HC Deb 24 June 1992 vol 210 cc251-2
8. Mr. Oppenheim

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland whether he has any plans for unitary local authorities in Scotland.

Mr. Lang

The Government propose, subject to further extensive consultation, to move towards the introduction of single-tier councils throughout Scotland. I intend to issue a second consultation paper in the autumn setting out a range of illustrative options for the new structure.

Mr. Oppenheim

Would not unitary authorities have a number of important advantages, including cutting out costly and sometimes confusing overlaps in responsibilities and increasing accountability? Would not such enhanced unitary authorities have the added bonus of providing an appropriate platform for many Opposition Members to display their undoubted talents and abilities?

Mr. Lang

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the greater strength and coherence that can derive from single-tier authorities. I regard the possible development of single-tier authorities in Scotland as a way of strengthening local government and making it more coherent, more readily identifiable with local areas and more accountable to local electorates.

Mr. Tom Clarke

Does the Secretary of State accept that many Opposition Members know a little more about Scottish local government than the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim)? Does the right hon. Gentleman also accept, given the short period that has elapsed since the Wheatley report and the reorganisation of Scottish local government in 1975, that the local authorities have acted well and in the interests of Scotland, despite the enormous constraints and demands placed on them by the Government, who are perceived in Scotland as an anti-local government Government? That being so, will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House why in England it is possible to have a commission to review local government whereas in Scotland it is not?

Mr. Lang

I certainly pay tribute to the dedication and professionalism of many involved in local government and to the efficiency with which many local authorities, both regional and district, deliver local services. Nevertheless, events have moved on substantially and quickly over the two decades since the Wheatley commission reported. As regards a changing role for local authorities, we see considerable advantage in moving towards single-tier authorities. However, we shall be introducing another consultation paper in the autumn which will enable further extensive consultation to take place.

Mr. Worthington

Will the Secretary of State confirm that local people want democratically elected and locally accountable councils to run their services? Can he further confirm that he intends that all services that are currently run by local government will continue to be run by local government and, in particular, that education will be run by local government in the future? Will he confirm that that is so?

Mr. Lang

I certainly support the hon. Gentleman's belief in strengthening local democracy. Part of our purpose in bringing forward the reforms is to strengthen local democracy, not to undermine it. The hon. Gentleman asked about the handling of individual services, and that is a matter on which we shall wish to consult widely. It would be quite wrong for me to give a commitment of any kind on any particular service at this stage. I look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman's reaction to our consultation paper when it appears.