HL Deb 05 July 1984 vol 454 cc407-11

3.31 p.m.

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

My Lords, it might be for the convenience of the House if I were to make a very brief Statement about the Local Government (Interim Provisions) Bill. The Government have decided to table an amendment to the Bill at the Report stage to the effect that the present members of the Greater London Council and the metropolitan county councils will continue in office until 1986 but without elections next year. At the same time, further provisions will be introduced to prevent unreasonable actions by the outgoing authorities.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Viscount for making the Statement, especially in view of the accumulating press reports about the position. We are gratified that the result of the Division on 28th June has caused the Government to a significant extent to accept the views of the House in this matter. We are nevertheless disappointed that elections are not to be held and we shall clearly have to reserve our position until we have had an opportunity to consider the amendments in detail after they have been tabled.

Will the noble Viscount be kind enough to answer the following brief questions? First, when exactly will the amendments be tabled? We hope it will be very early next week so that we may appraise ourselves of the Government's exact intention.

Secondly, can he confirm that there will be no interim commissions or other interim bodies as a result of the amendments? Can he clarify further what is meant by the words in the Statement, "going on into 1986"? What precisely is the meaning of those words? Will the Bill further enable by-elections to be held for any reason? Lastly, going back to the Statement, the noble Viscount also used these words in the Statement: "unreasonable actions". Will he be good enough to say what is the significance of those words and what exactly they mean?

Lord Diamond

My Lords, perhaps I may say that we on these Benches are most grateful to the noble Viscount for two reasons: first, for his courtesy in making the Statement and, secondly, for the further evidence which he has shown ever since he became our Leader—I hope the House will permit me to use the phrase "our Leader"—of his willingness to listen to the views of your Lordships' House, especially when they are expressed with great clarity, and to carry them favourably with his colleagues in the Cabinet.

It is a short Statement, but I take it to be a clear acknowledgement that this House has been carrying out its proper and very important constitutional function. The questions that arise are, first, as has already been stated, in relation to the date. It has many implications, as the noble Viscount will immediately appreciate, both as to the length of the period and as to what might be the situation in regard to the main legislation going through this House. I should be grateful, therefore, if he would say as much as he can as to what is meant by the words "going into 1986".

So far as our general view of the Statement is concerned, I am bound to say that there are many aspects which require careful consideration. The Government have given this matter careful consideration before making the Statement. Indeed, they have taken, in all the circumstances, a very full time to do it. I think it would be very appropriate that we should reciprocate that and give the Statement the courtesy it requires of very careful consideration.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their reception of the Statement, which I felt it right to make, even though of course it is somewhat exceptional because statements of this sort are not normally made in these conditions; but I thought it was right on this occasion.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, I am grateful that he feels that some progress has been made. It was my clear view, after the debate last week, that the nominated transitional councils were much disliked by many noble Lords in all parts of the House. It was felt that nominated transitional councils, which in one case would have changed control, were, democratically, not something that should be done.

I represented to my colleagues that this was a very strong view of this House and, while I fully appreciate that other consideration will be given to the Statement I have made and its implications for our Report stage, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, for having said that I represented this to my colleagues as being the view of this House. I believe it showed that attention was being paid to the view of this House on a very important matter which many noble Lords expressed.

On the particular points that the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked me, first, I understand that the amendments will probably be tabled on Wednesday. If they can be tabled earlier they will be. I cannot guarantee it, but the best evidence I have at the moment is that they will be tabled on Wednesday. I hope that that will be felt to be in good time to consider them before the Report stage next Monday. If I can do better than that, I will, and I shall be extremely angry if I do not do as well as that: I shall make every effort so to do.

As I have stated, the interim commissions, the transitional councils, have been dropped as an idea, and I know that will be welcomed, at least in many parts of the House.

The phrase "into 1986" basically means April, when the borough council elections would take place. I think it is right to use the phrase "into 1986" because in these new circumstances there may now be various transitional arrangements which ought to be looked at very carefully; but basically April is what is meant.

The Bill will enable by-elections to be held; and, so far as "unreasonable actions" are concerned, your Lordships did consider one such proposal in the paving Bill during the Committee stage this week. I think I should confine myself at this stage to saying that the amendments will have to be looked at in detail when they come, and they will cover such "unreasonable actions" as asset stripping and long-term contracts of a major order which might prejudice the position of successor councils.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, and to the points I have not answered so far, April 1986 is basically the time. I am, as I said earlier, very grateful to the noble Lord. Having said that careful consideration should be given to these amendments, I hope that, having taken this somewhat exceptional step by way of informing your Lordships at the first opportunity—despite all the speculation—when the Government had taken a firm position, your Lordships would feel it would be best to leave detailed discussion to the time when the amendments have been tabled and the Bill comes up for discussion on the Report stage.

Lord Alport

My Lords—

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords—

Noble Lords

Alport! Alport!

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, will my noble friend bear in mind that, as we have received three positive expressions of support, it may well be helpful to have a negative? Is my noble friend aware that there will be acute disappointment that the Government have capitulated so soon? Will my noble friend bear in mind that the House on Second Reading gave a majority of 20 to show that the general line was the one the House wanted? To capitulate merely on the result of the first amendment, when we have still the Report stage to go through, is too early a capitulation to bring about happiness among the people who thought that the Government were right. Is my noble friend aware that the grudging acceptance of his Statement by the Benches opposite is so grudging that he has not got out of the problems? Could we still retain our final decision until the end of the Report stage, when the House as a whole could give its final decision rather than capitulating now, so early?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, my noble friend is of course entirely entitled to his view, but I cannot accept the word "capitulation". If I were to accept the word "capitulation", it would mean that I, as Leader of this House and certainly as a Member of the Cabinet, took the view that on no occasion should this House be allowed to change something in a Government Bill, and I do not take that view. I take the view that this House has a role to play. I take the view that it is my job to represent that view to my colleagues in the Cabinet. If my colleagues in the Cabinet agree with me, good. If they do not, very well. It would be absurd to say that my colleagues in the Cabinet always agree with me, but on this occasion they did.

It is my job as Leader of the House simply to put forward what were expressed as the views of many people in all parts of the House, that the transitional councils seemed to them undemocratic; and my colleagues accepted that that was the view of the House. It was a view so strongly held that it would be unwise and, in my judgment, wrong to seek to reverse it. That is why this amendment will be put down. I quite understand that my noble friend may feel differently, but I hope he will think carefully about what I have said.

Lord Molson

My Lords, I am unable to agree with my noble friend Lord Harmar-Nicholls in his interpretation of the right procedure in this House. I do not claim to speak for anybody except myself, although it may be that my views are shared by a number of my noble friends who found themselves unable to follow the Government last Thursday. I should like to congratulate the Government upon the response which they have made to the expression of your Lordships' opinion. It shows strength and not weakness to heed reasoned argument, especially relating to important constitutional principles.

I should like to express my gratitude—and I believe that of a number of my noble friends—to the Leader of the House at the way in which he has handled this, matter. In the short time that he has been Leader of this House he has shown understanding, sympathy, flexibility, and above all wisdom. Those are the qualities that make for a successful Leader—and never more than in this last matter, the most difficult that he had had to deal with. I thank him very much for the way in which he has I know personally intervened in order to represent the views of what was—whatever my noble friend Lord Harmar-Nicholls may say—the expressed majority of this House in a critical Division. I read in the newspapers that Mr. Kenneth Livingstone declares that no settlement such as this was in your Lordships' minds when you voted as you did on 28th June. This is a flat contradiction of the dictum of a medieval judge: The Devil himself knows not the thoughts in the mind of man.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, perhaps I should simply say to my noble friend that I paid considerable attention to his speech and to what he said. He has made so many kind remarks about me that I think the best thing I can do is to put them in the bank quickly, so that I shall have a little credit before I begin to lose it again.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, as I was involved in this Bill, may I also underline what my noble friends have said about the courtesy of the Leader of the House in coming to the House and being extremely helpful? But I should like to ask him a couple of questions. The Statement itself says "into 1986". In answering questions, the Leader said that it was basically April. Is it not unlikely that the Government will be able to complete this extraordinarily complex process of abolishing the metropolitan counties and the GLC in what will be less than a year, and if it goes on afterwards it could be as much as 18 months, when the same councillors will be in situ without any elections?

I must point out that there has been no precedent for this. Under the 1972 Local Government Act, the elections went ahead, but they were cancelled in 1973 after the legislation had been passed. We on these Benches feel that Parliament is still being treated with contempt since the order to cancel the elections will be made before the passage of the main Bill; and the cancelling of elections is, in itself, a very disturbing constitutional departure. I must say we feel that strongly and I have to say so.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I understand what the noble Baroness has said. I do not think it would be appropriate for me to get into the arguments today, and she will not expect me to do so. The moment to do that is when we come to the Report stage. There are precedents for postponing elections in this way. April seems to be a reasonable date. I have said "into 1986", and given the target of April. I accept that there will be transitional arrangements to be made. I trust that the main legislation will pass through Parliament in the next Session. That is certainly the Government's intention. I think that at this stage I should say no more.

Lord Alport

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether the Government have given any thought to the holding of the elections for the ILEA? Does my noble friend realise that, in order to have an effective transfer of responsibility between the present ILEA and the newly-elected one, it is important that the elections for the new ILEA should take place at least six months before the present ILEA goes out of existence? This is extremely important—if I may impress it on my noble friend—for the official administration of education in this great City of London.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. No doubt my noble friend saw that I was in discussion, very properly, with my noble friend the Minister of State. I was wanting to be informed fully of what happened at the Committee stage when my noble friend moved his amendment on this subject. We shall study what was said then. We are considering the situation which that produced, and at Report stage we shall come back with a clear indication of what we intend.

Lord Broxbourne

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend a different, narrower but, I think, not unimportant question? In an earlier answer he gave illustrations of what might constitute unreasonable conduct. Would he advise his colleagues to be very careful in the drafting of their amendments, having regard to the maxim governing the construction and interpretation of our statute law that the expression of one excludes the other, not unduly to narrow the application of unreasonable conduct in this context?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend, who has considerable knowledge of these matters. I was giving only one example precisely for that purpose. I thought it was right to come back at Report stage with a clear indication of exactly what is intended. I expect many noble Lords in all parts of the House will think that what we produce is thoroughly reasonable in the circumstances; but, obviously, the legal aspect of this, and exactly how it is done, requires very considerable consideration.

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