HC Deb 15 May 1991 vol 191 cc266-9
4. Sir David Steel

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has received about the restructuring of local government; and what consultations he proposes to hold.

16. Mrs. Irene Adams

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what consultations he has had about the future structure of local government in Scotland.

Mr. Lang

We intend to consult widely on the future structure of local government in Scotland. A range of representations has already been received. I have already held discussions with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and a further meeting will take place shortly.

Sir David Steel

Will the Secretary of State admit that among the representations that he received were considerable expressions of regret that he had not seen fit to appoint an independent commission to review the structure of local government, as is being done in England? Does he accept that a further advantage, apart from the Government's not being able to rig the system, would be that the commission's report would be ready in time for the Scottish parliament to legislate on the matter?

Mr. Lang

The right hon. Gentleman anticipates one or two matters. If in the consultations there are extensive representations on the need for a commission, I shall consider them in the same way as I shall consider all other representations. The right hon. Gentleman should be under no illusions about what is taking place in England. There is no royal commission as was suggested. It is an advisory commission which replaces the Local Government Boundary Commission. Scotland is not engaged in a gradual area-by-area rolling process against a background of greater scale and greater diversity, such as exists in England. Ours is a more coherent and comprehensible system of local government and it should be possible to move with relative ease to single-tier all-purpose authorities. If there is a relevant role for the Local Government Boundary Commission in our deliberations, we shall consider that as well.

Mrs. Adams

The Secretary of State must answer the question. Why is it necessary for a commission to say what the structure of local government in England and Wales should be while the Tory party, which does not have the confidence of the Scottish people, can define on the back of an envelope the structure of local government in Scotland? Did the Secretary of State support within Cabinet a commission for England and Wales and once more fail miserably to win the same concession for Scotland?

Mr. Lang

The hon. Lady is wrong. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales does not contemplate such a commission for Wales, because the situation there is different from that in England. I intend to have extremely wide consultations in Scotland. We are contemplating two consultation papers, not one, and we plan to consult over a reasonable period so that there will be every opportunity for full representations to be made to us. We intend to move forward with general agreement and support to achieve a lasting solution that will be relevant to the needs of all the different parts of Scotland.

Sir Hector Monro

Will my right hon. Friend say something about the time scale for consultation, legislation and the implementation of his policy? Will he bear in mind the fact that what may be sensible for the central belt may not be suitable for rural Scotland? There could be a great deal to be said for returning to the old county boundaries, which proved very satisfactory over the previous century.

Mr. Lang

On the time scale, I assure my hon. Friend that we hope to publish our first consultation paper within the next few weeks. We shall consult on that during the summer with a view to publishing a further consultation paper in the autumn. Legislation might reasonably be contemplated in 1993–94, with a new system coming into place in 1996. I emphasise that those times are not fixed; they are general objectives. I certainly agree that we should not seek to impose right across Scotland a system that might not suit the variations in geography and demography and in local loyalties. I have not lost sight of my hon. Friend's important point about loyalties to the old county councils.

Mr. Dewar

Does the Secretary of State accept that if the local government map is a Tory in-house job there is a danger that it will command no confidence because it will be seen as a partisan exercise? I take some encouragement from the right hon. Gentleman's initial answer, which suggested that the door is not entirely shut on independent advice. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which, I think, speaks for councils of every political colour and, of course, all three main Opposition parties in the House are in favour of an independent commission to set the parameters of debate and to make recommendations. In recent times we have had the Wheatley commission, the Stodart report and the Montgomery committee report. Why have those sensible precedents been departed from and why is such independent advice not considered necessary, at least initially, in this case? Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that it would be wise to heed that argument as all the evidence suggests that although he may start the process of change, a Labour Government will take the final decision?

Mr. Lang

It seems that the hon. Gentleman is the only Opposition Member who is seized of that opinion. I agree that the Stodart committee and others in the area of local government in the past 20 or 30 years have set valuable precedents and carried out much work. The information that they gathered makes our task easier. I take it from the hon. Gentleman's reference to the importance of an independent commission that he would set up such a commission before drawing up any plans to create a Scottish assembly.

Mr. Bill Walker

Does my right hon. Friend agree that throughout Scotland there is a mood for single-tier, all-purpose authorities which has been brought about because the public have never comprehended which services were provided by which council? Consequently, Members of Parliament have frequently had to deal with council matters because of difficulties that the public have had to face. That is what we are now offering.

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are seeking to achieve a new and durable system of local government for Scotland that will be efficient and popular and will increase the accountability of local authorities to their residents. It should remove duplication, conflict and bureaucracy and make for better and stronger local government.

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