HL Deb 10 February 1966 vol 272 cc909-14

4.32 p.m.


My Lords, in the unavoidable absence of my noble friend the Leader of the House, with your permission, I should like to repeat a Statement about the appointment of a Royal Commission on local government which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is making in another place. These are the words of the Prime Minister:

"As the House will know, it is the custom for Her Majesty's approval to the establishment of Royal Commissions to be announced by the Prime Minister. I have, therefore, the privilege to inform the House that the Counsellors of State acting on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen have approved that Royal Commissions be appointed to undertake a comprehensive review of local government in England and Scotland respectively. I will announce at a later date the names of the chairman and members together with the terms of reference of the two Royal Commissions.

"As regards Wales, proposals for the reorganisation of local government are already at an advanced state of preparation, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State intends to present a White Paper in due course.

"The decisions I have just announced will of course have far-reaching effects on the present arrangements for reviewing and revising local government organisation in England. For the convenience of the House, my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government will make, with your permission, Mr. Speaker, a further Statement and will answer honourable Members' questions on these aspects of the Government's decisions later this afternoon."

That concludes the Statement of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister.


My Lords, I assume that we are now to have the Statement made to us which was made in another place by the Minister of Housing and Local Government?


Certainly, my Lords. This is the Statement that followed the Prime Minister's Statement, and it was made by my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government. These are his words:

"I will, with permission, make a Statement about local government reorganisation in England.

"In consequence of the decision just announced by my right honourable friend to appoint a Royal Commission, the review which is being carried out by the Local Government Commission for England will be discontinued. The Commission have produced some valuable results within the limits open to them and I would like to take this occasion to thank them for all they have done; but their terms of reference did not enable them to propose the changes either in structure or in boundaries which fully meet present-day needs. The Commission will not now carry further the reviews they have begun of the North-West and the South or start work on the South-East.

"Most of the work they have completed will, however, be carried through. Where decisions have already been announced on proposals by the Commission, the necessary orders will be brought before Parliament as soon as possible. Other proposals on which decisions have not yet been taken will be considered on their merits, in the light of the decision to appoint a Royal Commission.

"Under the Local Government Act 1958, each county council is required, once the work of the Local Government Commission is sufficiently advanced, to undertake a review of the county districts in its area. I intend to deal with county reviews already submitted to me, but I shall have to consider further what is to be done in the case of reviews not yet completed.

"Legislation will be required to provide for winding up the work of the Local Government Commission and to make any necessary provision for the county reviews."


My Lords, I am sure the House is grateful to the noble Lords for repeating the Statements that have just been made in another place. Am I not right in thinking—perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, will correct my recollection if it is wrong —that this announcement has a precedent in the days of the last Labour Government in the winding up of a Local Government Commission before it had completed its task?

The Statement given by the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, repeating the Statement of the Minister of Housing and Local Government, does not explain at all why the present Commission is not able to carry on with its task. My recollection is that the terms of reference of this Commission were very wide indeed. All we get here is a statement which is a bit vague: their terms of reference did not enable them to propose the changes either in structure or in boundaries which fully meet present-day needs. Can the noble Lord expand on that and indicate why that view is expressed?

Secondly, will this not mean a considerable delay in executing this work, because the uncompleted work of this Local Government Commission which is now being wound up will not be finished and the new Commission will have to start all over again? Can the noble Lord give any indication of the kind of delay involved, and does the delay involved, such as it is, mean also that there will be delay in the work of the Parliamentary Boundary Commission?


My Lords, if I may take the last point first, the Com- missions will be asked to report as a matter of urgency, and having regard to the material available it is not expected that their work will take much over two years. Of course, use will be made of the material that has been collected in cases where the work is suspended. To go back to the earlier questions—and I hope the noble and learned Viscount will correct me if I omit any of them—the first similar occasion I remember was when Mr. Aneurin Bevan was the Minister and suspended the work of the then Boundary Commission, I think it was called, or Local Government Commission, because it could not deal with functions. On this occasion the functions of the local authorities have been the statutory subject of examination to some extent, but the conclusion which my right honourable friend has reached is that that is not sufficient. I may say that the local authority associations have been consulted quite recently in this matter and they agree that there is a case for a wider review by a Royal Commission. And the same goes, I think, for the question of boundaries.

It is obvious that if you are making any new kind of functional authority you will have to adapt the boundaries to the new functions, to the type of new functional authority. I hope I have answered all the questions put, but if I have not I am sure the noble and learned Viscount will remind me.


My Lords, I am again grateful to the noble Lord. Would it not have been simpler to amend the terms of reference of the existing Commissions instead of winding them up and appointing fresh people to do much the same work?


This, of course, must be a matter of opinion, but personally I should have thought it would be most unsuitable. The present Local Government Commission has had its statutory functions on a much narrower basis. It has not, for instance, had to collect evidence—not merely local evidence, that is, but general evidence—in the way a Royal Commission usually does, and without wishing to anticipate how they will discharge their functions, as this one will no doubt consider doing. The present approach has been a more limited one than that of a Royal Commission with wide terms of reference. Therefore I should have thought—subject to carrying forward as much as possible, if I may put it that way—that we had better start with a fresh body to examine it.


My Lords, if, as I understand it, the terms of reference of the Royal Commission are to be considerably wider than for the Commission that has been disbanded, will this Royal Commission have power to consider the need for elected regional bodies responsible to regional government, and to advise on the setting up of such bodies in the appropriate areas of regional government?


My Lords, I would agree with what the noble Lord suggested first. Certainly, the terms of reference will be wide, but it might be as well to wait until we get them to see what they contain. I should have thought that wide terms of reference were permissible on the lines suggested by the noble Lord, but I do not want to anticipate what is said in both Statements, this not yet having been decided.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord this question with regard to Scotland? We already have a White Paper on Local Government in Scotland. It has been under discussion for some time and a Committee has been sitting in St. Andrew's House which has met, I think, twice. Does this mean that the Report which was made, I think not more than a year ago, is also scrapped, and that we are to start again from scratch in Scotland, with a completely new Royal Commission to decide Scottish local government boundaries?


My Lords, the noble Baroness will have noticed that I was speaking only of England and, so long as I have the hat of the Minister of Housing and Local Government on my head, I should indeed be rash to say anything about: Scotland. But I am told that a Parliamentary White Paper was promised in a reply given on December 11 last to a Parliamentary Question by Mr. Gibson-Watt, and I have no reason to suppose that that is not going to happen. What I was talking about was the position of the Local Government Commission, which of course does not function in Scotland. The Scots, who are all for their proper independence, have been making their own arrangements, and I do not think what I said really has anything to do with them. I do not know how wide the terms of reference will be. I think we must wait and see what is the form of the White Paper.


My Lords, may I thank my noble friend for his Statement, which will be of great interest to all kinds of local authorities. May I also ask him one short question? In view of the big rise in rates last year, the big rise again this year, and the almost certain continuation of big rises in years to come, can we assume that the appointment of the Commission does not rule out the giving of extra financial relief to local authorities while the Commission is doing its work?


My Lords, the fact at the present time is that we have a Bill before the other place which deals with the immediate relief of certain aspects of the rate position. The Government have almost completed a detailed examination of local government finance and are hoping to make a Statement quite soon on this subject. I rather hope that we shall have a Bill during this Session, dealing with not only the short-term aspect that is now before another place, but also the wider consideration that my noble friend has drawn to the attention of the House.


My Lords, may I thank my noble friend for that information which will undoubtedly give great satisfaction to local authorities?


My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us when we are likely to get the terms of reference of the Royal Commission?


My Lords, no date has been fixed for that, but we are rather hoping that the announcement will be made quite soon.

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