HC Deb 31 March 1993 vol 222 cc345-7
10. Mr. Bill Walker

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has received about the timing of his proposals for local government reform; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Lang

The Government have received a number of representations about the timing of our proposals for local government reform, offering a range of views.

Mr. Walker

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that the earliest possible date for the introduction of the popular single-tier authorities, which will be nearer to the people and better understood by the people and will get rid of the present confusion with the dual-purpose or two-tier authorities, can only be an advantage to, and will be welcomed by, the majority of people in Scotland?

Mr. Lang

I am grateful to my hon. Friend I am sure that he is absolutely right. It is clear that our decision to go in favour of single-tier, all-purpose authorities is widely welcomed around Scotland.

Mr. Wray

Does the Secretary of State intend to set up a commission? During the previous period of local government reform, we had the Wheatley commission,

and we had Bains Maude and Patterson Luke looking at

management structure. Does the Secretary of State intend to follow a similar course, or will there be a ham and eggs solution for local government reform?

Mr. Lang

No. The Wheatley commission had the task of reducing 426 local authorities of widely disparate and different types to a more rational organisation of 65 authorities. Our task is, therefore, much easier. For that reason, we see no need for a commission in Scotland, just as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales saw no need for a commission in Wales.

Mr. Kynoch

Is my right hon. Friend aware of my visit yesterday to the Under-Secretary of State, our hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), in the company of two representatives of Kincardine and Deeside district council, to present responses from 6,600 homes in Kincardine and Deeside, all of which support single-tier authorities and all of which support a single-tier authority based on the area of Kincardine and Deeside? Does my right hon. Friend agree that in rural areas it is more important to consider geographical area than population when considering the best and most cost-effective way to provide local services?

Mr. Lang

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I was aware of his visit and I congratulate him on the assiduous way in which he advances the interests of his constituents. I will take into account all the submissions that have come from that part of the country. My hon. Friend will also be aware that my hon. Friends and I have to take account of a broad range of issues that are applicable across the whole of Scotland in reaching our final decisions. We hope to do that towards the end of the summer. We shall then publish our results.

Mr. Welsh

Will the Secretary of State announce his plans to privatise Scottish water before or after he announces his plans to change Scottish local government? Does he concede that he will privatise against the overwhelming wishes of the Scottish people—including the business community, which wishes water services to remain as a local authority service? Does it not worry the right hon. Gentleman that the only person whom he has persuaded, albeit briefly, to accept the franchising of Scottish water is the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland?

Mr. Lang

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government have reached no view on the future of water and sewerage services. We have published a consultation paper, to which there have been many responses, and we are now analysing those responses carefully. The process is bound to take some time. We will bring forward our proposals in the summer and the House will then have an opportunity to consider them.

Mr. Ian Bruce

I know that my right hon. Friend listens carefully to the views of Opposition Members. Has he had a full submission from the Labour party and from other Opposition parties about how they wish local government to be set up? How many Opposition Members have written to my right hon. Friend asking for a particular form of local government in their area?

Mr. Lang

That is a very shrewd question. We have heard a great deal about what Labour Members are against, but there has been a severe lack of positive and constructive suggestions from them—[HoN. MEMBERS: "No."]—until it comes to their own areas, and self-interest then comes running through strong and fast.

Mr. Hood

May I mention a little bit of self-interest? Are not the Government overcutting to fund the new local government reform? Some £14 million of road borrowing consent was cut in Strathclyde regional council, which means that the Stonehouse bypass will be cancelled once again and the Ayr road, which affects the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), is also cancelled. That is what the Government are doing, and they should stop trying to kid us that they are not.

Mr. Lang

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the question of self-interest. I know that he and the Clydesdale district have advanced a strong case for single-tier status for their area. On the question of cuts, the hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. Funding for local government this year has been running at a level substantially higher than the current rate of inflation. The Ayr road will feature in the roads programme which is to be published very shortly.

Mr. McLeish

Is the Secretary of State now willing to apologise to the House and to the Scottish people for the publication of the discredited and disgraceful document on cost prepared by Touche Ross? More important, is he willing to publish details of the letter from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury asking him to cut £700 million from his budget over the next two to three years? Will he concede that proceeding with local government reform at this time would be an act of monumental stupidity as we face a financial crisis created by that lot on the Government Benches?

Mr. Lang

If it is publication of correspondence that the hon. Gentleman is after, he has come to the wrong party. I am sorry about that. With regard to the cost of local government reform, the Touche Ross report was published with a very clear indication from the Government that further work might well be needed to refine the figures. In the light of further information, there are suggestions that the figures may not be quite so accurate as was originally indicated—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Oh!"]—but the underlying trend is in no way changed by subsequent information. What is indicated by most submissions is that a small number of large authorities would not create such huge savings as was indicated, and that a large number of small authorities would not be so costly as was indicated. It is absolutely clear that the figures used by the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke)—additional costs said to range between £400 million and £600 million —are absolute rubbish.