HC Deb 27 October 1993 vol 230 cc817-20
6. Mr. Watson

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what plans he has to meet representatives of the voluntary sector to discuss funding arrangements following local government reform.

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

The subject of the implications of local government reform for the voluntary sector was among the subjects discussed at the first meeting, on 11 May, of the new joint forum comprising Scottish Office officials and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations. That topic is also on the agenda for the next meeting, which is to be held on 16 November.

Mr. Watson

The Minister will have to do a bit better than he did in previous meetings, because the voluntary sector in Scotland is very worried. What reassurances can he give to organisations such as Strathclyde Elderly Forum, One Plus and Strathclyde Poverty Alliance about their continued funding if local government reform goes ahead? Those organisations and many like them throughout Scotland—not just in Strathclyde—operate and are funded on a region-wide basis and have genuine fears for the future that are communicated to me and to other Opposition Members. The organisations want to know what transitional arrangements are to be made to ensure that their funding is secure after local government reform so that the essential services that they increasingly provide and the jobs of the dedicated staff are maintained.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the general provisions of the Bill will provide for the transfer of rights, liabilities and obligations of the old authorities immediately prior to 1 April 1996 to either one or more of the new authorities. That reinforces the statement in the White Paper that existing funding arrangements for the voluntary organisations which extend beyond the date of reorganisation should be honoured. I am glad to say, however, that we shall be exploring, at the meeting on 16 November with the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, issues involving initial costs because initial costs are difficult to quantify. We shall consider that subject thoroughly at the meeting and we shall bear in mind the point that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Mr. Michael J. Martin

The Minister, like myself, is a former councillor and was probably involved in the last major reorganisation of local government. He knows that massive funds were spent in that reorganisation on finding premises, and on senior officials who sought redundancy rather than a move to the new local authorities. That will cost, as my hon. Friends have stated, at least £180 per ratepayer in the whole of Scotland. He must know that that means that there will be fewer funds available for the voluntary sector. Why go on with a reform of local government when, historically speaking, it has been only 20 years since we last had a major reform and we have not recouped the benefit of that reform?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I recall that after the last reform of local government the number of local authority officials increased by about 18,000 in two years. We are going from two tiers to one tier in this case and it is important that the difficulties which the hon. Member mentioned should be settled at local level. I expect the existing authorities, the new councils and the voluntary sector to co-operate in that connection to achieve appropriate solutions for the local circumstances.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn

May I ask the Minister to remind Opposition Members about the last local government reforms? The only region in Scotland that did not alter was Fife, which is a socialist region, and they all awarded themselves a salary which rose from £6,000 to £18,000 overnight for doing nothing more.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

My hon. and learned Friend makes a very relevant point about the Kingdom of Fife. As far as this particular issue is concerned we believe strongly that the new local councils should determine their own priorities for funding voluntary sector activities, ensuring as much continuity as possible.

8. Mr. McAvoy

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland how many representations he has had regarding the proposed local government boundaries published in his White Paper.

Mr. Lang

Since the publication of the White Paper "Shaping the Future—The New Councils" in July, about 1,300 individual letters commenting on the reorganisation proposals have been received. In addition, about 25,000 postcards, pro-forma letters and petition signatures have been submitted.

Mr. McAvoy

The Secretary of State cannot point to any demand for the abolition of Strathclyde region, which is one of the best run councils in Britain. In my constituency, he cannot point to any demand for the removal of Toryglen from Glasgow. Does the Secretary of State accept that his proposals are unwanted, gerrymandered and expensive and will lead to substantial increases in the payments made by Scotland's council tax payers? Why does he not just scrap the White Paper?

Mr. Lang

On the contrary, I can find very few people prepared to stand up and defend Strathclyde. Any local authority that embraces half the population of Scotland cannot, by the normal definition, be regarded as local government. All the local authorities within that area welcome the fact that they will now have the freedom to exercise responsibility for all local authority functions on a scale that is more commensurate with the interests of local population. Toryglen is an issue about which we have had representations and at which we are looking closely. We shall be able to carry these matters further when we bring forward the Bill.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

Do not the citizens of the great Scottish cities such as Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen want their unitary authorities to be restored?

Mr. Lang

Yes, Madam Speaker, my hon. Friend is right. I find warm enthusiasm for the prospect of single-tier, all-purpose authorities in Scotland's great cities.

Sir David Steel

If the Secretary of State has had 1,300 individual letters from all over Scotland and more than 400 of them concern the removal of Berwickshire from the Borders, does not that indicate a high level of feeling in the Borders region about the proposal? Earlier this afternoon, we were told that Berwickshire had been part of the Borders region only since 1975. Is not that a fatuous statement since the region did not exist before 1975? It has been part of the Borders for many centuries. Will he please leave it there?

Mr. Lang

In parliamentary terms, it has been part of the Berwick and East Lothian parliamentary constituency for a considerable time. The number of letters suggests to me an orchestrated political campaign being run in that area.

Mr. Raymond S. Robertson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in Aberdeen all four political parties have been campaigning for a single-tier Aberdeen since 1974? Is he aware that when he visits Aberdeen on Friday he will be visiting a city which cannot wait for the new authorities in 1996?

Mr. Lang

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I look forward, as I always do, to visiting Aberdeen again. I am sure that I shall find strong support for our proposals.

Mr. Graham

Will the Secretary of State take cognisance of the vote that took place in the constituency of his hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), the Under-Secretary of State, among the people of Barrhead? They voted massively and overwhelmingly to remain with Renfrew district council. It was a democratic vote, higher than any other local authority vote. Will the Secretary of State give his assurance that the people of Renfrew can remain with the people of Barrhead?

Mr. Lang

I believe in the democratic process. That process can express itself in the House when the Bill comes before Parliament.

Mr. McKelvey

Is the Secretary of State aware that there has been a series of well-attended meetings throughout Ayrshire and that, after earnest discussions, three main points are coming through from the public and the associations attached? First, they will not accept the partition of Ayrshire because it is seen as a gerrymander to create a Tory enclave. Secondly, historically, Ayrshire has always been known as Ayrshire and we do not wish to be divided into a poor north and rich south. Thirdly, overwhelmingly opinion is opposed to this, apart from a small group attached to the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie). Does the Secretary of State agree that the majority of representations made from Ayrshire want Ayrshire to remain united?

Mr. Lang

I have had a variety of representations from people in Ayrshire about its future and it is not as clear cut as the hon. Gentleman suggests. The representations vary between those who want one Ayrshire, those who want two Ayrshires and those who want three Ayrshires. At present, we are proposing two authorities in Ayrshire and the boundary is the one drawn from the Wheatley Commission proposals. I am sure that the matter will be debated further when the Bill comes before Parliament.

Mr. McLeish

Does the Secretary of State accept that the issue of cost has turned the local government reorganisation into a tragic farce? Would the Scots have to pay with money that they do not have, for proposals that they do not want, from a Government that they simply despise? The question of who pays should be answered. Will the Treasury pay, in its £50 billion mess? Will services and jobs go, or will the council taxpayers pay? The reorganisation is a piece of pure political fraud which should be brought to an end at the earliest opportunity.

Mr. Lang

May I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on remaining on the Front Bench and on his promotion? He was never very good at figures and in his question he got them wrong. The reform of local government will lead to long-term savings of considerable substance that will far outweigh the cost of implementing them. It is not a question whether we can afford them, but whether we can afford not to implement them.

Back to