- `.—(1) Where an area committee has been established by a council in accordance with an approved decentralisation scheme—
- (a) the council shall not, except with the agreement of the committee, abolish the committee or alter any arrangements in force with respect to the committee which were made in accordance with the scheme as originally approved or which have subsequently been agreed with the committee; and
- (b) nothing in section 101(4) of the 1972 Act (power of local authority to exercise functions otherwise discharged by committee) shall be taken to authorise the council to exercise any functions which are to be discharged by the committee, except as provided for by the scheme.
- (2) Every decentralisation scheme shall include provision, to be given effect to by the standing orders of the council concerned, for the majority required in order for any suspending resolution to be passed to be such majority greater than a simple majority as may be specified by the scheme.
- (3) In subsection (2) "suspending resolution", in relation to a decentralisation scheme, means a resolution to suspend any of the arrangements in force with respect to an area committee established in accordance with the scheme. '.—[Sir Wyn Roberts.]
§ Brought up, and read the First time.
§ The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Sir Wyn Roberts)
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
With this it will be convenient to discuss also the following: Government new clauses 15 and 18.
Amendment No. 2, in clause 27, page 20, line 38, leave out from beginning to end of line 3 on page 22.
Government amendments Nos. 54 and 55.
Amendment No. 1, in clause 28, page 22, line 4, leave out from beginning to
`end of line 12 on page 23.Government amendments Nos. 56 to 58.
Amendment No. 25, in page 22, line 34, leave out
'sections 102(3) of the 1972 Act (Power to include persons who are not members of the local authority concerned)'and insert 'section'.
Amendment No. 26, in page 22, leave out line 42.
Amendment No. 27, in page 23, line 4, at end insert—`(f) an area committee may co-opt additional persons to serve as members of the committee, but such persons shall not have the right to vote on any resolution of the committee.'.
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
The amendments and new clauses represent our response to the views expressed by hon. Members in Committee about the organisation of area committees once they have been established. The deletion of provisions from clause 28 and their replacement by three new clauses, each dealing with a different aspect of the matter, is intended to facilitate reading and understanding.
New clause 14 for the most part reproduces the safeguards for area committees that were built into the clause as it stands. However, it has a new provision which adds a further safeguard in that it disapplies section 101(4) of the Local Government Act 1972—relating to the power of a local authority to exercise functions otherwise discharged by a committee—except as provided for in the scheme. Altogether, we believe that the safeguards will enable committees with the necessary degree of independence to be created and ensure that they can be abolished, their functions changed or their decisions overturned only with their agreement.
700 New clause 15 fulfils our commitment to provide for the co-option of additional persons to serve as members of an area committee. We all agree that it will be useful for committees to be able to call on the expertise and experience of people who are not members of the committee by virtue of their having been elected from the area covered by the committee.
The new clause also makes provision for an area committee to arrange for the discharge of any its functions by a local authority other than the authority which made the scheme—if authorised to do so in the decentralisation scheme. That will enable an area committee to discharge a service delegated to it in the same way as a full council might exercise that responsibility. In practice, we expect that power to be used mainly to enable area committees to arrange for community councils to discharge certain of their functions for them.
§ Mr. Wigley
There are two matters on which I should be grateful for the Minister's response. First, will the co-opted members of an area committee count towards a quorum? Secondly, will the Minister confirm that the area committee can be a unit in its own right for the purposes of language schemes under the Welsh Language Act 1993?
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
I can certainly confirm the second point. Of course, it will depend on the committee's decision. As for a quorum, I should have thought that it must comprise the voting members of the committee, and the co-opted members would not be taken into account for that purpose.
§ Mr. Alex Carlile
With regard to the second point raised by the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), will the Minister explain how a body that has no legal status whatever, as was confirmed in Committee, can be a unit for the purposes of Welsh language schemes? If a body can be a unit for the purposes of Welsh language schemes, why can it not be a unit for the purposes of making contracts and incurring legal liability?
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
We went over this ground at considerable length in Committee. When it comes to the question of languages and the provision of a translation service, I should have thought that a committee of a council could take its own decisions in such a matter. That would certainly fall within its purview as a committee because, after all, it is to do with the committee's procedure.
§ Mr. Rowlands
Pursuing the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile), will the Minister tell the House whether any of the amendments and new clauses clarify the legal liability and the legal personalities of the area committees? The Minister is absolutely right in saying that we went over the matter in Committee. As a result, we found confusion and muddle in the Government's mind and in their attitude towards the whole subject of area committees. Will the area committees be liable for their own actions?
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
I am continuing to describe the committees. If the hon. Gentleman bears with me, I shall explain further what the new clauses do. They supplement clause 28 considerably in that we are adding new clauses.
New clause 18 clarifies the position relating to the setting up of sub-committees of area committees and the 701 exercise of the responsibilities delegated to them. The clause also provides for co-option of additional persons to sub-committees, to serve as members.
Our proposals in new clauses 15 and 18 for co-option to area committees and their sub-committees fulfil—I believe —the undertakings given to the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) in the Standing Committee. In the light of our new clauses, I hope that he will be able to withdraw his amendments.
§ Mr. Ron Davies
With the greatest of respect, the Minister is describing the provisions in new clauses 15 and 18, which we can all read and understand. The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) and my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) asked very pertinent and precise questions and the Minister said that he would deal with them in a moment. There is nothing in the new clauses—
§ Mr. Davies
It is no good the Minister saying no, because he did. He said—I noted it—that he would have thought that a sub-committee could make a decision. It takes a great stretch of the imagination for the Minister to come to the startling conclusion that a sub-committee can take a decision.
I should be grateful if the Minister could answer the question asked by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery. Can an area committee take a decision relating to a language scheme or anything else that is contrary the declared policy of the principal council? That matter is important in defining the relationship between such committees and the principal councils and is at the heart of the new clauses. The Minister should deal with that question rather than going into the realms of waffle.
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
I thought that I had dealt with all the interventions to the satisfaction of those hon. Members who intervened, but I shall say more about the quorum. It is common sense that the establishment of a quorum in a body that has voting and co-opted members is a matter for the voting members to sort out.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) amplified the question on the language issue raised by the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) by asking about a situation in which there was conflict between a committee and the main authority. Again, those are matters that should properly be covered by the scheme for decentralisation that the authority will submit for our approval.
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
I have not forgotten the point made by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney.
§ Mr. Ron Davies
The matter is of central importance. We debated it at great length in Committee and the Minister undertook to clarify it. He said that such matters could be resolved under the scheme, but who will approve 702 the scheme? The Minister will do so. If he is asking us to accept the new clauses, we ought to have a statement on the central relationship between an area committee and the principal council. Is the Minister going to approve schemes that give area committees powers to take decisions on matters of policy or administration?
§ Mr. Davies
Indeed, or money. The list is endless. Will the Minister approve schemes under which decisions can be taken that are contrary to the principles or the policies of the principal council? That question defines the relationship between committees and principal councils. Under powers given by the Bill, the Minister will approve such schemes, so what is in his mind? It is no good his saying that he thought that the scheme would cover it. What is he going to do about it?
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
I shall explain many of the points that are raised, if only the House will be patient.
Let me deal with the issue of co-optees. We believe that members of an area committee should be fully accountable for their decisions and that generally only councillors elected for that area should have the right to vote. We have had to make an exception, however, in the case of representatives of churches that appoint foundation governors of voluntary schools. Under the Education Act 1993, the Secretary of State can direct that such representatives be appointed to committees dealing with education and that they should have voting rights. If an area committee has education functions—we made it clear in Committee that only minor education functions might be delegated—it is necessary for the voting rights of church representatives to be safeguarded as we have done in the new clauses.
Hon. Members have mentioned funding and other issues. The Government propose that the decentralisation scheme should set out how an area committee's budget would be calculated and specify a minimum proportion of an authority's revenue budget to be delegated to the area committee. The proportion would vary from scheme to scheme, depending on the functions proposed for each area committee. Where the whole of an authority was covered by area committees, the minimum amount to be delegated might total one third of the authority's budget.
The scheme would guarantee the minimum proportion, unless the area committee and the authority agreed that it should move upwards or downwards in the light of experience or changing circumstances. Within the block resources delegated to it, the area committee would set its spending priorities and be able to build up reserves and retain revenue from services for which it was responsible, such as car parking.
On capital finance, applications for supplementary credit approvals—SCAs—would be co-ordinated by the authority, although area committees could play a role.
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
If the hon. and learned Gentleman would allow me, this is an important matter and I have not finished dealing with it, as it is not simple.
As I said, applications for supplementary credit approvals would be co-ordinated by the authority, although area committees could play a significant role in preparing 703 bids for their areas. Schemes could provide for area committees to have responsibility for SCA-supported projects for functions delegated to them and could receive an agreed allocation of capital resources for those functions —from basic credit approvals and reserves.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary offered in Committee to consider whether area committees should have powers to influence the levels of council tax. We can see that such powers have their attractions and would reinforce the accountability of councillors to their electors. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State considered the matter carefully, in consultation with colleagues in the Department of the Environment and the Treasury. It has become clear that such powers would involve substantial legal difficulties, which we have been unable to resolve. I am sorry to have to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans) that, regretfully, we have concluded that we should not amend the Bill on that issue.
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
Perhaps, before I return to the question asked by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney and touched on by the hon. Member for Caerphilly, I had better give way to the hon. and learned Gentleman.
§ Mr. Carlile
I do not want the Minister's reference to car parks to pass without asking him to inform the House what would happen, for example, to the reserve built up from the enormous revenue earned from the Welshpool Smithfield car park? Let us suppose that the area committee put the reserve into a bank deposit account and that there was a fund to spend. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, under the scheme that the Government are providing, the area committee—even if it wanted to enter into a contract to put up a hut for the car park attendant—could not do so because it would have no power to do so? The contract for the car park attendant's hut, using the area committee's money, would have to be entered into by the unitary authority which might not want the car park attendant to have a hut. Is not that factually and legally correct, and how does the Minister defend it?
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
We have said time and again that it is a matter for the area committees, and the authorities must draft schemes for the delegation of functions to the area committees. The schemes and the functions delegated will vary considerably, and it is for the area committees and their respective authorities to decide what kind of scheme is acceptable to them within the parameters that I am laying down at the moment.
I know what the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) is after—he wants us to declare that the area committees are corporate bodies. But we have made it clear that they are similar to other authority committees. Committees that exist under the present county council system, for example, do not have the corporate status that he is after.
We are going over matters which were, I thought, dealt with adequately in Committee. I have already made the point that committees of local authorities take decisions now on matters for which responsibility has been delegated to them. No one worries now about accountability or responsibility on the part of those committees.
§ Mr. Wigley
I did not serve on the Committee and, to that extent, I am perhaps a little bit at a loss compared with 704 my colleagues. [HON. MEMBERS: "Not at all."] That may be the case. What happens if an area committee, by virtue of an act of commission or omission, finds itself in a surchargeable position? Are only the councillors on the area committee are liable in law, or is the full authority?
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
Councillors are responsible for their own actions. Members of the area committees are also members of the full authority and, therefore, as members of the full authority, they might be liable to surcharge. The co-opted members obviously would not carry the same responsibility.
I also emphasise that, as with the present system where the main authority is responsible for its committee's activities, so it would be under our proposed system. The main authority would be responsible for the actions of the members of its area committees who, of course, are also members of the authority.
§ Mr. Rowlands
That is an amazing statement. It was prefaced by a lengthy statement describing the enormous power of area committees. The committees could have a percentage of the revenues of the local authority and of the block grants of certain amounts of capital expenditure. Is the Minister saying that, if those funds are misappropriated, are not spent in a proper manner and become subject to a district audit, the principal council becomes collectively liable and responsible?
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
I want to make it clear that, as with the present system, individual councillors will be responsible under the new system for any erroneous decisions which result in their surcharge.
§ Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen)
It has been four years since we first started thinking about local government reorganisation in Wales. It is certainly three or four years since the Government issued consultative papers, Green Papers, White Papers, Bills of one sort and Bills of another. Here we are at the very last stage of our proceedings in the House of Commons, and we are still muddled, confused and besotted by the question of area committees. I suspect that if the Committee stage and the stages in the House went on any further, the situation would get worse day by day.
Frankly, I think that this is the most disappointing part of the Bill. It has been conceived in haste and as a direct result of the Government's attempt—in the Minister of State's own words in the Standing Committee—to pacify people in the Conservative party, and mainly the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans). Because the Minister could not deliver—or did not want to deliver, for whatever reason—separate unitary authorities in rural mid-Wales, the Government tried to cobble together this area committee nonsense to appease and to pacify.
The problem is that the Government are then visiting on the whole of local government in Wales a confused, unaccountable and badly thought-out system of local government. I wish to speak briefly to the amendments standing in the names of myself and my hon. Friends which would delete the whole area committee part of the Bill. Frankly, I am convinced that anybody involved in the working and running of local authorities in Wales—county councillors or district councillors—will live to see the folly of this part of the legislation.
We have been landed with a two-tier system when the whole purpose of the Bill is to create a unitary system of 705 local government. We might disagree on some aspects of that, but the idea of having a single tier was the attraction which the Government have tried to sell to the people of wales. But as soon as they came to a political problem —a handful of the majority in one constituency in the middle of rural Wales—the whole reform of local government had to be put out of gear.
There might be some sense in it if the Government said that area committees would be placed in all parts of Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), who spoke well in the earlier debate, could have area committees in his constituency in Splott, Grangetown and other parts of Cardiff in the same way as there can now apparently be committees in Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and mid-Wales.
§ Mr. Murphy
Indeed. Because the system has been born out of trying to make concessions, only parts of Wales will actually have the benefit—if that is what it is—of area committees. One cannot run a system of local government in Wales unless that system is applicable to all parts. It does not make sense, and it will lead to disharmony and administrative chaos as the years roll by.
The purpose of the Bill is to avoid having to come back here in 20 years' time, or whenever it might be, to change local government all over again. After all, it was just 21 years ago that the former Secretary of State of Wales, Lord Walker, was ultimately responsible for the system that is now disappearing. We may have to come back a damn sight earlier than that if the proposals are put into effect, because they simply will not work.
Look at the confusion behind the Minister's comments about finance. No Department, with all its experts—whether the Treasury, the Department of the Environment or the Welsh Office—could come up a solution to enable the over-complex system of local government finance to apply to area committees. The capping procedures are so complicated and standard spending assessments so difficult to understand that they simply cannot apply to area committees.
The Minister of State's answer on surcharge was totally inadequate. We cannot pass laws that mean that members of local authorities who become members of area committees and put up their hands to vote are not sure whether they will be liable to surcharge. Even worse, if those individuals are members of the parent authority, they may be made liable to surcharge when they have had nothing to do with the decisions of those area committees.
When we debate Powys, the thrust of the discussion will be about accountability and bringing local government back to the people—certainly to those in mid-Wales, which seems to have been the birthplace of the stuff about area committees. The idea was to maintain community links and civic pride. One simply cannot get anyone in mid-Wales or anywhere else in the Principality enthused about civic pride via an area committee. One has to have a council, with a chairman or mayor, which is properly elected, because only those bodies can attract such civic pride, awareness and enthusiasm. An area committee, or whatever one may wish to call it, is not a council, which is what people require in mid-Wales.
706 For that reason, the first vote on new clause 11 was designed to give people in every part of Wales the opportunity to decide through a proper plebiscite whether they wanted the proposed new local authority for their area. That is the only way to do it. The only way in which permanence and stability can be given to local government is through the establishment of councils, proper statutory bodies, not the nonsense of area committees, which will satisfy no one. Such committees will not last two years should the Bill reach the statute book this year.
No mention has been made of a possible deadlock. When we discussed Government new clause 13, the Minister referred specifically to safeguards. We want not safeguards but assurances that when there is an irreversible deadlock between an area committee and its parent authority it will be broken. We want to know who will do that. Will it be the Secretary of State, the council itself or some other body such as the proposed new association? Who knows? It seems to me that the possibility of deadlock and conflict between those authorities is by no means remote. We were told that the whole purpose of the Bill was to remove the conflict, deadlock and disharmony that could exist between county councils and district councils.
There are ways to decentralise local government, but that is not what we have been offered. The Minister should consider what his Scottish colleagues have done. The Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill offers workable, sensible decentralisation.
A number of Welsh local authorities have already set up administrative decentralisation schemes for housing and other responsibilities. Let us encourage that. No mention has been made of our community councils, which are properly elected bodies. They could be given more powers and finance to do what is suggested should be the responsibility of area committees. Far more sensible measures than the Bill could have been adopted.
Nothing has been done because the Government want to improve the system of local democracy, create a better one or improve administration. We were offered area committees simply because the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor and others wanted to have a different system of local government in mid-Wales. The Government would not agree with their proposals. Doubtless, the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor will talk at length about Powys. The trouble with him is that he wanted it all his own way. He was willing to take all and give nothing. That is why the Minister cannot come up with a solution for mid-Wales. What we have been offered does not represent that solution, and it most certainly does not represent a proper system of local government throughout the Principality.
§ Mr. Jonathan Evans
I shall have something further to say when we discuss the boundaries within Powys, but at this stage I shall confine my remarks to the proposals on area committees. If, as the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) suggested, those proposals were an attempt to pacify me, they have singularly failed, as he will well know.
Throughout our discussions, I have recognised that the Government have made a genuine attempt to create a system in which powers can be exercised at a local level. I have been pleased to see the flexibility that has been shown by the Government and by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the many announcements about the functions to be delivered at local level.
707 As I made clear in Committee, I considered that it was one thing to create to create a system of local government in which we allowed functions to be devolved to area committees or shire committees, or even council committees. It is also important that we should have an accountable system of local government. The hon. Member for Torfaen spoke about accountability. To my mind, the crucial element of accountability is financial. It is for that reason that I have strongly pressed the case for allowing unitary authorities either to be set up within Powys or to establish area committees with real financial accountability. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his efforts to carry that further, but it would appear that he is unable to say anything positive in that regard today. I am bound to say, therefore, that the prescription that we are offered for area committees is flawed to that extent.
I am deeply concerned about the proposals that are contained in Government amendment No. 54, because the number of councillors who are required to trigger a request for a decentralisation scheme is to be raised from 10 to 15. In the House, we often discuss particular difficulties in our respective parts of Wales. Often, there is a degree of generosity between hon. Members, which is not always evident among those on the Front Benches. On many occasions, I have heard the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) talk about adult unemployment in his constituency. I appreciate that difficulty and I do not dismiss it. I have heard the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) also speak about similar difficulties. Whatever our political differences, those difficulties are faced by communities that we know.
In rural Wales, one of our problems is sparsity of population. That is understood even by some Opposition Members. Nowhere is that problem more starkly demonstrated than in the proposal to raise the number of councillors required to trigger a decentralisation scheme from 10 to 15. In the Government proposals for Powys, the number of councillors that they suggest should be elected to represent the whole of Radnorshire is 17. If one is to trigger a decentralisation scheme in Radnorshire, one would have to get 15 of the 17 councillors to approve of it. That proportion is not far short of 90 per cent.
In common with many others in the Chamber, I have been on the hustings in the past few weeks. I do not think any hon. Member present, even the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies), who may still be drunk with the excitement of his success last Thursday, if I can put it like that, would ever aspire to get a majority of 90 per cent. That is the target set to activate a decentralisation scheme in Radnorshire. I am bound to say that I doubt whether that would be achieved.
Of the other two authorities in Powys, 38 councillors are allowed for in Montgomeryshire under the guidance issued. Of those 38, 15 represents but 39 per cent. of those who are able to form a judgment. I am absolutely sure that, despite all the criticisms that have been made about area committees, Montgomeryshire and Breconshire will request a decentralisation scheme. Although 52 per cent. of the councillors would need to approve such a scheme in Breconshire, 90 per cent. of the councillors would need to approve one in Radnorshire.
How can such an operation work in practice? If a decentralisation scheme is approved in one part of Powys, and Radnorshire, for instance, cannot secure the 15 councillors required, who will make the local planning 708 decisions which my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said in Committee should be decided at a local level? His statement was very much welcomed in Radnorshire, where we have had a number of wind farm applications and people feel that Radnorshire should decide whether those applications should proceed. We foresee Montgomeryshire and Breconshire having a decentralisation scheme so that they can reach such judgments, yet the whole of Powys will decide what should happen in Radnorshire.
What is the answer to that problem? Unless we have the 15 councillors required, we shall not be entitled to apply for a decentralisation scheme under the Bill. That defeats the purpose of the exercise in which we have been engaged.
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
My hon. Friend is taking a somewhat depressing view of the position in Radnorshire. Given that all 17 councillors would be members of an area committee, would have been elected to represent that area and could be rejected by their electorate, I should have thought that they would all favour an area committee. Incidentally, we increased the figure from 10 to 15 councillors because, with the smaller number, a small, disgruntled group of 10 councillors might put forward an application for area committee status when they had nothing more than a difference with the major authority.
§ Mr. Evans
I do not make light of that difficulty. The concern has been expressed by some Opposition Members, many of whom believe in neither area committees nor decentralisation. The bottom line of concern here is the fact that mid-Wales does not have the population to reach the figures set in the Bill. We shall be disadvantaged by that. I suggest that, even at this late stage, a proportion of councillors would be a better option for areas with small populations than a requirement for a particular number of councillors.
On the first part of my right hon. Friend's intervention,. I know the mood in Radnorshire well. In Llandrindod Wells there is far more positive support for a centralised Powys authority; within the more rural part of Radnorshire, however, people feel that there should be a separate Radnorshire authority, so one should not presume that it will be easy to get 15 out of 17 councillors to vote for a decentralisation scheme. If it were that easy, the Government would be saying that every councillor within an area must approve every decentralisation scheme proposed. In essence, that is what the amendment asks of Radnorshire.
§ Mr. Wigley
The Dwyfor area could be in a similar position to Radnorshire. Has the hon. Gentleman taken into account the possibility of a non-homogenous party political dimension? That may not be the case in Powys, which is largely independent, but those differences could exist in some areas. A small minority of councillors in one area might want to latch on to the larger proportion to which they belong in the overall authority and use that as a vested interest to block the creation of a district committee.
§ Mr. Evans
When we discussed those matters in Committee, I had more faith in the part of the Bill that allows my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to decide whether a decentralisation scheme should be approved. Some people resist granting such powers to a Secretary of State. But in the scenario outlined by the hon. Gentleman, 709 the Secretary of State's power would reassure me far more than racking up the requirement of the number of councillors that will trigger a decentralisation scheme. As a result of the amendment, it will be impossible for many areas of Wales to apply for a decentralisation scheme. I should prefer the requirement to be either to achieve a proportion of councillors within an area or to stick with the current trigger and then rely on the Secretary of State to decide whether a scheme should be approved.
§ Mr. Alex Carlile
To answer the Minister of State's direct question to me, I am content with the amendments on co-option. In so far as the decentralisation schemes will work, I hope that those co-options will contribute to that.
The Government amendments and new clauses on decentralisation schemes are extremely disappointing, particularly when set against the speech made in Committee on that subject by the Under-Secretary of State. Although the debate was somewhat confused on some legal issues, which remain unanswered, we had the impression that there was a real possibility that shire committees—as we thought they were to be called—would have certain powers relating to taxation. The Government seemed to be considering the possibility that shire committees would have precepting powers or something similar.
I appreciate that the Government are saying that, under the schemes, certain requirements set out are intended to ensure that the area committees have their own part of the unitary authority budget. It is regrettable, however, that there is no statutory guarantee that that will happen. I cannot accept that it was impossible for the Government to include in the Bill criteria applicable to all area committees which would ensure that they have some precepting powers and a legal status. I regret having to return to that point, but it is a key issue on the credibility of area committees.
Community councils have powers to take legal action in certain circumstances and in respect of certain liabilities. Although those powers are exercised through district councils, at least they exist. A community council can write cheques, enter into commitments and has all the trappings of a council. Indeed, it is a council. It can also own land; many community councils own cemeteries, which are often on large amounts of land. In Welshpool, for example, the community council—the town council —not only owns Welshpool town hall but used to own part of Smithfield, which is some of the most valuable land in the town. Welshpool town council has significant property ownership and property rights, and so it will remain.
The unitary authority will have the power to enter into contracts, to sue and be sued and to employ staff and contractors. It will have corporate status. We are told that area committees will have significant powers, but how can those powers have real meaning if the area committee must turn to the unitary authority whenever a decision is to be made involving spending or receiving money?
The car park hut is a good example. If the area committee decides to give a car park attendant a hut, I understand that it will not even be able to sign the cheque, and that the contract with the hut provider will have to be entered into by the unitary authority. In my constituency, 710 there happens to be a company, Presco, that makes prefabricated buildings and might well provide that car park hut, by bringing it down the road and dropping it off the back of one of its lorries as it trundles through town. However, Presco will have to send its invoice to the unitary authority and the area committee will have to ask the unitary authority to agree to pay those few hundred pounds in respect of that invoice.
What about more serious situations? Suppose that an employee—an officer of the council—whose functions are entirely in relation to the area committee, committed a serious act of negligence for which his employing authority was vicariously liable. It might be an act that was approved by the area committee but would not have been approved by the unitary authority had it been consulted, yet the unitary authority is to be held liable for it.
One can also imagine tremendous disputes between area committees and unitary authorities about planning decisions. Suppose that the area committee reaches a planning decision against which there is an appeal. The appeal is heard and the Welsh Office inspector finds against the authority and makes an order for substantial costs, running into tens of thousands of pounds. Is it right that the unitary authority should pick up the bill?
§ Mr. Rowlands
I have followed the hon. and learned Gentleman's speech closely. Given what the Minister said about the devolved responsibility in relation to share of revenue and block grants, does it not mean that the area committee will have to have an almost fully fledged finance department of its own to conduct those functions?
§ Mr. Carlile
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He made a significant contribution when we discussed those issues in Committee. I have to say, and I am sure that he shares my view, that none of our doubts has been resolved by what has been said today. The Government have fought and fought to avoid making the right decision, which was to create the unitary authorities in mid-Wales. For reasons that can be only political, they have decided not to do so, but, at the same time, they have managed to displease their own side. We are left with an extraordinary mess.
I suspect that I speak for councillors who are members of the existing Powys county council and for those who are members of the district councils when I tell the Minister of State that councillors in rural mid-Wales do not find it easy to understand the way in which those area committees will work.
Perhaps the Government would really like those area committees to wither on the vine. Here we come to Government amendment No. 54, on which, Madam Deputy Speaker, I hope that we can be given the opportunity to vote separately at the appropriate time in our considerations tonight. Government amendment No. 54 was carefully avoided by the Minister of State when he introduced the group of amendments, but it is extremely important. In many ways, it is the most important part of the group. The fons et origo of an area committee is that resolution of councillors to have an area committee. For reasons that have not been explained by the Minister, he referred to some renegade councillors. I shall discuss that later.
It has been decided to increase by 50 per cent. the number of councillors who can ask for an area committee. The effect that that will have on old counties such as 711 Radnorshire has been graphically, adequately and fully explained by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans). As for the renegade councillors, I thought that it had been repeatedly emphasised, both in the Bill and in discussions about the Bill, that it will be for the Secretary of State to decide whether to allow a decentralisation scheme to proceed. If it is a renegade scheme, he will not allow it to proceed, so that disposes of the renegade councillors. It is no argument whatsoever for increasing the number from 10 to 15.
The Government have had years to think about that. Why were we not told in Committee that the Government thought that 10 was not the right number? Why should there be such a dramatic increase? If they want to increase it, why not to 12—a small increase which might cater more successfully for the type of situation that could confront us in Radnorshire?
The Minister is all too sanguine about what is likely to happen in Radnorshire. There are county councillors who honestly believe, and can express those beliefs well, that decentralisation schemes are a non-starter. They do not want them. Some of them are independent councillors and they are very independent-minded. If two of those councillors are elected to the new unitary authority to represent parts of Radnorshire, that is the end of Radnorshire as a decentralised area—and then what happens?
Is the Minister prepared to countenance planning decisions about wind farms for Radnorshire being taken by a planning committee that includes councillors from Montgomeryshire who may be feeling a little nervous about yet another wind farm being proposed for Montgomeryshire and who therefore decide, "Let's shove it over the border into the constituency of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor"? One can imagine Radnorshire being at the deepest possible disadvantage in that situation, in which, if the Minister's promises are delivered, Montgomeryshire councillors decide all types of things in their area committee and Breconshire county councillors decide matters in their area committee, but everything that happens in Radnorshire has to be decided by all the councillors from Radnorshire, Montgomeryshire and Breconshire.
Earlier in these debates, the Minister of State made an appeal to common sense. In relation to those decentralisation schemes, especially the proposal in Government amendment No. 54, I am afraid that common sense has taken to yogic flying. I ask the Minister of State and the Secretary of State, even at this late stage, to reconsider those proposals, especially Government amendment No. 54, once again. If they do not, we shall have the most unholy mess in mid-Wales, and probably in parts of north Wales, too.
§ Mr. David Hanson (Delyn)
Although the Minister of State has covered a number of the issues relating to decentralisation, many of us still support the arguments advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). The decentralisation scheme in the Bill, and in the amendments which strengthen it, are not about decentralisation: they are a recipe for confusion and—despite what the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) said—for a continued opt-out by the sections of an authority that remain dissatisfied with an electoral result and with the services that the authority provides. 712 I am very worried about the negative way in which the Minister of State now intends to strengthen the area committees—a development which has occurred since the Committee stage. Throughout consideration of the Bill, the Government have maintained that they want to do away with a two-tier system of local government. Yet the establishment of area committees will continue to impose on ratepayers and service receivers of many Welsh authorities precisely that two-tier system. The proposals will continue the confusion of responsibilities as between the committees and the unitary authorities. There is still no clear separation of powers and responsibilities in the system.
There will be unclear lines of accountability, too. There will be a patchwork of services in certain areas simply because people who are not satisfied with the composition of a unitary authority will opt out of it. I am not against decentralisation in principle; it is a sound idea. But the proposed system will ensure that dissatisfied councillors can appeal to the Secretary of State—originally 10 of them, now 15.
In an authority such as mine, the proposed Flintshire, a small number of councillors will be able to opt out, perhaps as soon as two or three weeks after an election for a shadow authority in which members of the authority were soundly defeated. Areas such as mine need cross-subsidisation between the industrial belt and the rural belt. But 15 out of 70 or so councillors in Flintshire, perhaps in part of the rural area, could opt out by applying to the Secretary of State for Wales, possibly taking with them a large part of a budget which is likely to have been generated by the whole borough. People throughout the borough have needs that should be met, and a small number of people representing only a small part of the borough should not be able to impede that.
Local accountability for the provision of services will not be clear. For instance, an area committee may be surcharged and all the members of the unitary authority may face a surcharge along with it. New clause 14 will make matters worse. The unitary authority will have little or no control over what the area committee does. The Government new clause states that a unitary authorityshall not, except with the agreement of the committee, abolish the committee or alter any arrangements in force with respect to the committee which were made in accordance with the scheme".To all intents and purposes, then, the area committee will be a separate legal entity—but its actions can have an impact on members of a unitary authority, who might have to pick up the financial tab for actions taken by the area committee, even though the authority has no responsibility for the committee's actions—it has no influence over the committee at all.
In several areas, planning for one, a small number of councillors who have opted out of unitary authority control will be able to take decisions about important services. Do we want 15 out of 73 councillors to be able to blow holes in district plans long since agreed by the unitary authority, subject as those 15 will be to all sorts of local pressures? These planning matters will no doubt be important to the 15 local councillors, but they may have no relevance to the borough's strategic development plans in respect of education, rural areas and transport. That will clearly not be in the interests of the borough as a whole, yet the unitary authority will have no influence over what an area committee does.
713 There will also be a lack of co-ordination across a borough. In Flintshire, I want a coterminous unitary authority that acts in the interests of all its ratepayers, but that cannot happen as long as 15 Conservative, rural or Labour councillors can opt out and determine the priorities of their own area merely on the basis of what they think right for it. Why create a unitary authority system if one is to perpetuate, as the Minister is, that element of the two-tier system? There will be about 114,000 people living in my local authority. Why will 15 members be able to opt out and go their own way in a whole range of areas? That is not in the interests of the borough as a whole or of the people whom those 15 councillors represent. It is a recipe for confusion, lack of accountability, potential fraud, and for legal cases galore, which will keep many a lawyer in business for many years to come.
Although the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) and the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery—perhaps even the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans)—would welcome that, at the end of the day, I feel that the system will not work. It will not deliver the services that people want. It will not provide a coherent strategy for a geographical area. It will not lead to effective Government. Surely the Bill is about effective Government.
I am concerned about co-option, which the Minister mentioned earlier and which features in the new clause. If we are to have co-option of individual members to a small local area committee, I should like to hear from the Minister a little more about the responsibilities of those individuals; for example, how they are accountable for the services, who they can be, and how they fit into local government. Under the provisions of the Bill as drafted, and with the proposed new clauses, individuals who, by providing themselves with a smaller area committee, effectively opt out of local authority control, can draw from that local area, not just other councillors, perhaps from outside the area, but individuals who are now co-opted, who are not in any way accountable to the services and to the ratepayers who are covered by that area committee, and yet are, perhaps, appointed by a small number of people as opposed to a large unitary authority as a whole.
What we are seeing is not decentralisation, but an opting-out of a wider view of local authority services, and with an area committee comprising a small number of councillors determining what they see as best for that small geographical area without a view to the needs of the unitary authority or the community as a whole. For those reasons, the Minister should go back to the drawing board, accept the amendments that have been tabled in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen, withdraw the new clauses and let us have a decentralisation system that will work and is not a recipe for disaster.
§ Mr. Llwyd
I echo the words of the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson). By definition, there is a conflict between the members of an area committee and the full parent authority, because, clearly, they will wish to do the best for their district. In Committee, we heard the area committee being transformed into a shire committee, which was meant to lull us all into a false sense of security.
§ Mr. Llwyd
I am reminded that the word "pacify" was used. It did not work. We were supposed to think that we were in line for something worth while, but when one looks 714 at what we are being offered, one sees that it is worthless. It is a half-baked, half-hearted idea, and is a good example of policy on the hoof.
I refer briefly to one or two assurances that were given by the Under-Secretary of State during the debates. He said:The case has been made for shire committees to be responsible for a wide range of functions, much wider than those carried out by present district councils. Finance follows functions, of course …For example, all the schemes for a particular authority might provide that a minimum of one third of the authority's budget should be delegated to the shire committee.Later, he said:It should be possible for schemes to establish arrangements whereby shire committees would have responsibility for administering supplementary credit approval-supported projects for functions which have been delegated to them and receive an agreed allocation of capital resources for functions delegated to them.Finally, he said:
We are looking forward to the greatest practical level of decision-making by the shire committee. In line with the estimate that I have already given and leaving aside education, we foresee about 65 per cent. of the decisions on functions and finance being determined by the shire committee.—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 10 May 1994; c. 384–86.]Much of that now seems to have evaporated. Having heard the Minister of State open the debate, I am now less happy about those assurances than I was when I first heard them.
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
Let me correct the hon. Gentleman. I listened carefully to his quotation from the speech made by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in Committee; I repeated the greater part of that in the assurances that I gave earlier this evening.
§ Mr. Llwyd
If the Minister is in the mood to intervene, perhaps he will enlighten me on a certain point. Why has the number of councillors who would have to call for the area committee risen from 10 to 15? Will the Minister explain that again, briefly? Is there any other reason for it, apart from the "rogue councillor" idea, which I consider rather preposterous? If the Minister explained now, it might even shorten our proceedings.
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
I have already explained. We want the applications for area committee status to be soundly based and to relate to local identity and community loyalty. We do not want the kind of development to which the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) referred, in which a group of councillors who are out of sympathy with the unitary authority say, "Let us break away and form an area committee." I believe that that is less likely to happen if the number is fixed at about 15.
§ Mr. Llwyd
With respect, I do not accept that argument for a moment. I think that there is a good deal of mischief behind the new clause. Meirionnydd's area committee is now likely to have 21 members, or possibly 22, 75 per cent. of whom will have to decide whether to move in. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans) is faced with what is potentially an even more difficult problem: if one or two rogue councillors in Radnorshire decide that they do not want an area committee, they can dictate the position for the rest. That, surely, is not an exercise in good democratic practice.
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
The hon. Gentleman forgets that members of the area committee will also be members of 715 the unitary authority itself. They can have two for the price of one, as it were. I cannot imagine circumstances in which area members would refuse an area committee.
§ Mr. Llwyd
In that case, why are we arguing about figures? If no one is going to argue against the establishment of an area committee, why are we wasting good parliamentary time arguing about whether the figure should be 10 or 15? We are getting nowhere. It is like swimming in treacle.
I am dissatisfied with what the Minister has said. I think that the proposal is potentially mischievous; it will not help Brecon and Radnor, Dwyfor, Meirionnydd and various other parts of Wales. I have always thought that the legislative process is about making laws that will not be challenged day in, day out in constitutional courts and so forth. Here we have a potential problem that may blow up and— as the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) suggested— prove to be a recipe for the whole idea to wither on the vine.
The hon. Member for Delyn made the general point that when we embarked on the Bill we were considering doing away with two-tier government, which allegedly caused confusion, complications, delay and unnecessary tension. In its stead, we are now creating a similar position involving much more confusion. We do not know what the precise legal position on contracts will be. I shall not go over the argument again, but we are even more confused now and I am sure that, regrettably, things will get worse.
In Committee, we called for clarification. Before it sat, I wrote to the Secretary of State about the matter, which was of personal interest. I still say that unitary status for Meirionnydd, Montgomery and Brecon and Radnor is the answer. The Government's attempt to head off the rebellion and pacify the people of mid-Wales is an ill-thought-out, knee-jerk reaction. The people of mid-Wales will not be pacified by the Government's half-baked plan, and in making that point I am sure that I speak for hon. Members on both sides of the House.
Clause 27 is a half-baked proposal. The Government have said that 95 per cent. of housing management must be put out to compulsory competitive tender. The guidance states that area committees will not be allowed to manage housing direct service organisations.
Reference has been made to the Powys pudding. I presume that responsibility for social services will be divided between the two tiers— the unitary authority per se and the area committee. The committees, therefore, will be responsible for some services, but will have no control over financing, staff or property resources. If a committee is not a legal entity, it cannot be responsible directly for those matters. A service will not be delivered unless the committees are in control of such major responsibilities.
If area committees are established— if they are baked a little more in the oven— they will have a thankless job. Councillors will stand for election and will merely say, "I am sorry, but I am unable to produce that for you because of what the parent council said. It holds the purse strings; therefore, I am not in a position to deliver anything." I urge the Minister to think again. I always think that it is a gross mistake to introduce legislation that has inherent problems.
716 I have talked about whether area committees should have 10 or 15 members. I am still not persuaded and I urge the Minister to consider the matter again because it will undoubtedly cause problems in rural Wales.
The financial provisions should be strengthened. We have heard that various formulae will be used, but I am not sure what will ensue or whether the Secretary of State will approve any application. The conundrum that we are all in highlights the fact that, apart from Meirionnydd, the mid-Wales authorities, as approved in Committee, should be allowed to stand in their own right.
The Government are the authors of their own misfortune. I do not like to suggest that the legislation bodes ill, but I am certain that many problems will result throughout Wales because of the ill-thought-out way in which the proposals have been presented. Once more, I urge the Minister to apply some common sense to the situation and to allow Brecon and Radnor, Montgomery and Meirionnydd to have their richly deserved unitary status. The alternative is half-baked, will not work and is a Pandora's box.
§ Mr. Hain
I do not wish to offend the Minister because we are all quite fond of him really, but I must say that what we have witnessed is an extraordinary tour de force of fudging, fixing and fiddling: the more he spoke, the more contradictions emerged. He would have been better advised simply to read out the brief provided by his officials, keep his head down and not take any interventions because the more he elaborated, the more contradictions he uttered.
Let us consider the question of surcharging. If I have interpreted the Minister's comments correctly, it now seems that if, as the result of a decision taken by an area committee, a surcharge falls on the whole council, individual councillors are liable to be surcharged.
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
That is not the position that I outlined. The surcharge falls on the individual councillors involved in taking the decision, whatever it may have been.
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
Clearly, cases have to be dealt with individually, but the fundamental principle of surcharging, in so far as it affects individual councillors, is that it is related directly to decisions that they have taken as individual councillors.
§ Mr. Hain
Indeed. That is a grey area, but many other matters raised by the Minister are not at all grey.
What started off, in the Minister's notorious words, as an exercise in pacification has ended up as an exercise in obfuscation. We are recreating a two-tier system of government—precisely the system that the Bill was supposed to abolish. I am not a believer in reincarnation, but the Bill is simply an exercise in legislative reincarnation. Having been killed off, the two-tier system is now rising up in a different form.
Assuming that amendments Nos. 54 and 55 are accepted, one of the most obnoxious features of the Bill is that, on the whim of 15—previously 10—councillors, a 717 section of the council can effectively opt out. That will have the extremely deleterious effect of preventing local authorities—the new unitary authorities—from carrying out their functions and exercising democracy. Opting out and fragmentation will result in decisions that will negate the possibility of a strategic approach to policy and the ordering of priorities in the best interest of the public at large rather than that of particular sections of the community.
Subject to possible disciplinary action by my highers and betters on Labour's Front Bench, I must admit that I am inclined to accept amendments Nos. 54 and 55 on the basis that they appear to me to be wrecking amendments. It is unusual for the Government to table wrecking amendments to their own legislation, but to increase the number of councillors from 10 to 15 could severely injure the principle of the area committees, a point made by the hon. Members for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) and for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans). I am therefore attracted to the amendments, and I hope that they are accepted. [Interruption.] It appears that my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) will let me off if I vote for them.
The Bill is illogical, especially in terms of the so-called decentralisation proposals. A better description would be "opting-out" proposals. Let us consider the contrast between education and social services policies and housing policies. In education, there will be one syllabus and one approach decided by the whole of a unitary authority, but it appears that the area committee can determine its own housing allocation priorities. That is illogical because, in principle, there is no difference between delivering housing and delivering education services.
Let us take the issue of planning. It seems extraordinary that an area committee could override or at least contradict the decision of a unitary authority in respect of planning. Consider a thorny local issue in Neath, for example—the question of secure accommodation for young offenders. In this case, West Glamorgan county council took the decision to site some young offenders' secure accommodation in the Neath area—a decision which I happen to support as the local Member of Parliament but which was met with fierce resistance from local people who felt that it was the wrong spot and who had many legitimate arguments. Is the Minister saying—this is my reading of the new clause—that the area committee could override a strategic decision to supply secure accommodation by refusing planning permission in that particular spot in the unitary authority? That is a classic example of the point that I am trying to illustrate. An overall policy with strategic implications not only for that area but, in this case, for the whole of south Wales, could be overridden by part of the authority, objecting to it simply on a parochial basis.
There are many other illogicalities and policy conflicts to which I could draw attention. However, in respect of Neath, Port Talbot and Lliw, without revisiting the arguments in principle about the boundaries of the new authority and whether they are appropriate—I believe that they are not—there will be severe tensions in the new unitary authority between upper Lliw, Neath and Port Talbot. A faction of dissident councillors—either in those areas on a united basis or in parts of those areas—who set 718 up an area authority and opted out, could severely disable the operation of the new authority. Given that the reorganisation is proceeding against local wishes—it is proceeding because the Government are forcing it through —the new unitary authority will have to establish a new basis on which to work together, new trust and a whole new approach towards getting together people who have previously been suspicious of and hostile to each other. Suddenly, the option of an area committee opting out will open up and that will be very dangerous.
The real aim of the new clause is to continue the process that the Government have embarked on and on which they have set their heart—the process of smashing local democracy. That is their task and their aim. They have an obsession with opting out which makes me believe that the real objective and the hidden agenda is to paralyse local government and the new unitary authorities. The Government already have powers to cap them. In some cases—such as that of the metropolitan authorities in England—the Government have abolished local councils because they were doing things to which they objected. They have further disabled local authorities through the processes of opting out, contracting out and the sale of council housing and by preventing them from building new homes. On top of that, they are seeking to fragment and hive off sections of the local authorities. It all adds up to a quite clear prescription for paralysing and disabling the operations of local democracy, especially where it is Labour local democracy and where local people are attempting to implement policies in accord with their wishes rather than the wishes of an extremely elitist, centralising central Government.
§ Mr. Ron Davies
The debate demonstrates the complete weakness of the Government's position on the Bill. It was absolutely clear in Committee—certainly all hon. Members who represent the Powys and mid-Wales area, including Meirionnydd, and all Opposition Members have made it clear—that the answer to the problem of mid-Wales is separate, unitary authorities for Montgomery, Brecon and Radnor and Meirionnydd. We have made that absolutely clear and we have voted for it consistently.
It is a pity that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans) did not vote with us and did not mobilise those Conservative Members, who we are told are malcontents and who are opposed to what the Government are doing and who, we are told—or at least as the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor tells the press—are prepared to assist him in his project of destroying Powys. We had an opportunity to do that earlier. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor would have had that opportunity if he had mobilised his people and voted with us. We faced a majority of 31 against us. If the hon. Gentleman had managed to get 16 people to vote with him, he could have had what he wanted, and what we all wanted, which was the opportunity for democratic decisions to be taken by our local authorities. However, that did not happen.
As a consequence, the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor has missed out. He has missed the opportunity to have unitary authorities in mid-Wales and he also has a very poor compromise. The Government are insisting on the Powys model. In an attempt to offset the deficiencies in that model which the Government know exist, they have 719 now introduced the system of area committees to pacify, among other people, the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor is now the biggest critic of the area committees. He has pointed out the deficiencies in the financial arrangements and in accountability between the principal council and the area committees. As the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) and the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) pointed out, with regard to planning, finance and decision making, the whole area is fraught with difficulties.
I do not say this unkindly because I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Wales was caught out a few times in Committee, but he was absolutely clueless. We asked him about accountability, the district auditor, the ombudsman and surcharge, but he did not have a clue. He promised to consider those points and to come back to us. He has come back in the form of the Minister of State, but the Minister of State has shed no light on those deliberations.
The Minister of State is at least as confused and unsure as the Under-Secretary was in Committee a couple of weeks ago. The Minister of State has been asked detailed, specific questions about what will happen and about the line of responsibility between the supposed area committees and the principal councils, but he has shed no light on that.
Our view is absolutely clear. The answer to the problem is to restore separate unitary authorities and to strike out all the provisions relating to area committees. That is what we voted for in Committee and that remains our position tonight.
The area committees do not resolve the Powys problem. Instead, they undermine what we are told is the central provision of the Bill—the creation of unitary authorities. The Government are undermining Powys. In their botched attempt to achieve a compromise, they are including a mischief in the Bill which could be used throughout the length and breadth of Wales to undermine and to destroy the principle of unitary authorities.
§ Mr. Rowlands
Is my hon. Friend clear whether the area committees would have to produce service delivery plans? If not, how will unitary authorities provide a service delivery plan when they will not have responsibility for the money or for delivering services in the area?
§ Mr. Davies
No doubt the Minister of State will shed his usual incisive light on that question. Although I may be paraphrasing in a pre-emptive way what the Minister of State is about to say, no doubt he will say that it is a matter for the principal councils. If an application is made and a scheme is put to him in which the question of service delivery plans is devolved to the area committees and he approves it, that must be a matter for the area committees. That would be the Minister of State's answer and that is the Government's position.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) would rightly point out, we are now being asked to buy a pig in a poke. We do not know what conditions, principles, values or attitudes will determine the Government's approval of the schemes which have yet to be prepared. That is the reality of the situation that we are facing.
720 My hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) suggested that we would take issue with him in respect of amendment No. 54. He said that he was tempted to support that amendment. Amendment No. 54 increases from 10 to 15 the number of councillors required to make an application for the establishment of an area committee. It is clear that the establishment of area committees is an arbitrary invention. The issue was completely mauled in Committee. However, I understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Neath is tempted by amendment No. 54. It will make the establishment of area committees more difficult. However, if my hon. Friend votes for that amendment, he will endorse the principle of area committees. He will be saying that in some circumstances, albeit these circumstances as opposed to those circumstances, he is prepared to endorse the idea of area committees.
Having examined the matter at length, having considered it in Committee and having heard the debate this evening—the Government have had the opportunity to come up with the answers, but they have not come up with one—I am even more convinced that the appropriate thing for us now to do is to strike out the provisions.
I understand the difficulty that the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery is in. He regards area committees as perhaps an unacceptable palliative, but nevertheless, if that is all that is on offer, I presume that he wants it. Therefore, I can understand why he wants to oppose a measure which will make that more difficult. If he is minded to call a Division, I will not recommend that my hon. Friends support him.
Much as I sympathise with the hon. and learned Gentleman's position, I hope that he will understand that our position is quite clear: if we were to vote on amendment No. 54, either supporting it or opposing it, that would imply a degree of acceptance of the principle of area committees. We do not endorse the principle; we think that the whole thing is wrong. The appropriate course of action was to have agreed our amendment in Committee and entirely deleted clauses 27 and 28.
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
Very briefly, I am genuinely surprised at Opposition Members' view of area committees. After all, area committees are not dissimilar to committees of main authorities. We are very familiar with them; they include the education committees, planning committees and so on of main councils. Opposition Members know the answers to many of the difficulties that they anticipate, as the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) showed.
This is an attempt to try to meet the community loyalty and local identity that we know exist in many parts of Wales that cannot qualify for unitary authorities of their own. We would be very hesitant about that and about their strength to maintain those authorities. We have gone as far as we possibly can to ensure the delegation of powers. We have enabled such delegation to a far greater extent than is available under the present system, but, of course, much depends on the schemes that are worked out for the delegation of powers to area authorities.
I believe that the schemes and the proposition of area committees will be attractive not only in mid-Wales but in Camarthenshire, Caernarfonshire and Meirionnyddshire because they have the unique feature that they cannot be changed without their consent.
§ Mr. Alex Carlile
If it is the right hon. Gentleman's aim to ensure that there is as much local involvement as possible and that area committees should provide that, why is he not prepared to say, "Well, perhaps for certain areas, 15 members are too many," and that, therefore, on reflection, as long as 50 per cent. of the members representing that area request an area committee, a scheme will have to be prepared?
I do not think that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans)—I think that he agrees on this point —and I are asking very much when we request such a concession. Surely it is worth a final re-think on that basis if the right hon. Gentleman really wants areas such as Radnorshire to have an area committee.
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) and others are anticipating a difficulty that will not occur. If there are 17 councillors in Radnorshire—Radnorshire is the smallest area that I can think of where there might be an area committee—I cannot see that the proposition will not be attractive to all 17 councillors, bearing in mind that they are members of the unitary authority as well.
§ Mr. Rowlands
I do not want to make a speech; I simply want to elicit some information from the Minister. Earlier, I asked a simple question, to which I still have not received an answer. In clause 26 of the Bill, the unitary authorities are given a specific duty to prepare service delivery plans. How will they be able to prepare such plans when they will have neither the power nor the responsibility for delivering the services if area committees are established? Can the Minister explain how that will happen?
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
Obviously, in so far as the unitary authorities have delegated to an area committee, the area committee will take responsibility for meeting that part of the service delivery plan. There is nothing unusual in that. Currently, we have county committees which are part of the county authority, and there is collaboration between committees and the main authority. We anticipate that that will also occur where we have area committees of unitary authorities.
§ Mr. Rowlands
In clause 26, the draft proposals for service delivery plans must be prepared by November 1995 —unitary authorities will be putting out service delivery plans before the area committees have been established. They will offer to deliver services and subsequently find that they will not have the power or responsibility for delivering the service plans. They will not even have control over the money. How will that conundrum be solved?
§ Sir Wyn Roberts
I think that the hon. Gentleman well understands how it will be solved. In so far as the unitary authority delegates responsibility for the service delivery plan, the committee will be responsible for meeting the requirements.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.