§ 5.25 p.m.
§ BARONESS YOUNG
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill before us, on local government finance, follows upon and is an adjunct to the Local Government Act 1972. It is in four main parts. The first two parts are concerned with Government grants to local authorities, and rent rebates, and are a further instalment in the Government's programme of rectifying iniquities and anomalies in the distribution of Government aid and in the rates which citizens bear in paying for local government services. The third part of the Bill makes provision for the establishment of local authority ombudsmen and lastly the Bill strengthens local government as a whole by removing unnecessary controls by central Government over the local government.
Before describing the main provisions of the Bill let me emphasise its urgency. The core of the Bill relates to the provisions in Part I about grants. Until the Bill has been enacted the Order and the Regulations, which must be made under Part I to enable the Government to pay out grants, cannot be made. Both the Order, which is an Affirmative Order, and also the Regulations, must be made before April 1. If they are not made the whole system of local government finance will be thrown into disarray, the valuable reforms which all are agreed upon will be lost and many domestic ratepayers will suffer hardship. I think this is generally appreciated, and I am grateful to those on all sides who have co-operated in making the passage of the Bill as speedy as possible.
I have said that the core of the Bill is the provisions in Part I about grants. 501 In this technical field of Government grant it may be helpful to the House if I discuss each of the three elements of the grant, and indicate in what way they are changed under this Bill, and the reasons for the changes. These provisions provide the framework within which the rate support grant settlement of 1974–75 and future years will be settled. What is at issue now is not the actual figures in the settlement just agreed, but rather the need to make sure that the framework within which the negotiations and settlement take place is right that the right factors are taken into account and that there is sufficient flexibility in the system to enable us to meet the changing needs of future years.
I shall start with the domestic element because, although it is the smallest element of the grant it does illustrate most clearly how necessary are the provisions of the Bill to prevent hardship and inequity for individuals. The domestic element of the grant, noble Lords may know, is given to local authorities to enable them to relieve domestic ratepayers of a certain proportion of their rates. It is, in effect, a form of domestic de-rating which applies to all domestic properties. Formerly, this domestic element had to be fixed at a flat rate over the whole country.
However, in 1974–75 we face a position where, because of local government reorganisation, and the reorganisation of the water and sewerage and health services, even if we were not also making changes in the distribution of grants, there would be substantial changes in the burdens which ratepayers would face if we took no steps to alleviate them. Some, particularly those in the big cities, will gain; others will lose. The Government think it only fair that those domestic ratepayers who face substantial increases, through such reasons which are entirely outside the control of their authorities, should be shielded from them for this year. If we used only the flat rate domestic relief we would have to put the flat rate so high that it would take a wholly disproportionate amount of the total grant, and benefit many who did not need it. In fact, what we have put into the 1974–75 settlement, is a variable domestic relief as well as the fixed domestic relief; that is, a domestic relief which is tailored to the rise in rates in each 502 authority. It is important that the power to make a variable domestic relief is contained in the Bill.
Secondly, there is the needs element. This is the largest element in the grant. It is intended to help authorities in accordance with the variations in demand for their services and in the cost of meeting those demands. The 1966 Act set out various factors by which it should be calculated—population, road mileage, school pupils, et cetera, but gave very little room for the Secretary of State to add new factors or change old ones. However, in the passage of time it has become clear that the factors in the 1966 Act did not adequately reflect those variations, and in particular one of the most pressing problems of our time—the social problems of declining inner city areas. Both the Government and the local authorities were agreed that more of the needs element total needed to go to the large cities where those problems were most acute. It has been done in the needs element formula proposed for 1974–75. This adds a new factor—the personal social services factor—to those which determine the distribution formula. This new Bill gives us this power; it enables the Secretary of State to use what factors he thinks right in the circumstances. This power in the Bill will enable us to vary or add factors in order to improve continuously the equity and impact of the needs element.
Thirdly, there is the resources element. This is designed to help those authorities who have inadequate resources, that is low rateable values, even when they are already helped by the needs element, because they have low rateable values. Formerly, under the 1966 Act, the resources element was prescribed to bring the rateable resources of those authorities who fell below the national average up to that average but no further. We have found that this provision is too rigid. It has even been characterised by critics as a "poverty trap". In order to help the authorities properly we need to bring their resources up to the level of the richer authorities—that is well above the average level of authorities. We have, in the settlement, taken a level which leaves only 11 per cent. of rating authorities above the qualifying line. This Bill allows us to prescribe the level up to 503 which resources shall be brought in the light of circumstances.
These three examples show how the grant provisions in the Bill will be able to ensure that rate support grant settlements are vastly fairer and more generous to those in real need than they have been in the past. I have purposely not gone through the clauses seriatim or explained the many detailed technicalities which lay behind them, but I should like to mention three major points which arise on Part II. There are three clauses which I believe will be of particular interest to your Lordships. Clause 6 provides for the introduction from April, 1975, of a new system of transport supplementary grants. In effect it provides for a number of the existing specific transport grants to be replaced by a new or a unified system of Central Government support for local transport expenditure. The main grants being replaced are those for principal roads and public transport infrastructure.
One of our main objectives in seeking to change the present grant structure is to promote comprehensive transport planning, and county councils will be asked to submit annually to the Department transport policies and programmes setting out their objectives and proposals and the estimated cost of carrying them out for a period of years. These policies and programmes will be used as the basis for decisions on the allocation of transport supplementary grant each year.
Clause 7 introduces a new supplementary block grant to be paid to those county councils which have to incur additional expenditure on National Parks. This provision fulfils the undertakings which we gave during the passage through Parliament of the Local Government Act 1972 that the greater part of the expenditure on National Parks would in future be borne by the Exchequer. The new supplementary grant will be based on returns of estimated expenditure, submitted by the National Park authorities, to be incurred on all aspects of the administration and management of the Parks. In the recent White Paper on the Rate Support Grant 1974–75, we announced that the total grant next year would be £1.4 million, which represents a fourfold increase over the present level of grants for National Parks. Clause 9 extends the 504 present power of the Countryside Commission to give financial assistance to countryside projects. In future, they will be able to assist both private individuals and public bodies, including local authorities, in doing anything which furthers the purposes of the countryside legislation.
Part II of the Bill makes domestic improvements to the rating system. It starts from the assumption, as indeed does the whole Bill, that rates are the basis of local government taxation. We have all searched for alternative sources of finance (none harder than my right honourable friend Mr. Page) but all turned out to have insuperable difficulties: either they were difficult to collect or did not carry local responsibility or would not help the poorer authorities. So we have turned our attention to improving the rating system and to removing its major defect—its regressiveness: the fact that it bears more harshly on the poor than the rich.
This, we think, we have succeeded in doing by the rate rebate scheme proposed in Clauses 11 to 14. This is a generous scheme, tied to the scheme of rent rebates and allowances which will replace the present, and in some respects inadequate, rebate scheme. We estimate that about 3 million people will benefit under this sliding scale next year compared with about 800,000 at present. The number of domestic ratepayers benefiting will also increase substantially—from 900,000 under the current scheme to an estimated 3 million next year. The loss of rate income arising from the new scheme will be of the order of £95 million a year, but a new 90 per cent. grant will be paid to local authorities, and this next year will come to about £85 million.
After rate rebates, the most important provision in Part II of the Bill is that relating to the penal surcharge on empty commercial property. It is primarily aimed at discouraging, by means of penal levels of dates, the deliberate keeping vacant, for long periods, of office blocks. Your Lordships will have the opportunity to consider the detail of this rather long clause, which introduces two new sections into the General Rate Act 1967, at a later stage of the Bill, but despite its length, it is basically simple in concept. Where a commercial property is capable of being put to good use, and the owner has not tried his best to let it, he becomes 505 liable to the surcharge. The longer he does not try, the bigger the surcharge becomes. It starts at 100 per cent. of the full rate on the property for the first year of non-use, becomes twice the full rate for the second year, three times for the third year and so on, indefinitely.
Clause 15 deals with empty property rating. In the past, though local authorities have been able to levy rates on empty properties, criticisms have been made: first, that if an authority adopts the powers it must continue to exercise them for a minimum period of 7 years unless the Secretary of State approves a shorter period; secondly, that there can be no discrimination between types of property—it must be all empty property or none; and thirdly, that there is no flexibility in the percentage of the full rate to be charged—it must be 50 per cent. The clause is designed to meet these criticisms. It removes entirely the minimum period during which the empty property rate must be levied. It enables the rate to be applied only to specified classes of property; and it enables different percentages up to 100 per cent. to be levied in respect of different classes of property. Moreover, for good measure, it enables a different pattern of percentages to be applied in different parts of the rating area.
I should now like to turn to Part III, which, together with Schedules 4 and 5, forms a distinct section within the Bill, referring to the establishment of an ombudsman or complaints system for local government. Local government, and the standards of conduct and administration in local government, are subjects much in the news these days. Certain court proceedings have attracted wide publicity. The Prime Minister has recently set up a committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Redcliffe-Maud—who I am glad to see is speaking in our debate this afternoon—to consider the rules of conduct which should guide members and officers of local authorities.
The underlying principle (which I am glad to say appears to be widely accepted) is that local government ought to have some formal machinery for regulating its affairs, comparable to that which Departments of State have in the shape of the Parliamentary Commissioner. There are many points in common between the Parliamentary Commissioner system and that 506 which is proposed in Part III of this Bill. The most important is that both are concerned with that elusive but recognisable concept, "mal-administration". But the formal structure of the new organisation is rather different. Instead of a body headed by a single commissioner, the Bill provides for a collegiate structure. The separate Commissions for England and Wales are to consist of local commissioners each having a primary jurisdiction for a particular part of the country, although with ample provision for varying areas and for making flexible working arrangements. Appointment of the commissioners is to be by the Crown after consultation with bodies representing local government, and the intention is that those appointed as commissioners will be persons deserving the confidence of local government as a whole. The representative bodies are designed to exercise an effective measure of control over the new system. Local councillors also have an important part to play in the operation of the scheme. Just as the Parliamentary Commissioner system is designed to help Members of Parliament to do their jobs more effectively, so this scheme is intended to give similar help to local councillors. Thus complaints will normally reach the local commissioner through a councillor. And the councillor who refers a complaint to the commissioner will of course receive the report which results from the investigation.
Another important feature of the system is the form of sanction which will attach to reports of local commissioners. When Government Departments are investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner, pressure to rectify maladministration and to prevent its recurrence is brought to bear by Parliament itself acting through one of its Select Committees. In the case of the local commissioners there will be more direct reliance on the effects of local publicity and the influence of public opinion. Reports on particular cases by local commissioners will be made available for public inspection and will no doubt be fully reported in the Press.
But despite these and some other differences between the Parliamentary Commissioner's organisation and that proposed to be set up by Part III of the Bill, we should be ill-advised to make a 507 strict separation between the two systems. We are sure that some transactions at least—we do not know how many—will concern both central and local government—or, indeed, either of these branches of Government and the National Health Service—and the Bill contains provision in Clause 33 for dealing with these "composite cases" as they have sometimes been called. In addition, there is a degree of cross-membership, because the Parliamentary Commissioner himself is to become a member ex officio of both the English and Welsh Commissions, not for the purpose of handling local complaints but to give the Commissions the benefit of his experience.
As with the Parliamentary Commissioner, a number of subjects are excluded from the jurisdiction of local commissioners. The principle here is that it would be impracticable and undesirable to make local commissioners into a general Court of Appeal or have them deal with some matters which are best dealt with by some other means or in some other form.
I am glad to be able to tell your Lordships that local government itself, through its representative associations, has greatly assisted the Government in the development of these proposals. The associations have been taken into consultation and are represented on a Working Party with officials of my Department and of the Welsh Office, which is considering the detailed organisation and implementation of the new system—subject of course to Parliament's approval of the legislation.
This Bill contains important provisions for the future of local government finance. We believe that by making the Government grant structure more flexible we shall be better able to help local authorities with their needs, present and future. The rent rebate scheme will help domestic ratepayers and the establishment of the local ombudsman will be welcomed by both the public and by local government. The last Part of the Bill fulfils a pledge by the Government to remove a number of financial restrictions from local government. My Lords, I ask you to give this Bill a Second Reading.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Baroness Young.)508
§ 5.44 p.m.
§ LORD GARNSWORTHY
My Lords, the House will appreciate the survey which the noble Baroness has given us on this Bill. The noble Baroness has covered a very wide field and with some speed, which is perhaps indicative of the manner in which we are expected to deal with the Bill in this House. It was in 1971 that the Government published their proposals for the reorganisation of local government, and those proposals were followed in July of the same year by a Green Paper entitled Future Shape of Local Government Finance. That Green Paper encouraged us to anticipate that the reorganisation of local government itself would be accompanied by equally extensive reforms in the field of local government finance. The Queen's Speech in October. 1972, led us to anticipate legislation during the last Session dealing with this matter of local government finance; indeed, we were reminded of that in the consultation paper which was issued in June of last year.
We did not get legislation in the 1972–73 Session, and we are not now getting any dramatic reforms in the field of local government finance in the shape of this Bill. The very word "finance" is not used in the Title of the Bill. What we are getting is a Bill which makes modest adjustments but which misses a unique opportunity to put local government finances on a sound and lasting footing, one which might have given them greater independence, which the alternative sources of revenue would bring. Furthermore, this Bill comes to us at almost the last minute of the last hour. The noble Baroness told us that the Government want the Bill to go through the House quickly; and she has reminded us that the local authorities want it on the Statute Book urgently as well. Local government has been placed in a position of some considerable embarrassment by reason of the very bad timing of this legislation, which was promised last Session and is now brought to us at the very last moment before it is needed to come into operation.
A spokesman of local government put it to me a day or two ago, "I do not know what will happen if it is not in operation by April 1". If we had been caught up in a General Election we should have found out what would have happened. For the sake of local Government—and it has enough problems on 509 its hands at the moment with reorganisation taking place—it is a good job that we did not have a General Election. That is the only good reason I can think of for not having a General Election. As it is, we have the Bill before us and the ink is scarcely dry since it left the other place. It left the other place a better measure than when it first appeared there, and I noticed with considerable pleasure the conciliatory attitude of Ministers there as it progressed through and after the Committee stage.
We on this side will do all we can to expedite the passage of the Bill in this House; but we have an obvious duty to give it critical examination at the Committee stage. If we can improve it further so much the better. But for the Government to ask us to begin the Committee stage on February 7, a week away, on a very large Bill such as this one, to give us a week to consider the Amendments that we shall need to lay before the Committee, is no help. It may look good on paper, as though the matter has been tackled urgently, but it is going to impose heavy pressure on anyone who really wants to examine critically the provisions within the Bill.
Having indicated that the Bill does not reform local government finance in any dramatic way, I must say that I do not know how the noble Baroness is going to hear what I am saying if the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, keeps on talking to her. The Government must indeed be in a rush if they are handling their business in this kind of way. One anticipates when we take the Second Reading that the Minister will be free to listen to what is being said.
As I was saying, since the Bill does not reform local government finance in any dramatic way, it is proper that I should say that within the limits of present Government intentions quite a number of its provisions are indeed to be welcomed. I give an especial welcome to Clause 19 with the relief it provides for disabled persons. I welcome also the increase from 75 per cent. to 90 per cent. in the grant for rate rebates, and the provision for local schemes, although I would point out that the estimate of 3 million beneficiaries underlines the inadequacy of the incomes of those at the lowest levels of our incomes scale. It justifies the criticism of the rating system as being unfair in its application. The regressive 510 nature of the rating system has long been accepted. The rate rebate scheme was first introduced in 1966 as a temporary measure to ease its application. The present proposals indicate a more permanent arrangement. I wonder how many of the 3 million beneficiaries that the noble Baroness has spoken of will take up the benefits of the rebate scheme. I certainly hope that they will all do so. However, at the back of my mind I have some doubt as to whether all those who ought to benefit from it will, in point of fact, claim.
There will be general agreement that the powers provided in 1966 for the rating of empty properties, about which the noble Baroness has spoken to us, have not been adequate. Indeed, Centre Point continues to epitomise our failure in that regard. It epitomises also our failure to get our priorities right. We have a situation where we are aware of escalating capital values of empty office blocks, while the homeless search in vain for a secure resting place. So in this field we on this side certainly welcome the greater powers provided in the Bill, whereby local authorities may exercise some greater pressure and derive some greater return of income. But I wonder whether still we are not using a nutcracker were we ought to be using a sledgehammer to deal with this problem.
We welcome too the increase in the average relief to the domestic ratepayer. The figure of 10p is, as I understand it, to be the average. The minimum will be 7 and in other cases it will exceed 10. We may need to look at the application more closely in Committee. We may also look at the entitlement of metropolitan districts to the resources element grant.
I think that this Bill is to be criticised for its failure to provide local government with new sources of income. The local authority associations and the G.L.C.—and the noble Baroness acknowledges the help they have given—have made it clear that they would welcome some developments in this area. Indeed, in March, 1972, they put forward a number of proposals for finding new sources of revenue. Those proposals may have been faulty; they may not have been bold, but they did put forward some practical proposals. May I mention the hotel tourist tax which the G.L.C. suggested should be, or could be, proposed to the 511 rate of 50p per bed night. I gather that that proposal was calculated to yield over £13 million a year in the Greater London area. As I say, I only mention that to indicate that local government has ideas in this area. It is perhaps a matter we shall be able to return to at a later stage.
My Lords, I should like to see local government given the opportunity to develop socially desirable services that would in themselves be an advantage to the community and a source of income as well. I am one of those who believe in municipal enterprise; I think it ought to be encouraged. I should like to see local authorities given opportunities to compete in certain commercial fields which could be financially productive. I believe this would have a remarkably stimulating effect on those who serve at this level of government, and might attract many who feel that the present duties and powers of a local authority are too dull and too limited.
Furthermore, I believe that local government would give a good account of itself if it were allowed to indulge in this kind of enterprise, for local government discharges functions of vital importance in a very responsible way. Local government is not an exciting subject for many people. It is a great pity that more Members of your Lordships' House do not appreciate on occasions like this that we are here discussing a service that is noteworthy for the manner in which it discharges the functions allocated to it. Local government is at the very grass roots of democracy in this country which many of us have been proud to serve at different levels. I fought my first election in 1927, when I was just 21, and I feel that it has been a great privilege to serve at district and county level, and to work in other fields of local government activity, almost for more years than I care to remember. Like many of your Lordships, I think that those Members in the House tonight, and certainly those who have indicated their intention to speak, will be appreciative of the quality of service that is given by those who work in local government professionally and those who serve it in a political sense.
I should like to see something like a Royal Commission appointed to look 512 at this whole question of local government finance. The noble Lord, Lord Redcliffe-Maud, is in the Chamber and I am glad to see that he is to speak. May I say to him that the further we get away from the publication of his Report, the more I am quite sure he was on the right lines on one thing—unitary authorities. I should like to see something like the Redcliffe-Maud Committee going into this question of local government finance with a view to finding new acceptable methods of financing local government. I appreciate that the rating system we have in this country provides a very easy way of collecting taxation. If I may say so, it is a little too easy, if that is the main reason for maintaining this regressive system of local taxation. As things are, local government is too dependent on central Government and a Royal Commission or a Committee could well find the answer to what has been up to the moment an intractable problem.
The cuts which the Government have recently imposed on local authority expenditure are pretty devastating. If I may just say a word or two about education, in our case those cuts have dashed the education committee's hope of replacing 12 of the 120 sub-standard, pre-1903 primary school buildings we have. They have deprived us of the possibility of providing some essential extra places at a very substantial number of them; that is to say for the 1973–74 and 1974–75 building starts programme. Indeed, the overall cuts imposed on local authorities leave them with very little discretion in many fields. If wages and salaries are to be untouched, and if the establishments (established posts with the numbers as they exist at the present time) are to be maintained, then I do not know how the percentage reduction that the Government seek will be achieved.
Last week the Government published the promised White Paper on the rate support grants. Again that was a very tardy publication. Local government has been waiting to know what it was going to get for some months, and it has come at a very late stage. For most authorities I would venture to say that it has come at a point after which most of them would have had their figures finalised for 513 consideration by their financial committees. One of our major local authorities has written to me saying:The present attitude of the Government in making relatively minor changes in the Rate Support Grant Structure, shows no appreciation of the demands for efficient local government services in the conurbations. The present tinkering with the present grant structure supplies so little additional financial assistance that it will not even keep pace with current needs, let alone the rising level of expenditure, and ratepayers will thus be called upon to carry very large additional burdens.Not my words, my Lords, but the words of one of the largest local authorities in the country, if not the largest.
May I briefly refer to paragraph 21 of the Consultation Paper where it is stated that the Government intend to look further into the possibility of expressly permitting capital values to be adduced in support of rental values. This surely is a matter that the Royal Commission I have mentioned could look at. As it is, the present rating system is based on notional rent levels that cannot be accurately measured in a situation of housing scarcity over such a very long period. I should think there is clearly a need for a thorough examination of the whole system.
I do not want to say very much this evening on the question of the rate support grant, and I will merely add this. As I appreciate the position, in its application it will be carried out by regulation; that is to say, the actual allocation of the rate support grant funds is a matter for annual orders, albeit in consultation with local authority associations. If I understand Clause 10 correctly, this leaves a very great area of uncertainty as to the future. We generally welcome the improved supplementary grant provided in Clauses 6 to 9 dealing with transport, national parks, and the provision whereby the Countryside Commission may aid public authorities and others in achieving the purposes of the Countryside Act 1968 or the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1969. My Lords, we shall give close attention to Parts III and IV of this Bill on which the noble Baroness has spoken. As I see it, the position of the ombudsman in local government is not on all fours with the Parliamentary Commissioners. It is probably that we shall ask the Committee to consider certain matters 514 on the issues involved, and I think it will probably be with regard to finance.
Having said that, I hope reasonably briefly in the circumstances, I would end by saying that we support the Second Reading, and promise to do the best we can by way of co-operation during the subsequent stages of the Bill. I think that the timetable, starting the Committee stage next week, adds to our difficulties, and we may find ourselves asking the Committee to consider a number of Amendments which, if we had more time to study the Bill, we might not have tabled. I do not know. It is very difficult at this stage to say how we can deal with the matter satisfactorily. I do promise that so far as we can give cooperation in all the circumstances, that we will do, as well as our colleagues in the other place. We shall try to be constructive and helpful; and we hope that the Government will be as conciliatory in this House as they were in the other place. So far as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is concerned, I know that she always tries to be conciliatory, and I hope she will be able to persuade her colleagues in the Department that she might be allowed to be so during the passage of this Bill.
§ 6.6 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT AMORY
My Lords, the noble Lord. Lord Garnsworthy, has told us that he first joined a local authority in 1927—
§ LORD GARNSWORTHY
My Lords, I fought my first election in 1927: it took me a little time before I got there.
§ VISCOUNT AMORY
My Lords, I will not press the noble Lord any more. I fought an uncontested election in 1931, I think, a few years later. For eight years before that I was precluded from standing for my immediate local authority because during that period I was its auditor—at a salary of 10 guineas, which I feel the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, will agree, had there been a Phase 3 at that time, would probably have been within its limits. Some of the small criticisms I have to make I share with the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy. That slight note of asperity which the noble Lord contrived to introduce into one of his invariably courteous speeches, wholly appropriate from those Benches, quite obviously I must avoid at all costs, speaking from these Benches.
515 My Lords, this Bill, although based on the earlier Consultation Paper, has of necessity had a rather rushed passage through Parliament. This is due, as the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, has said, to the time-scale of local government reform, with its starting date of April 1 next. I myself think that in the circumstances this degree of rush has been inevitable. Though I notice that the Opposition in another place complained that this Bill ought to have been introduced two years ago, in the light of the whole programme of local government reform that was not feasible. I do not believe it could have been introduced until the general pattern of the main Act had been settled by Parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, said that my noble friend had introduced this Bill with speed. While that is so, I am sure that he will agree with me that she has introduced it also—which fits in with his closing remark—with her usual courtesy and charm. Within the limited time available, I believe that reasonable consultations have been held with the representatives of the local bodies concerned.
I should like to start by making it clear that the association with which I am connected personally, the County Councils Association, are strongly in support of the principle of block grants. A big disappointment is of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, said, that no additional sources of local government revenue have been discovered and agreed. The most attractive potential one, I should think, is the local income tax. This idea bristles with difficulties; there is no question about that. Probably in any case it would have been impossible to introduce such a novel idea at this particular juncture of affairs, when the new local government system has still to get into its stride and everyone concerned is overwhelmed with work and faced by many new problems, and also when a number of tax changes at the centre are in hand. The possibility of some kind of local income tax, however, I believe justifies further study. The present rating system, it is unnecessary to say, has obvious defects and limitations as a main, or even as a substantial, source of revenue. Local income tax, if such a system could be devised, 516 might afford just the flexibility that is required.
Another possible source of local revenue that I believe was examined was some kind of transport fuel duty. But I personally doubt whether that will prove a likely starter, owing to the drawback of differing local rates of duty in neighbouring areas. In the absence of a new source of local revenue, and with the limitations of the rating system, we are forced back on grants from the central Government as the main source of local government revenue. The ratio of central Government grants to other income has been rising over the years; and as so much local government expenditure is initiated and made mandatory on local authorities by central Government and Parliament, this trend is likely to continue. This is to be regretted because it conflicts with the ideas of greater independence, authority and responsibility for local, as against central, authorities. It means that, within broad limits, local authority policies are dominated and controlled by financial restrictions imposed centrally.
It is disappointing to note how often in this Bill, as in the Local Government Reform Act itself, powers of intervention or approval are given to the Secretary of State. Perhaps this is inevitable, but it is sad to those who hoped that the new local government system might give local democracy a really new degree of autonomy and independence. One other point I should like to make in passing is that new responsibilities, and, arising there from, additional expenditures, are being continuously thrust on local authorities by Parliament. Parliament invariably underestimates the future costs which are going to arise. Thereafter, local authorities are often criticised for what has happened, when the real reason has been the commitments that have been laid on them by Parliament. It cannot be too often repeated that the best time to control expenditure is at the moment when the additional functions and commitments are being considered by Parliament. If that opportunity is neglected, then any future economies will be far harder to secure without damaging the efficiency of the services concerned.
There are three statistics (I am not going to give your Lordships more than 517 that) which I find it useful to keep in my mind as a background to what we are discussing. I will summarise them briefly. The first one—I am referring here to the year 1971–72—is that local authorities in England and Wales spent on revenue account about £7,000 million, and on capital account another £2,000 million. I have not checked these figures but I believe they are right. That represents about 31 per cent. of the combined expenditure of central and local government. I mention that point only because these are formidable and very significant figures. The second statistic, again dealing with local authorities in England and Wales, is that as a proportion of the gross national product the figure of local government expenditure in 1949 was 9.2 per cent., and now is 15 per cent. The third statistic is that the proportion of the estimated expenditure of local authorities met by grants in this year, 1973–74—this is an estimated figure—is 60 per cent. Those three statistics give me a background picture of the problems we are dealing with.
To turn to the actual provisions of the Bill, I want only to refer very briefly to three or four points. Many people I think are not happy that the basis of the needs grant should be related to past expenditure, which may have been influenced by considerations other than need, such as limitation of resources available. Perhaps that is inevitable for the coming year, 1974–75, but it is to be hoped that some better formula may be worked out for future years. The next point I should like to say a word about is supplementary transport grants, which in principle are to be welcomed. The proposals seem to give the Secretary of State almost unfettered power of control over the grants in individual cases. That is a power which will need to be looked at in Committee. Also, there is a danger—one can read it between the lines here—that there may be a recurrence of too much detailed control from the centre, which would be a great pity.
On rates rebate grants much can be said, but while the increased rate is very welcome, the logic of the grants being limited to 90 per cent. is not apparent. Rates are the only independent source of local government revenue available to local authorities. Rent rebates are an instrument of national policy and not a 518 local government responsibility, and therefore, I should have thought, should have been financed wholly out of central funds. I know that it may sound a little ungracious—my noble friend may tell me that I ought to be very satisfied with what has been done—but it is the logic involved that I do not quite understand. As regards the rates system, I feel it is disappointing that the opportunity has not been taken to improve the system in detail. I will mention only one example. I should have thought that again it would have been logical to treat Crown property exactly as other property. This is perhaps a point we can consider on Committee.
Then there is the ombudsman. The definition of "maladministration" will require careful consideration. The objects would be defeated if it meant that any local authority decision could be challenged. I think that that is clear and will be agreed. There is some safeguard against that in Clause 34.
As regards the representative bodies, their functions still seem a little vague and a little bare, perhaps; but again we can probe that. The removal in Clause 35, in particular, of a number of controls over local association functions is wholly to be welcomed. Nevertheless, in this Bill, as in the main Local Government Reform Act I mentioned, the number of circumstances in which intervention by the Secretary of State is envisaged is still rather alarming. One can only hope that these powers will be employed to the absolute minimum. After all, it is only when local government has room for a really substantial measure of independent judgment and action that it will be activated by a spirit of real, alert local democracy. Control in detail from Whitehall, however beneficently conducted, is fatal to that vitality.
Finally, I come to 1974–75, next year. With the recent economy measures announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer it will be a difficult year for the new local authorities though the necessity for these economy measures will be challenged by few. The efforts the Government have made through the rate support grant proposals to temper the burdens for local authorities in their first year under the new system is recognised and appreciated. It is still extremely difficult for those concerned to forecast 519 the precise impact of the new rate support grant on the individual councils, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, has said, this creates serious problems for treasurers and finance committees as the days go by. It has been computed, I believe, that on the basis of what is known so far, local authorities in the aggregate will have in their rate support grant (and if this is not so my noble friend will tell me) a growth factor for next year in real terms of about 2.5 per cent. In the case of county councils, I think the rate is probably rather less—perhaps of the order of 1.7 per cent. But I am sure that, whatever problems arise in the interpretation of essential services (and that is the most difficult thing in the world), local authorities, recognising the urgent need to moderate the rate of national inflation, will seek to get through next year as best they can.
My Lords, I do not believe that this Bill is the final word in the reform of local government finances. If I thought it were, I should not be wildly enthusiastic about it. But I do not believe it will be, and I do not believe my noble friend will tell us that she believes it will either, or perhaps even wants it to be. But, recognising the difficulties and all the problems that overwhelm administrators in getting the new local government system going, we ought to give a general welcome to the main provisions of this Bill, as an instalment, and send it on its way as quickly as we can.
§ 6.24 p.m.
§ LORD REDCLIFFE-MAUD
My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Amory. He has really said, particularly in his closing remarks, very much what it is in my mind to say. If I may first apologise to the noble Baroness for not having been in my place when she started her speech my excuse is that the Prime Minister had asked me and some colleagues to investigate and make recommendations about local government rules of conduct. Therefore, in a sense I had been about the business which is before your Lordships' House this afternoon before I was able to be in my place. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, for his kind remarks. I am, as I have often bored the House by saying, absolutely 520 unrepentant about the advice given to the Government by the Royal Commission on Local Government in England. I shall never forget my pleasure that it did commend itself to the Government of the day. However, I am also convinced that we are right to give this Bill a Second Reading with all reasonable speed.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, referred to the Royal Commission on Local Government in England, and suggested there might be yet another body that might look at local government finance. Provided that it has no personal connection with its predecessor, that would be an extremely good idea. The Royal Commission by its membership was quite the wrong body to give fundamental consideration to local government finance, which, in fact, needs such consideration. I very much endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, said, that this Bill does not begin to do what in fact Parliament will have to do, and the sooner it does it the better. I remember Mr. Crossman when in the Administration speaking about the rate in terms which reminded me of what Mr. Lloyd George had said in the first decade of this century, that fundamentally the rate is indefensible. On the other hand, it is ridiculous to suppose that at this stage local government could possibly get on without it. And although the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, in my opinion was right in saying that we must not let this Government, or any other Government, off the task of seriously improving the financial basis of the partnership between local authorities and central Government (which already spends these huge sums to which the noble Viscount so rightly referred), nevertheless, I think we should be grateful for certain benefits that this Bill produces. Even in the field of finance it represents considerable advance, in my opinion.
I think that the rate itself, which I dare say we all agree must stay, is going to be improved in the sense of its regressiveness being reduced by the improvement in the rebate system, in the rate on unoccupied premises and also by the new system of rate support grant. But that is makeshift, and will be most unfortunate if the advantages which local government gets from this 521 Bill lead the Government of the future to think that they can leave rates alone. The more one tinkers with the point in respect of, for example, the domestic rebate, the more illogical one makes it and the less sound the foundation for what local authorities themselves ought to be expected to do. Nevertheless, I think it is an improvement both in respect of rates and of grants.
My Lords, I am particularly glad that the Government have taken advice from a Select Committee of your Lordships' House which reported in July on sport and leisure, in this respect at least, that it has strengthened the powers of the Countryside Commission and enabled (and I very much hope this will be done) the Countryside Commission to take its place along with the Department of the Environment, with the Sports Council and with the local authorities in developing a strategy for recreation. I myself have very strong feelings that at some time this House might with profit debate the Report of the Select Committee on Sport and Leisure. I have no doubt that in due course that will be done. Meanwhile, it is of real importance that the new local authorities should recognise that the use of leisure should be, as we recommended in that Select Committee Report, a general part of the structure and fabric of our social services.
With this disastrous, shortened industrial week, we are perhaps having a foretaste in regard to leisure of what in happier times we should find welcome, that is, an increase in the amount of time in which we are free to do as we like. If we are to have the opportunities of using this free time, there is a real need for both national and regional strategies to be developed. As the Select Committee recommended, local authorities must be the main organ through which those opportunities can be provided in collaboration with private enterprise, and the Countryside Commission, as it now will be able to do, must play its part in finding some money for good local schemes promoted by local authorities as part of the regional strategy, so that leisure use will be to great advantage.
My Lords, if I may mention the Ombudsman, which we see emerging from the Second Reading of this Bill, I think that Parliament will be right to make this novel innovation, borrowed originally 522 not from Scandinavia, as I like to think, but from another part of the Commonwealth, New Zealand. My only regret is that the draftsman has done such marvellous work when he describes what the Ombudsman cannot do that he may have deterred our fellow-citizens from making the fullest use, in collaboration with local government bodies, of this new remedy for maladministration. I hope that in Committee we may be able perhaps to make a little more clear to the general public and the citizens how they can regard the Ombudsman as one of their friends, not, of course, going beyond or overlapping the work of the Minister in her appeals, and the local authorities in using their discretion on a policy.
I do not know whether the draftsman in New Zealand was better advised perhaps even than our own when he said that the Ombudsman there should have a chance of looking at any decision that was wrong. That at once raises the question of the infringement of the rights of local government to decide right and wrong in policy terms, and, therefore, perhaps we were wise not to go so fast or so far as the New Zealand Ombudsman. I do believe we shall find there is no necessary conflict between the proper inevitable work of decision by representatives of the local communities in matters of policy and the assistance of an impartial investigator who can be, as it were, the friend out of court of all citizens with a sense of injustice.
§ VISCOUNT AMORY
My Lords, I wonder whether my noble friend would agree with an idea that was crossing my mind as he spoke, that he himself would make an absolutely ideal Ombudsman, and if he agrees, will he put in for the post when this Bill has gone through?
§ LORD REDCLIFFE-MAUD
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Viscount, but the existing tenant of the office of Ombudsman in the Parliamentary sense is such an admirable holder of that office that it will not be necessary for any Member of your Lordships' House to offer his services yet awhile.
The other thing which I very much welcome in this Bill is the partial implementation of a great promise made by Mr. Peter Walker some time ago, that 523 the thousand controls which he had detected through which central Government shackles the discretion of local government should be removed. He added, except where they were necessary. In Schedule 6 the Bill does go some way to free local government from some of those nannying instincts which 50 years ago compelled the Mother of Parliaments, in the Protection of Pet Animals Bill and in various other matters to do with performing animals, to prevent local authorities from using their discretion in the fees that they should charge for licences. Ten shillings is to go if this Bill goes through, and this seems to me in itself a good reason for giving it a Second Reading.
§ 6.32 p.m.
§ LORD LUKE
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for explaining this Bill so well and in so short a time. I listened most carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, had to say, as I did to the noble Viscount, Lord Amory. I was interested to hear that he thinks this Bill is an instalment. Perhaps that will help us with the time factor Lord Garnsworthy brought up. The noble Lord, Lord Redcliffe-Maud, has allayed some of my fears by his reference to the Committee in this House and to a strengthened Countryside Commission.
Though giving a general welcome to this Bill, I have criticisms, and I hope that I may be forgiven if I deal with one specific element of it. That is the withdrawal of grants for open spaces which is, I suggest, an unfortunate aspect. It means that recreational facilities may once more be given a low priority, a retrograde step. Specific grants are removed from other items of local government expenditure, but grants for amenities are in a different special category. Recreational facilities cost money, but they have no visible return except the enjoyment and health of the people, and I maintain that if no central incentive is given they can easily get left out. Thus we may well see open spaces, children's playgrounds become the "also-rans" among some local authorities. We may well see, once again, the backlog building up, which over the years we have tried to remove. We have recently seen good progress with efforts to provide play 524 space for children, but I am not going to weary your Lordships with what has been achieved.
I hope that some of these items may appear in the needs element as outlined by the noble Baroness; but I noticed she said that this would be mostly for the towns, and I wonder what happens to the local areas in the villages. It is going to bear very hardly on parish councils, who have the least resources, and whose land costs are none the less high; and it may mean that land available cannot be reserved. I see that supplementary grants are made for National Parks. That is splendid. Of course, they are regional. Grants and loans are available to the Countryside Commission for its purposes, and once again I am very glad the noble Lord. Lord Redcliffe-Maud, feels that this will fill some of the gaps that I fear may arise. Nevertheless specific grants for public open spaces are excluded. I am surprised, and I think it is a little illogical, that the Lea Valley Regional Park is specifically left out. Many noble Lords will have seen what excellent results have been achieved in that large area. It seems strange to me that National Parks are included, and they are regional, and the Lea Valley Regional Park is excluded. It has been the most imaginative scheme that has been produced for many years, and curtailment will be a great discouragement.
I think it is not inappropriate to quote from the report of the Select Committee of this House on Leisure and Sport; it has not been debated yet, and I am very sorry that it has not. They relate that in October, 1972, there was the launching of the campaign by the Sports Council, Sport for All, which we all welcomed. But the Committee advocate recreation for all, not treating recreation as an optional extra; opportunities for enjoyment of leisure are really part of the general fabric of social services. They say, and quite rightly, that local authorities are by far the largest suppliers of facilities and have a wide range of powers, including the Physical Training and Recreation Act, 1937. Local authorities have shown a growing interest in provision for recreation, though very little use has been made of powers to grant-aid sports clubs. But it must be said that local authorities have only recently thought that they have any 525 responsibility, outside their duties for education; they ought to have a statutory duty, and this should be given, to secure what is needed in their area for all people other than those of school age.
Local authorities should be keeping pace with the demand, which is ever-present. The Sports Council has wisely been given funds for facilities to meet wider than local needs, but what is to happen to small local needs? It is the responsibility of the Government to encourage recreation in all its aspects, both large and small schemes, and there should be a proper balance between national policy and central sources and local needs and priorities. Over the years, we have seen a see-sawing, backwards and forwards, between specific grants and block grants. I quite appreciate that Her Majesty's Government wish to give local authorities more autonomy, and I quite appreciate what the noble Lord, Lord Redcliffe-Maud, said about this. But this does inevitably produce a lack of uniformity. Local authorities have different views and give different values to recreation and its needs. I apologise for taking up the time of the House in dealing with this one aspect, but I would ask the noble Baroness to give careful consideration to the likely results of this part of this Bill.
§ LORD HYLTON
My Lords, before my noble friend, Lord Luke, sits down, would he agree that there is great scope for much more joint use of school playing grounds and playing fields by the community at large?
§ LORD LUKE
Yes, my Lords, there is very great scope. I hope that we shall hear a lot more about it. I do understand that now the playing fields attached to new schools are for dual use. Of course a large number of schools have playing fields which are empty at school time, and it is a great pity that they have not got dual use.
§ 6.40 p.m.
§ LORD MONSON
My Lords, first of all I should like to apologise to the first three speakers for having missed their remarks. I was informed that the debate was likely to start at a quarter past six and planned accordingly.
My Lords, I want to speak solely on Clauses 15 and 16. I do so with some 526 trepidation, being neither an expert on local government nor a lawyer; but I believe these two clauses raise certain issues of principle. Dealing first with Clause 15, I accept the argument that rating authorities ought to have the power to levy full rates on empty properties, and that the previous limit of 50 per cent. was too low. After all, there is a certain redistributive bias built into the rating system, which is generally accepted by most people in this country as fair. Thus, not only parents of young people contribute towards the costs of education, but also childless couples, as well as shops, offices and factories. In a similar manner, everybody contributes towards the upkeep of parks and libraries, even those who never set foot in either.
Moving on to those services from which all ratepayers benefit, street cleaning and the maintenance of highways helps the owner of the unoccupied property as much as the owner of the occupied one in that his property is thereby made more easily saleable or lettable. Again, given the incidence of vandalism at the present time, it can be argued that the police have their work as much cut out protecting empty properties as occupied ones; and the same applies to the fire services. The only indisputable saving to a local authority when a building is empty is in the field of refuse collection. Because there is a genuine saving here, I am inclined to think that a 95 per cent. maximum would be fairer than a 100 per cent. maximum—but the difference is really too small to make an issue of.
What I find worrying about Clause 15, though, is subsection (4); specifically the very wide discretion given to rating authorities to levy differential rates on different classes of property, and as between different areas. Of course it is perfectly reasonable to discriminate in favour of households, in so far as their property is more likely to be empty because a prospective purchaser cannot obtain a mortgage, than because the owner is asking too high a price. It is the power to discriminate between, say, offices and shops, or even different types of shop, that is worrying. The power to discriminate between different areas within the rating authority's jurisdiction is even more so. The overwhelming majority of local government councillors in this country are dedicated, hard working, and totally honest people, but there 527 are black sheep, as in every other profession and occupation. I wonder whether the very wide powers of discretion that subsection (4) permits may not open the door to a certain amount of favouritism on the one hand, or vindictiveness on the other? Apart from this, I have no quarrels with the principles behind this clause.
But, my Lords, turning to Clause 16, I believe we are sailing into very much deeper and more dangerous waters. To reiterate, I think that we all generally agree with the principle of Clause 15; namely, that it is fair to charge up to 100 per cent. rates on empty property, so that the properties in question can make an equitable contribution, along with all other ratepayers, towards the services provided by the local authority. Going a stage further, if the property were to remain empty for more than a few months (as in the case of a large office block) one could justifiably seek slightly more than 100 per cent. This is because the shops, boutiques, hairdressers, snack bars and so on which surrounded the empty block would almost certainly ask for a reduction in their rating assessment, on the grounds that the increase in trade that the new office block was expected to bring had not materialised. If these small traders' appeals were successful, it would be only right and proper for the owner of the office block to pay more, so as to make up the deficiency. But once we start talking about 200, 300 or 400 per cent., we have left the realm of "fair shares" and "equitable contributions" and entered the realm of punishment—whatever anyone may say about it not really being punishment at all, but only a little subtle arm-twisting. Now I may be old-fashioned, but I was under the impression that punishment in this country was something for the courts—and the courts alone—to impose. Apart from rebates and exemptions which are rightly given to the poorer section of the community, it is a misuse of the rating system to use it for punishment or, for that matter, reward.
If it is considered that leaving office blocks empty for more than a specified period of time is harmful to the community as a whole, then let it be made a criminal offence, punishable in the courts, upon conviction, by an appropriate fine. Alternatively, or perhaps additionally, we could legislate to empower planning 528 authorities to impose, as a condition for the granting of planning permission, a requirement that the building, or buildings, in question should not only be completed but fully occupied by a certain date. If the developer did not fulfil his side of the bargain, then the planning consents would automatically become null and void. Of course, the results would be even more draconian in effect than the penalties provided in Clause 16—but at least this would have come about through a clear-cut breach of contract.
My worries about Clause 16 are the precedents it may set. Supposing at some future date—I simply pluck an example out of the air—alcoholism became a problem in certain parts of the country. Might not the Government of the day decide to empower local authorities in the areas concerned to levy double or treble rates on pubs and off-licences as a quick and convenient way of dealing with the problem as they saw it? Such an idea may seem fanciful to-day in 1974, but in ten years' time, who knows? I hope that the noble Baroness who is to wind up for the Government will be able to reassure us on some of the issues I have raised.
§ 6.48 p.m.
§ LORD HYLTON
My Lords, may I say to the noble Lord, Lord Monson, how very much I admire his courage in putting forward a view on rating which may be unpopular, but which is perhaps also constitutionally correct. However, that is not a point with which I should like to deal to-day, because I want to suggest to your Lordships that this Bill gives the House an opportunity to examine the responsibilities both of local and central Government for the rehousing of homeless families. I should make it clear that in using the word "homeless", I am doing so not in the broad sense—for example, of people living in very overcrowded conditions or in slums—but in the narrow sense of people with no roof at all over their head, with nowhere to go, who may truly be said to be "houseless".
It may be helpful if I gave a little background on the current situation in this respect. Each year there is a rising number of persons applying to local authorities for temporary accommodation. Each year local authorities find themselves obliged to put more and more people 529 into hotels and bed-and-breakfast accommodation because they have no, or an insufficient amount of, temporary housing of their own. May I give an example from an organisation with which I am connected, Shelter Housing Aid Centre. During 1973, homeless emergencies rose each quarter, and doubled between the first quarter, of the year and the fourth quarter; they rose from 100 to 216. In this connection, an emergency is defined as being a case of eviction with a known certain date which cannot be avoided. That is the background of the present situation, and it is serious.
I shall now try to indicate briefly the legal history of the question. For many years it has been governed by the National Assistance Act 1948, particularly Sections 21, 24, 34 and 35. These impose a duty on local authorities to provide temporary accommodation to persons in certain defined circumstances. Then along came the Local Government Act 1972, Schedule 23 of which took away the absolute duty and replaced it with a power. This caused some concern and apprehension which led to a question being asked in another place, to which the Secretary of State for Health and Social Services gave the following Written Answer. He said:I propose to give direction to local authorities to continue after 1st April 1974 their duty under Section 21(1)(b) of the National Assistance Act 1948 to provide temporary accommodation in certain circumstances for homeless people. In addition … the Secretaries of State for the Environment and Wales, and I intend to issue a circular setting out the Government's view that accommodating homeless people should increasingly be seen as a housing responsibility. The policy of the Government is to seek to improve the general provision for the homeless without altering the particular responsibilities placed on local authorities by the National Assistance Act."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, 20/12/73; cols. 373–4.]That seemed to be a helpful and promising answer, but it did not by any manner or means satisfy many people. In consequence, an Amendment was put down at the Report stage of this Bill in another place, the debate on which was answered by my honourable friend Mr. Rossi. On January 23, 1974, he said in columns 1778–1781 that,… it is the Government's will and intention to do whatever they can to help the homeless".That is a very good intention and I only hope that it will become really effective. He indicated that the direction to be 530 issued would continue the duty of local authorities to provide accommodation for those in urgent need. That is also helpful and promising. He went on to say:The Government are giving themselves a more effective and sharper weapon to deal with homelessness.He said that they would also be more flexible. Nevertheless, concern still remains, as expressed in the All-Party Amendment moved in the other place, which was defeated by only a fairly narrow margin late at night. That concern is shared not only by Parliamentarians, but by a very large number of voluntary bodies which have to deal with this problem. To mention just a few, they include Shelter, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Campaign for Homeless and Rootless People, the Catholic Housing Aid Society and several organisations dealing with one-parent families, not to speak of the National Council of Social Service and the Shelter Housing Aid Centre.
There are at least three reasons for this concern. The first is that the functions of housing and social service will be on two different levels of local government in most of Britain outside of London and the metropolitan counties. This, in itself, is liable to create problems. Secondly, there are two central Government Departments involved—the Department of Health and Social Security and the Department of the Environment. The third reason for concern is that the circular which is coming out, which I have seen in draft, will suggest that responsibility for the re-housing of homeless families should be transferred to housing authorities, whereas the direction, which is also shortly to be published, will presumably apply to social service authorities.
In this context, I should like to ask my noble friend the Minister whether she can say why the forthcoming direction is not to be a joint one between the Department of the Environment and the Department of Health and Social Security? Will the direction be subject to Parliamentary approval? If so, will it be by the affirmative or the negative procedure? Also, must the approval of Parliament be sought, as I hope it will be, before the direction is withdrawn or rescinded? Will the direction cover all known types of homelessness; for example, those which arise from family 531 friction, harassment and cases where no court order has been obtained? Finally, will the direction and the circular be published before the Committee stage in this House? I hope very much that they will be. If these documents are not available, we shall to some extent be stumbling in the dark and it will not quite be the open Government which we have been promised.
This is a time of desperate housing shortage in London and many other places, when many local authorities have no temporary accommodation of their own, or an insufficient amount; when some splitting-up of families still continues by the taking into care of children of homeless parents; and when local government is being reorganised with, as I said, different powers allotted to the different tiers. In these circumstances, it is necessary to be very clear about who does what. We must at all costs try to avoid confusion. The history of circulars on this subject in the past is not exactly a very happy one, and it is no exaggeration to say that they are put into practice by those local authorities which would do so anyway, and disregarded by the rest. In the past, there have been too many examples of what might crudely be called "passing the buck", sometimes between one local authority and another, and sometimes between local authorities and voluntary bodies. I urge the Government to amend this Bill to make the duties of local authorities absolutely clear, especially the duties of housing authorities. If this is not possible, we may have to ask the House itself to do so.
§ 6.58 p.m.
§ VISCOUNT SIMON
My Lords, I am sure that we have all listened with attention and sympathy to what the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has said about the desperate situation of homeless people in this country, and I hope that at the next stage of the Bill it may be possible for him to bring forward some concrete proposal that can be worked into the Bill to ameliorate the position to some extent. I am intervening for only a few moments—and I hope to keep my speech as short as the last four speeches have been—because I thought that there should be some words from these Benches on a Bill which, while a great deal of it may seem 532 dull, is a very important Bill indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, said.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, began her introduction by reminding us of the urgency of getting this Bill through, and the noble Viscount, Lord Amory—I thought rather kindly—emphasised that the reason for the urgency is the time scale. But we are entitled to say—and the noble Viscount may agree with me—that the Government made the time scale. If after the Local Government Act was passed they were not to have—and they decided not to have—a full-scale inquiry into local government finance, which clearly would have taken some time, then a Bill such as this could have been brought in straight away or after a very short period of consultation. In fact, it has come so late that both in another place and here we shall be hard put to it to give it the careful study that it undoubtedly deserves, for it is a very complicated subject. Had there been more time, we might have been able to consider in greater detail possible alternatives to the rating system as the principal source of local government finance. While it has been rightly said that rates are simple and easily understood, that is surely only because we have had them with us for a long time. But there is almost universal agreement that they are not a suitable main source of finance for local government.
There is in this matter, my Lords, one dilemma which must be faced, but which I think is not always faced, by those who advocate other sources of income for local government; that is that almost any tax or source of revenue that can be imagined, at any rate by me, will have the disadvantage that it will make rich areas richer and poor areas poorer. It seems to me that, whatever the sources of local finance are, there will have to be Exchequer grants to equalise the position of the poorer authorities with that of the richer authorities. In fact, under almost any tax or system one can think of it is the poor authorities that not only will have less revenue coming in but will also be liable to face greater demands upon their resources. For that reason I find it difficult to believe that we shall be able to get away from a situation which the noble Viscount, Lord Amory, quite rightly said militates against the freedom of local authorities, perhaps, to do what 533 they want; for they must rely very largely on Exchequer grants. It was the noble Viscount, Lord Amory, again, I think, who regretted the extensive power still given to Ministers to intervene. But here, surely, the dilemma presents itself in another form. If it is money voted by Parliament which in fact enables the local authorities to carry on, is it not inevitable that the Minister should have some powers, which are contained in Clause 5 of this Bill, to intervene if he feels that these funds provided from the Treasury, from the central revenues, are not being properly employed?
My Lords, I do not propose to comment on Part I of the Bill in regard to the new rate support grants except to ask one question—and, as I have given the noble Baroness no notice, it may be that she will not be able to answer it this afternoon. The noble Lord, Lord Garnsworty, mentioned, I think, an average domestic element in rates of 10p, and that indeed was mentioned in another place by the Minister when introducing the Second Reading of the Bill. But looking at the White Paper which has since been published and which I have tried to understand, though I will not guarantee that I have understood it, it seemed to me that that figure had been replaced by the figure of 7p. I do not know whether the noble Baroness could say what the significance of this is. The noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, was welcoming the 10p. If it has been whittled away by 3p, it does not look quite so worthy of welcome.
Turning to Part II of the Bill, I feel that, as we have to live for the time being with rating, the extension of the rate rebate scheme is certainly to be welcomed. I do not know whether it goes far enough, but it would be very unwise of us to look this gift horse in the mouth. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Amory, that there is every logic in having a 100 per cent, grant to cover what is a mandatory rate rebate scheme, although the provision that local authorities can introduce their own rebate scheme up to an amount of (I think it is) 110 per cent. of the basic scheme might leave us with the thought that at least the extra 10 per cent., if any local authority chose to introduce a private scheme, should not be subject to grant. While on the subject of grants, I would also support the view expressed in an- 534 other place that sere is logic in a 100 per cent. grant for the mandatory academic grants.
As to unoccupied property, I listened with interest to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Monson. I do not know that I agree with him; but looking at Clause 16 I wondered why, in this provision for super-rating, it is confined to commercial property. It seems to me far more objectionable that residential property, in which people could live, should be left empty than large blocks of offices, which might with some difficulty be converted into living accommodation but which are not basically suitable for that purpose. One has the feeling that Clause 16 has been introduced with a particular case in mind, one which we have all heard a great deal about, and I have a feeling that legislation which is devised to meet particular cases is not always very satisfactory legislation. I just wonder whether, if these powers are to be given for penal rates on unoccupied property, they should not apply just as much to other types of property as to commercial property.
Turning to Part III, I welcome the appointment of the Commissioners, but I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Redcliffe-Maud, that as the Bill is drafted their field of activity looks very circumscribed. Perhaps the Schedule needs closer attention than I have yet given to it, but when we go into Committee we may wish to look at this to see whether the limits within which complaints can be presented to the Commissioners are not too tightly drawn. There is one point here that I think is worth mentioning. The duties of the Commissioners are similar, of course, to the duties of the Parliamentary Commissioner, but the circumstances are rather different, because in local government (and I think this particularly applies to small local authorities) the councillors are very much more closely concerned with administrative decisions than, for instance, are Members of Parliament—or even, I dare say, Ministers themselves—with administrative decisions taken in the name of central Government. It seems to me that there may well be cases where the councillor concerned—the councillor of the particular ward in which the complainant lives—may feel very embarrassed about having to forward a complaint over a decision to 535 which he may well have been a direct party. Because, after all, the councillors do not decide only issues of policy in their committees: they decide very many issues of administration. I think this will have to be borne in mind when framing the rules for handling these complaints.
My Lords, in conclusion I agree with what has been said by several noble Lords, that we hope this is not the last word. I do not believe it can be the last word. It is no doubt undesirable to subject local government to frequent changes, but at the same time I cannot believe that reliance on rates as the principal source of finance of local government should be allowed to continue indefinitely. I would support the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, that a Royal Commission, or perhaps some other suitable body, should be set up to inquire into this. It is a complicated and difficult matter and it may well be four or five years before we have a Report which has been thoroughly considered. Perhaps by then local government in its new shape will be ready to accept another change. My Lords, we on these Benches shall certainly support the Second Reading of this Bill.
§ 7.11 p.m.
§ LORD DIAMOND
My Lords, it is a great pleasure for me to follow the noble Viscount, and like him, I would say that we from this Party give our support to the Bill. We regret that we are not able to make the greatest possible contribution because of the time factor. There is little for me to add to what my noble friend said in speaking to this Bill, but I should like to deal with two principal points which have emerged in a number of speeches. One is the question of dealing with this Bill with such urgency, and the other is the general importance of local democracy. So many criticisms have been made that I hesitate to rub this point in. I know, of course, that we would not be moving to the Committee stage in a week's time unless this matter had been agreed through the usual channels. I was not here, but I daresay it is just possible, though highly unlikely, that when my Party was in Government there were occasions when we wanted co-operation from the other side in getting legislation through rather quickly.
536 My Lords, there is a further point to which I want to refer which has not been mentioned by those who have drawn attention to the difficulties of adequate examination in the time scale that has been given to us. Nobody can doubt, having listened to the debate to-day, that a great contribution can be made by your Lordships to Bills of this kind. The wealth of experience that rests on these Benches is really remarkable, and I suggest very tentatively to your Lordships that it is neither of benefit to Parliament nor, more particularly, to your Lordships' House, that the impression should get abroad that Bills of this importance can be got through this House without adequate examination. We all know that there are times when pressure in Departments makes life very difficult indeed, but I am not one of those who take the view that one need bring one's officials into this matter at all. If officials are too pressed it is because they have been given too much to do or there is inadequate staff. These are faults of Government and of Ministers.
As the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, has said to-day, we are being pressed in this way because the Government have decided that this shall be done at this time, and indeed there would be utter chaos if this Bill were not enacted in time to enable the consequential effects to take place prior to April 1. Already, as my noble friend Lord Garnsworthy has said, great inconvenience is being suffered by local authority treasurers in having to estimate their figures in order to prepare their rate precepts and demands. They have no time to wait for accurate figures. Some of the formulae have been prepared only within the last few days, and there is therefore near chaos existing already in many local authorities. I think we are bound to stress this point and to ask the Government to be more considerate of the needs of Parliament and to take account of the wrong impression that can easily get about if it is felt that a Bill can be pushed through your Lordships' House very quickly without regard for the need for consideration, especially as we know that there are times when adequate consideration cannot be given in another place and they rely on us to give a second view.
I am sorry to appear a little schoolmasterish, but I think that is a point 537 worth putting forward, especially as it is not the first time I have found myself at this Box compelled to make the same comment with regard to Bills about which it would be quite impossible for us to know what the Government have in mind with regard to Amendments before putting down our own, and similar problems of that kind. What is of importance in the view of all those who have spoken is this sense of local democracy to which the noble Viscount, Lord Amory, has referred. This is something we have to seek to encourage and revitalise. I think the noble Viscount, Lord Amory, referred to "more independent authority and responsibility", and I look at it also in terms of greater participation. I recollect full well, as all your Lordships who have been Members of another place will, that when one held what is called one's "surgery" in one's constituency, question after question concerned grievances in connection with local government rather than with central Government. These are the things which impinge on the daily lives of citizens, and it is right that they should feel that they can participate and understand, and that those who are elected by them can understand what they are doing, and feel free to use their discretion a good deal more than they are at the moment.
My Lords, there is one obvious way of increasing that sense of responsibility and independent authority, and that is by providing more sources of local finance, either instead of or in addition to the rates. So far as the rate is concerned, I agree with all those who say that this is a matter which should be continuously looked at and improvement sought. As a simple practical person who knows that money has to be got by convenient methods, in suitable ways, my own view is that however much this is looked at it will be with us for the lifetime of everybody here. Perhaps a more constructive approach to it is to say, "Let us improve the rating system as much as we can while it is with us because it is going to be a companion for a long time". Of course our anxiety is about its element of regression—though it is not completely regressive—and seeing whether that cannot be improved. I recognise that the Government have made an attempt to go some way towards that in the present Bill. We should therefore 538 continue to examine it by whatever method is appropriate—whether by a Commission, as suggested by my noble friend and, I gather, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Redcliffe-Maud—or in some other way.
I think, too, of other sources of local finance, such as local income tax. This is the only part of the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Amory, with which I did not entirely agree. I hope I do not embarrass him if I say that I accept the rest of it and rejoice in every word that he said. As to local income tax, he seemed, notwithstanding his vast experience as a great Chancellor of the Exchequer, to be holding out hopes that it would be possible to find some kind of local income tax which would do the trick. If that is his hope, the noble Viscount is more hopeful than I am.
§ VISCOUNT AMORY
My Lords, on that, I am just about as hopeful as is the noble Lord, Lord Diamond. I said it bristled with difficulties and I leave it like that. I said if one could be found it would add just the kind of flexibility that is wanted. I am not hopeful that this is feasible but I have, I think, just a slight degree of hope; just enough to make it worth while looking at it further in case some by-product might come out of it. I do not think that my hopes are very different in scale from those of the noble Lord, Lord Diamond.
§ LORD DIAMOND
My Lords, I am much relieved to hear that. Now I agree with every single word that the noble Viscount said, which is a very happy state of affairs. I think it helpful if one has a view of this kind which is not entirely unrelated to the facts and a careful examination of them. It is helpful that one should say this so that people's gaze should not be directed at what is not likely to be achieved quickly, but rather that their gaze should be directed from a more productive angle. That is why I say that I do not really think we shall see any satisfactory alternative or additional substantial local revenue—at all events in the near future—that will achieve the purpose we all want to achieve of giving a greater sense of local democracy; although I share with the noble Viscount the view that everything should be looked at intensively in the hope that there will be a spin-off.
539 The reason why I cover this ground first is to come to the second point I wish to make. I do not think this is the only way of vitalising or revitalising local democracy. I am aware that the larger authority is likely to be the more efficient. Nevertheless, I am of the view that the time will come, probably at the same time when we are thinking again about the religion of pursuing growth at all costs, when we shall take the view that there is a good deal to be said for removing some of the restrictions put on the exercise of discretion by local authorities, and be willing, if necessary, to pay the additional cost which may arise from some possible fall in efficiency resulting from that individual action. It may be that there is a price to pay. In my view this is a small price to pay for a happier local community. I do not think, therefore, that we should too lightly concentrate the whole time on achieving efficiency at all costs, including the cost of a devitalised local community and a less happy one.
We have to bear in mind that the political situation is that there are always local authorities at cross purposes with the Government of the day. There are always Tories at cross purposes with a Labour Government and there are always Labour councils at cross purposes with a Tory Government. I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, for contributing to our debate, and so extremely well, if I may say so. But I daresay that the same situation would arise even were there a Liberal Government. I doubt whether the Liberals would claim to win every local authority in the country. So, my Lords, that is the background of the situation and something that we have to bear in mind, and not increase the friction which is there naturally in many cases.
That brings me more particularly to the Bill, because although the Bill does not, and one would not expect it, promote this in any particular way, it goes some way to making life more difficult. As the noble Viscount said, there are inadequate guarantees of consultation, and I think that consultation is a very appropriate alternative to local finance for making a local authority feel more independent and able to rely more on its own sense of responsibility. There are several examples of this. Reference was made to Clause 6, the transport clause. There is no adequate guarantee of consultation 540 about that. I think the complaint about that clause is that discretion is left completely in the hands of the Secretary of State, without any question by the local authority or any right of consultation. I know that the noble Baroness will say that Governments always consult fully, but it makes a great deal of difference if the consultation process is guaranteed and included in the Bill. That is a matter we can come to on Committee stage.
Again the Bill leads the way for the regulations which will be the important parts so far as many local authorities are concerned, and I do not see in the Bill anything like adequate guarantees of consultation in arriving at the content of the regulations. There are several examples of this, and I relate it to the major point I was making, that we must do all we can, in the light of the expectation of some of us that alternative local revenue is difficult to find, to give support to a feeling of participation and community at the local level. My Lords, that is all I wanted to add to the excellent speech made by my noble friend, who has already made clear that notwithstanding the difficulties, we want to support the Bill, and to expedite it as much as we reasonably can.
§ 7.27 p.m.
§ BARONESS YOUNG
My Lords, I should like to begin by thanking all those who have taken part in this debate. I never cease to be impressed by the expertise which Members of your Lordship' House bring to any subject, and particularly I welcome the expertise which has been revealed to-day as I think nearly everyone who has spoken has practical experience of local government and a deep interest in it. I can only add that although I have not had the years of experience, as some noble Lords have had, I did serve for 15 years in local government and I retain a great admiration for what it does and for those who serve in it. I was glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, say that he wishes to expedite the passage of this Bill. If I did not speak at great length at the beginning of the debate it was because I think that when one is explaining, or attempting to explain, a complex Bill it is better to pick out and to underline essential points, and leave for the Committee stage the many other matters 541 which though important are complex. I hope that on Committee we shall have adequate time to debate the points raised this afternoon at much greater length.
The first matter raised was the time-tabling of the Bill. I can understand that local government is concerned. I recognise, and know from those in local government who have discussed it with me, that this is a very difficult time; at the end of an old period of local government and the beginning of another period. To add any other uncertainty makes things more difficult. I can only say in mitigation that if in considering the timetable of this Bill it must be seen in relation to the Local Government Act 1972. That Act changed not only the boundaries of local authorities but also their functions, and there had to be time for the elections and the consideration of these functions before we could deal with the whole question of finance.
My Lords, I will take the general topics which were raised one by one and try to answer some of the questions. The first point arose over the question of the rate support grant. I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, who asked about metropolitan counties and conurbations, that we believe that they should he better off. If I might quote one example, Greater Manchester will get nearly 8 per cent. more under the new system than it did under the old one, this is derived from the needs element. Most of the complaints from other parts of the country have been that too much has been going to the conurbations, not too little.
The noble Viscount, Lord Simon, referred to the amount of money in the domestic element. He thought there was a contradiction between the 10p. referred to by the Minister during the Second Reading in debate in another place and the 7p. referred to in the White Paper. The noble Viscount was quite right in pointing out the difference: it occurs because we have now decided that 7p. is the right flat rate element in the domestic rate. However, it will be varied and in a great many cases it will be increased from the 7p.—that is the minimum—and it could go beyond 10p.
The noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, raised a question that probably worries all of us, namely, whether enough 542 people will be able to take up the benefits of rate rebates. This of course is a concern which occurs over many kinds of social security payments. The Government are to undertake extensive advertisement and publicity—in the Press, on television and by leaflets. I can confirm that the Secretary of State is well aware of all the problems that can occur in this respect, and he will be willing to take up any suggestions that may be offered to him in order to see whether we can improve the take-up rate of these benefits.
A number of noble Lords referred to the question of alternative sources of finance. Anyone who has been concerned in local government, let alone anyone who has paid rates—and I think this would apply to all of us—would like to see some alternative form of rating system, or to maintain the rates and find some other form of finance to top up, as it were, and to give a buoyancy that rates do not offer. As I said earlier, no one has tried harder to find some such alternative than my right honourable friend Mr. Graham Page.
The noble Viscount, Lord Amory, and the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, both referred to the question of a local income tax. I was very glad to hear both noble Lords refer to the difficulties about such a tax, and the very practical difficulties the Government would face at this time in introducing some new form of taxation. The other tax which I know has been considered by the local authority associations was some form of local motor fuel duty; but while this may well have benefited local authorities it would have been at the expense of the national duty. Also there would have been considerable administrative difficulties and the burden would have fallen largely on industry. So, as I say, there are difficulties in almost every form of tax, and I think at the present moment we are left with the situation put by the noble Lord, Lord Diamond—if I may paraphrase what he said—We should hope to improve the rating system because it will be with us for a very long time.Nevertheless, I should like to confirm that it is the view of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State that this Bill is not the last word on this subject. I think we should all continue to look 543 at the matter and see if we cannot find something better.
I was very glad to hear the words of the noble Lord, Lord Redcliffe-Maud, who was of course a member of the House of Lords Select Committee on Sport and Leisure, and to have his support for new grants for the countryside. The noble Lord, Lord Luke, mentioned grants for the countryside and asked why the specific grants to the Lee Valley Regional Park had ended. I share with him a great admiration of this park, having visited it recently. The specific grants for this park were made in order to help get it launched, as it were. It is now launched. It will, however, be eligible, under Clause 9, to receive financial assistance from the Countryside Commission; therefore, although it will lose the grant in one way it will regain it in another way.
The noble Lord was also concerned about the withdrawal of specific grants for public open spaces; but here again it has been the policy of the Government to withdraw specific grants wherever possible in order to give freedom to local authorities to decide which projects they themselves may wish to promote. I was grateful for the welcome given by the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, to the improvements in the system of rating for the disabled, in that for the first time the land on which their garages stand will be free from rating. This tidies up an anomaly arising from the revaluation of 1973. There are also some minor improvements to dwellings, which will now attract some relief.
The noble Lord, Lord Monson—I felt, very bravely—attacked Clauses 15 and 16. The noble Lord suggested that the empty office building problem could be overcome by making it a condition of planning permission that a building should be occupied when completed. I think there would be very grave difficulties involved in that. The owner might not be able to let it—and then what could the local authority do about it? The clause in fact has been inserted because the Government have decided that the misuse of resources involved in building such large properties and then keeping them empty has really become an affront to society: all sections of another place, and indeed of society 544 generally, have complained about it. An alternative to what is proposed in the Bill would have been to make it an offence to keep the building empty and then fining the offender—which is perhaps the proposal that the noble Lord has in mind. This, too, would have involved difficulties and would rarely have fitted the actual circumstances. I think that the safeguards must be emphasised. It is only when the owner is deliberately withholding his property from being let that the clause will bite.
At this point perhaps I might comment on the suggestion of the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, that in fact the same kind of principle should apply when houses are kept empty. Houses are excluded from this particular clause because the reason most of them are empty is not that the owner is deliberately keeping a house empty—for from it—but because he has been unable to sell it. In nearly every instance I should have thought that the average owner who wishes to sell his house wishes to sell it as quickly as he can.
§ LORD GARNSWORTHY
My Lords, I think the noble Baroness will agree that it may very well depend upon the reasonableness of the price the owner is asking. If he is asking an unreasonable price and just holds on until he gets it, there is a great danger of the situation arising which was referred to by the noble Viscount.
§ VISCOUNT SIMON
My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness this question? Have there not been cases of blocks of flats where a position has arisen very similar to the one which has recently been so widely publicised? I was thinking of such a case rather than of houses.
§ BARONESS YOUNG
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount for drawing this distinction, but I would still maintain that it is very much the basic right of an individual which is at stake in the sale of his house; and I still believe it is generally true that he must first sell his house before he can buy another one for himself.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, touched on what I think is one of the most serious social problems facing us today; that is, the problem of homelessness, particularly 545 in large cities. This is a matter which rightly cuts across Party political lines. It was debated last week in another place during the Report stage on an Amendment made to this Bill.
Although we are debating this Bill on Second Reading, it will, I am sure, be the wish of your Lordships' House if I were to spend a little time replying to the points which have been raised, in particular the specific questions which the noble Lord addressed to me. The purpose of the Amendment moved in another place was, first, to restore a duty on social service authorities to provide temporary accommodation which has been converted into a power by the 1972 Act; secondly, to specify some categories of people for whom the duty should in particular be exercised; and lastly, to transfer that duty from county to district authorities. The present position is that under the National Assistance Act 1948, local authorities are under a duty to provide in certain circumstances temporary accommodation for persons in urgent need. From next April, that duty imposed upon local authorities will be replaced by a power, but that power will be subject to a direction by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Services which will be made in the next two or three weeks restoring the existing duty and keeping within the general intention to relieve the local authorities of the unnecessary administrative burdens represented by the present old-fashioned procedures.
I know that the sponsors of the Amendment in another place were concerned lest there should be reduced provision for the homeless by local authorities. We hope that this will not happen and we do not expect it to happen. The Government were very sympathetic to the wish of the sponsors of the Amendment to help in a constructive way those people who are suffering genuine homelessness, but we believe that our forthcoming circular on the matter provides a better alternative to that contained in that Amendment. The circular will in particular stress the responsibilities of local government as a whole, and it will bring out as a major change of practical responsibility between housing and other social service authorities, that housing authorities should increasingly undertake a prime responsibility 546 for homeless people and for accommodation.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, put to me a number of specific questions. The first was whether the direction will be a joint one. The answer is that it will be made by the Secretary of State for Social Services because it is the responsibility of the social service authorities. The direction will not be subject to Parliamentary approval. The noble Lord asked whether it could be rescinded or withdrawn by Parliament. The answer is that it cannot, except by amending legislation introduced in Parliament. The Secretary of State could withdraw a direction or issue an amending direction. Lastly, he asked whether the direction would cover all known types of homelessness, in particular homelessness arising from family friction. The answer to this question is that the direction will restore the duty on local authorities, as it at present exists, to provide in certain circumstances temporary accommodation for persons in urgent need.
§ LORD HYLTON
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for her long and detailed explanation. I agree with her that the Amendment moved in another place was defective in form and would not necessarily have been suitable; but does she realise that I am asking the Government to bring in their own, watertight, copper-bottomed Amendment which will make things clear? My noble friend says that the circular and direction will come out in two or three weeks' time. That is certain to be too late for our Committee stage. Can she get the Government printer to work overtime or all night so that we can have these documents in time?
§ BARONESS YOUNG
My Lords, I cannot promise, or give any undertaking, that the Government will bring in an Amendment on the lines suggested. I will read my noble friend's speech with great care. As for the date of the circular, I cannot make any further comment except that it is expected to be printed within two or three weeks. But I have taken note of my noble friend's remarks on that subject.
I should like now to turn to the matter of the local ombudsman. The noble Viscount, Lord Amory, expressed some anxiety about the definition of maladministration lest it should open too many 547 transactions of local authorities to investigation. I think that at the Committee stage noble Lords will want to look carefully at this point. We hope to have the advantage of the case law which the Parliamentary Commissioner has built up on this subject. The wording used is very similar to that used in the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967. The noble Viscount, Lord Simon, suggested that the terms might be too tightly drawn. Here again we shall have an opportunity to look at the proposed terms in much more detail when we come to the Committee stage. The noble Viscount said he was afraid that a councillor might be reluctant to put forward a complaint. In that event the complainant could go to another councillor; or, if he thought fit, he has the opportunity of approaching the local commissioner, who could, if he so wished, accept the case.
I should like to conclude by saying something very briefly about Part IV of the Bill, which deals with the abolition of a number of controls. The noble Viscount, Lord Amory, said that local government was still concerned that there were far too many central Government controls over its activities. We believe that in Schedule 6 (which I am sure all noble Lords interested in this matter will study) we remove a great many controls. On the question of transport supplementary grants, we recognise that the taxpayer's interest must be safeguarded. The aim of the new system is to enable the controls to be directed to general principles and not to individual projects. We believe that this Bill will substantially reduce central Government investigation of every single local project.
My Lords, I have tried to comment on the main points of this Bill. I should like to return to the point that I made at the beginning about the timetable and say that I hope the House will feel that there will be plenty of time to debate the many detailed points that have been raised to-day, and others which I know 548 will come up, at Committee stage, and to say again how glad I am at the general welcome that has been given to the Bill this afternoon.
On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.