HL Deb 12 June 1980 vol 410 cc567-70

3.15 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in view of the reported increase in rates in the London Borough of Lambeth, they intend to see that local authorities fully contribute to plans for economies in spending on public service manpower.


My Lords, there are indeed indications that local government as a whole had budgeted for a higher volume of current expenditure in 1980–81 than is called for by the Government's expenditure plans. This is quite unacceptable. My right honourable friend proposes to ask all local authorities to revise their expenditure plans downwards and to submit new returns by 1st August. In the light of those returns, we shall consider whether further action is necessary. Since wages and salaries account for nearly three-quarters of gross current expenditure, it is clear that manpower reductions are essential if the proposed reductions in local government expenditure are to be achieved in 1980–81 and following years.


My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply. I hope very much that the Government will be successful in this. After many years in local government, I know that the temptation to appoint more people and to pay them more is very great. I hope that he will be successful in reducing the numbers employed by the local authorities.


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for those helpful remarks.


My Lords, does the noble Lord realise that local authorities are being forced by Her Majesty's Government to take this position: either to fail to provide vital local services or to increase the rates? As this House knows that the noble Lord is humane as well as a human being, which choice would he make if he were once again a local councillor?


My Lords, as your Lordships would expect, I do not by any means accept the thesis that the noble Lord submitted. I think that the first thing that local government has to do—and there are many authorities doing it—is to ensure that they are getting value for the money that they spend. I would hope that no one in this House would for a moment intimate that that is not possible—because it is possible. Until that has been done, the other questions that the noble Lord put to me are, I fear, secondary; but I should gladly expand on that on a more appropriate occasion.

Viscount RIDLEY

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that Lambeth is by no means a typical local authority, and that many local authorities have tried for many years to curtail their expenditure?


Yes, my Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that point. I hoped I had touched upon it in my first response. I am aware that that is so; but it is unfortunate that sometimes the actions of certain local authorities (of which it would have to be said that Lambeth is one; although not the only one) in total contribute a great deal which rebounds adversely upon local government as a whole—when most people in local government are trying to do what the Government have said needs to be done to restore the economy to where it has to be. Then will be the time to talk about services being improved in the way that we all want to see them improved.


My Lords, can the noble Lord explain why Lambeth Borough Council is singled out for this Question? Does not the general principle apply to every local authority in the country?—for example, to the council in which I am interested, Westminster Council, where the rates have gone up excessively, to which I object. And I have no information about the manpower that is being used or abused. Why single out this particular council?


My Lords, I am not responsible for the Questions that are put down or for the way in which they are put down. I can only suspect that it is because Lambeth has been more vocal than others in declaring its intention to try to thwart the policies of the Government.


My Lords, may I ask, as a resident of Lambeth, whether the noble Lord is aware that the rates in Lambeth this year went up by 50 per cent.—which is a very heavy burden on those who live there? Is he also aware that there is tremendous scope for cutting down non-essential services and for a thorough shake-up of manpower; because Lambeth Council is totally overmanned?


My Lords, I am very much aware of the point that the noble Lord makes. May I add strength to his point by reminding him (if as a Lambeth ratepayer he needs to be reminded, which I doubt) that the 50 per cent. to which he referred goes on top of the 40 per cent. in the previous year.


My Lords, if it is the intention of the Government, declared over and over again, to set the local authorities free, why do the Government insist on interfering with the local authorities?


My Lords, if the noble Lord says that it is interfering with local authorities to call on them to follow national policies, I would remind the noble Lord of the infamous Circular 45 of 1976 which the previous Administration put out—and to which local authorities responded in the way in which I am hoping they will respond to the circulars of the present Government.


My Lords, will the noble Lord accept that for many people living in the local authorities that he is attacking, including Lambeth and other London boroughs, the actions that those local authorities are taking represent the one bright spot in a sea of gloom and destruction being wreaked by the Government on social services and other services of the working people? It is absolutely disgraceful for him to say that these local authorities are giving local government a bad name, when they are doing quite the reverse.


The noble Lord is entitled to his view, my Lords. I represent a Government which have set policies for which they have a mandate from the people as a whole. They are entitled to expect that Lambeth or any other local authority pay and do their share to contributing to enable them to carry out those policies, in the same way as I said a moment ago that local government as a whole did for the previous Administration in 1976.


My Lords, I think that we have heard enough on this Question.