§ 4. Mr. D. E. Thomas
asked the Secretary of State for Wales what representations he has received during the past three months concerning the capability of local authorities in Wales to meet their statutory obligations in view of the effects on their finances of the Government's policies.
§ Mr. Nicholas Edwards
Only two such representations, from Arfon borough council and Alyn and Deeside district council, have been made in the past three months, and they were based upon a misunderstanding as to the nature of my call for a voluntary limitation of local authority capital spending in the present year. The authorities concerned have been advised that the terms of the voluntary restraint specifically allow councils to proceed with any expenditure which, on legal advice, they are required to incur to meet statutory obligations.
§ Mr. Thomas
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a number of district and county councils in Wales are considering options for next year that will mean the wholesale reduction of important services such as education, especially nursery education, an area which has been considered recently by both Clwyd and Mid-Glamorgan? Will this not result in the decimation of the policy for the under-fives, which the Government apparently support? That will have a significant effect on working women, who will have to increase their domestic care responsibilities as a direct result of Government policy.
§ Mr. Edwards
The hon. Gentleman referred to options, and of course there are options. It does not follow that councils and council members will select the worst possible options. The minimum budget-to-target increase for the counties is 2.4 per cent., and the average increase is 3.5 per cent. Five counties have a year-on-year increase that is in excess of the forecast increase in costs in the economy as a whole. There is no reason to suppose that devastating decisions will be taken of the sort to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
§ Mr. Anderson
Will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider the effect of teachers' pay settlements on our counties' budgets, bearing in mind that they were asked to budget for a lower settlement? Can he ensure that there will not be further pressure on school transport, school meals and teacher-pupil ratios as a result of this unexpected settlement?
§ Mr. Edwards
It must be recognised that the level of wage settlements has an effect on the level and cost of services. Until the country recognises that fact there is little hope of dealing with the unemployment figures about which the hon. Gentleman has expressed concern.
§ Mr. Raffan
Does my right hon. Friend agree that local authorities such as Clwyd would find it much easier to meet their statutory obligations if they concentrated on those obligations and did not indulge in grandiose and extravagant schemes such as the buying and development of Bodelwyddan castle?
§ Mr. Edwards
Local authorities have choices open to them and if times are difficult they should choose essentials and not what may be considered luxuries.
§ Mr. Roy Hughes
When will the right hon. Gentleman realise that our local authorities are reeling from one blow after another? The latest threat is directed to municipal bus undertakings, for it seems that the Secretary of State for Transport is intent on crippling and dismantling them purely for private profit. What will happen to important routes and services that are riot lucrative? The travelling public will ask that question in the months and years ahead.
§ Mr. Edwards
Bus services have been sharply declining under successive Governments and different policies. It is about time that we consider radically the sort of bus services that we need, and that is precisely what the Government are doing by means of their consultative document, which has been issued and which makes proposals for the provision of better services and the essential services that many communities continue to require.