HC Deb 27 July 1988 vol 138 cc385-6
1. Mr. McAllion

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he has any plans for reform of local government in Scotland.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has no specific plans at present affecting the future of local government in Scotland.

Mr. McAllion

The last time the Tories met in conference in Scotland the Minister told them that any reform of local government could be justified only if it led to greater economy and efficiency and if it made local government more responsive to the needs of the Scottish people. Does the Minister accept that his poll tax reforms are less economical, as the collection will cost £28 million more every year than the present rating system? As they are demonstrably less efficient than rates as a mean of tax gathering, and as they respond to neither the needs nor the wishes of the Scottish people, who have overwhelmingly rejected them and despise them as a sop to the rich—which they are—does the Minister accept that he should either resign or stand condemned as a monumental hypocrite, which Opposition Members know him to be?

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must withdraw the word "hypocrite".

Mr. McAllion

Under your instructions, Mr. Speaker, I withdraw the word "hypocrite".

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

The purpose of the community charge was to introduce accountability. Reform of the rating system would not inevitably necessitate the reduction of local government to one tier. The hon. Gentleman referred to the Scottish Tory party conference. I am well aware of the representations from that party and many others, including representations from the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) who said on 27 January: there is a case for a move towards a one-tier, all-purpose local authority below an assembly"—[Official Report, 27 January 1988; Vol. 126, c. 327.] We are anxious to encourage informed debate on this subject and we will look very carefully at any constructive proposals and particularly at the quality of the evidence. All such proposals will receive the most careful consideration.

Mr. Allan Stewart

Further to the second point made by my hon. Friend, does he agree that while there might be a case for a modest change, the move to a single-tier system is simply a superficial gimmick which would increase costs and inevitably lead to a great deal of disruption? Does he further agree that the watchwords for Scottish local authorities should be "cost-effectiveness" and "increased accountability" through the community charge, not spurious schemes for structured reform?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

My hon. Friend is right. If a case can be made for the reform of local government, it must be on the basis of more effective and accountable local authorities within the existing constitutional arrangements.

Mr. Canavan

In view of the increasing interference by this over-centralising Government into the affairs of local government, is it any wonder that an increasing number of people in Scotland are concluding that the best way to restore and improve local democracy in Scotland would be to set up a Scottish parliament with economic as well as legislative powers, including the power to introduce a one-tier system of local government?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

We have no plans for devolution. We do not want more government; we want better government.

Mr. Kirkwood

If the Minister is really serious about striving towards greater accountability in the context of the poll tax or the reform of local government, will he consider the introduction of a sensible system of proportional representation? Is it fair that in the district elections in Edinburgh in May the Conservatives won only 23 seats, the Labour party won 33 seats and both parties secured only 36.5 per cent. of the poll?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned an interesting case. More people in Edinburgh voted Conservative than Labour. However, I cannot give any undertaking to support proportional representation. We prefer the system in which people may vote for a person with a direct tie to his constituency and not to strengthen the party list system.

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