HC Deb 28 November 1984 vol 68 cc922-3
13. Mr. Nellist

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will break down by percentage of total expenditure the value of those services presently administered by the West Midlands county council that he intends should be in future controlled by (a) district authorities, (b) joint boards and (c) other forms of control.

Mr. Kenneth Baker

The county concil's net current expenditure, as recorded in its budget return for 1984–85, would be devolved as follows: 40 per cent. would be controlled by the individual district councils, 60 per cent. would be the responsibility of the fire, police and passenger transport joint authorities, which would be composed of, and therefore controlled by, elected councillors from the districts.

Mr. Nellist

Is the Minister aware that those figures will be treated with some scepticism? In my own county, the west midlands, analysis shows that the figure would be only 20 per cent. by value of services incurred by districts, and therefore under the democratic and accountable working control of working people, and that 80 per cent. would go to bodies which would be either centrally controlled or under undemocratic and unelected authorities. How does the Minister square that with his assertion that it is a great leap forward for democracy?

Mr. Baker

The hon. Gentleman represents a city which has been consistently against the county council. The city of Coventry has always wanted to run its own affairs. The figures that I gave are correct. I ask the hon. Gentleman to remember that when the duties are devolved to the joint passenger authorities, the police boards and the fire boards, elected councillors from the metropolitan districts will serve on those boards and control their expenditure.

The metropolitan counties have very few friends. Now that the hon. Member is taking up their cause, I think that they will view that fact with grave concern.

Mr. W. Benyon

Leaving aside the details of this question, is my right hon. Friend not concerned about the fact that during the protracted stages of the legislation that is about to come before the House, the arguments will centre on whether the Government's financial estimates are right, or whether the estimates of Coopers and Lybrand are right? Is there not a case for having a major independent financial look at the matter before we go any further?

Mr. Baker

I agree with my hon. Friend that the costs and savings in our estimate will be subject to considerable scrutiny, but I remind the House that our reason for embarking on the legislation is to return responsibility for a wide range of local government activities to the lower tier because we believe that it is more responsible and effective and that the work can be done more economically at the lower level.

Mr. Snape

Is it the Minister's intention to make the new joint boards as economic and democratic as, for example, the Severn-Trent water authority, which over the past decade has increased its precept by 244 per cent. compared with the precept increase of the metropolitan county of West Midlands of 159 per cent.? Bearing in mind that the Government have ensured that the meetings of the water authority are held behind closed doors so that the press are not allowed to attend and, further, that the Government have rigged the membership of the authority to suit their own political prejudices, is that the sort of democracy that the Minister wants to promote in the House to enhance his career?

Mr. Baker

I am doing nothing at all to the Severn-Trent water authority. With regard to the conduct of the business of the joint authorities, they will be subject to the same provisions for making their meetings open to the public as other local authorities. I remind the hon. Gentleman that there will be elected councillors on the joint authorities, and they will be responsible for the conduct and affairs of those joint authorities.