HL Deb 17 June 1981 vol 421 cc642-7

3.40 p.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (The Earl of Mansfield)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. The Statement is as follows:

"I wish to outline to the House the Government's conclusion on the recommendations of the Committee of Inquiry into Local Government in Scotland, which sat under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Stodart of Leaston, to review the working relation ships among local authorities in Scotland and to recommend whether any transfer or rationalisation of functions was desirable and consistent with maintaining the viability of the existing authorities. The committee's report was presented to Parliament in January, and I have considered the comments received since then. I am making available in the Vote Office a detailed supplementary statement of our conclusions on each of the recommendations.

"The committee recorded 72 conclusions and recommendations and we have decided to accept about 60—subject in some cases to minor variations—and to consider a further 7 in the context of the separate review of Scottish roads legislation about which my department recently issued a consultation document.

"I comment now on some of the major issues raised by the committee.

"They emphasised that a change to a system of all-or most-purpose authorities would involve a major change in the structure of local government, and suggested that if this was to be pursued it should be examined specifically on a countrywide basis. The committee did not however recommend that such an examination should take place, and, as my honourable friend has already indicated to the House, the Government do not propose now to reopen the question of whether or not there should be a single tier system of local government in Scotland. We consider that the present Scottish system is basically sound and that the upheaval and expense of further major reorganisation would not be justified. In particular we accept the committee's conclusions that most-purpose status for the four city districts could not be achieved without prejudicing the viability of the surrounding Regions, and therefore that a marked move towards all-purpose status could not be justified.

"However, like the committee we do see some scope for some redistribution of functions between regional and district authorities to reduce the extent of concurrency, particularly in the field of industrial promotion and leisure and recreation, on which our decisions are as follows.

"The majority recommendation that industrial development powers should be confined to regional authorities prompted specific reservation and dissent within the committee. Reactions since the publication of the report have emphasised the important role which districts play in providing and enhancing local employment opportunities. I have concluded that it would not be right to deprive districts of their powers to provide factories and mortgages for industrial purposes and I do not propose to change the present powers available to them for industrial development: but I agree with the majority of the committee that all powers of promotion outside their areas should be concentrated on the Regions. Moreover, I intend that any overseas promotion expenditure by Regions should be subject to the consent of the Secretary of State. Thus, Regions and districts will have the same powers available to them as at present to encourage local employment but the concentration of promotion powers on the Regions will I hope facilitate co-operation and co-ordination of external publicity efforts. This decision will greatly simplify the task of the new Locate in Scotland Unit, set up recently in response to a report of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs.

"We accept the committee's recommendations that in general district councils alone should have comprehensive responsibilities for leisure and recreation functions. Similar considerations apply in countryside matters but because some facilities have a significance beyond the district boundaries we believe that there should be a defined continuing role for the Regions.

"In some cases it will be possible to implement our conclusions by administrative action, after further consultation with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, but many of the proposals will require legislation.

"We owe a considerable debt to my noble friend Lord Stodart and his committee for the work they did under very considerable pressure. The best proof of our appreciation of their work is the very high proportion of their conclusions which we now accept and our determination to implement them soon."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, I think we are grateful to the Minister of State for repeating the Statement that was made elsewhere. Indeed, I am very happy that I am in a position to congratulate the chairman of the committee, a former colleague of old days, Lord Stodart of Leaston. It is not exactly a world-shattering Statement, but then we need not blame the committee of inquiry for that because they were governed and limited by the terms of reference, which precluded a major examination of the kind of changes that the Minister said he really could not advise.

It may disturb people who are concerned about Strathclyde, and people in, say, Argyll, Bute and Moray, who were concerned about becoming an all-purpose authority. But when you consider exactly the nature of the changes that took place five years ago, it would be quite wrong to embark on another major overhaul. Scottish local government is in a big enough mess at the present time with uncertainty as a result of what the Government have done in the past few weeks, so I can understand discretionary wisdom in deciding against any great overhaul.

Useful work was done by the committee, and I am very grateful indeed that the Government have seen fit to accept so many of their resolutions. But there are some problems. The Countryside (Scotland) Bill, with which we are going to deal later tonight, gives certain functions to regions. Yet here is the Stodart Committee Report which says that not regions but districts only should deal with the countryside. There is a bit of jumping the gun somewhere, and rather loose thinking. The same applies to one of the most major suggestions that was made in respect of industrial development (which is a district function, by the way) and the further work of promotion, of provision, of facilities and financial aid. The Stodart Committee said that that should be taken away from the district and given entirely to the region. Now the Government say, "No".

I think that on the whole I agree with the Government, but the Statement is not a very good one from this point of view because they decide to retain entire promotion to the region. But it was upon the basis that the region had promotion that the committee on balance came down on the side of giving them the other functions, because if you are promoting within the United Kingdom, or elsewhere, that it is desirable to come to this or that area, then the same authority should have control of the facilities; of providing the factories, the infrastructure, and the financial aid. Now we have got them separated. I noticed also that there is a bit of confusion even there. They give the promotion powers to the region but at the same time they say, "If you are going to promote it abroad, see the Secretary of State first". It is not without justification, because there is a Locate in Scotland Bureau. Once again there is something about roads in this Bill, but it is still under review. I wish the Government had thought twice about the Countryside Bill coming forward at this present time.

There is one important matter which the Government have not commented on—and I will finish with this. The Stodart Committee, I think in Chapter 12, dealt with tourism and the promotion of tourism. They said this: We are convinced that the distinctive attractions of Scotland and its high dependence economically on tourism merit a separate promotional effort abroad. We recommend very strongly, therefore, that the Scottish Tourist Board should be given overseas promotional powers in its own right". It cannot do that at the present time. It has to do it through the British Tourist Authority. Why have the Government not accepted this recommendation? Indeed, why have they avoided even mentioning it in this particular Statement? Or is this a pleasure to come and is the Minister now going to rise and say, "Oh, yes; it is so eminently desirable that we thought everyone would realise that we were going to accept that recommendation"?

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, we too thank the Minister for repeating that Statement. We welcome the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Stodart, is here and we wish to thank him and his committee for the work they did. I shall not delay your Lordships because a number of noble Lords are waiting to address the House in the debate which is in progress. I would only point out that we are really suffering from a cart-before-the-horse error committed by various Governments of both sides, in that they did not examine properly the question of devolution in Scotland before they had the committees examining local government. Had we done that properly, we might not now be in the mess we are in. It is, I suppose, satisfactory that the Government are only following the recommendations of the Stodart Committee and are backing away from any further reorganisation, I imagine because they know that such a mess was made in the past that, even though it might be sensible in the future to do something, it might be better to let well alone.

I welcome that fact that they are to leave the promotion of industrial affairs with the districts, because I have found that very satisfactory in the dealings I have had on development. I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ross, that it is vital that the Scottish Tourist Board should be able to promote specific matters and not leave it all as part of the "Come to Britain" campaign. I urge the Government to say categorically that they have forgotten all their promises to examine devolution for Scotland as a whole and are now concentrating on doing what little they can to tidy up some of the mess that has been made of local government.

3.53 p.m.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their welcome of the Statement. Perhaps I may put the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Ross, in their right context by saying that the Government believe there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the present structure of local government in Scotland. What my noble friend's committee was asked to inquire about, and the basis on which it produced its report, was that it was the operation of the structure that was to be inquired into, and I suggest that it has done a thorough and workmanlike job. As for the conclusions to which it came in relation, for instance, to the four cities and indeed to two of the former counties—such as Argyll, and I think it was Moray to which the noble Lord referred—my right honourable friend and the Government agree with those conclusions of the committee.

As for the Countryside Bill, which we shall be debating later this evening—dare I say, very much later?—perhaps that is a matter to which we can return then. The only other point with which I think I must deal is that which concerns the promotion of tourism. The Government's attitude to the promotion of Scottish tourism abroad was made plain by my honourable friend Mr. Rifkind when he replied to a debate on the Second Reading of a Private Member's Bill, Mr. Gordon Wilson's Bill, a couple of months ago, and I have to say that the Government do not accept the conclusion of the committee for a number of what I consider to be very good reasons so far as overseas promotion is concerned. But what we are prepared to accept of course is that in the context of the regions and districts. the promotion of tourism within Scotland should, as it were, now become part of the function of the district councils.

Lord Wilson of Langside

May I ask the Minister two short questions, my Lords? Have the Government, in deciding that no further action than has been announced in this Statement need be taken so far as local government in Scotland is concerned, had due, full and careful regard to the somewhat critical comments in paragraphs 15 to 18 of the valuable Stodart Report? The conclusion of paragraph 18 is to the effect that it is clear that there are certain flaws in the present arrangements which need correcting. Secondly, have they had regard to what is said about community councils in paragraph 254 of the report, and will the Government consider the necessity for action to be taken to meet the evidence which the committee heard about the scant attention which was paid to the views of the community councils by district and regional councils?

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, there is no question of the Government not, as it were, taking any action to implement in the main the conclusions and determinations of this committee; and I thought the Statement made it plain—indeed, it has been made very plain in your Lordships' House on a number of occasions during this Session—that in all probability legislation will be introduced which will put a large number of the conclusions and recommendations into legislative form. I regret that I am not in a position to give the noble and learned Lord a comprehensive answer on the question of community councils at the moment but, if he will be content with such a course, I shall write to him as soon as may be.