§ 1.37 p.m.
§ The Earl of Mansfield
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This is the second major Bill affecting local government in Scotland to come before your Lordships' House this Session. In content, the present Bill represents a sharp contrast with the Civic Government (Scotland) Bill. This legislation is less concerned with the relationships between local government and the individual and much more concerned with general questions of local authority functions and the way they are divided between the two principal tiers of local government. Part I of the Bill also deals with the relationship between local government and the Secretary of State on financial matters.
The seeds of the present Bill were sown before the Government were elected when we made clear our view that while the general structure of local government was sound, we believed that there was a case for some tidying up on matters affecting the relationship between authorities especially in the areas of overlapping or concurrent responsibility. To that end, we set up late in 1979 a Committee of Inquiry to review the operation of local government in Scotland since reorganisation in 1975. We set that committee a tight timetable to complete its remit within one year and it is, I think, a considerable tribute to the committee that it achieved that target. I am sure, however that much of the credit should go to its chairman—who, I need hardly remind your Lordships' was my noble friend Lord Stodart of Leaston. We look forward to his contributions in the debates on this Bill.
1294 The committee report was published in early 1981 and I announced our conclusions on its recommendation in a Statement to your Lordships' House on 17th June last year after an extensive period of consultation. The present Bill was one of the first to be introduced in the other House at the beginning of this Session. That timetable alone is a testimony to the worth of the committee's recommendations and the importance the Government have attached to them.
However, before I turn to what I might call the "Stodart" provisions of the Bill in parts II and III I will refer briefly to the important provisions in Part I of the Bill, which builds on our work last year on the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Act of 1981. The general objective of Part I is to modify certain aspects of the rate support grant and valuation systems. Clause 1 of the Bill modifies the Secretary of State's present powers to reduce the level of rate support grant by enabling him to require an authority to reduce rates and reimburse their ratepayers where the Secretary of State regards their expenditure plans as excessive and unreasonable. The need for this power was I regret to say, clearly demonstrated in 1981/82 when the Secretary of State was obliged to use the powers we gave him last year in the 1981 Act. Although the choice was then open to authorities faced with grant reduction under the 1981 Act to reduce their rates, only one in fact chose to do so and thus return the expenditure reductions to the ratepayers. The other authorities inexplicably and regrettably preferred that the savings were reaped nationally by the Exchequer rather than locally by their ratepayers. The ratepayers of Lothian lost no less than £30 million in this way.
The Government felt it was essential to protect ratepayers against this and in this I am sure they have the support of ratepayers. The aim of the rate reduction powers sought by the Secretary of State is the protection of ratepayers, not the erosion of local democracy. It is not a power which will in fact affect authorities generally other than to reduce the level of any general abatement which would otherwise be necessary. It will be used selectively and will only affect those authorities planning to incur excessive and unreasonable expenditure. This is fairer both to those authorities who spend moderately and who should be spared unselective penalties attracted by the extravagance of a few, and to ratepayers who are over-taxed to fund over-spending.
We have, as your Lordships know, felt bound to take action again this year under the existing powers which gave the Secretary of State the power to reduce grant. Exercise of these powers is necessary in the national interest. Local authority expenditure is a significant proportion of total public expenditure and in Scotland amounts to about half of the total public expenditure for which the Secretary of State is responsible. The relevant expenditure (excluding loan charges) on which rate support grant for 1982–83 was based amounted to nearly £2.5 billion. This is not ungenerous, representing a higher level of expenditure than authorities actually incurred in 1977–78. There is no evidence that local authority services were under provided in that year.
The total by which local authority budgets for 1982–83 exceed the level estimated in the rate support grant 1295 settlement is £203.5 million—an excess of over 8 per cent. Of this £203.5 million one authority—Lothian Regional Council—accounted for almost one third by planning to spend more than £66 million or 22 per cent. above their current expenditure guidelines.
In the light of what was achieved by authorities generally in 1977–78 there is no need for these excesses. The action taken by the Secretary of State last year resulted in a reduction in planned expenditure of some £34 million by seven authorities without seriously affecting services. In the current year Lothian's response to the action proposed by my right honourable friend was received this morning and is being studied, but the council propose a significant reduction in expenditure and it is clear therefore that the Government's policy of cutting expenditure amounts in practice to cutting extravagance.
Clause 2 provides a prohibition on borrowing to offset the effect of rates reduction similar to the provision prohibiting borrowing to offset a grant reduction which we approved in Section 18 of the 1981 Act. It is thus, in effect, consequential on Clause 1. Clause 3 was inserted as a new clause after introduction in the other House and, briefly, it is designed to take account of the introduction of the cash planning system of determining rate support grant. Previously, the main rate support grant order prescribed an amount of grant determined in terms of the level of costs and prices ruling when the order was made, usually about six months before the beginning of the relevant financial year. The Secretary of State was, however, able later to adjust the cash paid by an increase order to take account of cost and price increases. He could also, by limiting the amount paid under such increase orders, reduce the grant payable if he thought this necessary for policy reasons. Under cash planning, the whole amount of grant, including an estimate of inflation affecting the year in question, is prescribed in the main order. The Secretary of State will still, however, need a power to review grant in the course of the year and to redetermine it if necessary. He may, for instance, wish to reduce grant to take account of a drop in interest charges or if he is satisfied that the level of expenditure planned is damaging to the public interest.
Finally, Clause 4 deals with an important element in the industrial rating arrangements in Scotland where anomalies have risen. Plant and machinery situated out of doors is rated in Scotland but if indoors is usually free from rates. There is no such arbitrary distinction in England and Wales. Clause 4 of the Bill provides an order-making power which would enable the Secretary of State to derate external plant in Scotland and ensure parity of treatment between businesses situated on either side of the Border and between industries with their plant indoors or outdoors. This is of particular relevance to the petrochemical industry—which has, of course, some major concentrations in Scotland.
My Lords, that concludes a brief exposition of the main provisions of Part I, which builds on our earlier work on the arrangements for controlling excessive and unreasonable expenditure but which also takes account of developments in the cash planning system and the need to remove anomalies in the rating system. I now turn to Part II. The main effect of the provisions of this Part is to reduce substantially the 1296 degree of concurrency in the discharge of functions by the region and district tiers. We believe that this will clarify the lines of responsibility and accountability for particular services as between the two tiers. We are confident that this will contribute to the generally accepted objective of encouraging more efficient economic and accountable local government. Before I go on to elaborate on these provisions I would make clear that no change in the functions of islands councils is proposed in the Bill. While the islands authorities were included in the remit of the Stodart Committee's review, no transfer of responsibilities was recommended.
The first clause in Part II, Clause 5, restricts the existing general power of local authorities to incur expenditure under Section 83 of the 1973 Act and is a necessary corollary to the subsequent provisions limiting concurrency. The clause provides that where responsibility for a function was previously held concurrently by districts and regions, and is now attached to one tier of local government, the other tier may no longer incur or, unless by invitation, contribute to expenditure on that function under Section 83. Where it is desired that a particular level of authority should be able to contribute to expenditure on the other tier's functions, this is specifically provided for in the Bill. For example, Clause 15 enables a regional council to contribute to expenditure in the leisure and recreation field.
I now turn to Clause 6, which deals with industrial promotion. I should emphasise that by "promotion" we mean the general advertisement of the industrial opportunities in a local authority area and the mounting of campaigns to encourage the industrial development in that area. We are not affecting other powers for local authorities to assist industry by providing sites for factories. Under Clause 6 we are proposing to concentrate promotion powers on the regions. District councils will, however, be free to promote in their own area, and by invitation to contribute financially to or participate in promotions outside their area undertaken by the Secretary of State, or a body designated by him, or a regional council outwith the area. Regional Councils will of course be able to promote as they wish throughout the United Kingdom. We believe that concentration on the regions is necessary to ensure that overseas promotional effort is properly co-ordinated. We strongly agree with the Stodart Committee that unsynchronised activity abroad can be detrimental and self-defeating.
I should emphasise that the clause does not affect in any way the powers of the district councils to engage in what I might call industrial development as distinct from industrial promotion. In other words, they will be free as at present to provide factories and buildings and in allowing this to continue we have departed from the majority view of the Stodart Committee which recommended that not only the powers of promotion but also those of development should be concentrated on the regional councils. We recognised that there were arguments both ways, but on balance we felt that the record of the district councils on industrial development was ample justification for allowing them to continue. In effect, Clause 6 reflects the note of reservation which steered a middle course between the majority Stodart view and that argued in the note of dissent.
1297 Clauses 7 and 8, which deal with the countryside and nature conservation, reflect the general thrust of the Stodart recommendations that responsibility for these functions should be concentrated at district level. However, as we announced in our Statement last June, we believe that because some facilities have a significance beyond district boundaries or are closely related to other regional responsibilities, there should be a defined continuing role for regional councils in countryside matters. Clause 7 therefore provides for a continuing regional role in relation to such things as country and regional parks, long distance routes and the improvement of waterways for recreation. Because of the planning interest in nature conservation, Clause 8 gives responsibility for nature conservation to general as well as district planning authorities.
I will now turn to Clause 9 on tourism, which noble Lords will recognise as a subject particularly to my own heart and ministerial responsibilities. Clause 9 comes to this House with its three main policy objectives intact and reaffirmed by debates in the other place. These are: first, to concentrate local authority responsibility for tourism at district and islands level and hence, as I have said previously, to unscramble the omelette and to make it clear who does what; secondly, to ensure that overseas promotion initiatives are co-ordinated on a sensible Scotland-wide basis and so that this very important aspect of local government's contribution to tourism is as cost-effective as possible; and, thirdly, to encourage the extension throughout Scotland of area tourist organisations, fully involving the trade interests, similar to those already operating successfully in the Highlands and Islands.
While Clause 9 restricts power to undertake tourism functions to district and islands councils only, we intended that regions should be given the power to contribute to the cost of tourism promotions and developments, and we accepted in another place an amendment extending this power to contribute also to overseas promotions carried out by other bodies or individuals. While, therefore, concurrency is removed, an important potential source of funding is retained.
Following substantial reconsideration, subsection (2) of Clause 9 was amended in the other place to take account of the views expressed on both sides of the House on the best way in securing the desired network of area tourist organisations in Scotland. As originally introduced, subsection (2) gave the Secretary of State powers to direct an authority to collaborate with other bodies and to compel authorities to participate in area tourist organisations. We have now dropped the reserve powers for the Secretary of State and the subsection, as now amended, makes explicit that the authorities are fully empowered, after consultation with the Scottish Tourist Board, to prepare and participate in collaborative schemes with the tourist trade for the joint management and organisation of tourism in their areas.
The Bill therefore encourages co-operation between local government, the Scottish Tourist Board, and the trade. Such co-operation—I stress on a voluntary basis—has worked well for many years in the Highlands and Islands, where the system of area tourist organisations sponsored by the Highlands and Islands Development Board was greatly commended by the Stodart Committee. For the new arrangement to succeed to 1298 its full potential, all sides of the industry must play a major role. For our part, we have substantially increased funds to the Scottish Tourist Board to allow it to co-ordinate and support the new area tourist organisation system, and the board has already made very encouraging progress in getting such a system off the ground.
Clauses 12–18 deal with the major local authority services of leisure and recreation. They are based on the recommendations of the Stodart Report that the responsibility should be concentrated in islands and district councils but they also take this opportunity of revising and updating the existing powers and duties of local authorities in their area which are based on a variety of provisions from the Parks Act 1878 and the Burgh Police Acts onwards. Although the main responsibility is, as recommended by the Stodart Committee, to be concentrated on districts we are making it clear that the regional councils will be able to contribute financially to any recreational, sporting, cultural or social facility or activity. This goes somewhat wider than the Stodart recommendation, which was that the regions should have power to contribute to such activities and facilities of wider than local significance and reflects concern that if we were too restrictive in implementing this recommendation we might adversely affect the joint financing of a number of voluntary and other activities.
We believe that the widening of the scope of Clause 15, which we achieved at Report stage in another place, will go a long way to meet the anxieties of a number of cultural and other bodies who have expressed such fears. The clause as amended has been welcomed by the Scottish Arts Council and we believe it does give sufficient room for local discretion to allow regions to contribute where they believe that it is desirable so to do. Nevertheless, the lead on leisure and recreation activities generally must remain firmly with the districts as so forcefully argued and recommended by the Stodart Committee.
Most of the remainder of Part II deal with a number of relatively minor functions—although important to the individuals concerned—and they reflect the recommendations of the Stodart Committee. They also implement a number of recommendations of the Working Party on Civic Government, which felt that it was desirable to give specific statutory powers to local authorities for a number of functions such as the provision of public conveniences, local authority markets and public clocks. The last three clauses of Part II deal with the very important question of the transfer of staff and property arising from the changes. Our concern has been to avoid wholesale disruption and, as will be evident from the clauses, we attach much importance to the freedom to negotiate suitable arrangements locally. In the event of disagreement, however, we provide for arbitration arrangements on both staff and property matters. It is too early yet to estimate the precise amount of property involved but preliminary indications are that the number of staff who transfer will be relatively small and will certainly be less than 1 per cent. of the total local authority staff in Scotland as a whole. This perhaps emphasises our belief that the provisions in Part II are concerned primarily with a clarification of existing reponsibilities among authorities rather than an 1299 attempt to reduce radically staff numbers. The Bill is concerned more with effective use of staff time rather than enforcing an absolute reduction in staffing levels—which we believe to be desirable in any case irrespective of the provisions of this Bill.
Part III of the Bill deals with planning matters and seeks to implement a number of changes recommended by the Stodart Committee as well as others which had emerged in the course of our discussions with the convention and the planning authorities. It makes improvements in four main parts of the planning field. First, there are changes to the procedures for preparing and bringing into operation structure and local plans; secondly, the Bill includes changes to the procedures for dealing with applications for planning permission and consents for development affecting buildings which are listed as being of historic significance; thirdly, there are improvements to the procedures for taking action against breaches of planning requirements; and fourthly, the Bill makes some limited adjustment to the allocation of planning functions between the regional and district planning authorities in the two-tier areas—in other words, excluding planning matters in the Borders, Dumfries, and Galloway and Highland Regions where planning is vested in the regional authority.
The Bill may appear to make a large number of minor changes to procedure which are already complex. This, however, reflects our recognition that the planning system, like the local government structure at large, is basically sound and that what is needed is simplification rather than radical redesign. I should emphasise that they enjoy the wholehearted support of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and a number of the amendments to the provisions agreed in the other place reflect discussions between the department and the convention's planning advisers on the detail of the Bill.
Part IV deals with a miscellaneous variety of matters. Your Lordships will, I think, be particularly glad to see Clause 47, which provides that a local authority can pay an improvement grant for an additional standard amenity where that is essential for a disabled occupant and the clause also removes an existing constraint on the payment of a second grant in relation to such cases. This clause would now, for example, allow improvement grant to be paid in respect of the adaptation of the bathroom of a house to make it suitable for a disabled person, even although the bathroom was perfectly adequate for normal use. As such, I know that the clause will be widely welcomed and is evidence of our continuing concern for the disabled.
From the Government's point of view, perhaps the most important clauses in this part are 48 and 49, which amend Part I of the Tenants' Rights, Etc. (Scotland) Act 1980—legislation which regulates the sale of council houses in Scotland. Clause 48, together with one of the repeals of Schedule 4, closes the door on two practices used by a small minority of local authorities, which are designed to deter tenants from exercising their legitimate right to purchase. Clause 49 extends the powers of the Lands Tribunal for Scotland—the body to which tenants seeking to buy may 1300 appeal if their landlord fails to comply with the terms of the Act.
It is no coincidence that two authorities which have decided to charge their tenants—Stirling and East Lothian—have both been the subject of default proceedings by the Secretary of State on their handling of council house sales under the 1980 Act. Parliament intended to give tenants an unequivocal right to buy and it is wholly inconsistent with that intention that anyone should be charged for seeking to exercise it or put under pressure to sign it away.
The powers of the Lands Tribunal are extended by Clause 49 in two ways. First, we are providing that they can examine whether or not an offer to sell has been put together in the way that the Act requires and, if it has not, order a new offer to be made by the landlord. Secondly, we are providing that when issuing an offer to sell, where a landlord has failed in its duty to do so, the tribunal will be able to exercise the same discretions as would have been available to the landlord if it had fulfilled its duty. Where the tribunal is making an offer to sell in place of a landlord, it is clearly only fair to the tenant that the tribunal should be able to exercise these discretions. Otherwise, tenants in this position would be doubly prejudiced, having already suffered delay because their landlord has failed to carry out its duty to serve an offer to sell. It was always the intention of the Tenants' Rights Act that this should be the case but the tribunal have decided that the Act does not, as it stands, give them the necessary power and, consequently, it is necessary to do so explicitly.
I should also draw attention to Clause 51, which gives effect to the Government undertakings given in your Lordships' House last year when the question of liability for water damage on agricultural land was discussed during proceedings on the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Bill. The clause amends the Water (Scotland) Act 1980 by imposing a form of strict liability on water authorities and water development boards, where an escape of water from their pipes or mains damages agricultural or forestry land. At present, as Section 10 of the Act is commonly interpreted, compensation is paid only by the water authority or board where it can be proved that they have been negligent. It is, of course, extremely difficult to prove such negligence and few claims have therefore been paid. Now, in terms of the clause, where a water burst occurs on agricultural or forestry land, compensation will have to be paid, save, of course, when the damage has been caused through the fault of the person affected or any of his servants, agents or contractors.
This whole question has been a source of grievance to farming interests for many years. Farmers have found that it is virtually impossible to insure their lands and crops against damage caused by burst water mains and, except for the rare occasion when negligence can be found, they are unable to obtain compensation under existing legislation. This is manifestly unsatisfactory and the clause seeks to put this right. And now, as a result of a Government amendment in the other place, the clause also applies to forestry land. The remainder of this Part of the Bill is relatively minor. I can answer questions later, if any noble Lord comes to ask them. Otherwise we 1301 can return to the matter in more detail in Committee.
That concludes a summary of the main elements of this Bill. In the last three years the House has considered a substantial block of legislation affecting local government powers in Scotland. These measures—and I do not need to rehearse them now—have all been motivated by our belief that the present structure of local government is sound, and that what is needed is improvement and simplification and the clarifying of lines of responsibility between authorities and accountability to the ratepayer and taxpayer. I hope that they may be seen as logical developments from the re-organisation of 1975.
In our discussions on the Civic Government Bill earlier this year, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilson of Langside, suggested that the Scottish Office had perhaps taken rather too long in implementing the recommendations of the Working Party on Civic Government which was appointed in 1972 and which reported in 1976. There, of course, we had to build on—or recover from the delays of our predecessors. This Bill, however, results entirely from our own initiative and I am sure that your Lordships will agree that we have acted with considerable speed, purposefulness and thoroughness in moving from the appointment of the committee in late 1979, to the introduction of legislation in 1981 and consideration by your Lordships in 1982. We hope, indeed, that the legislation can be effective from April, 1983. My Lords, I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(The Earl of Mansfield.)
§ 2.5 p.m.
§ Lord Ross of Marnock
My Lords, we are grateful to the Minister for his very clear, though rather galloped, explanation of the Bill. I had certainly been looking forward to a Bill based upon the Stodart Report, but we have got something rather different from that. It is not to the advantage of the kind of discussions that we are bound to have to begin with angry rows about what has been done in respect of local government finance. May I say at the start that, though I thank the Minister, there are no thanks to those who arrange business in this House, that on a shortened day they see fit to put down two major measures for discussion, and see further fit that those who have furthest to go shall be last. I do not know why the Scots have put up with this for so long, but here is one Scot who is not going to put up with it. I was also concerned, as I listened to the previous meandering through matters relating to mad dogs and sex-starved Englishmen, that we were more than slightly unfairly dealt with in Scotland in this regard.
First, may I join the Minister in paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Stodart, on his excellent report, with most of which I agree, and in respect of which there are one or two things to which we shall need to return at Committee stage. But, when the Minister of State pats himself on the back about how quickly the Government have done all this on their own initiative, let me tell him that much of this springs from the Act of the Tory Government in 1973, and the mistakes which they made then. They were responsible for the concurrency that has created the problems, and it was left to the noble Lord, Lord Stodart, in his leisure time, to gather these together and produce something, which was not easy to do.
1302 The problems that still remain in respect of industry, leisure, recreation and other things stem from the imbalance that there is in the original Act. When you have within a region half the population of Scotland comprehended, and when in that region you have districts, such as the City of Glasgow district, which are greater than three or four other regions, so-called, put together, it is very difficult for any person to sit down and say, "We will give these functions to regions, and we will deny districts other functions". For the City of Edinburgh, in respect of tourism, and the City of Glasgow district, which includes an enterprise zone, to be tied down to the same kind of restriction which is put upon a small district in the North-East is the source of the continuing difficulty.
Before I leave that matter, may I make one other point? I regard what happened over the first reorganisation of local government as an utter disgrace. It was the most expensive game of musical chairs that we have ever known. People disappeared from one job and reappeared in another with a new name and a new salary. We have never quite recovered from that. I notice that Lord Stodart says in his report that there are consequences for manpower, property and finance. We have had no information about that. Lord Stodart said that adequate financial arrangements must of course accompany any change in functional responsibilities. We have had no indication of what they will be. I trust that the Government will ensure that what happened in the past does not happen again when there is a transfer from region to district or from district to region.
I return to Part I. I took down the words of the Minister. He said how reasonable the Government are being and how unreasonable the local authorities are being because of excessive and unreasonable expenditure. The facts hardly justify that kind of language. In 1980–81, local government expenditure rose by 1.6 per cent. Can the Minister tell me by how much Government expenditure rose during that year? I am perfectly sure that it was nowhere near local government expenditure. In 1981–82, the rise in local government expenditure was planned at 0.2 per cent. Why, therefore, did the Government have to take this new set of powers in respect of local government?
It is obvious to me that those who cannot control their expenditure and who are way out this year are central government. They hammer away at local government but at the same time ask local government to spend more money in many areas. The rise in local government expenditure is almost at a standstill, but what about the police? The Government are asking local authorities not to cut down on the police. Last year there was an outcry in Strathclyde. They were praised by the Secretary of State in a broadcast for meeting their guidelines. Clydeside,in Strathclyde, controls half the population of Scotland. During the elections we thought we could not win any more seats but we managed to win another five. The Tories lost even their leader. They are down to just a handful there.
The Minister said that the Government had the support of the ratepayers but this is not evident in the three regions which contain three-fifths of the population of Scotland: Central, Strathclyde and Fife. 1303 And even in Aberdeen their majority was reduced to two. There was a great attack on Lothian, but what did that produce? It produced a tie. It is only the precarious alliance of three Liberals and the SDP which keeps them in power. It must distress the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilson of Langside, that the leader of the SDP has lost his seat. So there was no great change. If anything, the people of Scotland, mature as ever in their politics, supported the Labour Party. Their margin of votes over the other parties went up from nine to 12 per cent.
The Government say that local government is being unreasonable and excessive. Their right to judge that comes not from the 1966 Act but from the Act which was passed a year or two ago in which all sorts of things upon which they were to judge the reasonableness of expenditure were laid down—including, finally, any other expenditure which the Secretary of State thinks fit. So they have a blank cheque with which to hammer local authorities. I want to know which local authorities the Government are going to hammer. As the Minister said, it is true that the Scotsman has given us all the information about what is likely to happen this year according to the estimates, but remember that the outturn is usually very different from that. From last year, it was shown that the outturn came down very considerably.
We have Lothian being hammered again. Estimates are up by, I think it is, 22 per cent. and, even after the comings and floatings of the new administration precariously holding that balance have gone to the Secretary of State, if they saved £45 million of the £63 million, which I believe the Minister spoke about, they would still be 7.3 per cent. above the guidelines. I want to know whether the Minister will take action on that, because if he is to allow a margin of 7.3 per cent. to the Lothians, then he must allow it to other people as well. But what about Orkney, at 25 per cent. above the guidelines? There is no mention of action being taken there. What about Shetland, at 79 per cent. above the guidelines; Aberdeen at 22.1 per cent.—that is a district; Skye and Lochalsh at 21.6 per cent; Sutherland at 22.6 per cent., and Strathkelvin at 18.8 per cent? The heart of what is left of Toryism in Scotland, Bearsden and Milngavie, is 18 per cent. above the guidelines. What is going to happen there? We have been told about only two in respect of which action is to be taken—Stirling and Lothian—and now we know that little or no action is going to be taken.
I would say that the Minister may have to use the powers he already has, but that the new powers he is taking in the Bill he will never use. I do not think that this is a time for further confrontation with local government. It is a time for uniting people and not for dividing them.
What power does the Minister propose to take in this Bill? It is interesting to read what the Secretary of State is saying and what his definition is of "excessive and "unreasonable". He said:Local authority expenditure continues to move up when everybody else has to reduce expenditure".That is, everybody else except central Government. He went on:That means that local government expenditure is out of control".1304 A rise of 0.2 per cent. is "out of control"? What nonsense! That was just last week—in column 112 of Hansard, 17th May. In column 114, in reply to a question asked by my friend the former Secretary of State, Mr. Bruce Millan, the Secretary of State, said:The right honourable gentleman would be the first to object if I tried to lay down how individual local authorities should make their budget decisions".That is exactly what we are doing in this first clause. He takes the power at estimate time to tell local authorities that they are setting a rate far too high, to take away the whole of the grant or part of the grant, and at the same time fix what the rate should be.
What the Government said in the Alternatives to Domestic Rates is interesting:It is essential that the Government should be able to influence local revenue-raising and local expenditure".We all know that. We are all agreed on that. Then in paragraph 1.14 on page 3, they say:It could be argued that the Government should supplement the existing arrangements by seeking powers to take direct action where necessary to restrain public expenditure so as to protect the interests of local ratepayers. For example, statutory upper limits could be imposed on local authorities' income and expenditure. The case for the Government taking such powers has to be judged against the very considerable constitutional and practical difficulties that would be involved".But not for the junta of St. James' Square. They race in and they take the power to do exactly that, to tell a local authority what its rate will be. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, will remember when the Tory Party in Scotland raced round the countryside in black cars with the word "Freedom" on them. There is no freedom for local authorities here. This is a fundamental encroachment on the traditional rights of local authorities. It is for them to decide what their local people need and what the services will be in that particular area. If they have to spend a little more than the guidelines, then so be it. That is their right, and who should discipline them? Not the Government. The people who should discipline them should be the electors. We have just had the regional election. That is democracy, that is local democracy.
I do not know whether what the Government are doing stems from a lack of confidence about being able to co-operate with local authorities—I know some of them are difficult—or whether they are just frightened men who fear that things will go out of control. It is only frightened men who would take powers like this. I reckon they would do a service to Scotland and to themselves if they withdrew the first few clauses of this particular Bill. There is no real justification for them, unless it is in their own particular inadequacies.
With regard to the position about local government finance and this second hammering, remember what powers they start with. The Secretary of State for Scotland has the power, sitting down with the local authorities, to say what will be the aggregate of relevant expenditure on which he will pay grant. He fixes that. The next thing he fixes is the proportion of that relevant expenditure that the Government will pay. In Scotland, it has been going down over the past three years and is now just over 64 per cent. So, by reducing the relevant expenditure and by reducing the amount that he is prepared to pay, he automatically leaves the local authorities in an impossible position. That is the 1305 reason why rates have gone up, because there is no reality in the reckonable expenditure total, and there was a decision of the Government deliberately to reduce their contribution to meet their own guidelines.
Local authorities are faced with the Government saying in their rate support order that they will meet increases up to 9 per cent.—remember that this was done in November of last year—and salaries of 4 per cent.—remember that the manual workers have already settled for 9 per cent. and the Government have their say in these matters. Teachers are one of the biggest items in local government expenditure: I think not quite 70 per cent. of local government expenditure is on education, and, of education spending, the biggest amount is teachers' salaries. The Government are part of that. Noble Lords will remember that we argued this out on the last local government Bill, in relation to education, when they reorganised the negotiating structure. The Government representative is in there. It is likely to be 6 per cent.—that is the offer—2 per cent. above the guideline. Who has to pay that? If the Government are not meeting it in reckonable expenditure, not meeting their share, the whole of that 2 per cent. has to be met by the ratepayers. That is why the rates go up, because of the activities of the Government in respect of reckonable expenditure, in respect of the proportion of rate support grant that they pay, and in respect of the complete lack of realism in their formulas about controlling inflation, thus leaving the burden to local authorities.
All this detracts from some of the important things we should be talking about. Before I come to the Stodart Report, I want to mention one other thing. There is one revaluation point in this, and that is in respect of outdoor plant. The Minister rightly said that this was important for the petro-chemical industry. There is a concentration of that, but, sadly, the concentration of the petro-chemical industry is itself concentrated. It is concentrated in the Northern Isles, Shetland; it is concentrated in the central area around Falkirk and Grangemouth, and we also have it in Ayrshire, at ICI. Any change there is going to be of probable benefit to the company. Remember, however, that the rates that they pay are allowable taxes. So it seems a heavier burden than it actually is, because they can set it against profits and the burden is borne by the general taxpayers. But if they are to be derated, the people who will lose first will be the local authorities. I mention that Shetland already proposes to spend 79 per cent. above their guidelines. What will their position be if the Government do nothing about it? There will be a considerable saving to the Exchequer. What are the Government prepared to do about easing the burden? Will there be some specific grant put in? I remember that when we had a great new water scheme to improve the position around Edinburgh, the Lothians and the Borders we had a six-year tapering allowance. Even when the tapering is finished there will be a very heavy burden of loss of revenue to the Shetlands, to the Orkneys and, indeed, to the Central Region as well.
Once we go into the question of looking after the interests, prior to the revaluation or the partial revaluation that is going on at present, then there are others that are concerned. I was speaking the other night to Peter Wheatley of the Sports Council and to people concerned with Scottish football. They are concerned 1306 about the effects of rates upon sport and not just professional sport because many of the clubs are not profit-making, but upon many of the small amateur clubs throughout the country. I think that there is a discretionary 50 per cent. reduction in their rates depending on the local authority. Many of the local authorities in respect of amateur clubs do not even give them that and they are buckling at the moment. Anyone who is concerned about the youth of this country and the future of the youth of this country, should be concerned about this particular problem. I think that, before long, approaches will be made to Ministers in this respect.
As regards professional clubs, they have been ordered by the Government—I think it was under the 1975 Act following the Ibrox Park disaster—to improve the safety of their grounds. As soon as they improve the safety of their grounds, who is the first person to call?—the assessor. Because they have improved the safety of their grounds up go their rates. In my view that is rather unfair. It is a very sore point with many clubs at present that the improvements which they are making at very high cost to the club are not being met by increased income at the turnstiles. Anyone who has been looking at what has been happening to gates in the First Division in England, the Premier Division, the Second Division in England and the First Division in Scotland and so on, will see that many clubs are very badly hit and that the rates and the cost of police have had a considerable effect. I hope that the Minister will start taking an interest in the question of rates. I know that the SFA and the Football League have fairly reasonable relations with the local assessors, but the local assessors, of course, are bound by their own particular duties.
I turn to the Stodart Report. We may well have trouble. I do not think that the district authorities will be entirely satisfied with the limitations in respect of their promotions and we shall need to look at this matter again. Let us take as an example the district of the City of Glasgow. There promotion and everything in relation to it, has to be done within the city. But one of the big attractions of the City of Glasgow for industry is the fact that within an hour of Glasgow there are probably some of the finest golf courses in the whole world. Troon is just down the road where we are going to hold the Open. I used to know the exact number of golf courses. I think that there are 20 or 30 of them and they are the finest courses in the country. Loch Lomondside is just half an hour from Glasgow. But the promotion must not take people out. Is it right that their promotion must be confined, as I understand it, within their own area? It really is a nonsense here and we shall need to sort this out.
I am glad that there is this rationalising of all these processions abroad. At one time I thought that the quickest growing industry in Scotland was that of promoting Scotland. They can be counter-productive unless there is proper co-ordination, and I think that we are grateful for that. But who will do the coordinating? I think that it must be done by the Secretary of State, and as far as I can see there has been a tug of war between one department, the SEPD, 1307 and the Scottish Development Agency. I should have thought that the Scottish Development Agency would have been by far the better organisation to handle this. But the tug of war has been settled by a compromise—"locate in Scotland". I do not know where "locate in Scotland" is located or who is in locate in Scotland. A code of practice is promised and I hope that we shall see that before the Bill completes its passage.
As to tourism, I accept the problems and I accept that the district councils are the right people to do it. I am glad that the mandatory powers of the Secretary of State have been removed from that. The area tourist organisations—ATOs (we have to learn some new initials now)—have been copied from the success of the Highlands and Islands Development Board in relation to the people interested in tourism in the Highlands. The success of the HIDB has been taken as a model for the rest of the country. However it means that this will pass out of the hands of local, authorities altogether into the hands of non-elected bodies. It may be right, but I think that we must justify it in our proceedings.
Then I come to the countryside. There is a gloriously uninformative Clause 9 about the countryside and when we go to the schedule it is even more gloriously uninformative. But as far as I can see, there is a reallocation of functions and in subsection (3) the regional councils, which have been taken out, are suddenly put back in and can virtually do as they like in respect of certain aspects. Recreation, sporting, cultural and the rest—I still think that there is a grey area here. We have not got rid of concurrency. I think that the Government should tell us much more clearly how the regions come into this. Inevitably, they must come into it because they control education and a very considerable part of education is reaction and culture. Indeed, many of the activities that take place, take place on their premises and in their properties, so they still have a place here. I know that the likes of some national organisations in Scotland, which have hitherto been funded both by the regions and the districts, are worried and concerned about this. The Minister gave us some reassuring indications that the changes made were satisfactory and he quoted a letter that he had received. That, too, will have to be looked at.
The question of food labelling and these aspects of food being taken away from the region and given to the districts, is I think, quite nonsensical. The regions have already built up an expertise in this. It is akin to the work that they have to do under other legislation in respect of consumer protection; and therefore it would have been sensible to leave it there. I am sorry to have to disagree with my friend the noble Lord, Lord Stodart, on this, but that, too, is something that we should look at.
On the whole, I regard this as a good Bill spoiled by frightened malice and prejudice against local authorities and I should like the Government to take away these early powers because I know that they will never be used. It must terrify every Englishman who is concerned with local authorities that what will be done in Scotland will be done there next. Proceed in this way and it will be the death of local government.
§ 2.35 p.m.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, the House will be happy to realise that I know nothing like as much about government in local government as the noble Lord, Lord Ross, and I do not propose to go into detail, perhaps mainly because I know not nearly enough about it. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, in the last debate gave a lead when he said that this House is indulgent to noble Lords who want to talk about things that are not in the Bill. Looking at this Bill, it is no doubt very useful from Part I onwards, and will do useful things as proposed by the Stodart Report. But, when you look at the measures taken in Part I, it makes you think that there is something seriously wrong with the whole system of local government in Scotland and elsewhere.
It surely should be a reflection of the wishes of the people voting; the voters who put in, or out, an extravagant or stupid local government. But I am afraid that the whole thing has got into a bad state, what with the electoral system, which is just as bad in local government and produces just as bad results and just as unrepresentative government in local government as it does nationally, and the fact that the rating system is admitted by all to be unjust and not working well, and no longer to represent a large proportion, certainly not a major proportion, of the income that the local governors are spending. Nor is it fairly allocated, and, for example, many people who have large business interests regard themselves as having no say in the election of the people who are spending the money they do pay. Unfortunately, in many cases the people employed in large, or small, local businesses do not consider the effect that high rates have on business and their own employment.
When one looks at Part I, one must look at it as something which is putting right a state of affairs which has come about because the whole of the electoral, rating, and money-raising system has gone badly wrong. Certainly it appears to me that in Scotland local democracy, which is so favourable to the Labour Party in many parts of Scotland, is not working very well, and you can only put that right by having a fairer system of election. In case anyone does not realise it, I am talking about proportional representation, which is probably more important in Scotland.
When it comes to the Stodart Report, the noble Lord has of course done extraordinarily well, and many of the proposals, as the noble Lord, Lord Ross said, will help the administration of local affairs in Scotland. But there is no doubt that the terms of reference were strictly laid down to apply only to the existing system. It is remarkable how well the single, all-purpose authorities in the islands and other places are working. We have a lesson to learn from that, but of course we are not considering that in this Bill.
However, I hope that the message goes home, because sooner or later we shall have to have a reorganisation of the whole of Scottish government, and come back to an assembly with sensible powers, a single-tier system, and more representation of a local and ancient character. We shall no doubt have a great deal of work to do on this Bill, and I have no doubt that at the end of the day it will improve local administration, but I must say that it is more remarkable for the 1309 things it does not tackle than it is for the things it does tackle.
§ 2.40 p.m.
§ Lord Stodart of Leaston
My Lords, I am most appreciative of the kind remarks made about the report by the noble Lords, Lord Ross and Lord Mackie. I find your Lordships' House a most agreeable place, as I have said before. In the course of 15 years in another place, I cannot recall the compliments that have been flowing in my direction from Lord Ross. The mellowing atmosphere of this Chamber is indeed considerable.
§ Lord Stodart of Leaston
My Lords, any merit in the committee's report was due entirely to the willingness—indeed, I would say the determination—of people of wide-ranging views to agree on matters which were, and were generally considered to be, of importance to local government in Scotland. Therefore, I want to retain the harmony which I experienced and enjoyed by dealing, in what I have to say, with only Parts II and III of the Bill.
When the formation of the committee was announced, people said, in effect, "Please, no major attack on the foundations of the two-tier system"—which had been laid as recently as 1975—"but try to sort out a lot of quite untidy overlapping". As the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, remarked, when we started our inquiries, we were left in no doubt of a considerable amount of public disillusion with the two-tier system and a distinct preference for a single-tier one, which of course was outside our remit. Therefore, the objectives of the committee were to prune concurrency—or, as I prefer to call it, dual responsibility—which did, and does now, control a substantial number of local government functions. In doing that, we wanted only to make proposals which would result in simple legislation, because the latter is often complex enough without adding to it.
Perhaps I may give examples of what I mean in two fields, one in planning. There are two set-ups in Scotland; there are structure plans and local plans in the areas covered by six of the regions, and then there are the general planning powers vested in the three most rural regions. The situation arises—the noble Lord, Lord Ross, touched on the difficulty—where there is at least one district council within those general planning regions which has itself no planning powers, although its population is a good deal larger than those of several district councils within those other six regions and those districts which have local planning powers. We resisted demands to pick out a particular district—one of those that I have described—and give it powers different from its neighbours because we thought that that would make for great confusion with both the public and the legislative process.
Secondly, with regard to tourism, we were told, very understandably: "You cannot organise tourism into a straitjacket of one tier of local government all over Scotland. There are some parts of the country where the region will do its best, while in others a district is obviously the answer, and perhaps the obvious example 1310 of that is the city of Edinburgh", which is, I understand, the second greatest tourist attraction in the United Kingdom. Yet I doubt whether my noble friend would have thanked us had we suggested his presenting legislation in which, say, the Grampian region were responsible for tourism in the North-East, while further south—let us say, Edinburgh, or the district of Argyll and Bute, and many other districts where there are highly successful tourist arrangements—tourism should be under district control, or concurrency should continue, which very few seemed to want, least of all the Committee.
I must try to steer a somewhat difficult course between seeming to be slightly complacent at the acceptance by the Government of a gratifying number of our proposals, and appearing to be critical of the comparatively few that they have rejected. So I propose to deal with only two topics, because they strike me as being both interesting and important; I refer to industrial development and tourism. I was interested in the comment made by the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, on a subject which I am very well aware has perhaps created more controversy than any other. It is the question of putting into district hands the food side of consumer protection. Good as the noble Lord's memory is, I believe that I recall him, at the Committee stage of what is now the 1973 Act, remarking, admittedly very late at night-1 was not there, but I took the trouble of reading all the Committee stages—that on this particular question he thought that it all ought to go to the districts. So perhaps the noble Lord might care to refresh his memory and perhaps I, too, ought to do so to see whether I am entirely right. On the merits of that particular argument I would not wish to detain the House, because I could say no more on it than is already deployed in the report.
However, with regard to industrial development, everybody knows how desperate is the need for new industries. Every local authority, from the smallest district to the largest region, is filled with anxiety about the unemployment situation. Our majority thinking was that there should be a spearheaded approach to potential incomers, with very close co-operation from a small and very sophisticated set-up. We could not see an "everyone-doing-his-own-thing" exercise succeeding in these days.
That thinking being accepted, it was all too easy to say that factories, roads, water, drains, should all be regional responsibilities in the world of infrastructure, so that the whole of industrial development should be a regional function, with districts being represented on industrial joint committees, which was in fact our majority recommendation. But one could not fail to sense the misgivings of the districts. Could they really be expected to sit at home, with jobs falling like ninepins around them, and trust someone else to go out to get the replacements? Therefore, I do not quarrel for one moment with the latitude which has been given to districts in Clause 6 to promote and continue to develop their areas, particularly, as I say, as we were divided ourselves—the only item, I may say, on which we were.
Secondly, on tourism—possibly, I think, one of the most interesting topics we discussed—undoubtedly there is a most substantial case for flexibility of treatment area by area; but this surely must be best achieved by breaking your tourist organisations down to district 1311 level. After all, the tourist attractions of the East Lothian district are totally different from those of West Lothian. Without any disrespect to the district of Motherwell, its tourist attractions are very much overshadowed by those of Argyll and Bute. I remember a former Member of another place telling me in the smoking room there one night that he had booked himself in for a fortnight's holiday at Shotts, and could I tell him where Shotts was. That is not, I hope, to decry the tourist attractions of that town, but I still think that such are the differences between one district and another that the district is the obvious authority.
Added to that, there is the admirable experience on which to build in that of the Highlands and Islands Development Board, particularly now that the chief executive of that body, who built himself a very considerable reputation there, has moved to a similar post in the Scottish Tourist Board. I suspect that one secret of the Highlands Board's success lies in the trade interests always having the majority on the area tourist organisations; but there may be one factor, and it this—and I am afraid my noble friend is not going to be a bit pleased with me for saying this. He possibly may not remember the contents of paragraph 150 of our report, but that dealt with the promotion of Scotland abroad by the Scottish Tourist Board. It was the strongest recommendation, I think, of any that we made. We were completely unanimous.
I am very well aware of, and very mystified at, the hostility which is always provoked by this in certain circles, I think, of every Government. I wish I could understand why, and I hope that my noble friend will be kind and will tell somebody as stupid as I am what the reason is for this. Because the Highlands Development Board has these powers; it uses them, and we were informed that it finds them "invaluable", to use their expression. That does not mean that they open up offices next door to the British Tourist Authority on Broadway, in Hong Kong or in other parts of the world—no nonsense like that. But they can and they do send someone abroad if there is some particular event which they want to promote in their area.
Despite, so far as I can recall, every Scottish Tourist Board chairman so far, ever since it was set up, asking for similar powers, and despite a unanimous recommendation by a committee which could hardly have been more representative of Scottish opinion, it is resisted with tenacity by the Government and with quite remarkable hostility by the British Tourist Association. I see no logic. Why the power to the Highlands Development Board? Why did my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland find it logical to say earlier this year about the Scottish Development Association that the offices of that body in New York and San Francisco are doing a thoroughly worthwhile job complementary to the work of the Diplomatic Service posts in bringing US investment to Scotland? If it is good for the SDA, why not for the Scottish Tourist Board?
My Lords, there is only one other point that I would make. It was touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock. I have not heard mention of it in debates in the other place. That is the recommendation which we made of the necessity for a financial adjustment which is absolutely essential to the 1312 rate support if these functions are to be transferred. I make this point because it seems to me that fears exist in Scotland at the moment on this subject. I have already paid tribute to the work of the committee which, to people's apparent surprise, did what they were asked to do in the time required. I am quite sure that the best commendation of their work is this legislation which has followed with such speed.
§ Viscount Massereene and Ferrard
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I understood him to say that the Highland Development Board has had wonderful success. It is as well that they have had a certain success, but they have also had some very costly failures. I know plenty of them which I will not enumerate now, but if the noble Lord were to ask me afterwards I could tell him of some from my own knowledge.
§ 2.57 p.m.
§ Lord Wilson of Langside
My Lords, before the debate in this House on this Bill opened, I did not have a single solitary word of consultation with the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie. It is accordingly a happy and fortunate circumstance that my own feelings about this Bill and, if I may say so, about the admirable report of Lord Stodart's committee are very much on a par with those of the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie. This Bill, like so many modern Bills, is in such terms that it is difficult to discern anywhere within or underlying its provisions any principle to attack or to agree with or to comment upon. Its provisions, which we are inclined to view with no great enthusiasm—apart from such provisions as those for improvement grants to disabled people and the like—will clearly require a deal of work on Committee.
If my mail is anything to go by, there is, I gather, formidable opposition to the provisions of Clause 20 reallocating responsibility for the enforcement of certain provisions of the Food and Drugs (Scotland) Act 1956. I know that Lord Stodart's Committee dealt fully with this matter and I shall not pursue the contrary views upon which I have received a considerable volume of mail from a variety of sources, not only from consumers' associations and the Scottish Consumer Council but from the CBI, the Retail Consortium, the Food Manufacturers Association and the Food and Drinks Industry Council. Something I will say about this opposition is that I hope that the Government have given the fullest consideration to it and, in spite of the recommendations of Lord Stodart's Committee, that they have given due weight to these views. I will not pursue it here because it is essentially a matter for Committee.
I have only three short points that I wish to make. First of all, it has been said that one of the main objectives of the Bill is to bring more discipline into the system of local government finance. On the face of it, that might appear a worthy enough objective. After all, we know quite well that staffing levels in some quarters of local government have become out of hand; we know that some authorities have been extravagant. Nevertheless, Part I of the Bill has roused the ire of the Labour Party and they have described this Part as the culmination of the most severe governmental attack that local democracy has ever known.
1313 If there is truth in that, the simple fact—and we have touched on this in earlier debates on other Bills—is that the first step in that attack was taken in the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1966, passed under that Labour Government, of which both the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, and myself were members. As I see it, having set out on that path in 1966, it was well-nigh inevitable that we would finish up with Part I of this Bill unless some succeeding Government recognised the need for a radically different approach, recognised that the need was not so much for more discipline in the system of local government finance—however desirable that in itself might be—as for a more sensible method of local government finance, which was the point forcefully made by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie.
My second point derives from the argument which sometimes seems to be fashionable, as to whether our Government flourishes better with consensus or with confrontation; and we were all enormously diverted when recently Mr. Edward Heath took issue with the Prime Minister herself on this matter. Their argument of course missed the point, because the truth, as most Scottish schoolboys—and all Members of the Social Democratic Party—know, is that in government there is a time and a place for consensus and a time and a place for confrontation. The ultimate test of political wisdom is in choosing which is appropriate to a particular time or place. My point is that of late years there has been in Scotland far too much confrontation between local and central Government, and it is time that this was reduced. This Bill will, if anything, tend to add to it.
My third point, which follows from that, is that to reduce this confrontation we should be seeking a clearer definition of the relationship between local government and central government; and it is the lack of such a clear definition that is one of the root causes of the troubles of local authorities in Scotland. I think it is a pity that this Bill contributes nothing at all to that end.
§ 3.5 p.m.
§ Lord Drumalbyn
My Lords, the tone of this debate so far has been extremely interesting and provocative of thought, but not particularly of debate. I do not myself propose to debate the matters that have been raised today because a miscellaneous provisions Bill of this kind is essentially one that covers provisions—I was going to say a hotch-potch—which are loosely related and not closely connected.
We start with the provisions in Clauses 1 to 4, which really have nothing to do with the report of the Stodart Committee. These matters are anything but popular—I do not suppose they are popular anywhere—but the Government justify them, no doubt rightly, on the grounds of necessity. I have no doubt that my noble friend, when he replies, will argue the case—if he does that today and does not postpone it until the next stage—on those grounds.
The Bill and its provisions could be described as a holding operation. I do not think the provisions would be tolerable in any other form, because we are awaiting some kind of re-organisation of local government finance. But holding operations, by their very nature, cannot be held for very long and therefore I think it is extremely important that we should get 1314 on with what the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, was talking about, and that is some fundamental re-organisation of the financing of local government.
My noble friend, in introducing this Bill, did so extremely lucidly and he packed a very great deal into a speech of, I think, 26 minutes. But in consequence of that, of course, he went fairly quickly and naturally we shall have to consider very carefully what he has said. In a way, the gist of what he said about the rest of the Bill after the first four clauses was that the aim of the Government was to make sure that in local government we make the very best use of the staff rather than reducing their numbers. That is one purpose of the Bill, and I am sure we would all agree with it.
As to the theme, if I may so call it, of the Stodart Report, I suppose it was dominated by the intention to get rid of "looseness at the edges" as between one tier of Government and another, and especially to get rid, as far as possible, of concurrent powers; that is to say, the parallel powers which are to be replaced by a concentration power in a particular tier, to be aided where necessary by the other tier and other agencies or bodies.
On the matters that arise, we have already had reference to planning and industry, and I am sure these will play a large part in our discussions on the Committee State. Other matters which will arise on a much less elevated scale are the question of roads, including private roads; the question of oil pollution, which has not been mentioned and which needs to be looked at fairly carefully in relation to national policies in that regard, and tourism which is a very important matter for Scotland.
May I say in passing that the problem here has been very largely the question of funding. My noble friend Lord Glenkinglas is very well aware from his experience of the difficulties of funding in the tourist industry, not least when he moved from being Secretary of State for Scotland to being President of the Board of Trade. We shall have to look at this, because although the ATOs are an attractive idea, they obviously give rise to particular difficulties in eliciting the necessary contributions to make them effective, and also in getting a fairly even standard of administration. There are two points which I would just add to the end of that list and which have not been mentioned. One sees towards the end of the report the question of the remuneration of local authority members, and what is briefly referred to as the dual mandate; that is, membership of both regional and district councils. I am sure that we shall want to discuss those also, probably towards the end of our proceedings.
Reference has already been made by the noble Lord, Lord Ross, who made a very cogent and pungent speech, as he generally does, to which I hope he will get full answers, and also by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilson of Langside, to a comparatively minor question which has probably aroused almost more representations from outside organisations than any other single question. I refer to the subject which is covered in Clause 20 and which is dealt with in chapter 13; that is, the question of food standards, composition and labelling.
There is only one point which I should like to make about this. It seems as if it is all against the report. 1315 I am quite certain that there must have been good reasons for the committee being unanimous in making their recommendation, but one has to pit against that the fact of the unanimity of most bodies outside, including the Consumer Council. I would urge the Government and, in particular, the Minister who has to decide on this matter, to meet the Institute of Trading Standards Administration for Scotland, the Scottish Consumer Council, the Retail Consortium, the Food Manufacturers' Federation and any other bodies that want to be met, because I do not think that the committee, or for that matter the Government, have understood the case that has been put against their recommendation. I hope that this will be done between now and the next stage.
It would be fair to summarise the tenor of the recommendations that have been made, and the way in which the committee approached their task, which deserves every commendation as does the excellent report, as being that changes should be made in accordance with their remit as regards transfer of functions, or the rationalisation of functions, only when they will result in economy, in greater efficiency or in a better service being given to the public, not least in their capacity as consumers and recipients of services. This is what we should aim for. I do not think that we should make changes unless that criterion is met. Not enough is being done for a change to be desired. That is a highly subjective approach. We want to do rather better than that and to have a firmer basis for the changes which we make. All I would add is that for my part I should prefer the progress of this Bill not to be inhibited by the four clauses which will obviously be contested and that we should have really good consideration of the various proposals, many of them very sensible proposals, which are contained in the Bill.
§ 3.15 p.m.
§ Lord Mottistone
My Lords, before addressing your Lordships I should make the point that I seem to be the only Englishman daring to speak among a crowd of Scots. However, may I remind noble Lords that I am half-Scots and only one-quarter English. My only concern relates to Clause 20, about which many other noble Lords have spoken. In speaking about Clause 20, I must declare an interest in that I am employed by two food processing trade associations. I am advised on the matter by the Food and Drink Industries Council, which represents all food and drink matters, with the exception of Scotch whisky, in the whole of the United Kingdom, and by the Retail Consortium and by the Institute of Trading Standards Administration. With great deference to my noble friend Lord Stodart, whose report was, I thought, excellent (even though half a Scot) I question the reasons given in paragraph 163 to 167 of his committee's report. It recommended a shift of responsibility for food standards, composition and labelling from regions to districts. I would also question—as did my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn—whether the Stodart Committee inquired widely enough from those concerned. In Appendix A of the evidence there is no mention of evidence being taken from either the Food and Drink Industries Council or from the Retail Consortium.
§ Lord Mottistone
I could not find any. These bodies represent both Scottish as well as other United Kingdom interests. It may be that they should have kept their eyes better open. The committee should also have taken steps to ensure a full balance of opinion.
It is clear from paragraph 161 of the report that the consumer protection and trading standards interest wanted to retain the status quo but that the districts—mainly, it seems, the big urban districts—wanted the position to be changed in their favour. If the Bill is not amended, there will be an increase in the number of food authorities from 12 to 53 which will provide enforcement of regulations relating to food standards, composition and labelling. This can only make far harder the problem of ensuring uniformity. This is of particular importance because of the introduction during 1982 of new labelling regulations to conform with a new EEC directive introducing harmonisation for this subject.
To sum up, as with so many other matters where a balance has to be struck, the subject under discussion—food labelling and standards—comes between food hygiene and safety, which rightly stays with the district, and consumer protection, which rightly stays with the region. There is insufficient evidence from all the parties involved—and I repeat "from all the parties involved"—to justify a switch. Thus the status quo should be maintained, with the added benefit that the arrangements will be similar to those in England and Wales, with which co-ordination needs to be effected.
In the case of consumer protection, the clinching arguments for maintaining the status quo seem to have been those in paragraphs 170 and 71 of the report of the committee of my noble friend Lord Stodart of Leaston. Here, the Society of Scottish Directors of Consumer protection, in referring particularly to the new average weights regulations comments:The EEC is harmonising legislation regulating trading standdards and practices. This requires a uniform approach and interpretation, which is much more easily met by the present number of top tier authorities".Exactly—and I repeat "exactly"—the same arguments apply to the enforcement of the new labelling regulations.
It may be asked why no consumer organisation made the point to my noble friend's committee at the time. I suspect that that was because, when his committee was sitting, the average weights legislation was under public consideration. Your Lordships may remember that my honourable friend Mrs. Sally Oppenheim, when in Opposition, had expressed dislike for the average weights legislation and then found herself having to introduce it when she got into Government. So it was very public. The labelling legislation, however, was at that time still at the stage of discussion between the Government and industry and had not made its impact on consumers.
I take heart that my noble friend Lord Drumalbyn has suggested that the Government need to consult rather more fully with the interests involved. I take 1317 heart that the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, is a supporter of the cause of the reasons for retaining this responsibility, even if my noble friend Lord Stodart of Leaston is right and he is a convert to the cause. I took some consolation from what was said by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilson of Langside, who was very uncertain about his support but who clearly mentioned that there were a lot of people who objected to the proposals in the Bill. I hope that I shall perhaps have support from the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, when it comes to the next stage of the Bill.
In conclusion, I hope that the Government will take another look at this matter and will consider the advisability of amending the opening paragraph of Clause 20 and of removing Clause 20(a).
§ 3.23 p.m.
§ Lord Hughes
My Lords, I should like to start my remarks by thanking the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, for the very clear way in which he explained the purposes of the Bill to us. I should like to associate myself with what the noble Earl said in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Stodart of Leaston—thanks which have been repeated by almost everyone else who has spoken on the Bill—for the way in which his committee worked and the fact that the bulk of the Bill is based on the recommendations of that committee.
As the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, made quite clear, Parts II and III are matters on which there will be disagreement in this House, but I venture to suggest that they will not be matters on which we will divide on Party lines. We may be divided inside parties, but I hope the result of that will be to produce that I believe we all want to see—an improvement in the working of present local government machinery. That does not necessarily mean that we approve of it, because as the noble Lord, Lord Stodart of Leaston said, one of the things which emerged from his committee was that there was little enthusiasm in Scotland for the two-tier system. I may say that I had been expressing a view to his committee, the noble Lord would not have found any enthusiasm from me on that subject either. However, we have to work with what we have got. I think, therefore, that what Lord Stodart's committee suggested, and what the Government have produced in Parts II and III, will, undoubtedly, after proper consideration at the next stage and succeeding stages of the Bill, be an improvement in the working of local government in Scotland.
My Lords, I think it was Lord Drumalbyn who referred to the speed at which the Minister had spoken. I may say, having regard to the fact that I am interested in the times of the shuttles to Scotland, I have no objection to him speaking quickly; I was able to follow what he said; he was not speaking too quickly for me to take it in. Nevertheless, as in all of these cases, I will read in due course what has been said.
I want to start off with those items in the Bill about which I am particularly happy. I think the first one which will be a matter of gratification to all of us and to many people outside the House is Clause 47, with the improvement which this makes in relation to the procedure for disabled people getting improvement grants, even although that may involve a repetition 1318 which previously would have been ruled out. That, I think, is a very desirable change.
Another item, to which little reference has been made, is in Clause 54, where there is extended to Scotland the provision which has existed in England for some time of enabling a councillor to choose financial loss allowance instead of attendance allowance. I think that is something which will be generally welcomed by councillors.
In Clause 6, which is one of the items on which we will not have agreement, I accept what is in that clause. I like it, and I hope I am not being unduly biased in this because of my position as chairman of a new town development corporation, the views of which I must not express here. But it is generally accepted by those who are seeking to promote inward investment in Scotland that there was need for concentrating these in fewer hands than has been the position; Locate in Scotland, SDA, the regional authorities, the new town development corporations I think can effectively tackle this work.
In agreeing with this, I note the point which my noble friend Lord Ross of Marnock expressed about a possible limitation of what the district councils may say in pursuit of their part in industrial development. I hope he is wrong in his fear that Glasgow, for instance, would not be able to take people out to Loch Lomond side. I did not read that into the Bill, but of course it is possible that it could be so. I hope that the Minister will make it perfectly clear—he has already indicated by movement of his head what the answer is going to be—but I hope he will make it clear for the record.
I now come to points about which I am not so happy. It will not surprise the Minister to know that I do not like Clause 1, but I will leave that for the end of my remarks. On Clause 4, I accept that it is desirable to extend this derating to outside plant. I hope that the Government are not sticking to the line which they adopted in another place, that this is merely a matter for a readjustment of the rating burden and that there is to be no additional Government money. The loss of rates has been estimated at some £27 million, and that, of course, as my noble friend Lord Ross of Marnock has pointed out, will fall into particular areas. It is not uniform over Scotland. If it was it would not be so important. But it will be in Orkney, Shetland, and in the central region of Scotland largely, and then to a more limited extent in Strathclyde.
On the one hand, it may be that all that is being done is that the authorities who lose this £27 million will either have to increase their rates substantially to make it up or be faced with the possibility of cutting their expenditure £27 million beyond anything that the Government contemplate at the present time. If, on the other hand, it is being spread over the rest of the ratepayers in Scotland, then it is quite unreasonable that these authorities should have their rate income made up at the expense of the other ratepayers throughout Scotland. I do not know what the answer to that will be, but at the very least it ought to be a sharing of the burden between the ratepayers and the taxpayers if it is not possible to reimburse the ratepayers completly However, on the subject of giving a derating I am wholly in accord with Clause 4.
1319 I come to the question of Clause 1. I am not particularly worried about Clauses 2 and 3 which really flow from Clause 1. I read what was said in another place on Second Reading on this clause and there was one remark there to which. I should like to refer. In accordance with the rules I am not allowed to quote what was said because it was not said by a Minister. Therefore, I shall neither name the Member nor use his exact words. However, what he said was typical of the views which are held on this matter. He said something to the effect that the Government had to act last year because various councils had shown that they were incapable of exercising that responsibility and it remains the duty of central Government to protect ratepayers from politically motivated over-expenditure.
What is "politically motivated over-expenditure"? What is "politically motivated expenditure"? The greater part of what the Government do in the expenditure which they embark upon is politically motivated. Much of what is done by local authorities arises from the manifestoes on which they fight elections and much of what they do, therefore, is politically motivated. The new Lothian Council in its change of attitude to what its predecessors did, are acting from political motives in seeking to reduce the expenditure which is falling on the ratepayers. So the use of this as a term almost of abuse seems to me to be wholly unrealistic.
I do not believe what has been said in many places, that this further move by the Government against local authorities in Scotland will mean the end of local democracy. It will not do so. Local government is far too inbred in us for any Government, however badly they may act, to be able to destroy local government. Local government will recover from anything which was in last year's legislation or which may emerge from this particular Clause I. But it is wholly wrong for the Government to take the step which they are proposing here to enable the Secretary of State to say, as regards particular authorities, what the local rates are going to be. That is a function of the local authority and it is quite wrong for any Minister to seek to take it over.
The Bill purports to give a certain degree of legitimacy to this right at the very beginning—and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilson of Langside, referred to this—when it points out that:In Section 5 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1966 (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 total estimated expenses of the authority are excessive and unreasonable)".The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilson, thought that that was the beginning of the road that led to the steps of last year and to the step in this Bill. I do not agree with him. Incidentally, my noble friend Lord Ross of Marnock, whose memory on these matters is infallible, tells me that it did not start in 1966, that the same power had already been taken in 1929. The differences in this connection between 1929 and 1966 and what is now proposed are very substantial.
We should remember that a very large part of local authorities' expenditure is met by Government grant and the basis for this provision in 1966, and in as many earlier Acts as there may have been, is that if the Government are picking up part of the bill, they are 1320 entitled to look at the things for which they are being asked to pay part and say whether it is all reasonable from their point of view.
I do not think that the 1966 Act power was used, except possibly on one occasion. But what was the basis on which it was to be used? It was this. If the Government took the view that a local authority was spending more than the Government thought it ought to be sharing in, it excluded from grant consideration the excess. It was then left to the local authority to face the possiblity of not undertaking that expenditure, or undertaking it wholly at the expense of the ratepayers. It was never said, "You must not do it". The Government said, "We do not think it is fair that you ask us to provide 60 per cent., 65 per cent., 70 per cent., or whatever the percentage, in rate support grant". That is a major departure from what has taken place, and I suggest it is the wrong way to do it.
We have seen the Lothian position and I think that it was a great surprise to almost everyone in Scotland after all that has been said about the Lothian Region that there was, in fact, so little difference at the end of the day in the composition of the authority. But I suggest—and I have not consulted anyone about this so I am not speaking for anybody but myself—that the remedy is not for the Government to tell local authorities how much they may spend or to tell them what they may levy on their ratepayers. The Government have the right to say how much they will contribute, and they can do it in two ways: by limiting the percentage of grant or by excluding from the aggregate expenditure anything which they think is excessive or unreasonable. Beyond that, I do not think that the Government have the right to go.
But the ratepayers have an interest in it. They may be interested in what the local authority is doing from two points of view. They may be interested from the point of view that they are being asked to pay far too much in rates; or they may be interested from the point of view that they do not think that they are getting the sort of services which they need. The second one obviously means that there would be more expenditure. The first one may mean that there will be fewer services. Either way, it is a matter for the electors to decide what they want.
One of the difficulties of the reorganisation is that we now have authorities which are elected for four years. Under the old set-up—and this was one of the things which went with reorganisation and I think that it was a mistake—we had annual elections, and if a local authority (and Lothian is one of these authorities) was doing something very much against the wishes of its ratepayers, they had an opportunity a year or two years later, depending on how long it took to work through, to get rid of that authority. Now the ratepayers have to wait four years and if they are getting a service which is inadequate and they would like to see more being done, or if they are having to pay more for things than they wish to pay, it is not reasonable that they should have to wait four years in order to have the matter remedied.
Within the present set-up I do not think that it would be possible to go back to annual elections, but under the present system we have elections every second year. In one of these elections the regional council is being elected for four years; in the other election the 1321 district council is being elected for four years. I have never understood why it was necessary to do it in that particular way. The assumption was apparently that the average elector was so dumb that he could not possibly elect people to both authorities at the same time. I suggest that there is no reason for that being continued. I would suggest that it would enable overspending, or the under-provision of services, to be dealt with in the ordinary machinery of government if we embarked on a change in the set up, with half of each council coming up for re-election, so that we have elections every second year.
It will not involve any more people going to the poll than at present, but it means they will be electing members to the regional authority and the district authority at the same time. If this is done, then there is no authority which is going to get away with acting totally outwith the wishes of its electors probably for more than a year, because at least a year of its term will have elapsed before it begins to emerge exactly how far out of touch it may be with what is being done.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord would agree with my point that there are a large number of electors who are not ratepayers, and a large number of ratepayers who are not electors.
§ Lord Hughes
Yes, my Lords, that is so, and it may well be that the proposals about which the Government have been floating ideas may take care of some of that. I would remind the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, that, while the industrialist or the commercial enterprise can set off its rate against corporation tax, the domestic ratepayer cannot set off his rates payment against income tax. It might be worth looking at how much Government grant could be reduced if everybody was allowed to set off his rates expenditure against his tax liability. As I do not know what the sums would he, I am not putting that forward as a suggestion, but it might be something worth looking at.
I am totally opposed to Clause 1 because I think it is the wrong way of doing it. I have suggested an alternative way which would rest on the machinery which we know, where the people who pay the bill or want the services are the ones who will either confirm folk in office or throw them out of office. It is not for the Government to take over that decision from the ratepayers.
§ 3.43 p.m.
§ The Earl of Mansfield
My Lords, may I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, which predictably has ranged fairly widely. The first thing I ought to say before the noble Lord, Lord Ross, has to depart—and I may say that he was courteous enough to send me a note saying that he has come under pressure—concerns the timing of this debate. Of course, it would be very nice if the Second Reading had occurred early, immediately after Starred Questions. But the combination of animals and sex, as the noble Lord quite rightly observed, is absolutely irresistible to the English and therefore we have been unfortunately relegated to the mid-afternoon. All I will say to the noble Lord is that if one took this as being a normal Thursday and not the last day of term, as it were, then we would be 1322 lucky indeed to have any Scottish business at a quarter to four, and the trains still running and I hope very much the planes still flying—the workers at Heathrow permitting.
I shall try to answer a fair number of the points which have been put to me because—I say this in hope rather than in expectation—it might conceivably lessen our labours to some extent in Committee. Quite apart from that, the points which were made deserve an answer in many cases. If I do not answer every point that every noble Lord has made, it is not because the point was not valid. I shall look at the Official Report. I may well write to the noble Lord concerned, but apart from that we can easily return to some of the more detailed points in Committee.
The noble Lord, Lord Ross, began by asking, in effect, about the finance for this measure of re-organisation as between the regions and districts. We have made it plain that no extra resources will be made available by the Government. Nevertheless, we are discussing with local authorities whether, and if so what, changes in the distribution of rate support grant may be desirable, and those conversations are, of course, going on with the convention.
The noble Lord then came to the most contentious part of the Bill, Part I, and I appreciate that he and the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, feel strongly about that; it is probably the only part of the Bill on which a real party political note will be heard. I will not repeat the arguments I have made on that both on this Bill and the last. I think it right to say that, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, inferred, the raising of rates and the question who pays what have become thoroughly out of balance, and I shall return to that. Above all, the fact remains that the Government—I say the Government, meaning of course t he taxpayer—pay 60 per cent. of the sum.
Therefore, when one talks about local democracy and the freedom of local authorities to raise what rates they like—on the basis that their local citizenry will have the privilege of paying, and equally will have the privilege of turning them out of office when the elective opportunity presents itself—that is not the whole of the argument. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, said, a large proportion of them do not pay rates at all, and a large proportion of those who do, such as the various firms, are in no position to cavil by recording their vote in a certain way at a local election.
The noble Lord, Lord Ross, asked the direct question: what will happen to other planned expenditure of other regional councils, and indeed of district councils? It is right to point out that Lothian's excess over the guidelines is the highest for all the regions and Stirling's excess is the highest for all the districts. The budgets of the remaining Scottish local authorities are still under consideration. I will not comment on the speculation there has been in some newspapers about what further selective action my right honourable friend may take. No decisions have been made. We are, of course, giving the matter very close consideration.
The noble Lord then raised the question of Clause 4, as did the noble Lord, Lord Hughes. That relates to the derating, in effect, of plant and machinery out of doors. I would remind the House that a consultation paper was issued to the convention, the CBI in Scotland and the Scottish Assessors' Association on 1323 16th April of this year. Chapter 7 of that document invites comments on a number of issues, particularly the means by which an equitable distribution of the rate burden can best be achieved following de-rating. Consultations on that and other issues will continue. We hope that by early autumn, recommendations can be made as to the content of the next industrial de-rating order and on the form of any compensation, through rate support grant to authorities, which will be required. The point of all this is that the Government consider that the earliest date for derating plant and machinery is 1st April 1983. If such a deadline is to be met, obviously we must have rapid action on the matter, and that is why it is being taken forward in the way that it is.
The next matter which the noble Lord, Lord Ross—
§ Lord Hughes
My Lords, will the noble Earl permit me to interrupt? Before he leaves that point, he mentioned that in the discussions the question of compensation would arise. The Financial Memorandum to the Bill contemplates that there is to be no additional expenditure. So how does the noble Earl reconcile the possibility of the Government paying more in grant with the statement that there will be no additional expenditure?
§ The Earl of Mansfield
My Lords, I did not say that. What I intended to imply was compensation in the sense of a readjustment as between one payer and another; compensation for unfairness, not compensation in cash terms. I hope that that now makes it plain. It may not be satisfactory to the noble Lord, but I hope that at least it is plain.
I now come to the next point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ross. It is an indication of the breadth of Scottish legislation that he was in effect complaining that at any rate to him districts busy in the business of attracting future occupiers of their factories and so on seemingly might not be able to entertain would-be customers to golf courses, such as Troon, and apparently to picnics on the banks of Loch Lomond. Districts will be able to advertise and publicise the sites and premises which they own, and of course they can do anything which is incidental in such publicity. As the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, quite properly pointed out, it would be perfectly proper to take prospective clients on the kind of jaunts which the noble Lord, Lord Ross, was so keen about.
The noble Lord then rapidly moved to the question of football grounds. Of course I appreciate that some football clubs are in financial difficulties, and I shall not go into any reasons for that. There are anomalies which operate as between all ratepayers and one type of ratepayer and another—it was in the context of rates that the noble Lord was addressing the question—and that is why we have published the Green Paper on alternatives to rates, and that is what we shall be busying ourselves with over the coming months. But the anomalies are nothing to do with this Bill and they do not arise from it. Perhaps I need not say more than that.
Then the noble Lord, Lord Ross, turned his attentions to the Bill's provisions on tourism, and it is fair 1324 to say that a number of noble Lords made observations about this. My noble friend Lord Stodart of Leaston naturally was piqued that we had not accepted his recommendation in effect to give powers to the Scottish Tourist Board to promote abroad. There are considerable merits to the argument and I do not particularly want to go into them here. One reason why I say this is that if any noble Lord were minded to put down an amendment in this respect in Committee, it would be totally outside the scope of the Bill. Nevertheless no doubt that will not stop the House from debating the matter fully on the question that the clause stand part. But I do not intend to go into that particular argument here, except to say, should any noble Lord care to know, that there was a very interesting and useful short debate in another place on a Private Member's Bill on 27th February 1981. My honourable friend Mr. Rifkind, who was then an Under-Secretary at the Scottish Office, I thought replied compellingly and well to the points which were raised.
The matter cannot be left there, because one of the questions which Lord Ross asked was, in effect: does the development of the area tourist office, the ATO system, mean that tourist functions will pass out of the control of local authorities into the hands of non-elected bodies? Because that is what the ATOs will be in part. The experience of the Highlands Board has shown that ATOs are in fact local partnerships, and involve all those who are engaged in the industry—the trade, the local authorities and, not least in the future, the Scottish Tourist Board—and each has a valuable input to make. In tourism, everything depends, I believe—and experience shows—upon co-operation and the pooling of resources, and all those at the sharp end of tourism have a contribution to make and a part to play. The local authority will benefit immensely, I think, from the trade involvement in terms of expertise and, more especially, in term of finance.
So the ATOs' main function will be to improve visitor services, and they will also market the local area. However, they are not going to be the start and finish of tourism. There will be other and equally crucial tasks outside the ATO system which will have to be carried on by the trade and, of course, by the local authorities alone, and not least by the tourist operators. But we think that the noble Lord's report was right in its recommendations and that the provisions in this Bill should go far to improve the structure and performance of Scottish tourism.
My Lords, I have declined to travel the road down which the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, went, which really was not so much to argue the merits or lack of them of this Bill but to go into very much wider topics on the whole structure and, indeed, the fabric of local government, proportional representation and other such topics which are always of interest to the Liberal Party and, apparently now, to the Social Democrats. But that is the first and only time I shall make any party political reference, at least in this speech; that is, unless I am interrupted.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilson of Langside, raised the matter of Clause 20, as did my noble friend Lord Mottistone. We have taken a great deal of stock, in the sense that there have been a great many consultations over this matter. My ministerial colleagues in 1325 another place have met representatives of the CBI and have listened to their arguments; my officials have met representatives of the Scottish Consumer Council, the Retail Consortium and the Food Manufacturers' Federation; and the matter was ventilated at very considerable length in another place. As of now, we are still convinced that the purpose of Clause 20 is right; but, of course, having said that, naturally we shall be open to any further argument which is adduced in this House. I say this because, if it is laid at the Government's door that we have rushed headlong into legislation without consultation, without thought and without taking stock in the way that I have said, that will be quite wrong.
Finally, or penultimately at any rate, I come again to the matter of rates, because it was also raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilson. The Green Paper is a joint publication by my right honourable friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland, for Wales and for the Environment. It was published last December in response to a commitment on the part of the Government to consider the extent of inequities in the way in which local revenue is raised through the rates. The paper offers a number of alternatives. I will not go into them now. It does not favour any particular alternative or combination of options, but it considers a number of implications. Comments were invited by 31st March. These have now been received and are being carefully considered. Our aim is to produce proposals for a system which would remedy as fully as possible the shortcomings of the existing system of domestic rating which would command the widest possible acceptance in the country; and for that end we shall continue to strive.
I am grateful to noble Lords who took part in the debate. I shall study what they have said and I look forward—I will not say "with relish"—with keen anticipation to future debates at later stages of this Bill.
§ On Question, Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.