I published a consultation paper on 12 October that seeks views on the most appropriate single-tier structure for local government in Scotland. I have asked for responses by the end of January next year.
Given that a major document was published but not presented to the House, does not the Secretary of State owe right hon. and hon. Members an apology? The report was published at an extensive press conference in Glasgow a few days before the House returned, when—if there is to be any element of democracy in these matters—a statement should have been made to the House itself. What is the justification for embarking on local government reform in the midst of the longest recession for half a century, and who asked the Secretary of State to do so? If this is an exercise in democracy, why is the Secretary of State allowing a mere three months for the kind of response that he claims to welcome—particularly when there was a commission for England but not for Scotland?
Does it not strike the Secretary of State as ironic that in answering an earlier question, he said that the Government do not have a policy for water? How can there be a genuine review of local government when we do not know the Government's thinking on the structure of the Scottish water industry? If the Secretary of State wants a policy, he should take our advice and make a U-turn over his determination to privatise water, which is overwhelmingly opposed by the people of Scotland. Unless the right hon. Gentleman wants to impose on Scotland the chaos—
Oh dear. Let me try to help the hon. Gentleman. On the one hand, he asked why we had produced the consultation paper before the resumption of the parliamentary Session; on the other hand, he asked for a long consultation period. We produced the consultation paper last week so that we could have as long a consultation period as possible, lasting until the end of January and still leaving us time to present the House with a considered policy decision, to prepare legislation and to bring it before Parliament. I should have thought that that was fairly evident.
The hon. Gentleman also asked me about the degree of interest in local government. I note that, in an otherwise dull article in today's Glasgow Herald, he describes local government reform as an irrelevance. He may like to know that we have received 68,000 requests for our leaflet on local government reform, a further 10,000 for the full consultation paper and more than 400 for the video. That, I think, demonstrates the dramatic interest in local government reform that exists throughout Scotland.
There is indeed a consensus that government in Scotland needs to be reviewed, starting with the Secretary of State's own office. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is an equally strong consensus in Scotland that the troglodytes of the Scottish Office who gave us the poll tax cannot be trusted with the task of redrawing the maps of Scottish local government?
The consultation document refers to the Wheatley commission. Does the Secretary of State recall that the commission included not only Labour party supporters and local government specialists, but Miss Betty Harvie-Anderson, the former Member for Parliament for Eastwood, and the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston)? On this day of independent reviews, will the Secretary of State accept the case for a fair, independent review of the future of Scottish local government?
One of the reasons why the consultation paper has been so widely welcomed is that it lays out alternatives, options and illustrative choices in an entirely neutral and fair-minded way. That is our purpose: to consult the people of Scotland and to obtain their views so that we can make a decision.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Wheatley commission. He forgets that the decisions on boundaries made in the last local government reform were made by Parliament—and it is Parliament which will make the decision this time.
Does the Secretary of State accept that one of the reasons why such interest has been expressed in his consultation document is the fact that many jobs may be at risk? The Government's irrelevant project has led to a hiatus in the morale of local government professional staff.
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us something about the cost-benefit analysis that accompanies the document? I know that the Touche Ross consultants have produced their own figures, but those figures are directly contradicted by figures produced by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which says that although the costs are certainly quantifiable, the savings are not. COSLA believes that the cost will be £200 million.
The assumptions made by Touche Ross are not the Government's assumptions. When will we see the Government's own assessment of what the reform will cost?
Touche Ross produced a paper containing cost figures based on various assumptions, and COSLA contributed to the work done by Touche Ross in drawing up the figures. We shall, however, be keen to hear any further output from either COSLA or local authorities on those cost assumptions.
The hon. Gentleman asked me what the assumptions were. The broad expectation from the Touche Ross report is that the reconstruction of local authorities, putting them on a single-tier basis, will result in some job losses and some reductions in bureaucracy, involving fewer than 3 per cent. of the total number of people employed in local government. Those reductions, however, will lead to savings of up to £200 million a year. That is a dramatic contrast with the figures given by the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke), who, on successive days, offered us cost estimates of £400 million, £500 million and even £600 million.
In the consultation document, the city of Aberdeen is given single-tier status in three of the four possible options. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the weight of evidence is unquestionably in favour of Aberdeen's once again having a single-tier authority and that, with the support of the ruling Labour group on Aberdeen city council, we shall have that?
I entirely understand my hon. Friend's enthusiasm for such an outcome, and I have no doubt that his view will be widely held in Aberdeen. I look forward to receiving contributions to the consultation process from the people of Aberdeen; I myself see a strong case for an all-purpose, single-tier authority based on Aberdeen.
As the Government admit the failure of the previous root and branch reform of local government structure only 18 years ago and produced the poll tax, which led to the greatest shambles ever seen in local government finance, how can anybody be confident that the Government will get it right this time? Will the Secretary of State listen to members of his own party and to the vast majority of Scottish people who want water services to remain under the control of local authorities? Will he ensure that the same £700 million green dowry as he supported for England is made available to Scottish local authorities to allow them to improve water services in Scotland?
I have already dealt with the water question. The changes that resulted from Lord Wheatley's commission substantially improved the structure of local government in Scotland. That is beyond doubt. However, Lord Wheatley said that we cannot afford to allow the structure of local government to remain static. That is my view also. Changed circumstances and changed needs require a changed structure. The structure that we are putting before the people of Scotland in our consultation paper will improve service delivery and accountability, reduce costs and strengthen local democracy.
How can the Secretary of State describe this as a genuine consultation process when his junior Minister in charge of local government, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), is publicly campaigning for the retention of Eastwood? In other words, he is campaigning for the 51-unit structure. He has also made it clear that Eastwood will go into Glasgow only over his dead body, which means that he rejects the 15-unit structure. Is it not time that the Secretary of State told his junior Minister either to shut up or to get out of the Government?
I do not believe that Members of Parliament should be exempt from taking part in the consultation process. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will let me have his views on how he believes the interests of his constituents would be best served. I hope that all hon. Members will give me their views on how their constituents' interests would be best served. If we are able to achieve such a consultation response, plus all the input that we shall get in response to the tens of thousands of leaflets and booklets that have already been sent out, we shall have a worthwhile consultation process and end up with a better structure of local government.