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House of Commons

Wednesday 26 January 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]


2.34 pm

Madam Speaker : I regret to have to inform the House of the death of James Boyce, Esquire, Member for Rotherham, and I desire, on behalf of the House, to express our sense of the loss we have sustained and our sympathy with the relatives of the honourable Member.

Oral Answers to Questions


Local Government Reorganisation

1. Mr. Foulkes : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what delegations he or his Ministers received on the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill led by hon. Members.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Ian Lang) : Since publication of the White Paper "Shaping the Future--The New Councils" in July 1993, my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Local Government has met 12 delegations led by hon. Members to discuss the Government's local government reform proposals. I will make arrangements for details of these meetings to be included in the Official Report.

Following is the information :

1 October 1993 :

John Home Robertson MP and a delegation from East Lothian 1 November 1993 :

Martin O'Neill MP and a delegation from Clackmannan District Council

5 November 1993 :

Archy Kirkwood MP and a delegation from Berwickshire

8 November 1993 :

George Foulkes MP and delegations from Kyle and Carrick and Cumnock and Doon Valley Labour Groups

12 November 1993 :

Norman Godman MP and a delegation from Inverclyde District Council 26 November 1993 :

Malcolm Bruce MP and a delegation from Westhill

30 November 1993 :

Dennis Canavan MP ; Michael Connarty MP and a delegation from Central Regional Council

1 December 1993 :

Norman Hogg MP and a delegation from Cumbernauld and Kilsyth

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20 December 1993 :

Robin Cook MP and a delegation from West Lothian District Council 18 January 1994 :

Brian Donohoe MP ; Brian Wilson MP and a delegation from Cunninghame District Council

19 January 1994 :

Rachel Squire MP and a delegation from Dunfermline District Council

19 January 1994 :

Jimmy Hood MP and a delegation from Clydesdale District Council Ministers also met a number of hon. Members and delegations prior to publication of the White Paper to discuss local government reform issues.

Mr. Foulkes : I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that information. As he will know, one of the delegations--the delegation from Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, which I led--was strongly opposed to the setting up of a south Ayrshire authority. Has he read the reports that state that the Ayr Tories have a blueprint to opt out and flog all the services if they win control of that authority? They have already started by making plans for a Spanish cleansing company to take over a contract.

Is the Secretary of State aware that we do not want the loony right ideas of Westminster and Wandsworth to be imported into Scotland?

Mr. Lang : I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would want local authorities to provide services, or ensure their provision, in the most effective way possible, thereby raising the quality of service and reducing the cost to residents. I know, however, that he and his hon. Friends are in some difficulty in this regard. While the hon. Gentleman is a strong advocate of the establishment of a single all-Ayshire authority, his hon. Friends the Members for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) and for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) favour a three-authority Ayrshire. The Government have proposed a two-authority Ayrshire. The one thing that unites Labour Members is the fact that they all seem to oppose the continued survival of Strathclyde.

Mr. Bill Walker : Does my right hon. Friend agree that those who oppose the establishment of single-tier authorities near to the people are those who represent councillors from the large regions who will find themselves out of jobs--or, alternatively, trade unions acting in respect of officials who will find themselves out of jobs? The Government's proposals have been welcomed ; they are certainly most welcome on Tayside.

Mr. Lang : I welcome my hon. Friend back to the House. I am grateful for his support for single-tier, all-purpose authorities. It is significant that every party in the House supported the principle of single-tier authorities at the last general election. Some Opposition Members may have forgotten the commitments that they made at that time.

Mr. Wallace : Will the Secretary of State confirm that he has received representations on the Government's proposals for water and sewerage, contained in the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill, as well as representations on local government boundary questions? The president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has referred the Prime Minister to the findings of the System 3 opinion

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poll, which showed overwhelming opposition to the Government's proposals. In his reply, the Prime Minister said that the proper approach was for Scottish opinion to be given expression through Members of Parliament. How does the right hon. Gentleman propose to determine Scottish opinion in a way that will satisfy him?

Mr. Lang : For one thing, I hope that we can get the Bill into Committee so that we can start looking at it. Opposition Members seem remarkably reluctant to allow the Committee to get under way. They deny all the established conventions and procedures of the Committee of Selection-- [ Hon. Members :-- "No."] They shout "No" now. I very much hope that that means that we can get the Bill into Committee. We can then pursue the testing of opinion about these matters.

Mr. Kynoch : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the controls on employment practice included in the Bill will be widely welcomed by many Conservative Members who have led delegations to him, particularly in the light of further revelations in the newspapers over the weekend about the employment practices of Monklands district council? Is my right hon. Friend fully confident that the body that he can set up to examine excessive salary increases during the reorganisation will indeed be effective, and will produce meaningful results?

Mr. Lang : My hon. Friend identifies an important matter. There was certainly strong feeling during the last reform of local government that there were abuses over the re-employment, sometimes at vastly enhanced salaries, of some local authority officials. The provisions in the Bill prevent that from happening again.

Mr. Welsh : Has the Secretary of State received a delegation of English Tory Members desperate to join the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill Committee? What qualification do English Tory Members have for membership of the Committee since they did not attend the Second Reading debate or speak in it? They have no electoral mandate whatever in Scotland and it is a purely Scottish Bill. Does the Secretary of State need English Members to prop up local government in Scotland?

Mr. Lang : It is significant that I have not yet received the delegation of English Conservative Members opposed to the Government's proposals that was promised by the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson). Like Scottish Members, English Members are part of the United Kingdom Parliament. It is here, in the United Kingdom Parliament, that we are proposing to legislate to reform Scottish local government.

Mr. Raymond S. Robertson : Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in referring to Monklands district council, a Sunday newspaper carried the headline "Corruption in John Smith's Backyard"? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best thing that could happen to Coatbridge and Airdrie is the abolition of that disreputable council which the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) and the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke), who is in his place, have signally failed to condemn?

Mr. Lang : With regard to the allegations, my hon. Friend may say that ; I could not possibly comment. As for

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Monklands district council, I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government's proposals provide for the abolition of Monklands district.

Mr. George Robertson : Why are the Government so scared of having a majority of one in the Standing Committee on the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill? That is the precise mathematical formulation that their strength in the House would give them. Is it the fact that, having decided to gerrymander the local government map in Scotland, they want to gerrymander the majority in the Committee to force it through? Is it not the truth that the Government have now lost all enthusiasm for this costly, unnecessary, unwanted gerrymandering exercise and that the Secretary of State wants an artificial majority of two in the Committee so that he can abandon responsibility for what he has started?

Mr. Lang : As the hon. Gentleman ought to know, but perhaps does not, the selection of the Committee is a matter for the Committee of Selection. The Labour party has been gerrymandering that Committee and preventing it from starting work on the Bill. The hon. Gentleman's credibility on these matters is somewhat shattered. On 17 January, for example, he quoted with approbation that expert and authoritative journalist Mr. Brian Meek. He might like to know that the journalist whom he regarded as expert and authoritative said on Monday :

"The Labour party's opposition to single-tier councils is duplicitous, dishonest and disgraceful. They are desperately seeking to protect jobs for the comrades and are quite corruptly, in my opinion, spending public money to that end".

Those are the views of a journalist of whom the hon. Gentleman said :

"His words and views must be of some consequence in Scotland".

Highlands and Islands (Economy)

2. Mr. Macdonald : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on the economy of the highlands and islands.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) : The establishment of Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the success of the campaign to secure objective 1 status have greatly strengthened confidence in the economy of the highlands and islands. I share this confidence and am committed to the policies on which it is based.

Mr. Macdonald : The Minister must know that two issues are causing great concern, especially in the west highlands and the outer islands. One is the continuing crisis in the salmon industry because of Norwegian dumping and the continuing blockheaded refusal of the Treasury to endorse the safeguard actions that are necessary to protect that vital industry. The other is of more concern to my constituency and concerns the apparent proposals now emerging from some officials in the Ministry of Defence to wind down or close down the testing range in the Uists. I ask the Minister for a commitment that the Scottish Office would fight to the bitter end any such attempt. He knows as well as anyone that that would devastate the economy of the southern isles.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : The hon. Gentleman raises two important issues. On salmon, we welcome the Commission's introduction of emergency safeguard

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measures in the form of minimum import prices, which provide a temporary floor in the market while the longer-term problems facing the industry are addressed. We welcome the Commission's request to the farmed salmon industry to update information submitted to it about alleged Norwegian dumping in 1991. It would be helpful if the representatives in the hon. Gentleman's constituency forwarded the evidence to the Commission so that it can carry out the necessary investigation. I shall keep in touch with the hon. Gentleman on that.

As for Benbecula, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the Ministry of Defence is carrying out its review and hopes to complete it in the near future. An announcement will be made as quickly as possible. I will ensure that the points that he has made are put before the Ministers concerned.

Mr. Matthew Banks : Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the success of Highlands and Islands Enterprise? Does he agree that the economy of the highlands and islands is inextricably linked with the rest of Scotland, which, significantly, now enjoys lower unemployment than the rest of the United Kingdom? On average, it has not been lower since the 1920s. Does he further agree that it is significant that Scotland enjoys record levels for manufactured exports, for investment in wholesaling and retailing and for manufacturing industry--something of which Scotland should be rightly proud?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : Many of the points that my hon. Friend has made are absolutely right. For the first time since the 1920s, unemployment in Scotland is now below the United Kingdom average, and has been since January 1992. Manufactured exports were at a record level in 1992. Highlands and Islands Enterprise is doing very well and its funding-- some £76 million for next year--is substantial. When one takes into account the fact that some of the funds for tourism and marketing will be transferred, that represents an increase. Its morale is very good.

Mr. Maclennan : Does the Minister recognise that, although objective 1 status was a welcome achievement in the highlands, there is now widespread concern that the Government are undermining that achievement by slashing public expenditure and waiting for the European Community to pick up the tab? Does he not realise that not only are those cuts damaging to the highland economy but they risk the effectiveness of objective 1, because they will deny the additionality principle, which is a key to the Community's financing of those projects?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : The funding is additional. The £250 million funding represents the highest per capita allocation in the United Kingdom for objective 1 and recognises the special circumstances of peripherality and sparsity of population. There have been many successes recently in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Rockwater won a £25 million contract for 80 jobs at its fabrication yard near Wick ; Caithness Glass is creating some 20 new jobs within the next two years ; and Norfrost is to create at least 120 jobs. The prophecy of doom and gloom is not met by the facts.

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Local Government Reorganisation

3. Mr. Norman Hogg : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he next expects to meet the officials of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to discuss local government reorganisation ; and if he will make a statement.

9. Mr. Chisholm : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he next plans to meet COSLA to discuss the provision of local authority services.

Mr. Lang : My hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Local Government and I are due to meet representatives of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on Friday, as part of the normal consultation on local government finance matters. I hope that their policy of non-co- operation will not prevent them from turning up.

Mr. Hogg : Does the Secretary of State recognise the serious situation that those who live in new towns face--the double jeopardy of local government reorganisation and the winding up of the new towns agency? Will he make a particular point of discussing those matters with councillors Gray and McKenna?

Mr. Lang : If the councillors or the convention in general wish to raise those matters at our meeting this week, I shall be happy to discuss them. The meeting will be concerned primarily with the substantial sum of money that the taxpayer, through the Scottish Office, gives to local government--approaching £6 billion. Those are the matters with which we shall be primarily concerned at our meeting.

Mr. Chisholm : Why does the Secretary of State propose to waste large sums of taxpayers' money at a time when Scottish local authorities are facing the biggest cuts in Government grant since the Conservatives came to power in 1979? Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the real- terms cut in Government grant to Lothian region will be 4 per cent. once the transferred community care money is stripped out, and that is bound to mean service cuts and big council tax increases? Will the right hon. Gentleman also tell us why Edinburgh district council is not getting one penny in housing support grant, with the result that that council faces the terrible choice of slashing repairs or raising rents beyond the rate of inflation?

Mr. Lang : The hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to debate the housing support grant when the order is brought before the House in due course. The hon. Gentleman talks about waste. I assume that he is associating that with the proposals to reform local government. That will not lead to waste ; it will lead to substantial savings. As for expenditure on local government, the Government-supported expenditure will rise by more than 3.5 per cent. next year and per capita in Scotland under this heading is substantially higher--at 34 per cent. more per head of the population-- in Scotland than it is in England.

Mr. Hood : The Secretary of State seeks to abolish elected regional councils and to replace them with unelected, unaccountable quangos. How much taxpayers' money will be paid in salaries and pensions to those unelectable, unaccountable quangos?

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Mr. Lang : The hon. Gentleman seems to misunderstand our proposal. We do not propose to replace regional councillors with quangos ; we propose to reform the two-tier structure, in some cases around existing regions and in some cases around existing districts, and to achieve a single-tier, all- purpose local authority structure which will apply throughout Scotland and which will create more efficient and stronger local democracy.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn : Will my right hon. Friend remind Opposition Members that the majority of local authorities are Labour controlled and that the waste of money is the result of them spending pensioners' and taxpayers' money unnecessarily, and often on themselves?

Mr. Lang : My hon. and learned Friend is right in that there has undoubtedly been some waste in local government over the years. When I contemplate the planned expenditure by Strathclyde regional council of no less than £500,000 on propaganda linked to its own survival, I think that the money could be better spent by providing better services to their local residents.

Mr. Kirkwood : Does the Secretary of State agree that it is in the best interests of COSLA, as it is in the best interests of the House, that the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill should be considered by a Committee that best reflects the balance of the parties in the House? Speaking as a member of the Committee of Selection and as someone who is keen for the standing Committee to start its deliberations as early as possible so that important issues such as Berwickshire can be discussed, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the Committee can start next Tuesday as long as he rises to the Dispatch Box now and says that he is prepared to accept a Committee comprised of 25 members.

Mr. Lang : As a member of the Committee of Selection, the hon. Gentleman should know that those are matters for the Committee of Selection, not for me. I am keen for the Committee to start its consideration as quickly as possible and I am keen to have a substantial Committee so that the Bill may be fully and extensively debated. I look forward to making progress in Committee. I shall approach the Committee stage in a positive frame of mind as seeking to improve the Bill in the time-honoured way and to achieve at the end of the day a reform of local government around which all parties can rally.

Mr. Maxton : As the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson) seems determined to continue the smear campaign against Monklands district council and my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition, will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to tell the House that the Government auditors who carried out the Monklands district council audit this year have, as reported in the Glasgow Herald this morning, given the council a clean bill of health? Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore instruct his hon. Friends to stop this campaign which is designed purely to try to discredit my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition and has nothing to do with Monklands district council?

Mr. Lang : One of the qualities of this place is that it allows free speech to all hon. Members. If hon. Members choose to show their disquiet about aspects of how Monklands district council or any other district council is

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run, that is their privilege. What is perhaps surprising is that the hon. Gentleman finds it necessary to draw attention to the auditors' clean bill of health.

Mr. McLeish : I am talking about a real scandal. Will the Secretary of State answer the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes)? When will he intervene to tackle the right-wing excesses of Tory-controlled Kyle and Carrick district council? Will he confirm that the lunatic council has agreed to build houses and desecrate land at Burns cottage in Alloway, one of the most important heritage sites in Scotland? Is it a matter of building homes for votes? Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the council has torn up a contract for cleansing which has two years to run, is barring the in- house tender and that Provost McDonald has admitted that he has had discussions with Spanish contractors?

Will the right hon. Gentleman condemn such actions, or are they merely a forerunner of what we can expect under the gerrymandered local government reorganisation--Tory flagships such as Wandsworth and Westminster? In Scotland we simply do not want them. Why does not the Secretary of State abandon local government reorganisation?

Mr. Lang : It is notable that Labour Members complain about what they regard as offensive criticism of one local council, but immediately indulge in it themselves in respect of another. There are suitable safeguards on behaviour for all local councils. There is also a commission on local authority accounts and the parliamentary commissioner, and local authorities themselves have substantial statutory responsibilities. I am confident that the appropriate processes will be applied as necessary in Kyle and Carrick, as in the case of any other council.


4. Mr. Pawsey : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what is the current estimated area of forestry land in Great Britain ; and what the figure was in (a) 1984 and (b) 1964.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Sir Hector Monro) : The area of forest land in Great Britain is currently 2.4 million hectares, compared with 2.2 million in 1984 and 1.7 million in 1964.

Mr. Pawsey : I thank my hon. Friend for that extremely helpful reply. What percentage of broadleaf trees is there in the woodlands and forests of the United Kingdom, and what plans are there for a further expansion of forestry in the United Kingdom? Does he agree that the balance of payments is important, and what part do timber products play in our balance of trade? Does he also agree--

Madam Speaker : Order. I think I have an Adjournment debate on my hands. Come on, Mr. Pawsey--that is enough.

Mr. Pawsey : I shall leave it at that then, Madam Speaker.

Sir Hector Monro : Trees take a long time to grow.

I thank my hon. Friend for the great interest that he is taking in tree planting. Last year, 14,000 hectares, or 40 per cent., of tree planting was of the broadleaf variety, which is most encouraging. Planned planting in 1994-95 is

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32,960 hectares, on private and commission land, and planned planting for the year after is 33,500 hectares, so that the Government well appreciate the importance of increasing tree planting, especially for the timber industry.

Dr. Reid : Does the Minister understand that the proportion of forestry in the area covered by Motherwell district council is very small, but that, despite that deficiency, it has made a grand job of tackling the tragic consequences of the decline of the steel industry? Will his colleagues, therefore, please meet representatives of Motherwell district council to hear their strong opposition to the crazy plans to abolish the council and their opposition to the rest of the plans for local government reorganisation in Scotland?

Sir Hector Monro : The hon. Gentleman is pretty ingenious in bringing in local government. I certainly welcome the planting of broadleaf and other varieties of tree in the Motherwell area. I know that the Lanarkshire Development Agency has taken particular interest in the environment of the area, and I am sure that, in years to come, we shall be glad that there has been so much additional planting there.

Mr. Gallie : Is my hon. Friend aware that timber harvested in the remote areas of the west of Scotland is currently transported by barge through the port of Troon to Caledonian Paper in Cunninghame, South? Does he agree that this means of transport is environmentally friendly, saves much wear and tear on our roads and improves the environment considerably? Does he also agree that it is a very cost-effective way of transferring that timber to the paper mill?

Sir Hector Monro : I agree with my hon. Friend that it is an important means of transport, and especially for bringing timber from the island. I agree that Caledonian Paper is an important industrial facility for Scotland. I am glad that such a large proportion of Scottish timber goes there to contribute to its success.


5. Mr. McMaster : To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland when he next plans to meet representatives of tenants' organisations to discuss housing needs in Scotland.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : My right hon. Friend has no plans to meet tenants' organisations to discuss housing needs in Scotland and it is for local authorities to assess the housing needs of their areas. I often meet tenants and hear their concerns at first hand and Scottish Office officials regularly meet housing authorities to discuss their assessment of housing needs.

Mr. McMaster : Does the Minister agree that the recent Scottish Homes survey into house conditions in Scotland is a damning indictment of the current hopeless housing policy? At a time when thousands of Scots live in damp, decaying and often derelict houses, why does he concentrate all his energies on trying to get Scottish Homes tenants to opt out of the public sector? Will he take the opportunity today to make it clear to tenants that they can choose Scottish Homes as a landlord, and will he ensure

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that Scottish Homes lets those tenants know that? While he is at it, will he also give them the real democratic choice of opting for district councils as landlord?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : First, as far as the national house condition survey is concerned, the facts must be seen in perspective. The costs are 3 per cent. only of the total market value of the stock, which is about £88,000 million. I recognise that putting all that right, especially in relation to condensation and damp, will take some years, but substantial resources of £527 million have been made available to local authorities this year. Much will also be done by private landlords and owner-occupiers and there is about £372 million of funding for Scottish Homes.

As far as choice is concerned, Scottish Homes' purpose as a national housing development agency is to play an increasing enabling role in assistance for local authorities. As to choice for tenants at the ballots, for practical operating reasons Scottish Homes has decided that the ballot paper will contain two options. The hon. Gentleman is correct that tenants can opt to reject the choice if that is their wish, but the best possible choice will be put before them, they will be involved in the sifting process beforehand and the wish of the majority will prevail. Any tenant who feels strongly opposed to transfer can make his views known during the consultation process and suggest other options. In addition, tenants will have the opportunity to make representations directly to the Secretary of State, who has to approve any voluntary disposal once it is cleared by the majority.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn : Can my hon. Friend advise the House how many tens of thousands of houses in the possession of local authorities are unoccupied?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I can tell my hon. and learned Friend that the census revealed that about 98,000 houses are vacant and, of those, fewer than 30,000 are public sector stock. We are carefully considering the issue of empty housing and we are engaged in a number of prospective initiatives to bring empty housing back into use.

Mr. Menzies Campbell : The Minister will be aware that the Ministry of Defence proposes to transfer service housing to a housing trust. Would it not make more sense for service housing to be transferred to local housing associations so that once service needs have been met any additional housing can be made available to meet local needs?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I discussed the subject yesterday with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence. A considerable number of houses that were surplus to requirements have already been sold. A housing trust will be set up, but, of course, housing association activity can be involved only where the price is reasonable as far as the housing associations are concerned. Obviously, if the price is not reasonable it would be unfair to press Scottish Homes unduly when local authorities have a great many other priorities in Scotland. I can assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that rapid progress is being made in Scotland and I am glad to confirm that.

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