HL Deb 10 July 1958 vol 210 cc873-80

11.42 a.m.

Order of the Day for the Third Reading read.


My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty places her Prerogative and interest, so far as concerns the matters dealt with in the Local Government Bill, at the disposal of Parliament.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Lord Mancroft.)


My Lords, this is a highly important Bill and perhaps I might be forgiven for saying one or two words. I ventured to remark upon the Second Reading that it would be difficult to foresee what the actual effect of it would be—


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Viscount? There are two Amendments on the Marshalled List, and I wonder whether it would not be more convenient to the House if we followed the normal practice of getting those two little Amendments out of the way and then, on the Motion that the Bill do now pass, we can make such general observations upon the Bill as we think fit. I hope that my noble friend Lord Gage will forgive me if I suggest that that might possibly be a more convenient course.

On Question, Bill read 3a, with the Amendments.

Clause 54 [Extension of power of trustee to lend to local authority]:


My Lords, this and the following Amendment are linked and are put down only to rectify an omission. The effect is to extend trustee status to the securities of the Council of the Isles of Scilly, in the same way that the clause extends trustee status to other similar securities. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 39, line 39, leave out ("and").—(Lord Mancroft.)

On Question, Amendment agreed to.


My Lords, I beg to move the second Amendment.

Amendment moved— Page 39, line 40, at end insert ("and the council of the Isles of Scilly;").—(Lord Mancroft.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass. When my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor commended this Bill to your Lordships on Second Reading, he described it as a step forward in the direction of vigorous and efficient local government. That object has been universally approved, though there have been differences of opinion over our methods. Her Majesty's Government have explained why they find it necessary to reform the Exchequer grants system in order to achieve this object. Noble Lords opposite have put their opposition to the proposal for a general grant, if I may say so, in a reasonable and objective way. Having examined with care the arguments put before your Lordships, Her Majesty's Government still remain convinced that the system proposed in this Bill is well designed to increase the independence of local authorities in the matter of their finances, and to foster thoughtful local financial administration. The debates on the merits of the general grant as against the percentage system have, of course, centred on the education service. The education service is admittedly far and away the largest service, in terms of expenditure, to be brought within the general grant system. But your Lordships will perhaps bear with me if I remind you that there are other services of great importance—including the health, fire and child care services—which are also being brought within this system, and there is no question of education having been singled out for special treatment. I think our debates have served to bring out the importance which Her Majesty's Government have attached, and will continue to attach, to education, and their resolve to use the new grant system as a means of carrying forward the development of the education and other services concerned.

The Government look forward to a new era of co-operation between central and local government in the administration of these services. Our debates will have helped to pinpoint some of the matters which will repay study in the months ahead when the local authorities, through their associations, will be joining with Her Majesty's Government in laying the foundations of the new financial relationship to be created under this Bill. Then there are the proposals to re-rate, to some extent, industrial property. Her Majesty's Government remain convinced that the Bill strikes a reasonable balance between the need for strengthening the rate resources of the local authorities and the need to safeguard the economy.

So far as Part II of the Bill is concerned, your Lordships have given it the most encouraging of welcomes, in that while some noble Lords have been a little anxious lest the process of reviewing local government areas and status might go too far, others among your Lordships have, in effect, chided the Government for not going far enough. That is not a bad position for any Bill to be in. In this connection, however, I would remind your Lordships that responsibility will not rest solely on the Local Government Commissions, the county councils or the Minister. In the end, it will be the attitude taken to each order in Parliament, when it is submitted for rejection or approval to your Lordships' House and to another place, that will influence the kind of local government pattern that eventually emerges. Her Majesty's Government for their part (and I should hope, and expect, that future Governments will take the same view) are determined to honour their commitments to put in train a reorganisation that will, while keeping what is best in our present system, give it a chance to do better still.

In our endeavour, in Part III of this Bill, to secure some devolution of responsibility in the important local health and welfare services, we have met with anxiety on the part of several of my noble friends, and of some noble Lords opposite. They have been naturally concerned that the services for the blind and the mentally handicapped, in particular, should not suffer by undue fragmentation. I am happy to feel that some, at any rate, of their anxieties have been allayed by the explanations which have been given of the Government's position and intentions in this matter, and I hope that your Lordships in general will feel able to look forward with confident interest to the working out of this Part of the Bill.

The Bill as a whole covers a wide field. It is a sizeable piece of legislation, by any standard. I want to express the thanks of Her Majesty's Government for the helpfulness shown during the debates by noble Lords in all parts of your Lordships' House. As a result of those debates, the Bill has become a better one. Moreover, the Government have been given the opportunity, through the diligent and informed probing which has been carried out, not least by my noble friends behind me, of clarifying and placing in perspective a number of difficult and important provisions, and the policies that underlie those provisions. The Bill will thereby come into operation all the more usefully. I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Mancroft.)

11.49 a.m.


My Lords, I am sure that the House will agree that this Bill has not been a brilliant success in this House. The noble Lord who has just spoken thanked noble Lords in all parts of the House for the contribution they had made to make this a better Bill. Speaking for myself and for my friends, I disclaim any thanks at all. We have not helped to make this a better Bill. It arrived here a bad Bill and it goes out as a bad Bill; and it is as bad today as it was when it first arrived. Although I should not presume to speak for noble Lords opposite, I see that the noble Viscount, Lord Gage, is ready to speak, and I am sure that he will say, speaking for his noble friends, that the Bill has not been influenced in the slightest degree by what has been said from their side of the House. Indeed, with most of the objections made from the opposite side we ourselves absolutely agree, but because we thought that noble Lords opposite would perhaps take more notice of their own friends than of us we kept out of the battle. However, it made no difference at all; the Government have adopted the principle of infallibility. What they have said they have said, and no amount of argument from either side of the House has made the slightest difference in the form of the Bill as it has eventually emerged.

The noble Lord said that it was an important Bill. I suppose it is. But it is a very bad Bill. It leaves completely unreconciled all those who object to it on the ground that it alters the grant system for education. No attempt has been made to meet the wishes, the apprehensions and the fears of those who are concerned with education. Amendments have, been put down which might to some extent have met those fears, but nothing has been done at all. I would only say that the noble Lord must not be surprised to find that the block grant system is not inviolable, and when opportunity arises the matter will have to be reviewed again. We fear that education is going to suffer, and suffer greatly, as a result of this new system. We do not believe that it will give greater freedom to local authorities in the expenditure of their money; we do not believe that at all, and we do not believe that that was the intention. We believe that the intention was purely and solely to save Treasury money and to put the burden of education to a greater extent on the shoulders of the local authorities.

We feel also that the re-rating of industrial properties has been carried out in a particularly mean manner. The Government have re-rated industrial hereditaments to the extent of 50 per cent., but they have appropriated to themselves the greater part of the benefit. Although, after all, it is the local authorities which render the services and are entitled to the increase in the rates, the Government have accepted for themselves a large part of the advantage flowing from increasing the rates on industrial hereditaments, and I regard that as a particularly mean provision.

On the question of the review of areas and functions of local authorities, here again I thought that in this House we were particularly rigid in our approach. I thought that noble Lords opposite made a first-class case for some kind of amendment of the actual devolution of functions. The delegation procedure, I thought, was the weakest side of the reorganisation of local government, and I felt that a case was made out for some amendment. But nothing of the kind! My own view of that Part of the Bill is that it will have very little effect on local government. It does not really touch the difficulties of local government, the need for a complete reorganisation, a complete review of the whole system of local government. The question as to whether the present structure, which was set up under totally different conditions, is appropriate at the present time has not been dealt with at all in this Bill. All that is proposed is that it will be possible to change boundaries and to switch around very small areas from one authority to another, but there is nothing fundamental proposed in the Bill. And so we part with this Bill with the greatest feeling of disappointment and apprehension; and we on this side of the House do not think that we have heard the last of the reorganisation of local government.

11.55 a.m.


My Lords, I cannot associate myself with many of the things that have been said by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, in regard to this Bill. My criticism, such as it has been, is much more, as I stated on Second Reading, that it is extraordinarily difficult to foresee how it will work out in practice, particularly with regard to Part I. The Minister appears to have the very widest powers, both in the matter of fixing the general grant and in that of the rate-deficiency grant policy. It is true that there is a rather complicated wording which purports to show how the Minister's discretion will be exercised, but I am afraid that the significance of that is not very obvious. I would instance the debate we had on the significance of the phrase "special circumstances". I was certainly under the impression that "special circumstances" are circumstances that the Minister deemed to be special, and it did not mean very much more.

There is nothing new in having very wide powers conferred in modern legislation on Ministers, and it may be inevitable that that should be so in the complicated political and financial circumstances under which we live. None the less, it makes the task of Parliamentary examination a very difficult one. When the County Councils Association gave their general support to the principles of this Bill, which they did by a majority, I think that they had certain reservations, and hoped for some clarification on certain points—indeed, they hoped that certain changes would be made in the Bill's passage through Parliament to secure that clarification. In fact, as has been stated, the Government have not been able to accept any of the suggested Amendments, apart from one very minor one. I make no real complaint about that; perhaps they should not always concede. It is also true that we have had certain assurances, for which we are very grateful. But we still remain largely in the dark on a number of points, and we do not really know how much money we are likely to get or what real liberty we are going to be allowed. In these circumstances, though I have no cause for the pessimism that seems to have permeated the Benches opposite, I feel that we must be allowed to suspend judgment on this Bill until we see how things work out in practice.

11.57 a.m.


My Lords, I think it is necessary to have it on record that this Bill, when it becomes an Act, will achieve what the Conservative Government of 1925 sought to achieve, and what, but for the well-known inability of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Winston Churchill, might have been achieved then. But the attack made on education in 1925, by bringing it within the scope of the block grant, was beaten back; and probably the best administrator knowing local government, the late Mr. Neville Chamberlain, when he put the block grant through in the Local Government Act of 1928, specifically and definitely excluded education from the scope of the block grant in that Act, because he recognised, as an administrator, knowing what his beloved city of Birmingham was doing for education, what the effect of the block grant would be. Thirty-three years have elapsed since the effort in 1925, and at long last the Conservative Government have set out to achieve, and have achieved, what they hoped to achieve then. I agree with all the apprehensions which have been expressed from this side by my noble friend Lord Silkin as to the effect of this Bill on education.

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons.