HL Deb 08 July 1993 vol 547 cc1511-22

3.39 p.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie)

My Lords, with your Lordships' permission I should like to repeat a Statement about local government reform in Scotland which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has made today in another place. The Statement is as follows:

"The Government's proposals for local government reorganisation in Scotland have been the subject of detailed consultation and discussion for the past two years. Throughout that time, support for the concept of single-tier local government has been strong and sustained. I have received a great deal of valuable comment from a wide range of individuals and organisations and I am publishing today a White Paper which sets out our decisions on the new structure. I am also publishing a leaflet which will be made widely available in Scotland and summaries of the responses I received to our second consultation paper on local government reform and our paper about the future of water and sewerage services. I have placed copies of all these documents in the Vote Office where they will be available in the usual way when I complete this Statement.

"The Government have decided to establish a single-tier structure of local government throughout Scotland, comprising 28 authorities. The details of these authorities are set out in the White Paper. The new authorities will vary significantly in size and character, reflecting local wishes, circumstances and requirements.

"We intend to re-establish the four Scottish cities as unitary councils and to create powerful new authorities on their outskirts to act as a counter-balance. In the more rural areas of Scotland the new authorities will inevitably cover substantial areas but areas for which our consultation has shown there is an established identity. The three islands authorities will remain unchanged.

"The new authorities, whatever their size, will be encouraged and expected to pursue actively the adoption of schemes of decentralised management and administration to ensure that decisions are taken at the most local level that is practicable and that people can discuss problems with their council without having to make a long journey to its headquarters. I will be asking authorities to prepare and publish comprehensive schemes for decentralisation.

"The new authorities will all be responsible for providing the full range of local authority services including education, housing and social work. The Government consider, however, that the Reporter service for children's hearings would be more effectively provided as a national service and I am proposing to establish a new body for this purpose. In addition, economies of scale available in the water and sewerage industry point to fewer, rather than more, bodies responsible for these services than we have at present. Further, customers should be able to benefit from the efficiencies and investment in the water and sewerage infrastructure which can be provided by the private sector. We therefore intend to establish three public water authorities, broadly in line with Option d in the consultation paper Investing For Our Future. These authorities will own and operate the current water and sewerage assets and arrange for new investment in ways which will maximise the involvement of the private sector.

"The existing police forces and fire brigades will be retained. Some statutory co-operation will be required for their oversight and for the management of the Strathclyde passenger transport executive. In all other respects, it will be for individual authorities to make appropriate arrangements for the delivery of services in their area. I will expect to see a considerable development of the enabling role of authorities, and a willingness to explore further the possibilities of co-operation with the private sector as they explore new ways of delivering services more efficiently. I will be looking also for a greater willingness to share the expertise of specialist staff.

"The changes I have announced will, of course, have implications for local government staff. I have already announced the Government's intention to establish a staff commission in Scotland to oversee the transfer process and to provide me with appropriate advice. Early retirement or redundancy compensation will be available in cases where particular staff are not required by the new authorities under the new structure and further decisions about these arrangements will be taken in due course.

"I have, of course, made it clear that I expect the new structure to cost less than the present two-tier system. Savings of up to £65 million per annum can be expected from the new structure and these savings are likely to pay back the inevitable transitional costs within four or five years. The actual level of savings achieved by the new structure will ultimately depend upon the actions of the new authorities themselves.

"The main objective of this reorganisation is not, however, to cut costs. It is to increase the effectiveness of local government in arranging the delivery of services and responding to local needs and concerns. I believe the new structure will make local authorities more accountable and responsive to the people they serve, and help all authorities achieve the standards already reached by the best. It will remove the confusion which undoubtedly exists over which council is responsible for which function, so that users know where to go when they are dissatisfied. It offers local government in Scotland the prospect of a bright, dynamic future. It will give a major boost to the implementation of the Citizen's Charter in Scottish local government.

"My intention is to introduce a Bill to implement these arrangements. Subject to the parliamentary consideration of the arrangements being cornpleted, I hope that it will be possible for elections to the new authorities to take place in the spring of 1995 to give them until 1st April 1996 to establish themselves and to prepare for the assumption of responsibility from existing authorities on that date. Thereafter, elections to the new councils will take place every three years.

"The proposals I have announced today are of the utmost importance to everybody in Scotland. They reflect the strong and growing support for all-purpose councils in Scotland. They represent a tremendous opportunity to improve and strengthen our local government system and the delivery of local services. And they are a great stride forward for local democracy in Scotland. I commend the White Paper to the House."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place by his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. Although I thank him also for having sent me the brochures and books pertaining to the Statement, he will be aware that I have not really had time to look at them, especially those relating to water and sewerage which are of specific and special interest to Scotland. He will be aware that much of the rest of the Statement and the maps were published in some sections of the Scottish press today although we can never rely completely on those maps.

What is interesting about the Statement is that almost the same fervour and enthusiasm were shown for the Wheatley Report, which suggested getting rid of single-tier authorities in favour of more manageable authorities. I cannot remember whether the noble and learned. Lord served on the committee next door when we considered that Bill. Many of us supported the Wheatley provisions. I certainly supported those ideas although I ultimately wanted a Scottish Assembly which could have established single-tier authorities. That would have been a more intelligent approach.

Although the Statement is expressed in terms of good business and good government, I feel that it is largely a dishonest juggling with the boundaries, such as happened with the old London County Council and the Greater London Council. Almost my first vote in another place was related to the abolition of the LCC because the GLC was supposed to give a Tory majority. It did not give a Tory majority, so the Government got rid of it. Such moves did not work and these provisions will not work in Scotland. The fundamental fact is that there are just not enough Conservatives in Scotland to provide decent Conservative representation in either local or national government.

I can see the footprints of the honourable Member for Stirling all over certain parts of the Statement, particularly those relating to the move towards outside bodies and quangos. I had hoped that the Scottish Conservatives had laid that ghost, but obviously it is still with us to some extent in the form of the honourable Member for Eastwood. Everyone in Scotland is aware that whatever happens in Scottish local government reorganisation, Eastwood had to be preserved as the one jewel in the crown on the whole west coast of Scotland.

We must look at the important subject of water and sewerage. I am sure that the Minister is aware of feelings in Scotland. The present police and fire provision is to be retained. Obviously, in areas such as the Lothians and Strathclyde, the police force will cover many local authorities. Will it be represented by joint boards or is it to be run by quangos? Will the service continue to be democratically answerable? On the question of local government staff, does the Minister have any estimate of the numbers likely to be involved?

If there is to be a £65 million saving to local government, will that be returned to local authorities over and above additionality, as it is called in some areas? Will it be additional or will it be taken away from local government? The transitional costs appear to be not far short of the figure given by my honourable friend the Member for Monklands West who said that they would reach something like £600 million. If everything goes as the Statement believes it will, the estimate is that they will be £350 million. We shall watch that figure carefully.

As the Minister said, this matter is of vital importance to Scotland. Now that we have the material, for which I thank him, when can we expect a debate in this House?

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, in thanking the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place and in his criticisms of the content of the Statement. Is the Minister aware that it is a controversial and partisan Statement, both in its conception and content? Now that we have passed beyond leaks in the Scotsman we have t he holy writ of the Statement itself. Does the Minister agree that such radical changes in local government should emerge on the basis of the maximum degree of consensus after consideration by some kind of independent commission? Have not these plans been cooked up politically inside the Scottish Office with a high degree of party political motivation behind them?

Is the Minister aware that the map produced by the Government is an odd one? The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, drew attention to the curious aspect of the arrangements in Eastwood. Paisley is sliced into two. It is a farcical and grotesque map. It reminds me of nothing more than the map of Bosnia which was the basis of the Vance-Owen plan. That of course had the decent motivation of creating peace. This has the rather disagreeable motivation of seeking to assist Conservative Party interests inside Scotland. Is the Minister aware of the dangers of a government who are singularly unrepresentative in Scotland these days producing proposals of this kind to assist their position?

One of the revealing sentences in the Statement is: We intend to re-establish the four Scottish cities as unitary councils and to create powerful new authorities on their outskirts to act as a counter-balance". Most people will believe that the adjective "political" should have been included, the motive being to create a "political" counter-balance. In the following paragraph, the Statement talks about the plan being, to ensure that decisions are taken at the most local level that is practicable and that people can discuss problems with their council without having to make a long journey to its headquarters". That is a tongue-in-cheek statement when one considers the Statement as a whole, which greatly tilts the balance of power towards the Secretary of State in St. Andrew's House. It also leaves the Highland region intact. Far from having an established identity, the Highland region has a network of identities. One would have thought that it might have required some consideration from the Government in the light of what purports to be the philosophy behind the Statement. The Statement is controversial and unacceptable. It will arouse a great deal of argument inside Scotland. I beg leave to doubt whether it will achieve what is undoubtedly one of its principal purposes—the rescue of the Tory Party in Scotland.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, the principal theme that ran through the observations from both Front Benches was that this was a matter of political juggling. If the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, had been around Scotland, he would have appreciated, as was demonstrated in a wide array of representations made to the Secretary of State, that there is strong support for a return to single-tier local authorities in Scotland. The noble Lord said that he thought a better way to have approached this matter might have been through the establishment of a commission. I do not know much about the areas of England where the Local Government Commission is already under way, but I should not have thought that anyone who is keeping half an eye on the map for England would have failed to see that it was not proceeding without controversy. Scotland is much smaller. There are fewer authorities. It is not like the time before the Wheatley Commission when there were no fewer than 426 councils in Scotland. The position now is different.

So far as concerns water and sewerage, we have three authorities. I hope noble Lords appreciate that we have spelt out that they will be public water authorities. They will have boards presiding over them. With that, and the other exception of a national system to run the Reporter service for Scotland, no other powers are being taken away from local government, and none of them, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, suggested, is being taken into the domain of the Secretary of State.

As I said, the police and fire authorities are to remain the same. As I said in the Statement, there will obviously have to be some statutory obligation for the oversight of police and fire authorities. For example, under our proposals for Strathclyde it is envisaged that there will be some 10 local authorities for which there will have to be joint statutory arrangements. In addition, there may be many joint agreements. Enabling lead authority roles may be taken up by different local authorities, but we do not intend that there should be other statutory arrangements.

It is estimated that there will be a saving of some £65 million. That comes essentially from the predicted reduction in the number of local government employees. It is estimated that reductions in the range of 700 to 2,200 will bring about that significant saving.

We spell out in the White Paper what we consider the transitional costs will be. The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, might have been gracious enough to concede that every time the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Mr. Tom Clarke, turned round he added a further £100 million to the cost of the transitional arrangements. He ultimately reached a figure of £600 million. On any estimate, that was grossly off the mark. We expect that the transitional costs will be recovered within four to five years.

The White Paper will undoubtedly excite a great deal of interest in Scotland: I hope that it does. The noble Lord, Lord Thomson, said that it was partisan. With his title, I should have thought that he would have rejoiced that Monifieth is to return to the County of Angus. If he thinks that only those parts of the country where there is a strong Conservative presence will be affected, I remind him—if he needs reminding —that of the vigorous campaigns fought in Scotland to change the local government map, no campaign was fought more vigorously than that in Rutherglen, led ably by its Labour Member for Parliament.

When we speak of counter-balancing, we envisage that there will be enabling arrangements. As there has to be some sharing of specialist services, it is believed that in those cases it is useful to have one or two authorities around the cities which are more likely to provide such services so that a sensible and sustained partnership can be established. Finally, the noble Lord asked when there would be a debate on this matter. I do not fashion out any enthusiasm for such a debate before the House rises this summer.

4 p.m.

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I offer my noble and learned friend congratulations from one part of Scotland and ask him to pass them on to the Secretary of State for Scotland. It was only in 1974 that a body which was truly representative of the whole of the Highlands of Scotland was created. That was the Highland Regional Council. I am delighted that the Secretary of State and his team decided to pursue that creation and take it further. Whatever may be said about the small districts —and we all respect them intensely for what they have done —they did not have the clout to deal with the Scottish Office. I am delighted that the Highland Regional Council, or its successor similar in idea, will remain.

I am relieved at the proposal relating to water. The idea of introducing private funding for the creation of sewage disposal works and so forth is very good indeed. But perhaps I may also offer a word of advice. When the previous re-organisation took place, the officials at large in all the many authorities in Scotland took the Government to the cleaners. They managed to set up for themselves an organisation which ensured that some of them were able to take early retirement and then return to their jobs at a greatly increased salary. The greatest care must be taken, otherwise many of the envisaged economies may go by the board when dealing with staff. I welcome the Statement, and I congratulate the Government on their initiative.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Gray for his word of advice. Those of us who recall the previous local government re-organisation in Scotland remember with concern what happened with some employees. They managed to make a successful career out of changing jobs and improving their salaries while continuing to do the same thing. It is ultimately for local authorities to determine the number of their employees. We are alive to the problem on which my noble friend proffered advice.

I am also grateful for my noble friend's comments on our solution to water and sewerage in Scotland. I am grateful to him too, coming from the Highlands, for his support for the proposal that Highland Regional Council should remain as a local authority. There is a strong sense of Highland identity and we believe that that can be built upon. As he will appreciate, when one looks at breaking up the Highlands into smaller constituent parts the problems immediately become obvious. For example, the population of Sutherland is only some 14,000 and Caithness some 26,000. If those regions were to be extracted it would be impossible for them to run a viable local authority with the full range of services. I doubt whether Caithness and Sutherland, despite their parliamentary connection, would be particularly enthusiastic about being a joint authority.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is a great mistake to talk about single tier authorities for the simple reason that Scotland has never had single tier authorities? Before the 1974 re-organisation Scotland had three tiers of local government; they were district councils, large and small boroughs and county councils. This proposal is in the form of an experiment because we have never had single tier authorities.

Is the Minister further aware that, while I understand the anger of the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, I am much more generous? Mine is an attitude of pity—pity that the Scottish Conservative Party has had to resort to the gerrymandering of local authority boundaries in order to try to obtain control of the areas where people will not vote Conservative. But all the gerrymandering of the boundaries will not change that. Therefore, the Government should have a second look—and look more constructively—at the proposals that they have published.

Perhaps I may raise with the Minister the specific issue of a local authority for the Stirling area. I have a great affinity with Stirling, having represented it for 13 years before the Boundary Commission denied those good people the benefit of my services. Is the Minister aware that the proposal for Stirling will leave it as the poorest local authority in Scotland, and possibly outside too, for the simple reason that it has no rateable value base and no industry whatever and it will be side by side with the Falkirk-Clackmannan authority, which will be the richest local authority? The net effect will be that shopkeepers in Michael Forsyth's constituency will find their council tax multiplying 10 times to pay for the folly of the Conservative Government's scheme.

When the Conservative Government re-organised local government in Scotland in 1974 they reduced by 50 per cent. the number of local councillors. The bureaucracy increased by 100 per cent.; the democratic input was reduced and the bureaucratic input was increased. How many councillors are there in Scotland and how many will be left as a result cf these proposals?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, if the noble Lord does not like my use of the word "return" I am happy to retreat from it. The proposal establishes a single tier of local authorities in Scotland. It looks nothing like the local government map before the Wheatley changes, when there were some 426 authorities. If there is widespread support in Scotland, as I strongly believe that there is, for our approach, I am confident that those who examine what we are doing will realise that, far from this being a gerrymandering exercise, it makes good sense.

The example of Stirling upon which the noble Lord seized, and his indication that it is very different in make up from its neighbouring area of Clackmannan and Falkirk, clearly indicates to me why there should be separate local authorities. There is a rural hinterland in Stirlingshire which is not, mirrored in Clackmannan or Falkirk.

The noble Lord asked about the number cif councillors. The precise figures are given in the document and the noble Lord will have an opportunity to see them. It is envisaged that there will be a reduction from the present 1,600 to about 1,200. In our view, that will be more than a sufficient number of councillors to carry out the task, in particular as we wish to impress upon them that they should not continue with the culture of local government in Scotland as it presently exists but increasingly should turn to the idea of being enabling authorities, purchasing services to provide a better quality of service for those who live in their areas.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that, although the leaking of the draft document to the press was irresponsible, it provided the opportunity to sense in advance a reaction in Scotland to the proposals? Does my noble and learned friend further agree that in many areas local people are already viewing the proposals as a direct response by the Government to their heartfelt wishes? Will he accept that in Tayside there is considerable satisfaction that Monifieth is being returned to Angus?

Politicians are of course protesting or smiling, as the case may be. However, does my noble and learned friend agree that local government does not exist for politicians; it exists for local people? If at the end of the day more local people receive the kind of local government that they find easy to understand and want, these proposals will have fulfilled their aim.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, yes; whoever leaked the map to the Scotsman at the end of last week was irresponsible. But, as my noble friend correctly pointed out, the reactions of synthetic outrage have come from politicians rather than from members of the public. She has only to consider that estimable organ, the Dundee Courier, and the correspondence and responses which have appeared in that publication to see that there is overwhelming support in that small part of Dundee for the return of Monifieth to the county of Angus. I am sure that my noble friend will share my delight that that will happen once the proposals are implemented.

It is important that we should achieve a balance of local accountability while at the same time having a structure of local government which is sufficiently strong to be robust and viable in the delivery of services. It is clearly desirable that services are provided locally but, as I have indicated, we urge councils to adopt, as far as possible, an enabling role where that is appropriate.

Viscount Thurso

My Lords, I sympathise with the noble and learned Lord because he has to defend the indefensible. I sympathise with him in having to face the Highlands which will rise up in large areas and tell him that what is on offer is not what is wanted. Is the noble and learned Lord aware that Caithness and Sutherland is a single police division which has one Member of Parliament? It is unitary as regards the Caithness and Sutherland enterprise, tourism and water. Therefore, it is ridiculous for the noble and learned Lord to say that it is good that those matters should all now be put under Inverness, which is a great deal further away and more remote from the electors and the people who use the services.

The noble and learned Lord talks about an established identity. As I drove down to catch the sleeper train last night, I heard Ross-shire declaring its identity and complaining in resounding and eloquent terms about what it felt was coming its way as a result of the leaks in the Scotsman. The Statement talks about people being nearer to housing, education and social services but the people in Thurso and Wick will be 120 miles away from their centre of government. That is plainly not achieving the most local location possible for a local authority.

I wrote to the Secretary of State quite a long and reasoned letter containing statistics which showed that the cheapest form of local government had been that of Thurso town council when it had its own planning department. That is because it followed a principle dear to Tory hearts; that is, it employed the private sector to carry out some of its functions. Although it has its own planning powers, it employed highly qualified planning consultants in Edinburgh to help with planning matters. That was cheaper than running a planning department. It was cheaper than running a planning department in Wick and considerably cheaper than running a planning department in Inverness.

Will the Minister listen to the local people? I believe that a debate in your Lordships' House is essential before we move from a White Paper to legislation. Otherwise the Government are declaring that they are determined not to listen to the people.

The Minister said that the people of Caithness and Sutherland are not interested in having local government of their own; but, in fact, a pressure group exists already and the district council is against the proposed measures. Therefore, I hope that we shall have a debate on these matters.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, we have heard two sharply conflicting views from the Highlands. We are all well aware that there are conflicts of view. However, the noble Viscount has not addressed—and he should address—the fact that Caithness has a population of 26,000 and Sutherland has a population of 14,000. Some extremely sophisticated services are required to be delivered by local authorities and our assessment of the situation is that either of those, separately or combined, are too small to achieve that. Travel distances within the Highlands area have improved dramatically in recent years. However, the noble Viscount should consider that in the Statement which I made and in the White Paper I said that the Secretary of State will ask authorities to prepare and publish comprehensive schemes for decentralisation of management and administration within their areas. It is with particular regard to the Highlands that that proposal is included.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I welcome the Statement. I am particularly glad that the scare stories about water privatisation have been pulled asunder. I should like to ask my noble and learned friend about the three proposed water and sewerage authorities and the membership of those authorities which will remain in the public sector. Has my noble and learned friend given any thought to the composition of those boards? Furthermore, will he consider, even at this late stage, whether it is possible to ensure that the regional council elections, which are to take place next May, could not be put aside?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, on the latter point, the general consensus in Scotland, after a period of differing views, is that the elections should go forward. It is important to have regional authorities and councillors in place who are still enthusiastic about their task as the transitional arrangements are put in place.

My noble friend is right that there were some ludicrous scare stories doing the rounds in Scotland about water. I hope that the announcement which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State made today will finally put those stories to rest. The issue of the membership of the boards has not yet been settled by my right honourable friend but I have listened to and will pass on to my right honourable friend what my noble friend said about their membership.

Lord Hughes

My Lords, the Minister will not be surprised to find that, with my background, this is a subject which will interest me greatly. I had intended to ask only one question and that has already been answered; that is, about the dates of the next regional elections. I wish to reserve my comments until I have seen the document. I have not yet seen it. I did not pay particular attention to what was in the press because I was not certain whether the Government had deliberately leaked information in a wrong form to lead us up the garden path. Therefore, I was prepared to wait until the genuine article was available.

I am sorry that I must contradict my noble friend Lord Ewing of Kirkford. Four cities were single-tier authorities until Wheatley reduced them to the status of a district council. Whatever else may be said, I am fairly certain that the people in the four cities will be quite happy about the change which is to take place. I am sure that my former colleagues in Dundee will be surprised if I did not make that correction.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his support for the single-tier approach that we have taken.

Lord Hughes

My Lords, just leave it at that.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I confirm to the noble Lord that this Government would never for a moment indulge in leaking documents in advance of putting them before Parliament.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that I welcome the decision to have 28 single-tier authorities. That is very close to the 27 that I recommended to the Secretary of State via the columns of the Glasgow Herald. I might not have drawn the boundaries in exactly the same way, but I believe that that is about the right number.

Is he aware further that I welcome in particular, as did my noble friend Lord Gray, the decision about the Highlands? That is vitally important for the area, both economically and politically. My noble and learned friend will not be surprised to know that I welcome warmly the decision to enlarge Argyll and Bute, my former constituency, to make it a single-tier authority.

Will my noble and learned friend assure me that the staff commission will be a firm commission and that it will not be like the last one? Will he assure me that it will stop any attempt by local authority staff to have a bonanza out of this reform? Lastly, has he given any thought to the question of reasonable remuneration for councillors?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his support as regards the Highlands and for Helensburgh being added to Argyll and Bute. There was a powerful campaign for that to be done and I am sure that there will be a great deal of pleasure that it is now a part of that local authority area.

I think that I made my views on the staff commission fairly clear. We certainly understand the point raised by my noble friend and also that raised previously by my noble friend Lord Gray of Contin. We do not have proposals to offer reasonable remuneration to councillors. The situation is as it was when examined previously. If we are to make such a change, such arrangements are usually done on a UK basis.

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