Encroachments on Local Government Autonomy

Part of Orders of the Day — Supply – in the House of Commons at 7:02 pm on 12th November 1981.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Reginald Prentice Mr Reginald Prentice , Daventry 7:02 pm, 12th November 1981

I agree with the right hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals) on one point, that being his opposition to a referendum. It is significant—and I hope that this has been recognised on the Government Front Bench—that, with the exception of the Secretary of State, every speaker in the debate, Conservative, Labour and Liberal, has been opposed to the referendum proposal, and in expressing that view they have spoken on behalf of many people throughout Britain.

I intend to confine most of my brief remarks to that subject. However, before doing that I must say that I found the speech of my right hon. Friend convincing on the general proposition that the Government need to take new powers to deal with the big spenders in local government. Given the total overspend, and given also the fact that five out of six local authorities are co-operating with the targets—thereby carrying on their affairs according to the old tradition of the relationship between local authorities and the Government—he cannot avoid bringing the subject to the House in the form of a Bill. He is wrong about the referendum, but right in his objectives.

I think it sad that the old relationships have been fractured. The right hon. Member for Norwich, North referred to his experience of the relationship between Ministers and leaders of local authorities when he sat on the consultative council. I also sat for a time on that council as a Minister in the Labour Government. The atmosphere was more friendly then—partly for the reason given by my right hon. Friend the Minister, that there were a large number of Conservative leaders of councils, but partly also because the character of the Labour leaders was different.

Those were the days when the Greater London Council was led by Sir Reg Goodwin. That was a different sort of leadership from that now operated by Ken Livingstone and his colleagues. And it is not only Mr. Livingstone, because since the election changes last May there are now less publicised but equally flamboyant characters throughout Britain operating in the same direction.

In my county of Northamptonshire the election resulted in a tie between Labour and Conservative. The council is now under Labour and Liberal control. The Liberals are as bad as the Labour members in deciding on higher expenditure and in imposing a supplementary rate.

I support my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's objective, but I profoundly disagree with the technique of a referendum. I carefully noted his remarks. He referred to thinking about the techniques for a longer period. He talked about exploring other methods. With great respect, that is not good enough. The Government's intentions are on record in the form of the Bill laid before Parliament recently. My right hon. Friend knows the extent of the reaction to that. What he could have done, and should have done, was to come to the House today and say that that proposal was being dropped. If my right hon. Friend the Minister, in his reply to the debate, cares to say that it will be dropped, I shall be happy to go into the Lobby with him tonight. If he does not, I shall feel bound to abstain and to vote against Second Reading of the Bill if it contains that proposal.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith) said in his interesting speech that there was nothing incompatible between a referendum and democratic principles. Perhaps not, but it is incompatible with the British tradition of representative democracy. I accept that there are already provisions on the statute book for local polls. Those take place occasionally in unusual and erratic circumstances. They are out of the main stream of political decision-making in Britain. I accept that in recent years there have been referendums on constitutional issues. Frankly, I wish that they had not occurred. But there is a distinction to be drawn between referendums on those subjects, when the relationship of Parliament with the nation is involved, and referendums on matters of general policy.

I strongly object to the fact that the Government are proposing to bring before Parliament a proposition to have enforced referendums—they would not be consultative referendums, but binding referendums—on matters of important general policy, such as the level of local rates. If that were to happen, no one with any political experience would expect the process to stop there. Once the precedent had been set, there would be further provisions to accelerate the process, in three ways.

First, successive Governments might find it convenient to use the technique again and again to solve a particular issue. Secondly, the public would demand referendums on certain issues about which there were strong feelings. Capital punishment is the most obvious example of that. Thirdly, pressure groups—large and small, good and bad—would ask for referendums so that they could have a national campaign, paid for by the taxpayer, during which they could put their case to the public.

One can imagine the situation during the run-up to an election, when pressure groups could ask political parties to include in their manifestos promises of referendums on various matters.

Step by step we would become a different and worse kind of democracy. Surely we should recognise the simple truth that the complex issues involved in the government of a modern State cannot be split into simplistic questions that lend themselves to "Yes" or "No" answers.

We are developing a system by which elected Members of Parliament and elected councillors are responsible for taking decisions that are sometimes unpopular. The persons who make them stand or fall on their record when it comes to the next election. In between those elections they have responsibility. That is a distinction that runs through the whole of our constitutional history, and it is something that we should regard as of great value.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, East quoted Dicey. I remarked to him afterwards that it was extraordinary that Dicey should have suggested that a referendum was a long-stop, bearing in mind that the main theme was the sovereignty of Parliament. If we are to go through that trend—I hope that we never do—and introduce referendums or long-stops that are an abuse of power by Governments or others, let us do so deliberately and after a long, sustained and detailed debate on whether we want to introduce referendums into our constitution and in what circumstances. Do not let us slide into that process as a byproduct of the Government's need to deal with an isolated problem.

The alternative, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, is to increase the Government's power over local government. That does not mean a significant increase of central power over local government beyond that which will be contained in the Bill anyway.

The purpose of the Bill is to limit the freedom hitherto enjoyed by local authorities in the setting of their rates. That is an alternative balance of power. I see nothing wrong with that. As other hon. Members have stated, the powers of local authorities derive from legislation passed in the House. We have often debated the extent to which Government policies should be superimposed on those of local authorities.

There had been argument over whether local authorities should be compelled to produce plans for comprehensive secondary education. There has been an argument about whether local housing authorities should be allowed to sell council houses. There will always be similar arguments. It is legitimate to have an argument about rate-setting powers and whether to alter those powers by the process of Parliament. Having done so, I suggest that Parliament should see it through.

If a local authority proposes a supplementary rate that is against the criteria in the Bill—I am not suggesting any change in that—surely the correct procedure is for the Secretary of State for the Environment or one of his Ministers to meet the leaders of the council. If it is the Secretary of State's view that there is an excessive and unacceptable proposal to increase rates, he should lay orders before both Houses of Parliament, using the affirmative resolution procedure, to settle the matter.

That would be consistent with our parliamentary system and would settle the issue more rapidly and less expensively than having a referendum. More importantly, it would avoid a departure which many of us are determined to avoid—namely, a departure from the central processes of relative democracy.