Local Government (Scotland)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:23 pm on 17th June 1991.

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Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar , Glasgow Garscadden 4:23 pm, 17th June 1991

Perhaps I should start with praise. This document is less damaging in itself than many that have gone before simply because it says so little. If hon. Members wish to know that there are 0·02 people per hectare in the area of Sutherland district council as against 35 people per hectare in Glasgow, the document will be compulsory reading. It also contains two maps—one that gives us the boundaries of the existing district councils, and another that gives us the boundaries of the existing regional councils—just in case hon. Members and other interested bodies are unaware of them.

We learn from the consultative paper that the Secretary of State is in favour of truth, decency and honour. He wants local authorities firmly rooted in the democratic tradition, capable of discharging their functions effectively and efficiently and accountable to their electorate. Who will quarrel with that? Will the Secretary of State note that local government would be in a far better state if he and his colleagues had paid any heed to these principles in recent years? The Labour party believes that there is a case for one-tier, all-purpose authorities, but in a wider context which includes a Scottish parliament, controlling Scotland's domestic affairs.

Why is the Minister so arrogant in asserting that there is a case for democratic change everywhere but not in the way that the House deals with Scotland's business? The Secretary of State claims that he is not prepared to debase the currency of local government by taking a broader view of the need for change. What cheek, given the damaging vendetta that he has conducted against councils for so many years.

From what I have been able to gather, to make anything of the document, I suspect it will be necessary to read between the lines. Does not the Secretary of State accept that many will look with scepticism at a consultation paper that assumes that local government either must or should lose responsibility for economic planning to local enterprise companies, that housing will largely pass to Government quangos and that education will become more and more marginal as schools opt out? Does not the Secretary of State accept that that is not a view compatible with any faith in local democracy? Does he not accept that it would be wrong to use reform as a cover for stripping local government of important functions that ought to be under democratic control?

I gather that there is only one reference in the document to boundaries. Is it significant that it refers to the four cities being reborn as unitary authorities? Does that represent the Government's thinking, at least at the preliminary stage? Does the reference to joint arrangements, covering services such as the police, fire, water and sewerage, commit the Government to the high-risk exercise of joint boards, and does that rule out the threat of, for example, a national police service?

Will the Secretary of State note that there is strong support for the principle of an independent body to review the facts, sift through the arguments and set out the options? The Labour party believes that the Wheatley precedent is a good one and is in no way undermined by the fact that some of the original recommendations did not survive political debate. Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that without such an independent element the whole exercise may be seen as partial and partisan? I remind the Secretary of State that an independent commission is supported not just by the Opposition parties in the House but by councils of every political hue.