§ Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)
I beg to move amendment No. 2,in page 1,line 9, at end insert'and no such order shall be made where it has been resolved by both Houses of Parliament that it is expedient that a tribunal be established for inquiring into the re-organisation of local government in Greater London or in the metropolitan counties as a matter of urgent public importance, pursuant to the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921'.
§ The Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Harold Walker)
It will be convenient to consider at the same time the following:
Amendment No. 3, in page 1, line 9, at end insert'and no such order shall be made before the Secretary of State has, pursuant to section 49 of the principal Act, directed the English Commission to review the areas of Greater London and the metropolitan counties and has laid before each House of Parliament an order to give effect, with or without modification, to proposals formulated and submitted to him by the Commission under sections 47 or 48 of the principal Act'.
Amendment No. 4, in page 1, line 9, at end insert'and no such order shall be made until:
- (a) the Audit Commission have inquired into and published a report on the cost of implementing proposals for the abolition of the Greater London Council and the metropolitan county councils and for the transfer of their functions to other bodies; and
- (b) those costs have been reported to an accepted by each House of Parliament.'
Amendment No. 72, in page 1, line 9, at end insert'but no such order shall be made until a Royal Commission to inquire into the re-organisation of local government in Greater London and in the areas of the metropolitan counties has issued a report on that matter.'
Amendment No. 6, in page 1, line 10, after 'may', insert'and in any of the circumstances specified in subsection (5) below, shall'.
Amendment No. 9, in page 2, line 8, leave out 'subsection (2) above' and insert 'this section'.
Amendment No. 10, in page 2, line 11, at end add—`(5) The circumstances specified in subsection (2) above are that—
- (a) a Bill for the abolition of the Greater London Council and the metropolitan county councils and for the transfer of their functions to other bodies—
- (i) has not been read a second time in the House of Commons before 16th November 1984; or
- (ii) has not been passed into law before 28th February 1985.
- (b) it has been resolved by both Houses of Parliament that it is expedient that a tribunal be established for inquiring into the re-organisation of local government in Greater London or the metropolitan counties as a matter of urgent public importance, pursuant to the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921;
- (c) the Audit Commission has inquired into and published a report on the cost of implementing proposals for the abolition of the Greater London Council and the metropolitan county councils and for the transfer of their functions to other bodies, and those costs have been reported to and accepted by each House of Parliament.
New clause 2—Duration of Part II—
`Part II of this Act shall cease to have effect as from 1st April 1986 and thereupon any enactment repealed by this Act shall revive.'.
§ Dr. Cunningham
On a point of order, Mr. Walker. May I raise with you, a question about the selection of amendments, in particular the decision not to select amendment No. 1, which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friends? We regard that as an important issue of principle which the Committee should have an opportunity to debate. It is not clear why it has not been selected, and I seek your guidance on the matter in the hope that perhaps it could be debated at some other point in the proceedings.
§ Sir Ian Gilmour (Chesham and Amersham)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Walker. I wish to make the same point in relation to amendment No. 5, which stands in my name and which also has not been selected. It is, in my view, an extremely important amendment, and, on the face of it, it is inexplicable that neither amendment No. 1 nor No. 2 has been selected.
§ The Chairman
I looked carefully at both amendments and came to the conclusion that they were inconsistent with the principles of the Bill, to which the House had given a Second Reading, and were therefore, out of order. However, I have not the slightest doubt that the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sir I. Gilmour), with their usual ingenuity, will find some way to make reference to those matters in the course of the debate.
§ Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)
On a point of order, Mr. Walker. With the greatest respect, surely the kernel of the Bill is dealt with by amendments Nos. 1 and 5. To say in response to that argument that the Bill has had a Second Reading must mean that the House of Commons should never give a Bill a Second Reading because it will never have another chance of raising certain issues. Surely the idea of debating the Bill in Committee is to deliberate on the great issue that is involved, and the non-selection of amendments Nos. 1 and 5 will preclude that deliberation. In effect, Mr. Walker, you are saying that we must try to find a subterfuge. I did not realise that the House of Commons was meant to try subterfuges; I thought that it was meant to try issues.
§ Mr. W. Benyon (Milton Keynes)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Walker. This series of amendments turns on timing, and that is what amendments Nos. 1 and 5 relate to as well. It seems that we shall be out of order if we are not allowed to discuss those amendments and the timing on which they turn whereas we are allowed to discuss other amendments that turn on timing and other issues.
§ The Chairman
I can only repeat that I considered amendments Nos. 1 and 5 extremely carefully and that I came to the conclusion to which I have already given expression. The Committee will not expect me to enter into a long debate on all the matters which I considered in the course of reaching my decision. I think that the 893 Committee should move on to discuss the first group of amendments. Doubtless there will be scope to make reference to the substance of amendments Nos. 1 and 5 in the course of the debates that lie ahead.
§ Dr. Cunningham
Further to that point of order, Mr. Walker. As you and the House know, Mr. Walker, it is not part of my reputation to trangress on the good nature of the occupant of the Chair; I have never made a habit of doing that. However, I respectfully ask you, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself, to reconsider your decision at some appropriate time. We feel strongly about this issue and its importance to all that follows in the discussion of the Bill. I can put that request no more courteously or calmly; equally I can put it no more strongly.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Rippon (Hexham)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Walker. One of the difficulties is that the order can be brought forward without any subsequent debate by the House of Commons. There is no provision for it either to be approved affirmatively or negatived.
§ The Chairman
That is a rather different matter from the issues that have been raised. I am bound to say that I am not dissuaded from my ruling.
§ Mr. Edward Heath (Old Bexley and Sidcup)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Walker. With great respect, the issue is, as has already been mentioned, one of timing. One of the matters that we would want to debate on either amendment No. 1 or No. 5, or both, is that the Secretary of State has already given an undertaking that he will not introduce the order before a certain time, by which he means after the Bill's Second Reading. The issue of timing is one that carries that matter further, for the point at which he will carry through the order is basic to the Bill. I suggest that it is right that we should be given the opportunity of debating that issue in Committee on one or other or both of the amendments which have been mentioned.
§ The Chairman
It is my task, whatever undertakings have been given by the Secretary of State, to consider the Bill as it is printed and the extent to which the amendments can be reconciled with the contents of the Bill and not with statements made by Ministers, no matter how distinguished they may be. The right hon. Gentleman has raised a matter that lies between him and the Secretary of State. It does not concern my duties.
§ Dr. Cunningham
Dealing with the amendments, this is unprecedented legislation in terms of the way in which it has been prepared and introduced and in intent. There is a certain irony that we begin our discussion of it following yesterday's events on the river Thames. Her Majesty the Queen officially opened the Thames barrier yesterday. That barrier is not only a marvellous demonstration of British engineering and technology and an example and showpiece to the world, but a tribute to the way in which local government—in this case the GLC—and Government Departments have seen a major and difficult project through to fulfilment. It is sad that, on the day after such a success story for central and local government, including the authority of the country's capital city, working in partnership, we should begin to discuss a tawdry measure to abolish the GLC as well as the six metropolitan counties of England.
The purpose of the amendments is to ensure that, before any further progress is made, proper inquiries are carried 894 out. It is unprecedented that a Government of any political party should come to the House with a Bill based on the flimsiest evidence of their intentions. In the past, all Governments have sought to make changes in local government and to advance on the basis of attempts to reach a consensus, usually—this happened in almost every case I recall—following proper, thorough, fundamental and independent inquiries about structure, functions or finance.
None of that happened in this case. The Government have flinched from the inquiries and reports carried out at the instigation of the councils involved. The Government have refused to produce their own properly based analysis of the financial implications of these changes for the taxpayer or the ratepayer.
For months, a number of contentious claims were made, and then abandoned because they could not be substantiated. For example, the Conservative party campaign document of May 1983 claimed estimated savings of £120 million. The Secretary of State has had a year to justify that claim, which he repeated in a document issued through the Government Whips' Office a few months ago. He has flown in the face of all rational argument and ducked out of the business of attempting to justify this action.
The Government have failed to make any substantial response, other than some flights of rhetoric and a little verbiage, to the independent report carried out at the instigation of the metropolitan counties by Coopers and Lybrand. No. hon. Member questions the integrity or competence of Coopers and Lybrand—
§ Dr. Cunningham
I was coming to that point. My hon. Friend, as sharp as ever, is right. The Department of the Environment commissioned Coopers and Lybrand to carry out work on its behalf. The Government have accepted the conclusions. In this case, when the same firm is engaged by the metropolitan counties and probably some of the same personnel are involved in the research and analysis, apparently the results cannot be accepted.
I cannot recall any Minister in any Administration saying that when he or his colleagues engage a company it is held to be fit and proper and its conclusions acceptable but when the same company works for someone opposed to the Government its conclusions are held not to be fit and proper or acceptable. That is rather odd. The position is compounded by the signal failure by anyone in the Department of the Environment, the Treasury or anyone else in the Government to come up with any other credible argument on this matter. For many months the House of Commons has been denied any serious comment by the Secretary of State on the financial implications of these changes.
§ 4 pm
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
The Secretary of State has not come up with any alternative to what has been put forward by the metropolitan authorities and the GLC, but what is rather sinister is that, in addition to trying to abolish the elections next year, the Secretary of State clearly has in mind trying to stop the authorities 895 involved from advertising. If the Secretary of State does that, councils would be stopped from presenting their case to the public. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is clear why advertising so annoys the Secretary of State: it is effective and is obviously making great appeal to the people. The Secretary of State has no effective counter arguments and therefore he wants to try to stop it—
§ Dr. Cunningham
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) for making that point. Councils are not simply to be condemned without proper trial or inquiry; apparently they are also to be prevented from having their case heard by the people who elected them. That is the height of iniquity. It comes ill from a Government and a party which made so much of the media in their own election campaign to say that democratically elected authorities—
§ Dr. Cunningham
The principle is the same. It is to tell people the main issues. Elected councils of the size, scale and importance of the GLC and the metropolitan county councils have every right not just to commission reports, as they have; they have the duty to tell people in the areas that they govern, who voted for them, what is involved, what the implications are and what is at stake for them and their areas.
§ Mr. Tracey
Surely we must differentiate between political parties spending money on advertising which has been collected from their members and the expenditure of ratepayers' money in the most ridiculous fashion by the metropolitan counties and the GLC.
§ Dr. Cunningham
I cannot accept that, particularly when I remind myself and the Committee that, in a minute to the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State proposed that he should set up a propaganda unit in his Department paid for by taxpayers' money. The proposal was rejected, and we have something slightly different from Mr. Bernard Ingham. In the Ministry of Defence we have effectively had a propaganda unit for the Government's policies paid for by the taxpayer.
To what principle do Conservative Members object or defend? They can do all these things for themselves, but the Opposition or or colleagues in local government are to be denied them. Is that what the hon. Gentleman asks us to accept?
The Secretary of State is upset because the GLC and the metropolitan authorities have secured a major success in influencing opinion and convincing people that these changes were not in their best interests. As recently as yesterday I looked at the latest opinion survey in London which showed that about 80 per cent. of the people in the GLC area are now opposed to what the Government are doing. That is a massive figure. The majority of Conservative voters opposed what the Government were doing.
The Secretary of State is worried that he has been rumbled by the people. That was demonstrated in the west Yorkshire local elections last week. There were large swings to the Labour party and Labour councilors on these issues.
§ Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to contribute to the point which has been made about advertising. The chairman of the National Coal Board is advertising extensively in coal mining areas to tell people why they should return to work. That is coming from the taxpayers' purse, but there is no comment about it from the Conservative party. Will my hon. Friend take that on board?
§ Dr. Cunningham
I shall not just take the point on board; I will agree with my hon. Friend.
I do not even concede the argument that what has been done has been done on a party political basis. Much of the advertising campaign has been directed to people's rights to vote and choose the councils that they want to carry out the policies for which they opt. Much of the advertising has been in defence of the services provided by successive administrations of different political persuasions in London and elsewhere. It has not been on a party political basis. Those are the issues that have been brought home to the people—the fundamental questions embodied in the Bill; that people will be denied the right to vote next year, and that the political control of their capital will be changed without a single vote being cast. Those are unprecedented issues.
§ Mr. Harry Cowans (Tyne Bridge)
Perhaps my hon. Friend will tell the Committee what all the fuss is about. The section that allows advertising is contained in the Local Government Act 1972, introduced by the Conservative Government. It legalises local authorities' power to advertise and impart to the public information on local government. What is the fuss about?
§ Dr. Cunningham
I wish sometimes that my hon. and good personal Friend would stay away from some of these debates, because he always pinches my best lines. I hasten to say that, as ever, he is welcome, and I appreciate his support. He is right. The powers, which are being properly used, were introduced by a Conservative Government in one of their local government Acts.
The Secretary of State and some of his hon. Friends and Back Benchers voted for the proposal. They did not raise any of these points then. On the contrary, they said that these were proper powers, with limits on funding, and that local government should be trusted to use them in the best interests of the public. Now apparently the boot is on the other foot.
§ Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)
I am paying close attention to what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I understand his point. Does he think that the substantial expenditure by the Greater London council on literature for delivery in the streets of London—literature that opposes the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill—fits his description of fair and reasonable? The GLC is not a police authority, but it is using ratepayers' money to oppose a Bill that is before the House. I quote that as one example. As a Conservative Member who believes in the fair, reasonable and responsible behaviour of local authorities, that seems to me to fall rather outside the hon. Gentleman's definition.
§ Dr. Cunningham
I am not familiar with the literature being used in the campaign against the Bill because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I am not involved. If he feels that that literature is an abuse of this power, that will be a matter for the courts to decide. I assume that the GLC,
897 which contains very clever people — whatever Conservative Ministers feel, they do not underestimate those people — will have obtained legal advice about whether it is correct and proper for it to do that.
One of the ironies of life is that the Government have elevated my friend and Socialist colleague, Ken Livingstone, and his colleagues into something like folk heroes in London. Even many of us in the Labour party would not have thought that likely a short time ago. The reality is that all the Government's posturing and huffing and puffing has backfired on them because this was part of their Act anyway. They were the people who set down in statute the powers and provisions that are being used.
§ Dr. Cunningham
I am not sure whether all the interventions are because this is a contentious speech or because it is an interesting one.
§ Mr. Banks
I am obliged to my hon. Friend for giving way and I am gald that he did not put an exclusion order on me. Would he be interested in the answers to a series of questions that I put down recently, which show that Government Departments are spending more than £20 million a year on advertising? Whether or not one considers that to be party political advertising will depend on one's political position. In the circumstances, will my hon. Friend accept that what is sauce for the goose clearly must be sauce for the gander?
§ Dr. Cunningham
My hon. Friend, who is a member of the GLC, has obviously done some systematic and thorough research into all these issues. Not only do the Government spend all that money on advertising to support their case, but they have one of the most effective, well-drilled and well-oiled information machines in any Western industrial democracy. That is to set aside the institutionalised business of Government by inspired leak. If we were to put all these things on the balance sheet, the balance would be heavily in favour of the Government, the party in power and Ministers. That makes it even more objectionable to have to listen to the protests about an attempt to redress the balance in the great argument about what are important issues and principles.
As with the financial and economic arguments about this Bill and the proposed changes, so with the argument about the real role, structure and functions of local government through the metropolitan counties and the GLC. No inquiry has been carried out and no proper examination has been made. The Secretary of State criticises his right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) for saying on Second Reading that there had been an inquiry when these councils were set up, but the Government had not done anything about the principal recommendations.
One can forgive that because a lot of evidence, inquiry and investigation has taken place, and no Government is bound to accept, lock stock and barrel the outcome of any such investigation. At least an inquiry had taken place. All the arguments were out in the open, all the evidence was there, to be debated and discussed before the changes were made. Nothing remotely like that has taken place; nothing at all has happened. A hastily cobbled together manifesto commitment forms the foundation on which these changes are now being put to the Committee.
898 The changes should not proceed until these matters have been properly addressed and the Committee has had the opportunity to see independently provided evidence of what will be the result. That is so reasonable a request, so modest a proposition, that, in any normal circumstances, it would gain majority support almost without argument and dissent.
What has happened to the Conservative party in Parliament that it is willing to see these matters dragooned through Parliament without a vestige of evidence to support the Government's case? That is a matter for considerable dismay on my part, as someone who was elected to be a local councillor and who worked happily and enjoyed local government experience before coming here, and, in their heart of hearts, for many right hon. and hon. Conservative Members. It will be too late when the Bill has been passed to say that they did not really mean all these things to happen and they did not really mean this non-elected undemocratic control over services to occur, or these extra financial burdens to fall on the ratepayer and the taxpayer.
§ Mr. Beaumont-Dark
Will the hon. Gentleman address the most important subject of all to most of us —what is to happen to the functions that the authorities are abandoning? Does he agree that the great problem is that, although these functions will go to so-called elected bodies, the bodies will not be directly elected but will be nominated and the democratic process will become tenuous and bureaucracy will become heavy? Many of us did not support the metropolitan counties when they were set up, and we are now worried that all the functions that were lopped from the great cities are not going back to them. It would alter the opposition of many of us if the police and fire services went back to the authorities whence they came, and which they discharged very efficiently. Will the hon. Gentleman tackle that question?
§ Dr. Cunningham
The Secretary of State repeated another error as recently as Question Time today, when he said that these functions and services were to go back to local councils. That is patently untrue. The Secretary of State goes on saying that, but I do not know why. He has no foundation for saying so. They will go to ad hoc bodies, boards or quangos—
§ Dr. Cunningham
The Secretary of State can call them what he likes, but we all know what they are in reality. Who is worried about the nomenclature? They are appointed; they are not elected boards. Why is the Secretary of State so pedantic about it? Everyone knows the reality of the situation.
Even in those cases where the services will go to organisations with seconded or appointed councils in control, they will not effectively be in control. None of those people will have been elected to oversee or administer these functions or services, and few if any of them will have any experience of them. The nature of the organisations will ensure that a non-elected administrative 899 elite will be the real decision makers—the antithesis of democratic local government. That is the reality of what the right hon. Gentleman is proposing. If he objects to use of the word "quango", let him suggest some other word; but I do not think that he will convince anybody of the difference.
The Opposition believe that an inquiry into functions should take place. We would accept any one of a number of possible avenues of investigation into the questions of finance and structure, as is clear from our amendments. We believe that an inquiry would come out heavily against what is being proposed. But even if it did not, the Government and the House would know that they were making decisions in the best possible way, with the facts being on the table for discussion and decision, which is not the case at present.
We believe that it would be iniquitous to abolish the elections next year and to ask the House to take such a step before we have any idea of what the main Bill will contain.
We do not know yet whether the House will agree to the main Bill. Parts of the paving Bill that can be discussed later are written on the assumption that the main Bill will be agreed by the House. That is the implication of some of the later parts of the Bill. It is colossal effrontery to ask the House to approve the Bill and in turn to give support to a Bill that it has not even seen, let alone understands, and does not want to support.
If the Government are so convinced about the force of their case and the strength of their arguments, and believe that they have public support for what they are doing, they should put it to the test and let those in the main conurbations and London express a view. About 18 million people are affected out of 31 million voters, almost one third of the country's population. People are being robbed of their votes. There is no doubt about that. The Opposition feel very strongly that the elections should be allowed to go ahead.
It is clear from a detailed consideration of the Bill that there is no time limit on its provisions. What does that mean? If the Bill is accepted by the House and the main legislation is delayed, amended or rejected, these provisions go on indefinitely; the Bill's proposals will obtain without limit. We do not regard them as acceptable. We certainly do not agree that there should be no limit on their application, and no requirement to come back to the House. Without another Act there would be no way of changing what would then be the status quo.
I ask the Secretary of State and his right hon. and hon. Friends to look closely at new clause 2, because it contains an important point in what seems an innocuous and small adjustment to the Bill that there should be some time limit written into the legislation. We shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that.
Amendments Nos. 6 and 10 relate to what we regard as defects in the Bill and place a duty on the Secretary of State to make an order repealing its provisions upon the happening or failure to happen of certain events which are specified and set out in amendment No. 10. We see the defects as follows. Clause 1(2) empowers but it does not require the Secretary of State by order to repeal the provisions of the Bill or some of them. The only possible parliamentary control on what the Secretary of State may propose is that the order, if he makes one, will be subject to the approval of both Houses. The operation of the Bill 900 is not made dependent on the future of the main abolition legislation at all, and would provide that the powers of the Bill may continue indefinitely even if the main legislation fails. The Secretary of State is given a simple discretion as to whether he makes an order. He is not placed under an obligation to make any appeal order. An obligation to repeal, linked to the outcome of the main Bill, is essential and other alternative and important events to trigger such repeal mechanisms are listed in the amendment. All those are matters of detail. I spell them out so that the Secretary of State, if he has not already had them drawn to his attention, will have an opportunity to ask his advisers to consider them. I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate they will be clarified.
There are fundamental flaws in what is being proposed. That is why we tabled amendment No. 20 and the amendments associated with it. Some of them, as I said, are matters of detail, and I commend them to the Committee.
§ Sir Ian Gilmour
One of the chief constitutional objections to the Bill is that the Government are proceeding in the wrong order. They are introducing the measures for the transition before they have told the Committee what the transition is for. They are paving the way before we know where the paving leads.
That important constitutional principle could have been discussed most straightforwardly and easily in the amendments that you, Mr. Walker, in your wisdom decided not to select. However, as I think you hinted, we can get near to the substance on these amendments.
The fundamental objection, as the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) said, is that the Government are assuming the passage of the main legislation. They are also assuming the non-existence of the other place because it will be possible for the other place not to follow the diktats of the Government or the wishes of the majority of the House and to throw the Bill out. The Government are just assuming that that this is impossible.
Amendments Nos 1 and 5 would have achieved the objective most easily but the Opposition's amendments come near to achieving the same objective because their object is to slow down the pace of the Government's legislation. The fundamental objection is that the legislation is ill thought-out. We should all be better off if what is proposed were preceded by an inquiry and some knowledge. We could then proceed by inquiry and evidence rather than by error, and little trial, as we seem to be, which is the wrong way round.
To have one of the inquiries that the hon. Gentleman proposed would remove at least one of the weighty constitutional objections to the Bill. The Government intend to brush that aside by saying that they have a mandate to abolish the GLC and metropolitan counties. That is not a good argument, for reasons that I gave briefly on Second Reading and which I shall not go into now. The mandate argument cuts both ways. Although the Government may have a mandate for the main legislation, they do not have a mandate for this Bill, which was not in any way hinted at in the election.
Moreover, the Government do not have a mandate to proceed with legislation at this time. Nothing in the Conservative manifesto said that the GLC had to be abolished in the next Session of Parliament and that the paving Bill had to go through in this Session of Parliament.
901 What is the hurry? It is surely far better to get the legislation right than to rush it through and get it wrong, and then try to forget about it for a bit. It will not go away and there will be problems for a long time. Is the hurry because the Government fear elections? I should not have thought so, because, after all, the Government have shown themselves good at winning elections. I fail to see why they should be worried about that.
A further argument for delay is that, if something goes wrong with the main legislation, the position of the metropolitan counties and the GLC will be thrown into a good deal of chaos. In his speech on Second Reading my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said:If the main Bill fails at a later stage, an order will be made to restore the elections at the earliest sensible date."—[Official Report, 11 April 1984; Vol. 58, c. 410.]Of course, the Government would do that, but that surely shows, with respect to my right hon. Friend, a slightly neglectful attitude towards the efficiency of local government, because quite unnecessary chaos would be caused. The GLC and metropolitan counties would have been wound down, or think that they were corning to an end, and would suddenly be turned on again.
There are strong grounds for the Government slowing down the pace of their legislation and improving the quality. There is considerable room for improving the quality. An inquiry of one of the sorts recommended would do nothing but good, and I hope that the Government will accede to it.
§ Mr. Cowans
It gives me a great deal of pleasure to speak in this debate, which follows a debate on another attack on local government, when the House sat for a long time debating the Government's attempt to stop local authorities managing their own affairs.
This afternoon, the House has been asked to vote for a pig in a poke. Hon. Members are being asked to end the existence of metropolitan county councils without knowing what will replace them. Conservative Members must realise that in trying to stop the elections, they will stand accused of being frightened of them. The only sensible and logical conclusion to which anyone can come is that to be democratic the Government should allow the elections to take place and allow the people to choose. Otherwise, the Government will be laying themselves open to the accusation that they are frightened of democracy and of the people's votes. Without these amendments, the Bill is saying that the Government are frightened of the people voting against the measure that the Government seek to impose upon them. By no stretch of the imagination could that be construed as democracy.
We can all go back a long time and sometimes words come back and we have to eat them. At the Tory party conference in October 1983, the Secretary of State said:I am a Tory"—I think that was true—
and I have been brought up as a Tory"—I think that was true—
and I believe that the burden of proof is upon the man who advocates change, and if he does not satisfy that burden of proof then change should not be made.[AN HON. MEMBER: "Unfair."] How can it be unfair to quote what a man said and obviously, sincerely believed in? The world should have the measure of that speech, because the Secretary of State can now put those words into practice. Although the Government advocate that people should go the ballot box when they think that they 902 might win, when they might lose, they cancel the ballot box. That is the democracy that Britain is turning into. We can do anything we like, as long as it is what we are told. We can even vote, if we vote the Government's way. That is the substance of the Bill.
Let me return to the Secretary of State. I should not like to leave him for too long. He has an opportunity given to few people — to substantiate those glowing words, delivered, I am sure, with great feeling at the Conservative party conference, that change should not take place unless it can be justified. The right hon. Gentleman could do that easily by going to the ballot box. Why does he not? the Bill is neither here not there. It is neither nothing nor something. We are asked to put a great deal of faith in the Secretary of State. The Bill is like a piece of elastic. It has no beginning and no end. Depending where one sits, it can be stretched as long as one likes. Those great democrats who advise everyone to go to the ballot box when it suits them have taken away 18 million people's right to express a view by bringing forward a Bill with no beginning and no end. The interim stage could go on for ever, because nothing in the Bill puts an onus on the Secretary of State to restore the elections after a period or to put something in their place.
The Bill insults the House of Commons, because its premise, without the amendments, ignores the fact that the main legislation will depend not only on this House but on another place. If it is not carried, nothing in the Bill will reverse the position. If we cancel the elections and in the interim put in people who are not elected, the Secretary of State is given no power to reverse that situation. He may make an order or he may not. That is the key. There is nothing to bring him back to the Floor of the House after a period.
I know that elected representatives of the people are going out of fashion. According to the Bill, they should be abolished. Hon. Members should be careful because, if they speak too loudly, they will be abolished. If we dare to oppose the views of those who must be obeyed, we shall be abolished immediately.
§ Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Minister said that the Government were abolishing the metropolitan county councils and giving authority to the district councils because they were closer to the people. If the Government do that to the metropolitan counties, Opposition Members should beware of what they will do to our seats.
§ Mr. Cowans
I agree with my hon. Friend that under the present Government we must watch our seats, our backs, and everything else. The Secretary of State said that the Government would "give" the system to the district councils. I quarrel with him about that because they will force it on them. There were no consultations or discussions, and there is no evidence that the district councils want it.
§ The reverse point was used by Conservative Members when they introduced the 1972 legislation. At that time they removed many functions from district councils to what they described as the Utopia of the metropolitan county councils. Like a rabbit out of the box, the legislation was the be-all and end-all to solve local government problems. What has happened to that rabbit? We have not eaten the rabbit; it is still alive and kicking.
903 That is why the Government must abolish it. That shows that when some people make a case, they will use any argument to support it.
I recommend some light reading to hon. Members for the small hours. They should read the minutes of the Committee on the Local Government Bill 1972. The Bill was pushed through at great speed and the then Conservative Government substantiated every dot and comma of it. If hon. Members read that, they will see why this Bill should not be passed. At that time, the metropolitan county councils were greatly acclaimed. According to Conservative Members standing on chairs 8 ft. high, they would bring great rewards for local government. The Conservative Government do not like local authorities which dare to exercise their powers. The only way that the Government can prevent that, is to abolish them. The country has descended to the point where a person who dares to open his mouth and express his thoughts is abolished. That is the reason for the Bill.
§ The Chairman
Order. We are debating not Second Reading, but a group of amendments starting with amendment No. 2. The hon. Gentleman must relate his remarks closer to the amendments.
§ Mr. Cowans
I was coming to the amendments, Mr. Walker. As in many matters, one needs an introduction to make a case. Many of my comments lead to the case for the amendments. Opposition Members are not saying that a Government, of whatever political colour, should not have the right to examine the functions of local government and try to make a better structure. The amendments make a case for consultation and for the matter to be aired and examined. Even local government would welcome a detailed inquiry into every nook and cranny to see whether we could make a better job of it. There is no need to abolish elections to have an inquiry and examine a structure. The amendments seek to replace nonsense with sense. They seek a detailed inquiry, so that all hon. Members can examine the matter before going ahead with it.
If the Bill is passed, people will be appointed to do the job of elected representatives. My second point is close to that made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark). He was worried about who would undertake local authorities' functions because that is not contained in the Bill. This is like reading a book from back to front: relevant matters are not included, but will be in the next legislation, which we have not yet had an opportunity to examine. The Bill will remove at a stroke people who have been carrying out those functions. Many hon. Members think that they have been running them well. They have also gained experience.
We have a metro system in Tyne and Wear. The elected representatives have gained much experience in running it. They have it at their fingertips. They know exactly what they want to do with exactly the integrated transport that they want to maintain. Without the amendments, the Bill will remove all those people with experience. The Secretary of State must consider that seriously.
I gave only one example, but hon. Members could give others. The Bill will remove experienced people, running vital services, and replace them, not with volunteers but 904 with people who have been given a directive — not because they want it—from the Secretary of State to carry out the functions. Experienced local representatives will be wiped out at a stroke and complete strangers to the job will be set to run this complex system.
I ask hon. Members on both sides of the House to reflect whether it makes sense to remove experienced people who have gained much experience and to replace them with novices. Our amendment seeks to prevent that, or at least to ensure that some time will elapse before it happens. The elections should not be cancelled until the main legislation is introduced. Those experienced people should not be thrown out of their posts by a decision of the Secretary of State. The House should have an opportunity to discuss the next legislation.
The amendment would allow time for an inquiry across the board, which would give the House a much better opportunity to be informed. At present the House is being asked to vote for a pig in a poke. The Bill is nonsense and will not benefit the people.
Unfortunately, it is likely that the Bill will be carried. Without our amendments the Secretary of State can delay introducing the main legislation for as long as he wishes. He might be forced to leave matters as they stand for some time, and the Bill does not say when the main legislation can be discussed or for how long the interim measures will last. Even if Conservative Members agree with this Bill, surely they would not want people to be forced to run functions that they do not wish to run for ever. Would it not make sense to have a time limit by which the main legislation must be passed? We will not know how Conservative Members will vote until we divide tonight, but even if they cannot support our other amendments, I ask them to consider supporting the one which proposes a timetable for the next legislation. I fear that those who are placed in posts temporarily might be there for a long time unless the Secretary of State is forced to get a move on and bring further legislation before the House.
§ Mr. O'Brien
Does my hon. Friend agree that the quangos that will be established will be responsible for spending three quarters of the budget of the counties, although they will have no responsibility to the electorate? Will my hon. Friend develop his important point about the length of time that the Secretary of State can wait before he introduces further legislation?
§ Mr. Cowans
Everyone must examine that central issue. In case anyone is in doubt about it, I should say that I am completely against the Bill, which is undemocratic, does not make sense, and will do nothing for local government. However, I am a realist. As the Bill is likely to be passed, the Opposition must try to amend it so as to remove some of the dangers to democracy in Britain as we know it. One danger is that people will be shanghaied into doing a job for which they did not ask. Fame will be thrust upon their shoulders without consultation. It is the duty of every hon. Member to ensure that that sad and ridiculous position is not prolonged. The Bill should contain a date by which the Secretary of State must introduce the main legislation.
Even if this Bill is passed, it should not be implemented before the main Bill has been passed. That proposal must be desirable to everyone inside the House or outside it, unless they be in mental institutions.
There can be only one logical reason why the Government will oppose our amendment. By a quirk of the 905 calendar and by pure chance, before the main legislation is likely to be passed, the people we represent will be able to have their say in elections. The obvious reason why the Government will oppose the amendment is that they know that their views are not popular. If the people backed them, they would be rushing to the ballot box. The advertisement in which the local authorities exercised the power given to them by a Conservative Government elicited the fact that the people are against the legislation, but they will not be given the chance to vote on it.
I will not bore the Committee with the book of opinion polls. With no stretch of the imagination, I think that 80 per cent. of the opinion polls support the local authorities, and oppose the Government. That is one good reason for the Government forcing through the legislation. Even if the Government's increasingly apparent dogma has to be forced upon the people, there is no reason why, having carried the paving Bill, they cannot delay its implementation until the main legislation comes forward. Whoever winds up for the Government will have to dwell on this matter at some length, because the Committee and the public will take a lot of convincing that the operation of the paving Bill should not be delayed.
The Opposition have, unfortunately, been forced to amendments. My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) dwelt on the manifesto pledges of the Government but only on some of them. The Government appear to pluck from the manifesto what they want uncovered at a particular time.
I hope that people will remember that the Conservative party pledged to set local government free from the heavy hand of Socialism. What happened to that manifesto pledge? I suppose that nothing sets one freer than abolition, but that is not how the Government intended that pledge. Without any shadow of doubt, local government is being abolished. When one has the majority, it is easy to abolish something, and there is no end to it once one starts. The Government may soon see it as a good idea to abolish general elections.
The amendments seek to take some of the sting out of the Bill, if that is possible. The Bill is totally unnecessary, and it could have been tested at the ballot box. If the Government had won, I would not have liked it, but at least it would have been democracy. However, those who are frightened of democracy seek to tear it down, and to prevent the people from speaking. With the amendments, at least the worst parts of the Bill will be delayed. That will give the House and the other place an opportunity to pass the main legislation before any elections are abolished.
The Secretary of State has a great opportunity today to recall his words to the Tory party conference in October 1983, and to prove that the change is necessary. If he cannot prove it, he should abide by the maxim that he set himself: if one cannot satisfy the burden of proof that change is necessary, then change should not take place.
§ Mr. Rippon
There were times when I thought that the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Cowans) was trying to talk out the Opposition. However, although he repeated his point frequently, I am bound to say that it is a good point. In my view, the Bill is not well timed or well considered. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sir I. Gilmour) referred on Second Reading, and today, to the doctrine of the mandate. I very much hope that my right hon. Friend will 906 not dismiss all the anxieties that are expressed about the Bill simply by saying, "We have a mandate." The Lord Chancellor has written that any Government who are guided by the false doctrine of the mandate are a Government to say of whom that they are an elective dictatorship is not necessarily a misjudgment. In fact, he said, it is not a contradiction in terms.
We were very anxious to attack the doctrine of the mandate when Mr. Kenneth Livingstone suggested that the Socialist-controlled Greater London council had a mandate for doing what it liked about London Transport, and imposing whatever level of fares it thought right. Subsequently Lord Denning, then Master of the Rolls, in the case of GLC v. Bromley said:It seems to me that no party can or should claim a mandate and commitment for any one item in a long manifesto. When the party gets into power, it should consider any promise or proposal afresh, on its merits, without any feeling of being obliged to honour it or being committed to it.That seems to me the right and proper attitude to adopt. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesharn and Amersham also pointed out, there is in fact nothing in the Bill that the Government can claim is covered by the mandate. The manifesto, referring to rate capping, and to the abolition of the GLC, and the metropolitan authorities, did not say how it should be done or when it should be done, or provide that there should be a paving Bill without anybody knowing where the pavement would lead. I hope, therefore, that the Government will not dismiss a El the anxieties about the Bill as something that can be dealt with simply by referring to the mandate.
I have no objection in principle to rate capping local authorities where it can be proved that there is an abuse of powers, and where the Secretary of State does not take more power than is right or appropriate. I have no objection to the abolition of the GLC or of the metropolitan county councils. I have no objection to changing the boundaries or the functions of local government. This can be done on many grounds, but there ought to be some grounds on which it is done, and some explanation of what abuse of power there has been to justify a change in the boundaries and in the functions. It has been well said that he goes furthest who knows not whither he goes. It may be that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State takes some comfort from that thought.
I think that it would be wiser to contemplate, as the amendment suggests, some form of review as to what will happen after the GLC and the metropolitan county councils are abolished. After all, this was envisaged in the 1972 legislation. Many people consider that that was not very good legislation, and that it was not carried out in the right way. Why then repeat all the mistakes, if mistakes one thinks there were? Such as it was, the 1972 Act envisaged after 10 years—and it is just about due now —a review of the boundaries and of the functions. Why not allow that review to take place? There would then be plenty of time in the lifetime of this Parliament to enact the necessary legislation. That review could be undertaken by a Royal Commission, a tribunal or by something that I used very much to approve of—the local government boundary commission. Such a commission could look at each area on its own merits. There is no reason to suppose that London needs the same structure and functions of local government as Tyneside, and there is no reason why Tyneside should be run in exactly the same way as Teesside or Merseyside.
907 It would be wise of the Government to accept that many people from all parties who have a good deal of experience of local government are not averse to reorganisation and improvement, but say that it should be considered more carefully. Most of the objections to the metropolitan councils' activities are related to the powers given in the 1972 Act. They relate to abuses with regard to giving the public information and an authority's freedom to help its community or sections of it within the ambit of the so called free twopenny rate.
If those abuses are genuine, they can be looked at, and a very small Miscellaneous Provisions Bill can be introduced. When hon. Members on both sides of the House willingly gave local authorities the power to provide information, they were not thinking in terms of political advertisements. However, it would only be necessary to say that that power to give information does not include newspaper advertisements. In the course of those discussions on how local government gave information, there would probably be a discussion of how Governments give information and which press officers should be charged to the party and which to the Government.
Some people feel that local authorities may be wrong in giving grants to particular organisations. The sort of organisation that is often cited as an example is "Black Babies against the Bomb." The ratepayers of London may object to £50,000 being spent on such an organisation, but on the other hand, they may not object, under the same power, to, say, £l.75 million being given to Covent Garden. There is no widespread evidence of abuse of the power to spend the twopenny rate, but if the Government or anyone else feels, anxious about it, a miscellaneous provisions Bill could deal with the situation very easily. With a penny rate producing about £19 million in London, a lot of fireworks can be let off without really making any difference to anyone's rates bill.
§ Mr. Rippon
We should get things in perspective. We are talking about the basic functions of local government that absorb the real expenditure. Before changing those functions and boundaries, there should be an independent inquiry or review. The Government should not close their mind to that.
The part of the Bill that deals with the transitional arrangements was certainly not in the manifesto. All the precedents are that where such changes are made, the life of the existing authority is extended. I remember that being done when we changed the date of local elections from November to May, and local authorities were allowed to hold over for those few months. The clerk of a Welsh local authority came to me in June the following year and said, "Mr. Rippon, what shall we do? We have forgotten to hold the local elections." That may have made the case for reorganising local government, in the sense that it was not a very strong authority. I told those involved to pretend that they had tried to hold the local elections and could not find any candidates, and that they should get the county council to fix a new date.
All the precedents extend the life of the existing authority. It is abject, squalid and shameful that a Conservative Government should come forward with a proposal that, whether accidentally or otherwise, 908 substitutes for a directly elected Socialist authority —which I should like to see the back of — an independently nominated quasi-quango of another political party. There is no way in which that can be justified.
Therefore, the easiest way for the Government to get themselves out of a real difficulty without going back on their manifesto commitment — about which we might have an open mind as to how and when it should be carried out—would be for them to agree that there should be some independent body to review what has happened since 1972, what abuses exist, what is wrong with the present structure, how it can be improved by changing the boundaries, what functions should be transferred from such regional authorities as remain to stronger or larger district councils and on what basis, and whether there is any justification these days for reverting to the 19th century concept of ad hoc joint boards. I cannot see any justification for the present proposals. They are not basically sound. I may be wrong, and I am willing to be convinced of that, but at present I am not so convinced and I cannot see why Government should not accept the amendment and agree to an independent review, by whatever means they think most appropriate. In that way, we may know what we are doing. One thing is certain at present — neither the Government nor anybody else knows what is happening, what it will cost or what the effect will be.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)
The amendments deal with two substantive points. As hon. Members have made clear, they deal with the essential tradition and principle that important local government reforms should be preceded by a public consultation exercise, the results of which are seen by the public. The information thus accumulated can then be used by Parliament in reaching a decision.
Just before the present system of government in London, or something like it, was first set up in 1888, there was a review. There was also a Royal Commission when, in the early 1960s, we were about to legislate to set up the GLC. Ten years ago, when we considered legislating to create the metropolitan counties, preparatory investigations were carried out and consideration was given to their creation by independent and objective arbiters. We then considered their conclusions.
The point has been validly made that nothing said by any Conservative candidate standing for election last June suggested that as part of the process of abolishing the GLC and the metropolitan counties—which was mentioned in the manifesto in as much as that makes the argument valid—the elections that would otherwise have elected people to those authorities next year would be suspended. Nothing was said about asking us to debate a Bill to abolish the elections, without any proper information and in the wrong order, before we had a chance of considering what structures should replace the GLC and the metropolitan counties after their abolition. Neither of those points was put to the electorate. If a Government with 42 per cent. support can claim a mandate for anything, it is certainly not for that.
The amendments suggest that the work of a Royal Commission could be carried out by one of three other bodies: the Boundary Commission, the Audit Commission or by a tribunal set up under the Tribunals of Inquiry, 909 (Evidence) Act. Some of the amendments are better than others. The proposal that a tribunal of inquiry is the right body to consider how to reform local government in London and the metropolitan counties is probably not very good. I am not particularly in favour of that proposal because tribunals of inquiry have been used for emergencies of a specific nature, such as the Profumo case.
The second proposal is that there should be a boundary commission review. Normally the boundary commission examines the boundaries themselves rather than the structure of local government, although there have been exceptions. The third proposal is that the Audit ommission should conduct an inquiry. That body is competent to analyse local government reforms in economic and cost terms, but it has other work to do and that job would be a departure from its normal work.
Only two pieces of independent evidence exist so far —the report by Coopers and Lybrand and that produced just before Easter on behalf of some district authorities. They come to superficially, and sometimes simplistically, different conclusions. That is even more evidence in support of the argument that we need a proper and authoritative investigation. The thin White Paper, "Streamlining the Cities" was supplemented by documents, none of which went into costs. The vital questions of how to deal with waste disposal in London or works to prevent flooding, for example, must be costed objectively.
Any evidence that exists has not been made available to the House. The Government have failed to gain support for their proposals from academic and neutral observers. They have not allowed submissions in response to their White Paper to be published. Thousands of submissions have been sent to the Department of the Environment. On many occasions and in different ways hon. Members have asked for the submissions to be made available, but the Government have said no. Probing inquiries have resulted in answers to the effect that disproportionate cost would be incurred by the taxpayer to produce the evidence. I am sure that other bodies would be willing to accept the cost of producing copies of the submissions.
The criticisms implicit in the amendments are that much stronger because the Government have not given us the evidence presented to them. It is most improper for us to proceed further down this road without having had the opportunity to examine the evidence available and for an independent body to examine it.
I have no doubt that many eminent and respectable business men, trade unionists, church people, representatives of community groups and others—people who do not wear political labels round their necks—would be willing to serve on a Royal Commission. I am sure that there are people capable and responsible enough to do that job quickly enough to complete the inquiry exercise in due time.
If the Government do not believe that it is possible to reach a conclusion in this Session of Parliament the argument that the matter should not be rushed through Parliament in such a short time is even stronger. If the implications of abolishing the metropolitan counties in six areas and the Greater London Council are so wide-ranging and far-reaching that more time is needed, we must take that time and take it now. Often this place does a bad job and it has to amend what it has done. When we are dealing 910 with services that affect people in their daily lives—housing, transport, social services and planning — we must try to do the best job possible.
All sorts of people who are normally Government supporters have already said to the Government that they are going about the matter in the wrong way. The London Chamber of Commerce and Industry has said:"It is essential that the task of devising a new structure for London's local government is not rushed. In its present economic state London cannot afford a costly and disruptive reorganisation which does not produce required increases in efficiency and cost effectiveness in its local government.The school for advanced urban studies, one of two institutes which concentrates on local government and how it works, says that it believes
there remains an overwhelming case for the review of the structure and finance of local government … Abolition cannot be contemplated without full and open investigation and debate around the alternatives.
The Leeds Chamber of Commerce and Industry says:We find the Government's case that abolition will save money at best unproven.The Manchester Chamber of Commerce and Industry says:More information, however, especially financial information, with a detailed account of other benefits must be produced.The Town and Country Planning Association says:The Government has not adduced remotely sufficient evidence to justify either its criticism of the existing structure of metropolitan areas or of its own proposals for change.As the Secretary of State has been known to say, being a lawyer, a case must be proven.
We support the first amendments. We think the best is that which proposes a Royal Commission to examine the future of local government in London and the metropolitan counties. The second group of amendments suggests that the Bill should not proceed until Parliament has decided, after debate that the GLC and the metropolitan counties should be abolished and what should go in their place. It is no good saying that we can pass a Bill and hold it in suspense without knowing the circumstances in which it will bite and be implemented. There is no precedent for that.
It is no good the Government arguing that we are giving ourselves power when there has been no precedent for such a move. We debated the lack of precedent on Second Reading. From documents printed in The Guardian we know the Prime Minister's view as expressed in internal memoranda circulated among members of the Cabinet Committee investigating the matter. She believes that it is far better to extend the life of the present councils, if one has to take that option, than to replace them by bodies that have been appointed, as opposed to elected. We should examine the manifesto pledge carefully. It states:The Metropolitan Councils and the Greater London Council have been shown to be a wasteful and unnecessary tier of government. We shall abolish them and return most of their functions to the boroughs and districts.
I recall well what the Secretary of State said. He said that we needed to give such councils the opportunity to row themselves in. That argument is flawed because they are contemplating giving the power of the present GLC for one year to people who were elected to a totally different body. That can be compared with hon. Members starting their term of office here and ending up serving their time in Strasbourg, which could hardly give our electors the best service. [Interruption.] I hear support for this proposition from the Benches behind me. It is only 911 because some people, no doubt, do this country a better service there. We do not share the view of some members of the Labour party that we should not be going there.
Authorities will be sending people to run the Greater London and metropolitan councils in the last year of their term of office when they are least interested in trying to run a new authority. Certainly they will not have time to acquire the competence and the skill to do so. Effectively, the bodies will be run by the officers, who will be very much overworked because they will have to cope with the transitional arrangements. Also, as was clear last time, they will no doubt be concentrating on getting new jobs for themselves because their jobs will be abolished. People from local boroughs, districts and metropolitan areas will be trying to run the six huge metropolitan counties and the Greater London council when they would much rather concentrate on re-election in 1986. It is a badly conceived argument. Perhaps that is why the Prime Minister was opposed to the idea when it was debated in Cabinet.
Many countries in Europe have considered what local self-government means. The draft charter agreed by the Council of Europe said that it meant, among other things, that citizens had a right to participate in the conduct of public affairs. It is a bizarre interpretation of that, if we approve the process that the Government appear to be determined to set up, that citizens will be participating in public affairs for a year in the least effective way via nominees from other authorities. That is in no one's interest and least of all is it in the Government's interest —whatever the colour of the Government—because it produces bad administration at local level. That is not what ratepayers and taxpayers want.
The Government have not come clean about whether they are introducing this proposal to reduce waste and inefficiency in local government, which is what they claim, or whether it is to reduce the amount of money spent on public services in local areas, which is what the effect of their proposals will be. Those are the sort of issues on which the public need all the information that they can get because they must be able to see the import of the Government's proposals. Without such information and without a public inquiry and its result in report form to the House we, on behalf of the ratepayers, cannot do a decent job.
We support wholeheartedly this set of amendments and we look to the Government to make a positive response instead of dry resistance, which will only embarrass them as much as they were embarrassed by the inadequacy of their arguments on Second Reading a couple of weeks ago. We want to know whether the Government will accept that it is not necessary at this stage to cancel next year's elections even if they were to go ahead with their proposal to abolish the GLC and the metropolitan counties by 1986. The argument has not been made that it is necessary. My hon. Friends on the Liberal Bench and hon. Members of other Opposition parties do not think that it is necessary to proceed in this way. The fundamental breach of constitutional tradition can be avoided if the Government proceed in a logical and orderly way. The Secretary of State will make it difficult if he delays until it is too late appointing someone to consider the matter. He could announce today or tomorrow, or perhaps in the middle of 912 the night, the formation of a body to consider the future of local government in the metropolitan areas and London; that body might consist almost entirely of nominees, as is the Government's usual practice, but that would be better than the present proposal.
We are not only breaking all constitutional precedent but we are being asked, as it were, to legislate in the dark if we proceed with clause 1 unamended. I repeat firmly that if the Government do not accept that they should compromise in the interests of democracy they will be doing a great disservice to all the people who have written to them, all those who are working in the community to provide services, all the officers of local authorities and all the members of all parties of local authorities. They should spell out the implications of their proposals and allow them to be debated before we go further. The Government have an opportunity to do this. They can accept some of the amendments, as voices on all sides have urged them to do. I hope they will heed the voices of experience which accord with what was their view until last June.
§ Mr. Patrick Jenkin
Although I intervene at this stage, I am not in any way suggesting that those who are trying to catch your eye, Mr. Walker, should not have an opportunity to do so. If it is necessary, I shall speak again later in the debate. A number of propositions have been put forward from both sides of the Committee which show misunderstanding or difficulty in accepting the propositions behind the Bill. It would be helpful if I were to spell out again as clearly as I can the procedures and the case which the Government make for handling matters in the way suggested in the Bill.
There has been more than a flavour of the Second Reading debate about this first debate in Committee. I make no complaint about that, Mr. Walker, but you have told one or two hon. Members that perhaps they were straying a little beyond the amendments. I do not wish to fall into the same trap, but I shall pick up some of the points that have been made and that go to the wider issue of the merits of the reform that we put forward in the manifesto and that were spelt out in the White Paper "Streamlining the Cities". I am very sensitive to the argument that the House is being asked to handle the paving Bill before the substantive Bill which will come before us in the next Session of Parliament.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sir I. Gilmour) and the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) in their points of order at the beginning of the debate sought to make the case that we ought not to consider the provisions of the paving Bill, particularly that for suspending the election and having interim councils until the House had passed the main Bill. My right hon. Friend said that we seemed to be assuming that that Bill would be passed and he mentioned what would happen if it were to fall in another place. This goes right to the heart of clause 1. The question of suspending elections arises in later amendments to clause 2. Therefore, I do not wish to deal with that in detail at this stage, save to make the point, which I shall argue more fully on a later amendment, that when there is to be a reorganisation of local government, the precedents are all in favour of suspending elections.
The point that was made firmly in the leader in The Times, which I shall not quote now but of which I shall remind the House later, was that the argument on that issue, 913 which the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and some of my hon. Friends have made, is that the alternative choice of allowing existing councils to run on would have been preferable to allowing the successor councils to nominate. These issues arise later on clause 2; they do not arise so much on clause 1.
I wish to deal with the main issues on clause 1 and the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham and the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes)—do we do this the wrong way round?
§ Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)
It is quite untrue for the right hon. Gentleman to say that there are precedents for his proposal to abolish elections and substitute existing councillors with councillors elected for a different purpose. That cannot be allowed to pass. He is proposing to abolish elections and end the term of office of existing councillors and to substitute councillors from other authorities — of a different political complexion in at least one case—and that has no precedent.
§ Mr. Jenkin
The hon. Gentleman continues to confuse the two arms of the arguments. As I have said on other occasions, I carry some share of the blame that the two arms of the argument have not been sufficiently distinguished. Two separate issues are involved. The first is whether elections should be suspended or cancelled during a reoganisation, and all the precedents are in favour of that. Indeed, the language of the Bill closely follows that of the 1963 and 1972 Acts. The second question, which is quite separate — I quite understand that it provokes fierce controversy — is whether, having suspended the elections, we make the right choice of who should occupy the positions on the councils to be abolished for the 11-month interim period.
§ Mr. Jenkin
I want to develop my argument. The second question arises more directly on a later amendment.
§ Mr. Wareing
I want to raise a point about precedents. When the old system of local government in the metropolitan areas was abolished, existing councillors were allowed to continue in office running parallel with the new councillors. The last elections for the old councils took place in 1972 and the first elections for the new councils in 1973. During 1973–74 they ran parallel. The right hon. Gentleman proposes to suspend elections one year before the councils are abolished. That is a different matter, and there is no precedent for it.
§ Mr. Jenkin
I should have resisted the temptation to give way to the hon. Gentleman, because we do not debate those matters until a later amendment. I must again stress that two separate issues are involved. The first is whether elections should be held during reorganisation, and the precendents are all in favour of not holding them. The second is what we do in the interim period, and we shall debate that matter later.
The clause and the amendment raise three crucial issues. As my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham asked, do we have this in the wrong order? Perhaps we should ask why we need the Bill now. Could 914 not these provisions have been included in the main abolition Bill or, perhaps, have been introduced after the main Bill becomes law?
There are two reasons why the paving Bill is essential if reorganisation in Greater London and the metropolitan areas is to be achieved by 1 April 1986. First, the provisions suspending the elections cannot wait to be included in the main Bill because it would be highly improbable—many hon. Members would recognise that it would be impossible—for that Bill to become law in time to cancel the elections. Of course we cannot cancel elections without putting legislation on to the statute book, and that is the purpose of the paving Bill.
It is no secret that the main Bill will be a substantial piece of legislation that will require—and, I hope, will receive—intensive debate during its passage through the House and another place. The Government reached the view early in their consideration of the matter that there was no way that the main Bill could be on the statute book in time to cancel the elections. Therefore, it was a question of whether the elections should go ahead while the Bill was before the House, or whether we should follow the precedent of cancelling the elections because of prospective reorganisation, and we rightly reached the latter view.
I do not want to repeat what I said on Second Reading, but, as many commentators outside the House have recognised, it would be absurd for elections to be held for a council which, under the provisions of a Bill that would by that time be before the House, would have only 11 months to run, when, with the best will in the world, it would be impossible for the electors to distinguish between who should run the council in the interim period and whether the reform should take place. I see nothing but confusion and chaos in such a process. Therefore, we reached the conclusion—I believe quite rightly—that the answer was to follow the precedents and cancel the elections—
§ Mr. Jenkin
The hon. Gentleman is continuing to confuse the two issues. If he wants existing members to continue for the ensuing year, he would still have to cancel the elections. There is no way that the existing members could continue without cancelling the elections. That reinforces my point that no one should argue that the existing GLC and metropolitan county councils should continue unless they are prepared to acknowledge that that means cancelling the elections. The only alternative would be to hold elections and, perhaps, have different councillors elected.
§ Mr. Straw
The Secretary of State is digging a great pit for himself. What is wrong with following the precedent of the Conservative Government 20 years ago, when London borough elections continued to take place until the passage, approval and Royal Assent of the substantive Bill? Why does the right hon. Gentleman not follow the example of the Government of the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) 10 years ago, when elections for the county borough councils, the old shire councils and the urban districts continued—even though it was recognised that it was for a time-limited period—until the substantive Bill had been passed?
§ Mr. Jenkin
The hon. Gentleman persists in arguing the second arm of the issue, which is: the elections having been cancelled, who should occupy the positions in the interim period? If the hon. Gentleman is arguing for the election to be held, he must recognise that that is not in accordance with the precedents.
§ Mr. Jenkin
With respect, it is not. There was no election for LCC members or county borough members after a particular date, because the bodies were to be abolished.—[Horn. MEMBERS: "Yes, there was."]
§ Mr. Benyon
I think that the debate has come to the crunch for many hon. Members. I speak for myself and, I suspect, a number of my hon. Friends, in saying that we absolutely accept that my right hon. Friend must bring in the Bill now to cancel the elections next year. It is the interim arrangements that are sticking in our gullets. We appreciate that that is the second arm of the question, but as clause 1 deals with the timing of the interim arrangement, we must debate it now.
§ Mr. Jenkin
Knowing that there were later amendments dealing with that aspect, hon. Members have not felt it necessary to deal with the subject fully at this stage. I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not deal with the point now. I suspect that there will be an opportunity on a later amendment to deal in depth with the question whether the elections should be cancelled, allowing the councils to run on, or whether the successor bodies should be nominated. I appreciate that there are strong arguments on both sides, and we shall come to them in due course.
Several hon. Members have pointed out—perhaps the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) will accept this —that there is an overwhelming case for not allowing the elections to happen next year, during a period when the House will be debating the main legislation.
§ Mr. Jenkin
I will not give way again to the hon. Gentleman because a number of important points have been made and I have a lot of ground to cover.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
The right hon. Gentleman cannot face the argument. That is why he will not give way.
§ Mr. Jenkin
I am perfectly capable of facing the argument. The issue which is worrying hon. Members on both sides of the Committee is one which will arise more directly on a later amendment. I am now arguing that clause 1—if we are to have the Bill at all, remembering that hon. Members have given it a Second Reading—sets out clearly that the provision for suspending the elections will not happen until there is a commencement order. I gave a clear undertaking on Second Reading that that commencement order would not be made unless and until the House had given its approval to the principle of abolition by giving a Second Reading to the main abolition Bill, and I reaffirm that commitment now. If the House rejects abolition at that stage, the May 1985 elections will take place as normal.
916 Clause 1 also provides that if at a later stage the Bill fails, power exists to repeal the provision and reinstate the elections, and that is in accordance with constitutional practice.
§ The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Paul Dean)
Order. the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) must not persist if the Minister does not give way.
§ Mr. Jenkin
It is obvious that the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) is anxious that I should deal with this point.
§ Mr. Jenkin
No, I must get on.
In previous reorganisations, councillors were elected to the new authorities before the old authorities had expired —the point made by the hon. Member for Blackburn. The new authorities had no executive powers in the interim period. The old authorities continued to exercise their full range of powers and their serving councillors' terms of office were extended till abolition day; that is, the elections were cancelled and their powers continued until abolition day.
The terms of office has to be extended because, when the elections were cancelled, the new authorities were not in existence. They arrived later; albeit before abolition day. On this occasion, the successor authorities—the London boroughs and metropolitan districts — are already in existence. Therefore, the Bill does not need to extend the terms of office of serving GLC and metropolitan county councillors. Instead, it provides—we shall come to this in clause 2—that the councillors of the borough and district councils will constitute the membership of the abolished authorities for the period between 7 May 1985 and abolition day.
The Second Deputy Chairman
Order. The hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) may seek to catch my eye later. I shall look out for him.
The Second Deputy Chairman
Order. It is clear that the hon. Gentleman is not rising on a point of order. If he has a point of substance that he wishes to make, the correct procedure is for him to endeavour to catch my eye later.
§ Mr. Jenkin
I appreciate the point that the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington is making, in view of the document to which he referred, quoting from an article by John Carvel in The Guardian. That point concerned members of the Government, and it is clear that there is room for two arguments. In the end, the Government made their decision. That was the proposal in the White Paper, and we can debate that on a later amendment.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes (Mr. Benyon) for making the important point that whichever it is—whether letting the councils run on or putting in the nominated borough and district coucillors —the elections must be cancelled in the first instance. If the elections are to be cancelled, the statutory provision to cancel them must be on the statute book in good time to allow that process to take place, and that is the central case for the Bill. But the safeguard, to which I hope the Committee attaches a great deal of importance, is that that provision will not be activated until hon. Members have approved in principle, by giving the main measure a Second Reading, the abolition of the seven authorities.
§ Sir Ian Gilmour
My right hon. Friend's argument depends on one premise, which is his deadline for bringing the new authorities into operation. That is a self-imposed deadline. As it is unnecessary it does not meet the argument for the Bill. If he had a later deadline—if he proceeded in a more measured way—this Bill would be unnecessary.
§ Mr. Jenkin
I appreciate that my right hon. Friend might have doubts about the wisdom of the whole reform. When we announced in the White Paper that we would proceed in this measured way — with a period for consultation, with the paying Bill in this Session and the main abolition measure in the next Session, and with a period after that before the changeover took place—I came under considerable pressure from a number of my hon. Friends who shared the view of the London boroughs and metropolitan district councils, to the effect that that was altogether too slow a timetable and that we should accelerate the whole process so that the changeover could take place on 1 August 1985. I had to reject that argument.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that most hon. Members with London constituencies feel that a long-delayed dispute as to how the abolition of the GLC should take place would not be in the interests of our constituents?
§ 6 pm
§ Mr. Jenkin
I share that view. I think that it would be wrong to spin out the implementation of the clear commitment that we gave at the time of the general election. We wish to proceed at a measured pace, and if the 1985 elections are to be cancelled it follows as night follows day that a paving Bill will be necessary on the lines of the measure that is before us. I repeat that the commencement order will not be implemented until the House of Commons has given the abolition Bill a Second Reading.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
The Secretary of State is proceeding in undue haste and not at a measured pace. A measured pace would involve waiting until the last possible moment to announce the cancellation of the 1985 elections. It is possible, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, for Prime Minsters to call a general election with a minimum of three weeks' notice. Therefore, it cannot be beyond the wit of even this Secretary of State to cancel the elections within four or five months or even four or five weeks. Why do we have to cancel the 1985 elections now? Why can we not cancel them next November or December? The elections would still be six months away if the cancellation were announced next December.
§ Mr. Jenkin
The hon. Gentleman must understand that the instrument that will activate the cancellation will be laid next November or December if the House of Commons, in its wisdom, agrees that the abolition Bill should be given a Second Reading. If that is to have Legal effect, the necessary Act must be on the statute book by that time. That is the only reason why we must introduce the Bill in this Session. Without the Bill, we could not effect the cancellation by November or December in the way that the hon. Gentleman is seeking. We must have the necessary Act on the statute book. The procedure in clause 1 will achieve precisely that for which the hon. Gentleman is asking, for it will enable the decision to be taken in November or December. We are merely asking the House of Commons in this Bill to create the power to do that. I repeat the undertaking that we shall not introduce the commencement order until the House of Commons has approved the Bill.
The hon. Member for Copeland and the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey sought to argue that the commencement order should not be introduced until there had been a formal inquiry into the merits of the case for abolition. The purpose of the amendments is to hedge part II with so many conditions before it could be operative — a Bill that the House of Commons approved in principle on Second Reading—as in practice to render it nugatory. The sort of inquiry which hon. Members have sought to put before the Committee would be bound to take a long time. I suggest that the purpose of such a procedure is more to delay implementation than to increase wisdom.
A number of hon. Members, including many of those who submitted responses to the White Paper, have argued that there needs to be a wide-ranging review of the structure and financing of local government. That was the purport of an amendment which was moved in another place on the Rates Bill. The Minister for Local Government, my noble Friend Lord Bellwin, has rightly quoted me as saying that it would be unwise to say never. I adopt the expression that one should never say never again. That must be right. It would be foolish to rule out for all time the possibility of a review or a more fundamental reappraisal. Circumstances change and overall considerations might well warrant a review at some stage. However, there has been great pressure for the necessary substantive legislation in the meantime. I referred to that pressure at some length on Second Reading and I do not want to weary the Committee by repeating it.
This is not a moment for a further elaborate inquiry, which would delay a reorganisation of the metropolitan areas. We are discussing action which needs to be taken now. Local government reform was in the manifestos of each of the major political parties at the general election 919 in various forms. I shall remind the Committee of what the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said at the Labour party's local government conference in 1983. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Copeland is not present to hear what his right hon. Friend said, but I understand that he has to attend to other business. This quotation makes some of the arguments that he advanced about the need for an inquiry seem rather thin. The right hon. Gentleman said:We shall therefore legislate to create unitary district authorities which will be responsible for all the functions in their area that they can sensibly undertake. We shall, of course, consult carefully and genuinely before we introduce our legislation. However, we shall set up no more inquiries. We shall legislate and we shall legislate so that these reforms will be in force during the lifetime of the next Parliament.
Against that background, it is rather strange that those on the Opposition Front Bench should chide the Government because we have introduced a Bill which is confined to the metropolitan areas and the GLC but which will do precisely what the right hon. Gentleman said.
The arguments have had a full airing in the White Paper entitled "Streamlining and Cities". I hope that it will never be regarded as a cause for abuse that a White Paper is drafted succinctly and sets out the arguments in a straightforward and simple way. There has been widespread consultation since the White Paper's publication and the arguments were debated on Second Reading. I suggest that nothing would be achieved now by an inquiry except a period of expensive and prolonged uncertainty.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes
Is it not possible for an inquiry to be completed in a matter of months, as the Franks inquiry and others on issues of national importance have been, and for us to consider introducing legislation and, if necessary, doing so — for example, legislation prevention of terrorism and official secrets—in a matter of days?
§ Mr. Jenkin
With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that he is living in a dream world if he believes that the sort of inquiry which he is advocating could be completed in a few months. There is widespread understanding of the case that the Government are advancing. There was great pressure on this Government and on our predecessors for the reform that we are now submitting. I have quoted local government resolutions and the comments that have been made by a number of hon. Members in all parts of the Committee. The Government accepted the case that was advanced and gave an undertaking to legislate as swiftly as the circumstances would allow to achieve a reform that would bring benefits to ratepayers in the metropolitan counties and the GLC area.
§ Mr. Cowans
I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider the options open to him. What was the precedent for cancelling elections and replacing duly elected councillors with appointees? Why have the Government chosen to disregard two options to which precedents were attached? One option was to carry on with the elections, as in 1972, and the second option was to suspend the elections and allow the elected members to continue in office until the main legislation found its way on to the statute book.
§ Mr. Jenkin
I have suggested that the issue raised by the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Cowans) arises more directly under the amendments that have been tabled to clause 2. Perhaps I can leave the argument until that stage is reached.
It has been said that the House of Commons is being asked to buy a pig in a poke. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham said that he disliked being asked to pass the Bill when he did not know the full details. We have said a great deal and spelt out many details about how we intend to carry through the main legislation. Perhaps I strayed a little beyond the rules of order on Second Reading, but I spelt out the provisions we intended to introduce for such matters as the arts, voluntary bodies, the London historic buildings unit, sport, housing mobility and seaside homes. Only last Friday, I answered a long question by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt) giving details running into more than two columns of Hansard. I was anxious that those matters should be on the record before we reached the Committee debate.
I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beamont-Dark) that in my answer I said:We have also decided to provide in the main Bill for the possibility that individual authorities or groups of authorities could be permitted to take over responsibility for fire and police services in their areas, provided that the authorities concerned can demonstrate, once the joint boards have been in existence for a reasonable time, that they could administer the services more effectively and that provision nationally and in the rest of the metropolitan area would not be adversely affected."—[Official Report, 4 May 1984; Vol. 59, c. 265.]Because my hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak intervened to say that that was one of the issues to which he attached importance, I hope that he will welcome the fact that the main Bill will include a provision to opt out.
§ Mr. Beaumont-Dark
I thank my right hon. Friend for making that point. Has my right hon. Friend seen the report by the chief constable of the west midlands stating that the police could be run properly from Birmingham? Why is it necessary to set up another body, as though it is a matter of some boys on trial, to ascertain whether authorities are sufficiently worthy to take over what should not have been taken from them in the first place if we had not had the wretched Bill in 1972?
§ Mr. Jenkin
I understand my hon. Friend's point of view, which was shared by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker).
Although the White Paper did not envisage such a right to opt out, we listened to the arguments, not least those from the west midlands district authorities. As I said in my answer on 4 May, we intend to provide in the main Bill a right to opt out after a reasonable period. I hope that that shows the Government's readiness to listen to arguments.
The legislation spells out the main strategy, the changes we propose to make and the cases in which we propose to adhere to the main thrust of the White Paper. I argue, therefore, that the Committee is not being asked to buy a pig in a poke. The Committee has been told a good deal about the provisions of the main legislation. In these circumstances, it would be unnecessary to have the type of inquiry for which arguments have been made.
921 Amendment No. 9 seeks to make the commencement order subject to affirmative resolution in both Houses of Parliament. That commencement order will activate part II, which provides for the suspension of elections and the appointment of transitional councils. The purpose of the amendment is to put the commencement order on all fours with the procedure proposed in the Bill for repealing the interim provisions and restoring the present position should abolition not go ahead. I suggest to the Committee that it would be unnecessary to make that commencement order subject to an affirmative procedure.
The repeal order may contain transitional and supplementary provisions modifying the Local Government Act 1972 or the Representation of the People Act 1983—for example, by the time a repeal order fell to be made, it might be too late to reinstate the local elections which were due in time to hold them in May 1985. In such circumstances, modifications to those statutes might be necessary to provide for elections out of sequence or at a different time of year. As the order is to repeal an Act of Parliament and could contain modifications of other Acts of Parliament, we considered that it was right and necessary that it should be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.
The commencement order is a different case. I have said already that it will not be made until and unless the House has given a Second Reading to the main abolition Bill. By then, Parliament will have thoroughly debated the elections issue; the Bill will have passed into law; and the House will have agreed the principle, if not the detail, of the Government's proposals. The commencement order will therefore relate to provisions that will have been already and recently approved by Parliament. In those circumstances, it would be absurd to subject the order to further parliamentary procedure. For such an order, the affirmative resolution procedure is inappropriate and unnecessary. There is a string of Bills under which commencement orders have been made in such circumstances, without the necessity for debate in the House. I therefore resist amendment No. 9.
The hon. Member for Copeland drew attention to new clause 2, saying that the Bill contained no provisions to terminate the power and so reinstate the elections. The operation of part II is closely constrained. It cannot commence, as I have said, until an order is made—and the order will not be made until the House has approved abolition in principle. If the Bill fails, at whatever stage, the purpose of part II ceases to exist and the repeal provision will then take effect under clause 1(2). In those circumstances, the proposed termination provision in new clause 2 is unnecessary. I believe it is more than unnecessary, because at the heart of our approach to this matter has been the belief that the Bill does not prejudge any of the issues of the main legislation. The legislation allows the House complete freedom to decide that matter when the main Bill comes before the House in the next session of Parliament.
If we were to include new clause 2 in the Bill, we would prejudge Parliament's consideration of the main abolition Bill by presupposing the date Parliament would agree for abolition. New clause 2 inserts the date of 1 April 1986 in the legislation. The amendment would prejudge one of the issues that it would be right for the House to consider 922 without fetter when the main Bill is considered. The new clause is unnecessary, and I urge the Committee to reject it.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
The Secretary of State changes words as he proceeds. At one time he talked about the House and at another about Parliament. He is anticipating what will occur. We understand that the decision will he taken on Second Reading. That is not the decision of Parliament but one made by Conservative Members. Under the circumstances, the right hon. Gentleman is presupposing the will of Parliament by taking the decision on Second Reading rather than at the final stage, which must be Royal Assent.
§ Mr. Jenkin
I do not seek to question the Chair's decision on the amendment. The Chairman said at the beginning of the debate that the amendments raising the matter of part II being activated only after the main Bill had become law would be inconsistent with the decision the House had already taken. The amendments were therefore not selected. One might refer to a wrecking amendment, because the measure would render that part of the Bill unnecessary. There are many precedents for action to be taken on the principle of the Bill, provided it is taken lawfully under an Act of Parliament already passed by the House. I accept completely that the House cannot pass a Bill by itself. That is plain.
Clause 1 provides for the repeal of the election provisions if at any time the main Bill fails in another place or at a later stage. The elections will then be reinstated in the way that I have just been describing.
The hon. Member for Copeland based a significant part of his speech on the fact that the Government have not yet put before the House and the country the full estimates of the costs and savings which abolition of the upper-tier authorities is likely to produce. We expect significant savings to arise from the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan county councils. We cannot give detailed estimates of those savings at this stage. Elimination of a tier of government is bound to provide scope for reduction in costs, even if most of its operational functions are transferred to other authorities.
The counties cannot be expected to come up with any useful figures. They may have the information. and they can, as they have done, employ distinguished consultants, but they are not the bodies that will carry the responsibility for deciding how services will be organised in the future. That does not imply that the counties are necessarily or excessively self-interested or that their consultants are anything other than independent, but it is difficult to envisage any institution that would be prepared to say publicly that its job could be done a good deal more cheaply by someone else. For that reason, it is much more important to consider the views of the successor authorities —the districts and the boroughs. They will take over directly most of the services, and through the joint boards they will also be responsible for the major services that the counties now run.
For the moment, the boroughs and districts can only make tentative estimates. The counties have most of the information necessary for a detailed assessment, but even so, a clear pattern is emerging.
The existence of the GLC and the MCCs and their large administrative structures cost money. When they go, that 923 money can be saved because the necessary structures already exist in the lower-tier authorities. No one disputes that. Even Coopers and Lybrand saw savings there.
One of the reasons why we see the authorities as an unnecessary tier is that several functions overlap. When the lower tier has complete responsibility, there will be scope for savings. Once again, there seems little argument about that.
The White Paper referred to the spending record of the GLC and the MCCs. In a sense, that speaks for itself. When the boroughs and the districts, which are closer to the ratepayers, take control of the services, they will be able critically to study the efficiency with which the services are delivered, and it would be extraordinary if significant savings could not be found through improving value for money.
Those districts that have begun to consider that are confident that savings will be made. Therefore, the Committee may well ask what this all adds up to in cash. As I said, it is too soon to give the information, because we do not have the definite figures. At Question Time today there was a reference to the study by Price Waterhouse of eight of the metropolitan districts which showed savings of £20 million in just three of the metropolitan county areas. That would probably mean £35 million across all six metropolitan counties. Moreover, it is clear that the numbers are, if anything, understated, because no account was taken in the Price Waterhouse study of, for instance, the sale of surplus property and overhead savings.
The Government's view is that those figures might well be doubled when the closer scrutiny of services by the lower tier is taken into account. Those figures apply to the metropolitan counties alone. They do not include the Greater London area, because we are convinced that there are savings of a similar order of magnitude in London, and studies by a number of the treasurers of London boroughs have already identified them.
All the evidence that is now beginning to become available points to overall savings of well over £100 million, and is therefore close to the estimates which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment gave at the time of the last election.
§ Mr. Benyon
As this is the most important aspect of the whole matter, can my right hon. Friend assure me, as someone who wishes to judge it dispassionately, that as we near Second Reading in November, we will have an unbiased report from a firm of outside accountants who will be given the full assistance to which the Secretary of State referred, and not the partial assistance that was given to Coopers and Lybrand?
§ Mr. Jenkin
I shall consider carefully what my hon. Friend has said. On Second Reading I said that I would undertake to make available to the House, as fully as I can, further information on costs and savings as they become available.
My hon. Friend knows that under the Bill we are seeking powers to oblige the upper tier authorities to disclose information to the Government and to the lower-tier authorities. Part of the difficulty in making the assessments is that so far that information has largely been withheld. I understand completely, and will take the fullest account of, the need to have the best estimates that we can 924 obtain of the costs and savings involved in this exercise placed before the House before it considers the main principles of the abolition Bill. The more the evidence becomes available, the clearer it becomes that there are significant savings to be made. Moreover, those figures do not imply massive cuts in services, as has been so widely represented by those who challenge our case. It means that there is good news for the ratepayer, because his bills will be lower than they otherwise would have been.
§ Mr. Straw
It would of course mean that at least on the Secretary of State's figures 9,000 jobs would be lost in areas of high unemployment. The last occasion upon which the Secretary of State came to the House with such confidence about administrative reorganisation with which he was involved was his reorganisation of the Health Service, some two years ago, when he promised substantial savings. He will recall that an increase in National Health Service administrative staff followed that reorganisation. How can we be confident about what he says, given his record?
§ Mr. Jenkin
With respect, the figures were spelt out in a written answer from one of my hon. Friends in the DHSS which showed that there has been a continuous reduction in the proportion of NHS costs that go on administration. That reorganisation—[Interruption.] The numbers of doctors, nurses, ancillary workers and a whole range of other people employed in the National Health Service have risen. Of course they have gone up, but the point that was pledged was that administration as a proportion of NHS costs would reduce, and it did. There has been a great deal of misunderstanding about that.
There will, of course, be some transitional costs, which will be set against the savings to which I have been referring, but they will fall mainly in the first year after abolition, and it is our view that they are unlikely to exceed the expected savings, even in that first year.
I have undertaken that we shall place more information before the House before we come to consider the main abolition Bill. I take note of the request from my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes that that information should be backed by an independent report, but I should not like to be committed to that at this stage.
I have dealt with all the amendments that were discussed in this group of amendments, and while not in any way wishing to choke off the debate, because I know that a number of hon. Members wish to speak, I should like to urge the Committee to reject the amendments.
§ Mr. Boyes
We accept that in the Conservative manifesto, as in that of other parties, there was the promise of a review of local government. However, nowhere in the Conservative manifesto was there any mention of the abolition of elections. As Mr. James Naughtie of The Scotsman said on 13 April in an article about what he described as Tories of the old school:They point out, with some force, that though the Tory Manifesto pledged to abolish the GLC and the metropolitan counties—a proposal which seems to be widely popular, at least outside London — there was no talk of abolishing elections.It is about that that we are concerned and worried.
I intervened in the Secretary of State's speech to make a point about the Misc/95, which I understood was a Cabinet Committee representing a ministerial group, and 925 concerning the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan county councils. I was trying to take up the point about whether elections should be deferred or whether there should be substitution, and the differences occurring in the Cabinet at that time.
As the Secretary of State mentioned the author of the article I am now about to quote from, he must have read it, and when we were trying to raise a point of order with him he did not deny that the facts in the article were correct. I shall throw some quotations at the Secretary of State in a moment, in the hope that he will later either confirm or deny the way that he twisted and changed his attitude by the use of memos between himself, the Cabinet and the Prime Minister. Perhaps he will tell us what his original position was, and why he changed it.
I do not want to go into great detail about the very important point that Conservative Members have made about the abolition of elections before Royal Assent has been given to the Bill to abolish the GLC and the metropolitan counties. Suffice it to say that on a number of occasions the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Pym) has brought this point graphically to our attention in his speeches, as he did on Second Reading, when he said that the Bill not only had to be passed by this House and the other place but had to receive Royal Assent before the abolition of the GLC and the MCCs could take place.
I am concerned that the abolition will take place and the people who have been elected will be substituted by non-elected people—in other words, people who have been appointed. It is not clear whether all the people who go on to the interim bodies and later on to the many quangos that will be set up will be district councillors, representing the district councils and the metropolitan areas. I hope that we shall have some clarification on that point from the Secretary of State.
§ Mr. Boyes
There is a need for an inquiry before the elections are abolished. As many hon. Members have already pointed out, there is provision in the Local Government Act for a review, which could take place without abolishing the elections. The 1972 Act said that in not less than 10 years and in no more than 15 years it would be necessary to review the position. I would have hoped that the Government would take advantage of that to review the position without trying to implement this ludicrous legislation, whereby elections are abolished and people appointed to run a local authority for a time.
§ Mr. Winnick
My hon. Friend mentioned the memo that has been leaked to The Guardian, and one hopes that no one will go to prison because of it. The Secretary of State's dispute with the Prime Minister over the abolition of the elections was simply—to this extent the Secretary of State was right and had logic on his side—that he was frightened that the elections would take place in 1985 and the basic issue that would feature in such elections in the metropolitan areas and the GLC would be that of abolition. He was frightened that if those elections took place there would be a mandate from the electorate for the GLC and the MCCs to continue.
§ Mr. Boyes
My hon. Friend is correct. I can quote directly from the memo, written to the Prime Minister by the Secretary of State and sent on 20 September. It will be 926 better to quote the exact words, although my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) has summarised them adequately. It says:Elections to the GLC and MCCs are due in May 1985. The (Ministerial) Group are agreed that they cannot be allowed to go ahead: other objections apart, abolition would be a major issue in the elections, so that there would be a major public debate going on after the House of Commons had voted for a second reading of the abolition bill.We want an inquiry, but the Secretary of State was worried that the elections would bring a rejection of his proposals by the people and there would have been a public debate. I believe that that is why he has never published a full analysis of all the letters of objection to these proposals that he has received. Despite his cursory answers at Question Time, I wonder when the Secretary of State will publish those letters. Perhaps he can tell us today.
§ Mr. Winnick
Is it not interesting that when the Secretary of State was challenged about this by my hon. Friend, all that he said was that there were different points of view? He did not refute what is contained in the leaked memo published in The Guardian, which my hon. Friend has just read out. It is clear, as he does not refute it, that the Secretary of State—if he is listening; I am not sure that he is: perhaps he is not worried—does not disagree with his earlier view that if elections were held the issue would be abolition of the metropolitan county councils, and he is still frightened that the results of any such elections would be a mandate from the electorate for those councils to continue. If the Secretary of State does not refute what is in that memo, we can only come to the obvious conclusion that the memo is accurate and genuine. I do not know whether the Secretary of State wishes to refute it.
§ Mr. Boyes
Mr. John Carvel, who wrote the article, is a highly respected journalist and I cannot see him quoting from a memo without some evidence for it. The last time that somebody leaked memos, that person got a gaol sentence. We are lucky that on this occasion Mr. John Carvel has been able to continue writing books and articles. We can only assume that the leaked memo is correct.
§ Mr. Patrick Jenkin
I should not wish to challenge the accuracy of Mr. Carvel's article, but what I was quoted as saying is not what the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said it is. I said that the objection was thatabolition would be a major issue in the elections, so that there would be a major public debate going on after the House of Commons had voted for a second reading of the abolition bill.What is the point of having a major debate on an issue that the House of Commons has already decided on?
§ Mr. Boyes
That is exactly what happened. In fact, if the Secretary of State had continued to read from the memo he would have found out that, despite what he says, it continued to set out options to be used if the elections did not take place, such as substitution. You were still thinking at that stage about the possibility of a deferral, which was your first position and which was accepted by the Prime Minister. Later, you changed the position—
§ Mr. Boyes
I am sorry, Mr. Dean. I should have referred to the Secretary of State.
927 The Secretary of State changed his position and eventually, according to Mr. Carvel, who had access to the memos, the Cabinet decided to take up the Secretary of State's second position.
I am merely saying that those of us who think that before these councils are abolished there should be a full inquiry into all aspects of the GLC and the metropolitan councils wonder how much prevarication there has been by other Cabinet members. I am also trying to point out—I think that I am being successful—the Secretary of State's inconsistency. I should be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman could tell me exactly what is happening. I can show him a further inconsistency in relation to costs.
§ Dr. David Clark (South Shields)
Perhaps my hon. Friend will let me clarify the position for the Committee. Am I right in thinking that although reference was made to Mr. Carvel's article in The Guardian on 26 March, my hon. Friend has not referred just to the article but from a part of a memo addressed, so I believe, to John Bold at the Department of the Environment? I suppose that my hon. Friend's information does not depend entirely upon The Guardian article but also refers to a memo from the Prime Minister's Office.
§ Mr. Boyes
I said that Mr. Carvel was quite capable of writing accurately from the memo. The Times summed up the Government's attitude in a leader on 13 April. It said:This let's-get-on-with-it approach suits the Thatcher style;Am I allowed to say that? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] The leader continued:but when addressed to elected public corporations it smacks of high-handedness and looks like ill-prepared improvisation.That is exactly what we are getting from the Government —political vindictiveness and expediency and the need to push through the Government's policies. It looks like ill-prepared improvisation to the Opposition, too.
I cannot understand the Government's objection to an independent inquiry into the running of local authorities. If a proper inquiry had taken place I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee would have accepted its findings.
Many Opposition Members opposed the abolition and had tremendous reservations about the metropolitan counties when they were set up. But none of us has ever objected to the Government or local authorities investigating. We are greatly concerned about the way in which the Government are carrying out their proposals. We think that a public inquiry, a Royal Commission, or whatever body is chosen — there are plenty of independent bodies that could look into the matter—should have considered the effectiveness of the local authorities that are currently under review. Are they efficient enough? Do they satisfy the needs of their areas? I cannot speak for the authorities under threat other than Tyne and Wear, but I know that opinion polls, including one carried out in the Prime Minister's constituency, and I presume that the Prime Minister represents a safe Conservative seat—
§ Mr. Boyes
Perhaps my hon. Friend is right. If the opinion polls show a majority of two to one against scrapping the elections it suggests that many people 928 outside the House as well as senior members of the Conservative party, with respect to the Secretary of State, speak with greater effect than those on the Government Front Bench.
The press is suggesting that whispering campaigns will be set up around some of those Conservative Back Benchers, referring to their vindictiveness. That is understandable.
§ Mr. Boyes
I am referring to the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East and the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sir I. Gilmour), among others.
If reservations were raised by just those hon. Members, I could understand the arrogance with which the Secretary of State ignores them. But independent opinion polls have been carried out in the GLC and other areas, including the Prime Minister's constituency, showing a massive majority against the Government's proposals. That suggest that many Conservative voters are very saddened by the proposals.
I do not believe that the Government's main concern is with the running of Labour-controlled authorities. They are trying to protect values that are different from mine, for example. On the other hand, all hon. Members share a common concern for attacks and threats to our democratic processes. The Secretary of State is proposing such attacks this evening.
Let us consider a remark by the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup on Second Reading. He said honestly:I believe that on this side of the House our responsibility is to look after the good name of the Tory party."—[0fficial Report, 11 April 1984; vol. 58, c. 424.]
The right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East said that what was proposed isnot the Conservative way of doing things. If the Bill is passed, I am afraid that my opinion is that the Government and the Conservative party will rue the day.
§ Mr. Boyes
The right hon. Gentleman said:Conservatives above all people should be chary of attacking institutions before they have found something to put in their place." — [Official Report, 11 April 1984; vol. 58, c. 424-451.]
§ Mr. Boyes
I quoted what he said in my previous speech, so I have given the hon. Gentleman enough publicity for one day. Later on, when we are debating in the middle of the night and keeping Conservative Members up, the hon. Gentleman will get his fair share of mention.
I am also concerned about the needs of local areas. I can speak for my local authority in Tyne and Wear. It is operating in an area of high unemployment and social 929 deprivation. As an aside, I do not know whether the Secretary of State has been an accountant; I would need to check that.
§ Mr. Boyes
I shall come to that in a moment, when I shall read some rather nasty things about the Secretary of State. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I hope that the Secretary of State will listen to them.
The Secretary of State was trying to prove that if cost savings in one local authority in 10 are £x, that can be multiplied nine times. That is really like saying if, in a row of 10 houses, the person in number three is able to save £3 each week, the total savings from the row of houses is £30 a week. That is the accountancy of a lunatic asylum. We are saying that the needs of each metropolitan county council are different and that they must satisfy and respond to those needs. In Tyne and Wear, an area with very high unemployment, the council has responded in a way that might be different to that of another authority. Given the way in which the Government run their operations, it would be difficult to find a local authority that is not operating in an area of high unemployment.
I am not at all happy about the savings and the costs. The only truly independent information that we have is the Coopers and Lybrand report. The Secretary of State can talk about a four-day report that was prepared over the Easter holidays which covers only a few districts, but that does not cut much ice on the Labour Benches. We like to have solid information on which to work. That report made it clear that there will be a massive extra cost. It talks about operating costs of £11 million to £21 million a year and post-transitional costs of between £150 million and £240 million a year. Over 10 years that would total between £36 million and £62 million a year. In addition, between 1,200 and 400 extra jobs might be required. It says that there will be a considerable cost and a considerable number of extra jobs will be needed.
When the Secretary of State has time to speak at length, not just answering a little parliamentary question, he should explain in detail his argument against the Coopers and Lybrand report if he does not agree with it. I hope that a note has been made of that because I see that the Secretary of State is not listening. The Government are being brought into disrepute. Because they have a majority of about 150 they think that they can smash through any legislation that they want. That is part of their attack on the democratic process and it is the wrong way in which to operate.
§ Mr. Winnick
I thank my hon. Friend for kindly giving way. He has touched on an important point about the costs. Does my hon. Friend not agree that one reason — I suppose the main reason—why the Secretary of State is so angry with the advertising carried out by the GLC and the metropolitan authorities is that they are putting to the public the truth about the costs and so on? Hence the Secretary of State has let it be known to the media and the rest that he would like to consider ways and means of forbidding local authorities affected by the measure from advertising. Is not that yet another step being taken by the Government? First, they seek to abolish elections, then to abolish the authorities, and then, apparently, on top of all that, to stop the local authorities from putting their case to the public. The Secretary of State knows full well that he is not in a position to out-argue the authorities. They 930 are winning the argument. Instead of refuting the arguments that are being put forward, the Secretary of State wants to stop the advertising.
§ Mr. Beaumont-Dark
On a point of order, Mr. Dean. The interventions of the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) are becoming a series of speeches. Shall we all be allowed to make such interventions?
§ Mr. Boyes
I am giving way, Mr. Dean, within the spirit of what you have just said. Had it been a debate, I might have taken a different attitude. I am grateful for your ruling on that point. I knew exactly what you would say because you are an honourable and honest man. [Laughter.] Does the fact that Conservative Members are laughing mean that they disagree with me? If they do, will they stand up and say so?
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North mentioned advertising. It gives me an opportunity to give a few quotations from what the Secretary of State has said about costs. The matter has been well publicised. I hope, Mr. Dean, that you will allow me to point out to the Committee exactly what was said in the advertisements in case anybody has missed them. The Secretary of State was clear and confident about the savings that would be made. He now seems to be saying that, off the top of his head, some little time ago, he decided that he would save £120 million and that he will now get little bits of evidence to prove it. Let me demonstrate through a series of quotations how unsure even the Secretary of State became over a period.
In October 1983 the Secretary of State said:If we don't achieve substantial savings when this exercise is completed, I shall have failed.The only trouble is that we shall not know until it is too late whether he has passed or failed the initial test. In November of the same year the Secretary of State said:I do consider that savings of upwards of £100 million annually could be made, but that is no more than a broad estimate.So what the Secretary of State says has begun to broaden.
Five days later the Secretary of State said:I am beginning to recognise my wisdom in not plucking figures out of the air, because had I done so I might have underestimated the savings that could be achieved.But we must develop that a little further because over his cup of coffee the right hon. Gentleman was becoming worried. Later that same month he said:Savings will depend entirely on final, detailed decisions.We are no longer being given figures. By December 1983 the Secretary of State shifted his ground completely and said:Expenditure issues are not central to the case for abolition.In a period of three to four months the Secretary of State had changed his attitude towards costs because he knew full well that an independent study would show the nonsense of that. Suddenly costs were thrust out of the window.
§ Mr. Boyes
I shall give way to the Secretary of State for a second time. However, Mr. Dean, you were in the Chair when the Secretary of State gave way to every hon. Member in the Committee except myself. He would not give way to me because he did not like the Misc/95 that I wanted to quote to him. I shall give way to any hon. Member who has an important point.
§ Mr. Jenkin
It is a sad day when an hon. Member has to make a speech entirely out of advertisements that have appeared in the press. The fact of the matter is that the most recent quotation that he has ascribed to me was taken out of context. When I said that expenditure was not central to the case, we did have a paragraph in the White Paper pointing out that the metropolitan county councils and GLC were among the highest overspenders. However, I was making the point there that that was not central to the case for abolition. The case for abolition is that they are an unnecessary and therefore expensive tier of government. That sentence bore no relation to costs and savings. It is an entirely separate question. Somebody has taken what I said out of context and tried to give it a meaning which it never had.
§ 7 pm
§ Mr. Boyes
The Secretary of State is being a little unfair when he says that I am trying to make my speech out of advertisements. That seems to suggest that the scripts that I was reading were not his words. I do not think that in his intervention he denied that the words that I read out were in fact his own. The mere fact that his words have appeared in an advertisement does not make them different words. I want that to be clearly understood and I make that point so that it is in Hansard. I want it to be clear that I was reading out the Secretary of State's words. The Secretary of State has not denied that. Instead, he made a scurrilous attack on me for reading an advertisement script. All hon. Members must stand by their words, especially a Secretary of State whose comments are scrutinised carefully. I demonstrated conclusively how in a short time the Secretary of State changed his position. Earlier I demonstrated with leaked memos from Misc/95 how he changed his position on another matter. The Secretary of State is shifty. It may come to light when he writes his memoirs that even he shared the opinion of Opposition Members. He may admit that he secretly agreed with hon. Members such as the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup.
§ Mr. George Park (Coventry, North-East)
The Secretary of State is not the only person who is shifting his position about the cost aspect being pushed out of the window. Is my hon. Friend aware that the discredited West Midlands report was repudiated by all the district councils except Solihull?
§ Mr. Boyes
That is a powerful point and adds substantially to my argument.
The Secretary of State did not answer the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) in detail. He suggested—I hope he will correct me if I am wrong — that if people objected to the Government's proposals they were politically motivated and had been encouraged to write by political bodies. On the other hand, if a person supported the Government's proposals, he was honest, true and principled. If the Secretary of State believes that, he is using the same language as that of a totalitarian regime. If there is opinion against such a Government, they believe it comes from politically motivated people, who must therefore be suppressed. The Secretary of State is not listening, demonstrating the arrogance of the Government. However, I hope that he will give the Conunittee an exact breakdown of the figure to show how many people objected and how many supported the proposals.
§ Mr. Tony Banks
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way because that is the only way for hon. Members to speak in this debate. When hon. Members asked for an analytical breakdown of the submissions received, the Secretary of State said that that was impossible because his Department could not tell which submissions were received after certain dates as incoming letters were not registered. Will my hon. Friend comment on that? Will he also comment on the well-known fact that the Conservative Central Office and the Department of the Environment team actively whipped up Conservative associations to make submissions in favour of the Government's proposals? Who is talking about politically biased reporting now?
§ Mr. Boyes
The Secretary of State said that his Department received 91 submissions regarding the metropolitan counties and 91 for the GLC. He was not successful in whipping up support if, after political pressure was applied, the number of letters in favour of the proposals was only 180. To use the logic of the Secretary of State, of the 650 constituencies, nearly 500 are in total disagreement. Apart from a few Conservative Members, the Secretary of State has not even the support of the Conservative party.
Three organisations have just attracted Nissan to Tyne and Wear, an area of high unemployment. They were the Tyne and Wear metropolitan county council, the Sunderland borough council and the Washington development corporation. It has been recognised, especially by those three negotiating bodies, that to attract that top multinational company—the Secretary of State will undoubtedly have met Nissan representatives frequently—to provide jobs in our area was important and required substantial goodwill. Yet the Government propose to abolish Tyne and Wear metropolitan council, and yesterday the Department of the Environment issued a document saying that it intended to abolish the Washington development corporation. The Government propose to abolish two of the three bodies that successfully brought jobs to the north-east. There is something peculiar about such a policy.
§ Mr. Wareing
My hon. Friend referred to the favourable and unfavourable responses to the Government's proposals to abolish the metropolitan councils and the GLC. He may have overlooked the fact that yesterday I received a written reply from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. I asked how many responses the Government had received on the Bill. The answer was 80. I asked how many were favourable, and he replied that most of them were unfavourable. The election results in the metropolitan areas—the best poll of all—are highly significant, and show the electorate's feelings about the Government's policies, not least about this Bill.
§ Mr. Boyes
My hon. Friend's point adds to my argument. It shows that the Government are politically vindictive in abolishing the GLC and the metropolitan councils. The Government are making a direct attack on our democratic processes by stopping those elections. Any example that underlines that is welcome.
George Tremlett has written at great length in the newspapers about his campaign to defend local authorities. He said:My personal reaction at this time is one of great sadness. I feel we are witnessing a deeply human tragedy.933 To give some heart to the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, he said:Can you imagine a Government led by Mr. Heathdoing such a thing? I do not doubt that the right hon. Gentleman might have abolished Tyne and Wear county council, but I am sure that he would not tell the people of my area, "You cannot have a vote," nor can I envisage memos going round saying, "We cannot allow elections to take place because they would be a comment on our proposals."
My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) mentioned local elections. I also raised the matter at Question Time, and I shall underline it now. The people of Tyne and Wear have spoken in the best possible way—through the ballot box—about the Government's proposals, and 87 out of the 113 people returned last Thursday were against the Government's proposals. My constituency is one of three in the borough of Sunderland, and it is interesting to note that the leader of the Conservative party in the borough council lost her seat. There can be nothing more symbolic than that. I hope that the message is getting through. My colleagues from the north-east will know exactly where the Sunderland Echo stands in the political spectrum. It has never denied that it supports the Conservative party at election time, but its headline last week was:Thatcher's fifth year celebrations soured.The article stated:As she notched up her fifth year in power, the electorate turned both nationally and locally to her political opponents.
The people of Tyne and Wear do not want their council to be abolished. They certainly do not want elections to the councils in 1985 to be abolished, and they have spoken in the strongest possible way through the ballot box. I ask the Government to reconsider their proposals.
§ Mr. Charles Morrison (Devizes)
I do not wish to anticipate events, but in comparison with the marathon that we have just witnessed it is likely that my speech will seem like a brief sprint.
I shall say nothing about elections or their abolition since that matter will be discussed under clause 2, but I was somewhat bemused by the attitude of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State towards the provisions in the White Paper that will be included in legislation next Session. His attitude, especially to the cost of those provisions, was that any contention that he might make about cost should be treated as fact whereas any careful analysis that has been made, such as that by Coopers and Lybrand, should be treated as nonsense. It is not good enough for my right hon Friend to treat that firm's careful analysis in such a light-hearted way.
To take up the point made at the beginning of the debate by the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Cowans), at the risk of being abolished, I wish to open my mouth and say what I believe, not for the first time, in relation to local government legislation. I did so during our debates on the Local Government Act 1972, when I did not entirely agree with what was proposed, since originally I was a supporter of the ideas produced by the Redcliffe-Maud Commission, which recommended that local government should be based on unitary authorities. Local government is in difficulty nowadays not least because the proposals of that commission were not accepted, although I appreciate that at the time it was politically almost impossible to do so.
934 7.15 pm
The Government are in some difficulty with the Bill. They may not have realised it yet, but they will by the end of the Committee stage. Of course they will win the votes, but I wonder whether they will win the arguments. 'They are unlikely to carry the public with them. It is important that those of us who voted against the principle of the Bill should now do our best to improve it to get the Government out of the hole of their own making.
I share the worry of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sir I. Gilmour) about the speed with which the legislation is being introduced. It would be far better to adopt a measured approach to a major reform of local government, such as the one that we shall have to consider next year. Why should we not use, as amendment No. 3 suggests, the legislation passed by the Conservative Government in 1972 which would enable this Government properly to take account of the position? My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that a formal inquiry, such as is provided for in sections 47, 48 and 49 of the 1972 Act, would be bound to take a long time and that nothing would be achieved by such an inquiry. That is not good enough. As has been said several times, the commitment to abolish the GLC and the metropolitan counties was in the manifesto for last summer's election. It would have been perfectly possible to initiate an inquiry under the provisions of the Act immediately following the general election. Even now it is not too late. If such an inquiry were initiated we might get a much better system than that foreseen in the White Paper. We might even be able to assist the ratepayers, which at present seems to be highly doubtful.
I am convinced that, unless such a major reform is preceded by detailed analysis and consideration, mistakes will be made and we shall be impaled on hooks of our own making. My attitude to the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan counties is that they should be abolished as long as we are convinced that the alternatives will be better. The evidence on that score is thin. We cannot yet accept the Government's view that what is proposed will be better than what we have, whatever are the failings of what we have. As has been pointed out several times in the debate, Coopers and Lybrand is a respectable firm, and is often used by the Government. The hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) referred to some of Coopers and Lybrand's figures, which I shall not repeat. Coopers and Lybrand said:Our overall conclusion is that the Government's claims for substantial savings are not supported by our analysis; indeed, we conclude that there are unlikely to be any net savings as a result of the structural changes proposed by the Government, and that there could be significant extra costs.From that one might conclude that at best the saving would be minimal, and at worst there could be a considerable increase in cost to be borne by the ratepayer.
It is all the more important, therefore, that the Government should obtain an independent view of the realities of the extent of the waste that now occurs and of what might be done about it. The Government should perhaps recall that allegedly Henry II said:Who will free me from this turbulent priest?Very soon afterwards, Sir Thomas a'Becket became a martyr and a saint. Somebody, I know not who, has said, "Who will free us from these turbulent metropolitan counties and the GLC?" Already Ken Livingstone is seen as a martyr, although I doubt whether he will ever be a 935 saint. There may be other martyrs before long unless the problems of London and of the metropolitan counties are approached sensibly and logically.
Section 49 of the Local Government Act 1972 provides the opportunity to do that. It provides:The Secretary of State may direct the English Cornmission to conduct a review of the principal areas in England as a whole, or of any one or more local government areas or parts of such areas in England, for the purpose of considering whether or not to make such proposals in relation to the area reviewed as are authorised by section 47 above and what proposals if any to make and the Commission shall, if they think fit, formulate such proposals accordingly.Section 47 is helpful to the Government, because it says:Subject to subsections (2) and (3) below, the English Commission may in consequence of a review conducted by them … make proposals to the Secretary of State for effecting changes appearing to the Commission desirable in the interests of effective and convenient local government by any of the following means or any combination of those means.The following means and the combination of those means includethe constitution of a new local government area of any description outside Greater London … the abolition of a principal area of any description outside Greater London and the distribution among other areas of the like description … the conversion of a metropolitan into a non-metropolitan county or of a non-metropolitan into a metropolitan county … the constitution of a new London borough by the amalgamation of two or more London boroughsand so forth. Thus it is a comprehensive section. There is no reason why the Government should not make use of that provision now and initiate an inquiry. No doubt the Government could give the Local Government Boundary Commission a time limit by which it will have to draw its conclusions.
I have no doubt that, if this happens, the Government could be saved from making some fearful mistakes. Without such an inquiry, I do not think that anyone will have much faith that the Government have achieved the right answer in their determination to abolish the GLC and the metropolitan counties.
I hope that my hon. Friend or my right hon. Friend in responding to this series of amendments will give a much more comprehensive reply to why the Government cannot initiate an inquiry forthwith than we have been given so far by the Secretary of State.
§ Mr. O'Brien
I support the amendments.
The Secretary of State said that he wished to clear up some misunderstandings. His comments, and what he termed his explanations to the Committee, created, rather than cleared up, misunderstandings. He referred to the White Paper entitled "Streamlining the Cities", and he commented upon the responses to the White Paper. I have been doing some research on the matter. I am advised that the Government received in total approximately 5,000 responses to the White Paper, but they were reticent about making copies of this information available to the House.
Hon. Members will recall that on 9 April the Secretary of State placed in the Library of the House a brief summary of the analysis of the report, and of the responses made to the Department of the Environment. On the basis of the Government's categorisation of responses, the summary identifies an overwhelming rejection of the White Paper proposals. The information given was that the responses to the Department of the Environment-.were 2,300, but only 227 of the responses were published on the list. In 936 respect of the arts, 600 responses were received, but only 304 were published on the list. In respect of transport, 327 responses were received, but only 96 were published. That leaves a great deal of doubt and misunderstanding as to the real responses to the White Paper.
This is all the more reason why support should be given to the group of amendments which seek that inquiries be made, and that reports be produced to explain the views and feelings of the general public, the 13 million electorate who will lose the opportunity to elect direct representatives to the counties and to the Greater London council. If support were given to the amendments, and if an inquiry were held, it would at least remove the doubt felt about the responses that we know were made to the White Paper, but that have not yet been made available to the House. The figures provided in the Department's summary show that, overall, only 8.5 per cent. of the 1,200-odd responses received supported the White Paper's proposals to abolish the metropolitan county councils and that only 6 per cent. of the 1,500-odd replies supported the proposal to abolish the GLC.
I support the amendments, because I served actively in local government for more than 30 years and consider that the Bill's proposals are alien to local government and do not in any way help or encourage it. Much has been said today about the reorganisation that took place. The Secretary of State referred to the 1972 Bill and to the reorganisation that followed it. But it must be admitted that there was a great deal of dialogue and consultation before any action was taken. Thus, we appeal to hon. Members to support the amendments, because there should be further inquiries and more consultation as to the needs of local government and its future.
Many people fear for other areas of local government, including the district and shire councils. They have not been included in this round, but if the Government are allowed to continue along the same lines, no area of local government will be safe or sacrosanct. I hope that those Conservative Members who are involved or interested in local government will take note of the situation facing the metropolitan county councils and the GLC, as there could be repercussions for local authorities in their constituencies. Indeed, I hope that they will give careful consideration to our appeal for their support for the amendments.
We do not misunderstand, and nor do most people, the Government's policy in abolishing the elections that are due to be held next year. They wish to deny those who were elected to serve in the metropolitan counties and in the GLC the right to stand for re-election. To take away the functions of elected representatives and to say that the Government will add them to the responsibilities and duties of district councillors, means that the Government are not helping local government.
From 1974 until I came to the House, I served as a metropolitan district councillor. With my hand on my heart, I can say that there is sufficient work within the metropolitan districts to keep those who are elected fully involved in providing services, and so on. To give them, in addition, the further services that the county councils are responsible for is not in the best interests of those authorities, or of those who serve on them. I say that because of the difference in the functions. If we are to be honest with those who rely on local government for their 937 services, it is unfair to place the functions of county councils on top of those already given to the district councils. To impose such services on the district councils is not in the best interests of those who rely on those services for their livelihoods or who seek to enjoy a reasonable standard of living.
The Bill requires us to give the Secretary of State the power to decide when the major part of the Bill is to be enacted. To do that without some inquiry means that we are giving the Secretary of State tremendous power. Despite what he says, he is seeking to give himself powers in advance of the main body of legislation. To request such powers without first giving the House information and answers to questions that have been put on more than one occasion is to fail to treat the House with the customary respect. It is important to ensure that we consider what could face local government, if not all the information is made available in the first place. An inquiry would help to lessen the fear and reduce the misunderstanding that could result from the Bill, as presented.
Big conurbations need single public authorities to coordinate strategic functions. For example, in west Yorkshire, we have an example of how a single authority has co-ordinated public transport throughout five metropolitan district areas. From the starving child of the county when the Conservatives were in office, the service has, in the past four years, become viable, well organised and well run. Public transport in west Yorkshire is now welcomed and well received by all the ratepayers in the area. I am sure that I speak for all hon. Members and for a substantial number of ratepayers when I say that there should be single public authorities to co-ordinate the police, the fire service and those responsible for the highways. The abolition of the metropolitan authorities will lead to an inefficient hotchpotch of quangos, joint boards and voluntary joint committees.
§ Mr. Winnick
Does my hon. Friend remember that 45 minutes ago the Secretary of State conceded that cost-saving no longer motivated the Government in the abolition of the authorities? Bearing in mind that the Government have not announced that they intend to abolish the shire counties, does my hon. Friend agree that the real motivation must be party political? Does he agree that the Government are annoyed that the GLC and the metropolitan authorities are Labour-controlled and that all the evidence is that our party would win if elections were held? The Government are indulging in political spite. They do not like Mr. Livingstone and they do not like Labour majorities in west Yorkshire or in the west Midlands. They are abolishing the councils for party political reasons and out of spite. Does that not demonstrate that Conservative Members who, honourably, are opposing the measure understand what is involved and recognise that if their party follows this line they will be discredited?
§ Mr. O'Brien
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The Bill is politically motivated. That is accepted by the majority in the House and outside. Everyone knows that the Bill is more political than cost-saving.
In May 1983, we were told that a saving of £100 million and 9,000 jobs would result from the measure. That was immediately before the general election. After the general election the Government said that perhaps that was wrong 938 and that there had been a misunderstanding. There has been a gradual shift from the belief that savings will result from the exercise.
The Bill is politically motivated. The Government say that if they cannot beat the Labour party at the ballot box they will do so by legislation. When we occupy the Government Benches we shall ensure that politically motivated policies are reversed and that proposals are made to return electors' rights to the metropolitan areas.
The fragmentation and duplication that will result from the measure have led many people to believe that the Government's proposals are based, not on making local government more efficient, but on removing democratically elected councils, to whose policies the Government are hostile. That is the bedrock of the Bill.
The main abolition Bill to be introduced later will give Parliament the opportunity to debate whether to support the removal of the authorities, the fragmentation of services and the loss of over 9,000 jobs. In areas such as west Yorkshire the further job losses will create extra difficulties for families, and will bring greater hardship to an area already suffering from heavy unemployment.
We hope that by the time the Government introduce the main Bill they will have evidence to show that their policies are based on something more than political expediency.
§ Mr. John Maples (Lewisham, West)
The hon. Member said that the abolition of the metropolitan counties and the GLC would lead to substantial redundancies. If that is correct, that must inevitably lead to substantial savings.
§ Mr. O'Brien
That is not necessarily so, because if duplication occurs, extra costs will be involved. Other local authority workers will have extra work and overtime payments will have to be made.
§ Mr. O'Brien
The hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Maples) shakes his head, but he should read the reports.
§ Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)
What about what happened in 1963–64 when the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) was a member of a local authority?
§ Mr. O'Brien
Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) will comment on that. The argument is that 9,000 redundancies will result in a saving. Hon. Members who think that are obviously blinkered. Further supplementary benefits will have to be paid from the national purse and redundancy payments will have to be found.
§ Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley)
I recall vividly that in 1972–73 the late Sir Graham Page stomped the country telling the people in local government that there would be massive savings in jobs. I call the loss of jobs lost jobs, not a saving. Neither the Minister nor his deputies has examined how many jobs will be lost or how much will be saved. I suspect that we shall be in exactly the same position that we were in 10 years ago, when howls of anguish came from the Tory Benches, when it was claimed that people were on the gravy train and taking millions of pounds out of local government. A discussion of those 939 matters would be useful tonight. I suspect that Tory Members are nervous about how much money will be spent on seeing people out of local government.
§ Mr. O'Brien
The remarks of my hon. Friend bring to mind the exercise undertaken by the late Sir Graham Page. I remember attending a meeting in Leeds which he addressed. He said that savings would be made and that arrangements would be better because of reorganisation. A decade later, the Government are introducing rate capping and other controls, because that reorganisation did not work.
We have been told by the Secretary of State and Government supporters that reorganisation failed and that this is the result of that failure. We say that, before going from one failure to another, an inquiry should be held into what will happen, so that we shall not have to come here again in a few years' time with another reorganisation because this proposal also has failed.
The Government are expecting Parliament to approve major constitutional changes. They expect us to make changes to the constitution of local government in advance of a debate on the main Bill. If the Bill is passed, local elections which are due next year will be scrapped, even though the local authorities will still be in existence. That was the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) in his opening remarks on the amendments. The Secretary of State reiterated that interim boards not directly elected by local communities will take over. We have been told that in some cases political control of councils will change without the electorate having the democratic right to exercise their choice through the ballot box. If that is not gerrymandering the political scene, I do not know what is. The Government are setting in motion a procedure that will change the political control of local authorities without elections.
Grave precedents are being set. The Government are not only jeopardising jobs but eroding and endangering the very fabric of democracy. The amendments have been proposed in an effort to restrain the Secretary of State from making an order to cancel the 1985 elections until the main legislation has completed its parliamentary course, until there has been an investigation of the structure of metropolitan local government and until the Audit Commission has produced a financial study.
The Association of Metropolitan Authorities and other local authority organisations have argued constantly that this Bill should not have been brought before Parliament until the substantive proposals for reorganisation were approved. My right hon. and hon. Friends and, indeed, Conservative Members have argued that point both on Second Reading and today. Comment has been made that it was wholly inappropriate for changes to be initiated without further consideration of the cost and the likely benefits of yet another reorganisation of local government.
The Secretary of State referred to value for money. If we are sincere about getting value for money, there should have been an investigation into costs before the legislation was introduced. The amendments seek to institute such a consideration and to provide a more ordered sequence of legislation. It is against that background that the amendments have been put forward. We object to the uncertainty of the Government's plan and to the speed with 940 which the Government are seeking to cancel elections and introduce temporary arrangements within the affected councils.
I join my right hon. and hon. Friends in appealing to Conservative Members to support the amendments, because they are in the interests of local government. If the amendments are not accepted, we are cutting away the very fabric of local government. That is why I have spoken in favour of the amendments and ask other hon. Members to support them.
§ Mr. Peter Tapsell (East Lindsey)
I hope to detain the Committee for only a few minutes, but as I voted against the Second Reading of this Bill I want to make my position clear. I am not opposed to the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan counties. If I had been, I would have made that clear during the election campaign when the matter was under discussion. If one of my opponents had alleged during that campaign that it was part of our policy in carrying through proposals for the abolition of the metropolitan counties to abolish elected representatives and replace them by nominees of a different political complexion I would in all honesty, and believing myself to be expressing the facts, have most indignantly denied such a charge.
It came as a great surprise and shock to me when I heard that these were indeed the methods to be used. I must say to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State that I regard these proposals as a profoundly un-Tory measure. It may be a platitude that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance but platitudes have a way of expressing profound truths or they would not have become platitudes.
To put the situation in a local context, in my county of Lincolnshire I can imagine the horror of the Tories and the elected Conservative majority on the Lincolnshire county council if a future Labour Government decided to use its majority in the House of Commons to remove the democratically elected Lincolnshire county councillors and replace them by nominated Left-wingers to run the county, if only for 11 months. I would be outraged by such a proposal and my supporters in the constituency and throughout the county would expect me to oppose it with the utmost vehemence.
What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. We must be extremely careful not to break the rules of political fair play by which we normally conduct our affairs in this country. Precisely because we have unitary Government and no Bill of Rights or supreme court to which appeals can be made, a Government with an unusually large parliamentary majority should be very careful to treat their political opponents with respect and with the greatest possible attention to the maintenance of proper constitutional procedures at all times. Although I am not a constitutional lawyer I have read a good deal of constitutional history. If such a measure as this was brought forward in the United States or Australia my belief is that there would be an appeal to the supreme court on the grounds that it was unconstitutional, and that the supreme court in both those countries would probably uphold such an appeal.
None of this is necessary. It is possible for the Government, a little later tonight, when one of my right hon. or hon. Friends moves the amendment proposing that the existing elected councillors remain in office until 1 April 1986, to announce that they accept that amendment, in which case the main constitutional objection to the Bill 941 falls by the wayside. I cannot understand why, even at this late hour, my right hon. and hon. Friends and the Cabinet as a whole are prepared to waste an enormous amount of the time of the House of Commons—when there is so much other more important business that we should be discussing — in spending days and days and days discussing these very dubious constitutional proposals when the whole essence of the controversy, certainly for my right hon. and hon. Friends, could be removed at once by the acceptance of the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Pym).
I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will convey to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State these thoughts, which are not confined to me alone, or even to the 19 Conservative Members who voted against Second Reading. I believe that this view is widely held throughout the Conservative parliamentary party in both Houses of Parliament and that it is shared by many Conservative councillors and by Tories wherever one goes throughout the country.
§ 8 pm
§ Mr. Tony Banks
I shall try to restrict my remarks to amendments Nos. 2 and 4, rather than attempting to start a Second Reading debate.
I agree with the hon. Member for East Lindsey (Mr. Tapsell) and applaud his sentiments. I only wish that I could be optimistic enough to believe that his remarks will receive a sympathetic hearing from the Government. He must realise that he is within a party where people like him are in a dwindling minority. He has only to look around him to note the number of people who are not on his side this evening. When the voting fodder comes through the doors, his words will have been for naught.
I do not wish to detain the Committee, but during my researches I discovered a small document that I want to quote. It is not as exciting as Misc/95, but it is apposite. It is called "The Doom of the County Council of London", and states:
If any critic should be disposed to say of the following sketch that it is too highly-coloured and overdrawn, let him reflect for a moment on the work of the County Council during the brief period of its existence; on what it has attempted and declared its wish to accomplish … It was Thursday, the fourteenth of June, 1911 — a day long to be remembered in the history of the Metropolis, and indeed of England. For a climax had been reached, and the hour had come in which the fate of either the Imperial Parliament or the London County Council had to be decided … From the moment that the Council obtained control over the Metropolitan Police, it snapped its fingers at both the House of Commons and the Government. Remonstrance on their part was out of the question. They had to approach the Council in the language of entreaty, and by-and-by their sole duty in connection with it was to register its decrees, and obey its behests … Now, however, the pretensions of the County Council had reached a height at which it was no longer possible to tolerate them. Claims were advanced which could be compared only to those preferred to King Charles the First by the Long Parliament …
The story is long, but it ends:the Conservatives took office and secured a triumphant victory at the General Election which immediately followed. Parliament was summoned to meet forthwith, and the very first measure laid upon the Table of the House of Commons was a Bill abolishing the County Council of London. The gas, electric lighting, and water supplies were handed over to the City Corporation, which was confirmed in all its ancient rights and privileges; the tramways and omnibuses, and the docks were sold to private companies, and the proceeds applied to the reduction of the 942 Municipal debt; the care of the parks, and above all, the control of the Police, were once more vested in the Executive; the Hotel"—now county hall—became the property of a Limited Liability Company, and was transformed into an hotel proper, which was largely patronised by wealthy American visitors. London awoke again to life, with a delightful sense of freedom, as though it had escaped the hideous horrors of a prolonged nightmare!
It could almost be the document upon which the Prime Minister based her manifesto pledge. Instead, it is a document which was published in 1892. The constant friction between the county council of London, now the GLC, and central Government has always existed.
There has been a recognised London metropolitan area since 1855. A series of Royal Commissions brought us to our present position. The GLC is not a new creation in the sense that it has no antecedents; it can trace its history back to the directly elected London county council. It should not be disposed of in the way that the Government propose—without any inquiry or any examination of the needs of London or the requirements of running a city of such size and significance.
The first Royal Commission was on municipal corporations, and it published a report in 1837. It called for one authority for the whole of the uninterrupted town. That statement is made continually throughout the various inquiries since then. In 1855 the Board of Works was set up. It was an indirectly elected body which did a great deal of good for London in its time, but its indriectly elected nature attracted a great deal of criticism. People in London did not feel that they had the control over the body that they wanted. That is the great problem of indirectly elected bodies. When the Board of Works came to an end, it had added to its functions the fire service and housing. The Local Government Act 1899 set up the LCC. Therefore, we can see 85 uninterrupted years of direct elections for a London-wide body.
A further Royal Commission was set up in 1919 under Viscount Ullswater, and the GLC was set up following the Royal Commission under Edwin Herbert, which reported in 1960, resulting in the Local Government Act 1963.
I commend hon. Members to re-read the evidence submitted to the Royal Commission. That evidence is much more freely available than the evidence received by the Secretary of State with regard to "Streamlining the Cities". We are left with the rather nasty thought that the only reason that the Secretary of State refused to let hon. Members see the evidence had nothing to do with precedent or normal courtesy, but everything to do with the fact that the overwhelming weight of evidence was damning to the Government's case. I shall withdraw that remark whenever the Secretary of State deigns to allow Back Benchers to see the evidence by lodging it in the Library.
§ Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
What is the GLC's interpretation of the number of people who have written to it either in favour of or against the legislation? Does my hon. Friend think that now would be an appropriate opportunity for the Minister to say exactly how many people wrote to his Department both for and against the legislation, and when that evidence will see the light of day?
§ Mr. Banks
Perhaps my hon. Friend should direct that question to the Secretary of State. He should intervene in his speech, not mine. However, I should very much like 943 that evidence to be put in the Library so that all right hon. and hon. Members can read it for themselves. Information is supposed to be the language of democracy. I know that democracy is not an especially favoured topic on the Conservative Benches, but all hon. Members should be entitled to see the information. Why is the Secretary of State scared of that? I suppose that that is a rhetorical question: we all know the answer. He has a lousy job to do. I do not know whether he is doing it with or without enthusiasm; that is difficult to detect. He has a lousy job to do and an even worse case to put forward. He wants to keep the information that disproves his case—in fact smashes it into the ground—as secret and as hidden away as possible.
§ Mr. Winnick
Does my hon. Friend agree that as there is no real case for the Bill—if there was, the Secretary of State would be the first to the Dispatch Box to argue it—the real reason for abolition is the Prime Minister's spite against the GLC and the metropolitan authorities? If there was the slightest possibility that those bodies would change politically through an election, they would not be abolished. It is purely party political spite. The shire counties are not being touched for the obvious reason that they have an almost in-built Tory majority. Does my hon. Friend agree that that fact should be published and emphasised as the only reason for the abolition proposals?
§ Mr. Banks
I agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, there is something unreal about this whole discussion. It is rather like Hamlet without the prince or Snow White without the witch. After all, we know where this proposal originated, and all the flannel from the Government Front Bench cannot hide the facts. It arises out of party political spite and the vindictiveness of one person. I do not deny that the Prime Minister is clever. But she is unimaginative, and it must be awful for the leader of a nation to be accused of lacking in imagination. I consider her to be nothing more than an unimaginative lower middle class Tory bigot; but perhaps my prejudices—we all have them—are now coming to the fore.
To base the restructuring of local government on the personal animosity of one individual for another—the relationship that seems to exist between the Prime Minister and the leader of the GLC—is hardly an appropriate way for Parliament to take a major decision of this kind. But the right hon. Lady, with her vast majority, has the ability to get Conservative Members to vote in the Lobby for whatever she wants. With her great power of patronage, she has instilled fear into the miserable Front Bench representatives of the Department of the Environment, who dance to whatever tune she calls. That is a most undemocratic tune, which is not being whistled by many people outside the House, certainly not in London.
There has never been such a change in local government in London without a Royal Commission or an inquiry of some sort. That is why the amendment urges the Government to conduct an inquiry. If the Secretary of State feels that nothing would be gained by such an exercise, may I ask him whether he has read the evidence of the Herbert commission?
§ Mr. Banks
I am glad to know that. In that case, he must be aware that all the proposals that will come before the House for the abolition of the GLC were rejected in 1957 by the Herbert commission. It is nonsense for the right hon. Gentleman now to say that the Government are simply restoring to the boroughs the powers that they had. The Herbert commission devolved all the powers that could possibly be devolved to the boroughs. In other words, the Government are not proposing to give back to the boroughs that which they previously had. They are giving to them that which they never had before.
§ Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)
I served on the Standing Committee on the Bill which was discussed when the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) made a mess of reorganisation and various other things. Does my hon. Friend recall that it was not just a question of the local boroughs but also the responsibilities of the Greater London council, Middlesex county council, Essex county council and Kent county council? Those responsibilities were taken away at that time. Nowhere is there any question of the democratic rights that belong to the people of what were previously those counties being returned to them. In other words, this is riding roughshod over not only the Herbert commission but every other proposition that was put forward at that time.
§ Mr. Banks
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing that out. All the evidence in London—I am confining myself to the capital—argues against what the Government are proposing. Indeed, it is intellectually insulting to Parliament for proposals such as this to be introduced, proposals which spit in the face of the Herbert commission and which reject all considered judgments arrived at over the years by people in central and local government in London. To have such changes placed before Parliament based on the Prime Minister's peculiar obsession with Mr. Livingstone — her belief that somehow he represents the end of civilisation — is abhorrent.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. William Waldegrave)
Leaving aside the hon. Gentleman's remarks about what we propose being intellectually insulting and the rest of that claptrap, may I ask him why he thinks the present leader of the GLC was in favour of doing what we are doing until he became the leader of the GLC?
§ Mr. Banks
That was hardly worth the Minister getting to his feet. If hon. Members wish, I will cite the evidence that the Secretary of State gave to the inquiry set up by Sir Horace Cutler.
I said at the time that Mr. Livingstone was wrong in 1979 and that the Secretary of State was right in 1979. Mr. Livingstone is now correct and the Secretary of State is wrong.
§ Mr. Banks
The Minister has many more opportunities than I have to speak.
While we are clearing up such matters, let me put another one to rest. The Secretary of State referred to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) as having said during the election that the Labour party, if elected, would make changes without having a proper inquiry. Were my right hon. Friend now 945 the Secretary of State, he would run into the same trouble from his Back Benchers as the right hon. Gentleman is running into from the supporters behind him. One cannot water down democracy and say, "We shall ignore all the evidence and ride roughshod over Parliament and local government." If my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton proposed what the right hon. Gentleman is proposing, he would have the same degree of opposition as the right hon Gentleman is receiving from both sides of the Committee.
§ Mr. Tracey
Did the hon. Gentleman agree with his party's policy of abolishing the shire counties, had Labour been returned to power? The country would like to know the answer to that.
§ Mr. Banks
I cannot believe that the nation is waiting to learn what I believe, but I will answer the hon. Gentleman. I accept that no pattern of local government should remain unaltered, because there is nothing that cannot be improved. The amendment is concerned to ensure that we have a proper inquiry so that the evidence can be examined and thoughtful views advanced. We may, when in office, wish to abolish the shire counties. I only hope that we will not try to do it in the messy way in which the Government are trying to take this step. I hope that we shall approach the problem with consideration for the needs of local government.
§ Mr. Corbyn
Has there ever been an occasion when the present leader of the GLC has called for the abolition of elections and the continuation in office of an authority? The comments of the Under-Secretary on that point were, I thought, disgraceful and inaccurate and showed his lack of understanding of the whole issue of democracy in local government.
§ Mr. Banks
I agree with my hon. Friend. It is distressing for me, having been in local government as an elected member for 14 years, to witness the way in which the whole idea of local authority service and structure is being pushed aside as though such matters were unimportant. When I consider what Ken Livingstone has said and what the present Prime Minister has said, I know who is the true democrat. Mr. Livingstone has said on a number of occasions that he would rather see the GLC run by the Conservative party, if elected through the ballot box, than see it abolished. I cannot believe that such sentiments pass through the mind of the Prime Minister. Her reaction to opposition is to exterminate it. She exterminates opposition within her own party as rapidly as she seeks to exterminate it from the Labour party. We are dealing with an incipient Fascist who cannot tolerate opposition in any circumstances.
The evidence shows that the Government's proposals run against the conclusions of Royal Commissions. It must be stressed that changes in London's government have always been preceded by Royal Commissions and inquiries. If the Secretary of State is so enamoured of precedent, that is one that he should follow. He should give us a Royal Commission or inquiry.
Amendment No. 4 is directed to savings. I find it difficult to understand how the Government can expect the Committee and the House of Commons to have any confidence in statements that are made about savings that might flow from the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan authorities. A number of papers have been 946 submitted to us by accountants and borough treasurers and they conflict one with another. They certainly conflict with much of the evidence that the Secretary of State has been able to muster. The right hon. Gentleman changes his tune to suit the circumstances that might prevail.
We have heard a great deal about the manpower savings that might be achieved if the GLC were abolished. The GLC's expenditure on personnel amounts to only 16 per cent. of its total expenditure. In local government generally, expenditure on personnel is about 60 per cent. I cannot envisage any great savings coming from staff cuts. The GLC's expenditure on administrative services and managers is 1.2 per cent. of its total spending and that is accompanied by spending of 2.1 per cent. on clerical staff, 3.2 per cent. on building trade workers, engineering staff and park-keepers, for example, and 5.2 per cent. on fire fighting. Where are all the savings to come from if the GLC is abolished? Most of its personnel will still be required. The only staff who might go are senior managers and administrators, and they represent only 1.2 per cent. of the GLC's spending on personnel. The Committee must remember that the Bill will abolish GLC elections that presently decide who shall run the services that are provided by the GLC and that it will not abolish GLC services. No services currently provided by the GLC will disappear, but they will become more costly to provide.
I ask the Secretary of State to remember what happened when the ambulance service was taken from the GLC. Were costs saved when that happened? What happened when sewerage and waste disposal services were transferred from the GLC to the Thames water authority? Were there any savings? The answer is that there were not. Those services have become far more expensive to provide because a greater number of staff are involved, and at the same time there is no democratic accountability to Londoners. I anticipate that I shall be a member of this place for some years to come and I shall make the right hon. Gentleman eat the words that he has uttered on this occasion in whatever capacity he happens to be at the time. I hope that he will be sitting on the Opposition Benches in some relatively humble and junior job. He may be devilling for the fall of the Prime Minister. I shall ensure that he remembers what he has said this evening.
The GLC is financially well managed. Maurice Stonefrost, who is now its comptroller of financial services, has one of the finest financial brains in B rita in. If the GLC were abolished, the Secretary of State could do himself a few favours by getting Maurice to work for him. If he were working for him now, he would be able to point to the fundamental financial errors that the Government are prepared to make. However, as the right hon. Gentleman has admitted, the Bill has nothing to do with money. It had something to do with it at one stage, but it is now about duplication. I have already shown that there is no duplication in London. The London boroughs are having new services given to them and new responsibilities but no services are being restored to them.
The Secretary of State places great store on borough treasurers, and he has referred to the report which has been prepared by the Tory treasurers. The report was produced by the treasurers of Westminster, Wandsworth, Bromley and Kensington, four solid, true-blue Tory boroughs. Would the treasurer of Westminster, for example, have been prepared to submit evidence to the doughty Lady Porter that disproved her case? If he had done so, I suspect that he would now be looking for a new job.
947 Has the Secretary of State read the report of the four Tory borough treasurers? It appears that he has not. That being so, I shall furnish him with a copy. Of the £370 million-worth of savings that are identified in the report, only £35 million-worth arise from management rationalisation and the elimination of duplication. The borough treasurers presume that if GLC expenditure were reduced to £216 million they would attract block grant of £154 million, which would produce a total saving of £370 million.
I have news for these four frightened Tory borough treasurers. They will have to add another £130 million to the savings that they have in mind before they receive any block grant from the Government. Their report is a party political job and not a financial document. It presumes that the new authorities that inherit the GLC's responsibilities will make major policy changes. It presumes also that the Secretary of State will suddenly have a new heart when it comes to considering local authority finance and will be prepared to be more generous in the allocation of block grant. We all know that that is not the way in which local authority finance is being controlled.
The report from the borough treasurers of Westminster, Wandsworth, Bromley and Kensington is not worth the paper on which it is written and it is nothing more than a party political job. It was probably inspired by the Tory leaders of the four boroughs to throw the Secretary of State a lifeline, and the poor devil needs one. He does not have an argument on which he can rely and he does not have many friends sitting behind him in the Chamber. However, as the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) said, the elective dictatorship will ensure that all Members' rooms in this place are emptied at about 10 o'clock and that all the lobby fodder troops through the Government Lobby to support them in the Division.
I find it insulting that 85 continuous years of local elections in London are coming to an end under the hand of this shambles of a Government Front Bench whose occupants appear to know nothing about local government in London and who seem to care nothing for their own personal honour.
§ Mr. Tracey
I intervene in the debate as a relative newcomer to this place, but someone who is no newer than the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). I do not think that I am being naive in saying that the amendments are devices for playing for time. The game is well over for the GLC and the metropolitan authorities, but we are witnessing an attempt to kick on into injury time and to kick the ball into touch. Despite the great importance that Labour Members have decided suddenly to place on opinion polls—they probably do not attach the same importance to the polls on their leader's popularity throughout the nation or the position of their party—I suspect that the polls do not reflect the true view of the silent majority.
I represent a Greater London constituency and I shall not try to make statements about other parts of the country, although various Labour Members are prepared to claim that they know a great deal about Greater London, notwithstanding that they merely come and go within the area.
§ Mr. Tracey
I shall not give way. I shall finish my speech. The hon. Gentleman can then address the Committee in the same vein as his shirt tells us—"GLC Working for London". He will be working for the GLC and reading out its brief, as Opposition Members seem to do.
During the election campaign, the electorate told me that they believed that the abolition of the GLC was long overdue. Many studies have been conducted over the years. We have heard a great deal about the Herbert commission, and today we heard rather less about the Marshall inquiry. Lord Marshall said that the GLC had never carried out the specific role intended for it. It did not carry out its true strategic leadership role, which perhaps was in Herbert's mind when he chaired the Royal Commission.
Thoughts on the abolition of the GLC have not come about because of the chap called Livingstone taking power in county hall on 8 May after the electorate had elected McIntosh to lead the GLC Labour majority. As a London Conservative, I recollect the talk in 1977 when Sir Horace Cutler led the Conservatives to a great victory in the GLC election. He told the London electorate that the housing empire which the GLC had been building up would be devolved to the boroughs. Conservatives, including Sir Horace, said that if that happened, there would be little left for the GLC to do. The ambulance service and land drainage had already been devolved. In the past few years, the GLC has been running the transport service as a political football.
§ Mr. Tracey
The transport service is now to be taken away as well. Surely it is obvious that the GLC is superfluous.
§ Mr. Banks
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, despite the fact that I had to jog his memory about giving way. He is wrong to say that land drainage and ambulance powers were devolved. Those powers were taken from the GLC and given to quangos, and that is the point. They were not devolved to the boroughs. The hon. Gentleman's argument would be stronger if those powers had been given to the boroughs, but he should recollect that they were not.
§ Mr. Tracey
I accept the point of linguistics, that those powers were not devolved, but they were taken away. By 1979–80, when housing had been taken from the GLC's empire, there was little left for the GLC to do. Feeling on this matter grew strongly in the Conservative party. There was talk that the GLC was superfluous and a complete waste of money. Just as there was talk in the Labour party about the abolition of the shire counties, there was talk in the Conservative party at all levels about the abolition of the GLC. Large majorities in Conservative-controlled councils passed motions stating that the abolition policy should be in the Conservative party manifesto during the general election campaign. I found overwhelming support for that policy during the campaign. I remind Opposition 949 Members that opinion polls, such as one in June 1983, carried out before the GLC began spending £3 million on political propaganda, said that the GLC was an overtly political body. It is interesting that fewer than 2 per cent. of the people questioned could name their GLC member. That shows the significance of the GLC in the minds of the London public.
§ Mr. Tracey
The electorate were speaking with conviction during the June election campaign, when they said that they wished to see the end of the GLC. I believe, having talked to many of them since then, that their minds have not been changed in any way, despite the millions of pounds spent by the GLC on hoardings and advertising in the national newspapers.
§ Mr. Boyes
On a point of order, Sir Michael. I assure you, Sir Michael, that my point was meant to be serious. That would have been the result if the Conservatives had been in power. If they had carried out exactly the same policy, the logical conclusion would have been that Mr. Livingstone would have been installed.
§ The Temporary Chairman (Sir Michael Shaw)
That is not a point of order for me to consider, but I believe that the hon. Member has made his point.
§ Mr. Tracey
I shall deal with the election point in greater detail. The hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) referred to Mr. Livingstone being appointed as the leader, but we do not know who would have been appointed in the circumstances to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Mr. Livingstone appeared suddenly on the scene in 1981, the day after the electorate elected Mr. McIntosh the leader of the GLC. We do not know who will lead the interim council, after the Bill has been passed and the GLC has run its full life. I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's question factually.
§ Mr. Corbyn
How many leaders have there been from the Conservative group on the GLC since the last GLC election? On what date were they elected? Was it made clear during the election campaign that the leader of the Conservative group might be changed after the election? Who is that person?
§ Mr. Tracey
I shall not set about answering those questions, which I do not believe are in order in a discussion on the Bill.
§ The Temporary Chairman
Order. It is time that we returned to discussing the amendments, wide though they are.
§ Mr. Tracey
I am grateful for your guidance, Sir Michael. The amendments are playing for time. The verdict of Londoners, especially about the GLC, has been clear. The GLC is superfluous and should be abolished. The vote of Londoners in the general election clearly pointed that out. The Conservative party won 56 of the 84 950 seats in Greater London. I believe that that is the largest total we have won in any comparable general election. I believe that Londoners, as I said at the beginning, expect the Government to abolish the GLC as efficiently as possible. That is what we are proposing.
I wish to deal with the election options that face us. In May 1985, the GLC will have completely run its life of four years of power and will then cease to be. It would have been quite irresponsible to spend £1 million or so on financing an election in London to elect members to a GLC which will not exist as such in a further 11 months. What is the other option? It is to appoint members to a transitional council from the councils that will be taking over responsibility in Greater London. That makes the most sense. The councils that will be taking over the power will continue until 1986. I am sure that that makes good sense. It is plainly cost-effective to do as the Bill proposes.
§ Mr. Wareing
During the course of this debate, many right hon. and hon. Members have referred to the main Bill. They have objected to the measure before us this evening on the grounds that it prejudices a future decision on the main Bill. The longer that I listened to the Secretary of State, the more convinced I became that this is the main Bill. When we consider the Government's strategy in relation to the large conurbations, we must ask ourselves how this measure is related to those millions of people outside who are looking for better housing, jobs and improvements in their services.
Only a few people can attend the Strangers Gallery. If they were to listen to the debate, they would say, 'What has this to do with the real economic problems facing the nation at present?" The answer is that it has nothing to do with them. Party political prejudice is the motive behind the Government's policy. That is the real strategy and that is why this Bill is the main Bill.
The Government have not made up their mind how the services, for example on Merseyside, which I seek to represent, will be devolved—if that is the correct word. "Taken away" is, I believe, a more correct description. The Secretary of State told the Committee that the main burden of his argument was the expense of an unnecessary tier of government. However, he has not been able to tell the House what will take its place. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt) said that many of the services that are being taken away from the GLC will not go back whence they came—to Surrey and Essex county councils and Croydon borough council, for example. By the same token, those services that are being taken away from Cheshire and Lancashire will not go back to Cheshire county council or Lancashire county council. Those people who believe that the services will go in their direction — to the Conservative-controlled councils which existed before the 1974 reorganisation—should forget it.
The Secretary of State gave the game away every time he said that if we do not have the Bill now, "We will be too late to cancel the elections in 1985." The whole exercise is about cancelling the 1985 elections. The strategy is aimed at taking power away from his political opponents. That is the name of the game. That is why we are debating this matter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) referred to the Cabinet Committee Misc/95. As the Secretary of State has admitted, there was an argument in that Cabinet 951 Committee between cancelling the elections or extending the term of office of the current councillors. As I understand it, he won the day. He was the culprit who was in favour of cancelling the elections. The Tory party dare not have London-wide or Merseyside-wide elections because it knows already what the results are likely to be.
The Secretary of State says that he has been under great pressure. He kept using the term, "I am under great pressure." I know that he is under great pressure from his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. From where else is the pressure coming? Is it coming from the Merseyside chamber of commerce, the Archbishop of Liverpool, the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool or the business interests in Merseyside? None of them is in favour of the Government's proposals. The real pressure come from — I believe his name is Seldom Glummer — the chairman of the Conservative party.
We are told that the bodies we are discussing are inefficient, but no evidence has been put before the Committee to show that a more efficient reorganisation is on the way.
Before last Thursday, I should have had to complain, as my hon. Friends from Greater London complain, that a change of party control would come about with this reorganisation. On Merseyside, before last Thursday's district elections, the probability was that the transitional council would probably have been hung, with the Liberal-SDP section holding the balance of power. I have news for the Secretary of State. Following last Thursday's district elections, there will be a Labour majority on the transitional council. He has lost. He should have rushed this legislation through more quickly.
In Liverpool, only three out of 34 Conservative candidates were successful, in Knowsley district, only four out of 34 were successful, and in St. Helens only 3 out of 18 were successful. Even in Conservative Sefton only 11 out of 24 Conservative candidates were successful. Only in Wirral—where the figures were 12 out of 22, barely half—was the Conservative party able to say that more than 50 per cent. of its candidates were successful in the election.
This is precipitate action by the Government without any inquiry. This group of amendments calls for an investigation into the needs of local government and the failings of local government. Before all previous reorganisations there was a long period of discussion and examination. It has been said that before the reorganisations of 1888 and 1894 there were decades of thought and inquiry.
Between 1888 and the end of the second world war there was a long period when there was much discussion but no precipitate action. Legislation was passed in 1926 to make it difficult for boroughs to acquire county borough status because after that date such a move needed private Bill legislation. There were local government boundary commissions between 1945 and 1949 before any changes were brought about. In 1958, before the Local Government Act, commissions were set up, White Papers were discussed in the House of Commons and even the Local Government Act 1948 only set up commissions to look into special and general review areas. There was a long discussion before change came about.
952 However, the motives then were the motives of Governments attempting to reform the local government system, not the motives of party political prejudice. They wanted to see what the problems of local government were and how they could be dealt with—problems such as overspending, duplication of various local authority services in the same area and wide disparities in size and resources between local authorities. Those were the motives that led to reorganisation, but reorganisation only after long-thought-out examination by commissions such as the Herbert and Redcliffe-Maud.
Here we are being expected, within a few months of a general election in which the Government had no commitment to the Bill, to rush ahead with legislation to abolish elections without a full inquiry into the needs of local government. As the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sir I. Gilmour) said, there is a vehicle by which the Secretary of State could, without further legislation, carry out this inquiry, by looking to section 48 of the Local Government Act 1972, which places a duty on the local government boundary commission for England to review all local government areas not less than 10 years and not more than 15 years after 1 April 1974. We are now in that period, and the Secretary of State could have taken action along those lines.
We are witnessing a totalitarian-inspired Government flying in the face of the democratically expressed wishes of a quarter of the population. They talk about having a mandate, but they do not have one. It has been a longstanding constitional practice that when a section of the population will be affected by a Bill going through the House, that section will be consulted. For example, if it affects teachers, teachers' organisations will be consulted. If it is the medical profession, the British Medical Association and other representatives of the medical profession are consulted. Some hon. Member was fishing around for some knowledge of the Secretary of State's expertise, and I can tell him that the right hon. Gentleman is a member of the learned legal profession. I hesitate to call him learned when I am discussing this Bill, but if the right hon. Gentleman's profession were being affected by a Bill, the Law Society and the Bar Council would be consulted. Now, the people of Merseyside, Tyne and Wear, west midlands, south Yorkshire and Greater London should be consulted. In so far as consultations have taken place, by means of local elections in all areas outside London—
§ Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Riverside)
Can the Secretary of State say whether there has been consultation with the Tory group on Merseyside county council, which is opposed to the abolition of the council?
§ Mr. Wareing
I am obliged to my hon. Friend for that intervention. The leaders of the Conservative group on Merseyside county council are 100 per cent. against this proposition. I do not believe that it is because some of those individuals are there to further their own ambitions—not a bit of it. Many of them have been in local government for many years and have served on city and district councils and are now serving on Merseyside county council.
Even the Liberal group on the council which has in the past expressed some reservations, is now completely opposed to what the Government are proposing. It believes that there should be some form of regional government. 953 Many Labour Members would be willing to look at the metropolitan county councils and the GLC if what they were looking at was how best to improve local government, not only in efficiency but in accountability.
All that Merseyside has from the Government is the movement away from the democratically accountable organs in our area. The city council is now at threat, largely because of the Government's rigidity. The Merseyside county council was prepared to clear up the south docks site in the city and to take action to revitalise the region, but it was ignored. Even Sir Kenneth Thompson, who was chairman of the Conservative administration in Merseyside, was opposed to the setting up of that quango, the Merseyside development corporation. He was a Minister in a Tory Government before the Tory party was taken over by Right-wing extremists.
Although many of us are hoping for the success of the International Garden Festival, which is Merseyside development corporation's child, we believe that, given the resources, the elected council would have been better able to reform and revitalise the region, not only through flower beds, trees and ornamental shrubs but by dealing with some of the real priorities.
The Government are not interested in that. I believe that they should now draw back, although I have no great hopes of that. I hope that there will be a sufficient number in their ranks here and in the other place to make them think again. I am sure that there are many on the Conservative Benches who do not have to listen to the monologue that no doubt Cabinet meetings are these days. Many of them have the guts to realise that there must be democratic accountability in a plural society; the accountability of servants to the public.
In Merseyside, there will be considerable opposition. I do not believe that trade unionists will lift a finger to ensure that democracy is stifled in our region. If the Secretary of State believes that he has a fight on with Liverpool he will have a harder one, with greater cause in some respects—the cause of democracy—when he takes on Merseyside.
§ 9 pm
§ Mr. Beaumont-Dark
I wish to make only a brief speech on this issue, because many of the points have been covered already. One of the things that people in government tend to forget, whether they are Conservative or Labour, is the effect that they have upon those in local government who do not expect to be loved, any more than anyone in politics does, but expect to be respected for their job. Let us consider the 1972 Bill that became the legislation to set up the metropolitan counties and the GLC. I do not know enough about the metropolitan councils to comment upon them now, but many of us who were involved in local government then were against the great nonsense that the Government of the day went in for.
I remember when Sir Frank Griffin, Alderman Neville Bosworth and I went to see the late Sir Graham Page and the then Secretary of State for the Environment. [AN HON. MEMBER: "That was a Conservative Government."] Does that really matter? We told them that it was nonsense to demolish the great unitary authorities of this country and dissipate the services to new county authorities. We were told that we were very biased and did not know what we were talking about. One resents that attitude if one has done something for many years. When someone has done 954 a job for six months, he is prone to say that. We were told that the new arrangements would last for generations. They have lasted, creaking and groaning, for about 10 years.
The Bill, if I may say so, was virtually drafted on the back of an envelope, because it seemed a good idea at the time. Some of us were originally against the setting up of the metropolitan counties because of the damage that it would do to the real fabric of local government in the areas with the greatest problems, such as those cities with vast populations and equally vast problems. They have become the Cinderellas of the story. The Government and others have challenged local authorities, saying that they are solving this or that problem. However, local government in the great areas such as Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds does not need to be continually interfered with by one do-gooding or politicised Minister after another.
The city of Birmingham does not want to be told that if it behaves itself it might get back the police or the fire departments after the Government have set up one of these wretched quangos. I suppose that they must be called nonelected elected quangos, as they will be nominated from elected representatives.
Many people do not understand local government, including most Ministers, although I am sure that the Secretary of State understands it better than most. I should like to refresh his memory. Let us consider what was done with the water industry. The changed industry was one of those white-hot hopes. It was thought that the water industry should be modernised and made more efficient and answerable.
My water rate, for example, has increased about 25 times since the new system came into operation. The press are no longer able to go to meetings of the Severn-Trent water authority; nor are the public allowed to attend. The authority issues statements as if from a Cabinet meeting, telling people what it wants them to know. I do not call that being answerable to the public. Yet nominated elected representatives serve on the Severn-Trent water authority. When the Birmingham part of the authority was run by the city of Birmingham water department, the water rate was so low that one can hardly remember what it cost Now the water rate is higher than my rates were only 10 years ago. Such is progress and answerability.
Continual changes are taking place in local government, whether we are changing the functions or whether the police or fire departments are being ripped away from the city of Birmingham to go into some other authority. We are told that if we behave ourselves we might get them back in due course, but if you believe that you will believe anything.
§ Mr. Beaumont-Dark
I can do so now. I am referring to amendment No. 72. I am making out a case for an inquiry. I am only pointing out all the dreadful things that have gone on that make an inquiry necessary.
Another reason why an inquiry is necessary can be seen if one thinks of the rate support grant. I remember the problems in 1979. Once again, GREA and so on were going to introduce a change for the better and stability. All that has been introduced is a Whitehall roulette where one 955 has to keep on double-guessing. If someone guesses correctly, the rules are changed because they might cost too much.
I must tell the Government, and any future Government, that if they really want local government to be as efficient and thrusting as it was many years ago before most of us were born, they must realise that the idea that somehow or other somebody sitting in an office in Whitehall can know what goes on in Manchester, Liverpool or Birmingham is a great nonsense. The great city of Birmingham was born out of people such as the Chamberlains and the Lloyds, who first came and saw an opportunity to do something good for their city. They were given the freedom to do something good for their city. They were not continually messed about with as one Minister after another thought up some idea, believing that the man in Whitehall knew best. Birmingham built itself into a great city for its people because it was allowed to be run without being continually looked at by those who frankly do not understand it and do not care for it. To most people who sit in Whitehall, it is another way of working from 9 to 5. It is another way of getting through the day until they get to a more exciting Department.
If, God help us, we are going to have change as a result of the wonderful Bill which is to come in November, the House needs to pledge itself to local government and to the people who, frankly, work as hard as we do, for virtually nothing. It must pledge that we will not keep on messing about with local government in another five or 10 years because someone else on the back of an envelope thinks that he has a wonderful idea. If we have an inquiry, we must settle the future of local government for some time ahead. It is not fair to say, as it was literally said at that famous trial in France, "It was a wicked dog. When I kicked it, it bit me." That is what we are often saying to local government today.
What is wrong with local government today is that, like a condemned prisoner, it never knows whether it will be shot in the morning or set free. The idea that this Government, and Governments before them, whether Labour or Conservative, have somehow or other to keep on messing about with local government because that will mean good service for people is not right. It will not. Let the local people decide the service that they need. Let them chuck out those of us in local government, or let them reward us. One thing that has been learnt from last Thursday is that local government is not just about rates; it is about service as well.
An inquiry would give the Government time to think through what in the end might well be a good plan. Above all, it would at least give all hon. Members a chance to set local government once and for all on what we hope is the right path. We should not keep on saying every five to 10 years, "We have some great news for you boys in local government. We in Westminster are perfect but we will mess you about in the town hall." We must start to build real confidence again. I tell the Government for certain that there are more dispirited people, whether Conservative or Labour representatives, in local government than I have ever known in my 24 years in local government. They are dispirited, not because they do not want change but because they have to keep on double-guessing.
956 In Birmingham we want to get back the calibre of the people that we had and could have again — the Chamberlains, the Lloyds, the Pritchetts, the Frank Griffins, the Neville Bosworths, the Bradbeers, and the Prices and Whattons on the Labour side. But they will not come. Today they are made the Aunt Sallies. They are made almost to be toy town figures. However, unless we get good people back into local government, we shall succeed in driving out the good, and we shall have to put others in to run local government; in the end, it will not be good for local people.
Whatever changes are made, the real reason why we need an inquiry is to enable us to pause in this helter-skelter of change for the sake of it. It may seem a good idea at the time, but I do not accept that all change is for the good. Anyone who reads the history of his own authority—in my case, Birmingham—discovers that the one thread that runs through it is that it has drawn people to serve their areas. They have been people of good will and not people who have come in just because they are politicised.
We have problems, because people have joined local government for political reasons and not just out of a wish to serve their communities. There are burdens which everyone has to bear, but if we are to get the right people back to serve their areas, they must feel at least that they know which areas they are serving, which people they are serving and which cause or causes they are serving. They cannot continue to be treated to a diatribe on the evils of those who serve local government and to complaints about the idiots who are supposed to be involved in it.
We have to change that attitude. It will be difficult, but I hope that my Government will take it to heart that, in saying that, I mean no criticism of the Bill and what they want to do. I have no joy in county councils. However, once we put through a rotten Bill, as we did in 1972, we shall underline one of the worst features of what is being proposed now, which is to get rid of what I still believe was a poor organisation but putting in its place elected, semi-elected or nominated quangos. They will not be cheaper and when, in five or 10 years, we look at the system again, we shall see no benefit from it. All the good will and all the power in our areas will have been dissipated more and more to outside bodies.
What keeps a family together is being in the pot together. That is what made Birmingham great. Under the county system the police went here, transport there, the airport to another place and planning to God knows where. People had to fill in a huge number of forms or ask 10 different Ministers to get any problem settled. It is not surprising that people serving local government decided to jack it in. Now, instead of Birmingham getting back what it should have—the police and fire services, the airport and planning responsibilities—it will be offered a vague promise that if it behaves and all turns out well, with a bit of luck it will get its police back again. That is not good enough.
We were disappointed by the Chairman's selection of amendments. For many of us, the important vote was to be whether these services, which should never have been taken away in the first place, should be restored to local authorities. No good has come from taking them away.
Let us make Birmingham a great city again, with Liverpool, when its problems have been settled, and 957 Manchester and Leeds. We have it in our power to restore local government to its former standing. If we do not do it now, we shall never do it.
Let us have an inquiry. We do not want another Redcliffe-Maud, but let us stand back and give ourselves time to do what is right for our great conurbations, which is where our problems lie. I do not speak of the counties. I do not speak of Surrey or of Sussex. The only problem there relates to the temperature of the wine or the sunshine on the grape. The problems in Birmingham are vital, as are those in Liverpool and Manchester. What is important is what happens in our cities and to our people. That is what will make the country great. It does not involve what happens in the sunshine valleys of the south. If we do not rebuild our cities and keep their people happy and contended, what price the sunlit valley?
§ Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)
The speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) was one of a traditional Conservative who believes in local government but who has been betrayed in many ways by his Government.
Yesterday Her Majesty the Queen opened the Thames barrier, which will keep Londoners out of deep water, and she paid a warm tribute to the GLC in the process. Today, with this Bill, it is the Government who are in deep water. The speeches from Conservative Back-Bench Members demonstrated that, because the Bill introduces major constitutional changes into our democratic and traditional local government, especially the abolition of the 1985 election. As many hon. Members have said, it is a serious step. No Bill laid before Parliament in recent times has sought to abolish a franchise without replacing it by another. The most moderate way in which I can describe the cancellation of the elections is that it is constitutionally and democratically unsound. At the very least, there should be an inquiry into the Government's proposals, which is why 1 support the amendments that demand such an inquiry.
The Government have claimed that they have a mandate for the proposals. They have no mandate for this Bill, as the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Pym) said on Second Reading. He reminded the Secretary of State that the Government had a mandate to abolish rates after a previous election, but when they discovered what the alternatives were, they rightly abandoned that commitment. The Government should recognise that all the alternatives to the present elected councils are worse.
The Government have not even put alternative arrangements to the electorate. They never told the electorate that the councils would be replaced not by directly elected bodies but by quangos. Had they put it to the electorate, the Government would have discovered the views of the public on quangos.
During the election campaign last year the Secretary of State and many other Conservative Members talked about savings of £120 million and more. Those figures were not substantiated then, and are still unsubstantiated. The Government put forward non-existent savings in a false prospectus in their manifesto. Nor did the manifesto talk about abolishing elections and disfranchising 13 million people to stop them voting in their areas. London will be almost the only capital city in the world that will not elect its own regional government. The results are clear, as the 958 facts are coming home to people. All the polls show that this measure and the Government's proposals are unpopular. A poll was taken by The Standard at the end of March on the abolition of the Greater London council. The number of Londoners who approve of the abolition of the GLC is 22 per cent., and the number against is 64 per cent., with 17 per cent. saying that they did not know.
In a follow-up poll in Finchley, the Prime Minister's constituency, of all voters—and these are Conservative voters — 66 per cent. were against the abolition proposals of the Government, and only 15 per cent. were in favour. On the question of the cancellation of elections, in Finchley, 68 per cent. of all voters are against the Government's proposals, and 15 per cent. are in favour of them. On the question whether Conservative voters want the GLC elections abolished, 46 per cent. are against the Government's proposals, and only 30 per cent. are in favour of them. The proposals are therefore widely unpopular with Conservative voters in London, and, indeed, in the metropolitan counties. It is not the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister who speak for Conservative voters—
§ Mr. Cowans
My hon. Friend is making a magnificent case. Does he realise that there is no necessity for the Brill, and that the Conservatives are frightened of the ballot box? While they may often mesmerise people by talking about the ballot box, when the chips are down, and the Conservatives are going to lose, they prevent the electorate from voting. Is this not the intention of the Bill?
§ Mr. Cohen
I agree with my hon. Friend and, indeed, with the comment of the hon. Member for Selly Oak, who said, "Let the people decide." That should be the philosophy on local government.
Even the Government's consultation process has been shown to be widely unpopular. As I mentioned at Question Time today, with reference to the proposals in the White Paper "Streamlining the Cities", only 91 representations in London were in favour of the Government's proposals, and the Government and their friends had to go round touting for some of those.
As is shown in the Government's published figures, which are available in the Library, 117,400 people have made representations in one form or another that they are not in favour of the abolition proposals, and that is in advance of a major petition that is due to be presented to the House later this month. I suspect that the same situation prevails in the metropolitan councils. The climate can be judged not only by opinion polls and the consultation procedures, but by the local council elections that took place last week. The local government plans of the Government were given high priority in the published manifestos, and the Government have received an overwhelming thumbs down for their proposal
Given the weight of opposition to the proposals, it is wrong for the Government to push ahead with far-reaching structural changes for local government, particularly as this has not been preceded by any deep thought. No independent or academic study has been undertaken. Before the Local Government Acts of 1963 and 1972 were enacted, Royal Commissions were appointed to give the proposals detailed consideration. No such study, even of a limited nature, as suggested by some of the amendments, has been undertaken prior to the presentation of the Bill.
959 In the White Paper "Streamlining the Cities", the Government said in support of their proposals that they would make local government
cheaper, simpler and more accessible".Those words have been used to justify all sorts of other Bills as well. However, there is a great deal of doubt about whether local government will be cheaper as a result. In addition, it cannot be argued that it will be simpler to have a proliferation of quangos and to split up the service now offered among all sorts of bodies. How can that be simpler? Furthermore, despite what the Government say about making local government more accessible to the people, getting rid of councillors means that people will not know who to go to. They will not be able to go to their former councillors.
I turn to the costs involved, as they are an important factor. Anyone who knows anything about local government knows that reorganisations invariably cost more money, not less. There are many reasons for that, such as redundancy payments, initial costs and the initial duplication that has to be sorted out. However, the Government have ignored that. Instead, they prefer to rely on the unsubstantiated "evidence"—as the Secretary of State called it—of £120 million in savings.
At no stage did the Secretary of State produce any facts to back up his argument. What has his Department done? Does it have any detailed evidence? If not, why not? If so, why has that evidence not been presented for Members to Parliament to scrutinise? Instead, the right hon. Gentleman wants to rely on the Price Waterhouse study, which was commissioned by six Conservative councils, two of which have now withdrawn. The study was carried out in four days, so how can that be the detailed analysis that is supposed to be the foundation of a fundamental reform of local government?
§ Mr. Corbyn
My hon. Friend is underselling himself, as he has vast experience of local government both as a councillor and as an employee. Does he not believe that the elected representatives of a local authority are much better at keeping a check on spending and on the objectivity of local government than those employed by a quango, who may often have the same interests as those appointed to that quango?
§ Mr. Cohen
Yes, that is certainly so. My experience of local government leads me to accept that view.
Throughout, the Secretary of State has said that removing a tier of government will mean automatic savings for local government, but that is not true. He argued that before when, as Secretary of State for Social Services, he abolished the area health authorities. He argued then that that would cut a tier of government and automatically reduce bureaucracy and expenditure. But on 14 November 1983, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, in reply to a Conservative Member, admitted that the number of full-time administrative and clerical staff in the NHS had risen by 600 nationally between September 1981 and June 1983, or during and after the period of reorganisation. Therefore, the Secretary of State cannot argue that getting rid of a tier automatically means more savings. The opposite is often true, as one finds more and more bureaucrats in these proliferating quangos. The real evidence is to be found in the Coopers and Lybrand report. That is the only detailed 960 study that we know of, unless the Department has done something. The best summary of the costs argument can be found in the Surveyor magazine.
Let us analyse some of the key points in the article on the Coopers and Lybrand report. It begins:
No net savings are likely to be made through the proposed abolition of metropolitan county councils and reorganisation could produce significant extra costs. The verdict is that of management consultants.
The article continues:
It is perhaps the most important document to have appeared on the question of abolition costs, being the only independent, factual study based on information from all the met counties as well as nearly half the met districts. Coopers and Lybrand's 52-page report presents two sets of estimates . . . But even the more optimistic of the two—assuming a high degree of cooperation between the districts in each met county area—produces a final total of between £4 million pa saved and £9.5 million pa in extra costs as a result of change.The article states that the change will involve the loss of between 450 and 550 jobs and continues:
Coopers and Lybrand's second estimate takes a less optimistic—and in the consultants' opinion, more realistic—view, assuming that the met district will achieve a more limited degree of co-operation. They comment:'We think it very unlikely that a uniformly high level of cooperation would be achieved …' the total cost of the Government's changes would be much higher, ranging from extra costs of £36 million pa to £61 million pa.
That summary of the report blows the Government's analysis of costs sky-high. The Secretary of State should recognise that. I believe that he has recognised it, because the article also states that he withdrew from co-operating with the compilers of the report after the first draft was made available.
Not only is cost involved, but disruption, standards of service and fragmentation. NALGO, which should know about such things, said:
Abolition of these authorities will lead to an inefficient hotch-potch of quangos, joint boards and voluntary joint committees. The fragmentation and duplication that will result has led many people to believe that the Government's proposal is based not on making local government more efficient but on removing democratically-elected councils to whose policy the Government is hostile.In addition, the important strategic role of local government will be lost and will not be replaced. The Government are on a loser.
The Secretary of State is taking unprecedented powers in the clause. Such powers have never been taken by a Secretary of State except in wartime or emergency legislation. The Secretary of State will have the power to modify the Local Government Act 1972 or the Representation of the People Act 1983. He will have unfettered powers, subject to a mere statutory instrument, to meddle with local authority elections.
The Bill is also about abolishing elections. The Government are setting a grave precedent. They are moving down the slippery slope taken by Chile, Argentina, Pakistan and other totalitarian states that have abolished elections. An inquiry, as proposed in the amendments, is the bare minimum that would be acceptable; otherwise the whole process that the Secretary of State has embarked upon can be seen as nothing more than political expediency: the Government do not like councils being controlled by parties of a different political complexion so they intend to abolish those councils.
At the beginning of my remarks I referred to the Thames barrier. That is an important engineering feat. The 961 contraption will turn round and almost stand on its head when it is needed. The Conservatives, who are supposed to support local democracy, will be standing on their heads if they support the Bill because it is about drowning regional democratic local government.
§ Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
Many points of view have been put forward but it is right that I should put on record the views of the people of south Yorkshire and in particular of my constituents. If the Secretary of State will not take notice of the arguments made by my right hon. and hon. Friends, he should take notice of the arguments of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark), who has put forward clearly and without doubt the feelings of true Conservatism about local government and local democracy. Although we are not on the same side I share his views.
It is sad to hear some people say that we should not have elections because they will only cost money. It comes back to the old saying that when money comes into it, democracy flies through the window. If money is the only factor to be taken into account, the Secretary of State should consider the alternative of extending the term of councils for a further 12 months until their abolition, if it has to take place.
We should consider seriously the possibility of holding an inquiry before the Government repeat the terrible mistake of the 1970s. We heard the same arguments then. We were told that reorganisation would lead to more efficiency and a reduction in rates. For a long time there was more efficiency but there was a rise in rates. On top of that, when things are starting to go right, the Government bring forward another Bill to abolish the rights of people to elect their representatives.
§ Mr. Cowans
Perhaps my hon. Friend will cast his mind in a certain direction. Is it not remarkable that the Government make the case that the removal of a tier of local government will save vast amounts of money? If we follow the logic, why have the Government not included the shire county councils in the Bill? Have they not proposed the removal of the shires because those councils agree with the Government policies?
§ Mr. McKay
I agree with my hon. Friend. It must appear to people outside Parliament that this is not being done for the sake of efficiency or to save money but only because the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and the Government do not agree with the councils, and because the councils have refused to toe the line the Prime Minister wanted. Therefore, we come back to the old adage that if the Government cannot get the councils to agree, they will throw them out. The economic argument is just a sham.
The purpose of the amendments is to try to persuade the Secretary of State and the Committee that it would be wrong to cancel the 1985 elections until an independent inquiry into metropolitan local government has taken place. There should be an inquiry into its workings, its financial position and the services it provides. What will happen to those services?
The councils are progressive by nature and not unresponsive to change. They accept that there is room for improvement. They would welcome an inquiry based upon a fair assessment of the current system. Such an inquiry 962 would give the Secretary of State an opportunity to prove his words at the Conservative party conference, when he said:
I believe the burden of proof is upon the man who advocates change. If he does not satisfy that burden of proof that change should not be made.That is a gut statement, and the right hon. Gentleman should uphold it now.
Previous reorganisations have followed wide-ranging inquiries. Information has been collected in public and has provided a rational basis for evaluation. After all, the Greater London council has been established for less than 20 years, and the metropolitan counties for less than 10 years. There is no need for change now, but if there is to be change there must be an inquiry first. An inquiry should be held if only to determine where the Government went wrong last time. They advocated change and introduced the metropolitan counties and the GLC. What is to happen to the service that they provide? People vote for those services at the elections.
What will be the position of the selected borough councillors? Will there be enough of them, or does the Secretary of State believe that there are so many of them not doing any work now that they can take on additional work? What is to happen to the areas that those councillors represent? Their time will be taken up looking after county council problems. Borough councillors already face problems with their employers and may find it difficult to take on additional duties. All those matters should be considered by an inquiry.
Where will the money come from for the quangos, upon whom will they be precepted, and how many bodies will be precepted? What additional staff will be needed? In any reorganisation, the staff is not decreased, it is increased. I have been through three reorganisations of the National Coal Board and one local government reorganisation, and I know that there is always an increase rather than a decrease in staff.
Has the Secretary of State taken into consideration other matters of local concern—for example, the effect of such a Bill on the local economy? If county councils are abolished, what will happen to the local economy? Would not the right hon. Gentleman do better to ask the Audit Commission, which has extensive powers and influence, to study the effectiveness, efficiency and economy of local authorities? Why not ask that body to publish a report before any decision is reached?
It is not only hon. Members and councillors who believe that the Secretary of State is wrong—the general public believe that also. One of my constituents, Mr. Nicholas Wood, wrote to the Secretary of State but unfortunately has not received a reply. He said:
'Costly and inefficient' has been replaced by"—the Secretary of State now saying that the councils—
found it impossible to establish a proper role for themselves".My constituent asks whether the Secretary of State has asked local people for their opinion. The right hon. Gentleman is taking away the means to ask people what they think by the abolition of elections. Mr. Wood says that the Secretary of State makes it
impossible for them to comment on your opinion by withdrawing their democratic right to vote on it in 1985.He accuses the Secretary'of State of some of the things of which I also accuse him, principally that the abolition proposals are a political move.
963 The Yorkshire Baptist Association has looked at this and says that however it looks at the position as presented by the Secretary of State and the Government, it still thinks it is undemocratic
to scrap local government elections in 1985 and to create more Joint Boards and Quangos at a greater distance from the electors.When the Secretary of State claims that his proposals are in line with democracy and will bring power back to the people, his words drop strangely from his lips. In fact, he is taking away the rights of the people. The Secretary of State can put matters right by having a proper inquiry before a decision is made.
§ Mr. Cowans
Has my hon. Friend considered offering a challenge to the Secretary of State? If the right hon. Gentleman will accept the amendment and hold elections, Labour Members will stand or fall by the ballot box, of which the Conservatives are frightened.
§ Mr. McKay
I agree with my hon. Friend that if the right hon. Gentleman held elections we would be prepared to stand or fall by the ballot box. In the south Yorkshire area, through the ballot box, the people are returning more Labour councillors with large majorities to the local councils and the county council. The public have shown their desire for local government to remain democratic and not to be run by central Government. They want the right to vote for what they consider to be the needs of their area. The Secretary of State is removing that right from them and he and the Government will for ever be condemned for what they are doing.
§ Mr. Heath
I expressed my view on Second Reading and followed my expression of view with my vote. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sir I. Gilmour) remarked that the Government would win the vote but that they had already lost the argument, and that they had lost it on Second Reading. The fact that the Government have lost the argument has not been due in large measure to the efforts of the Opposition.
At any time in the last 100 years, any question affecting local government has been a major political event. The Opposition asked for this measure, as a constitutional Bill, to be taken on the Floor of the House. Yet, from what we have seen today, it might just as well have been taken in Committee upstairs. No more than the normal membership of a Committee have been sitting on the Opposition Benches throughout the debate, and we have not seen a sign of their leaders on the Front Bench, apart from the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), who moved the amendment. I am talking about the political battles that an Opposition are expected to wage in this Chamber, not of Opposition Members looking to Members of the governing party to support issues for which my party has, I believe, always stood.
Here we have a situation in which a Government are not only cancelling local elections but are terminating the services of all those who are councillors in the GLC and in the metropolitan councils and, at the same time, are imposing an appointed form of government over the whole of these areas, and in the course of doing that are changing the political complexion of the whole of the capital city.
964 Is that not a matter for political activity? But what do we see from Opposition Members, except a long-drawn-out debate which has emptied the Press Gallery, which will not be covered tomorrow—
§ Mr. Heath
Because of me, not because of Opposition Members, who have put off a Division till a time when nobody will be interested in the result. That is how Labour Members show themselves to be the most incompetent Opposition for a century. That is the situation in Parliament today, not only on this issue but on practically every question with which the country is faced.
I have some positive matters to put to the Secretary of State because this is a serious situation and tremendous matters are at stake. Local government in itself is of vital importance, but the services which our constituents—the people of the country—get are also of vital importance.
It is a matter of the needs and requirements of the British people being met through local government and not only a matter of money, though that is important. What is the best way of meeting these needs? No effective arguments have been deployed on that question and we have not had the information with which any Government should provide the House of Commons prior to it reaching decisions.
We should remember that we are discussing an amendment which provides for an inquiry to take place. To me it is no answer to say that the Opposition have said hitherto that they did not want an inquiry. That is of no concern to me. What matters is what the Conservative party has said in the past. We recognise that local government needs improvement from time to time; that is why provision was made in the 1972 legislation for a review of the new form of local government after 10 years. We all know that it takes time for any institution to settle down, especially governmental institutions, and 10 years was a reasonable period in which to review the new form of local government.
The Government had four years in their previous period of office to prepare for the review, but nothing was done. Why was nothing done? The answer is that the Government were not thinking of doing anything. We all know now that the proposals for local government were put into the Conservative party's manifesto at the last moment, without any proper consultation with the party or anyone concerned. Ever since, the Government have been trying to work out some alternative to replace that which they are now proposing to abolish. We all know that every civil servant in Whitehall who is concerned with this process is worried to death about the consequences. They, as well as members of political parties, have great experience of governmental administration.
Conservative Members who are urging that an inquiry should take place are not doing so to delay progress in local government. They are doing it so that the real facts that are found by an impartial body are made available and so that the solution of the problems and the improvement of local government can be found and made after a proper consideration of the problems. We all recognise that institutions need to change and to be improved.
The local government change of 1962 which involved the GLC was brought about by a Conservative Government. The 1972 change was brought about by another Conservative Government, and it had two main 965 purposes. The first was to create a form of local government which would be able to meet the needs of a modern country. Those needs where quite obviously not being met at at the time by the then units of government. That is why a commission was set up. Everyone realised what was lacking. It is still necessary to have an overall body which can deal with the problems which individual London boroughs are quite incapable of resolving. Anyone who represents a London constituency knows of the frictions between local government units in London. The units will not work together to solve the problems which need to be dealt with on an overall scale.
The Secretary of State said on Second Reading that it was wrong to cite the reports that had been made before previous legislation was introduced, because we took no notice of them. That was untrue of the Herbert report, which led to legislation involving the GLC. We did not take all its recommendations into account, especially in respect of ILEA, but everything was on the table for all to see, evaluate, discuss and take into account when we were dealing with the ensuing legislation.
In 1972 we did not accept all the recommendations of the then report, but we accepted a large part of it. We created the metropolitan councils to deal with the overall questions. The report said that institutions would be required to deal with those issues. It said also that a large and complex urban organisation had to have an overall body to deal with transport, planning and similar activities. Such bodies are still required. It is my view that they should be formed by directly elected representatives and not by another form of organisation.
The mistakes that we made in the 1970–74 Government were in the bodies which were created and appointed and not in those which were elected. My experience of social services organisations that are appointed is that they do not work as well as they should and that they do not work as well as elected bodies that are performing other functions. That is why I strongly opposed any measures leading to indirectly elected or appointed bodies, or joint bodies of various kinds. I do not believe that they will be effective. The purpose of an inquiry is to get the Secretary of State out of his present position, which is leading to a disastrous result. The GLC elections will be cancelled and the existing council appointments will be terminated. There will be an indirectly appointed body before we come to the new arrangement.
My right hon. Friend said that there was great confusion on the question of precedent, but he is causing the confusion by trying to draw an artificial distinction between cancelling the elections and what happens afterwards. My right hon. Friend said that he was following precedent in cancelling the elections, but there has never been a precedent in which elections were cancelled and the period of office of councillors was terminated at the same time. The confusion is occurring because my right hon. Friend will not recognise that these matters cannot be separated. That is a plain fact. It is an artificial intellectual performance to try to separate those elements.
If my right hon. Friend expects to give an air of respectability to his actions by claiming to follow precedent, he is kidding no one. Everyone knows exactly what is proposed, and people do not accept it. In continually putting the emphasis on following precedent, my right hon. Friend is undermining his credibility. In future, he should say that he is proposing something that 966 has not been done before—to cancel elections and at the same time terminate councillors' appointments. He may then impose by parliamentary' diktat an indirectly elected body, which may not emerge because councillors refuse to serve on it, that will change the political complexion of the capital city.
I beg my right hon. Friend not to keep on saying that he is following precedent or even trying to prove that he is following precedent for one part of the process. That no longer has any beneficial effect for him. An inquiry would get my right hon. Friend out of the present unsatisfactory position of producing a Bill which, we are told, asks us to "buy a pig in a poke". We shall be landed with a dog's breakfast. That is evident from all the discussions.
The position is constantly changing. The education authority will now be directly elected. Those changes are not satisfactory to the people of London. It is said that Londoners are urging greater speed in carrying on this process. For 22 of the 34 years in which I have represented my constituency, it has been part of the GLC. Before then, the constituency belonged to the county. It will have no opportunity of returning to the county, if that is its choice, after the abolition of the GLC.
My constituents are not urging the abolition of the GLC. They say that it may need reforming, but they want an elected body in its place. Every public opinion poll shows that that is so—not just by a trend, but by an overwhelming majority. I beg the Secretary of State to recognise the disastrous course that he is pursuing, to persuade his colleagues to face up to that fact and to have a proper inquiry to deal with the future. The inquiry need not take years, if its terms of reference are to bring about an improvement of the existing organisations. If that were done, I believe that we would have a much better basis on which to work.
My right hon. Friend said that bringing the service of councillors to an end is a different matter because it can be handed over to existing boroughs. That is not the case. Again, that is a fallacious argument. If this matter were transferred to the boroughs as they exist today, the result might be catastrophic, but at least my right hon. Friend would have an argument. That is not what is happening. We are told that this aspect will be transferred to a variety of bodies. We shall have an interim period.
We have already discussed the interim period on Second Reading, so I must not go over all the disadvantages again. There may very well be chaos. The Secretary of State can say that he is worried that, if councillors continue until the new organisation comes into being, some of them might not choose to work with him, or in general. He must weigh that against the chaos of this interim period, in which councillors may not want to serve and he will not get them to serve. But if they serve, they will not know anything about this form of government and will not be able to carry out their duties effectively, and he must consider the effect of that on the general position. I ask the Secretary of State to weigh that up carefully if he persists in this course. What is open to him—
§ It being Ten o'clock, THE CHAIRMAN left the Chair to report Progress and ask leave to sit again.
§ Committee report Progress.