HC Deb 09 May 1984 vol 59 cc869-71
4. Mr. Hoyle

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has yet received a proposal from the metropolitan county councils for a meeting to discuss the Coopers and Lybrand report concerning the implications of abolishing the metropolitan county councils.

13. Mr. Barron

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has yet received a proposal from the metropolitan county councils for a meeting to discuss the Coopers and Lybrand report concerning the implications of abolishing the metropolitan county councils.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin

Yes, and I have agreed to meet the leaders of the six metropolitan counties again.

Mr. Hoyle

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. Will he make a comparative statement about the extensive study carried out by Coopers and Lybrand, which he admitted was an independent study, and the study prepared by Price Waterhouse and Co. in great haste for the six metropolitan districts prior to the election on 3 May?

Mr. Jenkin

The difference is that the Price Waterhouse study—I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has examined this carefully—was based on the studies and information provided by a number of district councils which will succeed to the various functions that will devolve upon them under the abolition Act. Those councils are much better placed than any firm of independent accountants, however distinguished, to know what the savings will be, and to make the decisions, because they will be responsible for running those services. They have pointed out that there will be significant savings because of the rationalisation of the structure of local government in metropolitan areas.

Mr. Bottomley

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Coopers and Lybrand has a reasonable reputation for offering advice on how to eliminate waste, inefficiency and duplication, and that that was not the job that it was asked to do by the metropolitan counties?

Mr. Jenkin

As I said when the report was published, its study can only be as good as the assumptions upon which it was based. Its report was frank enough to say that. We now have a more up-to-date report based on more realistic assumptions from the districts. I prefer to place my faith in that. I believe that it is a good deal more realistic.

Mr. Barron

Does the Secretary of State accept that the Price Waterhouse claim based on studying Greater Manchester and the findings of one district council there, which were then spread over the other nine, is not necessarily the best way to study the proposed abolition of the metropolitan counties?

Mr. Jenkin

I accept the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but as yet these figures can only be broad orders of magnitude. Until the districts have access to the detailed information which at present lies locked in the files of the metropolitan counties, they cannot give more accurate estimates. As the hon. Gentleman knows, one of the purposes of the Bill that we shall be discussing later today is to unlock that information, to make available the more accurate estimates that everyone is seeking.

Mr. Burt

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, despite the massive propaganda campaign mounted at ratepayers' expense by the Greater Manchester council, there is still widespread popular support for his proposal to abolish it and that that support can only be further enhanced when the Government deal in detail with the criticisms made by the Coopers and Lybrand report?

Mr. Jenkin

I am well aware of the substantial support in the north-west for the ending of the Greater Manchester council, as I discovered during a recent visit to a number of district authorities in that area. Yes, of course, the case will be greatly strengthened when, with the benefit of the information that we obtain, we shall be able to answer with a great deal more force the charges that have been made. against us.

Mr. Nellist

If the Secretary of State— [Interruption.] There is still half an hour left. This document, of about 18 pages, shows how much faith the Secretary of State has to chuck around. It was prepared by six Tory councils — two of which, since the May elections, have withdrawn from its conclusions, leaving four Tory councils — after an in-depth study in four working days and circulated two days before the elections. If that is the extent of his faith in the investigative abilities of Price Waterhouse, when will the right hon. Gentleman produce some estimates of how much he intends to save by the abolition of the metropolitan counties?

Mr. Jenkin

I hope that I shall have an opportunity to say something on that subject during the course of this afternoon's events.

Mr. Tracey

When my right hon. Friend digests the findings of these various accountants' reports, perhaps he will also remember that the men, as it were, at the coal face—the borough treasurers of some of the London boroughs—estimate savings in excess of £200 million as a result of the abolition of the GLC.

Mr. Jenkin

My hon. Friend is right. Those two accountants' report referred only to the metropolitan counties. The savings to be achieved in Greater London are of course additional to that, and although those figures include some policy savings as well as efficiency and rationalisation savings, I have no doubt that they will form part of the agreement. We must make them better known.

Mr. Straw

Is not the truth that there is no comparison in the quality of the independent study undertaken by Coopers and Lybrand over many months and that of Price Waterhouse, conducted in 11 days, including Easter, based on information provided by Tory councils and essentially a put-up job in a desperate attempt to garner a few votes before the local elections? If the Secretary of State is so confident about Price Waterhouse's conclusions, why, 11 months after he and the Conservative party first made the claim, have they not provided any details of their claim that £120 million will be saved by the abolition of these councils?

Mr. Tony Banks

Because he does not know.

Mr. Jenkin

As I said in answer to the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist), we may have an opportunity to debate these matters later in the day. The fact that I have made repeatedly clear is that, until lower tier councils have full access to cost and other information available to the upper tier councils about the services to be devolved upon them, it is not possible for them, my officials or anybody else to make a detailed estimate of what the savings will be. With each report it becomes more and more certain that there will be substantial savings and that this will redound to the benefit of ratepayers.