§ The Lords do not insist on their amendment in page 6, line 30, to which the Commons have disagreed, but propose the following amendment to the Bill in lieu thereof—
§ No. 1, in page 6, leave out lines 30 to 32 and insert:
- "(1) The Assembly shall not, unless authorised to do so by order made by the Secretary of State, review the structure of local government in Wales.
- (2) No such order shall be made unless a draft thereof has been laid before and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament."
§ 8.21 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Alec Jones)
I beg to move, That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said amendment.
The Government find that the alternative amendment now proposed by the other place is even more unacceptable than its predecessor was. The original amendment which was disagreed to by this House would have removed the obligation on the Assembly to carry out a review of local government structure, but the Assembly would have been free to do so of its own volition or in response to a request from the Government.
The new amendment, however, positively debars the Assembly from carrying out a review of local government. The Government regard that as totally inappropriate, having regard to the substantial functions which the Bill confers on the Assembly in relation to local government and to important services provided by local authorities.
Surely, the Assembly must be entitled to review the structure of local government as part of its exercise of these important responsibilities and to report to the Government on its findings. To provide positively in the Bill that the Assembly shall not review the structure of local government in Wales is in my view an 1672 unwarranted and offensive derogation from the functions that the Assembly could reasonably expect to exercise in an area in which it is to inherit the executive powers and the broader interests at present vested in Ministers.
Opposition Members will doubtless say that the amendment does not absolutely debar review; that, provided he receives the approval of both Houses of Parliament, the Secretary of State will be able to authorise the Assembly to carry out a review. But to me that is a rather grudging attitude. That is what the proposal represents. It introduces uncertainty into the whole question whether there is to be a review.
The amendment brings us back to the fundamental question: is there the need for such a review? Certainly, it is true that when the present structure of local government was set up it was opposed by the vast majority of Labour Members. It is certainly true that it was opposed by a large number of local authorities in Wales. Judging by the number of petitions which were presented to the right hon. and learned Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Thomas), it seemed not to have a great deal of public support either.
I have been reading through the Official Report of some of those debates. I recall the number of amendments moved even on Report by hon. Members on both sides of the House who were critical of that local government structure. Those amendments were moved after we had spent a considerable time in Committee.
There were amendments from Flint-shire. Amendments were moved by the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Edwards) in his own county interests. There were amendments on the carve-up of Glamorgan, and on Newport. Amendments on Rhymney were moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock). Amendments were moved by the hon. Member for Barry (Sir R. Gower), because he was dissatisfied with the way in which Tongwynlais, Llahillterne and Radyr were treated. Amendments were moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Davies) because of his dissatisfaction with the way in which Gower was treated. There was a whole host of other amendments moved by hon. Members who were dissatisfied with the structure of local government.
§ Mr. Michael Roberts (Cardiff, North-West)
The Minister has not included the amendment that I moved, that the county of Gwent should retain the name of Monmouth. Because one moves an amendment to a Bill, is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that that is a cause for the total review and reorganisation of local government?
§ Mr. Jones
I was merely saying that the number of amendments moved by a variety of hon. Members throughout Report stage—amendments covering north, south, east and west Wales, rural and urban areas—does not suggest that the Bill had the wholehearted consent of hon. Members. I well understand why the hon. Gentleman is somewhat sensitive on this, because he knows that the composition of the Committee which considered that matter had to be altered at a later date.
§ Mr. Nicholas Edwards (Pembroke)
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that if the number of amendments moved to a Bill is an indication of dissatisfaction with that Bill, the Conservative Party on coming to power will be entitled to a major review of almost all the legislative functions of the present Government?
§ Mr. Jones
The hon. Gentleman must not count his chickens too soon. He has not come into power yet. After yesterday's performance in the House his chances are disappearing rapidly.
I mentioned those amendments and the numerous parts of Wales which they covered to indicate that certainly when the House was considering the Bill we were not exactly enamoured with it. That dissatisfaction, which was expressed in the Chamber and through the amendments, still exists. The anomalies and absurdities written into the Bill are still there.
To reach two houses in my constituency I have to drive through part of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales—the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) —and partly through the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Padley). Then I arrive at a wonderful place, at the top end of Gilfach Goch, where there are two houses and four voters. Yet on every election, local or general, we have to set up the whole paraphernalia of a polling station. I can- 1674 not believe that a democratically-elected Welsh Assembly would have tolerated such an absurdity in local government boundaries.
§ Mr. Michael Roberts
Is the Minister not aware that the Boundary Commission has not sat since the reorganisation of local government, and that when it does reorganise the boundaries along the lines of local government these anomalies will disappear?
§ 8.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Jones
Does the hon. Gentleman not recall that there were many other instances in the Bill when boundaries were altered when it suited the Conservative Party? In this instance, when it was so obviously right and sensible that these two houses should be put into another constituency the matter could not even be considered. It was said that it was not the right vehicle by which to do that. Having carved up and altered boundaries throughout Wales, it was not possible to deal with those two houses at the top of Gilfach Goch.
The boundaries were not the only matter of great dissatisfaction among my hon. Friends. The question of functions gave rise to some debate. It is my experience—it is not necessarily shared by Tory Members or even by some of my hon. Friends—that there is considerable disquiet in Wales over some of the clashes that are occurring between district and county councils because of the way in which functions were allocated in that Bill. Certainly in planning matters, I suggest that there are not many hon. Members who have not come across instances in their own constituencies where the division of planning control is causing a nuisance.
§ Mr. Fred Evans (Caerphilly)
Is my hon. Friend arguing that the setting up of an expensive anachronism such as the Assembly is necessary to carry out a review of local government? Could not it be done independently?
§ Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)
Is it not rather an expensive way to deal 1675 with a little local difficulty in Gilfach Goch?
§ Mr. Jones
If we were dealing only with a little difficulty in Gilfach Goch, that would be one thing, but I read out a whole list of affected areas: Flintshire, Pembrokeshire, Glamorgan, Newport, Rhymney, Brynmawr, Vaynor, Penderyn, Cowbridge, Llanillterne, Tongwynlais, Radyr, Porthcawl, Rhondda. All those areas were affected by the reorganisation of local government, and hon. Members expressed their dissatisfaction on behalf of their constituents.
Difficulties arose over not only boundaries, but functions. Some hon. Members may not share my view about devolution, but I am sure they will concede that certain difficulties have been created between district and county councils over planning functions.
Another matter that is causing some disquiet is the feeling in some district councils in Wales that social services could, in the main, be better organised on a district level because of the feeling that the counties are far too remote from the people.
From all that, there is evidence that there is a need for a review of some sort, and if there has to be a review—as I believe there should be—somebody has to do it. This is perhaps where we come to the parting of the ways. We on the Government Benches, and, I believe, people throughout Wales, were not satisfied with the way in which things were done on the last occasion.
I recall that my hon. Friends and I voted against the very concept that one should have an England and Wales Bill dealing with local government reorganisation because we said that it would mean inadequate time to discuss local government reorganisation in Wales. Our view was not accepted, and when we reached the Report stage—this was about six years ago—on the last vote that was taken at 6 o'clock on a Friday evening there were fewer than 100 Members in the Chamber, because we were squeezed in at the tag end of the consideration of that Bill. When the Committee was set up, because it was an England and Wales Bill only six Welsh Members were able to 1676 discuss the important amendments that we considered.
The way in which things were done showed that opinion in Wales was ignored. The hon. Member for Barry, when talking about the Pembrokeshire issue, saw it as a battle between David and Goliath. He saw it as David fighting against the resources of the Welsh Office and the mastery of both sides of the House.
The hon. Member for Pembroke when he presented his amendment dealing with Pembrokeshire, reminded us that he had presented a petition to his right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hendon, South, the then Secretary of State, signed by 55,562 people—more than 78 per cent. of his people. He went on to remind his right hon. and learned Friend that not only did the people of Wales oppose it, as shown by the petition, but the county council and borough and district councils had expressed their opposition. He added that virtually every local organisation had passed resolutions against what was proposed, and, for good measure, that all of the five political candidates at the previous General Election had indicated their dissatisfaction. He said:If the Government persist they will be building a system of local government on the foundations of its total rejection by local democratic opinion."—[Official Report, 20th July 1972; Vol. 841, c. 1103.]I believe that he was quite right and that is why I say that there is a need for a review. That review, if it is to express democratic opinion in Wales, ought to be carried out by an elected Assembly.
§ Sir Raymond Gower (Barry)
Does the Minister think that these objective matters are best considered by a political body, with all that that involves, with people having partisan views? Is that the best sort of body to do this job as opposed to the impartial body which the House has always favoured in the past?
§ Mr. Jones
I am sorry to say that I do not believe that the decisions on the last occasion were made by some great impartial body. They were made by the right hon. and learned Member for Hendon, South and by the Government of which he was an important member. I went with a deputation from Glamorgan to see the then Prime Minister and to 1677 draw his attention to these problems and to the fact that large numbers of people in Glamorgan found the proposals completely unacceptable. I am sure that the decisions taken then were Government decisions in which the right hon. and learned Gentleman played a part.
§ Mr. Peter Thomas (Hendon, South)
The Minister knows very well that local government reorganisation in Wales was based on the Redcliffe-Maud report and to a great extent on the 1967 Green Paper produced by his right hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes). Although there may have been certain decisions which inevitably had to be taken by me—as Secretary of State, after consultation with the interested bodies and after representations had been made—the main structure followed the recommendations of an independent commission.
§ Mr. Jones
The right hon. and learned Gentleman conceded my point when he said that the main decisions were taken by the Secretary of State. The structure might have been there, but the important decisions concerning those boundaries came from the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I am sure that he remembers that Redcliffe-Maud did not apply to Wales although I do not make much of that point. Ultimately, if there were any elements in the report which the right hon. and learned Gentleman was not prepared to accept, he did not accept them because he was able to carry his proposals through the House. In the light of present experience and of the criticisms that have been made, and because of the anomalies built into the system, I believe that there is need for a review. If we do it as we did it on the last occasion we are likely to end up in the same sort of mess. That is why I believe that it is appropriate for the elected Assembly to have this function.
I strongly urge the House to reject the amendment, as it rejected its predecessor. This will restore the original decision and will let the Assembly and the local authorities know exactly where they stand. As I have explained previously when we have considered this matter, there is no question of any duty being placed on the Assembly to do more than review and report. Any action to be taken on the report will be for the Government in the first place. Thereafter, if 1678 legislation is involved, it will be for this House and another place.
§ Mr. Nicholas Edwards
I wish that all of my speeches were quoted at such length and with such enthusiasm by the Minister. Naturally I agree with him that it was an excellent speech. I hope that he agrees that all of my other speeches are as good. I tell him now, as I tell the people of my constituency, that a further upheaval in local government at this time would be total madness, not least as the price that would be paid is the removal of much local democratic decision-making from the local government organisation closest to the people, further away and notably to an Assembly in Cardiff dominated by the political forces based on the industrial valleys of South Wales. That is nothing to the advantage of my constituents in West Wales, and they realise it only too well.
The Minister said that the Lords amendment was a retrograde step because the Assembly must be entitled to review local government. He said that it was a natural executive function. But the suggestion from the Lords that the power should be taken away from the Assembly arises from the unsatisfactory nature of the proposals contained in the Bill, which divide the legislative function in two. They split up the job of an executive and administrative body in considering how government works and the job of carrying legislation into effect.
It must be an equally reasonable proposition to advance that as the legislative function remains in this House, Parliament should have the authority to initiate any review that it will have to carry out.
The Minister listed a catalogue of amendments moved to the Bill. But if it is to be a principle that because amendments are moved to a Bill a substantial upheaval and review by a subsequent Government is justified, we are setting out on an interesting road and a new precedent has been established, not least for the future of the Assembly and the Bill passing through the House at present.
If the Minister's proposal is to be taken seriously, it is an invitation to a future Government to review completely the structure being established by this Bill and the form that the Assembly is to take. I do not think that that is what 1679 the hon. Member was suggesting, but there is no doubt that that is the conclusion to be drawn from his remarks.
The Minister gave examples of boundary inconsistencies. But he knows that there is a Boundary Commission appointed to deal with such anomalies and inconsistencies. It has already met and reviewed a number of boundary changes in my constituency, and it has made proposals which have been accepted by all those concerned. It has done it in a reasonable, dispassionate and sensible manner. The Minister knows that to talk about two or three odd houses in his constituency or outside it is totally irrelevant and that those can be dealt with all too easily by the Boundary Commission.
Then the hon. Member referred to the clash of planning and social service functions between district councils and the county councils. But again he knows that these are changes which can be made simply and without this major upheaval and uncertainty by any responsible Government of the day. If the hon. Member feels so strongly about them, there is nothing to prevent him from coming forward with legislative proposals at present, or they can be handled and carried into effect by a future Government. The hon. Member must realise that all his arguments are totally irrelevant and have no bearing on the ultimate decision on this amendment.
When we last debated this issue, the Secretary of State told us that he had perambulated round Wales and found dissatisfaction with local government. He concluded, therefore, that it should be reviewed, and he suggested that a democratic body such as the Assembly would be a suitable body to carry out that review. Those who have perambulated around England find similar complaints about local government reform. That is not surprising because, as I observed during a previous debate, any major reform of local government, which happens in the United Kingdom about every 70 or 80 years, will almost certainly be followed by a period of dissatisfaction and criticism as we adapt ourselves to the new arrangement and become accustomed to it.
1680 8.45 p.m.
The Government have not explained why they have reached the conclusion that in England, as they stated in the White Paper, a further reorganisation so soon after the last one would be bound to create confusion in the mind of the average elector and would probably make him feel more remote from the affairs of a local government body administering services over a much wider area, as would be the case with regional authorities, and yet have come to a totally different conclusion about Wales. They have not explained either why they have reached a conclusion about Wales different from that arrived at by the former Prime Minister the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson), who went to Cardiff in 1976 and said:To impose yet another reorganisation would be a burden not easily to be tolerated. We will not throw the whole of local government into the melting-pot.That is precisely what the Government are now doing. The truth is that the clause has been introduced as a cosmetic as a desperate attempt to disguise and paint the face of a raddled harridan of a Bill because the Govenment were confronted with the fact that the Bill is singuarly unalluring both to the House and to the people of Wales. The Secretary of State for Wales has made a characteristic attempt to buy cheap popularity.
We have the peculiar situation that though on every other issue we are told that the Assembly must be given discretion and that it would be insulting to tell it what to do, on this issue it is given an order, a peremptory command —namely, "Whether you like it or not, whether you think it a good thing or a bad thing, you will review local government. You will do so for no better reason than to make me, the Secretary of State for Wales, offer local government reform as a bribe for my bad and unpopular Bill."
§ Mr. Emlyn Hooson (Montgomery)
The hon. Gentleman will remember that the Secretary of State was interrupted a great deal, so he need not pull a face. Does he agree that clause 12 does not provide when the review shall take place? It is for the Assembly's discretion when a review shall take place.
§ Mr. Edwards
That is precisely the point to which I am about to turn. I propose to deal with it at some length. I remind the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) that when he previously addressed the House on this subject he said that the outcome of such a review would be only a few small and insignificant changes. We must question whether a major upheaval and all the uncertainties that the proposal causes is justified in the cause of a few small and unimportant changes.
Surely the other place has hit on a critical matter. Whether a review of local government is desirable and whether the Assembly will at some stage be the right body to carry it out, it is self-evident—this is implicit in what the hon. and learned Gentleman has just said—that for a considerable period it will be incapable of properly carrying out such an exercise.
The history of local government reform surely provides the warning and the lesson. A new structure needs time to settle down. New men need time to find their feet. Knowledge and experience have to be acquired, working methods have to be developed and techniques have to be invented. That is true when we consider an existing body or structure, or existing men and women, and reshuffle organisations to produce new patterns of responsibility. However, in that situation there is at least a continuing thread of experience. Most of those in local government, whether appointed or elected, have been involved before and can build on their experience.
It will not be like that in the Assembly. The Assembly will attempt to undertake a totally new responsibility. It will experiment with a technique of government which has not been attempted before in this country. We do not know who the administrators will be or what their experience will be. We do not know how varied will be the previous experience of elected Members of the Assembly. But we can be certain that for a considerable time—for several years—they will have a full-time task in establishing themselves, in making the Assembly work, in building links with local government and nominated bodies and with all the other organisations for which they will be responsible.
§ Mr. Alec Jones
The hon. Member suggests that the Assembly will be so busy for such a long time that it will not have time to reorganise or review local government. How can he also argue that it is too soon to do that now?
§ Mr. Edwards
It is always a mistake to give way at a point in a speech when one is about to discuss a subject which is raised in an intervention. To create a major period of uncertainty, if there is to be a delay, must be a huge mistake. It is an act of madness to attempt, during childhood and adolescence, a task which would test all the abilities and require the accumulated wisdom of a mature body. The Government propose that throughout this period overhanging the Assembly will be the peremptory order to carry out a review of local government. That proposition is in the Bill.
Inevitably there will be a continuing clamour for the Assembly to get on with that task. People will say "Look, you have been charged with the job of reforming local government. Why are you not doing that job? Let us carry out the investigation." The Members of the Assembly would be less than human if they resisted that clamour. If they do resist it and wait, as prudence dictates, uncertainty will hang like a cloud over local government and those employed in it. It is hard to imagine a more unsatisfactory situation.
When the time comes for the review to take place we might be in a wholly different situation. Public reaction to local government might be different from that found by the Secretary of State, and the clamour for reform might have subsided. Surely, the Lords are right to maintain that even if the Assembly is the right body to do the job, the threat should be lifted from local government until the Assembly is equipped and qualified to carry out the review.
Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, for the Liberal Party, said that the review would not happen straight away and that common sense would not allow it to happen for several years. Can it be right that for several years we should leave local government in uncertainty? It is irresponsible of the Government to have created the uncertainty in the first place. They should now remove that uncertainty.
1683 The responsibility for legislating on local government, as on other matters, remains with this Parliament. It is therefore right that this Parliament should judge when that review should take place and whether at that time the Assembly is the proper body to carry out that review.
Whatever happens in the Assembly and whatever happens in electoral terms on a United Kingdom basis, it is certain that before the review can get under way there will be a new Government and a new Parliament at Westminster. It is wrong that a Government who cannot, by the nature of things, have the responsibility, should set in motion a series of events for which their successors will have to take responsibility and will have to act.
If we were to accept—and I do not—that a review is desirable and that in due course the Assembly might be the appropriate body to do it, the Bill, if approved by a referendum, will enable those things to happen. By passing the Lords amendment we shall not prevent them from happening. But surely the sensible practical course of action is to leave the decision whether to proceed to the Government of the day who would have to implement any scheme of reform.
One other point was put with force, particularly by Lord Heycock, whose experience of the Labour Party and local government makes the Under-Secretary appear in this respect almost as a toddler in nappies. The Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary repeatedly tell us of the demands in the Labour movement for the changes that they propose. Surely it is not insignificant that their Socialist colleague, who probably knows more about these matters than almost anyone else in Wales, is opposed to what they are doing.
The noble Lord and others made the important point that no review, and certainly no legislation for local government reform, should be carried through in isolation of consideration of the position in England. They said that whatever the particular needs and problems of Wales, the desirability of finding a common pattern with common features for the United Kingdom as a whole should not be overlooked.
In this respect we have only to consider what would happen if we were deal- 1684 ing with devolution for the United Kingdom as a whole and were establishing regional assemblies in England. It would surely be inconceivable that each regional English assembly would independently be permitted to review local government in its own region and recommend a pattern completely different from that of its neighbours. Still less could one conceive that a Government would carry such diverse recommendations into effect.
Surely, as Lord Heycock observed we do not want to put local government in Wales, which has been established on a basis similar to that across the border since 1888, in a completely different position now. Surely, as Lord Elton urged, there should be some form of compatibility. It follows that if a Government wished a review of local government in Wales to proceed, they should at the very outset and at the very least require that the reviewing body should consider and take account of the situation in England.
There may be other factors that it should sensibly consider and be required to consider. Is it not at least possible that by the time there is a review, this Parliament will have given further consideration—some may think overdue consideration—to the whole question of local government finance? If that is so, the review should surely be required to take that into account. Government should see that proper consideration is given to these and other matters that will have to be borne in mind. Parliament should require that the terms of reference should be laid down, and that can best be done as proposed in the Lords amendment by orders laid before and approved by Parliament.
§ Mr. Anderson
Does the hon. Member accept that another possible change on the horizon is the new relationship between the old county boroughs—the organic change that is being floated by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment? It could be a new relationship which could have relevance for Wales with the Swansea, Newport and other county boroughs.
§ Mr. Edwards
The point is that the Bill imposes an obligation to review without providing any terms of reference for 1685 the body that has to carry out the legislation. Surely it would be sensible to provide, by orders in this House, that the terms of reference are laid down.
For all these reasons I believe that clause 12 as it stands is indefensible and that the Lords amendment is eminently sensible and should be supported. The Government's proposals will cause maximum uncertainty for local government over a long period. They may well cause an Assembly which should be fully occupied in establishing itself to hurry into a review for which it is ill prepared and inadequately equipped.
The Government's proposals fail to guarantee that the relationship with English local government is considered or that financial considerations or any other aspects that may be important are taken into account. The Government's scheme forecloses a decision which rightly should be taken by a Government and Parliament that will have the job of legislating.
The Lords amendment would ensure that the decision whether to review would be taken for sound reasons and not just to sell an unpopular Bill. It would be taken after consideration of the needs of local government and the situation in local government, and not as a cosmetic, and the amendment would ensure that decisions would be taken at the right time and in the right way. It leaves the responsibility for initiating the review with this Parliament, which will have to carry the recommendations into law. It is sensible, it is moderate and it deserves the support of the House.
§ 9.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Ifor Davies (Gower)
This House has previously made the decision that the proposed Assembly shall review the structure of local government in Wales. I shall not offend the rules of order by repeating the arguments. I want to confine my remarks directly to the amendment before us.
The clear question now before the House in the amendment concerns the timing of such a review. The question of timing is all-important. It would appear that more and more emphasis and importance is becoming attached to the Assembly carrying out this review. Indeed, it is now being talked about as one of its priority tasks. Inferences are drawn that there should be an early review, an 1686 early report and an early reorganisation. But we are dealing with an Assembly which has substantial functions already conferred upon it in relation to local government and to the important services provided by local government—in other words, an Assembly with an identity of interest.
The question of the reorganisation of local government is an extremely delicate and sensitive issue. I can say that from my own experience in local government, and, if the House will permit a personal reference, from my experience as a Welsh Office Minister involved in our earlier proposals, together with my right hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes).
In this country we have adopted various methods of tackling the problem. Sometimes there is a Royal Commission. I think that we are fortunate that we can generally find a body of people who are impartial and able to approach a problem with some detachment, hear all the evidence and give an opinion. But that is not the only way to investigate the matter, and now we have the proposed Assembly.
The amendment is a reasonable amendment in so far as it seeks to re-establish the authority of the Secretary of State as to the important issue of timing the review. I see nothing wrong in that. I also look upon the amendment as safeguarding the authority of the Secretary of State over the Assembly in this vital issue. Moreover, I consider that this is consistent with the assurances that have been given to us from time to time that this Parliament will still remain supreme.
Therefore, in all seriousness, I submit that it is no reflection whatsoever upon the Assembly to say that it must await the authority of the Secretary of State before proceeding with the review. I can see nothing offensive in that, especially as we are told that the Assembly will have many other tasks to perform in any case.
I acknowledge that there has been criticism, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said, of the existing structure of local government in Wales. But I am also fully aware, as a result of my own close contact with local government, that there is considerable anxiety regarding the procedure and the timing of the 1687 carrying out of a further review. So I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to accept the amendment as a reasonable proposition.
§ Sir Raymond Gower
I very much agree with what the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Davies) said. He has had long experience in local government and in the Welsh Office and therefore speaks with great authority. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will not think me unfair if I say that he was very unconvincing. I do not know whether it was because he lacked the heart to say the things that he was trying to say, but certainly he did not give the impression that his heart was in the job.
§ Mr. Cledwyn Hughes (Anglesey)
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the fact that one disagrees with a person renders him unconvincing?
§ Sir R. Gower
The fact that we dis- agree and remain unconvinced by his argument on this occasion does not mean that we do not acknowledge the force of some of the things that he says on other occasions. The Under-Secretary of State said that there should be a review because the Bill is laying new and important functions on local government. That is a farfetched argument to say the least.
This Parliament has always laid important functions on local government. Some of the great local authorities in Wales and other parts of the United Kingdom have had enormous tasks to carry out for a long time, and to suggest that the Bill in some way puts local government in a new position is quite inaccurate. If it is the Under-Secretary of State's argument that, because the Bill makes some references to local government, that is sufficient ground for the review, I reject it.
Next, the hon. Gentleman said that another reason was that the changes in local government were opposed at the time of the passing of the Local Government Act by some Labour Members. But surely it is natural for an Opposition to oppose. It would have been very unnatural if, on such a major Bill, the Opposition of the day had not expressed criticism of its proposals.
§ Mr. Alec Jones
I did not make the point that the only amendments to the 1688 Local Government Bill were put down by Labour Members. I made the point that there were so many criticisms concerning the boundaries that they were expressed by amendments emanating from all over Wales and on both sides of the House, including some from the hon. Gentleman himself.
§ Sir R. Gower
The hon. Gentleman said that some of the changes in local government had been opposed by some Labour Members. I am only suggesting that that is not an unnatural function for an Opposition. I accept that many Conservatives, in the interests of our constituencies, objected to minor changes, which is what they were. People in little localities do not like to be changed or moved. They object even if the change may be beneficial in the long run, and their local Member of Parliament invariably takes up the cudgels on their behalf. Whenever changes of this kind are recommended or introduced in any proposals before Parliament, either for boundary changes in parliamentary elections or for local government changes, there is resistance and people object.
The hon. Gentleman also said that there were many objections to the details of the Local Government Bill. I recall that it differed from the earlier proposals presented to Parliament by the right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes) and also by Mr. Speaker when he was Secretary of State for Wales. But their proposals were along the same lines. One of the Labour Government's proposals was substantially different only in that it proposed one county in the North of Wales. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Thomas), having considered the matter, decided that it was best to have Clwyd and Gwynedd instead of having the one large county which the Labour Government had proposed.
§ Mr. Cledwyn Hughes
The hon. Gentleman says this, but surely he must concede that there were very substantial differences between the legislation which ultimately came before this House and the proposals which were made in 1967. One can point to what happened in Glamorgan. It aroused the criticism of hon. Members from that county. One could quote their speeches at great length, 1689 and show the passion aroused by the proposals in the Bill, which involved, among other things, the abolition of the county boroughs and other very substantial differences. It is quite wrong to say that it was the proposals of 1967, or anything like them, which eventually appeared in the Conservative Bill.
§ Sir R. Gower
When the right hon. Gentleman refers to the abolition of the county boroughs, he knows very well that this happened over the whole of the United Kingdom. It was not peculiar to Wales. The whole basis of local government reorganisation was to merge the city with the country and to reduce that awful dichotomy which had existed between the great cities and the rural surroundings. The objective was to merge them and to reduce that great difference between the two.
§ Mr. Hughes
I am not arguing the merits of the case but making a statement of fact, pointing out that these differences existed.
§ Sir R. Gower
And there were enormous similarities. In particular, the disappearance of the county boroughs was consistent with all the proposals for cities in England as well as in Wales, where the merger was on similar lines. The Minister referred to constituency anomalies. That was a pettifogging argument. That is the only word I can use when the Minister refers to some little village in his constituency with a couple of houses.
§ Mr. Alec Jones
Do I take it, then, that the amendments that the hon. Gentleman moved were pettifogging?
§ Sir R. Gower
No. I was referring to what the Minister said about some little village in his own constituency with two or maybe three houses. I will not argue the point. Even if we accept his argument, he must be perfectly aware that those anomalies could easily be ironed out without a review of local government. I am sure that he would not deny that. It does not need a review of local government throughout Wales to iron out the anomalies to which he referred. I hope that he will take that view.
We originally sought to exclude the clause that was in the Bill initially. It was a very unfortunate clause. It said that there should be a mandatory injunction upon the Assembly to conduct 1690 this review. It distinguished between all the other functions of the Assembly and this matter. It was particularly unfortunate, I thought, that it was singled out in this way. If it was so vital, why was it not in the Government's original proposals? If the matter were so important, why was it not in the original Scotland and Wales Bill? If people are shouting about local government and denouncing the iniquities of my right hon. and learned Friend's settlement, why was this not in the original Bill?
§ Mr. Alec Jones
Surely the hon. Gentleman is well aware that when we published the White Paper, when we published the Scotland and Wales Bill, and when we published the separate Bills, we said quite clearly that we were still prepared to listen to representations from people. That is what we have done. Indeed, it is because we listened to those representations that some of the changes were brought about.
§ Sir R. Gower
Presumably, then, if the original Bill had been passed, this would not have been in it? That is implicit in what the Minister has just said. If the original Bill had been passed last year, there would have been no such clause. If local government reform was so bad, why is there not a similar provision for England or Scotland? Why is there only such a provision in respect of Wales? It is made perfectly clear in the White Paper on England that there is no need for this kind of thing and, indeed, that it would be highly undesirable.
§ 9.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)
If the hon. Gentleman comes to my constituency, the Isle of Wight, he will discover that the people there are just longing for local government reorganisation.
§ Sir R. Gower
Nevertheless, the White Paper on England said that there was no need for local government reorganisation. Indeed, it went further and said that it would be a great mistake which could do infinite harm.
We Conservatives wanted this clause entirely removed from the Bill, but unfortunately we failed. Now, thanks to another place, we have before us a different sort of amendment. The Minister said that in some strange way this amendment was even more objectionable than 1691 the other one. But I cannot see how that can be the case, because this permits a review provided that the Secretary of State of the day is satisfied that the time is opportune and that such a review is essential. Therefore, this amendment goes rather further than the original one. I plead with the Government to consider this with sympathy.
One of my hon. Friends referred to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Heycock. I have had the honour of knowing Lord Heycock for many years. Few persons have given greater service to the Labour Party, and to education in particular, in Wales. For two decades he was chairman of the education authority of the old Glamorgan County Council. He was recognised widely as one who gave remarkable service in that sphere. Following reorganisation, he was a sort of founder-chairman of the new West Glamorgan authority. When he intervened in the debate in another place, he spoke as one who has certainly had more practical experience of education and local authority work than any hon. Member of this House. It is he who said that this kind of review would be very injurious at this time. Therefore, I sincerely hope that the Government will realise that it is not we Conservatives alone who take this view.
There are many people outside the Conservative Party, certainly within the Labour Party, who feel that what local government in the Principality needs more than anything is time to settle down. It is unfair to all those employed in local Government that twice in the same decade they should be exposed to this uncertainty. Six or seven years ago, they recognised that after so long it was perhaps inevitable that there should be some reorganisation. But it is very unfair again to have this threat hanging over their heads. That is reprehensible on the part of this administration.
I hope that the Government will take this opportunity of removing from the minds of everyone employed by every local authority in Wales the threat to their jobs and the anxieties which they feel about the future. Instead I hope the Government will give them hope that the new authorities, which started off under considerable difficulties, are beginning to do excellent work. That is the message 1692 which I am getting from many parts of the Principality.
§ Mr. Cledwyn Hughes
I listened carefully to the speech of the hon. Member for Barry (Sir R. Gower). He spoke with passion on a matter that is close to his heart. Had he been here, I am sure that my noble Friend Lord Heycock would have been moved by the tributes which the hon. Gentleman paid to him. But I think the hon. Member for Barry was less than fair to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, who I thought made a sound case against the amendment that was passed in another place.
It is true, in so far as I can gauge public opinion in Wales, that people generally are not enamoured with the reform that was implemented by the last Conservative Government. Of course time makes a little difference. People get used to the new system, and situations become entrenched. Despite this, the criticisms continue. The speeches made from hon. Members on the Government Benches during the progress of that Bill through the House of Commons and some made on the Conservative Benches—notably by the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Edwards), who fought certain parts of the measure with great determination—still hold good. The arguments advanced then are equally valid now.
This is not a criticism of the officials of the new local authorities or of the councillors who sit on them. They have done their best, sometimes in most difficult circumstances, to make the new structure work.
It is also true that when local authorities become entrenched they do not want change. I understand that argument perfectly well. I can understand the argument of Lord Heycock, whose experience in local government is unparalleled. But the longer the new system is in existence the more difficult it will be to alter it. It took nearly 80 years to change the previous system. The longer this one remains in existence the more difficult it will become—the more nearly impossible—to change it. If a change is to be made, let it be considered now, before the situation develops too far.
I further take the view that the creation of the Assembly itself is an argument for a further look at local government in Wales. We have our county councils, 1693 our district councils and our community councils. The creation of the Assembly will add not another tier to local government; it will create another elected body in Wales. Given that Wales is a small country of 2½ million people or so, and a fairly small geographical area, there is a strong case for looking at local government, and doing so reasonably quickly. Four levels of elected bodies may be too many.
§ Mr. Nicholas Edwards
The right hon. Gentleman said that the review should take place now. When he last spoke on the subject he said that it would take about four years. Does he think that the review should start now, or should it start in four years? What exactly does he mean by the timing? What he just said implies a straight threat to local government that part of it should be swept away.
§ Mr. Hughes
The hon. Member is distorting what I said. Previously I indicated that the time scale of reform would be about four years. That was by the time the Assembly was set up and the elections had been held. I made a guess that before a review could come to a conclusion the whole process would take about four years. There is nothing untoward in that.
I believe that the Assembly, when it comes into existence, should set up the machinery for looking at local government. It could set up a working party and that working party would have advisers, and could call witnesses. When the hon. Member for Barry talks about the need for non-political experts looking at these things, he knows that in the final analysis the judgment made must be a political one. When, as Ministers, we examined the subject of the reform of local government in the "sixties" we sat round the table for a long time and considered the recommendations of the working party. Its work was invaluable, but at the end of the day the judgment was ours and the responsibility in producing the White Paper was mine.
§ Sir Raymond Gower
The right hon. Gentleman is now advocating a political judgment superimposed on another political judgment. In his case he would base the political judgment on the impartial findings of a committee such as Redcliffe-Maud, or some working party. 1694 However, he is now proposing that a decision will be made by a future Secretary of State based on an Assembly's finding, and it will be an Assembly of people elected on a political basis.
§ Mr. Hughes
The hon. Gentleman is getting a little too convoluted in his argument. I shall turn to the subject of the Assembly in a moment. I am saying that it is a political judgment after long and anxious thought, and not an arbitrary, snap judgment. Ministers consider the position very carefully and they try to do what is in the best interests of the country. I must give credit to the right hon. and learned Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Thomas) for producing that part of the Local Government Reorganisation Act which affected Wales. He did what he thought was best for Wales at the time, even though we disagreed with much of it. But this was a political judgment. It is inevitable in a democracy like ours that it should be a political judgment, based on the advice of experts and the help of knowledgeable people in various fields.
I believe that the Assembly is a proper body to conduct this review. I have been surprised at the amount of criticism from the Opposition of its probable quality in advance of the election of an Assembly. I have been astonished at the fears, apprehensions and suspicions which have been voiced about the capacity of a Welsh Assembly to carry out this work. I take the view that if the people of Wales elect an Assembly of 70 people, they will be as competent to carry out their work as we here are competent to carry out ours. We as Members of Parliament must not be scared or apprehensive of Members of the Assembly, any more than we should be frightened of members of county or borough councils.
I am confident that the people of Wales will elect a worthy body, and I think that it is reprehensible for the hon. Member for Pembroke to think that there is something wrong in the fact that the majority of the people of Wales who happen to live in Gwent and Glamorgan will have a preponderance of representation in the Assembly. That is the way in which the population of Wales, for good or ill, is spread out. It will be a democratic body. I am confident that the representatives of the people of Gwent and Glamorgan will do what is best for the people of Anglesey and other parts 1695 of Wales. The people of Anglesey will also have their representatives at the Assembly, and their views will be heard.
Let us bring this divisive argument to an end. Let it not be said that the people of Wales are incapable of electing worthy and able people to represent them. Some of the speeches remind me of John Knox and Savonarola inveighing against their opponents.
I am also worried by the fact that the amendment passed in another place will require the agreement of the other place—a body which still has a majority of hereditary Members—to decide whether an elected Assembly in Wales should carry out a review. I find that distasteful. I think it was a speech I read by the leader of the West Glamorgan County Council, Mr. Allison, which put the objection to this quite clearly, and I agreed with everything he said.
§ Mr. Anderson
I have had confirmation from the leader of the West Glamorgan County Council that he was irritated at the way in which his words had been taken out of context.
§ Mr. Hughes
I would not wish to take the words of the leader of the West Glamorgan County Council out of context. I have high regard for that gentleman, whom I have known for many years.
§ Mr. Hughes
If he did not say it, then of course I withdraw my remarks. I was assuming that what appeared in the Western Mail was true. I must not sail into that uncharted sea.
The opponents of the Bill are causing a storm in a teacup. At the end of the day, the decision will be taken here, in this House. The Assembly will make recommendations. If they are not satisfactory, the House does not have to accept them. Indeed, the Secretary of State and the Government do not have to accept them.
The time has come for us to accept with good grace that the Assembly will come into existence, that it will be effective, that it will be democratic and that it will consist of people who are as experienced in public life as we are. They 1696 will be capable of giving more time to producing a cogent report on local government reform than we are. At the end of the day, the House of Commons will decide whether the report is to be implemented.
It is for that reason that I support and congratulate my hon. Friend not only on the part that he has played throughout the progress of the Bill but on the speech that he has just made.
§ Mr. Hooson
The right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes) has done a service to the House by bringing an air of sanity and balance to the debate. This debate illustrates, as similar debates have illustrated, the iniquitous fact that the last reform of local government in Wales was against the wishes of the vast majority of Welsh Members and before we had the Kilbrandon Report. Logically, we should have been in a position to discuss the pattern of local government in Wales in the light of an Assembly.
It is significant that the one effective argument advanced today in support of the local government set-up in Wales is the fear of further upheaval and disturbance, not its merits. I am not in any way under-estimating the force of that argument. People do not want further upheaval. Nevertheless, we should be fooling ourselves if we thought that the people of Wales were satisfied with their local government set-up.
My experience is that every institution whether it be a county council, a district council or a community council—creates its own vested interests through its councillors and officials who do not want change and who become its great advocates. Nevertheless, the Welsh people have been dissatisfied with local government reform.
I come back to the point made by the right hon. Member for Anglesey. The Welsh Assembly will be a democratically elected body with representatives from all parts of Wales. Its Members will be no more politically motivated than are Members elected to this House. The Assembly will be no more and no less democratic than this House.
The Members of the Assembly will be in touch with local government in their own areas. They will know the force of the argument against further upheaval. 1697 They will know, as the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Edwards) said in a rather ambivalent speech, that the Assembly will have a great deal to do in the first two or three years of its existence. It will have to rehearse its power, as it were, and decide how it will act and become an effective body. As local government takes a long time to find its feet after it is reformed and set-up, so will the Welsh Assembly.
The hon. Member for Pembroke, in the first part of his rather ambivalent speech, spoke of imminent threats to local government. He said that the reform would take place almost immediately and that councillors, officials and so on would be apprehensive because of it.
In the second part of his speech, the hon. Gentleman got far closer to reality when he pointed out that the Assembly would have a great deal to do and that it would probably take it some time—some years, he suggested—before it got round to setting up the right machinery for reviewing local government.
§ Mr. Nicholas Edwards
The hon. and learned Gentleman is quite wrong. In the first part of my speech I said that the Assembly would not be able to carry out the reform quickly for the reasons I set out. Therefore, in the second part of my speech I reached the conclusion that there would be a long period of uncertainty. There is nothing ambivalent about that.
§ Mr. Hooson
With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, he should read his speech. He suggested that there was a threat to local government now. He used the word "now". Other hon. Members heard him.
There are safeguards. As the right hon. Member for Anglesey pointed out, not only is there no limit on the time that the Assembly has to consider the matter—and it will do it when it wishes in its judgment, being a democratically elected Assembly—but it is asked to make recommendations to the Secretary of State before any further action can be taken. The matter must be reviewed by the Secretary of State of the time, whatever his political complexion. He must take a decision on the matter.
If the Secretary of State has a definite view that there should be any change in 1698 function or structure of local government in Wales, he has to bring proposals before the House. Then the elected Members representative of Wales here, as well as all other elected representatives, have to vote in favour before there can be any change of local government in Wales. Why, therefore, has there been all the false propaganda suggesting that Welsh local government is in any way prejudiced by the provision?
§ Mr. Peter Thomas
If clause 12 had been eliminated, would not the Assembly still have the right to review local government of its own volition? Could it not recommend changes, or report to the Secretary of State, without the inclusion of the clause? The clause imposes a mandatory obligation on it, the effect of which is that inevitably an overbearing tension will be on local government throughout Wales as soon as the Bill becomes law.
§ Mr. Hooson
There is a strongly arguable case that the Assembly would be competent to review local government, but I can see the opposing argument that we should be interfering with the powers of this House and that the Assembly, because it is set up under an Act of Parliament, is specifically confined to the powers allocated to it. Therefore, it is strongly arguable the other way. It is my personal view that the Assembly would be competent to discuss local government, but I do not think that my conclusion is not open to argument.
§ Mr. Thomas
I put my question to the hon. and learned Gentleman on the authority of the Lord Chancellor, who told the other place that:The original Amendment would have removed the obligation on the Assembly to carry out a review of local government structure. But, at any rate, under that Amendment the Assembly would be free to review of its own volition local government structure."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24th July 1978; Vol. 395, c. 672.]
§ Mr. Hooson
I have great respect for the Lord Chancellor, but during my career I have known him to be wrong once or twice on certain legal matters.
I ask again: what prejudice is there to local government in Wales by the provision? As the provision is in the Bill and there is no time limit on it, there can be no argument but that the Assembly is competent to consider local 1699 government in Wales. It will not be open to anyone to argue that it could not consider the reform of local government in Wales.
Secondly, there are eminent safeguards. There is the safeguard of the report going to the Secretary of State. Then it must be brought before the House. To be realistic, there is no possibility of any real changes taking place for years.
Let us go to the question of local government in Wales. The Under-Secretary of State quite rightly referred to the great criticism that there has been of the division of powers in planning matters. The planning powers of district councils are almost equivalent to those attributed to county councils, and one finds—one meets this in Powys now—a continual clash on policy between district and county councils. Is anybody in this House suggesting that that should not be reviewed?
The county of Powys is enormous. It entails almost a day's journey for a councillor to get from the extremity of the county to the county town, yet we have a sparse population. There was an enormous argument in favour of such areas as mine—I am not saying that this applies to the rest of Wales—having an all-purpose authority, as a matter of common sense. Should it not be open to the Assembly, over the years, to consider representations from the different parts of Wales and to make recommendations to the Secretary of State that it thinks that certain areas are too large? There could be a different kind of pattern to suit certain areas. The Secretary of State would then have to consider the matter and bring it before the House.
Have we the right to prevent a democratically elected Welsh Assembly from considering this matter? Are we saying that our successors, whoever they may be in Parliament in, say, a decade, should not have the right to look at this matter and the considered recommendations of the Assembly? I think that a great deal of nonsense has been talked about this provision. It is a healthy provision, and there are any number of safeguards to prevent the worst ills that have been suggested by right hon. and hon. Members who have been opposing the original clause and supporting the House of Lords.
§ Mr. Neil Kinnock (Bedwellty)
I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson). He made one of the most articulate and specific anti-devolution speeches that I have ever heard in the course of our several debates on this vexed subject of local government reform.
The hon. and learned Gentleman said that there was the offer, implicit in the Government's proposition, that everyone in Wales, in the event of a Welsh Assembly having the power to review, being allowed to do his own thing. It suits a certain populist theme in politics to propose that everybody should be the master of his own destiny. Philosophically that is an attitude with which I agree, but the practicalities of it are somewhat different.
I say that because what we shall hear if the Government's proposition in clause 12 becomes the substance of the Bill—in other words, if we reject what the Lords propose—is that at the referendum—which is the whole purpose towards which clause 12 is directed—in the event of the review powers being extended to the Assembly, automatically, because of its sensitivity to the local needs of Wales, to the provincial needs of Wales, to the parochial needs within Wales, all those who voted "Yes" to the Assembly are thereby voting for a means of tailoring their immediate local government needs to meet what they imagine to be the needs of their communities.
We heard from the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery, as we have never before heard it so explicitly from anybody on either side of the House, exactly what advantages could be proposed. While there is a certain charm in what he proposes, especially in a sprawling county such as Powys—and I think I could imagine instances even in my own county of Gwent, which is much more intensely occupied—the problem is that of having an enormous inconsistency of local government function, of local government financing and of local government powers.
It might be charming and appealing to have a disparate pattern of local government, to have massive boroughs, counties and municipal boroughs, and to have some new hybrid local government organisation such as is proposed indirectly 1701 by the hon. and learned Gentleman, with five or six different kinds of local government organisation, but if that were to happen, instead of getting all the advantages of local democracy, a maximum amount of efficiency and local accountability combined with the maximum amount of good husbandry of local economic resources we should have an absolute mish-mash.
I do not say that the people of Wales would be irresponsible when offered that proposition. They are bound to follow their vested interests and to listen to the blandishments of pro-devolutionists who will say "If you vote for the Assembly you will be able to do your own thing in local government." I suggest that that is the proposition behind clause 12.
Much else has come from this debate. I did not think that it was possible, after the amount of time we have spent over the past six or seven years dealing with local government in Wales—including proceedings on the Wales Bill—to find much more that was original to say. The nature of parliamentary scrutiny is such that the more frequently we give attention to matters, the more we dig, the more we expose the inconsistencies and the strengths of an argument. That shows how useful is our procedure of scrutiny.
It would be wrong for me to say that I have any sympathy with the view expressed by the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Edwards), that somehow, because of the horrific possibilities following a loss of equilibrium in our local authorities and all of the difficulties that might be encountered by a precipitate review, there is therefore a substantial argument against awarding powers of review to the Welsh Assembly. I do not think that that is so.
There is widespread discontent with local government and with government generally. Since we are discussing this matter on the basis of six years' experience we should consider the possibility of changing a mistaken pattern of local government, a mistaken allocation of power. The opportunity should be taken by this House to undertake the review. It is important that we not only have a review but that we have change. We ought to go beyond the business of examining and churning over matters, since the need 1702 for change is apparent in many cases. Anyone who encounters local government, as a member of a local authority or as a Member of Parliament is aware of that.
The quarrel we have concerns the question whether the Welsh Assembly would necessarily be the best body to conduct this review. I do not declare any lack of confidence in those who would be elected to the Assembly. I have at least as much confidence in them as my right hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes). If such people were incompetent, that would be the price we pay for freedom, just as it is in this House or any other democratic Assembly. If these people were competent all that they would be demonstrating would be the high quality of our democracy.
The nature of the Assembly is not to be divided politically when faced with the question of local government reorganisation but rather to be divided on the basis of parochial self-interest. That is not a dishonourable function. We spend a great deal of our time here representing our constituents. Elsewhere we also act as their standard bearers, deliberately and honourably pursuing parochial and limited community and locality aims.
I do not believe that the Welsh Assembly, however serene, highly motivated or disinterested, would be able to avoid the duty, and therefore the consequence, of pursuing these parochial ends. That means that in terms of reviewing boundaries or the functions of local government the attitudes adopted by those in the Assembly will vary much more according to their locality than might be in the best interests of Wales.
I am not suggesting that there is some kind of automatic wisdom attached to bodies which are not elected, or that there is some kind of congenital wisdom about establishment organisations which have no direct accountability. I am saying that the combination of assessment by professional bodies—men and women of good will and of experience, whether we call them working parties, Royal Commissions, or whatever name they may have—and the political tests applied by people who not only have their partisan views to put forward but who realise they will have to defend that decision in subsequent elections in a democratic fashion, is much 1703 to be preferred. The objective assessment, in which the parochial decision plays a minimal part, subjected to the political test, is the best way, in my view, of making decisions about local government.
One of the main reasons why the local government system that we have now is so incompetent is simply that the review was the first that had been seriously or substantially undertaken for eight years. Any future review, whoever it is undertaken by, will be a great deal more competent and may well enjoy a great deal more public favour throughout the United Kingdom, simply because we have a much better means of testing and a much more articulate public able to remember the system before 1973 and the system since 1973 and to compare the two. As a consequence of that comparison, an altogether better system will be produced.
There is no special magic about allocating that review power to the Welsh Assembly. I think that it could well diminish the prospect of developing an effective, democratic and efficient system of local government for Wales.
That is not a declaration of any lack of faith in democracy. I hope that no one in this House or anywhere else will accuse me of not having faith in democracy. However, democracy is a general term. It is open to many interpretations. Perhaps it is easier and better to say that I am in favour of freedom and free expression and of liberty and libertarian values than to use this word "democracy", which can mean one thing to the agent of repression in the Kremlin, another to an hon. Member of this House, another to a member of a trade union delegation, and yet another to someone in local government. However, it is no part of my argument that a Welsh Assembly would be incompetent or that democracy is incompetent.
In the coolest of judgment required, in the expertise of assessment required, in the original propositions required and in the original examination required, it is better to subject that dispassionate set of propositions to a political test and to make the changes in that fashion on the basis of the experience that we have gained since local government reorganisa- 1704 tion, compared with the experience that we had before it.
In my view, the case on clause 12 and the options that we have before us rests not on a rejection of the necessity for a review but on the calculations of how best a review can be undertaken, who best to undertake it, and to what tests such a review ought to be subjected.
§ Mr. Fred Evans
I remind my hon. Friend that the thinking on devolution in Wales began in precisely that way many years ago. In spite of the monstrous proportions to which it has now grown in the envisaging of an Assembly, I was at the original meeting where what was envisaged was an indirectly elected council for Wales. However much people have run around waving pieces of paper since then, or have built a vast superstructure on to that original thinking, the use of experts for review purposes and the final political judgment resting where it should rest is in line with the original thinking on devolution in Wales by the Labour Party. That can be said beyond peradventure. It can be proved to the House by naming those who were present at the original meeting.
§ Mr. Kinnock
What was being talked of at that time, and much more recently, was a change in the system of accounability and a change in the system of democracy throughout the United Kingdom. The word "devolution" had not seriously been considered at that time. We are grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery for giving us a definition of devolution. It seems that it is to give the appearance of power to a regional, provincial or national assembly and simultaneously to hold the real reins of power in a central body. In that sense it is an hypocrisy as a system of government.
The reassurance that the hon. and learned Gentleman was prepared to offer is in contradiction to the view put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Evans) that conclusive power should be vested in locally accountable bodies to take final political decisions on executive suggestions. The hon. and learned Gentleman and many others say "Do not let us have that system. Let us have the appearance of localised power subject to final central decision. Let us say to those who have doubts about 1705 devolution that that is the reassurance that we can offer. Let us say to those who are in favour of devolution 'Here is the appearance of power that we are prepared to award'."
If we want a change in local government, if we want greater accountability in local government, if we want the exertion of much more local control over local government, if we want local government to be more effective in its representation to central Government, and if we want the necessary changes in the system of financing local government—an issue that has been almost entirely excluded from our considerations in debating the review powers of the Assembly in Wales and one of much greater importance to the citizens of Wales than boundaries or powers, as it concerns how money is raised and on what it is spent—the need is universal wherever in the United Kingdom consideration is given to those matters.
The propositions that have been advanced for application in Scotland and Wales have been selective. In recognition of that fact, in recognition of the fact that the Assembly is not necessarily the right system to make a re-examination of local government as it would provoke the possibility of a major shift between Welsh interests and centralised interests if there were disagreement over the propositions to be made by the Assembly, the House should deny the Assembly review powers in so far as that requires a clause, leaving them to its discretion and timing if it is ever formed, and rely upon the fact that the Secretary of State will be sufficiently sensitive to the demands that it is supposed will be emanating from the national voice of Wales to pull the lever as and when required.
There is no need to insert into the Bill a regulation, a fiat, or a diktat that the exercise should take place. If devolution means anything, it means that the power to make such changes, suggestions and reviews should at least be vested in the Assembly.
§ Mr. Peter Thomas
I did not intend to take part in the debate but in view of the observations about me I must express a personal view. I did not take part in the debate on the Lords amendment when it first came before the House a few days ago.
1706 It has been said that there is great anxiety about local government in Wales. I accept that. I do not intend to go into the merits of local government reorganisation.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.