HL Deb 18 February 1987 vol 484 cc1111-6

3.56 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Skelmersdale)

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

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about the Local Government Bill. As the House will be aware, the Government had announced that the Bill would include: powers to control advanced and deferred purchase arrangements; new powers for local authorities to grant aid housing associations; improvements to the land register system; measures to secure greater competition for council services; measures to stop political abuses of the contractual process; and amendments to the publicity provisions in last Session's Local Government Act.

"Due to the time taken to prepare the Local Government Finance Bill, work on parts of the Local Government Bill is running very late. If we were to wait until the last three measures mentioned were completed, the Bill could not be introduced for another month or even more. The Government consider that to wait until then to introduce the Bill would make it virtually impossible to secure Royal Assent during this Session.

"We have therefore decided, extremely reluctantly, to proceed only with the first three items: deferred purchase controls, local authority grants to housing associations and land register improvements together with minor amendments needed to the legislation governing advanced further education pooling arrangements. The Bill incorporating these items is being introduced this afternoon.

"I much regret postponing our proposals for securing greater competition in the provision of local authorities services, for stopping abuses of the contractual processes which many socialist councils practice, and for improving the legislation preventing political propaganda on the rates. I want to assure the many people who want these proposals enacted that we will certainly press on with them at the first opportunity, either before, or after, the general election."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Baroness David

My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. The Bill he speaks of will be the third Government Bill on local government to be going through Parliament since January; in fact, the third Bill to be started in the past five weeks. The Bill mentioned in the Statement was forecast in the Queen's Speech in the terms, Measures will be proposed to promote further competition in order to secure greater efficiency in the provision of local authorities' services". Did the Secretary of State authorise his Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Mr. Chope, to say only two weeks ago, on 4th February, in a keynote speech, as it was described in the press notice, that a Bill was soon to be published covering a number of services that were to be privatised? Now we hear a different story.

Three of the proposals mentioned by Mr. Chope are to be abandoned: enforced privatisation, contract compliance and councils' use of advertising and the media. One cannot help wondering at the reasons for the sudden change, as the Bill was apparently drafted, according to Mr. Chope, and very soon to be published. The Government say that there is lack of time; but surely there is plenty of time to get the Bill through this Session if the election is not to be in May or June.

What are the real reasons? There will, of course, be an election before long. Are the Government now being sensitive to the feelings of the local authority associations, all of which have been so strongly opposed to many of the proposals in the Bill? Are the Government now perhaps aware of the many jobs which would have been lost if privatisation of many of the local authority services had been pushed through? One cannot help but be aware of yet another piece of evidence of the administrative incompetence of this Government. We have had examples of this with the Local Government Finance Bill, now going through this House and the Rate Support Grants Act which only received Royal Assent on 21st October. One cannot help feeling sympathy for the civil servants who have to cope in the Department of the Environment; and sympathy for all those members and officers in local government who have to readjust to constant changes in direction and policy by this, I must now say, very incompetent Government.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. With regard to the three housing issues which are to be included in the Bill, will he confirm that there will be no retrospective action against councils which have already made deferred purchase arrangements? As regards aid to the housing associations, will the noble Lord confirm that help is to be given to those people most in need—the homeless? With regard to land registers, which is obviously a sensible move, will the noble Lord confirm that there will be safeguards for those involved in home ownership?

Referring to the three issues that are to be left out of the Bill, will the noble Lord explain what is complicated about them? Why cannot they be included in the Bill? In particular, if time is to be taken for improving the legislation preventing political propaganda on the rates, will the Government take time also to improve the legislation preventing political propaganda on taxes?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, that was quick fire-power if ever I heard it. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady David, and the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, for their comments on this Statement; though I am not sure that I am quite so grateful to the noble Baroness for her comments.

The noble Baroness said that this legislation was forecast in the Queen's Speech, and I think she quoted from it. I do not have a copy of the Queen's Speech with me, but it said that legislation would be proposed about efficiency in local government. Efficiency in local government is covered, in part at least, by the advance and deferred purchase arrangements which were announced in a Statement made by my right honourable friend on 5th February which I repeated to your Lordships.

My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State did, indeed, issue a press notice on what he said. I do not have the press notice with me—perhaps the noble Baroness has—but I should be very surprised if my honourable friend said that these provisions were all drafted, because clearly that is not so.

Baroness David

My Lords, may I intervene? The honourable gentleman said that it was in a soon to be published Bill. One therefore expected that it was drafted.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, that is reading far more into a press notice than actually exists.

As regards proposals for competition, there is large scope for savings even if all authorities do not manage the 20 per cent. to 30 per cent. achieved by many authorities which have voluntarily contracted out. The House may be interested to know that by 30th September last year the National Health Service had achieved savings from its tendering programme totalling £73 million annually. Of that, a surprising £48 million comes from increased in-house efficiency and £25 million from contracting out.

The noble Baroness asked about publicity provisions and suggested that the commitment of the Government to toughen up the provisions in last year's Local Government Act had been abandoned. That is not so. There is still a clear need to reinforce the publicity provisions of the 1986 Act. We shall do so as soon as a suitable legislative opportunity arises.

Referring to the provision for local authorities to give grant to the private rented sector, including housing associations, I think the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, will find the answers to all his questions, especially on retrospection. There is a retrospective element because schemes will have to be approved by the Secretary of State and any existing scheme that was not legally completed by midnight on 5th February will indeed be stopped by the Bill.

The noble Lord also asked about land registers. The 1980 Act enabled us to compile a register of unused and under-used land owned by public bodies. Since the registers were first established, some 47,000 acres of land—equivalent to a city rather larger than Stoke-on-Trent, or about 30 per cent. of all that has been registered—have been removed; most because the land has been sold or brought back into use by the owners. The amount of land on the registers at the end of January—99,000 acres—showed a further fall this month.

The noble Lord further asked what was so complicated about the drafting of these provisions. I am not a lawyer and still less a draftsman but I understand that these provisions are difficult and lengthy to draft, which is why the relevant clauses in the Bill are not ready for consideration by either House.

Finally, a point about constant changes of policy was brought up by the noble Baroness, Lady David. I suggest that if these measures do not command universal support—and I understand that some of them do not—rather than confusing them, this is a deferment which can only be welcomed by local authorities.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble friend explain a little more fully what is the difficulty in drafting a clause to prohibit political propaganda on the rates? Surely all the preliminary work has already been done by Widdicombe. It is somewhat difficult to follow why, based on that research, a clause to do that cannot be inserted in the Bill. May I further ask my noble friend whether, if I draft a clause to that effect, he will accept it in Committee?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, the Committee will not!

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I rather suspect that in those circumstances whether to accept or reject it would not be my decision. The Committee might well have a view not only on the drafting but on the substance of the clause itself.

To return to my noble friend's more serious point, the difficulty in the publicity provisions is that although we know what we want to do—and discussions have been held especially between my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway and myself on this particular subject in connection with the Bill which recently passed through your Lordships' House in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury—the exact mechanisms are difficult to establish. I am sure that that will be a great disappointment to my noble friend but I am assured that that is the case.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I have no desire to hinder the progress of the important debate that is taking place, but the second paragraph of the Statement said that work on parts of the Local Government Bill was running late. The reason given was that this was due to the time taken to prepare the Local Government Finance Bill. Is it not a fact that the Opposition in the other place had offered full cooperation for the Local Government Finance Bill if it was used merely to make the law what everybody thought it was, and that the Government have got into this mess because they have made the Local Government Finance Bill far wider than was the original intention?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I do not believe that that is the case at all. The Local Government Finance Bill is, by any standards, an extremely complicated piece of proposed legislation, not only from the point of view of drafting but also for noble Lords in all parts of the House, including myself, to understand. Although I have no doubt that we shall return to this subject on Monday and Tuesday next week, I do not accept the noble Lord's contention.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, would the noble Lord take a little more seriously what the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, said? He raised an issue which excites sympathy on Benches other than his own. Would he therefore see to it, because we cannot see to it, that if the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, wishes to introduce a clause of that kind the money resolution and the title of the Bill will permit it?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the noble Lord has stumped me, I am afraid. I am not aware that the Bill to be introduced in another place today will carry any such money resolution, but I shall certainly check this and let the noble Lord know in the usual way. I am sorry if the noble Lord felt that I was not treating the serious point of my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter with the seriousness if deserves. Clearly any amendment that comes on any particular legislation deserves full and proper consideration not only within government but also by the House before which it is laid.

Lord Parry

My Lords, may I also ask a serious question? Is it not mildly ironic that the noble Lord who has just added to the question put down by the Minister's noble friend should ask a question about political propaganda on the rates when in fact four minutes of his previous speech were devoted to party political propaganda on that?

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