Local Government (Scotland)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:23 pm on 17th January 1983.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Willie Hamilton Mr Willie Hamilton , Central Fife 9:23 pm, 17th January 1983

This afternoon we all had the opportunity of listening to an all-party delegation from CoSLA. The startling, although not surprising, thing was its generally unanimous contempt for the way in which the Government have handled local government finance over the past two or three years.

I do not pretend to understand the complexities of these matters, but the crux of the argument can be put simply. The Government, being the principal provider of money for local authorities, have an undoubted right to determine the size of that element at any one time, and whether it be higher or lower depends entirely on the Government's assessment of the national economic situation. Therefore, the Government are right to assert that position. Successive Governments over the past few years have asserted that right to ensure that local authorities conformed with their view. However, the Government are now determined to compel local authorities to spend no more than what they think local authorities should be spending and at the same time to slash their part of that expenditure.

The Government work out what they will pay local authorities by the complicated formulae to which I have referred. The Government determine what is fair and reasonable expenditure. I served on the Committee which dealt with that aspect of our legislation. Initially, the Government were content to issue guidelines to local authorities. The very word "guideline" implies a degree of flexibility and discretion for local authorities. That nomenclature has taken on a rather more sinister meaning now. It seems that the guidelines are much harsher and more punitive, not to say vindictive, than they have been in the last year or two.

By any definition we are talking about substantial sums. My right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) has referred to education. Education is one of the most crucial and expensive services which is primarily provided by local authorities acting as virtual agents of Government. My right hon. Friend referred to the cuts in that vital service of £98 million this year. That is a substantial sum indeed. It is the inalienable right of every citizen to have an education from birth to death of sufficiently high quality to draw out of him or her whatever intellectual capacities he or she possesses. Education should be the last to suffer public expenditure cuts, yet the Government are proposing a cut of nearly £100 million. My right hon. Friend said that a cut of £55 million could result in 6,000 fewer teachers in the Scottish education system. The Secretary of State was careful not to deny that that was a real possibility and a dangerous threat to Scotland's educational fabric.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) mentioned the cuts of about 33 per cent. which are being visualised for recreation and leisure. We were told this afternoon by people who impressed us all by their great knowledge, sincerity and responsibility for education that a cut of 33 per cent. in leisure and recreation services is the equivalent of closing down every swimming pool and sports centre the length and breadth of Scotland. That is the measure of the cut that is being imposed on local authorities in Scotland. That is coming at a time when the quality of life is being threatened by unemployment and when the unemployed should have increased access to such facilities. At the very time when they are most needed, the Government are cutting down.

The same applies to concessionary fares. One of the great problems for our old people is mobility—being able to meet their friends, relatives and neighbours. They depend more than most on concessionary fares on our buses, particularly in the rural areas but also in the cities. Those concessionary fares are to be cut by more than 40 per cent. which will mean a real reduction in the standard of living of the poorest in our society. Therefore, the quality of life of the poorest in our community, whether they be the old or the unemployed young, is being hit hardest by the Government. The same will apply when we debate housing later today. Those who can ill bear the sacrifices are having them imposed upon them to an increasing degree.

It is a mean order. It means the undoubted diminution of quality of life for our citizens, who are primarily represented by the Opposition. Labour local authorities are making it clear that they have no intention of accepting the Government's directives, come what may. They will preserve the quality of life and the services that they were elected to operate, and they will receive support for that in the coming local and general elections.