HL Deb 07 February 1974 vol 349 cc913-8

3.38 p.m.


My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Young, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill. I think that this is the appropriate moment to give the House a very brief explanation of why this Bill is urgently needed and why we have asked the other Parties and other Peers who have taken an interest in it and put down Amendments to move them formally.

As noble Lords will know, the Local Government Bill makes certain changes in the grant system whereby the Exchequer aids local government revenue. This system, the rate support grant, provides the overwhelming bulk of Government aid to local authorities and a changed system of distribution as from the beginning of April this year was made necessary by local government reorganisation. An important part of the Bill is the power to pay variable domestic relief to different local authorities. This power does not exist under existing legislation. It is a necessary power to ease the excessive rate burdens which would otherwise fall on domestic ratepayers in particular parts of the country as a result of the changes stemming from reorganisation. The rate support grant Order which would give effect to these provisions cannot be made until this Bill has received the Royal Assent. But equally, until they know the grant they will receive, local authorities cannot make their rates, which must be operative as from April.

The Government have made a rate support grant settlement with the local authorities and have promised them, in the White Paper published at the end of last month, how much grant they will receive. It is on that basis that the local authorities are now drawing up their budgets. Unless the Local Government Bill is passed it will be impossible for the local authorities to draw up those budgets and to be paid Government grants as promised to them in April and succeeding months. It is for these reasons, my Lords, that we believe it is in the public interest to speed this Bill towards the Statute Book before the end of this Parliament.

The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, asked about the procedural implications of the Committee stage upon which we are now embarking. It is not possible to discharge the Order of Commitment, which in many ways perhaps would be the simplest and most straightforward thing to do. We did it just now with the Biological Weapons Bill. It cannot be done in this instance, however, because no notice has been given of the intention to move the discharge; and under our Rules of Order the Order of Commitment can be discharged only if no Amendment has been set down. Of course, as your Lordships know, a number of Amendments, 40 or so, have been put down for to-day.

For these two reasons I have been advised by the Table that it is not open to us to discharge the Order of Commitment. This is the procedure governed by Standing Order No. 45. However, I have been able to consult the Lord Chairman of Committees, who will be taking the Chair at the Committee stage, and I understand that he hopes to take us fairly quickly and formally through the Bill if it is apparent that noble Lords who have Amendments down on the Marshalled List are prepared not to move them. I beg to move.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Windlesham.)

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, we appreciate what the Leader of the House has had to say on this matter. May I say that when my noble Leader, Lord Shackleton, spoke just now he was reflecting the views of my colleagues and myself on this side who had tabled Amendments. We appreciate the urgency of the situation. It is only because of that that we are agreeable to the course suggested. May I say that I think it most regrettable that this matter has been left to this late stage. Local government has been placed in a position of considerable embarrassment. We on this side will certainly do all we can to avoid creating further difficulties for them.


My Lords, as one who has put his name to some of these Amendments, I would indeed support the noble Lord the Leader of the House, in the statement he has made. I would just ask him whether it is possible, Election or not, for the calculations of the domestic rate relief to be speeded up. The circular which was issued on February 4 is of unbelievable complexity, so much so that it has baffled all the financial brains in local government; they cannot work out what it means. They are told that it will be some days, or maybe weeks, before they will get the details. Without in any way wishing to impede the progress of this Bill, may I make a plea that the detailed calculations are issued to the local authorities as soon as possible.


My Lords, I am grateful for what both noble Lords have said. In reply to the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, I am sure my noble friend Lady Young would wish to do everything she can to expedite the circular to which the noble Viscount has referred. I would repeat what I said earlier, and I hope the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, and any other noble Lords who have Amendments down, will take the opportunity of meeting with the noble Baroness, so that it is possible for the Minister and the Peers who have an interest in this subject to sit down and have a look at the Amendments, and to see whether fresh legislation may be necessary in the new Parliament.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether a local authority that was able to prove injustice about the amount of rate grant would have to wait twelve months before any amendment could be made?


My Lords, I understand that this Bill does not deal with the settlement: it is the legislative framework.


My Lords, may I say that the suggestion made by my noble friend, that Lady Young should be good enough to see some of those who have Amendments down, might be extremely useful. Some of the Amendments were of a probing nature. I think the information could probably be obtained in the course of such a discussion and it seems to me that we should take advantage of the opportunity offered.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The EARL OF LISTOWEL in the Chair.]

Clauses and Schedules agreed to.

House resumed.

Bill reported, without amendment.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Report be now received.

Moved, That the Report be now received.—(Baroness Young.)


My Lords, on the Motion, That the Report be now received, may I say that I think the House would wish to record its gratitude to the noble Earl the Chairman of Committees for moving with such tremendous speed and accuracy through a very complicated exercise. I am sure he has set some kind of record. Whether it is one that he would ever wish to rival again, I very much doubt; but our thanks are due to him.

3.53 p.m.


My Lords, I wish to protest against the ridiculous charade which we have just experienced. It is an example of the contemptuous treatment by this Government of the local authorities of this country. The Government deliberately delayed the introduction of this very important Bill until what they knew were to be the last few days of this Parliament. They knew that there were many of us on both sides of the House who were anxious to move Amendments to the proposals in the Bill. They have denied us that opportunity. We hear from the newspapers and other media that in these days Parliament is more and more being held in contempt. The pantomime performance of this afternoon will strengthen the beliefs of those people who hold Parliament in that contempt. For that I am sorry.


My Lords, I do not recall an occasion when I have wished, as I do at this minute, to dissociate myself so strongly from what the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, has said, because I can find no evidence whatever to justify his remark that the Government have deliberately delayed this Bill for the reason he mentioned. We all regret that there has not been time for the Committee stage; and I agree with him on that. But I really must dissociate myself most strongly from what he implied at the beginning of his remarks.


My Lords, may I just add that I think local government generally will be very glad indeed to have this Bill passed so quickly.


My Lords, I had not intended to say any more, but I gather that the noble Lord the Leader of the House was asking us to join with him in expressing thanks to the Lord Chairman of Committees. I am quite sure that everybody in the Chamber does that because his performance was extremely impressive. May I say with regard to the points that have been raised, particularly those of my noble friend behind me, that while I cannot commit the next Government to anything (because I probably shall be one of the most humble Members of your Lordships' House) it would be my very great wish that if my colleagues form that Government, as I hope they will, they will return to this question of local government; and particularly to finance, because the present position is extremely unsatisfactory, as are a number of other matters. May I say, further to that, that I have been assured, while discussions have been going on throughout the afternoon, by what was said to me beforehand by my noble friend our Chief Whip on this side, Lady Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, that the undertaking given is one that we can accept; that, should we be unfortunate and lose the Election, the Government will Rive us the opportunity of returning to this question, when I hope we shall have a full opportunity of discussing the issues referred to.


My Lords, may I say to the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, that no discourtesy to the House has been intended over this matter. May I also give my assurance to the Members of your Lordships' House who had Amendments down and would like to discuss them with me, that I shall be very happy to do so. Of course, I say that to my noble friends also, and thank them for their remarks.

On Question, Report received.