HC Deb 29 June 1984 vol 62 cc1282-91
Mr. Speaker

Before I call the hon. Member For Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) to put his private notice question, I remind the House that it is not in order to comment upon proceedings in another place. Questions must be confined to the Government's intentions as set out in the private notice question.

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he would make a statement on the Government's intentions about elections to the Greater London council and the metropolitan councils.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Patrick Jenkin)

The Government are considering and will announce in due course how they intend to handle the elections. There are a number of options for dealing with them. We shall make known our proposals in good time to enable Parliament to make up its mind on the issues. In the meantime, let me make it abundantly clear that we remain firmly resolved to fulfil our election commitment to end these unnecessary and expensive upper tier councils.

Dr. Cunningham

Would not the best option and the simplest course of action be to allow the people of London and the metropolitan councils to vote in the elections next year? Was not the major defeat of the Government yesterday a massive rejection of a fundamental issue of principle at the heart of the Government's legislative programme? Was this not recognised by Lord Bellwin when he said that it is critical, vital … to resist: this amendment."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 28 June 1984; Vol. 453, c. 1063.] He said that it would undermine the Bill. Is it not false and untrue for the Secretary of State to claim that the Bill is entirely in accordance with precedent as he said in the media yesterday? There has never been a paving Bill, let alone one which changed political control without elections.

Are not the Government seeking to undermine basic local democratic rights, and does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the defeat yesterday was the price that the Government paid for their arrogance and authoritarian abuse of power? Will he now recognise that, in the face of this latest and most serious rejection in a long line of humiliations, he can no longer command the respect of the House? He must go, and he must take this undemocratic Bill with him.

Mr. Jenkin

The hon. Gentleman's last remark is unworthy of him If Ministers resigned every time there was an amendment carried against the Government in another place, there would not be many Ministers of either Conservative or Labour Governments.

The House must address itself to the problem. It would be absurd for the elections to be proceeding at the very time when—[Interruption.] Perhaps I might be allowed to develop my answers to the hon. Gentleman's questions. It would be absurd for the elections to be proceeding at a. time when the main abolition Bill was at a late stage in its consideration by Parliament. It might well be through this House and it could well have received a vote in principle in another place. At that time it would be strange both from Parliament's point of view and that of the electorate for the elections to be held. At that stage both Houses of Parliament might well have expressed their views on the principle. This would raise difficult questions for the rights of Parliament. I do not think that we would wish to qualify that in any way.

The hon. Member for Copeland referred to Lord Bellwin's remark about the Opposition's amendment being central to the Bill. The amendment was in the same sense as one which was tabled in this place which the Chairman of Ways and Means felt was contrary to the central intention of the Bill on which the House had pronounced on Second Reading, and the amendment was therefore not selected.

I have always made it abundantly clear that there is ample precedent for suspending elections when a local government reorganisation is in progress. The difference this time lies in the arrangements that we have suggested for managing the upper-tier councils in the interim period before abolition. The Bill has contained provisions from the start to enable elections to be reinstated if at any stage the main abolition Bill fell, either in this place or in another place. Those provisions are constitutional and right, and I reject the hon. Gentleman's accusations.

Mr. Geoffrey Rippon (Hexham)

Does my right hon. Friend now understand that, whatever the merits or otherwise of the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan councils as set out in the Conservative party's manifesto, the substitution of a directly elected Socialist body by an indirectly nominated Conservative one, even for an interim period, is unacceptable to a wide spectrum of public opinion?

Mr. Jenkin

I understand that argument, but we must recognise what the effect would be of the proposals that have been made, for we would be electing councillors for perhaps as short a period as two months. If the elections were held in May and the main abolition Bill was through Parliament by July, the interim councils would be put in place and the elected councils would have run for only two months. I cannot believe that that would be a sensible way to proceed.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

Does the Secretary of State not understand that for him to talk about the rights of Parliament after an unrivalled demonstration of bungling incompetence is a degree of hypocrisy that no one on either side of the House will accept from him? Those in another place have demonstrated the necessity within our system of democracy for a two-chamber Parliament. There is some hypocrisy on the part of those who are constantly fighting to abolish the House of Lords when they now seek to invoke its powers.

Will the right hon. Gentleman take on board that he must listen more to the voice of criticism that comes from both the Conservative Back Benches and the Opposition Benches, and take back a message to the Prime Minister that the elected dictatorship that she has been granted by the falsity of our democracy through the first-past-the-post system necessitates that she now change the system and listen to the House of Lords? The Leader of the House had no right whatever last night to threaten to pit the rights of an elected dictatorship against those of the revising Chamber which has spoken to the British people.

Mr. Jenkin

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is remarkable that the Opposition seem happy, apparently, to surrender the right of this House to take a different view from that expressed in another place. As I have said, the Government will be considering a number of options. It will clearly be our desire to find a solution to the problem which will commend itself to this elected Chamber and to another place. That is what we shall be urgently doing, and I shall announce our response as soon as I can so that Parliament has plenty of time to make up its mind.

Sir Hugh Rossi (Hornsey and.Wood Green)

Although I welcome the restatement of the Government's determination to abolish the GLC, which I have always argued should never have been created in the first place, will my right hon. Friend in considering the options now before him look at the precedent of 1964 when the former London county council and the former Middlesex county council were allowed to continue for an additional year without an election to see out their responsibilities until the new bodies came into existence?

Mr. Jenkin

I assure my hon. Friend that that will be one of the options at which we shall wish to look.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his present troubles are due entirely to the Prime Minister who, in her characteristically arrogant, domineering and spiteful way, is determined to abolish the metropolitan country councils and the GLC for one reason only—their Labour majority? Was not the right hon. Gentleman warned time and again in the Chamber about what was likely to happen over the paving Bill? Will he not recognise that the Bill is now in shreds and that his credibility is nil?

Mr. Jenkin

The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his views, but there is wide support, including in other parts of the country, for the abolition of those upper-tier councils. On previous occasions, I have recited at some length the statements of Members of all parties who have made clear their wish to see this happen. So far as the Prime Minister is concerned, I must say that the policy that I have been putting forward is the policy of the whole Government.

Sir Anthony Berry (Enfield, Southgate)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he is correct in saying that Londoners warmly welcome his pledge that the GLC will still be abolished, despite what happened last night? Is not the Opposition wish to have these elections to cover a small period—perhaps only a month or two—yet another example of the way in which they are prepared to waste ratepayers' money?

Mr. Jenkin

We have seen plenty of evidence, especially in London, of the desire of the present incumbents at county hall to engage in series of expensive publicity stunts at the cost of London ratepayers.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

Why does the right hon. Gentleman not accept and understand that the main worry on both sides of the House and in the other place is not whether the structures of local government will be changed—I, for one, do not believe that that is a matter for the other place—but the fundamental constitutional issue that elected representatives are to be replaced by gerrymandered boards? The faster the Government understand that and retreat, the better. Everyone will shout, "Give in." It will be giving in, but the right hon. Gentleman is misunderstanding people's mood, especially those who believe that what he is doing is more akin to Poland than to this country.

Mr. Jenkin

I am not aware that attempting to carry legislation through both Houses of Parliament is what happens in a Communist dictatorship. The right hon. Gentleman's remarks are out of place. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there is a choice. Of course, the elections will have to be suspended, and that was decided yesterday in another place.

Two of the options are for existing councillors to carry on and for the successor councils to nominate members. Giving elected councillors the fifth year for which they were elected by parliamentary decision does not seem to be all that different from allowing successor councils to nominate councillors for the interim period. We debated those matters at great length in Committee. By a majority of 128, the House passed the Third Reading and sent the Bill to another place. I have told the House that we shall be considering a number of options on how to deal with the present position.

Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant)

The right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), who is the leader of the Social Democratic party, introduced the concept of hyprocrisy into the exchanges. I had always thought that that was unacceptable to the House, because it implies a standard of intention which on the whole the House refuses to allow to be applied to any hon. Member.

Is it not extraordinary that the Opposition should have begun to elevate what might be described as a standard of inconsistency to hitherto unobtained levels in that they have consistently enthusiastically advocated the abolition of the Chamber to which they now ask the House to surrender its constitutional authority? I appeal to my right hon. Friend to exercise a degree of imagination and flexibility in the Government's approach to the whole question so that he may continue to sustain the support that the Government must have.

Mr. Jenkin

I note what my hon. Friend has said about the Opposition. It is a very strange reversal of their usual line. I assure my hon. Friend that I always strive to exercise imagination and flexibility.

Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

Is it not the case that, in attempting to achieve the unachieveable, all that is left in another place is amendments tabled by the Government on Wednesday afternoon to make the Bill into a local government finance Bill? The best thing that the Secretary of State can do to achieve some semblance of dignity is to withdraw the Bill.

Mr. Jerkin

The Government have no intention of doing that. The Bill contains a number of provisions about the staff commission and the need to make information available. Although I know that this is a matter for the other place, I note that the Bill is down on the Order Paper for further consideration next week.

Mr. Cecil Franks (Barrow and Furness)

Will my right hon. Friend take into account the fact that quite a few Conservative Back Benchers supported the Government with great reluctance on the Bill? Because we felt that it was important to establish the principle that the metropolitan county councils should be abolished, we were prepared to support the change of political control without any elections. Will my right hon. Friend take into account also the fact that he must not rely on the support of those hon. Members a second time?

Will my right hon. Friend consider also the fact that many hon. Members regard this measure as constitutionally wrong? We would expect the Fascist left, not the Government, to change political control of a council without an election. Will my right hon. Friend consider my experience in 1973, when my term of office as an alderman in Salford was extended by a year to cover seven years and when that was seen as right and proper? That is the right and proper approach that the Government should adopt.

Mr. Jenkin

I have taken careful note of what my hon. Friend has said. I have said already that that certainly will be one of the options that the Government will consider.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

When does the Secretary of State expect to be able to make a further and definitive statement to the House about his intentions? In contemplating his statement, will he bear in mind that this is not just a London matter? Is he aware that there is strong feeling in Greater Manchester and all the other metropolitan areas about the matter?

Mr. Jenkin

The strongest feeling of which I have been aware in many of these areas comes from lower-tier councils of all political persuasions. They wish to abolish the metropolitan county councils. I am well aware that the position in London has given rise to the greatest concern. Because the Bill affects all seven councils, any arrangements that we shall reach will have to affect those councils.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Will my right hon. Friend please heed the wise and experienced counsels of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) and of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir. H. Rossi)? Is not my right hon. Friend's difficulty the fact that he has presumed the will of Parliament and pre-empted its decision on the principle of the abolition of the GLC? Would it not be better to extend with good grace the GLC's life for the further interim year until the principle is established but, of course, in that interim year prevent any discretionary spending by the GLC?

Mr. Jenkin

In his last words, my hon. Friend has revealed one of the difficulties of extending the terms of office of councillors who have made no secret of the fact that they intend to make the lives of the Government and their successor councillors as difficult as they can. As I have said, that suggestion is certainly one of the options that we shall be considering.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Did nor the Secretary of State put his finger on it when he said that he suspected that an extended GLC would wage war on the Government? That is indeed what it would do and has been doing, which is why the Government are trying to get rid of it.

Why is the Secretary of State so frightened of the ballot box? GLC members do not want an extension granted by the Minister; they want the elections next May. Whether the elections are for a council that is to last for only two months is beside the point. Democracy should not be given some finite cost or period of office for which it is valid.

As the Secretary of State well knows, unwinding the GLC will take more than 11 months. It will probably take two years. The elections should take place because the GLC handles an annual budget of £1.5 billion and democracy should be in the hands of people elected to be accountable to London for that money. Why is the Secretary of State afraid of the ballot box when he knows that that is what Londoners want? Is he aware that this morning he is amply earning his reputation as the Secretary of State for political cock-ups?

Mr. Jenkin

When the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) urged that the councillors' period of office should be allowed to run on, he may not have realised that the hon. Gentleman and other members of the GLC had made it clear that they would not serve in those circumstances. That is one of the factors that the Government will have to take into account.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

Will my right hon. Friend be sustained by the fact that these ideas were clearly laid out in the Conservative manifesto which received overwhelming endorsement by the public in the general election? Will he acknowledge that the constitutional aspect, although it is extremely important, should not be affected by the comments of the Opposition, who are plainly insincere and mucking around with party politics in an area in which they are utterly discredited?

Mr. Jenkin

We have constantly made the point, as have others, that the commitment to get rid of the upper-tier councils formed part of the policy of all three major parties at the last general election, and there are quotations to prove it. The question is what is the best means of achieving that. As I have said, we shall be considering the options as to how we should handle the question of elections next year.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

Does not the Government's untenable policy rest on the precedent of 1963, to which the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) referred? Does the Secretary of State agree that that legislation was pushed through to get rid of Herbert Morrison's LCC but that when elections were held in 1964 a Labour majority was returned to county hall? Is not that the main reason why there are to be no elections on this occasion?

Mr. Jenkin

The main reason is that, while reorganisation is in progress, it does not make sense to hold elections to an authority which has only a very limited life. That is why we argue that the precedent is sound. In 1963 there were no existing successor councils—the whole pack of cards was thrown into the air, if I may so put it—so there was no option but to allow the councils to continue. This time there is another option. Nevertheless, we shall be considering the suggestions made by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Mr. Richard Hickmet (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, whatever the fate of the paving Bill, Conservative Members are determined to support him in his efforts to abolish the GLC and the metropolitan authorities? Would he care to speculate on the fate of the paving Bill if the upper Chamber had been abolished as proposed in the Labour party manifesto?

Mr. Jenkin

My hon. Friend's question is hypothetical and I trust that it will remain so, but I am grateful for his support for the main thrust of our policy.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Knowsley, North)

Does the Secretary of State accept that the replacement of elected Labour councillors by Tory appointees is not a minor or trivial matter but a major principle of fundamental constitutional importance? In view of the recognition of that fact by the right hon. Gentleman's opponents within his own party and the fact that he has now been defeated, would not the sensible, decent and honourable course be for him to withdraw the Bill and resign?

Mr. Jenkin

I have no intention of doing that.

Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

Will my right hon. Friend give an unequivocal commitment that he will not be diverted from the main task, which is the early abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan councils? Does he agree that it would be a great shame if we were diverted on to this lesser matter when there are so many other important things to get on with?

Mr. Jenkin

I hope that my hon. Friend will take comfort from the commitment that I gave in my original reply to the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham).

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

Does the Secretary of State realise how appalling his pigheadedness appears to the people of Merseyside? As he seems determined to have a confrontation with the upper House, will he consider the precedent 80 years ago when a Liberal Government with a mandate for the social policies that they were introducing found themselves in conflict with the other place and determined the constitutional crisis by putting the matter to the people? Or is the Secretary of State so afraid of elections as to ignore that precedent? Is he aware that we believe that that would be the easiest way to ensure that he resigns?

Mr. Jenkin

The election on which we base our commitment to end the upper tier councils was the general election of 1983 when we made the commitment quite clear, as did the policies of the other parties. We intend to see that commitment through.

Mr. Conal Gregory (York)

Will my right hon. Friend note the Opposition's sudden acclamation of the bicameral system? As there is so much other pressing business, will he consider as one of the options letting this matter drop for a considerable period?

Mr. Jenkin

I have made it clear that the Government intend to seek to put the main legislation on the statute book in accordance with our manifesto commitment. The paving Bill is an essential step towards achieving that objective.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the hallmarks of democratic organisations in this country is proper opportunity for consultation and for consent or dissent? As the paving legislation will replace elected local government members by Act of Parliament, changing the political complexion of the authority in the process, what opportunity was given for consultation, discussion and dissent within the Conservative party in relation to the paving Bill?

Mr. Jenkin

The main proposals of the paving Bill were included in the White Paper, "Streamlining the Cities", on which a great many representations were made. In so far as the local authorities concerned have been prepared to discuss the matter with the Government, discussions have taken place, but most of the authorities have refused to do so.

Mr. Timothy Yeo (Suffolk, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be strong support within and outside the House for any action or decision by the Government provided that it is in pursuit of policies or measures approved by this House? Would he care to speculate on the likely attitude of any future Labour Government, which could be formed only with the support of the alliance, just as the last Labour Government were sustained by the support of the same hon. Members, if one of their measures was thwarted by the upper House?

Mr. Jenkin

We know their reaction to that. It is to promise to abolish it.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call those hon. Members who have been seeking to catch my eye, but I ask them to keep their questions brief as there is great pressure on the debate that is to continue afterwards.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the Conservatives' much-quoted manifesto commitment was nationwide but that in areas to which the interim measure relates there is very little support for it and that in south Yorkshire, for example, only one candidate standing on that manifesto was returned to the House and all the other Members elected oppose the Bill?

Mr. Jenkin

I recognise that the Government have a considerable majority in the House as a result of the election fought on that manifesto and that pledge. I do not think that it would ever be accepted as a principle that we should somehow tailor our policies to suit the voting results in different parts of the country.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether his remark some 20 minutes ago that it would be absurd for the elections to take place next year was an unguarded comment that he wishes to consider further or whether it represents continuing Government policy even after what happened yesterday? Will he not accept that what happened yesterday is in accord with the overwhelming majority opinion of Londoners, who wish the GLC elections to take place next May?

Mr. Jenkin

I intended to say what I did. I was saying no more than what I said repeatedly during the Bill's passage through the House. As I have said, we will have to consider all options on the position that has now arisen.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

Will the Secretary of State direct his attention to the constitutional dilemma in which the Government find themselves? If an elected Government seek to abolish the right to vote for millions upon millions of people up and down the country, what is to stop a future Government of any complexion abolishing general elections? Is that not the constitutional issue that faces Parliament? Will the Government seek to accommodate the anxiety felt in Parliament rather than seek to impose their will upon it?

Mr. Jenkin

The hon. Gentlemen's analogy is absurd. How does one abolish councils unless one abolishes the elections to them? The one follows inevitably from the other. To argue about the more general position of abolishing parliamentary elections is taking the argument to the point of absurdity.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Secretary of State, buoyed by the unanimity of dissent from the Benches behind him, tell the House what substantial body of opinion there is anywhere in the country that supports the abolition of elections and the replacement of elected councillors by hand-picked quangos? Does his support not come solely from the payroll vote in this House? Should he not now accept that the elections should go ahead next year, and reconsider his statement the other evening when he said that he was not prepared to face by-elections in London on this crucial issue?

Mr. Jenkin

The hon. Gentleman persists in deceiving the House by talking about "hand-picked quangos". Elected councillors, nominated by elected councils answerable to the electorate, can by no stretch of the imagination be called "hand-picked quangos". They are not picked by me; they are picked by elected councils. It is important that that point should be clearly understood.

Dr. Cunningham

Why does the State refuse to recognise that the Bill's fate accurately reflects the overwhelming majority of evidence submitted to him, and public opinion in the metropolitan counties and London? Does he realise that if he continues to demonstrate this stupefying insensitivity to what is felt and being said about this unacceptable aspect of legislation, he will have no credibility left? Will he assure the House that, whatever he and his colleagues decide eventually, a statement will be made in this Chamber?

Mr. Jenkin

I refute the charges made by the hon. Gentleman. We shall have to consider whether it is appropriate to make a statement about the Bill in this House or not. I undertake to keep the House informed of the decision. I hope that we shall reach a conclusion on these matters as quickly as possible. I know that at the last general election there was widespread support in many parts of the country for the abolition of this unnecessary tier of government.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In his original statement, the Secretary of State clearly implied that, because the amendment had torn the heart out of the Bill, the Chairman of Ways and Means in another place was at fault in calling it. Is that not an improper imputation by the Secretary of State? If he did not mean that, should he not now make it clear that that was not his intention? The relationships between the two Houses will be difficult enough in any event in view of the inflammatory comments of the Government Front Bench——

Mr. Speaker

Order. It would not be in order for this House to discuss the selection of amendments by the Chairman of Ways and Means. I did not hear the Secretary of State criticise that selection.

Mr. Jenkin

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. In Committee in this House, an amendment which had been tabled in much the same sense as that in another place was not selected by the Chairman of Ways and Means. That fact and the reasons for it are spelt out clearly in Hansard. The right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) was clearly not aware of that when he raised his point of order.

Mr. Shore

The right hon. Gentleman has simply sunk deeper into the mire, as he has been doing all morning. What he has said is that in his view the rules that apply in this House should also apply in the other place. Surely that is not for him to say.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must not get into a debate on the rules in another place, which are not a matter for us.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I understand that no right hon. or hon. Member ever deceives the House. I understood the Secretary of State to accuse my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) of deception. I am sure that the Secretary of State would wish to rephrase his expression.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I did not hear anything that was out of order. I think that the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) can look after himself.

Mr. Corbyn

In response to the question I asked—[Interruption.] I am looking after myself—the Secretary of State about the future administration of the affairs of Greater London—I used the words "hand-picked quangos" which relate to the Local Government (Interim Provisions) Bill in a number of aspects such as the staff commission and a number of the abolition proposals—he accused me of deceiving the House. He further claimed that I had deceived the House previously. I believe that that is thoroughly reprehensible behaviour. It is a smear against me for merely telling the truth about what the Conservatives are trying to do to the people of London——

Mr. Speaker

Order. We have an important debate on the problems and needs of disabled people, and we must now return to it.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for delaying the House. All hon. Members have equal access to the language of Shakespeare, Burke, Pitt and Churchill. Is our language to be now degraded by the squalid obscenities of the gutter such as those we heard from the hon. Member for Newham, North-west (Mr. Banks) about 20 minutes ago? I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to rule on this deterioration.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Our language in this Chamber should be temperate so that we can discuss affairs in a sensible and honourable manner.