I beg to move,
That the draft Local Government (Interim Provisions) Act 1984 (Appointed Day) Order 1985, which was laid before this House on 22nd November, be approved.
In this order, the Government seek the approval of the House for the cancellation of the GLC and metropolitan county council elections that would otherwise be held next May.
Despite the controversy which surrounded last Session's paving Bill, both Houses of Parliament agreed that it was right to put on the statute book what is now part II of the Local Government (Interim Provisions) Act 1984 — provision to suspend these elections subject to the approval by both Houses of an affirmative order to this effect. In other words, both Houses accepted the Government's view that it makes no sense to hold elections to councils which, if Parliament enacts the Local Government Bill, would only have 11 months to run. Never before has a whole council been elected for a term of less than a year.
Right from the outset, the Government made it clear that the order bringing part II of the paving Bill into force would not be made until this House had approved the main principle of abolition by giving a Second Reading to the Local Government Bill. This we did last week by a majority of 135.
The main purpose of this order is therefore to suspend these 1985 elections and to extend to 1 April 1986 the term of office of the existing councillors of the seven abolition authorities.
In the most unlikely event—that is the view which is now widely recognised as realistic — of the main abolition Bill failing to reach the statute book, the elections would be reinstated as swiftly as possible. Section 1(2) of the paving Act provides power to reinstate the elections by order, also subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. I have already given the House a firm commitment, which I am happy to repeat, that, if the main Bill falls, that order would be introduced as soon as it was practicable to do so. However, the House may share my view that, given the Government's clear manifesto commitment and last week's substantial Second Reading majority, that is most improbable. I am in no doubt that the Bill will be enacted. In those circumstances, it would be unnecessary and contrary to precedent for elections to the abolition authorities to be held next year.
This order will bring part II of the paving Act into force on 1 February 1985. Part II comprises two sections—section 2, which is concerned with the ordinary elections to the Greater London council and to the metropolitan county councils, and section 3, which is concerned with the quorum for meetings of those councils.
With effect from the coming into force of this order, section 2 of the Act suspends the ordinary elections of councillors of the GLC and MCCs and extends until 1 April 1986 the term of office of serving GLC and MCC councillors. Any councillor elected to fill a casual vacancy will likewise serve until 1 April 1986.
Section 2(3) adapts the rules for the filling of casual vacancies.
I think that if the hon. Gentleman and his friends were so unwise as to engage in another series of electoral stunts they would meet with exactly the same debacle as last time, so I would not advise him to embark on that course.
The effect of section 2(3) is that a by-election to fill a vacancy arising on or after 1 October 1985 will not be held unless, when the vacancy occurs, the total number of unfilled vacancies exceeds one third of the total number of members. That is entirely in accordance with the normal rule that vacancies are not filled within six months before an election, although in this case, of course, the council will disappear.
Finally, section 2 amends the provisions made in the Local Government Act 1972 relating to the years in which elections to metropolitan district councils are held. This is a purely consequential amendment. The effect is to ensure that the cycle of metropolitan district elections continues undisturbed by the suspension of the metropolitan county council elections. The corresponding provisions of the 1972 Act in relation to the Greater London council are repealed by section 2(4).
I may be asked why 1 February has been chosen as the appointed day. The answer is that that allows a reasonable time for both Houses to give their approval to this order, while giving three months notice of cancellation of elections, which is sufficient time to avoid abortive expenditure and unnecessary work.
The cancellation of the 1985 elections was one of the major issues of debate during the passage of the paving legislation and I do not propose to repeat the arguments today. The reasons are simple. It would be a waste of expenditure and quite unprecedented to hold elections in circumstances where the councillors so elected would serve for less than a year. After much debate, both Houses of Parliament took this view. Indeed, it was reflected in the comments of the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), whom I do not see in the Chamber, when he said:
I can sympathise with the Secretary of State's claim that it would have been wasteful to hold elections. I fully realise that, but the natural thing to do in those circumstances is to let local authorities continue in existence for another year."[Official Report, 11 April 1984; Vol. 58, c. 469.]
That is precisely what part II of the paving Act does.
I do not want to weary the House with tedious repetition, but if at any stage the main abolition Bill falls, the paving Act contains the power to reinstate those elections. I have given a categorical undertaking that, in that event, the order to effect that reinstatement would be presented as soon as might be possible. I do not take for granted the passage of the legislation. I have accepted — as many hon. Members and many people outside the House have accepted—that it is probable that the legislation will reach the statute book. That being so, it is quite unnecessary to hold the elections.
The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) has raised the question of further by-elections. I find that most of those who called most loudly for the GLC elections are now remarkably silent on that issue.
On 20 September there was an attempt to hold four by-elections. It was forecast that Londoners would turn out in tens and fifties of thousands to vote for the pro-GLC candidates. People of all parties were supposed to flock to their banner. Those four stunt by-elections were the flops of the year. Compared with the results in 1981, 8,000 fewer people voted for the four Labour candidates. Less than one elector in five even took the trouble to register his vote for a Labour candidate. Where are the other stunt by-elections that were promised? They are as hard to find as a living dodo. I suspect that we have heard the last of them.
The order also brings section 3 of the paving Act into force. That is the section that allows the Secretary of State to prescribe a smaller quorum for meetings of the GLC or of an MCC. The present statutory quorum is one quarter of the whole number of members of the council. Section 3 allows the Secretary of State by order to reduce that number if he considers it necessary for the transaction of the business of the GLC or of a metropolitan county council. That order-making power is subject to the negative resolution procedure, and can be prayed against.
Ideally, this order would confine itself to elections. It should not be necessary to provide for the substitution of a smaller quorum. However, a number of councillors have been threatening to obstruct the will of Parliament. They would be in a position to bring their council's business to a standstill simply by refusing to attend council meetings. It is to safeguard against such sabotage that section 3 was included in the Act, enabling the quorum to be varied.
I have honoured the promise that I made on Second Reading. I have not sought to make the order to activate part II of the paving Act before the principle of abolition had been debated and approved by the House. It has now been approved by the Second Reading given to the Bill last week. It would be unjustifiable to delay any longer the coming into effect of the order. I ask the House to approve the appointed day order.
I have no hesitation in saying that we reject the Secretary of State's arguments for this order. As he well knows, he is creating a precedent in presenting this order. It is yet another precedent in a long and rather unenviable line of precedents that the right hon. Gentleman has set in local government legislation.
The order abolishes elections that would involve between 13 million and 14 million electors in the GLC and metropolitan county areas. The Secretary of State and his colleagues are taking away the votes of that many people and not, as has been the case in previous local government reorganisations, replacing them with votes for successor authorities. In no sense can the Secretary of State claim that, in producing the order and his arguments for it, he is following the precedent even of former Conservative Secretaries of State.
In spite of what the Secretary of State has said today, he is taking the decision of this House and that of another place for granted in assuming that the Local Government Bill, which recently received a Second Reading, will become law. The right hon. Gentleman said that he was not taking the House for granted but that he was confident that the Bill would be carried. If that is so, why does he not leave things as they are? Why does he have to bring the order to the House to abolish elections? He has no answer to either question. The reality, in spite of what he has just said about by-elections to the GLC, is that he, the House and the country know full well that he and his right hon. and hon. Friends are frightened of an expression of opinion through the ballot box by the people of London and the met counties. That would be a major test of public opinion on this issue.
Well, I cannot believe that the way in which this measure was cobbled together at the last moment and stuffed into the Conservative party manifesto produced any real test of opinion. I do not believe that it featured highly in elections anywhere. On the contrary, it was hidden away. Perhaps I can ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he agrees with the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), who said last week that the commitment to abolish the GLC and the met counties was
put in nine days after the election was called against the wishes of the party policy committee." — [Official Report, 4 December 1984; Vol. 69, c. 191.]
I invite the Secretary of State to say whether that is a true record of events.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), who is not here to defend himself, might have had more inside knowledge of these matters that I do not share. All I know is that after many months of discussions, as I said last week, this matter was included by a decision of the Cabinet. If it is such anathema to the Labour party, how come the Labour party's Environment spokesman placed not one recorded word in any speech handout on this subject throughout the 1983 general election? Are we to believe that he did not read the manifesto? Did he not know all about it? Did he try to pretend that it did not exist?
Wriggle as the right hon. Gentleman will, he is not able to duck the charge that the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup levelled at him and the Government that the commitment was shoved into the manifesto at the last possible moment without any proper consultation.
The right hon. Gentleman said that there were months of discussions. I invite him to tell the House who was involved in the discussions: certainly not leading Conservatives on the GLC group, certainly not the right hon. Gentleman's own representative on the GLC. As the right hon. Gentleman is only too well aware, they say very different things today.
The hon. Gentleman prays in aid the statement of my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) — he has prayed in aid his statements on a number of occasions — that the policy was rushed through at the last minute against the wishes of the policy-making committee. Is he aware that the county of Humberside was created 10 years ago against the wishes of the people, in a plebiscite in which 85 per cent. of the people of south Humberside voted against its creation, when the Prime Minister was my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup?
The hon. Gentleman seems to be arguing in favour of local choice and consultation. In my remarks I have said that there has been no consultation. Also there has been no proper inquiry or investigation into the nature of the proposals. Previously when elections to outgoing authorities, or authorities which have been wound up or which were disappearing, have been cancelled they have been balanced by the introduction of new elections to new successor authorities. That was the case in the 1974 election when existing councils ran in parallel with the new ones which were elected in 1973 until the changeover occurred.
It is absolutely wrong for the Secretary of State to claim, as he has claimed in the past although I noticed that he did not make the claim this evening, that he is following precedent in what he is doing with this order and the actions he is taking as a result of the Local Government (Interim Provisions) Act 1984. The principle is quite different. It is one which we on this side of the House stand by: that local democratic accountability should be preserved. It would be far better for everybody concerned, including although he seems reluctant to agree, the reputation of the right hon. Gentleman, if in this case that principle were to be preserved.
The proposals put forward by the Government do not match up to any credible attempt either to reorganise local government properly in a non-partisan manner, or to take account or make any test of the opinions of the people who are affected by the change.
It should not be argued—indeed, it cannot be argued —that the changeover date should be seen as settled at this stage of the parliamentary process. That implies another assumption: that the Bill will go through as it stands unamended and in the time scale the Government envisage. Given the Government's experience of the Local Government (Interim Provisions) Act 1984, that is a very arrogant assumption for the right hon. Gentleman to make. He knows as well as we know that not only in the other place but in this House a significant number of his right hon. and hon. Friends are fundamentally opposed to what the Government are suggesting should happen. There is a bald assumption that everything will proceed just as the Government intend.
The West Midlands seems to be the only metropolitan county council for which re-warding has been completed. Therefore, the electoral arrangements are entirely different from those of the other metropolitan counties and the GLC. In that sense, two different wardings are likely to run in parallel—the existing ones and the new ones which result from the Boundary Commission changes which have been put into effect by an order made in 1982.
We must surely presume that if a by-election were to occur in the West Midlands after 2 May it would be held on the new ward basis. That is an anomalous state of affairs. The existing authority, elected on old wards, on old boundaries, is to continue in place but any by-election would apparently take place on new ward boundaries. Is that so?
The Government are well aware of that point. I shall be discussing it with my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, with whom responsibility in that matter rests. Proposals to deal with what the hon. Gentleman has perfectly fairly identified will be brought forward in good time before that boundary order takes effect.
That is just another example, along a road littered with such examples, of how little thought and proper preparation has been put into what the Government are proposing to do. Here again there is a glaring anomaly in the situation as proposed by the Government. It is not good enough to say to the House in the middle of this debate, only because the Labour party had been able to pick up the point, that the Government will respond. Why did not the right hon. Gentleman come to the House and explain it, since he obviously knew about the situation, and say what the Government's intentions were? That would have been a far better way to approach the matter than to have to respond to a question from the Opposition.
The longer the House looks at the Government's proposals and has the opportunity to examine them in detail, the clearer it is that the charges of not only the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup but of other Conservative Members, as well as people in the authorities themselves, are substantiated.
The Government's botched-up approach to local government reorganisation is a shambles. It is shot full of holes, contradictions, errors and matters which have not been properly thought out. The order is not necessary at this time. It is not necessary for the House to approve it. Perhaps it is a little too optimistic to say that nothing would go wrong for the Government, but if the order had not been presented and were not approved by the House it would not affect the Government's proposed timetable. Indeed, it would do something for the Secretary of State's reputation and for that of his right hon. and hon. Friends if it had not been presented at this time.
The order should not be approved now. The House should recommend the Secretary of State not to submit it until at least the Local Government Bill has received the Royal Assent. At that time only would it be necessary to abolish elections to the authorities and not before.
I support the order. It is entirely right that at this stage the order should come before the House, the House having formally given a Second Reading, with a large majority, to the Local Government Bill. It would be entirely wrong to suggest or imply that there would be an election for the GLC, with which I am more particularly concerned, when that authority has a life of only about 12 months ahead of it, the House having given a clear sign of its intentions.
There have been examples of elections being cancelled because of local government reform. I remind the House that there will be London borough elections in May 1986 when Londoners will have the opportunity to elect more than 1,000 councillors who will be responsible for running London's services and affairs. It is significant that in the reform of local government in London, of the remaining functions of the GLC 95 per cent. in cost terms will be transferred to the control of the elected borough councils.
Mention has been made of the desirability of testing public opinion. Such a test has already taken place in London. On 20 September this year there were four by-elections. It was the most boring of political experiences for the people of London. They were not interested in the elections. They did not participate to the extent of 75 per cent. not turning out to vote. It was significant that the leadership of the GLC had threatened Londoners with a number of by-elections. The GLC leader has clearly shown that the result of the by-elections was such that there was no point in continuing with them.
While the hon. Gentleman is reflecting on the by-elections, will he tell us what the turn-out was in Westminister, North, what the vote was and why his Conservative association had to be strong-armed into not contesting it?
The hon. Gentleman knows the answer to that. He knows the arithmetic of the four by-elections. I shall repeat the results for the benefit of the House. About 25 per cent. turned out in the by-elections. In north Westminster it was slightly above that figure. That is not altogether surprising considering that the present leader of the GLC was the candidate in the division in Paddington and considering also the extent of the propaganda expenditure incurred in the run-up to the by-election.
I well recall that after the result was declared, every conceivable excuse was trotted out to account for the reason why the electorate did not turn out to vote. It was said to be raining, a bad register and so on. It was raining during the GLC election in 1981, when the turn-out in the same division was 44 per cent. The electorate found the whole by-election issue extremely tedious and did not participate.
I shall not be tempted down that road. We are concerned with an order that is perfectly reasonable and desirable in view of the expression of the House on the Local Government Bill, before us a few days ago.
We must bear in mind the cost implications of by-elections. It would be wholly inappropriate to spend hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds of ratepayers' money merely to return a council which, in the case of London, would have 12 months or less to serve. I believe that the order should be supported and I shall vote for it tonight.
I must declare an interest as a Londoner whose vote is being taken away, but that is not why I wish to address the House. As far as I can make out, this is the first time in our history when a Government have reduced the franchise. There have been reorganisations in the past of one kind and another, but tonight we are being asked to take away the votes of those who previously enjoyed them.
The Secretary of State, who speaks of votes as if they could be calculated in terms of efficiency alone or common sense in terms of a better way of organising things, appears to forget that votes were won in this country not by the grace and favour of successive Governments, but by systematic public campaigns, and systematic campaigns of law breaking to win the rights that we have. I am referring historically to that. The right to worship as we wish was won against laws passed by Parliament that sought to impose uniformity on methods of worship; the rights of trade unions were won by systematic law-breaking of the Combination Acts; the rights of working class men were won after riots and disturbances, led by the Chartists, had been forced on a very unwilling House of Commons and an exceptionally reluctant House of Lords. The Prime Minister would not be in her position as a voter, a Member of Parliament or Prime Minister if the suffragettes had not systematically broken the law, chained themselves to the railings, been imprisoned, force-fed, released and then rearrested under the infamous cat and mouse Act that was passed during the lifetime of many present tonight.
The right hon. Gentleman is being dramatic and seems to be inciting people to break the law. Will he answer this question? Since the environment spokesman of his party, the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), argued in favour of unitary authorities, and since that would have meant elections to but one level of government, is it not inevitable, beyond peradventure, that precisely the same process would have taken place—that there would have been a reduction in the number of elections held for layers of local government?
The right hon. Gentleman only confirms my long suspicion that he does not understand the impact of his own Bill, because he is taking executive power from elected people and using the prerogative — [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes, indeed. We are discussing not the other legislation, but the power to abolish the Inner London education authority by statutory instrument. The Secretary of State is using the prerogative of the Crown and taking power from elected people. That is a wholly different matter from the reorganisation of the structure of local government.
Indeed, I have a serious point to put to the right hon. Gentleman. His right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) is on record, on the point about unitary authorities, as saying that if his party were elected in the general election on that policy it would proceed with no more Royal Commissions and no more reviews, but direct to legislation. That was said by the right hon. Member for Gorton. Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on it?
I dealt with the point in answering the Secretary of State's question. The issue, as the hon. Gentleman knows very well, is the removal of powers from the elected local authorities to the Executive using the prerogative of the Crown, in some cases without having to come back to the House of Commons at all.
The point that I want to make is that if the Secretary of State, who is introducing the order, were to study our history, he would find that the pressure for democratic rights was not an abstract pressure. It was not that anybody thought that elections in themselves were of value; it was the consequence of the extension of the franchise that people wanted to see. In 1832, 1867, 1884, 1918 and in subsequent Bills, the enlargement of the franchise brought much-valued social progress. Those who remember—some are still alive—what the House of Commons was like before women were granted the vote—which was only in 1918—will remember that in those days, when Members of Parliament were answerable only to male constituents, women's issues and rights got short shrift in Parliament.
If one considers local democracy, it is clear that, as it spread. health, education, housing and transport became much improved. I have with me—it may have been cited previously—the development of the city council in Birmingham from 1838, when the municipal charter was granted: 1842, the police force; 1861 the public library; 1867, the art gallery; 1870, the school board; 1872, the first medical officer of health; 1874, the first municipal hospital; 1875, the city took over the supply of gas; 1875, the fire brigade; 1876, the water supply; 1890, the first municipal houses; 1898, the supply of electricity; 1904, its own tramways; 1908, maternity and child welfare; 1916, municipal savings; 1919, the orchestra; and 1939, the municipal airport. All those things were made possible by the extension of the franchise. It is no good saying that the GLC has no functions left, because the Government have removed those functions. They have performed a characteristic administrative trick of destroying the functions of an elected body and then describing it as unnecessary.
The public must understand clearly that this is not an administrative reorganisation. The Secretary of State is committed to the destruction of the services provided by local government, and therefore he has chosen to attack the democratic institutions that provide them. That is what this is about. It has nothing whatever to do with the need for a better organisation. I forget whether the Secretary of State was a member of the Government who set up the GLC, but I was a Member of Parliament at the time. There was no argument then about the need for those services; there was an argument about how they could best be provided. No one outside should believe that we are having a limited debate about how best to run local services. The Government wish to cut services as part of their central economic policy. This is a by-product of their economic and social policies and has nothing to do with the better government of London or the metropolitan counties.
I give a special warning to another place, and in doing so I differentiate myself momentarily from Ken Livingstone's notice on County hall. I did not agree with his slogan, "Peers, Thank you for saving democracy in London." It may be tactically useful to the GLC to butter up some bishops and wangle some wets into voting against the legislation, but the Lords have never believed in democracy. I searched through all the debates on the Reform Bills last century to find the best quotation from the House of Lords on the democratic process, and I offer to the House a quotation from a dissent to the Third Reading of the Reform Act 1867, which was registered.
The grounds for the dissent are stated clearly. The first was:
Because the Bill, creating in almost every City and Borough in England a new Constituency more numerous than that which exists, impairs, where it does not destroy, the power of the present Electors, and substitutes for it that of a new Body inferior to them in Property and Education.
The second reason was:
Because the Confidence justly placed in Constituencies of approved Worth cannot reasonably be transferred to such Men now first entrusted with electoral Power; and it is to be feared that when Labour makes laws for Capital, Poverty for Property, legislation, no longer directed by educated Intelligence, will impair the individual Freedom of Action and the Security of Possession which have been the Foundations of our Prosperity and Wealth.
I warn Ken Livingstone not to put too much hope in the other place, for it has never believed in democracy. It is half filled with hereditary peers, and padded out with the patronage of successive Prime Ministers.
If the other place passes this order, which will go to it soon, let me remind it of another Act of Parliament, passed on 19 March 1649. It is an Act to abolish the House of Peers, passed by the House of Commons. It is one of the Acts of the interregnum. I shall read it for the benefit of the other place, because I think that the peers are more likely to be influenced by this than by another lunch with the campaigners for the preservation of the GLC. It begins "The Commons of England". I doubt whether those words have been uttered in the House since then, so Let me remind those who have forgotten what they are:
The Commons of England assembled in Parliament, finding by too long experience, that the House of Lords is useless and dangerous to the People of England to be continued, have thought fit to Ordain and Enact, and be it Ordained and Enacted by this present Parliament, and by the Authority of the same, That from henceforth the House of Lords in Parliament, shall be and is hereby wholly abolished and taken away; And that the Lords shall not from henceforth meet or sit in the said House called The Lords House, or in any other House or Place whatsoever, as a House of Lords; nor shall Sit, Vote, Advise, Adjudge, or Determine of any matter or thing whatsoever, as a House of Lords in Parliament.
That was clearer legislation than that introduced by the Secretary of State. If a non-elected House takes away the votes of the people of Britain, it signs its own death warrant the day that it does so. Nobody should have any illusions about that.
I shall now relate the order to the wider attack. We are always told by the Tory party that the proper way to get our rights is to vote. However, when the GLC was elected on a cheap fares policy, the Government wheeled out Lord Denning from the chamber of horrors, and he said that that manifesto was illegal. Now that that has been amended, they wheel out a Bill to abolish the GLC. No Tory Members should try to tell the British people, certainly not Londoners or those who live in the metropolitan counties, that they are prepared to see change made by democratic means, because they are not. The attack by rate—capping, the introduction of quangos—which is only the Royal prerogative reappearing in the modern language of administration—the use of ministerial fiats, the abolition of trade unionism at GCHQ, sequestration by the courts and the national police force are designed to crush all opposition to the Government of the day.
That is why the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) expresses his doubts. No doubt, if one could get him into a Sub-Committee, one would have an interesting discussion about some of the managerial problems that we are told we are discussing. But he knows what we know—that the Tory party, by reverting to a principle that has not illuminated its thinking for many centuries, is trying to crush all opposition, however expressed.
I say seriously that if those rights, which were never granted graciously from the top, but were won by law breaking from underneath, are taken away, that will be an open invitation to return to law breaking as a means of winning back rights that the Government are taking away. If that happens, although I believe that the Prime Minister will not be allowed by her party to get away with it—for it is only with the party that the capacity to remove her now rests—everything that flows from the clutch of policies, of which this is one, will be the responsibility of the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and every hon. Member who votes for the order tonight, and any peer who votes for it when it reaches the other place. This is a very much graver matter than can be settled by an exchange of witticisms, comments or even quotations from other people's speeches on other occasions.
Tonight, the House is being asked to reverse its own history, and, in so far as it does, it should recognise that putting the clock back is a package deal that has other consequences. This, and other measures, will reawaken the determination of the British people to govern themselves and not to be told what to do by Ministers cloaking themselves in prerogative in order to destroy the rights of those they were elected to represent.
I tried to follow the speech of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), but I had some difficulty. I think that he is in some confusion when he speaks of enlargement of the franchise. If he considers the examples that he gave from the last century he will find — or if he asks his researcher, he will no doubt tell him—that the references are to giving votes to those who did not have them. That is the usual meaning of the phrase, "enlargement of the franchise".
The order proposes not to take away votes from those who have them, but to take away a vote from those who at present have three, so that they then have two. However, if the right hon. Gentleman looks at the motion, he will see that there will be an additional vote for the Inner London education authority and so, hey presto, there will be three again. Therefore, I cannot accept the right hon. Gentleman's assertion that to take away a vote from those who have three is an incitement to violence. I cannot believe that most hon. Members follow the right hon. Gentleman in that.
During the past year there has been a great deal of complaint from Conservative Members that people have votes in local elections when they do not pay rates. The implication has been—and it has been mentioned by Conservatives outside the House —that those who do not pay rates should not have votes in local elections. Is that the hon. Gentleman's view?
No. Like the right hon. Member for Chesterfield, the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) is completely confused.
My point is that the quotations about the enlargement of the franchise referred to giving votes to those who did not have them. But the motion takes away a vote for the GLC from those who have the vote for local councils and for Parliament, and gives—if the right hon. Gentleman so wishes—a vote for ILEA. That is not, in any normal sense, a restriction of the franchise. The right hon. Gentleman was also deeply confused when he spoke about a centralisation of powers. I am sure that he has read the Bill, so I shall remind him that on abolition of the GLC —if that is what the House decides—all the services provided by it alone, or together with the boroughs, will pass to the boroughs— [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] —with a few exceptions.
I shall list those exceptions. First, there is ILEA. There will be an increase in representation with regard to ILEA, because we shall now be able to vote directly for that body. Then there is London Transport, which has already become London Regional Transport, and the recommendation concerning that was made by an all-party Select Committee. I agree that the fire service will involve a joint board, but of borough members. Flood protection is of tremendous national importance and responsibility for that will go to the Thames water authority. There are historic buildings, ancient monuments and the arts. But the arts will be dealt with mainly by the boroughs. If anyone calls that a centralisation of powers that will lead to violence in the streets, he is deeply confused.
No new quango is being formed, one new joint board is to be formed. I am talking about the GLC. I do not have sufficient knowledge to talk about the metropolitan counties. When I was a member of the GLC about 15 years ago I thought that it had come to the end of its useful life.
The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) referred to my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) saying that the legislation was hastily cobbled together. I have no idea whether it was or was not, because I am not in the Cabinet. If my right hon. Friend tells me that the proposals were agreed by the Cabinet I believe him.
It is strange that the 1983 alliance manifesto proposes
abolishing one of the existing tiers of local government
inevitably involve the eventual abolition of the Metropolitan Counties, and the GLC.
Was that purely by chance and cobbled up overnight?
Even the Socialists in "Labour's Programme 1982" say:
The main difficulties of the present system are clear enough. There is an irrational split of functions between the two tiers … a confusing overlap of responsibilities".
In a typically Socialist way that expresses a dilemma but does not suggest any way to solve it. At least the Conservatives and the alliance gave a pledge.
It is said that no referendum was held. In the 1983 election the Conservatives won 56 out of 84 London seats.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not wish to mislead the House, but like many of his colleagues who quoted from the alliance
manifesto he left out a sentence. That sentence referred to the proposals to abolish the GLC and the metropolitan counties:
against the background of our proposals for the development of regional government.
There is a difference between replacing authorities and putting nothing in their place, as the Government propose.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Nevertheless the alliance was unhappy with the present system of local government and proposed to abolish the GLC and the metropolitan counties.
I was a member of the GLC between 1967 and 1970. Even then its powers had been eroded. When I mentioned the centralisation of powers a moment ago, I wonder if the right hon. Member for Chesterfield was aware of how many powers the GLC today operates alone, without the co-operation of the boroughs. It operates about four such powers. One could say more if one included for instance the collection of information. Very few people know that it operates only four such powers. The only powers of importance that the GLC exercises today without borough co-operation are the fire service, waste disposal, land drainage and building control — not for the whole of London; just for Inner London.
I applaud the Government's decision. Having decided to abolish the GLC, what do we do about elections in May 1985, which will be less than 12 months before abolition, should the House so decide? There are three choices. The first is to let the elections go ahead.
I understand entirely why some Labour Members relished the thought of elections going ahead, but I am surprised that they still take that view after Labour's miserable showing in the four by-elections that took place. Those who say that the elections should go ahead, to be regarded as some form of referendum, are doing as much damage to our constitution and the House as the right hon. Member for Chesterfield seemed to believe that the GLC's abolition would do to Britain's peace and tranquility. Quite apart from the cost and the fact that councillors would have been in office for less than a year, there are precedents to support the Government's position. In 1963·64, for example, local elections were cancelled with the reorganisation of local government.
If the hon. Gentleman had been listening, he would have heard me say "should the House so decide" to abolish the GLC. If he checks Hansard, he will find that I said that.
One of the benefits of a good Government is that it plans ahead. This motion is another example of a good Conservative Government planning what should happen in a year's time or two years' time. The Opposition should welcome this demonstration of careful planning.
The first possibility was to let elections take place. The second was to extend the term of the present councillors. The third was to install a provisional council formed by members of the borough councils. Initially, the Government recommended the third plan. It is a sign of the Government's flexibility and genuine readiness to engage in consultation that they changed their plan and took the second course.
I remind my hon. Friend that the Government's decision on ILEA reflected pure, voluntary good will. It had been decided that ILEA should be a joint board of borough councillors. That was known as the Marshall solution, following the recommendations of the Marshall inquiry. However, they changed their mind to go along with majority feeling and decided that there should be direct elections. This new election should reassure Labour Members that the franchise is not being eroded.
The hon. Gentleman will surely remember that the Secretary of State for Education and Science said that he reinstated ILEA because of the overwhelming feeling on the issue and the arguments. It was not a matter of good will. The right hon. Gentleman said that the reinstatement was due to the convincing nature of the arguments for taking that course. Why does the same test not apply on this issue? The feeling is similar and the arguments against the Government's policy are equally overwhelming.
As my hon. Friend says, we have not had the arguments. I confess that, on balance, I favoured a joint board. I was wrong, and I believe that the Government were right to change their mind. I think that it is right to have direct elections. I have some doubts about having a single-purpose elected local authority, because there will not be the necessary conflict between competing claims for funds as, for example, in local government and central Government, and there may be some difficulty as a result. I look forward to the ILEA elections. I wish that they would take place in 1985 rather than 1986. I do not like the transition period. However, I am afraid that it is inevitable. There is little or no way of getting the measure through without that transition period.
It is time that I gave way to allow other hon. Members to participate in the debate. I support the order, because it is right. When we look back in five or 10 years the Government's decision will be vindicated. For some 15 years, I have thought that the GLC should be abolished, and I am glad to vote for this measure.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I certainly would not dare to suggest that I should insist on the right of any hon. Member to be called, but I draw your attention to this fact: if we include the Front Bench speakers and the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright), who has just been called, so far in this debate five London Members and one provincial Member—my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) — will have been called. Hon. Members representing the Tyne and Wear county council area, Merseyside and other metropolitan county council areas are present. I suggest seriously, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that those hon. Members will feel a sense of outrage if this continues to be a London debate.
I am sharply aware of the hon. Member's point. Obviously I must take many factors into account in determining which hon. Members I should call. I shall, of course, bear in mind the hon. Member's comments.
The major objection to the order is that it abolishes elections to authorities that Parliament has not yet decided to abolish. The hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) may regard that as planning ahead; I think that most people would regard it as total arrogance.
The fact is that this order was not planned all that far ahead. We all know that we are debating this order because of the actions of the other place, where last summer the Government moved an amendment to the Local Government (Interim Provisions) Bill producing this affirmative order procedure. They did so under pressure of criticism that they were abolishing elections even before a Second Reading debate in this House. When the amendment from the other place was debated in this House on 30 July this year, only the alliance and our occasional allies, the hon. Members for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Tooting (Mr. Cox) voted against the amendment; the official Labour party abstained.
The reasons for the alliance's decision to vote against the affirmative order procedure to abolish elections were outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who criticised that procedure which allowed no amendment. My hon. Friend quoted the case of Conservative Members who supported the principle of abolition, but believed that the Government would make a mess of the drafting of the Bill, which clearly they have done. My hon. Friend said that such hon. Members might
suggest that there are particular and detailed objections to the Bill that arise not from total opposition to its intentions and basic provisions.
My hon. Friend said that those hon. Members might not wish at that time to approve the order. He went on:
I do not want this to come as a surprise to those people, which is why I underline it now. They will find that there is nothing that they can do to the commencement order." — [Official Report, 30 July 1984; Vol. 65, c. 39.]
That is one of our objections to the procedure. There is no room for amendment — no opportunity for hon. Members who have reservations about the abolition Bill to amend the Bill.
The House is being asked to agree a procedure over which it has virtually no power. There are hon. Members, including those on the Conservative Back Benches, who may wish to amend the abolition Bill in a variety of ways. Some of them have already put their names to substantive amendments which will be debated on Wednesday and Thursday. At present there is no way in which any of us can be sure what form the abolition Bill will finally take.
There is an amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) and some of his hon. Friends which calls for a new scaled-down authority to replace the GLC. If that amendment is passed, or receives substantial support, which leads to a modification of the Minister's plans, or if a similar amendment is carried in another place some months hence, then the Bill with which we shall have to deal will be different from the one with which we are now concerned.
The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) rightly reminded us that one only has to remember the saga of the Local Government (Interim Provisions) Bill 1984. It started life as one type of Bill but ended up as a different type. The Bill that left this House on 22 May was designed to cancel elections and set up interim bodies. It had one minor financial clause only. The Bill which returned to this House from the other place on 30 July had a different purpose — to extend the life of the councils and to introduce major financial restrictions on their autonomy. The Bill was changed out of all recognition. The Bill accepted by the House of Commons on Second Reading was different from the Bill which was finally enacted. On that basis, none of us can be sure of the final form of the Local Government Act.
It is, in my judgment, wrong and arrogant for the Government to seek to force through the order tonight. It should be left until after clause 1 has been debated on Wednesday and Thursday.
I do not often these days agree with the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), but I agree with him when he says that the order will lead to the biggest reduction in the franchise since 1832. Every previous Bill enacted in the House dealing with elections has extended the franchise or left it the same, all the way through from the great Reform Bill 1832 until the Bill given a Second Reading today which extends the franchise to those people who are on holiday and those resident overseas.
It is ironic that on the day on which the House of Commons has agreed, in principle, to extend the franchise to 500,000 more people it should go on to be asked to approve an order which deprives 40 per cent. of the electorate of their right to vote in next May's county council elections. That would not be so bad if the other 60 per cent. of the electorate also lost that power, because it would be a move to one-tier local government throughout the country. It would not be a reduction of democracy but a consolidation of two votes into one.
It would not be so bad if the bodies which were to take over the functions of the GLC and the metropolitan counties were all elected. No one will directly elect the London fire and civil defence boards; no one will vote in the election of the London Planning Commission; no votes will be cast in the election of joint boards for waste disposal, although all those bodies are taking powers away from a directly elected body in London. On the same basis, no one will vote for joint boards for police, fire and transport which will remove many of the functions of the directly elected metropolitan county councils.
The order will deprive a large section of the population of its vote. Electors in London and the metropolitan counties will not have a vote on 2 May 1985 even though electors outside those areas will be voting for authorities that provide many similar services.
The order will also have an effect on councillors who were elected in 1981 for a four-year term. There are likely to be by-elections next May, not for the political reasons that caused the by-elections in Grater London, but because people who were elected for four years have planned their lives on that basis and did not expect and should not be ecpected to carry on for a further year.
If the Government believe what they say—that there is genuine public support for their abolition plans—they should let the elections go ahead. They should put their fate in the ballot box and allow a new Greater London council and new metropolitan county councils to be elected. That would be much better than trying to coerce existing members to continue in office. The order is a shabby measure with the smell of gerrymandering about it. We shall vote against it.
When one listens to a lesson in history from the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) one has the impression that history itself is speaking. One of the sad things about the order is that it has given him a degree of credibility that he would not have had if we were not seeking to pass this somewhat shabby and disreputable measure.
I believe that this will constitute an unhappy precedent for our party. It would have been better and wiser to secure the enactment of the Local Government Bill first and then to take the necessary steps to abrogate the Greater London Council elections. That would have been the correct and wise chronology. I fear that the legislation on which we are embarked and which is to be debated on Wednesday and Thursday will prove as unhappy an experience for the Conservative Government as the devolution Bill proved for the Labour Government. That is not the subject of this debate, but it is indeed an unhappy measure.
I also believe that the road to political condemnation is paved with the consciences of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I did not vote against the paving Bill, but now —unlike then—we know what the Local Government Bill contains. We know that it arrogates even more centralised power to the Secretary of State and that it will lead to the creation and proliferation of quangos, joint boards and other bodies on which borough councillors will serve although they were not elected to do so and may not have the necessary time or qualifications. But that is for another day.
I suspect that the Government, with their very big majority, may succeed in laying the body politic of the Greater London council to rest, but I fear that its spectre will rise to haunt us. In the future, anything that goes wrong with London's governance will be laid at our door and if the Labour party ever returns to power —unfortunately, these things sometimes happen—it may use this precedent to do away with elections of far greater import than those due to take place next spring.
Labour Members may shake their heads now, and I am glad that they do, but I suspect that my fear may well prove to be justified.
Many Members of this House would have the other place do our work for us. That has been a growing tendency of this Parliament, but I shall not resort to it. If my conscience dictates on behalf of my constituents that the amendment of the coming legislation requires a vigorous and critical approach I shall pursue such an approach, and if I judge this order to be unworthy I shall act accordingly. My action today will be to abstain because I do not believe that the measure merits passage.
I oppose the order for the cancellation of the 1985 elections for the GLC: and metropolitan county councils. My theme will be similar to that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). Any remarks that I may make about Conservative Members should be understood not to include the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson). The hon. Gentleman will understand why.
The order is one more step on the road to dictatorship. Centralisation is now on its way, and dictatorship will certainly follow. This is a time when much frustration is being caused because an insensitive Government do not understand the problems of the provinces or the inner cities, or the pressures of unemployment. At such a time, the Government are bringing in even more legislation to curtail the freedom of the individual. The nation is already divided. Trade union legislation is crushing the fundamental rights of trade unionists to defend and represent themselves. Millions face unemployment for the rest of their lives. The arm of the law is used to suppress democratic rights and to do the dirty work of central Government. The Government are continuing to remove any opposition to their views, and putting pressure on people by imprisonment, various forms of restriction, bankruptcy and force. The Government are now taking the final step—the removal of the right to vote. That is why I oppose the order, and that is why there is so much frustration and despair in the country.
Why do the Government not address themselves to the real issues and evils of the present day? Why do they not try to stop the rot in our industries? Why do they not try to bring back hope to those in despair? Why do they not use the good offices of local government, which not only upholds local democracy but contributes directly through services, the stimulation of jobs, care and understanding. When there are so many problems everywhere, why, instead of helping people and using the good offices of local government, do the Government remove the one element that clearly has served its purpose very well?.
No one says that the system is perfect. No one says that there is no room for change. What the people say is, "For God's sake, do not remove the one area of democratic control where we can make ourselves heard through the ballot box." If the people do not like something, they can remove it. That is not a job for central Government. That is what my right hon, Friend the Member for Chesterfield was saying.
Governments can change things, but they should not remove something just because it happens to be a thorn in their side and obstructs policies that the people recognise as insensitive. Sooner or later, the price must be paid.
Why not use central Government to stimulate the economy to protect freedom, and to allow local people to have their say through the ballot box? I have been worried by some of the comments made by Tory Ministers and Back Benchers. They talk about democracy. They may think that by defending the Government they are defending democracy. I suggest that they are betraying democracy, and that it is time that they had the guts to stand up and fight.
It is perhaps not unusual that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Brown) should forget that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) has had a provincial reincarnation and that his speech was not relevant to the debate. It was much more a repetition of the farrago of words that we have had during the past few months, based on the unreal world in which he dwells. His speech had little or nothing to do with local government or the order.
As I said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said three times that the order arises because the House has given the Bill a Second Reading. The order and the Bill—the two are inseparably linked, but I shall speak merely about the order — will pass through both Houses because there is a principle, which has been enshrined for many years in another place, that legislation which appears in a party's manifesto is not blocked by another place. That happened several times when there was a Conservative majority in another place —which there is not now—and a Labour Government.
There is one advantage in the extra year that will result from the order and the extension of the term of office of members of the GLC—we shall have more time to see Mr. Livingstone in action. We shall have more time to hear him join his allies, the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Sinn Fein, and give him more time perhaps to apoligise for having called Jews Fascists. His calling the Board of Deputies of British Jewry Fascist is the biggest racial insult that I have heard during my public life. [HON. MEMBERS: "When did he do that?"] In an interview on Monday 10 December. I hope that the Leader of the Opposition will refer that speech to his national executive and call for the expulsion of that member for such language.
I have dealt with the reality and shall now deal with what the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) said. He said that there are significant numbers of Conservative Members who might not support the order or the Bill. He made a mistake. There might be a number of significant Members, but there is not a significant number of Members. Many who have said that they do not like the order will recall that they said that they wanted to abolish the GLC in their manifestos. As this order flows from it, it is important to recognise that fact.
Would my hon. Friend agree that there need be no conflict between a desire to abolish the GLC and an equal wish to see an appropriate, directly elected, slimmed-down body in its place and that it is perfectly reasonable to oppose this order since it pre-empts the will of Parliament? It is that which sticks in most people's craws, to use that most unparliamentary expression.
My hon. Friend is entitled to his view. I merely recall that the democratically elected council in the area he serves has specifically called not merely for abolition but for no directly elected body to replace it. That is the view of most people who follow these matters very carefully.
While the hon. Member is dwelling on this point, would he care to tell the House what the member of the Greater London council and the Inner London education authority from Hampstead thinks about the abolition Bill and the Local Government (Interim Provisions) Act 1984?
I said when I spoke on Second Reading, and I repeat it in the context of the order, that Mr. Alan Greengross is wholly and totally committed to the abolition of the Greater London council, as stated in the election manifesto. That is a fact that I have reconfirmed with him, following the intervention of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) last week.
Not again, no. In 1967 elections were due for the London borough councils. It was the Labour party, supported by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield, then representing Bristol, South-East, who postponed those elections for one year — and postoned them very clearly for political advantage. On this occasion the order we are being asked to pass is being put forward because it would be the height of stupidity to have an election for the very limited period for which electors would be asked to vote. We need to realise that, even with £10 million worth of propaganda, four phoney GLC by-elections got under 30 per cent. of the voters out to vote. I recall also—
Could I inform the hon. Member that the amount of money that the GLC has spent so far in this financial year on its advertising programme is not £10 million but £4·8 million. Last year it was £1·4 million. The projection for next year is £1·2 million. Could we have correct figures?
We have the figure of £10 million directly and indirectly spent on political propaganda, including phoney adverts by an organisation called GLEB. May I remind the House that at the general election in 1979 my opponent was a certain Mr. Kenneth Livingstone and that he was seen off from Hampstead. My opponent in 1983 was a certain Mr. McDonnell, and he was seen off from Hampstead, too. I appreciate that there are many problems connected with local government outside London and I am sure we shall hear more about them during the debate this evening on the order. I am sure that the House would not expect me to talk about the problems of areas such as the Socialist republic of south Yorkshire. That can be well done by Labour Members.
We are being asked today to act in a sense of realism. The Bill has been given its Second Reading and has therefore properly persuaded my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to bring forward the order. He clearly does not intend to put all the electors of Greater London and the six metropolitan counties through the farce of an election. It does not matter if the political parties have to spend their money, but why should the ratepayers have to spend money on elections for a period so short as to be meaningless.
My right hon. Friend is right. The general public, who have begun to see through the barrage of propaganda, now realise that the organisations for which they were being asked to vote have no real functions and no real purpose. Conservative-controlled local councils throughout London, all of which, without exception, have said that they want abolition, all of which want the powers as rapidly as possible, and none of which want a directly elected replacement, are right, and my right hon. Friend is right, to ask for the order to be passed tonight.
It is fair to say that the House is getting used to seeing constitutional monstrosities coming before it, as the Government, with their enormous majority, tread down elected representatives of the people on both sides of the Chamber.
Tonight's measure can only be described as a constitutional outrage, a constitutional obscenity, a constitutional disgrace or a constitutional scandal. No matter how hard Ministers try to tart up this tatty order —I have no doubt that the Minister will do that when he replies—there is no way that the Minister or any Conservative Member can deny that tonight we are embarking on a serious precendent. As the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) so rightly said, it is a dangerous precedent that the Government may well come to regret, although not for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman suggested.
The Government cannot deny that no Administration has ever had cause to deprive the British people, or a major part of it, of what is in any language their inalienable democratic right to vote for an administration of their choice through the ballot box at a local election, which would have been in May next year, without a major Bill already on the statute book, and included in the Bill the reason for the abolition or postponement of an election.
Let no one forget that, had it not been for the action of their Lordships in the other place, my constituents in Newcastle upon Tyne, North would have been ruled until 1986 by nominated Tory councillors, or, to be fastidiously correct, by councillors nominated by a Tory Minister. Indeed, as things stand, a major part of Britain's electors is to be lumbered with an administration which it may or may not wish to continue in office for a further year. Only the ballot box could determine the true wishes of the electorate in Greater London and the metropolitan county councils.
The Secretary of State has waxed eloquently about the months of discussion in committees in the Tory party prior to the general election last year, when this issue became an election manifesto commitment. I find it extremely difficult to believe that the major issue in this Parliament —and the Minister must concede that—should find a place in the manifesto nine days after the election was declared. Are we to believe a former Tory Prime Minister? I am sure that no one in the House would be so unworthy as to suggest that the word of the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) should be doubted. If we believe him, this pledge was thrust into the manifesto after the election was declared. It is difficult to believe that a major Government commitment was not in the draft manifesto long before the election was declared. In any event, without wishing to be offensive to any of the Tory Front Bench, I would prefer to accept the word of the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup than that of anyone sitting on the Treasury Bench.
There is no valid reason for the abolition of the Tyne and Wear county council other than sheer, unadulterated political spite. The electors of Tyne and Wear will not take kindly to having their democratic rights nicked, stolen—call it what we may—for any reason other than that they have persisted in voting Labour since a previous Tory Government gave birth to the metropolitan county councils.
The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood referred to the dangerous precedent of the abolition of elections. He suggested that a future Labour Government might use this dangerous precedent to abolish general elections. Perish the unworthy thought of the hon. Gentleman. However, that thought had not escaped my mind. Several months ago I wrote to the Secretary of State protesting about the proposal. In a lengthy letter I posed the question of the evils of the abolition Bill. I asked what guarantee had the electorate that in 1988, with a Tory Government who were so desperately unpopular that they would clearly lose the election, they would not use their massive majority to push through a Bill to postpone the general election using the argument that they would be saving the country from a dangerous Marxist Labour authority.
There is a rumour that the Government will distribute an official Christmas present this year. Labour Members do not believe it because we all know that they are too mean. However, the rumour is that it will be a deck of playing cards made out of sandpaper for all the people to whom they have given a rough deal. That means all those in London and the metropolitan counties who have had their votes taken away.
This order is all about dogma before democracy. The Government are so obsessed with their dogma of cuts, and their political vendetta against local authorities and the GLC, that they are prepared to abolish elections to further that obsession. The Government are increasing public spending in several areas—for example, on Trident, and the waste there, Fortress Falklands, the British Telecom City bonanza, the cost of the coal industry strike, which they have described as a worthwhile investment, and the dole money paid under their unemployment strategy. They are spending public money when it suits them and wasting it when it suits them. However, the wastage has to be paid for through cuts in social services, education, housing and other factors in local authority budgets. Then they have the nerve to say that there is no alternative. That is absolutely ludicrous when the priorities are put side by side.
There is also the Government's political vendetta. They have become obsessed against Ken Livingstone at the GLC and now against the rate-capped Labour local authorities. It is because those Labour authorities are showing that there is an alternative to dismal, doleful Toryism. They have sought to match their public services to local needs. They have promoted economic development and job creation, and employed community policies that are both popular and relevant in their areas. With such programmes, those councils would be re-elected with massive majorities if they were allowed to go to the electorate. Hence the Government are coming forward with the order to abolish them and the elections.
Last week we debated the Local Government Bill. Conservative Members were wrestling with their consciences on the matter of their mandate. Listening to them was like being an intruder on their private grief. Of course, it was a mess all of their own making. It is exactly what happens when an authoritarian petty tyrant writes in a commitment on a whim. The right hon. Lady the Prime Minister did that to avoid any real commitment to tackling unemployment.
Manifesto commitments are not to be taken lightly. The Government will be condemned if they break their commitment. They should not promise what they cannot deliver or what has not been properly thought out. They will be condemned much more if they implement that commitment, particularly in the Local Government Bill. During the general election, at no stage did they say what the alternative to the GLC and the metropolitan counties would be or that they would abolish the elections and people's right to vote for their own regional and city governments.
If the Government push ahead with that manifesto commitment—so called—their manifesto will have to be rewritten, certainly for the next election. If they do not do it, we shall have to do it for them. Perhaps we shall have what can be described only as an honesty manifesto—for example, that the Conservatives are for creeping centralisation. That is actually being quite charitable, considering the reserve powers of the Secretary of State. A plethora of clauses give him powers. Clause 93 is a classic, giving him the power to do anything that he wants that he regards as necessary and expedient. It is a blank cheque.
What has happened to the Prime Minister's famous insert into her conference speeches, that she was protecting the individual from the power of the state. I hope that we shall hear no more of that. What with the Government using the police and the courts against trade unionists and the overwhelming powers that they are taking to themselves in the Bill, it is not creeping centralisation, but much more like galloping centralisation.
The Conservative party will have to say in its honesty manifesto that it is in favour of quangos and more complexity. The previous manifesto was sold to the public on the basis that a Conservative Government would make life simpler, but they have made it about as simple as Einstein's theories. A web of quangos and joint boards will replace directly elected councillors. People will not know where to go and who to see if they have a problem or complaint.
The Conservative party will have to say in its manifesto, "Conservatives put people on the dole." It is the party of unemployment. That would be an automatic inclusion, with unemployment presently running at 4 million; but they even had the cheek to boast in the debate on the Local Government Bill that they would put another 7,100 public servants out of work.
The manifesto would also have to say, "Conservatives waste public money." Last week's Coopers and Lybrand report estimated that the provisions would cost £69 million, which is completely unnecessary expenditure. It will cost ratepayers more as the quangos determine their rate precepts—
Those precepts will increase considerably.
On top of all that, an important inclusion in the honesty manifesto will be that, "Conservatives are for diminishing democracy." The order is about abolishing elections. That would be bad enough—indeed, it is diabolical—but they are doing it on a partial, biased basis. They are doing it on a party-political basis, because only Labour-controlled authorities will be abolished, not Tory-controlled shire county councils. It will also be remembered that the Government tried to gerrymander the House on the Local Government (Interim Provisions) Bill. First, they tried to ensure that they obtained a Tory majority in the borough nominations; they even floated the idea of London Members of Parliament being involved. They were all temporary devices to ensure that they had a majority.
However, the Secretary of State has gone beyond that and taken the powers unto himself. From an answer to a parliamentary question that I put down, I learnt that his powers will extend to deciding whether the GLC can buy teabags.
The abolition of the elections is massively unpopular; the opinion polls show that more than 70 per cent. of Londoners are opposed to it. During the consultations on "Streamlining the Cities" many people, including Conservatives, spoke against the abolition of elections. They included voluntary organisations, local authorities —not just those involved directly—the staff of local authorities, trade unions, churches, pensioners' organisations, women's organisations, ethnic minorities, housing associations and professional organisations.
Even the arts came out against abolition. If the Government will not take account of those views, they will have to include in their honesty manifesto, "Conservatives are uncaring, undemocratic Philistines."
As a result of this order and .the Local Government Bill, London will be the only capital city in the Western world without its own directly elected, city-wide government, and it has been shown overwhelmingly that Londoners do not want that. The Conservative honesty manifesto will not win many votes, but it is the truth and—
Much has been made by the Government Front Bench of precedents for the abandonment of elections, but for two years after the passage of the Local Government Act 1972 o there existed not one set of elected councils, but three. There were the old county borough councils, which were going out of existence, there were the district councils elected in 1973, and the metropolitan county councils. Now for most of the country, the reality will be no local elections for 1985.
The Government wish to avoid elections as much as possible. Despite the hoo-ha about the opinion polls, they know that in much of the country they are very unpopular and would suffer in any local elections. We are being asked to transfer the sort of inner-party autocracy that already exists in the Tory party to the major conurbations. There will be no elections if—
There is a noticeable improvement on the Tory Benches by the presence of my hon. Friends the Members for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) and for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson). However, is not my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) worried that there is not a Tory Member who wishes to make a contribution to support his Government? It is not a problem of Tory Members wrestling with their consciences. They must have decided that they do not support their Government.
I am obliged to my hon. Friend. I appreciate that most of the Tory Members are not here in the Chamber, and those who are present are not all here either. They certainly have nothing to contribute to the debate.
Under this order, there will be no elections. People in the conurbations will not therefore be allowed to determine what transport, police, fire service and economic development policies there will be, because, like the water and health authorities, those services will be run by people who have got their jobs by indirect appointment. There will never be a coherent, clear policy presented to the people in the conurbations. They will not be able to determine what sort of administration they desire.
The reason for all this is simple. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) has made it clear that the Labour party thinks that this is a battle for democracy against the autocrats in the Tory Government. Autocracy began inside the Cabinet. The real professionals in the Tory party have been sent on to the Back Benches. Few in the Cabinet now will resist the Prime Minister. It is the Prime Minister's whim that we are debating, and it is her whim that will be debated on successive nights this week when we discuss the Local Government Bill. The essential point is that what the Tory party failed to win in the local elections of 1981, it now seeks to win by silencing opposition the in the metropolitan counties. It has tried everything else.
I notice that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg) is no longer in the Chamber, but I understand that he has some interest in Great Universal Stores — the patron saint of the small shopkeeper. That was the organisation that took Merseyside county council to court over its "Fares fair" policy.
But the hon. Gentleman may be surprised to know that Great Universal Stores was defeated even in the High Court; and it did not have the courage to go as far as the other place, because, I suggest, it realised that Merseyside county council was performing its fiduciary duty to its ratepayers. Many of them do not have the use of a car and do not live in the luxiourous areas represented by so many Conservative Members. Those people cannot afford the luxury of sitting in a slovenly manner on the Tory Benches—
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, especially as the one Conservative Member who actually wants to participate in the debate also rose to his feet. If the Government think that the judges made the wrong decision in the case of Great Universal Stores, might they not start thinking about abolition of the judges' bench?
With this Conservative Government, anything is possible. Their belief in democracy is clearly skin-deep. Even those who reside in Southport on Merseyside now benefit from the fairer fares policy, and that is particularly true of those who are of the age of the right hon. and learned Member for Southport (Sir. I. Percival), who I now see rising to his feet. They have concessionary fares.
A moment ago the hon. Gentleman was asked if he could explain why there were so few Conservative Members present. Has it occurred to him that we are sick and tired of hearing the same old claptrap over and over again? He may ask why not more of us want to contribute, but we have made our contributions. We know what is right. I know what is right for the people of Southport and I do not require the hon. Gentleman to tell me. We shall support the Government in the Lobby the minute that we have the chance.
Through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, perhaps I can offer to acquaint the people of Southport, particularly the pensioners, of the debate. The right hon. and learned Gentleman might care to debate with me in Southport, and in front of pensioners, the problems involved in travelling round Merseyside.
Is not the more likely explanation of the absence of Conservative Members—including the right hon. and learned Member for Southport (Sir. I. Percival)—that they know that the order has the whiff of totalitarianism about it and that it comes from 10 Downing street?
Yes, a sufficient number of Conservative Members smell—[interruption]—not only the whiff of totalitarianism but of defeat for the Prime Minister. They want to distance themselves from such policies, which they believe will ultimately lead to the demise of the Conservative party.
The Tories are using the weapon of trade union legislation and the Police and Criminal Evidence Act against the official Opposition because the Government fear the day when our arguments will win accord with the public and sweep them from office. That will happen soon.
The decision on the elections comes before Parliament makes a decision on the main Bill. Assuming that it goes through both Houses unamended, Royal Assent is not likely before next year. Yet the elections, which as a Merseyside county councillor, I would welcome, are to be swept aside. In May 1985 the people who elected me cannot say whether my stewardship has been good or bad. I prefer the people in my ward to make that decision, not the diktat of the Gauleiter of Marsham street. This is a deliberate attempt to prevent opposition.
Conservative Members believe that their consciences will be salved by saying "Well, it was in the manifesto." It was put there by the Prime Minister nine days after the election was declared without any discussion with her policy committee or reference to London Members in her party. Conservative Members are not voting tonight for their manifesto commitment. By refusing elections for the metropolitan counties, they are not ensuring that district councils will take over the services, because on Merseyside only 15 per cent. of expenditure by the Merseyside county council will go to the district councils. The joint boards, the indirectly appointed bodies which have no coherent policy, will take over.
Conservative Members who have any belief in democratic accountability will exercise their right to vote against this intolerable measure which is more akin to Fascism in Spain under Franco than to the democracy on which this House has been built throughout the ages.
In future years people may ask what we were doing in 1984, when there was so much unemployment and poverty and when so much money was spent on armaments, discussing the abolition of elections in Greater London and the met counties. Our discussion is not irrelevant to those problems. It is indicative of the Government's attitude to those problems that they are abolishing elections. They are abolishing them because of what many local authorities have been able to achieve. Before coming to the Chamber I was looking at the election address for the 1898 London county council elections. The then Conservative party in London, which said that it was moderate — we have heard about that before — was campaigning for the abolition of the London county council because it did not like the direct works department, the attempts to clear away the slum landlords, to clean up the Thames, to introduce a proper fire service and all the other things upon which Londoners now depend for a decent life.
Ever since those days the Conservative party has been opposed to the principle of a Londonwide elected authority. The Government are using their majority to force through this squalid order to destroy the right of Londoners and those in the metropolitan counties to vote for a local authority. If anyone imagines that the day after the local authorities are abolished consequent upon the order he will be able to influence decisions, let him bear in mind the quangos and the problems associated with them. If anyone in my constituency has a housing problem or any problem connected with the local authority or the GLC, he can see an elected representative, take up the matter and possibly obtain satisfactory, or possibly not. He can vote to remove that person from office if he wishes to do so. Let him try to do the same to representatives of the gas board, the electricity board, the Thames water authority or even the health authorities. Democracy is to be removed from many vital services.
Conservative participation in the debate about the future of local government and the abolition of elections could well be described as abdication. Conservatives have used their friends in the media to rubbish the idea of democracy. When the four by-elections took place in Greater London in September, the Conservative party did not participate. That was a bit thick, Conservatives having called the leader of the GLC the most hated and most wanted man in Britain. They have said that the Labour administration at County hall is an evil on the face of the earth but they refused the opportunity to participate in the by-elections. Had they won them, they could have gained control of the GLC.
The real reason for the Conservative party's non-participation was fear. It was not prepared to send its supporters to knock on doors to tell the electorate why its vote was being taken away. The Conservative party has still not satisfied anyone in London of its reasons for wishing to destroy the GLC or the metropolitan counties outside London, or take away the right of people to vote. Opinion polls show an increasing level of support for the principle of elected local government and a decreasing level of support for the Government. There are 33 Conservative Members who would lose their seats if an election were to take place on the issue of the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan counties. They should be well aware of that.
The proposals that we are discussing are indicative of the continuing centralisation of power under an increasingly paranoid Government. Since 1979 they have been systematically removing funding from the inner city areas. They have been systematically trying to control local authority finance. They have been systematically removing powers from local authorities and systematically penalising the poorer areas of the country.
We know that Britain's problems are severe. Against that background, why are the Government afraid of allowing those in the poorest areas to vote? Unemployment rates in London are well above the national average. In my constituency there is 21 per cent. unemployment, which is a common figure for many in London's inner city areas. The Government are denying these people the right to vote. They know that they will vote for a local authority that will try to provide jobs and services to alleviate the hardships that exist within London. They will continue to vote for a GLC, or successor bodies, that will campaign politically to get resources back into the inner city areas and thereby stop the poorest people being stamped down by Conservative Members.
The order is indicative of the Government's contempt for the poor and for democracy. When the order is passed, it should be remembered that a Conservative Member said during the debate that he was concerned that a future Labour Administration might be tempted to use these measures as precedents for further abolition Bills or as reasons for denying elections in other spheres. I have no fears about that. Conservative Members should understand that Opposition Members are members of a democratic party. We are born of democracy, because the Labour party has fought for it. [Interruption.] We have fought for democracy in all places and in all spheres. The order is the beginning of the abolition of other forms of elections. Anyone who organises to oppose the Government is immediately opposed by the Government and their puppets in the media and, eventually, some squalid little Bill is forced through the House late at night. The day of reckoning for the Government will come. Government Members will have a rude awakening if they ever step outside the chamber late at night or during the day—I realise that some have other jobs to do — and test opinion to find out what people really think about being denied the right to vote, and the abolition of the local authorities. They will be surprised to learn of the respect felt by many for what the GLC and metropolitan councils have done in improving planning, fighting for the rights of women and ethnic communities and for industrial jobs, and so on.
The Government may well succeed in forcing this nasty little order through the House and in officially destroying next year's elections—with the ridiculous excuse of the cost of printing ballot papers, when they spend £17 billion on defence. The Government have contempt for democracy and for the poorest people. They will rue the day they passed this order, because they know what will happen to them when the people finally get an opportunity to vote.
A number of Opposition Members wish to participate in this debate, so I shall try to limit my remarks to a few minutes.
The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg), who is no longer in the Chamber, asked why we should bother holding elections when those elected will remain in office for only one year. During the past few months, the running theme of our arguments has been that, if the elections are not held, the assumption is that both Houses of Parliament will pass the abolition Bill and that the legislations will receive the Royal Assent. The Opposition believe that it is disgraceful and unacceptable that there will not be elections in 1985.
There was an interesting reaction from Conservative Members when the word "democracy" was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn). It is clear that Conservative Members have forgotten what that word means. I think that I am the fifth Opposition Member in succession to speak — the Government ran out of speakers nearly one hour ago, so few are the Conservative Members who desire to defend the order.
Surely the election in 1985 would have given the people an opportunity to decide. We are democratic because we would have been prepared to let the people in the met counties, including Tyne and Wear county of which my constituency is a part, hear the case put by the Conservatives—they are the opposition in my area—and the case for the retention of the Tyne and Wear county council. We would have been prepared to let the people decide what they want. The Conservatives could have put the case about profligate spending, and so on. The people know what the Tyne and Wear county council has done for them in an area of massive unemployment. I could spend some time citing figures, but suffice it to say that the male unemployment rate—even on the Government's fiddled figures—is 22 per cent. and that nearly 50 per cent. of the unemployed in Tyne and Wear have been out of work for more than a year.
If I had been a Conservative Member, I would not have wanted to put my case to the people who have suffered such deprivation for so long, because I would have known that the election result would have been a foregone conclusion. The only word that can express the Government's position is cowardice. The Government were too cowardly to put their case to the people of Tyne and Wear county, the other met counties and the GLC.
Ministers have made great play of the fact that the decision to abolish the GLC and the met counties was contained in the Conservative manifesto. Let me remind the House of what the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) said about the manifesto;
they must recognise that a democratic Government still have to justify to the House what they are doing even though proposals were set out in the party's manifesto. No democratic Government have ever been able to say, 'it was in the party's manifesto, so we shall do it.'"—[Official Report, 4 December 1984; Vol. 69, c. 191.]
Let us see what that means. The right hon. and learned Member for Southport (Sir I. Percival) said that he was fed up with hearing the same old claptrap. The claptrap may be coming from the Conservative Benches. Two respected opinion polls have been published—one by MORI for The Sunday Times, and one by Harris for The Observer. They were published the week after the Government had spent hours and hours presenting their argument to the country. The first opinion poll was taken throughout the country and not just in London and the metropolitan counties. It showed that 46 per cent. of the people were against abolition and only 30 per cent. were in favour.
A by-election is taking place in Enfield, Southgate this week, and an opinion poll has been taken there on the people's attitude to the Government's proposals. The Harris poll found that 47 per cent. of the people were against the Government's proposals and 31 per cent. were in favour of them.
Conservative Members are not convincing the country with their arguments. The Government's case is not proven. They should drop this order until the abolition Bill has been decided by Parliament.
I am driven to speak by the extreme observations of the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes). This is a serious issue and it is possible for there to be two different points of view. Do not Opposition Members realise that everything that can be said has been said? They may hold their views passionately, but it was a rather sick joke when an Opposition Member said that the Labour party is the democratic party. Does he not remember the time when the Labour Home Secretary was obliged to put forward the Boundary Commission's recommendations which did not suit the Labour party?
I shall not give way. The Home Secretary was under a statutory duty to propose that the recommendations be adopted and so he laid the order. His party was whipped to vote against it. That is an example of democracy and parliament fighting for it.
The arguments for and against the Government's proposals have been fully rehearsed. It does nothing for Opposition Members to put forward extravagant arguments that have no bearing on the point. Conservative Members have not taken up much of the time of the House this evening because we have made up our minds. We are aware of the arguments. We are convinced that the Government are right and we shall support them.
For hundreds of years there have been battles to extend and preserve people's right to vote and the duty to preserve that right is deeply ingrained in all of us. I do not think that anyone in the House, in London or elsewhere would ever have believed that in 1984 Parliament would be called upon to destroy a vote.
In all those battles no group has been so disadvantaged, obliged to fight so hard and held back from voting for so long as women. The women of London are very angry at the taking away of their vote, the cancellation of the elections and the prospect of the Greater London council ceasing to exist. The GLC has given women a voice in London—[HON. MEMBERS: "Come off it!"] It is no use Conservative Members shaking their heads. They should listen. They do not listen to anyone. The GLC listens to women. [Interruption.] There is nothing for hon. Members to laugh about. Let me tell them a story.
The GLC is the successor to the old London county council. Like other hon. Members, I was fascinated to read the record of the first election to the LCC, written by the record keeper to the council and entitled, "Sexism and the first London County Council election, 1889". At that time women did not have the vote and it was a matter of contention whether they could stand for election. Indeed, it was another 20 years before they obtained the right to stand for Parliament. In the end, however, three women stood for the first LCC election and two were elected—Lady Sandhurst, who was returned for one of the two Brixton constituencies, and Miss Jane Cobden, daughter of the famous Richard Cobden, who won one of the two seats for Bromley and Bow.
When the two ladies took their seats at county hall the council seemed determined to reinforce the feminist view that had come into the council chamber and as well as welcoming the two women members they took the very progressive step of electing an alderman who was a woman to make a women's triumvirate in the chamber. Those women were scarcely a threat to local government democracy, but they were vulnerable because they were not masculine. The person who had stood against Lady Sandhurst in the election challenged her right to her seat, took the case to the High Court and won. Although the women retained their seats they were not allowed to vote or to speak, so they sat it out, unable to do any more than to attend council meetings. Finally, they got fed up with that and decided to speak and to vote. They were then challenged yet again, someone else took them to the High Court and they lost.
The anger throughout London and in the council itself, however, was such that campaigns were pursued until those women and others after them were able to take their seats and to vote in the council chamber. Those battles have been won. Women in London today are determined that the battle for the GLC shall be won as well. That is what we are discussing this evening.
Much has been said in the debate about the Tory manifesto. One woman said to me the other day that she found it strange that, although our Prime Minister is a woman, there was no woman's perspective in the manifesto. As far as the women of London are concerned, the Prime Minister has not contributed a woman's perspective. All her policies, including the abolition of these elections and perhaps of the GLC, tend to disadvantage women and to cut them off from services that have been of enormous benefit to them.
Many women may well have voted for the Prime Minister and the Tory Government at the last general election. Very many of them will be thinking again about what they should do at the next general election. Indeed, many of them are wondering whether the Government will go on to abolish the next general election as well.
The time of night—or early morning—chosen to discuss an order such as this is of crucial importance. The Government must be hoping that their proposals will receive as little publicity as possible.
By their failure to speak in the debate, Conservative Members have shown that they do not wish to be associated with the proposal — or, perhaps, that they cannot summon up adequate arguments to support their own Government.
It is appropriate that we should be discussing the order at such a time, because our democratic rights are being stolen from us. The Government, like a thief in the night, are taking away the democratic rights of Londoners and of people in other areas.
There has been another interesting feature of today's proceedings in Parliament. Earlier, we discussed the Representation of the People Bill, which proposes certain extensions—as the Government see it—to the franchise. Now, however, we are discussing an order that will take the vote away from 18 million people. The Government say that there are other opportunities to vote.
The hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) said that only one vote is being taken away from the people of London. He should reflect on the fact that in the shire counties people have opportunities to vote in parish, district, shire county and general elections. In outer London constituencies, such as mine, we will, if the order is passed have only two opportunities to vote — in borough council and general elections. We have only two opportunities to vote, whereas in the shire counties there are four.
How many more proposals will the Government make, saying that voting is inappropriate and too expensive and that people must therefore lose their right to vote? The order will deprive London of 95 years of voting for city-wide government. This is a squalid little measure from a squalid little Government who will get their come-uppance in the local government elections in 1986.
Only eight months ago, the Secretary of State advised the House, with all the conviction that he alone can command, of the merits of his Local Government (Interim Provisions) Bill, which at that stage not only abolished the 1985 elections but replaced the authorities by nominated bodies, thus transferring political power without elections.
We would do well to remember that this debate is taking place only because the Government have suffered abject humiliation at the hands of the House, another place and the British people. There would not have been the same pressure if it had not been for the fact that representatives here have woken up the deep unpopularity of the measures that the Secretary of State and his colleagues have advanced. None of these recommendations would have been accepted in April if only Conservative Members had bothered to listen to the arguments and to study the issues. Instead, as we have seen again today, the Government do not bother to consult their Back Benchers. That is no wonder, because they are not worthy of consultation. The Government know that almost anything that they present, unless it directly affects the pockets of wealthy voters, will be supported by Conservative Members, who will jump up and read Conservative research department briefings and troop through the Lobby behind the Government.
When he seconded the motion on the Loyal Address on 15 May 1979, the Minister for Local Government said:
it is difficult to find that narrow strip of land that lies between rebellion and sycophancy."—[Official Report, 15 May 1979; Vol. 967, c. 57.]
Far too many Conservative Members have found it too difficult today.
Is it? I know that the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) once thought that the future of his political career lay in rebellion. He obviously now thinks that it lies in—
My hon. Friend may care to note that the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins), whose principal responsibility at the moment is as a Parliamentary Private Secretary on the Films Bill, has admitted to the Committee that he has not been to the cinema for some six or seven years? That is the extent of his competence and knowledge.
I do not think that there are any cinemas in his constituency.
There was little justification for this measure when it was first introduced and then amended, but there is now
even less justification for abolishing the elections. The first reason, as my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) said, is that we now know that the manifesto commitment that was presented to the British people lacked all legitimacy. It is claimed by none other than the Prime Minister—I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to savour these words —that the Conservative party
can reasonably claim to be the leading democratic party in the world.
It is a modest claim in a modest speech—her Carlton Club lecture which was given last week. We all enjoy the spectacle of the Conservative party, flexible as ever, as the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Shelton) told us, fighting for years—in some cases centuries—against a major principle, such as democracy, as it did until Disraeli persuaded it that democracy might be in its interests. We now see what has happened to him. The Prime Minister wants to go back to Lord North. It is fascinating to us, who are members of what we believe to be a party of principles, however inconvenient they might sometimes be, to watch the flexibility of the Tory party fighting democracy. The democrat used to be a term of abuse used by Tories. Now Tories suggest that they are in favour of democracy and that the Conservative party is the most democratic party in the world. If so, I ask the Minister, how, in an internally democratic party, can a commitment find its way into the manifesto against the wishes of the party policy committee? I assume that, if it is a democratic party, it has a constitution and that there are votes. The right hon. Gentleman must answer that question.
If the Tory party practised what it preaches about democracy —I am interested to find that evidently it does not—plainly that commitment was railroaded into the manifesto against the wishes of the party as a whole and it lacks any legitimacy either in the country or in the Conservative party.
The second reason why there is even less justification for this measure which abolishes elections to precede the abolition of the authorities is the evidence which has emerged about the cost of this farrago of proposals. We have all noted that the Government have gone very coy indeed about their claim that £120 million is to be saved from the abolition of the Greater London council and the metropolitan authorities. I am glad that they have. The message has not quite reached some of their hon. Friends. I took part in a radio interview with the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), who claimed that as a result of this change 9,000 bureaucrats would go. It is obvious that the hon. Gentleman believes that all of these savings will come from savings in administration. If that is so, the metropolitan counties would have to save £50 million from administration. The metropolitan counties spent only £47 million upon the administrative costs of all their services. In order to achieve those administrative savings, those services would almost have to be wiped out.
However, since those wild claims were made and since our debates last week there has been the fascinating story in the Financial Times—not denied, not even commented upon tonight by Ministers—that to dismantle the GLC and London's capital fund could add £750 million to public borrowing. The article was written by Mr. Robin Pauley, who was so derided by the Secretary of State during the proceedings on the Rates Bill for his, Mr. Pauley's, leaks from the Treasury that the Rates Bill would cost £900 million. Mr. Pauley proved to be entirely accurate on that occasion, as he will on this, since his information is impeccable. I hope that when the right hon. Gentleman winds up the debate he will tell us a little more about the Treasury's briefing of the Financial Times: that the abolition of the GLC will add £750 million to public borrowing. Had that been anticipated by the Prime Minister when she forced that commitment into the manifesto, I do not believe the Government would have gone ahead with the legislation.
The third reason why there is even less justification for this measure than there was is the personality of the Minister for Local Government who apparently has the principal responsibility for piloting this measure through the House. As we heard last week, his claims that he had always been in favour of the abolition of the GLC ever since the early 1960s were not entirely accurate. What the right hon. Gentleman told this House on 18 March 1971 bears repeating. Indeed, it should be repeated daily. We must not forget that he told the country only recently that he had always been opposed to the abolition of the GLC ever since the 1960s. His exact words were:
I believe and have always believed in the abolition of the GLC, consistently since I represented London back in the 1960s".
He said on 18 March 1971 when moving the Second Reading of the Greater London Council Bill:
has progressive and expanding programmes, it is making life better for Londoners, and it will make it infinitely better for Londoners in the 1970s and the 1980s".—[Official Report, 18 March 1971; Vol. 813, c. 1741.]
We let the Minister off rather lightly last Tuesday. The right hon. Gentleman owes the House and the country an apology for deliberately misleading them about the position he took on the GLC during the 1960s and 1970s. He said on the radio that he had always supported the abolition of the GLC. That is utterly inconsistent with speech after speech that he has made in the House. I now offer the right hon. Gentleman the chance to set the record straight.
It takes a gorilla to know a monkey. May I say, in defence of my right hon. Friend, that when I first came into the House in 1979 I introduced a ten-minute Bill to abolish the metropolitan county councils, and my right hon. Friend was most supportive.
I regret to tell the hon. Gentleman that although he may think that the world revolves around him, I was talking about his right hon Friend's record. If the Minister did support the abolition of the GLC throughout the 1960s and 1970s, how did he manage to write that now notorious pamphlet and make so many speeches in the House? I hope that at some stage he will have the courage and guts to explain to the House the problems that he now faces.
We have heard the many forebodings of my hon. Friends about where the anti-democratic actions of the Government are likely to lead. I share many of them. Let
me read to the house a report that appeared in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph on 24 December 1983 on the Lancashire county council's proposal to abolish the metropolitan county councils. A county councillor told the policy resources committee that she foresaw a day when elected representatives would be "not worth a fig". She said:
Will the shire counties be next in their place? Will we have Government sponsored people on district councils to put them on the right lines? How long will it be before we have 1984 when elected representatives are not worth a fig? I see this day coming and I am fearful.
That comes not from a Labour councillor but from a woman elected as Conservative county councillor for Lancashire.
Ultimately, although we are concerned about services, the order and the Local Government Bill are about democracy. The Government tonight are seeking to fly in the face of democratic principles that they claim to hold dear and the democratic rights of 13 million voters in London and the metropolitan counties. It is a completely disreputable and dishonourable order, and it should be opposed.
The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) dips yet again into my voluminous speeches and writings. I have been looking through what he has written and spoken over the past few years. But I must disappoint my hon. Friends because I have not been able to find anything either interesting or memorable.
Let me briefly remind the House of the purpose of the order that we are discussing. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg) said that in the paving Bill both Houses of Parliament agreed that it was right to put on the statute book what is now part II of the Local Government (Interim Provisions) Act 1984—the provision to suspend elections. So the principle was then agreed. However, it was subject to the approval of both honourable Houses by way of an affirmative order, and that is what we are asking the House to agree to tonight.
In effect, both Houses—including the House at the other end of the Corridor—accepted the Government's view that it makes little sense to hold elections to councils which, if Parliament enacts the Local Government Bill, will have only 11 months to run. Never before has a whole council been elected for a term of less than a year. That was the principle agreed in the Bill, although I appreciate that Opposition Members do not accept that.
From the outset the Government made it clear that they would introduce an order instituting part II of the paving Bill, and that that would not be made until the House had approved the main principle of abolition by giving a Second Reading to the Local Government Bill, which it did last week by a majority of 135.
I come now to the speech of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). He made an interesting and important speech, which was echoed by the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson). The tenor of his speech was that the struggle for democracy has been long and hard. He said that great advances had been made only by systematic breaking of the law. He listed a great parade of the various advances of democracy.
The right hon. Gentleman's memory was a little selective. It stopped short when he took office. It was a parade of the Labour party's great crusade of extending democracy. During the first Wilson Government, the Cabinet took action that could not be described as democracy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate said, in 1967 that Government postponed the London borough elections for a year—from 1967 to 1968. It is possible that those elections were postponed because the Labour Government were unpopular, were losing by-elections at Meridon, Dudley and Acton, and therefore it became convenient to postpone them? When it suited the Labour Government, they postponed the elections.
Having learned how to do that, in 1969 the right hon. Gentleman participated in one of the most disgusting pieces of gerrymandering that this House has ever seen. The Labour Government wanted to postpone the boundary revisions of 1969 because they would have abolished a number of small inner London seats. They tried not to introduce the measure, but then introduced a Bill only for London. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman remembers that marvellous episode in the great progress of Labour party democracy. They introduced a Bill to gerrymander London alone. They found themselves in a mess because it involved Hertfordshire, Middlesex, Surrey and all the areas around London. Overcome by shame, they withdrew the Bill and did nothing. The record of the Labour party on democracy is poor.
I am sorry, but I will not give way as I wish to answer the debate.
The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) said in effect that we are introducing the measures because we are frightened of having elections. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman read last week's New Statesman. Perhaps it is a little too Right-wing for him. If he had read it, he would have seen an article by Peter Kellner, the political editor, who is one of the most accurate and best commentators upon local government election results. He was analysing the November local government results all over the country, and the article was under the heading:
Worst council results of Kinnock leadership
Analysing what happened in November, Mr. Kellner said:
Labour came third in local council by-elections in November—the party's worst month since Neil Kinnock became leader.
In the month of November, taking all the council and county council by elections—
I am coming to the county council elections in a moment. The hon. Gentleman should wait for it. Mr. Kellner stated that in all the council elections in November, of all the people who voted, 40·1 per cent. voted Conservative, Alliance 29·9 per cent., and Labour 27·3 per cent. What was interesting was that buried deep in those results was a by-election for a county council that is to be abolished—the West Midlands county council. There was a by-election in Coventry, South West in which the Conservative candidate stood on a ticket to scrap the council. He won with a swing of 4 per cent. and—
I am sorry, I cannot give way.
The seat that was contested was Coventry, South-West. This is what Mr. Peter Kellner said about Coventry, South-West, which we held with a swing of 4 per cent:
It is … precisely the sort of ward Labour needs to win.
The seat was represented by an old friend of us all Audrey Wise, from 1974 to 1979. Mr. Kellner says:
Last month's result, however, represents a 4 per cent swing to the Tories".
Therefore, according to the evidence the recent electoral contests that we have had have been shown to be valueless, and we are doing rather well. Let me refer—
I should like to refer to the GLC by-elections. They show the unscrupulous attitude of Opposition Members. Two of the candidates who stood and were re-elected in the stunt by-elections were Mr. McDonnell, the deputy leader of the GLC, and Mr. Ken Little of Edmonton. They were just re-elected in September at the stunt by-elections. But in this week's London Labour Briefing, Mr. McDonnell says that all the wet members of the GLC on the Labour side who were not prepared to risk bankruptcy and illegality in setting a rate should stand down and resign their seats and allow the Labour party to replace them
with a councillor who is willing to stand firm in support of party policy. In my view if any councillor refuses to stand down:now and goes on to support compliance and cuts … he or she is as much a scab as any miner currently crossing NUM picket lines.
I do not ascribe those views to the hon. Members for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) or Blackburn, but that is what Mr. McDonnell said. He is saying that his colleague who has just been re-elected, Mr. Ken Little, must stand down. Mr. Little has been told that he must obey the caucus, not the people who re-elected him. That shows entirely the attitude of—
The example that I quoted of Mr. McDonnell trying to force out of office one of his elected colleagues shows that Labour's approach to local government in London is not one of concern for the people or for essential services. The hard Left in London has used local government as a platform for its Left-wing dogma and political ambitions, and I wish to use—
|Division No. 45]||[1.26 am|
|Adley, Robert||Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde)|
|Alexander, Richard||Garel-Jones, Tristan|
|Ancram, Michael||Goodhart, Sir Philip|
|Arnold, Tom||Gow, Ian|
|Ashby, David||Gregory, Conal|
|Atkins, Robert (South Ribble)||Griffiths, E. (B'y St Edm'ds)|
|Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Vall'y)||Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)|
|Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset)||Grylls, Michael|
|Baldry, Tony||Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)|
|Batiste, Spencer||Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)|
|Bellingham, Henry||Hanley, Jeremy|
|Bevan, David Gilroy||Hannam, John|
|Biffen, Rt Hon John||Hargreaves, Kenneth|
|Biggs-Davison, Sir John||Harris, David|
|Blackburn, John||Harvey, Robert|
|Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter||Haselhurst, Alan|
|Body, Richard||Hawksley, Warren|
|Bonsor, Sir Nicholas||Hayes, J.|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Hayward, Robert|
|Bottomley, Mrs Virginia||Heathcoat-Amory, David|
|Bowden, A. (Brighton K'to'n)||Heddle, John|
|Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)||Henderson, Barry|
|Boyson, Dr Rhodes||Hickmet, Richard|
|Braine, Sir Bernard||Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.|
|Brandon-Bravo, Martin||Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling)|
|Brinton, Tim||Holt, Richard|
|Brittan, Rt Hon Leon||Hooson, Tom|
|Brooke, Hon Peter||Hordern, Peter|
|Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes)||Howard, Michael|
|Browne, John||Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)|
|Bruinvels, Peter||Howarth, Gerald (Cannock)|
|Buck, Sir Antony||Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldford)|
|Budgen, Nick||Howell, Ralph (N Norfolk)|
|Bulmer, Esmond||Hubbard-Miles, Peter|
|Butcher, John||Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)|
|Butler, Hon Adam||Hunter, Andrew|
|Carlisle, John (N Luton)||Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey|
|Carttiss, Michael||Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)|
|Cash, William||Jones, Robert (W Herts)|
|Chalker, Mrs Lynda||Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith|
|Channon, Rt Hon Paul||Kershaw, Sir Anthony|
|Chapman, Sydney||Key, Robert|
|Chope, Christopher||King, Roger (B'ham N'field)|
|Churchill, W. S.||Knight, Gregory (Derby N)|
|Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)||Lamont, Norman|
|Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)||Lang, Ian|
|Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)||Latham, Michael|
|Cockeram, Eric||Lawler, Geoffrey|
|Colvin, Michael||Lee, John (Pendle)|
|Coombs, Simon||Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark|
|Cope, John||Lester, Jim|
|Couchman, James||Lloyd, Ian (Havant)|
|Cranborne, Viscount||Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham)|
|Crouch, David||MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute)|
|Currie, Mrs Edwina||Mather, Carol|
|Dickens, Geoffrey||Mellor, David|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.||Needham, Richard|
|Dover, Den||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Dunn, Robert||Norris, Steven|
|Durant, Tony||Onslow, Cranley|
|Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke)||Ottaway, Richard|
|Evennett, David||Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil|
|Fairbairn, Nicholas||Patten, John (Oxford)|
|Fallon, Michael||Pawsey, James|
|Favell, Anthony||Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian|
|Fenner, Mrs Peggy||Proctor, K. Harvey|
|Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey||Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon|
|Fletcher, Alexander||Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)|
|Forman, Nigel||Robinson, Mark (N'port W)|
|Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)||Roe, Mrs Marion|
|Forth, Eric||Rossi, Sir Hugh|
|Fox, Marcus||Rowe, Andrew|
|Franks, Cecil||Rumbold, Mrs Angela|
|Freeman, Roger||Ryder, Richard|
|Fry, Peter||Sackville, Hon Thomas|
|Gale, Roger||Sainsbury, Hon Timothy|
|Galley, Roy||Sayeed, Jonathan|
|Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)||Thornton, Malcolm|
|Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')||Thurnham, Peter|
|Shelton, William (Streatham)||Townend, John (Bridlington)|
|Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)||Tracey, Richard|
|Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)||Trippier, David|
|Shersby, Michael||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Silvester, Fred||van Straubenzee, Sir W.|
|Sims, Roger||Vaughan, Sir Gerard|
|Skeet, T. H. H.||Viggers, Peter|
|Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)||Waddington, David|
|Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)||Waldegrave, Hon William|
|Soames, Hon Nicholas||Walden, George|
|Speed, Keith||Walker, Bill (T'side N)|
|Speller, Tony||Waller, Gary|
|Spence, John||Ward, John|
|Spencer, Derek||Wardle, C. (Bexhill)|
|Spicer, Jim (W Dorset)||Watson, John|
|Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)||Watts, John|
|Squire, Robin||Wells, Bowen (Hertford)|
|Stern, Michael||Wells, Sir John (Maidstone)|
|Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)||Wheeler, John|
|Stevens, Martin (Fulham)||Whitfield, John|
|Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)||Whitney, Raymond|
|Stewart, Ian (N Hertf'dshire)||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Stradling Thomas, J.||Winterton, Mrs Ann|
|Sumberg, David||Winterton, Nicholas|
|Taylor, Rt Hon John David||Wolfson, Mark|
|Taylor, John (Solihull)||Wood, Timothy|
|Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)||Young, Sir George (Acton)|
|Thomas, Rt Hon Peter||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Thompson, Donald (Calder V)||Mr. John Major and|
|Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)||Mr. Michael Neubert.|
|Thorne, Neil (Ilford S)|
|Anderson, Donald||Dewar, Donald|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Dobson, Frank|
|Ashton, Joe||Dormand, Jack|
|Atkinson, N. (Tottenham)||Dubs, Alfred|
|Bagier, Gordon A. T.||Duffy, A. E. P.|
|Banks, Tony (Newham NW)||Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.|
|Barnett, Guy||Eadie, Alex|
|Barron, Kevin||Eastham, Ken|
|Beckett, Mrs Margaret||Evans, John (St. Helens N)|
|Beith, A. J.||Ewing, Harry|
|Bell, Stuart||Fatchett, Derek|
|Benn, Tony||Field, Frank (Birkenhead)|
|Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh)||Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn)|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Fisher, Mark|
|Bidwell, Sydney||Flannery, Martin|
|Blair, Anthony||Foot, Rt Hon Michael|
|Boyes, Roland||Forrester, John|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Foster, Derek|
|Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E)||Fraser, J. (Norwood)|
|Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)||Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald|
|Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E)||George, Bruce|
|Brown, R. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne N)||Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John|
|Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith)||Godman, Dr Norman|
|Bruce, Malcolm||Golding, John|
|Caborn, Richard||Gould, Bryan|
|Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)||Hamilton, James (M'well N)|
|Canavan, Dennis||Hancock, Mr. Michael|
|Cartwright, John||Hardy, Peter|
|Clark, Dr David (S Shields)||Harrison, Rt Hon Walter|
|Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.)||Healey, Rt Hon Denis|
|Cohen, Harry||Heffer, Eric S.|
|Coleman, Donald||Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)|
|Cook, Frank (Stockton North)||Holland, Stuart (Vauxhall)|
|Cook, Robin F. (Livingston)||Home Robertson, John|
|Corbett, Robin||Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath)|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Hoyle, Douglas|
|Cowans, Harry||Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)|
|Cox, Thomas (Tooting)||Hughes, Roy (Newport East)|
|Craigen, J. M.||Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)|
|Cunningham, Dr John||Hughes, Simon (Southwark)|
|Dalyell, Tam||John, Brynmor|
|Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly)||Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)|
|Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l)||Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald|
|Deakins, Eric||Kennedy, Charles|
|Kilroy-Silk, Robert||Radice, Giles|
|Kirkwood, Archy||Randall, Stuart|
|Lamond, James||Redmond, M.|
|Leighton, Ronald||Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S)|
|Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)||Richardson, Ms Jo|
|Lewis, Terence (Worsley)||Roberts, Allan (Bootle)|
|Litherland, Robert||Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)|
|Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)||Robertson, George|
|Lofthouse, Geoffrey||Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)|
|Loyden, Edward||Rogers, Allan|
|McCartney, Hugh||Rooker, J. W.|
|McDonald, Dr Oonagh||Ross, Ernest (Dundee W)|
|McGuire, Michael||Rowlands, Ted|
|McKelvey, William||Sedgemore, Brian|
|McNamara, Kevin||Sheerman, Barry|
|McTaggart, Robert||Sheldon, Rt Hon R.|
|McWilliam, John||Shore, Rt Hon Peter|
|Madden, Max||Short, Ms Clare (Ladywood)|
|Marek, Dr John||Silkin, Rt Hon J.|
|Marshall, David (Shettleston)||Skinner, Dennis|
|Maxton, John||Smith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury)|
|Maynard, Miss Joan||Smith, Rt Hon J. (M'kl'ds E)|
|Meacher, Michael||Snape, Peter|
|Meadowcroft, Michael||Soley, Clive|
|Michie, William||Spearing, Nigel|
|Mikardo, Ian||Stott, Roger|
|Millan, Rt Hon Bruce||Strang, Gavin|
|Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)||Straw, Jack|
|Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)||Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)|
|Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)||Thome, Stan (Preston)|
|Nellist, David||Tinn, James|
|Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon||Wallace, James|
|O'Brien, William||Wareing, Robert|
|O'Neill, Martin||Welsh, Michael|
|Orme, Rt Hon Stanley||Williams, Rt Hon A.|
|Owen, Rt Hon Dr David||Winnick, David|
|Park, George||Wrigglesworth, Ian|
|Parry, Robert||Young, David (Bolton SE)|
|Pavitt, Laurie||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Pike, Peter||Mr. Don Dixon and|
|Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)||Mr. Allen McKay|