§ 3.16 p.m.
§ Baroness Birk rose to call attention to relations between central and local government; and to move for papers.
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, may I first welcome the return of the noble Earl, Lord Avon, to the Department of the Environment in a higher elevation, and to say, as I said when I wrote to him, that I wish him well but when it comes to work—not too well, just well.
§ In calling attention to relations between central and local government, it would have been very encouraging to find that everything was flourishing in the municipal garden. Alas! nothing could be further from the truth. The tendrils of central Government are strangling the roots of local government. Of course, it is true that never is all sweetness and light and that some tension is a natural part of the creative process of checks and balances in our democracy. But that tension has degenerated into what is virtually becoming a civil war in this country—a breakdown in communication between our central Government and local councils, with a strong shift in the balance of decision-making.
§ More and more, central Government is arrogating to itself decisions traditionally the province of elected local authorities. Coming from a Government whose Prime Minister is always saying that things should be devolved and that people should be given the opportunity to do things on their own and with independence, it seems strange to find in fact that the move and turn towards the centre is becoming stronger and stronger.
§ Since 1979, this Government have enacted a series of Bills fundamentally affecting local government. In doing so, they have promoted a curious linguistic mumbo-jumbo. We are cluttered up with words like "targets", "GREAs", "block grant holdback" and "rate capping". These do nothing, I think, for local government. They do even less for the English language. The screw has been tightened annually. The slippery slope began when the Government decided to control local expenditure rather than to influence it, as in the past.
§ In the past, the Government had been prepared to influence expenditure but not to control it in the way that they do today. Hence we saw the Local Government, Planning and Land Act of 1980 which enabled the Government to concern themselves with the spending of individual local authorities rather than the totals, which had been the practice in the past. This was taken a step further by the Local Government Finance Act 1982 which gave power to set targets and created heavy penalties for individual authorities.321
§ The slippery slope then led to rate capping—not just of the 18 authorities which are likely to be rate-capped in 1985–86 but also, as we warned when the Rates Bill was going through this House, to a control over all rates and all local spending. But rate capping, with all the municipal coronaries it causes through shrinkage of services, is an irrelevance to the main drift of the Government's local government finance policies. Central-local relations are going to be put under further strain by the targets the Government have in mind for local spending.
§ The Government claim that rate capping has saved £400 million of spending, or, put another way, is likely to force £400 million of cuts. Yet these figures have to be set against the gap of £800 million, or 4 per cent., between the Government's plans for local authority spending in 1985–86 and the cost of existing policies. In 1986–87 the gap will widen to £2 billion. Therefore, rate capping is not going to deliver cuts of this magnitude. All authorities will be affected and relations between central and local government will worsen more as the Government try to impose the cuts, using increasingly severe financial mechanisms.
§ This is the sort of thing which we saw some centuries ago in relation to punishment generally: the harder the punishment the greater the deterrent, it was thought. Then, "Might as well be killed for a sheep as a lamb", was the sort of slogan that came in. That can be applied to local authorities, who feel that they are up against not a Government who are trying to help them but a real antagonist.
This is not reserved just for members of my party. A number of distinguished Conservative members of the local authority associations opposed the Government during the passage of the rate-capping Bill in this House; they were sitting on these Benches over there. One or two of them even voted with us in the Lobbies. Now that the cuts are biting, many of the Government's own supporters are complaining bitterly. In a letter to The Times today, the Conservative chairman of Buckinghamshire County Council, explaining why he is standing down from the chair next May, writes:
Right across the country prudent Conservative Councillors know their targets are unrealistic and ridiculous, and that to spend above them is inevitable if local services are not to break down or become the subject of derision".
One wonders why any Government should want to woo unpopularity in this way, particularly from members of their own party. It is not just a case of unpopularity, because in doing this they are not able to do what they have said they set out to do. In pursuing these dangerous manoeuvres the Government are under attack from a quango of their own creation—the Audit Commission. These policies, according to this government-appointed body, have actually added £1.2 billion to local rates as authorities strive to cope with the Government's chopping and changing.
§ Then take capital spending. That has had a similar removal of local discretion—another area where we have seen the whittling down of local powers. The badly battered and under-nourished housing programme has been the victim of more severe cuts than any other area of public spending. As a result of the cuts just announced by the Chancellor, the number of new homes is likely to be a quarter of the number 322 built 10 years ago. There is not much hope here for the homeless and for the overcrowded. The cuts in improvement grants will mean more dereliction and deterioration in a society where one of the things that we are all aware we are suffering from is the condition of the infrastructure—the state of our buildings, houses, roads and everything else; and at the same time unemployment in the construction industry is among the highest in this country. It really would be an Alice in Wonderland situation if it were not for the fact that it is so tragic.
§ Concern and respect used to be accorded to local government, but now functions are being taken away from it rather than remaining with it or being given to it. An example is the taking away of further education to give it to the Manpower Services Commission. This has been against the strongest protest from the Conservative Association of County Councils as well as the Labour Association of Metropolitan Authorities. Then there is the whole area of local transport and bus deregulation, which my noble friend Lord Underhill will be dealing with when he speaks later in this debate.
The theme connecting all these actions seems to be the belief that Whitehall knows best, coupled with a disdain and even, as it seems to many councillors, a contempt for local government and its 25,000 councillors. This was not always so. The Consultative Council on Local Government Finance set up by the late Anthony Crosland in 1975, when he was Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment, was a forum for consultation and partnership. After the first meeting Sir Robert Thomas, then chairman of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, said:
The amount of co-operation was very surprising. Whitehall has opened its doors to us".
Of course, again, all was not smooth all the time; one would not expect that and it would be absurd to pretend that this was so. But the leitmotifs were consensus, co-operation, sharing and consultation. That consensus has now been broken, and this is one of the most dangerous areas between local government and central Government. Co-operation has been replaced by virulent opposition, and consultation is unfortunately now considered almost a farce. The present chairman of the AMA, Councillor Jack Laydon, was reported in the current Municipal Review in these words:
We are totally dissatisfied with the present workings of the Consultative Council. With monotonous regularity Government Ministers either ignore consultation completely, presenting us with a fait accompli, or demand an instant reaction to papers on complex issues. I sometimes think it would be enough for me to send down my photograph and pin it to the back of a chair".
If members of that council can feel and talk like that, there must be something very wrong.
§ Is it any wonder that the latest addition to this unhappy chronicle of derogation of local government in this country is the major piece of legislation for this Session—the abolition of the six metropolitan counties and the GLC? Pre-1979 it would have been inconceivable that a manifesto commitment, born out of political pique—one line included in the pages of a thick manifesto—should have found its way straight into a legislative programme: a commitment without prior thought, a commitment without consultation with those involved, a commitment without the views 323 expressed by the people and organisations who would be affected. All recent major reforms of local government have been preceded by Royal Commissions, but not this one; not at all. It came straight from the manifesto into the programme—the Queen's Speech—and then into the legislative machine.
It is true that the Secretary of State, in the Financial Times of 28th October 1983, said that an inquiry was the time-honoured way to go about such a major reorganisation but that there was no case for such an inquiry when, as he said,
the course of action is already clear".
How clear is this course of action? We have yet to see the Bill, which I have no doubt the Department of the Environment is currently knitting with, I guess, many a dropped stitch. How clear is it when the White Paper Streamlining the Cities was greeted with a deafening chorus of opposition? How clear is it when a MORI poll conducted this summer showed that fewer than one in five—or 18 per cent.—approved the abolition of the metropolitan counties, while in London the latest opinion poll shows 74 per cent. against abolition?
§ This House obliged the Government in the last Session to think again and it forced them to drop the undemocratic interim councils from the paving Bill, as it was then. Now we shall be asked to accept a structure of joint boards, identical in nature to the interim councils. Indeed, in the case of both the metropolitan counties and the GLC the bulk of current expenditure—that is, around 70 per cent.—will be going to joint boards and quangos, or directly to the Secretary of State. At what price accountability here?
§ It will probably be said that the members of the joint boards will be elected, because they will have been elected by the boroughs. But we all know that it is one thing to be elected for a particular job in the boroughs within the concept of borough work, but it is quite a different thing to be almost thrown from there into a body that is concerned with strategic planning. The concepts are entirely different. To describe this as a democratic way in which to deal with the matter seems to me to be a rather odd use of the words "democracy" and "democratic". When we come to the quangos and the Secretary of State, we are getting further and further away from any democratic system at all and away from the aegis of local government. So once again we have this even stronger movement to the centre.
The chaos and complexity inherent in the Government's abolition proposals were devastatingly demonstrated in a study published this morning by PA Management, a well-known firm of consultants. Their report is based on a thorough, wide-ranging study of the Government's proposals. I should like to quote just two of their conclusions. The first conclusion is:
Overall we have been unable to find a single service where the quality of service to the local elector is likely to be improved as a result of the change in structure. In many cases we believe there will be a marked decline in quality".
I remind your Lordships that that conclusion came from an outside, objective, experienced organisation.
Secondly, they say:
The substantial and increased role for central government which is included in the Government's proposals means an inevitable loss of local accountability and increased centralisation of decisionmaking".
We have heard also about the money that will be saved. However, nothing has yet come out from the Government. The only study that has been undertaken is that by Coopers & Lybrand for the metropolitan county councils and they could not find any way in which money would be saved. In fact, their finding was that it was likely to be more costly.
§ In view of the number of speakers this afternoon, this is not the time to go into the areas which will be affected by abolition, which cover an enormous field and which are causing justifiable anxieties across all political parties. I do not believe, because it was all done so quickly, that at the time the Government were really aware of what they were undertaking. All of us must have received communications from organisations as wide ranging as, on the one hand, the voluntary services, and on the other hand, the arts organisations, as well as organisations concerned with archives, archaeological organisations, professional bodies, and those worried about the break-up of, for instance, the GLC scientific services, which were referred to in such glowing terms in our debate in this House on the report of the Royal Commission on the Environment. The communications are coming in all the time, and we shall deal with them if, and when, the Bill reaches this House.
§ I should like to mention just one area, and that is the voluntary sector. I am aware that a great many of your Lordships are concerned with this sector and are tied up with it in many different ways. This month the Secretary of State spoke to the voluntary organisations. He told the National Council for Voluntary Organisations that they must reduce their over-dependence on GLC funding and move towards independence. The chairman of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations put the situation very well when he said that it was like telling starving people that it is their own fault that they have become too dependent on food. Whichever way we look at the situation, it can only mean a cut in the work of the voluntary organisations.
§ I am not pretending—it would be silly to do so—that local government is perfect. It needs improving. It needs to be helped along with the problems that are coming up today. It needs encouragement and it needs respect. But it certainly does not need to be destroyed. If the Government want to destroy local government, then rather than strangle it to death, why do they not come out into the open and say, "We do not believe in it. We have no time for local government"? At least they would then have the courage of their convictions. If that is not so, then it seems to me a very peculiar way in which to go about trying to build it up and support it.
§ Six months after we on this side of the House had attempted in two Bills to get an inquiry set up into local government finance, the Government decided to do so. But the Government's inquiry, recently announced by the Secretary of State, is closeted in the Department of the Environment. To ask the DoE—which has had to work on the policies which 325 brought us all those things such as block grants, targets and penalties—to have another look at local government finance is like asking Heath Robinson to have one more go at designing Concorde! It really is ridiculous.
§ The Government will not grasp the nettle. They will not have a proper inquiry into local finance, structure and accountability. That is the way in which to go about it. We do not want some of the half-truths which appear in the article in The Times today; Mr. Kenneth Baker does not seem to have taken into account, when talking about the domestic ratepayers, that in fact 40 per cent. of people in this country do not pay taxes, are not eligible for taxes. So taking it to its logical conclusion, does it mean that in fact the wealthy should pay less, that the wealthy should get better services and something more than the poor who cannot pay tax and many of whom are not paying rates? The Government will not have a proper inquiry. Instead, what they are doing is continuing on the path of dismantling local government. They are doing that by over-loading central government and by moving towards one central, uniform faceless system.
Yesterday in this Chamber the noble Earl, Lord Stockton, made a magnificent speech during which he referred to the protection that was being given by this House to local government and to small groups,
against the ever-growing and engrossing powers of a centralised Government and an ambitious bureaucracy."—[Official Report, 13/11/84; col. 235.]
That is what is happening in this country today. If, as the noble Earl says, we are the body which can act as a protector—because with the large majority in another place it is not very likely that the Government will not get their legislation through there—then it will be time for us to take steps ourselves once again when the Bill reaches this House.
§ It is at this very time that we need the strengths of local government; we need its responsiveness to local needs, its innovations, its capacity to experiment and to find the right answers to many of the complex and community problems of the last part of this century. That cannot be done by the centre, which is much too amorphous and enormous an organisation. Unless local government is given some powers, unless it is given encouragement, and unless it is able to get on with and do the job for which its members were elected, we shall gradually see the end of local government as we know it in this country. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.41 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (The Earl of Avon)
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, for the nice way in which she welcomed me to this Dispatch Box, speaking as I am again for the Department of the Environment.
It is a little over a year ago that your Lordships' House last debated the subject of relations between central and local government. On 26th October 1983 my noble friend Lord Beloff, who I am glad to see is speaking later this afternoon, rose to call attention to this issue, on that occasion with particular reference to financial matters.
326 At that time my noble friend Lord Bellwin was at this Box, and I should like to pay my tribute to his devoted work during the last Parliament. During my 18 months away from the tentacles of environment, I was at the Department of Energy, but by a quirk of fate my time there took me into fairly close contract with local government. My responsibility covered energy efficiency, and this gave me good relations with the Local Authorities Management Services and Computer Committee and enabled me to travel all over the country, making visits to local authorities in such diverse cities as Cardiff, Darlington and Norwich, to name but a few. Therefore, when later on in my remarks I talk about the quality of local government, the House can believe me that, from personal experience, I am indeed an admirer.
The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, in her opening speech today, has had much to say on the question of finance, and I too shall be reverting to that theme in a little while. But, with the House's approval, I should like to make some attempt to look at local government and its relationship to central government in both an historical and a constitutional context.
Surely a measure of tension must be endemic in any system of government which has elected representatives at both national and local levels. Those who hark back nostalgically to a time when perfect harmony existed between local and central government are certainly deluding themselves. Any society which accepts even a small measure of decentralisation inevitably accepts the certainty of some degree of conflict. And the extent to which that conflict is likely to arise is undoubtedly magnified when both central and local forms of government enjoy the power to tax the citizen.
In such circumstances, intense debate is only to be expected between those seeking to meet local pressures by running neighbourhood services in a particular way and those striving to achieve national policy objectives, be they social or economic in character.
Over the years we have seen many examples of governments of all political persuasions attempting to strike a sensible balance between these often competing interests. On occasions, the tide has flowed in the direction of increasing the scope for local decision-taking; at other times, the dominant pressure has been for the adoption of national standards in such subjects as housing, social services or education. All that is certain is that the scene is constantly shifting to meet the needs of the day.
For example, the House may recall that in 1977 a report was published by the Central Policy Review Staff entitled Relations Between Central Government and Local Authorities. This report concentrated on ways to improve communications and working relationships in the field of social policies and recommended, inter alia, that central government should reconsider the detailed controls they exercised over the activities of local government, and that the role of the Consultative Council on Local Government Finance should be expanded.
Thereafter, there was not much progress until 1979, when, as noble Lords will recall, a general election intervened. The Conservative Government took early action. In 1979 an exercise was mounted to relieve 327 local government of a mass of minor duties and constraints. Detailed control over local authorities' capital projects was swept away two years later. At the same time we abolished the infamous housing cost yardstick and the mandatory Parker Morris standard for new council housing, both controls having been the butt of much noisy criticism from local authorities over the preceding decade. We have sought to develop the consultative council as a useful and flexible forum for a two-way flow of views on all matters of policy affecting local government, not just on matters of rate support grant and expenditure.
To pick up a point made by the noble Baroness, I believe that it ill behoves the chairman of the AMA to complain of a lack of consultation when, despite repeated invitations, his association has refused point blank to negotiate with the Government on abolition proposals and rate capping.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, perhaps the noble Earl will give way on that point. We had this argument before when we discussed the paving Bill, so I do not want to go over it again. I was talking about the on-going work of the consultative council, which is extremely important, and I think that the noble Earl should treat it seriously. It is not concerned only with abolition proposals. I do not want to go into that because it is a long story and a different point, but I do not think it is fair that it should be brushed off as being concerned only with abolition.
of Avon: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her intervention, but I did start my remarks by saying:It ill behoves the chairman of the AMA",and I shall stick to that. I give these examples to demonstrate that the relations between local and central government are, and always have been, a fruitful source of debate, and indeed we are doing it now. In a healthy democracy that is exactly how things should be; and I am not surprised that this afternoon the noble Baroness is pointing to some current manifestations of that tension which are much more worrying.
We have heard accusations of overweening centralism on the part of the Government. It is being said in some quarters that Whitehall is rapacious in its desire to seize control over local authority activities. Nothing could be further from the truth. In so far as new controls have been introduced, it has been done with great reluctance and a considerable degree of sadness.
The Government strongly believe—as they always have—that local decisions should be taken locally and the Government are also the first to recognise the quality, skill and devotion of the vast majority of those who serve in local government, both as elected members and as officers.
Nobody in their right mind could for a moment believe that the vast range of issues which affect the day-to-day lives of people living in the myriad communities up and down the land can, or should, be decided by Whitehall. The expertise, the sensitivity to local circumstances, the capacity to act speedily exists overwhelmingly at local level. I am sure that we can all agree on that point.
328 But, we have also to recognise that the healthy relationship which I have just described has been based—and properly so—on certain constitutional principles and with the acceptance of certain common obligations. Underwritten principles and obligations certainly; but none the less powerful or correct for that.
Let me briefly state what this basic framework is. I believe that it is necessary to restate these principles because it is the Government's view that much of the conflict between central and local government which we are experiencing at the present time results from this framework being challenged in some quarters.
I define the principles as follows: first, the sovereignty of Parliament as law-maker; secondly, respect for those laws by all citizens. There can be no selective opting in or out of legality: that way chaos lies. The third principle is the right and duty of central government to determine and manage national finances, which of course includes controlling the level of public expenditure.
It follows from this third principle that no government could disregard the major influence which local authority spending exercises on the economy. After all, local government is responsible for a quarter of total public expenditure.
I also mentioned the common framework of obligations. At the head of this list I put the duty to safeguard the interests of taxpayers and ratepayers, and then to provide services efficiently and economically in the interest of those who ultimately finance those services.
As I said a moment ago, most of local government adheres to these principles and honours the obligations I have described. We are all conscious and grateful that the tradition of loyal service, of uncorrupted devotion to the task of meeting the genuine needs of local people, is so widely and diligently sustained. It is therefore a source of sadness and concern that a breakdown of these traditions has occurred in certain areas.
Some people have pointed to the rate limitation provisions in the Rates Act, to which this House devoted so many hours of debate earlier this year, as an expression of central government's interference with the normal relationship by imposition of unprecedented controls. The noble Baroness has argued that the proper constitutional relationship between central and local government has been undermined by the powers taken in the Act to set an upper limit on the rates or precepts authorities can charge their ratepayers. But I believe that is to confuse cause and effect. The Rates Act is not a cause of that change but a response to the fact that a number of local authorities have deliberately sought to depart from the constitutional principles I have just described.
Until very recently the Government's legitimate duty to determine the overall level of public expenditure, including the spending of local councils, was acknowledged by local government. We did not hear councils complain in the expansive days of the 1960s when central government were encouraging them to spend more on particular services. But now economic times have changed. The attempts by successive Governments since the mid-1970s to halt the inexorable growth in spending by local 329 government, sometimes by persuasion and sometimes by modifications to block grant arrangements, have failed to influence the hard core of the highest spenders who deliberately seek to flout the convention that, in a unitary state, central government have the right and duty to set the financial framework within which local councils have to manage their affairs. It was to curb the defiant extravagance of this smalll group of high-spending councils that rate limitation was introduced.
It is at this point that sometimes opponents of rate limitation say, "But these are democratically elected councils; they have a mandate to spend as much as they like, and to rate as highly as they can get away with". But this is clearly not so. The truth is that the link between the ballot box and the rating system is thin. On average, more than half the national rate bill is met by the non-domestic sector, which has no vote. In some areas, the figures are even more dramatic. In Camden, for instance, only 17 per cent. of the council's net spending was met by domestic-ratepayers, while 60 per cent. was borne by the non-domestic sector.
This is why the Government took action: both to protect the ratepayers who are suffering as a result of council policies over which they have little direct control and to ensure that national economic policy is not undermined. In July this year my right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced the list of 18 authorities selected for rate limitation in 1985–86. These 18 authorities between them account for 75 per cent.—or £632 million—of this year's budgeted overspend by local authorities as a whole.
At the same time, my right honourable friend announced the expenditure levels on which he proposes to base the rate or precept limit for these authorities—in most cases a cash freeze on this year's budget. Within this limit, it will be for local councillors—not Whitehall—to decide on spending priorities within and between services. The scale of reduction being sought has been regularly achieved by other authorities in the past. Some vociferous councils are claiming that these reductions will require savage cuts in essential services. Yet, despite my right honourable friend's repeated assurances that authorities with a genuine case have nothing to fear from the statutory redetermination process, none has brought its case to him. Surely this could mean that, despite their scaremongering, most of the councils recognise the reasonableness of the reductions we are seeking. The alternative is to recognise their intention to sacrifice the interests of their employees and the ratepayers who depend on local services for the sake of ideology. I do not need to point out the danger of this course. I can only urge them to bring their case in before time runs out.
We have heard it said today that the proposals to abolish the GLC and the metropolitan county councils in some way also represent a breach of the principles. But reorganisation of local government is by no means a new issue. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s little else was talked about. The changes made then were sweeping. In particular, the 1972 Act abolished all existing authorities and set up a completely new system (except in London, where reorganisation took place some seven years earlier); and many of the 330 authorities which were abolished then had many hundreds of years of history behind them.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, would the noble Earl give way for a moment? Those changes followed detailed inquiry. Does the noble Earl not realise that what many object to on this occasion is the fact that there has been no such inquiry?
§ The Earl of Avon
My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord says. I have quite a lot to say on abolition, and if I may I shall use that in my winding-up remarks.
Local authorities are statutory bodies whose powers are conferred upon them by Parliament. What Parliament gives it can take away. That is precisely what we shall be asking Parliament to do: to take powers from the GLC and the MCCs and give them instead to the boroughs and districts—authorities which, in many cases, exercised these powers as county boroughs up until 10 years ago. I might add that most of them cannot wait to get those powers back. I now turn, in conclusion, to two issues on which the Government will be looking to local authorities for their active co-operation and participation in the coming months. First, finance. My right honourable friend intends to make the full RSG statement for 1985–86 at the usual time in December. It will continue to reflect the Government's policy since 1979—keeping public spending under firm control. Helped by the pressures of the block grant system and of the system of targets and penalties, the great majority of local authorities have played their part in this. Of course, it has not been easy, and some very difficult decisions have had to be taken. What they have achieved is that after a prolonged period when local current spending rose steadily, year after year, by an average of around 3½ per cent. in real terms, that figure has now come down to below 1 per cent. Not the least of the consequences of this achievement is that in this year, 1984–85, rate increases were the lowest for 10 years.
Nevertheless, the Government are well aware of much dissatisfaction within local government and elsewhere about the whole local government finance system; not only the traditional dislike of the rates as a form of local taxation, but concern about the nature of financial relationships between central and local government; about the complexities (which the noble Baroness illustrated) of rate support grant, including the somewhat mystifying system of targets and penalties; and not least, about accountability. Local government simply will not work if local councillors do not feel themselves accountable for their spending to those who provide the revenues to finance that spending.
Accordingly, my right honourable friend the Minister for Local Government, together with my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary the Member for Bristol West, have begun a series of internal studies into the whole system. The study is intended to be comprehensive and thorough: and, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State confirmed in another place on 7th November, these internal studies will result in proposals on which there will then be widespread external consultation. The Government look forward in due course to the active participation of local government in this process.
331 My last point is another important aspect of local government—the way in which conventions traditionally observed by all political parties in the conduct of a local authority's own business are beginning to break down. Local government legislation is based on a 19th century model of councils controlled by part-time councillors operating for the benefit of the community as a whole, with little reference to national politics, but in many urban councils today we are seeing the emergence of a deliberate attempt by some political groups to use local authorities as a laboratory for policies which have little or nothing to do with that traditional concept of local government.
Not all councils are experiencing this challenge to their normal practices and procedures, but the trend is clear; and it carries implications for the democratic safegards enjoyed at the local level by ratepayers, by those reliant on local services and by those working for local councils. Too often we see conventional checks and balances being scorned; the rights of minorities on councils being suppressed; standing orders being manipulated to stifle debate; councils squandering millions on virulent propaganda campaigns.
The Government have received countless demands for action to be taken to prevent the more flagrant abuses that have hit the headlines—abuses which present grave challenges to the health of local democracy. But one must not be led into assuming that there are easy answers. The developments we are seeing may well reflect fundamental changes in the way in which society operates—changes from which local government will not be immune. The issues involved are complex, and any remedies may well be controversial.
That is why my right honourable friend has indicated his intention to hold a careful and dispassionate study, not only of the kind of abuses I have mentioned but also of those underlying changes which the abuses reflect. He will shortly be putting forward proposals for an inquiry into these issues on which all parties will be consulted. The Government, will also be in touch with the local government associations about the proposal. We are at the moment encouraged by the reactions so far received to the intended inquiry. I am sure that local government generally will recognise the value of this study, aimed at protecting the future health of local democracy. I welcome this debate for the contribution it can make to such a study. Constructive suggestions in this tricky field are always difficult. I am sure that this afternoon we shall hear of some which will be useful.
§ 4.3 p.m.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, my noble friends and I warmly welcome the fact that this debate is taking place this afternoon. We shall clearly spend an immense amount of time this Session debating local government; not only the Government's proposals for the abolition of the Greater London Council and the substantial changes in the responsibilities in the metropolitan areas, but also we shall have the opportunity of discussing, I suspect on a number of occasions, the consequences of the Government's rate capping legislation. That being so, 332 it is of considerable value that we have this opportunity today of debating these issues.
I am afraid that we have to face one unpalatable fact at the outset. In this I very much agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Birk. It is that relations between central and local government are poor and that they are getting a great deal worse. But these problems did not begin—and on this the noble Earl, Lord Avon, was entirely right—with the election of the present Government in 1979. I believe they have been deteriorating gently for about 10 years.
As successive Governments found the central economic problems facing our country increasingly intractable, so inevitably they began to intervene more directly in the affairs of local government. I remember attending meetings in the Department of the Environment—the first of which were presided over by Mr. Crosland and then by Mr. Shore—with the local authority associations, when at several of such meetings there were bitter complaints about the level of central Government intervention in matters which the local authority associations believed were properly the responsibility of local government; about the attempts of the then Government to place some form of ceiling on staff numbers and about the suggestion—I have some feeling that there was justice in their complaints—that local government was to a substantial degree responsible for some of the grevious problems we were facing in terms of the management of the British economy.
I believe it is therefore untrue to suggest that the present Government began this process and are wholly and exclusively responsible for it; that when they came into office there was an idyllic relationship between central and local government and that they recklessly destroyed it. That would be far from the truth. But in order to understand the reasons for the present difficulties it is necessary to consider not only the behaviour of the Government (and I will be coming to that in a moment) but what has been happening throughout English local government in the last few years.
There are still many local authorities, both Labour and Conservative controlled, which are prepared to co-operate closely with the elected Government of the day. They will have occasional rows with central Government, but by and large they understand their own role and that of the Government. But over the last four or five years we have witnessed the emergence of a very different type of local authority. The noble Earl, Lord Avon, commented on this towards the conclusion of his speech. I should like to remind the House of the words uttered by his predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, then the Minister responsible for local government, when he spoke in this House on 26th January last year. He said:Scarcely a day passes without some news of some new departure from standards which in my experience were once generally accepted without question in local government and taken for granted by the whole community.He added:we hear of disproportionate majority group representation on committees, of manipulation of agendas, of the denial of access to papers, and, incredibly, curtailment of the opportunity to debate in full council, and so on—all designed to prevent minority groups or individual members from playing their proper role in council affairs. We hear, too, of selection of officers by reference to their political 333 leanings; and even of the administration of services in a selective basis—for the wrong reasons—within the area of a single local authority."—[Official Report, 26/1/83; col. 359].We all know, in whatever part of the House we may sit, that what the noble Lord said on that occasion was entirely true. Week after week we see further examples of intolerance directed against minorities or against those who have upset the powerful men and women who run some of these authorities. I propose to cite two examples from one of the least attractive of these authorities—the London Borough of Islington. In the last local election, the Labour Party in Islington secured 51 per cent. of the vote, the Conservatives and the Alliance obtained 49 per cent. of the vote. Under the first-past-the-post electoral system so passionately supported by the Government and Opposition Front Benches we had the absurdity where 51 per cent. of the voters were represented by 51 councillors and 49 per cent. of the voters were represented by a single councillor.
That was bad enough; but what followed was even worse. A systematic attempt was made to prevent that single councillor from obtaining information about the council's activities. The solitary councillor, Mr. David Hyams—I give this as an illustration—asked for copies of documents involving council expenditure relating to the services of two officials of Islington council who were servicing the London Labour leaders group. He was refused the information, not because the information should not properly be supplied to him—it was very difficult indeed to maintain such a proposition seriously—but because the leader of the council objected to the use that might be made of the information. She wrote:It has become perfectly obvious that you are determined to pass any information you obtain straight on to your Party and to the Press. You are simply using it to fuel the campaign of misinformation and distortion which you and your Party are currently fomenting.That statement, I should have thought, would hardly lead to its author being given an award in a Freedom of Information Year. In that statement there is not a trace of recognition that a member of an opposition party has any rights whatever, or that she, as leader of the council, is accountable to the electorate in any way whatsoever for her conduct. It is the language not of a democrat but of a municipal Bourbon.
One could cite example after example of similar conduct. There was, for instance, a matter which was debated on the Floor of this House only just over a year ago—and I think it right to remind the House about it—concerning the deplorable example of the publicly-financed Islington News Co-operative designed by the council as a free-distribution newspaper to put a small local newspaper, the Islington Gazette, out of business. The Islington Gazette had offended the current council leadership in Islington and they were going to be punished. That was the objective of the operation. My noble friend Lord Kilmarnock and I warned the Government and the House what was going to happen in Islington. In particular, we pointed out that unless an amendment was made to the Local Authorities (Expenditure Powers) Bill then going through the House, Islington council would be committing large sums of public money to this deplorable enterprise.
334 The debate took place at the end of July last year and the Government were not prepared to accept our amendment because it would delay the passage of the Bill, a perfectly worthwhile Bill, for a few months. So, despite our warnings and the support that we received from the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Rawlinson, the Government Chief Whip used his majority to defeat us. The Opposition, I may say, considerably to their credit, abstained on the issue despite the fact that it was a Labour-controlled authority which was involved. And what happened? The council leadership in Islington used this new legislation as we had predicted and financed the new newspaper. But, despite the substantial sums of public money pumped into it, the new newspaper was a disastrous flop. Within months, it went bankrupt and at a cost of roughly £100,000 for the ratepayers.
My Lords, although it is tempting—and one is bound to say this, particularly in the presence of a number of noble Lords opposite who formed the Government majority on that occasion—to read out the list of names of some of those noble Lords who (unlike the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter) provided the majority, I will not do so. But I hope, nevertheless, that this incident may make it easier for some of them to resist the blandishments of the noble Lord, Lord Denham, in the future. But I would just add this; and I think it is appropriate to do so in the light of exchanges which took place in another place yesterday. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that the fact that the Government were being compelled to give £90,000 in golden handshakes to a number of Labour appointees to London Transport because of the contracts entered into with them by the GLC, demonstrated in her judgment the strength of the case for the abolition of the Greater London Council. How, I wonder, would she describe this expenditure, committed as a result of legislation of her own Government and greater than the sum which caused her to make this rather extravagant remark yesterday? I look forward with interest to what the noble Earl, Lord Avon, will say about this episode when he comes to reply. I hope very much that he will do so.
As the House will be well aware, although the two examples that I have given of lamentable conduct of this kind by a local authority relate so far exclusively to the London Borough of Islington, these are in no sense at all isolated examples. I now wish to give a further example of what I regard as a dangerous trend in local government. I turn to the South Yorkshire County Council. Ever since the passage of the Police Act 1964 there has been, by and large, a reasonable relationship between police authorities and central Government. As the House is aware, police authorities are made up of two-thirds elected members of the authority and one-third of magistrates. Certainly, in the five years when I was the Home Office Minister responsible for the police, I can recall no occasion on which there was a significant dispute between a police authority, its chief constable and the Home Office.
I recognise—and one would be very insensitive were one not to say this at the outset—that the bitterness of the present dispute in the mines was bound to put that relationship under severe pressure in a number of local authority areas. But we have witnessed in recent 335 months, I believe, a most dangerous situation which has, I am afraid, exceeded my own most pessimistic assumptions. To be blunt, there has been a determined effort in South Yorkshire and in one or two other authorities to prevent chief constables from carrying out their duties to enforce the law. In South Yorkshire, resolutions were passed instructing the chief constable to spend no more money on policing the coal strike without the authority's prior approval, and declining to meet the cost of billeting officers from other forces despite an explicit statutory requirement that they should do so.
The Attorney-General was compelled to take the authority to court and the councillors surrendered. However, within weeks, they were at it again. Following a serious disturbance involving several thousand pickets at the Orgreave coking plant in which the police only succeeded with difficulty, and thanks to a very considerable extent to the existence of their mounted section, in maintaining control of a most ugly situation, the South Yorkshire Police Authority decide to abolish that mounted section. The grounds on which they did so were, ostensibly, of course, based on financial considerations, but it was, as we all know perfectly well, a deliberate attempt to undermine the effectiveness of their own police force. This time the Home Office intervened with the threat of further legal action. Once again, the authority beat a retreat. But within a few days we had the quite extraordinary attack made on the policemen of South Yorkshire by the chairman of their own police authority when he compared them with Nazi stormtroopers.
The cases that I have cited from just two local authorities demonstrate, I believe, the seriousness of the sitution which we are now confronting. There are, I believe, a dozen or maybe 20 other local authorities which are a great deal more venomous than South Yorkshire, where there is a contemptuous disregard for the rights of minorities and a settled determination to use their power to reward their friends and punish those whom they choose to regard as their enemies. This new type of local authority believe in confrontation right down the line. They believe in heavy expenditure increases; but no rate rises. They have an unqualified enthusiasm for all-out conflict with the Government of the day and, if need be, the courts as well. As a result, next year we are going to see a series of bitter battles over rate capping between the Government and a number of local authorities, the like of which we have not previously witnessed in this country.
My Lords, I will make on this issue the position of my noble friends and I abundantly clear. We are totally opposed to the Government's rate-capping legislation. We regard it as both dangerous and misconceived. This is, first, because it involves an unacceptable degree of interventionism by central Government in the affairs of the local communities. Unlike the Government, we do not believe that the "gentleman in Whitehall knows best." Secondly, we are against it because the standards that the Government are applying to determine which authorities are to be rate capped are both arbitrary and capricious. Thirdly, we are against it because the 336 impending clash between the Government and the hard core of militant rate-capped authorities may do severe damage to some of the most deprived communities in this country.
The prospect of this clash does not frighten people such as Mr. Ted Knight in Lambeth, I can assure the Government. He will enjoy every moment of his martyrdom. There is no point at all in the Government proclaiming constantly their enthusiasm for local government—and we have heard more of this from the noble Earl, Lord Avon, today—while at the same time they transfer from local government more and more power to Whitehall. Just as we were told by Ministers during the last Session how much the Government simply hated having to come forward with this legislation caused by a limited number of extremist local authorities, we heard today in slightly more restrained language from the noble Earl of "their considerable degree of sadness" at being compelled to take this action.
I think there are risks, quite apart from the question of expenditure which I have dealt with and the rate-capping issue. I come back to the example I gave of what happened, and is happening, in South Yorkshire and in a number of other police authorities. There is a serious risk here, too, of increased Government interventionism, and that in a few months' time or at some stage in the future we will be having a Minister coming to that Box and telling us that the Government have been reluctantly compelled to re-examine the basis of the control of policing in this country. Let me make it quite clear that if any Minister comes forward on some future occasion and makes any such statement, my noble friends and I will resist with all the power in our possession any proposal in that direction. It would be deeply damaging to the cause of improving relations between local communities and their police forces.
But of course, having said that, the Government do indeed face a dilemma, as I have illustrated in my speech, because the threat posed by the minority of extremist local authorities is a real one. It cannot possibly be minimised. Everything that the noble Earl said on this was, in my view, entirely justified. Many of these people have a contempt for parliamentary democracy, as we well know, and indeed of the rule of law. Most of them represent only a minority of the electorate. In Lambeth, for instance—and I have already mentioned Mr. Knight—two out of every three voters at the last local elections in Lambeth voted against Mr. Knight, but Mr. Knight, thanks again to our first-past-the-post electoral system, has got an absolute majority on Lambeth Council. Yet in regard to the Bill which I brought before the House and over which the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, and I were engaged in dispute, the Government indicated on that occasion, as I am sure they will indicate again today, that they are adamantly opposed to proportional representation in local government, which I believe is the only way in which the scandal—and it is a scandal—of minority rule by extremist cliques can be eliminated.
Unless Parliament exerts itself and insists upon such a change, the present drift towards still more rigorous central Government domination in our lives will gain even greater pace. Already we are the most centralised 337 democracy in the Western world. I believe that unless this process is checked and put into reverse it will do lasting damage to the quality of life in this country.
§ 4.24 p.m.
§ Lord Irving of Dartford
My Lords, by common consent, the Bill to abolish the metropolitan counties and the GLC is the most important and indeed the most contentious measure that will come before this Parliament. For me, with over 30 years' service in local government, this is very sad because it indicates a failure on the part of the Government to recognise the proper role of local government in this country. As a vice-president of the British sections of the International Union of Local Authorities and the Council of European Municipalities, I have some knowledge of local authorities in other parts of Europe; and I have always believed that we have had perhaps the most effective system of local administration in the world. It has been distressing to see the damage done to it during the last five years—damage acknowledged by all the local authority associations, most of them Conservative controlled, and by almost every leading Conservative in local government. I say this to demonstrate that this is not just a fantasy of opposition parties but a matter that must be taken very seriously by this House. I would say that no local authority association or professional body would recognise the picture of central and local government relations painted by the noble Earl this afternoon in respect of the Government's wish not to centralise all functions.
The present legislation is a development from the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980, the Local Government Finance Act 1982 and the Rates Act 1984. These draconian measures provided for an increasing centralisation of power and were produced under pressure, each made necessary by the failure of earlier measures, as it were, blundering from one problem—some people might say from one mistake—to another. As the Royal Town Planning Institute has said,At a time when European countries are moving towards a greater degree of local responsibility, local government in this country is moving towards increasingly direct control by Ministries".The Government have always relied on the theory of the manifesto, despite the scathing attack made upon it and its unconstitutionality by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. But, as the Royal Institute of British Architects have said,A major constitutional change is being proposed without any clear rationale, and without any assessment of the present system, appraisal of alternative ones, or estimate of the cost".The Government say they are—… firmly committed to carrying out their manifesto promise to abolish an unnecessary tier of local government and to produce a major transfer of power and responsibility to the London boroughs and the metropolitan districts".In the Guardian a fortnight ago Mr. Robert Mitchell, the Conservative Member of the GLC for Wanstead and Woodford, said:The alleged transfer of the GLC functions to the boroughs to give the electorate more direct control is, quite simply, a deception".Under the terms of the Yellow Paper, many reserve powers are being retained by the Secretary of State, who will give regional strategic guidance on planning. 338 He will have reserve powers to take over the operation of urban traffic control systems if the districts are unable to make satisfactory arrangements. Even in that most basic of all functions, waste disposal, the Secretary of State is to take reserve powers to establish joint arrangements if he is not satisfied that those made by the authorities voluntarily are adequate. Why, my Lords, if the object of the exercise is to give more power to the lowest local level, are so many reserve powers being retained by the Secretary of State? This is a really massive shift of powers to Marsham Street and a complete abandonment of a long-standing Conservative principle which rejects the view that Whitehall knows best.
Since 1979, local authority expenditure powers and the ability to make local decisions based on local needs have been increasingly curtailed by the Government. The Government have made an attack on local government expenditure with a barrage of often unsubstantiated assertions about overspending and profligacy. However, all the experts in local government have always believed, in the case of the earlier measures, that the Government had enough powers already to deal with the things that they wanted to deal with. Indeed, the local authority associations on several occasions have offered their co-operation in securing the objectives which the Government have set themselves, and those offers were rejected.
The claims of overspending and profligacy have never really been proved. If they were correct, they would represent only 0.7 per cent. of total expenditure in 1984–85, and local government has anyway been more successful in controlling its expenditure than has central Government. However, the Secretary of State set up an Audit Commission for the purpose of showing local government how to get "value for money".
In its first report on the block grant system, the commission has made a series of criticisms. Mr. Derrick Hender, chief executive of the West Midlands Metropolitan County Council, writing in the Local Government Chronicle in September, said;the conclusions of the Audit Commission Report on the block grant system are so damning that it surely cannot survive".He says:it is obvious from the report that even if all the authorities had acted exactly as the Government wishes, the grant system would still have been a nonsense".The commission says that the block grant system is uncertain and has led to a building up of reserves. It is based on inadequate, out-of-date information. It encourages some authorities to spend more. Management accountability has not been strengthened. Few people understand it and there are few incentives for efficiency and effectiveness. This is an extraordinary indictment, not of local government but of government policies by its own Audit Commission. Even so, as Sir Ian Gilmour said on the Second Reading of the local government paving Bill, rates have risen in general because the Government have cut the subsidy and the total sum of money available to local government from central government and there will again be less money next year.
One of the claims in justification of the change being made by the Government was that the abolition of the metropolitan counties and the GLC would lead to 339 considerable savings of some £120 million. These original figures have now disappeared and not even the Treasury—or so we learned by a leak published in the Guardian a week or two ago—now believes that any savings will result, unless there are major reductions in services and major job losses. As was pointed out in the Coopers & Lybrand investigation, carried out at the request of the metropolitan counties, the Government's only effective options are to cut services, to raise by so-called safety nets or to subsidise the boroughs in some other way. So there will be no increase in local accountability; there will be more centralisation of control; there will be no saving of money for the ratepayers, and there will be no more effective delivery of services. On the contrary, most of the services on which we rely are carried out by local government and a weakening of local government means a weakening or a reduction in services.
One service that has already taken a 17 per cent. cut since 1978–79 is housing and it was named by the Chancellor on Monday in the Autumn Statement as a candidate for another cut. Public service housing starts have been reduced by 56 per cent. since 1978. The record is appalling and it is increasingly recognised as such right across the board—by the building and construction industry, by the Building Employers' Confederation, by the Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors, by the Royal Institute of British Architects, by the National Council of Building Material Producers, and even a fornight ago, at its conference, by the CBI.
As the Financial Times said recently,As business failures continue at record levels in this country, bankruptcies increase more steeply in the building and construction industry".Perhaps the Government should remember that it was the boom in the building industry in the 1930s that first started this country moving out of the depression.
In the debate on the paving Bill, the Government made a great deal of the need to assist local industry—a theme which I supported, and I suggested a number of ways in which this could be done. However, the changes here proposed will do little or nothing for industry and it is significant that the Association of British Chambers of Commerce has said:It has become urgent for the Secretary of State to provide a detailed breakdown of the savings expected and give clear guidance on where and how the economies should be obtained. Only if such evidence and guidance is forthcoming can the continued support of the business community for abolition be counted upon.".The Government have no friends in this matter.
It is very difficult for us, and indeed for many Conservative supporters, to understand, with all Britain's unemployment, inadequate and, in many cases, declining infrastructure in the public services, the special difficulties that are faced by the urban communities and inner cities, the problems of the black and ethnic minorities and of rural decline, that the role of local government should at this time be a declining one.
These major changes are being made without any consultation with anyone associated with local government; no inquiry, and no real examination of the structure, or the problems. Many of us would have 340 welcomed an open inquiry into the structure of London government and indeed, perhaps, of the metropolitan authorities, too. I gave evidence before the Royal Commission in the late 1950s on the London government reconstruction, as my borough was at that time included in the terms of reference of that inquiry. I have never been quite happy about the structure of London government. I have always believed that for some things it was too small and for other things it was too large. But, of course, many people, including Mr. Livingstone, have criticised the structure of London government. Why could we not therefore have a proper inquiry? The result of all this will be to leave London as one of the only capital cities not to have an elected authority.
The Bow Group paper by Mr. Cyril Taylor has said:There has been some form of London-wide government ever since 1855 when the Metropolitan Board of London was established. A purely borough-based solution with no form of London-wide body will leave a vacuum and make it difficult for decisions on contentious London-wide issues to be reached."——this is a Conservative speaking——The proposals are therefore unlikely to be a permanent solution to the problems and may well be changed by a future government.I believe that in another 10 years some Government, Conservative or other, will reconstruct London government, bringing back an elected authority, at least for the strategic functions. But the cost in terms of upheaval and disruption will, like the creation and abolition within 10 years of the area health authorities, be very great indeed. Above all, it will have been unnecessary. Consultation and consensus is a prerequisite of stability and could avoid another costly mistake.
§ 4.37 p.m.
§ Lord Beloff
My Lords, in the debate a year ago, to which the noble Earl called attention, we were largely concerned with the problem which is endemic in local government finance between the desire that elected members and their electorates should have a say in both the nature and the cost of their services and the impact of the rating system—or, indeed, of any of the alternative systems that have from time to time been suggested—on the economic health of the community in question and of the country at large. These are problems, but I venture to say, despite the appeals made by the noble Lord, Lord Irving, and the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, that what we do not need is another major inquiry.
The problem is not lack of knowledge; the problem is not lack of statistics. The problem is that you have wishes or aspirations which cannot all be met at the same time, and Governments have not been able to make the choices and would not much be helped by further inquiries. Further argument, further discussion—if you like, further consultation—but not, I think, another major Layfield or any other similar exercise.
However, I do not believe that today's debate has been raised in order to rehearse once more these important issues, financial and constitutional. I think we must regard it as a political occasion; the first shot in this House in a campaign which is likely to take up many of our afternoons and, alas, later this year, I fear, many of our nights. It is an attempt by Her Majesty's 341 Opposition to use this House as a method of blocking the proposed legislation on the GLC and the metropolitan counties, not through——
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords. I wonder whether the noble Lord will allow me to intervene. I hope he has finished his sentence, because I do not want to interrupt. Is the noble Lord really blaming the Opposition for attempting to block future legislation, which is not of our making but of the Government's making? It seems to me that the noble Lord's criticisms should be levelled at his own Government, who have brought forward the legislation that is going to keep him up.
§ Lord Beloff
My Lords, if the noble Baroness had been good enough to allow me to finish my sentence, she would have found out what the end of that sentence was. At the end of that sentence I was going to say that it was to be done by appealing to Conservatives, and to Cross-Bench Peers of a Conservative habit of mind, to go into the Lobbies with the Opposition. The noble Baroness cannot dissent from that, because the numerical facts of the case show that the Opposition does not by itself command enough votes in this House to defeat a measure of a Conservative Government. I feel we must be agreed about that if we are agreed about nothing else.
My point is that this operation is being conducted somewhat disingenuously—and this in two ways. An attempt is being made to suggest to noble Lords on this side of the House, on the Cross-Benches and in the Alliance parties that what is being argued about is local government in its traditional sense. It is being argued that what is being damaged by rate capping or other measures of the present Government in relation to local government is the kind of local government which the noble Lord, Lord Harris, reminded us does still exist over much of the country, which still functions satisfactorily, and which is still worth preserving.
Quite clearly, what has brought this argument about—as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, pointed out—is that there exists in some of the tiers of local government which are about to be abolished and in some other local government authorities an entirely different form of local government—with different aims, different principles and different methods of operation. It is disingenuous to use language which relates to one kind of local government and argue that it applies to the other kind.
It is equally disingenuous to use one of the other favourite arguments, which has not been notably stressed so far by the other side of the House, although I am sure we shall hear more about it before the day is over. It concerns the damage that will be done to voluntary societies if certain organs of local government are abolished or if their capacity to spend is reduced. When people talk about voluntary organisations they naturally think of Barnardo's Homes, the Spastics Society and other worthy causes. But, as has been pointed out before in this House, a great many of the voluntary bodies which receive grants—notably from the GLC—are set up to perform functions which have no relationship with the 342 charitable or other needs of their communities but which are wholly or mainly political and go outside the framework of local government as it was conceived in the nineteenth century—to which period we are constantly being asked to cast our minds back. Therefore, when we are told about the weakening of voluntary societies, we ought to ask, "Which voluntary societies have you in mind"?
The noble Lord, Lord Harris, mentioned several of the features of the new style of local government. I should like to mention another which I believe is of very great importance. In the classic model (if I may use that shorthand) of local government, one had part-time councillors advised by permanent officials, who were appointed through a system of merit by qualifications in legal, technical or other fields. It was assumed that such advisers would play the same role in relation to councillors in their committees as permanent civil servants play in relation to their Ministers. But now one has, increasingly, pressure for local authorities to spell out in their advertisements or to make plain in interviews that such officers must be persons who conform to the political philosophy of the ruling group. There have been in the professional journals of the societies which represent local government servants expressions of grave concern at the way in which this facet is spreading.
I myself would feel much more inclined to listen to the pleas being made for the GLC, for South Yorkshire, or whatever, by noble Lords opposite if they were ever prepared to come out and say, "Of course, we condemn the abuses. We condemn the way in which the GLC is increasingly run as a method not of serving the people of London but of serving the personal friends and political associates of the Leader of the Greater London Council. We object to the kind of proceedings which have gone on in the London borough of Islington"—the favourite stamping ground of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich—"and in certain other London boroughs. We deplore these as much as anyone. We condemn them. But we are asking you to consider what kind of local government London and the metropolitan areas might have without this degree of government control or without the abolition of those tiers".
But noble Lords opposite have not said that. Indeed, when in our debate a year ago I referred to the growth of the spoils system in London local government, I was challenged from the Dispatch Box opposite by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, will the noble Lord give way? I had come unprepared for this attack, and have no references to hand. However, I and others of my colleagues on the Opposition Benches have stood up strongly against law breaking and against any spoils system in local government, wherever it may be.
§ Lord Beloff
Not, I think, my Lords, in debates on local government—but I am quite prepared to believe that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, has expressed himself to that effect. Indeed, knowing him, it would be surprising if he had not done so.
§ Lord Beloff
And others? My Lords, I would be glad to hear them speak from that side of the House either this afternoon or in future debates on local government, and to hear them make those same points.
Let me add one point, because it was raised for a slightly different reason by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich. Had the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, been in his place this afternoon, it is a point I might have produced to justify the things I said on the last occasion. The noble Lord referred to the sum of money—£90,000—paid in compensation to those persons who have lost their places on the London Regional Transport Board. What worries me is not the £90,000—because Mr. Livingstone can get through that on publicity between his porridge and his kipper. What worries me is that it has been revealed that the GLC appointed a number of persons to run one of the major services of any local authority who, on any account, had no qualifications whatever for the field in which they were being given authority, and whose only perceptible qualification was their acceptance of the general political philosophy of the body which appointed them.
This seems to me to be a very important illustrative principle. If it happens in respect of an area where publicity is so easily directed—as it is in the case of the arrangements for transport in London, upon which we all depend—then one fears that it must equally apply in other less notable spheres. Once one draws away from the idea of a qualified permanent service and of councillors who are themselves basically the representatives of their own ratepayers and their own citizens—and not, as in so many cases, involved directly in the provision of services which they are supposed to monitor—one cannot make sense of any future plans. For that reason—dislike it though we may, and agree though we may with the noble Lord, Lord Irving, that at some future date London may, and perhaps should, acquire an overall voice of its own—I cannot believe that the effort to bring my noble friends in on the Opposition side in forthcoming legislation is, in fact, going to be successful.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, will he please clarify whether he is suggesting that the abuses to which he referred took place in cities other than London? Frankly—having regard to Standing Order No. 29, I shall try not to break it—I am just a little tired of having discussions in this House on nothing but the GLC. I propose to talk about anything but the GLC.
§ Lord Beloff
My Lords, there certainly have been no abuses comparable to the GLC's. The expenditure on publicity by the GLC is much greater than that undertaken by any of the other metropolitan counties in respect of their own abolition. The use, for instance, of members employed by other councils by some neighbouring councils within those authorities is an abuse which is not confined to London.
§ 4.51 p.m.
§ Lord Prys-Davies
My Lords, the noble Lord the Minister started to take us down this road. He was the first to refer to the abuse of power by the local authorities. I shall be interested to know whether this 344 abuse of power is reflected in the number and the nature of the complaints which have been filed with the local government ombudsman. If there is abuse to the extent we are led to believe, and if the citizen is suffering as a result of that abuse, it ought to be reflected in a large increase in the number of complaints lodged with the local authority ombudsman. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten the House on that point later this evening.
The Minister has also told the House, in a very brief review of local government, that there has always been a tension within the system. Of course there has been a tension within the system. There has been a creative tension within the system. For 75 years there was a tension between the old county councils and the county boroughs. But what is new, of course, is that we now see a change in the relationship between central Government and local government. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Harris, that this pre-dates 1979. I think we can take it back to the period shortly after World War II. But over the past few years we have seen an unchecked trend towards centralisation which is causing not just tension but conflict in the relationship between local authorities and central Government.
The Minister again mentioned the word "conflict". He started off by having "a tension" and later in his speech we came face to face with "conflict". Today many of us see a great danger of the country becoming grossly over-governed by central Government. According to one academic—as well as the noble Lord, Lord Harris—our country is probably the most centralised of the European democracies. I believe it was Priestley in his own day who spoke of the great dangers of centralisation. It is interesting that there was a time when the words "local government" featured in the title of a Minister of the Crown, but it has not been so for many years. Your Lordships may ask, "Well, what's in a name?" I suggest that the absence of the words "local government" in any ministerial title may be a reflection of the reduced status and importance of local authorities. As I see it, this is the main theme of the debate this evening.
In my part of the world certainly there is no shortage of councillors who have been driven to criticise central Government for making it more difficult for them to match their services to local needs and for local initiatives to meet those needs, unless those needs are approved by central Government or their appointed agents. After all, it is the matching of policies to meet local needs, local problems and local circumstances that is the bread and butter of the business of the councils. Therefore, directly or indirectly, central Government intervention affects the whole range of services as they are delivered to the citizens in our towns and villages.
We have told how specific grants are increasing at the expense of general grants. We have told how a council is obliged to cut back on service "A" while maintaining service "B", although in the light of its own perception of local needs it would have given a far higher priority to service "A". My noble friend Lady Birk referred in her opening speech to the intervention of Government agencies in the field of further education. Many schemes of study will no longer be available to the local authority unless they are promoted by the MSC. Schemes of technical and 345 vocational education will not survive unless they are approved by the MSC. A similar process is seen at work in the social services and the community services. For example, it is extremely difficult to build up initiatives for the mentally handicapped unless the scheme has the approval of the appropriate department.
The district councils are unable to preserve their public housing stock, although the waiting-list queue of the homeless is undiminished. The district councils who operate bus services—and there are about 50 such authorities in the country, some of which have been operating a transport service for almost a century—will be unable to retain transport under their direct control notwithstanding the need for such transport to meet the needs of local communities. In short, local authorities continue to have the semblance of control and the trappings of independence but without real control. We on this side of the House consider that there are objections of principle to intervention on this scale by central Government. It undermines local democratic control. It undermines diversity to meet the widely different local needs and problems. Indeed, such intervention may make services less efficient. Therefore, efficiency, democratic control and flexibility are the hallmarks of local authority—even the classical model or modern model of local authority mechanism—and these are very much under attack.
More intervention on that scale creates within the institutional framework very, very many points not of tension but of conflict between the local authority on the one hand and central government on the other. That makes it very difficult to achieve a constructive partnership and collaboration. There will be continuous pressure to resist central government policies and to argue against instead of for. The local authorities will be left with no sense of power.
Given that climate, it is not surprising that we find that more and more local authorities, with their close interest in such matters as infrastructure, the social budget and regional development, want their own voice heard in Brussels. They are not satisfied with central government departments acting as their spokesmen in the Community. I should have thought that that is also evidence of the diminished trust between the local authorities and central government.
In the early 1970s there was a rebellion in Scotland, and to a much lesser extent in Wales, against over-government from the centre and against policies of closures—policies apparently engineered by faceless administrators in a far away centre. We know that that rebellion ebbed away, but not before it had wrestled from the centre the Scottish and the Welsh Development Agencies to develop and improve the environment, to provide industrial estates and to provide finance for industrial undertakings. Those agencies were created outside the main stream of political activity. They were undemocratic pieces of machinery. But I submit that their establishment was an acknowledgment of the failure of central government in a key sector of life.
I submit from my understanding of the position in Wales that, if the present trends continue and gather force, and if the metropolitan boroughs are 346 abolished—and that will be my only reference to the metropolitan boroughs—the pressures that we saw in Scotland and in Wales in the late 1960s and early 1970s may re-emerge in the not very distant future. At a time when we have abolished the metropolitan counties it may be seen that an elected regional tier, representing the historical provinces of the land, is the only effective means of strengthening local government against the power of central government; the only means of maximising local autonomy; and the means of bringing dignity back to the community.
§ 5.3 p.m.
§ Lord Sefton of Garston
My Lords, I have no intention of following the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, in what to me seemed an amazing speech from an academic, in which he used the exception inside local government to try to demonstrate the general. He used what everybody knows is the exception in local government of so-called abuses in order to try to justify an abolition Bill that will sweep right through the country. I certainly did not intend to come along here and fire the first shot in a campaign to prevent the abolition Bill. I thought that the right way to treat this subject was to place it in its historical context, as the noble Lord on the Front Bench said. Lord Beloff almost started to do that. He started by talking about local government being conceived in the nineteenth century, as though somebody sat somewhere and conceived an organisation to do certain things. Local government did not start like that. Local government responded to the needs of certain areas.
The first ever medical officer of health was not appointed as a deliberate act of policy, worked out by academics such as the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, and then put on paper. The first medical officer of health was appointed in Merseyside not even by local government. It was first proposed by the ruling class in Liverpool, who happened to be the landowners and the ship owners who could see the dangers that they themselves had helped to create in the spread of disease and illness inside Liverpool. It was from such origins that local government sprang. If it had not been for that effort and for those well-intentioned persons, what would have been the situation in Liverpool? Anybody who knows the history of Liverpool knows quite well what the situation would have been. It would have been socially untenable, and there would probably have been an overthrow of the system of government that was then known in the nation, spreading from Liverpool.
Local government is not about that; and relations between local and central government are not just about institutions. One of the biggest mistakes that we make in the modern world—and this applies to political parties—is that we sometimes set up organisations and institutions in order either to achieve change or to do certain things, and when an institution has been in existence for a certain time it becomes an end in itself. That is the real problem that we are facing today.
The bodies governing our affairs in the public sector have become institutions in themselves and are now fighting to preserve themselves. That applies to local government. It also applies to national government and to the Tory Party. When the Tory leader makes 347 stupid statements such as, "We will abolish rates", without any thought, the rest of the Tory Party follow behind like Gadarene swine, and we are now reaching that situation. I am not bothered about local government, central government or the weapons that are supposed to be used to cure our problems and help the dispossessed and under-privileged. I am not bothered about those organisations; I am bothered about people.
When I talk about relationships between local and central government I see central government as representing a body that has the job of administering the nation's affairs, which can be administered only on a national basis. I do not quarrel with the idea, and I never have. Lord Beloff is wrong. We have never quarrelled with the idea that a Government should be master in their own house and determine the total spend of local authorities. What we have quibbled about is the way the Government have tried to do it. If the Government had been honest and really intended to have co-operation between the whole machinery of local government and central government on the question of spend, they could have presented local government with the case as a whole. But they did not. They seized the first opportunity to divide and rule. Just as Lord Beloff has done today, they picked on the exceptions and used them to smirch the rest. That is the issue that we are facing.
We cannot divorce that issue from the way in which people's affairs are handled in a locality and how they are handled nationally. If we look at the problems of Brixton, Toxteth, the coal-miners and Northern Ireland, we ask, what is the fundamental reason for them? It is simply that within all those areas a large body of people, and sometimes the leaders in those societies, feel that they are alienated from the decisionmaking. The miners feel as though they are being trodden on. The current position in Northern Ireland arose because for too long this country allowed a large proportion of its population to be dictated to and made into an under-privileged class. Of course, once the trouble starts, there is no solution, is there? As the noble Earl said yesterday, the miners are the finest set of men in Great Britain. After countless generations of putting in hard work, they began to feel that a distant Government were beginning to tread them into the ground, and so they became alienated. As in a war, once the trouble starts, truth is, of course, the first casualty. Lord knows where it will end! That is what I am concerned about.
Bad relations between London and the provinces and London and local government are comparatively recent. We had a century of tolerance between the two. We had a real partnership. We never had any problems. If the Government say that they do not need another inquiry, well, God help all of us! Who made the mistake in 1972? Who would not listen to local government in 1972? What local authority in this country did not say that the 1972 reorganisation was wrongly based and would not work? Let me say this. How many Labour politicians said—I know many who have—that the idea of substituting payment for loss of earnings, in the payment of local councillors, was wrong in principle? There were many of them. More than the Tories, who subscribed to the point of 348 view that to get a good man you had to pay him. But we never subscribed to that point of view. We believed that the best service is voluntary service. I still believe that. In any case, when we talk about expenses, I think it is time that we started giving some consideration to the expenses that we earn in this House because, compared with what is received by local government members, they are pretty good.
I am interested in what is going to happen in Merseyside, and in Liverpool in particular. As I said in this Chamber when we were debating the problems of Merseyside, and Liverpool in particular, there we have a situation of people who are alienated. They were elected to local government on a programme. That programme was to solve some of the problems that are facing the people of Liverpool. Then they were faced with central Government who refused to allow them to do so. Then they were faced with concentration. No real attempt was made to bring in everybody concerned to try to get a solution. So, once the alienation takes place, it goes on. The Government have rate-capped Merseyside. The next rate capping will be Liverpool. Do your Lordships really think that the people of Liverpool will stand rate capping when already, even now, when the Government are contending that the economy is returning to a boom situation, that boom is taking place in the South-East and not in the North?
Look at the latest figures. The situation growing up in Merseyside is a dangerous one. We do not need any central Government to tell us how to run things. We built one of the finest electricity supply industries in the country. We had in mind also the question that that electricity supply industry had to feed outside. When it was nationalised—and this is not a criticism of the Tory Government, is it? No.—we were promised soundly by the Mother of Parliaments that there would always be retained the local democratic link with the electricity boards. Where are they? Look at any electricity board now: local government is not even represented on it. Local government is the only organisation which can elect representatives from the people.
Only recently, consequent upon the 1972 reorganisation, we set up the water boards. I was a member of the AMA general purposes committee at the time. I remember quite well urging the AMA general purposes committee to recommend the association to have nothing to do with the water boards. I said, "Don't argue with the Government about how much local government representation you will have on those boards because they will give you every promise; they will promise you that the amount of local government representation on the water boards will remain and they will give you a majority"—and they did. Where are they now? They have gone. Of course, there is no local government representation on water boards. We had the finest gas distribution system in the country. It has gone. It is not even ruled from Merseyside now. It is ruled from the South-East through the Gas Council.
These are the kind of relationships that we should be discussing today. If we take that as a trend in the distribution of powers between local and central government, in regard to all those services that I have mentioned, following the lines of the hospitals, sewage, 349 water—and the list now goes on to include police—and all the others that will go to joint boards under the new Bill, what will be left? What will there be left for the so-called local authorities to organise? Nothing—because we shall have moved slowly but surely, sometimes at a snail's pace, sometimes in a hurry—especially when somebody makes promises about abolishing rates—to a situation where the centre says, "We cannot trust the local authority and therefore we must do it". And they are doing it.
Let me give a perfect example of what is happening in Merseyside and in other conurbations, because understanding the threat to real democracy in our land depends upon understanding the threat and seeing it. We have a water board. The water board in its single-minded way will determine priorities within the water and sewage system.
§ Lord Somers
My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord for one moment? I must remind him that the Government whose policy he is questioning so strongly is the democratically elected Government of this country.
§ Lord Sefton of Garston
My Lords, I am fully aware of that. But as somebody else, much more qualified than I am, said, we do not want an elective dictatorship. It is quite easy to score a debating point, but the real issue I am putting to this Chamber is not the question of which institution is the right one, but how we get consensus among the governed and the governors. That is the issue.
If you will let me demonstrate it, we have the water authority in the North-West. They decide priorities. We have an electricity board who decide on their capital investment for the North-West. The Gas Council decides down here what money should be put into the gas industry in the North-West. Who decides the priorities? Who decides that perhaps water is spending too much on recreation and leisure and that the health services in Merseyside are getting too little? Who makes that representation to the Government? Is it the water board? Of course not. Is it the electricity industry? Of course not.
If responsibility is taken away from the local representatives of the people, then the area representations will not be made. We shall find that we are slowly moving to a centralised, bureaucratic state. That is where we are going. If we sit down and look at the services that were once controlled in an evolutionary fashion by local government, no one can deny that that is where we are going.
There might be a good argument in favour of it. It might be said that it is extremely efficient; we get more value by the pound. Well, that is all right. It is an argument that I can recognise. I do not accept it. Mussolini got the trains to run on time, but, my God, we had a terrible system after he had finished, did we not? So we can well get a very efficient society. If we are talking about efficiency, how on earth has this Government any justification for criticising local government when they support the EEC?
Let us come a bit nearer home. Talking about the efficient governing of this country, is Parliament really the right body? Do the other place and this House 350 really efficiently tackle the job of looking after all our economic problems that so affect our social problems? All I can say to that, using a Liverpool expression, is "Come off it"—because it is not very efficient. My first tutor in local government was an old town clerk of the old style who served his apprenticeship in a place called Wigan, and then came to Liverpool. When I criticised some of the inefficiencies of local government his reply to me was, "Certainly, sir, there are inefficiencies in local government. That is the price you pay for democracy". If I have to pay that price I shall be willing to pay it over and over again. In my opinion, this is the real issue we are talking about.
We have now reached the situation where the Government say, "We don't need an inquiry". My goodness, they should know! They know all about the mistakes they made in 1972. In my opinion, we need more than an inquiry. We need solid discussion among people who are interested in democracy and in preserving a democratic situation. If we do not do this, the situation will be that Parliament—the Mother of Parliaments, as some people call it—because of dogmatism and arrogance that is sometimes beyond belief, will have created a system from which we shall get more alienation. More people will be dissatisfied with our Government. If we go along this path, I do not think that we can possibly survive.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask him, on the question of historical perspective, whether he would not agree that under the Saxon kings there was a tolerably efficient system of local government with the Witenagemot council which worked reasonably well within its own well understood remit?
§ Lord Sefton of Garston
My Lords, I have not much knowledge of the Saxon kings, but I would accept the case that at that time it was tolerably efficient. However, we are not talking about Saxon kings. We are talking about 1984. There are some very serious economic and social problems to be solved, I am not pleading that the Labour Party or the Tory Party have the answers. What I am saying is that if, in this situation, mistakes are going to be made, then it had better be with the consent and consensus of the population, and not dictated from Whitehall.
§ 5.21 p.m.
§ Lord Broxbourne
My Lords, this debate is taking place under the grandiose if somewhat imprecise description "Central and Local Government". It may be that it takes that form to counter any feelings of surfeit that a reference to local government simpliciter might arouse among your Lordships who spent so much of the last Session on this topic and who are promised, if that indeed is the mot juste, another very substantial helping in the present Session. The description that we have today is no doubt intended to whet the appetite or at least to diminish the feeling of surfeit, the feeling of déjà mangé, that might otherwise arise.
The title of this debate is overtly dichotomic—central and local government. But it may also contain an implication, if not express, certainly implied, of conflict, and that this is so was put—I am glad to see that the noble Baroness nods 351 assent in anticipation of what I am about to say—beyond doubt by her, with her characteristic candour and felicity of phrase, when she referred to a civil war: a civil war, no less, between central and local government. Well, that was a colourful phrase. I choose my epithet with, I hope, courtesy and circumspection. I am bound to say, however, that it grossly overstated the case.
Such a suggestion may well be calculated to stimulate debate on what might otherwise be thought to be the aridities of local government. But it is certainly not well founded in law or in fact. My submission is that, properly understood, there is no such conflict, let alone a civil war—no such conflict, constitutionally or practically, express or implied, patent or latent, between the claims, the interests and the functions of central and local government.
Reference has been made in the debate by my noble friend the Minister among others to the constitutional position. The noble Lord, Lord Sefton, who has just spoken, referred to it, too. The constitutional pattern is clear—clear, that is, in its framework, though open to adjustment and adaptation in its specific content. The form and function of local government are those which Parliament at any time chooses to give to it. The form and function of local government derive from our unwritten constitution, from our governing principle of the sovereignty of Parliament that gives to the institutions and practices of local government a welcome adaptability and the capacity to respond to changing need and changing circumstances.
There can be no question as to the position of local government vis-a-vis central government. Ministers have the power to change the pattern of local government if they can persuade Parliament that it is appropriate so to do. No doubt, a case can be made that local government preceded Parliament chronologically with its shires and its hundreds. My noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway, with his characteristic erudition, has just made reference in his intervention to the Saxon days. Of course, as he would agree, since Edward I assembled Parliament in the 13th century, the principle of the sovereignty of Parliament has obtained.
By contrast, modern local government is the creature of statute. It derives from 19th century legislation, in particular the public health Acts and the local government Acts of the last quarter of that century, including the creation of the London County Council less that a hundred years ago in 1889, followed by further legislation in the 1920s and the 1930s.
The present pattern of local government dates only from the Local Government Act 1972, with its 274 sections and 30 schedules with the metropolitan counties specified sub nomine in the first schedule thereof. Your Lordships can relax. I do not propose to cite all those sections or schedules, or indeed any of them. But the reality, surely, is this. Though the concept of local government is old, its form and functions are new. We get this position. What Parliament has given, Parliament can take away. What Parliament has fashioned, Parliament can refashion. What Parliament has considered, 352 Parliament may reconsider. I am grateful to hear support. A noble Lord on the Opposition Front Bench actually indicated dissent. I understand, however, that he is not to delight the House by any intervention today. It would be interesting to know on what conceivable grounds he could justify such dissent.
I must be careful of understating my case. I say "may consider", but, clearly, Parliament has a right and power to reconsider. May it not also be that it has a duty to reconsider, to review the present state of local government, to see that it is adapting to changing needs, that its form and functions are suited to the changing needs of a complex society? Clearly, it does so have, since the pattern and workings of local government are not like the laws of the Medes and Persians, unchanging and beyond the challenge of time. They are made to a modern specification which requires periodical overhaul, strengthening and improvement. It is this proper and necessary activity that Ministers presently have in hand.
What, then, are the criteria which should guide Ministers in this task and by which Parliament should judge their efforts? There are, I would suggest, three related criteria—democratic working, efficiency and economy. Of course, democratic working does not require any frozen pattern of local government. A borough or district is at least as democratic as a metropolitan council. Many, indeed, would think more so. But there is, too, a wider context in which the criterion of democracy must be applied—the criterion of the national interest.
It is impossible to isolate individual local authorities and their actions from the wider impact on the community as a whole. After all, a large part of local authority activity is, as your Lordships know, funded from rate support grant, paid for not only by the local beneficiaries of such action but by the taxpayer at large. As my noble friend the Minister has reminded us, a large part of the rate-financed element itself derives from the commercial hereditaments which do not enjoy any suffrage in these matters.
Is it not then part of the function of democracy to provide some protection for those who pay the piper without direct benefit to themselves? We are, after all, brought up on the principle of "No taxation without representation", and it is right that effect be given to that basic principle in this context by giving suitable powers to check and control, giving those powers to the representatives of the taxpayers—that is to say, to Parliament and to Ministers responsible to Parliament—to act in the name of Parliament and under its authority. It is to this principle that the setting of limits and the insistence on savings give effect. An action by central government in this context is appropriate and justifiable on both constitutional and practical grounds.
I referred to the related criteria of efficiency and economy by which these actions should also be judged. Here again, there is a national as well as a local interest. Work done or services provided less than efficiently provokes waste and falls to be paid for by national as well as local funds. It would clearly be wrong, and I should be the last person to suggest, that all local authority work is done less than efficiently. But it can fairly be doubted whether many of the 353 functions discharged by local authorities—refuse collection, construction, maintenance and the like—spring readily to mind as matters inherently suited for local authority administration. It can also fairly be doubted whether a combination of part-time councillors and local government officers innocent of business experience provide an ideal mix for the efficient and economic discharge of activities of a growing size, complexity and technical difficulty.
An injection of competition, a devolution to private enterprise in many of these activities, is surely a good thing—beneficial to the citizen, whether ratepayer or taxpayer, and no whit less democratic than direct action by the council. If such benefit stems from guidance by central government, that in no way makes it less desirable or less democratic.
I am conscious of the general nature of the observations I have made, but they are, I hope, not unsuited to this occasion. This is, to use the epithet much in vogue in the last Session, a paving debate; it is a curtain-raiser for the main drama to be put on later. That will be the time for particularity, for close examination into the pros and cons of government proposals and their effect. At this time, I would say only this. I hope that the exchanges then will have regard to the constitutional, historical and practical realities of the matter. I hope that conflict of interests, civil war and the like, will not figure in the terminology of our exchanges then. I hope that we shall be spared exaggeration seeking to portray this creature of statute as the Ark of the Covenant and to denounce Ministers for the impiety of laying their hands upon it. If these hopes are realised, there can be a high quality of debate and useful and informed discussion of the legislation in its various stages. Ministers, I am sure, will assist in this by their receptivity and willingness to welcome helpful guidance from this House.
Our ministerial spokesmen here are fortunate in their Secretary of State. I have had the good fortune to know him since he was a pupil at the Bar. Improbably and unexpectedly, I was leading his then eminent pupil master, now a very distinguished ornament of the judicial Bench, in a complicated right of way case. It was not quite like that case which your Lordships may recall, when Mr. Pickwick interrupted the learned labours of Serjeant Snubbin on a protracted lawsuit originated by the closing a century or so earlier of a footpath leading from somewhere where nobody ever came from to somewhere where nobody ever went.
Ours was, nevertheless, a long and complex case. I said to my eminent colleague, "You have a very bright pupil. We must get some work out of him". We did, and very good work it was. He remains very bright and has done good work ever since on the broader national stage. So, in my view, the matter is in good hands. It is complex and difficult, as is its presentation and interpretation by those who speak from the Government Front Bench in this House. They are engaged in a task of great importance and great complexity and deserve to be sustained, as I hope will be the case, by the support, the confidence and the goodwill of this House.
§ 5.36 p.m.
§ Baroness Lockwood
My Lords, I must say, first of all, that I am rather surprised at the criticism and some 354 of the snide remarks that are being made about the subject of the debate today. I should have thought that Members on all sides of the House would have welcomed an opportunity to discuss some of the principles that are embodied in a very important Bill which will be before us at a later date. Today we have the opportunity to look at some of those principles.
However, it seems that, if nothing else, there is some unanimity in the House about the fact that relationships between central and local government are poor at the present time. I think also there is some agreement that that situation arises out of the confusion on matters relating to accountability. On the one hand, the Government are concerned about local government expenditure, and particularly expenditure in certain authorities. On the other hand, the local authorities themselves are critical of government for the way they feel the Government are manipulating the rules for distributing the block grant.
Beyond finance, there are conflicts about the guidelines within which local government services are provided. If I may say so, it is no good the noble Earl telling us, as he did, that there have always been conflicts and tensions in local government. I think we have reached a situation today where the differences of opinion and the distrust are so deep that it is difficult for local government to function. That is quite different from the kind of tension that we might have experienced in the past.
Unfortunately the changes that the Government are proposing to introduce in this Session—that is, the abolition of the six metropolitan counties and the GLC—are not likely to help the situation; they are more likely to exacerbate it. Inevitably the confusion will increase when the powers of the metropolitan counties are transferred. Again, if I may say so to the noble Earl, we are not talking here about a transference of powers from one level of local government to a lower level of local government nearer to the community; we are talking about a transference of powers to new, precepting bodies which will not be directly responsible to anybody, to a number of ad hoc inter-departmental working groups set up by the different metropolitan district councils, and a transfer to national Government departments. So it does seem that the confusion that exists at present in local government is really going to be institutionalised through the Government's proposals for reform.
I want to look at this matter from the point of view of two areas in which I am particularly interested. First, education; and secondly, the services of the West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council, which is one of the authorities that will be abolished if the proposed Bill goes through. Here again I would join with my noble friends who have protested that the exception is being used in order to attack the general rule. There are bodies and local authorities which have carried out the very fine traditions of local government, which are going to be swept away because of this insistence upon using exceptional cases.
However, I turn first to education. This is a very important area of local government. In those authorities which are responsible for the education service, education accounts for a very substantial amount of the spending of those authorities. 355 Traditionally the service has relied upon co-operation between local government and national Government. Within that framework it has also relied upon an extension of the power-sharing—it has relied upon cooperation between the local education authority itself and the individual schools and other educational institutions.
It is not a static structure: it is a structure that has evolved over the years to meet the changing circumstances. But essentially it is a structure that depends for successful working upon mutual trust and respect for each other's role. That is why the Government's unilateral action in a number of areas of education has caused very real concern—concern not necessarily about the policies that the Government are pursuing, but concern about the way in which those policies are being projected. Let me give your Lordships three examples.
We have already had reference to the White Paper entitled, Training for Jobs, which was introduced earlier this year without discussion with the local authorities, despite the fact that it was seeking to transfer from the local authorities to the MSC much of their work in non-advanced further education relating to employment and vocational training. As my noble friend Lady Birk has said, that White Paper met with complete opposition from both the Labour controlled AMA and the Tory controlled ACC. Now, after a great deal of aggro and ill-feeling, at last the authorities have agreed with the MSC that non-advanced further education is to be jointly considered by the LEAs and by the MSC. In the meantime, the MSC has agreed that it will return to the local authorities exactly the sums which the Government are proposing, in their spending targets, to transfer to the MSC. Would it not have been much better if that discussion had taken place before the White Paper was published so that some of the problems could have been overcome?—because there is a knock on effect.
When we heard about the White Paper, when it was published, we were already in the middle of discussing the grants and awards Bill, which was concerned with transferring money which had been given to the LEAs back to central Government for projects as regards which central Government were going to determine whether or not they were of sufficient priority to warrant a specific grant. That is the second example of an important area where a great deal of useful work is no doubt going to be done. But it is an area which again did not involve proper consultation between national and local bodies and as regards which the local authorities felt that money was being taken from them and that powers to determine their own priorities were being taken from them.
Thirdly—and again this was at about the same time—there was the whole question of the TVEI scheme, where local authorities thought that the MSC or may be the Government—at any rate, one or the other—had taken a unilateral decision and were imposing a new system on the education authorities. I repeat: I am not saying anything about the aims and objectives of these policies. In themselves they may or they may not be perfectly justifiable. However, it was the method by which they were introduced that caused the problem.
356 At a time when we are discussing very important developments in relation to the curriculum and standards in education, we are having to do so in an atmosphere that is already soured by the way in which the Government have handled the situation. I am speaking in the context of the wider issues that we are considering today and the wider issues that we shall be considering when we get the abolition Bill in front of us.
Some noble Lords today, and the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, in the debate yesterday, referred to the report of the Audit Commission and its commentary on the effectiveness of local government finance and the ramifications that has for the services provided by local government. Indeed, there is one section in the report, at page 56, that is headed:Frustrations caused by detailed central intervention in local affairs".I can give an example in the County of West Yorkshire which concerned the lease for a fish and chip shop. An applicant applied to the county council on 27th July. By 11th September the county council had agreed on consent for the application, but because of the paving Bill that we were concerned with in the last Session, it had to go through Government departments. The applicant himself wrote to the Secretary of State asking for a "quick decision". The applicant's letter went through the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor's Office and then to the Department of the Environment regional office in Leeds. After remaining on a desk for two weeks, it eventually got back to London. After further pressure, a telephone call was received on 26th October to say that the lease could go ahead. That type of detailed involvement by national Government is just a nonsense and it aggravates the whole situation.
If we get the kind of proposals that are likely to come before us in a short space of time, and if we get the kind of structure that is being proposed, with central Government having a finger in even more detailed areas of local government, then I am afraid that the whole problem will be compounded.
I must say at this point that I would join with those noble Lords who have said that the time is ripe—indeed, it is absolutely essential—to have a detailed examination of local government: local government finance and the structure of local government, because the two go together. The announcement of the Secretary of State to the Conservative Party Conference, which has been elaborated on today by the noble Earl the Minister, is not sufficient to meet the situation. We cannot divorce structure from finance. We really need to take a completely new look at the whole structure and financing of local government.
§ 5.50 p.m.
§ Lord Brooks of Tremorfa
My Lords, when I first heard the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, speak on local government matters in this House, I felt most resentful, but I have since learnt that the noble Lord brings an otherworldliness to the debates on local government which is almost touching, and I am beginning to develop what almost amounts to an affection for him. Almost always he confines his remarks solely to one or two local authorities or one or two individuals, as though they and they alone abused 357 the system of local government. I know of no noble Lord on this side of the House who would disagree with him on the worst of the abuses of the local authorities and the individuals he has mentioned. But does he really believe that some of the bland, urbane and politically deadly people who have been running certain of the local authorities in this country in the Conservative interest for generations are not capable of the same abuses, and does he believe that they have not ever taken place?
The main difference between the individuals and the local authorities that he mentioned and those to whom I have just referred is that Mr. Livingstone, Mr. Knight and others are great self-publicists, and of course the media love that. The people in the shire counties are far too clever to carry on in that way. Does the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, really believe that in some of the areas to which I have referred a senior appointment would be made of a person who had the slightest leanings towards the Labour Party, or, for that matter, towards the Liberal Party or the Social Democratic Party? Of course not. It does not work that way. Despite the fact that these things are not publicised, I believe that they are nevertheless abuses, and just occasionally they see the light to day.
Over the last year or so we have witnessed the most serious attack upon the foundations of local democracy. The Government's obsessional tendency towards centralisation should alarm us all. It certainly alarms me and it alarms local government generally, and local government feels that local autonomy and democracy are under seige from Whitehall.
I was privileged to serve as the chairman of the Welsh Counties Committee for two years from 1982 to 1984, and during that time and since I have seen the most determined attack on local democracy by the present Government, an attack which, tragically, has served only to deflect attention from many of the grave economic and social problems which Wales in particular and the country generally must solve.
The most worrying aspect of all of this is the way in which the Government completely ignore the united stance in support of local government, which goes right across party lines, and then go to great lengths to push through legislation with the unashamed use of their large majority and with a total disregard for the reasoned arguments of those who really believe that local democracy is important and vital for us all.
Here are just one or two examples of the march of centralism over local democracy: first, the never-ending squeeze of local government's financial arrangements, which has resulted in the odious rate-capping doctrine; secondly, the introduction of specific grants into the education service, and in particular the way in which the specific grant which will be used to finance the "training for jobs" programme has been arbitrarily cut from local government's rate support grant settlement; thirdly, the shameful intent to abolish the GLC and the metropolitan councils. Here I shall give some examples, and I am very grateful to Professor John Stewart for reminding us that since 1979 there have been eight different local government finance systems.
Since 1979, we have had the rate support grant system based on the needs and resources element: this 358 was inherited from the previous Government. Secondly, we have had the system that I have just mentioned, but with the transitional arrangements' penalties, which was applied in 1980–81. Thirdly, there was the block grant system based on grant-related expenditure, which was introduced under the rate support grant settlement for 1981–82. Fourthly, there was the block grant system with holdback penalties based on volume targets, which was introduced in June 1981. Fifthly, there was the block grant system with holdback penalties based on volume targets but with exemptions for authorities meeting grant-related expenditures, which was introduced in September 1981. Sixthly, there was the block grant system with holdback provision related to a composite target based on GREs and volume targets, which was introduced in the rate support grant settlement for 1982–83. Seventhly, there was the arrangement which I have just mentioned, with the abolition of supplementary rates. Eighthly and finally, there was the block grant system with holdback provision related to volume targets only, which was introduced in the rate support grant settlement for 1983–84.
What organisation can possibly put up with such a plethora of changes? There is an urgent need for an independent commission to be appointed to report quickly on the constitutional relationship between central and local government. We have already pointed the way in Wales where, as early as last June, the county and district councils in Wales, at a joint conference which I was privileged to chair, urged the Government to establish such a commission. The response so far has been silence.
Those of us who have spent many years in local government resent what this Government are trying to do now to impose a uniformity of mediocrity upon the whole of the local government services in this country. Local government traditionally provides much needed services in the localities, and provides these in a way best suited to any particular area. Local government services are more badly needed now than they have ever been before, and it is for this reason that I and many others in local government, no matter what our political persuasion, are alarmed at the growing gulf between central and local government. This gulf has widened far enough and must be bridged. We must all make sure that our local services are able to meet the challenges of educating our children to meet the new demands of the new technologies and of maintaining our social services provision—a provision which has been so painstakingly and carefully built up over so many years, and which must be improved if we are to cope with pressures caused by the present unprecedented and unnecessary levels of unemployment and hardship. We must ensure the development of our infrastructure and our planning capabilities to continue to meet the changing needs of industry into the 21st century and beyond.
Local government is best able to do all these things and still gear its services to the individual requirements of different localities. We must halt the trend towards centralisation of power instead of local democracy, and we must start now in returning initiative to local levels. We must not perpetuate the power and influence of the quangos which this Government will have us believe are such an effective way of working. 359 Why not, for instance, give the vast finance available to the Manpower Services Commission to local authorities which would do a much better job in their local areas and, I am convinced, provide permanent jobs which our people so desperately need and deserve?
Why not return the water industry and the health service to local control? Best of all why not end all the petty and restricting controls which this Government are so intent upon and let local government get on with the job it knows best and which it has always done better than central government—the job of providing the essential services which are needed now more than they have ever been? Our society needs local government with its diverse solutions, and not central government with its uniform answers.
§ 6.1 p.m.
§ Lord Grimond
My Lords, I, personally, am most grateful to the noble Baroness for giving us a chance to discuss these questions concerning all local government before we become totally drowned in London. I listened with great profit and interest to the speech from the noble Lord, Lord Brooks. With many things he said towards the end of his speech I found myself in total agreement, but there are two points on which I disagree with him. I do not believe that the Government are deliberately out to kill local democracy. The troubles of local democracy arise from muddle and confusion, and from the frequent changes to which he himself drew attention when he outlined what has been happening over local government finance.
Secondly, I am not keen on a further inquiry. My own view is that inquiries have become part of the British disease. When the British cannot make up their mind about anything they say, "We must have an inquiry". There are a great many outstanding inquiries on various aspects of local government, and what is needed now is that someone should make up their mind. Apart from that, I found myself in considerable agreement with his speech.
My experience of local government, such as it is, arises in Scotland, and the points which I make arise from that experience. The noble Earl, Lord Avon, said that there was always tension between central and local government because they compete to some extent for the same resources. That is true, but for many authorities the tension has been a profitable one. My experience is that many of the Scottish authorities conducted a dialogue with central government which was a friendly and indeed useful dialogue. As has been said by previous speakers, I am afraid that that happy relationship is breaking up. It is important that it should not break up, and it is important that the whole of local government should not be driven off course by the lunatic goings on of a certain minority of local authorities.
There are great changes coming over local authorities. There are the changes in these particular councils which have been mentioned which have fallen into the hands of people who are not particularly interested in democracy, who are not in the least impressed by the traditional methods of carrying on local government, and who regard local government, 360 candidly, as a vehicle for their own ambitions. This has been well illustrated by my noble friend Lord Harris, and I do not intend to go into it further.
Of course, there has also been an enormous increase in the size of local government. It has become big business. It has become very bureaucratic and councillors have to give up an immense amount of time to it. Is it too big? The first point I want to make is that I believe there is one tier too many in local government in Scotland. Secondly, a part of the troubles of local government arises from the lack of any proper definition of its powers.
The noble Lord, Lord Broxbourne, referred to the 1972 English Act and said that it had some incredible number of sections. I have been looking up the 1973 Scottish Act, and it rivals the English Act in the number of sections and number of appendices. No doubt out of it you can get a good deal of information about what local authorities are supposed to do, but it is an incredible process to find out. When you have found out, the knowledge is by no means precise.
For instance, I found it difficult to believe that it was intended that local authorities should undertake a sort of advertising campaign such as we have seen. Today, before I came here, three copies of a paper called The Londoner were pushed through my letter box, paid for by the ratepayers of London, of which I am one. I did not ask for it and I did not want it. I do not believe that it is part of the functions of the local authority to produce it. I tremble to think what is going to happen if this use of public funds for advertising goes on, because we shall find the Government doing it with the enormous funds at their disposal, and it will totally contort the whole democratic process.
Basically, the powers of local authorities have not been given sufficient consideration. Secondly, since the 1972 and 1973 Acts there have been many other Acts which have loaded on to local authorities new responsibilities for an extraordinary rag-bag of stuff. There is the winding of clocks; provision of public lavatories; the provision of seats, and so forth. At the same time the Government say that they are not to have more staff and they are not to have more expenditure. The situation is somewhat chaotic.
I should also like to ask about the duties of the auditor. We have heard both here today and in another place yesterday severe criticism of these redundancy payments. If the redundancy payments are outside the powers of the GLC, the auditor will disallow them. If they are not outside the powers of the GLC, should not the powers of the GLC be reexamined? We have heard this afternoon a little about the spoils system. Well, we all disapprove of the spoils system. I was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, hotly deny that he, at any rate, would give any countenance to it. I am sure that is right.
But, of course, there is the system known as "the old boy network", from which I am bound to say that some of my contemporaries, and even possibly myself, have from time to time benefited. Of course, it is not the spoils system, and it is perfectly proper; but there are some people who think that the division between it and the spoils system is occasionally rather thin. The point I am getting at is that if the spoils system is creeping into local government it should be clearly 361 taken outside the powers of local government, and it is up to the auditor to disallow that and other expenses.
This brings me to the whole question of local government finance, which I believe is the root of the trouble. It contradicts every canon of good government. The local authorities spend money they do not have to raise. They are forced to undertake functions which they do not want, and there is no taxation which affects the great bulk of their constituents. The noble Earl, Lord Avon, again drew our attention to the fact that only 17 per cent. of the income of Camden is raised from ratepayers. How can you run a democratic system on this basis?
I believe that you should change over to a system of local income tax. It is untrue to say that there are no alternatives to the rates system. The Conservative Party themselves promised to abolish the rates system; and being no doubt a sensible party, they have some other system in view. But is there no question of local income tax or the possibility of indirect taxation? Until there is some correlation between what the local authorities do, their functions, and the money they raise, you will not be able to run it democratically because the whole sanction against what many people consider are the follies of local authorities should be that the local authorities are turned out at the next election.
Of course, a great many people gain from the expenditure of local authorities but they do not contribute, and, therefore, why should they mind? Why should people who do not pay rates, or pay very small rates, worry particularly because of extravagance in local government? There has to be greater correlation. To my mind more people have to be brought within the rating net if you are going to keep to the rates (which I am not in favour of doing) and you must seek to help the poor (which I am in favour of doing) by other means than simply letting them off rates. Otherwise, you will destroy local government because in any form of government those who pay the piper will eventually claim some right to the tune. If you take all, or nearly all, of your income from central government, you are bound to have the type of centralisation about which we have been complaining.
I am not convinced by the argument that business or industry should not pay rates. Is it to be said that large industries, which make immense calls on the services of local government, and quite rightly, should not contribute? And if it is said that they have no representation, they have no representation in Parliament either. Are we to have people sitting in the other place and here as representatives of limited companies because they have to pay national taxes in just the same way? I hope that the Government do not intend to put the whole of the rate burden on to the individual and private ratepayer and exempt industry.
Again I want to mention a point which arises from my experience in Scotland, and that is the overlapping which exists between local and other authorities. I very much agree with Lord Brooks. I never understood why the water boards were set up. In the north of Scotland there are four authorities advising or helping the Shetlanders over agriculture. I have to let your Lordships into a secret; the Shetlanders are not the world's greatest farmers but they have plenty of advice from no fewer than four authorities, including the 362 local authority. The same is true of development. Local authorities have development officers and we have the Highlands and Islands Development Board. The same is true of tourism. There is great overlapping of various quangos and local authorities, and if the Government are anxious to save money they might look into that.
I should like to finish by drawing the Government's attention to the position of the Western Isles. Representatives from the Western Isles were down here yesterday, but I understand that they failed to see the Minister. I am the first to admit that the Western Isles have every reason to be grateful to the taxpayers who have provided a great deal of income for a great many years. But it is a unique authority. It differs even from Orkney and Shetland and very much from the mainland of Scotland. The Western Isles had a very high unemployment long before unemployment became rife on the mainland and they have great geographical difficulties. I am not employed by them to make their case, but in a general debate I want to point out the immense diversity in local authorities. The idea that one can rate-cap people by some stroke of the pen from London because all Great Britain is essentially the same is disproved at once when one considers the Western Isles. If the cuts being asked for are brought into effect that undoubtedly will seriously affect the services. I do not deny that the Government have done a great deal for them, but do we really want to deny them the services which are taken for granted in other parts of Britain?
No one has given the Western Isles a chance to develop their own potential. The Faroe Islands, although they receive a lot of money from Denmark, have developed their own way of doing things, their own economy, and they are, or were, thriving on it. Thus our system of local government seems to be in confusion. It is far too centralised not only in its methods but in its thought. It does not take enough account of the immense differences throughout Britain and badly needs a new system of finance. I hope that in this Session we shall not be entirely absorbed by the problems of London.
Finally I point out that the rich commuters of London get an enormous subsidy; a far bigger subsidy per head of the population than do the much poorer crofters and fishermen of the north of Scotland. It is typical that this is the type of, whatever one might call it, maladjustment which has crept into local government in this country because of the enormous confusion and constant changing of the method of raising the funds and the lack of any distinct principles which have lain behind it. I very much hope that when we see the London Bill it will be in rather better order than was the paving Bill which we dealt with in the last Session.
§ 6.14 p.m.
§ Lord Taylor of Blackburn
My Lords, I welcome this debate and am very glad that it has spread a little because one very often feels, sitting in this House, that there is only one part to local government and that is the GLC. Many of us have worked in local authorities for many years and we come from all parts of the United Kingdom. We have quite a lot to contribute to 363 debates of this sort rather than just thinking of the GLC all the time. We have our points of view, our criticisms and our experience to give to this House and to these debates. This is why I welcome the opportunity to participate.
I, too, agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grimond. I do not want another inquiry into local government. My word! I have served on too many inquiries and I have chaired inquiries. I have often wondered what happened to the reports at the end of these inquiries. Nobody seems to take any notice of them for years; then somebody in Whitehall has a bright idea and looks up a report and says, "Did Taylor do that in 1974 or 1977?" or something like that. They will bring out the report, go through it and decide what will happen. I do not want an inquiry. What we want is a little bit of action.
I was a member of an old county borough of precious memory for 20-odd years. It was an all-purpose authority. I know that some of our functions were not adequately carried out, that quite a number of things that we should have done we could not do because we were not of the right size and things had to change. The police force had to be transferred to the county council. We were a reasonably-sized authority of about 130,000-odd and were able to carry out an educational function; therefore I think we did a reasonable job in education. For the rest of the services of that local authority I thought that as a county borough we did very well indeed, and still could if county boroughs were allowed to return in the course of time.
I gained great experience in those days in serving on the various committees as a voluntary member. I think there was something called "loss of earnings" but few of us could claim those. There was no such thing as attendance allowances in those days. We served because we thought that we were helping our fellows in the local community and we got a great thrill out of serving our local community. Many people still receive a thrill, but not the same thrill that we used to have because they are now so frustrated with Government red tape. I know that this is the song that we used to sing in those days, that Government interfered too much with local government. But as I listen now to the members of my local authority, they tell me of the frustrations that they have. Only last week the chief executive officer of the now district council of Blackburn sent me details about the rate support grant that he will receive for next year, or what he believes he will receive at this stage. He sent me the document showing the position. In 1975–76 the council obtained 66½ per cent. from central Government. In 1979–80 it was 61 per cent. In 1984–85 it will be 51–9 per cent., and the estimated figure for 1985–86 is 48.8 per cent. He said that his financial director is asking him, "Where do we go?" These are officers talking, not elected representatives: "Where do we go? How can we decide what our budget will be?"
The noble Lord, Lord Grimond, is quite correct. One frustration of local government is finance, which is at the root of quite a number of problems. They cannot plan ahead. Local authorities know only one year in advance what their rate support grant will be. 364 That is no good. I know that the argument has always been from the national side that local authorities cannot be told earlier than one year ahead because grants are affected by external pressures over which there is no control; therefore a system cannot be devised to enable authorities to plan three or four years ahead. Such a system is long overdue in local finance. The only way for local authorities to progress is to plan ahead in that way.
Again, may I remind the House that the problems of this country are so diverse? The problems of London are completely different from the problems of Lancashire. In Lancashire, we are suffering today because of the Industrial Revolution when houses were just thrown up; they just grew like Topsy, overnight. Now those houses are no longer fit to live in. Over the years we have had our clearance policies, and they are continuing. But now what do we find? Again, I am told that because of frustration from national Government they cannot even plan that policy ahead, because they are being cut again on the housing programme. The same applies to the sewers. The sewers were built at the same time. They need renewing, and again because of financial stringencies, they cannot go ahead. I know that that is the water authority's responsibility. All of these matters in a county borough were the responsibility of the county borough, so my memory goes back to those days.
One of the things that I cannot understand is this. I believed the Conservative Party and I believed the Government when they said that they wanted to keep local government local. I remember sheets and sheets of material, the kind which comes out from Conservative Central Office as part of the election address saying, "Keep local government local". If they mean this sincerely, why make all these changes in this particular way; in the way of abolition, and so on? But I do not want to enter into that debate because I am sure that we shall have many hours of that as time goes on.
My Lords, I would plead for the local authorities to be given the opportunity of thinking ahead. I would plead for the removal of a lot of the petty restrictions, and for giving them an opportunity to try to uplift the morale of local government because the morale of local government, of its elected members and officers, is very low. It is low because of the frustration of not knowing exactly where they should go. May I urge central Government always to remember that it is important that they should sound out the localities and find out what are the feelings in the regions and in the districts before they decide to embark on fanciful policies that do not always work because they are not really cut out for certain parts of the country.
I hope that this debate will bear some fruit. I hope that somebody somewhere will listen to us. The other day I was speaking to my noble friend Lord Sefton and I asked whether he was going to take part in this debate. If ever a man has had experience in local government it is Bill Sefton, who has worked so hard for so many years in the Liverpool area. I am sure he must be feeling deeply at the moment over that great city of Liverpool—and over the way that Liverpool F.C. is playing at the present time; but I am not going to go into that, either, at the moment. Nevertheless, I am sure that somebody who has given so much must 365 be feeling very hurt about the way in which things are going in that part of the world. When I said to my noble friend Lord Sefton, "Are you going to contribute to this debate?" He said, "What's the use? Does anybody take any notice of you? Does anybody take any notice at all?" I sincerely hope that somebody will take some notice of points that have been mentioned in this debate this afternoon.
§ 6.23 p.m.
§ Lord Jenkins of Putney
My Lords, noble Lords will not be entirely surprised to know that I found myself very largely in agreement with what my noble friend has just said with such knowledge and conviction. But I am afraid that I did not find myself in agreement with what the noble Earl said in reply to my noble friend Lady Birk. He talked of his experience of local government, which seemed, as far as I could judge, to consist of his having visited a number of local authorities on two or three occasions. I did not gather that he, himself, had ever served on any local authority; and I rather suspect that the only way to get an intimate and realistic knowledge of local government is to have been on a local authority either as an elected member or as an official. As far as I know, the noble Earl has done no such thing. But this handicap did not prevent him in any way from deciding to lecture local authorities on democracy.
The spectacle of a Minister who has never been elected to anything standing at the Dispatch Box in a non-elected Chamber pontificating to those who have behind them the authority of the electorate would be laughable if it were not something worse than that. The noble Earl is a charming person, but his brief was one which matched in arrogance and insensitivity the appalling article by the Minister for Local Government in this morning's edition of The Times. If this balderdash that he was given to utter did not stick in the noble Earl's throat, then he is not the man that I think he is. However, he managed to get it out; it was his duty to do so. I should like to think that behind the outward conviction there was some inner lack of conviction; because what he was uttering was a negation of Conservative principles as enunciated by the noble Earl, Lord Stockton, and by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, who time and again has inveighed against centralisation of government, against control by government.
At that time, of course, a Labour Government was in power. The noble Earl talked about principle. If principles are involved, then the principle of central government not imposing their will on local government applies equally whoever is in power in local and in national government. I can give an example of that. There was a time when the GLC (which at that time was under Labour control) proposed to trunk the North Circular and the South Circular roads, to make a trunk road running through the whole area. A number of us objected to that, particularly people whose constituencies were affected—Douglas Jay and myself among them. We were able to rouse the local population. We had meetings all over the place, and we persuaded the GLC to change its mind. Now let us suppose that a quango was involved in this. How is a quango going to change its mind? It is the instrument, it is the pawn, the 366 creature of central government, and central government will not be sensitive to local issues in the same way as a locally elected body is sensitive to local issues.
What the noble Earl was saying about democracy was something totally anti-democratic, because democracy fundamentally must mean that the people's voice can be heard; and the people's voice can only be heard on local issues providing that it is heard by people whom they themselves have elected and whom they are in a position to dismiss.
This country is one of the most centralised in the world. I do not think it is realised how grossly overcentralised we are. Under this Government, local freedom to dissent from national decisions is being eliminated. As I have said, that is the opposite of what I understood to be Tory principles; although, not being any expert on those myself, I have had to take what I know of them by reading and by listening. Over the years I have come to the conclusion that what is currently being done in the interests of monetary policy is totally opposed to the Conservative theory of government—totally opposed to it. The noble Earl also talked about principles. He said that Parliament has the sole right to make laws—which, of course, is not in doubt. However, it is not true that all laws are equally enforced. Governments seem sometimes to be much keener upon the poor obeying the law than the rich.
The other proposition which the noble Earl enunciated—that the Government must have the sole right to determine how much local authorities should raise and how much they should spend—is not a principle at all. This so-called principle is an item from the armoury of economic monetarism. That is all it is. It is not a principle; it is an ideology. It is from the exploded ideas of Milton Friedman which are not followed in any country now, with the possible exception of Israel, about which no more need be said on its economic situation. I believe that the primary reason—and if not the primary reason, a very important reason—for the better performance of the United States and Germany is precisely that central control is ineffective because they are federal states; and regional and local government is in a position to save central government from its own theories by raising and spending money internally, whether or not the central government likes it. In other words, internal expenditure—not international expenditure— should be plural, and once again plurality, as I understand it, is supposed to be a principle of Conservative theories of government.
Some of us do not have to rely upon visits to local authorities for our experience of local government. Many of us, as my noble friend has just illustrated, and as the noble Lord, Lord Sefton, has also illustrated, have served on local government, which is perhaps the best way of getting to know something about it and a good way of avoiding saying things which everyone who has served on local government knows to be balderdash.
In my own family the first experience of local government was that of my wife. She was first elected to the Croydon Borough Council and subsequently to the Greater London Council, where she was chairman of the Housing Management Committee. House 367 building and the power of local government to build houses, together with the readiness of central government to allow local government to build houses, has been one of the enormous successes. We know nowadays that we perhaps made mistakes, but at that time, when people were living in multiple occupation and when there were six, seven or eight to a room, when people perhaps for the first time since they were married had their own front door, they wept with joy at having their own front door, created for them by a local authority's sensitivity to their needs. That would not have occurred but for the foresight of the Labour Government at the time deciding that the great effort in house building to recover from the depredations of the war should be in the hands of local authorities and that local authorities should be encouraged to get on with it.
The Government's decision to abolish the GLC and the metropolitan counties—and I apologise for raising the GLC here, but the government of the capital is an extremely important subject—is, in my opinion, one that they will regret, and for a number of reasons. Ultimately, I think they will regret it for electoral reasons, because in fact the people of this country will not stand for it. They will not stand for having the power to determine the government of their great cities taken out of their hands—because that is what it amounts to, in spite of the Government's pretence that it is being distributed.
Another reason why the Government will regret their decision is that the consequence of abolishing these large authorities is not only what will happen to the local authorities themselves but what will happen to all the organisations dependent upon the local authorities. One example is the arts. The Greater London Council, for example, is a very important patron of the arts, and without the Greater London Council many of the artistic activities in the capital will collapse. The Government say, "We have given the Arts Council £16 million to replace it"; but they have been pressed upon this, and if the GLC disappears there is no guarantee at all that this £16 million will in fact cover what the GLC is currently spending, let alone what it would spend next year and the year after that.
There is no guarantee at all; and in fact the Government have made it absolutely clear that there is no intention, so far as they are concerned, to attempt to replace the financial input of the GLC to artistic activities over a period of years. Therefore, in the course of a very short space of time one of the consequences of the abolition of the GLC, if the Government get away with it—and I sincerely hope they will not—will be that there will be an outcry from all those who are interested in the arts in the capital.
Another consequence of the Government's determination to decide everything centrally is that they have created for themselves a number of people who are their creatures, who are the voices of the Government at other levels. At the present time we can see, for example, that Sir William Rees Mogg has become the MacGregor of the arts. He is now the voice of the Government in artistic terms. That is what is happening for the first time in this country: the arm's-length principle, on which we have so much 368 prided ourselves, has become eroded, so that the Arts Council is now, for the first time, forced to go along the Government's road in exactly the same way as Mr. MacGregor eagerly goes along the Government's road, following policies which are dictated by central government. So the freedom of our country is being eroded in economic terms, and if it is eroded in economic terms, then it is eroded in other terms.
It is not, of course, that local government is sacrosanct. Changes have been made—some members may have felt too often—and changes should be made. But if we want to do anything about London, what we should do is something which I tried to do when I first came into Parliament in 1964. I tried, unsuccessfully, to abolish not the GLC but the City of London. It is the City of London, the hopelessly antediluvian undemocratic City Corporation which wants abolishing, and not the GLC. So if the Government want to do a little abolition, let them get hold of their friends in the City and let them deal with that. Let the noble Earl remember the figure of 74 per cent. He will not forget it because it will come back to him many times. The Government will be turned out, and they will deserve to be turned out. Labour will return because Labour will deserve to return; and when we do return we will undo some of the damage which the Government seem determined to inflict upon us all.
§ 6.37 p.m.
§ Lord Gisborough
My Lords, after that rather unpleasant and unnecessary personal attack on the Minister, I feel perhaps I might be right to defend myself for a start by saying that I was a county councillor for 13 years. There can be no disagreement—
§ Lord Jenkins of Putney
My Lords, would the noble Lord forgive me? I would say it was a political attack and not a personal attack upon the Minister, whom I specifically said I regard as a charming chap.
§ Lord Gisborough
My Lords, I do not think there will be any disagreement about the importance of local government spending to the economy. The 1984 Public Expenditure White Paper made clear that present capital and current expenditure of all local authorities was no less than £31.5 billion, a quarter of all public expenditure and 12 per cent. of the gross domestic product. No Government can ignore that sort of expenditure; and both Labour and Conservative Governments have always kept, and must keep, control of local authority spending.
In 1979 the Conservative Government was elected, and was re-elected in 1983 with a pledge to control public expenditure, to reduce public sector borrowing and cut taxes. These policies would be utterly unachievable if 25 per cent. of public spending (that is to say, the local authority share) were to be ignored. Less than a quarter of local spending—this has been mentioned several times already—has been financed by those who actually vote. More than a half of the expenditure is financed by the non-domestic ratepayer, and therefore I believe the Government really do have a duty to protect the non-voting ratepayers and to safeguard the strategy on which they were elected.
369 In the past, as we all know, there was no great abuse of the system and councils fell into line generally with the Government's overall policy. But recently—and again I am not the first to mention this in the debate—there has been quite deliberate abuse of the system and there has been a quite deliberate refusal to heed or to pay any attention to the Government's strategy. That, of course, has led to the Rates Act. Naturally it has upset those councillors particularly who have been bent upon high spending. Not many councils have been involved: three-quarters of the overspend of £848 million has been done by 18 local authorities. But the ratepayers in those areas have had substantial rate increases during the last three years. Nine of them have had increases of 40 per cent. and some increases have been even more dramatic. Southwark's rate went up by 56 per cent. from 1981 to 1982—including a 192 per cent. increase in the GLC precept—while Sheffield's went up by 41 per cent.
These rate increases have impoverished householders and, in particular, those retired people who are on fixed incomes. The increases have tended in many cases to drive out businesses; and this in itself has exacerbated the problem for those businesses and ratepayers who have remained in the area. One may take the examples of Lambeth and Wandsworth, where in 1978 council rates were by and large in line. But in Lambeth the rate is now 233p after being Labour controlled for some years, while in Wandsworth which has been controlled by the Tories the rate has increased by 97p less than that. I believe that the Rates Act will limit extravagance and bring hope to occupiers and business ratepayers. But, needless to say, it has brought fury to Labour councillors who, I believe, have brought this upon themselves.
Many of these councils say that the spending which they do is absolutely necessary because it is all on essential services, and yet they often refuse to put those services to the test and out to competitive tender. They give in to the unions and have staff levels which the unions demand. I had personal experience of this at home, where I was asked to contribute to a particular council expenditure on a matter in which I have an interest. I was asked to contribute a certain sum, but I was able to do the job myself by private tender for almost exactly half.
Councils insist that essential services include such things as women's committees, support for the CND, enormous propaganda campaigns and a host of weird schemes and services. What causes all these problems? Very often, it is the takeover by the extreme Left of certain councils. They have abused the system regarding central Government, they have abused the system regarding the election of councillors, they have abused the system regarding the payment of expenses and they have abused the system regarding even the election of their own leaders.
I believe that these Left-wing councils are a bigger potential danger to any new Labour Government that might one day get into office than they are even to this Government. Furthermore, we have seen cases of local authority officers—and I know of one from my own experience—who have been intimidated and abused by what are now full-time Left-wing councillors, while minority groups are ignored or intimidated. The noble 370 Lord is laughing, but these are facts of life and I shall be glad to recount the story afterwards.
It is argued that the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan boroughs is against the wishes of the majority of people and yet, through their manifesto, the Conservative Government had an overwhelming majority to do that. But what has happened? What has happened is that there has been massive advertising. Millions have been spent on advertisements at every corner and in every national newspaper and, naturally, these have taken their toll. It is a very great credit to the power of advertising. These advertisements have been unopposed. The sum of £12 million has been spent on The Londoner, extolling the GLC for no particular reason, but there has been nothing from the Government. There is a very good reason for that. The Secretary of State has no money available for spending on counter-advertising. We shall see the same with the buses—
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, the noble Lord makes play with the expenditure of the GLC on putting forward its case against abolition and he makes his views quite clear. He then goes on to say that the Government have no money to put the counter-case. Surely the noble Lord is not unaware that in recent weeks the Government have spent much more money than the GLC in putting their case on both the rate capping and the abolition. The noble Lord ought to be more careful before he makes such sweeping statements.
§ Lord Gisborough
Yes, my Lords, I am unaware. As I understand it, the Secretary of State has no funds to do that. The Government have been singularly ineffective, because one opens The Times and sees full page advertisements by the GLC, but does not see the same from the Government. I hope that the Minister will enlighten us on this.
I believe that it will be the same with the buses. When I read the White Paper, it seemed like a gale of fresh air, and yet I do not have the slightest doubt that there will be great advertisements against the freeing of the buses, with dire warnings and misleading propaganda paid for by the ratepayers—the very people who will gain the most from better and cheaper bus services.
Before ending, I should like in fairness to try to see the other side of the picture. Local authorities no doubt resent what they believe to be excessive Government interference in local affairs. They believe that their problems are not listened to and that the rate support grant formula is never adequate. They resent the proposal that further education is to be handed over to the MSC. They resent the accusation that they are not keeping costs down, and they say that they have more duties to perform, which is perfectly true.
For example, in my own county of Cleveland we have the highest fire risk in the whole of Europe. There are new regulations coming out, regarding reports on hazardous sites, which have to be completed by 1986. There are 42 of these hazardous sites in Cleveland, and if the existing staff did nothing else they would still not be able to do what is required by 1989. So extra staff are needed but there is no extra cash available to pay them. There are other special problems in the north, 371 particularly those linked with unemployment, and it is not felt that those problems are fully understood in the south. Cleveland is 260 miles away. Many councils are even further away, and they feel that they know better than Whitehall how to run their own affairs. They find it difficult to meet Ministers, or to convince them when they do, and it is necessary for there to be even more visits to the north by Ministers so that they fully understand the problems and can help as well as direct.
There is no doubt that, in return, all councils will have to contribute to the Government's policy. They will have to privatise, economise and modernise. They will have to make economies regardless of their political inclinations, and any Government will have to ensure the same. But I ask your Lordships to remember that not all political inclinations are necessarily Left-wing. Some views are very sincerely held and many councillors, who may not necessarily approve of the Government's line, while sometimes unimaginative, are certainly honest union members. Within the confines of their past personal experience with unions, and their present administrative experience in dealing with union pressures, they do not really know how to achieve the results demanded of them.
There are problems—there always will be —between local authorities and central Government. But once local authorities are streamlined and the metropolitans are disbanded, I believe that they will become more efficient, will be able to provide better services and will gain more trust from the Government and thereby more independence. I believe that, once the dust has settled, the way we are going forward will end in a happier relationship and a sounder future for the local authority system.
§ 6.50 p.m.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, we are very grateful—certainly I am very grateful—to my noble friend for starting this debate. At least, I was very grateful until I realised that it was turning into a debate about abolition and, yet again, about the GLC. Sometimes, it is quite difficult to remember that this is the House of Lords and not County Hall. Since I first came here—which I agree was not very long ago, just a mere two years or so—it seems that we have done nothing but talk about the GLC.
Frankly, for those of us who belonged to other authorities or who have worked in other areas, that subject can get rather boring. I therefore propose not to mention the GLC again in the rest of my short intervention this evening. Nor will I mention the abolition, other than to comment that, as I understand it, the percentage of the electorate affected by abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan counties will be something like 40 per cent. Surely the remaining 60 per cent. must be just as important, if not more so.
In this country we have government by consent. The essential element in government by consent is trust; trust between people and their local government, trust between the people and central Government, trust between central Government and local government, and trust between the people and the law enforcement 372 bodies. If we lose that trust, then we will lose the very basis of our democracy. The noble Lord, Lord Broxbourne, was right when he said that central Government can in law do what it likes. But surely we have not reached the stage where the Government are going to take all power from local authorities simply because they have the right to do so in law. Successive attacks by government on local authorities and the public condemnation of their activities has undermined public confidence in those authorities. The knock-on effect of that will be loss of confidence and trust in government itself.
We have seen some small evidence of that already. There will always be agitators. We have always had agitators in this country. Those agitators cannot gain a hold if the people trust their Government and trust the system. It really is most important to see that that system remains trustworthy.
I want to turn now to one effect of the bad relations between central and local government at the moment which has not been mentioned so far—or at least, only in passing by one or two noble Lords. It is the effect on local authority staff. Local authority staff are service minded. I have worked not only as a local councillor but also for several years—some time ago now—on a project by the Department of Applied Economics. It concerned job satisfaction and involved a very long and complicated series of interviews with staff of local authorities as well as of industries. I, together with a number of colleagues, spent a number of months talking to members of staff of other local authorities—not my own.
Those staff were aware of their role as public servants and they were proud of it. We held discussions with everyone—from the dustman to the chief executive, if I may put it that way, and from the gardeners to the chief executives at all levels. Through them all—to a greater or less extent—ran the same thread; that they were proud of the service they were rendering to the community. This was only four or five years ago. But if that survey were conducted now, I wonder whether the result would be the same?
For example, the rent collector looked upon himself not merely as a collector of rents but as a link between the people whose rents he was collecting and the local authority who received the money. He conveyed complaints and remarks about what tenants thought was wrong. He acted as a go-between. If people were in need of help, he saw to it that help was forthcoming. This was typical of the level of service given by local authority staff.
My case now is that many of those dedicated people are foresaking local government. They see no future in it. It is not a matter of finance because they are well-enough paid; it is simply that the local authorities are not attracting the quality of people they have been used to employing—and early retirement has been sought by a number of very good chief officials whose expertise we cannot afford to lose. The reason for such staff leaving is that they cannot see a future. They can no longer see the point of what they are doing.
That is because they can no longer see the direction in which central Government is trying to steer local authorities. I believe that it was the noble Lord, Lord Brooks, who pointed to eight different financial 373 systems in the past 10 years or so. Imagine what effect that must have on the city treasurer's department. People working there are growing old before their time. It really is an unbearable burden to place upon them. We do not need another review. We do not need another full inquiry. We do need a sensible decision on the part of someone that local government must follow a good line and that they must stick to it.
The attitudes of dedication among the staff I have mentioned are shared by the staff of most local authorities. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, was a little patronising about many local authority staff. I would not patronise them. Certainly all the people with whom I have had dealings, at whatever level they join, and whatever their background may be, were dedicated to the service of the local authority. There is no question that they—and I am leaving the GLC out of this—were in it for what they could get or that they were seeking any patronage.
§ Lord Gisborough
My Lords, the assertion made by the noble Baroness is grossly unfair. I do not believe that I said anything of the sort, or implied it.
§ Baroness Nicol
I am very glad to hear that, my Lords. The fact remains that many of those people are puzzled by what they see as the vindictive attitude of central Government. The Minister may claim that he has not been vindictive and that the Government are not vindictive—but that is how it is coming over in the town halls.
I will not keep your Lordships much longer but I want to read to you a letter I received during the Recess from a councillor who is not a member of my authority; nor is she a member of my party. But she is highly respected in her council and has held many chairmanships; she has served her council for a long time. I thought that her letter would be of interest to your Lordships. I will not read it all because it is rather long, but I intend to pass the letter to the noble Earl the Minister when I finish so that he may see it all. She writes:I write to express deep disquiet in what seems to be central Government misunderstanding of the duties and requirements of local government. I do not write on any party political basis but as a worried local councillor on (1) the future of local government; (2), what appears to be the lack of liaison between central and local government".She goes on to describe her experience, but I will leave the Minister to read that. She continues:I know that both officers and members since 1974 have worked diligently to get best value for money, keep the workforce within reasonable bounds, and keep the rates practical in the light of our obligations. We may be one of the few districts which have kept the rates much the same over this period—and on occasion it even went down".That is, from 1974. Her letter goes on:You may be aware of the resentment building up within these councils, which have tried and succeeded to meet Government requirements in spending and yet have still been penalised. You may not be aware that two themes now emerge: (1), most councillors of any party political persuasion or none no longer wish to take directions for cuts without a clear indication from central Government on how the country will benefit from those cuts".That seems to me a very reasonable request.
374 The letter continues:(2) How is it that Treasury officials so miscalculated their estimates for local councils' requirements that they now say, 'Too much, cut-back yet again'? We try to plan our capital programmes well ahead, as any competent management must do, and this stop-go attitude is losing all credibility. The public is losing confidence in all government. I regard the situation as so serious that central Government should realise that there is not only a rising resentment by the people who pay but by those who are locally accountable to the electorate, as they should be, but I find any support or understanding from central Government non-existent. Yesterday we had a special council meeting to discuss Mr. Jenkin's letter and it was clear that even our careful, responsible councillors have had enough.".As I said, this lady is not of my party nor of my council. The council from which she speaks has been Conservative controlled for a long time. I happen to know from conversations with other councillors in other areas, and from my association with the Association of District Councils, that this is not a unique attitude. It needs answering. It shows how relations between central and local government have deteriorated to break-down point. I hope that this evening the Minister will be able to give us some reassurance and not simply concentrate on furthering the debate on abolition, because that is not what we are here for.
§ 7.1 p.m.
§ Lord Molloy
My Lords, to those of us who have spent over a decade in the service of local government the past year has appeared to be a nightmare of appalling proportions. Being involved in some form of public life for 38 years, in the trade union movement, as staff-side chairman, as a councillor—I think I have held every single chair in local government—I have never known a shared bitterness (why do we always share things that are bitter and not things that are good?) against this Administration by Conservative councillors, Labour councillors, Liberal councillors and Social Democrat councillors, yet it makes not the slightest difference. All that we are having is diktat in place of discussion.
Worse than that, this afternoon we have had suggestions from the massive support that the Minister is getting from the Benches behind him. Let this go on the record; there is not one Tory Peer in this Chamber at this given moment. There are just two on the Front Bench. I am glad to see the noble Earl is looking round, because if what I have said is untrue I will give way for him to tell the truth. That in itself is an incredible description of the interest that this Government, under their Prime Minister, have in local government. They are all here in massive support of the Prime Minister! I can understand their absence. They are all ashamed. Of course they are. They are the people who tell others that dictatorial powers will not work. Some have told us that we ought not to be raising this issue now, that we should have waited until the Bill is before us. I do not share that view. I support the doctrine that, "There is no point in shutting the door when the horse has bolted."
There is another remarkable matter we must get into proper context. There was a tremendous outcry when the Labour Administration encountered its winter of discontent. Now, under this Administration, we have all seasons of dangerous discontent. We have strikes, unemployment, financial crises and declining 375 productions; a spring, summer, autumn and winter of discontent for almost the past four years, with not a glimmer of hope. What a massive condemnation that the matter which occupies this Administration is not unemployment, not the financial crisis and not declining production, but how to get rid of Mr. Ken Livingstone; because that is what it is really all about. That is the classic absurdity.
I am bound to say that there are so many other things which the Government should have been doing and which previous Governments, including Labour Governments, have neglected. I am perturbed, as was my noble friend Lord Sefton, at the increase in remoteness of many powerful organisations such as the water boards, and gas and electricity boards, the so-called complaints organisations which no one knows how to contact and the consumer organisations. A Bill could have been presented which would have done the Government proud, and which we would have supported, to create links between these massive, powerful organisations and the local authorities that most people know so well.
Parliament should also be concerned with what is going on in the European Community and the absurd European Parliament. They are also very remote. They can play an important part in our lives, but we do not seem to care. Direct elections to the European Parliament, as everyone knows, are an absolute farce. It was as much as I could do to look honestly after one ward as a councillor or one constituency as a Member of Parliament, let alone look after half a dozen and spending most of my time off the island. Those are the matters which the Government should be concerned about.
The noble Earl, Lord Avon, said that relations between local government and national Government inevitably involve a degree of conflict. That is true. My charge is that this Administration goes beyond conflict. In place of conflict, we have assassination. The Government ought to consider that situation very seriously. When one talks about the abuse of minorities, as did the noble Earl, let me give an example of an abuse of minorities that occurred in Ealing council. It is the tradition—a good tradition —that not merely the ruling party but also the opposition parties should have the chance of providing the mayor. That is a good thing. But the Tories in Ealing changed the rules. These lovers of democracy decided to change the rules and said to the incoming mayor, a member of the Labour Party, "You can be mayor but we have introduced a new rule. You must surrender your casting vote." We all know why. The Tory council could not depend on its Tory councillors always coming to the town hall to the council meetings.
That is the sort of happening that the Government should be concerned about. We have this little swastika growing up in Ealing borough council. When one talks also about whether or not ordinary people are involved, I can understand the argument if it is said that there is no involvement. There is no real concern by ordinary people. But all the polls and the national opinion polls have shown this—and there are many examples, but I shall give only one. The National Opinion Poll of June 1984 in the West Midlands 376 showed that 59 per cent. of the people wanted to keep their councils and 26 per cent. supported the Government.
This is my major complaint. The proposed reorganisation is not founded on any reliable study. For example, take the creation of the GLC and the ILEA and the wiping out of the LCC. I have commented on this before. All these big changes in British local government were carried out. Some people laughed at us because we were a little long-winded, but we had the Herbert Royal Commission in 1957. We had the 1972 Local Government Act, and while many of us did not agree with it, it was preceded by many examinations the most famous of which was the Redcliffe-Maud Commission. That is what we had before other changes were made in the great county councils. However, the present proposal was simply spawned by a vicious emotional spasm of the Prime Minister.
Of all the things that the Prime Minister should be chairman of in Cabinet, she has eschewed them all to be chairman of the committee that is dealing with the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan county councils. How about that? What sort of Government are they? The proposal was made because the Tories thought that it would be popular. But it is now hated by many Londoners (I regret to use that word, but my experience justifies my using it) and totally despised by some of Britain's greatest organisations—our voluntary organisations. I think that the time has come for people of all parties to come to the aid of democracy.
The pledge to abolish the GLC and the MCCs certainly was in the Tory manifesto; let us give them credit for that. But do your Lordships know how many words on it there were in the manifesto? I shall tell you. There were 66. There were 66 words in order to abolish the GLC and the MCCs. Such a cunning and clever move will have the approval of authoritarians everywhere; the people who do not like all this old talk, want to get on with it, bang the door and get rid of them. That is not our way, and never has been our way over the past 100 years. The change in government of the world's most renowned city, London, is a very serious issue, I believe. To abolish the government of the world's most renowned city is an appallingly serious error.
We have seen Cmnd. Paper 9063. It is now littered with amendmemts. It has the measles, there are so many of them all over it. The advisory council proposed to take the place of the GLC has no executive powers and no authority whatsoever. I believe that it will simply be a tool of central government. I can just imagine what the great free enterprise party would tell the Labour Party if it had indulged in such authoritarian action. I warn the Government that many devoted Conservatives agree with the submission that I am making.
We are also worried about whether it will be an enabling Bill. Will there be hidden or open powers to bypass Parliament? Will changes be made and other things done, without reference to a council or to Parliament, by certain individuals appointed by the Government of the day? I think that all this is designed to hide the cost from taxpayers and ratepayers.
377 What is much more dangerous is this. The proposal is redolent of creating a Tory Mr. Hyde whose purpose is to ensnare and destroy democracy's Dr. Jekyll. The elected representatives will be replaced by non-elected quangos, with all their chief executive officers, treasurers, lawyers, and so on—administrators. What a spectacle: the quangos of authority dancing tangos of death as they smother Britain's great democratic councils! I do not believe that anyone could be proud of that. Those are the things that ought to give us concern.
These great councils provide wonderful and humane services, and they will all be undermined. Millions of ordinary people in difficult circumstances will be deleteriously affected by the abolition of those councils. The morale of their loyal staff is being depreciated by this Fifth Column proposal. All they have to look forward to is the dole, which this Government seem to be enamoured of. They say one thing—that they are deeply concerned about the millions who are unemployed—and in their next breath they increase unemployment by acts like this. That is what we have to try to bring home to them.
I also find it difficult to believe that any Government would be prepared to destroy our voluntary services, of which we are proud and which in the metropolitan boroughs and in the GLC face elimination. The culture and art of the GLC and MCCs will also be vulgarised by an uncouth Government. I say to the Government and to the Tory Party that it may be a virtue to inflict strict discipline on oneself, but it is poverty of the spirit to inflict excessive measures, destined to destroy prudent democracy and harm our British constitution, on others.
The Government intend to abolish the elected representatives, who are to be replaced by lackeys who will be trained to obey central government instruction. That could have been written in Moscow, could it not? It is the sort of thing we read in propaganda against the Communist Party. I have to look carefully when I see the letters "CP". Do they mean the Conservative Party or the Communist Party? There does not seem to be much difference, does there? I believe that those are the dangers of which we have to take cognisance.
It would be to everyone's advantage, including that of the Houses of Parliament and all political parties, if this abomination were allowed to wither on the vine. The proposal is bad for the Tory Party, the Labour Party, the Independents, the Social Democrats, the Liberals and everybody else, including all those young people who aspire to serve their fellow men on local authorities. There has been no endeavour by the Government to find a middle way to achieve what they might claim is their rightful purpose—to cut spending. No; they know only one answer—the hatchet and the axe: destroy, cut, assassinate. That is not our way. It undermines the resources of idealism, which I believe are vital to our social endeavour. I ask the Government to realise that. Their policy on these appalling ideas reveals time and time again that they know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
§ 7.16 p.m.
§ Lord Lindsay of Birker
My Lords, I do not claim to be any sort of expert on local government but 378 comparisons are useful, and I thought I could make some contribution to this discussion by giving a rather anecdotal account of my experience of living for 24 years under a very different system of local government. Our family lives in Montgomery County, Maryland, which has a population of 579,000. In parts of the county all services are provided by the county government but there are also a lot of small municipalities—some of them very small.
We live in Chevy Chase, Section 3, which has just fewer than 250 houses. We have an elected committee, one of whose members is paid part-time as a secretary. The members meet in each other's houses, and any other residents who like to attend the meetings are invited to do so. Section 3 is responsible for the upkeep of our streets, street lighting and refuse collection. Subject to overall county zoning regulations, Section 3 gives the building permits if people want to add to their houses or make major changes. That, of course, means that decisons are made by people who have really detailed local knowledge. We have the right to regulate traffic. We can put up "Stop" signs or make one-way streets.
It is interesting that in some sense we get a real community spirit. Several people remodelled their houses, and the Section 3 committee held a party in a small local park and invited residents to come to see the alterations and the improved houses. Our money comes from a very small surcharge on local property tax, from part of the Maryland income tax which we pay and from various grants which I think were partly designed to compensate for what we do for ourselves instead of getting it from the county.
On the other side of a main road that is maintained by the state is Section 4. That has nearly 1,000 houses, and its committee is large enough to have a few permanent employees and a regular office. It also owns some equipment such as a snow plough. It made great use of its power to regulate traffic when it had problems with the increasing number of people using its streets as short cuts in rush hours. It closed off the ends of several streets and made a number of other streets one-way during rush hours. Then a little south of us is Chevy Chase village. This is a richer area and actually has its own small local police force.
These small municipalities provide better services than the big county organisation. County officials have asked our committee members how we manage to provide garbage and refuse collection so cheaply. We do provide extremely good service. Our dustbins are emptied twice a week. In the gardening season there is a once a week pick-up of garden trash. A once a week pick-up of newspapers for recycling actually brings a profit to the section. There is a day once a month when one can put out for removal anything that can be carried by two men.
In this small area, if anything goes wrong, if a pothole develops in the street outside your house, you know which committee member to notify. Usually within a very few days two or three men turn up with a small truck and do the repairs. People who live under the much larger county organisation say that it takes very much longer to get any action, and finally the county sends along a large truck with ten or 12 men to do the job.
379 Obviously, there are cases where it is necessary to have a large organisation with authority over a large area, but there are many other cases in which better service can be provided at smaller cost by allowing small areas to manage their own affairs with a minimum of formal administration. The absence of formal administration cuts down the overhead costs and the delays and inefficiencies that are associated with any large bureaucratic organisation. I think the encouragement of a do-it-yourselves attitude is an important contribution to democracy.
The management of schools is also highly decentralised. The US constitution puts education under the states but it is decentralised even from the state. There is a Maryland Department of Education, but schools are in fact run by the counties. They get their money from the property tax, which is extremely high. It takes about 20 per cent. of my income, which is a small income. But teaching policies, text books and everything like that are decided upon by an elected county school board.
This system can go wrong, but when it goes wrong it is really not too difficult to put it right. In the late 1960s elections to the Montgomery County School Board produced a board with a majority who favoured what I call fashionable fads. One was open class rooms. In the elementary schools the dividing walls between class rooms were pulled down to make very large rooms in which several classes met simultaneously. This would have been harmless if it had produced extremely large rooms. The actual result was that children at the edge of their class found they could hear the teacher of the adjoining class more clearly than their own teacher.
Another idea was to bring in what is called new maths. This was an attempt to teach small children set theory and numbers with bases other than ten, but it did not teach them multiplication tables. The view was that it was undemocratic to provide different teaching for fast learners and slow learners. The result was a very marked fall in standards in the schools. This annoyed the parents sufficiently to elect a different school board. They put back the dividing walls in the elementary schools and changed mathematics teaching to something which taught elementary schoolchildren how to do simple arithmetic.
Now standards have very greatly improved. The high schools offer advanced courses in many subjects and a good student can do work outside the normal curriculum. For half of last year, our elder grandson, then aged 15, was able to get off from school for two afternoons a week to work in the National Aeronautics and Space Agency.
The other point is that because the fairly small unit, the county, is the effective organisation, you can get quick redress of grievances. A few years ago, an official at Lelend Junior High School told us that our grandchildren were not really residents of Montgomery County because their mother was still in England and would have to pay 2,000 dollars a year to attend Montgomery County schools. My wife and I went to the education department offices, only six or seven miles away. The receptionist showed us round to an obviously very intelligent negro official. As soon as 380 we had explained our problem he said that he understood the Chinese tradition of extended families and got his secretary immediately to type out a letter overruling the man at Leland Junior High.
I think there are still many extremely bad schools in the United States. Education as a whole I think reached a low point in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But the point is that standards have now started to rise because citizens have the power to raise standards in their own local area without having to bother going up to state governments or, even more, to a federal government. I think we perhaps have had the quickest rise in Montgomery County because we have the highest proportion of Ph.Ds to the population than any other county in the United States.
The rise in standards is starting in other areas. Even parents with a poor education in a very poor area want the schools to help their children towards a better life. They naturally feel that they have been swindled if the school system lets their children graduate from high school without the skills needed to get any kind of job beyond unskilled labour. You can see this happening in the district of Columbia, which is the central part of the Washington metropolitan area. This has over 70 per cent. negro population. In the bad old days of racially segregated schools there were still one or two negro schools with extremely high standards. Then there was a period when all the schools in DC became extremely bad and families who could afford it sent their children to private schools or moved into the suburbs. However, the popular demand for better schools has been so strong that standards have been rising again over the last few years.
It seems to me that things have been very different in the United Kingdom. A few days ago I was talking to a high school teacher who told me that teaching policies were decided entirely from the centre. He said that he and other teachers at his school tried to help all children to make progress to the limits of their natural ability, but they had to do this unofficially because the official policy was uniform teaching regardless of ability. He said the result had been a gradual but continuing decline in standards.
I feel that people should be much more alarmed than they are about the decline in school standards. About two years ago Wireless World published several letters from the managers of firms in electronics complaining that they could not get good employees. One man wrote that he had tested applicants for jobs by drawing a very simple feedback amplifier circuit and asking them to calculate its input impedance. This was a perfectly simple problem for anyone who understood the basic principles of electrical theory, but he found that several applicants with university degrees in electrical engineering failed the test. As I say, if one projected the declining standards under a centralised schools system some way into the future it would produce a situation in which the United Kingdom could not have a prosperous economy because it did not have the skilled personnel to run it, and in which a large part of the population had become unemployable except at unskilled labour. So I think there is this very strong case in the education system for allowing people who feel strongly about good schools to be able to get them without having to try to change the central Government.
§ 7.29 p.m.
§ Lord Stallard
My Lords, having sat through almost all the debate this afternoon and this evening, I am tempted to begin by responding or replying to some of the remarks that have been made by other speakers. However, since I am 18 speakers from the beginning, though I would only spend a few seconds on each, it would probably take some time and far longer than I intend to spare from my own remarks. Of course it would also be totally unproductive. So I will resist the temptation, except that I think I must at least say one word in defence of those of us who have been criticised for defending London.
It so happens—if it has not been noticed here, it has certainly been noticed by myself and by several thousands outside—that London has been constantly under attack. We have been responding to repeated attacks on London. These have been directed at the county administration. And, if noble Lords have been vigilant they will also have heard the London borough of Camden, of which I was proud to be a member for many years, mentioned by almost every speaker on the Government Benches either in this House or in the other place. Again this afternoon, the Minister, in his opening remarks, had to refer once more to Camden. I shall not reply at this stage. There will be other opportunities and I shall take them then. I shall resist the temptation to go down that road now. I feel, however, that we have good reason to defend London and our own local authorities, as I respect those who defend their own local authorities.
Today's debate is about the relationship between national and local government. It is not about some conspiracy. We do not have to be conspirators to talk about the relationship between national and local government. We are doing so in the open. There is nothing conspiratorial about it. In present circumstances, it would be impossible, in my view, to discuss this relationship without referring to the impending legislation dealing with the abolition of the Greater London Council and the metropolitan councils. It would be ludicrous to embark on that kind of discussion without mentioning the impending abolition. I therefore do not think that I can resist the temptation to talk about the impending legislation. The legislation, if carried, would represent the most far-reaching and damaging changes in the relationship between national and local government this century. To avoid that kind of discussion is just not possible.
Of course we shall not be able to discuss the matter in any detailed manner. We do not have the Bill in front of us. We can, however, have a discussion in general terms. Enough has been said today and on other days about the principles behind the forthcoming legislation to allow us, perhaps, to roam in general through the relationships and the effect on those relationships.
I should like to digress for a moment, because I believe that it is relevant. All of us present in the Chamber yesterday heard a wonderful maiden speech from the noble Earl, Lord Stockton. I know that many of your Lordships were as enthralled as I was throughout the 30 minutes of that speech. It was an unusually long Maiden speech but, had it gone on for another 30 382 minutes, I should still have been listening, so important and so historic was the occasion. It was, in my view, a brilliant performance, enriched with wisdom and experience and uncannilly relevant, in many ways, to present circumstances.
I was involved in local government throughout the whole period of the noble Earl's administration. I heard many of his speeches and wrote many letters to him. Because of my involvement and because of his deep involvement at that time in local government, particularly in the run-up to the abolition of the LCC and the setting up of the GLC, I was interested in his reminiscences about those 12 wasted years to which he referred, and to which we referred in a booklet some years ago. I fully confess that I admire the noble Earl's wide-ranging experience of local government and its relationship with national government. I only hope that his successors in government today were listening to him and learning from his experience. I felt, too, as I saw him sitting in the Chamber earlier today, that it was a pity he was not speaking today, and enlarging upon some of the views he expressed yesterday.
I was delighted to hear my noble friend Lady Birk quoting from col. 235 in today's Hansard. It was a very relavant quotation, to which I imagine many references will be made in the debates to follow on local government. What the noble Earl stated is not new. It has been said before. I was reminded, listening to him yesterday, that I had been rereading recently a lecture delivered by Professor J. H. B. Masterman in the Royal Gallery here in 1909. In the course of that lecture—one of a series about Parliament and the people—Professor Masterman had this to say about local government:Centralisation—although we do not see it clearly yet, we shall learn it to our cost soon if we are not careful—centralisation is always the worst enemy, or almost the worst enemy, of all true democracy.Those were the words of a very wise man. And other wise men have followed. I should like to read one other quotation from the Second Reading debate of the Bill to abolish the LCC, when Sir Keith Joseph, another well respected parliamentarian, an expert on local government with a great deal of knowledge and experience, said:We must be sure that the structure of local government allows locally elected people to play their part in tackling these great problems, which go to the very root of all that makes for the character of a town and, in large measure, for the quality of living which its people enjoy". [Official Report, Commons, 10/12/62; col. 52.]I could go on. Other noble Lords have quoted from commissions and reports. My noble friend Lord Molloy mentioned the Herbert Report. That should be compulsory reading for everyone before they embark on the abolition Bill. However, as I have said, there will be further opportunities.
Government Ministers, in their arguments for so drastically changing the relationship between national and local government, have said, "We are not abolishing local democracy. We are simply handing services performed by the GLC back to local boroughs". But there have been no facts, no research and no reports from government sources to support that contention. On the contrary, research has shown and questions have elicited that this is not the truth. Indeed, most of the services will be transferred not to the boroughs but 383 to central government and to quangos. That is a major change in relationships as we know them between national government and local authorities.
Again, if I may refer to London, which I know best, transport has already gone. The arts—the South Bank complex—will, I understand, go to a quango. The fire brigade will go to a quango. Strategic planning will go to the Secretary of State, advised by a quango. Waste disposal will probably go to a quango. Superannuation and residual legal and financial matters will go; indeed, between eight and 15 quangos are being proposed to replace GLC control.
My noble friend Lord Sefton replied to the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, saying that he appeared to be using the exception to besmirch the whole lot. Other noble Lords from the Government side have spoken of the whole proposition as though it was a punishment for local authorities. Because a few have stepped out of line, the whole democratic system must now suffer. We are now, therefore, embarking on this punitive approach. This has emerged in quite a number of speeches, as noble Lords will find if they read them tomorrow. It is not a well thought-out approach at all. For my part, I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, appeared to scoff at voluntary organisations. I must confess that I do not know his involvement with voluntary organisations. I know about mine. I have had a life-long involvement with voluntary organisations, and I shall defend them. I shall certainly not do so tonight, but I shall defend them when the time arises, because it is part of this great attack—
§ Lord Stallard
My Lords, I shall certainly give way in a second, as the noble Lord himself said, when I have finished this sentence. I shall defend the role and the need for voluntary organisations in much of our life today. We owe them a great debt rather than besmirching all local organisations because there have perhaps been a few examples to which the noble Lord has pointed.
§ Lord Beloff
My Lords, I thought that I had made clear, although I did not perhaps do so sufficiently, that I have, as, indeed, must all noble Lords, the greatest admiration for voluntary societies, whether national or local, whose objectives are those of benefiting their fellow citizens. My only objection was to extend the phrase "voluntary organisation" to include organisations whose objects are primarily political but are yet financed out of local government expenditure.
§ Lord Stallard
My Lords, I accept that, and that is the part that I shall probably have to come back to in later debates. If the noble Lord persists in his argument, then I think I shall be able to reply in kind. I believe that we are in danger here of destroying very many good things because, as has been said, we want to get rid of one or two things with which some people do not agree. It is a danger of which we must all be aware and to which we must be alert.
I am also extremely concerned—again, I imagine it applies to the metropolitan counties as well as to London—about the future control of London's parks 384 and the recreational facilities that are in those parks. I take this as a small example of policy or a major change in relationships that has not been thought through. To some people, perhaps this is a small example, but to others it is a big thing. The Government have said that the boroughs will take over these parks. But those of us who understand the complexities of open spaces, leisure spaces and facilities, know that that is just not possible; it is not a feasible suggestion. Who will control those parks which cross existing borough boundaries? Are the Government suggesting, as they would appear to be saying, that in some cases those parks will be split up and divided among three or four local authorities? In that case there would probably have to be dozens of ad hoc agreements and there would be disputes that would go on interminably. The folly of that suggestion is apparent straight away to everybody who has any experience of local government, but apparently it is not obvious to those who are legislating.
I have an example, again in London, in Hackney Marshes, where there are over 110 football pitches plus other amenities, used by people from north-east London and all over London. Which ratepayers will foot the bill for Hackney Marshes in the event of the abolition Bill going through? There is no reply at the moment to these very principled questions. Who will control the Lea Valley regional park? It is a very important development. Little has been said. I am saying that these are the kind of details we would want to know before we agree to this major change in the relationship; and it is a change that we fear.
What is to become of my own local parks? I am entitled to mention Camden since, as I have said, it has been mentioned by every Minister and most noble Lords on the opposite Benches—it has also been mentioned in the other place—since the beginning of this discussion. What is to become of Hampstead Heath? People come from all over the world, never mind from all over the country, to Hampstead Heath. What is to become of it? Is it going to be split up into allotments and dished out to local authorities or quangos? I am afraid that there will be a great deal of concern—as there is now—at the proposal that it will be handed over to three separate borough councils, plus the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission. An absolutely crazy situation will emerge if that is the kind of control that is now going to be involved for Hampstead Heath and Kenwood. In no way will local people understand why that change is necessary.
As I have said, I will develop these detailed points later in the argument. I am using them now to illustrate what I consider is folly on the part of the Government in embarking on a major change in the relationship when what was probably necessary was an inquiry into the functioning of local authorities and some necessary changes with which none of us would disagree. Many of us who have opposed these widespread changes have been advocating for years that what was necessary was a proper inquiry, a Government-initiated inquiry, and some notice taken of the responses to that inquiry and, if necessary, some changes made in the functions of local government.
I do not want to go too far down the road on the question of abolition; that will come. But I thought it 385 was necessary just to broach the question because of the severe damage that will be done if this extension of centralisation and this move away from local democracy is pursued by the Government in the way they are pursuing it. I should like to end by quoting the Secretary of State himself. In October 1983 he said:I believe the burden of proof is upon the man who advocates changes and if he does not satisfy that burden of proof, then change should not made".I submit that the Government have not satisfied that burden of proof.
§ 7.45 p.m.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, I rise in the knowledge that everyone who has spoken from these Benches has spoken with considerable experience and authority in local government. I do not make the charge that other Benches are bereft of experience in local government; far from it. But we on these Benches take with a pinch of salt being lectured by Ministers, ex-Ministers and academics on the reality of local government as they see it from whatever ivory tower they reside in at the moment. Everyone on these Benches who has spoken has served, and has wrestled with problems of Governments of all complexions. I speak with but 20 years' experience; there are others with a great deal more. What we bring to this debate is our experience, of course our emotion, and our party bias and invective.
I listened very carefully to the words of the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, who apparently feels that there are some mandates and some manifestoes that are sacrosanct and others that are not worth upholding. The noble Lord, who I am sorry to see is not in his place, made the charge that everything that is happening in local government has been rubber stamped and approved by the election results of 9th June. In London, the abolition of the GLC—I make no apology for introducing, in the limited way that we can, the abolition issues—was an issue. But that was not the major issue upon which the election was fought anywhere else, and certainly it was not the case in London. If noble Lords are looking for the big issues upon which the Government had mandates, I can say that sadly there are two or three other larger spheres—for instance, employment or unemployment. This was certainly a major issue.
When we are talking in terms of the impact of the partnership that ought to be forged between central and local government we can see that there are massive tasks facing local and central Government in the field of employment or unemployment. What I am sad to see, although I am satisfied it is the truth, is that when the Government have made up their mind that there are those outside their narrow confines and sphere of influence who disagree with and would seek to oppose their views, solutions come very quickly to their mind. If abolition is the answer, they will not hesitate to abolish. If abolition is too drastic, they will not hesitate to cripple. If there is so much insensitivity about crippling, then they will seek in some other way to destroy or diminish the local spirit.
What the Government have sought to do over the past period is to reinforce what is not in dispute, certainly not in my mind; to demonstrate that if there is a question of relationship between a superior being 386 and an inferior being, the superior is Parliament and the inferior in that relationship is local government. There is no argument. But what the Government have sought to do is to establish firmly a situation which rests upon a master and servant relationship, to establish without any argument that if anyone is going to tell anyone else what to do, it is going to be the Government. Once the Government set their mind on wanting to tame not merely local government but many other spheres of national life, we were established on a very bad course indeed. Cannot the Minister take on board with his ministerial colleagues the enormous disenchantment which must fill the minds of a great many councillors who have been sickened and disillusioned by the ambience in which they have to work?
My days in office in local government were in the 1960s and, goodness knows, I saw Conservative Governments and Labour Governments, and so here I make no party point. But there was excitement; there were things to do. Although I had arguments with the Government of my own choice, at least there was satisfaction. I point out to the Minister that he can go to the majority party in the London Borough of Enfield, which is my own, and they will talk as bluntly and as openly as I am talking. To be a local councillor in 1985 will be a nightmare—a nightmare in either having to defend the Government or a nightmare in being satisfied in opposition that one can do very little to help the people whom one wants to help.
What we are trying to say to the Minister is that although it is terribly late, it is not too late. There is still time in the arguments about atmosphere and relationships, and confidence and trust. There are still steps along the way before we say that we have reached the point of no return. I ask the Minister to listen as well as to talk. We all have respect for the Minister—and I take the opportunity to wish him well in the very important post that he holds. But it is not merely crucial to listen to advice on what it is best to do; it is also advisable to do something along the lines of what you are being invited to do.
I believe that a cynical situation is manifesting itself in Government Ministers in their relationship with local government. Let me, as an example, take the current situation of the Minister for Local Government who only five years ago produced a well written and well researched document. I see that the Minister smiles—he knows the document to which I refer, and maybe that is because we are Londoners. The present Minister substantially wrote the GLC manifesto for 1981. The problem was that in 1977 the present Minister was then in Opposition. He made a robust, well-argued case—which certainly I would support—for all of the things which he now says are not relevant. I understand that seven or eight years can make a difference. But to turn local government and its imperatives in planning and a great many other things on their head really is asking us to accept a great deal.
We then have the question of the reality of members of the Minister's own party. The Secretary of State represents Woodford. Only last week the member of the GLC who represents Woodford wrote in the national press that:London is a victim of a Tory deception".387 He did not say "the Tory deception"—we know that there are many. What he was saying was that London is a victim of a Tory deception. He went on to say:The alleged transfer of GLC functions to the boroughs to give the electorate more direct control is quite simply a deception".We would argue that; and indeed we have argued that. I wonder when the Minister will at least acknowledge that we are not only arguing from a narrow party political base. I heard my noble friend Lady Birk in a powerful opening address in this debate make reference to a member of the Minister's own party—the leader of the Buckinghamshire County Council. My noble friend Lady Nicol in a very effective contribution drew attention to members in the Cambridge area who are councillors. When will the Minister take on board the representations from the ACC, the ADC, the AMA, the ALA and the LBA? All of the bodies are collectively saying to the Minister, "First, we don't like what you are doing, but if you are going to persist in what you say you are going to do, will you take advice from us on the consequences and the effects?"
One or two references were made to the current distaste and distress which has been caused. I am grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, is in his place because he drew attention to the compensation terms which have caused him so much distress and anger, and he has also drawn attention to the publicity.
§ Lord Beloff
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt, but I said that I was interested not in the compensation terms, but in the fact that the people being compensated had apparently been appointed without proper qualifications. Those are two very different things.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, I apologise for misunderstanding the drift of the noble Lord's argument. If we are talking in terms of qualifications, we should look at the net result of properly qualified people. At the same time as the issue of compensation hit the press this week there was also reference to the activities taking place at the Dunlop Company where four executives are to be compensated for terminating their service. I have with me a cutting from the Sunday Times in which reference is made to the fact that the compensation that they will receive for having got their company into its present state is £600,000. According to The Times this morning, it could very well cost £2 million to compensate those four people. The article in the Sunday Times very interestingly goes on to point out the state into which those so-called well qualified people have got the company.
What we have been hearing tonight, as my noble friend Lord Sefton quite rightly pointed out, is that in the whole field of local government there will inevitably be illustrations of how the way in which one administration or another decides to manage its affairs will cause offence or distaste, or cause some of us to say that that is not the way in which it should be done. Yet at the end of the day what we are being asked to point out is that this is the generality and universality of how local government is going on. Those are the premises upon which the Government allege that we need to make drastic changes.
388 I want to draw the attention to the House to one particular aspect of the consequences of the changes that could very well occur when abolition takes place. Together with other noble Lords I have received a letter from the Middlesex Area Magistrates' Courts Committee—a committee not unknown to my noble friend Lady Birk who serves with distinction on a Bench in the Middlesex area, as indeed must other noble Lords present. However, the clerk to the committee, Mr. Atkins, wrote to me and said:An unfortunate side effect of the Government's proposals will cause major reorganisation and disruption of the administration of the magistrates' courts in Outer London, especially in the Middlesex Commission Area.".In a letter sent by Professor Allott to the Home Office—and this is what the Government must understand is the consequence of their proposals—he said:The disposal intended by the Home Secretary for the magistrates' courts service is calculated in the opinion of this committee and the other Outer London Courts Committees to cause major disruption of the administration of justice without any gain.In fact the reverse will be the case. There will be serious detriment both in the short and longer term:—In the short term: unnecessary disturbance and expense caused by the manner of implementation and rushed timescale; in the longer term: the abandonment of advantages derived from the existing Commission Area-wide organisation.".There then comes the astounding proposal which I would be grateful if the Minister would take on board:Each of the Outer London Courts Committees has previously argued strenuously in favour of a solution to the enforced reorganisation of the magistrates' courts service in Outer London which will cause the minimum disruption, and the first criterion in their view was the replacement of the GLC by a single paying authority.They have suggested a means by which that might be achieved which has been rejected. No cogent reasons have been advanced for such rejection or in support of the Home Office preferred option for the creation of individual magistates' courts committees for each of the outer London boroughs with which petty sessional divisions are to be aligned if not already coterminous. In this Committee's view that option gives rise to the maximum of disruption to the administration of the service, is uneconomical and is undesirable.".At the moment there are four committees and one paying authority. It is proposed that there should be 20 committees and 20 paying authorities. At the moment the paying authority is the GLC. That will disappear, and it is proposed that instead of four committees there should be 20. The Minister needs to take fully on board the advice and the earnest pleading from people who are at the sharp end of what he and his colleagues propose to promulgate.
I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Broxbourne, is not in his place because he made a point about the right of businesses to be involved in and concerned with the organisation of local government. He told the House that it was sad that businessmen did not have a vote or a voice in local matters. The noble Lord will be well aware that the rates which the local businessman pays do not come out of his pocket; the rates that he pays are paid for by the consumers of his services. The individual ratepayer pays his rates out of his pocket and, of course, the noble Lord will know that the payment of rates by businesses is a legitimate business expense and is, of course, tax allowable. The noble Lord, Lord Broxbourne, is well versed in these matters because I know that on more than one occasion he has pleaded very successfully for, among others, co- 389 operative societies in their tussles with local government. So we should put the record straight in that respect.
On these Benches we have tried to draw attention to what we consider to be the catastrophic effect of many of the proposals which are likely to emerge from the abolition Bill when it comes forward next week. In my view the Government have it within their power to retrieve a great deal of lost ground. They should listen to those who operate at the sharp end—the councillors and their clients; the elderly, the homeless, the disadvantaged and the feckless. I say to the Minister: please try to reach agreement; compromise; take the councillors and the councils with you.
My noble friend and the initiator of this debate, Lady Birk, did not understate the situation when she described relations between central and local government as a civil war. In my experience the mood is bitter. Disillusion fills the air. Despair in local government is the order of the day. I hope even now that this Government will abandon their vendetta against all councils and some councillors. Only the Government can act like a government—they have a responsibility to do nothing less.
§ 8.4 p.m.
§ Baroness Faithfull
My Lords, we all like to think that we are unique, and from these Benches may I say to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, that I think I speak as the only chief officer in this debate, having served in central government as a civil servant for 15 years and in local government for 22 years. Therefore, with great diffidence I speak from the point of view of a chief officer in local government. Secondly, I must apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, because I feel compelled to speak about the Greater London Council, having served, at any rate for five years, on what was the London County Council.
I say with sadness and regret that I support the abolition of the Greater London Council as it stands today. There are some sectors of the service at County Hall which are of inestimable value to the people of Greater London and of London which must be preserved in some form. But there are other sectors which must be described as abysmal. I would contend that, as legislators, it is in part our own fault that we find ourselves in the position in which we are today. I contend that the Bill setting up the GLC and the many subsequent Bills referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, have been ill-drafted—indeed, I would use the word "sloppy"—and have been unwise and not concise or accurate in their recommendations. Mr Livingstone and his colleagues have exploited the ill-drafted and ill-thought-out Acts for their own political purposes.
I shall not go into the question of the profligacy and the expenditure of ratepayers' money, but I was going to touch upon an article published in the Standard yesterday on the golden handshakes. I am not so much concerned about the money side, but as a chief officer I was concerned that political appointments were made for professional jobs. Those of us who have had to train over a long period in order to hold posts of responsibility in local government would again like chief officers and their staff to be professional people without political motives.
§ Lord Jenkins of Putney
My Lords, will the noble Baroness give way? Is she not aware of the fact that what is causing all the fuss on this occasion is that, unusually, the people concerned happen to be Labour people, and that throughout the years the practice of political appointments has been widespread on her side as well?
§ Baroness Faithfull
My Lords, yes. I have not seen the curriculum vitae of the people who hold the posts in London Transport, but I would suggest that they were not professionally qualified to hold those posts. I believe that the Greater London Council should be replaced by an elected regional authority covering not only the area of the London boroughs but also the outer London boroughs and possibly beyond. Winston Churchill said:A wise legislator studies history".As London grew in the last century Lord Melbourne realised the need for a co-ordinating authority, as indeed did Herbert Morrison. There surely must be an authority whose role it is to consider the overall needs, the future and the development of London as a whole. In the very nature of things this cannot be dealt with by the individual boroughs.
No capital city in Europe is without an elected authority, and on certain issues there must be a mediator, a co-ordinator and a forward-looking body for the whole of London. There surely must be balance and counter-balance as between boroughs and the regional authority. The role of a regional authority would need to be clearly defined, and the sectors on which expenditure is permitted meticulously laid down. This has not been so in the past.
In addition to its main role of co-ordinating and overseeing the needs of London, let us look at the additional duties which such a regional authority could carry out. I submit that it could carry out the education service. An independent, elected ILEA is a very odd concept floating about on its own. Then, the Historic Buildings Division, which is to go to the Historic Buildings Commission, I contend should be dealt with by London and Greater London alone. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, who mentioned the arts, which are to be split up between the boroughs and the Arts Council. London should surely have its own department.
Other noble Lords have mentioned the fire service. I should also like to mention the police. In the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill, at the Second Reading on 4th June, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, said at column 435:Finally, I come to accountability, which is not dealt with in this Bill. … [I would say] that the accountability of the Metropolitan Police to the Home Secretary was necessary and that one need not take it further. I still agree with that view—that the Metropolitan Police should be accountable to the Home Secretary. However, I would suggest to the Home Secretary that if he could exercise that constitutional responsibility of accountability for the Metropolitan Police with the help of some kind of a committee drawn from the people of Greater London, and if he could be seen to act through and with that committee, even though the responsibility must remain his, I think that would be worth considering.May I ask the Minister what is to become of the really excellent reference library at County Hall! Many of us have used this reference library on many occasions. What is to become of the good computer 391 development organisation, which again many of us have used? May I also support the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, in his comments on the parks and open spaces? Apart from the Royal parks, I cannot imagine how the individual local authorities are going to administer, for instance, Hampstead Heath. Supposing they wished to build on Hampstead Heath, what would the rest of London say? The recommendations I have referred to—and I say this again, looking at the errors we have made in the past—would have to be clearly outlined, clearly written, and clearly thought out, particularly, as the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, said, in the terms of finance and what money could be spent.
I turn briefly to the metropolitan county councils. Here, again, I support the retention of the metropolitan counties. The principles which apply to the abolition of the GLC apply to the metropolitan authorities. Here, as with the planning of the abolition of the GLC, Her Majesty's Government have prepared no costings. I ask the Minister whether he is able to tell us how it has been worked out that it will cost less if we do away with the metropolitan authorities and if we do away with the Greater London Council. I hope that this time around we shall not make a mistake so that in 12 years' time we shall have to look again at the reorganisation of local government. I beg Her Majesty's Government to look before they leap.
§ 8.14 p.m.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, when I consider the wording of my noble friend's Motion I cannot resist the cynical thought that it is oppositions who are always in favour of decentralisation and governments who are always in favour of central authority, rather in the way that politicians who see that they have some prospect of an absolute majority in another place, or in a council, are against proportional representation, and those who have no such prospect are in favour of proportional representation.
I have been rather amused recently by the way in which the Fabian Society, of which I am an active member, has kicked over its strong centralist tradition, the tradition of Beatrice and Sidney Webb, in favour of what the cynical might call a populist decentralising posture. In fact, I sometimes see some similarities between Beatrice Webb and the Prime Minister. Both of them had this strong respect for discipline and authority, even though on oposite sides of the political fence. I do not know whether the Prime Minister would go so far as to approve Beatrice Webb's view that Moscow was a marvellous city because there was no spooning in the parks, but certainly what we are seeing in this Government is a strong, authoritarian position with regard to local democracy. It is one which I personally find disturbing.
The noble Lord, Lord Broxbourne, in his perfectly accurate and correct expositon of the legal position of local authorities, said that the local authorities are a creature of central Government, of Parliament. He is no doubt correct in that. It is open to Parliament to set up, change, destroy local authorities if they so wish. That is our unwritten constitution. The question we must ask is whether it is wise to do that. Is it wise that 392 the relationship between local and central Government should be based on the exercise of unbridled authority by one tier of government and the total lack of independent authority by the other tier of government? After all, central and local government have to work together if this city is going to be governed. That is what seems to be forgotten all the time in this debate.
I wonder whether the Government ought not to give rather more consideration to the proposals which have been made notably and most effectively by Professor John Stewart and Professor George Jones that there should be some sort of, they say, charter—perhaps that is too grand a word—or some sort of agreement which, I should have thought, could be an all-party agreement, to set out the basis on which the local government financing and local government powers should be considered by successive Parliaments and not just by one Parliament. I appreciate the constitutional difficulty of that, but it is worth setting out the principles on which there ought to be agreement between both sides.
First there is the issue of local elections and local accountability. Ministers say—Ministers of both parties in the past have said—that local elections are not particularly democratic because so few people turn up to vote. Should we not try to make them more democratic? Why should there not be, for example, in local elections a right of recall? Why should not a specified number of local electors have the right to say that there should be another election because the council is going beyond what it was proposing in the first place, or is doing something which is costing us more money than we were told it would, or whatever they may think as a good reason?
Should there not be the possibility for a council, if it meets with votes of no confidence, for example, to say: "We are not going to wait for the next three or 3½ years, we are going to the electorate in order to seek a new mandate for our policies? These may be disturbing suggestions to constitutionalists, but I believe that they would increase the accountability and increase the meaningfulness of local elections.
Then there should be a firm statement on both sides that there should be a substantial independent income for local authorities. I believe that the dependence of local authorities on central grant, which had risen substantially and has recently been decreasing, is a bad thing for local government, because it gives the opportunities to central Government to twist the tail of the local authorities; and to do more than that, to wring the neck of the local authorities of which they do not approve. There should be a clear statement about those areas in which the local authority has the right to independent action.
I do not think that many people realise the extent to which in its actions, its expenditure, and its administration local government is carrying out the orders of Parliament very directly, and the extent to which it is taking the blame for many of the mistakes which Parliament makes in legislation.
Finally, I believe that local authorities should have the certainty of their powers and duties, that they should understand what it is they have to do and it should not be changed from year to year as it is at the 393 moment. If we had that sort of agreement—I do not believe that this is a particularly socialist point to make; I wish it were in some ways—then I think we could move to the next stage, which would be actually to roll back the powers of central Government, wherever there is a local organisation of a Ministry, wherever legislation sets up a duty which has to be performed by officials on the ground that local organisation should be controlled by the people living in the area and not by central Government.
I have a huge shopping list of that kind of responsibility which should be in local hands. My noble friend Lord Brooks gave some of these examples and I apologise for repeating them. First, health: there is no good reason now why district health authorities should not be under local authority control. The Manpower Services Commission: there is no good reason why the training aspects of the Manpower Services Commission should not be under local authority control; and there is a good argument for saying that the employment services, the job centres and so on should also be under local authority control, so that employers and the people living in an area can influence the way in which these organisations are operated. This is already happening through the MSC in local manpower committees and manpower forums, so why should it not be part of the democratic structure of the local community?
The probation services: in Scotland they work perfectly well under local authority control. Why should they not be under local authority control in this country, as in many places judicial services are?
Social security is the best example of all. Of course there have to be national standards for social security, but who better to understand the propriety and the necessity for certain kinds of local variations in the social security system than the elected representatives of the local community?
Health and safety executive: we already have trading standards under local authorities, so why should not the Factory Inspectorate, the Alkali Inspectorate and so on be under local authority control?
Gas and electricity distribution, a notoriously unresponsive and irresponsible service in many ways, could benefit from more effective local control than is provided by the existing consumer councils. And finally I say, with some caution, that I believe still that there is a place for the police to be under local authority control. I do not mean that there should be direct day-to-day operational control by politicians of police tactics or expenditure. I do not think that local councillors should accompany the police on their raids, although I had a colleague on the GLC who was chairman of the fire brigade committee. He used to be woken up in the middle of the night and go to fires on the appliances. I think that is going too far, but nevertheless the necessity for relating the very heavy expenditure of police services with local responsibility for the police services is, in my view, absolutely irrefutable.
What we should be looking for is a stabilisation of the relationship between central and local government as a basis for an increase in local democracy and a decrease in the powers of Whitehall. I am encouraged in that view by a quotation which, in my usual way, I 394 shall give without giving the source at the beginning:I believe that an effectively functioning local democracy can monitor the activities of local councils far better than civil servants in Marsham Street".That was said by the right honourable Michael Heseltine, MP, on 18th July 1979. I thought he was right then, and I think he is right now.
§ 8.24 p.m.
§ Lord Underhill
My Lords, this afternoon and this evening we have had 21 speakers so far, and I feel all noble Lords will agree that this has thoroughly justified the decision made by my noble friend Lady Birk to put this particular Motion on our Order Paper. All the speeches have been helpful. Some have been theoretical on the relationship between central and local government, and others have dealt with practicalities as they are or as the Government intend that they shall be. The noble Earl—who I am pleased to see against me at the Dispatch Box this afternoon, as we have had encounters previously—has always been helpful, fair and reasonable. I hope he will have listened very carefully to everything that has been said and will decide accordingly in relation to some of the legislation which is likely to come before us.
Noble Lords will all agree that during the debates over the last 12 to 18 months in your Lordships' House the question of deteriorating relationships between local and central government has been apparent, not just from your Lordships' official Opposition but from all parts of the House. Today it has been clearly evident, although the noble Lord, Lord Broxbourne, said there is no such conflict. The number of occasions on which leading officers of the three local government associations have told your Lordships of the worry and concern that exists in their own associations about these relationships has been frequently emphasised.
My noble friend Lady Birk referred to the concern expressed by the chairman of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the ineffective way in which the Consultative Council for Local Government Finance had been working. I was sorry that the noble Earl rather dismissed this as if it were of no importance. But the AMA is very worried and concerned. They want this national council to work effectively, and are concerned that it is not doing so. Instead, the noble Earl replied that it was ill of the AMA to criticise this body when it had refused to come into the negotiations regarding the abolition proposals. But seven of the major authorities of the AMA are being threatened with abolition. Can anyone expect that association to come before the Minister to tell him how to do it? The association submitted a response saying that it should not be done, and criticising it. That surely is the most anyone can expect of an association, some of whose major members will be affected by this legislation.
One of the complaints of the local authority associations is that they are not being consulted on principles: they are consulted only on how to carry out principles with which they disagree. That is one of the major criticisms.
The noble Earl referred to all the debates we had on the Rates Bill. I shall not be sidetracked into dealing with any of the individual authorities to which one or 395 two noble Lords referred, except to say, as my noble friend Lord Sefton said, that to point out the exceptions does not prove the rule.
I would say, however, that many noble Lords will recall that there was a Royal Commission in the late 1970s on conduct in public life. At the same time I was secretary of a Labour Party committee on the conduct of the party in local government. The commission praised the work of that committee and the decisions it had arrived at, so I think that will indicate the general view of the Labour Party upon any irregularities that may take place in local government.
Previously, it must be emphasised, the Government had a right—all Governments have a right—to determine what should be the maximum support given to local authorities from central government. That has been emphasised time and time again, and we do not disagree with it. But what the Government have done over the last few years is gradually to interfere with the actual expenditure and targets of individual local authorities. It is the Government's own actions that have led to the confrontations and the atmosphere of conflict that there is between many local authorities, local authority associations and central government. All the three local authority associations' responses to the rating proposals expressed opposition; but the Government went straight ahead. This has brought along some of the conflict with which we are faced today.
My noble friend Lord Sefton, in what I think was an excellent speech, speaking from the heart about the area in which he had worked for so long, stressed that local councillors are elected to provide services to meet local needs. Then they find that if they attempt to do so, they are targeted and there are penalties upon their authority. Noble Lords have listened to my noble friend Lord Taylor of Blackburn giving his account of the gradual drop in the rate support provided to his authority, a drop which affected the services which the local councillors felt they were elected to provide. So we find local councillors in various parts of the country facing a terrible conflict. There is the legislation on rates, on the one hand, and yet there is the councillors' legal responsibility to provide services which they were elected to provide.
I have been at the AMA conference of local education authorities for the last few days. Representative after representative stressed their legal responsibilities under the 1944 Education Act—responsibilities for services which many of them are not able to provide because of insufficient finance. What is the answer? The individual councillor experiences tensions and conflict. These are the sort of things that we hope the Government will help to resolve. At the same conference there was a resolution which was carried unanimously by representatives of Tory authorities, of Labour authorities and of other authorities, regretting that additional responsibilities involving increased expenditure were being continually placed upon local authorities by Government legislation with no additional funds to pay for those additional services.
Again, I say that this is the responsibility of Government and it is not sufficient for the Secretary of 396 State to say that local councils must shift their resources in order to cope. Many could not do this. To shift resources from one area to another means that the first area is then bereft of support. That is what the chairman of the Buckinghamshire County Council —my noble friend Lady Birk referred to his letter in The Times—meant. I will just add one point: this Conservative chairman of the Buckinghamshire County Council—a man with 18 years' service under the county and eight years as chairman, who is to resign—said, "We have been legislated into a corner". And then we are told that there is no conflict between local government and central government.
My noble friend and other noble Lords referred to the Audit Commission's report on the review that it carried out. In effect, what did the Audit Commission say? In a few words, that—and I paraphrase—the present system of block grants, GREAs, targets and penalties is a mess. There are too many uncertainties and no opportunity for councillors to plan one more year ahead. It may seem good that the Government's response is to set up this internal study; but it is an internal study, not an independent study. If the Government are to carry out this internal study in the same frame of mind that they have introduced their rating and other legislation, they will make a big mess of the thing at the end of the day rather than improving it. That, I am sorry to say, is the sort of attitude that we have today.
I must say a few words about abolition, because these are the practicalities. Ministers repeat time and again—we have had it this afternoon—that there will be efficiencies and savings as a result of the abolition proposals. If that is so, I wonder whether it would be pertinent to ask, if all that can be secured, why not extend abolition to the two-tier shires? Why not, if such efficiencies and savings can be secured and will be secured from abolition? I notice that, in the debate that we had on 15th February on the administration of metropolitan areas in Europe, in reply to a question by my noble friend Lady Birk about costings, the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale—I am sorry that he is not with us, but he would not deny what he said—said (in col. 315) that the request of my noble friend was fair. He went on:The Government do not have the costings and they will not be able to produce the costings until we see exactly what levels of employment and redistribution of staff will be involved between, for example, the metropolitan councils and the joint boards.The Government do not know. Yet in Streamlining the Cities the Government were adamant that there would be savings.
My noble friend referred to the Coopers & Lybrand report. All I want to say about that is that I recall asking a Question in your Lordships' House which was replied to by the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin. I repeat the challenge which I made then. Will the Government —and they are well-documented reports—actually issue a response to the Coopers & Lybrand report, challenging, if they wish, all the statements and results of the survey that that report produced—bearing in mind that Coopers & Lybrand are responsible consultants, used frequently by the DoE itself and therefore that they cannot be said to be an inefficient and loose organisation?
397 It must be faced that the abolition proposal was a piece of election dogma, ill-conceived and not thought out. That is reflected in the spate of consultation documents that have poured out. Somebody has said, "Oh, there is a problem. We have not looked at this one. We shall issue another document." My noble friend Lord Stallard mentioned one in particular. I note from the document on the transfer of functions that they do not know what to do with the Lea Valley scheme. It involves finances as well as who is going to run it. My noble friend referred to parks.
I could ask, "Do they know what they are going to do with Hainault Forest—not only has it two golf courses, on which I play, but it is in three separate districts, two London boroughs and one county district. But has Redbridge, has Havering, has Epping Forest had any experience of running a big forest? The LCC had; the GLC had. Has Epping district council, my district council, any experience of running a huge forest which used to be a part of Epping Forest, which was controlled by the Corporation of London? They have not thought this out. This is typical of many other matters which they have not thought out.
Now we are to have joint boards, joint committees, ad hoc working groups and lead authorities on some issues. The consultation papers and this document on the transfer of functions, only issued in July 1984, place excessive reliance on hopes of voluntary cooperation. They are just hopes of voluntary cooperation. If any noble Lord goes through that document, they will see references to the situation that, if it fails, the Secretary of State has reserve or default powers. It says this in item after item. That is the way in which the Government are proposing seriously to administer Greater London and the metropolitan areas if abolition goes through.
The present set-up enables important decisions to be taken on a wide area basis and not just on a localised basis. In London, it will mean returning to the situation before the LCC was set up; and denying the very reasons why the LCC was set up nearly a century ago. We will go back to that situation. It has been stressed that we will be the only country in Western Europe without an all-area administration for its capital city. It might be pertinent to ask which Government set up the GLC; it might be pertinent to ask which Government set up the metropolitan counties. But the more important question is this: Leaving out the political bias, does the GLC work; has it got important functions; do the metropolitan councils work; have they got important functions?
On the very issue of strategic planning, which is absolutely vital, there has been general criticism of the proposals which will really leave strategic planning absent from both London planning and also the metropolitan areas. We are told that what the Government will do is to have a planning commission for London to advise the Secretary of State on strategic-matters. In the metropolitans, we will have planning conferences to advise the Secretary of State on strategic planning. But we are also told that these joint boards that are going to be set up will be legal entities which will really act just like a local authority. Members will not be accountable to the borough or 398 district which appointed them. The joint boards will take decisions on important matters in complete isolation from other services. With the GLC and the metropolitan counties all these matters are considered because they come within the same resources. The joint boards will also have precepting powers, again determined in isolation from all the other services of those particular areas.
Then there is a very important change, which the Government will have to seek to justify if the proposals are put into the Bill: that for the first three years the Secretary of State will approve the precepts of these joint boards and, beyond that, he will also have powers to control the expenditure levels and manpower of the joint boards—and we wonder why there is criticism and there are bad relations between central Government and local government!
Obviously, all the details will be matters for the Bill which has not yet been published, and naturally I do not want to be involved in lots of theories. My noble friend said I would deal with certain transport matters, and I will attempt to do that before I close, because three proposals are all inter-related—maybe that was not intended to start with, but they are: the abolition proposals, the proposals in the White Paper on buses and now changes in transport supplementary grant. They are all interlinked, they all reveal the Government's philosophy and they will vitally affect local councils—not just those in the metropolitan counties and in London—because the White Papers and TSG will affect all counties, and proposals in the buses White Paper will also affect Scotland.
On transport issues, London is already dealt with by the London Regional Transport Bill, whereby transport is divorced completely from all the other services—strategic planning and traffic management—because the Government have nationalised London's transport.
The rationale for setting up the metropolitan counties was the development of a strategic role for the integration of highways, highways planning, traffic management, public transport and land use, and I challenge any noble Lord to say that the metropolitan counties have not succeeded in the work for which they were set up. They have gone a long way towards the integration of various transport modes. They have gone a long way in introducing innovations and, what is more important, a number of the metropolitan counties, through their PTAs, PTEs and innovations, have succeeded in reversing the drop in passenger use. I think that alone would justify the existence of the metropolitan counties. The passenger transport users' groups in London and in the metropolitan counties, meeting together, have condemned the proposals for the abolition as they affect public transport; and that should be noted as well.
On the White Paper on buses what real consultation was there? The Government issued the White Paper but made it quite clear that they had the intention to legislate. They had the seven consultation papers, again not on whether or not changes were desirable but on how the proposals in the White Paper Buses should be carried out. What consultation was there on the proposal to break up the National Bus Company? 399 That will affect the shires as well as the metropolitan areas. We have all the proposals in the White Paper for deregulation, cessation of route licensing, tendering for subsidised services, the break-up of the bus services and the passenger transport executives. We had the break-up of the municipal undertakings in the shires: all these proposals were in the White Paper. What real consultation was there with the local councils, which are going to be seriously affected by these proposals?
Not only will strategic planning be affected by the abolition proposals, not only will the councils be affected by the proposals in the Buses White Paper, but also the Government will follow up, as they have announced, with drastic changes in the administration of the transport supplementary grant which will affect all counties and not just London and the metropolitan areas. There is a statutory requirement that the Secretary of State and the Ministry of Transport should consult the local authority associations on the question of rate support grant and obviously involving TSG. The only consultation that took place this year on the drastic changes which are proposed in the transport supplementary grant was the issue of a draft circular. That to me, my Lords, is not consultation with local authority associations. That is the sort of thing which I believe noble Lords everywhere are criticising.
What they are proposing is that in future transport supplementary grants shall be for capital purposes only. Grants for revenue support for public transport, highways maintenance and other activities will be merged in the rate support grant. It has been found almost impossible up to now to work out a GREA for revenue support and for maintenance, in other words, which would help to compensate the authorities for the loss of the transport supplementary grant for those particular purposes. The order will be before us very shortly and we can debate it, but debating the order merely shows what is wrong with it: we cannot change it. But I hope that the Government may listen between now and then, and consider some changes.
In conclusion, may I say that some noble Lords, and I think in particular the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, said that finance is at the root of a great deal of the conflict. The noble Lord, Lord Broxbourne, said that Parliament is supreme. Of course it is, but Parliament can make mistakes and Parliament may have to be corrected. Parliament may have to adjust itself, because it is the Government's own actions that are the breeding ground for most of the present conflicts and tensions which exist between local government and central Government. My hope is that the Government will realise that on this issue they have got to change course. They have got to bring a new spirit in local government, where they feel they are trusted. At the moment, members of local authorities do not feel that they are trusted and the local authority associations—of course there will be differences because the Government will not always agree with what they ask for—have got to feel that they are trusted by the Government and taken into consultation on principles and not just on how to carry out things that they do not like. At present, I can assure your Lordships that the associations want this: only 400 the Government, which are supreme, can move in that direction.
§ 8.49 p.m.
§ The Earl of Avon
My Lords, this has indeed been a wide-ranging debate. I do hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, was in her seat when the noble Lord, Lord Lindsay of Birker, took us to Maryland, because that at least got us away from London for one speech.
I assure your Lordships and the House that we shall certainly study this debate carefully. I in fact said this in my opening remarks. This is a convenient moment to have this debate, so that it can be with us for the studies which we are making. Equally, may I say now that if on reading Hansard tomorrow I find that I have missed some specific questions, then of course I shall write to noble Lords in response.
One of the points which was raised by most speakers was the question of an inquiry, and I am afraid that I lost count halfway through about the number of pros and antis. But I should like to quote from the Opposition environment spokesman, who in February 1983 said:We shall therefore legislate to create unitary district authorities which will be responsible for all of the functions in their area that they can sensibly undertake. We shall set up no more inquiries. We shall legislate".I am sure that the noble Baroness will correct me if I am wrong, but I am told that in 1969 the Labour Government produced their White Paper on the reorganisation of local government, and in 1970, after we came into office, we changed to a different system—essentially the one we have today. However, neither of these schemes was the one recommended by the Royal Commission.
The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, and the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, spoke of the Audit Commission's report on block grants. My right honourable friend has accepted that some of the report's conclusions seem reasonable and some seem to be based on little evidence. If I may give an example, the argument that rates have been higher than necessary as a result of Government policy simply does not stand up to examination. However, my right honourable friend has, for example, made it clear on a number of occasions that it is his aim to abolish the system of targets and hold-backs as soon as possible. It is issues of this kind which will be looked at in the studies of local government which I spoke about earlier.
The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, and the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, spoke about the resignation of Councillor Parker-Jervis. We regret the resignation of so able a leader and I should like to take this opportunity to express our gratitude for his unstinted public service in Buckinghamshire over past years. It is counties such as Buckinghamshire which have suffered in recent years through the extravagant overspending of a handful of authorities who flout Government requests for economy. Because of that over-spending, we have had to ask all authorities to make economies. But now for the first time we have powers under the Rates Act to restrain the spending of the higher 401 spenders and we have been able to set easier spending targets for next year for responsible low-spending authorities like Buckinghamshire.
of Greenwich: My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl a question on that? If the problem has been solved by the passage of the Rates Act, which I understand to be his case, why does he think that the chairman of Buckinghamshire County Council has chosen this precise moment to resign?
§ The Earl of Avon
My Lords, that is of course the choice of the chairman himself. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, I have to say that I agreed very much with the situation which he painted for us. I was sad that he was against so many of our policies. I noted that proportional representation was one of the answers he gave. While I concede that it might have some benefit, I cannot believe that it would be the cure-all in all these cases. The noble Lord produced the case of the newspapers in North London and I believe that this would be an ideal subject for the inquiry into abuses.
The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, asked me about the ombudsman. The role of the local ombudsman is to investigate alleged maladministration where an individual citizen feels that he has been unjustly treated. But the kinds of cases cited by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for example, and the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, and others, do not bear so much on particular citizens; rather they bear on ratepayers collectively, by virtue of expenditure decisions of minority political groupings, whose rights to speak and gain information are under question, and on the traditional relationships between elected members and officers. These are different matters from the complaints of individual citizens via their elected members to the local ombudsman. That is about local authority actions.
I join other noble Lords in my appreciation of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Sefton, who took us around Liverpool. I enjoyed the wide-ranging talk of my noble friend Lord Broxbourne. In particular, may I thank him for his remarks about my right honourable friend. The noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, in a constructive speech raised the subject of further education, as I think did both my noble friend Lord Gisborough and the noble Baroness, Lady Birk. I am sure the noble Baroness is aware that the ACC has recently agreed to co-operate with the MSC, and also that the AMA has agreed to join in the consultations with the MSC at this moment, which I am sure we all welcome.
I assure the noble Lord, Lord Brooks of Tremorfa, that it is no aim of this Government that there should be uniformity of mediocrity. That is very much not our intention. The noble Lord, Lord Grimond, took us well away from London and then brought us back with a bump by quoting from The Londoner. I was very intrigued by his speech and he made some constructive remarks, including his point about local income tax. As with some remarks by the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, the difficulty here is in using these constructive points and in getting a consensus from 402 Parliament to go ahead with them. I particularly agreed with the noble Lord on accountability.
The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, accused me of giving a lecture and then I thought rather gave me a lecture on Conservative Party policy. I am sure that he welcomes the presence—and I was very pleased to see him listening to us today—of the noble Earl, Lord Stockton. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, must be delighted to see him here, because he is responsible for the Life Peerages Act. I thought that the noble Lord, in his excellent way, rather turned some of my remarks to suit his argument, but I should like to say that one of the principles I did support was the right and duty of central Government to determine and manage national finances, which I said of course, includes controlling the level of public expenditure. I did not go down to the depth which I think the noble Lord rather attributed to me.
The noble Lord, Lord Molloy, amazed me in his remarks. After all his criticisms of this Government, I think it is incredible that he is not sitting here and I am not sitting up where he is. The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, made some good remarks on the magistrates, which I shall certainly look into and I will let him have a reply. Certainly it is not our aim in any way to anticipate or to do something which they would not wish to happen.
I must just take up one point made by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, having come from the Department of Energy. His insults to my old electricity boards I cannot take lying down. I believe that the local boards do a great deal locally to help the communities and I am a great supporter of them. Otherwise, I found his speech amusing and constructive, as usual.
After that little preamble, I must I am afraid, for the sake of the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, turn to the Abolition Bill and the general policy, because many noble Lords spoke on that. Not only that; one or two devoted their whole speech to it. I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, for his kind remarks at the start of his speech. I do not believe—as he himself said—that this is the time to make a major speech on the abolition proposals. We shall have plenty of time to do that in the New Year. But I should like briefly to explain the Government's thinking and perhaps, while so doing, answer some of the questions at the same time.
The GLC and the metropolitan county councils now have few major functions. They do not run London or West Yorkshire and the rest. Therefore, the Government believe that they are an unnecessary and wasteful tier of bureaucracy. The London boroughs and the metropolitan districts are closer to the people and better able to meet their needs. Abolishing the upper tier of local government in these areas, and passing most of its functions to the boroughs and districts, will mean more economical and more effective local government and better value for money.
The history of London local government over the last century has been a debate between those who assert the importance of regionalism and those who seek local diversity. That debate did not diminish with the establishment of the GLC, and the debate over the 403 metropolitan councils has been even more fierce, though of course shorter. Not every power will be given directly to the lower tier authority. There are a few which we recognise need to be exercised over a wider area. That is why we are establishing joint boards for fire, police and passenger transport in the metropolitan counties and for fire in London. But these joint boards will be firmly rooted in local government. Their members will be appointed by the boroughs and districts. They will be recallable by those authorities. They will therefore be accountable to them and, through them, to the ratepayers, and there will be provision for powers to be transferred to individual boroughs and districts.
Some have argued that this reorganisation will cost money. Not so, my Lords. Doing away with a whole tier of local government must result in substantial savings. We have promised that we will provide our best estimate of those savings when the Bill is published; but my right honourable friend has already indicated in another place that we expect rationalisation savings alone to be near the figure quoted at the last election.
We have already made it clear that we are determined that the transfer of responsibilities to successor authorities should be carried out in an orderly way. It was for this reason that we had to take steps in the interim provisions Act to control certain activities of the GLC and the MCCs. The Government sought these powers with regret, but, again, we were forced to act in the face of evidence of irresponsible actions and threats—by the GLC in particular. It was necessary to ensure that Parliament's consideration of the abolition proposals was not prejudiced by such actions and that the interests of successor authorities and their ratepayers were protected.
The Government have no wish to interfere in any way with the normal functioning of the authorities. The authorities themselves can ensure this by acting responsibly and reasonably. We, for our part, are striving to exercise our powers of sanction in ways which minimise administrative burdens and delays.
I was sorry to hear the quotation from the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood. I can assure her that the majority of applications for consent have been dealt with within two weeks of receipt. We have issued general consents covering a wide range of activities which leave no scope for irresponsible activities. We shall continue to review the scope for further such consents in the light of further experience.
The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, suggested that the Government's proposals to abolish the GLC and the metropolitan county councils represent a step towards centralisation of local services and a shift again in the central/local balance. I believe that this view has been carefully fostered by the GLC in its advertising campaign. It is of course a complete misrepresentation of what will happen.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, I did not want to interrupt the noble Earl too much as this is his maiden speech, so to speak, as a Minister, but I cannot let that 404 comment pass. I am quite capable of thinking for myself. That view has not been fostered by the GLC but is my own view based on my own experience and knowledge of local government.
§ The Earl of Avon
The noble Baroness is too touchy, my Lords. My remarks were not meant in the way she took them. I meant that it was a sort of campaign which had been fostered by the GLC. In no way would I accuse the noble Baroness of reading any of that sort of literature.
Three-quarters of the GLC's spending is on services which will become the responsibility of the boroughs. Those services will be dealt with in the future by the most accessible authority. The greater part of the remaining spending is on the fire service. This will also continue to be firmly in local hands through the appointed members, as I have just explained. Some activities will go to other bodies, such as the Arts Council, but I do not see that fractional change in the responsibility for certain functions can be represented as a weakening of our commitment to local government.
A number of noble Lords voiced their concern about the impact of abolition on voluntary bodies. There is, as we are well aware, concern that the present support provided for such bodies—principally by the GLC but also by the metropolitan counties to some extent—will not be replaced. I have to say that there is a fundamental dilemma here. Grant-aiding voluntary activity is essentially a matter for discretionary decision by the body giving the grant. Thus, the present GLC has undertaken a major expansion of grant giving. To give a secure guarantee of future funding to bodies now receiving these grants would mean finding some way of overriding the proper discretion which should be given to the boroughs and districts.
One way to do this would be to ourselves take over the funding of various bodies. I am sure that this would not be desirable. Central Government should not normally be directly aiding local bodies in this way. Nevertheless, this Government's commitment to voluntary action is strong and we have repeatedly made clear that abolition should not damage worthwhile voluntary activity. We have proposed a statutory basis for a scheme enabling all the boroughs or districts in an area to give grants to bodies serving wide areas, and to share the costs. In London, the boroughs already have in hand preparations for making such grants, and we have proposed traditional grant aid for funding taken on by individual authorities. We are listening carefully to representations from the voluntary sector. I repeat that our commitment to voluntary bodies is second to none. I am confident that the boroughs and districts will recognise the enhanced role they have to play, and that voluntary bodies will have a secure future.
I was asked a number of specific questions about Hampstead Heath and the archives by my noble friend Lady Faithfull; and the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked about various areas of land. I must say that he had me floored by one, but I believe that Epping Forest 405 is in fact run by the City of London, so I imagine that it still will be.
§ Lord Underhill
My Lords, I referred to Hainault Forest. Hainault Forest was part of Epping Forest and part of Hatfield Forest many years ago. It is still there.
§ The Earl of Avon
My Lords, the noble Lord is ahead of me. I think this underlines the fact that it will be better if we wait for the Bill on this particular subject rather than have me try to answer specific questions now.
The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, asked about the arts in London. The Government have said that they will make available an additional £34 million for central funding of the arts in England in 1986–87 and a similar sum in future years. Of this, £16 million will be made available to the Arts Council to look after the needs of major performing arts organisations and other bodies which are receiving grants from the GLC and the metropolitan counties. Some £17 million will be provided to meet the cost of the major museums and art galleries.
§ Lord Jenkins of Putney
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, but perhaps I may press him on this matter. Is my understanding of the position to be that the £34 million will increase in future years in the event of inflation? Is there any guarantee as far as the future is concerned, or not?
§ The Earl of Avon
My Lords, instead of being subject to the policies of the GLC, it will obviously be subject to the policies of the Arts Council, which is funded by Her Majesty's Government.
I will say just a few words about the rate support grant before I conclude. My right honourable friend announced the July provisional expenditure targets for 1985 for all local authorities. Those provisional targets implied an increase in current expenditure provision in excess of £800 million. They would allow most responsible, low-spending authorities to increase spending next year by 4¼ per cent., in line with our current forecast of inflation.
There was a discussion between my noble friend Lord Gisborough and Members on the Opposition Benches—I believe one was the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton—on the subject of advertising. There is a long standing convention in central Government that public money should not be spent on propaganda; that is, on partial, argumentative or persuasive advertising. The Government spend only on factual information, almost invariably after Royal Assent has been secured for that legislation. The advertisement informs the public about the operation of a new Act of Parliament, and this is entirely in line with the normal conventions on the use of pay publicity by central Government.
As I said in my opening remarks, we have had a wide-ranging debate. I find myself unable to accept the basic theme of the Opposition. The reason is the question of cause and effect. I believe that what has 406 been happening in local government has been the cause of the legislation that we have had to bring forward; it is not the effect of our legislation which has caused the irresponsibility. The study inquiry will, I am sure, help us to proceed. Meanwhile, I thank the noble Baroness for raising this subject today and for giving me the opportunity of breaking my duck.
§ Lord Molloy
My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, may I ask whether he is in a position to say whether the Bill that might be produced will be a straightforward Bill or a Bill of an enabling character? It is important that the House and, indeed, the country should know.
§ The Earl of Avon
My Lords, the last time I saw the Bill it consisted of just over 90 clauses and was very much a Bill.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, may I thank all those noble Lords who have spoken in this very lengthy debate. I am rather sorry for the Minister that there were so few speakers on his side. It would have been interesting for us and for him to have heard some enthusiastic support for what the Government intend to do.
All noble Lords made extremely important and telling points, particularly from these Benches and the Alliance Benches. All the contributions were substantial and, in fact, not really very party political. I worked out a small poll of what had occurred which, for want of a better name, I call the Birk poll. It comes out as 16 speakers against abolition and 4½ in favour. The half is the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, who is for abolition of the GLC but against abolition of the metropolitan counties.
Tonight's debate has now come to an end, but it is quite clear that the debate on the wider issues, not only on abolition but on relations between central and local government, have but begun. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.
§ House adjourned at eleven minutes past nine o'clock.