HL Deb 14 April 1981 vol 419 cc871-905

3.7 p.m.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time. The most cursory examination of the Bill shows that, as its Short Title declares, its provisions are indeed miscellaneous in character, in that they cover a diverse range of matters affecting local authorities in Scotland. A second main feature of the Bill is that it builds on existing structures and existing legislation, although it does bring a fresh emphasis to certain existing provisions. Significantly, this is most noticeable in the provisions dealing with the financial relationships between central and local government. It is in times like the present, when it is imperative for both central and local government to have regard to the needs of the national economy, that the financial relationship between central Government (with its responsibility for national economic management) and local government (with its responsibility for the provisions of so many of our services) has to be watched with particular care.

It is generally accepted that any Government—whatever their political complexion—has a legitimate and indeed vital interest in the totality of local authority current expenditure which accounts for about half of the total expenditure within the responsibility of the Secretary of State. Because of the national economic situation in the last five years and more, this interest has frequently found expression in appeals by Government to local authorities that they should keep their spending under a tighter rein. The noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, may recall that in introducing the Rate Support Grant (Scotland) (No. 2) Order 1975 in another place on 15th December 1975—the last such order for which he was responsible as Secretary of State—he described the settlement contained in the order as "tough", drew attention to the severe economic climate affecting every sector of our national life, and stressed the need for restraint "of unheard-of stringency" in the years ahead. The noble Lord may also recall—it is a matter of public record—that the general response of local authorities to his appeal was, to say the very least, disappointing, and, under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, his successor in office was forced to make substantial reductions in the level of rate support grant with the objective—and, in the event, the result—of reducing local authority spending to a level within the Government's financial targets.

The need for local authorities to restrain their spending is no less now than when the noble Lord was Secretary of State. Since the present Government came to office, Ministers have, in public statements in Parliament and elsewhere, as well as at meetings with local authorities, made plain the important role local authorities have to play in the national interest in bringing down public expenditure to a level we can afford. Guidance has been sent to each authority by circular, so none of them can be unaware of the Government's objectives in this respect.

I pay tribute to the efforts of those authorities—including some not of the same political persuasion as the Government—who have responded responsibly and with good sense and who are trying to keep expenditure under control for the good of the nation. But others have failed to do so and they are jeopardising the national strategy and hurting their own ratepayers—including commercial and industrial ratepayers, who are striving in current difficult economic circumstances to keep their business viable and provide employment. I must tell the House that the Government simply cannot accept irresponsibility of this kind. We are accountable to the nation to ensure that public expenditure as a whole is managed in the public interest with due regard to economic realities.

It is quite clear from the returns showing outturn expenditure for 1980–81 and planned expenditure for 1981–82, which authorities have sent in to the Secretary of State in the last few weeks, that expenditure some £80 million in excess of the Government's guidelines has occurred in 1980–81 and that authorities plan to increase this overspending in 1981–82. The Secretary of State is currently examining these returns to find out the extent of that planned excess in spending and which authorities are mainly responsible for it.

The Secretary of State, in considering the means of taking action, has carried out extensive consultations with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. He was informed that the present rate support grant system—which seeks to compensate for variations in local needs and resources—works quite satisfactorily and is generally acceptable. Having weighed that advice, we accordingly came to the conclusion that we should not alter radically the present system, but should seek to extend our existing powers to make selective reductions in grant payments to individual authorities.

The Secretary of State already has power under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1966 to reduce grant, subject to prior approval by the House of Commons, to any local authority incurring excessive and unreasonable expenditure. The power now has a decent maturity; it first saw the light of day some 50 years ago and has been re-enacted twice by Labour Governments. The noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, may recall that the latest re-enactment of the power—in the 1966 Act—was during his term of office as Secretary of State for Scotland.

Section 5 of the 1966 Act empowers the Secretary of State, subject to the approval of the House of Commons, to reduce grant to a local authority if he is satisfied that it has incurred excessive and unreasonable expenditure. Useful though this power is, it is somewhat lacking in effectiveness, mainly because any grant reduction can be made only after the relative expenditure has been incurred.

The proposals in Clause 14 of the Bill will render this power more effective by allowing the Secretary of State to reduce grant where an authority, in striking its rate, budgets for excessive and unreasonable levels of expenditure out of line with the expenditure assumptions made by the Government in fixing the total of rate support grant. Clause 14 also introduces certain additional criteria which will enable the Secretary of State to take into account all relevant considerations in determining whether planned expenditure is excessive and unreasonable.

It may also be helpful in this context if I mention Clause 16, which will enable the Secretary of State, when he is calculating the amount of resources element payable to an authority which fixes its rate on the basis of excessive and unreasonable planned expenditure, to substitute a lower rate poundage for the actual rate poundage. This power will enable the Secretary of State to prevent such an authority profiting from increased resources element at the expense of authorities generally, and offers an alternative or supplementary procedure to that provided by Clause 14.

A reduction in rate support grant would not, however, be completely effective if an authority were able to maintain an excessive and unreasonable expenditure level by borrowing. Clause 18 accordingly seeks to prohibit an authority, without the consent of the Secretary of State, from using loans fund moneys to offset any part of a reduction in rate support grant; while Clause 27 will require a local authority to obtain the consent of the Secretary of State for borrowing to meet certain non-capital expenses.

The Government have always emphasised that a major purpose of their proposals is to benefit the local ratepayer, and that is why the powers to reduce the rate support grant otherwise payable to an authority are complemented by another new power in Clause 15 of the Bill, which will give an authority facing a reduction in rate support grant an opportunity to reconsider its spending plans and to fix a new, lower rate. This is not possible under the present law, which does not allow alteration of a rate poundage once fixed. The authority will, in effect, have the choice either of suffering a reduction in rate support grant, or of returning a similar sum to its ratepayers, who will therefore be able to benefit immediately from an authority's decision to prune its budget. If the authority has any regard at all for its ratepayers, it should not find the choice difficult to make.

The remaining provisions in Part II follow on from those I have described. Clause 17 makes provision for the new powers to be effective in the local authority financial year 1981–82 and thereafter. Clause 19 provides that the Secretary of State may use estimates of expenditure for rate support grant purposes—including the purposes of Clauses 14 and 16—if an authority fails to provide required information timeously. Naturally, it would be preferable in all cases to operate on information provided by the authority, but it is wise to provide against the possibility that these important policies could be frustrated by the deliberate withholding of information.

I should also mention for the convenience of your Lordships a related provision in Schedule 3. Paragraph 11 proposes a further amendment to Section 5 of the 1966 Act, the general effect of which is to provide the Secretary of State with wide discretion to restore to the original recipient all, or part, of a reduction in grant made under the provision of Clause 14, if the authority's subsequent conduct merits restitution, or to distribute up to the amount of the net reduction to other authorities to the extent that restitution is not made.

These proposals are not an attack on local democracy. Local authorities will remain frce to determine their own level of spending and local priorities between one service and another, with fair and substantial support from the Government. But, assuming enactment of the Bill, in the current financial year and in the future that support will be subject to modification by the Secretary of State if this freedom is exercised irresponsibly and an authority plans to incur excessive and unreasonable expenditure.

I turn now to capital expenditure. Capital expenditure by local authorities in Scotland is subject to cash limits and it is an essential feature of this Government's policy that these should be observed. It is the Secretary of State's intention to continue to control capital expenditure through the financial planning system which has been developed in cooperation with local authorities in recent years. This control is based on Section 94 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 and Clause 26 would enable that control to be modified in two ways: first, by allowing the Secretary of State to withdraw or vary any consent to incur capital expenditure, where the consent in question is not yet fully taken up. This will enable some limitation to be made if monitoring of returns during the year indicates that capital expenditure is going faster than expected. It will also introduce an element of flexibility into capital expenditure controls which could be used, for example, to transfer savings from one authority to another.

Secondly, Clause 26 will allow the Secretary of State to extend by order the scope of Section 94 to include capital consents taken on lease by local authorities or financed out of current revenue. Whether these formal extensions are required will depend on the results of a voluntary approach which is being tried out this year, following consultations with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. If authorities are prepared to count leased assets against their block consent allocations, and to keep within reasonable levels the amount of capital expenditure financed from current revenue, then the Secretary of State may be satisfied that the cash limit can be observed without any formal change in the system. Naturally this is his preferred course, but it remains to be seen how local authorities will respond.

I now come to the remaining provisions of the Bill concerning local government finance. Part I proposes a series of amendments to the Scottish valuation and rating code. I know that the rating system does not have many friends, and indeed the Government are at present considering alternatives to domestic rates. It is because of the possibility of a change to the system—and to introduce a useful flexibility—that the Secretary of State is seeking the powers proposed in Clauses 1 and 2 which would enable him to defer future rating revaluations—including that presently due in 1983—or to require that only certain prescribed classes of lands and heritages be subject to revaluations in the usual way. It would be wasteful to revalue property if shortly afterwards rates no longer had to be paid on it, and Clause 2 would be very useful if it should so happen that only part of the rating system is changed at any time.

The remaining provisions in Part I make useful but relatively minor and technical improvements to the present code, and are included on the principle—with which I do not think anyone could quarrel—that a longer-term commitment to do something about the rating system is not an excuse for leaving it in a state of neglect in the meantime. Through these clauses we can trace the theme of simplifying administrative procedures and eliminating uneconomic work; as an example I might cite Clause 9, which by doing away with part-year increases in the rateable value of dwelling-houses, will reduce demands on ratepayers and also relieve local authorities of the need to go to considerable trouble and expense to levy and collect small sums of supplementary rates. This group of clauses springs mainly from representations by ratepayers or local authorities themselves, and have been agreed with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

Part III of the Bill is concerned with the housing support grants which are payable to local authorities under the Housing (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1978. At the outset I might mention that the need for the changes made by Part III has been accepted by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. The 1978 Act requires the Secretary of State to estimate the aggregate income and expenditure on the housing revenue accounts of all Scottish local authorities, and the amount of housing support grant which falls to be prescribed is the sum necessary to bridge the gap between income and expenditure so estimated.

This process has produced satisfactory results since the provisions were first applied for the year 1979/80, but there are now signs of changing patterns on housing revenue accounts, not least because of the effect of inflation in reducing the real cost of debt repayment. We now have the prospect of individual authorities running into surplus on housing revenue account. That is, in some places income will probably exceed expenditure with the result that the aggregate amount of housing support grants will be reduced by the amount of any local surpluses. There would then be less grant to distribute among the remaining authorities and a smaller sum than that necessary to meet their reasonable needs.

Clause 21 will avoid this undesirable effect by allowing the Secretary of State when estimating the aggregate amounts of income and expenditure to leave out of the reckoning the income and expenditure of any authority which is expected to be in surplus on its housing revenue account.

The clause will allow the exclusion of an authority in another, somewhat special situation. Housing support grants are distributed among authorities by such method as may be prescribed under Section 2 of the 1978 Act. The prescribed method may vary from year to year according to circumstances, but there is always detailed discussion with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Secretary of State gives great weight to the convention's advice. For technical reasons a distribution formula may afford no grant to an authority even though the aggregate grant calculation would ascribe to that authority an excess of expenditure over income. Such an excess would of course increase the aggregate amount of grant to a sum greater than necessary to meet the needs of authorities which do qualify for grant under the prescribed distribution formula, and so Clause 21 allows the exclusion from the block calculation of authorities not qualifying for grant under the formula.

Clause 22 makes a corresponding amendment to Section 2 of the 1978 Act to remove any doubt as to the competence of prescribing a method of distribution of grant which does not afford grant to every authority. I must now return briefly to Clause 21 to mention further changes of a highly technical nature which it makes to Section 1 of the 1978 Act and which will simply bring the legislation into line with the manner in which it has necessarily been interpreted in practice. Clause 21(2) therefore provides that these amendments to the 1978 Act shall be deemed always to have had effect.

Finally, I come to Part IV of the Bill. I have already dealt with Clauses 26 and 27, concerning capital expenditure and borrowing, and I now propose to discuss briefly the remaining clauses. Clause 24 and Schedule 1 make minor but useful improvements to the provisions under which the Commissioner for Local Administration operates in Scotland. The changes have been agreed with the commissioner himself. Clause 25 and Schedule 2 relax a number of detailed controls, many in the planning field, which central Government presently exercise over local authorities. These relaxations will help to further the Government's policy of disengaging as far as possible from the day-to-day administration of purely local affairs, and will also lead to minor administrative savings both locally and centrally.

The abolition of certain non-governmental bodies by Clauses 28 to 32 will also produce savings, but I should stress that we are not seeking to justify our decisions on financial grounds alone. In each case we have satisfied ourselves that advice from the bodies concerned is no longer necessary or can be obtained from other sources. Clause 33 will allow water authorities and water development boards a useful discretion in enforcing by-laws they have made to prevent waste, misuse or contamination of water by enabling them, with the Secretary of State's consent, to relax by-laws if they consider it would be more appropriate not to enforce them in a given case.

Clause 34 concerns one of the conditions which a local authority may lay down under Section 9 of the Housing (Scotland) Act 1974 before giving a house improvement grant. At present, an authority may require that the house to be improved must, when it is not occupied by the applicant for grant or his family, be let or kept available for letting, the purpose of such a condition being, of course, to discourage grant recipients from converting the grant into cash by selling the improved house at a price which reflects the grant received. There may often be a genuine reason for sale—for example, if the head of the household is obliged to move house to take up employment elsewhere. And since many local authorities are clearly reluctant to use their discretion not to require repayment in deserving cases it seems sensible to abolish the requirement as to letting altogether.

Clause 35 extends the right to buy their council houses to several thousand tenants of the Scottish Special Housing Association in Glasgow and Dundee. At present they are unable to buy their houses because, although the houses were built by the SSHA they stand on land leased from the district councils who have refused to sell the land to the association. The clause gives power to the Secretary of State to transfer ownership of land from any "right to buy landlord" to another "right to buy landlord" where such a transfer is necessary to enable tenants to exercise the right to buy. The power will be used only where a voluntary sale cannot be agreed, but it will prevent the local authorities in Glasgow and Dundee from continuing to obstruct the SSHA from selling the houses to their tenants.

The effect of Clause 36 is to require planning authorities, when considering any application for planning permission in connection with a public building, to draw the developer's attention to his general duty under the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 to ensure that adequate provision is made for disabled persons to have access to the building. The developer's attention will also have to be drawn to the British Standard Code of Practice on the matter. The clause will clarify planning authorities' existing powers to impose any good condition on the granting of planning permission in connection with a building open to the public. It seems particularly appropriate to ensure that developers are fully aware of their responsibilities towards the disabled in 1981, being the International Year of Disabled People.

Lastly, I might mention Clause 37 which suspends the operation of two provisions in the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 which were inadvertently brought into force as a result of a technical error.

As I made plain in my opening remarks, this Bill touches on a wide range of matters affecting local government in Scotland. These range from the important new provisions relating to rate support grant to comparatively minor but helpful relaxations of control. Many of the provisions will be useful to local authorities but I must acknowledge, in conclusion, that from the Government's point of view the most immediately useful powers will be those which will assist the Secretary of State in his task of bringing under control the local authority component of public expenditure in Scotland. These powers are necessary not just to protect the interest of the hard-pressed ratepayers of Scotland but to satisfy the national economy. The Government need make no apology to anyone for bringing these provisions forward. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Mansfield.)

3.31 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, this Bill seems to us on these Benches to be to a large extent unnecessary although admittedly it covers such a wide range of measures and subjects that some of them are an asset; but it is unnecessary with regard to its main purposes, and also unacceptable. There are a number of reasons for thinking that the major part of this Bill is not necessary. To start with, the Secretary of State already has powers under the 1966 Act, a matter which the noble Earl the Minister mentioned, which can be invoked if an authority's expenditure is considered to be excessive, and I believe that those powers have never yet been used.

This Bill is based on the assumption that local authority expenditure is too high. The Government White Paper on public expenditure, however, stated that between 1974 and 1980 local authority spending in Scotland fell by 9 per cent. whereas over the same period expenditure by St. Andrew's House increased by 7.6 per cent. It is not local authorities that are putting up public expenditure. Indeed, the Government have admitted as much. The Secretary of State for Scotland has said: Authorities responsible for the greater part of expenditure are now showing a moderate and sensible approach to expenditure levels". So the problem is, as in England, with one or two authorities, and indeed probably in this case with only one—with Lothian. If this is so, do we really need such wide-ranging and restrictive legislation: legislation which gives far too many powers to the Secretary of State and is basically a centralising Bill? This Bill would penalise all authorities for the acts of only a few.

If we have any faith at all in local government and in devolution we should at the moment be straining every effort to encourage more of it, not less. This Bill moves in the wrong direction. In aiming at those authorities who are disposed to ignore current economic realities in framing their expenditure plans, this Bill alters the relationship between the Secretary of State and local authorities in a way that is centralism of the worst kind.

Part II of the Bill is concerned with the levels of the rate support grant. It enables the Secretary of State to reduce the rate support grant if he is satisfied that the authority has incurred what he considers to be excessive and unreasonable levels of expenditure. Clause 16 enables him to use estimates of expenditure in planning the level of rate support grant if authorities fail to provide the required information. As the Secretary of State put it, and as I think the Minister put it just now, this is to prevent frustration by the deliberate withholding of information. Clause 14 enables the Secretary of State to substitute a lower rate poundage for actual rate poundage in determining the entitlement to RSG of excessively spending authorities.

Clause 23 enables the Secretary of State to withdraw or vary consent to capital expenditure. He can place a moratorium on local authority spending. Through these clauses the Bill thus gives substantial powers of intervention to the Secretary of State, and even if the present Secretary of State gives assurances about the way in which he will use these powers he cannot give any such assurances to govern his successors.

Part III of the Bill deals with the housing support grant. Clause 18 allows the Secretary of State to disregard the expenditure and income of certain authorities in determining the aggregate amount of housing support grant. Clause 19 amends Section 2 of the Housing (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1978 to allow for prescription of methods of apportioning HSG. The calculation of housing support grant is being made on the basis that in 1981–82 local authorities in Scotland will put up their rents by 40 per cent. Looking at the figures per house the impact of this can be seen: in 1980–81 it was £255 per house and in 1981–82 it will be in the order of £156. It is still maintained that there is some freedom of manoeuvre by local authorities and that they do not have to increase their rents, but if they choose to raise their rates instead the Secretary of State has the power under Clauses 13 and 14 to claim that their expenditure is unreasonable and he can cut their rate support grant accordingly. It does not appear to be a very great liberty that they have.

I think that the central issue with regard to this Bill was outlined very well by my right honourable friend in another place, Mr. Grimond, when he stated that it was a question of the balance of responsibility and powers. Either the central Government should take some of the responsibility from local government as they are taking powers—at the moment they are taking powers without responsibility—or local authorities should be given more powers for the way they conduct their affairs. This Bill does not decide the issue; indeed, it fudges and complicates it. It merely gives the Secretary of State more power but not more responsibility. If he is to act responsibly he will need much more staff in order to make informed decisions; he will need to take over some of the responsibilities of local government as well as the powers. As it stands, the Bill provides no satisfactory criteria on which decisions are to be based. There is only a reference to general economic conditions and to such criteria as he considers appropriate.

This Government came into power making considerable noises about freedom and devolution of power and cutting central Government borrowing. In many areas—and particularly where it has touched local government—they have done exactly the opposite and have done it in a major way ever since they came into power. I think it was a very great pity that it happened in England, but the fact that the Secretary of State in England got himself into a problem where he could not find his way out without taking immense centralising powers I should have thought was not a reason why the same thing should happen in Scotland, where the difficulties and the problems are admittedly much less. It seems to be just another example—and a bad example—of the Government thinking that they have to do in Scotland much the same as they were doing in England. We think that that is not a good principle.

We will watch this Bill through its next stages with interest. On the face of it, it does not appear that there is very much that we can do to this Bill to make it acceptable. Nevertheless, we, and no doubt noble Lords in other parts of the House, will be studying ways in which we can improve it. If we do not manage to improve it, we will feel, I think, that this is an unacceptable Bill and that we will have to vote against it on Third Reading. But in the meantime I hope that your Lordships will be able to do something to make what is a bad and unnecessary Bill somewhat less bad and somewhat less unnecessary.

3.41 p.m.

Lord Wilson of Langside

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl for the clarity of his presentation of the Bill, but we share many, if not indeed all, of the reservations which have been expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, upon its terms. As he said, the House will be considering the terms of the Bill with great care, with a view, if that be possible, to effecting the necessary improvement.

One thing is certain, my Lords; its provisions are certainly miscellaneous, and my recollection is that miscellaneous statutes were extremely unpopular with the Scottish legal profession, for reasons which no doubt will be clear to your Lordships. Indeed, my recollection is that in particular some learned professors of law used to reduce themselves to a state of near apoplexy when miscellaneous provisions statutes were presented to Parliament. It is true that the degree of their apoplexy varied according to whether the political complexion of the Government presenting the Bill was in accord or not with their own particular prejudices. But I need not detain your Lordships, and you would not wish me to do so, by dilating on the idiosyncracies of Scottish professors of law.

I find myself a little embarrassed at having to address your Lordships at this early stage of the Bill, for this reason, that it is the principle of one particular of the miscellany of clauses in this Bill to which I wish to invite your Lordships' attention. It is one which I was surprised that the noble Earl did not expand upon a little more, and it is Clause 36 of the Bill, which inserts a new subsection into Section 26 of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1972. As your Lordships will remember, Section 26 of the 1972 Act makes provision for the determination by planning authorities in Scotland of applications for planning permission. It lays down the various matters to which planning authorities must have regard, must take into account, or must do, in dealing with and determining applications. The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, as amended by the subsequent Act of 1976, places upon a variety of persons a duty to take certain steps to provide for the needs of the disabled.

Thus, if I may expand a little on its provisions, any person undertaking the provision of any building to which the public are admitted must provide for the needs of the disabled so far as access, parking facilities and sanitary conveniences are concerned. A local authority providing public conveniences must do the same. Owners or occupiers of premises such as hotels, restaurants and places of public entertainment are required in the same way to provide sanitary conveniences, if required to do so under the public health Acts; persons providing buildings for schools, universities and colleges, so far as the means of access, parking and sanitary conveniences are concerned, must do likewise. These provisions were extended by the 1976 Act to offices, shops and railway premises to which the Shops, Offices and Railway Premises Act 1963 apply, and also to factories as defined by the Factories Act 1961.

The duty on all such persons is quite clear; they must provide in these various respects for the disabled. The only qualification is that the provision shall be so far as it is in the circumstances reasonably practicable. So the position is that Parliament has said that these various persons owe to the disabled these duties. Parliament failed to provide a sanction in the event of these persons neglecting their duty. Nor did Parliament provide who should be the judges of what was reasonably practicable. For myself, frankly I cannot understand why planning authorities have not ensured that the provisions of the 1970 and 1976 Acts are complied with. I should have thought that that would have been a matter of planning wisdom. But I am informed, and I gather from what was said in the other place—and I think it is implied by the fact that the Government have introduced into this Bill the provisions of Clause 36—that in fact since 1970 this duty to the disabled placed upon various persons has not been adequately discharged.

What concerns me is that the Government, having apparently acknowledged that this is the position, should have introduced a clause which seems less than adequate to the needs of the situation. Surely, if Parliament has said that this duty rests upon these people, it is not sufficient for the Government at this stage, if they admit that that is the situation, simply to ensure that the applicant in any planning application is aware of these duties laid upon him under the statute. Surely the Government's concern, if the duties are not being discharged, is to ensure that they are discharged, simply by making them mandatory. I should have thought that that would have been their approach to the matter. I cannot understand the reluctance, particularly in this year, and I hope that in the course of the Bill the provisions in relation to this particular matter will be radically strengthened.

3.49 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I should like to thank, as I am sure would other noble Lords, my noble friend Lord Mansfield for the very clear way in which he introduced this Bill. I propose to raise three points about three of the miscellaneous provisions. The first and most important is in Clause 36, which has just been alluded to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilson of Langside. As chairman, for Scotland, of the International Year of Disabled People, I have been ventilating three guiding principles, which I call the three As—access, awareness and adaptation.

Here in Clause 36, we have an opportunity of looking at the first, access. I am glad to see that there is something in this Bill. But what we must ask is, is it enough? This Scottish Bill appears to give us the only opportunity during this International Year—1981—to make progress on the question of access for disabled people. The present wording of the clause does not go nearly as far on access as the recommendation in the report of the Silver Jubilee Committee. That report was published in January 1979 and it recommended that the access sections of the 1970 Act be made mandatory, subject to individual cases where it was unreasonable and impracticable. I understand that the Committee on Restrictions against Disabled People, which advises the Department of Health and Social Security, agrees with that recommendation. The British Standards Institution brought out a code of practice in 1979 and I am glad to see that it is mentioned in Clause 36.

So the way ahead is clear. This will happen anyway. It is only a matter of time. The country will insist upon access provisions for public buildings. As regards new public buildings there will be increasing pressure for this to take place. Also eventually there will be the adaptation of existing buildings. However, the demand for new buildings to have proper access arrangements is the result of growing public awareness and concern and that is what we are promoting during this International Year.

When new buildings are being considered in future it may well be cheaper and less trouble for the developers and builders to include proper access arrangements in the initial construction plans. Adaptation later is usually expensive and can be very awkward if access arrangements were not thought about at the design stage. Surely the Government would agree that in 1981—over 10 years after the access legislation in the 1970 Act—no new building intended for public use should pass through the design stage without consideration of access. Too often in the past that point has been forgotten until it is too late. There has been an improvement in the past 10 years—a great many more buildings which are open to the public are considered at the design stage than used to be the case before 1970. However, this matter is still being overlooked. Those concerned with the planning and the building of a new structure will have many other factors on their minds which they have to take into consideration. There ought, therefore, to be an automatic reminder, an obligation, that they must consider access for disabled people at an early enough stage.

The 1970 Act is not obligatory. What I suggest, therefore, is that new buildings to be open to the public should be subject to a procedure which ensures access for disabled people unless it can be shown to be unreasonable or impracticable. I reiterate that this is only to be applied to new buildings. I know that the local authorities in Scotland do now possess the power to refuse planning permission if dissatisfied with access arrangements. I believe that in this regard Scotland may be ahead of England and Wales. The trouble is that local authorities either use those powers or do not use them in a most haphazard way. I doubt whether further circulars from the Scottish Office would have much effect on this, but I would ask my noble friend whether perhaps at the end of this debate or later he could inform the House about the review of Scottish building standards regulations which is apparently, or has been, taking place, in the light of the British Standards Institution's code of practice on access. The Secretary of State for Scotland last month in another place stated that such a review was going on. So I would ask whether any result has been reported yet or whether any views have yet been formed. One way in which the situation could be improved would be through revising the building standards regulations by which new buildings would have to be regulated.

The Department of the Environment may have difficulties about this matter, and I keep seeing this in papers and correspondence and in reports from the other place. However, it need not affect Scotland. The Scottish Office is, among other things, the Department of the Environment in Scotland. Almost everything that is done by the Department of the Environment for England and Wales is done by the Scottish Office in Scotland. Certainly it deals with local authorities on all these matters and dispenses the Government grants to those local authorities, besides the fact that there is separate Scottish legislation. So there is no reason why we should not go ahead in Scotland. Indeed, we have done so in other fields in the past, leading the way for the rest of the United Kingdom.

In the matter of access for disabled people it appears that everyone concerned in the country accepts that we are all due to go in the direction of providing arrangements for access for disabled people in buildings for public use. The difficulties are simply those of readiness and timing. As regards developers and builders, if the matter is considered at an early enough stage it should not cause increased costs. Any cost would be derisory. Indeed, it could well save them spending money later on adaptation. The building industry is unfortunately under-employed at present in Scotland as well as elsewhere. The extra tasks of putting in ramps as well as, or instead of, steps is surely nothing that will overstrain that industry in present conditions.

Of course, the tidiest way of dealing with this matter would be, as the Silver Jubilee Committee recommended, to apply this to new buildings which are in the categories already in the legislation—that is, the 1970 Act. But should there be difficulties about doing that in this Bill—and I recognise that it covers shops, banks and pubs and that there may be difficulties or exceptions, although they may all be covered by the question of what is reasonable and what is practicable—I should like to ask the Government whether they could not make sure that publicly-owned buildings were covered; that is to say, that as regards every new building to be owned by a public agency (the Government, Government departments or local authorities) such as a library, museum or offices which the public are expected to enter, such provision should be made mandatory. I have spoken at a little length on this point but I think that it is worthwhile making it now, well before the Committee stage, because I hope that the Government will give considerable thought to it.

I attended last July the opening of a new housing estate by Her Majesty the Queen on the outskirts of Edinburgh, which was for disabled people living alongside able-bodied people. It was one of the schemes of integration. One of the matters that was made clear to all of us was that the disabled people, particularly those in wheelchairs, could go anywhere in the neighbourhood. In quite a short time they could go down from the first or second floor; out into the street and into the supermarket; all round the supermarket shopping, including coming out and paying, without any difficulty. Moreover, in even quicker time they could go down in their wheelchairs, along ramps the whole way, into the local pub and up to the bar. That was a happy demonstration of what can be done when people have really thought things out beforehand.

The other two matters I can deal with very briefly. Both concern Clause 25 and Schedule 2. The Government intend to relax, or bring to an end, certain Government controls over local authorities. In general, I welcome this. But I suggest to them that care is needed when they try to remove controls where the Secretary of State is in the position of a referee, with expert knowledge at his disposal.

The first point concerns community councils, in paragraphs 31 and 32 of Schedule 2. If this matter is to be left entirely to local authorities, in some areas the community councils—which may have been at odds with those local authorities—will certainly feel that their interests may not be properly looked after. Indeed, some of the new schemes that may come forward—if they are only to be decided upon without any kind of appeal by what in Scotland would presumably be the district councils—may never come to anything, because the district councils may decide that they do not want community councils in the area, for they may think that the community councils might simply give rise to a certain amount of trouble for them.

Therefore, I would ask the Government to look at that again, to see whether some reference or appeal should remain to the Secretary of State. I would also ask whether the community councils in Scotland have had any opportunity to express views on this; whether the Socttish Office was able to carry out consultations with them or their representatives before this provision was brought forward.

My last point concerns tree preservation orders. I declare an interest, as I have before in your Lordships' House, of owning a small forestry area in Northern Scotland. But I am also a conservationist and have myself successfully suggested to local authorities that certain tree preservation orders should be made, and they were made. So I have seen this from both sides.

However, in paragraph 23 of Schedule 2 again reference to the Secretary of State is being completely removed. There is anxiety among forestry interests that local authorities with little knowledge about trees or forestry—and there is no particular reason why they should have such knowledge—might make decisions which were inimical to forestry interests. The Secretary of State has access to expert knowledge and he would be able to be the best judge where there was a difference of opinion with forestry interests. I understand that the number of occasions when the appeal which is available has been used in the past is small, so this would not involve very much in the way of work. I hope that the Government will also reconsider that point.

4.3 p.m.

The Earl of Minto

My Lords, I rise to speak as one who has had six years' experience as an elected regional councillor since 1974. I should like to speak from the practical background that I have gathered during that time. When the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 devolved powers to the newly reorganised local authorities in May 1975 there were many people—both within and outwith local government—who had severe misgivings. The margin of unease was very wide, stretching from those who saw the Act as heading for disaster from the start, to those who were prepared to find fault with it purely for fault's sake. There were also those—and I count myself among them—who were prepared to give the entire Act the benefit of the doubt and to work unswervingly in its support.

From this your Lordships will gather that throughout Scotland there were a multitude of opinions, from the destructive to the constructive. But however that may have been, there was also one single, solid, common area of belief, and it was shared throughout our nation. It was that the purpose of the Act had been to devolve from central Government to local government greater powers, and thus to increase local democracy and local involvement. Of that purpose there was no doubt whatever in anybody's mind.

Sadly, as I reflect upon the actual course of events since May 1975, I have to come to the conclusion that far from central Government relaxing and devolving their powers to local government, they have consistently taken actions which tighten the controls and decrease the intended benefits of local democracy and local involvement. It is not short of the truth to say that now, as never before, central Government exercise powers which virtually destroy the original intentions of reorganisation. It is my contention—and I say this quite genuinely with a heavy heart—that parts of the Bill before your Lordships' House today may well prove to be the final nail in the coffin in which will be buried the body of local government as we know it to be presently constituted.

It is, of course, true that the Bill contains certain relaxations, but these are as nothing when they are compared with the additional powers to be granted over local government, which, in my view, in places are absolutely deadly. When a person or a body is under attack—and local government is presently under attack—I believe that it is only fair to analyse the principal areas of criticism, and this I should like to try to do.

In the simplest possible terms, the charges made against local government are those of overspending and lack of control. But is this, in fact, true and if, in certain cases, it appears to be true, are these charges brought about by the actions of local government alone? If I am to make my point, it is necessary for me to invite your Lordships to return to the first half of the 1970s. During that particular period of time it was the deliberate policy of central Government to encourage local government to expand its spending programmes, both capital and revenue. This deliberate policy resulted in an increase in capital expenditure in real terms of 6.9 per cent. in 1972–73; of 23.4 per cent. in 1973–74; and by a further 1.4 per cent. in 1974–75. That was the final year of the old form of local government.

As is well known to your Lordships, increases in capital expenditure imply an increased commitment to current expenditure in future years. That this fact was fully recognised by central Government is clearly indicated by the increase in the rate support grant for 1975–76, the first financial year following reorganisation when the rate support grant was increased, in order to cover that area, to 75 per cent.

The changeover from the old to the new system also took place at that time when local expenditure was increasing within the same deliberate pattern established over previous years, and it took place at a time of very high inflation. It is true that there was a sig- nificant increase in local expenditure during the period of reorganisation. But most of this can be accounted for by inflation, over which local government has no control, and the inherited commitments of the new authorities, again over which they had no control.

An indication of how seriously under pressure the new local government was at that time is recorded in the Scottish Office Financial Division Circular, already mentioned by the noble Earl the Minister of State, 75–1975 dated 22nd December 1975. It was a circular very well known to all of us involved in local government in those days. Within the circular—and I make no bones about repeating the quotation—we in local government were requested to exercise "a stringency hitherto unheard of". This we had in fact been doing, but we continued to do it so that in the financial year 1975–76 instead of there being an increase in capital expenditure as in previous years there was a decrease of 11.2 per cent. in real terms. It was also possible to contain the rates burden by use of balances. But the fact remains that since reorganisation up at least until 1979 70 per cent. of all expenditure increases can be accounted for by inflation.

May I now turn to the implications of grants. Between 1972 and 1975, 70 per cent. to 79 per cent. of expenditure increases were accounted for by additional grants. However, following reorganisation, and against the inherited expenditure increases that I have already described, in our first year, 1975–76, only 44 per cent. of additional expenditure was financed by additional grants—44 per cent. rather than the 70 per cent. to 79 per cent. of the four years prior to reorganisation—while at the same time rate support grant has fallen from 75 per cent. in 1975–76 to the present level of 66.7 per cent. By any standards local government has received from central Government swingeing cuts.

These figures that I have quoted I have not provided as excuses but rather as facts which, when subjected to the closest interrogation within the total context of the financial pattern, prove beyond doubt the responsible and at times in my view nigh miraculous control of local government expenditure. There are of course a few exceptions, as there are to any rule, and I put up no defence whatsoever of those irresponsible elements. But taken in the grand mass the self-control of local government makes St. Andrew's House and Whitehall a picture that is positively black.

It is more for that last fact than for any other that I take the strongest exception to the presumption within this Bill that the Secretary of State, be he who he may, knows what is best for every local authority electorate. The Bill in my view contains elements which are a travesty of the intent of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. If I did not know the Secretary of State personally to be a man of great humanity and great humility I would describe as absolute arrogance the suggestion that the Secretary of State should be taking unto himself powers contained within Part II and elsewhere in this Bill.

Whether he likes it or not, within the present constitution the individual local authority is elected by the local electorate to provide and maintain certain services governed by statute. Unless it can be proved that it is acting contrary to the law, then the present proper method of disciplining a local authority is through the courts or through the ballot box. To me it is quite extraordinary to assume that the top civil servants and their masters know as well or better than the local politicians what the individual needs and aspirations are of the beneficiaries of the services provided by local authorities. On top of that is the fact that within this Bill I can find no proper definition, or clearly laid down rules of procedures, and yet the Secretary of State will be given wide powers to decide when he considers a local authority is spending excessively and unreasonably.

To make matters worse, as I understand it the Secretary of State will look at expenditure on all services grouped together and then, if he considers them excessive he is going to have the right to say which of these services shall suffer a reduction of rate support grant. If these powers are to be given, the next logical step of intrusion would be a direct intervention as to the element local rates form of an area's economic policy—and once you have done that you have killed the purpose of the local authority as we know it.

I am genuinely sad to have had to say these things at a time when I believe that the Government need support upon our road to recovery. Perhaps it may sound to some as if I have over-reacted to this Bill, but I wonder in fact whether it is not the Bill itself that is the child of over-reaction. We all know in Scotland who are the sinners in this field, and we all support the Government's anger when it is directed at those who are clearly at fault. But there are 65 local authorities, and for an example only six of those have found it possible to fall within the Government's revenue guidelines for the year 1981–82.

Does this mean that the 59 local authorities in the view of the Government are all wrong as to the needs and reasonable expectations of those they represent? Does this mean in the view of the Government that all 59 of them are irresponsible? Does it mean that they are all politically opposed to the Government? It most certainly does not, for they come from straight across the political field. When the friends, of which there are very many in Scotland, of the Government become as vociferous as the foes is it not just possible that the guidelines themselves indicate a clear distance of central government from the realities of life within the local authorities? Perhaps change in the constitution is required. If so, may I beg the Government to come through the front door with honesty and not to try to achieve their ends by entering through the basement window.

4.20 p.m.

Baroness Elliot of Harwood

My Lords, I rise to take part in this debate having spent a great number of years in local government in Scotland, in particular the Borders. The noble Earl, Lord Minto, took my place as the representative when, in 1975, after 29 years, I thought it was time somebody else took on the responsibility. I shall not follow what the noble Earl said because I think it is for my noble friend Lord Mansfield to answer those points, but I must tell him that his reaction was a little over-strong. I say that because, having spent many years in local government, I find no difficulty in supporting the Government in the Bill, which contains a number of important aspects, and I could not agree with him that the measure is devoted entirely to taking away responsibility from local government. I should have been perfectly prepared to continue as a regional councillor operating under a Bill of this kind, as we have worked under a great many other measures.

Be that as it may, we must accept that conditions today are far different from what they were when I was a county council member. We were not faced with the very high inflation which exists now or with income going down all the time. I hope that what we did in those years will go down in the history of local government as things that were worthwhile, and of course we were able to do those things because we had the money to pay for them. The ratepayers approved of the things we were doing and of course the costs were much lower than they are today. Therefore we were in a much happier position, and that is obvious.

Considering the conditions facing the Government now and the fact that there are several very extravagant local authorities which are not paying due attention to what the Government are asking of them, I believe that the Government are right to take additional powers which will at any rate prevent inflation getting worse; of course we all hope that the situation will get very much better.

I have received so many letters and so much information on the subject that I cannot refrain from quoting a few figures to show how disruption can occur in relation to local responsibility under present conditions. I have received many letters from one region in particular, the Lothian Region, where current expenditure is £63 million above the sum that authority is supposed to be spending, while all the other regions altogether are overspending by only £87 million. In other words, in one region alone there is far more overspending taking place than in any other. In that area, expenditure has risen from £198 million in 1978–79 to £383 million in 1981–82, and, although the Government have agreed to raise the support grant from £114 million to £169 million, the rates there are abnormally high, and that is hitting people very hard indeed.

In fact, in the last three years the rates have risen by 25 per cent., 42 per cent. and 50 per cent. respectively. There is therefore justification for the Government taking a very serious view of that state of affairs. That region is largely governed by Labour councillors who appear to take a much less responsible view of the current situation. Because of the anxiety that the situation there is causing, my informant tells me that groups of ratepayers are going round the region pointing out where extravagances are taking place and where savings could be made. I understand these groups have been given the collective title of Ratepayers Action Group Executive, whose initials are RAGE, which is a ferocious word to use in this connection. People are bound to be anxious when the nation is in such a bad way and economic conditions are so bad.

Nobody dislikes having to economise more than I do. For all the years I was a county councillor we were in the happy position of being able to save up to do the important things that were wanted in the area, so we had the money to do those things and we did not need to raise the rates by anything like today's increases. I am sure the Bill contains a number of items—my noble friend Lord Mansfield will no doubt draw attention to them—which will lead to economies being made and that there will be schemes of, for example, rate rebates. The Government will of course explain to councils how such rebate schemes can be implemented.

In one of the very small East Lothian boroughs, my home town of North Berwick, is a small residential holiday centre of which a large proportion of the population are retired elderly people. Hopefully they will be able to apply for rebates, but they will not want to do that from choice because they have been independent all their lives. Many of them depend on the holidaymakers who come there, and many of them are in the low income groups. Most people in that category are anxious to pay their own way; rates which are reasonable and which they can pay without help they are anxious to pay, rather than call on the Government to assist them.

In my view the Government are right to try to curb expenditure in areas where overspending is injurious to the population and is unfair to many of the ratepayers. In my region in the Borders, although economies are having to be made, they are managing to carry on local government in what appears to me as a ratepayer to be a highly satisfactory way. It shows that economies can be made if people have the courage and desire to make them.

The noble Lords, Lord Campbell of Croy and Lord Wilson of Langside, spoke about access to places by the disabled. I think Clause 36 could be improved so that more help along those lines could be provided at little extra expense. As Lord Campbell said, if plans for new buildings include special arrangements for the disabled, those facilities can be included for much less than is the case once the building has been completed and alterations have to be made. It is surprising that even nowadays, when we have a much better outlook on integrating the disabled into the community, there are architects and planners who forget when planning buildings that a large number of people in wheelchairs will want to use them and for whom it is vital to have the kind of access about which noble Lords have spoken. I very much hope that the Government will look with sympathy on this particular clause and that we shall be able to have a provision which will ensure that the kind of mistakes which have occurred in the past will not be made in the future.

There are a number of other points in the Bill with which I hope we shall be able to deal in Committee. But, taking the situation as it is, with the difficulties that face local authorities and the Government, I think it only right that at this time there should be some powers to restrict the extravagant and to help the non-extravagant, and to see that there is fair play throughout the whole of the regions of Scotland.

4.31 p.m.

Lord Dulverton

My Lords, I, bearing the name that I do bear, always feel that I owe the House an explanation when I intervene in purely Scottish affairs. I hope to explain the reason in a moment. At this stage I want to raise only one point, and I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy for having in fact already raised it, but I should like to digress on it further for not more than two minutes. I refer to those paragraphs of Schedule 2 which relate to timber preservation orders.

My reason for speaking on this matter—and I have to declare both an interest and a reason—is that I am the honorary president of the timber growers of Scotland, and I am involved with other organisations concerned with land use north of the Border. There is grave concern among landowners, large and small, farmers, foresters and I dare say gardeners, too, about the removal of the right of appeal to the Secretary of State over a timber preservation order—or TPO—which is disputed. In this respect what I have to say is contrary to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, who stated that under the Bill the Secretary of State will be doing too much. I am saying that lie will be doing too little, because paragraphs 22 and 23 of Schedule 2 in effect provide that the local planning officer will be given the power to impose and confirm any TOP he wishes, whether or not there are any objections to it, and the owner will then have no right of appeal to anybody. So the local planning authority is to be judge and jury in these kinds of cases. I understand, as I think my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy mentioned, that there are very few instances of appeal to the Secretary of State, so I cannot think that the onus on central Government would be very great.

I am among those members of your Lordships' House who will wish to raise this matter again at the Committee stage, and I very much hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will, with his usual sympathy in regard to matters of forestry, give the proposal further consideration and see whether it could not be changed for the better and the right of appeal to the Secretary of State restored. I have two particular reasons for suggesting that. One reason is that legislation is soon to come our way following the Government's private forestry consultative paper on felling control and grant aid, and I believe that whatever is done about timber preservation orders ought to be considered in the light of that document.

The other point is that the sub-committee on forestry of the Select Committee on Science and Technology (on which I sat under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield) has made a recommendation in a report that tree management orders ought to be substituted for tree preservation orders. I am most disappointed that, because of the timing of events, the Government and Ministers have never had an opportunity to study and consider the report of the Committee of the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield. However, I hope that they may yet do so before we finish dealing with the various forestry measures which are to come forward in the weeks or months ahead; in fact one of them is due to come up tomorrow. That is all that I wish to say, and I very much hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will on another occasion be able to be helpful to us regarding this matter.

4.35 p.m.

Viscount Ingleby

My Lords, as an Englishman I, too, wish to apologise to the Scots present in your Lordships' House for taking part in the debate, but Clause 36 particularly concerns disabled people and that is my reason for speaking. I should like to support the noble Lords, Lord Wilson of Langside and Lord Campbell of Croy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot of Harwood, who have already spoken on the clause. The 1970 Act placed an obligation on developers of new buildings to which the public have access to provide facilities for the disabled, but no means of enforcing that obligation were included. Unfortunately, there are still being erected buildings which have unnecessary steps. I think that all of us in this House would agree that in principle all new buildings should be accessible to the disabled, except where that is physically impossible, or would be unreasonably expensive.

In this connection the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, mentioned shops and pubs. I believe that to disabled people shops and pubs may be even more important than publicly-owned buildings and it is important that they should be included in any provisions, with the same kind of let-out where it is physically impossible or unreasonably expensive to make them accessible for the disabled.

So my feeling is that Clause 36 ought to be much stronger than it is at present. We should like to see the onus placed on a new developer to show that it is impracticable or unreasonable to provide access for the disabled, because we feel that in principle all new buildings should be accessible in this way.

4.38 p.m.

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, I am perfectly sure that the attention paid to Clause 36 of the Bill will give very considerable pleasure to my Labour colleague in another place, Mr. John Home Robertson, because it was he who introduced the clause. It will give him even more pleasure when he discovers that, like him, Members from all over have recognised the importance of the clause and feel that it should go further. I look forward to the very considerable help that we are to receive during the Committee stage when we deal with the point about access for the disabled.

The point was taken up in relation to a fairly new police headquarters in Ayr—the local concrete "Kremlin". It is quite a new building. When it was suggested that the question of access for the disabled ought to be considered, the reply was that the police headquarters was not a public building. That appals me. It is quite disgraceful that in this day and age people should be so insensitive to the needs of the disabled.

When we come down to the main aspects of the Bill, I do not know that the Minister of State can be very pleased with the acceptability of it. I think there was only one person—and that was the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot—who really defended the Government and the powers they were taking. She did not go into the powers; and she told us she had been a member of a local authority, not now but some time ago. It must have been rather sad for her to listen to the noble Earl, Lord Minto, who took her place on that local authority, with his present knowledge of the feelings of people in local government, condemning the Bill and warning us that this could be the last nail in the coffin of local government as we know it, and the local government of which we have been so proud.

Since the end of the war I have been concerned with every single Local Government Bill. I was either on the Committee dealing with it, right from 1946, or for eight years as Secretary of State I was the person responsible for it. I say that from the point of view of the continued existence of local government this is the worst Local Government Bill that I have known in that time. That is an attitude which, I am glad to say, is shared by other people. I remember that we have Members in this House who have all the experience that I have had. There is a whole team behind the noble Earl. There are, I think, eight or nine. There are three ex-Secretaries of State; there are Ministers of State; there are Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State—a whole team of them. Not one of them has come forward today to support him in respect of this Bill. No wonder he is drafting in reinforcements!

We were all expecting we were going to get a rather shattering new outlook on local government in Scotland, reviewing how re-organisation has gone. This task was given to an ex-Under-Secretary of State. He has reported, and he is now being honoured. He is going to come in, and we shall be able to question him about his report, the Stodart Report. We will welcome Tony Stodart here, but I do not think we can suggest to him that he gave us everything that we looked for in respect of his suggestions about the reorganisation of local government—grey areas being decided on, and one or two other things like that.

When you come down to it, the balance between local government and central Government is a delicate one. We in Parliament are to blame for most of the burdens of local government. Every Bill we pass we should examine to see whether or not we are giving local government more to do, and if we are giving it more to do we should be asking the question: Are the Government prepared to support it financially? The last Bill we in this House passed in respect of local government was a Private Member's Bill. It had the support of the Minister of State and the Scottish Office. It was to deal with the mentally handicapped, when we said that we would extend the privilege of concessionary fares to them. I was reading the Strathclyde Report. They welcomed it and applied it. To the people who are blind, to the people who are crippled, to the people who are old and to the people who are deaf we added the mentally handicapped as among those who have the right to concessionary fares. How much did it cost Strathclyde? It was £500,000. Should we have denied them it?

But if we will that to be done then we have to got to will the finance to do it, and not come along and say that the local authorities are irresponsible, that they are out of control so far as expenditure is concerned. I think the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Minto, highlighted this particular point. There are 65 Scottish local authorities, and all but six cannot meet the guidelines put down by the Government. That is a serious matter; and that number includes the local authority of which the noble Baroness was a distinguished member at one time. She knows what our rate poundage is from the region. I think it is only a penny different from that from Strathclyde. That is less than the Highland Region, because she is 83p. and the Highland Region rate poundage is 93p.

When you look at it, what determines the responsibility otherwise of a local authority? There is nobody who is going to tell me that local authorities sit down and say, "By how much can we increase the rates?" They have tried their best to get the balance right because we have willed upon them standards in education, standards in social work and standards in planning. We have given them new burdens. Then along come the Government and say, "You will cut down". That is what they have done. Local authority spending is not out of control. If there is anything which is out of control, it is spending by the central Government. I think the figure given to the Corrie Select Committee was that between 1965–70 and 1975–80 expenditure by Scottish local authorities in real terms went down by 13 per cent. At the same time the expenditure by the Scottish Office went up by 13 per cent. It is Satan rebuking innocence in this case, not Satan rebuking sin.

But now we come along with this Bill. Hitherto, Scottish Secretaries of State have said, "We can handle the matter; we do not need draconian powers such as the English Ministers have taken". I think the Minister of State suggested that in my time I was tough with local authorities. Of course I was tough with local authorities, but I got the balance right. Reluctantly they agreed—and I was actually at the negotiations—on eight separate terms on rate support grant. But I was fair.

The important point in relation to local government expenditure is that you sit round and you decide what is the reckonable expenditure. If a Government come along and cut the reckonable expenditure to an unreasonable figure, then of course rates are going to go up. That is what the Government have done. They did that last year, and they are doing it again this year. Of course, you have got to go back to December of last year, when we had the rate support grant statement. The rate support grant was cut by 3 per cent. I have here all the various cuts that were made, and, let us face it, these are the things we are talking about—what the Government did in the cuts. There was sewerage, highways, education—right through. They laid down their assessment as to where the local authorities should cut.

But, then, after you have settled that, there comes another point. The Secretary of State decides by how much he will support that reckonable expenditure. The noble Earl, Lord Minto, said that in 1975–76, when I was Secretary of State, the figure was 75 per cent. I think it is only fair to tell him that there were unusual circumstances in relation to the changeover, and it went back a bit later on. But this Government have cut it, and cut it deliberately, at a time when more support is needed. We were told in December that it was going to be cut by another 1 per cent.—it was 1.9, but there were certain calculations in respect of the .9 per cent. So there you are. You have unreasonable rate support grant, the reckonable expenditure figure, and you have the Government cutting down on the support they are going to give. Of course the rates are going to go up.

Then, of course, we are not finished there. There used to be a time when the Government took into calculation while the year was on amounts in respect of increased orders; that is to say, if there were unusual circumstances, if the teachers' salaries went up or the salaries of other people—and, remember, local government is very much a labour-intensive industry—or if prices went up, they would negotiate with the local authorities and strike a figure to balance that out. They do not do that now. Read the same White Paper of December! The Government said that they would not support in this current year and give additional grants in respect of increases of wages and salaries over 6 per cent. That is from August last year to August next year. Has any single person within local government got 6 per cent. or less—the police, firemen, teachers, anyone else? This is the burden that local authority has to bear, a burden placed on them deliberately by the Scottish Office. Then they start this hare running that local expenditure is out of control. It is not local expenditure that is out of control; it is the heads of the Scottish Office and the Government—heads which are in the sands! So that they start this myth about local government being out of control; and now they come along and say that they will need to take more powers in this Bill to control it. They say that it is all very reasonable, that they are just tagging it on to existing powers which are there in Section 5 of the 1966 Act. I have a copy of what is said in Section 5 of the 1966 Act, for the purpose of greater accuracy. If there was ever deceit, there is deceit even in the rubric of this Clause 14 of the Bill, which reads: Reduction of rate support grant where local authority's estimated expenditure excessive and unreasonable". Clause 14 reads: In section 5 of the 1966 Act (which among other things provides that an element of rate support grant payable to a local authority may be reduced where the Secretary of State is satisfied that the expenditure of that authority has been excessive and unreasonable)—". What Section 5 said was that first there would be a reduction in expenditure if the local authority was not meeting the reasonable standards. That remains, I suppose. I warn the Scottish Office that they had better get going, because if they reduce the support to local authorities it may be that certain of the standards that Parliament has asked them to maintain they will not be able to meet and they will need to bring into force subsection (1) of Clause 5 of the 1966 Act.

Then Section 5 of the 1966 Act went on to say, the other case: that the expenditure of any local authority or joint board has been excessive and unreasonable, regard being had to the financial and other relevant circumstances of the area or areas concerned". The circumstances only of the area! If one goes back—and this goes back 50 years—this was related not to excessive rates; this was related to manipulation of the formula by local authorities who, by manipulating the formula, would get a higher grant from the Government. It goes back beyond the rate support grant, beyond the Exchequer equalisation; it goes back to General Grant himself. It was for different purposes and it never has been used—not once in its 50 years. And this is where the Government say that they are just naturally adding to that. Are they? They should have come out with new Bill and people would have known the nature of the powers that they were going to take; because you could act under this after the money had been spent and you could cut the grants for the following year, and it was in relation to people who were saving up money and not providing the services that they were budgeting for perhaps so that in the next election they would be able to reduce the rates. These things can happen! Many people are able to manipulate formulae and the Government still have the power to manipulate formulae in the rate support grant.

I can remember in the times when there were boroughs and counties that a local authority in one of the boroughs decided to raise their rents. That meant raising their assessment; and that meant that they paid a great proportion of the education charge. In Ayr, the rents went up; because of that the rates went down in Kilmarnock. There was the ability to manipulate formulae; and this was related to that and not to the kind of problem the Government have at the present time.

What will happen here? Remember that we have all had our rate demands! I do not know about the Minister of State, but I got mine last week. The assessments have all been made. The Government now say that at the time of assessing the estimated expenditure the Secretary of State is going to ask them to let him know and he will examine it to see if he thinks it is excessive and unreasonable—not in the light of circumstances in the area—and there is a long list of other factors to which he must have regard in determining whether the esitmated expenditure is unreasonable. He must have regard: to expenditure or estimated expenses, in that or any preceding year, of other local authorities". You cannot always compare one local authority in Scotland with another: the Highlands with Strathclyde, or Strathclyde with the Borders. Every noble Lord who has been in local government knows that this is just words—whitewashing a power which should never have been taken. This is lovely! We shall have a good time with this in Committee. I hope the Government are prepared to give us two or three weeks in Committee. I may be alone on this side but I am all for getting it right by amendments; and I shall get plenty of help from my English colleagues. What does, are closely comparable (or as closely comparable as is practicable)", mean? It is about as meaningful as the non-titled spouses and the titled spoures that we had a go at the other day. It does not end there. He must then give consideration to the, general economic conditions; and (iii) to such other financial, economic, demographic, geographical and like criteria". What are "like criteria" to that? It is on the basis of all this. And he must hear the local authority and tell them that they are excessive and unreasonable. How long will this take?

And, suddenly, in the midst of all this the rates can be changed. But the rate reduction is not necessarily given back to the local authority. It might only be part. There are so many wonderful questions in this! And, bearing in mind the figure given by the noble Earl, Lord Minto, that of the 65 there are 59 defaulting local authorities. Can we not be told which they are and what action the Government will take and when? Is it Strathclyde?—Strathclyde which has half the population of Scotland, including me. My rates have just gone up and I shall come to that point. If I forget, let somebody before I sit down whisper the valuable word "valuations", and I shall have a word or two to say about that. Strathclyde: what have they done? In the past seven months they have cut about £40 million off their budget; they have reduced their manpower by, I think, about 2,000 people. Everytime they make somebody unemployed it means additional expenditure on the Government side, so it is not all clear sailing. Yet they still cannot meet the guidelines. If they met the guidelines their rates would still have to go up by 31 per cent. instead of 37 per cent. This is the impossible task that the Government have given to local authorities.

Who is going to decide what is excessive and unreasonable? There is evidently some new Solomon that I never knew when I was there lurking around the carpeted corridors of New St. Andrew's House. Here we have the Secretary of State getting into trouble with local authorities. He cannot be so good as all these four Secretaries of State that now inhabit your Lordships' House. We never had this trouble. They thought we were tough, but we never had this trouble. What has gone wrong with the Scottish Office team? He comes along with a solution with all the subtlety and tenderness of Lord Braxfield. He has to deal with the whole of the Scottish local authorities as Braxfield did with the radicals of his day when he said: They'll be nane the waur o'a hangin'". This is the attitude of the Secretary of State to Scottish local government. Well, it will not do. We had high hopes for the reconstructed local government of the 1973 Act. I see the noble Lord who was the Secretary of State at that time is in his place. The man who carried the Bill through most of the Committee stage was the present Secretary of State. I can remember the ringing phrases about strong, viable local government: "Local government will be free, not dependent, not interfered with by the central authority".

And what have we now? The greatest punitive and interfering powers that we have ever had initiated by Mr. George Younger who took that Bill through. It does not end at the rate support grant aid. We go on the same with the housing support grants. The powers in relation to housing support grants are such that the noble Earl, Lord Minto, suggested that everything showed further interference there. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, referred to this as well.

It is not a question of whether a local authority is in surplus; it is a question of whether it is made to go into surplus by virtue of the formula because the basic and central element of the formula is the assumed income of the local authority; and what is further assumed is not what the rent is but what the rent should be. We have already been given the figures that the rents for this year have to go up by 40 per cent. and the local authorities are tied to a recompense of 6 per cent. in respect of increased wages and 11 per cent. in respect of increased costs.

In the city of Glasgow half the people in local authority houses are getting rent rebates and rate rebates, and unemployment among householders is probably higher there than in any other part of the country, but they have to have their rents increased by 40 per cent. This is done by this tender Government, thoughtful all the time of the human spirit and human people. Is it not nonsense? Of course the local authority cannot possibly put up this 40 per cent.

If this is continued for another two years of the life of this Government there will be no support for council housing in Scotland at all. Nevertheless, there is support for private housing through income tax rebate and that will still continue. It is going to be a strange situation. Remember, if they do not put the rents up they are going to be attacked for the first time in respect of the capital spent on housing. It used to be that the capital provision on housing was related to needs, but now it is going to be whether or not they behave themselves.

This is political and financial blackmail of the worst kind. It would not be so bad if this Government had a mandate; but they have no mandate from the people of Scotland. There are 22 Tory Members of Parliament from Scotland. There are 44 Labour Members. At least the local authorities who are objecting to what is being done here, the local authorities who are fixing rents and determining expenditure, have an electoral mandate from their electors. I shall be speaking for a long time; I am the only speaker from this side of the House and I am going to take my allotted span. I hear the noble Lord opposite refer to three score years and 10. But I had that last week. The Government, as usual, are late.

The actual fact is that the local authorities have their mandate and the Government have none. I do not know why on earth the Government should descend to taking action like this—and it may well be just one local authority, or of course, for all I know, it may be the whole 59 local authorities. I do not know how the Government can justify this. It is causing concern. I hope that they will think again about it. I noticed today reading (I think it was the Scotsman) that the Association of Metropolitan Authorities in England and Wales are protesting about this Bill. They are protesting because the powers are so sweeping, so punitive, that they fear that they will be introduced for England next; that Scottish local authorities are being reduced to—I think their phrase was—"outstations of central Government".

They are being reduced to puppets of central Government. I do not know whether the Government appreciate that. In respect of local authorities, they are reducing them virtually to puppets. One of the hopes of the re-organisation of local authorities was that it would attract a different people of quality because they had power as well as responsibility. Now they have responsibility but the power—and it was suggested again I think by the noble Earl—has more and more been taken into the hands of the Government.

I want to say a word or two about valuation. I do not like what the Government are doing in respect of valuation. They are taking for the first time the power to change the year of valuation in Scotland. We have had a sad record in England and Wales about valuations. They seldom take place at the quinquennium and we are used to them being a bit erratic in respect of this. Only on one occasion have we departed from the five years in Scotland. Why is it being done? I know that no one loves valuation and the rating system of Scotland which is based upon valuation. It is an outdated feature that a person should be rated and pay local taxes on the house that he lives in. There could be four or five wage-earners in a small house but because it is a small house they pay very little rates. In a large house there could be one single person on a fixed income hit by inflation but he pays high rates. There are variations within Scotland as to the assessment in relation to rates.

I am very glad that one of the authorities, one of the Quangos, that the Government have decided to retain is the Scottish Valuation Advisory Committee, although I see for some reason or other they are reducing its size from eight to six members. But what has that advisory committee been doing in relation to the uniformity of rating? I do not expect the Minister of State to know because he is fairly new to his office and he was not there at a time when certain problems arose. I know areas in Ayr—I live in one—in Prestwick and Troon where at the last revaluation assessments gross annual values were "bumped" by a multiple of four and five.

It is about time that assessors should be able to give reasons for their changes in valuation and objective judgment and give them before appeal point. At the initial appeal they ask that the appellant should give reasons why they think they are too highly rated, but for the actual figures which have been set, and against which the people are appealing, the assessor gives no judgment. I can assure him I would be very annoyed if the 1983 valuation does not take place on time, because I have been amassing more and more evidence in relation to the lack of uniformity in judgments in relation to assessments throughout Scotland. In case he thinks that I am barking up the wrong tree there, I would refer him to a small Bill that was passed in which a change was made allowing anyone in Scotland who is aggrieved by valuation to be able to cite not just a house in the same area or the same town but anywhere else in Scotland. I suggested about 18 months ago to the Secretary of State when this arose that he should ask the Scottish Advisory Committee on valuation to look into it. It has never been done, but I think it is an important point.

We will come to valuation later on, but here again we find the Secretary of State taking powers to change the valuation date and to restrict the valuation to seven kinds of property. He tells us the reason is, "We do not like the whole system and we might change it all". We have had this before. Local rates were going to be abolished by the party opposite. Then they said they would take education out of the local authority's responsibility financially and would pay the whole thing. Nothing like that has happened and nothing is certainly in the Stodart Report to give an indication that this is their way of thinking at the present time. Like a true Scot on the Labour side, I am very suspicious of Tories: there must be some ulterior motive! It may not be the Minister's motive. Of course, 1983 is just before the next election. I should warn your Lordships also that the valuation officer in Scotland is also the electoral registration officer. It may well be they will be able to afford the cost of a revaluaton at the same time as they are getting ready for an election; but I cannot be at all certain why Clause 1 is there.

I do not like Part I. Part II I absolutely detest. Part III in relation to housing support grant means that the housing policy of this Government is now to raise the rents, sell the houses, raise the rates and get rid of government support for housing. It is a pretty bleak outlook for Scotland, a Scotland that never put them into power at all. The only good thing is probably Clause 36. That is about all I can say, and we will make every effort to ensure that in respect of planning we will be aware of the importance of access, and access at the start is much less expensive than adaptability, but we will do what we can to strengthen that.

I should like to say just one other thing. On 17th March 1981 the Scotsman addressed itself to this Bill. It said that these legislative proposals …would allow him to penalise an authority the estimated expenditure of which was considered excessive and unreasonable'.". He is going to consider that and he is going to judge whether it is "excessive and unreasonable". They say also: Mr. Younger exercises his power because of the voting predilections of people in the south-east of England not because of the support of the Scottish electorate; those whom he is attacking, on the other hand, at least are exercising authority granted them by electoral right". They go on to say: Without question the new amendments"— that is this legislation— present a threat to the authority of local government. If the sole judge of what councils can spend is to be the Secretary of State then local independence will be a mirage with no place for councillors' discretion or judgment. To argue thus is not to condone authorities which challenge the Government at every turn, which meet dogma with dogma and so lose sight of the interests of their ratepayers. That is a political issue … What Mr. Younger is proposing is a constitutional change of fundamental importance but of doubtful value". I hope the Government will think again about this and have a little more respect for the whole traditions of Scottish local authority and a little more faith in Scottish local authority. If we get the balance wrong, and the balance is being tilted in favour of central Government, then local government—that was damaged in many people's eyes by the re-organisation following 1973—is being further damaged by this particular Bill. So let the Government think again.

5.17 p.m.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I should like to express my thanks to all noble Lords who have taken part in this Second Reading debate, coming as they have from several shades of the political spectrum and among some of whom at any rate there is very considerable experience of both local government and of central Government. Not least I include here the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, who, in his own allotted span, as he described it, was careful to extract the last ounce of party political juice from this particular lemon. But I do not blame him for that.

I said I think fairly clearly in my introductory remarks that several of the provisions of this Bill are of considerable significance for local government in Scotland and of course I agree impliedly, I think, with the noble Earl, Lord Minto, that they certainly can affect the delicate financial relationship which exists between central Government and local authorities. This importance has been reflected by several speakers in this debate.

The main point put forward by the noble Earl, Lord Minto, and certainly by the noble Lord, Lord Ross, and I fancy also by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, was that these provisions in effect come too close to providing an exercise in control over local expenditure in Scotland. The noble Lord, Lord Ross, prayed in aid the views of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities in England and Wales who are reported in the Scotsman as saying that the Bill could reduce authorities to administrative outposts of central Government. I suggest that is overstating the position to a very great degree in the same way as, if I may say so, I think the noble Earl, Lord Minto, overstated the position. I am not sure that he quite appreciates the limitations which there are in this Bill and the safeguards, checks and balances which are written into it and which I have no doubt we shall discuss at very considerable length in Committee—also, of course, for quite reasonable political motives, on the part of the noble Lord, Lord Ross.

I suggest that this Bill does no more than propose an extension of the powers of the Secretary of State to influence local government expenditure and I do declare that influence of this nature has been recognised by successive Secretaries of State of both the major parties to be necessary. Indeed, all of them have used it at one time or another in various different degrees. At the moment, an extension of these powers is justified by two factors—

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, can the noble Earl say when I used these powers?

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, as I said when I opened, the noble Lord proposed his rate support order and he was, at the time, concerned at the levels of expenditure. He did not reign long enough to influence what he wanted, but that was not to say that he was not concerned—

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, with all due respect, the noble Earl made the implication that I has used these powers. I was Secretary of State for nearly eight years. When did I use these powers?

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, every year—four times a year, I think—as Secretary of State, the noble Lord sat down with COSLA and argued the toss as to what their spending was going to be. If the noble Lord is saying that in all those meetings he did not try to influence the local authorities, then I am quite sure that he, or I, must be mistaken. I do not believe for one moment that the noble Lord, occupying the position that he did in St. Andrew's House, did not bring all his powers of persuasion to bear on the local authorities.

If I may get on, as I have tried to say there is a combination of two factors which justifies this present increase in power. These factors are very simple, if one analyses them. First, there is an increasing need for restraint in public expenditure which arises from our current economic situation. The second factor is that there is a reluctance on the part of one, or more than one, authority in Scotland to exercise the kind of restraint that our circumstances require. In those circumstances, what is the Secretary of State to do? What are the Government to do? We have to look at our powers again and, in the circumstances as we find them, we have to seek to supplement them.

I assure noble Lords that there is nothing in the Bill which would prevent a local authority from carrying out specific items of expenditure which it wished to carry out, and which it was lawfully entitled to carry out. But the Secretary of State, with his responsibility for the administration of the rate support grant, is entitled to secure that the grant is not used to support excessive and unreasonable levels of expenditure—and I emphasise that phrase. Even in such instances, if the Secretary of State is ultimately successful in withholding grant from a local authority he cannot veto any specific item of expenditure. So the freedom of local authorities, as I believe, is still very much there. Where their freedom is restricted is in budgeting for totally unjustified expenditure in our present circumstances.

The Association of Metropolitan Authorities claim that the Scottish proposals go much further than those for England and Wales. I think the difference is that the block grant provisions in England and Wales reduce the grant payable on local authority expenditure above a certain level, whereas the Scottish proposals depend on an act of judgment on the Secretary of State's part in deciding whether expenditure is excessive and unreasonable.

Of course, it is a fact that the Secretary of State has the duty to determine what is excessive and unreasonable expenditure, but, as the Bill provides, his initial judgment must have regard to financial and other relevant circumstances. If the Secretary of State failed to take any such relevant circumstances into account, the local authority concerned would have substantive grounds for its representations against the report. It is a major safeguard that all this has to be taken into account by the House of Commons, before approval is given to a report which could result in the withdrawal of rate support grant. So that, as I argue, the Scottish arrangements are at least as fair to the individual authority as the system which is to be operated in England and Wales. This, I think, has been quite overlooked by the Association, at least so far as they are reported in the Scotsman.

It is because we wish the powers which have been in existence since 1975 to be effective that we are fortifying the existing borrowing controls so as to make it clear that a local authority cannot cover loss of rate support grant by recourse to borrowing money. A local authority will still have that power in the short term, in anticipation of income receivable, but not to make good income lost from a reduction in rate support grant. It is in order to protect the ratepayer that we are introducing a power to allow a local authority to levy a lower rate; not a supplementary rate as is available in England and Wales. Our objective is, therefore, that local authorities should effect an actual reduction in their expenditure.

Obviously the Secretary of State regrets the need to introduce these powers to cut rate support grant and my right honourable friend wishes that there was no need to make use of them. But it is unfortuante, though nevertheless apparent, that overspending in Scotland in 1980–81 and local authority budgets for 1981–82 are running at an unacceptable level. It is significant, I suggest, that the manpower reductions achieved by local authorities in England and Wales have not been paralleled in Scotland. Our systems and circumstances are, moreover, significantly different and I think that the use of different powers to suit our different circumstances in Scotland is fully justified.

Perhaps I may come to some of the more important points which were put to me by noble Lords. My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy had three points. First, he and, indeed, other noble Lords—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilson of Langside, and the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, among others—commented on Clause 36. I think I am right in saying that, basically speaking, the clause was welcomed but anxieties were raised.

As I mentioned in my opening remarks, we are anxious to do all we can for disabled people, particularly because this is the International Year of Disabled People. Clause 36 requires planning authorities, when considering any application for planning permission in connection with a public building, to draw the developer's attention to his general duty under the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 to ensure that adequate provision is made for disabled persons to have access to the building. The developer's attention will also have to be drawn to the British Standard Code of Practice on access for the disabled. The clause will clarify planning authorities' existing powers to impose any condition justified in planning terms on the granting of planning permission in connection with a building which is open to the public, and an undertaking was given in another place to issue a circular on this point. These measures should ensure that developers are fully aware of their responsibilities towards the disabled.

However, we feel it is wrong that the question of access for the disabled should be singled out as a material factor, when a planning authority is determining a planning application, since material considerations are not defined in the Planning Acts and what is material will vary with the individual circumstances of each application. It is a matter for the application of general principles derived from judicial decisions that make it possible to decide what, in any individual case, is material. Planning authorities can impose—and, in the past, have imposed—conditions relating to access for the disabled and the proposed circular will set that out. Nor would it be appropriate to use the Planning Acts to enforce a statutory duty under the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. It is a fundamental principle of the Planning Acts that they should not be used to regulate matters which are dealt with under other statutes.

My noble friend asked for an automatic reminder to be given to developers, who are seeking planning permission, of their duties in relation to access for the disabled. We think that, in effect, Clause 36 provides for this. For the reasons I have explained, it would not be possible for a planning condition to ensure that that duty was complied with. But I would certainly expect that adequate access for the disabled should be the norm in any new development to which the 1970 Act applies. The circular which is to be issued will provide absolutely unequivocally for the planning system to play its full part in drawing developers' attention to their duties. I hope that this will satisfy my noble friend, to whose work as Scottish chairman of the International Year of Disabled People, I should like to pay my own, and very sincere, tribute.

My noble friend asked next about community councils. I think his point was that the Secretary of State should retain his powers to deal with amendments to community council schemes where these are opposed. My noble friend emphasised the need for the Secretary of State to retain a role in relation to community council schemes so as to enable him, in particular, to act as a kind of arbiter in cases where amendments proposed by a local authority are opposed by local interests.

We accept entirely that the Secretary of State had a valid part to play in the initial formulation of community council schemes, not least to ensure that there was a broadly similar approach throughout the country. Now, however, that the basic schemes have been agreed in each area, we take the view that any amendments which are considered to be necessary in the light of local circumstances should be the subject of debate and decision locally.

To ensure that due weight is given to local interests we are proposing a statutory provision for full public consultation. The Bill envisages that any decision by a local authority to review or amend a scheme must have the approval of not less than two-thirds of the members present and voting at a meeting specially convened for the purpose. There are, we believe, important safeguards—and these are they—against hasty or ill-considered changes which do not reflect local views. My noble friend asked in effect what consultations had taken place in relation to these proposals. I can tell him that both COSLA and the Scottish Council for Social Services were informed about these proposals and did not demur.

My noble friend's third point, which was also echoed by my noble friend Lord Dulverton, related to tree preservation orders. Only the relatively few tree preservation orders against which representations or objections are made and not withdrawn require at present to be confirmed by the Secretary of State. A local authority which makes an order currently confirms it as unopposed if no objection or representation is raised. We are not aware of any consequent difficulty for private timber interests. The right of appeal to the Secretary of State against refusal of consent to fell will of course remain.

At present there is no discernible dissatisfaction with local authorities generally carrying out their responsibilities for tree preservation orders and there is no reason to anticipate change in this respect. Therefore, so far as consent to fell is concerned, appeal to the Secretary of State will continue to be the right of those whose applications are refused by a local authority. The planning authorities, in considering whether or not to make a tree preservation order, will have to take into consideration the representations made to them by interested parties when the order is advertised. However, we shall look carefully at the points made by my noble friends concerning the relationship between the system of tree preservation orders and the recent developments in forestry policy which we debated not so long ago in your Lordships' House and which we shall be returning to tomorrow.

I have—and equally without offence, I hope—tried to answer the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Minto, in general but I think that I should answer him in a little more particular form. He spoke on the basis that local authority expenditure has, at any rate in the main, been reasonable. I think that was the burden of his remarks. It is right to say that, from 1975–76 to 1979–80, Scottish local authority expenditure decreased further than public expenditure generally but that from 1971–72 to 1975–76 the opposite was true: local authority expenditure in Scotland relevant for rate support grant increased by 31 per cent. and the gross domestic product rose by 6 per cent. There is no reason why Scottish local authorities should not contribute realistically to the cuts in expenditure which are currently being sought by the Government.

I have already answered my noble friend's point that the Bill in no way detracts from a local authority's discretion to decide its own priorities so far as the services which it provides are concerned, but the exercise of the Secretary of State's existing powers, as extended by the Bill, will require an authority, in considering a high level of spending, to consider also the responsibility it hears to the national economy as well as to the people in its own area.

Another burden of my noble friend's argument—and certainly the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, argued this—was that local authorities are being made to bear an undue and unfair share of expenditure cuts. It has been suggested that local authorities are being asked to make unpleasant decisions instead of the Government. One has to remember that local authority expenditure is a large and important component of public expenditure and that it must be reduced, but the proportion of the reduction which it bears depends upon the content of local authority programmes.

For instance, education accounts for nearly one-half of local authority expenditure and the decline in school rolls entails a related reduction in expenditure on education. Expenditure by central Government includes substantial demand-related expenditures which are increasing, so a direct comparison overall is not appropriate. However, to take services with common characteristics, such as road transport, the 1981 White Paper shows that expenditure by central Government declined by nearly 33 per cent. from 1975–76 to 1980–81, while expenditure by local government declined by 24 per cent. in the same period.

The noble Lord—I hope I am answering his very well argued speech persuasively, because it was one which obviously had a great effect upon your Lordships—spoke about the guidelines as being possibly unrealistic and that as a result the authorities, or the great mass of them, are to be penalised. I want to emphasise that the guidelines are not mandatory. They are indicative. Whatever the relevance of individual guidelines, the total of guidelines is equal to the total of relevant expenditure as determined for rate support grant. In current economic circumstances, the Secretary of State is bound to be concerned about an overall excess, whatever reasons there may be for local variations.

I would remind the noble Lord of the criteria for grant cuts. Reference to the well established system of expenditure guidelines in Scotland will provide a reasonable basis for a preliminary assessment of expenditure plans. But it is not intended to refer only to any single factor. Evidence will be accumulated having regard to comparison between the authorities' and the Government's spending plans, population structure and changes, local industrial development, spending by closely comparable authorities and other evidence of that nature which would support the conclusion that excessive and unreasonable expenditure is planned. So my right honourable friend in the exercise of his new powers will not be, as it were, motivated by any arbitrary or, indeed, whimsical notions and ideas.

I turn now to the noble Lord, Lord Ross. He complained of many things, most of which, I think, have been answered one way or another in what I have already said in what has been rather a long period of time; but there are two matters which I think I should raise. The noble Lord complains of unreasonable increases in council house rents. In 1980–81 rents bore just under half the cost of the provision and maintenance of council houses. In the present year, rents will bear about 56 per cent. of costs. That is the first point. The second point is that the rebate scheme will, for eligible households, limit the rent increases to an average of about 75p per week. The third point is that, of the tenants who do not receive support, about one half enjoy incomes in excess of £8,000 a year, and I suggest, therefore, that they at least cannot expect to be subsidised by the ratepayers, many of whom must be worse off than them.

Another point which was quite unconnected was dealt with by the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, in the effects of the 1978 rating revaluation, and, of course, he used his considerable knowledge and experience of Ayrshire. The Scottish Valuation Advisory Council is examining the 1978 revaluation and that includes the associated appeal arrangements. So far as Ayrshire is concerned, the advice which was given by the Secretary of State of the day was that ratepayers can, and if necessary should, appeal, and I understand that a good many have done so.

My Lords, no doubt we shall consider some of these—and indeed other—matters in depth in Committee. As I have said, I am grateful to those noble Lords who have taken part in this debate and I have no doubt that our debates in the future on this Bill will be as full and fruitful.

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