The hour is late so I shall endeavour to be brief in spite of the extreme provocation to which I have been subjected. Government Members have given the impression that only Labour-controlled local authorities will be disappointed with the settlement, but they are mistaken. I draw to the attention of the House, in the absence of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), the views of Sutherland district council. It has not been taken over by the Militant Tendency. Its chairman is not Mr. Arthur Scargill, far less is it Mr. Michael Connarty. It is not even run by the SDP, which is not represented on the council. Referring to Sutherland district council, The Scotsman reported:
Of a threat expressed to storm St. Andrew's House and of a mass resignation, the council chairman, Mrs. Mackenzie, said after yesterday's meeting at Dornoch: 'You can take that seriously. We have in the past as a council taken a conscious decision to go along with Government guidelines very consistently. But a situation has now been forced on us because for lack of money we have had to go over these guidelines. … It's disgraceful to hit out at a small fragile economy such as ours. Have they no conception of the area we cover, how scattered is the population, and the expense we have to go to just to keep normal services running?'".
That is the view of a small council, but it is an important view. It should be considered seriously. It is a view that is shared by the regional and island councils and by the 53 district councils in Scotland.
In his statement tonight, and in his statement before Christmas, the Secretary of State gave the impression that he was not bearing in mind, particularly when he was highly critical of manpower levels, the fact that Scotland is a different country from England and Wales and has different problems. Scotland contains twice the number of council houses per 1,000 of population than England and Wales and all the staffing problems that go with that.
One must take account of the sparsity of population in Scotland and the problems that go with it. Many Conservative Members represent constituencies of that type. They should be more aware of such problems than we are. Our settlement of the rate support grant should reflect the problems that those areas face.
The Secretary of State took the view that there should be widespread disappointment about the staffing figures. I do not agree with his objectives. He was mean and not grateful to Scottish local authorities last year when they reduced manpower levels by 2 per cent. What is more, in doing that they reduced the projected target of rate increases for which my right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) has been severely criticised. The fact remains that if they had kept their manpower levels at the level of the year before, the projected rate increases would have been realised.
I shall ask a question which I believe many Scottish people are asking. If, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram) says, we must relate all these matters to the economy, why are we so determined to throw people out of employment in local government, especially in the manual sectors, thereby adding to the unacceptably high level of unemployment in Scotland? Local authorities do not want to do that.
Local authorities have been given the duty, by statute, of dealing with industrial development and promotion. They are keen to discharge that duty, but shops that are closing are not doing so as a result of rate increases, regrettable though they are. Rates are a small percentage of the costs that shopkeepers must meet. Shops are closing because of the Government's economic and industrial policy. As has been reiterated throughout the debate, that policy, combined with the settlement that has been presented to the House today, represents a severe blow to the objectives of Scottish local government.