HC Deb 23 March 1981 vol 1 cc759-64

`(1) An Islands Council is hereby authorised to operate an omnibus undertaking.

(2) Part V of the Road Traffic Act 1930 shall apply to that undertaking as it applies to undertakings authorised by a local Act or Order.'.—[Mr. Donald Stewart.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This clause has been put down on behalf of the Western Isles islands council and it is possible that the islands councils of the Orkneys and Shetlands will have an interest in it. The councils are faced with the withdrawal of bus services, and there is no alternative means of public transport. The councils do not, under existing legislation, have any powers to run a bus service.

I have been in correspondence with the Scottish Office on the matter. It takes the view that the problem should be resolved by private legislation, which, it assures me, it would not oppose. But private legislation is costly, and, in view of the calls from the Government to cut local government expenditure, I hope that the Government will support to my local council by not putting it to the expense of having to legislate privately if the necessary provisions could be incorporated in this Bill.

There has been a suggestion that the Scottish Bus Group should be approached to run services. The council has had discussions with the group, but it has proved impossible to get it to come into the islands to do so. The Western Isles islands council is not desperate to run bus services, and it regards the idea with some reluctance. The public interest and the rights of existing operators would be safeguarded by the second part of the new clause, for any application by the council would have to go before the traffic commissioners in the normal way.

The problems of the island authorities are peculiar and distinctive, because no national major bus companies are operating in the islands like those available to the regional councils in the rest of Scotland. The existing services are of a particularly fragile nature.

Because it has proved impossible to get any alternative form of transport, and because it would be with great reluctance that the islands council would seek at least to have power in its hands to operate these services should the situation arise, there would not seem to be any reason in equity or common sense why this proposal should not be accepted by the Government.

12.45 am
Mr. Grimond

I support the aim of the new clause, the Second Reading of which has been moved by the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart).

The aim of the clause is plain. It is to provide transport in the event of all other possibilities failing in rural areas and islands, which is already happening, and, indeed, to prevent the depopulation of such areas. At a time when these areas are being crippled by another 20p on the price of a gallon of petrol, this clause is particularly relevant. Until now there has been a lot of giving of lifts and sharing of transport, but everybody is now feeling the effect of the Government's proposals. The Chancellor of the Exchequer seems to believe that in rural areas petrol is the equivalent of liqueurs, caviare and other luxuries. It is, of course, essential to them, and particularly to agricultrure. Therefore, I strongly support the aim of the new clause.

I have more doubt about the method, because I see local authorities taking on more and more miscellaneous business. I should like to think that their finances will be put in order and their methods of raising taxation reformed. I should like to think also that their functions will be laid down, and indeed their constitutions looked at, before they take on any more functions.

The provisions in the new clause would be used only as a last resort. In many places, even where private garages are prepared to run transport services it is very often a monopoly, and it is valuable to have a power of this sort as a last resort, even though there is a possibility of getting someone to take on the job.

I have doubts about the method because the first thing that we should do before going in for this sort of Bill is to lay down the functions of local authorities. I see us repeating many of the mistakes that were made over nationalisation from 1945 onwards, when the State took on all sorts of functions, did not give sufficient attention to how they would be discharged and now finds them a severe handicap round its neck. I foresee a kind of local authority Sir Keith Joseph in 20 or 30 years' time grappling with some of the functions now being sought by local authorities.

Although I foresee that danger, as the Government have not taken any steps to define their functions, reform their finances, or to change the constitutions of local authorities I do not see what alternative there is to this type of new clause. We all hope that the proposal to combine school transport, the delivery of mail and passenger transport will be pursued, but it is not always possible to combine them.

I hope, too, that the Government will investigate the overlapping of public authorities, the Scottish Office and the local authorities in some of their functions and see whether the Highlands and Islands Development Board, or, as the right Gentleman said, the Scottish Transport Group, would be able to help in this sort of matter.

I come back to the point that much the cheapest way to assist rural transport, and the way that would be most agreeable to the Government, is either to reduce taxation or at least to offset the cost of the extra taxation for the areas particularly affected. The Government have done none of the things about local government that would set at rest the minds of people like myself, and therefore we have to deal with the situation as it is.

I do not believe that this matter can be dealt with by private legislation. The local authorities are already a dripping roast for lawyers and other professional people. The Shetland islands council expended about £600,000 on consultancies last year, let alone the fees that it paid to various bodies in London.

It would be extremely expensive for every local authority to promote private legislation to get that done. It is a problem which is arising, as far as I know, in all the island groups. Therefore, in present circumstances, I see no alternative to the clause. Unless the Government can assure me that they have an alternative, I hope that they will accept the principle of the new clause. If they do not like its form I hope that they will make their detailed proposals in another place.

Transport in the rural areas, particularly in the islands, is a very serious problem. The local authorities already have power to run ferries. It would not, therefore, be a breach of principle for them to be given these powers. They would be statutory powers of last resort excercised only when no other local transport was available.

Mr. Younger

I appreciate the concern that both right hon. Gentlemen have expressed on this matter. As the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) said, he has corresponded with us about the problems there. Regional and island councils are responsible for public transport as a whole. They have a duty under section 151(1)(a) of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 to promote the provision of a co-ordinated and efficient system of public passenger transport to meet the needs of their area. But the 1973 Act does not empower them to run buses, and that is the problem.

This power is available to other local authorities. It is available, for instance, to the Lothian, Grampian, and Tayside regional councils and to the Strathclyde passenger transport executive. But it is available to them under local Acts. And outside of the four cities bus services are provided, with support from the regional and islands councils, by the Scottish Bus Group, private bus operators and the Post Office with its very successful post buses which are to be found in many parts of the Highlands.

I appreciate that in the Western Isles in particular, and probably in the Shetlands as well, difficulty has been experienced sometimes in finding an operator who is prepared to carry on the work. I agree that it is a problem for the islands. We should certainly be glad to do anything we can to help them in finding people to run the buses if operators go out of business and so on. But for two reasons I do not believe that what the right hon. Member for Western Isles proposes is the right way to achieve the objective. It is too widely drawn because it covers all the island councils and gives a completely wide power, not merely a power of last resort.

Secondly, when private legislation is available and is the basis for all the other public passenger transport undertakings in the cities and regional councils in the rest of Scotland, that is much the most satisfactory way of providing the power if the right hon. Gentleman, his colleagues and his council feel they would like to have it. Then it would work satisfactorily as it does in the other areas. It would be on the same basis as in all those other areas and would fit in much better to the local government system generally.

I am not sure what the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) means about the cost of private legislation. I have not investigated what it would be, but I cannot imagine that it would be so prohibitive as to be impossible. Let me repeat what I think has already been indicated to the right hon. Member for Western Isles in correspondence. We in the Government would certainly not wish to oppose such private legislation if it were brought forward in suitable form. I urge him, in spite of his reluctance on this matter to accept that this is the quickest, simplest and easiest way to proceed in the matter and to provide the powers that he and his islands council want.

With that in mind I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will withdraw the clause and proceed—I shall give every help I can—by private legislation.

Mr. Russell Johnston

I had not intended to intervene, but I found the Secretary of State's argument very unsound. Essentially, he said that since the transport systems in Lothian—which originally was Edinburgh corporation—and in Glasgow likewise were based on private legislation, which presumably goes back to the early days of street horse-drawn tramways, this is the best way of dealing with what he admits is a real problem in the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland.

I do not understand the strength of that argument. I do not understand the Secretary of State when he says that to do it in that way would fit in better with the existing system of local government. That is the sort of bureaucratic phrase that is produced by St. Andrew's House and which on analysis is found to mean nothing.

The right hon. Gentleman said that the easiest way of dealing with the matter was by private legislation. That is not true. The easiest way of dealing with it is to accept the new clause and pass it into Legislation. Even if the stories of the profligacy of Shetland in employing large numbers of lawyers and consultants have been slightly exaggerated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), nevertheless, to progress private legislation in this House would take time and money. Passing the new clause tonight would take neither time nor money.

I therefore ask the Secretary of State to reconsider his brief and to apply his own good, intelligent, Scottish mind to the matter and come up with a different answer.

Mr. Donald Stewart

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston), who put the case forcefully. I assure the House that the Scottish Transport Group has had discussions with my council and that there is no way in which it can be enticed to come in. My council has no wish to have any extra functions added to those it already has. The Secretary of State says that the proposal would apply to all island councils. That sounds very widespread, but there are three of them in the whole of Scotland, so it is not very extensive.

The figure quoted to me for private legislation was in the region of £3,000 for each council. It may not seem very much, but all the island councils are under pressure from the Scottish Office to reduce their expenses, so any suggestion for avoidable expense ought to be accepted by the Secretary of State.

We do not want to add to the bureaucracy by putting this proposal through private legislation. As the hon. Member for Inverness has said, the new clause is the most sensible, cheapest and fairest way of doing it.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 46, Noes 113.

Division No, 118] [12,58 am
Alton, David Johnston, Russell (Inverness)
Beith, A. J. Lambie, David
Brown, Hugh D, (Provan) McKay, Allen (Penistone)
Campbell-Savours, Dale McKelvey, William
Canavan, Dennis MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor
Carmichael, Neil Maclennan, Robert
Cocks, Rt Hon M, (B'stol S) McTaggart, Robert
Craigen, J. M. McWilliam, John
Cryer, Bob Marshall, D (G'gowS'ton)
Dalyell, Tam Maxton, John
Davis, T, (B'ham, Stechf'd) Millan, Rt Hon Bruce
Dewar, Donald Morton, George
Dixon, Donald O'Neill, Martin
Dormand, Jack Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Douglas, Dick Ross, Ernest (Dundee West)
Eadie, Alex Sever, John
Foster, Derek Spearing, Nigel
Foulkes, George Strang, Gavin
Grimond, Rt Hon J. Welsh, Michael
Hamilton, James (Bothwell) White, J. (G'gow Pollok)
Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Whitehead, Phillip
Haynes, Frank
Hogg, N. (E Dunb't'nshire) Tellers for the Ayes:
Home Robertson, John Mr, Donald Stewart and
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Mr. Gordon Wilson.
Alexander, Richard Griffiths, Peter Portsm'th N)
Ancram, Michael Gummer, John Selwyn
Atkins, Robert (Preston N) Hannam, John
Benyon, Thomas (A'don) Hawkins, Paul
Berry, Hon Anthony Hawksley, Warren
Best, Keith Henderson, Barry
Bevan, David Gilroy Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Biggs-Davison, John King, Rt Hon Tom
Blackburn, John Knight, Mrs Jill
Boscawen, Hon Robert Lang, Ian
Braine, SirBernard LeMarchant, Spencer
Bright, Graham Lester Jim (Beeston)
Brinton, Tim Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Budgen, Nick Lyell, Nicholas
Carlisle, John (Luton West) Macfarlane, Neil
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) MacGregor, John
Chapman, Sydney MacKay, John (Argyll)
Clark, Hon A, (Plym'th, S'n) McNair-Wilson, M.(N'bury)
Clarke,Kenneth (Rushcliffe) McQuarrie, Albert
Colvin, Michael Madel, David
Cope, John Major, John
Corrie, John Marlow, Tony
Cranborne, Viscount Maude, Rt Hon Sir Angus
Crouch, David Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Douglas-Hamilton, LordJ. Meyer, Sir Anthony
Dover, Denshore Mills Iain (Meriden)
Dunn, Robert (Dartford) Moate, Roger
Dykes, Hugh Monro, Hector
Fairbairn, Nicholas Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)
Fairgrieve, Russell Murphy, Christopher
Fletcher, A, (Ed'nb'ghN) Myles, David
Fraser, Peter (South Angus) Needham, Richard
Garel-Jones, Tristan Nelson, Anthony
Goodlad, Alastair Neubert, Michael
Gorst, John Newton, Tony
Gray, Hamish Normanton, Tom
Page, Rt Hon Sir G. (Crosby) Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Page, Richard (SW Herts) Temple-Morris, Peter
Pattie, Geoffrey Thomas, Rt Hon Peter
Pollock, Alexander Thompson, Donald
Proctor, K, Harvey Townend, John (Bridlington)
Raison, Timothy Townsend, Cyril D, (B'heath)
Rathbone, Tim Trippier, David
Renton, Tim Waddington, David
Rhodes James, Robert Wakeham, John
Rhys Williams, SirBrandon Walker, B. (Perth)
Rifkind, Malcolm Waller, Gary
Roberts, M. (Cardiff NW) Ward, John
Rost, Peter Watson, John
Sainsbury, Hon Timothy Wells, Bowen
Speller, Tony Wheeler, John
Spicer, Jim (West Dorset) Wolfson, Mark
Spicer, Michael (S Worcs) Young, Sir George (Acton)
Sproat, Iain Younger, Rt Hon George
Stanbrook, Ivor Tellers for the Noes:
Stevens, Martin Mr. Carol Mather and
Stewart, A. (E Renfrewshire) Mr. Peter Brooke.
Stradling Thomas, J.

Question accordingly negatived.

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