§ The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Ian Lang)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the structure of local government in Scotland.
In my statement to the House on 23 April I said that there would be separate consultation on the structure of local government in Scotland. As the first stage of that process I am publishing today a consultation paper. A wide range of interests will receive copies of the paper, and I look forward to receiving comments on it.
I believe that the time is right for a move to a single tier of unitary authorities throughout Scotland and the consultation paper explains why I take this view. It describes the many changes which have taken place in local government since Lord Wheatley's commission presented its report in 1969 and since the subsequent establishment of our present two-tier system in 1975. It sets out the case for change and the case for a single tier. It also seeks to establish the principles upon which the new system should be based. It invites views on these and on a range of other issues, including how we can minimise the costs and disruption of reform. In order to allow time for these important matters to be considered properly, the consultation period will last until 31 October.
There are good arguments of principle for single-tier local government, and in my view the time is now ripe to make the change. A single tier of local government is more readily understood than two tiers, which create confusion about who is responsible for what. That inevitably clouds accountability. Avoiding the overlap also cuts out a degree of duplication and waste. It is also clear that some regional councils are seen as too large and remote from the communities that they serve, while allegiances to the old counties remain strong in some areas. A single-tier system will be simpler, clearer and more local. As the role of local government evolves, now is the time to make the change. This paper sets out the case for reform, and the principles on which it should be based.
As the paper makes clear, this is a genuine consultation exercise and it will not be rushed. I intend to consider very carefully the comments received in response to this paper before moving on to the next stage which will seek to identify the options for change, establish what the new structure should be and whether any changes in the management and organisation of the new authorities are desirable or necessary.
I have received representations arguing in favour of an independent commission to advise on structural change. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has concluded that this is the appropriate way forward for the circumstances of England. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales takes a different view in considering the needs of the Principality, as we have just heard. My approach is tailored to Scottish circumstances. If consultees wish to express views on how the next stage of the exercise should be conducted in order to achieve the best and most informed result, I should be happy to consider them, but I am not at present persuaded that an advisory commission is necessary.
I believe that the proposal of a move to single tier and the principles outlined in this paper will command widespread support throughout Scotland. All of the main 35 Scottish parties now support a single-tier system for local government. Some, of course, see it only as an adjunct to a Scottish assembly. I reject the argument that local government reform is necessary only if there is to be a constitutional upheaval off that kind. I am not prepared to debase the currency of local government by treating its reform simply as a by-product of the assembly debate. I view local government reform as a major and separate issue in its own right which requires—and will receive from us—thorough and careful examination. I very much hope that all those with an interest in local government in Scotland and who ought to have local government's interests at heart will play a full and constructive part in the consultative process.
At the end of the process we intend to ensure that the new local government system which emerges is strong, efficient, and cost-effective. We intend to ensure that it is one with which the people of Scotland can identify. We intend to ensure that it will stand the test of time.
The consultation paper I am publishing today takes an important step along that road. I commend it to the House.
§ Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)
Perhaps I should start with praise. This document is less damaging in itself than many that have gone before simply because it says so little. If hon. Members wish to know that there are 0.02 people per hectare in the area of Sutherland district council as against 35 people per hectare in Glasgow, the document will be compulsory reading. It also contains two maps—one that gives us the boundaries of the existing district councils, and another that gives us the boundaries of the existing regional councils—just in case hon. Members and other interested bodies are unaware of them.
We learn from the consultative paper that the Secretary of State is in favour of truth, decency and honour. He wants local authorities firmly rooted in the democratic tradition, capable of discharging their functions effectively and efficiently and accountable to their electorate. Who will quarrel with that? Will the Secretary of State note that local government would be in a far better state if he and his colleagues had paid any heed to these principles in recent years? The Labour party believes that there is a case for one-tier, all-purpose authorities, but in a wider context which includes a Scottish parliament, controlling Scotland's domestic affairs.
Why is the Minister so arrogant in asserting that there is a case for democratic change everywhere but not in the way that the House deals with Scotland's business? The Secretary of State claims that he is not prepared to debase the currency of local government by taking a broader view of the need for change. What cheek, given the damaging vendetta that he has conducted against councils for so many years.
From what I have been able to gather, to make anything of the document, I suspect it will be necessary to read between the lines. Does not the Secretary of State accept that many will look with scepticism at a consultation paper that assumes that local government either must or should lose responsibility for economic planning to local enterprise companies, that housing will largely pass to Government quangos and that education will become more and more marginal as schools opt out? Does not the Secretary of State accept that that is not a 36 view compatible with any faith in local democracy? Does he not accept that it would be wrong to use reform as a cover for stripping local government of important functions that ought to be under democratic control?
I gather that there is only one reference in the document to boundaries. Is it significant that it refers to the four cities being reborn as unitary authorities? Does that represent the Government's thinking, at least at the preliminary stage? Does the reference to joint arrangements, covering services such as the police, fire, water and sewerage, commit the Government to the high-risk exercise of joint boards, and does that rule out the threat of, for example, a national police service?
Will the Secretary of State note that there is strong support for the principle of an independent body to review the facts, sift through the arguments and set out the options? The Labour party believes that the Wheatley precedent is a good one and is in no way undermined by the fact that some of the original recommendations did not survive political debate. Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that without such an independent element the whole exercise may be seen as partial and partisan? I remind the Secretary of State that an independent commission is supported not just by the Opposition parties in the House but by councils of every political hue.
§ Mr. Lang
The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) started his remarks by giving praise, faint but discernible, and gave with approbation a number of quotations from the White Paper. I welcome his support for a number of the principles we have set out in the White Paper. I also welcome his specific and almost unqualified statement of belief in single-tier local authorities. That belief had an important qualification because he wanted to establish another tier over and above those local authorities—a tax-raising assembly based in Edinburgh. That would not make local government more local, nor would it be devolution; it would be centralisation of local government and contrary to what we are trying to do.
I believe that local government should be considered on its own merits. We should be concerned with the health and future of local government, as is demonstrated by the White Paper.
The hon. Gentleman related one or two changing roles in local authorities that I could not recognise. Whether they are Labour party policy I do not know. We are consulting on local government and we shall be interested in any proposals on the changing functions for local authorities. It is true that their role is changing into one of enabling others to deliver services rather than at their own hand.
The hon. Gentleman asked about cities being unitary authorities and I accept that that is a probable outcome, n6but I am open to consultation. I shall be interested to hear what submissions are made in the course of the consultation period.
The hon Gentleman asked me whether we were contemplating the use of joint boards for the police or a national police service. It is unlikely that we would reach a conclusion in favour of a national police service. I cannot think of any service at present delivered by local authorities that could be better delivered on a national basis.
On the question of a commission, I believe, as I said in my statement, that what is right for Scotland is not 37 necessarily what is right for the much more complex, diffuse and diverse situation in England. I do not believe that a commission is necessary as part of the consultation process, but I am willing to listen to any proposals on how we may seek advice on elements of our proposals as we develop them through consultation on the White Paper and future consultation.
§ Mr. Kirkwood
I will not speak for them.
My party welcomes the opportunity to take part in the consultations. Will the Secretary of State categorically state that the Government believe that local government is more than just a collection of structures and functions? It has a fundamentally important role in providing local communities with an effective, democratic voice. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure me that that will not be prejudiced in the course of the consultations?
It seems nonsensical to commence consultation on determining the structure of local government when we have just concluded the consultation process on finance. No doubt after that we shall consider the functions of local government. It would be much better to have a more coherent, all-in approach to the reform of local government.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that he will take cognisance of any submissions on the system of elections for the structures of the new authorities and that proportional representation will be part of that system?
The tone of the right hon. Gentleman's statement is quite different from the statements for England and Wales. He appears to be more inflexible about single-tier authorities. If a case is made for local variations in different parts of Scotland, will he assure us that he will give urgent consideration to that approach in the course of the consultation?
§ Mr. Lang
I am sure that the proposals in the White Paper and my statement are not inflexible. Flexibility is the keynote to our approach. We believe that what is right for one part of Scotland is not necessarily right for another part of Scotland in terms of the size and scale of the country.
We want to establish the kind of local authority structure that best meets the local aspirations of people all over the country. We want to establish a local authority with which the people can identify and to which they can give their loyalty. I believe that the single-tier approach is the best way to remove the duplication, confusion and remoteness of local government that prevents such identification and loyalty now.
I agree that local authorities should represent a local, democratic voice. I believe that that will develop through the kind of single-tier, all-purpose authorities that we are contemplating.
The hon. Gentleman spoke of an all-in approach. Any aspect that is not specifically mentioned in the consultation 38 paper on which he feels it is important to submit views will be welcome, either during this consultation process or later when we have refined our views more specifically. That would include the question of election, on which he touched.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that, far from being inflexible, we are anxious to have an extended consultation process during which we shall take serious cognisance of all submissions.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
In his statement the Secretary of State said that he was not prepared to debase local government. Does he realise that that comes ill from him when his Government have denigrated local government at almost every stage since they took office in 1979? If he genuinely wants proper consultations, why is he not prepared to have a proper, independent commission, as there is no way in which we can trust the Government, who made such a botch of the poll tax? Given the hostility to local government, how can we be sure that there will be a proper, independent evaluation of the submissions from local government? If local government is to be restructured, why does he not consider it in the context of an elected Scottish assembly which can properly take account of the views of the people of Scotland?
§ Mr. Lang
I have already made it clear that a Scottish assembly would not make local government more local, but would centralise it. An assembly would take power and integrity from local government. It is absolutely untrue to say that we have denigrated local government. We have consistently sought to strengthen it. The move to a single tier of local government will create stronger, more free-standing and more integrated local authorities throughout Scotland.
On whether a commission is appropriate, I have said that I am willing to consider representations on what sort of advisory body we should look to for further advice later in the consultation process. I see no function now for a commission such as that which is being set up for England. The Labour party's proposals in that regard would be more convincing if I had heard one Member just once promise to set up any sort of advisory commission on its proposal for a Scottish assembly.
§ Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)
During the last reorganisation of local government in Scotland I wrote a short book about how community councils might work. May I immodestly suggest to my right hon. Friend that it might repay him to have a quick look at it because some of the ideas remain valid? Speaking from the south-east of England, as I do now, it is tempting for many of us to welcome any device which would diminish the number of interventions from Scottish Members in this place, but I welcome my right hon. Friend's resistance to the creation of a tax-raising assembly.
I was glad to hear him say firmly—I hope he will repeat it—that the principles that he is applying in Scotland do not necessarily apply throughout the United Kingdom. In Kent, in particular, there is a strong case for considering a two-tier local authority.
§ Mr. Lang
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for my proposals for Scotland. I shall certainly seek to track down and learn from his writings on this matter, particularly given his former distinguished career 39 in the Scottish Office. I appreciate that the circumstances of Kent are different from those of much of Scotland. I agree that what is important is that we find the right solution for each part of the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Norman Hogg (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth)
Does the Secretary of State realise that no amount of reshuffling the existing structure of local government will make the Conservative party acceptable to the Scottish people? Does he agree that a commission of inquiry would be appropriate because it could take account of the views of the people, the councillors who run the existing local government structure, and the many who work for local government? Why does he not seek a consensus? Is it that consensus is not part of the language of Majorism?
§ Mr. Lang
I certainly seek a consensus—a consensus behind the proposals that I am offering to the House today. As we have the support of the Labour Front Bench, I believe that we have the makings of a consensus for a single tier of all-purpose authorities. We are consulting widely. We are sending the consultation paper to Scottish Members, political parties, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, public bodies, trade unions, public agencies, industrial and commercial bodies, churches, professional bodies and others. I look forward to receiving their views and those of individuals and other bodies.
§ Mr. Alexander Eadie (Midlothian)
Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that his arguments are weakened because he has been a member of a Government who for the past 12 years have been openly hostile to local government and local democracy? Although he has told the House that he wants to have the maximum consultation—we accept that—does not he realise that the Scottish people do not trust him and his party? They believe that any form of local government to emerge would be gerrymandered. The way to overcome that difficulty is to have an independent inquiry to make recommendations on the future structure of local government in Scotland.
§ Mr. Lang
The hon. Gentleman should not judge the Conservative party by the record of the Labour Government in the late 1970s, which gerrymandered the parliamentary constituency boundaries. We shall consult openly, freely and extensively, and take account of recommendations to obtain the best system that will be durable and will be good for Scotland for many years to come.
§ Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)
The Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish nationalists decided to opt out of the work of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. They seem to be opting out of the work of the House of Commons as none of them is present to participate in this discussion.
Why has the Secretary of State thought it necessary to take a side swipe at the proposals of the Scottish Constitutional Convention? From the tone of his statement, I infer that no legislation on this matter will be introduced before the next election. After that, it would be much more sensible to remit the matter to a Scottish parliament.
§ Mr. Lang
Far from taking a side swipe at the Scottish Constitutional Convention, I never mentioned it. I do not 40 regard it as a body that could be a valuable source of advice for this exercise. Its main concern seems to be to represent the interests of the Labour party and to string along a few Liberal Members with loose talk about proportional representation.
The right hon. Gentleman is right. We do not plan to rush the legislation. It will take a few years to legislate and to get the systems up and running. That is right, because it is important that the system should stand the test of time.
§ Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)
With regard to paragraph 21 of the consultative paper, if the majority of Scots are opposed to compulsory competitive tendering, will the Secretary of State drop that proposal from the Scottish legislation? If not, what is the point of consulting anyone about anything if he refuses to listen to the voices?
Considering the low level of representation of women in Scottish local government, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us which women's organisations he intends to consult about the proposals? If he had gone through the routine list of organisations, he would have observed that none represents even a majority of women, although there are women on particular groups such as the trade unions. I would appreciate it if he would widen his ideas about consultation.
§ Mr. Lang
If the hon. Lady suggests specific women's organisations, I shall be willing to consider them. They may fall under the headings that I described. She answered her own question by pointing out that women are on many of the bodies. Indeed, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities is led by a woman.
On competitive tendering, we intend to weigh the submissions that we receive and not just count them.
§ Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)
The timetable for consultations ends in October. What timetable do the Government have in mind for implementing their proposals? Why does the Secretary of State have so little faith in the proposals, given that there is probably wide acceptance of the case for single-tier local government? Why will he not have an independent commission? Why does the consultative paper hide behind the Wheatley commission and the Stodart committee? I was a member of the Stodart committee, and I remind the Secretary of State of its limited remit. For example, we were prevented from making a recommendation on the excellent evidence that we received from Rutherglen and Cambuslang. They could not understand why they were part of the Glasgow district, yet other areas, such as Eastwood and Bearsden, had autonomy.
Does the Secretary of State fear the response of the Scottish people? Why is he so blinkered about Europe? Why is the review separate from the review of local government finance? Does he accept that, if he is prepared to push ahead with Government thinking and disregard overwhelming Scottish opinion, that will enhance and not reduce the case for a Scottish parliament?
§ Mr. Lang
I do not accept that the case for a Scottish assembly would be enhanced. One reason why we are contemplating the abolition of some of the larger local authorities is their remoteness. We would not abolish Strathclyde, which covers half the country, to reduce remoteness and then create another body that covered the whole country.
41 I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the terms of reference of the Stodart committee were limited and restrictive. Nevertheless, much useful work was done, which remains open to us. The work of the Wheatley commission is also available to us. We can examine and scrutinise the building blocks that it established.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the timetable. I do not want to be held firmly to a timetable, because events can alter it, but we contemplate introducing legislation in the 1993–94 Session and the new system being up and running by 1996.
§ Mr. Mike Watson (Glasgow, Central)
Why is the Secretary of State afraid of an independent commission? He mentioned in his statement the Wheatley commission of 1969, which produced the proposals for local government that we have today. Is he afraid that if he were to establish a commission he would be obliged to pack it with placemen and placewomen to ensure that he achieved the result that he wanted, as he had to do with the health boards and college governors in recent years?
Is it not sheer hypocrisy for the Secretary of State to talk in his statement and in the booklet about accountability when he and his Front-Bench colleagues are not accountable to the people of Scotland? The Conservatives have been flatly rejected in general elections for the past 36 years. Accountability exists in Scottish local government and is not one of the reasons for moving to a unitary authority.
§ Mr. Lang
The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the nature of the proposals south of the border. The commission would be an advisory body, and its recommendations would not be binding on the Government. The hon. Gentleman referred to advisory bodies and the advice that we may need as we proceed to the more detailed proposals. We shall consider that nearer the time, and I shall be open to suggestions.
On accountability, I believe that single-tier, all-purpose local authorities create stronger, more direct accountability than the present diffuse system of two-tier authorities that are remote and duplicate and confuse the source of services.
§ Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)
The Secretary of State has a brass neck talking about debasing local government after the damage that he has done in his present position as Secretary of State and previously as Minister of State responsible for local government finance. The relationship between local authorities and central Government in Scotland has never been worse than it is now.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that no argument could convince him of the need for a Scottish assembly or a Scottish parliament because he does not have faith in the people of Scotland to govern themselves and run their own affairs? Will he confirm that, although his statement is technically right, the new system of local government that came into being in 1975 was based on the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 introduced by the Conservative Government of 1970–74?
Much of what the Secretary of State is proposing today was proposed by my former colleagues, such as Bruce Milian. In Committee, he made it clear that Strathclyde was too big, and he submitted an amendment to divide it into four sub-regions. That amendment was swept aside by the right hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger), who was 42 the junior Minister on the Committee. The local authority variation introduced by the late John Mackintosh was also contemptuously swept aside by the right hon. Member for Ayr. It comes ill from a Tory Government to criticise Scottish local government in that way.
May I ask the Secretary of State—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman seems to be engaging in a debate. I am told that the matter will be discussed in the Scottish Grand Committee tomorrow; that will provide the hon. Gentleman with the opportunity that he wants. He has been on his feet a long time, and I think that he has probably asked his question already.
§ Mr. Ewing
I simply ask the Secretary of State for a commitment that he will not, in any circumstances, further reduce the number of local councillors in Scotland, whatever system emerges. Local government becomes less local as a result of such action. That is what happened following the reorganisation in which the number of councillors was halved.
§ Mr. Lang
I look forward to hearing part two of the hon. Gentleman's speech either tomorrow or on Thursday.
I am not willing to give the hon. Gentleman any commitment about the number of councillors, especially before the start of the consultation about that very matter.
As for what the hon. Gentleman said about the Government's relations with local authorities, his memory must be defective, or at least selective. I recall the relationship between the last Labour Government and local government, and the powers that that Government used to control it. I also recall their dramatic cuts in rate support grant.
§ Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)
As the Secretary of State will know, the existing single-tier authorities in the islands were examined by the Montgomery committee. The committee recommended that the opportunity, whenever it presented itself, to extend, consolidate and develop the powers of the islands councils should be taken. Why has the Secretary of State failed to take that opportunity in the document?
§ Mr. Lang
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised the question of the islands councils. They are examples of single-tier, all-purpose authorities, and they have worked extremely effectively, even in areas with remarkably small populations. Of course we shall want to consider in our review the power and structure of the existing islands councils. If any change is deemed appropriate, the hon. Gentleman and others from the islands will doubtless make submissions, which we shall consider.
§ Mr. William McKelvey (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)
I understand why the Secretary of State does not want an independent commission to look into the matter: he is not interested in a democratic investigation of the governing of Scotland. But why does he not give his reasons for not considering the Scottish convention's views to be widely representative? I assume that his invitations will be along broadly the same lines as those that have already been sent out by the convention.
Does the right hon. Gentleman really expect the people of Scotland to believe that he will look fairly and squarely at the matter when the present Government have not the guile or, indeed, the will to establish a Scottish Select Committee?
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)
The Secretary of State said that he would not introduce legislation until 1993. May I point out that the exercise is, in every sense of the word, academic, as he will not be in office then?
I say this with sincere regret, but I do not trust the right hon. Gentleman when he talks about genuine consultations. The Government refuse to engage in genuine consultations with interested parties other than those led by card-carrying Conservatives.
Let me also point out to the Secretary of State—and, perhaps more importantly, to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar)—that Inverclyde district council, as it is now constituted, would make an excellent single-tier authority. Social work departments should be part of such councils rather than being given over to specialist agencies. As I have said, however, it is all academic, because that old job lot will be swept away at the next general election.
§ Mr. Lang
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman, at least, is confident that his party will win the next election; he is the first Opposition Member to say so today. Nevertheless, even he felt it necessary to hedge his bets by offering his contribution to the consultation process. I assure him that that consultation will be genuine. I welcome his suggestions, which are positive and constructive, and I shall ensure that they are taken into account in the consultation process.
§ Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)
Will the Secretary of State admit that his predecessor, Lord Campbell of Croy, imposed the two-tier system of Scottish local government, which, as the right hon . Gentleman has said, has not stood the test of time? Does he accept that this Parliament must not be given another opportunity to make a dog's breakfast of local government in Scotland? If there is one tier of government that needs to be democratised, it is his Department. The only way in which we can secure a satisfactory local government structure is to have a directly elected Scottish parliament to legislate for the people of Scotland.
§ Mr. Lang
My noble Friend Lord Campbell of Croy did not impose the present system; Parliament decided on, and legislated for, that system.
I note that the hon. Gentleman considers that the system that was imposed—and has not stood the test of time—was proposed by a royal commission. That is the kind of commission that the Opposition seem keen to employ this time.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)
The Secretary of State will know from the accompanying map, table and documents that north-east Fife occupies more than half the land mass of Fife, yet contains only about one fifth of the population. Does he accept that those factors give the local community a distinctive character, enhanced by the fact that the parliamentary constituency has precisely the same boundaries as the district council? May we take it—especially as the Secretary of State has 44 referred with approval to the achievements of the islands councils—that his mind will not be closed to the possibility of north-east Fife's having its own single-tier authority?
§ Mr. Thomas McAvoy (Glasgow, Rutherglen)
As the Secretary of State will know, I would much prefer to deal with the reconstruction of Scottish local government in the context of a Scottish assembly. Does he realise that this process gives him the opportunity to right a wrong perpetrated by the Conservative Government in 1973, which has already been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke)? I refer to the loss of the local councils in Cambuslang and Rutherglen, and their incorporation in Glasgow district council.
Paragraph 19.4 of the consultation paper says that local councilsshould reflect local loyalties and allegiances and be truly representative of them.If that means anything, surely what it logically means is the establishment of a one-tier authority for Cambuslang and Rutherglen. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will eventually recommend that, and will not take the advice of any civil service bureaucracy in the Scottish Office.
§ Mr. Lang
The hon. Gentleman seems keen to join those who are intent on deriding the advisory commission that led to the creation of the present system when these matters were last considered. I note the case that he has made from Cambuslang and Rutherglen, and that too will be borne in mind as part of the consultation process.
§ Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)
Surely a Government who have transferred local power to the centre, destroyed the financial base of local government and intervened to prevent local councils from implementing the policies on which they were elected—as the Government did in Lothian only a few weeks ago—are quite unfit to embark on such consultation. In the circumstances, is not asking a Tory Secretary of State to present a new scheme for Scottish local government a bit like asking Saddam Hussein to present a charter for independent, self-governing countries in the middle east?
To what extent has the Secretary of State prejudged the position? What, for example, is the basis of the reports that he has already decided that he wants the four major Scottish cities to have separate all-purpose authorities?
§ Mr. Lang
The hon. Gentleman's idea of impartiality is that something can be fair and impartial only if it is Labour controlled. I do not find his comments of particular value as part of the consultation process.
I should prefer all-purpose unitary authorities in the cities, but the outcome of the consultation process remains to be seen. We shall also see how the boundaries will be drawn and what account is taken of the important interest of areas around the cities, which have strong local loyalties.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
Does not the Secretary of State accept that, if the effectiveness of local government in Scotland is to be enhanced by a new structure, it must rest on the assent of all the political parties in Scotland and not just of his 45 minority party? Therefore, how does he propose to approach the question of consultation? Will he also recognise that, if he drains away authority from local government to some of the bodies described in paragraph 13 of his document—major, public sector, executive authorities—we shall not be able to strengthen the effectiveness of local government without considering its functions, particularly the functions of those powerful, unaccountable executive authorities?
§ Mr. Lang
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to identify functions as an important component of local government reform. We have made it clear throughout that we are approaching the exercise with a view to considering the funding, functions and structure of local government. Indeed, the document refers extensively to the functions of local government. We shall consult, widely and I have listed the bodies to which we shall send the consultation document. I expect that much interest will be expressed by other bodies and individuals and by the political parties. If the hon. Gentleman suggests that the Liberal Democrats should have a veto on any change of local government, that is not acceptable.
§ Mr. Alistair Darling (Edinburgh, Central)
Will the Secretary of State deal with the problem that some of the regional council functions do not readily lend themselves to sub-division? For example, there are 11 directors of education. Is it proposed that they should be sub-divided into 23 or 56 directors of education? The alternative is to have a Scottish parliament. Otherwise, power will be increasingly concentrated in the hands of the Secretary of State, joint boards or quangos stuffed with his supporters. That cannot be good for the democratic process and does not add to accountability.
Unless the Secretary of State deals with those problems and the need for a Scottish parliament, his proposals will join those that he has made over the past 12 years and will find themselves in the bucket.
§ Mr. Lang
The hon. Gentleman underlines the fact that function and structure are related. According to the size of structure, we shall have to consider the nature of functions and how they are handled. I cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that a Scottish assembly would solve the problems of local government. It would centralise power instead of keeping it at a local level, devolved to new, strong, all-purpose, single-tier local authorities.
§ Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)
Is the Secretary of State aware that, although we are used to Scottish statements meekly following English statements on the same subject, this is the first time that a Scottish statement has meekly followed a Welsh statement? Not only has it caught the nationalists napping but there are no Tory Back Benchers from Scotland present.
Does the Secretary of State recognise the dilemmas that he is facing? In his statement he said that he favours a single-tier system, based on the previous county boundaries. I understand the logic of that, and there is a strong lobby for it in Ayrshire. However, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), will tell him that, when he visited Cumnock, 46 there was a strong lobby for Cumnock and Doon Valley to become a single-tier, all-purpose authority. We have also heard that Inverclyde—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman's question must relate to the Secretary of State's statement. His question refers to a subject that will be debated tomorrow.
§ Mr. Foulkes
I am about to finish my question, Mr. Speaker. We have also heard that Inverclyde, north-east Fife and Rutherglen and Cambuslang wish to be single-tier, all-purpose authorities. If that happens, there will be 56 directors of education, social work, planning and highways. Therefore, there is an incompatibility between making councils more local and making them efficient. Would it not be better, for the Secretary of State's safety, to leave the recommendations to an independent commission rather than have him taking unpopular decisions, especially affecting Galloway and Upper Nithsdale?
§ Mr. Lang
I am delighted that we are engaging the hon. Gentleman's considerable intellect in these issues, and I look forward to his considered submission during the consultation process.
As for my statement following a Welsh statement, I found the Welsh statement educational. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales made it clear that the Welsh Office sees no need for an advisory commission and will have no truck with a Welsh assembly.
§ Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, South)
There is clearly a strong case for a unitary authority, but if the Secretary of State is given the opportunity to implement his proposals, will he pay heed to the strategic importance of the regional councils? Will he pay particular regard to the tremendous work of Grampian regional council to provide essential support for the infrastructure of the oil industry, which has brought great benefit to the country in the past few years? It is unlikely that the five district authorities that may become unitary authorities will be able to provide that degree of strategic support.
§ Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the absence of the entire membership of the Tory Back Benches and the Scottish National party is due to the fact that they are elsewhere, setting up an alternative Scottish convention to be known henceforth as the Blairgowrie set?
The statement allows for no independent commission. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Stodart committee went out into the country and listened to people before making its recommendations on the delineation between layers of authority? When the Montgomery committee went out into the country and listened to people in the islands, it moderated and changed its views and made a far better report as a result.
Why, when this far more important exercise is being set up, is the Secretary of State not prepared to send an independent team to every part of Scotland to listen to what people have to say and to learn, according to regional and geographic variations? That cannot be done by a 47 written exercise. Is he not prepared to learn because he is afraid that his prejudices might be interfered with? Why will he, uniquely, reduce democracy to the pillar box and shredder?
§ Mr. Lang
I have already made it clear that, as the consideration of the options becomes narrower and more detailed, if it becomes appropriate to have an advisory body I shall consider that possibility. The Stodart and Montgomery committees were given narrow, specific and detailed remits. We are concerned with the broad principles of the reform of local government. I am glad that they have had such an underlying welcome from Opposition Members. I believe that they will commend themselves in the country.