clause 1.

However, this year's experience suggested that it would be useful for an authority to have the power to redetermine its own rate voluntarily, thus avoiding the time-consuming process of obtaining the approval of the House for a report to reduce the rate.

I hope that that explanation makes clear a fairly complicated set of provisions.

Mr. Millan

The Under-Secretary has explained why the Government are retaining section 108A(1) and has said that the amendments to clause 63 are connected with the retention of that section, as is the amendment to the schedule. I understand that and, as the hon. Gentleman has given assurances about the date, so that there is no misunderstanding, I am happy.

However, as well as retaining section 108A(1), the Government have amended it apparently to allow a local authority to change its mind later in the procedure than is possible under existing legislation. That was my understanding, but it seems that the amendment has the opposite effect and will allow an authority to change its mind only up to an earlier date than is permitted under the existing procedure. Will the hon. Gentleman explain how the change from the Secretary of State informs them that the reduction specified in such report has been made to such report is approved by the Commons House of Parliament is an improvement for the local authorities or the Government? It seems to me that the change will make matters worse and will force authorities to make their choices earlier rather than later. That is the substantive point which I want the hon. Gentleman to answer.

Mr. Stewart

This is a complicated matter and I am trying to follow the right hon. Gentleman's argument. It would be incompatible for a local authority to be able to redetermine its rate at the same time as the Secretary of State could enforce a rate reduction. Therefore, the voluntary power lapses on approval of the report. I hope that that makes the matter clear.

Mr. Millan

I am asking a simple question. Is that earlier or later than the present procedure? It was stated in another place that it was later, but it seems to be earlier. Is it earlier or later? Does the amendment make the power of a local authority lapse earlier or later? That is my simple question.

Mr. Stewart

I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making. Clearly, the two events cannot coincide, which is why the amendment is drafted in the way that it is.

Mr. Millan

Is it earlier or later? Has the message to the Minister arrived?

Mr. Stewart

I have been trying to explain the matter to the right hon. Gentleman. He asked me a specific question and I can give him a specific, one-word answer. It is "earlier".

Mr. Millan

Then why did the Minister in another place say that it was later?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I think that I had better put the amendment.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 10 to 12 agreed to.

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