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I beg to move,
That the Thames Valley Police (Amalgamation) Order 1968, a draft of which was laid before this House on 14th February, be not made.
When I have finished the House may be disabused of the idea which may be in the minds of certain hon. Members that the tale that I have to recount is one concerning a squabble between local authorities about money. Money, it is true, is the basis of the trouble that has arisen over the Thames Valley Police (Amalgamation) Order, but I hope that when I have finished the House will believe that there is a very serious issue of principle involved. That is why my hon. Friends and I and certain hon. Gentlemen opposite have chosen to move the Motion to annul the Regulations.
The story begins in 1966 when, on 18th October, the Home Secretary gave notice of a proposal to make a compulsory amalgamation scheme under Section 21 of the Police Act, 1964. This sought to amalgamate the police forces of the Counties of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, the City of Oxford and the County Borough of Reading. When the notice had been circulated, all these authorities lodged objections, and, following the procedure laid down by the Statute, the Home Secretary ordered a public inquiry to be held, which lasted some six days at the end of April, 1967.
During the course of the inquiry two main objections were taken. The first was whether or not it was wise to have what was called a five-forces amalgamation or a four-forces amalgamation. This turned around the desire of the County of Buckingham to be excluded from the new authority. The second main issue discussed was that of representation—the number of seats that the individual authorities should have on the new combined police authority. Only on one day, the very last day of the inquiry, was the important subject of finance discussed.
On 5th July last the inspector's report was published and laid before this House. It is interesting to note in passing that the Government did not seek, as they were obliged by Statute to do, to lay a draft Order at the same time. I make no point about that apart from referring to it as I go along. The inspector's report contained a number of recommendations. The first was clearly in favour of a five-forces amalgamation. He considered at length the argument of Buckinghamshire that that county should be excluded from the new authority and rejected it, and that is no part of the discussion that I wish to raise tonight. Secondly, he came to certain conclusions and gave certain advice to the Home Secretary about the number of seats that each authority should have on the new combined police authority, and that, again, I do not wish to discuss now.
But on the matter of finance—it is contained in paragraph 45 of his report—the inspector came down clearly in favour of what is called in the jargon a higher rate product basis of contributions by the individual component authorities. This is a basis which has been adopted in most of the earlier police amalgamation schemes. I make the point that the inspector in his report said nothing what ever about any transitional provisions—no special relief to be given over the first few years to change the basis, which he suggested should be permanent. This was completely consistent with the policy of the Home Office because it is in favour of uniformity of police rate over the areas of a number of authorities which are combined and against the idea of differentials. One has only to look at Paragraph 3(d) of the Inspector's Report where the Home Office's own proposals were set out in detail. Such a policy is necessary because the whole basis of a combined police authority, as similarly the case with many other combined authorities covering a number of former smaller authorities, is to secure, first, uniformity of service, and, secondly, uniformity of charging.
In the case of the Thames Valley area, such a policy was extremely necessary because, if one takes for the year 1966–67 the police rate based upon an actual penny rate product, one finds that, in the County of Buckinghamshire, the rate is 6·7d. whereas, in the County of Oxfordshire, part of which I have the honour to represent, it is 11d. The reason for this attitude is given by the Inspector in paragraph 45 of his Report. He says the reason for the disparity is that Buckinghamshire has enjoyed a comparatively low police rate because of its high rateable value per head of the population. So, for that reason he recommended the higher rate product basis, and, when the arrangements are permanent, he estimated, in a table in that paragraph, that there would be a figure of 7·18d. uniformly throughout the area of the authority and no differential. I understand that the figures based on the latest estimates for 1968–69 will give a figure of about 9d.
Because of events which have taken place since the inquiry—most of them behind the scenes and not in the light of day—the present Order contains a number of transitional financial provisions, and these are mostly, although not wholly, in favour of Buckinghamshire. The provisions of Schedule 3 are highly complicated and much to be recommended as reading for those who find it difficult to go to sleep at night. I will not try to explain them in detail. I will tell the effect in terms of cash.
The effect of these transitional arrangements is to create a police rate for Buckinghamshire of 8·4d. and for Oxfordshire of 10·2d. The House will compare these figures with those I mentioned—6·7d. for Buckinghamshire and 11d. for Oxfordshire at the moment. For the first three years therefore there would be a differential.
The Government are always, or have been up to now, against differentials. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton), my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten), and possibly some others, will recall a debate in 1966 on the Local Government Act, when we urged that in regard to the change of grant structure, some transitional provisions should be included to temper the wind for those authorities who were going to lose very heavily. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government said:
The question is whether, when we give very substantial advantages to some local authorities, we should have a transitional arrangement protecting the others from any possibility of their grant falling. Put like that, it would be a difficult pr position to defend…Therefore our answer to the narrow point on why we do not have transitional arrangements is the purely practical point that they are not easy to work."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th October, 1966; Vol. 733, c. 461–2.]
But in this case, despite their own contention in the scheme they put for inquiry to the Inspector, the Government have come down in favour of a transitional arrangement which is extremely unfair. There is the obvious question of whether there have been any precedents for differentials of this kind. At the inquiry, the Home Office witnesses said clearly and gave evidence to the effect that there were no precedents in compulsory amalgamation schemes for imposing differentials. That is so. The only extant example which I have been able to trace is the Hampshire-Southampton amalgamation some time ago when a differential was created in the financial structure. But in that case it was based upon the fact that the Hampshire force had a low strength and therefore the differential was biased against Hampshire for that very reason. In this case the Buckinghamshire force has a low strength and, under this Order, it is to get the special aid. The Home Office appears to have no
consistency in this respect and in this instance there is no case for any differential.
It may be asked why, if that is the case, the Inspector did not recommend a differential and how it comes about that, after hearing evidence over some six or more days, the Inspector did not recommend a differential such as is proposed in the Order. This is an extremely intriguing situation. The transcript of evidence, which is a lengthy document which I would not attempt to bring into the House, let alone quote, has only three references of substance which I have been able to find to the subject of a differential.
First, some remarks were made by the Assistant County Treasurer of Berkshire, not Buckinghamshire which has been able to obtain this differential aid, but Berkshire. Secondly, there was what I can only describe as an appeal ad misericordiam by counsel appearing for the County of Buckinghamshire when he urged the Inspector to remember the grievous financial plight of his authority. Then there is a most illuminating situation which I must quote to the House when the Inspector asked about his ability to incorporate something concerning differentials. The Inspector was Mr. Mars-Jones, Q.C., and he asked counsel appearing for the Home Office:
I thought there was some right of appeal. What is the position? If the transitional provisions can be agreed well and good, if they can't be agreed the Home Secretary gives an Order, if anyone is dissatisfied with that Order they have a right of appeal—to whom?
Counsel for the Home Office then said:
I can't answer that off the cuff, but by the time this witness is finished I hope to be in a position to answer that.
Quite a few minutes must have passed before we find on page 66 of the transcript of the final day, by which time, I presume, counsel had been able to obtain instructions—and I ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to note this carefully—counsel for the Home Office made this reply:
It might perhaps be useful if I indicated very briefly what the procedure normally is in this context. What the Home Secretary envisages being the usual procedure is that if the amalgamation were approved in principle he would then invite the authorities in the usual way to get together and agree on these internal arrangements relating to finance, to provide for such things as transitional provisions relating to capital expenditure.
nothing about reviewing, I notice—
and similar considerations of that kind. Of course if they were able to agree that would then be put in the order as it stands. If they were not able to agree the Home Secretary would of course consult the authorities about what he had in mind to resolve the difficulties attendant on their inability to agree this it would finally go in the order and from that there is no appeal under the Act".
Those were the only three references of substance to this matter of transitional relief and I do not believe that they were sufficient to found a claim by Buckinghamshire to have this special aid. There was no evidence and there was no argument and certainly—and this is the important point—no case was put by Buckinghamshire which has obtained this additional relief and no opportunity was given to the other authorities to say what they thought about it.
My hon. Friend has said that it was merely a few minutes after the Inspector asked what the form was that the reply was given. Reading the transcript, however, I think that it must have been quite a long time. Does my hon. Friend think that in that time, counsel for the Home Office had time to get in touch with the Home Office and receive instructions from the Department about this important point?
The pages go from 59, where the Inspector put the question, to 66, where Mr. Layfield, Q.C., gave the answer. Each page is a foolscap page, double spacing, of type. I should think that in all probability he had several minutes, if not perhaps longer.
I am obliged, Mr. Speaker, because I am hoping to make that quotation. I am well aware of what my 'ion. Friend says. This is the crux of the argument, because it is what has been dole behind the scenes by Buckingham shire and the Home Office that is the ground of our complaint tonight.
After the report was laid, there is no doubt that considerable pressure was put upon the Home Office by Buckinghamshire, which argued that as the Inspector in his report had said nothing about any transitional relief to that county, he must have been misled. The Home Office then wrote him on 8th January and asked whether he thought that he had been misled. It was not, therefore, surprising—I will not go into the correspondence in detail, although I could; it would take up a great deal of time—that after a couple of days' reflection, the Inspector came back and said, "Yes, of course, I was misled".
I defy anyone, however, to read the evidence, as I have done, and, in particular, the quotations which I have given, the question which was put by the Inspector to counsel for the Home Office and the reply which he then gave, and come to the conclusion that anyone could have been misled. No one could have been misled in the circumstances.
It is difficult to understand how the Inspector, having been asked whether he was misled, could have said other than that he thought perhaps he had been misled. I find it very difficult to understand how he could have come to the decision at which he arrived without proper evidence, because no authority at the inquiry other than Berkshire gave evidence on this subject.
Reading the correspondence, which the Under-Secretary of State obviously has done, and which, I have no doubt, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall) has done, one is bound to say that although these were not judicial proceedings, the attitude shown by the Inspector was not exactly a judicial attitude.
If I sue a man for damages and lose my case, can I write to the judge and say, "You may have been misled by something that my opponents' counsel said. If you had had evidence before you on such and such a point, how would you have decided?" I know what sort of reply I would have got, if, indeed, I received any reply at all. That was exactly what happened here. The Home Office, at the behest of Buckinghamshire, wrote to the Inspector, without telling any of the other local authorities that it was doing it, and asked him, "If you had had evidence before you about this and that subject, how would you have decided it?"
It is all here. I am sure that the Under-Secretary has read the letter at length. It is very clear indeed that if one reads the letter, it was being said to him, "You have had no evidence before you on this matter. Will you please say what your decision would have been had you had that evidence?" Of course, they have wrapped it up nicely. They have used all sorts of pleasant phrases and given him a perfect way out.
In that case, at the cost of taking time, I had better read what it says.
said the Home Office to the Inspector,
of having some form of transitional relief for Buckinghamshire were discussed before you to some extent"—
that is an understatement—
and counsel representing Buckinghamshire specifically asked you when you come to report to bear that matter in mind.
Is this the evidence on which the Inspector was to report on the question of transition relief? The letter went on:
Mr. Layfield's subsequent statement, which Buckinghamshire now claim is misleading, was made in answer to your earlier question about a right of appeal against financial provisions and was not intended to suggest that the Home Secretary would not welcome any recommendation one might wish to make on the issue of transitional relief to Buckinghamshire from the full burden of contributing to the cost of the combined police authority.
That is my answer to the hon. and learned Gentleman. That is the letter which was written. They were asking him quite clearly—it stands out a mile from the phrases in which this has been wrapped up—"You must tell us what you would have decided if you had had the full evidence before you", and this is the crux of the matter.
If in fact the Inspector was misled, everybody was misled in this matter, and this alone would be reason for taking this Order back.
Having got this correspondence in its hand, the Home Office wrote to the council on 17th January last asking for its observations by 1st February. The Home Office gave the council a little over a fortnight in which to consider this entirely new matter which had suddenly come to light and which the Home Office had kept very quiet about up to then. This was the first the other authorities knew. There had been no kind of communication between the Home Office and them on this matter. This came at a time when those authorities were engrossed in the job of finalising their estimates for the coming financial year, in making their rates, and, of course, in that process, they had taken account of what would be expected to be the basis of finance for this new police authority. This was all rendered invalid overnight by this sudden decision of the Home Office to change the rules half way through the game.
I can speak only for Oxfordshire—no doubt, the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. John Lee) and the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Luard) will speak for their authorities—but Oxfordshire County Council replied protesting on 13th February. The Home Office rejected the objection the following day.
The effect upon Oxfordshire is simple to state. The ratepayers in my county will have to find in this coming financial year some £54,000 more than they were expecting to find for this new police authority. Over the next three years it will amount to between £100,000 and £150,000 more. It destroys the whole basis of the draft Order so far as finance is concerned. I cannot imagine anybody can think this will make for a very happy partnership in this new authority. Buckinghamshire, with its higher rateable value per head of population, will be subsidised by Oxfordshire and will get a better police force into the bargain.
That is the story. What can we now do? I am moving that the Order be not made. I realise that within a few days, on 1st April, this new authority starts business. I would suggest to the hon. and learned Gentleman that in the light of the whole of this story the simplest and best and cleanest thing he can do—because I am quite sure he cannot be happy about what has been done behind the backs of everybody else—is to say that the inquiry will be reopened on this one single point.
It would not take much time; it could be done in half a day; it need not be expensive; it would not be necessary to have Q.C.s left, right and centre. I have no doubt that the other authorities—certainly Oxfordshire—would be perfectly willing to abide by the considered view of the Inspector when he has had a chance of hearing their case. I would ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to tell us he is willing to reopen the inquiry on this very limited point. It not, there are other courses they may have to take; there is another body to which they can go; but I hope that, on reflection, the hon. and learned Gentleman will say that this need not be done, and that he will have an inquiry on this one point.
I rise to support the hon. Gentleman the Member for Henley (Mr. Hay). I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House should he grateful for the amount of work that he has obviously done on this matter.
I am bound to tell the Under-Secretary that he has stirred up somewhat of a hornets' nest, because this is one of the rare occasions on which he has not only united hon. Members across the parties, but he has succeeded in uniting the two sides of the Reading Corporation in vehement opposition to his proposals.
For the reasons explained by the hon. Member for Henley, it is true to say that most of us are profoundly dissatisfied with the way in which this inquiry has been handled. It is well known that inquiries of this kind are conducted with a greater degree of informality than an ordinary law suit or a criminal trial. To some extent this is accepted, but when, after all the evidence has been tendered and a conclusion has been drawn, a matter which was not really in contest in the inquiry becomes radically altered because of an informal exchange between one of the interested parties and the boss of the inquirer, because this is what it amounts to, one is bound to say that the Home Office in this matter has at best been tactless and at worst been downright improper.
The Under-Secretary really must reconsider the matter. It is not only the Oxfordshire County Council whose position is altered in this way. The Reading Corporation, as a result of the ex post facto insertion of these financial provisions, finds itself £14,000 worse off. All this without reference to any of the interested parties in Reading. It is not surprising that I read correspondence from the Town Clerk of the Reading Corporation saying that the Under-Secretary was met with vehement opposition in his office the other day of a kind which he is unlikely to experience very often, and certainly not the tenor of opposition he is accustomed to receiving from normally sedate members of a local authority. I do not want to labour the point. I think the hon. Member for Henley has covered it very well.
The hon. Member for Henley said that if we reopened the inquiry on this one matter that would be sufficient. But there is another matter which is a cause of dissatisfaction peculiar to Reading which again produced a great deal of correspondence. It is the question of the alienation payments concerned with Reading police station. I will give the history very briefly. The position is that the present Reading police station was bought in 1908 from the old university college—now the University of Reading—for the modest sum of £13,000. That is the net amount. However, as it was bought on a loan, the figure is somewhat higher. The important point is that this was in the pre-police grant days, but the period of the loan repayment straddled the period since the 1918–19 financial year, which was the first year in which a police grant became payable. Because of this, and because of the fact that there have been certain adaptations and improvements to the police station since the period in which grants have been payable from the Home Office, it is now demanding an economic payment for the capital value of the site and the building which was bought so many years ago.
It is most extraordinary that a Government department should think that because it gave a grant—no doubt a very modest one—years and years ago, this should give it a kind of equitable lien on the property. This is a very valuable site, and the local authority may well have to pay a very large sum indeed, if the matter is pressed to a conclusion.
The local authority, with considerable forbearance, was prepared quite willingly to pay 50 per cent. of the cost, based on the fact that a Circular in 1946 laid down this kind of provision in the case of the alienation of property of this kind. Even so, I still find it difficult to understand why the Home Office should be demanding anything at all, bearing in mind how modest were the sums involved and how very much this is a matter of water under the bridge.
I understand from the latest correspondence that on this matter, at least, the Home Office has not closed its mind. I hope that that is the case, and I hope, too, that the Department will reopen its mind on the major matters of substance which the hon. Gentleman the Member for Henley raised.
In the earlier debates on police pensions I heard the hon. Gentleman the Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine) express enthusiasm for amalgamations. I do not entirely share his enthusiasm in this case. This amalgamation will land us with the fourth largest police authority area in the United Kingdom. It is a large and awkwardly shaped area and, I would have thought, not particularly manageable having regard to the alignment of communications. I accept that larger units are necessary, but why on earth could not this arrangement have waited until the local government Royal Commission had done its job? As it is, we may have to go through the whole business again. It would have been far better to have reconstituted the local authority boundaries and then to have decided any questions of the reallocation of portfolios.
I should like to preface my remarks by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) on the way he moved his Motion. I hope that if ever I have to appear in court and plead guilty, he will be able to defend me—
I should like first to deal with the amounts involved. Listening to my hon. Friend, one got the impression that Oxfordshire would suffer a great deal from the proposed change, but let us look at the figures for the five constituent authorities separately, before they became part of the police authority. In the financial year 1967–68, the police expenditure for the Oxfordshire County Council was £483,685. Under tie transitional arrangements it will pay an estimated £467,500—a reduction. The same thing applies to Reading. In 1967–68, the borough's net expenditure was £289,770; its total estimated expenditure in the combined police authority, apportioned according to the transitional financial provisions, will be £283,337—again, a reduction. That position applies throughout Oxfordshire.
On the other hand, expenditure on police in Buckinghamshire in 1967–68 was £878,110. Under the original proposal, before the adjustments were made, the county would have had to pay £1,181,000 and under the transitional proposals the amount will be £1,111,981—a very considerable increase in both cases over the amount spent by the county as an independent authority.
I agree with the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. John Lee) that it was perhaps a little too early to reorganise the police in this way, and that we might have waited until the Royal Commission had made its recommendations about new local government boundaries. Buckinghamshire was very reluctant to become a member of the new authority. It has had, for a long time, a very efficient police force, to which considerable tribute was paid by Mr. Mars-Jones, who conducted the Home Office inquiry.
My hon. Friend the Member for Henley referred to the way in which discussions had been going on behind the backs of other county councils with the Home Office. Perhaps I may refresh his mind as to what actually happened. Mr. Mars-Jones's report contained a recommendation to adopt what is called the
"adjusted penny rate product basis" for transitional relief. Buckinghamshire County Council drew attention in its observations to the Home Office, to this on 1st September. The Home Office replied that the Home Secretary did not consider that there was sufficient justification for this and the discussion went backward and forward until it was pointed out that Mr. Mars-Jones had been rather misled by Mr. Layfield, counsel for the Home Office, during the inquiry. As a result, the Home Office referred back to Mr. Mars-Jones. I quote his words:
Having refreshed my memory from these documents, I am satisfied that as a result of Mr. Layfield's statement…I took the view that there was no point in making a recommendation one way or the other on the question of transitional relief. Had I not come to that conclusion, I would have been minded to recommend that transitional arrangements should be made to cover a period of three years to prevent the full burden falling upon the ratepayers of Buckinghamshire immediately. The only specific transitional arrangement suggested was, as I recollect, that put forward by Mr. White…
I do not dispute at all that this is what Mr. Mars-Jones said, but the whole point is that there was no evidence given of transitional arrangements. If there had been no one would have complained. We complain that this deal was done behind the scenes with no evidence of any opportunity for further investigation or cross-examination.
One of the issues argued before the inquiry, I understand, was the question of expenses of the amalgamated authorities. My hon. Friend has quoted only three minor extracts from the proceedings which refer to transitional arrangements, but Buckinghamshire County Council contends that the apportionment should be on a population basis, or failing that, half on the adjusted penny rate product basis and half on a population basis. There was a suggestion which asked for an apportionment on a transitional basis which would have lessened the very considerable burden to be borne by Buckinghamshire.
Even with the present transitional arrangements proposed, the additional cost to Buckinghamshire will be in the order of nearly £300,000. If this Prayer were to succeed, and I devoutly hope that it will not, the cost to Buckinghamshire over the next three years would be about £164,500. That is a considerable amount to ask a county council to bear when asking it to lose its independence and to become part of a larger police authority. The county council did not want to do so and felt that it would be extremely unfair to be called upon to bear such a considerable burden which is far greater than that of the other five constituent parts of the new authority.
I hope the Minister will come to the conclusion that the Prayer should be rejected.
I apologise to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, among others, but there are important questions here, since some fairly strong allegations of malpractice have been made and it is important that the House should have these facts in considering the Prayer.
The hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) said that the Government were always against differentials and quoted the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government when he rejected transitional arrangements in a debate in 1966. But the circumstances about which my hon. Friend was speaking were quite different, having been created by the Local Government Act of 1966, relating to the country as a whole, and transitional arrangements would have upset the whole system.
The grant system is flexible and, if necessary, adjustments may be secured for future years by making changes in the weightings used in the distribution formula, but there had been no general agreement among local authority associations that transitional arrangements should be introduced and past experience had been that such arrangements either did not work or did not work easily.
Quite a different position applies here, because these transitional arrangements relate to purely local adjustments which would affect only part of the country. They are perfectly simple and easy to put into effect and follow the recommendations of the Inspector and are not inconsistent with the transitional arrangements adopted voluntarily in other amalgamation schemes. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman was comparing like with unlike.
Similar transitional arrangements have been made. Transitional arrangements are perfectly easy to insert in an amalgamation order. Sometimes they are voluntary, but in this case they were not.
But the main issue is whether they should have been inserted at all when they did not appear in Mr. Mars-Jones' Report, which was brought before the House as soon as possible in July. The Scheme was also laid as soon afterwards as possible, so that the House would have as long as possible to consider it.
It was after Mr. Mars-Jones had reported that Buckinghamshire raised the question of whether or not the Inspector had been misled. Contrary to what has been suggested, this is not a dispute between the Home Office and particular authorities. We would have been quite happy without transitional arrangements and we are happy with them. This is essentially a dispute between Buckinghamshire, and, possibly, Berkshire, on the one hand and the other constituent authorities on the other.
But an allegation was made that the Inspector had been misled through a misunderstanding arising from the final remarks of counsel for the Home Office at the inquiry. The simple issue was, had Mr. Mars-Jones been misled? What
happened on that last day is of crucial importance and I refer the House to it carefully. The issue of transitional provisions came up both in evidence and argument, first in the cross-examination of the Home Office witness, Mr. Goringe, on page 38 of the transcript. He was asked, if it was felt that the higher rate product would be unfair to Buckinghamshire
…it would be possible to soften the blow, would it not, by transitional arrangements over two years? A. That would be possible, yes.
It was then raised by the Treasurer of Berkshire County Council in his evidence in chief on page 48, and what he says is quite clear:
It would be reasonable for Bucks to enjoy a transitional period of say three to five years to ease the transition from low police rates to normal police rates"—
and went on to say what the possible transitional arrangement would be. It was clearly stated in evidence in chief from Mr. White. It was then raised in cross-examination of Mr. White by counsel on behalf of Buckinghamshire. That comes at page 52. Thus, it had been raised in cross-examination of the Home Office witness, it was raised in examination in chief of one of the witnesses, Mr. White, and then it was raised again in cross-examination of that witness.
The first closing speech before Mr. Mars-Jones was by counsel for Buckinghamshire, and he raised the question specifically. This is page 59. He referred to the evidence given on behalf of Berkshire and said:
One is thankful for small mercies. At any rate, it will hold off the evil day when Bucks has to bear this full burden at least for four or five years. I readily seize, if I may, on any provision of that nature which will prevent the full burden falling on the ratepayers of Buckinghamshire immediately, and I ask you, when you come to report, to bear that matter in mind.
Thus, it was raised in evidence and it was raised in argument during the final speeches. Not a single representative for the other authorities commented on it, as they could have done, the matter having been raised in evidence.
Mr. White suggested a scheme in his evidence. After all, the Inspector has to decide on a scheme. Mr. White suggested in evidence a scheme whereby the blow might be softened. The point was raised several times in chief and in cross-examination, and it was raised in the final speech. It was open to representatives for Oxford, for Reading or anyone else to counter the point and say that it would be manifestly unjust for such a scheme to be made.
At that stage, nothing more had been said before Mr. Mars-Jones. The issue had been squarely raised. The suggestion had been made that he should consider transitional arrangements. Then came the final speech by counsel for the Home Office, after opportunity had been given but had not been seized by the representatives of the other authorities. Remarks were made which, it was suggested, misled Mr. Mars-Jones. We were not in a position to say whether or not Mr. Mars-Jones had been misled. It was not something on which anyone could form a view, save the Inspector himself. It was eminently reasonable, once the issue had been raised, that our course would be to ask the Inspector, referring to the final stages of the hearing and asking him to refresh his mind.
We did not say, as the hon. Member for Henley suggested, "If there had been evidence, what would you have found?" We simply reminded him of what took place and of the final remarks of counsel, the suggestion being that, perhaps, there had been a misunderstanding, and we asked, in effect, "Were you misled?" In the final paragraph of our letter to him, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Home Office said:
The Home Secretary would not for one moment wish to press you to make any recommendation which you did not feel able to make".
That seems eminently fair. If we had not written, we should have been open to far more telling criticism, the criticism that there was an allegation that we had been misled and that we had not even asked the only person who was in a position to say whether we had been misled.
Would it not have been more normal in the circumstances either for the Home Office to consult all the authorities first and ask for their comments, all that being transmitted to the Inspector, or, alternatively, to ask the Inspector for his view on the matter and then to transmit that to the other authorities, giving them a chance to express their views?
If it had been a question of raising evidence which was not before the Inspector at the hearing, if it had been a question of new argument being developed which was not put to the Inspector at the hearing, then it would have been right to ask the other authorities to put arguments one way or the other. In fact, the question was whether the Inspector was misled, or whether he was misled at a stage when all the evidence had been heard, when all the arguments had been heard, and when there was nothing left for him but to make up his mind.
I regret that this took place so late in the day. If there had been a chance of a further delay, and if that had been acceptable, one would have accepted it. The fact remains that on this occasion we had very good co-operation from all the parties concerned. I pay tribute to them, even though they feel bitter about the course which events have taken. At that stage, so late in the day, when the Chief Constable had been designated and when the arrangements were more or less completed, it would have been quite intolerable for the Order to have been further postponed. There was no injustice in the case. There would have been a gross injustice if we had not asked the Inspector whether he had been misled. In the circumstances, I do not accept the criticism which has been made against us. I think that we acted fairly and in the only way that we could. We must have sympathy with the authorities concerned that this Amendment to the draft was made late in the day, but it was late in the day we saw that no agreement was being reached about the transitional arrangements and that the allegation of the Inspector being misled was raised.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reading (Mr. John Lee) said that there was violent opposition when I saw the representatives concerned, but not a single point has been made which in any way suggests that the procedure followed was incorrect. The entire case of the hon. Member for Henley rests on matters not having been raised at the hearing when in fact they were raised.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reading asked about the Reading police station. Whether a police station was built before or after 1919, when police grants became payable, the principle applied is that when the Home Office assumes a financial responsibility for half the cost of a service, including outstanding liabilities, the Exchequer acquires a similar interest in the assets. When police property is sold or appropriated to other municipal purposes, the proceeds or value must be credited to the police fund and brought to credit in the authority's claim for police grant. This principle is widely applied, and it has been applied throughout this Order.
In the absence of an amalgamation, when the police eventually ceased to use a police station, such as Reading police station, the Home Office would require its value brought to credit in the police grant claim, and that is provided for in the Police Grants Order, 1966. The arrangements made in the Amalgamation Order will have the same effect. The payment made to the combined police authority would be brought to credit in their grant claim and the Exchequer would benefit to the extent of 50 per cent. That is the general principle which is being applied and, on the present basis, that is the principle which is being applied to Reading police station.
I cannot go further into the reasons behind the amalgamation, a point which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading and the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall). These reasons are to be found in the Mars-Jones Report. It will be agreed that he conducted the hearing very fairly. The subsequent amendments which were made were amendments which Mr. Mars-Jones recommended on the basis of the evidence and the arguments which he heard.
I must register a very strong complaint. The first thing to complain about is that the Government have so over-loaded the day's programme of business that it was obvious from the outset that we should not have adequate time for discussion of the Order.
Second, I must complain—and I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will take this to heart, and will not take it amiss—of his really—
It being half-past Eleven o'clock, Mr. SPEAKER, being of opinion that, owing to the lateness of the hour at which consideration of the Motion was entered upon, the time for debate had not been adequate, interrupted the Business, and the debate stood adjourned till Tomorrow, pursuant to Standing Order No. 100 (Statutory Instruments, &c., (procedure)).