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Mr. Robertson : A party colleague of the Minister. He is a senior Conservative and has carried the blue flag of the Conservative party in Lanarkshire--no mean feat--for many years. Last November, addressing a seminar at Strathclyde university's business school and speaking in relation to the claims made by Ministers on savings at that time, which they put in the range of £120 million to £196 million, Mr. Bell said :
"If anyone came to me with a gap as wide as this I would be amazed. I would not wish to make major changes in my business without being more accurate."
Mr. Bell and the Association of Scottish Conservative Councillors are all saying it, and are saying it loud and clear.
I look around me for Conservatives who are willing to speak the inconvenient truth, who are willing to run the same risks as Colonel Frank Saunders and spell out to the country precisely the consequences of what the Government are doing. I have yet another example. I think that it would be exhibit C in this case. It is an article by the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen), published in The Guardian --of all newspapers--on Saturday, and entitled
"Colonel Blimp and the rural revolt".
I do not know who that could be describing, but the article is about local government reorganisation south of the border, which is different from that north of the border, because the south was at least given a review and people there are arguing publicly about it. The timetable has gone completely haywire and very little is happening as a consequence. The right hon. Member for Shropshire, North, who, after all, was a Cabinet Minister-- Chief Secretary to the Treasury and, later, Leader of the House--before departing office, said :
"In the first instance there is no popular demand for such changes, and much cynicism about the supposed benefits and certain increase in costs."
There we have it, authoritatively from the words of the Tory's themselves, the real insiders, a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury ; a prominent Lanarkshire Conservative supporter ; and from the Association of Scottish Conservative Councillors. All said that the Government have got it wrong and that the savings that
Column 706they are projecting are implausible, contrived, hopelessly optimistic and, indeed, plain fantasy. So, too, are the figures that are supposedly included in the orders for the transition costs of reorganisation. This year, £5 million is allowed, with £25 million next year and a final £15 million in 1996-97.
Those figures are unrealistic and wholly inadequate for what is being asked of councils today. After a month in Committee--I know that we are not allowed to debate in the Chamber what is happening in Committee--we still do not know what the boundaries will be for the new councils that the Government intend to set up, because a deliberate Government decision has been taken to leave as many of those issues as possible wide open for the future. We are only 13 months away from the first elections to these authorities, yet nobody in Scotland definitely knows what all the boundaries will be or even how many councils will actually
Mr. Robertson : I fear that the figures for the transition costs of local government reorganisation are pretty fundamental to the orders, because if they are as seriously underestimated as we believe that they are --as all the documentary evidence shows that they are--the settlement that has been made to Scottish local authorities this year will seriously embarrass them, cause a loss of jobs, increase council tax levels and mean a reduction in services.
It is extremely important that we try to establish here and now precisely what the Government are playing at and how they can pretend to have finalised the details of local government reorganisation to the extent that councils are told that they must live within £5 million this year for transition costs in a reorganisation that is now hopelessly ambitious-- although ambitious is the wrong word to use--in its timetable and construction. There is only one way in which the Government can be right : if they are to start dismissing large numbers of people in local authorities. The Secretary of State was quoted as saying at the weekend, again in Scotland on Sunday : "Of course, there will be transitional costs. But by far the larger part of those costs will result from the rationalisation of staff. So the greater the short term transitional costs, the greater the long-term savings from single-tier councils."
What he is saying is that the more employees that councils sack, the greater will be the longer-term benefits. That is the only way in which the circle can be squared. But to do so, he will have deliberately to challenge the assurance that was given by the Prime Minister last October to Councillor Charles Gray, when he said : "We do not anticipate that local government reform will result in widespread job losses and redundancies."
The Government now have a serious obligation to people in Scotland to explain how these fantastic savings will be made in the existing structure without the kind of job losses that the Secretary of State appeared to be signalling at a conference at the weekend. The COSLA figures that were produced quite clearly demonstrate
Column 707The COSLA study on costs, as my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said, is compiled by the same experts, who, it would appear, are the only ones apart from the Minister's advisers who understand the detail of what he was talking about this evening. Those people, who received his plaudits and congratulations, are the same people who have put together this authoritative study on the cost of local government reorganisation. It cannot be applauded on the one hand and dismissed whole-heartedly on the other. Their estimates are based on experience. They are based on hard-headed experience of what has happened in previous reorganisations. Their analysis is based on reality, not on what is convenient for the present Government. People will listen to them before they will listen to any Minister saying anything. Even the mid-point of their analysis reveals half a billion pounds of transition costs, and precious little in the way of long-term savings.
This whole exercise in butchering local government means a bad bargain for the Scottish taxpayer, which, moreover, is completely unnecessary--all for a local government structure that no one believes will last. It has neither the durability nor the stability to survive the test of time.
Mr. Dalyell : Did my hon. Friend observe that, when he made assertions that many of us consider to be correct, the Minister just shook his head ? Will my hon. Friend invite the Minister to explain the methodology of the Scottish Office, and why he thinks that my hon. Friend is wrong about this important matter ?
Mr. Robertson : The Minister's silence is due to the irrefutability of the arguments that have been advanced. If Ministers were expected actually to tell the truth about the methodology involved in transition costs--thinking of a figure and halving it--and in savings--thinking of an even more implausible figure and doubling it--I do not think that their credibility would be very great. I rest my case, as I know that my hon. Friend does, on the words of the new chairman of the Association of Scottish Conservative Councillors : he said that even he, one of the faithful, felt cynical about what the Government were doing.
The orders are hopelessly inadequate for Scottish local councils. They will lead to cuts in services, the destruction of jobs, the lowering of standards and increases in council tax bills across the country. At the end of the debate, what Councillor Brian Meek so prosaically called the "speaking puppets" may well deliver a majority : that is a reasonable assumption and forecast--much more accurate than some of the Government's forecasts. I suggest, however, that in the Scottish regional elections on 5 May, when the people have a chance to make their voices heard in ballot boxes across the country, the Government will receive a profoundly different message. 7.12 pm
Column 708First, he tried to deal with the situation on the basis of personalities in Scottish politics. That was all right, as long as he was dealing with personalities who, in his eyes, wore Conservative colours ; but, as soon as he began to discuss personalities who sailed under the Labour flag, he did not want to know anything about it.
For instance, the hon. Gentleman did not believe that people could be expelled, or simply taken off the list of candidates, because they did not conform to policy. He says that that has happened to one Conservative candidate. As he and I know--as everyone in political life knows--it is possible to fall foul of the establishment from time to time ; hon. Members sitting behind him have experienced that problem, and it has been experienced by at least one Conservative Member, whom I know very well. There is nothing new about that. Why did the hon. Gentleman use that point in evidence this evening, of all evenings ? We are discussing a revenue support grant figure that is far in excess of inflation, but the hon. Gentleman failed to mention that ; all he did was talk about people and personalities. Rather than dealing with the issue before the House, he spent his time trying to become the darling of the Scottish media by naming names, among other things. It is called tactical and strategic thinking.
The man is an amateur. We very much miss the real contribution made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), who would have done tonight what he has always done--analyse the content of the order, and explain why he did not agree with it. His speeches down the years have always been worth listening to, because we could always be sure that he had done his homework thoroughly, and he would always unearth aspects that required consideration. That was not the case tonight ; the hon. Member for Hamilton has done a sad disservice to both his party and the people of Scotland.
It is about time we began to think about this impostor--for that is what the hon. Gentleman is. He is no longer wearing the mantle of the Labour party, and carrying on its crusade ; he is now conducting a personal campaign that he hopes will give him publicity and media attention. He hopes that we will call him the great saviour of the Labour party in Scotland.
I have news for him : I think that exactly the opposite will happen. I think that both those sitting behind him and the Scottish media will realise that there is nothing there. The hon. Gentleman has not done his homework on the revenue support grant order ; if he had, he would recognise --as I have--the massive increase for three authorities in my constituency- -Perth and Kinross, Angus district and Tayside region.
I accept that authorities are never given enough money, but we have a very low real inflation rate at present. Moreover, Tayside region has received a substantial increase, from £171,379,938 in 1990-91 to £245,157,226 in 1992-93.
Mr. Kynoch : Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) would not let me intervene earlier ; I suspect that he would not have liked my intervention, because it was not very convenient. I believe that 60 per cent. of local government expenditure is on labour. If the Government's guidelines on self-financing wage increases are adhered to, significantly more will be available in the revenue support grant than the hon. Gentleman has suggested.
I am always interested and amused by Labour's claim to be the party that will somehow give the people of Scotland better value for money. Labour does not address the key issue : can services be provided more cost- effectively so that people receive a better service having paid less ?
As has been clearly demonstrated in many other contexts--especially as a result of privatisation--when attitudes are changed, it is possible to achieve substantial reductions in manpower, for example. I hope that the objective of all employers is to secure the best possible value for customers--in this instance, for electors and council tax payers.
I do not apologise for hoping that employers will do that, and will achieve better results. Unquestionably, when there is a move from labour-intensive to more capital-intensive activities, we expect a reduction in revenue costs. That is the real objective of heavy investment in new, modern capital equipment, which is taking place throughout the western world so that it can be competitive. I have never understood why people should think that local government is any different in that regard.
As for the benefits received by Angus district and by Perth and Kinross, the 1990-91 figure for Angus was £3,995,821 ; it has risen to £8,282,606. The figure for Perth and Kinross has risen from £5,301,063 to £10,459,773. Of course I acknowledge that that contains an element of inflation, along with additional duties and
Having taken all that into account, I believe that central taxation, which is paid for anyway by the taxpayer, contributes in real terms more than the rate of inflation towards the running of the three authorities in which I am interested. Consequently, I have no problem in supporting the order, and I hope that the Labour Members who will speak will address it.
Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) : I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate, although fellow members of the Committee that is considering the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill might think that it is taking masochism a little too far. We sit all day until late at night on Tuesday and Thursday, and I see some familiar faces in the Chamber today, including that of the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker). We are taking masochism to a new form of supermasochism. Those of us who have been involved in local government, who are concerned about it and committed to it, and are anxious to ensure that services continue, believe that it is important to participate in today's important debate.
I want to advance a serious and, I hope, non-partisan argument before I make some of my more partisan comments. I am sure that the Minister, having received representations from local government, will appreciate that there is a feeling that dealing with local government expenditure on a year-to- year basis does not allow for proper planning. I know that it may be understood that the sum that a local authority receives for the following year will be similar to that of the previous year, plus allowances for inflation. There is a growing feeling, which I hope has got through to the Minister and the Department of the Environment, that a rolling programme for capital and revenue expenditure would be sensible. A rolling
Column 710programme exists, to some extent, for capital expenditure. It would be helpful and useful if such a programme were considered for revenue expenditure, although I understand that that would always be provisional and subject to all sorts of qualifications. I hope that the Minister will consider that and ensure that there is more long-term planning in local government. That was my non-partisan argument, to which I hope that the Minister will respond. Some services will be under tremendous pressure as a result of the revenue support grant settlement and the other related order. I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Chisholm) here today. He knows that I used to be the chairman of the Lothian regional education committee. He was one of our excellent teachers before he came to Parliament to waste his time.-- [Hon. Members :-- "Oh!"]--like the rest of us.
Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North) : My hon. Friend has inadvertently given the impression that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Chisholm) is wasting his time here. That is not the case. He is doing an excellent job and his constituents should be aware of that.
Mr. Foulkes : I am sorry--I chose my words incorrectly. I am doubly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes). All three of us are experiencing the frustrations of Opposition. My hon. Friend the Member for Leith will find it much more satisfactory after we have won the next general election and we are in power and pressing forward with new developments. I know that he experiences the frustration that I feel.
It worries me that our expectations of the education system and its provisions, not only in Lothian but across Scotland, have been depressed in the past 15 years by the Government. When I was chairman of the education committee, we were expanding education, reducing the staff-pupil ratio and developing community schools. We had just developed Wester Hailes school, the Wester Hailes education centre and Deans community school. We were talking about increasing resources and keeping schools across the region open for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We wanted the improvements to be spread throughout the region and community and we had a great vision for education.
Mr. Foulkes : I can recall that period very well : we were in the process of expanding community schools in Lothian region. The resources were made available and, compared with today, those were rosy days. I have noticed that my former right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East, now Lord Healey, is appearing on posters. We think back on his days as Chancellor as the golden days. What is happening today, particularly in education, causes great concern.
I do not know whether it is happening in other constituencies, but school buildings in my constituency are being maintained and painted less and less frequently. Their maintenance has been substantially reduced--that is poor long-term planning. The planning is being done on a short-term basis, which creates tremendous problems for school buildings. Regional councils are under pressure to
Column 711close schools. That pressure comes from the Minister and the Scottish Office Education Department, the name of which has been changed for reasons that I do not understand--I used to call it the Scottish Education Department. I live and work in Strathclyde region. The pressure is on that local authority to close schools, to save money and to cut its revenue.
Let me take a random example from the south side of Ayr. When three or four primary schools in the region were half empty and, under pressure from central Government, Strathclyde regional authority attempted to rationalise its procedures and proposed to close Castlehill primary school, everyone, including the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie), was up in arms. When that happened I also complained that the concerns of the parents should be met. Strathclyde region is being put under pressure by the Government to make savings--that subject relates to today's debate. We need to realise the consequences. Sometimes I feel that, when we consider the orders, the documents of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the figures, we do not understand what they mean on the ground. They mean fewer and less well-maintained schools. Pressure is being put on half empty schools to close.
I want to deal with the subject of the staff levels, which will cause my hon. Friend the Member for Leith to think back. The hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch), in a well-timed intervention, said that he welcomed the concept of self-financing wage increases. What does that mean? It means that if, for example, teachers claim for and receive a wage increase above the level of inflation, which they richly deserve--I hope that they receive a sensible and reasonable increase--the regional council will have to find the money elsewhere. Inevitably, that means either saving money on school buildings and maintenance, which means cuts and closing more schools, or sacking and cutting the number of teachers. That will result in an increase in the staff-pupil ratio or a reduction in the number of specialist teachers. The Government cannot have it both ways. If we have self-financing wage increases, it will mean that people will be sacked or that buildings will not be properly maintained.
Mr. Foulkes : We considered that matter. I spent some time pressing the staff of Lothian regional council to find efficiencies. If the hon. Gentleman understands the education budget, he will know that more than half of it goes on teacher salaries. A substantial amount goes on other important staff such as janitors, who are responsible for the security of the buildings--I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not want to do away with them--school cleaners, and a range of jobs. All efficiency savings that could have been made have been made.
In my experience in the education service, no further savings can be made without cutting back the direct provision of services.
Column 712will know that one way to make changes and savings is to close schools in which the numbers of pupils fall below economic levels. The other way, which is often the result of that, is not to replace teachers who retire or who give up for whatever reason, and often that can be linked to the changes in school numbers and so on. The hon. Gentleman must know that there are always ways to do such things.
Mr. Foulkes : Let us take the two examples that hon. Gentleman mentions, because he is helpfully participating in the debate. Let us take closing schools. Of course that is one way to do it, but those who are most vociferous about proposals to close schools are Conservative Members of Parliament. No one could have shouted louder than the hon. Member for Ayr about the closure of Castlehill school, yet it happened as the direct result of the policies of the Conservative Government. That is the hypocrisy that we see--
Mr. Foulkes : I am already dealing with one intervention. Let us take the second point, about retirement. If one has a single-stream primary school with seven classes of about 30 pupils and one teacher retires at the age of 60, one has to replace that teacher. One cannot have composite classes all the way up of 35 or 36 pupils. In secondary schools, if one gets rid of specialist teachers one reduces the quality of education. There is a limit, therefore, and that limit on savings has not just been reached, but passed.
Mr. Gallie : The hon. Gentleman must realise that my main objection to the way in which Castlehill school was closed was that it was not half- empty--it had about 70 per cent. occupancy of pupils. Strathclyde region took an overnight decision. One moment it promised new build, the next minute it came up with a closure. That is not sound management. On another point, the hon. Gentleman--
Mr. Foulkes : The hon. Gentleman is wrong. I said in Committee that I find it difficult to deal with the hon. Gentleman because he makes so many misstatements. He says things that just are not true and it is very difficult to deal with people who do that. Strathclyde went through a long consultative process because there are a number of
Mr. Gallie : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I certainly did not make a statement that was not true, in spite of the words of the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes).
A number of schools were half-empty. Forehill was half-empty, Castlehill was substantially empty and
Column 713Kincadeston was substantially empty. Kincadeston is a modern school, built only a few years ago. It was suggested that Castlehill, which has old buildings, should be closed down because its facilities are totally inadequate. That was proposed and there was full consultation. I opposed the closure, but there was full consultation. I opposed it because I am in favour of spending more money on education and therefore there was not anything contradictory in opposing it, but the hon. Member for Ayr, who also opposed it, wants to cut the money for education but at the same time to keep all those schools open. As the Member for Tayside, North rightly said, one cannot have it both ways.
Mr. McMaster : The hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) gave us a couple of what my hon. Friend described as "useful examples" of ways in which savings could be made--closing down schools and not replacing teachers who had retired. Is not it the case that if those self-same arguments that there is always room for efficiency and closure were applied to the national health service, he might find that one of the results is the closure of Meigle hospital?
Mr. Bill Walker rose --
Mr. Walker : If the hon. Gentleman examined carefully my record on school closures in north Tayside, he would find that I have supported schools that had to be closed. Equally, I have not supported the closure of hospitals that should not be closed. Those are entirely different things. My record shows that, equally, I have supported hospitals that had to be closed. I have supported closures. The hon. Gentleman should do his homework more carefully.
I shall now move off the subject of education and deal with two other sectors in which the settlement about which we are speaking today is actually reduced. The Minister said that there will be no quarrel about the settlement. I have a quarrel about two sectors, the first of which is roads and transportation, funding for which decreases by 5.8 per cent.
Roads and transport decrease by 5.8 per cent. The Minister must know that there is a huge pressure on from Strathclyde region, and from Ayrshire especially, with regard--the hon. Member for Ayr actually wants it as well- -to the building of the M77, the Ayr road link between the top of the A77 at the moment and the M77, the spur that is missing. Most of that is capital expenditure and must be taken into the capital account, but some of it is revenue expenditure that needs to be provided to get design work done in Strathclyde region, or by outside contractors if the
Column 714Government press it that way. My fear is that if funding for the roads department of Strathclyde is cut substantially, the much-needed design work on vital projects such as the Ayr link road, the Girvan bypass and the new Cumnock bypass will be delayed and the projects will be delayed.
When we look at the figures we need, time and time again, to translate them into reality on the ground. That is what Conservative Members do not do. They go along with the Government. They vote blindly, like sheep, with the Government, day in, day out, week in, week out, month in, mouth out, year in, year out, without realising the consequences of what they are doing. Then they go to their constituencies and say, "Of course we want those roads to be built, of course we want those schools to stay open" when they are the very people who voted for settlements that inevitably mean that that will not happen.
My next subject is domestic sewage. That does not sound like the most exciting subject to talk about at any time, but it is vital, as you know and as we all know, Madam Deputy Speaker. The domestic sewage settlement is decreasing by 6 per cent. Let us, once again, think of the consequences of our action. Every year, the European Community tells us that many beaches are no longer usable, do not satisfy the standards, are filthy and polluted. In Ayrshire we were told that beaches at Maidens, Turnberry, Girvan in my constituency, Troon, Ayr and Prestwick do not satisfy the required standards. We all jump up and down and say that it is disgraceful- -and it is absolutely disgraceful. In some cases, raw sewage is being pumped out into the sea and in others housing and other much-needed developments cannot take place because there are not adequate sewerage facilities.
Yet again, all the Conservative Members who complain
All the Conservative Members who complain about those dirty, polluted beaches come to the House and are unwilling to vote the money and agree the settlement that is necessary to do something about those beaches. Again, their two-faced attitude becomes apparent.
The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has made representations about the additional burdens imposed by central Government. Central Government always say that local government is required to do this or that because a new Act has been passed. Central Government willed the ends but would not will the means, and that is especially true now with care in the community.
Care in the community has resulted in a substantial extra burden being placed on local authorities, which are the lead bodies in this respect. A certain amount of money has been transferred but nowhere near enough. I shall not give any details but I shall mention a case that was drawn to my attention at the weekend. Strathclyde region was unable to provide the money necessary for a severely disabled person in my constituency. As a result, the extra money that would have come from the independent living fund, a subject raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) during Prime Minister's Question Time only week, is not available because Strathclyde region does not have the resources to trigger the money from the ILF. It means that millions of pounds that could be coming from the ILF will not be available
Column 715because of a lack of resources. Care in the community is just one sphere where an additional burden has been imposed by central Government because the necessary money is not being made available. I have dealt with regional council matters but now wish to mention two district councils in my area. I know that the Minister believes that Cumnock and Doon Valley district council has done an excellent job with industrial development, a sphere in which few local authorities become greatly involved. However, unemployment in the Cumnock and Sanquhar travel- to-work area is now the highest in mainland Britain--it stands at 19.1 per cent.--so Cumnock and Doon Valley district council has made it its business to become involved in industrial development. I am concerned that no special attention is being given to Cumnock and Doon Valley's efforts.
The Minister visited Cumnock and Doon Valley and, I concede, made some sympathetic noises but, when it comes to the settlement at the end of the year, those sympathetic noises are not translated into money to enable the local authority to do all that it wishes. The authority has a substantial industrial development programme, which it wishes to continue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) referred to Kyle and Carrick district council. He mentioned what one of our colleagues in Committee called the competition for the gold medal in the loony olympics between Stirling and Kyle and Carrick to see which authority could come up with the craziest right-wing idea. I have heard a bit about what is happening in Stirling, but I believe that Kyle and Carrick is in the lead.
I shall not spell out in great detail the case to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton referred but it has created tremendous concern locally, and not only among Labour Members and supporters or people who might be natural Labour sympathisers. There is deep concern throughout the community, including the business community, about the fact that a legal contract for cleansing and refuse disposal into which Kyle and Carrick entered, and which still has between one and two years to run--it was an in -house tender--is about to be torn up by the district council.
The authority has advertised in European journals and elsewhere but we then found that there have been secret meetings with representatives of a Spanish cleansing company. That is sinister. Why did the meetings take place? Why was Provost Gibson Macdonald privately meeting representatives of FOCSA if not to start talking about tearing up the in-house contract and putting the job out to tender? I see no other reason why the provost and, on at least one occasion, the chief executive, should meet a Spanish-based company unless it was to put pressure on the district council, or come to an agreement with it, to tear up the contract. There is to be a demonstration in Ayr on 19 March and I shall certainly be there, supporting the unions in their legitimate legal challenge to Kyle and Carrick.
The hon. Member for Ayr referred to the headline "Spend, Spend, Spend", which appeared in one of the local newspapers. It certainly describes what Kyle and Carrick Tories have decided to do. There are legitimate reasons for some of the authority's expenditure but, at a time when people are being asked to accept reductions--or, at the
Column 716very best, a standstill--in their wages, would not it have been far better for Kyle and Carrick district council to do what the Labour group suggested and reduce the council tax and the burden on ordinary council tax payers rather than proceeding with some of its more extravagant proposals? I hope that the Minister will examine the issue seriously because I do not believe that he would wish Kyle and Carrick to go ahead with some of its more outrageous proposals if the alternative is a reduction in council tax. After all, he has been recommending that other local authorities consider every possible way of reducing the council tax, so why would not he do the same to Kyle and Carrick?
I am deeply worried about the two orders. They would cause a further reduction in services, a further deterioration in local government building stock, more job losses and a deterioration in the services that are so important to many people. I hope that my hon. Friends will vote against them for those reasons.