HC Deb 04 November 1996 vol 284 cc894-6
2. Sir Wyn Roberts

To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what plans he has to enhance the responsibilities of local authorities. [279]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. William Hague)

Last month, following wide consultation, I announced measures for cutting central controls and extending the influence of local government in Wales. That initiative has been widely welcomed.

Sir Wyn Roberts

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is considerable scope to build constructively on the relationship between the Welsh Office and the local authorities; that there is a challenge to the new unitary authorities to show their worth nationwide; and, finally, that his approach offers a better path to devolution than the mishmash of policies offered by the Opposition?

Mr. Hague

Yes, I agree with my right hon. Friend. The measures announced last month give local government more responsibilities, and I am prepared to go further if that will improve the quality and responsiveness of local services. Councils have been asked to supply new ideas for cutting central control and devolving functions by 20 December this year. I look forward to receiving more ideas. As my right hon. Friend has pointed out, that is real and worthwhile devolution to true local government instead of the creation of a whole new tier of administration, bureaucracy and elections, as favoured by some Opposition Members.

Mr. Rowlands

Is it not already difficult enough to fulfil the responsibilities of local government, given the existing finances? If there are further cuts in local government finance, schools could close and teachers could be made redundant; already, residential homes are being closed. Will the right hon. Gentleman stand up in the Cabinet and support those essential services instead of cuts in inheritance duty and capital gains tax?

Mr. Hague

Local government in Wales was allowed to increase its spending by more than 3 per cent. last year and 87 per cent. of that money is provided from central Government. That is a much higher proportion than is the case in England. I am considering the representations made by local authorities ahead of this year's spending settlement, but there is no reason why local authorities should not be able to fulfil their responsibilities.

Mr. Ian Bruce

My right hon. Friend hinted a moment ago at the proportion of money that is given by central Government to local government in Wales. Will he give us the equivalent figure in England, and does he believe that devolution would be a good deal for Wales if Wales ended up getting far less money from central Government?

Mr. Hague

The comparison for England with the 87 per cent. figure that I quoted for Wales is 79 per cent., and that makes a large difference to the figures. It should be a source of some concern in Wales that, if ever there were to be established—heaven forbid—a Welsh Assembly, the financial priority that is given to Wales might continue no longer. Welsh local government should also be concerned that the kind of package that I have announced, which will give more responsibility to local councils, has received little, if any, welcome from Opposition Members, who would rather centralise power in an assembly than give it to local councils.

Mr. Ron Davies

When the assembly is created, it will be with the will of the people—perhaps the Secretary of State should reflect on that. Meanwhile, I wish to question him on matters for which he is currently responsible. Given reports over the weekend of his support for caning, does he have any plans to restore to local government the power to reintroduce physical beating of schoolchildren? How does he personally feel about being a member of a Government who, after 17 years, have created such an alienated and divided society that Back Benchers such as the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Sweeney) apparently believe that order can now be restored only by spanking schoolchildren and shooting burglars on sight? Does the Secretary of State share those views and, if he does not, will he make it clear that they are extremist views that will never be part of mainstream politics in any decent society?

Mr. Hague

The hon. Gentleman is well out of date in attributing to me any of the views in the Sunday morning newspapers. As I made clear in some of those newspapers and on television yesterday, my view is that this is a side issue and that the Education Bill will include the measures necessary to improve discipline in our schools. I also made it clear that it is time for everyone, including members of all parties, to give credit to the thousands of teachers and the tens of thousands of pupils—many of whom I have had the privilege of seeing—who are doing a tremendous job in the schools of Wales. The measures in the Bill are necessary to build on that, and I look forward to the hon. Gentleman supporting them.

Dr. Spink

Knowing, as I do, how much my right hon. Friend believes in accountability, may I ask whether he agrees that introducing another level of government in Wales would reduce, not increase, accountability?

Mr. Hague

Another level of government would certainly confuse accountability and the electorate, and would lead to endless buck passing between one layer of government and another. That is something that we must avoid.