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Points of Order

3.30 pm

Madam Speaker : I call Mr. Kaufman on a point of order.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) : My point of order arises out of the Prime Minister's evidence to the Scott inquiry this morning, but I raise it with you, Madam Speaker, because it relates to the Prime Minister's dealings with Members of this House and with Government evidence to the Select Committees of the House. The Prime Minister this morning told the Scott inquiry that he did not know until November 1992 that the guidelines with regard to the embargo on arms to Iraq had been changed four years earlier, in 1988. In a letter to me dated 17 February 1992, the Prime Minister said : "Let us get the facts straight Guidelines laying down which types of equipment could be licensed for export, and which could not were first introduced in 1980, were revised and made more stringent in 1984, and were announced to the House by Geoffrey Howe in 1985. The guidelines announced by Geoffrey Howe remained in force until the invasion in 1990 when they were replaced by a total embargo The guidelines were enforced carefully and strictly through interdepartmental machinery established for the purpose." The Prime Minister today has confirmed that, in fact, the guidelines were not those of 1985 but were changed in 1988. I raise the matter with you, Madam Speaker, for two reasons. The first is that, when the Prime Minister was challenged on 16 November 1992 about his failure to inform me in his letter of 17 February 1992 about the change in the guidelines of 1988, he did not say as he said to the Scott inquiry today that he did not give that information because he did not know. Rather, he made it known through 10 Downing street that the information had been given to a Select Committee of the House--the Trade and Industry Select Committee --on 28 January

Madam Speaker : Order. I must ask the right hon. Gentleman the point of order that he wishes me to deal with. Will he now come to that point?

Mr. Kaufman : Yes, of course, Madam Speaker. There are two parts to this point of order relating to you as Speaker of the House. The first is that the Prime Minister's office announced that the change in the guidelines, which the Prime Minister now denies he knew, was made known to a Select Committee of this House of Commons on 28 January 1992, and that therefore the Prime Minister now appears to be resiling from information given to a Select Committee of the House of Commons which Ministers are required to give in good faith. Secondly, the Prime Minister failed to give me, as a Member of the House, the information which was available to the Select Committee, not on the grounds that he did not know that that information was available, but on the grounds that everybody knew that that information was available.

The statement made by the Prime Minister at the Scott inquiry today is not compatible with information given to a House of Commons Select Committee, nor is it compatible with information given to me as a Member of the House of Commons. Therefore, at least one of the three statements made by the Prime Minister cannot be true.

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I therefore ask that you, Madam Speaker, require the Prime Minister to make a statement clarifying the matter for the House of Commons.

Madam Speaker : I have no doubt that, when Lord Justice Scott has made his report, there will be ample opportunities to debate the matter on the Floor of the House. In the meantime, the answers that Ministers give to more detailed points arising during the course of the inquiry are a matter for those Ministers.

I do not give procedural advice from the Chair, but I should make it clear that any charge that Members might have been deliberately misled can only be made in the proper form and not suggested in a point of order.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Are you aware that today, in the Jubilee Room in the Palace of Westminster, a meeting was addressed by members of Sinn Fein, an organisation that sponsors terrorism? I would like to express my deep outrage that such a meeting took place. It is--

Hon. Members : Is this a point of order?

Madam Speaker : Order. The hon. Lady is raising a point of order with me.

Lady Olga Maitland : I will come to it.

Madam Speaker : Order. The hon. Lady must come to it now. I am not interested in her emotions about this matter.

Lady Olga Maitland : Is it in order for such a meeting to take place in the Palace of Westminster, when hon. Members have been deeply offended by it and when so many hon. Members have been killed or maimed by the IRA? Would you give guidelines to the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) that such meetings cannot be held until the IRA ceases its violence?

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) : Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. May I draw attention to the fact that this is the second time that an attempt has been made to hold a meeting to convey the particular information that was conveyed this morning, even though it was published more than a month ago in Belfast? On the first occasion, the Home Secretary issued an exclusion order against the invited speaker on the ground that that person was involved in terrorism. That view was shared by the President of the United States, who banned that same person on the ground that he was directing terrorism at a high level.

In view of the close connection between the meeting and the preparation, instigation and commission of acts of terrorism, is this not a matter of concern to the House?

Madam Speaker : The hon. Gentleman should be raising a point of order that is of concern to me.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) rose--

Madam Speaker : I see that Mr. Corbyn is standing. As the House is aware, it is not my habit to take constant points of order on one issue. As I believe that the hon. Gentleman used his name to book the Committee Room, I must obviously hear his point of order. That will be the last point of order on that issue, because I am ready to respond.

Mr. Corbyn : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I should like to use this point of order to thank you for

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allowing us to use that room and to thank the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) for attending the press conference to hear what members of Sinn Fein had to say. I hope that that meeting will hasten the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Madam Speaker : Perhaps I should draw to the attention of all hon. Members the fact that guidelines on the booking of Committee Rooms are available from the Serjeant at Arms' Office. Hon. Members are entitled to book Committee Rooms in connection with a parliamentary subject, providing the relevant rules and regulations are followed, as I understand they were in this case.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. On 12 December, you certified that the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill was a matter relating exclusively to Scotland. On Thursday, however, at column 341, I asked the Leader of the House whether that Bill would follow Scottish procedure, whereby the Bill's Second Reading, Standing Committee stage and Report could be taken in the Scottish Grand Committee. He said that he had some difficulty in pursuing that suggestion, because the usual channels of communication had broken down.

If the Leader of the House has a genuine difficulty, does that not change your relationship with Standing Orders 92 and 93, to ensure that matters which you have decided and which relate exclusively to Scotland can be decided by Scottish Members of Parliament? In The Sunday Times yesterday, Government sources were quoted as saying how many Members of Parliament who will serve on the Standing Committee, and even gave the names of some Members. That is before a vote on Second Reading, and before the Committee of Selection has even met.

There is outrage in Scotland about the idea that Scottish local government can be gerrymandered by the votes of English Conservative Members of Parliament. Can you assist Scottish Members and offer us some protection?

Madam Speaker : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me some notice of his point of order. Actually, my relationship with Standing Orders 92 and 93 to which he refers is not changed. Standing Order 93 makes it clear that only a Minister of the Crown may move to refer a Bill to the Scottish Grand Committee on Second Reading. May I help the hon. Gentleman further? If he has in mind further scrutiny once the Bill has been read a Second time, may I suggest that he discusses with the Public Bill Office during the course of today the alternatives that might be available to him, because, as he well knows, it is not the practice of the Chair to give procedural advice across the Floor of the Chamber.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : On a totally different aspect of the point of order raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), Madam Speaker, may I bring to your attention the problem of Members of this House attending the Scott inquiry? Whereas, when civil servants were being interviewed, I was received with total courtesy at Buckingham gate, the shadow Attorney-General, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris), had to queue for an hour and a quarter this morning in very cold

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conditions on the grounds that a place could not be reserved for Members of the House who had given notice of their desire to attend. Apparently, an agreement has been reached that selected members of the press will be allowed reserved seats. I do not complain about that, but, if members of the press have reserved seats, surely Members of the House with direct responsibilities in relation to the inquiry should also be afforded the courtesy of seats at Buckingham gate.

Madam Speaker : I know nothing about agreements for visitors' or press tickets to the Scott inquiry. I am sure that the House will support me in saying that I have sufficient responsibilities in relation to parliamentary duties in the House, without looking for reserved seats for Members, however important they may be, at an outside inquiry.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I wonder whether you can assist me with the procedures that are called into question by a press release issued today by the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie), who is in his place, which has been advised to me by an estimable local paper, the Largs and Millport Weekly News . The press release opens with the words :

"Speaking in the House of Commons debate on the reform of local government in Scotland".

That is presumption beyond belief, because you and I know that, although the hon. Member for Ayr has many talents, second sight is not one of them. Is not that a preemption of your rights, Madam Speaker?

I have no wish to prolong this point of order, so I shall not read the hon. Gentleman's press speech. I have no wish to have him sent away to write another, because I doubt whether his joined-up writing could handle it. The press release goes on to attack other hon. Members--

Madam Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman need go no further. I think that I have got his point. Now, what does Mr. Gallie have to say?

Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr) : Thank you, Madam Speaker. The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) did not have the courtesy to advise me that he was going to refer to me on this occasion. Had he had a copy of the press release, he would have seen that it was clearly embargoed until 10 pm tonight, at which time I could have confirmed whether I had been called to speak. It was my understanding that that was common practice, and that the hon. Gentleman had certainly used such a practice himself.

Several hon. Members rose --

Madam Speaker : No, I can deal with this. I have heard enough. I deprecate the hon. Gentleman's action, as I would if it were any hon. Member, of any party. If the hon. Gentleman catches my eye tonight, he can be absolutely certain that I shall check what he has to say against delivery. Could we not end points of order on that note?

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham) : Do you recall, Madam Speaker, that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Griffiths) did exactly the same but without the embargo?

Madam Speaker : I have just deprecated the possibility that any hon. Member of any party might do that. It certainly did not happen in my time as a Back Bencher, and I wish that we could get back to those good old days.

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Orders of the Day

Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Madam Speaker : I have not selected the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh), but no doubt its content will arise during the debate.

3.45 pm

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Ian Lang) : I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Today's debate marks a major staging post in the long journey towards the reform of local government in Scotland. It is right that the journey should be a long one, for the reform of Scottish local government is a major undertaking, which will have far-reaching implications for the people of Scotland. That is why the Government have, over the past three years, carried out the most thorough preparation, research and consultation before laying the Bill before the House.

There have been two major consultation papers on the structure now proposed, followed by a White Paper. There have been further consultation papers, on internal management, tourism, water and sewerage, the children's reporter service, and costs, and the issues have been extensively debated on the Floor of the House and in the Scottish Grand Committee. Now we have the opportunity for further thorough debate as we take our reform proposals through Parliament and make them a reality. All that is as it should be.

Local government plays a unique and vital part in the political, democratic and administrative life of Scotland. As a provider--or, increasingly, as an organiser--of services, local government touches the lives of all of us, having responsibility for many key services, including education, social work, housing and many more on which the quality of people's lives depends.

In democratic terms, local government provides a local focus for people's wishes, needs and aspirations. It is also Scotland's largest employer, employing more than a quarter of a million people and it is responsible for current expenditure approaching £6.5 billion per annum, and capital expenditure of about £1.5 billion. That works out at about £1,800 of total expenditure for every man, woman and child in the country.

It is essential that an institution of this size, importance and cost should be structured in such a way as to allow it to carry out its functions with the maximum efficiency and effectiveness, and in such a way as to provide Scotland with a source of robust and relevant local democracy. That is why we are debating this Bill today.

Over the years, the role of local government has inevitably changed as the world around it has moved on. Periodically, it has also been necessary to restructure local government to ensure that it has remained in a position effectively to fulfil its role. Experience clearly shows, however, that the timing of any restructuring is vital. Synchronising the change with the changing external environment is essential if local government is not to fall behind the times and become seriously damaged as a result.

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Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) : Has the Secretary of State considered whether the gerrymandering proposed in the Bill is worse than the accusations of gerrymandering in Westminster? Lady Porter is accused of gerrymandering only a single council, whereas the Secretary of State is proposing to gerrymander an entire country. Can the Secretary of State honestly tell the House that he would have been happy if the leaders of any of the other political parties in Scotland had had the right or the desire to draw their own boundary lines on a local government map of Scotland? Would he have been happy with that process?

Mr. Lang : I totally reject the hon. Gentleman's charge, and I look forward to debating such matters further with him in Committee. In 1975, the change came too late. The old local government system had reached a parlous state, and the result was that momentum was lost in key services for a number of years on either side of the reform process. There was a widespread recognition of the need for major surgery. It was not for nothing that the very first words of Lord Wheatley's report were :

"something is seriously wrong with local government in Scotland".

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian) : Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Lang : I would like to make a little progress first ; then I will happily give way to the hon. Gentleman.

The evidence is now plainly there that, despite the Wheatley reform, something is still seriously wrong with local government in Scotland. From the time when the two-tier system was first conceived, its long-term validity was called into question. Reporting in 1969, the Wheatley commission, while ultimately recommending a two-tier system, acknowledged that

"an all-purpose system has obvious advantages. It is simple to understand and to operate The problems of ensuring that functions which go together can be properly co-ordinated with one another simply do not arise, because all services are under one authority". Those are prophetic words. Reporting in January 1981, the Stodart committee of inquiry into local government in Scotland--on which the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) served- -considered existing arrangements less than six years after the introduction of the two-tier system, and found a great deal of dissatisfaction with it, particularly among local authorities.

The extent of dissatisfaction among local authorities led Stodart to state in his report :

"We must take note of this early stage in our Report of the substantial body of opinion--not least among some local

authorities--which maintains the belief that only the creation of all or at least most purpose authorities throughout the country will produce a wholly satisfactory system of local government."

Mr. Alistair Darling (Edinburgh, Central) : Is not the Secretary of State aware of the concern that some of the smaller local authorities that he proposes to set up will not be able to provide the full range of services in, for example, education and social work? A profusion of quangos and local boards will inevitably result from his proposal, which will be expensive and will not provide services efficiently. That is a heavy price to pay simply for the sake of creating a few Tory-controlled councils.

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Mr. Lang : It is right that, if a small local authority may not be able to provide all services at its own hand, it should have access to a neighbouring authority that can assist it. The structure that we are contemplating should enable us to do that.

In his report, Lord Wheatley said, on precisely the matter raised by the hon. Gentleman :

"Such a large area"--

referring to Strathclyde--

"would offer no educational advantages ; it would be

administratively unwieldy ; and it would raise the question whether, with one education authority covering almost half the population of Scotland, it was really worth while to have local education authorities at all."

Clearly, therefore, there was anxiety when the present regional structure was set up that education would be handled at too high a level and by authorities that were too large.

Mr. Home Robertson : The Secretary of State is talking about small authorities. Has he grasped the fact that the smallest authority that he is proposing, to be named East Lothian and Berwickshire, is not wanted by either the people of East Lothian or those of Berwickshire? Can we hope to hear of any concession on that, in view of the overwhelming feeling of the people of East Lothian and Berwickshire that they do not want that type of authority?

Mr. Lang : As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Bill contains a map that is largely unchanged from that in the White Paper, although there is a change affecting Prestonpans, with which the hon. Gentleman will be familiar. I look forward to debating those borders in Committee.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) rose-- Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North) rose--

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland) rose--

Mr. Lang : I must make a little progress ; then I shall happily give way again.

The issues referred to by both Lord Wheatley and later by Stodart have not gone away over the years, and that is little wonder, for the problems endemic within the present structure are profound. The division of responsibilities within the tiers of the current structure is arbitrary, in some cases it is bizarre, and in many sectors it is far from clear. Not only is the consumer of local services confused ; the services that he or she consumes are not delivered as efficiently or as effectively as they should be. Beneath its inflated rhetoric, the Labour party has often highlighted the shortcomings of the present two-tier system and the potential for a single-tier structure to remedy them. In its policy document, published in 1990, the Scottish Labour party said : "The continuing widespread confusion about what tier carries out what functions undermines accountability. All-purpose councils facilitate the move to an integrated approach to service provision and also decentralisation through a local one-door approach " I absolutely agree with those sentiments.

Mr. Foulkes : I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. I wonder whether he can help me. Representatives of Cunninghame district council, including the chief executive Mr. Bernard Devine, have been

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quoted locally as saying that the Secretary of State has ruled out an all-Ayrshire option. I am glad to see that the Secretary of State is shaking his head.

Yet the Minister of State told a deputation that I took to see him from Cumnock and Doon Valley and Kyle and Carrick that the Government would consider all possible options--including the all-Ayrshire option--in Committee and has also said so publicly since. Will the Secretary of State put it on record that all options, including the all-Ayrshire option, can be considered by the Government and by hon. Members in Committee and on Report?

Mr. Lang : I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that all options for boundary changes can be considered in Committee--that is what that stage is about. I recall that the original recommendations of the Wheatley commission were for fewer than 50 local authorities, but we ended up with 65, and quite a different map from the one it suggested.

I am talking about the advantages of a single tier. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman emphasised his view in the House as recently as the debate on the Loyal Address, and that he is among those on both sides of the House who see merit in a single-tier structure.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East) : The Secretary of State's references to Lord Wheatley are particularly apposite. If he is so confident of the virtues of the scheme he is proposing, why has he not established an independent commission, like the Wheatley commission, to judge the merits of his proposals?

Similarly, if the right hon. Gentleman is pleased with the nature of consultation that has been afforded, why have the Government rejected the responses in East Lothian and north-east Fife, for example, where people have rejected the very proposals that he is seeking to persuade the House about because they do not regard them as an appropriate way to deal with the problems that he has identified?

Mr. Lang : As I have already explained, the Wheatley commission did not lead to the detail that ended up in the reform carried out in the early 1970s, which departed substantially from what that commission had recommended. Nor do I see any evidence of widespread support and enthusiasm for some of the commission's recommendations south of the border. In 1975, we upgraded the structure of our local authority system to an extent that reduced 426 authorities to 65, and we created a much more coherent structure than that which existed south of the border, so the work is largely done.

As far as the proposals for Fife, the Borders or any other part of Scotland are concerned, the hon. and learned Gentleman will have heard what I said to the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes).

Several hon. Members rose --

Mr. Lang : No, I must make a little more progress ; then I shall no doubt end up by giving way again.

The commitment to a single tier of local government is generally agreed by all parties, and was included in their election manifestos. What is surprising is how quickly the Opposition parties have reneged on their election promises. However, the present system is flawed and is acknowledged to be so--even by Opposition Members--and those flaws are wide -ranging.

The system that we have today is unduly and unnecessarily expensive. On the mainland of Scotland, we

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have a superstructure of 53 districts and nine regions. Over the years, with many changes to the pattern of service delivery, the role of many districts has become inadequate and the scale of the unnecessary expense incurred in maintaining two tiers of local government has become more apparent.

For example, since 1979, as many as a quarter of Scotland's council houses have been sold to their tenants, yet the number of staff employed by local authorities to provide housing services has actually increased in the same period by as much as two thirds, instead of reducing proportionately, We can no longer afford to burden Scotland with a system that produces such nonsense as that. Nor can we allow Scotland to continue to be burdened with a system of local government that is ineffective, unaccountable and shrouded in apathy.

With two councils for each area of Scotland, there is a weak democratic link between the councils and their communities. One of the malign effects of the two-tier structure has been to blur the identity of authorities in the eyes of the public. It has made councils less accountable and voters more apathetic--the turnout at local elections has been pathetic.

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie) : If the Secretary of State were setting up a single-tier system within Scotland, there would be a great deal of agreement among hon. Members on all sides of the House. The Secretary of State is being extremely disingenuous, however, because he is withdrawing major services from local councils and local accountability and giving them to placemen.

Is it not simply dishonest for the Secretary of State to pretend that he is setting up a single-tier authority when he is taking water and sewerage away from local authorities, when he is taking the police away, when the reporters department is being taken away and when the further education system has been taken away already ? That is not a single-tier system ; it is a multi-layer mess.

Mr. Lang : I am afraid that it is the hon. Gentleman's understanding of the position that is a multi-layer mess, as he will discover if he comes on the Committee and takes part in the debates about what we propose.

Against the background that I have described, it would be wrong to delay a restructuring exercise when all the evidence from all sides points to the need for one. Lord Wheatley's commission--I will quote from it again-- recognised the need when he said :

"evidence from all sides convinces us that the structure of local government cannot afford to remain static".

In 1975, reform had been put off for far too long. To allow that to happen again--by failing to take account of change and to anticipate change in the future--would be a serious dereliction of duty by Government. It would also render a major disservice to local government and those people who use its services. The Bill tackles the flaws that so obviously exist and puts local government on a more effective footing from which to carry out its various functions.

Mr. Maclennan : Does the Minister recognise that one thing which has not changed since the last reform of local government is the size and extent of the Highland region, and the fact that local government cannot by any test be regarded as local if it covers half the land mass of

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