Local Government (Scotland)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:52 pm on 17th January 1983.

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Photo of Mr Gordon Wilson Mr Gordon Wilson , Dundee East 9:52 pm, 17th January 1983

Every year when we debate these orders dissatisfaction is expressed at the way in which local government is being treated. Today's debate has shown even more sharply than those of previous years the utter dissatisfaction that seems to have penetrated every echelon of local government about the way in which it is treated financially. Opposition to what the Government are doing extends far beyond the financial terms of the settlement.

Those hon. Members who had the opportunity to meet CoSLA representatives this afternoon were impressed that from their different political points of view they were all extremely critical of the methodology by which the Government have approached this year's settlement. They were also critical of the attitude with which the Government approached the subject. They felt that it was almost as if the settlement had been dictated and laid down on high on tablets of stone. When they were consulted, they were told what would happen. They had little influence or control over the outcome of the settlement.

I do not have experience of local government finance, but one of the things that I have noticed while I have been a Member of Parliament is the complex way in which figures are drawn together. Even to this day I feel that it is a case of the blind leading the blind. The House does not face the problems of trying to deal with local government finance to maintain services and provide facilities for constituents as must councillors. It is true that we frequently call on local authorities to provide facilities for our constituents. In many cases they provide them, but the worry of finding the money with which to do so is one that we do not have to share, although, politically, sometimes we have great sympathy.

With regard to methodology, the Government will have to accept, from what we have heard from CoSLA, that there has to be a change in the way in which the rate support grant settlement is achieved and consultation at an earlier stage. The Government, not just on minor matters, must show that they are willing to listen to the real problems that emerge, which the local authority councillors can explain to the Government from their practical experience.

With most Governments there will always be limitations on the amount of money that is available. That is why it is essential that even within those limitations the Government should have the flexibility and willingness to listen to what our councillors suggest.

On that basis I recommend to the Government that, even if they are not prepared this year to consider any major changes, they should look at the complexity if not silliness of what has happened with the development of the guidelines, which now seem to act as a distortion and get in the way of local authorities. That, combined with the link between capital and revenue expenditure, tied up in a peculiar fashion, makes it extremely difficult for local authorities to function. It is strange that, when calls are made by the Government to local authorities that they should go on a capital spending boom, they find that they cannot do so and thus achieve the goals that the Government have set simply because of the restrictions on revenue expenditure imposed by the Government.

The Government must change their line on methodology. In the House I frequently feel that—I am not talking about just my own utterances on the subject—when other hon. Members make suggestions to the Government about the way in which the system is run and what changes should be made, they are not being heeded. In a sense we are dictated to. In such debates we can give our opinions. Sometimes we can help local authority councillors who cannot put their opinions directly in the House, but with the full knowledge that the Government will not listen and that there will be little change. When we vote, we vote on the global sum. Even if we could not change the volume of expenditure, it would be of much more interest and more useful if we could vote on individual items of expenditure, as many other Parliaments do. Perhaps the Government should consider that matter. A Conservative councillor from CoSLA whom I met today described the present set-up as an utter shambles. He said that not out of disloyalty to his party but out of frustration at the confusion that has been caused.

We must also accept that one of the inhibitions that we are facing in the debate is that the mandate for the cuts comes from the Treasury. It has no relevance to Scotland. The needs are here. We have a duty as parliamentary representatives to see that those needs are adequately taken care of, but the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Cabinet, through a majority that was not elected in Scotland and a mandate that they do not have, are able to trim the amount of money and therefore the services that are available to our people.

I repeat the figure of 5·65 per cent. in 1980, which by 1985 will be 5·05 per cent., of United Kingdom expenditure available to Scotland. That means that, in a sense, over five years Scotland will have lost over £2 billion. When we realise that that money is disappearing and not being made available as Scottish expenditure, and is being brought down to the same level as that in other parts of the United Kingdom, we are aware of why the Health Service is suffering, why roads are deteriorating, why money is being trimmed off education and why housing is being trimmed substantially.

I shall not have the opportunity to make this point in the next debate. Through the housing support grant the Government are inflicting untold injury and damage on the housing system in Scotland. When mortgage interest rates are coming down it makes no sense to jack up the rents to the extent that the Government have in mind. In terms of equity if not of sense, they should realise that they cannot get away with that. If the Government wanted to create inequalities in society, that would be the right way to set about it. I cannot see why the Government propose to give no housing support grant to Dundee, with all its housing problems, or to other communities with the same problems of social and economic disparity from which many of the constituencies represented by Conservative Members do not suffer. I ask the Government to think again. The rate support settlement and the housing support settlement for this year are utterly unjust.