Home Page

Column 191

House of Commons

Monday 22 November 1993

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Statutory Instruments, &c.

Madam Speaker : With permission, I shall put together the motions relating to statutory instruments.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(3) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.). That the draft Roads (Northern Ireland) Order 1993 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

That the draft Environment and Safety Information (Northern Ireland) Order 1993 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

That the draft Water and Sewerage Services (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1993 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]

Question agreed to .

2.35 pm

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In view of the extremely cold weather in the country, could you advise hon. Members on how we can help our elderly constituents? Many pensioners in my constituency--the same applies in the rest of the country- -are desperately trying to keep warm on small incomes. Will the Secretary of State for Social Security make a statement about the cold weather payments? The payments are apparently triggered only if the weather is freezing for seven consecutive days, which is an absolute farce. The House of Commons must be concerned with the lives of ordinary people. If hon. Members are not concerned with pensioners who are desperately anxious about the freezing weather, we will not be fulfilling our duty. Will you advise the House how I can get a statement from the Secretary of State on the matter?

Madam Speaker : The hon. Gentleman has moved from making a point of order and is now making a plea, as he has done on other occasions. I know of his deep and sincere interest in the matter. I think that the hon. Gentleman will understand that he must pursue it with the Government, either through questions or through Adjournment debates.

Column 192

Orders of the Day

Debate on the Address

[Third Day]

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty as follows :-- Most Gracious Sovereign,

We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament-- [Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith.]

Question again proposed.

Local Government (Scotland and Wales)

2.36 pm

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Ian Lang) : In the resumed debate on the Gracious Speech, I welcome the opportunity to debate the Government's proposals to reform local government in Scotland and in Wales. These are two extremely important measures and have both been subject to widespread consultation during the past three years. They will, I believe, be welcomed widely both in Scotland and in Wales, and will have long-term consequences in improving the quality, efficiency, and coherence of local government and local democracy in both countries.

I and my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for local government in Scotland, who has been tireless in his meetings and discussions with interested parties on the matter, will listen closely to all that is said today about our proposals in Scotland, as will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and the Welsh local government Minister regarding reform proposals in that country.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon) : The Secretary of State for Scotland said that the proposals for Scotland and for Wales had been well discussed during a three-year period. Will he therefore confirm that the time scale for both Scotland and for Wales will be identical, and that elections will be held on the same date?

Mr. Lang : The hon. Gentleman knows that we have proceeded independently in terms of the time scale, and indeed the detail and the content of our proposals. It is interesting that those are reconciled in a large number of areas. The Secretary of State for Wales will be replying to the debate this evening, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will have heard the point made by the hon. Gentleman and will no doubt wish to address it.

There has been a change of cast in the long-running play on the Scottish Opposition Benches. In welcoming the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) to our continuing deliberations on the matter, may I invite him to make it clear a little later where he stands on a number of specific aspects of the debate. He has a good opportunity now to put his party's approach to the matter back on the rails.

Does the hon. Gentleman propose, if he forgets his lines, to stamp his foot and lead his hon. Friends on a fatuous walk-out on a spontaneous procession to No. 10

Column 193

Downing street? If he does so, and he tells me in advance as well as the press, I will try to let him know whether my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is at home.

So far, when pressed on his approach to the legislation, the hon. Member has responded, "Remember Maastricht." Well, some of us will never forget Maastricht. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends will not think me insensitive if I point out that the Government won the Maastricht debate. The Bill is now law, as is our entire legislative programme for the previous parliamentary Session. We shall win with our proposals for local government reform in Scotland and in Wales. Indeed, it seems to me that the rebels on those proposals are on the Opposition Benches, not on the Government side. I have taken careful note of the many comments from the growing number of Opposition Members who support what we propose. However, there is one issue of great importance which I hope the Opposition will be willing to clear up at the outset. The House deserves to know where the hon. Members for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) and for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) stand on an issue raised at the opening of the debate on Thursday by the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith). He advanced a highly controversial constitutional proposition when he said, in speaking of the local government proposals :

"An overwhelming majority of the hon. Members who represent Scottish and Welsh constituencies are against the Bills that will only be carried by the votes of English Conservatives who do not represent the people in the countries concerned."--[ Official Report, 18 November 1993 ; Vol. 233, c. 24.]

The meaning of that seems perfectly clear. It is that only Scottish Members should vote in the House on Scottish matters and only Welsh Members should vote in the House on Welsh matters. That is a major constitutional change, which would have far-reaching implications, solemnly expressed by the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition in opening the debate on the Loyal Address--the highest profile debate of the entire parliamentary Session.

I ask the hon. Member for Hamilton, for the avoidance of doubt--

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) : Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery) : Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Lang : No. I am addressing the point specifically to the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland and his colleague the shadow Secretary of State for Wales. Is such a constitutional change the official policy of Her Majesty's Opposition? Do the hon. Gentlemen agree with it? I will give way to either of them if they would like to clear up the matter. [Hon. Members :-- "Answer."] Perhaps they want to think about it. No doubt they will answer the point later. They owe it to the House to do so.

Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly) : I should like the Secretary of State to deal with one particular point. [Hon. Members :-- "Answer."] I had a telephone conservation earlier today with the Secretary of State for Wales. As I understand it, the Secretary of State for Wales intends to make some announcement later today about the nature and perhaps the timetable of the Bill to reform local

Column 194

government in Wales. At this moment we do not know precisely what are the proposals for Wales because they have already been changed several times.

The Secretary of State for Wales said that he would put a letter on the Board for me and all other Members who represent Welsh constituencies so that we would be informed of the intention of the latest proposals. It is a matter of great regret that I have to say that there is no such letter on the Board for me or any of my colleagues. May I put it to the Secretary of State that we would have a much better informed debate if the Secretary of State for Wales was able to live up to the undertakings that he has given.

Mr. Lang : I shall come to that matter shortly, and I shall deal with precisely those points. If the hon. Gentleman suggests that he should have been told privately through a notice on the Board before such a matter was announced to the House, I suspect that other hon. Members will be on their feet complaining to you, Madam Speaker, at the impropriety of such a step.

Mr. Alex Carlile : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I am sure that you agree that it is important for a debate in the House to be an informed debate whenever possible. The Secretary of State for Wales is present in the House, as one would expect. Will you permit him, on a point of order, to tell the House at the beginning of the debate what are the major changes that he has in mind for Wales? For example, if he announced that there would be respectively Montgomeryshire and Brecon and Radnor unitary authorities, it might well change the view that some of us would take of the debate. Mr. Lang rose--

Madam Speaker : Order. May I respond to the point of order? The hon. Gentleman and the House know that we do not have statements from Ministers following points of order.

Mr. Lang : If the hon. Member will contain himself, I shall be able to announce what my right hon. Friend proposes. He is putting the information on the Board for Opposition Members.

What was noticeable about the reply from the hon. Member for Caerphilly was that he did not rise to respond to the point that I put to him ; he rose to create a diversion.

Mr. Wilson : Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Lang : No. I want to deal with this point specifically. The implications of what the Leader of the Opposition said are clear. If only Scots may vote on Scottish business and only Welsh Members may vote on Welsh business, presumably only English Members may take part in English business. The Leader of the Opposition is a Scottish Member of Parliament. He represents Monklands, East--an area with one of the best known local authorities in Scotland. How, then, can he fulfil the role of the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition for the United Kingdom if he is confined in this place to decisions on Scottish issues? Still less could he fulfil the role of Prime Minister. He demonstrates more and more his unfitness for that office.

The policy of the Leader of the Opposition on the matter is one of great irresponsibility. It would split the integrity of this House and this Parliament. It would create second-class Members of Parliament and lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. The House deserves an

Column 195

answer today from the Opposition on that point. We shall await the necessary clarification with considerable interest and concern. Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian) rose--

Mr. Wilson rose--

Mr. Lang : I shall give way to the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North.

Mr. Wilson : Having got the knockabout out of the way, as he is going down the road of devolved opinion, will the Secretary of State address himself to the views of Members of Parliament for Ayrshire, and more importantly the electorate there? Will he tell us at this advanced stage in the consultation procedure whether he has had any support for the proposed division of Ayrshire, as set out in the White Paper, other than the support of his hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie), who, disappointingly is not with us today, presumably on the ground that he is studying the electoral boundaries of Dumfries?

Mr. Lang : The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) was reluctant to address the point that I put to him. Matters of constituency boundaries are for consideration later in the progress of the Bill.

I very much welcome the opportunity today to debate local government reform in Scotland and Wales. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I will shortly introduce major pieces of legislation that will transform the structure of local government for the better. It is therefore right that we should take time before we necessarily become embroiled in the detail of the changes to discuss in more general terms today the current state of local government, its strengths and flaws and, by restructuring, the opportunities presented for its improvement.

Discussion of the detailed provisions, particularly of the delivery of all the services and the new authority structure and boundaries, is important, but will more profitably follow the publication of the respective Bills. I would, however, like to take this opportunity to announce a number of refinements to the new local authorities, which we proposed for Scotland in our White Paper in July. They affect three areas : the boundary between south Lanarkshire and Glasgow ; the boundaries of the city of Dundee ; and the boundary between the Lothians and Berwickshire and East Lothian at Prestonpans. In each case, we have listened carefully to the detailed arguments put to us and studied carefully the facts that have been presented. In the first case, we concluded that the areas of Toryglen and Kings Park should more appropriately remain in Glasgow. We shall redefine that boundary to follow much more closely the line of the old county boundaries in the area.

In the case of Dundee, we have acknowledged the importance of Camperdown Park to the city, recognising that it was purchased by trust moneys bequeathed to the city. We propose to adjust the boundary to include within the city not only the park but the adjacent recreational area of Clatto country park. To the east of the city, we have accepted the reasoned arguments that have been presented for the retention of the West Pitkerro industrial estate within the city. In relation to Prestonpans, we have recognised the problems to which the White Paper

Column 196

boundaries would give rise and propose to adjust the boundary to include Prestonpans in Berwickshire and East Lothian.

I believe that these changes will make far more sensible and effective boundaries in those areas.

Mr. Home Robertson : I am glad that the Secretary of State has acknowledged that it was an absurd idea to take Prestonpans out of East Lothian. As it clearly makes sense to leave Prestonpans in East Lothian, will he now acknowledge that the case for Prestonpans to remain in East Lothian is every bit as strong as the case for Musselburgh remaining in East Lothian? They go together and it is idiotic to split them.

Mr. Lang : Given that the hon. Gentleman's responsibilities are in representing Berwickshire, I am surprised that he is not aware of the considerable distinction. We propose to return Musselburgh to Midlothian, where it always used to be. That is a matter that he may wish to pursue later in the debate.

Several hon. Members rose --

Mr. Lang : I shall not give way unless the interventions deal specifically with those three points.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North) : I do not wish to comment on the announcements that the Secretary of State has just made, but does the fact that he has said nothing about the local government boundary in Aberdeen, and in particular about Westhill, where 97 per cent. of the people are opposed to becoming part of Aberdeen, mean that he has a fixed mind about that, or is he still prepared to listen to the views of the people of Westhill?

Mr. Lang : Of course the Government will listen to the debate on all boundaries as the Bill proceeds through Parliament in its Committee and other stages. The hon. Member represents an Aberdeen constituency. It was indeed the representation on Westhill of Labour-controlled Aberdeen council that cut so much ice with the Government. No doubt the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) will want to enlarge on that in due course as the Bill proceeds.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) : Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Lang : I was about to come to the announcement for which the hon. Gentleman's hon. and learned Friend the Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) has been waiting so eagerly.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has been listening carefully to representations and arguments from right hon. and hon. Members and many others in Wales about the boundaries of the new unitary authorities. He has decided to make some changes, including the transfer of Ystradgynlais and Llanelly Hill to mid-Wales, the creation of a larger Flintshire by transferring the communities in the north-east from Denbighshire, the transfer of Cynwyd and Llandrillo from Meirionnydd to Denbighshire, and a modest adjustment to the Bridgend-vale border. My right hon. Friend will comment further on those changes later in the debate. He also accepts the recommendation of the Council of Welsh Districts to have about 1, 250 rather than 1,100 councillors elected on district ward boundaries.

Column 197

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has also decided to make a number of changes to the names of authorities. Important among those is the renaming of the proposed Glamorgan valleys authority to Rhondda-Cynon-Taff. That will ensure that those historic names are not lost from local government in Wales.

Mr. Ron Davies : I am grateful to the Secretary of State for Scotland for giving way. I understand that he is making this announcement on behalf of the Secretary of State for Wales because his pronunciation of Ystradgynlais and Llanelly Hill is better than that of the Secretary of State for Wales.

None of the changes will address the real grievance that is felt all over Wales--in the communities of the valleys, in Meirionnydd, in the Vale of Glamorgan and in Montgomery--about the fact that the proposals do not meet the objectives of reorganisation. The proposals will sever those communities from any sense of self-determination. Are not the proposals hopelessly out of touch with the people of Wales?

The Secretary of State has lost the argument in the Cabinet because he cannot even have the proposals brought before us in the House of Commons. As the proposals command no public support, should they not be dropped, and should not the Secretary of State go back to Wales and build on a consensus which does--if he is prepared to look for it--really exist?

Mr. Lang : The hon. Gentleman has given us a foretaste of his wind- up speech this evening. No doubt those issues will be debated more fully as the matter proceeds through Parliament.

Mr. Jonathan Evans (Brecon and Radnor) : My right hon. Friend should bear in mind that the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) speaks for no one but himself in respect of the observations that he has just made. I speak on behalf of the communities of Ystradgynlais and Tawe Uchaf. Those communities will be delighted to hear the news from my right hon. Friend, who has recognised their strong links with the county of Breconshire and with Powys. There has been a cross-party consensus in that community of a kind that is beyond so many Opposition Members. The people in my constituency will be deeply delighted with what my right hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Lang : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing a more balanced view to bear on this debate.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) : Will the Secretary of State tell us a little more than the absolute zero that has been said so far about the boundaries of the Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend? He described the adjustments as modest. There are four communities affected : Coychurch Lower, Ewenny, Saint Bride's Major and Wick. None of them is difficult to pronounce, so I cannot understand why we have not been told which ones are to stay with the borough of Ogwr and which are not. It is important as they all want to stay in Ogwr.

Mr. Lang : The hon. Gentleman has made his point and he will be able to develop it as the debate proceeds.

I touched earlier on the strengths of local government.

Mr. Wigley : I realise the difficulty that the Secretary of State has handling a Welsh issue. In the consultation paper,

Column 198

a model for Wales called the Powys model was brought forward that intended to create two tiers in that county to give a greater identity to the three districts there. The Secretary of State suggested that that model may be extended to other counties, which is of some concern to areas that may be affected by such a change. Will he say whether the model still stands in Powys and, if so, is it likely to be extended to other areas?

Mr. Lang : I understand that the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is yes, if those areas apply for it.

I touched earlier on the strengths of local government, and there are many. The years of the present structure--since 1974 in Wales and 1975 in Scotland--have seen a remarkable development in the quality of many of services. In education, social work, roads, leisure and recreation, and many other services, the improvements in the availability and service and professionalism with which they are run have been enormous. In many cases, local government has also adopted innovative service delivery arrangements and is more and more developing new and more efficient management structure. I have seen many examples of that at first hand and I am delighted to acknowledge innovation and efficiency wherever I come across it.

So why do we need change? That is a question that needs to be addressed not only by the Government, but surely by the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, as the reform of local government and the introduction of single-tier government is as much on their agendas as it is on ours. Of course, I cannot answer for any other party, but from the Government's perspective the need for change lies in the continuing inadequacy of a two-tier structure to tackle certain fundamental flaws that, in Scotland and elsewhere, have been present for a long time in the fabric of local government structure.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : In the context of change in local government, the Secretary of State has failed to mention the money it will cost, when pensioners are freezing in their homes and are threatened with VAT on fuel and power and there are people without roofs over their heads. Is it not a fact that, together with the English changes, we are talking of spending £2 billion of taxpayers' money that should be used to provide water and heat for pensioners and to provide proper local government services, instead of spending it on that wasteful idea just because the Tory Government want to shift democracy from local government and turn some of the services into enabling authorities? It is a complete waste of time and money, and the money should be spent on something more useful.

Mr. Lang : If the hon. Gentleman is still with us when I reach the issue of cost later in my speech, he will discover that the position is very different.

In Scotland, Lord Wheatley's commission, whose work underpins so much of the present structure, identified correctly the flaws of which I have spoken. In the end, the solution that his commission proposed--our present two-tier structure--alleviated but did not cure the fundamental ills. It is worth remembering that, although Lord Wheatley finally recommended a two- tier structure, he did so reluctantly. In 1969, his commission concluded that a system of all-purpose local authorities "has many advantages", being the simplest of all to understand and to operate.

Column 199

Thus, the legitimacy of the present structure was called into question from the moment its creators recognised the merits of the single-tier option. The Stoddart committee of 1981 expressed the same views more strongly, and almost a decade later the Scottish Labour party said the establishment of single-tier authorities would deal with

"the continuing widespread confusion about which tier carried out which function."

So what were the fundamental flaws that Lord Wheatley identified, and to what extent do they still blight local government today? The first flaw described by Wheatley was the complication inherent in the pre-1975 structure--in particular, the "criss-crossing", as he called it, of responsibilities, which made it difficult for the citizen and even the local councillor to know what local government was all about. Wheatley observed, rightly, that such a situation did not make for the best kind of local service.

Although improved by the 1974 and 1975 reforms, problems of the sort identified by Lord Wheatley persist. Almost 20 years after the two-tier structure came into being, too many people in Scotland and Wales do not know which tier is responsible for which service. An ICM survey in March this year showed that one in four Scots did not know that district councils were responsible for cleansing, while one in three did not know that district councils had responsibility for housing--easily the largest district service. Even worse, the survey confirmed that two in five Scots did not know that regional councils were responsible for education--one of the most important local government services.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) : As it happens, I agree with the Secretary of State about the advantages of single -tier authorities, but does he agree that what he proposes is in fact not a single-tier system? Fire services and the police are to be dealt with by Strathclyde and water and sewerage by three non-elected boards. Only the remaining functions will be dealt with by the new authority. A three-tier system of authorities will replace the existing two-tier system : we are not talking about a single-tier system at all.

Mr. Lang : The hon. Gentleman is wrong, and when the Bill is published he will become more aware than he should be at present that he is wrong.

The problem is compounded by the continuing lack of any clear definition of the services provided by districts and regions respectively. Different arrangements apply in different parts of the country and, for some services, an overlap of responsibilities continues to exist. Thus, across Scotland, both tiers of local government in different areas may have some involvement in building control, conservation areas, countryside matters and nature conservation, development control, industrial and economic development, leisure and recreation and a number of other services besides. In Wales, there are similar problems. Duplication occurs in development control and planning, in economic development, leisure and so on.

Confusion is inevitable. One small example sums up the problem very well : regional councils are responsible for lighting adjacent to roads, but districts are responsible for some footpath lighting. No wonder the consumer of local services is confused, and no wonder friction, waste and delay have for too many people become the hallmarks of the present two-tier system.

Column 200

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray) : I agree with the Secretary of State that the delivery of service is the critical factor for the public as a whole. In that context, does he think that the Scottish public understand that only 1,000 new houses were built in the public sector last year? Housing is a critical problem with which all hon. Members have to contend. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore specify in any future statement the amount of money that will be made available through revenue support grant, and perhaps by the abolition of capital debt, to enable our authorities, whatted the complete picture instead of selecting parts of it to suit the case that she has advanced.

The second flaw in local government is its illogicality. Despite various bites at the legislative cherry since 1974-75, the present divisions of functions between the two tiers of local government in Scotland and Wales remain confused. In terms of its impact on efficient and effective service delivery, the separation of housing and social work is perhaps the most notorious consequence of the present two-tier structure.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) : Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lang : I must make progress ; I will give way later. There are other examples. Responsibility for education, libraries and leisure and recreation services, all of which are closely linked, is split between districts and regions. The same is true of consumer protection, weights and measures and food standards. The fact that, after 20 years, it has still not been possible to create a sensible and clear-cut division of responsibility reflects only the impossibility of achieving that under a two-tier structure. Then there is the expense of the present system. It was the Wheatley commission's view that the complications and illogicalities inherent in the structure of local government before 1975 made the whole system more expensive than it would be to run. The same applies today in Scotland and Wales. There is general acknowledgment among commentators that a single-tier structure can be less expensive to run than a two-tier structure. That is, of course, very much in line with what common sense dictates.

I will refer to transitional costs, but on long-term savings there can be no dispute. Fewer councils, fewer staff, fewer buildings, less bureaucracy, less confusion, less duplication and greater efficiency all point to lower costs. The one consistent point of all studies by all the consultants commissioned by all the councils which had done so is that of savings. It is incumbent upon any Government to seek more cost-effective means of delivering services, and we cannot ignore the potential for efficiency savings when they are identified.

Mr. Brian Donohoe (Cunninghame, South) : Does the Secretary of State regard it as efficient to allow such a system to occur as we have in Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles? That is the system that he wants to introduce in the rest of Scotland.

Mr. Lang : The hon. Gentleman is rather silly to refer to the Western Isles as though that area is an example of what single-tier local government would apply in the rest of

Column 201

Scotland. He knows perfectly well that the population in the Western Isles is very much smaller than would be ideal in a single-tier authority. Over the years, all Governments have recognised the importance of giving a sensible local-tier structure to the islands to take account of their geography and particular problems.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce : Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Lang : I will give way to the hon. Gentleman and then I really must press on.

Mr. Bruce : The Secretary of State is making a good case for single- tier authorities, with which many hon. Members would probably agreee. Nevertheless, what criteria are applied to determine the optimum size for a unitary authority? Why is it that Eastwood is just big enough and Gordon, which is exactly the same size, is apparently too small? Are the views of local people taken into consideration? Do the Government listen only to the views of the Scottish Office or Conservative central office? When will local people have a say?

Mr. Lang : The hon. Gentleman knows that local people have had considerable say and no doubt will continue to do so. However, I give him two examples. In the Western Isles we have local authorities of about 20,000. The largest local authority in Scotland is Glasgow, with 620,000. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is that we take account of local circumstances, local demography and natural local boundaries, including, where possible, reversion to the previous historic boundaries and response to local allegiances. I now refer to the matter of costs, not least because it is the centrepiece, we have been told by the media, of the Opposition's attack in today's debate. Even in that matter there is hope of progress. Already, the wilder claims of last summer are being moderated. The successive claims of the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East of £400 million, £500 million and then £600 million in successive weeks are now down to the specific figure in mid-October of £126 million, although still accompanied by lurid claims about the consequences for individual council tax payers. On 8 November, in the Labour party's position paper, the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) settled on a figure of £200 million. That is £4 million above the upper estimate of our consultants and it is almost double the lower estimate, but it is a very big improvement on his earlier calculations. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman spoils that improved performance by wildly exaggerating what it means by way of the so-called massive burden for council tax payers. He is wrong in several important respects and by quite alarming amounts.

First, the hon. Gentleman assumes that all the burden falls on the council tax payer. He forgets that more than 85 per cent. of local government current expenditure comes from other sources, mainly from central Government. So he is wrong by a factor of between five and six. Secondly, he assumes that all those costs will fall in one year. In fact, as everyone else acknowledges, they will be spread over several years. So he is wrong again, this time by, shall we say, a generous factor of three or four.

Column 202

Even at the height of the transition in 1995 -96 and 1996-97, total transitional costs are unlikely to exceed £30 million to £35 million in any one year. At its height or at the most, the cost of reform will be less than half of 1 per cent. of total local government current expenditure. That is using the starting figure of the hon. Member for Fife, Central.

Labour Members ignore the other side of the balance sheet--the savings arising from fewer councils, fewer staff and greater efficiency. The figures will vary according to who is compiling them, but all the consultants' reports to all the councils indicated savings from the single- tier structure that they favour. Our consultants' estimates ranged from £40 million to £66 million per annum. The margin is wide because it depends so much on decisions by new authorities and therefore it is hard to be precise.

It is important to recognise that the savings are linked to the transitional costs. Indeed, most of the transitional costs--almost half of them--arise from staff rationalisation and early retirement. If the Labour party's higher cost estimate is right, it is unarguable that the higher savings estimate resulting from fewer staff will follow. Over the first five years, the savings for Scotland will total over £300 million. That will amount to savings of about £1 billion from the reform of local government in Scotland over 12 years.

Next Section

  Home Page