HL Deb 21 December 1982 vol 437 cc928-30

Considered on Report.

Then, Standing Order No. 43 having been suspended, (pursuant to Resolution of 16th December):

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a third time.—(Lord Lyell.)

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, I think that there are certain fascinations about this particular Bill which will not have escaped your Lordships' notice. In days when we hear much of privatisation and of the curse of public ownership, it comes strange that the Secretary of State should set forth this Bill for our consideration. It actually gives powers to a local authority to run a bus service. Why are this Government forced to do this? It is something which they abhor. The simple reason is that the private individuals do not want to do it. There is no money in it. There is very little money in the Western Isles anyway; but I would have thought that all the proponents of this great principle would have been there opposing this Bill and demanding that something be done in respect of the privatisation of the bus services in the Western Isles.

The second point is this. Why should this be a private Bill? I am perfectly sure that your Lordships will have been tired of hearing my voice on local authority Bill after local authority Bill brought forward by this Government. We have had the Civic Government Bill. How many hundereds of clauses did we have? We had the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Bill. We have had at least three or four of those Bills.

It is my considered opinion that the Western Isles authority asked the Government to give them this power within a Government measure. But it did not suit the Government because it might have been proclaiming the failures of private enterprise in a part of the world which many people hold very highly indeed. So the Government said, No. I have read the correspondence that passed between the authority and the Scottish Office asking for a simple amendment. It would have taken no time at all, and would have cost nothing to the islanders. Had that been accepted in a Government measure, they would have had this power with the blessings of both sides of the House, I am sure.

However, it has to be done this way. Here you have the position in which a local authority, which is not one of the most wealthy, now has to spend thousands of pounds on getting this very necessary power, and they are advised to do so by the Government. It will be seen on page 2 of the Bill that it says: it is apprehended that certain existing omnibus services might be discontinued by those undertakers who now operate them and accordingly it is expedient, and considered to be of public and local advantage, that the council should be empowered themselves to run the bus service. That is a change in the attitude of the Government.

I would ask, thirdly, who is going to pay for this? What grants will be available to the local authority when they start running this service? First of all, they have to get the buses and then they have to operate and maintain the service. How is this going to be paid for? Perhaps the Government will tell us that they will get something out of the rate support grant, but that grant in Scotland has just been reduced to the lowest in a decade—about 61 per cent. of the reckonable expenditure for the whole of Scotland. Certainly, the percentage they will get in the Western Isles will be very much higher. But then there are very few people left to pay the residue which will be left to be paid by the ratepayers there. What grants will be available in respect of capital costs? Surely we are not going to leave it entirely to what I think is the most endangered species—not the redshank or the greylag goose, but the crofter. Are we to leave it to them entirely to make provision for this? What have the Government agreed in respect of grants (a) in respect of capital, and (b) in respect of maintaining these particular services? I think the House needs to have this information.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, the noble Lord has raised three points. I should like first to tell him and your Lordships that the Government are happy to give their blessing to this Bill. We, of all people, recognise the difficulties which are faced in the Western Isles, where the future of some bus services, and especially those which are essential to the inhabitants, is in jeopardy, and above all where it may not be easy to find alternative operators. I am sure the noble Lord, and your Lordships in total, would agree that it is clearly desirable that the local authority should have the capability to stand in and to provide the services when no other service is available. That is the main purpose of this Bill.

Regarding the noble Lord's point on privatisation, we hope that services will be provided, but the Bill in essence is setting forth a "long stop", if one can call it that, so that, should a private operator not be willing or find it possible to provide essential bus services within the Western Isles, then the Western Isles Council will be able to provide such essential services. The noble Lord has no monopoly in holding the Western Isles dear; nor indeed have your Lordships, since we have had many discussions on the flora, the fauna and the activities which are carried on by the inhabitants.

On the specific question regarding the grants which would be available, the noble Lord, with his usual clarity of mind, split the grant into capital and maintenance. I regret that I do not have the figures, even to the nearest £1,000; but I will ascertain them and I will write with the utmost speed to the noble Lord.

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, surely at the present time the private organisations are being paid by the local authority under the Scottish Office and there is already something in the rate support grant for that purpose. Could we not have these figures?—because I want to find out whether it is going to cost more and, if so, how that is going to be met.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, we do not have these figures since we are merely seeking powers to provide bus services should the need arise. I will attempt to find out the answer to the first two points raised by the noble Lord and I will also try to find the answer to his second supplementary question. I will also ascertain the answers to the questions of detail, but I cannot give specific details today nor can I go further into details of the rate support grant for the rest of Scotland.

On Question, Bill read a third time, and passed.