HC Deb 22 November 1995 vol 267 cc656-9
14. Mr. David Shaw

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on the efficiency and effectiveness of Scottish local authorities. [785]

Mr. Forsyth

There is considerable scope for improvement.

Mr. Shaw

My right hon. Friend may be aware that I have just returned from giving evidence this morning to the Monklands inquiry in Scotland. He may not be aware that, on departing the inquiry, the leader of the council made his usual threats, including threatening to visit me and my family. Does my right hon. Friend believe that such people should be in charge of councils in Scotland? Does he believe that the Labour party has a lot to answer for over the failings of local government in Scotland?

Mr. Forsyth

I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand why I am not in a position to comment on his remarks. In defence of the Labour party, I am sure that it is as anxious as the Conservative party to ensure the highest standards of conduct in local government. The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) welcomed the recent establishment of the 211 inquiry in respect of the North Lanarkshire authority. I think that it is important to proceed on the basis that the House is determined to ensure the highest standards in local government and that we have the means to investigate any complaints swiftly and bring any shortcomings to book. I hope that all hon. Members will consider local government or any other matter of public life on that basis.

Mrs. Fyfe

As the Secretary of State chooses to dismiss with a wave of his hand all Scottish local government, will he join me in praising Glasgow district council's plans to eradicate dampness in 80,000 council houses? On his current plans for spending on Scottish housing, in what year does he expect to eradicate dampness in Scottish houses?

Mr. Forsyth

I am all in favour of councils tackling damp houses and providing key services. The hon. Lady makes a gesture indicating that they need more money. I suggest that she uses what influence she has with Glasgow district council and other Labour-controlled councils to get them to spend less on chiefs and more on indians and to spend less on expensive, highly paid officials and more on the people who do the work. If they did that, we might have more effective authorities. If she could even encourage the councils concerned to go for value for money and become enabling authorities, the people who depend on their services might get a better deal.

Mrs. Gorman

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that for every pound of tax collected in Scotland, the people who live there receive something like £2 in value? Does he agree that local government in Scotland, as well as historic houses and the building of new bridges, depends on the maintenance of the Union with the rest of the British Isles and that those strident Opposition Members who continually demand the separation of Scotland are likely to cause a great deal of loss to the people of Scotland on such projects?

Hon. Members

What about the Skye bridge?

Mr. Forsyth

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Skye bridge represents a considerable success for the Government. It was first promised in 1936, it was delivered by the Government and it will be toll free in 15 years unless the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) has his way, in which case the tolls will last for longer because he is encouraging people not to pay them.

I wonder how many Opposition Members know that local government in Scotland receives 45 per cent. more per head in Government grant than local government in England. That is a huge additional means of support and they would put all that at risk with their proposals for a Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce

Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that there is concern about the transition to unitary authorities in respect of how the equalisation will be carried through between high-spending and low-spending authorities? What steps will he take to ensure that there is not an unfair burden on rural authorities having to subsidise urban authorities? Will he step in and ensure that the transition is fair and just to all taxpayers in Scotland?

Mr. Forsyth

In the spirit of partnership and co-operation with local government that I have tried to encourage since I arrived at the Scottish Office, I am attracted by the proposals of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to allow for the changes to be phased in so that rural areas that will suffer and those authorities that stand to gain will have the opportunity to adjust. COSLA's proposals are quite sensible as the time period will be kept to an absolute minimum and benefit will accrue to authorities that will gain immediately. I am sure that everyone will recognise it as a sensible way forward.

Mr. McAllion

Does the Secretary of State accept that ill-tempered, ill-informed and inaccurate attacks on elected councils by the likes of the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) serve merely to weaken an already weak Government case in Scotland, particularly when in Scotland this morning the same hon. Gentleman admitted under oath that his allegations were based on circumstantial evidence and anonymous correspondence? Would it not be better for the likes of the Secretary of State for Scotland, who currently pays chief executives of NHS trusts such as Grampian Healthcare more than £100,000 a year, to stop attacking chief executive of local authorities in Scotland who manage bigger budgets and larger work forces but are paid considerably less? If the Secretary of State is serious about working together in a spirit of co-operation to improve local government in Scotland, let us have an end to such scurrilous and unfounded attacks on Scottish local democracy, return to co-operation with local government and have a completely different relationship between central and local government in future.

Mr. Forsyth

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not exercise the discretion that I indicated would be appropriate in respect of the present 211 inquiry. As to employing highly expensive people, the hon. Gentleman might like to look at the number of directors in Glasgow compared with the NHS trusts. I believe that he will find that he is on thin ice.

Mr. McAllion

I should like to know the number.

Mr. Forsyth

I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman setting out the facts and press-releasing them, and I am grateful for the opportunity to do so.

If the hon. Gentleman is fair, he will acknowledge that some authorities are doing well and are responsible in terms of the number of people that they employ on high salaries. Other authorities seem to have lost their place. The hon. Gentleman, as a responsible person in the Labour party, should do what he can to ensure that the taxpayers' interests are protected. I recommend that the hon. Gentleman looks at what is happening and uses his influence to ensure that we get efficient local government.