It will be for the convenience of the House to take also the following order:
That the Local Government (Postponement of Elections and Reorganisation) (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, a draft of which was laid before this House on 28th November, be approved.
As hon. Members will be aware, the Government's intention was to hold elections for the new district councils in Northern Ireland on 6th December 1972, which was the last convenient date if the new local authorities were to function from 1st April 1973. However, very strong representations were made to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State by political parties and many other responsible organisations that the local elections should be postponed, and my right hon. Friend decided that the only proper course was to put off these elections until the spring of 1973, on a date to be fixed after consulting the political parties. The main purpose of the order is to give effect to this decision and its consequential effects.
The decision to postpone the elections gives rise to three significant consequences. First, the existing councils which were to be dissolved on 1st April 1973 are retained until 1st October 1973 and their members will continue in office until then. Secondly, the reorganisation of services is postponed until 1st October 1973 because the new district councils have an important role to play in the administration of services either directly or through representatives on area boards. Thirdly, for financial purposes the periods from 1st April 1973 to 30th September 1973 and from 1st October 1973 to 31st March 1974 are treated as though they were two separate financial periods. The existing local authorities will operate as at present during the first period. The district councils, area boards and Minis- tries will provide services during the second period.
Because so little time remains before 1st April 1973, local authorities may be unable to prepare and agree estimates for a six-month period. So the order contains power to prescribe rate poundages and to modify other provisions by subordinate legislation. The need for such powers was agreed with the officers group of the Local Government Consultative Committee which advises the Government on matters arising from the reorganisation.
There are, however, a number of changes which will go ahead as planned because they are not dependent on the district councils. These do not involve substantial financial, staffing or accommodation problems. The main changes to which I refer are the creation of a unified electricity authority, which will start on 1st April 1973; the transfer to the Ministry of Home Affairs of complete responsibility for the payment of criminal injury compensation; the merger of Belfast Corporation Transport Department and Ulsterbus; the transfer of road safety matters from councils to the Ministry of Home Affairs; the creation of a Fishery Harbour Authority to control three fishing harbours—
I am unable to supply that information at the moment. I shall find the answer in the course of the debate and let the hon. Gentleman know.
Returning to the changes which will be brought about, the next is the continuous revision of valuations for rating purposes; and, finally, the changes in rate exemption for clergymen's houses and domestic properties occupied by charities. I am sure that that will please the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley).
The Government realise that the postponement of the reorganisation of the major services will cause many difficulties for the existing local authorities, but we have been assured of the loyal cooperation of elected representatives and staffs in ensuring the continuance of services. Her Majesty's Government wish to thank both the representatives and the staffs for their co-operation.
I am now in a position to give the names of the three fishing harbours. They are Kilkeel, Ardglass and Portavogie.
The other order is concerned with financial matters relating to district councils, new towns, roads and housing. The order differs from that presented to the Northern Ireland Commission in that it has been altered to conform with the decision to postpone local government reorganisation to 1st October 1973, and the limit on the amount which new town commissions may borrow has been increased to provide funds for their additional six months' operation.
The order proposes a general grant payable to district councils which is to have two elements. The first of these—the resources element—will be paid to all councils whose rateable resources per head of the population are below a standard to be determined by the Ministry of Development. For the first period of the grant—that is, from 1st October 1973 to 31st March 1974—it is our intention that the standard should be fixed by reference to the average product of a penny rate per head of population for the whole of Northern Ireland. This element of the grant is similar to the resources element of the rate support grant payable to local authorities in England and Wales.
The second element compensates for the industrial derating which applies in Northern Ireland. The net annual valuation of industrial hereditaments is £3·5 million, and their rateable valuation is a quarter of that sum—£0·875 million. Compensation for loss of rate income because of derating has been an almost unbroken feature of local government finance in Northern Ireland since 1929. Its retention in this grant is at the request of the Local Government Consultative Committee which advises the Government on matters connected with the reorganisation of local government.
The pattern of expenditure of the new councils has still to be established, but we estimate the cost of this grant to be £1·25 million in the six months' period to 31st March 1974.
The district councils will be elected in the spring of 1973, but they will not be in receipt of income until after 1st October in that year. To enable them to meet expenses during the period preceding 1st October, the Ministry of Development is seeking power to make loans to them. The precise terms of these loans will have to be agreed with the Ministry of Finance—
The hon. Gentleman has just stated that the district councils will be elected in the spring of 1973. This is a definite statement. Have the Government a specific date in mind, and what provisions are they making for these elections?
No. I was particularly careful to say "the spring". Spring goes on for some time. I am not prepared to give an actual date, because it has not yet been decided. It is to be the spring of 1973, so that gives some guide when the elections will be. Certainly arrangements will be, and are being, prepared for these matters.
I was referring to the precise terms of these loans having to be agreed with the Ministry of Finance. The intention is that they will be free of interest for a reasonable period. That is obviously welcome. The loans will be repaid from the normal revenues of the councils. The amount involved is not expected to be very large—probably about £100,000.
The amount which new town commissions can borrow for development purposes from the Ministry is limited by statute. The present cumulative limit of £30 million has been reached, and approval is now sought to increase this to £55 million. This is £10 million more than the proposal submitted to the Northern Ireland Commission. The extra money is to cover the extension of the commissions for six months until 30th September 1973. The money is required for the normal development functions of the commissions—the provision of water and sewerage services, roads, industrial sites and comprehensive development. I am sure that the House will welcome that.
On 1st October 1973 the Ministry will become responsible for all roads in the Province, and the order will enable the Ministry to borrow to meet capital expenditure on roads. The Ministry's present powers relate to motorways and trunk roads only, so the limit of borrowings also requires to be increased from £110 million to £150 million.
The new district councils will not be responsible for the provision of houses in their areas, so the financial commitments of the existing local authorities in connection with certain housing matters are transferred by article 9 to the Ministry either directly or through the Housing Executive.
Article 11 of the order contains two small amendments of the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972. The first adapts the Act to take account of the situation where, under the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act 1972, legislation takes the form of Orders in Council.
The second removes vesting orders for the compulsory acquisition of land from the class of orders which, being of a legislative character, are subject to annulment by the Northern Ireland Parliament.
This brief review of the order shows that it is concerned with the basic matters of local government—the level of the district rate, money for councils in their first months of existence, finance for capital projects and the liability for housing commitments. However, there is one further point that I want to make.
Although many services are being transferred to the Exchequer, it does not follow that their cost will fall on taxpayers, because under the terms of the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 a regional rate will be levied to secure that a suitable ratepayers' contribution is made towards the cost of local services which are to be administered on a regional basis.
I commend both orders to the House.
It is worth noting and saying to the House that these two orders are the 23rd and 24th pieces of legislation to be considered by the House since direct rule was introduced. That, plus the fact that there are eight orders going through both Houses this week, emphasises the need to speed up legislation in order to introduce some form of political settlement and order in Northern Ireland.
The Minister said that the postponement of the local government elections had been agreed to by all the political parties, but he knows that they were postponed because of the threat of violence. Those in Northern Ireland who are using violence to try to gain their ends have, in effect, imposed a veto on elections, and, in my opinion, that means not only local government elections but the referendum, new elections for the Assembly, and anything else. We must, therefore, take note of the fact that the introduction of these orders is being postponed because of one specific issue which dominates Northern Ireland.
The Minister said—interestingly from our point of view—that elections for the district councils would take place in the spring of 1973. Spring can come a little early or it can come a little late. We should have liked a more specific date. The Government have in mind the holding of district council elections, they must hold a referendum and, arising out of the proposals in the White Paper, there may be elections for a new Assembly. That being so, they ought to give us their timetable for 1973.
People in Northern Ireland are fully aware of the political consequences of what may happen, and I do not think that they should suddenly have these matters sprung upon them. The Opposition's view is that the Government should make known what the procedure is to be. We feel that no elections should take place until the Government have produced their White Paper. It does matter what the people in Northern Ireland are asked to vote on; in our view, they ought to know what the framework of the political set-up is to be. Many of the powers relating to housing and major road improvements and other vital matters are to be given to some regional assembly, which is where the power in Northern Ireland will lie.
We might argue about the assembly, which we have discussed many times here in relation to security and so forth, but it may have more economic power than any previous Stormont. We welcome that, if it will give more freedom from the Exchequer here and will permit the people of Northern Ireland to decide on their own priorities. We draw the line at security, but on the local government aspect we welcome it.
I am sure that the hon. Member would concede, then, that these district councils will not be very important. Their functions will be so limited that election to them will not be a crucial issue: the crucial issue will be election to whatever form of assembly will have this power in Northern Ireland.
Yes, I accept what the hon. Member says; but the value of the district council elections may be to give the people of Northern Ireland the chance to use the democratic process which they have been denied now for a long time and to allow the political parties and the new formations the means of expressing themselves.
One could argue that elections to the new assembly might be more fruitful because regionally they would have a much more representative basis. But if we are to have these local elections in the spring—whether early or late—it looks as if they will come before the elections to an assembly. So, however diminished the powers will be—we agree that they will be diminished when compared to those of the previous local authorities—we are at least moving into a situation in Northern Ireland, which is a small area when compared to the rest of the United Kingdom, which needs to be kept simple. Therefore, the reduction in the size of the district councils is to be welcomed. The hon. Member's point is valid, but I hope that this will lay the basis for a return to the normal political processes.
If any reduction of grant to a council is made under article 4 of the first order, I understand that the Department must lay before Parliament a report stating the amount of the reduction and the reasons for making it. Must the report be laid before the reduction is made, or can it come afterwards? There seems to be nothing to require it to be laid prior to the reduction, but this may be the case. When the new assembly receives the report, can it reject it? This is important: the link between the new local authority structure and the assembly will be vital.
The Under-Secretary mentioned in article 6, which enables the Ministry to make loans to district councils. It seems that interest may or may not be paid on the loans. When interest is charged, at what rate will it he set, and on what basis will it be decided that interest will be charged or remitted? What is the sum expected to be advanced under this provision in the year 1973–74?
I ask these questions because there is no chance of amending this legislation, and therefore, it is right that they should be asked.
Article 7 increases the amount which may be advanced to new town commissions from £30 million to £55 million, a considerable increase. Are such advances also subject to interest? If so, what is the rate of interest to be charged and what is the nominal period of repayment?
Can the Under-Secretary say whether or not these new town commissions are impartially carrying out their duties in regard to the people who are affected? My hon. Friends and I have had disquieting evidence that this might be so. The Government should stipulate to these commissions that they should carry out their duties in a manner which recognises both sections of the community in Northern Ireland.
Article 8 increases the limit of issues out of the Consolidated Fund for roads from £110 million to £150 million. What amount of the existing limit of £110 million is already committed or spent, and for how long is it anticipated that the extra £40 million will be sufficient? Returning to a point I have made time and again, much of this expenditure is in labour-intensive development in Northern Ireland, which means jobs. We are not complaining about the sums involved. Perhaps some people in the United Kingdom may complain about some of this expenditure, but we believe it is justified. At the same time, it is labour-intensive, and we should like to hear what the Under-Secretary has to say about it.
Article 9 contains financial provisions consequential upon the transfer of functions of existing local authorities with respect to housing. I understand that this is at the rate of £1,200,000 per annum but that the Exchequer will receive the proceeds of the regional rate to offset these and other increased charges. Will these two movements offset each other exactly, or will there be a net cost to the Executive, and, if so, how much will that be?
I have already said that the existing 67 authorities are to be replaced by 26 new district councils. I have said that there are political reasons why the elections in 1972 were abandoned. I have referred to the need for these elections in 1973 to be held in circumstances which are acceptable to the people in Northern Ireland. With the Province taking much wider functions, housing is now with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, and education and libraries, as well as health and personal social services, are to be run by area boards. With these new authorities and the allocation of the functions of area boards, it is important that these functions are seen to be operated in a manner which is fair and equitable to both sections of the community. We do not want to pick out one Roman Catholic area and equate it with two Protestant areas. We want fairness and justice.
The fire and electricity services will go to the new Province. The planning, water and sewerage services will go to the Ministry of Local Government and Development. Rates will be dealt with by the Ministry of Finance. Drainage is removed. Services dealt with previously by the local authorities have now been moved into a different setting. Therefore, local councillors, even those serving the enlarged authorities, will enjoy greatly diminished powers.
The district councillors are still important with the functions they have. They will have to send representatives to the new area boards and authorities. Therefore, these representatives have to come through the district councils. We must not play that aspect down. It is an important function.
I accept that. We take cognizance of the fact that the elections occur through the district councils, thus providing a means of delegated legislation. Persons who have not been directly elected to the area boards will be appointed. One sends them on to the area boards. Are the members sent from district councils to area boards answerable to the district councils?
This is the point I make. It is central to democracy. Some of us serving on the United Kingdom county councils have sent people away who have never been seen again or who have said "I am not answerable to the council which sent me."
The area boards will be crucial to much of what is happening in Northern Ireland. Within the district councils in the new structure there will be area boards and a new assembly. The democratic links between those three bodies will be crucial to future democracy in Northern Ireland.
I apologise for having interrupted the hon. Member so often. The majority of people serving on the area boards are there by nomination. They are appointed by a small majority. There are the area boards and the assembly. The area boards do not have a wholly elected membership. The elected representatives on the area boards constitute a small minority.
I accept that the knowledge of local government in Northern Ireland of the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) is wide.
We accept these difficulties. We pointed them out when these bodies were set up. We are not now setting hares running on this question. We welcome the proposals. We wish them well. We are pointing out the difficulties connected with these issues which will have to be ironed out. Perhaps the subject of the readjustment of these things might be considered by a new assembly as opposed to the House of Commons. Certain readjustment may have to be made.
We have looked at these orders. We are not opposed to them. We recognise the difficulties connected with the holding of elections. I have raised some of them. We think it would be disastrous to hold elections in Northern Ireland, in whatever order the Government decide, without using the White Paper as a basis for the people in Northern Ireland to know politically what they are voting for. We want the elections to take place as soon as practicable, and we believe that the elections to the new assembly are the most important of all. They will give a new framework and will show up the different factions in Northern Ireland and indicate those people who are the true representatives. It may give us a chance to build a constructive assembly which can look at some of the points we have discussed this evening, issues which in the anal analysis should be the prerogative of those people who have to deal with them in Northern Ireland.
I appreciate the remarks by the hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme), and on behalf of my hon. Friends I can say that if he decides to launch a campaign for the restoration of democracy in Northern Ireland he can enlist myself and those of my hon. Friends who are present tonight.
I was thanking the hon. Member in the context of the orders because I have a fear, which is shared by my hon. Friends, that local government democracy has been destroyed in Northern Ireland, and the orders give us no reason to believe that anything will be provided to remedy that situation. I pay a sincere tribute to the hon. Member and to the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) for the contributions they have made to the affairs of Northern Ireland in these rather monotonous debates on Orders in Council late at night. I cannot accept responsibility for the absence of Northern Ireland members on the Opposition side but we are grateful for what the two hon. Members opposite do on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland.
Article 3 of the order for the postponement of the district council elections seems at first glance to be a simple operation, but the consequences are anything but simple. They are serious to the point of being disastrous. Because of this decision the county councils are forced to carry on the work of administering and performing vital functions such as health, welfare and education. Naturally, local government officers who have had very few assurances about their future are getting out while there is still time because they see their functions being transferred to civil servants, and experienced local government officers, as they see it, will go on the scrap heap.
Many vital services are involved, and they will have to be maintained and developed with a skeleton staff. The problem is arising, for example, over the provision of a new grammar school in the town of Antrim. The school was originally scheduled to be opened in 1973. Parents were given an assurance and guarantee to that effect, and on the strength of that assurance they enrolled their children as candidates for admission. Now they have been told that the school cannot possibly open until the end of 1974, possibly 18 months late. Prominent members of the education authority feel so strongly about what they rightly regard as a breach of faith that they are on the point of resigning. The main cause of the delay is the rundown of the county council staff and the staff of the education authority because of the uncertainty about their future.
The second reason is that there has been, regrettably, a certain amount of feet-dragging on the part of the Ministry of Education. The education authority's architect said tactfully "There has been some delay on the part of the Ministry." Can something be done to reassure local authority officers and remedy the grievance which is set out in a letter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland from the Town Clerks' Association, as follows:
Members feel bitter at the transfer of functions from district councils to Government Departments without the corresponding transfer of district council staff. Persons who have spent their whole working lives in district council service see their work being taken over by newly promoted civil servants.
This is bound to have a devastating effect on the existing local authority staff.
On Schedule 2, Part II, paragraph 6, of the order dealing with the postponement of elections and reorganisation, how many bodies will have to have extra nominated members until the new district councils are elected? In the event of a decision made by any agency or appointed body affecting the area of a district council prior to the elections, will such decision he subject to reversal or modification when the new council eventually takes over?
I come to the second order. Is article 4—power to reduce grants—a normal provision. Has there been a recent precedent either in Northern Ireland or in the rest of the United Kingdom? How will the assessment of the performance of the councils be made, and by whom will the assessment be made'? Will the assessors be competent to make such a judgment, particularly on intricate local government matters? Is it sensible to give the Ministry of Development powers to allocate funds and thereby imply approval of schemes and then blame councils if expenditure rises above their allocation?
Perhaps most important of all, what appeal procedures will be available to a council against the arbitrary decision in the exercise of this power by the Ministry?
Article 4(2) states:
Where any grant is reduced under paragraph (1), the Ministry shall lay before Parliament a report stating the amount of, and the reasons for making, the reduction.
Which Parliament? If it is to be the Northern Ireland Parliament, does not this anticipate acceptance of proposals in a White Paper yet to be published? If it is the Westminster Parliament, will there be time, opportunity and facilities for adequate scrutiny of such detailed matters affecting perhaps at one time 20 small local district councils? Is there any precedent or parallel for such parliamentary scrutiny of such small matters anywhere else in the United Kingdom?
Article 7 increases the advances to new town commissions from £30 million to £55 million. I am all in favour of the increase, but I find it difficult to justify it in view of the decision to abolish the commissions. My hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) and I have often questioned the wisdom of the decision to abolish the commissions. We have pointed out that the commissions have the machinery, the know-how, the energy and the drive necessary to match the concept of the New Towns Act (Northern Ireland) 1965. Is this expertise all to be thrown away and the unfinished task to be left to and spread among perhaps half a dozen Ministries or agencies? Why so much money for so short a time?
In defence of the commissions, I have always found, contrary to what the hon. Member for Salford, West has implied, that the commissions have at all times operated impartially. Anyone who has had connection with the operations of the commissions will, I think, confirm that statement. In my experience they have never questioned the religion of any applicant, and the allocation has always been made on the basis of need.
Article 8 deals with the expenses of the Ministry of Development relating to roads. Will it eliminate the serious delays in implementing schemes which have already been approved and are long overdue? Will it mean, for example—this example will be appreciated by all hon. Members who have travelled to and entered Northern Ireland through the Belfast airport—an end of such delays as with the building of the C28 linking the airport with the T7, Templepatrick and the new M2 motorway? Such delay has allowed the road to be pulverised by heavy traffic, which it was not designed to carry, to the point where it is now highly dangerous to normal traffic.
Article 8(2) restricts outlay by the Ministry to capital expenditure only. But if fatal accidents are to be avoided, more than normal haste will be needed.
Article 9 transfer liabilities in the housing sphere. It appears to saddle the Northern Ireland Housing Executive with an even greater burden of administration. Of all Northern Ireland Members, I should be the first to testify that I have been treated with great courtesy by senior officers of the Housing Executive in the many contacts which I have had with them. But can the institution be expected to go on coping with the increasing volume of responsibility which is being placed upon it?
Article (2)(b) of the schedule states:
'population ' means population estimated in such manner as may be approved by the Ministry.
Does that mean that some district councils have discretion'? Does it mean that they have a choice of methods of estimating? If so, why should there be any variation between one council area and another? Would it not be vastly preferable to have applicable a standard method for the whole of Northern Ireland?
However hard my hon. Friends and the Opposition Front Bench may try to highlight some of the snags which will arise, and however favourable is the reaction of the Government Front Bench—I know that the Under-Secretary of State is in sympathy with everything we are trying to do—we must admit that we are hamstrung, muzzled and hampered by the order in council procedure. The sooner it is brought to an end the better—
I join with my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) in expressing my appreciation of the hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) and his hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) for the interest they have taken in these discussions over a long time. On the last occasion we discussed Northern Ireland orders, the hon. Member for Salford, West referred to the Northern Ireland syndrome and the select band that belonged thereto. I could not help thinking when I heard him opening his remarks—I think he referred to the twenty-third and twenty-fourth orders—that the time had come for the select band to have some tangible recognition, for example a badge bearing the words "Direct Rule Midnight Club" on a red hand set in a full moon. I appreciate the interest taken by the hon. Gentleman, but that does not necessarily mean that I agree with everything he has said tonight. Indeed, there are one or two points which he raised tonight on which I wish to take issue with him.
I am glad that the order postponing the elections and the reorganisation takes account of the fact that it really was verging on nonsense to propose having local government elections on 6th December. When the original order was laid last summer, quite a number of us doubted whether district council elections in 1972 were a realistic proposition at all. Where I disagree with the hon. Member for Salford, West is in his reference to the threat of violence being a cause of postponement. It is true that it was, but it is only half the story. The fact is that it was somewhat incongruous for there to be elections for these new district councils, with their limited powers, before anyone had any idea of what form the new Stormont would take.
I have consistently in this House expressed disagreement with the pro- posals contained in the Macrory Report as a result of the acceptance of which by Stormont these orders have come before the House. I disagree utterly with the whole concept of transferring 80 per cent. of the rateborne expenditure of local government to these district councils, certainly until we know what form the new Stormont will take. For that reason I welcome the order acknowledging that the elections should not be held this year but sometime in 1973.
Where I agree with the hon. Member for Salford, West is that it is becoming rather unsatisfactory—" squalid "is perhaps putting it too strongly—that almost every political personage in Northern Ireland is playing guessing games about dates for the border poll, the district council elections, the new Stormont elections and so on. I was doing just that myself last night in my own constituency, not for fun but to try to give the best estimate I could of the likely course of election events in Northern Ireland.
I say with great respect to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State that it is not good enough to talk about spring, a little early or a little late. In Northern Ireland we have two other seasons as well—late winter and early summer. Where does spring fit in? I am not suggesting that my hon. Friend should here and now announce the date of the postponed district council elections, because my guess is that it must be at least four or five months away. I think it would be unreasonable to ask him now. But just as two months was the period between the announcement of the elections and the scheduled date of 6th December, I hope that a period of about two months' notice will be given of the date of the district council elections when the time comes, because there is a tremendous amount of organisation and planning for elections to these new entities and it seems reasonable—I hope my hon. Friend agrees—that notice of about two months should be given.
One of the other problems which arises is that the reorganisation of local government as envisaged in the order and its predecessor talks about reducing the number of local authorities—there were too many—and adjusting the boundaries. But what cannot be over-stressed is that when one counts up the 26 district councils together with the plethora of area boards, regional boards and so on, covering every conceivable service, I understand, although I have not myself calculated the figures, that there will be more public representatives after the Macrory proposals are implemented than there were before. What is more serious is that whereas previously all the members were elected, a substantial proportion are now being nominated and will be responsible only to the Minister who nominated them. That is very bad for any area which is seeking the reestablishment of credible democratic institutions.
A common thread running through everything relating to local government at present is the uncertainty among permanent officials. They do not know what their future is. They do not know what jobs they will be performing. Worse still, they had geared themselves and their officers to a hand-over to the new authorities on 1st April. That has now been postponed for six months. As one who has opposed the concept of Macrory, I do not think it is in any way contradictory to acknowledge that, the decisions having been taken, we must try to reduce as far as possible the uncertainty felt by local government staff during the interregnum and the other uncertainties.
For example, on the question of the rating finance between 1st April and 1st October, I was told in Belfast yesterday by a person in the Belfast Corporation who is a great authority on local government finance that the new rate will be struck on the basis of the existing rate plus 5 per cent. By any standards, that is fairly crude estimating. It may be unavoidable in the six-month term but I am alarmed at the vagueness with which local government finance is stated in the orders. I am no authority on local government finance. It is a nightmare subject. enormously complex, particularly when we are now to have a district rate and a regional rate set by the central Government based on the curious alleged comparability with a given area in England. We do not even yet know the name of the area. It is all very well to draw comparisons and seek a comparable yardstick in revenue terms, but we must also have comparability of services.
Revenue and services in local government go hand in hand.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary referred to the two separate funding periods of the orders—the April-September period of 1973 and the October 1973–April 1974 period. But if we strike a rate for the first six months based on last year's rate plus 5 per cent.—even though I understand that salary levels alone have increased by nearly 10 per cent., not to mention increases in other local government costs—how will it be possible to make a credible financial estimate for the whole fiscal year? Will the second half be loaded to make up for the crude rule of thumb used for the first half and the almost inevitable inaccuracy?
I turn to article 4 of the draft Local Government &c. Order, the article headed
Power to reduce grants
As an accountant in a former existence, I am all for making those in local government and everybody else accountable for the moneys they spend and of surcharging them in the event of their falling down on their job. But I become slightly alarmed when I read that grants will be reduced
Where the Ministry is satisfied
(a) that a district council has failed to achieve or maintain a reasonable standard of efficiency in the discharge of any of its functions".
That is beautifully written but as vague as can be. What is meant by
a reasonable standard of efficiency"?
Grants will also be reduced where
the expenditure of a district council has been excessive having regard to its financial resources and other relevant circumstances".
If we are to apply fairly strict financial criteria to district councils, something with which I wholly agree, let us somewhere have stated what are the criteria of efficiency, what are the
financial resources and other relevant circumstances",
so that those who are elected in due course to serve on the district councils have some idea of the danger areas in which the Ministry can call them to account.
I turn to article 6 and the question of the time lag with regard to the funding of the district councils and the period when money becomes available to them from central Government and/or from the rates. I gather that this will all happen after 1st October, but it surely highlights the fact that a great deal more thinking will have to be done about local government financing in Northern Ireland than would appear to have been done, judging by the orders. I still do not see how in reality we can have a council spending a certain amount of money in the first months of its existence without a clear idea of the rate poundage it can collect itself and a clear undertaking of the funding which it will receive from central Government, so that some effort can be made to balance the books.
Will my hon. Friend accept from me, and I speak with some experience as a member of a hospital management committee, that if he is relying on a Government Department or a Government-controlled agency to lay down clearly defined levels of expenditure it is most unlikely that such guidance will be given? I can clearly remember that my own management committee was authorised to increase the wages of nursing staff and the salaries of medical nursing staff. Having done so it was told that it had overspent because it had done the thing it had been directed to do by a Government Department.
My hon. Friend has confirmed the sort of fears and anxieties which are held and which must be rectified. There must be clear guidelines, otherwise there will be a multiplicity of situations such as my hon. Friend has cited.
Article 9 deals with the Housing Executive and its funding. Housebuilding is very much a priority in Northern Ireland and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and his colleagues have been more than generous in the financial allocations they have made to the new Housing Executive. An important situation seems to be arising, particularly in Belfast. It often happens that the terraced houses, of which there are many in good order, are occupied by pensioners, or perhaps by widows. The houses are too big for them. The suggestion has been made that such people could sell the houses at market value to the executive which could then house the large families on the emergency housing list There has been much talk of this recently and I hope that something will emerge from the discussions. It would make housing sense in providing housing for large families and giving the older person something more suitable.
This will obviously cost money and I hope that the Government will not hold back from providing the necessary finance if they are satisfied, as I am, that this is a creditable scheme in the present situation. It could be extended further to include those properties which by virtue of the present disturbed security situation it is not possible to sell, but that is not the main theme of what I have in mind, which is that where there are large houses suitable for persons on the emergency list the necessary finance would be made available to the Housing Executive. This would be of great value, particularly in the Belfast area.
I preface my remarks, as I have always prefaced them on Northern Ireland orders, by registering a protest against the way in which Northern Ireland legislation is still being handled after many months of direct rule. A reasonable person might say that the postponement of elections could be dealt with in a draft order, but the other order which deals with finance and many intricate local government matters is of vast importance to Northern Ireland.
The House yesterday dealt with laws regarding the destruction that has been and is taking place in Northern Ireland. We have been seeking means whereby the elements that are out to tear down the fabric of our society and to destroy our land might feel the full rigour of the law. Tonight we are dealing with the reconstruction of Northern Ireland, which is a vital matter. Many hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland constituencies come to our debates when law and order, terrorism and other matters relevant to the troubles are discussed. But when we come to deal with the future, the everyday life of the citizens and the boys and girls who will be the men and women of tomorrow, those hon. Members are conspicuous by their absence.
That is why, although my hon. Friends and I disagree with the hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) on many things, we respect him. He is interested in putting forward his view, which he does forcefully and clearly, and he is always here to make a valuable contribution to the important matter of rebuilding Northern Ireland. While on many matters the views of the hon. Gentleman are directly opposite to mine, we are united in believing that the reconstruction of Northern Ireland needs to be carefully planned because it affects the whole future. This applies especially to the planning of local government.
I have never questioned the right of this House, as the sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom, to prorogue the Parliament of Northern Ireland. I have always spoken out and told the people that they must recognise the sovereignty of this House. As a Member of the United Kingdom Parliament I freely recognise that right and would uphold the sovereignty of this House, but in taking away our democratically elected Parliament, elected on a basis of one man one vote, this House caused a change in local government.
The Macrory Report had been accepted. I am not a friend of that report because it is an attack on local government democracy and I cannot understand people who go for that concept. All the boards which control education, health, local government and other matters in Ulster are to be nominated by the Executive. Executives in Western democracies are far too strong. I should like to clip them and bring power back to the people.
This House should understand that district councillors will be only a tiny fraction of the members of nominated boards. The boards will be controlled by nominees and they are not representatives, no matter what organisations they come from.
We have a mushrooming of organisations like New Ulster Movement, PACE and Women Together. They are all very well in their fields, but what right have they to say "We should be on that board"? Who knows how many they have in their following? Six people meet in a drawing room and have a fanciful name. They put an announcement in the Press and claim to speak for people.
However, no one can claim to speak for the people who has not gone to the people and been rejected or accepted by them. We have been caught in circumstances where the boards and district councils have nothing to which they can be tied.
We are engaged in an exercise of folly. If we knew what these nominated boards and district councils were to be tied to, we would be better able to discuss them.
I regret that and I understand that that means we must finish the debate at about 11.55 p.m. So I shall have to cut this speech considerably. If I had known that by taking the two orders together we would not have three hours, I should have resisted that course. However, I am bound by the rules of the House and I shall not continue on that line.
It is essential that as soon as possible the Government should declare their timetable, whether it is acceptable or not. When shall we have the plebiscite, when shall we have the White Paper and when shall we have the local government elections? The people of Northern Ireland have a right to know, and the sooner they know the better. In many ways Northern Ireland is drifting. The moorings have been cut. The Government here should be taking the initiative. But the initiative is slipping from the Government. Therefore I press upon the Under-Secretary the need to convey to his colleagues the importance of getting this timetable right and telling us what it is to be.
There are one or two brief matters arising from the orders that I wish to put before the hon. Gentleman. I refer first to the new town commissions. I regret that the hon. Member for Salford, West did not give us details of what he had heard about the way they have been administered or about the lack of justice under their control. I can speak of only one commission, though it is an important one. I was not its friend when it was horn. But now that it has been weaned and has cut its teeth, I appreciate what it has done. I refer to the Antrim and Ballymena Commission. It has been fair to all sections of the community. Certainly some of its decisions have not been popular. But it has done good work.
Even at this late stage the Government should rethink their attitude to the commissions. Taking Londonderry only as an example, if there is one development about which both sections of the community in Londonderry can say something good, it has been the work of the commission there. Extreme Right, extreme Left, extreme Protestant, extreme Roman Catholic, extreme Republican and extreme Unionist all say that the commission has done a good job. If a body of people in Northern Ireland are doing a good job when so many are not, surely we should not disband them. Now that the Government are giving millions of pounds to help these commissions, why not give them our blessing? They can run on with the district councils, because they are doing a job that the district councils cannot do.
We shall be changing the structure for the administration of these important services. Today the Housing Executive finds itself in difficulty. It has taken over the housing responsibilities of all the local authorities in Northern Ireland. It cannot administer what it has on the table, and we know how difficult a subject housing is and how hard it is to get answers to our problems. The Executive has taken on too much. No department of Stormont can take over the vast responsibilities that we intend to give it under these orders and still run smoothly.
What is happening is that the staffs of the rural district councils are falling to pieces. I was at a meeting recently in Ballymena with the Minister of State, Lord Windlesham. I was speaking to the leading officer of the Ballymena council. He has taken a job in Waterford. That is only one example. The secretary of the county council has told members of the council of County Antrim that he is finding it impossible to carry on with the responsibilities of the Antrim County Council. The chairman of the rural district council in Ballymena told me "We shall have to close shop. All our staff are leaving us." Naturally, staff want to know what is to happen to them. This is a very important problem which the Minister will have to consider.
The hour is late and I must leave the Under-Secretary time to reply. I am sorry that we have not had an opportunity to discuss these matters more fully. Later, perhaps, we shall be able to return to them.
Time is running on and I should like to answer many of the questions which have been posed. If I do not answer all the questions tonight, I shall certainly do so in letters to hon. Members later. As the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) said, we may have a further opportunity of debating these orders. However, I will do my best to answer the questions which have been posed.
We have had a good debate. I take note of what was said by the hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme). He has been most helpful.
I have had my leg pulled about the spring of 1973, but that is more positive than has been said in the past. The reason is that all political parties wanted it. I could give many quotations tonight from all sections who wanted it. This date has been chosen as being a more reasonable and convenient time of the year. Also, after the border poll or plebiscite, focus could be on truly local issues.
The hon. Member for Salford, West and my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) referred to article 4, the power to reduce grants. The report would be laid before Parliament after the reduction was made. There was a similar power in the 1948 and 1958 Acts, but it was never used, so there is nothing new about that. I doubt whether it will be used.
I was asked about advances to new district councils in article 6. These loans are to be interest-free and will be repaid before 31st March 1974.
Advances to new town commissions are repayable over 40 years at current rates of interest. I am sure that the new town commissions carry out their job very fairly indeed.
Regarding roads, under article 8, most of the £110 million has already been committed. I shall certainly write to the hon. Gentleman and give the exact figure. The additional £40 million is to cover capital expenditure for the next three or four years.
My hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South talked forcibly about local government officers, disasters and so on. I think that he was exaggerating slightly. I shall certainly look into the matters he raised and seek to reassure him on what can be done in this sphere.
There should be no uncertainty about the position of officials employed in the local education committees. They should transfer to the area education boards which are to be established.
Article 4 is a normal provision. Many previous Acts cover the same point. I repeat, I do not think that the power has ever been used.
Concerning the laying of a report to Parliament, that will now come to the House of Commons.
My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Pounder) pulled my leg again about the spring of 1973. I understand that spring sometimes comes late in Northern Ireland. Being actively connected with farming, I know all about that. I can understand why this is, with the heavy rain that I have experienced recently. I ask hon. Members to be patient. We have given away something on the spring. If hon. Members are patient they may hear more news later.
I have taken notice of the remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South on giving adequate notice, and certainly that is most important. He commented on the degree of uncertainty among local officials. I think that it would be unwise to comment on the matters that he raised, certainly as regards Belfast. I think we must wait and see.
I agreed with the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Antrim, North. I think they were most wise. He spoke about reconstruction. I think that the House must give the Government their due. The Government are doing all they can in so many ways, including giving financial encouragement. The Government are providing help to agriculture and to industry and in many other ways. We understand and appreciate the difficulties. There has been tremendous destruction, and we are seeking to reconstruct and to do it wisely and carefully. Careful planning is essential. We have the opportunity to do this, and we are doing it.
The hon. Member talked about district council representation on area boards being a tiny fraction of the total representation. With respect he is wrong. It will be up to 40 per cent. on the area education boards.
I have probably left many questions unanswered, but I assure the House that I shall look carefully at HANSARD and try to reply to all the points that have been raised. This has been a useful debate. The two orders are quite lengthy and they almost deserve consideration by a Committee. I can imagine the hours and hours that would be spent considering them in Committee. The House has been patient. I believe that hon. Members appreciate the circumstances in which we are operating in Northern Ireland and the difficulties there. All I wish to do in conclusion is to commend the orders to the House.