HC Deb 22 May 1984 vol 60 cc1064-9

'No breach of the duty upon a metropolitan county council or the Greater London Council to issue a precept under section 11 of the General Rate Act 1967 shall be held to occur if that council does not issue a precept for the financial year 1985–86 until after the date of an election of councillors to that authority following the making of an order under subsection (2) of section 1 of this Act.'.—[Mr. Meadowcroft]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Meadowcroft

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause is a straightforward and practical addition and improvement to the Bill. It covers a loophole that the Government have apparently missed. I trust that they have done so unwittingly and that they will therefore appreciate that the new clause has a valid point that assists the Government in their work in trying to implement this legislation and that they will readily accept the new clause.

The Bill's proposals are somewhat strange. Its curious timetable requires that the outgoing elected GLC and metropolitan county councils have to fix a precept and determine a budget which the incoming appointed body will implement. If one ponders the problem that is posed by the Bill without the new clause it is clear that there would be administrative difficulties even with the best of good will, which may not be forthcoming with all the provocation that councillors have experienced.

For instance, the appointed members of the metropolitan counties will number roughly half the existing members of county councils and will not necessarily have any experience of the work of the county councils. It has been a welcome feature of the different parties' ways of working in the two-tier system in recent years that they have discouraged the dual mandate. That is right. As one who was for a time on both county and city councils, for all sorts of reasons I thought that it was wrong. I was pleased at times to be able to opt out. It is not for us who have one post to deny others the chance to exercise their responsibilities and leadership. Therefore, those who come from district councils and are appointed as members of the interim committees will probably have no experience of county council work and powers.

10 am

Some of the members may also be statute barred if they want to stand for election. I have not yet heard the Government tell us whether people who may be statute barred because they are employees of an authority will be eligible to be part of an interim committee. The first point is that the situation is fraught with problems because of the probable inexperience and number of members of the new committees.

Secondly, the committees are likely to have a different political complexion and, therefore, different and legitimate political priorities in spending from those of the existing GLC and some metropolitan counties. I think that it was the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) who said that that would represent to him the possibility of the Government being charged with the most obvious political gerrymander for 150 years. Certainly the Bill poses a practical problem, because the outgoing elected body fixing the budget for the incoming body will have a different complexion.

Thirdly, the incoming members may well be unrepresentative of the political complexion of the district council. You would rule me out of order, Mr. Armstrong, if I were to refer in detail to a later amendment, but it is germane to this new clause that, despite a rather bizarre attempt in the Bill at proportional representation—I suppose even bizarre attempts at proportional representation should be welcomed by some parts of the Committee—

Mr. John Major (Huntingdon)

It is a bizarre concept.

Mr. Meadowcroft

A Government Whip tells me that it is a bizarre concept. I am glad that he recognises that there are bizarre points in his Government's Bill in this respect. Nevertheless, we have to deal with the Bill as it is before us. I suspect that it presents great problems for the Government as well because, so far as I know, it is the first time that the concept of having to have a balance of political forces is to be written into legislation. I do not know whether the Government envisage that parties will have to be registered so that their names would be a registered trade mark which would have to go through a legal system. Certainly, given the numbers coming forward from the districts, they are bound often to be unrepresentative.

Fourthly, and possibly most significant in relation to the problems of the Bill as it stands, the outgoing councils are likely to be embittered by the process to which they have been subjected. Despite all the Government's attempts to compel obedience, not least, for instance, by the almost futile detail that they could demand for their purposes, they may still face the problem that every action brings an equal and opposite reaction. That is as true in politics, alas, as it is in the world of physics. There will be problems. The efforts of the Government to compel obedience and the draconian powers they are assuming over the supply of information will probably be counterproductive to the process of budget making and the formulation of estimates in the interim committees.

Clearly, sensible local councillors would wish to reflect both the economic situation in which they find themselves locally and the public preference for priorities as shown by the ballot box. If it is accepted, as is conceivable, that the main provisions of the paving Bill may fail to be implemented, surely it would be appropriate to write into the Bill safeguards for councils and councillors who wish to await the result of elections.

I understand that the Secretary of State has said that elections might have to be reinstated in such circumstances. If under clause 1(2), orders had to be made, elections might well have to be reinstated. The strange dilemma would therefore arise of an outgoing council fixing a budget with a possibility of wishing to have a different set of priorities based on the results of elections. It is important to appreciate that in that circumstance there might be some ambivalence about the provisions relating to the responsibility of those councillors for the financial affairs of the local authority. It is by no means new for an incoming controlling party to alter a budget that has been agreed before elections.

That has happened in many instances where the new local authority, after elections in May, has sought to alter the spending within a total budget that has been previously agreed, or to alter the spending within a budget possibly by changing the amount taken from balances, or the amount that is to be spent on capital account.

I do not believe that any hon. Member in the Committee, given that we are all steeped in the political process, would endeavour to argue that that is in any way illegitimate. It is accepted that the results of elections often change the circumstances and the financial situation in which the estimates have been drawn up. If that is accepted as the normal practice within local authorities, in the rather strange circumstances that are bound to be faced in the metropolitan counties and in the GLC, if we have to have elections reinstated, in the event that the Bill's main principles fail, it seems appropriate and proper to have it written into the Bill that those councillors who sought to implement political priorities, as perceived through the ballot box, ought not to risk any sort of penalty because they did not seek to make those adjustments and priorities clear beforehand.

The severe restrictions in the Bill make it important that that be spelt out, and the clause endeavours to do that. It is important, because there may well be problems in the change-over. If one runs to the last minute, there may be problems. If the Bill goes unamended to another place and is sent back, in whatever form, by their Lordships to the Committee, there may well be problems.

I therefore hope that the Government will accept that the clause as proposed is a practical, worthwhile and helpful attempt to assist them out of a position in which I believe they would not wish to be placed if, by any chance, the main principles were to fall. Because it is important to make it clear that no penalty would attach to individuals who delayed the budgeting if the Bill failed, I urge acceptance of the clause.

Sir George Young

With respect to the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft), I do not think that his amendment covers a loophole. It is technically defective, and it could—unintentionally perhaps, from his point of view—have the effect that there would be no duty on the GLC or on the metropolitan county councils to issue any precept for 1985–86. I understand the intention of the clause, which appears to be to waive the duty of the GLC and of the metropolitan county councils to issue a precept sufficient to meet their expenditure for 1985–86 by 11 March 1985, should an order repealing the Bill be made, and election be held. From the hon. Gentleman's remarks, he would wish a precept to be held until after the elections, if I followed his argument correctly.

The amendment could be interpreted to mean that, unless elections were held after the making of such an order under the Bill, there would be no duty on the GLC or on the metropolitan county councils to issue any precept at all. For that reason, the clause is technically defective. However, that is not the primary reason for rejecting it.

In the normal course of events, authorities must frequently budget and issue precepts and rates in advance of an election. That happens every three or four years. If an order were to be made repealing the Bill, we should expect the 1985 elections to go ahead as soon as practicable. But even in the normal course of events, they would not have taken place until May, and precepts would have had to be sent by early March. This has never caused any problems in the past. Authorities have always managed to make their precepts on time, despite uncertainties about the future.

Likewise, the party that wins the election finds that it must budget within the precept set by the preceding council. Again, that is one of the realities of local government life. I cannot see the justification for waiving the important duty on the upper-tier metropolitan authorities to produce valid precepts for 1985–86, and in good time, whether the elections have been suspended or reinstated. For that reason, I urge the Committee to reject the new clause.

Mr. Meadowcroft

While the Minister complained about the faulty drafting of the new clause, the Committee will be aware that its wording was neither mine nor my colleagues. Because of the failure of the occupants of the Labour Front Bench to move their own amendments and new clauses, we on these Benches have been forced into a rescue operation in the cause of local democracy. In other words, the new clause might have been better drafted had it been in different hands originally.

I accept that it could allow the GLC and metropolitan counties not to make any precept in the circumstances described by the Minister. But even that, as we have discovered in Liverpool, does not mean that the council goes out of existence or has no resources to spend; it is possible to bridge that gap. I am not suggesting that that is by any means the perfect solution, but it is possible to do it.

It is still unclear to me whether, in the circumstances of the Bill, individuals who might wish to take a different view after the elections, as opposed to before, are protected if they choose not to make a precept until after they have seen the results of those elections. Normally, as the Minister said, that is not in doubt. But because it is still unclear, I must press the matter to a Division.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 39, Noes 194.

Division No. 328] [10.10 am
Alton, David Michie, William
Ashdown, Paddy Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Ashton, Joe Nellist, David
Barron, Kevin O'Brien, William
Beith, A. J. Park, George
Bell, Stuart Pavitt, Laurie
Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E) Randall, Stuart
Campbell-Savours, Dale Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)
Carter-Jones, Lewis Sedgemore, Brian
Cohen, Harry Sheldon, Rt Hon R.
Conlan, Bernard Thorne, Stan (Preston)
Corbyn, Jeremy Wainwright, R.
Forrester, John Wigley, Dafydd
Freud, Clement Williams, Rt Hon A.
Garrett, W. E. Woodall, Alec
Howells, Geraint Wrigglesworth, Ian
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Young, David (Bolton SE)
Kirkwood, Archibald
Lofthouse, Geoffrey Tellers for the Ayes:
Marek, Dr John Mr. John Cartwright and
Maxton, John Mr. Charles Kennedy.
Meadowcroft. Michael
Adley, Robert Arnold, Tom
Alexander, Richard Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H.
Amess, David Atkins, Robert (South Ribble)
Batiste, Spencer Key, Robert
Bellingham, Henry King, Roger (B'ham N'field)
Bendall, Vivian King, Rt Hon Tom
Bennett, Sir Frederic (T'bay) Knight, Gregory (Derby N)
Berry, Sir Anthony Knight, Mrs Jill (Edgbaston)
Best, Keith Knowles, Michael
Biffen, Rt Hon John Lamont, Norman
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Lang, Ian
Bottomley, Peter Latham, Michael
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Lawler, Geoffrey
Bowden, A. (Brighton K'to'n) Lawrence, Ivan
Braine, Sir Bernard Lawson, Rt Hon Nigel
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Bright, Graham Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark
Brinton, Tim Lightbown, David
Brooke, Hon Peter Lilley, Peter
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes) Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham)
Bruinvels, Peter Lord, Michael
Bryan, Sir Paul Luce, Richard
Butterfill, John Lyell, Nicholas
Carlisle, John (N Luton) McCurley, Mrs Anna
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) MacGregor, John
Cash, William MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)
Chope, Christopher Maclean, David John
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th S'n) Maginnis, Ken
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Major, John
Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe) Malone, Gerald
Coombs, Simon Marland, Paul
Cope, John Mather, Carol
Corrie, John Maude, Hon Francis
Couchman, James Mawhinney, Dr Brian
Currie, Mrs Edwina Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Dickens, Geoffrey Mayhew, Sir Patrick
Dorrell, Stephen Miller, Hal (B'grove)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J. Mills, Sir Peter (West Devon)
du Cann, Rt Hon Edward Mitchell, David (NW Hants)
Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke) Monro, Sir Hector
Farr, John Moore, John
Favell, Anthony Morris, M. (N'hampton, S)
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Morrison, Hon P. (Chester)
Forman, Nigel Moynihan, Hon C.
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Needham, Richard
Franks, Cecil Nelson, Anthony
Fraser, Peter (Angus East) Neubert, Michael
Freeman, Roger Nicholls, Patrick
Gale, Roger Norris, Steven
Galley, Roy Ottaway, Richard
Glyn, Dr Alan Page, John (Harrow W)
Goodlad, Alastair Page, Richard (Herts SW)
Gorst, John Parris, Matthew
Gow, Ian Pawsey, James
Greenway, Harry Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Gregory, Conal Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N) Porter, Barry
Grist, Ian Powell, William (Corby)
Gummer, John Selwyn Price, Sir David
Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom) Proctor, K. Harvey
Hanley, Jeremy Raffan, Keith
Harvey, Robert Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Hawkins, C. (High Peak) Rees, Rt Hon Peter (Dover)
Hawkins, Sir Paul (SW N'folk) Renton, Tim
Hawksley, Warren Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas
Hayes, J. Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)
Hayhoe, Barney Robinson, Mark (N'port W)
Heathcoat-Amory, David Roe, Mrs Marion
Henderson, Barry Rowe, Andrew
Hind, Kenneth Rumbold, Mrs Angela
Hirst, Michael Ryder, Richard
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Sackville, Hon Thomas
Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling) Sayeed, Jonathan
Holt, Richard Shelton, William (Streatham)
Hooson, Tom Smyth, Rev W. M. (Belfast S)
Howarth, Gerald (Cannock) Soames, Hon Nicholas
Hubbard-Miles, Peter Speller, Tony
Hunt, David (Wirral) Spencer, Derek
Irving, Charles Squire, Robin
Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick Stanley, John
Jessel, Toby Stern, Michael
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Jones, Robert (W Herts) Stevens, Martin (Fulham)
Stewart, Allan (Eastwood) Waldegrave, Hon William
Stewart, Ian (N Hertf'dshire) Walden, George
Sumberg, David Waller, Gary
Taylor, John (Solihull) Ward, John
Taylor, Teddy (S'end E) Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Temple-Morris, Peter Watson, John
Terlezki, Stefan Watts, John
Thatcher, Rt Hon Mrs M. Wheeler, John
Thompson, Donald (Calder V) Whitfield, John
Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N) Wood, Timothy
Thornton, Malcolm Yeo, Tim
Townend, John (Bridlington) Young, Sir George (Acton)
Tracey, Richard
Twinn, Dr Ian Tellers for the Noes:
Viggers, Peter Mr. Tim Sainsbury and
Wakeham, Rt Hon John Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones.

Question accordingly negatived.

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