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Local Government Finance Bill (Allocation of Time)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:10 pm on 26th January 1987.

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Photo of Mr Michael Meadowcroft Mr Michael Meadowcroft , Leeds West 5:10 pm, 26th January 1987

I do not know whether the Secretary of State misunderstands the Bill in its entirety or whether he now contradicts what he has said before. The Secretary of State has admitted in the Chamber during previous debates on the Bill that it goes further than validating the errors. If he has accepted that before, why is he now trying to say that, if all we want to do is secure the RSG settlement, we need not have the debate? The fact is that we oppose the Bill and many of its provisions because it goes way beyond validating the illegality that the Secretary of State discovered in his Department. It goes way beyond that in terms of codes of practice, in trying to define and in attempting to introduce retrospective legislation beyond what is necessary for the rate support grant settlements. That is why it does a disservice to the House to try to pretend that we have somehow brought about the need for a guillotine.

The Bill has been in Committee of the whole House for some 15 hours and we are roughly halfway through the amendments and new clauses. I do not believe that anybody could sustain the argument that there has been undue delay or excessive speeches by Opposition Members. It is not possible to say that there has been a filibuster. It showed the flimsy nature of the Leader of the House's argument that he had to pick up the comment of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) who, when I said that I would not delay the House, said, "Drag it out, Michael." The Leader of the House did not point out that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West and I did not drag it out. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West could have dragged out the debate but he chose not to. To be fair to him, which is not always possible, he spoke little and often. He certainly did not delay the House unduly.

Many of the amendments selected for discussion, those we have dealt with and those to come, are Government amendments. There is a complex new schedule tabled by the Government. It was not tabled by my hon. Friends or by Labour Members. Therefore, it is a disservice to the House to propose this motion now.

A total of 66 amendments have been selected and of those 12 are Government amendments. There are no amendments piled up by the Opposition for the sake of it and there are no amendments which simply probe. A large proportion are Government amendments. One of the amendments selected for debate is in the name of two Conservative Members. I am sorry that the hon. Members for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) and for Halifax (Mr. Galley) arc not in the Chamber to defend their amendment against what will happen to it if the Bill is guillotined. It is a particularly important amendment. They have consistently argued that more resources are required for the fire and civil defence authority in west Yorkshire. Again, that is not something that Opposition Members have sought to set out to delay the Bill.

The right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) mentioned the problems about Report stage. I raised that issue on a point of order on 20 January. I pointed out the problems that would occur if there were to be no gap between the Committee of the whole House and Report stage, especially when there are such complex Government amendments, new clauses and the new schedule, which presumably the Government will drag through. We will then be faced with manuscript amendments which we would be unable to relate to particular lines of the Bill, and there would be problems of debate. To be fair, the Leader of the House said on that day that the Government did not intend to drive the Bill through and that the debate would terminate at a reasonable hour. Therefore, the question put in my legitimate point of order would not arise. After that, which I thought was fair to the House, it is intolerable that today the same thing does not apply and that we will either have to move straight from the Committee of the whole House to the Report stage, attenuated no doubt, or the Report stage will be virtually non-existent and the only debate on that will be for another place.

I am surprised that Government Ministers would risk provoking Members of another place to amend the Bill We all know that our noble Friends are particularly concerned with their constitutional position and, to the chagrin of some Labour Members, they take their position so seriously that they do not push their views to a Division so often. I believe that the Government are risking an awful lot if, by attenuating the debate here, they provoke Members of another place to do their worst with the Bill. It may be that it will be counter-productive and do exactly what the Government do not want. Therefore, it is dangerous.

What is happening today may well validate the cash, but it will not validate the damage that is being done to local government. I hope that Conservative Members are on their knees night after night praying that there will never be a Labour Government who might try to use the powers that the Government are taking to themselves in this Bill, especially in view of the things that have been itemised by Conservative Members as happening in local government. If Labour Members were in government and they had the powers contained in this Bill and others being pushed through the House, Conservative Members would rue the day they ever put this Bill on the statute book, because the draconian centralising powers in the Bill could be used to devastating effect, directly opposite to that intended. It is important to recognise the danger.

Up and down the country there are Conservative members of local authorities who are not standing for re-election. There are some in my own city. They believe that the Government no longer see them as people of importance within the community. They believe that the powers they would want to enable them to operate within local government are being taken away.

It is significant that Conservative Members who have defended local government in the House were absent from previous debates on the Bill. They seem to have given up the struggle against their Government. The hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) was conspicuous by his absence, as was the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark). They have all genuinely and bravely defended local government and it is significant that they seem to have given up the struggle.

The Conservative Government have broken the consensus about what should happen in the relationship with local government. They have been tempted, by what has happened in certain local authorities, to take powers to themselves which are not needed and which will ultimately prove to be counter-productive. Once that consensus is broken, I fear that they will have sown the wind and that they will therefore reap the whirlwind. Guillotining the Bill is callous in the extreme to local government and it adds insult to injury to the way in which the men and women who serve local authorities without fear or favour are treated by the Government. The Government will rue the day that they tabled the motion.