HL Deb 14 October 1969 vol 304 cc1333-40

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, with permission, I should like now to repeat a Statement that is being made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland in another place on the Report of the Royal Commission on Local Government in Scotland which was published, together with a short version, on September 25. This is the Statement:

"Honourable Members have by now had an opportunity to study the Report, and will have been impressed by the comprehensive treatment which the Commission has given to this important and complex subject. Lord Wheatley and his colleagues have already been thanked by the Government for their work, and I am sure that this House will also wish to acknowledge its great indebtedness to them.

"The structure of Scottish local goernment has evolved over many centuries. The earliest of the burghs received their Royal Charters in the first half of the 12th century; and since then the system has developed and expanded in piece-meal fashion as population increased and local authorities were given responsibility for the provision of new services. Reorganisation Acts of 1889 and 1929 laid the foundation of the present structure, and few would claim that it can now deal adequately with all the demands which are made upon it.

"The Report proposes to replace the present system by a two-level structure, consisting of 7 regional and 37 district authorities: these 44 authorities would assume the functions of the existing 430 county, town and district councils. This proposal is made in order to satisfy two essential requirements: first, the need for authorities with sufficient resources and power to enable them to provide services effectively; and secondly, the need for local people to understand and to feel involved in the operation of the democratic process. The Commission recommends that the regional authorities should exercise the major func tions with the heavy expenditure, including strategic planning, transportation and roads, housing, education, the personal social services, and the police and fire services; and that the main responsibility of the district authorities should be to plan and develop the local environment. It proposes also that, at a more local level, communities which so wish should be able to form community councils to express local opinion and to provide certain local facilities.

"On the major principles the Commission are unanimous. Two Commissioners (the honourable Members for East Renfrewshire and Inverness) dissent from the majority recommendation about district authorities. They believe that local planning should be the responsibility of the regional, and not the district, authorities, and that if this were accepted here could be many more than 37 second-level authorities. There are also reservations about the status to be given to Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles.

"The Government welcome the Commission's fundamental approach to the problems and the broad objectives for local government which it has stated. They accept that major rationalisation of local government in Scotland is necessary; that this must involve a radical reduction in the number of authorities with executive powers; and that the division between town and country should be brought to an end. We agree with the Commission that it is vital that Scottish local government should enjoy greater status and responsibility than it does now, and that it should be so reformed as to enable central Government to give local authorities more freedom and power.

"What the final pattern should be cannot be settled without further consultation. I have already invited comments from all interested bodies. The process of consultation will be thorough, although we appreciate the importance of keeping the period of uncertainty to a minimum. Our objective is to introduce comprehensive legislation as soon as possible. It is our aim to complete in the early part of next year our consultations on the Commission's proposals for the basic structure and division of functions. We intend to announce decisions on these basic questions before proceeding to the further consultations that will be necessary on the more detailed recommendations, concerning for instance the safeguarding of staff interests and the precise definition of boundaries.

"Proposals for the reorganisation of local government have now been made for Wales, England and Scotland. There are differences between these proposals. This is not unexpected because of the differences between the three countries—for example, in their history, geography and distribution of population—and the Government's final decisions in each case will have full regard to the particular circumstances of the country to which they relate.

"The Royal Commission's Report presents us with a unique opportunity to shape a large part of Scotland's future. It is an opportunity which the Government for their part welcome and accept."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.55 p.m.


My Lords, first I should like to thank the noble Lord for repeating that very important statement to your Lordships. Secondly, I would join with him in expressing also from this side of the House our gratitude to Lord Wheatley and his colleagues who have laboured for, I think, three years and whose Report has certainly highlighted the need for reform and the problems involved in it.

For my part, I am greatly relieved to learn that the Government do not propose to adopt without further question the recommendations put forward by the Commission, even though they were largely unanimous. It is no reflection on the Commission that there is not one major recommendation on which there is general agreement, or which is obviously and indisputably right. There are a number of questions of this kind: for example, the disparity in the size of the regions, the electoral system, the difference of opinion on the second tier, the distribution of functions, the division of functions—between planning and hous ing, for example—the proposals for community councils, and what I would regard as the misguided aim that local authorities should all speak with one voice. To do that, one either gets towards totalitarianism, on the one hand, or friction with central Government, on the other. All these problems have to be examined and I am extremely glad to learn that in the view of the Government further consultation is needed, before the basic structure of local authorities and the division of functions are settled.

The Statement promises that the Government will announce decisions on these basic questions before proceeding to further consultations which will be necessary on the detailed recommendations. They say that the consultation is to take place with interested bodies, and I have expressed the hope that the "interested bodies" include both Houses of Parliament. I am sure the Government appreciate that so far as Scotland is concerned this is a national issue and it is right that Parliament should be consulted at the time when opinion is forming, and not after it has formed. So, my Lords, I ask whether the Government will give time for discussion of the Royal Commission's Report in the very near future, as part of the process of opinion forming.

Secondly, I would agree that local government in Scotland need not be reorganised on the same basis as in England. One of the questions which we shall have to discuss is whether local government has to be uniform even within Scotland. Perhaps one convenient way of consulting opinion in this House would be by having a Scottish Committee and consulting that. Under our rules my noble friend, Lord Inglewood (who I am sorry to see is not in his place), and others interested could attend, and I am sure the opinions of other parts of the House would be greatly valued. The third question I would ask the Minister is who is going to take the role of Mr. Thomson in England; who is going to co-ordinate these consultations of ours? Lastly, may I say that this is certainly an occasion for a national approach, and I hope that by that national approach we shall get the best result for Scotland.

4.1 p.m.


My Lords, may I join in thanking the noble Lord for repeating this Statement, and also express my thanks to Lord Wheatley and his fellow Commissioners for undertaking this very important task. Obviously the Report will have to be carefully studied. May I urge the noble Lord and Her Majesty's Government to pay heed to the view that the proposed district authorities are too large? Although circumstances undoubtedly differ between Scotland and England, and I would not suggest otherwise, we are faced with a somewhat similar problem in studying the Maud Report; namely, how to strike the right balance between those who demand what they regard as adequate size and, on the other hand, the encouragement of genuine local democracy. If one looks at Map 1 and the functions to be allocated to the district authorities, it seems that the boundaries are too wide for some of the functions to be performed by those local authorities. May I therefore urge the Government to give careful attention to the request of the Minority Report that there should be smaller locality authorities?


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord also when he replies to give some indication that there will not be this enormous pressure on the local authorities to give their opinions immediately? I sit on a local authority in Scotland. I cannot remember the date when we were asked to give our opinions, but it was quite impossible to get sufficient consultation within the county council to be able to give a satisfactory opinion on the Report. I am as keen as anyone in this House to see this Report made a success, and with a lot of it I agree most heartily. On the other hand it is a big revolution; it is something which affects the life of every single person in the country. I beg that we shall be given time to discuss it ourselves and with the Scottish Office. I would support my noble friend, Lord Drumalbyn, when he asks for plenty of time in Parliament to discuss it, too.

4.5 p.m.


My Lords, I am reminded that it is customary to reply after the speakers on the two Front Benches have made their comments. I am grateful for what the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, and the noble Lord, Lord Wade, have said regarding this Statement. The point which the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, made about consultation, including the opportunity of discussion of the Report by both Houses of Parliament, is one which no reasonable man could possibly say ought not to be made. I should be surprised if the first opportunity for some discussion did not arise during the debate following the Queen's Speech, but if this were not felt to be a suitable opportunity, or if it did not turn out to provide an adequate discussion, I have no doubt that talks through the usual channels would a range for a debate on the matter in your Lordships' House at as early a date as was convenient.

On the subject of who is to undertake the responsibility for co-ordination in Scotland, I may say that I have been asked by my right honourable friend to undertake this task. The noble Lord, Lord Wade, asked that we should pay heed to the view expressed in the Minority Report that the district councils cover too large areas. Nothing will be excluded from the consideration which will be given. After all, the main Report and the Minority Report on these district councils cover a fairly wide range of possibilities. On the one hand, the Report itself suggests some 37 authorities, including the exercise at a more local level of some important planning functions. The Minority Report, anxious to have these district councils in greater number and therefore covering smaller areas, is prepared to pay the price that the councils should not be given planning functions at all. While there would be many who would subscribe to the view that the most effective way of carrying planning into operation is to have it concentrated in a particular area in the hands of one authority, there is the opposite view that we must not ignore: that there are many aspects of planning which assume greater difficulty if decisions are carried out at a centre which is remote from the actual sphere of operations. All this will be taker into consideration. All that the Government are doing at this stage, as the Statement has said, is to accept the broad principles. The whole of the detail is open for discussion in these consultation;.


My Lords, may I first say how glad we all are to learn that the co-ordination in Scotland is to be done by the noble Lord himself. I think that it is good for him and it is convenient for us, and I believe that it will be good for Scotland, too. Secondly, may I just query, with great respect, what he said about the discussion of a subject of this kind in the course of the debate on the Queen's Speech? While noble Lords can talk about anything they like on that occasion, it is normal to talk about legislation which is mentioned in the Queen's Speech, or other measures mentioned in the Queen's Speech, or which one thinks ought to be mentioned in the Queen's Speech. I should have thought it unlikely that there would be legislation on this point next year.


My Lords, I was myself under that impression, but I can tell the noble Lord that the assurance that discussion of this matter would not be out of order on the Queen's Speech came from my noble friend the Leader of the House. Whether it is in order or not, he will certainly not be jumping up during the debate on the Queen's Speech to object.


My Lords, the difficulty about the debate on the Queen's Speech is that it can get extremely ragged, because people talk about so many different subjects. I hope the noble Lord will be able to give us a day.

The Lord PRIVY SEAL (Lord Shackleton)

My Lords, I have never known a debate on the Address which was not ragged. If there are noble Lords who wish to raise certain matters, that provides an early opportunity. But I do not disagree with the noble Lord's diagnosis of the best way of handling this matter.


My Lords, there is a fear in my part of the world and on my own Highland county council that a certain amount of pressure is being exercised to get this matter out too quickly. There is that fear, and I would ask the Minister to give some assurance that the county councils will not be pressurised to get it through in a hurry.


My Lords, the same point was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot. Obviously it would not be easy—in fact I would go so far as to say it would be impossible, no matter how much time was allowed—to reach a stage where all those who expressed views were in agreement. We have therefore to try to marry the need for getting down to some definite proposals with the giving of reasonable time for discussion of what, after all, are the basic principles. If the local authority associations and their members work on the basis that what they are being consulted about at this stage is basic structure, that they do not need to worry about boundaries or the number of members they may have or all sorts of details, then I think the time allowed is perfectly adequate. After all, the period between the time that the intimation went out to the authorities and the time we asked for the consultation to be completed is four months; and, accepting, as we must, that the requirements of geography make consultation in county authorities perhaps slower than is possible in burghs, even by county council standards four months is a fairly reasonable period.