HL Deb 13 March 1967 vol 281 cc104-14

7.37 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is a short Bill of only two clauses which deals with two kinds of review affecting local government. The first clause concerns reviews held under Part II of the Local Government Act 1958, to consider changes in the organisation of local government, and the second clause deals with the review of the administration of education in Inner London which is provided for in the London Government Act 1963.

Two Local Government Commissions were set up under the Local Government Act 1958. They were charged with reviewing, at county and county borough level, the organisation of local government in England, outside the metropolitan area, and in Wales. They were required to propose changes authorised by the Act as they considered desirable for effective and convenient local government. In five provincial conurbations, designated in the Act as Special Review Areas, the Commission had also to consider county districts. Outside these areas the reviews of county districts were to be conducted by the county councils in what were termed county reviews.

The Local Government Commission for Wales completed its job in 1962 and went out of office in January, 1964, when the warrants of appointment of its members expired. Its winding up is therefore no more than a formality. The Local Government Commission for England, on the other hand, had completed about two-thirds of its work when the Government decided that it should be wound up because of the setting up of the Royal Commission on Local Government. Although the Local Government Commissions were required to review the organisation of local government, they could propose only the sorts of changes which were authorised by the Act, and the effect of this was, broadly speaking, to restrict them to changes within the existing structure. They were concerned, in fact, largely with proposing boundary alterations, and no more.

We have had two reviews of local government since the war—the Local Government Boundary Commission of the 1940s, and later the Local Government Commission which this Bill seeks to wind up—but in both cases the narrow terms of reference have prevented the Commissions from undertaking the sort of far-reaching and comprehensive review which the situation by now demands. This, as the House knows well, is the reason why the Government decided that Royal Commissions should be set up for England and for Scotland, with terms of reference much broader than the former ones, so that they could examine functions and make recommendation about functions of authorities, as well as boundaries, and for the division of functions between authorities in different places and at different tiers: in other words, the total overhaul which we have often discussed in this House in recent days.

The Royal Commission will thus be able to recommend a completely new pattern of local government which the former Commissions could not. As long ago as 1946 the former Local Government Boundary Commission discovered that the exclusion of functions from their terms of reference crippled their work. They concluded that effective and convenient units of local government administration could not be procured every- where without a fresh allocation of functions, and they asked that legislation to widen their terms of reference should be considered. Their Report for 1947—as long ago as that—gave details of the sort of changes which they thought necessary. The Government of the day recommended this Report for study by all concerned, but it turned out that no agreed body of opinion on any proposals in this field emerged. The climate of local government affairs has now fully changed and, as the House well knows, the main associations of local authorities all welcomed the new review by the Royal Commission. This in itself is a measure of the increasingly forward-looking approach to be found in local government circles to-day.

When the Government decided to set up the Royal Commission, it was then necessary to consider the future of the existing Local Government Commission for England. This Commission had just issued draft proposals on three areas in the North-West—the North-Western General Review Area and the Merseyside and South-East Lancashire Special Review Areas. They had only recently started their review of Southern England, and the South-East still remained to be tackled. The Commission would have been unable finally to report on the North-West Areas much before the Royal Commission's own Report was expected, and their reports on the South and the South-East would probably not have been received until after the Royal Commission's Report had been published.

The processes under the Local Government Act 1958 are so slow that the consideration of putting their proposals into effect would have taken several years (our experience shows that it is usually about seven years), during which time the Royal Commission's Report would already have been in the hands of the Government and would have been under consideration. It was very much open to question whether the Local Government Commission ought to go on working out new proposals in parallel with the Royal Commission. The Government, having considered the question, decided, as we know, that it should not and that it should be terminated by the present Bill. I would associate myself with the expressions of thanks to the Chairman and members of the Local Government Commission which have already been made by my colleagues in the Government elsewhere.

To turn now to the county reviews, where a county review had been completed it was thought right that all the work put into it should not be wasted and that the county councils' proposals should be considered on their merits. But where a county review still had a long way to go towards completion, or had not even been started, it seemed best to leave the area concerned for review by the Royal Commission. So in June, 1966, after consulting the local authority associations, the then Minister told local authorities that he would not consider county review reports beyond those which would be submitted to him by the end of August in that year.

I turn now to Clause 2 of the Bill. This repeals the sections of the London Government Act 1958 which laid on the Secretary of State for Education and Science the obligation to carry out a review of the arrangements for education in the Inner London Area, and to lay before Parliament, not later than the end of March, 1970, a report to determine whether any of the functions of the Inner London Education Authority should be transferred to the Inner London boroughs, including the City. The clause also repeals the section of the Act which laid on the Minister of Labour the duty to review the Youth Employment Service in the Inner London area in conjunction with the review of the education service which his colleague the Secretary of State will be undertaking at the same time.

The Government have come to the conclusion that these two provisions have introduced an element of uncertainty into the future of the Education and Youth Employment Services in Inner London and that this element has given rise to unnecessary anxiety in the minds of teachers and parents. There is by now general agreement in the educational world that the educational service in the Inner London area should not be fragmented among the Inner London boroughs and that a unified service is clearly desirable, and, indeed, essential to a fortunate future for education in the capital city. The Government are satisfied that the Education and Youth Employment Services are efficiently administered as they are at present, and that any change would be likely to lead only to a lowering of standards. The effect of Clause 2 of the Bill is therefore to confirm the present position of the I.L.E.A. and preserve the long-established unified service in the Inner London area by repealing the review sections of the London Government Act. My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, that the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Kennet.)

7.46 p.m.


My Lords, we should all wish to express appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, for his careful exposition of this measure. I doubt whether your Lordships feel that we need spend a great deal of time on the Second Reading of this backward-looking Bill. The Commissions for England and Wales are both dead. This is really a funeral ceremony, but I am thankful to say that most of the members of the outgoing Commissions are alive. I, too, would wish to pay warm tribute to them for the work they have done, both individually and collectively. I would particularly single out one of them, the original Chairman of the Local Government Commission for England, the late Sir Henry Hancock—a great public servant. I think that almost everyone who had cause to meet the members of the two Commissions during their official inquiries was personally impressed by the sincerity, knowledge and deep understanding with which they were tackling their jobs.

Outside London these Commissions represented the sole post-war effort to reform local government which has produced practical results and improvements. The Welsh Commission, as the noble Lord said, finished its work some four years ago. The present Government have held office for two and a half years, and have still not made up their minds on the future pattern of local government in Wales. We had been told, of course, that the appointment of a Secretary of State for Wales would lead to dynamic handling of the problems of the Principality, but in fact the reverse has been the case.

The English Commission was encouraged by the speech which was delivered by the then Minister, Mr. Crossman, to the annual conference of the Association of Municipal Corporations on September 22, 1965, in which he said I take the opportunity of scotching all rumours that the Commission is to be wound up. Within five months after that the Government announced that the Commission was to be wound up; and the rumours proved true. Is it surprising that when members of this Government promise what is going to happen or not going to happen, the public are beginning not to believe them? There is a story current that after the Government had decided to set up a Royal Commission on Local Government, nevertheless the Government wanted the existing Commission for England to go on and complete its work, but the members of the Commission, being thoroughly sensible people, refused, saying that that was absurd and impossible.

Whatever happened, we can now see that when setting up the Royal Commission the Government appear to have given no adequate thought to the position they were bringing into existence in the meanwhile. The Government created a situation where a very complex task was left two-thirds finished, and debates in your Lordships' House on one Order after another, starting with Torbay and continuing with the debate which is to take place later this evening, have shown how unsatisfactory, how chancy and how inequitable a situation has been brought about simply by vacillating government.

This is a classic example of the notorious military sequence — order, counter-order, disorder. The Government would have been wiser to enable the Commission to finish its work of review, and meanwhile to give some hard thought and make up their own mind as to their future policy in local government, without queering the pitch for the existing Commission by superimposing a new Royal Commission. But that, of course, would have involved the Government meanwhile in implementing recommendations which might be unpopular.

In 1947 the Labour Government of the day solved a similar problem by simply running away, scrapping the Local Government Boundary Commission, and then doing nothing at all towards local government reform in the remaining four years of its tenure of office. That was the disaster in the post-war history of local government reform—the complete waste of those years. We had laboriously to start afresh, and I brought forward what became the 1958 Act as the best measure to which I could get agreement at that time among all the interests most concerned.

I readily agree that if the Commission had been given wider scope then as to what it could recommend, that would have solved some of our problems now. But I could never have achieved an acceptable degree of agreement at that time on setting up a Commission with much wider powers. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, said, both the nature of the problem and the course of public opinion have greatly developed in the last ten years. The reason why the procedures under the 1958 Act have been so lengthy is that it was the first serious attempt for a great many years to grapple with an intensely sensitive subject, and in these circumstances it seemed to me right to give every chance at every stage for local public opinion to express itself.

The noble Lord said that these Local Government Commissions were really confined to boundary revision. That, of course, is an understatement. They were able to recommend the promotion and demotion of county boroughs, and in the extensive special review areas they could recommend quite new patterns of local government. Indeed, when I see now what has happened in the case of local government in Wales, it is somewhat ironical to look back and recollect that I accepted from the Labour Benches—perhaps rashly—an Amendment in Standing Committee to ensure that it would be impossible to create a special review area in Wales.

I accept that local government reform, in the light of to-day's developments and knowledge, will demand in the end greater changes than these Commissions had statutory power to recommend. My criticism of the Government is that as, even under their plan, there was clearly no chance of any further local government reform during the lifetime of this Parliament, they should not have cut the throat of the only set of people who were getting on with the job.

Clause 2 deals with an unrelated subject. It proposes the cancellation of the statutory review of the strangest education authority in the country. The fact that that was created by a Conservative Government makes it none the less an oddity, compared with every other education authority throughout England and Wales. Even though the whole structure of education in Inner London may remain unchanged after the review, I am certain that at some time there must be a re-examination of the authority itself. It is the only education authority in the country composed principally of people who are compulsorily drafted on to it, whether they are interested in education or not.

It is almost the only body of which I can think in the whole system of local government from which it is literally impossible to resign. The 40 candidates who are elected to the Greater London Council on April 13 next for Inner London boroughs will find themselves compelled to be members of the I.L.E.A. even though their main interest in local government may be planning, traffic, housing or something else, and not education at all. I shall seek to develop this further in Committee, when I shall move to omit Clause 2 from the Bill. It is so remote from the main theme of the Bill that at this hour of the evening, with a good deal of additional business ahead of us I shall take up no more time on it now.

We have no choice but to give the Bill a Second Reading, for the two Commissions are dead already. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, will answer two questions. First, when will the Government be clear enough in their mind to announce their local government proposals for Wales? Secondly, is it the case that there was a difference of opinion between the English Commission and the Minister, the Minister wishing the Commission to carry on, but the members saying that he had created a situation in which it was impossible for them to do so?

I have spent more than 20 years of my life in local government, and there are others present in your Lordships' House at this moment who have given a great part of their years to the same cause. I care about its welfare, and I do not for one moment believe that Parliament could conceivably administer the whole country without the immense and outstanding contribution of those who take part in local government, members and officials alike. They are the sufferers when the real needs and problems of local government are insensitively handled by a Government which shuns making hard decisions itself.

At this very moment, on a Monday evening, while we are discussing this Government Bill to stop various things, literally hundreds of council committees all over England and Wales are at work in their town halls and council offices, anxious to get on and to be doing more to make their own locality or neighbourhood a better place to live in. If we in this House to-night can join completely in nothing else, let us join in wishing them well and thanking them for their devoted and all too often unappreciated service.

7.58 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, has told us that the 1958 Act was the best to which he could get agreement at the time; that the terms of reference for the Commission were the widest to which he could get general agreement at the time. We in the Government now know that that was the case, and we have no complaint that that was the form in which he set up the Commission which we are burying to-night. He did the best he could in 1958, he was right to do it, and the Commission has done good work. But now we have been able to do better. I do not claim that this is by our superior merit on this side of the House, though of course part of it is. It is also that it is now nine years later and, as I said before, the climate of opinion in local government circles has now changed. It is now possible to get general agreement on a Commission with much wider terms of reference, covering the whole system, including functions.

I do not know whether in the last resort the noble Lord was telling us that we should not have set up the Royal Commission which it has proved possible to set up, or that we should have set it up earlier, and I do not know quite what the nature of his complaint is. For myself, I see this as a natural and logical development. The noble Lord did the best he could nine years ago. We are now doing the best we can, and it is a little better because time has elapsed.

The noble Lord said that no adequate thought had been given to the situation meanwhile—that is, the situation between the appointment of the Royal Commission, its reporting in two years' time and the adoption or otherwise of its report some years after that. This is really not at all true. A very great deal of thought has been given to it. I outlined the reasons behind this thought, and the reasons for which the Government have taken the actions they have, only last week on one of these Orders; I think it was the Teesside Order. Perhaps I should just briefly touch on it again, because it was a very real problem which has been solved in a very definite way. One may criticise the way in which it has been solved, saying the solution should have lain a little more on this side or a little more on the other side of where the decision has been taken, but one cannot say that no decision was taken or that inadequate thought was given to it.

The decision was this. After the announcement of the setting up of the Royal Commission, there were a certain number of review reports on the Minister's desk. Should he pass them all, take decisions on them all, whether favourable or unfavourable? Should he take decisions on none of them? Or should he adopt a middle course and pass those which he thought it was worth having "in the bag", even though the Royal Commission were still to report, and stall or take no decision on those which he thought would not be worth the upheaval in the small number of years between now and action on the Royal Commission's report? He decided, as we know, to take the middle course. He stalled on seven and he took decisions, in most cases favourable ones, without any change, on a larger number than that. Hence the series of Orders which I am bringing before the House in these days.

I do not think there is a situation of disorder. I do not think that any other solution could have been found to the problem of what to do with the large body of work already turned in by the old Commission after the necessary and right decision to set up the new Royal Commission had been taken. With the noble Lord's agreement, I will leave the question of I.L.E.A. until the Committee stage. Since he has said he is going to move an Amendment to delete the whole clause, this will give us an opportunity to discuss the whole matter.

I should like to conclude by joining him in his happy and picturesque evocation of the hundreds of councils meeting at this moment. We on the Government side agree with every word he said about that and about how much we owe to the work of those councillors and those officers; and I should also like to say how much we feel it is our duty to ensure that in the future they get a better system than they have now to express the will of their electors in the most efficient, best arranged and most progressive and flexible way.


My Lords, could the noble Lord answer my question about Wales?


I am very sorry to have to tell the noble Lord that I cannot answer his question about Wales, but I will inquire from my colleagues who are responsible for the Principality under our somewhat separate arrangements, and either they or I will let him have an answer at Committee stage.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.